Brad and Kevin continue their conference preview series with their breakdown of the Pac-12. The league has fallen behind the last few seasons and faces further uncertainty with many of its premier programs implicated in the FBI scandal.
By Kevin Sweeney
No mid-major conference tournament has demonstrated the unpredictability of March basketball than the Horizon League. Two straight years, a team that played in the play-in game made it to the title game, knocking out high seed after top seed in the process. Will we see more madness this year? There feels like a massive gap between the top and bottom of the conference this season, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be craziness in the Motor City come early March.
#1. Wright State
Scott Nagy’s club won 25 games and made the NCAA Tournament with 3 freshmen in his regular rotation. While one of those youngsters transferred out of the program, that young core seems positioned to run the Horizon for the next 2-3 years. Loudon Love is an absolute load in the post and should average a double-double, while Jaylon Hall oozes upside as a 3-level wing scorer. Cole Gentry gave this team the point guard they desperately needed last season once eligible at the semester break, with his presence on the floor providing a steadying force who makes good decisions and shoots the ball well. A similarly high-impact transfer joins the Raiders this season, as former Drake wing Billy Wampler should bring versatility and scoring punch to the table. This will be a dangerous club in March.
#2. Northern Kentucky
Two years ago, the Norse were beneficiaries of widespread upsets throughout the Horizon League Tournament, cruising to the league title thanks in no small part to playing the 5, 9 and 10 seeds during the event. Last year, they were the victims of “Motor City Madness”, falling as the top seed to 8th-seeded Cleveland State. That loss surely left a poor taste in NKU’s collective mouths after an incredibly successful season, and they’ll be tasked with getting back to the top of the Horizon despite losing a pair of important contributors. Drew McDonald is the clear favorite for conference player of the year, but the losses of LaVone Holland (graduation) and Carson Williams (Western Kentucky) leave less margin for error. Norfolk State grad transfer Zaynah Robinson was a critical get to bridge the gap at the point guard position. He’ll need to replace Holland’s shot-making ability for the Norse to contend.
After a disastrous 3-10 start against D1 competition, the Flames really turned things around down the stretch. Nothing contributed more to their turnaround than the return to form of Tarkus Ferguson, a unique triple-double threat who runs the show for Steve McClain’s club. After dealing with a foot injury for much of non-conference play, Ferguson returned and helped engineer a 20-win season. While the UIC loses a pair of key cogs in elite rim protector Tai Odiase and wing scorer Dikembe Dixson, a pair of high-level backcourt talents in Marcus Ottey and Godwin Boahen will pair with Ferguson to form one of the most dynamic backcourts in mid-major basketball. Still, the Flames turned it over more than any team in the country last season, and while the backcourt getting a year older should help in that regard, some of those struggles are systematic of how McClain’s UIC teams have played.
#4. Green Bay
There’s a fairly clear gap to me between the league’s top 3 and the bottom 7. Green Bay feels like the best of the rest, and has serious “dark horse” potential. The backcourt is absolutely loaded, giving Linc Darner the creators he needs for his system to thrive. The headliner of that unit is Sandy Cohen, who turned heads after becoming eligible at the semester break averaging more than 16 points per contest. Both PJ Pipes and Kameron Hankerson showed significant promise last season, and Darner adds a high-level JUCO prospect in JayQuan McCloud to the mix as the x-factor of the unit. Going small to get as many of these playmakers onto the floor at once might hurt them on the glass (an area they struggled last season) but it’s hard not to be excited by how explosive this offense might be.
#5. Cleveland State
Dennis Felton’s team made headlines in March during their miraculous run through Motor City Madness last season, winning 3 games in a row (including a 44-40 win over Oakland that was enough to make one’s eyes bleed) before falling to Wright State in the title game. CSU will actually be younger in year 2 than year 1 with a transition senior class graduating, but have pieces to make a move up the standings. Sophomores Tyree Appleby and Stefan Kenic showed big-time promise as freshmen, and DePaul transfer Al Eichelberger seems like an immediate starter next to Kenic. Felton will also rely heavily on a strong freshman class, and if those guys can live up to the hype next to the Appleby/Kenic/Eichelberger core, Felton may have something cooking at CSU.
A trio of high-major imports join the fray for Jason Gardner’s IUPUI club, looking to spark an offense that was one of the nation’s least efficient in 2017-18. Headlining that group is Camron Justice, who comes in following 2 ineffective seasons at Vanderbilt after being Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball out of high school. He should shoulder a fairly hefty scoring burden right away, with Jakoby Kemp and Grant Weatherford also coming in from major programs by way of junior college to fill rotation minutes. A Justice/Nick Rogers/Jaylen Minnett/Weatherford backcourt rotation is enough to be at least intriguing in the Horizon, but points may still be at a premium unless Justice is a star from the get-go.
Just 8.6% of Oakland’s scoring from last season returns, a team loaded with star power that never found its way. Finding a way to replace that type of production is a massive task for Greg Kampe and staff. Brailen Neely will be expected to pick up a ton of responsibility on offense after showing bright spots the last 2 seasons, while George Mason transfer Karmari Newman should also be penciled for double-digit scoring. But the incoming class doesn’t stand out on paper, and I just don’t see the returning talent necessary to play the way Greg Kampe wants to.
Detroit completely botched its coaching search this spring, needing into June to finally make a decision and in the process losing their entire core (Kameron Chatman, Corey Allen, Jermaine Jackson) to transfers or the pro ranks. While that search may have set them back for the time being, it did end well with the hire of well-respected former Indiana head coach Mike Davis, who comes off an outstanding stint at Texas Southern. Virtually everything about the roster he assembled is a question mark, but he did find some nice under-the-radar adds that can keep this club out of the cellar in year 1. His son Antoine was the most touted of the newcomers, as the former Houston commit had multiple high-major offers out of high school but chose to follow his dad. It may take some time, but I have no doubt in my mind that Davis will make Detroit a contender.
Pat Baldwin was thrown into the fire late in the process last year when LaVall Jordan left in the ripple effect of Thad Matta’s departure at Ohio State. His 2017-18 team was solid, but he then lost his 3 best players to transfer this offseason in Jeremiah Bell (UAB), Brock Stull (Minnesota), and Bryce Nze (Butler). Looking to fill that void will be a mixed bag of newcomers, including well-regarded freshman wing Shae Mitchell and JUCO forward Amir Allen. With no one on the roster who has averaged more than 6.5 ppg at the D1 level, it’s hard to see where the points come from for this Milwaukee club.
#10. Youngstown State
I had high hopes in year one for Jerrod Calhoun, who brought an outstanding resume of D2 success with a pressing style from the Bob Huggins tree to YSU. Things just didn’t pan out in the slightest, as he didn’t have the athletes to truly play the system he wanted to and as a result had one of the nation’s worst scoring defenses. Calhoun’s answer in this recruiting cycle was size to help protect the rim (a particular struggle last season and a necessity in the system), but lost his 2 top creators in Cameron Morse (graduation) and Braun Hartfield (transfer). Calhoun will need Delaware State transfer Devin Morgan and former high-level recruit who fell off the map in Atiba Taylor to put the ball in the bucket, even if the defense improves.
All-Conference First Team:
- Marcus Ottey– UIC (13.8 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 1.8 apg, .518/.342/.839)
- Tarkus Ferguson– UIC (10.6 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 5.0 apg, .379/.336/.802)
- Sandy Cohen– Green Bay (16.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 2.5 apg, .474/.349/.709)
- Drew McDonald– Northern Kentucky (17.0 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 2.3 apg, .464/.337/.806)
- Loudon Love– Wright State (12.9 ppg, 9.7 rpg, 1.1 apg, .533/.000/.541)
Player of the Year: Drew McDonald (NKU)
Perhaps no player in college basketball has had more impact on the trajectory of his program than McDonald. The bruising forward came into a program in its D1 infancy that had seen no early success and brought them to a Horizon League title and an NCAA Tournament bid. Now, the in-state product gets one last crack at leading his program to the promised land, and could reach 2,000 career points in the process.
Breakout Player: Brailen Neely (Oakland)
Neely was wild at times last season, but showed significant promise as a high-assist lead guard next to Kendrick Nunn. Look for him to up his scoring output a ton this season, operating in Greg Kampe’s guard-friendly system.
Newcomer of the Year: Zaynah Robinson (NKU)
Robinson was a necessary add at the point guard spot for John Brannen, especially after reserve guard Mason Faulkner transferred out of the program after being seen as a potential replacement for LaVone Holland. Robinson took care of the ball well and showed the ability to make shots last season at Norfolk State, and will be huge in the Norse’ title hopes.
By Kevin Sweeney
Every mid-major conference in college basketball asks itself the same question: “What can we do to put ourselves in position to get at-large bids?” Instead of accepting the status quo, Conference USA decided to think outside the box and will be testing a new scheduling format this season. Working with mid-major supporter and ESPN analyst Mark Adams, the C-USA will do the following:
Within the format, the 14 programs will play each other once and their travel partner twice in the first seven weeks of the conference season. At the conclusion of the seven weeks, teams will be placed in one of three groups based on conference standings through the first 14 games of league action. The teams will be divided into two groups of five (1-5 and 6-10) and a group of four (11-14). During the final three weeks, teams will play within their respective grouping for the last four games of conference play. Home and away games within the groups will be determined by a preset formula.
Once all 18 games have been completed, the top 12 teams based on final league standings will be seeded in the conference tournament. Teams will be guaranteed seeding within their respective group. For example, if a program lands in the second group (6-10), it will seed no higher than six and no lower than 10 in the tournament field.”
PER OFFICIAL CONFERENCE USA RELEASE
While I have no idea if it will work, I credit the C-USA for trying something new. It’s definitely a storyline I’ll be watching.
#1. Western Kentucky
If we know one thing about Rick Stansbury, it’s that he’ll always recruit extremely well. This year is no different, and as a result Stansbury has assembled a roster that would rival that of several high-major clubs. The headline newcomer is 5-star big man Charles Bassey, who reclassified to join the Hilltoppers a year early. He’ll pair with Auburn grad transfer DeSean Murray to form an absurdly talented frontcourt that should consistently maul opponents on the glass. In the backcourt, Taveion Hollingsworth, Lamonte Bearden (SUSPENDED FIRST SEMESTER), Josh Anderson, Austin Peay transfer Jared Savage, and top-100 recruit Dalano Banton creates an extremely deep, versatile, and athletic rotation. This team should spend plenty of time in the Rockin’ 25 Poll this season.
It’s exceedingly rare for a team that won a first round NCAA Tournament game that brings back a pair of 20+ point scorers isn’t picked first in their conference the following year, but that’s where we’re at with Marshall thanks to the talent WKU brings in. Losing unicorn big man Ajdin Penava definitely hurts, as his skillset as a elite floor-spacer offensively while also being one of the nation’s best rim protectors made him an ideal fit for Dan D’Antoni’s analytics-driven system. But with a smooth operator running the show in Jon Elmore and a high-level scoring guard next to him in CJ Burks, I still feel pretty good about the Thundering Herd contending for a conference championship.
#3. North Texas
At this point, it’s obvious that Grant McCasland loves a reclamation project. After doing a stupendous job turning things around in his one year at Arkansas State, McCasland brought similar early success to North Texas, winning 20 games and a CBI title. He gets back a pair of elite guards in Ryan Woolridge and Roosevelt Smart, and sophomore big man Zachary Simmons looks like a breakout candidate. The x-factor here is Umoja Gibson, a high-level shooter with elite vision who missed almost all of his freshman campaign with a broken ankle. If healthy, he can push this team to new heights.
#4. Old Dominion
Perhaps the least-talked-about 25-7 team in the history of college basketball, the Monarchs turned in a terrific 2017-18 despite being overshadowed by MTSU’s dominance, WKU’s talent, and Marshall’s high-powered offense. The early departure of Trey Porter (Nevada) looms large here, as he was a huge part of ODU’s terrific defense a season ago. To replace him, Jeff Jones brings in a pair of high-major imports who have yet to prove much of anything at the college level: Elbert Robinson (LSU) and Dajour Dickens (Providence– awaiting waiver). In theory, both can provide a strong interior presence on both ends of the floor, but it’s hard to count on two unproven players to replace a talent like Porter. The guards should be strong once again, with Ahmad Caver leading the way for Jones’ club. Another 20+ win season feels like a reasonable expectation for the Monarchs.
Relying on freshmen for a significant portion of their scoring, it was a successful year 2 for Steve Henson at UTSA. Jhivvan Jackson is one of the conference’s most exciting youngsters, a high-scoring combo guard who can really shoot the ball and averaged over 18 points per game in less than 26 minutes per contest as a freshman. Paired with Keaton Wallace and Giovanni De Nicolao, that’s a backcourt to be reckoned with. 20+ wins feels more than attainable in San Antonio.
#6. Southern Miss
Doc Sadler’s club flipped the CUSA Tournament on its head this past March, upsetting top-seeded Middle Tennessee State to dash their NCAA Tournament hopes and keep the Golden Eagles’ season alive. And while USM crashed out of the tournament the next round in a fell-fought battle with Marshall, it was the type of win that can allow you to build momentum for the following season. With 3 starters back in the backcourt including do-it-all lead guard Tyree Griffin, Southern Miss finally has some roster continuity as Sadler tries to lead them out of sanctions thanks to violations by former coach Donnie Tyndall. They’ll have to fix their rebounding though, as the Golden Eagles were beaten by almost 8 boards per game last season in CUSA play.
It’s definitely a new-look UAB club this season, with long-time frontcourt running mates William Lee and Chris Cokley graduated and rotation players Nick Norton (Drake), Nate Darling (Delaware), and Deion Lavender (Valparaiso) leaving early for new D1 homes. However, those heavy losses have allowed Rob Ehsan to re-work his roster with an emphasis on athleticism, something that his star Zack Bryant brings tons of. Ryan Boyce was supposed to be the center of an elite recruiting class for the Blazers and would have fit nicely next to Bryant on the wing, but he elected to return home to play for mentor Penny Hardaway at Memphis. It’s still a strong class for Ehsan and his staff, with high-flying guard Tavin Lovan earning high marks early and Tamell Pearson likely to carve out early frontcourt minutes. This Blazer team could surprise with a few good breaks.
#8. LA Tech
It was definitely a disappointing 2017-18 season given the amount of talent this roster had, with Jalen Harris departing midseason and the chemistry never really seeming right. A pair of promising sophomores probably hold the keys to success this season for Eric Konkol’s club, as Anthony Duruji and Amorie Archibald both showed considerable potential in last season’s down campaign. That duo, plus DaQuan Bracey and Derric Jean, forms a solid nucleus for this club. Still, it has to be concerning to see the Bulldogs start to slump after 2 strong years to start the Konkol era, and one has to wonder whether much of his early success should be attributed to the talent left behind by now-Florida head coach Mike White.
Former VCU assistant Jeremy Ballard takes the reigns at FIU after an uninspiring 5-year run under Anthony Evans. Ballard inherits some nice pieces though, including do-everything lead guard Brian Beard and a pair of solid wings in in Trejon Jacob and Willy Nunez. The frontcourt is extremely thin, losing pieces from a unit that already lost the rebounding battle last season. With that, expect the Panthers to implement some VCU-style pressing to accentuate their backcourt depth and minimize the damage of their lack of size.
I’m not sure any first-year head coach did a better job this offseason given their circumstances than Rodney Terry, who surprisingly took the UTEP job to leave a solid Fresno State program. Terry went to work on the recruiting trail, landing some high-upside freshmen and some high-impact transfers (Anthony Tarke, Souley Boum, Bryson Williams) that will make the Miners a force to be reckoned with in the coming years in Conference USA. Not a ton of talent remains from the Tim Floyd era though, making it difficult to project significant year one success despite the high optimism surrounding the program. Adding former Northwestern signee and top-150 recruit Jordan Lathon late should help keep the Miners competitive as they wait out the development of that freshman class and the redshirt year for the transfers.
#11. Middle Tennessee
After a 3-year run of unprecedented success that included a pair of NCAA Tournament wins, Kermit Davis departed for greener pastures at Ole Miss. Former UNC-Asheville head man Nick McDevitt took over, but the change led to the departures of a highly-touted signing class and several other key transfers that have left the cupboard bare. There’s just little if any pure scoring talent on this roster, with UTRGV transfer Antonio Green the only proven shot-maker at the D1 level. Missouri State transfer Reggie Scurry is a grinder who will provide leadership in his only season in Murfreesboro, but he doesn’t really move the needle. The Blue Raiders will need major contributions from JUCO wing Darnell Butler and a late-signing group of freshmen to avoid a brutal season, but long-term help is on the way with transfers CJ Jones (Arkansas) and DeAndre Dishman (Eastern Kentucky) sitting out this season.
The man charged with building this FAU program from scratch is Dusty May, who comes over from Florida and is perhaps flying under the radar thanks to big hires by Charlotte, MTSU, and UTEP. May immediately brought in some high-upside talent, headlined by 3-star wing Jaylen Sebree, late-rising forward Madiaw Niang, and top-100 JUCO guard Cedric Jackson. I’m not sure it’s enough to make much of an imprint on the CUSA standings this year, but I believe the Owls have the right man for the job.
Speaking of right men for the job who might not win a ton in year one, Ron Sanchez takes over at Charlotte as new AD Mike Hill’s first big hire. Sanchez checks all the boxes for me, an experienced recruiter with a flawless reputation around college basketball and a grinder’s mentality perfect for rebuilding a once-proud 49er program. Sanchez didn’t get a chance to make too much of an imprint on the roster this offseason, as he retained a trio of Mark Price signees and didn’t see significant defections. The additions he did make were strong, with a pair of talented guards in Jordan Shepherd (Oklahoma) and Tyler Bertram (reclassified from 2019) redshirting this year. Jon Davis is the key to any success this year, a high-major talent who stumbled through last season after entering with high expectations. A midpack finish isn’t out of the question if Sanchez can instill his defensive concepts and Davis can return to form.
For a second straight season, Scott Pera has to deal with a young roster thanks to lots of roster turnover. On the positive side, he has an exciting freshman class coming in that should lay the foundation for the program he’s building, and TCU transfer Josh Parrish should provide a nice talent injection to a program that needs it. Pera is a well-regarded name in the coaching business who, if given time, can turn Rice into a contender. Just not yet.
All-Conference First Team:
- Jon Elmore– Marshall (22.7 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 6.8 apg, .439/.356/.826)
- Ahmad Caver– Old Dominion (14.2 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 6.2 apg, .408/.349/.667)
- Taveion Hollingsworth– Western Kentucky (13.3 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 1.9 apg, .480/.378/.791)
- Jhivvan Jackson– UTSA (18.4 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 1.8 apg, .431/.368/.768)
- Charles Bassey– Western Kentucky (FRESHMAN)
Player of the Year: Jon Elmore (Marshall)
The clear choice here, Elmore has a legit case for best player in mid-major basketball. A triple-double threat every time he steps onto the court, Elmore is the perfect point guard to lead Dan D’Antoni’s offense. He can create his own shot and knock down 30-footers, but also take what the defense gives him and make plays for others. He’s just flat-out special.
Breakout Player: Jannson Williams (Marshall)
I hate to double up teams, but Williams feels like the clear choice for breakout star in the conference. He’ll slot in as a shooting forward with some rim protection abilities in the mold of Penava, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him double (or more) his production from last season.
Newcomer of the Year: Charles Bassey (Western Kentucky)
Jordan Lathon’s presence gave me momentary pause, but Bassey is clearly the best newcomer in the league. A top-10 prospect in his class per most recruiting services, Bassey is an absolute monster on the glass who is simply stronger than almost every C-USA player who will try to guard him this season. He’ll be a double-double machine from day 1.
By Kevin Sweeney
The CAA is a rare league that returns much of its top talent from its best teams from the previous season. Just look at last year’s conference title game, a thriller between College of Charleston and Northeastern. Northeastern brings back all but three minutes from that game, and Charleston returns three starters and 2 potential all-conference players. Hofstra brings a lot back, as does William & Mary, while UNCW returns one of the nation’s best big men in Devontae Cacok. All this returning talent makes the Colonial one of the hidden gems of college basketball to watch frequently this season.
The Huskies came into last season with little fanfare, attempting to replace a pair of senior stars from a team that had stumbled to a 15-16 mark in 2016-17. However, Bill Coen’s club shined, riding San Diego transfer point guard Vasa Pusica and a talented sophomore trio to 23 wins and the doorstep of the NCAA Tournament. Virtually everyone from that club is back, and the Huskies add another guy who can step in and make plays in GW transfer Jordan Roland. Coen’s teams run efficient half-court offense and are extremely well-coached on the defensive end. A big year is undoubtedly ahead for Northeastern.
#2. College of Charleston
The defending champs bring back a pair of potential first teamers in pure scorer Grant Riller and big man Jarrell Brantley, but Joe Chealey leaves behind a massive hole at the point guard position. Earl Grant is high on redshirt freshman Zep Jasper, who’ll likely be paired with Marquise Pointer in the backcourt. Already 2 years out of high school, Jasper is seen as the point guard of the future, with a solid all-around game for a floor general. Riller rounds out the backcourt stable, a high-efficiency scorer at all 3 levels. The defense should be strong again, and another 20+ win season should be the expectation for the Cougars,
Joe Mihalich’s Hofstra teams have consistently been outstanding on offense but struggled mightily on defense, and that formula appears likely to continue this season. Justin Wright-Foreman is one of the nation’s best pure scorers and is a smooth pick-and-roll operator, and has an excellent stable of guards to distribute to. However, the Pride will almost assuredly take a step back on the glass with the loss of elite rebounder Rokas Gustys as well as steady backup Hunter Sabety to graduations. Mihalich adds a steady grad transfer in Jacquil Taylor to fill that frontcourt void, but a lot will be relied upon from a guy who hasn’t played consistent minutes in his collegiate career.
With a defensive improvement unlikely, the Pride may have reached their ceiling already. That ceiling is enough to be in the mix come conference tournament time, but can they find the consistency over a 3-game stretch in March?
#4. William & Mary
Like Hofstra, W&M under Tony Shaver has been consistently elite on offense and horrendous on defense, and it’s hard to see that changing. The Tribe have two incredible forwards in uber-athletic center Nathan Knight and bruising combo forward Justin Pierce, both of whom are perfect fits for Shaver’s system. Losing floor general David Cohn hurts, but W&M brings in a pair of capable freshmen in Thornton Scott and LJ Owens at the position.
#5. UNC Wilmington
Year one under C.B. McGrath was hallmarked by huge games by Devontae Cacok and horrendous defense. Cacok is back for one more go, and should be the focal point again offensively. A pair of talented newcomers in JUCO product Ty Gadsden and Kai Toews should help in the backcourt, a unit that loses Jordan Talley and was largely a group of turnstiles on defense. Gadsden is a good bet to start at point guard from the outset after posting big numbers at JUCO power Vicennes University last season (16 points, 4 assists, 42% from 3). I still stand by the McGrath hire despite a rough first season, and expect things to start to turn around this year. However, his tenure will be defined by whether he can continue to bring in strong talent post-Cacok.
Pat Skerry’s roster was gutted this offseason by a pair of up-transfers in Zane Martin (New Mexico) and Justin Gorham (Houston). Combine that with 4 key graduations, and the Tigers lose their top 6 scorers from last season. That’s not a recipe for success in a league with as much experience as the CAA has. However, I love the newcomers Skerry brings in, and his grind-it-out coaching style should win the Tigers more games than their roster might indicate. Duquesne transfer Nakye Sanders should help solidify the frontcourt, and freshmen Jakigh Dottin and Nick Timberlake seem like pieces to build around in the backcourt. Throw in a pair of accomplished JUCO prospects to bridge the gap in Brian Fobbs and Tobias Howard, and the drop-off without Martin and Gorham won’t be as precipitous as some are prognosticating.
#7. James Madison
Year 2 of the Louis Rowe era was fairly underwhelming, as the Dukes stumbled to a 22-loss campaign thanks to a fairly inefficient offense and struggles on the glass. Part of that was a function of inexperience, as JMU relied on freshmen to play 45% of the team’s total minutes. That was excellent experience for highly-touted backcourt mates Matt Lewis and Darius Banks, who paired with Toledo transfer Stuckey Mosley to form a formidable trio of creators. Lewis and Banks taking the next step in their games is the key to the Dukes making strides in year 3.
As my friends over at three-man-weave.com pointed out well in their preview, Elon made absolutely no sense last year. Running it back almost entirely from a solid 18-win team in 2016-17, the Phoenix regressed significantly (especially on the defensive end). Matt Matheny brings a fair amount back from that club, and we’ll see what this team is truly made of. Tyler Seibring is an excellent piece that any mid-major would love to have in their frontcourt, and experienced guards Dainan Swoope and Steven Santa Ana should be solid.
A beautiful new arena should help with recruiting, and it paid immediate dividends in their 2018 class. Chuck Hannah is the headliner, a 6-6 combo forward from prep power Northfield Mount Hermon, while Andy Pack and Kris Wooten look like good long-term pieces.
I may come around to regret this rather-unoptimistic projection for the Blue Hens, but I have to be hesitant in the wake of Ryan Daly’s transfer out of the program. One of Martin Inglesby’s first recruits, Daly was a star for 2 years, but opted to return to the Philly area to play the rest of his collegiate career at Saint Joe’s. All is not lost, however, with an outstanding freshman class returning for year 2. Both Kevin Anderson and Ryan Allen are on an all-league trajectory (an honor that could come sooner rather than later), and Chyree Walker profiles as a breakout candidate. When you don’t shoot 3’s well nor win the turnover battle, it’s tough to win in college basketball. Inglesby will hope that Anderson and Allen getting a year older helps in that regard.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger Zach Spiker fan than me. The job he did at Army was simply spectacular. Now, he has to find a way to recruit at a higher level. He had a star in Tramaine Isabell, but lost him a year early to St. Louis. Kurk Lee should take a nice step forward in his return to primary ball-handling duties, and I’m excited to see what Alihan Demir can do up front for this club. Those are foundational pieces, but Spiker needs 3 or 4 more to start making a serious dent in the CAA standings. The incoming group is underwhelming on paper, and Spiker needs a few of those to hit.
All-Conference First Team:
- Justin Wright-Foreman– Hofstra (24.4 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 3.2 apg, .449/.366/799)
- Vasa Pusica– Northeastern (17.9 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 5.1 apg, .574/.427/.807)
- Grant Riller– College of Charleston (18.6 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 2.0 apg, .545/.394/.729)
- Nathan Knight– William & Mary (18.5 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 2.2 apg, .575/.306/.769)
- Devontae Cacok— UNC-Wilmington (17.7 ppg, 13.5 rpg, 0.9 apg, .585/.000/.612)
Player of the Year: Vasa Pusica (Northeastern)
Wright-Foreman will be the popular choice here, and his incredible bucket-getting ability deserves all the praise it receives. I’ll roll with Pusica here though, an outstanding pick-and-roll operator who takes care of the ball, scores efficiently, and makes big plays in big games. Pusica edges out Wright-Foreman in both win shares and box plus/minus. While either would be a good choice, league champions tend to get the benefit of the doubt in these types of award settings.
Breakout Player: Chyree Walker (Delaware)
A well-regarded recruit out of high school, Walker took a bit of a backseat to the aforementioned Allen and Anderson as a freshman. With Daly gone, Walker seems positioned to slot in at the 3 next to his now-sophomore running mates, and should have a chance to break out. Walker is very athletic. If he can improve his jumper, he can be a special player at Delaware.
Newcomer of the Year: Ty Gadsden (UNCW)
As I wrote earlier, Gadsden is the likely starting point guard for the Seahawks, and he fits C.B. McGrath’s system well. A Roy Williams disciple, McGrath loves scoring point guards who can distribute or get their own, and Gadsden fits that bill. He can really shoot the ball and had a better than 2:1 assist:turnover ratio in junior college.
Today on the show, Brad and Kevin hit the halfway point of conference preview season with their preview of the American Conference. With a pair of first year head coaches at 2 of the league’s marquee programs (UConn and Memphis) and 2 of its most consistent programs (Wichita State, Cincinnati) losing tons of talent from last season, this league should be wide open and a lot of fun to watch.
By Kevin Sweeney
To me, the Big 12 is perhaps the best top-to-bottom conference in college basketball. All 10 teams are consistently in NCAA Tournament contention, with 8 of 10 having made the NCAA Tournament in 2 of the last 3 seasons and all 10 having danced in at least one of the past two seasons. Balancing that incredible parity with Kansas’ absurd dominance of the league’s regular season crown (14 consecutive regular season titles) is hard to wrap one’s head around, but speaks to just how good Bill Self’s program has been.
As for this season, the league looks to be in good shape again. 8 NCAA Tournament bids seems realistic once again. It even seems possible all 10 teams finish over .500 for the season, which would be an incredible statistic in its own right. Here’s how I see things shaking out:
Make that 15 in a row.
The Jayhawks seem like the only team with legit national title chances in the conference this season. KU has a clear claim to be considered the nation’s best heading into the 2018-19 season with a mix of college experience and NBA talent unmatched throughout the country. They add 3 elite transfers and the nation’s #5 recruiting class to a returning group that features bruising center Udoka Azubuike and athletic wing LaGerald Vick. Memphis transfer Dedric Lawson is the top prize on the newcomers, a legit national player of the year talent whose versatility to play the 3, 4, or 5 makes him a matchup nightmare. A pair of game-ready freshmen in PG Devon Dotson and wing Quentin Grimes should produce right away, with Cal transfer Charlie Moore providing additional support in the backcourt.
#2. West Virginia
It’s hard for me to put into words just how much Jevon Carter meant to this West Virginia program, and his graduation (along with the departure of running mate Daxter Miles) leaves a crater-sized hole in the backcourt for West Virginia. Despite those losses, WVU should still be a top-25 team and contend at the top of the Big 12. Few frontcourts have as much talent as this one, featuring elite rim protector and potential All-American Sagaba Konate as well as versatile combo forwards Lamont West and Esa Ahmad. And while James “Beetle” Bolden and Brandon Knapper can’t capture the defensive energy and leadership that Carter provided, that pairing along with newcomers Trey Doomes and Jermaine Haley should provide plenty of offense at guard.
#3. Kansas State
Most preseason prognostications will have KSU and WVU flipped, though I’m wary of overrating the Wildcats just because of their deep NCAA Tournament run. This wasn’t a top 25 team last year, but KSU found themselves in the Elite 8 thanks to UMBC’s upset over Virginia and one excellent performance against Kentucky. The run cooled Bruce Weber’s seat and cemented him as the long-term coach in Manhattan, but I’m not buying the top-10 team buzz. The Wildcats were pounded on the glass in Big 12 play last season, though Weber hopes JUCO big Austin Trice can help out in that regard. Barry Brown, Kamau Stokes, and Cartier Diarra is a strong backcourt to work with, and it’s hard to find a bigger Dean Wade fan than this writer. This is a top-25 team. I’m just not sure running it back from an 8-seed is a recipe for a top-15 team when Trice is the only impact newcomer.
Shaka Smart’s tenure at Texas has underwhelmed thus far, but he finally keeps the majority of his roster intact through an offseason and has a chance to get the Longhorns back into the top 25. Much of this team’s upside lies in whether or not Andrew Jones is able to play– Jones is a true warrior who has inspired many as he fought cancer but his status is unclear. Even without him, the Longhorns have an excellent backcourt, with Matt Coleman having established himself as the team’s long-term floor general, Kerwin Roach back for his senior year, and Courtney Ramey, Elijah Long, Eric Davis, and Jase Febres all capable of contributing. Especially if Jones is healthy, that unit will be much better shooting the ball than Texas was the last 2 seasons, something that has really held their offense back. Meanwhile, Jericho Sims seems poised to be a breakout star at center, a monster athlete who is efficient around the rim.
#5. Iowa State
If you are looking for a team to bet on making the NCAA Tournament that missed the cut last season, bet on Iowa State. Simply put, I love the way Steve Prohm has assembled this team for modern basketball, with lots of wings with good size who can handle the ball & distribute to pair with a scoring point guard in Lindell Wigginton. The Cyclones have the flexibility to go with 4-guard looks thanks to Talen Horton-Tucker, Marial Shayok, and Nick Weiler-Babb’s size and strength, or they can trot out a pair of bigs in Cameron Lard and Solomon Young. It wouldn’t surprise me to see a 10-win improvement from this ISU team.
Not enough can be said about how good a job Jamie Dixon has done with this TCU program, turning a perennial loser not ready for Big 12 play into an NCAA Tournament team in just his second year with the program. Dixon’s teams are incredibly well-coached and run tremendous offense, and now he’s getting 4-star talent into the program in droves. Jaylen Fisher’s lingering knee injuries are a concern in betting on the Horned Frogs, especially with an outstanding passer in Kenrich Williams graduated and in a league where margins are so tight between teams. This team is also very young, with 8 of 13 players having never played a D1 game. Still, the talent level on this team is very high, with Desmond Bane and Kouat Noi both poised to take major steps forward and top JUCO recruit Yuat Alok a plug-and-play starter at the 5. Top 25 should be the goal for the Horned Frogs, with an even greater jump possible if Fisher can stay healthy.
#7. Texas Tech
You’d be hard-pressed to find a coach with a more sterling reputation after just 3 years as a collegiate head coach than Chris Beard, whose meteoric rise to the top of the profession has relied on a knack for finding hidden gems and doing an excellent job with player development. Beard couldn’t have planned for freshman sensation Zhaire Smith to be a one-and-done, which put the Red Raiders in a bit of a pinch this offseason, but Beard brought in a pair of elite grad transfers in Tariq Owens (St. John’s) and Matt Mooney (South Dakota) to soften the blow. Meanwhile, the buzz about Jarrett Culver’s sophomore season continues to build, and a big season from the athletic wing should be expected. The x-factor is Khavon Moore, a highly rated combo forward from Georgia who could be a stud if he lives up to his recruiting ranking. The Red Raiders’ NCAA Tournament hopes may depend on Moore’s play.
Just 3 players who have ever suited up for the Bears return, but Scott Drew’s ability to land high-level talents from unconventional sources gives Baylor a fighting shot to get back to the NCAA Tournament. The lynchpin to those plans is grad transfer Makai Mason, who starred at Yale in 2015-16 before losing most of the last 2 seasons with a severe foot injury. If healthy, Mason can slot in as the team’s starting point guard, capable of creating shots for himself and distributing in a way similar to how Manu Lecomte did for the Bears. Mississippi State transfer Mario Kegler’s versatility and scoring ability makes him an intriguing fit, allowing the Bears to go big or small depending on how JUCO guards Darius Allen and Devonte Bandoo pan out.
With 2 outstanding guards in MaCio Teague (UNC-Asheville) and Davion Mitchell (Auburn) sitting out this season and only Mason and King McClure set to graduate, this feels like a transition season to what could be a massive 2019-20 campaign.
Evaluating what the Sooners have in the post-Trae Young era is difficult. After Young’s early explosion, Lon Kruger pidgeonholed the rest of the roster into extremely specific roles to accentuate his star point guard’s strengths. That strategy backfired, as the Sooners seemed lost whenever Young was unable to carry the load. Christian James, Kam McGusty (who left the program in the offseason) and Kristian Doolittle all took steps back from promising 2016-17 seasons, leaving most thinking that the Sooners’ roster was simply horrible beyond its lottery pick.
Things will look much different this year. Kruger solidified the point guard spot with a pair of grad transfers in Aaron Calixte (Maine) and Miles Reynolds (Pacific). James and Rashard Odomes will be freed up to create a lot more, and we could see a larger offensive role created for center Jamuni McNeace, a defensive difference-maker still raw on the other side of the ball. Brady Manek should also take a step forward in year two as he looks to prove he’s more than a spot-up shooter. Still, without a top-20 player in the conference, it will be tough to consistently win. I don’t think the Sooners have one of those, and while incremental jumps from several will keep OU relevant, I don’t see enough top-end talent to give them much hope of an NCAA Tournament bid.
#10. Oklahoma State
Mike Boynton deserves significant credit for a surprisingly-strong 2017-18 in Stillwater, getting the most out of a rag-tag bunch in his first year as head coach. But for the second consecutive season, Boynton dealt with significant offseason attrition, losing 5 of his top 7 scorers. To make matters worse, likely starting point guard Michael Weathers was just suspended indefinitely after being charged with grand larceny. That leaves sturdy freshman Isaac Likelele and USC Upstate grad transfer Mike Cunningham as the only options at point guard, with Indiana transfer Curtis Jones providing some midseason backcourt support to Lindy Waters once eligible. OSU also has virtually no size– with a pair of underrecruited freshmen the only options for a traditional center. Going small with Cameron McGriff (who is poised for a huge year) at the 5 and blitzing teams with athleticism and pressure is probably the Cowboys’ best bet, but losing your best option at point guard who coincidentally was also likely their best point-of-attack defender takes something away from those plans.
It could be a rough one in Stillwater. That said, we thought that last year as well, and look how that turned out!
All-Conference First Team:
- Lindell Wigginton– Iowa State (16.7 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 2.8 apg, .414/.401/.660)
- Quentin Grimes– Kansas (FRESHMAN)
- Dedric Lawson– Kansas (2016-17 at Memphis: 19.2 ppg, 9.9 rpg, 3.3 apg, .461/.270/.741)
- Dean Wade– Kansas State (16.2 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 2.7 apg, .550/.440/.752)
- Sagaba Konate– West Virginia (10.8 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 0.7 apg, .510/.000/.790)
Player of the Year: Dedric Lawson (Kansas)
Perhaps no player in college basketball can do more on the floor than Lawson, who surprised most by electing to sit a year at Kansas rather than turn pro after a terrific sophomore season at Memphis. The one hole in his game was a 3-point shot, a necessity for the modern NBA combo forward. Reports out of Lawrence have Lawson improving that outside shot, making him an absolutely unstoppable force. His bruising 6-9 frame allows him to play up to the 5 in smaller lineups, and he can handle and distribute like a lead guard.
Breakout Player: Sagaba Konate (West Virginia)
In reality, Konate has already broken out– he was the nation’s best rim protector and nearly left for the NBA last season. Still, I wanted to highlight him because I expect massive improvement from him offensively. Since the combine, where Konate flashed a functional jumper, folks have been clamboring to see Konate’s offensive improvements in live action. As he develops that jumper and his ability to handle the ball, he becomes one of the most unique talents in all of college basketball.
Newcomer of the Year: Dedric Lawson
By Kevin Sweeney
The Big West is back on the rise.
A league that had developed a reputation as one of the best one-bid leagues in the nation over the past several years bottomed out in 2016-17, with the league’s RPI plummeting to 29th out of 32 after hovering in the teens for multiple years. The turnaround began last year, as the Big West climbed to 22, and I expect the league to continue its ascent this season. So much of mid-major basketball is coaching, and the league’s recent hires have been strong. Joe Pasternack is crushing it at UCSB, UC Riverside made a nice hire this offseason in David Patrick, and CSUN hired a former high-major coach in Mark Gottfried in an attempt to reinvigorate its program. With an already-solid stable of proven coaches in Jim Les, Russell Turner, and Dan Monson, as well as the strong job Dedrique Taylor continues to do at Cal State Fullerton, the league appears in good shape on the coaching front.
#1. UC Santa Barbara
There may not be a better recruiter in mid-major basketball right now than Joe Pasternack, and his ability to consistently attract high-level talent to UCSB in the early stages of his tenure has already made him a hot name to watch for high-majors in the future. Last season, a pair of grad transfers helped him engineer a 17-win increase from 2016-17’s dreadful 6-22 mark, and now he gets his full compliment of players for this season. Devearl Ramsey (Nevada), Zack Moore (Seattle U), JaQuori McLaughlin (Oregon State– eligible at semester break), and Ar’Mond Davis (Alabama) will team up with returning star scorer Max Heidegger in a dynamic backcourt full of high-major talent, while JUCO big Robinson Idehen and 4-star freshman forward Amadou Sow both had bigger offers before choosing the Gauchos. It may take some time to mesh all this talent together, but Pasternack is on a similar trajectory to what Eric Musselman did at Nevada. The sky is the limit if the Gauchos can keep him around.
#2. UC Irvine
A tough schedule ended UCI’s streak of 5 straight seasons with 20+ wins last season, but the Anteaters still contended for a Big West title and will do so again in 2018-19. The top 8 scorers on last year’s club are all back, and the Anteaters add a high-level grad transfer in Stanford’s Robert Cartwright who should provide a strong scoring presence in the backcourt. Russell Turner’s clubs are always excellent on defense and on the glass, and this team has high offensive potential as well.
#3. UC Davis
Perhaps no coach is more underrated nationally for the job he has done at his current program than Jim Les, who has won at least a share of 3 of the last 4 Big West titles at a program with virtually no history of basketball success. And while the Aggies officially lose star big man Chima Moneke (who wasn’t with the program late in the season last year due to suspension), they should have an outstanding backcourt. TJ Shorts stepped up huge to carry the load in Moneke’s absence, while Siler Schneider is a more than capable secondary scorer and ballhandler. They also add Saint Mary’s transfer Stefan Gonzalez to the mix, a shifty combo guard who can really shoot the ball. The Aggies only won the rebounding battle in 2 out of 11 games after Moneke’s departure last season, so they’ll have to solidify the boards if they want to claim another conference title.
#4. Cal State Fullerton
With such a strong top 4, there was bound to be a team that I felt bad about ranking 4th. Cal State Fullerton hardly fits the bill of the 4th-best team in a one-bid league, bringing back their top 4 scorers from a team that won 20 games and made the NCAA Tournament last season. The high-scoring backcourt duo of Kyle Allman (19.5 ppg) and Khalil Ahmad (15.1 ppg) should carry the load once again, but a lack of size up front is a bit concerning. With the margins so close in the top 4, I could make about as strong a case for CSUF to win the league as I can for them finishing 4th.
#5. Long Beach State
2 straight sub-par seasons made some speculate that Dan Monson would enter this year on the hot seat. Those job security concerns were quelled when Monson signed a restructured 5-year contract that actually includes a pay cut. It’s a more incentive-laden contract that takes away some of the unique language that allowed Monson to take the money received from “buy games”, now capping the amount of compensation he can claim from that area at 200k.
As for the team, Monson loses star combo forward Gabe Levin but returns a strong nucleus from last year’s club. Edon Maxhuni’s play for Finland at the U20 European Championships this summer was impressive, and I’m excited to see his development this season. However, LBSU must take better care of the ball and improve defensively to turn things around.
A pair of talented big men graduate, leaving a pretty big hole in the frontcourt for the Rainbow Warriors. Redshirt freshman Aussie forward Mate Colina shined on UH’s trip to Australia this summer, and big minutes could be in store for him right away. Eran Ganot’s backcourt looks to be in good shape though, with promising sophomore Drew Buggs and diminutive combo Brocke Stepteau both able to create for themselves or others. Middle of the pack seems about right for this club.
#7. UC Riverside
I loved UCR’s hire of David Patrick this offseason. Patrick has earned an excellent reputation around the nation as a strong recruiter. While he’s best known for helping land Ben Simmons at LSU, Patrick did a great job with Jamie Dixon’s staff at TCU and was well overdue to get his own program. His ties in Australia should allow him to land some talented players from Down Under as well. However, Patrick doesn’t inherit much at UCR, a program that has only finished over .500 once in its 17-year D1 history. He’ll have to rely heavily on junior guard Dikymbe Martin to carry the load offensively in year one while he gets his players into the program.
#8. Cal State Northridge
Reggie Theus’ time at CSUN ended with a physical altercation with his athletic director. His replacement was unconventional to say the least, with the Matadors hiring former NC State head coach Mark Gottfried despite him being implicated in the widespread NCAA/FBI college basketball scandal. Gottfried has assembled a staff of old friends, including former UCLA head man Jim Harrick and NBA veteran Mo Williams. It’s unclear whether Gottfried is using this gig as a slide into retirement like Al Skinner at Kennesaw State or if he has aspirations of cleaning up his reputation and getting one last crack at a high-major. Year one of the experiment will likely be a trying one, with a 9-man freshman class incoming that features Ron Artest’s son. Reality show coming?
#9. Cal Poly
Joe Callero enters the season with a warmer seat than any other coach in the conference. Unable to capitalize on the program’s miracle run to the NCAA Tournament in 2014, the Mustangs have lost 20 games in 3 straight years and appear likely to do so again in 2018-19. The team’s defense has slumped in recent years, and the offense has been inefficient with the exception of being strong from downtown. Callero is under contract through the 2019-20 season, but Cal Poly’s administration may not wait that long to make a change with another finish in the cellar of the Big West.
All-Conference First Team:
- TJ Shorts– UC Davis (14.8 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 4.4 apg, .521/.345/.745)
- Max Heidegger– UC Santa Barbara (19.1 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 2.5 apg, .432/.404/.765)
- Kyle Allman– Cal State Fullerton (19.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 2.3 apg, .489/.429/.746)
- Khalil Ahmad– Cal State Fullerton (15.1 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 1.6 apg, .418/.320/.829)
- Tommy Rutherford– UC Irvine (10.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 0.8 apg, .583/.429/.713)
Player of the Year: TJ Shorts (UC Davis)
Shorts won Player of the Year honors last year in his first year in the conference, and he has an excellent chance to repeat this season. Shorts got better as the season went on, averaging almost 18 points, 5 assists, and 2 steals per game in Big West play. I can’t wait to see the season he puts together for the Aggies this season.
Breakout Player: Edon Maxhuni (Long Beach State)
The Finnish combo guard’s minutes fluctuated in consistency throughout his rookie campaign, but Maxhuni certainly had some bright moments as a freshman. He showed signs of growth this summer, averaging 13 points and 3 assists per game at the U20 European Championships. The LBSU backcourt is crowded with veterans in Deishaun Booker and Bryan Alberts, but Maxhuni should play a key role for the 49ers this season.
Newcomer of the Year: Devearl Ramsey (UCSB)
Ramsey is going to be unbelievably fun to watch at UCSB this season. The diminutive point guard was highly regarded out of prep powerhouse Sierra Canyon, but things didn’t work out for him at Nevada. Ramsey is a great passer and excellent ball-handler who will be the perfect point guard for this club, and I can’t believe hype isn’t surrounding his arrival at UCSB. I expect him to be an all-league player.