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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.