Sunday, November 20, 2016

2017 Predictions: The Majors

Yes!  The “Major” conferences.  These are the bread and butter to forecasting a good bracket.  The powers that be make it impossible to properly rate the BCS conference teams, watching middling teams get way over-seeded or included, while strong teams from this group regularly get the shaft.  It frustrates me to no end when I am championing two potential Cinderella teams and they get pitted against each in the 7-10 game, all the while boasting the profile of a 4-5 seed.  Meanwhile, some pluck BCS bubble team sneaks into their conference semifinals and is suddenly anointed champion of the hour.

Most of you will probably get a chuckle out of the likes of Texas San Antonio playing in a major conference, or being put in the same breath as defending champion Villanova.  However, even the MAC and Conference USA have the talent to be multi-bid leagues with a couple breaks.

The Big East should continue to roll deeper than most of the BCS conferences.  Nova is still deep, Xavier keeps getting better, and Seton Hall has recovered from 2 decades of apathy in a basketball-first environment.  If Greg McDermott has turned the corner in Omaha, this conference really has 4 teams looking at top 4 seeds.  Early results show that Marquette, Butler and Providence should compete well despite personnel losses.  DePaul and Saint John’s will continue to suck… more on those teams in another post.

That also brings me to a point.  Very few of my preseason previews will mention specific players.  And isn’t that I don’t or don’t care.  25 years of college basketball obsession have proven a few things.  The first is that players win games.  Supremely talented shooters, ball-handlers, and big men make plays that affect the outcomes of games.  However, good coaching wins championships.  Somebody who is thinking 5 steps ahead to make sure he is getting the most of each position on floor night after night is the biggest difference between the NIT and NCAA tourney for many of these teams.  When it comes down to projecting standings, players come, go, get hurt, get suspended.  A good coach deals with it all and adjusts.  On the list of NCAA tournament winning coaches, there are very few “interlopers”.  Kevin Ollie has yet to prove himself (and say what you want about these guys’ ethics… discussion for another time), but Jim Harrick is the only one who stands out in the last 30 years as being “wtf, how did he win?”  Buying into a coach’s system, process and character goes further than guess which of these 3, 4, and 5 star recruits will pan out.

The Atlantic 10 is the sleeping giant.  Because of the lack of football exposure, every year people ask me, “where is Saint Bonaventure?”  Dayton is back and Archie Miller should get them much deeper into the tournament.  Davidson has made the adjustment from the Southern Conference and continue to find talent other major programs pass on. I keep waiting for Richmond to turn the corner, but something seems missing from his Princeton-style attack.  VCU will probably take a step back from elite to just really good.  Shaka Smart’s coattails are only so long, and eventually will run out.  The real wild cards are the other Rams (URI) and the Bonnies.  Both look ready to make some noise this year.  So many schools in this conference in great recruiting areas so it is hard to imagine them not fielding good teams.

In the AAC, Southern Methodist has broken my heart enough the last couple years.  Larry Brown’s name was enough to get people interested in the program after a history of ineptitude.  They should be a Sweet 16 team this year.  Cincinnati is not going away, but Memphis may… not sure I buy this Tubby Smith experiment.  This may only be a 2 bid league unless somebody emerges from the Houston/Tulsa/UConn/Temple bubble.

Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s have reloaded… Saint Mary’s was violently screwed on selection Sunday and have a chip on their shoulder.  BYU always looks great on the court, then you blink and they have 9 losses.  Pepperdine may have the horse to sneak past them in the standings, but not enough to threaten the Top Dogs.  Santa Clara will slow it down this year and be a dark horse by the end of the season.

UNLV is a hot mess right now and I can’t that getting fixed before February.  Nevada has the depth to push ahead of San Diego State, and both are solid at-large teams.  Picking 3 through 7 here is a crapshoot, but New Mexico boasts the best home court advantage that will play out in the regular season.  There is a lot of talent in this conference, and is a year away from maybe getting 4-5 teams in.

Conference USA is full of teams that seem to covet the glory of major conference football, but have so little pedigree nobody is buying in yet.  MTSU is the best of the bunch, but the Monarchs and Blazers bring some tourney experience to the table.  Marshall and Charlotte will push the pace all season long, but neither are equipped to win regularly on the road (shoot, play D).

The MVC misses Creighton.  Northern Iowa is trying to play foil to the Shockers’ dominance, but after that the cupboard is pretty bare.  Barry Hinson looks to have SIU on the right track, and Illinois State is a solid 20 win team, but the lack of depth will keep this conference low in the RPI discussion, and anyone not named Gregg Marshall should expect to be forced to win Arch Madness to secure a bid in the Dance.

Buffalo (the house Reggie Witherspoon built) has been solid for the last 5+ years, but the test will be whether it can be sustained. Ohio and Toledo are fortunately n opposite sides of the conference as to not cannibalize each other.  Keno Davis will bring some excitement to Central Michigan.  The conference will need a few signature wins early to get into the 2 bid discussion.

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