Last week I gave you my early rankings of the big six conferences, and I think all will provide some competitive and interesting races. And while I won't attempt to rank the other 25 conferences, I would like to highlight a few of the conference races outside of the big six that I'll be keeping a close eye on (listed in alphabetical order as to not imply a ranking).
|Derrick Brown is playing more physical for Xavier, which looks like the team to beat in the A-10. (AP)|
Always a very balanced and competitive league, this season will be no different. While the conference lacks many signature non-conference wins, its teams have been competitive while playing strong non-conference foes. Butler, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois State, Louisville, Minnesota, Ohio State, Pittsburgh, Purdue, UCLA, West Virginia and Xavier are some of the opponents.
Only Akron, Buffalo, and Miami have winning records right now, and I think one of these teams will be the league champion. Akron is balanced offensively and leads the MAC in point differential. Buffalo has a win over Temple, played a strong game against UConn and leads the league in rebounding margin. Miami has the league's top scorer in Michael Bramos (19.6 ppg), but on Wednesday lost perhaps the league's top point guard in Kenny Hayes. Kent State and Ohio will challenge for a spot in the top four, and Ball State is the team that could surprise.
On an annual basis I think this conference is one of the more competitive and entertaining in the country outside of the big six. And it's also one of the more underrated.
Going into the weekend, only Colorado State owns a sub .500 record. BYU and UNLV have been the banner carriers the last couple of seasons, and I expect that to be the case again as both appear to be NCAA tournament-caliber teams. Air Force, New Mexico, San Diego State, Utah and Wyoming will be vying for the postseason as well. The Cougars get it done with very efficient offense and solid defense. They average 81 points per game, shoot 60 percent on 2-pointers, 39 percent on 3s and have a 1.5 to 1 assist/turnover ratio. The Runnin' Rebels aren't quite as polished on offense but lead the conference in turnover margin (plus-5 per game) and have one of the nation's most exciting players in Wink Adams. That name is pretty fresh, too!
I like BYU to repeat as regular-season champs. San Diego State's experience and talent make the Aztecs a threat to challenge for the top spot as well. My surprise team is New Mexico.
Gonzaga has been king of the hill here for the past decade, but St. Mary's has continued to close the gap. The Gaels will once again pose the biggest challenge to Gonzaga's league-championship reign. Patty Mills is electrifying at the point but must be a bit more consistent for his team to be its best. San Diego would have been in the battle for the league's top spot as well, but the season-ending knee injury to guard Brandon Johnson lessens that possibility.
Despite Tuesday night's home loss to a very solid Portland State team, I like the Zags to win the conference. They bring a lot of talent and experience to the table that the rest of the conference won't be able to overtake. With the league's top scorer in Dior Lowhorn, San Francisco is the team that could surprise.
Home for the holiday weekend: I've got a home game this weekend for CBS. I'll be courtside for West Virginia at Ohio State. My alma mater is one of the few remaining unbeaten teams in the land and will face a stiff challenge from the unranked, 9-2 Mountaineers with Alex Ruoff and Da'Sean Butler leading the way.
The young Buckeyes are off to a fantastic start, playing solid defense and getting outstanding play from sophomore Eric Turner. But losing junior captain David Lighty is a big bump in the road. I think the battle of the glass could determine the winner in this one. It could be a terrific game. Even if it's not, there is an interesting little sidebar. It's a minor homecoming for West Virginia coach Bob Huggins. He grew up in Ohio and served as a graduate assistant coach for the Buckeyes when his brother Larry and I were both freshman. In a very small way, we were the launching pad to his three decades of coaching success. LOL!
Happy holidays, everyone.