Thursday, March 29, 2007

2007-08 Preview: Small Conferences, Part I

The first installment of the 2007-08 Previews is here! They will start will the "Small" conferences, which are defined as conferences that are very likely one-bid leagues. The next category, "Mid-Major" conferences, are defined as non-BCS conferences that have received more than one bid in recent years and can be expected to challenge for at-large bids in the coming season. The final category, of course, will be BCS schools.

Each conference preview will be accompanied by a quick breakdown of the conference from the past year. Conference records are regular season only. Overall records and the RPI are D-I only and do not include NCAA/NIT tournament games (though they do include in-season tournaments and the conference tournaments). Close followers of college basketball have probably noticed that different websites have different RPI calculations and even occasionally different D-I records. So, for consistency, I'm using the final official numbers out of the NCAA. Finally, the "Returning starters" statistic is more or less subjective on my part. Teams generally change lineups due to injuries, or poor/good play. Also, some players start but end up not getting a lot of minutes per game. So, "Returning starters" will generally mean the five players with the most minutes per game, although players are excluded if they haven't played a lot of total games. The number isn't meant to be exact, because it's impossible to predict how coaches want to tweak starting lineups and playing time next season, but it's just a ballpark figure to start with.

Two other things to note: It's impossible this early in the season to know exactly which underclassmen will go pro. I'll make my best guesses, and make it clear what those guesses are. If I don't mention a player's name that implicitly means that I'm assuming that they're staying for another year. Finally, I'll define top recruits by their rankings on both Scout.com and Rivals.com. The shorthand notation I'll use should be obvious. For example, a comment saying "John Doe (Scout: 14 PG, Rivals: 56)" means that Scout.com has John Doe ranked as the 14th best point guard in the nation, and Rivals.com has Doe ranked as the 56th overall player in the nation.

As always, the information here is for people to discuss, and not for me to lecture upon. If I make glaring errors, tell me. If you have different interpretations of the data, post it. And with that said, let's get it started with the first batch of Small Conferences:

Patriot League


For years now, Bucknell has seemed like a perennial favorite to win the Patriot League. Constantly bringing in the most talented players in the conference - players capable not just of of winning regular season games, but also of making noise in the Tournament. But this program might be in rebuilding mode, with the last of the major pieces from the Round of 32 runs in '06 and '05 finally leaving. They will sorely miss the experience and leadership of Chris McNaughton (12 ppg, 6 rpg) and Abe Badmus (8 ppg, 3 rpg). Not to mention the athleticism of Donald Brown (12 ppg, 7 rpg). Even more disturbing is that Bucknell hasn't seemed to cash in on their recent success with some elite recruits. Their recruiting class for 2007 isn't any better than any of the other top teams in the conference. Which means that if the Bison are going to return to the Tournament in 2008, they're going to have to rely on what they already have in the stable - the guys who were at the end of the bench in '05 and '06, and now need to lead. Guys like John Griffin (11 ppg, 3 apg, 37% 3-point shooting) and Darren Mastropaolo (6 ppg, 4 rpg, 54% shooting).

If Bucknell slides a spot or two next year, the most popular pick to win the Patriot League will most likely be Holy Cross. The Crusaders were, after all, the Patriot League's representative in this year's Tournament. They, too, are hard hit by graduation. Their two leading scorers (Keith Simmons and Torey Thomas - a combined 31 ppg) will both be gone. They return enough size to compete, with three regular players 6'8" or taller returning. Their biggest loss will probably be Thomas and his ballhandling abilities. They're probably going to need rising-Junior Pat Doherty (5 ppg, 2 apg) to run the offense next year. Either way, Holy Cross had a good set of sophomores and freshmen this past year. So even if they can't win the conference this year, they will remain a favorite for the 2008-09 season.

But I don't think they're going to have to wait that long. With no other team returning nearly enough to contend with the Bucknell-Holy Cross duopoly, Holy Cross is my preseason pick to win the Patriot League.


Southern Conference


I asserted for most of this past year that Appalachian State was the best team in the Southern Conference, although they didn't back me up in the Southern Conference Tourney. In all fairness, the difference between the Mountaineers and the Wildcats representing the conference in the Tourney came down to Dontaye Draper. The Senior went nuts in the Tourney Semifinals, going for 38 points in a two point victory for Charleston. In the Finals he went cold, shooting only 2-for-11 from the field for 8 points in a seven point Davidson victory. Either way, I still think Appalachian State was the better team last year. But things could be very different next year, as the Mountaineers lose quite a bit of talent. Most notably, they lose 5'8" star DJ Thompson. The Senior scored in double-digits for the third straight year in 2006-07, and also threw in a career-high 4.9 assists per game. If Appalachian State is going to make another run at the Tournament it's going to be on the back of the athleticism and size of Donte Minter and Jeremy Clayton (a combined 22 ppg and 12 rpg). While Minter and Clayton will undoubtedly be a powerful duo, the real question will be guardplay. In addition to Thompson, Appalachian State also loses their next two best guards, meaning that a lot of responsibility will fall on the young rising-sophomore group led by Ryann Abraham and Kellen Brand.

Another team that could challenge at the top next year will be UNC-Greensboro. Despite not competing near the top of the conference this past season, they do return almost all of their top talent. The biggest issue for them might actually be a lack of experience/maturity. They had three different freshmen getting over 17 minutes per game this past season, so a lot of the minutes next year will be in the hands of freshmen and sophomores. They probably don't have enough to win the Southern Conference in 2008, but I will look at them as a serious contender in 2009.

Finally, Davidson fans were unhappy with me during the season for proclaiming them the second best team in the conference despite the fact that they had the best record. I always countered that while they didn't have as much experience as Appalachian State in 2007, they return far more and will likely be the favorite to win next season. Indeed, they didn't have a single Senior get more than garbage minutes this past season. Things are really looking up for the program and super-frosh Stephen Curry. He scored 21.5 ppg with an outstanding shooting touch (46% from the field, 41% from behind the arc and 86% from the line), and might just be scratching the surface. This team is going to be so good next year that they will have a great shot at an at-large bid even if they get upset in the Conference Tourney. I can't find a copy of their schedule for next season, but hopefully they're smart enough to schedule a good out-of-conference schedule. They will need a couple wins as an RPI-booster and as insurance in case they really do need that at-large bid.

But hopefully they don't need it. Unless something goes really wrong, Davidson will be a really dangerous small-conference school - the Winthrop of 2007-08.


Southland Conference


Texas A&M Corpus Cristi came out of nowhere to run away with the Southland Conference in 2007, but it's really hard to see them coming up with anything like that next season. They lose seven of their eight top scorers, with Scooby Johnson the only real good player they have coming back. With them most likely out of the picture, the most obvious successor is Sam Houston State, although they lose a lot also. The one thing the Bearkats will have going for them will be experience, as they'll have four Seniors playing a prominent role next year, highlighted by leading-scorer Ryan Bright (15 ppg, 8 rpg).

Moving further down the standings, an intriguing team is Stephen F. Austin and their solid rising-Junior duo of Josh Alexander and Matt Kingsley (combined 26 ppg, 10 rpg). They should be improved next year, but I think they're one year away from competing for a conference title. Another interesting team is Texas-Arlington, a school stocked with a lot of young talent. Like SFA, however, I don't think they have the talent and experience in place to be a real competitor this coming season. Northwestern State and McNeese State will also be threats in the wide-open Southland Conference next year, but I'm going with a Lamar team that returns five rising-Seniors that all averaged over 22 minutes and 7 points per game this past season. No one is going to be real good in this conference next year, and they can certainly expect another 15/16 seed in the Tourney, but for the schools in the Southland Conference that's all they're really playing for anyway.


Southwestern Athletic Conference


Speaking of conferences lacking in talent, the SWAC had a really awful year this past season. Jackson State should have been in the play-in game, except that the Selection Committee felt uncomfortable putting two historically black colleges in that game. Jackson State had the honor of being a warm-up for Kansas, although they will suffer without Trey Johnson's 27 points per game. They return some decent pieces, and will certainly contend for another title, but they will almost surely take a step back without their star scorer. Another contender will likely be a Southern University team that has locked up a solid amount of talent for a SWAC team. They have had two straight good classes of recruits, so it's easy to expect this team to compete for atleast the next three years. But I just think it's too much to ask for a team hovering around the 300-RPI level to take any conference in a single year.

So with that in mind it seems like the most talent resides with Mississippi Valley State. With an inside-outside game of Stanford Speech (12 ppg, 2 apg, 2 spg) and 6'10" Larry Cox (7 ppg, 2 bpg, 51% shooting) they should have a good enough team to win the SWAC regular season title again. Hopefully they can finish it with a real Tourney appearance next year, too.


Sun Belt Conference


The Sun Belt has been a duel between South Alabama and Western Arkansas [May 6th edit: Obviously I meant Western Kentucky here] over the past few years, and it's to be expected that both of those teams will continue to compete next year. Both Louisiana-Monroe and Arkansas State contended this past year, and both return a lot of talent. The Warhawks return a lot of good players, but will need one or two of them to take the next step if they're really going to compete. Meanwhile, Arkansas State will probably have the third-most talent with the high-scoring trio of Adrian Banks, Isaac Wells and Ryan Wedel (48 ppg).

But in reality, the rich are just getting richer next year. Both Western Kentucky and South Alabama expect to return atleast four starters, and both expect to start atleast three Seniors next year. Both teams return enough talent to win the Sun Belt, and that's before we get to their recruiting classes. Both of these schools have done a good job of picking up the next-best kids in their respective states - the kids just not good enough to play for Louisville, Kentucky or Alabama, but still solid talents. South Alabama brings in an outstanding backcourt duo of DeAndre Ross and Jamar Moore. Western Kentucky, on the other hand, brings in more good big guys in BJ Frazier and 6'10" DJ Magley. The Hilltoppers should return enough good guard play to run with South Alabama's good young guards. If Frazier and Magley can become dominant forces inside, it's hard to see Western Kentucky not being a really good team next year.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

About the Patriot League-

It's hard (impossible?) to know a lot about 31 conferences. Although I applaud your effort, it's clear that you know very little about the Patriot League and even less about Bucknell, as your comments about their recruiting classes demonstrate.

Bucknell had two of the five best frosh in the league this past year - Stephen Tyree and Pat Behan. Neither made the All-rookie team because they saw limited playing time due both to the large number of good players ahead of them and because it may be harder to learn Flannery's offensive and defensive schemes than those any other D1 coach. However if you talked to the people who know the league, they would tell you that the top five frosh in terms of ability and potential, as opposed to numbers and playing time, are Marquis Hall (Lehigh), who is the best, Eric Meister (Holy Cross), Tyree (Bucknell), Behan (Bucknell), and Carrington (Lehigh). Next in line would be Marcus Nelson (Army) and Trey Stanton (Navy).

A case in point as to the difficulty for freshmen in learning the Bucknell system is soph Justin Castleberry, who was highly recruited the year before. But as a freshman in 2005-06, he never got off the bench. Then he played sparingly the first month of his sophomore year. Finally he started to "get" the system and averaged about 15 pts per 40 minutes the rest of the way, while playing very good defense and posting a postive assist:turnover ratio. Perhaps more importantly, in Bucknell's two critical games at Holy Cross, he scored 16 points in 26 minutes and then 10 points in 19 minutes.

As far as Bucknell cashing in on its tournament appearances, the recruiting class who will enter in the Fall is almost certainly the Bison's best recruiting class ever, and it is likely the best class the league has seen. To begin with, Todd O'Brien, a 6'11" PF/center, was offered by schools such as St Joes, Clemson, Penn State, and St Johns. His senior year was marred by minor knee surgery but he certainly is a level above the average Patriot League recruit. Yet he may be the least likely to contribute as a frosh.

Secondly, small forward GW Boon ended up the year as one of the top five or six seniors in Alabama, with the other ones largely headed to SEC schools (two to Alabama, one to Vanderbilt, etc). He had a great game in the Alabama-Mississippi all-star game and was clearly one of the top three or four Alabama players in that game. His #1 strength has always been defense, something that Flannery demands, but his outside shooting was suspect in the past. However, this winter, playing a very tough 6A schedule, he dramatically improved that phase of his game, ending up at 42% from beyond the arc, as well as leading the team in rebounding and many other categories. He carried his team, one that was expected to be in a rebuilding mode because it had lost four strong players to the college ranks, to a great season. He will be one of the league's top two incoming frosh, along with Beinert of Holy Cross.

And finally, PG Darryl Shazier, was MVP of the tough Peninsula District in Virginia and also on the All-region team. He too is known for his defense, as well as for his speed and long-range shooting, and should see significant playing time once he learns the Flannery system, which is not easy for a PG. As a junior he led the District in scoring and 3-point shooting and then this year, with some better talent around him, he quarterbacked his team to the District championship.

In summary, you are correct that Bucknell and Holy Cross should continue to be the top two teams in the Patriot League, but you have significantly underestimated the incoming Bucknell players due to looking merely at numbers rather than ability and role. Without any inside info, that's really all you can do, but hopefully you can take another look now that you know a few more facts.

Jeff said...

While I don't agree with everything you say, I do want to say that I appreciate you writing it in calm, paragraph form.


Anyway, here's why I think you're overrating Bucknell here. I understand that you had talented guys who didn't get playing time because of the stars of the time, and that those guys will be better and get more playing time next year. But every team has those guys. Holy Cross has young, talented guys who were buried on the bench also, like Eric Meister and Adam May.

Now, throughout the season I was probably guilty of overrating Bucknell. I believed they were the best team in the league all year, and all throughout March predicted them to win the conference when most other bloggers had jumped ship to Holy Cross.

But either way, Bucknell and Holy Cross were incredibly close in overall talent last year. In a ten game series, they probably split. And there's no question Bucknell loses more to graduation. Abe Badmus and Chris McNaughton are probably the two closest things to "household names" in the Patriot League. You can't lose those two guys and improve.

And this might be the best Bucknell recruting class in years (that remains to be seen), but the class of Holy Cross is rated higher.


So you have two teams of equal ability, and one loses more to graduation and the other probably has a better recruting class... the logical choice to win the conference has to be Holy Cross right now.

wibryan said...

About Davidson's schedule: they will be hosting "home games" against UNC and Duke in Bobcats arena, and will also play their traditional rivalry game at Charlotte. There might also be a possibility of hosting Syracuse.

Anonymous said...

Quote: "And this might be the best Bucknell recruting class in years (that remains to be seen), but the class of Holy Cross is rated higher"
................................

You lose all credibility when you make a statement like the above. Not even Ralph Willard would say that his incoming class is as good as the Bucknell one. HC essentially has one player coming in, and his stock fell somewhat during his high school year. In fact, this recruit (Beinert) finished behind two other PL recruits (Hendra and Small) when it came to the all-NYC area teams.

As for which team lost more, HC lost TWO first-team all-league players. It has been quite awhile, if ever, since any one PL team lost two of the five first-teamers.

Also, I can't believe you mentioned Adam May. He did not get off the bench all season and it's uncertain if he'll get off the bench at all next year. Meister is a solid player and a good rebounder, and he had the opportunity to play due to HC having no other backup at PF or center, but it is unlikely he has the upside of either of the two BU rising sophs. Meister grew up near Bucknell and was well known to Flannery. Yet he preferred Behan to Meister when it came to recruiting a four.

BTW, I saw every PL team play at least four times this year, and saw both Holy Cross and Bucknell more than that. Did you get to see any of them play at all? Didn't think so.