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How the conferences shape up as 2016 approaches

December 29, 2015 Columns, Conference Notes No Comments

Not only are we in the midst of the holidays, but conference play beckons if it hasn’t already started. Non-conference play is almost complete, and teams form impressions during this time of how they will be in conference play. Even so, as is always the case this is imperfect. Conference play is a different animal, as teams are more familiar with each other from having played each other every year. That’s why we see some teams even in mid-majors get nice wins in non-conference play, but then lose games in conference play that strike the untrained eye as head-scratchers.

It is with that in mind that we take a look at how all 31 conferences shape up based on non-conference play thus far.

America East: Don’t be surprised if this comes down to Albany and Stony Brook once again. Vermont and New Hampshire are the others who appear to have a shot at dethroning them.

American Athletic Conference: SMU is ineligible for postseason, but it’s undeniable that they have been the best team in the conference and remain the favorites. They appear undeterred by the lack of a postseason incentive. Cincinnati looks like the best contenders, while UConn could be right there. Houston has run up a nice record against a very weak schedule and Memphis and Tulsa look to be next behind Cincinnati and UConn. In all, non-conference play has gone better this time around than last year, when conference teams struggled to get quality wins.

Atlantic 10: An injury in the season opener to URI’s E.C. Matthews hasn’t been a knockout blow to the Rams, but right now Dayton and George Washington look like the favorites here. Besides URI, don’t discount VCU or Davidson. Saint Joseph’s looks like the sleeper.

ACC: North Carolina, Virginia and Miami lead the way, but they’ll get plenty of competition. Duke has had some hiccups but still has talent, Syracuse has had a pretty good run, NC State and Notre Dame have enough to be dangerous, and Pittsburgh has run up a nice record against a deceptively good schedule. Louisville is a question mark with a nice record and no top 75 wins, while Florida State has potential they could start to harness.

Atlantic Sun: North Florida and FGCU have ruled the roost here recently, but NJIT could crash the party in their first year. It looks like those are the three to beat.

Big 12: This belongs to Kansas until someone knocks them off. The best candidates now look like Iowa State and Oklahoma, pretty much as expected, while West Virginia and Texas look interesting as well.

Big East: Villanova was thought to be a clear favorite, but not now. The Wildcats have looked beatable against their best competition, while Xavier, Butler and Providence all look like contenders. If non-conference is any indication, no one will run away with this race.

Big Sky: Idaho and Weber State look like the favorites here, but don’t discount Montana, whose record isn’t good but is as battle-tested as anyone in the conference.

Big South: This should be another great race. For the favorites, pick any one of Coastal Carolina, High Point, UNC Asheville, Radford or Winthrop.

Big Ten: Michigan State and Maryland rule the roost, and Purdue has emerged as the third team. After that, it’s wide open with a bunch of otherwise undistinguished teams. Could Northwestern, at 12-1 and surely with lots of confidence, be the sleeper?

Big West: Let’s call this a four-team race between UC Irvine and Hawaii, who have the best records, along with battle-tested Long Beach State and UC Santa Barbara, who are below .500 but have played top-15 schedules nationally.

CAA: It’s been a great stretch for the conference, with only Drexel struggling. As for contenders, Hofstra has done little to dispel the notion that they are a favorite, but James Madison, Northeastern, UNCW and William & Mary should all be right there. Delaware could jump in if they get healthy, but depth is a concern. College of Charleston, Elon and Towson have played well, but well enough to contend? We’ll find out.

Conference USA: New head coach Eric Konkol hasn’t missed a beat in leading Louisiana Tech. They look like the favorites, but will get pushed by UAB, Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky.

Horizon League: This should come down to Valparaiso and Oakland, two teams that are well-coached and battle-tested. Milwaukee and Detroit should be competitive, but this looks like a two-horse race.

Ivy League: This shapes up to be more interesting than first thought. Harvard is well-tested and has given Kansas all they could handle and was the first team to lead Oklahoma at the half in the championship game of the Diamond Head Classic. Yale and Princeton look to be right there, but plenty of non-league games remain as this league doesn’t really get going for about another month.

MAAC: Monmouth has had the best non-conference performance by far. Iona is the current leader along with St. Peter’s after a couple of early games, and the Gaels should be in the mix in the end, while Siena could be a contender as well.

Mid-American: The call here is that Kent State is the favorite, with Akron and Eastern Michigan the best challengers.

MEAC: No team has really stood out here, but a couple to consider are Howard, who has the lone top 100 win and the nation’s leading scorer, and Coppin State, who is winless but has played the toughest schedule in the conference.

Missouri Valley: Wichita State was thought to be a clear favorite before the season. While the Shockers might still have that title, they haven’t had the best start to the season in part due to injuries, especially one to Fred VanVleet. Northern Iowa has some good wins and should be right there with them, while Southern Illinois is off to their best start in years and Evansville has looked good, making them the sleeper picks.

Mountain West: This should be up for grabs. San Diego State has largely ruled this strong conference of late, but this time around the Aztecs are very beatable, including at home. The thinking here is that UNLV emerges as the favorite, with Boise State looking better of late and Air Force being the sleeper.

Northeast: Non-conference play lends no help here; this conference should be wide-open as no team has really stood out from the pack. Wagner and LIU have winning records against weak schedules, while Fairleigh Dickinson has played the toughest schedule.

Ohio Valley: Belmont emerges as the favorite, but don’t count out usual contender Murray State (best strength of schedule) and Eastern Kentucky.

Pac-12: The expectation was that this would shape up as a fiercely competitive race, and everything to this point matches that. Between Arizona, California, Oregon, UCLA and Utah, there’s no clear favorite. Colorado, Oregon State and Washington look like the potential sleepers.

Patriot League: Army has had arguably the best start, but that was the case last season, too, so buyer beware. Navy has also had a good run, while Boston University and Loyola (Md.) are well-tested. In all, though, this shapes up to be a dandy race just like last year.

SEC: Kentucky is still thought of as the team to beat, and understandably so. But who other than Texas A&M makes this conference any better behind them? LSU hasn’t lived up to their hype, Vanderbilt whiffed on their best chances for quality wins in non-conference, and Florida looks good but hardly awe-inspiring and likewise whiffed on their best chances. Alabama, Georgia and Ole Miss have good numbers, while South Carolina is undefeated but hasn’t beaten a lock NCAA Tournament team yet.

Southern: Chattanooga looks like the team to beat, with Mercer and Samford shaping up as worthy challengers.

Southland: Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and Sam Houston State look like the pacesetters here, while Stephen F. Austin should not be counted out.

SWAC: Southern has probably had the best non-conference showing, while Arkansas-Pine Bluff will be the most battle-tested challenger.

Summit League: It’s been a pretty good run for this conference, and it should be a great race for the top. The best ones look like IPFW, Oral Roberts, South Dakota and South Dakota State. North Dakota State is another possible contender.

Sun Belt: This shapes up as a nice three-horse race between UALR, Georgia State and UT-Arlington.

West Coast: This one already got started, and while Gonzaga is again the odds-on favorite, the Bulldogs should again have some competition from the usual suspects in Saint Mary’s and Brigham Young.

WAC: Grand Canyon has the nice record and two top 100 wins but an overall bad schedule, while UMKC and Chicago State have played the tough ones. Don’t count out New Mexico State.

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