Showing posts with label Georgia State. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Georgia State. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Morning News: Oregon Situation, LSU Loses Three, Ryan Anderson Transfer, Kareem Canty, And More

Once again I'm piling up a week's worth of news into one Morning News post. Hey, it's the offseason...

Dominic Artis, Damyeon Dotson And Brandon Austin All Officially Done At Oregon This seemed inevitable, and now it's official. I talked about this story last week. Really, the only question left is figuring out what happened here. Oregon is claiming that while they knew about the sexual assault prior to the Pac-12 tournament, they were told by police not to move to suspend the players (huh?). The other confusing part of Oregon's story is their claim that they didn't know about Brandon Austin's previous sexual assault at Providence (nobody bothered to ask him why he'd been kicked off the team prior to offering him a scholarship?). The whole thing is a mess.

LSU To Lose Anthony Hickey, Two Others Three players are leaving LSU via transfer, including starting point guard Anthony Hickey. With a roster already due not to return much of its starting rotation, this might be the death blow to whatever at-large hopes they had. Johnny Jones is only heading into his third season, so it would be silly to give up on him already, but there isn't a lot of positive momentum with the LSU program.

Arizona Lands Boston College's Ryan Anderson Ryan Anderson was Boston College's best big man this past season, and the 6'9" transfer has decided that he's heading to Arizona. He'll have to sit out next season, but he likely wouldn't have gotten much playing time behind Rondae-Hollis Jefferson, Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski anyway. He only has one year of eligibility left, but expect him to be a key piece for Arizona in 2015-16.

South Florida Lands Kareem Canty Marshall's primary playmaker and best player from this past season is the first big signing for new South Florida coach Orlando Antigua. He'll likely have to sit out next season, but he'll have three years of eligibility left, and will be a cornerstone to build around.

Brian Williams Transfers To Louisiana-Lafayette After losing Elfrid Payton to the NBA Draft, Louisiana-Lafayette was desperately in need of another perimeter player to stay the favorite in the Sun Belt. Brian Williams isn't the level of offensive playmaker that Payton was and he only has one year of eligibility left, but he has a level of athleticism not often seen in the Sun Belt, and he'll be a key piece next season. Still, right now I'm leaning toward moving Georgia State into the spot of preseason favorite, particularly if Louisville transfer Kevin Ware is eligible to play right away.

Seth Allen To Virginia Tech Buzz Williams has his first non-Marquette transfer at Virginia Tech, and it's Seth Allen, from Maryland. He won't be eligible next season, but Virginia Tech isn't going anywhere next season anyway. Buzz's top priority is putting together talent to try to compete for a postseason appearance in 2015-16, and Allen could be the starting point guard on that team.

Jamal Jones Leaves Texas A&M The Aggies were due to return nearly their entire roster from last season, with a chance to make a run at an at-large bid. But the offseason is off to a bad start, as leading-scorer Jamal Jones will transfer out. I'm not sure this is a huge problem, though, as Jones was more of a volume-scorer than a particularly efficient basketball player. But the Aggies need to find some scoring this summer to go Dancing next season.

Ronnie Johnson Transfers To Houston We knew Kelvin Sampson would upgrade the talent level at Houston. After signing Juco transfer Torian Graham  he now adds Ronnie Johnson, who had been Purdue's starting point guard. Johnson will have to sit out next season, and Sampson is going to need a lot more than him to get the Cougars competitive again, but there's definitely some positive momentum for the program.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Morning News: Kentucky Super Team?, Mitch McGary, Northwestern Vote, And Much More

A tearful goodbye to Khem Kong
I was going to wait until Monday to do another Morning News post, but way too much stuff happened yesterday for me not to compile the news of the last few days:

Kentucky To Return Harrison Twins, Dakari Johnson And Alex Poythress We already knew Willie Cauley-Stein was coming back as well. And this creates a fascinating situation for a number of reasons. Right now, Kentucky returns six players from last season's rotation as well as Marcus Lee, a former Top 20 recruit who sat most of the year as a true freshman but had a couple of big games in the NCAA Tournament. They have four more blue chippers coming in, giving Calipari an astounding nine McDonald's All-Americans and 11 guys expecting regular minutes.

The immediate concern is that roster crunch. How does Calipari keep one or more of those players from leaving? And if he gets them all to stay, how does he get them all to buy in and to stay happy? He can probably talk Tyler Ulis or Devin Booker to sit on the end of the bench like Marcus Lee this past season, but Karl Towns and Trey Lyles almost certainly won't (both are expected to be "one-and-done" guys). Assuming Lee won't sit on the end of the bench two years in a row, that gives them six front court guys who will need extended minutes. That's going to be a heck of a problem for Calipari to figure out. But if he can, and if he can avoid any transfers, he now has the deepest, most talented NCAA basketball team perhaps ever assembled, and they'll be the unanimous #1 to start next season. Ready for dumb "40-and-0" hype to start all over again?

One side note that a couple of people who follow me on twitter brought up is an interesting one: the impact on future Kentucky recruiting. Announcers always talk about how good teams would be "if nobody left pro early" under the false assumption that all of the same recruits would have shown up. It doesn't work that way. Recruits come with playing time expectations in mind, and Calipari spends a lot of time reassuring recruits that certain players will go pro to open up playing time. Surely at least one of the recruits who signed up this year is now upset at all of these returning players, and that's the kind of thing that can ripple down to future recruits who might not believe Calipari when he says that certain players are going to leave. Although history says that Calipari will still find a way to bring in four or five blue chippers every single season.

Mitch McGary Going Pro On a busy day of news, this story managed to somehow have the most #HOTSPROTSTAKES. Those aside, this is a very important basketball problem for Michigan,  which now returns exactly zero regulars from their front court. The Jon Horford transfer out is now magnified in a significant way.

If McGary came back, Michigan would have been the clear top contender to Wisconsin in the Big Ten. Now, Wisconsin will likely enter next season the unanimous media pick to win the conference. One could go several ways in picking the second best team in the conference, but my pick will be an Ohio State team that I think is going to be significantly underrated. Michigan will have a lot to prove with an extremely young front court.

Union Appears To Lose Northwestern Vote We won't get the official numbers for several years (if ever), but it appears that as expected the Northwestern union vote lost heavily. This isn't a big surprise, as there was no evidence that this union effort ever really had significant support from Northwestern players. The school is being sued by the Steelworkers Union - Kain Colter was always just a spokesman to give the union a more appealing public relations face.

It seemed pretty clear that the union was a bad path for the players. Reforms like guaranteed scholarships and a stipend for players to fill in scholarship gaps are ideas I'd likely support, and there is a lot of support at the NCAA for both ideas as well, but those reforms can happen outside a union. Unionizing the players haphazardly at some schools but not others would be a legal mess which would benefit only lawyers and tax accountants. Any reform needs to apply to all athletes at all schools.

Don't expect this to go away. Lawyers are swarming the NCAA and there will be all sorts of new lawsuits, and don't be surprised if another school tries its hand at a unionization vote. Basically, there is too much money involved in the NCAA for a lot of other powerful interests to not want a cut.

The problem, as I see it, is that 98% of the people getting a benefit from NCAA sports are not a factor in these discussions. Nobody hears from the Division II baseball player or the woman's volleyball player, or any of the other 150,000+ kids getting scholarships from the money that the NCAA generates. Nobody knows their names, so nobody is advocating on their behalf.

Spencer Dinwiddie To The NBA This was always considered likely. As I wrote in my Pac-12 preview, though, Colorado should still expect to be significantly better next season. Remember, Dinwiddie missed almost all of last season's Pac-12 season as well. And while Colorado wasn't nearly as good as their final record (arguably the second worst at-large team in the entire NCAA Tournament), they return everybody from their end-of-season rotation. They should get back to the tourney, and I currently have them as a 7 seed.

Tennessee Hires Donnie Tyndall Donnie Tyndall was at Southern Miss the last two seasons, and previously was at Morehead State. To me, this is a fairly uninspiring hire for Tennessee. There were a whole lot of media reports that Tennessee was in on Louisiana Tech's Michael White first, but White didn't like the contract offer and turned them down. White is certainly the hotter "up and coming" coach.

Tyndall had success at Morehead State after Kenneth Faried showed up, and used that success to get the Southern Miss job, where he spent two seasons using a lot of Larry Eustachy's players, unable to get them back to the NCAA Tournament. So Tyndall's only NCAA experience in eight seasons came when he had a 1st round NBA Draft pick in the Ohio Valley Conference. Maybe he'll be a good coach, but Tennessee could have done better if they were willing to open up their wallet more.

DeAndre Daniels Is Going Pro This wasn't a certainty, but most insiders expected Daniels to leave. I assumed he would leave when I put together my 2014-15 AAC preview a few weeks ago. This Huskies team still has a lot of talent, but the question without Shabazz Napier and DeAndre Daniels will be finding a second scoring option aside from Ryan Boatright. If they can do that, they should get back to the NCAA Tournament, though SMU will remain the fairly clear AAC favorite.

Khem Birch Going Pro It's sad that this is the last we'll see of Khem Kong. Also, with Roscoe Smith gone as well, UNLV will now be down their one elite interior defensive presence and (by far) their two best rebounders. 6'10" Christian Smith played well in very limited minutes as a freshman, and if he improves a lot then UNLV will still have one quality option down low, but this UNLV roster is going to be much younger and with much more turnover than they thought they were going to have a couple months ago. Dave Rice has a really nice recruiting class coming in, but UNLV will now drop from the 10 seed I had them at in my preseason bracket projection.

Matt Carlino Transfers To Marquette With everything else going on yesterday, this news basically got lost in the shuffle. But it's a big pickup for a Marquette team desperate for some early positive momentum under their new head coach. So far, the only news had been recruits decommitting. Carlino isn't enough to get Marquette back to the Tournament bubble, but it's a good sign for the direction of the program. As I've said a few times before, if Marquette can improve throughout the season as a basketball team and Wojo can put together a strong 2015 recruiting class, that will be a successful season for Marquette in and of itself.

Jeremy Hollowell To Georgia State Ron Hunter has turned Georgia State into a transfer hotbed. And right on the heels of landing Louisville's Kevin Ware, he now has former Indiana player Jeremy Hollowell. Keep in mind that Hollowell won't be eligible next season, so he'll be unable to take part in Ryan Harrow's final season with the program, but Kevin Ware is appealing for a waiver to play right away, so we'll have to keep an eye on that.

Jerian Grant Back To Notre Dame Jerian Grant, if you recall, was suspended with an academic issue right around Christmas and missed the entire ACC season. Garrick Sherman was Notre Dame's most important all around player this past season, but Grant was probably their best offensive weapon, and his return is essential for the Irish to get back to the NCAA Tournament. In my most recent bracket projection I assumed Grant would be back and still had Notre Dame missing the Field of 68, but they're in the first group out. They were one of the first teams out of the field, and could easily work their way back into my projected bracket before next season even tips off.

Sim Bhullar Going Pro This news has been something of a stop-and-start variety, as there were rumors of him going pro nearly a month ago that were quashed. But now it's official. And while you can't blame the guy for wanting to go pro, it would have been fun to see him play with his 7'3" brother, who is joining New Mexico State next season. That team was already the tallest in the nation, and might have been the tallest ever next season. New Mexico State will remain the WAC favorite, but the gap between them and the rest of the league will shrink, and their odds of winning a game in next year's NCAA Tournament are obviously significantly lower as well.

Monday, March 24, 2014

2014-15 Preview: One-Bid Conferences, Part I

Southland Conference

It was a successful season for the Southland, if for no reason other than that it got a real NCAA Tournament victory (as opposed to a 16/16 win, which I don't think most conferences are particularly impressed with). Certainly VCU's late game collapse, and a mysterious foul on that Desmond Haymon four-point play, were big contributors to the upset win, but it's still a great, program-defining victory for the Lumberjacks. In fact, two other teams in the Southland won postseason games, though in smaller tournaments. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi beat Northern Colorado in the CIT before falling to Pacific, and Sam Houston State beat Alabama State in the same tournament before falling to San Diego.

Let's start with that Stephen F. Austin team that dominated the league with a perfect 18-0 record (and an outstanding +0.22 PPP efficiency margin in conference play to go with it). How much do they lose? Two senior starters, led by Desmond Haymon (14.5 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 2.9 apg), as well as sixth man DeShaunt Walker (11.7 ppg, 51.3 eFG%). They return starting point guard Trey Pinkney (3.0 ppg, 3.5 apg) and starting "center" (despite being only 6'6") Jacob Parker (14.2 ppg, 56.3 eFG%, 7.1 rpg). The fact that Stephen F. Austin was one of the shortest teams in the country was a problem once they ran into UCLA in the NCAA Tournament, though they do have some options for next season. 6'9" Tanner Clayton (2.9 ppg and 3.4 rpg in only 14.1 mpg) was useful off the bench after joining the team from a junior college a year ago, and he'll be back. They also add a new 6'6" Juco transfer in Clide Geffrard. So while Stephen F. Austin might not be quite as good, they'll definitely be in contention for a repeat title.

Trying to pick the second best team in the Southland this past season isn't totally obvious, but I guess we'll have to go with Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. They didn't finish second highest rated in Sagarin or Pomeroy, but they were second in efficiency margin in conference play. That was due to significantly improved play over the course of the season, as their Pomeroy rating climbed over 100 places from New Year's Day to the end of the season. The big change was on the defensive side of the ball, where a defense that was getting roasted all throughout conference play ended up finishing second in the Southland with only 0.98 PPP allowed. And they should be even better next season. They lose a pair of starters, including leading rebounder Zane Knowles (7.0 ppg, 7.6 rpg), but they do return leading scorer John Jordan (14.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 5.3 apg). They also have a nice core of freshmen and sophomores, including Rashawn Thomas (10.7 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 1.3 bpg) on the inside and Jake Kocher (5.7 ppg and 1.4 spg in only 17.2 mpg) on the outside. Also look for better play out of 6'6" Jeff Beverly, who was their top 2013 recruit, and Brandon Pye, who was 36-for-70 behind the arc.

According to the computers, the second best team in the league was Sam Houston State. They lose only one starter to graduation (James Thomas - 8.6 ppg, 3.7 rpg), though they also lose sixth man Terrance Motley (8.5 ppg, 53.9 eFG%, 4.3 rpg). They return leading scorer Jabari Peters (12.6 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 4.2 apg) and sharpshooter Paul Baxter (9.1 ppg, 41.7 3P%, 58.8 eFG%), as well as leading rebounder Michael Holyfield (6.5 ppg, 63.8 FG%, 6.7 rpg, 1.7 bpg). They don't have any significant transfers or recruits coming in, but it's reasonable to expect that the natural progression of these young players should make the team even better next season.

The one other Southland team near the top of the conference was Northwestern State, who were the only other team eligible for next year's Southland tournament to finish with a positive efficiency margin in conference play (Oral Roberts also did but is heading back to the Summit next season, and Incarnate Word achieved the same feat but is postseason ineligible as they transition to Division I). Northwestern State is going through a year of transition, though, losing do-everything star DeQuan Hicks (15.1 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 2.6 apg, 1.4 spg) and two other starters. The offense will be turned over to Jalan West (19.4 ppg, 40.4 3P%, 6.4 apg, 2.5 spg) and to rising-sophomore Zikiteran Woodley (13.9 ppg, 63.8 eFG%, 4.6 rpg). Their top incoming recruit is 6'11" Reggie Kissoonial.

It's a long way back to the rest of the conference, and so I think it's reasonable to project that next year's champion will come from these top four teams. Like I said, I think Northwestern State is in a year of transition, so that narrows it down to Stephen F. Austin, Texas A&M Corpus Christi and Sam Houston State. Certainly I don't think you can go wrong with any of those three teams, but I don't see how I can go against Stephen F. Austin. They have serious losses, but not significantly worse than their top competitors, and the gap between them and the field was pretty significant this past season. It will take a significant improvement from Texas A&M-Corpus Christi or Sam Houston State to catch them. The safest pick is Stephen F. Austin.

Southwestern Athletic Conference

It's been a rough.... many years for SWAC basketball. It's been the worst conference in college basketball for years, and an automatic entrant into the 16/16 play-in games. But this year they reached a new low by turning their conference tournament into a farce due to the fact that four of the ten teams were ineligible for the postseason. They elected to go with a tournament where ineligible teams could play, and the team that got furthest would earn the auto bid. This not only made things wildly unfair for the teams on Southern's side of the bracket (since Southern was far and away the best team but was also ineligible for the postseason) but also created the insane possibility of the title game being played by ineligible teams, and the auto bid going to whichever of the two semifinal losers was seeded higher. That would have been wildly embarrassing. Luckily for the league, the ineligible teams went down early, and Texas Southern won the auto bid on the court in the SWAC title game, led by SWAC Player of the Year Aaric Murray. The SWAC postseason went the way you'd expect, with Texas Southern losing by 12 to Cal Poly in the 16/16 play-in game and with Alabama State being smoked by Sam Houston State in the CIT.

Let's start with that Texas Southern team, since they were the league's NCAA Tournament representative, after all. It's going to be an uphill battle to get back, though. Of their eight man rotation, six were seniors, including star Aaric Murray, who led the team in points (21.6 per game), rebounds (7.5 per game) and blocks (2.5 per game). Their top returner is starting point guard Madarius Gibbs (9.1 ppg, 5.2 apg, 54.9 eFG%). The other returner from the regular rotation is Jose Rodriguez (11.4 ppg, 5.7 rpg). After that, this roster is really hard to figure out. Mike Davis has had a slew of Juco players and transfers coming in and out, but there aren't any signed for next year who seem particularly impressive. So at this point, I don't see how I can project Texas Southern to repeat.

It's not a certainty that Southern will be eligible again for next season, as it's related to academic issues that they still need to fully resolve, but for the sake of this preview we'll assume that they will get this straightened out by next March. And Southern certainly was the best team in the conference during the season, by a wide margin. Southern had a dominant +0.14 PPP in conference play, including a very impressive 0.86 PPP allowed on defense. Their defense ranked 68th in the nation in Pomeroy, which makes it the only SWAC offense or defense ranked anywhere near the Top 100. They do lose three starters to graduation, led by Malcolm Miller (12.7 ppg, 39.0 3P%, 5.2 rpg). But they do return their leading scorer (Calvin Godfrey - 13.1 per game) and starting point guard Trelun Banks (8.7 ppg, 3.3 apg). Their key incoming player is a transfer: 6'10" Keith Davis from Texas A&M. He never scored much (1.1 ppg over 11.2 mpg in three seasons), but he's an athletic big body who should be one of the more athletic players in the conference. They have a few Jucos and high school recruits coming in, led by 6'9" high schooler Damontre McFarland. Southern probably ends up returning more than any other team in the SWAC, so they'll obviously be in contention for the title again next season.

Once Southern was announced as ineligible for the postseason, the top contender to Texas Southern in the SWAC was Alabama State.  They weren't quite as good as their record (8-3 in conference games decided by six points or less or in overtime), but they were also the youngest team in the conference, without a single senior on the entire roster. Their most important player is point guard Jamel Waters (14.1 ppg, 6.1 apg), but their most important skill is offensive rebounding, where they led the conference. Maurice Strong and Luther Page both averaged well over two offensive rebounds per game. To reach the next level next season, they're going to have to improve defensively, and they're going to need a shooter to help spread the floor (they were a putrid 28.0% behind the arc for the season).

Jackson State is a team to keep an eye on for next season. They were better than their 7-11 record in conference play (only outscored by 0.01 PPP), and they return three of their five starters. They lose their leading rebounder Brandon West (12.8 ppg, 9.7 rpg), though who based on this incident seems like a bit of a knucklehead. They lose leading scorer Julysses Nobles (15.6 ppg), but he was more of a volume scorer than anything (29.8 3P%, 43.2 eFG%). They have a nice inside-outside combo for the future in Javeres Brent (8.9 ppg, 34.8 3P%) and 6'8" Treshawn Bolden (5.4 ppg, 4.1 rpg), both of whom were freshmen his past season. Jackson State also adds Raeford Worsham, who averaged 6.4 points per game as a freshman with Arkansas State in 2012-13, and who will be eligible to play in games after the fall semester ends. They might not win the SWAC next season, but they should be in contention for the next few seasons with that core.

The only other SWAC team that was in the Top 300 of either the Pomeroy or Sagarin PREDICTOR ratings was Alabama A&M, but their starting lineup was made of five seniors, so it's hard to see them not taking a step back. If there's one sleeper it's an Arkansas-Pine Bluff team that loses only one senior from their rotation and might potentially start four seniors next season. They have a very good scorer by SWAC standards in Marcel Mosley (13.6 ppg, 2.6 apg, 37.6 3P%, 52.2 eFG%), who unfortunately missed the SWAC tournament with a broken jaw. That wasn't the only injury Arkansas-Pine Bluff dealt with, including a torn ACL for DeAndre McIntyre (5.1 ppg, 2.4 rpg). If they can get healthy next season, they can contend.

In the end, Southern and Alabama State look to be the most talented teams in the SWAC for next season, with Jackson State the best of the rest. There doesn't look to be the type of, uh, "dominant" team that might actually be able to avoid a 16/16 play-in game in the NCAA Tournament, but maybe the SWAC can at least put on a conference tournament that isn't a farce. In the end, I like how young this Alabama State team is in a league with so many teams losing so much. They're going to have to play better defensively, but if they do then they will have the edge on a Southern team that has to replace several key players. In my opinion, Alabama State is the pick.

Summit League

It feels like North Dakota State and South Dakota State have taken turns putting together really strong, senior-laden teams in the Summit League over the past few seasons. This past season it was North Dakota State that dominated the league by 0.16 PPP in conference play, beating Notre Dame, Delaware and Towson (and nearly beating Southern Miss) en route to a 12 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Once there they took down 5 seed Oklahoma, and then played very competitively against 4 seed San Diego State (the final score is not indicative of how close that game was for most of the second half). The only other teams in the league to win a postseason game were IPFW and Nebraska-Omaha, who both won did their damage in the CIT. The league does get stronger with the return of Oral Roberts, however.

Let's begin with that North Dakota State team that impressed so much all season long. They're going to have a lot of turnover, as star Taylor Braun (17.6 ppg, 39.6 3P%, 5.5 rpg, 3.8 apg) graduates, as well as Marshall Bjorklund (13.2 ppg, 62.9 FG%, 4.2 rpg) and TrayVonn Wright (11.4 ppg, 54.9 eFG%, 5.2 rpg, 1.7 bpg). But don't think this Bisons team is going away. They return a pair of starters (Kory Brown and Lawrence Alexander), and have a couple of talented young players ready to grow into bigger roles in Carlin Dupree (3.0 ppg in only 7.8 mpg) and 6'8" Chris Kading (2.7 ppg and 2.6 rpg in only 15.5 mpg). They also have new talented players coming in. 6'6" AJ Jacobson, who was a North Dakota Mr. Basketball, took a redshirt season and will still have four years of eligibility left. They also have a full recruiting class coming in, though none are getting a lot of hype. The Bison will have to take a step back next season, but they won't be going away as long as Saul Phillips is there.

Like their rivals, South Dakota State loses three starters, including star Jordan Dykstra, who led the team in points (16.0 per game) and rebounds (7.6 per game) while also hitting 40.2% of his threes. A key returner is Jake Bittle (8.5 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 2.3 apg, 1.8 spg), who missed most of non-conference play but who made the team much better after his return. Their best player next year will probably be 6'9" rising-senior Cody Larson (13.1 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 1.1 bpg). A young player to look to improve in extended minutes is 6'2" Anders Broman, who had 3.9 ppg and 1.0 apg in only 14.3 mpg as a true freshman. Their top incoming recruit is 6'9" Ian Theisen. They didn't have a real point guard on the roster, but they add one in Wisconsin transfer George Marshall, who averaged 4.1 ppg and 1.0 apg as a freshman in 2012-13.

Despite South Dakota State rating as the second best team in the conference, the 2 seed in the Summit tournament actually went (via tiebreaker) to IPFW. The Mastodons (the most underrated team nickname in college basketball) succeeded with some very nice shooting. They hit 38.4% of their threes, and their 55.3 eFG% as a team was 10th best in the nation. They do lose three players from their regular eight man rotation: their leading scorer (Luis Jacobo - 15.2 per game), their starting point guard (Pierre Bland - 4.1 assists and 1.6 steals per game) and maybe their best all-around shooter (Michael Kibiloski - 40.6 3P%, 60.1 eFG%). They do return a really nice front court pair of 6'9" Steve Forbes (12.1 ppg and 5.3 rpg) and 6'7" Joe Reed (7.8 ppg and 5.2 rpg), as well as a superb young scorer in Mo Evans (9.4 ppg, 43.7 3P%, 59.0 eFG% and 1.3 spg as a true freshman). They also add 6'3" Max Landis, who averaged 8.6 ppg and 1.4 apg over two seasons at Gardner Webb. They should be a very similar team again next season, and in the mix once again.

Denver was unlucky to finish in the standings where they did (their +0.07 PPP in conference play was better than IPFW's +0.03 PPP), and they only lose one senior from their regular rotation, but it's star Chris Udofia (12.3 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 3.9 apg, 1.5 spg, 2.3 bpg). Still, they return a whole slew of nice outside shooters, led by Brett Olson (14.5 ppg, 43.9 3P%, 90.2 FT%). They also have a nice do-everything player in rising-senior Cam Griffin (8.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 2.0 apg, 1.4 spg). They also should get back 6'5" forward Dorian Butler from their 2013 recruiting class, who I believe took a redshirt year (though I can't find confirmation on that). Their top recruit appears to be 6'3" Jake Pemberton.

Oral Roberts is in a bit of a transition year, and not just because they're changing conferences. They lose star Shawn Glover (21.3 ppg, 52.0 eFG%, 5.8 rpg, 1.6 bpg), but their seven top minute earners after him were either freshmen or sophomores. The best of that bunch from this past season was Korey Billbury (15.3 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 2.5 apg). They need more size, but 6'9" recruit AJ Owens should help with that. Oral Roberts might not win the Summit title next season, but they're going to be in the mix for the foreseeable future.

Nebraska-Omaha played really well in their first season in the Summit, but they're not eligible to play in the postseason for a couple more seasons. And that might seem confusing, since they played in the CIT this season, but the CBI and CIT are not technically run in the NCAA, and thus don't count. But Nebraska-Omaha cannot play in the Summit tournament or the NCAA Tournament or NIT until they complete their transition to Division I.

The Summit is a fun league to watch. The league was among the top four leagues in the entire nation in 2P%, 3P%, FT%, eFG% and overall offensive efficiency in conference play. Lots of players can score, and there are a lot of good coaches. I don't think anybody from this league is going to challenge for an at-large bid next season, but there are a whole bunch of teams that can earn a 12 or 13 seed and win a game or two in the NCAA Tournament. In my opinion, North Dakota State is probably going to be in a bit too much of a rebuilding mode to repeat. South Dakota State is going through rebuilding of their own, though they could be better next season. IPFW is a concern because they clearly weren't as good as their record last season. And I think Oral Roberts will still be a year away from having a conference-winning core. In my opinion, the favorite is a Denver team that was a lot better than their record and that returns almost everybody. Plus, their high altitude gives them a great homecourt advantage. In my opinion, Denver is the pick.

 Sun Belt Conference

The story in the Sun Belt this past season was Georgia State dominating the league. They finished five games clear of second place... and second placed Western Kentucky is off to Conference USA. But it was the third placed team, Louisiana-Lafayette, who stunned Georgia State in overtime of the Sun Belt title game and who were able to make a respectable go of it against Creighton in the NCAA Tournament Round of 64. Georgia State's consolation was the NIT, where they went out in the opening round to Clemson.

The good news for Georgia State is that Ryan Harrow, who seems like he's been around forever, has one more year of eligibility left. He was second on the team in points (17.8 per game) and assists (4.2 per game). They do lose their best outside shooter (Manny Atkins - 14.4 ppg, 43.3 3P%) and their leader in assists (Devonta White - 11.6 ppg, 4.3 apg), but the rest of the regular rotation returns, led by 6'9" Curtis Washington (7.5 ppg, 4.9 rpg) and leading-scorer RJ Hunter (18.3 ppg, 39.7 3P%, 56.1 eFG%). A young player likely to see expanded minutes is 6'6" Markus Crider (3.0 ppg and 3.5 rpg in 17.1 mpg). Their offense might not be quite as fearsome next season without a guy like Atkins (they scored 1.15 PPP in conference play), but they should be a contender to repeat their regular season title.

Louisiana-Lafayette finished the season very strong. After a 12-9 start to the season (including 3-5 in conference play), they won 11 of their final 13 games head into Selection Sunday. Their success was built around the scoring of Elfrid Payton (19.2 ppg, 8.8 FTAs per game, 6.0 rpg, 5.9 apg, 2.3 apg) and 6'9" Shawn Long inside (18.6 ppg, 53.1 eFG%, 10.4 rpg, 2.7 bpg), and those two players return, though they do lose a pair of starters, led by Bryant Mbamalu (12.3 ppg, 37.1 3P%, 4.3 rpg). They do return a very efficient scorer in Xavian Rimmer (8.8 ppg, 44.4 3P%, 58.6 eFG%), and should get back Kasey Shepherd (8.2 ppg, 51.2 3P%, 66.5 eFG%), who was lost for the season in late January with a torn meniscus. With a relatively thin bench, the Ragin' Cajuns will need to find some talent from their incoming recruiting class, but their starting lineup should be as good as any team in the conference.

The only other Sun Belt team (not including departing Western Kentucky) to finish in the Top 200 of Pomeroy or Sagarin PREDICTOR was Arkansas State, but their five top minute earners were all seniors, so they'll inevitably take a step back. But in a year where the Sun Belt was clearly down, there just weren't any other teams really in the class of Georgia State or Louisiana-Lafayette. Is there a sleeper that can make a run to the top next season? Honestly... not really. Even South Alabama's Pomeroy experience rating in the graph above is deceptive. The Jaguars lose two starters, including star Augustine Rubit (17.0 ppg and 9.4 rpg), but grade as young because six of the eleven players who earned at least six minutes per game were freshmen. They might be good in a couple of years, but it seems awfully unlikely that they'll be at the level of Georgia State or Louisiana-Lafayette next season.

So to me, the Sun Belt is going to be a fairly straightforward battle next year between Georgia State and Louisiana-Lafayette. Georgia State was better this past season, but Louisiana-Lafayette finished the season looking a lot better, and they return more of their lineup. They even get back a key player who missed the stretch run with injury. So while Georgia State might end up being the media's preseason favorite, I'm going to give the narrow edge to Louisiana-Lafayette.

Western Athletic Conference

Enough requiems for the Big East. We need one for the WAC, which has been harmed by realignment more than any other league. They were absolutely gutted. There were as many teams in the 2013-14 WAC that were also in the 2012-13 WAC as were in the 2012-13 Great West conference. We entered the season believing New Mexico State was the only team that wasn't terrible, and while Utah Valley wildly exceeded expectations (and actually stole the 1 seed in the WAC tourney with some luck in close games and a tiebreaker), the gap between New Mexico State and the rest of the league was still larger than the gap between the best and second best team in any other league (at least according to the Pomeroy ratings). The efficiency margins validated the computers, with New Mexico State dominating the league by 0.21 PPP, while Utah Valley only outscored competition by 0.06 PPP. How did they end up tied in the standings? New Mexico State went 1-4 in games decided by six points or less, while Utah Valley went 5-0.

In the end, New Mexico State took care of business in the WAC tournament and took San Diego State into overtime in the NCAA Tournament. Utah Valley earned the auto bid to the NIT, where they were easily dispatched by California in the opening round. No other team in the WAC played in a postseason tournament. So the question heading forward is twofold. First, can New Mexico State keep up or improve on their quality of play so that the league can continue to earn respectable NCAA Tournament seeds and have a real shot to win games? Second, can any other team get anywhere close to the Top 100 in the computers and have a real chance to make this more than a one-team league.

Let's start with New Mexico State and their gigantic front line. Of their three huge big men (all 6'10" or larger), one graduates: Renaldo Dixon (8.5 ppg, 5.6 rpg). They also lose their best outside shooter (Kevin Aronis - 7.6 ppg, 43.7 3P%, 61.5 eFG%). But they return four of five starters, including 7'5" Sim Bhullar (10.4 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 3.4 bpg) and 6'10" Tshilidzi Nephawe (11.1 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 1.4 bpg) and leading scorer Daniel Mullings (16.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 3.5 apg, 1.9 bpg). One big question mark is KC Ross-Miller (8.3 ppg, 52.1 eFG%, 3.5 apg), who missed the WAC and NCAA tournaments with a team suspension. It remains to be seen if he will be able to return to the team next season. One key player to keep an eye on is Ian Baker, who missed the first half of the season while waiting to become eligible but finished his freshman season very strong (3.9 ppg and 1.1 apg in only 14.3 mpg). By the way, you think the WAC is sick of Sim Bhullar already? Well he has a younger brother - 7'3" Tanveer Bhullar, who should play for New Mexico State next season. I wouldn't expect to see those two on the court at the same time, but between the two of them opponents should be dealing with overwhelming size for almost all 40 minutes of the game. In other words, I don't think New Mexico State is going anywhere. They might be even better next season.

What about that surprising Utah Valley team? They weren't anywhere close to as good as New Mexico State, but they did sneak into the Top 200 of the Pomeroy ratings by the end of the season, which is very impressive considering their preseason expectations. Is there reason to believe that this is a sign for future success? Unfortunately, I don't think so. Dick Hunsaker has been in charge of Utah Valley for over a decade, and there's no clear upward trend. And even inside their team stats (aside from things like the luck in close games), their peripherals point toward "fluke season". For example, they were 5th in the nation in FT% defense, and they led the WAC in 3P% defense despite only being 4th in 3PA/FGA defense. Throw in the fact that they lose three starters, including their leading scorer and assist man (Holton Hunsaker - 14.2 ppg and 4.2 apg) and their leading rebounder (Ben Aird - 11.8 ppg, 8.3 rpg), and it's hard to see how Utah Valley closes the gap with New Mexico State next season.

Who else can compete with New Mexico State? Well, the computers have Cal State Bakersfield and Grand Canyon as the next best teams, though Grand Canyon is ineligible for the postseason as they transition to DI and Cal State Bakersfield loses three starters, including do-everything star Isaiah Grayson (17.0 ppg, 49.7 3P%, 61.3 eFG%, 3.9 apg, 1.4 spg). I guess if I had to pick the most likely team to challenge Utah Valley for second place I'd take Seattle. They lose a pair of starters, but have one more year of star Isiah Umipig (19.5 ppg, 3.6 apg). They also return their leading rebounder, 6'11" Jack Crook (5.1 ppg, 6.0 rpg). They also should get two key players back from injury: Deshaun Sunderhaus (10.6 ppg, 57.7 FG%, 6.2 rpg, 1.3 bpg) should return after missing the second half of the season with a torn ACL, while Emerson Murray (6.8 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 1.7 apg) should return after missing close to half the season due to injury. They also add a point guard in Manroop Clair, who averaged 2.4 points and 1.2 assists in 11.5 minutes per game as a freshman at Hawaii.

But while Seattle might pass Utah Valley as the second best team in the WAC, the gap to New Mexico State should continue to be gigantic. The fact that New Mexico State has so much size (by Pomeroy's "effective height" metric they've been the tallest team in the country two straight seasons and will likely make it a third straight next season) just emphasizes physically what is true in talent: New Mexico State is the class of the WAC. If another program rises up to become decent, Seattle remains the best bet. I like what Cameron Dollar has done there, even with the down 2013-14 season. But for 2014-15, New Mexico State is the heavy favorite.

Friday, April 05, 2013

2013-14 Preview: One-Bid Conferences, Part I

Southland Conference

The conference realignment going on at the top of the sport is impacting the smaller leagues as well. The Southland Conference did win by getting Oral Roberts a year ago, but they are adding a bunch of really small programs for next season. Houston Baptist and New Orleans have been really low level Division I teams, and Abilene Christian and Incarnate Word are coming up and making the transition to Division I. And while some schools have moved up to Division I and been pretty good within a couple of seasons (I'm looking at you, Florida Gulf Coast), it just seems awfully hard to imagine a school called "Incarnate Word" being a basketball powerhouse.

Anyway,  Stephen F Austin was the class of the Southland Conference this past season. They went 27-4 and actually got into the periphery of the NCAA Tournament at-large discussion. They were a bit sloppy with the ball, though, and were undone by Northwestern State's pressure defense in the Southland title game. Stephen F Austin took the automatic bid to the NIT, where they fell by a point to Stanford in the first round. Northwestern State earned a 14 seed in the NCAA Tournament, where they had the misfortune of drawing a Florida team that crushed them. The third Southland Conference team to play in the postseason was Oral Roberts. They went to the CIT, where they beat Texas-Arlington and UC-Irvine before falling to Weber State in the quarterfinals.

We'll start our Southland discussion with that Stephen F Austin team. Ball handling was a concern, as I said, but their defense was spectacular. They actually led the nation in defensive efficiency, holding opponents to 0.82 PPP (Louisville was in second place at 0.84 and Florida was third at 0.85). Adjusted for schedule strength, Pomeroy rated their defense 11th best in the nation. They were also in the Top 15 in the nation in 2P%, 3P% and eFG% defense, as well as DR%. That all said, they lose their best interior defender (Taylor Smith - 15.7 ppg, 69.4 FG%, 9.2 rpg, 2.8 bpg) and their best perimeter defender (Hal Bateman - 7.3 ppg, 5.7 apg, 1.6 spg). Bateman was also their premier playmaker, and Smith was the team's leading scorer. They also lose their second leading scorer (Antonio Bostic - 10.8 per game), so they will have a lot of talent and production to replace. Their most proven returner is Desmond Haymon (10.6 ppg, 4.9 rpg), and they have a nice prospect in rising-sophomore Thomas Walkup (4.4 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 1.3 apg). Danny Kaspar's teams are always strong defensively, so I wouldn't expect Stephen F Austin to disappear next season, but it's hard to see how they can be quite as strong on either side of the ball with so many losses.

Northwestern State was, as I like to call them, the poor man's VCU this past season. Mike McConnathy's team has long played at a high tempo and with an aggressive defense, but for many years they were really awful defensively on possessions where they didn't get a turnover. That has gotten to be a lot less of an issue over the past couple of seasons, and this past season they were actually 3rd in the Southland in eFG% against. The nature of the pace they played this past season meant that nobody really played a ton of minutes. They used a lot of substitutions, and their top ten minute earners were all between 15 and 26 minutes per game. Of those ten, three will graduate, led by James Hulbin (11.8 ppg, 56.8 eFG%, 5.7 rpg) and Shamir Davis (12.3 ppg, 2.1 apg). But they had three players who forced at least 1.5 steals per game, and all three will be back. That includes star DeQuan Hicks (14.0 ppg, 58.3 eFG%, 5.9 rpg, 1.6 spg). They got some really nice point guard play from redshirt freshman Jalan West (10.2 ppg, 5.2 apg, 2.3 spg), and also some good perimeter defense from Brison White (1.6 spg). To help replace James Hulbin, I like rising-junior Marvin Frazier (4.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 1.3 bpg). With Stephen F Austin's defense taking a big hit next season, it's possible that Northwestern State will replace them as the conference's premier defensive squad.

Oral Roberts was the clear third best team in the conference. They were third in the standings and in efficiency margin, and also were the third and final team to finish above .500 and to make a postseason tournament. They scored a lot of points in the paint and also led the conference in offensive rebounding. That said, they lose their two best paint scorers - Damen Bell-Holter (15.5 ppg, 9.4 rpg, 1.3 bpg) and Warren Niles (18.9 ppg, 53.3 eFG%, 4.1 rpg). At the same time, their point guard play should get smoother once Korey Billbury (6.1 ppg, 2.5 apg, 1.2 A/TO ratio) is no longer a freshman. Rising-sophomore DJ Jackson should also get some time at the point. If Oral Roberts is going to have a shot at a conference title next season, though, they're going to need significantly more production from top 2012 recruit Jorden Kaufman. The 7-footer played only 6.6 minutes per game in only 11 games, missing much of the rest of the season with an injury. Another 2012 recruit, 6'6" Corbin Byford, had to take a redshirt year because of his own injuries. He could be another key player off the bench.

There was a pretty big gap between those top three teams and the rest of the Southland Conference. Southeastern Louisiana was the only other team to finish above .500 in conference play, but that record was mildly fraudulent. They were only 6th in efficiency margin, and achieved that record with a lucky 6-1 record in conference games decided by five points or less. They also lose three of their top seven minute earners, including leading scorer Brandon Fortenberry (14.7 per game).

In my opinion, if a team from the bottom half of the league is going to make a run at the title next season, it's got to be Sam Houston State. The Bearkats were the polar opposite of Southeastern Louisiana in terms of luck, finishing 8-10 despite being fourth in the conference in efficiency margin. They were an unlucky 3-7 in conference games decided by six points or less. They had a very balanced rotation, with 11 different players earning between 13 and 28 minutes per game. Of those 11 players, only one graduates - Darius Gatson (8.6 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 3.4 apg). They didn't have a single double-digit scorer, though their success came through defense (their offense was pretty poor). Gatson was the primary point guard, but they should be okay going forward with Paul Baxter (7.5 ppg and 2.4 apg as a true freshman). Their biggest need is shooting, honestly. Rising-senior Will Bond (6.0 ppg, 38.1 3P%, 2.6 rpg) was the only regular with a 3P% over 35% or an eFG% over 50%.

The Southland Conference should be pretty balanced next season. Stephen F Austin is going to take a pretty big step backwards, and second tier teams like Oral Roberts and Sam Houston State are going to close the gap. In my opinion, Northwestern State and Sam Houston State are the two teams best primed to win the Southland Conference next season. Both play really tough defense. The difference, in my opinion, is that Northwestern State has an easier time scoring. If nothing else, their pressure defense will get them a lot of free transition baskets, while Sam Houston State's defense is more all-around solid without forcing a lot of transition offense. So at this point, I give the narrow edge to Northwestern State.

Southwestern Athletic Conference

I usually use this first SWAC paragraph to talk about how terrible the SWAC is. But believe it or not, this was the strongest the SWAC has been in at least a decade. It had been seven seasons since a SWAC team had gotten itself into the Pomeroy Top 200 (Southern finished 2005-06 195th in Pomeroy). This season, two teams finished clearly in the Top 200. In addition, Southern set a big mark by knocking off Texas A&M. Over the previous six seasons, the SWAC had been 0-237 against RPI Top 100 teams. Southern snapped that remarkable streak of futility by knocking off that Texas A&M team that (just barely) finished inside the RPI Top 100 (I've got them at 96th as I type this). Southern also had their path to the NCAA Tournament cleared up by Texas Southern and Arkansas-Pine Bluff being forbidden from postseason competition. And this Southern team was good enough to actually avoid a 16/16 play-in game, and they played competitively against Gonzaga. No other SWAC team played in the postseason. But by SWAC standards? This was a successful season. Yet even in a "successful" season, 7 of the 10 teams finished outside the Pomeroy Top 315. Good grief, SWAC basketball sucks.

According to the computers, Texas Southern was actually the best team in the SWAC this past season. But they were given a two year postseason ban, which means that they're also ineligible for next year's Tournament. So forget about them. We'll start with Southern instead. They lose three starters, including primary playmaker Jameel Grace (9.0 ppg, 3.6 apg, 1.4 spg) and leading scorer Derick Beltran (16.0 ppg, 4.4 rpg). That said, their best all around player was Malcolm Miller (15.5 ppg, 45.2 3P%, 5.9 rpg), and he'll be back for one more season. They also will be able to replace Grace with their point guard of the future (Christopher Hyder - 1.9 points and 2.0 assists in 19.1 minutes per game as a freshman). They also return a pretty good big man in 6'10" Brandon Moore (6.2 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 1.8 bpg). So I don't think there's a reason to expect a big drop-off from them.

Arkansas-Pine Bluff should be eligible for the postseason again next season, They were probably the SWAC-iest team this past season. They went 15-3 in SWAC play, after going 1-11 in non-conference play with the one win coming over a 2-26 Maryland-Eastern Shore team. Brutal. Anyway, their offense was terrible this past season, but their defense was pretty good. They lose three starters to graduation, including leading-scorer Terrell Kennedy (13.3 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 2.6 apg) and Mitchell Anderson (7.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 2.6 apg). They do have an aggressive (though sloppy) point guard in Tevin Hamilton (7.4 ppg, 4.2 apg, 1.4 A/TO ratio), and return their best big man - DaVon Haynes (11.9 ppg, 6.9 rpg). They don't have any good young prospects, but it's not like their graduating seniors were particularly good. As I said, their offense stunk.

There was a pretty big gap to the rest of the conference, and none of them really feel like sleepers to me. Jackson State was the only other team to finish with a positive efficiency margin in conference play. They lose three starters, though, including star Christian Williams (14.5 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 1.6 apg, 1.7 spg). That said, their biggest goal for next year might be to get Dundrecous Nelson, the Ole Miss transfer, to stop shooting. After joining the team mid-season, he took 41.6% of Jackson State's shots when on the floor, at an atrocious 39.7 eFG% clip. Oof. Alabama State, Alcorn State and Prairie View A&M all lose multiple starters to graduation. The bottom of the conference was just a wasteland.

Mike Davis is building a halfway decent team at Texas Southern, but they cannot play for the postseason. And this means that the SWAC is likely heading for yet another 16 seed. In fact, I'll be surprised if next year's champion is as strong as Southern was this past season. Southern should be in contention again, but they'll likely take a step back. Jackson State has a decent chance to be better next season, but there was a pretty big gap between them and the top of the league. Arkansas-Pine Bluff will be a contender, but I don't think many people realize just how large the gap was between Southern/Texas Southern and Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Don't let those close conference records fool you. So even though they're likely to take a small step backward, the postseason ineligibility for Texas Southern means that Southern is the favorite for a repeat title.

Summit League

The Summit League basically just existed to showcase Nate Wolters this past season. He was so much fun to watch these past few seasons, and I think all fans of college basketball are going to miss him. You'll notice that North Dakota State was the top team in the computers, and they also led the conference in efficiency margin (+0.25 PPP vs +0.19 PPP for South Dakota State), but I stuck with the Jackrabbits as my Summit League favorite throughout. Besides the fact that you always want to trust the team with the superstar, it was also clear that South Dakota State was not playing at their best early in the season. Wolters missed a little bit of time, and even after he came back it took some time for him to play like he had last season. They were at their best late in the season, and South Dakota State beat North Dakota State in a fantastic Summit League title game. The Jackrabbits ran into Michigan in the NCAA Tournament, though, so their stay there was short. North Dakota State and Western Illinois both went to the CBI. North Dakota State lost in overtime to Western Michigan, while Western Illinois fell pretty easily to Purdue. Denver, the Summit newcomer, did win a game in the NIT over Ohio before falling for Maryland. So it was a disappointing postseason, but it doesn't take away from a really good year in the Summit League.

Let's start with that South Dakota State team, which will have to move on without Nate Wolters (22.3 ppg, 54.9 eFG%, 5.6 rpg, 5.8 apg, 1.7 spg). Those Wolters stats are just staggering. His impact was not just his scoring, but the fact that he would draw the entire defense to him, which opened things up for strong shooters on the perimeter. South Dakota State had four shooters other than Wolters who hit 36% or better behind the arc, and hit 42.1% as a team in conference play. All of those shooters will be back, led by Jordan Dykstra (12.5 ppg, 42.7 3P%, 7.9 rpg). In fact, the only other graduation is Tony Fiegen (10.2 ppg, 56.0 FG%, 5.4 rpg). Still, they do have significant concerns going forward. The biggest is finding a point guard to handle the ball. Wolters did all of the offensive creation these past few seasons, and there isn't an obvious replacement at the point. Second, they're going to need to find more offense in the paint, and from their front court. The three point shots won't be there as often next season. 6'6" rising-junior Zach Horstman (2.4 points and 1.4 rebounds in only 7.9 minutes per game) is a decent prospect there.

As I said, North Dakota State was the most productive Summit League team over the course of the season. And even though they failed to have postseason success this past season, they are in a good position to be even better next season. They return every player from their eight man regular rotation, including Taylor Braun (15.4 ppg, 43.5 3P%, 5.2 rpg, 3.0 bpg) and Marshall Bjorklund (11.5 ppg, 66.7 FG%, 5.9 rpg). Both of those players will be seniors next season, and the team might start as many as four seniors, giving them one of the most experienced teams in the nation. Yet at the same time, they have a couple of really good prospect in Chris Kading (4.4 ppg, 61.6 eFG%, 3.4 rpg, 0.8 bpg) and Brett VandenBergh (1.8 ppg, 43.2 3P%), both of whom were freshmen this past season. Considering how good North Dakota State already was this past season, they're going to be awfully good next season.

The forgotten team in the Summit this past season was Western Illinois. It was they, and not North Dakota State, that earned a share of the Summit League title with South Dakota State. That said, they lose four of their top five minute earners to graduation, including their two double-digit scorers (Terell Parks and Ceola Clark), and both of their outside sharpshooters (Clark, along with Jack Houpt, both of whom were over 40% behind the arc). The one returning starter is Adam Link (9.9 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 1.4 apg). Going forward, they do have a couple of good prospects in rising-sophomores Jason Hawthorne and Jordan Foster, and they have another good backcourt prospect in top 2013 recruit Garrett Covington. But 2013-14 is going to be a rebuilding season for them. There's no question about that.

Oakland was the clear fourth best team in the Summit League. They were fourth in the standings, fourth in conference efficiency margin, and fourth in the computers. And like North Dakota State, they're primed to be even better next season. They lose only one regular to graduation - Drew Valentine (10.2 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 2.2 apg, 1.7 spg). They return star Travis Bader (22.1 ppg, 38.6 3P%, 2.9 rpg), playmaker Duke Mondy (12.0 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 5.1 apg, 3.0 spg) and big man Corey Petros (12.5 ppg, 56.5 FG%, 8.2 rpg). They have more length and athleticism coming up with increased playing time for Dante Williams (3.7 ppg and 1.8 rpg in only 15.0 mpg) and the transfer addition of 6'8" Tommie McCune, who played light minutes for West Virginia as a freshman in 2011-12.

Denver is the newest addition to the Summit League. And they were an awfully strong team this past season, finishing the season inside the Pomeroy Top 50. They were stunned in the WAC tournament, though, which was they were relegated to the NIT, where they earned a 3 seed. They'll be good again next season, with only one senior on the entire roster (Chase Hallam - 9.6 ppg, 56.2 eFG%, 3.7 rpg, 2.1 spg). They return star Chris Udofia (13.3 ppg, 55.3 eFG%, 4.5 rpg, 3.3 apg, 2.3 bpg) and sharpshooter Brett Olson (11.4 ppg, 43.4 3P%, 2.4 apg). They have a really nice prospect in Jalen Love (7.2 ppg, 61.7 eFG% and 1.5 apg as a true freshman). Shooting guard Nate Engesser was actually the higher rated recruit in their 2012 class, though he played sparingly late in his freshman season. One newcomer is 6'9" Griffin McKenzie, a transfer who played sparingly at Xavier.

Realistically, it's silly to list sleepers for the Summit League. Yes, South Dakota State and Western Illinois are going to take a step back, but North Dakota State and Denver are going to be awfully good. It's honestly realistic for the Summit League to get into some at-large conversations next season. Both Denver and North Dakota State have a very realistic chance of ending up in the Top 50 of the computers next season. It's awfully hard to pick between those two teams, but I give the narrow edge to North Dakota State. I think they just have more talent, and they also have the experience playing in this league, which is quite a bit different than the Sun Belt and the WAC. But I will list Denver as a bubble team in my first bracket projection, which will be posted a little bit more than a week from now.

Sun Belt Conference

The Sun Belt Conference is getting a pretty big makeover. Middle Tennessee, Florida International, Florida Atlantic and North Texas are all on their way out of the league. At the same time, the league adds Georgia State, Texas State and Texas-Arlington. Despite Middle Tennessee dominating the league this past season, the automatic bid went to a surprising Western Kentucky team. Western Kentucky only went 10-10 in conference play, though, so it wasn't unsurprising that they ended up a 16 seed in the NCAA Tournament, where they were crushed by Kansas. The only other Sun Belt team to play in a postseason that will also be back next season is South Alabama. They played in the CIT, where they fell to Tulane in the first round. Newcomer Texas-Arlington also played in the CIT, where they fell to Oral Roberts in the first round.

Since Middle Tennessee is off to Conference USA, I'll start the discussion of the Sun Belt with Western Kentucky, the league's NCAA Tournament representative. And in Western Kentucky's defense, they were better than that 10-10 record. They were fourth in Sun Belt conference efficiency margin (+0.03 PPP). They lose a pair of seniors to graduation - Jamal Crook (12.1 ppg, 4.0 apg, 1.5 spg) and Teeng Akol (6.7 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 1.3 bpg), though Akol was injured the final few weeks of the season and did not take part of their run through the Sun Belt tournament. They return leading scorer TJ Price (15.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 2.4 apg) and star big man George Fant (12.8 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 1.1 bpg). They have a nice prospect in 6'10" Aleksejs Rostov (4.9 points and 2.7 rebounds in only 14.0 minutes per game as a true freshman).

The reason to expect Western Kentucky to be even better next season is because of all of the talent that they will have that wasn't available this past season. Their top 2012 recruit, swing man Eddie Alcantara, missed most of his freshman season with injury and will hope to be back at full strength. They also hope to get back 6'6" Nigel Snipes, who played 16 minutes per game as a freshman in 2011-12 but missed all of this past season with a torn ACL. In addition, they hope to add Trency Jackson for the spring semester. Jackson was scoring 6.6 points per game for Texas Tech this past season when he was suspended, and he left the school to transfer to WKU. They also add a talented 6'10" Juco center, Alassane Kah. So take all of that combined and there's every reason to expect Western Kentucky to be even better next season.

The team that finished top of the standings (not including Middle Tennessee) was South Alabama. The Jaguars lose a pair of starters - Javier Carter (7.1 ppg, 56.7 eFG%, 6.7 rpg, 2.5 bpg) and Freddie Goldstein (7.9 ppg, 2.4 apg), though an injury cost Goldstein most of the latter half of the season. They do return star Augustine Rubit (19.4 ppg, 10.5 rpg, 1.2 bpg), and also will hope to get back Xavier Roberson, who had 13.6 ppg (44.3 3P%) and 3.5 rpg before being lost for the season with an injury back in December. One of the things I like is their new head coach - Matthew Graves, who had been an assistant under Brad Stevens at Butler. If he can hold this roster this together and also add a nice addition or two, he has a team capable of making a run at a Sun Belt title next season.

The second best team in the Sun Belt this past season in the computers (and the second placed in efficiency margin in conference play) was not South Alabama, but Arkansas State. The Red Wolves have a lot of big losses, though they also have a lot of additions. They lose three of their top seven minute earners, the toughest loss being Brandon Peterson (10.5 ppg, 53.2 FG%, 9.7 rpg, 1.3 bpg). They do return leading scorer Ed Townsel (13.1 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 1.6 spg) and point guard Cameron Golden (7.4 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 2.1 apg), and a big front court player (in more ways than one) in Kendrick Washington (6.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg). What about those additions? Well, 6'10" Kirk Van Slyke joins Kendrick Washington in transferring from Houston. Also, Melvin Johnson transfers in - he scored 12 points per game in 3 seasons at Texas-San Antonio.

The final Sun Belt team to finish over .500 this past season was Arkansas-Little Rock. They also return every single player from a balanced ten man rotation. All ten players earned between 10 and 29 minutes per game, and none averaged more than 10.7 ppg. They have a pair of quality big men - Will Neighbour (10.7 ppg, 7.0 rpg) and Michael Javes (6.0 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 1.2 bpg) - as well as a pair of good rising-sophomore guards - John Gillon (10.6 ppg, 39.4 3P%, 2.4 apg) and Josh Hagins (8.1 ppg, 3.1 apg). Look for 6'11" Andrew Poulter as well. The highly touted (by Sun Belt standards) 2012 recruit took a redshirt year and should have four years of eligibility left. 6'1" Kenny Osse, who was a true freshman this past season, is also a prospect for the future.

According to the computers, both Texas-Arlington and Georgia State were better than any returning Sun Belt team other than Arkansas State. Texas-Arlington loses four starters to graduation, though, including leading scorer Kevin Butler (11.2 ppg, 4.7 rpg) and big man Jordan Reves (8.5 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 2.1 bpg). They do return Brandon Edwards (7.8 ppg, 60.2 eFG%, 7.3 rpg) and have a good, raw shooting guard prospect in Drew Charles, who was a true freshman this past season. But that said, this will be a rebuilding season for them.

Georgia State is in better shape, losing only one starter - James Vincent (4.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 2.3 bpg). They will need to replace that size, but their strength this past season was in the backcourt. They return point guard Devonta White (14.8 ppg, 3.9 apg, 1.7 spg) and sharpshooter Manny Atkins (14.2 ppg, 41.2 3P%, 6.7 rpg, 2.2 apg). They also will be adding Ryan Harrow, who is transferring from Kentucky. He still has to ask to become eligible right away, but it seems likely that he will get approved. And that doesn't even include the 6'5" shooting guard who will likely be their star next season - RJ Hunter (17.0 ppg, 53.0 eFG%, 5.1 rpg, 1.8 apg and 1.7 spg as a true freshman). What about replacing that size? 6'6" Markus Crider had a pretty solid year as a true freshman. They also might get back 6'7" Danny Burguillos, who missed the spring semester after being declared academically ineligible. It's also possible that a guy like 6'8" TJ Shipes, who played sparingly as a true freshman, will improve during the offseason. But if they fail to win the Sun Belt next season, their front court will likely be the reason why.

In my opinion, there are five different teams that will be in tight contention for the Sun Belt title next season: Arkansas State, Arkansas-Little Rock, Georgia State, South Alabama and Western Kentucky. I'm going to lay off South Alabama because of the coaching transition, which always is a possible cause for short term disruptions. I also think Arkansas State's steep losses to graduation are a serious concern, even with all of the new additions. Western Kentucky should be improved next season, but they were quite a ways off from being the best team in the Sun Belt this season - they got hot at the right time. Arkansas-Little Rock should be significantly improved, but I question whether they have the top end talent to lead them in the most important games. In my opinion, Georgia State might be the favorite even if they don't land Ryan Harrow. But assuming that Harrow becomes eligible to play right away, Georgia State has to be the favorite.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Opening Night Preview, Part 1 of 2

Whether you realize it or not, the college basketball season is underway. Many teams have already played their first exhibition, and we're getting ready for the first regular season games on Friday, November 9th.

A lot of time has passed since the Final Four. Feeling a little rusty with your players and teams for the coming season? Have no fear. I've got you set with a two-part preview featuring 12 games to keep your eye on just on the first day. Part II will be posted tomorrow. And I'll continue to have another preview post each day this week.

Let's get this thing going (all times eastern):

#14 Michigan State vs UConn (5:30 PM, ESPN): The regular season technically gets underway at noon, when a few games will tip-off. But the slate that early is... a bit soft, to say the least. The most interesting early game is Houston vs Florida A&M, just because I think Houston is a long shot bubble team and would like to see what they look like in action, though I doubt Florida A&M is much of a test. If you're a college basketball fan, you're probably starting your season with this Michigan State/UConn game. Get on the couch and get ready for close to 8 straight hours of college basketball, starting with this one.

Michigan State played in the Carrier Classic last season, and this game will be almost as cool. It's going to be played at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, played in front of close to 3000 enlisted soldiers.

Now as for the game itself? I don't think it's going to be particularly competitive. Michigan State is one of five really elite teams in the Big Ten, and Tom Izzo always has them ready to play early in the season. And UConn is in a major transition season without a permanent head coach, without a chance at the postseason, and without the depth of talent that Jim Calhoun had in his many years in charge. That said, UConn is still going to have a pretty darn good starting five, led by Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright. Napier is probably the biggest wildcard of the returners, with so much talent but so much inconsistency in the past. Also keep an eye on star recruit Omar Calhoun, a 6'5" shooting guard.

Michigan State returns a whole bunch of players you'll remember, of course, led by Keith Appling, who will be the team's primary ball handler. A player I think can step up and be one of the better bigs in the Big Ten this season is Branden Dawson, who was very active in the paint as a freshman off the bench last season. And Spartans fans will be keeping an eye on Gary Harris, a 6'4" freshman who has been getting a lot of offseason hype. Michigan State's depth, coaching advantage and toughness should lead to a relatively easy win, but there will be a lot of talent on the floor. College basketball fans are required to give a really good excuse to skip this one.

#4 Ohio State vs Marquette (7 PM, NBCSN) - Speaking of the Carrier Classic, it's back... on the NBC Sports Network. Well, actually there are three of them this year. Huh. Anyway, this should be a good, competitive game. Ohio State is probably slightly overrated at #4, but they're definitely a contender to win the Big Ten. As for Marquette, I was pretty surprised to see just how far off the Top 25 they were in the preseason Coaches Poll. I think they're definitely underrated. Yes, Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom were their two best players last season, but they will also get Chris Otule and Davante Gardner back from injury and have two young perimeter players with a ton of potential in Vander Blue and Derrick Wilson. A key for Marquette with their style of play is always on the wings, and the development of Jamil Wilson and 2012 recruit Steve Taylor will play a large role in the amount of success they have this season.

Ohio State loses the most dominant big man in the Big Ten in Jared Sullinger, but otherwise their losses from last season are light. William Buford never developed into the player I thought he had the potential to be, and will be fairly easily replaced. The face of the team will probably be Aaron Craft, who appears to be heading down the same path as Draymond Green (two years of me talking about how great and underrated they are, followed by two years of the media hype growing to nauseating levels). I hope I'm wrong about that, though, because I really do enjoy watching Craft play.

One of the very underrated facets to Ohio State last season was that despite a very small rotation (Thad Matta basically only played six guys per game), they had a bunch of really good players on the bench. Guys like JD Weatherspoon, Amir Williams and Sam Thompson all have the potential to excel in extended minutes. Amir Williams, because of his size and the departure of Sullinger, will probably be the first of that trio to play a key role this coming season. Maybe the most interesting player to keep an eye on is LaQuinton Ross. The former high school prodigy had a humbling freshman season, dealing with eligibility issues and then barely getting on the court. If he can recover some of that potential he can be a big weapon for the Buckeyes.

Virginia at George Mason (7 PM) - This game will get lost in the shuffle, but it's a really interesting game for two intriguing potential NCAA Tournament teams. Virginia was a surprise success last season under Tony Bennett, and will be looking to continue moving forward. Bennett's calling card, like his father before him, is tough defense and a suffocating slow pace. Mike Scott was probably the most underrated superstar in the nation last season, and he graduates, but Virginia will be an excellent defensive team yet again. The question mark, with Scott gone, is offense. Jontel Evans and Joe Harris are the two key returners, but the real key to success will be Tony Bennett's massive recruiting class. I'm just curious to see which of those freshmen move into the starting rotation right away, and which will be projects.

George Mason loses star Ryan Pearson off of a team that brutally underperformed under new head coach Paul Hewitt. Hewitt will need a big turnaround this season or his seat will start to get warm. Hewitt has always been a coach with the reputation of a recruiter who doesn't really develop his guys and struggles to get them prepared for big games. The problem is, he's not even recruiting anymore. The additions this season include a mediocre transfer (Anali Okolji), a European (Marko Gujanici) and a lightly-regarded local high school recruit (Patrick Holloway). I have very low expectations for this George Mason team. But if some of their players made the leap over the offseason and Hewitt shocks us all with an improves Patriots team? A great start would be knocking off Virginia at home on opening night.

Miami (OH) at #6 NC State (7 PM, ESPN3) - I've made it clear many times that I'm not buying the preseason hype for NC State. That #6 ranking just seems absurd to me. Yes, it was huge that they got CJ Leslie back and they return almost everybody from last year's team... but last year's team also was NIT-bound until the ACC tournament and despite that great end to their season still reacted like this when they found out that they made the NCAA Tournament. In order for them to be even close to the sixth best team in the country their defense will need to get a lot better, and they are going to need more offensive consistency. Lorenzo Brown, in particular, needs to take the leap from decent ACC point guard to elite ACC point guard. Depth is also a concern, and they will be relying heavily on a highly-touted 2012 recruiting class. Look for shooting guard Rodney Purvis to be the most important of the new true freshman.

Other than seeing how NC State looks, there won't be a whole lot to this game. Miami-Ohio is moving into a new era as Charlie Coles retires after approximately 317 years as head coach (that might be an exaggeration). The new head coach? John Cooper, who most recently headed Tennessee State. I think NC State is overrated, but I don't think they're overrated enough to have any trouble here.

Bucknell at Purdue (7 PM, Big Ten Digital Network) - This is clearly a rebuilding season for Purdue. Robbie Hummel, Lewis Jackson and Ryne Smith are all gone from a team that only finished in 6th place in the Big Ten last season, and they don't have any real hot shot freshmen coming in. But those predicting a finish near the basement of the Big Ten do so at their own peril. Matt Painter teams are always tough to play, and his roster is very young but also has a lot of talent. A key to success might be Teron Johnson, who showed flashes of brilliance as a freshman two season ago, and will need to step in and replace Lewis Jackson. Jacob Lawson won't be expected to be the new Robbie Hummel, but expectations are high for the 2011 recruit. The 2012 recruiting class is deep, as well. Look for Ronnie Johnson to potentially start in the backcourt alongside Teron Johnson.

Bucknell is a team I'm curious to see as well. They narrowly won a very competitive Patriot League last season before falling to Lehigh in the Patriot League tournament. They acquitted themselves well in the NIT and will likely be locked in another very competitive battle with Lehigh again. Bucknell, should they earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament, could be the type of scary Round of 64 opponent that Lehigh was last season. The game-within-the-game is what could be pretty epic Patriot League Player of the Year race (ever think you'd hear that sentence?) between Lehigh's CJ McCollum and Bucknell's Mike Muscala. It will be very interesting to see how Muscala handles Purdue's young front line.

Georgia State at #8 Duke (7 PM, ESPNU) - Georgia State was one of the most underrated teams in the nation last season, and if their strength of schedule didn't suck so badly they might have actually pulled themselves into shouting distance of the Tournament bubble. But four of their five starters last season were seniors. They're going to get creamed at Cameron Indoor. This game is about a Duke team that I picked as my preseason ACC champion. Andre Dawkins will be redshirting, but they bring back a ton of talent, led by Seth Curry and Ryan Kelly. Look for point guard Quinn Cook to step in and potentially earn the starting point guard spot.

I'm also very curious to see just how much playing time Rasheed Sulaimon and Amile Jeferson, Coach K's two true freshmen, will get. Sulaimon was the slightly higher rated recruit (though both are blue chippers), and seems like less of a project (Jefferson needs to put on some weight if he's going to be a post scorer), but Duke is so stacked in the backcourt that it's hard to see Sulaimon earning more than around 15 minutes per game.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Previewing November 10th-12th

After a few good games on Monday, November 9th, there actually isn't very much for the next few days. There are no games at all on Tuesday the 10th, and the 11th won't have much. North Carolina, Syracuse and Cal will all play another game, but against lesser opponents than they face in their Monday openers. So all of the things I said about those teams here holds, but it's not going to be too exciting to watch those teams slaughter vastly inferior opponents.

I understand having the Coaches vs Cancer start a few days ahead of the rest of the regular season games to draw attention to the good cause, and so I'm fine with pushing everybody else back a few days. But if you're going to do that, you've got to space the games out better. Don't have a lack of games scheduled on November 10th, and don't waste all of your quality opponents (Albany, Murray State, etc) on the first day.

Anyway, there will be two games on Thursday the 11th, and both of them are worth watching if you have the time. Here is a quick preview:

#17 Ohio State vs James Madison (Big Ten Network, 7PM ET): Ohio State isn't getting a ton of attention because they don't have that super hyped player like a Greg Oden, but Evan Turner should get more national press now that he's on a team that can really compete for a conference title. We know that Turner will be one of the best players in the Big Ten, and we know that Jon Diebler can shoot, so that leaves two questions that the Buckeyes have to answer if they're going to win the Big Ten. The most important question is inside, where Evan Turner actually led the team in rebounds last season. That's not going to cut it in a conference with a lot of quality big men. To me, the answer has to be Dallas Lauderdale, who is a really strong and athletic player. He's going to have to show a lot of improvement from a somewhat underwhelming sophomore season (5 points per game, 4 rpg, 2 bpg). The other question is at point guard, where either Jeremie Simmons or P.J. Hill has to really take command of the position. Simmons is the better offensive player, and Hill is better on defense, but neither was remotely a star last season. The Buckeyes need somebody to create and attract defenders other than Turner, to help open things up for Diebler outside. James Madison will be a decent test. I picked them to finish 6th in the Colonial. Certainly a better test than Ohio State's November 9th opener, against Alcorn State.

North Carolina State vs Georgia State (7PM ET): The only game not part of Coaches vs Cancer that takes place before Friday will give us an idea about how long of a season this will be for NC State. They finished 10th in the ACC last season and their three best players (and the only three players that most casual fans had heard of) all left: Ben McCauley, Courtney Falls and Brandon Costner. It's hard to see NC State making a postseason tournament, but it can still be a quality season if they can see the development of some younger players. I'd like to see Dennis Horner and Tracy Smith establish themselves as quality big men now that they'll get the playing time. Javier Gonzalez could potentially be one of the better three point shooters in the conference if he can get enough attempts. Somebody is going to have to step up and be an offensive creator, be it Gonzalez, Farnold Degand, or some freshman. They'd probably be better off if they could move Gonzalez to shooting guard with his nice touch, but Sidney Lowe has to work within the constraints of the talent he has. It doesn't help that Gonzalez is listed at 5'11" and about 170 pounds... not exactly a typical ACC shooting guard body. Georgia State is no pushover, as they finished in 8th place in a fairly deep Colonial Athletic Association last season. If NC State can get some production from a decent freshman class and wipe the floor with Georgia State then maybe this won't be such a bad season after all.