Pretender or Contender: A Look at Conference Play’s Early Overachievers

By Kevin Sweeney

Conference play is in full swing, and with that we finally have a better feel for the majority of the teams in the college basketball. As several teams have gotten off to unexpectedly hot starts to open the conference slate, now’s a great time to take a look at which teams we should believe in and which teams can’t be expected to remain at the top of their conference for the long term.

Atlantic Ten: Duquesne

Status: Pretender

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love what Keith Dambrot has done (and continues to do) in his first year at Duquesne. I just don’t think they can continue to fight for a top 3-4 spot in the A10, even with the league down. This team’s lack of depth will be a challenge as conference play wears on, and while the Dukes have been stout defensively, I’m not sure they will have thSe scoring punch to get to the 12 or so conference wins that it will take for a top 4 finish. That said, the fact that Dambrot has the Dukes in position to be a top half team in the A10 with a massive influx of talent coming next year is wildly impressive.

Big South: Radford

Status: Contender

The Big South has appeared much more wide open than the 3-horse race many expected it to be in the preseason, but perhaps the biggest surprise has been Radford. The Highlanders have quietly won 6 of 7 and 4 of 5 to start Big South play, including wins over perennial powers UNC-Asheville and Winthrop. Ed Polite has continued his emergence into one of the Big South’s best (20 ppg, 10.4 rpg in conference play), while freshman guard Carlik Jones has been proficient at scoring the basketball early in his collegiate career. I believe the Highlanders have a real chance to contend for a conference title.

CAA: William & Mary

Status: Contender

Tony Shaver’s club came into the 2017-18 season with low expectations from the media, but the Tribe have been wildly impressive so far. Nathan Knight has blossomed into one of the best big men in the country, and W&M runs remarkably efficient offense with excellent floor-spacing and distribution. With 3 of the next 4 on the road, we’ll learn quickly if my read on things is correct and the Tribe are ready to contend for a CAA title and their first-ever NCAA Tournament berth.

Horizon League: Wright State

Status: Contender

Perhaps no team has been a bigger surprise to start conference play than Wright State, who knocked off Youngstown State this afternoon to move to 6-0 in Horizon League play. Freshman big man Loudon Love has been a revelation, averaging close to a double-double while giving Scott Nagy a reliable frontcourt presence. Meanwhile, the midseason addition of Cole Gentry, a South Dakota State transfer, has been huge. Gentry has added another steady ballhandler and shooter to WSU’s rotation, and the Raiders are 8-0 in games he’s played at least 20 minutes in. With Oakland not living up to the preseason hype, the door has been opened for Wright State to make a run for the Horizon League title.

MAAC: Canisius

Status: Pretender

I went back and forth with this one, but I’m just not sold yet on this team. The trio of Jermaine Crumpton, Isaiah Reese, and Takal Molson has the capability of beating almost any team in the MAAC. That said, the Golden Griffins have been inconsistent this season and have enjoyed home court in 4 of their 6 conference games thus far. With 4 of their next 5 on the road including 3 of the top 5 teams in the conference, we’ll know quickly if Canisius, picked 9th in the MAAC in the preseason, can make a push towards the NCAA Tournament.

Much of the core of last season’s Canisius team graduated, such as Phil Valenti (#22), Keifer Douse (#4), and Kassius Robertson (#5), yet the Golden Griffins have been one of the most impressive teams in the MAAC in the early-going. Photo by Kevin Sweeney/CBB Central

 Missouri Valley: Drake

Status: Contender

Drake’s massive turnaround in year one of the Niko Medved era has been one of the better stories of the college basketball season. Medved inherited a senior-laden roster and has led it to a 5-1 start to MVC play. Reed Timmer is one of the most underrated guards in college basketball, and Nick McGlynn has had a major breakout season to give the Bulldogs a big boost in the frontcourt. If they can survive the upcoming 3-game stretch of Northern Iowa, Missouri State, and Loyola, the Bulldogs should be in prime position for a top-3 seed in Arch Madness this March.

Ohio Valley: Austin Peay

Status: Pretender

Yet another program with a hot start under a first-year head coach, what Matt Figger has done in year one at APSU is nothing short of remarkable. Behind a grad transfer and 2 stud freshmen, Figger has his club out to a 5-1 start in OVC play including an 87-67 drubbing of Jacksonville State on Saturday. That said, the Govs have had a fairly easy schedule early in conference play, and I still think they will struggle with Belmont and Murray State at the top of that conference.

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