Previewing the mid-majors

Lehigh. Norfolk State. Ohio.

These mid-majors busted brackets in office pools throughout the country.

C.J. McCollum, Kyle O'Quinn and D.J. Cooper became stars of the moment.

The upsets they fueled solidified the significance of schools in non-power leagues, most of which don't play on TV prior to March Madness unless they're in a nonconference matchup with a BCS program or a BracketBusters game.

But they matter.

So, it's probably best to begin tracking these squads now.

Editor's note: Given the money they spend on basketball -- among other factors -- we do not consider the Atlantic 10, Mountain West or Conference USA to be so-called mid-majors, therefore they are not a part of this preview.

America East

My pick: Vermont

Last season, the Catamounts earned their conference's automatic bid with an ugly win over Stony Brook in the America East title game. Stony Brook connected on just 29 percent of its field goal attempts. Vermont scored 51 points and still won. But Vermont is not the same team that topped Lamar in the First Four in Dayton. The star of that victory, Four McGlynn (18 points), transferred to Towson during the offseason. McGlynn is one of three key departures (Brendan Bald, Matt Glass). So why pick Vermont to win the league? Well, Brian Voelkel, the most outstanding player in the conference tournament, and Luke Apfeld (9.9 points per game, 4.1 rebounds per game) are two of four starters who return for the Catamounts.

Greatest threat: Stony Brook won the regular-season title and botched any hope of an NCAA tourney berth with its lackluster effort in the conference tournament title game. But in conference play, the Seawolves were the most efficient defense in the America East, per Ken Pomeroy's stats. Strong defense is their best chance of recuperating from the loss of leading scorer Bryan Dougher and two other starters.

X factor: Boston University, ineligible for the league's tournament title due to a pending move to the Patriot League next season, will plow forward without Darryl Partin, last season's player of the year in the America East, and Jake O'Brien, who transferred to Temple. But D.J. Irving (11.4 ppg, 5.4 apg) and RecruitingNation top-100 recruit Maurice Watson Jr. (No. 92 in Class of 2012) won't let the Terriers fall far.

Preseason MVP: D.J. Irving, Boston University

Atlantic Sun

My pick: Mercer

No team in the Atlantic Sun shed a tear when Belmont announced its move to the Ohio Valley, beginning with the 2012-13 season. The Bruins dominated the league, winning five of its past seven NCAA tourney bids. Now, it's Mercer's time. The Bears defeated Tennessee State, Georgia State, Old Dominion, Fairfield and Utah State on their way to the 2012 CollegeInsider.com tourney title in March. That didn't mean much on a national scale. But victories over other mid-major contenders should boost Mercer's confidence as it preps for an Atlantic Sun season without perennial thorn Belmont standing in its way. Mercer had the league's top defense in league play, holding opponents to a 44 effective field goal percentage, per Ken Pomeroy. And with Langston Hall (11.4 ppg) and three other starters returning from a squad that won a school-record 27 games last season, they'll restrict opposing offenses again.

Greatest threat: There are no guarantees for Mercer, however, with South Carolina Upstate's Torrey Craig (16.4 ppg, 7.7 rpg), the reigning conference player of the year, and all five starters from last season returning, too. South Carolina Upstate could win the league's regular-season title and conference tournament.

X factor: Florida Gulf Coast's returning trio of Sherwood Brown, Bernard Thompson and Brett Comer averaged more than 33 points per game last season.

Preseason MVP: Torrey Craig, South Carolina Upstate

Big Sky

My pick: Montana

The Grizzlies won 20 of their last 21 games in 2011-12, but they were dismissed from the NCAA tournament when they scored just 49 points against Wisconsin in the second round. Still, the Big Sky favorites should earn another trip to March Madness with Will Cherry (15.8 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 2.6 steals per game), who's equally effective on both ends of the floor, and Kareem Jamar (scored 15 points or more in six of the team's final 13 games). That duo led the Grizzlies to Big Sky regular-season and tournament titles last season. Mathias Ward's contributions -- 23 points in Montana's win over Weber State in the title game -- can't be overlooked, either. This core is talented enough to lead the Grizzlies to another set of crowns.

Greatest threat: Damian Lillard took his talents to the pros in the offseason. The Portland Trailblazers selected Lillard with the sixth pick in the 2012 draft. He was that good. But Weber State has a chance, although there will be a lot of pressure on guard Scott Bamforth (14.5 ppg).

X factor: In its first year in the league, North Dakota could make noise in the Big Sky. Troy Huff (13.1 ppg) is one of four starters returning for a squad that won 17 games last season.

Preseason MVP: Will Cherry, Montana

Big South

My pick: Charleston Southern (South), VMI (North)

Charleston Southern toppled the best team in the league, UNC-Asheville, on the road in January. The Buccaneers scored 93 points in that game. It was significant because UNC-Asheville was the fifth-highest scoring team in the nation last season (81.2 ppg). The Buccaneers struggled all year on defense (No. 217 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency ratings), but they can keep pace offensively with the best in the league, especially with Arlon Harper and three other starters returning. Virginia Military Institute has possessed one of the nation's top scoring offenses in the country in recent years. Stan Okoye (17.1 ppg) should lead the Keydets to the North title with that output, the same trait they used to reach the Big South title game a season ago.

Greatest threat: UNC-Asheville lost Matt Dickey, Big South Player of the Year last season, and three other starters, but former reserves will step up and help the Bulldogs contend for the title in the South division. Allan Chaney, a former Florida and Virginia Tech signee, has been cleared to play for High Point, after a heart condition nearly ended his career. Chaney was a top-100 recruit in the Class of 2008. If that talent remains (he hasn't competed in more than two years), High Point could make a run at the crown in the North division.

X factor: Campbell exceeded expectations a year ago. Can Darren White help the Camels (North) do it again? Losing Sam McLaurin, who transferred to Illinois, hurts Coastal Carolina. But Anthony Raffa (16.7 ppg) anchors the Big South's toughest backcourt, which could guide the Chanticleers (South) to a title.

Preseason MVP: Stan Okoye, VMI

Big West

My pick: Long Beach State

Dan Monson turned Long Beach State into a mid-major power by compiling one of the nation's toughest nonconference schedules year-after-year and riding a talented core of Larry Anderson, Casper Ware, T.J. Robinson and Eugene Phelps. The foursome that led the 49ers to the Big West regular-season and tournament titles in 2011-12 is gone. But Long Beach State won't slide. That's because Monson's recruiting has prepared him for this transition. Keala King (Arizona State) and Tony Freeland (DePaul) will offer immediate help once they're available, probably not until after the first semester. But West Virginia transfer Dan Jennings, a 6-foot-9 forward, will help immediately and he'll join James Ennis (10.0 ppg) and Mike Caffey (5.9 ppg) as the 49ers weather another difficult nonconference slate.

Greatest threat: Cal State Fullerton could win the Big West title, too. The Titans have two of the most talented players in the league with D.J. Seeley (17.6 ppg) and Kwame Vaughn (15.6 ppg) returning. But the offseason mess that this program endured via an abrupt coaching change puts a question mark on the entire season.

X factor: No team in the Big West played faster than conference newcomer Hawaii (No. 17 in Pomeroy's adjusted tempo ratings). That pace helped the Rainbow Warriors win 16 games in the WAC last season. Led by 6-10 center Vander Joaquim (14.3 ppg, 9.5 rpg), Hawaii could make a strong first impression in 2012-13.

Preseason MVP: D.J. Seeley, Cal State Fullerton

Colonial Athletic Association

My pick: Drexel

The offseason's realignment chaos disrupted the CAA. With Georgia State (Sun Belt) and Old Dominion (Conference USA) bolting, neither school can compete for the conference's tourney title and automatic NCAA tournament berth. Virginia Commonwealth joined the Atlantic 10 over the summer. The moves, however, elevate Drexel, the regular-season champ a season ago. Sophomore Damion Lee (12.0 ppg) and Frantz Massenat (13.7 ppg) fortify a team that held its opponents to 56.1 ppg (No. 5 scoring defense in America). Four starters are back for Bruiser Flint's team, one that missed the NCAA tournament in a three-point loss to VCU in the CAA tournament title game.

Greatest threat: Delaware won nine consecutive games down the stretch before suffering losses to Old Dominion in the CAA tourney and Butler in the first round of the CBI. Jamelle Hagins (12.4 ppg, 11.1 rpg, 3.0 bpg) is one of the most productive interior players in the country. Devon Saddler (18.8 ppg) is a star on the perimeter. At 68.9 ppg, the Blue Hens had the league's No. 2 scoring offense. They'll test Drexel in CAA competition.

X factor: George Mason led the league in scoring (70.4 ppg) but was second in turnovers (15.2 tpg) last season. If Paul Hewitt's squad can correct its ballhandling mishaps, it can contend for the league's crown. Sherrod Wright (9.6 ppg, 1.7 tpg), however, must play with consistent poise.

Preseason MVP: Damion Lee, Drexel

Horizon League

My pick: Detroit

If Butler hadn't left the Horizon League for the Atlantic 10, it would probably be favored to win the conference title. But the Bulldogs are gone. And that opens the door for Detroit to build on last season's strong finish. The Titans certainly encountered challenges throughout the season but won 10 of 11 before losing to national runner-up Kansas in the NCAA tournament. That rally included a win over contender Valparaiso in the Horizon League tourney title game. Ray McCallum Jr. (15.4 ppg) is the catalyst for a program that returns three starters. If Nick Minnerath, a 6-9 forward, gets back on track after suffering an ACL injury last season, Detroit could represent the conference again in March.

Greatest threat: Valparaiso's 20-point loss to Detroit in the Horizon League title game was unexpected, given its strong showing that led to a regular-season title. Ryan Broekhoff (14.9 ppg) and Kevin Van Wijk (14.1 ppg) ensure that the Horizon League title will not be won without a fight. But Van Wijk is still recovering from offseason knee surgery.

X factor: Alec Brown, a 7-1 junior who averaged 2.97 blocks per game last season (ninth in the country), leads four returning starters on a UW-Green Bay squad that could shake up the conference.

Preseason MVP: Ray McCallum Jr., Detroit

Ivy League

My pick: Princeton

Princeton, the Ivy League's top 3-point shooting team last season, seems to be the early favorite to win the conference title -- and the automatic berth that comes with the crown -- months after a cheating schedule disrupted Harvard's plans to repeat. But the Tigers aren't in this simply by default. Princeton, which split its two games against Harvard last season, has the conference's top player in Ian Hummer (16.1 ppg). And no team in the conference can match its size (6-9 Mack Darrow, 6-11 Brendan Connolly, 6-8 Denton Koon, 7-1 Edo Lawrence).

Greatest threat: This wasn't the way Harvard planned to follow its historic run to the NCAA tournament after being absent from the Big Dance for more than 50 years. A cheating scandal led to the departures of standouts Kyle Casey (11.4 ppg) and Brandyn Curry (7.9 ppg, 4.9 apg). So projections for Harvard have changed. But all is not lost with Laurent Rivard (10.1 ppg) returning and capable reserves and newcomers in the mix, too.

X factor: Columbia brings back all five starters from a team that's better than its 4-10 conference record from a season ago suggested.

Preseason MVP: Ian Hummer, Princeton

Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference

My pick: Loyola (Md.)

Last season, prognosticators were high on Iona's potential based on its talented trio of Momo Jones, Michael Glover and Scott Machado. This season, another trio has ramped up the buzz about its team's chances of winning the MAAC. Loyola (Md.) could ride Erik Etherly (13.7 ppg), Dylon Cormier (13.4 ppg) and Robert Olson (11.1 ppg) to the MAAC championship. The Greyhounds, No. 2 scoring defense in the conference at 64.2 ppg, could end their tenure in the MAAC -- they'll join the Patriot League next season -- with a title.

Greatest threat: There's a lot to like about Steve Masiello's Manhattan squad. All five starters return, including George Beamon (19.0 ppg) and Rhamel Brown, reigning MAAC Defensive Player of the Year. But attitude is just as important as its talent level. The Jaspers lost six of their last 10 games in 2011-12. If they're consistent, they can challenge Loyola (Md.) for the conference title.

X factor: Jones (15.7 ppg) is back for Iona. With Machado and Glover gone, he's the undisputed go-to playmaker for Tim Cluess' program. Don't discount his ability to turn Iona into a contender.

Preseason MVP: Momo Jones, Iona

My pick: Ohio (East), Toledo (West)
It's hard to bet against an Ohio team that reached the Sweet 16 and nearly knocked off North Carolina to earn a slot in the Elite Eight last season. D.J. Cooper (14.7 ppg) and Walter Offutt (12.4 ppg) lead a crew that returns all five starters. The West is more difficult to gauge. But Toledo's Rian Pearson (16.4 ppg) and every meaningful contributor from last season's 17-win campaign return. The Rockets can't compete in the postseason due to APR problems, but they can compete for the West title.

Greatest threat: Akron fans won't like this prediction. Zeke Marshall (10.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 2.8 bpg) is one of four returning starters for the Zips, reigning champs in the East. Eastern Michigan is deep and balanced. That's a great starting point for a run at the West crown.

X factor: Randal Holt is Kent State's only returning starter. But a few intriguing newcomers could make this season interesting for the Flashes in the East. There's pressure on Ball State's Bill Taylor. Players know it. Will Chris Bond (7.1 ppg) & Co. use that as fuel for a rally to the top of the West? A speedy recovery for Tyler Koch (6.6 ppg), who recently underwent surgery for a broken thumb, would help. Stay tuned.

Preseason MVP: D.J. Cooper, Ohio

Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference

My pick: Savannah State

Last season, Norfolk State won the MEAC tournament and then upset Missouri, a 2-seed, in the NCAA tournament. But Kyle O'Quinn, the star of that game, is gone. Savannah State, however, is stacked and could replace Norfolk State as the league's reps next March, especially if Rashad Hassan (13.0 ppg), Deric Rudolph (10.7 ppg) and Preston Blackman (9.0 ppg) play to their potential. The trio led the Tigers to a conference title last season and should take the squad back to that perch again.

Greatest threat: Tahj Tate (16.1 ppg) is one of four starters returning for Delaware State, the No. 3 squad in the league last season. The Hornets could threaten Savannah State's bid for the MEAC crown.

X factor: With a new core, Norfolk State is a completely different team compared to the squad that knocked off Missouri in the Big Dance. Any chance of more magic, however, rests on the shoulders of Pendarvis Williams (11.9 ppg), the only returning starter from the 2011-12 squad.

Preseason MVP: Tahj Tate, Delaware State

Missouri Valley

My pick: Creighton
The Bluejays won 29 games with star Doug McDermott (22.9 ppg, 8.2 rpg). And the preseason All-American spent the offseason tweaking the weaknesses within his game. That has to be a troubling thought for the rest of the conference because McDermott didn't appear to have many weaknesses during a sophomore campaign that ended with a loss to North Carolina in the NCAA tournament. McDermott, Gregory Echenique (9.7 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 1.7 bpg) and Grant Gibbs can carry the Bluejays much deeper into March Madness this season. But they'll have to replace seasoned point guard Antoine Young, a three-year starter. And although the Bluejays were stars on offense (ranked fifth in Pomeroy's adjusted offensive efficiency ratings), the team couldn't lock up opponents on defense (178th in defensive efficiency). That has to change. But the Bluejays are clearly the undisputed favorites to win the MVC in 2012-13.

Greatest threat: Over the summer, Illinois State forward Jackie Carmichael (13.9 ppg, 9.7 rpg) turned heads with his showing at the LeBron James camp. That performance fueled the buzz around first-year head coach Dan Muller's program. The Redbirds lost to Creighton in overtime of the MVC tournament title game. If they can overcome the loss of point guard Nic Moore, who followed former coach Tim Jankovich to SMU, then Illinois State will challenge Creighton again.

X factor: First, the bad news for Wichita State. The Shockers lost five starters from a team that won 27 games and the MVC regular-season crown. The good news? Fred Van Vleet, No. 83 in RecruitingNation's rankings of the 2012 class, anchors an exciting crop of newcomers.

Preseason MVP: Doug McDermott, Creighton

Northeast Conference

My pick: Long Island

Long Island nursed a five-point deficit at halftime against Michigan State in the second round of the NCAA tournament in March. The Spartans, however, pulled away in the second half. But Jamal Olaseware and Julian Boyd combined to record 32 points and 11 rebounds. An offseason campus fight, however, jeopardized the status of both standouts and returning starter C.J. Garner (12.6 ppg). But Blackbirds fans exhaled when the school changed their indefinite suspensions to two-game suspensions -- they'll miss the first two NEC matchups of 2012-13 -- earlier this month. With the core intact, Long Island can win its third consecutive NEC title.

Greatest threat: Wagner's Bashir Mason, the youngest coach in America, will go to battle with former Michigan Mr. Basketball Dwaun Anderson (who originally signed with Michigan State) and four starters from a team that upset Pitt on the road.

X factor: Velton Jones (16.0 ppg) and three other returning starters form a 26-win Robert Morris squad make Andrew Toole's program a contender.

Preseason MVP: Julian Boyd, Long Island

Ohio Valley

My pick: Murray State (West), Belmont (East)

Steve Prohm's first season at Murray State played out like a fantasy. The Racers won 23 consecutive games and cracked the top 10 in the major polls. They're expected to sustain that success with NBA prospect Isaiah Canaan (19.0 ppg) back for his senior season. Ed Daniel (6.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg) returns, too. But this is not last season's team. Donte Poole, Ivan Aska and Jewuan Long averaged a combined 33.2 ppg. Plus, Zay Jackson has been suspended for the season due to legal issues away from the floor (he plowed into a pair of individuals at a Walmart). But Canaan's versatility and Prohm's commitment to strict defense will position the Racers for another title run. Belmont, the Atlantic Sun's champ for five of the past seven seasons, won't waste any time stirring up trouble in its new league with Ian Clark (12.2 ppg) and Kerron Johnson (13.8 ppg), one of the strongest backcourts in the country, anchoring a squad that won 27 games last season.

Greatest threat: In the East, Tennessee State's Robert Covington (17.8 ppg, 7.9 rpg) leads the only OVC squad that beat Murray State in 2011-12. In the West, Tyler Stone (14.7 ppg) is one of three returning starters for Southeast Missouri State.

X factor: With Jud Dillard (17.7 ppg, 8.7 rpg), Tennessee Tech could pull off a few upsets in the East. And Mark Yelovich (15.1 ppg) is one of four returning starters for a Southern Illinois-Edwardsville squad that could make noise in the West.

Preseason MVP: Isaiah Canaan, Murray State

Patriot League

My pick: Lehigh

This week, C.J. McCollum earned preseason All-America honors from the Associated Press after averaging 21.9 ppg for a Lehigh squad that upset Duke in the NCAA tournament last season. The guard is the returning Patriot League Player of the Year and the top reason that the Mountain Hawks are expected to win the conference title. McCollum, an NBA prospect, is one of four returning starters from a squad that won 27 games in 2011-12.

Greatest threat: Bucknell will challenge rival Lehigh for the Patriot League crown in 2012-13. Mike Muscala (17.0 ppg, 9.1 rpg) is a top contender for player of the year honors.

X factor: Stephen Lumpkins (13.5 ppg) returns from a stint in minor league baseball and increases American's potential of reaching the top tier of the conference.

Preseason MVP: C.J. McCollum, Lehigh

Southern Conference

My pick: Davidson (South), UNC-Greensboro (North)

Last season, Davidson peaked with a win over Kansas in December. The victory was proof that the Wildcats could compete with the top teams in the country when they played their best basketball. They made a late run against Louisville in the NCAA tournament but couldn't close the gap. Louisville and Kansas reached the Final Four. With the talented trio of De'Mon Brooks (15.7 ppg), Jake Cohen (14.3 ppg) and Nik Cochran (10.9 ppg) returning, the Wildcats are not only contenders in the SoCon, they're on a short list of mid-majors that could make a serious run in March. Somehow, UNC-Greensboro won 13 games in 2012-13 and still claimed the North division title in the SoCon. The Spartans finished with a 10-8 record in conference. Trevis Simpson (18.3 ppg) is one of four returning starters from that team.

Greatest threat: Three double-figure scorers return for a Charleston squad that won 19 games last season. New coach Doug Wojcik's team is Davidson's top threat. In the North, it's a Western Carolina team that lost to Davidson in double overtime in the conference tourney title game.

X factors: Former Indiana assistant Bennie Seltzer could mold Samford, which beat Davidson in 2011-12, into an eventual contender in the North. And in the South, Georgia Southern's Eric Ferguson (15.4 ppg, 7.2 rpg) will be a handful for the rest of the league again.

Preseason MVP: De'Mon Brooks, Davidson


My pick: Oral Roberts

Even though it lost three starters, including former star Dominique Morrison (19.8 ppg), Southland newcomer Oral Roberts could win the league's title during its debut. The former Summit League contender will rely on senior Warren Niles (12.1 ppg) and former reserve Steven Roundtree (9.8 ppg) throughout its transition into its new league.

Greatest threat: Stephen F. Austin allowed just 54.4 ppg, third in the nation, in 2011-12. But the Lumberjacks lose three starters from last season's 20-win squad.

X factor: Brandon Fortenberry's fifth year of eligibility -- granted via medical redshirt after he suffered a foot injury in December -- makes Southeastern Louisiana a contender. He averaged 17.6 ppg during his brief time on the floor.

Preseason MVP: Brandon Fortenberry, Southeastern Louisiana

Southwestern Athletic Conference

My pick: Prairie View A&M

The Panthers return five starters and top reserve Jourdan DeMuynck (10.1 ppg) from a squad that finished fourth in the conference last season. They ended 2011-12 with a disappointing effort against Alcorn State (they gave up 103 points in a loss to a squad they'd defeated five days earlier) after winning three of four entering that SWAC matchup. But their depth suggests that they can contend for the conference's title in 2012-13.

Greatest threat: Senior Marquiz Baker (15.9 ppg) returns for Alcorn State after suffering a foot injury a year ago.

X factor: Omar Strong (13.3 ppg) is one of three starters returning for former Indiana/Alabama-Birmingham and current Texas Southern interim coach Mike Davis. The Tigers finished third in the league last season.

Preseason MVP: Marquiz Baker, Alcorn State

Summit League

My pick: South Dakota State

Nate Wolters (21.2 ppg) led the Jackrabbits to their first NCAA tournament bid last season. They couldn't overcome a talented Baylor team that featured multiple pro prospects. But in that 68-60 loss, they played the Bears even in the second half (32-32). With the bulk of last season's roster returning, South Dakota State won't sneak up on anyone this season. The Jackrabbits are the Summit League favorites after finishing second last season. Can't argue against that.

Greatest threat: Taylor Braun (15.4 ppg) is one of four starters back for Saul Phillips' North Dakota State squad. The Bison could be South Dakota State's top competition in 2012-13.

X factor: Western Illinois nearly upset South Dakota State in overtime of the Summit League tournament's title game last season. Jack Houpt, who had nine points and seven rebounds in that game, is one of three returning starters.

Preseason MVP: Nate Wolters, South Dakota State

Sun Belt

My pick: Middle Tennessee State (East), North Texas (West)

The Sun Belt has an intriguing mix of talent this season. Although Middle Tennessee State (51st in defensive efficiency) lost LaRon Dendy (14.6 ppg, 7.1 rpg), it returns most of its contributors from last season, including guard Marcos Knight (11.8 ppg). The Blue Raiders are stacked again. North Texas has one of the country's top NBA prospects in Tony Mitchell (14.7 ppg, 10.3 rpg), who could be a top-five pick in June. He's a force who can lead the program to a conference title in new coach Tony Benford's first season.

Greatest threat: In the East, Western Kentucky returns four starters from a Hilltoppers squad that won the conference tournament title. In the West, Arkansas State could be a strong squad with Trey Finn (11.6 ppg) and three other starters returning.

X factor: South Alabama (East) retains all five starters from a 17-win team. A talented group of newcomers could help Arkansas Little-Rock (West) speed up the rebuilding process.

Preseason MVP: Tony Mitchell, North Texas

West Coast Conference

My pick: Gonzaga

Gonzaga is in the middle of a three-team race again with BYU and Saint Mary's. But on paper, the Bulldogs are the favorites to regain their West Coast Conference regular-season and tournament titles. They hadn't missed out on the league's hardware in nearly 15 years. That all changed, however, when Saint Mary's swept the championships in 2011-12. But a strong backcourt led by Kevin Pangos (13.6 ppg) and Gary Bell Jr. (10.4 ppg) could bring the gold back to Spokane. Plus, Elias Harris -- yep, he's still around -- is a WCC Player of the Year contender. Again. Sam Dower (8.3 ppg, 3.7 rpg) was impressive in stretches last season but he could truly blossom in 2012-13. But he has to play tougher. And there's Przemek Karnowski, a 7-1 center from Poland, who's been praised throughout the preseason. Gonzaga looks like a champion.

Greatest threat: Saint Mary's won't give up its crown without a fight. Matthew Dellavedova (15.5 ppg) returns following a stint on the Australian national team that competed in the Olympics in London. He's surrounded by players who contributed last season. But the program will miss Rob Jones (15.0 ppg, 10.8 rpg), one of the WCC's top big men.

X factor: BYU has Brandon Davies (15.2 ppg, 7.7 rpg), the league's top interior player. If guard Matt Carlino can play with more consistency, the Cougars will have a chance to make a run at the WCC title.

Preseason MVP: Matthew Dellavedova, Saint Mary's

Western Athletic Conference

My pick: Utah State

Utah State could go out with a bang in its last season in the WAC. The Aggies are on their way to the Mountain West. But in 2012-13, they could win their current league if Preston Medlin (17.0 ppg) gets the help he needs. Three starters return to a program that won 21 games a season ago.

Greatest threat: Denver could make an immediate impact in its first season in the league. The former Sun Belt standout returns talented forward Chris Udofia (14.5 ppg) and multiple playmakers from last season's 22-win squad.

X factor: Wendell McKines (18.8 ppg, 10.8 rpg) is gone but New Mexico State isn't in rebuild mode yet. Daniel Mullings (9.3 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 1.6 spg) could lead the Aggies back to the top of the league.

Preseason MVP: Chris Udofia, Denver