College Basketball Conference Previews: Best of the Rest

By Jeff Borzello | College Basketball Writer

FGCU (USATSI)
Can Florida Gulf Coast return to the NCAA tournament? (USATSI)

Whether it's Butler making back-to-back Final Four runs or Florida Gulf Coastwinning two games en route to a Sweet 16 appearance, the stories that capture everyone's attention in March often involve the small schools.

And while Butler has since moved to the Atlantic 10 and now the Big East, it's likely to be the same in the 2014 NCAA tournament.

So far in the CBSSports.com College Basketball Preview, we've looked at the top 11 conferences in the country: ACC, AAC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Missouri Valley, Mountain West, Pac-12, SEC, WCC. This will take care of the rest of the nation's leagues.

For a quick cheat sheet, we'll give you a heads-up at the top five “Best of the Rest” teams:

Harvard
Louisiana Tech
Towson
Southern Mississippi
North Dakota State

Here is our preview of the rest of the conferences:

America East

Projected Champion: Vermont

Keep An Eye On: The Catamounts bring back all five starters from last season's second-place team, led by versatile forward Brian Voelkel. Defending champs Stony Brook have to replace Tommy Brenton, but Jameel Warney is poised for a big year. Jordan Reed and Binghamton could be a sleeper.

Atlantic Sun

Projected Champion: Florida Gulf Coast

Keep An Eye On: Most people don't remember, but FGCU didn't even finish first in the league standings last season. That honor went to Mercer, which has the league's best defense. However, FGCU brings back four starters, including guards Brett Comer and Bernard Thompson. USC Upstate's Torrey Craig is arguably the league's best player.

Big Sky

Projected Champion: Weber State

Keep An Eye On: Montana and Weber State battled through the entire conference campaign last season, and it could happen again. However, Montana loses Will Cherry and Mathias Ward; Kareem Jamar will carry them. Led by Davion Berry, we're going with Weber State.

Big South

Projected Champion: High Point

Keep An Eye On: It looks like we could have a repeat of last season, when High Point and Charleston Southern won their divisions. It's a battle between guards and forwards, as High Point relies on forwards John Brown and Allan Chaney, while CSU counters with the backcourt of Saah Nimley and Arlon Harper. Liberty and Radford could contend.

Big West

Projected Champion: UC Irvine

Keep An Eye On: The Big West is always a fun conference to watch, and there are some individual studs once again. UC Davis' Corey Hawkins and UC Santa Barbara's Alan Williams are two of the best players you haven't seen enough of, and they'll compete for Player of the Year honors. It's going to be wide open at the top of the league, though, but UC-Irvine's touted newcomers could make a difference.

CAA

Projected Champion: Towson

Keep An Eye On: Less than two seasons removed from a 41-game losing streak, Pat Skerry and Towson are the favorites. Jerrelle Benimon is one of the best big men in the country. Drexel counters with Damion Lee and Chris Fouch, while Charleston and Delaware also have firepower.

Conference USA

Projected Champion: Louisiana Tech

Keep An Eye On: Without Memphis, this league could have a stiff competition at the top – and up to three NCAA tournament bids. Louisiana Tech has four returning starters from a team that won 27 games in the WAC, including Kenneth Smith and Raheem Appleby. Southern Miss has won at least 20 games in four straight seasons, and Donnie Tyndall still has Neil Watson on board. Watch for UTEP, which has a talented lineup – even without Isaac Hamilton.

Horizon

Projected Champion: Wright State

Keep An Eye On: With five starters back from a team that came within one game of the NCAA tournament, Wright State has the edge. Butler transfer Chrishawn Hopkins could be a difference-maker for the Raiders. Green Bay will contend, with the inside-outside duo of Keifer Sykes and Alec Brown. Look out for Oakland, which has 22.1-point scorer Travis Bader leading the way.

Ivy

Projected Champion: Harvard

Keep An Eye On: The Crimson have the ability to be the best mid-major team in the country, after beating New Mexico in the NCAA tournament. Four starters are back, as are suspended starters Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry. Moreover, top-100 recruit Zena Edosomwan could dominate the league. Princeton will contend despite losing Player of the Year Ian Hummer.

MAAC

Projected Champion: Manhattan

Keep An Eye On: There doesn't seem to be one favorite this season, with Manhattan, Iona and Canisius all making worthy cases. Manhattan has star George Beamon back from injury along with four starters; Iona will still put up 80 points a game; and Canisius has the backcourt of Billy Baron and Chris Perez.

Mid-American

Projected Champion: Toledo

Keep An Eye On: Akron and Ohio rolled through the league last year, but it should be more competitive this season. The Zips lose 7-footer Zeke Marshall, but have Demetrius Treadwell and Quincy Diggs. Buffalo has the league's best player in Javon McCrea, as well as a new coach in Bobby Hurley. Toledo should win the West with four starters and two solid transfers in J.D. Weatherspoon and Justin Drummond.

MEAC

Projected Champion: Norfolk State

Keep An Eye On: Don't expect a tourney slip-up from Norfolk State this season, after the Spartans went 16-0 but were knocked out in the MEAC quarterfinals. Pendarvis Williams is back to lead the way. Morgan State has four starters back, while NC-Central has guard Justin Ingram to ignite the offense.

Northeast

Projected Champion: Wagner

Keep An Eye On: Much of the NEC race will depend on LIU Brooklyn's Julian Boyd, who tore his ACL for the second time in July – and will miss at least half the season. If he returns, the Blackbirds could be the favorite. If not, it could be a struggle. Mount St. Mary's, Bryant, Wagner, Robert Morris are all contenders – and guard Kyle Vinales' return means Central Connecticut State is a sleeper.

Ohio Valley

Projected Champion: Eastern Kentucky

Keep An Eye On: Eastern Kentucky won 25 games last season, but that was overshadowed by Belmont's dominance and Murray State's inconsistency. Now, with Glenn Cosey and four starters back, all eyes are on the Colonels. Look for Southeast Missouri to also make a move, with forwards Tyler Stone and Nino Johnson leading the way.

Patriot

Projected Champion: Boston University

Keep An Eye On: With Boston University and Loyola (Md.) entering the league, there could be some shakeups at the top of the Patriot. The Terriers return their top seven scorers, and could be the favorite in their first season. As for the returnees, Lafayette and Bucknell are the ones to watch. Can Bucknell's Cameron Ayers make up for the loss of two-time Player of the Year Mike Muscala?

Southern

Projected Champion: Elon

Keep An Eye On: The SoCon is in the midst of plenty of change, with Charleston leaving the league and a host of departures set to happen after the upcoming season. Before that hits, though, can anyone take down Davidson, which has lost just three league games the past two seasons? Elon could have the pieces, with all five starters back from a 21-win team. Lucas Troutman and Jack Isenberger form a dynamite inside-outside duo.

Southland

Projected Champion: Northwestern State

Keep An Eye On: With Stephen F. Austin losing head coach Danny Kaspar and Player of the Year Taylor Smith, it's time for defending tourney champions Northwestern State to take the reins. The Demons play some of the fastest basketball in the country, and DeQuan Hicks and Jalen West form one of the more dangerous duos in the Southland.

Summit

Projected Champion: North Dakota State

Keep An Eye On: Expect a two-team race for most of the season between North Dakota State and newcomer Denver, who went 16-2 in the WAC. NDSU brings back pretty much everyone, including Player of the Year candidate Taylor Braun. Denver counters with Chris Udofia and one of the league's best defenses. South Dakota State will miss Nate Wolters.

Sun Belt

Projected Champion: Georgia State

Keep An Eye On: Georgia State could certainly be a team to watch if it makes the NCAA tournament. The Panthers bring back four starters, including guards R.J. Hunter and Devonta White and forward Manny Atkins. Moreover, they get the immediate services of Kentucky transfer Ryan Harrow. That's not it, though. Louisiana-Lafayette has the duo of guard Elfrid Payton and Shawn Long, while Western Kentucky won 20 games and has four starters. And South Alabama's Augustine Rubit is a 20-10 threat every night. Watch this league.

SWAC

Projected Champion: Texas Southern

Keep An Eye On: Texas Southern won the regular season last year, but Mike Davis' troops were ineligible for postseason play. With Ray Penn running the show and West Virginia transfer Aaric Murray prepared to dominate inside, the Tigers could break through this season. Southern gave Gonzaga a scare in the tourney, and star Malcolm Miller is back. Alabama A&M could be a sleeper.

WAC

Projected Champion: New Mexico State

Keep An Eye On: With Denver, Louisiana Tech and Utah State all moving on to other conferences, New Mexico State should roll over the competition. The Aggies reached the NCAA tournament after winning 18 of their final 20 games, and three starters are back. Guard Daniel Mullings and 7-foot-5 behemoth Sim Bhullar form a dominant duo.

Our Preseason All-“Best of the Rest” Team

G: Elfrid Payton, UL-Lafayette

G: Corey Hawkins, UC Davis

G/F: Wesley Saunders, Harvard

F: Jerrelle Benimon, Towson

F: Augustine Rubit, South Alabama

Our Preseason “Best of the Rest” Player of the Year

Jerrelle Benimon, Towson

The former Georgetown transfer took the CAA by storm last season, dominating the league from the first game of the year. Benimon notched 19 double-doubles en route to averages of 17.1 points and 11.2 boards. He could be even more dangerous this season, especially if he expands his game to be more consistent from the perimeter. Head coach Pat Skerry is counting on Benimon to get them to the tourney.

Our Preseason “Best of the Rest” Newcomer of the Year

Ryan Harrow, Georgia State

The reputation surrounding Harrow is not all that positive right now, after he transferred from North Carolina State to Kentucky and now Georgia State. However, he's supremely talented and his quickness and athleticism should be far too much for the Sun Belt. Moreover, the pressure on him will by far less with the Panthers. In terms of freshmen, look for UTEP's Vincent Hunter and Harvard's Zena Edosomwan.

Our Preseason “Best of the Rest” Coach of the Year

Tommy Amaker, Harvard

There are a ton of candidates for this spot, and Towson's Pat Skerry will certainly be a viable option should the Tigers get to the NCAA tournament. However, we'll go with Amaker. Harvard is clearly the best team in the conferences discussed here, and the Crimson have the talent and depth to match up with nearly any opponent in the country. It wouldn't surprise anyone to see Harvard enter March with two losses or fewer.

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