AAC Preview 2015-16

Predicted Order of Finish:
1.      SMU
2.
     UConn
3.
     Tulsa
4.
     Cincinnati
5.
     Memphis
6.
     Temple
7.
     Houston
8.
     Tulane
9.
     UCF
10.
  East Carolina
11.
  USF

All Conference:

POY: Nic Moore, SMU
Coach of the Year: Larry Brown, SMU
Newcomer of the Year: Sterling Gibbs, UConn  

First team
G – Nic Moore, Senior, SMU
G – Sterling Gibbs, Senior, UConn
G – James Woodard, Senior, Tulsa
G – Troy Caupain, Junior, Cincinnati
C – Amida Brimah, Junior, UConn

Second team
G – Ronnie Johnson, Junior, Houston
G – Shaquille Harrison, Senior, Tulsa
G – Quentin Decosey, Senior, Temple
F – Markus Kennedy, Senior, SMU
F – Octavius Ellis, Senior, Cincinnati

Third team
G – Louis Dabney, Senior, Tulane
G – Daniel Hamilton, Sophomore, UConn
G – BJ Tyson, Sophomore, East Carolina
F – Shonn Miller, Senior, UConn
F – Shaq Goodwin, Senior, Memphis


1.      SMU


Lineup:
C – Markus Kennedy, 6’9, Sr.
PF – Jordan Tolbert, 6’7, Sr..
SF – Sterling Brown, 6’6, Jr.
SG – Keith Frazier, 6’5, Jr.
PG – Nic Moore, 5’9, Sr.

Reserves:  Shake Milton, 6’4, Fr.; Ben Moore, 6’8, Jr; Ben Emelogu, 6’5, Jr.; Semi Ojeleye, 6’8, So.

Postseason Prediction: 3 seed
I absolutely love this squad. They have almost everything you would want in a team – a skilled senior point guard who can get others involved while also filling it up himself, a stable of skilled wings who bring varying sets of skills, and a beast of a big man who can score with his back to the basket and command double teams. They have a nice blend of experience (3 seniors, 4 juniors in the rotation) and youth (solid freshman recruiting class, especially top-100 prospect Shake Milton). The Mustangs also have an experienced, respected coach in Hall of Famer Larry Brown. The one thing I would say this team lacks slightly is true size and big man depth (6‘9 Markus Kennedy is the tallest player on the team).

Senior point guard Nic Moore is the catalyst, a 5‘9 dynamo who can rain threes (76/180 last year, 42%) while also setting the table for his talented teammates (31% assist rate, 71st in the country). He will have a plethora of options to distribute to, espeically given the NCAA’s decision that junior guard Keith Frazier will be eligible. Frazier isn’t a smart fella and was academically ineligible for the second semester. Without their best wing scorer, SMU’s offense struggled, and his return should reset the balance of the offense. He’ll start next to Sterling Brown, a hyper-efficient (24th best O-rating in the country), low usage wing that plays his defensive role perfectly, hitting the rare three at a high rate (44%). Former Virginia Tech guard Ben Emelogu was hideously inefficient last year (28% from the field), but he’s athletic enough to defend and should improve offensively, if only because he can’t possibly be worse. The team also has Ben Moore (no relation to Nic), an extremely lanky forward who flexed between the 3 and the 4 spots effectively with his aggressive driving combined with his surprisingly effective rebounding and shotblocking.  Due to the team’s lack of depth down low, Moore will likely spend more minutes at the four this year.

The aforementioned freshman class will bring some added perimeter playmaking, especially highly-regarded freshman guard Milton. He is a true point guard, a strong distributor who thrives playing with talented players that he can set up for easier shots. He has a high basketball IQ, and he is big enough to guard 2’s, which will allow the team to play Nic Moore at the 2 at times, something they simply couldn’t do last year. Milton is also capable of getting himself a shot if needed. Fellow freshman point guard Sedrick Barefield provides additional depth, and Jarrey Foster gives the team another very athletic wing option.

As mentioned, the team’s post rotation will be slightly smaller than normally desired, but it will not be short on talent. The 6‘9 Kennedy is a behemoth, an efficient-scoring wide body who can also protect the rim (5.2% block rate), nab a surprising amount of steals (3.8%, 60th [?!] in the country), and dominate the glass. Who starts next to Kennedy is up in the air – it could be Moore, Texas Tech transfer Jordan Tolbert, or Duke transfer Semi Ojeleye (who is eligible in December). Tolbert, like Kennedy, was also an efficient inside scorer, decent rebounder, and above average rim protector for the Red Raiders. He provides a more physical presence than Ben Moore. The other option (in December) is Ojeleye, a highly-regarded recruit two years ago who couldn’t find a role with the Blue Devils. He was a bonkers scorer in high school, though, and could be a major x-factor for the Ponies. 

SMU has all of the versatility, talent, and experience that one could want from a premier squad, and frankly, them being 100/1 national title favorites is baffling. I love the value there, with the thinking being that if you get a 100/1 team to the Final Four (or even Elite 8), the hedging possibilities are exceedingly fruitful. With the pieces coach Larry Brown has, I really think that SMU has a shot at a 3-4 seed and a deep tournament run.
 

2.      Connecticut


Lineup:
C – Amida Brimah, 7’0, Jr.
PF – Shonn Miller, 6’7, Sr.
SF – Daniel Hamilton, 6’7, So.
SG – Rodney Purvis, 6’4, Jr.
PG – Sterling Gibbs, 6’2, Sr.

Reserves: Jalen Adams, 6’2, Fr.; Kentan Facey, 6’9, Jr.; Omar Calhoun, 6’5, Sr.; Phillip Nolan, 6’10, Sr.; Sam Cassell Jr.; 6’4, R-Jr.

Postseason Prediction: 5 seed
At the start of the offseason, the Huskies looked solid. They returned some solid wings and an anchor at center while bringing in a star freshman point guard recruit to take over for the departed Ryan Boatright. Another season of competing in the conference and contending for an NCAA bid appeared likely. But that wasn’t enough for coach Kevin Ollie and his staff. They went out and secured commitments from two excellent graduate transfers, Sterling Gibbs from Seton Hall and Shonn Miller from Cornell. Gibbs in particular is a game-changer – he led Seton Hall in scoring, assists, and three-point shooting, and will immediately become the catalyst for the offense. Miller, for his part, led Cornell in scoring and rebounding and also is a strong defender. He’s an elite defensive rebounder (6th in the country in rebound rate) while also posting a solid block rate (7.2%, 93rd in the country). He along with the returning Amida Brimah should be a great combination down low – Brimah was 2nd in the country in block rate (a massive 15%), with Miller helping to cover for Brimah’s biggest weakness, defensive rebounding. The two rim protectors should only strengthen the team’s top-30 defense in opponents effective field goal percentage. Connecticut’s third big man, junior Kentan Facey, is a very good rebounder and finisher off the bench who rounds out an excellent frontcourt rotation.

Miller and Gibbs should help one of UConn’s biggest weaknesses last year – getting to the free throw line. The team was 296th in the country in free throw rate last year (FTA/FGA), with only Brimah consistently getting to the free throw line. Both Miller and Gibbs drew over 4.5 fouls per game, and while neither posted an elite free throw rate, the combination of the two should juice up the team’s free throw frequency.  

Helping Gibbs on the perimeter are the aforementioned freshman stud, Jalen Adams (ESPN’s #24 recruit in the class of 2015), versatile and talented sophomore Daniel Hamilton, former NC State player Rodney Purvis, and senior Omar Calhoun. Adams isn’t actually a true point guard – he tends to look for his own shot before getting others involved – but with Gibbs in the fold, he should be able to share the court with him without the offense suffering from his aggressive play. Hamilton is the most likely returnee to make a leap. He was able to play four positions last year, actually posting the highest assist rate on the team despite playing on the wing most of the time. His shooting left a lot to be desired, but hopefully he can improve on that as he grows as a player. Purvis was an enigma last year – a star in some games while disappearing the next. Calhoun will probably come off the bench and will need to improve his efficiency to earn more significant playing time.

The biggest issue for Coach Ollie will be getting all of his new talent to gel together properly with the returnees. If he can, the team’s ceiling is extremely high – Brimah is a likely NBA draft pick due to his shotblocking and finishing, and Gibbs, Miller, and Hamilton have all-conference potential. Putting all of that together into a cohesive unit would make the team a serious threat to win the conference and push deep into the NCAA tournament.

3.      Tulsa

 Here we see Frank Haith appropriately booing himself

Here we see Frank Haith appropriately booing himself


Lineup:
C – Rashad Smith, 6’7, Sr.
PF – D’Andre Wright, 6’9, Sr.
G – Marquel Curtis, 6’3, Sr.
G – James Woodard, 6’3, Sr.
G – Shaq Harrison, 6’4, Sr.

Reserves: Rashad Ray, 5’10, Sr.; Brandon Swannegan, 6’10, Sr.; Sterling Taplin, 6’2, Fr.; Patrick Birt, 6’5, Jr.

Postseason Prediction: 9 seed

I will be the absolute last person to ride for Frank Haith’s ability to coach, but the only great team he’s ever helmed (2011-12 Missouri) was built around a senior-laden roster with a deep backcourt and a couple decent big men (though that undersells Ricardo Ratliffe’s outrageously efficient season that year). That team ran a system with four guards and one big man, spacing the heck out of the floor with elite shooting and very good passing while scrambling enough on defense to stay afloat. Interestingly enough, despite similar roster makeup, last year’s Tulsa squad was nearly the opposite, playing terrific defense but putting up gross percentages in basically all shooting categories. That team is now another senior-laden, guard-heavy team, but Haith will have to find a way to succeed with a different style than that Mizzou team.

The Golden Hurricane are not without elite shooting, though: senior guard James Woodard hit an impressive 88 threes at a 37% clip, many of which were contested shots. He was the team’s only truly efficient offensive option; if the team can elevate its offensive play around him, he could be in for a banner season as one of the nation’s premier high-volume shooters. Fellow senior guard Rashad Ray provides a decent perimeter complement to Woodard, having made 38 threes of his own while splitting point guard duties with yet another senior guard, Shaq Harrison. Harrison was a pretty effective driver and distributor last year, but fixing his outside shot must be a priority to help him stretch defenses and give him more driving lanes. A fourth senior guard, Marquel Curtis, will join those three in many lineups. Curtis is a slasher who can finish around the basket, knifing through the lanes that Woodard’s presence helps create while often being guarded by opposing post players.

Tulsa’s big man rotation consists of – guess what – three seniors! Haith will probably start a conventional lineup featuring 6‘7 Rashad Smith, Tulsa’s best defensive rebounder (a team strength, though mostly through a by-committee approach), and 6‘9 Brandon Swannegan, the team’s only shot-blocking threat. Swannegan and his backup, D’Andre Wright, both foul far too much to play more than 20ish minutes per game, which is part of what necessitates lineups consisting of Smith and the four guards.

As mentioned, the team’s shooting percentages in nearly all facets were dismal – 252nd in 3-point percentage, 232nd in 2-point percentage, 317th in free throw percentage, all of which fed into the 253rd ranked effective field goal percentage. Woodard can only do so much, and he will need his impotent teammates to find more of a shooting stroke this year. Another thing that will help is if some of the team’s bad shooters quit shooting threes – Harrison, Wright, Smith, and Curtis all took at least 37 threes last year, and none of them shot over 27% from that range. I would say they either need to get better or stop shooting from there, but I don’t think Frank Haith has the discipline as a coach to get them to change.

Knowing Frank Haith’s reputation, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see him skip town after this year, leaving behind a nearly-empty cupboard for whatever poor coach follows him. With the rotation featuring seven seniors and very little notable talent below them, next year could be a brutal one, so this year really needs to be win-or-bust.

4. Cincinnati
Lineup:

C – Octavius Ellis, 6’10, Sr.
PF – Gary Clark, 6’7, So.
SF – Shaq Thomas, 6’7, Sr.
SG – Farad Cobb, 6’0, Sr.
PG – Troy Caupain, 6’3, Jr.

Reserves: Kevin Johnson, 6’2, Jr.; Coreonte DeBerry, 6’10, Sr.; Quadri Moore, 6’8, So.; Jacob Evans, 6’6, Fr.

Postseason Prediction: 8 seed
Honestly, I’m probably underrating the Bearcats a little bit. Looking at their roster, they bring back everyone except their lowest-usage rotation player, Jermaine Sanders, who was really only offering reserve minutes as a defender by the end of the year. With great continuity in their scheme, athleticism, and shotblocking, Cincinnati has the potential to be a top 5 defensive team this year (they were 14th in defensive efficiency last year).

The defense starts from the inside out – 6’10 center Octavius Ellis is a monster, blocking 7.9% of shots (74th in the country) while mostly avoiding fouling and bringing down a good share of defensive rebounds. Backup center Coreonte DeBerry is even more effective protecting the rim, posting a 10.5% block rate that would have been 25th in the country had he played enough minutes to qualify. He fouls quite a bit more than Ellis, though, and will continue to play limited minutes behind his fellow senior big man. At forward, Micky Cronin will start two 6‘7 athletes in Gary Clark (more of an inside presence, efficient scorer, great rebounder, good shotblocker) and Shaquille Thomas (perimeter defender, a blah offensive presence). As Clark grows more confident in his sophomore campaign, he is a candidate to be a breakout scorer for a team that didn’t have a single double-digit scorer per game last year (Ellis led them with 9.9 per). Another key to the team’s elite defense is its perimeter quickness – Clark, starting guards Troy Caupain and Farad Cobb, and reserve guard Kevin Johnson (no relation to the Suns legend/Sacramento mayor) all ranked in the top 500 in the country in steal rate, pressuring the crap out of opposing guards who were hesitant to drive by and attack Ellis/DeBerry/Clark down low. Extending the de also helped lower opponents‘ shooting percentages as they were constantly being harassed and rushing to get seemingly-open shots off. To take the final leap to elite level, Cincy will need a little more defensive rebounding from its perimeter guys (238th in de board rate, despite the efforts of Ellis and Clark).

On the offensive end, Caupain is easily the best player and key figure. Playing on one of the slowest teams in the country, Caupain put up a solid assist rate (25.2%) and was the team’s most efficient outside shooter at 40.8% (though at a low volume). He will again be the primary ballhandler, with decent wing shooting options to dish to in Cobb and Johnson as well as excellent finishers down low in Ellis and Clark. This team is not terribly interesting to watch on offense, though, and will mostly be in the business of manufacturing enough points to win as their defense suffocates teams.

Cincy isn’t extraordinarily deep, but they don’t need to be at the pace they play. If one of their three freshman perimeter players can provide some added playmaking and shooting, it could help the team get incrementally better on offense while not losing anything on defense (guards Jacob Evans and Justin Jenifer are both described as “strong and physical,“ perfect for Cronin’s scheme).

The Bearcats should get back to the tournament and wear white in the first round while embodying the toughness and intensity of their coach. Speaking of Mick and his intensity, I would traditionally tease how crazy he is on the sideline, but given his health issues last year, let’s just say it will be good to see his red face at near-bursting levels on the sideline again this year.  

5.      Temple

Lineup:
PF – Obi Enechionyia, 6’8, So.
PF – Jaylen Bond, 6’8, Sr.
G – Josh Brown, 6’3, Jr.
G – Levan Alston, 6’4, Fr.
G – Quentin Decosey, 6’5, Sr.

Reserves: Devontae Watson, 6’11, Sr.; Trey Lowe, 6’5, Fr.; Devin Coleman, 6’2, Sr.; Ernest Aflakpui, 6’10, Fr.; Daniel Dingle, 6’7, Jr.

Postseason Prediction: NIT

Temple really drew the short end of the stick last year – they were the team that had the biggest gripe to getting excluded from the NCAA tournament field in favor of UCLA and its crappy resume (in my humble opinion). The team loses two key perimeter players from that team, point guard Will Cummings and perimeter gunner Jesse Morgan, and finding a way to replace both will be crucial to the team climbing back into the tournament picture. Point guard in particular looks to be a massive hole; no player on the roster was initially listed at that position as a recruit, and the team will likely have to fill that spot by committee. The most likely first option is Quentin Decosey, the team’s leading returning scorer and assister. He was a solid shooter and wing scorer last year, and the team’s hope is that adding more ballhandling to his duties won’t detract too much from his wing slashing. Other options to help initiate the offense include junior guard Josh Brown, who will also hopefully shoot more threes (21/56 last year, 38%) to help compensate for the loss of Morgan, and freshmen Levan Alston and Trey Lowe. Both are more suited to scoring on the wing (and both will certainly help the team’s outside shooting), but whether they can truly help share the ballhandling burden remains to be seen.

Temple is much more settled up front, with a strong four-man rotation of likely starters senior Jaylen Bond and sophomore Obi Enechionyia and reserves Daniel Dingle and Devontae Watson. Bond is by far the team’s best rebounder, as well as a strong post defender. He is less effective on the offensive end, though, particularly his atrocious free through shooting (22/61, 36%). The team’s biggest breakout candidate is Enechionyia, an effective finisher last year who also flashed very impressive rim protection skills (7.7% block rate, 79th in the country). He showed a slight ability to hit threes as well, and if he can continue to expand that part of his game, he’ll be a matchup nightmare. He and Bond should complement each other well. Watson provides some rebounding and shotblocking off the bench, while Dingle is little more than another body – hopefully someone tells him to stop shooting threes (24/98 over his first two collegiate years, including 22% from deep last year). True freshman Ernest Aflakpui offers another option defensively – similar to Bond (but taller and longer), he will be primarily a defender and shotblocker who won’t offer much on offense besides finishing with authority.

Temple was a borderline elite defensive team last year, ranking 18th in the country in defensive efficiency. Continuing that superb defense is Temple’s most likely path back to the tournament, especially given the questions at point guard. A lot will depend on the ability of the freshman guards to come in and contribute, both in outside shooting as well as ballhandling. Coach Fran Dunphy is usually a good one to bet on, consistently getting more out of his teams than one might expect.  My best guess is that they are back close to the bubble again this year. If the team can pick up some statement wins during its brutal nonconference slate (UNC in Annapolis; the Puerto Rico tip-off featuring Minnesota, Utah, Butler, Miami (FL), and Mississippi St.; at Wisconsin; along with the usual Philly 5 games – LaSalle, Villanova, Penn, and Drexel), they might even see themselves comfortably in the field.

 

6.      Memphis
Lineup:

C – Shaq Goodwin, 6’9, Sr.
F – Dedric Lawson, 6’8, Fr.
F – KJ Lawson, 6’7, Fr.
SG – Avery Woodson, 6’2, Jr.
PG – Kedren Johnson, 6’4, Sr.

Reserves: Ricky Tarrant, 6’2, Sr.; Trashon Burrell, 6’6, Sr.; Markel Crawford, 6’4, So.; Chris Hawkins, 6’6, Sr.

Postseason Prediction: NIT

Ah, Josh the Kid. The absolute master of the recruiting hero/coaching zero strategy has done it again, bringing in an outstanding class headlined by twins Dedric and KJ Lawson. It will be nearly impossible to keep their length and athleticism off the court from the start, as Pastner points to five guys and lets them do whatever they want on the court.

I suppose that’s slightly unfair; Pastner can engineer a decent defense, aided by the plethora of long athletes he usually has at his disposal, and that should usually be enough to keep his team competitive. The loss of Austin Nichols to transfer is a huge blow, though, as Nichols was one of the nation’s elite shotblockers (12.5% block rate, 8th in the country). Not having him to anchor the paint puts more pressure on the perimeter defenders, especially Kedren Johnson, who will have to actually get in shape and slide his feet a little bit if he wants to stay on the floor. Johnson returns as the nominal starting point guard (for now), but shoot-first Alabama transfer Ricky Tarrant might usurp some of those duties simply due to Johnson’s lack of interest in conditioning/jogging/moving.

Without Nichols, Shaq Goodwin is still a solid man in the middle, a beast of a rebounder who can also block some shots and score one-on-one in the post now and then. He will get all the minutes he can handle in his final year as the team’s only other true post option, freshman Nick Marshall (not the Auburn QB), is relatively raw and thin for his high recruiting status. Marshall will certainly help with rim protection, but how much of a liability he is to the team’s offensive spacing and defensive positioning will determine how much he actually plays.  

As previously mentioned, the Lawson twins will likely occupy the forward spots as soon as they step on campus. At 6‘7ish, 200ish each, they each bring high-level athleticism and transition finishing to the Tigers. Dedric is slightly more skilled than KJ, though both are capable of stepping out and hitting the occasional jumper to keep defenders honest. Their presence will displace senior Trashon Burrell from the starting lineup, but he will still likely find his way to substantial minutes due to his efficiency and constant activity on the offensive glass despite his lack of bulk.

This is not a good outside shooting team, but the one exception is junior Avery Woodson, who knocked down 61 threes at a 38% clip last year. Markel Crawford showed the potential to be a good shooter if given more playing time, but playing behind Woodson, Johnson, and newcomer Tarrant will make that difficult. Tarrant has gotten steadily worse from deep in each of his 2.5 years (and he started at 34%, so......); this is also Tarrant’s third school in five years, so I question his effect on team chemistry.

Overall, this team has elite talent thanks to Josh the Kid’s ability to charm high schooler’s moms and convince them to send their sons to play for him, but I will be fading their chances at the tournament in a league with at least 5 other good teams. This isn’t the cushy C-USA anymore, sorry Josh.    

 

7. Houston

Lineup:
C – Danrad Knowles, 6’10, Jr.
PF – Devonta Pollard, 6’8, Sr.
SF – LeRon Barnes, 6’6, Sr.
SG – Ronnie Johnson, 6’0, Jr.
PG – LJ Rose, 6’4, Sr.

Reserves: Damyean Dotson, 6’5, R-Jr., Rob Gray, 6’2, So.; Xavier Dupree, 6’9, Jr.; Eric Weary, 6’5, Sr.

Postseason Prediction: NIT

Houston is, by far, the biggest wildcard in the conference. First and foremost among that mystery is coach Kelvin Sampson. Prior to last year, Sampson had never had a team finish worst than 52nd in kenpom.com’s rankings (Houston was 220th last year). He has proven to be an effective coach at both of his previous stops (Oklahoma and Indiana), regardless of improper texting issues, able to coax above-average offensive and defensive play from teams with very little elite talent (Eric Gordon is really the only NBA player of note that he coached). If Sampson can rediscover that wizardry, Houston looks to be talented enough to be competent and even competitive this year.

The other reason Houston is massively unpredictable is due to roster turnover. Gone are Jherrod Stiggers and Cavon Baker, two high usage/low efficiency players that will probably not be missed that much. Stiggers in particular took 280 threes last year, and properly re-distributing all those shots to more efficient options will be key. Into the fold are transfers Ronnie Johnson from Purdue and Damyean Dotson from Oregon (by way of Houston Community College), both of whom will provide scoring punch that the Cougars lacked last year.  Sampson has also added two highly-rated junior college players, 6‘2 Rob Gray and 6‘9 Xavier Dupree, #22 and #30, respectively, according to 247sports.com’s junior college rankings. The newcomers are rounded out by freshman Chris Harris and junior college transfer Kyle Meyer, both centers.

All of these new players will bolster the Houston lineup, which actually returns four starters. Most notable among these returnees is probably Devonta Pollard, an athletic 4-man who attacks the offensive glass and gets to the line a fair amount. Center Danrad Knowles is another decent rebounder who also blocks some shots and hits a few threes; his floor spacing should help Pollard have room to work as well as open lanes for Johnson, Dotson, Gray, and returning point guard LJ Rose to navigate. Rose is an excellent passer, ranking 29th in the country in assist rate before missing the last six games of the year (he also missed the opening seven). Being healthy throughout the year will be huge for Rose, along with having more shooters around him. The team’s offense should also benefit from having two good passers – Johnson was Purdue’s starting point guard as a sophomore, and having him and Rose on the floor a lot should help Houston cut down on their poor turnover rate (272nd in the country) from last year. The final returning starter is LeRon Barnes, a low-usage shooter who played a ton of minutes last year and used his length to be a solid wing defender.

Kelvin Sampson has assembled the pieces here to become a competitive team in his second season. How he employs those pieces – the team has 10 guys with decent claims at substantial playing time – will determine just how successful Houston is this year. At the risk of being outrageously wrong, I think Houston will make the NIT while earning at least a brief note in bubble discussions.

Injury edit: LJ Rose will likely be out until Christmas. I'd expect Dotson to slide into the starting lineup with Johnson playing more PG; Gray will play a ton as well, even in some 3-guard lineups alongside those two. While it hurts their depth, I don't think the injury is a death blow to Houston's chances of being a sleeper AAC contender.

8.      East Carolina

Lineup:
F – Michael-Ofik Nzege, 6’7, Jr.
F – Caleb White, 6’7, Jr.
G – BJ Tyson, 6’3, So.
G – Charles Foster, 6’0, Jr.
PG – Lance Tejada, 6’2, So.

Reserves: Marshall Guilmette, 6’10, Jr.; Clarence Williams, 6’8, Jr.; Kentrell Barkley, 6’5, Fr.; Michael Zangari, 6’9, Sr.

Postseason Prediction: CIT/CBI

The Pirates are an interesting team with a fair amount of upside this year. Coached by former Auburn coach Jeff Lebo, who has struggled to get anything going at the program in his previous 5 years, the team has some solid young talent coming up through the program, most notably sophomore BJ Tyson and junior Caleb White. If the team can’t make a leap this year or next, Lebo will likely start to feel his seat get extraordinarily hot.

Tyson is the leading returning scorer, a slashing two-guard who put together a solid freshman campaign combining high usage and decent-enough efficiency (103.5 O-rating). A big step for Tyson (and the team in general) will be playing better against better opponents. Tyson is also the only player on the team last year who got to the free throw line with any kind of consistency – the team was a dismal 333rd in the country in free throw rate.  White, on the other hand, is a long and versatile athlete who hit 41% of his threes (on an impressive 158 attempts). If he can add a little more slash to his game to take advantage of aggressive closeouts, he will really become a matchup problem for opposing wings, many of whom won’t have the size to stick with him, and when he’s playing the four in smaller lineups, he will be quick enough to drive around most opposing post players. That will also help him get to the line more and take advantage of his excellent free throw shooting (80%).

East Carolina played at a snail’s pace last year (311th in adjusted tempo), which helped freshman point guard Lance Tejada post solid assist-to-turnover numbers in limited minutes. He’ll take over the starting role from the graduated Antonio Robinson, but to really be effective, he’ll have to figure out how to shoot, both from 2 (29%) and 3 (30%). Besides Tyson on the wing, the team lost Terry Whisnant to an ill-advised pro career (trust me, you haven’t heard his name mentioned in any NBA discussions); to replace him, the team brings in junior college player Charles Foster, who was the second-leading scorer for 33-2 Vincennes University last year (leading scorer - Mychal Mulder, who’s going to Kentucky). He’s a good shooter who got to the line quite a bit, which is exactly what the team needs out of his spot.

Post play was kind of an issue for ECU last year, rotating through a group that included 6’10 Marshall Guilmette, 6‘7 Michael-Ofik Ngeze, 6‘9 Kanu Aja, and 6‘9 Michael Zangari, all of whom return this year. Of that group, only Ngeze rebounded at an above average level, and it showed – the Pirates were 273rd and 322nd in offensive and defensive rebounding rates, respectively. Last year’s group of post players will be joined by 6’10 freshman Deng Riak, and if he can provide more rebounding and rim protection (something the team also desperately needs – 330th in 2-point percentage against and 328th in block rate), he will leapfrog some of the experienced players to help stabilize the defense.

East Carolina should show some improvement this year, nosing up towards the middle of the conference. That will likely keep Lebo around for a make or break year next year with Tejada, Tyson, White, and Foster all back and experienced.
 

9. UCF

Lineup:
C – Staphon Blair, 6’9, Sr.
PF – Adonys Henriquez, 6’6, So.
SF – Chance McSpadden, 6’3, Fr.
SG – BJ Taylor, 6’2, So.
PG – Daiquan Walker, 6’2, Sr.

Reserves: Tacko Fall, 7’6, Fr.; Justin McBride, 6’10, Jr.; Shaheed Davis, 6’9, Sr.; Tanksley Efianayi, 6’6, Jr.; Brendan Boyle, 6’0, Fr.

Postseason Prediction: None

As an extremely young team last year (298th in experience), UCF has struggled mightily to adapt to the American conference so far, finishing with a combined 9-27 record in AAC play over two years. Donnie Jones is back for his 6th year at the school, but his seat has to be getting hot, as the Orlando-based school hasn’t even sniffed the NCAA tourney during his tenure. He had two respectable years at the end of the team’s C-USA tenure, but with the weakness of that conference, being merely respectable doesn’t get you close to the bubble.

The Golden Knights couldn’t defend your local YMCA team last year, finishing 318th in defensive efficiency. The only thing the team did remotely well on defense was limit opposing team’s free throw attempts (12th in the country in opposing free throw rate), but maybe that’s not such a good sign if you’re giving up tons of offensive rebounds, letting opponents shoot the lights out, and not forcing any turnovers. The team could do with cranking up the physicality and maybe allowing a few fouls here and there if it means challenging a shot or trying to grab a rebound. But hey! Their opponents were dead last in the country in free throw percentage, absolutely the least sustainable statistic in the world, so they have that going for them.

Roster-wise, the team’s best two players are sophomores. Shooting guard BJ Taylor is the team’s leading returning scorer who managed to be reasonably efficient last year, despite poor shooting percentages, by being shockingly secure with the ball. If he can shoot a little better from the field, he could be in for an extremely efficient breakout season. Fellow sophomore wing Adonys Henriquez was very efficient in a low-usage, three-point shooting role. The common thread  among these two guys is that they barely fouled (especially Henriquez – 4th in the country in lowest fouls per 40 minutes). Related – both guys were soft as hell on the boards and forced minimal turnovers. See note about physicality above.

UCF also brings back starters Daiquan Walker and Staphon Blair. Walker shot the 3 well while doing very little else of note, good or bad, and may have to take over the team’s point guard duties after the transfer of Jonathan Goodwin. Blair was the team’s best offensive rebounder and shotblocker among those who played consistent minutes. He also managed to post an astoundingly low assist rate of 1.0 (ONE) percent. If Staphon Blair’s twin worked for State Farm with Cliff Paul, he would actively wreck your car and burn down your house.

I said Blair was the best rebounder/shotblocker of consistent minute players because the team also has 6’10, 325-pound monster Justin McBride patrolling the paint, who would have been right around 150th in the country in offensive boards and block rate had he qualified. And he isn’t even the biggest guy on the roster! UCF also has gargantuan freshman Tacko Fall, listed at 7‘6, 300 pounds. Just look at him. If he can move even remotely well, he could be a game-changer in a limited role, a la Mamadou N’Diaye at UC-Irvine.

Overall, I would not feel great about my job if I were Donnie Jones, as this team looks like another low finisher in the conference. His best shot at keeping his job is talking the administration into letting him have the span of BJ Taylor’s career to try to  elevate the Golden Knights to a higher level.  

 

10. Tulane

 A rare Green Wave in its natural habitat

A rare Green Wave in its natural habitat


Lineup:
C – Dylan Osetkowski, 6’9, So.
PF – Payton Henson, 6’8, Jr.
SF – Melvin Frazier, 6’7, Fr.
SG – Malik Morgan, 6’4, R-Jr.
PG – Louis Dabney, 6’3, Sr.

Reserves: Ryan Smith, 6’11, Jr.; Kajon Mack, 6’3, Jr.; Kain Harris, 6’4, Fr.; Charvon Julien, 6’1, Fr.

Postseason Prediction: None
Tulane got off to a good start last year, fattening up with a schedule full of cupcakes while getting slaughtered in their only true tests against Wake Forest, Washington (with Upshaw), and St. John’s. This year, the schedule is similarly weak early, aside from challenges against Georgia Tech, @ North Carolina, and @ Mississippi State. We’ll found out early if Tulane has any real aspirations to be legit this year, with those three games giving a litmus test to see if the Green Wave can even stay competitive (unlike last year).

Though the team has some turnover, they do return their best player, guard Louis Dabney. Dabney did a solid job of not turning the ball over, but his efficiency could be greatly boosted by bumping up his shooting percentages. He’ll be the key on the perimeter, but he will also find some help from LSU transfer Malik Morgan. A very highly-rated recruit three years ago, Morgan struggled to find a fit with the Tigers, and he will give Tulane a bouncy, dynamic wing capable of hitting the occasional three pointer as well. He will likely be the second leading scorer behind Dabney if all goes well.

At point guard, though, Tulane will rue the transfers of Jonathan Stark and Keith Pinckney, the team’s best two passers. Finding a replacement for them will be huge, and the most likely candidate is probably a freshman. Tulane appears to be seeing some benefit from being in the American Conference, bringing in a strong six-man recruiting class, and Charvon Julien is now the only true point guard on the roster. Tulane won’t necessarily need him to be a star, but if he can be a steady presence, it will go a long way towards improving the team’s 265th-ranked offense from last year.

That six-man recruiting class also features small forward Melvin Frazier, a lanky wing who is a candidate to start; Blake Paul, a local center prospect from the New Orleans area of Metairie; and Kain Harris, who will likely help Julien and Dabney, etc., handle the ball at times. Center Taron Oliver and forward Kipper Nichols need time to develop and likely won’t crack the rotation this year.

Up front, Tulane returns two decent players likely to start: junior forward Payton Henson and sophomore center Dylan Osetkowski. Both are effective offensive rebounders, but their finishing isn’t where it needs to be, and neither has shown much of an ability to protect the rim.  Shotblocking isn’t really a skill that develops, either. Backup big Ryan Smith flashed some rim sheltering, but he is almost a complete nonfactor offensively and fouls like he thinks his team is constantly employing hack-a-Shaq, and thus can’t stay on the floor for extended stretches. Tulane built an average defense without shotblocking last year, though, mainly through limiting offensive rebounds and forcing turnovers, and will try to do so again this year.

Tulane probably won’t quite have enough offense (not enough shooting or ballhandling) to truly push the higher-ups in the conference and will likely stay near the bottom. But with the freshmen they have, the program is on a good track to rise over the next few years.

11. USF
Lineup:
C – Ruben Guerrero, 6’11, So.
PF – Chris Perry, 6‘8, Jr.
SF – Nehemias Morillo, 6‘5, Sr.
SG – Troy Holston, 6‘4, So.
PG – Roddy Peters, 6‘3, R-So.

Reserves: Angel Nunez, 6‘8, Sr.; Bo Ziegler, 6‘6, So.; Jaleel Cousins, 6’11, Sr.; Tulio Da Silva, 6‘8, Fr.; Luis Santos, 6‘9, Fr.; Jahmal McMurray, 6‘0, Fr.

Postseason Prediction: None
The one year of Dominique Jones and tournament contention really seems like a mirage in the desert for USF basketball. That year (2011-12) was the only year in the past 14 where the Bulls have been better than .500 in conference games. In the other 13 years, the Bulls are 53-169 across various conferences (C-USA, Big East, AAC), an eye-popping 24% winning percentage. Last year’s 3-15 record felt like par for the course, and second-year coach Orlando Antigua faces an Everest-like climb to respectability (one wonders if he might be more comfortable coaching Orlando-based UCF, rather than Tampa-based USF [was that joke bad enough?]).

Across all 8 aspects of the Four Factors (offensive and defensive), the Bulls did not rank above 162nd in any of them. The team was dismal across the board, 282nd in offensive efficiency and 266th in defensive efficiency, and any improvements that can be made this year would be welcome. To pile on a little more, the team only won a single game away from Tampa (an overtime squeaker at UAB early in the year).

Personnel-wise, the team will look to its newcomers for excitement. Transfers Roddy Peters (from Maryland) and Angel Nunez (graduate from Gonzaga) will almost certainly start, despite little usage at their old schools. Nunez in particular is a mystery, having backed up the elite trio of Karnowski/Wiltjer/Sabonis and barely seeing the floor. Peters, on the other hand, played 15 minutes a game for the Terps in 2013-14 before GTFOing and having to back up Melo Trimble for two years. He flashed some potential in College Park, but he was largely inefficient as a primary ballhandler. The Bulls also bring in two four-star freshmen, power forward Tulio Da Silva and center Luis Santos. If Nunez and returning starter Ruben Guerrero aren’t effective, Antigua won’t be hesitant to throw the freshmen into the fire.

As for returnees, the aforementioned Guerrero was a good rim protector while also exhibiting the statistical oddity of being a better offensive rebounder than defensive rebounder by rebound rate. The likely starting wings are senior Nehemias Morillo and sophomore Troy Holston, attacking wings who are streaky from three (miss streaks far more common than makes). Holston has a bright future in Tampa, and the team will do well to give him chances to develop. Bo Zeigler and Jaleel Cousins also return, both of whom were also good shotblockers who somehow combined to average 0.6 assists and 2.7 turnovers. Cousins in particular was a loose cannon with assist rate/turnover rates of 1.8%/30.8%. Finally, Chris Perry returns from injury, and he averaged an inefficient 10.8 points and 7.1 rebounds per game before his injury. He probably deserves more than an afterthought mention here, but I’m sick of writing about South Florida.

Overall, the team’s strengths look to be inside depth and shotblocking, but what else they can break through on remains to be seen (if anything). Another 3-15, 4-14 season seems likely.