Monday, April 07, 2014

2014-15 Preview: Mid Majors, Part II

Conference USA

Considering their realignment losses, I'd say that this was a relatively strong year for Conference USA. The league had five teams that were all in the Top 100 of Pomeroy and all with a real chance to earn a 12-14 seed in the NCAA Tournament and scare an opponent. In the end, Tulsa was gifted an easy draw in the Conference USA tournament and then knocked off Louisiana Tech to win the auto bid. They earned a 13 seed, but then went down in a rather meek fashion to UCLA. On top of that, they're leaving the league to join the AAC. Still, the league returns a Southern Miss team that was very much on the Tournament bubble (they ended up finishing their season in the NIT quarterfinals), and a Louisiana Tech team that was arguably a bubble team as well (they also lost in the NIT quarterfinals). But the question remains: can Conference USA get back to being a perennial multi-bid league?

Let's start with Louisiana Tech, since they won the four-way tiebreaker for first place. They were powered by a very aggressive perimeter defense that led Conference USA in tempo, steals and defensive efficiency while finishing third in eFG% against and producing Conference USA's defensive player of the year (Speedy Smith). Smith returns, and also will run the point again (7.7 assists per game). The Bulldogs do lose three of their top six minute earners, including sharpshooter Kenyon McNeail. But they do return their leading scorer (Alex Hamilton) and their leading rebounder (Michale Kyser). They add 6'7" Erik McCree, who played 8.5 minutes per game as a freshman at Murray State in 2012-13. Their top incoming recruit is 6'10" Joniah White. The concern is going to be finding shooters, though. They finished 13th in the league in 3P% in conference play, and lose their only good outside shooter.

Southern Miss has basically been the same team for the last three seasons. They've had a bubbly resume with Tournament quality computer numbers but with a weak strength of schedule and a lack of quality wins. They snuck into the 2012 tourney, but were left out in 2013 and 2014. It was Larry Eustachy who coached that 2012 team, though, while Donnie Tyndall has experienced the two seasons of disappointment. But these were also Eustachy's players, as this team started four seniors. They do have three solid rising-seniors (point guard Neil Watson, shooting guard Deonte Hudson and 6'7" forward Jeremiah Eason), but after that their returning players are pretty sparse. Swing forward Matt Bingaya was effective as a redshirt freshman, and their top 2013 recruit (shooting guard Shadell Millinghaus) took a redshirt year and will have four years of eligibility left. Their 2014 recruiting class is large, with three Juco transfers as well, though none really stands out. Hard to see how this isn't a rebuilding season for Southern Miss.

Middle Tennessee had a really impressive first season in Conference USA, but did it while starting four seniors. They do get a big addition in graduate transfer Jalen Steele (10.1 ppg and 2.9 rpg for Mississippi State in 2012-13), but any success they have next season will come from 2013 recruits like 6'8" Joshua Phillips and 6'6" Eric Wortham improving in drastically increased minutes. UAB is another team hit hard by graduation, losing four of their top seven minute earners. They do have two very nice additions, though, in 6'5" Robert Brown (7.5 points and 2.0 assists per game over two seasons at Virginia Tech) and 6'9" William Lee (Scout: 25 PF, Rivals: 139).

The forgotten team at the top of the league was UTEP, who finished just a game back of first place. The Miners lose leading rebounder John Bohannon, but they will still a huge front line next season. They return 6'8" Julian Washburn for one more season and have their star big man of the future in 6'8" Vince Hunter (12.3 ppg and 6.5 rpg as a true freshman). They also return 6'10" Cedric Lang, and got decent play in limited minutes from 7'1" redshirt freshman Matt Wilms. The concern will be the backcourt, where the only proven returner is combo guard CJ Cooper. Their 2014 recruiting class is naturally focused on the backcourt, led by Shaquile Carr (Scout: 28 PG) and Chris Sandifer (Scout: 17 SG, Rivals: 95). Shooting guard Omega Harris is another strong backcourt recruit. If those newcomers pan out, there's every reason to think UTEP will be stronger next season.

Western Kentucky is the newcomer to Conference USA next season, and they should at least be competitive. They return four of their top five minute earners, three of whom will be seniors next season, led by leading scorer TJ Price and leading rebounder George Fant. They will hope to get back 6'10" Aleksej Rostov and 6'0" Kevin Kaspar, both of whom were lost for the season in January, though Rostov's injury (a blood clot) makes me nervous about projecting future performance from him. They will also hope 7-footer Ben Lawson, who played sparingly as a freshman, will take the next step over the summer. Western Kentucky also has a nice recruiting class, led by 6'7" Justin Johnson.

Old Dominion is a team that improved as the season went along. They ended up making a run to the CBI semifinals, which is pretty good considering preseason expectations.  And they now return their entire regular rotation and also have a few key additions. Their most important players were probably the imposing front court of Richard Ross and Denzell Taylor. Aaron Bacote was their primary ball handler. Their biggest addition is 6'2" Trey Freeman, who averaged 14.3 points and 5.8 assists per game as a sophomore at Campbell in 2012-13. They also add 6'7" Nik Biberaj, who transferred from a local DIII school. Their top incoming recruit is probably 6'7" Juco transfer Javonte Douglas.

One last team to consider as a serious contender for the upper tier is Charlotte. The 49ers were actually a fringe contender in Conference USA before fading late in the season, including a brutal six game losing streak in February. Their offense just went in the tank. They lack ball handlers (dead last in Conference USA in turnover rate) and their shooting is poor as well (an ugly 61.7 FT% in conference play). They do lose only one player from their rotation, though, so they should be better. Pierria Henry will be back at the point, and they have a nice front court duo of Willie Clayton and Mike Thorne. They will hope to improve ball handling with increased minutes for Denzel Ingram and the addition of point guard Braxton Ogbueze, who played sparingly as a freshman at Florida. Another addition is 6'8" Bernard Sullivan, who averaged 1.8 points and 1.3 rebounds per game at Clemson in 2012-13. Also look for 6'9" Cameron Blakely, who was their top 2013 recruit but played sparingly as a true freshman. Their top incoming recruit is probably 6'4" Keyshawn Woods.

You can go a few different ways for the Conference USA favorite. Southern Miss and Middle Tennessee are hit really hard by graduations, so you can't really pick them. Louisiana Tech should be in the mix again, though they lose three key players as well. UTEP will be a top contender, but teams like Western Kentucky, Old Dominion and Charlotte need to be in the mix as well. In the end, this is how I see the top of Conference USA playing out:

2. Louisiana Tech
3. Charlotte
4. Old Dominion
5. Western Kentucky
6. Southern Mississippi

Horizon League 

Green Bay certainly felt like they had a case for an at-large bid this season. And considering the way that the Selection Committee thinks (rewarding tough non-conference schedules) they had to be in the mix. Instead, they somehow only got a 4 seed in the NIT, where they got rolled by a Belmont team that appeared much more motivated (Keifer Sykes being out was a factor as well). In all it wasn't a particularly successful postseason for the Horizon League. Milwaukee stole the Horizon League auto bid (including an overtime victory over Green Bay), but they could only get a 15 seed and were crushed by Villanova. Cleveland State, Valparaiso and Wright State all went to the CIT, where none got further than the second round.

Green Bay was powered by the inside-outside duo of Keifer Sykes and 7'1" Alec Brown. Brown is gone (with a real chance to be drafted by the NBA), but Horizon League Player of the Year Sykes should be back for one more season. Green Bay returns their top four minute earners after those two as well, led by the interior duo of 6'9" Greg Mays and 6'7" Jordan Fouse. One player to look for next season is 6'7" Kenneth Lowe, who was effective in limited minutes as a true freshman. They don't have any prominent transfers or recruits, though, so if Green Bay is going to get back near where they were this last season, several of their bench players will need to get significantly better.

Cleveland State finished the season strong, winning 10 of their final 11 regular season games before being stunned by Wright State in the Horizon League tournament. Their offense was awfully good, and their three-point shooting (40.2%) was third best in the nation. They only lose one regular from their rotation, Jon Harris. They return their best outside shooter (Bryan Forbes), their point guard (5'8" Charlie Lee) and their most important big man (Anton Grady). They will hope to have shooting guard Sebastian Douglas back fully  healthy after he missed about half of the games in January, February and March, and who ended up having knee surgery after the season ended. They add 6'0" Andre Yates, who played sparingly as a freshman at Creighton in 2012-13. They will also get back 6'9" Aaron Scales, who didn't play much as a freshman and took a redshirt season in 2013-14 to improve his game. It's very likely that Cleveland State will be the media's preseason Horizon League favorite heading into next season.

The automatic bid, of course, was won by Milwaukee, but that run was pretty fluky. They lost four of their final five regular season games, so it's not like there was much evidence of improvement from a team that was actually 8th (out of 9) in the conference in efficiency margin. On top of that they lose two starters (their top two scorers, in fact) as well as a key bench piece. Their top returner is probably swing forward Austin Arians. Their top addition is probably transfer Akeem Springs, who averaged 7.7 points and 2.9 rebounds per game as a freshman at Northern Illinois in 2012-13. Wright State is a team hit even harder by graduation, losing five of their top six minute earners. Their only real proven returner is 5'9" point guard Reggie Arceneaux.

A team that might be down next season but has a nice core for the futre is Valparaiso. They lose four players from their ten man regular rotation, but four more were only freshmen. The two biggest losses are clearly leading-scorer Lavonte Dority and 7'0" defensive presence Moussa Gueye. Their top two rising-sophomore returners are point guard Lexus Williams and 6'8" Alec Peters, who scored 12.7 points per game with a 56.1 eFG% as a true freshman. The most important non-freshman returner is 6'10" Yashil Fernandez. Their most important addition is 6'7" E. Victor Nickerson, who averaged 5.8 points and 2.6 rebounds per game as a sophomore at Charlotte in 2012-13. And if the success Bryce Drew had with a not-particularly-highly-rated 2013 recruiting class is a sign for the future, look for a couple of these 2014 recruits to be significant factors as well.

If there's a sleeper team to finish near the top of the Horizon League next season, I think it's Detroit. They only went 6-10 in conference play, but they only lose two players from their regular rotation. Those two losses (Evan Bruinsma and Ugochukwu Njoku) were their top two rebounders, so they are going to need some size. 6'8" Patrick Onwenu is the one proven returner. They add 6'11" Patrick Ackerman, who played sparingly in two seasons at Penn State, and also add a 2014 recruit in 6'6", 250 pound Jaleel Hogan. But while the front court is a bit of a question mark, they return everybody else, led by swing forward (and leading-scorer) Juwan Howard, Jr. Their top returner aside from Howard is probably shooting guard Jarod Williams, who was one steal behind Evan Bruinsma for the team lead in significantly fewer minutes. They need a point guard, but Detroit is in the mix for a few different high school and Juco recruits who could fill the void, so you have to expect that Ray McCallum will land somebody to fill that spot.

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

1. Cleveland State
2. Green Bay
3. Detroit
4. Valparaiso
5. Milwaukee

Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference

The MAAC had three strong teams at the top of the league, but in the end none of them were in the bubble mix late in the season. Still, the winner of the Iona/Manhattan title game was always going to be a tough opponent to deal with in the NCAA Tournament. Manhattan got the win and earned a 13 seed, where they gave Louisville a heck of a fight, losing only by 7. Iona earned a 6 seed in the NIT, where they lost by a single point in the first round at Louisiana Tech. Siena had the best postseason run of any MAAC team, winning the CBI.

Let's start with that Manhattan team, which has had one of the more awkward coaching non-transitions in recent memory. Steve Masiello accepted the USF job, only for it to turn out that he'd lied about having a college degree, and his contract was torn up. Manhattan has announced that they're going to take him back as long as he gets his degree over the summer, which has the feeling of battered woman syndrome. I'd have let him go. Either way, Manhattan is due for a bit of rebuilding anyway, losing three starters, including star George Beamon, starting point guard Michael Alvarado, and big man Rhamel Brown, who just won his third consecutive MAAC Defensive Player of the Year award. Their top returners are sharpshooter RaShawn Stores, 6'10" Ashton Pankey and swing forward Emmy Andujar. They have a deep 2014 recruiting class, led by 6'8" Zane Waterman.

Iona loses three starters, two of whom shot at least 40% behind the arc, and who drove Iona's filthy shooting attack (they hit 40.1% as a team in conference play, leading the league in 2P%, 3P% and eFG%, while scoring 1.17 PPP). They do return one of this past season's sharpshooters (Isaiah Williams hit 43% behind the arc), as well as point guard AJ English and star big man David Laury. But it's hard to see how Iona can repeat this past season's offensive output. The Gaels add 6'4" Kelvin Amayo, who played sparingly as a freshman at Marshall in 2012-13. Their 2014 recruiting class is deep, but without anybody particularly highly rated. I do like 6'10" Ryden Hines, a 2013 recruit who looked good in limited minutes (6.4 minutes per game) as a true freshman.

Canisius was the third dangerous team atop the MAAC, though they completely revolved around MAAC Player of the Year Billy Baron, who was one of the most exciting players in the entire nation. He graduates, and three other starters graduate with him, including leading rebounder Chris Manhertz and 6'10" defensive stopper Jordan Heath. It's going to be a rebuilding season for Canisius for sure. So who are the players for the future for Canisius? The best seems to be the one returning starter, shooting guard Zack Lewis, who was just a true freshman. 6'7" Phil Valenti, a redshirt freshman, is the second best returner. The rest of Jim Baron's 2013 recruiting class took a redshirt, so look for 6'5" Jermain Crumpton and 6'4" Adam Weir to potentially be factors next season.

While Manhattan, Iona and Canisius were the clear three best teams in the MAAC, the 3 seed in the MAAC tournament actually went to Quinnipiac, who won the tiebreaker with Canisius. They were only +0.03 PPP in conference play, though (their 14-6 record was driven by a 6-1 record in MAAC games decided by six points or less or in overtime), and they lose three starters, including star Ike Azotam, who led the team in both points and rebounds. They do return their best true big man (6'9" Ousmane Drame) and sharpshooting shooting guard Zaid Hearst, as well as point guard Kasim Chandler and Evan Conti. So while Quinnipiac shouldn't get significantly worse, they are still unlikely to contend for the MAAC title next season.

The only other team to finish above .500 in conference play was Siena, and they were also the youngest team in the conference. They started a pair of freshmen and didn't have a single senior on the entire roster. And like you'd expect of such a young team, they got significantly better over the course of the season, running all the way to the CBI title, knocking off teams like Penn State before winning a best-of-three series over Fresno State. Their top returners are leading scorer Rob Poole, point guard Marquis Wright and big man Brett Bisping. The biggest addition for Siena is definitely 6'5" Patrick Cole, who averaged 10.3 points, 2.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game as a freshman at Coppin State in 2012-13. They'll definitely be a contender to win the MAAC next season.

Of the teams that finished below .500 in the MAAC this past season, who is most likely to finish near the top of the league next season? I think it's Saint Peter's. The Peacocks lose just one starter (Chris Burke), and their star (Marvin Dominique) will be a senior next season. They also started a pair of true freshmen: point guard Trevis Wyche and big man Quadir Welton. They also have a pretty nice recruit coming next year in the form of 6'3" Elisha Boone.

There are some teams at the bottom of the conference that should be improved next season, such as Monmouth, but they are just much too far down in talent to contend for a MAAC title next season. There was a large gap between the top half of the MAAC and the bottom half of the MAAC this past season, and I would expect to see that again next season. In the end, here's how I see the top of the MAAC playing out next season:

1. Siena
2. Iona
3. Saint Peter's
4. Manhattan

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Southern Miss doesn't have Neil Watson anymore unfortunately. He graduated last year