Predicting College Basketball's 10 Best Battles for 2014 Conference Titles
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Two weeks ago I took a look at the teams most likely to cruise to a conference title. What a boring group.
What makes college basketball fun, particularly in February and early March, is the battles for conference titles. For the teams that have no hope of contending for a national title, that is the championship they set out to win each season.
Conference realignment has made it nearly impossible to track who is where and who should contend in which conference. Well, let me be your guide. These are the races to watch this coming season.
Marcus Smart put off the NBA for one more year to try to win Oklahoma State's first Big 12 title since 2004.
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It must be a down year for Kansas for the Big 12 to appear on this list, right?
Each season, no matter what Kansas returns, it's usually KU and then everyone else. You get that kind of respect after nine straight Big 12 titles.
You can make a similar statement this year, only add one team before the "and then." This year's Big 12 is Kansas, Oklahoma State and then everyone else.
Marcus Smart's return to Stillwater temporarily made the Cowboys the preseason favorite. Then Andrew Wiggins decided to join Self in Lawrence.
Even with Wiggins, Self has a challenging job ahead. He lost all five starters. He could have six true freshmen and a redshirt freshman in his rotation.
But if anyone can get a 10th straight ring with that much turnover, it's Self. And if anyone can end the Jayhawks' reign, it's Smart. Their battles, which will both be on national TV, should be fun to watch.
Former Belmont guard Kerron Johnson will be difficult to replace for the defending league champs.
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Last year, Eastern Kentucky had its first winning season in the Ohio Valley since 2011 thanks to three junior college transfers.
Going the Juco route is a quick way to climb the ladder in a league like the OVC and EKU could be in position to win the league for the first time since 1979.
To do so, EKU would have to knock off Murray State and Belmont, two of the better mid-major programs in recent years. Murray State won three straight OVC titles until Belmont joined the league last year and ended that streak, but both are rebuilding.
The Racers will need to replace four starters, including point guard Isaiah Canaan, who was a big part of a solid four-year run. Murray State added two freshmen, two Juco transfers and will have Clemson transfer T.J. Sapp eligible at semester.
Belmont, coming off three straight NCAA tournament appearances, will have to replace its stud backcourt of Kerron Johnson and Ian Clark. Coach Rick Byrd goes the more traditional route, staying away from the junior colleges. He added seven freshmen to his roster. Belmont will also have Drew Windler, a transfer from Samford who averaged 14.4 points per game two years ago.
Colonial Athletic Association
Georgetown transfer Jerrelle Benimon helped Towson win 17 more games than 2011-12 and was named the Colonial player of the year.
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This is why sports are great. Two years ago, Towson went 1-31 in Pat Skerry's first year as head coach. Last season, the Tigers went 18-13 overall, 13-5 in the Colonial and finished one game back of conference champ Northeastern.
Two seasons removed from that one-win season the Tigers can make a case as the preseason favorite, as they return their five leading scorers.
Recent history says that the odds are slim that Northeastern repeats. Not since 2009 has the Colonial had a conference champ repeat when VCU won back-to-back conference crowns.
The race is always close in the Colonial as well. Since 2009, only once has the conference champ won the league by more than a game, and that year, 2010, George Mason won the league by two games.
A lot has changed in the league since then. The three schools with the most national notoriety—VCU, George Mason and Old Dominion—have all left, and College of Charleston joins the league this year and figure to be a contender right away. The Cougars went 24-11 last year and finished second to Davidson in the Southern Conference.
The best scorer in college basketball, Doug McDermott, is taking his game to the Big East.
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The new Big East does not exactly have the star power old league, but what it lacks in star power, it makes up for it with a good mix of competitive balance.
The league should have six teams (Creighton, Georgetown, Marquette, St. John's, Villanova and Xavier) battling for NCAA tournament spots. And any of those six could win the league and it wouldn't be shocking.
The preseason favorite should be Marquette. Buzz Williams deserves that kind of respect after winning a share of the Big East last year and making it to at least the Sweet 16 for three straight years.
The preseason runner-up should be Creighton and Doug McDermott is a heavy favorite for conference player of the year.
It would make sense in the weird world of conference realignment that the 2014 Big East champs are out of Nebraska.
Montana's Kareem Jamar helped send Montana to the NCAA tournament last year with 20 points, five assists and five rebounds in the Big Sky championship game.
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The Big Sky has been a two-team race the last two years and it doesn't figure to change, but those two teams, Weber State and Montana, have put together one heck of a race.
Montana has won both the Big Sky regular season title and conference tournament both years. The Grizzlies only two conference losses during that time have come to Weber State.
The Wildcats are 32-2 against the rest of the league, finishing one game back of Montana both years and losing the conference tournament final both years. Last year, Montana won the first meeting at home 76-74, got blown out at Weber State, 87-63, and then won the conference tournament 67-64.
So what should we expect this season?
More of the same. Both teams return their best player. Weber State's Davion Berry's addition last season somehow made Weber State have a better season than 2011-12 after losing NBA rookie of the year Damian Lillard. Montana returns Big Sky player of the year Kareem Jamar, a do-everything wing who was the second-leading scorer for the Grizzlies and led his team in rebounding and assists.
Cal Poly big man Chris Eversley averaged 15.4 points and 7.0 rebounds last year.
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Long Beach State has dominated the Big West regular season the last three years, winning three straight conference titles.
Last year was at least close with Pacific and Cal Poly finishing one game back. If the run of conference titles is going to end, this could be the year and Cal Poly could be the team to do it. (Pacific has left for the West Coast Conference.)
The Mustangs split last year with the 49ers, and the loss was only by two on the road. They return four of their five leading scorers, including leading scorer Chris Eversley.
Long Beach State, meanwhile, had a lot of turnover this offseason. In addition to graduating two starters, the 49ers had five players transfer, including three guys who were a regular part of their rotation.
Don Monson has had success with junior college transfers, and he added five Juco guys. The 49ers also will have former UCLA wing Tyler Lamb at the beginning of second semester, and all-conference guard Mike Caffey is back.
That's probably enough to make Long Beach State the favorite, yet all that turnover could make Monson's club vulnerable.
The return stars Gary Harris (left), Adreian Payne (middle) and Keith Appling (right) will make Michigan State the preseason favorite in the Big Ten.
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The Big Ten cannot be as fun as it was a year ago. It just can't be.
The league had five teams all with a legitimate shot of winning the conference crown. The two teams tied for fourth, Michigan and Wisconsin, finished just two games back of Indiana. And if Jordan Morgan's tip shot of Trey Burke's missed layup rolls in on the final day of the regular season, four teams (Indiana, Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan) would have shared the Big Ten championship.
So who is the favorite this year? Probably Michigan State. But you could put Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin all in a hat and the odds you pull out a winner are probably as good as your odds at predicting one.
The Spartans, Wolverines and Buckeyes should all likely start the year in the Top 10. Indiana should fall off but still has talent. Never count out Bo Ryan. And oh yeah, Iowa brings back almost everyone from a team that made it to the postseason NIT championship game.
Buckle up. It could be another wild year in Big Ten country.
Fifth-year senior guard Rian Pearson led Toledo in scoring (17.7 points per game) and rebounding (6.8 per game) last season.
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The Mid-American is on this list because there's so many unknowns it figures to be a good conference race. The league also had two teams tie in the East last year (Akron and Ohio) and two tie in the West (Western Michigan and Toledo).
Out of those four teams, everyone is rebuilding other than Toledo. Akron graduated two-time defensive player of the year Zeke Marshall and lost its second-best player, point guard Alex Abreu.
Ohio graduated four starters, including record-setting point guard D.J. Cooper.
And Western Michigan would have returned its three leading scorers, but MAC freshman of the year Darius Paul transferred to Illinois.
So that leaves the Rockets, who went 10-6 in the MAC last year, as the only team with much stability. Toledo returns four of its five leading scorers and will try to go for its first league title since 2007 and first NCAA tourney bid since 1980.
North Dakota State went 19-5 last year with Taylor Braun in the lineup.
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The Summit League has had the pleasure of experiencing the Nate Wolters show the last four years. The South Dakota State star is gone now and the conference race is likely to come down to two teams: North Dakota State and Denver.
North Dakota State may have been a worthy challenger last year if not for a midseason injury that sat down star Taylor Braun for 10 games. With Braun, the Bison were 7-0 in league play and then made a run to the conference tournament finals, where they lost by six to Wolters and the Jackrabbits.
Denver was one of the hottest teams in the country last season—winners of 17 of 18—until the WAC conference tournament. The Pioneers somehow inexplicably lost to Texas State, a team that had not won a game against an opponent with a winning record all season until its upset in the WAC quarterfinals.
Denver returns a good core, led by Chris Udofia and Brett Olson. The Pioneers did lose wing Royce O'Neale to Baylor. North Dakota State returns everyone.
And don't count out the Jackrabbits. Sure, everything was built around Wolters, but what made the team really good was the shooters they surrounded him with. Several of those dead-eye shooters are back, including big man Jordan Dykstra.
C.J. Fair and Syracuse have the talent to compete with Duke in 2013-14.
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Earlier this summer in an ACC Digital Network interview, Mike Krzyzewski said the new-look ACC will be the "greatest conference in the history of college basketball."
It's hard to argue with the guy. That's hardly hyperbole, especially in 2014-15 once Louisville joins.
Even without Louisville, the league may battle the Big Ten as the best next season and could have the most competitive title race.
Both Duke and Syracuse have teams talented enough to win a national title. North Carolina could be in that conversation if P.J. Hairston stays out of trouble and James Michael McAdoo improves. Virginia also has returns a solid team and Notre Dame has one of the top backcourts in the country.
At the very least, the league should be more competitive than it ever has been and the conference title should change hands more than we're used to.
Here's how you can quantify how dominant Duke and UNC have been. The ACC's first season was in 1953-54, and since that time, only once (1996) have both Duke and North Carolina finished outside the top two in the conference standings.