After a 2-week hiatus thanks to Kevin’s international travels, the boys are back with a pod breaking down all the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 action and talking about what should be a fun Final Four. The episode includes deep-dive breakdowns into how all four regions were won, which leads us into fun discussions about roster construction, player development, recruiting, and so much more.
Today on the show, Brad and Kevin break down all things week 2, including a brutal Gavitt Games for the Big East and big weekends for Iowa, UCF, and others. They also put in their predictions for a loaded week of games, including the Maui Invitational and the Battle 4 Atlantis.
By Kevin Sweeney
Today concludes our 32×32 preview series! 32 conferences, 353 teams, and over 50,000 words later, on the pages of this site is all you need to know to get ready for the season! Thanks to all who have supported my work this month, and I can’t wait to get things underway this season!
We wrap things up with the WCC, which features arguably the best team in college basketball. However, the bigger storyline for me is the improving depth of the conference, which continues to develop itself to be more than just Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s, and BYU.
Even with the Killian Tillie injury, the Zags are legit national title contenders. Adding Geno Crandall solidifies the point guard position next to Josh Perkins, and the Bulldogs are so deep up front. Tillie’s injury and a tough non-conference schedule probably makes an undefeated season not in the cards, but the talent this team has is limitless.
#2. Saint Mary’s
This is a new-look SMC club in the post-Jock Landale era. The Gaels will now rely much more on their backcourt, chiefly Jordan Ford. Ford exploded onto the scene late last season, and is poised to averaged 20+ points per game in 2018-19. Add in South Florida transfer Malik Fitts in the frontcourt with Seattle grad transfer Aaron Menzies and highly-touted freshman Matthias Tass, and this team should be strong again.
Elijah Bryant was one of the most underrated players in the country last season, a hyper-efficient 3-level scorer who flirted with a 50/40/90 season last season. Losing him early to the pro ranks was a crusher for a BYU program that could have contended for an at-large bid otherwise, but this team still has the pieces to make noise. Dave Rose gets Nick Emery back to pair with TJ Haws in the backcourt, and the Cougars still have an elite big in Yoeli Childs.
#4. San Francisco
I’m bullish on this USF team this season, as Kyle Smith gets high-level guard Charles Minlend back into the mix with Frankie Ferrari and Jordan Ratinho already in the mix. Smith also adds in Belarusian big man Dmitry Ryuny, who posted absurd numbers in the FIBA U18 Euros this summer. The Dons can shoot the ball, and slowly keep adding talent to the mix. This is definitely a program on the rise in the WCC.
Adding Jahlil Tripp to the mix changed the game for Damon Stoudamire’s group, a versatile combo-wing who rebounds like a big man and passes like a point guard. Tripp is deployed as a small-ball 4 in most lineups for Stoudamire, paired with 3 guards who can really score the basketball. NDSU transfer Khy Kabellis provides more shooting and scoring punch for the Tigers. JUCO big man Amari McCray could change the game for this group– if he can live up to his recruiting billing the Tigers could be in the mix for an NIT berth.
#6. San Diego
Sam Scholl takes over for Lamont Smith after Smith was forced out in the wake of legal troubles. He’ll look to continue the momentum that Smith was building with the Toreros, who are coming off their first 20-win season in 10 years. The depth with this team isn’t quite there, but the trio of Isaiah Wright, Isaiah Pineiro, and Olin Carter is tough to beat. This USD team should win a few games they shouldn’t.
#7. Santa Clara
An impressive incoming group for Herb Sendek will define his tenure at SCU, and Sendek has a star in KJ Feagin who should help bridge the gap. He’ll pair with Matt Hauser and SEMO transfer Tahj Eaddy for a pretty impressive backcourt, and if sophomore Josip Vrankic can take the next step the Broncos have a chance to surprise.
Combining Lorenzo Romar’s elite recruiting prowess with Pepperdine’s beautiful Malibu campus is bad news for mid- and high-major programs across the west coast. Romar already has made his mark in his transition class by landing Kessler Edwards and Andre Ball, a pair of potential building blocks next to existing stars Colbey Ross and Kameron Edwards. Once Romar adds a pair of high-impact transfer forwards into the mix in MJ Cage and Keith Smith next year, watch out.
#9. Loyola Marymount
Mike Dunlap enters the season on the hot seat at LMU, and the 9th place finish I’m projecting probably isn’t enough for him to keep his job. The Lions were inefficient on offense last season, but they do bring back a pair of high-level players in James Batemon and Eli Scott who have the talent to push this club into the league’s middle tier.
Terry Porter hasn’t been able to build much momentum as he enters year 3 as the head coach in the city he played pro basketball. He has a building block in sophomore guard Marcus Shaver, who is on an all-conference trajectory. However, Porter has to recruit more talent and fix the team’s woeful rebounding in order to move up the standings.
All-Conference First Team:
- Jordan Ford– Saint Mary’s (11.1 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 1.6 apg, .508/.443/.754)
- Zach Norvell– Gonzaga (12.7 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 2.3 apg, .456/.370/.800)
- Rui Hachimura– Gonzaga (11.6 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 0.6 apg, .568/.192/.795)
- Killian Tillie– Gonzaga (12.9 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 1.7 apg, .580/.479/.773)
- Yoeli Childs– BYU (17.8 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 2.2 apg, .541/.313/.643)
Player of the Year: Jordan Ford (Saint Mary’s)
Ford is going to go off this season. The dynamic scoring guard has been putting up monster numbers all preseason, posting 43 in a secret scrimmage against Stanford in October. The biggest question is whether he moves back over to point guard or if he’ll continue to play in a pure scoring role next to talented redshirt freshman Kristers Zoriks.
Breakout Player: Ford
Ford going from not making an all-WCC team to Player of the Year would classify as a breakout for me. I expect him to average 20+ points per game for the Gaels.
Newcomer of the Year: Brandon Clarke (Gonzaga)
Clarke’s athleticism from the forward position will be a major asset to this Gonzaga team. Reports have raved about Clarke this offseason, and he should provide outstanding defense and versatility for this group. If he has improved as a shooter during his redshirt year, he’s a clear NBA prospect.
By Kevin Sweeney
While still somewhat-tenuously constructed, the WAC finally appears to have some sort of D1 stability. New Mexico State and Grand Canyon can carry the conference, while Seattle and UVU are on the rise. Meanwhile, reports have the WAC aggressive in recruiting D2 schools to join the D1 ranks with them, with talk of the WAC becoming a football conference (presumably FCS) once again.
#1. New Mexico State
One of the nation’s most consistent mid-major programs, NMSU seems to just reload year after year, no matter who the coach is. Chris Jans has helped continue that tradition, bringing in a pair of top-10 JUCO prospects along with a pair of impact transfers fresh off sitting out a year to bolster an NMSU club that returns a pair of key contributors in AJ Harris and Eli Chuha from an NCAA Tournament team. Mohamed Thiam and Ivan Aurrecoecha both come from the JUCO ranks having put up big numbers, and should give the Aggies a fearsome front line to pound teams on the glass. Meanwhile, Utah transfer JoJo Zamora, who briefly committed to GCU in his transfer search, should provide some big-time scoring punch next to Harris in the backcourt. I don’t see this team skipping a beat.
#2. Grand Canyon
In what was supposed to be the breakthrough season in the first year of D1 eligibility for Dan Majerle’s club, the ‘Lopes failed to live up to expectations. The key flaw: GCU couldn’t get any dribble penetration, as perpetual knee injuries hindered Josh Braun’s effectiveness and Oregon grad transfer Casey Benson proved more game manager than shot creator. With both gone, this is a new-look GCU club, one reliant on a frontcourt featuring preseason POY Alessandro Lever and Illinois grad transfer Michael Finke. PG questions loom with sophomore Damari Milstead and D2 grad transfer Trey Dreschel both candidates to start, while scoring guards JJ Rhymes, Carlos Johnson, and Oscar Frayer will all rely on their strength and athleticism to get to the rim. Spacing is a concern, but Majerle has continued to assemble talent and should have a dangerous club for the 2018-19 season.
After building an incredibly successful program at Eastern Washington, Jim Hayford is looking to do the same at Seattle. A trio of talented transfers become eligible after sitting out the first year of Hayford’s tenure, as Dashawn McDowell (SMU), Delante Jones (American) and Myles Carter (Seton Hall) join a group that already features Matej Kavas. Carter likely will replace Aaron Menzies as the “1-in” in Hayford’s 4-out, 1-in offense, but none of the transfers will be more important than McDowell. A former well-regarded recruit, McDowell’s athleticism should be an asset at either guard spot, and Hayford could really use another guard who can handle the ball next to Morgan Means.
#4. Utah Valley
The job Mark Pope has done with this UVU program has been superb, building the Wolverines into a WAC contender among GCU and NMSU. Losing one year wonder big man Akolda Manyang hurts, but UVU still has plenty of talent to make some noise this season. A pair of transfers in Bailey Steele (Eastern Michigan) and Connor MacDougall (New Mexico) will take over up front for Manyang, while the Toolson cousins will continue to provide strong production on the wing.
#5. Cal State Bakersfield
CSUB was one of the worst shooting teams in college basketball last season, shooting a putrid 30% (342nd nationally) from downtown. That’s a troubling stat given how guard-reliant the Roadrunners are, though CSUB does have some excellent guards at his disposal in Damiyne Durham and Jarkel Joiner along with Rickey Holden. Joiner has all-conference upside– a prolific high school scorer who showed flashes but was a bit of a a ball-stopper as a freshman. Rod Barnes’ club goes smaller and more athletic this season, but will need good production from JUCO import Darius Williams up front to maintain the rebounding edge they held last season.
Lew Hill’s club loses high-usage scoring star Nick Dixon, a crushing blow to a club that didn’t have a ton of scoring depth to begin with last season. I like what Hill has done to his frontcourt, adding athletic forward Solomon Hainna next to Terry Winn to make a very athletic unit that should be able to get up and down in UTRGV’s up-tempo system. However, Hill will need a guard to give them some serious scoring punch in Dixon’s absence. Perhaps that guy is Greg Bowie, who showed promise as a freshman but will have to up his efficiency.
Kareem Richardson has been unable to build much momentum at UMKC, and his club is coming off a brutal 2017-18 headlined by a midseason loss to D2 William Jewell. They also committed the cardinal sin of WAC basketball: they lost to Chicago State. The good news for Richardson and company is they were incredibly young last season, with guys like Xavier Bishop, Brandon McKissic, and Marvin Nesbitt all back. JUCO forward Jamel Allen should also give this team a boost. However, another 20+ loss season could put Richardson on the hot seat.
#8. Cal Baptist
The more exciting of the 2 new D1 clubs this season, CBU has engineered a rapid rise to D1 after only moving from NAIA to D2 in 2010. Randy Bennett disciple Rick Croy has done a great job at the D2 level, and I’m confident he can make the Lancers a winner in the WAC with time to recruit, as CBU has great facilities and appears committed to building a winner at the D1 level. For this year, look out for combo guard Jordan Heading, a senior who averaged over 14 points and 5 assists last season.
#9. Chicago State
After spending months looking for a replacement for Tracy Dildy, CSU finally landed on Lance Irvin to run their program. For a program with such poor resources, Irvin is actually a strong hire: his family began the famed Mac Irvin Fire AAU program in Chicago and he has been an assistant at several D1 programs. Plus, he actually wanted the job. The talent level is still very low, and they return no one who averaged more than 6 points per game last season.
Not good, Bob.
All Conference First Team:
- JoJo Zamora– New Mexico State (6.9 ppg, 1.4 rpg, 1.1 apg, .455/.360/.811 in 2016-17 at Utah)
- Conner Toolson– Utah Valley (12.1 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 1.6 apg, .454/.395/.810)
- Oscar Frayer– Grand Canyon (9.6 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 1.2 apg, .482/.366/.547)
- Matej Kavas– Seattle (15.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 1.2 apg, .474/.464/.791)
- Alessandro Lever– Grand Canyon (12.2 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 1.2 apg, .453/.321/.766)
Player of the Year: Alessandro Lever (Grand Canyon)
Lever just got better and better as the season went on last season, averaging almost 19 points and 6 rebounds per game in the season’s final 10 games. He has to get smarter and eliminate needless fouls, but Lever is a legit high-major talent who should continue to improve into his sophomore season.
Breakout Player: Greg Bowie (UTRGV)
If this breakout comes true, it will have come out of necessity for Lew Hill’s club. Without Nick Dixon, the Vaqueros desperately need someone to score the basketball. Bowie could be that guy after averaging 7.5 ppg as a freshman. A few promising performances, like his 18 points vs Seattle in January or his 14 points and 6 boards against NMSU, give me reason for optimism.
Newcomer of the Year: JoJo Zamora (New Mexico State)
NMSU has at least 3 players worthy of being in the discussion for this award, but I’ll roll with Zamora, who I’m betting on having a massive year in his only year at NMSU. Zamora can really score the ball, and played a key role for a good Utah team in 2016-17 before electing to transfer for his final year of eligibility.
By Kevin Sweeney
The Mike Davis reign of terror in the SWAC is over, with the long-time Texas Southern head man taking over at Detroit this offseason. The departure of Davis opens things up for a new team to take control of the conference, though TSU made a strong hire in Johnny Jones to run the program in the post-Davis era.
#1. Grambling State
Ineligible for the postseason last season, the Tigers heated up down the stretch despite having nothing but pride to play for, rattling 11 straight wins at one point to finish 13-5 in SWAC play. 4 of GSU’s top 5 scorers return, including star point guard Ivy Smith, who exploded onto the scene last season after a less-than-exciting freshman campaign.
#2. Texas Southern
Former LSU head coach Johnny Jones took over late in the process for the aforementioned Davis, and embraced similar recruiting tactics to his predecessor to add some talent to this club and keep them competitive in the SWAC despite the loss of Trae Jefferson. LSU grad transfer Jalyn Patterson, who played for Jones, should step into the point guard role, while former North Texas forward Jeremy Combs should pair nicely with Trayvon Reed in the frontcourt. I don’t foresee the Tigers missing much of a beat.
#3. Arkansas-Pine Bluff
JUCO important Martaveous McKnight was truly a revelation for UAPB, averaging over 18 points per game en route to earning SWAC Player of the Year honors in his first season with the Golden Lions. Combine a star scorer like McKnight with a stout defense, and George Ivory has a legit SWAC contender on his hands.
#4. Prairie View A&M
To say PVAMU has gone all in on the transfer market is an understatement. Not a single scholarship player on the roster came from the high school ranks, with the roster littered with JUCO and D1 transfers. The Panthers should get excellent guard play, with returning stars Gary Blackston and Dennis Jones being joined by Kent State grad transfer Taishaun Johnson, who averaged over 12 points per game as a freshman at South Alabama before steadily falling off the map. If he can revert to his 2015 form, no SWAC club will have more firepower than PVAMU.
Once a rising name in the business who recorded a pair of 20+ win seasons in 4+ seasons at Morehead State, Sean Woods starts over as the head coach at Southern after player abuse allegations led to his dismissal from Morehead. Woods will lean heavily on senior guard Eddie Reese, who averaged over 11 points and 3 assists per game last season, as well as mobile big man Sidney Umude, for big production out of the gates.
#6. Alabama State
After entering SWAC play winless, the Hornets put together a surprisingly-successful 2017-18 conference campaign, going 8-10 and breeding some future optimism with a lot of production returning. Reginald Gee and Jacoby Ross should provide some backcourt fireworks, but ASU will have to improve from the charity stripe, where they shot under 65% as a team last season.
#7. Jackson State
JSU loses a ton of production from last season. Adding Ball State grad transfer Jontrell Walker, a microwave-type scorer who played a big role Incarnate Word before heading to BSU should help in that regard, but Wayne Brent needs a few of his newcomers to step up in order to contend.
#8. Alcorn State
Shooter Maurice Howard should be the focal point offensively for the Braves this season, as ASU loses AJ Mosby from last year’s club. Watch out for JUCO import Jonathan Floyd, who averaged almost 17 points per game while shooting over 44% from downtown for Copiah-Lincoln.
#9. Mississippi Valley State
The Delta Devils bring back a ton of production, but how good a thing is that considering they only won 4 D1 games last season? MVSU was mostly horrible on both ends, with former Memphis wing Dante Scott a bright spot in what was a forgettable season. Not much improvement should be expected.
#10. Alabama A&M
Former FIU head coach Donnie Marsh departed his post as AAMU’s head man after a brutal 3-28 opening season, instead opting for a spot on Michael Fly’s staff at FGCU. Former Morehead State assistant Dylan Howard takes over on an interim basis, and he inherits a club that was the worst in the nation on a points-per-game basis.
All-Conference First Team:
- Ivy Smith– Grambling St (16.7 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 5.0 apg, .399/.362/.805)
- Gary Blackston– PVAMU (19.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 3.5 apg, .439/.358/.719)
- Martaveous McKnight– UAPB (18.6 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 3.5 apg, .452/.352/.724)
- Dante Scott– MVSU (14.6 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 1.9 apg, .420/.370/.775)
- Trayvon Reed– Texas Southern (9.7 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 0.4 apg, .683/.111/.657)
Player of the Year: Martaveous McKnight (UAPB)
The defending POY, McKnight should be seen as the clear favorite this season. His scoring prowess was truly game-changing for the Golden Lions last season, and he should have a huge senior season.
Breakout Player: Maurice Howard (Alcorn State)
Howard knocked down 75 triples last season, and 100 shouldn’t be seen as out of the question this season as he moves into a bigger role. The Braves will need a big year from him with all the production they lose.
Newcomer of the Year: Jeremy Combs (Texas Southern)
Combs barely played in his only season at LSU, but before that he was one of the better big men in the C-USA. In 2015-16, Combs averaged nearly 15 points and 10 rebounds for the Mean Green. He should be a steal at this level.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.