Tuesday January 5th, 2016

As conference play begins across the country, SI has been resetting the races in the top nine leagues. Now a look at the top contenders and players from outside the major conferences:

Top three contenders

Valparaiso (11–3, Horizon League). The Crusaders returned every major contributor from the team that won 28 games and pushed No. 4 seed Maryland in a three-point loss in the NCAA tournament last season. They opened this season 5–0 and split a pair of games against Oregon (loss) and Oregon State (win) in late November but stubbed their collective toe at Ball State a few days later. That defeat hurts, but Valparaiso can really guard (No. 2 in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency), and it remains the odds-on favorite to win the Horizon and will be a scary matchup for any major-conference opponent in the tourney.

Wichita State (8–5, Missouri Valley). You may be looking at the Shockers’ record and wondering why they deserve to be mentioned in this space. This is why: Wichita State has been a different team since Fred VanVleet returned from a hamstring injury. After dropping three games (against USC, Alabama and Iowa) while the senior point guard was on the shelf, the Shockers went 6–1, with their only loss coming in overtime at a Seton Hall team that has yet to lose at the Prudential Center this season.

Gonzaga (12–3, West Coast Conference). The Zags got the benefit of the doubt from Associated Press voters in the preseason. They brought so much talent back in the frontcourt—seniors Kyle Wiltjer and Przemek Karnowski and sophomore Domantas Sabonis—that it was easy to gloss over other roster deficiencies. Apparently replacing Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell isn’t as simple as we thought it would be. Still, this is a talented group with the goods to beat out Saint Mary’s in the West Coast Conference and make a run in March even without Karnowski.

Surprise team

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Monmouth. It started with an overtime win over UCLA at Pauley Pavilion to open the season on Nov. 13. It continued with victories over Notre Dame and USC on neutral courts later that month. Big-time Ws at Georgetown and Rutgers in December provided more validation. If none of those results convinced you, I’m not sure what will: Monmouth is for real. Junior guard Justin Robinson is a skilled scorer and savvy playmaker, and the Hawks enter the new year sporting a top-40 defense. Monmouth’s bench mob will need to keep coming up with new ideas, lest it deplete the celebration repertoire before more fans start watching during the NCAAs. Unfortunately for the Hawks, they won’t have their fourth-leading scorer, junior guard Je’Lon Hornbeak for the foreseeable future, as he has been suspended indefinitely for conduct detrimental to the team.

Flop team

Central Michigan. In the preseason, SI.com projected the Chippewas to be the best team in the Mid-American Conference, and a media panel voted them to finish atop the conference’s West Division. But Central Michigan may not even be the best directional school in its own state. Coach Keno Davis’s team has already lost six games and has yet to notch a win against a team in the top 220 of kenpom.com’s rankings. The Chippewas are hemorrhaging points—they rank 318th in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency—and aren’t scoring enough to make up for it on the other end of the floor. The good news? Central Michigan has won four of its six games since senior point guard Chris Fowler returned from an injury.

Icon Sportswire via AP

Player of the year so far

Kay Felder, Oakland. There would have been no debate for who deserved this honor had the Golden Grizzlies managed to upset No. 1 Michigan State at the Palace of Auburn Hills last month (they lost by six in overtime). But Felder is a really strong candidate nonetheless. He leads Division I in assists per game and Offensive Win Shares, ranks second in points per game and fifth in minutes played per game. The 5’9” junior scored 38 points to lead Oakland to a 14-point win at Washington on Dec. 19, dropped 37 points in the loss to the Spartans three days later and 30 in a defeat at the hands of Virginia late last month. Felder is an electric scorer who’s proven he can light up major conference teams; let’s hope he gets a chance to display his talent in the NCAAs. Even the best center in the NBA is a believer.

Best non-conference win

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Northeastern over Miami, 78–77 (Nov. 27). The Huskies had a chance to record an even better win when they hosted No. 1 Michigan State in Boston last month, but the Spartans won by 20. That result doesn’t detract from the significance of Northeastern’s win in Coral Gables the day after Thanksgiving. Senior forward Quincy Ford scored a game-high 24 points and drilled a jumper at the buzzer to deal the Hurricanes their first loss of the season. Miami has won all seven of its games since then, ranks 10th in the country in average point differential when adjusted for strength of schedule and looks poised to challenge Duke, North Carolina and Virginia in the ACC. (Interesting side note: the game the Huskies played before beating Miami was a loss to MAC foe Miami of Ohio.)

Must-see game in January

Gonzaga at Saint Mary’s (Jan. 21). Gonzaga has won the WCC 14 times in the last 15 years. It could do so again this season, but coach Mark Few’s team has already dropped three games (against Texas A&M, Arizona and UCLA), and has struggled to beat conference opponents San Francisco and Santa Clara on the road to begin league play. The Gaels haven’t beaten anyone of note yet, but they look like Gonzaga’s strongest challenger in the WCC and should be able to push the Zags in Moraga.

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