Sunday, November 04, 2007

College Basketball Conference Previews - RPI Ranks 23-31

College basketball action is underway, so we are examining conferences from the bottom up. These mini-previews will give you a flavor for some of the players from smaller schools that you will only see in March.

And yes, we're starting with the HBCUs ...

Southwestern Athletic Conference
Conference RPI Projection: 31
Projected Champion: Grambling
Player of the Year: Andre Ratliff, Grambling

Just like last year when Trey Johnson took Jackson State to the NCAA Tournament, point guard Andre Ratliff (16.4 ppg, 3.9 apg) will hoist his team to a tournament bid. Couple that with three other returning starters and Grambling has an opportunity to vastly improve on a 12-win season. Of course, they will be challenged most stiffly by Mississippi Valley State and Jackson State, the only two teams who finished with winning records last season.

Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference
Conference RPI Projection: 30
Projected Champion: Hampton
Player of the Year: Rashad West, Hampton

Last year was a feeling-out process for 1st year head coach Kevin Nickelberry. This year, expectations exist in the Tidewater region as the Pirates return all five starters and have steady bench depth. In addition to nearly 18 points per game, senior guard Rashad West averaged 3.6 rips, 2.6 dishes, 1.8 steals per game. As this is a 1-bid league, Delaware State may rally around Blue Ribbon’s POY prediction Roy Bright, who returned to school after testing the NBA Draft waters.

Northeast Conference
Conference RPI Projection: 29
Projected Champion: Sacred Heart
Player of the Year: Tristan Blackwood, Central Connecticut St.

Sacred Heart is not just the hospital name used on the NBC sitcom Scrubs, it is also a small school in Fairfield, Connecticut. The Pioneers lost their best player from last year (Jarrid Frye), but their depth, balance and the ability to play as a unit is what had them streaking at the end of last season. Sacred Heart can expect stiff competition from Robert Morris, Wagner and St. Francis, who return a combined 13 of 15 starters. With that said, all Tristan Blackwood (17.1 ppg, 4.1 apg) needs is three good games from his supporting cast to punch Central Connecticut State’s ticket to the NCAAs.

Atlantic Sun Conference
Conference RPI Projection: 28
Projected Champion: East Tennessee State
Player of the Year: Courtney Pigram, East Tennessee State

There will be no slip-up for East Tennessee State in the conference tournament. Not only will Courtney Pigram right the wrongs of yesteryear, he’ll have some additions to an already-strong team in the form of medical redshirt Travis Strong and redshirt freshman Micah Williams. Belmont’s Justin Hare will fall just short of returning to the NCAA tournament.

Big Sky Conference
Conference RPI Projection: 27
Projected Champion: Montana
Player of the Year: Jordan Hasquet, Montana

Montana are far-and-away the favorites to win the Big Sky with 4 starters returning, including Andrew Strait and Jordan Hasquet, who both earned all-conference honors last season. Expect champions Weber State to compete led by junior guard Juan Pablo Silveira, but the Grizzlies should cruise behind a talented frontcourt unbeknownst to mid-major basketball and a rock solid recruiting class.

Big South Conference
Conference RPI Projection: 26
Projected Champion: Winthrop
Player of the Year: Arizona Reid, High Point

The Winthrop Eagles have won seven of the last nine Big South conference titles. What about Gregg Marshall having jettisoned to Wichita State? No problem. The university was quick to promote top assistant Randy Peele to head coach and the school represents one of the top mid-major programs. Despite losing key starters Craig Bradshaw, Torrell Martin and top low post defender Phillip Wiliams, the men donning the garnet and gold have the talent to overcome the likes of High Point, led by senior forward Arizona Reid (21.0 ppg, 9.5 reb, 50.9 FG%).

Big West Conference
Conference RPI Projection: 25
Projected Champion: UC Santa Barbara
Player of the Year: Alex Harris, UC Santa Barbara

When the mighty fall, they fall hard. This holds true for Long Beach State, who have long been a staple at the top of the Big West. Essentially, they will start from scratch after losing their head coach and five starters. On the flipside, UC-SB returns four starters including Alex Harris and Chris Devine, who accounted for 35.0 points and 11.4 rebounds per game last season. They’ll be challenged by Cal Poly, who made it to the Big West Championship game and return a formidable squad.

Southland Conference
Conference RPI Projection: 24
Projected Champion: Northwestern State
Player of the Year: Chris Daniels, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi

In 2006, the Demons shocked Iowa in the NCAA tournament with a buzzer-beating fadeaway to book a spot in the 2nd round. In 2007, Texas A&M-CC held the lead for most of their game against Wisconsin. This is a conference on the rise. While Chris Daniels will receive the national plaudits, Corpus Christi lost much of its core leaving Northwestern State to take the conference. The Demons are well coached and have a team-first focus. Their deep bench will allow them to play at a frenetic pace.

Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference
Conference RPI Projection: 23
Projected Champion: Loyola
Player of the Year: Jason Thompson, Rider

Talk about a free-for-all. If any conference of any quality represents that, it’s the MAAC. As many as four teams (Siena, Loyola, Rider and Marist) are legitimate contenders and most others are capable of winning a four-day tournament at a neutral site. Leading that charge is Loyola (MD), who are led by senior guard Gerald Brown (22.2 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 2.7 apg, 1.9 spg). To fill the size void, 6’10” center Hassan Fofana (transfer from Maryland) is an inside presence that can do the little things. Big things are expected from another transfer, Louie McCroskey, who will do his best to have Marist fans forget about the combination of Jared Jordan and Will Whittington. Of course, there’s always Jason Thompson, who will dominate on the blocks all season after being the D-1 player to average 20 points and 10 rebounds per game in the 2006-2007 campaign.

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