Conference tourney previews (Part 2 of 2)

HoopsHD is getting prepared for the greatest month of the year with a 2-part preview of every single conference tourney in the nation. Jon Teitel kicked it off last weekend with his predictions for the 1st 13 conference tourneys that got underway (http://hoopshd.com/2017/02/26/conference-tourney-previews-part-1-of-2-2), and now it is time for his picks concerning the 19 other conference tourneys including the 1st-ever Ivy postseason tourney.

 

AAC tourney predicted champ: SMU (#1-seed)
Last year’s tourney champ: UConn (#5-seed)
NOTE: UConn has been in title game each of past 3 years
SMU won 25 games last year but none in this tourney because they were ineligible for postseason play. This year they have won 27 games and their only loss since November was by 2 PTS at Cincinnati. The Bearcats have only lost 3 times since Thanksgiving and I like Coach Mick Cronin, but he has only made 1 tourney title game in the past 10 years. The Mustangs hit the offensive glass, make their 3-PT shots, and have so many big guards that their perimeter defense is just outstanding.

ACC tourney predicted champ: Louisville (#4-seed)
Last year’s tourney champ: North Carolina (#1-seed)
NOTE: 6 different champs in past 6 years
This tourney has had a different champ in each of the past 6 years and is now working on its 3rd different arena in the past 3 years, so let’s make it 7 champs in 7 years by picking Louisville. I know that Coach Rick Pitino had not beaten any of the top-3 seeds this season until yesterday but they have only had 2 losses all year by more than 8 PTS so his team should be able to keep it close against whoever they face. It will certainly be difficult to possibly have to face Mike Krzyzewski/Roy Williams/Mike Brey on 3 consecutive nights, but the double-bye as the #4-seed will give them an extra day of rest and the Cardinals have a lot of size that they can put out on the floor.

A-10 tourney predicted champ: Rhode Island (#4-seed)
Last year’s tourney champ: St. Joseph’s (#4-seed)
NOTE: 6 different champs in past 7 years
This tourney has had 6 different champs in the past 6 years so I will pick Rhode Island to make it 7 of 8. The 2 heavy favorites are Dayton/VCU but after seeing each of them lose on the road last week it appears that they maybe they are lighter than 1st thought. The Rams won 9 of 11 to finish the regular season and will get a double-bye as a top-4 seed. They block a lot of shots and hold their opponents to under 30 3P%. Dayton swept them this year but only by a combined 4 PTS so they will not be scared of facing the #1-seed, and after beating VCU by double-digits last weekend they would be very confident heading into a repeat Battle of the Rams.

Big East tourney predicted champ: Villanova (#1-seed)
Last year’s tourney champ: Seton Hall (#3-seed)
NOTE: 9 different champs in past 11 years
There are only a few 2015 conference tourney MVPs still trying to make it to Selection Sunday, and if Georgetown (led by 2015 NEC tourney MVP Rodney Pryor) can get by St. John’s on Wednesday then they get to face Villanova (led by 2015 Big East tourney MVP Josh Hart) for the 2nd time in a week. It seems impossible that Butler has never won a Big East tourney game but they should be able to break that streak against Xavier in the quarterfinals. However, even though the Bulldogs swept the Wildcats it is hard to imagine a team that lost 4 of its final 9 games to be able to do it 3 times in 3 months. During his recent book tour Coach Jay Wright talked about the “hangover” effect that makes it so hard for championship teams to repeat, but after seeing his team simply shred Georgetown in person yesterday I can assure you they are as primed to go back-to-back as any team since the Gators did so a decade ago. They make shots, they do not foul their opponents, and with all due respect to the rest of the Big East coaching fraternity they are not getting out-strategized next week.

Big Sky tourney predicted champ: North Dakota (#1-seed)
Last year’s tourney champ: Weber State (#1-seed)
NOTE: only 5 winners in past 15 years are Montana/Weber ST/Eastern Washington/Portland State/Northern Colorado
I cannot say that I am blown away by a team that is 19-9, but when none of those 9 losses are to any of the other top-4 seeds in this tourney (they are 4-0 vs. Eastern Washington/Idaho/Weber State), their resume starts to look a lot more impressive. They are also great in the clutch: 3 OT games all year, and they won all 3 of them. Most people know Brian Jones as the founder of the Rolling Stones, but if the same-named coach of the Fighting Hawks can win it all this week, it will give them a great deal of “Satisfaction”.

Big 10 tourney predicted champ: Purdue (#1-seed)
Last year’s tourney champ: Michigan State (#2-seed)
NOTE: only 4 winners in past 10 years are Ohio State/Wisconsin/Purdue/Michigan State
Good luck figuring out this crazy conference as it comes to visit me in DC this week. This year’s edition is wide-open with each of the top-11 seeds having 17+ regular season wins. Maryland/Northwestern/Wisconsin all looked unstoppable as of a month ago until each of them lost 5 games in February. You should never bet against Tom Izzo in March but with Eron Harris hurt they simply do not have enough firepower to win 4 games in 4 days. Minnesota is playing better than anyone else but even with a Pitino on the sideline you cannot go from 8-23 to Big 10 champs in just 1 year. Therefore, the pick is Purdue and the best player in the conference (Caleb Swanigan). Their only loss to a fellow top-6 seed all year was to Minnesota in OT, so unless a weak team gets them early I think that they will continue to improve with each win.

Big 12 tourney predicted champ: Iowa State (#4-seed)
Last year’s tourney champ: Kansas (#1-seed)
NOTE: only 5 winners ever are Iowa State/Kansas/Oklahoma/Oklahoma State/Missouri
Every single winner of this tourney has been a top-4 seed so even though this conference is stacked the eventual victor will probably be 1 of the best teams. However, neither Baylor/West Virginia have ever won it, so that makes it a coin flip between Iowa State and Kansas. The tourney remains in Kansas City for the 8th straight March, which gives the Jayhawks a home-court advantage away from home. The Cyclones split the season series with Kansas and did not need any Hilton Magic in an OT victory in Lawrence last month. Kansas is certainly 1 of the best teams in the nation but Iowa State won 6 of 7 to finish the regular season and have senior leadership to spare.

Big West tourney predicted champ: Cal State Fullerton (#1-seed)
Last year’s tourney champ: Hawaii (#1-seed)
NOTE: 6 different champs in past 6 years
Hard to pick a winner when nobody in the conference has 20 wins this season, but since someone new seems to win every single year I will choose Fullerton. The Titans went with academics over athletics by scheduling Cal Tech to start the season, and they finished with only an OT road loss in their final 7 games (while also beating top-2 seeds UC Davis/UC Irvine). It will be rough sailing if FR F Jackson Rowe cannot recover from a left foot injury that has kept him out of the past 2 games, but that just means more shots for the leading scorer in the conference (SR SG Tre’ Coggins). Need another reason: how dare you question the heart of SR PG Lionheart Leslie!

C-USA tourney predicted champ: Middle Tennessee (#1-seed)
Last year’s tourney champ: Middle Tennessee (#2-seed)
NOTE: 4 different champs in past 4 years
Michigan State can tell you how fun it is to play Middle Tennessee in March, and now the rest of the conference will find out for the 2nd straight spring. The Blue Raiders have lost 3 games since Thanksgiving by a total of 14 PTS and have several top-100 wins over teams like Mississippi/UNC-Wilmington/Vandy, so they might be able to snatch an at-large berth if they stumble. However, since they beat both #2-seed Louisiana Tech and #3-seed Old Dominion by double-digits this season, they are looking forward to a return visit to Legacy Arena to cement their own legacy as the best 4-year run in school history.

Ivy tourney predicted champ: Princeton (#1-seed)
Last year’s regular season champ: Yale
NOTE: 1st–ever conference tourney but Harvard/Yale are only 2 champs from past 5 years
Even though Penn was able to sneak into this tourney as the #4-seed thanks to a game-winning 3 to beat Harvard, and they are playing at the Palestra, I just do not see them beating a 14-0 Princeton team who swept them during the regular season. The other semifinal features a Harvard team that dropped its final 2 games on the road, but since it swept Yale in February I think they can keep beating them in March. The Crimson should be able to keep it close against the Tigers, as their 2 losses to them this year were by a combined 5 PTS, but Princeton has only lost to 2 teams outside the top-100 all season so I do not see it happening again next weekend.

MAC tourney predicted champ: Buffalo (#3-seed)
Last year’s tourney champ: Buffalo (#3-seed)
NOTE: Buffalo has won past 2 titles by combined 8 PTS
The 3 seed was good enough for Buffalo last year when Nate Oats was a rookie coach, so it should be good enough now that he has 1 conference championship under his belt. It will not be easy to beat Ohio and Akron on consecutive nights in Cleveland, as they only went 1-3 against the 2 teams during the regular season but all 4 games were decided by 6 PTS or less. I was loving Akron when they finished Valentine’s Day at 22-4, but they lost 3 of their final 5 to finish 24-7. In contrast, the Bulls started 9-12 before winning 8 of their last 10 and have the reigning conference tourney MVP in SR SG Willie Conner.

MEAC tourney predicted champ: Hampton (#4-seed)
Last year’s tourney champ: Hampton (#1-seed)
NOTE: Hampton has won past 2 titles by double digits
NC Central is still the favorite but losing your regular season finale to a 28-loss NC A&T team is the definition of inexcusable: seriously, how does a good team with a good coach and a ton of seniors lose that game?! Hampton has history on its side as the 2-time defending champs, and even though they were dead in the water after a 2-10 start they rebounded nicely to only lose 5 games since New Year’s Eve. Coach Ed Joyner probably expected to lean on SR G Lawrence Cooks this season, but it is FR backcourt mate Jermaine Marrow who has exceeded all expectations.

MWC tourney predicted champ: Fresno State (#4-seed)
Last year’s tourney champ: Fresno State (#2-seed)
NOTE: San Diego State has been runner-up in 5 of past 8 years by combined 24 PTS
You can never count out Coach Steve Fisher in this tourney but his San Diego State team has been unable to score 60+ PTS in any of their past 4 games so I do not think they are making the title game this time around. Fresno State is the defending champ and has gone 5-1 against the other top-3 seeds (Boise State/Colorado State/Nevada). They had a devastating 4-OT loss at Wyoming 1 month ago but somehow got past it to win their final 5 games. Coach Rodney Terry brought back a ton of experience from last year’s championship team, including a couple of Pac-12 transfers in the backcourt (Jaron Hopkins from Colorado and Jahmel Taylor from Washington).

Pac-12 predicted champ: Oregon (#1-seed)
Last year’s tourney champ: Oregon (#1-seed)
NOTE: 5 different champs in past 6 years
The last 3 teams to win this tourney are Arizona/Oregon/UCLA, who also happen to be the top-3 seeds this year. My heart says to go with the alma mater but Arizona looked so overwhelmed in Eugene last month that my head says it it will not go much better the 2nd time around. Dillon Brooks made the game-winner when the Ducks beat the Bruins in December, and Oregon should have won the rematch in Pauley Pavilion before blowing a 19-PT 1st half lead. Their only chance for another signature win would come in the title game, but if they can win it all then Coach Dana Altman will be in the mix for a #1 seed in the NCAA tourney.

SEC predicted champ: Kentucky (#1-seed)
Last year’s tourney champ: Kentucky (#2-seed)
NOTE: Kentucky has won past 2 titles and lost title game 3 years ago by 1 PT
For all of Kentucky’s 1-and-done players over the past several years they have shown their dominance in this tourney, as they are THIS close to being the 3-time-defending champ. This year’s “Wildcat Invitational” features a trio of other 22-win teams (Arkansas/Florida/South Carolina), but the Gators are the only 1 of the 3 to beat Coach John Calipari this year. Kentucky won each of their final 8 games and only allowed more than 67 PTS in 1 of those 8. Malik Monk/De’Aaron Fox comprise the best freshman backcourt in the country, and even though the Gators also have a great defense their offense has been lacking down the stretch.

Southland predicted champ: Houston Baptist (#4-seed)
Last year’s tourney champ: Stephen F. Austin (#1-seed)
NOTE: Stephen F. Austin has won past 3 titles by double-digits and lost title game 4 years ago by 2 PTS
Even though Brad Underwood departed for Oklahoma State last spring, Coach Kyle Keller has kept Stephen F. Austin near the top of the conference. New Orleans/Texas A&M-CC received huge advantages with a double-bye in an 8-team tourney, but the Privateers turn the ball over a ton and the only team who has conquered the Islanders since late-January is Houston Baptist. The Lumberjacks beat the Huskies on New Year’s Eve but they turn the ball over too much and do not make a lot of threes. I like Keller but how is he going to out-coach a guy like Ron Cottrell who has won almost 500 games during his career?

SWAC predicted champ: Texas Southern (#1-seed)
Last year’s tourney champ: Southern (#4-seed)
NOTE: Southern/Texas Southern are only 2 champs from past 4 years
Texas Southern coach Mike Davis only lost 2 games in conference play this year but neither of them were to any of the other top-5 seeds, so unless there are some major upsets the Tigers are likely to only face teams they have beaten this year. I have seen a lot of guys leave school for a variety of reasons, but there are not many stranger situations then in December when reigning conference POY/DPOY Derrick Griffin decided to leave the team to…prepare for the NFL draft. That left the team with a gaping hole in the middle, but 7’ Kent State transfer Marvin Jones has filled it admirably with his rebounding/defense.

Sun Belt predicted champ: Louisiana-Lafayette (#7-seed)
Last year’s tourney champ: Arkansas-Little Rock (#1-seed)
NOTE: 4 different champs in past 4 years
I cannot pick the #1-seed in every tourney, so here comes my upset special…if you consider a 20-win team winning a game to be an “upset”. Louisiana-Lafayette should have plenty of fans able to make the 2-hour drive to New Orleans for the tourney to watch Coach Bob Marlin’s 2016 CIT quarterfinalist. Texas-Arlington is clearly the best team in the league but I cannot truly trust them on the road when all 4 of their conference losses were away from home. The Ragin’ Cajuns started 4-8 in conference play but have won 6 in a row including a 2-PT Senior Night win over the Mavericks. They have a great junior class with plenty of postseason experience, and after watching a guy named Jay Wright win a title last spring, it is easy for me to get on the bandwagon of the Cajuns’ SR PG with the same name!

WAC predicted champ: Cal State Bakersfield (#1-seed)
Last year’s tourney champ: Cal State Bakersfield (#2-seed)
NOTE: New Mexico State lost title game by 3 PTS last year after winning 5 of previous 6 years
Last but not least is the wiggity wiggity wiggity WAC, which will only have 7 entries in this tourney since the former Team of the People remains still ineligible during its continuing transition to D-1. Coach Marvin Menzies built a dynasty in Las Cruces but finally got tripped up last year in a 3-PT title game loss to Cal State Bakersfield. I expect both teams to make it back to the title game, and since they split their season series it could go either way. The Roadrunners has been cruising with a 13-1 record since New Year’s Eve before stumbling at home to GCU last night, which will hopefully serve as a wakeup call. Coach Rod Barnes will look to SR PG Dedrick Basile to repeat his conference tourney MVP effort of last March, while praying that the title game does not come down to FT shooting because frankly his team sucks at the foul line.

Conference tourney previews (Part 1 of 2)

HoopsHD is getting prepared for the greatest month of the year with a 2-part preview of every single conference tourney in the nation. Jon Teitel kicks it off this weekend with his predictions for the 13 conference tourneys getting underway in the days ahead, and you can check back next weekend for his picks concerning the 19 other conference tourneys including the 1st-ever Ivy postseason tourney.

America East tourney predicted champ: Vermont (#1-seed)
Last year’s tourney champ: Stony Brook (#1-seed)
NOTE: only 3 teams to play in title game during past 5 years are Albany/Stony Brook/Vermont
This appears to be a 2-team race between Stony Brook and Vermont but the Catamounts have to be considered the favorite after sweeping the Seawolves during the regular season. Then again, when you win 18 games in a row to finish your regular season that usually means that you swept EVERYONE in conference play! It also does not help that Stony Brook has been playing short-handed all year after dismissing SR SG Ahmad Walker from the team in October (due to his arrest for allegedly pushing his girlfriend). Vermont’s only home loss all year was by 2 PTS in early-December so expect them to take full advantage of the home-court advantage they will have as the higher-seeded school in each tourney game they play. This is a veteran team who has made the CBI semifinals during each of the past 2 seasons so I think they are finally ready to take it up a notch and make the NCAA tourney.

Atlantic Sun tourney predicted champ: Florida Gulf Coast (#1-seed)
Last year’s tourney champ: Florida Gulf Coast (#4-seed)
NOTE: 4 different champs in past 5 years
I want to pick Lipscomb since they have only lost 3 games since mid-December…but 2 of those losses are to the team that they are likely to face in the semifinals (North Florida). That makes me want to pick the Ospreys…but I am a little worried that SG Garrett Sams might have hit the freshman wall at the worst time after sitting out the season finale against Jacksonville. So, I will go with chalk and pick Florida Gulf Coast to successfully defend its title. The Eagles get to play each of their games at home since the top seeds host each round, and their only 2 losses in the past 2 months were by a combined 7 PTS. SF Marc-Eddy Norelia was the 2016 conference tourney MVP and after missing 10 games earlier this year due to a broken hand and “personal reasons” he can bring some much-needed veteran leadership to a squad that only has a couple of seniors.

Big South tourney predicted champ: Winthrop (#1-seed)
Last year’s tourney champ: UNC Asheville (#4-seed)
NOTE: only 5 winners in past 19 years are Radford/Winthrop/UNC Asheville/Liberty/Coastal Carolina
The top of this league is bunched up with 3 teams separated by only a single game but the regular-season champ gets a priceless perk by getting to host the tourney quarterfinals/semifinals. Of the top-3 teams, Winthrop swept Liberty (winning each game by double-digits) and split a pair of games with UNC Asheville (with each game decided by 3 PTS), while UNC Asheville swept Liberty, so I think that the Flames are the odd man out. As far as the other 2 contenders, each of whom only have 2 losses since New Year’s Day, this is Coach Pat Kelsey’s best chance to lead the Eagles to the NCAA tourney for the 1st time since 2010. It is never easy to win games with a 5’7” PG, but Keon Johnson showed what he is made of when he scored 40 PTS in a 3-PT 2-OT loss to the Bulldogs earlier this month.

CAA tourney predicted champ: Charleston (#2-seed)
Last year’s tourney champ: UNC Wilmington (#2-seed)
NOTE: 6 different champs in past 6 years
The sentimental pick, as always, is William & Mary because they are 1 of only 5 original D-1 schools to have never made the NCAA tourney (although Northwestern is THIS close to dropping that # to 4). This tourney has featured a different winner in each of the past 6 years so even though the Seahawks started the season 20-2 I do not think that it will be easy for them to defend their title. The other factor working against them is that the tourney moves out of the Maryland/Virginia region for the 1st time ever as it begins a multi-year run at the North Charleston Coliseum. The Cougars have been playing well for a while, losing only 2 home games since Thanksgiving by a total of 7 PTS. JR PG Joe Chealey missed all of last year with a lower leg injury but has bounced back as 1 of the best players in the conference, and his backcourt mate Cameron Johnson would love to celebrate early as the title game occurs just 1 day before his 21st birthday.

Horizon tourney predicted champ: Oakland (#1-seed)
Last year’s tourney champ: Green Bay (#4-seed)
NOTE: 5 different champs in past 6 years
Valpo has the best player in the conference in Alec Peters but Oakland has had the Crusaders’ number all year thanks to beating them twice by double-digits. It also does not help that they have been without former conference 6th Man of Year Jubril Adekoya for most of the year (due to academics) and Alec Peters last weekend (due to a lower leg injury). I really thought that the loss of Kay Felder last spring would be a death-knell to the Grizzlies this season, but I guess we can now see why Coach Greg Kampe has won more than 500 games during his 30+ years on the sideline. Plus, how are you going to bet against a team from Michigan at “Motor City Madness”?!

MAAC tourney predicted champ: Monmouth (#1-seed)
Last year’s tourney champ: Iona (#2-seed)
NOTE: Iona/Manhattan are only 2 champs over past 4 years
It is becoming impossible to ignore what Coach King Rice has done at Monmouth over the past few years. The Hawks did not win more than 12 games in any of the final 5 years of the Dave Calloway era, and Rice’s own tenure did not begin much better with 3 similar seasons of 12 wins or less. However, the last 3 seasons have produced win totals of 18, 28, and 26, and after a devastating 3-PT loss to Iona in last year’s tourney title game you can be sure that they have waited an entire year to serve some icy-cold revenge. Their only 3 losses since Thanksgiving were at North Carolina, home vs. Rider in OT, and at St. Peter’s. Their veteran starting lineup consists of 4 seniors and defending conference ROY Micah Seaborn, who hopes to spend his birthday as a starter in the title game.

MVC tourney predicted champ: Wichita State (#2-seed)
Last year’s tourney champ: Northern Iowa (#4-seed)
NOTE: Northern Iowa has won past 2 titles by combined 11 PTS
If Northern Iowa can make it 3 in a row this year then we might just have to put Ben Jacobson in the MVC Hall of Fame! It is pretty safe to call this a 2-team race between Wichita State and Illinois State. I thought that the Shockers would begin to fade after the loss of senior leaders Ron Baker/Fred VanVleet last spring, but all Coach Gregg Marshall did was lose to a trio of power conference teams (Louisville/Michigan State/Oklahoma State) and go 27-1 against everyone else. The “1” was to Illinois State, whose only loss since Christmas was at Wichita State in early-February…by 41 PTS. As much as I would like to pick the Redbirds to pull off the upset, especially because their at-large profile is tenuous at best, the last time Coach Dan Muller won an MVC title was when he himself was MVC tourney MVP in 1998.  With 11 NCAA tourney appearances under his belt, the 1 thing that Coach Marshall has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt is that he know what it takes to win games in March.

NEC predicted champ: LIU Brooklyn (#2-seed)
Last year’s tourney champ: Fairleigh Dickinson (#2-seed)
NOTE: 4 different champs in past 4 years
Unlike the MVC, this is 1 of the most wide-open tourneys with a whopping 7 teams who won at least half of their conference games this year. The fact that it is an 8-team tourney also means that the top-2 teams have to open up against teams with good conference records rather than against a pair of cellar dwellers like Central Connecticut State/St. Francis Brooklyn. After starting conference play 7-5 the Blackbirds won 6 in a row to finish the regular season, although 5 of those 6 wins were by 6 PTS or less. However, their final 2 wins were at #1-seed Mount St. Mary’s and #3-seed Wagner, and Coach Bashir Mason knows what he is doing despite his young age as evident by his being named 2016 conference COY.

OVC predicted champ: Belmont (#1-seed)
Last year’s tourney champ: Austin Peay (#8-seed)
NOTE: 5 different champs in past 6 years
Coach Rick Byrd’s team is so head and shoulders above everyone else that it is hard to find anyone capable of beating them, especially since the tourney is in Nashville and they will get a double-bye as the top seed. Tennessee Tech is the only team who has beaten the Bruins since Christmas, but with a 12-19 overall record I think that we can safely call that a 1-time occurrence. Belmont has a pair of clutch senior leaders in 2016 conference POY Evan Bradds and 2015 conference tourney MVP Taylor Barnette, and the only 5 teams to beat them this year each had to put up at least 78 PPG to do so.

Patriot predicted champ: Lehigh (#3-seed)
Last year’s tourney champ: Holy Cross (#9-seed)
NOTE: 5 different champs in past 5 years
It is boring to just pick the #1-seed to win every tourney so let’s mix it up and throw in Lehigh here because they are Bucknell’s kryptonite. The Bison have only lost 3 games since Christmas but 2 of them were to a single team: Lehigh. The Mountain Hawks still have to make it to the title game if they want to step into the ring with the top seed and there will certainly be obstacles along the way, most notably Boston University (who swept Lehigh this season by an average score of 76-60). Bucknell has a great junior class so they might be 1-year away from being a sexy pick to win an NCAA tourney game, but Lehigh has the best player in the conference (soon-to-be 3-time conference POY Tim Kempton Jr.) and the smartest coach in the conference (Dr. Brett Reed, who is 1 of only a handful of D-1 head coaches in the nation with a doctorate degree).

Southern predicted champ: UNC Greensboro (#1-seed)
Last year’s tourney champ: Chattanooga (#1-seed)
NOTE: only 4 winners over past 15 years are Chattanooga/Davidson/East Tennessee State/Wofford
History vs. present: the SoCon has 3 teams bunched together at the top of the league (East Tennessee State/Furman/UNC Greensboro) but has had only 3 different winners since 2005 (Chattanooga/Davidson/Wofford). I feel pretty confident that Davidson is not going to win this tourney since they are no longer in the conference and Wofford is only a .500 team this year. The Mocs are the defending champs and have a ton of senior leaders…but are limping to the finish line by losing 6 of their past 10 games. UNC Greensboro has had a roller coaster of a conference season by starting 7-1, then losing 3 in a row by an average score of 86-70, then winning 6 in a row. The Spartans split their season series with Chattanooga/Furman and have already beaten East Tennessee State once (with the rematch coming up on Monday night). I just think that Coach Wes Miller is ready to make his 1st-ever NCAA tourney as a head coach (after winning the 2005 edition as a player for Roy Williams at North Carolina).

Summit predicted champ: South Dakota (#1-seed)
Last year’s tourney champ: South Dakota State (#2-seed)
NOTE: only 4 winners over past 12 years are Oakland/Oral Roberts/North Dakota State/South Dakota State
Ever since the tourney moved from Tulsa to Sioux Falls in 2009 there have only been 3 different champs: North Dakota State/Oakland/South Dakota State. Since the Grizzlies are no longer in the conference I am going out on a limb and guessing that somebody with “Dakota” in their name is winning this title. The Bison and Jackrabbits have been a little inconsistent this month, so my pick is South Dakota. The Coyotes have been on quite the bumpy road: 5-0 to start the season, then 8-8 in their next 16 games, but finished strong with 8 wins in their final 9 games. They do not even have the best player in their own state (South Dakota State’s Mike Daum) but they have a coach in Craig Smith who will use a couple of transfers in Trey Dickerson (Iowa)/Matt Mooney (Air Force) and all the insight he received while serving as an assistant to Tim Miles at 3 different schools.

WCC predicted champ: Gonzaga (#1-seed)
Last year’s tourney champ: Gonzaga (#2-seed)
NOTE: Gonzaga has won 14 titles in past 19 years and finished 2nd each of the other 5 times
Let me take a moment to review Coach Mark Few’s resume in relation to his conference dominance since taking over the head job in Spokane in 1999: 17 NCAA tourney appearances, 16 regular season titles, 13 tourney titles (including 3 straight title game victories by double-digits), and 10-time conference COY. As crushed as the Bulldogs are after losing to BYU last night, now they do not need to carry the burdens associated with perfection.  They also do not have to worry about a rematch unless the Cougars can get by St. Mary’s in the semifinals (which is unlikely after the Gaels beat them twice this year by double-digits). I still do not think Gonzaga will make it to their 1st-ever Final 4 because history is not on their side, but I think that they are going to stomp all over the conference en route to another WCC title because history is on their side.

Conference Preview: West Coast

CLICK HERE for all of the Hoops HD Preseason Articles, Interviews, and Conference Previews

WEST COAST

Mark Few has coached Gonzaga for 17 years heading into this season, and never failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament.  In fact, counting Dan Monson’s final year at the helm, the Zags have now made 18 straight trips to the Big Dance.  No one else in the conference can even sniff that type of success.  Two other teams, however, have accounted for the majority of the conference’s successes outside of Spokane.  St. Mary’s and BYU are the only other WCC teams to earn NCAA bids since 2008, and the only other two teams to even play in a WCC Championship game in that time!  (Pacific did go to the NCAA Tournament in 2013, but they were a member of the Big West then).  Last season, though the Zags were a bubble team heading into Championship Week, Mark Few’s team won the league’s automatic bid, got an 11 seed, and promptly advanced to the Sweet 16 with wins over Seton Hall and Utah, before losing to Syracuse by 3 points in regional semifinal.  BYU and St. Mary’s both made the NIT with the Cougars advancing to the semifinals in that event.  As for the rest of the conference . . . Pepperdine played in the CBI, and everyone else started their offseason early.

This year, we expect much of the same as Gonzaga, St Mary’s and BYU look to be the class of the conference again and all three could be vying for NCAA Tournament bids.  However, the offseason has shown us that the rest of the conference seems to be done being a bunch of lapdogs.  The biggest offseason move came from Santa Clara, a program whose athletic department wants them to become Top 25 caliber, and certainly made the right first move bringing in new head coach Herb Sendek, former conference coach of the year in both the ACC and Pac-12.  Big coaching moves were also made by San Francisco, bringing in Kyle Smith, a guy with lots of WCC ties and who engineered a remarkable turnaround the last few years on the east coast with Columbia.  Pacific and Portland both brought in head coaches with known names and NBA ties – Damon Stoudamire at Pacific and Terry Porter at Portland.  Although it may take a few years for these programs to elevate themselves, the days of the West Coast Conference being a three team league appear to be nearing their end.

Predicted Order of Finish

1. Gonzaga – Despite struggling at times last season and then losing a majority of their scoring in the offseason, Mark Few has completely reloaded this team and they should be even better than last time around.  Nigel Williams-Goss (Washington) and Jordan Mathews (California) are the key newcomers, transferring in from Pac-12 schools and possibly forming one of the best backcourt pairings in the nation.  Down low, the key will be just how healthy Przemek Karnowski is as he returns from last year’s season-ending back injury.  He will get help though, notably from another transfer from a power conference – Johnathan Williams III from Missouri.

2. St. Mary’s – Almost everyone on the roster returns from last season’s squad that won 29 games and led the nation in shooting percentage.  The Gaels non-conference schedule was the biggest reason for their exclusion from last year’s Tournament, and they have upgraded it this year with non-conference trips out of the State of California to play Dayton and UAB, plus a road trip to Stanford.  All signs point to a very good year.

3. BYU – The Cougars may be without several very important pieces from last season, most notably Kyle Collingsworth, but Nick Emery and Kyle Davis do return and will be joined by Eric Mike and T.J. Haws (Tyler’s brother) who have both returned from missions.  A key factor could be the play of Elon transfer guard Elijah Bryant, the CAA Rookie of the Year two seasons ago.

4. Santa Clara – Herb Sendek takes over a program committed to closing the gap with the top three teams, and has assembled a squad that could be a dark horse candidate to do that as early as this season.  All five starters do return for the Broncos from last season, led by senior Jared Brownridge who should surpass the 2000 career points scored mark this year.

5. Pepperdine – Two of the team’s top three scorers from last season are gone.  It will be tough for Lamond Murray, Jr. to carry that much scoring weight, and there do not appear to be enough other pieces here to make any serious noise.

6. Loyola Marymount – Adom Jocko’s decision to turn pro after last season hurt, but the Lions will at least remain competitive with Brandon Brown, Shamar Johnson and Steven Haney, Jr. back.

7. San Francisco – Ronnie Boyce III is the only double digit scorer returning for new head coach Kyle Smith.  Smith, who coached at Columbia the past few years, has WCC ties, having been an assistant at both San Diego and St. Mary’s.  His first team in the City by the Bay is a very young one, so don’t expect much this season.

8. Portland – Terry Porter is a big name coaching hire, but the team he takes over lost 20 games last season and probably won’t be much better than that this one.

9. Pacific – Another new head coach with a known name takes over, as Damon Stoudamire gets the call in Stockton.  The athletic department is committed to improving the basketball program, but it will take time.

10. San Diego – Lamont Smith is still cleaning house and continuing his rebuild of the Toreros program. This year will be a long one – maybe a very long one.

Conference Preview: SEC

CLICK HERE for all of the Hoops HD Preseason Articles, Interviews, and Conference Previews

SEC

Three teams in the Field of 68.  Two teams in the Round of 64.  One team in the Sweet 16.  And no teams left after that.  That was the fate of the Southeastern Conference last season as 11-seed Vanderbilt was eliminated in the First Four, 4-seed Kentucky was knocked out by Indiana in the Round of 32, and 3-seed Texas A&M fell to Oklahoma in the Sweet 16.  Although the conference did place four teams in the NIT (Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama), none of them advanced to the final rounds in New York City.  In all, it was a forgettable season in the SEC.  Given the conference’s commitment to upgrading its basketball and the coaching talent that has come into the league in the past few years, we may look back at seasons like last one as an aberration.  Unfortunately for the league, early signs heading into the 2016-17 season don’t point to doing too much better than three bids again.

One team that will definitely be good – very good – this season is (of course) Kentucky.  The Wildcats have once again reloaded with some of the top freshman talent in the nation who may all be household names by March.  Coach John Calipari should once again have his team contending for a top seed and the national championship.  It is beyond Kentucky that the questions arise.  Can teams like Georgia and Florida improve enough to make it to the Big Dance?  How will Bryce Drew do in his first season taking over at Vanderbilt?  Is this the year Bruce Pearl puts Auburn back on the college hoops map?  Can Frank Martin finally get South Carolina into the Field?  Will Texas A&M be able to keep up their momentum despite losing several key pieces from last year’s team?  Will Ben Howland (Mississippi State) and Rick Barnes (Tennessee) make some noise?  Will LSU find a way to develop even a drop of team chemistry?  Will Kim Anderson (Missouri) be employed this time next year?  There is talent throughout the SEC, it just remains to be seen which teams will come together and, even if they won’t challenge Kentucky for the top of the standings, be able to put enough together to claim an at-large bid.

Predicted Order of Finish

1. Kentucky – With Jamal Murray, Tyler Ulis, Alex Poythress, Skal Labissiere and Marcus Lee all gone thing in Lexington should be . . . just fine.  Coach John Calipari has brought in five top recruits featuring guards De’Aaron Fox and Mailk Monk, big men Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killyea-Jones, and forward Edrice “Bam” Adebayo may end up being the best of the bunch.  Oh, and don’t forget about the players that do return from last year, like Isaac Humphries and Derek Willis.  The Wildcats should be the class of the SEC and a serious Final Four contender.

2. Georgia – The inside-outside combination of J.J. Frazier at guard and Yante Maten at forward will make the Bulldogs dangerous.  Keep an eye on a now healthy Juwan Parker in the backcourt and junior college transfer Pape Diatta in the frontcourt.

3. Florida – The Gators may be without Dorian Finney-Smith, but with KeVaughn Allen and John Egbunu back, plus the additions of College of Charleston transfer Canyon Barry (Rik Barry’s son) and redshirt freshman Keith Stone, they could be better than last year.  The Gators do desperately need to find a way to improve their free throw and three-point shooting percentages.

4. Arkansas – The Razorbacks have a chance to finish near the top of the league standings with Dusty Hannahs and Moses Kingsley back, plus the addition of three of the five highest rated junior college transfers in the nation: guards Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon and forward Arlando Cook.

5. Auburn – Despite 20 losses last season, the Tigers have a ton of talent, both new and old.  Keep an eye on senior T.J. Dunans, freshman Mustapha Heron and Houston transfer Ronnie Johnson in the backcourt.  Up front, red shirt freshman Danjel Purifoy and Bethune-Cookman transfer LaRon Smith both figure to be key contributors.

6. Vanderbilt – Head coach Bruce Drew has a few really good pieces, led by center Luke Kornet, forward Jeff Roberson and swingman Matthew Fisher-Davis.  If Riley LaChance can regain his form from two years ago, it will be a huge help, but depth will be a serious question.

7. Texas A&M – The Aggies have a ton of size available down low with Tonny Trocha-Morelos and Tyler Davis, but they need to find a way to replace their lost scoring from last season.  Lipscomb transfer J.C. Hampton could help a lot if he proves he can play against higher level competition.

8. South Carolina – A trio of guards (Sindarious Thornwell, Duane Notice and P.J. Dozier) will keep the Gamecocks competitive, but a lack of depth and size down low may prove to be serious issues.

9. Alabama – Three starters are gone, but point guard Dazon Ingram is back and healthy again.  The Crimson Tide don’t have much in terms of true star power, but Avery Johnson proved last season that he can coach at the college level and his team should not be overlooked.

10. Mississippi State – Sophomores Quinndary Waetherspoon and I.J. Ready will form the backcourt, but will also provide the majority of the Division I experience for the entire roster.  Head coach Ben Howland did bring in a Top 10 rated recruiting class nationally, but the team is probably a year away from making any serious noise.

11. LSU – Antonio Blakeney in the backcourt and Craig Victor II in the frontcourt give the Tigers some hope, but there is not much else here beyond those two for a team that proved to have almost no chemistry whatsoever last season.

12. Ole Miss – A pair of transfer will lead the backcourt with Deandre Burnett coming over from Miami and Cullen Neal coming from New Mexico.  Sebastian Saiz is a double-double threat down low, but the team has a lack of depth and probably will not be able to make up for the loss of Stefan Moody.

13. Tennessee – The top two players are gone from a team that lost 19 games, but a roster featuring a dozen freshmen and sophomores should help Rick Barnes as he continues to build the program back up.  Just don’t expect much this season.

14. Missouri – The talent just does not appear to be here to stay with the other 13 teams in the conference.  Barring what would be a shocking rise in the standings, this could be the end of the Kim Anderson era at Mizzou.

Conference Preview: Pac-12

CLICK HERE for all of the Hoops HD Preseason Articles, Interviews, and Conference Previews

PAC-12

The Pac-12 set a conference record last season by placing seven teams in the NCAA Tournament.  All seven teams wore white uniforms in their first game (seeded 8th or better), and three of them were “protected seeds” (teams seed on the top four lines).  That was the good news.  The bad news is that all seven teams left the Tournament in a loss to teams seeded worse than them.  4 seed Cal, 6 seed Arizona, 7 seed Oregon State and 8 seeds Colorado and USC all fell in their opening games.  3 seed Utah won their first round game before falling to 11 seed Gonzaga in the Round of 32.  Oregon (1 seed) had the best performance, advancing all the way to the Regional Final, but losing there to 2 seed Oklahoma.  In all, one of the better regular seasons for the Pac-12 in recent years ended with disappointment almost across the board.

This year, the conference has a chance to be just as good and it would not totally shock us if seven teams ended up dancing again.  The way will be led by Dana Altman’s Oregon Ducks, a team that is as loaded with talent as any team in the nation.  Not only do the Ducks return the majority of the key players that led them to a 1 seed last season, but they also add in a few pieces they did not have, including a now healthy Dylan Ennis, a prized freshman guard in Payton Pritchard, and one of the top JC transfers in the nation, Kavell Bigby-Williams.  The Ducks are deep and talented, and another 1 seed could be in the works.  However, the conference does not end its talent there.  Arizona has reloaded once again, UCLA has another roster filled with prized recruits (and a coach who may be out of excuses if they can’t perform this season), and teams like Colorado, Cal, Utah, USC and Oregon State could all contend for bids.  The dark horse pick to take a bid is Stanford, with a veteran roster and a solid new head coach (Jerod Haase) taking over.

Predicted Order of Finish

1. Oregon – This team seems to have all the pieces, from great depth at guard (Casey Benson, Dylan Ennis, Tyler Dorsey and freshman Payton Pritchard) to a collection of some of the nation’s best shot blockers (Chris Boucher, Jordan Bell and junior college transfer Kavell Bigby-Williams).  Also, do not overlook forward Dillon Brooks who will be a star once again assuming he is able to recover from offseason foot surgery.

2. Arizona – Allonzo Trier should score a ton of points this year as he leads a strong group in the backcourt.  Freshman forward Lauri Markkanen could be one of the nation’s top rookies this year.  One of the biggest questions will be Ray Smith, who has had surgeries on both of his knees over the past two years and left the team’s exhibition game this past week with an injury.  If he is healthy, the Wildcats could go far.  If not, they may be pining for prized recruit Terrance Ferguson, who decided not to enroll and instead opted to turn pro overseas.

3. UCLA – There is no doubt that the Bruins are loaded with talent.  They return starters Isaac Hamilton, Bryce Alford and Thomas Welsh, and Prince Ali may be ready to show the talent that had him highly rated as a freshman last year.  If that was not enough, three 5-star recruits have been added in led by Lonzo Ball, who was rated the No. 3 overall prospect heading into this season.  If the Bruins do not finish near the top of the conference standings and advance to the Big Dance this year, odds are there will be a new head coach in town next season.

4. Colorado – The Buffaloes will be solid in the backcourt with Josh Fortune, George King and newcomer Derrick White, who was one of the nation’s top Division II players while playing for Colorado-Colorado Springs.  The team will need to make up for the loss of Josh Scott down low, but having a healthy Xavier Johnson should help somewhat.

5. California – The top three scorers from last season are all gone, but Ivan Rabb’s decision not to enter the NBA Draft was huge, especially with a pair of 7-footers on the roster to join him down low.  If Jabari Bird can finally become the player we thought he could be and Columbia transfer Grant Mullins is able to succeed against this higher level of competition, the Bears should find themselves back in the Big Dance again.

6. Stanford – All but one key player return from last year’s team, but that one was their best (Rosco Allen).  New head coach Jerod Haase could have this team flirting with a bid, given that Reid Travis is healthy and that he has brought in a pair of top 100 recruits in Trevor Stanback and Kodye Pugh.

7. USC – Six players left during the offseason either via declaring for the NBA Draft or transferring out.  Despite the losses, the Trojans should still be competitive with forward Bennie Boatwright and guards Jordan McLaughlin and Elijah Stewart back.  The biggest questions are the team’s depth down low and just how good former Louisville prized recruit Shaqquan Aaron is.

8. Utah – Matching last year’s success is doubtful this season given that only two regulars return from that roster.  The addition of Utah State transfer David Collette (who won’t be eligible until after the first semester) should help down low.  This is probably a rebuilding year while the new pieces all learn to play together; however, it is tough to ever count out a Larry Krystkowiak coached team.

9. Oregon State – The Beavers will likely take a small step backwards this season without Gary Payton II, but things are still looking bright here with Stephen Thompson, Jr. and Tres Tinkle both only entering their sophomore years.

10. Washington – Markelle Fultz may be one of the top freshman guards in the nation, but losing a pair of first round draft picks (Marquese Chriss and Dejounte Murray) and a player that averaged over 20 points per game (Andrew Andrews) off of a team that only made the NIT does not make one confident about this season.

11. Arizona State – The Sun Devils should be solid in the backcourt with Tra Holder, freshman Sam Cunliffe and Buffalo transfer Torian Graham.  However, there are huge questions down low with a lack of size and depth.

12. Washington State – Josh Hawkinson averaged a double-double last year, but the Cougars don’t seem to have enough other pieces around him.  The good news is that it will be tough to be worse than last season’s 1-17 Pac-12 record.

Conference Preview: Mountain West

CLICK HERE for all of the Hoops HD Preseason Articles, Interviews, and Conference Previews

MOUNTAIN WEST

Here at HoopsHD, we generally group conferences into one of two categories.  The first is the “major conferences” which are regular multi-bid leagues, while the second is considered to be “Under the Radar.”  The Under the Radar conferences are ones that, in most years, are probably only going to put their automatic bid winner into the NCAA Tournament.  The Mountain West conference has been part of the former group and should remain so through this season, but after its performance last year, we have seriously questioned which group it actually belongs in.  Only automatic bid winner Fresno State got an invite to the Big Dance, where they were a 14 seed and lost by double-digits to Utah in the Round of 64.  Perhaps the only redeeming grace for the conference came in other postseason events, as San Diego State advanced to the semifinals of the NIT and Nevada cut down the nets as champions of the CBI.

This season, San Diego State again appears poised to be at or near the top of the league, as Steve Fisher’s squad is always one of the toughest teams in the country defensively.  However, the preseason choice is a bit of a surprise, as Nevada, despite losing three of their top scorers from last season, appears to have enough weapons to challenge and even claim the conference title.  The Wolfpack are clearly a team on the rise under head coach Eric Musselman.  We also expect big things from them on the recruiting trail, as Musselman has hired Dave Rice as an assistant coach.  Rice brought in some amazing recruiting classes at UNLV the past few years, though his failure to turn that talent into on-court wins led to his dismissal this past offseason.  Beyond San Diego State and Nevada, New Mexico and Fresno State should both be in the running for postseason bids, although likely not of the NCAA kind.  Finally, keep an eye on dark horse pick Air Force, a team with a ton of veterans that could surprise a lot of people.

Predicted Order of Finish

1. Nevada – Despite losing three of their top scorers, the Wolf Pack do bring back Cameron Oliver, who should be on the short list of conference Player of the Year candidates after averaging close to a double-double last season (13.4 ppg, 9.1 rpg).  D.J. Fenner also averaged over 13 points per game last year and the coaching staff has brought in a group of talented transfers and freshmen that should help immediately.  For all the criticism that Dave Rice received as head coach in Vegas, he absolutely is able to recruit and his addition to the Eric Musselman’s coaching staff should pay dividends this year and in the future.

2. San Diego State – The Aztecs should be suffocating on defense once again, but they will need to find a way to put the ball through the hoop.  Guards Trey Kell and Jeremy Hemsley will need to lead the way in backcourt scoring, while Malik Pope could be poised for a breakout year down low.

3. New Mexico – The inside-outside combination of Elijah Brown and Tim Williams will make the Lobos tough to beat and keep them in contention, but the team needs to show vast improvements defensively if they want to seriously contend for an NCAA bid.

4. Air Force – This may be a bit of a wild pick this high in the standings, but the Falcons return a veteran and experienced lineup led by Hayden Graham and a healthy Trevor Lyons.  A lack of size will be their biggest challenge, but in a conference that only put one team in the NCAA Tournament and three teams in the postseason last year, there is a chance for the team from Colorado Springs to make some noise.

5. Fresno State – The Bulldogs have some strong pieces, led by forwards Karachi Edo and Cullen Russo, plus Colorado transfer Jaron Hopkins at guard.  Unfortunately, this probably won’t be enough to make up for the offseason losses, most notably conference Player of the Year Marvelle Harris.

6. Utah State – Jalen Moore will be a standout again at the swing position, but the Aggies probably don’t have enough other pieces around him to be a serious threat for the top of the league.

7. Wyoming – Josh Adams and his 24.2 points per game are gone, but the majority of the remaining players return and Jason McManamen has a chance to be the Cowboys’ next star.

8. Boise State – This looks like a rebuilding year in Boise, with James Webb III, Anthony Drmic and Mikey Thompson all gone.  However, Nick Duncan is a great shooter and the Broncos have a ton of size down low, so we won’t be too surprised if they finish higher than this.

9. Colorado State – The Rams lost a lot of scoring talent from a middle-of-the-pack team.  Gian Clavell is healthy and big man Emmanuel Omogbo should help, but don’t expect any serious improvement from last season’s 18-16 record.

10. UNLV – Only three scholarship players return from last season, so new head coach Marvin Menzies will need to cobble together a rotation filled with freshman, junior college transfers and graduate transfers.

11. San Jose State – Head coach Dave Wojcik has things slowly moving in the right direction here, but there is still a long way to go for the Spartans whose four conference wins last season was their most in five years.