Saturday, April 11, 2009

2009-10 Preview: Mid Majors, Part III

Atlantic Ten Conference

A lot of Xavier fans don't understand why Sean Miller took the Arizona job. Xavier has surely been better than Arizona the past few years, and is certainly in a better position to be good this coming season. But at the same time, the reality is that the ceiling is higher at Arizona. As good of a job as Miller did as Xavier's head coach, he has not been able to get real blue chippers in there. He will be able to bring in better kids to Arizona. Spending several straight years in the Top 25 (for the most part) is a great place to plateau at, but I don't think Miller was ever going to win a National Championship at Xavier. At Arizona he'll at least have a chance to bring in the type of recruits you need to win that Championship. The reason that Xavier has been so good for more than a decade now has been a string of great coaches. Recall that Miller was preceded by Thad Matta, who was preceded by Skip Prosser. That takes you all the way back to 1994, with three outstanding coaches. You can even go back another decade, when Pete Gillen was the head coach, who was a very good coach in his time (remember that magical run with Providence in the late 1990s with Austin Croshere and God Shammgod, arguably the greatest name in the history of the NCAA Tournament?).

What I'm trying to say is that Xavier is not guaranteed to remain one of the elite programs in the nation - they'll only stay there if they bring in the right head coach. At the time of this posting, Xavier's head coach is still unknown. And their performance will be greatly affected by how good of a coach they can get, as well as if that coach can hang onto star recruit Kevin Parrom (Rivals: 84, Scout: 16 SF). Xavier loses two key starters in C.J. Anderson and B.J. Raymond, but everybody else returns. Derrick Brown (14 ppg, 6 rpg, 43% 3-point shooting) should be the star next season. The key to next season could be the development of 7-footer Kenny Frease (5 ppg, 4 rpg and 2.3 fouls per game, in only 14 mpg). They also welcome in transfer Jordan Crawford from Indiana. Xavier should be a Tournament team next season, but they won't be as good as they were this past season. And the amount that they drop off will depend heavily on how good their next coach is at continuing the tradition of basketball excellence at Xavier.

I criticized Dayton a lot heading into the Tournament because they were the worst team to earn an at-large bid. That's not to say that they were the last team into the Tournament - they weren't, because their resume was better than several other at-large teams. But they weren't as good as their resume. They did pull off a first round miracle, built on the fact that West Virginia played atrociously. Bob Huggins has never been known as a great in-game coach, but even for his standards it was a very bad performance. That said, Dayton was still a good team this year, and they should be even better next year. They lose only one player to graduation, and still have their best player for one more season: Chris Wright (13 ppg, 7 rpg). The outstanding back court of Marcus Johnson (12 ppg, 2 apg) and London Warren (4 ppg, 4 apg) will be back for one more season as well. Also expect Rob Lowery, another rising-Senior guard to play a big part next season. Five of their top seven returning scorers will all be Seniors next year, and all of those players will have had the experience of the success this season. They will have an excellent shot at returning to the Tournament next season.

2008-09 was the second consecutive year that Temple would not have earned an at-large bid, yet snuck into the Tournament by taking the A-10 tourney title. It's going to be hard for them to repeat that performance, as they lose three starters. And one of those lost starters is Dionte Christmas (20 ppg, 6 rpg, 3 apg, 2 spg), who I believe was the best player in the A-10 this past season (Ahmad Nivins actually won the award for Player of the Year, but my vote would have been for Christmas). They do return all of their key reserves, and have a couple of nice recruits coming in, so Temple will still be a pretty good team. But there's no way that they'll be as good without Christmas.

Rhode Island only loses two players that earned more than ten minutes per game, but those losses represent their two leading scorers (Jimmy Baron and Kahiem Seawright). That said, they do bring back a lot of experience, and will likely start four Seniors next season. Their one Junior starter will be 7-footer Will Martell, who had great per-40 minutes stats, but struggled to stay on the floor for long periods of time. He's going to have to become a more consistent force if Rhode Island is going to make a run at the Tournament next season. Another team that briefly flirted with the Bubble last season was Duquesne, which was a Top 100 team in every computer rating I saw at the end of the season. They do lose leading scorer Aaron Jackson (19.3 per game), but everybody else from last season's team will be back. I don't think they'll have the talent to win the conference, but they should be a Bubble team.

Saint Joseph's loses A-10 Player of the Year Ahmad Nivins, and they also loses second-leading scorer Tasheed Carr (14.3 per game). You have to expect Darrin Govens to scorer a lot of points in his Senior season next year, but I'm not sure where the rest of the scoring will come from for St. Joe's. Saint Louis also loses their two top scorers to graduation (Tommie Liddell and Kevin Lisch), but they return seven players from their ten man rotation. Rick Majerus has started bringing in elite recruiting classes, and they had a bunch of good Freshmen this past season. They have failed to bring in blue chippers, but have had a lot of quality and depth. That holds true for next season as well, where they have a number of good recruits coming, even though none of them are ranked by or It's hard to know right now who Majerus will be starting next season, but there's a good chance of the team being even better next season, even without Lisch and Liddell. Majerus clashed a lot with players whose personality didn't mesh with his in 2007-08, his first season with the team. Those problems were less this past year, and things should only get better as more of the kids on his team are his own recruits.

Two teams that should be better next season are La Salle and Richmond, as both lose only one player from their regular rotations. Neither team has brought in any blue chippers over the past few years, and so there is a talent gap between them and teams like Xavier and Dayton, but that could be starting to change as La Salle brings in Aaric Murray (Rivals: 35, Scout: 6 C). One other team to keep an eye on is St. Bonaventure. They return all five starters, although they do lose their three top bench players (two to graduation, one to a transfer). They have a couple of nice young players who could fill those places well, though, including a couple of Freshmen that redshirted. Overall, here's how I see the top of the conference for next season:

1. Dayton
2. Xavier
3. Duquesne
4. St. Joseph's
5. La Salle
6. Saint Louis
7. Temple
8. Rhode Island
9. Richmond

Colonial Athletic Association

The story in the Colonial this past season was VCU, and Eric Maynor's final collegiate season. He did a great job in leading his team to the Tournament and giving an outstanding UCLA team a battle in the first round. But with Maynor's graduation an era ends at VCU, with coach Anthony Grant jumping to Alabama. It makes a ton of sense for Grant to take the job because his stock will never get any higher. Honestly, he hasn't proven that he is a great recruiter or a great coach, and it's been disappointing to see that VCU hasn't improved over the past couple of years. I'm not convinced that Grant is a very good coach - not that Alabama was going to get anybody much better. Despite the loss of Grant and Maynor, don't expect VCU to suddenly drop out of the national picture. They do return every player other than Maynor, and should be led by Larry Sanders (11 ppg, 9 rpg, 3 bpg). They will hope to partially fill the vacuum left by Maynor with star recruit Ben Ebien (Scout: 17 PG). Maynor cannot be replaced, but VCU will still be one of the contenders to win the CAA next season.

The second best team in the CAA this past season was George Mason. They lose three starters to graduation, but that's a bit of a deceptive statistic. They had a regular eight man rotation without any clear stars. In addition, George Mason brings in the deepest recruiting class in the conference, led by 6'7" Johnny Williams, who turned down offers from schools like Tennessee and Baylor. They might take a small step backwards next season, but they should again contend for a CAA title.

Old Dominion and Northeastern were the next two best teams in the CAA last season. Old Dominion is the best positioned for next season with only one Senior on the roster, and all five starters returning. Their best player is either 6'10" Gerald Lee (16 ppg, 6 rpg, 54% shooting) or Ben Finney (10 ppg, 6 rpg, 2 spg). Northeastern only loses one Senior starter, but they also lose two of their top bench players.

The fifth CAA team that spent a lot of time in the RPI Top 100 was Hofstra, but they weren't nearly as good as analysts thought they were. Despite the high RPI, Sagarin's PREDICTOR actually had them 179th, and Pomeroy put them 175th. They lose four players that earned more than 15 minutes per game, and should drop off even more. I can't see them competing for a CAA title, and they should slip in the standings.

The other two quality teams in the CAA were Drexel and James Madison. It feels like Drexel has spent most of the last decade fighting between third and fifth place in the CAA, and they should be there again. They should be slightly improved, as they only lose one regular to graduation (leading scorer Scott Rodgers, and his 13.6 per game). James Madison loses slightly more to graduation, but not much: one starter and two other key bench players. Both teams should still be in decent shape next season, although neither should be a serious competitor for the conference title. All in all, I think the CAA will continue the slow decline it has experienced since George Mason's famous Tournament run. Nobody will run away with the conference, and this is how I see the top of the conference playing out:

1. VCU
2. Old Dominion
3. George Mason
4. Drexel
5. Northeastern
6. James Madison

Conference USA

I've talked for a few years about how the C-USA situation was unsustainable. You can't have one team so much better than everybody else. Either the pack was going to start improving, or Memphis was going to fall back to the pack. With John Calipari heading to Kentucky, it looks like it'll be the latter. Their only chance was going to be hiring away some other big named coach that could save the recruiting class, but they couldn't pull that off. So the blue chippers appear to all be gone. The only incomers, to the best of my knowledge, are Juco transfers Darnell Dodson and Will Coleman. Tyreke Evans is going pro, and Antonio Anderson and Robert Dozier graduate. Of course, there will still be plenty of talented players there for now: Shawn Taggart, Willie Kemp, Doneal Mack, Roburt Sallie and Wesley Witherspoon will likely be the starting lineup next season, and that's a pretty athletic and talented bunch. But they will have almost no bench, and a lot of uncertainty as to how many of the recruits in the pipeline will stay there, and where this program will be headed in the future. Memphis should return to the Tournament, but their days as a Final Four contender are over.

Of the teams in Conference USA that have plateaued, probably none is more surprising than a UAB team that seemed to be in a good position with Mike Davis, who had brought many of his best Indiana players with him. And while he was known as a good recruiter, he just could not get anybody to come to UAB. They had four regular starters this past season (the fifth starter position rotated between two different players), and all four graduate. They have a decent recruiting class, led by Dexter Fields (Scout: 32 SG), but I don't see any way that this team doesn't get far worse next season. My understanding is that they want Mike Davis out, but that it would simply be too expensive. So UAB is stuck in a bad place now, heading in the wrong direction with a dead man walking leading the squad.

The other Bubble team from the conference was Tulsa, and they're in a far better position to make a Tournament run again next season. They lose one starter and a key player off the bench, but retain their two highest scorers, their best rebounder and their leading assist man. The one question for them will be 7-footer Jerome Jordan, and whether he sticks around for his Senior season. From the reports I've seen, he'd be a marginal draft pick, and certainly not a first-rounder. If he can really dominate Conference USA next season and lead his squad into the Tournament he could play his way into the first round of the draft, which is why his best decision would be to stay in school one more year. At this point I will assume that he does that, but know that I will drop them in my projections if Jordan does go pro.

One very interesting squad to look for is UTEP. They had a Senior starter, and a key bench player will also be graduating. But other than that, every single player on the roster was a Freshman or Sophomore, which means that they've got a great young base. The trio that will lead the team for the next two years is Randy Culpepper (18 ppg, 3 rpg, 2 spg), Julyan Stone (6 ppg, 5 rpg, 6 apg) and Arnett Moultrie (9 ppg, 8 rpg). Of course, one of their graduations is leading scorer Stefon Jackson (24.5 per game), so the team might not be quite as good next year as they were this past year. But they could potentially win the whole conference in 2011, when this great Sophomore class has turned into a great Senior class.

Another team that might take a small step back next season but that has a great set of young players is UCF, which also loses a 25+ point per game star (Jermaine Taylor), but got a ton of production from Freshmen and Sophomores. They've also got a very nice recruiting class coming in, including Michael Jordan's son Marcus (Scout: 27 SG). Unlike UTEP, Central Florida is probably more than a year away from contending to win Conference USA. Kirk Speraw is an example of what happens when a school shows trust in a coach and stands behind him during a tough year or two. He's taken the school to its only four Tournament appearances, and he appears to be building up the program yet again for something special.

There are a couple of other teams to keep an eye on. One is Marshall, which loses only one starter and brings in a big man who can contribute immediately: 6'11" Hassan Whiteside (Scout: 13 C). Another real dark horse is a Rice team that had a very deep rotation but no stars last season. They bring in an outstanding and deep recruiting class, which means that they'll probably have something like a ten man interchangeable rotation. They won't have the overall talent or experience to compete with the best teams in the conference, but they should be much better. Here's how I see the top of the conference playing out:

1. Memphis
2. Tulsa
4. Central Florida
5. UAB
6. Houston

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