Friday, November 18, 2011

2011-2012 College Basketball Preview: The One Bid Leagues

If you missed the intro post, click here. We'll begin with the 14 leagues that are sure to be one bid as well as the four leagues with only one (or in the MAC's case, two) at large threat, meaning they too will almost assuredly be one bid. My pick to win the league is bolded somewhere in the paragraph. We'll get to the (probable) multi bid leagues, including the BCSers, later this weekend before putting out the projected bracket.

Major props and credit to my trusty Sporting News 2011-2012 preview mag, the source of most of the factual data in these paragraphs but unfortunately cannot be blamed for any wrong picks.

America East
Vermont and Boston University are the two programs almost always in the thick of the league title chase but each lost its coach in the offseason - the Catamounts' Mike Longeran went to George Washington and the Terriers' Patrick Chambers moved to Penn State (and to a program hopefully cleaner than the football one.) That means your preseason favorite is Stony Brook, who returns all five starters from a team that was the tournament runner up last year and the regular season champion two years ago. If Albany can replace leading scorer Tim Ambrose (16.8 PPG), they could be in the mix as well but the guess is that it's the Seawolves' time. As usual, this league should have one of the 16 seeds spoken for no matter who wins it.

Atlantic Sun
Belmont is the heavy favorite to not just win this league but to be this year's Cornell or (going back a few years) Bucknell as the low major that punches far above its weight and could very well lose less than 5 games all season and contend for a single digit NCAA tournament seed. They return 9 of their top 11 players from last year's 30-5 squad that got a 13 seed and while it's a team with no real standouts, Ian Clarke is the leading scorer (12.2 ppg) and the one who can hurt you from anywhere on the floor. When this team shoots well, it can play with anyone - just ask Duke. East Tennessee State and Jacksonville, the other two top programs from the past couple years and deep sleeper North Florida are their only real competition but the Buccaneers and Dolphins lose most of their best players and the Ospreys went just 10-10 in the league last year but return their top five scorers from last season.

Big Sky
It should be between Weber State and Montana as usual but the Wildcats are boosted by the return of Damian Lillard, the conference's Player of the Year in 2009-2010 who missed most last season with a foot injury. They return most of their nucleus and 6'6 230 pound Frank Otis, a transfer from Matt Doherty's SMU program should pitch in as well. The Grizzlies return four of five starters, losing only all conference center Brian Qvale, but he won't be nearly the loss that Anthony Johnson was going in to last season and Montana is a program that you can count on in both football and basketball to contend annually in this league. Last year's champion and tournament representative, Northern Colorado, lost most of its core from its golden generation of the past few years that was recruited by rising star coach Tad Boyle, who left for Colorado before last year and the Bears should start to feel that loss this season. If the 'Cats win it, they might sneak in to 14 seed range or so but the Grizzlies (or anyone else) won't do better than a 15.

Big South
This is a really bad league that's probably looking at a 16 seed no matter who wins the league and it would be absolutely stunning if it gets better than a 15. In an odd coincidence, arguably the two favorites are both opening new arenas this season. Actually, Coastal Carolina hasn't opened its yet - its upset over LSU last night was supposed to ring in the new Student Recreation and Convocation Center but its construction was delayed over the summer - but UNC Asheville got its marquee home opener played in the correct building, the brand-new Kimmel Arena (which only seats 3,200, to give you an idea of this league's place in the world.) Enough about gymnasiums, the Bulldogs return four starters from last year's tournament champion and the Chanticleers lose three of their most vital pieces from last year's regular season champ due to academics, graduation and an altercation with a teammate, which I don't think Cliff Ellis and the fantastic coaching job he has done since taking that job a few years ago can overcome. Liberty, VMI and its breakneck pace and old lion Winthrop will also have a real shot to win the auto bid in March.

Big West
So Long Beach State went to the Oakland Zoo and pulled off the upset it knew it could over Pitt. Now it faces FOUR more top 15 teams between November 28 and Christmas - Louisville, Kansas, North Carolina and Xavier. Of course all four games are on the road but with the Pitt win already in their pockets, the 49ERS can take their cuts with the knowledge that they're going to be in the at large conversation if they run the table - or come close - in conference play. That's very possible, considering they have been tournament runner ups the past two season, won the regular season title with a 14-2 mark in league play last season and return four starters, including Casper Ware, who became the first player in Big West history to win Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year last season and put up a career-high 28 points against Pitt. Like Coastal Carolina in the Big South, Long Beach State decided to trust its program to a coach who struggled with his shot at the big time and it's paying dividends as Dan Monson has come over from Minnesota and recaptured his Gonzaga magic. This year, he should turn it in to a tournament appearance for the 49ers, although UC Santa Barbara, the two time defending tournament champs who return Orlando Johnson (21.1 ppg, 6.2 rpg) - Ware's competition for POTY - among others, will be right there with them. When the conference tournament tips off in Anaheim, Cal State Fullerton and Cal Poly should fill out the top four seeds and will believe they have a real shot to take the crown. The sky's the limit for Long Beach's seed but the guess is that they'll be in a 5/12 or 4/13. Any who join (or replace) them in the tourney won't do much better than a 15.

Douglas Davis hit one of the more heartbreaking jumpers in recent college basketball memory to deny Harvard its first NCAA tournament since 1946 in a one game playoff and send Princeton to the NCAA tournament. It should be between the Crimson and Tigers again this season but Tommy Amaker's boys (there's another BCS retread - this may deserve its own post at one point) are the heavy favorites and although it won't happen, it's possible that if they sweep Princeton, they might not lose a game on their schedule other than a trip to UConn on December 8 - their golden ticket to real at-large opportunity should they need it again this season. As for Princeton, it returns 8 of its 10 top scorers but that pales in to comparison to Harvard bringing back its entire roster, including all 5 starters and 13 lettermen. Keith Wright, the 6'8 reigning Ivy Player of the Year and second banana Oliver McNally should lead the Crimson to their first NCAA tournament since the aftermath of World War II. The Tigers also have to deal with the shocking loss of head coach Sydney Johnson making a barely-upward move to Fairfield and new boss Mitch Henderson loses key starters Dan Mavraides and Kareem Maddox. Penn should be an interesting factor in the race as well with scorers Tyler Bernadini and Zack Rosen but when the dust settles, Amaker will finally achieve the manifest destiny he's been working toward since he took the job a few years ago. Expect a low double digit seed.

If you're gonna make an at large case, you might as well state it early, right? Well, both of this league's threats have done so, as Akron won at Mississippi State on the first night of the season and then Kent State surprised West Virginia at 10 AM in Morgantown during ESPN's 24 hour tip off marathon. It should be those two rival Ohio schools, who battle it out for the Wagon Wheel annually in football, going at it for this league's automatic bid and making sure its NCAA fate isn't left in the hands of the selection committee. In a parity filled league, Akron has somehow made five consecutive MAC title games and has won two of the last three, including an epic, physical overtime war against the Golden Flashes last March. The Zips bring back former top 50 recruit 7'0 Zeke Marshall (9 points, 13 rebounds and NINE blocks in said title game), leading scorer and rebounder Nikola Cvetinovic (11.7 ppg, 6.9 rpg) and a host of promising transfers and incoming recruits that makes this team a real threat to get back to the tournament and better its 15 seed and modest showing against Notre Dame from last March. Kent State, meanwhile, is the two time regular season champion and made an impressive run to the NIT quarterfinals and now the Golden Flashes return the MAC Player of the Year (Justin Greene), Defensive Player of the Year (Michael Porrini) and Sixth Man of the Year (Carlton Guyton.) Coach of the Year Geno Ford is the new man at Bradley but the Flashes have been through five coaches since 2000 and have remained at the top of the conference. There are a few other interesting sleepers in this league, including Miami Ohio, Buffalo and MAC Freshman of the Year Javon McCrea and Central Michigan and Trey Zeigler, the MAC's leading returning scorer and don't forget that Ohio team that's just a couple years removed from stunning Georgetown in the last 14/3 upset in the Big Dance. I don't see this league doing worse than that seed this year and either, or both, of the Zips and Golden Flashes can do a seed line or three better.

Call this, "The League of the Impact Transfer." Nowhere else will you find a low major league that is so exemplary of how transfers from BCS schools can come in and become superstars in small ponds. Iona was probably the favorite to win the conference title even before Arizona point guard MoMo Jones was granted a hardship waiver to transfer and play immediately in New Rochelle, which is much closer to home and his ailing grandmother. Jones, probably the best player on last year's Arizona team not named "Derrick Williams" solidifies the Gaels position as favorites to avenge last year's shock conference title loss to St. Peter's and get to the NCAA tournament. Fairfield, the regular season champions last season, should defend their title admirably - particularly with the boosts that new head man Sydney Johnson (who completely turned Princeton's program around and led them back to the NCAA tournament) and Boston College big man Rakim Sanders will give them. Also in the mix will be Loyola, led by former Maryland center Shane Walker and Rider, who adds former Virginia guard (and high school sensation) Jeff Jones to its roster this season. But the Gaels have to be considered the favorites with MoMo joining Mike Glover, whose 18.4 points and 10.1 rebounds make him the league's leading returning scorer, rebounder and favorite for Player of the Year as well as two other returning starters and a strong bench to form a team that has already pushed Purdue to the limit and can potentially do better than St. Peter's 14 seed last March (though I'm not sure if any other champion would.)

Always an unpredictable league, particularly when conference tourney time hits, the favorites are, by default, defending champions Hampton, who return three starters and a lot of size but they'll be challenged from each side of Baltimore as both Coppin State and Morgan State should be in the hunt. Fang Mitchell returns the core of a team that finished with a winning season for the first time in 7 years (although they were not shut out of the tournament during that time) and the Eagles will score the basketball all season, but the team topping the preseason poll and my pick to dance is the one who won three straight regular season titles and two straight conference tournament championships before stepping back last year and falling just short in the conference title game. The Bears, who somewhat surprisingly continue to be coached by Todd Bozeman, return one of the best double-double threats in the country in Kevin Thompson (13.1 ppg, 9.1 rpg), leading scorer DeWayne Jackson (14.5 ppg) and most of the rest of their nucleus. Look out for deep sleeper North Carolina Central in its first full year of membership in the league and Norfolk State has the kind of center in Kyle O'Quinn (16.4 ppg, 11.1 rpg 3.4 bpg) who can take over a league like this, particularly during the one week he needs to to secure an NCAA tourney bid. You know the drill though - it would be an achievement just for the champ to avoid one of the two 16 seed play-in game.

One of the nation's fastest paced, most high scoring and fun teams is back. Long Island returns 6 of its 8 top players from a team that went 27-6 overall and 16-2 in the league, the program's best campaign in three quarters of a century and finished fourth in the country averaging 82.7 points per game. They feature Julian Boyd (13 ppg, 8.9 rpg), NEC tournament MVP Jamal Olaswere (12.9, 6.8) and conference assists leader Jason Brickman (5.5 apg.) Returning NEC Player of the Year Ken Horton (19.5 ppg, 8.9 rpg) and Central Connecticut State should have something to say about the Blackbirds defending their crown and stalwarts Robert Morris and Mount St. Mary's should be in the mix as well. It's a strong league, returning 11 of its 16 top scorers, 8 of the top 11 rebounders, 9 of the top 14 assist men and 7 of the 10 best 3 point shooters but even if Long Island betters its marks from a season ago, a 14 seed seems like the absolute best case scenario and of course anyone else should be happy with a 15 and content if not in an opening round game.

Ohio Valley
Two straight years this league has pulled off a 4/13 special (which is becoming the new 5/12 special) in March and now it might be time for an even bigger Cinderella to show up at the Dance. Tennessee Tech, which hasn't made the NCAA tournament since 1963, is among the favorites to win the title despite assistant Steve Payne taking over for longtime head coach Steve Payne, who retired at the end of last season. This could be a Drake Geno Davis/Keno Davis situation, where the assistant steps in to the perfect position to win right away as the Golden Eagles, who lost to Morehead State and Kenneth Faried in the conference title game last season, return four starters including Kevin Murphy, who averaged 17 points a game last season and scored 30 in the title game. They also have Zac Swansey, who led the OVC in assists (6.4), steals (2.1) and assist/turnover ratio (1.8-1) last season. League powers Austin Peay and Murray State will be in the mix as usual despite the Racers - one of the bigger stepping stone programs for upward moving coaches in America - losing yet another head man as Billy Kennedy took over for Mark Turgeon at Texas A&M. The Governors' success might depend on how well TyShwan Edmonson, the OVC's second leading scorer last season (17.1 ppg) recovers from a torn knee ligament sustained in last year's conference tournament. Tennessee State's a real interesting wild card since they return all five starters including OVC Freshman of the Year Patrick Miller and while Faried-less Morehead will obviously be a shell of last season, Donnie Tyndall's still a good enough coach to coax an NCAA bid out of the group he has left. But we'll go with the fairytale story and take the Techsters. Expect somewhere between a 13 and a 15, probably a 14, for whoever cuts down the nets.

I sure do hope American, Lehigh and the rest of this league enjoyed the downtime between 2007 and last year because it looks like Bucknell might be back to reclaim its annual place at the head of this league's table. The Bison went from 14-17 to 25-9 last season, dominating the league in the regular season (aside from a bizarre 20 point loss against Army) but needing a controversial no-call in the waning moments of their tournament semifinal against Lehigh to get to the final against a Lafayette team that needed double overtime to win at American in its Patriot League semi (a game which this blogger attended!) No matter, Mike Muscala (14.9 ppg, 7.3 rpg), a 6'11 inside-out threat, should lead the Bison to another crown as he and three other starters return. C.J. McCollum (21.8 ppg, 7.8 rpg), last year's Player and Rookie of the Year will lead the Mountain Hawks and the Leopards, losers in two straight Patriot title games, will remain in the mix and keep an eye on Navy, who was the unexpected beneficiary of new head coach Ed DeChellis' shock move from Penn State. Bucknell has a shot at a 14 seed again, everyone else would do well to avoid the play-in.

A forgettable enough league this year that I literally forgot to do the preview before I was about to post this, only 2 of 10 players from last year's all conference team return. That means returning experience could be paramount for Davidson, who brings back seven of its top eight scorers (but unfortunately can't bring back Stephen Curry, even in the lockout) from last season's 18-15 (10-8) outfit to be the flagbearer in the South and Chattanooga, who returns four senior starters to carry the torch in the North division. Appalachian State and the College of Charleston, both of whom have consistently knocked on two time defending champion Wofford's door should all contend in a league that saw seven teams ring up double digit conference wins last season. It's really anyone's guess who wins this league, so I'll go with the brand name, the legendary coach (Bob McKillop) and all that returning experience. A 14 or 15 seed sounds about right, depending on the champion.

A weird league with a cool name and almost as much parity as there is random Texas schools (with a few Louisiana universities and Central Arkansas filling things out), this is one of the few conferences in which I can't name last year's NCAA tournament participant without looking it up...but on the rare occasion, this league's champ can be real dangerous in March. Anyhow, that champion that I didn't know - Texas San-Antonio - is one of three teams jumping ship to the WAC next year so if you believe in conspiracies, check out the officiating in their games in March since they're the favorites to represent the league in the Big Dance again. Four starters and twelve players return from last year's 20 win squad and the Roadrunners have the benefit of playing in the West, the weaker of the two divisions. The East has an interesting mix of contenders, including Pat Knight's Lamar and always dangerous Northwestern State and McNeese State, the defending regular season champs and tournament runners-up who return only one starter, but he's a good one in Patrick Richard (16.1 ppg, 6.4 rpg.) The prediction (more like a guess) is that the addition of transfers Will Brown (New Mexico) and Rudy Turner (Lousiana-Monroe) puts the Cowboys over the top, flipping last year's title game (which was decided by three points) script.

Speaking of leagues where the favorite is leaving next season, Oral Roberts is actually one of the Southland's reinforcements for Texas San-Antonio, Texas State and Texas-Arlington joining the depleted WAC. The Golden Eagles, annual stars in this league, should get back to the glory days of Ken Tutt and Caleb Green as they look to have the drop on Oakland now that Golden Grizzlies star big man Keith Benson has graduated. But the two time defending champs won't just cede their crown over, especially not when Reggie Hamilton (20.7 ppg over final 18 games, 25 against Texas in NCAA tournament) is still in town and Laval Lucas-Perry, a solid rotation player and occasional starter at Michigan, transfers in to join him. IUPUI might be in the mix as well but loses longtime coach Ron Hunter, who built the program to be at or near the top of the league annually, to Georgia State. The choice has to be Scott Sutton's boys though, who retain four of the league's top eight scorers including Freshman of the Year Steven Roundtree and not including Michael Craion, the Summit Newcomer of the Year in 2009-2010 before breaking his foot and missing all of last season. This league is starting to make a habit out of 13 and 14 seeds, which is a good thing considering its stature and the vast difference between a 4/13 game (twenty two 13 seeds have beaten 4's since the tourney went to 64 in 1985, the latest being Morehead State over Louisville in March) or a 3/14 (sixteen 14 seeds have beaten 3's, latest being Ohio over Georgetown in 2010)......and the 2/15 (only four 15 seeds have beaten 2's, latest being Hampton over Iowa State in 2001) or 1/16 (you know the stat) and either the Golden Eagles or Golden Grizzlies should expect more of the same.

Sun Belt
Depending on who you ask, Mike Jarvis might have destroyed St. John's program but he's now in Boca Raton building up Florida Atlantic's. The Owls, just 6-26 two seasons ago, return four starters to last year''s regular season champion but already establishing themselves as the favorites might be Middle Tennessee, who won by 20 at UCLA earlier this week and adds a couple of BCS transfers, Oklahoma State's Torin Walker and Iowa State's LaRon Dendy to a core of six returning top players. Arkansas State, enjoying a breakthrough year in football, may get the same in basketball as the West division co-champs return Player of the Year candidate Martavius Adams (11.2 ppg, 7.1 rpg) and conference tournament runner up North Texas loses four starters but adds Tony Mitchell, who was declared ineligible at Missouri and could be the most talented player in the league from the moment he steps on the court. The Blue Raiders have a real knack for coming up short on the big stage in this league in football but in basketball, they look like they might be able to win this league and be some 1 or 2 seed's fodder in March.

In what's probably the toughest league in the country to consistently win at, Lewis Jackson has put together something of a dynasty at Alabama State, winning back-to-back regular season titles in 2007-2008 and 2008-2009, capping the latter with a tournament title and NCAA tournament appearance before getting back to the Big Dance last season by winning eight of its final nine regular season games and surging through the SWAC tournament. The Hornets return most of their nucleus and should be able to hold off Mississippi Valley State - who got hit with APR sanctions like Grambling and Southern but are not banned from postseason play like those schools. Jackson State and last year's regular season champions Texas Southern will have their say and in a league where 12-21, 8-10 Grambling can make the tournament finals a year after a 5th seeded 17-16 (11-7) Texas Southern team did, the conference tournament is always wide open and always results in a 16 seed (and usually an opening round date) for the champion.

Boise State's gone and Nevada, Hawaii and Fresno State are next to join them. This is catastrophic for the football league but won't hurt nearly as much for the basketball league, which should retain its place as a middle-of-the-pack mid major. As long as Utah State stays put, things are in decent shape. Stew Morril's program has set up camp at the top of this league and despite losing four starters and the sixth man off last year's 30-4 (15-1) squad, the Aggies remain the favorites to win the league. It's as simple as the formula: efficient shooting, tough defense and beat everybody at home. The Wolfpack and Warriors are probably the top two challengers to the throne, as Nevada should bounce back from a rebuilding year last year and be Utah State's usual title challengers while there's something special brewing on the island where 19 games were won last season and three starters return, including Zane Johnson (15.8 ppg, 40.8 3%.) I got a good look at Hawaii during the ESPN 24 hour marathon and while I like them a lot, it's foolish to pick against Morril and his boys in what has become their league. New Mexico State would be in this conversation if Troy Gillenwater (18.9 ppg, 6.3 rpg) hadn't been declared ineligible for signing with an agent and if they can somehow replace him, they might be. Utah State is usually good for somewhere between an 11 and 14 seed but with all the turnover, it will likely be on the lower end this season.

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