Monday, April 04, 2011

2011-12 Preview: Small Conferences, Part IV

America East Conference

I thought Vermont was going to have a rebuilding season in 2010-11 with so many players gone and so much depending on freshmen. In fact, the freshman class ended up being very deep and immediately productive, and the Catamounts actually won the America East regular season title, though they fell in the conference tournament and were relegated to the NIT. They do lose two starters, and a total of three players from their nine man rotation, but they also only had one junior in their regular rotation. The rotation actually featured four freshmen, led by Brian Voelkel (7.0 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 4.5 apg, 1.6 spg). Luke Apfeld and Garrett Kissel were two other bigs (6'8" and 6'9", respectively) that were efficient on the boards as freshmen. Sandro Carissimo, another freshman, shot 17-for-37 (45.9%) behind the arc in limited minutes. The biggest need for the team is at the point, where either Simeon Marsalis or Josh Elbaum will have to seize the position. Vermont led the America East in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage, and that doesn't look likely to change, and they're also a very good defensive team. As those shooters develop and they clean up the point guard position, this team should only get better.

Boston University finished only one game back of Vermont in the regular season standings, and it wasn't shocking to see them win the automatic bid. They only lose one starter to graduation, though it is their leading scorer (John Holland: 19.2 per game). Holland's best skill was actually getting to the line: he drew 5.9 free throws per game and hit them at an 86% clip. The team led the conference in both offensive and defensive free throw rate, and actually attempted nearly twice as many as their opponents in conference play. They do return two other players, however, that earned at least 100 free throw attempts over the year and hit them at a 76% rate or better. The team has a very good freshman point guard in DJ Irving (8.0 ppg, 84.5 FT%, 3.6 apg) and a good backcourt mate for him in Matt Griffin (54-for-118 behind the arc). The team was dead last in the conference in offensive turnover rate, but that will improve when Irving has another season under his belt. Patrick Hazel, a Marquette transfer, led the team with 5.8 rpg, including 2.2 per game on the offensive end. The biggest need for the team is post offense. Hazel shot 52.7% from the field, but only hit 46.8% at the line, so I'm guessing that most of those baskets were layups and dunks. No other player on the team hit two-pointers at better than a 45.2% rate, and as a team they only hit 43.3% of their twos (317th in the nation). One potential option is Mat Piotrowski, who is 7'1" and took a redshirt in 2010-11 to give himself time to develop. As a redshirt freshman in 2011-12 he could provide an immediate offensive paint presence. Their top 2011 recruit is 6'7" James Kennedy. As long as BU is dominating the foul line the way they have they'll be competitive, but it's hard to win consistently if you don't have a consistent offensive scorer inside the arc.

It was a long way back to the rest of the conference, with the third placed team (according to the computers) actually being Maine, but Maine loses four players from their regular rotation, and are very unlikely to make up the huge gulf between them and Vermont. Maine did finish tied for third place in the standings with Albany. And while Albany does lose one starter to graduation, the other seven players that earned at least nine minutes per game were all freshmen or sophomores, so they have a very young core. The graduating senior (Tim Ambrose) was the team's leading scorer (16.6 per game) and assist man (3.6 per game). Logan Aronhalt is the leading returning scorer (14.6 per game), but a big part of that was just that he took a ton of shots (13.1 from the field per game, with a 47.3 eFG%). Their key players going forward probably will be Mike Black (12.3 ppg, 43.0 3P%, 53.4 eFG%) and Blake Metcalf (4.2 offensive rebounds and 9.7 total rebounds per 40 minutes played). Their front court was not very good offensively, but young bigs always take some time to develop post games. A bigger concern is at the point, where their starting point for next year might be Mike Black, who actually had more turnovers (81) than assists (80) during the year. With his ability to hit shots, it might benefit the team if Blake stays at shooting guard and somebody like Jacob Iati (only 2.8 assists per 40 minutes in very limited minutes) can take over the point. As far as I can tell, they don't have a point guard in their 2011 class.

Stony Brook was a team that I actually picked to finish second in the America East last year, but they disappointed and finished in fifth, at only 8-8, though they did knock off Vermont in the America East tournament to make the title game, where they lost by only two points to BU. Their defense was as stout as I thought it would be, but their offense was terrible - they had zero offense other than chucking threes. In conference play they actually shot nearly as well on threes (36.8%) as they did on twos (41.1%). Including non-conference games they hit 40.3% on two-pointers for the season, which was second worst amongst all Division I teams, ahead of only Alcorn State. A big reason that they struggled so much early in the season was because they were missing their one senior, Chris Martin, with a knee injury. He came back mid-season and led them down the stretch, including 44 points on only 27 shots from the field during their run in the America East tournament. Martin will be gone next year, but everybody else from the roster will be back, including an up-and-coming point guard in Anthony Jackson (14.0 points and 3.2 assists per 40 minutes played as a true freshman in 2010-11). The team will hope to develop some of their young bigs, and their top 2011 recruit is 6'8" Scott King. Stony Brook will be a very tough defensive team that will have some some shooters and can rebound, so some offensive spark from their frontcourt could get them right back into the title mix.

But I don't see any reason why 2011-12 shouldn't be a repeat of 2010-11, with BU and Vermont well ahead of the pack. Both look like they'll be even better, and I don't see any of the rest of the America East teams getting too much better. Head-to-head, BU swept the season series with Vermont in 2010-11, and they did it by doing what they are best at - getting to the line. In the two games they played they had a free throw rate of 70.0, which is astoundingly high compared to the 28.0 rate that Vermont's defense averaged for the season. The loss of John Holland will hurt BU in that regard, and I also wonder whether BU would have gotten those calls if Vermont hadn't been upset and had actually gotten to the America East title game, which they would have hosted. If Vermont continues to improve with their young team and hosts the America East title game next year, will I be willing to bet on BU continuing their steady walk to the free throw stripe? At this point, I don't think so. Vermont is my pick.

Atlantic Sun Conference

It needs to be repeated how amazingly good this past year's Belmont team was. In the regular season they lost four games, and two of those losses came to Tennessee and one to Vanderbilt. So they only lost one game all season long that wasn't to a major conference contender. And even those losses were all by single-digits, including a one point loss at Tennessee. Those computer numbers are not typos - Pomeroy rated them the 18th best team in the nation at the end of the Atlantic Sun tournament. I tried talking them up mid-season, and actually thought they had Sweet 16 potential with the right draw. Unfortunately, they drew just about the worst draw possible in the NCAA Tournament in Wisconsin, as I detailed here. Wisconsin was (according to Sagarin and Pomeroy) one of the ten best teams in the nation, and more importantly they led the nation in both slowest tempo and offensive turnover rate. They enforce their slow pace on everybody and never wilt against a press. Belmont averaged 69.4 possessions per game and Wisconsin averaged 57.3. They held the game to 60 possessions, tied for the slowest game Belmont played all season long. Belmont also had turned over opponents on 27.5% of possessions for the season, but only on 23.2% against Wisconsin. Put Belmont against a team that turns the ball over and they can beat anybody. Even Butler, as they prepare to play in the National Title game tonight, might be a team I'd pick to lose head-to-head against Belmont due to their struggles against the press all year long.

And the reality is that Belmont is going nowhere next year. They played the largest rotation I can think of at any elite program in 2010-11, with 11 players earning double-digit minutes per game, and zero that earned more than 25 minutes per game. Of those 11 players, 9 will be back next year. And in fact, six players from the regular rotation were freshmen or sophomores. Rick Byrd has been the coach at Belmont for 25 years, guiding them in their move to Division I and then into the Atlantic Sun. They've made the NCAA Tournament in four of the last six seasons, and I don't see any reason why things should change. Rick Byrd grew up in Tennessee and has spent his entire coaching career in the state. He did interview for the University of Tennessee job after Bruce Pearl was fired, but it's hard to see him jumping to another job out of the state, and despite the number of years he's put in he's only 57 years old. And of the players returning, the two best are probably Kerron Johnson (17.3 points, 5.9 assists and 7.5 steals per 40 minutes played) and Ian Clark (12.1 ppg, 43.1 3P%, 81.8 FT%), both rising-juniors. I can't say that Belmont is going to be a Top 20 Pomeroy team again, but they are going to be a scary first round NCAA Tournament opponent for at least the next two seasons.

East Tennessee State finished the Atlantic Sun tournament with an RPI of 91st, and made it all the way to the CIT semifinals before losing by three points to Iona, and yet they were a distant afterthought in the Atlantic Sun. As I'm typing this, with only the National Title game to be played (i.e. ETSU's computer rating is unlikely to change), East Tennessee State's Pomeroy rating is 108th and their Sagarin PREDICTOR is 114th. So they weren't a bad team at all. If they had somehow pulled the upset and won the Atlantic Sun tournament last month, they'd likely have been a 14 seed in the NCAA Tournament. But that said, they lose three starters, including their three leading per-game scorers, to graduation. One thing that was bizarre about the team was that they led the Atlantic Sun in offensive turnover rate, yet they didn't have a true point guard. Their top two assist men were both listed at 6'6", and both of them will graduate. Shelden Cooley is the closest thing to a point guard among their leading returners, but he had more turnovers (59) than assists (55) in 2010-11. Their best returner is probably Isiah Brown (10.3 ppg, 51.4% shooting, 7.2 rpg and 2.0 bpg). They do have two quality recruits coming in (Rashawn Rembert and Lester Wilson), but neither is likely to be an immediate star. ETSU won't fall off a cliff next year, but they likely won't be a Top 100 team.

The team that might come closest to challenging Belmont next season will, in my opinion, be Jacksonville. They lose two players from their regular rotation, including their leading scorer, but with an 11 man rotation they return plenty. They had six freshmen and sophomores earning at least nine minutes per game in 2010-11, so they've got a nice base for the future. and their strength this past season was on defense, where they were second in the conference in Pomeroy defensive efficiency behind only Belmont. Their problem is shooting - they were 10th in the conference in both two-point and three-point shooting percentage. And with their two most efficient scorers graduating, that's not obviously going to get better. A potential key player for their future is Keion Palmer, who was the star of their 2010 recruiting class and shot 55.4% from the field (the only returner from the rotation that shot over 50%) and had 3.6 points in only 9.4 minutes per game. At 6'9", 192 pounds, he could become a good post player and rebounder when he fills in his body.

But let's be honest, Belmont is the heavy favorite to win another Atlantic Sun title. Jacksonville is a team with a nice future ahead of them, and they are my pick to finish second in 2011-12, and it's not inconceivable that they could be a serious contender for the conference title in 2012-13 if they can find some shooters, but Belmont could be a Top 25 team (in the computers) again. I can't find any list of games already scheduled for Belmont's 2011-12 season, but I hope they have enough top level opponents that they can build a decent at-large resume. I would have been really upset if they fell in the Atlantic Sun tournament and missed the NCAA Tournament this year. They deserve to be in. But unless some team makes a shockingly large leap next year, Belmont should cruise to another automatic bid anyway.

Big Sky Conference

Tad Boyle did a wonderful job of building Northern Colorado. After the school moved up from Division II, Boyle's first season at the school was their first as a member of the Big Sky Conference, when they went 2-14 and finished in last place. In Boyle's second season they team finished 6-10, and then they went 8-8 in his third season and 12-4 in his fourth. Boyle then left and took the Colorado job, where he led them to a remarkably successful season (absolutely nobody saw them as a bubble team preseason). But Northern Colorado didn't miss a step under BJ Hill, who had been an assistant under Boyle for all four of those seasons and took over as head coach for the 2010-11 season. Northern Colorado finished 13-3, won the Big Sky tournament, and won their first ever trip to the NCAA Tournament, where they earned a 15 seed and actually played competitively against the 2 seed (San Diego State).

But while Northern Colorado had a magical season, the reality is that all BJ Hill did was stay the course with Tad Boyle's team. Four of his five starters were seniors this past season, so Hill will have to begin to win with his own players. The one returning starter is Elliott Lloyd, who is still learning to play the point (3.3 assists, 2.8 turnovers per game). They do have two other young point guards that could push Lloyd (Paul Garnica and Tevin Svihovec). Their most promising young big is 6'8" Emmanuel Addo (In 15.2 minutes per game he averaged 16.7 points and 3.9 offensive rebounds per 40 minutes, on 53.7% shooting). Mike Proctor (5.7 rpg) is the top rebounder returning. Their top incoming recruit is 6'9" Brendan Keane. Their strength in recent years has been team defense, so if they can keep that style of play then they can still contend next year, but there's no way that they don't lose a lot offensively with the graduation of so many key players.

According to Sagarin and Pomeroy, the best team in the Big Sky was Montana, the team that has represented the conference in the NCAA Tournament four times in the past decade. They do lose their leading scorer (Brian Qvale) to graduation, but every other player on their roster returns. They have a very good offensive creator in Will Cherry (14.1 ppg, 4.3 apg, 2.6 spg), and have a good pure scorer in Kareem Jamar (52.2 eFG% as a true freshman, including 38% shooting behind the arc). Vaughn Autry was another highly touted freshman in 2010 (he originally committed to Utah State but changed his mind), and although he didn't do much in 2010-11 he certainly could develop into a special player. The biggest need for Montana is going to be on the boards, where they were only 7th in the Big Sky in offensive rebounding percentage, and where they lose their best rebounder (Qvale) to graduation. One possible prospect is Eric Hutchison, who played sparingly as a redshirt freshman in 2010-11 but has the size (6'9", 230 pounds) and energy to be a good rebounder if given the chance. Derek Selvig is a 7-footer, but he's a finesse player and only averaged 5.2 rebounds in 31.3 minutes per game. Another potential inside prospect is 6'7" Mathias Ward, who was also an efficient scorer off the bench as a sophomore (15.5 points per 40 minutes played on 51.5% shooting, as well as 81% at the line). In Big Sky games this past season, Montana was 0-4 in games where they were held to an offensive rebounding rate under 25%, including an atrocious 12.7% performance in the Big Sky tournament title game. They were 13-1 in games where their offensive rebounding rate broke 25%. I think that next year will have a similar breakdown. If Montana can find rebounding they'll run away with the Big Sky. But if a team can blow them away on the boards and can play they tight defensively (like what Northern Colorado did to them two of the three times they played this past season) then they'll fall short again.

Northern Arizona only finished 9-7 in the Big Sky regular season, but the computers actually liked them as the third best team in the conference. Their problem was that they were inconsistent because they were so dependent on three-point shooting that, to be fair, was a tremendous 42.2% on the season (second best in the entire nation). The problem with relying on three-point shooting is that occasionally you'll go cold, and you'll have no chance. The bigger problem for Northern Arizona now is that of the their three key outside shooters, two will graduate (Cameron Jones and Eric Platt), leaving only Gabe Rogers. Rogers is a spectacular shooter (81-for-173 behind the arc on the season), but you can't win games with only one shooter. They will try to replace their interior star Shane Johannsen with Austin Smith (14.9 points and 8.5 rebounds per 40 minutes played, with 61.2% shooting from the field). The success or failure of next season is going to rely on the stars of the 2011 recruiting class: James Douglas and Danny Cheek. Both are offensive scorers that can shoot the ball, and the goal will be for them to immediately play and replace some of that lost outside shooting. If they aren't ready to go as true freshmen the team will definitely take a step back.

The third place team in the Big Sky was Weber State, the team that had won the Big Sky regular season title in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons, but hadn't closed the deal in the Big Sky tournament either time. They struggled a bit in the 2010-11 season and fell to third place, and lose two more starters to graduation, including Lindsey Hughey, who led the team in scoring and was second in rebounding. Unlike the run-and-gun style at Northern Arizona, Weber State plays a conservative, deliberate style. They led the Big Sky in defensive rebounding rate yet were dead last in offensive rebounding rate, and they also were worst in the conference in defensive turnover rate. But they were the most offensively efficient team in the conference, and had good scorers all over the floor. They return three different regulars that shot over 40% behind the arc on the season, including Scott Bamforth, who shot 48.8% behind the arc and 85.7% at the line as a sophomore (it was only his first year on the team - he was a Juco transfer). They also bring in a really good recruit in Gelaun Wainwright, who originally committed to USC and also received serious attention from San Diego State. A concern will be in the paint, where they lose Trevor Morris (9.8 ppg on 54.5% shooting), and they will look to freshmen Byron Fulton and Kyle Tresnak to step up in his place.

A dark horse for the Big Sky in 2011-12 is Eastern Washington. They finished only 7-9 last season, but did it with zero seniors on the roster. They play tight defense, and actually led the entire conference in defensive turnover rate. Their problem is on offense. They had a couple of regulars that hit 41% or higher behind the arc, and actually hit 38.1% as a team in Big Sky play. But the problem is, they couldn't move the ball, and so despite that outside shooting they could do nothing offensively. They only hit 42.4% on two-pointers on Big Sky play, which was dead last in the conference. They were also seventh of nine teams in A/FGM ratio. So they need a guard that can create and distribute the ball, and they need paint scoring. Glen Dean (4.2 apg with a 1.7 A/TO ratio) is a capable creator, but they need more. It will really help if they can get a post player that can score. The team had three players that were 6'7" or taller in their regular rotation, but not a single one shot better than 46.6% on two-pointers. They do have a good prospect in Jaylen Henry, who was the top recruit in their 2010 class. With their defense and outside shooting, they're only one or two quality post players away from winning the entire conference. Right now I don't see one in their 2011 class, but that doesn't mean that they can't find one over the summer.

BJ Hill did a great job guiding Tad Boyle's team to the NCAA Tournament, but he now has to replace almost all of his key players, and it remains to be seen if Northern Colorado simply caught lightning in a bottle with Boyle, or if Hill will be another great coach. Northern Arizona and Eastern Washington are quality teams but that have clear flaws, and that have zero history of winning in the Big Sky in recent years. Montana and Weber State have long been the dominant powers in the Big Sky, and I think they'll be the two best teams again. Weber State will be efficient on both ends of the floor and will definitely contend for the title, but I think that the most complete team is Montana. Montana's flaw is likely to be on the boards, but Weber State is not built to dominate a team that way. They were dead last in the conference in offensive rebounding percentage in 2010-11. If you can't blow Montana away on the boards you'll need superior talent to beat them, and Weber State doesn't have that. Montana is my pick.

Big South Conference

Coastal Carolina ran away with the Big South, although I warned during the season that they weren't quite what they seemed when they were 24-2. Despite the amazing record, they did it against a tremendously soft schedule and with a lot of luck. When they were 24-2 they were 9-0 in games decided by six points or less or in overtime. As I always warn, there's not much correlation between performance in close games and future performance, and down the stretch they finished 1-2 in their final three games decided by five points or less, and were taken out by UNC-Asheville in the Big South tournament finals. Coastal Carolina was the best team in the Big South, and they were a good team, but it was a mistake when they were being put in the class of teams like Belmont and Utah State that had a legitimate chance to win games in the NCAA Tournament.

The core of this Coastal Carolina team will be back next year. The only starter to graduate will be Chad Gray (14.6 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 1.2 bpg). Mike Holmes was a key senior starter, but he was kicked off the team in January, so his play didn't have a huge impact on this past season anyway. Sam McLaurin, a redshirt sophomore, wasn't even a starter to begin the season, but by the end of the year was arguably the team's best player (11.6 points per 40 minutes, 59% shooting, 10.7 rebounds per 40 minutes, 2.8 blocks per 40 minutes). Kierre Greenwood is developing into a good ball handler (4.0 apg), and he also was only a sophomore. The team will continue building its frontcourt with its top 2011 recruit: 6'7" Tyler Poole, who actually originally committed to Ole Miss, as well as Chris Gradnigo, a transfer from Louisiana-Lafayette who should have one year of eligibility left. The one thing Coastal Carolina really needs to improve is its outside shooting (31.5 3P% on the season). They don't have any recruits for 2011 yet that fill that need, so Cliff Ellis might have to depend on one of his young players to step up during the offseason.

UNC-Asheville, of course, was the Big South's NCAA Tournament representative. They were only 2-5 in Big South games decided by five points or less, so they were better than their 11-7 record. And they lose only one starter to graduation (John Williams), and he was more of a defensive stopper, and didn't produce much on offense. Their offensive star, JP Primm (14.6 ppg, 4.5 apg, 2.1 spg), will be a senior next season, and they have a good up-and-coming big man in 6'10" DJ Cunningham (14.6 points, 12.2 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per 40 minutes played). But other than Cunningham they did not have a single player over 6'5" earn double-digit minutes per game. They do have a couple of young bigs (Jon Nwannunu and Toles Hartman) who could potentially be plugged into the lineup next year. They were a poor shooting team last season (32.2% behind the arc) and are trying to allay that with several good recruits, led by Keith Hornsby, who comes from Oak Hill Academy and is also apparently the son of Bruce Hornsby.

The second placed team in the Big South was Liberty, and they had zero seniors on the roster. The team's strength was rebounding (they finished 11th in the nation in offensive rebounding rate), and their best rebounder was actually a 6'4", 195 pound sophomore (John Brown: 10.8 rebounds per game). They do have two good up-and-coming rebounders who size seems more appropriate (6'10" Joel Vander Pol and 6'7" Sommy Ogukwe). Antwan Burrus (4.1 offensive rebounds per 40 minutes played) is another good big man. One really intriguing prospect is Stephen Baird, who turned down Texas A&M and Marquette to be the jewel of Liberty's 2010 recruiting class, but tore an ACL before the season started and had microfracture surgery. If Baird can come back healthy next year he could be a real difference maker. Liberty's big problem in 2010-11 was turnovers (9th in the Big South in offensive turnover rate), but that's to be expected from young teams. In fact, their starting point guard, a junior, was pretty good with the ball (Jesse Sanders: 1.9 A/TO ratio), and the turnover problem lay with the younger players in other position on the floor. Another year of seasoning should clean that up. They also lacked a single regular that shot over 34% behind the arc, though none of the other contenders in the conference have much outside shooting either. If they can dominate the paint and the boards they can win this conference.

A dark horse team in the Big South for 2011-12 is Charleston Southern. They lose their leading scorer (Jamarco Warren) to graduation, but they still have a slew of good scorers. Kelvin Martin was second in scoring per game but as actually the most efficient scorer (59.7% from the field), and they have several good shooters: Sheldon Strickland shot 40% behind the arc, Jeremy Sexton shot 35.5%, and freshman Matt Kennedy shot 11-for-27 behind the arc in limited minutes. Martin finished 14th in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage (14.7%), and they return two other good rebounders in Kenny Mitchell and Johnathan Brooks (3.6 and 3.7 offensive rebounds per 40 minutes, respectively). Their big gap this past season was at the point, as they actually finished dead last in the Big South in A/FGM ratio (46.4%). If Jeremy Sexton (2.7 apg) doesn't pan out, their top 2011 recruit (Saah Nimley) is a point guard. If one of those point guards develops, Charleston Southern has the pieces to be the best offense in the Big South.

Coastal Carolina ran away with the 2010-11 Big South regular season title, but they may take a small step back next season. UNC-Asheville won the automatic bid, but still has major flaws and isn't really the best team at anything. Charleston Southern is the most explosive offense, but it's hard to win a small conference tournament if you don't have a point guard that can control the game. The pick, in my opinion, is Liberty.

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