32 Conferences, 32 Days: Patriot League

By Kevin Sweeney

I’m not sure if there is a conference with a clearer favorite than the Patriot League. Coming off a season in which they went 26-9 and 15-3 in the Patriot League before nearly stunning West Virginia in the NCAA Tournament, Bucknell is the near-unanimous pick among college basketball analysts to claim the conference title. Which teams are best suited to challenge the Bison? I break that down here:

Standings Projection:

  1. Bucknell- As I mentioned at the top, this team appears to be on a whole different level than the rest of the Patriot League. Nana Foulland and Zach Thomas form one of the better frontcourt duos in all of college hoops, anchoring a group that returns all 5 starters from a season ago.
  2. Navy- A strong, experienced backcourt led by a pair of seniors in Bryce Dulin and Shawn Anderosn will keep this Navy team in a lot of games. However, Ed DeChellis’ team will have to even out things from a season ago, in which they had a pair of 3+ game losing streaks but also a run in which they won 10 of 11.
  3. Boston University- This is probably the second-most talented team in the conference behind Bucknell, and BU brings in a strong mid-major class featuring 3-star wing Walter Whyte. The big key is Cedric Hankerson, the talented scoring wing who was never really himself last season after missing most of 2015-16 with a knee injury.
  4. Lehigh- The Mountain Hawks lose one of the best players in the history of their program in Tim Kempton. However, they still have one of the better pure point guards at the mid-major level in Kahron Ross, as well as a solid scoring wing in Kyle Leufroy, to carry the load.
  5. Loyola (MD)- Loyola was an absolutely fascinating team a season ago, earning wins over Bucknell, Lehigh, and Boston U but stumbling in home games against Lafayette and American. Andre Walker is the best guard in the conference, but he’ll need help and consistency from the rest of his team if the Greyhounds are going to make noise this season.
  6. Colgate- This is a team that many have pegged as a dark horse in the Patriot League this season. All five starters return for the Raiders, including sophomore stretch big and all-conference-type player Will Rayman. It has been since the 2007-08 season that Colgate finished a season over .500, but that’s certainly not out of the question this season.
  7. Army- Last season was always going to be a bit of a rebuild for Army, losing all 5 starters and their head coach. That rebuild seems to be on the right track, as in 2016-17 the Black Knights found their point guard and big man of the future in Thomas Funk and Matthew Wilson, respectively.
  8. Holy Cross- The Crusaders lose their top two scorers from last season’s club in Robert Champion and Malachi Alexander. They’ll need a pair of leaders on this team in juniors Karl Charles and Pat Benzan to take the next step in their games.
  9. American- It’s nearly impossible for mid-major clubs to win when their top two players are freshmen, but that’s what American dealt with last season. That said, that duo of Sa’eed Nelson and Mark Gasperini should be a handful for teams to deal with this season.
  10. Lafayette- The Leopards have one of the more underrated bigs at the mid-major level in Matt Klinewski, but the rest of this roster gives me nothing to get excited about. This team may be headed to the cellar once again.

Champion: Bucknell

The class of this league by far this season, Bucknell is one of the top potential Cinderella teams to watch in 2017-18. They run efficient offense, play solid defense, and have a wealth of experience with nearly the entire rotation returning. Nana Foulland is one of the best big men in the country, a guy who uses his combination of strength, length, and skill level to dominate in the paint while also being a terrific rim protector. He’s complimented by Zach Thomas, a point forward who shoots the 3 well and is an outstanding passer. Meanwhile, a point guard like Stephen Brown gets overlooked despite averaging over 11 ppg and posting a 2.65 assist-to-turnover ratio while shooting over 40 percent from 3. This team has a chance to be in the at-large bid discussion if they can pull off some upsets in their loaded non-conference schedule.

Dark Horse: Loyola (MD)

The combination of a talented guard like Andre Walker who can take over games and a rim-running big in Cam Gregory is a dangerous one. The key for the Greyhounds is hitting more shots (especially from the outside) and finding some pieces to step up in the frontcourt behind Gregory with Jarred Jones graduating. If they can find one guy to make the next step in their game, the Greyhounds could be a factor near the top of the conference.

First Team All-Conference:

  • G: Andre Walker (Loyola MD)
  • G: Kahron Ross (Lehigh)
  • G: Stephen Brown (Bucknell)
  • F: Zach Thomas (Bucknell)
  • F: Nana Foulland (Bucknell)

Player of the Year: Nana Foulland (Bucknell)- Foulland has been touched on a lot in this preview, but the defending conference POY and DPOY seems all but certain to repeat in both categories this season. Foulland is pretty much everything you want in a mid-major big man, and he’s a guy no team at any level wants to have to face.

Breakout Player of the Year: Pat Andree (Lehigh)- A prototypical stretch 4, Andree is a lights-out shooter who showed a great deal of promise as a freshman. He’ll have to get a bit more physical in the post to improve his all-around game, but I expect his role on offense to increase in a big way with the amount of production that Lehigh loses from a season ago.

Newcomer of the Year: Walter Whyte (Boston University)- Whyte was a huge get for Boston U, choosing the Terriers over multiple A10 and other solid mid-major offers. At 6-6 with a game ready body, Whyte has the ability to play 3 different positions as well and create mismatches. Whyte is the type of player that could definitely blossom into a star at Boston University.

32 Conferences, 32 Days: Pac-12

By Kevin Sweeney

To me, the Pac-12 is the worst of the Power 6 conferences in college basketball (P5 plus Big East) this season. While the top of the conference features a pair of top 10 teams in Arizona and USC, the league simply doesn’t have the depth that other top leagues have. However, a talented crop of newcomers are set to join the conference this year, as the Pac-12 has 8 of the top 30 recruiting classes in the country for the 2017 class. The comprehensive strength of that class could set the tone for success now and in the future in “The Conference of Champions”.

Standings Projection:

  1. Arizona- The Wildcats are my preseason #1 team in the country. The combination of depth and talent that Sean Miller has at his disposal is flat-out scary, adding a likely top-5 pick in the 2018 draft in DeAndre Ayton to go along with a core that already featured an All-American-type talent in Allonzo Trier. The sky is the limit for this Arizona club.
  2. USC- It is absolutely remarkable the job that Andy Enfield is done at USC since coming over from FGCU. He has assembled one of the most talented rosters from top to bottom in the country. Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu are legitimate stars up front, and what was already a strong backcourt unit gets a big boost with the additions of Derryck Thornton and Charles O’Bannon.
  3. UCLA- This is a very interesting UCLA club. They return a pair of all-league-caliber players in Aaron Holiday and Thomas Welsh and bring in a loaded recruiting class, but the loss of a guy like Lonzo Ball can’t be underestimated. Holiday and Welsh should be able to lead the way as Steve Alford brings the freshmen along, but I’m still in a bit of wait-and-see mode with the Bruins.
  4. Oregon- it was a tumultuous offseason for the Ducks, as a combination of transfers and early draft declarations left Dana Altman scrambling  for talent. However, he found plenty of that in a pair of grad transfers in Elijah Brown (UNM), and MiKyle McIntosh (Illinois State). That pairing combined with a loaded recruiting class headlined by versatile guard Troy Brown should help carry the Ducks to their 6th straight NCAA Tournament.
  5. Stanford- Jerod Haase quietly brings in a top-15 recruiting class to compliment one of the best players in the country in double-double machine Reid Travis. Freshmen Daejon Davis and KZ Okpala should see significant time right away at guard, ideally providing some solid floor-spacing for a team that shot just 32% from 3 a season ago.
  6. Arizona State- Honestly, this pick all comes down to frontcourt improvement. The Sun Devils were horrifically bad up front, and lose a solid big in Obinna Oleka. They’ll be heavily dependent on newcomers De’Quon Lake, Romello White, and Kimani Lawrence to provide good frontcourt play. If they get that from those guys, Bobby Hurley’s team has a chance to take a few steps forward.
  7. Oregon State- Pretty much everything that could go wrong for the Beavers did go wrong in 2016-17, and the results were beyond ugly at times. However, Tres Tinkle returns after missing almost all of last season due to injury, and his presence combined with 3 returning double-digit scorers gives this team NCAA Tournament upside.
  8. Utah- Kyle Kuzma’s early departure to the NBA was certainly damaging for the Utes. That leaves Utah with plenty of question marks as they enter the season. Larry Krystowiak will need more consistent play from talented guard Sedrick Barefield, as well as a breakout campaign from center Jayce Johnson in order to win 20 games for the 5th straight season.
  9. Washington- Last season was nothing short of a disaster for the Huskies, spoiling a season with #1 overall pick Markelle Fultz in tow. However, a new coach in longtime Syracuse assistant Mike Hopkins enters, and the cupboard isn’t as bare as some think. A strong junior group highlighted by dynamic combo guard David Crisp, high-upside wing Matisse Thybulle, and steady big Noah Dickerson should win the Huskies some games this season.
  10. Colorado- Colorado brings in one of the most under-the-radar recruiting classes in the country, and they will need an instant impact from a few of them to compliment talented senior George King. I’ve heard rave reviews on freshman PG McKinley Wright, the former Dayton signee who flipped to Colorado after Archie Miller left for Indiana. He’ll be looked to as an immediate contributor for the Buffaloes.
  11. Washington State- The Cougars have an outstanding young talent in Malachi Flynn. However, prospects look pretty dim beyond him. Ernie Kent will need some big contributions from some newcomers to make any noise in the Pac-12.
  12. Cal- Wyking Jones has done an excellent job on the recruiting trail for future classes in his short time since taking over as Cal’s head coach. However, the cupboard is bare this season. One bright spot could be the play of Kentucky transfer Marcus Lee, a talented big man who just never really put it together in his 3 years in Lexington.

Champions: Arizona

While the FBI’s investigation into Arizona and many other programs continues to hang over the Sean Miller’s head, the Wildcats enter the season as a clear national title contender. Arizona has an abundance of depth and versatility on the wing, a pair of outstanding bigs in Ayton and Dusan Ristic, and a steady point guard situation led by Parker Jackson-Cartwright. This is the year Sean Miller finally gets to the Final Four. He might even win it all.

Dark Horse: Oregon State

It’s so hard for me to predict this Oregon State team. On one hand, the return of Tinkle makes a huge difference, but at the same time, this team’s likely next 3 top scorers this season couldn’t take down Savannah State or LBSU and recorded just 1 conference win all season. Tinkle’s return makes a huge difference as a legitimate All-American-level talent, but the Beavers will have to improve taking care of the basketball (significantly negative assist-to-turnover ratio) and improve their offensive efficiency if they are going to make a run at an NCAA Tournament bid.

First Team All-Conference:

  • G: Aaron Holiday (UCLA)
  • G: Allonzo Trier (Arizona)
  • F: Reid Travis (Stanford)
  • F: Bennie Boatwright (USC)
  • F: Chimezie Metu (USC)

Player of the Year: Reid Travis (Stanford)- The popular pick here is probably Trier, but I’m not sure people realize just how good Travis is. He averaged over 17 points and just under 9 rebounds per game a season ago despite having little floor-spacing around him. He’s extremely efficient as well, shooting 58% from the field. I have the Cardinal pegged as an NCAA  Tournament team this season.

Breakout Player of the Year: Payton Pritchard (Oregon)- Pritchard followed up a 2016-17 season in which he played a key role on a Final Four team with a busy summer highlighted by a trip to Egypt to represent Team USA at the FIBA U19 World Cup. He makes good decisions, scores the ball effectively, and seems poised for a huge year as a leader for an Oregon club graduating so much production.

Newcomer of the Year: DeAndre Ayton (Arizona)- The upside Ayton has is nothing short of through the roof. A 7-footer with a 7-5 wingspan and a skillset that FanRag Sports’ Jon Rothstein compares to David Robinson, Ayton can step out and hit jumpers while also dominating the opposition in the paint.

32 Conferences, 32 Days: Ohio Valley

By Kevin Sweeney

The Ohio Valley managed to avoid this offseason’s conference realignment, as Murray State’s push to join the Missouri Valley was turned down in favor of Valparaiso. Meanwhile, the OVC appears to have one of the more intriguing races at the top of the conference this season, with Belmont, Murray State, and defending conference tournament champs Jacksonville State all strong contenders to claim the OVC title.

Standings Projection:

  1. Murray State- The media poll picked Belmont to win the league, but my money is on the Racers. Despite a disappointing 2016-17 campaign, Murray has the most talented roster in the conference and one of the best players in the country in Jonathan Stark.
  2. Belmont- The Bruins have been an absolute machine under Rick Byrd, and I expect them to continue their success despite the loss of star forward Evan Bradds (graduation). They still have a pure point guard in Austin Luke, a versatile big in Amanze Egekeze, and a winning culture that goes a long way in college basketball.
  3. Jacksonville State- It can’t be understated just how good a job Ray Harper did last season in his first season at Jacksonville State. The frontcourt pairing of Norbertas Giga and Christian Cunningham, as well as a deep backcourt that will be bostered by a group of transfers from the JUCO ranks.
  4. Eastern Kentucky- When you have 2 of the top 6 to 8 players in the conference, you are going to be a tough team to beat. EKU has that in junior big man Nick Mayo and sophomore guard Asante Gist. The addition of Butler transfer Jackson Davis might be the piece that pushes EKU over the top and into contender status in the OVC.
  5. Tennessee State- TSU loses a strong duo in Tahjere McCall and Wayne Martin, but they still will have one of the top backcourts in the conference in the form of Delano Spencer, Darreon Reddick, and talented JUCO guard Kamar McKnight, a former 3-Star who shot over 40% from 3 at Georgia Highlands College.
  6. Tennessee Tech- Aleksa Jugovic is one of the better guards in the conference, an outstanding shooter who has improved every season of his career. However, he’ll need help if TTU wants to contend, and he may just get that in Shaq Calhoun, a South Alabama grad transfer guard who can fill it up.
  7. Eastern Illinois- EIU has the pieces to surprise this season. With 3 senior stars in Montell Goodwin, Ray Crossland, and Muusa Dama, the Panthers have the experience you want in contender. The one area they must improve is their offensive efficiency, as they ranked in the bottom 50 in field goal percentage a season ago.
  8. Morehead State- Preston Spradlin did a great job last season in an impossible situation taking over for Sean Woods midseason. I wouldn’t be surprised if MSU surprises again behind the play of talented junior Lamontray Harris and one of the most highly-touted freshmen in the conference in De’von Cooper.
  9. UT-Martin- Only 2 players who averaged over 5 points per game last season return for the Skyhawks. They will need a huge year for Matthew Butler and some strong contributions from newcomers in order to contend.
  10. SEMO- Ineligible for the postseason this year due to academics, SEMO has a star guard in Denzel Mahoney but not a ton else to work with. It could be a struggle for Rick Ray’s club.
  11. Austin Peay- I like the job that Matt Figger has done since arriving at APSU, but with the departures of the Govs’ top 4 scorers, this season is definitely a rebuilding one.
  12. SIUE- I believe SIUE will be improved this season, but they were one of the worst teams in Division 1 last season. It will take great strides in order to rise from the cellar of the OVC.

Champions: Murray State

This Murray State team is one that I see improving significantly from a season ago. The addition of Towson transfer Byron Hawkins as well as an extremely strong freshman class headlined by guard Ja Morant. In the frontcourt, the expected emergence of Jalen Dupree next to star big Terrell Miller can’t be understated, allowing Miller stay on the floor while Dupree does more dirty work inside. Oh yeah, the Racers also have the uber-talented Jonathan Stark, one of the best guards in college basketball. If all of these pieces come together the way I think they will, watch out.

Dark Horse: Eastern Kentucky

As I mentioned before, having a duo like Gist and Mayo will win you a lot of games. But it’s the addition of Jackson Davis, who EKU head coach Dan McHale called “a momumental recruit for our program”, that really excites me. Combining a guy with the interior prowess of Davis with a versatile floor-spacer like Mayo has a chance to be a dominant frontcourt in the OVC. This team could stun some poeple.

First Team All-Conference:

  • G: Jonathan Stark (Murray State)
  • G: Austin Luke (Belmont)
  • F: Terrell Miller (Murray State)
  • F: Nick Mayo (Eastern Kentucky)
  • F: Norbertas Giga (Jacksonville State)

Player of the Year: Jonathan Stark (Murray State)- This is a pretty easy choice. Stark is a dominant scorer, but also a very willing passer and an elite shooter despite all the attention he receives from opposing defenses. Just 14 players since 2000 have posted the statline he posted a season ago, including Steph Curry and Markelle Fultz. He’s a huge reason I have the Racers as OVC champions.

Breakout Player of the Year: Jalen Dupree (Murray State)- Dupree showed flashes as freshman, earning more and more playing time as the season went on. He’s super athletic and strong, and I expect a huge season from him as he plays next to an outstanding big in Terrell Miller.

Newcomer of the Year: Averyl Ugba (Austin Peay)- Ugba nearly averaged a double-double for Grambling State last season and was a significant late get for Austin Peay. He should put up big numbers for an APSU team that is in desperate need of scoring punch.

32 Conferences, 32 Days: NEC

By Kevin Sweeney

I would be remiss if I didn’t open my discussion about the NEC with a breakdown about its issues with transfers. 6 out of the top 10 returning scorers in the NEC transferred this offseason, and players from the NEC headed to places like Miami, Texas, Kansas State, and Seton Hall. This transfer crisis has made it impossible for the league’s stature to improve, as it seems many teams are in a perpetual state of reloading. That said, it is one of the more entertaining and wide-open leagues in the country as the result of this player movement, and I’m looking forward to watching the drama unfold this season.

Standings Projection:

  1. St. Francis (PA)- The Red Flash seem to be a pretty strong favorite this season in the NEC. They have one of the better guard pairings at the mid-major level in Isaiah Blackmon and Keith Braxton, and have the experience of a deep NEC Tourament run from a season ago. The one concern I have is how they’ll handle losing an interior threat and rim protector like Josh Nebo (now at Texas A&M).
  2. Mount St. Mary’s- The defending league champions certainly lose a ton from last season, but I’m betting on Jamion Christian and his 12 freshmen along with Junior Robinson to not let the Mount fall off The Map.
  3. LIU-Brooklyn- Definitely one of the more interesting teams in the conference this season, the Blackbirds have a new coach in Derek Kellogg and a talented backcourt featuring senior Joel Hernandez and sophomores Jashaun Agosto & Julian Batts. Look for UMass grad transfer Zach Coleman to stabilize a frontcourt that loses Jerome Frink from last season’s club.
  4. Sacred Heart- The loss of Quincy McKnight is on its face crushing, but it may not be as huge as some have suggested. The Pioneers still have the best frontcourt in the conference featuring Joseph Lopez, but it will be the guard play that will determine how good SHU will be. Watch out for Kinnon LaRose, a transfer from Siena who can shoot the cover off the ball.
  5. Fairleigh Dickinson- FDU has the best scorer in the conference in Darian Anderson, but the departures of Stephan Jiggetts and Earl Potts to the transfer market definitely hurts. The Knights will need steady PG play from freshman Jahlil Jenkins in order to contend.
  6. Wagner- A pair of stat-sheet-stuffers return in guards JoJo Cooper and Ramone Saunders, but Corey Henson, Michael Carey, and Mike Aaman all depart for Bashir Mason’s club. This is a hard team to predict preseason, but I could see them climbing the standings in the NEC and contending once again.
  7. Bryant- The bad news for the Bulldogs is Nisre Zouzoua and Marcel Pettway transferred this offseason. The good news is that sophomore guard Adam Grant returns, and I expect him to be one of the best scorers in the conference. The Bulldogs will go as far as Grant takes them.
  8. Central Connecticut State- I really like what Donyell Marshall is beginning to build at CCSU, and I think for this season a reasonable target is qualifying for the conference tournament. JUCO wing Tyler Kohl should be one of the better newcomers in the league.
  9. Robert Morris- Other than guards Dachon Burke and Matty McConnell, pretty much every contributor from a season ago is gone for RMU. A huge group of newcomers will look to fill out the holes in the roster, but it’s hard to have any expectations at this point.
  10. St. Francis (Brooklyn)- The Terriers were really bad last season, and while I believe they should be improved from a season ago, it won’t be enough to keep them out of the cellar of the NEC.

Champions: St. Francis (PA)

The best way to describe the Red Flash’s season in 2016-17 is “ahead of schedule”. Relying on a very young team, St. Francis went 11-7 in league play and made a run to the conference title game. Now, with the aforementioned Blackmon and Braxton anchoring the team as juniors and sophomores respectively, this team has a chance to be incredibly dangerous. As I mentioned earlier, the loss of a guy like Nebo can’t be overstated, but SFU should be the best team this conference has to offer this season.

Dark Horse: Sacred Heart

One of the biggest reasons I am high on the Pioneers this season is their ability to create mismatches. With a frontcourt that features the experience of guys like Lopez and Mario Matasovic and youth like talented freshman EJ Anosike (brother of former Siena star and NCAA rebounding champion OD Anosike), SHU can bother opponents with their size. The question will be the guards, but if someone can step up as a true scoring threat, the Pioneers will be a team that can surprise people.

First Team All-Conference

  • G: Darian Anderson (Fairleigh Dickinson)
  • G: Keith Braxton (St. Francis PA)
  • G: Adam Grant (Bryant)
  • G: Junior Robinson (Mount St. Mary’s)
  • F: Joseph Lopez (Sacred Heart)

Player of the Year: Keith Braxton (St. Francis PA)- I’m not sure some people realize just how phenomenal Braxton was as a rookie. He led the conference in win shares while averaging over 13 points and 8 rebounds per game and being one of the best perimeter defenders in the NEC. He scored at high efficiency as well, shooting 53% from the field and 44% from 3. After doing all of that as a freshman, I can’t wait to see what he does with another year of seasoning under his belt.

Breakout Player of the Year: Adam Grant (Bryant)- One could certainly make the case that Grant is already an established commodity in the NEC, but with the boost in production I expect to see from him this season, I think he deserves the breakout tag. With Zouzoua, the conference’s leading scorer a season ago, gone, Grant will be expected to score a ton of points for the Bulldogs, and I truly believe the sky is the limit for the production we could see from him.

Newcomer of the Year: Donald Carey (Mount St. Mary’s)- a 6-5 guard who can play the 1, 2, or 3, Carey is a high-level talent at the NEC level who was an outstanding pickup for Jamion Christian. He’s long and handles the ball well, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he winds up being a starter from day one. My only concern is how he recovers from a torn meniscus suffered this summer as the season approaches.

32 Conferences, 32 Days: Mountain West

By Kevin Sweeney

I must say, the Mountain West is probably my favorite league to cover in college basketball. Even though the conference as a whole is a bit down from what it has been in the past, it is an incredibly entertaining league to watch and is always full of interesting storylines. This season should be no different, with plenty of interesting clubs at that top that should make the Mountain West one of the most intriguing leagues in the country.

Standings Projection:

  1. Nevada- This Nevada team will have a much different look from the squad that won the conference a season ago, but the talent is still very much present for Eric Musselman’s team. A quintet of transfers (Caleb Martin, Cody Martin, Kendall Stephens, Hallice Cooke, and Darien Williams) are eligible to play after departing from high-major programs to compliment a returning core that includes star forward Jordan Caroline.
  2. San Diego State- There are certainly some question marks surrounding SDSU this season, especially given the departure of long-time head coach Steve Fisher. That said, this Aztec team gets a huge boost in the offensive department with the addition of San Francisco transfer Devin Watson, a talented scorer who can play both guard spots.
  3. Fresno State- The Bulldogs sneakily have one of the better backcourts in college basketball, with Pacific transfer Ray Bowles joining veteran cogs Deshon Taylor, Jahmel Taylor, and Jaron Hopkins. If Bryson Williams can take the next step after a strong freshman season in the frontcourt, Fresno State is a legit MW title contender.
  4. Wyoming- The Cowboys are a team I’m very high on. Coming off a deep postseason run culminating in a CBI title, Wyoming returns 4 starters and several other key cogs, including a superstar in Justin James (16 ppg, 5 rpg a season ago). A team many are calling a sleeper title contender, don’t forget about the Cowboys in this crowded Mountain West race.
  5. Boise State- The loss of Paris Austin is a huge blow for Boise, but the Broncos still have the best player in the conference in Chandler Hutchison and a solid core complimenting him. A pair of grad transfers in Lexus Williams (Valpo) and Christian Sengfelder (Fordham) should see action immediately for Leon Rice’s club.
  6. UNLV- This feels like the right spot to have the Running Rebels in the preseason, but things could go any number of ways for UNLV this season. With a top-15 recruiting class coming in, Marvin Menzies has stocked up with high-level talent. Still, this team is inexperienced and I just don’t know how well the pieces will fit together.
  7. Colorado State- Larry Eustachy is faced with the near-impossible task of replacing two superstars in Emmanuel Omogbo and Gian Clavell. Still, the pieces are there to make a run, with a budding star in guard Prentiss Nixon in tow as well as one of the conference’s biggest breakout candidates in big man Nico Carvacho. This team should be a factor come conference tourney time.
  8. New Mexico- This is a bit higher than many of my colleagues have the Lobos finishing in the first year of the Paul Weir era, but I think UNM will be feisty despite the cupboard being seemingly pretty bare. Look for Weir’s club to implement a fast-paced style that fans in “The Pit” will love and for the Lobos to steal some games on their home floor.
  9. Utah State- The Aggies have one of the most talented players in the conference in sophomore guard Koby McEwen, who averaged almost 15 ppg a season ago. However, an already-thin frontcourt took a big hit when likely starting center Norbert Janicek suffered a season-ending knee injury this summer. McEwen will have to dominate if the Aggies are going to make noise in the Mountain West.
  10. San Jose State- SJSU was a team I really believed could surprise until the departure of head coach Dave Wojcik and subsequently the transfer of superstar forward Brandon Clarke. Jean Prioleau inherits a roster with a few solid pieces, but I’m just not sold on it winning in the Mountain West without their centerpiece in Clarke.
  11. Air Force- A 6-man senior class headlined by center Joe Toohey will look to climb the Mountain West standings, but the departures of a pair of talented guards in Hayden Graham and Zach Kocur will make that difficult.

Champions: Nevada

One really can’t say enough about the job that Eric Musselman has done since he arrived in Reno two years ago. In that short time, he’s built a roster that can stand toe-to-toe from a talent perspective with many Power 5 programs. Up and down the roster are versatile offensive weapons who can hurt you from anywhere on the floor. However, what I really like about the Wolf Pack this season is their defensive potential. With the addition of the Martin twins and Kendall Stephens, the team has so many long athletes who can defend multiple positions. They should be able switch everything on screens and use their length to get into passing lanes. The catalyst on that end of the floor is Josh Hall, the unsung hero of this Nevada squad. Hall doesn’t score a ton, but is an excellent floor general and an outstanding defender. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Wolf Pack wind up in the top 25 at some point this season.

Dark Horse: UNLV

I could have went a lot of different ways here, but I went with the team I believe has the highest upside in the conference in UNLV. The additions of talents like 5-star big Brandon McCoy, #1 JUCO prospect Shakur Juiston, and 4-star combo guard Amauri Hardy certainly give this team the talent they will need to win games, but the cohesiveness will be a big concern. The key to this team in my opinion is Milwaukee transfer PG Jordan Johnson, who averaged over 8 assists per game in 2015-16. He’s the type of distributor who can get all these guys involved and help push the tempo, two key aspects if the Running Rebels are to have success this season.

First Team All-Conference:

  • G: Prentiss Nixon (Colorado State)
  • G: Jaron Hopkins (Fresno State)
  • G/F: Chandler Hutchison (Boise State)
  • G/F: Justin James (Wyoming)
  • F: Jordan Caroline (Nevada)

Player of the Year: Chandler Hutchison (Boise State)- Hutchison is as good a player as you will find at the mid-major level. Ranked #1 on my list of the top mid-major small forwards in the country, Hutchison can do a little bit of everything. He’s a hyper-efficient scorer at all 3 levels, fights hard on the glass, and is an excellent defender who can guard multiple positions. Boise State has to feel like they are in every game if Hutchison is playing.

Breakout Player of the Year: Nico Carvacho (Colorado State)- I couldn’t have gone wrong with any of the candidates I was considering, but I believe Carvacho is ready to make a massive leap as a sophomore. After a productive freshman season in which averaged more than 5 points and 5 rebounds per game in just over 20 minutes per game, I’ve heard rave reviews on Carvacho’s improvement throughout the offseason. He could blossom into a double-double machine.

Newcomer of the Year: Devin Watson (San Diego State)- Watson may not wind up being the best newcomer in the conference, but he’s likely the most important. Watson’s elite playmaking ability to create for himself and others will provide a much-needed lift to a SDSU offense that was anemic at times a season ago. If he makes the kind of contribution I believe he can, this SDSU team will be dangerous on a national level this season.

Providence Season Preview

 

By Will Waters

Yesterday, the Big East released its preseason coaches poll. Villanova was picked to finish first again for the fifth straight year followed by Seton Hall and Xavier. Providence was picked to finish fourth.

The Friars are loaded in the backcourt with a healthy mix of veteran leadership and young talent. Senior Kyron Cartwright, who CBS Sports included in their top ten point guards in America list, runs the point, a role in which he excels at given his passing ability in both the halfcourt and fastbreak. The lightning-quick lefty also has a nice touch around the rim, an improving three point shot, and a high rate of getting to the free throw line.

The Friar backcourt also includes incoming freshman Makai Ashton-Langford, a highly touted recruit out of Worcester, Massachusetts. Ashton-Langford is one of the best incoming freshmen in the country, earning a top 40 ranking coming out of high school. Langford provides vision, defensive toughness, elite athleticism, and a winners mentality as he has not lost a game in nearly two years.

Other players in the PC backcourt such as Alpha Diallo, Drew Edwards, and Maliek White all provide a steady pace of scoring and playmaking. Diallo has legit 3 and D pro potential given his body type, and an already above-average three point shot. Drew Edwards, who redshirted last year, brings back a textbook three point shot, sound decision making, and a quick first step to the already explosive Friar backcourt. Maliek White showed flashes of stardom as a freshman and there’s no reason to think that it won’t continue this year. He has the type of jump shot that allows him to get his shot off even off of tough defenders. White also has a gifted floater game along with a serviceable handle make for a tough matchup every night.

The frontcourt of the Friars is also one of the top in the Big East. The front line includes Jalen Lindsey, Rodney Bullock, and Emmitt Holt. Jalen Lindsey is one of the best shooters in the entire country and also is a strong rebounder for his position. Bullock, while inconsistent, has the potential to go for 25 every night if he can finally put it all together. He is one of the most underrated players in the conference given his ability to stretch the floor and play down low near the basket. Emmitt Holt is another guy who can defend, bang down low, and stretch the floor. There is some uncertainty surrounding Emmitt Holt regarding an abdominal injury. Recently, he underwent surgery and is out for an unknown amount of time.

Depth pieces in the front court include Isaiah Jackson, Kalif Young, Nate Watson, and Dajour Dickens. Isaiah Jackson fits Ed Cooley’s system perfectly as he is another wing who can stretch the floor with his three point shot and defend one through five well enough to be able to switch everything, Kalif Young is an improving rebounder who is similar in skill set to Cavs big man Tristan Thompson as he is a tenacious rebounder and shot-blocker. Watson, a player who Ed Cooley compared to former Boston College center Craig Smith, is a sturdy 6′ 8″ with a 7′ 0″ wingspan. Cooley has raved about Watson, even going as far to say that he has the potential to lead the Big East in rebounding one day. Dajour Dickens is a shot blocking force who may be a little too raw at this point to contribute regularly, but is ahead of schedule according to the coaching staff.

Given the talent on the roster, I expect Providence to be a top 3 team in the Big East this season and possibly compete for a Big East tournament championship. Ed Cooley has always exceeded expectations and this season should be no different given the overall depth and talent on the roster.

Providence is a definitely a team that could reach the second weekend of the NCAA tourney, but given Ed Cooley’s shaky tournament record, nothing can be assumed. The Friars aren’t the type of team that has the ability to outscore opponents, but their defensive prowess will allow them to win a lot of games ugly and close. The depth on the roster will allow a tough hard nosed defensive scheme for 40 minutes. There is no reason that Cooley should not be able to lead this team to a fifth straight NCAA tournament.

 

 

32 Conferences, 32 Days: Missouri Valley

By Kevin Sweeney

The entire power structure in the Missouri Valley changed this offseason with the departure of Wichita State for the greener pastures of the AAC. The MVC quickly responded with the addition of Valparaiso from the Horizon League. While Valpo alone can’t replace the dominance of WSU, they are a perennially strong mid-major program in the midwest that will be a strong fit for the MVC. That said, it will be interesting to see if The Valley looks to add additional teams this coming offseason, or if they will stand pat at 10.

  1. Missouri State- This is very much a make-or-break season for Paul Lusk’s future at Missouri State. The Bears are clearly the most talented team in the conference at a time when the league as a whole appears down with the loss of Wichita State. Alize Johnson is the best player in the conference, and Lusk has recruited enough talented around him to make them extremely dangerous.
  2. Loyola (Chicago)- Porter Moser has done an excellent job accumulating talent, with a strong veteran group highlighted by undersized forward Aundre Jackson, sharpshooter Clayton Custer, and wing Donte Ingram. Combine that group with a strong recruiting class that includes a pair of 3-star prospects and a pair of transfers who will factor into the rotation in grad transfer center Carson Shanks (North Dakota) and junior guard Marques Townes (FDU), and you have one of the most talented rosters in the MVC.
  3. Northern Iowa- Last season was a disappointing one for the Panthers, but I expect Ben Jacobson’s club to get back to their winning ways this season. While UNI does lose leading scorer Jeremy Morgan, they do return a strong core of experienced talent that will make them tough to beat in the MVC this season. Watch out for freshman wing Tywhon Pickford, a 6-4 kid who can play multiple positions and has a game-ready body.
  4. Illinois State- This is by far the hardest team for me to place. With 5 of the Redbirds’ top 6 scorers from last season no longer with the program, this would generally be a full rebuild. However, with some high-level talent joining the fray and the presence of an all-conference-level player in Phil Fayne, Dan Muller’s team will still be dangerous.
  5. Valparaiso- The newbies to the MVC, Valpo is faced with the steep challenge of replacing Alec Peters, who averaged 23 points and 10 rebounds a game last season. However, they still have talented guard Tevonn Walker, who will need to be more consistent this season. The success of this season is heavily dependent on the play of a pair of transfers in Bakari Evelyn (Nebraska) and Joe Burton (Oklahoma State). If they play well, the Crusaders could be a factor near the top of the conference.
  6. Bradley- This Braves team is very intriguing to me. Every major contributor from a season ago returns, but it’s hard to say at this point if this core can win at the MVC level. Improvement from a pair of extremely promising sophomores in Darrell Brown and Koch Bar will be critical if this Braves team is going to take the next step.
  7. Southern Illinois- SIU is a team who I’ve seen a pretty wide range of predictions on for this season, but I’m not overly high on them. They do bring in a pair of talented guards in St. Louis transfer Marcus Bartley and JUCO prospect Eric McGill to join contributors Sean Loyd and Leo Vincent in the backcourt. They also have a pair of solid frontcourt pieces in Sean O’Brien and Thik Bol. This is definitely a team that could rise in the MVC standings, but overall I’m just not sold on them as a contender.
  8. Indiana State- The Sycamores have one of the best players in the conference in Brenton Scott, but they lose 4 starters from last year’s club. After being 9th in the conference in rebounding margin a season ago, they’ll need a big jump there if they want to stay out of the bottom tier of the MVC.
  9. Drake- I really like the Niko Medved hire for the Bulldogs, but it will take time for him to rebuild this program. The backcourt has some really solid talent, with Reed Timmer an all-conference-level player and De’Antae McMurray a strong piece as well, but the roster just doesn’t have the depth to win much this season.
  10. Evansville- No team shot fewer 3-pointers a season ago than Evansville, which is coming off an 8th-place finish in the MVC. Don’t expect that to change with their best shooter in Jaylon Brown graduating. They’ll need an absolutely massive season from Ryan Taylor to stay out of the bottom of the conference.

Champions: Missouri State

This year is all or nothing for the Bears. They have a talented veteran group headlined by Johnson, the clear top player in the conference and a definite NBA prospect. Talented scorer Ronnie Rousseau rejoins the team after missing much of last season, and the Bears improve their depth with a pair of grad transfers in guard James Miller (Howard) and big man Tanveer Bhullar. Paul Lusk needs to lead this team to victories in a weakened MVC.

Dark Horse: Valparaiso

In their first season in the MVC, the Crusaders have some intriguing pieces to work with. Tevonn Walker is the star of the group, an extremely talented scorer who needs to be a consistent option this season (12 games with less than 10 points, 7 games with more than 15 a season ago). They also have skilled Spanish center Jaume Sorolla, who showed flashes of brilliance last season as a freshman and is one of my bigger breakout candidates in the conference. The incoming piece I really like is Joe Burton, a strong 6-6 wing who can play multiple positions. He was a solid role player at Oklahoma State, scoring almost 5 ppg in just over 12 minutes per contest while shooting almost 40% from downtown. He has star potential, and he could be an excellent MVC player. It’s impossible to replace a guy like Peters, but I think the Crusaders will make some noise in their first season in the conference.

First Team All-Conference:

  • G: Brenton Scott (Indiana State)
  • G: Tevonn Walker (Valparaiso)
  • G/F: Donte Ingram (Loyola)
  • F: Phil Fayne (Illinois State)
  • F: Alize Johnson (Missouri State)

Player of the Year: Alize Johnson (Missouri State)- Make sure you sit down and watch a Missouri State game this season, because Alize Johnson is must-see TV. He’s 6-8 and strong, shoots the 3, and is an absolute terror on the glass. He also defends multiple positions and a growing off-the-bounce arsenal. He’ll likely average a double-double this season for a Bears team that is favored to win the MVC.

Breakout Player of the Year: Phil Fayne (Illinois State)- It’s odd to see a breakout candidate be on the first team all-conference preseason list, but that’s how high I am on Fayne. After a sophomore season in which he averaged over 9 points and 6 rebounds a night in less than 25 minutes per game, Fayne is poised to see his role increase drastically with all that Illinois State loses this season. I could see him averaging 15 points and 9 rebounds per game this season.

Newcomer of the Year: Milik Yarbrough (Illinois State)- Yarbrough, a versatile wing who began his career at St. Louis, is expected to play a big role right out of the gate for the Redbirds. A strong driver and proficient 3-point shooter, Yarbrough will be a great offensive weapon for Dan Muller and his mix of size and athleticism should make him a solid defender as well.