Saturday, April 05, 2014

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

America East Conference 

It's hard to think of a team in the nation that's had a rougher run of conference tournaments than Stony Brook. They have lost in the America East title game three times in the last four seasons, with two of those three losses coming on their home court, including this past season. This time it was a fourth place Albany team that knocked off Vermont in the semifinals and then stole that victory on Stony Brook's floor in the title game. The Great Danes ended up in a 16/16 game in the NCAA Tournament, but acquitted themselves well, beating Mount St. Mary's and then hanging tough with Florida well into the second half. Vermont got an automatic bid to the NIT, where they lost to Georgia in the first round. Stony Brook had to drop down to the CBI, where they lost in the first round to Siena.

Let's start with that Stony Brook team, with it's tough-luck group of seniors. Three of their starters graduate, led by Eric McAllister (7.5 ppg, 58.5 eFG%, 5.5 rpg, 1.2 bpg). But they return America East Player of the Year Jameel Warney (14.5 ppg, 61.3 FG%, 8.0 rpg, 1.9 apg, 1.2 bpg), who still has two years of eligibility left. They also return leading assist man Carson Puriefoy (12.9 ppg, 44.2 3P%, 2.8 apg, 1.5 spg). Among their returners is 6'5" Roland Nyama, a 2013 recruit who took a redshirt to help adjust to living in the United States. They don't have any 2014 recruits getting any hype, but any team with Jameel Warney on it is going to contend for an America East title.

Albany represented the America East in the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season in 2014. They were only 9-7 in conference play, though, and they're hit pretty hard by graduations, losing three starters and their top two minute earners off the bench. The key losses are DJ Evans (11.8 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 2.7 apg) and John Puk (6.4 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 1.3 bpg). They do return leading scorer Peter Hooley (15.5 ppg, 38.8 3P%, 2.6 apg) and leading-rebounder Sam Rowley (11.1 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 1.8 apg). To try to fill holes in the roster, Albany is adding a massive recruiting class, including at least one Juco transfer. None seem to stand out particularly, however, so it's hard not to see Albany taking a step back.

The regular season champion in the America East this past season was Vermont, but they lose their entire starting lineup to graduation, led by Clancy Rugg (13.0 ppg, 55.7 eFG%, 5.9 rpg) and Brian Voelkel (6.5 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 5.8 apg, 1.5 spg). Their top returner is probably Kurt Steidl (5.9 points and 2.0 rebounds in 14.3 minutes per game as a true freshman). They will get back Brendan Kilpatrick (2.9 points in 11.1 minutes per game as a freshman in 2012-13), who missed the past season with an injury. Their 2014 recruiting class is large, led by 6'2" shooting guard Brandon Hatton and 6'3" point guard Ernie Duncan.

The only other America East team in the Top 300 in the computers was Hartford. They were also the only other team to finish with a positive efficiency margin in conference play (every other team not included in this preview had an efficiency margin of -0.05 PPP or worse in conference play). Hartford actually only had one senior in their regular rotation: Oren Faulk (3.7 ppg, 55.3 FG%, 2.2 rpg). They will potentially start four seniors next season, led by Mark Nwakamma (15.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 1.9 apg) and Yolonzo Moore (9.8 ppg, 2.8 apg, 1.3 spg), along with a pair of outside sharpshooters in Wes Cole and Corban Wroe (both at 43% behind the arc, with an eFG% over 58%). Their big need next season is more size, which they will partially try to replace with 6'8" 2014 recruit John Carroll.

There doesn't look to be a dominant team in the America East next season, and it's possible that all of the top teams will take a bit of a step back. Hartford is a sleeper, but they're going to have to significantly improve their overall talent level to realistically win the conference next season. With Vermont and Albany hit hard by graduations, I think Stony Brook is the favorite by default. At some point, you have to figure that Jameel Warney is going to break the America East Title Game Curse, and I think 2015 will be the year. Stony Brook is my pick.

Atlantic Sun Conference 

For the second straight season, an Atlantic Sun team was a darling of the NCAA Tournament. A year ago it was Florida Gulf Coast becoming the first 15 seed to make the Sweet 16. This past season it was Mercer knocking off Duke as the lowest seeded team to make the Round of 32. The problem is, Mercer is on their way out of the league, so the Atlantic Sun doesn't really get to celebrate their success.

Despite not being as good as Mercer this year (not only in the computers, but in efficiency margin, where Mercer was +.20 PPP in conference play while FGCU was +.09 PPP), Florida Gulf Coast did work their way into a tie atop the standings. And by winning the tiebreaker, Florida Gulf Coast earned the 1 seed in the Atlantic Sun tournament. So even though Mercer beat them in the Atlantic Sun title game, FGCU earned the auto bid to the NIT, where they nearly beat Florida State in the first round.

The good news for FGCU is that their core will be around for one more run. They lose just one senior off their roster - Chase Fieler (13.9 ppg, 58.0 eFG%, 7.4 rpg). They will likely start at least four seniors next season, led by Brett Comer (13.7 ppg, 5.3 apg) and Bernard Thompson (15.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 1.7 apg, 1.5 spg). Joe Dooley has four transfers coming in, led by Julian DeBose (10.4 points and 4.3 rebounds per game as a sophomore at Rice in 2012-13) and Brian Greene (2.9 points and 1.1 assists in 11.6 minutes per game as a freshman at Auburn in 2012-13). Their recruiting class is led by a pair of shooting guards, Christian Terrell and Zach Johnson. It's pretty reasonable to expect that FGCU will be improved next season with this big influx of talent.

With Mercer and East Tennessee State gone, the only returning team to outscore its opponents in conference play (aside from FGCU) is USC Upstate. The Spartans lose three starters, though, including leading scorer Torrey Craig (16.7 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 2.3 apg) and leading rebounder Ricardo Glenn (13.4 ppg, 63.2 FG%, 8.0 rpg, 1.8 apg). They return decent backcourt talent, led by Ty Greene (14.3 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 3.5 apg), but they really need to some size to replace their graduations. Unfortunately, there aren't any obvious options on the bench, so Eddie Payne will need to look for some over the summer.

Who else can challenge Florida Gulf Coast? Lipscomb and North Florida were the only other +.500 teams in conference play. Of those two, Lipscomb is the more likely to challenge. The Bisons started the year 7-12 (including 2-6 in conference play) before winning 8 of their final 10 games, though their season ended in a brutal 2OT loss to East Tennessee State in the Atlantic Sun tournament. And they return their top five minute earners, losing only Khion Sankey (7.1 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 2.1 apg). Their top returners are Malcolm Smith (15.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 1.5 apg) and JC Hampton (14.5 ppg, 39.3 3P%, 3.1 rpg, 2.9 apg as a redshirt freshman). Their big need for next season is definitely size. Perhaps an option will be 6'9" 2014 recruit George Brammeier.

North Florida wasn't playing as well as Lipscomb down the stretch, and they lose a pair of starters, including leading scorer and rebounder Travis Wallace (12.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg). Their most important addition is 6'4" Trent Mackey, who averaged 11.0 points and 2.7 rebounds per game as a sophomore at Louisiana-Monroe in 2012-13.

In the end, the Atlantic Sun is one of the easier conferences to project a winner. Florida Gulf Coast may or may not have been the best team among the programs returning, but they graduate the least and add the most, with a big class of quality transfers obviously inspired by that Sweet 16 run. They are going to be easily the most talented and deepest roster in the conference, and so Florida Gulf Coast has to be the pick.

Big Sky Conference

It was not a strong year for the Big Sky Conference. Their regular season champion and best team won the conference tournament, but still was only awarded a 16 seed to the NCAA Tournament. The conference was shut out of the NIT and CBI, only to go 0-3 in the first round of the CIT. So it was a fairly miserable postseason performance all around.

It's not obvious that their best team will be better next season, but Weber State does have a nice young core to build around. They lose three starters to graduation, including Big Sky Player of the Year Davion Berry (19.2 ppg, 55.5 eFG%, 4.2 rpg, 3.9 apg). But the rest of their rotation was made up of freshmen and sophomores and includes some really nice talent. Perhaps the most interesting is 6'9" Joel Bolomboy (8.7 ppg, 11.0 rpg), who was top ten in the nation in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage as only a sophomore. They also return a good combo guard in Jeremy Senglin (10.9 ppg, 40.4 3P%, 2.2 apg), who was a true freshman this past season. They have a big recruiting class, highlighted by 6'8" Zach Braxton. With a need at point guard (unless Senglin handles the duties), another key recruit is 5'11" Hayden Hunter.

There was a three way tie for second place in the standings, though that's just another sign of how ridiculously even this league was after Weber State. The 2nd through 8th placed teams all finished between 10-8 and 12-6, and all had efficiency margins in conference play between +0.01 PPP and +0.04 PPP. So try separating that bunch, if you dare. I'll start with Montana, since they are probably the traditional power in the Big Sky aside from Weber State. Those two teams have made a combined eight appearances in the last five Big Sky title games (and Montana won the three head-to-head title match-ups). The Grizzlies have a good chance to be better next season. They lose star Kareem Jamar (18.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 4.0 apg), but return their next four highest minute earners, three of whom will be seniors next year. Their top returners are Jordan Gregory (13.8 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 2.0 apg) and Michael Weisner (8.1 ppg, 44.9 3P%, 63.5 eFG%, 2.6 rpg). A player who could grow into a really nice player is Mario Dunn (6.3 ppg, 43.3 3P%, and 2.7 rpg as a true freshman). As Jamar led the team in points, rebounds and assists, the team needs both size and point guard play. The size might come from 6'8" Martin Breunig, who played sparingly over a season and a half with Washington, and they also have a 6'10" recruit in Bryden Boehning. Mario Dunn could potentially take over point guard duties, as it's not clear that they have a better choice.

Of the other two teams tied for second place, North Dakota seems more likely to drop off. They weren't as good as their record to begin with (6-1 in games decided by five points or less against Big Sky opponents), and they lose six of their top seven minute earners to graduation. Northern Arizona is in much better shape, losing only one senior (Max Jacobsen - 12.3 ppg, 59.6 eFG%, 4.2 rpg, 1.5 apg). Their success was built around a rotating group of bigs that protected the rim, leading the Big Sky in defensive block rate and rebounding rate. None really stand out, honestly, though 6'10" Len Springs was very effective in limited minutes (3.7 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in 15.0 minutes per game), and their top rebounder was Gaellan Bewernick (7.3 ppg, 5.9 rpg). The backcourt should be improved next season. Point guard Kris Yanku (9.7 ppg, 2.8 apg, 1.5 spg) was only a true freshman, and they add shooting KJ Bluford. Bluford played a few games at Iowa State this past season before transferring, but he should be eligible after the end of the fall semester.

Both Northern Colorado and Portland State suffer significant losses. Both lose a pair of starters, including arguably their most important player. Northern Colorado's biggest loss is leading scorer and rebounder Derrick Barden (14.1 ppg, 59.5 eFG%, 7.8 rpg), while Portland State's biggest loss is big man Kyle Richardson (10.0 ppg, 59.3 FG%, 6.3 rpg, 1.1 bpg). If there's a sleeper for next season, it has to be Eastern Washington. The Eagles won 7 of their final 11 games and actually finished with a better efficiency margin in conference play than 12-8 North Dakota, and they return absolutely everybody from their roster. Their leading scorer (Tyler Harvey - 21.8 ppg, 43.2 3P%, 4.2 rpg, 2.7 apg) and their leading rebounder (Venky Jois - 13.4 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 2.5 apg, 1.6 bpg) were both just sophomores this past season. They also get back two key players that redshirted - 6'3" Sir Washington, who was their top 2013 recruit, and 7'1" Frederik Jorg, who still has three years of eligibility left. Their top 2014 recruit is 6'1" combo guard Will Ferris.

Weber State will certainly be a contender again next season. Montana is a team that could compete, but losing do-everything star Kareem Jamar makes them a question mark at best. Of the top contenders to Weber State this past season, Northern Arizona is the one that loses the least to graduation and appears in the best condition to challenge for first. But I think that the top contender to Weber State will actually be Eastern Washington.  Weber State was the best team in the Big Sky this past season, but Eastern Washington was not really that far off. They lose significantly less and they get more back (if you include the players coming off redshirt). Eastern Washington has only made the NCAA Tournament once before, earning a 15 seed in 2004, but I think things are set up perfectly for them to make a run next season. Eastern Washington is my pick.

Big South Conference

The Big South was the single toughest conference in the entire nation to figure out this past season. There was an incredible logjam atop the league. The top eight teams in efficiency margin in conference play were all between +0.09 PPP and +0.03 PPP. Charleston Southern finishing 9th in the standings, but was 4th in efficiency margin. The problem is that a league like the Big South is graded on its best team. Nobody cares how deep your league is - they'll only see your NCAA Tournament participant. The league sent Coastal Carolina, which was about as good as it gets in the Big South, but they were still relegated to a 16 seed. And the only team in the Big South that had any postseason success at all (VMI in the CIT) is off to the Southern Conference next season.

Will next season produce stronger Big South teams at the top? I think so. It was a very young league this past season. Coastal Carolina, for example, loses just one starter (El Hadji Ndieguene - 4.4 ppg, 6.8 rpg). They return point guard Warren Gillis (14.7 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 3.1 apg, 1.6 spg), and their leading scorer (Elijah Wilson - 15.8 per game) was a true freshman. Their key addition is 5'11" Shivaughn Wiggins, who averaged 9.6 points and 2.2 assists per game as a freshman at Mount St. Mary's in 2012-13. Their big need, particularly with the graduation of Ndieguene, is size. 6'8" Uros Ljeskovic was fairly effective in limited minutes as a sophomore (3.3 points and 2.7 rebounds in 11.9 minutes per game). They are still in the mix for another recruit or two as well.

The regular season champion in the Big South was High Point. After a 4-11 start to the season, they won 12 of their final 14 regular season games before tripping up against Winthrop in the Big South tournament. They then played Minnesota competitively in the first round of the NIT but lost by 7. They definitely should be stronger next season, however. They return all five starters, led by Big South Player of the Year John Brown (19.5 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 1.6 bpg), sharpshooter Devante Wallace (12.6 ppg, 49.7 3P%) and point guard Jorge Perez-Laham (3.7 ppg and 3.4 apg as a freshman). They have a couple of key additions: 6'4" shooting guard Brian Richardson (who averaged 7.5 points per game for South Carolina in 2012-13) and 6'5" Miles Bowman (a Juco transfer who averaged 4.2 points and 3.3 rebounds per game for Delaware State in 2012-13).

UNC-Asheville loses a pair of starters, including star 6'10" big man DJ Cunningham (11.6 ppg, 54.9 3P%, 9.9 rpg, 3.6 bpg). However, their leading scorer (Andrew Rosey - 20.3 per game) was only a true freshman, as was David Robertson (7.8 ppg, 2.3 apg). So they might take a step back next year, but have the core for their next run at a Big South title. Winthrop is in even better shape, losing just one senior starter (Joab Jerome - 12.3 ppg, 43.9 3P%, 4.1 rpg, 2.5 apg). They have a really nice inside-outside combo of Andre Smith (10.1 ppg, 41.3 3P%, 2.5 apg) and Larry Brown (5.0 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 1.0 bpg). A priority next season is getting more size, though they'll have some new options. 6'8" Duby Okeke took a redshirt and still has four years of eligibility left, while 6'8" Jarad Scott played sparingly as a true freshman but could see more minutes as a sophomore.

Both Gardner Webb and Charleston Southern lose two of their top five minute earners. If another team can make a run at the top of the standings, I think it's Radford. The Highlanders return everybody from their regular rotation, led by Javonte Green (16.9 ppg, 54.0 eFG%, 8.1 rpg, 1.9 spg). They should get back 6'7" Hulian Terrell, a 2013 recruit who redshirted the season. Their top 2014 recruit might be 6'7", 250 pound power forward Corbyn Jackson.

The Big South should be stronger at the top next season, though it still likely isn't going to have the type of Top 100 team that can earn a 13 or 14 seed and have a real chance of getting out of the Round of 64. Coastal Carolina, High Point and Radford all seem likely to be in the mix for the title, with a team like Winthrop maybe being a sleeper. If Coastal Carolina can find some size in the offseason, they might be a favorite. Radford just needs to learn how to play team defense. But of the top teams, High Point loses the least to graduation and also has two high quality transfers coming in. High Point is the favorite.

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