CBB Central Mailbag- 9/21

By Kevin Sweeney

We’re getting closer…..

The season is just 50 days away from getting underway on November 10, and I’m working hard to prep for my conference previews that start on October 1. For today though, I decided to take some of your college hoops questions. Thanks to everyone for their submissions, lots of really great questions to talk about.

So we start off with a question from Brad, and one that I find super interesting. One team I’m pretty high on going into the year that a lot of people aren’t is Illinois. This is mostly a bet on Brad Underwood to get the most out of his guys, but I think I’d have them in the NCAA Tournament if I were doing a bracketology today. Guys like Mark Smith and Kipper Nichols have a chance to thrive in Underwood’s up-tempo system. At the mid-major level, a team I really like that some don’t is UCSB. The Gauchos went just 6-22 a season ago and came in last in the Big West, but with a pair of all-league level players in Jalen Canty and Gabe Vincent, as well as 2 excellent grad transfers in guard Marcus Jackson (12.2 ppg at Rice) and forward Leland King (3.7 ppg at Nevada).

On the other hand, there are a few teams that I’m just not sold on. Wisconsin for me is a team that is being overrated just because of their brand. While the Badgers have shown the ability to reload in the past, the Badgers lose 4 starters from last season and don’t have clear replacements in place. I still fully expect them to be an NCAA Tournament team, but they aren’t a preseason top 25 team (or all that close) in my opinion. I also have concerns about UNC-Wilmington. Many still think they can contend in the CAA, but with a new coach, new system, and losing their entire backcourt from a season ago, all the pressure in the world is on big man Devontae Cacok to carry the load offensively. While he’s certainly talented, it’s a major role adjustment for him and he’ll need to have a monster year if the Seahawks are going to compete in the conference.

Loaded question here, but I’ll dive right in with the favorite 2017 class. This is obviously not the best class in the nation, but I really love what Ed Cooley has assembled this year at Providence. With 4 starters set to graduate after this season, it was critical that in the 2017 and 2018 classes the Friars stocked up with talent. The big land was PG Makai Ashton-Langford, a top-50 player in the class who has a chance to be the next in a line of great lead guards for Cooley’s program. He also adds a pair of high-upside bigs in 6-8 Nate Watson and 7-footer Dajour Dickens, both of whom project as at least rotation players and perhaps more at the next level.

For the underclassman lineup, I’ll only use guys who in my opinion should have stayed/haven’t thrived in the NBA.

  • PG: Nigel Williams-Goss (Gonzaga)
  • SG: Marcus Keene (Central Michigan)
  • SF: PJ Dozier (South Carolina)
  • PF: Jaylen Johnson (Louisville)
  • C: Diamond Stone (Maryland)

This lineup features some guys that not only weren’t can’t-miss NBA guys but also would make a huge difference on their teams this year. Stone is the only one not from the 2017 draft class, but imagining him teaming up with Cowan, Jackson, and Huerter at Maryland this season would be super fun to watch.

Finally, we talk Sean Miller and Arizona. In my opinion, this is the year he gets it done. That roster is so talented and so versatile. I believe the Wildcats find their way to San Antonio this season.

Wright State is hosting an exempt event this season, and it should be a fairly interesting field of mid-major clubs. To me, the best team in the event is Fairfield out of the MAAC. The Stags have some pretty talented pieces around MAAC POY candidate Tyler Nelson, and could find themselves contending for a MAAC title if they get good point guard play. Next for me would be Wright State. You have to love the duo of Grant Benzinger and Justin Mitchell. Key this season will be the play of Parker Ernsthausen, who I think can be a breakout candidate. Both Gardner-Webb and Jacksonville project as mid-pack or lower teams in their respective conferences.

To be honest, I don’t think Oklahoma was all that far away from being a very good basketball team last year. They were stout defensively and a decent offensive club, but the issues were finishing close games, especially once senior leader Jordan Woodard went down with an injury. However, the young Sooners have another year under their belts, so winning down the stretch should be less of an issue. They also add Trae Young, a dynamic point guard, a lights-out shooter who has drawn some comparisons to a younger Steph Curry. He will make that offense much more dangerous and is a key reason why I’m fairly bullish on the Sooners this season.

After the 2016-17 season in which the Owls under Mike Rhoades went 23-12, I was all aboard the bandwagon. I truly believed they could contend in Conference USA this season. Then Will Wade left VCU for LSU, and it all crumbled. Rhoades left Rice for VCU, and stars Egor Koulechov (Florida), Marcus Evans (VCU), and Marcus Jackson (UCSB) all departed as well. Now, the Owls look to be facing a bottom-half finish in the C-USA. However, Scott Pera is the right man for the job, and has made some splashes on the recruiting trail in the 2018 class. I wouldn’t be surprised if in 2-3 years they are contenders again, but all that momentum departed with Rhoades.

Building the Perfect Non-Conference Schedule

By Kevin Sweeney

This past week or so has seen a big wave of non-conference schedules be released. Per @TheD1Docket on Twitter, 292 of the 351 Division 1 teams have released their schedules as of this morning. However, no schedule release drew more controversy than Georgetown’s release mid-day yesterday. The Hoyas drew near-universal scrutiny for a schedule that ranks among the worst in college basketball in terms of the strength of the opponents they will be playing. As I put it yesterday on Twitter in my initial thoughts:

Now, most of the time with mid-majors I tend to give the benefit of the doubt to teams with terrible schedules, citing just how difficult it is to get good games (especially at home). But there is absolutely no excuse for what Georgetown is doing. They backed out of the PK80, one of the most loaded exempt tournaments in the history of college basketball, shortly after Patrick Ewing was named head coach, seemingly looking to avoid potential embarrassment for their first year man in charge. What they replaced it with was even more low-major “buy games”. The schedule now features just 1 road game (at Richmond), and a remarkable 8 games against teams ranked #275 or lower in last year’s KenPom ratings. That’s over 10% of the bottom 77 teams in the country from a season ago!

So, what is the right way to build a non-conference schedule? That is a question that varies greatly upon what you are trying to accomplish. For instance, a rebuilding program with a new coach and almost no shot to be an NCAA Tournament team like Duquense needs to build excitement. How do you build excitement? By winning games. So, Duquesne scheduled a very light slate chock-full of very winnable home games that will allow them to impress fans who are on the fence.

However, if you are a mid-major program with realistic NCAA Tournament aspirations, you need to challenge yourself in the non-conference (but NOT in the way most think). By all means, it is good to play a couple of power conference foes. It’s a great experience for the players to get to play against the teams they watched on ESPN growing up, plus usually the mid-major gets a nice check. Where the schedule should be rooted, however, is in home and home series with other strong mid-majors. Take Siena’s non-conference schedule last year. The Saints entered the year as one of the favorites in the MAAC, so it was necessary to play tough competition. They did just that, playing the 22nd-toughest OOC in the country per CBSSports.com.

  • A look at who the Saints played:
  • Home games vs Cornell, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Bucknell, and Vermont
  • Road games vs George Washington, Kansas, UNC-Asheville, Albany, St. Bonaventure, Florida Gulf Coast, and Hofstra.

Games in bold were part of multi-year home and home or 2-for-1 series. The only negative with this slate is a relative lack of home games, but with a senior-laden team, that was more than acceptable. Now, the difficulty of this schedule backfired on the Saints (3-8 in the slate), but at the same time it demonstrates how workable a strong mid-major schedule can be made without playing nothing but high-major programs.

We are seeing the same style of scheduling catch on at hot mid-majors around the country, with teams such as Florida Gulf Coast and Nevada among those who have done well to schedule mid-major series. So, here’s the blueprint I’d try to follow if I were the one making a non-conference schedule at a contending mid-major:

  • 1 exempt tournament-ideally one that would allow you to play 1-2 power conference foes and a total of 4 guaranteed games.
  • 4 home-and-home series with other contending mid-majors. Ideally, these foes wind up the top 100 of the RPI and can serve as quality wins.
  • 3 series (likely of home-and-home or 2-for-1 nature) versus teams you should beat. The goal would be to play a challenging enough team to be a test, but if it winds up being versus a very weak foe (or non-D1 team) that’s acceptable.

This schedule is for a team playing 11 OOC games, but increasing each of the bottom 2 categories by 1 makes it for a 13 game slate (also common depending on how many conference games you play).

Overall, depending on the balance from year to year of the home and homes, you should wind up with 4-6 home games, and a lot of good tests. The schedule would likely not be enough to get an at-large bid (nothing really is for a mid-major anymore to be honest) but it would certainly help with seeding should you reach the NCAA Tournament and also drastically increase the chance for an NIT berth.

Scheduling is SO important for the overall strength of a conference. It’s important that not just the top teams in the league play strong opposition, or otherwise conference games will tank the metrics of the top dogs. As we look at conferences at critical points in their history right now (MVC for instance), scheduling is one of the biggest keys for the future of that conference.


Labor Day Weekend Recruiting Roundup

By Kevin Sweeney

It’s officially September, which also means it’s official visit season for college basketball recruits. This past weekend saw numerous mid-major programs host some of their top targets for the 2018 class for visits, and many landed commitments from talented prospects. Here’s a look at some of the biggest recruiting developments at the mid-major level this past weekend.

  • In a class many consider to be thin at the point guard position, Florida Gulf Coast and Bucknell each made huge splashes by landing commitments from floor generals this weekend. The Eagles landed 3-star Zach Scott, an athletic 6-4 point guard from Fort Lauderdale who held offers from Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh, Wichita State, and others. With star floor general Brandon Goodwin graduating after this season, landing his heir apparent in Scott is an extremely important pickup for Joe Dooley. Bucknell captured the commitment of 6-4 combo guard Andrew Funk of Warminster, PA, a high-level shooter who excelled this summer for the Jersey Shore Warriors. As his high school coach told Josh Verlin of City of Basketball Love, Funk is “Hard-nosed, aggressive, plays downhill, scoring mentality, plays well with other teammates, can do a lot of things and he can score a lot of different ways.” He also considered Delaware and Penn.
  • It’s always good to get the first official visit for one of your top targets, and Valparaiso showed exactly why that’s the case this weekend when they picked up Javon Freeman-Liberty, a Chicago native, following his official visit to campus. A 3-star shooting guard who averaged over 12 points per game on the Nike EYBL circuit for MeanStreets, Freeman-Liberty received strong interest from high-major programs and had planned official visits for Akron and Florida Gulf Coast. These are the type of prospects that Matt Lottich’s staff will have to continue to land if it hopes to enjoy the same success it had in the Horizon League moving up to the Missouri Valley. Here are some highlights of Freeman-Liberty from InTheGymHoops 2.0 on YouTube:

  • It was a critical weekend for Dave Paulsen’s George Mason program, as the Patriots hosted a pair of 2018 targets in New Jersey big man Jared Kimbrough and Virginia shooting guard Jordan Miller. Miller committed to the Patriots on Saturday morning, giving GMU their first commitment for the 2018 class. The lefty Miller can really score the ball, averaging over 22 points per game in high school this past season, and will be a tough guy to defend as he further develops his right hand. As Corey Evans of Rivals put it: “Tremendous pickup. Versatile and skilled playmaker with size”. Now, the focus turns to landing Kimbrough, a much-needed big man for this class, and highly-touted guard Brendan Adams, who visited unofficially last month.
  • Rob Ehsan’s staff at UAB has picked up right where it left off with its successes on the recruiting trail for the 2017 class in 2018, landing a commitment from Chicago big man Tamell Pearson this weekend. Pearson, who also considered Oklahoma State, Washington State, Murray State, and others, was an extremely important recruit for the Blazers given that frontcourt cogs Chris Cokley and William Lee will graduate after this season. Now, with Pearson, fellow 2018 commit Juda Akabueze and freshman Makhtar Gueye all in tow, the future in the frontcourt looks as bright as ever in Birmingham.
  • Albany continues to assemble an excellent mid-major class for 2018 with a commitment Sunday night from Malachi De Sousa of South Kent School in Connecticut. Ranked 20th in the New England Recruiting Report rankings for the 2018 class, De Sousa is a major early pick-up for Will Brown, who has also earned a commitment from 6-4 2018 guard Antonio Rizzuto this summer. The versatile wing-forward is a perfect fit for Brown’s system, and could wind up being one of the biggest steals of the early period.

  • Georgia State debuted their new football stadium Thursday night, but it was also a big weekend for their basketball program on the recruiting front. A trio of talented prospected visited campus: 3-star wings Kevin Easley and KJ Buffen as well as 4-star guard Nelson Phillips. Landing any of these prospects would be huge for Ron Hunter, and could catapult them to the top of the Sun Belt for years to come. Buffen went to high school and is close friends with current GSU guard D’Marcus Simonds, so that is certainly an advantage for the Panthers on that front.
  • New Mexico made the top 3 for athletic Illinois big man George Conditt, who cut his list Monday to the Lobos, Iowa State, and Illinois. New Mexico will get his final official visit on September 29th. He’d be an excellent fit for Paul Weir’s new system at UNM.
  •  Davidson hosted Riley Battin for an official visit this weekend. Battin, a 3-star forward from California who is also considering Utah, Ohio State, and Vanderbilt. “I think I would fit very well in their system. Their offense runs through a versatile point forward which is where I seem myself playing at the next level.” Battin told D1Vision following the visit.
  • Texas point guard PJ Byrd took an official visit to Boise State this weekend after visiting VCU on August 25th. He’s set to announce his decision on September 6th, per ZAGSBLOG.