Friday, April 04, 2014

2014-15 Preview: One-Bid Conferences, Part II

Northeast Conference

It's never a good sign for your league when your automatic bid goes to a team that is below .500 for the season. And when a below .500 team earns your auto bid, it's not exactly a shocker that they end up losing in a 16/16 play-in game. The silver lining for the NEC is that Robert Morris earned an auto bid to the NIT, where they continue to be giant killers. One year after toppling Kentucky in the NIT opening round, they took down St. John's. For the second straight season, however, their run only lasted two games. This year they went down to Belmont in the second round.

We might as well start with that Mount St. Mary's team that played in the NCAA Tournament. They are going through a changing of the guard, however. All three player that scored in double-digit points per game are gone, and every other player in the rotation was a freshman or sophomore. The toughest graduation is Julian Norfleet (17.2 ppg, 5.5 apg, 1.6 spg). Of the returners, they have to be most excited about a pair of young big men, 7-footer Taylor Donaher (7.1 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 1.3 bpg) and 6'7" Gregory Graves (6.5 ppg, 5.4 rpg). They add 6'6" Andy Smeathers, who played sparingly in two seasons at Butler, and their top incoming recruit appears to be 6'9" Mo Sallah. With so many young players, natural progression might make this Mount St. Mary's team improved next season, though that still might not be enough to seriously contend. After all, their +0.04 PPP differential in conference play was only fifth best.

The team that won the regular season title was Robert Morris. The NIT giant killers would like to stop playing in the NIT, but it's going to be hard for them to repeat this level of play next season. They lose three starters, including NEC Player of the Year Karvel Anderson (19.7 ppg, 46.3 3P%, 63.3 eFG%, 3.3 rpg, 1.3 spg). They also lose their two primary ball handlers, Anthony Myers-Pate and Kavon Stewart, who combined for more than 6.5 assists per game. But this is a very difficult team to project next season. Even if Andy Toole doesn't get poached by a larger program, they had a number of players suspended for much of the season, including key players like Jeremiah Worthem (8.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg). Will they be back next season? At this time it's not clear. At this point, I just see no way they can be projected to win another regular season title.

According to Sagarin and Pomeroy, the best team in the NEC this past season wasn't Robert Morris or Mt. St. Mary's, but Wagner. Bashir Mason has been building a team around defense, but he's going to have to replace several key cogs of it for next season, including their best defensive big man, 6'11" Naofall Folahan (4.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 2.9 bpg), and perimeter defender (and leading scorer) Kenneth Ortiz (13.9 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 4.2 apg, 1.8 spg). Ortiz won NEC Defensive Player of the Year for the third time this past season, which is an amazing achievement in any league. They do have some talent remaining, including 6'8" Orlando Parker (7.0 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 0.9 bpg). One question mark is Jay Harris (10.3 ppg, 2.8 apg), who was suspended for the final few weeks of the season, and may or may not be back next season. Either way, Bashir Mason is going to need a ton of fresh talent to replace all of these losses.

The other team to finish in the Top 200 in the computers was Bryant. The Bulldogs lose two starters to graduation, led by Alex Francis (18.6 ppg, 8.2 rpg). They do return Dynami Starks (18.9 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 2.0 apg) and have a good young scorer in Shane McLaughlin (3.9 ppg, 47.1 3P%, 63.0 eFG%, 2.6 apg). They add 6'5" Zach Chionuma, who played sparingly in two seasons at Boston University. They did have several members of their 2013 recruiting class that didn't get to play much as freshmen and could excel in extended playing time (probably led by 6'6" Dan Garvin). Their 2014 recruiting class so far consists of 6'1" point guard Hunter Ware, who got attention from some bigger schools (Butler and East Tennessee State, among others) before settling on Bryant.

If there's a sleeper for next season, it has to be St. Francis Brooklyn. The Terriers were better than their final record. Their +0.08 PPP differential in conference play was better than Bryant or Mt. St. Mary's, and wasn't far behind Wagner's league-best +0.11 PPP differential. And they lose just one of their top nine minute earners: Ben Mockford (12.0 ppg, 40.0 3P%, 56.7 eFG%). They were built around a strong interior defense, and they return both Andy Fall (5.2 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 1.7 bpg) and Wayne Martin (7.0 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 1.4 bpg). They also return do-everything forward Jalen Cannon (a team-leading 14.9 points and 8.2 rebounds per game), as well as a really good point guard in Brent Jones (7.5 ppg, 6.0 apg). Two question marks are Anthony White and Sheldon Hagigal, who both were playing well before being suspended for off-the-court problems (both were arrested), and who may not ever come back to play for St. Francis. But even if they don't come back, St. Francis definitely is good enough to contend for the NEC title next season.

Mount St. Mary's was only the fourth or fifth best team in the NEC this past season and might not be improved, but they still might be in the NEC favorite. Both Wagner and Robert Morris lose too many crucial pieces not to take a step back. Bryant is definitely a contender, though it's not obvious why they should be improved next season. To me, the team that deserves more respect is St. Francis Brooklyn. They were better than their record (4-7 vs NEC teams in games decided by six points or less) and return basically every key piece. They'd likely still only be headed for a 16 seed, and there's no sign that the NEC will be significantly improved next season, but at this point I think the favorite is St. Francis (NY).

Ohio Valley Conference

When Belmont joined the Ohio Valley Conference, we were all looking forward to epic battles between Belmont and Murray State. And we definitely got that in year one, with a fantastic overtime Ohio Valley title game between the two. Year two didn't work out quite the same, with both Belmont and Murray State taking a bit of a step back. They were still probably the two best teams, but it was Eastern Kentucky that got hot late, taking down Murray State in the OVC semifinals and then beating Belmont in the OVC title game. But while these weren't vintage Belmont and Murray State teams, they were still solid. Belmont earned a 5 seed in the NIT and made it to the quarterfinals while Murray State went ahead and won the CIT.

It was a magical run for Eastern Kentucky, but not one likely to be repeated. They lose five of their top eight minute earners to graduation, including star Glenn Cosey (18.7 ppg, 42.4 3P%, 3.2 rpg, 4.2 apg) and shooting guard Tarius Johnson (9.7 ppg, 41.0 3P%, 56.1 eFG%). They do return two proven players in Corey Walden (13.8 ppg, 56.2 eFG%, 4.1 rpg, 2.9 apg, 2.2 spg) and big man Eric Stutz (8.6 ppg, 65.1 eFG%, 4.6 rpg), both of whom will be seniors next season. But without much after them, and without much of a 2014 recruiting class yet, expect a series of Juco signings over the summer.

Belmont had a tough end to their season, though they did make a run to the NIT quarterfinals, knocking off Green Bay and Robert Morris before losing a five point game at Clemson. They lose three starters to graduation, including Ohio Valley Player of the Year JJ Mann (18.3 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 2.6 apg, 2.1 spg). They return point guard Reece Chamberlain (10.9 ppg, 5.5 apg) and Craig Bradshaw (15.7 ppg, 39.6 3P%, 59.0 eFG%, 3.2 apg), and also had nice production out of their 2013 recruiting class, led by 6'6" Evan Bradds (8.8 ppg, 64.8 eFG%, 4.1 rpg). They add 6'4" Taylor Barnette (2.6 ppg as a freshman at Virginia). Needing size, their 2014 recruiting class features 6'8" Mack Merer and 6'7" Amanze Egekeze.

Murray State ended up in the CIT, but they went ahead and won it, taking out teams like Towson and Missouri State before beating Yale in the title game. It was an impressive and dominant run by a Murray State program that was in a rebuilding season after the loss of the core of their 2012-13 season, including Isaiah Canaan. This past season's team was very young, with only one senior on the roster (Dexter Fields - 9.6 ppg, 42.0 3P%, 3.1 rpg). Their leading scorer and primary playmaker (Cameron Payne - 16.8 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 5.4 apg, 1.7 spg) was a true freshman. Their top returner aside from Payne is 6'8" Jarvis Williams (14.9 ppg, 64.6 eFG%, 9.9 rpg, 1.8 bpg). They need more backcourt depth, and definitely need shooters (Fields was their best outside shooter), and their incoming class reflects that. They add 6'3" Justin Seymour (3.3 ppg as a freshman at Utah in 2012-13) and their only signed 2014 high school recruit so far is 6'2" JayQuan McCloud.

The only other Ohio Valley team in the Top 200 of the computers was Morehead State. They lose two starters to injury, though one is monster rebounder Chad Posthumous (9.6 ppg, 10.9 rpg), who was second in the nation in OR% and led the entire nation in DR%. One key question is Bakari Turner (10.4 ppg, 2.0 rpg), the senior who was lost for the season after only 7 games. He'll presumably look for a medical redshirt, though he might not choose to come back to Morehead State even if he does get another season. They return point guard Kareem Storey (6.8 ppg, 5.1 apg) as well as leading scorer Angelo Warner (17.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 3.0 apg, 2.0 spg). They add a couple of transfers who played sparingly at LSU (6'3" Corban Collins and 6'7" Jalen Courtney), as well as 6'6" Lyonell Gaines (5.8 ppg and 4.4 rpg over two seasons at IUPUI).

Is there a deep sleeper to steal the Ohio Valley Conference? Probably not, honestly. Tennessee Tech and Southeast Missouri State both lose a pair of starters. Eastern Illinois only loses one, but it's leading scorer and rebounder Sherman Blanford (14.5 ppg, 8.0 rpg), and they were barely a Top 300 team anyway.

The reality is that there was a huge gap between the top and middle tier of the Ohio Valley Conference, and I wouldn't expect that to change next season. Eastern Kentucky's magical run was probably a one-time event, as they are fairly decimated by graduations. Belmont is never going to drop too far down in the Ohio Valley as long as Rick Byrd is there, but it's hard to project them to be improved when they lose a guy like JJ Mann. The one team near the top of the league that should expect to be stronger next season is Murray State. The Racers went 13-3 in conference play and won the CIT in a rebuilding season. As you'd expect of a young squad, they improved throughout the season and should be even better next year. At this point, they seem like a fairly clear favorite. Murray State is my pick.

Patriot League

Boston University moved over to the Patriot League from the America East, and seemed to be having a pretty good run of their first season. They finished two game clear in the regular season standings, and were the only Patriot League team inside the RPI Top 100. But playing at home in the Patriot League title game, their offense fell apart in the face of the American University defense. They shot a horrific 1-for-17 behind the arc, and finished with only 36 points. They ended up in the NIT, where they lost a tough first round game against Illinois. American University went to the NCAA Tournament as a 15 seed, where they got smoked by Wisconsin by 40 points. Holy Cross was the only other Patriot League team to go to a postseason tournament, beating Brown in the CIT before falling to Yale.

Let's start with that American University team that went Dancing. They lose star Tony Wroblicky (12.2 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 3.0 apg, 1.8 bpg), but every other player from their regular rotation returns, including their leading scorer (Jesse Reed - 13.8 per game with a 45.8 3P% and 60.4 eFG%) and point guard Darius Gardner (11.3 ppg, 56.4 eFG%, 4.2 apg, 2.1 spg). A key addition is 6'9" Kevin Panzer, who averaged 4.8 points and 4.3 rebounds per game with Nevada in 2012-13. They will also look for more contributions from 6'7" Yilret Yiljep, the 2013-14 true freshman who was slowed with injury but is very athletic. There's no question that American University will again be a contender in the Patriot League next season.

Boston University loses a pair of starters: leading rebounder Dom Morris (11.2 ppg, 54.5 eFG%, 6.1 rpg) and DJ Irving (12.4 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 2.3 apg), who feels like he's been around forever. But they do return leading scorer and primary playmaker Maurice Watson (13.3 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 7.1 apg, 2.1 spg), as well as sharpshooter John Papale (9.3 ppg, 41.4 3P%, 57.6 eFG%). They return a couple of bigs (Nathan Dieudonne and Malik Thomas) who should be able to handle chunks of Morris's departing minutes, and they have a nice up-and-comer in Cedric Hankerson (6.0 ppg, 38.8 3P% and a 54.7 eFG% as a true freshman). Hankerson got offers from several BCS conference schools out of high school, so he's the type of talent that doesn't usually end up in the Patriot League. They also add a pair of transfers: 6'11" Blaise Mbargorba from SMU and 6'5" Eric Fanning, who averaged 6.4 points and 2.9 rebounds per game for Wagner in 2012-13. There's a good chance that BU will have more raw talent than any other Patriot League team next season.

The rest of the Patriot League top tier this past season was made up for Bucknell and Holy Cross. Bucknell loses three starters, though, including Patriot League Player of the Year Cameron Ayers (15.4 ppg, 40.8 3P%, 4.5 rpg, 1.4 apg). Holy Cross is in much better shape for next season, losing only one player from their entire roster, though it's leading scorer Dave Dudzinski (15.1 ppg, 7.4 rpg). Their top returner is Malcolm Miller (11.0 ppg, 41.9 3P%, 53.6 eFG%, 5.7 rpg, 2.1 apg, 1.9 bpg), but their future is going to be built around a really good and deep 2013 recruiting class. That class includes an exciting point guard in Anthony Thompson (9.4 ppg, 41.4 3P%, 2.5 apg) and 6'7" Malachi Alexander (6.3 ppg, 4.2 rpg). The highest rated of the freshmen, 6'5" Riley Criswell, actually missed the season with a knee injury, but they'll hope to have him healthy for next season.

The only other Patriot League team rated in the Top 200 by Sagarin and Pomeroy was Colgate, though the Raiders would need to be significant improved for next season to contend, and they lose three players from their eight man rotation, including leading scorer Murphy Burnatowski (14.2 per game). They return a pair of efficient scorers in Austin Tillotson (13.3 ppg, 47.9 3P%, 66.3 eFG%) and Luke Roh (6.2 ppg, 60.5 eFG%), but their defense will have to be significantly improved (ninth out of ten teams with 1.07 PPP allowed in conference play) for them to contend next season.

If there's a sleeper for next season, I think it has to be Army. The Black Knights were very young this past season. Eight of the players in their ten man rotation were freshmen or sophomores, including leading scorer Kyle Wilson (18.4 ppg, 43.1 3P%, 1.5 apg), 6'10" Kevin Ferguson (9.1 ppg, 64.3 FG%, 5.8 rpg, 2.5 bpg) and starting point guard Dylan Cox (9.6 ppg, 59.3 eFG%, 2.8 apg). Their top incoming recruit appears to be 6'7" Terrone Parham. They should definitely be improved, but it remains to be seen if they have the top end talent and athleticism that a team like Boston University will have.

In my opinion, American University, Boston University and Holy Cross all have a real chance to be improved next season, and those are the three teams likely to finish at the top of the Patriot League standings. I really like the Holy Cross core, but they're young, and might be another year away from winning the Patriot League. You certainly can't go wrong picking American University to earn another trip to the NCAA Tournament, but I think the team with the highest ceiling is Boston University. They will likely have the most raw talent of any team in the league, and that's why Boston University is my pick.

[April 5th, 2014 Addendum: After writing this preview, it was announced that Boston University would be losing Maurice Watson, Malik Thomas and James Kennedy to transfer. With the gap between American University and Boston University so small, this obviously flips the league favorite over to AU. When my preseason BP68 is posted, American University will have moved in as the new Patriot League favorite.]

Southern Conference

Well, I've got good news and bad news for the SoCon. The bad news is that perennial conference power Davidson is off to the Atlantic Ten. The team that finished highest in the standings which is returning to the league is a Chattanooga squad that was barely inside the Top 300 of Pomeroy and the Sagarin PREDICTOR. Oof. The good news? The league should get stronger with the three new additions, including a Mercer team that is coming off their program-defining victory over Duke in the NCAA Tournament.

Before we get to Mercer, let's talk about the Wofford team that actually represented the SoCon in the NCAA Tournament. They should be improved next season, losing only one player from their regular rotation and returning their entire starting lineup. Returners include primary playmaker Karl Cochran (15.7 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 3.0 apg, 1.7 spg), big man Lee Skinner (11.1 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 2.0 apg) and sharpshooter Eric Garcia (7.3 ppg, 44.7 3P%, 54.5 eFG%, 2.5 apg). Their top incoming player is probably 6'8" Ryan Sawvell, who transfers in from Evansville after averaging 4.8 points and 3.5 rebounds in 16.1 minutes per game over a little more than two seasons.

That Mercer team had an incredible NCAA Tournament victory, and they certainly were a strong team (inside the Top 100 in RPI, Sagarin and Pomeroy), but it's going to be a rebuilding season in 2014-15 for Bob Hoffman. They lose all five starters to graduation, including Atlantic Sun Player of the Year Langston Hall (14.6 ppg, 37.8 3P%, 3.1 rpg, 5.6 apg). Their top returners are Ike Nwamu (8.3 ppg, 2.9 rpg) and Darious Moten (4.8 ppg, 59.9 eFG%). At this point, Hoffman basically just needs warm bodies to fill in his roster, and he's got a huge recruiting class coming in, though none really getting more hype than anybody else. At this point, I don't see how anybody could pick this team to win the SoCon in their first season until they see some of these freshmen and Juco transfers play.

The team that finished in second place in the standings was Chattanooga. They were terrible in non-conference play, but did finish third in the SoCon in efficiency margin. Their success was driven with free throws, as they led the league in both offensive and defensive FTRate, hitting 72.8% in conference play. They do lose anchor Z Mason (18.1 ppg, 52.5 eFG%, 9.7 rpg, 3.0 bpg), but everybody else returns, led by Ronrico White (10.8 ppg, 38.0 3P%, 2.4 apg). To replace a lot of Z Mason's minutes, look for increased minutes for 6'8" TJ Williams (1.5 points, 1.6 rebounds and 0.8 blocks in 7.6 minutes per game as a true freshman). They will also look for production from 6'10" transfer Justin Tuoyo, who had 1.1 points and 1.4 rebounds and 7.2 minutes per game as a freshman at VCU in 2012-13.

The only other team from the 2013-14 SoCon that finished in the Top 300 of the computers was Western Carolina, but they lose four starters to graduation. So if there's another contender, it'll most likely come from the other two newcomers to the league: VMI or East Tennessee State. East Tennessee State loses a couple of starters, but they return leading scorer Rashawn Rembert (16.8 ppg, 42.3 3P%, 3.1 rpg). Their leading rebounder was actually a 6'2" true freshman, AJ Merriweather (9.5 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 1.4 spg). They definitely need more height, though, and will try to address that with 6'11" 2014 recruit Karl Overstreet.

VMI finished the season very strong. In late January, they were just 10-9 overall and 3-3 in conference play, but they won 12 of their next 15 games, losing a tough true road game at Coastal Carolina in the Big South semifinals and then making it to the CIT semifinals (beating Canisius and Ohio along the way). They lose just two starters to graduation, but it's two key starters. Of the three players who scored over 18 points per game (remember, VMI was second in the entire nation in tempo), two are among the graduates. One is star DJ Covington (20.2 ppg, 58.2 FG%, 9.4 rpg, 3.0 bpg) and the other is Rodney Glasgow (18.8 ppg, 55.3 eFG%, 5.8 apg). They return the rest of their regular rotation, but none are the efficient scorers that Covington and Glasgow were. Their primary playmaker of the future will be QJ Peterson (19.4 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 2.1 apg and 1.7 spg as a true freshman). Another player to keep an eye on is 6'6" Jordan Weethee (6.8 ppg and 3.9 rpg in just 18.5 mpg).

In the end,  Mercer is probably hit too hard by graduations to earn another conference title. Wofford should be stronger, and will definitely be in the mix. The most likely challenger is Chattanooga, though the way VMI has been playing at the end of the season they need to be in the mix as well. But of all of these teams, Wofford was the best this season, and they return almost everybody and also have some nice additions. They should be significantly stronger, and should have a chance to actually get the type of NCAA Tournament seed where they might be able to get out of the Round of 64 (like Mercer did this past season). Wofford is my pick.


Anonymous said...

Isn't Watson, Thomas, and James Kennedy transferring from BU?

Jeff said...

Ah, you're right. That news just broke yesterday. This is what I get for writing these previews days before actually posting them...

I'll add an addendum above when I get a chance.