Tuesday, April 03, 2012

2012-13 Preview: One-Bid Conferences, Part IV

America East Conference

The America East Conference had a wide open race this past season, though the top teams were also a bit underwhelming. I came into the season expecting strong years from both Vermont and Boston University, yet neither really improved from the year before. Vermont was the best team in the end, and they won the conference tournament only to end up in a 16/16 game. That said, Vermont did play a lot better in the second half of the season, winning 14 of 15 games heading into the NCAA Tournament. They lose only one senior from their regular rotation, though it's second-leading scorer Matt Glass (11.9 ppg, 38.9 3P%, 3.7 rpg). True freshman Four McGlynn (12.0 ppg, 38.0 3P%, 88.9 FT%) emerged as the team's star late in the season, and he should grow into an awfully good player over the next few years. They also have two more years of eligibility for Brian Voelkel (4.6 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 5.1 apg, 1.7 spg). Their biggest need for next season is interior scoring. Additional playing time for 6'8 Clancy Rugg (5.0 ppg, 68.7 eFG%) could help on that front.

The regular season champion in the America East Conference was Stony Brook. They won 19 of 21 games heading into the America East tournament title game, where they fell to Vermont. They were the best three-point shooting team and the best rebounding team in the conference, which allowed them to overcome some really bad turnover problems. Tommy Brenton (7.8 ppg, 53.9 FG%, 3.4 apg, 1.7 spg) was the team's key playmaker, but he's not a true point guard. They lose three starters to graduation, including their leading scorer (Brian Dougher - 13.2 ppg). That said, they do return their top rebounder, and add a highly rated (by America East standards) recruit in 6'7" Jameel Warney. They probably won't be quite as good next season, but they should still be a good rebounding team and should still shoot the ball fairly well from outside, so they will continue to contend atop the conference.

Boston University loses Patrick Hazel (6.6 ppg, 53.2 FG%, 5.3 rpg, 1.6 bpg) and leading scorer Darryl Partin (19.6 ppg). That said, Partin was the definition of a volume scorer - he took 37.2% of his team's shots while he was on the floor, and had only a 47.1 eFG%. Their best player, DJ Irving (11.4 ppg, 5.4 apg), is back for another season. The Terriers have also lined up Irving's future replacement in top 2012 prospect Maurice Watson. They also get back Jake O'Brien, who averaged 12.9 ppg in his first three seasons at BU before missing the 2011-12 season with an injury. The 6'8" O'Brien should also help on the boards, where BU struggled this past season.

The fourth team to finish above .500 in conference play was Albany, and they did it without a single senior on the roster. Their star was Gerardo Suero (21.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 3.1 apg, 1.3 spg), and they led the conference in offensive rebounding percentage on the back of Blake Metcalf (3.7 offensive rebounds per 40 minutes played) and Luke Devlin (3.1 offensive rebounds per 40 minutes played). Their problem was defense, where they allowed a brutal 1.03 PPP in America East play (only bottom feeders Binghamton and UMBC were worse).

The America East is one of the tougher conferences to project yet again. Any of the teams I've talked about could win the conference, and there is no team that looks like the type of Top 100 team that could give an opponent a lot of trouble in the NCAA Tournament Round of 64. But while I don't feel too confident with any pick, I'm going with Vermont. They were the best team this past season, do not lose any more to graduation than their key challengers, and have a rising star in Four McGlynn.

Atlantic Sun Conference

The Atlantic Sun loses Belmont and gains Nothern Kentucky. Obviously that's a trade that harms the overall strength of the conference. But as good as Belmont has been, it's worth pointing out that there might not have been another team in the nation that was more underrated this past season than Mercer. Mercer is rated narrowly outside the Top 100 in the stats above, but those stats are from before they went and won the CIT, winning games over Tennessee State, Georgia State, Old Dominion, Fairfield and Utah State. They finished the regular season rated 91st in Pomeroy and 89th in the Sagarin PREDICTOR. To put that number in perspective, that means that both computer ratings put Mercer ahead of a Colorado State team that earned an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Will Mercer be as good next season as they were this past season? They actually could be better. They had only one senior on the entire roster: Justin Cecil (10.8 ppg, 36.3 3P%, 3.6 rpg). Cecil was the team's best interior scorer, though players like Daniel Coursey and Monty Brown have the potential to fill that role if they are more aggressive on offense. The key to this Mercer team was defense (they led the Atlantic Sun with only 0.94 PPP allowed in conference play), and the key to that defense (Daniel Coursey and his 4.7 blocks per 40 minutes played) still has two years of eligibility left. Their biggest need is perimeter scoring, and 2012 recruit Dylan Poston is expected to play a role there.

USC Upstate completed their fifth season as a Division I member, and it was by far their most successful. They had their first +.500 season in conference play or overall, as well as their first ever postseason win (over Kent State in the CIT). And their top seven minutes earners were all freshmen and sophomores, led by Torrey Craig (16.4 ppg, 52.8 eFG%, 7.7 rpg, 1.3 spg, 1.1 bpg) and Ricardo Glenn (9.5 ppg, 52.3 FG%, 7.3 rpg). Glenn's 18.4% offensive rebounding rate tied with Colorado State's Pierce Hornung for second best in the nation, and he helped USC Upstate lead the entire conference in offensive rebounding. They still have a need for interior scoring, though that will probably come as these young bigs gain experience. But even if USC Upstate doesn't win the Atlantic Sun this coming season, they might be the early favorite for 2013-14.

East Tennessee State loses three starters, so they will take a step back. North Florida won 7 of their final 10 regular season games, including a victory over Mercer, but they lose a pair of starters as well. If there's a dark horse it's Florida Gulf Coast. They made it all the way to the Atlantic Sun tournament title game and return every player from the regular rotation. And their most important player might have been true freshman Brett Comer (9.1 ppg, 5.6 apg, 1.3 spg). Comer was the team's top 2011 recruit, and their top 2012 recruit is another guard who can play the point - Dajuan Graf. Their biggest need is rebounding, where they were in the bottom half of the conference this past season. They have decent height and length, so it's going to come down to offseason practice, particularly on the defensive boards (anytime a team is much better on the offensive glass than the defensive glass, as Florida Gulf Coast is, that's a lack of fundamentals and effort).

Both USC Upstate and Florida Gulf Coast are programs that will contend for an Atlantic Sun title next season, and could be even better in 2013-14. But neither was nearly as good as Mercer was this past season, and Mercer loses only one player from their rotation. With Belmont gone they will sense their path to the NCAA Tournament opened up, and they could be a scary Round of 64 opponent for somebody. Mercer is my pick.

Big Sky Conference

Montana has won the Big Sky tournament in four of the past eight seasons. Wayne Tinkle had the team rolling at the end of the season, with 20 wins in their final 21 games heading into the NCAA Tournament. They lose two starters and their sixth man to graduation, but I don't think they're going to fall off a cliff. They return star Will Cherry (15.8 ppg, 37.2 3P%, 3.3 apg, 2.6 spg), as well as two of their regulars that shot over 40% behind the arc (Kareem Jamar and Mathias Ward). Their most important loss is 7-footer Derek Selvig (9.1 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 3.0 apg, 1.2 bpg). They have a new 7-footer in their 2012 recruiting class (Andrew Martin), but he's obviously not going to be replacing Selvig's production in his first season. If there's a player who didn't contribute much this past season who could contribute a lot next season it's probably Eric Hutchison (66.7 FG% and 1.8 rebounds in only 7.2 minutes per game).

For most of the season, Weber State had the strongest resume among Big Sky teams. Heading into the final game of the regular season they were 23-4 with no big wins, but with only one bad loss (Idaho State). But they fell at Montana in their season finale, and then lost to Montana again in the Big Sky tournament. They ended up in the CIT. They lose only two seniors from their regular rotation, though one is Darin Mahoney (team-leading 6.3 rpg and a 52.5 FG%). The real concern, though, is Damian Lillard (24.5 ppg. 40.9 3P%, 5.0 rpg, 4.0 apg, 1.5 spg). He has one more season of eligibility, but he also might go pro. In fact, while he hasn't declared yet, he's projected to be a lottery pick, and it's just so rare for lottery picks to return for another season. I think Lillard is going pro, and that will force Weber State into rebuilding mode.

Including the conference tournament, Montana and Weber State went a combined 29-1 against the rest of the Big Sky, and they were the teams that met in the Big Sky tournament title game. There was just a long way back to everybody else in the conference. The third placed team was Portland State. The Vikings won their final six regular season conference games, and did it with a steady procession to the free throw line. They took a ridiculous 18.8 free throws per conference game, amassing an absurd 49.0 FTA/FGA ratio. Once at the line, they hit 73.8% of their free throws. The two biggest contributors to that, though, will be gone (Charles Odum and Chehales Tapscott). They lose a third starter in Nate Lozeau. Eastern Washington, the only other Big Sky team to achieve a .500 or greater record in conference play, also loses three starters to graduation.

If there's a sleeper for next season, I think it's Northern Colorado. They lose only one player to graduation - Mike Proctor (9.5 ppg, 6.8 rpg). Losing their leading rebounder matters, but they have Connor Osborne (their best offensive rebounder) back, and also have a good young player in rising-sophomore Tim Huskisson (6.5 points and 3.3 rebounds in only 19.0 minutes per game), as well as 6'9" Brendan Keane, who was actually a higher rated 2011 recruit than Huskisson.

That said, there was a massive gap between Northern Colorado and the Big Two atop the conference this past season. Another season by Damian Lillard would probably make Weber State the narrow favorite in this conference, but I don't think he's coming back. You can't blame a guy for leaving when he's projected to go in the lottery. So Montana is my pick.

Big South Conference

The Big South Conference nearly collected the first ever 16-over-1 victory. UNC-Asheville took Syracuse down to the final seconds, and might have won if not for a couple of blown late calls by the refs. Overall, though, it wasn't a particularly strong year for the Big South. UNC-Asheville was the best team in the conference, and they went 0-7 against the RPI Top 125. This is a conference that features a lot of very tiny gyms, and that doesn't have athletic departments that seem to be investing enough to keep up with some of these other mid-major leagues. Until they invest more money it's going to be hard to even catch conferences like the Summit or Sun Belt.

UNC-Asheville was the best team in the Big South this past season, but they lose four starters to graduation, including star JP Primm (15.4 ppg, 36.6 3P%, 4.2 apg, 1.9 spg) and leading scorer Matt Dickey (16.1 ppg, 36.7 3P%, 3.6 apg). Eddie Biedenbach saw this coming, and he put together a deep 2011 recruiting class and has a deep 2012 recruiting class. But none of those 2011 recruits played a major role as a true freshman (the most involved was 2011 top recruit Keith Hornsby, who had 4.0 ppg in 12.6 minutes per game), and none of the 2012 recruits are that highly touted. I'd say that if there's something UNC-Asheville needs to improve it's size and rebounding, but this past year's team was rated by Pomeroy as the single shortest team in the nation, and their top 8 minute earners were all 6'5" or shorter, and it still worked out. They're going to take a big step back next season, but we should wait before passing judgment on the 2011 and 2012 UNC-Asheville recruiting classes. Let's see what Biedenbach can put together.

Coastal Carolina yet again came up short in the Big South tournament. They came into this season the two-time defending Big South regular season champions, without winning the Big South tournament in either season. This year they fell to second place in the standings, and then got wiped out in the Big South quarterfinals by VMI. They lose three players from their six man rotation, led by Chris Gradnigo (14.9 ppg, 6.2 rpg) and Jon Pack (7.1 ppg, 54.8 FG%, 6.3 rpg). That said, they do return a really nice inside-outside combo in Anthony Raffa (16.7 ppg, 53.9 eFG%) and Sam McLaurin (10.0 ppg, 65.2 FG%, 7.5 rpg). They also return starting point guard Kierre Greenwood (43.9 3P%, 5.0 apg). More shots for Sam McLaurin can only help, but with the graduations they really need to restock a front court that was the strength of their 2011-12 team. 6'7" Tyler Poole redshirt his freshman season because of a knee injury but could play a large role next season. They have already signed 6'6" Michael Enanga, and Cliff Ellis says that he plans on signing a couple more players in the offseason. And while I talked a couple of paragraphs ago about the tiny gyms around the Big South, Coastal Carolina is a team that is finally moving into a larger gym next season (their previous gym held only 1039 people, which is smaller than many high school gyms). I do still think they will contend for the Big South title next season, and that they have a bright future as long as Cliff Ellis hangs around.

According to the computers, the third best team in the conference was Charleston Southern. They finished strong, winning 8 of their final 12 regular season games, and did it with three freshman starters. Perhaps most impressive is that they led the Big South in offensive turnover rate in conference play despite a true freshman starting point guard (Saah Nimley - 13.5 ppg, 3.9 apg). They had one senior on the roster - Kelvin Martin (15.4 ppg, 58.8 FG%, 9.1 rpg). The loss of Martin means that they need some size and rebounding, though size clearly isn't a prerequisite to having success in the Big South. 6'6" rising-sophomore Paul Gombwer (5.0 ppg, 5.6 rpg) will look to pick up some of that slack with additional playing time. I don't think there's any question that Charleston Southern will be a leading contender to win the conference next season.

Campbell tied Charleston Southern for third place, and they lose only two of the six players that earned 20+ minutes per game for them. But that said, they do lose their most efficient scorer (Eric Griffin - 15.7 ppg, 62.9 eFG%). Griffin also anchored an interior defense that led the conference in defensive block percentage. The other key graduation is Lorne Merthie, who led the team in 3P% (39.4%). Without obvious replacements for either of those two, Campbell's success next year is going to depend on the development of new, young players. Liberty is another team that had success (they won 7 of their final 8 regular season conference games) but will struggle with graduations. They lose two starters, with none more important than Jesse Sanders (12.5 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 8.0 apg). There will be a lot of pressure on top 2012 recruit Larry Taylor to step in as the point guard next season.

If there's a dark horse team to make noise in the Big South next season, I think it's Gardner Webb. They had a nine man rotation and they return eight of them, including star Tashan Newsome (12.3 ppg, 7.0 rpg). There biggest need is scoring, particularly on the interior. Look for rising-sophomore Donta Harper (52.2 ppg, 53.2 FG%, 2.3 rpg) to play a larger role. Their top recruit is 6'2" Isaiah Ivey.

In my opinion, the two best teams in the Big South next season will be Charleston Southern and Coastal Carolina. Coastal Carolina will have the best talent returning, but there's no guarantee that it will all come together in one season. Charleston Southern returns basically all of the key players from a team that was second in the conference in PPP margin (+0.06). So I think Charleston Southern is the narrow favorite to win the Big South next season.

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