Preseason: Projected Conference Champions
Why, you ask?
Just a little interesting sidebar: the 2015-16 season opens on Friday, November 13. Selection Sunday is March 13. Who knows, maybe it’ll be a good year for some No. 13s … Angel Rodrigues (Miami), Matt Jones (Duke), Anthony Gill (Virginia), Patricio Garino (George Washington), Phil Forte (Oklahoma State), Henry Ellenson (Marquette), Isaiah Briscoe (Kentucky), or Winston Shepard (San Diego State), among others.
What we do know is that come Selection Sunday, 32 teams will punch their Dance Ticket as an automatic qualifier to the NCAA tournament. Following is Bracketville’s list of projected conference champions (preseason edition) …
- American East – Stony Brook: The Seawolves return five starters, including Jameel Warney, and look to avenge last season’s loss in the AE tournament final.
- American (AAC) – Connecticut: I’m expecting a bounce-back year for the Huskies. A pair of tranfers (Sterling Gibbs, Shonn Miller) join budding star Daniel Hamilton and Amida Brimah. Note: SMU was not considered due to school’s post-season ban.
- Atlantic 10 (A10) – Rhode Island: Maybe a slight stretch over Dayton, but not much. The Rams were a bit of a surprise last year, this year they won’t be. E.C. Matthews and Hassan Martin lead a solid core for Dan Hurley. It should be an entertaining league race.
- Atlantic Coast (ACC) – North Carolina: The Tar Heels are No. 1 on our preseason Seed List and thus the favorite to win the ACC title. It won’t be easy, though. Duke and Virginia will push UNC for league supremacy.
- Atlantic Sun – North Florida: With a talented group of returnees, we’re picking the Ospreys to defend their A-Sun title.
- Big 12 – Kansas: Behind Perry Ellis, Frank Mason, Wayne Selden Jr. and a host others, including newcomers Carlton Bragg and Cheick Diallo (if eligible), the Jayhawks are favored to win a 12th straight conference crown. That would put them in line for another No. 1 seed in March. Oklahoma and Iowa State won’t make it an easy road, however.
- Big East – Villanova: It might be hard to duplicate last season’s regular season record, but the Wildcats bring back a core group that includes Ryan Arcidiacono and JayVaughn Pinkston. It’ll be interesting to see how quickly highly-touted freshman guard Jalen Brunson finds his niche.
- Big Sky – Weber State: A bit of a sleeper pick, but the Wildcats return five starters. Eastern Washington and Montana are the other best bets to earn the league’s automatic bid.
- Big South – Coastal Carolina: With depth and experience, the Chanticleers are favored to make a third straight trip to the NCAAs.
- Big Ten – Maryland: With the additions of Freshman Diamond Stone and Duke transfer Rasheed Sulaimon, the Terrapins, led by Melo Trimble, enter the season as Big Ten favorites. Just don’t count out Michigan State; the Spartans are going to be good – again.
- Big West – UC-Irvine: No surprise here. Led by 7’6″ center Mamadou Ndiaye, the Anteaters are eyeing another trip to March Madness.
- Colonial – Hofstra: In what should be a competitive race, the Pride return a solid nucleus that includes guard Juan’ya Green.
- Conference USA – Old Dominion: In what could be one of the nation’s best races, we’ll go with the Monarchs, who return Trey Freeman and figure to be the most balanced team. Challengers include UAB, Louisiana Tech, and UTEP. Keep an eye on Florida International and Middle Tennessee, too.
- Horizon – Valparaiso: The Crusaders are not only the clear pick, they are also capable of winning a game or two in March. Among a host of talent, they return Alec Peters, a Horizon Player-of-the-Year candidate.
- Ivy – Columbia: Another under-the-radar pick, but considering the injuries to the Lions’ roster last year, they might be overlooked. Several starters return, including Maodo Lo and sophomore Kyle Castlin, who was a bit of a breakout player as a freshman.
- MAAC – Iona: While the Gaels lose some talent, they return A.J. English and should keep their league crown intact.
- MEAC – Hampton: The Pirates return four of five starters and look to make a return trip to the NCAA tournament.
- Mid-American – Central Michigan: Led by senior point guard Chris Fowler, the Chippewas bring back five starters and a host of other reserves. Akron will challenge, but CMU is the favorite.
- Missouri Valley – Wichita State: No surprise here. The Shockers remain a national power with Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet. Former All-Horizon League player Anton Grady (Cleveland State) joins a team loaded with options. They also gain the services of Kansas transfer Conner Frankamp.
- Mountain West – San Diego State: While this may not be one of Steve Fisher’s best teams, the Aztecs remain the favorite, led by Winston Shepard. The league crown won’t come easy. Boise State should challenge, and UNLV certainly has the talent to be a factor.
- Northeast – Mt St. Mary’s: The Mountaineers have experience back from a team that improved down the stretch a year ago.
- Ohio Valley – Belmont: Coach Rick Byrd brings back another strong group, led by Craig Bradshaw. In all, the team’s top three scorers return.
- Pac-12 – California: It won’t be easy to unseat Arizona, but the Bears are the pick in a close race. The arrival of freshmen Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb give Cal a strong core that includes returnees Tyrone Wallace, Jabari Bird, and Jordan Matthews.
- Patriot – Bucknell: Much like some other teams on this list, the Bison return a slew of starters. That includes All-Patriot player Chris Hass. Expect Lehigh to put up a formidable challenge.
- Southeastern (SEC) – Kentucky: While this group of Wildcats will not be as deep as last year’s version, they are again ultra-talented. Holdovers Tyler Ulis and Alex Poythress are joined by newcomers Skal Labissiere, Isaiah Briscoe, and Jamal Murray.
- Southern – Chattanooga: The Mocs welcome new coach Matt McCall and benefit from both experience and talent, led by All-SoCon performer Casey Jones. Wofford is a solid contender and should make the league race an interesting follow.
- Southland – Stephen F. Austin: The Lumberjacks have been a tough out for a couple of years and this year’s version might be Brad Underwood’s most talented. SFA is the clear favorite and could be a Cinderella threat in March.
- Summit – South Dakota State: Senior guards Deondre Parks and George Marshall are a nice combo for the Jackrabbits.
- Sun Belt – Louisiana-Lafayette: Shawn Long returns for the Ragin Cajuns and gives ULL another shot a some March Magic.
- SWAC – Texas Southern: It’s hard to bet against the Tigers who have been dominate in SWAC play the past three seasons.
- Western Athletic (WAC) – New Mexico State: The Aggies are the pick, but could face a tougher challenge this season. The top returnees are Pascal Siakam and Ian Baker.
- West Coast – Gonzaga: Mark Few and the Bulldogs have a dominant front line trio in Przemek Karnowski, Domantas Sabonis, and Kyle Wiltjer. If steady guard play emerges, the Zags should again be a force on the national stage.
Once conference tournament play begins the Madness arrives. Favorites don’t always win the one game and out format. We should see several exciting league races and hopefully we’ll have a strong pool of at-large candidates as we enter the season’s final couple of weeks.