Monday, March 29, 2010

2010-11 Preview: Small Conferences, Part IV

America East Conference

It was an even battle at the top of the America East Conference in 2009-10. Stony Brook won the regular season title, but it was Vermont that won the automatic bid, while both Sagarin and Pomeroy rated Boston University the best team. Vermont was the team I picked a year ago to win this conference, and they pulled through, but they did it with a very senior laden lineup. They will lose three seniors to graduation, including their best player Marqus Blakely, who led the team in points (17.3 per game), rebounds (9.3), assists (3.7), steals (2.4) and blocks (1.9). Maurice Joseph (13.9 points per game) will be another big loss. They are clearly rebuilding for the future, with a couple of decent recruiting classes in a row (by America East standards, at least). They had three freshmen in the regular rotation this season, and have the second best recruiting class in the conference coming in for next season (Boston University has the best). And Vermont has had more success over the last decade or two than any other team in this conference. So they'll be back soon. But they will not defend their America East tournament title in 2010-11.

Boston University will be the story in the America East going into next season. They made it all the way to the semifinals of the CBI at the end of the season, which was the most postseason success we've seen out of any America East team in a few years. They did it with a lot of seniors, though, and will lose five of them from their regular rotation, including four of the six players that earned over 20 starts. But that said, they have an unbelievable number of players coming in next year, and a very talented group of players by America East standards. Before we even get to the new freshmen, they've got two very nice transfers coming in. Patrick Hazel is an athletic 6'6" small forward who played 12 minutes per game on a Marquette team that was one of the best in the Big East in 2008-09, and Darry Partin is a 6'6" swing man who scored 4.6 points in 12.6 minutes per game in 2008-09 for La Salle, including 37.9% behind the arc. And their recruiting class is really deep: 6'5" swingman Travis Robinson and 6'8" power forward Dominic Morris are the two best recruits, but D.J. Irving will be able to handle point guard duties as a freshman, and 6'8" Anthony Mayo is considered a good inside prospect as well. Expect a bunch of those freshmen to earn key minutes, while Hazel should start, and Partin will probably start as well. John Holland and Jake O'Brien (a combined 31.2 points and 12.5 rebounds per game) are the two returning starters, and along with the freshmen they'll have a ton of size. The question will be ball handling. If they can take care of the ball then nobody in the conference will be able to handle them because of their size.

Of course, it was Stony Brook that won the regular season title this past season, and they could be as good next season. They lose three seniors from their regular rotation, including one starters. The key for them next year will be guard Tommy Brenton (7.6 points, 9.7 rebounds, 2.6 assists per game), who should be their best all around player. Their best scorer is Bryan Dougher (13.8 points per game on 42% shooting behind the arc and 82% at the line). One interesting fact to remember is that Stony Brook actually swept both Vermont and Boston University during the regular season this year, so they obviously know how to win against the best teams in the conference. Maine is a school to keep an eye on because they only lose one key player, but there's too large of a gap between them and the rest of the conference to make up in only one year. One interesting sleeper is actually Binghamton, despite all of the chaos this past year after their controversial first NCAA Tournament appearance, followed by almost every key player either leaving the school or getting kicked out. The fact is that they actually were a decent team this past year, and they will return every key player. They have as much size and athleticism as just about any other team in the conference, and they should finish in the top half.

But in the end I expect the conference to come down to Stony Brook and Boston University. Stony Brook is the defending regular season champion, and they return much more of their team than Boston, so I expect them to get out to a good start. But BU will have more physical talent, and they'll improve as the year goes along as they find their best lineup and learn how to play well together. This past year Stony Brook swept BU in the regular season, but then fell to them in the conference tournament. That's possible again next season. When it all goes on the line in March, I will give the edge to Boston University to take the automatic bid.

Atlantic Sun Conference

The Atlantic Sun Conference was chaotic this past year, with five teams so close at the top. There was a four-way tie for the regular season title, and the conference tournament champion was East Tennessee State, the team that actually finished one game back in fifth place. Both Sagarin and Pomeroy agreed that those five teams were very close to each other, with a huge gap to the rest of the conference. Both ratings gave the very narrow edge to Belmont as the best team, but it's well within the statistical noise. But we can start with East Tennessee State, a team that the computers liked all year because of their defense. Pomeroy rated them the best defense in the conference, and they were 14th in the nation with forced turnovers on 24.3% of defensive possessions. They lose only one starter to graduation, while their best player Tommy Hubbard (13.9 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game) will be around for one more season. In fact, three of this past year's starters were juniors, meaning that they'll have a lot of experience on the floor next season. But they still have major offensive flaws, and they'll have to find somebody who can hit open shots. Their defense is good, but it's not good enough for them to overcome a quality team without some more offensive production.

Due to some tiebreakers, it was Lipscomb that technically won the regular season title and earned the 1 seed in the Atlantic Sun tournament, even though it was Jacksonville that earned the NIT bid because of the way those automatic bids are handed out. They were the polar opposite of East Tennessee State, with some hot shooting but some awful defense (outside the Top 310 in the nation in both two-point and three-point field goal percentage against). But they lose only one senior to graduation, and he wasn't even a starter. And they'll have as a senior next season 6'9" Adnan Hodzic from Bosnia, who had 22.7 points and 9.1 rebounds per game this past season. Josh Slater can handle the ball well, and he'll also be a senior this coming season. So Lipscomb will be able to score with anybody next season, and the question will be whether they can learn some better team defense.

Belmont was the team that was narrowly picked by Sagarin and Pomeroy as the best team in the conference, and they lose only one senior to graduation. Their leading scorer was actually a freshman: Ian Clark and his 14.9 points per game. They were in the Top 50 in the nation in both offensive and defensive effective field goal percentage, so the key for them will be taking care of the ball on offense and rebounding. They'll certainly be a contender next season. Campbell and Jacksonville were the two other teams that tied atop the conference standings this past season, but both suffer heavy losses to graduation, and I'd be surprised if either team is as good next season. A sleeper team is Kennesaw State, a team that loses only one player who earned 13 or more minutes per game. They have very good size and athleticism for a team that lost 20 games in a small conference, but they were very immature: poor ball handling, poor defensive rebounding. But considering that their top four minutes earners were all freshmen and sophomores, they're a very young team that will grow and improve. They probably have too big of a gap to the top of the conference to seriously contend for the title in 2010-11, but they could contend in 2011-12.

I do think that Lipscomb, East Tennessee State and Belmont will be the class of the conference next season, and it should be another close battle. East Tennessee State should be the best defensive team, and Lipscomb should be the best offensive team. But I think that the best all around team will be Belmont. But it will be very close all year, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see Lipscomb or East Tennessee State on top at the end.

Big Sky Conference

The Big Sky conference was another one of those conferences where a few teams really separated themselves. In this case it was Weber State, Northern Colorado and Montana that were a step ahead of everybody else. Montana State finished in a tie for third, although the computers didn't like them nearly as much as the other top teams. We can start with Montana, since they actually won the Big Sky tournament and nearly knocked off 3 seed New Mexico in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. It's going to be a bit of a changing of the guard for them, though, with three senior starters graduating, including star Anthony Johnson (19.2 points and 3.0 assists per game, on 45% shooting behind the arc). They do return their best inside player, 6'11" Brian Ovale (10.2 points, 7.1 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game), for one more season. They also have two very good backcourt recruits in point guard Vaughn Autry and shooting guard Kareem Jamar, so Montana will continue to contend in the future in the Big Sky, even though it's hard to see them not taking at least a small step backwards in 2010-11.

Weber State won the Big Sky regular season title, and they did it with an explosive offense. They were the most uptempo team in the conference, and Pomeroy rated their per-possession offense second best in the conference (behind Portland State). They lose two senior starters to graduation, but they do have two more years of eligibility from Damian Lillard, who had 19.9 points and 3.6 assists per game this past season, including 85% at the line. They also probably have the second best recruiting class in the conference behind Montana. Weber State should compete for another Big Sky title next season. Northern Colorado finished second in the Big Sky standings, and has shown rapid improvement since making the transition from Division II. They have now completed four seasons in the Big Sky Conference since making the move from the Division II North Central Conference, and here are their conference records over those four years: 2-14, 6-10, 8-8, 12-4. But that said, it's another step to climb to move from contender to champion, and they will have to continue to recruit better and better players. They do have a nice recruit showing up in point guard Tevin Svihovec. They do lose two seniors to graduation, including leading scorer Will Figures (16.6 points per game). It's no certainty that they'll continue to improve in 2010-11. It's always hard to get over that hill for the first time.

Montana State is a team that should be better, as they lose only one senior from their regular rotation. They were a strong shooting team (36.4% behind the arc) and they also took care of the ball, but they don't have the athletes that some of the other Big Sky teams have. They were an atrocious rebounding team, and their defense was bad across the board. They could be better in 2010-11 than they were in 2009-10, but I just don't think they have the overall physical talent to beat the best teams in the conference. Northern Arizona and Portland State are two sleepers. Northern Arizona graduates only one senior from their regular rotation, and they could start as many as four seniors next year, and you never like betting against experience like that. Portland State is interesting because they were certainly a lot better than their record this past season (a Pomeroy Luck rating of 325th). And despite losing a lot to graduation they also bring in a very intriguing recruit in Brandon Cataldo. Cataldo was rated by some scouting services as one of the ten best high school centers in the nation, but he fractured his tibia on the first day of practice this season and has had to sit out his entire senior year. If he can get healthy and plays to his potential then he could play a big role right away.

But I see no reason why the three best teams this past season won't be the three best teams again next season: Weber State, Montana and Northern Colorado. I could see Portland State, Northern Arizona or Montana State knocking one of those teams out for a top three spot, but I don't think any of them will win the title. I expect that to be Weber State or Northern Colorado. Right now I'm giving the edge to a Weber State team that has now won two straight regular season titles without an NCAA Tournament appearance to show for it. I trust them to break through over a Northern Colorado program that has never headed into a season with the type of expectations they'll have this coming fall.

Big South Conference

The 2009-10 season had a bit of a down performance from the Big South Conference, with no teams that even finished in the Top 150 of either the Sagarin or Pomeroy ratings. When Winthrop broke through with an upset automatic bid they were punished with the ignominy of an appearance in the Play-In game, which they promptly lost - to a SWAC team no less. It's hard for things to get much worse for a conference, although things should be better next season. Most of the teams were very young, and so most of the top talent will be back. And a whole bunch of teams have quality recruiting classes by Big South standards, so the youth will be replenished. We can start with that Winthrop team that did technically make the NCAA Tournament, even if they weren't in the final field of 64. They graduate two seniors, but Winthrop was a team that had no stars, with seven players that earned at least 19 minutes and at least 5.7 points per game. Nobody had more than 10.1 points per game, and there were no clear stars that they'll miss too much next year. Winthrop won with their defense, which was clearly the best in the Big South. The reason they finished in only third place in the conference, and the reason they were given that Play-In game seeding, was their offense, which was awful. Pomeroy rated their offense 316th in the nation, and among other bad stats they actually had the single worst three point shooting percentage in the nation, a remarkable 25.8%. A player they'll be hoping will provide an offensive spark next season is rising-junior Reggie Middleton, who led the team with 10.1 points per game and leads all returners with 32.6% three point shooting. They also have a 6'9" recruit in Martaveous Smith who supposedly has a good enough shot to provide immediate offense. If they can get any kind of offense next year they'll compete for another Big South title.

Coastal Carolina won the regular season title, but 2010-11 could be a bit of a re-loading season for the Chanticleers. Their three top minutes earners from 2009-10 will all graduate, but they only had one junior on the roster, and zero sophomores who earned double-digit minutes per game. They will return three freshmen who earned at least 18 minutes per game, meaning a very nice young core that they can build around for the future. The best of those freshmen is probably Kierre Greenwood, who had 9.1 points, 3.3 assists and 1.4 steals per game. Radford also loses three starters to graduation, including leading scorer Artsiom Parakhouski (21.4 per game). They also lose starting point guard Amir Johnson, who they will try to replace with quality recruit Jareal Smith.

UNC-Asheville is a team that should be improved, with only one senior and one junior on the roster. Seven of their top eight scorers in 2009-10 were either freshmen or sophomores. It remains to be seen whether they have the athletes and overall talent to beat the best teams in the Big South, but they should continue to contend in the top half of the conference for the next couple of years at least. Liberty is another interesting contender, because eight of the players in their nine man rotation were freshmen or sophomores. They've had several good recruiting classes in a row (recall that their rising-junior class also originally had Seth Curry, who has since transferred to Duke), and they have another one coming in, headlined by 6'8" Steven Baird, who received offers from both Utah and Marquette. But while the conference should be improved from top to bottom, Winthrop seems to have the best combination of talent, experience and a history of success.

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