Player of the Year: Devin Sibley, Sr., Furman
Coach of the Year: Bob Hoffman, Mercer
Newcomer of the Year: Kanayo Obi-Rapu, Jr. East Tennessee State
Freshman of the Year: Justin Brown, Chattanooga
Key Returners: Devin Sibley, Daniel Fowler, John Davis III, Matt Rafferty
Key Losses: Kris Acox
Key Newcomers: Noah Gurley, Alex Hunter
Postseason Projection: 13-seed (automatic bid)
Outlook: Niko Medved, the Paladins head coach for the past four seasons up until this summer, must be driven by an internal itch to fix things. From a basketball perspective, it reminds me a bit of hall of fame coach Larry Brown, who preferred to start from scratch and develop from the ground up rather than take over a team with proven talent and try to meet or exceed lofty expectations. Medved took over one of the 10 worst teams in college basketball back in 2013 and slowly but surely transformed Furman into a legitimate Southern Conference contender. But rather than see his quest through to the end, Medved decided to grab his toolbox and embark on a new rebuilding journey this offseason - this time at Missouri Valley Conference cellar dwellar Drake.
Upon Medved's decision to abandon his throne, Furman's athletic department [smartly] decided it was best to not rock the boat and opted to stay in-house by promoting assistant Bob Richey to fill the head coaching vacancy. Richey will inherit an abundance of riches in his first year at the helm with a roster loaded with talent and experience. The Paladins are led by a bonafide backcourt trio in oversized point guard Daniel Fowler, sharpshooting sniper Devin Sibley and under-appreciated off-guard John Davis III. This senior threesome now enters their 2nd year conducting the Furman offense together after stepping into more featured roles with the decorated Stephen Croone graduating prior to last season. Many had doubts about Fowler's ability to replace Croone at the point guard spot, but he promptly silenced all doubters with an efficient junior campaign as the primary facilitator on offense. Fowler's seamless transition to the point allowed Sibley and Davis to assume their natural roles as off the ball shooters and scorers. Sibley and Davis demoralized SoCon opponents with their long range precision last year, shooting a combined 42% from behind the arc on just under 300 attempts.
The Paladins' guard depth doesn't end there - rising junior Andrew Brown answered the bell last year once he was thrust into the starting lineup after Matt Rafferty's back issues worsened. That means Furman's 5th best guard [debatably] is a rising sophomore coming off an All-Freshman season, Jordan Lyons, which further emphasizes how deep this perimeter rotation is. Given the endless permutations of guard combinations at Medved's disposal last year, he realized that playing four of his guard weapons together on the floor resulted in the destruction of opposing defenses. Over the final five games of last season, Medved featured the Sibley, Fowler, Brown and Davis lineup roughly 30% of all total minutes. This lineup produced poetry in motion, thanks to continuous ball movement, extended floor spacing and lights-out shooting - please refer to the ridiculous 1.20 points per possession on offense with Sibley, Fowler, Brown and Davis on the floor together:
Swingman and fan favorite of the 3MW, Geoff Beans, is yet another long-range specialist who can rotate between the 3 and the 4 spots depending on the lineup combinations - expect him to fill time at the 4 specifically when Richey wants a bit more size up-front, which brings us to the big question mark facing Furman this year: Can the Paladins continue to get stops consistently without Kris Acox anchoring the interior defense in the middle?
Acox was simply marvelous last year, particularly since Medved had few to no other reliable options to showcase at the 5 with Rafferty hampered by injury. Acox ranked top-10 in the SoCon in offensive rebounding, defensive rebounding, blocks AND steals last season - so yes, he was essentially a one-man-wrecking-crew in the middle while the 4-guards ran circles around everyone on offense.
Now with Acox graduating, it's officially Rafferty's time to shine in the paint. Looking beyond his injury-riddled sophomore campaign, Rafferty's freshman statline actually rivaled Acox's from last season - Rafferty also finished top-10 in the aforementioned four categories, which should make him the perfect replacement for Acox. The big uncertainty is how well his health will hold up this year - this is critical because Furman tends to lead with their guards on the defensive end through extended perimeter pressure. This can leave the Paladins vulnerable on the back end, which puts a premium on having a reliable rim protector patrolling the lane at all times. But barring any injury setbacks, Rafferty's resume from his freshman season indicates he is more than capable of holding down the fort in 2017-18.
Bottom Line: While a valid case could be made for Mercer, Samford and ETSU to win the SoCon title, it's hard to go against the balance, experience and talent of the Paladins. As the old saying goes, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" and coaching hire of Richey mitigates any concern of a drastic stylistic shift throwing a wrench in this well-oiled machine.
Key Returners: Everyone
Key Losses: None
Key Newcomers: Irrelevant
Postseason Projection: NIT - CBI/CIT
Outlook: As a lifelong Duke fan, every time I think of Mercer, this is the haunting image that always comes to mind...
This clip from 2014 marks the last time the Bears have gone dancing (pun intended), but Bob Hoffman brings back a senior laden squad this year with the chops to end that mini drought in 2018.
The typical roster turnover summary is not needed for this Mercer team. All five starters are back as a subset of eight total upperclassmen returning to the mix, all of whom have a real shot to crack the nightly rotation. We'll start with last year's revelation, Ria'n Holland, who took the league by storm in his first year coming over from Wichita State. He wasted no time asserting himself as the offensive alpha with an innate ability to get buckets in bunches, adding a whole new dimension to the Mercer offense. Holland is a complete scorer who can fill it up in a variety of ways - he'll fire without hesitation from well beyond the 3-point line, but will also counter with a quick blow by off the dribble.
Holland and Jordan Strawberry are debatably the best backcourt tandem in the conference (Furman's Sibley & Fowler and Samford's Cunningham & Denzel-Dyson may have something to say about that) who mesh perfectly together on the floor. Strawberry is a pure point guard who embraces a past-first approach to the game, but blossomed into a deadly 3-point marksmen last year after cashing in 44% of his 114 bombs. Joining Strawberry and Holland on the perimeter is one of the rarest commodities in the SoCon, 6'8 wing Demetre Rivers. He's a nightmare matchup for most prototypical 3s and 4s and uses his length as a weapon on both ends of the floor. Rivers and Stephon Jelks are interchangeable at the 3 and 4 spot, with Jelks lacking Rivers' wingspan, but possessing a sturdier 225 pound frame at 6'6. Jelks and Desmond Ringer gave Hoffman a big boost on the glass last season as the Bears emerged as the best two-way rebounding team in the SoCon on a per possession basis:
Ringer and Jelks are a fantastic frontcourt duo, but it's Hoffman's signature defensive style that makes the Bears such a dominant force on the boards. If you simply looked at kenpom.com's analytically-assessed 'Defensive Fingerprint' metric - which determines a team's defensive tendencies based on data - you would assume the Bears play it a pack-it-in, 2-3 zone.
In reality, Hoffman deploys a shell-like man-to-man with a key emphasis on helpside defense - effective execution is contingent on early support from off-ball defenders which cuts off any and all penetration before the dribbler gets too deep. As a result, Mercer's defensive unit rarely concedes an easy, uncontested look at the rim. But while this approach pays off in the rebounding and interior FG% statistical metrics, it leaves the Bears vulnerable to getting gashed from the 3-point line and typically negates any easy fast-break opportunities generated off steals.
Bottom Line: Last year's sub-500 record does not accurately reflect the competence of this Mercer team as Bob Hoffman and company were on the wrong side of way too many close games. Mercer's defense has continued to trend upward in recent years as the Bears finished 7th in the SoCon in 2015-16 and 4th overall last year. If Hoffman can sustain that rate of improvement, the Bears will be one of the few SoCon title contenders left standing next spring.
3. East Tennessee State
Key Returners: Desonta Bradford, David Burrell, Devontavius Payne, Peter Jurkin
Key Losses: TJ Cromer, Tevin Glass, Hanner Mosquera-Perea
Key Newcomers: Kanayo Obi-Rapu (Longwood transfer), James Harrison (JUCO), Jeromy Rodriguez (JUCO), Andre Edwards (JUCO)
Postseason Projection: CBI/CIT - None
Outlook: After a decade long era of year-to-year volatility under Murry Barstow concluded in 2015, Steve Forbes instantly brought stability to an East Tennessee State program that was struggling to find it's place in the SoCon (ETSU was a long-time member of the Atlantic Sun prior to that). Forbes spent many moons on the lesser known JUCO trail throughout the 90s before embarking on a nationwide expedition as a D1 assistants with notable stints at Illinois State, Texas A&M, Tennessee and most recently Wichita State. It's hard not to like a guy who's been groomed under the Gregg Marshall school of basketball, which has emerged as the blueprint for how to win and win consistently at the "mid-major" level. And in just two seasons, Forbes has brought those same principles to his new employer which has helped him rapidly transform the Buccaneers into a force to be reckoned with in the SoCon.
While ETSU loses four critical starters from last year's team, the returning role players are more than qualified to step into the spotlight in 2017-18. Desonta Bradford was overshadowed last season playing in a loaded backcourt next to the likes of TJ Cromer and AJ Merriweather, but he could be in for a special senior campaign. Bradford played off-the-ball a good chunk of the time last season with Cromer running the show, but he will not be the primary orchestrator of the Bucs offensive attack that loves to get out in transition. The hyper-athletic Bradford is blessed with a big frame for a traditional point guard at 6'4 190 pounds, which enables him to make plays some smaller lead guards simply can't replicate. While he's certainly a capable outside shooter, his bread-and-butter is fearlessly attacking the rim off the bounce where he's excellent at generating contact to earn trips to the foul line. The one nitpick in Bradford's game that has to be corrected as the now-featured lead playmaker is in ball security. Bradford's TO woes last year were a microcosm of an ETSU squad that was rather reckless with the basketball at times (no team in the SoCon coughed it up more than the Bucs last season).
Bradford's penetration will be the catalyst of the ETSU offense, both in the half-court and out in the open floor, where he'll be surrounded by two incumbent perimeter players who can really shoot it - 6'2 off-guard Devontavius Payne and versatile wing David Burrell. Payne and Burrell combined to shoot 40% from downtown last season on just under 200 total attempts. The entire ETSU returning perimeter core, including Payne, Burrell, Jermaine Long and Jason Williams is well versed in what Forbes expects on the defensive side of the ball as well and with the depth at the 1, 2 and 3 positions, Forbes will be able to throw waves of pressure at opposing ball handlers. Rounding out the backcourt is Longwood transfer Kanayo Obi-Rapu who comes into Johnson City with a reputation as a pure shooter - Forbes has high expectations for him, so it will be interesting to see how he meshes with the incumbent guards.
Not surprisingly, Forbes replenished the frontline via the recruiting avenue he knows just about as well as anyone - the JUCO circuit. The noteworthy names to keep an eye on here are James Harrison and Jeromy Rodriguez, both whom should get major burn at the 4 and 5 spot, depending on how many minutes ex Indiana transfer 7-footer Peter Jurkin can deliver this year. Jurkin's recruiting pedigree is the one reason to be optimistic he could put it all together in his final collegiate season - he was unable to crack the core rotation last year playing behind a formidable frontline in Tevin Glass and his former teammate at IU, Hanner Perea. His 2015-16 per possession numbers are encouraging, particularly the 8.2% block rate 20+% defensive rebounding rate and an even more impressive 77% from the charity stripe. Jurkin is the one wildcard that could lift the Bucs to a new level if he can gives Forbes 20-25 minutes a game of consistent rebounding, rim protection and finishing at the rim.
Bottom Line: Despite finishing in a 3-way tie for first in last season's conference standings, the advanced metrics indicate the Bucs were on a tier of their own in 2016-17, ranking almost 60 spots ahead of the next closest foe in overall adjusted efficiency margin. So what separated ETSU from the rest of the pack? De - Fense. Coming to a league that had no shortage of offensive firepower, Forbes' stingy D - which is fueled by top-notch athletes at all 5 positions - proved to be the perfect kryptonite for the rest of the SoCon squads. Last season, 7 of the 9 schools ranked inside the top-150 nationally in kenpom.com's overall adjusted offensive efficiency, while just 3 were inside the top-150 on defense. Gregg Marshall's fingerprints are all over the recent ETSU teams, which gives me confidence that the wealth of athleticism on the Bucs roster will keep Forbes and co. in the hunt for their 2nd consecutive SoCon title.
Key Returners: Christen Cunningham, Demetrius Denzel-Dyson, Triston Chambers, Alex Thompson, Wyatt Walker, Josh Sharkey
Key Losses: None
Key Newcomers: Justin Coleman (Alabama transfer), Kevin Nolan, Stefan Lakic, JT Mumber
Postseason Projection: CBI/CIT - None
Outlook: From browsing through some of the other large national publications that cover the SoCon, Samford appears to be the sexy pick to contend with Furman for the conference title this year. Athlon picked the Bulldogs to win the league outright while Blue Ribbon pegged Samford to finish right behind Furman in 2nd place. The common denominator between the Bulldogs and the Paladins - as well as another potential sleeper in Mercer - is the that they each suffer no major losses this offseason.
As a relatively young squad last year, the wear and tear began to take it's toll on Samford down the stretch as the Bulldogs dropped 6 of their final 8 regular season SoCon tilts finishing with a sub .500 8-10 record. However, the lightbulb flickered back on when the conference tournament cranked up - the Bulldogs knocked off VMI and their primary adversary this year, Furman, before running into an East Tennessee State buzzsaw in the championship game (the Bucs rained in 13 of 25 from downtown). Samford's performance over those final three games give a glimpse as to what the ceiling could be this year for Scott Padgett in his fourth year at the helm in Birmingham.
This is beginning to sound like a broken record, but just like the other top squads in the SoCon, Samford is led by a dynamic veteran backcourt which acts as the offensive engine on a nightly basis. It all starts with Christen Cunningham ("CC") spearheading the offense at the point guard spot and Demetrius Denzel-Dyson ("DDD") as the primary off-ball scorer and shooter. The "DCDCD" pair thrives at breaking down their defender 1 on 1, which is what sparks Samford's penetrate and kick action on offense. Whenever the off-ball defensive support is late on their rotations, CC and DDD are proficient are getting all the way to the rim where they frequently draw contact and rack up points efficiently at the free throw line.
Padgett added a new gear to an already high-octane backcourt last season with the with the insertion of Josh Sharkey, a lightning quick weapon who wreaks havoc on both ends of the floor. Sharkey allowed Padgett to feature a dual point guard attack last year with he and Cunningham sharing the backcourt during stretches - this lineup enabled Padgett to feature a pressure-based defensive scheme, which was a tricky change of pace to the usual vanilla 2-3 zone he's relied on heavily in recent years.
Padgett got an immediate jolt from another impact freshman last year, Triston Chambers, who quickly blossomed into one of the league's best shooters in his first collegiate season. The two freshman phenoms allowed Padgett to alternate back and forth between two different lineup styles: one defensive-focused lineup with Sharkey's ball hawking and another offensive machine with lights out shooters at four of the five positions:
What makes both lineups so potent offensively is the versatility of a "super stretch 4" in Alex Thompson, who Padgett once described so eloquently as "mini-me." He and Wyatt Walker complement each other beautifully in the frontcourt, with Walker as the lone interior-focused presence responsible for taking care of the dirty work. Walker has grown to become one of the more reliable low-post operators in the SoCon, which gives the Bulldogs yet another avenue to consistently put points on the board this season.
Samford's ceiling may be as high as any team in the league this year. Accordingly to verbalcommits.com, the Bulldogs' average player recruiting rank is substantially higher than the rest of the SoCon, which is indicative of just how much talent is littered throughout the roster (don't sleep on Alabama transfer and former 4-star recruit Justin Coleman, who will be in contention for newcomer of the year).
Bottom Line: The question I have is can the Bulldogs take a major step forward on the defensive end. While Padgett loves to mix in some extended full-court pressure with a standard 2-3 half court zone, it didn't appear to confuse or disrupt opposing ball handlers in the backcourt last season as the Bulldogs finished dead last in the SoCon in defensive turnover rate. The Bulldogs have all the pieces to be a force to be reckoned with on both ends of the floor, but making a serious run at a conference championship will require the defense to take a major step forward this season.
Key Returners: Fletcher Magee, Cameron Jackson
Key Losses: Eric Garcia
Key Newcomers: Tray Hollowell, Storm Murphy, Keve Aluma, Grayson Hickert
Postseason Projection: CBI/CIT - None
Outlook: After cutting down the nets at the SoCon championship in 2014 and 2015, Wofford has been MIA from the Big Dance for the past two seasons. Long tenured head coach Mike Young has had to rebuild a new core after his all-everything point guard, Karl Cochran, graduated back in the summer of 2015. And wouldn't you know it, Young stumbled upon the perfect filler to Cochran's absence in Eric Garcia - Garcia was a model of efficiency over the last two years as the undisputed floor general responsible for serving up open 3s to an array of lethal 3-point shooters. And given he finished last season with a blistering hot 44% clip from behind the arc, it's too bad he couldn't serve himself more often.
And that's where we begin our preview - how will life go on without the existence of Garcia, who was pivotal to the Terriers' top ranked offense in the SoCon last season? All signs indicate the next man up will be rising sophomore Donovan Theme-Love, a serviceable backup to Garcia last year who tallied roughly 10 minutes a game before an injury ended his freshman campaign prematurely. Outside of Theme-Love, the only returner that seems qualified to step in and man the point guard spot is rising senior Derrick Brooks, but since Garcia rarely took a breather last year, there's minimal evidence as to who Young will hand the keys to the offense to. That means two promising freshmen in Storm Murphy and Tray Hollowell will surely get a crack at running the point in small doses right out of the gate.
The implication for the other two off-guards, Fletcher Magee and Nathan Hoover, is that their roles may have to expand beyond just shooting and scoring. But make no mistake about it - not many in the league can blitz opponents with a barrage of threes faster than the Magee/Hoover combo. Magee, in particular, has emerged as one of the more feared shooters in the SoCon and is beginning to round out his offensive game to become a more complete scorer. The younger Hoover is primed to see his production skyrocket this year after solidifying himself as a part-time starter in his inaugural season in Spartanburg.
While Magee's scoring outbursts will likely grab most of the local headlines, the most valuable player this year for the Terriers' is Cameron Jackson. At 6'8 240 pounds, Jackson's combination of strength and athleticism is unmatched by any other forward in the SoCon. He had his true sophomore breakout campaign put on hold thanks to an untimely injury just seven games into the 2015-16 season, but picked up right where he left off last year once fully healthy. And per his conference/non-conference splits last season, Jackson really started to settle in once SoCon action rolled around. Per kenpom.com's player page below, Jackson ranked top-10 in the league in offensive & defensive rebounding, blocks, steals and FG% on a per possession basis:
The key phrase in that last sentence was "per possession" - The only real knock on Jackson's game is his inability to restrain his arm and body movement on the defensive end which causes him to be prone to racking up fouls. Jackson played a smidge over 20 minutes a game last season, which will not be sustainable for this year's Wofford squad that loses another critical interior presence in Ryan Sawvell. And while Matthew Pegram possesses elite size and length at 6'11 240 pounds, the Terriers cannot afford to go extended periods of time with Jackson rotting on the pine in foul trouble. Even with Jackson, Pegram and Sawvell all manning the middle last year, Wofford was still a relatively poor interior defensive team, much of which is due to Young's preferred style of defense. The Terriers, despite being somewhat limited from a quickness standpoint on the perimeter, always close out hard on to 3-point shooters which paves the way for open driving lanes for quicker opposing guards. So while Young's extended man-to-man coverage was effective at shutting down the 3-ball, the Terriers' ranked 2nd to last in both 2-point percentage defense and block percentage, proving just how easy Wofford surrenders unchallenged looks at the rim.
Bottom Line: As I alluded to above, it all comes down to point guard play and rim protection for this year's Wofford squad. And while Mike Young is used to surviving without top-tier shot-blockers down low, this will be the first time he's dealt with instability and uncertainty at the point guard spot in quite some time (pre Eric Garcia and Karl Cochran). Regardless of how the point guard conundrum shakes out, the Terriers' will still have a clear identity and no one is better at executing it than a Mike Young-coached squad. Wofford will almost always win the battle of the 3-point line - they will take it away from you on defense and they will make you pay if you don't press into them on offense. In what shapes up to be one of the strongest fields the SoCon has assembled in quite some time, a 5th place finish is nothing to snuff at, Terrier Nation. But remember - if anything goes horribly wrong this year, just know that the 'Big Man' upstairs still loves you unconditionally...
6. UNC Greensboro
Key Returners: Francis Alonso, Marvin Smith, Demetrius Troy, James Dickey, Jordy Kuiper
Key Losses: RJ White, Diante Baldwin
Key Newcomers: Isaiah Miller, Kalen Hunter
Postseason Projection: CBI/CIT - None
Outlook: Over Wes Miller's first four seasons at the helm in Greensboro, it seemed as if the Spartans were stuck in place continuously trying walk up a downward moving escalator. Despite building a sound foundation and establishing a clear identity, UNCG just couldn't translate progress into consistent wins as they stumbled to a 31-41 conference record over the four year span from 2012 - 2015. But after the Spartans cracked the .500 barrier in 2015-16, the momentum was finally moving in the right direction entering the 2016-17 campaign.
Sure enough, Wes Miller's bunch finally put it all together, breaking through with a 25-10 overall record and finishing in a 3-way tie atop the league standings with Furman and East Tennessee State. The Spartans proceeded to advance the SoCon tournament title game in a showdown with Steve Forbes and a talented East Tennessee squad. A furious late rally late in the 2nd half brought the Spartans within striking distance as they found themselves down just a triple with rising star Francis Alonso with the ball wide open in the corner for a potentially game tying 3.
“I thought it was going in,” ETSU coach Steve Forbes said of Alonso’s three-point attempt. “I was like, ‘Well at least we’re going to overtime'." Alonso's three rattled in-and-out, sealing the fate of the Spartans and relegating their postseason destiny to the NIT. I can't imagine anyone being haunted by a more specific shot or play than Alonso likely was all offseason knowing his corner trey was centimeters away from falling.
So now, with the departures of two critical veterans in Diante Baldwin and RJ White, it's officially Alonso's time to shine as the undisputed alpha on offense. The question is who will be his helping hand in the backcourt this year - specifically, who will be responsible for feeding him open looks on the wing and help take ownership of the ball handling responsibilities that belonged to Baldwin. That role will likely be assumed by rising junior Demetrius Troy who proved his worth as Baldwin's backup last year. Troy doesn't possess the same scoring mentality that his predecessor Baldwin had, but that may not be a bad thing given how Baldwin was sometimes an inhibitor to the efficiency of the Spartans offense. Baldwin fell in love with his mid range pull-up last year, which accounted for almost 40% of his total field goal attempts, and managed to convert just 36% of those shots. Troy has a more efficient stylistic approach to his offensive game as he prefers to do most of his scoring damage from behind the arc.
However, taking care of the basketball was not one of Troy or Baldwin's finest qualities last year, as indicated by UNCG's 3rd worst turnover rate in the conference. Even with Miller pulling back the up-tempo style he preferred in his first few seasons, the Spartan guards were still too loose with the basketball. If the incumbent veteran guards are shaky to start the season - Malik Massey, Justin Jordan and Kylia Sykes - a hungry group of underclassmen headlined by Isaiah Miller will be chomping at the bit to play their way into more prominent roles.
Rising sophomore James Dickey certainly capitalized on his early chances last season as a backup to big RJ White down low. Dickey's rapid development into one of the top rebounders and rim protectors in the SoCon was a revelation for the Spartans - his per minute production last season has calmed many concerns about how UNCG will replace the invaluable RJ White in the middle. While replicating Dickey's gaudy per possession rebounding and block rates will be a challenge in a higher usage role this season, the eye test tells you what an absolute freak of an athlete he is. The advanced plus/minus data also reveals that Dickey replacing White as the primary paint patroller - despite lacking the upper body strength of the 260 pound White - may not be such a bad thing after all, as UNCG was roughly the same team with either guy manning the middle...
Check out those two-big lineups, though! Dutch forward Jordy Kuiper returns to co-anchor the interior defense with Dickey this year - he and 6'6 wing Marvin Smith will have to pull their weight on the boards this season to take the pressure off Dickey down low.
Wes Miller's growth as a head basketball coach was quite apparent in each of the past two seasons. As I highlighted in an article last year, Miller made a drastic stylistic decision to ramp up the extended full-court pressure. After pressing on just 6% of all defensive possessions in 2015-16, Miller cranked up that frequency to a whopping 33% last season. Per the chart below, only 'Press' Virginia, UNC-Wilmington, and Savannah State picked up opposing ball handlers beyond the half-court line more often:
The unique trait about Miller's pressing scheme is that it's not meant to generate chaos, but rather force the opposing offense to work methodically to get the ball up the floor. The in-conference stats last year tell the story appropriately - the Spartans finished 8th in the league in defensive turnover rate and slowed opponents down to the longest average offensive possession length in the SoCon.
Bottom Line: The Spartans do lose two critical players at two critical positions, but the return of Alonso and some other solid complementary pieces should prevent any catastrophic fall in the SoCon standings this year - however, the upper half of the league is just that good, which will most likely cap the Spartans' ceiling to a 5th or 6th place finish.
Key Returners: Makinde London, Rodney Chatman
Key Losses: Tre' McClean, Justin Tuoyo, Greg Pryor, Johnathan Burroughs-Cook, Casey Jones
Key Newcomers: Justin Brown, Jonathan Bryant, James Lewis, Duane Moss, CJ Massengill
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: I have no idea what went on behind the scenes last year in Chattanooga's locker room, but it's probably best that the Mocs basketball program essentially wiped the slate clean this offseason. In an article from last February in the local Chattanooga paper, 'The Times Free Press', former head coach Matt McCall called last season "the most challenging year of his life". There were notable reports of major chemistry issues involving tiffs between key players, which derailed what was supposed to be one of the better mid-major squads in the entire country. As the Mocs stumbled to a 10-8 record in the SoCon, McCall went from one of the most sought after young coaching prodigies in the D1 ranks to a man boiling with frustration.
So what better school to cherry pick your next head coach from than Wisconsin who has become synonymous with unselfish, team-first basketball over the past decade and a half. In steps Lamont Paris, a longtime D1 assistant who spent his last seven seasons learning under the tutorage of Bo Ryan and Greg Guard for a program that consistently found itself at the top of the Big Ten standings. If you want a sneak peek at how the Mocs will play next season, just watch some highlights of Wisconsin's precise half-court execution on offense and overemphasis of taking care of the basketball - after all, Bo Ryan and his staff deserve credit for being among the first to chart offensive efficiency (points per possession) as the true measure for offensive success. And per a quote from Paris this offseason cited in Blue Ribbon's comprehensive preseason preview, he has learned from his mentor well...
"Total number of points is so overrated; it's just a raw number. It's important to score point relative what you're allowing the other team to score." But don't interpret that take as an indication that the Mocs are going to play a methodical style of basketball. Paris went on to say, "I'd like to get down the floor and play quickly. I want my defense to get back and play five on five. Offensively, I'd like to not go against five defenders. That's just good logic."
It's tough to read between the lines, but I'd expect the Mocs to mirror the emphasis on a pass-heavy, half-court motion offense and disciplined transition defense, two hallmarks of Wisconsin basketball. However, Paris implies that this year's Nooga squad will also look to be more opportunistic in getting out in transition and pushing the tempo when necessary. But does Paris have the right players on the roster to make his preferred style of basketball come to life?
While the returning core will look fundamentally different than what we saw last year, guys like Makinde London and Rodney Chatman saw their playing time capped behind a deep and talented group of seniors. London, in particular, could see his production double or even triple in some statistical categories after flying under the radar with forgettable 6 point/4 rebound averages last year. The ex-Xavier transfer is oozing with potential, but Paris was not shy to call out his questionable shot-selection which has to improve as he transitions to the offensive alpha this season. Chatman also dealt with similar decision-making issues in his freshman campaign last year after being unexpectedly thrust into a starting role when Greg Pryor broke his hand from punching a wall out of frustration (yup, that happened folks). There are multiple facets of Chatman's game that need improvement quickly - his 30% TO rate, 36% 2-point FG% and 22% 3-point FG% are just three eye-opening stats that illustrates just how far Chatman has left to go before he can call himself a reliable and efficient offensive floor leader.
The one returner that Paris expressed notable interest in was Nat Dixon, mostly for his unmatched work ethic and knack for adding value with hustle plays. And while that mentality should not be overlooked as Paris tries to establish a whole new culture in Chattanooga, he'll need to be more than just a 'glue guy' if the Mocs have any shot to get to .500 in the conference standings. Outside of Dixon, London and Chatman, only two other veterans saw the floor last year, Makale Foreman and Trayvond Massenburg.
Bottom Line: With Paris entering his first year at the helm, expect him to juggle the lineups excessively to accelerate the development of his five incoming freshmen as he looks beyond the 2017-18 campaign. So while the talent of London and Chatman should keep this year's Mocs squad out of the SoCon basement, Paris has his eyes set on the long-term horizon. This should result in a lot of trial-and-error mistakes as the freshmen get thrown right into the fire from day 1 - yup, that means you Justin Brown, Jonathan Bryant, James Lewis, Duane Moss and CJ Massengill.
*Mocs fans - be sure to peep the in depth player-by-player previews at gomocs.com - very insightful analysis*
8. The Citadel
Key Returners: Preston Parks, Zane Najdawi
Key Losses: Warren Sledge
Key Newcomers: Hayden Brown, Rob Johnson, Tariq Simmons, Derek Webster, Kaiden Rice, Alex Reed
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: DUGGAR-BALL! If I were a nobody recruit coming out of high-school and wanted to play for a school that offered me YMCA rec basketball freedom to run non-stop and shoot it whenever from wherever, I would sign my LOI to the Citadel. After spending a decade as the head man at in-conference rival VMI, Baucom opted to try his hand at another military institution - if you've ever been to Charleston, South Carolina, it's not hard to see why this job might have some appeal. And while the Bulldogs have been the butt of many "no defense" jokes over the past few seasons, Baucom has actually improved the Citadel's defensive efficiency since taking over in 2015. During the last three years of the Chuck Drissell era, the Bulldogs finished 6th to last, 5th to last and DEAD LAST in overall defensive efficiency in the country, per kenpom.com.
The best phrase I've heard to properly describe the Citadel's style of play is the "loot and shoot" (credit attributed to @jorcubsdan). The strategy is quite simple - Willingly exchange 2s on defense for 3s on offense and force enough turnovers to negate the disparity in percentage of conversion rate at the rim vs. behind the arc. Per the chart below, over Baucom's 12 seasons as a head coach, his teams have played at either the fastest or 2nd fastest tempo in the country 9 TIMES (!!!).
And while this ultra high-risk, high-reward strategy has yet to produce more wins than losses in either of Baucom's first two seasons, the improvement is trending in the right direction. The defense remained the worst in the SoCon last year, but the Bulldogs did creep up to 2nd in the conference in steals per possession which is the foundation of Baucom's defense. Getting stops will never be a priority for Duggar, so if the Bulldogs can simply be "below average" at defense as opposed to "abysmal", they may have a fighter's chance to flirt with .500 in league play - especially if a promising young core of freshmen and sophomores can catapult their offensive games this season.
The track meet style of offense will be ignited by the reigning freshman of the year, Preston Parks. Parks was a late add to the 2017 recruiting class, but quickly established himself as one of the purest playmakers in the conference. Given his high-usage role in a hyper-fast tempo offense, Parks will have one of the greenest lights in college basketball this year - if he can continue to improve his long range shooting accuracy, the Bulldogs' overall offensive efficiency will follow in turn. The other key cog in Baucom's offensive attack is hyper-versatile forward Zane Najdawi. At 6'7, Najdawi lacks the size of many other 4s and 5s in the conference, but he's a walking mismatch on offense - he was the Bulldogs top 3-point shooter last year cashing in 45% of his triples and carried the rebounding production on both ends of the floor. He's also deceptively quick and possesses a sure handle, which make him the perfect weapon in Baucom's perpetual fast-break attack.
Bottom Line: A trademark of Daucom's style is the extensive use on his bench, which is a byproduct of having to cycle guys in so frequently to rest and recover after playing at 100 mph with almost no interruption. Another all-freshman performer in Kaelon Harris, sharp shooting off-guard Matt Frierson, along with Quayson Williams, Frankie Johnson and Leandro Allende will likely be the focal points of the Bulldogs run-and-gun offense this season, but predicting who will emerge out of the laundry list of young pieces is a crapshoot. Parks' unexpected explosion last year is a prime example of how trying to pinpoint what the offensive pecking order will be is like trading foreign currency - the unpredictability and volatility can't be seen anywhere else in the country.
9. Western Carolina
Key Returners: Haboubacar Mutombo, Devin Peterson, Deriece Parks, Marc Gosselin, Adam Sledd
Key Losses: None
Key Newcomers: Mike Amius, Desmond Johnson, Matt Halvorsen, Marcus Thomas
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: Out of the 12 seasons Larry Hunter has perused the sidelines overseeing the Western Carolina basketball program, the 2016-17 season probably tested his patience the most. Prior to last season, the Catamounts were 80-64 in the Socon dating back to 2009 and were renowned as a model of consistency under Hunter's patented transition-based offense that resembles what Brad Underwood orchestrated at Oklahoma State and SFA Austin (and will likely replicate at his new employer of Illinois). However, with a roster gutted by injury and patched up with a slew of inexperienced underclassmen, Hunter had to improvise with a relatively depleted talent pool last year.
The untimely injuries paved the way for this year's core rotation to get a head start playing in Hunter's system, which should hopefully pay dividends this season. Hunter's backcourt will be led by three seniors in Devin Peterson, Haboubacar Mutombo and Deriece Parks. While Parks was sidelined for the latter portion of last season, Peterson and Mutombo were asked to carry a heavy load for the Catamounts. Their decision-making and shooting consistency left a lot to be desired, but the rest of the supporting cast deserve a large chunk of the blame for what was a disastrous offensive showing. Peterson, in particular, posted one of the least efficient shooting splits in the entire SoCon, converting less than 20% from 3-point range and shooting sub 40% from inside the arc. Mutuombo was one of the few Catamounts who could consistently hold onto the basketball and is the only returner who shoot better than 50% from the floor (yet somehow made just 48% from the charity stripe). The only competent outside shooter on the roster is rising sophomore Onno Steger, who's shooting stat lines were even more bizarre than Mutuombo. Steger made 41% of his triples last year, but shot a putrid 29% from inside the arc.
Last year was somewhat of an outlier as Hunter was forced to toss a lot more freshmen and sophomores into the mix than he normally does. Given Hunter's transition drag screen offense requires some reps to execute effectively, juniors and seniors usually get preferential treatment when it comes to playing time. Marc Gosselin and Adam Sledd were two of those underclassmen who were benefactors of last year's odd circumstances as they took their lumps as the featured frontcourt pairing. The other notable trait of a Larry hunter coached team is a relentless pursuit of the offensive glass, which is where Gosselin and Sledd will make their pay on the offensive end of the floor.
Bottom Line: There's little doubt that the Catamounts will be leaps and bounds better on offense than they were a year ago. The question is will that improvement translate into a significant climb in the SoCon standings. Hunter is a respected coach around the conference and if he can avoid any more untimely injuries in 2017-18, I foresee Western Carolina finishing somewhere around 6-10 or 7-11 in league play, which would be a nice lift over year's 4-14 disappointment.
Key Returners: Armani Branch, Keith Smith, Garrett Gilkeson, Will Miller
Key Losses: QJ Peterson, Julian Eleby, Trey Chapman
Key Newcomers: Greg Parham, Jordan Ratliff, Myles Lewis, Sarju Patel, Bubba Parham, Tragen Fahl
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: As a former assistant at Navy, Dan Earl understands the challenges that come with coaching at a military academy like VMI. And with the departure of QJ Peterson and Julian Eleby this offseason, two of the most accomplished players in school history, the uphill battle will only get steeper for Earl in his third season in Lexington, Virginia.
When Earl replaced Baucom at VMI after Baucom bolted for the Citadel - VMI's intra-conference rival - he inherited a roster that was built to play in a breakneck pace of offense. This is a stark contrast to the style he was taught under Ed Dechellis at Penn State and Navy for over a decade. DeChellis preaches half-court execution through constant ball and player movement, which features a heavy dose of screening and cutting action. One way to spin the offseason housecleaning in a positive light is that Earl can now take a more drastic shift toward playing his preferred brand of basketball with a slew of incoming freshmen.
However, given that none of the freshmen come with high pedigree attached to their names, it's unlikely the newcomers move the needle much at all. And per the recently released kenpom.com overall rankings, the Keydets are projected to be the punching bag of the SoCon:
There's obviously a high margin for error in these projections, but this does portray a common narrative that VMI appears to be in their own tier below the rest of the SoCon pack this year. It's also interesting that Pomeroy's model doesn't anticipate a significant change in overall offensive pace - per the chart above, it's estimated the Keydets will play at the nation's 115th fastest tempo, just three slots slower than their 112th ranking last season.
Bottom Line: A solid core of sophomores in Keith Smith, Garrett Gilkeson and Will Miller, along with a pair of seniors in Armani Branch and Fred Iruafemi will provide some stability while the new faces get acclimated with Earl's principles, but replacing the production of Peterson and Eleby is asking a lot of a relatively unproven roster. I'm hoping Earl's prowess with the clipboard debunks this projection, but the prognosis for the 2018 VMI squad appears to be rather bleak.