Five mid-major conference races to watch

A chill is in the air, the hooded sweatshirts are slowly appearing and in my yuppie neighborhood, some people are already wearing North Face. You know what that means: The time for Summer Shootarounds is over. Today's final addition -- a look at the Best of the Rest -- is here. To accompany it, here's a look at five potentially thrilling 2010-11 races from conferences we didn't cover in the Shootaround. Entries listed in no particular order. (And before you say anything, the Mountain West and A-10 were covered in the Shootarounds, so they're not eligible for this little post.) And ... go:


Last season's best team, Northern Iowa, delivered so many thrills in the 2010 NCAA tourney that asking for more almost feels like greed. It's hard to follow an act like Ali Farokhmanesh. (It's also, this many months removed from March Madness, hard to remember how to spell Ali Farokhmanesh.) But it's possible the 2010-11 version of the Missouri Valley will be just as interesting.

It will also be more competitive. UNI lost five seniors from its Kansas-killing Sweet 16 team (Farokhmanesh, Jordan Eglseder, Adam Koch, Brian Haak and Adam Rodenberg), three of which (Eglseder, Koch, Farokhmanesh) were among UNI's top four scorers. Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson is looking to follow the mid-major molds of Butler, Xavier and Gonzaga by building a team that can win its conference and make a deep NCAA tournament run each year. To do that in 2011, he'll need guard Kwadzo Ahelegbe to take a leap into leading scorer territory while getting bigger contributions from seniors Johnny Moran and Lucas O'Rear. O'Rear, purveyor of entertaining sideburns, decided to come back to school after being drafted higher than expected by the Cincinnati Reds.

If it will be hard for UNI to maintain its high level with all those losses, it will be just as difficult to hold off what was already a very tough Wichita State team. The Shockers, who finished 25-10 and 12-6 in the MVC in 2010, lost leading scorer Clevin Hannah to graduation, but nearly every other player from last year's team -- which for much of the season looked like it would push UNI's conference title hopes to the brink -- returns. Those returnees include seniors Toure' Murry, J.T. Durley and Graham Hatch and junior center Garrett Stutz.

The race between those two teams will be buttressed by Greg McDermott's first year at Creighton, where leading scorer Kenny Lawson Jr. returned after a brief dalliance with the NBA draft. Rutgers transfer Gregory Echenique will give McDermott some immediate talent come conference season, and if UNI and Wichita State don't break away from the pack early, Creighton could nab the conference title as early as McDermott's first season.

In other words, a non-dominant UNI team means a wide-open race for the MVC's top spot. The conference won't be as deep as its mid-aughts heyday, but it ought to be just as much fun to watch.


Old Dominion won the regular-season and tournament title, but this wasn't exactly a one-team league last season, as Northeastern finished one game back at 14-4 and George Mason and William & Mary won 12 apiece. The CAA returns 40 of its 60 starters from that 2009-10 campaign, and nine players who earned all-CAA honors are back for another season. In all, at least two teams -- ODU and William & Mary -- will expect to make the NCAA tournament, with a handful of improving teams and stalwart programs (George Mason, VCU, Drexel, Northeastern) nipping at their heels.

That doesn't mean ODU isn't the favorite. The Monarchs lost their leading scorer, dominant forward Gerald Lee, to graduation, but they return senior forward Frank Hassell, who will look to assume much of Lee's scoring role. Guards Ben Finney and Kent Bazemore are deep threats who each come with their own specialty: Finney is one of ODU's best rebounders ever, while Bazemore was No. 19 in the country in steal percentage in 2009-10. The Monarchs are veteran, experienced, and talented -- all the things you look for in a team primed to make another run to the NCAA tournament.

Old Dominion may be the favorite again, but it'll have some tougher competition on the road to the CAA title. William & Mary return two of its most efficient players, junior guard Quinn McDowell and senior forward Marcus Kitts. If Tony Shaver's team can make up for the loss of three senior starters, they could be back in the NCAA conversation yet again. George Mason coach Jim Larranaga gave four freshman and three sophomores the majority of his team's minutes in last season's 17-15 campaign; that group should be much improved. And, naturally, there's Virginia Commonwealth. VCU lost star Larry Sanders to the NBA draft, but the rest of last year's 27-9 team -- seniors Joey Rodriguez, Ed Nixon, Brandon Rozzell and Jamie Skeen -- are back for another run in coach Shaka Smart's uptempo offense.

Throw in improving teams with all-conference returners like Drexel, Hofstra and Northeastern, and you begin to get the picture. Old Dominion has a very good chance of getting back to the NCAA tournament in 2011, but it'll have to fight off several contenders to do so.


The conference with perhaps the best name in all of college sports -- "Summit League" sounds competitive and slightly extreme, like a Mountain Dew promotion -- could also be one of the country's most sneakily entertaining mid-major leagues. The race to the top of the Summit (har, har) will again feature three teams: Oakland, last season's winner; IUPUI, an improving team under coach Ron Hunter; and Oral Roberts, a young squad that took down New Mexico last season.

Of the three, the Golden Grizzles probably lost the most this offseason: Senior starters Derick Nelson and Johnathon Jones both graduated, leaving a pair of holes on coach Greg Kampe's perimeter. Of the three, Oakland also retained the most. That's thanks to the return of senior forward Keith Benson, the consensus Summit League preseason player of the year and one of the best rebounders and interior scorers you've never heard of. With Benson back, the Grizzlies have the kind of player mid-major leagues like the Summit rarely see, and it's hard to imagine any of the league's teams slowing him down in 2010-11.

IUPUI and Oral Roberts will certainly try, though. IUPUI lost its best player in 6-7 forward Robert Glenn, but the rest of the squad is back. ORU returns three stars from last year's 20-win campaign: Sophomore Warren Niles, junior Dominique Morrison, and senior Michael Craion. Both teams will consider anything less than an NCAA tournament berth a failure, meaning a two-way race to top Oakland -- get ready for a lot more double-teams, Mr. Benson -- and a pretty equal three-way race for the top of the conference. Don't say you weren't warned.


Siena coach Fran McCaffery is gone, so the MAAC is up for grabs -- with Siena still very much in the mix.

McCaffery's departure to Iowa isn't the only thing that might take the Saints down a peg. Siena lost three key seniors, including leading scorers Alex Franklin and Edwin Ubiles, to graduation this offseason. Despite those losses, the Saints retained much of their backcourt -- hot-shooting guard Clarence Jackson returns, as does senior forward Ryan Rossiter. New coach Mitch Buonaguro was an internal hire, meaning he should be able to pick up right where McCaffery left off, and the Saints should still compete for the conference title.

Unlike in years past, though, Siena won't be the clear favorite. That honor belongs to the Fairfield Stags. With the exception of top scorer Anthony Johnson, Fairfield returns all the key pieces from a team that went 23-11 and was a few made baskets away from a MAAC final win over Siena in March. Among those pieces: Sophomore guard Derek Needham, fifth-year senior forward Greg Nero (if he's healthy) and senior Yorel Hawkins. Fairfield did lose top recruit Majok Majok after he didn't meet eligibility requirements, but 6-4 guard Maurice Barrow should contribute as a freshman to what should be the league's best team.

If the MAAC turns into a three-team race, it will be thanks to the Iona Gaels, who return five of their six most important contributors from a defense that was one of the country's 50 most-efficient in 2009-10. New coach Tim Cluess has plenty to work with in New Rochelle.

The MAAC was already a competitive league at the top, and Siena has been one of the country's best mid-majors for years. In 2010-11, Fairfield and Iona might just join them. Sorry, Saints fans, but doesn't that sound a little bit exciting?


You might not have noticed, but the WAC was one of the country's best non-major conferences in 2009-10. The reason? A star-dominated Nevada team featuring Luke Babbitt and Armon Johnson, a brilliant offensive conference champ in Utah State, a pair of 20-win teams in New Mexico State and Louisiana Tech, and a handful of mid-level teams with the ability to beat any of the big boys on any given night.

Johnson and Babbitt left Nevada for the NBA, but the WAC should still be worth the watch. Utah State is the clear favorite yet again: The Aggies return almost every major contributor -- Tai Wesley, Nate Bendall, Pooh Williams, Tyler Newbold -- from a team that ranked No. 18 in the nation in offensive efficiency last season. But that group, for all its talent, will be challenged by an experienced, senior-dominated New Mexico State team that played some of the better offense in the country itself last season. The Aggies also feature one of the country's best offensive rebounders in 7-foot center Hamidu Rahman. Then there's efficient junior Troy Gillenwater (who should get a much higher percentage of his team's minutes in 2010-11) and 6-6 senior Wendell McKines, all significant contributors in last year's 22-win campaign.

Nor is the WAC strictly a two-team race. Even without its two NBA-caliber stars, Nevada will be displeased with anything below a third-place finish, and upstarts like Boise State, Fresno State and San Jose State all feature a smattering of likely all-conference selections.

So, yes, the WAC can play. In 2009-10, the only better "mid-major" conferences, in so far as that term is appropriate, were the Mountain West, Conference USA and Atlantic 10. Don't expect a dropoff in 2010-11. Instead, expect a competitive race to unseat Utah State.

PLUS! BONUS SMALL CONFERENCE COMPETITIVENESS HONORABLE MENTIONS: Ohio Valley, Ivy League, Big Sky, Patriot, Southern, America East, Sun Belt (if only because it's so wide-open, not that you'd particularly want to watch) and, if Detroit's young team shows up, maybe even the Horizon League. Or, you know, maybe not.