Which is the best conference?
It's an intricate question that college basketball analysts quarrel over from the brisk days of November until the lamb carries March into April. A question that can rarely have a firm answer.
If I wanted to, I could bore you by providing you with claims you've already heard. Claims about the resurgence of the SEC or of the nebulous fate of the Big East. That 50 percent of the Final Four could hail from the Big 12 or that the Big Ten could rise to national supremacy.
Instead, I'll relay some fresh information to you. Information that takes a backseat on ESPN and other major sports media outlets.
It's time to think about mid-major basketball, and, to begin, we must examine College Insider's Mid-Major Top 25 , a poll taken by 31 mid-major head and assistant coaches. Like every poll, it will not precisely predict the season's outcome. But, it offers expectations.
Among those expectations is that the Missouri Valley Conference could once again be a multi-bid league.
Adam Koch, Jordan Eglseder, and Ali Farokhmanesh are all back for their senior years and reunite with every member, save Travis Brown, of the Northern Iowa squad that reached the NCAA Tournament last year. Experience is crucial at the mid-major level, and the Panthers own that quality.
Ranked No. 4 by College Insider, Northern Iowa is efficient on offense but is only average on defense. Although it seems like mid-majors defeat power teams via the hot hand, a sturdy defense is needed to fluster the opponent.
The Panthers have experience and offense on their side, two aspects of the game that can produce wins against upper-echelon teams, but they'll need to improve their defense to reach the Round of 32.
While UNI is the MVC favorite, Creighton and Illinois State both pose legitimate threats. The loss of Booker Woodfox is detrimental to Creighton's potential, but the Blue Jays still have P'Allen Stinnett and the rest of their 2008-09 core.
For the Redbirds, Champ Oguchi is no longer running the floor. But, Osiris Eldridge spurned the NBA Draft and is joined by the No. 3 mid-major recruiting class of 2009.
Inexperience can be the bane of a team's season, but Illinois State returns enough talent from last year's team to balance the immaturity of its freshmen.
Creighton and Illinois State will likely be in tournament talk come March.
Another expectation is that Butler will rule mid-major basketball. Ranked No. 11 in the AP Poll and No. 1 by College Insider, Butler is a preseason lock for the Big Dance.
Matt Howard and Gordon Hayward are special ballplayers who could be playing for premier schools. Returning the core from a team that finished 26-6 with an NCAA Tournament berth in 2008-09, the Bulldogs could go as far as the Elite Eight.
Although Butler has received early high praise, the Bulldogs cannot write off their conference foe, Wright State. The Raiders bring back the starting lineup of a team that bounced back from an 0-6 start in 2008-09 to finish the campaign with a 20-13 record.
These Raiders, especially the seniors, will not bow down to the Bulldogs. Expect Wright State to be in the mix for a tournament berth.
When you think of the Colonial Athletic Association, you think of the Cinderella George Mason team that made its magical journey to the 2006 Final Four or the clutch shot that Eric Maynor swished to defeat Duke in 2007.
Both the Patriots and the Rams of Virginia Commonwealth appear in discussions about the CAA crown, but Old Dominion and Northeastern look to dethrone the league's royalty.
George Mason is the least likely of the four to construct a tournament-worthy resume due to heavy dependence on freshmen.
However, the Patriots' youth is definitely talented and, if it molds with the mature Patriots early, Jim Larranaga could be headed to another NCAA Tournament.
The reigning champs are Eric Maynor-less, but that is not a viable reason to expect them to watch the tournament from their couches. Larry Sanders is a First Team All-Conference member and Joey Rodriguez tore up his transfer papers to return to VCU.
If you put those two on a court together, you'd have a solid chance of winning. If you have those two plus Bradford Burgess, Brandon Rozell, transfer Jay Gavin, and highly-rated freshman Darius Theus, you can be a force in any mid-major conference.
After a promising 15-6 start in 2008-09, Northeastern tanked down the home stretch.
Predicting sports is extremely difficult, but one thing I can steadfastly promise you is that seniors Matt Janning and Manny Adako will play 2009-10 with the highest degree of energy and passion to prevent another collapse.
Ranked No. 6 by College Insider, Old Dominion is the CAA's team to beat. They return every starter, including Gerald Lee, the conference's co-preseason Player of the Year, from a team that went 25-10 in 2008-09. To reiterate, experience is crucial.
The Monarchs' core has already spent two full seasons together, so you know their chemistry and confidence are at high levels to start the season.
It'll be a dogfight in the CAA. The NCAA Selection Committee will probably root for at least two of the teams to beat up on each other so the bracket formation will go smoothly. Still, don't expect decisions to come easily for the committee.
You know Siena. Out of the MAAC, the Saints have advanced to the Round of 32 in back-to-back seasons. Minus Kenny Hasbrouck, Siena returns its 2008-09 starting lineup.
Add a solid recruiting class, and you can bet that the Saints have already ordered the champagne for March 8.
However, their dominance in the MAAC is made less likely by the presences of Niagara and Rider.
The Purple Eagles also return the bulk of their team that dealt Siena one of the Saints' two conference losses last season. Tyrone Lewis and Bilal Benn will carry Niagara and will once again lead their team to the postseason. The question is, which tournament.
Rider was the culprit of Siena's other loss. With Ryan Thompson and the other key members from last year's team, Rider poses a threat to Siena's tyrannical rule of the MAAC.
Siena not winning the MAAC still seems far-fetched. But, the MAAC being a multi-bid league is definitely in the realm of possibility.
Now, it's time to go out west.
Gonzaga's core was torn apart after last season, but Matt Bouldin and Steven Gray are back. Of course, the Bulldogs would not be much of a threat with just the aforementioned two.
But, Mark Few has developed the Gonzaga program into a powerhouse that attracts the highest level of recruits , so, with the additions of Kelly Olynyk, Samuel Dower, G.J. Vilarino, and Mangisto Arop, the Bulldogs are set for another promising season.
Portland pervaded college basketball's bubble of relevancy last year and reached the inaugural College Insider Tournament. Nik Raivio and the other essential elements of last year's successful team return and could once again make the WCC a multi-bid league.
It'll be five months until the answer is crystal clear, but, for now, gazing into an imaginary crystal ball can provide you with your response to the question: which is the best mid-major conference? Just one suggestion, make sure you don't use Jimmy Rollins' crystal ball.
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