New Year’s Reset: Conference Champion Picks

By Kevin Sweeney

It’s a busy time in college basketball.

As the calendar turns over to 2019, the college hoops season hits its stride: conference play. For the last seven or so weeks, teams have tried to build their resumes in the non-conference, and now we finally get the good stuff. Based on everything that has transpired so far, I’m ready to adjust some of my conference champion picks from my 32×32 preview series.

NOTE: These are regular season champion picks, not who I think will win the conference tournament.

America East: Stony Brook

Preseason Pick: Vermont

This adjustment has more to do with how the Seawolves are playing than Vermont not living up to preseason expectations. The Catamounts have gotten absurd production from junior star big Anthony Lamb and have accumulated a 9-4 record despite a tough non-conference slate. Still, it’s hard to ignore what Jeff Boals has done with this Stony Brook team, leading them to FOUR! buy game wins already this season. The Seawolves have taken the next step on the offensive end from last season and should be a dangerous 14/15 seed come March, if they can get past Vermont.

American: Houston

Preseason Pick: UCF

I came into the season down on pretty much every team in the AAC’s ability to score the basketball. Top choices to win the league UCF, Houston, and Cincinnati all profiled as elite defensive groups that could struggle on offense. The Cougars have come out better than expected on offense and still elite on D, and that’s a big reason they are still undefeated heading into conference play. The Cougars have several versatile players who can make shots, and Armoni Brooks has blossomed into a legit AAC POY candidate. This is a clear top-25 team.

ACC: Virginia

Preseason Pick: Virginia

Duke has exceeded my preseason expectations, but in terms of winning a regular season title I trust this Virginia team just a bit more than the Blue Devils. De’Andre Hunter has blossomed into the star most expected him to be, and the introduction of scrappy freshman Kihei Clark has allowed Ty Jerome to play more off the ball, where he has thrived. Another 30+ win season is in the cards for Tony Bennett’s club, one 65-47 win at a time.

Atlantic Ten: VCU

Preseason Pick: St. Louis

After a down 2017-18 season, most didn’t know what to expect from the Rams in Mike Rhoades’ second season as head coach. However, VCU has turned things around nicely, relying on a top-10 defense that’s forcing tons of turnovers to put itself back at the top of the A10. Wins over Texas and Temple in the non-conference were impressive, and the Rams were in every game they’ve played so far. In a wide-open A10, I trust this team more than the other contenders.

Atlantic Sun: Lipscomb

Preseason Pick: Lipscomb

No change here, despite Liberty’s strong start to the year. Lipscomb has been super impressive, beating TCU on the road before pushing Louisville to the brink. The Bisons have improved on defense from last season and still are dynamic on offense, with Garrison Matthews leading the charge. No one wants to see this team in March.

Big East: Marquette

Preseason Pick: Villanova

I nearly stuck with my preseason pick despite the Wildcats’ struggles this season, but Marquette is simply playing too well right now not to pick them. After an early-season drubbing at the hands of Indiana drove many off the bandwagon, the Golden Eagles have played tremendous basketball of late, grabbing quality wins over Louisville, Kansas State, Wisconsin, and Buffalo to build a strong resume come March. Plus, Markus Howard is still doing Markus Howard things:

Big Sky: Montana

Preseason Pick: Montana

While they didn’t pick off either of the “big fish” on their schedule in the non-conference, the Grizzlies remain the clear favorite in the Big Sky. An already-elite backcourt that featured stars in Ahmaad Rorie and Michael Oguine has gotten even better with the improvement of junior Sayeed Pridgett and the introduction of Oregon State transfer Kendal Manuel. With big man Jamar Akoh back after an early-season injury, Travis DeCuire’s group should have little trouble in conference play.

Big South: Radford

Preseason Pick: Radford

Gardner-Webb has made a late push for this one with eight consecutive wins, including a pair of wins over ACC foes Wake Forest and Georgia Tech. Radford still feels like the team to beat though, as Mike Jones’ group navigated a brutal non-conference schedule and came away with a 7-6 record with wins at Texas and Notre Dame. Five losses in their last six is concerning, but given all of those losses were on the road and three were to top-100 KenPom teams, I’m not jumping off the bandwagon.

Big Ten: Michigan

Preseason Pick: Michigan

Preseason, I picked the Wolverines when most were on Michigan State, saying I thought Michigan was a fringe top-10 team and MSU should probably slot in around 15th nationally. I was too low on both groups, as MSU looks like an elite team while the Wolverines are one of four remaining unbeatens in the sport. John Beilein’s team still runs great offense, and the addition of Luke Yaklich to the staff continues to pay dividends with the Wolverines ranking among the best scoring defenses nationally. This is a legit national title contender.

Big West: UC Irvine

Preseason Pick: UCSB

This is no real criticism of UCSB, as they’ve gotten off to a strong 10-3 start and are starting to work Max Heidegger back into the mix. It’s just hard to bet against this Anteater defense, which concedes just 41% of two-point attempts (6th nationally). Their size and discipline on the defensive end makes it so difficult on opposing offenses, and they have tons of depth to keep throwing bodies at you as the game wears on. This Big West title race should be fun.

Big 12: Kansas

Preseason Pick: Kansas

The Jayhawks haven’t been super impressive this season, but it’s Kansas in the Big 12. The streak will continue.

CAA: College of Charleston

Preseason Pick: Northeastern

This is more about what Charleston and Hofstra did in the season’s first two months than a criticism of Northeastern, which has looked solid especially with the return of Vasa Pusica from a hand injury. Despite losing Joe Chealey, the Cougars haven’t missed a beat from last year’s CAA championship team, riding the star-studded duo of Grant Riller and Jarrell Brantley to a nine-game winning streak. The battles at the top of this conference are going to be all kinds of fun, with Hofstra also riding a 9-game winning streak.

Conference USA: Western Kentucky

Preseason Pick: Western Kentucky

I might get burned here, but I think the Hilltoppers have figured it out after an uneven non-conference. Wins over Wisconsin, West Virginia, Arkansas, and St. Mary’s have shown this team’s incredible promise, but the consistency is where this team has to improve. With Charles Bassey learning how to be a force down low and fellow freshman Dalano Banton helping this offense run smoother as a do-everything guard, combined with the midseason addition of Lamonte Bearden, I think this Hilltopper clubs runs the CUSA.

Horizon: Northern Kentucky

Preseason Pick: Wright State

With so much coming back from last year’s championship team, I thought Wright State was the clear team to beat. However, the Raiders have struggled to a 7-8 mark while John Brennan’s group has sprinted out of the gates. Drew McDonald continues to make his mark as the best player in program history, and the Norse have seen wings Jalen Tate and Dantez Walton take nice strides.

Ivy League: Penn

Preseason Pick: Harvard

If I knew I could count on Seth Towns and Bryce Aiken getting healthy, I’d probably roll the dice and stick with Harvard here. But the Crimson’s two stars continue to sit for an undetermined amount of time, while Penn looks incredibly impressive despite losing Ryan Betley to a season-ending knee injury in their season opener. Look out for freshman forward Michael Wang, who has been super impressive of late and can really shoot the ball, a perfect match next to AJ Brodeur up front.

MAAC: Rider

Preseason Pick: Rider

The MAAC has been a disaster this year, plummeting to 27th in KenPom’s conference rankings after consistently hovering in the high teens to low 20’s for most of the last decade. Despite Rider being up and down, they’re the favorite almost by default with the horrible play of expected contenders Iona and Canisius. Star wing Dimencio Vaughn could be out for a while with an undisclosed injury, but it was good to see Stevie Jordan return (albeit off the bench) against VCU after he was suspended during the Broncs’ Christmas-week tournament in Las Vegas. This team has by far the most talent in the conference, but things should be wild in Albany come conference tournament time.

MAC: Buffalo

Preseason Pick: Buffalo

For all the struggles the MAAC has had, the MAC has been awesome. Buffalo gets all the headlines as a legit top-25 team with wins at West Virginia and Syracuse, but Toledo has been terrific, Ball State is dangerous, and Ohio, Akron, and Kent State look like sleepers as well. The pick here still is Buffalo, with their experience, coaching, and athleticism, but I’m all in on the #2BidMAC bandwagon.

MEAC: Norfolk State

Preseason Pick: Bethune-Cookman

Robert Jones has consistently done a really solid job at Norfolk State, and this year should be no different. With solid scoring depth and good coaching, I think the Spartans will find a way to win a wide-open MEAC.

Missouri Valley: Drake

Preseason Pick: Loyola-Chicago

The Ramblers aren’t as far out of the Valley contending picture as some may think despite their brutal start, but they are going to have to figure things out on offense to knock off upstarts Drake and Indiana State. I’m all-in on the Bulldogs, who have ridden a pair of grad transfers in Nick Norton and Brady Ellingson along with returning big man Nick McGlynn to tremendous success in year one under Darian DeVries. They are super efficient on offense, and their only two losses are to Colorado and Iowa State.

Mountain West: Nevada

Preseason Pick: Nevada

No need for a change here. Nevada has lived up to the hype as a clear top-10 team, while expected contenders New Mexico and San Diego State have fallen off fast. Utah State and Fresno State are nice clubs, but this is all about the Pack and how far they can go in the Big Dance. Meanwhile, the only realistic hope for two bids is someone beating Nevada in the conference tournament.

Northeast: Wagner

Preseason Pick: St. Francis (PA)

With my preseason pick St. Francis ranking in the bottom 50 nationally in both offensive and defensive effective field goal percentage, I’m hedging on my preseason choice and rolling with Bashir Mason’s Wagner club. Romone Saunders has asserted himself as perhaps the best player in the conference, averaging 17 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 assists per game.

Ohio Valley: Murray State

Preseason Pick: Murray State

My big mistake preseason with this preview was taking Dylan Windler over Ja Morant for conference player of the year, but even I couldn’t have forseen Morant being this transcendent this season. The likely lottery pick has been absurd, dominating game after game with his combination of athleticism and floor vision. As Tevin Brown and Shaq Buchanan continue to improve their games to compliment Ja, this Murray State club should have enough to edge out an extremely strong Belmont club.

In the meantime, here’s a Rick Byrd back-cut appreciation video:

Pac-12: Arizona State (I guess?)

Preseason Pick: Oregon

I don’t want to pick anyone for this, but I am forced to roll with Arizona State, which at times has shown brillance and at other times has lost buy games to Princeton.

Patriot League: Bucknell

Preseason Pick: Lehigh

This Bucknell team is starting to find its stride after an uneven start to the year, with a successful 3rd-place finish at Diamond Head last week after pushing Ohio State in a buy game earlier in the month. Nate Sestina is a terrific big man, and the backcourt pairing of Jimmy Sotos and Kimbal McKenzie is as good as any in the Patriot.

SEC: Tennessee

Preseason Pick: Kentucky

Kentucky is surging after a slow start to the year, but the pick here is still Tennessee, whose only loss is a neutral court game against Kansas they could have easily won. This team has it all: experience, size, and high-level talent, plus a great coach in Rick Barnes. The Vols are a top 5 team and a national title contender.


Preseason Pick: UNCG

After Furman took the world by a storm with its wins over Loyola Chicago and Villanova (which we later learned had more to do with Loyola and Villanova than it did with Furman), the rest of the SoCon got forgotten about. There are some excellent teams in this league, with UNCG, ETSU, Wofford, and Furman all capable of winning an NCAA Tournament game with the right matchup. I’m rolling with Steve Forbes’ ETSU group, which despite its inexperience is off to a strong start to the season. This team has tons of depth, plus two really good bigs in Jeromy Rodriguez and Mladen Armus along with plenty of scoring depth. I love this group.

Southland: Stephen F. Austin

Preseason Pick: Stephen F. Austin

SFA has slightly underwhelmed this season with the exception of a nice road win at Baylor, but they are still the top dog in the Southland. The Lumberjacks have been banged up, with key injuries to Aaron Augustin, John Comeaux, and TJ Holyfield throughout the season. But Shannon Bogues is an elite isolation scorer, and Kevon Harris can really play. They’ll be fine in conference play.

SWAC: Texas Southern

Preseason Pick: Grambling State

Johnny Jones’ club couldn’t be harder to crack this season. They have three power five wins at Baylor, Oregon, and Texas A&M. They’ve also lost to Lamar, Tulane, and Evansville. Adding TCU grad transfer Shawn Olden at the semester break brings in yet another seasoned high-major vet to contribute in the rotation along with Jalyn Patterson, Jeremy Combs, and Trayvon Reed.

Summit League: South Dakota State

Preseason Pick: South Dakota State

As expected, SDSU is the clear top dog in the Summit League. Mike Daum and David Jenkins might be the league’s two best players, and TJ Otzelberger has a strong case for the conference’s best coach. When you have two stars and a high-level coach, plus plenty of depth, it’s no surprise that KenPom projects the Jackrabbits will win the Summit League by four games, and are given at least a 70% chance to win in every conference game.

Sun Belt: Georgia State

Preseason Pick: Georgia State

11-2 Texas State got a long look here, but I’m sticking with my gut and with this Georgia State team. The Panthers have been excellent in the non-conference, grabbing nice wins over ETSU, Georgia, and Alabama, and still have a legit NBA prospect in D’Marcus Simonds. While the defense is a gambling one that relies on forcing turnovers, I think they will get enough from that side of the ball to win given their dynamic offense.

West Coast: Gonzaga

Preseason Pick: Gonzaga

No surprises here. Gonzaga should win this one going away. The real question is what teams like San Francisco, Saint Mary’s, and San Diego can do to give themselves a chance at an at-large bid.

WAC: New Mexico State

Preseason Pick: New Mexico State

This league has played out almost exactly as I had expected: New Mexico State the top dog with three really good teams in Seattle, GCU, and UVU in hot pursuit. The Aggies are dangerous once again, nearly beating Kansas earlier this year and also beating several higher-conference foes from the Pac-12, Mountain West, and CUSA.

Midseason Stock Watch

On today’s episode of the CBB Central Podcast, Brad and Kevin do a little CBB stock-watching, breaking down which teams they are buying, selling, and holding as we get towards conference play. We also break down the latest at UCLA and whether the Bruins should move on from Steve Alford at the midseason mark, as well as talk some of the biggest games of the week including SHU/SJU, UK/UofL, ILL/FAU, and WKU/Wisconsin.

Alford In Trouble, #1 Falls, Blue Devils Rally

Today on the show, Brad and Kevin break down the latest in a big week of college basketball, with analysis of Duke/Texas Tech, Buffalo’s two big games, Auburn and Kansas taking their first losses, and Kentucky looking like the team we thought they’d be in the preseason.

They also talk the UCLA job opening and whether Eric Musselman should take it if offered, plus some bonus talk on the Big East’s partnership with the Pan-Am Games and how a hypothetical roster could look.


Pac-12’s Struggles, Phinisee’s Magic, and More

Today on the show, Brad and Kevin delve deep into the week that was in college basketball, with analysis of Quade Green’s transfer, Villanova’s continued struggles, the Pac-12’s at-large prospects, and much more. They also pick winners of the Diamond Head Classic and the other big games of the week.

Late Flurry Not Enough For Dayton As Tulsa Claims 4th Straight Win

By Kevin Sweeney

Dayton got the look they wanted.

Down 3 and on a 7-0 run, the Flyers got a wide-open look from the corner for 45% 3-point shooter Ryan Mikesell.

But like most of UD’s shots in this one, it rimmed out.

The Flyers shot just 5-23 from downtown, and Tulsa took advantage to win 72-67 Sunday evening in a game played as part of the Hall of Fame Holiday Showcase at Mohegan Sun Arena. Martins Igbanu led the way for the Golden Hurricanes with 17 points.

After a Showcase opener that featured a nearly 2.5 hour game and 56 fouls, game #2 moved at a much more brisk pace, finishing in under two hours. Despite the significant travel to get to Connecticut, Frank Haith’s club came out firing on all cylinders early. The Golden Hurricanes exploded out to an early 27-13 lead capped by a big dunk by DaQuan Jeffries. Jeffries was instrumental in the opening period, posting 12 points. But Dayton answered nicely with a 17-3 half-closing run to tie the score going into intermission.

Tulsa regained control in the second half thanks to Igbanu, who had 14 of his 17 points in the second half. Their lead stretched to as many as 10 with 2:28 to play, and it looked like the Golden Hurricanes would run away with it. But the Flyers had one more answer in them, responding with a pair of key stops on the defensive end and 3 straight quick buckets on offense to cut the deficit to just 3 with 50 seconds to play. After another stop, the Flyers had a chance to tie it, but Mikesell’s shot fell off and free throws by Tulsa’s Curran Scott sealed the deal.

The loss continues a frustrating stretch for the Flyers, as they have now lost 5 of their last 6 games after a 4-0 start. UD has had its chances for resume-boosting wins against Mississippi State, Auburn, Oklahoma, Virginia, and now Tulsa in the stretch, but despite competing in all those games were unable to come away with a big win. They’ll likely need to win the A10 Tournament to make the NCAA Tournament.

Dayton was led by 15 points from Josh Cunningham and 14 from Jalen Crutcher. Obi Toppin and Trey Landers each added 13 for the Flyers.

With the win, Tulsa stays hot with its 4th consecutive win. With wins over Kansas State and Oklahoma State, Haith’s team has acquitted itself well in the non-conference and should be seen as a legit AAC contender. The Golden Hurricanes have one more game before opening conference play January 2 at undefeated Houston.

Rhode Island Pulls Away Late To Win Foul-Filled Battle With West Virginia

By Kevin Sweeney

Rhode Island put together a complete performance Sunday afternoon, pulling away in the closing moments to knock off West Virginia 83-70 as part of the Hall of Fame Holiday Showcase at Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut. The Rams closed the game on an extended 24-11 run in the final 12:15 of game action, and put fice players in double figures for the first time this season.

“We play physical basketball,” redshirt junior guard Christion Thompson said postgame. “We figured out how the refs were calling the game, we just had to adjust.” Head coach David Cox was careful to credit the referees postgame, despite being issued a technical foul early in the game after arguing a travel call.

In a game marked by its fouls (56 in total, plus four technicals), a URI team that has played just eight players in its regular rotation throughout the season found a way to keep its best players on the floor down the stretch.

That proved to be the difference.

After getting just five minutes out of talented big man Cyril Langevine in the first half, Langevine never left the floor in the second. He finished with 15 points and six rebounds in the contest, and also led the game in +/- with a +20.

“He came out with a tremendous amount of energy (in the second half),” Cox said on Langevine. “He’s tenacious, he’s a great rebounder, and he’s finishing a lot better than he has in the last two years… We value him tremendously, and I think that value was shown today against Big 12 competition.”

The game got off to a frenetic start from the opening tip, with a layup three seconds in for Jeff Dowtin opening the scoring and a total of 24 points scored in the first five minutes of action. Rhode Island led the entire first half with WVU struggling to get into a rhythm offensively, shooting just 35% from the field and 3-14 from downtown. Still, the Mountaineers were able to hang around thanks to the free throw line, where they shot 20-24 in the opening period.

Things didn’t get much better in the second on offense for Bob Huggins’ group, as they had the same number of field goals as turnovers (8). Playing without star big man Sagaba Konate due to an injury, the Mountaineers were sloppy on offense, which led to several run-outs in transition for the Rams.

Despite those struggles, the Mountaineers were able to hang around for much of the second half, even taking the lead at one point. But as the game went into its closing stages, URI put the clamps down on defense and got some easy buckets in transition, using a decisive 12-4 run to push their lead to 10 in the final minutes and come away with consecutive wins for the first time all season.

Fatts Russell led the way for URI with 18 points, six rebounds, and five assists, while Jeff Dowtin had 18, five boards, and seven dishes. In addition to Russell, Dowtin, and Langevine, the Rams also got 12 points from Christion Thompson and 11 from Jermaine Harris. Facing “Press Virginia”, URI took care of the ball well with just 9 turnovers in the game.

“I’m so proud of these guys,” Cox said. “I think you are starting to see some development and some progress, and I’m excited about where this team can go.”

Wesley Harris was a bright spot for West Virginia with a career-high 18 points to go along with nine rebounds. Esa Ahmad added 12 for the Mountaineers. James Bolden was held to just one point in the game and turned it over four times.

The Mountaineers fall to 6-4 on the season, a brutal start for a team expected by most to be a top-20 team preseason. They will be back in action Saturday against Jacksonville State.

Next up for Rhode Island (5-3) is a matchup with Bucknell on Saturday.

Podcast: Top 25 Breakdownv

Today on the show, Brad and Kevin walk through the top 25 and how they’d rank the nation’s best teams, allowing them to recap all the exciting action from this week in college basketball. We talk who should be #1, create tiers, and debate which teams should sneak into the back half of the top 25. They also submit their picks for the week as always.