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. In the final part of this series, the final eight conference champions are selected.
The removal of divisions in the standings (they will still be used in scheduling) could give the top of the SEC a distinctly eastern feel this season, and despite heavy roster turnover Kentucky could head the list. It's become par for the course for John Calipari and his staff: bring in a recruiting class filled with first round draft picks, and after seeing them off welcome in another. Sophomores Terrence Jones (15.7 ppg, 8.8 rpg) and Doron Lamb (12.3 ppg) and senior Darius Miller (10.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg) are the three returning starters (Lamb and DeAndre Liggins shared time as the 5th starter), and they'll be joined by one of the best incoming classes in America.
Forwards Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and guard Marquis Teague have received the most acclaim, but there's also forward Kyle Wiltjer and Mississippi State transfer Twany Beckham. Eloy Vargas will need to step up his production inside to help out the newcomers, but the Wildcats have all the pieces needed to fight off the likes of Alabama, Florida and Vanderbilt.
The strength in the SoCon has been in the South in recent seasons, but that may change with John Shulman's Mocs returning four starters from a team that finished tied for first place in the North last season. Omar Wattad (14.3 ppg, 3.7 rpg), Ricky Taylor (13.0 ppg, 3.7 rpg) and Keegan Bell (9.7 ppg, 5.7 apg) lead the way on the perimeter while forward Chris Early (9.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg) was Chattanooga's leading rebounder last year. The key for Chattanooga will be how they revamp a frontcourt that lost multiple contributors from last season.
Georgia transfer Drazen Zlovaric and Ole Miss football transfer Z. Mason are two of the players expected to help out Early with senior Jahmal Burroughs also chipping in. Freshmen Lance Stokes, Ronrico White and Trey Brown will be called upon on the perimeter to spell the veterans. Competition will be fierce with the likes of Appalachian State in the North and Charleston and Davidson in the South, but the Mocs should be prepared.
Southland: Texas-San Antonio
The Roadrunners finished in a tie for third place in their division last season, only to go on a run in the conference tournament and grab the Southland's automatic bid. With four returning starters Brooks Thompson's team could enjoy an "easier" route to the Big Dance, and junior guard Melvin Johnson III (14.9 ppg, 3.5 rpg) will lead the way. The question for UTSA is how junior college transfer Michael Hale II performs at the point. Jeromie Hill (13.4 ppg, 6.6 rpg) is the most productive returnee in the frontcourt, but there are a number of role players from last season back and hoping to use the summer trip to Australia as a springboard to bigger things. And look for another JUCO transfer, Kannon Burrage, to be called upon for perimeter scoring.
SWAC: Mississippi Valley State
Former Kentucky point guard Sean Woods has done a good job of building the Delta Devils into a team that can challenge for a SWAC title, and with four starters back from a team that finished in a tie for second place last season the top spot is within reach. D'Angelo Jackson was the team's leading scorer and he's gone, but there are experienced options back who can help pick up the slack. Guards Terrence Joyner (10.1 ppg, 2.5 rpg) and Kevin Burwell (6.4 ppg, 2.8 apg) return as do wing Falando Jones (8.0 ppg, 3.7 rpg) and forwards Jason Holmes (6.9 ppg, 6.1 rpg) and Paul Crosby (12.1 ppg, 7.0 rpg).
The Delta Devils will also welcome back Amos Sturdivant, who missed last season due to injuries but was an All-SWAC selection in 2009-10. Freshman Brent Arrington is arguably their best newcomer, but the key for MVSU (as it tends to be for many of the HBCU schools) is not getting too beat up during their early-season run of guarantee games. If the Delta Devils can do this and build on the experiences, look out.
Summit: Oral Roberts
All five of Scott Sutton's starters from a season ago return, with the goal being to take one step up from their second-place finish a season ago. Dominique Morrison (19.5 ppg, 5.0 rpg) was a CollegeInsider.com Mid-Major All-America selection, and forward Steven Roundtree (12.1 ppg, 6.4 rpg) was the Mid-Major Freshman of the Year. Add in Warren Niles and Damen Bell-Holter and you've got four starters who averaged double figure scoring last season, not to mention Summit League Newcomer of the Year Michael Craion off the bench. The amount of experience that Oral Roberts returns will place limited pressure on the shoulders of their four-member recruiting class, which will give them time to grow on the floor. And a non-conference schedule that includes games at West Virginia, Gonzaga and Xavier should not only prepare them for league play, but also the chance to knock someone off.
Sun Belt: Florida Atlantic
Mike Jarvis' Owls won 21 games last year and won the East Division by three games. But they were unable to win what turned out to be a wild Sun Belt Tournament, which should be more than enough motivation for a team that returns four starters. The backcourt is deep and returns a great deal of talent, led by juniors Raymond Taylor (14.0 ppg, 3.9 apg) and Greg Gantt (14.0, 3.9 rpg) and senior Alex Tucker (7.4 ppg, 4.3 apg). Kore White leads the way in the frontcourt, but that group will need to count more on newcomers than the guards. UC Davis transfer Jelani Floyd and freshman Kelvin Penn are two players likely to make their way into the rotation, and if the forwards can supplement what the backcourt will provide FAU can win another regular season crown.
WCC: Saint Mary's
Randy Bennett's Gaels will have to account for the loss of guard Mickey McConnell, but four starters return for a team that tied for the WCC regular season crown in 2010-11. But the Gaels were left to play in the NIT despite winning 25 games, so there will be plenty of motivation this winter. Guards Matthew Dellavedova (13.4 ppg, 5.3 apg) and Stephen Holt (6.2 ppg, 3.1 rpg) will be expected to lead the way on the perimeter while Jorden Page, Clint Steindl and SMU transfer Paul McCoy will also chip in. Inside forward Rob Jones (13.8 ppg, 7.7 rpg) was an All-WCC selection last season while Tim Williams and Kenton Walker II have also seen playing time. Northwestern transfer Kyle Rowley gives Saint Mary's a legit seven-footer and redshirt freshman Brad Waldow is more than capable of earning minutes as well. Competition will be fierce for the top spot with newcomer BYU joining Gonzaga, Santa Clara and San Francisco as likely contenders, but the Gaels have the tools needed to finish on top.
Utah State has won the last three WAC regular season titles outright and shared the top spot in 2007-08, so it feels a little weird to not have Stew Morrill's team in this spot. But Nevada isn't far removed from outstanding play in the conference, and the hope of head coach David Carter is that returning all five starters will get the Wolf Pack back to the top of the WAC. Sophomore guard Deonte Burton (13.7 ppg, 3.5 apg) was second on the team in scoring in all games but averaged just under 16 points per game in WAC play, with leading scorer Malik Story (14.5 ppg, 3.0 rpg) averaging just under 14 a contest. Forwards Dario Hunt (12.4 ppg, 9.7 rpg) and Olek Czyz (12.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg) also return for the Wolf Pack, who will need the reserves to step up if they're to hold off the likes of Utah State and New Mexico State (Hawaii could also figure into things). But when you return a tandem like Burton and Story, there's no telling how good Nevada can be.