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Predicting the Winner of Each Division I NCAA Basketball Conference

Thad NovakCorrespondent IJanuary 19, 2017

Predicting the Winner of Each Division I NCAA Basketball Conference

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    As realignment continues to reshape Division I NCAA basketball, some big-time conferences will be getting new title contenders as soon as next season. Of course, whether the names in the standings change or not, there’s always a chance for upheaval at the top.

    In the storied ACC, Syracuse and Pitt will now vie with the Tobacco Road powers for supremacy. Unfortunately for the newcomers, it’s a familiar face—North Carolina forward James Michael McAdoo—who will make the difference in next year’s conference race.

    Read on for more on the Tar Heels’ league title hopes, along with picks for all the rest of Division I’s 33 conference champs.

America East: Stony Brook

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    Not only did the Seawolves finish 14-2 in conference play last year, but they went on the road to win their NIT opener against a tough UMass squad.

    With four starters (plus top reserve Eric McAlister) returning from that team, it’s tough to bet against Stony Brook next season.

    The backcourt of Anthony Jackson and Dave Coley combined for 22.4 points per game in 2012-13, and they’re only likely to get better after a season of playing together.

    Meanwhile, star forward Jameel Warney (12.4 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.5 blocks a night) is heading into his sophomore year, when many players make a drastic improvement in performance.

AAC: Louisville

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    The new-look conference with the new name gets only one year with Louisville in its ranks before the Cards head off to greener ACC pastures.

    Of course, it happens to be the year when Rick Pitino’s squad stands as the defending national champion. Even the loss of two key starters won’t keep the Cardinals from earning the only American Athletic Conference title they’ll ever get.

    Russ Smith is a front-runner for Naismith Award honors, while Chane Behanan is one of the country’s top power forwards.

    Likely new starters Montrezl Harrell (center) and Chris Jones (a JUCO transfer at point guard) will improve the half-court offense. Meanwhile, defensive pressure from Smith and the other guards will soften the blow of losing Gorgui Dieng’s shot-blocking presence inside.

Atlantic 10: Saint Louis

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    Jim Crews, in his first non-interim season as Saint Louis’ head coach, will have ample talent to work with.

    The defending conference champs bring back four starters, including a leading contender for Atlantic 10 Player of the Year honors in Dwayne Evans.

    The bruising Evans is the only Billikens returnee who scored in double figures, but his 14 points per game are a great foundation for next year’s offense.

    The defense, meanwhile, won’t exactly suffer from giving increased minutes to quick-handed Jordair Jett (1.1 steals per game off the bench) and 6’11” forward Rob Loe.

ACC: North Carolina

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    The surprising return of James Michael McAdoo for his junior year gives the Tar Heels a minuscule edge over archrival Duke as the conference favorites.

    Both rosters feature experienced point guards and plenty of three-point shooters (advantages that league newcomer Syracuse lacks), but UNC gets the edge up front.

    In addition to scoring leader McAdoo, the Tar Heels bring in a pair of high-powered freshmen in the post: Isaiah Hicks (another imposing scorer) and 6’9”, 275-pound earth mover Kennedy Meeks.

    Despite the best efforts of the talented Amile Jefferson, Duke doesn’t have the size or depth to match up with that trio inside, leaving UNC as the front-runner here.

Atlantic Sun: Florida Gulf Coast

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    Defending regular-season champion Mercer will put up a substantial fight, but the Bears—who lose scoring leader Travis Smith—don’t have the benefit of NCAA tournament seasoning.

    Dunk City, on the other hand, returns four starters from the team that shocked Georgetown and San Diego State in March.

    Top scorer and emotional leader Sherwood Brown is gone, but lanky forwards Eric McKnight and Chase Fieler will provide plenty of points off point guard Brett Comer’s alley-oops.

    Defensive ace Bernard Thompson and his 2.8 steals per game also return to provide a security blanket for new head coach Joe Dooley (most recently a Kansas assistant).

Big 12: Oklahoma State

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    Perennial champion Kansas will absolutely be in the running again, but the Jayhawks lose five starters to OSU’s one.

    Moreover, the Cowboys went into Phog Allen Fieldhouse and knocked off Bill Self’s squad last year, something even Kansas State—which is losing its top two guards—couldn’t do.

    Marcus Smart is one of the top NBA and Wooden Award prospects in the nation, and he’s got loads of perimeter talent around him.

    OSU isn’t nearly as impressive down low, but athletic Michael Cobbins is back after leading the team in rebounds (6.2 per game) and blocks (1.5 a night).

Big East: Georgetown

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    The new Big East will be among the most wide-open conferences in the country, with Marquette, Butler and Creighton all having very real shots at a title.

    However, none of those programs enjoys the advantage of bringing back four starters from a 25-win team.

    With Otto Porter Jr. gone, the Hoyas will have their issues offensively, but the nation’s 10th-best scoring defense from last year will have more than enough weapons back to keep this team on top.

    Look for rising sophomore D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera to become the offensive catalyst John Thompson III needs in the absence of a go-to pure scorer.

Big Sky: Weber State

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    Montana and Weber State finished just one game apart atop the conference standings a year ago, and both teams lose two crucial starters.

    The Wildcats, though, have a slight edge in the head-to-head battle this time around, as they return two of their top three scorers.

    Davion Berry and Kyle Tresnak combined for 27 points per game, and that outside-inside tandem will be the key to Weber State’s hopes next season.

    It’s also worth noting that the Wildcats bring back their best defender, 6’9” shot-blocker Joel Bolomboy, while the Grizzlies lose ball-hawking guard Will Cherry.

Big South: Charleston Southern

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    Charleston Southern suffered the indignity of losing to sub-.500 Liberty in last year’s title game. Still, the Buccaneers turned in a fine season that included a 12-4 conference record.

    Although only three of the starters from that squad return, CSU is bringing back most of its primary contributors.

    Microscopic star Saah Nimley averaged 15.9 points, 5.3 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 1.3 steals per game despite measuring just 5’8”, 155 pounds.

    He’ll be a junior, as will backcourt mate Arlon Harper (another 15.3 points and 2.0 steals a night) and rebounding leader Paul Gombwer (6.3 boards per contest).

Big Ten: Michigan State

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    Toss a coin to determine whether the Spartans or fellow conference runner-up Ohio State has the more impressive team returning for 2013-14.

    Although the Buckeyes’ Aaron Craft is an early favorite for conference Player of the Year, the loss of scoring star Deshaun Thomas puts OSU a hair below Michigan State in a tight race.

    If high-scoring Keith Appling and playmaking Denzel Valentine can add up to one good point guard, the rest of the Spartans’ perimeter game—including defensive stoppers Gary Harris and Branden Dawson and super-sub Travis Trice—is set.

    Meanwhile, Adreian Payne will be among the country’s most athletic big men after postponing his NBA career and should challenge Craft for that POY spot.

Big West: Cal Poly

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    One of last year's biggest regular-season surprises was Cal Poly going into Pauley Pavilion and knocking off UCLA.

    With league powers Long Beach State and Pacific each losing a slew of key players, the Mustangs will get a great shot at becoming an NCAA tournament surprise in 2013-14.

    Star forward Chris Eversley is back after leading the team in scoring and rebounding. Classmate Kyle Odister will provide perimeter scoring, while 6'9", 240-pound Brian Bennett provides another big body and is coming off a fine freshman campaign.

CAA: Towson

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    Having the best player in your league is always a good start to winning the title, and Towson should have that advantage locked up next season.

    6’8”, 245-pound forward Jerrelle Benimon (formerly of Georgetown) was already a big-time force last season in a conference that also featured Delaware’s Jamelle Hagins and James Madison’s Rayshawn Goins.

    As a junior, Benimon averaged 17.1 points, 11.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game. He spearheaded the ninth-best rebounding team in the country, and with three other Tigers starters returning, he should be in for an even better showing in his senior season.

Conference USA: UTEP

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    With eternal defending champion Memphis off to the AAC, this is one league that’s guaranteed to have a new winner.

    Southern Miss is coming off a 25-win season as runner-up behind the Tigers, but the Golden Eagles don’t return enough talent to match UTEP’s combination of experience and new blood.

    The Miners return the gritty frontcourt tandem of Julian Washburn and John Bohannon, who combined for 22.5 points, 10.5 boards and (thanks largely to Bohannon) 2.0 blocks a night.

    They’ll be joined next year by one of the most explosive 2-guards in the freshman class, 6’5” streak shooter Isaac Hamilton.

Great West: Chicago State

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    The Great West is the only current conference that lacks an automatic NCAA tournament bid, which explains why its five members have garnered one Big Dance berth in their combined histories.

    Chicago State isn’t about to change that total, but the defending league tournament champs should have little trouble topping the conference standings next year.

    Every significant contributor returns for the Cougars, including a staggering 12 rising seniors.

    Among that group are 6’8” power forward Matt Ross (the team’s top rebounder and shot-blocker) and versatile swingman Quinton Pippen, whose Uncle Scottie had a few good years in Chicago himself.

Horizon League: Wright State

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    Green Bay actually has the most talent due to return to the Horizon next year, but the chaos surrounding allegations of abuse against coach Brian Wardle makes them a poor bet to take the Horizon crown.

    Instead, a veteran Wright State squad that knocked off Tulsa and Richmond in the CBI will come out on top.

    The Raiders went 10 deep a year ago, and every one of those players is back for another go-round.

    Top scorer Cole Darling should be healthy again after foot and shoulder injuries shortened his season, while multitalented forward Jerran Young will anchor the defense.

Ivy League: Harvard

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    Harvard lost its two best players to a cheating scandal before the 2012-13 season even began and still managed to upset third-seeded New Mexico in the NCAA tournament.

    Four starters from that squad are back, and with Princeton star Ian Hummer departing, the Crimson should run away with their third straight Ivy title.

    Tommy Amaker’s team boasts a lethal offensive backcourt that helped Harvard rank 12th nationally in field-goal shooting and seventh in three-point shooting.

    The trio of Wesley Saunders, Siyani Chambers and Laurent Rivard can play some defense, too, having combined for 4.3 steals per game last season.

MAAC: Iona

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    Although the Gaels finished a disappointing 11-7 in conference play last year, that record is a bit of a mirage.

    Three of the seven losses came in overtime or double-OT, including one that took a miraculous buzzer-beater by Marist’s Chavaughn Lewis to extend to a second extra session.

    Iona does lose superstar scorer Lamont “Momo” Jones, but this team has plenty of other offensive weapons to draw on.

    Three-point gunner Sean Armand is back after tying for sixth nationally in treys made (108), and the Gaels also return the conference’s top post presence in rising junior David Laury.

MAC: Western Michigan

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    Rian Pearson and Toledo will put up a serious fight—as will defending champ Akron if point guard Alex Abreu is found innocent of drug trafficking charges—but for the second year in a row, the MAC title will go to the team with the most impressive center.

    Now that Zeke Marshall is gone, that honor belongs to the Broncos’ 6’10” Shayne Whittington, a rising senior.

    Whittington averaged 13.2 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.7 blocks a night last season, and the team’s next two leading scorers after him are back as well. Returning, too, is point guard Austin Richie, who improved dramatically in his first year as a starter.

MEAC: Norfolk State

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    Faced with the daunting task of replacing superstar center Kyle O’Quinn, last year’s Spartans responded by going 16-0 in conference play.

    Although that squad fell in the conference tournament to Bethune-Cookman, it’s hard to argue with the 21 games it won or the four starters it brings back for another try at a Big Dance bid.

    The most crucial of that quartet is rising senior Jamel Fuentes, a 6’3” point guard who keeps Norfolk State running smoothly on both ends of the floor.

    Seven-foot shot-blocker Brandon Goode is back in the pivot, while scoring leader Pendarvis Williams will key the perimeter corps.

Missouri Valley: Wichita State

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    The Shockers would have an awfully good chance of recapturing the conference title even if Creighton were still in the league.

    With the defending champion Blue Jays off to the revised Big East, Wichita State should have little trouble topping the standings as it tries to build on last season’s Final Four run.

    Scoring leader Cleanthony Early headlines the returnees, but he’s not alone by any means. Postseason standouts Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet are also back, and JUCO transfer Earl Watson should be a solid replacement for the graduating Carl Hall inside.

Mountain West: New Mexico

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    While many of its Mountain West rivals watch their top stars depart this offseason, New Mexico returns a stacked roster. The Lobos look like a safe pick to continue their string of MWC titles, even without UCLA-bound coach Steve Alford.

    Point guard Kendall Williams is a fine floor leader and a devastating (though streaky) scorer, and he might not even be the headliner for next season’s squad.

    7’0”, 250-pound Alex Kirk appears ready to blossom into a full-fledged star after spending his first year as a starter playing sidekick to Williams.

Northeast: Bryant

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    All of the Northeast’s leading contenders are weathering significant graduation losses, but none has as good a backup plan as Bryant does.

    The Bulldogs lose standout point guard Frankie Dobbs, but rising senior Corey Maynard—pictured having some trouble with Victor Oladipo—is well positioned to pick up the slack after serving as the team’s third starting guard last season.

    Maynard will have plenty of talent around him, thanks to the return of Dyami Starks and Alex Francis (a combined 35.1 points per game).

    Starks will again be one of the country’s top three-point threats after draining 95 treys (on .408 shooting) as a sophomore.

Ohio Valley: Eastern Kentucky

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    Although defending champ Belmont returns a dangerous roster of its own, the loss of Ian Clark will keep the Bruins from repeating.

    Eastern Kentucky, on the other hand, loses a solid point guard in Mike DiNunno but retains scoring stars Glenn Cosey and Corey Walden to make up for it.

    The Colonels finished 12-4 in league play last season, with Belmont accounting for half of those losses.

    If Cosey can take over DiNunno’s ball-handling duties—not much of a stretch for the rising senior—EKU’s three-point barrage should put it over the top for its first conference crown since 1979.

Pac-12: Arizona

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    Another phenomenal recruiting class, headed by power forward Aaron Gordon, has been the offseason headline-grabber in Tucson. The biggest addition, though, might be a transfer from one of the worst teams in the Atlantic 10.

    Ex-Duquesne point guard T.J. McConnell is a lethal defender who also gives the Wildcats exactly the kind of pure distributor their loaded frontcourt needs with Mark Lyons gone.

    With Gordon joining last year’s big-man bumper crop (including Kaleb Tarczewski, pictured), Arizona will have too much size and skill down low for any Pac-12 foe to handle.

Patriot League: Lafayette

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    The Patriot League had the unusual luxury of two NBA-caliber stars last season, but Mike Muscala (Bucknell) and C.J. McCollum (Lehigh) are gone now.

    The resulting vacuum provides a great opportunity for Lafayette to ride its wealth of three-point marksmen to its first league crown since 2000.

    The Leopards need to find a replacement for point guard Tony Johnson, but there are shooters aplenty to help a new floor leader get his footing.

    Scoring leader Seth Hinrichs, Joey Ptasinski and Bryce Scott all drained at least 44 treys last season, and 6’9” Dan Trist even provides an interior presence for the Lafayette offense.

SEC: Kentucky

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    Florida and Ole Miss will be in the mix, but no team in the nation has as much raw talent as John Calipari’s Wildcats. More importantly, the two major flaws that held Kentucky back a season ago appear to be off the table for 2013-14.

    Where last year’s Wildcats lacked experience to pair with their astounding array of freshmen, this year’s squad will have frontcourt standouts Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress and Kyle Wiltjer eager to put last year’s debacle behind them.

    Even more vital, the weak point guard play that plagued UK in 2012-13 will be a thing of the past with superstar freshman Andrew Harrison ready to jump into a starting job.

Southern: Elon

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    Although Elon does lose four seniors, none of the quartet played more than 9.1 minutes a game last year. That means the Phoenix return every substantial contributor from a squad that went 21-12 (including 13-5 in conference action) last year.

    6’10” rising senior Lucas Troutman is the main man, having led the team in scoring and (unsurprisingly) blocks last season.

    He’s got plenty of help inside (rebounding leader Ryley Beaumont) and out (slick shooting guard Jack Isenbarger) as he tries to keep Elon ahead of dangerous Davidson and Charleston teams next season.

Southland: Northwestern State

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    Northwestern State’s mass-substitution system makes the Demons uniquely suited to weathering graduation losses.

    As such, even the departures of 6’10” O.J. Evans inside and prolific Shamir Davis outside shouldn’t keep the nation’s No. 1 offense from another season near the top of the scoring charts.

    6’7” scoring leader DeQuan Hicks will provide muscle inside, while Jalan West and Brison White anchor an aggressive perimeter D.

    Defending conference champ Stephen F. Austin (last year’s top scoring defense) won’t go quietly, but the Lumberjacks’ loss of scoring leader Taylor Smith should tip the balance in Northwestern State’s favor next season.

SWAC: Southern

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    Just like last year, the SWAC title is likely to come right down to the wire between Southern and Texas Southern. The Jaguars, though, will have an edge on swagger after putting a scare into mighty Gonzaga as a 16th seed last March.

    Rising senior Javan Mitchell will have a physical advantage over pretty much any big man in the league at 6’9”, 250 pounds, and he put in a terrific game against the Zags’ vaunted front line.

    He’ll get plenty of help on the perimeter from former sixth man Malcolm Miller, who shot an absurd .452 from long range in averaging 15.5 points (not to mention 5.9 rebounds) per game.

Summit: North Dakota State

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    Even with peerless point guard Nate Wolters leading rival South Dakota State, NDSU finished just one game out of first in the Summit standings.

    With Wolters gone, the Jackrabbits (like co-champ Western Illinois) won’t have enough left to hold off a veteran Bison team in 2013-14.

    North Dakota State returns its entire starting lineup, keyed by scoring leader Taylor Braun in the backcourt.

    There’s plenty of talent up front, too, with 6’8”, 240-pound Marshall Bjorklund and 6’7” shot-blocker TrayVonn Wright adding two more double-digit scorers to a balanced attack.

Sun Belt: South Alabama

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    Despite dominating the Sun Belt like no other individual player over the last three seasons, Augustine Rubit has never been to the NCAA tournament.

    That should change next year, as his South Alabama squad has a good chance to capitalize on graduation losses by defending champ Middle Tennessee State.

    The 6’7” Rubit averaged 19 points and 10.7 rebounds a game, and it’s hard to imagine him slumping in his final collegiate season.

    His supporting cast features swingman Mychal Ammons as a scorer and rebounder and former Miami guard Antoine Allen as the top defender.

West Coast: Gonzaga

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    BYU will be a threat behind the league’s top recruiting class, but Gonzaga’s stranglehold on the WCC will continue for another year. Even with two frontcourt starters off to the NBA, the Zags have too many weapons returning for this conference to handle.

    The list starts with rising junior Kevin Pangos, a scoring point guard who proved to be one of the few reliable Bulldogs in last year’s postseason debacle.

    He and defensive stopper David Stockton will hold the fort outside while hulking Sam Dower (6’9”, 255 lbs) gets his chance at the marquee low-post role as a senior.

WAC: Louisiana Tech

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    Both Denver (behind a playmaking defense) and New Mexico State (with Brobdingnagian center Sim Bhullar) will be in the mix, but the Bulldogs will be too tough to top.

    Last year’s 27-7 squad went nine deep, and eight of those return to avenge a conference tourney upset by Texas-San Antonio.

    The best of the bunch is rising junior point guard Kenneth Smith, who excelled as both a passer and defender a year ago. He’s joined in the backcourt by scoring leader Raheem Appleby, while 6’9” shot-blocking ace Michale Kyser mans the middle.

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