The crispness of the fall air, the orange hues that overtake the treetops, and the squeak of basketball sneakers in gymnasiums across the country. These are just some of the telltale signs that basketball is back.

More importantly, the annual countdown to March Madness can begin anew.

As much fun as Midnight Madness can be, the culmination of a long offseason is the tipoff of a team's first game. With the start of the 2016-17 season quickly approaching, NCAA.com is cracking the books and breaking things down in each of college basketball's 32 conferences.

 
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Time to tackle the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.

Recap

With only five teams above .500 in conference, the MEAC might not be the conference that sports the most awe-inspiring brand of basketball. But it was home to the leading scorer in the nation. Back to that in a bit.

Hampton took regular-season and conference tournament titles to punch the team’s ticket to the Big Dance. In the tournament, the Pireatse ran into a buzzsaw in Virginia, though.

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First Round: Virginia victorious over Hampton

The Pirates will look to make it three straight trips to the NCAA tournament this year, but that task will be significantly more difficult in the 2016-17 season — especially given the departure of the team’s top three scorers. That's the same issue facing the Spartans of Norfolk State who came in third in the MEAC, so the top tier of the conference is likely to see some different schools in the mix come season's end.

Teams like South Carolina State (tops in assists per game in the MEAC) and Bethune-Cookman (tops in blocks per game) might be licking their chops at that prospect, but there's a lot of basketball that needs to be played first. Both teams have their respective leading scorers returning — guard Eric Eaves (17.6 ppg) and guard Jordan Potts (16.0 ppg, 4.3 apg) — but a lot can happen between now and March.

Best player

How does 27.1 points a contest sound? Sounds like you’re talking about the leading scorer in the country. And if so, that means you’re talking about James Daniel III.

Daniel came on the scene in the nation’s capital as a freshman and made some real waves in the MEAC, starting nearly every contest and averaging more than 20 points a game. His sophomore season featured a bit of a slump (16.1 ppg), but in his junior year (2015-16) he was determined to bounce back. And boy did he do that, averaging just over 27 points a game last year.

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Now, the leading scorer in Division I college basketball returns for another year of torching defenses. The campaign could be a bit delayed though for Daniel, given he recently injured his ankle in practice, according to an Oct. 27 release from Howard Athletics.

Nonetheless, Daniel tallied at least 30 points on nine occasions a year ago, but with that territory comes a barrage of attempts from the field. As such, he was second among all players at DI schools in attempted shots (582) behind only Trey Freeman of Old Dominion.

It’s true that Daniel likes to call his own number, but the 6-foot guard from Hampton, Virginia, is a willing passer at times — tallying four or more assists in 11 games a year ago. Nonetheless, head coach Kevin Nickelberry might be willing to stomach more of the high-volume shooting from No. 11 if it translates to more victories for the Bison.

Best team

This is going to be a tough sell, especially considering the record for the Howard Bison in the 2015-16 season (12-20 overall, 6-10 in the MEAC). However, if the MEAC coaches preseason poll is any indicator of what is to come then the Bison might be a lot better than they were last year.

Team Points
Howard (14) 299
South Carolina State (9) 292
Hampton (2) 250
North Carolina Central 234
Norfolk State 203
Bethune-Cookman 182
North Carolina A&T State 141
Maryland Eastern Shore 140
Morgan State 136
Coppin State 123
Savannah State 121
Delaware State 104
Florida A&M 50

When trying to find under-the-radar teams in college basketball, one needs to look for a team with an edge. In the case of the Howard Bison, that edge is in experience and travel time.

The Bison sport a roster with eight seniors (six of the eight averaged 15-plus minutes a game) and three redshirt upperclassmen, which could bode well for the team in the nonconference and MEAC schedule.

A year ago, the Bison traveled to play at Massachusetts, Rutgers, Purdue, Columbia and Hawaii. This year, the travel schedule is just as hectic.

An ankle injury could delay the start to the season for Howard guard and leading scorer James Daniel.
Howard Athletics
An ankle injury could delay the start to the season for Howard guard and leading scorer James Daniel.

In the 2016-17 campaign, Daniel and his teammates will face a bevy of Power Five programs including: Michigan, Marquette, Georgetown, Maryland, George Washington, VCU and Harvard.

That should help a strength of schedule that ranked 333rd in the nation in 2015-16.

Good thing the group will have its top four scorers back in tow, including redshirt junior swingman James Miller (15.9 ppg in limited action) who returns after a five-game stint a year ago before fracturing his hand. In the season opener, Miller had 27 points against Massachusetts in a tough road environment at the Mullins Center.

Miller returns to add some potential scoring punch alongside Daniel and the rest of the cast, but it remains to be seen how things gel under the tutelage of coach Nickelberry.

Jerry Bembry of ESPN's The Undefeated puts it bluntly:

Miller is the most athletic player on Howard’s team, and if he and Daniel can play together, the Bison will have one of the most explosive backcourts in college basketball.

Howard hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament in nearly a quarter of a century (since 1992), so maybe it’s time to think about bucking that trend.

Six losses by three points or less last year could have been the difference between a team in the middle of the conference and one battling to keep from scraping the bottom of the barrel. Looks can be deceiving, y'all.

Sleeper team

It may seem like Howard would be the sleeper team in the MEAC this year, but the conference poll has let the cat out of the bag. For the time being, that's just how the Tigers of Savannah State want things. After a fifth-place finish in the MEAC last year, the Tigers face a bit of an uphill climb to improve on that mark due to some departures.

Nonetheless, the Tigers are led by New York-bred guard Troyce Manassa (12.4 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 2.4 apg) who returns for his senior year at school.

True road games at Iowa State, Iowa, Memphis, San Diego State, Oregon and Oregon State make for one heck of a swan song for Manassa. And with four freshmen on the roster, this year's squad is likely to feature a heavy dose of new blood. It'll be all hands on deck come tipoff for the Tigers against the Cyclones of Iowa State.

Freshman to watch

The North Carolina A&T Aggies have eight returning players for this year, including leading scorer and Greensboro, North Carolina, native Sam Hunt (15.4 ppg, led the conference in free-throw percentage).

Enter freshman Raymon Pratt, who also happens to hail from Greensboro. Head coach Jay Joyner is high on his new recruit, and he hopes the player joining the Aggies this year will be a consistent contributor.

Pratt has shown the ability to impact the game from all angles, especially on the defensive end where Joyner believes he could have his greatest impact.

“He is going to bring a lot of intensity from day one,” Joyner told A&T Athletics in July. “You need guys out there with high motors defensively, and he definitely has a high motor.”

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