Thursday, April 01, 2010

2010-11 Preview: Mid Majors, Part I

Mountain West Conference

The Mountain West Conference had yet another impressive season. It's been clear over the past few years that the A-10 and the Mountain West have been the two strongest non-BCS conferences, and the Mountain West is in a position to get even stronger next year with such young rosters top to bottom. We can start with New Mexico, a team that won the regular season title and earned a 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament, although they weren't nearly as strong of a team as that record might indicate. They won the regular season title on a win over BYU that happened when Jimmer Fredette was sick and ineffective. And both Sagarin and Pomeroy rated them somewhere near the 40th best team in the country, so it wasn't much of a surprise when they barely survived a tough 14 seed in the first round of the NCAA Tournament (Montana) and then lost to a strong second round opponent (Washington). The question for New Mexico coming into the season is Darrington Hobson, who was the best player on the team (15.9 points, 9.3 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game) and is considering the possibility of skipping his senior season to go into the NBA Draft. But he's projected most likely to go in the second round, so for the sake of this preview I'm going to assume he comes back. If he does then New Mexico should be even better, with only one senior on the entire roster (Roman Martinez: 13.9 points per game, 41.2% three-point shooting). Their strong backcourt of Dairese Gary (13.1 points, 3.9 assists per game) and Phillip McDonald (10.4 points per game, 40% three-point shooting) will be back. Their biggest flaw will be a lack of size, which will be an even bigger problem if Hobson leaves. They will try to fix a little bit of that with their top recruit, 6'11" Alex Kirk (Rivals: 109, Scout: 13 C). Drew Gordon, a transfer from UCLA, will play a lot of minutes in the paint. They will also look towards expanded time for A.J. Hardeman and Will Brown (a combined 11 points and 9 rebounds in 41 minutes per game).

BYU was probably the best team in the Mountain West, despite actually finishing second in the standings. They were the highest rated team by Sagarin and Pomeroy and would have had a great shot at the Final Four if they hadn't run into a red hot Jacob Pullen in the second round of the Tournament. The big question for them is Jimmer Fredette, and whether he'll come back for his senior season. He has declared for the NBA Draft but hasn't hired an agent, and right now it's believed that he'll most likely come back, so for this preview I'll assume that. If he stays then the key loss will be Jonathan Tavernari (10.1 points, 4.4 rebounds per game). Chris Miles and Lamont Morgan, Jr. were other seniors who also played in the regular rotation. Jackson Emery and Tyler Haws will be back, and Haws is a freshman who I really liked. He put up great stats (11.3 points and 4.2 rebounds per game, 92% free throw shooting, 37% three point shooting), and is basically a slightly-less-athletic Fredette. Michael Loyd, Jr. is another key returner, after the way that he really blew up late in the season and in the NCAA Tournament. Kyle Collinsworth (Rivals: 125, Scout: 20 SF) is the best recruit. The key for BYU will be finding size, particularly with the losses of Miles and Tavernari. Noah Hartsock will be the tallest returning starter, and they'll also be looking to rising-sophomore Brandon Davies (5.4 points and 3.0 rebounds in 13.5 minutes per game).

The other two NCAA Tournament teams were San Diego State and UNLV. San Diego State won the MWC tournament title and was robbed with an unfortunate 11 seed against Tennessee in the NCAA Tournament. With a better draw they'd have made some noise. And they'll be back next year with their five top scorers from this past season. A particularly interesting player is Kawhi Leonard, who led the team in both points (12.7) and rebounds (9.9) per game as a freshman. They will start the same big front line they had this past year (6'9", 6'8", 6'7") that gave them a great advantage in the Mountain West. They finished 12th in the nation in two-point shooting while only 265th in three-point shooting, and were also 9th in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage. They should have similarly good numbers next season. They'll have to clean up their shooting numbers, though, particularly that awful 61.9% free throw shooting. UNLV returns even more talent, with their top eight minutes earners all coming back. Tre'Von Willis (17.2 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game, with 48% shooting from the field and 86% shooting at the line) is the star, and he'll be a senior next year. They do have a size problem, though, as Chase Stanback is the closest they have to a big in their starting lineup (6'8", 210 pounds, 10.7 points and 5.8 reobunds per game). So while they're going to continue to be an excellent team handling the ball and playing on the perimeter both on offense and defense, they are going to continue to struggle on the boards (276th in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage) unless they can develop another big. Brice Massamba and Matt Shaw are the best options.

It was quite a distance back from the top four Mountain West teams to the rest of the pack. Utah and Colorado State were clearly the next tier. The key loss for Utah is Luca Drca (10.0 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game). They also lose Kim Tillie, who led the team in rebounds in only 18 minutes per game, a sign of a really bad lack of size. What I like about Utah is their fundamental defense. They finished 323nd in the nation in defensive turnover percentage, but 25th in effective field goal defense, and Pomeroy rated their defensive efficiency 84th in the nation. So they don't go for glamorous defensive plays, and simple play solid, fundamental defense, which is the correct way to play. But the lack of athletes is a problem against big teams like San Diego State and athletic teams like New Mexico. They're going to need to develop some better offense also, with a big piece likely being Marshall Henderson, who had 11.8 points per game as a freshman. Colorado State loses a couple of rotation players to graduation, but no starters. In fact, they had three players who earned at least ten starts and who were freshmen or sophomores, so they have a nice core going forward. Dorian Green is the most exciting, leading the team in both points and assists with 39% shooting behind the arc and 83% at the line as a freshman. Their top recruit is 6'10" Chad Calcaterra.

The bottom of the Mountain West didn't make any noise this past season, but with a lot of youth they should close the gap at least a little bit with the rest of the conference. The most intriguing of those is a Wyoming team that had only one senior on the roster this past season. Three of their top four scorers this past season were freshmen or sophomores, so they should continue to improve, even though they have yet to recruit the athletes that the top of the conference has. They won't make any postseason noise any time soon, but I wouldn't be surprised to see Wyoming near the middle of the Mountain West within the next couple of years. Here's how I see the top of the conference playing out:

1. BYU
2. New Mexico
4. San Diego State
5. Colorado State
6. Utah
7. Wyoming

West Coast Conference

2009-10 was the least dominant season for Gonzaga in the WCC in approximately a decade. By the end of the season it was clear that Saint Mary's was the better team, and they beat Gonzaga in the WCC tournament and then went and had a better NCAA Tournament. But this season was not a sign that Gonzaga is on the downswing. For one, the rest of the conference is just beginning to improve and catch up in terms of the types of athletes they're recruiting. And in addition, Gonzaga was just very young. They lost a ton from their 2008-09 team, and 2009-10 was something of a re-loading year for them. Matt Bouldin is the key graduation, but I always thought that he was a bit overrated. He had a bad habit of disappearing randomly in games, like the way he disappeared in that rout at the hands of Syracuse in the NCAA Tournament. But other than Bouldin, none of the other key Gonzaga players will be gone with Elias Harris saying he won't enter the 2010 NBA Draft. Harris is a great athlete who can also score inside, as can 7-footer Robert Sacre. Demetri Goodson and Stephen Gray will likely be the starting backcourt. The key for Gonzaga will be developing the next crop of young players so that they can have a strong bench to go with these starters. Kelly Olynyk, Mangisto Arop and Grant Gibbs all earned quality minutes as freshmen, and all should be key contributers this coming season. The way those three players develop, along with Bol Kong, will determine whether Gonzaga has another mediocre season in 2010-11, or whether they become an elite team again.

Saint Mary's loses two starters to graduation, and the key of those two losses is Omar Samhan, who was fairly unstoppable inside with 21.3 points, 10.9 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game. Their backcourt of Matt Dellavedova and Mickey McConnell will be back (McConnell's 51% three-point shooting was a huge part of the Saint Mary's offense), but the loss of Samhan as well as their second best rebounder (Ben Allen) means that Saint Mary's has huge holes to fill inside. 6'9" Mitchell Young is an obvious pick to start in the paint, but he didn't show much in his freshman year. Not only will the loss of Samham really damage their inside game, but you have to wonder if their outside shooting (40.5% behind the arc for the season) will be damaged since defenses won't need to sag down so often to help out inside. Saint Mary's will continue to be a good team, but I don't see how they don't take a pretty big step back in 2010-11.

Portland got off to a great start in 2009-10 with wins over Minnesota, Oregon and UCLA (that UCLA win was a 27 pointer that really caught the attention of casual fans), but they faded a bit in the second half of the season and ended up not even making the NIT. They will take another step back this coming season with five graduates from their regular rotation, including T.J. Campbell (who led the team in points and assists) and Robin Smeulders (the second leading scorer). But don't think Portland will completely disappear. They do return Luke Sikma (7.9 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, with 56% shooting from the field) and Jared Stohl (11.5 points per game, 92% shooting at the line and 48% behind the arc). The Pilots also have a nice recruiting class, with no blue chippers but a lot of depth. The question going forward will be whether Portland can continue to recruit players like Sikma, who have the overall athleticism, size and talent to play with Gonzaga and Saint Mary's. 2010-11 should be a rebuilding team.

It was a big gap to the teams outside the top three in the WCC, but of those lower level teams there were three with zero seniors on the roster: Loyola-Marymount, Pepperdine and Santa Clara. Loyola-Marymount is a bit of a question mark because of how badly their defense struggled with the higher powered offenses in the WCC. Pepperdine is interesting because of an explosive rising-junior, Keion Bell (first on the team in points, assists and steals, and second in rebounds). Pepperdine also has a quality recruit showing up in the form of 6'5" swingman Hector Harold. That said, Pepperdine has its own defensive problems, just like Loyola-Marymount. Santa Clara is perhaps the most intriguing because of how nice their last couple of recruiting classes have been. They actually had four freshmen playing in their regular rotation this past season, including a couple of their best players. And they have two more quality recruits coming in, highlighted by John McArthur (Scout: 23 C). Gonzaga and Saint Mary's are bringing in elite national talent, and the only way for another program to get into postseason contention in the WCC is to recruit elite talent. Santa Clara isn't getting blue chippers, but their recruits are better than the rest of the bottom of the conference (other than San Diego, perhaps). I expect them to be much better in 2010-11. In the end, here's how I see the top of the WCC ending up:

1. Gonzaga
2. Saint Mary's
3. Portland
4. Loyola-Marymount
5. Santa Clara

Western Athletic Conference

Utah State was the best team in the WAC again, and as always they did it with an experienced team. Stew Morrill always wins with juniors and seniors, and it's worked for him. That said, this year's team actually had only one senior on it, although it was star Jared Quayle (12.4 points, 6.2 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game, with 90% free throw shooting and 42% three-point shooting). But other than Quayle, the other top five minutes earners and point scorers were all juniors, meaning that Utah State could potentially start five seniors next season. The best player returning is Taj Wesley (13.7 points, 6.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.3 blocks per game). Tyler Newbold is a 42% three-point shooter who will be expected to pick up some of the slack for the loss of Quayle's shooting. I'd also look to Jaxon Myaer as an up-and-coming guard who could begin to play a big role in 2010-11. Brady Jardine and Preston Medlin are two other young players who should become key players as they get further along in their careers. Jared Quayle will be a tough loss, but with every other player back and an even more experienced roster it seems like Utah State should actually be even better next season.

New Mexico State surprised a lot of people by stealing the WAC tournament title, and they ended up nearly taking out Michigan State in the first round of the Tournament. They don't lose a whole lot to graduation: they lose a starter, but he was the only senior who earned double digit minutes per game. The real question for New Mexico State is Jahmar Young (20.3 points and 3.1 assists per game, with 46% shooting from the field, 37% behind the arc and 84% at the line), who has declared for the NBA Draft. Nobody is projecting him to actually get drafted, though, so I assume that he's just testing the waters to get a sense of what he has to accomplish in his senior season so that he can get drated in 2011. For the sake of this preview I'm going to assume he's coming back. A key returner for them is 7-footer Hamidu Rahman, who had 10.3 points, 8.0 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game as a sophomore. Wendell McKines is another key big man returner. New Mexico State was a poor defensive team in 2009-10, and because they play uptempo ball they had to win a lot of games with scores like 95-92. They will have to clean that up if they're going to take the next step and actually contend for an at-large bid in 2010-11.

According to both Pomeroy and Sagarin, the second best team in the WAC was Nevada. The Wolfpack lose one starter and one other rotation player to graduation, but the real worry is Luke Babbitt, who has lived up to all of the hype he had out of high school and had 21.9 points and 8.9 rebounds per game, and was a 41.6% shooter behind the arc as a sophomore this past year. It's expected that he'll at least declare for the NBA Draft, but I think that he'll actually stay in. Assuming he goes, then along with senior Joey Shaw they will lose a lot of their height. Dario Hunt and Marko Cukic are the best returning big men and will have to step up. They'll still be strong at the guard position, with Armon Johnson (15.8 points and 5.6 assists per game) returning. Shooting guard Brandon Fields will also be back, and they'll be even deeper at shooting guard with Malik Story coming in. Story logged 18 minutes per game as a freshman at Indiana in 2008-09, and should earn big minutes in 2010-11 at Nevada. One option to fill space inside will be Olek Czyz, who barely played at Duke and will look to re-start his college career at Nevada. If Luke Babbitt returns then this team will be even better than they were last year, but if he goes then I don't see how they don't take at least a little step back. But even without Babbitt they could still be an RPI Top 100 team again.

One team that really snuck below the radar this season was Louisiana Tech, a team that Sagarin actually rated slightly ahead of New Mexico State (Pomeroy put them slightly behind). They actually won 24 games, which was the most by any Louisiana Tech team since the 1984-85 squad that earned a 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament and made the Sweet 16. That said, it's hard to see them repeating this performance with three starters and a fourth key bench player all graduating. So 2010-11 will be a bit of a rebuilding year for them. But with only one junior in the regular roation this past season, and if a decent 2010 recruiting class pans out, then they should be back in 2011-12. There's no reason Louisiana Tech can't consistently finish in the top half of the WAC. In the rest of the conference the most interesting team is Fresno State, a team with only one senior on the roster this past season. Of the six players that earned at least 20 minutes per game, four were sophomores and a fifth was a freshman. That's a really solid core that will improve as they play together more and get more mature. They're going to have to develop some better shooting, and their team athleticism might not be enough to ever win the conference, but I don't see any way that they don't improve over the next couple of years. In the end, here's how I see the top of the WAC playing out in 2010-11:

1. Utah State
2. New Mexico State
3. Fresno State
4. Nevada
5. Louisiana Tech

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