“It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The programs are ready, the courts are so shiny, the fans ready to cheer! It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” If you aren’t in the College Basketball season spirit, then what are you doing? It has been 7 months since the nets were cut down and the North Carolina Tar Heels raised the National Championship trophy to end the 2017 NCAA Tournament. Times have changed now and new faces in college hoops, like Michael Porter Jr. and Marvin Bagley III, look to make their presence felt early on in the season. But old villains, including the likes of Grayson Allen and Devonte Graham, look to end their college career with a trophy in their hands. The number one question everyone is asking about before the start of the season though is “Who will be this year’s champion?”
On November 10, 2017, 351 college basketball programs all start their campaign to make it to the madness in March and lift the trophy under the storm of confetti. Everyone’s road to the championship starts shortly, but they all need to go through their conference, before the can have a shot at the field of 68. So you want to be a champion? Well, take that up with the rest of your conference, because they are thinking the same thing!
Now, with all that said, let’s breakdown all 32 conferences as I predict each conference’s champion and who I have in my preseason Final Four!
AMERICAN EAST CONFERENCE:
Previous Champion: Vermont Catamount 29-5 (16-0)
The American East Conference has always been considered a mid-major conference, and while it has produced two solid teams in Stony Brook and Vermont within the past two years, this conference has never won a game in the NCAA Tournament. In fact, a 13-seed for Vermont last season was the highest the American East has ever been ranked in the tournament. Looking at the American East this season, you should not expect much change. The Vermont Catamounts are returning their top 3 scorers from last year’s historic season and should be in store for another great season. I fully expect the Catamounts to once again storm through the American East and raise another American East title, but do not sleep on Albany this season. Albany could give Vermont a run in the American East, but I do not see any other team except Vermont raising the American East title this season.
My Conference Champion: Vermont Catamounts
AMERICAN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE (AAC):
Previous Champion: SMU Mustangs 30-4 (17-1)
Oh the American Conference. Remember back in 2014, when the UCONN Huskies won the National Championship as an 8-seed in the American Conference’s inaugural season? The expectations for this conference started off extremely high, but have slowly declined over the past few seasons. Since the 2014 NCAA Tournament, the American Conference is 3-8 in the NCAA Tournament and has not had a Sweet-16 team since 2014. The American Conference should have its usual team, Cincinnati back in the tournament again this season and should be the AAC Regular Season Cham… oh wait, here comes a shocker!
Did you forget about Greg Marshall’s Wichita State team that joined the AAC this season because I sure didn’t! The Shockers start the season ranked #7 in the country, but I personally see them as a Top-5 team. With veteran leadership from Markis McDuffie and Landry Shamet, the Shockers find themselves on my NCAA Tournament Championship watch list. Yeah, the shockers are really good. Cincinnati vs. Wichita State should deliver us fans with two amazing basketball games this season, but I give Wichita State the edge in the AAC. The Shockers may just be what the American Athletic Conference needed to deliver another tournament champion!
My Conference Champion: Wichita State Shockers
Previous Champion: Dayton Flyers 24-7 (15-3)
Dayton has ruled the A-10 for the past two years and is looking for a third straight regular season championship. The thing with the Flyers this season is that they are a completely different team with their top guys from last season moving on. They do have the second-coming of the greek freak in Kostas Antetokounmpo though. Nobody really knows what to expect from Giannis’ younger brother, but nobody knew what to expect from him either, so we may be looking at another 6’10” point-guard soon enough! If Antetokounmpo can be as good as his older brother, then the rest of the A-10 will have trouble sleeping at night.
Other than Dayton, Rhode Island, St. Bonaventure, and Saint Joseph’s are three teams on my radar to take the A-10 title. Senior guard Shavar Newkirk is my preseason pick for A-10 Player of the Year and is one of the most dynamic guards in the country. He is a true floor general for Saint Joseph and will make his impact felt immediately on opening night. Although Newkirk has the capability to carry Saint Joseph’s, St. Bonaventure still has seniors Matt Mobley and Jaylen Adams and that is all I need to name St. Bonaventure my preseason Atlantic-10 Champions.
My Conference Champion: St. Bonaventure Bonnies
ATLANTIC COAST CONFERENCE (ACC):
Previous Champion: North Carolina 27-7 (14-4)
After having the most teams in the NCAA Tournament out of any other conference last season (9), the ACC has reloaded once again and looks like the most dominant conference in college hoops. The defending champion, UNC, has a lot of work to do this year in order to defend their title in March. Seniors Theo Pinson and Joel Berry II will be the focal points for Carolina this season and will need a lot of help from their bench to be the championship team they were a year ago. Freshman Jalek Felton has looked very promising this preseason and could see a lot of minutes early on in the season with Joel Berry II recovering from a hand injury. Length is something that will heavily affect UNC chances to defend their title this season and could hurt them come time for conference play.
If UNC isn’t the favorite in the ACC who is? Yep, you guessed it, the Duke Blue Devils, everybody’s favorite team. Do you hate Grayson Allen? Well he is back for his senior season with a loaded and young Duke roster. After once again having the #1 recruiting class coming into this season, it is either championship or bust this season in Durham. You may hate Duke, but there is no doubt they have one of the best basketball players in the country on their team. No it is not Grayson Allen, it is Marvin Bagley III. After reclassifying to this year’s recruiting class, Bagley chose to play for Coach K and makes this Blue Devils team extremely dangerous. Expect Duke to be “the team to beat” in the country this year and expect the boos to continue for Grayson Allen.
Do not sleep on Miami, Notre Dame, and Louisville in the ACC either. Louisville most likely had the most wild offseason out of all the programs in the country as the university terminated Coach Rick Pitino’s contract amid the FBI investigations into college basketball at the university. Although the Cards have a new head coach in David Padgett, they may have the most experienced team in all of college basketball this season and are easily a top-10 team. Their core-4, Quentin Snider, Ray Spalding, Deng Adel, and Anas Mahmoud, may be the best quartet all around in the country. Miami is also dealing with the FBI investigations, but have not had any self-imposed or outside penalties assessed against them. Look for the Hurricanes to continue playing fast and get a lot of production from their freshman guard, Lonnie Walker. Notre Dame is another interesting team in the ACC this year. Rex Pflueger, Matt Farrell, and Bonzie Colson are all returning for the Irish and will look to make the Irish one of the top forces in college basketball once again.
Ultimately, I do not see UNC winning the ACC this season and I have them finishing 3rd behind Louisville and Duke. The Blue Devil’s firepower and entire roster looks flawless and is going to be very tough to match. Give me Duke in the ACC this season.
My Conference Champion: Duke Blue Devils
ATLANTIC SUN CONFERENCE:
Previous Champion: Florida Gulf Coast Eagles 26-7 (12-2)
Over the past three seasons in the Atlantic Sun, the regular season champion has been either the Eagles of Florida Gulf Coast, or North Florida. Brandon Goodwin, the senior leader for Florida Gulf Coast, returns after averaging 18.5 PPG last season and is the conference’s preseason Player of the Year. Lipscomb has a solid season last year, but I do not expect them to contend with FGCU and North Florida. Florida Gulf Coast and North Florida could go wire to wire and it may come down to the final game of the year to decide a regular season champion, but I would expect to see Florida Gulf Coast on top of the Atlantic Sun at the end of the season.
My Conference Champion: Florida Gulf Coast Eagles
Previous Champion: Kansas Jayhawks 28-4 (16-2)
Rock Chalk, Jayhawk! For 13 straight seasons, the Big-12 championship has gone through Lawrence, Kansas. The Jayhawks have been the dominant force in the Big-12 for decades and is not looking to slow down this season. Devonte Graham will be the senior leader of this Jayhawks team, but will also have 5-star recruit, Billy Preston, and transfer sophomore Malik Newman. They may not be the deepest team, but Kansas will be a deadly shooting team and wear their opponents down defensively.
Not so fast Kansas, you won’t win your fourteenth straight title that easy! West Virginia and TCU are two teams that will challenge Kansas in the Big-12 this season. “Press” Virginia has not changed much, except they are faster. The West Virginia press is still a jail cell for many teams in the NCAA and continues to be one of the most efficient defenses in the country. Hearing that TCU may be one of the top teams in the Big-12 this season may surprise a lot of people, but is not crazy to believe. Jamie Dixon has turned around the basketball program in TCU and with the return of Jaylen Fisher and Vladimir Brodziansky, TCU is going to be a tough team to defend. They may not shoot lights out from the perimeter, but they are a very physical team and will wear their opponents down in the paint. Their transition play will help them beat down on their opponent’s turnovers and could lead to them challenging Kansas.
Once again, Kansas looks so much better than every other team in the Big-12 at the start of the season and is very hard to pick against. I am going to have to roll with the Jayhawks to be the Big-12 Champions once again.
My Conference Champion: Kansas Jayhawks
BIG EAST CONFERENCE:
Previous Champion: Villanova Wildcats 31-3 (15-3)
Ever since the Big East split and various teams left the conference, Villanova has dominated the Big East conference and has rattled off four straight regular season championships. Led by junior guard, Jalen Brunson, the Wildcats will once again look to roll over the rest of the Big East with their unique and patient style of play. Donte DiVincenzo, last year’s breakout player for the Wildcats, and veteran forward, Mikal Bridges, will bolster Nova’s backline and once again, make them a dangerous team to face.
Xavier, Providence, and Seton Hall are also three teams to watch in the Big East this year that all have the capability to challenge Villanova. Xavier, led by preseason All-Conference First Team guard, Trevon Bluiett, has reloaded with an impressive roster heading into the start of the season. Although height may cause problems in the paint for Xavier, their backcourt is really impressive. Coach Chris Mack and the Musketeers may surprise a lot of people this season and are my pick to win the Big East and snap Villanova’s streak of championships.
My Conference Champion: Xavier Musketeers
BIG SKY CONFERENCE:
Previous Champion: North Dakota Fighting Hawks 22-9 (14-4)
You may not know much about the Big Sky Conference, but that is alright because you are not missing out on much. Last year’s champion, North Dakota Fighting Hawks, dominated conference play last season with a 14-4 in-conference record, and were led by guard Geno Crandall who returns this season after averaging 15.5 PPG last year. Eastern Washington was one of the best shooting teams in the Big Sky last season and expect them to continue being one of the best shooting teams in the conference this year. Ultimately, I expect Weber State to retake control of the Big Sky Conference this season. Over the past four seasons, Weber State has won the Big Sky every other season, so I am going to stick with the pattern on this one.
My Conference Champion: Weber State Wildcats
BIG SOUTH CONFERENCE:
Previous Champion: Winthrop Eagles 26-6 (15-3) & UNC-Asheville Bulldogs 23-9 (15-3)
The Big South Conference has not been terrible over the past few years in the NCAA Tournament. Winthrop gave Butler a run in this past year’s tournament, but eventually lost in the second half. Other than UNC-Asheville who competes with Winthrop, the Winthrop Eagles are the only real team in the Big South. There is not much else to touch on other than Winthrop being a safe pick in the Big South.
My Conference Champion: Winthrop Eagles
BIG TEN CONFERENCE (Big-10):
Previous Champion: Purdue Boilermakers 25-7 (14-4)
The Boilermaker’s enter this season with a lot of uncertainty with their lineup. Without Caleb Swanigan, there is no “go-to” guy anymore and their frontcourt may suffer to rebound the ball. Swanigan contributed to a third of his teams total rebounds per game last season and was an active defender all over the court. Vince Edwards will likely step into this role for Purdue this season and be the team’s main shooter. A lot of the burden will also fall on seniors Dakota Mathias and Isaac Haas as well. Mathias will have to step into the role of a sharpshooter for the Boilermakers, something he has shown flashes of being able to do, and Haas will have to really improve his post-game this season for the Boilermakers to have a chance in the paint. The key for Purdue this season is to generate offense through their defense and control the tempo of the game. If they do this, they may find themselves as successful as last season.
If there is one team that gets me excited in the Big Ten Conference, it is the Michigan State Spartans. Tom Izzo not only gets everybody’s pick for National Player of the Year in Miles Bridges back, but add Nick Ward, Joshua Langford and 5-star forward Jaren Jackson to the mix and now all of a sudden, Michigan State looks like a true National Championship contender. There is no reason why Miles Bridges should not lead the league in scoring and defensive efficiency in the Big Ten this season. Bridges and Jackson are going to be a tough one-two punch for any opponent, simply for the fact they are a mismatch, but also because they will draw a lot of attention on themselves, making Langford and Ward, and even sharp-shooter Matt McQuaid, open for easy baskets. Michigan State showed glimpses of greatness at the end of last year, but believe the hype surrounding this Spartans team because they stand next to Duke as the team to beat in the country. And what a treat, we get to see Michigan State against Duke the first week of the season, a possible foreshadow of this year’s National Championship Game.
Wisconsin, Maryland, Minnesota, and Northwestern are all dangerous teams in the Big Ten this year as well. Wisconsin and senior forward Ethan Happ may not look as dominant as past years, but the team will revolve around Happ’s ability and we all know what he can do from last year. Expect him to stay in the conversation for National Player of the Year all season long. Sophomore forward Justin Jackson will lead the Terrapins this season, along with fellow sophomore guard Anthony Cowan. With no Melo Trimble anymore, Maryland make look different in late-game situations, but expect the Terps to once again be a top team in the Big Ten and win some important games at home. Richard Pitino has something going for him up in Minnesota as the Golden Gophers enter the season with a lot of aspirations. They finished last season with a 24-9 record and drew a 5-seed in the NCAA Tournament, the program’s highest seed since 1997. Nate Masson and Amir Coffey, the Gophers’ top scorers a year ago, are returning, along with a ton of other pieces to Richard Pitino’s puzzle. Minnesota is one of those teams that could make a lot of noise come March and could find themselves in the AP polls all year long. The Wildcats of Northwestern were that “feel-good story” like team last year when they made it to their first ever NCAA Tournament as an 8-seed. After winning their first game ever in the tournament, everybody was behind Northwestern and the little team that could! In a thriller against “America’s Team,” Gonzaga, Northwestern barely lost in the final minutes of the game. Bryant McIntosh, everybody’s favorite player in the tournament last season, returns for his senior year at Northwestern and will look to make it a memorable one. Who knows, Northwestern could win the Big Ten Tournament this year and I think they have a solid chance to do so!
My Conference Champion: Michigan State Spartans
BIG WEST CONFERENCE:
Previous Champion: UC Irvine Anteaters 21-14 (12-4)
UC Irvine has been a regular a top the standings in the Big West over the past few years and has been pretty successful against their conference foes. They have won the conference three of the past four seasons and won the conference tournament once over this span. In their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 2015, they barely lost to #4 Louisville 57-55. UC Irvine is a very large team and dominants the paint against their foes. They ranked 17th last season in rebounding margin and have their leading rebounder from last season, Jonathan Galloway, returning this year.
UC Irvine looks like the clear-cut pick for the Big West once again this year, but I really like UC Davis. The Aggies finished a game behind the Anteaters last season in the Big West and showed their versatility late in the season and especially in the Big West Tournament where they took down UC Irvine in the championship game to head to the “Big Dance.” They return most of their starters from last season and should be a solid team come March.
My Conference Champion: UC Davis Aggies
COLONIAL ATHLETIC ASSOCIATION (CAA):
Previous Champion: UNC Wilmington Seahawks 29-5 (15-3)
The CAA has always been a conference that has been slept on over the years. In the past decade, they have produced two Final Four teams (George Mason 2006, VCU 2011) and have given big name programs a run for their money in March. UNC-Wilmington has dominated the CAA over the past three seasons under Coach Kevin Keatts, but he took a bigger coaching job at NC State this past offseason, so it is unknown what kind of impact this will have on UNC-Wilmington. The Seahawks do not have one of their top three scorers from last season returning and with a new coach under center, we can expect to see a different UNC-Wilmington team this upcoming season.
Charleston fell one game short of tying UNC-Wilmington in the CAA last season and made an impact in the conference tournament when they took on the Seahawks in the finals, but ultimately lost. This season, senior guard and leading scorer from last season for the Cougars, Joe Chealey, will continue to be a prolific scorer for Charleston this season and could give the Cougars the slight edge they need to win their first CAA Conference Championship.
My Conference Champion: Charleston Cougars
CONFERENCE USA (C-USA):
Previous Champion: Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders 30-4 (17-1)
Being 1 of 5 total 30-win teams last season, Middle Tennessee enters this year without their key player from last season, Reggie Upshaw Jr. They do however have Giddy Potts who played a major role in upsetting 5-seed Minnesota in last year’s NCAA Tournament. In their first four seasons in C-USA, Coach Kermit Davis has led his Blue Raiders to two conference championships and two conference tournament championships. They have made it to March each of the past two seasons and made it to the Round of 32 both years. They may not be as dynamic as in past years, but Middle Tennessee will definitely be a fast paced team that will score in bunches. Louisiana Tech and Old Dominion are both teams who can take advantage of a younger Middle Tennessee team this season and have a shot at dethroning the Blue Raiders from the top of the conference. I think this conference is going to be really tight and could finish in a tie for first place, but I will give Middle Tennessee the slight edge over Old Dominion for this year’s conference title.
My Conference Champion: Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders
Previous Champion: Oakland Golden Grizzlies 24-8 (14-4) & Valparaiso Crusaders 24-8 (14-4)
It has been a while since someone other than Valparaiso has taken home the Horizon League title. You have to go back to the 2013-14 season to find someone other than the Crusaders. This year, that streak will have to end since Valparaiso left the Horizon and is now a member of the Missouri Valley Conference. Oakland tied Valparaiso this past season for the Conference Championship and should have no problem defending that title this year, especially with Valparaiso out of the picture. Seniors Jalen Hayes and Martez Walker combined for 33.7 PPG last season and return this year to Oakland, looking to make it back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 2010-11 season. Give me the Golden Grizzlies easily in the Horizon League this year.
My Conference Champion: Oakland Golden Grizzlies
Previous Champion: Princeton Tigers 23-6 (14-0)
After never having a conference tournament, the IVY League played its first conference tournament in the history of the conference at the illustrious Palestra at the University of Pennsylvania. Princeton, the defending champions of the IVY League will be missing most of its firepower from their magnificent season last year. They were not that big of a team height wise last season, and will likely be in the same boat this season. Princeton’s biggest challenge this season will be the Harvard Crimson who look to regain their grasp of the IVY League. After having six straight years with 20+ wins, Harvard has failed to have a 20-win season each of the past two years. After claiming four ESPN Top 100 recruits last season, they all return with a year of experience under their belts. Harvard could be sneaky dangerous this year and if this team plays to their potential, they could be a team to watch come March.
My Conference Champion: Harvard Crimson
METRO ATLANTIC ATHLETIC CONFERENCE (MAAC):
Previous Champion: Monmouth Hawks 27-6 (18-2)
Everybody remembers Justin Robinson, the 5’8” point guard for Monmouth who slashed his opponents last season. The cunning guard led the MAAC in scoring last season and helped lead the Hawks to back-to-back 27-win seasons. Unfortunately, Monmouth was never able to win the conference tournament and advance to the big stage. Monmouth, along with Iona and Siena will all be looking for the next player to step up and fill the roll of their seniors who led their teams in scoring a year ago. All three teams may not be in top form at the beginning of the season and may struggle finding their identity after losing key players from last season. Fairfield on the other hand is an interesting team not on a lot of people’s radars. The Stags could be sneaky in the MAAC this upcoming season and with potential MAAC Player of the Year in Tyler Nelson leading the charge, Fairfield has a chance to win their first conference title since the 2010-11 season.
My Conference Champion: Fairfield Stags
MID-AMERICAN CONFERENCE (MAC):
Previous Champion: Akron Zips 26-8 (14-4)
Over the past six seasons, the MAC has been dominated by the Akron Zips and the Buffalo Bulls. The defending champions, the Akron Zips, will be without their main scorers from last season and have about 55 PPG available on the floor for new guys to step up. There are big shoes to fill in Akron and could cause regression in the MAC this season. Buffalo is in a very similar spot as Akron this season. Out of four players who averaged more than 10 PPG for the Bulls last season, only one returns for Buffalo this year. Buffalo also has a lot of minutes to fill as a result of holes left from seniors that have moved on from the program. The door is wide open for someone else to claim the MAC and I believe the Ohio Bobcats have the greatest chance. They may be the most experienced team in the MAC this season and with a solid group returning from last year, Ohio will look to be one of the best shooting teams in the conference once again, averaging 45.4% from the floor last season and 38.4% from long-range. Ohio split each their two game series with Akron and Buffalo last season and even picked up a win against a quality Georgia Tech team early in the season. The Bobcats are an interesting pick for the MAC this season and have all the tools necessary to be the MAC Champions.
My Conference Champion: Ohio Bobcats
MID-EASTERN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE (MEAC):
Previous Champion: North Carolina Central Eagles 25-8 (13-3)
Not a lot of people pay attention to the MEAC Conference. Some do not even know it exists and for good reasons. The MEAC usually produces a team that takes on the task of being a 15 or 16-seed in the NCAA Tournament, looking to do the unthinkable and upset one of the best programs in the country every year. Norfolk State was the last team in the MEAC to win a tournament game in 2012 when they upset #2 Missouri in the First Round. Last year, North Carolina Central was the only team who ran through the MEAC and were the best road team in the conference (only losing one game on the road in conference). Senior leaders Dajuan Graf (All-MEAC Second Team) and Patrick Cole (2017 MEAC Player of the Year) will look to lead the Eagles to another MEAC Championship and I definitely see them being able to run the table in a weak MEAC this season.
My Conference Champion: North Carolina Central Eagles
MISSOURI VALLEY CONFERENCE (MVC):
Previous Champion: Wichita State Shockers 30-4 (17-1) & Illinois State Redbirds 27-6 (17-1)
Greg Marshall and the Wichita State Shockers have ruled the MVC, winning 5 of the last 8 conference titles and finishing in the top two for the past eight seasons. Fortunately for the rest of the MVC, Wichita State has moved to the American Athletic Conference and will no longer reign over the rest of the Missouri Valley. The bad news is that the Valparaiso Crusaders come marching into the conference to replace the Shockers. Without Alec Peters, Valparaiso may look differently offensively, but they are still a very tall and strong defensive team. Illinois State had an amazing season last year, finishing tied for first in the MVC at 17-1, but their team was led by a handful of seniors that will not be on this year’s team. There is still a lot of leadership on this team, but I have not seen enough from Illinois State yet to be confident in them being my conference champs. Southern Illinois is my dark horse to win the MVC this season. They have just two underclassmen on their roster and have been consistently rising over the past few years. With most of their lineup returning from last season and a lot of role players coming off the bench, Southern Illinois has a shot to jump over the top teams in the conference who will be figuring out their identity this year.
My Conference Champion: Southern Illinois Salukis
MOUNTAIN WEST CONFERENCE (MW):
Previous Champion: Nevada Wolfpack 28-6 (14-4)
The Mountain West is a sneaky good conference that always produces solid teams come March. This past year, Nevada took on the big dance and were a heavy upset favorite over #5 Iowa State, but ultimately lost in the first round. Teams like San Diego State, New Mexico, and UNLV have all had success though coming out of the Mountain West in the past. Nevada will not be as dynamic as they were last year without Marcus Marshall and Cam Oliver, but will still be a solid offensive team in the Mountain West. Look for junior guard, Jordan Caroline to make an immediate impact for the Wolfpack and step into a huge role for the team this season. Colorado State and Fresno State are also two scrappy, young teams to watch in the MW this season, but the one team I have had my eye on for the past few weeks in this conference is Boise State. Led by, who I believe will be the conference Player of the Year, Chandler Hutchison, the Broncos enter the season with a decently experienced team, but with a lot of potential. Their sophomore class this year showed glimpses of being a very solid unit, and I believe this will be the breakout season for them at Boise!
My Conference Champion: Boise State Broncos
NORTHEAST CONFERENCE (NEC):
Previous Champion: Mt. St. Mary’s Mountaineers 19-15 (14-4)
Other than Wagner upsetting UCONN in the first game of the season last year, something that I did say was going to happen, the Northeast Conference did not really offer much exciting basketball. Only four teams in the conference had over a .500 win percentage and none of them looked like teams that could make a splash. Mt. St. Mary’s started off this past year’s tournament with an amazing game against New Orleans in the First Four where Mt. St. Mary’s, behind Junior Robinson’s 23 points, beat New Orleans. If you do not remember Junior Robinson, he was the 5’5” point guard that quickly became a sensation for basketball fans around the country. With 11 freshmen on their roster this season, Mt. St. Mary’s will lean heavily on Junior Robinson and will likely take a step back as they look to built a foundation for their youth. Wagner and LIU Brooklyn are the two teams I expect to see atop the NEC conference at the end of the season, but I give the slight edge to LIU Brooklyn with their veteran leadership.
My Conference Champion: LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds
OHIO VALLEY CONFERENCE (OVC):
Previous Champion: Belmont Bruins 22-6 (15-1)
Although the conference is looked down upon, the Ohio Valley has produced some pretty solid “Cinderella” like teams. Although they have never had a team reach the Sweet 16, teams such as Murray State and Belmont are always first weekend bracket busters. After winning back-to-back Conference Player of the Year Awards, senior and star forward, Evan Bradds, returns for the Bruins. In fact, the Belmont Bruins will be returning their top five scorers from this past year, with yet another year of experience. This group of seniors and juniors has a chance to run through the Ohio Valley Conference undefeated this season and has the bests chance out of any team in the conference to make it to the NCAA Tournament. Murray State and Tennessee-Martin both have key pieces returning from last season, but I just do not see enough firepower on their teams for them to be able to stop Belmont this year.
My Conference Champion: Belmont Bruins
PACIFIC-12 CONFERENCE (PAC-12)
Previous Champion: Arizona Wildcats 30-4 (16-2) & Oregon Ducks 29-5 (16-2)
Get ready because there is another Ball brother in the Pac-12 this season! So, if you like LaVar Ball and or Bill Walton doing crazy things on air past a lot of people’s bedtimes on the east coast, then this is the conference for you this season! Arizona and Oregon are the defending champions, but one of these teams will see a slight regression from last year. Oregon made it to the Final Four last season by riding the backs of Tyler Dorsey, Dillon Brooks, and Jordan Bell, but none of these guys from last year are on the roster again this season. In fact, the only player returning that saw more than 20 minutes a game last season is sophomore guard, Payton Pritchard. The Ducks also made a splash in recruiting this offseason by getting the #15 overall recruiting, Tony Brown Jr. Brown and Pritchard will be the main facilitators of the Ducks this year, but I do not see these two players being able to carry Oregon past the first weekend in the tournament, if they even make the tournament.
UCLA, USC, and Stanford are all also competitors for the top spot in the Pac-12 this season. Stanford returns junior forward Reid Travis, who was named to Preseason National Player of the Year watchlist and the Fourth-Team Preseason All Americans. They also add two 4-star recruits, both apart of the ESPN 100 Recruiting rankings, making them a sneaky pick in the Pac-12 this season. The Trojans down in Southern California are also a very dangerous team. Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu both return to a very talented USC team that added transfer Derryck Thornton from Duke this year. The Trojans also gain depth with 5-star forward, Charles O’Bannon Jr. joining the likes of De’Anthony Melton and Elijah Stewart, giving the Trojans plenty of depth this year. Expect the Trojans to be one of the top teams in the Pac-12 this season.
After all the hype with Lonzo Ball at UCLA last year, what is there to look forward to this year as a Bruins fan? Well you still have Aaron Holliday and Thomas Welsh, two veterans who are key parts of your team. You also have a crazy athletic and explosive 5-star guard in Jaylen Hands that will run the point and another 5-star guard in Kris Wilkes who is a high-flying offensive machine. Oh, and do not forget about LiAngelo Ball. If LaVar has anything to say, LiAngelo will be on the court opening night and will likely be drafted by the Lakers. All you have to do is talk it into existence I guess. UCLA likely will not have the season they had a year ago when they went 29-4, but they should still be a solid team going into March and should be a team to beat out west.
With only one team left to talk about, that brings us to my conference champion in the Pac-12, the Arizona Wildcats. Sean Miller and the Wildcats also had a wild offseason with recruiting and the FBI probe, but with everything in the past, Arizona is ready to rock. Preseason First-Team All-American, Allonzo Trier will lead this deep and athletic Arizona team this season with the veteran likes of Rawle Alkins, Dusan Ristic, and transfer junior Chase Jeter. They also added 5 ESPN 100 recruits, with the most prominent recruit being DeAndre Ayton, the #3 overall recruit and #1 center in the recruiting class. Freshman guard Brandon Randolph and freshman forward Emmanuel Akot will also be big contributors to Arizona’s success this year. The Wildcats have a boatload of talent on their roster and are a clear favorite for a lot of people to make the Final Four this season. Arizona will definitely win the Pac-12 in my mind and will likely see an extended stay come time for the tournament in March.
My Conference Champion: Arizona Wildcats
Previous Champion: Bucknell Bison 26-8 (15-3)
Over the past seven seasons, Bucknell has claimed the Patriot League Championship six times. In lack of better terms, the Bison are a powerhouse year-in and year-out in the Patriot League. After a great season once again last season, Bucknell has added some newcomers to their already stellar rotation. Last season, veterans Zach Thomas, Kimbal Mackenzie, and Stephen Brown all shot over 40% from 3-pt range (even with over 100 shots attempted per player). This is pretty darn efficient and makes Bucknell a dangerous shooting team. They may not have a lot of size either, with their tallest player standing 6’9”, but the Bison are 12-14 guys deep and play with multiple rotations. Their pesky defense wears their opponents down and makes them susceptible to turnovers. Bucknell is the clear favorite in a weak Patriot League once again and should have no problem keeping their champion title.
My Conference Champion: Bucknell Bison
SOUTHEASTERN CONFERENCE (SEC):
Previous Champion: Kentucky Wildcats 29-5 (16-2)
The one-and-done rule has once again gone through Lexington as Coach Calipari has shipped out last year’s recruiting class to the NBA and took in 8 Top 100 Recruits, 6 of which are 5-stars. Kentucky’s most experienced player returning this season is Wenyen Gabriel who averaged about 18 minutes/game last season and scored about 4.6 PPG. With that being said, it is probably safe to say that Kentucky’s starting lineup will consist of mainly all freshmen once again! Kevin Knox, Kentucky’s highest rated freshman and #10 overall recruit, will be one of the main focal points of Kentucky’s offense along with Hamidou Diallo who enrolled at Kentucky last season and has a year of practice experience under his belt. Kentucky’s roster is very flashy on paper, with 5-star recruits all over the place, but injuries may hurt the Wildcats early on as they try to build chemistry with one another. About a month ago, 5-star forward Jarred Vanderbilt suffered a foot injury in practice and has been held out since. There is a chance he could be back near the end of November, but his timetable is still uncertain. Kentucky’s best shooter this season, Jemarl Baker, underwent a knee procedure at the end of October and Coach Cal stated that Baker would be sidelined for at least three months. There is a chance he does not see the court at all this season. If Kentucky is banged up all season long and is not able to build their team chemistry until around conference time, they could be roughed up in a rising SEC. Overall though, Kentucky, once again, has the potential to be a top team in the country, even with Coach Cal’s youngest team ever.
The Florida Gators are another team to keep your eye on in the SEC this season. Veterans Chris Chiozza and KeVaughn Allen lead an experienced Florida team that made a deep run in last year’s tournament. After losing Canyon Berry and Devin Robinson from last season, Florida will need senior center John Egbunu and freshman forward Isaiah Stokes to dominate the paint for the Gators. Egbunu averaged about 8 PPG and 6.6 RPG in only about 20 minutes/game. With Egbunu expecting to see the court around 5-8 more minutes/game this season, expect to see the senior center racking in a lot of rebounds and blocks for the Gators. Florida is once again going to be a very solid team in the country, but I do not believe they have enough firepower to keep up with their foes in Lexington.
Alabama, Texas A&M, and Missouri are also three teams that we can expect to see a top of the SEC this year. Bama was able to bring in the highly talented 5-star guard, Collin Sexton, as well as 5-star complement guard, John Petty. When Braxton Key returns from his knee injury, Alabama will have an onslaught of offensive talent. Do not forget about senior captain Riley Norris as well! Coach Avery Johnson has done an excellent job rebuilding this Alabama Basketball program and may have enough firepower this year to contend in the SEC. Texas A&M had a down year in the SEC last season, but should be back in form this season. After a slight rebuild season last year, the Aggies bring back their starting five from a year ago, and then some! With a year of experience under the belt of their underclassmen, the Aggies will lean on Robert Williams and DJ Hogg to take charge this season. Williams, a projected top draft pick almost averaged a double-double per game last season and has shown a lot of potential to be an excellent two-way player. Add Tyler Davis and Admon Gilder back in the mix and all of a sudden, Texas A&M looks dangerous once again.
If you have not followed recruiting in college basketball this past season, you may think I am absolutely insane for saying Missouri could be a top team in the SEC this season. Well, hear me out first, Missouri not only landed the #2 player in the recruiting class in Michael Porter Jr, but they also added the #5 PF in Jontay Porter, the #6 C in Jeremiah Tilmon, and the #21 PG in Blake Harris. Just these four freshmen alone can easily carry Missouri to the top of the SEC and possibly into the tournament in March. I still do not think they have enough firepower to compete with Kentucky either.
My Conference Champion: Kentucky Wildcats
SOUTHERN CONFERENCE (SOCON):
Previous Champion: East Tennessee State Buccaneers 27-7 (14-4), UNC-Greensboro Spartans 25-9 (14-4) & Furman Paladins 21-11 (14-4)
In the SOCON last season, three teams emerged as co-champions of the regular season. East Tennessee State, UNC-Greensboro and Furman were all 14-4 in conference and split the championship into thirds. This year, I expect the Furman Paladins to take home the SOCON Championship. Not only do they have the reigning conference Player of the Year in Devin Sibley returning, but they have a lot of experienced players on their roster compared to the likes of East Tennessee State and Chattanooga. UNC-Greensboro will also be a solid defensive team in the SOCON, but Furman would be my clear choice to take home the championship this year.
My Conference Champion: Furman Paladins
Previous Champion: New Orleans Privateers 20-11 (13-5)
In a conference that is almost dominated by Stephen F. Austin year-in and year-out, the New Orleans Privateers came away with the Southland title last season. Edging out the likes of SFA and Texas A&M-CC, the Privateers made it to the NCAA Tournament, after almost scrapping its basketball program a few years back. Last year set a great foundation for the future of New Orleans in the Southland, but I do not see their success from last year translating to this year. Last season’s team was full of seniors and with a fresh, new squad this year, it will be tough to keep up with the big dogs in the conference. Stephen F. Austin and Texas A&M-CC both have veteran teams with key players from previous years returning for their senior years, but I expect Texas A&M-CC to edge out SFA by a game in the Southland this year. They very well could end up with the same conference record, but I give the slight edge to a deeper Texas A&M-CC team this year.
My Conference Champion: Texas A&M-CC Islanders
SOUTHWESTERN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE (SWAC):
Previous Champion: Texas Southern Tigers 23-11 (16-2)
Ah yeah, there is nothing better than some good ol’ SWAC-tion! Last season, Texas Southern took home the championship for the third straight year with a 16-2 conference record. The Tigers have a really solid chance to make this four straight years this season. After losing transfer senior and previous Conference Player of the Year, Zach Lofton, to New Mexico State, Texas Southern will have to rely heavily on sophomore guard, Demontrae Jefferson, and sophomore forward Derrick Griffin. Although these two will have to step up in a big way, Texas Southern is also very deep in their frontcourt, which should help alleviate some of the pressure off of Griffin. Alcorn State also has a solid shot at winning the SWAC this season with Texas Southern trying to reconfigure their lineups. Their top five players from last season, based on minutes/game, are returning for their senior and junior years and have a lot of experience of finishing runner-ups to Texas Southern. Alcorn State’s roster only contains two freshmen, so expect the Braves to be very aggressive early on in the SWAC and steal the championship this year away from Texas Southern.
My Conference Champion: Alcorn State Braves
Previous Champion: South Dakota Coyotes 22-11 (12-4)
South Dakota surprised everybody last season in the Summit with a 12-4 conference record after finishing 5-11 the year before, 8th place out of 9 teams. Last year’s Coyotes team was lead by three seniors, all of which have moved on, leaving South Dakota without much to work with so do not expect the Coyotes to repeat as champions. Every year, it is usually a battle between South Dakota State and North Dakota State for the top spot in the Summit League. Junior forward and Preseason National Player of the Year Watch List member, Mike Daum, leads the Jackrabbits once again in the Summit and should be the consensus Conference Player of the Year. Daum averaged 25 PPG last season and added about 8 boards per game as well. His dynamic play not only makes those around him better, but gives South Dakota State an edge over every team they play. A young North Dakota State team is no match for South Dakota State this year.
My Conference Champion: South Dakota State Jackrabbits
SUN BELT CONFERENCE:
Previous Champion: UT Arlington Mavericks 25-8 (14-4)
When it comes down to the Sun Belt this season, there is not much to pick from. Arkansas-Little Rock was an outstanding team two seasons ago, but almost finished dead last in the standings a year ago. UT Arlington finally solved their puzzle last season and cemented themselves a top of the Sun Belt. Lead by reigning Sun Belt Player of the Year in Kevin Hervey, the Mavericks should be in top form come time for conference play. Georgia Southern also has a solid roster heading into the season. Their veteran leadership and experience is something that could push them above UT-Arlington. Juniors Ike Smith and Tookie Brown, as well as senior guard, Mike Hughes, all return after averaging more than 30 minutes per game last season. With these three controlling the game for Georgia Southern and a deep rotational bench, the Eagles have a legit shot at taking the Sun Belt this season.
My Conference Champion: Georgia Southern Eagles
WEST COAST CONFERENCE (WCC):
Previous Champion: Gonzaga Bulldogs 32-1 (17-1)
It is time to talk about AMERICA’S TEAM, the Gonzaga Bulldogs! Last year, Gonzaga had the best team they have ever had in program history. Not only did they finish with a 32-1 record, but they took down everyone in their path as they reached the National Championship Game. They ultimately lost to North Carolina in a tough fought and back-and-forth game. Gonzaga will not be as deep as they have been in previous years, but they have a pretty strong group nonetheless. Senior forward, Johnathan Williams, is the most experienced player on Gonzaga returning to attempt and bring Gonzaga back to the Championship Game. Sophomores Rui Hachimura and Killian Tillie are both also projected starters expected to see their roles expand this year under Coach Mark Few. They may not be the powerhouse team they were last year, but expect Gonzaga to still be a solid team come March.
Saint Mary’s has been Gonzaga’s main competitor in the WCC over the past few years and they will once again go head-to-head this season. Junior center and National Player of the Year Watch List member, Jock Landale, will once again prove to everyone that he is one of the best centers in the country this season. Emmett Naar and Calvin Hermanson also return for the Gaels this season as they look to expand on their offensive firepower once again. With a lot of uncertainty circling this new Gonzaga squad this year, Saint Mary’s is definitely capable of dethroning the Bulldogs at the top of the WCC this year.
My Conference Champion: Saint Mary’s Gaels
WESTERN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE (WAC):
Previous Champion: CSU Bakersfield Roadrunners 22-9 (12-2)
New Mexico State has always ruled the WAC, but last year, the Roadrunners were able to beat out the Aggies for first place in the conference. This season, CSU-Bakersfield will not have as much firepower and sharpshooters as last year’s team and may cause them to take a step back in the WAC. New Mexico State on the other hand has reloaded, no only bringing back All-Second Team WAC forward, Eli Chuha, but also hitting the transfer market and bringing in reigning SWAC Player of the Year in Zach Lofton from Texas Southern. Lofton will add a spark offensively for the Aggies and has a shot at winning Player of the Year in the WAC this season.
My Conference Champion: New Mexico State Aggies
FINAL FOUR PREDICTION AND NATIONAL CHAMPION:
Last Year’s Final Four & Champion: South Carolina, Gonzaga, Oregon, North Carolina (Champion)
After going through every conference and reviewing all 351 Division I basketball programs, I have cut my possible National Championship list down to 15 teams that I believe have a legit shot at winning it all in March. Those 15 teams include: Arizona, Kansas, Kentucky, Villanova, Duke, Michigan State, Wichita State, North Carolina, USC, West Virginia, Miami, Notre Dame, Minnesota, Louisville, and Xavier. All 15 of these teams are loaded with talent and make it very hard to choose which four will make it to the Final Four this year, but I have picked these four teams to make it to the Final Four this season:
Duke Blue Devils – National Champion
Michigan State Spartans
Wichita State Shockers
Duke, Michigan State, Arizona, and Wichita State all clearly stand out over these other programs listed above and have the complete team built that a National Championship team needs. Duke stands out above everyone for two reasons. The first reason is their offensive depth. From Gary Trent Jr. to Grayson Allen, to Jordan Tucker, Duke will put up a lot of points on their opponents this year and will be a deadly team playing in transition. The second reason is because they have Marvin Bagley III. Whether you like Duke or not, you need to watch a few of their games this season to catch Marvin Bagley III playing. He is a “human-highlight reel” and a once in a generation like talent. I believe the National Player of the Year honor will come down to Bagley and Michigan State’s Miles Bridges.
Overall, if there is one thing I know for certain, it is that college basketball this season will be just as exciting or even more exciting than in previous seasons! Every year the talent level of programs around the country continues to amaze basketball fans everywhere. I hope you are ready because the season starts today. If you want to be a champion, you better be ready for five straight months of basketball on the big stage. If you want a shot at the championship trophy, you need to prove to everyone that you deserve it and that starts with the first games of the season! Welcome back College Basketball!
College Basketball Insider/NBA Draft Analyst/Louisville Basketball