By Kevin Sweeney
As hard as it may be to believe, Senior Day’s are starting to come around, with many teams honoring the backbones of their teams as they gear up for one last run at March Madness glory. However, some teams already in position to compete this season should return their current core next season. Many of these teams entered the season with little to no fanfare, but now have a chance to burst onto the scene in March a year or 2 before most thought they might. Here are a few clubs to watch not only this March, but for years to come.
The Broncs entered the 2017-18 season as a bit of an afterthought in the MAAC, as with 4 starters graduating from last year’s club, the preseason selection of 7th by the MAAC coaches seemed reasonable. But man, has Kevin Baggett’s club been tough this season. Winners of 10 in a row and in sole possession of first in the MAAC, the Broncs start 3 freshmen (all of whom redshirted for various reasons a season ago) and 2 sophomores. The engine that makes this club go is sophomore PG Stevie Jordan, an excellent table-setter who stuffs the stat sheet with averages of 13 points, 4 rebounds, and 6 assists per game. Baggett surrounds him with an extremely athletic group of wing/forwards who can do a lot of different things, like Dimencio Vaughn and Frederick Scott, as well as an elite shooter in Jordan Allen. The scariest part? Rider will add 2 talented transfers to their ranks next season in addition to this core, with wing Ahmad Gilbert (Minnesota) and guard Jihar Williams (FIU) joining the fray. To me, they are the clear top dog in the MAAC right now and have a chacne to put together a special run if they hold onto all this talent.
Ball State: MAC
The Cardinals made headlines early this season with a stunning upset win over Notre Dame, and BSU should be here to stay as one of the top mid-majors in the country. 4 starters will return from this season’s club, including a pair of uber-talented juniors in point guard Taylor Persons and versatile big man Trey Moses. They’ll also bring back Tahjai Teague, an athletic forward that fits perfectly next to Moses. Combine that with the potential of the current freshman class (Ishmael El-Amin and Zach Gunn combined for 34 points, 10 rebounds, and 8 assists in a recent win over division leaders Toledo) and the potential for James Whitford’s club is endless going forward.
Beneficiaries of the one of the biggest breakout transfers in college basketball this season, Bill Coen and the Huskies are 12-4 in the CAA and very much in the picture for an NCAA Tournament berth. Vasa Pusica went from being a rotation guard on a bad San Diego team in the WCC to one of the most indispensable players in the CAA, averaging more than 17 points and 5 assists per game while shooting greater than 50% from the field and 40% from downtown. Combine him with solid core of sophomores in Shawn Occeus, Donnell Gresham, and Bolden Brace, as well as talented freshman big Tomas Murphy, and optimism about the future of this program. And let’s not forget about Jordan Roland, a combo guard who is sitting out this season after transferring from George Washington, where he averaged 7 points per game a season ago.
Hartford: America East
John Gallagher entered this season thought by many to be on the hot seat. Coming off 2 consecutive 20-loss campaigns, the Hawks were picked near the bottom of the A-East by nearly every preseason prognosticator. Now, the Hawks look like one of the top contenders, if not the favorite, for the A-East title next year, with a chance to really make noise in conference tournament play this season. The junior trio of PG JR Lynch, SG Jason Dunne, and PF John Carroll combines to average over 40 points per game, and fits extremely well together. In a recent win over Vermont, it was Dunne who lit it up, scoring 28 points in a monumental win for the Hawks and the Catamounts’ first conference loss in over 2 years. The loss of rim protector Hassan Atia will definitely hurt next season, but the pieces are in place for Gallagher and company to make some noise next season.
New Mexico: Mountain West
From the beginning, I loved the Paul Weir hire at New Mexico. I just didn’t realize how quickly his impact would be felt in Albuquerque, both on the court and on the recruiting trail. It’s easy to look ahead to 2018-19, when the Lobos will add transfers Vance Jackson (UConn), JaQuan Lyle (Ohio State), Carlton Bragg (Kansas/Arizona State), and Isaiah Maurice (Kansas State) along with 4-star PG Drue Drinnon, but UNM has been sneaky-good this season. Anthony Mathis has taken huge steps forward under Weir, while freshman wing Makuach Maluach has impressed this season and has limitless upside as he develops his skills and gets stronger. The Lobos have already proven their ability to compete with the Mountain West’s elite, taking both Nevada and Boise State to the wire in matchups earlier this season, so I wouldn’t be stunned to see the Lobos steal a bid to the Big Dance if they get hot at the right time.