Monday, April 06, 2009

2009-10 Preview: Small Conferences, Part III

Big West Conference

Cal State Northridge may not have been the best team in the Big West all season long, but they got better as the season went along and took the conference's regular season and tournament titles, and gave Memphis a heck of a battle in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. But that said, they are devastated by graduations. They only lose three starters, but are actually losing five of their top six scorers. They used a nine man rotation where nobody got much more time than anybody else, so players who didn't start got just about as much playing time as those who did. Of course, the four players from that nine man rotation who do return will all be Seniors next year, so this team will have the experience to fight for a repeat title, but it's hard to see them not taking at least a little step backwards.

Pacific is also hit pretty badly with graduations, but one key returner will be 6'9" Sam Willard, who led the team with 7 rebounds per game, and also put in 7 points per game, on 52% shooting. If he can become more of a polished inside player in his final two years (he was only a Sophomore this past season) then Pacific should challenge for another Big West title. An intriguing team is Long Beach State, with three of their top five scorers this past year being Freshmen. Not only that, but the three players provide great floor balance: Casper Ware led the team with 4 assists per game (along with 9 points per game), T.J. Robinson led the team with 6 rebounds per game (along with 11 points per game), and Larry Anderson led the team in three point shooting percentage (40%) to go with 11 points per game. That core should lead Long Beach State for some time. They are also bringing in a nice recruiting class led by 6'10" Jules Montgomery.

Cal State Fullerton should be in rebuilding mode after losing Josh Akognon and his 24 points per game. They bring in a solid recruiting class and also have a transfer coming in from South Florida (Orane Chin) who should help keep this team from falling too far in the standings. UC Riverside should also be in the top half of the standings with their top two scorers returning, led by Kyle Austin and his 16 points and 6 rebounds per game. They will also potentially start five Seniors next season, which is important in a conference that always seems to be won by a team with nine Seniors on the roster. But I'm going to go with youth this coming season, as Long Beach State has the best crop of young players, and also has enough experience on the bench to help lead the 49ers back to the Tournament.

Ivy League

It was a down year for the Ivy League, with the sole bright spot being Cornell. They were a very good team all around that even gave Missouri a battle in their first round Tournament game. They do have a big loss in 7-footer Jeff Foote (12 ppg, 7 rpg), but just about every other key player is back. Their four returning starters will all be Seniors next season, and they also return a rising-Sophomore in Chris Wroblewski who was actually third on the team in minutes played despite only eight starts. They also bring in a pair of transfers, Max Groebe from UMass and Mark Coury from Kentucky. They should receive better competition from the rest of the conference next season, but they will be well equipped to fight for a third straight title.

It's nice to see Princeton finally getting back to their winning ways, after an embarrassing 3-11 Ivy League season in 2007-08. Not only do they return their top nine scorers per game, but they also bring in the league's second best recruiting class led by 6'6" forward Ian Hummer. The best recruiting class in the conference belongs once again to Tommy Amaker's Harvard. The question is when his players will actually start winning games. Three of Harvard's five top minutes earners this past year were Freshmen, and they have another elite crop of Freshmen coming (by Ivy League standards, of course). Their top recruit is Brandyn Curry (Scout: 26 PG), who was offered by Stanford as well. Harvard probably doesn't have the experience needed to win the brutal Ivy League season (it's really a 14-round conference tournament), but they might actually have the most talented team. Expect them to win an Ivy title in the next two or three years for sure.

Another team working their way back to the top of the conference is UPenn, whose top four minutes-per-game earners were Freshmen and Sophomores. Zack Rosen led the team in assists as a Freshmen (5.0), Jack Eggleston lead the team in rebounds as a Sophomore (5.9), and Tyler Bernardini led the team in points as a Sophomore (13.9).

In my opinion, those four teams will be the story of the Ivy League next season. Cornell might not improve as much as their three challengers, but they have a huge head start on everybody else after the way they dominated in 2008-09. Penn and Princeton have historically dominated the conference (they had combined for 19 straight titles before Cornell broke the streak in 2008), and both will be markedly improved compared to a year ago. And Tommy Amaker continues to rock Ivy League basketball with his recruiting classes, and at some point it's going to pay off. But at this point, I don't know how I can pick anybody to knock Cornell off. I think the Big Red have one more title in them before they succumb to the three giants rapidly chasing them down.

Mid-American Conference

I've been disappointed with the MAC for a few straight years now, and punished them by dropping them to the "Small Conference" previews. Zero teams in the RPI Top 75 is very disappointing for a conference that has historically had a number of multiple-Tournament bid seasons. That said, I do see some hope for the future with a number of good recruiting classes around the conference.

The top recruit in the conference actually belongs to Akron, which bring in 6'11" Zeke Marshall (Rivals: 39, Scout: 7 C), who turned down offers from ACC and Big East schools to come to Akron. He should be expected to be the centerpiece for a young team, where four of the top seven start earners on last year's team were Freshmen and Sophomores. If we assume that Marshall won't be completely polished a Freshman, I think it's safe to say that Akron won't quite have the experience to take the title this coming season, but they'll be in the hunt. And even if they don't win the 2010 title, they should be right back in the hunt in 2011.

The top overall recruiting class probably belongs to Miami of Ohio, who will be in rebuilding mode after losing a trio of Seniors that will be impossible to replace (Tyler Dierkers, Michael Bramos and Eric Pollitz). The only other recruiting class in the conference that compares with Miami of Ohio in terms of overall depth is Kent State, and they are in a better position to actually use that talent to compete for a MAC title this coming season. They do lose three Seniors, but had a fairly deep 11 man rotation of which eight will be back. Tyree Evans should be able to lead this team back towards the top of the conference, and with all of those fresmen coming in (highlighted by a pair of players from Bedford, Ohio, Randal Holt and Rob Johnson), you would figure that some of them would earn enough playing time to help out.

Of course, the actual regular season champion in 2009 was Buffalo, but I wasn't ever really impressed with them. They aren't a very talented team, and were simply experienced and savvy enough to navigate a very weak conference. They lose three key players, and I don't see them being any better next year than they were this past year. I would also list Ohio as a sleeper, with a quality recruiting class and transfer Armon Bassett (who must be in his eighth season of college at this point... I think he was originally recruited by Bobby Knight). But I believe that next year will be a battle between Akron and Kent State for the MAC title, and in the end I'm going to go with experience and depth, which means I'm going to pick Kent State.

Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference

Another mediocre season for the MEAC, with the single glimmer of hope being a Morgan State team coached by disgraced former-Cal coach Todd Bozeman. His name has been bounced around in connection with a few jobs around the country, so don't be surprised if he jumps ship before next season begins. Assuming he does come back, Morgan State should be in a decent position to defend their title. They do lose three starters, but pretty much every other key piece comes back. And they do return leading scorer Reggie Holmes (16.8 per game) for one more season. I don't think they'll be as good as they were this past season, but that still might be good enough to win the conference.

South Carolina State also loses a couple of starters, but they do have some bright spots remaining, including rising-Sophomore star Jimmy Williams, Jr. He's a big 6'4", 195 pounds, and he led the squad with 2.7 assists per game as a freshman. If the Bulldogs win the conference, it will be because Williams led them there. One other team to keep an eye on is Bethune-Cookman, which returns most of its key pieces and will be led by star C.J. Reed, who led the team in both points (15.0) and assists (3.9) per game as a Freshman.

One sleeper is Hampton, which returns 11 guys that played non-garbage minutes last season. Their best player is probably rising-Senior Vincent Simpson, who led the team with 12 points per game, and also had 2 assists and 1 steal per game. He was an inefficient shooter, but a lot of hours practicing in the gym this summer will make him one of the best players in the conference next year. In the end, I think Hampton will suffer from a lack of a star. In these smaller conferences a title can often be won by a single star, and I think Morgan State will win the conference again because they return the same star who led them to the Tournament this past year.

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