College Basketball: Predicting All 32 Conference Champs
We are barely into the new year, but with conference play underway, it's never too early to start thinking about who can win their respective conferences.
Much is made of early season non-conference scheduling, but nothing matters more than in-conference performance.
You can start 10-0, but if you stumble in your conference, you probably won't still be playing in mid-March.
Here is an early look at the teams that could earn automatic NCAA Tournament bids in three months.
1. America East: Boston University
Boston currently stands in fifth place in the conference with a 5-11 record, but looks can be deceiving.
The Terriers were a preseason favorite to win the America East, and there is no reason to change that thought.
With quality guards and a good big man, they have what it takes to excel in conference play.
Point guard D.J. Irving is handing out 5.0 assists per game, and shooting guard Darryl Partin is scoring 19.8 points and adding 4.3 rebounds per game. Patrick Hazel is grabbing 6.2 rebounds with 1.9 blocks per game.
Boston played a brutal non-conference schedule and should be ready to earn a second consecutive NCAA Tournament invite.
2. Atlantic 10: Xavier
Since their brawl in Cincinnati, Xavier has really struggled, dropping five of their last seven games.
They've dropped to 10-5, but once they get all their pieces back in place, they should pick up right where they left off. Even if suspensions broke up their momentum, Tu Holloway won't let the Musketeers fall off.
Holloway and fellow guard Mark Lyons are lethal scorers and tough defenders. The back court alone could take this team to great heights, but their front court is equally tough.
Big men Kenny Frease, Travis Taylor and Andre Walker are combining for 18.5 rebounds and 3.2 blocks per game.
As a team they take great care of the ball and stifle opposing offenses. They allow just 43 percent shooting on two-point field goals and 29 percent from three.
3. ACC: North Carolina
With apologies to Duke fans, there was really no other choice but the Tar Heels.
Usually teams with this much talent are incredibly young, but Roy Williams is starting a senior, two juniors and two sophomores.
They possess a lethal combination of size, strength, shooting and rebounding.
Harrison Barnes hasn't completely lived up to his late-season run, but he is still shooting 51 percent from three-point range. John Henson and Tyler Zeller are one of the toughest low post duos in recent memory.
They also have a point guard in Kendall Marshall who is averaging over 10 assists per game, keeping everyone happy on the offensive end.
They play tough defense and are one of the best rebounding teams in the nation.
4. Atlantic Sun: Belmont
Belmont is truly the class of the Atlantic Sun Conference. They stand at 15-3 and are 4-1 in conference games.
Belmont has a point guard in Kerron Johnson who is equally adept at scoring and setting up his teammates. He is efficient, scoring 14.0 points with 5.1 assists and shooting 49 percent from the field.
He also has two senior big men in Scott Saunders and Mick Hedgepath who stand 6'10" and 6'9" respectively.
Saunders is averaging 10.8 points and 5.8 rebounds per game, and Hedgepath is pulling down 6.2 rebounds and shoots 54 percent from the field.
Belmont should earn a tournament bid for the second straight season.
5. Big 12: Missouri
Kansas will almost always be the big kid on the block in the Big 12, but Missouri may be the best team this year.
They have four players averaging over 12 points per game, and they are dangerously efficient on offense. They lead the nation in two-point shooting at 57 percent, and they are also shooting 41 percent from three and 77 percent from the foul line.
Marcus Denmon and Kim English are the top scorers. Denmon is averaging 18.7 points per game, shooting 44.7 percent on threes. English is scoring 15.4 points and shooting a sizzling 53.8 percent from deep.
Ricardo Ratliffe is maybe the nation's most efficient post player, storing 13.3 points per game on 77 percent shooting. Point guard Phil Pressey leads the way on offense and defense, averaging 5.9 assists and 2.1 steals.
They don't waste possessions on offense, and they have a swarming defense that should take them to the top of the Big 12.
6. Big East: Syracuse
Syracuse is simply the best team in the Big East. They may get upset a couple times along the way, but they will emerge as conference champs.
The Big East isn't as strong as in previous season,s and the Orange are deep and very good on both ends. They have 10 players averaging over 12 minutes per game and seven players averaging over one steal per game.
Kris Joseph and Brandon Triche are lighting it up from the outside, each shooting 43 percent on threes. Dion Waiters is averaging 12.5 points and 2.2 steals per game. Fab Melo is anchoring the defense inside with almost three blocks per game.
That is all without mentioning senior leader Scoop Jardine, who leads the team with 4.2 assists per game.
Syracuse is the best team in the Big East without question.
7. Big Sky: Weber State
Weber State has an incredible back court that will not only cause fits in the Big Sky, but it could stun a heavily-favored team in the NCAA Tournament.
They are led by the nation's leading scorer Damian Lillard. Lillard is scoring 26.3 points per game while shooting 49 percent from the field, 47 percent on threes and 91 percent from the foul line.
The "other" guard, Scott Bamforth, is averaging 15.6 points per game and shooting 44 percent from three-point range and 89 percent on free throws.
They have good size with four players over 6'7", and they are a great shooting team. They shoot 39 percent from long-range and 81 percent as a team from the foul line.
Weber State should win the Big Sky, and they can play with any team on any given night.
8. Big South: UNC-Asheville
UNC-Asheville has three seniors returning from a team that made the NCAA Tournament and won a play-in game last year.
The seniors are three good ones. Matt Dickey is averaging 15.9 points per game and shooting 39 percent from three-point range. Chris Stephenson is scoring 14.8 points and 6.4 rebounds per game and point guard J.P. Primm is averaging 13.9 points and 4.3 rebounds and knocking down 37 percent from three.
They also have two other double-figure scorers in Jaron Lane and Jeremy Atkinson. Lane is shooting 38 percent on threes and Atkinson is averaging 6.4 rebounds per game.
This team is a little size-challenged, but they just have too much talent to come up short of winning the Big South.
9. Big Ten: Ohio State
Michigan State and Indiana made this choice a tough one, but Ohio State is too hard to pick against.
They are a complete team with a lot of balance, depth and good players fulfilling different roles. They also have great talent.
Jared Sullinger is the star, a behemoth averaging 17.1 points and 9.6 rebounds per game. William Buford does a little of everything, scoring 15.4 points with 4.7 rebounds and 3.6 assists while shooting 36 percent on threes.
Deshaun Thomas pitches in with 14.8 points per game and also shoots 36 percent from deep.
The leader and tone-setter is Aaron Craft. He isn't a shooter or scorer, but he is a tough defender and a playmaker for his team. He averages 5.1 assists and 2.6 steals per game.
Ohio State has a tough road, but they have what it takes to win the Big Ten.
10. Big West: Long Beach State
Long Beach State is one of the hidden gems in college basketball. They are just 10-6, but they have played the toughest non-conference schedule in the country.
They beat Pitt when they were ranked ninth and Xavier when they were 15th. They hung tough with Louisville, North Carolina and Kansas as well.
They are led by three seniors who are ready to make a push for the NCAA Tournament.
Point guard Casper Ware leads them on both ends of the floor with his high-energy play. He averages 16.6 points, 3.3 assists and 1.5 steals per game. Shooting guard Larry Anderson is scoring 14.8 points per game and shooting 43 percent from three-point range.
Big man T.J. Robinson is a consistent force down low, averaging 12.5 points and 10.2 rebounds per game.
They are tough and have been thoroughly tested. Remember this team in March; they will be fun to watch.
11. Colonial Athletic Association: George Mason
George Mason is generally regarded as a solid mid-major, and this year is no different. They are coming off a tournament win over Villanova last year.
This year the Patriots are led by senior Ryan Pearson. Pearson is averaging 18.2 points and 8.3 rebounds per game and is shooting 38 percent from deep.
Fellow senior Mike Morrison is scoring 9.8 points and adding 7.4 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game. Sophomore Vertrail Vaughns is averaging 11.6 points a night on 39 percent shooting from three-point range.
George Mason employs a tough defense that holds foes to 42.8 percent shooting on two-point field goals and 29.8 percent on threes.
12. Conference USA: Memphis
No longer the John Calipari juggernaut, but they are not short on talent.
The Tigers go about nine deep, with all nine averaging more than 17 minutes per game.
Will Barton is the star and a jack-of-all-trades, averaging 18.9 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.0 blocks and 39 percent three-point shooting.
Outside of Barton, there are no eye-popping numbers because the minutes are divided so evenly. Joe Jackson pitches in with 10.8 points per game, while Adonis Thomas scores 10.0 points and adds 3.7 rebounds.
Tarik Black leads the team with 1.8 blocks per game, and Chris Crawford leads them with 1.9 steals and 4.1 assists.
As a team they shoot 52 percent on two-point shots and 39 percent from three. Defensively they hold teams to a paltry 40.6 percent on two-point field goals.
13. Great West: Utah Valley
There is nothing great about the Great West, but someone has to win it. Not a single team has even a .500 record thus far. Utah Valley is tops at 8-10.
The team is led by the senior inside-out combo of Isiah Williams and Geddes Robinson.
Robinson is a bruiser who averages 10.1 points and 9.9 rebounds per game. Williams runs the show and scores 14.8 points per game and shoots 36 percent from three-point range.
Providing some defense and energy is Ben Aird, who contributes 6.6 points and 1.6 blocks per game.
14. Horizon League: Cleveland State
Cleveland State is led by three seniors looking to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009, when they were freshmen.
The three senior guards provide a very balanced offensive attack and a swarming defense.
D'Aundray Brown averages 12.6 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.5 steals per game and he is shooting 41 percent from three-point range. Trevon Harmon scores 11.4 points and shoots 39 percent from three and Jeremy Montgomery is adding 10.2 points on 35 percent three-point shooting.
They force more turnovers than any team in the nation, and they hold opponents to 27 percent three-point shooting. They shoot well on offense, at 37 percent from three and 75 percent from the foul line.
15. Ivy League: Harvard
Tommy Amaker has taken his big-school roots to the Ivy League, and the results have been tremendous.
Harvard has a very team-oriented attack. Underneath, Kyle Casey and Keith Wright hold down the fort. Casey averages 11.5 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game with 40 percent three-point shooting. Wright adds 10.8 points, 7.4 rebounds and 1.5 blocks.
On the perimeter, Laurent Rivard scores 9.9 points a night on 41 percent shooting from three. Oliver McNally is scoring 7.9 points per game and shooting 40 percent on threes.
Brandyn Curry runs the point and leads the team with 4.9 assists and 2.3 steals per game.
Harvard will run away with the Ivy this year.
16. Metro Atlantic Athletic: Iona
If the Gaels don't win the MAAC it will be a real shame, because they are one of the most exciting teams in the country and should be in the NCAA Tournament. Come to think of it, they should get an at-large bid even if they don't win.
Iona is home to one of the true treasures of college basketball. Scott Machado is possibly the best player that most people haven't heard of. He leads the up-tempo attack with 13.4 points and 10.1 assists per game. He is shooting 42 percent from three-point range.
Michael Glover dominates underneath, averaging 19.0 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game. He is sinking 68 percent of his field goal attempts.
Junior guard Lamont Jones is adding 15.0 points per game and 3.8 assists and shooting 36 percent from long range.
As a team, they shoot the lights out, take care of the ball and run teams out of the gym. They are shooting 56 percent on two-point attempts, 38 percent on threes and 75 percent on free throws.
17. Mid-American Conference: Ohio
Ohio is led by four juniors that were on the team that knocked off Georgetown in the first round in 2010.
Point guard D.J. Cooper is an exciting player. He is averaging 14.1 points, 6.3 assists, 4.0 rebounds and 2.7 steals per game. Shooting guard Walter Offutt scores 11.3 points and harasses offenses for 1.5 steals.
Inside, Ivo Baltic and Reggie Keely provide scoring and rebounding. Baltic averages 11.1 points and 5.2 rebounds, and Keely puts up 9.7 points and 5.5 boards.
Nick Kellogg and Stevie Taylor are designated shooters that combine to hit 45 percent of their three-point attempts.
Ohio employs a disruptive defense that creates a lot of steals, and they hold opponents to 29.8 percent three-point shooting.
18. Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference: Norfolk State
Could this be the year that Norfolk State earns its first-ever NCAA Tournament invite? If dominating, senior big man Kyle O'Quinn has any say, the answer is yes.
O'Quinn owns the block in the MEAC, averaging 15.0 points, 9.9 rebounds and 2.9 blocks per game. Fellow senior Chris McEachin is adding 13.0 points and 1.6 steals per game.
Junior swingman Pendarvis Williams is scoring 12.3 points per game, adding 4.1 rebounds and shooting 37 percent from three-point range.
They are shooting 52 percent on two-point attempts, ranking in the top 40 in the country. They also block a lot of shots and have the fourth-best three-point defense in the nation.
19. Missouri Valley Conference: Creighton
It was very tempting to pick Wichita State to win the MVC, but the shooting of Doug McDermott and Creighton was too much to overlook.
McDermott is absolutely dominating. He is averaging 25.2 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. He is also shooting 63 percent from the field and 58 percent on threes.
Senior point guard Antoine Young is shooting 39 percent from three-point range and is scoring 11.5 points per game along with 4.4 assists.
Big man Gregory Echenique, at 270 pounds, is contributing 9.4 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game.
The Blue Jays are extremely efficient on offense and are an unbelievable shooting team. They are fourth in the nation in three-point shooting at 45 percent. Defensively they get enough stops to get the job done.
20. Mountain West: UNLV
UNLV is in the midst of a resurgence. They are off to a 16-2 start despite a rugged non-conference schedule.
They managed to beat North Carolina, Illinois, Cal and Nevada while losing games to Wisconsin and Wichita State.
Perhaps the biggest and most exciting reason is UCLA-transfer Mike Moser. He has been electrifying, averaging 14.2 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.8 steals.
Seniors Chace Stanback and Oscar Bellfield have been key contributors as well. Stanback is the team's leading scorer at 14.8 points per game, shooting 47 percent on threes. Bellfield leads the team with 5.3 assists per game.
Junior Anthony Marshall is chipping in with 10.6 points, 4.9 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.5 steals.
They play a quick-paced offense and stingy defense. They're 14th in the nation in two-point shooting at 55 percent and shoot 38 percent from three and 72 percent from the foul line.
On defense, they use their length and athleticism to disrupt passing lanes and alter shots. Teams are only shooting 41 percent on two-point shots against the Rebels.
21. Northeast Conference: Long Island
Long Island is on a stretch winning eight of their last 10 games, including a big win over conference rival Wagner.
They play at an unbelievable pace and could run their way to a conference championship.
The forward tandem of Julian Boyd and Jamal Olasewere are the key cogs to this team's attack. Boyd battles inside for 16.2 points per game and 9.5 rebounds. Do-everything Olasewere averages 15.8 points, 7.4 rebounds, 1.5 steals, 1.1 blocks and shoots 37 percent on threes.
Sophomore point guard Jason Brickman dishes out 6.4 assists per game and shoots 40 percent from long-distance. Senior guard Michael Culpo is draining 40 percent of his threes and scores 9.7 points per game.
They get to the line a ton and make 71 percent of their attempts. This may be a shaky pick, but they would be fun to see in the postseason.
22. Ohio Valley: Murray State
At 16-0, Murray State is rolling. They play highly effective offense, and they are very disruptive on defense.
Guard Isaiah Canaan is an assassin, scoring 18.7 points per game and shooting 51 percent from three-point range. Donte Poole is averaging 13.3 points and 2.2 steals per game and hits 43 percent of his threes.
Inside, Ivan Aska is scoring 12.6 points and grabbing 6.0 rebounds per game, and Ed Daniel is blocking a team-high 1.6 shots per game.
Offensively, they are third in the nation in three-point shooting at 46 percent, and defensively they rank ninth in defending the three, surrendering just 27 percent. They shoot a lot of free throws and make 76 percent.
They are a very active defense, coming up with either a steal or a block almost 25 percent of the time.
23. Pac-12: California
The Pac-12 is truly up for grabs this year. Five teams are currently within one game of first place. California appears to be the most talented team, so they have to be the favorites.
Small forward Allen Crabbe has been sensational, averaging 16.5 points, 6.1 rebounds and shooting 48 percent on threes. Jorge Gutierrez and Justin Cobbs share ball-handling duties and the secondary scoring load.
Gutierrez is averaging 14.9 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.2 assists, and Cobbs is adding 12.9 points and 4.7 assists while knocking down 63 percent of his threes.
A big man rotation of Harper Kamp, David Kravish and Richard Solomon are combining for 21.1 points, 17.3 rebounds and three blocks per game.
Cal plays a very controlled offense; they limit turnovers and are third in the nation in three-point shooting. On defense they hold teams to just 43 percent shooting on two-point attempts.
24. Patriot League: Lehigh
Lehigh lost their first Patriot League game, but they are still the most likely team to win the conference.
Led by electrifying guard C.J. McCollum, the Mountain Hawks can score with anyone. He is scoring 20.3 points a game with 6.2 rebounds and 3.4 assists.
He has two good forwards assisting him in Holden Greiner and Gabe Knutson. They each score 13.0 points a game. Greiner grabs 6.2 rebounds and knocks down 41 percent from three-point range. Knuston averages 5.4 rebounds per game.
They play at a quick pace and don't waste possessions. They draw a lot of fouls and are fifth in the nation in free-throw shooting at 78 percent.
Defensively, they have good size, and they get their share of steals and stops.
25. SEC: Kentucky
The SEC has almost always been Kentucky's domain, and it's hard to see any other school changing that this year.
Kentucky has one of the longest and most athletic teams in the history of college basketball. These attributes make them an absolute nightmare defensively.
They are the best shot-blocking team in the nation, led by Anthony Davis' 4.6 per game. They also have four players averaging more than a steal per game.
They are ranked first in the NCAA in two-point field goal defense, at 39 percent. They have six players averaging over 26 minutes per game, and all of them are scoring in double-figures.
Kentucky also averages 81 points per game, shooting 49 percent from the field. The only thing that can stop them is a lack of depth and youth.
26. Southern: Davidson
Davidson is looking to win the Southern Conference for the first time since 2008. If they do, it will be on the back of a deep, balanced offensive attack.
Davidson boasts four players scoring over 12 points per game, led by De'Mon Brooks at 15.9. The other three are Jake Cohen, Nik Cochran and J.P. Kuhlman. Cochran is shooting a blistering 44 percent from three-point range.
They have great size for a small conference team, and they rebound at a high level.
They have the most efficient offense and defense in the conference, and it will take a major failure for Davidson not to win the conference title.
27. Southland: Lamar
Lamar has a deep team that plays fast. They have 10 players averaging more than 10 minutes per game. The Cardinals are hoping to pace themselves to the Southland Conference championship and their first tournament appearance since 2000.
Mike James leads a thee-guard attack with 16.3 points and 2.0 steals per game. Anthony Miles is averaging 14.2 points, 4.2 rebounds and 4.1 assists. Devon Lamb is adding 10.6 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.2 steals.
They have five seniors starting, which could really give them a lift in conference play. They are a great free-throw shooting team at 75 percent. They are also a good offensive rebounding team and play disruptive defense.
28. Southwestern Athletic: Mississippi Valley State
The SWAC title is anyone's for the taking, seeing as the Delta Devils are just 4-11 but 3-0 in conference play.
They have a three-headed monster in Terrence Joyner, Paul Crosby and Cor-J Cox. Joyner is scoring 13.6 points per game on 40 percent three-point shooting. Crosby is a 245-pound monster, putting up 13.1 points and 5.6 rebounds per game. Cox is scoring 10.6 points and a team-high 6.3 rebounds.
They have the best offense in the conference and should be able to outscore their opponents. They are hoping to make their first NCAA Tournament since 2008.
29. Summit League: South Dakota State
The Summit League is very competitive at the top, and this is admittedly a shaky pick. All the eggs are being put in the Nate Wolters' basket.
South Dakota State doesn't play much defense, but Wolters is a 21.5 points per game scorer, and he is averaging 5.9 assists and 4.7 rebounds. He is the best player in the conference, and he does have some help.
Griffin Callahan and Chad White are supporting outside shooters, both hitting 43 percent of their threes.
They have good size, the best player in the conference and they shoot 38 percent as a team. I guess time will tell if they can overcome their competition.
30. Sun Belt: Middle Tennessee
The Sun Belt title should go through Murfreesboro this year. The Blue Raiders have an opportunity to make their first NCAA Tournament since 1989.
Middle Tennessee is led by Marcos Kinght, a versatile guard. He averages 13.0 points, 6.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.8 steals and 35 percent three-point shooting.
The Blue Raiders also have an inside duo of LaRon Dendy and J.T. Sulton. Dendy is the workhorse with 14.2 points, 7.1 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game. Sulton is scoring 11.4 points and grabbing 5.9 rebounds.
They are the best team in the conference on both ends of the floor, they get a lot of steals and block a lot of shots and they shoot 54 percent from inside the three-point arc.
31. West Coast Conference: St. Mary's
The WCC is usually Gonzaga's playground, but the inside-outside combo of Rob Jones and Matthew Dellavedova is looking to change that.
Dellavedova is a big-time point guard, scoring 14.4 points and dishing 6.6 assists per game, shooting 37 percent on threes. He can take over any game.
Jones is 6'6" and 240 pounds, and opponents are always aware of his presence. He is averaging 15.2 points, 10.6 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game. He is shooting 36 percent from deep.
St. Mary's has a lot of competition with Gonzaga and BYU, but they have the ability to come out on top.
32. Western Athletic Conference: Nevada
Nevada is the team to beat this year in the WAC. They are playing great basketball and are a balanced team with a lot of components.
They play smart offense, with four players are scoring in double-figures. Deonte Burton leads the way with 15.5 points and 4.7 assists per game as well as his 40 percent three-point shooting.
Malik Story is blazing the nets with his 51 percent shooting from deep. He is averaging 14.2 points per game. Olek Czyz brings scoring and rebounding with 10.5 points and 5.7 rebounds per game.
A huge factor in their success is Dario Hunt. He puts up 10.2 points per game, plus 8.9 rebounds, 2.0 blocks and 1.3 steals. Hunt is one of the nation's most underrated defensive players.
They are shooting 39 percent as a team on threes, and defensively, they get a steal or a block 23 percent of the time.
Nevada is looking to make the tournament for the first time since 2007.
So that's an early look at who could be conference champions in March. Obviously there is a long way to go, and injuries and slumps can happen.
If anyone has any thoughts on teams that were snubbed or given more credit than deserved, make your thoughts known.
Hopefully I'll hear some of your predictions as well.
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