The Super Bowl is over. Congrats to the Packers. Now, the sports world shifts from the gridiron to the hardwood. And, that is great news because, here at BSB, if football is our occupation, and baseball is our love, then college hoops is our religion. It is the omnipresent sport whose dominance of our sporting conscience waxes and wanes throughout the year, but always holds a place of utmost importance to our lives. Well, now that the month of February has begun, we enter our religion’s equivalent of Ramadan or Lent. Our sporting lives will be almost entirely consumed with college hoops for the next 6 weeks, leading up to the greatest celebration on the sports calendar – March Madness. So, as we sit here on the precipice of another celebration, I wanted to run down the surprises and disappoinments of the college hoops season, conference-by-conference. As a lover of the mid-majors (and low-majors), I will try to touch all 32 D-I conferences (in varying detail), in order of my own personal conference power ranking. I know that Doogan disagrees with at least my #1 conference in power rankings, so this could be interesting.
(NOTE: This post was written to include games played through Wednesday night.)
1). Big XII
Top to bottom (which is how these conferences are going to be ranked), the Big XII is the nation’s best conference. Iowa State and Texas Tech are its two worst teams, and they solid teams. Nebraska and Colorado can beat anyone in the country on any given night and they are #9-10 in this conference. And, despite the slow starts of K-State and Baylor, they still have a TON of talent. Throw in the emergence of Texas as one of the best three or four teams in the country, and you have yourself the nation’s best conference.
- Most Pleasantly Surprising: Texas (21-3, 9-0)
I thought about Texas A&M here, but could not get past just how good this Texas team is. It can be argued (and has by Doug Gottlieb) that this is the best team in the country. They are 9-0 in the Big XII, including a decisive win AT KANSAS, and their out-of-conference schedule was brutal. Their losses were by 1 point to UConn, by 2 points AT Pitt, and a shaky game at USC. They have also beaten Illinois and Arkansas (by 33) at home, and UNC and Michigan State on the road.
- Most Disappointing: Kansas State (16-8, 4-5)
This one is easy, considering they are probably the most disappointing team in the country. They were in the top 5 in the preseason polls and are just 4-5 in conference. But, assuming they don’t lose Curtis Kelly for the year, there is still hope for this team, as they have won three of their last four, with that only loss at Kansas.
2). Big East
If the Big East did not have a ridiculous 16 teams, they would EASILY be #1, but I cannot overlook the awfulness that is the bottom of this league. DePaul is probably the worst Big Six team in the country, while USF, Providence, Seton Hall, and Rutgers are feisty, but not very good. I also think that, after Pitt, there is not another legit Final Four contender in this conference, whereas the Big XII, Big Ten, ACC, and even the Mountain West have at least two teams that would not shock me if they ended up in Houston. That being said, the depth at the top of this league is incredible. Syracuse (7th place) is one of the best 15-20 teams in the country; Marquette (10th place) is one of the 30-35 best teams in the country.
- Most Pleasantly Surprising: Notre Dame (20-4, 9-3)
This could have gone to a number of teams, including Louisville for their in-conference performance, Cincinnati for their out-of-conference performance, or St. John’s for their amzing resurgence. But, I went with the Irish because they are currently the 2nd place team in what many believe is the nation’s best conference, and they haven’t exactly racked up their 9 wins against the dregs of the conference, either. They have already beaten Pitt, UConn, Georgetown, and Louisville along the way.
- Most Disappointing: West Virginia (15-8, 6-5)
This was tough because the bad teams in the conference were supposed to be bad and the good teams were supposed to be good. I considered throwing Villanova in here because they’re not the top 5 team that many thought they might be, but I never really considered them a top 5 team to begin with. As for the Mountaineers, they are coming off a Final Four run and have a decent amount of talent returning, and they just have not really hit their stride. A lot has to do with a team-imposed suspension of their only real offensive threat, Casey Mitchell. And, to be honest, they do not have any bad conference losses, except maybe a home loss to St. John’s, but that is at least negated by a win at Georgetown. I just really didn’t have anyone else to pick.
3). Big Ten
Before the season started, it looked like the Big Ten was going to be far and away the best conference in the country, and that was before Ohio State was thought of as clearly the #1 team in the country and before Wisconsin was even nationally ranked. However, one thing has happened that no one, anywhere, could have possibly predicted – Michigan State stinks. But, even moreso, Illinois has underperformed and Northwestern has bottomed out. On the bright side for Midwesterners is that there are three really good conferences and then a bunch of other leagues, and the Big Ten is clearly one of those three.
- Most Pleasantly Surprising: Wisconsin (18-5, 8-3)
This could have been Purdue because they are really, really good, and it could even be Ohio State because, even though they were thought of as a potential Top 5 team, no one had them as the far-and-away #1 team in the country. And, it could even go to those great Nittany Lions in State College, but I decided to peg the ole Philly boy, Bo Ryan’s team as the the most surprising in the Big Ten because they are elite. I thought they would be good because, well, they are always good, but I did not expect them to be THIS good. Jordan Taylor is a certifiable star and this team has Final Four potential.
- Most Disappointing: Michigan State (13-10, 5-6)
This one is the easiest choice in the country. What the hell is going on out in East Lansing? This team is loaded with talent and has, arguably, the nation’s best coach roaming the sidelines, but they just keep on losing, including a 30-point debacle in Madison this weekend. I really don’t get it at all. After coming into the season #2 in the country, they in a dogfight just to make the Dance. Wow!
4). Mountain West
Okay, I know, this is where I lose the casual reader, but I believe that the Mountain West is better than the ACC, the SEC, and the Pac-10. And, do you know who else thinks so? Mr. RPI. The MWC has the #4 conference RPI and boasts top teams in the TOP FOUR in team RPI (BYU is #1 and SDSU is #4). And, the league is actually a good bit deeper than people give it credit for, as UNLV, New Mexico, and Colorado State are all in NCAA tournament discussion. That is five teams with a shot at The Dance from a “mid-major” league of only 9 teams.
- Most Pleasantly Surprising: San Diego State (24-1, 9-1)
I almost put Colorado State here because they are having a great year and coach Tim Miles is really building a program there, but then 24-1 hit me in the face. The Aztecs were supposed to be good, but not this good. I also want to give a shout-out to the Air Force Academy, who has actually been pretty tough this year, sitting in the middle of the pack in a very good conference.
- Biggest Disappointment: Utah (10-14, 3-7)
While there have not really been any major disappoinments here in the MWC, I would have to take Utah because of their historical success and their real disappoinment this year. They have not even been that competitive and have an outside chance of playing in the Mountain West tournament’s pigtail game that pits the bottom two regular season teams in a play-in game.
Historically the best basketball conference in the country is having a real down year. Duke is fantastic, but is not quite the dominant team that everyone though, and UNC has been very good, but other than that, it has not been pretty for this proud conference. Wake Forest (not all that surprisingly) is one of the worst major conference teams in the country.
- Most Pleasantly Surprising: North Carolina (17-6, 7-2)
It is hard to defend any statement that calls the North Carolina Tar Heels a “pleasant surprise” in a basketball season, but I think this is the obvious choice here because (a) the Tar Heels were really bad last year, (b) they are really good this season now that the super-freshmen have adjusted, and (c) the rest of the conference kind of stinks. But, either way, watch out for the Heels come March – they are very good and playing very well.
- Biggest Disappointment: N.C. State (12-11, 2-7)
Freshman C.J. Leslie guaranteed an ACC title for the Wolfpack this year (probably his only year) and, from the way it is going, Leslie will be lucky if they get an NIT bid. This team has completely imploded, and it is clearly time for the Sidney Lowe experiment to end mercifully in Raleigh. Give an honorable mention here for the disappoinments of Virginia Tech and Miami, as well, but at least Va Tech’s have more to do with injury than anything else, and they still have some time to straighten it out.
Like the ACC, one of the perennial powerhouse conferences in the country is having a down year. However, the problems are different. The ACC does have two legitimately elite teams, but really falls off in quality after that. The SEC, on the other hand, has a decent amount of depth in the league, but they lack any true title contender, and I would be shocked if the SEC is represented in Houston in the Final Four.
- Most Pleasantly Surprising: Alabama (15-7, 7-1)
It is hard for me to choose a team from the SEC-West here because that division is so dreadful when compared to the East, but Alabama has proven itself, thus far, against both divisions. The Tide is 3-0 against the East, including home wins over Kentucky and South Carolina anda win at Tennessee. They are also, expectedly, putting it to the West teams, as well. Florida gets a nod here, as they are 8-2 in conference, including wins over every other SEC-East team already.
- Most Disappointing: Auburn (8-15, 1-8)
It is hard to say that they are the most disappointing when everyone had already expected them to finish last in the conference, but they have been HISTORICALLY bad this year. The Tigers were 7-8 in their out of conference schedule, which might not be that bad, if they had played a decent schedule. But, well, you can be the judge of the first 11D-I games of the 2010-2011 Auburn Tigers:
L (70-69) home to UNC-Asheville (7-6, tied for 3rd place in the Big South)
L (78-67) home to Samford (4-8, 10th place in the SoCon)
L (61-54) home to Campbell (5-9, tied for 7th place in A-Sun)
W (68-66) home against Middle Tennessee (7-4, tied for 3rd in Sun Belt)
L (69-55) home to Jacksonville (10-4, 3rd in A-Sun)
W (66-62) home against AK-Pine Bluff (4-7, 6th in SWAC – 4-19 overall)
L (64-53) at Rutgers (4-8, tied for 12th in Big East)
L (61-49) at South Florida (2-10, 15th in Big East)
L (62-59) home to Presbyterian (4-9, 8th in Big South)
W (68-54) home against USC-Upstate (3-11, last in A-Sun)
W (88-84) home against Ga-Southern (0-12, last in SoCon)
So, yes, of these first 11 games, the best win for AN SEC TEAM was a 2-point home win against a 7-4 Sun Belt team. Their other two wins were home wins against the worst team in the Atlantic Sun and the worst team in the SoCon. The latter was a 4-point win against Ga-Southern, who is 0-12 in the SoCon, with all 12 losses by at least 4 points. And, of the nine teams that beat Auburn, only two of them having winning records in their own league. They have HOME LOSSES to the 7th place team in the A-Sun, the 8th place team in the Big South, and the 10th place team in the SoCon. Wow! And, yes, somehow, they went into South Carolina and got a victory. By the way, even with a tough SEC schedule, the Tigers have an RPI of 281 (out of 341), just above South Alabama and UC-Davis. They are only slightly worse than Stony Brook, Savannah State, Florida Gulf Coast, and Samford. But, then again, they did lose at home to Samford, so I guess it makes sense.
7). Atlantic 10
The A-10 boasts four teams that should make The Dance and at least four or more solid postseason teams, before falling off to a combination of bad teams, underachieving teams, or both.
- Most Pleasantly Surprising: Duquesne (16-6, 8-1)
An easy choice, as the Dukes are one of the most surprising teams in the country this year. Just this week, they dropped their first conference game – at St. Bonaventure – but up until then, they were undefeated including wins over Temple and Dayton. However, we should wait to dub them that good, as they have yet to play either Xavier, Richmond, Rhode Island, or UMass, and their Temple and Dayton wins were at home. Either way, a 16-6 Duquesne team that sits atop the A-10 standings is a surprise in anyone’s book.
- Most Disappointing: St. Louis (8-15, 3-7)
As bad as St. Joe’s and Fordham have played and as utterly disappointing as Charlotte has been, Rick Majerus’s Bilikens have to be the most disappointing A-10 team this year. After a strong finish to the season last year, with all underclassmen, SLU was supposed to contend for an A-10 title this year, but had a dreadful run through the non-conference and have not really found any magic during conference play.
For the Pac-10 to be the 8th best conference is a real statement as to how fall this league has fallen. And, the worst part is – this conference is better this year than it was last year.
- Most Pleasantly Surprising: Arizona (20-4, 9-2)
Sean Miller has quickly revitalized the Arizona program and is heading back to the tournament after only a one year absence. The best team in the Pac-10 was not supposed to be this resurgent this quickly, but Derrick Williams is an absolute stud, who will be taking his talents to The Association next year. But, for now, the ‘Cats are back.
- Most Disappointing: Arizona State (9-14, 1-10)
The other team from the desert has not exactly had much of a season. 1-10 so far in conference play has made many forget that this team was in the NCAA Second Round as recently as 2009. Herb Sendak’s team has an RPI of just 158 – lower than such teams as Quinnipiac, Northeastern, and Yale. The professors at ASU (at least the ones I know) might be on a par with those at Yale, but their basketball team should be a lot better.
My love for the next two conferences on this list runs deep, so I have to admit, I may have overrated them a bit, but I will defend vehemently that games in these two conferences – particularly the CAA – are absolutely brutal with the depth and talent in the league. I would challenge any team in the country, including Ohio State or Duke or whomever, to 16+ games in this conference.
- Most Pleasantly Surprising: Drexel (16-8, 8-6)
There is a clear separation between the top four teams in this conference (VCU, George Mason, Old Dominion, and Hofstra), but after that there is another cluster of teams that is really tough and can play with anyone nationwide, led by Drexel and James Madison. I think the Dragons have had the most surprising season this year, as they were picked for 10th in this league in the preseason, but the Dragons had a very good non-conference run (wins over decent teams in Loyola, Md and Rider and the big one at Louisville) and, despite a couple heartbreakers in conference play, sit tied for 5th at 8-6.
- Biggest Disappoinment: Towson (4-20, 0-14)
No one expected Towson to compete for a CAA title, but they have been monumentally bad. A bad non-conference has spilled into a 0-14 conference record. And, this team was picked in the middle of the pack in the preseason…ouch.
10). Missouri Valley
The other conference for which I have a strange affinity is The Valley. I just think this conference is brutal to run though every year and the conference winner is usually so battle-tested that they are ready to take on the big boys under the bright lights, which has resulted in four seperate Valley programs reaching the Sweet 16 in just the last five years (Northern Iowa in 2010, Southern Illinois in 2007, and Wichita State and Bradley in 2006). This year might be no different, as if I were a “big boy,” I would be terrified to see Missouri State or Wichita State in my section of the draw.
- Most Pleasantly Surprising: Indiana State (13-12, 8-6)
This is likely to change because the Sycamores are falling back to earth after an unbelievable start to the season, but for now, they will edge Evansville (also 8-6 in conference) for the most surprising Valley team. Larry Bird’s alma mater has conference wins over Creighton, Northern Iowa, and Missouri State. They have fallen back recently and this conference is brutally tough, so their tournament chances are very slim, but still a great season for a team picked last in the conference.
- Most Disappointing: Bradley (8-17, 2-12)
Creighton, at 7-7, has also been disappointing, but the Braves of Bradley have certainly been the most disappointing. They have rebounded to actually win back-to-back games against Creighton and at Southern Illinois, but it is far too little and far too late after losing their first TWELVE conference games.
11). Conference USA
Thanks to a pretty solid non-conference season for the conference, as a whole, C-USA actually sits at #8 in the conference RPI pecking order, but I do not believe that they are the eight best conference in America, and it will probably be best shown on Selection Sunday when all ten conferences that I have ranked ahead of them get multiple bids, while the C-USA sits and wonders how they only got one. The perennial dominator of this conference, Memphis, is supposed to have had the talent to dominate again, but it just has not come together for the young Tigers team. A lot was expected of UTEP and Larry Eustachy’s Southern Miss this year, and, though they have both been “good,” neither has been “great.” And, then there is UCF – more on them in a minute.
- Most Pleasantly Surprising: UAB (17-6, 7-3)
The Blazers were supposed to take a step backward (even from a disappointing season last year) because of three key losses to graduation and the biggest loss of all, Elijah Millsap, who turned pro after his junior year only to see himself go undrafted and forfeit his senior year of eligibility. But, Mike Davis has done a good job with the holdovers, as they are right in the hunt for a conference title having already knocked off UTEP and swept Marshall.
- Most Disappointing: UCF (14-8, 1-8)
Everyone probably knows what Marcus Jordan and UCF did in the non-conference. The Knights entered C-USA play undefeated (13-0) and nationally ranked (#19). Then, people may know that they then picked up a nice home win over Marshall to start conference play. But, after their second conference game – a 5-point loss at Houston – knocked them out of the rankings and off the national radar, most people probably do not realize just how bad things have spiraled out of control. Wednesday’s 1-point loss to Memphis was the Knights eighth straight loss and they currently sit DEAD LAST in Conference USA, with a 1-8 conference record. Overall, because of their great start and relatively low preseason expectations, this season might not be as disappointing as the rough year for the promising Marshall and Tulsa programs, but considering where they were on January 5th, this has been a devastating month for the Knights program.
12). Horizon League
A league that might not get the attention it deserves because of the struggles of its flagship program, Butler, is actually having a terrific year, even if the Bulldogs have been inexplicably bad. Valparaiso, Cleveland State, and Wright State are all capable of beating anyone in the country on any given night, and this conference, as usual, is a tough place to get road wins.
- Most Pleasantly Surprising: Cleveland State (21-5, 10-4)
The Vikings of CSU have been very good from the opening tip this year. They currently trail Valpo in the Horizon standings, but had a better non-conference and their consequential gaudy RPI (33) should put them into at-large discussion.
- Most Disappointing: Butler (16-9, 8-5)
Was Gordon Hayward that good? While it is not quite as bad as it seems for Butler right now, they really have put themselves behind the eight-ball here in an effort to repeat a Final Four run from a year ago with basically the same team minus Hayward. Home losses to Evansville and UW-Milwaukee might be the killers in their at-large campaign. Also, when your best wins are home wins over Florida State and Stanford (albeit by 33), you may have trouble making a case. The key for the Bulldogs (and everyone else in this conference) is finishing in the top 2 in the league, as the Horizon has the brilliant layout of awarding the top two teams double-byes in the conference tournament. Right now, it is Valpo and CSU, but Butler and Wright State are both knocking on the door.
13). West Coast Conference
Typically the Gonzaga Conference, this year has been a lot different, and (probably thanks to the ‘Zags) this conference is much-improved top-to-bottom. The two San Fran area teams – USF and Santa Clara – are tough and Portland is pretty good, as well. But, there is a new dominant WCC team:
- Most Pleasantly Surprising: St. Mary’s (20-4, 8-1)
The Gaels have followed up their Sweet 16 run with another fantastic season, even though they lost the folk hero, Omar Samhan. Mickey McConnell and Matthew Delavadova are a pair of Jimmers without the noteriety. They can score from anywhere on the court, and St. Mary’s runs a great uptempo offense to take advantage of their skills. This team is dangerous.
- Most Disappointing: Gonzaga (15-9, 5-3)
While Loyola Marymount has probably been even more disappointing than the Zags, what fun would it be to pile on a 1-8 team that was picked 2nd in the WCC? Also, San Diego is dreadful, but that is no fun to talk about either. It is more fun to pick on the team that was supposed to continue its domination of this conference only to lose at home to St. Mary’s and then get swept in a trip to NoCal by USF and Santa Clara. And, the non-conference was not a ton better and the NCAA tournament streak for the Bulldogs is in a lot of trouble.
It is getting harder to actually rank these conferences against each other, so I am going with the one conference that has a legitimate national power this year. Utah State is nationally ranked and deservedly so (even with their loss at Idaho this week). They are going to be a force come March…if they make it out of the WAC.
- Most Pleasantly Surprising: Idaho (14-10, 7-5)
Utah State is easily the best team in this conference – and it is not even close – but they were expected to be. Idaho was supposed to be one of the worst teams in D-I, but the Vandals have circled the wagons and are playing some really good basketball. After ending the conference unbeaten record of USU this week, the Vandals now find themselves only one-half game out of second place (and a double-bye in the conference tournament) in the WAC. The Kibbie Dome is rocking in Moscow, ID, this year.
- Most Disappointing: Nevada (9-14, 6-4)
While the Wolfpack has righted the ship a little in the non-conference, this team was really bad in the non-conference and should have given USU more of a run for the regular season title.
15). Ivy League
Not sure how many people watched the Penn-Princeton game Tuesday night, but I did, and it was fantastic! As much as I love the conference tournaments (and I DO love them), there is still something to be said for a winner-take-all regular season and what that does to random Tuesday night games in the beginning of February. That game looked like a semifinal or final of a conference tournament and, honestly, may have the same ramifications. In case you didn’t see it, Penn went on a 14-3 run to send the game to OT only to lose on a questionable technical foul call at the end (with less than a minute to play, Penn had the ball with no timeouts in a tie game…diving for a loose ball, a Penn player recovered it, yelled to his teammates NOT to call a time out and the ref mistakenly heard “time out” and blew the whistle – crazy). The Ivy League has three outstanding teams this year, and whichever one wins the auto-bid will give whomever they face in the first round a real test.
- Most Pleasantly Surprising: Harvard (16-4, 5-1)
Harvard has followed up a terrific non-conference with a very good start to conference play. They went 11-3 in the non-conference, including wins over Colorado (by 16), Fordham (by 23), BU (by 16) and @Boston College (by 11). And, of their three losses (@George Mason, @Michigan, and @UConn), none of them would even resemble a “bad loss.” Now, in conference play, the Crimson is 5-1, with their only loss to league-leading Princeton in New Jersey. They won at the Palestra on Saturday, 83-82, in a double-OT thriller to put them in a position to possibly win this conference.
- Most Disappointing: Cornell (5-15, 1-5)
No one expected anything close to what Big Red did last year, as everyone graduated and Coach Donohue was too tempted by ACC riches and left for BC. But, no one expected them to be this bad, either. A brutally bad non-conference has spilled over into an equally bad start to conference play for Cornell.
16). Ohio Valley
While the depth of the OVC is something to really question, this conference has a top half that can challenge any mid-major, particularly its two best – Murray State and Morehead State
- Most Pleasantly Surprising: Austin Peay (15-11, 9-5)
While the Colonels have come back to life here recently, they were leading this conference for most of the first 6 weeks of conference play and have beaten both Murray and Morehead already.
- Most Disappointing: Eastern Illinois (8-15, 4-9)
Supposed to at least make it interesting for the top teams in the OVC this year, the Panthers have been really bad, including being swept by lowly SE Missouri State.
17). Summit League
I might be a little higher on this league than most because I get some of their games on TV and love watching the best of this league battle, but I do believe that Oakland would test anyone in the country on any given night, and IUPUI, Oral Roberts, and IPFW are all solid programs with good teams again this year.
- Most Pleasantly Surprising: IPFW (16-8, 9-4)
This league was expected, as usual, to be a three-team race between Oakland, Oral Roberts, and IUPUI, but IPFW has made it a four-team affair, mostly on the strength of a season sweep of ORU.
- Most Disappointing: Centenary (0-25, 0-13)
This team was supposed to be last in the conference, so their last place position now is not disappointing, but any time you are 0-25 for a season, you have to be considered a disappoinment.
The MAC had the potential to rise up to true mid-major status (similar to the CAA or MVC), but they just have not sustained any momentum for whatever reason. Kent State, clearly the best team in this conference, is not even close to the at-large radar.
- Most Pleasantly Surprising: Buffalo (14-7, 7-3)
The MAC’s divisions are, like the SEC, very unbalanced. The East is FAR superior to the West and yet Buffalo is still very much in contention for the Eastern title. They also had a decent non-conference, though their two highlights were their close road losses – 8 points to BYU and 2 points to St. Bonaventure, who is pretty tough in Olean.
- Most Disappointing: Ohio (12-12, 5-5)
While Central Michigan and Akron have also been major disappointments, Ohio has to be the most disappointing, considering they returned most of the team that beat Georgetown in the tournament last year. They have rebounded to get back to .500, but they still sit in last place in the East.
19). Southern Conference
The SoCon is probably best known for Stephen Curry and the Davidson Elite Eight team a couple years ago, but this is a solid conference every year, with this year being no exception. Probably the three best teams are all in the South Division (College of Charleston, Wofford, and Furman), so it is going to make for an interesting conference tournament, but Chattanooga, who leads the North, is also had a solid season. And, then there is Davidson – hanging around in fourth place in the South, but with some talent.
- Most Pleasantly Surprising: Furman (17-7, 9-4)
The Paladins might be on their way to a 20-win season in a year where they were picked for fifth out of six in the tough South Division. They have already swept a decent Citadel team and beaten preseason favorite Wofford on the road. However, they currently sit third in the South, which means that they would, as it stands now, not have a first-round bye in the conference tournament.
- Most Disappointing: Appalachian State (10-13, 6-7)
App State was picked to win the North Division and, despite a bad non-conference season, looked like they were on their way to doing so when they went 3-1 in their first four conference games with three on the road. But, since then, the wheels kind of fell off, capped off by a terrible home loss to 5-18 UNC-Greensboro. But, they are only 1.5 games out of second-place (and a first-round bye in the conference tournament) and all five of their remaining conference games are at home, so we will see if they can yet turn this around.
20). Big South
The next two conferences are very, very close, and it was very hard to pick one for #19 and one for #20. I went with the overall depth of the conference over a strong, but top-heavy conference. But, in the end, what probably propelled the Big South to #19 was the fact that they have one of the best mid-major teams that no one is talking about. The Coastal Carolina Chanticleers are 23-2 and 13-0 in a decent Big South. Their only two losses all year were road games at Georgetown and College of Charleston. At least one of the nation’s best teams is going to be keenly aware of how good this Chanticleer team is come March.
- Most Pleasantly Surprising: Liberty (17-8, 11-2)
It was not supposed to be like this for Liberty this year. They lost several key members to graduation and one key member to transfer – you may have heard of him, Seth Curry, I think he plays for some team named Duke. But, the Flames have regrouped and been, clearly, the second-best team in the Big South this year. Their only two conference losses are to Coastal Carolina and they sit four games ahead of a pack of teams in third place.
- Most Disappointing: Presbyterian (10-15, 4-9)
It is hard to blame the players at Presbyterian for their utterly disappointing season, as they had strived for what this year could have been for five years only to find out that their dream had become a nightmare. As recounted nicely by Dana O’Neill, the Blue Hose seniors came to Presbyterian (then a D-I transitional school) five years ago with the plan to redshirt one year and by the time they were 5th-year seniors, the team would have full D-I status and they would compete for a chance to play in the Big Dance. Well, the administration dropped the ball and they are not eligible, so it is hard to blame them for their terribly disappointing season, but it is still, well, a terribly disappointing season. This team should be challenging for the conference title, but they are mired in 8th place, with a 4-9 conference record.
21). Atlantic Sun
The A-Sun is a bit top-heavy, but its top is, by low-major standards, very, very good. Belmont is a legitimate threat to pull off a first-round upset, while East Tennessee State, Jacksonville, and Lipscomb are among the better low-major teams in the country. The rest of the conference is a bit shaky, especially the bottom, as USC-Upstate, Kennessaw State, and D-I newcomer, Florida Gulf Coast are not really very good at all.
- Most Pleasantly Surprising: Belmont (22-4, 14-1)
They were supposed to compete for the title…not run away with the title. Belmost, from the very beginning of the season, has been the A-Sun’s best team and they are two full games ahead of anyone else in the conference. Their only loss was to their arch-rival across town, Lipscomb, in a rivalry game that warranted mention in a recent BSB post about the best sports rivalries.
- Most Disappointing: Kennessaw State (6-17, 4-9)
After a shocking first-round upset of top-seeded Lipscomb in the A-Sun quarterfinals last year, KSU was looking to parlay that into a possible run at a regular season title this year. However, they have been rather bad and, as it stands now, would not even qualify for the A-Sun tournament this year.
I am not sure if I have undersold the MAAC here, as their conference RPI is actually #16, but I just do not see that many real contenders for national attention in this conference. Fairfield is the best team in the conference and Rider, Iona, St. Peter’s, and Loyola (Md) are having good seasons, but nothing to really shine nationally. What I do see, however, are some really, really bad teams at the bottom, as Marist, Manhattan, and Niagara have to be three of the worst D-I teams in America this year.
- Most Pleasantly Surprising: Loyola (Md) (12-11, 8-5)
A underwhelming non-conference for the Greyhounds has now given way to a surprisingly good conference season. Picked 7th in the preseason, Loyola is only a game out of second-place, and they are the only team in the conference with wins over Fairfield, Iona, and St. Peter’s.
- Most Disappointing: Siena (10-13, 7-6)
There was expected to be a dropoff in Albany with the departure of coach Fran McCaffery to Iowa, but it was not supposed to be a cliff. The Saints have been barely mediocre this year, after dominating the MAAC for several years now. Sitting at sixth place in the conference, they are in jeopardy of actually playing in the first-round of the MAAC tournament (if they fall to seventh).
23). Big West
It has been an incredibly strange season in the Big West this year. It seems like every team has been up and down the standings all year…except one. Long Beach State has been atop the Big West from the very beginning, and Dan Monson’s team continues to hold on to the top spot, even as the rest of the league shuffles, seemingly, every week.
- Most Pleasantly Surprising: CS-Northridge (9-14, 6-4)
The non-conference went the way most people expected the whole season would go for the Matadors, as they were a lowly 3-10 entering Big West play. Picked for last in the conference, no one expected anything else. But, then conference play began and the team started playing really well. Right now, they sit in a tie for second place in the conference.
- Most Disappointing: UC-Santa Barbara (12-9, 5-5)
This could easily have go to Pacific also, as the two teams were picked 1-2 in the conference and both are mired at 5-5. I went with UCSB because they were the preseason pick to win the league and have been swept by Pacific. There is still a lot of time to right the ship here, so expect the Gouchos (and the Tigers of Pacific) to get right back into the thick of it here, but for now, it has just been one disappointment.
24). Big Sky
It was supposed to be a grueling four-team war for Big Sky supremacy this year between Weber State, Northern Arizona, and the two Montana schools. And, while those four are in the mix, they are all chasing someone else…
- Most Pleasantly Surprising: Northern Colorado (13-9, 9-2)
The “other UNC” has come out of nowhere to take a full game lead in the Big Sky this year. And, with the tournament played at campus sites, the top spot is that much more important. UNC has already beaten both Montana school and Weber State, but have yet to beat any of the “big four” on the road, so their tests are still ahead of them.
- Most Disappointing: Montana State (11-12, 5-6)
Off to a 4-0 start in conference play, it looked like the Bobcats might be the class of the Big Sky. But, a 1-6 record since, including a devastating loss to last-place Idaho State, has left MSU in fifth-place and staring at having to win three straight road games to win the Big Sky’s auto-bid.
I love the NEC. Twelve teams with travel partners, who play every Thursday and Sunday, and, even though the quality of basketball is not top-notch, league games are fiercely competitive. This year, the favorite, Quinnipiac, had a fantastic non-conference season, but has not brought that dominance to the NEC. Long Island and Central Connecticut State have been the two dominant teams in the NEC this year.
- Most Pleasantly Surprising: Wagner (12-12, 8-5)
How is a .500 team the most pleasantly surprising? Well, first of all, they were picked 10th in the conference. Secondly, they currently sit in third-place in a jam-packed conference, with some stellar wins on their resume. Will they be able to sustain this play? Nobody knows, but for now, they have to be the pleasant surprise of the NEC.
- Most Disappointing: Farleigh Dickinson (4-20, 2-11)
The Dukes of FDU were picked to be somewhere in the middle of the pack and, if everything broke right, may have even competed for a conference title. But, the reality is that they are simply awful. An RPI of 323 (out of 345) is downright embarrassing, and they are headed for not even qualifying for the NEC tournament.
26). America East
Back to what we know about the America East – Vermont is the team to beat. BU, Maine, and Stony Brook were getting the love in the preseason, but UVM has risen to the top yet again.
- Most Pleasantly Surprising: Vermont (20-5, 11-2)
Ho-hum another 20-win season and, most likely, another AmEast regular season title for the Catamounts. But, this year is different. They were picked for 5th place in the league in the preseason, but, from the very beginning, showed that they were still the team to beat. A good non-conference schedule led right into a, thus far, dominant AmEast campaign. Expect the Catamounts to be a somewhat scary 15/16-seed come March.
- Most Disappointing: UMBC (5-20, 4-8)
It has only been two-plus years since the Retrievers ran away with the America East and earned themselves a first-round date with Roy Hibbert, Jeff Green, and the rest of the Final Four-bound Hoyas. Now, though they were not expected to really contend, they are faced with a 20-loss (and counting) season.
27). Sun Belt
With the loss of New Orleans to the D-III ranks, the Sun Belt now has a more normal 12 teams – in two divisions. But, abnormal is what made this conference great. Now, it just falls into the ranks of any other low-major conference. And, with down years from the two preeminent programs of the Sun Belt (and easily two of the best nicknames in the country), the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers and the Ragin’ Cajuns of LA-Lafayette, the Sun Belt is just plain ordinary this year.
- Most Pleasantly Surprising: Florida Atlantic (18-7, 10-1)
FAU has come out of nowhere to fill the void of a down WKU team this year and have pretty much dominated the Sun Belt from day one. They lead the Eastern Division by three games, with their only loss coming to the Hilltoppers (who are currently 5-5 in conference play).
- Most Disappointing: North Texas (16-7, 5-5)
While WKU and LA-Lafayette have definitely been disappointing, the disappointment of the Mean Green runs a little deeper. They had a terrific non-conference and must have seen the wide-open situation in the Sun Belt with no real dominant teams at all this year. But, they have had a very disappointing first 10 games of conference play, capped by a really bad loss to Troy. There is time to recover and a wide-open conference tournament to play, so this might yet be the season they expected, but right now, it is just a big disappointment.
28). Patriot League
The more the Patriot League changes, the more it stays the same. Bucknell and American have been battling for the better part of this decade for PL supremacy, and they are doing it again. Bucknell is two full games ahead, though, as a result of a season sweep of the Eagles. The rest of the league, as usual, is jam-packed.
- Most Pleasantly Surprising: Bucknell (17-8, 8-1)
Honestly, much like UVM in the AmEast, it is hard to really be surprised by Bucknell leading the Patriot League. But, the preseason predictions had the Bison at #5, and they have clearly been the best team in the PL this year. The non-conference was decent (wins over BU and LaSalle were the highlights), but their domination in a decent PL this year has been pretty thorough, as they just completed a season sweep of second-place American.
- Most Disappointing: Holy Cross (5-18, 4-5)
One of the teams picked ahead of Bucknell in the preseason prognostications was Holy Cross, and while the Crusaders have been okay in conference play, their non-conference was absolutely dreadful. They were 1-13 outside the PL, and it is not like they played a brutal schedule. Yet, somehow their 305 RPI is not the worst in the conference (Colgate is 306).
And, now we get into the really low-majors. The MEAC, while not a very good conference may actually have risen this year to being closer to the Sun Belt and Patriot League than it is to the Southland and SWAC. There are at least three pretty good low-major teams (Morgan State, Hampton, and Bethune-Cookman) in this conference and at least three or four more decent teams (Coppin State, Delaware State, and maybe N.C. A&T or Norfolk State).
- Most Pleasantly Surprising: Coppin State (11-11, 6-4)
Picked 8th in this conference, no one really expected much from Coppin this year (which is sad because they pour a decent amount of money, considering the conference, into the basketball program), but the Eagles have been pretty good all year. Their conference season is highlighted by good road wins over Bethune-Cookman and Delaware State, and they enter the second-half of conference play in fourth place and only two games back of league-leading Hampton.
- Most Disappointing: MD-Eastern Shore (6-17, 3-7)
There were two very good choices for this selection here, as South Carolina State returned most of the team that went to the MEAC finals last year, but sits dead-last this year, which is pretty disappointing. But, for the most disappointing, I went with MD-Eastern Shore because of a bit of history. This team has been the doormat of the MEAC since its entrance into the league. But, last year, they finished 8-8 in league play and sixth place (out of last-place for the first time). They even won their first-round MEAC tournament game over Coppin State before bowing, by three, to eventual finalists South Carolina State. And, this year, they set their sights on possibly even competing for a MEAC title. But, it has gone very wrong, as their bad non-conference turned into a bad conference season, as well. Now, they are 3-7 in league play and only one game ahead of S.C. State for last place – a spot that they could not bear to fall back to after last year’s rivival.
The Southland this year is like flipping coins. With the exception of Central Arkansas, who is a dreadful 1-9, the whole rest of the league is separated by just three games. Texas A&M – Corpus Christie is in 11th place and only 3 games back of the two league leaders, Northwestern State and Texas State – San Marcos. The problem for the Southland this year is that they have three decent low-major teams, Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston State, and Southeastern Louisiana, and all three have been rather disappointing in conference play.
- Most Pleasantly Surprising: UT-San Antonio (12-10, 5-4)
Not expected to much this year, UT-San Antonio is only one game out of first-place and has wins over both league leaders. They have some big games upcoming, so we will see if the Roadrunners are truly contenders. And, yes, that last sentence was just to get their awesome nickname in this paragraph somewhere.
- Biggest Disappointment: Lamar (9-13, 3-5)
Yes, Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston State, and SE Louisiana are far and away the three best teams in this league and are in the bottom half of the standings, but they are all in striking distanace and should be able to at least qualify for the Southland Conference tournament, so they can play their way in. Lamar, despite lofty preseason expectations, and a 3-0 start to the conference schedule, has lost five in a row and is in serious jeopardy of not even making the trip to Katy, TX, for the tournament.
It is hard to imagine that a conference could be worse that the SWAC (and there really is not, as they are the worst of the conferences that receive auto-bids). This conference is just routine cannon fodder for the SEC and the Big XII in the non-conference (not sure why they all schedule such ridiculous opponents). And, they even provide easy W’s for the Big South and the A-Sun and SoCon. However, there three relatively decent low-major teams in the conference (Jackson State, Texas-Southern, and Mississippi Valley State). Other than those three, though, all seven other teams are among the bottom 43 teams in RPI, including four of the bottom 14.
- Most Pleasantly Surprising: Texas-Southern (11-10, 9-1)
Texas-Southern was not exactly picked to compete in the SWAC this year, but they have led the conference from the start. Their only loss was at Mississippi Valley State (a strong choice for this spot, too considering they were picked 7th in the SWAC and are only 1.5 games out of the top spot), and they beat preseason favorite Jackson State in their first meeting. We will learn a lot about this conference on Saturday when Texas-Southern visits Jackson State with the SWAC’s top spot on the line.
- Most Disappointing: Prairie View A&M (6-17, 3-7)
A veteran team that was supposed to push Jackson State for the conference title was terrible in the non-conference and has been just as bad in conference play. Sitting at 335 in the RPI is not what you expected from a team that was supposed to compete for its first ever conference title.
32). Great West
This almost does not count, as the Great West is not a conference that receives and automatic bid, and only has seven teams. But, it is a D-I conference, and I love D-I college basketball, so we should at least talk about it. First of all, it is very strange in its composition. Even though it is called the “Great West,” it incorporates all directions of the USA. One of the teams in the Great West is the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Jersey City, NJ. Two of the other teams are Texas-Pan American in Edinburg, TX, and the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, ND. UTPA is about 20 miles from the Mexican border, while UND is about 75 miles from the Canadian border. So, this conference has teams on the easternmost, southernmost, and northermost border of the United States. In fact, the only “direction” not really covered is, well, west. In fact, Utah Valley is the only school that could even be considered western at all. Very strange.
- Most Pleasantly Surprising: North Dakota (11-10, 4-1)
Not a great non-conference, but UND has swept their neighbors and rivals South Dakota and picked up two other wins en route to a 4-1 start to conference play. They trail Utah Valley, clearly the best team in the conference, by just 1 game and none in the loss column.
- Most Disappointing: Texas-Pan American (4-21, 1-7)
Well, it is official, the worst D-I basketball in the country is played in the Great West conference in the state of Texas. Houston Baptist has the worst RPI in the country, but is not in last place in their conference. That ignominious distinction belongs to Texas-Pan American, which has the second-worst RPI in the country and trails HB by a full game in the Great West standings. In case you are dying to know, the two teams split the season series, each winning at home. Unfortunately, these games were not televised in my area…