Breaking up the lower conferences into groups is always a source of controversy. However, in order to make the preview more organized, we at SCS.com decided to have a low-major group and a mid-major group. In actuality, it is not all that hard. The mid-major conferences are the ones that usually have a chance to send multiple teams to the Big Dance, while the low-majors are one-bid leagues. This season, there are several low-major teams capable of winning a game in the NCAA Tournament. As you fill out your bracket this March, remember these teams when you are looking for a 14 or 15 seed to pull an upset.
TEAMS TO WATCH FOR
Winthrop came into last season as a heavy favorite to win the Big South. Similarly, the Eagles look like the clear-cut leader to win the conferences's automatic bid again. Gregg Marshall turned down an increase in money from the College of Charleston to stay in Rock Hill. When looking at the team, it's not very hard to see why. The Eagles are built on defense, leading the Big South in scoring defense and field-goal percentage defense the past eight years. Craig Bradshaw is one of the favorites for Big South Player of the Year. He is a versatile big man that is capable of huge games. Bradshaw is capable of scoring points down low or taking his game outside. Forwards Phillip Williams and Taj McCullogh also return up front. Williams was a part-time starter last season, but both players should see expanded roles this year. Freshmen Anthony Williams will get minutes right away. In the backcourt, all-conference guard Torrell Martin returns. He is an excellent three-point shooter who contributes in all facets of the game. Chris Gaynor will be the point guard for the third consecutive season. He is the best point guard in the conference who creates myriad opportunities for his teammmates. He is also one of the top long-range shooters in the Big South. Michael Jenkins is an important asset off the bench who can fill it up, while JC transfer Antwon Harris could make an impact.
As has been the case for the past couple of seasons, Bucknell will come into the season as the main candidate to win the automatic bid for the Patriot. However, with the loss of two starters - including conference Player of the Year Charles Lee - the Bison need some of the role players from last year to step up. The one definite they have is preseason Player of the Year Chris McNaughton. The 6-11 center is a very difficult matchup on the offensive end and should improve his prodction now that he is the go-to-guy. Donald Brown and Darren Mastropaolo also return in the frontcourt. Brown was a key player off the bench and could have a big year this season, while Mastropaolo is a decent all-around player. The backcourt features Abe Badmus, one of the conference's top point guards. He is an excellent passer and defender who needs to develop more as a scorer. John Griffin was a solid performer last year, while All-Rookie selection Jason Vegotsky is an outstanding long-range shooter.
Oral Roberts came into last season with high expectations and did not exactly live up to them during the majority of the season. However, they played very well down the stretch and reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 22 years. The Eagles lose six players from last season, including three starters, but two-time Mid-Con Player of the Year Caleb Green returns. He is one of the top power forwards in the country and is capable of dominating a game. Green is very efficient from the field and had 16 double-doubles a season ago. Taking the pressure off of him from the perimeter is guard Ken Tutt. An outstanding three-point shooter, Tutt was injured for ten games last season. However, he came back and won Mid-Con Tournament MVP. Two newcomers are expected to make a major impact. Wichita State transfer Adam Liberty will take over at the pont guard spot, while JC transfer Shawn King will combine with Green to form an excellent inside duo. Moses Ehambe and Marchello Vealy will fight for the other vacant starting spot.
There are several options to go with at the top of the Big Sky, but Northern Arizona seems like the best one to me. The Lumberjacks won the regular season championship last season, and return five of their top six scorers from that team. They are led by the best inside-outside combo in the conference in guard Tyrone Bazy and forward Ruben Boykin. Bazy was the Big Sky's Newcomer of the Year a season ago, and is a good scorer and a solid rebounder. Boykin is an all-conference player who can dominate a game with his ability to score inside and rebound very well. Joining Boykin up front is returning starter Ryan McCurdy, who provides decent scoring and rebounding, and Kyle Landry, who could be poised for a big season in the starting lineup. Alongside Bazy on the perimeter is point guard Josh Wilson, who is one of the best passers in the conference. Sixth man Steven Sir might be the best shooter in the Big Sky. He averaged over 11 points per game last season off the bench.
Pennsylvania, the two-time defending Ivy league champions, comes into the season as the favorite once again, and Ibrahim Jaaber is one of the main reasons why. The Ivy Player of the Year can score from anywhere on the court, either driving to the basket or shooting from the outside. He is nearly unstoppable on the offensive end. Moreover, he creates havoc on defense, locking down opponents. He is also on the verge of breaking the conference record for all-time steals. The Quakers don't end with Jaaber, though. Forward Mark Zoller is another all-conference player who provides an excellent inside option to take some of the pressure off of Jaaber. Steve Danley is difficult to match up with on offense. He can score inside and out and also led the conference in assists last season. Brian Grandieri is a nice complement to Jaaber in the backcourt. Tommy McMahon and Kevin Egee are solid role players that will see added minutes this season.
UNDER THE RADAR
Delaware State, like last year, should be the class of the MEAC. Prior to losing in the conference tournament title game, the Hornets won 18 of their final 20 games and also had an RPI over 100 spots better than the next best conference team. DSU owned the league's best scoring defense, but also the worst scoring offense in the MEAC. However, they take care of the ball and are efficient shooting it. Wing Jahsha Bluntt is the returning conference player of the year, and has the ability to carry the Hornets on the offensive end of the floor. Point guard Darrin Shine is an excellent distributor, while Joe Dickens is a solid scorer from the perimeter. Aaron Fleetwood returns down low. JC transfer Roy Bright, a former Cincinnati recruit, should have an immediate impact in the frontcourt.
Belmont will be in a dogfight with Lipscomb throughout the season in the Atlantic Sun, but I give the Bruins the edge going into the season. They were the most efficient shooting team in the conference last season, and also led the A-Sun in assists and blocks. Moreover, Belmont returns two of the top players in the conference in wing Justin Hare and center Boomer Herndon. Hare is a high-scoring guard who can fill it up in a hurry, while Herndon is a former Tennessee transfer who can dominate the paint. Josh Goodwin is another potential all-conference pick in the backcourt. He is an excellent three-point shooter. Andy Wicke will likely start on the perimeter, while big men Andrew Preston and Matthew Dotson solidify the frontcourt.
With no team clearly head-and-shoulders above everyone else in the America East, the defending champion Albany looks to be the team to beat heading into the season. The Great Danes return the conference Player of the Year in guard Jamar Wilson. He is one of the best all-around point guards in the country, contributing in all facets of the game, and he is nearly unstoppable on offense when he's driving to the basket. Joining him in the backcourt are returnees Jon Iati and transfer Carl Ross, who is expected to make an immediate impact. Up front, Albany returns a very good forward combo in all-conference candidate Brent Wilson and Brian Lillis. Wilson provides good balance on the inside. Brett Gifford could step into the starting lineup down low.
Samford, after finishing second last season behind Murray State, might be the team best equipped to dethrone the Racers in the Ohio Valley. However, they have to find a way to replace conference Player of the Year J. Robert Merritt, who led the team in scoring and rebounding a season ago. The four returning starters for the Bulldogs are led by potential all-conference big man Travis Peterson. He is a very good all-around player who can score, rebound, and pass the ball at a high level. He could develop into a Player of the Year candidate this season. Providing balance for Samford is all-conference guard Randall Gulina. He is a very good scorer from the backcourt. Joining him on the perimeter is point guard Jerry Smith, one of the best lead guards in the Ohio Valley. He is a good distributor and an outstanding rebounder for his position. Wings Joe Ross Merritt and Curtis West are also solid perimeter performers. Jason Black might step into the starting lineup at the vacated forward spot.
With all of the personnel losses at the top of the conference, the team best equipped to become the favorite in the NEC is Robert Morris. The Colonials finished fifth last season in the conference, but return four double-figure scorers, including the Preseason Player of the Year A.J. Jackson. Jackson is a 20-10 threat every time he steps on the court. He can dominate a game at both ends of the floor. Joining him up front are role players Freddie Harris and Colson Senat. On the perimeter, Jeremy Chappell leads the way. Last season's Rookie of the Year is a big-time scorer. The team's best all-around player might be six-foot guard Tony Lee. He is a solid scorer and a very good rebounder for his size. Derek Coleman returns at the point. He can find the open man and can also score if necessary.
LOW-MAJOR FAB 15
Others Considered: Lipscomb, Holy Cross, Princeton, Eastern Washington, Montana, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Monmouth, Alcorn State, Tennessee Tech
ALL-LOW MAJOR TEAMS
G - Rodney Stuckey, Eastern Washington
G - Jamar Wilson, Albany
WRAPPING IT UP
Don't overlook the aforementioned conferences this season. There are several high-major caliber players sprinkled throughout the low-major teams that could carry their respective teams to a win or two in the NCAA Tournament. One of those players, Rodney Stuckey of Eastern Washington, might be the best shooting guard in the country. Caleb Green of Oral Roberts and Craig Bradshaw of Winthrop are getting looked at by NBA scouts also. And don't forget about the nation's leading returning scorer, Jackson State's Trey Johnson, or a player who nearly beat UConn single-handedly last year, Albany's Jamar Wilson.
In other words, don't get turned off by the "low-major" label - these teams can play. Mark it down: one of these teams will win a game in the NCAA Tournament. My best guess? Winthrop. But there are other teams capable of pulling an upset, and that's the reason you should pay attention to the smaller conferences this season.