Sunday, April 06, 2014

2014-15 Preview: Mid Majors, Part I

Missouri Valley Conference

So much ink has already been spilled over Wichita State that it's enough already. If you want to know my full thoughts on their season, read my long blog piece on them here. As I said there, whatever was going to happen in the NCAA Tournament doesn't change anything. Wichita State wasn't one of the four best teams in the country, but they absolutely deserved that 1 seed. To go undefeated against that schedule was extraordinarily impressive. In a one-and-done tournament anything can happen. But as we head into the offseason, there are two questions about the league. First, can Wichita State keep this going, or was this a two year fluke? Second, can the rest of the conference catch up so it can get back to being the annual multi-bid league like it was a decade ago?

So is Wichita State going away? No. Don't forget that they lost three starters off their 2013 Final Four team. This time around they lose just two starters, though one is star Cleanthony Early. They do return their sterling backcourt duo of Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker, both of whom improved significantly from their freshman years. With Tekele Cotton also returning, Wichita State's entire backcourt will be back. Look for contributions by 2013 recruit Ri'an Holland, who took a redshirt. The big question is the front court, where almost everybody is gone. The only returner over 6'5" who played more than 2 minutes per game is Darius Carter. That doesn't mean that they don't have talented front court players - just that they're untested. 6'8" Shaq Morris took a redshirt season and has four years of eligibility left. Four of their five signed 2014 recruits are 6'6" or taller, led by swing forward Zach Brown and including a 7-footer (Bush Wamukota).

The second place team in the standings was Indiana State, and they actually had a resume that was a bit bubbly for much of the season, but they weren't as good as their resume suggested. They were 9-1 in games against Missouri Valley teams decided by six points or less, and their efficiency margin in conference play was only +0.00 PPP, despite the 12-6 record. Now, they lose three starters, including primary playmaker Jake Odum. At point guard next season, they can turn to Devonte Brown, who was effective off the bench this past season but was a poor shooter (42.9 eFG%). Juco transfer Tre Bennett is another option. Also 2013 recruit Brenton Scott, who took a redshirt. On the interior, they return their best big in 6'9" Justin Gant. But overall, Indiana State didn't have any freshmen or sophomores that really stood out, and they don't have a big recruit or transfer coming in. It's hard to see them not taking a step back next season.

Despite finish two games behind them in the standings, Northern Iowa actually had a significantly better efficiency margin in conference play than Indiana State, and also had better computer ratings. They also played their best ball at the end of the season, winning five of their final six regular season games. The Panthers also return their top six minute earners, led by star big man Seth Tuttle. 6'9" Nate Buss is another efficient scoring big. They have a pair of playmaking guards in Deon Mitchell and Wes Washpun, both of whom will be back as well. They also add a really nice transfer in 6'6" Paul Jesperson, who averaged 4.7 points and 2.2 rebounds per game as a sophomore at Virginia in 2012-13. They also redshirted almost their entire 2013 recruiting class, so some of those guys might contribute next season as well. They'll definitely be a serious contender to Wichita State.

By efficiency margin, the fourth best team in the Missouri Valley was actually Southern Illinois. Their computer numbers aren't great because they were poor out of conference, but they improved significantly over the course of the season, and appear to be back on track under Barry Hinson, with a very strong set of freshmen and sophomores. They do lose leading scorer Desmar Jackson, but their top eight minute earners aside from him were freshmen or sophomores. They didn't have a lot of efficient scoring this past season, aside from Jackson and shooting guard Anthony Beane. But they have some good freshman prospects, including Tyler Smithpeters (40.6 3P%) and 6'6" Sean O'Brien (52.3 eFG%), both of whom were true freshmen. The Salukis have a quality front court returner in 6'7" Bola Olaniyan, but that's about it for the front court (unless you count O'Brien, who's more of a wing player). They add 6'8" Ibby Djimde, who played sparingly over two seasons at Illinois. Their top 2014 recruit is 6'7" Jordan Caroline. While Southern Illinois will need to get huge improvements from their freshmen to actually win the Missouri Valley next season, Barry Hinson has done a really good job putting together the core of the next strong SIU team.

Missouri State and Illinois State were the final two Missouri Valley teams to crack .500 in conference play, and both should be improved next season as well. Missouri State loses leading scorer and rebounder Jarmar Gulley, but return the rest of their starting lineup, while also getting back sharpshooter Marcus Marshall who was lost for the season after only 12 games due to a knee injury. On the perimeter, they return starting point guard Dorrian Williams, as well as sharpshooter Austin Ruder (40% behind the arc as a true freshman). Their biggest needs are in the front court, where they return 6'6" Ron Mvouika, but not much else. 6'8" Christian Kirk was effective in 18 minutes per game and might see more time on the floor next season. Another option is 6'11" Tyler McCullough, who played 14 minutes per game as a true freshman. They don't have a highly touted recruit coming in, so don't be surprised if Missouri State looks for a transfer or Juco recruit who can play in the front court.

Illinois State should definitely be better next season. They didn't have a single senior on their roster this past season. They were carried by their paint defense this past season, anchored by 6'10" Reggie Lynch, who led the nation in block percentage (16.1%) as a true freshman. He only played 20 minutes per game (mostly due to constant foul trouble), but was still fourth in the nation in blocks per game (4.7). For comparison on how impressive that is to do in only 20 minutes per game, the only player in the nation to average more than 5.0 blocks per game was UC Irvine's 7'6" monster Mamandou Ndiaye. The issue for Illinois State this past season was offense, particularly shooting, where they were near the bottom of the league. Their best shooter was Nick Zeisloft, but even he was only 35.9% on threes. Perhaps Reggie Lynch can become more of a factor offensively to draw opposing defenses away from the other scorers. Their top 2013 recruit, 6'6" MiKyle McIntosh, sat out the year with academic issues, but should be back next season. They also add 6'7" Teddy Hawkins, who was originally a Wichita State recruit but who had to back out over academic issues and also sat out last season.

Both Drake and Bradley are hit hard by graduations. Drake loses three starters. Bradley only loses two starters, but one is Walt Lemon (18.0 ppg and the team leader in assists and steals), and they also lose a key bench piece. In a year where the middle of the pack in the league is all going to be significantly stronger, it's hard not to see those two teams falling behind.

If there's a sleeper team to make a run next year it's an Evansville squad where the top six minute earners this past season were freshmen and sophomores, and who have a really good young big man in 6'9" Egidijus Mockevicius (10.5 ppg, 62.4 FG%, 8.3 rpg, 2.0 bpg). They also add 6'4" Mislav Brzoja, who played sparingly in one season at Villanova. But they're a "sleeper" in the context of a team that could finish fourth or fifth. There's just no way all of those players can get good enough in one offseason season to challenge the likes of Wichita State.

Overall, the league is going to be a much tougher and more competitive place next season. Wichita State needs another big man, but there are all sorts of rumors about Gregg Marshall being in the mix for one via transfer or the Juco route. Assuming he can get one, they'll be the favorites again next season. But they won't go 18-0, as the rest of the league will be significantly stronger, and there's a real chance of this being a multi-bid NCAA Tournament league again. In the end, here's how I see the top of the league playing out:

1. Wichita State
2. Northern Iowa
3. Illinois State
4. Missouri State
5. Southern Illinois
6. Evansville

Mountain West Conference 

I think you have to say that this was a down year for the Mountain West, though it speaks to the strength of this league in recent memory that it's how we feel. The league did produce two top tier squads. San Diego State earned a 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament and took Arizona, one of the two or three best teams in the nation, down to the final minute in the Sweet 16. New Mexico was, in my opinion, the most under-seeded team in the NCAA Tournament (remembering that seeds are based on resumes, not how good the teams happen to be). They should have been a 5 seed, but were dropped a 7 seed and lost a three-point game in the first round to a Stanford team that went on to beat 2 seed Kansas in the next round. But the league was down because the depth wasn't there. By Selection Sunday, there wasn't another team that was even particularly near the bubble, and the entire league was shut out of the NIT. UNLV, Nevada and Boise State all chose to just go home after that, though Wyoming and Fresno State chose to play in the CBI. Wyoming wend down to Texas A&M in the first round, but Fresno State went all the way to the title game, where they lost the best-of-three series to Siena.

San Diego State loses just two regulars, but they are star point guard Xavier Thames and leading-rebounder Josh Davis. Of those two, Thames is obviously going to be the bigger loss, though I'll get to him in a moment. The front court might actually be stronger next season, despite the loss of Davis. Winston Shephard and Dwayne Polee come back, and I think the best front court returner is going to be 6'10" Skylar Spencer, particularly on the defensive end. They also add 6'9" Angelo Choi, who averaged 2.4 points and 2.2 rebounds per game over two seasons at Arizona. They also add Malik Pope (Scout: 9 SF, Rivals: 17) and Zylan Cheatham (Scout: 16 PF, Rivals: 73). Offensive playmaking and shooting is going to be the concern, though, for a team that wasn't a good offensive team to begin with (their 1.04 PPP were only tied for sixth best in the league). Without Thames, they don't return a single proven perimeter playmaker, really. They could choose to go with a Kentucky or UCLA style lineup with 6'7" or 6'8" guys like Winston Shephard and Dwayne Polee playing primary playmaker, though let's not pretend either is Kyle Anderson. They could turn to 6'3" Aqeel Quinn, the Cal State Northridge transfer who was effective in limited minutes this past season, though he's not a true point either. They could turn to Trey Kell (Scout: 13 SG, Rivals: 118), or else a lower-rated 2014 recruit in Kevin Zabo, who is listed on some (but not all) recruiting sites as a point guard.

New Mexico is hit a bit harder than San Diego State by graduation. In my view, they had three key players who made the team run - the bigs of Cameron Bairstow and Alex Kirk and the perimeter playmaking of Kendall Williams. Bairstow and Williams are both gone, but Kirk will be back for one more season, and he will anchor next year's squad. Kirk has awfully nice basketball skills for a 7-footer, able to play far from the basket while also dominating the paint. And the rest of the starting lineup returns as well, led by Hugh Greenwood, who will likely shift over to becoming the new primary playmaker. They didn't have much of a bench, though, with Cullen Neal the only other real proven returner. Cleveland Thomas is another bench player who could be better next season. But without much of a recruiting class compared to San Diego State (6'9" Joe Furstinger is the highest rated, but is only a three-star recruit on most sites), it's hard to see New Mexico not taking a little step back next season.

UNLV had an ugly non-conference performance, going 0-4 against Pomeroy Top 150 opponents, but they finished the season strong, ending up third in the Mountain West in efficiency margin in conference play. The only senior in the regular rotation was Kevin Olekaibe, but he won't be the only loss. Roscoe Smith is gone to the NBA Draft and Bryce Dejean-Jones will be leaving the program after having multiple off-the-court problems, including a fight with Jelan Kendrick. Khem Birch is also 50-50 for the NBA Draft, though for the sake of this preview I'm going to assume he comes back for one more season. In addition to Birch, they return playmaking guard Deville Smith, swing forward Kendrick, and a nice up-and-coming big man in Christian Wood, their highest rated 2013 recruit. A question mark is Kendall Smith, a 2013 point guard recruit, who played a lot early in the season but fell out of favor late. Dave Rice did sign three blue chip recruits for his 2014 class: Rashad Vaughn (Scout: 2 SG, Rivals: 7), Dwayne Morgan (Scout: 7 SF, Rivals: 15) and Goodluck Okonoboh (Scout: 5 C, Rivals: 32).

Boise State definitely had a disappointing season after starting the year with at-large hopes. They lose three of their top six minute earners as well, including star big man Ryan Watkins and sharpshooter Jeff Elorriaga. They do return a pair of explosive scorers in Derrick Marks and Anthony Drmic, both of whom will be seniors next season, as well as 6'7" Nick Duncan, who was a really good forward off the bench as an unheralded true freshman. But the concern for Boise State is always that they don't bring in the high end talent that programs like San Diego State, New Mexico and UNLV have been bringing in the past few seasons, and their 2014 recruiting class is more of the same. The highest rated recruit is 6'9" David Wacker (Scout: 21 C). Another decent recruit is 6'6" Chandler Hutchison.

Fresno State is definitely next season's sleeper. They quietly finished with a solid +0.01 PPP in conference play, and went on that nice run in the CBI, knocking off teams like UTEP and Princeton. They finished the season just barely outside the Top 100 in both Pomeroy and the Sagarin PREDICTOR. In addition, they were powered fairly heavily by freshmen and sophomores. They lose a pair of starters, including their best shooter and leading rebounder (Tyler Johnson), but eight of their next nine top minute earners were freshmen and sophomores, led by starting point guard Cezar Guerrero and 6'7" Paul Watson, who as a true freshman already stepped into the Tyler Johnson role of being both a strong rebounder and outside shooter. Like Boise State, however, they do not have a recruiting class filled with the type of blue chip talent capable of really challenging a team like San Diego State.

Wyoming had a rough end to their season, losing six of their seven games, but they should be stronger next season. They lose a pair of starters, but return their top three scorers, top two rebounders and top two assist men. That includes getting back star Larry Nance, Jr, who was lost for the season with an injury in mid-February, as well Charles Hankerson, who was lost in mid-February to suspension, but has been reinstated and is expected to return. They also return a sharpshooting shooting guard in Riley Grabau. In addition, the team gets back two players who redshirted: 6'8" Alan Herndon and 6'5" Jason McManamen. Herndon was the team's highest rated 2013 recruit.

Nevada earned the 3 seed in the Mountain West tournament, but were only 7th in efficiency rating in conference play, and were only rated the 8th best team in the league by Sagarin and Pomeroy. A 6-2 record in conference games decided by six points or less will contribute to stats like that. They also lose a couple of starters, including do-everything star Deonte Burton, who scored 20 points per game while also leading the team in assists and steals. On top of that, they lose their most promising talent to transfer, 6'8" rising-junior Cole Huff. Their only really proven returner is Michael Perez, who could take over starting point guard duties, and they have a nice player in 6'9" AJ West, who led the team in blocks off the bench. Without much of a 2014 recruiting class, it's hard to see Nevada even finishing in the top half of the league next season.

Utah State loses four starters to graduation, and Air Force returns all five starters, but just was way too far off the pace this past season to seriously contend next season. So if there's a sleeper for next season, it has to be Colorado State. The Rams lose just one starter (6'9" Gerson Santo), and returns a trio of rising-seniors who are all very capable of attacking the rim and scoring (Daniel Bejarano, JJ Avila and Jon Octeus). A concern is that David Cohn and Marcus Holt, who both played in the regular rotation off the bench, will be transferring out, but the good news is that they mostly left due to lack of likely playing time. Larry Eustachy brings in four quality transfers: Dantiel Daniels (8.0 ppg and 4.1 rpg over two seasons at Southern Illinois), Stanton Kidd (14.5 points and 6.9 rebounds per game at North Carolina Central in 2012-13), John Gillon (10.6 ppg, 2.4 apg and 2.4 rpg as a freshman at Arkansas-Little Rock in 2012-13) and Chane Behanan (9.4 points and 6.9 rebounds per game over a little more than two seasons at Louisville). Though obviously the Behanan signing needs to be taken with a grain of salt since legal problems continue to follow him, and he might still face more suspensions. But if Behanan can stay out of trouble and play, Colorado State definitely has the talent to challenge for an at-large bid.

In the end, here's how I see the top half of the Mountain West playing out:

1. San Diego State
3. Colorado State
4. New Mexico
5. Fresno State
6. Wyoming
7. Boise State

West Coast Conference

You wouldn't have known it from the media or from the public perception of the WCC, but this was the strongest the WCC has been in many years. For the last seven seasons, at least three teams finished outside the Pomeroy Top 200, and generally even more than three. Yet this past season there were none. The league was simply very deep, with every team capable of being tough on its home court. The thing is, nobody you ever see on tv or read in the newspapers cares about the depth of a league. They care that the league only had one clear NCAA Tournament team (Gonzaga), and that Gonzaga wasn't even particularly good by recent Gonzaga standards. BYU snuck into the NCAA Tournament, while Saint Mary's wasn't really that close (a 4 seed in the NIT). But the result of this depth was a league with much closer results. In 2012-13, Gonzaga dominated the league by 0.31 PPP, and three different teams were outscored by at least 0.14 PPP. This past season, Gonzaga's margin was down to +0.19 PPP, with no team worse than -0.12 PPP. And the team that finished tied for second with BYU for efficiency margin at +0.06 PPP? It wasn't Saint Mary's. It was San Francisco, the Top 100 team nobody talked about, and that ended up earning an at-large bid to the NIT as a 4 seed.

In the end, of course, the WCC's perception is always shaded in a big way by Gonzaga. It's amazing that a year in which they were Top 25 in every computer rating is considered a "down" season, but those are the expectations that Mark Few has built at Gonzaga. They lose a trio of regulars to graduation: point guard David Stockton, sharpshooter Drew Barham and big man Sam Dower. They do have one more season of Kevin Pangos and also return 7'1" Przemek Karnowski, but don't have a lot of returning depth. They do add 6'10" Kyle Wiltjer, who averaged 10.2 points and 4.2 rebounds per game as a sophomore at Kentucky. They will also get back 7'0" Ryan Edwards, a 2013 recruit who took a redshirt season. The biggest need for the offeason was obviously adding ball handling, and that's what Mark Few's 2014 recruiting class focused on, headed by Josh Perkins (Scout: 5 PG, Rivals: 46) and shooting guard Silas Melson (Rivals: 150). If Perkins can live up to that hype, Gonzaga has a chance to be better next season.

BYU was basically the same team this past season that they were the year before. And they'll be the same team again next season. With all of the issues with Mormon missions, BYU's roster is always difficult to figure out. So this is going to take two paragraphs to get through. Anyway, they didn't have a single senior in their regular rotation, though Matt Carlino is leaving via transfer and Erik Mika is heading off on a mission. Their top returners are Tyler Haws and 6'11" Nate Austin, both of whom will be seniors next season. One big question mark is Kyle Collinsworth, who tore his ACL in the WCC tournament. He should be back next season, but it's hard to imagine he'll avoid missing some games, and it's unrealistic to expect him to get back to 100% anytime near the start of the season. With Collinsworth and Carlino gone, the Cougars need a point guard. One option is Jordan Chatman, BYU's highest rated 2012 recruit, who just returned from his mission. BYU gets another old recruit back from their mission: 6'10" Isaac Neilson, who was a 2011 recruit. They also add 6'3" Chase Fischer (5.4 points and 1.1 assists per game over two seasons at Wake Forest) and 6'6" Jamal Aytes from UNLV. Aytes will not be available until after the fall semester is over.

BYU's top 2014 recruit is TJ Haws (Scout: 14 PG, Rivals: 70), Tyler's brother, but he will go off on his mission. Their next highest rated recruit is Payton Dastrup (Scout: 18 C, Rivals: 100), but he's headed on a mission as well. In fact, of a 2014 recruiting class containing five signed players already, only one (6'10" Ryan Andrus) is likely to play next season. In the end, it's hard to wade through this entire roster. By my count they are losing five players to missions and getting two back, and then are losing one player to transfer but gaining two others, and have a key player questionable with a serious injury. My 2014-15 BYU preview should just be me throwing my arms up in confusion. But I'd say that if Chatman can step in and provide quality point guard play, BYU has a good reason to expect to be better next season. And we can also say that the expected return of Mika, Haws and Dastrup in 2016 already sets BYU up with a heck of a 2016 recruiting class, no matter who else they sign.

Saint Mary's, thankfully, has an easier roster to wade through than BYU. They're heading into a year of transition, losing three starters. No loss is bigger than Stephen Holt. Their top returner, of course, is big man Brad Waldow. They do have several strong incoming players, though. They add Joe Coleman (8.7 ppg and 3.6 rpg as a sophomore at Minnesota in 2012-13), as well as Emmett Naar, a point guard from Australia. 6'6" Calvin Hermanson, their top 2013 recruit, took a redshirt season and will be back. Their top 2014 recruit is 6'10" Evan Fitzner. The biggest concern for the Gaels this offseason will be finding offense. They were one of the worst shooting teams in the WCC and will be losing their best shooter.

San Francisco had a turbulent season that in the end worked out really well. Point guard Cody Doolin, who had started every game in his first three seasons at San Francisco and was arguably the team's most important player, quit the team in December after a fight in practice. Yet they managed to finish in a tie with BYU for the second best efficiency margin in conference play (+0.06 PPP), earning an at-large bid to the NIT as a 4 seed. And now they lose leading-scorer Cole Dickerson, but return everybody else from their regular rotation. Their top returners are point guard Avry Holmes and 6'7" Kruize Pinkins. They add 6'4" Uche Ofoegbu, who played sparingly at SMU as a freshman in 2012-13. I'm not sure the Dons have the top end talent to make a run at an at-large bid, even if everything goes right, but they should be a Top 100 team yet again.

Of the other WCC teams, the one that seems best positioned to make a run at a top three spot in the league is Portland. They lose one starter (Ryan Nicholas), but should get back starting point guard Alec Wintering and leading-scorer Kevin Bailey, both of whom missed the final few weeks of the regular season with injuries. Those injuries were what caused an otherwise promising season to finish with five straight losses. Their top returner who made it through this past season is 6'11" Thomas van der Mars.

But there are other WCC teams that could easily work their way into the Top 100 next season. Pepperdine loses just one starter as well, Brendan Lane. Their top returners are point guard Jeremy Major and 6'6" Stacy Davis. Their top need with the loss of Lane is a real big man, particularly with so much quality size on teams like Gonzaga and St. Mary's, so their 2014 recruiting class is all big men right now, led by 6'10" Nate Gehring.

San Diego is another sleeper for next season, losing just Dennis Kramer from their regular rotation. Their sterling backcourt duo of Johnny Dee and Christopher Anderson will be back as seniors next season. They have one quality big man coming back in Jito Kok, but they'll need more. One option is 6'7" Brandon Perry, who averaged 6.3 ppg and 3.5 rpg as a freshman at Cal State Northridge in 2012-13.

There's good reason to believe that BYU should contend seriously for another at-large bid and could make a run at Gonzaga, but after them the league should be very wide open. The depth we saw this past season should be back again next season. In the end, here is how I see the top of the league playing out:

1. Gonzaga
2. BYU
3. San Francisco
4. Portland
5. Saint Mary's
6. San Diego

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