While the Big East continues to die slowly, the additions of Butler and VCU have rejuvenated the Atlantic 10. Meanwhile, in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, it’s been years since both Canisius College and Niagara University figured prominently in the league race while status quo reigns in the Mid-American Conference.
Here’s a breakdown for each league:
• Contenders: VCU played a serious non-league schedule with wins over Memphis and Alabama and finally vaulted into the coaches poll this week. No one comes in with more momentum than Butler, which has won nine straight since losing to Illinois on Nov. 21. And word around Indianapolis is the Bulldogs haven’t looked overly impressive of late. Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke can do a little bit of everything at point guard, but the Bulldogs lack quality depth. Saint Louis has point guard Kwamain Mitchell back in the lineup, which helps steady the offense, while Temple has a victory over Syracuse.
• Dark horse: Charlotte is 12-2, one shy of its season total for wins from a year ago, mainly because of its work on the defensive end. But the 49ers expanded their waistline on high-calorie cupcakes that can be found in the RPI basement. Cupcakes can give you cavities. And confidence.
• Outlook: The league, now 16 deep, has nine teams with 10 or more victories overall and coaches figure to land at least five NCAA Tournament berths come March. No argument here.
• Regular season champion: VCU.
Metro Atlantic Conference
• Contenders: We’re already four games into conference play and Canisius, Niagara, Loyola (Md.) and Iona are all tied for first place at 3-1. After the way Fairfield manhandled the Golden Griffins last week at the Koessler Center, the Stags have to be included as well. When Iona is percolating from long range it resembles the 31st NBA team, and that was before the addition of Mike Glover clone David Laury as a low-post presence.
Loyola, the defending tournament champion, lost to Niagara on Dec. 5 but that was without Preseason Player of the Year Erik Etherly, who was out with a shoulder injury and has since returned. Fairfield’s defense will keep the scores, and opponents’ shooting percentages, low. Led by senior point guard Derek Needham, the Stags have won seven of their last nine.
The Golden Griffins will go as far as Billy Baron can take them but a foot injury has hindered the play of Harold Washington (6.0 ppg. over the last four games). Niagara’s Juan’ya Green (17 ppg, 4.5 apg.) performs like a Player of the Year candidate.
• Dark horse: Manhattan coach Steve Masiello probably doesn’t sleep well over what might have been. The Jaspers were picked to finish second but have a 4-10 record in large part because they’ve been without leading scorer George Beamon, who has missed all but four games with an ankle injury.
Third-leading scorer Michael Alvardo has also been bothered by the same injury. But the Jaspers are within striking distance at 2-2 and if Beamon returns, life will be more interesting in the MAAC race.
• Outlook: Another Iona championship will serve as a nice going away present for coach Tim Cluess, one of the more underrated coaches in the nation, who should be headed for a big payday.
• Regular season champion: Iona.
• Contenders: Akron, Kent State and Ohio U. — the usual suspects — will be around to decide matters. Akron’s Zips have won their last five games by an average of 23 points as 7-foot senior Zeke Marshall has finally blossomed into a dominant big man. Combined with 6-7 junior Demetrius Treadwell, the Zips’ frontcourt will redirect more than a few shots.
Kent State has won four straight and has a solid victory over Nebraska and while Ohio has been up and down under first-year coach Jim Christian, the Bobcats generally don’t peak until February. Show-stopping point guard D.J. Cooper will carry the team offensively.
• Dark horse: The West Division is playing catch up with its East Division brethren, but Central Michigan is a team to watch. The Chippewas prepared for the MAC with games against Iowa, Utah, Nebraska and Michigan and stand at 7-6 despite losing its top four scorers from a year ago.
• Outlook: The suspense will continue until the last week of the season. As usual.
• Regular season champion: Ohio.
In Big 4 action tonight, the University at Buffalo (5-9) opens MAC play at 7 p.m. at Ohio (9-5) (Radio 1230). UB has not played since losing, 63-57, at Tulsa on Jan. 2.
In the A-10 opener for both teams, St. Bonaventure (7-6) plays at George Washington (6-7) at 7 p.m. (Radio 1450). The Bonnies are on a three-game losing streak, just the second non-conference three-gamer in Mark Schmidt’s six-year tenure as coach. They lost at Colorado State on Saturday.