Saturday, April 04, 2015

2015-16 Preview: Mid Majors, Part I

Missouri Valley Conference

The Missouri Valley isn't quite back to where it was in the middle of the last decade, but it had a really nice season, and has a chance to continue to improve next season. Gregg Marshall flirted with big programs like Texas, but received a massive contract extension (reportedly $3.3 Million per year) to stay at Wichita State, a sign that they want to be the next Gonzaga rather than the next George Mason. Wichita State, of course, made the Sweet 16 this past season, knocking off rival Kansas and actually being favored in Vegas against Notre Dame in the Sweet 16 but falling short. Northern Iowa crushed Wyoming in the Round of 64 before being (surprisingly) out-shot by Louisville in the Round of 32. Illinois State came up just short in the Arch Madness title game of stealing a bid and earning the Valley a third NCAA Tournament team, but instead they earned an at-large bid to the NIT, where they beat Green Bay before losing by a single point to Old Dominion in the second round. That was it for NCAA/NIT teams for the Missouri Valley, but they swept the other two postseason tournaments. Loyola-Chicago won the CBI while Evansville won the CIT.

Getting Gregg Marshall back is important long term for Wichita State, but it's particularly crucial for next season, with both Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker weighing whether to come back for their senior seasons. The Shockers lose big man (and leading rebounder) Darius Carter as well as MVC Defensive Player of the Year Tekele Cotton to graduation, but if Van Vleet and Baker come back, they will be loaded for another NCAA Tournament at-large bid. And I do think they come back, as neither is a likely first round pick. The backcourt would lose Cotton, but they had a couple of freshmen that showed flashes in 2014-15 (Corey Henderson and Ria'n Holland) and also expect to add 6'0" Conner Frankamp, who averaged 2.5 ppg as a true freshman at Kansas in 2013-14. They also add 6'4" shooting guard Landry Shamet (Rivals: 86). They will return Evan Wessel on the wing, who really exploded late in the season. The front court loses Darius Carter, but has four good prospects who were all freshmen this past season: Rashard Kelly, Shaquille Morris, Zach Brown and Rauno Nurger. They also add 6'8" Markis McDuffie, who had multiple major conference offers. So while the front court will be unproven, there are plenty of players with potential and you have to figure at least one or two of them will step up and become productive next season.

Wichita State will be challenged in the Valley again next season, but it likely won't come from Northern Iowa. The Panthers lose four of their top eight minute earners, including MVC Player of the Year Seth Tuttle (15.3 ppg, 43.2 3P%, 63.5 eFG%, 6.9 rpg, 3.3 apg), and who was the first UNI player to earn AP All-America status of any kind in more than 30 years. They should be in reasonable shape on the perimeter, where Wes Washpun will be a capable starting point guard and they also return key shooting guards Matt Bohannon, Paul Jesperson and Jeremy Morgan. Wyatt Lohaus also demonstrated a nice shooting stroke in limited minutes as a true freshman. In the front court, however, they lose every regular over 6'6", including their top two rebounders. They get back 6'9" Ted Friedman, who played sparingly as a freshman in 2013-14 and took a redshirt season in 2014-15.  They also bring in some tall recruits in 6'11" Justin Dahl and 6'8" Luke McDonnell, but none are particularly hyped.

Illinois State was one of the best teams that nobody was talking about as an at-large contender. After their postseason run they climbed up to around 60th in the computers, and close to 50th in Pomeroy. And they'll be back with a good team next season as well. They lose one of their two point guards in Daishon Knight (though Paris Lee, who is more of a true pass-first point guard will be back), as well as a couple of key bench pieces, but they return second leading scorer and rebounder DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell, as well as monster big man Reggie Lynch, who led the nation in defensive block percentage (15.2%, or 2.8 per game). The reason Lynch didn't lead the nation in blocks per game is because of constant foul trouble (6.7 committed per 40 minutes), and that will have to improve next season. They also return a pair of impressive redshirt freshmen power forwards in MiKyle McIntosh and Deontae Hawkins. They also add 6'8" Nick Banyard, who averaged 1.7 ppg and 1.6 rpg as a sophomore at New Mexico in 2013-14. Their biggest need next season, without question, is a perimeter player who can shoot and spread the floor. They were just 6th in the Missouri Valley in both 3P% and eFG% and lose their two best three-point shooters to graduation.

Indiana State graduates their starting front court of Justin Gant and Jake Mitchell, though they do return TJ Bell off the bench. Their entire backcourt returns, led by point guard Devonte Brown and MVC Freshman of the Year Brenton Scott, who hit 45% behind the arc. Their top incoming recruit is probably 6'6" forward Bronson Kessinger, but they are desperately in need of more size if they're going to contend for one of the top two or three places in the league.

Evansville is a team that definitely will be improved next season. They return their top seven minute earners, led by 20.1 ppg scorer DJ Balentine and 6'10" big man Egidijus Mockevicius, who led the nation in DR% (33.%, adding up to 7.7 defensive rebounds per game). They add 7'1" Sergei Vucetic, who played sparingly in two seasons at Nebraska. They don't have any significant recruits or Jucos coming in, though, so the team next season is going to look nearly identical to this past season.

Loyola-Illinois also isn't going anywhere, as they lose just two players from a deep ten man rotation. The most significant loss is leading-rebounder Christian Thomas, but they get back star playmaker Milton Doyle, who led the team in points and assists per game. Doyle missed several weeks in the middle of the season with injury, during which the team went 4-7, while they finished the season 7-1 after getting him back. Sharpshooter Devon Turk (8.5 ppg, 42.4 3P%, 58.9 eFG%) is another key returner. A key prospect for next season, particularly with the loss of Christian Thomas, is 6'6" Donte Ingram, who had 3.1 rpg in just 18.3 mpg as a true freshman. That said, they've come up just short of the type of blue chip recruit to compete for one of the top few places in the Missouri Valley. A year ago it 6'9" Marlon Jones, their top 2014 recruit, who failed to qualify academically and went to junior college. This year it was top 2015 recruit Roosevelt Smart, who is in the Rivals 150, and who had verbally committed to Loyola but then re-opened his recruitment.

There's a long gap down to the bottom tier of the Missouri Valley. Southern Illinois had no seniors in their regular rotation, but are hit hard by transfers, including star freshman Jordan Caroline. Missouri State returns all but one player in their regular rotation, but they lack top end Missouri Valley talent. They didn't have a single player on any of the postseason award teams in the conference, even as honorable mention. Realistically, the top contenders in next year's Missouri Valley are going to come from the same crop as this past season:

1. Wichita State
2. Illinois State
3. Northern Iowa
4. Evansville
5. Loyola-Illinois
6. Indiana State

Mountain West Conference 

The Mountain West was an improved league this past season, but still nowhere near where it was a couple of years ago, when it was better than a couple of BCS leagues. Traditional powers UNLV and New Mexico were down, and injuries took their toll on other teams, though the league did still get three teams into the NCAA Tournament, and Colorado State should have gotten in as well. But the bracketing was not kind to the league. Boise State was forced to play a true road game in their 11/11 play-in game, which they lost to Dayton. Wyoming was given a 12 seed against a nasty 5 seed, Northern Iowa, who took them out. San Diego State was given a generous Round of 64 opponent (short-handed St. John's) but then was smoked by Duke in the Round of 32. Colorado State was awarded a 1 seed in the NIT, but they didn't appear to be particularly motivated, losing to the 8 seed South Dakota State.

Wyoming should have had a real shot at an at-large bid, but those hopes were dashed when Larry Nance, Jr got hurt. When he came back, though, they found their old form and won the Mountain West tournament. But Nance graduates, along with three other starters, including dominant 6'9" big man Derek Cooke (9.1 ppg, 72.0 FG%, 5.8 rpg). They return point guard Josh Adams, and combo guard Jason McManamen off the bench, but otherwise have no proven pieces coming back. Their 2015 recruiting class is led by 5'8" point guard Austin Conway, but there are no obvious blue chips to return this team to near the top of the league.

The regular season title was split between San Diego State and the surprising Boise State Broncos. Boise State loses three of their top six minute earners, however, including Mountain West Player of the Year Derrick Marks. That said, they do expect to get a medical redshirt for one more season for Anthony Drmic, who has averaged 15.3 points per game over his career at Boise State. They also return a very effective scoring big man in 6'9" James Webb (11.2 ppg, 64.8 eFG%, 8.0 rpg). They return another 6'8" starter in Nick Duncan and have an up-and-coming talent in 6'7" Chandler Hutchison, who was a big recruit but was inconsistent as a true freshman. That all means that their front court should be very good next season. The problem will be in the backcourt, particularly with offensive playmaking. Mikey Thompson can handle the point, though he hasn't been a particularly effective scorer (39.4 eFG%). It's no surprise that their 2015 recruiting class focuses on backcourt talent, led by 5'11" Paris Austin (Scout: 27 PG, Rivals: 143).

San Diego State loses Aqueel Quinn, JJ O'Brien and Dwayne Polee to graduation, but their real concern is the NBA Draft, which both Winston Shepard and Malik Pope are considering. Shepard led the team in scoring and rebounding, so he'd be a particularly tough loss. Pope, a 6'10" forward, came off the bench as a freshman, and is more of a prospect for the future. At the time of this writing, Pope says he is leaning toward coming back, though he has not yet decided, so for the sake of this preview I'm going to assume that both return. If they do, then Shepard and Pope will combine with Mountain West Co-Defensive Player of the Year Skylar Spencer, along with 6'9" Angelo Choi, to provide a very strong front court. Also look for 6'7" Zylan Cheatham, a 2014 recruit who missed the season with injury. The backcourt will rely heavily on young, unproven players, though. Point guard Kevin Zabo and shooting guard Trey Kell were both highly touted 2014 recruits who did not make a huge impact as true freshmen. Their top 2015 recruit is also a backcourt player in Jeremy Hemsley (Scout: 17 SG, Rivals: 74).

Colorado State was just the fourth team in the RPI Top 30 to be left out of the NCAA Tournament since it expanded to 64 teams, and it's a particularly disappointing snub since they are hit so hard by graduations. They lose three starters, including leading scorer JJ Avila and leading rebounder Daniel Bejerano. They do return a good point guard in John Gillon, who led the team in assists off the bench this past season. They also return 6'7" Tiel Daniels, a talented rebounder and interior defender. They do hope to get a medical redshirt for 6'2" Antwan Scott, who had transferred in after scoring 15.7 points per game for Grambling State in 2013-14 but who was lost to injury after two games in 2014-15. They will also look for contributions from 6'4" 2014 recruit Jeremiah Paige, who took a redshirt. Their top 2015 incoming recruit is 6'1" point guard Prentiss Nixon. So Colorado State might not be quite as good next season, but they won't totally fall off.

UNLV was a very young team this past season, with a ton of raw talent that didn't quite figure out how to play well with each other. The injury to Rashad Vaughn late in the season really sent things into a downward spiral. They lose a pair of starters to graduation in shooting guard Cody Doolin and 6'6" wing Jelan Kendrick, but those are not the real concerns for UNLV. The concern is Rashad Vaughn and 6'10" Christian Wood, who both could go to the NBA Draft. At the time of this post, Vaughn has already expressed his intent to go pro while Wood has not publicly made up his mind.

If Christian Wood returns, he would be joined in the front court by 6'10" shot blocking monster Goodluck Okonoboh, who was also a part of that deep 2014 recruiting class with Vaughn, as well as 6'7" Dwayne Morgan, who is athletic but was inefficient offensive as a true freshman. They also add 6'8" Ben Carter, who averaged 2.5 points and 2.4 rebounds per game over two seasons at Oregon. All told, that's probably the most talented front line in the conference. The backcourt is a much bigger question mark, however. Patrick McCaw is listed as a shooting guard, but he's more of a wing player. Instead, UNLV will likely turn to Jerome Seagers at the point, who averaged 7.1 points and 2.8 assists per game over three seasons at Rutgers. Their top 2015 recruit is 6'6" Derrick Jones (Scout: 12 SF, Rivals: 43).

New Mexico was the other traditional power to have a down season. They should be better next season, though. They lose combo guard Hugh Greenwood and wing Deshawn Delaney, who were their only double-digit scorers, though neither was first or second team All-MWC. Tim Jacobs is a capable starting point guard and they return a talented young front line of 7'2" Obij Aget and 6'8" Devon Williams. A key returner will be 6'5" Cullen Neal, who averaged 17.0 ppg in the first three games before being lost for the season to injury. They also will get back 6'9" Jordan Goodman, who missed almost half of the season with injury. Their biggest need this past season was shooting and scoring, and Neal should help with that in a big way. They also add 6'4" Elijah Brown, who averaged 6.8 ppg as a freshman at Butler in 2013-14. Another key addition is 6'8" Tim Williams, who averaged 15.9 points and 7.2 rebounds per game over two seasons at Samford. Their top incoming recruit is likely 5'11" Jordan Hunter (Scout: 29 PG).

If there's a sleeper in the Mountain West next season it's Utah State, despite losing legendary coach Stew Morrill to retirement. They finished fourth in the conference in efficiency margin this past season (ahead of Wyoming) and return their top six minute earners, led by point guard Darius Perkins and 6'8" David Collette (12.8 ppg, 59.1 FG%, 5.0 rpg and 1.8 bpg as a redshirt freshman). Their backcourt is full of shooters, with Jalen Moore, Chris Smith and Perkins all shooting over 40% behind the arc. Their biggest need is front court size and rebounding (they were 10th in the conference in OR% and 9th in DR%). 6'9" Elston Jones showed potential in limited minutes as a true freshman, and they also add 6'8" Lew Evans, who averaged 5.3 points and 4.4 rebounds per game at Tulsa in 2013-14.

One last team to touch on briefly is Fresno State, who return their top five minute earners and lose just 6'9" Alex Davis. They have one more season of star combo guard Marvel Harris, and have a potentially key addition in 6'0" Jahmel Taylor, who played sparingly in one season at Washington.
In the end, here's how I see the top half of the Mountain West playing out:

1. San Diego State 
2. Boise State
4. Utah State
5. New Mexico
6. Colorado State
7. Fresno State

West Coast Conference

The WCC was arguably the strongest it has ever been in 2014-15, though you wouldn't know it from the media coverage. Because Gonzaga hasn't broken through to the Final Four, the narrative every year is that they're beating up a terrible league like the MEAC or Patriot League, and so their won-loss record is fraudulent and it's a joke that they might earn a 1 or 2 seed. Never mind that according to both Sagarin and Pomeroy it was on Selection Sunday the 8th best league in the country, behind just the six major conferences and the Atlantic Ten.

In reality, of course, Gonzaga's evisceration of the WCC (+0.26 PPP) was a sign that they were probably the best Gonzaga team ever. They pushed their way to their first Elite 8 since 1999, and simply had a bad performance against Duke that kept them from a Final Four. Other than Gonzaga, however, it was a frustrating postseason for the WCC. BYU suffered a terrible collapse in the second half of their 11/11 play-in game against Ole Miss, the reverse of their huge comeback against Iona in a play-in game three years earlier. Saint Mary's earned a 4 seed to the NIT, but they went down meekly in the first round to Vanderbilt. And no WCC team made a run in either the CBI or CIT either. So as we head into next season, the question will be whether one of the non-"Big Three" teams can finally take the next step and play for an at-large bid, to raise the profile of the WCC into the Atlantic Ten/Mountain West stratosphere of media perception.

We have to start with Gonzaga, and we'll start with their strength next season: the front line. Kyle Wiltjer, Przemek Karnowski and Domantas Sabonis should all be back (I expect Sabonis to eventually go pro early, but not this season). They should also get back 7'1" Ryan Edwards, who played sparingly as a freshman in 2013-14 and took a redshirt season in 2014-15 to aid in his development. The backcourt will have a total makeover, though, as all three starters (Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell and Byron Wesley) will graduate. Kyle Dranginis will likely start next season, and Eric McClellan should see increased playing time next season as well. 6'4" Silas Melson played sparingly as a true freshman but is considered a good prospect. The bigger piece that they look to get back is 6'3" Josh Perkins, their top 2014 recruit, who suffered a gruesome jaw injury in the Preseason NIT back in November and should get the season back as a medical redshirt. Their one signed 2015 recruit, Jesse Wade (Scout: 19 PG), is due to head on a mormon mission and not return to the team until 2017, but Mark Few has some more scholarships available to give out if he finds a good prospect. They have enough young backcourt players that, if they pan out, Gonzaga could be as good next season as they were this past season. But it's far from a sure thing.

BYU is always the hardest roster in the nation to try to figure out, with nearly every player going on a mormon mission at some point, but I always try my best to get it right. The first part is easy, which is that they lose three key starters to graduation: Tyler Haws, Anson Winder and Skyler Halford. Haws being probably their best all-around player. That said, Kyle Collinsworth set a Division I record for triple doubles in a season (6) and will be back for one more season, as will shooting guard Chase Fischer. In the front court, they'll return 6'10" Corbin Kaufusi, who came on strong late in the season, and they'll also hope to get a medical redshirt for one more season of 6'11" Nate Austin, who averaged 3.8 ppg and 7.9 rpg as a junior in 2013-14.

BYU has a bunch of additions. They add 6'8" Kyle Davis, who averaged 9.1 ppg and 7.6 rpg as a sophomore at Utah State in 2013-14. They also add 6'6" Jamal Aytes, who averaged 2.8 ppg and 0.8 rpg as a freshman at UNLV in 2013-14. They also get two players back from mormon missions: 6'3" Cory Calvert, who played sparingly as a freshman at BYU in 2012-13, and Nick Emery, a highly touted 2013 point guard recruit who still has all four years of eligibility remaining. 6'7" Jakob Hartsock and 6'8" Braiden Shaw are two lesser recruits from that 2013 recruiting class that should be returning from their missions to play as well. They also add a 2015 recruit in 6'6" Zac Seljaas (Scout: 19 PF), who is expected to play at least one season with BYU before going on his own mormon mission. All in all, this is a team with a great chance to be improved next season. They needed big men that could score and rebound, and suddenly have several of them.

Saint Mary's had a frustrating season, and it's going to get worse before it gets better, because they lose five of their top six minute earners, including star big man Brad Waldow and point guard Aaron Bright. Their only returner to earn 15 or more minutes this past season is Emmett Naar (6.3 ppg, 44.9 3P%, 3.9 apg). They will also hope to get back Joe Coleman, who averaged 8.7 ppg and 3.6 rpg as a sophomore at Minnesota in 2012-13 but missed almost the entire 2014-15 season with an injury and should get a medical redshirt. 6'6" Calvin Hermanson and 6'9" Dane Pineau played well in limited minutes off the bench and should see more time next season. 6'11" Jock Landale played sparingly as a true freshman, but is considered a good prospect and could potentially start at center as a sophomore. In addition, St. Mary's will add Joe Rahon, who averaged 9.0 ppg and 3.2 apg as a sophomore at Boston College in 2013-14.

The only team outside the Big Three to finish above .500 in conference play was Pepperdine. A promising start for Pepperdine (an 8-4 WCC record with a sweep of BYU at one point) faded late, with losses in six of their final nine games. A significant part of that slide was the loss of starting point guard Amadi Udenyi to injury. They should get Udenyi back next season, as well as the rest of their top seven minute earners, including star Stacy Davis and combo guard Jeremy Major. Shawn Olden and Lamond Murray are two young backcourt players who played well this past season and should be improved next season. With Atif Russell also returning, Pepperdine's backcourt will be deep, though they lack outside shooters. Their front court was the bigger problem this past season, as they were one of the worst rebounding teams in the WCC and also were a significantly better perimeter defensive team than on the interior. 2014 recruits AJ John and Nate Gehring played sparingly as true freshmen but could play larger roles next season. Pepperdine's only 2015 recruit signed thus far is 6'6" Kameron Edwards.

San Diego and San Francisco are both hit hard by graduations. San Diego loses three starters: star (and leading scorer) Johnny Dee, starting point guard Christopher Anderson and leading rebounder Thomas Jacobs. San Francisco loses four of the eight players that earned double-digit minutes per game, including leading-rebounder Kruize Pinkins and leading assist man Matt Glover. Portland isn't hit quite so badly. They lose three starters, including their starting front line of 6'10" Volodymyr Gerun and 6'11" Thomas van der Mars. They return their best player, though, in Alex Wintering (12.3 ppg, 45.8 3P%, 5.7 apg, 1.5 spg) as well as sharpshooter Bryce Pressley, and have a good up-and-coming wing in rising-sophomore Jason Todd. 6'8" Gabe Taylor didn't play a lot as a true freshman, but he's a good prospect to step into some of those opened front court minutes. Portland might take a step back next season, but they won't be significantly worse than they were in 2014-15.

A team to watch for in the future is Santa Clara. They went just 7-11 in WCC play this past season and lose two starters, including star Brandon Clark (15.8 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 3.9 apg). That said, every returner who played non-garbage minutes this past season was a freshman or sophomore, including leading-scorer Jared Brownridge and leading-rebounder Nate Kratch. 6'9" Matt Hubbard, a true freshman in 2014-15, started 24 games and looks like he'll be a good one. In addition, Santa Clara hopes to get back two bigs that missed nearly the entire season. Yannick Atanga averaged 3.0 ppg and 5.0 rpg as a junior in 2013-14 but was lost for the season after just two games in 2014-15. He was a fifth year senior, but hopes to get a medical redshirt to return next season. 7-0 Robert Garrett, who averaged 1.3 ppg and 2.0 rpg as a junior in 2013-14 took 2014-15 off to focus on academics, but might return for 2015-16 as well. Their top 2015 recruit is likely 6'0" Matt Hauser.

In my opinion, it's pretty clear that Pepperdine is the team most likely to mix up the WCC's Big Three, and I think they'll achieve it. Here's how I see the top half of the league playing out:

1. Gonzaga
2. BYU
3. Pepperdine
4. Saint Mary's
5. Santa Clara
6. Portland

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