Conference champion predictions: Picks to win every one of college basketball's 32 conferences

Much of the college basketball world is taking a holiday break, but think of this annual lull as the calm before the storm. The holiday tournaments winding down  are a sure sign that conference play is about to begin.

Sure, we know a few conferences have played a few league games, but for the most part, the most important and intense part of the regular season gets started the week after Christmas.

So, with the benefit of analyzing the first few weeks of the regular season,  let's take a mid-term look at who our experts predict will win each of the conferences.

AAC

The league's three top-50 KenPom teams all show up for our expert picks, hinting at what looks to be wide open conference title race in the American Athletic Conference. Houston, undefeated at 11-0 with one of the tougher defenses in the country, is getting the majority of the votes while defending champ Cincinnati and UCF, off to its best start (10-2) under Johnny Dawkins, also gets a nod. -- Chip Patterson.

ACC

This year we get two regular season meetings between Duke and Virginia, and possibly a third in the ACC Tournament. While Norlander stands alone with his Wahoos pick, all of our experts expect these two to not only be at the top of the ACC standings but in the mix for the national championship with each of the head-to-head matchups ranking among the biggest games in college basketball this season. -- CP

America East

Vermont has endured a treacherous nonconference slate that has involved road trips to Kansas and Louisville. That gauntlet will serve the Catamounts well in A-East play and explains their middling 9-4 record to start the season. Led by junior forward Anthony Lamb and senior Ernie Duncan, the key contributors on this team are upperclassmen. That should go a long ways to helping them win their third consecutive conference crown. -- Kyle Boone

Atlantic 10

There's a bit of a logjam at the top of the A-10, and which program emerges victorious as the regular season champ is anyone's guess. But Davidson is a smart bet for several reasons -- first being that Kellan Grady is a burgeoning star with NBA potential, and second being that this team has already been uber competitive. The Wildcats' only three losses all season have been by a combined 27 points, including a two-point overtime loss to Temple in mid-December. Bob McKillop's bunch is younger-than-usual, but does not lack in talent. -- KB

Atlantic Sun

The Bisons were the pick to win the league in the preseason, and nothing that's happened so far has changed that projection. Lipscomb is 9-3 with wins over TCU and SMU — and zero losses to sub-80 KenPom opponents. It'll be a surprise if Casey Alexander's team doesn't win the A-Sun by multiple games. -- Gary Parrish

Big East

St. John's remains undefeated, Marquette has looked the strongest overall, but Villanova is still getting the respect of a program that's won the Big East four of the past five seasons. Jay Wright's team is reconstructing itself after losing four NBA picks, but the culture and 3 point-oriented offense could put the Wildcats atop the Big East once more. It all comes down to guard play. -- Matt Norlander

Big Sky

Montana wrapped its 7-4 nonconference schedule on Saturday with a relatively surprising win at talented South Dakota State. The Grizzlies were ranked highest among all Big Sky teams in CBS Sports' preseason 1-353, and they figure to command the league and push for a second straight NCAA Tournament appearance. -- MN

Big South

Radford has dropped four of its last five but with a senior-laden starting five and a super sophomore in Carlik Jones, the Highlanders can easily stake claim to the most talented roster in the Big South. Jones is averaging 15.3 points, 5.2 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game for Radford. -- KB

Big Ten

Michigan State was the preseason pick, and the Spartans could still win the Big Ten; they're No. 8 in the Top 25 And 1 right now. But Michigan, so far, has looked like the better team. The Wolverines are 12-0 with wins over North Carolina and Villanova. Freshman Ignas Brazdeikis is a star already. -- GP

Big 12

Kansas has won -- checks notes, nods in amazement -- 14 consecutive Big 12 titles. With a roster led by Player of the Year candidate Dedric Lawson, better-than-expected senior Lagerald Vick and a pair of stud freshmen in Devon Dotson and Quentin Grimes, does anyone actually expect that streak to end? (Spoiler: No. No, we do not.) -- KB

Big West

UC Irvine has finished with the best or second-best record in the Big West's standings each of the last five years. So taking that into account, the Anteaters are a safe bet here -- and with good reason. They have the third most experienced roster, according to KenPom, and return six of their top seven scores from last season's 18-win club. -- KB

Colonial

After a shaky 3-3 start with losses to Marshall, Maryland and VCU, Hofstra's managed to go on an absolute tear. The Pride have won seven-straight as they roll into league play -- with a 20.3 scoring margin during that time, which ranks inside the top-10 nationally. Charleston should push them to the brink, but Justin Wright-Foreman is an absolute star capable of dragging them to the promised land. -- KB

Conference USA

The Monarchs will take an eight-game winning streak featuring victories over Syracuse and VCU into January — and they've replaced an all-over-place Western Kentucky team as the C-USA favorite. It's a pretty incredible story considering coach Jeff Jones announced in September that he's battling prostate cancer again. B.J. Stith is averaging 17.5 points and 8.5 rebounds in 32.2 minutes per game. -- GP

Horizon League

Drew McDonald's quiet brilliance was rewarded last season when the Norse stole the Horizon from Wright State. Now, his expected excellence leaves them in the hunt once again. He's averaging 18.3 points and 9.5 rebounds per game for NKU as it barrels towards a potential second consecutive Horizon crown. It'd be an incredible achievement considering it just joined the league beginning in the 2015-16 season. -- KB

Ivy League

Harvard, Yale and Penn are separate by three spots in KenPom's rankings, all of them standing as top-100 teams. With wins over Villanova and Miami, Penn has had the most impressive nonconference performances. But Yale also defeated Miami, and Harvard won at Saint Mary's. If the Crimson can get fully healthy -- Seth Towns and Bryce Aiken might be the two best players in the Ivy, and neither have played a game yet this season -- then it's Harvard's to lose. -- MN

MAAC

Rider's almost certainly going to carry a losing record into league play, but it remains the favorite to win the MAAC because of the Broncs' overall depth. Dimencio Vaughn and Stevie Jordan were expected stars, but are serving as secondary characters behind Jordan Allen, who is averaging a team-high 14.2 points per game. Kevin Baggett has a deep roster primed to turn its nonconference woes into a successful conference run. -- KB

MAC

Buffalo is this year's Loyola-Chicago -- and if/when it makes a run in the NCAA Tournament, it should be no surprise. The Bulls are the clear-cut best team in the MAC and a bonafide top-20 team in the sport. Led by CJ Massinburg, a do-it-all scorer who can hit a heat-check and go en fuego, this team is a near-lock to win its league and return to the Big Dance. -- KB

MEAC

The MEAC ranks as the weakest conference in college hoops this season, but there's bound to be a real race for the top of the heap. Howard has the best offense in the conference, thanks guard R.J. Cole. Norfolk State is the best defensive team. This league is guaranteed to have a new representative in the NCAAs this season because Hampton, the 2017 winner, left for the Big South. -- MN

Missouri Valley

The Valley has been struggling this season, headlined by Loyola-Chicago's inability to grip the momentum off last season's Final Four. The Ramblers are 7-6 but still rate in most metrics as the best team in the conference. The competition? Southern Illinois, which is the most experienced team in the league. Indiana State and potentially even Drake, which boasts the best record of any Valley team through the first eight weeks of the season, are also hovering. Talented Illinois State could be the sleeper pick, if it can find consistency. -- MN

Mountain West

There's a big gap between the perceived No. 1 in the Mountain West, Nevada, and its conference counterparts. The Wolf Pack and their veteran squad -- led by seniors Caleb Martin and Jordan Caroline -- are the best team in the league by a Reno mile. An unbeaten run in league play isn't out of the picture. -- KB

NEC

St. Francis-New York's Glenn Sanabria, Rosel Hurley, Deniz Celen and Cori Johnson have brought the Terriers to the top of the league. It's one of the best home-performing teams in the conference and figures to give the NEC a good chance at having a different team represent the league in the NCAAs for the sixth consecutive season. -- MN

Ohio Valley

What a strong league at the top. Here's what's interesting: Jacksonville State was the majority choice in the preseason by OVC coaches due to how much the Gamecocks were bringing back. JSU ranks as the third-most experienced team in college basketball. And yet, Murray State has a lottery pick in Ja Morant, who has truly become one of the most dynamic and valuable players in college basketball. We won't forget about Belmont, either. The Bruins have the best record of any OVC team (9-1) and have wins against UCLA, Western Kentucky and a sweep of a very good Lipscomb squad. -- MN

Pac-12

Oregon and Washington tied with the most votes in the Pac-12 -- which must be confusing for Bobby Hurley, whose Arizona State Sun Devils are the only Pac-12 school in the AP Top 25 poll. But the truth is that there's probably not much difference between Arizona State, Washington and Oregon when it's healthy. Speaking of, Oregon really needs to get healthy. The Ducks are 2-0 when five-star freshmen Bol Bol and Louis King are both in the lineup, but just 6-4 when at least one of them is out. -- GP

Patriot

Kyle Leufroy's made a gigantic leap as a senior, and junior's Pat Andree and Jordan Cohen have done the same. This team has a starting lineup that packs a big punch on offense -- and no team in the Patriot has a defense inside the top-125 in defensive adjusted efficiency. Mountain Hawks may just score their way to a conference crown. -- KB

SEC

Mississippi State coach Ben Howland was questioned/criticized in the preseason when he said Tennessee, not Kentucky, was the team to beat in the SEC. But it looks like he was right. The Vols are 10-1 and ranked No. 1 in the Top 25 And 1. They're not unbeatable, but they will not beat themselves. Just a rock-solid, experienced and strong basketball team. They're good enough to take Rick Barnes to his second Final Four. -- GP

Southern

Furman has been one of the most refreshing, surprising stories in college hoops. The 12-1 Paladins aren't a consensus pick, though. Not with Wofford and its potential NBAer, Fletcher Magee, in the mix. UNC Greensboro won the league last season, brought back a lot, and still figures to be a danger to overthrow Wofford and Furman as well. This conference does have the potential to be a two-bid league if two of the aforementioned three programs wind up separating by early March and don't take multiple bad losses. -- MN

Southland

Stephen F. Austin's  7-4 start wasn't expected for Kyle Keller and Co., but a bounceback certainly is. Even with the season-ending injury for TJ Holyfield, the Lumberjacks are equipped to bounce back with Shannon Bogues and Kevon Harris leading the way. Combined, they average more than 30 points and 10 rebounds per game for SFA. -- KB

Summit League

South Dakota State, over the past three seasons, has been a lot of Mike Daum in a starring role. But there's been no true Robin to his Batman. Until now. Second-year star David Jenkins is playing like an All-League player, averaging 19.8 points and 3.5 rebounds to go with Daum's 25.3, 10.9 rebound per game stat line. The Jackrabbits are the class of the conference for a second straight season. -- KB

Sun Belt

Georgia State returns four of its starters from last year's NCAA Tournament team -- including Sun Belt Player of the Year D'Marcus Simonds. Simonds is averaging 20.3 points and 4.8 rebounds per game this season, and he's getting help from seniors Malik Benlevi and Jeff Thomas, who are averaging 23.4 points and 9.5 rebounds per game combined. The Panthers are deep and experienced. -- KB

SWAC

Texas Southern put itself through an absolute gauntlet in non-league play. And it earned its lumps, getting out to a 4-8 overall record. But what other SWAC team is playing Gonzaga, Iowa State, Arizona State and Georgia outside of its conference schedule? No team. The Tigers could quadruple their win tally by season's end while only added two or three more losses to their final record. Led by 7-2 Trayvon Reed and LSU transfer Jalyn Patterson, TSU has more talent than any in the SWAC and are more battle-tested than any. -- KB

WAC

It's New Mexico State's league to lose again. Chris Jans has adapted well there in year two, and the Aggies, thanks to an incredibly deep bench, have the strongest offensive and defensive attack in the league. Grand Canyon is the only team that's truly in shouting distance. -- MN

WCC

Winners of six straight WCC titles, Gonzaga is the easy pick here to win the league. The Bulldogs have a wealth of talent, led by future first-round pick Rui Hachimura, along with a future Hall of Fame coach in Mark Few. They're simply in their own tier above the rest of the WCC. -- KB








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