Picks for the 22 conferences that matter
For the 200-plus college basketball teams that play in the nation's one-bid leagues, November and December are little more than an extended preseason. Nonconference wins and losses don't matter much; it's the ones to the right of the comma (or listed in parentheses) that mean everything when it comes to earning a shot at that single Dance ticket.
For most of Hoops Nation, the season starts right now.
But those six weeks of early results are good for providing 20-15 hindsight, and with that in mind, here are some not-so-fearless "preseason" predictions as to who will fill out the bottom rungs of your bracket in 10 weeks. Not pictured: the Missouri Valley Conference, which likely will pull three NCAA Tournament entries, the WAC (Nevada may be good, but so is Utah State), and the Atlantic "14."
As for all the other Division I conferences, there have been too many out-of-conference losses to make 2006 the "year of the mid-major" people have been waiting for. But on the other hand, it's always good to have your conference tournament actually mean something.
America East: Boston University (5-8, 2-0)
The on-paper preseason AE darling, Albany, performed like a favorite from this league should -- beating up on the bottom-100 RPI teams on the nonconference schedule and losing to top-100 opponents. Only problem was that they dropped one to a bottom-100 squad, too: No. 237 Sacred Heart. They've won three in a row now, but the only Dogs that have distinguished themselves in any way are the Terriers of BU, who lost their scoring corps to graduation but continue to do it with defense (league-best 60.2 PA despite playing Duke, Bucknell and George Washington). In this corner of the basketball world, and against this level of competition, that's good for at least a No. 16 seed.
Atlantic Sun: Gardner-Webb (6-5, 3-1)
We're big fans of Matt Doherty's 3-0 league start at Florida Atlantic, but the Owls' porous defense (82.0 ppg allowed) likely will hurt them in the end. Despite Gardner-Webb's 70-58 loss to Lipscomb on Monday, we're still even bigger fans of G-Dub South and believe their superior size will shut down the rest of the guard-heavy A-Sun. Fun fact about the Runnin' Bulldogs From Boiling Springs: their 79.4 percent team free-throw percentage ranks them third nationally and could come in handy in any close A-Sun tourney games.
Big Sky: Montana (10-2)
The Grizzlies' home game last Friday against Wisconsin-Milwaukee (four paragraphs down) was touted as the biggest basketball game to be played in the area in over a decade. They ended up losing a thrilling 78-74 white-knuckler in front of a sold-out house, but it's clear that normally football-mad Mizzoula has caught the basketball crazies. If Griz big man Andrew Strait (17.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg) and guard Kevin Criswell (15.3 ppg, 51.5 percent FG) stay hot all winter, there might be even bigger local games to come -- a Big Sky regular-season title secures a home setting for the championship game.
Big South: Winthrop (6-3)
The Eagles have been operating in stealth mode so far, but you can chalk that up to an aggressive campaign to boost their strength of schedule by penciling in Auburn and Alabama. Winthrop didn't win any of its RPI-booster matchups but likely will get a better seed than the No. 14 it received after a 27-5 regular-season record last season. Coach Gregg Marshall's squad is still so much quicker, more skilled and better prepared than everyone else in this conference, it would be one of the biggest shocks of the season if Winthrop didn't make that return trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Big West: Pacific (9-4)
You probably know the story: two straight Sweet Sixteens and four graduated seniors. But if you think this is a down year in Stockton, think again. Big senior Swede Christian Maraker (17.2 ppg, 8.2 rpg) wants to go out with a bang, and he's starting to get some help from 6-1 sharpshooter Johnny Gray (12.3 ppg, 45.5 percent FG). Going into Big West play, the Tigers are leading the league in field-goal percentage (49.5 percent), assist-to-turnover ratio (1.2), points per shot (1.18) and defensive efficiency (88.4 points allowed per 100 possessions) -- all good categories in which to be first. And Tuesday night's win over previously undefeated Texas A&M does a lot for their momentum as they attempt to join the Dance for the third straight year.
Colonial: Old Dominion (9-4, 2-1)
I've recently expressed my devotion for George Mason's recent stretches of excellent play, but the fact remains that in terms of talent, no other team in this league can match up to the Monarchs. GMU might be the best team in the league right now, sure, but ODU is best built to survive a three-day conference tourney. Yeah, they've experienced a run of bad shooting (41.1 percent, 10th out of 12 CAA teams) and some bad losses (UAB, Richmond, Drexel). But no matter what happens from here on out, Alex Loughton & Co. are most capable of coming out of any CAA seed, putting together a solid weekend against the conference's core of all-defense/no-offense teams, and returning to the Dance as a 13th or 14th seed.
Horizon: Wisconsin-Milwaukee (9-3, 1-0)
Schlemeel, schlemazel, Hasenfeffer Incorporated! Wisconsin-Milwaukee's close calls during exhibition play and its season-opening loss to Memphis (79-52) are all distant memories now, as are the nagging doubts about whether Bruce Pearl's departure was gonna turn them back now. After a near-miss at UW-Madison (74-68 on Dec. 15), coach Rob Jeter's Panthers have won five in a row and are straight ahead and on the track now. If all three Panther offensive options -- swingman Joah Tucker (15.2 ppg), guard Boo Davis (15.9 ppg) and power forward Adrian Tigert (12.8 ppg, 8.2 rpg) -- continue to do it their way, they're going to make it after all.
Ivy: Penn (6-4)
One year ago today, Penn had a 4-5 record, was in the midst of a five-game losing streak, and had been generally written off as an Ivy threat. Nobody figured the Quakers would go on to win 16 of 17, take the Ivy's "14-game tournament" and Dance as a No. 13 seed. The script might be repeating itself: a brutal December full of high-RPI opponents (Colorado, Temple, Duke, Villanova) followed by green leafy glory. With recent D-III victim Princeton (2-9) out of the mix and presumptive challengers Cornell, Yale and Harvard struggling against weaker foes, a similar Quaker streak this year wouldn't be much of a shock. Expect the Palestra walls to shake with joyous tributes to junior guard Ibrahim "Ibby" Jaaber ("Ib-by Jaa-ber" -- clap, clap, clap-clap-clap; Ivy-leading 19.2 ppg).
Metro Atlantic: Manhattan (6-4, 2-0)
Iona's (8-2) line of gold-and-red gear may have dominated the winter season, but Jasper green likely will be the color of choice when the MAAC's version of "Project Runway" trots out its spring fashions. The other Bronx Bombers have the most dominating all-around player in the conference: 6-6 sophomore swingman C.J. Anderson, who currently holds the team's triple crown, leading the Jaspers in points, rebounds and assists. They're no one-man show, however -- four players average in double figures and they're extremely smart with the ball (17.5 percent turnover rate, 13th in D-I). And despite topping out at 6-foot-8, they're 27th nationally in blocks per game (5.4) -- nothing ruins a nice outfit like a face full of Spalding.
Mid-American: Akron (7-3, 1-0)
I know what you're saying: Huh? Where's Ohio? The Bobcats have been a great story and performed admirably against a tough schedule (losses to Cincinnati and Kentucky), but their Achilles' heel is becoming cruelly exposed. 6-9 big man Leon Williams needs a lot of help inside and isn't getting it: Ohio ranks 257th in rebounding at 29.5 per game, a stat that could come back to haunt in a league where second chances (and bids) are in short supply. The Akron Zips are well-positioned to swoop in and take the MAC; they're a high-octane squad that can match Ohio shot-for-shot (79.7 ppg, 47.6 percent team field-goal shooting), and 6-7 forward Romeo Travis (14.1 ppg, 5.6 rpg) can tear defenses apart. And it's not like this is pure presumption -- Akron easily won both meetings with the Bobcats last season.
Mid-Continent: Oral Roberts (7-7, 2-0)
The Golden Eagles' poor nonconference showing has hurt their future tourney seed, but there's no other team in the Mid-Con that's even close to stepping up. They won't have a problem getting up for league games from here on out -- this is the team that was shocked by eventual NCAA play-in champion Oakland at the buzzer, on its home floor, in the 2005 conference championship game. Give outside-inside tandem Ken Tutt (15.4 ppg) and Caleb Green (20.1 ppg, 9.1 rpg) two months of self-imposed must-wins, and they might end up as one extremely dangerous No. 15 seed come March.
Mid-Eastern: Delaware State (3-10, 1-0)
It's a real chore to wade through the horrid December records of MEAC teams, all those money-game blowouts -- trust me, it's a job that requires a good long nap afterwards. But when you look at Delaware State's games, you only see one true laugher (a 56-37 season-opening loss at UCLA) alongside a slate of noble efforts and 10-point losses. A key stat: Delaware State has played the most deliberately of all the land's teams (52.5 possessions per 40 minutes), but the Hornets take good care of the rock (19.5 percent turnover rate, No. 59 in D-I). Expect a lot of MEAC teams to be lulled to sleep again by the defending champions.
Northeast: Central Connecticut State (5-5, 1-0)
Wagner (7-3, 0-1) may have a slightly sexier record and the hotter offense at the moment, but Central has better bodies. The other Blue Devils are undersized (their tallest starter is 6-foot-6), but they've been able to cover more talented nonconference opponents' size advantages with superior conditioning -- one through 12, they're just as cut and polished as a Big East team, something that will serve them well over the NEC long haul. If you get a chance to watch this team in action, remind yourself that Detrick Gym isn't a health club, it's where CCSU plays.
Ohio Valley: Murray State (6-4, 3-1)
It's important to have a higher purpose to play for, and Tennessee Tech (8-4, 3-1) has it all over the rest of the OVC in that category. They're playing to honor head coach Mike Sutton, who was hit by a rare, debilitating viral infection this spring and has just resumed traveling with the team. On the floor, however, the Golden Eagles' emotional engine has often run out of gas. The best team in this league is Murray State, which features an array of impressive national stats despite playing a tough schedule (four RPI top-100 teams). They're 10th in team rebounding (38.4 rpg), sixth in assists (19.0 apg) and fourth in assist-turnover ratio (1.4). And, as mentioned a couple weeks ago, they rank high in floor percentage (No. 10, 56 percent), a stat that measures the percentage of possessions that result in scores. Add up all the numbers, and you may have an Ohio Valley champion.
Patriot League: Bucknell (9-3)
The media circus in Lewisburg, Pa., will undoubtedly die down in the aftermath of the local team's 84-50 thrashing at Duke. The truth, however, is that Monday's result means absolutely nothing in the long run. Bucknell has all the RPI points they need to assure a low-teen tournament seed (although a Bracket Buster at Nevada would be nice) in a conference that might be as close to a foregone conclusion as any in the country. The only other Last Amateur that's even close to the same galaxy as Bucknell is Holy Cross, and the Crusaders' key weakness (inside play) just happens to correspond to the Bison's key strength (6-10 Chris McNaughton). If the two teams do end up meeting thrice, he might be in for a few 30-point, 15-rebound stat lines.
Southern: Davidson (7-5, 1-0)
The Wildcats are a perfect study in mid-major life, having stormed to a perfect 16-0 SoCon regular-season record in 2004-05 only to hang an NIT banner after losing to North Carolina-Greensboro in the conference tournament semifinals. Davidson returns stacked and angry, led by a senior duo of 6-9 Ian Johnson (18.9 ppg, 6.5 rpg) and 6-5 Brendan Winters (16.0 ppg). They play fast (76.3 possessions per game) and don't overheat (16.9 turnover percentage, 8th in D-I). And the old chestnut about a point guard being a coach on the floor is halfway true here: Matt McKillop (nation's best 6.5 assist-to-turnover ratio) is the son of head coach Bob.
Southland: Northwestern State (7-5)
This is the year; this has to be the year, because the last three have led up to this one. After appearing in the NCAA's inaugural play-in game in 2001, Northwestern State crashed hard, losing all its senior leadership and winning only six games two years later. The four-man freshman core of that 2003 team is now a senior squad, and they're coming off a 21-victory season that ended at home in the SLC championship game at the hands of eventual No. 15-seed Southeastern Louisiana. They've already defeated Oklahoma State and Mississippi State in hostile gyms this season (and played three games in Hawaii as well), an excellent way to prepare for those roadies to Texas-Arlington and Louisiana-Monroe.
Southwestern Athletic: Jackson State (6-8, 2-0)
While I love the SWAC dearly, I recognize it had the narrowest average margin of victory in conference play in all of Division I (7.8 points in 2004-05), so there's really no scientific way to do this. For the second straight year, I've written out the names of the conference's teams, attached them to a dartboard, closed my eyes and let the projectile fly. Last year's pick (Southern) didn't pan out, so do me proud, coach Tevester Anderson and senior guard Trey Johnson (23.1 ppg). Do me proud.
Sun Belt: Western Kentucky (8-4)
No 9-3 team in the country has received as little love as South Alabama (one fewer win than it had all last season), and the story is all the more remarkable because it was our "red flag" team back in the Summer Session, what with all the outbound transfers. But while South Alabama has excelled, Western Kentucky is still the favorite here. The Hilltoppers had their turbulence in December -- coach Darrin Horn called out team co-leading scorer Anthony Winchester (19.6 ppg) on a postgame radio show -- but a nice home win over Virginia on Monday seems to have the House of Diddle back in order. Also, watch out for super sophomore Courtney Lee (19.6 ppg), who often enters states of unconscious shooting from all quadrants of the floor.
West Coast: Gonzaga (10-3)
Since the Zags live in college basketball's penthouse suite, up in Andy Katz and Dick Vitale territory, I have little of value to add to that conversation. St. Mary's (6-5, beat Nevada 89-80 on Dec. 31), last year's at-large WCC club, has slipped up too often to pull off a repeat performance. The shooting stars of San Diego (10-3) do deserve a fair shot at an NCAA berth against equal competition, but them's the breaks.
Kyle Whelliston is the founder of midmajority.com and is a daily contributor to ESPN.com.