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How the conferences shake out as 2014 approaches

December 31, 2013 Columns, Your Phil of Hoops No Comments

Non-conference play is just about over at this point. Conference games are ready to take over the rest of the slate, with a few having an “opening day” of sorts, including the Big East with its well-publicized day of five games on Tuesday. A few have already had early conference games, with the West Coast Conference having its opening day on Saturday.

How are the conferences shaping up? Which ones look like we thought and which ones look nothing like what we thought before the season? Here is a look at all 32 conferences as conference play beckons.

America East: Vermont and Stony Brook looked like the favorites before the season, and while Vermont is 4-8, they’re still the two teams to beat. Vermont has been hit hard by injuries, and still nearly knocked off Duke. The Catamounts have been well-tested to this point and should be healthier than they were in non-conference play.

American Athletic Conference: This should be at least a three-horse race between Cincinnati, Connecticut and Louisville, although the Cardinals are looking more questionable every day. Memphis could be in the mix as well, as the Tigers have had a good run and will be well-tested come conference play.

Atlantic 10: Expectations were probably reduced a bit given the departures of Butler and Xavier, as well as rising Charlotte, but the Atlantic 10 has had a great run. UMass looks like the team to beat, but Saint Louis and VCU have done little to dispel the notion that they should contend. George Washington has been the pleasant surprise at 11-1 with a win at Manhattan, a home win over Boston University and neutral site wins over Miami, Creighton and Maryland. Dayton and Richmond are the potential dark horses.

ACC: Syracuse and Duke look like two of the favorites right now. North Carolina is the wild card as the Tar Heels are the toughest team in the nation to figure out. Pittsburgh and Wake Forest have great records against light schedules, and Virginia and Florida State could also be in the mix based on what they have shown. Notre Dame has been good, but losing Jerian Grant hurts.

Atlantic Sun: Mercer is the only school with a winning record, and it hasn’t come against stiffs. They have wins over Seton Hall, Valparaiso and Ole Miss, and they had a close loss at Texas among them. The Bears are the favorites at this point, but not prohibitive as East Tennessee State and USC Upstate have had some good tests, and Florida Gulf Coast is the dark horse.

Big 12: This should be a great race. Kansas will be in the mix as usual, although this young Jayhawk team has looked, well, young at times. Oklahoma State and Baylor have the look of contenders, as does Iowa State, a team that probably got lost in the mix of the aforementioned teams and the question marks surrounding Texas, who has played well.

Big East: Villanova and Creighton look like the teams to beat here. The Wildcats have been excellent, and Creighton has emerged from a tough slate. Providence is 10-3 but has a question mark because of a lack of depth due to injuries and suspensions. Butler has been the pleasant surprise as the well-tested Bulldogs are 9-2. Georgetown and Marquette, the latter of whom was a preseason favorite to many, have been the unpleasant surprises at 7-3 and 7-5, respectively. The Hoyas lost against Oregon, Northeastern and were crushed by Kansas.

Big Sky: Northern Colorado has the best record and the only conference win thus far with a win over North Dakota on Sunday. The Bears also have a win over Kansas State. Montana and Weber State, the latter of whom is 3-5 but is well-tested, and Eastern Washington, another well-tested team that has lost four in a row, should also contend.

Big South: Radford has the best record, but Mike Jones’ improving team will have plenty of competition as this figures to be a tight race. VMI has three wins over non-Division I teams but has also taken on three ACC teams. Liberty struggled out of the gates with a five-game losing streak, but has won five of seven. Coastal Carolina has also been well-tested save for its three wins over non-Division I teams.

Big Ten: Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin are the favorites here. Illinois and Iowa may be the best contenders behind them, with Michigan taking a hit from Mitch McGary’s back injury. Indiana and Purdue are “potential” teams that could go either way.

Big West: Hawaii has the best record with no bad losses, UC Santa Barbara and Cal State Northridge aren’t far behind and UC Irvine might have as good a non-conference resume as any, including a win at Washington and a blowout of LIU. But watch out for Long Beach State, as Dan Monson’s team once again played a very demanding schedule and has a deceiving 4-9 record to show for it. They will be ready; whether the losses will sap the confidence is the question.

Colonial: Drexel probably looks the best right now and has the best record, but Towson will be well-prepared, as will College of Charleston and Delaware. William & Mary looks every bit the sleeper they were thought to be before the season.

Conference USA: There is more than just a title at stake, as Memphis’ departure means there’s a chance for someone to emerge as a standard-bearer. That won’t happen right away, but Charlotte, Louisiana Tech, Southern Miss and UAB appear to have had the best couple of months. There almost certainly won’t be an at-large team from here, but this should be a great race.

Horizon League: Green Bay and Milwaukee have the best records, but the former looks to be a little better tested thus far. Youngstown State has been a pleasant surprise, and Cleveland State has played some tough teams and will be ready as well.

Ivy League: Little has changed here. Harvard is very much the favorite, with Princeton their most likely competitor. Penn has been a disappointment, but Yale and Dartmouth could battle for third with Brown as a dark horse. Columbia has been a very pleasant surprise with a 7-6 mark, but it has come against a light schedule.

MAAC: This is always a very competitive conference, and this year will be no different. Manhattan looks like the team to beat at 9-2 with wins at La Salle, Illinois State and South Carolina, but Canisius has also played well and Iona has enough pieces and is well-tested. Newcomer Quinnipiac could be a sleeper.

Mid-American: Toledo just lost their first game of the season, but the Rockets are the team to beat. Ohio and Kent State look like the best challengers, although Buffalo and Akron could be sleepers.

MEAC: Norfolk State is not only the only team here with a winning record, but they have the best resume, too. The Spartans own a win at Boston University and nearly picked off LIU on the road.

Missouri Valley: This is Wichita State’s to lose. Missouri State and Indiana State will push them, and Drake could be a slepper, but it would be a real shock (no pun intended) if either of them took out Gregg Marshall’s team.

Mountain West: San Diego State isn’t rebuilding, but rather, is again the team to beat. New Mexico and Boise State could also come out on top, and UNLV and Utah State are good, too. The conference isn’t as strong as it’s been in recent years, but it will be every bit as competitive.

Northeast: Although St. Francis Brooklyn has the best record and wins over Miami and Stony Brook, Bryant might have the best profile and Robert Morris will be about as well-tested as anyone.

Ohio Valley: Eastern Kentucky has the best record and no bad losses, but Belmont has played a very tough schedule and survived some personnel issues to go with a win at North Carolina. Southeast Missouri State has also run up a nice record, but right now Eastern Kentucky and Belmont look like the favorites.

Pac-12: Arizona is the favorite and a national title contender, but don’t expect this to come easy. Oregon hasn’t lost, Colorado and UCLA are very strong and Utah, Arizona State and Stanford all have played well and with some confidence. There should be no easy outs in this conference.

Patriot League: Boston University remains the favorite here. Their best challenger? It was thought to be Lafayette before the season, and while the Leopards might come alive in league play, they have been topped in non-league play by the likes of Bucknell, Lehigh, Holy Cross and Colgate. Yes, Colgate – Matt Langel may be turning them around a little quicker than first thought.

SEC: Florida looks like the team to beat, with Kentucky and Missouri right behind them. Kentucky is the wild card because their young nucleus means they could turn either way. LSU should also be in the mix, while Arkansas has been a pleasant surprise and Mississippi State has been a nice turnaround story after struggling mightily last season.

Southern: Elon has the best combination of record and wins, but don’t let Davidson’s 4-9 mark fool you as the Wildcats have played a very tough schedule. They will be ready for their last season of Southern Conference play.

Southland: Stephen F. Austin not only has a nice 10-2 mark, but five road wins and a home win over Towson. Sam Houston State and Oral Roberts look like they might be next behind them.

SWAC: Although Alabama State has the only winning record in the conference, it comes with three wins over non-Division I schools. Jackson State and Texas Southern both appear to have the best overall profiles thus far.

Summit League: North Dakota State looks like the favorite thus far as they have had the best overall performance, including a win at Notre Dame. IPFW gave Illinois all they could handle and should contend along with Denver and South Dakota State.

Sun Belt: While Louisiana-Lafayette and Western Kentucky sport identical good records, Georgia State has the backcourt of Ryan Harrow and R.J. Hunter that should have them right there in the race.

West Coast: This is again Gonzaga’s to lose, although Saint Mary’s should be right there and Brigham Young likely third. However, don’t sleep on Loyola Marymount, which has looked much-improved in non-conference and started WCC play with a win over BYU.

WAC: New Mexico State looks like a clear favorite here, with Seattle looking like the most likely challenger.

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