Friday, March 30, 2007

2007-08 Preview: Small Conferences, Part II

Mid Continent Conference

Discussion of the Mid Continent Conference has to begin with Oral Roberts, a team that shocked the college basketball world by taking out Kansas in November before putting up a decent fight against a good Wazzu team in the NCAA Tourney. While they have been excellent over the past few years, they have not had to deal with losses like they will have now. Caleb Green has been the heartbeat of this team, and the Golden Eagles also lose the scoring and ballhandling abilities of Ken Tutt. Those two alone accounted for 37 points per game this past season. While they will continue to have athletic forwards, the biggest question will probably be ballhandling. Adam Liberty led the team with 2.9 apg this past season, and he's going to have to take his game to the next level for Oral Roberts to win yet another Mid-Con title. Oral Roberts will certainly continue to contend for the conference title, but I think it's safe to assume they'll take a step backwards.

Another team that can't be ignored is an Oakland team that has also challenged for the title for several straight years. They don't lose all too much to graduation, but they don't exactly have overwhelming talent returning either. The Golden Grizz should be excited about a strong sophomore class this past year, highlighted by Erik Kangas and Derick Nelson. But I give it another year before I can see Oakland actually winning this entire conference. IUPUI will return an excellent backcourt that will allow them to contend again. And Valparaiso is probably returning the most talent if not for the fact that they won't be in the Mid-Con again. They're moving on up to the Horizon League.

Which leaves me with an intriguing selection. The Mid-Con will be wide open, but I'm going to go out on a limb and predict Southern Utah to make the leap. They could start as many as four Seniors, and will have a lot of good size at the guard and swing positions. A key will be if they have enough size to compete. I'm looking especially at 7'2" Brad Kanis, who could provide some much needed size for a team that already is good enough at the smaller positions. Either way, I think Southern Utah jumps up the standings with Valpo gone and Oral Roberts decimated by graduations and steals the Mid-Con.

Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference

Delaware State was the top team in the MEAC this past season, but most likely won't repeat their regular season crown next year. They will lose six key Seniors to graduation. 2007-08 will most likely be a rebuilding year for the Hornets. The MEAC's play-in game representative, of course, was Florida A&M. But they, too, lose a lot - including three of their four top scorers. It's certainly not a good sign for a conference wanting to get out of the play-in game that so many top players are graduating, but there will actually be a lot of talent remaining in the second-tier teams.

North Carolina A&T returns seven Juniors who played 15 or more minutes per game this past season, which means they'll be very Senior-heavy. This should mean that they'll be better next year. As will a Hampton team that should have an excellent Sophomore class next year. The 6'8" freshman duo of Mike Freeman and Matthew Pilgrim should become a real force in the MEAC. But I just don't see enough overall experience and leadership for this team to win the 2008 title. I do see them as an early favorite for the 2009 title, however.

That leaves us with a Coppin State team that returns a good mix of talent and experience. They only lose one key Senior from this past year's team, and will start a slew of Seniors next year. The best of all is most likely Tywain McKee (17 ppg, 3 apg). All of these returning parts should be enough to put the Eagles back on top of the MEAC.

Northeast Conference

I'm going to start the discussion of the Northeast Conference backwards. Rather than starting at the top, we'll go up from the bottom up because I think very few of these teams have enough talent to win a conference. You can usually throw out teams with an RPI hovering near 300. And Quinnipiac, Robert Morris and Mount St. Mary's are all intriguing except for the fact that they are all hard hit by graduations. Which brings us back to the top of the NEC.

Central Connecticut State ran away with the conference this past year, but they too are losing a slew of starters. They have more than 40 points per game to find, and only have a shot if Tristan Blackwood (17 ppg, 4 apg, 92% free throw shooting) can take his game to the next level. By process of elimination that leaves us with Sacred Heart, a team that should be improved next year. They lose two of their starting guards, but have a slew of others ready to take the lead. Meanwhile, rising-Seniors like Brice Brooks (10 ppg, 6 rpg) will have the opportunity to take the Pioneers back to the Tournament. The NEC should be fairly wide open, but at this point I'm going with Sacred Heart.

Ohio Valley Conference

The OVC actually had a fairly strong season in 2006-07. Though I wouldn't expect anyone to actually compete for an at-large spot, I do think this conference can actually be better next year as many of the top teams return most of their talent. Murray State returns a good guard combo of Bruce Carter and Tyler Holloway, and also likely has the strongest recruiting class in the conference. Samford and Tennessee Tech also return a good amount of talent. Eastern Kentucky, too, returns a lot of talent. But much of it is quite young. They had a good freshman crop this past year, and I expect them to challenge for the title again next year.

Austin Peay not only ran away with the OVC this past year, but they did it without any Seniors at all. Not only that, but a majority of players receiving significant playing time (10 minutes per game or more) were Freshmen or Sophomores. Not only am I picking Austin Peay to repeat again in 2008, but they are almost guaranteed to be a top contender in 2009 as well.

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