Tuesday, March 27, 2012

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

Northeast Conference

The NEC has, historically, been one of the worst conferences in the nation. In fact, it's arguably been the weakest of the automatic qualifying conferences not named the SWAC. But this past season was the strongest the conference has been in more than a decade. LIU, Wagner, Robert Morris and Quinnipiac all had good seasons and would have all been tough NCAA Tournament opponents. The representative ended up being LIU, who unfortunately got stuck with a 16 seed.

LIU will look to get above that 16 seed line next season, with all but one player from their rotation back. They lose starter Michael Culpo (9.4 ppg, 38.0 3P%, 3.2 rpg), but among their returning rotation players are five rising-seniors. They return NEC Player of the Year Julian Boyd (17.4 ppg, 58.5 eFG%, 9.3 rpg), star defender Jamal Olasewere (16.9 ppg, 59.1 eFG%, 7.5 rpg, 1.5 bpg, 1.1 spg), and point guard Jason Brickman (9.6 ppg, 40.6 3P%, 7.3 apg). The biggest need for LIU next season is defense. While teams that play at fast tempos are generally underrated defensively, LIU is truly a mediocre defensive team (1.00 PPP allowed in conference play).

The team rated best in the conference by the computers was Wagner, led by second-year coach Dan Hurley. They lose one starter (Tyler Murray and his 49% three-point shooting) and their sixth man (Chris Martin) to graduation, but with everybody else back this team could have been even better next season. But Hurley has taken the open head coach job at Rhode Island, and he's been replaced by Bashir Mason, who at 28 years old is the youngest coach in Division I. There has been an increasing number of these hires - these very young hot shot assistants getting head coaching jobs. Some have paid off, some haven't. It's impossible to know from a distance right now which one Mason will be. The immediate concern is hanging onto a deep recruiting class that Hurley had put in place. There's also the issue of holding the roster together. If he can keep all of the players in place then the team should be pretty good next season, with young players like Latif Rivers (14.6 ppg, 2.2 apg) and Neofall Folahan (4.3 ppg, 60.4 FG%, 3.7 rpg, 1.7 bpg) to build around for the future.

The team that finished third this past season was Robert Morris. The Colonials won 10 of their final 13 regular season games, then ran all the way to the NEC tournament title game, and then to the quarterfinals of the CIT. And they had this success despite some bad luck - second-to-last in the conference in FT% defense and dead last in 3P% defense. They lose only one player from their roster to graduation (Lawrence Bridges - 3.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg). Their do-everything player is rising-senior Velton Jones (16.0 ppg, 4.5 apg, 1.8 spg), though he would probably be better off if he didn't actually take so much of the load (when on the floor this past season, Jones took 30.7% of his team's shots and assisted on 36.2% of made baskets). He actually has some very efficient young players around him who are developing. He had five teammates that earned 20 or more minutes per game - three were sophomores and one was a freshman. The best prospect is probably Coron Williams (10.8 ppg, 41.0 3P%). I don't think there's any question that Robert Morris should be better with another year of seasoning.

Quinnipiac only went 10-8 in NEC play, but they finished 142nd in Pomeroy and earned a bid to the CBI (a sign of how good the NEC was this past season). The Bobcats lose leading scorer James Johnson (16.5 ppg, 3.5 apg), but return everybody else from their rotation. They have an awfully good player in rising-junior Ike Azotam (15.8 ppg, 55.6 FG%, 9.5 rpg). They have another excellent rebounder in Ousmane Drame (6.5 points and 7.3 rebounds in only 19.5 minutes per game). What they need more than anything is offense, particularly in the paint. Azotam was the only player on the team with an eFG% above 51%. They also need to improve their perimeter defense to seriously contend for the NEC title.

St. Francis (NY) is a team that needs to be mentioned at least briefly because they went 12-6 in conference play and only lose one starter to graduation - Stefan Perunicic (11.6 ppg, 42.4 3P%). A player to really look forward to is Jalen Cannon (8.0 ppg, 55.6 FG%, 8.8 rpg as a true freshman). Their biggest need is improved point guard play from Brent Jones (7.9 ppg, 3.9 apg, 3.3 turnovers per game).

While Central Connecticut State registers as having a very young team in the Pomeroy Experience rating, that's due to two freshman starters. Of their five top minutes earners, three were seniors. So this is a program with a good future, but they're probably another year or two away from contending for a conference title. A better dark horse team is actually Sacred Heart. The Pioneers were unlucky to only finish 8-10 in NEC play (they outscored conference opponents by 0.02 PPP), and they return their top six minutes earners. I don't think they have a serious shot at winning the conference next season, but don't be surprised if they went 11 or 12 conference games next season.

While Wagner would be one of the top contenders for the NEC with Dan Hurley, there's just too much uncertainty around the program until we see what happens to the roster and their 2012 recruits. And the new coach is a total unknown, as opposed to a coach from the well-known Hurley family. In my view, the two top contenders for next season have to be LIU and Robert Morris. And in my opinion, LIU's defensive woes are the difference. Robert Morris was playing their best ball at the end of this past season, and they return almost every key player, with a bunch of young weapons that should only get better with another year of experience. Robert Morris is my pick.

Ohio Valley Conference

I'm fascinated by the most under-reported conference shift in the nation - Belmont moving to the Ohio Valley Conference. Belmont has been one of the premier low-major programs over the past decade, and now they're moving into a conference that has had its own quality programs the past few years (Murray State, Austin Peay, Morehead State, and others). This could go two different ways. The addition of another quality program could push the Ohio Valley to the level of a conference like the Horizon or MAAC that occasionally can earn multiple Tournament bids. It would have been awesome if this past season's Murray State and Belmont teams got to play each other twice. But this conference shift could end up hurting all of these teams, by simply giving them more competition for a single automatic bid each season.

Of course, neither Murray State or Belmont is going to be as good in 2012-13 as they were in 2011-12. Murray State will lose three starters to graduation, though they should get back star Isaiah Canaan for one more season. They also return their leading rebounder, Edward Daniel (6.8 ppg, 58.6 eFG%, 5.5 rpg). They also have a really nice point guard prospect in Zay Jackson (4.9 ppg, 2.3 apg as a true freshman). Latreze Mushatt (4.3 ppg, 4.8 rpg) is a big who will be expected to fill much of the role of the graduating Ivan Aska. Steve Prohm has also cashed in on his team's recent success with a really solid and deep 2012 recruiting class, led by point guard CJ Ford, forward Eric McCree and shooting guard Jeffrey Moss. They also shooting guard Dexter Fields, a transfer from UAB with a nice scoring touch from the perimeter. With so much young talent and one more season of Isaiah Canaan, Murray State isn't going to fall off a cliff. They should be a pretty good team. But they won't be as strong overall, and that will be particularly true if another program can poach Steve Pohm (though at the time I'm writing this, Pohm insists he'll be back for at least one more season).

Belmont has completed a strange two year period. Those that understand and follow the advanced stats know that Belmont has been awfully good the past two seasons. They finished both seasons inside the Pomeroy Top 30. But in both seasons they couldn't pull off that big win that would have gotten them into the national media discussion, and were punished with poor seeds in the NCAA Tournament. And they played competitive games in the Round of 64 both seasons, but just couldn't get the win. And now they lose three players from their seven man main rotation: Mitch Hedgepath (9.6 ppg, 53.2 FG%, 5.6 rpg), Drew Hanlen (10.8 ppg, 48.2 3P%, 3.9 apg) and Scott Saunders (10.2 ppg, 54.7 FG%, 5.0 rpg). That said, they do return leading scorer Kerron Johnson (13.8 ppg, 5.2 apg) and a good shooter in Ian Clark (12.7 ppg, 58.8 eFG%, 40.5 3P%). JJ Mann is a good swing player, and they have a strong recruiting class led by two shooting guards: Craig Bradshaw and Jeff Laidig. Rick Byrd is going to keep running his system, and he's going to keep winning, but I don't see how Belmont can lose Hedgepath, Hanlen and Saunders without taking a fairly big step backwards for at least one season.

The team that finished second in the OVC this past season was Tennessee State. They started the season slow but finished strong. In their final 12 games before Selection Sunday they lost only twice, and both losses came to Murray State. And in that stretch came their own victory over Murray State - the only game the Racers lost before the NCAA Tournament. And Tennessee State isn't going anywhere, losing only one starter to graduation - Wil Peters (7.4 ppg, 3.5 apg). They also lose swing forward Kenny Moore from their rotation. They have one more year with star Robert Covington (17.8 ppg, 60.7 eFG%, 44.8 3P%, 7.9 rpg, 1.5 spg). Jordan Cyphers (36.4 3P%) is another good shooter, and on the inside they got big production from Illinois State transfer Kellen Thornton (9.1 ppg, 4.5 rpg). Patrick Miller (10.8 ppg, 3.6 apg) is another key returner. Another spark was freshman MJ Rhett (3.9 ppg, 4.5 rpg). Tennessee State doesn't have any big newcomers from 2012-13 yet, so they're probably going with this same group of players. But with the way they improved late in the season, and without serious losses to graduation, it's not unreasonable to think that the Tigers will continue to improve and could be a pretty good team next season.

The defending OVC tournament champion was Morehead State. They lost three starters a season ago, including superstar Kenneth Faried, so they were always going to take a step back. All in all, a 10-6 season was pretty good, particularly with leading scorer Terrance Hill going down with a season-ending knee injury halfway through the season. Besides Hill, they lose starters Ty Proffitt (9.9 ppg, 52.2 eFG%) and Lamont Austin (4.4 ppg, 3.2 apg, 1.4 spg). But even with those losses, the aggressive defensive Morehead State style is going to stay. They have several young players who are going to be fairly dangerous defenders within a year or two, including 2011-12 freshmen Angelo Warner and Will Bailey. They also add a solid recruit in shooting guard Roderick Lewis. What the team needs more than anything is a ball handler to keep the team settled on the offensive end (they finished dead last in the OVC in offensive turnover rate and offensive steal rate in conference play). I don't see any obvious point guard prospects (the best they had was Lamont Austin, and he's graduating), so that's a concern that they will potentially try to fix during the late signing period. As good as their defense is, they'll need some semblance of steady offense to contend with Murray State.

I like Tennessee Tech's incoming recruiting class, but they lose three of their top four minute earners from a team that only went 9-7 this past season. If there's a dark horse team, I actually think it's Jacksonville State, a program that has had precisely zero success in the OVC in the past decade. But they went 8-3 in their final 11 regular season games, led by a really strong interior defense. Tarvin Gaines and Nick Cook combined for 4.1 blocks per 40 minutes played, and the team blocked 12.4% of opponent two-point attempts in conference play (the highest block rate in the OVC). And they not only return all five starters, but the only senior on the entire roster was Stephen Hall, who was dismissed from the team halfway through the season and wasn't a part of that strong late season play. Their biggest need is shooting - they finished dead last in the nation with a 26.4 3P% this past season. But with everybody back, this program that has finished above .500 only twice in the past 15 years could be a borderline Top 100 team.

It will be interesting to see how this new combination of teams in the OVC plays out. There are at least five teams that will enter next season as potential Top 100 squads. So for the next year or two, the OVC will be one of the better small conferences. How good will the conference be five years from now? We'll have to wait to find out. For now, I think one last season of Isaiah Canaan means one more season of Murray State as Ohio Valley champ.

Patriot League

Bucknell won the Patriot League regular season title, but any discussion of the conference has to start with Lehigh. I was mystified by the media (including game announcer Jim Nantz) naming the Lehigh upset over Duke as one of the biggest upsets in the history of the NCAA tournament. Don't get me wrong - it was an upset. But Lehigh was only a 12 point underdog for a reason. Besides the fact that Duke was a soft 2 seed, Lehigh was an awfully strong 15 seed. Both Bucknell and Lehigh had really strong seasons. Lehigh entered the NCAA Tournament rated 86th in the Pomeroy ratings (after beating Duke and losing to Xavier they moved to 81st). The Norfolk State win over Missouri was a much more shocking upset. Lehigh, over the course of the season, was far superior to Norfolk State.

What's odd for Lehigh this offseason is that there's actually a risk of losing a player to the draft. CJ McCollum was already considered a potential future NBA player, and with his performance in the NCAA Tournament he has shot up draft boards. He has just announced that he is declaring for the draft, but without hiring an agent, which means that he could still come back to school. And if he goes pro then Lehigh will obviously take a step back. If he doesn't, though, Lehigh will lose just one starter - Jordan Hamilton (6.5 ppg, 50.0 eFG%, 80.9 FT%). They also lose two bench players - John Adams and Justin Maneri. They will return their point guard - Mackey McKnight (8.8 ppg, 3.6 apg) - and key interior player Gabe Knutson (12.2 ppg, 52.5 eFG%, 80.4 FT%, 5.6 rpg). Their biggest need is outside shooting, and a good potential prospect is BJ Bailey (48.0 3P% in only 11.8 minutes per game). They also have a solid shooting guard recruit in Devon Carter. But in the end, everything comes back to McCollum. If he comes back then the team could again be a Top 100 squad. If not, they probably won't.

Bucknell was actually the best team during conference play, outscoring Patriot League opponents by 0.18 PPP (compared to 0.15 PPP for Lehigh). Their overall computer ratings are not as strong as Lehigh because they didn't play as well in non-conference play, but there's no question that they were at their best late in the season. In the NIT they went out and won at Arizona before falling to Nevada in the second round. They had the best defense in the conference, and the only senior in their regular rotation was Bryan Cohen (6.8 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 2.5 apg). Though while not a big scorer, Cohen was the three-time Patriot League defensive player of the year, so his loss will be felt. The core of Mike Muscala, Joe Willman and Bryson Johnson (a combined 37 points per game) will all be seniors next year. While Muscala (17.0 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 1.7 bpg) is the team's star, the second best player by the end of next season could be rising-junior Cameron Ayers (11.1 ppg, 46.8 3P%, 82.7 FT%). Their biggest need, in addition to another perimeter defender, is another big body in the paint. They're hoping to get that out of their top 2012 recruit, 6'7" Dominic Hoffman.

There was a pretty big drop-off after the top two teams in the conference. The third best team was American, though they'll have to replace their top two scorers: Charles Hinkle (18.4 ppg, 41.9 3P%, 83.8 FT%) and Troy Brewer (11.9 ppg, 52.0 eFG%). They also lose two of their rotation players off the bench. Those two combined to take 10.6 three-pointers per game, which drove a team that succeeded because of a 45.2 3P% in conference play. The only strong outside shooter who is returning is Daniel Munoz (8.0 ppg, 43.9 3P%). A key for their future success will be the continued development of 6'10" Tony Wroblicky (6.5 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 1.6 bpg). Their top recruit is 6'5" Jesse Reed, who is another good shooter and who could end up playing shooting guard.

If I had to pick one team to break up Lehigh and Bucknell atop the conference, I think I'd take Holy Cross. They lose leading scorer Devin Brown (14.6 ppg, 52.7 eFG%), and they also lose Mike Cavataio (5.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg), who was a big contributor after missing the first half of the season with an injury. The best player on Holy Cross this past season was arguably sophomore Dave Dudzinski (9.4 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 1.1 bpg), and they also have a nice point guard for the future in Justin Burrell (7.4 ppg and 3.7 apg as a true freshman). Their biggest need is probably another big man to play alongside Dudzinski. Their top 2012 recruit is 6'8" Isaiah Baker.

But in the end, I do think that we'll again be seeing Lehigh and Bucknell dueling it out atop the Patriot League. Even if CJ McCollum doesn't go pro, there are a lot of reasons to think that Bucknell should be favored. They were arguably the better team during conference play this past season, and have a wider array of talent. Lehigh also has spent time celebrating their great win over Duke, while Bucknell will be spending the offseason stewing about what might have been if they hadn't blown a home game against Lehigh with a spot to the NCAA Tournament on the line. When you throw in the fact that there's a real chance that McCollum will leave early to go to the NBA, I think that Bucknell has to be considered the initial favorite to win the Patriot League in 2012-13.

Southern Conference

Davidson was one of the most underrated teams in the nation this past season. They weren't a bubble team or anything, but in terms of team quality they deserved to be mentioned with squads like Oral Roberts, Iona, Drexel and others. They destroyed the SoCon, leading in both offensive efficiency (1.14 PPP) and defensive efficiency (0.92 PPP) in conference play. In non-conference play they beat Kansas and Richmond, with their only bad loss coming at the hands of Charlotte. And in the NCAA Tournament, there's no shame in losing by seven points to a team that made the Final Four. What made it particularly amazing was that this team had zero seniors in the regular rotation. They return their top eight scorers, including five that averaged double-digit scoring per game. Their star is De'Mon Brooks (15.7 ppg, 6.2 rpg), and they also have a really nice inside player in 6'10" Jake Cohen (14.3 ppg, 87.6 FT%, 6.1 rpg, 1.7 bpg). The media selected Jake Cohen as the 2011-12 SoCon Player of the Year, while the coaches selected De'Mon Brooks. While there are a lot of things impressive with how Bob McKillop has coached this team, what impresses me most is that the team has such a low turnover rate (they led the conference with turnovers on only 16.5% of offensive possessions) without a true point guard. Everybody on the team can handle the ball. Next year's Davidson squad might not be as good as the Stephen Curry Elite Eight team, but they should be Top 50 and could potentially challenge for an at-large bid.

While Davidson is the overwhelming favorite in the SoCon for next season, I wouldn't start carving names into trophies quite yet. It's worth looking at some of the other teams. I think we need to start with Wofford, the team that had swept the SoCon's regular season and tournament titles in both 2010 and 2011. The loss of longtime stars Noah Dahlman, Cameron Rundles and Jamar Diggs meant that the 2011-12 season was always going to be a rebuilding year, which it was. Their defense tightened up as the year went along, and they actually won 10 of their final 15 games to earn a bid to the CBI. And getting into the CBI is no joke - as each year passes, it appears to be gaining in stature. This year, a full half of the bracket consisted of teams from BCS conferences, the Mountain West, Missouri Valley, WCC and Butler. That said, I do think that Wofford's rebuilding is going to take another year or two. They lose three more starters to graduation, The rest of the rotation? All freshmen and sophomores. They also add a couple of new recruits, along with Indiana Faithfull, arguably their top 2011 recruit (he redshirted the 2011-12 season). Mike Young is one of the better small conference coaches, and I think he's got a nice core in place to make a run at the SoCon title in a year or two, though it's hard to see how they can contend with Davidson next season.

Wofford was tied for second place in the SoCon standings with Georgia Southern. Charlton Young has done a good job of mining the Georgia/Florida area for talent, and he has athletes that had success this past season with a fairly aggressive defense. Their best player, Eric Ferguson (15.4 ppg, 58.1 eFG%, 7.2 rpg), might be the most talented athlete in the conference. Their front court will be fine for the future, with young prospects like Marvin Baynham, Tyrone Brown and Kameron Dunnigan. The bigger concern is at the point, where they struggled with turnovers (a 21.4% turnover rate) and where lose their starter (Willie Powers). Their other graduation from the starting lineup is also in the backcourt (Ben Drayton). Jelani Hewitt (10.5 ppg, 39.6 3P%) is the one established backcourt player returning. 2011 recruit Jessie Pernell is a potential point guard starter for next season, or they could pick up another recruit out of what's still available in the 2012 recruiting class. They've already added a shooting guard to that class: Cleon Roberts.

If I was going to pick a dark horse it would be College of Charleston, though everything with that program is up in the air now that Bobby Cremins is retiring. It's always possible that a school can see an exodus of players when a coach like Cremins leaves, so I'll have to keep an eye on that, but if everybody stays then the team should be pretty good. This Charleston team actually beat Tennessee, Clemson and UMass early in the season, but started scuffling in mid-January and then lost Cremins to a medical leave-of-absence, and never really got the ship righted. The lose one starter to graduation - Antwaine Wiggins (15.9 ppg, 51.4 eFG%, 6.5 rpg). Everybody else will be back, including some really good interior defenders. Adjehi Baru was a big time 2011 recruit, and as a true freshman he led the team in offensive rebounds per game (2.6) and had a steady walk to the free throw line (though he'll have to improve on his 50.9 FT%). Trent Wiedeman (12.1 ppg, 8.7 rpg) is another very good interior player. Their biggest need is shooting - they were dead last in the SoCon with a 46.8 eFG% in conference play. Anthony Stitt and Nori Johnson are two young backcourt players with a lot of potential. Stitt (a 37.1 3P%) is an important piece for the future. His injury (he got hurt in mid-January and missed 12 games) was a big part of Charleston's slide. But the biggest key for Charleston is getting a good coach, and a coach who can keep all of the talent in place.

If there's a dark horse team, I think it's actually Elon. What I like about Elon's future is that they have a core of four sophomores that all played at least 25 minutes per game. They lose one of the starters to graduation - Drew Spradlin (9.1 ppg, 40.0 3P%). Elon does one thing well - they shoot the ball. They hit 37.2% of threes taken during conference play. Spradlin is a lost, but they return four other players that hit 35% or better behind the arc. And their 2012 recruiting class adds another shooter in Tanner Samson. They're not going to be a better team than Davidson next season, but they're definitely the type of team that could go 13-5 and surprise a lot of people.

In the end, all of these other teams are playing for second place in the standings, and to have the best chance to pull an upset in the SoCon tournament. Because let's be honest, Davidson is going to be awfully good next season. They're the heavy favorite.

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