By Kevin Sweeney
As we reach the middle of May, teams are rapidly finalizing their rosters for the 2017-18 season. Nearly all the coaching vacancies have been filled, and many top transfers have found their new homes. While there are still plenty of teams still looking to add talent to their rosters for the upcoming season, it’s a good time to take a look at which mid-major programs have had the best and worst offseasons so far.
NOTE: I’ll do a post on mid-majors losers of the offseason tomorrow, so stay tuned for that.
If you had told me on or around March 20th so that I would be writing “Duquesne” under winners of the offseason, I would have told you that I was off my rocker. The Dukes had been rebuffed by several candidates for the job, and talented freshmen Isiaha Mike and Mike Lewis, along with many from a talented incoming class, had requested their releases to explore other options. However, that all changed when they hired former Akron head coach Keith Dambrot. While the entire incoming class and Mike still elected to depart, Lewis elected to return, and Dambrot has done an incredible job of assembling talent for 2017-18 and beyond. He added 2 of his former players at Akron in Michael Hughes and Tavian Dunn-Martin, 3 freshmen, a JUCO transfer, and 2 other “sit-out” transfers in Craig Randall (Memphis) and Marcus Weathers (Miami of Ohio). While the team will likely struggle this season, Dambrot has put this program on track for success for years to come.
Nevada head coach Eric Musselman has revitalized the Wolf Pack program in his 2 short years in charge, so it’s no wonder his name was mentioned in connection to numerous head coaching vacancies this offseason. However, Musselman rebuffed Cal, among others, to return to Reno for another year. That in and of itself would have been considered a win for the Pack. However, the offseason victories didn’t stop there, as Musselman again added several talented players via the transfer market. The Pack added 2 guards and 2 forwards to their ranks, all of whom will be eligible beginning in 2018-19. The additions:
- Bryant guard Nisre Zouzoua: 20.3 ppg, 37% 3pt FG%, 2 years of eligibility remaining
- Portland guard Jazz Johnson: 15.8 ppg, 42% 3pt FG%, 2 years of eligibility remaining
- Omaha transfer Tre’Shawn Thurman: 13.8 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 1 year of eligibility remaining
- Rice transfer Marquez Letcher-Ellis: 7.7 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 2 years of eligibility remaining
The Pack also made a splash with the hire of former LSU head coach Johnny Jones as an assistant. Jones’ son John will also join the team. The younger Jones was a 3-time state champion guard in Louisiana who averaged over 15 points per game as a high school senior.
Iona had a few victories this offseason, but the biggest reason I put them down on this list is what happened to the rest of the MAAC. In a year in which many teams were already losing significant pieces to graduation, many of the other talented players departed MAAC programs. Fairfield saw guard duo Curtis Cobb and Jerry Johnson depart, a huge blow to a team many thought could compete for a MAAC title. Canisius lost star guard Kassius Robertson to Missouri as a grad transfer. Promising youngster Antwon Portley transferred from St. Peter’s to Fordham.
While the rest of the MAAC was seeing talented players depart, the Gaels were adding talent from the grad transfer market in UMass guard Zach Lewis and Tulsa big man TK Edogi. They also earned the commitment of Robert Morris transfer Isaiah Still, who will sit out this season. Finally, they held onto associate head coach and ace recruiter Jared Grasso, whose name was mentioned for multiple head coaching vacancies.
Combine the additions to the Iona roster with the departures from the rest of the league, and the Gaels are the clear early favorite in the MAAC.
Replacing longtime Gauchos head coach Bob Williams, the UCSB program handed the keys to its program to Arizona assistant Joe Pasternack in what was, in my mind, one of the most underrated hires of the offseason. Pasternack certainly hasn’t disappointed in his short time in SoCal, landing talented Rice grad transfer guard Marcus Jackson and former 4-star point guard Devearl Ramsey from Nevada. This year, Jackson and returnee Gabe Vincent will combine to form perhaps the best backcourt in the Big West, while Ramsey waits in the wings to take over the show in 2018-19. In addition, Pasternack added Boise State assistant John Rillie to his staff, a strong hire who should do a great job bringing in talent for UCSB. Even coming off a 6-25 season, it wouldn’t surprise me to see UCSB contend for a Big West title this year.
The offseason had been fairly quiet for UNLV. Then came an approximately 24 hour period that changed the landscape of the Mountain West for the upcoming season. The first domino to fall was 5-star center Brandon McCoy committing to the Rebels in a somewhat surprising move. Then came the commitment of the top JUCO player in the country in Shakur Juiston. Shortly thereafter, 4-star guard Amauri Hardy committed to Marvin Menzies’ program. Those 3 additions make the Rebels one of the most interesting mid-majors in college basketball this season, and certainly one of the most talented teams in the Mountain West.