Sunday, March 26, 2006

2006-07 Preview: Small Conferences, Part IV

America East Conference

For about an hour on March 17th, just about everyone in the nation was rooting for Albany. They couldn't pull off the upset, but certainly earned a lot of fans. That said, this team does loose quite a bit to graduation. Three starters graduate, including 7'1" center Kirsten Zoellner (8 ppg, 5 rpg, 1 bpg, 56% shooting). With no other returning players taller than 6'8", the key freshman next year will be Brett Gifford, a 6'11" big man ranked by as the top-rated center from the state of Missouri. The Great Danes also return their two top scorers, including star Jamar Wilson (18ppg, 5 rpg, 4 apg, 85% FT shooting). In other words, the conference title won't fall into some waiting team's lap (like the Big West) - some team will have to show solid improvement to take the crown from Albany. Binghamton and Hartford are both hard hit by graduations, so there could be room for teams like New Hampshire and Vermont. New Hampshire keeps its entire starting five, but they also show no indication of having the talent to go all the way to the tournament. They will be improved in the standings, but probably not enough to beat Albany. Vermont, on the other hand, has had outstanding teams in recent years. This past year was clearly a rebuilding year, although they still managed to beat Albany and sweep Hartford despite having zero seniors on the roster. Led by rising-sophomore Mike Trimboli (14 ppg, 6 apg, 2 spg, 84% FT shooting), the Catamounts will definitely be in the mix next year. It might be another year, however, before Vermont is able to reclaim the America East title. For now, Gifford should make enough noise in the paint to allow Wilson to lead Albany to a repeat America East title.

Atlantic Sun Conference

Lipscomb took the Atlantic Sun title in 2006, only to lose a heartbreaker to Belmont in the conference tournament finals. All is not lost for the Bisons, who return several key players including Brian Fisk (16 ppg, 3 apg, 2 spg). They will receive stiff competition again from Belmont, however. The Bruins return their top three scorers, including 6'11" center Boomer Henderson (15 ppg, 7 rpg, 2 bpg, 58% shooting). Along with 6'10" backup center Andrew Preston (13 minutes per game, 6 ppg, 3 rpg), Belmont will have a ton of size to throw around. However, neither of those two teams might have as much talent as Florida Atlantic, which returns an outstanding backcourt made of rising-seniors DeAndre Rice (16 ppg, 3 apg, 40% 3-point shooting) and Brent Crews (5 ppg, 5 apg, 2 spg). They will also add the top recruit in the conference, Sanchez Hughley, rated one of the top 10 senior guards in the state of Florida. Unfortunately for the Owls, they don't have nearly enough size to hang with Belmont, a team which should be able to ride its size to the Atlantic Sun title.

Big Sky Conference

Northern Arizona won the regular season crown in 2006, but Montana was widely considered the best team. The Grizzlies will be back next year, as well. They lose their starting backcourt, but hang onto all of their size, including 6'8" forward/center Andrew Strait (17 ppg, 6 rpg, 61% shooting). The immediate solutions to their backcourt problems will be Matt Martin (7 ppg, 2 apg, 1 spg) and Bryan Ellis (4 ppg, 4 apg, 1 spg). They also signed two good point guards in Cameron Rundles and Zach Graves. If some of those young guys take it to the next level, the Grizz could actually be better next year than they were this year. Northern Arizona also has a lot of good size remaining, led by Ruben Boykin Jr. (13 ppg, 7 rpg, 59% shooting) and 6'10" Ryan McCurdy (7 ppg, 4 rpg, 1 bpg). Their success, however, could depend on their excellent young point guard, Josh Wilson (6 ppg, 6 apg, 1 spg as a freshman). If any other team is going to crash the party at the top of the conference, it will be Eastern Washington. Their freshman, Rodney Stuckey, scored 24.2 points per game this past year (9th best in the nation, easily the best of any freshman in the country). Stuckey should carry the Owls into competition for the title next year, but they probably don't have enough size on the inside to hang with the Grizz. Montana should win the Big Sky and prove a very tough out in the first round of the NCAA tournament yet again.

Big South Conference

This past year, Winthrop was probably the best #15 seed ever to play in the NCAA tournament. Accordingly, they proved a very tough out for Tennessee in the first round. That performance should assure them that they won't get robbed in the seeding process yet again. The biggest question, however, is if anyone can challenge the Eagles in 2007. They return their top scorer (Torrell Martin - 13.8 ppg), their top rebounder (Craig Bradshaw - 6.0 rpg), and their top passer (Chris Gaynor - 4.5 apg). In addition, the rich are just getting richer, as the Eagles signed the top-rated guard in the state of South Carolina - Byron Faison. Their biggest competition next year should come from the team that gave them the most trouble this past year - Coastal Carolina. The Chanticleers swept the Eagles during the regular season before losing by 1 in the tournament finals. They feature a good crop of guard-play, led by Jack Leasure (18 ppg, 4 apg, 2 spg, 42% 3-point shooting). The other top teams in the conference, especially Birmingham Southern, lose a lot of talent at the top of their rosters. So expect this to be a two-horse race between Winthrop and Coastal Carolina. This time, however, it seems as if Winthrop may finally have the guard play to neutralize Coastal Carolina. And they will continue to dominate on the inside, such as in the Big South tournament championship when they registered a 9-rebound advantage. For those reasons, Winthrop should be the favorite to repeat as Big South champion.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You are underestimating a talented HPU squad. Losing Justin Dunn (Transfer) hurts but it also opens the door for a more talented Melvin Crowder to get more minutes. Look for Troy Bowen to have a break out year and for AZ Reid to average near 20 and 10 and contend for Big South POY. Winthrop is going to be the toughest battle for the Panthers but this team is hungry after a questionable loss @ WU in the tourney last season.