Saturday, April 11, 2009

2009-10 Preview: Mid Majors, Part II

Horizon League

The Horizon League is one of two conferences that I've moved up into the "Mid-Major" previews, along with the MAC getting demoted, and the biggest reason is obviously Butler. I mean, people do remember that this was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Butler, right? Their roster this past year had zero Seniors, and only two Juniors in their nine man rotation. Their starting lineup was made up of three Freshmen (Gordon Hayward, Shelvin Mack and Ronald Nored), a Sophomore (Matt Howard) and a Junior (Willie Veasley). I can't think of any Mid-Major team other than Memphis that has had a better Freshman class in years.

Of course, the incoming Freshman class isn't in the ballpark of this past year's class. The one incoming player to look for is 6'9 Andrew Smith, who will likely spend most of next season just learning, as Avery Jukes will probably be the top backup for big man Matt Howard. And Butler doesn't need to have a center on the floor because their guards and swingmen are so tall and athletic that they can bang with the big men of any other team in the conference. For example, Gordon Hayward is supposedly a guard, but he's 6'8". Also keep an eye on Emerson Kampell, who is listed at an incredibly skinny 6'9" and 192 pounds, and redshirt his past year, his first. So now we have this team that finished the season ranked 25th in the USA Today poll, and returns everybody and brings in some more new talent, and so there's no question that they'll be better. They should be ranked in the 10-15th range in the nation when the preseason polls come out next fall. That said, I think people need to relax a little bit here. Butler is talented, but they're not Top Ten talented. I think they benefited a ton from the lack of expectations this past year. They were motivated by the fact that nobody picked them to take the Horizon for the first time in years, and that some teams were looking past them. They are really going to have that bullseye on them next year, and don't discount that added pressure. They should be a Top 25 team next year, and they'll be the heavy favorites to take the Horizon, but let's cool off on the Top Ten talk until they earn it on the floor next year, if they can earn it.

Of course, Cleveland State was the Horizon's other Tournament team. But this was a team built for one last run, with almost all of their floor leaders being Seniors. Cedric Jackson and J'Nathan Bullock were the two stars of this squad, and they both graduate. In all, they lose four key players, including the team leaders in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. Don't expect them to compete for another Horizon League title. Another top team hurt by several graduations is UW-Green Bay. They lose two starters and their sixth man. But that said, they do return a number of key pieces, including their outstanding back court of Troy Cotton (13 ppg, 42% three-point shooting) and Rahmon Fletcher (11 ppg, 5 apg). The key will be filling the gap inside, which will probably have to be filled by the 6'9" pair of Randy Berry (6 ppg, 5 rpg) and Pat Nelson (3 rpg in only 10 mpg), both of whom will be Seniors. The Phoenix also have a solid recruiting class, although none that are blue chip quality. They won't compete with Butler, but they could potentially be back in the RPI Top 100.

The top competitor for Butler next year will probably be a familiar one: Wright State. They had only one Senior on the roster last year, and will likely get back Vaughn Duggins, who scored 14 ppg as a Sophomore but missed almost all of last season with a finger injury. Assuming that he can return to his previous self and play a full season, he should expect to start and be a key player yet again. The only question I see is whether they will have an elite ball handler, and whether John David Gardner or N'Gai Evans steps into that position. Don't be too surprised to see Wright State earn their way onto the Bubble next season.

UW-Milwaukee loses a couple of key players to graduation, but with a solid recruiting class they shouldn't fall too far next season. UIC, on the other hand, is witnessing the end of the era of 7'0" Scott VanderMeer (10 ppg, 9 rpg) and 5'11" star Josh Mayo (17 ppg, 3 apg). Expect them to drop off a bit. One sleeper is Valparaiso, that had a very frustrating last season but was very young. Seven of the 12 players on the roster were Freshmen. They had a number of tough defeats, and were better than their record. Sagarin's PREDICTOR put them 7th overall in the conference, and Pomeroy rated their luck 321st and their consistency 201st. All of those stats point to an improved team next season. They also have two key tranfers: Beas Hamga from UNLV and Cory Johnson from Iowa State. Look out for Hamga, who is a 7-footer and was a highly prized transfer. He turned down several BCS schools that offered him a spot because he wanted to start right away, which he figures he'll do at Valpo. The Crusaders should be vastly improved. One last team that should be improved is Detroit. They lose only one Senior, and will start several Juniors next year. They also have a blue chip recruit coming in with Jason Calliste (Rivals: 86 overall, 20 SG). When you go 2-16 you can improve a lot the next season and still not be a serious competitor, but at least they'll be improved. Here's how I see the top of the conference playing out:

1. Butler
2. Wright State
3. Valparaiso
4. UW-Green Bay
5. UW-Milwaukee
6. Cleveland State

Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference

The MAAC is the other conference that I bumped up into the "Mid-Major" category this season, and they were led by that tremendous Siena team, which has now won games in consecutive NCAA Tournaments. And they are in great shape with seven of their top eight scorers returning. The problem is that their one loss is arguably their best player: Kenny Hasbrouck. That said, all of their other best players are obviously back. Ronald Moore (9 ppg, 6 apg, 2 spg) is a great point guard and perimeter defender. Ryan Rossiter (10 ppg, 8 rpg, 62% shooting) is a dominant inside player in the MAAC. And Edwin Ubiles (15 ppg, 5 rpg, 49% shooting) is the best swingman in the conference. One thing to be careful about with Siena is that they played a bunch of great teams last season, but they didn't beat any of them (other than the Tournament game against Ohio State, of course). The RPI rewards you for losing to elite teams, but better computer rankings don't. So they had an RPI of 18th at the end of the MAAC tournament, but even the win over Ohio State and the close battle with Louisville only got their Sagarin PREDICTOR up to 60th in the nation. Pomeroy had them 59th. In other words, they maybe weren't as good as most analysts thought they were. Even though they should be better next year, that doesn't mean that they'll be more successful or that we should throw them into the Top 25, as some analysts are already doing.

One of the most underrated teams in the nation this past year was Niagara. They were nearly as good as Siena, and were actually a long shot Bubble team for most of the year. And they only lose one Senior starter, which means that they won't be going anywhere. The only question will be who replaces that starter: 6'10" Benson Edemonye (13 ppg, 7 rpg). The answer might be two players who redshirt this past year as Freshmen: Eric Williams and Luuk Kortekaas. Look out for Koortekaas, the Dutchman who came in as a 6'11", 200 pound popsicle stick. If he can put on some weight he could be a force. The jury is out on whether Niagara can actually be better next season, but I don't think there's any doubt that they'll be a Top 100 team yet again.

After the big two squads of Siena and Niagara, the second tier of the MAAC consisted of Rider, Fairfield and Manhattan. The best positioned of those three to be better next season is Rider, which only loses one starter and was very young. A majority of their roster was made up of Freshmen and Sophomores, including rising-Junior Mike Ringgold (11 ppg, 7 rpg). Their best player, however, should be rising-Senior Ryan Thompson (18 ppg, 7 rpg, 3 apg, 42% 3-point shooting). Fairfield loses two key starters and may not be improved next season, but with so many quality Freshmen and Sophomores should be even better in 2010-11. Manhattan only loses two players, and shouldn't drop off at all. Their strength is their rising-Junior class, which means that they also should be improved in 2010-11, even though they likely will not seriously contend for a MAAC title in 2009-10.

One dark horse is Iona, which was actually a lot better than most people thought they were. They had three outstanding Freshmen guards in Scott Machado, Trinity Fields and Jermel Jenkins. It was difficult to define a starting five because of all of the tinkering that Kevin Willard did, with seven different players earning 12 starts or more. Only one of those players graduates (Gary Springer). One guy who I really like is Alejo Rodriguez. He is an incredible high-energy big man who occasionally has too much energy, fouling himself onto the bench. He had three games this season where he collected four fouls while playing ten minutes or less. On the other hand, he also had 17 points and 11 rebounds against Ohio State. If he can mature over this offseason then he can be a tenacious offensive rebounder next season. Iona's record was worse than they really were because of the youth. The Sagarin PREDICTOR had them as the fifth best team in the conference, and Pomeroy rated their luck 315th. They won't have the experience necessary to beat out a team like Siena in an 18 game schedule (although they did give Siena more trouble than any other team in the conference this past season), but I'll be shocked if Iona isn't one of the three or four best teams in the MAAC next season. Here's how I see the top of the league playing out:

1. Siena
2. Niagara
3. Rider
4. Iona
5. Manhattan
6. Fairfield

Missouri Valley Conference

I've been thinking a lot about the fact that the Missouri Valley has now had a couple of consecutive one-bid seasons, and why that could be the case for a conference that is so good. They've been a lot better than the WCC and Horizon, for example. I think they suffer from two factors: one that is their fault and one which is not. The latter cause is that the conference is so even. The best way for a conference to get two Tournament teams is to have two teams blow away the rest of the conference (like what we saw in the WCC this past year... even though Saint Mary's was wrongly denied a Tournament bid). The MVC is always so deep that there isn't much room between the top team and the fourth or fifth team. This means that the top teams collect a lot of conference losses, so if the conference is down just a little bit then nobody will avoid enough losses to earn an at-large. But while the WCC can improve a lot and still only get two teams into the Tournament, a little bit of improvement for the Valley will earn them three or four bids (as they had in 2005 and 2006, respectively). Of course, the former of the two reasons I previously listed is the fact that too often lately the top Missouri Valley teams have not scheduled elite opponents. You've got to get a big scalp or two. The Selection Committee would rather see a team beat a top opponent and then flame out against a bad opponent (like Boston College) than a team that just powers through a lot of solid teams in a row but never has that big victory to put on their resume. If the Missouri Valley wants to get back to where they were four or five years ago, they've got to start scheduling tougher opponents.

We'll start the discussion of next season with the Valley's sole Tournament representative: Northern Iowa. The future for the Panthers is bright, as they return all five starters for next season. Their two best players were probably Adam Koch (12 ppg, 5 rpb) and 7'1" Jordan Eglseder (10 ppg, 6 rpg, 59% shooting). The key for them really improving will be finding a ball handler, as they really lacked an elite point guard this past season. There are a number of Valley teams with very good perimeter defenses, so having good guard play is so important.

The Missouri Valley team closest to earning an at-large bid was Creighton, and the Bluejays do lose only one player from their regular rotation. The problem is that the one loss is P'Allen Stinnett. He has probably been the most important player on Creighton for a few years now, but they are deep enough that they shouldn't suffer too much. They still have the outstanding Booker Woodfox (15 ppg, 48% 3-point shooting), and the inside force of Kenny Lawson (9 ppg, 5 rpg). Lawson will probably have to make the leap into being one of the two or three best big men in the Missouri Valley if Creighton is going to win the conference next season. [Editing Note: Woodfox and Stinnett's names should be switched in this paragraph].

According to Pomeroy and the Sagarin PREDICTOR, the best team in the Valley last season was actually Illinois State. They lose two starters, including star Champ Oguchi (15 ppg, 5 rpg, 2 spg), but their other three returning starters will be Seniors next season. I have to think that Illinois State will drop off a bit without Oguchi, but they won't suddenly fall back to the bottom half of the league.

After those big three squads, the next tier of the Valley consisted of Bradley and Evansville. Bradley loses three key players, including both of their key big men (Sam Singh and 7-footer David Collins). They'll have a good back court next season, but the only way they'll get back to the Bubble will be if they get big improvements from big men Will Egolf and Anthony Thompson. Evansville, meanwhile, will be almost a completely different team. First of all, they lose three starters to graduation. They also lose Freshman starter Kaylon Williams to a transfer. Darin Granger and Zach House are also transferring out. I'm not sure why all of these kids are transferring out, but the end result will be Evansville taking a huge step backwards next season.

The next team I want to talk about is Southern Illinois, which has probably been the best team in the Valley during its past decade of excellence. They do lose two starters and a key bench player, but almost the entire rest of the squad was a Freshman or Sophomore this past year. Carlton Fay played very well in the early going last season and seemed to plateau a bit, but he can be a really elite big man if he can improve his consistency over the summer. Leading scorer Kevin Dillard was actually a Freshman, and he should also only be better next season. They might also get some key minutes from transfer Tony Freeman from Iowa.

Another team that should be improved is Wichita State, which loses only one player from its regular rotation to graduation. They also lose a bench player (Reggie Chamberlin) to a transfer, although they also transfer in Johnny Coy from Arizona State. They also have a nice recruit in Kenny Manigault (Scout: 23 PG). The question for me will be whether Wichita State has that go-to guy to lead them in their most important games. I just don't know who the star is going to be. One final team worth discussing is Indiana State, because they only had one Senior on the roster. They're still going to be very young next season and they don't have any players yet who are among the elite of the Missouri Valley, so they won't contend for one of the top spots in the conference. But they should be improved. Here's how I see the top of the conference playing out:

1. Northern Iowa
2. Creighton
3. Bradley
4. Southern Illinois
5. Illinois State

6. Wichita State
7. Indiana State


Unknown said...

witchita state that low? this entire piece just lost all credibility

Anonymous said...

Creighton never lost P'allen Stinnet and this whole thing just didn't make sense.

Jeff said...

anonymous, you're right, somehow I mixed up Stinnett and Woodfox when typing... not sure I have any excuse other than that I put a ton of these together in a short period of time and my brain was turning to mush after a while.

I don't think it makes a huge difference on the team rankings if the loss is Stinnett or Woodfox, though. Those two were by far the best players on last year's Creighton team, so either one would have been a big loss.

Unknown said...

Hey Jeff - while you're at it, Bradley didn't lose Sam Singh, either.

If you want to learn more about the Valley and Bradley, visit

Jeff said...

Singh is getting another year of eligibility? He has played in 5 years already. I know that guys occasionally get a sixth year of eligibility, but I can't recall an example where that player actually played in all six seasons...