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Big West Conference Preview: Who will replace Hawai’i atop the standings?

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Beginning in September and running up through November 11th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2016-2017 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Big West Conference.

Hawaii landed the Big West an NCAA Tournament win back in March when the Rainbow Warriors knocked off short-staffed Cal in the first round. Hawaii’s run ended two days later with a 73-60 loss to Maryland. The Rainbow Warriors are facing NCAA sanctions, which resulted in key pieces like Stefan Jankovic to declare for the NBA Draft, and potential returnees like Stefan Jovanovic – yup, that’s a different person – and Isaac Fleming transferring. Hawaii needs to replace the entire starting five, which likely means a new team will top the Big West standings in 2016-17.

Long Beach State was one win-shy from advancing to its first tournament since 2012. The 49ers should be in good position to end the short drought in 2016-17. Long Beach State has the best backcourt in the league. The 49ers return Justin Bibbins, the conference’s top point guard. They replace the production of conference first-teamer Nick Faust with the addition of transfer Evan Payne, who averaged 18.0 points per game at Loyola Marymount as a sophomore during the 2014-15 season. He rejoins ex-Lion Gabe Levin, who lacked the impact many expected following his transfer, but he is still someone who can be an all-conference forward. In a guard-heavy league, the 49ers have proven, veteran pieces, and the solid frontcourt presence, that makes them the favorites in the Big West.

Mamadou N’Diaye declared for the NBA Draft, but remember, UC Irvine once boasted the biggest starting lineup ever. The Anteaters’ roster includes the aguable best player in Luke Nelson. The 6-foot-3 guard averaged 13.7 points, 3.9 assists and 2.9 rebounds per game. Nelson headlines a perimeter that includes Jaron Martin and Brandon Smith, but the frontline is dominated by 7-foot-2 Iannis Dimakopoulos and Jonathan Galloway. UC Irvine has the best balance in the league, which makes the Anteaters the toughest competition for the 49ers.

UC Santa Barbara has been a familiar name atop the Big West standings. The Gauchos should content for the top spot behind Gabe Vincent, the 6-foot-3 swingman who averaged 14.1 points per game and shot better than 41 percent from three this past season. He’ll be joined in the backcourt by Eric Childress, a senior who has established himself as a three-point threat.

In a guard-happy league CSUN bolsters the top frontline. Outside of Kendall Smith, a 6-foot-3 guard who averaged 15.3 points per game, the Matadors add transfers Rakim Lubin and Dylan Johnson. The duo should help replace the team’s top rebounders. CSUN returns its top five scorers from a season ago, making the Matadors a trendy pick for sleeper in the Big West.

Cal-State Fullerton will have no shortage of perimeter options. Tre’ Coggins, the Air Force transfer, will be one of the top scorers in the league again this season. Khalid Ahmad also scored in double figures a season ago. But the Titans need to see solid performance from point guard Lionheart Leslie. Darius Graham and Arell Hennings lead a backcourt for UC Davis, but like the majority of the conference, the frontline serves as a question. J.T. Adenrele, who will anchor the frontcourt, will be the name to watch for the Aggies.

Without Jaylen Bland and Taylor Johns, defenses will focus on Secean Johnson for UC Riverside. The 6-foot-3 swingman, who averaged 12.0 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game in 2015-16, could be a breakout player in the conference. However, the development of Alex Larsson and Menno Dijkstra could determine where the Highlanders are contenders or not.

Cal Poly has to replace four of its top five scorers, while Hawaii is depending on a host of newcomers to remain competitive during a season of NCAA sanctions.

MORE: 2016-17 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

SEATTLE, WA - MARCH 20: Luke Nelson #10 of the UC Irvine Anteaters dribbles against the Louisville Cardinals during the second round of the 2015 Men's NCAA Basketball Tournament at Key Arena on March 20, 2015 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
(Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

PRESEASON BIG WEST PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Luke Nelson, UC Irvine

The lone returning member of the all-Big West all first team, Nelson averaged 13.7 points, 2.9 rebounds, 3.9 assists and  1.3 steals per game for the Anteaters during the 2015-16 season. The 6-foot-3 guard scored in double figures 28 times during his junior season.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON BIG WEST TEAM:

  • Justin Bibbins, Long Beach State: The diminutive point guard is the league’s top returning assist man.
  • Tre’ Coggins, Cal State Fullerton: The Air Force transfer is the conference’s leading scorer for the Titans at 15.6 points per game.
  • Secean Johnson, UC Riverside: Jaylen Brand and Taylor Johns are gone, which means Secean Johnson will be the focal point of the UC Riverside offense after averaging double figures as a sophomore.
  • Gabe Vincent, UC Santa Barbara: As a sophomore, the 6-foot-3 junior enters the 2016-17 season as one of the league’s top scorers. He posted 14.1 points, 3.2 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game for the Gauchos this past season.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @BigWestMBB

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Long Beach State
2. UC Irvine
3. UC Santa Barbara
4. CSUN
5. Cal State Fullerton
6. UC Davis
7. UC Riverside
8. Hawaii
9. Cal Poly

Big South Conference Preview: Winthrop’s favored in a season of change

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Beginning in September and running up through November 11th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2016-2017 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Big South Conference.

The Big South got hit as hard with departures as any conference in college basketball this offseason. It starts with Coastal Carolina, a perennial title contender and the former host of the league’s conference tournament, bolting for the Atlantic Sun. Then there were the transfers. Four potential first-team all-league players left for power conference teams: Presbyterian’s DeSean Murray (Auburn), Liberty’s Evan Maxwell (Kansas) and the freshmen duo of Dylan Smith (Arizona) and Dwayne Sutton (Louisville) from UNC Asheville all opted to leave.

Throw in the graduation of High Point’s two-time Big South Player of the Year, John Brown, and the league is going to look a lot different this season than it did last year.

The biggest change could be that Winthrop finally earns a trip to the NCAA tournament. The Eagles have lost in the Big South title game for three straight years, but they return enough talent that they should be considered the favorite to repeat as regular season champs. 5-foot-7 lead guard Keon Johnson, who averaged 20.7 points in league play, returns, as does 6-foot-8 Aussie Xavier Cooks. Replacing the scoring pop provided by Jimmy Gavin, who averaged 18.7 points and led the league in three-pointers made, will be tough, but Pat Kelsey’s club returns three starters in a league where returning talent is at a premium.

Once you get past Winthrop, however, the picture gets murky.

High Point not only lost Brown, they lost four starters in total. Scott Cherry has built himself a winner – Kansas, Gonzaga and Stephen F. Austin are the only other programs in the country that have won at least a share of four straight regular season titles – even if he was never able to get the Panthers to the NCAA tournament, but this has the makings of a rebuilding season.

It looks like UNC Asheville, the reigning Big South tournament champs, will have some rebuilding to do as well, which will frustrate head coach Nick McDevitt. Everything was set up for the Bulldogs to replace High Point as the league’s powerhouse – they made the NCAA tournament last season with two freshmen and two sophomores scoring in double figures – but both of those freshmen left for bigger programs. The good news is that both Kevin Vannatta and Ahmad Thomas returned for their junior season, and MaCio Teague headlines another promising recruiting class. But McDevitt has now lost four players to up-transfers in the last four years (Andrew Rowsey is now a junior at Marquette and Keith Hornsby just graduated from LSU) and his program is still winning titles. Imagine if they ever play at full strength?

The most interesting team in the league is probably Liberty. Former Liberty head coach Ritchie McKay returned from working on Tony Bennett’s staff at Virginia for his second stint, and took the Flames, who were picked last in the league in the preseason, to a 10-8 league mark and a fifth-place finish. They play a version of Bennett’s Pack-Line defense, and won 10 of their 13 games last season after Marquette transfer John Dawson became eligible. With four starters back, the Flames are an actual threat to win the league.

The best big man in the league resides in Boiling Springs, N.C. Tyrell Nelson was second-team All-Big South for Gardner-Webb as a junior, and the 6-foot-7, 235 pound low-post weapon should be in line for a big senior season. That’s because only one other starter returns – center L’Hassane Niangane – and he averaged 2.8 points. The Bulldogs have some young talent on the perimeter, but with their top four guards from last season graduating, Tim Craft is going to have to hope that his youngsters learn the ropes quickly.

Charleston Southern and Campbell are the other two teams to keep an eye on in the middle of the league.

Campbell brings back sophomore lead guard Chris Clemons, who could easily end up being the league’s leading scorer this season, while Charleston Southern will try and build around sophomore Armel Potter at the point. Radford lost six of their top eight from a team that went 9-9 in the league, while Presbyterian and Longwood, who finished tied for last in the conference race last season, lost Murray and four starters, respectively,

MORE: 2016-17 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

REALIGNMENT MOVES

Out: Coastal Carolina

PRESEASON BIG SOUTH PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Keon Johnson, Winthrop

He’s the best player on the best team, he’s the best returning player in the conference and he’s a guy that had a real argument to be named conference Player of the Year last season. With Gavin gone, expect him to build on the 20.2 points he averaged in league play last season.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-BIG SOUTH TEAM:

  • Xavier Cooks, Winthrop: I think there’s a good chance Winthrop wins the league by multiple games, and Cooks may actually be the second best player in the conference.
  • John Dawson, Liberty: He totally changed the Flames’ fortunes last season.
  • Chris Clemons, Campbell: The Camels may not be all that good, but Clemson is going to put up some insane numbers this season.
  • Tyrell Nelson, Gardner-Webb: The best big man in the conference.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @BigSouthMBB

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Winthrop
2. Liberty
3. UNC Asheville
4. High Point
5. Gardner-Webb
6. Campbell
7. Charleston Southern
8. Radford
9. Presbyterian
10. Longwood

Big Sky Conference Preview: Weber State headlines, but league is strong up top

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Beginning in September and running up through November 11th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2016-2017 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Big Sky Conference.

Last season, the Big Sky once again came down to a battle between conference heavyweights Weber State and Montana, with the Wildcats, led by league Player of the Year and eventual second round draft pick Joel Bolomboy, winning the regular season and tournament titles.

Bolomboy is now gone, as is Montana’s star big man Martin Bruenig, which, in theory, would lead you to believe that the conference should be wide open this season.

And while it should be more competitive at the top, the Big Sky title will likely run through Ogden, Utah, again.

MORE: All-Americans | Impact Transfers | Expert Picks | Trending Programs

For my money, Randy Rahe’s Weber State team is once again the favorite to win the league. As good as Bolomboy was last season – 17.1 points, 12.2 boards, two-time defensive player of the year – it was Jeremy Senglin, another first-team all-Big Sky performer, that was the program’s leading scorer. Rahe’s teams tend to thrive when he has a superstar guard on the roster (ask Damian Lillard), and Senglin should be ready to fill that role. As far as replacing Bolomboy is concerned, that’s not going to be possible to do. He was that good. But 6-foot-9 sophomore Zach Braxton showed promise as a freshman, and 6-foot-10 redshirt freshman Jordan Dallas, a former three-star recruit, will be ready to go.

Throw in senior Kyndahl Hill and sophomore McKay Cannon, and the pieces are their for Rahe’s program to repeat.

Montana is going to have an even tougher time replacing the production of Bruenig on the interior, as Travis DeCuire doesn’t have as much size in the pipeline. What he does have, however, is a stable of guards that should be able to play a more uptempo, small-ball style. Walter Wright (13.2 ppg, 4.6 apg) is back for his senior season while Michael Oguine and Bobby Moorehead both return after promising freshman seasons. Throw in Oregon transfer Ahmad Rorie, a former top 100 prospect that spent last season as a practice player, and DeCuire has the most balanced perimeter attack in the league.

That won’t, however, guarantee Montana a spot in the top two, not with the amount of talent that returns for some of the other contenders in the conference.

Take North Dakota, for example. The Fighting Hawks improved from 4-14 to 10-8 in league play last season, and they did so with a rotation that included four freshmen, two sophomores and two juniors. Quinton Hooker (20.1 ppg, 3.5 apg) carried much of the load last season and did it in a hyper-efficient manner, and with sophomore Geno Crandall returning in the back court and Drick Bernstine back to anchor the front line, UND will be thoroughly in the mix.

As will Idaho, who returns their top six scorers from a team that won 20 games and went 12-6 in the Big Sky last season. Victor Sanders and Perrion Callendret are the two names to know, but the guy to keep an eye on is Brayon Blake. A third-team JuCo All-American, Blake averaged 21.2 points last season for North Idaho. For a team that finished well below the other contenders in offensive efficiency, that’s the kind of scoring boost that could make a difference.

The last two teams to really keep an eye on will be Idaho State and Montana State.

Idaho State is home to the league’s most exciting talent: Ethan Telfair, a Coney Island native and the younger brother of Sebastian Telfair. He averaged 20.2 points, 5.4 assists and 2.4 steals as a junior in his first season of Division I basketball, playing the starring role as the Bengals went from being predicted to finish last in the conference to the No. 4 seed in the Big Sky tournament. They lose a key role player in Ben Wilson, but the rest of the roster is back.

Montana head coach Travis DeCuire disagrees with a call in the first half of an NIT first-round college basketball game against Texas A&M Tuesday, March 17, 2015, in College Station, Texas. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)
Montana head coach Travis DeCuire (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)

Montana State loses Marcus Colbert, a second-team all-league player, but they return Tyler Hall, a sophomore guard that is the next superstar in the Big Sky. Hell, he may already be the best player in the conference. As a freshman, Hall, a 6-foot-4 off-guard, averaged 18.7 points while shooting 43.1 percent from three on more than 200 threes attempted. He’s going to score a lot of points in his career, but if the Bobcats are going to improve on their 9-9 mark in Big Sky play last season, they’ll need to find a point guard to replace Colbert and someone to man the paint.

Beyond that, there seems to be a fairly clear-cut delineation between the top and bottom halves of the league. Portland State finished below .500 in the conference last year and lost Cameron Forte. Eastern Washington, who may play the most exciting style of basketball on the west coast, lost Venky Jois to graduation a year after Tyler Harvey turned pro as a sophomore. They’re in rebuilding mode. Northern Colorado returned everyone from last season except their head coach, who was fired in the wake of an NCAA investigation. Sacramento State is not yet ready to contend, and Southern Utah and Northern Arizona are destined to once again compete to avoid finishing last in league play.

MORE: 2016-17 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

PRESEASON BIG SKY PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Jeremy Senglin, Weber State

There is a legitimate argument to be made for every single player we have listed as first-team all-Big Sky to be named the Preseason Player of the Year, but we’re going with Senglin for two reasons: He’s a proven star on a proven team that is the favorite to win the league and, with the loss of Bolomboy, has a real chance for increased production. You’d do worse than betting on Randy Rahe to find a way to get his stars to succeed.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-BIG SKY TEAM:

  • Quinton Hooker, North Dakota: Coming off a season where he averaged 20.1 points, Hooker is the star of a UND team that could push for a conference title.
  • Ethan Telfair, Idaho State: He was unreal individually last season, and it led to totally unexpected team success. What’s he have in story as an encore?
  • Tyler Hall, Montana State: It’s a law in the college hoops world that, when you average 18.7 points as a freshman, you’re a preseason first-teamer as a sophomore.
  • Walter Wright, Montana: Someone has to be the spark and replace Bruenig’s production for Montana this season.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @bigskybball

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Weber State
2. North Dakota
3. Idaho
4. Montana
5. Idaho State
6. Montana State
7. Portland State
8. Northern Colorado
9. Eastern Washington
10. Sacramento State
11. Southern Utah
12. Northern Arizona

Atlantic Sun Conference Preview: North Florida, Florida Gulf Coast lead a wide-open league

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Beginning in September and running up through November 11th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2016-2017 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Atlantic Sun conference.

The Atlantic Sun has experienced a surprising amount of tournament success recently as Florida Gulf Coast set the standard with its Sweet 16 appearance and famous “Dunk City” nickname in 2013 and Mercer followed that up with a win over Duke in the opening round in 2014.

The trend of solid tourney performances for the league continued last season when A-Sun tournament champion Florida Gulf Coast trailed eventual national runner-up North Carolina by only a point at halftime in a 1-16 game until the Tar Heels pulled away and won by 16 in the second half.

MORE: All-Americans | Impact Transfers | Expert Picks | Trending Programs

This season, the league is hoping to be another tough out in the tournament as they’re led by the last two teams to make the NCAA tournament from the conference in North Florida and Florida Gulf Coast, and the rest of the league appears to be completely wide open.

After winning the regular season title last season, North Florida returns Atlantic Sun Player of the Year and senior point guard Dallas Moore as he’s clearly the top candidate to repeat his awards from last season. Moore is joined by talented forward Chris Davenport and 6-foot-11 senior Romelo Ranks returns from injury to anchor the post.

Florida Gulf Coast beat North Florida by 33 in the conference tournament and ended up back in the Big Dance as they return productive senior forward Marc-Eddy Norelia. The Eagles return four starters total as Antravious Simmons, Zach Johnson and Christian Terrell are all back and a few talented transfers makes this roster an intriguing one.

From there, the Atlantic Sun appears completely wide open with a lot of unpredictable rosters. Jacksonville was gutted by injuries last season and still managed to contend for the league’s regular-season title. The Dolphins return three starters and three more players from injury, including Darius Dawkins, who led the nation in made three-pointers before his season-ending injury.

NJIT had an admirable showing in their inaugural season in the Atlantic Sun, finishing 8-6 in league play. High-scoring senior guard Damon Lynn returns to lead while he’s flanked by two other returning starters. Tim Coleman is another returning double-figure scorer as the Highlanders have the talent to win the league.

Lipscomb lost high-scoring guard J.C. Hampton to Texas A&M as a graduate transfer but they get a transfer of their own in Western Kentucky center Rob Marberry. Former all-conference guard Josh Williams also returns from a season-ending injury as the Bisons are hoping to improve on consecutive .500 conference marks.

Stetson has some interesting pieces despite coming off a 4-10 league campaign. Forward Derick Newton was the Atlantic Sun Freshman of the Year last season and the Hatters return their top seven scorers and four starters. Kennesaw State brings back leading scorer Kendrick Ray but they have to replace 18 points a game from Yonel Brown. Al Skinner’s ballclub returns two more starters and productive bench scorer Aubrey Williams. Bringing up the rear is USC Upstate as they return all five starters and could just as easily finish in the league’s top half. Deion Holmes and 7-footer Michael Buchanan are returning double-figure scorers for the Spartans.

MORE: 2016-17 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

PRESEASON ATLANTIC SUN PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Dallas Moore, North Florida

The easy choice for this award since Moore won Atlantic Sun Player of the Year honors last season. The 6-foot-1 point guard led the Atlantic Sun in points (19.7 ppg) and assists (6.0 apg) last season while also shooting 51 percent from the field and 39 percent from three-point range. After withdrawing his name from the 2016 NBA Draft after testing the waters, Moore is hoping that another big season gives him a chance at making The League.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ATLANTIC SUN TEAM:

  • Damon Lynn, NJIT: The 5-foot-11 senior was an all-league selection last season as he’s averaged at least 17.0 points per game all three years of college.
  • Kendrick Ray, Kennesaw State: The 6-foot-1 senior put up 18.7 points per game last season as those numbers could go up with the departure of Yonel Brown.
  • Chris Davenport, North Florida: Versatile senior 6-foot-8 forward was fourth in the league in rebounding, second in blocks and shot 37 percent on three-pointers last season.
  • Marc Eddy Norelia, Florida Gulf Coast: Dominant at times in the conference tournament last season, the 6-foot-8 senior averaged 17.1 points and 9.3 rebounds per game for the 2015-16 campaign.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @ASUNMBB

PREDICTED FINISH

  1. North Florida
  2. Florida Gulf Coast
  3. Jacksonville
  4. NJIT
  5. Lipscomb
  6. Stetson
  7. Kennesaw State
  8. USC Upstate

Ohio Valley Conference Preview: Belmont reigns supreme

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Beginning in October and running up through November 13th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2015-2016 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Ohio Valley Conference.

The Ohio Valley Conference Tournament championship game didn’t lack any drama. Taylor Barnette drilled a 3-pointer with 3.2 seconds left to send the Belmont to the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in five years. It handed Murray State, which was undefeated in conference play, an invitation to the NIT.

The Bruins and Racers are expected to top their respective divisions again this season despite going through two very different offseasons.

Belmont head coach Rick Byrd, entering his 30th season, brings back four starters. Barnette, the OVC Tournament MVP and Craig Bradshaw, the Ohio Valley Preseason Player of the Year, make up the conference’s top back court, while Evan Bradds mans the frontline after a breakout sophomore season. Belmont is one of the nation’s best mid-major programs year-after-year, and that shouldn’t change this season.

Murray State, however, experienced an offseason of change. In April, Cameron Payne left for the NBA, becoming a lottery pick that will continue his career alongside Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Then in June, head coach Steve Prohm left to take over the Iowa State program. Despite the coaching change and the loss of three of its top four scorers, Murray State remains a contender in the OVC. First-year head coach Matt McMahon has an all-OVC caliber guard in Jeffery Moss, the lone returning starter. Justin Seymour also returns, but the perimeter will be enhanced by the additions of Texas transfer Damarcus Croaker, Chattanooga transfer Gee McGhee and JuCo transfer Bryce Jones. 

In total, there are four new head coaches in the league: McMahon, Dan McHale (Eastern Kentucky), Rick Ray (Southeast Missouri State) and Jon Harris (SIU-Edwardsville). 

Even after graduating two all-OVC players, McHale and the Colonels could still be Belmont’s toughest challenge in the East Division, relying on the returning back court of Ja’Mill Powell and Isaac McGlone. Morehead State won five of its last six games, narrowly losing to Murray State in the OVC Tournament semifinals, to close out 2014-15. The Eagles could build of last season’s strong push with Brent Arrington returning to lead the team’s hard-nose defense. But Jacksonville State poses as a deep sleeper, a cast of newcomers headlined by well-traveled forward Cameron Biedscheid.

UT Martin, coming off one of the better turnarounds in the nation a season ago, will likely be Murray State’s toughest competition in the West Division. Twymond Howard and Alex Anderson make up a solid 1-2 punch, while Myles Taylor, another double-digit scorer, returns from a shortened 2014-15 season. Chris Olivier transferring hurts Eastern Illinois up front, but Trae Anderson and Cornell Johnston should be enough to keep the Panthers in play this year.

MORE: 2015-16 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

COACH’S TAKE

  • Favorite: “I think Belmont is the best team. They won the conference tournament last year. They have bulk of the guys coming back and they definitely have the best coach coming back.”
  • Sleeper: “I would say Morehead State. I think they’re going to have a really good team. They play hard, they play physical, they guard you. You really have to prepare for them. Heck, they were close to making the conference championship game last year.”
  • Star to watch: “I think Craig Bradshaw from Belmont. He can score from anywhere on the floor. He plays with a great motor and within the team concept. He can put points on the board, really quickly too.”

PRESEASON OHIO VALLEY CONFERENCE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Craig Bradshaw, Belmont

One of the best mid-major players in the nation, Bradshaw is coming off a junior campaign of 18.3 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game, shooting 42 percent from behind the 3-point line. An intense competitor, the 6-foot-3 senior had arguably his best game against one of the nation’s premier defenses, scoring 25 points (10-of-19 shooting) and nine rebounds against Virginia in the NCAA tournament.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON OHIO VALLEY CONFERENCE TEAM:

  • Evan Bradds, Belmont: The anchor in the middle for the Bruins, the 6-foot-7 junior averaged 14.2 points and 7.2 boards per game, shooting 69 percent from the field, second in the nation in that category.
  • Chris Horton, Austin Peay: One of the bright lights for the Governors in 2014-15, Horton averaged a double-double: 13.1 points and 11.1 rebounds per game. Tops in the conference with 2.3 blocks per game.
  • Twymond Howard, UT Martin: One of the top newcomers in the league from a season ago, the 6-foot-6 forward recorded five of his six double-doubles during conference play.
  • Jeffery Moss, Murray State: A long, athletic guard who can connect from three should see a bump in his offensive numbers with Cameron Payne in the NBA and two of the Racers’ other double-digit scorers gone from a season ago.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @OVCBall

PREDICTED FINISH

East Division

1. Belmont
2. Morehead State
3. Eastern Kentucky
4. Jacksonville State
5. Tennessee Tech
6. Tennessee State

West Division

1. Murray State
2. UT Martin
3. Eastern Illinois
4. Southeast Missouri State
5. Austin Peay
6. SIU-Edwardsville

2014-15 Southern Conference Preview: Wofford, Chattanooga favored in Davidson’s absence

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Wofford guard Karl Cochran (Getty Images)

Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

No league underwent as much of a makeover during this offseason as the Southern Conference. Four of the league’s 11 teams departed to different leagues this offseason, with Elon, Georgia Southern and Appalachian State departing for football purposes. The biggest hit, however, was the loss of Davidson, the league’s marquee program, to the Atlantic 10. That hurt, but the good news is that the three programs joining the conference this season — Mercer, East Tennessee State and VMI — all have quality basketball programs. Losing Steph Curry’s alma mater is tough to overcome, but the league may actually be tougher in the future with the new additions.

Everyone should be aware of Mercer. The Bears beat out Florida-Gulf Coast for the Atlantic Sun’s automatic bid last season, and they made the most of their NCAA tournament trip by knocking off No. 3 seed Duke in the opening round. But the Bears lose seven seniors and five starters from last year’s team, meaning that their first year in the SoCon will be spent in regrouping mode. VMI loses two of their three leading scorers, who averaged a combined 39.0 points, but they bring back sophomore Q.J. Peterson and bring back a roster that should allow them to be a factor in the league title race. The third new addition is East Tennessee State, who returns back court stars Rashawn Rembert and Jalen Riley, who should start this season, but will have to find a way to replace their front court.

The favorite in the SoCon this season will be Wofford, who played their way into the NCAA tournament a season ago by winning the league’s automatic bid despite finishing third in the regular season. Mike Young’s club returns essentially their enter roster from a season ago, a year that saw Young start ten different players at least five times during the regular season. It took Wofford awhile to find their rhythm last year, part of the reason that Young used so many different lineups, but once he found up that worked, the Terriers finished the season strong. Karl Cochran and Spencer Collins will anchor the back court, while Lee Skinner will be their biggest interior presence.

It won’t be easy for the Terriers, however, as Will Wade’s Chattanooga program will enter their second season playing ‘Chaos’. Wade is a member of Shaka Smart’s coaching tree, meaning that his goal is to eventually get the Mocs playing the full-court, all-out pressing style that has allowed VCU to be so successful. Wade is starting to get his players into the program, and while last season saw Chattanooga forced into more zone and half-court defense than Wade would have liked, this season will bring much more pressure and … chaos. Casey Jones and Rico White are the two players that will anchor the back court, but the guy to keep an eye on is Justin Tuoyo, a 6-foot-10 transfer that followed Wade from Richmond.

One team to keep an eye on is Furman. The Palladins were just 3-13 in the league last season, but they have a young and promising back court, headlined by Stephen Croome. Keep an eye on William Gates, the son of the star of the movie ‘Hoop Dreams’, who had a promising freshman season despite battling knee issues much of the year.

REALIGNMENT MOVES

In: Mercer, East Tennessee State, VMI
Out: Davidson, Georgia Southern, Appalachian State, Elon

PRESEASON SOCON PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Karl Cochran, Wofford

Cochran averaged 15.7 points and 5.0 boards as a junior, a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that he’s just a 6-foot-1 guard. The leading scorer and best player on the Terriers, Cochran only started 22 of Wofford’s 33 games a season ago.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-SOCON TEAM:

  • Q.J. Peterson, VMI, So.: VMI’s system allows players to put up huge numbers, but Peterson averaged 19.0 points as a freshman.
  • Stephen Croome, Furman, Jr.: The 6-foot-0 guard averaged 19.1 points and 3.7 assists while helping change the culture of the Palladin program.
  • Lee Skinner, Wofford, Sr.: An undersized power forward, Skinner is the heart and soul of this year’s Wofford team.
  • Casey Jones, Chattanooga, Jr.: The leading returning scorer for the Mocs, Jones is a 6-foot-5 forward that should fit well into the ‘Chaos’ system Will Wade runs.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @(link)

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Wofford
2. Chattanooga
3. East Tennessee State
4. VMI
5. Furman
6. Mercer
7. Western Carolina
8. UNC Greensboro
9. The Citadel
10. Samford