Thursday, April 02, 2015

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

Southland Conference

For the second straight season, Stephen F. Austin earned a 12 seed in the NCAA Tournament and was a popular pick to pull a 12/5 upset. But while they did pull that upset in 2014, they came up short in 2015. Another key difference in the Southland Conference in 2014-15 was a legitimate challenger rising up to the Lumberjacks in Sam Houston State, a team that finished the regular season 79th in Pomeroy, though they ended up only getting to the second round of the CIT, where they fell by a single point to Louisiana-Lafayette. The only other Southland team to win a postseason game was Texas A&M-CC, who beat Florida Gulf Coast in the first round of the CIT but fell to Kent State in the second round.

Stephen F. Austin has won three straight Southland regular season titles and could actually be even better next season. They lose second-leading scorer Jacob Parker (13.9 ppg, 44.0 3P%, 5.5 rpg, 1.1 spg), but return their other four starters, including Southland Conference Player of the Year Thomas Walkup (15.6 ppg, 58.4 eFG%, 6.5 rpg, 3.7 apg, 1.2 spg). Starting point guard Trey Pinkney (3.5 ppg, 3.9 apg, 1.4 spg) will also be a senior next season. They return several good shooters, including Ty Charles (8.6 ppg, 40.3 3P%, 5.0 rpg and 1.7 apg as a true freshman). They also have a deep recruiting class, led by 6'5" small forward Nathan Bain. The area that they lack as far as contending with the big boys nationally is front court size, and that's not likely to get much better next season, but they have enough size to potentially dominate the Southland again next season.

In most other seasons, a team as good as Sam Houston State would have won the Southland, and even in coming up short they were good enough to warrant NIT consideration. But they were unfortunately relegated to the CIT, and this was probably their best chance to content with the Lumberjacks for a while, because they lose five of their top eight minute earners, including leading scorer DeMarcus Gatlin (10.6 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 2.0 apg), point guard Kaheem Ransom (9.8 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 4.0 apg) and Southland Conference Defensive Player of the Year Michael Holyfield (8.5 ppg, 60.2 FG%, 8.1 rpg, 2.5 bpg). Their one returning starter is Paul Baxter (8.4 ppg, 2.6 apg), and they also return Dakarai Henderson (9.0 ppg, 2.3 rpg), but after that it's just prospects and question marks. 6'7" rising-junior Aurimas Majauskas showed flashes of scoring potential off the bench this past season. But Jason Hooten has relied heavily on Juco transfers in his time at Sam Houston State, and he will be heavily involved in picking up some pieces this summer. 6'4" Ameer Jackson is the only one signed so far, as far as I can tell, but they will probably pick up at least one or two more before the next fall.

There was a massive gap back to every other team in the league, and it seems very unlikely that any of them can seriously challenge Stephen F. Austin next season. But who might come closest? The second tier of teams is the tier that includes every other team which finished above .500 in conference play, which finished with a positive net efficiency margin in conference play, and which were the next four highest rated teams in Sagarin and Pomeroy (in every case that's Texas A&M-CC, Northwestern State, Incarnate Word and Lamar). Of those four, we can throw out Lamar, as they lose three starters, including star big man Tyran de Lattibeaudiere (13.4 ppg, 57.6 FG%, 7.7 rpg, 2.1 bpg). Incarnate Word had three freshmen earn 24 or more minutes per game this past season, but they lose star Denzel Livingston (21.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 2.9 apg, 2.6 spg, 1.3 bpg), and are a year or two away from perhaps contending. Texas A&M-CC loses just one player from their rotation, but it's starting point guard John Jordan (15.6 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 5.2 apg, 1.9 spg).

So if I was going to pick a team to break out from the bunch it would be a Northwestern State team that has a clear identity: uptempo, offense. They also return their top six minute earners, including Jalan West, who scored 20.1 ppg (including a 42.2 3P% and 7.6 apg) while also making his third straight Southland All-Defensive team (2.1 spg). They return their other 20+ ppg scorer in Zikiteran Woodley (22.2 ppg, 39.8 3P%, 5.0 rpg). Yet while Northwestern State led the nation with 83.6 ppg, they struggled defensively, particularly on the interior. Their 2015 recruiting class hopes to help there, adding three guys 6'7" or taller, led by 6'10" Colby Koontz.

But realistically, Stephen F. Austin should be the consensus preseason favorite in the Southland. They are a step above every other program right now.

Southwestern Athletic Conference

Texas Southern provided the SWAC with its brightest bright spot in years. This conference recently went seven years without beating a single RPI Top 100 opponent, but Texas Southern knocked off both Michigan State and Kansas State this past season. Behind the top non-conference strength of schedule in the nation, they inflated their RPI all the way up to 118th, earning themselves a 15 seed. The SWAC has been so automatic for 16 seeds and (since they've existed) 16/16 play-in games, that just getting a 15 seed and being trounced by Arizona is a good result. That said, the other computer ratings suggested Texas Southern wasn't quite as good as their RPI, and the rest of the league continued to be fairly awful. In addition, for the second straight year the SWAC allowed some of its ineligible teams into its conference tournament, creating a ridiculous situation where the NCAA Tournament bid was awarded after Texas Southern beat Prairie View A&M in the SWAC semifinals. The other semifinal was between two ineligible teams (Southern and Alabama State), meaning that the result of the title game was meaningless, though thankfully for the league Texas Southern won the title game anyway.

There are reasons to think Texas Southern won't be as strong next season. They lose three starters and a key bench piece, including SWAC Player of the Year Madarious Gibbs (14.2 ppg, 4.2 apg). That said, they do return five players who averaged double-digit minutes per game, including explosive scorer Chris Thomas (12.6 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 1.2 spg) and leading-rebounder Malcolm Riley (10.2 ppg, 55.3 eFG%, 6.4 rpg). Texas Southern also adds some nice pieces, including AJ Lynch, who averaged 2.3 points and 1.7 assists as a freshman at Austin Peay in 2012-13 before heading to a Juco. They also add a nice high school recruit in point guard Brian Carey. These ball handlers should help replace Madarious Gibbs, and will hopefully lead to more offense for more efficient shooters like Malcolm Riley and David Blanks (6.5 ppg, 39.1 3P%, 56.4 eFG%).

The second and third placed teams in the SWAC were both ineligible for the NCAA Tournament, and they were the two teams that played in that meaningless SWAC semifinal: Alabama State and Southern. Alabama State loses three starters and their top two players off the bench, including Maurice Strong (8.7 ppg, 7.7 rpg). That said, they do return star Jamel Waters (14.0 ppg, 5.2 apg), as well as SWAC Freshman of the Year Steve Rogers (5.3 ppg, 45.5 3P%). But they were built around interior defense (they allowed just 0.90 PPP In conference play), and the loss of their top three rebounders and top three shot blockers is going to take a lot of that away.

Southern is in better shape, as they return their top four players in terms of games started, though they lose three key rotation players in Tre Lynch, Keith Davis and Frank Snow. But they return leading scorer Adrian Rodgers (13.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg), starting point guard Christopher Hyder (4.5 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 3.9 apg), and an up-and-coming big man in 6'9" Jared Sam (5.2 ppg and 5.4 rpg as a redshirt freshman). If Sam can provide them the inside scoring presence they lacked this past season, that could really help them challenge for a conference title. Southern also picks up a quality transfer in 6'5" Grant Ellis, who played sparingly over two seasons at Iona.

The clear fourth best team in the SWAC, in efficiency margin and in the computer ratings, was Prairie View A&M. But they lose four starters, including John Brisco (11.2 ppg, 42.2 3P%, 1.7 spg), who powered an attack that led the conference in defensive turnover rate and offensive 3P%. So if there's another team from the SWAC that contends next season, I'd bet instead on Jackson State. They went only 9-9 in conference play, but were young and improved as the season went along. They return their top eight minute earners, including Raeford Worsham, who led the team in points (13.5) and rebounds (7.9) per game, and who missed significant time this past season with injury. They also have a huge addition in 6'3" Juco transfer DeShawn Munson, who originally had major conference scholarship offers before heading to the Juco route.

Southern closed the gap on Texas Southern as the year went on, nearly finishing even in efficiency margin and playing them close in the meaningless SWAC title game. Texas Southern loses a lot but also gains a lot, and Mike Davis has brought in some ball handlers to help him replace Madarious Gibbs. But Southern returns more, and they have their own significant additions in players like Grant Ellis. In the end, I expect the league to be a close battle between these two teams next season, and I'm giving the slight edge to Southern. It just seems too much to just assume that the conference's Player of the Year can be replaced by guys who haven't yet proven themselves at the NCAA level.

Summit League

North Dakota State and South Dakota State dominated the Summit League for the third consecutive season. The two have combined to win the last four Summit League tournaments as well, with North Dakota State pulling the upset this season. They probably deserved a 14 seed but were given a 15 seed instead, where they were over-matched by a much bigger Gonzaga team. South Dakota State was given the auto bid to the NIT, where they defeated Colorado State before falling to Vanderbilt. The only other Summit League team to win a postseason game was Oral Roberts, who defeated UC Santa Barbara in the CIT before losing to Loyola-Chicago.

Next season looks to be more of the same, with South Dakota State and North Dakota State again at or near the top of the league. North Dakota State loses just one player from their entire roster, though it's Summit League Player of the Year Lawrence Alexander (18.5 ppg, 44.1 3P%, 4.5 rpg, 1.7 apg). The rest of the team was very young, though. Their second-leading scorer, AJ Jacobson (11.6 ppg, 40.3 3P%, 4.2 rpg, 1.8 apg) was a redshirt freshman, and leading-rebounder Dexter Wermer (8.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 1.0 bpg) was just a sophomore. Wermer had constant foul trouble issues (4.9 fouls/40 minutes), but could really be a physical monster in the Summit League if he can stay on the court. Shooting guard Paul Miller (6.7 ppg, 37.8 3P%, 3.8 rpg) was a very effective true freshman. Two front court players from their 2014 recruiting class (Spencer Eliason and Trey Miller) took redshirt seasons and will likely contribute next season.

South Dakota State was a team that got dramatically better after adding George Marshall, the transfer from Wisconsin, midseason. After starting the year 9-7 they won 14 of 16 before being upset by North Dakota State in the Summit tournament title game, sliding up from 166th to 101st in Pomeroy. And by the time their NIT run was over they were inside the Pomeroy Top 90. They lose Summit League Defensive Player of the Year Cody Larson (13.9 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 1.8 apg, 1.1 bpg), but return the rest of their starting lineup, led by the backcourt trio of Marshall (13.3 ppg, 42.1 3P%, 3.7 rpg, 2.3 apg), Deondre Parks (14.0 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 1.9 apg) and Jake Bittle (10.1 ppg, 41.0 3P%, 4.3 rpg, 2.7 apg). Without Larsen, though, they return no real proven front court players, unless you count 6'6" Reed Tellinghuisen. 6'9" Ian Theisen showed flashes of strong play as a true freshman and is a good prospect for next season. Another option is 6'7" 2015 recruit Adam Dykman.

So who can challenge the two dominant Summit League programs next season? The obvious choice is Oral Roberts, the third place team in the league this past season. They also lose just one starter to graduation in Denell Henderson (8.8 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 1.3 bpg). Their leading returners are leading-scorer Obi Emegano (18.3 ppg, 38.7 3P%, 4.7 rpg, 2.2 apg, 1.7 spg) and shooting guard Bobby Word (8.4 ppg, 39.2 3P%, 2.4 rpg). They also add 6'3" Aaron Anderson, a transfer from Fresno State. But what they need to win the league next season is front court talent. They were a poor rebounding team even with Denell Henderson, and now lack a proven big man. The only real returning option is 6'9" Albert Owens, who was effective defensively in limited minutes off the bench as a true freshman. Their top 2015 recruit is also likely 6'7" Chris Miller.

Interestingly, every other team in the conference loses at least two key players to graduation (and some lose more), which means it's going to be incredibly difficult for any of those teams to make up any significant ground on South Dakota State and North Dakota State, which were both already so far ahead. Oral Roberts should be improved next season, but not nearly enough to catch up. Both North Dakota State and South Dakota State suffer one key graduation, but North Dakota State's is a slightly bigger loss. And the reality is that, despite the Summit title game upset, South Dakota State was a better team in February and March than North Dakota State was. So the early favorite in the Summit next season is, in my opinion, South Dakota State.

 Sun Belt Conference

Every year there's one Cinderella that grabs America's attention during the first week of the NCAA Tournament, and this year it was Georgia State. They were perhaps one of the more predictable ones, as they had three major conference level talents and had been hyped preseason (with some people discussing them as a possible at-large contender) before under-performing all season long. But Ron Hunter falling off his stool stole America's heart, for at least a brief while. How did the rest of the conference do in the postseason? Fairly well, actually. No team was in consideration for an NIT bid, but Louisiana-Monroe made it to the CBI title game by beating teams like Vermont and Hofstra before falling to Loyola-Chicago, while Louisiana-Lafayette upset Sam Houston State en route to the CIT quarterfinals, where they lost to Evansville.

Ron Hunter says he'll be back as coach of Georgia State, but his son RJ (19.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 3.6 apg, 2.1 spg) is headed to the NBA Draft. Ryan Harrow, Ryann Green and Curtis Washington also graduate, with Harrow (18.3 ppg, 39.4 3P%, 3.6 apg, 1.5 spg) being the most serious loss. Georgia State will still have some good players, though. Kevin Ware (7.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 2.4 apg, 1.6 spg) has one more season, as does Markus Crider (9.7 ppg, 59.5 FG%, 6.4 rpg, 1.3 spg). Their best prospect off the bench is probably 6'7" Jordan Session, who played sparingly as a true freshman in 2014-15. Ron Hunter continues to mine the transfer market for his key additions, adding 6'8" Jeremy Hollowell (5.7 ppg and 3.5 rpg as a sophomore at Indiana in 2013-14) and 6'1" Isaiah Williams (11.9 ppg and 3.4 apg as a freshman at Samford in 2013-14). Williams will presumably be the starting point guard next season, replacing Ryan Harrow. Depth is the biggest concern for Georgia State, but Ron Hunter has scholarships available and will likely add another player or two before the fall.

Georgia Southern finished second in the standings, and nearly knocked off Georgia State in an ugly 38-36 loss in the Sun Belt title game. That was the way Georgia Southern had to play, though, because they had a strong, aggressive defense, but were an awful shooting team (293rd in the nation with a 31.4 3P%). And things might get uglier, as their three top scorers graduate, led by leading scorer (and Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year) Jelani Hewitt (17.6 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 3.7 apg, 2.5 spg) and 6'8" leading rebounder Trent Wiederman (11.6 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 1.0 bpg). They should get back Angel Matias (8.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 1.9 apg), who missed the last couple weeks of the season with an injury. They also had a deep 2014 recruiting class, with Mike Hughes (7.6 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 2.3 apg, 1.3 spg) and Jake Allsmiller (4.3 ppg, 36.0 3P%, 1.8 rpg) both making significant impacts as true freshmen, and four other freshmen taking redshirt seasons. So Georgia Southern will have plenty of depth next season, but much of it will be raw, and without the top-end star talent of Jelani Hewitt.

The team that finished second in efficiency margin, as well as Sagarin and Pomeroy, was Louisiana-Lafayette. and the Ragin' Cajuns are set to return their top six minute earners, led by star big man Shawn Long (16.4 ppg, 57.9 eFG%, 10.2 rpg, 1.6 bpg) and point guard Jay Wright (9.1 ppg, 40.5 3P%, 3.1 rpg, 3.6 spg). They received a lot of production from a big 2014 recruiting class as well, led by 6'6" wing Bryce Washington (6.4 ppg, 54.5 eFG%, 5.2 rpg, 1.6 apg) and shooting guard Johnathan Stove (5.4 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 1.8 apg). Their top addition might be 6'9" Scott Plaisance, a 2014 recruit who took a redshirt season.

Louisiana-Monroe had the most success postseason of any Sun Belt team not coached by Ron Hunter, and they lose just one of their top seven minute earners, though it's leading scorer Tylor Ongwae (14.4 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 2.9 apg). Their top returners are combo guard Nick Coppola (9.4 ppg, 38.9 3P%, 3.7 apg) and 6'10" Majok Deng (10.7 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 1.3 bpg). Louisiana-Monroe is always aggressive in the Juco market, and already have one coming in the form of 6'4" shooting guard Marcus Washington, but I'd expect at least one more. They need a true point guard, as well as better outside shooters (they were 325th in the nation with a 29.9 3P%), if they're going to seriously contend for a Sun Belt title next season.

It was a long way back to the rest of the league. If one of those teams makes a big improvement, I'd bet on UT-Arlington. Though only 10-10 in the final standings, their +0.02 PPP in conference play wasn't significantly worse than Louisiana-Monroe's +0.04 PPP. In addition, they have quite a number of additions to make up for graduation losses. UT-Arlington does lose four players from their 11 man rotation, including leading scorer Lonnie McClanahan (11.6 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 3.0 apg). But they had a really strong 2014 recruiting class that provided them with three very strong true freshmen, including point guard Erick Neal (6.6 ppg, 3.0 apg, 1.2 spg) and leading-rebounder 6'7" Kevin Hervey (7.1 ppg, 6.0 rpg). Neal, a prospect who originally attracted power conference recruiting attention, should slide right into the starting point guard role next season. In addition, UT-Arlington expects to get back 6'2" Drew Charles (7.0 ppg, 41.1 3P%, 1.5 apg) and 6'3" Johnny Hill (10.1 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 3.6 apg), both of whom missed approximately the last month of the season with injuries. In addition, they add 6'6" Kennedy Eubanks, who averaged 7.6 ppg and 5.3 rpg for Tennessee-State in 2013-14, as well as 6'5" Nathan Hawkins, who played sparingly as a freshman at Nebraska in 2013-14.

Louisiana-Lafayette and UT-Arlingon are both teams that look to be significantly improved next season and real conference title challengers. Georgia State is hit hard with losses, though Ron Hunter is building next year's team the same way he built this past one: with transfers. Georgia State will almost certainly have the most talented starting lineup in the Sun Belt again next season. And in the end, that's why I think Georgia State has to be the preseason favorite. Even if they lack the depth of a team like Louisiana-Monroe, when it comes down to crunch time in the Sun Belt tournament, I expect them to have the best players in the court.

 Western Athletic Conference

This was the second season for the WAC after being raided of all of its best teams aside from New Mexico State, and things went from bad to worse. Depending on whether you prefer Pomeroy or Sagarin, it was either the third or fourth worst league in all of Division I.  That said, while the rest of the league wasn't any good, New Mexico State had a chance to be a pretty good team before injuries got in the way. Daniel Mullings and Tshiliidzi Nephawe each missed 12 games apiece, creating a stretch of 14 straight games where either one or both players was gone, a stretch during which the team went just 7-7. But when the two came back they went and won 13 straight games and were arguably the strongest 15 seed ever to play in the NCAA Tournament before running into a white-hot Kansas team that hit 9-for-13 on threes. If New Mexico State had been given a pass on their injuries and given a better seed, or if Kansas hadn't shot the ball so well, it could have been a much more successful postseason for them. As it was, the only WAC team to win a postseason game was actually Seattle, who beat Pepperdine and Colorado in the CIT before falling to Loyola-Chicago in the semifinals.

New Mexico State is hit hard by graduations. They lose four starters, including point guard Daniel Mullings (12.4 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 2.7 apg, 2.1 spg) and leading scorer Remi Barry (13.2 ppg, 43.9 3P%, 4.7 rpg). That's a ton to lose, but they are stocked with a ton of young talent as well (particularly for the WAC). The top returners are 6'9" WAC Freshman of the Year Pascal Siakam (12.8 ppg, 57.2 FG%, 7.7 rpg, 1.8 bpg) and 6'0" combo guard Ian Baker (9.3 ppg, 45.7 3P%, 2.7 apg, 1.5 spg). Another returner expected to fill a much bigger role will be 6'10" Jonathan Wilkins (3.0 ppg and 2.5 rpg in 17.3 mpg as a redshirt freshman). They also have 7'3" Tanveer Bhullar, the younger brother of Sim Bhullar, who played sparingly as a freshman primarily because of injury but hopes to play much more next season. Also, 6'7" Juco transfer Anthony January had to sit out the 2014-15 season due to injury but is considered a major conference talent. 6'7" Harold Givens and 6'10" Jose Campo were solid 2014 recruits who took redshirt seasons as well. So New Mexico State is still going to have oodles of size and should physically dominate the league, but offensive ball handling and shooting is what could potentially hold them back from being more than another borderline Top 100 team.

Can any WAC team come close enough to seriously challenge New Mexico State? Well, depending on which computer metric you prefer, either Grand Canyon or Seattle was the second best team in the league this past season. Both teams are hit hard by graduations, though. Grand Canyon loses three of their top six minute earners to graduation, led by Royce Woolridge (10.6 ppg, 2.3 apg). They do add 6'3" Dominic Magee, a former Memphis recruit, and got a lot of production from freshmen, including 6'4" Joshua Braun (11.8 ppg, 38.1 3P%, 4.9 rpg) and 6'1" De'Andre Davis (5.7 ppg, 1.9 apg). Seattle loses just two starters, but that includes star Isiah Umipig (17.0 ppg, 41.8 3P%, 3.1 rpg, 2.9 apg). Their top returner is probably 6'6" William Powell (7.8 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 2.0 apg). Their best prospect is probably 6'4" combo guard Jadon Cohee, who averaged 5.7 ppg and 1.5 apg in 18.4 mpg as a true freshman.

If there's one team to make up some ground on New Mexico State next season I'd actually bet on UMKC, who lose two starters but have a really nice core of freshmen and sophomores, including WAC Player of the Year Martez Harrison (17.5 ppg, 3.9 apg, 1.8 spg), who was just a sophomore. Their toughest loss is Reese Holliday (9.7 ppg, 37.8 3P%, 5.0 rpg). Key freshmen this past season included Deshon Taylor (7.6 ppg, 39.4 3P%, 2.0 rpg) and Darius Austin (4.4 ppg, 4.2 rpg). They also add 6'9" Juco transfer Ikem Eriobuna.

That said, realistically, New Mexico State is going to run away with the WAC yet again. UMKC might make things slightly more competitive next season, but considering how long two of the four starters that New Mexico State is losing missed during conference play (during which NMSU was still easily the best team in the league), the Aggies could easily dominate next season even more than they did this past season (where they outscored opponents by 0.24 PPP in conference play). New Mexico State is just too big and talented to not be the favorite.

No comments: