NCAA Basketball Teams Most Likely to Run Away with 2014-15 Conference Titles
Arizona and Wichita State convincingly won their respective regular-season conference titles last season, and they are among the favorites to run away with the crown again in the 2014-15 men's college basketball season.
Conference titles don't carry as much weight as they did in the days before conference tournaments, but that hasn't stopped teams from proudly hanging those banners in their gymnasiums. The ones won in blowout fashion are just that much sweeter.
More often than not, regular-season conference titles aren't decided until the final week of the season. Last year, 23 of the 32 conference races were decided by two or fewer games.
But there are always a few blowouts.
Florida, Stephen F. Austin and Wichita State each made mincemeat of their in-conference competition, putting together 18-0 records before also proceeding to win their conference tournaments en route to the NCAA tournament.
With that in mind, we took a look at each of the 32 conferences to figure out the 10 for which you can already go ahead and start stitching the next banner.
The following slides are ranked based on how likely we feel the team is to win its conference by a cushion of at least three games.
10. Georgia State (Sun Belt)
In their first year in the Sun Belt Conference, the Georgia State Panthers came out of seemingly nowhere to beat the tar out of everyone. Over a span of three months from mid-December to mid-March, they won 22 out of 23 games before suffering an overtime loss to Louisiana-Lafayette in the conference championship game.
A month ago, the 2015 Sun Belt race was shaping up to be a fun one between Georgia State and Louisiana-Lafayette. However, the decision by ULL's Elfrid Payton to bolt for the NBA should mean another convincing regular-season title for Georgia State.
Led by Kentucky transfer Ryan Harrow and USC transfer Curtis Washington—and potentially joined by Louisville transfer Kevin Ware if he can obtain a waiver to play this season—the Panthers will continue to be carried on the backs of players they didn't originally sign.
They did land leading scorer R.J. Hunter out of high school, but that's likely only because his dad (Ron Hunter) has been the head coach responsible for amassing all of this high-major talent.
9. Harvard (Ivy League)
Though I fully expect to see Harvard in the NCAA tournament for a fourth consecutive season, asking the Crimson to win this conference by three or more games for a second straight year might be a bit much.
Their three leading scorers (Wesley Saunders, Siyani Chambers and Steve Moundou-Missi) are back for another year and should be able to help soften the blow of losing seniors Kyle Casey and Laurent Rivard. Evan Cummins and Jonah Travis will likely be expected to take on an increased workload, while incoming freshman Chris Egi figures to work his way into the mix, too.
More important than any player, though, the Crimson will have Tommy Amaker at the helm once again. Harvard has won more than 66 percent of its games in each of the past five seasons. In the 60 years before hiring Amaker, the Crimson failed to do that well even once.
However, other members of the Ivy League should be a few notches better than they were last season. Columbia and Yale each finished above .500 in conference play last season and don't have a single departing player who scored so much as 90 points last season.
In a conference which only plays 14 games and plays the bulk of them on that weird-but-cool Friday and Saturday cycle, it only takes one 26-hour cold spell to put a postseason berth in jeopardy.
8. Wisconsin (Big Ten)
Even if you aren't buying Wisconsin as one of the three or four best teams in the country next season (you should be), there's no question that the Badgers belong in the top 20.
I'm not so sure that's true for any other team from the Big Ten.
You can certainly make a case for inclusion in the Top 25 for the likes of Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska, but it's far from open and shut.
To argue for the latter three teams on that list, you would be expecting a 2014 bubble team to make substantial further improvements in the upcoming season. For the first three teams, you would be anticipating no drop-off in production despite the departure of more than 50 percent of the team's scoring.
Wisconsin, on the other hand, is only losing one key player (Ben Brust) and can reasonably count on considerable increases in production from Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig in their second collegiate season.
Expecting Wisconsin to go 18-0 in Big Ten play is probably a bit crazy, but something similar to what we saw during the 2008-09 season is absolutely in play. That year, Michigan State went 15-3 and finished four games ahead of a septet of teams in the 9-9 to 11-7 range.
7. Virginia Commonwealth (Atlantic 10)
Yes, the Rams are losing Juvonte Reddic and Rob Brandenberg, but Treveon Graham and Briante Weber are back. That's more than enough to make VCU the strong favorites to win the A-10—especially once you consider how much some of the other teams in the conference lost.
Saint Louis won the A-10 last year with a 13-3 record, but every single member of the Billikens' starting rotation graduates this summer. With all due respect to returning players like Austin McBroom and Grandy Glaze, that team is going to drop like a rock in 2014-15.
Saint Joseph's isn't in much better shape, as the Hawks will be losing three of the five players on the team who averaged better than 32 minutes per game last season. Though both Saint Louis and Saint Joseph's made the NCAA tournament last season, I'd be surprised if either even makes it to the NIT this year.
Massachusetts is graduating two of its three leading scorers from last season, and who knows what kind of off-the-court distractions the Minutemen may face after Derrick Gordon became the first openly gay men's college basketball player.
(Much respect to Gordon for having the courage to do that, but Massachusetts is a young team relatively unaccustomed to much national media attention. It's tough to forecast whether the additional scrutiny will bring them closer together as a group or just create even more pressure on a team that already figures to win fewer games than last season.)
Unless Dayton can withstand the loss of three key seniors to make a run at the A-10 title, VCU might have it clinched before the end of February.
6. Florida Gulf Coast (Atlantic Sun)
Over the past two seasons, the Atlantic Sun has been a two-horse race between Florida Gulf Coast and Mercer.
The Eagles and the Bears have a combined conference record of 55-17 since the start of the 2012-13 season. USC Upstate (20-16) is the only other team with a record above .500 during that stretch—and the Spartans were 1-9 against FGCU and Mercer.
But with Mercer (and East Tennessee State) making the offseason move to the Southern Conference, Florida Gulf Coast is an overwhelming favorite to get back to the NCAA tournament in 2015.
Losing Chase Fieler's 13.9 points and 7.4 rebounds per game will hurt, but the Eagles will be led by eight seniors this coming season—most notably among them Bernard Thompson and Brett Comer. They'll also be adding Julian DeBose, who averaged better than 10 points per game for Rice during the 2012-13 season.
Lipscomb figures to be the biggest challenger to Florida Gulf Coast, as the Bisons return the four leading scorers from a team that won eight of its last 10 regular-season games, but it's kind of hard to imagine Dunk City failing to be a No. 1 seed in the Atlantic Sun tournament and a No. 14 seed in the NCAA tournament.
5. Villanova (Big East)
Villanova won the Big East by two games last season, and the Wildcats aren't losing much. James Bell is graduating, but they'll still have JayVaughn Pinkston, Darrun Hilliard II, Ryan Arcidiacono, Josh Hart and Daniel Ochefu. They'll be just fine.
The rest of the conference? Not so much.
Creighton finished second to Villanova last season with a 14-4 conference record, but adjusting to life without Doug McDermott, Grant Gibbs and Ethan Wragge could be an adventure. The Bluejays have done well in the transfer market, landing Cole Huff (Nevada), Maurice Watson (Boston) and Ricky Kreklow (California), but expecting them to be back in the Top 25 is quite a leap of faith.
Providence is losing its Energizer Bunny in Bryce Cotton, and Xavier is losing players left and right between Semaj Christon, Justin Martin and Isaiah Philmore.
If anyone is going to make a run at Villanova, it would likely be a team that didn't even make the 2014 NCAA tournament. Georgetown figures to be the favorite from that bunch, but that's far from a sure thing with Markel Starks graduating.
Maybe St. John's can finally put it all together and win more than 21 games for the first time in 15 years. Perhaps Butler or Marquette will be able to bounce back from disappointing seasons. Or perchance Isaiah Whitehead will help make Seton Hall a nationally relevant team for the first time in a long time.
But the smart money is on Villanova running away with this conference and getting into the discussion for a No. 1 seed once again.
4. Wichita State (Missouri Valley)
As you may recall, Wichita State was pretty good last year. The Shockers entered the NCAA tournament with a 34-0 record and won their conference's regular-season title by a six-game margin—tied with Florida for the most convincing championship in the country.
So why are they only No. 4 on the list?
For starters, they are losing a handful of key players. Yes, Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton are back, but Cleanthony Early will not be easy to replace. Chadrack Lufile, Nick Wiggins and Kadeem Coleby are also graduating, and that trio was good for a total of 44.7 minutes and 13.6 points per game.
However, that's only about 20 percent of the consideration here, because Wichita State is still going to be very strong.
The real reason the Shockers didn't crack into the top three is because of the impending improvement of Northern Iowa.
Ali Farokhmanesh isn't walking through that door, but the Panthers' six leading scorers from last season are.
Seth Tuttle (15.4 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 2.3 APG, 1.1 BPG, 1.0 SPG last year) might be the most criminally underappreciated player in the country. In Northern Iowa's final game of the 2013-14 season, Tuttle recorded 15 points and 17 rebounds against Southern Illinois.
The Panthers are also adding Virginia transfer Paul Jesperson, after the three-point shooting small forward sat out last season.
They went 10-8 in conference play last season, but six of those losses were by single digits. Northern Iowa might not win either of its games against Wichita State, but there should be enough improvement to contend for the regular-season crown and maybe even an at-large bid.
3. Arizona (Pac-12)
With the exception of Arizona, the Pac-12 has been getting weaker on what feels like a daily basis.
UCLA was Arizona's biggest competition last season, but the Bruins are almost completely reloading after losing Jordan Adams, Kyle Anderson, Zach LaVine, David Wear and Travis Wear. Norman Powell is great, and the incoming recruiting class is strong, but that's a lot to overcome.
Oregon's rebuilding situation is significantly more dire. The Ducks will have leading scorer Joseph Young back, but they're losing six seniors, two transfers (A.J. Lapray and Ben Carter) and three players (Dominic Artis, Brandon Austin and Damyean Dotson) who were dismissed from the team in the aftermath of a rape investigation. A lot can change in the next five months, but Oregon barely even has enough players to legally play a game at the moment.
Colorado and Arizona State respectively lost Spencer Dinwiddie and Jahii Carson as early entrants to the NBA draft. USC lost its four leading scorers, while Oregon State lost its top five players. Cal and Stanford weren't gutted quite as badly as others, but they did combine to lose four players who averaged better than 10 points per game last year.
Sure, Arizona lost Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon, but Sean Miller still has an embarrassment of riches. T.J. McConnell is back for another year at the point, and he'll have Brandon Ashley, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Stanley Johnson and Kaleb Tarczewski to help him potentially lead the nation in assists.
Throw in Gabe York and newcomers Kadeem Allen and Craig Victor, and the Wildcats will have one of the best eight-man rotations a coach can ask for.
Arizona was already going to be one of the top teams in the country. Upheaval at pretty much every other Pac-12 school except for Utah only serves to further improve the Wildcats' chances of running away with the conference title.
2. Kentucky (SEC)
With the Harrison twins, Alex Poythress, Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson all somewhat surprisingly coming back for another season, Kentucky is already the overwhelming favorite to win the 2015 national championship, according to VegasInsider.com.
Many have already suggested that John Calipari could split his roster into two teams and have them both finish in the top 10 in the country.
However, I couldn't quite put Kentucky at No. 1 on this list because the SEC should have quite a few quality teams next season.
Florida and Tennessee will likely each take a sizable step backward after losing a combined total of eight starters and one head coach. But Arkansas, Ole Miss and Texas A&M could all make the NCAA tournament after the improvements they're making this summer.
Georgia also figures to make some noise for (at least) a second consecutive season, as each of the Bulldogs' five leading scorers will be back for another year.
Could Kentucky go 18-0 while half a dozen teams battle it out in the 11-7 range? Absolutely. But there's at least a chance that the Wildcats drop one or two games while someone from that second tier puts together a 14-4 season. That's far less likely to be the case for the top team on the list.
1. Gonzaga (West Coast)
What's terrifying is that Gonzaga would have been No. 1 on this list even before adding immediately eligible transfer Byron Wesley, who led USC in scoring last season by a margin of nearly 200 points.
The Zags lost some key players in David Stockton, Sam Dower and Drew Barham, but they still have a very solid group in Kevin Pangos, Przemek Karnowski, Gary Bell Jr. and Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer.
Adding Wesley to the mix merely elevates Gonzaga from "overwhelming favorite to win the WCC" to "legitimate candidate to win the national championship."
We'll save the title discussion for another day, but look around the WCC and please tell me who is going to win so much as a single conference game against Gonzaga in 2014-15.
BYU didn't have any seniors graduating from last year's NCAA tournament team, but the Cougars did lose Matt Carlino to Marquette, and big man Eric Mika will be in Europe on his LDS mission. San Francisco is losing its three leading scorers to either graduation or transfer. Saint Mary's is losing three of its five starters to graduation.
Unless either San Diego or Portland plans on breaking out and being at least eight games better than last season, it's tough to see anyone finishing within five games of the Zags as they flirt with the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament for a second time in three years.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.