Revising our mid-major predictions
Preseason predictions are always challenging. You can look at who's returning, who has left, who is healthy and who's injured and still end up with a shaky assessment.
But we do our best. Before the season, I made my predictions for the mid-major conferences. Some of them remain credible two months into the 2012-13 campaign. Others ... not so much.
Let's take a look at the current races, now that most teams have played 10 or more games, and try to get it right.
America East original pick: Vermont
Revised pick: Stony Brook
Tommy Brenton (7.5 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 4.9 apg, 1.9 spg) is the perfect glue guy for a Stony Brook squad that has amassed a 9-4 record against America East's toughest nonconference schedule. The Seawolves avoided blowouts in road losses to Connecticut, Maryland and Seton Hall. But they won't face many, if any, teams that are close to that level in league play. Vermont (seventh in the AE at 61.7 ppg) could really use the services of Four McGlynn, who transferred after leading the program to last season's NCAA tournament. Albany's win at Washington is worth mentioning by the way. The Great Danes will be right there with Stony Brook.
Atlantic Sun original pick: Mercer
Revised pick: Mercer
Mercer started the season by losing four of its first seven games. But the Bears shifted their entire season in December when they won five of seven, a rally that included road wins over Florida State and Alabama. They've done it with defense (74th in Ken Pomeroy's defensive efficiency ratings, first in the Atlantic Sun with just 55.4 ppg allowed). But Florida Gulf Coast, their toughest competition for the league's title, owns a win over Miami and possesses the league's top-scoring offense (71.0 ppg). Should be a fun race -- one that began with Mercer's OT win over FGCU on Wednesday.
Big Sky original pick: Montana
Revised pick: Montana
The Grizzlies went 4-3 without Will Cherry, who missed the first seven games of the season with a broken foot. But the senior guard has shaken off the rust in back-to-back wins (22 points, eight assists and six steals combined). Weber State has a win at Dayton and is still a top contender a season after losing Damian Lillard, who is now an NBA rookie of the year candidate. But Cherry's return positions Montana to win this league.
Big South original picks: Charleston Southern (South), VMI (North)
Revised picks: Gardner-Webb (South), High Point (North)
The addition of senior Allan Chaney, a former top-100 recruit who transferred from Virginia Tech after his career was interrupted by a life-threatening heart condition, has elevated the ceiling for High Point, my new favorite in the North. And Gardner-Webb is the only team that has amassed a winning record to date in the South. The Runnin' Bulldogs have the league's top scoring defense (57.1 ppg allowed). If they can contend with Illinois in Champaign (where they lost 63-62 on Nov. 25), then Donta Harper & Co. certainly can handle this division. Coastal, which owns wins over Akron and Clemson, will be right there, though.
Big West original pick: Long Beach State
Revised pick: Long Beach State
The 49ers lost the bulk of their starting five from last season. But I still believe Dan Monson's strategy of facing one of the nation's toughest nonconference slates (losses to North Carolina, UCLA, Syracuse, Arizona and Ohio State) will pay off in conference play. That coupled with the midseason additions of transfers Keala King and Tony Freeland (15 points in 67-63 win over Pacific on Saturday) are the X factors in this league's race. But the 49ers will have to go through UC-Irvine and Cal State Fullerton to earn the championship. And Cal Poly does have that win at UCLA under its belt.
Colonial original pick: Drexel
Revised pick: George Mason
The CAA has been one of the biggest disappointments in the mid-major ranks. Losing Chris Fouch to an ankle injury has really hurt 5-8 Drexel, which had an argument for an at-large bid last season. Old Dominion, once a perennial contender, is 2-12. George Mason is the only squad that's off to a respectable start (7-5). And the Patriots are the only CAA team that's ranked in the top 150 of Ken Pomeroy's defensive efficiency rankings (52nd).
Horizon original pick: Detroit
Revised pick: Illinois-Chicago
The Flames won eight in a row (a streak that included wins over Northwestern, Mercer and Colorado State) but followed that run with three consecutive road losses. But Howard Moore's program opened up conference play Wednesday with a 65-60 win over Youngstown State, another Horizon League contender. I don't think there are any guarantees with so much parity at the top with Detroit, Valparaiso, YSU and Loyola, which is coming off back-to-back road wins against DePaul and Valpo. But I like Illinois-Chicago as the one of America's surprise mid-major league champions.
Ivy original pick: Princeton
Revised pick: Harvard
Tommy Amaker's team could have collapsed after losing Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey in the wake of an academic scandal. But the Crimson are still the league's favorites thanks to a couple of underclassmen. Sophomore Wesley Saunders (15.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg) and freshman Siyani Chambers (12.5 ppg, 5.6 rpg) have been impressive young leaders. Ian Hummer (15.3 ppg) and Princeton are a disappointing 5-7, but are still Harvard's top adversaries -- although Columbia shouldn't be ignored.
MAAC original pick: Loyola (Md.)
Revised pick: Canisius
Erik Etherly and Dylon Cormier are still a potent duo who could lead Loyola (Md.) to a championship. But Rhode Island transfer Billy Baron (17.8 ppg) and his dad, first-year coach Jim Baron, have already led Canisius (28th in Pomeroy's offensive efficiency rankings) to a 9-4 start that includes road wins over Temple and MAAC contender Fairfield. So I'll go with the Golden Griffins. Momo Jones (22.5 ppg) and a hot Iona offense are in the title discussion, too.
Mid-American original pick: Ohio (East), Toledo (West)
Revised pick: Akron (East), Western Michigan (West)
Toledo is 4-7 and coming off a loss to a four-win Chicago State team. Not the start I'd expected, but Western Michigan possesses the league's top RPI (58) after winning six of its first seven games. The Broncos have balance (Nate Hutcheson leads four players who average at least 9.9 ppg). Ohio, months removed from a Sweet 16 run, has faced some unexpected obstacles. Kent State and Akron, which has won five in a row behind Zeke Marshall's efforts (13.3 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 3.8 bpg), look like the smarter picks to win the East. But never count out the Bobcats in March.
MEAC original pick: Savannah State
Revised pick: Savannah State
Sure, Savannah State has lost seven of its past nine games. And on Wednesday, it registered just 35 points in a four-point loss to Western Illinois. But every team in the MEAC is at or below .500, so standings aren't the proper barometer for projections. The Tigers, however, are ranked 27th in Pomeroy's defensive efficiency ratings. Earlier this season, they held Florida to fewer than 60 points. In conference play, that stubborn defense should lead to wins and a conference title.
Missouri Valley original pick: Creighton
Revised pick: Creighton
The Bluejays are still the favorites to win this league. But it won't be easy. Their battle in Wednesday's 79-72 road win over Illinois State proved as much. Wichita State (especially once Carl Hall returns), Indiana State, Illinois State and Northern Iowa could be potential roadblocks for a Creighton squad that averages 79.5 ppg. But the Bluejays are gritty, and there's more to this team than Doug McDermott (22.9 ppg, 7.1 rpg), a strong candidate for national player of the year honors.
Northeast original pick: LIU Brooklyn
Revised pick: Robert Morris
I'd like to stick with the Blackbirds, but the loss of Julian Boyd (18.5 ppg) to an ACL injury last month changed the race in this conference. I think Robert Morris is the favorite now. Karvel Anderson (12.5 ppg) has helped the Colonials win five of their past six games. Wagner (29th in Pomeroy's defensive efficiency ratings) should be in the conversation, too. And don't sleep on rising Bryant.
Ohio Valley original picks: Murray State (West), Belmont (East)
Revised picks: Murray State (West), Belmont (East)
I don't see any reason to change either pick. I think Ian Clark (17.4 ppg) leads a Belmont offense that can stand up to any team in the East. And Murray State hasn't equaled last season's start (how could it?), but the Racers are still the best in the West as long as Isaiah Canaan (21.2 ppg) is running the show. Mark your calendars for Feb. 7, when Belmont and Murray State face off against each other.
Patriot original pick: Lehigh
Revised pick: Bucknell
It's tough to pick against a Lehigh team that's led by C.J. McCollum, the nation's leading scorer and one of its most dynamic players. But the Mountain Hawks' defense (No. 180 in efficiency rating) will be a problem in league play. I'm much more comfortable with a Bucknell team which began the season with a win at Purdue and has won eight of its past nine games. And the Bison also have the Patriot League's -- and one of the nation's -- best players in 6-foot-11 center Mike Muscala, who leads Bucknell in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks per game.
Southern original picks: Davidson (South), UNC-Greensboro (North)
Revised picks: Davidson (South), Elon (North)
The Wildcats are still the team to beat in the South. De'Mon Brooks (14.6 ppg) and Jake Cohen (13.2 ppg) are the conference's top duo again this season. Plus, Davidson has played a tough nonconference schedule that has prepared it for SoCon duels. But Charleston, which defeated Baylor last month, will be its top competition for the division title. Elon's Lucas Troutman (14.9 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 2.2 bpg) could be a difference-maker in the race for the North crown. The 6-10 forward will be an even tougher matchup than he was a season ago.
Southland original pick: Oral Roberts
Revised pick: Stephen F. Austin
The Lumberjacks are 10-1 against a so-so schedule, but they're the only Southland team with a victory over a team in the RPI's top 50 (at Oklahoma). And they're ranked 35th in defensive efficiency per Pomeroy. But Warren Niles (19.7 ppg) could still lead Oral Roberts to the top of this conference.
SWAC original pick: Prairie View A&M
Revised pick: Southern
This is another mid-major league that struggled in November and December. But, to its credit, the SWAC collectively had one of the toughest nonconference slates in the country. Southern is 7-6 (3-6 against Division I teams) versus a nonconference schedule that's ranked 29th per ESPN.com's RPI ratings. That record includes a 53-51 road win at Texas A&M on Dec. 22, by far the league's best nonconference victory. Under new coach Mike Davis, Omar Strong and Texas Southern are probably the Jaguars' top competition for the league's title.
Summit original pick: South Dakota State
Revised pick: North Dakota State
This one had seemed easy. The Jackrabbits returned most of their key contributors, including preseason All-American candidate Nate Wolters, off the first NCAA tournament team in the program's history. But North Dakota State, which has already secured a win over SDSU, has emerged as the favorite in this conference thanks to its offensive and defense balance (both ranked 60th per Pomeroy's efficiency ratings). Taylor Braun (15.3 ppg) is certainly a contender for conference player of the year. Western Illinois, the team's top 3-point shooting squad at 39.4 percent, has won eight in a row (4-0 in Summit League) and shouldn't be overlooked. And now that Wolters is healthy, it's far too early to count out the Jackrabbits too.
Sun Belt original pick: Middle Tennessee (East), North Texas (West)
Revised pick: Middle Tennessee (East), Arkansas State (West)
Middle Tennessee is the best team in the conference. The Blue Raiders are ranked 25th in defensive efficiency per Pomeroy. They own wins over Central Florida, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt. And they're 3-0 in conference play. But they'll have to fight Western Kentucky, 4-0 in the Sun Belt, for the East crown. Tony Mitchell (13.7 ppg, 8.9 rpg), an NBA prospect, is still producing impressive numbers for the Mean Green. But it hasn't led to much success (0-3) in early conference action. Meanwhile, Arkansas State has the league's top-scoring offense (70.8 ppg) and could leave the rest of the division behind in the coming months.
West Coast original pick: Gonzaga
Revised pick: Gonzaga
Last season was an anomaly for the Bulldogs. They failed to attain the West Coast Conference's league championship or tournament title for the first time in nearly 15 years. But they're back on track this season. Once again, it's Gonzaga (wins over Kansas State, Baylor and Oklahoma State) and everyone else in the WCC. Saint Mary's and BYU are its top threats and Santa Clara is much-improved (ask Duke), but it's difficult to envision any other team ending the season with gold. One of the most significant developments for Mark Few's program has been the impact of Kelly Olynyk (15.7 ppg). The 7-footer has been a matchup nightmare for Gonzaga's nonconference opponents, and he'll cause problems for WCC foes too.
WAC original pick: Utah State
Revised pick: Utah State
Utah State has quietly put together an 11-1 start that hasn't really cracked the national radar because the Aggies' nonconference schedule was so mediocre. But I'll give the league's top 3-point-shooting team (39.5 percent) a slight edge over Louisiana Tech and Denver in this race in part because the Smith Spectrum is such a difficult place to win. Plus, junior Preston Medlin (15.1 ppg) has elevated his game in recent weeks, a good sign for an Aggies team that should end the season with the league title.
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