It's college basketball season, baby!
ESPN televises its first regular season game of the 2010-11 season Monday, Nov. 8th, when Rhode Island will take on Pittsburgh. A week later, ESPN will host its own little version of Midnight Madness, as 16 games will be played over the course of 24 hours.
Some conferences could see some major shake-ups this season (see: Big East), while some will see continued dominance (ACC). Here are my predictions for each regular season conference champions this season.
America East: Maine Black Bears
It seems to be a toss-up between three teams: Maine, Stony Brook and Vermont.
Stony Brook was the regular season champion last season, while Vermont took home the tournament title. However, both Stony Brook and Vermont lost key players from last season's teams, while Maine lost just one player, and returns America East Player of the Year candidate Gerald McLemore.
McLemore (2009-10 line: 14.6 PPG, 40.1 FG%, 39.8 3-PT%) shoots the ball well from deep, but we'd like to see him drive and get to the line more.
Atlantic 10: Temple Owls
The A-10 sent three teams (Temple, Richmond and Xavier) to the NCAA Tournament last season. Three more easily could have gone as well.
Temple returns a monster power forward in Lavoy Allen, who averaged a double-double last year (11.5 PPG, 10.7 RPG).
Richmond could also make a run for the regular season title. Atlantic 10 Player of the Year Kevin Anderson returns for the Spiders, and has shown he can lead this team by guiding them to a 26-9 record last year.
Meanwhile, Xavier loses two of its top players in Jordan Crawford (leading scorer) and Jason Love (leading rebounder). While the Musketeers have a nice returning guard in Terrell Holloway, as well as a skilled recruiting class coming in, I don't see Chris Mack's squad making a return to the tournament this year.
On another note, Saint Louis University was another potential contender coming into this year.The Billikens returned all five of last year's starters, however, they've run into some trouble recently.
Kwamain Mitchell and Willie Reed, arguably SLU's two best players, were charged with sexual assault and were dismissed from the school. They have a chance to be reinstated next semester (making them eligible to play in January), but Reed plans to transfer, and head coach Rick Majerus feels it would be smart for Mitchell to just sit this season out.
ACC: Duke Blue Devils
Duke only loses veteran point guard Jon Scheyer. Freshman Kyrie Irving will be charged with fulfilling those duties as Duke looks to defend the national title.
Seniors Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith will provide leadership, while Irving and transfer Seth (brother of Steph) Curry should help.
The North Carolina Tar Heels suffered a disappointing season in 2009-10, missed the NCAA Tournament, but should be dancing again this year as superstar freshman Harrison Barnes arrives.
Other teams to watch include NC State (strong freshman class), Virginia Tech, and Florida State.
Atlantic Sun: Lipscomb Bisons
The Atlantic Sun saw a strange regular season finish in 2009-10, as four teams finished 14-6, all taking home a share of the regular season title.
Lipscomb was one of those four teams (other three include Jacksonville, Belmont and Campbell) and returns all five starters from last year. One of those returners is Adnan Hodzic, 2009-10 Atlantic Sun Player of the Year. Hodzic ranked second in the nation in scoring (22.9 PPG) and was also a strong rebounder (9.1 RPG).
Other teams to watch in the Atlantic Sun include East Tennessee State and Belmont.
Big 12: Kansas Jayhawks
Despite losing Cole Aldrich, Sherron Collins, and Xavier Henry, expect the Jayhawks to take home another Big 12 title. The Jayhawks return lettermen Tyshawn Taylor and Marcus Morris, while adding guards Josh Selby and Royce Woolridge.
The Baylor Bears could also contend with the return of Quincy Acy, Anthony Jones and sharpshooter LaceDarius Dunn.
Kansas State is another team to watch as the ever-efficient scorer Jacob Pullen returns.
Big East: Pittsburgh Panthers
With a major loss of talent in the Big East (Wesley Johnson, anyone?), expect a lot of newcomers to be making news on the East Coast.
Fab Melo of Syracuse is one freshman sure to be making headlines. Now, that doesn't mean there aren't any veterans in this conference. Kemba Walker is arguably one of the best players in the superconference.
I, however, expect Gilbert Brown to be the most valuable player of the conference (not Player of the Year -- different). Brown averaged double digits off the bench for the Panthers last year. Brown has worked hard all offseason, as he is expected to take over the leadership role this season.
The Big East could potentially have 8 NCAA bids: Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Villanova, Georgetown, Marquette, West Virginia, Cincinnati, and Notre Dame. Connecticut is on the bubble.
Big Sky: Weber State Wildcats
Big South: Coastal Carolina Chanticleers
Big Ten: Michigan State Spartans
Possibly the best basketball conference in the country currently.
Before Robbie Hummel's season-ending injury, it looked like this was going to be Purdue's year (not that it still can't be). JaJuan Johnson is almost a POY lock.
Meanwhile, Michigan State, though they may not be the most talented, have excellent leadership guys in Durrell Summers and Draymond Green.
Ohio State should be on a down year this year after losing Evan Turner, but Thad Matta was genius enough to bring in a monster freshman named Jared Sullinger. Sullinger may not be a Turner, but the kid can play; not mention that the Buckeyes return David Lighty, William Buford, and Jon Diebler, the next three leading scorers behind Turner.
Other teams to watch include Illinois (who returns an excellent guard in Demetri McCamey), Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Big West: Pacific Tigers
Colonial: VCU Rams
The Rams return three of their four leading scorers. Also look out for Old Dominion, as well as George Mason, who returns all five starters from last season.
Conference USA: Memphis Tigers
The Memphis Tigers saw a 2009 trip to the Sweet Sixteen followed by a second place C-USA finish last season, as John Calipari took his act to Kentucky.
The Tigers return three big boys in Wesley Witherspoon (6'9", 210 lbs), Will Coleman (6'9", 245), and Angel Garcia (6'11", 245). Not to mention they have an excellent recruiting class coming in with the addition of Joe Jackson (athletic guard), Will Barton (tall slasher), and Jelan Kendrick. Memphis will have competition in Southern Miss, who returns all five starters from last year's team that earned a CIT bid.
Great West: South Dakota Coyotes
It helped that South Dakota won 16 of its last 18 games en route to regular season and conference tournament titles. Sophomore Jake Thomas and senior Mitchell Bouie will do the bulk of the scoring for the Coyotes.
Another team to watch will be Houston Baptist. The Huskies' Andrew Gonzalez is an excellent scorer, and earned the Great West's Newcomer of the Year honor, as well as first-team all-conference.
Horizon: Butler Bulldogs
Despite losing Gordon Hayward, the Bulldogs return a lot of talent from last year's Cinderella team.
Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard, the second and third leading scorers for Butler, respectively, return as the Bulldogs try to match last season's Tournament run, though it's doubtful
Ivy: Princeton Tigers
Cornell has dominated this conference for three straight years. The Big Red also made a Sweet 16 run last season. However, they've lost four starters from that team.
Meanwhile, Princeton returns double-digit scorers in Doug Davis and Dan Mavraides. The Tigers played well last season, too, going 22-9 overall and reaching the semifinals of the College Basketball Invitational.
MAAC: Fairfield Stags
This should be a battle between the Stags and the Siena Saints. Unfortunately, Siena lost a lot of talent from last year's squad.
MEAC: Morgan State Bears
Missouri Valley: Wichita State Shockers
The Shockers return all five starters from last year's team. J.T. Durley and Toure' Murry should carry the bulk of the load for Wichita State. Both averaged double-digit points last season.
Last year's surprise team, the Northern Iowa Panthers, are another contender with the return of Kwadzo Ahelegbe (10.6 PPG).
Mountain West: San Diego State Aztecs
I'll admit I am on the Jimmer Fredette/BYU bandwagon. He's the greatest white player in college basketball at the moment. Unfortunately, SDSU returns all five starters from last year's NCAA Tournament team. I feel it could go either way -- BYU or SDSU -- but I'm favoring the Aztecs.
Northeast: Quinnipiac Bobcats
Ohio Valley: Murray State Racers
Pac-10: Washington Huskies
The loss of Quincy Pondexter is a bittersweet one.
The Huskies lose their leading scorer, but Isaiah Thomas gets to take over the team (which has to be a good thing). Thomas is an excellent scorer who can get to the basket at will.
Meanwhile, Arizona could pose a problem for the Huskies as the Wildcats return six of its seven leading scorers from last season. The Wildcats are an extremely powerful offensive team (71.9 PPG) but lack the defense to put together an NCAA tournament run (allow 72 PPG).
Patriot: Lehigh Mountain Hawks
SEC: Florida Gators
Billy Donavan returns all five starters from last season and is getting a solid freshmen class this season. One of those newcomers expected to produce is Patric Young, who is a hard-nosed, yet aggressive defender, is the favorite to win Newcomer of the Year for the SEC.
One has to wonder how the Kentucky Wildcats will be competitive after losing five players to the NBA Draft this year. Well, John Calipari continues to bring in great young talent year in and year out. This year, he'll rely on freshmen Enes Kanter, Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones.
Southern: Wofford Terriers
Southland: Southeastern Louisiana Lions
SWAC: Texas Southern Tigers
Summit: Oakland Golden Grizzlies
Sun Belt: North Texas
The Mean Green look for their fifth consecutive 20-win season. Other teams to watch in the Sun Belt include Denver, Troy and Middle Tennessee State
WCC: Gonzaga Bulldogs
Gonzaga seems to take home the conference title year in and year out. The Bulldogs lost leading scorer Matt Bouldin (16 PPG), but should see Steven Gray and Demetri Goodson take over scoring roles this season.
Other teams to watch include Saint Mary's and Loyola Marymount.
WAC: Utah State Aggies
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