Tuesday, April 08, 2014

2014-15 Preview: Mid Majors, Part III

American Athletic Conference

Well... we knew the AAC had a premier national title contender. But they weren't the AAC team that ended up winning the title. Congratulations to UConn for an incredible run. We knew that they were a strong 7 seed, but there was no sense during the regular season that they were going to play at this level during the NCAA Tournament. Of course, they were one bounce away from going out in the Round of 64 against St. Joe's, but any team needs quite a bit of luck to win a title in a single elimination tournament.

Now, why have I dumped the AAC to the "mid-majors", instead of giving them the major conference treatment in my previews? Well, for one thing, the AAC really wasn't that good this year. It was strong at the top, but the bottom half of the league was awful. Both Sagarin and Pomeroy rated the league 7th best, behind the Big East and SEC, even after UConn's title run. And the league's best team (all apologies to the national champions) is off to the ACC, while the league adds Tulsa, Tulane and East Carolina. Hardly an even trade. It's hard to see why the AAC should be better than, say, the Atlantic Ten or Mountain West next season. It's a mid-major league.

Anyway, let's start with the national champions. And as this is a preview of the future, we have to get past the celebrations to talk about where this program goes from here. And it's a bit of an elephant in the room, but UConn's entire starting lineup was Jim Calhoun players. And that's not to say that Kevin Ollie is Tubby Smith or Bruce Weber (though I wouldn't even use those names as insults, as I think both of those guys are far better coaches than they get credit for from the media or the average fan), but it's only to say that Ollie is still very much an unknown as a head coach. They had an incredible NCAA Tournament run, but it's really only about a four game sample size of great play at a perfect time. And whatever you think of Ollie, the team has still been jettisoned by the Big East and is in an inferior conference, meaning some negative impact on recruiting.

So who is gone from UConn next season? Shabazz Napier, of course, along with Niels Giffey and Lason Kromah. The question mark is DeAndre Daniels. Right now the media insiders think he's leaning toward the NBA Draft, so for the sake of this preview I'm going to assume that as well. If he comes back obviously he'll give the team a huge boost. Who do we know will be back? Ryan Boatright, Amida Brimah and Phillip Nolan from the end-of-season rotation. Shooting guard Terrence Samuel didn't play much as a true freshman, but could play much more next season. A big question mark is 6'6" Omar Calhoun, a very highly touted high school recruit who has been slowed by injuries and other problems and barely played late in the season. There are rumors of him transferring, though he is still saying publicly that he's going to stay. They add Rodney Purvis, who averaged 8.3 points per game as a freshman at NC State. Also look for power forward Kenton Facey, who played sparingly as a true freshman, to see more playing time. So far, Kevin Ollie has one blue chipper signed for his 2014 class: Daniel Hamilton (Scout: 5 SF, Rivals: 18).

Cincinnati "won" a coin toss for the 1 seed in the AAC tournament over Louisville. The prize for "winning" was getting to play UConn in the AAC semis while Louisville played Houston. They were a strong team, but suffered a brutal Round of 64 loss to Harvard, and are hit hard with three big graduations: star Sean Kilpatrick, AAC Defensive Player of the Year Justin Jackson, and Titus Rubles. Their top returners are point guard Troy Caupain, swing forward Shaquille Thomas and shooting guard Jermaine Sanders. Their most talented up-and-comer is 6'9" Jermaine Lawrence, a highly touted 2013 recruit who struggled as a true freshman. Mick Cronin's 2014 recruiting class is led by Quadri Moore (Scout: 14 C, Rivals: 103) and Gary Clark (Scout: 23 PF, Rivals: 145). With all of that size returning, Cincinnati will have one of the biggest front lines in the conference, and I'd expect them to be strong defensively again. But without Sean Kilpatrick, I'm not sure where the Bearcats find offense. Their offense aside from him was awful this past season. To make a run at a conference title they'll need Caupain to take a leap, along with a younger bench player, like 6'2" Kevin Johnson, perhaps.

The final NCAA Tournament team out of the AAC was Memphis, a team that hung in the Top 25 all season basically out of inertia. Whether you were judging this team on its ability or its resume, they were more of a borderline Top 40 team than a Top 25 team. They just weren't that good, and now they lose four starters, led by Joe Jackson and Michael Dixon. The only returner starter is big man Shaq Goodwin. From the rest of their regular rotation, the Tigers return 6'8" Austin Nichols and 6'7" Nick King, both of whom were true freshmen this past season. Josh Pastner is going to need major production from 2013 recruits who didn't see much of the floor this past season, led by 6'8" Kuran Iverson and 6'10" Dominic Woodson. Their biggest need is perimeter playmaking, and Pastner will partially address that with his one blue chip 2014 recruit, Dominic Magee (Scout: 27 PG, Rivals: 71).

SMU certainly had a strong at-large case, but I understand why they were left out. The Selection Committee has made it clear that they care about non-conference strength of schedule in a big way. And for good reason, as it encourages teams to generate more interesting non-conference games. But SMU went ahead and made it all the way to the NIT title game, proving that they were still taking the postseason seriously. And next year they expect to finally go Dancing again. They lose a pair of senior starters (Nick Russell and Shawn Williams), but return star Nic Moore, big man Markus Kennedy, and an up-and-coming swing forward in Sterling Brown. Off the bench, they return a very talented shooting guard in Keith Frazier, but the real excitement for next year is going to be Emmanuel Mudiay (Scout: 1 PG, Rivals: 2). On top of that, SMU has added Jordan Tolbert (10.7 points and 5.7 rebounds per game over three seasons at Texas Tech), though they have to wait to see if he can be eligible to play next season or will have to sit out a year. There's no question that SMU will be better. The only real question is: Can they actually win the conference title?

Tulsa is the one newcomer to the AAC that made the NCAA Tournament this past season, and only one of their top seven minute earners was a senior (Tim Peete), but there are several concerns. First, recall that Tulsa was nowhere near the bubble and benefited from a lucky Conference USA tourney draw. Also, Danny Manning has left, and he might be taking a player or two with him. For now, though, they are still on pace to return six of their top seven minute earners, led by leading-scoring James Woodard, point guard Shaquille Harrison and 6'7" wing Rashad Smith. Can Tulsa make a run at an at-large bid? If the new coach keeps the roster together, yes. But I don't think Tulsa has the high end talent to be any more than a bubble team.

Of the teams in the bottom half of the AAC this past season, Houston and Temple are the two most likely to to get back into the Top 100. Houston is going through a coaching transition to Kelvin Sampson. Sampson should eventually increase the talent level, but for now he has to hold together a roster that returns 8 players from their 11 man rotation, including a really good point guard in LJ Rose and a strong big man in TaShawn Thomas (though there are rumors of Thomas maybe being a graduate transfer somewhere else). Temple had an awful number of excruciating losses this past season, and they lose star Dalton Pepper to graduation and Anthony Lee to transfer. That said, they have a good point guard in Will Cummings and an up-and-coming big man in 6'8" Mark Williams. They'll also get back 6'7" Daniel Dingle, who missed most of the season with an injury. But with such a thin roster, Fran Dunphy had plenty of room for additions. He is adding three transfers: 6'7" Jaylen Bond (3.1 points and 4.1 rebounds per game over two seasons at Texas), Jesse Morgan (13.4 points per game at UMass in 2012-13) and Devin Coleman (5.4 points per game as a sophomore at Clemson this past season). Coleman won't be eligible until the end of the fall semester. Dunphy also adds 6'8" Obi Enechionyia (Scout: 22 PF, Rivals: 117).

In the end, I'm giving the narrow edge to SMU for the title in the AAC. I don't think they're going to be a Top Ten team or anything, but they should be Top 25, and assuming DeAndre Daniels goes pro, they should be favored. If Daniels comes back, I'll probably leapfrog UConn back over SMU. Here's how I see the top of the league playing out:

1. SMU
2. UConn
3. Cincinnati
4. Tulsa
5. Memphis
6. Temple
7. Houston

Atlantic Ten Conference 

This was an odd season for the Atlantic Ten. In some sense it was a down season, as the league was ranked in Sagarin and Pomeroy only the 8th best league, which is well down from where it was the year before. This was inevitable, as the league lost Butler, Xavier and Temple. But at the same time, the top of the league was strong. Their RPIs were inflated (you can compare each team's RPI with the other computer ratings in the table above), but the league deservedly got six teams into the NCAA Tournament, and ended up with their fifth place team making a run to the Elite 8. In the end, that's a heck of a season for a "mid-major" conference.

I guess we need to start with that magical Dayton team. How much of their Elite 8 run was improvement throughout the season and how much of it was a fluke? Well, obviously "fluke" is a big part of a run that involves two straight wins that came down to the final possession and some hot outside shooting. But Dayton also was a team that was a lot better in March than they were in January. They won 10 of their final 12 games heading into the NCAA Tournament, during which time their Pomeroy rating rose from 75th to 53rd. And after their Elite 8 run, that Pomeroy rating rose all the way up to 39th. What changed? Well their offense was good all along, and they ended up leading the league in offensive efficiency, but their defense went from "terrible" to "decent". From the start of conference play through February 12th, 8 of 10 opponents scored at least 1.03 PPP. The rest of the season, just 5 of 12 opponents broke that mark.

Dayton does lose two of their top five minute earners - Vee Sanford and Devin Oliver - but nearly the rest of their regular rotation was made up of freshmen and sophomores. So if Archie Miller stays (and his name is certainly now in the mix for a bunch of other jobs), Dayton should remain in Atlantic Ten contention for a while. The biggest need for next season is probably in the front court, as they lose leading-rebounder Oliver as well as 6'10" Matt Kavanaugh. The backcourt should be fine with Scoochie Smith at the point and Jordan Sibert at shooting guard. Dyshawn Pierre is their top front court returner. They have a pair of nice recruits in 6'3" Darrell Davis (Rivals: 102) and 6'11" Steve McElvene. Dayton might not be quite as good next season, but there's no reason to expect a significant drop-off.

VCU is another team that should be strong again next season (assuming Shaka Smart does stay, which I think he will). One thing lost in VCU's tourney failures the past two seasons is that his teams have actually gotten better every season since his Final Four run. Don't overreact to what happens in a single-elimination tournament (and that goes for VCU's Final Four team, which was the weakest Final Four team in at least the last 20 seasons). And while they might not improve on their Top 20 Pomeroy rating next season, they'll be strong once again. They lose Juvonte Reddic and Rob Brandenberg, their last two rotation players from that Final Four team, but everybody else returns. Briante Weber tied for the national lead in steals per game (6.0) and will be back. They should also get back their leading scorer (Treveon Graham) and their best shooter, Melvin Johnson (who missed the NCAA Tournament with an injury). Also look for an increased role for 6'6" Mo Allie-Cox, who was a really impressive scorer and rebounder as a redshirt freshman. Their deep 2013 recruiting class has barely seen the floor yet, with only JeQuan Lewis playing extended minutes. Look for shooting guard Douglas Brooks to have a bigger role next season. And their 2014 recruiting class is one of the best in the nation, led by Terry Larrier (Scout: 15 SF, Rivals: 39), Justin Tillman (Scout: 29 PF, Rivals: 137) and Michael Gilmore (Scout: 24 PF).

George Washington loses three of their top six minute earners, including Maurice Creek and Isaiah Armwood. That said, they should get back Kethan Savage, who was averaging 12.7 ppg before being lost for the season to injury in mid-January. They also return starting point guard Joe McDonald and 6'10" Kevin Larson. They add 6'9" Ryan McCoy, who averaged 9.2 minutes per game for Manhattan as a sophomore in 2012-13. They also add a deep recruiting class, led by 6'10" Matt Cimino (Scout: 20 C). A need for the offseason is another guard who can handle the ball.

A lot of the top teams in the Atlantic Ten will be hit very hard by graduations, however. Saint Louis is finally really moving beyond the Rick Majerus era, as the last big recruiting class he put together graduates. They lose all five starters, and will be a completely new team next season. They have a very strong and very deep 2014 recruiting class led by 6'10" Brett Jolly and 6'4" Davell Roby (they also add 6'4" Achraf Yacoubou from Villanova), but they'll obviously take a big step back for at least one season. St. Joe's is also hit hard, losing three starters from a team that didn't get much at all from its bench, including star Langston Galloway and big man Halil Kanacevic. Their top returner is probably 6'6" DeAndre Bembry, who was only a true freshman this past season. Their key additions are 6'5" Aaron Brown (3.2 points and 1.5 rebounds per game over 1.5 seasons at West Virginia) and 6'4" James Demery (Scout: 24 SG).

UMass and St. Bonaventure are two other teams suffering significant losses. UMass was very overrated during the season, of course. Their resume deserved the 6 seed they got in the NCAA Tournament, but the computers had them ranked around 50th, and they were a deserved underdog against 11 seed Tennessee. And star playmaker Chaz Williams graduates, as do two other starters. Big man Cady Lalanne will be back for one more season, and they do add Jabarie Hinds (7.4 points and 2.5 assists per game over two seasons at West Virginia) and Donte Clark, who was originally a highly touted Virginia Tech recruit but could not qualify to play there. St. Bonaventure loses three starters as well, including leading scorer Matthew Wright, though they do get 7'0" defensive anchor Youssou Ndoye for one more season. But without any significant transfers or recruits coming in, it's hard to see how they don't take a big step back next season.

Richmond is a team that should be improved next season. The only starter they lose is Cedric Lindsay, but even he was lost for the season on February 1st with an injury anyway. 5'8" Kendall Anthony was their leading scorer, their best rebounder was Trey Davis, and they have a good interior defender in 6'9" Alonzo Nelson-Ododa. Their top addition is 6'8" TJ Cline (7.9 points and 4.6 rebounds per game as a freshman at Niagara in 2012-13).

Rhode Island was a team significantly better than their record. They were 4-9 in games decided by six points or less or in overtime, including 1-7 against Atlantic Ten opponents. Their efficiency margin in conference play (-0.03 PPP) was actually not too different from Dayton (+0.00 PPP). They lose leading scorer Xavier Mumford, but everybody else from their regular rotation returns, led by explosive shooting guard EC Mattthews, who averaged 14.3 points and 2.3 assists per game as a true freshman. 6'7" Hassan Martin, who led the team with 2.5 blocks per game, was also a true freshman. Their top addition is probably 6'7" Earl Watson, a Juco transfer who was originally supposed to play for Wichita State before academic issues cropped up. Considering that Rhode Island was a borderline Top 100 team in the computers and should be better next season, it's not out of the realm of possibility for them to make a run at an at-large bid. I really like the job that Dan Hurley has done there.

If there's one more sleeper in the Atlantic Ten next season it's Duquesne. The Dukes lose leading scorer and rebounder Ovie Soko, but return everybody else from their starting lineup. That includes point guard Derrick Colter, 6'8" Dominique McKoy, and one of the best shooters in the nation in Micah Mason (his 56.0% three-point shooting led the entire nation). One addition will be 6'8" Jordan Robinson, who was their top rated 2013 recruit but missed the season as a partial qualifier. Another 2013 recruit who should see increased playing time is 6'8" Isaiah Watkins. Those two should help fill the hole in the front line left by Ovie Soko.

In the end, here's how I see the top of the Atlantic Ten playing out:

1. VCU
2. Dayton
3. Richmond
4. Rhode Island
5. UMass
6. George Washington
7. Duquesne

Colonial Athletic Association

It was not a banner year for the Colonial, which didn't get a single team in the Top 100 of Pomeroy or the Sagarin PREDICTOR. Both Sagarin and Pomeroy rated the league behind the Ivy League. Sagarin had it behind the Summit. The best team won the regular season title and took the tourney title, but the 13 seed just led them to have to play Michigan State and to never really have a chance to win. The only other team to go to a postseason tournament was Towson, who went to the CIT, where they fell in the quarterfinals to Murray State.

It's not even really obvious that the CAA should have a team back in the Top 100 next season, as both Delaware and Towson are hit hard by graduations. Delaware loses three starters: Davon Usher,  Devon Saddler and leading rebounder Carl Baptiste (7.9 per game). They have two proven returners in Jarvis Threatt and Kyle Anderson, but after that all they return is potential. The top prospect for next season is probably 6'7" Marvin King-Davis. Their recruiting class is big, but without anybody who stands out.

Towson is hit even harder by graduations, losing four starters, led by Colonial Player of the Year Jerrelle Benimon. Pat Skerry has a nice young core for the future, though, led by Timajh Parker-Rivera and former Vermont transfer Four McGlynn, both of whom were sophomores this past season. Their top 2013 recruit so far has been 6'8" Walter Foster. They add 6'6" AJ Astroth, who played sparingly as a freshman at Vanderbilt in 2012-13, as well as several high school recruits.

The only other team to finish above .500 in conference play was William & Mary. The Tribe made it all the way to the Colonial title game before losing a heartbreaker by a single point to Delaware. They lose three starters, though, as well as a key bench player. That includes a pair of outside sharpshooters in Brandon Britt and Julian Boatner. They do return their leading scorer Marcus Thornton and leading rebounder Terry Tarpey. They really need size, both for defensive purposes and rebounding. One option is 6'9" Jack Whitman, a 2013 recruit who took a redshirt season. Another option is 6'6" 2014 recruit Oliver Tot.

According to the computers, the third best team in the Colonial was actually Drexel. The Dragons lose their foundation of their team, though, in starting backcourt Chris Fouch and Franz Massenat, as well as leading rebounder Dartaye Ruffin. That said, they should get back 6'6" Damion Lee, who was a starter before being lost for the season to injury in November. They'll also get back 6'7" Kazembe Abif, who missed about half the season with his own injury. One player who should see more time is 6'9" Moahamed Bah, who was effective in limited minutes as a true freshman. Somebody is going to have to be the new primary ball handler next season after the loss of Massenat. Freddie Wilson is an option, as is 2013 recruit Major Canady.

With the teams at the top of the conference all hit hard from graduations, which of the teams that finished below .500 this past season have the ability to rise into the Colonial's top tier? Well, with College of Charleston losing three of their top five minute earners, the answer seems to obviously be Northeastern. The Huskies return their entire regular rotation, led by Colonial Defensive Player of the Year Scott Eatherton. But despite their size (6'7" Reggie Spener is another key returner) and defensive abilities, their offense was pretty awful this past season. The finished 7th out of 9 CAA teams this past season in offensive efficiency in conference play, and were below the league average in both eFG% and turnover rate. TJ Williams, who was just a freshman this past season, could see the start at point guard next season, and Northeastern is also in the mix for an addition or two in the backcourt to help clean their offense up. If they can figure out their point guard and add a shooter or two as well, Northeastern should contend near the top of the league next season.

If there's a deep sleeper for the future it's James Madison. Of the 11 players who earned non-garbage minutes for them this past season, all but one was a freshman or sophomore. They have some decent young talents in point guard Ron Curry and 6'6" forward Charles Cooke, who led the team in scoring. But they need offensive talent badly. Their 27.3 3P% shooting during the season was third worst in the nation, and their eFG% and offensive efficiency led only UNC-Wilmington in the Colonial this past season. So in the end, here's how I see the top half of the league finishing up:

1. Drexel
2. Northeastern
3. Delaware
4. William & Mary

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