Thirty-Two Regular Season Champions, Part Two
With the college basketball season finally on the horizon, the game that's been overlooked by many in conference realignment will once again have the center stage. Perennial contenders will once again make a run at a national title while some new faces will pop up as well. The first four-part preview will focus on the conferences, and more specifically who will win each of the 32 leagues. Picking up from where we left off on Friday with Part One, here's the second of the four parts.
Big 12: Baylor
The Big 12 is down to 10 teams (Nebraska to the Big Ten, Colorado to the Pac-12) but if anything that's done the league a favor from a basketball standpoint. A full round robin combined with some evenly matched teams should make for one of the most exciting races in college basketball. But while Kansas has won at least a share of the last seven regular season titles, their lack of depth due to a recruiting class hit hard by eligibility issues (Braeden Anderson not cleared and Ben McLemore and Jamari Traylor are both partial qualifiers) is a major blow. Therefore the pick is a deep Baylor squad, which has a serious question to answer at the point. A.J. Walton and JUCO transfer Pierre Jackson will attempt to answer that question, and if they can a team led by Perry Jones III, Quincy Acy and a recruiting class featuring Quincy Miller and Deuce Bello should flourish.
Big West: Long Beach State
Dan Monson's 49ers went through a hellacious non-conference schedule last season with wing Larry Anderson missing much of the slate due to injury, but his return combined with that tough road led them to a regular season title. But they fell to UCSB in the Big West title game, leaving the feeling of unfinished business for this experienced group. Guard Casper Ware (17.2 ppg, 4.4 apg) is back along with Anderson (14.3 ppg, 3.3 apg), forward T.J. Robinson (13.6 ppg, 10.1 rpg) and the 49ers return four starters from a team that won 22 games. UCSB will be right there thanks to the James Nunnally/Orlando Johnson duo, but The Beach are positioned to once again take advantage of a brutal non-conference slate once Big West play rolls around.
The last time a team not from the Commonwealth of Virginia won at least a share of the CAA regular season title was 2006 (UNC Wilmington), and the Seahawks were also the last non-Virginia school to win the league outright (2003). So this will be quite the undertaking for Bruiser Flint and his team, but the Dragons have enough horses to get the job done. Guards Chris Fouch (14.9 ppg, 3.4 rpg) and Frantz Massenat (5.5 ppg, 3.3 apg) are back along with forward Samme Givens (12.2 ppg, 10.1 rpg), and the Dragons will return four starters (Fouch was their 6th man last season). And for the depth that Drexel has this season there's one more point to make: Givens is their lone senior. Could be the start of a nice run in a very tough league.
Conference USA: Memphis
Josh Pastner's young Tigers did not win the regular season title last season, finishing two games out of first place, but they did win the conference tournament by beating UTEP in the title game in El Paso. This could be the year in which the sophomore class led by Joe Jackson (9.9 ppg, 3.1 apg) and Will Barton (12.3 ppg, 4.9 rpg) takes off and reaches new heights, with Jackson being the key figure in it all. The Memphis native played for USA Basketball this summer in an experience that should add more to his game from a maturity standpoint (Jackson finished last season with more turnovers than assists). Also there's freshman Adonis Thomas and JUCO transfer Stan Simpson, two newcomers who will also chip in. All the names haven't been mentioned for Memphis, but 11 letter-winners return. The cupboard is full.
Great West: North Dakota
The Sioux, who finished third in regular season play but won the conference tournament, return all five starters with junior forward Patrick Mitchell (13.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg) being the reigning Great West Tournament MVP. Guard Troy Huff (13.3 ppg) was a Second Team All-GWC selection as a freshman, and classmates Jamal Webb (9.1 ppg) and Josh Schuler (8.8 ppg) are also back. Mitchell is one of two seniors (center Mike Mathison), meaning that Brian Jones' program is well-positioned to hang around at the top of the Great West standings for a couple years.
The Horizon League will once again have a fun race for the conference title. Butler returns just two starters but they have experience and Brad Stevens one of the best coaches in the country, and while Cleveland State did lose Norris Cole the other four starters return. But the pick is Detroit (even with Eli Holman taking a leave of absence from the team) because the Titans return everyone else. Sophomore point guard Ray McCallum Jr. (13.5 ppg, 4.7 rpg) and senior guard Chase Simon (13.5 ppg, 4.2 rpg) are the leading returning scorers in the Horizon League, and seniors Chris Blake (10.9 ppg) and Nick Minnerath (11.2 ppg) have the experience needed to help make up for Holman's absence (LaMarcus Lowe averaged 2.4 blocks per game). It won't be easy, but Ray McCallum has the horses needed to reach the top of the conference.
Ivy League: Harvard
The regular season came to a crushing conclusion for the Harvard Crimson, as Douglas Davis' last-second shot propelled Princeton to the NCAA Tournament in the Ivy League Playoff. But while the Tigers return a good amount of talent from that group, Harvard has all the answers heading into 2011-12. Forwards Kyle Casey (10.7 ppg, 6.0 rpg) and Keith Wright (14.8 ppg, 8.3 rpg) return up front, and the backcourt is in very good shape as well with the likes of Christian Webster (13.0 ppg), Laurent Rivard (11.0 ppg) and Brandyn Curry (9.3 ppg, 5.9 apg) back as well. All five starters and thirteen letter-winners return to a team that won 23 games last season (can't forget senior captain Oliver McNally), meaning that Tommy Amaker and his staff likely won't lack for answers.
There may have been change at the top for the Fairfield Stags, with Sydney Johnson coming over from Princeton to replace Ed Cooley as head coach. But the rotation largely remains the same, with a few important additions, for the defending MAAC regular season champs and that's why many expect them to repeat. Guard Derek Needham (14.1 ppg, 4.5 apg) and center Ryan Olander (10.4 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 2.1 bpg) return as do key contributors Maurice Barrow and Colin Nickerson. As for the newcomers, three have been a part of the program but had to sit out last season: Rakim Sanders and Desmond Wade are transfers while Sean Crawford was a medical redshirt. Add in freshman Adam Jones and the Stags have the tools in place to repeat, but not without challenges from Iona and dark horse Rider.
Next (Monday): Mid-American through Patriot
Part One: America East through Big Ten