Wednesday, March 28, 2012
2012-13 Preview: One-Bid Conferences, Part III
Long Beach State survived an impossibly difficult schedule to have a very successful season. They ended up playing Kansas, North Carolina, Louisville, San Diego State, Creighton, Kansas State, Xavier and Pittsburgh. And if Larry Anderson hadn't gotten hurt late in the season, they really might have been able to knock off New Mexico in the NCAA Tournament. Casper Ware (17.4 ppg, 3.4 apg, 1.4 spg) had a tremendous career, but he will graduate and move on to the next stage of his career. Four starters in all will graduate, including Larry Anderson (the Big West Defensive Player of the Year) and TJ Robinson (13.7 ppg, 10.2 rpg). Long Beach State is going to take a huge step back next year. So who will their future be built around? In my opinion, it's clearly Mike Caffey (5.9 ppg, 53.8 eFG%, 2.2 apg as a true freshman). Their top 2012 recruit is hilariously-named 6'7" Deng Deng. Long Beach State also adds a pair of solid transfers: Tony Freeland (9.6 ppg for DePaul in 2010-11) and 6'9" Dan Jennings from West Virginia.
The top contender to Long Beach State during the regular season, and their opponent in the Big West title game, was UC-Santa Barbara. But they lose three starters, including star Orlando Johnson (19.7 ppg, 42.7 3P%, 5.8 rpg, 2.9 apg). Considering how poor they looked throughout the season whenever Johnson was on the bench, they will surely take a step back without him. Cal State Fullerton, the team that tied UCSB for second place, also loses three of their top six minute earners. They lose star Omondi Amoke (10.8 ppg, 9.1 rpg) and sharpshooter Orane Chin (10.2 ppg, 43.7 3P%, 62.9 eFG%). That said, their two leading scorers (DJ Seeley and Kwame Vaughn - a combined 32.9 ppg) will be back as seniors next season. They also have a very good young player in Isiah Umipig (13.5 ppg, 39.4 3P%). Their biggest skill last season was outside shooting (they led the Big West with 43.1% three-point shooting in conference play), and they return their top three players in three-pointers made.
The newcomer to the Big West is Hawaii, a team that struggled to compete in the WAC. Sometimes it's just really hard to recruit to a team that is always near the basement of a conference, and so maybe a drop to an inferior conference will help. Only time will tell, though they do have a nice 2012 recruit in 6'10" Caleb Dressler. They lose two starters to graduation, including Zane Johnson (14.0 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 1.8 apg). That said, they return star Vander Joaquim (14.3 ppg, 56.0 FG%, 9.5 rpg, 1.8 bpg) and have a good prospect in 7-footer Davis Rozitis. Their biggest need is at the point, where they were dead last in the WAC in offensive turnover rate in conference play. Senior point guard Jeremiah Ostrowski was a very sloppy ball handler (3.6 turnovers per 40 minutes played), so they will look to improved play from rising-sophomore Shaquille Stokes (8.4 ppg, 2.2 apg).
A sleeper team in the Big West is UC Irvine. Buoyed by a young core, UC Irvine will head into next season returning every single player from their roster. They will also get back starter Aaron Wright, who was their top 2011 recruit but who missed most of the season with an injury. This is a very balanced team, with seven players that scored between 6.9 and 11.5 points per game. They also add 6'11" Connor Clifford in their 2012 recruiting class, along with 6'10" transfer John Ryan from Fresno State.
The Big West will be one of the most wide open conferences next season. All of the top teams suffer heavy losses to graduation. Despite losing their top four players, Long Beach State still has to be considered a serious contender. They still have talented young players to build around if Dan Monson can bring all of the pieces together. But in my opinion, Cal State Fullerton returns more of their top players than any other contender. I could easily see UCSB or even UC Irvine winning the conference, so this is one of the conferences where I could change my mind early in the 2012-13 season, but for the time being I'm going with Cal State Fullerton.
From top to bottom, this was a very strong season for the Ivy League. Just witness a team like Columbia finishing in the Top 200 in Sagarin and Pomeroy while going only 4-10 in Ivy League play. That said, depth throughout didn't mean depth at the top. Harvard was the only Ivy League team anywhere near the bubble. And Harvard, as good as they looked early in the season, faded a bit (in my opinion) down the stretch. They had that great win over Florida State, but in retrospect that looks more like a lucky win than anything else. Florida State scored 0.67 PPP, giving them the most offensively futile performance any team had against Harvard all season long. FSU's offense isn't great, but even Seattle, Cornell and Columbia broke 1.00 PPP against Harvard this season.
I don't intend to be that down on Harvard. They were a good team, after all. But they were not a deserved Top 25 team, and they went out in fairly meek fashion to Vanderbilt in the NCAA Tournament. Can they be better next season? Maybe. They lose two starters, including Keith Wright (10.6 ppg, 58.6 FG%, 8.1 rpg, 1.4 bpg). On the other hand, they return the inside-outside combo of Brandyn Curry (7.9 ppg, 4.9 apg, 1.6 spg) and Kyle Casey (11.4 ppg, 54.9 eFG%, 5.5 rpg). The third returning starter is sharpshooter Laurent Rivard (10.1 ppg, 41.0 3P%, 60.6 eFG%). They also had three freshmen that played well and should excel in expanded minutes - sharpshooter Corbin Miller and interior players Steve Moundou-Missi and Jonah Travis. A fourth productive freshman was shooting guard Wesley Saunders. And in fact, their highest rated 2011 recruit was 6'7" Kenyatta Smith, who played only sparingly, but who has the potential to develop into a very good player. And Tommy Amaker has filled up his 2012 recruiting class with a whole bunch of other highly touted recruits, led by power forward Zena Edosomwan (Scout: 15 PF, Rivals: 128) and 6'10" Mike Hall (Scout: 30C, Rivals: 134). In my view, Harvard has two main needs. First, they need a second interior scorer to go alongside Kyle Casey. Second, they need to improve their perimeter defense, which is fine against Ivy League opponents but has struggled with more athletic opponents out-of-conference. With all of that young talent they could be even better next season than they were this past season, but those flaws will hold them back until they get fixed.
Pennsylvania actually controlled their own destiny heading into the final game of the year. With a win over Princeton they would have forced a one-game playoff with Harvard on a neutral floor to decide the Ivy League's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. But they lost to Princeton, and were sent to the CBI, where they fell to Butler in the quarterfinals. But as well as they played late in the season, they are gutted by graduations. They lose three starters, including Zach Rosen (18.2 ppg, 39.9 3P%, 5.2 apg) and Tyler Bernardini (12.2 ppg, 41.3 3P%, 4.5 rpg). But while next season is necessarily going to be a rebuilding season, Jerome Allen has a nice set of young players to build around. A very deep 2011 recruiting class played well this past season, led by Henry Brooks (4.6 ppg, 2.5 rpg). Their 2012 recruiting class is led by point guard Patrick Lucas-Perry.
According to Sagarin and Pomeroy, the second best team in the Ivy League this past season was Princeton. They lose a pair of starters, including star Douglas Davis (13.8 ppg, 41.9 3P%). They do still have one more season of Ian Hummer (16.1 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 3.2 apg), but they are going to be awfully thin next season. Yale is another Ivy League team that is going to struggle replicating its success with a pair of graduating seniors, including star Greg Mangano (18.2 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 2.2 bpg). Their top prospect is 6'7" Justin Sears.
With the three top challengers to Harvard likely taking a step back next season, it's hard to see Harvard being seriously tested atop the conference. If there's a dark horse team to finish high in the Ivy standings, I think it's Columbia. They were a very unlucky 2-7 in Ivy League games decided by five points or less or in overtime, and they return all five starters, led by Mark Cisco (10.0 ppg, 59.0 FG%, 7.2 rpg) and Brian Barbour (15.5 ppg, 4.4 apg). At the end of the season, though, these other Ivy League teams are just playing for second. Harvard should win the conference easily.
For seemingly the 15th year in a row, the MAC was wide open at the top league, with a whole slew of teams contending for a single bid into the NCAA Tournament. But the only MAC program to win an NCAA Tournament game since 2003? Ohio. Two years ago they shocked Georgetown. This past season they took out Michigan and South Florida, and then took North Carolina to overtime in the Sweet 16.
As a conference, the MAC has not earned an at-large bid since the 1998-99 season. But if there's a team that will be good enough to earn an at-large bid next season, it'll probably be Ohio. The Bobcats not only return every player from their rotation, but they also add a couple of nice pieces. The team is led by DJ Cooper (14.7 ppg, 5.7 apg, 2.3 spg) and Walter Offutt (12.4 ppg, 53.0 eFG%). Nick Kellogg (9.0 ppg, 42.7 3P%, 62.9 eFG%) is a sharpshooter, and they got nice interior play from Reggie Keely (9.0 ppg, 4.9 rpg) and Ivo Baltic (8.7 ppg, 5.0 rpg). They also have a nice young wing prospect in Jon Smith. In addition to that, they add shooting guard Caris Levert as a 2012 recruit, and will also add Missouri transfer Kadeem Green (3.3 points in 11.5 minutes per game playing for Mizzou) midseason. The only way things can get messed up? If head coach John Groce takes a job at a bigger school.
The regular season MAC champion was Akron, and they won't be going anywhere either. They lose only one starter (Nikola Cvetinovic - 9.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg) as well as one rotation player (Brett McClanahan), but return everybody else. They have a steady point guard in Alex Abreu (9.6 ppg, 56.5 eFG%, 4.8 apg), a nice perimeter scorer Brian Walsh (8.3 ppg, 43.4 3P%) and a good defender in Quincy Diggs (8.5 ppg, 2.4 apg, 1.2 spg). 7-footer Zeke Marshall has also improved his play (10.4 ppg, 54.2 FG%, 5.4 rpg). They have a nice prospect in 6'7" Nick Harney on the wing, as well as shooting guard Blake Justice (who redshirted this past season and still has four years of eligibility remaining). They also add a very athletic recruit in 6'6" Reggie McAdams. I don't see Akron overcoming Ohio next season, but they should be good in their own right, and a legitimate contender for the MAC auto bid.
Buffalo finished second in the MAC this past season, but they lose three starters to graduation, including MAC Player of the Year Mitchell Watt (16.3 ppg, 57.0 eFG%, 7.5 rpg, 2.3 apg, 2.2 bpg). They do have a nice future star in Javon McCrea (14.7 ppg, 57.2 FG%, 6.9 rpg), and Buffalo isn't going to fall off a cliff next season, but it's hard to see how they don't take at least a little step back next season. Kent State is another team that had a good season but lose three seniors and is probably due to take a step back.
A team that should be better next season is Toledo. The Rockets have been in a rebuilding mode under former Wisconsin-Green Bay head coach Tod Kowalczyk. They finished 9-7 in MAC play and earned a bid to the CIT, and did it with a roster that had zero seniors on it. In fact, their two best players were arguably a freshman (Julius Brown - 11.9 ppg, 4.9 apg) and a sophomore Rian Pearson (16.4 ppg, 8.3 rpg). Their biggest need without question is rebounding, where they were probably worst in the conference. They could look to improved play from 6'10" rising-junior Richard Wonnell (6.4 rebounds per 40 minutes played), as well as 2012 recruit Nathan Boothe (who is listed at 6'9", 255 pounds).
Miami-Ohio is a team that was very much underrated this past season, but it's hard to know how things are going to change with longtime coach Charlie Coles retiring. They also lose leading-scorer Julian Mavunga. A real dark horse might be Eastern Michigan. At first glance they don't seem like a good team to pick after a lucky 9-7 record (they were outscored by 0.03 PPP in conference play) and with their two leading scorers graduating (Darrell Lampley's 13.3 per game and Antonio Green's 7.2 per game). But that said, both Lampley and Green were more volume scorers than anything (a 42.2 and 43.4 eFG%, respectively). They will have three good seniors next season in Jamell Harris, Matt Balkema and Derek Thompson. More importantly, they have several really nice additions. They add a really nice point guard recruit in Ray Lee (Scout: 20 PG, Rivals: 142), as well as three big time transfers. They add 7-footer DaShonte Riley from Syracuse, swing forward Glenn Bryant from Arkansas, and forward Daylen Harrison from Wyoming. That's a lot of talent, which could combine to make Eastern Michigan a pretty good team if they can get the chemistry to work right away.
If John Groce stays as Ohio head coach, the Bobcats will be the overwhelming favorite in the MAC. If he leaves, there will be several other quality opponents. Toledo is going to be a pretty good team, and Akron has the potential to be a borderline at-large team. That said, even if Groce goes, the program will still have that core of players in place. I doubt that players like DJ Cooper, Walter Offutt or Ivo Baltic are going to leave school with just one year of eligibility left. So even if Groce leaves, I still think I would lean toward Ohio as the MAC favorite.
Norfolk State ended up being one of the stories of the NCAA Tournament with their remarkable upset of Missouri. They were a deserved 21 point underdog. And in fact, that could have been worse. Those point spreads are always derived from computer ratings like Sagarin and Pomeroy, yet those ratings don't take into account games against non-Division I opponents. Norfolk State lost to one of those, falling to Elizabeth City State by 12. If they'd played Missouri 25 times they'd probably only have won once, but that's the magic of a one-and-done situation. Norfolk State had a mind-blowing 62.7 eFG% and 1.34 PPP. To put that offensive performance in perspective, it was their best offensive efficiency in a game in more than a decade. And with all of the bad teams they've played over that decade-plus, this performance came against Missouri in the NCAA Tournament. Remarkable.
The magical Norfolk State run is over, though. They lose four starters to graduation, including star Kyle O'Quinn (15.9 ppg, 58.1 eFG%, 10.3 rpg, 2.7 bpg). The other three graduating starters are Chris McEachin, Marcos Tamares and Rodney McCauley. Their top returning player is Pendarvis Williams (11.9 ppg, 54.8 eFG%, 3.8 rpg, 2.5 apg). Obviously Norfolk State won't be repeating their magic next season. The question is how many recruits are they able to land because of their performance. That will determine whether they are back at the top of the MEAC in another couple of seasons or not.
One thing that was interesting with Norfolk State, and which put in perspective how mediocre they were over the course of the season, was that they were only third in the MEAC in PPP differential. Both Delaware State and Savannah State played better in conference play. Savannah State won the conference regular season title outright, earning their first ever trip to a postseason tournament since joining Division I (they played in the NIT and got wiped out by Tennessee in the first round). They had success with a very good defense. They led the MEAC in eFG% against, defensive turnover rate, defensive rebounding percentage, defensive 3PA/FGA ratio and defensive 3P%. They held opponents to a suffocating 0.82 PPP in conference play. And with zero graduating players, they should only be better next season. In fact, next season's team will likely feature five senior starters, with two of them fifth-year seniors. Their star is Rashad Hassan (13.0 ppg, 58.1 eFG%, 5.3 rpg), and their best interior player is Arnold Louis (9.5 ppg, 7.8 rpg). They depend heavily on point guard Preston Blackman (his 5.0 assists per game include assists on 41.4% of his team's baskets when he's been on the floor). And on the interior they feature a good up-and-coming player in Jyles Smith (3.9 blocks per 40 minutes played). As the team rated best in the MEAC by the computers, and with everybody back for one more season, it's really hard to see how any other MEAC team will be able to contend with them over the entirety of next season.
The other MEAC team that played better in conference play than Norfolk State was Delaware State. They had four freshmen that earned at least 16 minutes per game, including leading scorer Tahj Tate (16.1 ppg, 2.7 apg). They lose one starter to graduation, but everybody else will be back. Their biggest need is on the interior, where they finished dead last in the entire nation in defensive rebounding percentage (59.0% over the course of the season) and also finished third-to-last in the MEAC in offensive rebounding percentage in conference play (31.4%). Marques Oliver led the team with 7.2 rebounds per game during the season. It will help to have a healthy Kendall Gray (4.8 rpg), who missed the last few weeks of the season with an injury. But with Savannah State featuring multiple quality rebounders, Delaware State is going to have to find another player or two that can rebound well or they won't win the conference.
Honestly, there aren't any real dark horses in the MEAC. Maybe a North Carolina Central team that outscored opponents by 0.07 PPP in conference play and was unlucky to only finish 10-6. But they do lose two senior starters, including leading-scorer (and Kansas State transfer) Dominique Sutton (16.4 ppg, 7.4 rpg). The reality is that Savannah State dominated the MEAC during the regular season (+0.20 PPP) and was rated the best team in the conference by Sagarin and Pomeroy. They return everybody, and could start five seniors next season. So I don't see any way to pick against Savannah State here.