Sunday, April 05, 2015

2015-16 Preview: Mid Majors, Part III

American Athletic Conference

A year ago, the American Athletic Conference won the national title with UConn. This past season, however, was a significant drop-off. They still deserved three NCAA Tournament teams, as Temple got robbed (I'd love somebody to explain how 2010-11 USC got in while 2014-15 Temple didn't). But the Selection Committee was clearly down on the AAC, handing SMU a 6 seed when they probably deserved a 4 seed, leaving out Temple, and sticking Cincinnati as the 8 seed against Kentucky when they probably deserved a 7 seed.

Of course, the AAC didn't take advantage of the situation to prove their critics wrong. SMU lost to the 11 seed UCLA on a controversial goaltending call, while Cincinnati lost an ugly game to Kentucky. Things didn't go too much better in the NIT, where 4-seed UConn lost in the first round and 2-seed Tulsa was smoked by Murray State in the second round. Temple took advantage of their 1-seed to make the semifinals in Madison Square Garden, but they blew a double-digit lead and fell to Miami-Florida. And so the AAC heads into an offseason in transition with a lot of prominent coaches trying to turn their programs around.

We should start with the SMU team that lost Keith Frazier over an academic scandal that threatens to bring sanctions to the school. But assuming that the sanctions stay away, Larry Brown continues to recruit well, and next year's team could be even more talented than this past year's team. They lose to graduation big man Yannick Moreira and shooting guard Ryan Manuel from their starting lineup, as well as 6'10" Cannen Cunningham off the bench. But AAC Player of the Year Nic Moore should be back, as well as 6'9" Markus Kennedy, who didn't really get going until late in the season. Swing forward Sterling Brown is another key returner. Larry Brown has two key transfer additions: 67" Jordan Tolbert, who averaged 10.7 ppg and 5.7 rpg over three seasons at Texas Tech, as well as 6'8" Semi Ojeleye, the former blue chip recruit who was struggling to get off the bench at Duke. Ojeleye won't be available until the end of the fall semester. Their top 2015 recruits are Shake Milton (Scout: 35 SG, Rivals: 68) and 6'2" Sedrick Barefield (Rivals: 127). That all said, the real question mark for next season is Keith Frazier, and whether he'll regain his eligibility. Frazier wasn't a great player before being suspended this past season, but he has NBA-level talent if he can put it all together.

Cincinnati will have Mick Cronin back next season, and he should have a team that isn't particularly different from the one he put together this past season. Jermaine Sanders (4.6 ppg, 3.0 rpg) was the only senior on the roster. They return their starting backcourt of Troy Caupain and Farad Cobb, the latter of whom became a significant scorer down the final stretch of the season. In the front court they return Kentucky's favorite player, Octavius Ellis, as well as the up-and-coming Gary Clark, who was only a true freshman this past season. 6'8" Quadri Moore didn't play much as a true freshman, but he's considered a prospect for the future. 6'3" Deshaun Morman was another freshman prospect, though he was suspended for the last month of the season, and is not yet a certainty to return next season. Their 2015 recruiting class is focused on backcourt talent, being led by 6'5" Jacob Evans (Scout: 18 SF, Rivals: 98) and Justin Jenifer (Scout: 22 PG, Rivals: 114). Their biggest need for next season is probably ball handling, and Jenifer could be the answer there. They also still have, I believe, one scholarship available.

Temple was a team that was transformed after Jesse Morgan and Devin Coleman became eligible at the end of the fall semester. After being ranked outside the Top 100 in the computers when they became eligible, they knocked off Kansas and went 13-5 in AAC play. Jesse Morgan, however, will graduate, as will starting point guard (and leading scorer) Will Cummings. They return a solid front court that led the AAC in DR%, led by 6'8" Jaylen Bond (7.9 rpg) and 6'8 Obi Enechionyia. They also add 6'9" Ernest Aflakpui (Scout: 32 C). The backcourt is a much larger question mark without their point guard and best all-around player. Josh Brown and Quenton DeCosey are both capable shooting guards, but neither is special. Their top incoming recruit is another perimeter player: 6'4" Levan Alston (Rivals: 106), but he's not a point guard either. Offense could definitely be a problem for Temple next season.

Tulsa was a somewhat fraudulent bubble team this season, as their RPI was clearly inflated, in large part because that loss to Division II SE Oklahoma State didn't count. But if they're going to earn an at-large bid under Frank Haith, next season could be their best chance. Their top seven minutes earners this past season were all juniors, meaning that they'll all be seniors next season, led by point guard Shaquille Harrison, leading-scorer James Woodard, and big man D'Andre Wright. That said, they had no significant prospects as freshmen, and no incoming blue chip recruits this year either, so Tulsa will likely be rolling out pretty much the exact same lineup next season. And after next season, they're going to be due for some serious rebuilding.

UConn fans thought they had a little bit of the old magic with Ryan Boatright playing the role of Kemba Walker/Shabazz Napier, but this team wasn't as good as those were, and they came up short in the AAC title game against SMU. Boatright graduates, but that's it for graduations. 6'8" Rakim Lubin has left via transfer, but at this point I think both Amidah Brimah and Daniel Hamilton choose to come back instead of heading to the NBA. Assuming that they do, Brimah will be the anchor of a physical, defensive front line that also features Phillip Nolan and Kentan Facey. They also add 6'10" Steven Enoch (Scout: 11 PF, Rivals: 61). Daniel Hamilton was AAC Freshman of the Year and can be an explosive wing scorer. That said, the backcourt will lack offensive creativity without Boatright. Rodney Purvis, Terrence Samuel and Sam Cassell, Jr were all capable shooting guards, but nothing special. A lot of pressure will thus be on 2015 recruit Jalen Adams (Scout: 7 SG, Rivals: 26) to step in and immediately lead the offense. With a couple scholarships still to hand out, don't be surprised if Kevin Ollie goes aggressively for a point guard.

Memphis had their most disappointing season in a long time. It's the first time they've won fewer than 20 games in a season (and the first time they've failed to make either the NCAA Tournament or NIT) since 1999-2000, the year before John Calipari took over. They only lose one senior (Calvin Godfrey - 4.5 ppg, 3.6 rpg), but also lose 6'7" big man Nick King and 6'1" freshman prospect Pookie Powell to transfer. They do return their star front court duo of Shaq Goodwin and Austin Nichols. In the backcourt they return point guard Kedren Johnson and shooting guard Avery Woodson, who was the only regular to shoot better than 35% behind the arc. Josh Pastner does have a big recruiting class coming in, led by Dedric Lawson (Scout: 4 PF, Rivals: 27) and Keelon Lawson (Scout: 9 SF, Rivals: 56), who are brothers.

It was obviously a long, long way back to the rest of the pack in the AAC. Several of the teams in the bottom half of the league have a chance to be better. Tulane loses a pair of starters but returns their leading scorer (Louis Dabney) and their starting point guard (Jonathan Stark), and they have a deep recruiting class coming in to join Malik Morgan, an LSU transfer. But if one of those teams takes a significant leap, it's got to be Houston. They lose just Mikhail McLean and should get back star point guard LJ Rose, who missed the last few weeks of the season with an injury. Leading scorer Jherrod Stiggers will be back, and will be more effective playing off Rose than when he had to be the primary ball handler. Their top front court returner is 6'10" Danrad Knowles. In addition, they add point guard Ronnie Johnson, who averaged 10.6 ppg and 3.9 apg in two seasons at Purdue. They also add a talented 2015 recruit in 6'9" Chris Harris.

The AAC was a very young league this past season, and should be improved next season from top to bottom. Here's how I see the top half of the league playing out:

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

Atlantic Ten Conference

The Atlantic Ten wasn't quite back to where it was before the Big East pilfered a couple teams, but it had five teams in realistic at-large contention, ending up with three in the NCAA Tournament. And while VCU and Davidson went down in the Round of 64 game, Dayton again went on an NCAA Tournament run, winning a play-in game over Boise State and then knocking off Providence before losing a game to Oklahoma that came down to the final 30 seconds. The next best postseason run by an A-10 team was by Richmond, who earned a 1 seed in the NIT and beat St. Francis-NY and Arizona State before suffering a huge second half collapse against Miami-Florida with a trip to Madison Square Garden on the line.

What Archie Miller did this past season really should have garnered him some national Coach of the Year honors. His team was expected to be pretty good preseason, but after Ryan Bass had to stop playing because of concussions and Miller was forced to kick Devon Scott and Jalen Robinson off the team in mid-December he found himself with only six scholarship players, with none over 6'6". Suddenly, 6'6" walk-on Bobby Wehrli became a key contributor, and despite being a shorter and smaller team that any other to earn an at-large bid, they still came within a couple of shots from another Sweet 16. They lose leading-scorer Jordan Sibert to graduation, but the rest of the team will be back, including point guard Scoochie Smith and 6'6" Dyshawn Pierre, who will likely be their best player next season. One player to watch for next season is 6'4" Darrell Davis, a true freshman this past season, who improved significantly as the season went along. They should be able to address their lack of height by getting 6'11" Steve McElevene, a talented 2014 recruit who was forced to sit out the season as a partial academic qualifier. They also add 6'7" Sam Miller (Scout: 25 PF). Another key addition is 6'6" Charles Cooke, who averaged 14.3 ppg and 5.0 rpg as a sophomore at James Madison in 2013-14. So this Dayton team definitely should be more well-rounded and deeper next season.

It's an end of an era for VCU with Treveon Graham and Briante Weber moving on, along with Shaka Smart. While Graham was the best player on the team, Weber is the player who is identified with #HAVOC more than any other player during Shaka Smart's tenure. He led the nation in steal percentage a staggering four straight years, and would have led the nation in steals/game the past two seasons if he had played enough games to qualify this season (his 3.9 per game easily surpassed the official national leader's 3.1). When Graham missed some time with an injury after Weber was already lost for the season, we got a preview of next year's team, and it was good but certainly not the same.

That said, their rising-junior trio of JeQuan Lewis, Jordan Burgess and Mo Alie-Cox should all be better next season, and they also return second-leading scorer Melvin Johnson. They will be looking for a jump from 6'8" Terry Larrier, their top 2014 recruit, who in particular needs to improve his rebounding. Jonathan Williams, another true freshman, showed flashes of being a strong point guard in limited minutes. They also have an excellent recruiting class coming in, headed by Tevin Mack (Scout: 13 SF, Rivals: 78) and Kenny Williams (Scout: 34 SG, Rivals: 97). But VCU was already slowly morphing away from the true #havoc style, and the question is whether the next coach is a former or current Shaka Smart assistant who play the same style or if there will be a total changing of the guard. At the time this preview is going live, the new coach has not yet been selected.

Davidson was the surprising A-10 regular season champion, led by A-10 Player of the Year Tyler Kalinoski. They were undone by a lack of size in the NCAA Tournament Round of 64, however, sporting just one starter over 6'4" against a massive Iowa team. Yet while Kalinoki graduates, the rest of the team returns, including some young front court players with potential. Three of their four regulars over 6'4", Peyton Aldridge, Oskar Michelson and Nathan Ekwu, were freshmen this past season. Their spectacular point guard Jack Gibbs (16.2 ppg, 42.5 3P%, 4.8 apg) was just a sophomore. Another key returner will be 6'9" Jake Belford, who was averaging 7.5 ppg and 4.0 rpg when he was lost for the season in early December. So while replacing Kalinoski will be impossible, Bob McKillop teams are always strong offensively, and their lack of size should be a much less significant problem next season.

Richmond actually finished third in the league in efficiency margin, ahead of VCU, and looked strong in the NIT before that bad collapse against Miami. They're similar to Davidson in that they lose their leading scorer (Kendall Anthony) but return everybody else. Their primary point guard, Shawn'Dre Jones, and talented post scorer TJ Cline were both just sophomores, and they return leading rebounder Terry Allen as well. They will also add 6'6" Chandler Diekvoss, a talented 2014 recruit who took a redshirt season. Another key addition is 6'8" Marshall Wood, who averaged 3.8 ppg and 3.6 rpg in two seasons at Virginia Tech. Those additions should help buoy a front line that was 13th in the Atlantic Ten in both OR% and DR%.

A team that appears to be knocking on the door of their first NCAA Tournament appearance since they had Lamar Odom is Rhode Island. They were powered this past season by a defense ranked one of the ten best in the nation by Pomeroy, and which led the A-10 in offensive FTRate. What held them back was the rest of their offense, as they were dead last in the conference in 3P% and near the bottom in turnovers. They lose Gilvydas Biruta, TJ Buchanan and Biggie Minnis, but return the star duo of EC Matthews and Hassan Martin, both of whom were only sophomores this past season. Both made second team All-A-10 this past season, and Martin made the All-Defensive team as well. The backcourt duo of Jared Terrell and Jarvis Garrett both played well as true freshmen and should be big contributors next season. Garrett, in particular, will be looked to improve those poor ball handling stats. Their biggest addition is 6'2" Four McGlynn, who averaged 12.0 ppg for Towson this past season and will be eligible immediately. They also add 6'10" Kuran Iverson, who was averaging 4.6 ppg and 1.9 rpg as a sophomore at Memphis this past season before leaving (he'll be eligible after the end of the fall semester). Their top incoming recruit is 6'7" Leroy Butts. McGlynn, in particular, will be key for giving them an outside shooting presence.

The one team in the Top 100 in the computers that didn't get any at-large buzz was George Washington, though they have a chance for an at-large run next season. They lose just John Kopriva from their entire roster to graduation. Nick Griffin and Darian Bryant are both leaving via transfer, but neither was expected to be big contributors next season. They return their top four scorers (led by Patricio Garino), their top rebounder (Kevin Larsen) and starting point guard Joe McDonald. Their deep 2014 class has a lot of young prospects that should look for increased playing time next season, led by swing forward Yuta Watanabe, who started games down the stretch. 6'9" Matt Cimino only played garbage minutes as a true freshman, but is considered a good long term prospect. Their top addition is 6'9" Tyler Cavanaugh, who averaged 8.8 ppg and 3.8 rpg as a sophomore at Wake Forest in 2013-14. They don't have a major 2015 recruit signed yet, but the transfers of Griffin and Bryant open up two new scholarships if Mike Lonergan wants to pursue them this summer.

UMass and St. Bonaventure were the two remaining teams to finish above .500 in conference play. Of the two, UMass is actually hit harder by graduation, losing do-everything big man Cady Lalanne and fellow big man Maxie Esho. They return plenty of strong backcourt players, like Trey Davis and Jabarie Hinds, and they got an impressive redshirt freshman season from Donte Clark. They also add 5'10" Luwane Pipkins (Rivals: 145). But their success this past season was built on interior defense and rebounding, and lose the two big men that was all built around. The only player they return who averaged more than 3 rebounds per game is 6'3" Derrick Gordon. 6'9" Malik Hines and 6'10" Rashaan Armstead-Holloway were both 2014 recruits who missed the season due to being academically ineligible. Of the two, Hines is much more likely to make an immediate impact next season. 6'9" rising-senior Tyler Bergantino also has a chance to contribute much more with Lalanne and Esho gone.

St. Bonaventure also loses two starters, including 7-foot defensive monster Youssou Ndoye. But they return leading scorer Marcus Posley and will get back starting point guard Jaylen Adams, who missed the last month of the season with an injury. Their big need for next season is shooting, and by my count they have three scholarship spots open, so I'd expect them to be aggressive in the Juco market this summer to get some. Most of their current roster came through the Juco route, so it's a familiar area for Mark Schmidt.

Of the below .500 teams, St. Joseph's and Saint Louis are both likely to get significantly better next season (not so much for Fordham, which is likely losing A-10 Freshman of the Year Eric Paschall to transfer). But if I had to pick one team below .500 this past season to make a leap next season, it's La Salle. The Explorers have had a couple of rebuilding seasons after their Sweet 16 run in 2013, but have a young core in place that should be significantly better next season. They return star playmaker Jordan Price, as well as athletic big man Jerrell Wright. They also will likely get the services of 6'7" Yevgen Sakhniuk, a big signing out of Ukraine last year who didn't play this past season. They lack the high end talent of the top of the league, but should get back to .500 next season.

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

1. Davidson
2. Dayton
3. Rhode Island
4. Richmond
5. VCU
6. George Washington
7. St. Bonaventure
8. La Salle

Conference USA

Conference USA perhaps deserved a little more credit than it received during the regular season. It spent the season being lumped together, in the computers as well as in the media, with leagues like the Colonial and the Ivy League. But it proved to be feisty in the postseason. UAB took advantage of pseudo-home court advantage to steal the Conference USA tournament, and as a 14 seed they knocked off Iowa State in the NCAA Tournament before falling to UCLA. They then sent three teams to the NIT. Old Dominion would have been a plausible at-large team for the NCAA Tournament if they hadn't crashed and burned in their first CUSA tourney game. They earned a 1-seed to the NIT instead, where they made the semifinals in New York. 3-seed Louisiana Tech lost in the quarterfinals to Temple. 6-seed UTEP went 1-and-done.

UAB's postseason success perhaps came a season too early. Eight of their top ten minute earners were freshmen or sophomores, including starting point guard Nick Norton, leading rebounder William Lee, and 6'9" shot blocker Tosin Mehinti (2.0 per game). They also return leading scorer Robert Brown, a combo guard. Their only significant loss is CJ Washington (6.7 ppg, 3.8 rpg). A big need is reduced turnovers, but ballhandling should improve when their starting point guard isn't a true freshman anymore. They will also look for William Lee, a big time recruit by UAB standards, to take the next step and become an All-CUSA level performer. There are no significant 2015 additions yet, but Jerod Haase has a couple of scholarships to hand out this summer if he wishes.

Louisiana Tech has to replace three senior starters: leading scorer Raheem Appleby, starting point guard Kenny Smith, and leading rebounder Michale Kyser. Smith was Conference USA Player of the Year. Louisiana Tech does return a nice inside-outside duo of shooting guard Alex Hamilton and 6'8" Erik McCree, but after that it's mostly young prospects. 6'6" Xavian Stapleton played well off the bench as a true freshman. Another prospect is 7-footer Joniah White, who played sparingly as a true freshman in 2014-15. Their top incoming recruit is 6'1" shooting guard Derric Jean. So they have some talent, but it's impossible to think they won't have something of a rebuilding season in 2015-16.

Old Dominion was probably the best team in Conference USA this past season, and I say that despite their fan base polluting my blog for weeks when I suggested they were likely going to miss the NCAA Tournament. It's just really, really tough to earn an at-large bid in a league where there are no RPI Top 50 wins to be had and every loss is a "bad loss". They still had a chance heading into the Conference USA tournament, but that one-and-done against Middle Tennessee did them in, though they responded with a respectable run to the NIT semifinals. They lose a pair of starters in Richard Ross and Jonathan Arledge. But they return a nice starting backcourt of Trey Freeman and Aaron Bacote, as well as leading rebounder Denzell Taylor. Ambrose Mosley and Jordan Baker are two other quality backcourt returners. The Monarchs will hope to fill some of their void in the front court with 6'7" Brandan Stith, who averaged 4.6 ppg and 6.4 rpg as a freshman at East Carolina in 2013-14. They also add 7-foot Juco transfer Payton Pervier.

UTEP was the final Conference USA team that finished the season in the Top 100 of the computer ratings. But they lose three starters, including CUSA Defensive Player of the Year Julian Washburn and 6'10" Cedrick Lang. In addition, leading scorer Vince Hunter is weighing the NBA Draft, though he's currently projected as a second round pick. Even if he comes back, though, UTEP has holes all over their roster. They return shooting guard Omega Harris and 6'4" Earvin Morris (40.1 3P%), as well as 7'1" Matt Willms. Their top incoming recruits are 6'8" Paul Thomas and 6'10" Christian Romine. But they need a point guard, outside shooting and rebounding, and don't have any obvious solutions anywhere.

Middle Tennessee is in a position to be improved next season, losing just two players from their regular rotation: Jacquez Rozier and Marcus Tarrance. They return 6'7" Reggie Upshaw, who led the team in both points and rebounds, as well as a good shooting guard in Giddy Potts, who was a true freshman this past season. To get better, however, they really need somebody who can handle the point. JaQuel Richmond was supposed to be that guy, but he was booted off the team midseason.

Western Kentucky loses three starters to graduation, including star TJ Price (17.1 ppg, 41.3 3P%, 5.3 rpg, 4.0 apg). North Texas and UTSA lose three starters apiece to graduation as well. If there's a sleeper for next season, I'd take Charlotte, and that's despite the fact that they're also losing three of their top five minute earners, including point guard Pierria Henry and leading rebounder Mike Thorne (Thorne still has a year of eligibility remaining, but he is leaving via transfer). For one thing, they were better than their record this past season - they outscored their opponents in conference play despite going 7-11, but were 6-12 in all games decided by six points or fewer. They have a nice backcourt for the future in CUSA Freshman of the Year Torin Dorn and sharpshooting guards Braxton Ogbueze and Keyshawn Woods (both of whom hit over 40% behind the arc). They need size, but add 7'0" Benas Griciunas, who averaged 2.0 ppg and 1.8 rpg as a freshman at Auburn in 2013-14, as well as a pair of 6'10" 2015 recruits in Ebuka Izundu and Karoliis Kundrotas.

Conference USA still probably won't earn an at-large bid next season, but it still should produce several teams capable of realistically winning a Round of 64 NCAA Tournament game. Here's how I see the top of the league playing out:

1. UAB
2. Old Dominion
4. Middle Tennessee
5. Louisiana Tech
6. Charlotte

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