The New Year Report: Conference Previews – Part Six

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.

IVY

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.

PATRIOT

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.

NEC

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).

BIG SKY

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.

The Man with the Plan

Gross here again and normally I hate to write about football, basically because if I felt like you needed another random loser’s opinion of the Baltimore Ravens, I would most likely point you in the direction of your local watering hole.  However, I found today to be fascinating.  Today, Jim Caldwell got hired by the Detroit Lions, who had seemed to of had Ken Wisenhunt all but wrapped up.  Now I am not going to sit here and trash Caldwell, like I heard most of the past couple weeks on the radio.  That guy is not a coordinator, he came to us as a QB coach, basically a guy who was buying time until he got a chance at another head coaching job.  When we fired Cam the guy really had no choice but to take the OC job, if he didn’t he wouldn’t be sitting where he is this evening.  But anyway, I am not writing to talk about Caldwell but rather to talk about five guys, not burgers and fries, but five guys that I would enjoy calling plays for the Baltimore Ravens in 2014.  Unlike most articles I am not going to list one through five, let’s go five through one so that you don’t just scroll through my article to avoid my shitting writing, yes I am going to make you suffer.

5. Ken Dorsey – QB Coach – Carolina Panthers

Now this one is a bit of a stretch.  The guy just came into the league as a first year coach.  Most of us remember him as the stud QB for the Hurricanes before being the failed Browns and 49ers QB and then he quietly bowed out of football.  But good news for Canes fans, he is back in the game!  Yes, this season Dorsey took the job as QB coach after being the Pro Scout for the Panthers for the past two seasons.  Clearly this kid has done a decent job in any role with this team.  This team has essentially gone from trash and looking like Cam the bust to the #2 seed with a disappointing playoff loss, in which I didn’t think Cam played all that bad by the way, San Fran is just really, really good.  But anyway, Dorsey came in this year, along with Mike Shula and really made Cam look like a QB.  Under Dorsey and Shula, Newton saw his completion percentage go up, his touchdowns go up while his interceptions stayed about the same, and his overall QB rating, which I think is sort of crap anyway, but it went up!  Not to mention, if you watched the kid play from last season and then you watched any of his games this season he just looked like a more complete QB.  So why Dorsey?  Well it’s kind of simple really, we can’t have Shula, he won’t make a lateral move for no reason so you have to look to promote a guy.  Yes, I agree, Dorsey as a second year OC is a far stretch, but he is young and he knows the QB position and maybe, just maybe he will be able to help Joe take that next step.


4. Kyle Shanahan – Former OC – Washington Redskins

I am sure the majority of people are looking at this and shaking their head or fists violently saying, “Is this guy and idiot? Did he pay attention to D.C.?”  Yes I did pay attention to the absolute mess down there, but when has there never been a mess down there since Snyder took over?  I am going to look past the terrible D.C. experiment with the Shanahan’s and look back to when Kyle was in Houston and the offense was prolific.  Shanahan was the OC in Houston for the 2008 and 2009 seasons and while there the Texans were top 5 in yards per game both seasons and 17th (08’) and 10th (09’) in points per game under Kyle.  By the way, for those of you who hate this name on the list, with all their problems, the Redskins were 9th in the NFL in YPG last season and 23rd in PPG, both better than the Ravens.  However, the biggest “X-Factor” in the whole thing is that if the Ravens are hell bent on Castillo and the zone read blocking scheme, who better than a Shanahan to take control of it and make it his own.  At the end of the day I think the guy is a bright young mind, who has been around coaching for a long time and while I think he would be a strong hire for the Baltimore Ravens, I am not sure if he is the best hire for the Ravens.


3. Rob Chudzinski – Former Head Coach – Cleveland Browns

One year in Cleveland and this guy gets booted? Wow.  I mean he had Jason Campbell/Brandon Weeden/Brian Hoyer and Willis McGahee/Chris Ogbonnaya (don’t worry I looked up that spelling).  With all these offensive juggernauts he ended up 18th in yards per game of total offense, by the way the Ravens were 29th! Oh and by the way split the season series with us.  I mean with what this guy had I thought he did a nice job, he featured his best weapon, which was Josh Gordon and he wasn’t fearful to run the ball, I thought it was one of the better Browns teams we had seen in the past few years.  Now this was a guy who really broke through when he was the OC with Miami when Larry Coker was there and funny enough the OC to a guy on this list for that 2001 National Championship, Ken Dorsey.  He then went on and had a couple NFL jobs, OC for the Browns in 07-08 and most recently before the head gig, OC for the Panthers in 11-12.  Now I lump Chudzinski in with Shanahan, a guy that knows offense who would be a solid pick for OC, but again, not sure if this guy is the best pick, especially coming off being let go after one season as a head man.


2. Norv Turner – Current, Soon as he can Former OC – Cleveland Browns

This is officially the only positive list that will have multiple listings for offensive Cleveland Browns, just to let the record show.  What’s there to say about Norv that people don’t know at this point?  The QB guru.  Give him credit, the guy has made himself a reputation and a career for knowing offense and developing young QBs. He has guys on his list like Troy Aikman, Doug Flutie, Kerry Collins, Philip Rivers and Alex Smith.  In fact, if you still ask him Alex Smith still gives Norv a ton of credit for his development as a QB when they were together in San Francisco.  Now I could sit here and throw out numbers and show you how everywhere he has gone in 29 straight years, offenses have been successful and improved but let’s not waste time.  The guy can flat out coach and he is probably the most logical choice for the job, especially with everyone looking for Flacco to take the next step towards the stupidest word used in football, “elite.” I really like Norv, he would be a fantastic fit for the Baltimore Ravens and I have no doubt that things would improve, however, the only thing I worry about is after 29 straight seasons of NFL football, do you get burned out at all?


1. Kliff Kingsbury – Head Coach – Texas Tech

The more and more I read about this guy, the more I would love to see him calling plays for the purple and black in the fall.  This guy has success everywhere he has gone.  He is young and a perfect fit for the game as it evolves into this passing frenzy.  To give you an idea of what football thinks about this 34 year old, Bill Belichick drafted him in 2003.  After five years of bouncing around as a QB, his coaching career began in 2008 when he was a small time assistant for Kevin Sumlin in Houston.  Then in 2010 he was the QB coach for Houston, following it up in 2011 as a co-offensive coordinator and winning the Offensive Coordinator of the Year award from FootballScoop.com.  By the way this is all on Texas Tech’s website under his bio if you want a good read.  However, in 2012 he was the OC for Texas A&M for a guy by the name of Johnny Manziel who happened to go on to win the Heisman as a freshman. This led him to his current gig as head coach of Texas Tech.   Texas Tech made some noise this year starting off 7-0 before dropping 5 straight and then going on to beat a high powered ASU squad in a bowl game.  His offense was 8th in yards per game while the head man at Texas Tech, they were 13th the year before.  As the OC at Texas A&M with freshman Johnny Manziel, 3rd in yards per game where they were 7th the year before, so slight improvements everywhere he

went.  This guy is young, confident, and has a gifted mind for offense and how the game is played.  I think he would bring a bright, energetic, youthful mind to offense in the NFL and could really be a spark that took this Ravens offense to the next level.  Sure it may be safe to bring in some of these other guys and see slight improvement, but a daring move like this could take the offense and make it great.  I think the Ravens should make a splash, change it up and go with a youthful guy that understands these young football players and now some haggard old guy that struggles to communicate with the players.  Look around both the NFL and the FBS, the youth movement in coaching is upon us and I think he is an excellent fit.  However, the biggest concern I have is that some people have said that Texas Tech is a bit of a dream job for Kliff and he is making $2.1 million as the head coach…might be a little steep for an OC in the NFL, guess it would depend on how impressed Steve would be with his interview, if he got interviewed.


So there it is, when it comes down to it, I don’t think it’ll be Kliff sadly, more likely we will make a strong run at Norv, which I am fine with it’s a solid pick.  Some people have been saying he is heading towards the Minnesota gig, if that ends up being the case I think my vote is to go after Kyle Shanahan.  Either way, whoever we end up with, we need a guy that is going to come in here and change this offense.  Make the offense work within this zone blocking concept, make the passing game both efficient and dynamic, in which I thought it was neither last season and run the ball with consistent, positive yardage.

The New Year Report – Conference Previews, Part Five

Continuing with the New Year Report, we have Part Five today, which includes three VERY underrated conferences – the Summit League, the Sun Belt, and the Big West – and a conference in total transition that might be better than people think, the WAC.

SUMMIT

Gone was Oral Roberts last year and Oakland defected this year.  The league is hurting with the departure of its two best programs, but they have some up-and-coming programs there to take their places, including the addition of a real up-and-coming program in Denver.

  • Preseason Favorite:  North Dakota State
    The Bisons were expected to be one of the best mid-majors this year and are the clear favorites in the Summit.
  • Most Impressive:  North Dakota State
    Though they did lose at IPFW in their conference opener just last night, the Bisons were really solid throughout the non-conf slate, including wins over Delaware, Towson, and the big one – at Notre Dame.
  • Most Disappointing:  South Dakota State
    Any time you lose a guy like Nate Wolters, you are going to take a step backwards, but the Jackrabbits looked lost at the beginning of the year.  They have started to pick up the pieces and might be tough in conference play, but they are no longer dominant without Mr. Wolters.
  • “My” Favorite:  Nebraska-Omaha
    A lot to choose from here because there are some good under-the-radar teams here this year.  But, I’m going with a team that isn’t even eligble for the postseason this year – which might be a good thing for the rest of the SL, as the Mavericks look ready to compete for a bid.
  • Potential Sleeper:  IPFW
    Even before their big win over NDSU last night, I had pegged this team as a real sleeper in the Summit because they went 12-5 against a decent non-conference slate.
  • Also Relevant:  Denver
    This Denver team was supposed to be the only challenge to NDSU this year, but with IPFW and Omaha emerging, it is clearly at least a 4-team race with the Pioneers clearly in the middle of it.
  • Dregs: IUPUI
    How far this program has fallen since their shoeless coach took them to the Dance.  They are really bad this year.
  • The Pick:  North Dakota State
    While the race is going to be a lot tighter than originally expected, the Bisons are still relatively heavy favorites, and I would NOT want to see them next to me on Selection Sunday.

SUN BELT

Massive changes to one of the most stable leagues this year, as the Sun Belt was raided by Conference USA, who stole Middle Tennessee, North Texas, Florida-Atlantic, and Florida-International.  The Belt struck back by grabbing two decent programs in Georgia State and UT-Arlington and one potential sleeping giant in Texas State (who is starting to just pour money into the athletic department).

  • Preseason Favorite:  Georgia State
    There were some who liked WKU or Arkansas State or even a few that were on LA-Lafayette, but Georgia State has two high-major players in the coach’s son, R.J. Hunter and the transfer from Kentucky (among others), Ryan Harrow.
  • Most Impressive:  Louisiana-Lafayette
    The best non-conference season has to go to the Ragin’ Cajuns, who beat Oakland, Northwestern State (by 31), La Tech (on the road), and Houston.  Before a shocking loss to the SWAC’s Jackson State, their only losses were road games at Louisville, Arkansas, and Baylor.
  • Most Disappointing:  South Alabama
    When you bring a guy back that averaged a shade under 20 and 10 last year (Augustine Rubit), you are supposed to good.  And, the Jaguars have plenty of talent around Rubit, as well.  But, they have been snakebitten in the early going and sit at 0-3 in conference play, which might be a hole too big to overcome.
  • “My” Favorite:  South Alabama
    I still believe in the talent on this team, particularly when you have the best player on the floor just about every night.
  • Potential Sleeper:  Louisiana-Monroe
    Used to be the league doormat, ULM has surprised some people in the early going.  I doubt they will actually contend, but they might actually play in the Sun Belt tourney this year.
  • Also Relevant:  Arkansas State, AR-Little Rock, UT-Arlington
    The two Arkansas teams definitely have what it takes to win this league, if things break right.  Arlington is probably not quite a title contender, but they will be a tough out every night.
  • Dregs: Texas State
    They are coming along.  It may only be a year or two before this team breaks through, but as of right now, they aren’t very good.
  • The Pick:  Georgia State
    I actually like Hunter better than Rubit, and the GA State team around him is much better.

BIG WEST

The league that used to be Long Beach & Co. has really progressed to the point where all 10 teams are decent and the league has become very interesting.  They did lose a founding member, in Pacific, this year, though.

  • Preseason Favorite:  UC-Irvine
    This was supposed to be a WIDE OPEN race this year, but generally it was thought that the Anteaters were probably a slightly better pick than anyone else.
  • Most Impressive:  UC-Santa Barbara
    If you haven’t heard of Alan Williams, look him up.  He is probably the best player in college basketball that no one has ever heard of.  And, his Gouchos have been fantastic this year, including a win at Cal.
  • Most Disappointing:  UC-Davis
    Last year was supposed to catapult this Davis team into perennial contention, but they seem to have taken a surprising step backwards this year.
  • “My” Favorite:  Cal Poly
    Cal Poly has done it right, building slowly and effectively and now they are reaping the benefits of being a real Big West contender that should stay that way year in and year out.  In this wide open league, they might just be able to take that first step and win a conference title.
  • Potential Sleeper:  Long Beach State
    Hard to call Dan Monson’s squad a sleeper, as they have dominated this league for a couple of years now, but Casper Ware, T.J. Robinson, and Larry Anderson aren’t walking through that door, and not much was expected of this young team.  But, don’t count out Monson and his boys, as there is talent there.
  • Also Relevant:  Hawaii, CS-Fullerton
    The Rainbows really struggle on the mainland, but they have a LOT of talent, so if they can pull out a couple road games, they might win this wide open league.  The Titans are a bit of a longshot, but I wouldn’t count them out.
  • Dregs: UC-Davis
    It’s really only Davis that is bad here, which is a credit to UC-Riverside and CS-Northridge because they have played better than expected.
  • The Pick:  UC-Santa Barbara
    I want to take Poly, but UCSB looks really, really good right now, fueled by Mr. Williams.

WAC

This is the single most lopsided conference in terms of the best team and then all the rest.  But, if you take New Mexico State out of it, you have a pretty interesting race for second in a conference that is basically all brand-new.

  • Preseason Favorite:  New Mexico State
    There is no question who the best team is in this conference.  It’s reminiscent of the Memphis/ConfUSA thing, except NMSU isn’t quite as nationally relevant and the rest of the WAC is completely irrelevant.
  • Most Impressive:  New Mexico State
    They have a 7’5″, 360-pounder on their team.  Yep, that’s right.
  • Most Disappointing:  Idaho
    The Vandals are the only team that could even be considered a minor disappointment, as the rest of the league has exceeded their very low expectations so far.
  • “My” Favorite:  Seattle
    In their first full-fledged D-I season, the Redhawks are decent and have a legit shot at a second-place finish here.
  • Potential Sleeper:  UMKC
    UMKC is supposed to be terrible, but they already have road wins at Idaho and Seattle to start conference play…WHAT?!?!?
  • Also Relevant:  CS-Bakersfield, Grand Canyon, Utah Valley
    They are only relevant in a potential race for second place.  However, Dan Majerle’s Grand Canyon team is ineligible for postseason play as it is their transition season.
  • Dregs: UT-Pan American
    UTPA was the worst team in the now-defunct Great West.  They will have trouble competing here.
  • The Pick:  New Mexico State
    The easiest pick in the country.  This team should scare a big boy come March, though.

The New Year Report – Conference Previews, Part Four

Well, we’ve gotten through any conference that any casual fan would care about, so it’s time to get into the weeds for the junkies.  Part Four here gives us the two macks (MAC and MAAC) as well as the Horizon and floudering CAA.

HORIZON

The Horizon lost Butler last year without replacement, which hurt.  But, this year they traded up in the conference shuffle.  They lost the lowly Loyola-Chicago program (off to get throttled in the Valley) and added a very solid Oakland team.  This is a wide-open race that should be really interesting all year.

  • Preseason Favorite:  Wright State
    The Raiders return 4 starters from a surprise 3rd-place team a year ago and were picked by most as the preseason favorite in the Horizon.  But, “favorite” is not a familiar role for Wright State, and they seem to have struggled with it so far, losing games to N.C. A&T and a really bad Miami (OH) team.
  • Most Impressive:  Green Bay
    With Butler gone and Valpo, Detroit, and Cleveland State rebuilding, Green Bay was thought to be the most likely challenger to preseason favorite Wright State.  Well, it looks like the Phoenix are actually the clear team to beat entering conference play.  They are 9-3 including a win over UVA.
  • Most Disappointing:  Wright State
    As noted above, Wright State was supposed to be the team to beat, but have really disappointed so far.
  • “My” Favorite:  Cleveland State
    Anton Grady is back from an ACL tear a year ago and he joins last year’s Horizon Newcomer of the Year, Bryn Forbes, and this year’s breakout player, Trey Lewis, to form one of the best sophomore classes around.  This team is good this year and could be SCARY good in a year or two.
  • Potential Sleepers:  Oakland, Milwaukee
    Oakland has played a brutal schedule, which means they’re battle-tested and could be a real sleeper in the Horizon race.  Milwaukee was picked last in the league, but has looked far from that in non-conference play.
  • Also Relevant:  Valparaiso, Detroit, Youngstown State
    Valpo is always relevant in the Horizon.  Detroit lost Ray McCallum, Jr., but still has some talent left.  Youngstown is still itching to break through and are on the radar to do so this year.
  • Dregs: Illinois-Chicago
    The only bad team in the league actually has one of the best players – Kelsey Barlow, the former Purdue Boilermaker.
  • The Pick:  Green Bay
    With Wright’s struggles, it’s hard to pick them to win, so the next team up in Green Bay.  They look like the favorites as we enter league play, but in a conference this wide open, anything can happen.

COLONIAL

The CAA has fallen on hard times not too long after being one of the prize jewels of mid-major basketball.  They added College of Charleston this year to try and offset the losses of Georgia State (to the Sun Belt) and, much more significantly, two long-standing pillars in Old Dominion (to CUSA) and George Mason (to the A-10).  What is left is a relatively weak conference that still has potential to be good, but won’t be this year.

  • Preseason Favorite:  Towson
    Coming off one of the worst season in college basketball history last year, the Tigers really turned it around to finish second in the regular season and may have won the conference tournament if they had been eligible.  Adding a high-profile transfer in Four McGlynn to a roster that already has a superstar in Jerrell Benimon made them the preseason team to beat, though I questioned that at the time and still do.
  • Most Impressive:  Drexel
    I am not sure why Towson was the preseason favorite when Drexel has a ton of talent coming back from an albeit disappointing season.  The Dragons seem to me to be – on paper – head and shoulders above the rest of the league, and that looks to be evident through the non-conference, as the Dragons have road wins at Illinois St., Elon, Rutgers, and Davidson, as well as a neutral court win over Alabama.  They also beat Cleveland State at home and – most significantly – nearly knocked off NUMBER ONE, ARIZONA.
  • Most Disappointing:  James Madison
    Now they weren’t anywhere near the best team in the league last year, but they did win the tournament and represent the CAA in the Big Dance.  But, they are pretty bad this year and not looking to be much of a factor.
  • “My” Favorite:  Delaware
    When you have a backcourt of Devon Saddler and Jarvis Threatt, you have to be taken seriously.
  • Potential Sleepers:  College of Charleston, William & Mary
    CofC has not looked that good, but it’s been against a brutal schedule, so if they can make the adjustment to the new league, they could be dangerous.  W&M has still never made the tournament and that streak probably won’t end this year, but they shouldn’t be completely counted out.
  • Also Relevant:  None
    Anyone with any relevance has been mentioned above.
  • Dregs:  Hofstra
    The Flying Dutchmen haven’t had a good year since they stopped being the Flying Dutchmen.  Though, that all might change next year when they bring in two stud transfers from last year’s MAAC champion, Niagara (including Juan’ya Green, who is SPECIAL).
  • The Pick:  Drexel
    I like Towson a lot (particularly because of Benimon), but Drexel is clearly the better team.  Did I mention that they nearly beat Arizona?

MAC

At least the MAC has gone away from that terrible divisional format for their conference tournament, so the glaring differences in quality among the two divisions is only a subtle factor in the unbalanced conference schedules and not an in-your-face issue come March.  This year, though, the big surprise and probable best team is in the West.

  • Preseason Favorite:  Akron
    Akron was the pick here, probably based solely on prior performance because this Zips team lost a lot of talent to graduation.  Don’t get me wrong, they are still good and the rest of the teams in the league are seemingly all rebuilding, but I am not sure I would have called Akron the “favorite” going in.
  • Most Impressive:  Toledo
    The Rockets were undefeated before a respectable 10-point loss at Kansas on Saturday.  The schedule hasn’t been all that cracy, but they’ve looked very good in cruising through it.
  • Most Disappointing:  Ball State
    The Cardinals probably weren’t going to contend for a MAC title, but they weren’t supposed to be terrible.  Yet, they look terrible at 2-8 with 7 straight losses…ouch.
  • “My” Favorite:  Kent State
    I felt better about this before the Flashes lost back-to-back games to Cleveland State and Princeton, but those aren’t devastating losses, and I think this team has the talent to make a run.
  • Potential Sleeper:  Eastern Michigan
    Not supposed to do anything this year, the Eagles have been one of the more pleasant surprises anywhere.  It’s still unclear whether they have the talent to contend for a MAC title, but they have the experience and have been playing very well.  In this wide-open conference, I wouldn’t be surprised if they turned out to be the best team all along.
  • Also Relevant:  Ohio, Western Michigan, Buffalo
    The Bobcats lost 4 starters, but still have Nick Kellogg and may be playing the best ball in the league right now.  Western Michigan has some young talent that could be a threat if they come together soon enough.  Buffalo seems to tantalize on paper every year and then underperform, with this year seeming to be no exception, but their talent alone has to keep them relevant.
  • Dregs: Northern Illinois, Central Michigan, Ball State
    Mark Montgomery’s turnaround is going rather slowly (yet steadily) at NIU.  The Chippewas are in need of some direction.  And, we touched upon Ball State, who might actually be the worst team in the league, shockingly.
  • The Pick:  Toledo
    I am not sold on this Rockets team, but 12-0 is 12-0 and they did look solid at the Phog.  Plus, and maybe most importantly, no other team looks all that inspiring to me.

MAAC

The MAAC was hit hard in the offseason, as last year’s second-place team, Loyola MD, bolted for the Patriot League, and last year’s conference champ, Niagara, was decimated with transfers after their coach bolted for Hofstra.  Throw in a big rebuild at Iona, and you have yourselves a “down year” in the MAAC.  They did add a solid Quinnipiac team, but also brought in a not-so-solid Monmouth team – both from the NEC.

  • Preseason Favorite:  Manhattan
    The Jaspers were crushed by the weight of expectations last year when they were pegged as the preseason favorites, so maybe they have learned their lesson as they get that burden again this year.
  • Most Impressive:  Manhattan
    A 9-2 start seems vindicating for Manhattan, but I am still waiting for a quality win other than opening night in 3 OTs against LaSalle.
  • Most Disappointing:  Niagara, Fairfield
    We all knew that the Purple Eagles wouldn’t be as good as last year since the were hit with so many defections, but they still have superstar Antoine Mason, so they should not have started 1-7.  They have rebounded a bit, including a 5-point win over St. Peter’s in conference play, but they look irrelevant, which is a shame because they didn’t have any graduation losses from a conference title team a year ago.  Fairfield’s fall from relevance is also disappointing, as they are a MAAC flagship program.
  • “My” Favorite:  Quinnipiac
    If they can make the transition into a much tougher league, the Bobcats have all the pieces to win this league.
  • Potential Sleepers:  Siena
    Having been down for so long, you almost forget that the Saints probably have the best history and most resources in the league.  They might still be a year away, but this program is probably the MAAC’s biggest sleeping giant.
  • Also Relevant:  Iona, Canisius, Rider
    Iona and Canisius are too established and expectations are too high to be called “sleepers,” but neither are getting quite the respect that their rosters seem to deserve.  Rider is almost always relevant, though rarely anyone’s favorite.
  • Dregs: Monmouth, Saint Peter’s, Marist
    One of the bottom-feeders in a bad NEC, it’s hard to expect – even in a good year – Monmouth not to be a bottom-feeder in the MAAC.  St. Peter’s is going nowhere fast.  And, Marist looked utterly dreadful starting 0-9, and are now sitting on a 3-game winning streak, so the Red Foxes may actually belong here.
  • The Pick:  Manhattan
    The most talented team has looked the part thus far, so there is no reason to expect last year’s collapse to repeat itself this year.