The number of at-large bids to the NCAA tournament for teams outside of football's BCS leagues had stayed level or dropped in each of the six years from 2004 (10 bids) to 2009 (just four) before doubling last season. The Mountain West and Atlantic 10 combined for five, and we got to eight with upsets in the WCC (Gonzaga), WAC (Utah State) and C-USA (UTEP) tournaments. Still, the MWC and A-10 (financially) are well ahead of the rest of their non-BCS brethren, so it will be an interesting subplot for the initial Field of 68 to see if any of those three extra bids go to true mid-majors, particularly teams that aren't regular-season league champs who stumble in a conference tournament.
Despite losing do-everything guard Matt Bouldin, the Bulldogs have plenty to take on their typically brutal nonleague schedule and win at least a share of the WCC crown for the 11th straight season. Sophomore wing Elias Harris could be an NBA lottery pick in June with another standout season and he'll get help from senior sniper Steven Gray and junior 7-footer Robert Sacre. The key to the season could be the development of point guard Demetri Goodson, the fourth returning starter who didn't play up to his potential last season.
The Bulldogs will have to find a way to replace their two most versatile defenders after losing Willie Veasley to graduation and Gordon Hayward to the NBA draft. There should be enough weapons left between former Horizon Player of the Year Matt Howard inside and the dynamic guard tandem of Shelvin Mack and Ronald Nored to make up for Hayward's offensive exploits. Butler also will be without Avery Jukes, who played some crucial minutes in the national title game, so size (and Howard's ability to stay out of foul trouble) will be key factors in Butler's toughest contests.
The Mountain West will be brutal at the top. San Diego State was picked to win the conference, but I like the Rebels a touch more now that leading scorer Tre'Von Willis will be available early in the season. With Kansas transfer Quintrell Thomas and juco arrival Carlos Lopez, UNLV will have the size it lacked last season. Combine that with greater depth and the Rebels should be Runnin' a good deal more. That should allow for bigger things from sophomore guard Anthony Marshall and junior forward Chace Stanback. If everything falls into place, this is a sleeper team out West.
This could be low if the heralded trio of freshmen listed above really pan out. And with Wesley Witherspoon back in the mix, coach Josh Pastner could have a team primed to go far in March, despite significant graduation and early entry personnel losses. It's hard to compare season to season because of the personnel changes, but Memphis must do a better job on the defensive glass. The Tigers were bludgeoned for a 36.4 percent offensive rebounding rate last season.
If you pick the Aztecs over the Rebels in the MWC, it's very understandable. San Diego State has a ton of talent, led by sophomore rebounding savant Kawhi Leonard and a senior trio of D.J. Gay, Malcolm Thomas and Billy White. This is an extremely athletic and experienced team that nearly ended Tennessee's Elite Eight run in the first round in Providence last season. If the Aztecs get a little better shot selection and take more advantage of getting to the line (333rd last season in free-throw percentage), this team will be very dangerous come March.
The Owls lose top scorer Ryan Brooks from the defending co-league champion team, but return double-double machine Lavoy Allen and guards Juan Fernandez and Ramone Moore. The Owls feature terrific possession-use balance, so they should be prepared to have someone ascend to the leading man role. Having reestablished themselves as an A-10 force, the next step is to win a game in the NCAAs. Including his time at Penn, coach Fran Dunphy has lost a record 11 straight NCAA tournament games, including last season's disappointing defeat to former assistant Steve Donahue and Cornell.
The Spiders' breakout season ended in disappointment with a first-round NCAA loss to St. Mary's, but they have a ton of talent back to take another run in the Atlantic 10. Second-leading scorer David Gonzalvez is gone, but lead guard Kevin Anderson returns, as does a cadre of solid bigs. Also, Richmond brings in a really strong freshman class. The Spiders rarely turn the ball over, so if a year's more experience means they make a few more shots a game, this team should once again strongly challenge for the league crown.
Xavier fans rightly chide those who doubt the staying power of the Musketeers, but with
College backcourts don't come much better than sharpshooting duo Jimmer Fredette and Jackson Emery, but the Cougars lost Jonathan Tavernari (completed eligibility), Michael Loyd (transfer) and, perhaps most important, Tyler Haws (Mormon mission). Noah Hartsock is a nice frontcourt complement, but the Cougars will need more bigs to step up and relieve some pressure on their dynamic guards.
One of a plethora of mid-majors who favor a "by committee" approach, Wichita State returns a load of starters who all contribute to the cause. Nominal leading scorer Clevin Hannah is gone, but the four guys behind him are back, all having averaged between eight and 12 ppg last season. This is a deep, experienced team that is peaking into a club that should be very difficult to beat in the Valley (and outside of it).
The Monarchs (and one of their prime competitors, George Mason) are built similarly to the Shockers and don't rely on a 20-point scorer. Leading man Gerald Lee has moved on, but pretty much everyone behind him is back. Lee was the most efficient scorer on a really poor shooting team that crushed the offensive glass, but if guys like Ben Finney can grow into that role, ODU could win a tough CAA.
The Racers had six players average between 9.7 and 10.6 points last season, so losing two of them means there are still four capable scorers for the OVC to reckon with. Danero Thomas, whose buzzer-beater KO'd Vandy in the NCAAs, is one of the departed, so expect more name recognition for diminutive but efficient scorers B.J. Jenkins and Isaiah Canaan. Remember, this team nearly ended Butler's Cinderella NCAA run in Round 2 and won 31 games last season.
Flyers fans had mixed emotions after their postseason NIT title last season, knowing that had their team put together more performances like that during the season, it could have been an NCAA run they were talking about. With high-flying Chris Wright returning for his senior year, expectations are one again similarly lofty, especially if highly regarded freshman point guard Juwan Staten is the real deal. Late-game execution killed Dayton repeatedly last season. If they clear things up this year, look out.
This could end up being very low for a Lobos team that is relying on transfers Emmanuel Negedu (Tennessee) and Drew Gordon (UCLA, eligible in January) to ease the pain of the departures of leading scorers Darington Hobson and Ramon Martinez. If the two active bigs work out, UNM should be right in the mix in the MWC. Stat wonks also will note that UNM's scoring margin in league play last season was very thin for their record. Any "luck" normalization this year could mean a worse record, even with comparable play.
The Bears are a very explosive offensive team that shoots the ball well, doesn't turn it over much at all and has two prime candidates in Kyle Weems and Adam Leonard to lead them any night. Missouri State won four home games to take the CollegeInsider.com postseason tournament last spring and should be ready to take the next step as a program, especially if the Bears can find a way to guard anyone on the three-point arc, where they allowed opponents to shoot a galling 37.6 percent last season.