The Rauf Report kicks off the new NCAA Basketball season with one bold prediction for all 32 conferences in the country.
College basketball is, by nature, unpredictable. There are 362 teams of college-aged kids, and all the inconsistencies that come along with that make the sport extremely exciting. This breadth of competition simply doesn’t exist elsewhere.
We know there will be upsets. We know there will be breakout teams and players. And, on the flip side, we know there are those that will fall short of preseason expectations. Where might we find those unexpected surprises?
Here at the Rauf Report, we take pride in our annual uncovering of the chaos before the new season. Of course, unpredictability isn’t just contained to the major conferences, so we take a look at all 32 leagues and make bold predictions about what might happen. Last season, we did pretty good! We were spot-on with 10 predictions, and I gave myself partial credit for a few others. There were only a few I was way off on — I consider that to be pretty darn good!
Below are bold predictions for every college basketball conference in 2023-24. How will we fare this season?
MORE FROM HEAT CHECK CBB
a Vermont Catamount will not win Player of the Year
Vermont has won seven straight regular-season conference titles. The program has also produced the league’s Player of the Year each of those seasons. The Catamounts are too good and too consistent for me to bet against them winning the AE again, but there are a few players on other rosters who look like real POY contenders. Bryant’s Sherif Gross-Bullock and Earl Timberlake lead that charge.
Memphis does not finish in the top 2
Seemingly everyone expects the American to be a dogfight between FAU and Memphis. While those are certainly the two best teams on paper, the Tigers have a tendency to slip up every now and again. UAB and Tulane, among others, have the potential to crash the party in league play.
Austin Peay’s Demarcus Sharp wins Newcomer and Player of the Year
Demarcus Sharp won both awards in the Southland last season after following head coach Corey Gipson to Northwestern State, and now he’ll look to do the same after following Gipson again to Austin Peay. Sharp is a bona fide scorer and creator who thrives in the open structure Gipson likes to use offensively. The opportunity is there for Sharp to make a huge splash in the ASUN.
DAYTON wins the league’s regular season and tournament titles
Last year, my prediction was that preseason favorite Dayton would not win the league because, well, recent history tells us that bad things always happen to the A10 preseason favorites. The Flyers fell victim to that curse and dealt with a huge rash of injuries that severely impacted their season. Now healthy with a clear talent advantage over the rest of the league, I think Dayton delivers — and dominates.
Tyrese Proctor is an all-American and A top-5 NBA Draft pick
I broke this down in a column published earlier this offseason, but here’s the gist: Tyrese Proctor is set to have the kind of breakout season that makes him a National Player of the Year candidate and the best guard in the country. Though a sophomore, Proctor is still just 19 years old since he graduated high school a year early. He has the upside and skillset NBA teams covet in lead guards, giving him the chance to capitalize in a weak draft class.
TCU finishes ahead of Baylor
I really like what TCU did in the transfer portal. Jameer Nelson Jr. and Avery Anderson III are perfect fits for Jamie Dixon’s up-tempo style of play, while Essam Mostafa is a double-double thread and Trevian Tennyson is one of the nation’s best shooters. The Horned Frogs won’t win the league, but I don’t expect much drop-off from last season. On the other hand, Baylor’s depth and frontcourt production are real questions and could precipitate a bit of a backslide in the Big 12.
Marquette finishes outside the top-3 in the league
I like Marquette, yet it’s also realistic to think the Golden Eagles overachieved last season and will regress a bit, particularly without Olivier-Maxence Prosper. Couple that with a strong Big East — UConn and Creighton are both preseason top-10 teams, and Villanova looks dangerous — and I see some real competition that could knock Marquette down a peg. That said, I also believe the program will maintain a top-15 or top-20 national ranking throughout the year. Don’t get too mad at me, Golden Eagle fans.
Weber State breaks through, wins Big Sky
Eastern Washington has dominated the Big Sky recently, but an apparent step back leaves the door open for someone else to take the conference’s reins. Weber State looks to be that team under head coach Eric Duft, who greatly improved defensively down the stretch of the season. If that improvement carries over to this year, the Wildcats may win their first conference title since 2016. It certainly helps to have Dillon Jones, the first-ever unanimous Big Sky preseason POY, back in the fold.
UNC ASHEVILLE SWEEPS CONFERENCE TITLES, LOSES JUST ONE GAME IN LEAGUE PLAY
There are simply no questions with this UNC Asheville team, which returns a lot of its production from last season’s NCAA Tournament squad. That group is headlined by Drew Pember, who has blossomed into a star after starting his career at Tennessee. I’ll give them one slip-up — maybe at Winthrop on Jan. 17 — but I fully expect the Bulldogs to run through Big South play with ease.
INDIANA mISSES THE NCAA TOURNAMENT
I don’t see it with this group. The Hoosiers have the same issue as last season (lack of shooting and spacing), and now they’re trying to play two or three bigs together on the court. Indiana did OK last season with Trayce Jackson-Davis and Race Thompson up front, but the Kel’el Ware/Malik Reneau/Mackenzie Mgbako trio will almost certainly be a downgrade from having one of the best players in program history. I also expect less perimeter production without an obvious replacement for Jalen Hood-Schifino. I just don’t like this roster construction.
UC SANTA BARBARA WINS LEAGUE BY MULTIPLE GAMES
The Gauchos are clearly the best team on paper for me, led by Ajay Mitchell. This group split the league’s regular season title with UC Irvine last season, but this year’s squad has what it takes to put a bit of separation between itself and the rest of the league. Long Beach State and Hawaii may have something to say about that in March, but it won’t be surprising to see the Gauchos win the Big West running away.
cHARLESTON WINS THE LEAGUE, Pat KELSEY GETS poached
Many CAA contenders are entering a rebuilding year, and Charleston is losing some key pieces from last season. However, Pat Kelsey’s squad also returns a lot and enters the season as the favorite. I think the Cougars deliver on the preseason hype, bolstering Kelsey’s profile even further — all the way to the point of being offered a power conference job. Barring an unmitigated disaster in Charleston, Kelsey will be one of the hottest names on the coaching carousel this coming offseason.
Louisiana tECH’S DANIEL BATCHO wins Newcomer and Player of the Year
The retooled Conference USA doesn’t come close to the strength of last year’s conference race and collective postseason performance. Going into 2023-24, newcomer Liberty and holdover Louisiana Tech enter as the favorites. The Bulldogs now have big man Daniel Batcho in a featured role, and he was dominant at times when healthy for Texas Tech. Batcho has the size and skill to absolutely dominate this league.
YOUNGSTOWN STATE WINS THE LEAGUE AGAIN
The Penguins surprised many last season by winning their first-ever league title behind an elite offense and dynamic perimeter play. They’re projected to take a step back, but this coaching staff has proven itself. Moreover, the incoming transfers fit head coach Jerrod Calhoun’s playstyle incredibly well. The formula is in place for Youngstown to emerge as the team to beat in the Horizon again.
YALE GOES TO NCAA TOURNAMENT, SWEEPS IVY AWARDS
Yale has the best coach in the Ivy and a number of its best players, which makes me think the conference title race may not be all that close despite Princeton having another good team. Matt Knowling and Bez Mbeng were both first-team All-Ivy selections by The Almanac and earned preseason Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year nods, respectively. Don’t sleep on 6-6 wing Casey Simmons winning Newcomer of the Year, too, after transferring from Northwestern.
SIENA WINS THE LEAGUE
The MAAC is as wide open as any league in the country. Former FDU head coach Tobin Anderson is taking over for Rick Pitino at Iona, but a completely retooled roster has left a vacancy atop the league’s pecking order. Siena could be the surprise team that steps in there, thanks to a breakout season from Michael Eley and production from Sean Durugordon (if his waiver is approved by the NCAA). The Saints haven’t finished worse than third in the league since Carm Maciariello took over, giving them a high floor in a volatile league.
Akron wins the MAC by multiple games
I won’t be shocked if Akron runs away with the MAC this season. Ali Ali’s return to campus is huge, and he’ll rejoin Enrique Freeman to form a standout frontline. If transfers Kaleb Thornton (Northern Illinois) and Shammah Scott (Wichita State) work out as planned, the Zips will have elite backcourt depth, too. John Groce has a team to watch this season.
Howard’s SHY ODOM WINS PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Named the MEAC’s Rookie of the Year last season, Shy Odom is expected to step into an even bigger role in Howard’s frontcourt. His athleticism and aggressiveness around the rim cause major problems for opponents, and the Bison plan to utilize both of those attributes heavily in 2023-24. Howard may very well win the league again, and Odom will be a big reason why it’s in the mix.
DRAKE WINS EITHER THE REGULAR-SEASON OR TOURNAMENT TITLE
Drake has the best player in the league in Tucker DeVries and the best coach in the league in Darian DeVries. This program has been excellent throughout the DeVries’ tenure, and this roster boasts a plethora of dynamic perimeter scorers with big man Darnell Brodie returning on the interior. I like this team to get back to the NCAA Tournament.
FIVE TEAMS MAKE THE NCAA TOURNAMENT
San Diego State’s run to the national championship game gives further credibility to the Mountain West’s rise in recent seasons, and the conference is in a great position to capitalize on that. The Aztecs will obviously be strong again, but so will Boise State, Colorado State, Nevada and New Mexico. The quality of this league is very strong, and I think we see those five all get in — perhaps earning more bids than the Pac-12.
There is a split regular-season title
This league is incredibly wide open. After all, Fairleigh Dickinson went on its historic NCAA Tournament run despite losing the NEC Championship Game to Merrimack. Both programs should be in the mix again, as will Sacred Heart and Wagner. My guess is that the season ends with at least two of those four programs tied for the league title — which would make for quite the conference tournament.
SIU EDWARDSVILLE EARNS THE LEAGUE’S AUTO-BID
When healthy, SIU Edwardsville’s Ray’Sean Taylor is probably the best player in the league. His health has been a major concern the last couple of seasons, but if he’s right, the Cougars will be a tough out. Damarco Minor and Shamar Wright are also quality players to watch for Brian Barone’s squad.
ARIZONA MAKES THE FINAL FOUR
I really like the way Arizona’s roster looks on paper. There are significant losses, sure, but the additions of Jaden Bradley, Keshad Johnson and, yes, Caleb Love, appear to fit Tommy Lloyd’s up-tempo system perfectly. Bradley and Love excel at creating in the open court, while Johnson is the perfect versatile defensive piece to pair with Oumar Ballo in the frontcourt. There’s talent, depth and quality guard play in Tucson, and these Wildcats have the goods to make a long run in March.
COLGATE WINS LEAGUE AGAIN, MATT LANGEL GETS HIRED AWAY
There is no drama in the Patriot League anymore. The boldest prediction I could make would be picking someone other than Colgate to win it, but I also want to be right! The good news for the rest of the conference is that Langel’s profile has risen so much that he — like Pat Kelsey — will be an incredibly hot commodity on the coaching market. Before that, expect the Raiders to play in their fifth-consecutive NCAA Tournament.
TENNESSEE EARNS A No. 1 SEED IN THE NCAA TOURNAMENT
I have been clamoring for years for Tennessee to do something to reinvigorate its offense. It has been a defense-first program under Rick Barnes, but the Vols have struggled to come up with points far too often against good competition. As I wrote about recently, the additions of Dalton Knecht and Jordan Gainey will help with that in a way that makes Tennessee’s offense more dynamic and versatile than it has been. I think that makes the Vols a top-five team nationally and earns them a top seed.
JP PEGUES WINS PLAYER OF THE YEAR, LEADS FURMAN BACK TO NCAA TOURNAMENT
Furman loses some key pieces from last year’s team that made the second round of the NCAA Tournament, but JP Pegues remains. Now, Pegues is set for more of a scoring role, something he has shown the ability to handle. Bob Richey has also maintained the Paladins as a program so, while there are new faces, the talent isn’t a huge drop from last season. This team is still the class of the SoCon and should go dancing again behind Pegues’ star play.
WILL WADE leads MCNEESE TO THE NCAA TOURNAMENT
No conference experienced as much turnover as the Southland this offseason. Five programs — half the league — have new head coaches, and over half the players are newcomers (either transfers or freshmen). Even with a 10-game suspension looming, McNeese’s Will Wade is the best coach in the conference and has assembled the best roster in the Southland. Given that the conference tournament is played at McNeese’s home arena, don’t be surprised if Wade leads the Cowboys to the Big Dance right away.
JACKSON STATE WINS either the regular-season or SWAC Tournament TITLE
I’m keeping this one the same as last season. Really, I was just a year ahead of the curve here! Jackson State took a step forward under Mo Williams last season but came in third in the league. This season, with Ole Miss transfer Daeshun Ruffin joining the mix, look for the Tigers to take another step forward.
SOUTH DAKOTA STATE REPEATS, SWEEPS BOTH CONFERENCE TITLES
This is another one I’m keeping the same as last year. South Dakota State was stymied by a dynamite Oral Roberts squad, but Paul Mills and Max Abmas are elsewhere now. Meanwhile, the Jackrabbits return most of their key pieces. This is a squad primed to take another step forward behind the play of Zeke Mayo, who looks like the best player in the conference.
THE LEAGUE WILL GET ITS FIRST NCAA TOURNAMENT WIN SINCE 2016
The Sun Belt is quietly becoming one of the stronger mid-major leagues in the country. It’s still a one-bid league, but it’s reaching the point where a number of teams are strong enough to beat a power conference opponent without it being a real shock. James Madison enters the season as the favorite, but half the league has a chance to be really, really good if things break right. Whoever wins the Sun Belt Tournament truly will have earned its NCAA Tournament bid — and will be a dangerous team when it gets there.
GONZAGA’S SWEET 16 STREAK ENDS
Gonzaga is not going to be bad by any stretch of the imagination, but I also think it’s fair to say this Bulldogs team doesn’t have the same ceiling of the past few years. There’s no Drew Timme or Chet Holmgren or Jalen Suggs in the fold this time around. But there are questions about wing production and depth, which I don’t think will be easily answered. Those issues will cause the Zags to miss the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2012.
GRAND CANYON WINS A GAME IN THE NCAA TOURNAMENT
Grand Canyon is absolutely loaded. Bryce Drew’s squad returns three players who averaged double figures last season and added five power conference transfers. In all, GCU boasts three players who have been named All-WAC performers in their careers. With the positional size to match up against any high-major foe, the ‘Lopes should run through the WAC and be a formidable opponent against anyone they face if they make the NCAA Tournament. They’ll have a chance to make a big statement on Dec. 5 against San Diego State.