CONFERENCE PREVIEW: MISSOURI VALLEY

78-76, the final score of Kentucky’s Round of 32 win over the #1 seed Wichita State Shockers last season.  Fred VanVleet’s shot at the buzzer bounced harmlessly off of the rim and ended Wichita State’s undefeated season and dreams of a Final Four or more.  That was how close WSU came to beating the team that went on to lose to UConn in the national championship game.  But despite the heartbreaking way their season ended last year, the Shockers have plenty to look forward to in 2014-15.  While Cleanthony Early is gone, VanVleet does return along with Ron Baker, Tekele Cotton, Darius Carter and more.  WSU is clearly the favorite to win the MVC this season, and should be good enough for an at-large bid (if needed) and another high seed in the NCAA tournament (though a repeat as a 1 seed is not likely).

Wichita State was the MVC’s only NCAA tournament team last year, though Indiana State did get an invite to the NIT, while Illinois State played in the CBI and Missouri State was in the CIT.  Indiana State looks to be taking a step back this year, but both Missouri State and Illinois State will be tough teams to beat.  However, the two teams with the best chance of spoiling Wichita State’s run for another conference crown, or at least getting into the Field of 68 via an at-large bid, are Northern Iowa and Evansville.  Both schools return virtually their entire rosters from last season, and the Purple Aces look to be especially dangerous with D.J. Balentine, the MVC’s top scorer last season, leading the way.

Predicted Order of Finish:
1. Wichita State: VanVleet, Baker and Cotton will lead the way.  Look for Darius Carter to step up now that Early is gone.
2.  Evansville: Balentine and Egidijus Mockevicius (a legitimate double-double threat every night) should have this team not only chasing the Shockers, but also in range for an at-large berth.  By the way, the Purple Aces do not have a single senior starter.
3. Northern Iowa: Former Virginia starter Paul Jesperson’s addition to an already loaded, experienced team will make the Panthers dangerous and could have them in the at-large bid discussion come March.
4.  Missouri State: Marcus Marshall is healthy again after missing most of last season with a knee injury.  His return should make the Bears difficult to beat.
5.  Illinois State: Four returning starters from a team that played in the postseason last year will make this team dangerous as well.  If Reggie Lynch can break out as a star in his sophomore year, they could be a surprise contender.
6.  Southern Illinois: Anthony Beane should put up a lot of points, but the Salukis need to find enough other pieces to complement him.
7.  Bradley: Mike Shaw transfers in from Illinois and freshman Josh Cunningham is a top 100 recruit.  However, the rest of the pieces may not be there yet, though the program is definitely heading in the right direction.
8.  Indiana State: Khristian Smith and Justin Gant will lead the way, but there are too many questions in the rest of the lineup with the loss of the team’s top two scorers from last season.
9.  Loyola (Chicago): Milton Doyle was the MVC Freshman of the Year last season and should be even better this year.  The rest of the pieces are not there yet to significantly improve on last year’s 22 losses.
10.  Drake: This looks like a long season for Ray Giacoletti’s team in his second season trying to rebuild the Bulldogs.

CONFERENCE PREVIEW: MID-EASTERN ATHLETIC

Something rather extraordinary happened in the 2014 MEAC tournament.  The top seed, North Carolina Central, won the automatic bid.  The MEAC had, during the prior three seasons, been a source for crazy upsets, as the top seed had been knocked out in the quarterfinals by the 8 seed in both 2013 and 2012, and in the semifinals by the 4 seed in 2011.  The Eagles, who have only been a full Division I member since 2012, made their first ever NCAA tournament, losing to Iowa State in the Round of 64.  The MEAC also put two teams into the CBI, Hampton and Norfolk State.

This year, the MEAC should once again come down to a battle between NC Central and Hampton.  The Eagles have one of the conference’s top frontcourts, but have holes to fill in the backcourt.  Hampton is the opposite, with a solid backcourt but question marks down low.  In the end, our call is for superior guard play to beat out superior low post play and the Hampton Pirates to take this year’s crown.  Delaware State and Howard could also figure in the title mix, especially with Howard having arguably the MEAC’s best player in guard James Daniel.

One team that will not figure in the title race this season is Florida A&M.  The Rattlers are on the APR postseason ban list and will be ineligible for the conference and NCAA tournaments.  On top of that, virtually every player from last season’s roster is gone either via graduation or transfer, giving new head coach Byron Samuels a huge rebuilding project.  We here at HOOPS HD annually give out the “Centenary Award” to the worst team in Division I.  FAMU is our preseason pick to take home that title this year.

Predicted Order of Finish:
1.  Hampton: Deron Powers and Brian Darden anchor one of the conference’s best backcourts.  If they can find some answers down low, the Pirates could be dancing this season.
2.  North Carolina Central: Jay Copeland and Jordan Parks help make up a solid frontcourt.  If they can find the pieces to fill in for offseason losses in the backcourt, a repeat could be in order.
3.  Delaware State: Kendell Gray may be the best big man in the conference and should help the Hornets vastly improve on last year’s 9-21 record.
4.  Howard: In addition to Daniel, the Bison return all of their starters and most of the bench.  In fact, they were the second youngest team in the country (behind only Kentucky) last season, and the experience that was built should make them a legitimate contender this year.
5.  South Carolina State: The Bulldogs appear to be heading in the right direction, and may be even better next season with most of the team being juniors or younger.  JC transfer TaShombe Riley is worth keeping an eye on this year.
6.  Norfolk State: With three starters gone from last year’s team, the Spartans need Jamel Fuentes and Boston University transfer Malik Thomas to step up in order to remain in the upper division.
7.  Bethune-Cookman: Mikel Trapp and Clemmye Owens should pace their scoring this year, but the Wildcats have too many holes in the roster to contend.
8.  Coppin State: For the first time in what feels like forever, Fang Mitchell is not the head coach at Coppin State.  Michael Grant takes over and has his work cut out with the top two scorers gone from a team that lost 20 games.
9.  North Carolina A&T: Bruce Beckford is the top returning player, but another long season seems to be in store.
10.  Savannah State: With only one returning starter, this looks like a rebuilding year.  Jeremiah Hill may be the best talent on the team.
11.  Morgan State: This could be a long season for head coach Todd Bozeman, though Atlantic City, NJ native Jahleem Montague is worth watching.
12.  Maryland-Eastern Shore: With every starter gone from a 24 loss team, only the woes at Florida A&M may keep the Hawks out of the conference basement.
13.  Florida A&M*: Two words — Centenary Award.  Byron Samuels will need to rebuild this program from the bottom up.

*Florida A&M is ineligible for postseason play due to low APR scores.

CONFERENCE PREVIEW: MID-AMERICAN

There was a time when divisional play was all the rage in college basketball, with such oddities having existed as “Red, White and Blue” divisions in Conference USA and “Big East 6 and Big East 7″ divisions in the Big East.  Those days seem to have finally passed us by, as only two conferences remain this season with a divisional alignment, the Ohio Valley and the MAC.  In the case of the MAC, the divisions are only used for scheduling purposes, as each team plays its division mates plus two cross-division foes twice, while going up against the remaining four teams from the other division only once.  The seeding of the conference tournament completely ignores the divisions, theoretically allowing for the top six seeds to all come from the same division.

Last season, Toledo was the top seed after a 14-4 regular season earned the Rockets a tie with Western Michigan for the best record in the conference.  The Rockets ended up in the NIT, however, after losing to WMU in the conference title game.  Western Michigan went on to the NCAA tournament, falling in the Round of 64 to Syracuse.  Akron, Ohio, and Eastern Michigan all also earned postseason bids, playing in the CIT.

This year, much of the same is expected as Toledo is the favorite to win the West Division and the NCAA bid.  The Rockets are a deep, loaded team led by seniors Julius Brown and Justin Hammond, both of whom averaged over 14 points per game last year.  All three Michigan schools (Western, Eastern and Central) could contend in the West as well.  The East Division should see Akron and Ohio among its top teams, with the Zips (led by perhaps the conference’s top player, Demetrius Treadwell) being strong enough to give Toledo a run for its money.  Buffalo, which won the East Division regular season title last year under first year head coach Bobby Hurley, may take a step back after losing three starters, but Kent State could figure in the mix in the East.  Finally, keep an eye on Bowling Green, one of the HOOPS HD preseason picks for a surprise breakout this year.

Predicted Order of Finish:
EAST DIVISION
1.  Akron: Treadwell leads this deep and experienced team, but the point guard position was a problem last season that they will need to find an answer for.
2.  Bowling Green: A finish at or near the top of the division would be a shock — to anyone but us.  Chris Jans comes over from Wichita State as the new head coach and has a team with four double-digit averaging starters returning, plus he gets Chauncey Orr back from injury.
3.  Ohio: Saul Phillips takes over as head coach after a ton of success at North Dakota State.  Maurice Ndor should thrive this season, and keep an eye on freshman Khari Harley.
4.  Kent State: Kris Brewer is the top returning player, but it is the newcomers that will decide this team’s fate.  Jimmy Hall (transfer from Hofstra) and Craig Brown (transfer from Rutgers) should both contribute significantly, and it will be impossible to overlook 7-4 Division III transfer Blake Vedder, who will be the tallest player in MAC history.
5.  Buffalo: Losing three starters, including their top two scorers, will make Bobby Hurley’s second season as head coach tougher than his first.  Will Regan averaged just over 10 points per game last season, but he will need to step up his game more and get some help for the Bulls to contend for the division title again.
6.  Miami (Ohio): While the Redhawks avoided the division basement for the first time in three years last season, the loss of Will Felder may send them right back down there this year.  Eric Washington (transfer from Presbyterian) takes over as point guard and will need to excel for this team to succeed.

WEST DIVISION
1.  Toledo: In addition to Brown and Hammond, keep an eye on Mississippi State transfer Dre Applewhite.  He will not be eligible until the second semester, but could be the X factor in pushing this team over the top.  If the Rockets can do enough in the non-conference part of the season (which includes games at Oregon and at Duke), an at-large bid could be a possibility if they need it.
2.  Central Michigan: All five starters return led by Chris Fowler.  The best part is that not a single one of the five is a senior.  This year could be good, next year even better.
3.  Western Michigan: David Brown was granted a sixth year of eligibility, which was huge for the Broncos.  The bad news is that Shayne Whittington, their first team all-MAC center, is gone.
4.  Eastern Michigan: Karrington Ward and Indiana State transfer Mike Samuels will look to star for this team that also features a solid group of backcourt players.
5.  Northern Illinois: With four returning starters, the Huskies should continue to improve, but they desperately need to find some offensive consistency.
6.  Ball State: Zavier Turner was MAC Rookie of the Year last season, and he is joined by Cincinnati transfer Jeremiah Davis.  However, three double digit scorers are gone form a 25 loss team and another long season likely awaits.

CONFERENCE PREVIEW: METRO ATLANTIC

As we all recall, Connecticut ended the 2013-14 season by winning the NCAA tournament.  Three other teams joined the Huskies in ending their seasons with a tournament championship: Minnesota in the NIT, Murray State in the CIT, and the Metro Atlantic’s Siena Saints by winning the best-of-three championship series in the CBI over Fresno State.  The CBI champions return virtually their entire roster this season and will be looking to ride the momentum of last season’s title to an NCAA berth this year.

Winning the MAAC will not be a cakewalk for Siena as several very strong teams will be ready to challenge them.  Last year’s regular season champions, Iona, are in fact our pick to repeat this year, led by perhaps the league’s best player in A.J. English.  St. Peter’s got stronger and stronger as the year went on last season and looks poised to take a step up as well.  Quinnipiac, which played in the CIT last year, and Manhattan, which won the automatic NCAA bid, could also figure in the mix.  Canisius also received a postseason bid into the CBI last season, but Billy Baron and his 24.1 points per game graduated and took his talents to Lithuania, leaving a rebuilding project for the Golden Griffins.

Predicted Order of Finish:
1.  Iona: English, together with Isaiah Williams and David Laury, should have the Gaels at the top of the standings.
2.  St. Peter’s: Marvin Dominique and the exciting Desi Washington make this a very dangerous team that should be right in contention.
3.  Siena: Rob Poole and Brett Bisping lead a deep, experienced team that learned how to win a championship (albeit in the CBI) last season.
4.  Quinnipiac: Zaid Hearst and Ousmane Drame were both double digit scorers last season, but they will need help after losing two of their top three scorers from last year.
5.  Manhattan: Steve Masiello left . . . and was replaced by Steve Masiello.  While Manhattan did allow Masiello to return after the mess with his resume in the offseason, he has to start the rebuild of a team that lost its top three scorers.
6.  Monmouth: Deon Jones and Andrew Nicholas lead a talented group in the backcourt, but there may be too many holes down low.
7.  Marist: Chavaughn Lewis and Khallid Hart should score a lot of points this season, but there doesn’t appear to be enough other pieces on the roster beyond them.
8.  Rider: Jimmie Taylor needs to become a star for this team to have any chance to move up in the standings.
9.  Canisius: With only one returning starter, this looks like a rebuilding year for Jim Baron.
10.  Fairfield: Four returning starters helps, but only Marcus Gilbert showed much of anything last season en route to 25 losses.
11.  Niagara: Antoine Mason took his 25.6 points per game to Auburn, leaving another huge hole on a team that suffered 26 losses last year.

CONFERENCE PREVIEW: IVY LEAGUE

In 1946, Harvard played in the NCAA tournament, losing in their first game to Ohio State.  For the next 64 years, the Crimson did not play in a single postseason game.  Tommy Amaker took over in 2007-08 and had the Crimson in the postseason two years later, playing in the 2010 CIT.  2011 saw Harvard in the NIT, and the past three seasons have seen Ivy League championships and berths in the NCAA tournament, including last season when this team upset #5 seed Cincinnati in the Round of 64 (after winning a game as a #14 seed in 2013).  This season should be more of the same as the Crimson will be favored to capture their fourth consecutive conference crown.

The Ivy League is the only conference that does not have a postseason conference tournament.  The regular season champion claims the conference’s automatic bid (with a playoff to occur between any and all teams that tie for first place).  While the Ivy League placing its second place finisher into the field as an at-large team has never happened, and probably won’t this year either, the conference does return enough talent to give the Crimson a run for their money.  Four other Ivy League teams joined Harvard in the postseason last year as Princeton was in the CBI while Brown, Columbia and Yale all played in the CIT, with Yale making it all the way to the championship game before falling to Murray State.  Yale and Columbia could both challenge Harvard this season, though in the end the Crimson are just too deep and too strong to not win the league title.

Predicted Order of Finish:
1.  Harvard: Siyani Chambers and Wesley Saunders in the backcourt, complemented by a healthy Kenyatta Smith and Steve Moundou-Missi up front should have the Crimson dancing again.  This team in fact should be good enough for an at-large bid, though with no conference tournament, they will not need one.
2.  Columbia: The Lions have a very deep team with all five starters returning.  They suffered a setback this week though as leading returning scorer Alex Rosenberg broke his foot and will be out six weeks.  Assuming he is healthy in time for conference play (which he hopefully will be), the Lions should still be the second best team in the league.
3.  Yale: The Bulldogs return all five starters led by Justin Sears to a team that should be very tough for anyone, even Harvard, to beat.
4.  Dartmouth: Alex Mitola, Gabas Maldunas and Connor Boehm lead a balanced and experienced team that could surprise.
5.  Brown: Four returning starters from a CIT team is normally a recipe for success, but the one man they lost was their best player, Sean McGonagill.
6.  Princeton: The loss of two of their top three players will make things tough, but if talented freshmen and sophomores (including last season’s conference Freshman of the Year Spencer Weisz) can step up, the Tigers could finish in the upper division.
7.  Pennsylvania: Tony Hicks and Darien Nelson-Henry can both play, but there isn’t much on the roster beyond the two of them.  Head coach Jerome Allen could be in trouble if things don’t start turning around soon.
8.  Cornell: Shonn Miller returns after missing all of last season to injury, but Nolan Cressler’s transfer to Vanderbilt is going to make this another long season.

CONFERENCE PREVIEW: HORIZON LEAGUE

Green Bay won the Horizon League regular season title last year by two games, earning themselves a bye into the conference tournament semifinals and a right to host that game on their home court.  Normally, that is a recipe for a berth in the tournament finals and a shot at an NCAA bid.  Unfortunately for the Phoenix, the Milwaukee Panthers had other plans, turning a 7-9 conference regular season into four straight wins, including at Green Bay in the semifinals and at Wright State in the championship before eventually losing to #2 seed Villanova in the Round of 64.  Green Bay did earn a spot in the NIT, which was a fairly weak consolation prize for a team that had all the tools to win one or more games in the NCAAs.  The Horizon also placed three teams into the CIT: Wright State, Cleveland State and Valparaiso.

This season, Green Bay has a chance at redemption as the Phoenix will once again be the favorites to win the league.  They also will not have to worry about Milwaukee knocking them out of the conference tournament, as the Panthers are banned from postseason play due to low APR scores (and the Panthers lost their top two scorers from last season as well).  While Green Bay did lose Alec Brown to graduation and the NBA draft, virtually everyone else is back including Keifer Sykes who may be the best player in the Horizon.  Green Bay will be challenged this season by a Cleveland State team that features four returning starters and a Detroit team that is led by Juwan Howard, Jr.  Also, keep an eye out for Valparaiso which returns four starters, three of them being only sophomores.

Predicted Order of Finish:
1.  Green Bay: Three other returning starters join Sykes, plus 6-11 Henry Uwadiae from Nigeria (assuming he can learn to play the game) should help make up for the loss of Brown.  If the Phoenix can score a few non-conference wins of note, they may not even need the automatic bid to dance this season.
2.  Detroit: Howard is joined by a pair of transfers, Chris Jenkins (Colorado) and Patrick Ackerman (Penn State) plus four other returning players that averaged 7 or more points per game to give this team enough depth to challenge for the league crown.
3.  Cleveland State: Trey Lewis and Anton Grady lead a balanced team that should still compete despite Bryn Forbes’ decision to transfer to Michigan State.
4.  Valparaiso: Rarely do you see a team with four returning starters and three of them only sophomores, but that is exactly what we have here.  Alec Peters is one of the top forwards in the conference in only his second year and could become a real star for the Crusaders this season.
5.  Milwaukee*: A couple of transfers (Akeem Springs and Brett Prahl) will look to make up for the loss of their top two scorers.  Also, keep an eye on Justin Jordan, nephew of another Jordan of some note (hint: he played college ball for North Carolina and his first name starts with M).
6.  Wright State: Reggie Arceneaux is the only returning starter from last season’s conference tournament runner-up, but he is joined by three other seniors to give this team enough experience to win games.
7.  Oakland: With two of the top three scorers gone from a 20 loss team, this could be a long season.  Corey Petros will need to step up his game and hopefully Max Hooper (who is at his third different school already in his career) can contribute.
8.  Illinois-Chicago: It will hard to be worse than the Flames 6-25 record last season, but a battle to avoid the league basement is probably in store.  JC transfer Kaylen Shane could be a force for them down low.
9.  Youngstown State: After three straight years above or near the .500 mark, the Penguins look like they will fall back to the bottom of the league this season with the loss of their top three players from last year’s 15-17 squad.

*Milwaukee is ineligible for the Horizon League and NCAA tournaments due to low APR scores.