Monday, March 26, 2012

2012-13 Preview: One-Bid Conferences, Part I

Southland Conference

The conference shifts between the larger conferences are continuing to have ripple effects in the smaller conferences. The Southland Conference is one of several conferences that has seen major changes. The WAC has had a bunch of their teams poached the past few years, and they are trying to re-fill the coffers. Among the teams they are adding are three Southland squads: UT-Arlington, UT-San Antonio and Texas State. In response, the Southland has added Oral Roberts. And for the 2013-14 season, they'll be adding Houston Baptist. Overall, it doesn't really change the conference's footprint, so I don't think it will change the strength of the conference in the long run.

Of the programs making up next year's Southland Conference, the team that performed best in 2011-12 was newcomer Oral Roberts. Oral Roberts was such a good team that they were seriously considered by the Selection Committee on Selection Sunday. They had of a 27-6 record with wins over Xavier, Missouri State, South Dakota State and Akron, and only two bad losses (Texas-San Antonio and Oklahoma). That said, Oral Roberts loses three starters to graduation, including Dominique Morrison (19.8 ppg, 55.0 eFG%) and Michael Craion (10.9 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 1.6 spg, 0.9 bpg). Morrison was the team's one perimeter threat, which is going to put more pressure on the interior scorers and rebounders. With Craion graduating, that leaves Steven Roundtree and Damen Bell-Holter. They add 6'7" Shawn Glover, a transfer who played 24 minutes per game at Utah in 2010-11, and they also add 6'11" Jorden Kaufman as a 2012 recruit. The biggest offensive need for Oral Roberts is at the point, where they lose their starter (Roderick Pearson), who wasn't that steady anyway. DJ Jackson was a point guard in their 2011 class, but he was declared academically ineligible and could not play this past season. If he can get eligible and if Scott Sutton hangs around, then Oral Roberts will still be a pretty good team. But if they lose their coach and/or don't have a point guard then I think that they will suffer a fairly serious drop-off.

While regular season Southland champion Texas-Arlington is gone to the WAC, the Southland's NCAA Tournament representative was Lamar. The big story with Lamar, of course, was Pat Knight eviscerating his seniors in the press conference after their loss to Stephen F Austin, followed by six straight wins and the conference tournament title. Let me be in the small minority of people who don't really see a connection there. Mainstream sportswriters love narratives, so they love to connect "players only meetings" or critical media coverage or anything else to performance. It's all confirmation bias. Nobody hears about players only meetings if the team then goes out and gets stomped. Players get criticized all the time - sometimes they play better the next day and sometimes they don't. Besides, Lamar got the benefit of having Texas-Arlington taken out by McNeese State in the Southland tournament. Lamar did close the season with six straight wins, but they were favored in all six games. And it's not exactly abnormal for a senior-heavy team to play their best ball at the end of the season, when they can start seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. And this was a team that started five seniors. They lose their five top scorers, their four top assist men and their three top rebounders, as well as the only four players that shot over 30% behind the arc. So, it's a rebuilding effort coming up for Pat Knight. There are no obvious big time recruits coming in, so I wouldn't expect Lamar to contend for another Southland title for at least a couple of seasons.

The team Lamar took out in the Southland Conference title game was McNeese State, a team that in one stretch from late January into February won eight straight games. They do lose three starters to graduation, including leading scorer Patrick Richard (17.9 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 3.3 apg) and their top interior defender, Daniel Richard (7.2 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per 40 minutes played). The leading scorer next season will probably be Dontae Cannon (11.5 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 2.8 apg), though their best prospect going forward is probably Desharick Guidry (6.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg as a true freshman). It's hard to see the team being quite as good as they were this past season, but if they can find a shooter or two and tighten up their defense then they could be a Southland contender again.

The team that finished second in the regular season standings behind Texas-Arlington was Stephen F Austin. The Lumberjacks were a team that improved drastically throughout the season, winning 10 of 12 before falling in the Southland tournament to Lamar. They lose leading scorer Jereal Scott (12.4 per game) to graduation, though he was a bit of a volume scorer (he took 31.5% of his team's shots while he was on the floor). Their top two returners will both be seniors next season: Jonathan King (6.4 ppg, 51.9 eFG%, 4.8 rpg) and Taylor Smith (9.2 ppg, 70.1 eFG%, 6.3 rpg, 1.3 bpg). Smith also anchors the interior defense that was the heart of the Stephen F Austin success. Their two biggest needs are ball handling and outside shooting. Either Hal Bateman, Antonio Bostic and Darius Gardner will have to improve their point guard skills. As for outside shooting, if they can't find a player that can shoot well, they need to at least get players like Desmond Haymon (3.8 3PAs per game at a 26.4% clip) to shoot less. But they were an atrocious outside shooting team this past season (27.9% behind the arc as a team) and still went 12-4 in the Southland and played at their best late in the season. I don't think there's any question that they'll be a contender for a Southland title.

One of the teams that seems to be a perennial contender in the Southland is Sam Houston State. They struggled badly this past season, going only 7-9 in Southland play, their worst won-loss record in conference play since the 1998-99 season. This past season broke a streak of seven consecutive seasons finishing with one of the three best records in Southland conference play. The problem? Offense. They scored only 0.91 PPP in conference play, struggling with ball handling, shooting and offensive rebounding (in other words, every major offensive factor). Their one graduating starter is Marcus James, who led the team with 7.1 rebounds per game, but their best prospect is 6'11 Michael Holyfield, who averaged 10.5 points and 9.8 rebounds per 40 minutes played, with 56% shooting. Holyfield was their top 2011 recruit, and he could play a major role next season. The team also adds 6'7" Erik Williams, who was fairly effective in limited minutes during two seasons at Marquette. I don't think there's any question that Sam Houston State will be much better next season. But good enough to win the whole league? That's going to be much more difficult.

If there's a dark horse for next season, it has to be Nicholls State. Not only do they return every player from last season, but they only had one player earn more than 50 minutes all season long who was a junior. Their leading scorer and rebounder was freshman Trevon Lewis (12.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 52.7 eFG%). That said, the Southland conference isn't the SWAC - without some big time recruits or transfers (neither of which Nicholls State has), a team isn't going to go from 330th in Pomeroy to the conference title in one season.

So that leaves us with Stephen F Austin, Oral Roberts and Sam Houston State as the chief contenders. I'm a bit nervous taking Oral Roberts because Scott Sutton is linked to so many jobs (as I type this, Tulsa seems to be the favorite in the clubhouse to secure Sutton as their new coach). San Houston State might be the team with the highest talent ceiling, but Stephen F Austin finished the season strong to get into the Pomeroy Top 150, and they should only be better next season. In my opinion, Stephen F Austin is the early Southland favorite.

Southwestern Athletic Conference

Once again, the SWAC spent the season determining which of its teams would play in a 16/16 play-in game. Mississippi Valley State dominated the conference, going 20-1 against SWAC teams, including conference tournament games. They went 1-12 against non-SWAC teams, with the one win coming in double-overtime over Tennessee State. Their loss in the 16/16 game in the NCAA Tournament was an embarrassing late game collapse against the 7th place Sun Belt team.

Mississippi Valley State finished with a nice RPI (144th) by SWAC standards, though Sagarin and Pomeroy had them closer to 250th. More importantly, they aren't going to be anything close to the same team next season. Five players from their eight man rotation will graduate. The one returner amongst the five top minute earners is Paul Crosby (13.1 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 1.6 spg). They do have a pretty good recruit coming in next year (by SWAC standards) in Ruston Hayward, but it will be a rebuilding season for the Delta Devils.

The team that finished in second place in the SWAC, and the only team other than Mississippi Valley State to finish above .500 overall, was Southern. They lose two starters to graduation, including star Quinton Doggett (12.3 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 1.9 bpg). He was the anchor of their interior defense, which was the key to their success (they led the SWAC in 2P% defense and eFG% defense in conference play). The other graduating starter, Fredrick Coleman, was the team leader in eFG% (57.7%). That means that a team that was fairly putrid on offense is losing its best scorer and best rebounder, without any plausible replacements. And the strength of their team, their interior defense, is gone. It's hard to see how they can contend for the SWAC title next year.

According to Sagarin and Pomeroy, the second best team in the conference was actually Texas Southern. They tied Mississippi Valley State for the best PPP margin in conference play (+0.14), and actually came within five points of knocking off Colorado, which would have been the best win by any SWAC team this season by far. In fact, to give you a sign of the futility of the SWAC, it would have been the first win by any SWAC team over an RPI Top 100 team in six seasons, since Alabama State knocked off South Alabama. Texas Southern had the top defense in the SWAC, holding opponents to 0.83 PPP in conference play. They lose a couple of senior starters, both both of them actually played limited minutes despite starting. The top five minutes earners will all return. Their leading scorer was Omar Strong (13.3 ppg, 53.6 eFG%, 38.9 3P%), and their best interior presence was Fred Sturdivant (9.1 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 1.4 bpg). Both Strong and Sturdivant will be seniors next season.

The final top contender to talk about is Prairie View A&M, simply because they went 10-8 last season and return all five starters. What held them back was truly atrocious offense. They mustered only a 44.0 eFG% against SWAC defenses, and finished the season with an unbelievable 54.2 FT%, dead last in the nation. In fact, I was able to find stats going back through the 1997-98 season and couldn't find another Division I team with a FT% that bad. It seems almost incomprehensible for a team to be that awful at the line. Ronald Wright, one of their starters, finished 13-for-46 (28%) at the line. Goodness. Anyway, with a half-decent defense, all they need to do is spend some time in the gym taking shooting practice and they should contend near the top of the SWAC. Their best player is probably Demondre Chapman (8.4 ppg, 4.6 rpg).

A dark horse team is Grambling. Even in the SWAC, a team that went 4-24 this past season can only be a dark horse. But that said, they return every single player and also add a nice recruit in point guard Tivius Guthrie. Pomeroy rated their offense the absolute worst in the nation this past season, but Guthrie and another year of experience should help. And as bad as Grambling was, there just isn't a big enough gap between being at the basement of Division I and winning the SWAC. But I've got to pick one of these teams, and my pick for now is Texas Southern. They were rated the second best team in the conference and return their top five minutes earners. And it's always a good thing when your two best players are going to be seniors.

Summit League

The Summit League (or as it was previously known, the Mid-Continent Conference) has seemingly forever been a stepping stone league. Programs like Valparaiso, Wisconsin-Green Bay, Northern Iowa and Akron all built up their programs in the Summit and then moved on to bigger and better conferences. The latest in that long line is Oral Roberts - they are moving to the Southland. It's a seemingly parallel move, though the conference does make more sense geographically. They'll be able to spend less money on travel. Southern Utah is also leaving, to the Big Sky, though they haven't been a contender atop the conference in more than a decade. The conference adds Nebraska-Omaha, a program that has been transitioning from Division II to Division I. It's possible that a few years from now they'll be a strong program, but for the near future it's hard to see Oral Roberts+Southern Utah for Nebraska-Omaha as an even trade for the conference.

The revelation in the Summit League this past season was South Dakota State. They won their final five regular season games by double-digits, including a 21 point thumping of Buffalo as part of Bracketbusters, and then took advantage of quasi-homecourt advantage in the Summit tournament (as well as the shocking upset of Oral Roberts at the hands of Western Illinois) to earn their first NCAA Tournament bid. They acquitted themselves well, hanging in against Baylor to the very end of the game. And there's no reason to expect a drop-off with four starters back, including superstar Nate Wolters (21.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 5.9 apg, 1.7 spg). Their one loss is Griffin Callahan (10.4 ppg, 40.3 3P%), but they have an array of shooters (Chad White, Brayden Carlson, Jordan Dykstra) who will all be back to pick up the slack. The biggest need for South Dakota State to reach the next level is size and rebounding. Their best option is Marcus Heemstra, who was a highly rated 2010 recruit who has been pretty good in limited minutes (2.1 rpg in only 8.9 minutes per game). Assuming Wolters stays healthy all season, I think it's fair to expect South Dakota State to again be a borderline Top 50 team.

After Oral Roberts and South Dakota State, the best team in the Summit this past season was Oakland. I was fairly surprised by how poorly they finished - only 17-15 overall and with computer ratings near 150th. To be fair, they did have some luck working against them - teams shot a scorching 39.0% behind the arc and 72.8% at the line against them (while most people accept that free throw defense is all luck, it's also true that 3P% defense is almost entirely luck - the sign of a good three-point defense is limiting attempts, not a lower 3P%). Oakland loses two starters to graduation: star Reggie Hamilton (team-leading 26.2 ppg) and Laval Lucas-Perry, the transfer from Michigan. Lucas-Perry won't be tough to replace, but Hamilton will. He led the team not only in points, but also assists (5.0 per game), three-point percentage (42.2%) and steals (2.0 per game). Next season, I'd expect Oakland to be much stronger on the interior. Their best freshman was Corey Petros (8.8 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 55.7% shooting), and they have a 7-foot freshman named Kyle Sikora (7.5 rebounds per 40 minutes played, along with 63.3% shooting) who just needs time to develop. They will also try to bolster their backcourt with Providence transfer Duke Mondy, as well as 2011 recruit Matt Poches, who played sparingly as a true freshman. Reggie Hamilton will not be replaced in one season, but I do believe that Oakland still has a lot of offensive weapons. Their problem is defense, and if they can clean that up during the offseason then they can definitely pose a threat to South Dakota State next season.

Western Illinois and North Dakota State were the next two teams in the standings, with both finishing 9-9. Western Illinois is a team that came on late in the season with aggressive defense and nice outside shooters. They nearly took out South Dakota State in the Summit tournament title game, and came into that game having won four straight, with a win over Oral Roberts and a pair of wins over North Dakota State. They do lose two starters to graduation, including star Ceola Clark (13.3 ppg, 59.0 eFG%, 4.7 apg). The point guard spot will presumably be turned over to Jalen Packer, a talented player who was sloppy as a true freshman (4.1 turnovers per 40 minutes played). They have plenty of shooters, and the defense should still be solid, so if Packer can mature as a player then Western Illinois should be a decent team again. Their biggest weakness will be in the interior, where they were dead last in the Summit in 2P%, and second-to-last in offensive rebounding percentage. Terrell Parks (11.9 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 61.0 FG%) is good, but he was all that Western Illinois has last season. Their best prospect inside is 6'10" David Gebru.

North Dakota State, meanwhile, has been in very good hands with Saul Phillips. I really don't understand why Phillips doesn't get named as a potential hire for more top mid-majors. He has a really good pedigree, having played for four years under Bo Ryan and then coaching under Ryan for five years, and then coaching under Tim Miles at North Dakota State for several years before Miles took the Colorado State job. He's young, and after orchestrating that great 2008-09 season at North Dakota State he quickly re-stocked the cupboard. This past year's squad struggled at times, but they did it with an extremely young team. The five starters, and the top three minutes earners off the bench, were all freshmen and sophomores. Taylor Braun (15.4 ppg, 6.6 rpg) was the leading scorer, though you can argue that Marshall Bjorkland (11.6 ppg, 67.1 FG%, 5.9 rpg) was an even better all-around player. Freshman Lawrence Alexander played the point fairly well, and you'd expect a nice improvement between his freshman and sophomore seasons. The biggest need for North Dakota State is size, particularly on the offensive glass, and Saul Phillips will attempt to address that with top 2012 recruit Chris Kading, a 6'8" power forward with more athleticism than is normally seen in the Summit. North Dakota State should be very much improved next season, and could be awfully scary in the 2013-14 season, when all of these sophomores will be seniors.

The bottom half of the conference was quite a bit back from the top half of the conference, and all of those teams suffer multiple key losses to graduation, so I think that next year's champion will have to come from the four teams I've talked about above. And while the loss of Oral Roberts does hurt, those four teams should be strong enough to make the Summit a very competitive conference yet again. While North Dakota State might be the team with the highest ceiling, I think that South Dakota State has to be the favorite as long as Nate Wolters is healthy. They got a taste of the NCAA Tournament, and next year they'll be hoping for a better seed so that they'll have a real chance of winning a game or two. It will then be the following season, after Wolters graduates, that North Dakota State will likely wrest back control of the conference from their rivals.

Sun Belt Conference

The Sun Belt had a bit of a weird season. Teams that been among the best over the past decade (Western Kentucky, North Texas, etc) and the preseason favorite (Florida Atlantic) struggled. But at the same time, non-traditional Sun Belt powers like Middle Tennessee and Denver had really nice seasons. Middle Tennessee in particular was outstanding, beating teams like Belmont, UCLA, Ole Miss and Akron. You could actually make a decent at-large case for them (probably as good as you could make for Iona, honestly). If they had won the Sun Belt tournament they'd have been a dangerous NCAA Tournament. But instead they fell, and Western Kentucky somehow snuck through. No offense to a Western Kentucky team that has had a lot of success historically, but this was not a vintage WKU team. They needed a huge collapse by an atrocious SWAC team just to survive the 16/16 play-in game.

Middle Tennessee rated as a team with a ton of experience last season, but that doesn't mean that they'll be decimated by graduations. Star LaRon Dendy (14.6 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 1.4 bpg, 54.8 eFG%) graduates, but (other than lightly used sub Jimmy Oden) he's the only graduation. This past year's team started four juniors that will all be back next season, led by Bruce Massey (6.1 ppg, 3.9 apg) at the point, Raymond Cintron (8.4 ppg, 43.2 3P%) as an outside shooter, and JT Sutton (10.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg), with Marcos Knight (11.8 ppg) rounding out the returning starters. Kerry Hammonds (45.1 3P%) will be another scorer who will play a big role next year. The biggest concern (particularly with Dendy graduating) is rebounding, which was mediocre this past season. Shawn Jones (3.1 offensive rebounds per 40 minutes played) is the most likely to fill those shoes.

Western Kentucky, of course, was the Sun Belt's representative in the NCAA Tournament. They were a deserved 7-9 in conference play (they were outscored during regular season Sun Belt games), but their offense got hot at the right time and they stole the Sun Belt tournament title. They lose Kahlil McDonald (their fourth leading scorer - 8.3 per game) to graduate, but everybody else is back. Their leading scorer and rebounder was Derrick Gordon, a freshman. As Gordon gets more efficient with experience, he'll become a very good Sun Belt player. The biggest concern for Western Kentucky this past season was shooting - they were dead last in Sun Belt play in 3P% and eFG%. TJ Price (35.6 3P%), another freshman, was their best shooter. As he improves, it will open up the entire Western Kentucky offense. I don't think there's any question that this team will be improved next season, but they're still a long way from being a Top 100 team.

Arkansas-Little Rock won the Sun Belt West and had the second best conference record, which they achieved with good team defense as well as solid ball handling from Chuck Guy and D'Andre Williams. D'Andre Williams will graduate, as will Courtney Jackson, another starter. The biggest area of potential improvement for UALR is in the paint, where they have a pair of young 6'10" players in Will Neighbour (10.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg) and Michael Javes (5.0 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 1.5 bpg). With those two locking down the paint, their defense should stay solid. A need is perimeter scoring, and top 2012 recruit Stetson Gillings will try to help provide that. UALR has a nice young core going forward, though I think they're still a year away from topping Middle Tennessee.

With Denver leaving the Sun Belt for the WAC, the second best returning Sun Belt team according to the computers is actually North Texas. The star for North Texas, of course, is Tony Mitchell (14.7 ppg, 10.3 rpg, 3.0 bpg), the former Missouri commit. And the big question is if he'll come back for another season or if he'll go pro. Roger Franklin, the Oklahoma State transfer, also brought a lot of athleticism. Their biggest problem this past season was ball handling, where freshman Chris Jones was very sloppy (5.0 turnover per 40 minutes played). You have to expect that another year of experience will do him good. With no key players graduating, North Texas will be improved... unless Mitchell leaves. Right now he's projected to be a borderline first round NBA Draft pick, though I think he'd probably drop to the early second round. It would probably do him some good to stick around for another season, and if he does then North Texas should be a Top 100 team.

I've been amazed at how things have come crashing down at Florida Atlantic. Mike Jarvis had built a really nice team around his super point, 5'6" Ray Taylor. This past season was supposed to be the year that they finally broke through and won the Sun Belt. But something in their internal chemistry just didn't work, and everything fell apart around them. And now, after a terrible season, Ray Taylor is leaving the program a year early to go play pro in Europe, Kore White (their leading rebounder and defensive post presence) is leaving via transfer, and leading scorer Greg Gantt went public in the media in trashing the team. The whole athletic department at FAU is in flux, and it'll be a while before they can get the basketball program straightened out again. Unless the personnel issues are intolerable, though, I'd keep Jarvis there. He's a good coach who will make FAU a strong program if given enough time.

If there's a dark horse team it's South Alabama. They return all five starters, including Augustin Rubit (15.2 ppg, 9.2 rpg), who is rapidly becoming one of the best players in the Sun Belt. Mychal Ammons, a really good 2011 recruit, has made an immediate impact on the boards as well (2.4 offensive boards per game), and South Alabama actually finished second in the nation with a 42.2 offensive rebounding percentage. What South Alabama needs more than anything is a point guard that can take care of the ball, and I don't see an obvious candidate on the roster. That might be what holds them back from seriously contending for a conference title.

Any Sun Belt discussion has to start with Middle Tennessee. With four returning starters that will all be seniors next year, it's hard to see any significant drop-off. LaRon Dendy is a big loss, but Middle Tennessee still has an excellent chance of being a Top 50 team again. If Tony Mitchell comes back for another season then North Texas will probably be the top competition. If Mitchell goes pro then I think I'd probably give the edge for second place to Western Kentucky. But in the end, I do think that this group of Middle Tennessee seniors will break through and earn that NCAA Tournament bid that slipped away from them a few weeks ago.


Sean said...

Not even a mention of Lafayette in your Patriot League preview... :/

Jeff said...

Haha, sorry. If I talked about everybody it'd take me two months to get through these previews.