Saturday, March 26, 2011

2011-12 Preview: Small Conferences, Part I

Southland Conference

There have been years where the Southland Conference produced dangerous teams. Sam Houston State, Stephen F Austin, Northwestern State and Texas A&M-CC have all produced teams that scared major conference opponents in the past few years. This wasn't one of those years, and it was made even worse when UT-San Antonio pulled a few upsets and earned the automatic bid, making them easy fodder for Ohio State. I'll start this preview with them. UTSA actually only loses one player from their rotation to graduation, but it's their best player: Devin Gibson, who led the team in points (17.0), assists (5.4) and steals (2.6) per game. He was their do-everything player and will not be replaceable. Probably the closest player offensively is Sei Paye, who had 1.6 apg and can shoot the ball. A key player is going to be Jeromie Hill, a lightly recruited player out of Australia who blew up as a freshman, hitting 40% behind the arc and scored 13.4 ppg. With his height (6'8") he can potentially become a good rebounder as well, and he could soon be the go-to player. UTSA was poor defensively last season, and that's just going to get worse without Gibson, so their ability to score in bunches will be key. They have other strong outside shooters, so expect them to be reliant on that next year.

The regular season champion was McNeese State, although they were underwhelming. Honestly, they only won because they were in the Southland East, which was much weaker than the Southland West. They weren't really good at anything. Their top stat on Pomeroy was ball handling (they led the Southland in offensive turnover percentage), but their two best ball handlers (Diego Kapelan and PJ Alawoya) both graduate, as do three other players from their regular rotation. The only player that started at least 20 games that will return is Patrick Richard, who's good at getting to the basket and scoring, but will not be enough for McNeese State to repeat. They will get a quality transfer in Will Brown, a 6'9" athletic forward from New Mexico, who should have two years of eligibility left.

The computers both thought that Sam Houston State was the best team in the conference in 2010-11, but they lose a ton to graduation as well. Their toughest loss will be Gilberto Clavell, who led the team in points (19.5) and rebounds (7.3) per game. He also managed to earn 8.0 free throw attempts per game, which was almost as many as the rest of his teammates combined. They also lose their two other top scorers, but will still have a strong backcourt led by Drae Murray (4.6 apg, 1.2 spg) and Antuan Bootle (57% shooting, 6.1 rpg). The concern for Sam Houston State is where their young depth is coming from. They had signed two really good recruits in their 2010 class (Kumaine Osborne and Randy Collins), but Osborne left to go to a Juco team instead, and Collins quit the team. They don't appear to have much of a recruiting class coming in, so they might be very thin next year.

Stephen F Austin is a team that is always competitive in the Southland, and it's typically because of their tough perimeter defense. They had four different players averaging over a steal per game, although three do graduate. They do return their leading scorer (Jereal Scott - 13.3 per game) but will need some of those younger perimeter players to step up. One player I expect to star is Darius Gardner, who had 2.7 apg in only 21.4 mpg as a freshman. Another freshman who was efficient in short minutes this past season was Amos Olatayo, who scored 4.3 points in only 8.6 minutes per game. Gardner and Olatayo can potentially anchor this team for the next three years. With Scott still able to lead the scoring next year, and with another strong defensive season, Stephen F Austin will again be a serious contender for the Southland title.

Texas-Arlington is an intriguing team because they return every player from their regular rotation. A key player for them is Brandon Edwards, who shot 55% from the field as a freshman and led the team in rebounding despite only playing 20.8 minutes per game. A big key for them will be ball handling. They have a couple of good young guards that can create (Cameron Catlett and Shaquille White-Miller both averaged more than 2.5 apg), but they're very sloppy and the team was 341st in the nation in offensive turnover percentage. As those players mature they should tighten that up, and the team does have good shooters, has height, and can play defense. They should be a serious contender next year.

I think that the loss of Kumaine Osborne and Randy Collins will keep Sam Houston State from reloading, and they will need a couple of years to rebuild. Texas-San Antonio made the NCAA Tournament and could be even better next year, but that's not saying a whole lot. Stephen F Austin is always a serious contender in the Southland, but I expect Texas-Arlington to actually be their top competitor. I'm giving the edge to Stephen F Austin simply because UT-Arlington has zero history winning in the Southland (they haven't finished better than 9-7 in the conference since the 2003-04 season), but look for UT-Arlington to be a threat going forward for the next few years.

Southwestern Athletic Conference

This is where I put in my yearly plea where I'm hoping somebody will explain to me why the SWAC is so awful each year. The conference was actually significantly outplayed by the Great West Conference this year, a conference made up mostly of teams brand new to Division I, has zero history, and does not have an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Neither Sagarin or Pomeroy rated a single team from this conference inside the Top 275. Awful.

The team viewed as "best" by the computers was Jackson State, but only narrowly, and five of the eight players that earned double-digit minutes per game for them this past year were seniors. Texas Southern won the regular season title by a full four games, but when you go 3-10 in non-conference play you can't brag too much. One thing I will say for them is that they have a decent defense - the best in the SWAC - so if they can take care of the ball enough on offense to score some points they can be decent next year. One key returner will be Aaron Clayborn, who had 7.3 ppg and 4.6 rpg early on before getting injured and missing the rest of the season. I believe he'll actually get a medical redshirt, so he should have three years of eligibility left. If Texas Southern can get some kind of decent ball handler they should be improved.

Alabama State was the team that actually represented the SWAC in the NCAA Tournament. They started out the season an embarrassing 6-16, but won 11 of their last 12, including three fairly dominant wins in the SWAC tournament (average margin of victory of 14.7 per game). The key for them was defense. Among their final 13 games of the season, the only two games where they allowed over 1 point per possession were the two games they lost. They play a gigantic rotation (13 players averaged at least 10 minutes per game), so the fact that four players from that rotation will graduate shouldn't hurt them too much. The concern for them will be on offense, where they were an embarrassingly bad shooting team. When you finish first in a conference in defensive turnover percentage, 2P% defense, offensive block percentage and offensive rebounding percentage (i.e. a lot of easy layups), it's unbelievable that you could finish dead last in effective field goal percentage. For the season they shot 44% on twos and 29% on threes. If they can get absolutely any shooting at all they'll be the best team in the conference.

If there's a sleeper team it might be Alcorn State, just because they return every player from their regular rotation and had a decent perimeter defense. They, too, will be a threat if they can figure out how to shoot (last in the entire nation in effective field goal percentage). But just the fact that I'm mentioning a team that went 4-24 against a schedule rated 331st in the nation by Sagarin as a potential contender is proof enough that the SWAC should have their automatic bid taken away. The conference favorite is Alabama State. If they develop their young talent they could actually win a "first round" NCAA Tournament game over another 16 seed. I think Texas Southern is the most likely team to knock them off.

Summit League

This was a deja vu year for the Summit. Oakland plays a ridiculously brutal non-conference schedule that prepares them to dominate the conference with a 17-1 record - far ahead of top contenders Oral Roberts and IUPUI, but then falls in their first NCAA Tournament game against a very tough major conference opponent. That previous sentence describes both of the past two Summit seasons. The top concern coming into the season was probably replacing the 6.4 assists per game that Johnathon Jones gave them in 2009-10, but their offense actually improved. Reggie Hamilton produced 5.3 assists per game this past season and will be back next year, and they've got an encouraging point guard of the future in Ryan Bass. But their big concern for next year will be replacing Keith Benson and Will Hudson, who dominated the paint in all aspects of the game. Benson had 17.9 points, 10.1 rebounds and 3.6 blocks per game. Hudson shot 65% from the field and had 12.6 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. They will have a 7-foot senior next year in Ilija Milutinovic, but he only played 8.9 minutes per game as a junior. More likely, Oakland is going to be leaning on Corey Petros and Kyle Sikora, who were both members of the 2010 recruiting class and redshirt because they weren't going to play much behind Benson and Hudson. Sikora is another 7-footer, but Petros is considered the superior prospect. Oakland has a couple of quality recruits coming in also, in 6'6" swingman Dante Williams, and Matt Poches, a 6'4" shooting guard who is highly regarded by the scouting sites and should be an immediate contributor. There's no question that Oakland will have the best backcourt in the Summit next year. If one or two of those bigs pan out then Oakland should be a Top 100 team again.

IUPUI has consistently been a top contender in the Summit, and I don't expect them to fall off too much next year. They do lose two starters to graduation, with the key loss being Leroy Nobles (18.3 ppg and 37% 3P shooting), but they return a lot of scoring. Leading scorer Alex Young (19.7 per game) will be back, as will Christian Siakam, who shot 63% from the field and led the team with 6.8 rpg (including 3.3 per game on the offensive end) and 1.3 blocks per 40 minutes played. Their biggest concern will actually be defensively, where they were quite poor in 2010-11.

The team that finished second to Oakland in the standings this past season was Oral Roberts, and they did it with zero seniors in their regular rotation. Their star is Dominique Morrison, who led the team with 19.5 points per game. Damen Bell-Holter and Steven Roundtree were both double-digit scorers and also both averaged more than 2.5 offensive rebounds per game, powering a front line that led the Summit in offensive rebounding percentage. If Oakland can't come close to replacing Keith Benson and Will Hudson, Oral Roberts will look for their bigs to dominate inside against Oakland, since the Golden Grizzlies will still have the superior backcourt and could still be better defensively.

A sleeper team absolutely has to be South Dakota State. They only finished fifth in the Summit at 10-8, but both Sagarin and Pomeroy actually rated them as the second best team in the conference. They were 0-3 in conference play in games decided by five points or less, and 0-7 in conference games decided by ten points or less. So they were unlucky. They do lose two starters to graduation, including their second-leading scorer (Clint Sargent), but their best player (Nate Wolters) still has two years of eligibility left. Wolters led the team in points (19.5), assists (6.1) and steals (1.3) per game, and also shot 41% behind the arc. Two other key returners are Jordan Dykstra (11.3 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 52% three-point shooting) and Griffan Callahan (8.8 ppg, 43% three-point shooting, 93% free throw shooting). Chad White also hit 42% of his threes in limited time as a freshman. South Dakota State is going to again be a big time three-point shooting team, and will simply be looking for more post scoring to balance things out and provide stability. Dykstra looks like a big time prospect (he was actually an Iowa State recruit in 2010 before decommitting when that situation fell apart), and they will look at Marcus Heemstra (another 2010 recruit) to provide some depth. Chad White, at 6'6", might also be able to provide some rebounding. That front court depth will be something that, if they can solve, will make South Dakota State a Top 100 team in 2011-12.

If there's a dark horse team in the Summit it's North Dakota State. They only finished 8-10 in the Summit and lose two starters to graduation, but they're also a team that was rated in the Top 175 by both Sagarin and Pomeroy with a really nice crop of rising-sophomores and incoming freshmen. Marshall Bjorklund, Taylor Braun and TrayVonn Wright are all 6'7" or taller and all were excellent as freshmen. Mike Felt, another freshman, hit 47% on threes. They have two more quality recruits coming in, with 6'8" Chris Kading and point guard Joel Lindberg. I'd be surprised if NDSU wins the Summit in 2011-12, but they have a core that will have them contending for the title for the next few years.

It's really hard to bet against Oakland in the Summit with the way they've dominated the conference lately, and they should have the best backcourt. But frontcourt depth is an issue, and I expect the gap between them and the rest of the conference to close. I think Oral Roberts and South Dakota State will both be Top 100 teams and serious contenders, but I still give the narrow edge to Oakland. But with five teams entering the season as potential Top 100 teams, the Summit is definitely a conference on the rise. Have to give credit to whoever thought of re-naming the Mid-Continent Conference, because the talent level of recruits has definitely gone up since that name change.

Sun Belt Conference

In my opinion, this was a disappointing season for the Sun Belt. I talked up this conference preseason (see here for an example), but almost every team under-performed. Florida Atlantic was the only top team that played close to expectations. Western Kentucky in particular was way below what I expected with the talent they have in their starting lineup. And while I didn't buy Isiah Thomas's big expectations when he took the FIU job, I'm still very surprised by how little that team has progressed.

But let's start this preview with Florida Atlantic, since they won the regular season title relatively easily and were probably the best overall team. And they did that with only one senior on the roster (Brett Royster). They return their two star play makers, Raymond Taylor (11.6 ppg, 3.9 apg, 1.5 spg) and Alex Tucker (7.4 ppg, 4.3 apg, 1.1 spg), as well as their top scorer (Greg Gantt - 14.0 per game) and their best shooter (Kore White - 39% behind the arc). Their biggest flaws are defensive rebounding and three-point shooting. One possible answer to the latter problem is Pablo Bertone, who shot 49% from the field (including 7-for-15 behind the arc) in limited minutes. I don't think there's any question that FAU will be better next year than they were this year, but they still have major flaws that need to be fixed for them to get to the NCAA Tournament and with a seed that they can actually win a game from.

Louisiana-Lafayette finished in a tie for the Sun Belt Conference West title, but did it mostly with smoke and mirrors (8-2 in conference games decided by five points or less or in overtime) and they lose three starters to graduation, so I see no way they contend next year. Arkansas State was the other team atop the Sun Belt West, and they lose two starters to graduation, but they do return their most important player - Martavious Adams. Adams led the team in points (11.1) and rebounds (7.2) per game. A key for them will be shooting - they were only eighth in the Sun Belt in eFG% in 2010-11, but have two young players that have shown nice touch (Edward Townsel and Trey Finn) that could open up the offense. With Adams inside and with a decent defense (third best in the conference, according to Pomeroy), some outside shooting will make them a contender to repeat as Sun Belt West champion.

North Texas was viewed by the computers as the best team in the Sun Belt West, but their six top minute earners were all seniors, so they will take a huge step back next year. I should also mention Arkansas-Little Rock out of the Sun Belt West, since they actually won the Sun Belt tournament, but that was more of a magical run than any statement on their quality throughout the season. They lose their three top scorers to graduation, and so should be even weaker next season.

In reality, the best teams in the Sun Belt are in the East. Middle Tennessee State was the second best team in that division. They do lose three starters from their regular rotation, including their leading scorer (James Washington). But they return a good scorer in Jason Jones (13.1 ppg, 47.6 FG%) and a very good rebounder in JT Sutton (8.5 per 40 minutes played). They also have two good transfers that will be eligible - LaRon Dendy, a 6'9" power forward who was a key young player on Iowa State but transferred out when the head coach changed, and Torin Walker, a 6'11" center who couldn't get playing time at Oklahoma State. With those two and Sutton they should be a very good rebounding team again. If James Gallman (7.5 ppg, 36% 3P shooting, 1.0 apg) or Jimmy Oden (2.0 ppg, 1.5 apg, 1.4 spg) can take command of the point guard position and they can find some outside shooting (Gallman is the only returner to hit more than 15 three-pointers in 2010-11) then they will contend for a Sun Belt title.

I had expected big things from Western Kentucky because of that front line of Juan Pattillo, Steffphon Pettigrew and Sergio Kerusch, but it turned out that their backcourt was awful. As a team they finished dead last in the Sun Belt in 3P%, 6th in offensive turnover rate, 11th in defensive turnover rate, and 7th in defensive 3P%. With those three stars all graduating, it's rebuilding time for Western Kentucky. Ken McDonald did put together a nice 2010 recruiting class, and he's got a really nice 2011 recruiting class - he actually out-recruited Isiah Thomas to put together the best and deepest class in the Sun Belt. It's possible that Western Kentucky's starting five will be all freshmen and sophomores next year. So the future is still bright, but it's hard to see them contending for a Sun Belt title before 2013.

A sleeper team in the Sun Belt is Denver. They finished 9-7 in the Sun Belt East and were rated the fifth best team in the conference by Pomeroy, and they did it with only one senior in the rotation. They return their seven top scorers, and have a good combination of defensive pressure (2nd in the Sun Belt in defensive turnover percentage, 1st in block percentage, and 2nd in overall defense by Pomeroy) and outside shooting (7th in the nation with 40.1% three point shooting). They return five regular players that shot at least 40% behind the arc on the year. The biggest thing standing between them and a Sun Belt title is ball handling. They were poor this past season, and their one graduation from the regular rotation is the player (Kyle Lewis) that led the team in assist-to-turnover ratio. They haven't recruited a quality point guard in several years, so this is a glaring weakness that has to be filled with a Juco transfer or I can't see them actually winning the Sun Belt.

Certainly Florida Atlantic will be formidable next year. They were the best team in the Sun Belt this past season and should be even better. Middle Tennessee State, Arkansas State and Denver should all be serious contenders, and Western Kentucky could become dangerous by the time March rolls around (as that young team begins to mature), but I don't see how I can pick against Florida Atlantic to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2002, when they were still in the Atlantic Sun.


Anonymous said...

Who are your winners for the elite 8 games?

Jeff said...

I just put up a post on the first pair of them. I'll have another post up either tonight or tomorrow morning for Sunday's pair of games.