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October 25, 2010

SCS.comMy first column of the year is always the most controversial.

That’s because it’s always a preview of the “low-major” conferences—and to fans of these leagues, “low-major” is the dirtiest, filthiest slur you could ever utter.

It’s just a classification system, people. I define low-majors as perennial one-bid leagues in the NCAA Tournament. Mid-major leagues are in contention for at-large selections, and the high-majors are the traditional power conferences.

I’m an equal opportunity writer, so I gladly cover the low-majors. We begin with a team that certainly doesn’t seem so lowly—especially not after its performance last March.


Murray State

They’re a bit undersized and lost two starters, but the Racers are once again the class of the Ohio Valley Conference after a 31-win season and an upset of Vanderbilt in the NCAA Tournament. Murray State tore through the OVC last year (which one genius certainly noticed) and has a chance to do it again with the league’s top backcourt returning intact. Seniors B.J. Jenkins and Isaac Miles pace the offense, while sixth man Isaiah Canaan figures to move into the starting lineup after a productive freshman season. Those three guards will all be in contention for All-OVC honors, but Murray State will need to replace departed center Tony Easley and swingman Danero Thomas. Easley, the 6-9 big man who led the team in rebounding in 2009-10, leaves a gaping hole in the paint. And you may remember Thomas for these heroics. Junior Ivan Aska will take on a more important role as the only returning starter at forward, and the development of senior Jeffery McClain and three newcomers will be key for Billy Kennedy’s team. Even with questions lingering in the frontcourt—and the emergence of Morehead State, which we’ll cover later-- the Racers are the pick to reach another NCAA Tournament from the OVC. Led by their all-league caliber guard trio, Murray State ranked in the top-30 last year in assists per game and scoring defense.

UC Santa Barbara

After experiencing the NCAA Tournament last March with four sophomore starters, the Gauchos return a cast of players eager to actually do some damage this spring. They’re led by Orlando Johnson, the easy pre-season pick for league Player of the Year. Joined by fellow junior James Nunnally, a sharpshooter who made more than 45 percent of his three-point attempts last year, UCSB has all the makings of a tourney Cinderella.


Future NBA Draft pick Keith Benson is back, but he’s missing his point guard Johnathon Jones, who graduated along with starting forward Derick Nelson. Jones’ departure is especially painful, considering he finished his career with the most assists in Summit League history. Benson may be a once-in-a-lifetime talent, but so was Stephen Curry—and his Davidson team didn’t even make the NCAA Tournament after losing point guard Jason Roberts. Coach Greg Kampe is banking on former UMKC guard Reggie Hamilton to fill the void at the point.

Weber State

If not for one man, we’d be talking about Weber State’s quest for a second consecutive NCAA Tournament. Instead, the pre-season talk is about the Wildcats’ inability to make the Big Dance. With the Big Sky’s best player returning in guard Damian Lillard, who’s already won the league’s Player of the Year award twice, Weber State enters the year as the favorite despite losing three starters.


Yes, it’s impossible to pronounce the school’s name. But that didn’t stop the Terriers from taking Wisconsin to the wire in last year’s NCAA tournament. Four starters return from that team, including star Noah Dahlman. The senior forward, a 6-6 beast who took most of the shots for Wofford last year, is primed for a spectacular senior year.


America East
Champion: Stony Brook

Coach Steve Pikiell drew the sympathy of his fellow coaches after losing forward Tommy Brenton to a knee injury just last month. His status for the rest of the season is unknown, but the rest of the Seawolves have enough firepower to win the AEC. Stony Brook’s transformation under Pikiell has been remarkable—it won four games during Pikiell’s first season in 2005-06—but it won’t be complete until the program hangs an NCAA Tournament banner.

Other contenders: The “main” competition for Stony Brook? It’s, well, “Maine,” which returns four starters. Vermont and Boston University, who played for the America East Conference Tournament title last March, will also be in the mix.

Atlantic Sun
Champion: Lipscomb

Immersed in a four-way logjam at the top of the league last year, Lipscomb came away with the top seed—and wasted it by losing to Kennesaw State (known mostly for its men’s track team, not hoops) in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic Sun tournament. Adnan Hodzic, a future pro and big-time scorer at more than 22 points per game, leads one of the most polished offenses you’ll ever see at the low-major level.

Other contenders: East Tennessee State is the most consistent program in the league and represented the Atlantic Sun in the NCAA Tournament last year. Belmont, another team in that A-Sun logjam last year, returns the bulk of its roster as well.

Big Sky
Champion: Weber State

Other contenders: So Anthony Johnson’s gone for Montana. Big deal. The Grizzlies still have the league’s most dominating big man in Brian Qvale, as well as another seven-footer in Derek Selvig. Northern Arizona finished just .500 in the league last year but loses just one starter.

Big South
Champion: Coastal Carolina

Mike Holmes played three productive seasons for South Carolina, but he was dismissed from the team after his junior year. A loss for one team is a win for Coastal Carolina, who gets Holmes for the 2010-11 season. The Chanticleers also bring in five junior college players to mesh with leading scorer Chad Gray at forward.

Other contenders: UNC-Asheville and Charleston Southern’s guard play will keep them in contention. The same can be said for Winthrop’s defense, a staple of Greg Marshall’s old teams and now Randy Peele’s Eagles.

Big West
Champion: UCSB

Other contenders: Pacific has built a winning tradition in the Big West, and this year will be no different. Dan Monson’s Long Beach State team didn’t perform to expectations last year, but the 49ers have the tools to push UCSB for a title.

Ivy League
Champion: Princeton

Is the Princeton magic back? Not exactly, but these Tigers finally reached the post-season last year and should build on that momentum. Experienced guards Doug Davis and Dan Mavraides provide the scoring for a team that reached the semi-finals of the CBI.

Other contenders: Cornell’s team looks entirely different from the Steve Donahue regime, but the Big Red are still the three-time champions of the Ivy League. Harvard’s Jeremy Lin is gone, but Tommy Amaker has that program rolling.

Champion: Fairfield

Derek Needham is the point guard everbody loves to talk about, but Fairfield has three other starters coming back after battling all sorts of injuries last season. It’s been awhile since somebody knocked off Siena, but the Stags look like the clear choice to take the reigns.

Other contenders: St. Peter’s finished fourth last year and has a senior-laden backcourt returning to lead the way. Iona’s entire starting lineup is back intact, and Siena is still Siena—with big man Ryan Rossiter, of course.

Champion: Morgan State

Todd Bozeman’s comeback story is special after his rocky time with California in the ‘90s. His Morgan State program has now made three straight post-seasons, including two consecutive NCAA tournaments. A third trip to the Big Dance appears likely. Even without last year’s Player of the Year in Reggie Holmes, Kevin Thompson and DeWayne Jackson are two of the league’s top forwards.

Other contenders: Norfolk State still has a lot of scoring power, even after losing Michael Deloach, who led the conference with 21.7 points per game.

Champion: Quinnipiac

Quinnipiac is the obvious choice here with one of the nation’s ferocious rebounders in Justin Rutty back on campus. The Bobcats lost in the NEC finals last year, but no other team can approach the one-two punch of Rutty and guard James Johnson.

Other contenders: Central Connecticut State won just 12 games last year without stud Ken Horton, who redshirted due to injury. Horton’s finally healthy, though, which means CCSU will fight with Long Island and Robert Morris (who lost its coach to Rutgers) to take down Quinnipiac.

Ohio Valley Conference
Champion: Murray State

Other contenders: Morehead State’s Kenneth Faried is becoming a household name (among college hoops diehards, at least) with his rebounding ability. He’s got a future in the pros and led his squad to an NCAA Tournament appearance two seasons ago.

Patriot League
Champion: American

Coach Jeff Jones used to coach at Virginia, and he uses those major-conference ties to land major-conference recruits. This year, American welcomes Troy Brewer from Georgia and Charles Hinkle from Vanderbilt to mix with all five starters from last season.

Other contenders: Lafayette loves to score, and Bucknell loves to defend. And despite the differing styles, both have a shot at the crown this year.

Southern Conference
Champion: Wofford

Other contenders: Appalachian State’s Jason Capel is the youngest coach in college basketball, but he’s got enough talent to win the North Division. Chattanooga does as well if it can block out off-the-court distractions with the recent NCAA trouble. College of Charleston has the league’s most accomplished coach in Bobby Cremins, who’s established winning ways in this program late in his career.

Champion: Jackson State

Garrison Johnson and his 18.1 points per game may have graduated, but this Jackson State program is starting to get used to the post-season—and this year should be no different. The Tigers may not be able to rack up a 17-1 record again, but nobody in the league can compete with their talent.

Other contenders: Texas Southern will rely on senior Travele Jones and brings in Kevin Galloway, who’s played at both Kentucky and USC.

Summit League
Champion: Oakland

Other contenders: Scott Sutton’s had plenty of chances to leave Oral Roberts, but he hasn’t yet—and his Golden Eagles’ team has the makings of yet another contender with four starters back. IUPUI finished second in the league last season and has Stephen Thomas joining the squad from Dayton.

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