Tuesday, March 31, 2015

2015-16 Preview: Mid Majors, Part II

Horizon League

The Horizon League was strong at the top, but not quite strong enough to realistically be in the bubble hunt. Both Valparaiso and Green Bay lacked the premier win that would have made them viable on Selection Sunday. Valparaiso earned the outright league title, which earned them the Horizon League title game on their home court, which they won over Green Bay. And they took Maryland down to the final possession in the NCAA Tournament Round of 64, but lost by three. Green Bay earned a 5 seed in the NIT, where they went down meekly at Illinois State. In the end, the only Horizon League team to actually win a postseason game was Cleveland State, who beat Western Michigan in the first round of the CIT before losing to NJIT.

Valparaiso will contend for a conference title again next season. They're not without losses, as they graduate two starters, including Horizon League Defensive Player of the Year Vashil Fernandez. But they return star big man Alec Peters (16.8 ppg, 58.7 eFG%, 6.7 rpg) and a backcourt led by Darien Walker and point guard Keith Carter, who missed around six weeks with an injury. And of course, Carter only got the starting point guard job after Lexus Williams (6.5 ppg and 2.4 apg in 2013-14) tore his acl preseason, and Williams should be back next season. The front court is hit hard by those two graduations, but they do add 6'7" Shane Hammink (1.6 ppg and 1.4 rpg over two seasons at LSU) and have an up-and-comer in 6'8" David Skara (5.4 ppg and 3.2 rpg as a true freshman). They also add a talented 6'11" recruit in Derrik Smits, the son of Rik Smits.

Green Bay is hit harder by graduations, losing Horizon League Player of the Year Kiefer Sykes, who has a good chance to have a long NBA career. They also lose two front court starters in Greg Mays and Alfonzo McKinnie. They do return shooting guard Carrington Love and talented front court scorer Jordan Fouse, as well as a talented prospect in Daeshon Francis (4.5 ppg in 13.5 mpg with a 62.1 FG% as a true freshman). But with no big additions, it's hard to see how they don't take a step back next season.

The team that started the season incredibly slowly but came on strong was Cleveland State. They went just 6-8 in non-conference play, but actually finished second in the Horizon in efficiency margin in conference play (ahead of Valparaiso). They lose a couple of starters to graduation, including point guard (and 49% three-point shooter) Charlie Lee. They are also losing leading-scorer Trey Lewis (15.8 ppg, 40.5 3P%, 54.2 eFG%) to transfer. That said, they have one more season of star big man Anton Grady, who will likely duel with Alec Peters for Horizon League Player of the Year next season. Their backcourt should be fine even without Trey Lewis. Kaza Keane can handle the point, with Andre Yates a capable shooting guard. They will look for increased production from Terrell Hales, who was effective in limited minutes as a true freshman, and also add 6'1" Myles Hamilton, who averaged 6.0 ppg and 2.4 apg over two seasons at Kennesaw State. Meanwhile, their front court will add 6'9" Jonothan Janssen, a 2014 recruit who took a redshirt. They also add 6'7" Jeron Rogers as their top 2015 recruit.

Oakland, like Cleveland State, improved dramatically as the year went on. They started 4-10 before going 11-5 in conference play. They lose two starters, including leading rebounder Corey Petros (8.2 per game). They do return star Kahlil Felder, though, who led the team in both points and assists (18.1 ppg, 7.6 apg), as well as a young core built around redshirt freshmen Nick Daniels and Jalen Hayes. They also add three transfers from the Big 12. First they add 6'9" Percy Gibson and 6'4" Sherron Dorsey-Walker from Iowa State. Gibson averaged 4.0 ppg and 2.1 rpg over three seasons at Iowa State, while Sherron Dorsey-Walker was averaging 3.0 ppg and 1.3 rpg in three games for Iowa State this past season before leaving (meaning he'll have to sit out the fall semester before being eligible). They also look likely to add 6'4" Martez Walker, who averaged 4.7 ppg and 2.3 rpg as a freshman at Texas in 2013-14 before leaving over a domestic assault. Their top 2015 recruit is 6'10" Brad Brechting.

Milwaukee was ineligible for the postseason this past season, but they were solidly in the middle of the pack, and head into next season losing just one player from their regular rotation, though it's starting point guard John McWhorter. They return star big man Matt Tiby, and have a nice young backcourt duo in Akeem Springs and Cody Wichmann. And they have a potential point guard for the future in Justin Jordan, who was effective off the bench as a true freshman. They also get back 6'6" Austin Arians, who averaged 11.1 ppg and 3.5 rpg as a sophomore but had to miss this past season because of an injury. Their biggest problem this past season was a lack of size, both defensively and on the glass. 6'10" JJ Panoske should get increased playing time, as should 6'9" Brett Prahl, who was effective defensively but not offensively as a redshirt freshman this past season. Milwaukee adds 6'7" Scotty Tyler, who averaged 2.0 ppg and 1.4 rpg as a freshman at Idaho State in 2013-14.

If there's a team outside the Top 4 to make a run at the top of the league next season, however, I'd bet on Detroit. They lose two starters, including leading scorer Juwan Howard, Jr, but they have a really nice young core led by Horizon Freshman of the Year Paris Bass (12.4 ppg, 5.7 rpg. 1.9 apg, 1.2 spg, 1.1 bpg) and shooting guard Matthew Grant. They also return their best shooter, Anton Wilson (8.5 ppg, 41.8 3P%). Jaleel Hogan is a 6'6" forward who looked good off the bench as a true freshman as well.

That said, it's hard to see how programs like Milwaukee or Detroit that were so far behind Valparaiso this past season can catch up with them when they're likely to be even better next season. In the end, here's how I see the top of the league playing out:

1. Valparaiso
2. Oakland
3. Cleveland State
4. Detroit
5. Milwaukee

Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference

Other than Manhattan fans, every other fan of the MAAC was rooting for Iona to win the conference title game against the Jaspers. But Manhattan pulled it out, and while Iona probably was heading for a 12 seed in the NCAA Tournament, Manhattan ended up in the 16/16 game with Kentucky waiting. Manhattan proceeded to lose that game to Hampton also. Iona ended up a 6 seed in the NIT, where they lost their opening game at Rhode Island. The only MAAC team that ended up winning a postseason game was Canisius, who beat Dartmouth and Bowling Green in the CIT before falling to NJIT.

Last season, Steve Masiello used an NCAA Tournament appearance to jump to a bigger school. After that blew up in his face he had to return to Manhattan with his tail between his legs. Will he jump again? Perhaps. His team loses three of their top five minute earners, including star Emmy Andujar (16.3 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 3.5 apg, 2.0 spg). They still return top end talent, though, in 6'10" former Maryland transfer Ashton Pankey and shooting guard Shane Richards (13.2 ppg, 38.0 3P%). Tyler Wilson should slide in as a capable starting point guard next season. They will hope to get back 6'4" Samson Usilo, a highly touted 2014 recruit who missed the season with injury (and should receive a redshirt). They need more size, and should get it. 6'10" Jermaine Lawrence missed a bunch of time and should be back. They will hope to get bigger contributions from 6'9" Zane Waterman, who showed some flashes as a true freshman. In addition, their 2015 recruiting class has two bigs, led by 6'8" Vincent Eze.

Iona loses MAAC Player of the Year David Laury (19.8 ppg, 9.7 rpg, 2.8 apg, 1.3 bpg), but everybody else from their regular rotation returns. Point guards AJ English and Ibn Muhammad, along with sharpshooter Isaiah Williams (13.4 ppg, 44.2 3P%, 66.4 eFG%, 6.1 rpg), will all be seniors next season. Iona also has the MAAC Freshman of the Year in Schadrac Casimir (14.4 ppg, 42.1 3P%). As explosive as their offense was, Iona's defense was often non-existent, particularly on the interior. They finished 8th in the MAAC in both defensive block percentage and DR%. 6'10" Ryden Hines will likely see more playing time next season, and they also get a key addition is 6'9" Taylor Bessick, who averaged 6.3 ppg and 4.7 rpg as a sophomore at James Madison in 2013-14.

By efficiency margin in conference play, and in the standings themselves, the second best team in the MAAC was Rider. They lose two starters to graduation, the most important being 7-footer Matt Lopez (12.3 ppg, 58.4 FG%, 7.7 rpg). They return a solid backcourt starting duo of Teddy Okereafor and Jimmie Taylor. 6'3" Zedric Sadler was Rider's top scorer off the bench, and he'll be back as well. Rider is desperately in need of a big guy for next season, though. Shawn Valentine, Xavier Lundy and Kahlil Thomas are all listed at 6'7" and all played this past season, but all three are really wings, and none of them is a strong rebounder or paint defender. 6'9" Kenny Grant was a highly touted recruit (by MAAC standards) in 2014, but he played only sparingly as a true freshman. It appears they still have one scholarship available, and will need to get another big there to have a real chance to win the league.

Canisius had their inevitable rebuilding season after losing four starters, including Billy Baron, but they were still able to muster the fourth best efficiency margin in MAAC play. They lose leading rebounder Josiah Heath and sixth man Jeremiah Williams, but return leading-scorer Zach Lewis, alongside a pair of talented wings (Jamal Reynolds and Phil Valenti), and shooting guard Kassius Robertson, who was only a freshman. They need a true point guard, as Jan Grzelinski struggled badly as a true freshman and saw his minutes cut significantly as the season went along. Raven Owen, a 2014 recruit who took a redshirt season, could be an option there. They seem to lack the top end talent that Iona and Manhattan have, however.

Quinnipiac loses four starters, including leading-scorer Zaid Hearst and MAAC Defensive Player of the Year Ousmane Drame, so they're unlikely to contend next season. Monmouth loses three of their top five minute earners as well, including leading rebounder Brice Kofane, but they are in far better shape for next season than Quinnipiac. They return starting point guard (and leading scorer) Justin Robinson and a good slashing wing scorer in Deon Jones. They will also get back Josh James, who averaged 8.4 ppg and 3.2 apg as a freshman in 2013-14 but missed most of 2014-15 with an injury, as well as 6'8" Greg Noack, who played sparingly as a freshman but then missed all of 2014-15 with an injury. They also have some key additions, led by 6'3" Je'lon Hornbeak, who averaged 5.4 ppg, 2.3 rpg and 2.1 apg in two seasons at Oklahoma. Also, they hope to finally add 6'5" Micah Seaborn, their top 2014 recruit, who had to miss the season over academic issues. So if you're looking for a sleeper to win the league next season, Monmouth has to be your team.

If there's a team from the bottom half of the league to return to the top half next season, it's a Siena squad that underperformed preseason expectations badly (they were picked 2nd by the media). A primary reason was the loss to injury of 6'8" Brett Bisping, who averaged 11.5 ppg and 6.5 rpg in 2013-14, and leading shot-blocker Imoh Silas. Both will appeal for medical redshirts, and both are expected back next season. They lose Evan Hymes and leading-scorer Rob Poole to graduation now, but return starting point guard Marquis Wright, big man (and leading rebounder) Javion Ogunyemi, and wing Lavon Long. But their real problem this past season was interior defense and rebounding, and the return of Bisping and Silas should remedy that. 6'9" Willem Brandwijk, if he can play well enough offensively, could earn significant minutes in his sophomore season as well. 6'8" 2015 recruit Evan Fisher could also play a key role.

The MAAC should be stronger next season from top to bottom, and even if they feature upsets in the MAAC tournament again I still doubt we'll see them back as a 16 seed again. Here's how I see the top half of the league playing out:

1. Iona
2. Monmouth
3. Siena
4. Canisius
5. Manhattan
6. Rider

Mid-American Conference

The MAC got stronger this past season, and was arguably the best it's been from top to bottom in over a decade, though the league still has not earned an at-large bid since 1999. Buffalo earned a 12 seed in the NCAA Tournament and was a popular 12/5 upset pick, but they came up short against West Virginia. Central Michigan only earned a 6 seed to the NIT, where they lost their first round game at Louisiana Tech. In the end, the best postseason run for a MAC team was Kent State making the quarterfinals of the CIT, where they lost in overtime to Northern Arizona. So can the MAC take the next step next season to seriously contend for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, or to at least earn an at-large bid or two to the NIT?

Well, Buffalo actually got some at-large hype before winning the MAC tournament, but the reality is that it was coming from people in the media who couldn't see past an obviously fraudulent RPI. They had parlayed road losses at Kentucky and Wisconsin, in addition to other smart scheduling, to take a resume that might not have even earned an at-large bid to the NIT and put its RPI into the Top 30. That said, Buffalo was better than their resume. They were a tough, physical team that got after the offensive glass (1st in the MAC in OR%) and overwhelmed athletically inferior opponents. It's probably not going to be too much longer until Bobby Hurley gets snapped up by a larger program, but at the time this post is going live he is still set to coach Buffalo next season, and his team has a chance to be even better next season.

Buffalo loses Xavier Ford and Will Regan off their front line, but they return their top four minute earners, including MAC Player of the Year Justin Moss (17.5 ppg, 9.2 rpg) and a pair of quality point guards (Shannon Evans and Lamonte Bearden). They add 6'4" Torian Graham, who was once a true blue chip high school recruit but has bounced around the NCAA and Juco levels due primarily to academic problems. If Graham can play, he's still a big time basketball talent. Their biggest need is probably front court depth behind Justin Moss. 6'10" Ikenna Smart, a talented 2014 recruit who took a redshirt season, will be an option there. So is 6'8" 2015 recruit Nick Perkins.

Central Michigan won the MAC regular season title after going just 3-15 in MAC play in 2013-14, behind Keno Davis, who was awarded MAC Coach of the Year for his accomplishment. And they are set to return their top nine minute earners, led by primary playmaker Chris Fowler and the absurdly efficient 6'8" John Simons (12.3 ppg, 45.5 3P%, 68.5 eFG%, 6.5 rpg). 6'4" Josh Kozinski is another really efficient perimeter option. For Central Michigan to take their game to next level, they need to get better defensively, particularly in the paint and on the glass. They were just 9th in the MAC in OR% and DR%, and were 11th in 2P% defense. Keno Davis already started to deal with that problem in his 2014 recruiting class. 6'9" DaRohn Scott and 6'11" Luke Meyer were both effective in short bursts as true freshmen this past season. 7-footer Milos Cabarkapa is more of a project, but could see extended play next season. The Chippewas don't have any significant additions, but they don't need any significant additions to contend for the MAC title next season.

Kent State, Bowling Green and Toledo all lose three starters. Bowling Green's losses including star Richaun Holmes, who led the team in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots and also won MAC Defensive Player of the Year. Toledo's losses include Julius Brown (who led the team in points and assists) and big man JD Weatherspoon (who led the team in rebounds). Kent State's losses include point guard Derek Jackson and second-leading scorer Devareaux Manley. Of those three teams, though, Kent State is definitely the one best primed to still be strong next season. They return star Jimmy Hall (15.9 ppg, 7.7 rpg) as well as a couple of quality bigs in Chris Ortiz and Khaliq Spicer. Throw in 6'10" Juco transfer Marvin Jones and that's a lot of big bodies. Kent State's hole in terms of returning experience is in the backcourt, but that should be allayed by additions. First, they should get back 5'11" Kellon Thomas (6.5 ppg and 1.9 apg as a sophomore in 2013-14), who missed almost the entire 2014-15 season with injury. They also add 6'4" Xavier Pollard, who averaged 14.7 ppg and 3.8 apg as a junior at Maine in 2013-14, as well as 6'2" Deon Edwin, who played sparingly as a freshman at Southern Miss in 2012-13. They also pick up a pair of nice 2015 backcourt recruits in Jalen Avery and Devon Andrews. All things considered, Kent State could actually be better next season.

Akron is a team that was definitely better than their resume this past season, suffering from a 4-7 record in conference games decided by six points or fewer. They lose one starter in combo guard Nyles Evans, as well as shooting guard Deji Ibitayo, but this was a very balanced team. 11 different players earned at least nine minutes per game, and no player scored more than 10 points per game. Their top returner is Noah Robotham, who led the team in points and assists per game as a true freshman. Other key returners include 6'11" Pat Forsythe, 6'7" sharpshooter Reggie McAdams (7.0 ppg, 41.1 3P%) and point guard Antino Jackson. Their biggest need is a true point guard to reduce turnovers, and they hope to partially address that with their top 2015 recruit, 6'1" Josh Williams.

If there's one other team that contends near the top of the MAC next season, Western Michigan seems most likely. They lose two starters, including leading-scorer David Brown, but return perhaps their best all-around player in Connar Tava (12.3 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 3.3 apg) and wing Tucker Haymond. They also have a nice young core for the future in combo guard Thomas Wilder and 6'10" big man Drake LaMont, who both averaged over 20 minutes per game as true freshmen. Of their bench players, 6'8" rising-junior Kellen McCormick seems the most likely to break out next season. They need interior defense more than anything else, and have a couple of key additions to address that. First, 6'11" Khadim Dieng, a 2014 recruit who took a redhsirt season. Their 2015 recruiting class is led by 6'11" Seth Dugan (Scout: 31 C). So if those young bigs develop, the Broncos have a chance to be loaded with size next season.

In the end, here's how I see the top half of the MAC playing out (ignoring division membership):

1. Buffalo
2. Central Michigan
3. Kent State
4. Akron
5. Western Michigan


Jim Squire said...

Valpo loses only one starter, the one you mentioned. The other senior rarely played.

Unknown said...

Pankey is leaving Manhattan (did not get 6th year) and Ogunyemi has decided to transfer from Siena. I agree with your predictions though otherwise.