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How the conferences shape up as 2017 approaches

December 29, 2016 Columns, Conference Notes No Comments

One thing that comes with Christmas is the reality of non-conference play winding down. In fact, more and more conferences are starting their play in earnest before the new year. Some conferences still play a game or two in early or mid-December, then resume non-conference play, though that is happening less often.

In light of that, this is a good time to look at how the conferences shape up based on teams’ non-conference performance. Personnel matters also come into play with these outlooks, whether it’s injuries, suspensions or other departures, as well as mid-year transfers.

With that, we take a look at all 31 conferences.

America East: Three teams most could have figured before the season – Albany, New Hampshire and Vermont – look like the teams to beat. UMBC has a nice 7-3 record, which should help them build confidence and might have them poised to beat a team or two they shouldn’t, but they have put that mark up against one of the weakest schedules in the country.

American Athletic Conference: Before the season, most would have figured UConn, Cincinnati and Temple as the leading contenders. The Huskies look questionable, but Cincinnati and Temple have held up their end of the bargain. SMU is once again a contender, while UCF has played well enough that we should watch them as well.

Atlantic 10: No team in this conference has emerged even close to unscathed, so this shapes up to be a good one as expected. Four teams we thought might contend before the season are right there now – Davison, Dayton, Rhode Island and VCU. Don’t sleep on St. Bonaventure (as usual) with the year that Jaylen Adams is having.

ACC: Non-conference play hasn’t changed the perception that Duke and North Carolina should lead the way. But if either one wins, they won’t run away with it. Virginia and Louisville are formidible, Notre Dame and NC State can beat anyone, Florida State looks much better and so does Virginia Tech. Miami is better than some expected, while Pittsburgh and Clemson are capable. The mystery team is Syracuse, as the Orange have talent but have struggled.

Atlantic Sun: Florida Gulf Coast leads the way here, as only North Florida has played a tougher schedule. The Ospreys’ problem is they have only won one of those games, so it’s hard to say they head into Atlantic Sun play looking like a contender.

Big 12: Until someone knocks off Kansas, they are the team to beat here. Baylor and West Virginia look like the best challengers, and perhaps Iowa State behind them. The jury is out on several teams with great records like Kansas State, TCU and Texas Tech.

Big East: This is Villanova’s to lose, as was expected before the season. But a few teams will give chase: Butler, Creighton and Xavier are chief among them, while Seton Hall can’t be discounted. Providence has played better than expected, but the jury is out on the Friars.

Big Sky: Eastern Washington has had the best showing thus far, putting forth a 6-5 mark against the toughest schedule in the conference. Portland State and Montana aren’t far behind.

Big South: Not very surprisingly, Winthrop and UNC Asheville look like the top teams here, both with winning records. Radford is just 3-7 but is the most battle-tested team in the conference, having played three games against top 25 teams, so you won’t want to sleep on them.

Big Ten: Most figured this would be a great race before the season, and non-conference play has done nothing at all to disabuse us of that notion. The top contenders look like Wisconsin and Indiana, with Michigan State being a contender if healthy. You can’t rule out Maryland, Michigan or Purdue, while Illinois, Northwestern and Ohio State probably won’t contend but should influence the race. Minnesota and Rutgers have great records against weak non-conference schedules, and they could likewise influence the race.

Big West: There are a lot of bad win-loss records in this conference, but two teams stand out in terms of who they have played. Winless UC Santa Barbara has played the second-toughest schedule in the nation, while Long Beach State checks in at No. 11 in that category. Count those two along with UC Irvine, who has the best record at 5-9 and a reasonable schedule strength, as your apparent top contenders.

CAA: UNCW was the preseason favorite, and their terrific non-conference run makes them look even more favorable. Several will give chase, with Towson and College of Charleston leading the way, while Hofstra and Elon can’t be ruled out and Northeastern has a couple of big road wins that make them look like they might be a dark horse.

Conference USA: Middle Tennessee looks like the favorites here, putting forth a 9-3 mark against a top 25 schedule, and included are two top 25 wins and a blowout win at Vanderbilt. Old Dominion and Marshall look like they have a chance as well.

Horizon League: The man on the bench changes, but Valparaiso is still a contender and right now looks like the team to beat. Wright State, Green Bay and Oakland have done well against good schedules, while Northern Kentucky has a nice record against a weak schedule.

Ivy League: This looks to be Harvard’s to lose, which is not shocking as they were the preseason favorites for many. Key season-ending injuries at Yale and Princeton mean a healthy Harvard will be even tougher to beat.

MAAC: Four teams lead the way here, with Monmouth looking like the favorite out of them. No one has a top 100 strength of schedule, but the Hawks have the best record including four road wins, and they’re also 2-0 out of the gates in MAAC play. Canisius, Fairfield and Iona look like good bets to be in the mix, with Rider being the dark horse.

Mid-American: Always an intensely competitive conference, Akron leads the way but has a surprisingly low strength of schedule. Any one of Toledo, Ohio, Central or Eastern Michigan look like good challengers, and don’t be surprised if someone makes a run that we don’t expect.

MEAC: By default, you could anoint NC Central as the favorite since they and Morgan State are the only teams with more than one Division I win in the entire conference and they have four more wins than the Bears. But South Carolina State has played a very tough schedule, and most of these teams have been on the road often, so they have all been tested to some degree.

Missouri Valley: Wichita State isn’t going quietly, running over most of their opponents. Illinois State should be right there with them, while Loyola (Ill.) also had a nice run but with a couple of non-Division I wins. Northern Iowa has been well-tested and naturally should not be counted out, especially after the surge they had late last year.

Mountain West: San Diego State was thought to be a fairly clear favorite before the season, with Nevada being a possible challenger. Well, let’s say that the Wolfpack should really push the Aztecs based on what we’ve seen thus far, as they have had a great run. Wyoming and Fresno State look like the dark horses.

Northeast: Fairleigh Dickinson and Wagner figured to be the favorites before the season, and the latter seems a good pick to be in that conversation. FDU is just 1-9, though they have played one of the toughest schedules among conference teams. LIU is the only conference team with a .500 record against Division I teams. Don’t sleep on Robert Morris, Mount St. Mary’s (toughest schedule in the conference) or Bryant.

Ohio Valley: Tennessee State has the best record and RPI, but they aren’t prohibitive favorites by a long shot. Belmont, Jacksonville State and UT Martin look primed to push them.

Pac-12: Oregon was thought to be a fairly clear favorite before the season, and while the Ducks have hardly flopped, they aren’t favored by quite so much now. UCLA has to be right there with them, while Arizona has been very good without Allonzo Trier and USC ran through non-conference undefeated.

Patriot League: Preseason favorites and traditional powers Bucknell and Lehigh still look like they should contend, and Loyola (Md.) looks like they can push them along with Holy Cross.

SEC: This appears to be Kentucky’s to lose, but they will have some challengers. Arkansas, Auburn, Florida and South Carolina are chief among them, and don’t sleep on Ole Miss to at least influence the race for the top.

Southern: Preseason favorite Chattanooga still looks like the team to beat, but East Tennesse State and Samford look ready to push them. Mercer has a bad record but has played a very challenging schedule, and they are well-coached, so they may be the sleeper.

Southland: Three teams are actually in the top 100 in RPI, with Nicholls State leading the way. Sam Houston State and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi are there as well, while Houston Baptist has played the toughest non-conference schedule in the country.

SWAC: As with the MEAC, there are a lot of ugly records here; only three teams have more than one Division I win thus far. The pattern has been that this comes down to Texas Southern, who has the most Division I wins with four, and Southern, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if that happens again this year. Prairie View and Alcorn State have both played top 50 schedules.

Summit League: IPFW and Omaha look like the favorites here, with the Dakotas – North, then South – a little ways behind them.

Sun Belt: UT-Arlington was the preseason favorite and has done nothing to lose that distinction, but they will have some challengers. Arkansas State and Georgia State have also played top 100 schedules, while UL Lafayette has the nice record and Georgia Southern has had some slips but could get it together to make a run.

West Coast: Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s were thought to be the favorites entering this season, and they have done nothing to change that. BYU will challenge them, but the Zags and Gaels appear to be a cut above everyone else this year.

WAC: The names and faces may change, but New Mexico State remains the class of the conference. The best challenger? Throw Utah Valley, Grand Canyon and UMKC into a hat and pick one.

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