The first installment of the 2007-08 Previews is here! They will start will the "Small" conferences, which are defined as conferences that are very likely one-bid leagues. The next category, "Mid-Major" conferences, are defined as non-BCS conferences that have received more than one bid in recent years and can be expected to challenge for at-large bids in the coming season. The final category, of course, will be BCS schools.
Each conference preview will be accompanied by a quick breakdown of the conference from the past year. Conference records are regular season only. Overall records and the RPI are D-I only and do not include NCAA/NIT tournament games (though they do include in-season tournaments and the conference tournaments). Close followers of college basketball have probably noticed that different websites have different RPI calculations and even occasionally different D-I records. So, for consistency, I'm using the final official numbers out of the NCAA. Finally, the "Returning starters" statistic is more or less subjective on my part. Teams generally change lineups due to injuries, or poor/good play. Also, some players start but end up not getting a lot of minutes per game. So, "Returning starters" will generally mean the five players with the most minutes per game, although players are excluded if they haven't played a lot of total games. The number isn't meant to be exact, because it's impossible to predict how coaches want to tweak starting lineups and playing time next season, but it's just a ballpark figure to start with.
Two other things to note: It's impossible this early in the season to know exactly which underclassmen will go pro. I'll make my best guesses, and make it clear what those guesses are. If I don't mention a player's name that implicitly means that I'm assuming that they're staying for another year. Finally, I'll define top recruits by their rankings on both Scout.com and Rivals.com. The shorthand notation I'll use should be obvious. For example, a comment saying "John Doe (Scout: 14 PG, Rivals: 56)" means that Scout.com has John Doe ranked as the 14th best point guard in the nation, and Rivals.com has Doe ranked as the 56th overall player in the nation.
As always, the information here is for people to discuss, and not for me to lecture upon. If I make glaring errors, tell me. If you have different interpretations of the data, post it. And with that said, let's get it started with the first batch of Small Conferences:
For years now, Bucknell has seemed like a perennial favorite to win the Patriot League. Constantly bringing in the most talented players in the conference - players capable not just of of winning regular season games, but also of making noise in the Tournament. But this program might be in rebuilding mode, with the last of the major pieces from the Round of 32 runs in '06 and '05 finally leaving. They will sorely miss the experience and leadership of Chris McNaughton (12 ppg, 6 rpg) and Abe Badmus (8 ppg, 3 rpg). Not to mention the athleticism of Donald Brown (12 ppg, 7 rpg). Even more disturbing is that Bucknell hasn't seemed to cash in on their recent success with some elite recruits. Their recruiting class for 2007 isn't any better than any of the other top teams in the conference. Which means that if the Bison are going to return to the Tournament in 2008, they're going to have to rely on what they already have in the stable - the guys who were at the end of the bench in '05 and '06, and now need to lead. Guys like John Griffin (11 ppg, 3 apg, 37% 3-point shooting) and Darren Mastropaolo (6 ppg, 4 rpg, 54% shooting).
If Bucknell slides a spot or two next year, the most popular pick to win the Patriot League will most likely be Holy Cross. The Crusaders were, after all, the Patriot League's representative in this year's Tournament. They, too, are hard hit by graduation. Their two leading scorers (Keith Simmons and Torey Thomas - a combined 31 ppg) will both be gone. They return enough size to compete, with three regular players 6'8" or taller returning. Their biggest loss will probably be Thomas and his ballhandling abilities. They're probably going to need rising-Junior Pat Doherty (5 ppg, 2 apg) to run the offense next year. Either way, Holy Cross had a good set of sophomores and freshmen this past year. So even if they can't win the conference this year, they will remain a favorite for the 2008-09 season.
But I don't think they're going to have to wait that long. With no other team returning nearly enough to contend with the Bucknell-Holy Cross duopoly, Holy Cross is my preseason pick to win the Patriot League.
I asserted for most of this past year that Appalachian State was the best team in the Southern Conference, although they didn't back me up in the Southern Conference Tourney. In all fairness, the difference between the Mountaineers and the Wildcats representing the conference in the Tourney came down to Dontaye Draper. The Senior went nuts in the Tourney Semifinals, going for 38 points in a two point victory for Charleston. In the Finals he went cold, shooting only 2-for-11 from the field for 8 points in a seven point Davidson victory. Either way, I still think Appalachian State was the better team last year. But things could be very different next year, as the Mountaineers lose quite a bit of talent. Most notably, they lose 5'8" star DJ Thompson. The Senior scored in double-digits for the third straight year in 2006-07, and also threw in a career-high 4.9 assists per game. If Appalachian State is going to make another run at the Tournament it's going to be on the back of the athleticism and size of Donte Minter and Jeremy Clayton (a combined 22 ppg and 12 rpg). While Minter and Clayton will undoubtedly be a powerful duo, the real question will be guardplay. In addition to Thompson, Appalachian State also loses their next two best guards, meaning that a lot of responsibility will fall on the young rising-sophomore group led by Ryann Abraham and Kellen Brand.
Another team that could challenge at the top next year will be UNC-Greensboro. Despite not competing near the top of the conference this past season, they do return almost all of their top talent. The biggest issue for them might actually be a lack of experience/maturity. They had three different freshmen getting over 17 minutes per game this past season, so a lot of the minutes next year will be in the hands of freshmen and sophomores. They probably don't have enough to win the Southern Conference in 2008, but I will look at them as a serious contender in 2009.
Finally, Davidson fans were unhappy with me during the season for proclaiming them the second best team in the conference despite the fact that they had the best record. I always countered that while they didn't have as much experience as Appalachian State in 2007, they return far more and will likely be the favorite to win next season. Indeed, they didn't have a single Senior get more than garbage minutes this past season. Things are really looking up for the program and super-frosh Stephen Curry. He scored 21.5 ppg with an outstanding shooting touch (46% from the field, 41% from behind the arc and 86% from the line), and might just be scratching the surface. This team is going to be so good next year that they will have a great shot at an at-large bid even if they get upset in the Conference Tourney. I can't find a copy of their schedule for next season, but hopefully they're smart enough to schedule a good out-of-conference schedule. They will need a couple wins as an RPI-booster and as insurance in case they really do need that at-large bid.
But hopefully they don't need it. Unless something goes really wrong, Davidson will be a really dangerous small-conference school - the Winthrop of 2007-08.
Texas A&M Corpus Cristi came out of nowhere to run away with the Southland Conference in 2007, but it's really hard to see them coming up with anything like that next season. They lose seven of their eight top scorers, with Scooby Johnson the only real good player they have coming back. With them most likely out of the picture, the most obvious successor is Sam Houston State, although they lose a lot also. The one thing the Bearkats will have going for them will be experience, as they'll have four Seniors playing a prominent role next year, highlighted by leading-scorer Ryan Bright (15 ppg, 8 rpg).
Moving further down the standings, an intriguing team is Stephen F. Austin and their solid rising-Junior duo of Josh Alexander and Matt Kingsley (combined 26 ppg, 10 rpg). They should be improved next year, but I think they're one year away from competing for a conference title. Another interesting team is Texas-Arlington, a school stocked with a lot of young talent. Like SFA, however, I don't think they have the talent and experience in place to be a real competitor this coming season. Northwestern State and McNeese State will also be threats in the wide-open Southland Conference next year, but I'm going with a Lamar team that returns five rising-Seniors that all averaged over 22 minutes and 7 points per game this past season. No one is going to be real good in this conference next year, and they can certainly expect another 15/16 seed in the Tourney, but for the schools in the Southland Conference that's all they're really playing for anyway.
Southwestern Athletic Conference
Speaking of conferences lacking in talent, the SWAC had a really awful year this past season. Jackson State should have been in the play-in game, except that the Selection Committee felt uncomfortable putting two historically black colleges in that game. Jackson State had the honor of being a warm-up for Kansas, although they will suffer without Trey Johnson's 27 points per game. They return some decent pieces, and will certainly contend for another title, but they will almost surely take a step back without their star scorer. Another contender will likely be a Southern University team that has locked up a solid amount of talent for a SWAC team. They have had two straight good classes of recruits, so it's easy to expect this team to compete for atleast the next three years. But I just think it's too much to ask for a team hovering around the 300-RPI level to take any conference in a single year.
So with that in mind it seems like the most talent resides with Mississippi Valley State. With an inside-outside game of Stanford Speech (12 ppg, 2 apg, 2 spg) and 6'10" Larry Cox (7 ppg, 2 bpg, 51% shooting) they should have a good enough team to win the SWAC regular season title again. Hopefully they can finish it with a real Tourney appearance next year, too.
Sun Belt Conference
The Sun Belt has been a duel between South Alabama and Western Arkansas [May 6th edit: Obviously I meant Western Kentucky here] over the past few years, and it's to be expected that both of those teams will continue to compete next year. Both Louisiana-Monroe and Arkansas State contended this past year, and both return a lot of talent. The Warhawks return a lot of good players, but will need one or two of them to take the next step if they're really going to compete. Meanwhile, Arkansas State will probably have the third-most talent with the high-scoring trio of Adrian Banks, Isaac Wells and Ryan Wedel (48 ppg).
But in reality, the rich are just getting richer next year. Both Western Kentucky and South Alabama expect to return atleast four starters, and both expect to start atleast three Seniors next year. Both teams return enough talent to win the Sun Belt, and that's before we get to their recruiting classes. Both of these schools have done a good job of picking up the next-best kids in their respective states - the kids just not good enough to play for Louisville, Kentucky or Alabama, but still solid talents. South Alabama brings in an outstanding backcourt duo of DeAndre Ross and Jamar Moore. Western Kentucky, on the other hand, brings in more good big guys in BJ Frazier and 6'10" DJ Magley. The Hilltoppers should return enough good guard play to run with South Alabama's good young guards. If Frazier and Magley can become dominant forces inside, it's hard to see Western Kentucky not being a really good team next year.