Tuesday, March 23, 2010
2010-11 Preview: Small Conferences, Part II
This was a close battle all season long, with none of the NEC teams really separating themselves. Quinnipiac and Robert Morris fought to a tie atop the regular season standings, although both Sagarin and Pomeroy viewed Mount St. Mary's as a team that was as good as either of the top two (both actually rated them as, by an extremely narrow margin, the best team). But in the end, for the second consecutive season, it was Robert Morris earning the automatic bid and being a pain in the butt for a Big East team in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. But it's hard to see Robert Morris being as good next season, with three senior starters and two other seniors that earned regular minutes. They did have a very nice freshman class this past year, with four of them earning regular time, and so I would imagine 2010-11 being more of a reloading season, and they'll be ready for another run at an automatic bid very soon. In fact, the two returning starters were both freshmen, including leading scorer Karon Abraham (13.6 per game), who led the team with 44% three-point shooting. But the big losses for the team will be down low, which is a problem because rebounding was a key to their success this year, particularly considering how awful their ball handling was (268th in offensive turnover efficiency). Both players who collected 5.0 or more rebounds per game will graduate. They will have to solve those rebounding gaps to compete near the top of the conference again in 2010-11. Most likely they'll be back again in 2011-12.
Quinnipiac loses two senior starters, including leading scorer James Feldeine. But the most important player on this past year's team was 6'7" Justin Rutty, who was second on the team in scoring but also led the team with 10.9 rebounds, including 4.9 on the offensive end. Quinnipiac was among the nation's leaders in offensive rebounding, and they should still be excellent with Rutty back for one more year. They will also return leading assist man James Johnson (4.0 per game). The key for finally getting over the top and making the NCAA Tournament will be cleaning up their defense, which was pretty bad. Speaking of defense, the best defense in the conference was Mount St. Mary's. But they will also take a big hit, losing two senior starters, as well as another senior who played 23 minutes per game off the bench. The key returner will be Shawn Atupem, who had 10.7 points and 3.5 rebounds per game. He'll be a senior, as will Jean Cajou, who was second on the team in rebounds despite only being 6'3". The biggest replacement will be Jeremy Goode, who was the only player who collected two or more assists per game. But Mount St. Mary's probably has the deepest recruiting class coming in, and they'll likely start three senior again next season, so they'll be deep and experienced, and they will contend for the automatic bid yet again.
Two other contenders should be LIU and Central Connecticut State, which are two teams that have been stocking up young players the last couple of years, and are hoping to have a payoff either in 2010-11, or in 2011-12. LIU has to replace leading scorer Jaytornah Wisseh (17.6 per game), who also was the team's key ball handler. LIU had defensive holes all season long, and Wisseh's ball handling was a big key. But with 4.2 turnovers per game to go with his 5.7 assists per game, you have to wonder whether in some ways the team will be better off without him dominating the ball. Central Connecticut State had only one senior on the squad, who collected 22 minutes per game. All of their key players will return, and there's no question that they'll be improved. But while they should finish near the top of the standings, you have to imagine that their utter inability to score (0.95 points per possession, despite the weak schedule) will keep them from being able to win day in and day out, which is what you need to do to put up the 15-3 type of record you need to win the conference.
In the end, I think Quinnipiac and Mount St. Mary's will be the two top teams. And the favorite should be Mount St. Mary's, a team that was as good as anybody in the conference this past season and returns the most talent of all of the top programs. Central Connecticut State is a sleeper.
Murray State ran away with the Ohio Valley Conference in 2009-10, and it was nice to see them finally cash in with an NCAA Tournament win after so many recent Tournaments where they came up just short in their first round upset bid. They were due to finally break through one of these years. And Murray State is not going anywhere because of how balanced they were. They had a remarkable six players who participated in all 36 games, and who averaged between 9.6 and 10.6 points per game. I can't recall ever seeing a team with such balanced scoring. The one key player that they'll lose is Danero Thomas, but with that type of balanced scoring they were clearly not truly dependent on any one player. Their top two rebounders and assist men will all be back. And one player who I really enjoyed watching them this year was Isaiah Canaan, who as a true freshman was just a lightning bolt of energy off of the bench, including 48% shooting behind the arc. Their suffocating, up-tempo defense will continue to terrorize the conference next season. In fact, there's a good chance that Murray State will actually be better next season than they were this past season.
The only other team that was close to Murray State in ability was Morehead State, a team that with some really quite good inside players was the only team in the conference to actually defeat Murray State this past year. And both Sagarin and Pomeroy rated them right around the 100th best team in the nation (Pomeroy has them 97th, Sagarin has them 105th), which means that if Murray State had fallen on their face in the OVC tournament that Morehead State actually could have been a tough first round NCAA Tournament opponent. They do lose a bit more than Murray State does, however, with two starters and a third rotation player leaving. But their most important player will be back for one more season: Kenneth Faried (16.9 points and 13.0 rebounds per game, both of which led the team). But as good as their rebounding was, they were a possible Top 100 team only because their ball handling wasn't awful, and so they will really miss Brandon Shingles and his 2.1 assists per turnover. Murray State will not have an answer for Faried, but unless Morehead State has capable ball handlers then the Murray State defense will eat them alive.
Austin Peay is another of the teams that historically hangs around the top of the Ohio Valley, and despite falling a bit off the pace in 2009-10, they will return the most of all of the teams in the top half of the conference. They will lose their leading scorer to graduation, but he was the only senior on the roster. Austin Peay had four sophomores that started 15 or more games this past season, and so that outstanding class will be back as juniors. But considering how good Murray State will be, Austin Peay's coaches might be counting on making a run at the conference title in 2011-12, when those kids will all be seniors. Eastern Kentucky and Eastern Illinois were the other teams up near the top of the conference, but both had a ton of graduations and should fall back to the pack. If there's a sleeper team, it could be Tennessee Tech, a team that had only one senior in the regular rotation. Their key returner might be Frank Davis, who launched more than six three pointers per game at a 44.4% clip. The team as a whole hit a very nice 37.6% behind the arc. Elijah Muhammad, the one graduation, will be missed most for his ball handling (4.5 assists per game), but Tennessee Tech will expect to replace him with Georgia transfer Zac Swansey, who actually has a lot of SEC experience. He played 16 minutes per game as a freshman, and then 20 minutes per game (including 2.9 assists per game) as a sophomore. He will surely start immediately at point guard, and if he can live up to expectations then Tennessee Tech could be the top contender for Murray State. But I can't bet against the Murray State Racers, a team that after nearly making the Sweet 16 this year could be even better next year.
The Patriot League was possibly the most even conference all season. It was absolutely impossible all season to pick between Lehigh, Bucknell and Lafayette atop the conference, if for nothing else than because they kept beating each other. There was no team that could beat all of the other top teams, and even teams like American and Holy Cross were in the mix as a potential automatic bid team. In the end, Lehigh won the conference mostly just because they had homecourt advantage through the Patriot League tournament. And Lehigh should take a pretty big step back next year, losing three senior starters including their leading scorer (C.J. McCollum), their leading rebounder (Zahir Carrington) and their leading assist man (Marquis Hall). Hall might be the toughest loss because his 2.6 assists per turnover were a key for a team that took very good care of the ball despite an uptempo offensive style. They will also lose their three top three-point shooters (Hall being one of them), who were a key to the teams 40% shooting behind the arc on the season. I don't see any way that Lehigh repeats their Patriot League title.
The two top contenders were Lafayette and Bucknell. Bucknell was a very balanced team, with a solid eight man rotation where all eight players earned at least 18 minutes per game. Two of those players will be gone, but the other six are actually quite young, including three freshmen. They also are a very fundamental team: they're good at taking care of the ball, at defensive rebounding, and free throw shooting. So while they lack the All-Patriot League performers that some of the other teams have, they'll be deep and steady, and will clearly be in contention atop the conference. Lafayette also loses two players from its rotation. They were dangerous this year because of how well they shot the ball: 50.8% on two-pointers, 37.3% on threes, and 76.4% at the line (fifth best in the nation). Their best shooter was Jim Mower, who launched more than six threes per game at a 47% clip, and will be back. Their problem this past year, however, was that they couldn't hit their shots against the top teams in the conference. They played Bucknell and Lehigh a total of five times (they played Lehigh a third time, in the Patriot League tournament), and only managed to break one point per possession in one of those games. They'll have to figure out a way to beat the best teams in the conference to win it.
American University and Holy Cross are two sleeper teams. American was a very young team: of seven players that earned ten starts or more, five of them were freshmen or sophomores. But the worry with American University is that without the history of schools like Holy Cross and Bucknell, you wonder if their players are good enough to ever win a conference. More realistically we'll be able to use this coming season as a way to judge how these young kids improve, to see if they can be a plausible conference champion in 2011-12. Holy Cross was also young, and will lose just one senior starter, in addition to another senior in the regular rotation. Holy Cross was also a lot better than that awful record (5-9 in conference, 9-22 overall). Both Sagarin and Pomeroy atually rated them as the second best team in the conference, behind only Lehigh.
While you can't dismiss the potential development of all of the young players that American University has, it seems to me that the Patriot League will be a battle between Bucknell and Holy Cross next season. Holy Cross returns more of the pieces from this year's team, but you can't discount how big of a leap it will be to go from 5-9 to the 11-3 or 10-4 record it's going to take to win the conference. It will be a very close battle between those two teams, but for now I'm leaning toward Bucknell as the early favorite.
Wofford was my preseason pick to earn their first ever NCAA Tournament appearance, and they cashed in by not only making it, but earning a 13 seed and putting up a great first round fight. And they should be around next season, with only two key seniors leaving, and only one of those graduations being out of the starting lineup. Their best player, Noah Dahlman and his 16.6 points and 6.3 rebounds per game, will be back for one more year. Tim Johnson is another quality big man who will be back for one more year with Dahlman. Wofford's weakness was offensive scorers, although Jamar Diggs showed some flashes late in the season. But they were a very solid defensive team, and by taking care of the boards and not turning the ball over they simply continually earned more possessions than their opponent, and that was the key to their victories. As I said, they'll definitely be a player next year.
The best win for the conference all season was the College of Charleston's overtime triumph over North Carolina, and they will only lose two players from their regular rotation. Their keys next year will be the inside-outside combo of Andrew Goudelock (19.4 points and 3.9 assists per game) and Jeremy Simmons (11.9 point per game on 60% shooting, along with 8.0 rebounds per game). But they will need more than Simmons to make up for huge rebounding problems that were probably the reason why they didn't get by Wofford. And they will try to fix that this coming year with transfer Marcus Goode, who at 6'10" tall and 315 pounds managed to collect 4.2 points and 2.8 rebounds per game in only 8.2 minutes per game as a freshman at Marshall. He will have to play a key role for Bobby Cremins to take his kids to the NCAA Tournament next season.
This past season was open for the rest of the conference because Stephen Curry graduated and Davidson took a huge step back. And they will lose several more of the players that are well known nationally from their NCAA Tournament run: Steve Rossiter, Will Archambault and Bryant Barr. There is also a question whether Bob McKillop will stay there, considering how his name keeps getting bounced around for head coaching jobs at bigger schools. But I believe he'll stick around for at least one more year because his son Brendan will be a senior next year. Also, the cupboard is by no means bare. Not only is Frank Ben-Eze back, but they also cashed in on their NCAA Tournament success with a series of excellent recruiting classes that should pay off as long as McKillop stays. They will return five freshmen and sophomores that earned at least nine minutes per game last season. J.P. Kulhman and Jake Cohen are particularly interesting, because as freshman this past season they were the team's two leading scorers. While Cohen was the leading scorer, Kulhman is probably more valuable because he also led the team with 3.3 assists per game, and was an excellent 41.5% behind the arc. In addition, they have yet another excellent recruiting class coming in, highlighted by Tom Droney, rated by Scout.com as the 38th best point guard in the nation and who was recruited by schools like Virginia. So Davidson loses a lot to graduation, but they unquestionably will bring in more fresh talent than any other team in the conference, and with so many talented young players already on the team they do have a very bright future. McKillop is a very good coach, and was not just a product of Stephen Curry. If he sticks around then they'll have quite a few NCAA Tournaments in their future.
Two other teams that finished near the top of the standings in 2009-10 were Western Carolina and Appalachian State. But both schools lose several seniors that played key roles, and it's hard to see either of them being as good next year. Although Appalachian State does have a highly rated recruit in 6'5" swingman Anthony Thomas. A sleeper team is Chattanooga, a team that loses its leading scorer but returns every other player on the roster. And they're very young: other than the graduation, their three next highest minute earners were all freshmen or sophomores. They also bring in quality transfer in Omar Wattad, who played 11 minutes per game in 2008-09 for Georgetown and should immediately be a big contributor in the SoCon. But in the end, I don't see how this conference doesn't come down to a battle between Charleston and Davidson. If Bob McKillop finally leaves Davidson then Bobby Cremins will probably take his team to the NCAA Tournament, but if McKillop does stay (as I think he will) then I will make Davidson the narrow favorite because they will simply have the most talent, and will still have key players who remember what it was like to play a big part of an NCAA Tournament team in the past.