Thirty-Two Regular Season Champions, Part One
America East: Albany
There were some important coaching changes in America East this offseason, with Patrick Chambers leaving the defending conference tournament champs (Boston University) to take over Penn State and Mike Lonergan leaving regular season champ Vermont for George Washington. While both teams, along with tournament finalist Stony Brook, return some key pieces the Great Danes of Albany return four starters. Tim Ambrose departs but Third Team All-America East performers Logan Aronhalt (14.6 ppg) and Mike Black (12.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 2.9 apg) return as does All-Rookie Team member Luke Devlin (7.4 ppg, 6.9 rpg). In a tight race throughout league play, look for Will Brown's team to win the title.
Atlantic 10: Xavier
In the A-10 it's tough to pick against Chris Mack's Musketeers, who have won at least a share of the last five regular season titles. Point guard Tu Holloway (19.7 ppg, 5.9 apg) was a Third Team All-America selection last season and the Atlantic 10 Player of the Year, and he'll have help on the perimeter from Mark Lyons (13.6 ppg) and sharpshooter Brad Redford, who missed all of last season due to a torn ACL. Kenny Frease (suspended indefinitely on Friday; Xavier hopes that he'll return at some point) and transfers Travis Taylor (Monmouth) and Andre Walker (Vanderbilt) will handle things inside, and freshmen Dezmine Wells and Justin Martin will also factor into the rotation. Their biggest challenger will likely be Temple, but the Musketeers look poised to run their streak to six.
ACC: North Carolina
The moment Roy Williams' talented cast decided to return to Chapel Hill the bar was set: anything less than a national title would be a disappointment. Harrison Barnes (15.7 ppg, 5.8 rpg) , John Henson (11.7 ppg, 10.1 rpg) and Tyler Zeller (15.7 ppg, 7.2 rpg) all return along with point guard Kendall Marshall (6.2 ppg, 6.2 apg), and the Heels' talent and depth make them the early favorite to win it all. All five starters and some key reserves return in addition to a talented recruiting class led by P.J. Hairston, Desmond Hubert and James Michael McAdoo. Duke and Florida State look to be the teams with the best ability to make a run at the top, but Carolina's the head of the class right now.
Atlantic Sun: Belmont
2010-11 was supposed to shape up as a "they're a year away" kind of campaign for Rick Byrd's Bruins. All Belmont did in response was go 30-5 overall with a 19-1 record in conference play. Four starters and ten letterwinners from last season return for Belmont, including forwards Mick Hedgepeth (10.8 ppg, 5.9 rpg) and Scott Saunders (9.9 ppg, 5.2 rpg) and guard Drew Hanlen (6.4 ppg, 4.0 apg). Hanlen and the rest of the backcourt will have to make up for the losses of Jon House and Jordan Campbell but they've got more than enough tools to do so. And if Belmont can get back to the Big Dance and get a favorable matchup style-wise, look out.
Big East: Syracuse
The Big East produced its first national champion since 2004 last season, and the fact that a team that tied for ninth (Connecticut) was the one to do it surprised many. That goes to show how tough the league can be on a nightly basis, so even though many see four teams (UConn, Louisville, Pittsburgh and Syracuse) separate from the pack in October things can change by March. The pick here is Syracuse, with Jim Boeheim returning many talented pieces in addition to welcoming in a highly-touted recruiting class led by forward Rakeem Christmas. Seniors Kris Joseph (14.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg) and Scoop Jardine (12.5 ppg, 6.1 rpg) will be expected to lead as will junior Brandon Triche (11.1 ppg), and keep an eye on sophomores C.J. Fair (6.4 ppg, 3.8 rpg) and Dion Waiters (6.6 ppg) as well. But whether or not Syracuse wins the Big East could ultimately come down to how the bigs perform with Rick Jackson having graduated.
Big Sky: Montana
Wayne Tinkle's Grizzlies were one win away from a trip to the NCAA Tournament as they fell at Northern Colorado in the tournament final, and with four starters back Montana is well-equipped to move to the top of the league. First Team All-Big Sky performer Will Cherry (14.1 ppg, 4.3 rpg) returns as does 7-footer Derek Selvig (10.1 ppg, 5.2 rpg) and sophomore guard Kareem Jamar (8.1 ppg). Freshman wing Kevin Henderson is a rookie some have pegged as a player to watch within the league as well, and Montana has the pieces needed to win the league crown.
Big South: UNC Asheville
Led by guards Matt Dickey (15.7 ppg, 3.3 apg) and J.P. Primm (14.6 ppg, 4.5 apg), Eddie Biedenbach's Bulldogs won the conference tournament title as well as a game in the NCAA Tournament. And with those two returning in addition to two other starters it's tough not to pick UNC Asheville to do what they could not do last season and win the regular season crown. Coastal Carolina won the regular season crown a season ago but eligibility issues in the second half of the season helped submarine their run, and they'll likely be the Bulldogs' biggest challenger this season.
Big Ten: Ohio State
Much like North Carolina, Ohio State's status as a national title contender was cemented the moment its biggest star committed to returning to school. Jared Sullinger returns for his sophomore campaign in better shape, and all he did was dominate the Big Ten as a freshman. The Buckeyes do have to make up for the loss of David Lighty, Jon Diebler and Dallas Lauderdale, but they have enough talent both returning (Will Buford and Aaron Craft being two other returnees) and incoming (Sam Thompson and Shannon Scott being two of the four) to merit their status as clear favorites to win the conference.
Next (Sunday): Big 12 through MAAC