Thursday, April 05, 2012

2012-13 Preview: Mid Majors, Part I

Mountain West Conference

TCU is leaving the Mountain West for the Big 12, and a year from now it'll be Boise State and San Diego State on their way out of the Mountain West. The conference is being proactive, adding Nevada and Fresno State. For this coming season, though, the success of the conference is going to be about their Big Three of San Diego State, New Mexico and UNLV. Both Colorado State and Wyoming had excellent seasons in 2011-12, with Colorado State actually earning an at-large bid, but both teams suffer heavy losses and could take a step back.

San Diego State was the regular season Mountain West champion, though it required a bit of luck. In games against Mountain West opponents this season they were 6-2 in games decided by five points or less or in overtime. They only outscored opponents by 0.05 PPP in conference play (compared to New Mexico, who dominated the conference by 0.15 PPP). That said, they should be better next season. They lose two players from their regular rotation, including one starter, but they return their top four scorers, their top three assist men, and their top two rebounders, and they have all sorts of new talent coming into the program. They return Xavier Thames (10.1 ppg, 4.1 apg), Chase Tapley (15.8 ppg, 43.3 3P%, 4.3 rpg, 2.3 apg, 1.8 spg) and Jamaal Franklin (17.4 ppg, 7.9 rpg). DeShawn Stephens (5.2 ppg, 60.8 FG%, 4.9 rpg) is another key returner. They have three key transfers coming in, led by swing forward JJ O'Brien, who averaged 6.5 points and 5.4 rebounds per game for Utah in 2010-11. They also add Dwayne Polee from St. John's and 6'9" James Johnson from Virginia. Both Polee and O'Brien will be certain to play large roles next season. Their top recruits are Winston Shepard (Scout: 9 PF, Rivals: 40) and Skylar Spencer (Scout: 31 C, Rivals: 124). They also add 6'6" Matt Shrigley (Scout: 25 SG). San Diego State was a team that was wildly overrated this past season, but they should definitely be improved next season.

The team rated best in the Mountain West by the computers this past season was New Mexico. The Lobos lose star Drew Gordon (13.7 ppg, 54.5 eFG%, 11.1 rpg), however. They also lose AJ Hardeman, meaning they'll have to completely replace their starting front court. Their best front court returner is Cameron Bairstow (3.7 ppg, 3.6 rpg). Steve Alford does have three bigs in his 2012 recruiting class, led by 7-footer Obij Aget and 6'8" Nick Banyard. While the front court is a question mark, the backcourt will be fine with Kendall Williams and Hugh Greenwood back. Demetrius Walker and Jamal Fenton were two good young players off the bench, and they might look for production from Dominique Dunning, who was their top 2011 recruit but who played very lightly as a true freshman. Starter Tony Snell will be back as well as a swing forward. New Mexico will still be a strong team next year, but unless they get very rapid development from their young front court players they will take a step back.

UNLV got great news when Mike Moser said he'd be back for another season, but they've still got a ton of talent to replace. Chace Stanback (12.5 ppg, 45.5 3P%, 4.4 rpg), Oscar Bellfield (9.8 ppg, 5.4 apg) and Brice Massamba (6.4 ppg, 63.0 FG%, 3.4 rpg) are all gone from their starting lineup. Their key backcourt returners are Anthony Marshall and Justin Hawkins. In the front court, Quintrell Thomas is the best returner. 6'11" Carlos Lopez will be a big contributor next season as well. With nothing much returning after those players, a lot of playing time will go to a deep 2012 recruiting class, led by Katin Reinhardt (Scout: 9 SG, Rivals: 45) and Demetris Morant (Rivals: 150). The other key recruit is point guard DaQuan Cook. UNLV also brings in 6'9" Khem Birch, the former McDonald's All-American, who is transferring from Pitt, though he won't be eligible until the spring semester.

Colorado State was the fourth NCAA Tournament team out of the Mountain West. The computers were unimpressed with them, and there obviously plenty of NIT teams that were better, but Colorado State's resume was deserving of an at-large bid. On Selection Sunday it doesn't matter how good your team is - all that matters is who you beat and who you lost to. They do lose two regulars (Will Bell and Kaipo Sabas), but return their four leading scorers, including rebounding superstar Pierce Hornung (8.8 ppg, 66.7 eFG%, 3.6 offensive rebounds per game). Their two other key returners are Wes Elkmeier (15.5 ppg, 36.9 3P%) and Dorian Green (13.1 ppg, 42.6 3P%, 57.7 eFG%, 2.4 apg). Jesse Carr and Dwight Smith are two other backcourt players that can score, and 6'6" Greg Smith is another solid rebounder. Their front court will also be buoyed by the addition of 6'10" Colton Iverson, who averaged 5.4 points and 5.0 rebounds per game in 2010-11 for Minnesota. Their top recruit is 6'8" Jermaine Morgan. Overall, I don't think there's any question that Colorado State will have more talent next season. The problem is that Tim Miles is gone, and a coaching drop-off will make it much harder for this team to get back to the NCAA Tournament.

Wyoming was in some ways the mirror image of Colorado State. They actually were ever-so-slightly better in conference play than Colorado State (they outscored opponents by 0.02 PPP, while Colorado State outscored opponents by 0.01 PPP), and despite being rated as a basically identical team in Pomeroy and Sagarin, they failed to even make the NIT. The Cowboys ended up in the CBI, where they beat North Dakota State before falling to Washington State in the quarterfinals. Wyoming loses three starters, including starting point guard JayDee Luster (5.3 ppg, 3.7 apg) and Francisco Cruz (12.0 ppg, 52.0 eFG%). They do get one more year from star Leonard Washington (12.9 ppg, 59.0 eFG%, 6.9 rpg), and also starting shooting guard Luke Martinez. They also have a really nice rising-sophomore in Larry Nance, Jr (4.1 ppg, 4.0 rpg). Another raw prospect is 6'2" Riley Grabau. Their 2012 recruiting class doesn't have any stars, but it has a whole bunch of players, so you have to figure that at least one or two will break out and eventually be quality players down the road.

Nevada is the top newcomer to the conference, though they will have a lot to replace with Dario Hunt and Olek Czyz graduating. They do return star Deonte Burton (14.8 ppg, 37.2 3P%, 4.2 apg) and sharpshooter Malik Story (14.1 ppg, 41.6 3P%), along with a talented swing forward in Jerry Evans. A key to their depth next season will be their 2012 recruiting class, led by shooting guard Marqueze Coleman and small forward Cole Huff.

Air Force is a team that returns all five starters, but they were not a particularly good team and will have a long way to go to contend near the top half of the league. A better dark horse team is Boise State, after they return 9 players that earned double-digit minutes per game this past season. There's been a concerted effort to put more money into the Boise State basketball program after the success of the football program, and they have some fairly nice young depth. Their best prospect is probably Anthony Drmic, who was the team's leading scorer (12.0 per game) and rebounder (5.0 per game) as a true freshman. Jeff Elorriaga is a nice shooter, and Kenny Buckner is a quality rebounder. Their top 2012 recruit is 6'7" forward Joey Nebeker.

1. San Diego State
3. New Mexico
4. Colorado State
5. Nevada
6. Boise State

West Coast Conference

The WCC made a big move a year ago, adding BYU. Gonzaga and St. Mary's have battled atop the conference for quite a few years now, and BYU turned it into a "Big Three". All season long, all three of those teams looked like fairly safe NCAA Tournament teams. It turned out that BYU was one of the last at-large teams to make the Field of 68, which was a bit of a surprise, but they did get in and beat Iona in the play-in game before falling to Marquette. The question, though, continues to be if another WCC team can join the top tier.

St. Mary's was the team that swept the WCC regular season and tournament titles. They lose the athletic Rob Jones (15.0 ppg, 10.8 rpg, 2.6 spg) as well as sharpshooter Clint Steindl (7.9 ppg, 42.0 3P%, 93.8 FT%). They do return point guard Mathew Dellavedova, who seems like he's been around forever. Stephen Holt (10.1 ppg, 57.3 eFG%, 4.7 rpg, 3.2 apg, 1.8 spg) is becoming one of the better players in the WCC as well. A player who I really like and who should excel next season in expanded minutes is 6'9" Brad Waldow (8.1 ppg, 66.7 FG%, 4.4 rpg, 1.0 bpg). I'd also look for expanded time for 6'6" swing forward Beau Levesque. Their top recruit is 6'6" Chris Reyes, and they also had 6'11" Matt Hodgson on a transfer from Southern Utah.

The biggest offseason concern for Gonzaga is Elias Harris, and whether he'll return for his senior season. He hasn't announced either way yet, but I'm guessing that he'll come back. If he left now he'd probably be a second rounder and could go undrafted, which means that it doesn't make a ton of sense to go. If he does come back, this Gonzaga team will be awfully good next season. Their graduations are Robert Sacre (11.6 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 1.4 bpg) from the starting lineup, and Marquis Carter off the bench. Carter showed flashes early in his career, but regressed and was not a major factor as a senior. Sam Dower (8.3 ppg, 3.7 rpg), meanwhile, is quite ready to step in and provide most of what Sacre provided. The biggest concern with Sacre graduating isn't the drop-off to Dower, but the drop-off from Dower to whoever the first big off the bench will be. My guess is that it will be Kelly Olynyk, a 7-footer who was decent in 2010-11 before redshirting the 2011-12 season. Gonzaga's backcourt is in good shape for years to come with two excellent freshmen this past season: Kevin Pangos (13.6 ppg, 40.1 3P%, 3.4 apg) and Gary Bell (10.4 ppg, 47.7 3P%). Also keep an eye on 6'8" Kevin Spangler, who played sparingly as a true freshman but who looked good when he played. Assuming Elias Harris comes back, Gonzaga will definitely be better next season, and I'll be very surprised if they're not a Top 25 team.

BYU is always a hard team to keep track of because of all of the mormon missions. I do expect Tyler Haws to be back after missing the past two seasons. He was a player I really liked as a true freshman - he reminded me a lot of a younger Jimmer Fredette. At the same time, freshman Damarcus Harrison looks to be headed off on his own mission. They lose two starters to graduation - Noah Hartsock (16.8 ppg, 58.1 eFG%, 5.0 rpg, 1.6 bpg) and Charles Abouo (11.0 ppg, 37.2 3P%, 6.2 rpg, 2.6 apg). But they do return Matt Carlino to handle the point, Brock Zylstra on the wings and star Brandon Davies (15.2 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 1.5 spg, 1.3 bpg) in the paint. Craig Cusick is another good guard, which will give BYU three good proven backcourt players. Anson Winder is another backcourt prospect. In the front court, their top prospect to fill some of Noah Hartsock's production is 6'10" Stephen Rodgers, who is a good scorer but who has not rebounded well. Overall, I think BYU is more likely to be better than worse next season, though it's hard to see them catching Gonzaga.

Can any team from outside the Big Three challenge for a top three spot in the standings? Loyola-Marymount finished in fourth place this past season, going 11-5 in conference play while beating BYU and St. Mary's, and also taking down St. Louis and UCLA in non-conference play. They ended up making the quarterfinals of the CIT, falling to Utah State. They lose two regulars to graduation: Drew Viney (15.2 ppg, 45.7 3P%, 5.5 rpg) and LaRon Armstead (8.0 ppg, 87.0 FT%). This was a defense-first team, so their defense should continue to be sound, but they'll need a big offensive improvement. Their best offensive player was probably rising-junior Anthony Ireland (16.1 ppg, 4.9 apg, 1.7 spg). Their best interior player is Godwin Okoni (3.7 ppg, 4.6 rpg), and they have a nice prospect in 2011-12 true freshman CJ Blackwell (6.2 ppg, 3.0 rpg). One thing Loyola-Marymount has going for them is that they spent the past season decimated by injuries. Ten different players started at least one game, and not a single player started every game. In fact, Anthony Ireland was the only player on the roster to see the floor in every game this season. If they can get healthier, and if 2012 prospects like 6'5" Nick Stover and 6'6" Taj Adams pan out, then they should be better next season. It's still an awfully long way to the Big Three, though.

According to the computers, the best team outside the Big Three wasn't Loyola-Marymount, but was actually San Francisco. They only went 8-8 in conference play, but they did beat Gonzaga and had two losses in the final minute to St. Mary's, and a late, close loss to BYU as well. They earned a bid to the CBI, where they fell to Washington State in the opening round. The Dons do lose a pair of senior starters, including leading-scorer Angelo Caloiaro (14.2 ppg, 58.3 eFG%, 6.0 rpg, 2.4 apg, 1.6 apg). The two graduations are also notable because the two players combined for 3.4 steals per game, and steals were the heart of San Francisco's success. They led the league with a 23.3 defensive turnover rate. When they didn't turn teams over, they tended to give up baskets - they were dead last in the WCC in eFG% against. If their offense is going to improve they're going to need increased production from starting point guard Cody Doolin. 2012 recruit Tim Derksen could be a key player as well for this thin backcourt. Gavin Hoffman is another potential backcourt contributor. Their front court should be in better shape, with Perris Blackwell (12.7 ppg, 57.5 FG%, 6.1 rpg) anchoring things with a couple of nice prospects in Cole Dickerson and Justin Raffington. They also are looking to a big contribution from Juco transfer Frank Rogers.

Both Santa Clara and Portland return every player from their rotation, but both teams were way too far back to finish higher than mid-conference next season. If there's a dark horse team it's San Diego. The Toreros lose one player from their rotation, but not a key one (Darian Norris - 8.3 ppg, 47.7 eFG%, 2.7 apg). They had two excellent freshmen this past season: Johnny Dee (13.7 ppg, 42.2 3P%) and Christopher Anderson (9.0 ppg, 5.0 apg, 2.0 spg). They should definitely be better next season, and they have a nice core to build around for the next three seasons.

1. Gonzaga
2. St. Mary's
3. BYU
4. San Diego
5. Loyola Marymount

Western Athletic Conference

Every time there has been a conference shift, it seems like the WAC has been involved. No conference has had more teams move in and out than the WAC, and they've continued that trend. Nevada, Hawaii and Fresno State are all gone. Nevada and Fresno State are headed to the Mountain West. Hawaii is going to the Big West. Five teams are coming in: Denver from the Sun Belt, UT-Arlington, UTSA and Texas State from the Southland, and Seattle from the Independents. And the conference isn't done - Boise State will be coming back for the 2013-14 season.

With Nevada gone, the best team that returns from last season is New Mexico State. They beat New Mexico during non-conference play, then went 10-4 in conference play and won the WAC tournament. They earned a 13 seed and played Indiana tough in the Round of 64. They have tough losses, though. Three starters are gone, led by star Wendell McKines (18.7 ppg, 10.7 rpg). They also lose Hamidu Rahman, their second leading rebounder (5.8 per game). They were the best rebounding team in the conference, and losing both of their key rebounders is a big blow. They will add 7'5" Sim Bhullar, who was a 2011 recruit but was not eligible to play this past season. He will be a freshman for the 2012-13 season. Another big who could play a bigger role next season is 6'10" Tshilidzi Nephawe (5.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg). 6'8" Bandja Sy will be a key scorer, though he's not a good rebounder for his height. With starting point guard Hernst Laroche the other key graduation, the team also needs players to step up as ball handlers and shooters (Laroche hit 40.4% of his threes, while no other regular broke 35%). Rising-sophomore Daniel Mullings (9.3 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 1.9 apg, 1.6 spg) will be a key contributor. They also add KC Ross-Miller, who redshirt this past season and has four years of eligibility left. This team has raw talent, but there's no question they'll take a big step back.

The team that finished one game behind New Mexico State in third place was Idaho. Idaho wasn't a particularly talented team, but they shot the ball well and were sound on the defensive glass. They lose three starters, including Deremy Geiger (12.9 ppg, 43.9 3P%, 61.7 eFG%). That said, they do return a couple of good shooters in Stephen Madison and Connor Hill (38% and 39% behind the arc, respectively), and do have one more year of eligibility for star Kyle Barone (12.9 ppg, 54.8 FG%, 8.0 rpg, 1.5 bpg). Their top recruit is 6'8" Ty Egbert.

According to the computers, the third best team in the WAC this past season was perennial power Utah State, in the midst of a major rebuilding job after losing four starters (including star Taj Wesley). The one key returner was Brockeith Pane (12.6 ppg, 4.3 apg), and he graduates now. They lose one other regular this offseason - Morgan Grim (9.1 ppg, 56.8 FG%, 6.1 rpg). Stew Morrill has been restocking this team with talent, though. Rising-junior Preston Medlin (17.0 ppg, 42.8 3P%, 4.4 rpg, 3.4 apg) is rapidly becoming one of the best mid-major players in the nation, and Kyisean Reed (10.0 ppg, 61.4 FG%, 5.1 rpg, 1.1 bpg) is another key returner. Danny Berger and Ben Clifford are two swing forwards who will play big minutes next season. A young prospect who played efficient in short minutes this past season was 6'10" Jordan Stone (2.1 points and 2.5 rebounds in 9.3 minutes per game). They also add two transfers: 6'11" Matt Lopez from La Salle, and 6'10" Jarred Shaw. They will have size and talent and a proven coach - I expect them to be improved next season.

The team that New Mexico State beat in the WAC title game was Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs lose two key players to graduation: Trevor Gaskins (11.9 ppg, 38.5 3P%, 3.8 rpg, 2.2 apg) and Romario Souza (7.4 ppg, 59.9 FG%). But they do return their leading scorer (Raheem Appleby - 13.9 ppg), leading rebounder (Brandon Gibson - 4.6 rpg) and a nice point guard in 2011-12 true freshman Kenneth Smith (3.6 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 4.2 apg). They also have a nice recruit in Alex Hamilton (Scout: 27 SG).

Denver moves to the WAC after an awfully good season in the Sun Belt. They do lose a pair of seniors, with the key loss being Brian Stafford (14.5 ppg, 45.7 3P%, 62.6 eFG%). The key to the Denver success was outside shooting (they finished the season 9th in the nation in 3P%, and 3rd in the nation in eFG%), and Stafford was the best shooter of them all. They had a pair of really good true freshmen that will be able to build around: Royce O'Neale (9.9 ppg, 58.9 eFG%, 5.8 rpg) and Brett Olsen (7.6 ppg, 46.2 3P%, 65.1 eFG%). Their top 2012 recruit is another good shooter in 6'3" Nate Engesser. What is going to hold them back this coming season is size. Their size was underwhelming in the Sun Belt, and there are a whole bunch of quality players 6'10" or taller in the WAC. Right now, I just don't see the personnel to handle the paint.

Texas-Arlington is one last team to consider just because of how good they were this past season. They do lose a pair of starters and a key reserve, though, led by star LaMarcus Reed (17.8 ppg, 54.4 eFG%, 79.9 FT%). Like Denver, size is a concern now that they've moved to the WAC. Their only tested big is 6'10" Jordan Reves (9.1 ppg, 54.8 FG%, 7.8 rpg, 1.7 bpg). I don't think they're going to be overwhelmed by the new conference, but I do think it's going to take time before they can compete for a WAC title. I also want to talk briefly about a Seattle program that I'm really happy to see back in Division I and in a serious conference. They were a big time program back in the 1950s and 1960s. Elgin Baylor led them to the 1958 Final Four. I also really like the job Cameron Dollar has done as head coach. That said, they lose three starters off a team that finished outside the Top 200 in the computers. They're not yet ready to compete at the top half of the conference.

1. Utah State
2. New Mexico State
3. Denver
4. Louisiana Tech
5. Texas-Arlington

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It amazes me how far the WAC has fallen in such a short period of time. A mere 15 years ago they were the premier non-power conference, receiving 3-4 bids every season. Now, they're usually a 1-bid league, and their marquee programs are Utah State and New Mexico State.

If my job performance was the same as the WAC commissioner, I would have been fired a long time ago.