Monday, April 06, 2009

2009-10 Preview: Small Conferences, Part IV

America East Conference

Binghamton was a great story in the America East conference this year. I know that the program is a bit controversial regarding the school's academic standards, but the way I always feel about these things is that the amount of Binghamton alums who probably donated over the last month will make the program a net positive as far as the academics of the school go. And this team is not a one-year-wonder in any sense of the word, as their top three scorers will all return and will all be Seniors. Among them is the star of the team, D.J. Rivera (20 ppg, 7 rpg, 47% shooting). The Bearcats also have a number of rising-Juniors who should excel in an expanded role, such as Brandon Herbert (37% 3-point shooting), Chretien Lukusa (4.4 ppg) and Moussa Camara (10 points per 40 minutes). The only thing that will keep Binghamton from being better next season will be suffering from the weight of expectations.

No team has had more recent success in the America East than Vermont. They have won the conference tournament and/or a share of the regular season title in six of the last eight seasons. They are losing a couple of key Seniors, including Mike Trimboli (16 ppg, 5 apg, 80% free throw shooting). The star next season will have to be 6'5" power forward Marqus Blakely (16 ppg, 9 rpg, 61% shooting). Vermont also brings in a solid recruiting class with no less than four players who could get big playing time next season. I don't think there's any question that they'll be competing with Binghamton for the America East title again next season.

Of course, there's no guarantee that next year's champion will be Binghamton or Vermont. You've got to throw in Albany, a team that was rebuilding this past year and is very young. They got a lot of production out of Freshmen and Sophomores, led by rising-Junior Tim Ambrose (14 ppg, 5 rpg, 3 apg). A dark horse is Boston University, which returns all three of their double-digit scorers. All in all, I don't think there's any question that the America East will be even better next year than it was this past year. But I think that once again it will be a battle between Albany, Binghamton and Vermont. And I think the weight of expectations drops Binghamton, and Vermont will take the America East for the first time since Tom Brennan was coach back in 2005.

Atlantic Sun Conference

Despite not winning the regular season title, East Tennessee State was the best team in the Atlantic Sun all season long, and they took the conference tournament and put up a great performance against Pitt (I believe they were the first 16 seed to lose by ten points or less in about a decade, although somebody will have to check that for me). It will not be easy for them to repeat that performance this coming year, though. They lose three of their top four scorers to graduation, and really have nobody left who can score other than Mike Smith (15 ppg, 8 rpg). If they do manage to repeat, it will be because rising-Sophomore guard Adam Sollazzo took the leap and became a star (3 ppg, 3 rpg, 2 apg). One additional weapon will be Alabama transfer Justin Tubbs.

A key contender should be this past year's regular season champion: Jacksonville. The Dolphins return three double-digit scorers, and nearly all of their other key pieces. Their most important player is probably 5'10", 150 pound Ben Smith (17 ppg, 4 apg, 2 spg).

Other than Belmont, which is completely decimated by graduations, the only other schools remotely close to the likes of East Tennessee State and Jacksonsville in overall ability this past year were Lipscomb and Mercer. The more intriguing of those two teams is probably Lipscomb. Seven of their eight top scorers this past season were Freshmen and Sophomores. I'm not going to project them to win the 2010 title, but watch out for them to be the potential favorites in 2011. Mercer should be more ready to challenge for the title in 2010, as they lose only one player on the roster to graduation and will also have a lot of Seniors in the starting lineup. The star will James Florence (21 ppg, 4 rpg, 4 apg, 2 spg).

One dark horse has to be Campbell, which didn't have a single Senior on last year's roster. They are probably also a bit too young to win the conference next season, but they'll definitely be better. In the end, though, I think this weak conference will be even weaker next year. And that opens things up for Mercer to earn their first Tournament bid since 1985.

Big Sky Conference

Ken Bone took Portland State to their first ever Tournament appearance in 2008. And he took them back in 2009. But in 2010 he'll be guiding Washington State, and Portland State fans have to be wondering if their magical run will be coming to an end. I do think that the team will be in good hands, though. Leading scorer Jeremiah Dominguez (13 ppg) will be gone, but every other key player will be back. It remains to be seen if any players will transfer out because of Bone's departure, or if they can find another coach who get the same great play out of these guys, but I don't see Portland State falling off a cliff next season.

The regular season champion, by a massive four games, was Weber State. They lose leading scorer Kellen McCoy (14.1 per game) and sixth man Daviin Davis (26 mpg and 10 ppg off the bench) to graduation, but everybody else will be back. They will definitely be back in the championship hunt yet again next season.

According to the computers, Weber State and Portland State were pretty far ahead of the rest of the field last season. But that gap should narrow. Montana returns six players that played double-digit minutes per game, including leading scorer and rising-Senior Anthony Johnson (17.6 per game). Northern Colorado should be vastly improved with every key player returning. And expect a big jump forward by a Montana State team that loses only 6'9" center Divaldo Mbunga, and has 6'10" rising-Sophomore Cody Anderson ready to take over.

But if I'm going to pick one dark horse to challenge the two top teams, it would be Idaho State. They do lose two regulars to graduation, but their eight top minutes earners that return will all be Seniors. You've got to love that kind of experience in a team, and I would be shocked if they don't finish in the top three in the conference standings, but I think they'll fall short to a Weber State team that will be highly motivated after an embarrassing conference tournament loss to a team (Montana State) they'd beaten by 20 points one week earlier. I see Weber State getting back to the Tournament.

Big South Conference

This was probably the weakest that the Big South has been in some time. A big problem has been the fall off of a Winthrop team that had a great run for a few years earlier this decade. Winthrop should be back near the top of the conference again next year with every single key player returning. They were very young this past year, relying heavily on Freshmen and Sophomores. The experience they got during all of their losses this past season should help them fight for another Big South title next season.

Liberty has definitely had the strangest offseason in the Big South. They seemed to have a great thing going, with a ton of youth. They only had one Senior and two Juniors on the entire roster, and they were powered by freshman star Seth Curry (20.2 ppg), who carried them all the way to the Big South semifinals. Yet they had barely returned home from their final game when Seth Curry announced that he was transferring to Duke. Then head coach Ritchie McKay jumped to Virginia to join Tony Bennett's staff as an assistant. I don't understand why a coach would leave a promising situation where he could lead a team into the Tournament to be an assistant somewhere else, but that's what he decided, and the Liberty program is now in flux. Assuming they can find the right coach, they do have a ton of young talent. But it's going to be another year or two before they contend for a Big South title.

Let's not forget, of course, that it was Radford which swept the regular season and tournament titles, and they will be back again next season. They lose two key Seniors, but return their two most important players. One is 6'11" Artsiom Parakhouski from Belarus, the team leader in points (16.2) and rebounds (11.2) per game. The other is 5'9" Amir Johnson, who led the team in assists per game (5.2). And VMI will still be around with their high tempo style (Pomeroy rated their pace first in the nation). They lose three starters, but every other player will be back, and VMI was always about the style of play rather than any particular star player.

One last team not to count out is UNC-Asheville, which only loses one player to graduation. But they just don't have the overall talent of the best teams in the Big South. I think both Liberty and Winthrop will be too young to take the conference, which brings us back to Radford and VMI yet again. And I think VMI finally breaks through and wins their first Big South title.

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