Saturday, April 02, 2011

2011-12 Preview: Small Conferences, Part III

Big West Conference

UC-Santa Barbara pulled an upset over Long Beach State in the Big West tournament championship game, and they ended up earning a 15 seed in the NCAA Tournament where they were destroyed by Florida, but I have to begin this preview with Long Beach State. The reality is that Dan Monson has done a magnificent job at Long Beach State. While Mark Few has been the coach of Gonzaga for as long as many can remember, people forget that their current streak of 13 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances began under Dan Monson. Monson was the coach that led them on that magical Elite Eight run in 1999 that made Gonzaga a household name - and few realize that Mark Few actually hasn't gotten Gonzaga past the Sweet 16 since he took over for Monson. Mark Few took over when Monson left to take the Minnesota job, where he struggled in the wake of the Clem Haskins mess, never finishing higher than a tie for fourth place in the Big Ten. Monson was then pushed out (technically he resigned mid-season) and was relegated to the Big West Conference. He's one of the major stories of caution that has kept coaches like Brad Stevens, Randy Bennett and Mark Few at their mid-major schools a lot longer than coaches typically did in the past. But Monson has tried to turn lemons into lemonade and has done a tremendous job with Long Beach State. He went 6-25 his first season, back to .500 his second season, over .500 his third season, and now dominated his fourth season with a 14-2 Big West record and a rating inside the Top 100 by both Sagarin and Pomeroy.

Long Beach State only loses one starter to graduation: Greg Plater (11.8 ppg, 36.5 3P%). Their backcourt should be fine with star Casper Ware back for one more season (17.2 ppg, 38.1 3P%, 4.4 apg, 1.6 spg). The strength of Long Beach State was inside the paint anyway (they were top two in the conference in 2P%, offensive rebounding percentage and defensive rebounding percentage). Because of that, Monson focused on the backcourt for his 2011 recruiting class. His top two recruits are Michael Caffey (a 5'11" point guard) and Shaquille Hunter (a 6'2" shooting guard). One thing that they could really use for next season would be somebody other than Casper Ware that can hit threes. They also need to build up their young players. Next season's team could potentially start five seniors, and without much from their 2010 recruiting class they're going to need the 2011 class to pan out. Long Beach State may be slightly better or slightly worse next season, but they should be a borderline Top 100 team again and they should contend for another Big West regular season title.

UC-Santa Barbara, of course, was the Big West's representative in the NCAA Tournament. And they were certainly better over the course of the year than that 8-8 Big West record would suggest. In conference play they were only 2-5 in games decided by five points or less or in overtime, and in non-conference play they pulled a massive upset at UNLV. They lose three starters to graduation, but they do return their best player (Orlando Johnson - 21.1 ppg, 40.5 3P%, 6.2 rpg, 2.9 apg). Their biggest need is point guard, and they will hope to find the answer either in 2011 recruit TJ Taylor, or in Nate Garth, a transfer from New Mexico. A secondary need is rebounding (they were the 6th in the Big West in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage). They have athleticism in Lucas Devenny, but he's had his minutes limited so far in his career because he's awful offensively (including an unbelievable 10-for-32 at the free throw line in his college career).

The most likely team to challenge Long Beach State in 2011-12 should be Cal Poly. The Mustangs were a young team that started the season slow, but won six of their final eight regular season conference games to earn a second placed finish, and they did it with a suffocating defense (they led the Big West in eFG% defensive, defensive turnover rate, and overall Pomeroy defensive efficiency). They lose one senior to graduation, and he was their leading scorer (Shawn Lewis), but that might be something of addition by subtraction. Lewis finished tenth in the nation in possessions used (32.6%) and was very inefficient (a 42.2 eFG%). The nine players in the nation that used more possessions than him included players like Jimmer Fredette, Andrew Goudelock and Anatoly Bose, who were all very efficient offensive players that had to carry their offenses. Obviously players who use a lot of possessions and force shots will have lower shooting percentages and offensive efficiencies than players that can sit and wait for their shot, but Lewis's stats are beyond what would be acceptable for an efficient scorer. There's no excuse for a player to launch five threes per game at a 27.6% clip. David Hanson will be the go-to scorer next year, and he's a much better shooter (50.1 eFG%). They will look to add more shooting with their top 2011 recruit: Reese Morgan.

The Big West is typically a tough conference to project because there are always a lot of transfers, particularly from Juco schools. A lot of that will happen over the summer, which means that I may have to go back and change my mind. Long Beach State is ascendant in the Big West and it's hard to bet against Dan Monson, but Cal Poly really could give them a run for their money. Cal Poly is going to be deep at the guard position and will try to really slow the game down. Long Beach State likes to run, but even if they successfully push the tempo, will they have the depth? In the end I'm going to choose to trust that Dan Monson will have a couple of new players ready to fill in off the bench. Casper Ware is the best player in the Big West, and he has one final chance to go Dancing. I think he will: Long Beach State is the pick.

Ivy League

It would be hard to argue that this wasn't the best season the Ivy League has ever had. The conference has never gotten multiple teams into the NCAA Tournament, and honestly Harvard deserved to get an at-large bid this season. Pomeroy and Sagarin both rated the Ivy League as the 15th best conference, putting them ahead of the MAC and MAAC, among others. There was a pretty big drop-off from Harvard/Princeton to the rest of the conference, and the conference may have been deeper in the past, but Princeton and Harvard delivered a few of the most exciting games I've ever seen from the Ivy League.

Princeton came out ahead in the play-off game at the end of the season and nearly knocked off Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament. Princeton does lose two seniors to graduation (Dan Mavraides and Kareem Maddox), with Maddox being the toughest loss. Maddox dominated the paint in the Ivy League, shooting 57% from the field and averaging 7 rebounds per game. But that said, Princeton does return Ian Hummer (13.8 ppg, 56% shooting, 6.8 rpg) and Doug Davis (11.9 ppg, 38.5 eFG%, 1.7 apg, 1.2 spg). They don't have a real true point guard, but the Princeton system doesn't require one. All of their players are expected to be good passers, and to make good passes when the opportunity arises. Will Barrett is a 6'10" player who has rebounded well in limited opportunities and will take some of Maddox's minutes. Another young player with potential is Daniel Edwards, a 6'8" forward from Texas who didn't play much as a true freshman in 2010-11, though this doesn't mean much since true freshmen rarely play much in a Princeton system. Their biggest need is actually outside shooting. Doug Davis is the only returning regular that shot over 35% behind the arc, and teams will zone and sit in the paint against Princeton offenses that can't hit outside shots.

Despite losing to Princeton on that Doug Davis buzzer beater in the Ivy League playoff, Harvard was the best team in the Ivy League all season long. Harvard was also a very young team, with zero seniors on the entire roster. In fact, only two players from their regular rotation were juniors (Keith Wright and Oliver McNally). Keith Wright (14.8 ppg, 58% shooting, 8.3 rpg, 1.7 bpg) was probably the best player on the team, and McNally is a good ball handler, although their starting point guard was sophomore Brandyn Curry (5.9 apg and a 2.3 A/TO ratio). A player who could soon be the next Harvard star is Laurent Rivard, who shot 39.6% behind the arc and scored 11 points per game as a true freshman. And Tommy Amaker has another ridiculous recruiting class (by Ivy League standards), led by Wesley Saunders (Rivals: 20 SF) and Kenyatta Smith (Scout: 19 C). This team is continuing to get better every single year under Tommy Amaker, and there's no question that they'll be good enough to win an NCAA Tournament game next year, should they finally get there.

If there's a sleeper team it's Penn, a program that has historically been one of the dominating forces in the Ivy League, but fell off the track after Fran Dunphy jumped and took the Temple job. After struggling under two other head coaches, they turned to former Penn player Jerome Allen. Allen has the team moving in the right direction, and they were better than their 7-7 Ivy league record in 2010-11 due to some late collapses and three brutal overtime defeats. They do lose two of their four double-digit scorers (Jack Eggleston and Tyler Bernardini), but they can build around a very good 2010 recruiting class (led by Miles Cartwright - 11.7 ppg, 34.7 3P%, 2.9 apg) and an excellent 2011 class. The star of that 2011 class is Henry Brooks, who was being recruited by schools like Texas, UConn, Tennessee, Minnesota and Missouri before a knee injury ended his senior season and the top schools dropped him and went for safer recruits. If Brooks can get healthy he will probably show up on campus with more raw talent than any other player in the entire league.

But let's be real: Harvard is the heavy, heavy favorite to win the Ivy League again. Princeton could very well be a Top 100 team again, and Penn should be improved and could seriously contend for another Ivy League title as early as 2013, but Harvard will likely be the best Ivy League team since that 1997-98 Bill Carmody-coached Princeton team. Particularly when you consider the fact that the Ivy League has no tournament, so Harvard can't be victimized by a single upset in March, Harvard is probably the safest NCAA Tournament pick among all of my "small conference" previews.

Mid-American Conference

No conference has taken more of a dive over the last decade than the MAC. For those of you that are relatively new to college basketball, you need to understand that a decade ago the MAC was the hot mid-major conference. During the six year period from 1998-through-2003 NCAA Tournaments the conference won eight Tournament games, had multiple NCAA Tournament bids twice, had two different teams make the Sweet 16, one of which made the Elite 8 (Kent State in 2002). But since 2003? There have been eight NCAA Tournaments, and MAC teams are 1-8, and that one win was the miracle win that 14 seeded Ohio had over 3 seeded Georgetown in 2010. This past year their NCAA Tournament representative was an Akron team that earned a 15 seed and never threatened 2 seed Notre Dame.

I'll start my preview with Akron, a team that was better than their 9-7 MAC record. They started out the season slow but finished strong, winning seven of their final nine games, and those two losses were on the road at Kent State and Ohio. Akron loses two starters to graduation: Daryl Roberts and Steve McNees. McNees started at the point, but they had a freshman (Alex Abreu) who was probably better (7.2 assists per 40 minutes played). The other starter that they lose, Daryl Roberts, who was a very efficient scorer (38% shooter on threes, 94% at the line, only 1.6 turnovers per 40 minutes). In addition to Abreu, though, Akron returns two other good shooters (Brett McClanahan and Quincy Diggs), both of whom shot 39% behind the arc. An intriguing player is Zeke Marshall, who was a 7-footer that was a big time recruit (by Akron standards) when he signed in 2009. He still hasn't found any offense (8.5 ppg on 51% from the field and 58% at the line). He can be a dominant player physically in the MAC. Akron also has two other front court players that were buried on the bench as freshmen in 2010-11 but could play a large role next year (Dakotah Euton and Josh Egner). Their top incoming recruit is 6'1" shooting guard Blake Justice.

The best MAC team in 2010-11, in my opinion and also according to Sagarin and Pomeroy, was Kent State, but there is going to be a lot of turmoil there. They've been steadily building back over the past three years under Geno Ford, but he's off to coach Bradley, and it's uncertain at this point who will coach next and if some players will be leaving the program. If they don't lose anybody they are in line to actually be better next season. They only lose one senior from their regular rotation (Rodriguez Sherman - 12.6 ppg, 37.1 3p%, 2.9 apg, 1.6 spg). This is a very young team that has a lot of up-and-coming talent, including a very deep 2010 recruiting class that is just beginning to earn minutes. The star of that class so far has probably been Darius Leonard, who is 6'9" but can shoot with range (9-for-26 behind the arc in limited minutes). The star of their 2011 class should be Kris Brewer, a shooting guard out of Tennessee. They will add more length with the addition of Patrick Jackson, a 6'6" transfer who played 11 minutes per game as a sophomore at Rutgers. Their two biggest needs are outside shooting and defensive rebounding. The hope will be that between the young talent and the addition of Jackson that they can fill those two holes.

Miami-Ohio has been one of the consistently good teams in the MAC under Charlie Coles. They have played in one postseason tournament or another in five of the past seven years. They lose two key seniors to graduation: Nick Winbush (12.4 ppg, 6.9 rpg) and Antonio Ballard (12.6 ppg, 56% shooting, 6.6 rpg). They do return one more year of Julian Mavunga (14.8 ppg, 8.2 rpg) and have a good up-and-coming scorer in Orlando Williams (9.8 ppg, 39.6 3p%). The most important player for them next year might actually be Quinten Rollins (5.5 ppg and 2.1 apg as a true freshman). Miami-Ohio was 10th in the MAC in offensive turnover rate in 2010-11, and could really use some improved ball handling. Also look for Josh Sewell, another true freshman in 2010-11, who hit 39% of his threes in limited minutes.

While the strength in the MAC in 2010-11 was in the MAC East, the winner of the MAC West was Western Michigan, a team that returns all six players that earned at least 20 minutes per game last season. The one major tempo-free category that they led the conference in was offensive rebounder percentage, and their top offensive rebounder was actually only a freshman (Mike Stainbrook - 4.5 per 40 minutes played). Flenard Whitfield and Nate Hutcheson are two other key returning forwards, and Juwan Howard Jr (yes, the son of the famous Fab Five member) also showed a lot of athleticism as a true freshman in 2010-11. They will have to clean up their ball handling, and also have to worry about three-point shooting, which is the one area that their one graduating senior (Alex Wolf) did contribute heavily in (43% for the season).

Possibly the most underrated team in the MAC last season was Buffalo, a team that went 8-8 in the regular season, but only because they were 1-4 in conference play in games decided by four points or less. They actually made the quarterfinals of the CIT, knocking off Western Michigan en route. They lose two regulars to graduation, but their best player was probably true freshman Javon McCrea (11.8 ppg, 63% shooting, 6.5 rpg, 1.3 spg, 1.7 bpg). Their biggest concern is ball handling. They were 11th in the MAC in offensive turnover percentage in 2010-11, and their starting point guard (Bryan Mulkey) graduates without a clear heir. They should contend near the top of the MAC, but without a good ball handler it will be very hard for them to win the MAC tournament.

One other good team to discuss in the MAC is Ball State, a team that finished 10-6 in the MAC and will return their top five scorers, and eight of the nine players from their regular rotation. They were powered by a very strong 2010 recruiting class, led by Jesse Berry (8.9 ppg, 1.3 apg) and Chris Bond (7.3 ppg, 59% shooting, 4.3 rpg). They have one more year of eligibility from their key inside-outside combo of Jarrod Jones (14.7 ppg, 8.4 rpg) and Randy Davis (9.8 ppg, 5.0 apg, 1.5 spg). They also will be adding Justin Jordan, who scored 4.9 ppg and had 1.8 apg in only 18.2 mpg as a freshman at Saint Louis in 2009-10. Jordan could be a huge contributor immediately and could help really clean up Ball State's guard play since he put up better stats as a freshman two years ago in the Atlantic Ten than Tyrae Robinson (the backup to Randy Davis) had as a true freshman for Ball State in 2010-11.

The MAC is going to be a wide open conference in 2011-12. The majority of the programs in the conference will enter the season believing that they have a realistic chance to win the automatic bid. And as young as the conference was in 2010-11 you have to figure the overall level of play will improve. On paper, Kent State seems like the favorite for next year, but I'm wary of picking them because they're losing their head coach, and that could lead to the loss of a player or two. The defending MAC tournament winner, Akron, should be improved, but a lot is going to rely on the development of young players. The team best positioned to win the conference, in my opinion, is actually Ball State. They are my pick for now. But if Kent State keeps all of their players and brings in a good coach, I might change my mind and make them the favorite.

Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference

Bethune-Cookman won their first ever MEAC regular season title in 2010-11, but even their diehard fans have to admit it was a fluke. They went 9-1 in conference games decided by five points or less or in overtime. Both Sagarin and Pomeroy rated them as the fourth best team in the conference, and they got wiped out by the 4 seed Morgan State in the MEAC tournament semifinals 61-48. The best team all year was Hampton, and Hampton was better head-to-head with Bethune Cookman (Hampton won one game by 12, and lost the other in double overtime), and Hampton then won the MEAC tournament and earned a 16 seed to the NCAA Tournament. The bad news for Hampton is that their two graduating seniors represent their leading rebounder (Charles Funches) and leading assist man (Brandon Tunnell). The good news is that they actually have a more efficient rebounder waiting (Danny Agbelese - 10.2 per 40 minutes played) and a capable point guard replacement (Mike Tuitt - 1.9 apg in 15 mpg), and more importantly they didn't rely on their offense anyway. Pomeroy rated their defense best in the conference, and their offense only sixth. They have a couple of potentially good rebounders that could see expanded playing time (Milade Lola-Charles and Koron Reed). The biggest thing Hampton needs is shooting. I don't see anybody on their roster with good shooting stats, but you never know if they get a new player or can get a transfer.

Bethune Cookman, despite being lucky, was still one of the best teams in the conference, and they lose only one player that earned more than 12 minutes per game last season. And they have one more season of eligibility from the reigning MEAC Player of the Year, CJ Reed (18.8 ppg, 4.8 apg, 1.6 spg). Their one big loss is Alexander Starling, their best post player (10.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 1.0 bpg). A key player for their future is Kevin Dukes, who took four threes per game as a sophomore and hit at a 36% rate, which is pretty good for the MEAC. As a team, Bethune Cookman only hit 31% as a team behind the arc, and nobody other than Dukes hit over 33%. If Bethune Cookman can spread the floor that way and can tighten up their defense with another year of practice, they could easily repeat their MEAC title.

Coppin State and Morgan State are two schools that historically have always competed for MEAC titles, and both should contend again next year. Morgan State returns their top six minutes earners, including one more year from their dominant inside man Kevin Thompson (13.1 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 1.3 bpg). They were the second best defensive team in the conference (according to Pomeroy), and with that strong rebounding they really just need some offense. They have a shooting guard coming in (Jeremy Canty) who is described by the scouting services as a scorer who can shoot from deep. Morgan State has another quality recruit coming in (by MEAC standards) in Shaquille Duncan, a 6'9"player who originally committed to Niagara, decommitted and spent a year in prep school, and then turned down VCU, Nebraska and others to sign with Morgan State. Coppin State loses two players from their regular rotation, including their best ball handler by far (Vince Goldsberry - 3.2 apg, 1.8 A/TO ratio), but they return all of their top shooters, and their 37.3% three-point shooting in conference play led all teams by far and powered their offense. The biggest concern for Coppin State is finding post play, where they were particularly weak in 2010-11. Somebody inside that could take attention off their shooters would really open up their offense.

An interesting sleeper team in the MEAC is North Carolina Central. Even many of those who actually follow the MEAC don't realize that North Carolina Central was a founding member of the conference. When the conference made the move to Division I, NC Central simply chose to stay behind. But they've now made the move up to Division I, and in 2011-12 will finally be a full member of the MEAC again. They weren't terrible in 2010-11 (both Sagarin and Pomeroy rated them better than four of the eleven MEAC teams) and they only lose one starter from their regular rotation. More importantly, they have two big time transfers: Dominique Sutton from Kansas State (who could average a double-double in the MEAC) and Ray Willis from Oklahoma. You never can know for sure with players like Dominique Sutton making the drop to a conference like the MEAC. He has the talent to dominate, but like I said, you never know with players that make this kind of drop. Will he have the same intensity playing in tiny gyms, without television? If he plays like he did at Kansas State, NC Central immediately jumps into the top tier of the conference.

But realistically, the winner of the MEAC in 2011-12 is likely to come from Hampton, Coppin State or Morgan State. All three have clear improvement needs and flaws, and it's always tough to tell in the MEAC because the recruiting is so far below the radar that it's almost impossible to know if they've got a big game changer showing up. I might change my mind once these teams play a few games next fall, but for now I'm giving the edge to Morgan State. They've got a nice set of big men, and they've got the best coach in the MEAC.

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