Conference play has begun, and it’s almost time to turn the calendars to the new year.

We already took you through the best moments of 2016. (For a moment, DePaul had us thinking we published that a few days too early.)

Now it’s time to take a look at what’s on the horizon in 2017.

1. Northwestern has its best chance in years to make its first NCAA Tournament

Photo: Northwestern Athletics

This is Northwestern’s best team since at least the 2011-12 season, and possibly ever. Does that mean that the Wildcats will finally make their first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance? Who knows, but it certainly gives them a good chance.

The Bracket Matrix, an aggregate of all bracket projections, has the Wildcats as a No. 9 seed. Some projections have Northwestern as high as a No. 6 seed while others left the team out of the bracket entirely.

MORE: Scottie Lindsey is having a season unlike any other in Northwestern history

With a 12-2 record, a No. 43 ranking in KenPom, and a No. 49 ranking in RPI, the Wildcats have put themselves in good shape entering the new year.

If you’re looking for a big payday, Northwestern currently holds 300:1 odds to win the national title.

2. Loyola has its best chance ever to reach the Arch Madness finals

Photo: Loyola Athletics

Not only is this team possibly better than the 2014-15 CBI championship team that reached the MVC semifinals, but the Valley is also weaker at the top. Wichita State is still the heavy favorite, but this is the weakest group of Shockers since Loyola joined the Valley in 2013.

After Wichita State, there are a lot of fairly evenly matched teams with Loyola, Illinois State, Northern Iowa, Evansville and Missouri State.

TBT: Loyola falls just shy of Arch Madness upset over No. 1 seed Wichita State

If Loyola avoids Wichita State’s half of the conference tournament bracket — which means finishing 2nd, 3rd or 6th — it will have its best chance of reaching Sunday’s main event in its four years as league members.

The Ramblers reached the MVC semifinals in 2015 as the sixth seed but fell to second-seeded Northern Iowa, 63-49.

3. Bryant McIntosh will break the Northwestern career assists record

Photo: Jerry Lai / USA Today Sports

We may have to wait to the fall for this one, but most likely we’ll see it happen this season, especially if Northwestern makes the postseason.

After dishing out eight assists Tuesday against Penn State, McIntosh has 442 dimes. Michael “Juice” Thompson, who played from 2007-2011, is the record holder with 528 assists.

If McIntosh keeps up his average of 5.6 assists per game, he will break the program record on March 1 against Michigan in the penultimate regular season game.

Thompson is among the best Northwestern players ever, and McIntosh will likely surpass him as a junior, folks.

McIntosh already crushed the program’s single-season assists record with 213 dishes as a sophomore.

4. Billy Garrett Jr. will finish his climb through the DePaul record books

Photo: Jesse Kramer / thecatchandshoot.com

Barring a miracle, DePaul will never finish higher than 7th place in the Big East during Garrett’s four-year career, but the 6’6″ point guard will go down among the best individual players in DePaul history

During Wednesday’s Big East opener against Villanova, Garrett moved into sole possession of 20th place on DePaul’s career scoring list. If he keeps up his current scoring average, he will finish his career at No. 9 if DePaul goes one and done at the Big East Tournament. With a scoring boost or a conference tournament run, Garrett has a chance to catch Stephen Howard with 1,691 points.

Garrett is also on pace to finish top 7 in assists and top 8 in 3-pointers. Again, if Garrett’s production increases or if DePaul earns some extra games, he could climb as high as 5th in assists.

Finally, barring a major injury Garrett will go down as DePaul’s free throw king. At his current rate, he will break Howard’s of 528 made free throws in front of a home crowd Jan. 21 against Butler.

5. There will be tons of great individual matchups this winter

Photo: Mitch Stringer / USA Today Sports

There are great individual matchups coming up across all five local schools, so I’ll highlight the biggest ones for each.

Chicago State: Fred Sims Jr. can prove his worth against UMKC senior LaVell Boyd, another Chicago native. Boyd’s 20.2 points per game are second in the WAC. While Sims has shown the same electricity, he has not been as consistent and is averaging 17.5 points.

The two faced off in high school when Sims was at North Lawndale and Boyd was at Farragut Academy.

DePaul: The Big East has a ton of great scorers at the shooting guard position, so Eli Cain could be part of a few great one-on-one battles. The one that stands out the most is against Xavier guard Trevor Bluiett. Both players are 6’6″ guards with deep 3-point range and the strength to drive to the basket. They’ve combined for 15 20-point games already this season.

Matchups between Cain and Josh Hart (Villanova), Rodney Pryor (Georgetown) and Marcus Foster (Creighton) should be quite entertaining as well.

Loyola: You’ve got to love Ramblers forward Aundre Jackson, one of the nation’s most efficient scorers, going against Missouri State forward Obediah Church, one of the nation’s top shot blockers. Both players are undersized with Jackson at 6’5″ and Church at 6’7″, but that has not stopped them from being All-MVC caliber ballers.

With the MVC’s double round robin, we’ll get this matchup Jan. 15 in Chicago and Jan. 31 at JQH Arena.

Northwestern: Give me Scottie Lindsey vs. Peter Jok every day and I’ll live a perfectly fine life.

After an intense battle two years ago at Welsh-Ryan Arena where Lindsey stuffed Jok, the two spent plenty of time jawing during Iowa’s 85-71 win last year in Iowa City. Jok dropped a game-high 26 points while Lindsey recorded 15 off Northwestern’s bench.

Both players have bloomed into stars this year, making this year’s meeting even better. Jok is leading the Big Ten in scoring while Lindsey has cracked the top 10 and leads Northwestern.

Another fun one for the Wildcats is Bryant McIntosh vs. Melo Trimble.

McIntosh has had one great game, one bad game, and one mediocre game going against his Maryland counterpart. Meanwhile, Trimble has posted some impressive numbers each time.

UIC: Tai Odiase has a challenger for his Horizon League blocks title, and his name is Isaiah Brock. The Oakland freshman is averaging 2.0 blocks per game in only 19.5 minutes, while Odiase is averaging 2.5 rejections in nearly 28 minutes. They’ll face each other on Jan. 8 and Feb. 19.

Another good one for the Flames is a battle between the conference’s two prominent freshman point guards: UIC’s Godwin Boahen (9.2 ppg, 3.7 apg) and Cleveland State’s Kasheem Thomas (7.1 ppg, 3.9 apg). With Horizon League Freshman of the Year potentially on the line, they’ll go head to head on Jan. 12 and Feb. 11.

6. Porter Moser could get his 200th career win

Photo by Sid Hastings

Moser needs 14 victories to reach 200 by the end of 2017. Between 18 conference games, at least one Arch Madness game and, let’s say, another 13 games in November and December, he’ll have 32 chances.

Going 14-18 with this roster shouldn’t be too difficult either, but the Ramblers will need to live up to expectations in the Valley this season. (Getting those wins will become a bit easier if Loyola makes a MVC Tournament run or reaches postseason play.)

KenPom projects Loyola to go 10-8 in the MVC. Between Arch Madness and a possible postseason, we’ll say Loyola wins 11. That would leave Moser needing three wins next season before January.

7a. Eli Cain will crack 1,000 career points. Can he win a Big East scoring title?

Photo: Kamil Krzaczynsk / USA Today Sports

Despite a pair of duds last week in Las Vegas, Cain is still averaging 17.9 points per game entering Big East play. At that rate, he will crack 1,000 career points early in his junior year around Thanksgiving.

On a related note, Cain has a legitimate chance to win the Big East scoring title this season as a sophomore. After a poor showing in Las Vegas and an inefficient Big East opener, he is the league’s 8th-leading scorer. But just one week ago, he was atop the conference.

In 11 seasons, DePaul has never had a Big East scoring champion.

8. Fred Sims Jr. will also crack 1,000 points.

Photo: Stacy Revere / Getty Images North America

Sims is on pace to surpass 1,000 points shortly after Cain, although he could gain an advantage if Chicago State goes deeper into the WAC Tournament than DePaul goes in the Big East tourney.

Sims is averaging 17.6 points per game, which may put him out of range for the WAC scoring title as Grand Canyon’s DeWayne Russell is averaging 25.2 points. But hey, there’s a lot of basketball left.

If Sims drops some more 30-point bombs like he did earlier this month against Western Illinois and Russell’s scoring average drops when injured backcourt mate Joshua Braun returns, maybe Sims can make a comeback.

9. Northwestern’s final home stand should be bonkers

Photo: North By Northwestern

You can picture this, right? Northwestern is squarely on the bubble at 19-10 and 8-8 in the Big Ten going into the last week of the season. With time for one last impression on the Selection Committee before the Big Ten Tournament, the Wildcats get to welcome two quality opponents, Michigan and Purdue, to Welsh-Ryan Arena.

Assuming Northwestern does not flop completely in conference play, these will be the most important home games for Northwestern since 2012.

KenPom projects each game to be decided by one possession, with Northwestern beating Michigan but losing to Purdue.

10. Loyola’s trip to Illinois St. could have even bigger implications than in the past

Photo: Jesse Kramer / thecatchandshoot.com

Each year, there’s a bit of extra intensity for Porter Moser when Loyola faces Illinois State. Moser coached the Redbirds from 2003-2007, but a new athletic director fired him after back-to-back losing seasons. He thought he had brought in the talent to make a big jump in 2007-08, and the team did just that posting a 25-10 record — but under new coach Tim Jankovich.

The Ramblers head to Redbird Arena on Feb. 19 for the third-to-last game of the regular season. KenPom currently projects Illinois State to finish second in the conference at 12-6, and Loyola to tie for third at 10-8.

If the Ramblers can beat the Redbirds as projected at Gentile Arena and then steal one in Normal, not only will Moser get a big rivalry win but Loyola could be in play for the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament.

11. Milton Doyle’s last hurrah

Photo: Loyola Athletics

Unlike McIntosh and Garrett, Doyle will not end his Loyola career as No. 1 in any statistical categories. But he will reach the top 10 in several.

Entering Thursday’s MVC opener at Drake, Doyle is 20th on Loyola’s career scoring list with 1,312 points. With 14.8 points per game, he’s on pace to score at least 1,594, which would place him 10th. If Loyola makes the postseason and he gets a few more games, he could very realistically climb as high as 6th.

Doyle’s 377 assists already have him tied for 7th, and he’s on pace to reach the top five. Keith Carter sits 4th with 483 assists, and that won’t be out of reach for Doyle.

Doyle could also climb as high 5th in 3-pointers, 5th in steals, 7th in blocks and 7th in free throws.

12. Tai Odiase will continue his run toward shot blocking history

Photo: UIC Athletics

It’s becoming less and less likely, but Odiase still has a chance to become the first player to ever lead the nation in blocks in three separate seasons. The 6’9″ junior led Division I last year, but so far this year he is only tied for 27th with 2.5 per game.

The blocking title is not out of reach, but Odiase will need a monstrous Horizon League season to get there — we’re probably talking at least 4 blocks per game. Odiase averaged 3.8 blocks in conference play last year, so it’s not unreasonable.

Even if Odiase does not make a comeback in the national race, he’s leading Oakland’s Isaiah Brock in the conference race. Other players have led the Horizon League in blocks three times, but no one has ever been in the conference’s top two for all four years.

Barring a big drop-off over the rest of this season and next, Odiase should complete that feat.

Also, with 177 blocks entering conference play, Odiase will easily move into the top five all time in the Horizon League before the season’s end. Former Butler center Rolf van Rijn is 5th with 203 rejections.

Even if Odiase averages just 2.5 blocks for the rest of his career and UIC does not win a Horizon League Tournament game or make a postseason, Odiase would finish third all-time in the conference with 304 career blocks, only five shy of the record held by Alec Brown and Damian Eargle.

13. Wintrust Arena will open

Photo: DePaul University

DePaul is finally leaving Allstate Arena! The Blue Demons will begin their first season at Wintrust Arena this fall, and a big-time matchup with Notre Dame will open the new facility in November.

The 10,000-seat Arena is being constructed on the Near South Side and costs $173 million.

14. Welsh-Ryan Arena will finally receive renovations

Photo: Northwestern University

While Northwestern playing its 2017-18 home slate in Allstate Arena is not something to be excited about, the school will begin renovating Welsh-Ryan Arena for the 2018-19 season.

The $110 million project includes new locker rooms, seating and more, giving the Wildcats’ home a much-needed face lift.

15. Cameron Krutwig and Christian Negron are staying in the city at Loyola

Photo: Tim Carroll / The Courier-News

Loyola made a splash with the signings of local forwards Christian Negron and Cameron Krutwig. Both are top 15 players in Illinois according to 247Sports, giving the Ramblers by far the best 2017 class of any Chicago school. 247Sports ranks the class 73rd nationally.

While coach Porter Moser has recruited nationally, he’s also built a base in Chicago with three scholarship players hailing from the city or nearby suburbs. Milton Doyle will graduate, but adding Negron and Krutwig will bump that number to four next season.

And with Negon and Krutwig’s size and skills, they should make an immediate impact for Loyola in the MVC.

16. NC State will visit little ol’ Gentile Arena

Photo: NC State Athletics

The Wolf Pack will come to Chicago to face Loyola next fall. While NC State guard Dennis Smith will most likely go pro, if he returns for his sophomore season that will put a surefire lottery pick on the Gentile Arena hardwood.

DePaul and Northwestern fans get these types of viewing opportunities through the Big East and Big Ten, but this would be a rarity for Loyola.

Even if Smith goes pro, the Wolf Pack has another possible 2018 first round pick in 7-footer Omer Yurtseven.

17. Can DePaul beat St. John’s?

Photo: Jesse Kramer / thecatchandshoot.com

Although this is last on the list, it is first in proximity. DePaul will almost certainly be an underdog in every game it plays for the remainder of the 2016-17 season, even after Wednesday’s near-upset of No. 1 Villanova.

But St. John’s is the team against which DePaul will have the best odds.

As it happens, the Red Storm visit Allstate Arena on New Year’s Day.

DePaul fans should savor those 40 minutes of hoops Sunday. It could be the last time a Demons victory would be anything other than a complete surprise until November.

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