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November 1, 2008

SCS.comCan you believe it? We’re a little more than a week away from the tip-off of college basketball, which begins on Nov. 10 with an ultra-exciting match-up between Georgia Southern and Houston. That means all of the speculation and pre-season previews will finally be put to rest. In the meantime, we’ve still got the rest of the mid-majors and all of the BCS conferences to cover. Today’s preview is Part II of the mid-majors, which includes the Missouri Valley, Mountain West, Western Athletic and West Coast conferences.

Missouri Valley Conference

Predicted Champion: Creighton Bluejays

Creighton has been a model of consistency for mid-major programs over the past decade, as the Bluejays have now made 12 straight post-seasons. But Dana Altman’s crew is coming off an NIT berth in 2007-08, and this is a program that has made a name for itself winning games in the real tourney— the Big Dance. Creighton should have a great opportunity to do just that in 2009, as it is clearly the team to beat in the Missouri Valley this year. Even if the Bluejays trip up in the conference tournament, this team may even be good enough to earn an at-large bid. Everything starts with sophomore P’Allen Stinnett, who exploded at the end of last season and won Freshman of the Year honors in the Valley. He will be surrounded by guards Cavel Witter and Booker Woodfox, who showed a great deal of potential off the bench last year. Creighton will play a lot of younger players in the rotation as well, especially up front.

Other Contenders

Southern Illinois’ future is bright after coach Chris Lowry notched the Valley’s top recruiting class, which includes four-star big man Anthony Booker. The Salukis will be a work in progress, however, after losing their two best players from last season— Randal Falker and Matt Shaw— as well as guard Josh Bone, who averaged 27 minutes per game last year but opted to leave the team in September due to playing time issues. Illinois State returns one of the Valley’s most exciting players in Osiris Eldridge, but energetic point guard Boo Richardson has graduated and the Redbirds have a lot to replace. Drake still has some key parts remaining from last year, but the Bulldogs lost floor leader Adam Emmenecker and two premier scorers in Leonard Houston and Klayton Korver. But the biggest loss for Drake is coach Keno Davis, who left for Providence this off-season. With a new coach and some new personnel to adjust to, the best case scenario for last year’s Valley champs may be an NIT berth.

All-Conference Team
G: Osiris Eldridge, Illinois State
G: Josh Young, Drake
G: P’Allen Stinnett, Creighton
F: Shy Ely, Evansville
F: Jonathan Cox, Drake

Mountain West Conference

Predicted Champion: UNLV

Remember UNLV’s 30 win campaign and Sweet 16 appearance two seasons ago? That’s the type of year the 08-09 version of the Runnin’ Rebels could potentially have, with a number of impact newcomers, including Memphis transfer Tre’Von Willis, and the return of a star point guard in Wink Adams. Overall, three starters return, and redshirt freshman center Beas Hamga, a former five-star recruit from Cameroon, will be joining the squad this year as well. UNLV does not have a great deal of depth up front, as only senior Joe Darger has proven himself as a reliable frontcourt scorer. The backcourt of the Runnin’ Rebels is unmatched in the Mountain West, however, and UNLV has the athletes to succeed in the NCAA tournament.

Other Contenders

BYU has won the Mountain West title the past two seasons, and even though the Cougars have to overcome the loss of big man Trent Plaisted, this is a team that could easily knock off UNLV. With leading scorer Lee Cummard withdrawing from the NBA draft and junior Jonathan Tavernari coming off a productive year (13.1 points per game, 5.3 rebounds per game), BYU’s goal should be another NCAA tournament. New Mexico quietly won 24 games last season, and will get swingman Tony Danridge back (12.5 ppg in 2006-07) after missing last year with an injury. However, without J.R. Giddens, the Lobos are a longshot to win this conference. Utah finished just 18-15 last year, but the Utes were young and this year they do return big man Luke Nevill, one of the top post players in the conference.

All-Conference Team
G: Wink Adams, UNLV
G: Marcus Walker, Colorado State
G: Brandon Ewing, Wyoming
G/F: Lee Cummard, BYU
C: Luke Nevill, Utah

Western Athletic Conference

Predicted Champion: Nevada

According to Nevada standards, last year was a disappointment for Mark Fox’s program. The Wolfpack won 20 games, but didn’t even make the NIT— instead, they played in the CBI. Now, Nevada has lost last year’s two best players, JaVale McGee and Marcelus Kemp. Even without those two, this will be, as usual, the team to beat in the WAC. That’s because Fox signed big man Luke Babbitt, one of the top recruits in the entire nation, and also returns a promising backcourt with sophomore point guard Armon Johnson and junior Brandon Fields. Johnson won Freshman of the Year honors last year in the WAC and should be even better after averaging 11.5 ppg and 3.4 assists per game. Nevada probably doesn’t have the type of roster that can make a run in the NCAA tournament, but with the conference in a down year, getting to the Dance shouldn’t be a problem.

Other Contenders

Utah State has some serious beef in the paint with senior Gary Wilkinson and sophomore Tai Wesley, the two leading returning scorers. Both weigh 240 pounds and will be the Aggies’ main strength this season, and they will need to carry this team even more without Jaycee Carroll, who graduated after enjoying one of the most productive careers in Utah State history. The WAC may actually be a two team race this year, as no other teams look nearly as strong as Nevada and Utah State. Look out for Lousiana Tech as a sleeper, as the Bulldogs gain several major-conference transfers and return one of the conference’s top guards in Kyle Gibson. Of course, Lousiana Tech also finished 6-24 last year, so don’t expect anything crazy.

All-Conference Team
G: Armon Johnson, Nevada
G: Kyle Gibson, Louisiana Tech
G: Brandon Fields, Nevada
F: Gary Wilkinson, Utah State
C: C.J. Webster, San Jose State

West Coast Conference

Predicted Champion: Gonzaga

Just take a look at Gonzaga’s roster. The Bulldogs are loaded at every position, which is probably they are ranked 10th in the AP’s pre-season poll. In the paint, senior Josh Heytvelt and improving sophomore Austin Daye will lead the way, with two seven-footers— Will Foster and Robert Sacre— coming off the bench. Jeremy Pargo led the conference in assists last year and you won’t find many point guards with his skills. Matt Bouldin and Micah Downs are productive wing players and Steven Gray can shoot lights out from the perimeter. The West Coast Conference won’t be a cakewalk with St. Mary’s and San Diego coming off NCAA tournament berths, but Gonzaga is ready to do some damage once March rolls around.

Other Contenders

St. Mary’s and San Diego are the two teams that could upend Gonzaga this year. The Gaels have Patty Mills running the point, a player that has really made a name for himself out West, as well as underrated big man Diamon Simpson. San Diego snuck into the NCAA tournament last year by winning the conference tournament, and the Toreros return almost every key part of last year’s team. Although it’s unlikely San Diego will win the conference tourney again, the momentum from last year’s first round upset of Connecticut could translate to an at-large bid.

All-Conference Team
G: Jeremy Pargo, Gonzaga
G: Patty Mills, St. Mary’s
G: Brandon Johnson, San Diego
F: Dior Lowhorn, San Fransisco
F: Diamon Simpson, St. Mary’s

Next week: check back for previews of the ACC, Big Ten and Big 12 conferences.

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