Wednesday, March 31, 2010

2010-11 Conference Previews

As always, I want to have one single post with links to all of my conference previews. This post will stay up on the right side of this blog under "Important BP65 Links" until at least the end of the 2010-11 season.

At the time I'm typing this post I haven't actually completed all of the conference previews yet. The last of them will be up by April 11th at the latest (one week after the National Championship game). So if a conference doesn't yet have a link on it yet, just hang tight and the preview will be up soon.

Even though the 2009-10 season isn't yet over, I'm already excited for the 2010-11 season. How about you?

America East
Atlantic Sun
Atlantic Ten
Big East
Big Sky
Big South
Big Ten
Big 12
Big West
Conference USA
Ivy League
Missouri Valley
Mountain West
Ohio Valley
Patriot League
Sun Belt

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.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Elite 8 Discussion + Picking The Lines

I'm setting up one post for all discussions of the Elite 8 games. I don't plan on posting anything else tonight, so this post should still be at the top of the page when the games start up on Sunday.

I already picked the lines for today's games in this post. Both West Virginia and Butler opened up at four point underdogs, and I picked both of them. West Virginia is the easier one for me, because I simply think they're better than Kentucky. Their beat down of Washington in their first game after losing their starting point guard was really impressive, and they've been winning close games over elite teams all season long, while Kentucky has been softened up by a weaker conference and a weaker path to the Elite 8. A big misconception is that Kentucky is good at forcing turnovers (they were actually only 8th best in the SEC), and West Virginia should be even better at taking care of the ball in their second game without Truck Bryant. There was a clear difference just from the first half to the second half of their win over Washington. And finally, despite John Wall being the better overall player and the better NBA prospect, if today's game comes down to the wire I'd rather have Da'Sean Butler take that last shot than Wall. Butler has been the best clutch player in the nation this year.

And as for the Butler/Kansas State game, I do think that the talent levels are fairly even. Jacob Pullen has been hit or miss all season long, mixing in 6-for-12 nights behind the arc with 1-for-7 nights, and at no time this year did he have three of those hot nights in a row. They'll need a third in a row to survive Butler. Kansas State's best team strength is offensive rebounding, but Butler is a very good defensive rebounding team that managed to basically fight to a draw against Syracuse, so they should be able to hold off Kansas State. And K-State's biggest weakness is putting opponents on the line, while Butler is good at getting there, and they shoot at a 74% clip once they get there. And all of the downsides to Kansas State that caused me to pick against them earlier still exist: they're poor at shooting free throws, and they turn over the ball a lot. They've managed to avoid those problems the last two games, but the stats don't lie. The two advantages for Kansas State will be offensive backcourt play and inside offense. If they can pound the ball inside they might be able to score at will. And if Jacob Pullen does put together a third straight superstar night then Butler doesn't have anybody who can guard him. But it's no sure thing. This game is a toss-up for me, so I'm taking the points.

Now, here are my thoughts on Sunday's games:

Day 6 picks against the spread: 3-1-0
Overall ATS through Sweet 16 games: 31-22-3

Michigan State (-2) over Tennessee: Tennessee will be a bigger test for Korie Lucious, who was not good handling the ball without Kalin Lucas back during Big Ten play. Tennessee is much better at forcing turnovers than Northern Iowa is. If Michigan State can avoid a lot of turnovers they will have the very clear advantage inside. They're one of the best rebounding teams in the nation, and Tennessee is actually rather poor. Brian Williams is the only big they have who will be able to bang with the Michigan State post players, and he has a bad habit of fouling himself out against elite big men. Wayne Chism has the size to play down low, but it's not to Tennessee's advantage to have him banging bodies with Delvon Roe and Draymond Green. He's much more valuable in the open floor. The other thing to consider is that Tennessee is actually pretty poor offensively, and they struggle to score against just about any team when they're not getting easy layups off of turnovers. So in the end this game will come down to turnovers. Can Tennessee force enough turnovers to open this game up, and allow them enough easy baskets that they don't get bogged down in long stretches without made field goals? Korie Lucious is playing with so much more confidence this Tournament than I saw all year long when he seemed to be trying too hard (a sure sign of insecurity), and I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt. I think Michigan State will keep the turnover numbers close enough to win the game.

Duke (-4) over Baylor: You have to put that Baylor-Saint Mary's game out of your mind when picking this game. They looked great and absolutely dominated that game, but you always want to be cautious about assuming that a team will play the same way twice in a row. Baylor has actually had an easy route to the Elite 8, as Duke will be the first single-digit they'll have played in this entire Tournament. Baylor has one of the nation's best defensive players in the paint in Ekpe Udoh, but Duke has multiple quality options in the paint. Duke absolutely dominated the paint in the second half against JaJuan Johnson and Purdue. The advantage for Baylor will be on the perimeter, because LaceDarius Dunn and Tweety Carter have carried that team all season long. Both are outstanding three-point shooters, but Duke is the #1 rated three-point defense in the nation, and they've always got good perimeter defense. But the advantage for Baylor will be the lack of backcourt depth that Duke has, and if Dunn and Carter can speed up this game and wear out Jon Scheyer and Nolan Smith then they could start torching the Duke defenders off the dribble. Duke has good big men, but nobody like Ekpe Udoh who is capable of erasing the mistakes of perimeter defenders. This will be a very even game, with both teams capable of balancing out the strengths of the other. In the end I'm going to lean on two things: experience and execution. Coach K has been here before and won here before, and his team executes so incredibly well at the end of games. There is no team in the nation that operates in the final two minutes of games better than Duke, and I'd trust them more than Baylor in a close finish. What I'd be more worried about than picking Duke straight up is actually that point spread, which is probably a little bit high, as Duke's point lines tend to be. I could easily see Duke winning this game by less than four. So if I were you, I'd feel more confident taking the money line on Duke than the spread.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Day 6 Discussion + Day 7 Lines

Here's the daily post for discussing tonight's games. It would be hard for tonight's games to live up to last night's games, but you never know. My thoughts on all of these games are here. Join me tonight in the comments to this post.

While I'm making this post, here are my thoughts on tomorrow's gambling lines:

Day 5 against the spread: 2-1-1
Total ATS through Day 5: 28-21-3

Butler (+4) over Kansas State: Kansas State has been on quite a run, but it's important that people realize this is a hot streak. They don't normally play this way. They would have lost either of their last two games if Jacob Pullen hadn't played out of his mind, and as I pointed out in the comments to the Day 5 Discussion post: "They'd have lost to both Xavier and BYU if those shots weren't falling. He's had two great performances in a row, but he also shot 30.4% behind the arc for the entire month of February, and has been so up and down all season. It's a lot to ask for three straight games like this." Butler was able to hold Syracuse off of the offensive boards, so they should be able to hold Kansas State. And the Wildcats have a bad habit of putting opponents to the foul line, while Butler is excellent at drawing fouls and they shoot 74% when they get there. Finally, teams tend to struggle in the NCAA Tournament after only one day off following an overtime game. I like Butler to win this game straight up.

West Virginia (+4) over Kentucky: Kentucky was very unimpressive against Cornell. The Big Red had their worst shooting day in a very long time (33% from the field, 24% behind the arc, 62% at the line), yet they were only six points down with five minutes to go. I had assumed that Cornell would have to repeat their shooting performance from Temple and Wisconsin to beat Kentucky, but it turned out that a season average shooting percentage would have been enough. The worry for West Virginia is ball handling without Truck Bryant, but they improved dramatically from the first half to the second half against Washington, and Kentucky actually isn't that great at forcing turnovers (8th best in the SEC). You can't discount the John Wall show, but I'm still leaning toward West Virginia. I just think they're the better team, and after watching enough Da'Sean Butler and John Wall this season, I can say that despite Wall being a much better NBA prospect, Butler is the one I'd rather have taking that last shot in any game this season.

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.

Day 5 Discussion

I want to set up a post for people who want to discuss the games tonight. We had some pretty good discussions so far this Tournament, so let's keep it up tonight.

My short thoughts on each of these games are here. Of the first two games, the more interesting is the Syracuse/Butler game. The real question is clearly whether Rick Jackson can stay out of foul trouble. Butler's weakness is inside, and Jackson can eat them alive. But when he was in foul trouble against Gonzaga, the Orange turned into a jump shooting team, and Butler's perimeter players are more explosive offensively than the Syracuse perimeter players. And that's why Jackson is also needed defensively, to protect the paint.

Of the second two games, everybody is mostly focused on the Kentucky-Cornell game. It's an interesting clash of style, but in the end it's really just going to come down to how well Cornell shoots. I can't recall ever seeing a team where all five starters got as hot as Cornell did against Wisconsin, and if they repeat that performance they'll beat Kentucky. But it's hard to see them shooting that well again, and if the shots aren't falling at a higher than typical rate then they're going to get blown off the floor. The question will just be whether they can shoot well enough to stay in the game against a vastly more talented Kentucky team.

I'll be here all night working on my 2010-11 previews (Big West, Ivy League, MEAC and MAC are up next), so join me tonight watching the games.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Picking The Lines: Sweet 16 Games

It's time to take a break from previewing the 2010-11 season pick some lines for the Sweet 16. As you all know, I've been a victim of statistical flukes this Tournament. There are always going to be a bunch of one-game flukes, like Georgia Tech's free throw shooting against Oklahoma State, or Cornell's team-wide shooting against Wisconsin, and it just seemed like every single one of those went against me this year. Just an awful run.

That said, I'm hopeful after finally having a good day picking the lines for Sunday's games, going 7-1 against the spread to bring myself to 26-20-2 against the line through two rounds. So does that mean you should trust my gambling advice for the first time in a couple of weeks? Maybe. Although don't get mad at me if the next team to go 24-for-25 from the free throw line is a team I picked against. Without further ado, here's my take on the Sweet 16 lines:

Butler (+6) over Syracuse: It looks like Arinze Onuaku probably wont play, and Syracuse could finally suffer from their lack of depth. Without Onuaku they barely even attempt to push the ball inside, and just launch deep shots all game. They hit them against Gonzaga, but there's no reason to expect them to shoot that well again. And Butler is a much better team than Gonzaga. Don't be surprised to see Syracuse go down.

West Virginia (-3.5) over Washington: The Truck Bryant injury doesn't change my mind here. West Virginia is just the much better team, and Washington has simply benefited from an easy path to the Sweet 16. Their run will end here.

Cornell (+10) over Kentucky: Kentucky's defense isn't any better than Wisconsin's, so if Cornell repeats their shooting performance then it's not impossible for them to take out Kentucky.

Kansas State (-5) over Xavier: If Kansas State plays half as well as they did against BYU, they should take care of a Xavier team that is going to really struggle to stop the K-State backcourt. Xavier doesn't have the athleticism to keep up, and that line is too small for me to bet on a close finish.

Ohio State (-4.5) over Tennessee: People forget that despite wins over Kentucky and Kansas and a Sweet 16 appearance, that the win over San Diego State was only Tennessee's third win over the RPI Top 50 this season. Ohio State has been rolling, and I can see them dominating the Vols here.

Baylor (-4) over Saint Mary's: Baylor has had all week to figure out how to stop Omar Samhan. And Saint Mary's doesn't have a lot of offensive options if he struggles or gets into foul trouble. Saint Mary's is good, but they're overrated because people forget how awful Villanova has been for well more than a month now: beating them isn't the same as beating a team like West Virginia or Ohio State. In fact, Baylor has been much better than Villanova of late, and will prove an even tougher test.

Michigan State (-4) over Northern Iowa: The Kalin Lucas injury is the only reason this line is so close, because the Spartans were so downright awful with the ball when Lucas was out earlier this season. But they had those troubles against Big Ten defenses, and Northern Iowa won't be quite as pesky. And not only is Northern Iowa due for a letdown after that big win over Kansas, but you can bet that Tom Izzo, arguably the best NCAA Tournament coach of the past 15 years, has spent all week studying how badly Northern Iowa struggled to handle the Kansas full court press late in the game. Northern Iowa has been very careful with the ball most of the season, but Michigan State might pressure them and force enough turnovers to balance out however many turnovers they commit themselves. And if the turnover numbers are remotely close then there's no way Northern Iowa can win.

Duke (-7) over Purdue: This is where the run ends for Purdue, a team that had a pretty easy path to the Sweet 16. Duke has been playing so well over the last few weeks, and is arguably the best team left in the Tournament. The upset of Kansas and the injuries for West Virginia and Syracuse mean that Kentucky might be the only true contender left that might stop Duke from another National Championship.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

2010-11 Preview: Small Conferences, Part II

Northeast Conference

This was a close battle all season long, with none of the NEC teams really separating themselves. Quinnipiac and Robert Morris fought to a tie atop the regular season standings, although both Sagarin and Pomeroy viewed Mount St. Mary's as a team that was as good as either of the top two (both actually rated them as, by an extremely narrow margin, the best team). But in the end, for the second consecutive season, it was Robert Morris earning the automatic bid and being a pain in the butt for a Big East team in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. But it's hard to see Robert Morris being as good next season, with three senior starters and two other seniors that earned regular minutes. They did have a very nice freshman class this past year, with four of them earning regular time, and so I would imagine 2010-11 being more of a reloading season, and they'll be ready for another run at an automatic bid very soon. In fact, the two returning starters were both freshmen, including leading scorer Karon Abraham (13.6 per game), who led the team with 44% three-point shooting. But the big losses for the team will be down low, which is a problem because rebounding was a key to their success this year, particularly considering how awful their ball handling was (268th in offensive turnover efficiency). Both players who collected 5.0 or more rebounds per game will graduate. They will have to solve those rebounding gaps to compete near the top of the conference again in 2010-11. Most likely they'll be back again in 2011-12.

Quinnipiac loses two senior starters, including leading scorer James Feldeine. But the most important player on this past year's team was 6'7" Justin Rutty, who was second on the team in scoring but also led the team with 10.9 rebounds, including 4.9 on the offensive end. Quinnipiac was among the nation's leaders in offensive rebounding, and they should still be excellent with Rutty back for one more year. They will also return leading assist man James Johnson (4.0 per game). The key for finally getting over the top and making the NCAA Tournament will be cleaning up their defense, which was pretty bad. Speaking of defense, the best defense in the conference was Mount St. Mary's. But they will also take a big hit, losing two senior starters, as well as another senior who played 23 minutes per game off the bench. The key returner will be Shawn Atupem, who had 10.7 points and 3.5 rebounds per game. He'll be a senior, as will Jean Cajou, who was second on the team in rebounds despite only being 6'3". The biggest replacement will be Jeremy Goode, who was the only player who collected two or more assists per game. But Mount St. Mary's probably has the deepest recruiting class coming in, and they'll likely start three senior again next season, so they'll be deep and experienced, and they will contend for the automatic bid yet again.

Two other contenders should be LIU and Central Connecticut State, which are two teams that have been stocking up young players the last couple of years, and are hoping to have a payoff either in 2010-11, or in 2011-12. LIU has to replace leading scorer Jaytornah Wisseh (17.6 per game), who also was the team's key ball handler. LIU had defensive holes all season long, and Wisseh's ball handling was a big key. But with 4.2 turnovers per game to go with his 5.7 assists per game, you have to wonder whether in some ways the team will be better off without him dominating the ball. Central Connecticut State had only one senior on the squad, who collected 22 minutes per game. All of their key players will return, and there's no question that they'll be improved. But while they should finish near the top of the standings, you have to imagine that their utter inability to score (0.95 points per possession, despite the weak schedule) will keep them from being able to win day in and day out, which is what you need to do to put up the 15-3 type of record you need to win the conference.

In the end, I think Quinnipiac and Mount St. Mary's will be the two top teams. And the favorite should be Mount St. Mary's, a team that was as good as anybody in the conference this past season and returns the most talent of all of the top programs. Central Connecticut State is a sleeper.

Ohio Valley Conference

Murray State ran away with the Ohio Valley Conference in 2009-10, and it was nice to see them finally cash in with an NCAA Tournament win after so many recent Tournaments where they came up just short in their first round upset bid. They were due to finally break through one of these years. And Murray State is not going anywhere because of how balanced they were. They had a remarkable six players who participated in all 36 games, and who averaged between 9.6 and 10.6 points per game. I can't recall ever seeing a team with such balanced scoring. The one key player that they'll lose is Danero Thomas, but with that type of balanced scoring they were clearly not truly dependent on any one player. Their top two rebounders and assist men will all be back. And one player who I really enjoyed watching them this year was Isaiah Canaan, who as a true freshman was just a lightning bolt of energy off of the bench, including 48% shooting behind the arc. Their suffocating, up-tempo defense will continue to terrorize the conference next season. In fact, there's a good chance that Murray State will actually be better next season than they were this past season.

The only other team that was close to Murray State in ability was Morehead State, a team that with some really quite good inside players was the only team in the conference to actually defeat Murray State this past year. And both Sagarin and Pomeroy rated them right around the 100th best team in the nation (Pomeroy has them 97th, Sagarin has them 105th), which means that if Murray State had fallen on their face in the OVC tournament that Morehead State actually could have been a tough first round NCAA Tournament opponent. They do lose a bit more than Murray State does, however, with two starters and a third rotation player leaving. But their most important player will be back for one more season: Kenneth Faried (16.9 points and 13.0 rebounds per game, both of which led the team). But as good as their rebounding was, they were a possible Top 100 team only because their ball handling wasn't awful, and so they will really miss Brandon Shingles and his 2.1 assists per turnover. Murray State will not have an answer for Faried, but unless Morehead State has capable ball handlers then the Murray State defense will eat them alive.

Austin Peay is another of the teams that historically hangs around the top of the Ohio Valley, and despite falling a bit off the pace in 2009-10, they will return the most of all of the teams in the top half of the conference. They will lose their leading scorer to graduation, but he was the only senior on the roster. Austin Peay had four sophomores that started 15 or more games this past season, and so that outstanding class will be back as juniors. But considering how good Murray State will be, Austin Peay's coaches might be counting on making a run at the conference title in 2011-12, when those kids will all be seniors. Eastern Kentucky and Eastern Illinois were the other teams up near the top of the conference, but both had a ton of graduations and should fall back to the pack. If there's a sleeper team, it could be Tennessee Tech, a team that had only one senior in the regular rotation. Their key returner might be Frank Davis, who launched more than six three pointers per game at a 44.4% clip. The team as a whole hit a very nice 37.6% behind the arc. Elijah Muhammad, the one graduation, will be missed most for his ball handling (4.5 assists per game), but Tennessee Tech will expect to replace him with Georgia transfer Zac Swansey, who actually has a lot of SEC experience. He played 16 minutes per game as a freshman, and then 20 minutes per game (including 2.9 assists per game) as a sophomore. He will surely start immediately at point guard, and if he can live up to expectations then Tennessee Tech could be the top contender for Murray State. But I can't bet against the Murray State Racers, a team that after nearly making the Sweet 16 this year could be even better next year.

Patriot League

The Patriot League was possibly the most even conference all season. It was absolutely impossible all season to pick between Lehigh, Bucknell and Lafayette atop the conference, if for nothing else than because they kept beating each other. There was no team that could beat all of the other top teams, and even teams like American and Holy Cross were in the mix as a potential automatic bid team. In the end, Lehigh won the conference mostly just because they had homecourt advantage through the Patriot League tournament. And Lehigh should take a pretty big step back next year, losing three senior starters including their leading scorer (C.J. McCollum), their leading rebounder (Zahir Carrington) and their leading assist man (Marquis Hall). Hall might be the toughest loss because his 2.6 assists per turnover were a key for a team that took very good care of the ball despite an uptempo offensive style. They will also lose their three top three-point shooters (Hall being one of them), who were a key to the teams 40% shooting behind the arc on the season. I don't see any way that Lehigh repeats their Patriot League title.

The two top contenders were Lafayette and Bucknell. Bucknell was a very balanced team, with a solid eight man rotation where all eight players earned at least 18 minutes per game. Two of those players will be gone, but the other six are actually quite young, including three freshmen. They also are a very fundamental team: they're good at taking care of the ball, at defensive rebounding, and free throw shooting. So while they lack the All-Patriot League performers that some of the other teams have, they'll be deep and steady, and will clearly be in contention atop the conference. Lafayette also loses two players from its rotation. They were dangerous this year because of how well they shot the ball: 50.8% on two-pointers, 37.3% on threes, and 76.4% at the line (fifth best in the nation). Their best shooter was Jim Mower, who launched more than six threes per game at a 47% clip, and will be back. Their problem this past year, however, was that they couldn't hit their shots against the top teams in the conference. They played Bucknell and Lehigh a total of five times (they played Lehigh a third time, in the Patriot League tournament), and only managed to break one point per possession in one of those games. They'll have to figure out a way to beat the best teams in the conference to win it.

American University and Holy Cross are two sleeper teams. American was a very young team: of seven players that earned ten starts or more, five of them were freshmen or sophomores. But the worry with American University is that without the history of schools like Holy Cross and Bucknell, you wonder if their players are good enough to ever win a conference. More realistically we'll be able to use this coming season as a way to judge how these young kids improve, to see if they can be a plausible conference champion in 2011-12. Holy Cross was also young, and will lose just one senior starter, in addition to another senior in the regular rotation. Holy Cross was also a lot better than that awful record (5-9 in conference, 9-22 overall). Both Sagarin and Pomeroy atually rated them as the second best team in the conference, behind only Lehigh.

While you can't dismiss the potential development of all of the young players that American University has, it seems to me that the Patriot League will be a battle between Bucknell and Holy Cross next season. Holy Cross returns more of the pieces from this year's team, but you can't discount how big of a leap it will be to go from 5-9 to the 11-3 or 10-4 record it's going to take to win the conference. It will be a very close battle between those two teams, but for now I'm leaning toward Bucknell as the early favorite.

Southern Conference

Wofford was my preseason pick to earn their first ever NCAA Tournament appearance, and they cashed in by not only making it, but earning a 13 seed and putting up a great first round fight. And they should be around next season, with only two key seniors leaving, and only one of those graduations being out of the starting lineup. Their best player, Noah Dahlman and his 16.6 points and 6.3 rebounds per game, will be back for one more year. Tim Johnson is another quality big man who will be back for one more year with Dahlman. Wofford's weakness was offensive scorers, although Jamar Diggs showed some flashes late in the season. But they were a very solid defensive team, and by taking care of the boards and not turning the ball over they simply continually earned more possessions than their opponent, and that was the key to their victories. As I said, they'll definitely be a player next year.

The best win for the conference all season was the College of Charleston's overtime triumph over North Carolina, and they will only lose two players from their regular rotation. Their keys next year will be the inside-outside combo of Andrew Goudelock (19.4 points and 3.9 assists per game) and Jeremy Simmons (11.9 point per game on 60% shooting, along with 8.0 rebounds per game). But they will need more than Simmons to make up for huge rebounding problems that were probably the reason why they didn't get by Wofford. And they will try to fix that this coming year with transfer Marcus Goode, who at 6'10" tall and 315 pounds managed to collect 4.2 points and 2.8 rebounds per game in only 8.2 minutes per game as a freshman at Marshall. He will have to play a key role for Bobby Cremins to take his kids to the NCAA Tournament next season.

This past season was open for the rest of the conference because Stephen Curry graduated and Davidson took a huge step back. And they will lose several more of the players that are well known nationally from their NCAA Tournament run: Steve Rossiter, Will Archambault and Bryant Barr. There is also a question whether Bob McKillop will stay there, considering how his name keeps getting bounced around for head coaching jobs at bigger schools. But I believe he'll stick around for at least one more year because his son Brendan will be a senior next year. Also, the cupboard is by no means bare. Not only is Frank Ben-Eze back, but they also cashed in on their NCAA Tournament success with a series of excellent recruiting classes that should pay off as long as McKillop stays. They will return five freshmen and sophomores that earned at least nine minutes per game last season. J.P. Kulhman and Jake Cohen are particularly interesting, because as freshman this past season they were the team's two leading scorers. While Cohen was the leading scorer, Kulhman is probably more valuable because he also led the team with 3.3 assists per game, and was an excellent 41.5% behind the arc. In addition, they have yet another excellent recruiting class coming in, highlighted by Tom Droney, rated by as the 38th best point guard in the nation and who was recruited by schools like Virginia. So Davidson loses a lot to graduation, but they unquestionably will bring in more fresh talent than any other team in the conference, and with so many talented young players already on the team they do have a very bright future. McKillop is a very good coach, and was not just a product of Stephen Curry. If he sticks around then they'll have quite a few NCAA Tournaments in their future.

Two other teams that finished near the top of the standings in 2009-10 were Western Carolina and Appalachian State. But both schools lose several seniors that played key roles, and it's hard to see either of them being as good next year. Although Appalachian State does have a highly rated recruit in 6'5" swingman Anthony Thomas. A sleeper team is Chattanooga, a team that loses its leading scorer but returns every other player on the roster. And they're very young: other than the graduation, their three next highest minute earners were all freshmen or sophomores. They also bring in quality transfer in Omar Wattad, who played 11 minutes per game in 2008-09 for Georgetown and should immediately be a big contributor in the SoCon. But in the end, I don't see how this conference doesn't come down to a battle between Charleston and Davidson. If Bob McKillop finally leaves Davidson then Bobby Cremins will probably take his team to the NCAA Tournament, but if McKillop does stay (as I think he will) then I will make Davidson the narrow favorite because they will simply have the most talent, and will still have key players who remember what it was like to play a big part of an NCAA Tournament team in the past.

Sylven Landesberg Gone From Virginia For Good

Anybody following the Virginia situation knew that Sylven Landesberg was never going to play against for them after being suspended for the latter part of this past season, and now it's official that he will leave to go play professionally. Landesberg was clearly the best player on the team, and his loss will be felt, but next year was always going to be a rebuilding season for Tony Bennett.

Landesberg isn't the only player gone. Other players on the roster ths past season who have left the program either mutually or because they were kicked out are Tristan Spurlock, Jamil Tucker and Calvin Baker. The loss of all of these players was a big part of Virginia's slide toward the end of the season - not that they were ever good enough to seriously compete for the NCAA Tournament, but they could have finished better.

But Virginia knew when they hired Tony Bennett that it was going to be a big clean-up job. His system requires a certain type of player, and Virginia doesn't have any of those. It's going to be another couple of years before Virginia again seriously competes for postseason play. But Virginia fans should not despair quite yet. I do think Bennett was a great hire, and he'll have this program turned around. In my opinion he's one of the five best 40-and-under head coaches. They have a good 2010 recruiting class coming in (more on that in my 2010-11 ACC preview, which will be coming in the next couple of weeks), and I expect another one in 2011. Virginia fans will just need to be patient until Bennett can refill the cupboard.

Monday, March 22, 2010

2010-11 Preview: Small Conferences, Part I

Southland Conference

This was a pretty typical Southland Conference season. It seems like every year it's a battle between Sam Houston State and Stephen F. Austin at the top, and this is always a conference that has a lot of experienced players in key roles, as well as a lot of tall players. This is always one of the tallest conferences outside of the BCS conferences. I had picked Sam Houston State a year ago to win this conference, and they took care of business, behind the excellent backcourt of Corey Allmond and Ashton Mitchell, who both will graduate. That said, the leading scorer was actually 6'6" swingman Gilberto Clavell, who will be back for one more year. Another rising senior who will be key is Joston Crow, who at 6'4" was second on the team with six rebounds per game, but also can step outside and hit 41% behind the arc. Ball handling responsibilities will fall to Drae Murray, a 5'11" guard who was third on the team in assists, behind Mitchell and Crow. Sam Houston won't be as good at taking care of the ball as they were this past season, but they'll be able to score and board, and will continue to be a contender atop the conference.

Stephen F Austin was the defending regular season and tournament champion coming into the 2009-10 season, but they couldn't quite overcome Sam Houston State. This was something of a rebuilding season, with so many seniors leaving from the season before. Nine players earned at least ten minutes per game this season, and only two were seniors. More importantly, five of them were juniors, meaning that this will be a very senior heavy team next season. Eddie Williams, one of those seniors, will be a quality shooting guard again. He led the team in scoring this past year at 13.3 per game. The other returning double-digit scorer is 6'7" Jereal Scott, who had 12.8 per game. Jordan Glynn is another key inside returner, with 8.3 rebounds per game. But the real key to this coming key will be the player who fills the most glaring gap on this past year's team: point guard. Their leading assist man (senior Eric Bell) had only 3.8 per game, and they struggled with turnovers. But coming in they have Harrison Smith, a pretty highly rated recruit at Texas who had the misfortune of being in the same recruiting class as Kevin Durant, Damion James, Dexter Pittman, D.J. Augustin and Justin Mason. He sat on the bench for three years before transferring to Stephen F. Austin for playing time. And he'll get a lot of playing time next year, and could be the key to their chances of getting back to the Tournament.

Texas A&M Corpus Christi and Southeastern Louisiana were the top competitors to the big two Southland schools this year. Texas A&M-CC loses leading scorer Kevin Palmer, but the other four starters return, including Desmond Watt and his 7.8 rebounds and 12.7 points per game, on 66% shooting. Their biggest problem, like many Southland teams, is guard play. They will most likely be looking to Terrence Jones to step up and take over as the key ball handler. Southeastern Louisiana only loses two seniors, but both played key roles, and one was leading scorer Patrick Sullivan (15.7 per game), who also led the team in rebounds. They actually have a height problem, as their only returner over 6'6" is 6'7" David Ndoumba, who only played 12 minutes per game. Their success this year came with three-point shooting, which was 19th in the nation at 38.9%, led by rising-senior Trent Hutchin (44.4%). But three-point shooting is hit-or-miss, and without elite size or ball handling, it's hard to see them seriously contending to actually win this conference.

A young and rapidly improving team that I like is Nicholls State, led by 6'6" swingman Anatoly Bose (21.1 points per game). They had zero seniors on the roster and will clearly be improved, but they lack a clear second option after Bose. Also, they have a worrying lack of size for this conference, with no player taller than 6'7" getting ten minutes or more per game. They could be a sleeper, but unless Bose gets some help then they'll come up short. I think the top four teams in this conference this past year should all stay near the top in 2010-11, but Harrison Smith seems to be the missing piece to take Stephen F. Austin over the top. They're the favorites.

Southwestern Athletic Conference

I'm going to give my annual complaint about how this conference is so awful every single year. They are one of the competitors every single season for the play-in game in the NCAA Tournament, and I can't even remember the last time they produced one of those scary first round teams. I often hear academics as an excuse, but that's nonsense. The Ivy League is a far superior athletic conference, and they don't even have scholarships to offer. The Great West conference is already close to passing the SWAC, and not only do they not have an automatic Tournament bid to hand out, but it's a conference mostly full of teams that are new to Division I.

If there's one program that at least has been mediocre the last few years, it's been Jackson State, a team that always seems to be in the mix for the automatic bid. They won the regular season title, although it was close all season long and so Arkansas-Pine Bluff pulled what was at best a minor upset in the SWAC tournament. But Arkansas-Pine Bluff should not be back. They had six players earn more than 20 minutes per game this past season, and four of them were seniors. They had a magical season making the Tournament and actually won an NCAA Tournament game (okay, it was the play-in game, but it was the first NCAA Tournament win by a SWAC team since Southern knocked off Georgia Tech in 1993), but they will not repeat that performance in 2011.

Alabama State is another program that should take a step back, with three seniors among their top five minutes earners. But that said, they do have a bright future with a stellar freshman: Tramaine Butler, who finished the season with 10.4 points, 4.9 points and 2.3 assists per game. 2010-11 should be a rebuilding year for them, but Butler could lead them in the future to the NCAA Tournament. Texas Southern is an interesting team because both Sagarin and Pomeroy actually rated them as the second best team in the conference. They graduate two seniors from the starting lineup, but that's actually less than most of their competitors atop the conference. The key for them will be the inside-outside combo of Travele Jones and Whitworth Treasure, who were two of the three top scorers on the team this past year. And Jones led the team in rebounds per game, while Treasure led the team in assists per game.

But the king of this conference the past few years has been Jackson State, and despite losing leading scorer Garrison Jackson they do return the other four players that earned 28 or more minutes per game. De'Shaun Dixon and Cason Burk will both return and the combination of them were a menace on the boards in the SWAC, making them 85th in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage (anytime you're in the top 100 in the nation in any positive statistical category you're doing something right in this awful conference). And Rod Melvin is a quality distributor of the ball. I won't go so far as to say that Jackson State might be good enough to earn a 15 seed if they win the conference, but they have a great shot of avoiding the play-in game. Jackson State is the clear favorites, in my mind, to win the SWAC in 2010-11.

Summit Conference

The 2009-10 season was pretty straightforward for the Summit. Everybody knew that Oakland was the best team coming into the season, and they toughened themselves up with an out of conference schedule that included Kansas, Syracuse, Wisconsin, Memphis and Michigan State, a non conference strength of schedule that Pomeroy rated 12th. It ended up earning them only a 14 seed, however, and they fell in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to Pittsburgh. Oakland won't be disappearing either, with only two key players graduating. Those two were starters, but their leading scorer and rebounder (6'11" Keith Benson) will return for one more year. 6'9" Will Hudson is another key post player, and they also have a 6'10" freshman coming in: Corey Petros. Their key concern will be replacing Johnathon Jones, who led the team with 6.4 assists per game, with no other player even putting up two per game. They'll have to find a way to replace him with a quality ball handler to return to the NCAA Tournament.

The key competitor for Oakland this past season was IUPUI. Despite losing the regular season and tournament title (they actually lost head-to-head in the Summit tournament title game), both Pomeroy and Sagarin actually rated IUPUI as the better team. They were an excellent shooting team (8th in the nation in effective field goal percentage), and also got a lot of freebies, finishing fourth in the nation in defensive steal percentage. That said, they do lose two seniors, including leading scorer Robert Glenn (19.8 per game). They also lose Billy Pettiford, who was a big part of that defense with 2.2 steals per game. Alex Young and his 18.3 points per game will be back, as will leading assist man John Ashworth (4.6 per game).

Oral Roberts will be a key contender next year, with only one key player graduating. A very strong defensive team, they also return their three leading scorers. Their best player next year will likely be Michael Craion, who had 13.3 points and 7.3 rebounds per game last season. They don't have a clear best ball handler, but with their defensive stats (by far the best in the conference) they don't need to score a whole lot. South Dakota State is another team to keep an eye on, losing only two key players and with probably the highest rated incoming recruit in the entire conference (6'9" Jordan Dykstra). Their defense was downright atrocious, though (313th in the nation in effective field goal percentage against, and 293rd in overall defense according to Pomeroy). If they can clean them up then they'll be a contender. But most likely this coming season will again be a battle between traditional powers Oakland, IUPUI and Oral Roberts. And I'm leaning toward Oral Roberts because so much returns from a team that already had an RPI near the Top 100, and because you can never overrate team defense.

Sun Belt Conference

The Sun Belt was a bit of a circus this year with the Isiah Thomas show coming to town. The thing was, with all of the hype it was pretty obvious even before the season started that the team wouldn't be any good in 2009-10. He inherited a terrible team, and several of those players transferred out. The team wasn't really any better than it was the year before. But the key was always going to be this coming season, when Isiah Thomas was going to bring in some big time, players. The key is blue chip recruit Dominique Ferguson (Rivals: 40, Sout: 8 PF), who is the type of Top 50 recruit that just never comes to a conference like the Sun Belt. They have another quality recruit in 5'9" point guard Phil Taylor. In addition, they're bringing in two key transfers: Alex Legion (the disappointing former blue chipper who has played at Kentucky and Illinois), as well as Brandon Moore from Arkansas. Those are four players who will immediately make Florida International a competitive team at the top half of the conference, but it's going to take at least another year of those types of players for Isiah to have a true legitimate chance of getting his team to the NCAA Tournament, let alone making them the Top 25 team who he's boasting he's building.

The dominant team the last few years, Western Kentucky, had a down year in 2009-10. And they are graduating several of the key players from their previous NCAA Tournaments: A.J. Slaughter, Anthony Sally and Jeremy Evans. That said, they do get one more year out of Steffphon Pettigrew (14.9 points per game, 5.9 rebounds per game). And they have what might be the deepest recruiting class in the conference, highlighted by 6'2" shooting guard Brandon Peters. They also have a couple of key transfers of their own: 6'6" swingman Juan Patillo from Oklahoma and 6'11" Teeng Akol from Oklahoma State. They'll have plenty of scoring and plenty of size, with the one key question being ball handling. And considering that both Sagarin and Pomeroy actually rated them as the best team in the Sun Belt this past season, they will clearly be a contender yet again.

After all of that, of course, it's worth mentioning that it was North Texas that earned the Sun Belt's automatic bid after earning a share of the regular season title. They did it by doing a wonderful job of getting to the basket, finishing first in the nation with 0.53 free throw attempts for every field goal attempt, and also shooting far better from inside the arc than beyond it. The biggest part of that was 5'10" guard Josh White, who led the team in points, free throws attempted and made (at an 82% clip), and assists. He'll be back for one more season. They also graduate only one key player from their regular rotation, and will clearly be back as a key contender next season.

Troy and Middle Tennessee State were the other two co-regular season champions, but both graduate a ton of players. Troy was the most experienced team in the country, with a regular rotation made up entirely of seniors and juniors. But they will now graduate all five starters and have a lot of rebuilding to do. Middle Tennessee State doesn't have quite as much to replace, with just three seniors among the four players that earned more than 25 minutes per game. The fourth was freshman James Washington, who also led the team in assists, and should be the key player for their future. But there's no way that team doesn't take a step back in 2010-11.

The sleeper pick in the Sun Belt is Florida Atlantic, a team that had zero seniors on the entire roster, and had a spectular true freshman in 5'6" Raymond Taylor, who had 14.2 points per game and led the team with 5.9 assists per game. I could see them making a dark horse run at a Sun Belt title in 2011, but most likely they're a year away from really competing with the big boys. In the end, I think the title will come down to North Texas and Western Kentucky. North Texas returns more players, but all of those talented incoming players, combined with so much experience dominating this conference, make Western Kentucky the favorite to get back to the NCAA Tournament.

2010-11 Previews Coming

Just a heads up to everybody that I'm working on my 2010-11 conference previews, and hope to post the first batch tonight. That's not to say I'll only be doing conference previews. I'll also be talking about the upcoming Tournament games. I hope to have a preview of the second weekend tomorrow night. But mostly I'm already starting to pivot to the next season. As my regular readers know, I always have a preview of all 31 automatic bid conferences, as well as the new BP65, within a week of the end of the NCAA Tournament.

The previews will be similar to the way they've been in the past. The BCS conferences each will get their own post. The other conferences will be multiple conferences per post, with "mid-major" conferences separated from "small" conferences. Fans of "small" conferences have gotten mad at me in the past for insulting their conferences, but that is not my intention. I'm just looking to have an organization to all of this - it doesn't affect how I rate individual teams.

One diference this season will be that I will be replacing "returning starters" with "Pomeroy experience". I always thought "returning starters" was fairly arbitrary because sometimes it's subjective who a "starter" is if one guy starts and plays 15 minutes per game, versus a teammate who comes off the the bench and plays 25 minutes per game. Also, it says nothing about key reserves. The Pomeroy Experience rating weights the total minutes played, and the class of those players on the floor. A freshman is worth 0, and a senior is worth 3, so if all you do is play five juniors at all times you get a Pomeroy Experience rating of 2.00. If half of your minutes go to seniors, and half go to sophomores, you get the same score. I will give both the actual rating, as well as the national ranking out of all 347 teams. So the team with a Pomeroy Experience rank of 1st gave the highest percentage of minutes of all teams in the nation to older players. One caveat is that I didn't actually save the data until earlier today, so it will actually include data from the first weekend of the postseason tournaments, but that shouldn't affect the results much.

The other stats included will be conference record, total record and RPI. All of those stats are from the end of the conference tournaments, and do not include any NIT, NCAA, CBI or CIT results.

Stay tuned!