Monday, March 22, 2010

2010-11 Preview: Small Conferences, Part I

Southland Conference

This was a pretty typical Southland Conference season. It seems like every year it's a battle between Sam Houston State and Stephen F. Austin at the top, and this is always a conference that has a lot of experienced players in key roles, as well as a lot of tall players. This is always one of the tallest conferences outside of the BCS conferences. I had picked Sam Houston State a year ago to win this conference, and they took care of business, behind the excellent backcourt of Corey Allmond and Ashton Mitchell, who both will graduate. That said, the leading scorer was actually 6'6" swingman Gilberto Clavell, who will be back for one more year. Another rising senior who will be key is Joston Crow, who at 6'4" was second on the team with six rebounds per game, but also can step outside and hit 41% behind the arc. Ball handling responsibilities will fall to Drae Murray, a 5'11" guard who was third on the team in assists, behind Mitchell and Crow. Sam Houston won't be as good at taking care of the ball as they were this past season, but they'll be able to score and board, and will continue to be a contender atop the conference.

Stephen F Austin was the defending regular season and tournament champion coming into the 2009-10 season, but they couldn't quite overcome Sam Houston State. This was something of a rebuilding season, with so many seniors leaving from the season before. Nine players earned at least ten minutes per game this season, and only two were seniors. More importantly, five of them were juniors, meaning that this will be a very senior heavy team next season. Eddie Williams, one of those seniors, will be a quality shooting guard again. He led the team in scoring this past year at 13.3 per game. The other returning double-digit scorer is 6'7" Jereal Scott, who had 12.8 per game. Jordan Glynn is another key inside returner, with 8.3 rebounds per game. But the real key to this coming key will be the player who fills the most glaring gap on this past year's team: point guard. Their leading assist man (senior Eric Bell) had only 3.8 per game, and they struggled with turnovers. But coming in they have Harrison Smith, a pretty highly rated recruit at Texas who had the misfortune of being in the same recruiting class as Kevin Durant, Damion James, Dexter Pittman, D.J. Augustin and Justin Mason. He sat on the bench for three years before transferring to Stephen F. Austin for playing time. And he'll get a lot of playing time next year, and could be the key to their chances of getting back to the Tournament.

Texas A&M Corpus Christi and Southeastern Louisiana were the top competitors to the big two Southland schools this year. Texas A&M-CC loses leading scorer Kevin Palmer, but the other four starters return, including Desmond Watt and his 7.8 rebounds and 12.7 points per game, on 66% shooting. Their biggest problem, like many Southland teams, is guard play. They will most likely be looking to Terrence Jones to step up and take over as the key ball handler. Southeastern Louisiana only loses two seniors, but both played key roles, and one was leading scorer Patrick Sullivan (15.7 per game), who also led the team in rebounds. They actually have a height problem, as their only returner over 6'6" is 6'7" David Ndoumba, who only played 12 minutes per game. Their success this year came with three-point shooting, which was 19th in the nation at 38.9%, led by rising-senior Trent Hutchin (44.4%). But three-point shooting is hit-or-miss, and without elite size or ball handling, it's hard to see them seriously contending to actually win this conference.

A young and rapidly improving team that I like is Nicholls State, led by 6'6" swingman Anatoly Bose (21.1 points per game). They had zero seniors on the roster and will clearly be improved, but they lack a clear second option after Bose. Also, they have a worrying lack of size for this conference, with no player taller than 6'7" getting ten minutes or more per game. They could be a sleeper, but unless Bose gets some help then they'll come up short. I think the top four teams in this conference this past year should all stay near the top in 2010-11, but Harrison Smith seems to be the missing piece to take Stephen F. Austin over the top. They're the favorites.

Southwestern Athletic Conference

I'm going to give my annual complaint about how this conference is so awful every single year. They are one of the competitors every single season for the play-in game in the NCAA Tournament, and I can't even remember the last time they produced one of those scary first round teams. I often hear academics as an excuse, but that's nonsense. The Ivy League is a far superior athletic conference, and they don't even have scholarships to offer. The Great West conference is already close to passing the SWAC, and not only do they not have an automatic Tournament bid to hand out, but it's a conference mostly full of teams that are new to Division I.

If there's one program that at least has been mediocre the last few years, it's been Jackson State, a team that always seems to be in the mix for the automatic bid. They won the regular season title, although it was close all season long and so Arkansas-Pine Bluff pulled what was at best a minor upset in the SWAC tournament. But Arkansas-Pine Bluff should not be back. They had six players earn more than 20 minutes per game this past season, and four of them were seniors. They had a magical season making the Tournament and actually won an NCAA Tournament game (okay, it was the play-in game, but it was the first NCAA Tournament win by a SWAC team since Southern knocked off Georgia Tech in 1993), but they will not repeat that performance in 2011.

Alabama State is another program that should take a step back, with three seniors among their top five minutes earners. But that said, they do have a bright future with a stellar freshman: Tramaine Butler, who finished the season with 10.4 points, 4.9 points and 2.3 assists per game. 2010-11 should be a rebuilding year for them, but Butler could lead them in the future to the NCAA Tournament. Texas Southern is an interesting team because both Sagarin and Pomeroy actually rated them as the second best team in the conference. They graduate two seniors from the starting lineup, but that's actually less than most of their competitors atop the conference. The key for them will be the inside-outside combo of Travele Jones and Whitworth Treasure, who were two of the three top scorers on the team this past year. And Jones led the team in rebounds per game, while Treasure led the team in assists per game.

But the king of this conference the past few years has been Jackson State, and despite losing leading scorer Garrison Jackson they do return the other four players that earned 28 or more minutes per game. De'Shaun Dixon and Cason Burk will both return and the combination of them were a menace on the boards in the SWAC, making them 85th in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage (anytime you're in the top 100 in the nation in any positive statistical category you're doing something right in this awful conference). And Rod Melvin is a quality distributor of the ball. I won't go so far as to say that Jackson State might be good enough to earn a 15 seed if they win the conference, but they have a great shot of avoiding the play-in game. Jackson State is the clear favorites, in my mind, to win the SWAC in 2010-11.

Summit Conference

The 2009-10 season was pretty straightforward for the Summit. Everybody knew that Oakland was the best team coming into the season, and they toughened themselves up with an out of conference schedule that included Kansas, Syracuse, Wisconsin, Memphis and Michigan State, a non conference strength of schedule that Pomeroy rated 12th. It ended up earning them only a 14 seed, however, and they fell in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to Pittsburgh. Oakland won't be disappearing either, with only two key players graduating. Those two were starters, but their leading scorer and rebounder (6'11" Keith Benson) will return for one more year. 6'9" Will Hudson is another key post player, and they also have a 6'10" freshman coming in: Corey Petros. Their key concern will be replacing Johnathon Jones, who led the team with 6.4 assists per game, with no other player even putting up two per game. They'll have to find a way to replace him with a quality ball handler to return to the NCAA Tournament.

The key competitor for Oakland this past season was IUPUI. Despite losing the regular season and tournament title (they actually lost head-to-head in the Summit tournament title game), both Pomeroy and Sagarin actually rated IUPUI as the better team. They were an excellent shooting team (8th in the nation in effective field goal percentage), and also got a lot of freebies, finishing fourth in the nation in defensive steal percentage. That said, they do lose two seniors, including leading scorer Robert Glenn (19.8 per game). They also lose Billy Pettiford, who was a big part of that defense with 2.2 steals per game. Alex Young and his 18.3 points per game will be back, as will leading assist man John Ashworth (4.6 per game).

Oral Roberts will be a key contender next year, with only one key player graduating. A very strong defensive team, they also return their three leading scorers. Their best player next year will likely be Michael Craion, who had 13.3 points and 7.3 rebounds per game last season. They don't have a clear best ball handler, but with their defensive stats (by far the best in the conference) they don't need to score a whole lot. South Dakota State is another team to keep an eye on, losing only two key players and with probably the highest rated incoming recruit in the entire conference (6'9" Jordan Dykstra). Their defense was downright atrocious, though (313th in the nation in effective field goal percentage against, and 293rd in overall defense according to Pomeroy). If they can clean them up then they'll be a contender. But most likely this coming season will again be a battle between traditional powers Oakland, IUPUI and Oral Roberts. And I'm leaning toward Oral Roberts because so much returns from a team that already had an RPI near the Top 100, and because you can never overrate team defense.

Sun Belt Conference

The Sun Belt was a bit of a circus this year with the Isiah Thomas show coming to town. The thing was, with all of the hype it was pretty obvious even before the season started that the team wouldn't be any good in 2009-10. He inherited a terrible team, and several of those players transferred out. The team wasn't really any better than it was the year before. But the key was always going to be this coming season, when Isiah Thomas was going to bring in some big time, players. The key is blue chip recruit Dominique Ferguson (Rivals: 40, Sout: 8 PF), who is the type of Top 50 recruit that just never comes to a conference like the Sun Belt. They have another quality recruit in 5'9" point guard Phil Taylor. In addition, they're bringing in two key transfers: Alex Legion (the disappointing former blue chipper who has played at Kentucky and Illinois), as well as Brandon Moore from Arkansas. Those are four players who will immediately make Florida International a competitive team at the top half of the conference, but it's going to take at least another year of those types of players for Isiah to have a true legitimate chance of getting his team to the NCAA Tournament, let alone making them the Top 25 team who he's boasting he's building.

The dominant team the last few years, Western Kentucky, had a down year in 2009-10. And they are graduating several of the key players from their previous NCAA Tournaments: A.J. Slaughter, Anthony Sally and Jeremy Evans. That said, they do get one more year out of Steffphon Pettigrew (14.9 points per game, 5.9 rebounds per game). And they have what might be the deepest recruiting class in the conference, highlighted by 6'2" shooting guard Brandon Peters. They also have a couple of key transfers of their own: 6'6" swingman Juan Patillo from Oklahoma and 6'11" Teeng Akol from Oklahoma State. They'll have plenty of scoring and plenty of size, with the one key question being ball handling. And considering that both Sagarin and Pomeroy actually rated them as the best team in the Sun Belt this past season, they will clearly be a contender yet again.

After all of that, of course, it's worth mentioning that it was North Texas that earned the Sun Belt's automatic bid after earning a share of the regular season title. They did it by doing a wonderful job of getting to the basket, finishing first in the nation with 0.53 free throw attempts for every field goal attempt, and also shooting far better from inside the arc than beyond it. The biggest part of that was 5'10" guard Josh White, who led the team in points, free throws attempted and made (at an 82% clip), and assists. He'll be back for one more season. They also graduate only one key player from their regular rotation, and will clearly be back as a key contender next season.

Troy and Middle Tennessee State were the other two co-regular season champions, but both graduate a ton of players. Troy was the most experienced team in the country, with a regular rotation made up entirely of seniors and juniors. But they will now graduate all five starters and have a lot of rebuilding to do. Middle Tennessee State doesn't have quite as much to replace, with just three seniors among the four players that earned more than 25 minutes per game. The fourth was freshman James Washington, who also led the team in assists, and should be the key player for their future. But there's no way that team doesn't take a step back in 2010-11.

The sleeper pick in the Sun Belt is Florida Atlantic, a team that had zero seniors on the entire roster, and had a spectular true freshman in 5'6" Raymond Taylor, who had 14.2 points per game and led the team with 5.9 assists per game. I could see them making a dark horse run at a Sun Belt title in 2011, but most likely they're a year away from really competing with the big boys. In the end, I think the title will come down to North Texas and Western Kentucky. North Texas returns more players, but all of those talented incoming players, combined with so much experience dominating this conference, make Western Kentucky the favorite to get back to the NCAA Tournament.

No comments: