Wednesday, April 01, 2015
2015-16 Preview: One-Bid Conferences, Part II
St. Francis-Brooklyn is one of five teams to fail to qualify for every single NCAA Tournament, and they came agonizingly close this past season. They won the regular season title, earning themselves homecourt advantage through the NEC tournament. But in an extremely exciting NEC title game in their over-packed gym they came up a brutal three points short against Robert Morris. Robert Morris was able to pull the upset in the 16/16 play-in game against North Florida before losing in very respectable fashion to Duke in the Round of 64. The rest of the league went down meekly in their postseason appearances. St. Francis-Brooklyn earned their auto-bid to the NIT, where they lost at Richmond. St. Francis-PA went to the CIT, where they lost to Bowling Green.
Unfortunately, it doesn't like like St. Francis-Brooklyn will have the same chance to break through next season that they had this past season, as they lose four starters to graduation, including NEC Player of the Year Jalen Cannon (16.1 ppg, 10.5 rpg) and point guard Brent Jones (14.1 ppg, 5.3 apg, 1.9 spg). All is not lost, though. They do return NEC Defensive Player of the Year Amdy Fall (6.5 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 2.8 bpg), and a good point guard for the future in Glenn Sanabria (6.0 ppg, 44.9 3P% and 2.1 apg as a true freshman). They add a solid Juco transfer in 6'4" wing Jonathan Doss as well. So they won't be the favorite to win the league, but they won't disappear from the top of the league either.
Robert Morris played well enough against Duke in the NCAA Tournament to draw some curious television eyes in the second half before the Blue Devils hit some shots and put them away. And they're in a position to be improved next season, with just one senior in the regular rotation in David Appolon (6.0 ppg, 3.5 rpg). They return leading scorer Rodney Pryor (15.6 ppg, 42.9 3P%, 4.7 rpg), leading rebounder Lucky Jones (14.3 ppg, 5.9 rpg) and NEC Freshman of the Year Kavon Stewart (6.1 ppg, 4.6 apg, 1.6 spg). Their big need is interior size, particularly on the glass, and 6'8" Elijah Minnie (6.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg and 1.1 bpg as a true freshman) will presumably be a part of improving that. There are no significant additions, but just natural development of current young players would suggest that the Colonials should be improved next season.
According to Sagarin and Pomeroy, the third best team in the NEC was St. Francis-PA, though they faded pretty badly late in the season and also lose two starters and their sixth man, including star Earl Brown (15.9 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 1.9 apg, 1.0 bpg). The team that was actually third best in conference play in efficiency margin was Mt. St. Mary's, and the Mountaineers lose just Kristijan Krajina (6.4 ppg, 4.4 rpg). They return 7-footer Taylor Danaher (4.5 ppg, 56.8 FG%, 3.8 rpg, 1.3 bpg) and 6'7" Gregory Graves (10.1 ppg, 7.4 rpg), so they should still be strong inside, and they have an excellent point guard for the future in 5'7" Junior Robinson (8.3 ppg and 3.3 apg as a true freshman). One of the reasons they got better late in the season was 6'8" Butler transfer Andrew Smeathers, who had to sit out the fall semester and then suffered an injury, but played well down the stretch. They will also look for development from rising-junior Byron Ashe (11.9 ppg), who showed moments of brilliance but also spent part of the season benched.
Bryant loses two starters, including star Dyami Starks (18.6 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 1.5 apg). If there's a dark horse to finish near the top of the league it's probably VMI, since 9 of their 11 top minute earners were freshmen or sophomores. But Robert Morris should be close to a Top 100 team next year, which means that one of the other contenders is going to need to be significantly improved to challenge them. Mt. St. Mary's is the team best equipped to be that good. But realistically, I think Robert Morris has to be the preseason favorite.
The Ohio Valley briefly had the attention of the college basketball world after Belmont knocked off Murray State in a fantastic OVC title game. Murray State was ranked in the Top 25 of both the AP and Coaches polls and had been riding a 25 game winning streak. But for all the public desire for getting them an at-large bid, the reality was that a single RPI Top 100 win was never going to be enough. Instead they earned a 3 seed to the NIT, where they beat UTEP and Tulsa before falling by 3 points to Old Dominion in the quarterfinals. Belmont was given only a 15 seed to the NCAA Tournament, though they gave a respectable performance before falling to Virginia. Interestingly, Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee-Martin ended up playing each other in the CIT quarterfinals. UT-Martin won that game before falling to Evansville in the CIT semifinals.
As good as Murray State was this past season, they might be a totally different team next season. They lose three starters, including leading rebounder Jarvis Williams (15.7 ppg, 56.7 FG%, 8.4 rpg, 1.0 bpg). But the real question is OVC Player of the Year Cam Payne (20.2 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 6.0 apg, 1.9 spg), who at this point appears to be leaning toward the NBA Draft instead of playing his junior season. For the sake of this preview, I'm going to assume that he leaves. They will return a pair of backcourt sharpshooters in Justin Seymour (7.1 ppg, 43.5 3P%) and Jeffrey Moss (11.2 ppg, 42.3 3P%), along with 6'7" Wayne Langston (2.5 ppg and 3.2 rpg in 12.3 mpg), but that's it for proven returners. Murray State's top addition is 6'4" Gee McGhee, who averaged 11.0 ppg, 4.3 rpg and 2.5 apg over two seasons at Chattanooga. But without any other significant additions, the potential loss of Cam Payne would set Murray State significantly back going into next season.
Belmont was far from a vintage Belmont squad, but that was primarily because their defense was bad. Their offense was still run in the classic Rick Byrd style, and they still scored very efficiently, finishing 5th in the nation with a 56.4 eFG%. And they should be better next season, losing just one of their top six minute earners: point guard Reece Chamberlain (8.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 6.0 apg, 1.7 spg). Their top returners are combo guard Craig Bradshaw (18.3 ppg, 42.3 3P%, 59.4 eFG%, 3.1 apg, 1.6 spg), shooting guard Taylor Barnette (10.6 ppg, 39.1 3P%, 2.6 rpg) and 6'7" Evan Bradds (14.2 ppg, 69.7 eFG%, 7.2 rpg). 6'8" Amanze Egekeze, a true freshman this past season, has the potential to provide the interior defense that Belmont mostly lacked this past season. 6'9" Mack Mercer, another 2014 recruit, is another good prospect for the future. Their top 2015 recruit is probably 6'4" Michael Benkert.
The second place team in the standings, and in efficiency margin, wasn't Belmont, but Eastern Kentucky. The Colonels had success with a pressure defense that ended up 2nd in the nation in defensive steal and turnover rates. But of their two starters graduating, one is OVC Defensive Player of the Year Corey Walden (18.6 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 3.8 apg, 3.1 spg), who led the nation in steals/game. The other loss is second-leading scorer Eric Stutz (15.6 ppg, 47.2 3P%, 64.9 eFG%). They do return a double-digit scorer in Tommy Knipp (10.5 ppg, 38.2 3P%, 3.8 rpg, 1.2 bpg), and add 6'5" Javontae Hawkins, who averaged 4.1 ppg and 1.4 rpg in two seasons at South Florida. But it's hard to see how they don't take at least a small step back without Corey Walden.
In fact, the whole middle of the pack in the OVC is hit hard by graduations. Morehead State loses four of their top six minute earners. SIU-Edwardsville loses three starters. Eastern Illinois had about 75 different starting lineups, but they lose four of their top nine minute earners. If there's one team that maybe has a chance to be better, it's Tennessee-Martin. The Skyhawks improved significantly throughout the season, and finished +0.05 PPP in conference play (just barely behind Belmont's +0.06 PPP), and after a run to the CIT semifinals pushed into the Top 150 of both the Sagarin and Pomeroy ratings. Their two graduating seniors include their leading scorer (Deville Smith - 13.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 4.5 apg, 1.7 spg) and leading rebounder (Marshun Newell - 13.1 ppg, 40.6 3P%, 6.9 rpg, 2.7 apg), but they return a nice inside-outside combo of 5'11" Alex Anderson (12.5 ppg, 48.0 3P%, 1.9 apg) and Twymond Howard (13.6 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 1.7 apg). They also have a nice prospect in rising-junior Javier Martinez (5.7 ppg and 3.8 rpg in 15.6 mpg with a 70.3 FG%). UT-Martin also hopes to get a medical redshirt for 6'7" Myles Taylor, who averaged 14.6 ppg and 6.3 rpg as a junior in 2013-14 but was lost after just six games in 2014-15. With several Juco players coming on board as well, UT-Martin could be a dark horse contender in the OVC next season.
Cam Payne is a good enough player that even the loss of three starters probably wouldn't keep him from leading Murray State to another OVC title. But as of the time this post is going live, the most recent reports say that he's leaning toward the NBA Draft. If he goes, Murray State heads into a rebuilding season, and Tennessee-Martin might in fact provide Belmont their toughest test. But Rick Byrd has the core of another classic Belmont offense in place. If his team can improve defensively, and they have a couple of new pieces that can aid in that regard, then Belmont has a chance to be a dangerous 12 or 13 seed next March. Unless Cam Payne comes back, Belmont is the early OVC favorite.
The Patriot League was very balanced this year, which meant that it didn't have a single particularly good team. The sixth place team was rated higher in Sagarin and Pomeroy than the first place team. The result was that the league's NCAA Tournament bid was almost assured a 16 seed. Fourth place Lafayette took the crown, took the 16 seed, and was annihilated by 41 points by Villanova. Bucknell earned the auto-bid to the NIT, but they were just given an 8 seed, and they lost to Temple in the first round. And that was it for postseason tournaments for the league. If they're going to see some postseason success next season, it's going to start with one of these teams breaking out of the pack and becoming much better.
We can start with that Lafayette team, since they won the auto bid, but they were not the best team this past season and they are hit hard by graduations. They lose three starters, including do-everything star Dan Trist (17.3 ppg, 57.3 FG%, 6.7 rpg), and their other starting big man in Seth Hinrichs (13.1 ppg, 56.5 eFG%, 5.7 rpg, 2.5 apg). That said, they do return point guard Nick Lindner (12.5 ppg, 39.7 3P%, 5.2 apg), and other shooters like Bryce Scott (39.8 3P%), Zach Rufer (46.5 3P%), and Monty Boykins (42.4 3P%). Their big need is in the front court, with the lost of Trist and Hinrichs. They have a fairly good prospect in 6'8" Matt Klinewski (3.1 ppg and 1.8 rpg in 9.0 mpg as a true freshman) and their 2015 recruiting class is focused on size, with 6'11" Sam Dunkum and 6'8" Paulius Zalys. But size takes time to develop at the Patriot League level, so it's hard to see them not taking a step back.
The regular season champ was Bucknell, and they are in position to be improved, with just two graduations from what was basically an 11 man rotation. Star Chris Haas (16.0 ppg, 39.4 3P%, 3.3 rpg) will be a senior next season, and they have a very good up-and-coming big man in 6'9" Nana Fouland (10.2 ppg, 54.9 FG%, 5.4 rpg and 1.1 bpg as a true freshman). The one key player who needs to be replace is point guard Steven Kaspar (5.1 ppg, 3.6 apg), though Ryan Frazier (5.5 ppg, 36.7 3P%, 1.8 apg) can play some point and they have a young point guard with potential in 5'11" Stephen Brown (3.6 ppg and 1.4 apg as a true freshman). This is a balanced, well-coached team that has a good chance to be improved next season.
According to Sagarin and Pomeroy, the best team in the Patriot League wasn't Bucknell or Lafayette, but Colgate. But Colgate loses four starters, including leading-scorer Damon Sherman-Newsome (14.8 ppg, 37.1 3P%) and sharpshooter Matt McMullen (9.7 ppg, 50.5 3P%, 64.9 eFG%). The team at the top in much better shape to contend next season is Lehigh, who lose just Corey Schaefer (4.7 ppg, 3.1 rpg) from their regular rotation. They are built for the future around Patriot League Freshman of the Year Kahron Ross (10.5 ppg and 5.9 apg) and Patriot League Player of the Year Tim Kempton (15.6 ppg and 8.7 rpg as a sophomore). And they have the strongest recruiting class in the conference, led by 6'7" Matt Holba, who is rated the 9th best recruit in Indiana and who received some major conference interest. The big need for Lehigh in the offseason is for its best players to learn to shoot the ball better, as they were just 8th in the Patriot League in eFG% and 6th in 3P%. With enough time in the gym, they will certainly have the raw talent to challenge Bucknell for the conference title.
As for the rest of the league, I do absolutely love the Holy Cross hire of Bill Carmody, but he's going to need to totally rebuild that roster, so they're not likely to win the league next season. If there is one other team to contend next year, I think it's Boston University. After graduations and transfers, they were forced into a total rebuilding season, and were very young, with no seniors on their roster. They improved as the season went along and finished fourth in the league with a +0.02 PPP in conference play, just behind the +0.03 PPP that Lehigh posted. They are led by Cedric Hankerson (15.9 ppg, 39.8 3P%, 4.5 rpg, 2.6 apg, 1.8 spg), and have an explosive scoring sixth man in Eric Fanning (12.3 ppg, 38.6 3P%, 3.6 rpg, 1.5 apg). Their big need was point guard, where they were left with a gaping hole when Maurice Watson left. They were dead last in the Patriot League in offensive turnover rate in conference play. Without a good point guard prospect on the roster, Joe Jones used his one 2015 recruiting class addition on a point guard, 6'1" Kyle Foreman. If Foreman can immediately step in and improve the ball control situation, Boston University has the scoring talent to challenge for a league title.
That said, Bucknell and Lehigh are the two obvious contenders for next season, and both look to be improved from this past season. Bucknell has the more balanced roster, with fewer holes, while Lehigh has more upside with Kahron Ross and Tim Kempton, along with a very talented recruiting class by Patriot League standards. When I originally wrote this preview I picked Bucknell because I trusted in Dave Paulsen, who was probably the best coach in the Patriot League. But with him moving onto George Mason, I think the favorite has to become Lehigh.
The Southern Conference was more balanced this past season than it's generally been in recent years. Wofford won the conference regular season title in the standings fairly easily, but it was due in large part to good luck in close games (7-1 in conference regular season games decided by five points or fewer). When the NCAA Tournament kicked off, Wofford was rated #1 in the nation in Pomeroy's Luck metric. Of course, as these things often go, Wofford lost a heartbreaking three point game to Arkansas in the Round of 64. The only SoCon team to win a postseason game was Mercer, who beat Stony Brook in the CBI before falling to Louisiana-Lafayette.
Wofford loses two key players: SoCon Player of the Year Karl Cochran (14.6 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 2.7 apg, 1.8 spg, 1.0 bpg) and Lee Skinner (9.9 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 2.1 apg). They do return point guard Eric Garcia (7.7 ppg, 2.5 apg), as well as shooting guard Spencer Collins (11.8 ppg, 38.4 3P%, 2.7 rpg). Jaylen Allen (6.3 ppg, 42.1 3P%) is another good scoring guard. Their big need this past season was size, which was demonstrated by the fact that 6'1" Karl Cochran led the team in rebounding and had more than twice as many blocks as any of his teammates. That should be alleviated in a big way next season by the addition of 6'8" Ryan Sawvell, who averaged 4.8 ppg and 3.5 rpg in three seasons at Evansville. 6'7" Cameron Jackson, a 2014 recruit who played sparingly as a true freshman, could also see much more time. Another potential contributor is 6'4" Larry McKnight, Jr, a talented 2014 recruit who took a redshirt season. So while Karl Cochran can't be replaced, Wofford should be stronger in other areas and shouldn't see a significant drop off next season.
The team that finished second in efficiency margin and the standings in SoCon play was Chattanooga. The Mocs were playing great basketball late in the season, even winning by ten at Wofford, before being stunned by Furman in the SoCon tournament. And they have reason to expect to be better next season, as they only lose point guard Ronrico White (11.1 ppg, 3.3 apg) from their regular rotation. They return leading scorer Casey Jones (14.2 ppg, 52.4 eFG%, 7.0 rpg) and SoCon Defensive Player of the Year Justin Tuoyo (10.2 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 3.3 bpg). Their biggest need next season will be perimeter play. Greg Pryor (11.3 ppg, 2.6 apg) could slide over to play some point guard, and they also add Dee Oldham, who averaged 9.1 points and 1.8 assists per game as a sophomore at Tennessee-Martin in 2013-14.
Coming off their NCAA Tournament trip and victory over Duke, it was a disappointing season for Mercer, but there are reasons to think that they'll be back next season. For one, their efficiency margin in conference play (+0.09 PPP) wasn't too far off of Wofford (+0.15) or Chattanooga (+0.11). Their loss in the SoCon tournament to Furman was in part due to losing starter Darious Moten (11.4 ppg, 4.4 rpg) to injury the previous game. They lose just one senior from the entire roster: T.J. Hallice (9.1 ppg, 6.5 rpg), with returners including leading-scorer Ike Nwamu (15.1 ppg, 37.4 3P%) and point guard Phillip Leonard (8.1 ppg, 4.5 apg). Their big need (particularly with Hallice graduating) is a big man to rebound and protect the paint, and they add 6'9" Desmond Ringer, who played 10.4 minutes per game as a freshman at South Carolina.
The team that nearly pulled off the miracle SoCon tournament run was Furman, who came within a possession of winning the auto bid despite an 8-21 regular season. That run was obviously a fluke, but there are a lot of reasons to believe Furman will be more competitive next season. They return every player from their regular rotation, led by Stephen Croone (17.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg) and Kris Acox (7.0 ppg, 59.9 FG%, 7.5 rpg) and SoCon Freshman of the Year Devin Sibley (10.2 ppg, 37.1 3P%). They add 6'8" Isaiah Watkins, who played sparingly as a freshman at Duquesne, That said, they went 8-21 in the regular season for a reason, and might have been the worst NCAA Tournament team of all-time if they'd knocked off Wofford, so even if they're significantly improved it's still fairly difficult to project them a serious conference contender next season.
By efficiency margin and both Sagarin and Pomeroy, the fourth best team in the SoCon was East Tennessee State, but they lose two starters, including 20-point scorer Jalen Riley (20.2 ppg, 2.7 apg, 1.7 spg). If a team comes from the middle of the pack next season, I think it's more likely to be Western Carolina. They lose James Sinclair (19.4 ppg, 2.9 apg, 2.2 spg), but return their next five top minute earners. They could start four seniors next season, including stat-stuffer Justin Browning (5.8 ppg, 61.9 eFG%, 4.5 rpg, 1.6 apg, 1.5 spg, 0.9 bpg).
There's no reason to expect a significant drop off from Wofford, but the other top contenders in the league were closer than the standings would suggest, and several could be improved next season. Chattanooga and Mercer, in particular, seem like the top challengers. Chattanooga, in particular, is intriguing with the duo of Casey Jones as a potential Player of the Year and Justin Tuoyo as a potential repeat Defensive Player of the Year. Wofford, while deep, might not have the go-to player at the top of their rotation that they had in Karl Cochran. And so, in my opinion, Chattanooga is the early SoCon favorite.