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College Basketball Preview Part 2 – The Major Conferences

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Duke's Grayson Allen. Photo: USA Today Sports

In the first installment of the college basketball preview, the mid-major conferences were examined. Part 2 will take a closer look at the major conferences. For this installment, each conference will be broken down into four tiers based on the quality and expectations of the team.

First tier teams – These teams are locks to make the NCAA tournament, and they should be disappointed if they don’t advance to at least the Sweet 16. The ultimate goal for each of these teams is a run to the final four.

Second tier teams – These teams should make the NCAA tournament. With a quality win or two, the Sweet 16 is a very realistic expectation.

Third tier teams – If the pieces come together, these teams could potentially sneak into the NCAA tournament. A win or two over quality teams could get them in, but a loss or two to poor teams will keep them out. These teams are dangerous in the first round if they do sneak in.

Fourth tier teams – These teams are trying to find an identity and have no real chance of making the NCAA tournament. Finishing around .500 would be a tremendous accomplishment for these squads.

Let’s look at the breakdown for each of the major conferences using these tiers.

American Athletic Conference

First Tier – None

Second Tier – Cincinnati, Connecticut

Third Tier – Houston, Memphis, SMU, Temple

Fourth Tier – Tulsa, UCF, East Carolina, South Florida, Tulane

Cincinnati should be the best team in the AAC. They return Troy Caupain and Gary Clark from a team that made last year’s NCAA tournament as a #9 seed. Keep an eye on freshman shooting guard Jarron Cumberland. Connecticut loses some major talent from last year’s team, but they bring in one of the best recruiting classes in the nation. Returning senior guard Rodney Purvis and four four-star recruits should get this team safely into the NCAA tournament.

Houston is a program on the rise under coach Kelvin Sampson.  The Cougars should be one of the better teams in the league, but they need to be more consistent. Memphis brings in coach Tubby Smith. Coach Smith should be able to build the program quickly, but he may have growing pains in year one. SMU loses coach Larry Brown, but the talent is still there for a run in March.  Temple and coach Fran Dunphy had a great season in 2015-16, but they lose a lot of talent. The rest of the AAC is filled with teams trying to break into the upper half of the conference.

Atlantic Coast Conference

First Tier – Duke, Louisville, North Carolina, Virginia

Second Tier – Florida State, Miami, Syracuse, Virginia Tech

Third Tier – Clemson, NC State, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh

Fourth Tier – Boston College, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest

Duke returns strong leaders in Grayson Allen and Amile Jefferson from a team that advanced to the sweet sixteen a year ago. Add to that five freshmen ranked in the top forty of their class, and this is a team that will begin the season as the favorites to win a national title. The Blue Devils should be two deep at every position. Louisville could be in for a year of turmoil based on how they recover from NCAA violations, but coach Rick Pitino has the talent for this team to make a deep run in March. The Cardinals bring back a core of players who added depth last season, and they bring in freshman V.J. King. The five-star recruit should make an instant impact at the small forward position.

North Carolina loses some key pieces from a team that fell just short in last season’s national championship game. Coach Roy Williams does return five players who contributed important minutes in that game. He also brings in three freshmen who should all find spots in a deep rotation. Virginia lost a heartbreaker to Syracuse in last year’s Elite Eight. They also lost key seniors who helped coach Tony Bennett return the program to prominence. The Cavaliers won’t drop too far with the return of point guard London Perrantes, the transfer of former Memphis player Austin Nichols, and a deep recruiting class.

Florida State will improve with the return of key players Dwayne Bacon and Xavier Rathan-Mayes. They also bring in a talented recruiting class. Miami lost a large portion of their rotation from last season’s Sweet 16 team, but upperclassmen Javon Reed and Ja’Quan Newton should get them back to the NCAA tournament. Syracuse made a surprise run to last year’s Final Four after sneaking in to the tournament as a #10 seed. They lose their top three scorers from last season, but coach Jim Boeheim is a master at finding players that fit his system. Virginia Tech is improving under coach Buzz Williams. Look for them to make a run in March behind the leadership of seniors Zach LeDay and Seth Allen.

Clemson brings back a rising star in senior Jaron Blossomgame. The Tigers could very well sneak into the top half of the conference and improve on last season’s 17-14 finish. NC State loses do-it-all guard Anthony Barber as well as other players to transfers. They will try to replace these players with two five-star recruits in Dennis Smith Jr. and Omer Yurtseven. Notre Dame is coming off back-to-back elite eight appearances, but they lose their top two scorers in Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste. Coach Mike Brey does a great job of developing players, so don’t expect too big of a drop this year. Pittsburgh brings in coach Kevin Stallings to try to reinvigorate a program that has is stuck in mediocrity. Leading scorers Michael Young and Jamel Artis return in a year where the program is in much need of a jump start. Boston College, Georgia Tech, and Wake Forest will bring up the bottom of the conference.

Big 12 Conference

First Tier – Kansas

Second Tier – Iowa State, Texas, West Virginia

Third Tier – Baylor, Oklahoma, Texas Tech

Fourth Tier – Kansas State, Oklahoma State, TCU

Kansas should have no problem winning their 13th consecutive regular season Big 12 title. Coach Bill Self has built a dominant program built on strong senior leadership and talented recruiting classes. The team once again has returning experience in Frank Mason III, Devonte’ Graham, and Landen Lucas. They also bring in the #1 recruit in the nation, Josh Jackson. Expect the Jayhawks to make a strong push for this season’s Final Four. Iowa State went through a coaching change last year, but there should be more stability heading into 2016-17. Coach Steve Prohm returns senior guard Monte Morris. Morris should be in the running for national player of the year. Senior leader Nazareth Mitrou-Long returns after missing a good portion of last season.

Texas loses the top three scorers from last year’s team, but it may be addition by subtraction. Coach Shaka Smart is building a team that fits his system, and a talented recruiting class led by five-star recruit Jarrett Allen should push this team to new heights. West Virginia fizzled out in the first round last year, and they will be looking to replace leading scorers Jaysean Paige and Devin Williams. Coach Bob Huggins always has deep, athletic teams. This year should be no different.

Baylor has been upset in the first round of the NCAA tournament each of the past two seasons. They lose a lot of talent from last year and will be hard pressed to make the tournament this year. Oklahoma will have trouble replacing Buddy Hield, a senior who led them to the school’s first Final Four since 2002. Texas Tech made the tournament last year but lost coach Tubby Smith.  Some talent returns, but the program lacks a true identity. Kansas State, Oklahoma State, and TCU are all looking to find progress this year.

Big East

First Tier – Villanova, Xavier

Second Tier – Butler, Creighton

Third Tier – Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, Seton Hall

Fourth Tier – DePaul, St. John’s

It was a magical year for Villanova in 2015-16. The Wildcats won a national title after a buzzer beating three by Kris Jenkins. Jenkins returns along with rising stars Josh Hart, Jalen Brunson, and Phil Booth. Unfortunately, incoming five-star freshman Omari Spellman was ruled ineligible and will miss the season. This will be a tough blow for a team without much size, but repeating as national champions is not out of the question. Xavier was shocked by Wisconsin in the second round of the NCAA tournament after a successful regular season. The Musketeers return guards Trevon Bluiett and Edmond Sumner to an experienced nucleus. Coach Chris Mack has turned this program into an annual national title contender.

Butler loses key seniors Kellen Dunham and Roosevelt Jones, but upcoming junior Kelan Martin returns. Expect freshman Joey Brunk to become the next star for the Bulldogs. Creighton should return to prominence this season. Transfer Marcus Foster is now eligible and could immediately become their top scorer. The Bluejays also return point guard Maurice Watson Jr. and senior leader Cole Huff. Georgetown will attempt to recover after a dismal 2015-16 campaign. Coach John Thompson III loses senior leader D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, but every other important contributor returns.

Providence will try to recover after the loss of last year’s leaders Ben Bentil and Kris Dunn. The Friars will be very young, so they may be one year away from challenging at a national level again. Seton Hall beat Villanova in the Big East title game last season but was then upset by Gonzaga in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Leading scorer Isaiah Whitehead is gone, but almost everyone else returns for a team that could make some more noise in March. DePaul and St. John’s both bring in talented recruiting classes but may be a year away from competing in the Big East.

Big Ten

First Tier – Indiana, Michigan State, Purdue, Wisconsin

Second Tier – Maryland, Michigan, Ohio State

Third Tier – Illinois, Iowa, Northwestern, Penn State

Fourth Tier – Minnesota, Nebraska, Rutgers

Coach Tom Crean has returned Indiana to an annual contender. This season should be no different even with the loss of four year starter Yogi Ferrell. The Hoosiers should be deeper this season with the return of James Blackmon Jr. from injury and the continued development of rising sophomores Thomas Bryant and O.G. Anunoby. Michigan State suffered the worst loss in program history last year to Middle Tennessee in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Denzel Valentine and the rest of the Spartans were one of the favorites to win a championship, but they didn’t even make it past the first day. Coach Tom Izzo lost a lot of experience, but he brings in arguably the best recruiting class in his coaching tenure. Expect the four freshmen all ranked in the top 50 of their class to make an immediate impact.

Purdue lost a hard fought battle to Arkansas-Little Rock in the first round of the NCAA tournament last season. They lose leading scorer A.J. Hammons, but everyone else of significance returns. The Boilermakers should expect big seasons out of Caleb Swanigan and Vince Edwards. Wisconsin should be the top team in the Big Ten this season. Seniors Nigel Hayes and Bronson Keonig have participated in two final fours, and they led an inexperienced team last season to the Sweet 16. The roster is almost identical to last season, and Coach Greg Gard will be in his first full season at the helm. Keep an eye on big man Ethan Happ, the next great big man for the Badgers.

Maryland loses four of five starters from last season, but Melo Trimble returns. Trimble had a rough sophomore season, but expect him to take on a bigger leadership role heading into 2016-17. The Terrapins also bring in three four star recruits. Michigan is loaded with experience. Seniors Zak Irvin, Derrick Walton Jr., and Duncan Robinson make this a dangerous team in the first few rounds of the NCAA tournament. Ohio State had a rough offseason after multiple players transferred out of the program. The lack of depth may hurt, but the top six leading scorers from last season all return.

Illinois will look to improve after the past few seasons have been ruined by injuries. Coach John Groce returns senior Malcolm Hill to a roster filled with high expectations. Iowa loses a lot of talent from a team that fizzled near the end of last season. Peter Jok should be their go-to guy and could become a top player in the Big Ten. Northwestern is still searching for their first trip to the NCAA tournament. Point guard Bryant McIntosh will be the key to how far this team goes in 2016-17. Penn State brings in a solid recruiting class to a program that seems to be on the verge of excellence. Minnesota and Nebraska both have head coaches on the hot seat, and Rutgers will be happy with anything but a last place finish in the league.

Pac 12 Conference

First Tier – Arizona, Oregon

Second Tier – California, Colorado, UCLA

Third Tier – Oregon State, Stanford, USC, Utah, Washington

Fourth Tier – Arizona State, Washington State

Arizona will look to rebound from an up and down 2015-16 season that ended with a first round loss to Wichita State. The Wildcats lose key pieces in Ryan Anderson and Gabe York, but coach Sean Miller continues to reload with great recruiting classes. Three five star recruits enter the program with high expectations. This could be a boom or bust season depending on their development. Oregon advanced to the elite eight last season, and a good portion of the talent returns. Dillon Brooks will be a national player of the year candidate. Coach Dana Altman also brings in four four-star recruits on an already deep and experienced roster. It is very likely this team will end up in the final four.

California lost a lot of talent, but the best news this off season came when Ivan Rabb decided to return for his sophomore season. Many believed him to be a lottery pick if he went pro after his freshman year, but he returned to the Golden Bears. If California can find better depth off the bench, this will be a good team come March. George King and Josh Fortune return to Colorado looking for after a dismal finish to last season. After beginning the 2015-16 season 11-1, the team limped to a 22-12 record. UCLA looks to return to the NCAA tournament with the addition of talented freshman Lonzo Ball. The Bruins also return leading scorers Isaac Hamilton and Bryce Alford. Coach Steve Alford could be on the hot seat if this team fails to meet the high expectations of the fan base.

Oregon State advanced to the NCAA tournament last season, but it may be hard to repeat that feat with the loss of talented point guard Gary Payton II. Stanford fired Coach Johnny Dawkins after eight average seasons. New Coach Jerod Haase will struggle in his first year to bring stability to the Cardinal. USC lost a close game in the first round of the NCAA tournament to Providence a season ago. The Trojans need to find more depth as they faded late last year. Utah loses Jakob Poeltl to the NBA, and this season will be about rebuilding for the Utes. Washington has one of the most talented players in the nation in freshman Markelle Fultz. The Huskies will go as he goes. Arizona State and Washington State should feel lucky if they can somehow work into the middle of the pack in the Pac 12.

Southeastern Conference

First Tier – Kentucky

Second Tier – Auburn, Florida, Mississippi State, Texas A&M

Third Tier – Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Ole Miss, South Carolina, Vanderbilt

Fourth Tier – LSU, Missouri, Tennessee

Kentucky is the class of the SEC once again. The biggest question for coach John Calipari is how quickly he can get a new class of talented freshmen to gel. The Wildcats lose Jamal Murray, Tyler Ulis, and Alex Poythress from a squad that only made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament a year ago. They are replaced by five five-star recruits. De-Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, and Bam Adebayo are the names to keep in mind when watching this team. Kentucky will challenge for a national title based on talent alone.

Auburn should take a huge step forward in Coach Bruce Pearl’s third year at the helm. The Tigers were riddled with injuries last season, but Bryce Brown is back at the point guard position to lead a deep and hungry team. Mustapha Heron is a talented player who instantly becomes one of the best in the SEC. Florida look to take a step back towards national contention. KeVaughn Allen and John Egbunu look to return the Gators to the NCAA tournament for the first time since the final four run during the 2013-14 season. Mississippi State and coach Ben Howland bring in a highly-touted recruiting class consisting of six four-star players. If the Bulldogs can gel quickly, they will be a dangerous team in March. Texas A&M loses a lot of talent and leadership from last season’s sweet sixteen squad. They will take a small step back, but rising sophomore Tyler Davis should get them back into the NCAA tournament.

Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Ole Miss, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt all have a lot of question marks. The talent is there for any of them to slip into the top of the SEC, but inconsistent play over the past few seasons makes it hard to determine how good or bad any of them will be. The SEC has struggled in recent seasons to get a good amount of NCAA at-large bids, and this season may be no different. LSU loses Ben Simmons and will struggle to compete. Missouri and Tennessee bring up the rear in a conference that will be shifting throughout the season.

There is the look at the major conferences heading into the 2016-17 college basketball season.  The final installment will look at the national breakdown and will include predictions on which teams we should expect to see advance far in March.

By Ben Billman

Ben Billman is currently a doctoral teaching assistant at the United States Sports Academy. He lives in Mobile, Ala. with his wife Jennifer and son Derrick. He is originally from Indiana, and therefore has a deep love for the game of basketball. Reach him at bbillman@ussa.edu

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