CBB 2012-13: Five Mid-Major Conference Races to Watch
The Big East is in flux, a season away from losing longtime members while adding Memphis, Temple and some spare parts. Its time as the preeminent college basketball power could be nearing an end.
The ACC could witness an uprising, with the likes of NC State, Florida State and Miami having the potential to topple North Carolina and Duke. Unfortunately, UNC and Duke will still command the airwaves and cyberspace.
The Big Ten appears to be a one-horse race unless Indiana's opponents get major contributions from freshmen.
Meanwhile, the mid-major conferences will be where some real fun resides. The urgency that comes from conference members knowing that less than half of the tournament-worthy teams will actually be considered for invitations makes for some tremendous basketball.
These leagues won't be represented nearly as well as they should be in March, but will be extremely fun to watch in January and February.
1. Atlantic 10
The A-10 is up to 16 teams, but we all stopped counting long ago. Unlike the Big East, which made moves based more on school location and geographic footprint than athletic quality, the A-10's additions of Butler and VCU improved the product on both of those standards.
The nation's two favorite coaching targets, Brad Stevens of Butler and Shaka Smart of VCU, now get to step in the arena with names like Fran Dunphy, Phil Martelli and Chris Mack, unfortunately missing the chance to tangle with Saint Louis's Rick Majerus.
There could conceivably be nine teams in this conference worthy of NCAA tournament consideration. Butler and VCU can walk right in and contend for the league crown, especially if Butler's Rotnei Clarke can be as good a point guard as Stevens says he is.
Temple returns conference Player of the Year candidate Khalif Wyatt, who should be eager to please his coaches and school, especially if he escapes suspension for his summer soliciting arrest. Big man Anthony Lee will be another key as he attempts to replace conference block-leader Micheal Eric. Temple will be looking to leave an impression in its final year before moving all sports to the Big East.
St. Joseph's has the burden of expectation this season as literally everyone returns from last year's 20-win NIT squad. Langston Galloway and Carl Jones are the best backcourt in America that you've never heard of, and forward C.J. Aiken should be one of the nation's most feared defenders.
Saint Louis, even without Majerus on the sideline, still returns a veteran nucleus of fierce defenders. If 6'5" forward Dwayne Evans can continue to play much bigger than his size (7.9 PPG, 7.3 RPG last year), the Billikens should survive the loss of reliable inside scorer Brian Conklin.
UMass has perhaps the league's best player in waterbug point guard Chaz Williams, Richmond returns four double-figure scorers, Dayton's Kevin Dillard is the school's best point guard in two decades and LaSalle has a tremendous backcourt of its own.
That's the big nine, but there's also the compelling storyline of whether Xavier coach Chris Mack can fashion another winner out of a decimated roster. Xavier's one of only four teams to make four Sweet 16's in the past five years. The others are Kansas, Michigan State and North Carolina. Doing it again will give Mack every Coach of the Year award ever created.
Ohio University crashed the national party when it toppled Michigan and South Florida to reach the Sweet 16, and there's a lot to like about this season's Bobcat squad as well.
Guard D.J. Cooper can be penciled in as the league's Player of the Year, but don't go Sharpie on him until about February or so. All of Cooper's important teammates are back, including forward Ivo Baltic and backcourt mates Walter Offutt and Nick Kellogg, who memorably drove his CBS analyst father Clark to proud tears after Ohio's third-round win.
Ohio's success propelled coach John Groce to a position at Illinois, so the Bobcats reached out and secured the services of ex-Kent State boss Jim Christian. Christian won better than 70 percent of his games at Kent, still the top winning percentage in MAC history, so he knows the territory well.
Look for an in-state rival to try and crash the Bobcats' party this season. Akron returns four of its five starters, including seven-footer Zeke Marshall, from the squad that lost to Ohio by one point in the MAC tournament final. Marshall needs only 56 blocks this season to break the MAC's career record. He may get there by New Year's Day.
Point guard Alex Abreu leads a group of shooters that can spread the floor and let Marshall operate inside. Six returning Zips averaged at least seven points per game, so there are a lot of players hungry for retribution and able to go get it.
Elsewhere, Buffalo looks for its fourth 20-win season out of five behind burly Javon McCrea and Toledo could challenge for the West division crown behind wing Rian Pearson, whose size (6'4", 190) belies his toughness on the glass (8.3 RPG, 3rd in MAC last season).
The Rockets' main competition in the West could come from Eastern Michigan, which gains the services of 6'7" Arkansas transfer Glenn Bryant this season. Bryant averaged nearly five blocks per 40 minutes as a sophomore in 2010-11.
3. Missouri Valley
It's all about Creighton, right? Doug McDermott pushing for more All-America honors? Gregory Echenique's pink shoes (pictured)? Grant Gibbs owning Twitter?
The fellow pictured here begs to differ. Illinois State's Jackie Carmichael was one of the MVC's most efficient offensive players, its leading rebounder and third in blocks last season.
Now for the bad news: the Redbirds lost their point guard (Nic Moore transferred to SMU) and coach (Tim Jankovich did the same).
The new boss is ISU icon Dan Muller, whose late basket helped the Redbirds knock off Tennessee and reach the second round in their last NCAA tournament appearance back in 1998. If senior distributor Anthony Cousin and freshman scorer Kaza Keane can combine to replace Moore's production, ISU could equal or better last season's third-place regular season and runner-up tournament finishes.
Wichita State lost its top five scorers and had an easy time filling in its non-conference schedule by mid-July. Coach Gregg Marshall thinks these two events may be related.
"Maybe, these other coaches, doing their homework, realize we’ve lost nine scholarship seniors in the last two years, so it’s probably a good time to be playing the Shockers,” Marshall said in a summer conference call (via Wichita Eagle).
WSU does return two starters in Demetric Williams and Carl Hall, while adding a pair of talented point guards in Oregon transfer Malcolm Armstead and touted freshman Fred Van Vleet. Juco All-American Cleanthony Early may prove to be a defensive force.
Elsewhere, Northern Iowa is always a force with a blend of experience and toughness, while Evansville still has 20-PPG man Colt Ryan.
Of course, if all you want to watch is Creighton, there's a lot to enjoy there, as well.
4. Mountain West
Enjoy this season, Mountain West fans.
The return of UNLV to national prominence will take on a bittersweet flavor next season when its primary foil, San Diego State, packs its programs up and heads to the Big West. Except, that is, for the football team, which literally goes the opposite direction and joins the Big East.
For this year, though, the Runnin' Rebels and Aztecs will go toe-to-toe for the regular-season title and strive to avoid embarrassing first-round NCAA tournament losses.
San Diego State trots out a loaded backcourt with All-Conference favorites Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley, floor general Xavier Thames and glue guy James Rahon. The frontcourt may be a concern, though.
If transfer forwards Dwayne Polee (St. John's), J.J. O'Brien (Utah) and James Johnson (Virginia) produce, and hyped freshman Winston Shepard keeps his personal habits away from police attention, coach Steve Fisher's lineup will compete with anyone's.
UNLV's frontcourt is the equal of SDSU's backcourt, with a lot of talented players drawing major attention. Returnees Carlos Lopez, Quintrell Thomas and All-America candidate Mike Moser will be supplemented by top-10 recruit Anthony Bennett and Pitt transfer Khem Birch. Philly freshman Savon Goodman should see some time, as well.
Vegas's backcourt puts it in the league driver's seat, though. MWC All-Defensive team member Anthony Marshall and veteran reserve Justin Hawkins are joined by another touted freshman, Californian Katin Reinhardt, and USC transfer Bryce Jones.
We'll hear about these two squads all season, but don't sleep on Nevada, with sensational guards Deonte Burton and Malik Story. Another team to watch will be Colorado State, which returns nearly all of its NCAA tournament team, including defensive warrior Pierce Hornung, and brings in new coach Larry Eustachy to replace Tim Miles.
New Mexico is another team packing a tremendous backcourt, with juniors Kendall Williams and Tony Snell joined by Aussie sophomore Hugh Greenwood.
Five MWC teams in the NCAA tournament? Unlikely, but certainly possible.
5. Ohio Valley
Murray State was a national story last season, stampeding into February with an undefeated record and prompting serious debate about how an OVC team would be seeded if it stayed perfect into March.
Star guard Isaiah Canaan (pictured) should be at the very least a repeat winner of conference Player of the Year honors, and is very likely to repeat the All-America status he enjoyed last year as well. Three key supporting players are gone, and reserve guard Zay Jackson's status remains up in the air after he struck a couple with his car outside the Murray Wal-Mart.
Steady senior Ed Daniel (and his EdFro) returns, and the Racers add six freshmen along with UAB transfer Dexter Fields, who shot 37 percent from deep as a sophomore in 2010-11.
A 30-1 record only garnered the Racers a No. 6 seed, so this season, the mission is to do it again. A large obstacle was placed in Murray's way, however, when the OVC added Belmont to its ranks.
Belmont habitually cruised through the Atlantic Sun, reaching five of the last seven NCAA tournaments. The Bruins are led by guards Kerron Johnson and Ian Clark, who may be the best mid-major backcourt outside of Philadelphia (see the Atlantic 10 slide).
Coach Rick Byrd will miss sharpshooter Drew Hanlen and big men Mick Hedgpeth and Scott Saunders, but look for juniors J.J. Mann and Blake Jenkins to step seamlessly into starting roles. Size may be an issue, but Murray's only packing two players taller than 6'7" itself.
A player taller than 6'7" who will certainly have a say in the conference race is Tennessee State's Robert Covington. The 6'9" senior could be a 20-10 player this season and probably outranks even Canaan as the OVC's primary NBA prospect.
The Tigers were the only team to beat Murray State last season, and as long as Covington's on the court, an encore is certainly possible.
Still, TSU isn't likely to be the OVC school prompting a rare use of the phrase "at-large bid" next to its name. Belmont and Murray, however, both possess that kind of potential. Circle Feb. 7 on the calendar and find a way to check out these two teams going head-to-head.
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