“Testing The Waters” Has Gone Too Far

By Kevin Sweeney

Scroll through the Twitter feeds of any national college basketball media source, and you’ll see tweet after tweet of players declaring for the NBA Draft. Most of those will come with the caveat that the player won’t sign with an agent.

As of 3pm today, there were 140 players who had entered the draft, with 80 not having hired an agent (those numbers are per NBADraft.net). Some of the names on that list, like Marvin Bagley, Trae Young, and DeAndre Ayton, are recognizable to even the most common of college basketball fan: collegiate superstars at big-time programs who were long expected to be NBA lottery picks. Others, however, are much less well-known.

How much Matt Morgan tape did you watch this season? What about Fred Sims or Takal Molson? Did you scout Tramaine Isabell or Elijah Minnie?

These are 5 excellent college basketball players. Isabell (Drexel), and Morgan (Cornell) all averaged more than 20 points per game for their respective teams, while Molson won Freshman of the Year in the MAAC and Minnie was 3rd-team all-conference in the MAC this season. They will all make money playing professional basketball, and if they are lucky, a lot of it.

Their chances of being drafted by an NBA team this year? About the same as my odds of winning the lottery.

The rule change in 2016 to allow players to work out with NBA teams and get better feedback about their draft prospects was almost universally well-regarded. Players get more flexibility and feedback during a process that is cloudy at best. Colleges get to keep players who may have otherwise made ill-advised decisions. And NBA teams get to evaluate more players for both the current draft but potentially for future ones as well.

Yet in just 3 draft classes, things have gotten out of hand. The punchline “you might as well tweet out the list of players that AREN’T declaring for the draft” gets thrown around a lot.

To be clear, I’m not advocating revoking the rule. This freedom is without a doubt a good thing and an improvement from the previous system.

What I’m advocating for is an even more wide-open system: one in which every player who is draft-eligible may be contacted by college and professional scouts, coaches, and front office personnel? Remember John Calipari’s publicity stunt in the first year of the current system of having every single player (including walk-ons) enter the draft without an agent? Well, just like that.

Take our earlier example. Molson is just a freshman and far from a professional basketball player at this point. I’d bet anything he’s on a collegiate roster next season, whether that be at Canisius or at a different school. With the current rules in place, Molson is using one of his two opportunities to “test the waters” before being forced to leave school on his 3rd time declaring for the draft. Why not simply allow him to reach out to NBA teams and other pro clubs (let’s be honest, the odds of a 6-5 shooting guard from the MAAC making an NBA roster are slim to non) and hear what he needs to work on each year. If teams want to work him out, go ahead and work out. If teams want to guarantee they will draft him or sign him if he goes pro, let them do that. Give the players all the freedom in the world, without all the media attention that really tells us nothing.

The benefit of the current system is that it gets players’ names out there via the national media. The thought process is that if nothing else, just being on the list might get a few extra NBA eyes. While this line of thinking is valid, the vast majority of college coaches (even at low-major schools) have contacts in the NBA world, and would have no issue helping players connect with teams and get their names out there. AAU and high school coaches also may have useful contacts at their disposal. Besides, NBA scouts are a presence at high school and AAU events and do extensive college scouting, having info on all the players that are even conceivably draft material. Of course, the NCAA could also just allow players to have agents while still in college, but we all know that’s unlikely.

Let’s just simplify the process. Let every player get contacted by pro teams. 10 days after the NBA Draft Combine, players would have to either sign with an agent or officially return to school.

If the NCAA is dead set against letting any agent interaction into the college game, at least cut out the completely unnecessary middle step in the NBA Draft process.

 

Column: Just Pay Your Coaches if You Don’t Want Them Anymore

By Kevin Sweeney

Last night’s big story in college basketball came out of Loudonville, NY, when reports of verbal abuse against embattled Siena head coach Jimmy Patsos surfaced. Among the allegations are Patsos calling a student manager with OCD “the next Unabomber”, along with kicking managers off the team bus and making them walk to a game.

This allegations… suck. They suck bad. As someone who grew up a fan and season ticket holder for Siena basketball, my heart dropped when I read these allegations. There’s simply no place in college basketball for this type of stuff.

All that said, there’s a reason this came out now, and it’s the latest example of a growing trend in college basketball that no one should like.

When things go south on the court, athletic directors and other administrators begin looking for dirt.

We saw this earlier this offseason with both UConn and Pitt firing their coaches for cause (Stallings later accepted a settlement). Before that, Larry Eustachy’s name was ramrodded in the media for verbally abusing players before he took a settlement (about 25% of his buyout). The timing of all 3 (and the seemingly impending 4th) line up with when a team’s on-court performance went downhill.

Eustachy, coming off winning Coach of the Year in the Mountain West and a 24-win campaign, got off to a slow start this season. Most believed he wasn’t the guy at Colorado State long-term, but a $3 million buyout stood in the way. In February, verbal abuse allegations surfaced, and Eustachy was placed on administrative leave and eventually resigned with a settlement of $750,000.

With Patsos, it’s hard not to see the connection between when this comes out and Siena’s recent struggles. After an underwhelming 17-17 mark in 2016-17, the Saints fell flat on their face with an 8-24 mark in 2017-18. Fans of the program were ready for a change, but a hefty buyout reportedly between $750k and $1.2 million stood in the way, especially for a school in not the best shape financially.

And now, a month after the season ended and days after rumors around the college basketball landscape of Pat Beilein being next in line at Siena began to surface, this report is released. Something smell fishy to you?

Siena and everyone who knows college basketball knew who they were hiring when they did this search. After all, they played against him for several years. Patsos is certainly old-school, a guy who was known to yell at kids. In short, if Siena was worried about a guy who would yell and scream at players because he might cross a line, Patsos was never the right candidate for the job. That’s not to say he wasn’t hireable, as he had done admirably at Loyola (MD) and is also known for the most part as a good guy who was well-liked by his players. But Siena clearly had no problem with taking on a guy who they knew would bring some antics along with him.

Yet now, when the school desperately wants out of a contract that they extended twice in Patsos’ first 3 seasons, this info leaks?

Siena made its own bed with this contract, as did UConn, Pitt, and Colorado State before them with big buyouts they couldn’t afford. If you didn’t want him there any more, pay him his buyout and go get Pat Beilein or whoever else you choose to hire. Don’t spend a month bargaining with him while you gather evidence of something that had been going on far before this season, then destroy his reputation and make him virtually unemployable by any Division 1 program.

Ask yourself this: would this story be out there if Siena went 24-8 this season? Or would there have been a quiet, behind-the-scenes reprimand, maybe a fine, and a story kept out of the spotlight?

Siena is better than this, and college basketball is better than this. In all 4 circumstances, the only cause these coaches are being fired for is not winning enough games.

Kevin Sweeney’s Way-Too-Early Top 25

By Kevin Sweeney

The bad news: there aren’t any college basketball games until November.

The good news: you get to read my (and literally every other college basketball writer in the country) WAY-too-early top 25 for the 2018-19 season.

There’s certainly a lot of guess work involved in putting together a list like this, especially given the fact that most rosters aren’t close to finalized. NBA Draft decisions are likely to make the biggest impact, but there are also some high-level transfers and 2018 recruits that could make a big impact on the 2018-19 landscape.

That said, let’s have some fun and take a look at my earliest thoughts on the 2018-19 season.

#1. Kansas

Devonte’ Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk will both be gone for sure, but the Jayhawks bring in a TON of talent from both the transfer and prep markets. Dedric Lawson enters from Memphis as a legit Big 12 POY candidate, and his brother KJ (12 ppg, 8rpg) along with Cal transfer PG Charlie Moore (12.2 ppg, 3.5 apg) are no slouches either. Combine that incoming trio with elite recruits like Devon Dotson, Quentin Grimes, and David McCormack, and the Jayhawks will be elite once again. The draft decision to track is Malik Newman, who exploded onto the scene in March and is expected by most to at least test the waters. If he returns along with Udoka Azubuike and Lagerald Vick, Kansas will be the clear #1 going into next season.

#2. Villanova

I’m working on the assumption that Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges will go pro, but the rest of the team’s core will return. If so, I believe Villanova has as good a chance as any to repeat as national champions. The trio of Donte DiVincenzo, Omari Spellman, and Eric Paschall is as strong as any returning group in the country, and Jay Wright brings in an excellent recruiting class headlined by Brunson’s heir apparent in Jahvon Quinerly and a floor-spacing combo forward in Cole Swider. Jay Wright seemingly has mastered bringing the spacing and shooting concepts from the NBA to the college game, which also factors into my decision to keep the Wildcats this high despite losing two players the caliber of Bridges and Brunson.

#3. Virginia

The first ACC team off the board for me is Virginia, not the Duke team hyped up by everyone thanks to an off-the-charts recruiting class. For a regular season top 25, I’ll bet on the experienced club that was dominant this season. Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome, and DeAndre Hunter should return, as should several key role players from this year’s club, that was the #1 overall seed before a stunning upset at the hands of UMBC. I trust Tony Bennett’s system (at least in the regular season) and I trust these veterans to come back and work even harder than they did last season after a crushing end to the season.

#4. Duke

I couldn’t go any lower on the Blue Devils with the raw talent on this roster, but I refuse to fall into the trap that most will and pick Duke #1 or #2 in the country. Over the last 10 years, Duke hasn’t been a team that dominates in the regular season, and those problems have been accentuated as Coach K has continued to embrace the one-and-done. Duke is bringing in the top 3 players in the 2018 class, along with #9 Tre Jones, and while that talent is enticing, it’s natural to expect some regular season bumps with freshmen contributing virtually all the production. I expect the Blue Devils to hover in the #4-#8 range throughout the regular season, but will certainly be as dangerous as any in March.

#5. Gonzaga

Killian Tillie’s potential draft decision looms large here, but if he comes back, everyone except for Johnathan Williams & Silas Melson will be back for a Gonzaga team that went 32-5 this season. Add San Jose State transfer Brandon Clarke into the mix, and this team goes from really good to elite. I see Zach Norvell and Rui Hachimura making big strides after showing signs of brilliance this season, and Mark Few also brings in a top-70 player in the class of 2018 in stretch big man Filip Petrusev. Gonzaga will be a legitimate Final Four contender next season.

#6. Kentucky

For the purposes of this, I’ll assume that Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander go pro and the rest of Kentucky’s core returns. If that happens, Kentucky could have a “veteran” group of sophomores already in place to compliment a very solid class that fills a lot of needs. Keldon Johnson is the headliner, a hard-playing wing who can do a little bit of everything. Immanuel Quickley will help solidify the point after Quade Green struggled as a lead guard this season, while Tyler Herro is a polished pure scorer who will make big contributions in the backcourt. I think the pieces fit a lot better with this potential roster than they did this season, when a lack of shooters seemed to plague the Wildcats all season.

#7. Nevada

If Caleb and Cody Martin, along with Jordan Caroline, return for Nevada (they are all expected to at at this point), this is a legit top 10 team. Lindsey Drew comes back from an achilles injury that cost him the end of the 2017-18 season, and the Wolf Pack add 4 transfers who combined to average more than 64 points per game at their previous homes. They address their biggest weakness (frontcourt depth) with UNO transfer Tre’Shawn Thurman and a pair of highly-regarded freshmen in Vincent Lee and KJ Hymes. This will be the deepest, most talented team Eric Musselman has had at Nevada, and look for him to do big things with it.

#8. Tennessee

Assuming no unexpected departures, this will basically be the same team as this season. Grant Williams will enter next season the frontrunner for SEC Player of the Year, and Admiral Schofield made big strides this season. Tennessee feels like they are one impact piece from being very real national title contenders. We’ll see if Rick Barnes can find that piece (perhaps via the grad transfer market) and continue the Vols’ ascension to the top of the college basketball world.

#9. Oregon

Even if Troy Brown elects to head pro, I love the potential of this Oregon team. They have a stud PG in Payton Pritchard, some high-upside returners like Kenny Wooten, Abu Kigab, and Victor Bailey, but perhaps most importantly, an outstanding recruiting class. Bol Bol is the NBA’s next unicorn, a 7-1 big capable of doing everything on the court. Louis King has limitless upside and can play multiple positions, and Will Richardson out of Oak Hill is an excellent guard who will see time right away. Putting all these pieces together may be a challenge, but having a returning core headlined by Pritchard is important in situations like these. The Ducks enter the season as my favorite in the Pac-12.

#10. Michigan

Even if Moe Wagner doesn’t return, I think Michigan will be one of the elite teams in college basketball. John Beilein brings in an excellent recruiting class headlined by Canadian combo forward Ignas Bradzeikis and East Lansing native Brandon Johns. Charles Matthews, Zavier Simpson, Jordan Poole, and Isaiah Livers are very likely to return, with Poole and Livers primed for breakout years. Beilein remains one of the coaches I trust most in college basketball to get the most out of his guys, so I don’t have as much concern as others might about the potential loss of Wagner.

#11. Michigan State

This will be a new-look Spartan team, losing stars in Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson to the NBA. However, a strong core featuring Cassius Winston, Josh Langford, and Nick Ward should return. Combine that with Big Ten breakout candidate Xavier Tillman and a recruiting class with 5 4-star recruits, and there’s hardly reason for worry in East Lansing despite losing 2 guys who will likely be top 10 picks this June.

#12. Auburn

After overachieving significantly before falling flat on their face come March, Auburn is an interesting team to place in this top 25. The Tigers bring virtually everyone back and add 3 high-level talents in Danjel Purifoy, Austin Wiley, and Samir Doughty to the rotation. Anfernee McLemore, perhaps the team’s most important player this season, should be back healthy after missing the end of the season with a gruesome leg injury. That said, this team had great chemistry and played with a massive chip on their shoulder after Purifoy and Wiley were suspended for the season thanks to the FBI investigation. Where you place Auburn in this 25 shows whether you believe that momentum can continue with a massive talent injection, or if we could see some subtraction by addition. Make no mistake, the Tigers have National title-level talent.

#13. North Carolina

As of now, I’m not sure what to make of the Tar Heels in 2018-19. Luke Maye, Cameron Johnson, and Kenny Williams all return for Roy Williams, but the team’s 2 primary offense creators graduate in Joel Berry and Theo Pinson. Coby White and Nassir Little make up the best recruiting class the Tar Heels have had in quite some time, but they’ll have big shoes to keep one of the nation’s best offenses running smooth.

#14. West Virginia

The senior backcourt of Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles graduates, but West Virginia brings back a strong core from what was a top 25 team all season long. Sagaba Konate drew headlines for his highlight-reel blocks, and with another year of offensive development has a chance to be one of the elite players in college basketball. Teddy Allen showed flashes of brilliance as a freshman and should be one of the breakout performers in the Big 12. My concern with this team is how their identity changes without Carter. Bob Huggins’ defense was great before and it will be great again, but Carter was a leader on the floor whose toughness and energy rubbed off on his teammates. Losing a team’s emotional leader is always underrated.

#15. Kansas State

Another team that brings virtually everyone back, Kansas State is one of the safer teams to project coming into this season. At worst, they are a clear NCAA Tournament team that can’t quite crack the top 25. At best, they could be a top 10 team. The Wildcats are deep in the backcourt, have on of the most versatile forwards in the country in Dean Wade, and are coming off an Elite Eight run that gave them a taste of March glory. I’d love to see this team add one more quality piece to the frontcourt for next season.

#16. LSU

The talent Will Wade is bringing in with his first full recruiting class at LSU is nothing short of remarkable. 3 top-30 recruits headline the nation’s #4 recruiting class. Add that to SEC Player of the Year candidate Tremont Waters and some other key cogs returning in the backcourt, and you get a really talented, versatile roster that can hurt you in a lot of different ways. Naz Reid’s ability to distribute and stretch the floor as a big man will be extremely valuable, and Emmitt Williams gives this team a big-time athleticism boost that can guard multiple positions. If everything comes together as hoped, there’s no doubt in my mind that the Tigers are SEC title contenders.

#17. NC State

Losing Omer Yurtseven is a big blow for Kevin Keatts and company, but this NC State team gets a massive talent injection after a surprise NCAA Tournament season this year. CJ Bryce and De’Von Daniels come in on the wing as sit-out transfers, both guys who can really shoot the ball and create off the bounce. A backcourt featuring those 2 guys along with Torin Dorn, Braxton Beverly, and Markelle Johnson will give opposing coaches nightmares all season long. Add in some of the length Keatts wants to play his up-tempo style in 4 4-star recruits over 6-6, and NCSU will have the depth and talent to thrive in that system.

#18. Maryland

I’m a believer in Maryland this season despite a disappointing 2017-18 campaign. The star backcourt of Anthony Cowan and Kevin Huerter comes back, along with high-upside big Bruno Fernando and physical wing Darryl Morsell. Then comes the recruits, headlined by 5-star big man Jalen Smith and a pair of top-100 guards that will take some of the load off Huerter and Cowan. Mark Turgeon enters this season feeling some heat, but I expect a big bounce back year from the Terps.

#19. Virginia Tech

Everyone except for Justin Bibbs is back for the Hokies, including 3 double-digit scorers in the backcourt. Look for Nickeil Alexander-Walker to continue his development after an excellent freshman season, and VT should get Ty Outlaw back after he missed this season with an injury. Basically, Virginia Tech brings back every significant piece from this year’s team and gets significantly deeper in the frontcourt. Watch out.

#20. Purdue

There will without a doubt be apprehension about putting the Boilermakers in the top 25 with what they lose from this team, but Carsen Edwards is back and likely to be a preseason all-American to lead the way. I’m excited to see how Matt Haarms expands his game on the offensive end after a solid freshman campaign, and Nojel Eastern is a high-upside piece if he can improve as a shooter. Plus, Matt Painter already swooped in for a big grad transfer in Evan Boudreaux, a 6-10 Big who was a double-double machine at Dartmouth.

#21. Washington

A season that exceeded expectations ended on a sour note in year 1 of the Mike Hopkins era in Seattle, but it certainly gave Huskies fans reason for optimism for the future. UW’s top 7 scorers will be back, including freshman sensation Jaylen Nowell. Add in a strong class and the potential improvement that rising sophomores Nahziah Carter and Hameir Wright could show, and this roster looks very dangerous in 2018-19.

#22. Mississippi State

If no one leaves unexpectedly for the NBA Draft, this team has a chance to be the best in Starkville since the Rick Stansbury era. One of the most talented backcourt in the country will now be complimented with excellent big men, as 5 star Reggie Perry joins a group that already featured Abdul Ado and Aric Holman. Top to bottom, this roster is loaded with talent and anything less than an NCAA Tournament bid would be a disappointment.

#23. Stanford

I’m likely in the minority with Stanford in the top 25, but I’m a if believer in the Cardinal this season. Dorian Pickens and Michael Humphrey depart, but Jerod Haase brings in another terrific class to compliment returning stars Reid Travis, Daejon Davis, and Kezie Okpala. This team rally found its stride once Okpala returned to the lineup, and I’m excited to see a full season of this group together.

#24. Texas Tech

A lot of key pieces depart for Chris Beard, but the freshman duo of Jarrett Culver and Zhaire Smith should be back to anchor this Texas Tech roster. That’s good news for Red Raider fans, as that pairing has almost limitless upside. Add in Khavon Moore, an athletic combo forward, and Beard will once again have the athletes and length he loves. Beard has been active in grad transfer recruiting as well, so look for the Red Raiders to add 1-2 more pieces through that.

#25. Loyola-Chicago

This isn’t just throwing a bone to the little guy coming off a deep run. Loyola has legit talent once again, bringing back arguably their 3 best players from this season’s Final Four team. Add in the x-factor in New Mexico transfer Aher Uguak, a high-upside combo forward who has drawn rave reviews during his redshirt year, and this team has a chance to be really good once again. Porter Moser is building something special at Loyola.

Loyola, Nevada Embracing Similar Styles En Route to Sweet Success

By Kevin Sweeney

After the craziness of the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament, just two mid-majors are left standing as we enter the Sweet 16.

Nevada and Loyola-Chicago, who have provided much of the drama from the crazy first weekend, are the two still alive. And as the two mid-major powerhouses prepare to face off against one another on Thursday in Atlanta, it’s not hard to draw comparisons between the two. In many ways, they represent the modernization of college basketball, and their new methods are clearly paying dividends.

Let’s start with the head coaches. Porter Moser appeared to be a rising star in the business with a successful stint at Little Rock before taking the Illinois State job in 2003. However, he struggled to win there, going just 51-67 and was fired after 4 seasons. That led him to the late Rick Majerus, the legendary head coach at Saint Louis, where he was an assistant for 4 years. Moser never seems to go a press conference without mentioning Majerus, and he credits Majerus with much of the culture he has been able to build at Loyola.

“It’s hard to quantify all the things I got from him,” Moser told Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune this March. “I made the most of four years with him as a friend and a coach.”

After his time under Majerus, Moser got the opportunity he’d been waiting for: the chance to build a Loyola program in his native Chicago that would soon transition into the Missouri Valley. And while there have certainly been ups and downs throughout his 7 year tenure.

In Reno, it’s been Eric Musselman who has executed an incredible turnaround, winning 24 or more games in each of his first 3 seasons as a collegiate head coach. Before college, Musselman had been highly successful in both the CBA and the D-League, but struggled in 3 seasons as an NBA head coach. It was then that he headed to college basketball, working under Herb Sendek at Arizona State and Johnny Jones at LSU before taking the Nevada job in 2015.

While their paths to their current homes are far from the same, both faced failure early before adapting becoming the great coaches they are today. The philosophies they have employed have helped them find themselves just two wins from the Final Four.

As Brett Koremenos broke down so eloquently in this lengthy Twitter thread, shooting has become a “market inefficiency” in college basketball. Moser and Musselman have put together clubs that shoot the lights out, often with all 5 guys on the floor having the ability to hit from downtown. Combine that with elite ball movement, with both teams ranking in the top 40 nationally in assists per game, and you get an offense that is difficult, if not impossible, to stop.

To attack this market inefficiency, both coaches have embraced a trendy term in the modernization of basketball at all levels: “Pace and Space”. The concept is simple: keep the tempo up and space the floor. How do you do that?

“You’ve got to recruit to it,” Moser told me after a win over Missouri State earlier this season.

That began with Donte Ingram, a senior from local Chicago powerhouse Simeon who an example of the perfect player in this system. A physical 6-6 wing, Ingram can be deployed at the 2, 3, or 4, shoots 40% from 3, can put the ball on the deck, and has a strong build that allows him to compete in the paint against bigger players.

Moser has continued to recruit to that system when putting this roster together, with Marques Townes and Aundre Jackson both excellent examples of versatile players who can do everything on the court. Combine them with a point guard like MVC POY Clayton Custer who keeps the ball moving and hits outside shots, and all the sudden you have an offense that is awfully hard to stop.

According to Moser, the key to all of this coming together is shooting.

“You can’t really have spacing if you put 2 or 3 guys on the floor that can’t shoot, Moser said. “They’ll just pack in on you.”

Moser says he never wants more than one guy on the floor at a time who can’t shoot. The only player in the regular rotation who isn’t a threat from outside is freshman center Cameron Krutwig, and the Ramblers embrace a “4-out, 1-in” offense that utilizes Krutwig’s strengths as a passer out of the post collapse the defense and create open looks for shooters.

Musselman and Nevada’s roster has gone to the extreme of this pace and space movement, as the roster has been built around long, athletic wings with diverse skillsets. Caleb and Cody Martin have pushed this movement to another level, both of whom are truly “5-tool” players at 6-6 who can guard 1-4 (and occasionally even 5’s), put the ball on the deck, shoot 3’s, and distribute.

Nevada has no one over 6-7 in their regular rotation, with Jordan Caroline often playing as an undersized center who can score inside and out. Built like a football player, Caroline’s strength and quickness allow him score on short drives and post-ups, while also being able to take the ball coast to coast against guards and step out and hit 3’s in the pick-and-pop.

Going back to his roots in the NBA, Musselman has taken influence from the Golden State Warriors’ explosive offense in how he coaches offense. On his personal blog, he wrote preseason about how his team has begun counting passes, modeled after Golden State’s goal of completing 300 passes every game. Accounting for the shorter game and slower pace, Musselman wrote that his target is 200 passes per game.

“Since day 1, we’ve been talking about moving that ball,” Caroline said earlier this season.

Now, the biggest game in either program’s recent history is just 1 day away. A Final Four is in sight, with the upsets throughout the South Region leaving the winner of this ballgame taking on the winner of #5 Kentucky and #9 Kansas State for a trip to San Antonio. And while both coaches will likely receive plenty of calls from bigger programs this offseason, the only thing they want moving right now is the ball.

Grading Every Coaching Hire of 2018

By Kevin Sweeney

It’s coaching carousel time, where rumors are let fly like Trae Young jump shots and moves get made FAST. I figured I’d live-grade every official coaching hire as they come. This post will continue to be updated throughout the coaching change season.

Pepperdine: Lorenzo Romar

Grade: A-

It seems that most agree that Marty Wilson got a bit of a raw deal at Pepperdine, but the Waves landed a big name to take over their head coaching vacancy. There’s no doubt Romar can recruit, landing top prospects like Markelle Fultz and Michael Porter Jr at Washington, but his in-game coaching leaves a lot to be desired. Pepperdine feels like a perfect fit for him, as its beautiful campus will make recruiting easy (see Joe Pasternack at UCSB) and simply being competitive against Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s is likely enough to keep the fanbase happy. It will be interesting to see what type of instant-impact pieces Romar can recruit to this roster, as well as what the future of the WCC looks like with rumors of Gonzaga moving to the Mountain West flying around.

Maine: Richard Barron

Grade: D

Barron, the former women’s coach at Maine, is a peculiar choice for me. Sure, Maine is an extremely difficult job with the lack of in-state talent, but landing a coach without any experience recruiting the AAU circuits of the northeast seems like a flawed move. I would have liked to see a young assistant with northeast recruiting ties try to come in and form relationships with many prep school coaches in the talent-rich NEPSAC. This isn’t the move to bring this Maine program out of the cellar in the America East.

UTEP: Rodney Terry

Grade: B+

Terry’s name surfacing at UTEP was a bit of a surprise, but he emerged as the favorite this weekend and Jon Rothstein broke the news that the deal was complete today. Terry accumulated a 126-108 record in 7 seasons at the helm of the Fresno State program, reaching the NCAA Tournament in 2016, but some reports out of the program indicated that Terry felt he had done all he could do at Fresno. While he may not provide the flashy name, Terry did a good job bringing Fresno back to relevance and consistently found under-the-radar talent, a skill that will be valuable at a program like UTEP. Building a staff to recruit the state of Texas (current Fresno assistant Brian Burton has ties to the area with experience at Lamar) will be key to Terry’s hopes of bringing the Miners program back to the top of the C-USA.

Cal State Northridge: Mark Gottfried

Grade: B

This hire is weird. No real way of getting around that. Gottfried, who coached most recently at NC State and Alabama, certainly is a nationally-known name as a head coach in recruiting circles, and there are reports that former UCLA head coach Jim Harrick could join him on staff to create a dream-team in the Big West. That said, it’s unclear how that tandem will adjust to coaching at a mid-major with no real history of success, and Reggie Theus struggled to win despite recruiting plenty of talent. Plus, there’s the elephant in the room of Gottfried’s potential involvement in the NCAA FBI scandal. There’s a possibility this is an A+, but there’s a bit more downside than I think some realize.

Ole Miss: Kermit Davis

Grade: A

Kermit Davis is an absolute slam dunk of a hire for Ole Miss. A Mississippi native, Davis has turned MTSU into a mid-major power, winning 25 games or more games in 3 consecutive years and 2 NCAA Tournament games in that span. He has made a living finding undervalued talent in the competitive recruiting market of the south, and has also done an excellent job on the transfer market with guys like Jacorey Williams and Nick King. Davis inherits some nice pieces and will without a doubt make Ole Miss a consistently competitive SEC program.

UC Riverside: David Patrick

Grade: A

Patrick nearly got the San Jose State job this summer, but will now get his chance out west in the Big West with UC Riverside. A talented recruiter with strong ties in Australia, Patrick has recruited players such as Ben Simmons and Kouat Noi to their collegiate homes in his time at LSU and TCU, respectively. With other mid-majors such as Albany establishing pipelines in Australia, Patrick has a chance to consistently find mid-major talent with his connections there, as well as recruit at a high level in the USA with his experience at the high-major level. Yet another great hire out of the Big West, which has now landed Joe Pasternack, Mark Gottfried, and Patrick to compliment established names like Dan Monson, Jim Les, Russell Turner and Eran Ganot. Hires like those will do nothing but raise the profile of a league that has been down of late.

McNeese State: Heath Schroyer

Grade: B+

Schroyer has certainly been around the block in coaching despite being just 46 years of age, as McNeese will be his 4th D1 Head coaching gig. Most recently an assistant at BYU and NC State, Schroyer has also been a Head Coach at Portland State, Wyoming, and UT-Martin and has amassed a 125-143 record. However, his time at UT-Martin was quite successful, winning 20 games in each of his first 2 seasons before departing for NC State. He inherits a tough job at McNeese State (just 1 20-win season in the last 16 years) but this is a very solid hire for the Cowboys.

South Alabama: Richie Riley

Grade: A-

Riley is a really good hire for a South Alabama program that I believe has high upside. He did a magnificent job turning around this Nicholls program in just 2 seasons, winning 25 games and a share of the Southland title this season. He’s an excellent recruiter and solid game coach who should be able to consistently bring good talent to South Alabama, where the facilities are excellent and the ability to recruit the south are greater than at a Southland program. One of the bright young names in the business, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Riley turn this thing around quickly and head to a high-major job.

Georgia: Tom Crean

Grade: B+

It was clear from the outset of this Georgia search that the Bulldogs were looking for a splashy name, with Thad Matta rejecting the job before Crean stepped in. Crean is an accomplished head coach who has endeared himself to many with excellent work for ESPN this season, and should do a solid job at Georgia. Recruiting in the South is a concern for me, but I expect Crean to hire the right people and raise the talent level at UGA pretty quickly. While I would have preferred a younger mid-major head coach who would have brought energy like Wes Miller or Steve Forbes, this is a hire that is sure to excite the Georgia fanbase.

Longwood: Griff Aldrich

Grade: B

Personally, I don’t quite know what to make of this hire. Aldrich is obviously a very smart guy, as he has served as the CFO of a large energy investment corporation and has a law school degree, plus has won everywhere he’s ever coached. However, his lack of experience at the D1 level is a bit concerning, with just one year of on-the-road recruiting under his belt at UMBC. That said, he’s familiar with the area, as he went to college about 6 miles from Longwood at Hampton-Sydney College. Bottom line is that this isn’t a very good job (Longwood has been over .500 just once in their Division 1 history) and taking risk on a smart guy like Aldrich could reap its rewards down the line.

Memphis: Penny Hardaway

Grade: B+

I’ll be conservative with a B+ here, as this hire could be an absolute smash hit or it could fall flat on its face. I tend to side with the former, but there are certainly challenges in hiring someone without any D1 coaching experience as the head coach at a high-level program like Memphis. That said, his recruiting ties in the Memphis area are extremely strong, and he should bring in elite talent from Day 1. The staff he puts together will define his success, and in my opinion a former head coach has to been in the mix if you are going to make this hire.

Charlotte: Ron Sanchez

Grade: A

Mike Hill made his first big decision as AD without a search firm, and he hit it out of the park. Much of the talk surrounding this vacancy was a sitting head coach, but instead, Hill went with Sanchez, a guy respected nationally as one of the brightest young assistants in the business. A tireless recruiter who can go into a crowd for elite talent or find undervalued 3 and 4-star players that turn into stars, Sanchez has been a key element to Tony Bennett’s success going back to his days at Washington State. And while his recruiting is top-notch, he’s also earned a reputation for knowing the game, and I have no doubts about his in-game coaching abilities. Sanchez is the type of hire that can bring a struggling program back to life, and that Hill landed him in his opening days as Athletic Director should give 49er fans confidence that they have the right man for the job.

Missouri State: Dana Ford

Grade: B

For most of this search, it appeared that current high-major assistants were in the mix. However, Ford’s name came out of nowhere last night, and the former Tennessee State Head Coach will get a shot at a much easier place to win. Ford inherited a program coming off a 5 win season and took TSU to 20 wins in year 2, and has continued to put together solid rosters throughout his 4-year tenure. His clubs have consistently played solid defense, and he has recruited as well as you could hope for at tough gig like Tennessee State. I expect him to be able to bring good talent to MSU and put together a consistent winner in Springfield.

Incarnate Word: Dr. Carson Cunningham

Grade: C+

Cunningham could very well prove me wrong on this grade, as he’s a well-respected coach at the NAIA level and around the country. However, I think UIW would have been better served going after a coach with extensive recruiting background in Texas, especially at some of the many powerhouse junior college programs in the state. Cunningham’s staff will be critical, as no matter how good a coach he is, he can’t win without good players. That said, he brings with him a winning track record, amassing a 107-52 record during his time at Carroll College before taking this job.

UConn: Dan Hurley

Grade: A-

UConn went into this search with one clear target, and they got their man in Hurley, who has taken Rhode Island to consecutive Round of 32’s and has recruited extremely well in recent seasons, including a top 30 class in the country in the 2018 cycle. His extensive recruiting connections in the northeast should serve the Huskies well, and it’s certainly possible that he could bring current and future Rams with him to Storrs. The only reason for not giving this hire an A is that not long ago, Hurley appeared on the hot seat, and without an A10 Tournament run last season, the Rams wouldn’t even have made the NCAA Tournament. Funny how perceptions can change based on one weekend. That said, I do believe in Hurley as the guy to bring UConn to the top tier of the AAC.

Colorado State: Niko Medved

Grade: A

The timing of this sucks for Drake, but CSU couldn’t have gotten a better, more well-respected coach than Medved. He has won everywhere he has gone, bringing a Drake team that had been stuck in the bottom of the MVC for years to the postseason in year one after building Furman into a winner. Between his resume as a head coach and his connections to Colorado State (he spent from 2007-2013 as an assistant under Tim Miles in Fort Collins), the fit was perfect for Medved to come home and bring Colorado State out of what was a tumultuous Larry Eustachy era.

FAU: Dusty May

Grade: B+

If FAU was looking for a high-major assistant to take the reigns, they certainly got a good one in May, who has worked around the southeast throughout his career, most recently as Mike White’s lead assistant at Florida. White’s younger brother Brian is the AD at FAU, so the fact that May was able to get this job is far from surprising. On the court, May inherits a program that has struggled in recent years, but after seeing what coaches like Joe Pasternack (UCSB) have been able to do in beautiful environments with fertile recruiting pastures, I can’t help but see a lot of potential here for May to bring in elite talent for the CUSA level.

Evansville: Walter McCarty

Grade: B

McCarty’s hire was well-received by Evansville fans, as the local product who played in the NBA and last worked under Brad Stevens with the Celtics. He also has some experience at the collegiate coaching level, working under Rick Pitino at Louisville from 2007-2010. I generally am apprehensive about coaches with limited recruiting experience, especially in a league like the MVC with several excellent coaches, but if McCarty can put together a strong staff, he has a chance to be an excellent hire for the Aces.

Eastern Kentucky: AW Hamilton

Grade: A-

This is a bit of a gamble, but I LOVE this hire for EKU. He’s familiar with Kentucky from his collegiate days at Georgetown (Ky.) Scott County, and has tons of recruiting connections at all the nation’s top prep schools from his time as head coach at Hargrave Military Academy. Then, he spent at a year under Kevin Keatts at NC State, where the Wolfpack engineered an excellent turnaround and have put together a good recruiting class for 2018. With budgetary limitations, EKU landed a coach who I think could help them get back to their winning ways.

Middle Tennessee State: Nick McDevitt

Grade: A-

Replacing Kermit Davis was never going to be easy, but MTSU was able to capitalize on the program’s momentum to land an accomplished up-and-comer in McDevitt. An excellent recruiter, McDevitt’s clubs at UNC-Asheville have consistently competed for titles, and they would have had a chance to be even better if not for seeing high-major talent like Keith Hornsby (LSU), Andrew Rowsey (Marquette), Dwayne Sutton (Louisville), and Dylan Smith (Arizona) transfer out of the program in recent years. McDevitt has made a living finding these undervalued players in the South, a trait that will without a doubt serve him well in the C-USA. The first job for McDevitt and his new staff is holding onto an excellent 2018 class signed by Davis in Tye Fagan, KJ Buffen, and Carlos Curry.

Utah State: Craig Smith

Grade: A-

I love this hire for Utah State. Smith checks all the boxes, a young, smart, established successful head coach who is familiar with the Mountain West. Smith has built South Dakota from the ground up, winning 48 games in the last 2 seasons, and before that was a strong assistant at Colorado State & Nebraska under Tim Miles. Smith has consistently been able to bring in high-level talent to Bismarck, despite it not being the easiest place to recruit. At a program like Utah State, with great facilities and a big fanbase in a better conference, Smith should be able to recruit at an extremely high level and bring Utah State back to the upper tier of the Mountain West. Meanwhile, the Mountain West as a whole continues to hire terrific coaches. If they continue to do so, the league’s profile will continue to grow.

Tennessee State: Penny Collins

Grade: A-

Collins will have the tough task of following Dana Ford, who did a tremendous job rebuilding this TSU program of the last few years before leaving for Missouri State. However, Collins is an accomplished recruiter in the area whose energy and excitement seems to rub off on everyone he meets. He spent his press conference discussing trying to recruit more from the Nashville area and even breaking out in song:

I think Collins will continue to build on the momentum that Ford got started at TSU and make the Tigers consistent contenders in the OVC.

Western Carolina: Mark Prosser

Grade: B

Prosser’s last name should certainly be familiar to most of you, his father Skip the legendary head coach at Xavier and Wake Forest. However, Mark has established himself as a very good coach as the associate head coach under Pat Kelsey at Winthrop. He has a bright basketball mind and his last name will get him in with high school and AAU coaches, which is critical in a highly-competitive state to recruit in.

High Point: Tubby Smith

Grade: B+

Don’t get me wrong, Tubby Smith is a great coach. He’s won everywhere he’s been, and it is extremely rare for a program like High Point to have a chance at a coach with the pedigree of Tubby Smith. My reason for this not getting an A is that I don’t know if Tubby will approach this job in the way he will have to in order to have success. This job will require a lot of work, and is certainly not just a retirement job. My gut says Tubby has plenty left in the tank and will want to go all in to win, but if he doesn’t, the results won’t be be good.

Pittsburgh: Jeff Capel

Grade: A-

All things considered with the process Pitt has gone through in finding a head coach, landing Capel is a win for Heather Lyke and the rest of the decision-makers at Pitt. Capel has had success as a head coach at both VCU and Oklahoma before blossoming into perhaps the nation’s best recruiter as Mike Krzyzewski’s lead assistant at Duke. Capel will without a doubt bring elite talent to Pittsburgh. The question is whether that will translate into wins. As I wrote on Twitter earlier today, watching Capel build this program from scratch to try and put together a quality roster for next year will be one of the top stories of the offseason in college basketball.

Louisville: Chris Mack

Grade: A+

The first (and probably only) A+ to be given out, Louisville was all in on Mack from the beginning, and got their man today. And what a man they got. Mack’s resume speaks for itself, elevating Xavier to one of the elite programs in college basketball. He has recruited extremely well, developed talent, and is a great in-game coach. Despite all the uncertainty regarding the FBI Investigation into the program and potential NCAA sanctions that could come about as a result of it, Louisville still landed one of the country’s elite coaches and took the first step towards getting the program back on track.

Temple: Aaron McKie (In 2019)

Grade: C

The reports out of Temple are interesting: that longtime head coach Fran Dunphy will step down after the 2018-19 season and McKie, his lead assistant, will take over. This is a nice ending to Dunphy’s tenure, despite recent struggles that have turned part of the fanbase against him. However, the choice to appoint McKie without a search puzzles me. McKie is certainly qualified and has the support of many as the long-term leader of the program. A former star for the Owls, McKie has playing and coaching experience in the NBA before joining Dunphy’s staff at Temple. His extensive ties to the area should help in recruiting, especially if he puts together a talented staff. However, not doing a full search when there are several potentially better candidates out there is not a good move to me, especially given the program’s recent struggles. A guy like Ashley Howard or Baker Dunleavy with experience on the Villanova staff and better AAU connections might have been my choice.

Bryant: Jared Grasso

Grade: A+

This is a tremendous hire for Bryant. Grasso has been the forgotten man behind Iona’s recent dominance of the MAAC, the right-hand-man for Tim Cluess regarded as an elite recruiter, very good coach, and an even better person. He has consistently been able to bring top-level talent from all around the country to Iona and is known for his work on the transfer and JUCO markets as well. Hiring a guy with Grasso’s recruiting background is a home run for a struggling program like Bryant. The NEC has struggled to hold onto its top players in recent years, with many suggesting the only way to survive long-term is to recruit more transfer and JUCO players in addition to freshmen. Grasso has a chance to do this and as a result have a better chance for sustained success. I have no doubt that he will turn this program around.

Week 1 Conference Tournament Picks

By Kevin Sweeney

It’s conference tournament SZN!

Conference tournaments officially begin Monday, as the Atlantic Sun gets us underway with quarterfinal action 2 days before the calendars turn to March. There will be conference tournament action in some form or another every day through Selection Sunday, so fasten your seatbelts everyone.

So, I’ve got all my picks prepared for The Jerome, one of the best parts of March in which the college basketball world comes together to pick winners in all 32 conference tournaments. Here are my picks while previewing/highlighting what to watch for in the first batch of the conference tournaments.

America East:

Champion: Vermont

An extremely spread-out conference tournament, the A-East begins on March 3 and doesn’t conclude until March 10 due to it being a campus site tournament. That gives Vermont an extra advantage, as not only will teams have to come up to Patrick Gymnasium to play the Catamounts, but it also protects them from their lack of depth. Vermont is the most talented and best-coached team in the league, and if Anthony Lamb can give them anything after missing A-East play with a foot injury, that’s just icing on the cake. Albany has the talent and matchups to scare the Catamounts the most in my opinion, but the Great Danes have been super inconsistent and will be tough to trust to win 3 in a row (something they haven’t done yet in A-East play this season).

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Despite not having Anthony Lamb (#3) for all of America East play, Vermont is in great shape to win their second consecutive America East Tournament. Photo: Kevin Sweeney/CBB Central

Atlantic Sun:

Champion: Florida Gulf Coast

Another campus site tournament, the Atlantic Sun Tournament gets underway Monday and it’s championship will be Sunday, March 4. While getting past red-hot Lipscomb will be no easy task, I’ll bet on the most talented club in the conference in FGCU here. They’ve struggled a bit of late, losing 2 of 3, but this team has been here before and is so experienced in the backcourt. It all comes down to the defensive end of the floor for the Eagles, as they are undefeated this season when conceding fewer than 75 points but gave up 97 and 90 respectively in recent losses to Kennesaw State and Lipscomb. It will certainly be a battle, but it certainly seems like it will come down to Lipscomb and FGCU, and I’ll bet on the Eagles in a tight one.

Big South:

Champion: Liberty

There are always some upset-filled tournaments, and I project the Big South to be one of them. There simply hasn’t been one dominant team in the conference this season, as UNC-Asheville dropped a game yesterday at Gardner-Webb after it appeared that the Bulldogs were the team to beat. It could go to any of the top 5 in this conference, but I’ll roll with Liberty, a team that has shown flashes of brilliance and flashes of mediocrity this season. One thing I’m always looking for is a team with excellent guards, and the Flames have a deep backcourt that is one of the strengths of this team. They play excellent defense, and are a very good 3-point shooting team as well, which makes them a prime candidate to pull some upsets in a single-elimination setting. I certainly can’t wait for their conference tournament opener on Thursday against Campbell, a team that made quite a run of its own last season in the Big South Tournament behind Chris Clemons’ heroics:

Big Ten:

Champion: Michigan State

I’ve always thought that power conference tournaments were harder to project than mid-major ones due to the potential lack of urgency for some teams. 3 teams pop off the page for this one, but I’m rolling with Michigan State, simply because when they are clicking, they might be the best team in the country. Their frontcourt is a matchup nightmare, and Cassius Winston continues to play extremely solid basketball of late. The concern for me with Sparty is getting that consistent effort and performance, as they are coming off some pretty lackluster showings of late against Northwestern and Wisconsin. Plus, to me they have the most to play for of the other top 3 teams (Ohio State and Purdue) as they could play themselves onto the 1-seed line if they win the tournament.

CAA:

Champions: Hofstra

Whenever you have a guard who can absolutely light it up, you are a threat to make serious noise in March. The Pride certainly have that in Justin Wright-Foreman, who is one of the most underrated scorers in all of college basketball. Wright-Foreman’s club has been playing terrific basketball of late, as they’ve won 4 in a row and 5 out of 6. The tournament location in Charleston, SC certainly doesn’t help the Pride, especially with College of Charleston getting the #1 seed, but I believe that the Pride will make their first NCAA Tournament since 2001. That said, to me this is one of the more wide-open tournaments we have in the first slate, with CofC, Northeastern, and even never-made-the-tournament-club member William & Mary have very real chance to cut down the nets.

Horizon League:

Champion: UIC

The cloud hanging over the Flames with Dikembe Dixson announcing he’ll be transferring after this season gives me cause for pause, but I’ll still roll with this red-hot UIC club to claim what should be an exciting Horizon League Tournament. Tarkus Ferguson is the glue that holds this team together, and his return after missing time with a foot injury has made a world of difference with this team. Combine that with an elite rim protector in Tai Odiase and no shortage of scoring options on the wing in Dixson, Godwin Boahen, and Dominique Matthews, and I think the Flames will be as dangerous as any at Motor City Madness. The dark horse here is Oakland, a supremely-talented club led by Kendrick Nunn that has seen so much go wrong this season in terms of injuries and suspensions but absolutely have the pieces to make a run and get to the Big Dance.

MAAC:

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MAAC Tournament Trophy. Photo: Kevin Sweeney/CBB Central

Champion: Rider

The MAAC possesses one of the more wacky streaks in all of college basketball, having not seen its top seed win the conference tournament since 2010 when Siena completed its 3-peat. And while Iona will look for a 3-peat of their own at the Times Union Center in downtown Albany, I’m taking the Broncs to smash the streak and start one of their own. I detailed how bright a future this Rider team has in my most recent article, and I truly think they could be starting their path towards a 3-peat this year. They are super athletic, get great point guard play, and have lots of scoring options. To me, they are the class of the MAAC and will dance into March despite Kevin Baggett’s history of early MAAC Tournament exits.

Missouri Valley:

Champions: Loyola-Chicago

Loyola-Chicago is a team I’ve had the pleasure to cover 3 times this season, and to me they are one of the most dangerous mid-majors in the country. In fact, I voted for them in the most recent Rockin’ 25 poll. They are athletic, space you out on defense, and have the best player in The Valley in Clayton Custer along with the league’s best freshman Cameron Krutwig. With Custer in the lineup, the Ramblers have been virtually unstoppable in MVC play, and with the rest of the league not exactly being models of consistency, Loyola is a clear pick for me. That said, they’ll likely have to win Arch Madness to have a chance to make the NCAA Tournament, as their resume is quite thin beyond a great win at Florida along with a bad loss to Milwaukee when Custer was out.

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Loyola is looking to add another banner to their collection, this time their first Missouri Valley crown. Photo: Kevin Sweeney/CBB Central

NEC:

Champions: Wagner

The NEC is always one of the toughest leagues to predict, but it’s hard not to love the job Bashir Mason has done with this team. Blake Francis has blossomed into one of the NEC’s best with a breakout sophomore campaign, and the Seahawks are a very deep club that plays tremendous defense. Still, watch out for defending champs Mount St. Mary’s, who sport the league’s best coach in Jamion Christian and the always-incredible Junior Robinson running the show.

Ohio Valley:

Champions: Murray State

The pick here between Murray State and Belmont took a good bit of deliberation on my part, but in the end I decided to roll with the Racers, a club that I’ve been high on since the preseason. The backcourt tandem of Jonathan Stark and Ja Morant hasn’t gotten enough love as one of the best in the nation, and Terrell Miller is the perfect fit next to them as a skilled floor-spacing big. Belmont will certainly be hungry after consecutive early exits in the OVC Tournament, but Rick Byrd will have to work his magic as I have major concerns about how they match up in man-to-man with the dynamic Racer backcourt. Of course, Ray Harper’s Jacksonville State club lurks after winning last year’s tournament, a veteran team with a very strong core. This tournament should be very fun in its first trip to Evansville after a long run in Nashville.

Patriot League:

Champions: Bucknell

While this season has been mildly disappointing for the Bison, they are still in a tier of their own in the Patriot League ahead of a strong mid-pack. I simply can’t see a team that can handle the frontcourt pairing of Zach Thomas and Nana Foulland, and while the backcourts at Lehigh and Navy in particular have the talent to give the Bison major problems in a single elimination setting, I have trouble seeing this experienced Bucknell team falling, especially since they will be on their home floor as a result of the Patriot League having a campus site tournament.

SoCon:

Champions: Mercer

One of my bigger upset picks of the opening slate, I’m rolling with the red-hot Mercer Bears in what should be an awesome SoCon Tournament. Mercer entered the year with high expectations and underachieved early, but the Bears have turned a corner of late. Winners of 8 in a row, Bob Hoffman’s club has a talented frontcourt with the versatility to cause problems for the top dogs in the league, and the rest of the league has lacked the consistency for me to trust them come tournament time. Once-clear favorites East Tennessee State has stumbled of late, and while Wofford has the league’s best player in Fletcher Magee, the Terriers have been up-and-down as well. Not to be forgotten is Wes Miller’s UNC-Greensboro club, but I’m super high on this Mercer team. Plus, I needed an excuse to share this glorious video with you all:

Summit League:

Champions: South Dakota

The battle for the Mount Rushmore State will also be the battle for the Summit League title, as the South Dakota State Mike Dauminators (trademark pending) and the South Dakota Coyotes look to be the major contenders in the Summit. And while Daum and the Jackrabbits may get all the national publicity, we can’t diminish the job Craig Smith has done at South Dakota. The combination of efficient offense led by Matt Mooney and stout defense makes this team one of the more complete mid-major clubs in the country.

West Coast:

Champions: Gonzaga

While the WCC Tournament likely means more for Saint Mary’s with their more delicate bubble situation, Gonzaga is the team to beat in this conference tournament. The Zags are playing much better basketball than the Gaels of late, and their gameplan of denying Jock Landale post touches worked to perfection in the rivalry’s 2nd meeting. Rui Hachimura continues to play outstanding basketball, and Josh Perkins is the experienced guard everyone wants in March despite his relatively up-and-down career.

 

Ahead of Schedule: Mid-Majors Surprisingly Competing This Year

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.

Rider: MAAC

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.

Northeastern: CAA

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.