Tier One: National Contenders
1. Martin Luther: Expectations have never been higher at MLC. The Knights are coming off of an unexpected second straight Elite Eight trip. Only one player graduated from that squad. The defense is always solid, Bob Storey and Chris Dumas are elite scorers, and the bench is now a strength. The only major question mark involves replacing Scott Abney’s inside presence. MLC is no longer content to knock on the door – it’s final four or bust.
2. Northland: Another team with reason is to dream big is Northland. Scoring ace Richard Dupree is gone, but so is the defensive liability he represented. Everyone else returns from last year’s NT squad. William Damiano and Frederick Davis form a deadly inside-outside scoring punch, and there are capable defenders around them. They’ll challenge MLC for the conference title and perhaps much more.
Tier Two: A Half-Step Back
3. Millikin: Last year’s squad lived up to sky-high preseason expectations with a Final Four appearance. An encore of that performance may not be in the cards, but there’s still plenty of talent on this roster. Irvin, Nichols, and Schmeltzer are a great group to build around. PG James will get them the ball in the right spots. They aren’t as deep as last year, but don’t be surprised if they make some more noise in the dance.
Tier Three: Bubblicious
4. Illinois Wesleyan: Last year I projected IWU fourth, with a likely NT berth. They proceeded to go 7-9 and miss the PIT. So let’s try it again! In all seriousness, this roster is too talented to miss the postseason again. Rueben Williams is a flat out stud, and the scary thing is he’s probably not done improving yet. Eleven players are back in all. The bench is still a bit iffy, but this certainly has the look of a NT roster. Just don’t write it in ink yet.
5. Elmhurst: The surprise of last season was definitely Elmhurst. With a fairly unimpressive roster, they battled to a 9-7 conference record and the school’s first postseason berth in decades. Ten men return from that roster. Gary Stevens and Steven Cordero lead a group of phenomenal defenders. Unfortunately though, there isn’t a go to scorer in sight. Still, defense wins games, and this squad is going to win plenty. I’d call their odds of breaking through to the big dance 50/50.
6. North Park: The Vikings narrowly missed a third straight NT berth, but turned that into a positive by running to the PIT championship game. Star PG John Tatro is gone, but he’s one of only two departures. PF James Medlock is likely the new go-to-guy. A rumored defensive system change may limit this team’s ceiling. Despite that, they should be good enough to play in one of the tournaments.
Tier Four: Tough Outs
7. Wheaton: Wheaton rallied from a poor start last year to make their first-season appearance in 15 years. The good news is only two players graduated from that squad. The bad news is that they were two pretty crucial players. Still, there’s some solid talent left, led by PG Andrew Salisbury. Young PF Cory Miyashiro is another one to watch. They should challenge for a postseason appearance, but breaking into the NT might be a stretch.
8. Carthage: Another of last season’s feel-good stories was Carthage, led by do everything guard Andrew Parkin. The Redmen broke through to the postseason for the first time in 38 years. Unfortunately Mr. Parkin is off to start a career in Europe. But most of his supporting cast returns, including three starters. Like Wheaton, this is a solid squad that might not quite have enough for the NT. Another PIT appearance would be a nice result for this bunch.
Tier Five: Something’s Missing
9. Milwaukee Engineering: There was some hype around MSE last off-season (including from yours truly), but they struggled to a 4-12 conference record. Insufficient ATH/SPD may have been the deciding factor. This year’s edition has a blossoming star in PF David Batiste, but they’re pretty young overall. They'll win some games, but probably not enough for a postseason appearance.
10. North Central: N. Central went 4-23 last season. It was still the most important season in recent memory. By going with the young talent and essentially sacrificing the season, this squad gave itself a chance down the road. Expect significant improvement this year as those press IQs rise. Still, in a tough conference, the record probably won’t be great. These guys are a year away from any serious postseason thoughts.
Tier Six: Re-Birth
11. Augustana: It seems like longer, but it was really just two seasons ago that the Vikings were a 27 win, Top Ten squad. Last season started promisingly before the wheels fell off late. They finished the year with nine straight losses. Coach Blackwell responded by bringing six much-needed freshmen. If the hype from Rock Island is to be believed, those six will be the cornerstone of a major contender in a few seasons. However, this year won’t be pretty. Just hope they can get some wins before conference play starts.
12. Wisconsin Lutheran: Finally, the reign of the ghost ship is over. Coach Zeg is the new guy in the conference trying to bring WLC back to relevance. It won’t be easy, but it’s probably impossible to do worse than the last coach. The cupboard was left completely bare, so I’d expect WLC to go young and build for the future. Any conference Ws this year would be a blessing.
10/16/2012 6:08 AM (edited)