Monday, March 28, 2011

2011-12 Preview: Small Conferences, Part II

Northeast Conference

Relative to recent history, this was actually a strong season for the Northeast Conference. The conference rarely has two teams as strong as their top four were, and LIU was a really strong 15 seed. I actually thought they deserved a 14 seed. Considering that this conference has been getting a lot of 16 seeds in recent years, that qualifies as a successful year. In fact, the only three wins the NEC has ever had in the NCAA Tournament have all come in play-in games (16/16 play-in games in 2006 and 2008, and a 12/12 play-in game in 1983). Even worse, other than those play-in games, you have to go back to 1968 to find any kind of postseason win: an NIT win by LIU over Bradley. So can the NEC improve to the point that they can get a team with a high enough seed that they can realistically win an NCAA Tournament game?

We can start with LIU, since they dominated the conference in 2010-11, and actually put up a pretty good fight against North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament. LIU plays an uptempo style (third in the nation with 75.1 possessions per game) and they have an explosive set of guards on both sides of the floor. Two players from their starting rotation will graduate, but neither is critical, and they return six different players that scored at least six points per game last season. They still will have two good ball handlers (CJ Garner and Jason Brickman), several good perimeter defenders (Jamal Olasewere, CJ Garner and Julian Boyd all averaged more than one steal per game), and a couple of good outside shooters (two returning regulars hit over 38% behind the arc last season). Their biggest flaw is in the paint, where they could really use players that can both score and defend. They do have two decent young bigs in Julian Boyd and Jamal Olasewere, both of whom were sophomores in 2010-11.

Robert Morris, the team that represented the NEC in the NCAA Tournament in 2010 and fell in overtime to LIU in the 2011 NEC tournament title game, is the opposite of LIU. They like to grind the ball (second slowest tempo of all teams in the NEC). Robert Morris is also a very young team. In their nine man rotation in 2010-11, only one was a junior and only one was a senior. They were turn their five top scorers, top two rebounders and top two assist men. They also return two different regulars that shot at least 42% behind the arc on the year (they led all teams with a 39.1 3P% in NEC play). Robert Morris received a blow when Elton Roy, the star of their 2010 recruiting class, decided to transfer out, but they've got a quality transfer showing up in the form of Mike McFadden from Iona, who I believe will have three years of eligibility left. And they have two very promising young players in Coron Williams (a freshman) and Lijah Thompson (sophomore), with two more good recruits in the 2011 class: 6'7" Keith Armstrong and 6'2" David Appolon. It's hard to not expect them to be improved next season.

Quinnipiac was the second best team in the NEC this past season, and they actually were rewarded with a bid to the CIT, where they lost their opening game by seven points to Buffalo. They succeeded by absolutely dominating the boards in the NEC - they led the conference in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage, although they weren't really good at anything else. They lose only two players from their nine man rotation, although one was their best rebounder (Justin Rutty - 4.0 offensive boards per game). They have one more year of eligibility for their best player, James Johnson (16.1 ppg, 38.5 3P%, 3.5 apg, 1.6 spg), but they have no other good outside shooters. They have a good prospect in Dominique Langston (7.1 ppg, 2.0 apg as a true freshman), but unless they find some other shooting they'll probably be held back from actually winning the NEC title with as good as LIU and Robert Morris are likely to be.

A sleeper team has to be Wagner, a program that is off to a really good start in one year under the Hurley Brothers. They swept Quinnipiac and also beat Robert Morris, and won at Bucknell during their non-conference slate. And they did it with zero seniors earning more than ten minutes per game. They shoot the ball well (77% at the line, 37% behind the arc), but have to clean up their ball handling (6th in the NEC in offensive turnover rate) and rebounding (12th in offensive rebounding rate, 9th in defensive rebounding rate). Latif Rivers (2.9 apg as a true freshman) could be the future at point guard, and they're bringing in two more big bodies (Eugene McRory and Mario Moody) with their 2011 recruiting class. The team will definitely be better and could potentially contend for a conference title, although they're most likely at least a year away from actually winning.

The NEC should be even better next year, and could actually have a team in play for a 13 seed, but I think it's going to come down to Robert Morris and LIU. LIU will still be playing an exciting, uptempo style, but Robert Morris should be far improved with a whole lot of depth. Since I've been following the Pomeroy ratings the NEC has never had a single team in the Top 100. They could potentially have two next year. But of those two, Robert Morris is my pick.

Ohio Valley Conference

Even though Murray State won the regular season Ohio Valley title, the story of the OVC was Morehead State, with Kenneth Faried setting the Division I career rebounding record and leading Morehead State to an NCAA Tournament victory over Louisville. But not only will Faried be gone next year, but so will their primary playmaker (Demonte Harper - 3.4 apg) and their second best offensive rebounder (Sam Goodman). They were already a poor ball handling team, and that's just going to get worse, and they're a poor shooting team, so without the rebounding they won't have much left. The do have a bunch of young players with size, and the hope for Morehead State will be that by learning from Faried they will gain strength and play with intensity on the boards. They also might be able to get some decent ball handling from Lamont Austin (3.8 assists per 40 minutes played, and a 1.5 A/TO ratio). But I just don't see how this team doesn't have a huge drop-off next year.

Murray State won 13+ games in OVC play for the sixth straight season, and won their second consecutive regular season title, but a shocking loss to Tennessee Tech in the OVC tournament semifinals sent them to the NIT instead of the NCAA Tournament. They do lose three seniors from their regular rotation, including two very good shooters. They had three starters that shot between 39% and 41% behind the arc, and two of them will graduate. But even so, Murray State is still going to be dangerous. Their biggest strength was forcing steals and getting layups and they still retain most of their top perimeter defenders. They also still have two more years of eligibility from Edward Daniel, who had 2.3 blocks per 40 minutes played and was the best rebounder on the team in 2010-11. Ivan Aska is another good rebounder back. Shawn Jackson and Chris Griffin were two other bigs that played well in limited minutes as true freshmen in 2010-11, so Murray State's front line should even be better in 2011-12. But the concern comes back to the shooting. Murray State will contend for the Ohio Valley title in 2011-12 simply because they contend every year, but the only way they'll be as good or better than they were in 2010-11 will be if they can find some shooters to spread out the floor.

The only other team that seriously contended with Murray State and Morehead State in 2010-11 was Austin Peay. And Austin Peay did it with only one senior on the roster. To be fair, that senior (Caleb Brown) was the team's primary ball handler and leading assist man (4.7 per game), but Austin Peay has other point guard options, including TyShwan Edmondson and Tyrone Caldwell. Caldwell has the more efficient ball handling stats, but hasn't played many minutes, so you never know what happens to players when they have to start instead of playing in short bursts off the bench. But Austin Peay's ball handling wasn't a strength in 2010-11 anyway. They were a strong defensive team (they led the OVC in defensive eFG%) and they can shoot (they return three different regulars that shot 36% or better behind the arc this past season). They will potentially start four seniors next year, and will definitely be a serious contender in the OVC.

If a team from the second tier of the conference contends for a conference title next year it will likely be Tennessee Tech or Tennessee State. Tennessee Tech was the fourth best team in the conference in 2010-11 according to Sagarin and Pomeroy and they knocked off Murray State in the OVC tournament before falling to Morehead State in the title game. They actually earned a bid to the CIT where they fell in a close game to Western Michigan. And Tennessee Tech did that with only one senior on the roster. They return their leading scorer (Kevin Murphy - 17.0 per game) and a good playmaker (Zac Swansey - 6.4 apg). But what bothers me about Tennessee Tech is that they don't have anybody that is really good at anything, and as a team they weren't really good at anything. So even though they should be improved next year since basically everybody is back, is their talent ceiling really high enough to challenge teams like Murray State and Austin Peay?

Tennessee State wasn't a good team at all this past season (outside the Top 230 in every computer rating), but they did it with zero seniors. Of the eight players that earned double-digit minutes per game, they were two juniors, four sophomores and two freshmen. And they're adding even more depth with a couple of transfers in of Jordan Cyphers from Utah and Bawa Muniru from Indiana. Neither player did anything at their previous schools, but that doesn't mean that they can't succeed at a lower level conference. They can shoot the ball (37.6% behind the arc as a team, including four regulars that shoot over 38%) and also led the OVC in 3P% defense. With so much depth and the fact that they already have the ability to beat good teams if they're shooting the ball well (they beat Morehead State and Austin Peay this past year, and only lost by five at Memphis), Tennessee State has to be a darkhorse team for next season.

History tells us that Murray State and Austin Peay tend to dominate this conference, and both look to be really good again. But as good as Murray State has been in recent years, I think that the lack of shooters is a huge question mark. Austin Peay is the more certain thing, and should definitely be improved. In my opinion, Austin Peay is the favorite.

Patriot League

Bucknell absolutely dominated the Patriot League in 2010-11, and were probably the best team that the Patriot League has produced since those Bucknell teams that won a couple of NCAA Tournament games in 2005 and 2006 (remember, that 2005-06 Bucknell team actually earned a 9 seed in the NCAA Tournament). Obviously the 2010-11 Bucknell team doesn't compare to the Kevin Bettencourt/Chris McNaughton/Charles Lee teams, but they do a lot of things in common. They still play that tight defense (23rd in the nation in eFG% against) and can hit threes (40% for the season). And this year's team was very young: their starting lineup consisted of three sophomores, a junior and a senior. They lose only two players from their regular rotation, and only one other player in their rotation was a junior. So this is a team that should continue to progress the next two seasons at least. Mike Muscala is the team's go-to scorer (14.9 ppg, 52% shooting, 7.3 rpg), although their most efficient scorer is actually Bryson Johnson (11.7 ppg, 45.6 3P%). The team's biggest concern in 2011-12 will be replacing Darryl Shazier, who led the team with 5.4 apg. Rising-senior Bryan Cohen was second on the team in assists, but the most promising option might be Ryan Hill, who had 3.8 assists per 40 minutes played in limited opportunities as a true freshman in 2010-11. As far as I can tell, Bucknell does not have a point guard in their 2011 recruiting class, so the development of Hill might be the difference between winning or not winning an NCAA Tournament game over the next two years, while they've still got Muscala and Johnson.

The only other team to finish above .500 in the Patriot League in 2010-11 was American University, and they won't disappear next year. They lose three starters to graduation, but return everybody else, and they could have four senior starters next season. Their most important player (Stephen Lumpkins: 13.5 ppg, 59% shooting, 8.2 rpg, 1.3 bpg) will return for one more year. He's most important because they won games last year in the paint - they led the Patriot League in 2P%, defensive rebounding percentage and offensive block percentage. A key player will be Tony Wroblicky, a 6'10" center who was a big time recruit (by Patriot League standards) in 2010. He's already a force physically (10 rebounds per 40 minutes played in limited minutes) and if he can develop some offense then American could be as good as they were this past season.

If there's a sleeper team for next year it's Lehigh. They lose four seniors that got decent minutes at times, but only one was a starter, and the other four starters consisted of three sophomores and a freshman. They've got a really nice playmaker in Macky McKnight, who had 3.7 assists per game in 2010-11, including a 2.3 A/TO ratio that is really impressive for a true freshman. But the worry for Lehigh will be about who he's giving the ball to. The only player that shot over 32% on threes will graduate, and they were only 7th in the Patriot in eFG% in 2010-11. If they can find some shooters for McKnight and can clean up their defense (6th in eFG% defense).

But let's be honest: Bucknell dominated the Patriot League this past season and should be even better next season. A big question for them will simply be if they can do well enough to earn a 13 or 12 seed in the NCAA Tournament so that they can have a real shot at winning an NCAA Tournament game.

Southern Conference

Coming into this season I thought the conference would be a battle between College of Charleston and Davidson, but Davidson really struggled, and Wofford stepped up and became a Top 100 team and actually won the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. And Wofford was the type of team that is dangerous in the NCAA Tournament because they could shoot the ball (40% behind the arc as a team for the year) and had a star on the inside in Noah Dahlman. But their three stars (Dahlman, Cameron Rundles and Jamar Diggs) all graduate. In all, five players from their seven man regular rotation will be gone. The two returners (Brad Loesing and Kevin Giltner) both will be seniors and both are excellent outside shooters (43% and 42% on threes in 2010-11, respectively), but there's not much left beyond that. Josh Corry, a 2010 recruit, was thought to be the go-to scorer of the future, but he chose to transfer out. Aerris Smith, a 6'7" 260 pound forward, was a relatively highly rated recruit in 2010, but barely played at all as a freshman. Showing up in 2011 will be Karl Cochran, a point guard, and Lucas Brown, a shooting guard. Unless they pick up a couple of big time Juco transfers, I don't see how
Wofford doesn't take a big step back next year.

The best team in the SoCon all year was probably the College of Charleston, but they lose four seniors from their rotation, including their superstar Andrew Goudelock (23.7 ppg, 40.7 3P%, 4.2 apg). They do return three quality players in Andrew Lawrence (5.8 ppg, 38.8 3P%, 1.7 apg, 1.0 spg), Willis Hall (8.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg) and Trent Wiedeman (8.4 ppg, 62% shooting, 6.6 rpg). Wiedeman should be the go-to scorer next year, and he along with Hall already made up the two best rebounders on the team, so that part of Charleston's game (a weakness in 2010-11) should be improved. Wiedeman was the star of a strong 2010 recruiting class that also had James Carlton (a 6'8" forward) and Jordan Scott (a 5'11" shooting guard) as key cogs. Scott and Carlton will be expected to take on much larger roles in 2011-12. The star of the 2011 recruiting class, without question, is 6'9" center Adjehi Baru (Rivals: 26, Scout: 3 C), a true blue chip recruit who turned down offers from North Carolina, Maryland and Virginia Tech to go to a Charleston team where he could start right away. The recruiting was also impacted by Patrick Branin, a lesser member of the 2011 recruiting class, who was Baru's high school and AAU teammate, and whose father is actually Baru's legal guardian. However he got to Charleston, he will likely be an immediate force, giving Charleston a lot of quality size. Anthony Stitt and Trevonte Dixon are a pair of quality 2011 recruits that will provide backcourt depth as well. Baru's play, and whether he needs a year or two of seasoning, will determine whether Charleston will be improved next season, but they'll certainly contend for another SoCon title.

Davidson was a team that disappointed, but they were better than their final record. In the non-conference they beat Nebraska and almost won at St. John's, then faded with a hideous stretch of seven losses in eight games to start the 2011 calendar year, but won nine of their final ten regular season games and had a respectable performance in the CBI, where they thumped James Madison by 20, then lost to a Creighton team that followed up that game by destroying Central Florida by 18. Bob McKillop's son, Brendan, was the only senior on the team. In fact, of the seven players that earned at least 15 minutes per game, one was Brendan McKillop, but the other six were freshmen and sophomores. On the inside they are anchored by Jake Cohen and De'Mon Brooks. Frank Ben-Eze provides rebounding depth, but isn't much of a scorer. Their top two perimeter scorers are JP Kuhlman and Nik Cochran, both of whom hit more than 45 threes during the season, although neither hit higher than 38%. If they can improve that outside shooting then it will add a new dimension to the team. On the wing they have two promising players that were freshmen in 2010-11: Tom Droney and Jordan Downing. Both are athletic but were poor shooters and turned the ball over a lot - typical for true freshmen. With some added seasoning, there's no way this Davidson team isn't improved next season.

The champion of the SoCon North was Western Carolina, and they did it with only two seniors in their regular rotation. That said, the two seniors represented their leading scorer and assist man (Mike Williams) and their leading rebounder (Richie Gordon). They had four true freshmen that earned at least 13 minutes per game this past season, including two of their starters, so the future is still bright, but it's hard to see them not taking a step back in 2011-12. Chattanooga was the co-champion in the regular season in the SoCon North, although they had three seniors among the eight players that earned double-digit minutes per game. They do return their star Omar Wattad (14.3 ppg, 36.1 3P%, 2.0 apg) and their key playmaker (Keegan Bell - 5.7 apg) for one more season, so they should still have some offense. The toughest loss to replace will be DeAntre Jefferson, who led the team in defensive rebounding, which is important since that's the only important category that Chattanooga led the SoCon in. Chris Early is a good returning rebounder, but they will likely need an improvement from Sam Watson, who has the physical size to be a good rebounder but hasn't played much yet in his career. I can definitely see Chattanooga winning the SoCon North in 2011-12, but I'll be very surprised if the eventual champion doesn't come out of the SoCon South.

Like last year, I've got to pick Charleston and Davidson as the two dominant teams in the SoCon. Charleston could very well be even better than they were this past season, but they could improve and still come up short. Davidson was a lot better in 2010-11 than their overall record would suggest, and they're extremely young with a very good coach, so it's natural to expect them to improve leaps and bounds. I think either Charleston or Davidson will be good enough to scare major conference foes next March, but I'm giving the preseason edge to Davidson.


Marquis said...

Could you give some analysis on the Lafayette Leopards please? :)

Jeff said...

I didn't get to them because with the small conferences I'm only trying to project the champion, and I think Bucknell should dominate. Lafayette does have an intriguing 7-footer who was a freshman in 2010-11 (Jake Kreuser), but otherwise just don't have an obvious advantage on anybody. They also lose their best player from this past season (Jared Mintz).

Their defense is fine by Patriot standards, but not great. Their shooting is fine, but not great. They are a mediocre rebounding team.

The key for Lafayette making a run in a Patriot tournament will be getting really good at something and then trying to exploit that advantage.

Marquis said...

Thanks for the insight!