Sunday, April 05, 2009

2009-10 Preview: Small Conferences, Part I

Southland Conference

Stephen F Austin has been the best team in the Southland Conference for a couple of years now, and finally cashed in with a Tournament appearance this season. They actually played very well against Syracuse in the NCAA Tournament, and would have had a shot to win the game if they hadn't gotten off to an awful start. They simply looked nervous in the first few minutes and an early lead was blown open from which they could not recover. The question is, will they be able to get another shot at a Tournament victory next season?

Unfortunately, the reality is that Stephen F Austin will not be nearly as good next year as they were this year. They were primarily fueled by Seniors, who made up their only double-digit scorers as well as their three top rebounders. To be fair, they do have arguably the best recruiting class coming in, including two players 6'8" or higher, which is really needed in a conference that has a lot of very tall players.

The top challenger to Stephen F Austin the past two years has probably been Sam Houston State, and while they may or may not be more talented next season, I do like the experience that they'll bring back. Their most productive class this season was their Junior class, which means that they'll be Senior heavy next season. The key will be backcourt mates Corey Allmond (15 ppg, 44% 3-point shooting, 82% free throw shooting) and Ashton Mitchell (13 ppg, 7 apg), who will be the Senior leaders of the team next year. In a league with a lot of big players, it will be these two guards who will determine whether Sam Houston State wins the conference.

Perhaps the team with the best returning guard play outside of Sam Houston State is Nicholls State, with swing player Anatoly Bose (15 ppg, 5 rpg, 50% shooting) positioned to become one of the stars of this league. Bose is the primary offensive creator on the team, despite being 6'6", and will be key to any chances of Nicholls State getting back to the Tournament. Another team that could potentially be a factor is Texas-Arlington, which also received most of its production from Juniors this season. While they return a lot of talent, the key will probably be two 6'10" players: Ishmael Awange and Jordan Kinnear. Neither played more than four minutes per game last year, as they were still growing into their bodies. Their fouls-per-minute (Awange had 11.6 fouls per 40 minutes, and Kinnear had 10.5) indicate players still learning to move their feet and learn the game. It's rare for players that big to be good as freshmen, especially in a smaller conference (if you're 6'10" with post moves in high school, you're going to get picked up by a bigger conference). If either of those two players can make the leap to being a consistent inside force than UT-Arlington could be a serious threat.

One final darkhorse for me is Texas A&M Corpus Christi. Of the five players that led the team in minutes-per-game (as well as in total games started), four were Freshmen and Sophomores and the fifth was a Junior. This is a very young, but talented team. If you look at the ratio between their Sagarin ELO_CHESS (159th) and PREDICTOR (174), as well as their Pomeroy Consistency Rating (282nd), the stats tell me that this is a team that looked great some days, and looked awful on others, and tended to lose close games. Those are all hallmarks of young teams, and they will get better with everybody back next season. I would be very surprised if they are not a key contender, but I think they are probably one year away from actually having the experience to take the title. To me, at this point, Sam Houston State is the favorite because nothing is more important in college basketball than experienced, quality guard play, and nobody in the Southland will have more of that than the Bearkats.

Southwest Athletic Conference

Another season, another awful performance out of the SWAC. I continue to be befuddled by how a conference can be this atrocious - even rating below the D-I Independents, who are at a huge disadvantage in that they can't schedule home games and that they have no history or legacy with which to bring in crowds and/or recruits. The single glimmer of hope in this atrocious conference was Alabama State, led by the best backcourt (Brandon Brooks and Andrew Hayles) and the best center (7'1" Chief Kickingstallionsims). Kickingstallionsims also won the award for greatest name on any of the 65 Tournament teams, and I jokingly called him the Navajo Nightmare. Unfortunately, all three of those players are going to be gone next year, and there's no question that Alabama State will take a big step backwards.

Probably the most consistently good team in the SWAC over the past few years has been Jackson State, and they will be in the thick of the title hunt yet again. They lose a lot of key players, but also return a lot of pieces including leading scorer Grant Maxey (16.4 per game), and leading assist man Rod Melvin (3.4 per game). Melvin is especially intriguing because he was only a Freshman this past year, and could end up the premier ball-handler in the SWAC before his college career is over. If Jackson State fails to win the conference it will be because a lack of size, as they will struggle to replace the inside presence of 250+ pounder Jeremy Caldwell.

Prairie View A&M could be an interesting team next year, as they had a ton of depth. They only had one double-digit scorer (Darnell Hugee had 12.0 per game), and they had eight players with double-digit minutes per game, and three others that regularly got non-garbage time minutes. With another year to perfect the rotation, you would think that they could come up with a pretty solid and deep team next season. Their lack of overall talent compared to Jackson State, though, could be a problem.

One final team I'm keeping my eye on is Arkansas-Pine Bluff, because you've always got to keep your eye on a team that goes 11-7 in conference play without a single Senior on the roster. They are probably the top challenger to Jackson State this coming season, but they are probably too inexperienced to go all the way. They may be the favorites in 2010-11, but for this coming season the favorite has to be Jackson State.

Summit League

The Summit had one of their better seasons in a long while, including a final triumph for a North Dakota State team that had the 2008-09 season circled on their calenders for about five or six years now (whenever they began the D-II-to-D-I transition. They were an outstanding team that probably would have won a Tournament game if they hadn't got screwed with their seeding (Kansas was just a little too good of an opponent). Of course, with everything geared towards this past season, the Bison are actually going to be a bit shorthanded next year. Obviously Ben Woodside is going to be an irreplaceable loss, but their other two double-digit scorers will be gone as well. Their top three rebounders and assist men will be gone as well. It will be a long time before North Dakota State will have a team this good again.

Probably the most consistently good team the last five-to-ten years in this conference (assuming that we consider the Mid-Continent Conference the same conferencel, since it really just changed names) has been Oral Roberts. But they, too, are really devastated by graduations. They return no double-digit scorers, and their only chance will be if rising-Sophomore wingman Dominique Morrison (9.6 ppg, 3 rpg, 81% free throw shooting) can speed up the maturation process and become an All-Summit player.

The team that returns the most talent might be IUPUI. They lose their leading scorer, Erik Kangas, but that's about it, and they have enough key scorers returning to pick up the slack. They also have a big weapon in 6'11" rising-Junior Keith Benson (14 ppg, 8 rpg, 62% shooting). Southern Utah also can't be ignored because despite a lot of losses they will return explosive scorer Davis Baker (17.4 per game) for one final season.

The darkhorse in this conference is South Dakota State, which was better than their record this past year. They had a Sagarin ELO_CHESS of 263rd, and a PREDICTOR of 215th, which means they lost a ton of close games (according to they went 4-8 in close games). Now throw in the fact that every player that scored more than three points per game last season (their top seven returning scorers) will all be back, and there is no question that the Jackrabbits will be one of the two or three best teams in the Summit next year. But at this point, I'm projecting them to finish second behind an IUPUI team that just will have the most talent, and that has the experience needed to take the Summit crown.

[Editing Note: As a commenter pointed out, I somehow confused IUPUI with Oakland. It is Oakland that returns almost all of its key players and should be the favorite in the Summit in 2009-10. I apologize to Summit Conference fans for that mess up.]

Sun Belt Conference

The Sun Belt is beginning to get a lot of attention, as Western Kentucky has now won a Tournament game in consecutive years. What makes their success so remarkable is that it came after they lost so many key parts from the great 2007-08 campaign. They lost their outstanding coach Darrin Horn (his performance at South Carolina this season should end any questions about his status as one of the best up-and-coming coaches in the nation), and arguably their three best players (Courtney Lee, Tyrone Brazelton and Ty Rogers). This should be heartening to a program that will again lose its best player (Orlando Mendez-Valdes) to graduation. Mendez-Valdes is pretty much the only regular to go, as every other player that earned double-digit minutes per game will be back. A.J. Slaughter (16 ppg, 4 apg, 77% free throw shooting) will likely be the best ball-handler in the conference, and Steffphon Pettigrew (13 ppg, 5 rpg, 38% 3-point shooting) will again be an outstanding scorer. Jeremy Evans (6'9" and only 190 pounds) will be even better if he can add a little bit of muscle, and Sergio Kerusch (11 ppg, 7 rpg) will also be a key returner. The only flaw among the returning players will be size, unless D.J. Magley (6'9", 225 pounds) can make the leap and become more of a regular player (only 11 minutes per game, after 16 per game as a freshman). Throw in blue chip recruit Terrence Boyd (Scout: 18 SF), who received offers from UConn and Pitt, and it's safe to say that despite the loss of their top scorer, the rich will only be getting richer in the Sun Belt.

The top foil for Western Kentucky two years ago was South Alabama, a team that was inexplicably weak for much of this past season before nearly making a miracle run in the Sun Belt conference tournament (they fell by eight points to Western Kentucky in the title game). I don't see a good reason why they won't actually be worse next season, as all three of their double-digit scorers graduate. Their only chance to return to the top of the conference will be if former Juco transfer LaShun Watson makes a leap in his second and final season with team, or if star recruit Augustin Rubit (Scout: 33 C) makes an immediate impact.

There are a few other teams to keep an eye on. Troy should be very experienced next season, with Juniors comprising their three double-digit scorers this past season. They won't have the athletic talent of Western Kentucky, but they will be a very tough beat because of their experience. Middle Tennessee State is also worth keeping an eye on with eight Juniors on this past year's team including leading scorer Desmond Yates (17.2 per game), and a very deep recruiting class with a trio of three-star recruits according to Also keep an eye on Arkansas-Little Rock, which was the second best team in the league and despite losing two starters will return every other key player. They also welcome in South Florida transfer Solomon Bozeman, who should fill a key role for a team that really lacked any true point guard this past season (their leading assist man had only 2.8 per game).

One darkhorse is North Texas, which returns seven of the eight players that played more than 15 minutes per game last season. Another is a Denver team that had zero Seniors and only one Junior that played in more than one game all season long. They are probably a year away from seriously contending for a Sun Belt title, but they should be vastly improved. But let's be honest, Western Kentucky is just going to be really, really good yet again. And even though the conference could potentially have as many as four teams in the RPI Top 100, I can't see any of them actually beating out the Hilltoppers.


Anonymous said...

Nicely researched and written. You know your stuff

Anonymous said...

I think you've confused IUPUI with Oakland...