32×32: 2018-19 Sun Belt Preview

By Kevin Sweeney

The Sun Belt has as much star power, if not more, than any mid-major conference. A pair of NBA prospects in Tookie Brown and D’Marcus Simonds headline things, but guys like Jordon Varnado, Travis Munnings,¬† Ronshad Shabazz, and Jakeenan Gant are all star-level players. This top-end talent should make this league incredibly fun to watch this season.

#1. Georgia State

Three years ago, Ron Hunter went into a crowd of high-major programs to land D’Marcus Simonds, capitalizing off the momentum of their incredible upset victory over Baylor in the NCAA Tournament that March. Simonds became a star, a potential NBA Draft prospect, and the biggest reason the Panthers have a chance to repeat in the Sun Belt this season. Now, Hunter does it again, landing top-200 guard Nelson Phillips to join a returning core that features Simonds, Devin Mitchell, and Malik Benlevi. GSU also adds Pitt transfer Damon Wilson to what should be one of the best backcourts in mid-major basketball.

#2. Louisiana

After dominating the Sun Belt regular season last year, the Ragin’ Cajuns stumbled in the conference tournament with a loss to UT-Arlington. While they lose a few key cogs, plenty of talent returns for Bob Marlin’s group, including athletic big man Jakeenan Gant and a solid backcourt pairing in Malik Marquetti and Marcus Stroman. Additional scoring help could be on the way in top-75 JUCO guard Jeremy Hayes, who averaged over 16 points per game for Howard (TX) last season.

#3. Georgia Southern

Development for this Georgia Southern group that has heavily featured the backcourt pairing of Tookie Brown and Ike Smith since they stepped onto campus as freshmen has somewhat stagnated, with back-to-back 11-7 SBC finishes. Mark Byington gets one last re-shuffle of the proverbial deck of cards to try to find the players around Brown and Smith to vault themselves to the top of the conference. The Eagles get bigger, with Iowa State transfer Simeon Carter and JUCO product Isaiah Crawley both possessing high upside and give Byington to option to go bigger next to incumbent center Montae Glenn and perhaps solve some of GSU’s rebounding struggles. Some solid incoming guards should help as well.

#4. South Alabama

Richie Riley takes over for the Jags after a wildly-successful 2 year stint as the head man at Nicholls State, and appears to be embracing a similar transfer-heavy recruiting approach to what he did so successfully at Nicholls. A pair of grad transfers in Kory Holden and Tashombe Riley should provide big-time production in their only seasons in Mobile, while a trio of talented sit-out transfers wait in the wings in Don Coleman, Andre Fox, and Josh Ayeni. This screams of another quick flip for Riley as he rapidly rising the coaching ladder, with immediate success possible thanks to some solid returning talent along with a former CAA star in Holden, followed by an even-bigger year two with a pair of all-SBC talents in Fox and Coleman joining the fray.

#5. Louisiana-Monroe

With a strong core in place in likely first-teamer Travis Munnings and rising star Michael Ertel, Keith Richard’s club has legit dark horse potential this season. The add of Wichita State transfer Daishon Smith is one of the most underrated transfer coups in the country, adding an experienced playmaker with explosive athleticism who should be excellent in his only season at ULM. A big group of JUCO imports will be important for depth, but the core of this team is impressive and has a chance to make some noise.

#6. Troy

The Trojans have without a doubt the conference’s best frontcourt, with Jordon Varnado and Alex Hicks both clear all-conference talents and Varnado poised to top 2,000 career points in his storied Troy career. The backcourt presents far too many concerns for me to trust them for much more than a mid-pack finish, with PG BJ Miller the only proven option.

#7. Appalachian State

The Mountaineers have yet to build much momentum under Jim Fox, but this year presents their best chance yet to make headway in the Sun Belt. Ronshad Shabazz returns for one more year after impressing on the summer camp circuit, and Fox also gets talented sophomore Justin Forrest back. Add in USF transfer Mike Bibby Jr, and you’ve got one heck of a backcourt. Shabazz has to be more efficient to help the Mountaineers up their offensive productivity overall, but if he can make those strides, a top-4 finish is more than attainable.

#8. Arkansas State

Year one under Mike Balado was a disappointment in Jonesboro, as the Rick Pitino disciple saw his ASU club have major struggles on the defensive end and drop 21 games after an outstanding 2016-17 under Grant McCasland. Fixing the defense should be the primary challenge in year 2, but the Red Wolves have plenty of returning offensive talent. JUCO import Canberk Kus could be a majorly impactful piece– a versatile wing athlete who should be a high-level player on defense.

#9. Texas State

Texas State’s snail-like tempo under Danny Kaspar should continue into 2018-19, leaning on high-usage wing star Nijal Pearson to get them enough buckets to win close games. The Bobcats should be excellent on defense once again, but will need to find a way to consistently put the ball in the basket to move up the standings.

#10. UT-Arlington

UTA made the unfathomable decision to fire head coach Scott Cross after winning 72 games in the last 3 seasons, with their athletic director lamenting Cross’s inability to turn the Maverick program into the next Gonzaga. Cross, an alum of the university and a universally respected name in the coaching business, indubitably got a raw deal, and will make some program very happy when he gets another crack at a head coaching job. UTA made a strong hire in Chris Ogden, an accomplished recruiter at a number of big jobs, but he inherits almost nothing in terms of proven production. Look for Jackson State transfer Edric Dennis to have a big season.

#11. Coastal Carolina

The Chanticleers return just one player who averaged more than 5.7 points per game last season and have 6 freshmen on the roster. Everything about this feels like a rebuilding year for Cliff Ellis and company, though they do have a star in Zac Cuthbertson who should make this one sting less.

#12. Little Rock

Darrell Walker inherits a brutally tough rebuilding job at Little Rock, a program just 2 years removed from winning an NCAA Tournament game under Chris Beard. There’s just no high-end talent on this roster as of now, though Walker has shown some early recruiting prowess that should serve him well as he tackles this rebuilding job. Diminutive freshman PG Markquis Nowell was a once-well-regarded recruit who slipped through the cracks and could put up big numbers from the get-go for the Trojans, while FGCU transfer Rayjon Tucker has high upside on the wing.

All-Conference First Team:

  • Tookie Brown– Georgia Southern (18.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 4.3 apg, .532/.471/.753)
  • D’Marcus Simonds– Georgia State (21.2 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 4.4 apg, .461/.292/.702)
  • Ronshad Shabazz– Appalachian State (18.5 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 3.0 apg, .400/.343/.688)
  • Jordon Varnado– Troy (18.0 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 1.7 apg, .478/.289/.738)
  • Jakeenan Gant– Louisiana (13.7 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 0.9 apg, .553/.319/.696)

Player of the Year: D’Marcus Simonds (Georgia State)

Brown, Simonds, Shabazz, and Varnado would all have significant momentum for POY in most one-bid leagues, but the star power in the SBC only allows me to pick one. Simonds is the choice here, coming off winning this honor as a sophomore. He should only get better as a junior as he improves as a shooter and decision-maker.

Breakout Player: Justin Miller (Louisiana) 

Miller was incredibly productive on a per-minute basis last season behind Gant and since-graduated Bryce Washington, averaging over 20 points and 10 rebounds per 40 minutes. The big-bodied forward can play inside out and should help the Cajuns not miss much of a beat on offense.

Newcomer of the Year: Daishon Smith (Louisiana-Monroe)

Smith is critical to this ULM team’s success. In theory, he provides a dynamic open-floor athlete who can run the show, and his experience playing under Gregg Marshall certainly should help him. I’m expecting big things.

32×32: 2018-19 Summit League Preview

By Kevin Sweeney

Keeping coaches has proven a challenge for Summit League clubs, with Craig Smith, Saul Phillips, and Scott Nagy among the coaches who have recently left for what I would describe as “incrementally better” jobs– Phillips and Nagy took jobs in a one-bid league, while Smith nearly took the worst job in the MVC (Drake) before taking a mid-pack Mountain West job at Utah State. South Dakota State seems in most danger of losing its coach next, with TJ Otzelberger likely to earn plenty of attention over the next few seasons. Otzelberger has proven himself a strong recruiter and did a great job making adjustments in year 2 after some early struggles in his first season as a head coach.

#1. South Dakota State

There’s little debate about this pick. The Jackrabbits arguably have the 2 best players in the conference in Mike Daum and David Jenkins, as well as perhaps the best coach in the conference in TJ Otzelberger. That’s generally an excellent recipe for success. SDSU has one of the best offenses in the country, with Daum featured as a shooting 5-man who can also do the dirty work inside and collect rebound after rebound. His presence lets the Jackrabbits go 5-out, creating some great floor spacing and driving lanes. This team could win an NCAA Tournament game, and nearly did last season. That’s the only thing left for Daum to check off the list in his storied career, one that has featured trips to the Big Dance in each of his first 3 seasons.

#2. Denver

Rodney Billups continues to assemble talent at Denver, and this could be a bit of a breakthrough year despite the graduation of talented big man Daniel Amigo. Scoring guard Joe Rosga returns along with a few other key rotation cogs, and Billups adds a pair of high-major talents to the mix in grad transfers Ronnie Harrell (Creighton) and Tory Miller-Stewart (Colorado). Harrell is especially interesting, with the size to play the 4 or even the 5 at the mid-major level but an absolute nightmare in the open floor, while Miller-Stewart should step in nicely to help fill Amigo’s void. I don’t think this team can catch SDSU, but they should win 20 games.

#3. South Dakota

All is not lost for South Dakota despite losing its rising star coach Craig Smith and its best player in Matt Mooney, as Todd Lee looks to continue the momentum this program had under Smith, The frontcourt remains intact, and the Trey Burch-Manning/Tyler Hagedorn pairing that Lee is likely to deploy should be one of the league’s best. The question is who’ll create offense for this group, as Wyoming grad transfer Cody Kelley looks likely to start at point guard with Tristan Simpson and Trey Peterson providing scoring punch on the wing. In a less-structured offense than Smith’s motion attack, it will be interesting to see how this club fares.

#4. Purdue Fort Wayne

Replacing 22+ point per game scorers is never an easy task, but its an undertaking that Jon Coffman will have to take on this season with the graduation of the high-scoring Bryson Scott, who spent 2 years with the program after beginning his career at Purdue. While that type of loss is tough to overcome, the Mastadons do have a strong core in place, featuring unique point forward Jon Konchar and scoring guard Kason Harrell, along with a pair of high-level newcomers in JUCO product Dee Montgomery and NAU transfer Marcus DeBerry.

#5. Oral Roberts

Year one of the Paul Mills era was a solid one– the Golden Eagles performed about as expected but positioned itself nicely for the future with a strong recruiting class. Mills, a Scott Drew disciple, is still all-in on playing big in this era of pace and space, as he rotated through 3 excellent big men who were mostly non-shooters last season and has continued to recruit size. A pair of well-regarded recruits in Francis Lacis and DJ Weaver should provide some length as wing/forwards likely to play the 3 in Mills’ system, while Emmanuel Nzekwesi should continue his rise as one of the best players in the conference. This team could be a dark horse with reasonable guard play.

#6. North Dakota State

NDSU is sliding in the wrong direction as the Dave Richman era enters year 5, with the Bison coming off a 15-17 mark despite having one of the better players in the conference in Paul Miler. Long wing Tyson Ward looks most likely to pick up the slack after an impressive sophomore campaign, but a pair of incoming guards in JUCO product Vinnie Shahid and Siena transfer Jordan Horn will be critical for Richman to get things moving back in the right direction.

#7. Omaha

The Mavs get a lot back from tough 2017-18, with a core of Zach Jackson and Mitchell Hahn likely enough to compete in a lot of Summit League games. The defense was the biggest issue for Derrin Hanson’s club– Hanson’s teams play a style that will allow a lot of points but should force turnovers and earn the Mavs plenty of easy baskets, and that just didn’t happen enough last season. That should probably be attributed to the loss of point-of-attack defender Tra-Deon Hollins, who racked up tons of steals in his Omaha career and wasn’t replaced well last season. Forcing more turnovers would certainly help fix those defensive foes and help the Mavericks climb back up the standings.

#8. North Dakota

Losing your best player the year before moving up in conference is never ideal, and that’s what Brian Jones will have to deal with as Geno Crandall decided to grad transfer to Gonzaga late this offseason. The Fighting Hawks have a nice trio in place in Marlon Stewart, Cortez Seales, and Conner Avants, but have almost nothing else left in terms of proven commodities. It could be a tough transition year for UND.

#9. Western Illinois

The Leathernecks will always hold a special place in the hearts of most CBB diehards thanks to their hilarious mascot, but they have struggled on the floor for several seasons. However, there might be some reason for optimism this year with Kobe Webster and Brandon Gilbeck returning and well-regarded freshman Zion Young joining the fray.

All-Conference First Team:

  • David Jenkins– SDSU (16.1 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 1.6 apg, .432/.382/.799)
  • Joe Rosga– Denver (16.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 2.9 apg, .481/.440/.901)
  • John Konchar– Fort Wayne (14.8 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 4.7 apg, .482/.384/.648)
  • Ronnie Harrell– Denver (7.0 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 2.6 apg, .465/.333/.797 with Creighton)
  • Mike Daum– SDSU (23.9 ppg, 10.3 rpg, 1.3 apg, .462/.425/.851)

Player of the Year: Mike Daum (SDSU)

Not much explanation is necessary here, so I’ll instead discuss Daum’s incredible career. He’s poised to win Summit POY 3 times, accumulate over 3,000 career points and around 1,200 career rebounds, all while shooting 43% from 3 for his career.

In short: that boy good.

Breakout Player: Matt Pile (Omaha)

Pile showed some promise as a freshman, averaging 6 points and 4 rebounds per game while showing some ability to protect the rim. If he can make offenses think twice before entering the paint, it could really give this Omaha team a big lift on the defensive end of the floor.

Newcomer of the Year: Ronnie Harrell (Denver)

I was stunned to hear that Harrell was transferring down, as I expected him to be a big contributor for Creighton this season. Instead, he’ll be a star in the Summit, likely playing the 4 and exploiting mismatch after mismatch thanks to combination of size and athleticism. I could see him averaging 15 points, 7 rebounds, and 3-4 assists per contest in his only season for the Pioneers.

ACC Preview Podcast

Today on the show, Brad and Kevin preview the ACC, which once again will be one of the best conferences is in college basketball. We don’t disagree on too much, but still a lot of analysis on what we expect from these teams and a few random asides about roster construction.

We also touch on the convictions of Jim Gatto, Merl Code, and Christian Dawkins, along with the injury news for Jontay Porter and Eric Curry.

32×32: 2018-19 Southland Conference Preview

By Kevin Sweeney

The Southland has been Stephen F. Austin and everyone else since the later years of the Danny Kasper era, with Brad Underwood taking the program to new heights and Kyle Keller doing his best to keep SFA among the nation’s best mid-major programs. This year, it appears the team best-suited to challenge the Lumberjacks for Southland supremacy is Southeastern Louisiana, but catching SFA seems like a daunting task to say the least.

#1. Stephen F. Austin

The clear choice here, SFA just flat-out recruits circles around the rest of this conference and brings back a bunch of production from a 28-win club last season. Adding Minnesota grad transfer Davonte Fitzgerald is the icing on the cake for a team that already features a pair of dynamic players in Kevon Harris and Shannon Bogues. I wouldn’t be surprised if this team wins an NCAA Tournament game.

Here’s an interview myself and my partner Brad Cavallaro recorded with SFA Head Coach Kyle Keller this offseason:

#2. Southeastern Louisiana

Jay Ladner gets diminutive dynamo Marlain Veal back for one more season, and as a result has a legit contender for the Soutland title in 2017-18. Replacing Jordan Capps will be tough, but the Lions should be stingy on defense once again and add another capable scorer to the backcourt in Tulane transfer Von Julien.

#3. Abilene Christian

Joe Golding has gradually built this ACU program as they’ve went through the difficult transition to D1 basketball, finally getting to .500 last season in year 5 of the transition. Now, ACU gets a chance to take the next step, returning 4 of its top 5 scorers from last season. Fixing their free throw margin (ACU sent their opponents to the line a lot but didn’t get to the line much at all) could be all it takes for this team to take the next step, especially if talented big Jalone Friday continues to improve.

#4. McNeese State

Heath Schroyer’s career arc has been an interesting one to say the least, seemingly mastering the “quick flip” rebuild before departing for greener pastures. His most recent head coaching reclamation project came at Tennessee-Martin, where he won more than 20 games in each of his 2 seasons there before departing for an assistant job at NC State. Schroyer appears to be looking to do similar work at McNeese, bringing in a slew of JUCO players and D1 transfers that should translate to winning over the next 2-3 years. I see this program following a similar trajectory to what Richie Riley did at Nicholls, and Schroyer bringing lots of short-term success to a program with little history but is unlikely to stay long.

#5. New Orleans

Mark Slessinger has done an underratedly-excellent job with this New Orleans program the last 2 seasons, winning 11 conference games last year after bringing the Privateers to the Big Dance in 2016-17. This year’s club takes on a different look, as the graduations of Travin Thibodeaux and Makur Puou leaves behind questions in the frontcourt. Instead, the backcourt seems like the strength of this club, with the young pairing of Bryson Robinson and Troy Green appearing to have a bright future for Slessinger’s group.

#6. Lamar

The Cardinals dipped into the transfer market to fortify their backcourt, with Jordan Hunter (New Mexico), LaQuarious Paige (Indiana State), and Michael Kolawole (UIC) all profiling as useful options for Tic Price next to returner Nick Garth. Losing Colton Weisbrod won’t be easy, but the Cardinals still have a solid frontcourt headlined by Josh Nzeakor and should be considered a legit dark horse in the Southland.

#7. Sam Houston State

This projection feels a little low given how consistently solid Jason Hooten’s clubs have been in recent years at SHSU, but I am a little concerned about how they create offense without John Dewey running the show. JUCO imports Chad Bowie and ZaQwaun Matthews will be looked to as immediate contributors, and it certainly wouldn’t surprise me if the BearKats outperform this projection.

#8. Nicholls

Richie Riley departs for South Alabama after a wildly successful short stint as head man for the Colonels, and assistant Austin Claunch takes over. Claunch, just 28 years old, appears to be embracing a similar “Transfer U” approach to recruiting that Riley employed, bringing in a trio of sit one, play one transfers in Nico Clareth (Siena), Dexter McClanahan (Savannah State), and D’Angelo Hunter (West Virginia) that should give this group a major talent injection in a year’s time. For now, he’ll rely on a pair of grad transfers in Gavin Peppers (Central Michigan) and Jeremiah Jefferson (Jackson State) along with some JUCO products to hopefully keep the Colonels’ heads above water in a transition campaign.

#9. Texas A&M– Corpus Christi

Losing a potential building block in combo forward Sean Rhea after his freshman season to JUCO is certainly a blow, but there’s still plenty of interesting young talent on this Islander club. They’ll have to find a way to be more efficient on offense though, or it will be tough for this club to take the next step.

#10. Central Arkansas

Over 2,500 points later, Jordan Howard has finally graduated and departed Central Arkansas for good, leaving Ross Pennell’s club with a gigantic hole in the backcourt. The good news for Pennell is that he has one of the more unique talents in mid-major basketball in Hayden Koval, a 7-footer who blocked over 3 shots a game as a freshman while also showcasing the ability to stretch the floor. Koval could be establish himself as a household name in the Southland with a big year this year.

#11. Houston Baptist

After several consecutive middling campaigns, HBU bottomed out in 2017-18, winning just 6 games and conceding over over 84 points per game. To make matters worse, the one bright spot from such a disappointing campaign in star freshman David Caraher transferred to St. John’s after the season. The good news is that the Huskies get back double-double machine Josh Ibarra, who was averaging 16 points and 10 rebounds per game before getting injured in the team’s 10th game last season. While that injury hurt last year, it was fortuitous timing given playing in an 11th game would have stopped him from being eligible to redshirt last season.

#12. Incarnate Word

After doing a pretty good job of making the Cardinals relevant during their 4-year D1 transition period, Ken Burmeister was fired after a brutal 2017-18 season that saw UIW win just 3 D1 games all season. His replacement is intriguing in former NAIA head coach Dr. Carson Cunningham, who brings in a 6-man freshman class that should set the tone for his tenure. The returning core of Charles Brown, Christian Peevy, and Keaton Hervey is a nice start, but they are going to need a lot of help to move up the standings.

#13. Northwestern State

The Demons were beyond bad offensively last season, shooting a putrid 28% from downtown on the season and averaging under 65 points per game. Ish Lane is a nice piece in the frontcourt, but this roster is just not very good.

All-Conference First Team:

  • Marlain Veal– SLU (12.8 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 6.1 apg, .446/.360/.753)
  • Shannon Bogues– SFA (15.4 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 1.4 apg, .505/.352/.795)
  • Kevon Harris– SFA (14.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 1.3 apg, .480/.426/.680)
  • TJ Holyfield– SFA (12.9 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 0.9 apg, .548/.412/.748)
  • Hayden Koval– Central Arkansas (8.7 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 0.9 apg, .454/.330/.627)

Player of the Year: Kevon Harris (SFA)

There’s a chance all the star power for SFA “splits the votes” and this award goes to another deserving candidate in Veal, but to me, there’s no one better in the Southland than Harris. One of Kyle Keller’s first recruits at Stephen F. Austin, Harris has established himself as a prototypical pro-level wing who can shoot the ball and attack off the bounce. He’s a huge reason the Lumberjacks are heavy favorites in the conference once again.

Breakout Player: Hayden Koval (Central Arkansas)

I talked about Koval earlier, but I’m super excited to see his progression in his second year at UCA. He’s such an intriguing talent. One of just 5 players since 1992 to average at least 3 blocks per game while making at least 25 threes at a 33% or better clip, Koval is just simply a guy you don’t find every day, especially at a program like Central Arkansas.

Newcomer of the Year: Davonte Fitzgerald (Stephen F. Austin)

Kyle Keller gets Fitzgerald back after coaching him in his freshman season at Texas A&M, a season in which Fitzgerald was an all-conference freshman. Since, his career has been repeatedly been put on hold by injuries, but he possesses significant upside with his combination of size and athleticism. He should have a huge year in his final season of college basketball.

32×32: 2018-19 SoCon Preview

By Kevin Sweeney

In recent years, the SoCon has continued to assert itself as one of the more competitive one-bid leagues in college basketball. While the depth of the league may be a little down this year, the coaching remains outstanding. Wes Miller (UNCG), Steve Forbes (ETSU), and Mike Young (Wofford) have seen their names come up in discussions for bigger jobs in recent years, with Miller and Forbes especially likely to move up the ranks in the near future. For now, those top coaches should make this league fun to watch once again.

Standings Projection:

#1. UNC-Greensboro

A team that should be showing up on everyone’s preseason Cinderella lists, the Spartans have gotten better every year under Wes Miller and should be exceedingly dangerous again this season. UNCG returns 4 of its top 5 scorers, including pure scoring guard Francis Alonso and criminally underrated big man James Dickey, while also adding a pair of big bodies in Eric Hamilton (Wichita State) and Mohamed Abdulsalam who should give this team the ability to match up better with high-major clubs. Hamilton is an x-factor here, with high-level athleticism and even some shooting ability built into his 6-9 frame. If he can stretch the floor, it could make for an especially intriguing twin-tower look next to Dickey.

#2. East Tennessee State

My annual “Steve Forbes is an absurdly good coach” shout from the skies has arrived. Forbes took a team that lost a ton in 2016-17 and took it back to the top of the SoCon, and I have no doubt that he’ll do it again this season. A JUCO-heavy group of newcomers joins holdovers Bo Hodges & Mladen Armus, with a trio of former top-35 JUCO prospects joining the fray along with highly-touted freshman Carlos Curtis and App State transfer shooter Patrick Good. On paper, this team is deep, athletic, and supremely talented.

#3. Wofford

Virtually everyone is back for the Terriers, which stunned North Carolina in the non-conference last season but stumbled a bit in SoCon play to a still-respectable 11-7 mark. We all know the shooting and scoring exploits of Fletcher Magee, the hyper-efficient scoring guard who shot 44% from 3 on 10! attempts per game last season. It’s more than just Magee in the backcourt, with Nathan Hoover, Trevor Stumpe, and Storm Murphy all good shooters. I just don’t see how a defense that struggled last season gets much better this season, as the same size and athleticism flaws will be apparent on that end of the floor. That may cap this team’s ceiling a bit, but I certainly wouldn’t want to deal with the Terriers in March.

#4. Furman

This year is when Bob Richey really gets tested, as the 2nd-year head coach of the Paladins loses the entire backcourt he inherited from Niko Medved. Losing 3 guys who could score and initiate the offense likely means that the offense will run through big man Matt Rafferty a lot more– an excellent passer with a unique skillset at the mid-major level. Furman should be good again on defense, but needs at least one of its guards to take a big step forward in the scoring department to help out Rafferty.

#5. Mercer

Graduating 5 seniors that accounted for over 2/3 of the Bears’ offense last season is always a challenge to replace, but I’m not selling all my Mercer stock yet. A solid backcourt seems to be in place in Ross Cummings (8.7 ppg) and breakout candidate Marcus Cohen (4.2 ppg), and the Bears bring in a solid 6-man freshman class that will be massive for the future of the program. That freshman group needs to provide some rebounding and overall depth for Mercer this season, but if they can do that, a top-5 finish seems reasonable.

#6. Samford

The Bulldogs thoroughly collapsed last season after being picked by many as a dark horse in the SoCon, losing 22 games and finishing 7th in the conference. That drop-off was mostly due to being a complete trainwreck on defense, allowing opponents to shoot 49% from the field for the season after conceding just 43% of shots in 2016-17. With an impressive group of newcomers, there’s reason for optimism this season, with holdover Josh Sharkey running the show, a quartet of highly-touted guards in Brandon Austin (Alabama), Myron Gordon (JUCO), Steven Fitzgerald (4-star freshman), and Deandre Thomas (freshman) surrounding him, and USF transfer Ruben Guerrero anchoring the frontcourt. This team has the makings of a dark horse once again, but I have to see the defense improve before I can move them into my top 5.

#7. Chattanooga

I’m still a believer in Lamont Paris despite a brutal year one and some momentum-crushing offseason departures. Paris retools with perhaps the SoCon’s best recruiting class headlined by multipositional wing/forward Kevin Easley, PG Maurice Commander, and a pair of high-level transfers in former ASU big Ramon Vila and Fairfield import Jerry Johnson Jr. There may be some bumps in the road this season, but if Paris can keep this core together, the future is bright.

#8. Citadel

Duggar Baucom’s breakneck-paced offenses haven’t brought the same success at Citadel as they did at VMI as he enters year four of his tenure. It’s hard for me to see this being the breakthrough year– this system isn’t one that is likely to change how this team played at either end last season. They’ll score a ton of points at a fairly inefficient clip, concede a ton of points, and probably lose 18-22 games again.

#9. Western Carolina 

I’m a fan of the Mark Prosser hire for the Catamounts, taking over for long-time head man Larry Hunter. Prosser brought in a few solid newcomers late in the cycle, including bruising JUCO big man Carlos Dotson who should play key minutes right away. Pairing Dotson with Marc Gosselin should form a pretty good frontcourt for WCU, but this team’s best chance of moving up the standings is getting better guard play than they got last season and that doesn’t appear likely.

#10. VMI

Running it back from a bad team is always tough to evaluate, and that’s what the Keydets do this season. Bubba Parham should be one of the conference’s top scorers after averaging over 14 per contest last season, but I’m just not sold on the rest of the roster. Success this year would be staying below the 20-loss plateau for the first time in the Dan Earl era.

All-Conference First Team:

  • Fletcher Magee– Wofford (22.1 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 1.7 apg, .484/.439/.907)
  • Francis Alonso– UNCG (15.6 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 2.9 apg, .412/.401/.869)
  • Zane Najdawi– Citadel (15.5 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 1.0 apg, .513/.407/.711)
  • Matt Rafferty– Furman (11.2 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 2.8 apg, .598/.333/.719)
  • James Dickey– UNCG (8.9 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 1.3 apg, .536/.000/.583)

Player of the Year: Fletcher Magee (Wofford)

The defending POY Magee is the clear choice again here. He’s one of the elite pure shooters in recent CBB history, making big shot after big shot after being just completely smothered by opposing defenses. He’s on pace to eclipse 2,500 career points, which would be quite an achievement.

Breakout Player: Marcus Cohen (Mercer)

Cohen broke into the rotation as a true freshman last year on one of the most veteran teams in the country, and should be penciled in as the Bears’ starting point guard. He just has to prove that he can shoot the ball after only making one 3 last season. If he can’t at least threaten the defense from outside, it will hurt the flow of the offense.

Newcomer of the Year: Isaiah Tisdale (ETSU)

Tisdale comes to Steve Forbes’ group from one of the best JUCO programs in the country in Vicennes University, where he averaged over 17 points per game en route to earning All-American honors last season. Ranked #15th nationally among JUCO products per JUCORecruiting.com, Tisdale should slot in at point guard from day one and contend for all-conference honors.

32×32: 2018-19 SEC Preview

By Kevin Sweeney

The SEC has proven once again that college basketball is all about coaching. Over the last few years, the league as a whole has made strong coaching hire after strong coaching hire, and recruiting up and down the conference has taken a massive step forward. Now, the conference has a legitimate case for the best conference in college basketball, with 6 likely top 25 teams in the preseason and a few other clubs that should contend for NCAA Tournament berths.

#1. Kentucky

For the first time in seemingly ever, Kentucky actually has some roster continuity. PJ Washington, Quade Green, and Nick Richards return for their sophomore campaigns, with Washington on an All-American trajectory and Richards shining on the Wildcats’ trip to the Bahamas this summer. Combine that returning group with one of the nation’s best grad transfers in double-double machine Reid Travis and a loaded freshman class, and Kentucky has a legit case not only for #1 in the SEC, but for #1 in the country. Spacing remains a bit of a concern for me, especially after John Calipari elected to start Washington at the 3 next to Travis and Richards in their exhibition vs Transylvania, but the talent level with this group is so high that I’ll bet on them to figure things out.

#2. Tennessee

The Vols return virtually everyone from a team that was a mainstay in the top 25 every week after December 4th last season, including defending SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams and bruising wing Admiral Schofield. Rick Barnes’ team plays extremely unselfish basketball and does an outstanding job on the defensive end, and should be in everyone’s preseason top 10.

#3. Auburn

One of the biggest surprises of the college basketball season last year, Bruce Pearl galvanized a Tiger club reeling from the losses of Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy to suspensions in connection with the FBI investigation into college basketball and led the Tigers to the SEC regular season title. Now, Pearl gets both of those guys back to add to a strong returning core that developed last season, and the sky is the limit for this Auburn club. Purifoy likely steps into the role Mustapha Heron (St. John’s) played last season as a big-bodied playmaking wing, while Wiley provides a low-post scoring threat the Tigers didn’t have last season. However, I do have concerns that perhaps the Tigers lose a bit of the us-against-the-world mentality that Pearl instilled last season and experience a bit of regression from last year’s dream run.

#4. LSU

Will Wade has proven in the short time he’s been in Baton Rouge that he’ll be a force to be reckoned with on the recruiting trail. Bringing in Tremont Waters late during his transition class was as important a recruiting coup as any in the country, as the former Georgetown pledge carried this offense and is now one of the best guards in the country. Now, Wade brings in one of the nation’s best recruiting class, with a pair of dynamic forwards in Naz Reid and Emmitt Williams along with combo guard Javonte Smart joining the fray. This is another club with clear Final Four talent, if Wade can put all the pieces together.

#5. Florida

I’ve been coming around to the Gators as the season gets closer, thanks in no small part to the Gators having what I believe will be one of the best backcourts in the country. Part of that is my bullishness on freshman PG Andrew Nembhard, the mature floor general who averaged 15.7 points and 8.8 assists for Canada at the FIBA U18 Americas event this summer. While Nembhard is unlikely to provide the defense and leadership that Chris Chiozza provided, he’ll combine with KeVaughn Allen and Jalen Hudson for a fearsome guard unit that should be explosive on offense.

#6. Mississippi State

With their top 6 scorers returning from a team that won 25 games and reached the semifinals of the NIT last season, optimism is sky-high in Starkville. Floor spacing remains the biggest concern, as only one rotation player shot better than 34% from downtown last season in big man Aric Holman and none of the incoming recruits seem likely to drastically change the Bulldogs’ spacing situation. However, with the amount of on-ball talent that the Weatherspoon brothers and Lamar Peters possesses plus the sky-high potential a frontcourt rotation of Holman, Abdul Ado, and top-50 freshman Reggie Perry possesses, this team should enter the season in the top 25.

#7. Alabama

I’m not going to overreact too much to the Crimson Tide’s drubbing at the hands of Jacksonville State yesterday and keep Avery Johnson’s club where I had them earlier this month.

The Tide lose Collin Sexton but return a lot of talent from last season’s club that went dancing, plus add former Texas star Tevin Mack and high-level reclassified freshman Kira Lewis. On paper, the athleticism of guys like Herbert Jones, Mack, and Dazon Ingram should make this team incredibly switchable on defense.

#8. Vanderbilt

Bryce Drew hit a grand slam with his 2018 recruiting class with a pair of 5-star freshmen in PG Darius Garland and big Simi Shittu along with top-75 wing Aaron Nesmith. The fact that a group combined with an excellent sophomore guard in Saban Lee and Notre Dame transfer Matt Ryan won’t be picked above 8th in the SEC speaks to the depth of this conference. The x-factor here could be Yanni Wetzell, a transfer from D2 St. Mary’s (TX) who averaged 15 points and 7 rebounds while shooting 41% from 3 as a sophomore.

#9. South Carolina

The Gamecocks still don’t have a clear point guard, but Frank Martin’s club has the pieces to get back to the Big Dance. Top-150 recruit AJ Lawson should pair nicely with lefty slasher Justin Minaya on the wing, while Chris Silva and Maik Kotsar form a sturdy frontcourt for USC. Georgetown grad transfer Tre’ Campbell and returner Hassani Gravett should compete for the starting point guard spot, though neither has shown to be a NCAA Tournament-level starting option in their collegiate careers.

#10. Ole Miss

Kermit Davis inherits a solid returning group in year one leading the Rebels, with Breein Tyree, Terence Davis, and Bruce Stevens all having averaged double figures last season. Davis is the headliner, a physical scoring guard who can make plays at all 3 levels. Newcomers like JUCO products Brian Halums & Zach Naylor along with highly-rated freshman Blake Hinson have to step up, but if they do, this team could surprise in year one.

#11. Arkansas

It’s definitely a transition year in Fayetteville, with 6 of the Razorbacks’ top 7 scorers departing and a highly-touted 8-man class incoming. The good news for Mike Anderson is that his one holdover, Daniel Gafford, is a projected lottery pick. Who will surround Gafford is a major question, with New Mexico transfer Jalen Harris likely to compete with freshman Desi Sills for starting point guard duties and guards Isaiah Joe, Mason Jones, and Keyshawn Embery looked to as bucket-getters. I question whether Gafford is wired to be played through in the post, or if he’s better off just bringing energy and rim protection as a rim-running big.

#12. Missouri

Losing Jontay Porter was simply a crusher, as the likely lottery pick and SEC POY candidate tore his ACL and MCL during a secret scrimmage last weekend and will miss the season. Jeremiah Tilmon and Kevin Puryear will lead the frontcourt in his absence, a solid group but certainly not a dominant one, and the backcourt lacks talent as well. Adding former highly-rated recruit Mark Smith after he earned a waiver to play right away after transferring in from Illinois is big, but this might be a rough year in CoMo as the Tigers learn to live life without Jontay.

#13. Texas A&M

A big stylistic shift seems likely this year for the Aggies, as Billy Kennedy loses his twin towers in Tyler Davis and Robert Williams along with “big wing” DJ Hogg, who’d likely have played the 4 for most clubs. An Admon Gilder/TJ Starks/Wendell Mitchell backcourt is enough to keep the Aggies afloat, though Starks will have to be much more efficient and take better care of the ball as the point guard for this club. A pair of transfers in the frontcourt in Josh Nebo (St. Francis PA) and Christian Mekowulu (Tennessee State) will be looked to as solid options, but won’t be played through the way Davis or Williams was.

14. Georgia

Tom Crean takes over in Athens after an uninspiring run under Mark Fox, but the talent level isn’t where Crean needs it yet. The graduation of Yante Maten leaves the Bulldogs without a high-level SEC player. In year one, a solid sophomore class that features Rayshaun Hammonds, Speedy Claxton, and Taishaun Hightower, along with late add freshman Ignas Sargiunas and holdovers Willie Jackson and Tyree Crump. I don’t see the Bulldogs scoring enough points to win games, but I believe in Crean long-term.

All-Conference First Team:

  • Tremont Waters– LSU (15.9 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 6.0 apg, .417/.351/.801)
  • Jared Harper– Auburn (13.2 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 5.4 apg, .360/.355/.822)
  • Quinndary Weatherspoon– Mississippi State (14.4 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 3.3 apg, .484/.313/.771)
  • Grant Williams– Tennessee (15.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 1.9 apg, .470/.120/.764)
  • PJ Washington– Kentucky (10.8 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 1.5 apg, .519/.238/.606)

Player of the Year: Tremont Waters (LSU)

Waters carried an undermanned LSU team to 18 wins last season, making big shot after big shot despite not having much help. With so much more talent around him this year, Waters will transition into more of a natural point guard role, orchestrating the offense and helping the Tigers get out and go. He’s going to be incredibly fun to watch this season.

Breakout Player: Jordan Bone (Tennessee)

Bone flew under the radar last season for the Vols, but was quietly a huge part of their success last season. He’s expected to take the next step in his game this season, adopting a bigger scoring role as a lead guard in Rick Barnes’ offense. He was a surprise inclusion on the Bob Cousy Award watchlist this preseason, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he winds up in that discussion this season.

Newcomer of the Year: Andrew Nembhard (Florida)

I touched on Nembhard in my Florida writeup, and while he may not be the best newcomer in the conference, he might be the most important. Taking over for Chris Chiozza, Nembhard has to run this team efficiently in Mike White’s offense. I believe he will, as he’s an excellent passer and steady shooter who should make tons of plays.

32×32: 2018-19 Patriot League Preview

By Kevin Sweeney

The Patriot League has been mostly run by Bucknell since the closing stages of the Pat Flannery era, and that dominance has continued into Nathan Davis’s time as head coach. The Bison have won the conference’s regular season title all 3 seasons Davis has been the head man in Lewisburg. However, this is the first year Davis won’t have his star-laden frontcourt of Zach Thomas and Nana Foulland to help run his club, and the league feels wide-open as a result.

#1. Lehigh

After a sluggish start to Patriot League play, the Mountain Hawks turned on the jets late in the season with an 8-game win streak before stumbling in the conference tournament. Now, they return all but one contributor from last season, though that loss is a big one in Patriot League all-time assists leader Kahron Ross. The backcourt is still loaded, with 3 capable ballhandlers likely to share the floor in Lance Tejada, Kyle Leufroy, and Jordan Cohen, while a young frontcourt that blossomed down the stretch should be even better this season. In a wide-open Patriot League, Lehigh should be seen as the favorite.

#2. Bucknell

Despite losing perhaps the best senior class in program history, the Bison are a legitimate contender at the top of the conference once again. When healthy, Kimbal MacKenzie is one of the best guards in the conference, a high-level shooter and crafty playmaker who wasn’t at full strength for much of last season, while big man Nate Sestina was productive in the shadow of stars Nana Foulland & Zach Thomas and should star with additional floor time this season. Nathan Davis has done a nice job on the recruiting trail in recent years, and that should help soften the blow of losing about 50 points and 20 rebounds worth of production per game.

#3. Boston University

A young team with no scholarship seniors, Boston U has a nice two-year window to contend for a conference title. Without a true point guard, much of the Terriers’ offense runs through sophomore point forward Tyler Scanlon, who did a nice job in that role last season. Pairing Scanlon with a productive big in Max Mahoney should give BU one of the better frontcourt units in the conference, and a pair of versatile wings who starred as freshmen in Javante McCoy and Walter Whyte have major promise. If Joe Jones hit a couple more home runs in his 2018 class, the Terriers could be atop the conference for a long time.

#4. Colgate

Matt Langel finally broke through in his 7th season at Colgate, winning 19 games (the most in the program’s D1 history) and reaching the Patriot League title game. Losing a pair of double-digit scorers in Jordan Swopshire and Sean O’Brien won’t be easy, but Langel has a solid core in place that should keep the Raiders in contention. Stretch 4 Will Rayman is one of the conference’s best players, an elite shooter and solid glass-eater that makes life easier for his teammates. Sophomore Jordan Burns was outstanding last season, and should be the full-fledged lead guard for this club with O’Brien gone. The x-factor here is the eligibility and health of Northwestern transfer Rapolas Ivanauskas. A former top-100 recruit, Ivanauskas missed all of the last 2 seasons with shoulder injuries and is applying for a waiver to play right away. If immediately eligible and back to his high school form, he’d be a steal for Langel’s club, with a lot of skill for a big man who could play the 4 of the 5.

#5. Holy Cross

The Crusaders virtually run it back from a 12-19 season, with the main reason for optimism coming from the strong rookie campaigns by a trio of freshmen in Austin Butler, Jacob Grandison, and Caleb Green. Like any Bill Carmody team, Holy Cross is going to grind it out, winning with the Princeton offense that prioritizes cutting and efficient offense but not the 3-point shot. If one of the now-sophomore core can become a go-to offensive option, the Crusaders could be a dark horse.

#6. American

Balancing that the Eagles were one of the nation’s worst basketball teams last season and that they return a ton of production from last season is always a tough thing to do in preseason polls. Preseason POY Sa’eed Nelson is already one of the league’s best despite only being a junior, while wing Sam Iorio was also excellent as a freshman and should contend for all-league honors. That type of pairing should keep you in a whole lot of basketball games, but team around them has to provide more support on both ends. Freshman big man Josh Alexander should help a frontcourt that was brutally overmatched last season, as should the return of Mark Gasperini, who missed last season. John Brennan needs his club to show significant improvement this season or he may be looking for a new job this spring.

#7. Army

I’m always a big fan of multi-ballhander backcourts, and that’s exactly what Jimmy Allen has in his pairing of Thomas Funk and Jordan Fox. Both are high assist guys who take care of the ball, and have now played a significant amount of basketball in their collegiate careers. Unfortunately, the Black Knights were a mess on defense and on the boards last season, and it’s a bit disconcerting that Army showed no improvement last season despite bringing everyone back.

#8. Navy

Ed DeChellis’ solid defensive schemes have played well in the Patriot League, and last year was no different with the best scoring defense in the conference. They’ll need that defense to remain sturdy this season without their top two shot-creators from 2017-18. Sophomore Cam Davis could be ready for a breakout season.

#9. Lafayette

While they weren’t able to turn Matt Klinewski’s senior season into a winning one, one clear positive came out of the Leopards’ 2017-18 campaign. Frank O’Hanlon found his backcourt of the future in Alex Petrie and Justin Jaworski, and that duo has to make Lafayette feel good about its chances to contend in the future. This season might be a bit rough as they learn to play without Klinewski, who was a major offensive focal point for the last 3 seasons.

#10. Loyola (MD)

The Greyhounds replaced G.G. Smith with Tavaras Hardy this offseason after Smith struggled to build any sort of momentum in the post-Jimmy Patsos era at Loyola. Hardy is an intriguing hire: he has some ties to the DMV recruiting hotbed from his time at Georgetown, but perhaps more importantly understands how to work at a high-academic school. Hardy played at Northwestern, worked on Wall Street for a short time after his playing career ended, then worked on the staffs of Northwestern, Georgetown, and Georgia Tech before getting his first head coaching gig. For a program that left a better conference in the MAAC for a higher-academic league in the Patriot, hiring a guy who understands that type of program was critical.

As for his team this year, Hardy inherits some solid guard talent in Isaiah Hart, Chuck Champion, and Andrew Kostecka. Things are dicey in the frontcourt though, as a unit that wasn’t a strength last season loses by far its best player in Cam Gregory. I’m a fan of the Hardy hire, but it will take time to get this roster where it needs to be to compete with Bucknell and Lehigh.

All-Conference First Team:

  • Sa’eed Nelson– American (18.6 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 5.1 apg, .443/.292/.681)
  • Lance Tejada– Lehigh (14.7 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 2.0 apg, .434/.453/.759)
  • Kimbal MacKenzie– Bucknell (8.3 ppg, 1.9 rpg, 2.5 apg, .351/.350/.966)
  • Will Rayman– Colgate (14.6 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 1.2 apg, .447/.418/.807)
  • Pat Andree– Lehigh (12.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 0.7 apg, .458/.429/.852)

Player of the Year: Lance Tejada (Lehigh)

From a pure statistical perspective, Nelson is the pick here. If American finishes in the top 5 of the conference, I have little doubt he’ll win this award. But given the track record of stars on bad teams not winning awards, I decided to give my preseason nod to Tejada, who should have an excellent senior season. An absurdly good shooter, Tejada will have a bigger role in creating offense for the Mountain Hawks with Kahron Ross gone, and I expect him to thrive.

Breakout Player: Jimmy Sotos (Bucknell)

Sotos showed promise in his freshman campaign despite being blocked for minutes. Capable of playing either guard spot, Sotos is a solid shooter who should pair nicely with Kimbal MacKenzie in the backcourt.

Newcomer of the Year: Nic Lynch (Lehigh)

If eligible, my choice here would be the aforementioned Ivanauskas. But given the uncertainty, I went with Lynch, a talented big man who had an offer from Washington but chose Brett Reed’s Mountain Hawks. It might be tough for him to find early frontcourt minutes, but he’s definitely a high-end long term piece for Lehigh.