Friday, April 03, 2015

2015-16 Preview: One-Bid Conferences, Part IV

America East Conference

Poor Stony Brook must be the most snake-bitten mid-major team in the country. They have yet to make an NCAA Tournament, yet have lost in the America East title game four of the last five seasons. And the one time they failed to make a title game in the last five seasons? 2013, when they won the regular season title but were inexplicably forced to play a true road game against the 4 seed in the semifinals and lost. And this past season they again lost the title game, again in a true road game, and on a miraculous buzzer-beater. Instead they went to the CBI, where they lost by two points to Mercer in the first round. Albany earned a 14 seed to the NCAA Tournament, where they played the 3 seed Oklahoma competitively before falling. The only America East team to make a postseason run was Vermont, who beat Hofstra and Radford before falling in the CBI semifinals to Louisiana-Monroe.

If Stony Brook is finally going to break through, it's likely going to be next season. They didn't have a single senior on the roster (though they do lose two players from the end of their bench to transfer), and they have a core of rising-seniors, led by two-time America East Player of the Year Jameel Warney (16.4 ppg, 11.7 rpg, 2.0 apg, 2.5 bpg) and point guard Carson Puriefoy (14.4 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 3.4 apg). They have several good young prospects, the most interesting of whom is probably 6'6" Roland Nyama (7.3 ppg, 39.0 3P%, 3.6 rpg and 1.5 apg as a redshirt freshman). If there's one area they needed to improve it was outside shooting (they were 7th in the America East in 3P%) and they dealt with that problem with the addition of 6'2" Lucas Woodhouse, who averaged 11.5 ppg and 6.7 apg with a 37.4 3P% as a sophomore at Longwood in 2013-14.

Albany should be a contender again, despite losing star big man Sam Rowley (13.9 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 1.8 apg). They return every other player from their regular rotation, led by Evan Singletary (13.0 ppg, 40.1 3P%, 3.6 rpg, 2.8 apg) and Peter Hooley (13.7 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 2.3 apg), who missed eight games in the middle of the season with injury. They have a good prospect in 6'7" Greg Stire, a 2014 recruit who played sparingly as a true freshman. Shooting guard Wheeler Baker (5.6 ppg, 37.6 3P%) was another true freshman who showed promise this past season. So the Great Danes should be a similar style of team next season, and potentially improved, despite the loss of Sam Rowley.

By Sagarin and Pomeroy (and by efficiency margin in conference play), the best team in the America East this past season was actually Vermont. And the Catamounts lose just one of their top eight minute earners to graduation in Hector Harold (8.1 ppg, 3.9 rpg). Their top returner is 6'9" Ethan O'Day (12.4 ppg, 57.9 FG%, 4.6 rpg, 2.1 bpg), and they have a nice young point guard in Trae Bell-Haynes (8.8 ppg, 54.2 eFG%, 2.6 rpg and 3.5 apg as a true freshman. Another good prospect from their 2014 recruiting class is shooting guard Brandon Hatten (3.9 ppg, 1.7 rpg). A key addition is 6'8" Darren Payen, who averaged 3.1 ppg and 2.2 rpg as a sophomore at Hofstra in 2013-14. They had a highly touted 2015 recruit in 6'7" Josh Speidel, but he suffered traumatic injuries in a car crash approximately two months ago, and remains in serious condition in the hospital as of the publishing of this preview.

If there's another team that seriously contends in the America East next season, it's a young New Hampshire team that improved dramatically throughout the season. They were 6-8 at one point, but then won 13 of 16 before losing a tough two point game at Albany in the America East semifinals. Their one graduation is Matt Miller (9.9 ppg, 48.1 3P%, 3.0 rpg), though New Hampshire might be able to apply for a medical redshirt to get him back as well. Their best overall player was probably America East Freshman of the Year Tanner Leissner (12.3 ppg, 7.2 rpg). New Hampshire lacked a true point guard, but their starter this past season was sophomore Jaleen Smith (10.7 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 2.8 apg, 1.3 spg).

The America East should be significantly improved next season. The top four teams all will likely be better (aside from perhaps Albany). And though New Hampshire continues to improve, their lack of a true point guard or big man means that they'll likely finish behind Stony Brook and Vermont again. Vermont and Stony Brook both could be Top 100 teams, but I think the edge has to go to the best duo in the league: Jameel Warney and Carson Puriefoy. Warney is a major conference talent, and I think he finally is able to drag Stony Brook to their first automatic bid.

Atlantic Sun Conference

The Atlantic Sun didn't produce a great team this past season, but they produced a fun team. I think a lot of college basketball fans who hadn't watched the Atlantic Sun during the regular season got caught up in their run through the Atlantic Sun tournament. Unfortunately, they were sent to a 16/16 play-in game and were upset by Robert Morris there. The only team in the Atlantic Sun to win a postseason game was USC Upstate, who beat James Madison in the CIT before falling to Tennessee-Martin.

North Florida should be a contender to repeat their title. They lose just Jalen Nesbitt (10.9 ppg, 37.2 3P%, 5.7 rpg, 3.4 apg, 1.7 spg) from their regular rotation. They return point guard Dallas Moore (15.8 ppg, 38.9 3P%, 3.2 rpg, 3.7 apg), sharpshooter Trent Mackey (8.8 ppg, 43.5 3P%, 1.4 apg) and big man Chris Davenport (11.3 ppg, 55.9 eFG%, 6.5 rpg, 1.0 bpg). Their biggest need is size, on the glass and defensively in the paint, and they will hope to address that with 6'9" Ismaila Dauda, who played sparingly at Cleveland State in 2013-14. They will also look for improved play from 6'11" Romelo Banks, who has yet to develop an offensive game. 

The preseason favorite in the Atlantic Sun was Florida Gulf Coast, a team that started off the season strong but faded badly down the stretch, primarily because they couldn't score. Their 30.6 3P% in conference play was worst in the league, and they scored just 1.05 PPP.  Florida Gulf Coast is moving on from the remainders of the core of that Sweet 16 team, with four starters graduating, including star Brett Comer (12.5 ppg, 7.2 apg) and leading-scorer Bernard Thompson (13.8 ppg, 1.7 spg). That said, they do return a lot in their front court, including leading-rebounder Marc-Eddy Norella (8.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg) and talented rising-junior Demetris Morant (4.5 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 1.3 bpg), a former UNLV transfer. They also get back 6'9" Filip Cvjeticanin, who missed the season with injury, and add 6'9" Antravious Simmons, who played sparingly as a freshman at VCU.

The problem for FGCU will be on the perimeter, where Brett Comer was the do-everything offensive creator. Brian Greene is probably their top returning point guard, though he only played 9.9 minutes per game this past season. One backcourt option will be Zach Johnson, their top 2014 recruit, who missed the season with injury. Their top 2015 recruits are 5'11" point guard Reggie Reid and 6'5" wing Rayjon Tucker. Even with a strong front court, it's hard to see this team being as good next season unless one of these backcourt players makes a significant leap.

As FGCU faded, the team that came on strong was USC Upstate, who took out FGCU in the Atlantic Sun semis and gave North Florida a fight in the title game. They lose three starters, though, including Atlantic Sun Player of the Year Ty Greene (20.3 ppg, 40.7 3P%, 2.1 spg) and point guard Fred Miller (12.2 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 4.2 apg, 1.8 spg). They do have a very talented young player in rising-sophomore Jacob Schulte (4.6 ppg and 3.4 rpg in 17.9 mpg with a 64.2 FG%), but they have a lot of holes to fill without obvious replacements.

Northern Kentucky played well in the first season where they were eligible for the Atlantic Sun postseason since moving up to Division I. They lose one starter (Chad Jackson - 8.1 ppg, 5.5 rpg), but return Jalen Billups (11.1 ppg, 69.6 FG%, 5.9 rpg, 1.2 bpg) and Atlantic Sun Freshman of the Year Taylor Persons (13.1 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 3.7 apg). They also get back Deontae Cole (4.0 ppg in 14.2 mpg with a team-leading 39.5 3P%), who missed the last couple of weeks of the season with an injury. As a young team, there's every reason that they should expect to be even better next season.

One final team worth discussing is Lipscomb, who had some off-court issues with star Malcolm Smith quitting the team in February. They should be better next season, though. Aside from Smith, they return their top six minute earners. Smith's brother, Martin Smith, also leaves, but he missed most of the season with an injury anyway. They return the potential A-Sun Preseason Player of the Year in Josh Williams (16.9 ppg, 56.3 eFG%, 4.9 rpg, 2.0 apg). They are in big need of some front court development, either from 6'10" George Brammeier, who played sparingly as a true freshman, or 6'8" 2015 recruit Eli Pepper.

The road is open for North Florida next season. Both Florida Gulf Coast and USC Upstate are hit really hard by graduations. Florida Gulf Coast has seven key additions, including transfers, but they have some glaring holes, and will find it hard to run the same offense without Brett Comer. Northern Kentucky and Lipscomb will both be better next season, but are unlikely to make the massive improvement required to actually win the league. So that leaves things wide open for a North Florida team that has a real chance to be improved next season. They have flaws, particularly on the glass, but they won't need to be anywhere near perfect to win the Atlantic Sun again. North Florida is my pick.

Big Sky Conference 

The Big Sky had the most fun team in the nation that only basketball junkies knew of this past season: Eastern Washington. The Eagles chucked a ton of threes and hit a ton of threes, and ended up a 13 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and a scary opponent for the 4 seed Georgetown. But they shot badly in that game (just 9-for-28 behind the arc), and came up short. Montana had, by a tiebreak, earned the 1 seed in the Big Sky tournament and the auto-bid to the NIT, where they were given a 7 seed and lost in the first round to Texas A&M. The Big Sky team to go on the best postseason run was Northern Arizona, who knocked off Kent State (as well as fellow Big Sky team Sacramento State) en route to the CIT title game, where they lost to Evansville.

Eastern Washington loses just two regulars to graduation, though they are starting point guard Drew Brandon (9.7 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 4.7 apg, 1.8 spg) and sharpshooter Parker Kelly (7.7 ppg, 43.6 3P%, 2.6 rpg). In addition, star Tyler Harvey (23.1 ppg, 43.1 3P%, 3.6 rpg, 2.6 apg) is off to the NBA a year early. That said, they still have some good players back, led by 6'8" Venky Jois (16.7 ppg, 61.0 FG%, 7.7 rpg, 2.0 apg, 2.2 bpg) and 6'7" Ognjen Miljkovic (9.7 ppg, 37.7 3P%, 3.1 rpg). They have good young sharpshooters in Felix Von Hofe (5.1 ppg, 41.2 3P%) and Big Sky Freshman of the Year Bogdan Bliznyuk (8.7 ppg, 55.8 3P%, 64.9 eFG%, 4.0 rpg). They also get back Sir Washington (2.6 ppg in 9.9 mpg), a talented freshman who missed half the season with a knee injury. In addition to a deep incoming recruiting class, they also add 6'1" point guard Will Ferris, a 2014 recruit who took a redshirt season.

The regular season champion was Montana, and they should be a contender again next season. They lose one starter (Jordan Gregory - 17.0 ppg, 38.2 3P%, 3.4 rpg, 3.2 apg), as well as Michael Weisner (6.6 ppg, 2.3 rpg) off the bench. They return star big man Martin Breunig (16.7 ppg, 59.8 FG%, 7.2 rpg), point guard Mario Dunn (8.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 3.8 apg, 1.8 spg), and sharpshooter Brandon Gfeller (8.9 ppg, 42.1 3P%). Fabijan Krslovic (4.8 ppg, 52.1 FG%, 4.7 rpg) played well as a true freshman as well. Montana hopes to get back 6'5" Jermaine Edwards, who was averaging 8.8 ppg but was lost for the season after just 8 games due to academics. They could use better ball handling (they were 9th in the Big Sky in offensive turnover rate), but hope to address that with their top recruit, Michael Oguine (Scout: 26 PG).

Sacramento State had a great season, challenging for the Big Sky title, but they lose four of the players from their eight man regular rotation. Graduations are the theme for the middle of the pack in the Big Sky. Northern Colorado loses four of their top six minute earners. Portland State loses four of their top five minute earners. Even Idaho loses three starters.

If one team challenges Eastern Washington and Montana next season, the best bet is Northern Arizona. The Lumberjacks improved dramatically as the season went along. After a 5-9 start, they won 18 of their next 23 games before a tough road loss at Evansville for the CIT title. They lose two starters, including leading scorer Quinton Upshur (14.4 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 1.1 bpg), but return primary playmaker Kris Yanku (13.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 5.1 apg, 1.2 spg) as well as Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year Jordyn Martin (7.7 ppg, 7.7 rpg). Northern Arizona hopes to get back 6'0" Jaleni Neely (7.9 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 2.8 apg) who was lost after 12 games due to academics. They also have a nice 2015 recruiting class, headed by 5'11" point guard Michael Green and 6'5" wing Brady Twombly.

Eastern Washington was the best team in the Big Sky this past season, and they might have next season's Big Sky Player of the Year in Venky Jois, but they needed to score a ton to overcome a bad defense, and will find that task a lot harder without Tyler Harvey. Montana loses just one starter, and assuming they can get Jermaine Edwards back they basically get another starter right back. Martin Breunig is the type of player who can lead them to a conference title. And for now, I think Montana has the deepest roster with the fewest question marks. Montana is the early favorite.

 Big South Conference

The Big South was incredibly even this season. At one point, there was a seven-way tie at 8-4 in the standings. By the end of the season two teams fell off the pace, but there were still five teams within a game of first place. Unsurprisingly in a league this balanced, the Big South tournament was chaotic, with neither the #1 or #2 seed even making it to the semifinals. Coastal Carolina was the #3 seed, but they were playing on their home court, and only had to beat the #6, #7 and #5 seeds to win the title. But they were, unsurprisingly, given a 16 seed, where they were unable to provide much of a challenge to Wisconsin. Charleston Southern earned the auto bid to the NIT, where they were given an 8 seed and lost to Old Dominion. Radford won a game in the CBI and High Point won a game in the CIT, which kept the conference from being shut out in the postseason.

It makes sense to start with the league's NCAA Tournament representative, Coastal Carolina. They lose two regulars to graduation, including leading-scorer Warren Gillis (13.4 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 3.2 apg, 1.4 spg). But they return five players who averaged at least 15 minutes per game, including shooting guard Elijah Wilson (11.3 ppg, 39.1 3P%, 3.4 rpg) and 6'7" Badou Diagne (9.5 ppg, 43.3 3P%, 7.3 rpg, 1.0 bpg). A key addition is 6'0" Jaylen Shaw, who averaged 3.0 ppg and 1.1 apg as a freshman at South Carolina in 2013-14. They also appear to still be shopping the Juco market, perhaps for another front court player.

While Coastal Carolina has a real chance to be better next season, it's hard to say the same about Charleston Southern or Radford. Charleston Southern loses four starters, including Big South Player of the Year Saah Nimley (21.4 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 4.1 apg). Radford loses four of their top eight minute earners, including Big South Defensive Player of the Year (and Radford leading scorer) Javonte Green (15.4 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 1.9 spg). High Point is in better shape. They lose a pair of starters, including Devante Wallace (10.3 ppg, 39.5 3P%, 5.6 rpg), but they return star John Brown (19.3 ppg, 55.0 FG%, 6.0 rpg, 1.0 bpg), as well as sharpshooter Lorenzo Cugini (9.8 ppg, 45.1 3P%, 4.8 rpg). That said, they didn't get much of anything from their 2014 recruiting class, and with the team likely to not be quite as good next season, John Brown could decide to leave. He is graduating in May, and there have been some rumors of him considering the graduate transfer route. If he does leave, it immediately turns into a rebuilding season for High Point.

Despite finishing fifth in the final standings, Winthrop actually led the Big South in efficiency margin in conference play (+0.13 PPP, with High Point and Coastal Carolina tied for second at +0.08 PPP). They were also the team that lost in a true road game with the automatic bid on the line. They lose two starters, though: leading scorer Keon Moore (18.5 ppg, 43.2 3P%, 5.2 rpg, 1.8 apg, 1.4 spg) and starting point guard Andre Smith (11.3 ppg, 4.3 apg, 1.3 spg). But Winthrop went deep, and they return seven players that averaged at least 13 minutes per game, led by 6'8" Xavier Cooks (7.8 ppg, 53.6 FG%, 6.1 rpg and 1.5 bpg as a true freshman). They also return a capable replacement point guard in Keon Johnson (11.5 ppg, 35.9 3P%, 1.9 apg). Their big need this past season was size, and they are going to add a bunch. First, 6'8" James Bourne will be back after missing the 2014-15 season with a torn ACL (he averaged 5.0 ppg and 3.8 rpg for Winthrop in 2013-14). 6'6" Larry Brown (who averaged 5.0 ppg and 4.5 rpg for Winthrop in 2013-14) will also be back after a hip injury cost him the season. They also add 6'10" Zach Price, who was formerly at both Louisville and Missouri before transferring to Winthrop. And while he's more of a wing than a big, Winthrop adds a big talent in 6'5" Roderick Perkins, who averaged 24.9 ppg at Division II Erskine in 2013-14. Throw in prospects like 6'8" Duby Okeke, who played well in limited minutes as a redshirt freshman this past season, and Winthrop could go from being one of the smallest teams in the Big South to one of the biggest in one offseason.

If there's another Big South team that could challenge for the title next season, it's probably UNC-Asheville, who return their top five players in games started, though they do lose a pair of key bench pieces, including 7-foot defensive monster Jaleel Roberts (7.0 ppg, 61.4 FG%, 5.0 rpg and 2.6 bpg). They do have a very good, young backcourt duo in Andrew Rowsey (19.2 ppg, 38.2 3P%, 2.9 apg, 1.4 spg) and Kevin Vannatta (7.6 ppg, 38.9 3P%, 3.6 rpg, 2.5 apg), the latter of whom was a true freshman this past season. They will try to partially replace Jaleel Roberts with the addition of 6'10" John Cannon, who played sparingly in three seasons at Georgia. But unless Cannon can recreate what Roberts did (which he almost certainly can't), UNC-Asheville will have to shoot much better to make up for it. They were just 9th in the Big South in 3P%.

Graduation losses mean that Coastal Carolina and Winthrop are the most likely challengers for next season. Those are the two teams from the tight top tier this past season to likely be better next season. Both teams lose a couple of key players, but both have good young returners, and both are adding key pieces via the transfer market. But this young Winthrop team improved significantly as the year went along, and was actually better in conference play than Coastal Carolina was. And their additions are better, in addition to the fact that they get back key contributors James Bourne and Larry Brown, who both missed 2014-15 with injuries. Winthrop should be the most talented and deepest roster in the Big South next season, and so they're the early favorite.

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