Time to break down the fun conferences
Kyle Whelliston breaks down the races and predicts the winners of all the true mid-major conferences.
Editor's note: Stats and records in this story were as of Jan. 2.
If this is going out on a limb, it's the thickest limb on the tree, the one closest to a forest floor that's covered in comfy mattresses.
If this is picking ponies, it's handicapping a staggered-start race in which the horses have already run around the track for awhile.
It's like playing with loaded dice and one-sided coins; once again, it's time for The Mid Life's not-so-fearless one-bid-conference predictions.
These are picks made on a technicality -- they come before league season, not before the regular season (or in the case of the Southern Conference, three or four games into the league slate), in January instead of November, and with the benefit of nearly two months' worth of nonconference hindsight. However, for these leagues, these are the only games that really matter.
Not pictured are Memphis-dominated Conference USA (which isn't a mid-major league anyway) or the WCC (even though we like 10-5 Santa Clara a whole lot, we know this is still Gonzaga's league). We've also left out potential double-dippers in the Colonial Athletic Association and Horizon League, thanks to the respective at-large caliber dossiers of Drexel and Butler. Both are conference favorites going into January, and a close title-game loss in either of their conference tourneys two months from now likely would warrant an extra bid.
Without further ado, here's what's going to happen ... maybe.
The down state of America East hoops last season gave first-time champion Albany a 16-seed hole to dig out of. It almost didn't matter, as the Great Danes came within six minutes of pulling the shock of the century against No. 1-seed Connecticut. If they repeat their league title, this year's version likely will end up in the same slot.
But while the 2006-07 Danes feature returning senior and league POY Jamar Wilson, the 6-1 hero of that near miss, this team offers things that the 2005-06 Danes didn't: dimension and balance. Wilson is still getting his 17 points per game, but he has a lot more help this time around. Second-year juco transfer Jason Siggers (13.8 ppg) is a 6-4 leaper who's not afraid to dribble-drive, and Brent Wilson (no relation to Jamar) is a 6-8 junior sharpshooter who has always shot well from 3 but who is just now coming into his own as an all-around offensive threat (shooting 53 percent and averaging 13.4 ppg). The one thing the Scoobies don't do is play defense -- a league-worst 1.016 points allowed per possession -- but the offense, and the gap between Albany and nearest competitor Vermont, may be big enough for all of that not to matter.
Atlantic Sun: Lipscomb
For the second consecutive year, the center of the Atlantic Sun is in the Central time zone along Nashville's Belmont Boulevard. But while Belmont University may own both the league title and the name of the street that connects the two, the school formerly known as David Lipscomb College looks poised for the best Music City revenge story since Johnny Cash got back at an uncaring record company by recording the intentionally horrible "Chicken in Black."
Both Belmont and Lipscomb have had nonconference slates dotted with power-conference losses and mid-major wins. But while last year's Belmont Bruins streaked to the NCAAs with 50 percent team shooting and four double-figure scorers, the current squad is shooting five percentage points worse with a drastically altered dynamic: all-conference center Boomer Herndon's health has limited his playing time, and junior guard Justin Hare has become the offense's focal point and the lone player with over 10 ppg.
The Lipscomb Bisons (yes, with an "s") like to take things slow (64.7 possessions per game, 25th lowest nationally), and don't like turning the ball over (16.7 percent turnover rate, eighth in D-I). And last year's power combo of Brian Fisk and Eddie Ard are picking up where they left off last season (13.5 and 14.5 ppg, respectively); senior guard Trey Williams (4.7 ppg last year, 14.2 ppg this year) has been a revelation.
Big Sky: Weber State
Montana owns the league title as well as a round-of-32 banner for beating Nevada in the first round of the NCAAs; the Grizz defeated Minnesota on Nov. 26 in Orlando (it was Golden Gophers coach Don Monson's last game), but they've struggled defensively as new head coach Wayne Tinkle learns to operate the machinery in Missoula. The team to move into the power vacuum at the top may be the conference's most successful program, a school that hasn't visited the Big Dance since 2003.
In a league where all nine teams have significant or glaring weaknesses, Weber State has the biggest strength: its shooting. Playing time certainly isn't an issue at Weber: Nobody averages more than 26 minutes per game, and that keeps the bodies fresh. Four Wildcats -- including leading scorer David Patten (12.7 ppg), a 6-8 senior -- are shooting 50 percent or better, and the Purple and White are shooting 47 percent as a group (including a nation's 26th-best 41.2 percent from 3). If Weber can do something about its Sky-worst turnover rate (25.7 percent), it will win this league.
Big South: Winthrop
There's probably no easier pick in the world than picking Winthrop to win the Big South this year; the school has won the thing two straight years and five of the last seven. This year's Eagles have gone 2-3 against power conferences (including a coulda-shoulda 73-66 loss against UNC on Nov. 15), sport a healthy RPI of 44, feature the league's most efficient offense and defense, and have an array of offensive weapons of all sizes, including senior 6-5 bomber Torrell Martin (16.0 ppg).
But, as in previous years, the biggest question about Winthrop is the relative strength of its league, which will once again determine their coat-check number at the Big Dance. The next-highest RPI in the Big South belongs to High Point at 163, and the third-best is UNC Asheville's 282. The Eagles likely will avoid the near collapse that almost happened in last year's 51-50 Big South title game squeaker over Coastal Carolina, but will anything they do for the next two months keep them from being paired with another top-three seed come NCAA Tournament time?
Three-time defending champ Pacific might have finally fallen off (considering its 5-9 record). So who's poised to take the throne? Well, preseason surprise UC Santa Barbara has won 10 games and ranks league-best in field goal shooting (49.5 percent) and offensive efficiency (1.046 points per possession) -- and strangled the offense of a very good Fresno State team on Dec. 6 in a 70-42 Gaucho gouging.
But when there's one bid to the Dance at stake, matchups are everything, and it's impossible to ignore Long Beach State's 101-65 slap-around of UCSB on Jan. 4, the 49ers' seventh straight win and a showcase for LBSU's superior toughness as well as the team's main man, 6-1 senior guard Aaron Nixon (35 points against UCSB, 17.1 ppg overall). Granted, there's so much trouble in the LBC on the offensive end -- Long Beach barely broaches the 40 percent mark on field goals -- but the defense (a low .951 points allowed per possession) and rebounding (35.8 rpg, 35th-best in D-I) should help the Niners carry the Big West in the end.
Ivy League: Penn
The Ancient Eight is the last league to begin, starting play in mid-January. There are only eight teams and 14 league games for each, and until the Ivies annex the Patriot League, that isn't going to change. The Ivy doesn't really need to change its status as the only oddball conference without a postseason tourney anytime soon, because the quarterfinals and semis would be a waste of everyone's time. Everybody knows Penn or Princeton is going to win it anyway.
This year is no different: There's Penn on top, Princeton on a distant second tier, and then the other six. Even though the Quakers changed coaches when Fran Dunphy left for Temple, Glen Miller's first Penn squad looks a lot like the 2005-06 version: They still make hay on steals (nearly 10 per game) and have trouble with free throws (66 percent, a percentage point down from last year). But this team shoots better than last year (49.6 percent, up from 44.5) and shares the ball better (19 apg, seventh in D-I). Penn will produce a carbon copy of its Ivy title; the real question is whether it can do something about a seven-game NCAA first-round losing streak that dates back to 1995.
Over the summer, everything that could go Marist's way did: graduations of key players across the conference (especially at league champion Iona), player defections (such as Siena's Kojo Mensah to Duquesne) and key coaching losses (Manhattan's Bobby Gonzalez to Seton Hall). The Red Foxes entered the season as the hands-down favorite, and nothing in their early 10-3 record diminishes that status.
Marist's spark comes from a 6-2 senior point guard named Jared Jordan (19.4 ppg), who's rated by some outlets as the second-best point guard in the 2007 NBA draft and a potential second-round selection. When the team clicks, it's when he's out on the floor, and when he's not -- as in a 63-53 Dec. 19 loss at Wright State as Jordan sat nursing an ankle injury -- the Red Foxes look fogbound. And that's what the phalanx of scouts who follow him love: He makes the players around him better.
At this level, all the promise and talent in the world can be swept away by an untimely tourney semifinal loss. Because of that, there may be no greater intangible than the collective shoulder chip. And Akron's got its -- ever since dropping a March decision to No. 7-seed Toledo in the league tourney, the Zips have been surgically focused on getting over the hump. If they do, they'll return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1986.
Though it's not a résumé good enough to warrant at-large consideration, the Zips' 8-3 record includes wins at Oral Roberts and Loyola Marymount as well as a 73-71 near miss against Nevada in a BracketBusters return matchup on Dec. 22. In that game, Akron became only the third of 11 teams to hold the Wolf Pack even on the boards; the Zips have punished just about everyone else in that category. And it's not just 6-7 all-league round mound Romeo Travis, who averaged 6.8 boards last season; this year has seen the emergence of junior Quade Milum, who has nearly quintupled his rebounding output (4.9) from 2005-06 and has led the team in glass-cleaning four times. The Zips can shoot a little too, knocking down an even 50 percent of their shots.
Mid-Continent: Oral Roberts
Speaking of shoulder chips, Oral Roberts used its from a 2005 title-game buzzer-beater loss to storm the league last year and give No. 1 seed Memphis a small scare in the NCAAs as a No. 16. Even with three starters gone, they still have the all-league twin-turbine engine of big Caleb Green (20.5 ppg, 9.7 rpg) and little Ken Tutt (17.4 ppg), and the Golden Eagles were able to survive a rigorous nonconference schedule that included five NCAA teams from a year ago.
One of those teams, Kansas, fell to ORU at home back on Nov. 15 in one of the first of a series of gigantic mid-major upsets. The key to that win, a sophomore guard named Marchello Vealy, has proven to be one of the most frustrating players in America. When he's on, anything is possible for the Eagles -- his 22-point, 7-for-10 performance against Kansas is testament to that -- and ORU is 3-0 when he scores more than 10 points. But when Vealy scores 10 points or fewer, ORU is a dismal 4-7.
While you're at home enjoying the holiday season, MEAC teams are out on the road collecting guarantee-game checks for their athletic departments, playing Washington Generals to power-conference teams' Harlem Globetrotters. As such, the turn of the calendar finds the league's ledger to be a fetid swamp full of .250 records, broken bones and bruised pride.
But that was last year; now it's time for another regular season full of intriguing on-court experimentation in dimly lit gyms across the MEAC. Delaware State remains the class of the conference, and the Hornets struck the hardest nonconference blow for the league, shooting 63 percent in a shocking 65-62 win at the MAC's Buffalo.
Del-State still is slow (third-slowest pace in the land, at 56.9 possessions per 40 minutes), and NBA draft waters-tester Jahsha Bluntt still is producing offensively (14.7 ppg). A pleasant surprise, though, has been 6-6 junior newcomer Roy Bright, a former Cincinnati Bearcat who has fit into the Hornets' slow-flow system quite nicely. Bright also is averaging 14.7 ppg on the season and is chipping in 4.5 rebounds.
NEC: Sacred Heart
For a team that made its conference tournament for the first time ever last season, the Pioneers certainly look like they've been around the block a few times. Heart put up 81 against North Carolina on Nov. 14 (Gonzaga, Tennessee and Ohio State are the only others to broach 80 against the Tar Heels this season), and have cleared 90 five times against an all-D-I schedule. What's more, in the early going they've averaged 96.5 ppg in two league wins, including a 90-74 pasting of preseason league favorite Robert Morris.
Sacred Heart's secret is its McDLT-style senior backcourt, which keeps the hot side hot and the cool side cool. Hot is 6-4 Jarrid Frye (12.7 ppg), whose emotional outbursts occasionally get the better of him (read: foul trouble); Tavio Hobson is a cool, collected Seattle product who mans the point with confident smoothness. In between, there's lukewarm, or rather Luke Granato, a 6-6 junior who can step out and knock down a 3 on command -- he went 8-for-14 from behind the arc in that UNC game.
Ohio Valley: Samford
Quick: Which league has gone the longest without an NCAA win? Nope, not the SWAC -- it's this conference, which last enjoyed March magic in 1989 when current Sun Belt member Middle Tennessee State downed No. 4-seed Florida State. Murray State came within four points of ending that streak against UNC this past March but couldn't finish the job that George Mason wound up completing two days later.
Murray is rebuilding with a new coach and new players, but the runner-up from 2005-06 is best-positioned to take another crack at the OVC's 18-year-old curse. Samford's lone nonconference accomplishment has been an emphatic 80-66 win over Ohio, but it's gone 3-0 in early league play. Coach Jimmy Tillette's crew plays a modified Princeton system, and that's modified as in an automotive soup-up. Few Tiger teams have had what the Bulldogs have in 6-1 senior guard Randall Gulina (19.1 ppg), a headstrong competitor who is extremely dangerous with the dribble-drive.
In other words, Gulina doesn't always use the back door -- he can bust through walls like the Kool-Aid Man. Oh, yeah!
Patriot League: Holy Cross
Bucknell is loaded with veterans, and seniors Chris McNaughton, Abe Badmus and Donald Brown have been around long enough to have experienced a 14-15 season as freshmen and the glorious back-to-back NCAA first-round wins. So why has Giant Killer U. slumped to a 6-7 record (despite a nice win at Xavier, paced by the non-seniors), often looking out of sync and focus? And why does a team with the experienced McNaughton in the middle rank 310th in the country on the boards (27.2 rpg)? After an empty-eyed and soulless 50-48 loss to D-I newbie Central Arkansas at the Marist Classic, it's impossible to make apologies anymore; the team's stars have simply stopped caring ... and if you had a Patriot League-level IQ and plenty of opportunities beyond basketball, you might too.
The emergence of our nation's service academies (10-4 Army and 9-5 Navy) is a great story, but their schedule strengths have been as suspect as the Star Wars missile defense system. The immediate dividends of Bucknell's drop-off will be collected by the Crusaders, who have the same nails-tough defense they always do and feature 6-5 senior Keith Simmons (17.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg), who is far and away the league's most skilled player. Despite inside play issues of its own, Holy Cross should win the Patriot for the first time in four years and get a shot at its first NCAA win since 1953.
Few teams lost more over the summer than the Wildcats (76 percent of team scoring, seven seniors), but the defending champs' rebuilding project, one that was supposed to take all year to complete, took only seven games. After a 4-3 start that culminated in the annual pasting at Duke on Nov. 25, this team simply hasn't lost. In addition to three league wins, Davidson's victim list includes Charlotte, Ohio, Western Michigan and Arizona State.
Much ink, virtual and otherwise, has already been spilled about the emergence of 6-0 freshman Stephen Curry (19.6 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 3.8 ppg), who is talented enough to win the SoCon player of the year award four times. But here's the most impressive thing about these Wildcats: Remember the biathlon from the Winter Olympics, which combines pulse-pounding cross-country skiing with precision rifle shooting? Davidson is the 18th fastest team in the country (77.8 possessions per 40 minutes), but is also the sixth best free-throw shooting team in D-I at 76.9 percent. Now that's conditioning!
Southland: Sam Houston State
Fashionably late-arriving Texas A&M-Corpus Christi seemed an easy pick back in November, not only because the Islanders arrived in the league with two straight 20-win seasons as an independent and a wealth of returning talent, but also because of the tumultuous state of the Southland over the summer. Five teams switched coaches, senior-laden champion Northwestern State turned over its roster, and many of the traditional contenders lost key pieces to graduation.
But Sam Houston State, a school that quietly won 22 games last season in Northwestern's Southland shadow, likely will be the Texans that take it this year. Ryan Bright, the 6-6 forward with the crazy red hair who made a brief appearance on the national stage last year after a NIT Season Tip-Off win over Missouri, is a junior now, and he leads the Bearkats with 15.2 ppg and 7.4 rpg on a healthy 54 percent from the floor. SHSU is loaded with midrange bodies that bang and finds itself 55th in the nation in boards (35 per game) despite effectively topping out at 6-7.
SWAC: Jackson State
No SWAC squad has ever finished in the top 100 of the RPI, but Jackson State finds itself at 77 on the eve of league play, over 100 rungs ahead of its nearest competitor (No. 192 Texas Southern). You can be sure this number will sink like a rock over the course of the next two months, but that won't diminish the accomplishments that have earned the Tigers this position. Jackson State (6-7) has beaten Rutgers and UTEP on the road and came within a point of the MVC's Drake on Dec. 23; if the Tigers had won, they would have been the first SWAC team with a winning nonconference record in three years (Mississippi Valley State, 6-4 in 2003-04).
That Delta Devils team (which ended up with an empty 22-7 season after falling in the conference tourney's first round) was led by SWAC player of the year Attarius Norwood. He may be a "whodat" today, but you're going to remember Tigers star Trey Johnson, currently second in the nation in scoring at 29.7 ppg. Johnson, who dropped 49 on UTEP on 15-for-28 shooting, can handle triple-teams with relative ease; if you're looking for him, just follow the trail of scout slobber. And if the Tigers can escape MVSU's fate, Johnson may provide a first-round NCAA performance for the ages.
Sun Belt: Western Kentucky
Two weeks ago, WKU avenged its 2006 Sun Belt title game loss to South Alabama, dominating the champion Jaguars in every possible way in a 73-51 thrashing. That game only reintroduced the idea that had been the prevailing wisdom up to the point of that slump-shooting loss on March 7 that handed "Team USA" the championship: WKU is the bellwether program in this league.
But early results indicate that the somewhat undersized Toppers have had trouble with long, sinewy players in the 6-8 category -- their Dec. 19 home loss to North Texas (their first in eight meetings) showed that, but their only problems from here until March should be individual matchups. This deep-benched Western team has the league's best 3-point shooting (41.6 percent), is first in efficiency on both ends of the court (1.112 points per possession offense, 0.992 defense) and has an emerging superstar in junior Courtney Lee, who'll use his second-to-last year on the hilltop learning how to take over ball games. They'll make it to the NCAAs, sure, but whether they can win when they're there is a different story.
Kyle Whelliston is the founder of midmajority.com and is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.