Friday, April 04, 2014

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

Big West Conference 

The Big West was a fun league during the regular season, though it unfortunately ended in a fairly lame performance in the postseason tournaments. The league quickly separated into a top duo of UC Irvine and UC Santa Barbara, the former anchored by 7'6" monster Mamadou Ndiaye and the latter anchored the incredibly prolific Alan Williams. UC Irvine beat Washington in non-conference play while UC Santa Barbara beat California and UNLV (and nearly beat Colorado as well). But in stunning fashion, Cal Poly knocked off the two teams in the Big West quarterfinals and semifinals, and then took out Cal State Northridge in the title game. But as a team that went below .500 both in conference play and overall, Cal Poly ended up in a 16/16 play-in game. They won that, but then were smoked by Wichita State. UC Irvine earned the auto bid to the NIT, where they lost a competitive game in the first round at SMU. UC Santa Barbara didn't get offered an NIT spot, so they declined the CBI and CIT and just went home. So a year that started with a lot of promise ended up a dud.

What about next season? Well, the good news is that both UC Irvine and UC Santa Barbara were very young teams and are primed to be even better next season. Beginning with UC Irvine, it's important to note that Mamadou Ndiaye (8.0 ppg, 71.7 FG%, 6.2 rpg, 3.1 bpg) was only a freshman. Also a freshman was leading scorer Luke Nelson (11.8 ppg, 51.7 eFG%, 2.9 apg). And their point guard, Alex Young (8.9 ppg, 4.6 apg) was only a sophomore. They lose just one senior: Chris McNealy (11.0 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 2.1 apg). For next year, expect even more inside size for UC Irvine. First, expect more minutes from 7'2" Ioannis Dimakopolous (2.1 points, 1.3 rebounds and 0.3 blocks in 5.4 minutes per game as a true freshman). Also, they will get back 7'0" Conor Clifford, who averaged 2.5 points and 1.7 rebounds in 7.8 minutes per game as a freshman in 2012-13 but took a redshirt season in 2013-14 to improve his game. If all three of their big men can be effective next season, only New Mexico State will have comparable size to UC Irvine.

UC Santa Barbara was powered by Ken Pomeroy's favorite player, Alan Williams (21.3 ppg, 51.9 FG%, 11.5 rpg, 2.4 bpg), who was the Big West Player of the Year and will be back for one more season. Like UC Irvine, UC Santa Barbara loses just one starter. In their case, they lose Kyle Boswell (10.4 ppg, 43.1 3P%, 2.6 apg). Their most important returner aside from Alan Williams is point guard Zalmico Harmon (7.8 ppg, 5.1 apg). Against the massive size of UC Irvine, the Gauchos need more size of their own. Perhaps look for more playing time for 6'8" Mitch Brewe (4.1 points and 3.4 rebounds in just 17.1 minutes per game). As for incoming players, UC Santa Barbara probably has the highest rated recruiting class in the conference. They bring in 6'2" shooting guard Gabriel Vincent and 6'5" small forward Justin Burke.

Cal Poly is only the third team I'm getting to, despite the fact that they won the auto bid this past season. But I think that's fair. Their run was a fluke. They went 6-10 in conference play, where they were also outscored. And they lost 9 of their final 11 regular season games heading into the Big West tournament. They crushed UC Santa Barbara (the Gauchos hit zero free throws, hit just 33% of their two-pointers, and had Alan Williams foul out), but their other two Big West tourney wins came down to the final possession. And as they head into next season, they lose three starters, including star Chris Eversley (13.5 ppg, 7.1 rpg) and starting point guard Jamal Johnson (4.6 ppg, 2.8 apg). I can't fathom an argument for picking them to contend with UCSB and UC-Irvine next season.

The other two Big West teams finishing in the Top 200 of the computers were Long Beach State and Hawaii. Hawaii is probably in for a bit of a rebuilding season after losing two starters, including do-everything star Christian Standhardinger (18.1 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 1.5 apg, 1.4 spg). Long Beach State is in better shape. They lose just one senior from their regular rotation: Dan Jennings (9.8 ppg, 60.0 eFG%, 8.3 rpg, 1.1 bpg). Their top returner is primary playmaker Michael Caffey (16.2 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 4.3 apg, 1.4 spg). One young player who is a good prospect for the future is sixth man Branford Jones (5.8 ppg, 38.7 3P%, 1.8 apg), who was only a redshirt freshman in 2013-14. Their highest rated 2013 recruit was 6'6" Travis Hammonds (6.5 points and 3.0 rebounds in 17.8 minutes per game), who is another good prospect for the future. They have a strong incoming recruiting class, led by 5'8" point guard Justin Bibbins and 6'8" forward Jack Williams.

If you're looking for a sleeper in the Big West next season, look no further than Cal State Northridge, a team that came awfully close to stealing the auto bid this past season. They lose just one regular from their rotation (Josh Greene - 16.0 ppg, 42.0 3P%, 3.0 rpg, 3.3 apg), and add several key transfers. Their top returner is leading-scorer Stephen Maxwell (17.5 ppg, 54.7 FG%, 8.8 rpg), but Matadors fans should be very excited about all of these newcomers. Reggie Theus has added three high-profile transfers, who should all be eligible in the fall: Amir Garrett (6.2 points and 4.2 rebounds per game over two seasons at St. John's), 6'10" Devonte Elliott (4.9 points and 3.6 rebounds per game as a junior at Nevada in 2012-13) and 6'10" Kevin Johnson (2.5 points and 2.0 rebounds per game for Seton Hall in 2012-13).

The Big West should have a much more productive postseason in 2015 than they did in 2014. The teams at the top of the league should basically all be improved. A team like Long Beach State that finished in the Top 150 of the computers and loses only one player in the rotation isn't even really likely to contend next season. And while Cal State Northridge fans have to love the talent that Reggie Theus has added, it's a long gap between them and the top of the league, and I'll personally want to see if Theus can meld them into a well-rounded team before picking them as the favorite. In my opinion, UC-Irvine and UC-Santa Barbara should both be improved from where they were this past season, on the border of the Top 100. Both teams should be good enough that with a good schedule and some luck in close games it's not implausible that one of them will get onto the periphery of the NCAA Tournament bubble. But I've got to pick a favorite, and in my opinion the big guys on UC-Irvine are a bit too young and a bit too raw, unless they improve a lot over the summer. They might be the favorite two seasons from now, after Alan Williams graduates, but for now I'm giving the edge to UC-Santa Barbara.

Ivy League 

One of the more under-reported conference shifts in college basketball has been the Ivy League. Not that they've had their membership change during realignment - they've had the same eight teams for decades - but the league has become significantly stronger at basketball. This past season, both Sagarin and Pomeroy rated the Ivy League as the 13th best conference in the nation, and better than the MAC, MAAC and Conference USA. Pomeroy had the league just barely behind the Missouri Valley. We know about Harvard and their second straight NCAA Tournament with a win in the Round of 64, but the rest of the league has gotten a lot tougher as well. Princeton finished rated in the Top 100 by both Sagarin and Pomeroy while only going 8-6. Yale was rated just the fifth best team in the conference but made it all the way to the CIT title game. And the league should be even deeper next season, with five Ivy League teams that are going to enter the season believing they can be Top 100 squads.

As long as Tommy Amaker is in charge, Harvard will remain one of the favorites in the Ivy League every season. Amaker has been linked to a couple of jobs already this offseason, but it seems likely that he'll stay. They lose Kyle Casey (9.7 ppg, 5.6 rpg) and Brandyn Curry (9.4 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 2.8 apg, 1.4 spg), but neither really lived up to expectations after their year off. The other graduation from the regular rotation is Laurent Rivard (9.9 ppg, 43.2 3P%, 63.5 eFG%). They return a strong trio of point guard Siyani Chambers (11.1 ppg, 38.5 3P%, 4.5 apg), Ivy League Player of the Year Wesley Saunders (14.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 3.8 apg, 1.7 spg) and 6'7" Steve Moundou-Missi (10.5 ppg, 53.9 eFG%, 6.0 rpg, 1.3 bpg). After that, though, they have a lot of question marks. They will hope to get back 6'7" Hunter Myers, a 2013 recruit who missed most of the season with an injury. Also look for 6'8" Zena Edosomwan. Amaker has two quality 2014 recruits already signed, led by 6'9" Chris Egi (Scout: 15 PF).

Princeton only went 8-6 in Ivy League play, but still reached Selection Sunday rated one of the Top 100 teams by both Sagarin and Pomeroy. Road wins over Penn State, Bucknell and Rutgers (plus a 3 point loss at Butler) will do that. They lose a pair of starters, including star TJ Bray (18.0 ppg, 40.8 3P%, 62.5 eFG%, 4.8 rpg, 5.1 apg). That said, they should get back Denton Koon (7.8 ppg, 3.5 rpg), who was lost for the season with injury in early February. They also return maybe the best freshman in the Ivy League in Spencer Weisz (8.7 ppg, 54.0 eFG%, 4.8 rpg, 2.2 apg). Another player from the 2013 recruiting class to look for is Steven Cook (4.5 ppg, 60.1 eFG%, 2.5 rpg), who barely played the first half of the season but came on strong down the stretch. And Mitch Henderson put together a really strong and deep 2014 recruiting class, led by 6'10" Alec Brennan and 6'3" Amir Bell.

Yale was a team that was lucky to finish in second place in the league. They were fifth in the computers and also fifth in efficiency margin (+0.01 PPP) in conference play. A 4-0 record in Ivy League games decided by seven points or less helped. But they lifted their level of play in the postseason, getting all the way to the CIT title game before falling to Murray State. And even that CIT title game loss gets an asterisk as they were without arguably the most valuable player in the Ivy League in Justin Sears (16.9 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 1.2 spg, 1.9 bpg) due to an injury. But the top six minute earners for Yale will be back next season, including Sears and starting point guard Javier Duren (13.6 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 3.1 apg, 1.5 spg). A player to look for next season is 6'6" Anthony Dallier, who was limited to 11.6 minutes per game as a freshman but was Yale's top rated 2013 recruit. Their big need this offseason is shooting, as the team was dead last in the Ivy League in eFG% in conference play.

Columbia was a team that came up just close of several big wins this season, nearly beating Michigan State, St. John's and Manhattan. But they're primed for better things next season, as they didn't have a single senior in their regular rotation. They even should get back Grant Mullins (11.7 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 2.4 apg), who was lost for the season in mid-February. Their top returners are 6'8" Alex Rosenberg (16.0 ppg, 42.9 3P%, 3.7 rpg), Maodo Lo (14.7 ppg, 43.4 3P%, 3.8 rpg, 2.1 apg) and 6'11" Cory Osetkowski (7.5 ppg, 54.9 eFG%, 3.9 rpg). They lacked a true point guard, but Kyle Smith might have found the answer in his top 2014 recruit, CJ Davis.

All four of the above teams have a good shot to finish next season in the Top 100... but that's not even the end of the contenders. Don't sleep on a Brown team that was one of the youngest in the nation and actually outscored opponents by 0.04 PPP in conference play (better than Yale). Five of the players in their nine man rotation were freshmen, and they return an Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year (Cedric Kuakumensah - 9.0 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 3.2 bpg), who was only a sophomore. They do lose one regular (Sean McGonagill - 17.4 ppg, 40.3 3P%, 4.3 rpg, 3.8 apg), but everybody else will return. Their top offensive returner is Steven Speith (8.2 ppg, 40.0 3P%, 5.5 rpg, 2.3 apg).

All five of the teams discussed above will enter the season believing that they have a real chance to finish in the Top 100 of the computers. Of all of them, I actually think Columbia will pose the strongest test for Harvard, assuming Kyle Smith isn't poached by a bigger program. I like what Mitch Henderson has done at Princeton, but I'm concerned about how they can improve next season after losing a star like TJ Bray. Yale looked great in the postseason, but they were quite a bit behind a team like Columbia over the course of the season, and weren't a younger team anyway. Brown has a shot to get into the Top 100 next season, but would need to get awfully better in one season to actually challenge Harvard for the title. This Columbia team was already borderline Top 100 and returns basically everybody from a very young and improving roster. But in the end, Harvard returns their three most important players (in my opinion), and their top end talent is a level above what Columbia has. In the end, I just don't see how Harvard isn't the favorite yet again next season.

Mid-American Conference 

It was a weird year for the MAC in that the league was actually pretty good relative to recent vintages, but it was just way too balanced at the top. Due to a lot of luck in close games, Toledo actually had a mildly bubbly resume, but not a single team hit Selection Sunday higher than 100th in the Pomeroy ratings. The top six teams all finished between 100th and 122nd in the Pomeroy ratings, which is an incredible level of balance. In the end, a tiebreaker delivered the 1 seed to Western Michigan, which helped clear out their path to the auto bid. They only had to beat Akron and Toledo in the MAC tournament, but were only a 14 seed, stuck playing a Syracuse team that they matched up horribly against (they're not built to play well against a zone). The league ended up being shut out of the NIT as well as the CBI. The only team to go on any real postseason run was Ohio making the CIT quarterfinals.

Does next season look brighter for the top of the MAC? Perhaps. Western Michigan loses just two seniors, but they are leading scorer David Brown (19.1 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 1.8 apg, 1.4 spg) and 6'11" Shayne Wittington (16.1 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 1.5 bpg). They still have some good perimeter scorers, led by Austin Ritchie (7.9 ppg, 41.2 3P%, 2.3 apg) and Connar Tava (11.8 ppg, 58.9 eFG%, 5.7 rpg, 2.9 apg). They need some size, though. They were well below average in the MAC at rebounding the ball, and lose their star big man in Wittington. One option is 6'7" Mario Matasovic, who was their top 2013 recruit but didn't play much as a true freshman. 6'8" Kellen McCormick was an efficient scorer as a redshirt freshman (38.5 3P%), but he has poor rebounding stats. Their top 2014 recruit is 6'9" Drake Lamont.

Toledo was the team that tied Western Michigan atop the MAC standings. And like I said, they had by far the most bubbly resume of any team in the league, though they weren't nearly as good as their resume (10-1 in games decided by six points or less or in overtime). Toledo only loses one senior, though: Rian Pearson (14.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1.7 spg). Their offense was tied for the best in the MAC this past season (1.09 PPP), and they return every other offensive weapons, led by Julius Brown (14.9 ppg, 6.0 apg) and JD Weatherspoon (10.6 ppg, 55.6 eFG%, 6.5 rpg). They struggled defensively, particularly in the paint. 6'9" Nathan Boothe (9.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 1.1 bpg) is the best returner there. A key player to look for next season is 6'9" Zach Garber (1.8 points and 1.9 rebounds in 10.2 minutes per game), who was their top 2013 recruit. Their most important addition is 6'5" Andre Applewhite, who averaged 5.5 points and 3.9 rebounds per game in 12 games for Mississippi State in 2013-14 and should be eligible at the end of the fall semester.

Many of the top MAC teams lose a lot to graduation and are likely to decline next season.. We can probably count on a down year from Buffalo, after losing three starters, including MAC Player of the Year Javon McCrea (18.5 ppg, 56.3 eFG%, 9.9 rpg, 2.2 apg, 2.2 bpg). Bobby Hurley is off to a nice start and has a strong recruiting class, but it'll take those guys a year or two to be ready to compete atop the MAC again. Ohio also is heading for rebuilding, losing four of their top seven minute earners, including Nick Kellogg (15.4 ppg, 55.9 eFG%, 3.6 rpg, 2.9 apg), who set the MAC record for most career three-pointers made. Their top incoming recruit is 6'8" Tariq Owens (Scout: 21 PF), though even he has to be a question mark now that Jim Christian has left for Boston College. Eastern Michigan also loses a pair of starters and their sixth man, including 7-footer Da'Shonte Riley (4.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 2.6 bpg). They do return leading scorer Karrington Ward (12.5 ppg, 6.4 rpg) and a playmaking star of the future in Ray Lee (10.6 ppg and 1.6 apg as a redshirt freshman). Akron had 11 different players start games, so it's hard to define who the "starters" were, but they lose three of their top five minute earners, including star Demetrius Treadwell (15.2 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 1.9 apg), who led the team in both scoring and rebounding.

If there's a sleeper team for next season in the MAC, it's Northern Illinois. The Huskies improved significantly throughout the season, finishing the season by winning 7 of their final 12 regular season games (after a 1-5 start to MAC play), and doing it with the second youngest roster in the conference. They return all but one player in their regular rotation. Their strength was defense, where they finished the season 32nd in the nation in the Pomeroy ratings. They return their top defenders, led by 6'9" Jordan Threloff (9.2 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 1.0 bpg) and Travon Baker (8.4 ppg, 2.4 apg, 1.5 spg). A key returner is Dontel Highsmith, who was averaging a team-leading 10.5 ppg with a 59.7 eFG% as a true freshman before being losing for the season with a torn ACL on December 31st. They add 6'5" Michael Orris, who played sparingly for Kansas State as a freshman in 2012-13.

With so many top teams getting hit hard by graduations, the MAC will be wide open for a team like Northern Illinois that does one thing (play defense) very well and that will be improved next season. But it's rare that some team in the MAC doesn't get into the Top 100 in the computers, and Northern Illinois is going to need to be much better offensively to get there. Western Michigan should be a contender again, but Toledo is the top team that loses the least to graduation and adds the most in newcomers. Adding a major conference talent in Andre Applewhite just in time for the start of the conference season is the clincher for me. Toledo wasn't as good as their resume this past season, but they should be significantly improved next season. Toledo is the favorite.

Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference 

The MEAC wasn't the worst conference in college basketball this past season, but it was probably the ugliest to watch. Certainly it was the league with the worst basketball fundamentals. Why do I say that? Because the conference finished dead last of all 32 conferences in turnover rate, 2P% shooting, 3P% shooting, eFG% shooting and defensive rebounding percentage, while leading all 32 conference in FTRate. In other words, the league had the worst rebounding, ball handling, shooting and fouling. Dead last, out of 32 leagues, in all of them. U-G-L-Y.

The good news for the MEAC is that for small conferences like they are, they are in the end judged only by the one team in the NCAA Tournament. And in the muck of the MEAC in 2013-14, one team stood way above the rest: North Carolina Central. They dominated the league with a 15-1 record, outscoring opponents by a staggering 0.25 PPP in conference play, and they proved to be competitive in non-conference play, hanging tough (though not winning) against Wichita State, Cincinnati and Maryland. They lost by 18 points in the NCAA Tournament to Iowa State, but it was a competitive game. No team in the MEAC ended up winning a postseason game. Hampton went to the CBI where they played Penn State well but lost by 4. Norfolk State lost by four points also, in the CIT to Eastern Michigan.

North Carolina Central will most likely take a step back next season, unfortunately. They lose three starters, as well as their second man off the bench. The toughest loss is MEAC Player of the Year Jeremy Ingram (20.8 ppg, 1.8 rpg, 1.6 spg). Another key loss is starting point guard Emanuel Chapman (6.9 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 6.4 apg, 2.0 spg). They do return their best big men, Karamo Jawara, Jay Copeland and Jordan Parks, all of whom are between 6'7" and 6'8", averaged between 4.7 and 5.8 rebounds per game, and will be seniors next season. To fill the holes, they add three transfers: 6'9" Enoch Hood (4.4 points and 2.7 rebounds per game over two seasons at James Madison), 6'11" Nate Maxey (4.0 points and 2.9 rebounds over two seasons at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi) and 6'5" Jamal Ferguson, who played sparingly in one season at Marquette. A big question mark is going to be playmaking, without an obvious point guard. Perhaps Juwan Moody, who played sparingly as a freshman at the point in 2013-14, will be the choice.

The second best team in the MEAC in efficiency margin and in the computers was Hampton. They lose just one starter, though it's leading scorer Du'Vaughn Maxwell (14.9 ppg, 51.6 eFG%, 7.3 rpg, 3.0 bpg). They do return starting point guard Deron Powers (11.8 ppg, 4.0 apg), a strong perimeter defender in Ke'Ron Brown (1.7 spg) and some good young bigs, the best of whom is probably 6'7" Dwight Meikle (5.8 points and 3.4 rebounds in only 14.4 minutes per game as a sophomore). Their top incoming player is not a recruit but a transfer: 6'1" Reggie Johnson, who averaged 9.2 points, 2.2 rebounds and 1.3 assists per game over one and a half seasons at Miami-Ohio. Johnson will not be eligible until after the fall semester ends, however, as he played 9 games for Miami in 2013-14.

After these top two teams? Well, it's hard to really find another possible MEAC contender. Norfolk State loses four starters, including star 7-footer Brandon Goode (11.1 ppg, 60.9 FG%, 6.9 rpg, 2.4 bpg). Savannah State lose four of their top nine minute earners, including leading scorer Deven Williams (10.2 per game), who led the entire nation by taking 39.1% of his team's shots while on the floor. Morgan State loses three starters, including leading scorer Justin Black (18.9 per game) and 7'2" Ian Chiles (15.6 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 3.0 bpg).

If we're looking for a sleeper team that might make a run for a top three spot in the MEAC next season, I guess we should look at a Howard team with no seniors in the regular rotation and where 9 of the top 11 minute earners were freshmen. Their key playmaker was one of those freshmen: 5'11" James Daniel (21.0 ppg, 38.3 3P%, 1.6 apg, 1.3 spg). Their most efficient big man was also a freshman: 6'10" Marcel Boyd (3.9 points and 4.2 rebounds in just 17.1 minutes per game). But Hampton has a long way to go to be a reasonably competitive Division I offense, as they finished dead last in the entire nation in 2P%, eFG% and Pomeroy adjusted offense (they scored a putrid 0.89 PPP in conference play).

So realistically, Hampton is the only team that can take the MEAC title away from North Carolina Central. The Eagles were significantly better this past season, but Hampton loses significantly less to graduation, and the two teams add similar levels of new talent. In the end, I think North Carolina Central manages to find a point guard, and while the gap between them and Hampton will shrink significantly, I think the gap was just too large for Hampton to make up in one season. I give the edge to North Carolina Central.

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