1. Millikin: When the national runner-up brings back four starters, who else could be preseason #1? Millikin stumbled through a rough stretch in conference play, ending up 10-6, but stepped on the gas late to make the national title game despite a #12 seed. They beat five ranked opponents to get there. Now the spotlight is bright. Lone graduate Barbieri will be missed, but young post man Brennan is a special talent who is more than capable of filling his shoes. Millikin wins with great defense and offensive balance. Nobody should be surprised if they go deep in the NT again.
2. Augustana: Two years ago MLC won a national championship with great defense, a stable of deadly outside shooters, and great rebounders to clean up inside. Augustana’s defense isn’t quite at that level but this squad’s shooting and rebounding make them a mini version of that championship squad. Based on last year’s improvement there should be four guys with 80+ PER by tournament time. Dennett and Mohr are the headliners outside, while McFadden and Hanberg are a dominant defense/rebounding combination down low. It’s mind-boggling that this group was sub-.500 in conference play last year, because they have the talent to challenge for the biggest prize of all.
3. North Park: This program continues to grow under bpolesel, spending much of last season in the national top ten. Three seniors graduated, but national defensive POY Weiss is back to terrorize CCIW offenses. PF Gilmore isn’t great at any one thing but he’s becoming an all-around star. A major flaw here is the lack of outside shooting after Swan’s graduation. This team wins with defense and free throws. They still need a real point guard, but they’re plenty good enough to win a couple of games in the dance.
4. Martin Luther: It’s the end of an era in New Ulm. The last five seasons have seen a national championship, a 77-3 conference record, and no season-ending RPI worse than 6th. These Knights may reach that loss number halfway through the conference slate. All-world PG Bostic returns, but the other four starters are gone. There are only three real upperclassmen on the roster. MLC will go young with Bostic, Corby, and three sophomore starters. Defense + Bostic is enough to win quite a few games, but this isn’t the usual MLC. Any kind of deep tourney run would be a surprise.
5. Milwaukee Engineering: MSE might be the conference’s most intriguing team. Recruiting has really picked up in Milwaukee, and it showed when last year’s young team went 8-8. They’re all back for an encore. Turner is a great guard, but believe it or not Augustana transfer Davenport is the conference’s leading returning scorer. The X-factor is Aranda – he’d be first team all league with 30 more REB, but his struggles on the glass have been part of MSE’s woeful rebounding the last two years. It looks he’ll get some minutes at SF this year to get around that problem. Expect branchel’s first CCIW season over .500 and a chance at his first NT berth.
6. Carthage: After back-to-back NT appearances, Carthage slipped last year to a 6-10 conference record. They should be improved this season as all of those freshmen are now sophomores. As usual, they’ll run the fastbreak/press combo and play all twelve guys. There isn’t a superstar, but guard Scott gives them a major perimeter threat. And freshman Nagel may be that superstar before he’s done. I’d expect them to finish somewhere around .500 in conference with a good shot at postseason play.
7. Illinois Wesleyan: A lot of experience graduated last season in Bloomington. Luckily guard Nitzkowski is back, and he’s a first team all league type of talent. The youth is still going to be a big factor though. Six freshmen rarely is a recipe for success. The zone system will keep the upperclassmen in the game longer, which should be a benefit. But this should be one of kcs’s weaker teams. Expect them on the fringes of the postseason while the youngsters develop.
8. Northland: First year coach gann takes over dwindling powerhouse Northland. Just three years ago this program went 28-4. Last year was rough at 6-10 in the league. There is some talent on the roster, particularly with junior big man Mullaney, but it doesn’t compare to the conference’s top teams. They’ll win some games but I expect a sub-.500 conference record.
9. Elmhurst: The second CCIW newcomer jana23 takes over at Elmhurst. SF Adkins is a nice gift from the old staff, and young PG Reese is a really nice building block. But it’s still a pretty young roster. They’ll won’t be at the bottom of the league, but I would be surprised by a postseason appearance. Check back in a season or two.
10. Wisconsin Lutheran: WLC improved to 5-11 in the league last year, a reasonable achievement. They are very strong down low with a Blackshear-Jordan combo that is one of the conference's best. WLC will pound teams on the glass. But the backcourt is very weak after a few graduations. SG Blume is back, and he is great at making open threes. Unfortunately he can’t do much else. PG Goodwin looks like he could be a player in time though. I expect a similar outcome to last year. They’ll beat some other squads in the lower half but struggle against the conference’s elite.
11. Wheaton: Long time coach will has moved on, and unfortunately it’s sim time at Wheaton. There are a handful of solid upperclassmen, so I don’t expect this team to be completely terrible. But all those freshmen and sophomores + sim coaching isn’t going to go too well. Hopefully it’ll just be a one year detour before a human regains control next offseason.
12. North Central: Coach bdpoor’s rebuilding effort in Naperville continues. Unfortunately, this year’s squad is likely to be dreadful. Joseph is a solid senior who won't get much help. Soph Richard looks like he’ll be a player, but he’s certainly not going to wow anyone playing PF. But he has to with only one non walk-on post player on the team. Better days are ahead for NC.