America East Conference
Albany pulled off the upset in the America East Tourney to qualify for their second straight Tournament. Three in a row would be quite a feat, but it will be difficult as the Great Danes lose their two best scorers. Jamar Wilson (19 ppg, 6 rpg, 5 apg), especially, will be missed. Albany will start to restock with a decent recruiting class, however. Boston University also has a great young core of kids. They had four freshmen this past year getting over 25 minutes per game. Seeing as how they already finished third in the America East this past year, it's sensible to expect that this team will be pretty hard to beat in three years. But I think they have too far to go in just one year. They will be better, but not that much better.
The key loss for Vermont will be 6'11" Chris Holm (11 ppg, 12 rpg), who really was a force on both sides of the floor on the inside. They won't have as much of a size advantage without him, but they will have a slew of guys in the 6'7" - 6'9" range, which is enough height for a small conference like this. The Catamounts still return a lot of scoring, including Mike Trimboli (16 ppg, 5 apg) and Joe Trapani (11 ppg, 40% 3-point shooting). Assuming they have another duel with Albany, they are still going to have enough size to win the rebounding battle. And with their improving young guards no longer having Jamar Wilson and Jason Siggers to deal with, they should be able to score more and keep Albany from scoring much at all. The fact is that Vermont loses less to graduation, probably has a slightly better recruiting class, and probably was slightly better this past year than Albany until that 1-point loss in the America East Finals. So it's just logical to expect Vermont to get back to the Tournament in 2008.
Atlantic Sun Conference
East Tennessee State ran away with the Atlantic Sun in 2007 before getting tripped up in the conference Tourney. They lose a couple of starters, but still return their best player for two more seasons. Courtney Pilgrim (18 ppg, 4 apg, 3 spg) will have to take his game to the next level for the Buccaneers to finish close to 16-2 again. Another intriguing young team is Jacksonville, featuring an excellent young freshman guard in 5'10" Ben Smith (10 ppg, 4 apg). They are building a good program in Jacksonville, and they could challenge for a conference title as early as next season.
Belmont has been a frequent visitor to the Tourney in recent years, and don't lose too much to graduation. The biggest loss is probably their second-leading scorer, 6'10" Boomer Herndon (11 per game). But they return almost all of the rest of their important players, including a potential star in rising-Senior guard Justin Hare (14 ppg, 3 apg). They should have the best athletes in the conference yet again. Honestly, they were a really good team (by Atlantic Sun standards) this past year, but just had a couple more blown games against easy teams than did East Tennessee State (the two teams split in their regular season matchups, before Belmont swept the floor with them 94-67 in the A-Sun Tourney Finals). Belmont should even be better next year, and East Tennessee State should be worse. Which makes the logical pick Belmont.
Big Sky Conference
Weber State took the Big Sky conference this past season, including its automatic bid, and I'm sure they expect to compete for another. They lose leading scorer David Patten (14 per game), but other than that return most everyone. Northern Arizona was an intriguing team this past year, but losing their three highest scorers is probably too much in a conference that should be better next year.
Portland State and Eastern Washington will also have enough experience to be serious competitors in what should be a wide-open conference. Montana, however, brings to the table not only athleticism but a slew of size. 6'8" Andrew Straight and 6'9" Jordan Hasquet (combined 28 ppg, 13 rpg) will continue to be forces inside. And Montana also brings in a blue chip recruit (by Big Sky standards) in 6'10" Derek Selvig (Rivals: 134, 41 PF). In other words, even if one of those three goes down with foul trouble, they will still have two other twin towers to dominate inside. Montana is going to be a really good team next year, and I pick them not only to win the Big Sky but to be a dangerous first round Tourney team.
Big South Conference
For completeness, I'll mention someone other than Winthrop in this preview. High Point was a really good team this past year - in other years they probably would have been good enough to win the conference. Next year they might even be better. AZ Reid had an outstanding season (21 ppg, 51% shooting), and along with Mike Jefferson (13 ppg, 5 apg) the Panthers should have an electrifying offense next year. They will prove to be a difficult opponent for anyone in the Big South.
Of course, Winthrop was just in another world last year. Their RPI is vastly deflated due to all the games they had to play against VMI, Radford and Charleston Southern. This school lost five games all season (including the Tournament), all to teams that received a #4 seed or better in the Tourney. They took Wisconsin to overtime at the Kohl Center, and led North Carolina at halftime of their game. In my mind, this was one of the top 30 teams in the country, which is an incredible feat for a conference that is... well, most college basketball fans can't even tell you what conference Winthrop is in. I think I witnessed the typical reaction to Winthrop when I attended their game at Wisconsin back in December in person. As Torrell Martin was going nuts (he finished the game 7-for-11 from behind the arc, scoring 31 points in all) a guy next to me exclaimed "Who the hell is this guy, and what is he doing at Winthrop?"
Fortunately for the rest of the conference, Torrell Martin is finally done terrorizing the league. They also lose their two best inside men in Craig Bradshaw and Phillip Williams. They do still return some excellent athletes in leading-scorer Michael Jenkins (14.8 per game) and Chris Gaynor. Their guards will still dominate the Big South. And they will receive some help on the inside with two incoming power forwards, 6'6" Charles Corvin and 6'7" George Valentine. The Eagles also probably received the best news of all this past week when head coach Gregg Marshall turned down South Florida, meaning he most likely will return for atleast another year.
All in all, there's no way we see another team like the 2006-'07 Winthrop team. We might never see another Big South team like that ever. But I think Winthrop returns enough pieces to make a return trip to the Tourney.