Conference Power Rankings (Cont.)
Butler's departure hurts the quality of the league, but the Horizon has been very competitive for a number of years, with depth beyond the Bulldogs. Valpo won the league last season and returns everyone for another run at the crown. Then take your pick from a cluster of Detroit, UW-Green Bay, Cleveland State, UW-Milwaukee and maybe Youngstown State to see who will challenge. The Titans and maybe the Vikings may be the best picks there, but it should be another tussle.
The Zombie Conference lives! At least for this season. Then who knows, when multiple teams depart. The Battle of the Aggies will rage for one more year until Utah State takes their blueness to the Mountain West. They were very young last season and now should reap the benefits of a core built around Preston Medlin. New Mexico State has replenished and will provide its normal athletic challenge to the sweet shooters from Logan. The interesting twist is the arrival of Denver from the Sun Belt. The Pioneers were one of the best teams in the SBC last season and have the talent, starting with Chris Udofia, to take the title in their debut season.
With Belmont's arrival and Murray State losing some core pieces from last season, there should be a great battle for 1-2 in the league ... assuming Tennessee State doesn't wreck that party. With Kerron Johnson, Isaiah Canaan and Robert Covington this season, the OVC has as good a three-player punch as you will see outside the top 10 conferences.
This is a two-team show, but what a show it could be between Lehigh and Bucknell, as C.J. McCollum and Mike Muscala wrap up their four-year rivalry. Holy Cross is probably the best bet to pick one of the two powers off at least once. American has some talent back, too, and Army may be poised to take a step forward with all-league forward Ella Ellis.
Denver's exit to the WAC weakens the depth at the top of the league, but there's still some quality here. It starts with Middle Tennessee State, which returns everyone but league POY LaRon Dendy from last season's 27-win team. The Blue Raiders will be challenged by North Texas, which features presumed league POY Tony Mitchell and returns the entire rotation from last season for new coach Tony Benford. Last season's miracle auto-bid winner, Western Kentucky, also brings back some talent, but this should be a two-team battle.
With Oral Roberts gone to the Southland, this is now South Dakota State's league to lose. Expect Nate Wolters and Co. to make a return trip to the NCAAs after they won the auto-bid last season. This is a solid team with the ability to shoot from range. Oakland and North Dakota State are probably the biggest threat to the Jackrabbits. The Golden Grizzlies lose the nation's leading scorer in Reggie Hamilton, but have a strong supporting cast returning. NDSU has a now-experienced upperclass core that should take a leap from last year's 9-9 league campaign.
This is Davidson's league to lose, and may be for the foreseeable future with primary foil College of Charleston electing to move on to the CAA for the 2013-14 season. The two teams should have two or three solid battles this season, though. The Wildcats, with Jake Cohen and De'Mon Brooks, have the talent to make a splash on the national scene. Georgia Southern appears to be the best dark horse.
Probably the nation's most underrated one-bid league, the NEC is loaded with talented, experienced teams that could challenge for the league title. Since LIU Brooklyn reinstated numerous players after some preseason malfeasance, the Blackbirds are the presumptive favorite, but Robert Morris and Wagner return stacked rosters, too (and really young head coaches in 32-year-old Andy Toole and 28-year-old Bashir Mason, respectively). Quinnipiac should be tough again and Monmouth appears to be on the rise under King Rice. This is another conference tourney to check out from the semis on.
This should be a transitional year for the league, with a number of teams dropping off of last year's strong standard. Princeton is now favored to win the league and the NCAA bid after Harvard lost Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry as part of a university-wide academic scandal. Penn and Yale suffered significant personnel losses and Columbia also lost solid shooter Noruwa Agho.
It's the calm before the San Diego State storm arrives, and the league should be down a little bit. Long Beach State should still be the class of the conference, especially when transfers Keala King (Arizona State) and Tony Freeland (DePaul) become eligible in December, but the 49ers won't be as formidable as last season. Can Michael Wilder and UC Irvine make a run? Cal State Fullerton may be the most likely challenger on paper, but parted ways with coach Bob Burton at the end of May, so the Titans are a bit of a question mark. Will UCSB's underclassmen develop in a hurry? Can Bob Thomason make something out of his final season at the helm at Pacific?
Belmont's departure to the Ohio Valley weakens this league significantly at the top. The Bruins' exit leaves top billing for another set of Bears, this one from Mercer. Fresh off a CIT postseason title, these Bears return almost everyone from that roster. They'll be challenged by USC Upstate, one of the stories of last season in their full D-I debut. All five starters are back for the Spartans, who tied with Mercer at 13-5 last season. Tournament finalist Florida Gulf Coast could continue its upward ascent and could traditionally solid Lipscomb be a sleeper after an almost complete roster overhaul?
Oral Roberts joins the conference from the Summit League and should be the strong favorite to take the conference title in its debut season. The Golden Eagles won 27 games last season and have a strong returning core plus some transfer help. Stephen F. Austin, Northwestern State and McNeese State could have something to say about the title race. Last year's auto bid winner, Lamar, is rebuilding.
Montana is the odds-on favorite to repeat as league champ, but the Grizzlies need to get guard Will Cherry (broken foot) healthy and overcome the loss of expected big man Marko Kovacevic, who was deemed ineligible for this season and now will transfer to Utah for next season. The presumed challenger is Weber State, but the Wildcats have their own issues, principally replacing Damian Lillard.
UNC Asheville has lost its star guard tandem of J.P. Primm and Matt Dickey, so the league is really up for grabs. The Bulldogs still have the frontcourt talent to stay in the mix, but we'll see how they replenish the backcourt. Is this the year Anthony Raffa and Coastal Carolina break through? Will Charleston Southern build on last year's step forward? Is VMI a looming dark horse with its latest group of athletes and shooters built around leading scorer Stan Okoye? Coastal hosts the conference tourney, so perhaps that will be the boost the Chanticleers need to make their first NCAA trip since 1993.
Despite losing Four McGlynn to transfer, Vermont should be a pretty strong favorite this season. Most of the core of last season's tournament champs are back and several other contenders, including Stony Brook and Boston U. were harder hit by departures. The Seawolves, who won the regular-season crown last season, bring back Tommy Brenton and get Anthony Mayo back in the frontcourt. BU was crippled when, thanks to its decision to move to the Patriot League in 2013-14, the Terriers were banned from this season's conference tournament and then lost Jake O'Brien to a transfer.
Coach Horace Broadnax's Savannah State Tigers stormed to a shocking regular-season title in their league debut last season, a tremendous rise for a program that went a combined 2-56 (with a non-DI win and one over transitional D-I Longwood) in the 2004-05 and 2005-06 seasons. Now Broadnax returns the whole group to take another run at atoning for a quarterfinal upset in the league tourney that cost them an NCAA bid. Last year's NCAA Cinderella, Norfolk State, probably will drop a step after losing Kyle O'Quinn in the middle. Delaware State may be the most logical challenger, and the Hornets are fueled by a similar post-season MEAC flop.
With graduation, APR issues and postseason bans continuing to riddle the league, it's hard to find a definitive favorite. Plus, you never know how teams will respond to the brutal nonconference road trips that are a regular fundraising feature in this league. Given the dynamics of the league, you can't go wrong with picking a team with experience and solid guard play. Therefore, Prairie View A&M is the nominal pick.
In what could be the final season for this "scheduling consortium" of former transitional D-I programs, Utah Valley is the likely favorite. The Wolverines head for the WAC next season and Houston Baptist will move to the Southland (as will current independent New Orleans, in its return from the brink of de-emphasis). That leaves just Texas-Pan American, Chicago State and NJIT without a conference home for 2013-14.