Sunday, April 05, 2009
2009-10 Preview: Small Conferences, Part II
Robert Morris led most of the way in what was a fairly weak NEC last season. They finished 15-3 in conference and managed to give Pittsburgh a battle in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. And while they do return most of their pieces, they will not be able to replace their all-around best player Jeremy Chappell. Chappell led the team in starts (35), minutes per game (32.7), points (16.7), rebounds (6.3), assists (3.2) and steals (2.5), as well as shots made from the field (213), behind the arc (84) and at the line (75). I don't think there was another player in the country who led his team in all of those categories, and he will not be replaceable. That said, they only lose one other starter, and return all of their key subs. They'll still be one of the best teams in the NEC, but there's no way that they won't take a step back without Chappell.
The second best team all season long was Mt. Saint Mary's, and while they do lose two starters, they return every other player on the roster. And they do return their top three scorers, their top rebounder, and their top four assist men. Their star is Jeremy Goode, who is only 5'9" but is the best ball-handler on the team. He led the Mountaineers in both points (14.9), assists (4.1) and steals (1.9) per game. If they take the conference, he will be the key reason. Another team to keep an eye on is Sacred Heart, which returns two of its top three starters and will likely start at least three Seniors next season.
Two potential darkhorses are LIU and Central Connecticut State. Each team only loses one player to graduation who collected more than ten minutes of playing time per game, and both teams are heavily stocked with Freshmen and Sophomores. Ten of the twelve players on the Central Connecticut State roster were Freshmen or Sophomores this past season. But that said, Mount Saint Mary's looks like they will be the most talented and experienced team from top to bottom. At this point, Mt. Saint Mary's is the favorite.
This was one of the better OVC seasons that I can remember. I can't remember the last time they had four teams in the RPI Top 150. Of course, it's not always a positive for a small conference to have a lot of teams fighting for the top spot, as your eventual champion often ends up as a 16 seed. But with so many important players returning the conference can expect to be even better next year, and if one team can break out from the pack they can possibly get back into the world of the 13 and 14 seeds, where Tournament wins are more realistic.
Tennessee-Martin was the regular season champion, and in one sense you would think that they're in good shape for next year, with only two Seniors on the entire roster leaving. But then again, one of those Seniors is Lester Hudson, whose 27.5 points per game were second in the nation, behind only Stephen Curry. With almost all of their complementary parts back, the Skyhawks should still be a decent team, but it's impossible to expect them to replace Hudson.
The conference tournament champions, of course, were Morehead State. And while they lose leading scorer Leon Buchanan (15.1 per game), every other player returns. If they take the conference again, it will be on the back of 6'8" Kenneth Faried (14 ppg, 13 rpg, 2 bpg). Fans of teams in bigger conferences might be surprised to see a guy only 6'8" who can dominate like that inside, but in a conference like the OVC it's possible. If he can become more of an offensive threat, Morehead State could be looking at a repeat.
You can't count out Austin Peay in the OVC (they have won the regular season and/or conference tournament title in four of the last seven years), but it's hard to see them winning again next season. They lose two starters, including Drake Reed's 22 points per game. An intriguing team is Murray State, which returns five guys that started 13 games or more last season, including two Freshmen. Throw in what is probably the best recruiting class in the conference, and Murray State is a team built for the future. When you consider that they have been the single most dominant force in this conference for a long time (they have won the regular season and/or conference tournament title in 16 of the last 22 seasons), I'm going to give Murray State the preseason edge in the OVC.
It wasn't a great season for the Patriot League, with one notable exception: American University. A double-digit second half lead over Final Four-bound Villanova was very impressive. But while they were head-and-shoulders above everybody else in the Patriot League this past season, there is just no way that they'll be nearly as good next year. Not only do they lose all five starters to graduation, but they return less than 12 points per game of total offense. Without any transfers coming in that I'm aware of, and without any nationally ranked recruits coming in, I don't know how they don't have a massive drop off.
But with American's fall from the top, look for Holy Cross to take advantage. They do lose four players that earned double-digit minutes per game last season, but their best players will all be back. Last year's star recruit, R.J. Evans, has been even better than expected, leading the team with over 13 points per game as a Freshman. Any time your leading scorer is a Freshman, your leading rebounder is a Sophomore and your leading assist man is a Sophomore, and they're three different players, that's a very good sign for your future. They are also going to have a new transfer available from Saint John's: Mike Cavataio. And if that weren't enough, they also probably have the best recruiting class in the conference.
Holy Cross won't win this conference uncontested, of course. Bucknell should be very improved, as they have a very young team. Four of their top six scorers were Freshman or Sophomores, and they also have a good recruiting class coming in. I don't see them actually winning the conference, but they should be back in the thick of things soon enough. Also look for Colgate to be improved, with their top four minutes earners all back. And Lehigh should be a sleeper, with seven of their top eight scorers back. But it's hard to see anybody challenging Holy Cross for what will be their fifth NCAA Tournament appearance of the decade.
The story in the SoCon was once again Stephen Curry. And the story will continue to be Curry as he decides on his NBA fate. Even though he says right now that he's slightly leaning towards staying, you have to think that he regrets not going pro after his epic performance in the 2008 NCAA Tournament. Even though his shooting numbers were down, he was actually a better player. He showed better passing and dribbling skills this past year. But the team wasn't as good because the parts around him weren't as good. And things will only get worse next season, when both Andrew Lovedale and Max Paulhus Gosselin will be gone. If Curry sticks around, they'll obviously be the favorites to take the conference, but they will not be any better than a 13 seed in the Tournament or so, and their odds of a Tournament upset will be small. I think Curry will eventually see next year as even worse than this year, and he'll go pro. So at this point, I am not going to predict Davidson to win the conference, with the caveat that they immediately become the favorites if Curry chooses to come back.
That said, I will give Bob McKillop credit for cashing on their success the last two years with a couple of nice recruiting classes. The two best freshmen from last year's class were Frank Ben-Eze and Ben Allison, and both appear to have bright futures. And they've got the best recruiting class in the conference coming in next year. They also won't be entirely devoid of experienced stars without Curry, as Will Archambault, Steve Rossiter, Bryant Barr and Brendan McKillop will all be back (McKillop will be a Junior, the others will be Seniors). Even without Curry, this team will compete for the conference title this coming season, and will continue to be one of the best teams in the SoCon for some time.
One of the up-and-coming teams in the SoCon is College of Charleston, led by Bobby Cremins. They lose two Seniors to graduation, but basically everybody else is back. Their star is rising-Junior Andrew Goudelock, an outstanding shooter who led the team with 16.7 points per game. I don't see any reason why they won't be at least as good next year as they were this past year. Another team to look out for is Citadel, a deep team that had nine players earn double-digit minutes per game last year, and eight of them will be back. Their one question will be inside, where Demetrius Nelson graduates and leaves a big hole. Citadel's second leading rebounder last season was 6'4", 180 pound John Brown. They're going to have to find a real big man if they're going to beat teams like Davidson and Charleston which pack a lot of size for small conference teams.
With most of their talent returning, Appalachian State should be back in the top half of the conference. And Western Carolina has to be a darkhorse with all eleven players that earned double-digit minutes per game last year (yes, eleven - that's not a typo) returning. But the team I'm looking for is Wofford. The Terriers had nine guys player double-digit minutes per game, and nine guys score more than two points per game. They're all back. And they have a real talent in 6'6" Noah Dahlman, who led the team with 18 points per game (on 60% shooting), and also collected 6 rebounds per game. They also have another good inside presence in 230 pounder Tim Johnson, who led the team with 8.7 rebounds per game. If Curry comes back, Davidson becomes the clear favorite to take the SoCon. But if he goes pro, Wofford becomes the new favorite.