Beyond these two, who are as close this non-BCS conference has to traditional powers, we can find five other teams with legitimate hopes of making real noise. Richmond made the NCAAs a year ago and Kevin Anderson is one of the league's top point guards and is joined by 6'10" Justin Harper down low. Charlotte brings the tandem of guard Derrio Green and forward Shamari Spencer. Dayton doesn't have the same natural balance, but looks to be strong up front, with returning forwards Chris Johnson and Chris Wright. St. Louis went 23-12 last season under the tutelage of Rick Majerus and brings back four starters and inked the top recruiting prize out of New Zealand in center Rob Loe. But if I had to pick one team out of this group to be in the top three at year's end, it would be Rhode Island, who won 26 games a year ago and returns the dynamite trio of playmaker Marquis Jones, 7'0" center Will Martell and talented power forward Delroy James. However, this outline makes clear there's not only slight differences between these teams, there's not much of a gap--if any at all--between the entire group of five and Temple and Xavier. It's only a history of consistent winning that gives any kind of nod to the Owls and Musketeers.
Hoping to break into the league's middle class and become a part of NCAA bubble discussions are Duquesne, George Washington and St. Joe's, and if we're feeling generous we can include St. Bonvaenture in this group. Duquesne brings back three starters from a .500 team, including three-point gunner Bill Clark. GW offers talented point guard Tony Taylor combined with swingman Lasor Kromah and a deep bench they make frequent use of. St. Joe's is coming off a losing season, their first under Phil Martelli and don't on the surface appear to be ready to come back. But respect for what Martelli's accomplished doesn't let me knock them too far down the pecking order. And St. Bonvaenture has a quality double-double threat in Andrew Nicholson. Are any of these teams going to the NCAA? No. But they can reasonably aspire to be one of the 80 or so teams that Dick Vitale will at some point proclaim to be absolute mortal locks for the Big Dance.
At the bottom of the league are LaSalle, UMass and Fordham. The latter I would like to see succeed, if only so the Bronx-based school can finally produce a sports organization in that borough that doesn't make me sick to my stomach. Nope, it's never too early or ever the wrong venue for Yankee-bashing.
Image from bleacherreport.com
Dan Flaherty is the editor of the Sports Notebook Family, published through the Real Clear Sports Blog Network, offering daily commentary in college football ,game analysis in the NFL. and coverage of college basketball. He is the author of The Last New Year's, a book that revisits the historic high points of college football's New Year's Day bowl games.