Okay, when I call this a notebook, that is exactly what it is. I’m not a psychic. I’m not good at making predictions. I’m merely a prognosticator that offers assessments, and that is all I’m doing here. As I’ve said before, it is routine that nearly half of all preseason predictions, even informed ones, are wrong. Half of the current preseason top 25 will not be ranked at all in the final top 25.
These are notes meant to help familiarize myself with teams and conferences as the season begins. Nothing more. Nothing less.
– Do I think the SEC is as good as the Big Ten or Big East?? No. However, I think it is far better than what most others probably do. I think everyone is aware of Kentucky and how they have yet another roster of players that in thirteen months will be playing in the NBA. Another very good team is Florida. Everyone is talking about how good Louisville is, and rightfully so. Well, Florida lost to Louisville in the Elite Eight after leading for much of the game, and the Gators return five of their top seven players. When I tell people I think Florida is a Final Four contender I’m typically laughed out of the room, but I think they are a very good team, and may even be Final Four good.
Arkansas is another team to watch for. Last year they were good for half the year, and that was the half when they were playing at home. When they were away from home, not so much. They return the core of their roster and I expect them to improve with experience.
Another team that I like that no one is talking about is Tennessee. They got off to a very poor start last year, but were red hot in the games leading up to the SEC Tournament. They do lose Cameron Tatum, but they return pretty much everyone else.
Missouri was a #2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and will again be dangerous.
Vanderbilt will likely be another NCAA Tournament caliber team, although they are in complete rebuilding mode after losing so much from last year’s team that won the SEC Tournament and advanced to the second round of the NCAAs.
That’s seven teams that will likely make the NCAA Tournament. That’s half the league. I didn’t mention them above, but don’t sleep on Alabama either.
-To say that the Pac Twelve has been underwhelming as a league is like saying bad storms hit the East Coast this past week. It’s merely stating the obvious. It’s still considered a major conference, but lately that’s been because of the brand names of the teams in the conference and not how good those teams are. I do think the league will fare better this year than it has in the past several years, but that’s not really saying much.
UCLA is in to the preseason rankings. Voters must have been very impressed with their 18-14 record last year. It would not surprise me at all to see UCLA have a big year, but I’m not going to be a believer until I see them in action. At least they’ll be back at Pauley Pavilion.
Colorado was red hot down the stretch last year and actually made a fair amount of noise in the NCAA Tournament after winning the Pac Twelve Tourney, but they lost most of their contributing players and are very young this year.
Washington was the first place finisher last year, but did not receive a bid to the NCAAs. That’s how bad the league was. They lost three starters and are once again a young team.
Oregon State has my attention, at least for now. They were 21-15 a year ago and have four starters coming back. I definitely think they’re turning the corner and could make some noise in the conference this year.
California, who made the NCAA Tournament a year ago (sort of) also has some rebuilding to do.
-Gonzaga begins the season ranked #22, and is the favorite to win the Conference this year. BYU and Saint Mary’s are right behind them. Gonzaga loses Robert Sacre, but has four other starters returning and should be a dangerous team. Saint Mary’s will return five of their top six scorers and will be a dangerous team as well. The three teams that are tournament regulars are the conference favorites. Nothing too earth shattering about that. One problem SMC may have is that their OOC schedule does not give them an abundance of chances to prove themselves. Gonzaga, on the other hand, scheduled like they’re going after a #1 seed.
-I am a huge fan of Davidson this year. I think my Hoops HD colleagues are sick of hearing me talk about Davidson, but I like this team so much that I’ll talk about them to anyone who wants to listen. They were an NCAA Tournament team a year ago that got in via the automatic bid, but for a large part of the season they were on our radar as a potential at-large. DeMon Brooks, Jake Cohen, Nick Cochrin, JP Kuhlman and Chris Czerapowics all averaged in double figures last year. All are back this year. They did not receive a single vote in the preseason top 25, but I am such a believer in this year’s team that I believe they will not only make the NCAA Tournament, but be very safely inside the bubble and in the top 25 at the end of the year.
-College of Charleston is another team who had a good year last year and returns several players. One person who isn’t back from last year is the head coach. I’m not going to be jumping up and down about them until I see how they adjust to the coaching change.
-Middle Tennessee is a team to watch. I believe they were an NCAA Tournament caliber team a year ago, but were passed over by the selection committee due to a lack of signature wins. Unfortunately, a quick glance at this year’s schedule indicates that they may run into a similar problem again. They do play Vanderbilt, but other than that it is low on opportunities for statement wins. They’re returning ten of their top twelve scorers from a team that won 27 games, including four starters. The loss of Leron Dendy will hurt, but they have a ton of experience coming back.
North Texas, who had a strong finish last year, returns all five starters and is another team to watch.
Western Kentucky had a poor regular season, but put it together down the stretch to win their last six and win the Sun Belt Tournament, also has many contributing players back.
-The league just signed a five year agreement to play the conference tournament in Sioux Falls, SD. This is great news for South Dakota. I don’t see it as being all that great for anyone else, though, and am surprised that the league would come to such an agreement. This is typically a one-bid league and to force the regular season first place finisher to win a conference tournament win a conference tournament out in South Dakota seems unfair. Having said that…
South Dakota State is the clear favorite to win the league this year. They finished second behind Oral Roberts last year (who is no longer in the league), and then won the conference tournament. With four starters back, including Nate Wolters who is a tremendous senior guard, it makes sense that they are the clear favorites. They will open the season at Alabama, in what is a high stakes game with NCAA Tournament implications because it is a rare shot at a statement road win for SDSU. Other out of conference notables include Marshall, Minnesota and New Mexico. If they can pull off wins in some of those games, they may not need the automatic bid to play in the NCAAs.
-When a team makes the second round of the NCAA Tournament and returns their top four starters, that gets people’s attention, right?? Well, that’s what Lehigh is doing. Among the returners is CJ McCollum, who is perhaps the best player in the conference. They had a very good year last year, but actually finished second to Bucknell. They advanced to the NCAAs after winning at Bucknell in the conference championship game. They then went on to upset Duke. Lehigh is a dangerous team that is way under the radar, but they are participating in the preseason NIT and will face Pitt in the opening game. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they won that and made some noise in that tournament. VCU is another OOC notable.
Bucknell is right behind them with five of their top six players returning. Like Lehigh, they are off the radar, but also like Lehigh, they are dangerous. They open the season at Purdue, and it would not surprise me if Bucknell pulled of a win. Other OOC notables include La Salle and Missouri.
OHIO VALLEY CONFERENCE
-There is Murray State. There is Belmont. And then there is everyone else. Murray State lost Zay Jackson for the year when the team decided to suspend him after he intentionally ran over someone with his car in a Wal-Mart parking lot. However, they still have quite a bit of talent coming back from a team that earned a #6 seed and advanced to the second round a year ago, including Isaiah Canaan and Ed Daniel. The team climbed to as high as #7 in the rankings last year, but that was largely due to the fact that they moved up by default. The good teams ranked in front of them would play other good teams, and lose, and Murray would pass them. The ranking was misleading. We will likely see something similar again this year, as their conference schedule is weak, and their OOC conference isn’t that much better. Expect them to rack up a big record and a big ranking, but there aren’t too many chances for quality wins. They’re playing in the Charleston Classic at the beginning of the year, and it is very important that they do well in that.
Belmont is new to the conference this year and could also make some noise, but I don’t believe them to be on the same level as Murray.
-Oral Roberts barely missed the NCAA Tournament a year ago as members of the Summit League. This is their inaugural season in the Southland, and they have been pegged the preseason favorites. ORU will have to replace Dominique Morrison, who averaged close to 20ppg last year, but they still have a strong squad coming back. Stephen F Austin, who was 12-4 in the league a year ago, is picked to finish second. That is a little strange because it appears as though they only have one starter back. I yield to the Southland coaches and SIDs on that one. Perhaps they know something I don’t. And by “perhaps,” I mean “probably.”
-Utah State and New Mexico State appear to be the two favorites to win the league. Denver, who is new to the league, should make some noise as well. Preston Medlin is a player to watch for Utah State. The Aggies should be solid, but as we’ve seen in many years, their schedule does not present them with many opportunities to get wins that would impress the committee. New Mexico State won the league last year and had a deep roster, but they’ve lost several contributing players. They do have one of the tallest players in the nation in Sim Bhullar, who is a 7’5” freshman center for the Aggies.
-Nothing against the SWAC, but I see their streak as participants in the First Four/Opening Round continuing. Prarie View A&M is the consensus favorite to win the league.