Friday, April 09, 2010

2010-11 Preview: Mid Majors, Part III

Atlantic Ten Conference

It was a very strong year for the Atlantic Ten. There was a lot of hype about a potential six NCAA Tournament teams, and I even saw some people talking about seven. That was, of course, a little bit too optimistic, but the league did still end up with six teams that had great seasons. Xavier, Temple and Richmond all made the Tournament as a seven seed or higher; Rhode Island and Dayton both made the NIT Final Four; and Saint Louis is already getting 2010-11 hype because of how young and good they were this past season. But I'll get to all of those teams one by one. We can start with the A-10 champions: Temple. The Owls won this year without household stars. They did it with very solid team defense, including the second best effective field goal defense in the nation. But despite all of their success they were not popular with the computers because their offense was so bad. They were vulnerable to a team like Cornell, the team that took them out in the NCAA Tournament, that could shoot well enough to score against any defense and forced Temple to make baskets. They failed to score 60 points in each of their final four wins over RPI Top 100 teams, which tells you simultaneously how good their defense was, as well as how weak their offense was even when they were winning. They will lose two starters to graduation, including leading scorer Ryan Brooks. Their top returner is Juan Fernandez (12.6 points and 3.6 assists per game, including 45% behind the arc). Big man Lavoy Allen (10.6 rebounds per game) is another key returner. Temple will continue to play good defense and they'll be a capable rebounding team, but if they're going to repeat as A-10 champion they're going to have to find some offensive weapons from some of the young talented players they've got on their bench.

According to both Sagarin and Pomeroy, the best team in the A-10 was actually Xavier. And they made it the furthest in the NCAA Tournament, making it to the Sweet 16 and taking that game to a couple of overtimes before losing. They also only have one key player graduating, but the real worry is Jordan Crawford, who had an excellent sophomore year (20.5 points per game) and is currently declared for the NBA Draft. Crawford hasn't hired an agent yet and could still choose to come back, but for the sake of this preview I'm going to assume he's leaving because his stock is high after that NCAA Tournament performance, and I really don't know what else he's going prove to scouts by sticking around for one more year. Obviously they'll be much better if he comes back. But Xavier will still be good anyway because they'll have so many experienced juniors and seniors coming back next season, and they'll have fresh young talent coming off the bench powered by a recruiting class rated in the Top 25 in the nation by both and, highlighted by Justin Martin (Rivals: 83, Scout: 26 SF) and Jordan Latham (Rivals: 121, Scout: 19 PF). Richmond was the third NCAA Tournament team from the A-10, although all of the computer ratings viewed them as one of the worst teams to earn an at-large bid, and it was no surprise to see them flame out in the first round. They lose two starters to graduation, but they were a team that focused on team defense and balanced offense. The key for them this coming season will be 6'10" Justin Harper (10.6 points and 5.4 rebounds per game), because the one thing holding Richmond back this past season was rebounding, where they put up some of the worst rebounding stats in the nation (including 331st in the nation in offensive rebounding effiency). They had a bunch of young bigs who spent most of their time on the bench this past season. If the Spiders can develop some of them into big minutes eaters, and at the very least reliable defense rebounders, then they'll be right back near the top of the A-10 again next season.

Dayton and Rhode Island were two teams that were disappointed to miss the NCAA Tournament, but both made the NIT worthwhile by making the Final Four. Dayton won with a simple formula: they were very deep (they easily went 11 players deep) and very athletic, and they just turned up the pressure defensively and kept throwing fresh bodies at their opponents. But their depth will be tested next season, with five players from that regular rotation graduating, including three starters. They also have to worry about the possibility of Chris Wright going pro, although for now I think he'll stay because of the fairly high probability that he would go undrafted if he stayed in. Other than Wright, the other key returner will be Chris Johnson (11.9 points and 6.9 rebounds per game), who is one of those long, athletic wingers that seem to grow on trees at Dayton. Dayton will also be restocking the cupboards quickly, with a quality transfer in Josh Parker (10.7 points per game as a scoring guard at Drake in 2008-09) and several quality recruits, highlighted by Juwan Staten (Rivals: 44, Scout: 17 PG). Staten, who comes from the famous Oak Hill Academy, could be ready to start by the time the season starts. So Dayton will be talented and deep again, but with so many new bodies who lack experience at this level it's hard to see them not taking a step back next season. Rhode Island loses two starters to graduation, including two of their three double-digit per game scorers, but they return every other player, including Delroy James (13.2 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 1.3 blocks per game), who is a great athlete and a solid team leader. Their biggest concern, particularly with the graduation of Lamonte Ulmer, is size. Will Martell puts up a lot of stats and is a 7-footer, but he's kind of a stiff and he struggles to defend and box out the athletic big men that the other top A-10 teams have. They're going to need to develop another athletic big man other than James. Rhode Island also needs to find a way not to fall apart down the stretch like they have the last couple of years, with questions about whether their playing style wears them out.

One of the most intriguing teams for 2010-11 in the conference, if not the nation, is Saint Louis. Rick Majerus is famous for being one of those demanding coaches who is either loved or hated by players - and most hate him. When he first started with the team it was so clear to anybody watching how much most of his players despised him. But those players are all gone, and Majerus has recruited the kids that want to play for him, and his team this past season had success despite the fact that he had zero seniors or juniors on the entire roster. Everybody will be back not just for this coming season, but for the 2011-12 season as well. The two best players are the inside-outside combo of Kwamain Mitchell (15.9 points, 3.0 assists and 1.4 steals per game) and Willie Reed (12.4 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game). Their top recruit is probably Rob Loe, a 6'11" forward from New Zealand. I don't think there's any question that at the very least Saint Louis will be a bubble team next season.

Two good teams that return a lot of talent are Charlotte and Duquesene. Charlotte loses some bench players, but only one starter to graduation. And they've got some good young talent, highlighted by Chris Braswell, who had 9.5 points and 8.6 rebounds per game as a freshman. Their biggest concern this coming season is improving their outside shooting, which was poor on average during the season, but was particularly awful during their bad losses. Duquesne, meanwhile, returns their top six scorers, their top six rebounders, and their top five assist men. They are powered by a very strong rising-junior class, which produced four players that earned double digit minutes per game as sophomores this past season. The concern I have for them is that while their recruiting class is solid, it's made up entirely of guards, a position they're already strongest at. Duquesne is a small team that really struggled on the boards this past season, and without an influx of talent they're going to have to find some rebounding off of their bench if they're going to seriously contend for an NCAA Tournament position.

If there's one team from the bottom of the conference that I expect to definitely be better it's UMass, a team that was more talented than they played in 2009-10. Their one graduating senior is start Ricky Harris (19.7 points per game), but Harris was a volume scorer more than anything. While I won't say UMass will be improved by losing their unquestioned star, they can definitely do without a player who chucked up more than seven three-pointers per game despite hitting them at only a 30% clip. With every other key player returner, as well as a decent recruiting class, I expect UMass to be better, although they will not contend near the top of the conference yet. In the end, here's how I see the top of the A-10 playing out:

1. Xavier
2. Temple
3. Saint Louis
4. Dayton
5. Rhode Island
6. Duquesne
7. Richmond
8. Charlotte
9. UMass

Colonial Athletic Association

It was a solid season for the Colonial with four good teams, although in the end they only had one that was a true bubble team, and that team (Old Dominion) earned the automatic bid to assure the Colonial of yet another one-bid season. Old Dominion won with a simple formula: defense and rebounding. They were first in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, and Pomeroy rated their overall defense 10th best in the nation. They lose their only double-digit scorer (Gerald Lee) to graduation, as well as another rotation player, but their top defenders and their three top rebounders will all be back, so their strength will continue to be a strength. Their weaknesses in 2009-10 were ball handling and shooting, and they will try to clean some of that up with a couple of decent backcourt recruits. But with no good outside shooters on their bench this past season, it's unlikely that their offense will get too much stronger, particularly with their best weapon in the offensive half court (Gerald Lee) graduating.

Both Sagarin and Pomeroy rated VCU the second best team in the conference, and despite under-performing during the CAA regular season they went out and swept their way to the CBI championship. With zero senior starters they were going to be in great shape for 2010-11, but the problem is that star Larry Sanders (14.4 points, 9.1 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game) is expected to go pro. VCU was very deep at the guard position this past season, but Sanders was the man inside. 6'9" Jamie Skeen (8.1 points and 4.5 rebounds per game) is the only returning big man who played big minutes this past season. But if they can find some size then they'll be in great shape with every key guard returning, and with the best incoming recruiting class in the conference, highlighted by 6'6" swingman Reco McCarter (Scout: 38 SF). Northeastern was the team that actually finished in second place in the Colonial, but with three senior starters it's going to be very difficult for them to repeat this past season's success. That said, they do have a good core going forward with a very strong freshman class this past season (three were part of the regular rotation, and a couple of others appear ready to earn regular minutes this coming season). This year's recruiting class isn't as deep, but it's got at least one very good prospect (6'10" Ryan Pierson).

William & Mary tied for third place with George Mason, although there was a big difference in the quality of those two teams. William & Mary was actually a marginal bubble team in early February, while George Mason wasn't that close to even the Top 100 in any of the computer ratings at any point in 2010. William & Mary will take a step back, however, with three starters and a key bench player graduating. Their best player returning was actually a freshman this past season: Quinn McDowell (13.9 points and 4.3 rebounds per game, with 42.6% shooting behind the arc). Their biggest flaw this past season was defense, and they'll have to clean that up during the offseason. George Mason, despite not being as good as a 12-6 CAA record would suggest, did show a lot of improvement throughout the season. And they improved because they were very young, with only three total juniors and seniors on the roster. They return every player that earned at least 13 minutes per game this past season, including all five starters. Their best player is Cam Long (12.2 points, 3.9 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.3 steals per game), who will be a senior in 2010-11 on a George Mason team that should be more seasoned and better prepared to win quality games out of conference. George Mason has struggled a bit over the past few years, but I have gotten the sense that they've finally gotten that NCAA Final Four out of their system and are ready to move on. They've got fresh, young talent that is ready to make a run at a CAA title.

Two teams outside the top of the CAA that should be better next much season are Drexel and Delaware. Drexel returns all five players that earned at least 20 minutes per game this past season. They play tough perimeter defense, but their flaw is on the inside. They have decent rebounding numbers, but a lot of that is due to the dynamic Samme Givens (3.4 offensive rebounds per game, despite only being 6'5"). A quality big man would not only help on the defensive boards, but would also help open up an offense that really struggled to get open shots. They won't contend for a CAA title, but they'll probably end up in the top half. Delaware finished in dead last place in the CAA in 2009-10, with a 3-15 record, but they weren't quite as bad as their record. Their real big problem was a horrible group of shooters (44.2% on two-pointers, 29.3% on three-pointers), which not only kept them from scoring but also made it hard for them to play good half court defense or come back from a deficit. They were a very young team with only three juniors and seniors combined. Jawan Carter led the team with 18.2 points per game, but he was a volume scorer who is going to need to learn to pick his shots better. If Delaware can develop some shooters then they could potentially shoot up as high as the middle of the conference. In the end, here's how I see the top of the Colonial ending up:

1. Old Dominion
2. VCU
3. George Mason
4. Drexel
5. Northeastern

Conference USA

There were a number of storylines in Conference USA, which had arguably its best season since it lost teams like Louisville and Marquette to the Big East, despite a down year from the historically dominant Memphis squad. Despite not even making the NCAA Tournament, Memphis was probably the most interesting team in Conference USA this past year because of the John Calipari situation. While Calipari took his historic recruiting class with him to Kentucky, most people forgot that he actually left quite a bit of talent at Memphis, a team that then had the luck of Elliot Williams falling into their lap from Duke. They lose Doneal Mack, Willie Kemp and Pierre Henderson-Niles to graduation, and they could potentially lose more to the NBA. Both Elliot Williams and Wesley Witherspoon are considering going pro, and for the sake of this preview I'm going to assume that Williams goes while Witherspoon stays. When you consider that even when completely healthy the team only went nine players deep that means they'll have only five regular returners. That said, Memphis has a huge recruiting class, rated by almost everybody as the top in the nation, headlined by Jelan Kendrick (Rivals: 8, Scout: 2 SF), Will Barton (Rivals: 11, Scout: 1 SG), Joe Jackson (Rivals: 12, Scout: 4 PG) and Tarik Black (Rivals: 47, Scout: 18 PF). But while Memphis fans think this means Josh Pastner is going to continue the Calipari success, let's not forget that it's one thing to close the deal on a recruiting class put together by your predecessor, and another to put one together from scratch, particularly if the team continues to struggle against elite opponents (Memphis went 0-5 against the RPI Top 45 this past season). Also, not only does Memphis not have the same pieces in place that Kentucky had coming into this past season (neither Roburt Sallie or Will Coleman is in the same league Patrick Patterson, who entered last season already known as an All-SEC quality player and floor leader). And coaching a team that has so many big ego freshmen isn't as easy as Calipari makes it seem. The question for the future of Memphis basketball now that their conference is no longer elite and John Calipari is gone is whether they'll be good enough this coming season to continue getting the blue chip recruits.

That all said, the best team in Conference USA over the length of this past season was actually UTEP. UTEP played an athletic, uptempo style that really blew away some of the inferior opponents that you get at the bottom of Conference USA. That said, their offense was shaky when their defense wasn't forcing turnovers and getting a lot of long rebounds, which was one of the reasons why they struggled against elite teams. With zero seniors on the roster and the second best recruiting class in the conference you'd think that they would be primed to be a really good team this coming season. But then Tony Barbee jumped and took the head coaching job at Auburn and UTEP hired Tim Floyd to replace him. That meant that Derrick Caracter will likely be in the 2010 NBA Draft. In addition there's the possibility of some of the other top players transferring out, although with so many of them being rising-seniors you have to wonder how many will want to leave with only one year of eligibility. If Floyd can keep everybody but Caracter then he could still have an NCAA Tournament quality team next season.

The next two best teams in the conference were UAB and Marshall, with UAB actually ending up a serious bubble team on Selection Sunday. UAB is a tough team to project because they lose two seniors starters and another key bench player, and with a small roster to begin with and only one recruit already signed there are a lot of open scholarships. Mike Davis will be active during the April signing season, and until we know who he signs it's going to be very difficult to project where they'll finish. But unless he really shocks the college basketball world with who he manages to sign, you have to figure they won't be as good next season. Marshall loses two starters and a key bench player, but the real loss is Hassan Whiteside, who is almost certain to stay in the NBA Draft. Whiteside is still a raw player, but he's so physically talented (5.4 blocks per game) that he will likely be a lottery pick, even though if I were an NBA GM I'd never touch those types of players because most of them end up becoming D-League All-Stars. Regardless, Marshall will take a step back next season. One bright spot is the fact that of the three returners that earned at least 18 minutes per game this past season, all three were sophomores, meaning that Marshall will be on pace to return most of their key 2010-11 players into the 2011-12 season. They will hope to make up for some of the loss of size with Eladio Espinosa, a 6'7" forward from South Florida, and Steadman Short, a 6'9" Juco transfer.

Of course, the Conference USA tournament champion was Houston, a team that received almost no attention all season long before pulling off those upsets in the C-USA tournament. But this was most likely a one-shot deal with Tom Penders retiring on top, and with not only star Aubrey Coleman (25.6 points per game), but also Kelvin Lewis (15.5 points per game, including 39.7% shooting behind the arc) graduating. Despite making the NCAA Tournament, Houston was not one of the top four or five teams in Conference USA, and they'll take another step back this coming season. One team that really disappointed in 2010-11 was Tulsa, the team that was supposed to be the top contender to Memphis and instead finished in fifth place and nowhere near the NCAA Tournament. And they'll fall even further back after losing three starters including star Jerome Jordan (15.4 points, 9.1 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game). Justin Hurtt (14.5 points per game, including 39% shooting behind the arc) is probably the best returner, but the key for Tulsa will be replacing the 7-footer Jordan. 6'10" Steven Idlet is probably the best returning big man from the 2009-10 roster, but Tulsa will probably lean heavily on 6'9" D.J. Magley, who played 15 minutes per game as a freshman on the 2007-08 Western Kentucky team that made the Sweet 16, although he had his minutes cut on the 2008-09 team so you have to wonder why that happened. They also have a few quality recruits coming, highlighted by Jordan Clarkson (Scout: 43 SG).

Two other teams to keep an eye on are Southern Miss and Central Florida. Southern Miss really flew under the radar this past season, but they actually spent most of the season inside the Sagarin and Pomeroy Top 100. They do have graduations, but they return all five players that earned at least 20 minutes per game. They played strong defense this past year, but they were probably best at rebounding. With their key rebounders returning and with all of the other top Conference USA teams (other than Memphis) losing their top big men, don't be surprised to see Southern Miss ride those rebounders to some key wins in 2010-11. That said, they'll have to develop some better shooters if they're going to finish higher than fourth or fifth in the conference. Central Florida finished all the way back in ninth place in the conference, but they were better than their record with both Sagarin and Pomeroy putting them right around 150th in the nation. They played an aggressive defense, but were too young to prevent a lot of stupid mistakes. With zero key players graduating they should be more experienced and intelligent this coming season. And with only two rising seniors they should be even better in 2011-12. Marcus Jordan (8.0 points, 2.5 assists and 1.2 steals per game) is only the best known of a very good freshman class. They're not going to make the NCAA Tournament or even the NIT in 2010-11, but they should be much better than 6-10 in Conference USA. In the end, here's how I see the top of Conference USA ending up (keeping in mind that UTEP could drop quite a bit if they start losing key players to transfers):

1. Memphis
3. UAB
4. Southern Miss
5. Tulsa
6. Central Florida

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