One of the factors that make for an exciting basketball season is when conference races are up for grabs. When we question if someone other than Duke or North Carolina will win the ACC or if Kansas’ Big 12 reign will finally come to an end, you can bet it will be a greatly unpredictable season. For more in depth conference previews check out the great work the crews at CBSSPORTS.COM, NBCSPORTS.COM and ESPN.COM have done. Here is an abridged look at the 31 conference races as I see them.
America East- Vermont lost star Four McGlynn to Towson and Boston University is ineligible due to its pending move to the Patriot League. Look for Vermont to battle for the top spot in the league with Tommy Brenton and Stony Brook pushing them. BU could play a big spoiler role on their way out the door.
Atlantic 10- Welcome Butler and Virginia Commonwealth and the A10 becomes s-t-a-c-k-e-d. In addition to the newcomers, UMass, St. Joeseph’s, St. Louis and Temple could all make a run to the top of this league.
ACC- It seems like every year it is Duke vs. North Carolina in this league. Well last year Florida State stole the show and the tournament title. This year the Seminoles are joined by North Carolina State in the quest to take out the kings of tobacco road. Miami and Maryland could also play a part in this suddenly crowded ACC slugfest.
Atlantic Sun- With Belmont off to challenge Murray State in the Ohio Valley, the A-Sun is now up for grabs. Mercer won 27 games last year and a CIT title so they know what it takes but South Carolina-Upstate and last year’s runner up Florida Gulf Coast could also be in position to get their first taste of March Madness.
Big 12- Death, taxes and Kansas winning the Big 12 are the only sure thing in life, right? Well this year Kansas will definitely earn it if they take home another crown. Baylor, Kansas State, West Virginia, a young Texas team and Oklahoma State led by highly touted freshman Marcus Smart and conference Player of the Year candidate LeBryan Nash all stand in the way of the Jayhawks’ run to another title.
Big East- Louisville is a top 3 team in the country but Syracuse has the talent to get to another Final Four. Georgetown and Notre Dame are not far behind those two and Pittsburgh is healthy and with freshman Steven Adams Jamie Dixon’s team should rebound after an uncharacteristically bad season last year. Cincinnati has the guards to compete with any of the top teams and even though they are ineligible for the post-season it doesn’t mean UConn is without talent.
Big Sky- Montana will be without star guard Will Cherry for at least the non-conference slate with a broken hand but fellow guard Kareem Jamar is more than capable of picking up any slack. Weber State should be on the heels of the Bobcats all season despite the loss of All-American Damian Lillard. Guard Scott Bamforth is one of the best shooters in the country and center Kyle Tresnak is a force inside.
Big South- With the Big South turning to divisional play in 2012-13 the league title may come down to South division favorite Charleston Southern and three teams that will battle it out in the North division; High Point, Campbell and VMI.
Big Ten- Arguably the deepest conference in the country, Indiana could be the country’s best. Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State will be filling up the Hoosiers’ rear view mirror all season long. Bo Ryan always has the Badgers in contention and Trevor Mbakwe is healthy at Minnesota giving the Golden Gophers a tournament worthy roster. Every night in the Big Ten will be a war.
Big West- Long Beach State may have lost four starters but the Big West is still the 49ers playground (at least this year until San Diego State joins the league next year). Don Monson’s squad may get a test from Cal-State Fullerton who boasts possible Player of the Year in guard D. J. Seeley.
Colonial- The league has been decimated by change over the summer, VCU leaves for the Atlantic 10 Old Dominion and Georgia State are ineligible to play in the conference tournament due to their pending departures to other conferences in 2013. Towson and UNC-Wilmington are ineligible due to low APR scores. The seven remaining schools will battle for the league title led by George Mason and Bruiser Flint’s Drexel Dragons.
Conference USA- Memphis has one more season in Conference USA before they leave for the Big East. The Tigers have owned the conference basically since its inception and not much should change this season. Their big competition should come from Marshall and junior guard DeAndre Kane, Central Florida and their star Keith Clanton could play a major spoiler despite being ruled ineligible for the post-season due to NCAA violations.
Horizon- Life in the post Butler era begins in the Horizon with Valparaiso sporting a couple of all-league senior forwards in Ryan Broekhoff and Ryan Van Wijk. It won’t be a cakewalk for the Crusaders as they will have to fend off the Ray McCallums, the coach and star guard and Wisconsin-Green Bay and the four starters they return from a team that went 12-2 at home and are led by junior center Alec Brown.
Ivy League- The Ivy League seemed to be Harvard’s there for the taking, and then Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry were suspended as part of a cheating scandal. The door being left open may allow Princeton and Ian Hummer to charge right through.
Metro Atlantic Athletic- Jimmy Pastos got his Loyola (Md.) Greyhounds return four starters from a team that reached the NCAA Tournament last season and are poised to make it back-to-back appearances. Lamont “Momo” Jones and Iona and perhaps George Beamon and Manhattan will have the best shot at unseating Loyola.
Mid-American- Look for the winner of this conference to come from the Eastern division. Defending champion Ohio lost its coach (John Groce left for Illinois) but brings back Player of the Year and catalyst D.J. Cooper. Akron has defensive stalwart Zeke Marshall hoping to get the Zips over the hump and the Buffalo Bulls return Javon McCrea who averaged 15 points and 7 rebounds a game last season.
Mid-Eastern Athletic- Savannah State returns all five starters from their 14-2 MEAC team that was edged out by Norfolk State in the conference tournament. This year the Tigers look to take that extra step and secure the conference’s automatic bid, but it won’t be easy. Delaware State finished 3rd in the conference last season and return four starters of their own that amassed 47.7 points and 18.6 rebounds per game.
Missouri Valley- Contrary to popular belief the Valley will not be a case of Creighton and a bunch of also-rans. Yes the Bluejays and National Player of the Year candidate Doug McDermott are the favorites to win the league but Wichita State, Northern Iowa and Illinois State are all capable to of giving Creighton a run for its money.
Mountain West- San Diego State and UNLV are getting Elite 8 and for some, Final 4 pub. This conference is far from a two-team race, besides the Aztecs and Rebels New Mexico, Colorado State and newcomers Nevada all are capable of making this a complete horse race after the new year.
Northeast- All Julian Boyd, C.J. Garner, Jason Brickman and Jamal Olasewere have known are Northeast Conference titles and NCAA bids. The Long Island Blackbirds have won three consecutive championships and are the odds on favorites to win a fourth. LIU will not go unopposed as Wagner returns four starters from a 25-win team and welcome Michigan State transfer Duwan Anderson to their backcourt. Robert Morris won 26 games of its own and returns their backcourt Velton Jones and Coron Williams.
Ohio Valley- Murray State put the Ohio Valley on the national map last season as the last team to lose a game (23 straight to open the season) and earning a six seed in the NCAA tournament. The Racers return star guard Isaiah Caanan and Ed Daniel (and his hair) as well as four other seniors to make sure Murray stays in the fore front of people’s minds this season. Don’t expect them to be as dominant this season as they will face challenges from Robert Covington’s (18 points 8 rebounds) Tennessee State team, which happened to hand Murray its first loss and conference newcomer Belmont who joins the OVC after a decade of dominance in the Atlantic Sun.
Pac 12- If there is a league in the country that is desperate for a rebound it is the Pac-12. UCLA welcomes freshmen Kyle Anderson and Shabbaz Muhammad (who has yet to be academically cleared by the NCAA) to a new building hoping to revive the Bruin tradition. Arizona also welcomes a couple of new cogs to its machine in Xavier transfer Mark Lyons and Freshman center Kaleb Tarczewski, add them to the likes of Kevin Parrom, Nick Johnson and Solomon Hill and the Wildcats have a team ready to compete at the top of the Pac-12. Behind those two, California, Stanford, USC and Oregon have the ability to upset the applecart in this unpredictable conference.
Patriot League- In what may be the most intriguing two-team race in the country, All-American C.J. McCollum and Lehigh fresh off a 2nd round upset of Duke in the NCAA Tournament will once again go head-to-head with Mike Muscala and Bucknell. McCollum got the best of Muscala in the Patriot League final last season, will the Bison be able to return the favor this year?
SEC- The defending national champions Kentucky seemingly lost everyone to graduation or the NBA, so they went out and did what good teams do, they reloaded. They added top recruits Nerlens Noel, Alex Poythress, Willie Cauley-Stein and Archie Goodwin as well as N.C. State transfer Ryan Harrow. A whole new team, and another capable of cutting down the nets again. Florida, Tennessee and a loaded Missouri team that enters its first season in the SEC are all looking to unseat the champs.
Southern- The SoCon is one of the few conferences in the country that may be a foregone conclusion. Davidson won 25 games last year, returns all five starters led by Jake Cohen and De’Mon Brooks and this may be Bob McKillop’s deepest and best team in his 23 years. That is not good news for the rest of the Southern Conference.
Southland- The Southland lost a few teams to defection but welcome Oral Roberts from the Summit League off a season that saw the Golden Eagles win 27 games and go 17-1 in conference play. Oral Roberts’ biggest competition may come from defensive specialists Stephen F. Austin, the 20-win Lumberjacks finished 3rd in the country in deficiency holding teams to an average of 54 points per game. None of the Lumberjacks opponents broke 70 points last season.
Southwestern Athletic- If there is one league that is truly a “flip a coin” league it’s the SWAC. Mississippi Valley State and Grambling State are ineligible for the post-season due to low APR scores, of the remaining eight teams only the Southern Jaguars (17-14) had a winning record last season. Whoever wins the league should book a flight to Dayton for the First Four immediately.
Summit League-Scott Nagy’s South Dakota State Jackrabbits won 28 games, earned its first NCAA Tournament bid, gave Baylor all they could handle in a 2nd round loss, return four starters including Nate Wolters who got the attention of the national audience with a 22-point, 6-rebound and 8-assist effort in a win over Buffalo during the Bracket Busters event. As long as they stay healthy another Summit League title is surely in the offing.
Sun Belt- The Sun Belt may just be Tony Mitchell’s world and everyone else is just living in it. The North Texas Sophomore was the only freshman in the country to average a double-double and first-year coach Tony Benford has a loaded roster. In addition to Mitchell the Mean Green return four other starters and three reserves. There is one team that will be looking to crash the North Texas party, Middle Tennessee State won 27games last year but were tripped up in the Sun Belt Tournament but rebounded to reach the NIT Quarterfinals including an upset of in-state Tennessee. The Blue Raiders return four starters but will have to find a way to replace the 14.6 points and 7.1 rebounds of LaRon Dendy.
West Coast- Once again the West Coast Conference should be one of the more exciting leagues to follow all season. The usual suspects are back again, Gonzaga has Kevin Pangos, Elias Harris, Gary Bell, Jr., Sam Dower and freshman big man Przemek Karnowski. St. Mary’s has arguably the league’s best backcourt in Matthew Dellavedova and Stephen Holt, Brad Waldow and a healthy Mitchell Young should anchor the Gael’s frontcourt. Brandon Davies leads the BYU Cougars and Anthony Ireland and Ashley Hamilton of Loyola Marymount hope to throw a monkey wrench in the plans of the conference’s top two teams.
WAC- In a league that has been and will be decimated by realignment the WAC should have perennial favorite Utah State led by guard Preston Medlin and forward Kyisean Reed battling for another trip to the NCAA Tournament. Their main competition may come from conference newcomer Denver and its potential Player of the Year candidate Chris Udofia. Even though New Mexico State lost double-double machine Wendell McKines , coach Marvin Menzies has enough to stick its nose into the WAC title race. Sophomore guard Daniel Mullings finished his first season strong scoring double figures in 9 of his last 10 games.