Like it or not — and most of the coaches we’ve talked to are leaning toward the latter — the conference portion of the KCAC basketball schedule begins on Thursday.
Traditionally, KCAC teams play a healthy non-conference schedule to work out the kinks and ready their teams for the traditional December start of conference play, which in the past has consisted of four games.
But this year, KCAC teams played only a handful of games before diving right in. There’s a full slate on Thursday, including McPherson College going on the road to Southwestern, while county college Bethany plays at arch-rival Kansas Wesleyan. Before Christmas, the teams are playing a whopping eight conference games, which means they are playing all but two teams before heading home for the holidays.
While a half-dozen games is only a small sample size, I think I have enough to make an educated guess on how the races are going to play out.
• MEN •
1. Tabor — I thought the Bluejays might play Washburn closer on Monday as it ended up 89-68. But there’s no question they’re the class of the conference.
2. Saint Mary — Grant Greenberg gives the Spires a chance to win every game. They have only played four so far, but Greenberg already has made a case for first-team All-American as he’s averaging just under 30.
3. Bethany — The wild-card. The Swedes are probably the KCAC’s most gifted team in terms of individual talent. It’s up to coach Clair Oleen to reel it all in and play team basketball, especially on the defensive end.
4. Friends — The Falcons are sitting at 0-5, but having seen them play, they’re a sure-fire upper-division team.
5. Southwestern — Cameron Clark will challenge Saint Mary’s Greenberg as the KCAC’s best player. Can you believe one coach didn’t pick him first-team preseason KCAC? Must have been a brain cramp.
6. Ottawa — As usual the Braves are very physical. They have a super talent in Marshon Norfleet and some beef on the inside.
7. Sterling — With Dean Jaderston as their coach, I just can’t pick the Warriors any lower even if their talent level is not what it’s been in the past.
8. Oklahoma Wesleyan — I saw the Eagles play Central Christian last week. A great collection of individual talent that can look fabulous at times, awful at others. If this team can find some discipline, it will be dangerous.
9. McPherson College — The Bulldogs are better, but so is everybody else. They are terribly deficient rebounding the basketball and since shooting the ball so well the first two games, their percentage has fallen off dramatically.
10. Kansas Wesleyan – I saw KW recently and if it’s the 10th-place team in the KCAC, that shows the considerable depth of the conference.
11. Bethel — It could be a tough year for the Threshers. After a nine-game improvement last year, they’ll take some steps back.
• WOMEN •
1. Tabor — Shawn Reed has established the same success at Tabor as what he enjoyed for so many years as an assistant to Lonnie Kruse at Sterling.
2. Oklahoma Wesleyan — The KCAC newcomer is going to have a major say in who wins the title.
3. Kansas Wesleyan — I might have the Coyotes a spot too low. A binbuster recruiting year has made a good team great.
4. Friends — The Falcons always play the best defense of any team in the conference. The question is can they score.
5. Ottawa — The Braves are on the cusp, probably one more good scorer away from being very good.
6. Southwestern — When’s the last time the Moundbuilders were picked this low? Always a Top 3 team, but the loss of coach Dave Denly to Bellevue can’t be ignored.
7. Sterling — Another former KCAC penthouse member that is back in the middle. KC Bassett is still trying to fill Kruse’s big shoes.
8. Saint Mary — Bruce Erickson is probably a year away from having a really good team. With his connections, I’ll be shocked if the Spires aren’t close to .500 by next year.
9. McPherson College — Gordon Reimer has found it more difficult to recruit quality players to Mac than his former haunt, Kansas Wesleyan, where he had a couple of 30-win seasons and made the nationals. The Bulldogs are improved, but still lack that 6-0 or 6-1 difference-maker in the middle.
10. Bethany — The Swedes have the KCAC’s most offensive-minded player in wispy guard Adriane Davis, who should go for 20 about every game as you can color her light green. They’ll be much improved, even if it doesn’t show in the win column.
11. Bethel — The Threshers took some huge graduation hits after seemingly having the same lineup for about 10 years.