Monday, March 30, 2015

2015-16 Preview: One-Bid Conferences, Part III

Big West Conference

This past season had the chance to be really special for the Big West, but it was unfortunately derailed by a couple of key injuries. UC Irvine lost Mamadou Ndiaye for about half of the season, and also lost Luke Nelson for a while. UC Santa Barbara star Alan Williams missed a few weeks, and even when he came back was not quite himself. It was painful watching him suffer through the Big West tournament when he was clearly hurting. With those two teams sidelined, there was an opportunity for UC Davis to steal the regular season title behind Big West Player of the Year Corey Hawkins. UC Irvine got healthy at the end of the season, however, and played well in winning the Big West tournament. They were given a 13 seed, and their game against Louisville in the Round of 64 came down to the final possession. UC Davis earned the auto bid to the NIT, where they lost their first round game at Stanford. The only other Big West team to go to a postseason tournament was UC Santa Barbara, who lost by 4 to Oral Roberts in the first round of the CBI. So a season that started with a lot of talent and promise ended with zero postseason wins for the entire league.

UC Davis had a magical season, but it came up just short, and it probably won't be repeated next season. They lose four of their top six minute earners, including Big West Player of the Year Corey Hawkins (20.9 ppg, 48.5 3P%, 61.3 eFG%, 4.9 rpg, 3.4 apg, 1.4 spg). UC Irvine, on the other hand, is much more likely to repeat their success. Just getting guys like 7'6" Mamadou Ndiaye (10.5 ppg, 63.4 FG%, 5.1 rpg, 1.7 bpg) healthy will make them better. They lose leading scorer and rebounder Will Davis (12.9 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 1.0 bpg) and sharpshooter Travis Souza (7.4 ppg, 46.2 3P%). They should have plenty of backcourt talent, led by Luke Nelson (10.5 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 4.0 apg), but they return no front court players aside from Ndiaye that earned more than 12 minutes per game this past season. 7'2" Ioannis Dimakopoulos has shown defensive flashes, but not much else so far. 6'9" 2014 recruit Jonathan Galloway took a redshirt this past season, and he will be an option next season. 6'6" Brandon Smith is their top rated 2015 recruit, who could provide them the wing scoring option they didn't have this past season. Another 2015 recruit to keep an eye on is 5'11" point guard Max Hazard.

UC Santa Barbara loses analytics-favorite Alan Williams (17.3 ppg, 11.8 rpg, 1.7 apg, 1.2 spg, 1.8 bpg). They also lose combo guard Zalmico Harmon (6.2 ppg, 36.5 3P%, 3.5 apg). They should be fine in the backcourt, though, returning proven Big West players like Michael Bryson (13.9 ppg, 36.0 3P%, 4.8 rpg, 1.7 apg) and Gabe Vincent (10.1 ppg, 41.6 3P% and 2.1 apg as a true freshman). Their top 2015 recruit, Grant Trott, is also a point guard. The front court has a gaping hole, though. Their top returner is probably 6'8" Mitch Brewe (3.9 ppg, 2.6 rpg), and they don't have any top young prospects. If UCSB takes a significant step back, it will be because they couldn't find front court talent.

I don't know what criteria Coach of the Year awards are given out on, and neither does anybody else, but there was no coach in the nation whose team exceeded talent and expectations like Benjy Taylor at Hawaii. The fact that he didn't even win Coach of the Year in his own conference is hilarious. Just before the season started, off-court problems forced head coach Gib Arnold and one of his assistants out, while their best player (Isaac Fotu) was declared academically ineligible and went to go play pro basketball. They were expected to be an absolute door mat in the Big West, yet they improved dramatically as the season went along, finishing third in the league in efficiency margin and getting all the way to the Big West title game. NCAA sanctions could still be coming, but if they're not, Hawaii loses only Garrett Nevels (10.8 ppg, 4.4 rpg) from their entire roster. Their backcourt is led by Roderick Bobbitt (8.9 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 5.3 apg, 2.9 spg) and the up-and-coming Isaac Fleming (9.5 ppg, 3.2 rpg and 2.1 apg as a true freshman). They also return a strong defensive front court of 6'11" Stefan Jovanovic, 6'11" Stefan Jankovic and 6'7" Mike Thomas (a combined 3.2 blocks in a combined 55.6 minutes per game). So they should be improved, though they still lack the high end talent that a team like UC Irvine will have.

The only other team to finish .500 or better in Big West play was Long Beach State. They lose four starters, including star playmaker Michael Caffey (16.2 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 3.6 apg, 1.8 spg) and big man David Samuels (10.8 ppg, 7.4 rpg). That said, they add three significant transfers: Nick Faust (9.4 ppg, 3.7 rpg and 2.0 apg as a junior at Maryland in 2013-14), Roschon Prince (4.2 ppg and 2.7 rpg as a freshman at USC in 2013-14) and Gabe Levin (11.1 ppg and 7.1 rpg as a freshman at Loyola-Marymount in 2013-14). So this will be a totally rebuilt Long Beach State roster with arguably just as much raw talent as this past season.

You can make a solid argument that Long Beach State will be the most talented Big West team next season, and Dan Monson has had a lot of success plugging in a steady stream of transfers there. But it's asking a lot for all of these pieces to work together, and they have to replace almost all of their production from a team that was only +0.03 PPP in conference play anyway. Hawaii definitely has a real chance to compete if NCAA sanctions don't come down on them. But to me, the preseason favorite has to be a UC-Irvine team that was (when healthy) probably the best team in the league this past season and which has a good chance of being even better next season.

Colonial Athletic Association

The Colonial was hit hard by conference realignment, but there are signs of hope. The 2014-15 season was a stronger one from top-to-bottom in the league than 2013-14, and with a lot of young teams near the top of the standings the league should be even stronger next season, though they're still quite a bit away from having at-large bid contenders again. William & Mary came awfully close to finally breaking through into the NCAA Tournament (they are one of five programs to fail to make every single NCAA Tournament), but they fell in the CAA title game to Northeastern. Northeastern was only given a 14 seed, but they gave Notre Dame a heck of a fight in the Round of 64, taking that game down to the final seconds. William & Mary headed off to the NIT, where they got a 7 seed and lost a tough 3 point game at Tulsa in the first round. Competitive losses in the postseason was certainly the trend for the CAA. Hofstra lost by four points to Vermont in the CBI, while James Madison lost by a single point to USC Upstate in the CIT. The only team whose postseason loss didn't come down to the final minute was UNC-Wilmington, who were smoked by a really good Sam Houston State team in the first round of the CIT.

Even though Northeastern was the 3 seed in the CAA tournament, they were part of a four-way tie for the regular season title, and by efficiency margin they were the second best team in league play behind William & Mary. After taking the tournament, they were actually rated by Pomeroy the best team in the league. However, they do lose star Scott Eatherton (14.7 ppg, 60.4 eFG%, 6.4 rpg, 1.2 bpg), as well as sixth man Reggie Spencer. They do get one more season of David Walker (13.4 ppg, 39.2 3P%, 3.5 rpg, 3.6 apg), as well as 6'8" Quincy Ford (10.4 ppg, 37.4 3P%, 5.4 rpg, 2.3 apg, 1.1 bpg). Ford is their only proven big man returner, however, which means that they're going to expect a lot from 6'9" recruit Jeremy Miller, who decommitted from Boston College after Steve Donahue was fired. Another key addition is 6'11" Sajon Ford, the younger brother of Quincy Ford. Their other pressing need is at point guard, where they don't really have one, though they did sign one in their 2015 class in Donnell Gresham.

There's no reason that William & Mary shouldn't expect to make another run at that NCAA Tournament spot next season. They lose CAA Player of the Year Marcus Thornton (20.0 ppg, 40.2 3P%, 2.8 rpg, 2.9 apg), which is significant, but they return their next five top minute earners, including CAA Defensive Player of the Year Terry Tarpey (11.8 ppg, 58.0 eFG%, 8.4 rpg, 3.2 apg, 1.8 spg, 1.3 bpg). A key addition is 6'2" David Cohn, who averaged 3.9 ppg as a freshman at Colorado State in 2013-14. Their big need for next year is interior scoring, which makes 6'9" Jack Whitman (2.3 ppg with a 55.6 eFG% in 11.5 mpg as a redshirt freshman) an intriguing prospect.

By the Sagarin PREDICTOR, the best team in the conference was actually Hofstra, who were third in the conference in efficiency margin. They lose Dion Nesmith (11.1 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 2.6 apg, 1.4 apg), but return four starters, including the super inside-outside combo of Juan'ya Green (17.1 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 6.5 apg, 1.4 spg) and Ameen Tanksley (16.2 ppg, 39.8 3P%, 5.5 rpg, 1.4 spg). Their big need is interior defense, and they hope to address that with 6'10" Ibrahim Djambo, who played 9.2 minutes per game for Clemson in 2013-14. 6'10" Andre Walker, their star 2014 recruit who didn't play much as a true freshman is also a big man prospect to watch out for. Their 2015 recruiting class is led by 6'1" shooting guard Justin Wright-Foreman.

UNC-Wilmington loses three starters to graduation, so if another team that finished over .500 in conference play this past season is going to take the next step it's most likely going to be James Madison. The Dukes didn't have a single senior on their roster this past season, and were powered by 41.0% three-point shooting in conference play. That outside shooting attack was led by Ron Curry (13.9 ppg, 42.2 3P%, 3.8 rpg, 4.3 apg) and 6'7" wing Jackson Kent (10.3 ppg, 42.0 3P%, 3.6 rpg). They also have an athletic big man in 6'8" Yohanny Dalembert (11.4 ppg, 57.8 FG%, 6.0 rpg, 1.1 bpg). A key addition is 6'4" Devontae Morgan, who played sparingly in two seasons at Butler. This past season was derailed by the dismissal of star Andre Nation early on, but they improved significantly as the season went on and should definitely be CAA contenders next season, particularly if they can improve their perimeter defense in the offseason.

You can make a solid case for Northeastern, William & Mary, Hofstra and James Madison being the preseason favorite for next season. Both Northeastern and William & Mary are losing their best players, however, and James Madison has some clear flaws without obvious improvements coming in. Hofstra has made dramatic improvements in two seasons of Joe Mihalich, who is (in my opinion) the best coach in the conference. They have young and incoming players who can help address all of their significant weaknesses, and should be significantly improved next season. In my opinion, Hofstra is the early favorite.

Ivy League

The Ivy League's best team, Harvard, didn't quite have the season that many expected preseason. Their offense struggled, dropping from 1.12 PPP in conference play in 2013-14 to 1.05 PPP. They needed Yale to lose a buzzerbeater to Dartmouth to back into an Ivy League playoff, which they escaped from narrowly. That said, Harvard was still a good team. They gave North Carolina all they could handle in the Round of 64, giving themselves a shot to take the lead in the final seconds. And the real story in the Ivy League the last decade has been how much better the rest of the league has gotten. Other than Brown and Penn this past season, there were no door mats. Every team was pretty good. Yale won at UConn and almost won at Providence before being screwed out of an NIT/CBI appearance. Even a team like Columbia that was missing its best player and destined for a 5-9 Ivy season hung with Kentucky into the second half and beat Hofstra, Bucknell, Colgate and a bunch of other solid mid-majors.

It's possible that next season could finally be the year that Harvard's domination of the Ivy League ends. They lose star Wesley Saunders (16.3 ppg, 43.1 3P%, 6.1 rpg, 4.2 apg, 1.8 spg) and Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year Steve Moundou-Missi (9.7 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 1.5 bpg), as well as two key bench pieces. That said, they return a very capable point guard in Siyani Chambers (9.8 ppg, 4.2 apg, 1.5 spg) and a good shooting guard in Corbin Miller (8.3 ppg, 35.0 3P%). Their defensive replacement for Moundou-Missi will likely be 6'9" Zena Edosomwan (4.0 ppg, 3.2 rpg and 0.7 bpg in 12.2 mpg). But if offense, and particularly shooting, were their problems, they are hit hard by losing their only particularly efficient shooter and scorer in Saunders. They have a solid prospect in 6'4" rising-sophomore Andre Chatfield, and their 2015 recruiting class is led by 6'0" combo guard Tommy McCarthy. Tommy Amaker will need significant growth from those players to get this team back to where it was this past season.

Yale came agonizingly close to their first NCAA Tournament since 1962. And they do lose three seniors, including point guard Javier Duran (14.0 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 3.9 apg), but they do return Ivy League Player of the Year Justin Sears (14.3 ppg, 51.9 eFG%, 7.5 rpg, 1.5 apg, 2.4 bpg). They also return a good combo guard in Jack Montague (8.3 ppg, 41.0 3P%, 2.0 apg), who can probably slide over and handle point guard next season. Their big need for next season is more front court depth after losing starters Matt Townsend and Armani Cotton, as well as Greg Kelley off the bench. 6'9" rising-junior Sam Downey seems the best prospect. 6'6" Eric Anderson, who played sparingly as a true freshman in 2014-15, is also an option. James Jones has a big 2015 recruiting class coming in, but with no obvious standouts.

The top team in the Ivy League that wasn't Harvard or Yale was Princeton, and the Tigers should be better next season as they lose just one regular in shooting guard Clay Wilson (6.7 ppg, 39.6 3P%). Top returners include 6'8" Hans Brase (11.4 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 2.1 apg) and Amir Bell (8.8 ppg, 53.4 eFG% and 2.5 apg as a true freshman). A significant need is more size to defend the glass and protect the paint. 6'10" Alec Brennan was a highly touted 2014 recruit who didn't play much as a true freshman but could provide that next season. Their top incoming recruit appears to be 6'7" wing Noah Bramlage. The Tigers have a good chance to get back into the Top 100 of the computer ratings next season, but they might not be good enough to catch up to Harvard.

Both Cornell and Dartmouth had surprisingly good seasons, though both are hit hard by graduations. Cornell loses three starters, including star Shonn Miller (18.8 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 1.3 bpg). Dartmouth loses two starters, including star big man Gabas Maldunas (11.2 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 1.6 apg, 1.9 bpg), though they do have Ivy League Freshman of the Year Miles Wright (7.7 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 1.4 spg). But if I'm going to pick another team to challenge Harvard it is Columbia. They were my dark horse a year ago, but lost star Alex Rosenberg to an injury, which forced him to drop out of school for a year since the Ivy League doesn't allow redshirts. But he should return next season, along with Maodo Lo (18.4 ppg, 43.1 3P%, 4.4 rpg, 2.3 apg, 1.5 spg). They lose two starters, including big man Corey Osetkowski (7.0 ppg, 5.5 rpg), but they have several bigs who can fill his shoes, including rising-junior Jeff Coby (5.4 ppg, 3.3 rpg and 0.7 bpg in 17.0 mpg). They also have a nice shooting guard in Kyle Castlin (10.3 ppg, 37.5 3P% and 4.2 rpg as a true freshman). Columbia also could be getting a big addition in 6'0" point guard CJ Davis, who was a big get for their 2014 recruiting class but took a year of prep school instead, but as of the most recent news is still planning on playing for Columbia next season.

Columbia is the wild card next season because of the Alex Rosenberg and CJ Davis situations. If those two players are on the roster next season, Columbia suddenly becomes the most talented team in the Ivy League not named Harvard. Yale can't be counted out since they return the Ivy Player of the Year, but realistically they have to be expected to take a step back with so many losses. Princeton could end up Harvard's top challenger, though they are still depending on the development of several different young players who haven't done much yet. So that brings us back full circle to Harvard, the team that has won the last four Ivy League titles. And despite major losses, they still have the highest level talent in the league. The safe prediction is to say that Harvard has to be the preseason favorite unless another team provides a really compelling alternative, and I don't think we have one of those this season. Harvard remains the favorite.

 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference

When you're a small conference like the MEAC, the path to a reasonable NCAA Tournament seed and a realistic path to the Round of 32 is to have one dominant team. And the MEAC had that here, with an NC Central team that came up short against elite teams out-of-conference, but went 24-6 in the regular season and annihilated the league by 0.25 PPP in conference play. Unfortunately for the league, Delaware State knocked NC Central off in the MEAC semifinals, and the league ended up with Hampton as their champion. They did get a 16/16 play-in game win out of it, but then were crushed by Kentucky in the Round of 64.

NC Central has dominated the MEAC the past two seasons, but they were the single oldest team in the country this past season (via Pomeroy's Experience metric). They started four seniors, all of whom finished on the MEAC's first or second all-conference team. That includes star big man Jordan Parks (15.6 ppg, 66.0 FG%, 8.3 rpg) and point guard Nimrod Hilliard (12.0 ppg, 6.3 apg). They return starter Dante Holmes (10.4 ppg, 4.7 rpg), but nobody else who is really proven. They do add 6'0" Dajuan Graf, who averaged 3.6 ppg and 1.7 apg in two seasons at Florida Gulf Coast. But there are no other significant additions, so it's hard to see how they don't take a huge step back next season.

Hampton had a great run in the MEAC tournament, but it kind of came out of nowhere. They lost 9 of their final 13 regular season games. That said, they could be better next season. They lose just Quinton Chievous (10.6 ppg, 6.5 rpg). Their other four starters were juniors, which means that they'll provide a very experienced senior core next season, led by leading-scorer Dwight Meikle (13.0 ppg, 53.2 eFG%, 7.5 rpg, 1.5 bpg) and point guard Deron Powers (10.1 ppg, 3.8 apg). Their big need for the future is shooting, as they were just 11th in the MEAC in both 3P% and FT%. They have no major additions, but if they can shoot the ball better there's no reason that they can't compete for another MEAC title.

The second best team in the conference but whichever computer metric you prefer (or efficiency margin) was either Norfolk State or Maryland-Eastern Shore. UMES is hit hard by graduations, though, losing three starters, including point guard Ishaq Pitt (5.5 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 4.2 apg). Norfolk State is in better shape. They lose two starters, including point guard Jamel Fuentes (3.1 ppg, 4.2 apg), but return stars Jeff Short (19.1 ppg, 38.2 3P%, 4.2 rpg, 1.9 apg) and 6'9" RaShid Gaston (15.5 ppg, 62.6 FG%, 9.6 rpg, 1.2 bpg). Also, for a team that already had good paint defense, they add another good prospect in their top 2015 recruit, 6'10" Moses Toriola.

The two remaining MEAC teams that weren't rated 320th or worse in the computers were Howard and Delaware State. Delaware State was the team that took out NC Central in the MEAC semifinals, and they also earned a bid to the CBI. That said, they got smoked by Radford by 21 points, and lose five of their top six minute earners, including MEAC Player of the Year Kendall Gray (11.7 ppg, 54.9 FG%, 11.8 rpg, 2.8 bpg). Howard is in better shape, losing a starter and sixth man, though that includes leading-rebounder James Carlton (15.9 ppg, 7.8 rpg). Their big issue, however, is offensive efficiency. They were dead last in the conference in turnover rate, in large part because James Daniel (16.1 ppg, 41.4 eFG%, 2.6 apg, 3.4 tpg) dominated the ball. Daniel will have to play under more control for this team to truly contend for a conference title.

NC Central is due to take a significant step back, and the odds are that they won't win another conference title. Several teams have a chance to step up and steal the league, including a repeat performance by Hampton. That said, the team with the fewest flaws and holes looks to be Norfolk State. The Spartans return three proven explosive scorers and can lock down the paint defensively. They're not likely to be good enough to get off the 15 or 16 seed line in March, 2016, but for now I think Norfolk State is the early favorite.


Anonymous said...

Quinton Chievous has 1 more year of eligibility left

Anonymous said...

Joe Mihalich is the best coach in the CAA? Really?

He hasn't beaten or outcoached NU in 4 games since he took over HU.

NU is the favorite w/o Eatherton. Best recruiting class in the league with 4 starters returning that know how to win.

Jeff said...

Hofstra returns 4 starters also, and their one loss isn't as important as Northeastern's one loss.

I don't know what "know how to win" means. Can you define that concept and how one might quantify that skill?