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How the conferences shape up as we hit 2015

January 1, 2015 Columns, Conference Notes No Comments

Non-conference play is basically done at this point. A handful of games remain for many teams, and we’ll see a non-conference game or two sprinkled in between conference games over the next couple of months, but conference play beckons. Several have already started, with the West Coast Conference getting jump on the rest of the country this past Saturday and Monday. For two months, we’ve had a look at teams to get an idea of who they are. They have shown us something thus far.

So with that in mind, let’s take a look at how the conference races shape up based on what we’ve seen in non-conference play.

America East: Stony Brook was the preseason favorite, and while the Seawolves had some growing pains, they appear to be turning a corner and look like they are still the favorites. Hartford and Albany still look like the best challengers, with New Hampshire being a sleeper.

American Athletic Conference: It’s been a forgettable non-conference run for this group of schools, but one thing that has held up is that Cincinnati, Connecticut and SMU look like the three teams to beat. Cincinnati has the best record, Connecticut is the most battle-tested and SMU has been the disappointment, though getting Markus Kennedy back should help.

Atlantic 10: Last year’s non-conference success couldn’t be matched this time around, although the conference teams had their moments. VCU and George Washington look like the teams to beat here, with the latter getting a boost from winning the Diamond Head Classic recently.

ACC: Duke and Virginia look like the clear teams to beat here, and don’t hand the title to Duke yet. It’s unfortunate that they play each other just once, and if you think it matters, the game is in Charlottesville on January 31.

Atlantic Sun: Preseason favorite Florida Gulf Coast has done little to dispel the notion that they should contend, but non-conference play has shown that they shouldn’t have it easy. USC Upstate is 10-4 and has wins over Georgia Tech and Mississippi State, and a couple of other teams scored big wins along the way.

Big 12: The best conference in the country thus far looks like it is still Kansas’ to lose, although the Jayhawks have been humbled a couple of times. The best challengers? Texas is definitely atop the list, with Oklahoma and Iowa State not far behind, and Kansas State and Baylor won’t be easy outs, either. I’m curious to see how TCU’s record against a very weak slate will translate in Big 12 play.

Big East: Thus far, Villanova has looked like the team to beat, as expected, but now some potential contenders are showing up. St. John’s went 11-1 and was slowly easing concerns about whether or not they can live up to their talent and experience before losing at Seton Hall on Wednesday. Butler, Seton Hall and Providence have all been better than expected. Xavier and Georgetown also look a little better than advertised and could surprise some people. There is depth here, as Creighton is also good, but how good the top is aside from Villanova remains to be seen.

Big Sky: Eastern Washington has had the best non-conference run of any team, picking up wins at Indiana and San Francisco while giving Washington all they could handle. They are the team to beat.

Big South: This promises to be a great race, as any of Coastal Carolina, High Point or Radford could be picked as the favorites based on play to this point. You also can’t sleep on Gardner-Webb, who beat Purdue and played by far the toughest non-conference schedule of any team in the conference. The Bulldogs are very battle-tested.

Big Ten: The non-conference slate has confirmed what we suspected, which is that Wisconsin is the team to beat. After that, it seems wide open, as pretty much everyone else has shown both potential and some warts in non-conference play.

Big West: Long Beach State doesn’t have a good record (4-10), but the 49ers played one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country, as is their M.O. UC Davis and Hawaii have the best records, but both have played weak slates. UC Santa Barbara, with big man Alan Williams, is also very battle-tested, so they can’t be left out of the discussion.

Colonial: Northeastern and Hofstra look like the favorites here, and William & Mary should figure into the mix as well. If you’re looking for a dark horse, or perhaps a stock to buy low before it rises, go for Towson, as the Tigers are 7-5 with a lot of newcomers and players in very new roles thus far.

Conference USA: Old Dominion shapes up as the favorites here after the Monarchs’ good run through a good schedule. They’ll be challenged by the likes of battle-tested Charlotte, UTEP and Western Kentucky, while Louisiana Tech has a good record against a weak slate and can’t be left out of the discussion.

Horizon League: This should come down to Valparaiso and Green Bay, as they have the two best records but have earned it. Green Bay has wins at Miami and over Sun Belt favorite Georgia State. Wright State is your dark horse.

Ivy League: Harvard is still the favorite, but the Crimson are certainly beatable this time around and it wouldn’t be a shocker if someone like Yale were to take home the title instead. Columbia and Brown have potential, and while you don’t want to rule out long-time powers Princeton and Penn, neither has been impressive against fairly weak schedules.

MAAC: Iona has held up amongst the preseason favorites, and Canisius is the pleasant surprise who could be right there with them. Niagara could be interesting, as the Purple Eagles are 2-8 but played by far the toughest non-conference schedule, and one of their wins is over America East contender Albany.

Mid-American: A couple of the Michigan schools – Eastern and Central – are among the leading contenders based on non-conference play. Buffalo and Bowling Green have also played well.

MEAC: North Carolina Central looks like they have a good shot to repeat. Maryland-Eastern Shore, Delaware State and Norfolk State look like their best challengers.

Missouri Valley: This should be a great battle between Northern Iowa and Wichita State. While Loyola (Ill.), Evansville and Illinois State will be tough outs, and the conference is pretty good all around, Northern Iowa is better than last year and Wichita State is good but not as good as last year. Those two figure to have two, and maybe three, epic battles.

Mountain West: San Diego State is the team to beat here, though undefeated Colorado State should give them a run for their money. UNLV is coming on strong and could be in the mix, especially since Boise State just took a big hit in losing Anthony Drmic for the rest of the season. Wyoming is a sleeper contender here.

Northeast: The conference is down appreciably after a few good years. The favorites here look like the Saint Francis schools, and Bryant, Fairleigh Dickinson and Mount St. Mary’s are well-tested, but in truth this conference looks quite wide open based on non-conference play.

Ohio Valley: This shapes up as a three-team race between Murray State, Belmont and Eastern Kentucky. The Colonels beat Miami convincingly for the best win thus far.

Pac-12: Arizona remains the clear favorite here and a national title contender. Washington and Utah look like their best competition, and California and Stanford are perhaps the next tier down.

Patriot League: Army established themselves as the favorites here, and perhaps a little more clearly than one might have expected – and then went out and lost the opener to Lafayette at home. Lafayette played well in non-league play and looks like they could be their toughest competition, and you can’t write off American, Holy Cross or Lehigh, either.

SEC: It’s Kentucky and everyone else here. If you’re trying to figure out who comes in second, it looks like a battle between Arkansas, Georgia, LSU and possibly Florida. Alabama and Texas A&M are the sleepers.

Southern: Wofford is your team to beat here, as they have the best record that includes wins over Iona and NC State. Competition appears most likely to come from Chattanooga and East Tennessee State.

Southland: Stephen F. Austin is favored to repeat, and the most likely competition appears to be Sam Houston State and McNeese State.

SWAC: Texas Southern is an obvious thought given that they have wins at Michigan State and Kansas State, and they’re a sensible pick.

Summit League: You can start with the Dakotas – South Dakota State and North Dakota State – for the favorites here, with Denver and Oral Roberts also having potential to contend.

Sun Belt: Georgia State has done little to dispel the notion that they should be the favorites here. UT-Arlington is probably the most likely challenger, with Texas State having a nice record in part from three non-Division I wins.

West Coast: This is Gonzaga’s to lose. BYU might make it interesting, and Saint Mary’s and Portland have been good, but Gonzaga is a good notch above everyone else here.

WAC: This is a tough one to project, as no team has clearly separated themselves from the pack thus far. New Mexico State has played the toughest schedule and looks like the favorite, but they shouldn’t romp through the conference.

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