The New Year Report: Conference Previews, Part Three

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.

MOUNTAIN WEST

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.

WEST COAST

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.

MISSOURI VALLEY

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.

CONFERENCE USA

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.

The New Year Report: Conference Previews Part Two

Here in Part Two of our CBB conference previews, we are now going to hit on the two relevant new-look conferences, the Big East and American, along with the disappointing SEC and the always interesting A-10.

SEC

Kentucky and Florida are very, very good (though they haven’t shown just how good yet) and Missouri, LSU, Tennessee, and Arkansas can be good in flashes, but, generally, this conference is yet again one of the more disappointing leagues in America.

  • Preseason Favorite:  Kentucky
    The preseason #1 team in the country resided in Lexington with all their freshmen again.  This team appeared (and is) loaded.  With McDonald’s All-Americans at every position, it’s hard to think of them as anything but loaded.
  • Most Impressive:  Florida
    Honestly, there hasn’t really been a “most impressive” team in this league because everyone has struggled.  But, the best team in the league so far has probably been the Gators, who have wins over Kansas and Memphis and only have a 6-point loss at Wisconsin and a 1-point loss at UConn.
  • Most Disappointing:  Alabama
    TI used to think that Anthony Grant was a great coach.  I’m not ready to give up on that belief, but I am ready to stop screaming it from the rooftops.  This ‘Bama team is – yet again – too talented to be irrelevant, and yet they are heading down that path.
  • “My” Favorite:  LSU
    I think it will probably take a big win for people to finally take note of what’s going on in Baton Rouge right now (St. Joe’s, UAB, and Butler don’t count), but when that happens, Johnny Jones will finally get some credit for the program he’s building down on the Bayou.  Jones brought in stud big man Johnny O’Bryant in his first year last year and has added two more ELITE recruits this year – Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey.  While Martin seemed like the recruiting coup (McDonald’s All-American, 5-star rating), the less heralded Mickey may be just as important a piece.  Either way, with Martin, Mickey, and O’Bryant in the frontcourt, this Tiger team is big, talented and still very young.  They will only get better.  I would not want to play them in March, and if they all stick around, this might be a Top-10 team next November.
  • Potential Sleepers:  Arkansas, Ole Miss
    Everyone knows about Marshall Henderson at Ole Miss (though, it is kind of strange how well he’s taken to a bench role – I guess it fits him perfectly because he doesn’t have to share the ball with the second team), but people are not paying much attention to the rebuilding job of Mike Anderson at his alma mater in Fayetteville.
  • Also Relevant:  Missouri, Tennessee
    Frank Haith is doing it again at Mizzou with a brand-new set of super-guards.  Marcus Denmon left two years ago and Flip Pressey and Michael Dixon (the latter transferred to Memphis) left last year along with nearly the entire starting five.  But, Haith brought in two unheralded transfers and turned them into stars.  Jordan Clarkson (Tulsa) and Earnest Ross (Auburn) are perfect for this system and Clarkson has put himself into potential SEC Player of the Year discussions.  As for Tennessee, they have all the talent in the world, the question just remains as to whether or not Cuonzo Martin knows how to maximize it.
  • Dregs: Mississippi State, Auburn, Georgia, South Carolina
    Not only has the top of the league been disappointing, but the bottom has been simply dreadful.  Northwestern State, Davidson, Manhattan, USC-Upstate, Missouri State, Utah State.  That might be a list of decent mid-major programs, yes.  But, it’s also a list of teams that have won road games at SEC schools.  Quality mid-major programs or not, that is terrible.  And, I left out the UTEPs, TCUs, and Boise States of the world.
  • The Pick:  Kentucky
    This is a tough pick.  While Florida has looked like the better team, I still think that, in the end, the talent will win out – and Kentucky has so much talent, it’s laughable.  Gimme the ‘Cats to figure it out and take the SEC title.

BIG EAST

The Big East went from a fantastic, yet bloated and somewhat stale conference to a slimmed down, pretty solid top-to-bottom league.  They lost a lot of star power with Boeheim and Pitino and history with Notre Dame, Pitt, and Cincinnati, but kept a lot of the quality that gave this league the substance to go along with the sizzle of past years.  Plus, the additions of Creighton, Xavier, and Butler just add to the all-around quality of what remains.  I am actually excited for this league in the coming seasons – I think it might have that tunnel-visioned basketball focus that seems to elude leagues like the SEC and Pac-12. 

  • Preseason Favorite:  Creighton, Marquette
    This was expected to be a pretty wide open league this year with Creighton (fueled by the amazing Doug McDermott) and Marquette (fueled by the media’s perennial, inexplicable love affair with Buzz Williams) receiving the most preseason hype.
  • Most Impressive:  Villanova
    There may not be a more surprisingly good start in the nation that the one at ‘Nova.  This was generally thought of as a borderline tournament team, but Jay Wright has this team playing smart and hard, and they look like a legit team, nationally, not just in the Big East.
  • Most Disappointing:  Marquette
    As great as the Villanova start has been, that is how disappointing the Marquette start has been.  They have lost five games and their best two wins were a neutral-court game against GW and a road game at CS-Fullerton.  Their other 5 wins were home games against the dregs of the nation (Southern, Grambling, New Hampshire, IUPUI, and Ball State).  One thing to say, though, is that none of their five losses were particularly “bad” losses, as all five teams are probably going to play in the tournament, but most of them weren’t even competitive.
  • “My” Favorite:  St. John’s
    All five starters back, a ton of talent, back-to-back Top-10 recruiting classes, and a national championship coach.  How is this team not better?  They have to be good, right?
  • Potential Sleepers:  Butler, Xavier, Providence
    Butler and Xavier are going to cause headaches for every opponent they face, particularly on their home floors, and Providence has one of the best inside-outside combos in the country in Bryce Cotton and Kadeem Batts.
  • Also Relevant:  Georgetown
    The one Hoya gone – Otto Porter – from last year leaves a pretty huge hole in this team, but whole rest of the roster returns to a team that did get a 2-seed.  Was Porter that good?
  • Dregs: DePaul, Seton Hall
    DePaul is always bad – and this year is no exception.  But, Seton Hall?  What is going on there?  They have already lost to two of the worst teams in the nation – Fairleigh Dickinson and St. Peter’s…at home.  There may not be a team other than Grambling that I would expect to lose home games to those two programs.  And, this is Seton Hall!
  • The Pick:  Creighton
    I went back and forth on this one and finally came up with the Blue Jays because I just think that McDermott is that much better than anyone else in this league.  So, with the best player on the floor every night, it’s hard to pick against them over the long haul.

AMERICAN

The new American Conference debuts this year with a pretty strong cast of characters, though Louisville is only in a one-year stopover before joining the ACC next year.

  • Preseason Favorite:  Louisville
    The defending national champs were the clear-cut favorites to take the first ever AAC title.
  • Most Impressive:  Louisville, UConn
    Louisville did lose to UNC, but other than that has been as good as advertised.  But, UConn – until a home loss to Stanford – has looked as good, if not better, than the Cardinals.
  • Most Disappointing:  Rutgers
    The loss of Mike Rice is certainly being felt at Rutgers…too soon?  Well, this team is dreadful.  They have lost 4 home games to mid-majors already, including one to the atrocious Fairleigh Dickinson (yes, the same FDU that beat Seton Hall on the road, but trust me – they’re BAD).
  • “My” Favorite:  SMU
    I have said it a thousand times – if I had to win one basketball game tomorrow and I could have anyone in the world coaching my team, I would pick Larry Brown.  And, now, he actually has a couple players down in Dallas, so watch out.
  • Potential Sleepers:  Cincinnati, Temple
    The Bearcats are kind of the forgotten team around these parts, but they are still a solid team that should be in contention for this title, even if it’s in an ugly fashion.  I put Temple here maybe as a homer pick, but I do think that this team is getting better and might have something to say about this conference race before it’s all said and done.
  • Also Relevant:  Memphis
    The beauty of this conference is at the top, where you have two bluebloods in Lousiville and UConn and then you have a Cincy team that is always good, an SMU team that is burgeoning, and a Memphis team that has somehow been nationally relevant forever without ever playing in a legitimate conference.  Well, the Tigers are for real this year – let’s just see if Josh Pastner actually knows how to do anything other than charm the media.
  • Dregs: Houston, Rutgers
    The non-beauty of this league lies in these two teams.  Rutgers is terrible (see above), and Houston might be worse.  They have losses to Texas Tech, San Jose State, and Louisiana-Lafayette and near-losses to Texas A&M-Corpus Cristie and Rice…ouch.
  • The Pick:  Louisville
    IThe league is good, and I wouldn’t be completely shocked if UConn or Memphis won it, but in good conscience, no one should pick against the Cards in this conference this year.

ATLANTIC 10

With Temple and Xavier gone, the new-look A-10 somehow feels about the same.  A good, deep league with a TON of intrigue.

  • Preseason Favorite:  VCU
    Havoc.  Many thought the Rams were Top-10 good this year, and easily the best team in the A-10.
  • Most Impressive:  UMass
    While VCU has struggled, UMass has been ROCK-solid and should have no trouble going to their first tournament since the ’90s.  Chaz Williams is the real deal, but the rest of the team is solid, as well.  Great job by Derek Kellogg at his alma mater.
  • Most Disappointing:  LaSalle
    After an exciting (and kind of fluky) Sweet 16 trip last year, the expectations were sky high for Dr. Giannini and the Explorers.  They only lost one starter and should have better health.  But, it hasn’t exactly gone as planned, as the Explorers have lost tough games (all to decent, but not great teams) that are seriously jeopardizing any at-large consideration they could possibly have.
  • “My” Favorite:  Saint Louis
    Lost in the preseason love for VCU and the non-conference season love for UMass is the most experienced and, quite possibly, the most talented team in the league.  I love the Billikens this year.  They were playing at a nationally elite level last year and only lost one starter – Kwamain Mitchell – who was hurt for much of the season last year.  Don’t sleep on the Billikens.
  • Potential Sleepers:  St. Joe’s, Richmond
    A talented team with an overrated coach (St. Joe’s) and a scrappy team with an underrated coach (Richmond) could each cause different kinds of problems for the top of the A-10 this year.
  • Also Relevant:  GW, Dayton
    Dayton actually found themselves in the AP Top 25 earlier this year – and justifiably so – after a phenomenal showing in Maui.  GW is on the brink of cracking the Top 25 right now after a 10-1 start that includes wins over Maryland and Creighton.
  • Dregs: Fordham, Duquesne
    No surprise here – these two teams are the perennial dregs of the A-10.  Hey, at least Duke fans can watch their senior point guard (T.J. McConnell) leading the #1 team in the nation.
  • The Pick:  Saint Louis
    Call me crazy, but I think SLU is the best team in the league, so I am going to pick them to win it.  I’m not selling VCU, and I am believing in the legitimacy of UMass.  I just think that this SLU team is so underrated that they are the best team in a very good league.

The New Year Report: Conference Previews – Part One

New Year’s Eve is right around the corner.  Some people think of resolutions.  Others think of champagne corks.  Still others reflect back on another year gone by.  But, for me, one of the things I think of first when I think of the calendar changing is the start of the college hoops conference season.  We have almost 2 months of non-conference play in the books (some of which has been spectacular), and now we get to go into the meat of the season.  And, not to leave any stone unturned, we are going to give quick previews of all 32 D-1 conferences as to what has happened in the noncon schedule, as well as what to possibly expect going forward for the next 3 months.  This will be a 4-part series with 4 conferences previewed in each.  So, with 32 conferences to do, let’s get started with the 4 best basketball conferences in America this year – the Big Ten, ACC, Big XII, and Pac-12.

Big Ten

The best league top to bottom in America last year – by a somewhat wide margin – is, again, the best league in America this year.  With several legit national title contenders, the Big Ten goes at least 8-deep as far as tournament-caliber teams.  But, possibly the real strength of this league is that there is never a night off.  All 12 teams are solid, with tough styles of play and strong homecourt advantages.  The Big Ten may have fallen off on the gridiron, but it is thriving on the hardwood.

  • Preseason Favorite:  Michigan State
    The Spartans were everyone’s pick to be the class of this league from the jump and when they beat Kentucky at the Champions Classic, it looked like they were the clear-cut best team in the country.  But, they struggled against some inferior competition (Columbia and Oakland, in particular) and were soundly beaten on their home floor by UNC.  This is still a team that should be right there in the end, but they have shown some alarming signs, particularly lack of leadership (which is odd considering they are a veteran team with a Hall of Fame coach) and lack of frontcourt depth.
  • Most Impressive:  Ohio State, Wisconsin
    Both the Buckeyes and Badgers are undefeated so far and #3 and #4, respectively, in the AP Poll.  Whether they have supplanted MSU as the Big Ten favorites or not, these two teams have certainly added some real intrigue to the Big Ten race
  • Most Disappointing:  Michigan
    The disappointment in Ann Arbor is because of other people’s expectations.  I, honestly, am not surprised by the Wolverines apparent struggles because they have played a rough schedule and aren’t really all that good.  Remember they had to replace two NBA draft picks, including the national POY (who was their point guard).  Despite the apparent “experience” from bringing back most of the team that played for a national title last year, the Wolverines are much younger than people think – #336 out of 351 in experience.
  • “My” Favorite:  Iowa
    This is the spot where I will just spend time on the team I like most in any particular conference.  I love this Hawkeye team and honestly think that they are Sweet 16 good.  They have a TON of depth and are very, VERY well-coached.  I’m not sure they can win this league, but I’m also not sure they should be completely ruled out.
  • Potential Sleepers:  Minnesota, Indiana
    No one is talking about this Gopher team, but they do have talent.  The Hollinses are special and now that Tubby is gone, maybe they won’t underachieve.  As for the Hoosiers – it’s strange to think they are a “sleeper,” but they are under the radar and still VERY good (I am smitten for both Yogi Ferrell and Noah Vonleigh, so I might be biased here).
  • Also Relevant:  Illinois
    The Illini are doing again what they did last year – flying under the radar and winning, despite little to no hype.  I’m not entirely sure it will sustain itself, but I wouldn’t rule them out of national relevancy just yet.
  • Dregs: None
    That is what makes this conference so good.  While Northwestern, Penn State, and Nebraska won’t be competing for any conference titles, they are still really solid teams that could beat anyone on any given night.  Northwestern is probably the worst of the bunch, as they are in total rebuild mode, but Coach Collins should turn them around quickly.  Penn State is the typical cellar-dweller here, but they have Tim Frazier, who is one of the best players in the country.
  • The Pick:  Ohio State
    It is hard for me to pick against Tom Izzo, particularly with the level of talent he has there, but I see alarming signs from the Spartans and am totally sold on the OSU defense.  I think MSU is the better Final Four contender, but OSU is the better pick for Big Ten champ…if that makes any sense.

ACC

The self-proclaimed “best conference ever” might be just that next year when they add Louisville to the fold and currently down programs like Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, and freshman-laden programs at N.C. State and Miami continue to rebuild.  As for this year, they’re knocking on the door, but I still think they are second to the Big Ten.

  • Preseason Favorite:  Duke
    Ho-hum…another year, another ELITE team for Coach K down in Durham.  But, being elite isn’t the only familiar feel to this Blue Devil team.  They also have a very familiar flaw – they are so top-heavy on athletic wings…yet again…without a dynamic point guard or big man.  I’ve heard this comment (I think Doogan may have made it actually) – “Duke is so good this year that Rasheed Sulaimon comes off the bench.”  That is a good point, but one that is a little weakened by the fact that they have to start Josh Hairston or Amile Jefferson at the 5.  Sulaimon is clearly one of their 5 best players, but his skills are totally overlapped by guys like Parker and Hood.  Even Dawkins and Thornton are rendered somewhat useless because Hood and Parker are so good.  Now, this is a total nitpick because this team is fantastic.  But, another concern might be greater – they have been pretty bad defensively (#101 in DefEff).  Now, that is partially inflated because of the atrocious performance against Vermont, but still it’s very un-K-like.
  • Most Impressive:  Syracuse
    If you take the Duke flaws seriously, then you have to consider Syracuse a real threat to the Devils in the Orange’s first ACC campaign.  They are special.  I don’t understand why no one is talking more about C.J. Fair because he is as good an all-around scorer as there is in the country.  And, with the incredible breakouts of freshman Tyler Ennis and, to a lesser extent, sophomore Trevor Cooney, this team is loaded for bear.
  • Most Disappointing:  Boston College
    I considered putting Noter Dame here, but only briefly because it’s pretty obviously who the biggest ACC disappointment is so far.  The Eagles were supposed to be on the brink of contention here, but are just 4-6 right now.  Granted, their losses to UMass, UConn, and even Toledo don’t look as bad as they did at the time because all three of those teams are better than advertised, but still this team should not be 4-6 right now no matter what.  Even their wins were unimpressive (a 3-point win over a bad FAU team, an overtime win over a worse Sacred Heart team, and an unimpressive win over an NAIA school). 
  • “My” Favorite:  Pittsburgh
    Jamie Dixon is on that short list of coaches that I believe in implicitly.  Now, it’s hard to tell just how good this team is because the only tough game they’ve played was their 1-point loss to Cincinnati.  But, I expect this team to be right in the thick of things all year.
  • Potential Sleepers:  Virginia
    It was hard to pick a sleeper here because I think the top of the league is clearly at the top, and there probably won’t be much challenge from the “others.”  But, I like the Cavs here because I love Coach Bennett, and I think they will cause issues all year.
  • Also Relevant:  North Carolina, Florida State, Notre Dame, Maryland, Clemson
    This conference has a ton of relevant teams, including the Jeckyll & Hyde Tar Heels, the gigantic Seminole team, the disappointing-but-talented Irish, the incredibly-well-coached Terrapins, and the sneaky Tigers.
  • Dregs: Virginia Tech, Miami
    Total rebuilds in Blacksburg and Coral Gables will lead to some bad basketball in each place.  Last year’s Miami season seems like a strange blip in the program’s trajectory, but maybe Larranega can make that not so.
  • The Pick:  Duke
    I thought long and hard about taking the ‘Cuse, but I think that the Dukies come through in the end and win this conference.  It’s just so hard to make all these road trips for the first time, so that might catch up to Boeheim’s team.  Then again, many guys in this conference are seeing that zone for the first time, so the edge might actually be with the Orange.  I still trust the talent in Durham, though, to win this league.

BIG XII

Just a solid all-around league yet again this year, the Big XII has it all – multiple championship contenders, depth (almost) top to bottom, and what should be a great race all year.

  • Preseason Favorite:  Kansas
    All of the talent that descended upon Lawrence this year bolstered them to not just Big XII favorites, but potential championship favorites.  But, KU being the “team to beat” in the Big XII just comes with the season.
  • Most Impressive:  Oklahoma State
    Kansas has sputtered and OK State – who actually received as many 1st-place votes from Big XII coaches as Kansas – has played the best ball in the league so far.  For a while, Marcus Smart looked like far and away the best player in the country.  He has come back to Earth a little, but the rest of the team continues to roll.  With the exception of a Memphis team taking revenge after being dominated two weeks prior, the Cowboys have been VERY impressive.
  • Most Disappointing:  Kansas State
    The Wildcats weren’t really supposed to challenge for a Big XII title, but they have made themselves almost entirely irrelevant.  It is too early to count them out, but there is very little evidence that his team will be anything but an also-ran in the conference race this year.
  • “My” Favorite:  Iowa State
    This team is fantastic.  Mayor Hoiberg has done such a great job assembling talent in Ames and really employing them in a way that completely maximizes his personnel and minimizes his exposure to poor matchups.  It won’t be long until Hoiberg is coaching in the Association, but the Cyclones should enjoy this ride while they’ve got it.
  • Potential Sleepers:  Texas
    Just when it looked like Rick Barnes may go the way of Mack Brown, the Longhorns are putting together quite an impressive non-conference slate here, highlighted by a win in Chapel Hill on Wednesday.  They probably aren’t Big XII title contenders, but they could play themselves into Tournament discussions at this rate.
  • Also Relevant:  Baylor, Oklahoma
    Baylor actually looks really good and should really make that middle-to-top area of the Big XII race incredibly interesting.  And, don’t look now, but the Sooners are 10-1 with their only loss coming to Michigan State.
  • Dregs: TCU, Texas Tech
    Texas Tech is bad, but TCU is utterly dreadful – as evidenced by a HOME loss to LONGWOOD (who will appear in the “Dregs” section of one of the worst conferences in the country).
  • The Pick:  Oklahoma State
    “The Fire Swamp?  We’ll never survive…” 
    “Nonsense, you’re only saying that because no one ever has.”
    Beating Kansas in the Big XII?  That is about as tall an order as dragging Princess Buttercup through the fire swamp, but Marcus Smart may just be the Dread Pirate Roberts, and I am going to go out on a limb and take the Cowboys here to more consistently navigate the murky waters of Big XII play than the youthful (and excessively talented) Jayhawks.

PAC-12

The Pac is back, folks.  I think that you could easily make the case that this is the 3rd-best (and possibly the single deepest) conference in the country – all of a sudden.  There won’t be a single easy game this year out West and any number of teams could make a tournament run.  All that said, there is one clear favorite.

  • Preseason Favorite:  Arizona
    The “forgotten” Top-6 team in the preseason because they weren’t invited to the Champions Classic.
  • Most Impressive:  Arizona
    And, it’s not really that close.  The ‘Cats have been the best team in the country, let alone the Pac-12.
  • Most Disappointing:  Washington
    When do we start talking about Lorenzo Romar the same way we talk about Rick Barnes and Tubby Smith?  The dude can flat-out recruit (look at the NBA careers of Romar’s alums – Brandon Roy, Klay Thompson, even Sixers rookie Tony Wroten – just to name a few), but he really struggles to win games.  This team, while very talented all around, doesn’t have that one transcedent talent and might be the worst team in the league.
  • “My” Favorite:  Arizona
    In a strange twist, I am actually picking “the” favorite as “my” favorite because this team is that good, #1 in the polls, and still underrated.  Their frontcourt is off the charts good, and I still believe that Nick Johnson is the most valuable player on that team.  Throw in the enormously underappreciated T.J. McConnell (who I’ve watched a ton of times as a Duquesne Duke) and you have yourself the best team in the nation.
  • Potential Sleepers:  Utah
    I considered pretty much every other team for “sleeper” worthy, but kept coming back to the Utes mainly because of just how under-the-radar they are, as opposed to the other possibilities.  Maybe I’m basing this too much on one single result (an 81-64 pummelling of a really good BYU team), but I am ready to say that the one team that is consistently overlooked in this league that will come up and bite you might be the Runnin’ Utes.
  • Also Relevant:  Oregon, UCLA, Arizona State, Cal, Stanford
    This upper-middle portion of the Pac is sensationally interesting.  Oregon is probably the best of the bunch with transfers James Young and Mike Moser seemlessly folding into this team.  But, UCLA looks exceptional, as well.  ASU has possibly the league’s best player, while Cal has possibly the nation’s best coach, and Stanford is talented enough to save Johnny Dawkins’ job this year.  What a race this is going to be.
  • Dregs:  None
    I’m not a huge fan of the teams in Washington, but it would be hard to characterize them as “dregs.”  Outside of Tempe, this conference doesn’t have the top-notch firepower to really join the conversation of best conference, but in terms of top-to-bottom quality, only the Big Ten even has an argument and they might actually lose it.
  • The Pick:  Arizona
    I would probably pick the ‘Cats in any conference in the country, but here in the Pac, I didn’t even have to think about it.

COMING SOON:  PART TWO (which includes the SEC, Big East, American, and A-10)