Thirty-Three Things to Look Forward to in 2017-18 from Outside of the Power Conferences

Travis Ford has overhauled the roster at Saint Louis, and the rise of the Billikens is one of 33 things to watch for this season. (Source: Sports Illustrated)

CANMORE, Alta. — Friday morning, college basketball is officially back in business, as the Eastern Michigan Eagles play host to Spring Arbor to kick off the 2017-18 campaign in Ypsilanti, MI.

Fans across North America have waited patiently over the summer for the 2017-18 season to begin, and good things come to those who wait. A full slate of basketball action tips off on Friday, as roughly 2.7% of the season’s total games will be played over the course of November 10th.

With the bulk of the attention on the power conference programs, there are several things to watch for over the course of the season at schools from outside of the traditional conferences. From coaching changes to individual players poised for a breakout year, there’s plenty to watch for this season.

Below, you can find 33 things to be on the lookout for over the course of the 2017-18 season. We’ve picked some teams who are on the rise, some players to make note of, and some intriguing conference races, among other things.

Note: The following conferences were not considered: Big 12, Big 10, ACC, AAC, Big East, Pac-12, and SEC>

So, without further adieu, here’s our list. In no particular order…

1. Utah Valley and the #Toughest24

All eyes will be on the Utah Valley Wolverines on the first two days of the 2017-18 regular season, as they take on the 5th-ranked Kentucky Wildcats on Friday, then the top-ranked Duke Blue Devils on Saturday. Can the Wolverines pull off the program’s biggest win to open the season? Only time will tell.

2. The Big Three at St. Bonaventure

The St. Bonaventure Bonnies have one of the top guard tandems in the country, in seniors Jaylen AdamsMatt Mobley, and Idris Taqqee. All three will look to lead the Bonnies back to the NCAA Tournament, and the case could be made for them to be the top team in the Atlantic 10 entering the season.

3. Rhode Island Rams

The one team that may be above the Bonnies entering the season is the defending champion Rhode Island Rams. A core of E.C. MatthewsJeff DowtinJarvis Garrett, and Jared Terrell return to lead the Rams on their quest for a second-straight NCAA Tournament berth. The preseason arrest of Stanford Robinson could hinder the Rams out of the gate, but they have the talent to overcome the off-court distractions.

4. Makai Mason

After missing all of last season due to a foot injury, Makai Mason returns for the Yale Bulldogs in 2017-18. Following the season, he will transfer and join the Baylor Bears, the team he put up 31 points against in the 2016 NCAA Tournament.

Erick Neal (1) and Kevin Hervey (25) are geared up and ready to lead the Mavericks to the 2018 NCAA Tournament. (Source: The Star Telegram)

5. The rise of the UT-Arlington Mavericks

The UT-Arlington Mavericks are widely considered as the top team in the Sun Belt this season, and are one of the top teams outside of the power conferences. Head coach Scott Cross has arguably his most talented roster during his time with the Mavericks, led by one of the nation’s top inside-out tandems in seniors Erick Neal and Kevin Hervey. Get on the Mavericks’ bandwagon now, before it’s too late, and they’ve pulled off an upset over your favourite team.

6. Rui Hachimura

Over the summer, Rui Hachimura emerged as a potential star at the FIBA Under-19 World Cup in Cairo, Egypt while playing for his home nation of Japan. That generated a ton of buzz around the young man as he enters his sophomore season with the Gonzaga Bulldogs. Will he live up to the hype?

7. Gonzaga Bulldogs

The Bulldogs find themselves in some unfamiliar territory entering the 2017-18 season, as they aren’t the clear favourites to win the WCC title. Still, Johnathan WilliamsJosh Perkins, and Killian Tillie will look to lead Mark Few’s crew to another conference crown.

8. Saint Mary’s Gaels

As the Bulldogs look to continue their dominance of the conference, the Saint Mary’s Gaels come into the season as the team to beat, and have the most talented roster in the conference. Led by WCC Player of the Year front-runner in Jock Landale, the Gaels will look to knock Gonzaga from the top of the totem pole. A weaker non-conference schedule is the only knock on the Gaels entering the season, and they could very well enter WCC play with an unblemished record.

9. Jock Landale

If you don’t know who Landale is by now, you’ve been missing out. He’s one of the top big men in the country, and put up 16.9 points and 9.5 rebounds per game last season, while shooting above 61% from the field for the third season in a row.

10. San Jose State Spartans

What looked to be another promising season for the San Jose State Spartans turned sour rather quickly in the off-season. First, head coach Dave Wojcik resigned in mid-July due to personal reasons. Then, Brandon Clarke transferred late in August, committing to Gonzaga when all was said and done. Many expected the Spartans to be a middle-of-the-pack team with Clarke leading the way. Now? Another tough season in San Jose is anticipated.

The 2017 GCI Great Alaska Shootout marks the 40th anniversary of the event, and it will also be the last.

11. The final installment of the GCI Great Alaska Shootout

The longest running regular season college basketball tournament will end following the 2017 season. This season marks the 40th edition of the GCI Great Alaska Shootout, and another strong field will ascend on Anchorage, AK to compete for the crown. The likes of the Sam Houston State BearkatsIdaho Vandals, and Charleston Cougars will bring their talents to Alaska on November 22nd for a three-day event.

12. Jeremy Harris at Buffalo

Last season, Jeremy Harris was the second-ranked JUCO recruit in the country, and he opted to join the Buffalo Bulls and play for head coach Nate Oats. Harris will be an immediate factor for a Buffalo team that expects to contend for the MAC crown and a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Add him to a returning core that features CJ Massinburg and Nick Perkins, and the sky is the limit for the Bulls this season.

13. The Missouri Valley Conference

The Wichita State Shockers have moved up to the American Athletic Conference, which means we will see somebody else win the conference title this year. Will it be the Missouri State Bears, the Loyola (IL) Ramblers, or perhaps a new team who knows a thing or two about conference titles?

14. Valparaiso

After years atop the Horizon League regular season standings, the Valparaiso Crusaders have made the move to the Missouri Valley Conference, filling the void left by the Shockers. Many are underestimating the Crusaders this season, saying they’re a bottom half team in the conference. Against stiffer competition on a regular basis in conference play, it will be interesting to see how Tevonn Walker and company handle the change of scenery in year one.

15. Alize Johnson

Over the summer, Alize Johnson was named the MVP at Adidas Nations, and raced up draft boards for several NBA teams. He is one of the nation’s premier power forwards, and the entire college basketball community will know his name by season’s end.

16. Gulf Coast Showcase

A first round match-up between Missouri State and the Georgia Southern Eagles is a pairing that most would expect to see in the finals of an early-season tournament. However, the Gulf Coast Showcase gets underway with a bang. Add in the likes of the Towson Tigers and Manhattan Jaspers to the field, and it’s a star-studded event that is sure to provide some excitement over its three days.

Kahlil Dukes and the Niagara Purple Eagles will look to make some serious noise in the MAAC this season. (Source: Niagara Athletics)

17. The expected rise of Niagara and Manhattan in the MAAC

Both the Niagara Purple Eagles and Manhattan Jaspers were bottom-half teams in the MAAC last season What a difference a year makes. With the high turnover in the conference from last year’s top teams, coupled with experienced rosters for both the Purple Eagles and Jaspers, both teams are expected to reverse their fortunes in 2017-18. Both are expected to finish top five in the MAAC, with Manhattan projected to contend with the Iona Gaels for the conference title.

18. A healthy Dikembe Dixson at UIC

After a stellar freshman campaign, Dikembe Dixson was limited to just a handful of games last season before missing the rest of the season due to injury. Now, he’s back, 100% healthy, and ready to make up for lost time. He’s got the confidence in his own game, and that alone should worry the rest of the Horizon League. The UIC Flames are no slouch.

19. U.S. Virgin Islands Paradise Jam now in Lynchburg, VA

After the damage caused by various hurricanes over the summer months, the 2017 Paradise Jam was moved to Lynchburg, VA, home of the Liberty Flames. The Flames are a team that should contend atop the Big South Conference this season, and they could take home the Paradise Jam title on their home floor. The likes of the Houston CougarsWake Forest Demon Deacons, and Mercer Bears will make things tough, but one cannot overlook the significance of home-court advantage, especially in college basketball.

20. Tyler Hall

The Montana State Bobcats have one of the nation’s top scoring guards, in junior Tyler Hall. The sharp-shooting guard hit on 42% of his attempts from three point range last season, and should see the green light once again as the Bobcats look to take another step forwards in the Big Sky. Hall and Harald Frey form the conference’s top back court tandem in 2017-18.

A healthy Nick Norton will take UAB to another level this season, and could lead them to a Conference USA crown in the process.

21. The return of Nick Norton at UAB

The UAB Blazers entered the 2016-17 season with conference title aspirations. After they lost point guard Nick Norton to injury, the Blazers weren’t the same. Now, a year later, the Blazers will look to live to their hype, and they’ll do so with a healthy Norton leading the way. The thought of Norton feeding William Lee down low is fantastic, and also a nightmare for opposing teams.

22. Travis Ford and the Saint Louis Billikens

In a short period of time, Travis Ford has overhauled the roster with the Saint Louis Billikens, and they are the fastest rising team in the Atlantic 10. Saint Louis brings in a pair of top-100 freshmen this season, in Jordan Goodwin and Hasahn French. Add them to several Division I transfers, including Javon Bess and Adonys Henriquez, and the Billikens have talent across the board. A 20-win season is not out of the question for Saint Louis in 2017-18.

23. Mike Daum

He’s tied for the top returning scorer in the country from last season (25.1ppg). He can shoot from long range, and is a beast in the paint. If you don’t know who Mike Daum is by now, you better wake up before it’s too late. Simple as that.

24. Who wins the Big Sky Conference?

On paper, any one of six or seven teams could realistically win the Big Sky title this season. The North Dakota Fighting Hawks won it all last season, but are without star guard Quinton Hooker. Then, you’ve got Victor Sanders and the Idaho Vandals who appear to be the front-runners. Don’t sleep on the Eastern Washington Eagles, Montana Grizzlies, or the Montana State Bobcats, and you can never count out the Weber State Wildcats. Buckle up, the Big Sky will be big fun.

25. Grand Canyon becomes eligible for the post-season

Finally, the Grand Canyon Antelopes are eligible for the post-season, and they could very well represent the WAC in the field of 68. The Antelopes enter the season as the favourite to win the conference crown, and with the likes of Joshua Braun and Oscar Frayer leading the way, this could be a special year for Grand Canyon. To any team that has to play on the road inside GCU Arena, best of luck.

26. Bucknell’s tough non-conference schedule

It’s no secret that the Bucknell Bison will be one of the top teams in the country from outside of the power conferences. With so many weapons on their roster, they are a team that nobody will want to see matched up against them come NCAA Tournament time. In non-conference play, the Bison have one of the toughest slates in the country, regardless of conference. Bucknell will have plenty of opportunities to pull off some resume-boosting wins over the course of the season. They open with four straight road games, against the likes of Monmouth, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Maryland.

27. Chris Clemons

Chris Clemons is tied with Daum for the top returning scorer in the country. He is known as one of the more athletic guards in the country, and can score in bunches. In the Big South tournament last season, Clemons put up 51 points on the UNC Asheville Bulldogs in the first round, and guided the Campbell Fighting Camels to the tournament championship in the process. Clemons will be a household name by December on the national level.

28. Vermont’s quest for another perfect conference record

Last season, the Vermont Catamounts went a perfect 16-0 in the regular season in America East play, steamrolling their way to the NCAA Tournament. This season, they return Anthony Lamb, Ernie Duncan, and the reigning America East Player of the Year in Trae Bell-Haynes, along with several key role players. Now, the Albany Great Danes and the UMBC Retrievers won’t make things easy for the Catamounts in 2017-18, who have their sights set on another perfect conference play record.

29. The rise of the Charleston Cougars

Quietly, the College of Charleston Cougars have been building a winner, and the nation will finally take notice in 2017-18. The Cougars return the top-tier tandem of forward Jarrell Brantley and the preseason CAA Player of the Year in guard Joe Chealey. Add the likes of Grant Riller and Marquise Pointer to the mix, and it’s easy to see why the Cougars are being held in such high regard this season. The 2017-18 CAA title is theirs to lose, and while there will be teams nipping at their heels, they’re the clear team to beat.

30. The Big South Conference

The race for the 2017-18 Big South crown promises to be an exciting one. With so many intriguing teams in the conference, and talented players scattered across all ten teams, this season will be an exciting one to say the least. The case can be made for the UNC Asheville BulldogsLiberty FlamesWinthrop Eagles, or the Campbell Fighting Camels to win the conference title this season.

Dunk City is back in business in 2017-18, and Brandon Goodwin will look to guide the Eagles back to the Sweet 16 (and hopefully beyond). (Source: Gwinnett Daily Post)

31. #DunkCity is looking for their third straight ticket to the Big Dance

Back in the 2013 NCAA Tournament, their first-ever trip to the Big Dance, the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles captivated the college basketball world with their run to the Sweet 16 as a 15-seed. They’ve made it back to the NCAA Tournament in each of the past two seasons, but haven’t been able to re-create their magic from 2013. As the clear-cut front-runners in the Atlantic Sun this season, the Eagles will look to assume their role as Cinderella in the 2018 tournament. With guards Brandon Goodwin, Christian Terrell, and Zach Johnson leading the way, #DunkCity may captivate the nation once again.

32. New coaches in new places

Several teams have new bench bosses in 2017-18, and all eyes will be on them to see how they fair in their first season in their new homes. The Duquesne Dukes made one of the top hires of the summer, landing Keith Dambrot from the Akron Zips. The UC Santa Barbara Gauchos hit a home run with Joe Pasternack, and the North Texas Mean Green will look to Grant McCasland to turn their program around like he did with the Arkansas State Red Wolves just a season ago.

Take a look at all of the 2017-18 coaching changes here.

33. Expect the unexpected

If history in college basketball has taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected. From early-season upsets, to Cinderella runs through the NCAA Tournament, anything can happen on any given night.

– T. Bennett