Normally around this time of year, I'm trying furiously to churn out a full-on conference preview for every league in America. And normally by opening day, I haven't even covered more than a dozen of the 32 conferences. If I were Joe Blow Single Guy writing in his underwear with Cheeto stains on his fingertips, I'd have a lot more time to finish these things, but kids and a wife have this annoying habit of asking for a little time with Daddy. And since none of you are paying any of my bills, the writing is usually let to slide.
Still, I'm always interested in how the conferences stack up at this time of year, which is why TBI is still going to turn out a full set of conference rankings. We all know who the worst league in America is (hint: it's one letter away from being SWAG, something that the conference in question almost totally lacks), and everybody's got their own perspective on who's the best. (Sit down, SEC fan. That ridiculous all-conference second-team ballot says it all.)
But now, here comes The Back Iron to settle it all. Strap in, kids, and prepare to bitch as we unveil the bottom half of the nation's leagues.
Below, you'll find TBI's picks for conference regular-season (and we'll presume tournament) champions, along with each league's expected Player of the Year and a potential Game Changer selection. The Game Changer may be a newcomer or returnee, but he'll certainly be a player who's not getting the publicity he deserves for his ability to shift the balance of power in his league.
|If not for good Luckett, Alcorn'd have no Luckett all.|
--There's talent in that thar SWAC, but too much of it is concentrated at Alabama State, which is on double-not-very-secret APR punishment, so won't be going to the NCAA tournament. That leaves the door open for others like Alcorn State and Texas Southern, the latter of which is gaining fast in the Transfer U. discussion. If new boys Chris Thomas and Deverell Biggs play nice and keep their stuff together in Houston, coach Mike Davis could be headed to another tournament.
TBI's PICK: Alabama State, but they're banned, so...
NCAA BID: Alcorn State
TBI's CONFERENCE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: G LeAntwan Luckett, Alcorn State
TBI's GAME-CHANGER: F JoVaughn Love, Arkansas-Pine Bluff
--Love spent a redshirt season after transferring from a junior college last year. During that time, the high school PG grew to 6'9" without losing his perimeter skills.
31. America East (27th of 32)
--The AE has a lot of talented sophomores and juniors, so next year could see a mini-renaissance. However, this year's choice is between the perennial bridesmaids at Stony Brook (who lost a lot in last year's senior class) and Hartford (returning almost everyone from a team that rained fiery death from the arc last season, but handled the ball as if it were slathered in pig fat). Albany may very well sleepwalk through the regular season again and get hot enough in mid-March to reach a third straight tournament.
TBI's PICK: Hartford
TBI's CONFERENCE POY: Jameel Warney, Stony Brook
TBI's GAME CHANGER: F/G Roland Nyama, Stony Brook
--SUNYSB needed a slasher to complement Warney's interior muscle and point guard Carson Puriefoy's perimeter touch. Enter the versatile German, who can compete at either wing position.
30. Southern (30th of 32)
--Even with Davidson in the league, there wasn't much need to pay attention to the SoCon. Now that the Wildcats are in the Atlantic 10, there's even less reason. Wofford looks equipped to become the league's new bully, but watch for Chattanooga as well. Mocs coach Will Wade has the tools to do something that his former boss Shaka Smart has yet to manage at VCU--win a conference regular-season title.
TBI's PICK: Wofford
TBI's CONFERENCE POY: G Karl Cochran, Wofford
TBI's GAME CHANGER: F Anthony "Duke" Ethridge, Chattanooga
--The 6'6" Ethridge was a second-team NJCAA All-American after carding 19.8/9.3 for South Georgia Tech last year. If he can keep up with Wade's demanding "Chaos" defense, he'll see time at both forward spots. He's reportedly killed one practice-court rim already.
29. MEAC (31st of 32)
|Dude, I'd be pissed my parents named me Nimrod.|
TBI's PICK: Delaware State
TBI's CONFERENCE POY: C Kendall Gray, Delaware State
TBI's GAME CHANGER: G Nimrod Hilliard, NC Central
--The Delaware State pick is highly precarious, and it'll turn into downright lunacy if Hilliard is the kind of scoring and distributing threat he was at Lamar (14.1/3.8/4.9/1.3 last year).
28. Atlantic Sun (24th of 32)
--Yawn. With Mercer gone to the SoCon, Florida Gulf Coast's league hegemony is nearly unrivaled. Guards Brett Comer and Bernard Thompson, the final links to FGCU's magical #DunkCity 2013 tournament run, are the two best players in the league, and they're augmented by a burgeoning pipeline of transfers who love the idea of playing their college ball a mile from prime Florida beachfront. Lipscomb and North Florida have solid casts in place, but they'll have to pin their hopes on getting hot in March. A 14-0 conference record is very attainable for Gulf Coast.
TBI's PICK: Florida Gulf Coast
TBI's CONFERENCE POY: PG Brett Comer, Florida Gulf Coast
TBI's GAME CHANGER: G Chad Jackson, Northern Kentucky
--Jackson missed last season as a redshirt, but he essentially gives the Norse a sixth returning starter who averaged 10.8 PPG in 2012-13.
27. Southland (29th of 32)
--Stephen F. Austin still has plenty of returning talent to make it the prohibitive favorite. Still, there's reason to hunt down some games, because several teams have superb guards donning their jerseys: Jalan West at Northwestern State, John Jordan at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and Denzel Livingston at Incarnate Word, just to name a few.
TBI's PICK: Stephen F. Austin
TBI's CONFERENCE POY: PG Jalan West, Northwestern State
TBI'S GAME CHANGER: G DeMarcus Gatlin, Sam Houston State
--Like Chad Jackson, Gatlin is a former starter forced out of action last season. He's capable of defending four positions, and he was also a double-digit scorer in 2011-12.
26. Big South (28th of 32)
|Coastal Carolina's recruiting letter.|
TBI's PICK: Coastal Carolina
TBI's CONFERENCE POY: F John Brown, High Point
TBI'S GAME CHANGER: C Zach Price, Winthrop
--When Price isn't busy getting arrested (twice in one day, no less), he's busy being tall. The 6'10" vagabond didn't last long at Missouri after coming in from Louisville. If he's granted an eligibility waiver (which would be very advisable, since he seemingly needs as little spare time as possible), the Eagles have a big man to join a potent perimeter crew.
25. Northeast (25th of 32)
--Perhaps the biggest celebrity in the NEC is Robert Morris coach Andy Toole, who's still worthy of inclusion among the Best Young Coaches in America, even though he's entering his fifth year. Toole still has, um, tools to work with, including NEC POY candidate Lucky Jones (no, he's not a racehorse). However, there's still conference tourney champion Mount St. Mary's to reckon with. The Mountaineers are huge, suiting up 10 players 6'6" or taller. St. Francis Brooklyn and Central Connecticut also have all-conference stars returning, so expect some shootouts.
TBI's PICK: St. Francis Brooklyn
TBI's CONFERENCE POY: F Jalen Cannon, St. Francis Brooklyn
TBI'S GAME CHANGER: F Brandon Peel, Central Connecticut State
--Peel should be among the NEC's Defensive POY candidates this season, and he was one of the NEC's top rebounders last season. He'll need to fight his guts out on the glass to show that the Blue Devils aren't just about volume chuckers like Kyle Vinales.
24. Big Sky (26th of 32)
--The Big Sky race is actually quite wide-open, with four teams entertaining legitimate hopes of a regular-season title. Eastern Washington has plenty returning, including the league's best backcourt in 21.8-PPG man Tyler Harvey and seniors Drew Brandon and Parker Kelly. Sacramento State is right behind with its trio of Mikh McKinney, Dylan Garrity and Cody Demps (combined 37.8/9.7/10.1 last season). Northern Arizona is led by POY candidate Quinton Upshur, while Weber State can never be discounted, especially if it finds a true point guard.
TBI's PICK: Eastern Washington
TBI's CONFERENCE POY: F/C Joel Bolomboy, Weber State
TBI'S GAME CHANGER: C Brandon Cataldo, Portland State
--Cataldo useta be a contenda. He was highly rated coming out of high school, but a broken leg derailed his conditioning and he's yet to make it back, even in his fifth year of college. Leaving aside the obvious snark about PSU's strength and conditioning coaches, Cataldo was highly productive in limited doses last year. His rebounding percentages: 19.4 offensive/21.6 defensive; those are insane.
23. WAC (22nd of 32)
|Still the most famous man in the WAC.|
TBI's PICK: New Mexico State
TBI's CONFERENCE POY: G Daniel Mullings, New Mexico State
TBI'S GAME CHANGER: F Deshaun Sunderhaus, Seattle
--The 6'9", 255-pound junior lost the final 11 games to an ACL tear last season. His 6.2 RPG would have ranked 11th in the conference. If he can clean up on the offensive glass, the RedHawks have a good complement to a trigger-happy trio of guards.
22. Sun Belt (19th of 32)
--Much like the Atlantic Sun, conference realignment has rendered the Sun Belt a one-horse race. Georgia State could run the table after perennial contender Western Kentucky joined several former brethren in Conference USA. GSU is drawing plenty of Cinderella hype behind backcourt stars R.J. Hunter and Ryan Harrow (36.1/7.2/5.9/3.2 combined last season), along with inside bruiser Curtis Washington. Louisiana-Lafayette could still be a gadfly, especially if Oklahoma State transfer Brian Williams hits the ground running.
TBI's PICK: Georgia State
TBI's CONFERENCE POY: G R.J. Hunter, Georgia State
TBI'S GAME CHANGER: F Eric Ferguson, Georgia Southern
--GSU returns three former All-SoCon selections with Ferguson in tow. If he's healthy and has his head on straight (and if he's even allowed back on the team after this summer's arrest), he'll make a fine frontcourt complement to College of Charleston import Trent Wiedeman.
21. Patriot League (21st of 32)
--American's guard trio of John Schoof, Jesse Reed and Pee Wee Gardner are enough to keep the Eagles atop the Patriot, but watch out for Army and Lafayette. Those two teams are led by stars that will duel for the league's POY trophy all season. Army's Kyle Wilson led the league in scoring, while Lafayette's Seth Hinrichs is easily the league's most versatile player when healthy.
TBI's PICK: American
TBI's CONFERENCE POY: G Kyle Wilson, Army
TBI'S GAME CHANGER: C Dan Trist, Lafayette
--Trist averaged a sensational 23 points and 9.7 boards per 40 last season. Now, if he can avoid the stupid fouls that keep coach Fran O'Hanlon stapling him to the bench in hopes that he learns a lesson, he can finish the job of being an All-Patriot performer and getting his team to the Big Dance.
20. Summit League (15th of 32)
|Pictured: a large, hairy mastodon. Plus, some guy in an elephant suit.|
TBI's PICK: Oral Roberts
TBI's CONFERENCE POY: F Cody Larson, South Dakota State
TBI'S GAME CHANGER: G/F A.J. Jacobson, North Dakota State
--The Bison are a young bunch, so don't be surprised if the redshirt freshman has to get heavily involved. Jacobson grew to 6'7"/215 during his season off, so he can be a very difficult matchup for Summit League defenders.
19. CAA (16th of 32)
--Northeastern, William & Mary and Hofstra all have electric stars capable of leading their teams to glory. However, Northeastern sports the best supporting cast. All five Husky starters return, plus talented swingman Quincy Ford, who packed it in after two games last season to seek treatment for a nagging back injury. Dark horse Drexel has to have an injury-free season sometime...right?
TBI's PICK: Northeastern
TBI's CONFERENCE POY: F Scott Eatherton, Northeastern
TBI'S GAME CHANGER: F Rodney Williams, Drexel
--The Dragons are practically holding open auditions for big men, but Williams should be the one constant. He averaged nearly a triple-double per 40 minutes last season, but unfortunately the third category was fouls (6.8). If he's smarter with his aggression, he's a potential all-conference pick.
18. OVC (23rd of 32)
--Murray State sports three returning double-figure scorers, and all could earn all-conference honors this season. Belmont simply keeps brushing itself off and rolling on after losing OVC superstars. First, it was iconic guard tandem Kerron Johnson and Ian Clark, then it was wing J.J. Mann. Now, senior Reece Chamberlain and junior Craig Bradshaw take over. SEMO, Austin Peay, Eastern Kentucky and Morehead State all have star-quality performers with fair-to-solid supporting casts behind them.
TBI's PICK: Murray State
TBI's CONFERENCE POY: PG Cameron Payne, Murray State
TBI'S GAME CHANGER: G Khalil Davis, Austin Peay
--Davis and fellow JUCO import Assane Diop could both see immediate time for the Governors. Davis is a vicious slasher who can crash the glass and hit just enough threes to make defenders nervous.
17. MAC (12th of 32)
|"Coach wants me to eat healthy. Hi, healthy."|
TBI's PICK: Toledo
TBI's CONFERENCE POY: F Demetrius Treadwell, Akron
TBI'S GAME CHANGER: C Antonio Campbell, Ohio
--At 260 pounds, Campbell is still trying to tighten up his body, but he put in serious work down the stretch last year, averaging 9.6/4.3 while starting the Bobcats' final eight games.
The top half of the nation, including a listing of TBI's at-large selections, coming in Part 2.