We’re now just two days from opening day, and Hoopville continues our preseason look at all 32 NCAA Division I conferences.
Only two single-bid leagues won an NCAA Tournament game last year in the round of 64, and Conference USA was one of them. UAB stunned Iowa State as a 14 seed, and that game could be a precursor to big things for the Blazers this year. UAB is the favorite and is led by guard Robert Brown and sophomore forward William Lee, who should get better and better. Old Dominion has C-USA’s best player, though, in Trey Freeman, and the Monarchs could be right on the NCAA doorstep again if they can find some interior scoring. Also watch Middle Tennessee State if it can improve on its 41.4% shooting last year.
Expectations are sky-high for Valparaiso this year, so much so that anything less than a dominant run in the Horizon League and an NCAA bid will be seen as a disappointment. Alec Peters is the type of inside/outside scorer anyone would love, Vashil Fernandez is a legitimate defensive center, and it sounds like Shane Hammink was a revelation on the team’s August exhibition trip to Canada. The Crusaders could easily win their first NCAA tourney game since their memorable Sweet 16 appearance in 1998, but the Horizon will continue to be tricky. Oakland also is set to give Valpo fits, and the battle between Peters and the Golden Grizzlies’ Kahlil Felder for player of the year honors will be fun.
This may finally be the year someone in the Ivy League can end Harvard’s run of four straight NCAA appearances. Fortunately for the Crimson, their competition also has taken some blows, including Yale, which brings back Justin Sears for one more year but loses three other starters. Princeton is a popular preseason pick because Mitch Henderson’s Tigers bring back all five starters, while Columbia is the trendy pick with Maodo Lo and three other starters back plus the return from injury of Alex Rosenberg.
Iona/Manhattan has become the MAAC’s signature series and in recent years has been one of the better rivalries in the country. The Gaels are the favorites this year with guard AJ. English, who averages 20/5/5, plus Isaiah Williams and Schadrac Casimir, though David Laury is a big piece to replace. Manhattan is reloading-or perhaps fully rebuilding, if an exhibition loss to Adelphi on Monday is an indication-but watch for Monmouth, which is the yin to Iona’s yang. The gritty Hawks wear on teams defensively and nearly swept the Gaels in the regular season last year, though Iona rallied to win the second meeting and scored a decisive win in the MAAC tourney.
The MAC continues to work its way right to the edge of being a multi-bid league. Can it break through for two bids for the first time since 1999? Central Michigan is the conference favorite and will entertain with its three-point attack and the MAC’s best player (Chris Fowler), though the Chippewas have now caught that virus that makes bigger-name schools deathly afraid of playing them, which is why there are three non-Division I schools on the schedule. Watch that get held against CMU in bracket discussions in March. Akron also has a chance to nab its fourth NCAA bid in eight years, the likes of Kent State and Western Michigan will remain tough, and don’t be surprised if a school like Miami (Ohio) or Northern Illinois makes a surprise run.
The MEAC is a crapshoot. North Carolina Central has lost most of the players who helped the Eagles dominate the last two years, though LaVelle Moton’s team should not be counted out. Hampton rebounded from an underwhelming regular season to win the MEAC tourney and a First Four game in the NCAA Tournament, and most of that team is back led by forward Dwight Meikle and a very nice backcourt. Howard, North Carolina A&T and South Carolina State return a combined 13 of 15 starters, and Norfolk State has maybe the league’s best player in high-scoring Jeff Short.
Wichita State will be a heavy favorite in the MVC because it has the best backcourt in the country. Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet have been around for what seems like forever now, and both are every bit worthy of All-American honors. Don’t discount others in the rugged Valley, though. Northern Iowa lost three starters from last year’s top 15 club, but there is enough back that with the Panthers’ defensive commitment they can challenge for another NCAA bid. Evansville (CIT) and Loyola Chicago (CBI) both won postseason tourneys last year and return almost everyone, while Illinois State and Indiana State will remain tough outs. All four have realistic hopes of making the NCAA Tournament if they can get off to a good start and separate from the others in league play.
- Some big injury news from Tuesday night, as Maryland sophomore guard Dion Wiley has had surgery to repair a torn meniscus. The school announced that he will be out for four months, but CBSSports.com’s Gary Parrish is reporting that Wiley-a projected starter for the Terps-will definitely miss the season. A definite blow for a team with very high expectations being placed on it this year.
- A meniscus tear also struck James Madison forward Yohanny Dalembert, who will be out for only 2-4 weeks with his injury, per WHSV-TV in Harrisonburg. Dalembert was the Dukes’ No. 2 scorer last year and also named to the CAA all-defensive team. JMU should have him back in time for conference play, where it is among the favorites.
- Pacific is holding out three players from its season opener on Friday against Arizona while the NCAA investigates alleged misconduct in the program, according to ESPN’s Jeff Goodman. The three sitting out include two starters in Eric Thompson and Alec Kobre-who combined to average just over 14 ppg last year-as well as 7-footer Sami Eleraky.
- Also from Monday: Florida will be without senior forward Alex Murphy for 4-6 weeks due to plantar fasciitis, which throws a crimp into Michael White’s preparations for his first season.
- Exhibition season is winding down, but there were a few more games last night. Among them: Arkansas routed Delta State (Miss.) 74-40, Tulsa held off Rogers State (Okla.) 66-56, Saint Louis handled Missouri-St. Louis 71-44 and Louisiana-Monroe blew out North American (Texas) 107-51.
Enjoy your Wednesday.