By Kevin Sweeney
While there’s always something to talk about in the college basketball landscape, we’ve reached the dog days of the offseason. The vast majority of the big transfer dominoes have fallen, coaching changes have been completed, and teams are in the midst of preparing for the 2017-18 season. So, I decided to open up for questions so you could decided what you wanted me to talk about this week. I picked my favorite questions from all the great submissions, thanks to all who submitted questions!
I got a pair of similar questions regarding the Southern Conference, which looks to me as one of the most wide-open mid-major conferences going into the season. Each contender seemingly has one flaw that would give me pause about picking them to win it all. My early pick is Mercer. The Bears are a veteran club, featuring 5 senior starters looking to finish their careers with an NCAA Tournament bid. Leading that crew is Rian Holland, a SoCon POY candidate who averaged over 17 ppg last season. The other top contenders to are Furman, which loses head coach Niko Medved but brings back 4 starters from a 23 win squad, and Samford, which features an outstanding trio in Demetrius Denzel-Dyson, Wyatt Walker, and Christen Cunningham. ETSU is a dark horse contender as well. While the Buccaneers lose a lot of talent, they have an excellent coach in Steve Forbes who will have his guys competing and they bring in some talented JUCO players as well.
As for Brad’s question regarding where the top team in the conference falls in the national picture, I see them in the 80-120 range in the RPI. I don’t see a team in the SoCon this year that will be as good as Chattanooga from 2015-16 or last year’s ETSU team, but I could see 3-4 of the teams I mentioned finding themselves in that 80-120 range.
As @Boiler_Ray points out, Gonzaga’s position in preseason polls seems to fluctuate a lot among college basketball experts. Coming off a trip to the National Championship game, some (including myself) don’t even have Mark Few’s team in the top 25 entering the season. What makes the Zags so difficult to project is the amount they’ll rely on young players stepping into key roles right away. With 4 of the top 5 scorers from that 37-2 team departing, it will be up to the complimentary pieces from last year, as well as some talented freshmen, to get the job done. Most expect French big man Killian Tillie to take a big jump in his sophomore campaign, while sophomore swingman Rui Hachimura wowed Zags fans with his performance at the FIBA U19 World Cup with Japan. Meanwhile, freshmen Jesse Wade & Zach Norvell should play big roles in the backcourt that will also feature veterans Josh Perkins and Silas Melson. Still, there’s a lot of pressure on guys who haven’t brought much to the table at the D1 level to produce at a high level from day one. Those who have Gonzaga in the preseason top 25 are mostly betting on Few to get the most out of his guys and expect the train to keep on rolling in Spokane. I fully expect Gonzaga to reach the NCAA Tournament again this year, but the preseason question marks are enough for me to leave them on the outside looking in on my preseason top 25.
To me, the answer to this one is simple. The best way for good mid-majors to improve their SOS is to play other good mid-majors. Look at a pair of home & home series that were reported yesterday: Missouri State taking on Western Kentucky & Nevada taking on Rhode Island. All 4 teams have NCAA Tournament aspirations going into the season and should be top 100 (if not top 50) teams in college basketball next year. These are the perfect way to schedule. Mid-majors not only improve their metrics such as RPI and SOS but also get home games against quality opponents and are prepared well for the conference slate by playing teams at a similar level to them.
This is a super fun question from JR. Honestly, what makes teams the most enjoyable to watch for me is ball movement. Obviously, it’s really fun to watch a team that runs and presses like crazy (I don’t know if I’ve ever had more fun watching basketball than watching VCU’s HAVOC run to the Final Four), but I enjoy games at any tempo with great passing and getting beyond the stale pick-and-roll every play style of the NBA. I LOVED watching TJ Cline and Richmond play this year. As a big man, Cline’s ability to get others involved for good looks from anywhere on the floor made the Spiders one of my personal favorites to watch. I also enjoy watching Iona’s ability to space the floor with shooters and get the ball inside, especially a few years ago when they had David Laury as their center. His ability to pass out of double-teams in the post was intoxicating to watch.
Oakland has a chance to be one of the best mid-majors in the country. The trio of Martez Walker, Jalen Hayes, and Illinois transfer Kendrick Nunn should be special to watch. However, the recent departure of rim protector Isaiah Brock to focus on his education brings Greg Kampe’s team back to the pack a bit in the Horizon League. They are still the clear favorites, but I could see a couple teams hopping in and giving the Grizzlies a run for their money. One is Northern Kentucky, which claimed the league’s auto-bid last season and bring back 4 starters from last season. However, the team that has the most upside other than Oakland is UIC. The talent that Steve McClain has assembled is impressive, and this could be the year it all comes together. If superstar wing Dikembe Dixson recovers well from a torn ACL he suffered early last season, that team could be flat-out scary. Center Tai Odiase is an outstanding big man who turned heads with his play at the Adidas Nations camp this summer, making the all–tournament team. Rising sophomore guard Tarkus Ferguson stuffed the stat sheet a season ago (one of just 7 players to average at least 11.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg, and 4.8 apg) and could contend for all-conference honors if he cuts down on turnovers. Guard Marcus Ottey also flashed the ability to score in bunches as a freshman. The Flames need to improve defensively, but the talent is there for a special season in Chicago.
Iowa State is an incredibly difficult team to forecast this season. Monte Morris, Deonte Burton, and Naz Mitrou-Long all graduate, leaving Steve Prohm’s Cyclones with a bunch of holes. I don’t think it will be Jackson’s team; to me Jackson is an elite shooter but not the high-level playmaker Prohm needs in his PG role. To me, that guy will be freshman Lindell Wigginton, the highly-touted recruit the Cyclones desperately needed in this class. I think you’ll see a lot of Jackson and Wigginton playing next to each other in the backcourt. Jackson is a bit small for the shooting guard spot but I think they can make it work. On Young, I think he’s a guy with a fair amount of upside. He showed as a freshman the ability to impact the game on both ends of the floor. I’ll be interested to see how he factors into a frontcourt that adds a pair of grad transfers in Jeff Beverly (UTSA) and Hans Brase (Princeton), but I think he has a chance to make a big jump as a sophomore. I think he’s about a 10 ppg, 6 rpg guy this season.
As for Diallo, his draft decision was incredibly fascinating. Being the unknown factor, his stock continued to rise throughout the process because of his incredible physical tools. However, he decided to return to school and play for John Calipari this season at Kentucky. After watching him with Team USA’s U19 team this summer, my opinion that he needs quite a bit of work was cemented. He was able to dominate in some facets with his elite athleticism, but showed the lack of polish and shooting ability that concerned me during the draft process. Honestly, I think he should have stayed in the draft, as I think he wouldn’t have fell past the mid-20’s and might have snuck into the lottery. Those flaws that were exposed in Cairo this summer could be further highlighted with a season of college basketball. So, I’ll put it this way: he badly needs the time in college. However, from a draft position perspective I’m not sure it was the right move.