Thirty-Two Regular Season Champions, Part Three
MAC: Kent State
The Golden Flashes will have a new head coach with Geno Ford taking the job at Bradley, but it's not as if introductions were needed. Rob Senderoff, who has been a part of the program since 2002, takes over and he'll have an experienced and talented squad on his hands. Three of the seniors back won individual honors last season: MAC Player of the Year Justin Greene (15.4 ppg, 8.3 rpg), MAC Defensive Player of the Year Michael Porrini (10.1 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 4.3 apg) and MAC Sixth Man of the Year Carlton Guyton (12.4 ppg, 3.8 rpg). Four starters return and newcomers Patrick Jackson (Rutgers transfer) and Chris Evans (JUCO All-America) will provide a boost inside. The MAC race can be unpredictable, especially in the conference tournament, but Kent State looks like a solid choice.
MEAC: Morgan State
Todd Bozeman's Bears finished fourth last season but advanced to the MEAC Tournament final, where they fell to Hampton, and with four starters back they can complete the mission in 2011-12. Interior presence Kevin Thompson (13.1 ppg, 9.1 rpg) has Player of the Year ability, and versatile forward DeWayne Jackson (14.5 ppg, 4.6 rpg) is a 6'8" junior who can do a variety of things on the floor. Jackson's versatility actually isn't rare for the Morgan State team as Aric Brooks, Justin Black and Ameer Ali can all play multiple positions. Senior point guard Larry Bastfield (5.1 ppg, 3.4 apg) will run the show, and his ability to do so will be critical if the Bears are to return to the top of the MEAC.
Missouri Valley: Creighton
Creighton's been the team that's received the bulk of the media attention in the offseason, and rightfully so given the number of talented players back in Omaha. Sophomore Doug McDermott (14.9 ppg, 7.2 rpg) looks to build on a busy summer and a freshman year that saw him become the first freshman to be named First Team All-Missouri Valley since Wichita State's Cleo Littleton in 1951-52. Gregory Echenique (10.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg) will have a full season to play after sitting out the first half of last season after transferring from Rutgers, and guards Antoine Young (13.1 ppg, 5.0 apg) and Jahenns Manigat (5.4 ppg, 2.0 rpg) will also be heard from. Gonzaga transfer Grant Gibbs will also factor into the backcourt rotation, and frontcourt players Ethan Wragge and Will Artino will get the chance to contribute as well. There will be plenty of challenges from the likes of Wichita State, Indiana State and Northern Iowa, but this could be a special season for the Bluejays.
Mountain West: New Mexico
Steve Alford had a young team at his disposal outside of senior point guard Dairese Gary, who is the lone starter not back for a team that won 22 games in 2010-11. But given his impact, why would the Lobos be the favorite in the Mountain West without Gary? Because the returnees, including four starters, are very talented with forward Drew Gordon (13.0 ppg, 10.5 rpg) leading the way. Guards Jamal Fenton (5.4 ppg, 1.9 apg), Kendall Williams (11.6 ppg, 4.0 apg) and Tony Snell (4.4 ppg, 1.9 rpg) all return, and the backcourt will also be bolstered by some highly-touted newcomers. Australian Hugh Greenwood has a wealth of international experience, Arizona State transfer Demetrius Walker is an exceptional athlete and Dominique Dunning can do a number of things on the floor. Alex Kirk and Cameron Barstow will need to help out Gordon in the paint, but the Lobos have all the tools needed to win the conference with UNLV in hot pursuit.
Northeast: Long Island
It took eight seasons at the helm in Brooklyn for Jim Ferry to get LIU back to the NCAA Tournament, but given the talent that returns he may not have to wait for a second trip. The NEC's best frontcourt returns intact with Julian Boyd (13.0 ppg, 8.9 rpg), Jamal Olasewere (12.9 ppg, 6.8 rpg) and Kenny Onyechi (7.4 ppg, 4.2 rpg) all back on campus. Arnold Mayorga, Booker Hucks and freshman Troy Joseph will supply the depth. The question comes in the backcourt, where the Blackbirds have to replace the 21.7 points per game that Kyle Johnson and David Hicks provided. Look for C.J. Garner (9.5 ppg, 3.4 apg) and Jason Brickman (6.2 ppg, 5.5 apg) to see more time together despite the fact that they're both 5'10", with Brickman being the distributor while Garner gets more time off the ball. Michael Culpo is a very good perimeter shooter, and newcomers Gerrell Martin and Brandon Thompson could also factor into the rotation.
Ohio Valley: Tennessee Tech
It's either Tennessee Tech or Austin Peay atop the OVC, with the pick here being the Golden Eagles and their four returning starters. Guard Zac Swansey (9.7 ppg, 6.4 apg), also known as "Big Shot Z" in some circles, will once again run the point with shooting guard Kevin Murphy (17.0 ppg, 4.5 rpg) being the scorer with a variety of offensive skills. First-year head coach Steve Payne has a deep backcourt at his disposal with Zach Bailey and Chase Dunn also at the ready.
The Golden Eagles did lose Alfred Jones in the frontcourt, meaning that there will be chances for reserves to earn more playing time. Terrell Barnes (4.9 rpg) returns after starting 28 games, and how much he can improve offensively (4.1 ppg) could determine where Tennessee Tech finishes. Jud Dillard (11.0 ppg, 5.8 rpg) was Tennessee Tech's leading rebounder last season, and look out for freshmen Javon McKay (redshirted last season) and Lanerryl Johnson on the perimeter.
On the heels of winning the final Pac-10 regular season title and losing to eventual national champion Connecticut by two points in the Elite 8, Sean Miller's Wildcats look to build on that success with a highly-touted recruiting class descending upon the Old Pueblo. Guards Josiah Turner and Nick Johnson may get the bulk of the attention, but also keep in mind that they'll have some experienced help/competition as well. Senior Kyle Fogg (8.1 ppg), sophomore Jordin Mayes (4.9 ppg) and junior Brendon Lavender (3.6 ppg) all return and despite the loss of MoMo Jones the Wildcats are better on the perimeter.
Solomon Hill provides a "jack of all trades" option at small forward, and if they can get back Kevin Parrom at some point following a trying off-season Arizona will be even deeper on the wing. Inside returnees Jesse Perry and Kyryl Natyazhko will be joined by freshmen Angelo Chol and Sidiki Johnson, and the goal will need to be "step up what we do well" as opposed to stressing out about "replacing" lottery pick Derrick Williams. The Pac-12 is improving with the likes of Cal and UCLA looking strong, but the Wildcats remain at the head of the class.
The Bison have one starter to replace from last year's NCAA Tournament squad, and how they account for the loss of point guard Darryl Shazier could determine whether or not they repeat. Shazier averaged 5.4 assists per game and was second nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio, and Cameron Ayers (7.4 ppg) looks to be the likely candidate to assume that role. The good news for Bucknell: reigning Patriot League Player of the Year Mike Muscala (14.9 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 2.0 bpg) is back for his junior campaign and fellow starters Bryan Cohen (7.0 ppg, 3.9 rpg), Bryson Johnson (11.7 ppg) and Joe Willman (7.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg) return as well. Dave Paulsen will also enjoy the benefit of just one of these players (Cohen) being a senior, which mean that Bucknell will have more than enough left in the stable to get comfortable atop the Patriot League standings.
Next: SEC through WAC