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.

CONFERENCE PREVIEW: CONFERENCE USA

Conference USA was a 16 team monstrosity last season that saw four teams tie for first place at 13-3.  Tulsa ended up taking the automatic bid, losing in the Round of 64 to Michigan State.  That loss was followed by Danny Manning’s departure for Wake Forest and the school’s departure for the American Athletic Conference.  Louisiana Tech and UTEP both made postseason appearances (La Tech in the NIT and UTEP in the CBI) last season and look to be the top two teams heading into this year.  The two other teams that tied for first with Tulsa and La Tech, Southern Miss (NIT) and Middle Tennessee (no postseason), look like they may fall off this season.  Conference USA did place three additional teams into postseason play last year as Old Dominion, Tulane and East Carolina all received berths in the CBI.  Of course, Tulane and East Carolina are both gone now, having followed Tulsa to the American.  Western Kentucky does join the conference, however, bringing the total number of teams to a more manageable 14.

Louisiana Tech, led by a solid core group of Alex Hamilton, Raheem Appleby, and Michale Kyser, is our pick to win the conference this season.  Erik McCree is a transfer form Murray State that could help push this team over the top.  UTEP is, however, right on their heels with Tim Floyd adding a solid group of recruits to returning starters Julian Washburn, Vince Hunter and C.J. Cooper.  A third team that could be right in the mix here is UAB, which scored one of the best recruiting surprises in the country by stealing William Lee away from the SEC schools.  Lee may be the best recruit ever to choose to head to Birmingham, and with his talent, the Blazers have a chance to be very good.  The biggest question at UAB is who will hold down the point guard spot after Chad Frazier’s departure.

Charlotte and Old Dominion are also bringing solid teams in this season, while North Texas has a chance to be a surprise contender, especially if Texas A&M transfer J’Mychael Reese proves to be eligible and can live up to his potential after a pair of disappointing seasons in College Station.  In all, Conference USA should have a fair number of strong programs this season as its membership looks like it has (hopefully) stabilized.  Two NCAA tournament bids is not out of the question in CUSA this year, though more than that would probably be a longshot.

Predicted Order of Finish:
1.  Louisiana Tech: Hamilton, Appleby and Kyser plus a strong batch of newcomers should have the Bulldogs dancing this year.
2.  UTEP: Washburn, Hunter and Cooper will lead the way for Tim Floyd’s team that may be good enough for an at-large bid should they need one.
3.  UAB: C.J. Washington was second on the team in scoring behind Frazier and his success, together with that of the team’s chosen point guard, could be enough to help Lee and company be on top of the standings.
4.  Charlotte: With most of their key players back from last season, the 49ers could have what it takes to succeed.
5.  Old Dominion: Aaron Bacote leads a group of deep, talented guards.  If the frontcourt develops, the Monarchs will be dangerous.
6.  North Texas: A dark horse candidate in the league, this team has young talent plus senior leader Jordan Williams who can light up the scoreboard.
7.  Western Kentucky: T.J. Price and George Fant lead an experienced core, but the Hilltoppers will be facing tougher competition than the Sun Belt offered and may lack the depth to contend.
8.  Middle Tennessee: D.J. Jones could be one of the top newcomers in the conference, and should be fun to watch.  However, the Blue Raiders lost too many pieces from last year’s co-champions.
9.  Southern Miss: Doc Sadler has come in to begin a rebuild project with their top four scorers gone.
10.  Florida Atlantic: C.J. Turman is a key recruit and sophomore Marquan Botley is solid at the point as the post-Mike Jarvis era begins for the Owls.
11.  Texas-San Antonio: Jeromie Hill sat out last season with a knee injury but is back this year.  The rest of the pieces surrounding him may be too young though.
12.  Florida International: Adrian Diaz transferred from Kansas State and should be the best player for the Golden Panthers . . . but a long season likely awaits.
13.  Rice: Mike Rhoades has come in to coach from his role as an assistant at VCU and brings the “havoc” system with him.  He just does not have the pieces for success yet.
14.  Marshall: The Thundering Herd targeted Mike D’Antoni for their head coach job, but ended up with his brother, Dan.  Dan does inherit Ryan Taylor who is a double-double threat on a nightly basis, but the rest of the cupboard looks pretty bare.

CONFERENCE PREVIEW: COLONIAL

Last season, the CAA was all about Delaware.  The Fighting Blue Hens went 14-2 during the conference regular season and followed it up with the conference tournament title, before falling by 15 points to Michigan State in the Round of 64.  Delaware’s accomplishments practically overshadowed the continued progress of Pat Skerry’s amazing rebuild at Towson, where he led the Tigers to 25 wins and the conference’s only other postseason berth, a spot in the CIT.  This season should see some major shifts in power at the top, as both Delaware and Towson will need to retool following offseason losses.

The CAA welcomes one new member this season as Elon moves over from the Southern Conference.  The Phoenix probably chose the wrong year for their move, as four of five starters left the program and they will struggle to avoid the CAA basement.  Our preseason pick to actually finish at the top of the conference this year is a program that went just 11-21 last season, the Northeastern Huskies.  The Huskies return their top eight players, and were a lot better than their record indicated last year with nine of 21 losses coming by five points or less.  The Huskies top challenger this year figures to be William & Mary, with potential conference player of the year William Thornton leading the Tribe.  Hofstra and James Madison could also figure in the mix of what appears to be a wide open conference race.

Predicted Order of Finish:
1.  Northeastern: Scott Eatherton, David Walker and Reggie Spencer lead the way for this deep, veteran team.
2.  William & Mary: Omar Prewitt and Terry Tarpey should be big contributors along with Thornton.
3.  Hofstra: Juan’ya Green and Ameen Tanksley both averaged double digit scoring at Niagara two years ago and should help the Pride rise in the standings.
4.  James Madison: Andre Nation and Ron Curry return to lead a solid backcourt, but the Dukes need answers up front.
5.  Drexel: Damion Lee is back after losing last season to an injury, but they may have too many holes to fill after the loss of their top two scorers.
6.  Towson: Four McGlynn is Pat Skerry’s top returnee, but he continues to recruit well.  Keep an eye on Eddie Keith.
7.  Delaware: Kyle Anderson is the only starter back after the surprise transfer of Jarvis Threatt.  This looks like a rebuilding year.
8.  UNC-Wlmington: Cedrick Williams leads three returning senior starters, but not much else here for ex-Pitino assistant Kevin Keatts in his first year.
9.  College of Charleston: The offseason turmoil that led to Doug Wojick’s dismissal as head coach could mean a long first season for Earl Grant.
10.  Elon: Losing their top four players from last season will make this a long first trip through the CAA for the Phoenix.