Thursday, March 25, 2010

2010-11 Preview: Small Conferences, Part III

Big West Conference

The two best teams in the Big West all season long were probably Pacific and Long Beach State, but it was UC-Santa Barbara that got hot at the end of the season, winning nine of their last ten en route to a share of the regular season title, and the Big West tournament title. The thing is that UC-Santa Barbara was actually a very young team this past season, and probably made their run a year early, because I don't see how they're not a better team next year. They lose one player who started about half of their games, and another player who earned ten minutes per game. But the four players who were the regular starters all season long were all sophomores, meaning they'll be back for not one but two more seasons. The best player is 6'5" Orlando Johnson, who had 18.0 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game, including 40% shooting behind the arc. They were possibly the best defensive team in the conference, and should be one of the best next season. Their one flaw was on the boards, where they were outside the Top 200 in the nation in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentages. It's not a surprise when you consider how small they were, with nobody taller than 6'7" getting more than 11 minutes per game. The Big West has some good big men, and UC Santa Barbara will have to develop one. Two possibilities are 6'10" Jon Pastorek, and 7'2" Greg Somogyi, who were both on the edge of the regular rotation this past season. Both were efficient rebounders when given a chance on the floor.

Pacific tied UC-Santa Barbara for the regular season title, and don't lose too much as we head into 2010-11. Two of their starters this past season were seniors, but the other three starters were juniors, meaning that they will again be a very experienced squad. They were also a very balanced team, with eight players all getting between 14 and 31 minutes, and between 4 and 14 points per game. Their best player is Sam Willard, who led the team in both points (11.4) and rebounds (8.3) per game. One thing to worry about is that at 6'9" you'd think he would have had a field day against the small UC-Santa Barbara team, but instead he was basically shut out, with a total of six points on 1-for-9 shooting in his two games against them. It's no surprise that Santa Barbara won both of those match-ups. That's something to consider if Pacific finds itself dueling Santa Barbara for the Big West title again next year.

Of course, Long Beach State should also be a big part of the Big West chase next year. They were much better than that 8-8 record, and they lose only one starter and another rotation player. Their top three scorers were all sophomores, meaning that like UC-Santa Barbara they will be good not just next year but also in 2011-12. Their two best players are the inside-outside combo of T.J. Robinson (15.4 points and 10.1 rebounds per game) and Casper Ware (11.9 points, 4.8 assists and 2.1 steals per game). Ware was particularly important because of the uptempo style that Long Beach State plays (69.9 possessions per game). Their weakness was rebounding, with both their offensive and defensive rebounding outside the Top 200 in the nation, but they should fix that with 6'9" Nick Shepherd (Rivals: 13 PF), who will be the only freshman in the Big West next year ranked in the Top 150 for 2010. Remember that Long Beach State is coached by Dan Monson, who was a big part of building Gonzaga, and then parlayed that into the head coaching job at Minnesota. After coaching some of the best players in the next for nearly two full decades, it's remarkable seeing him coaching in such a small conference. If he sticks around for a few years he could really build something special at Long Beach State.

UC Davis is a good sleeper team. They lose leading scorer Dominic Calegari, but every other player returns. And they have two nice power forward recruits in Josh Ritchart and Alex Tiffin. After Long Beach State, they have the best recruiting class in the conference. One more long shot sleeper is Cal Poly, a team where five of the players in the ten man rotation were freshmen and sophomores. A key for them will be 6'8" Will Donahue, who was a force down low and was playing 30 minutes per game before being ruled academically ineligible for the spring semester. He is supposedly still at the school and practicing with the team, and they'll be a much better team if he can play next season. But in the end, there was a pretty big gap between Santa Barbara, Pacific and Long Beach State and the rest of the conference this past year, and I expect that to continue. Pacific probably lost too much to win the title next year, but both Santa Barbara and Long Beach State are stocked full of quality young talent. But Long Beach State has better talent, and a better coach, so I'm giving them the early edge.

Ivy League

Cornell had the best season for any Ivy League team since Pete Carril had his Princeton Tigers back-dooring the nation to death in the 1990s. Cornell came into this season having been to the last two NCAA Tournaments, but it always seemed obvious to me that this was going to be one last run for this program. Ryan Wittman, Jeff Foote, Louis Dale, Mark Coury, Geoff Reeves and Jon Jacques all graduate, meaning that six of the top eight minutes earners will all be gone. And with all of his stars gone and with his stock never higher, you have to imagine that Steve Donahue will move on to another school. His name has already been bounced around for jobs like St. John's. So this is the end of the line for this Cornell team. But man did they go out with a bang, with a Sweet 16 appearance and the attention of a nation.

Tommy Amaker has been bringing in big time recruiting classes (by Ivy league standards) ever since he showed up at Harvard, and I've always believed that his kids would be ready to finally get over the top in 2010-11. Despite finishing third in the standings this past season, both Sagarin and Pomeroy rated them as the second best team. Their key loss will be Jeremy Lin, a point guard who actually got some national attention this season for his 16.4 points, 5.1 assists and 2.5 steals per game. I've actually seen him name mentioned as a potential future NBA player. So he'll be tough to replace. But other than Lin, Harvard only loses two other rotation players. And after Lin, their next five best scorers were all freshmen and sophomores. And as he's had every year he's been at Harvard, Amaker has the best recruiting class coming in again, highlighted by 6'8" power forward James Moore. But the real question is going to be in the backcourt, where despite Jeremy Lin's presence they were still 290th in the nation in offensive turnover percentage. If they can clean that up then they'll be in very good shape, because they'll clearly be the most physically and athletically talented team in the Ivy League next season.

The team that finished in second place this past season was traditional power Princeton, a team that has been steadily approving since an embarrassing last place in finish in 2006-07. For next season they look primed to make their first serious run at an Ivy League title since John Thompson III was pacing the sidelines there. They lose two starters to graduation, but they do return their five top scorers Princeton was tops in the conference in basically every defensive category, and like the good old days they take the air out of the ball (59.6 possessions per game), but they're going to need to find some offensive to overcome the athletes that Harvard will be putting on the floor.

One sleeper to keep an eye on is Brown, a team with only two seniors on the roster after finishing as the fifth best team according to both Sagarin and Pomeroy. But they don't have the overall talent that Princeton and Harvard have, so I don't see them finishing higher than third. Before this three-year Cornell run it was the "Two P's" of Penn and Princeton that dominated the conference for more than two decades (the two had actually combined to be the Ivy League's NCAA Tournament representative for 19 consecutive seasons before Cornell broke through in 2008). While Princeton has found their way back to the top of the conference, Penn has taken a little longer recovering from the loss of Fran Dunphy than one might have expected. But despite the 6-22 record in 2009-10 they should be much better in 2010-11. They only had one senior who was part of the regular rotation, and their top four scorers, top six rebounders and top four assist men will all be back. Their best player is probably Zach Rosen, who as a sophomore this past year had 17.7 points and 4.4 assists per game, including 43% shooting behind the arc. And they have a recruiting class coming in that actually rivals the class that Harvard has, highlighted by 6'3" guard Miles Cartwright, who will be another three point shooter who can step in and play some point guard. There's no chance that Penn will get back to the top of the Ivy League next season, but they'll be a lot better and can potentially make a run at the title in 2011-12. But for this coming season it appears to be a duel between Princeton and Harvard. Princeton should be even better than they were this past year, but Harvard has been putting together so many great recruiting classes in a row that they just have an insane amount of talent by Ivy League standards. And while Jeremy Lin is a big loss, the fact that their turnover numbers were so bad means that their turnover numbers can't get much worse without him, and they should be better at every other position. In my opinion, Harvard comes into the season as the Ivy League favorite.

Mid-American Conference

People who have just gotten into college basketball in the last few years may not know how good the MAC was back in the 1990s and into the early part of the 2000s. But it's been downhill for the last few years, and last year I dropped them into these "small conference" previews, and they responded by producing a single Tournament team that went and earned a 14 seed. This was a conference that used to compete for multiple bids every season. I think they've been damaged by the growth of the Missouri Valley more than anything else. That said, Ohio was a very dangerous 14 seed that went ahead and knocked off Georgetown. And the top the conference had two very good teams in Kent State and Akron.

We can start with Ohio, a team loses one senior starter but gets everybody else back. And most importantly they get back Armon Bassett, who seems like he must be a ninth year senior because of his two full seasons playing big minutes at Indiana. He is an electric player and can single-handedly carry the team. 5'11" freshman D.J. Cooper is another dynamic player, putting up 13.5 points, 5.9 assists, 5.4 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game. With yet another good guard coming in next season (6'4" Ricardo Johnson, who was recruited by schools like Xavier and Indiana) there's no question that Ohio will be set at the guard position. Their weakness is inside, which was the only reason this team did so poorly in the regular season. With their best rebounder graduating (Keith van Kempen), they will lean heavily on players like Reggie Keely, who at 6'8" and 260 pounds averaged 10.5 rebounds per 40 minutes on the floor in limited minutes as a freshman.

Kent State was the best team in the MAC all season long, but there's going to be a big changing of the guard next year. Of the seven players who earned more than 15 minutes per game, five of them were seniors. And they'll be restocking the shelves with at least seven incoming players: four high schoolers and three Juco transfers that I'm aware of. None of them are blue chippers, but of all seven of them you have to figure at least a few will end up pretty good. But it will be a reloading season for Kent State, and it's hard to see them not having a pretty big drop-off in 2010-11. Things aren't quite as bad for Akron, but they also lose three players from their regular nine man rotation. They had nobody who had more than ten points, or seven rebounds, or three assists per game, so it was a deep rotation with no obvious stars and they won't see a big drop-off next year. But that said, their best skill this past season was offensive rebounding, where they were tops in the conference. They will lose their two best offensive rebounders to graduation, which will be a big problem.

Miami was a team that had a little bit of a down year, and they will lose two players from their regular rotation. But they had a nice freshman class (two were big contributors, and a couple more redshirted to be ready for next year), and they have a very nice recruit coming next year in the form of 6'4" swingman Josh Sewell, who got attention from schools like Butler. It's a little bit of a rebuilding job for them, but they could still be better next year than they were this past year. Two other teams that have a good base for the future are Western Michigan and Ball State. Western Michigan had only three players on their entire roster who were juniors or seniors. They have to replace Donald Kool and his 21.6 points per game, but they should be in the top half of the conference for at least the near future. Ball State also had only three players who were juniors or seniors that got onto the floor this past season. In fact, all three double-digit per game scorers were freshmen or sophomores. There's no way they'll go from outside the Sagarin and Pomeroy Top 200 all the way to the top of the conference next year, but they should continue to improve over the next couple of years.

But in the end, it's important to remember that Ohio was far better than that 7-9 MAC record. At the end of the season both Sagarin and Pomeroy rated them as the second best team in the conference, and of all of the top teams they return the most talent. They have what is unquestionably the most dynamic and talented backcourt in the conference, and in my opinion the only way that they won't win the conference next year will be if they're utterly unable to come up with a rebounding option. But I think Ohio will do enough on the boards to repeat their MAC title.

Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference

Todd Bozeman took Morgan State to their second straight NCAA Tournament appearance, and their third straight postseason appearance (they went to the 2008 NIT). They were far and away the best team in the MEAC in 2009-10. They will have to replace leading scorer Reggie Holmes (21.4 per game) next year, and one other starter, but their next two best scorers were a freshman and a sophomore. 6'8" rising junior Kevin Thompson is particularly valuable because of his size, and he averaged 12.7 points and 11.8 rebounds per game. Morgan State finished 12th in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, and while a lot of that had to do with the very weak schedule, a big part of the credit goes to Thompson. They might not be as good in 2010-11 as they were in 2009-10, but they will definitely be one of the contenders for the automatic bid yet again.

Delaware State finished second in the conference, but they will lose three players from their regular rotation, including their only two double-digit scorers and their top rebounder. A key for next year (and the year after) will be 5'11" Jay Threat, who had 7.8 points, 4.2 assists and 2.8 steals per game this past season. They forced turnovers on 28.3% of possessions last season, which was first in the entire nation, and Threat was a huge part of that. But considering the fact that they were outside the Top 300 in the nation in every defensive shooting and scoring statistic, I'd guess that Delaware State should spend less time playing hawking defense, and more time just getting their feet in front of their opponents. Norfolk State only loses one player from their regular rotation, but it's Michael Deloach and his 21.7 points per game. And while they might be better next season, there's just too big of a gap between them and Morgan State to overcome in one season.

If there's a sleeper team in the MEAC it's Maryland-Eastern Shore, a team with only one senior on the roster, and that returns its top three scorers. Their key is rising-senior Kevin White, who had 9.5 points and 5.4 assists per game. They are an improving program that had been near the bottom of Division I for a long time, and actually had its best season in quite a long time. Their sixth place MEAC finish was the best they've had since 1998, and it's the first time they've even won more than eight games in a season in nearly a decade. They've got a coach who's had a lot of success in much bigger conferences than the MEAC (Frankie Allen was the head coach at Virginia Tech from 1987 to 1991), and he's got this program improving. They won't win the conference in 2010-11, but they are a team to keep an eye on down the road. But in 2009-10 Morgan State was just so much better than the rest of the conference. And while they lose a couple of key players, it's no more than the other top teams in the conference will lose. To me, Morgan State is the clear favorite to win their fourth straight MEAC regular season title, and to earn their third straight NCAA Tournament appearance.

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