In Part Six of the New Year Report, we are going to focus on four of my favorite small conferences because there is a TON of passion in these leagues. Particularly, the Ivy and Patriot (two leagues without scholarships) are really great. Also, the NEC has some real impassioned rivalries, as well as the Big Sky, which is the West Coast’s version of the NEC.
Harvard used to be the doormat of the Ivies. Now, they are the crown jewels. It’s amazing what a little “academic leniency” can do for a basketball program.
- Preseason Favorite: Harvard
The Crimson are absolutely loaded this year. Last year they were the best team in the league and they only added to the roster with a couple studs coming off suspension. This is a no-brainer pick.
- Most Impressive: Harvard
The Crimson have lived up to their billing, with two close losses – both on the road – to Colorado and UConn.
- Most Disappointing: Cornell
No one thought Big Red would compete for an Ivy title this year, but they have been DREADFUL. Just god-awful.
- “My” Favorite: Princeton
People are ready to just hand the Ivy title to Harvard, and while they will probably win it, their dates with the Tigers will be tough. Princeton’s season-opening loss to Penn, though, shrunk their margin for error to almost nothing.
- Potential Sleeper: Columbia
The forgotten team in the Ivy race this year will likely be Columbia, but they are good. Very good. Don’t believe me? Just ask Michigan State, who nearly lost to the Lions in East Lansing earlier this year. Columbia also has wins over decent teams such as Stony Brook, Saint Francis (NY), American, and North Texas.
- Also Relevant: None
If anyone else makes a legitimate run at the title, it will be quite a surprise. Brown is probably the only team that you could even make a case for.
- Dregs: Cornell
The rest of the league can hold its own, though Penn could be pretty bad as well. But, Cornell is just awful. It doesn’t seem that long ago when Big Red took out Temple en route to the Sweet 16.
- The Pick: Harvard
You would have to be quite the contrarian not to take the Crimson here.
After years of the stability of a solid, insular, 8-team league, the Patriot reached out and grabbed two really nice additions – Boston U. and Loyola (MD). Now, the league is as strong as ever.
- Preseason Favorite: Boston U.
The newest member comes in at just the right time, as they are experienced and talented and should win the league.
- Most Impressive: American
If we really had written this at the New Year – before conference play began – the Eagles probably wouldn’t have even made the “relevant” list. But, they are 5-0 in conference so far, including 4 road wins (Bucknell, Colgate, Holy Cross, and Lehigh) and a 14-point home win over Loyola. This has been the most surprising, most impressive start to a conference season as there has been around the country.
- Most Disappointing: Lafayette
The Leopards are in the discussion for most disappointing in the country, as they were picked 2nd in the preseason and look like the worst team in the league.
- “My” Favorite: Bucknell
Mike Muscala is now playing professionally in Spain, after being drafted by the Dallas Mavericks in the second round of last year’s draft, so the Bison are in rebuild mode. But, they have some real talent. And, this young, talented team has wins at Penn State, Albany, and Kent State, as well as very close losses at Stanford and at St. John’s.
- Potential Sleeper: Army
Watch out for the U.S. Army, as they won their first 4 Patriot League games this year before falling to Holy Cross Wednesday night. They are experienced and solid and won’t be an easy out on any night all year.
- Also Relevant: Loyola (Md), Holy Cross, Lehigh, Colgate
The other newcomer, Loyola, has a solid team that has underperformed so far. Holy Cross is always relevant, but never seems to put it all together. Lehigh is rebuilding after the loss of NBA lottery pick, C.J. McCollum. And, Colgate is looking to turn around a disastrous start to conference play and rekindle the fire from a fantastic non-conference schedule.
- Dregs: None
Lafayette is the only one that is borderline here, and I think they have the talent to avoid being a “dreg.”
- The Pick: Boston U.
The Terriers are just too solid not to win this conference. The roadtrips will be new, but they are too experienced to slip up too many times. Plus, with Bucknell and Lehigh both rebuilding, their only true threat turns out to be an out-of-nowhere American team whom they should handle.
Always one of my favorite leagues, even without a good Long Island team, the NEC never fails to entertain.
- Preseason Favorite: Wagner
This is supposed to be the year of the Seawolves in the NEC. They have an experienced team with a lot of talent. They should put it all together and take this title, but they’ve been shaky, at best, so far this year.
- Most Impressive: Robert Morris
The Colonials played an absolutely viscious non-conference schedule that they somehow emerged out of at 5-10. Now, they are battle-tested and ready to try and repeat as regular season champs.
- Most Disappointing: Central Connecticut State
With the NEC as wide open as it has been this year, the Blue Devils should be in the mix. But, instead, they are a longshot to even make the NEC tournament. They have been the worst team in the conference this year, which is truly saying something when the conference includes St. Francis (PA) – who are 2-13 against everyone else and 1-0 AT CCSU.
- “My” Favorite: Bryant
After becoming relevant for the first time ever last year, Bryant seems poised to take the next step this year. They already lost a tough home game to RMC last week, but they have the horses to make it up and potentially take this title home.
- Potential Sleepers: Saint Francis (NY), Fairleigh Dickinson
St. Francis (NY) has never made the NCAA tournament, but they have a shot this year because they are easily one of the teams “in the mix” here. Fairleigh Dickinson was supposed to be one of the worst teams in the country, but their non-conference saw back-to-back road wins at Rutgers and Seton Hall, and they have started 2-1 in the NEC, including an 89-67 throttling of LIU last night on the road.
- Also Relevant: Mount Saint Mary’s, Sacred Heart, LIU-Brooklyn
MSM is definitely in the mix here. Sacred Heart can play themselves in. And, LIU still has some residual talent from their NEC dominance over the past three seasons.
- Dregs: Saint Francis (PA), Central Connecticut State
It’s hard to imagine how St. Francis (PA) won any road game, but they have already beaten CCSU on the road, so let’s call them both dregs.
- The Pick: Robert Morris
This might be the hardest pick of any conference in the nation. It is wide open, and I honestly think that at least four – maybe as many as six or seven – teams have a legit shot to win it. But, the Colonials are probably a marginally better pick than anyone else, though I thought long and hard about Wagner, Bryant, and even St. Francis (NY).
The Big Sky is always interesting. It has a nice combination of top-notch mid-major programs, with up-and-comers, old standbys, and some real D-I dregs. That always makes for a pretty interesting conference season. This year is even better, though. It looked like it might be a two- (maybe three-) team race, but the “good” teams have played really poorly and the “bad” teams have played rather well. Now, the whole conference outlook is thrown upside-down and who knows what to think.
- Preseason Favorite: Weber State
The preseason pick in the Big Sky is always a simple question – who do you like better Weber or Montana? This year, with Will Cherry graduating, the Grizzlies seemed down a man, so the consensus was Weber 1, Montana 2.
- Most Impressive: Northern Colorado
Both Weber and Montana have been very disappointing so far and have really come back to the pack. They have come so far, in reality, that the “other UNC” looks like they may actually be the team to beat here. They started 4-0 in conference before losing last night at Montana State – and that is on the heels of a decent non-conference slate that included a win over Kansas State.
- Most Disappointing: Montana
There is definitely a case to be made for Weber here because they have really struggled, but Montana is 2-3 IN CONFERENCE. That’s unheard for the Grizz. And, they haven’t even played Weber or UNC yet. They even opened conference play with an 8-point loss at home to Northern Arizona.
- “My” Favorite: Northern Arizona
Well, my favorite WAS Northern Colorado, but they aren’t “under-the-radar” enough anymore. So, I will go with the Lumberjacks. They have the deepest – and maybe the best – frontcourt in the league, and size in a mid-major conference can be deadly.
- Potential Sleepers: Eastern Washington, Montana State
It seems like every year you could say Eastern Washington is a “sleeper” because they always look like they might challenge the top of the conference, but they never do. So, maybe this is the year. Montana State is a somewhat decent program that may have picked a good year to be somewhat decent.
- Also Relevant: North Dakota, Portland State
There two teams may have to fight just to get into the Big Sky tournament, but they both have talent. Portland State is young and feisty, while North Dakota is experienced, yet underperforming thus far.
- Dregs: Southern Utah
Southern Utah is so bad that no one else even deserves consideration to join them here (you’re welcome, Sac State). I actually think that SUU is the worst team in D-I – even worse than the dumpster fire at Grambling.
- The Pick: Northern Colorado
It is really hard not to take Weber or Montana, and I almost couldn’t do it. But, I do believe that this UNC team has been waiting to burst through and, instead of taking it themselves, it looks like they are just going to let the big two fall down around them and they will be left standing.