With Parts One and Two in the books, let’s move on to Part Three, where we hit up four of the more interesting mid-majors this year – The Mountain West, the WCC, the Valley, and the new-look 16-team Conference USA.
Coming off the best season in league history, the Mountain West has some ‘splaining to do. It has been a really poor start for a league that looked like it might be becoming a perennially elite conference. San Diego State (and maybe Utah State) is probably the only preseason contender that hasn’t underperformed thus far.
- Preseason Favorite: New Mexico
At the end of last year (before Tony Snell declared for the draft), I honestly thought that this UNM team was Final Four good. Even without Snell, I still saw them as Top Ten good. And, while they won’t actually get there, the 3 losses (UMass, @Kansas, New Mexico State) aren’t all that troubling.
- Most Impressive: San Diego State
The only top-tier MWC team that has outperformed expectations is SDSU. The Aztecs only loss was to #1 Arizona and they have wins over Creighton, Marquette, and Washington.
- Most Disappointing: UNLV
The Rebs have bounced back to win 5 straight, but it has been over some rather poor competition, and they did play Arizona tough in Tucson, but it’s hard to ignore the 21-point throttling that they took from UCSB on their home floor.
- “My” Favorite: Boise State
Everyone is back from a tournament team (yet still underrated team) last year, including the dynamic backcourt of Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks.
- Potential Sleepers: Utah State, Wyoming
Utah State’s inaugural MWC season will be interesting to follow because of their amazing homecourt advantage. Wyoming has actually played some real competition this year and acquitted themselves okay, so they might be a decent sleeper pick here.
- Also Relevant: Colorado State
They lost a TON from last year, but they still have Larry Eustachy, who can flat-out coach, so they have to be considered relevant.
- Dregs: San Jose State, Air Force
San Jose State has actually played somewhat well, but they have NO talent. Air Force is just not competitive this year, as shown by a home loss to the SWAC’s Jackson State.
- The Pick: New Mexico
I still believe in this team and think they are the best team in the league.
The conference formerly known as the “Gonzaga Conference” is still dominated by the Zags, but the rest of the league has really picked it up. And, with last year’s addition of BYU, it has become a pretty interesting conference.
- Preseason Favorite: Gonzaga
The Zags are still the best team in the league, without any real question.
- Most Impressive: Gonzaga
Despite losses to Dayton and K-State, the Zags have been solid and haven’t shown anything to make you think they aren’t still the best team in the WCC.
- Most Disappointing: San Francisco, Santa Clara
Both USF and SC were supposed to potentially contend for an upper-division finish this year, but both have looked rather bad so far. Santa Clara is less alarming because they are very young, but Rex Walters is not exactly doing the bang-up job that people thought he would as head man at USF. He could be on the hot seat if they don’t turn it around.
- “My” Favorite: BYU
This team is really good. And, it doesn’t hurt that they are incredibly fun to watch with their up-and-down style. Spencer Haws is the best kept secret in college basketball, and UCLA-transfer Matt Carlino is a dynamic point guard. And, in 2016-17, remember the name Eric Mika, who will return from his Mormon mission ready to dominate in his sophomore season. Right now, he’s just fun to watch because he’s so big and so athletic.
- Potential Sleepers: Portland, Pacific
These two teams will not contend for a top-3 finish, but you have to be careful because they are both playing very well right now.
- Also Relevant: Saint Mary’s
Before a disastrous Christmas trip to Hawaii for the Diamondhead Classic, the Gaels were undefeated and looking VERY good. Now, there are serious question marks, though they did only lose three games by a combined 11 points, so maybe it was just a bad trip.
- Dregs: Pepperdine
As great as their campus is, that’s about how bad their hoops team has been recently. This year, however, the Waves are improved and might be going in the right direction, but they are still the worst team in this league.
- The Pick: Gonzaga
No-brainer here. The Zags have incredible advantages in this league when it comes to prestige, resources, and amenities, so it would be hard to pick anyone (other than BYU) over them any year. This year is no different. They should win this league going away.
This year marks the end of a long run of stability in the MVC. The Valley had the same makeup of teams for longer than any other conference in the country other than the Ivy League, until this year when Creighton has been replaced by Loyola-Chicago. Not only is the stability messed up, but that is a gigantic downgrade. And, with UNI and Missouri State still rebuilding, there shouldn’t be much challenge to Wichita this year.
- Preseason Favorite: Wichita State
The Shockers shocked everyone with a Final Four run last year after a decent season. This year wouldn’t be much of a shock, as they look like one of the elite teams in the country. An otherwise down year in The Valley (and without Creighton), should mean a cakewalk for the Shockers here.
- Most Impressive: Wichita State
Wichita is among the handful of “Most Impressive” in the whole country, as they sit at 12-0 without really being threatened.
- Most Disappointing: Bradley
Bradley was the clear-cut pick as the biggest threat to Wichita (if there was going to be one), but the Braves have been dreadful so far, including home losses to IUPUI and IPFW. Not coincidentally, Bradley has taken the biggest fall in KenPom rankings from the preseason (134 in the preseason to 246 now).
- “My” Favorite: Indiana State
I just really like Jake Odum. The Sycamores don’t have the horses to challenge Wichita, but they should be able to pull out a second-place finish here and potentially get at-large consideration.
- Potential Sleepers: Drake, Northern Iowa
Drake has looked rather feisty so far, and UNI has a lot of talent.
- Also Relevant: Missouri State
The Tigers have come out of nowhere to start off 9-2. I think it’s a bit of smoke and mirrors, but they have been good enough to call “relevant” so far.
- Dregs: Loyola-Chicago, Southern Illinois
While SIU is widely known for their poor start because of the ridiculous rant by their coach, Barry Hinson, that got national acclaim across the spectrum, Loyola-Chicago has been far worse so far capped off by a home loss to lowly Northern Illinois and a drubbing at lowly Fordham.
- The Pick: Wichita State
Probably one of the two easiest picks (along with New Mexico State in the WAC) in the country.
All of a sudden, Conf USA remakes itself, and keeps itself rather interesting. There are now 16 teams in this, the largest league in the country, and while it hasn’t been of that high a quality, the conference race is fascinating because of all the inconsistency at the top.
- Preseason Favorite: UTEP
Several teams have been picked as the favorites here from various preseason prognostications (cases can be made for UTEP, Southern Miss, La Tech were the most common, but arguments can be made for Charlotte, Middle Tennessee, and even Tulsa, UAB, or ECU), but UTEP is seen by slightly more as the pick here. But, needless to say, it is WIDE OPEN.
- Most Impressive: Southern Miss
The best team so far has probably been Southern Miss, though they don’t have a real quality win on their ledger yet.
- Most Disappointing: Tulsa
The one of the plethora of “contenders” here that has looked worse than the others has to be Tulsa, which is upsetting because you have to root for Danny Manning, right? I trust Coach Manning to turn it around come conference play, though.
- “My” Favorite: Louisiana Tech
I love this team led by the unknown superstar, Raheem Appleby. This team won the WAC last year and brings back just about everyone, so they’re kind of loaded. The only question is how will they do in a new league with new road trips and schedules.
- Potential Sleepers: Middle Tennessee, East Carolina
Mid Tenn is another team from a new league, but they have the talent to compete if they figure it out. ECU was picked 9th in the league in the preseason, but they look like they might contend for a title – if it all goes right.
- Also Relevant: UAB, Charlotte
Charlotte drew national attention by winning the Puerto Rico Shootout (taking down K-State, Northeastern, and Michigan in the process), but have just been okay since. UAB drew national attention by beating UNC and have been pretty good all year.
- Dregs: UTSA, Rice, Florida-Atlantic, North Texas
Rice is the typical doormat of this league, but with the expansion they now have some company.
- The Pick: Louisiana Tech
I am going with La Tech here because I think they have the most talent. But, this is kind of a “throw a dart” pick because this league is so wide open – it should be fun.