[nextpage title=” “]
You can read our full coverage of the big mid-major world here and here, now let’s take a look at the best conferences of the nation.
If Dillon Brooks fully recovered from his foot injury, Oregon is the favorite in the Pac12. They have a good yet underestimated coach in Dana Altman, and they will count on Tyler Dorsey, Jordan Bell and Chris Boucher return. The latter can be effective on both sides of the floor, making him extremely valuable and critical to the team’s success. They also added two players via transfers: PG Dylan Ennis and PF Kavell Bigby-Williams, who has a skill-set very similar to Chris Boucher. It is entirely possible this is the best roster ever seen in Eugene.
Runner up: Arizona
Sean Miller‘s Wildcats are the dominant force in the conference no more, but they have a roster talented and deep enough, with the right mix of experience (Parker Jackson-Cartwright, Kadeem Allen, Dušan Ristić) and youth (Lauri Markkanen, Rawle Alkins, Kobi Simmons) to get back on top. Allonzo Trier will be their go-to guy and the player who will have to carry them to the Final Four.
Outsiders: UCLA, California
Freshman Lonzo Ball will be running the Bruins’ uptempo offense and he will have to feed two scorers like Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton (a combined 33 points per game). UCLA will certainly be a fun watch in the Pac12 season, but it’s defense that wins titles, offense is only good to sell tickets, or so the old saying goes. If he wants to keep the job, coach Steve Alford will have to coax enough defense out of this talented group to give up less than the 76.5 points per game the team allowed last season. An immensely talented player like Ivan Rabb is enough to make Cal a dangerous team for anyone, even if coach Cuonzo Martin does not seem to be up to the task of coaching at this level. With such a focus on interior plays, Jabari Bird and transfer Grant Mullins 40% shooting will be sorely needed to stretch the floor and create the space where their bigs can get to work.
About the rest: Utah, USC, Washington
Kyle Kuzma will be the go-to guy for the Utes, and coach Larry Krystkowiak will have to build a supporting cast around him, starting with Lorenzo Bonam and with a good junior group. When talking about third-year players, Jordan McLaughlin and Elijah Steward will be starting in the Trojans backcourt and will carry the team to another solid season. And if sophomores Chimezie Metu and Bennie Boatwright had to show some progress, they have a real chance to threaten the top teams. Washington will be the stage for the Markelle Fultz show: if he had to prove he has the talent to be first pick in the draft, the Huskies will be a costly loss for plenty of teams.
Stars: Ivan Rabb (California, C, So), Dillon Brooks (Oregon, SF, Jr), Chris Boucher (Oregon, PF, Sr), Tyler Dorsey (Oregon, PG, So), Allonzo Trier (Arizona, SG, So)
Rabb will be the centerpiece of Cal‘s offense, and he might put up a 20-10 season. Oregon is considered the best in the Pac12 because of a trio of talents: Brooks, one of the early favorites for POY; Boucher, who can easily block a shot near the rim on defense and then score on a three pointer in the very next possession; and Dorsey, a combo guard with a very well rounded offensive skill-set. Trier, on the other hand, is the perfect go-to guy: when the game is on the line, he will have the ball in his hands, despite all the talent at roster.
Freshmen: Markelle Fultz (Washington, PG), Lonzo Ball (UCLA, PG), T.J. Leaf (UCLA, PF), Lauri Markkanen (Arizona, C), Rawle Alkins (Arizona, SG/SF)
Fultz and Ball will have to be leaders from day one and will have to take on many responsibilities from the very first game. The former is the prototype of the “generational” talent and excels in every facet of the game: shooting, court vision, defense, game IQ; while the latter is the best passer in the conference (and he tends to prefer the highlight play) but his outside shooting and defense needs a lot of work. There’s a lot of hype around Lead coming into the season, since he can both make the athletic play and shoot it from distance. In Tucson they are used to youngsters with huge upside and this season they will meet PF Markkanen, a modern forward-center who is as skinny as Porzingis and can do a little bit of everything, and Alkins, a guard with an Nba-ready body and unlimited range on his jumper.
[nextpage title=” “]
The Badgers have one of the best defensive system in the nation, the likely Big Ten POY in Nigel Hayes, an experienced point guard who is not afraid to take the last shot in Bronson Koenig, reigning Freshman of the Year Ethan Happ, who is just as likely the best defender or the best scorer, and their rotation will be in large part made of returning players. That is enough to make them the favorite.
Runner up: Indiana
Tom Crean will live another controversial season with the Hoosiers‘ fan, who will love him and hate him at the same time, a common team since he took over Indiana’s bench. Last year the team won the conference title as an underdog and, in order to repeat, the Hoosiers will rely again on an uptempo system and on an inside-outside game that runs through Bryant and Blackmon Jr. If O.G. Anunoby will play himself into a lottery pick, the team’s defensive press holds and the trio of Robert Johnson, Josh Newkirk and Curtis Jones will make up for Yogi Ferrell’s production, the Badgers will have a serious contender.
Outsiders: Michigan State, Purdue
Despite the “best recruiting class in history” for the Spartans and the unreal talent of Miles Bridges, they will still miss Denzel Valentine. Eron Harris will have to be a leader both in the locker room and on the court. Coach Tom Izzo will have to deal with injuries in his frontcourt, with Ben Carter and Gavin Schilling who will miss games early on, but Michigan State usually thrives in the underdog role. Purdue, on the other hand, has no issues in the frontcourt and can rely on the best frontline rotation in the Big Ten (and probably of the whole nation) with Caleb Swanigan, Isaac Haas and Vince Edward. Spike Albrecht will bring his experience in a backcourt that sorely needed it. If the ex-Michigan PG can stay away from injuries and coach Matt Painter‘s supporting cast can score from the perimeter, the Boilermakers might bring the Big Ten title back in Indiana.
About the rest: Maryland, Ohio State, Michigan, Iowa, Illinois
Four members of Maryland’s starting five from last season are gone, and this is Melo Trimble‘s team now. Still, the Terrapins can not rely only on his plays, they will need L.G. Gill to produce in the post and freshmen Anthony Cowan and Kevin Huerter to be solid contributors. Ohio State’s starting five, on the other hand, will return for another season, and the team will count on the chemistry and defensive efficiency that last year got the team to have the second best defense behind Wisconsin. If Jaquan Lyle had to prove himself capable of running an offense featuring so many players who can score in double digits (Loving, Tate, Bates-Diop), the Buckeyes will be a danger for anyone. Derrick Walton Jr. is Michigan’s floor general and he sure can get in rhythm shooters like Duncan Robinson and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. If Zak Irvin had to go a full season without injuries the Wolverines will be an obvious outsider. Finally, Iowa and Illinois will be the stages for Peter Jok‘s and Malcolm Hill‘s one-man show. The Hawkeyes will need a reliable supporting cast and a breakout season from Dominique Uhl, the Illini will need to stay healthy.
Stars: Nigel Hayes (Wisconsin, SF, Sr), Thomas Bryant (Indiana, C, So), Melo Trimble (Maryland, PG, Jr), Caleb Swanigan (Purdue, PF, So), Malcolm Hill (Illinois, SG, Sr)
Hayes has talent, size, IQ and court vision for his position and his defense makes him an all-around player. The only issue with him is his tendency to disappear in clutch moments. Bryant and Swanigan are both forwards with lottery-type talent: both have great rebounding instinct and the range to score from anywhere on the court. Trimble will be Maryland’s most important player. His offensive talent is out of the question, but he will have to take better care of the ball and be more efficient (2.6 turnover per game, 31% from three). Hill can easily be the best scorer, rebounder and passer on the team and Illinois will go as far as he goes.
Freshmen: Miles Bridges (Michigan State, SF), Josh Langford (Michigan State, SG), Nick Ward (Michigan State, PF), De’Ron Davis (Indiana, PF), Justin Jackson (Maryland, SF)
Bridges has already been labeled as the best talent ever coached by Tom Izzo: he is athletic and can shoot, defend and pass the ball at elite level. It will be amazing to watch him play. Langford will have the unenviable task to replace Valentine, he has the talent and the spot in the starting five to do it, together with Ward, after injuries hit the Spartans’ frontcourt. Davis will play important minutes in Indiana’s frontcourt thanks to an Nba-ready body and good fundamentals on both sides of the floor. Jackson will try to be Melo Trimble’s sidekick for the Terrapins. He is athletic and versatile and might find minutes at center in super-small lineups.
[nextpage title=” “]
American Athletic Conference
Defense is elite as always, the offense has always been the Achilles heel of the team, but the duo of Troy Caupain and Gary Clark might turn the Bearcats’ offense into the best ever seen during coach Mick Cronin‘s tenure. If Jacob Evans had to play as well as he did in his freshman season and transfer Kyle Washington had to be a solid presence in the paint, Cincinnati is the rightful favorite in the conference.
Runner Up: Connecticut
The best backcourt in the AAC, led by Rodney Purvis and Jalen Adams, and the best shot blocker in the nation, Amida Brimah (2.7 blocks per game). Coach Kevin Ollie can also count on two top recruits in Alterique Gilbert and Juwan Durham who could be scoring in double figures from the very start. If transfer Terry Larrier, a two way player with incredible athleticism, will fit right in with the Huskies rotation, Uconn will be a real threat to the Bearcats.
Outsiders: Houston, SMU
SMU is starting over with coach Tom Jankovich, after Larry Brown surprisingly resigned, and will rely on the backcourt duo of Ben Moore and Semi Ojeleye both on offense and defense. Shake Milton will have to replace Nic Moore and be the kind of floor general the Mustangs need to be the third force in the conference. Houston is just off a 22-win season, led by the AAC top scorer Rob Gray Jr., a volume shooter guard, and versatile small forward Damyean Dotson. The Cougars will depend on the chemistry the two frontcourt starters, Indiana transfer Devin Davis and senior Danrad Knowles, will develop during the season. They should form a solid duo of rebounders and rim protectors, both areas of need for the Cougars. If they will work well together, the team could make it to the tournament.
About the rest: Memphis, Temple
Coach Tubby Smith, Ncaa champion in 1998, will have to bring the kind of winning mentality a team that relies on a single star (Dedric Lawson) needs. The wing, though, can not do it by himself and will need the help not only of his brother K.J. near the rim, but also of the backcourt, who will have to provide scoring from the perimeter, especially with the arrival of Christian Kessee. Reigning champion Temple will hardly repeat but nobody should count them out, especially if senior guard Josh Brown will recover from his Achilles injury and the production of freshman Alani Moore and Quinton Rose will be on par with the playing time they will receive.
Stars: Dedric Lawson (Memphis, PF, So), Troy Caupain (Cincinnati, PG, Sr), Jalen Adams (Connecticut, PG, So), Rodney Purvis (Connecticut, SG, Sr), Damyean Dotson (Houston, SF, Sr)
Lawson is an incredibly talented center who can do a little bit of everything on the floor with impressive averages as a freshman (15.8 points, 9.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 35% from three). Caupain is one of the most underestimated floor generals in the nation and can be effective both on offense and defense. Adams and Purvis are a perfect fit in the two-point-guards system at Uconn, both lethal on offense and smothering on defense. Dotson is the Cougars do-it-all who can fill up any stat sheet.
Freshmen: Alterique Gilbert (Connecticut, PG), Juwan Durham (Connecticut, PF), Jarron Cumberland (Cincinnati, SG), Quinton Rose (Temple, SG), Harry Froling (SMU, PF)
The 2016 recruiting class might be the best one coach Ollie has ever had. Gilbert is an undersized PG with great offensive skills who might follow in the steps of Walker and Napier. Durham is a 4-star recruit who hasn’t played in the last couple of years after he tore an ACL twice, but if is fully recovered he will get his minutes on the floor because of his size and potential as a two way player. In the Bearcats offense, a player like Cumberland will certainly find minutes, especially if he can be a reliable threat from distance. Rose will enjoy plenty of freedom in Temple’s offense, and finally, if Froling had to prove he is ready to stretch the floor at the power forward position, he will find minutes in a solid frontcourt in SMU.
[nextpage title=” “]
Favorite: Rhode Island
Will URI finally have some luck with injuries? The absence of E.C. Matthews was a big part of the poor season of the team. His return will bring back the offense that went missing last year and will fit right in with a solid defense and with an incredibly deep roster. If you want to know more about the team, you might want to read BasketballNcaa’s focus on URI’s upcoming season.
Scoochie Smith, Kyle Davis and Charles Cooke scored 48% of the total points for the Flyers last year, and they should be considered the best starting backcourt of the whole A-10. Last season finished poorly after a promising start, but coach Archie Miller will now rely on better talent and experience, with four members of the old starting five coming back. A good starting point for a season to live in memory of Steve McElvene, the 20-year-old player who passed away last May.
Outsiders: VCU, Davidson
VCU was the runner up to the title last season and will have a roster that once again could play in the tournament in March. They are a solid defensive team with a starting five of four seniors and one junior. Coach Will Wade admitted that the Rams were at their best when JeQuan Lewis and Jonathan Williams shared the floor, and the two of them will probably share the floor more this year. Davidson will go as far as Jack Gibbs (23.5 points per game last year) and Peyton Aldridge (15.5 points per game) will go. They are extremely competitive on offense, but their success will depend on their progress on defense.
About the rest: St. Bonaventure, George Washington, La Salle, Richmond
St Bonaventure will have to deal with the absence of Marcus Posley and Dion Wright, but they can count on the offense the duo of Jaylen Adams and Matt Mobley will generate. Unfortunately, backup PG Nelson Kaputo has been declared ineligible until December. The firing of coach Mike Lonergan made for a difficult situation at George Washington, and new head coach Maurice Joseph will have to prove he can get the best out of Tyler Cavanaugh and the rest of the roster. La Salle was one of the worst teams in the A-10 last season but the addition of a few quality transfers will make them competitive again. The brand new frontcourt will feature BJ Johnson and Savon Goodman (from Syracuse and Arizona State respectively) with Jordan Price (19.2 points per game) leading the backcourt. Richmond will live on the offensive production of the duo of ShawnDre’ Jones (14.7 points per game) and T.J. Cline (18.3) but they will have to pull it together on defense to be a threat for the other teams.
Stars: Jack Gibbs (Davidson, PG, Sr.), Tyler Cavanaugh (George Washington, PF, Sr.), E.C. Matthews (Rhode Island, SG, Jr.), Charles Cooke (Dayton, SG/SF, Sr.)
Gibbs is the favorite for the A-10 POY. He is a very well rounded guard who can score at will. He is also a prolific and creative passer (4.9 assists per game) and he can keep it honest on defense. Cavanaugh went from averaging 8.8 points and 3.8 rebounds as a sophomore to 16.8 points and 7.6 rebounds as a junior. He is very consistent in his production, scoring in double figures in every game. Expectations are high on Matthews, considering his talent and the year he spent rehabbing. He is a constant threat on offense because of his reliable jumper and has good rebounding instincts for a wing (4.6 per game). If he can stay healthy, he might be the biggest challenge to Gibbs for POY. In an ambitious team like Dayton, Cooke is at the peak of his college career as a fifth-year senior. The wing was impressive in his first year at Dayton after transferring from JMU: 15.6 points per game and 40% three-point shooting (and an odd 68.9% on free throws). But he is more than just a scorer and can fill up the stat sheet, with a better focus on rebounding (5.8 per game).