We are now on the eve of the regular season, just one day away. We conclude Hoopville’s preseason rundown of all 32 NCAA Division I conferences, starting in the Midwest, moving South and then to the West:
The Summit League had a terrific year in 2015-16, finishing 12th in the conference RPI ranking to place ahead of leagues such as the Missouri Valley, WCC and even the Mountain West. This is a solid nine-team league right now with no easy touches from top to bottom, but when all has been said and done, the league has belonged to North Dakota State and South Dakota State for the last five years, with the two hogging all of the conference’s automatic bids to the NCAA Tournament in that time.
IPFW did tie SDSU for the regular season title last year and was picked as the preseason favorite this year, but it seems to always come back to those two. Given that, it may be NDSU’s time, with the return of four starters from a team that had some growing pains last year but still made the Summit tourney final. Also worth watching in addition to IPFW are fast-paced Nebraska-Omaha and IUPUI, where Jason Gardner has done a very nice job building a tough out.
Whoever wins the Sun Belt’s NCAA Tournament bid is a team worth picking to do some damage in your bracket. Sun Belt teams have won first-round games in the Big Dance each of the last two years, including Arkansas-Little Rock’s win over Purdue this past March that put a cherry on top of a dream 30-win season. Texas-Arlington is the preseason pick in the league this year, with nearly everyone back from a team that early in the season made as much noise as UALR, including star Kevin Hervey back from injury. Oh, and don’t forget Little Rock, too, which returns enough talent to win it again even after head coach Chris Beard left for Texas Tech and leaders Josh Hagins and Roger Woods completed their careers. The Sun Belt also adds one new team this year as Coastal Carolina comes over from the Big South and coach Cliff Ellis returns to the conference he was a part of at its beginning 40 years ago as the coach at South Alabama.
The WCC will again be a terrific three-team race at the top with Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s and BYU continuing to play some of the best games on the West Coast. Both the Bulldogs and Gaels are top 25 teams entering the season, and the Cougars could get there if all of their new talent jells. The short-term goal for the league is to get all three into the NCAA tourney and to do some damage; the long-term goal is to improve the programs behind them, making it easier to get more teams into the Big Dance. Four schools changed coaches after last season, and the search is on for someone (Pepperdine? Loyola Marymount?) that can push those top three, while the bottom of the league (Pacific, San Diego) also need to pick up the pace.
Cal State-Bakersfield struck a blow for the rest of the WAC last year, knocking off New Mexico State in the tournament final for its first-ever NCAA Division I tournament bid (the Roadrunners were previously a Division II power). Along with the continued rapid growth at Grand Canyon, the league is now longer just the Aggies’ sandbox, and that’s a good thing indicating the league’s growth. That said, NMSU is the favorite again, with plenty of talent returning even after the departure of coach Marvin Menzies and star forward Pascal Siakam. Bakersfield will be a tough out again even after losing frontcourt rocks Aly Ahmed and Kevin Mays, and Grand Canyon could well challenge for the league title but is in its final year of transition to Division I and thus is still ineligible for the NCAAs.
- Arizona traveled to Hawaii without Allonzo Trier, meaning he will not be playing for the Wildcats in their opener Friday against Michigan State unless he flies over later. If he does not play, Arizona will be down to seven scholarship players for the game in Honolulu. Wildcats coach Sean Miller did say on an ESPN podcast that Chance Comanche will likely play against MSU after missing the team’s two exhibition games for academic reasons.
- In one exhibition game last night, Cal State-Bakersfield handled The Master’s (Calif.) 82-63. Steady point guard Brent Wrapp took on a scoring role for the Roadrunners with 17 points. Notable about this game: The Master’s was playing its sixth game of the season already including four exhibitions (three against NCAA D-I schools), as the NAIA has different rules for preseason play and also opens earlier than NCAA teams do.
All’s quiet as the season is now just one day away.
Enjoy your Thursday.