1. Martin Luther: For the fourth straight season, Martin Luther made it to at least the Sweet 16. For the third straight season, they lost to the eventual national champs (this time in OT). Despite those accomplishments, last season still seemed like a bit of a disappointment. Three senior starters graduated, but Christopher Dumas is back to make a run at the MLC career scoring record. Brian Pugh and Michael Marshall are more than ready for increased roles. This team has an excellent chance to keep the Sweet 16 streak going, but they look a bit overrated at preseason #2.
2. Millikin: Millikin went 9-7 last season and graduated their best player, so this is a little bit of a reach. But there’s a lot of talent coming back in Decatur. They lack an elite scorer, but have several solid ones and PG James is a master distributor. Much-hyped sophomore Gregg may be in for an increased role as well. There’s enough here to win a couple of games in the NT.
3. Northland: The Lumberjacks made the leap from solid to great last year, going 14-2 in conference and advancing to the Sweet 16. Four of the top six have left from that squad. Frederick Davis is a big time guard, and he’ll handle the bulk of the scoring outside. Andrew Cannon is ready for a bigger load of the post scoring. The top seven players are solid, though they may be held back by multiple freshmen that have to play significant minutes. They should easily qualify for the NT, but I’d be surprised by a deep run.
4. Carthage: Now we come to the hardest team to rank. Last year’s coaching job was masterful, as Carthage went 12-4 in conference and spent lots of time in the polls. With only two players gone from that group, you could make a case for them as a conference favorite. However, looking at the roster you see no go to scorer, and only one true plus defender. There are a lot of solid options though, and the fullcourt uptempo style really takes advantage of Carthage’s depth. I see another NT berth, but a team that’s just a step behind the conference’s elite.
5. Elmhurst: Last year was a minor disappointment, with a 7-9 conference record. There are eight upperclassmen on the roster this year, and they all play defense. Even without much offense that’s probably enough for an NT berth. Almazan, Edwards, and Cordero have improved enough to help an offense that struggled last year. I like Elmhurst to break through and make their first NT under the current coach.
6. North Park: Coach Polesel has built a solid program in Chicago, culminating in his first NT win last year. That team ran through two post scorers, but both of them have now graduated. SF Alderete is the main man now, with his major athleticism. He shot a remarkable 66% last season and could handle a bigger scoring load while still remaining pretty efficient. Early word out of camp is that frosh PF Gilmore looks like the future of the program. North Park may end up on the bubble, but I think they have enough defense to make it in.
7. Milwaukee Engineering: All five starters are back from last year’s 5-11 squad. David Batiste is the do-everything All American, and he’ll be asked to carry the load once again. The biggest issue here is rebounding. MSE got killed on the glass last year, and it’ll probably happen again with Batiste shouldering the load alone. This squad goes as far as Batiste carries them. My guess is they’ll be in the running for a PIT berth, but not quite up to NT standards.
8. North Central: Here’s another team coming off a 5-11 season, but bringing back five starters. They don’t have a player as great as Batiste, but they do have a little more balance overall. David Reason is pretty strong as the leading man. I see improvement here, but I don’t think they make the leap to the NT. PIT is a reasonable proposition though.
9. Illinois Wesleyan: This is another team that’s tough to figure. Last year was an impressive 11-5 season, but four seniors graduated. Rueben Williams remains as a stud in the middle. Last year’s weak bench is now forced to step up into bigger roles. The defense, aside from Williams, is nothing special. He’ll win some games on his own, but overall I’d expect a significant step back from last year’s excellent season.
10. Wheaton: The bad news is that three starters are gone from a team that only went 6-10 last year. The good news is Coach Will seems to have redesigned his team around defense. Wheaton is an athletic bunch that can really guard. Looking at rosters in a vacuum and ignoring what happened last year, I’d probably have them a few spots higher. Don’t be surprised to see them hang in a lot of close games against the better teams in conference.
11. Augustana: There’s been a lot of talk from Coach Blackwell about the re-birth of Augustana. That prediction may come true before too long, but this season’s team has eleven underclassmen. There are going to be some serious growing pains. The current sophomores were improving at a nice rate last year, so we could have something here before too long. But it isn’t going to be this year.
12. Wisconsin Lutheran: Coach Zeg inherited a tough job at WLC, and things have improved a little. There are now a handful of serviceable upperclassmen. Hopefully the athleticism of the players can be upgraded in years to come. I don’t see them going 0-16 in conference again, but it’s hard to see them making too much noise this year.