After 216 days of suffering through no college basketball games (ones that matter, anyway), the 2014-15 season finally kicks off on Friday with a slate of over 100 games. If my excitement wasn’t shown by my precise count of the days since the NCAA Championship Game, in which Connecticut knocked off Kentucky, then let me be a bit clearer: COLLEGE BASKETBALL IS BACK!!
Okay, now that we’ve got that out of the way, it’s time to talk about what this year is going to look like. Of course, this is a fool’s errand, as nobody can really know these things. (Be honest. You surely didn’t foresee the roller-coaster season that Kentucky would have, that Wichita State would go undefeated, or that the National Championship would feature a 7-seed against an 8-seed.) Even so, the job of the Dieckhoff Power Index is to predict things, so that’s exactly what I am setting out to do here.
The Index has gone through a vast overhaul since last season, which will hopefully lead to more consistent updates, more accurate predictions, and just a better experience for all parties. I am excited to bring you the information you desire on the sport you love and want to thank you for your readership. Last season was a difficult one for me, as the pressures of graduate school and other life events forced me to sacrifice my attention to the DPI. This season, I am committed to bringing you the college basketball coverage you deserve. As such, I’ve poured over 9,000 words into this preview as a token of my dedication to this endeavor.
Below is a conference-by-conference preview, heavily informed by the preseason polls released by each league, as voted on by head coaches, sports information directors, and the media. There are links to these polls in each of the previews, so feel free to fact-check as you see fit. Along with more general previews, I also predict the conference champions and at-large bids that each conference will receive. Before the games start on Friday, I will release my preseason Field of 68, complete with predictions regarding every team’s seeding … and even a bracket! (Because it’s never too early to fill out brackets.)
Again, I’m sure that I will be wildly off-base with a few of these predictions, but hey — that’s the nature of the beast.
Without further adieu…
The America East conference could be up for grabs in 2014-15, with a handful of talented teams and players vying for the crown. Perhaps at the top of the pack is Stony Brook, who sport two Preseason All-AEC juniors in Jameel Warney – the league MVP last season – and Carson Puriefoy. The Seawolves will have competition from Albany and Hartford, each of whom boast their own All-AEC players. For Albany, that player is Peter Hooley, an Australian guard who helped lead the Great Danes to the tournament last year. He may find a shortage of help this season, though, as Hooley is one of only two starters who return from last year’s team. Mark Nwakamma is the spark for a Hartford team that was picked to finish second in the league according to the AEC coaches’ poll. The Hawks return all five starters from last season’s squad, including Nwakamma, the conference’s active leading scorer. My feeling is that we will have a rematch of last year’s America East Championship between Albany and Stony Brook, but with a different result. Look for Warney and the Seawolves to be dancing in March.
Automatic Bid: Stony Brook
At-Large Bid(s): none
The AAC is the home of reigning national champions Connecticut, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that coach Kevin Ollie’s Huskies have this conference all wrapped up. Despite the fact that Louisville bolted to the ACC, UConn will face considerable opposition from Larry Brown’s Mustangs of SMU, not to mention a Memphis squad that saw some success last March. One factor working against UConn is the loss of last year’s AAC Player of the Year Shabazz Napier. That said, they do still have the preseason Player of the Year in senior guard Ryan Boatright, as well as preseason Rookie of the Year Daniel Hamilton, a 6-7 swingman who will likely see considerable minutes this season. Down in Dallas, the Mustangs have their own pair of studs in Nic Moore and Markus Kennedy, both of whom were unanimous selections to the preseason All-AAC team. In the eyes of many, SMU was snubbed by the NCAA Selection Committee when they weren’t invited to the dance, and they did a lot to prove their worth by reaching the NIT Finals. The Mustangs are well-positioned to make a much stronger case this season – and may even win their league outright. In fact, SMU received only one fewer first-place vote than Connecticut in the AAC’s preseason coaches’ poll. Still, don’t count out a young Memphis team who has a couple All-AACers themselves. Shaq Goodwin and Austin Nichols return in hopes of duplicating – and building on – the success that Josh Pastner’s Tigers saw last year. One team that remains a bit of an enigma is Cincinnati, who return only two starters, neither of whom is 2013-14 All-America selection Sean Kilpatrick, the Bearcats’ star from last year. Time will tell if Mick Cronin can coach his team back to the tournament for the fifth straight year, but they will have considerable work to do before they can put on their dancing shoes. Cronin is a good coach, though, and I think they can do it. Look for the Huskies to win a contentious AAC race this season, with SMU and Memphis nipping at their heels all the way through.
Automatic Bid: Connecticut
At-Large Bid(s): SMU, Memphis, Cincinnati
In what should come as no surprise to anyone, VCU was unanimously selected to win the A10 this year in the preseason coaches’ poll. It seems like Shaka Smart always has a young, hungry team at his reins and the 2014-15 iteration of the Rams should be no different. Led by preseason All-A10 selections Briante Weber (also a two-time A10 Defensive Player of the Year) and Treveon Graham, the Commonwealth should run away with the conference this season. After the Rams, though, the picture gets a little murkier. Despite the loss of big man Isaiah Armstead, the Colonials of George Washington look to be in a good position to return to the Big Dance this year. GWU will be led by Patricio Garino, a preseason All-A10 First-Team and Defensive selection. The junior will be joined by Kevin Larsen and Kethan Savage, all three of whom averaged over 11 points per game a year ago. After the Colonials, look for Dayton – led by preseason Player of the Year Jordan Sibert – and Massachusetts to make some noise. Besides Sibert, the Flyers will look to junior Dyshawn Pierre for some scoring punch in order to return to the tournament. The Minutemen lost Chaz Williams, a Naismith finalist last year, but do still have senior big man Cady Lalanne to lean on. Lalanne averaged 11.3 PPG and 7.9 RPG on last year’s tournament squad. While a 6-seed may not be in the cards again for UMass, this is a likely bubble team. For now, I say they’ll slip in with one of the final bids.
Automatic Bid: VCU
At-Large Bid(s): George Washington, Dayton, Massachusetts
Just when it looked like the super-conference that is the ACC couldn’t get any stronger, the Louisville Cardinals have joined the fray and are poised to contend for a conference title. Standing in their way, however, are the stalwart titans of the league, Duke and North Carolina. These two squads boast the league’s top two vote-getters for preseason Player of the Year honors, with the Tar Heels’ Marcus Paige beating Blue Devils newcomer Jahlil Okafor for that distinction. Okafor, for his part, did receive acclaim as the league’s preseason Rookie of the Year. Perhaps more importantly, Duke was selected by ACC coaches as the top dog in the conference, followed by UNC and Louisville. The upstart Cavaliers of Virginia, led by preseason All-ACC guard Malcolm Brogdon, look to pick up where they left off a year ago, when they won the league and received a top seed in the tournament. Syracuse will also be contending for the ACC crown this season, as Jim Boeheim’s teams often do. This is a conference that has no fewer than nine candidates for the NCAA Tournament in March, with talented squads like Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, Florida State, and North Carolina State in the fold. As strong as this conference is – Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski thinks it may be “the best” in basketball – I have trouble seeing them getting all nine of those bids, especially when you consider the tough schedules that lay ahead of them all. Based on a slightly easier non-conference slate, I give the nod to the Wolfpack of NCSU to make the tournament, while Leonard Hamilton’s Seminoles will likely watch from the sidelines. In terms of crowning a champion, I think that Duke and North Carolina will trade haymakers all season long, with a slight advantage to the Blue Devils, who have Quinn Cook, Rasheed Sulaimon, and Amile Jefferson all returning to a squad that lost Jabari Parker to the NBA, but gained a new freshman stud in Okafor, who could be just as good.
Automatic Bid: Duke
At-Large Bid(s): North Carolina, Louisville, Virginia, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, NC State
Two years removed from their magical Sweet 16 run, Florida Gulf Coast is still a stacked team that should find themselves back in the Dance this year. Led by seniors Bernard Thompson, the conference’s preseason Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, and Brett Comer, a unanimous all-conference selection, the Eagles are primed to run away with the A-Sun crown. Jamail Jones, another senior for FGCU, was also selected to the All-Atlantic Sun team. The only other team with as many all-conference selections was North Florida. (Note: the A-Sun names ten players to its preseason list.) The Ospreys of UNF finished second in the preseason coaches’ poll, followed by Lipscomb. Still, even with talented players at both of those universities, I would bet the farm that Florida Gulf Coast wins the conference outright this season. However, as last year’s Eagles know all too well, if you don’t win the A-Sun conference tournament, you won’t be dancing in March. I won’t bet on the upset this year, though, as Mercer – the team that beat FGCU in the A-Sun finals and Duke in the NCAA Tournament – has moved to the Southern Conference. With their departure, this league is Florida Gulf Coast’s to lose.
Automatic Bid: Florida Gulf Coast
At-Large Bid(s): none
Yes, Kansas lost Andrew Wiggins – the top pick in April’s NBA Draft – and Joel Embiid. But trust that this Jayhawks team is bringing back a strong cast and is bringing in a top recruiting class. Perry Ellis and Wayne Selden, Jr. highlight the returning starters, while newcomers Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre will flash their talents in Lawrence for the first time. Alexander, a 6-8, 240-pound brick house, is poised to handle the paint duties for KU this year and could be a top pick himself in 2015. Speaking of top recruits, highly-acclaimed freshman Myles Turner joins a Texas squad that may have the depth and experience to supplant the Jayhawks as Big XII champions. The Longhorns return all five starters, including Isaiah Taylor, whose ability to pass and score were on display during a solid freshman campaign. Kansas and Texas were picked by the Big XII coaches to finish 1-2 in the league, with Oklahoma not far behind. Led by Buddy Hield, the Sooners will look to build on a second-place finish a year ago when they finished with 23 wins. Unfortunately for OU, they were upset by 12-seeded North Dakota State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Rounding out the potential tournament teams from this league are Iowa State and Kansas State, both of whom finished in the top 5 of the league last season. The Cyclones lose top scorers Melvin Ejim and DeAndre Kane, but forwards Georges Niang and Dustin Hogue are back (28.3 PPG, 12.9 RPG combined). K-State, looking for their ninth straight 20-win season, bring back standout Marcus Foster and big man Thomas Gipson to aid in the effort. The Big XII should be strong once again – I think they will put at least five teams in, if not more.
Automatic Bid: Kansas
At-Large Bid(s): Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa State, Kansas State
A season removed from securing a 2-seed in the NCAA Tournament, only to lose to former Big East rivals and eventual champions UConn, Villanova is in a good position to repeat its regular season success. The Wildcats return JayVaughn Pinkston, Ryan Arcidiacono, and Darrun Hilliard from a ‘Nova team that went 28-4 in the regular season and won the Big East conference title. The Big East coaches believe unanimously that the Wildcats will repeat as champions again this season. The real debate among the coaches was how to rank the rest of the teams. Georgetown, led by preseason Player of the Year D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, narrowly edged St. John’s for second-place in the poll. The Red Storm are helmed by senior guard D’Angelo Harrison, a first-teamer on the preseason All-Big East team. Both teams have dangerous backcourts, considerable size in the post, and a great chance to return to the tournament after notable absences a season ago. St. John’s was widely considered a snub for the NCAAs, while Georgetown simply underperformed and cost themselves a chance to dance. One Big East team that did make the tourney last year and should do it once more is Xavier. The Musketeers were one of the final at-large selections, losing to NC State in a First Four game. Matt Stainbrook, the 6-10 center who made the preseason All-Big East First Team, will be a big factor in whether Xavier can do better this year. Providence had a magical run in the Big East tournament last year, winning the title and a bid into the tournament – perhaps costing St. John’s their spot. The Friars, however, will have a lot of work to do if they want to earn an at-large selection this year. At the moment, they look like they could be one of the last teams in.
Automatic Bid: Villanova
At-Large Bid(s): Georgetown, St. John’s, Xavier, Providence
A season ago, the Weber State Wildcats rode a 14-6 Big Sky record to a conference championship and an NCAA Tournament berth. This year, they look to head back to the Dance again, but will need to replace three starters from last season, including Davion Berry, the team’s leading scorer and top assist man (by quite a wide margin on both accounts). The returning starters are Jeremy Senglin, a sophomore looking to build on a solid freshman season, and Joel Bolomboy, a big man who was sixth in the nation in rebounding (10.8 RPG) a year ago. Nipping at the Wildcats’ heels this year, according to the Big Sky coaches’ preseason poll, will be Northern Arizona and Eastern Washington. NAU is led by senior guard Quinton Upshur, a Big Sky First-Teamer and the league’s Newcomer of the Year in 2013-14. Upshur is joined in the backcourt by fellow senior Aaseem Dixon and Kris Yanku, who led the Lumberjacks in assists as a freshman. Up north, the Eagles of EWU return their top five scorers from last year, four of whom averaged over 30 minutes per game. Led by Tyler Harvey, Venky Jois, and Drew Brandon, this is a talented and experienced team that could make some noise coming off a 10-10 Big Sky mark last season. Which team will come away with the Big Sky crown still remains to be seen, but for now, it seems that Weber State is the team to beat.
Automatic Bid: Weber State
At-Large Bid(s): none
The Big South looks to be a two-team race between Coastal Carolina, the league’s representative in last year’s NCAA Tournament, and High Point, the defending regular-season conference champions. The Chanticleers were narrowly predicted as the preseason favorites by the league’s head coaches and the media. The Panthers, however, feature reigning Big South player of the year – and this year’s preseason pick for the same honor – John Brown. Brown was the league’s preseason favorite a year ago, as well, and lived up to the hype, so there is no reason to believe he can’t reprise the role this year. The 6-8 junior forward averaged 19.5 points and 7.7 rebounds per game a season ago, with higher marks in both categories during conference play. Coastal Carolina has their own acclaimed player in Warren Gillis, a fellow preseason First-Team selection who was also the MVP of the Big South tournament last season. Gillis, a senior guard for the Chanticleers, averaged 17.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 4.7 assists a year ago. While these two players duke it out for Player of the Year honors, their respective teams will also be trading punches until the very end. Look for both of these teams to show up in the Big South tournament final this season. Despite what the coaches and media say, my gut tells me that Brown and High Point will playing in their third consecutive postseason this year, after making the NCAAs in 2013 and the NIT in 2014.
Automatic Bid: High Point
At-Large Bid(s): none
It seems that everywhere you look in the college basketball world these days, you see Frank Kaminsky’s goofy grin. Part of that is because the 7-footer teems with likability and seems like a “normal guy”. The other reason is because his Wisconsin Badgers made the Final Four a year ago and could be poised to make the trip back again this season. Coach Bo Ryan has always fielded good teams, but with Kaminsky and Sam Dekker – both of whom were chosen to the preseason All-Big Ten team – this team has a legitimate shot at a national title. The Big Ten coaches and media members seem to agree that they are the cream of the crop in the league, having unanimously voted for the Badgers to win the conference this season. After Wisconsin, there is a logjam of great teams that will likely be in the tournament. As is typical of Tom Izzo’s teams, Michigan State could compete for a Big Ten title, as well as Thad Matta’s Ohio State Buckeyes. OSU lost a great deal of talent in the offseason – names like Aaron Craft, LaQuinton Ross, and Lenzelle Smith, Jr. – but bring back Sam Thompson and Amir Williams. Freshman guard D’Angelo Russell could be a star for Buckeyes as they look to head back to the tournament. The Spartans similarly lost some talented players (Adreian Payne, Gary Harris, and Keith Appling are gone), but Branden Dawson and Denzel Valentine should shine this year. MSU has a freshman guard of their own who they hope will produce this year in Lourawls Nairn, Jr. Past these three teams, the picture gets even blurrier. Michigan has All-Big Ten selection Caris Levert and a pretty good recruiting class, but lost four key players to pro ball. Nebraska could be a dark horse in the conference behind the play of junior forward Terran Petteway, another preseason all-conference selection. Minnesota brings back the core of a 25-win team, including the dangerous backcourt duo of DeAndre Mathieu and Andre Hollins. Iowa could be heading back to the Big Dance if big man Aaron White picks up where he left off a year ago. And it’s hard to completely count out teams like Indiana, led by Yogi Ferrell, and Illinois, but for now, I don’t see the Big Ten getting more than seven teams into the Dance.
Automatic Bid: Wisconsin
At-Large Bid(s): Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa
The Big West provided one of the better stories of last year’s NCAA Tournament when Cal Poly, the 7th-best team in its league, won the conference tournament and booked a trip to the Big Dance with a 13-19 record. The Mustangs didn’t stop there, either, beating Texas Southern in its First Four matchup, before falling to Wichita State. Cal Poly’s run sends chills down the spines of those like me, the good kind and the bad. While it’s always wonderful to see a team embark on a magical run like theirs, it also provides a painstaking reminder to those in this line of work that all of our predictions and best guesses are waiting to be debunked. Still, they were picked to finish third in the league last year, so maybe Cal Poly was just an underachieving team. Maybe there’s still hope for the prognosticators after all. With that, I hesitantly endorse a new league champion and tournament representative from the Big West: UC Irvine. The Anteaters were picked in a landslide by the media to win their conference, and it’s hard to argue. Irvine returns Big West Defensive POY Mamadou N’Diaye, a shot-blocking machine, and Freshman of the Year Luke Nelson, a long-distance threat. Add in the experience of Will Davis II and Alex Young, and you have a dangerous team. UC Santa Barbara may pose the most real threat to the Anteaters, led by reigning Big West Player of the Year Alan Williams. Williams averaged 21.3 points and 11.5 rebounds per game, the latter being tops in the country. The Gauchos have a good backcourt, as well, and could give Irvine a serious run for its money. Long Beach State was dethroned last year after three consecutive conference championships, but will look to get back on top with the help of Mike Caffey, a preseason all-conference selection, and Tyler Lamb. Forward Eric McKnight, a transfer from Florida Gulf Coast and a member of their Sweet 16 run two years back, joins the 49ers’ squad this year. There are some talented teams in this conference, and if last year taught us anything, it’s that no one should be counted out. But, as this is a prediction piece, I’ve got to stake my claim somewhere. And for now, that somewhere is in Irvine, CA.
Automatic Bid: UC Irvine
At-Large Bid(s): none
To quote Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Families are always rising and falling in America.” That was true of colonial America, and it is still true today of the Colonial Athletic Association. Delaware was a 25-win team and the league champion a season ago, while Northeastern went 11-21 and finished fifth in the conference. One year later, the CAA coaches and media have predicted that the fates of both teams will change this time around, picking the Blue Hens to finish eighth, while the Huskies have been tabbed to win the Colonial. Northeastern is led by forward Scott Eatherton, who averaged a double-double last season on his way to an All-CAA Second-Team nod. William & Mary looks to build on the success of a 20-win season, and preseason Player of the Year Marcus Thornton is the lynchpin to that plan. The senior guard is a deep threat who averaged 18.7 points per contest in 2013-14 and Omar Prewitt’s freshman campaign with the Tribe earned him Freshman of the Year accolades. Another team predicted to rebound from a tough season is Hofstra, who sputtered to a 10-23 mark a year ago. The Pride will field a decent cast of returnees, headlined by Dion Nesmith, and transfers like Juan’ya Green and Ameen Tanksley. While the Pride should be much better than last year, I don’t uite see them entering into the dogfight for top billing in the CAA. William & Mary and Northeastern will be going head-to-head all year, and in the end, I think that Marcus Thornton’s ability to score at will is going to give the edge to the Tribe.
Automatic Bid: William & Mary
At-Large Bid(s): none
Yet again, this conference looks a little different from one year to the next. This season, Western Kentucky joins the fray, partially filling the void left by East Carolina, Tulane, and Tulsa. The Hilltoppers come to the C-USA after years of finishing at or near the top of the Sun Belt Conference, but they may have to adjust to a higher level of play. Last year, four teams finished with 13-3 records in conference play, including Tulsa, who won the conference tournament, Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee, and Southern Miss. With Tulsa out of the way, not to mention USM an MTSU being decimated by graduations and transfers, this conference looks to be Tech’s to lose – and the CUSA coaches agree. The Bulldogs return CUSA Defensive POY Speedy Smith, as well as getting back scoring threat Raheem Appleby, who went down to an ankle injury late in the season. Tech was arguably a snub when they missed the tournament a year ago, so there might be a little chip on their shoulder this time around. Nipping at their heels will be UTEP, who return Julian Washburn and standout freshman Vince Hunter. The Tim Floyd-led Miners won 23 games last season and will look to stay near the top of the CUSA again, after winning 12 league games last year. Don’t count WKU out, though. Led by seniors George Fant and T.J. Price, who have seemingly been at Western Kentucky for a decade, the Hilltoppers are a seriously talented club and could surprise some folks. While I still don’t think that Conference USA is back to being a multi-bid league, I do think it will be an entertaining one to watch this season. I expect Louisiana Tech to make good on the promise they showed last year.
Automatic Bid: Louisiana Tech
At-Large Bid(s): none
When the Horizon League lost Butler a few years ago, it was unclear who would take over as the league’s dominant program. For now, at least, that program is Green Bay. The Phoenix went 14-2 in conference last year, on its way to a 24-win season. They have won at least ten conference games in each of the last three years, and with Horizon League POY Keifer Sykes returning – and earning the preseason nod to take home that trophy again – it is no wonder that the coaches and media have pegged Green Bay to win the league once more. Sykes, who averaged over 20 points per contest last season, will be joined by Greg Mays and Jordan Fouse, two returning players who can rebound, block shots, and take up some space. Cleveland State has been tabbed as the top challenger for Green Bay’s throne, with Trey Lewis and Anton Grady returning to lead a very experienced Vikings team back to prominence – remember, this is the same program that made four postseasons in five years and upset Wake Forest in the tournament in 2009. After Green Bay and Cleveland State, the best chance to win the league may rest with Detroit, led by Juwan Howard, Jr. The Titans struggled last year, but return an experienced cast and could find more success this time around. Really, though, this will be a two-team dogfight for the league crown. With a player like Keifer Sykes, it’s hard to bet on anyone besides Green Bay – but expect the Vikings to fight tooth and nail until the very end.
Automatic Bid: Green Bay
At-Large Bid(s): none
Don’t look now, but the Harvard Crimson are a Top 25 team. Coach Tommy Amaker has turned this program into a force to be reckoned with. Led by Wesley Saunders and Siyani Chambers, Harvard is poised to win the Ivy League and head back to the NCAA Tournament. After pulling an upset on Cincinnati, the 12th-seeded Crimson gave Michigan State a run for its money. This season, they may not have the chance to pull off an upset in the first weekend – because they might be seeded quite a bit higher this year. There’s really no team that should threaten Harvard for its fifth-straight Ivy League crown, as evidenced by their unanimous selection as preseason favorites, but Yale is a solid squad. The Elis went to the CIT championship game last season, making the postseason after a 19-win campaign. Led by Justin Sears, Javier Duren, and Armani Cotton, Yale could be poised to make a postseason again. The Ivy produced two 21-win teams in Columbia and Princeton, and each of those teams should be good again. But honestly, this conference belongs to Harvard. The only question left is just how good this Crimson team will be. I think they could end up with something as high as a 5-seed in the Big Dance.
Automatic Bid: Harvard
At-Large Bid(s): none
The MAAC is going to be a tight race once again, with a few teams crowded at the top. Iona, Siena, and Manhattan, three of the stalwarts of this conference, have been picked by the Metro coaches to finish 1-2-3 in the league this season. The Gaels return David Laury, pegged as the preseason MAAC Player of the Year, and A.J. English, who combined to average over 31 points, 12 rebounds, and 6 assists in 2013-14. Iona went 17-3 in the conference to win the outright crown, but lost to Manhattan in the conference tournament finals. The Jaspers won 25 games on their way to the NCAA Tournament and kept it close against Louisville in the second round. They return Emmy Andujar, a senior forward, but lost their top three scorers. Siena, a 20-win team last season, brings back their six-man core, headlined by Rob Poole and Brett Bisping. The Saints are experienced, talented, and hungry to make it back to the NCAA Tournament – and, necessarily, the MAAC Tournament final – after making three straight Dances from 2008-2010. Siena will have its hands full trying to supplant Iona and Manhattan as league champions, but are loaded enough to do it. This one is going to be interesting from start to finish, but I think the Gaels have edge with the duo of Laury and English – although the MAAC Tournament has supplied some fun and interesting upsets in years past.
Automatic Bid: Iona
At-Large Bid(s): none
Last season, Western Michigan toppled Toledo in the MAC Tournament championship to earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament after the two teams tied atop the Western division with dueling 14-4 conference records. This season, the Rockets will lean on seniors Juice Brown and Justin Drummond to lead them back to their first NCAA Tournament since 1980. After consecutive 4-28 seasons in 2009-10 and 2010-11, the Rockets have enjoyed a renaissance under head coach Tod Kowalczyk, who has led them to three straight winning seasons, including a 27-win campaign which earned Toledo a share of the MAC crown last year. WMU returns guard David Brown from last year’s tournament team. Brown, a graduate student, led the Broncos in scoring with over 19 points per game. A big loss for Western Michigan is Shayne Whittington, who averaged 16 and nine rebounds a season ago. This likely gives the Rockets the edge in the West division. On the other side, the East division should be dominated by Akron, who made the Big Dance in 2013. Demetrius Treadwell headlines the Zips’ cast of returning players from last year’s 21-win squad. Akron suffered big losses in Quincy Diggs and Nick Harney and will have some tough competition for the East’s top spot in Ohio. The Bobcats won 25 games last season, but lost top scorer Nick Kellog. They do bring back seniors Maurice Daly Ndour and Stevie Taylor, though. The MAC preseason pollsters predicted Toledo and Akron to win their respective divisions, with the Rockets being chosen overwhelmingly as the favorites to win the conference tournament. While Treadwell and the Zips will make some noise, the combo of Brown and Drummond should be enough to get Toledo its first Dance ticket in 34 years – and who doesn’t love a good storyline like that?
Automatic Bid: Toledo
At-Large Bid(s): none
Despite only joining the ranks of Division I basketball a few years ago, North Carolina Central have already enjoyed some great success, including their first MEAC regular season and tournament titles, as well as their first trip to the NCAA Tournament. The MEAC coaches and sports information directors have predicted that the Eagles will repeat as conference champions this season. NCC is led by senior forward Jordan Parks, a preseason All-MEAC first-team selection. The toughest competition for the Eagles will be Hampton, who finished second in the league last season. The Pirates have their own preseason first-teamer in Deron Powers, a 5-11 sophomore guard. While Howard guard James Daniel did enough as the league’s Rookie of the Year a season ago to earn preseason Player of the Year honors – leading the MEAC with 21 points per game as a freshman – his team was predicted to finish eighth in the league. Look for Daniel to put up eye-popping individual numbers, but watch the real story unfold as NC Central and Hampton battle for MEAC supremacy (a relative term, as MEAC teams are invariably very low seeds in the Big Dance). At this point, I have no reason to believe that Central won’t repeat as league champs.
Automatic Bid: North Carolina Central
At-Large Bid(s): none
In a not-so-Shocking turn, Wichita State was almost unanimously chosen to repeat as kings of the Missouri Valley again this year. The Shockers are a top team nationally, feature an AP preseason All-American in Fred VanVleet, and showcase three talents on the All-MVC preseason team (VanVleet, Ron Baker, and Tekele Cotton). Since Creighton left the conference, this league has been a one-man show, with Wichita State headlining. Don’t expect that to change this year, although they might not be quite as dominant as they were when they went undefeated in the regular season in 2013-14. The loss of Cleanthony Early to the NBA was unfortunate, but the Shockers will still be great. Looking to make up ground on them will be Northern Iowa. The Panthers return all five starters, including Seth Tuttle, another preseason first-team selection. This team has drawn comparisons to the Sweet 16 squad from 2010, a team that won the Missouri Valley and disrupted Creighton’s stretch of prominence. After the Shockers and Panthers, Evansville and Missouri State could make some noise. D.J. Balentine and Egidijus Mockevicius lead the Purple Aces, the former being a preseason All-MVC selection and the latter being an honorable mention. For the Bears, Marcus Marshall is an honorable mention and the junior guard will look to lead Missouri State back to the Big Dance. Unfortunately for everyone else in this conference, there is a long line of eager teams waiting for Wichita State to slip up – and much to the chagrin of all of them, they aren’t expected to do so very often. Look for the Shockers to cruise to an MVC crown again this season, but don’t be surprised if they drop a game or two in conference.
Automatic Bid: Wichita State
At-Large Bid(s): none
It should come as no surprise to anyone, at this point, that Steve Fisher and San Diego State will field yet another solid team. The big surprise this season for the rest of the Mountain West is that the Aztecs may be the only Tournament-caliber team in the league. Whereas this conference has pumped out multiple bids in past years, with stalwart programs like UNLV and New Mexico perennially in the mix, the outlook for the MWC is a little bleaker this time around. With J.J. O’Brien, Winston Shepard, and Skylar Spencer back in the fray, SDSU is the one known quantity in the conference, which is why they were chosen overwhelmingly to win the league. After the Aztecs, Boise State, with a talented, experienced core of returning starters, have been chosen to finish second. Anthony Drmic, Derrick Marks, and Igor Hadziomerovic look to get the Broncos back to the NCAA Tournament after their last appearance in 2013. While UNLV or UNM shouldn’t be completely counted out, the talent levels just aren’t as high as they were in years past and these teams do not look like locks for the Big Dance. The loss of Cameron Bairstow and company is a big blow to the Lobos, while the Runnin’ Rebels must overcome the departure of their top five scorers. Of course, time will tell how those teams bounce back, but for the moment, this conference looks like it will max out at two bids to the tournament… and even that might be an overestimate. Boise looks good enough to warrant an out-on-a-limb prediction, though, so I’m saying they’ll get in with one of the final at-large bids.
Automatic Bid: San Diego State
At-Large Bid(s): Boise State
The Northeast has been somewhat dominated by a handful of teams of late, with at least one of the trio of Mount Saint Mary’s, Robert Morris, and Long Island appearing the NEC Tournament final in each of the last seven years. However, this year, there may be a new team atop the standings: Saint Francis (NY). The Terriers, for the first time ever, have been selected as the preseason favorite to win the conference. Led by Jalen Cannon, a preseason All-NEC selection, the Terriers look to make their first NCAA Tournament in the school’s history. Following an 18-win season, the Brooklyn school garnered six of ten first-place votes from the conference’s head coaches, as compared to three for Central Connecticut. The Blue Devils, on the other hand, struggled quite a bit last season, stumbling to an 11-19 record. However, Kyle Vinales is the feather in CCSU’s cap, a senior guard who is the league’s active scoring leader with over 1,500 career points. But Vinales and Co. wil have to deal with Cannon and point guard Brent Jones if they wish to streak past St. Francis for a Dance bid. Robert Morris may have a chance to return to the Tournament this season, but the loss of 2013-14 NEC Player of the Year Karvel Anderson will really hurt the Colonials. Lucky Jones will try to make up for the loss, but he alone may not be enough. As a fan of the underdog, I will certainly be rooting for the Terriers to put on their Dancing shoes for the first time – and I think Cannon and Jones are good enough to help them do it.
Automatic Bid: St. Francis (NY)
At-Large Bid(s): none
Since joining the OVC after bolting the Atlantic Sun, Belmont has had a great conference rivalry with Murray State. Well, buckle up, because these two are going to go at it again, according to a preseason poll of OVC coaches and SIDs. The Racers were given a slight edge to take home the title, perhaps owing to their preseason Player of the Year Cameron Payne. Coming off a CIT Championship title, Murray State will be looking to get back to the main event of the postseason. Also missing out on the Big Dance last year were the Bruins, who were the regular-season champions last year. Despite the loss of OVC Player of the Year J.J. Mann, guards Craig Bradshaw and Reece Chamberlain will be aiming to build on a 26-win season, the fourth straight time they’ve won as many games. But Murray State may have the better returning cast, with Payne, Jarvis Williams, and T.J. Sapp – a trio of preseason All-OVC selections. Last year’s league representative, Eastern Kentucky, should contend in the Ohio Valley behind the efforts of last season’s OVC Defensive POY Corey Walden, but barring another great run in the Tournament – which should not be discounted, of course – they will not win the league. This conference should come down to Belmont and Murray State. Sadly for the Bruins, it looks like another NIT bid is in the works. My vote goes to the Bruins.
Automatic Bid: Murray State
At-Large Bid(s): none
Though the amazing tenure of Lute Olson is long distant in the rearview mirror, the Arizona Wildcats have reestablished themselves as the preeminent program in the Pac-12. The Cats, under the guidance of Sean Miller, enter the season as one of the nation’s top teams. Brandon Ashley, Kaleb Tarczewski, T.J. McConnell, and the rest of the boys in Tucson will take on the task of defending their crown against the likes of Utah, Colorado, and UCLA. While the Pac-12 media panel thinks that they will do it, this will be no easy task. At the helm of the Utes is Delon Wright, a dynamic guard who has Utah in the preseason Top 25. This is one of the best teams to come out of Salt Lake City since Rick Majerus was roaming the sidelines. Josh Scott and Askia Booker and the Buffs in Boulder could also crack the national polls, coming off a 23-win year and a trip to the Big Dance. UCLA lost its top two scorers, but will turn to Norman Powell to lead them to the postseason once more. Also likely to vie for an NCAA berth is Stanford, who bring back Chasson Randle and Anthony Brown from last year’s Sweet 16 team. There’s a bit of paucity of solid teams after that, though. Look for Arizona – and big-time freshman Stanley Johnson – to run through this conference, but don’t be surprised if Utah and Colorado make quite a bit of noise as well. (Hometown shoutout: Oregon State is going to be bad this year. They were picked dead last by the media after losing their top five scorers and fielding no seniors on this year’s squad. But at least they have a new coach in Wayne Tinkle. The days of Thanksgiving dinners at the White House are probably gone now that the President’s brother-in-law has been shown the door.)
Automatic Bid: Arizona
At-Large Bid(s): Utah, Colorado, UCLA, Stanford
The Patriot League’s newest member, Boston University, won the league title in its first season last year; however, the Terriers are tasked with replacing a trio of talented players who helped earn BU that crown. The team that beat them in the conference tournament final, American University, looks to step into the potential void left by Boston U. With senior guard Pee Wee Gardner, the Eagles will try to head back to the NCAA Tournament after last year’s berth. Fast at their heels will be Army, led by preseason Patriot League POY Kyle Wilson, a junior swingman who averaged 18.4 points per game a year ago. Along with another talented trio of juniors – Tanner Plomb, Dylan Cox, and Kyle Ferguson – the Black Knights have an experienced team that will try to build on a 10-8 conference mark. Malcolm Miller will try to lead Holy Cross to another 20-win year, having helped the Crusaders to a third-place league finish and a postseason appearance in the CIT last season. While nobody is head and shoulders above the rest of the pack, American was chosen to win the conference; however, they were picked to finish ninth last year on their way to the NCAA Tournament, so who knows what might happen. This is a bit of a shot in the dark, but I’m going to follow the Black Knights into battle and pick Army to make it to the Big Dance.
Automatic Bid: Army
At-Large Bid(s): none
As you may have heard, Kentucky is supposed to be pretty good this year. To be fair, the same was said of last year’s team, which futzed its way to a 7-seed – a decent mark for any program not residing in Lexington, KY – but got its act together at the right time, eventually losing to Connecticut in the National Title game. With the backcourt brothers Andrew and Aaron Harrison back, as well as junior big men Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress, the Wildcats are going to be a force to be reckoned with. Add in freshman Karl-Anthony Towns, a 6-11, 250-pound mountain, and you have the makings of a team ready to return to the Final Four. It should be noted that all of the aforementioned players made the All-SEC preseason First- or Second-Team. (Oh, and in case you weren’t sure, UK was unanimously predicted to win the conference.) So, that’s Kentucky. Let’s talk about the other SEC teams, shall we? Michael Frazier II leads a Florida team that went 18-0 in conference play last year, but graduated some key contributors. Still, never go in against Billy Donovan when an SEC title is on the line. [Note: This classic blunder is only slightly lesser known than getting involved in a land war in Asia.] Freshmen Kasey Hill and Chris Walker are two McDonald’s All-Americans who will look for playing time for the Gators. There is a considerable drop-off in talent after Kentucky and Florida, but Bobby Portis and Arkansas could be noise-makers this year. The Razorbacks were picked to finish third in the conference, just ahead of LSU, who are led by Jordan Mickey. There is a chance that the SEC only gets two teams into the tournament, but let’s be honest: it’s the SEC, so it will probably get at least three. I’m not convinced that both LSU and Arkansas will make it, as both were NIT teams a year ago. Arkansas plays the tougher non-conference schedule, so if the Razorbacks can steal wins against SMU or Iowa State, they could have a nice resume. For now, though, I have the Tigers penned in for one of the final at-large spots, but it’s a shaky pick at best.
Automatic Bid: Kentucky
At-Large Bid(s): Florida, Arkansas, LSU
It’s a good time to be a Wofford fan. The Terriers were pegged as the likely conference champions and their best player, Karl Cochran, was chosen as the SoCon Preseason Player of the Year, and perennial rivals Davidson left the Southern Conference for the Atlantic 10. Wofford aims to return to the NCAA tournament after making three trips in the last five years, propelled by Cochran, Spencer Collins, and Lee Skinner. The Terriers were a 15-seed last March, losing to 2-seed Michigan. Predicted to compete for the top spot are the Mocs of Chattanooga. The Tennessee school finished second to Davidson in regular season play a year ago and return almost everyone from an 18-win team, including Preseason All-SoCon selection Casey Jones. Another top-four finisher in last year’s SoCon race, Elon, also left the conference (for the Colonial), but newcomer East Tennessee State could be a surprise. The Buccaneers managed to get a preseason All-SoCon selection in Rashawn Rembert and were picked to finish third in the preseason poll. Be that as it may, this Wofford team is primed to make a run through the conference and head back to the Big Dance again this season.
Automatic Bid: Wofford
At-Large Bid(s): none
After running through the Southland with an unblemished 18-0 record, Stephen F. Austin upset VCU in the NCAA Tournament for its 32nd win in a glorious season. The Lumberjacks are poised to be just as good this time around, with last year’s Southland Player of the Year (as well as preseason POY) Jacob Parker and all-conference second-teamer Thomas Walkup leading the way. SFA was chosen to win the league again this season by the conference’s coaches and SIDs. The stiffest competition facing Stephen F. Austin comes from Northwestern State. The Demons, led by preseason All-Southland guard Jalan West and Zeek Woodley, the reigning Freshman of the Year, will look to supplant the Jacks as league champions this season. Sam Houston State, who feature all-conference picks Jabari Peters and Kaheem Ransom, were picked to finish third, while Texas A&M Corpus Christi, who have their own all-Southland players in John Jordan and Rashawn Thomas came in fourth. But make no mistake, Stephen F. Austin should have another great season, though another 12-seed and NCAA Tournament win may be a bit much to ask. Regardless, the Lumberjacks will be looking to fall some big trees come March.
Automatic Bid: Stephen F. Austin
At-Large Bid(s): none
Even though it’s usually a foregone conclusion that the SWAC Champion ends up in a First Four game, playing for the honor of meeting one of college basketball’s titans, this conference can provide a bounty of entertainment if you’re watching. Last year, this conference produced three 19-win teams atop the league. While Southern won the SWAC title in the regular season, going 15-3 in league play, they were upset by Prairie View A&M in the first round of the conference tournament. The Jaguars were ineligible for postseason play – as were three other teams in the SWAC – due to APR penalties. The other top teams, Texas Southern and Alabama State, met in the semifinals, where TSU advanced and eventually beat Prairie View to head to the tournament. The Tigers lost to Cal Poly in the opening round of the Big Dance. They have a good chance to get back, but will have to go through the Hornets of ASU, as they were picked by SWAC coaches and SIDs to win the league. Alabama State has preseason Defensive POY Luther Page in its midst, as well as Bobby Brown and Jamel Waters – all three of whom were chosen as All-SWAC First-Teamers. Texas Southern managed to get one second-teamer, Jose Rodriguez, while Southern, despite being picked to finish second, has no players on either team. It will be interesting to see this one play out, but for now, the Hornets look to be the class of the conference. They should go Dancing for the first time since 2011.
Automatic Bid: Alabama State
At-Large Bid(s): none
This year’s Summit League looks like it will be a wide-open race between as many as five squads. While the coaches and media think that IPFW will take home the crown, there at least four other suitors for the throne. The Mastodons of Fort Wayne come into the season on the heels of a 25-win season in which they finished second in the conference. They lose leading scorer Luis Jacobo, but return preseason All-Summit first-team selection Steve Forbes, as well as key contributor Mo Evans. Last season’s Summit champions, North Dakota State, will try to repeat as champions and get back to the NCAA Tournament, where they upset Oklahoma as a 12-seed. The Bison return senior guard Lawrence Alexander, a preseason All-Summit selection, as well as second-teamer Kory Brown. NDSU will have its hands full, however replacing Taylor Braun, Marshall Bjorklund, and TrayVonn Wright, who all graduated after last season. Picked second in the Summit is Denver, who feature preseason Player of the Year Brett Olson. The Pioneers are coming off a 16-15 season, but return five of its six-man rotation from last season. They will draw on that experience to take them to the promised land. South Dakota State and Oral Roberts will also challenge for the Summit League title, with each getting a player on the All-Summit First Team – the Jackrabbits’ Cody Larson and the Golden Eagles’ Obi Emegano. This is going to be an entertaining race to the finish line, but indications are that the Mastodons will stampede their way into their first NCAA Tournament.
Automatic Bid: IPFW
At-Large Bid(s): none
After a 17-1 conference record and 25 wins over, the Georgia State Panthers have been unanimously selected as this year’s choice to win the Sun Belt Conference. The Panthers return leading scorers R.J. Hunter and Ryan Harrow. Hunter, last season’s Sun Belt Player of the Year, was tabbed as the preseason POY this year as well. Harrow joins him on the All-Sun Belt First Team. Their top competition a year ago, Western Kentucky, left for Conference USA, so Georgia State may not have too tough a time repeating this year. Louisiana-Lafayette was chosen as the second-place team, led by senior forward Shawn Long, another preseason First-Team selection. The Ragin’ Cajuns were a 23-win team last year, but lose three starters from the team that upset GSU in the Sun Belt Tournament final. This time around, it should be a pretty open-and-shut case for Georgia State, as long as Hunter and Harrow keep doing what they do best: putting the ball in the net… but, as we’ve seen time and time again, conference tournaments can yield unexpected results for these one-bid conferences. Still, don’t be surprised to see the Panthers dancing again this March.
Automatic Bid: Georgia State
At-Large Bid(s): none
Surprise, surprise… Mark Few and the Zags are predicted to win the West Coast Conference again. Gonzaga shows no signs of letting up as they endeavor on their path for an 16th WCC title in the last 18 years. With All-WCC First-Teamers Kevin Pangos and Przemek Karnowski in the fold, the Bulldogs should have no problems getting back to the NCAA Tournament. The question, as it has been for the last few years, is whether BYU and Saint Mary’s will challenge Gonzaga for the regular-season title. The Cougars are led by reigning Player of the Year Taylor Haws, who scored over 23 points per game last year, and Kyle Collinsworth, a preseason All-WCC selection in his own right. In Moraga, CA, the Gaels’ senior center Brad Waldow made the preseason list after ending up as an All-WCC selection a year ago. They also bring back Kerry Carter, but lost three of their starters from last year’s 23-win team. The Dons of San Francisco actually finished ahead of Saint Mary’s a year ago, but lose top scorers Cole Dickerson and Avry Holmes. The Dons will struggle to do as well as they did last year, but shouldn’t lose too much momentum. Both the Gaels and Dons were NIT teams a year ago and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them both return there this year. Unfortunately for both of them, I don’t see a Big Dance in the cards. Look for Gonzaga and BYU to be there in March, though.
Automatic Bid: Gonzaga
At-Large Bid(s): BYU
In an unsurprising turn, New Mexico State has been unanimously selected to be the champions of the WAC. The Aggies return reigning WAC Player of the Year Daniel Mullings, who is joined by teammate Tshilidzi Nephawe on the All-WAC preseason First-Team. In the NCAA Tournament last year, by way of the WAC Tournament, the 26-win team lost to fourth-seeded San Diego State in overtime. You can bet that this sort of gutsy play will be on display all season long as New Mexico State looks to win its first WAC title since 2008. Last year’s regular-season champions, Utah Valley, has been predicted to take a step back, chosen to finish fourth in the league. Filling the void left by their vacancy are Seattle U. and Grand Canyon. Unfortunately for Dan Majerle’s crew at GCU, the Antelopes are not eligible for the postseason due to their recent reclassification to Division I ball. The Redhawks of Seattle, though, are eligible, and will try to challenge the Aggies to make their first NCAA Tournament. Despite a 5-11 conference mark and a 13-17 record overall, Seattle has been tabbed to finish second in the league behind the play of all-WAC First-Teamer Isaiah Umipig. We’ll see if such a big turnaround takes place in the Northwest, but for the time being, this much is clear: New Mexico State is the cream of the crop in this league and should be going Dancing again this March.
Automatic Bid: New Mexico State
At-Large Bid(s): none
So, there you have it. Thirty-two conferences, sixty-eight teams predicted to make the tournament, and a whole lot of words. Hopefully this shines some light on the season to come. If you have arguments, concerns, disagreements, squabbles, bones to pick, or hate mail that you want to send me, please feel free to comment. (Oh, and I guess if you have praise, you can send that along, too.) I hope that this was as fun for you to read as it was for me to write. I look forward to covering the NCAA season all year long. Again, come back on Friday for the Preseason Field of 68 and Bracket Predictions!
Take heart, you die-hards. College basketball is only a couple days away.