Monday, April 05, 2010

2010-11 Preview: Mid Majors, Part II

Horizon League

There's no question what the story of the Horizon League was this past season. Butler had a magical run to the National Championship game and came within a couple of inches on that final shot from not only winning the title, but of having possibly the greatest shot in NCAA Tournament history. And there's no question that Butler will be the heaviest conference favorite in the nation again in 2010-11. Willie Veasley is the only graduating starter, although they also lose Avery Jukes from the bench. Gordon Hayward is the only player who might go pro early, but all indications are that he'll stay. In fact, if Hayward doesn't go pro early at all then Butler will retain its two best players (Hayward and Shelvin Mack) for two more season. Avery Jukes will probably be missed more than Veasley even though he played less, because providing inside depth is so important for Butler considering how often Matt Howard gets in foul trouble. But Andrew Smith showed some flashes of being a quality inside player this past season, and they have some other young players who might develop. The biggest question for Butler might be whether Brad Stevens stays. He has obviously learned from Todd Lickliter that moving up to a BCS school isn't always a slam dunk, but if Butler can't raise his salary much above the $400,000 or so he reportedly earns per year right now then it will be hard for him to resist the kind of money that a school like Oregon might throw at him.

Both Conference USA and the WCC suffered for much of the past five or six years with one dominant team (Memphis and Gonzaga, respectively) with a huge gap back to everybody else, but both of those conferences have gotten much deeper over the past year or two. And the question with the Horizon League will be whether some other team can develop that can challenge Butler and make the conference a legitimate annual contender for multiple at-large bids. The top contender (using the word "contender" lightly) this past season was Wright State, the only other RPI Top 100 team in the conference. There will be a lot of turnovers for Wright State this offseason, with three starters graduating, but also with a very deep recruiting class, as well as transfer Walter Offutt from Ohio State. It's going to be tough to judge exactly how good they'll be next season because the roster will be so different, but the infusion of youth is a good sign for Wright State's future that they'll continue to be in the top half of the Horizon for the foreseeable future.

According to Sagarin and Pomeroy, the third, fourth and fifth best teams in the Horizon League were very close in ability, but in some order were UW-Green Bay, UW-Milwaukee and Detroit. Milwaukee loses three seniors from their regular rotation, including both of their double-digit per game scorers (Ricky Franklin and James Eayrs). A key player for the future is Ja'Rob McCallum (7.8 points per game with 42.3% shooting behind the arc as a freshman). Green Bay loses even more, with their coach and four players from their regular nine-man rotation graduating. Their two key returners will be rising-seniors Bryquis Perine and Rahmon Fletcher (a combined 29.1 points, 7.1 assists and 2.8 steals per game). Detroit also loses four players from their regular rotation, but they do return their top three per-game scorers (Chase Simon, Xavier Keeling and Eli Holman). Simon and Holman, who also happened to be the two top rebounders on the team this past season, are both sophomores, meaning that they still have two years left. They key graduation will be Woody Payne, who led the team in both assists (4.1 per game) and steals (2.2 per game). What makes Detroit intriguing for the future is that they add to those two top young players with two more excellent recruits by Horizon League standards: Frank Williams (Scout: 46 SG) and Jordan Manuel (Scout: 46 PF). Detroit may or may not be better in 2010-11 relative to 2009-10, but they do have a nice core going forward.

The other two teams that finished above .500 in the Horizon League this past season were Cleveland State and Valparaiso. Valpo graduates two starters, but every other player returns. Their top scorer (Brandon Wood) was actually a sophomore. They also had three freshmen that earned at least 15 minutes per game, and have an excellent recruit coming next year in the form of Jay Harris, a point guard who received attention from several BCS conference schools. They had the best offense in the conference other than Butler, so the question will be whether another year of experience improves an awful defense. Cleveland State is even better prepared to be improved next season, with zero seniors on the entire roster. Their best returners are Norris Cole (16.3 points, 4.4 assists and 1.8 steals per game) and Jeremy Montgomery (12.8 points and 2.3 assists per game, including 40.4% shooting behind the arc). Their weakness this past season was rebounding and defense, and they'll try to clean some of that up with their two top recruits: power forwards Ludovic Ndaye and Devon Long. In the end, here's how I see the top of the Horizon League ending up next season:

1. Butler
2. Cleveland State
3. Wright State
4. Detroit
5. UW-Milwaukee
6. Valparaiso

Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference

The MAAC is possibly the hardest conference to predict for 2010-11, because it's impossible to know how the coaching changes will affect things. Siena has dominated the conference the past few years, but with a senior-heavy squad it was obvious that they were going to have to rebuild in 2010-11. They graduate three starters, and while the team's leading scorer is among those three (Alex Franklin) the most important graduation is probably Ronald Moore (7.0 points, 7.7 assists and 1.9 steals per game). It wasn't a surprise that Fran McCaffery decided to cash in by moving on to coach Iowa, and so we'll have to see who the next coach of Siena is to really be able to make a prediction of where this team will be next season. The key returner is Ryan Rossiter (13.8 points and 11.1 rebounds per game), who is a load for MAAC defenses to deal with. But Siena's game has always been uptempo defense, and just earning more possessions than their opponent. It remains to be seen how things will change with the players gone, and with a new coach potentially bringing a new system. Their top recruit is Melsahn Basabe (Scout: 35 PF), and they also have Brandon Walters transferring in from Seton Hall.

Iona is another team that is really hard to predict because their coach, Kevin Willard, has left to take the Seton Hall job. I thought Willard would stick around another year or two because of how much young talent he's developed at Iona, with a team that was ready to be the favorite to win the conference in 2010-11. But I can understand figuring that a job like Seton Hall, with so much talent in place, will not be around for him in a year or two. But so now the question is: does all of Iona's talent stay? They lose two seniors from their regular rotation to graduation (Jonathan Huffman and Milan Prodanovic), but Iona was probably the deepest team in the MAAC (they went 11 or 12 players deep) this past season, so those graduations shouldn't have a big effect. The two key returners are Scott Machado (12.5 points, 3.9 assists and 1.6 steals per game) and Alejo Rodriguez (9.0 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, with 68% shooting from the field). Iona plays a suffocating defense, and they live off turnovers (8th in the nation in defensive turnover percentage). Their weakness was size and offense. Rodriguez should get some help in the recruiting class, with two quality big men (David Laury and Darius Leonard) coming in. They could use some more offense if they're going to make any NCAA Tournament noise, but if they can get a new coach who can hold this entire roster together and can play the same style that Kevin Willard used, Iona should enter the 2010-11 season as the MAAC favorite.

If Iona and Siena fall apart because of the coaching changes, the obvious team to clean up the mess is Fairfield. Fairfield was rated just narrowly behind Iona in 2009-10 according to both Sagarin and Pomeroy, but they did finish second in the regular season standings and were safely inside the RPI Top 100. They lose one senior from their starting lineup and another from their regular rotation, but every other key player returns. They're actually a very young team all over the place: six of the ten players who earned double digit minutes per game were sophomores or freshmen, including leading scorer Derek Needham (16.4 per game, along with 5.2 assists and 1.8 steals per game), who was a freshman. You also have to throw in Yorel Hawkins, who was playing over 30 minutes per game before suffering a knee injury in late January that sidelined him for the rest of the season. They were going to be a serious contender to Iona atop the conference even if Kevin Willard stayed, and if a couple of players follow him out the door or if they can't find a good new coach then Fairfield has to be the team most likely to grab the MAAC title from them.

It was quite a bit back to the rest of the conference, but Sagarin and Pomeroy agree that the fourth best team was Niagara in 2009-10, and the fifth best team was St. Peter's. Niagara was actually a pretty big disappointment. After a very strong 2008-09 they were expected to challenge Siena atop the MAAC in 2009-10. The biggest reasons for the drop-off were poor rebounding and ball handling. Their shooting was bad before, and it actually got even worse in 2009-10. But things will likely just get worse with three starters graduating, including all three of their double-digit per game scorers. Tyrone Lewis was their only good outside shooter (as well as their leading scorer) and he'll be gone, as will their top rebounder (Bilal Benn). Niagara will be rebuilding. St. Peter's, on the other hand, had zero seniors on the roster. They don't have a lot of raw talent, and their offense is pretty poor, but they play tremendous defense. They had the top effective field goal defense in the nation, and were easily the best overall defense in the MAAC. If some of their young players can develop some offensive skills (particularly with some pretty good offensive rebounders, who should give them second chances from time to time) then they'll be a dangerous team in 2010-11. But the thing to always be worried about with teams that play great team defense but don't have go-to scorers is that they tend to win a lot of games but struggle to win enough close games to win a conference regular season or tournament title.

If there's one other team to keep an eye on in the MAAC it's Rider, which loses its leading scorer (Ryan Thompson) but returns every other player from their regular rotation. They return a good outside shooter (Justin Robinson: 44.8% behind the arc), and a couple of good rebounders (Novar Gadson and Mike Ringgold: each with 7 or more rebounds per game). They don't have a dominant offensive creator, they aren't good defensively, and they struggle to earn extra possessions with either forced turnovers or offensive rebounds, but they should at least be better next year than they were this past year. But the real question for 2010-11 will be Iona, and how the loss of Kevin Willard affects their lineup. For this preview I will assume that every player returns, but I will drop them in the standings if they start losing key players. Making that assumption, here's how I see things for now:

1. Iona
2. Fairfield
3. St. Peter's
4. Siena
5. Rider

Missouri Valley Conference

The Missouri Valley has been down the last few years. It's easy to forget that it was only a few years ago that the Missouri Valley was getting two or three teams into the Tournament every season, including at least one to the Sweet 16. In fact, we only have to go back to 2006 for the last time they had two Sweet 16 teams. But memories are short, and so this year when - due to a weird statistical fluke - Northern Iowa became the first Missouri Valley tournament champion to make the Sweet 16 in 30 years I heard several different Sportscenter anchors slip and call them the first Missouri Valley team in the Sweet 16 in 30 years, without anybody correcting them. It remains to be seen whether the Northern Iowa mini-Cinderella run will breathe some life into the conference, although the odds are that the school itself will take a step back next season. They lose three starters (Jordan Egleseder, Adam Koch and Ali Faroukma-"messed up everybody's bracket" [my favorite nickname from the 2010 NCAA Tournament]) to graduation. That said, while Northern Iowa will not be as good in 2010-11 as they were in 2009-10, I do think they have a nice core going forward. Ben Jacobson is a good young coach, and they have a nice core of young players for the future. Three freshmen earned regular minutes this season, highlighted by Jake Koch, the brother of graduating star Adam Koch. They also have a pretty good incoming freshman class, highlighted by 6'7" swingman Doug McDermott.

The second best Missouri Valley team, and a bubble team at that, was Wichita State. I'm a huge Gregg Marshall fan, and the real question for me is how long Wichita State will be able to hang onto him. For example, if I was the Iowa Director of Athletics I'd have hired Marshall instead of Siena's Fran McCaffery. But assuming he stays for at least one more season he's got quite a bit of talent back with him. They lose one starter to graduation, but every other player on the roster returns. The key will be replacing that senior: Clevin Hannah (12.0 points, 4.7 assists and 1.3 steals per game, with 90% shooting at the line and 43% behind the arc). Toure' Murray is the best returning ball handler and should do a good job, but they don't appear to have another potential 40% three-point shooter to turn to. One thing that won't change is the rebounding, where Wichita State finished fifth in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage despite nobody on the roster who averaged more than five rebounds per game, which is a testament to good fundamental team boxing out. The loss of Hannah's shooting could have a fairly large impact on their offensive efficiency, but there's no question that Wichita State will be one of the contenders for the Missouri Valley title next season.

According to Sagarin and Pomeroy the third best team in the MVC was actually Missouri State, despite an 8-10 conference record. A Pomeroy Luck rating of 298th was part of that (in regular season Missouri Valley games they were 3-7 in games decided by five points or less, and 5-3 in games decided by six or more points), but a bigger part was that they simply played much better in the first half of the year than the second half. They really tailed off down the stretch. They weren't a particularly young team, so that's not an excuse. They only lose one key player to graduation, but most of the top returners will be seniors this coming year. They should be a very experienced squad in 2010-11, but they'll have to clean up their defense, and they're going to have to hope that the extra experience will turn those close losses into close wins next season. The third team in the standings was Illinois State, but they lose three starters, including star Osiris Eldridge (15.5 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.5 steals per game). Their biggest flaw this past season was outside shooting, and that's one thing they should actually be better at next season with Austin Hill and Alex Rubin returning, but it's hard to see them being as good with so many key players gone.

The next tier of teams was Creighton, Bradley and Indiana State. Creighton loses two key players to graduation, but they return their key inside-outside combo of P'Allen Stinnett (9.2 points and 2.5 assists per game) and Kenny Lawson, Jr. (13.1 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game) for one more season. Stinnett actually had a down season because of how much opposing defenses keyed on him, and things should open up as Ethan Wragge develops (6.9 points per game with 43.3% shooting behind the arc as a freshman). Their biggest weakness in 2009-10 was rebounding, and the transfer of Gregory Echenique from Rutgers (8.4 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game as a freshman in 2008-09) should be a huge piece of cleaning that up. They also have a quality recruit in 6'11" Will Artina. I've been a fan of Stinnett for a couple of years now, and he could really shine as a senior if his teammates are good enough to force the opposing defense to respect them more. Bradley loses two seniors from their regular rotation, including their best perimeter defender Chris Roberts. Their biggest problem in 2009-10, and they will hope to fix that with the development of a whole slew of young players who are tall but haven't shown much yet. The one young post player who has already been a key contributer is Will Egolf (7.0 points and 4.4 rebounds per game). Indiana State loses two starters and a third rotation player to graduation, but they had a balanced rotation and were not too dependent on any one player. A big problem for them will be ball handling. They were bad with the ball in 2009-10, and the only two players that averaged at least 2.0 assists per game will graduate. Their recruiting class is decent, but it's all big men, so they'll have to find some ball handling off of the bench if they're going to move up the conference standings.

If there's one team from the bottom of the conference to keep an eye on next season it's Southern Illinois. They've had a shockingly bad last couple of years when you consider how good they were early in the last decade, but they were very young in 2009-10 and should be on an upward swing now. Tony Freeman (11.8 points and 2.0 assists per game, with 41% three-point shooting) will be a tough loss, but every other player returns. Carlton Fay is the key returner, with 12.0 points per game this past season including 38% shooting behind the arc despite being 6'8". They also get a key transfer in Diamond Taylor, a shooting guard who never played a game for Wisconsin because of an off-the-court issue. Freeman's shooting will be tough to replace, but their offense should be good enough for them to be decent. Their key will be defense, which was what Southern Illinois was always dominant at during their glory years in the early-to-mid 2000s. Pomeroy rated their defense among the ten best in the nation in 2005-06 and 2006-07, but they've been on a steady decline since then and were 146th in the nation in 2009-10. Cleaning that up will be the key to returning them to the top of the conference. For now, here's how I see the top of the Missouri Valley playing out in 2010-11:

1. Wichita State
2. Creighton
3. Missouri State
4. Northern Iowa
5. Bradley
6. Southern Illinois

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