Note: Predicted conference standings may not line up exactly with our Top 40 rankings; this is because Top 40 were ranked via consensus voting, while individual conference ranks are up to the specific writer.
Player of the Year: Jacobi Boykins, Louisiana Tech
Coach of the Year: Jeff Jones, Old Dominion
Newcomer of the Year: Nick King, R Sr., Middle Tennessee
Freshman of the Year: Josh Anderson, Western Kentucky
1. Old Dominion
Key Returners: Ahmad Caver, B.J. Stith, Brandan Stith, Trey Porter
Key Losses: Zoran Talley, Jordan Baker, Denzell Taylor
Key Newcomers: Greg McClinton (Wake Forest transfer)*, Michael Hueitt Jr., Marquis Goodwin
*Note* Greg McClinton blew out his ACL in June and will miss the season.
Postseason Projection: 13-seed (automatic bid)
Outlook: The Monarchs are one of 4-5 teams that will jockey for the top spot in a much-improved C-USA this season. Depending on where you look, any one of the following could very well be predicted to win the league - ODU, Middle Tennessee, Louisiana Tech, UAB and even Western Kentucky sans Michael Robinson - but the separation between these squads is immaterial. The one factor that delineates ODU from the rest of this group - and the reason why I'm predicting the Monarchs to claim the conference crown - is their defensive identity. Head coach Jeff Jones has done a masterful job seamlessly carrying forward the tough-minded, physical culture of basketball institutionalized by his predecessor Blaine Taylor, who is considered "royalty" in the history of Monarch hoops.
The Monarchs should be immune from any defensive regression in 2017-18 with the return of two elite erasers down low, Brandan Stith and Trey Porter, both of whom will be lurking around the rim at all times. While Jones rarely played them both at the same time last season, the departure of Denzell Taylor means there's 30 minutes a game at the forward spot now up for grabs, so it's inevitable that they'll play alongside each other much more frequently this season (in addition to rising sophomore Aaron Carver). Brandan, not to be confused with his little brother BJ [Stith], is a microcosm of the broader Old Dominion identity - he salivates at the idea of crashing the boards on both ends of the floor and his 6'7 240-pound frame is just one in a long line of chiseled frames that have come through the Old Dominion program.
Porter, on the other hand, is a bit leaner at 6'10 205 lbs., but could emerge as a perfect complement to Stith in the frontcourt. Jones has raved this offseason about Porter's ability to face up away from the basket and knock down open jumpers, even out beyond the 3-point line. While I'm skeptic about the consistency of his shooting range beyond 20+ feet, if Porter can effectively relocate to open pockets on the floor whenever one of his teammates penetrates, he should feast on an endless supply of mid-range jumpers (similar to how Thomas Welsh scores for UCLA). On the other end of the floor, Porter's potential as a bonafide shot-blocker is evident in the astronomical 13.2% block rate he posted in limited action last year. To put that in context, had he qualified for kenpom.com's percent of total minutes played quota (40% is the threshold; he played 36%), Porter would've ranked 3rd in the entire country. The combination of Stith and Porter has the potential to be a terrifying frontline tandem - one that will make opposing guards think twice before attacking the rim.
It's almost a foregone conclusion that ODU's stymying defense will be as strong as ever this year. The questions arise on the other end of the floor, which are contingent on the play of two key guards: Ahmad Caver and Michael Hueitt Jr. Caver now enters his 3rd full season in a Monarch uniform and his 2nd as the ball-dominant point guard. As he enters the upperclassmen ranks, he's proven to be an excellent distributor of the basketball and one of the best perimeter defenders in the C-USA. The question is can mature into a more efficient scorer. His non-conference/conference splits from last year indicate that his outside shooting certainly improved as the season progressed, but a sub 40% field goal percentage from inside the arc is problematic, especially on such a large volume of attempts. However, a valid argument could be made that many of these misses turn into "Kobe assists", in which he draws shot-blockers away from the rim to contest a layup. This in turn opens up 2nd chance putback opportunities for the array of glass crashers to clean up Caver's misses at the cylinder.
Hueitt is just one of three promising young guns joining ODU's core rotation, all of whom are 3-star recruits, but Hueitt's specialized skillset as a knockdown shooter makes him the perfect ingredient to join the starting lineup. Marquis Goodwin and Xavier Green will also get big time minutes, particularly since Jones has the option to play "small" with Stith at the 5 whenever Porter takes a breather.
Bottom Line: Even though the overall style of ODU's brand of basketball is beginning to become obsolete in the new era of the NBA-inspired "pace and space" hoops, the Monarchs have a clear identity and their consistency on the defensive end is as certain as death and taxes. The newcomers should address some of the offensive deficiencies apparent in last year's team, which should make the Monarchs much less reliant on getting buckets via 2nd chance shot opportunities. The rest of the roster continuity and overall experience make them a safe bet to finish in the top-5 of the C-USA standings, but I'm betting on a significant improvement offensively to propel the Monarchs to a league title in 2017-18.
2. Louisiana Tech
Key Returners: Jacobi Boykins, Jalen Harris, Daquan Bracey, Derric Jean
Key Losses: Erik McCree
Key Newcomers: Harrison Curry (JUCO), Kyle McKinley (JUCO), Anthony Duruji, Amorie Archibald, Exavian Christon
Postseason Projection: NIT
*Editor's Note: Omar Sherman has left La Tech and is no longer on the school roster*
Outlook: Before overanalyzing what I think will be a critical decision facing head coach Eric Konkol this year, let's quickly cover the basics. The trivial observation is that the 2017-18 Bulldogs have an abundance of talent up and down the roster dispersed across all five positions. DaQuan Bracey wasted no time becoming a household name in the C-USA in his first collegiate season and gave Konkol confidence that he has a rock-solid point guard to build around for the next three years. Another rising sophomore in Jalen Harris had an excellent freshman campaign and exhibited his competence as both a 2nd ball handler and reliable 2nd or 3rd scoring option in the backcourt. Derric Jean is yet another multi-skilled weapon on the perimeter who is fungible enough to play any of the three guard positions and even spelled Bracey at the point for minor stretches last year. Last, but most certainly not least, of the La Tech guards/wings is one of the premier two-way players in the C-USA - Jacobi Boykins - my pick to win conference player of the year.
Boykins' freakish athleticism and dead-eye lefty stroke from downtown make him a nightmare cover for most defenders in the C-USA and he rarely, if ever, coughs up the basketball (4th lowest TO rate in the conference last year). But it's Boykins versatility and ability to disrupt opposing offenses on the other end of the floor that makes him such an invaluable centerpiece of the Bulldogs defense. No one in the conference forced more turnovers than La Tech did a year ago, much of which was a byproduct of Boykins himself jumping into passing lanes and harassing opposing ball handlers out on the perimeter (Boykins posted a top-60 steal rate in the country).
So with so much continuity on the perimeter, Konkol just needs to figure out how he's going to replace his 1st team all-conference forward in Erik McCree. It's rare that you stumble across a player with such a unique inside-out skill set on offense who's also a one man wrecking crew on the defensive boards. With Boykins best suited as a two-way threat out on the perimeter, and a pair of interchangeable bigs capable of doing all the dirty work down low (Omar Sherman and Joniah White), McCree was a match made in heaven as a positionless forward with the freedom to roam all over the floor on offense. And as the lineup combinations from kenpom.com's team page validate, Konkol stayed true to form all year long with Boykins, McCree and one of either Sherman or White at the 3, 4 and 5, respectively.
But for as versatile as McCree was on both ends of the floor, the one flaw in his near-complete arsenal was interior defense. Both the individual advanced statistics (1.6% block rate is not great) and team-based advanced plus/minus statistics (see below) reveal that McCree was actually somewhat of a liability on the defensive end.
This is should serve as a sigh of relief for La Tech fans who perhaps thought that the loss of McCree would be insurmountable to overcome. The question now becomes what lineup combinations will Konkol experiment with at the 3, 4 and 5 positions with McCree no longer in the picture. Here's what appears to be the two best options...
- "Small Ball" (White at the 5; Boykins at the 4): What's shocking is that per the lineup combination chart from kenpom shown above, Konkol refused to play Boykins as a small ball 4 alongside either Sherman or White at the 5. While Boykins' lean body type may not make him the strongest low-post defender, his leaping ability should make him at least a serviceable off-ball helpside defender to challenge shots at the rim. And just think about how much a fun an offensive lineup would be with Boykins at the 4 along with Bracey, Lean and Harris at the other 3 guard spots (schwing!).
- "Hybrid Ball" (White at the 5; Boykins at the 3; Jy'lan Washington at the 4): Washington bears the closest resemblances to McCree stylistically, with his ability to stretch the defense with a smooth stroke from the outside. However, he certainly lacks the girth of McCree needed to be a reliable glass cleaner, which would put pressure on White to pick up the slack on the boards.
Bottom Line: I haven't even done justice to many of the other viable rotational players on this roster (apologies to top-50 JUCO recruit Harrison Curry), but the Bulldogs' top-6 will be largely responsible for the destiny of this year's team. If the guards can collectively play sound, fundamental basketball and Boykins seizes the opportunity to take over as the undisputed offensive alpha, La Tech will be neck-and-neck with ODU and a few others atop the C-USA standings by next spring.
3. Western Kentucky
Key Returners: Justin Johnson
Key Losses: Que Johnson, Anton Waters, Pancake Thomas, Junior Lomomba
Key Newcomers: Lamonte Bearden (Buffalo transfer), Darius Thompson (Virginia transfer), Dwight Coleby (Kansas transfer), Moustapha Diagne (JUCO), Josh Anderson, Taveion Hollingsworth
Postseason Projection: NIT
Outlook: It's safe to say that the 2017-18 offseason will be remembered as the summer of Mitchell Robinson...
*Insert long winded synopsis of the Mitchell Robinson saga and breakdown of his offseason workout routine*
Ok, now that we've covered college basketball's media darling over the past three months, let's shift our attention to the guys who will actually be playing for Western Kentucky this year! And what better place to start than down low, where Robinson was supposed to single handedly terrorize opponents at the rim. Not to worry Hilltopper faithful - a pair of top-notch transfers will help you forget you ever had one of the premier blue-chippers on your roster for a hot minute. In steps Kansas grad transfer Dwight Coleby and former Auburn commit Moustapha Diagne, both of whom are high-major talents that should make an immediate impact in their first season against C-USA caliber of competition.
Diagne is a former 4-star recruit coming out of high-school who initially committed to play for Jim Boeheim at Syracuse before ultimately transferring to a JUCO school in Florida for two years. And while Coleby rode the pine during his brief stint at Kansas, his production during the 2014-15 at Ole Miss is precisely the type of effort Stansbury is hoping to get from him this year. Coleby ranked top-10 in the SEC in offensive rebounding, defensive rebounding and blocks on a per possession basis, which are the three critical needs for a WKU squad is currently lacking a real interior paint presence (see full kenpom.com player page below).
Last season, Stansbury rolled the dice by playing a relatively undersized 6'7 Justin Johnson - the lone returning Hilltopper on the roster who actually flirted with the idea of playing football instead of basketball - as the lone big in the middle. And while Johnson is by no means a feared intimidator at the rim, he is excellent on the defensive glass... but don't take my word for it - just refer to the advanced plus/minus statistics which support the notion that he's a true asset on both ends of the floor (see below):
Now let's pivot to the completely revamped backcourt, which is headlined by a pair of transfers and a pair of freshman, all of whom have the potential to crack the all-newcomer team above. We'll start at the point of attack with Buffalo transfer Lamonte Bearden who might be the fastest end-to-end dribbler in the C-USA this year. His fellow backcourt mate, grad transfer Darius Thompson, played in a snail-paced offense at Virginia, a far cry from the breakneck tempo Bearden was groomed in during his early playing days at Buffalo. The polar opposite coaching backgrounds of Bearden (Nate Oats at Buffalo) and Thompson (Bennett at Virginia) who, together, will likely form the starting backcourt for the Hilltoppers begs the following question - will Stansbury choose to turn up the tempo this year? Or will he play at a much more methodical pace similar to what we saw with last year's team? Regardless of how fast the Hilltoppers choose to play this year, Stansbury should feel at ease with two point guards owning the ball handling and facilitating responsibilities this year. And with a scoring weapon like Josh Anderson on the wing - who could very well lead the league in scoring this season - along with an under-the-radar off-ball scorer in Taveion Hollingsworth, it certainly makes life a whole lot easier.
Bottom Line: Not to stray too far from our focus with a farfetched comparison, but the Hilltoppers find themselves in a similar position as Saint Louis entering this season - a ton of hoopla surrounding talented transfers and freshmen who are expected to catapult their respective teams to new heights. The loss of Mitchell Robinson will cause some to overreact and dismiss WKU as a legitimate contender in the C-USA, but with the sneaky good additions of Coleby and Diagne, I say NOT SO FAST (Lee Corso voice) And on the perimeter, you won't find a more talented trio in the league than Bearden, Thompson and Anderson. Stansbury has proven he can lure elite talent to Bowling Green - the question is can he coach that talent...
Key Returners: Chris Cokley, William Lee, Nick Norton
Key Losses: Dirk Williams, Hakeem Baxter
Key Newcomers: Luis Hurtado, Zack Bryant, Makhtar Gueye, Jalen Perry (JUCO)
Postseason Projection: NIT - CBI/CIT
Outlook: Robert Ehsan was dealt a bad hand in his first year at the UAB helm last season. He lost his heady point guard, Nick Norton, for the entire season after tearing his ACL in the season opener against Arkansas Pine Bluff. With no other established point guards on the roster able to step in and assume the interim floor general role, the Blazers suffered with inconsistent guard play and decision making all year long. Except for Rice, no one gave away the basketball more frequently than UAB did a year ago as ex-Southern Illinois transfer Deion Lavender was forced to take over the primary point guard duties. But don’t blame “the new guy” – Lavender was not the only culprit giving away the rock last year. A pair of veteran off-guards in Hakeem Baxter and Denzell Watts were not particularly sure handed with the basketball, Nate Darling dealt with his freshman growing pains and even star forward Chris Cokley, who posted the 6th lowest TO rate in the C-USA two seasons ago, saw that figure jump to almost 20% last year.
Not to harp on the turnover bug, but when you break down the Blazers offensively, kenpom.com's Four Factors statistics proves that they were sound in just about all other facets. UAB was top-4 in the league in effective field goal percentage, offensive rebounding and generating trips to the charity stripe to tack on points via the always efficient free throw. With Norton back in the mix, Lavender will now shift over to his more natural position playing off the ball. Norton is a proven long-range shooting threat (shot 37% from 3 in 2015-16), but Lavender needs to simply forget about his disastrous shooting season last year. He’s excellent at attacking the rim off-the-bounce and expect his head-scratching 6 for 38 shooting performance from beyond the arc last season to return to normalcy this year. Darling will likely win the 3rd starting spot on the perimeter after proving to be an efficient spot-up shooter in limited action as a freshman last year.
However, even with Norton back, Ehsan knew he needed additional depth to help plug some key losses on the perimeter. He hauled in a few intriguing prospects that should each tally significant clock in their first full collegiate season. Jalen Perry comes to Birmingham from the JUCO ranks where he absolutely scorched the nylon from downtown last season converting on 46% of his treys. A pair of freshmen in Luis Hurtado and Zach Bryant should also play their way into the backcourt rotation and could leapfrog the returning veterans if their shooting and ball security tendencies linger this year. Hurtado received high praise from ESPN’s recruiting services as a 4-star guard who is truly “a jack of all trades”. Zack Bryant received equally as high praise from his coach in an interview with Blue Ribbon, who believes Bryant “has a chance to be one of the better freshman in the conference.” I’d expect Bryant to help Norton initiate the half-court offense as a 2nd lead guard at times when they’re on the floor together.
Ok, enough with the backcourt reshuffling - let’s get to the real reason why UAB should bounce back from a lackluster 9-9 showing in the C-USA last season: the two-headed monster up front comprised of Chris Cokley and William “HaHa” Lee. Offensively, the dynamic duo are a perfect 'yin and yang' at the forward spots – Cokley is a technician operating on the low block, possessing an array of post moves to carve out open shooting angles for himself around the basket. Lee, on the other hand, is a much more perimeter-oriented ‘4’ man, who can score from anywhere on the floor and is actually the Blazers top returning 3-point shooter not named Nate Darling. With Tosin Mehinti graduating this offseason, we should see a lot more of the Cokley/Lee on-floor combination this season, which, as the advanced plus/minutes statistics at hooplens.com confirms, should be tough lineup to handle for most C-USA front courts.
Lee will be chasing an unprecedented 3rd consecutive defensive player of the year award as he’ll once again be rejecting any and all shots around the rim.
Bottom Line: There’s no way to sugarcoat it – last year was certainly not how Robert Ehsan was hoping to start his tenure as the court side director in Birmingham. He knows what this team is capable of when all the pieces are put together properly, as evidenced by the Blazers March magic back in 2014-15 when both Norton and Lee were key cogs on the squad that bounced Iowa State in the first round of the NCAA tournament. I would not bet against Norton, Lee and Cokley in their college farewell tour as they look to avenge last year’s letdown in their final season wearing a Blazer uniform.
5. Middle Tennessee
Key Returners: Giddy Potts, Tyrik Dixon
Key Losses: Jacorey Williams, Reggie Upshaw
Key Newcomers: Nick King (Alabama transfer)
Postseason Projection: NIT - CBI/CIT
Outlook: In what is typically an indistinguishable pack of teams in the C-USA, the Blue Raiders ascended to a tier of their own last season. Middle Tennessee is fresh off two consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament and two straight first round victories, including the memorable stunner over Tom Izzo and the Spartans in 2015-16. The secret sauce to the Blue Raiders run of success over the past two seasons was a pair of hyper-versatile forwards in Jacorey Williams and Reggie Upshaw.
Collectively, Williams and Upshaw were an intricate part of what made Middle Tennessee so tough to prepare for. Few teams have two forwards with both the size/length and lateral quickness to match up with the Upshaw/Williams duo, both of whom were triple threats whenever they'd catch the ball on the wing. They were perhaps even more pivotal on the other end of the floor as the two key components in Kermit Davis's chameleon-esque defense which will often front as a 2-3 zone before quickly shape-shifting into a 1-3-1 formation. It's not surprising that this confusing defensive scheme produced a ton of turnovers over the past two years, but it was the rebounding prowess of Upshaw and Williams that was absolutely special. It's rare to find a team that can consistently shore up the defensive glass while playing a steady diet of zone - just ask Jim Boeheim how hard it is to rebound out of their patented 2-3.
With Williams and Upshaw moving on to greener pastures, all eyes turn to redshirt senior and college basketball journeyman, Nick King. A former top-50 prospect coming out of high school - which feels like decades ago - King has been hindered by a multitude of injuries and health issues at his previous two schools (Memphis then Alabama), but Davis and Blue Raider nation are hoping he can put it all together in his final rodeo at the college ranks. His relentless motor and physicality should make him one of the best two way rebounders in the C-USA this year, but he'll need to blossom into a more polished scorer if Middle Tennessee wants to contend for a regular season crown in 2017-18. He certainly has the tools to be a multi-positional forward like Williams and Upshaw were, but he's yet to prove it on a consistent basis at the D1 level.
King should get some help down low with another super senior in Brandon Walters back to help anchor the paint. Walters is much less refined offensively than his predecessors, but his per possession rebounding and shot-blocking stats are an encouraging sign. The remaining frontline depth is still up in the air, but the most likely candidate to earn significant minutes is Davion Thomas - a former 3-star recruit who redshirted last season.
The focus of this year's team shifts to the backcourt, which is headlined by one of the most efficient guards in the country - Giddy Potts. While many were skeptic if Potts would be able to maintain his sizzling hot shooting hand from 2015-16 (he led the entire country with a 51% shooting clip from downtown) he followed it up with another precise shooting display from behind the arc last year (39%). While his name and 3-point shooting outbursts are what he's most revered for, Potts does about everything you could ask of a 6'2 guard on the defensive end and he's a much more dynamic scorer than a spot-up, stand-still shooter. Expect his well-rounded offensive skillset to be on full display this year as the offensive alpha and go-to-guy in crunch time for the Blue Raiders.
While Potts is more than capable of creating his own looks, he'll also get a ton of catch-and-shoot opportunities courtesy of returning point guard Tyrik Dixon. Many believe Dixon is in store for a breakout sophomore year, given he may have been simply simply overshadowed by the slew of talent around him on the floor last season. Dixon should have plenty of space to operate in the half-court offense playing with the likes of Potts and another credible shooting threat in Edward Simpson.
Bottom Line: King and Potts should be a formidable 1-2 punch for MTSU, but if the Blue Raiders want to defend their C-USA title from last year, Kermit Davis will need one of 7 new faces to step up in a big way. None of the newcomers come with a ton of hype attached to them, but Davis has worked wonders before with lesser talent, so I could very well be kicking myself by next March for failing to mention them here.
Key Returners: Omega Harris, Matt Wilms, Paul Thomas
Key Losses: Dominic Artis
Key Newcomers: Evan Gilyard, Keith Frazier (North Texas grad transfer), Roderick Williams* (JUCO), Kobe Magee, Tirus Smith
*Roderick Williams is currently missing from the official team roster (as of 10/17) and Tim Floyd has expressed that he does not expect Williams to play this season.
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: The 2016-17 campaign was a tale of two seasons for Tim Floyd and the Miners. After falling flat on their face and remaining motionless for the first two months of the year, UTEP arose from their coma just as conference action began to heat up. The Miners’ 2-11 record during the nonconference slate hit rock bottom when the boys from El Paso dropped back-to-back home games against Northern Arizona and Maryland Eastern Shore in late December (I’ll venmo you a dollar if you can name the town where Maryland Eastern Shore is located). Gasoline was poured over the raging fire in the Miners third game of the C-USA schedule in which they laid an egg against the league's punching bag, Southern Miss, slating them comfortably at the bottom of the conference ranks at 0-3 and 2-13 overall. Who would’ve known two consecutive overtime victories against FIU and FAU would spark a furious run that would culminate in a 3rd place finish in the C-USA standings...
There’s a multitude of factors that helped right the ship for UTEP, but the most critical variable was the defensive makeover Tim Floyd and his two assistants Bobby Braswell and Phil Johnson engineered in early January. The blueprint idea was sparked by a recruiting visit Floyd took in which he noticed a JUCO team playing a funky mix-and-match zone, which later became to be known as a “point zone”. While tough to describe without watching in with your own eyes, the basic premise is that it’s quite similar to a matchup zone, or man/zone hybrid, but it provides additional on-ball support by having a defender always behind or near the primary on-ball defender. This makes it virtually impossible for guards to generate any sort of offense via dribble penetration and forces the opposition to beat you with sharp passing and precise outside shooting. The other three off-ball defenders will not guard a zone or an area, but rather shade toward the nearest man, which enables more effective box outs.
The data emphatically validates that the decision by Floyd and his staff to shake things up last year on the defensive end was a smashing success. The Miners posted the league’s 2nd most efficient defense and finished tops in the C-USA in effective FG% defense. Big Matt Willms is back to protect the rim for Tim Floyd after being granted a 6th year of eligibility this offseason – he’ll be joined once again by fellow returning starter Paul Thomas, along with a promising redshirt sophomore in Kelvin Jones. Collectively, Willms, Thomas and Jones should form one of the more stout defensive frontlines in the C-USA, particularly if Jones can take a major step forward this season (he was a 3-star recruit coming out of high school).
The rest of the roster is rounded out by a plethora of talent on the perimeter. The headliner here is Omega Harris, a dynamic scorer who can get buckets from all three levels on the floor. Harris was not super efficient in his high-usage role last year and with the departure of his partner-in-crime Dominic Artis this offseason, the Miners will be even more leveraged on Harris’ ability to score an at efficient clip. As 'Omega becomes the alpha', Floyd will need to find a replacement for Artis at the point. The solution could lie in freshman Evan Gilyard, another 3-star prospect hailing from Chicago, IL who seems to have the best combination of skill and fit for the position at point. However, when you consider the depth of talent at Floyd’s disposal with Keith Frazier (a former McDonald's All-American who's had a roller coaster collegiate career), along with Isiah Osborne and Trey Wade (the top two scorers for the Miners at their summer exhibition tour in Costa Rica), it’s anyone’s guess as to how Floyd will allocate the minutes in the backcourt. Jake Flaggert should seamlessly resume his starting spot as a versatile wing defender and knock down shooter, while wildcards Kobe Magee and Tirus Smith could crack the rotation as well.
Bottom Line: With four starters back in action this year, along with an enticing crop of newcomers, Timmy Floyd has his eyes set on yet another top-5 finish in the C-USA. However, the competition around them, particularly in the upper half of the league, improved dramatically this offseason which will make repeating last year’s 4th place finish a tall task for the Miners. The defense will be the bedrock of this team once again, but they’ll need to find more efficient ways to score the basketball – Floyd found his offense at times overly reliant on the playmaking of Artis and Harris last year, both of whom struggled to find their long-range shooting touch.
Key Returners: Jon Davis, Andrien White, Austin Ajukwa
Key Losses: Braxton Ogbueze, Anthony Vanook
Key Newcomers: Jaylan McGill, Bryant Thomas, Luka Vasic, Milos Supica, Jailan Haslem
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: Former Cavs standout guard Mark Price now enters his 3rd season at the helm in Charlotte. After an eight year journey as an NBA assistant from 2007 – 2015, which featured stops at Dener, Atlanta, Golden State, Orlando and eventually Charlotte, Price got an unexpected offer to take over the local D1 program in the summer of 2015. And like so many NBA influenced coaching minds, Price brought an up-tempo, 'pace-and-space' style of basketball with him to the college game. Price said when he was initially hired that he was confident he'd be implementing an run-and-gun style of offense, but admitted he was unclear on what the 49ers identity would be on the defensive side of the ball. And as Price awaits the start of the 2017-18 campaign - now with two full seasons under his belt -it still feels unclear what that identity is…
Hamstrung with no true bigs on the roster last year, Charlotte played an extended, perimeter-focused defense with no traditional paint patroller in the middle of the lane. As a result, the 49ers were effective at running shooters off the 3-point line, but far too often ended up rerouting opposing guards and wings directly to the rim where no one was present to protect the rim. Price made it a priority to address that gaping hole this offseason. His solution? A pair of sturdy frames in JUCO transfer Jailan Haslem (6’10, 260 lbs) and Serbian freshman Milos Supica (6’9, 240 lbs), along with a shot-swatting aficionado in Bryant Thomas who reportedly averaged 8 blocks per game in high school. This trio will give Price a whole new dimension of physicality and toughness in the middle that’s been absent the past two seasons. Rising sophomore Najee Garvin did a serviceable job holding down the fort inside last year, but he feels a bit misplaced at the '5' position.
The question is how Price plans to integrate the newfound size on the offensive end, which has thrived on continuous drive-and-kick action in the half-court whenever fast break opportunities are stunted. A pair of 6’7 wings in Hudson Price and Austin Ajukwa are tailor-made fits for Charlotte’s offensive attack as interchangeable pieces capable of scoring both inside and out. However, the advanced plus/minus statistics indicate that Price and Ajukwa weren’t actually a match made in heaven offensively, as the 49ers points per possession took a dip when the duo was on the floor together…
Regardless of how Price tinkers with the forward lineup combinations, the bread-and-butter of the 49ers offense stems from the individual playmaking and shot making of Jon Davis and Andrien White. Davis and White will now share the backcourt for the third consecutive season, now as the undisputed floor leaders after the departure of veteran Braxton Ogbueze this summer. Davis' ability to knife through defenders out in the open floor bears a striking resemblance to his head coach back when Price was tearing up the ACC at Georgia Tech. Davis makes everything go for the 49ers offense with his uncanny ability to beat his defender off the bounce, which opens up an array of open looks for his teammates. And no one will be a bigger beneficiary than the sharpshooting White, who cashed in 39% of his trey balls last year.
Bottom Line: Year 3 is typically when the Bunsen burner is placed below a head coach's chair as the pressure to show real progress begins to heat up. That time has come for Mr. Price, who is officially on the clock to take a step forward with a core group of upperclassmen now soundly intact. With one more year of maturity and experience for Davis as the lead guard running the offense, along with the presence of bigger bodies in the lane to challenge near proximity shot attempts at the rim, I'm betting on Charlotte to make a leap this season in the C-USA rankings. If the 49ers to get to .500, and perhaps a game or two above, in the final league standings, Price will find himself in a solid position to make a run in the conference tournament next March.
Key Returners: Jon Elmore, C.J. Burks
Key Losses: Ryan Taylor, Stevie Browning, Austin Loop, Terrance Thomas (transfer)
Key Newcomers: Rondale Watson (Wake Forest transfer), Dani Koljanin (JUCO), Jannson Williams (JUCO)
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: Dan D’Antoni is simply an extension of his younger brother Mike when it comes to coaching. If you’re familiar with the offensive brilliance that the Houston Rockets put on display on a nightly basis in the NBA, you already have a sense for what a typical Marshall basketball game looks like. To sum it up quite simply, there’s up-tempo... and then there’s "D’Antoni tempo"...
The Thundering Herd have ranked 7th, 3rd and 3rd, respectively, in the country in offensive pace over the past three seasons with the typical offensive possession lasting a hair under 14 seconds on average. And just like his younger brother Mike, Dan runs his offense through the hands of a ball dominant lead playmaker who has the autonomy to make plays for himself and for others however he so chooses.
The James Harden of the Thundering Herd is Jon Elmore, a hyper-skilled, do-everything guard that has few weaknesses on the offensive side of the ball. His creativity and decision-making is wise beyond his years and he can put points on the board from anywhere on the floor. His running mate this year is a diamond in the rough – at least, from my vantage point – in CJ Burks. I’m certainly rolling the dice with my prediction of Burks landing himself a spot on the all-conference team, but Burks is one of the tougher covers in the entire C-USA who will now get ample opportunities to shine stepping into a more featured role this season. Elmore and Burks will be asked to carry a heavy offensive load until Wake Forest transfer Rondale Watson joins the team at the end of the first semester. Watson still remains an unknown commodity at the college level, but his heralded high-school hoops career is reason to believe he’ll burst on to the scene is his first season in the C-USA.
D'Antoni will be in good hands with his perimeter core, but the forward depth chart may give some anxiety this season. The late transfer of Terrence Thompson leaves an already barren frontcourt with even more holes to fill. Last year, Ryan Taylor was a one-man-band in the middle for the Thundering Herd as D’Antoni opted to feature a 4-out, 1-in lineup which is essential for executing the his lightning fast style of play – without him or Thompson in the middle, D’Antoni is left with Ajdin Penava, Phil Bledsoe and Milan Mijovic as the only other reliable options to slot at the 5. Penava is the most qualified candidate to stake claim to the 5th starting spot, but who D’Antoni goes with at the 3 (until Watson becomes eligible) and the 4 remains a mystery.
With a cloud of uncertainty around who will solidify the interior production, a pair of intriguing newcomers may seize the opportunity. Jannson Williams and Dani Koljanin each stand 6’8 tall and are exceptionally skilled for their size. Koljanin in particular had an outstanding season at the JUCO level last season and is cited to have a soft lefty touch from the outside. However, neither of the newcomers present a clear answer to the rim protection and defensive rebounding question marks, which could leave the Thundering Herd exceptionally vulnerable in the middle.
Bottom Line: Barring any breakout seasons from the transfers or freshman class (Darius George is the one to watch here), Marshall’s ceiling feels significantly lower than last year. The Herd have proven they can get baskets in bunches, but getting stops on the other end will continue to be a challenge.
9. Southern Miss
Key Returners: Cortez Edwards, Eddie Davis, Tim Rowe
Key Losses: Khari Price, Quinton Campbell, Raheem Watts
Key Newcomers: Tyree Griffin (Oklahoma State transfer), Dominic Magee (Grand Canyon transfer), Anfernee Hampton, LaDavius Draine
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: Now three years removed from the summer of 2014, Donnie Tyndall’s pile of shit has just about been wiped clean from the Southern Miss basketball program. And after suffering through a torturous first three seasons at the helm, Doc Sadler is finally beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
When asked about his mindset entering the 2017-18 campaign, Sadler told the Hattiesburg American at a Southern Miss practice earlier this month, “This is the best I’ve felt since I’ve been here. And in my business, winning and losing is usually what makes you feel good or not. I know there’s not going to be very many ball games we go into that I feel like we (won’t) have a legit chance. And that’s positive”
Sadler’s optimism is by no means irrational – after suffering through an endless number of injuries and a dire shortage of talent over the past few years, Sadler finally has some horses to run with this season. Those thoroughbreds come in the form of two transfers: Tyree Griffin (ex-Oklahoma State point guard who backed up Jawun Evans in 2015-16) and Dominic Magee (ex-Grand Canyon transfer and former top-100 recruit). Griffin's lone season in Stillwater was a bit underwhelming from an offensive efficiency standpoint, but his lightning quick pace with the ball should be no match for the majority of C-USA defenders. Sadler has been reluctant to play up-tempo in his first three years at Southern Miss, mostly just to minimize possessions against opponents with superior talent, but expect that to change this year when Griffin, Magee and incumbent point guard Cortez Edwards take the floor together.
Magee was one of the most highly sought after players in the 2016 recruiting cycle when he opted to take his talents to Grand Canyon as a 4-star prospect. In his first collegiate game, Magee exploded for 29 points against Nebraska Omaha, but slowly watched his relevance fade away as his high-usage and inconsistent efficiency was a liability at times for a deep and talented Grand Canyon squad. Much like Griffin, Magee brings a world of upside to this Southern Miss roster, but if the Golden Eagles are going to make the leap that I’m projecting here, Griffin and Magee will need to boost their shooting percentages from all three levels on the floor. And with the return of Edwards, a true pass-first point guard, the Golden Eagles will be fueled by three exceptional ball handlers and playmakers capable of matching up with any backcourt in the conference.
The perimeter depth behind Griffin, Magee and Edwards is yet another reason why Sadler may take the reins off the Golden Eagles offense this year in hopes of exploiting opponents out in transition. After tearing up the JUCO circuit in 2014-15 and 2015-16, Anfernee Hampton enters the mix after redshirting last year – he should provide an additional scoring punch on the wing and hopefully fill an outside shooting void that Sadler has desperately needed for years. Kevin Holland brings experience and a veteran presence to the table after starting all 31 games as a junior, but he’ll find himself in a dog fight for minutes in a crowded backcourt, especially after his atrocious shooting performance last season. The only freshman on the roster rounds out the core backcourt rotation, LaDavius Draine, who should serve as an off-the-bench scoring sparkplug after averaging 30 points a game last year in high school.
Bottom Line: The frontcourt is in dire need of bodies after Raheem Watts and Quinton Campbell graduated this summer. And while we discussed that Sadler may revamp the offensive approach this year with a newfound jolt of talent and athleticism at the guard position, the question is will he also tweak his defensive approach as well. Salder is notorious for playing a methodical zone, but the advanced numbers indicate he’s gone away from that in recent years. With Tim Rowe, Eddie Davis III and Josh Conley as the only players standing taller than 6’6 on the roster, it begs the question - will Sadler go back to his roots and try and pack it in with a relatively smaller lineup? He could also choose to let his hyper-athletic guards wreak havoc in the backcourt with some extended man pressure or trapping schemes. The bottom line is that Sadler is a smart and experienced basketball mind and I fully trust he will implement the stylistic approach that gives this promising roster the best chance to succeed on any given night.
Key Returners: Connor Cashaw
Key Losses: Marcus Evans (transfer), Egor Koulechov (transfer), Marcus Jackson (transfer), Marquez Letcher-Ellis (transfer), Chad Lott (transfer)
Key Newcomers: Dylan Jones (Penn grad transfer), A.J. Lapray (Pepperdine transfer), Najja Hunter, Miles Lester, Malik Osborne
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: Wow, if you had the Over 1.5 on number of James Harden mentions in this preview, you can officially take it to the bank. While Dan D’Antoni at Marshall mimics the style of basketball Harden leads at the professional level in Houston, Rice’s new head coach – Scott Pera – actually coached Harden before he became a household name in the NBA. Pera initially coached Harden in high-school before following him to (or perhaps Harden followed him) to Arizona State under Herb Sendek at the time. And over the past few seasons, he has been serving as the right-hand man to Mike Rhoades, who chose to return to his home in Richmond, VA this summer to take over the head coaching vacancy left behind by Will Wade’s departure.
And with the exodus of Rhoades came the exodus of players as the revolving door of inbound and outbound transfers was rotating a rapid pace this summer in Houston.
Connor Cashaw is the lone returning starter returns from last year’s Owls squad – as a forgotten role player last season, Cashaw will have to evolve in to a more complete offensive weapon with Marcus Evans and Egor Koulechov no longer leading the offensive charge. Sophomore Ako Adams and veteran Bishop Mency will also need to rise to the occasion to solidify the perimeter production this season – Both Mency and Cashaw do most of their scoring damage as spot-up 3-point shooters, which means Adams will need to assert himself as a reliable distributor and consistently find the off-ball shooters for open looks on the outside. Pera’s prowess on the recruiting trail will need to manifest itself in on-court production this season given how much experienced talent was drained from the depth chart this summer. Adams, Mency and another likely starter in Austin Meyer are all former 3-star prospects and will be asked to shoulder a heavy burden offensively.
An additional jolt of talent will be provided by Penn transfer Dylan Jones and Pepperdine transfer AJ Lapray. Unless one of the three notable freshman catch the eye of Pera early on , both Lapray and Jones could very well sneak their way into starting lineup. All signs indicate that Pera will roll over the offensive style institutionalized by his former boss, which places a premium on multi skilled guards who can shoot it from deep, but also attack their defender off the dribble. Lapray could be particularly effective in this system, but he has yet to stay on the floor for a full season after suffering through chronic hip problems for most his collegiate career.
While the high-octane offense was the calling card for Rice last season, the shift in defensive philosophy also deserves credit for the Owls 11-game improvement in the win column from 2015-16 to last year. After opponents lit the nets on fire against the Owls in 2015-16, Rhoades responded by playing man-to-man almost exclusively last season and went away from the zone he so frequently showcased the year prior.
Again, assuming Pera follows the form of his former boss, I’d look for a perimeter-oriented lineup to once again extend defensive pressure well beyond the 3-point line and force opponents to beat them inside the arc.
Bottom Line: While this year's crop of guards isn't as offensively gifted as the Marcus Evans and Egor Koulechov combo last season, the one area where they can outperform their forerunners is ball security. The Owls gave the ball more than any other team in the C-USA last year, which was a byproduct of the high-risk, high-reward nature of Evans' offensive game. So while the new wave of guards in Adams, Mency and Cashaw are solid enough to keep the Owls competitive this year, I may very well be underselling the other young prospects, many of whom Pera was the primary recruiter on as an assistant, particularly Najja Hunter. And with his track record of finding and developing talent, the Owls could easily finish in the upper half of the league if the underclassmen mature at an accelerated rate.
Key Returners: Byron Frohnen, Giovanni De Nicolao, Nick Allen
Key Losses: Jeff Beverly
Key Newcomers: Toby Van Ry (JUCO), Kendell Ramlal (Texas St. transfer), Adrian Rodriguez
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: If you’ve just finished reading the Marshall preview above, be prepared for a completely different narrative with the Roadrunners. Watching UTSA play offense is like looking at the sun for too long – overexposure may cause severe damage to the retina. The Roadrunners were the worst – that’s right, the WORST – 3-point shooting team in all of college basketball last season, finishing the season with a team percentage of 27%. The frightening thing is that UTSA wasn’t much better converting inside the arc and finished dead last in the conference in 2-point shooting percentage as well. A big reason for the Roadrunners’ utter incompetence at putting the ball in the hoop last year was the poisonous combination of Jeff Beverly’s high-usage rate and low efficiency, which put the fate of UTSA’s offense in the hands of Beverly far too often.
However, implying that UTSA will instantly improve on the offensive end with Beverly’s toxic habits no longer in the picture is jumping too far. The other cast of characters certainly played their part in the historically poor shooting performance last season, specifically Giovanni De Nicolao, Byron Frohnen, George Willborn and Nick Allen who shot a combined 24% from downtown last year (see chart above right).
What’s troubling is that all four of these guys are critical returners, which could mean another season of brick-laying in San Antonio. Head coach Steve Henson is hoping and praying that anyone of the newcomers can knock down shots at even a moderately efficient clip. Yup, that means you Jhivvan Jackson, Keaton Wallace and Deon Lyle.
Ok enough with the pessimism – let’s try that again with a glass half full approach...
Steve Henson was a revelation for the UTSA program in his first manning the sidelines – the Roadrunners leap frogged from a catastrophic 2015-16 campaign to a competitive 8-10 record in the C-USA last year. And given the shade I just threw at the offense; you can guess what was the real difference maker for last year’s quick turnaround – defense.
The Roadrunners were exceptional on the glass last season, ranking 11th in the entire country in defensive rebounding rate and also excelled at corralling their own misses on the other end (which was a rather frequent occurrence last year). The loss of big Lucas O Brien and Beverly leaves a ton of available rebounds on the table, but the return of Allen and Frohnen, along with the additions of Toby Van Ry, Adrian Rodriguez and Kendell Ramlal should help pick up the slack on the boards. Van Ry is by no means the physical presence that the 265 pound O’Brien was, but his length/size alone should make him a decent asset down low on the defensive end. Rodriguez, on the other hand, arrives in San Antonio with a physically developed frame at 6’7 240 pounds so expect him to be a favorite of Henson’s as a tough, hard-nosed rebounder.
Bottom Line: Steve Henson’s first year in San Antonio was an overwhelming success, especially when you factor in the roster he inherited from the 2015-16 dumpster fire. And while it’s too early to declare Henson a good or bad hire, all signs indicate that UTSA went in the right direction with their new leading man who has been groomed as an assistant under the great Lon Kruger at Oklahoma. Henson certainly proved his worth on the defensive end last season, but the question is will he ‘open up the playbook’ offensively this year. The Oklahoma teams Henson was associated with from 2011-2016 thrived in transition, but the Roadrunners certainly didn’t play true to their name last year (finished with the 260th fastest tempo offensively last year). As Henson begins to replenish the roster with more offensively gifted talent, particularly on the perimeter, look for UTSA to push the pace more frequently in the coming years – I’m just not sure this year’s roster is ready to play in high gear just yet.
Key Returners: Gerdarius Troutman, Justin Massey, Jailyn Ingram, Ronald Delph, William Pfister
Key Losses: Adonis Filer, Nick Rutherford (transfer), Jeantal Cylla (transfer)
Key Newcomers: Payton Hulsey (College of Charleston grad transfer), Je'Quan Perry (JUCO), Tyler Byrd (JUCO)
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: No threes for you! – That would be the punchline of FAU head coach Michael Curry’s remake of the infamous Seinfeld episode from the 90s. While many coaches preach the importance of chasing shooters off the three-point line, few emphasize this more than Curry does. The Owls surrendered the fewest 3-point attempts in the nation in back-to-back years in 2014-15 and 2015-16, and allowed the 8th fewest triples last season. The goal is to lure opposing guards and wings inside the arc in hopes that they’ll settle for less efficient mid-range jumpers. The key to this approach is a pair of interior intimidators, Ronald Delph and William Pfister, who roam the lane waiting to reject anything that comes near the rim.
At 6’10 230 pounds, Pfister looks puny standing next to his fellow paint protector Delph who is an absolute monster at 7’0 245 lbs. With last year being Pfister’s first season at FAU, Curry had to get used to optimizing the deployment of his two mega assets down low. What he quickly found out was that playing the twin towers together was suboptimal, especially given how foul prone both Pfister and Delph can be at times. According to hooplens.com, Pfister and Delph shared the floor for only 110 possessions last year.
In fact, Curry admitted in an interview with Blue Ribbon this offseason that he and his staff are beginning to implement a special zone just to protect Delph from picking up a cheap whistle in instances when he might be in foul trouble. But by swapping Delph and Pfister in-and-out for one another, Curry essentially has himself 10 fouls to give at the 5 position, which naturally allows Delph and Pfister to be more aggressive challenging shots at the rim. The only problem is that by alternating the two at the 5 spot, Curry was forced to play four small guards across the other four positions and none of them chipped in on the defensive boards, a major reason why the Owls ranked 11th in the C-USA in defensive rebounding last year. Jailyn Ingram will likely resume his role as the starting 4-man – his athleticism is undeniable, but he needs to put that to good use on the defensive glass if FAU wants to further bolster their defensive efficiency in 2017-18.
On the offensive side of the ball, Curry surprisingly decided to speed up the offensive attack last season, which moved the needle a teensy bit on offense (the Owls’ offensive efficiency creeped up from worst in the conference in 2015-16 to 11th last year). This approach helped FAU get a few more easy looks out in transition, but the shooting woes remained unhealed. Outside of flamethrower Gerdarius Troutman, the Owls are in desperate need of some consistent long range shooting – only the UTSA Roadrunners shot the ball worst from the land of plenty last season.
Curry is hoping a pair of JUCO additions in Je’Quan Perry and Tyler Byrd will help patch up the shooting flaws while Anthony Adger should take control as the primary point guard with the untimely transfer of Nick Rutherford this summer. Adger is a highly regarded JUCO prospect who could be a breath of fresh for Owls fans who had to watch their two lead guards (Rutherford and Adonis Filer) routinely clank up outside shots. Justin Massey is the other key cog in the perimeter core who had to quickly assimilate himself into the FAU offense last season after coming over from Brown the season before. Another sneaky good add this offseason for Curry was College of Charleston transfer Payton Hulsey, who should instantly become one of the Owls best perimeter defenders after making the CAA All-Defensive team back in 2015-16.
Bottom Line: On paper, I'm a fan of everything Curry tries to do on the defensive end of the ball - guard the 3-point line and funnel shooters inside the arc where a bonafide shot-swatter is waiting to alter or reject any attempt at the rim. However, the execution just simply hasn't been there and even with Delph in the middle, the Owls ranked 11th in the conference in blocked shots and 9th in 2-point FG% defense on a per possession basis. While part of the problem is that Delph can't stay on the floor for large stretches of time, Ingram and Pfister need step up and become more reliable rebounders on the defensive end if the Owls hope to improve upon their 6-12 conference record last year.
13. North Texas
Key Returners: AJ Lawson, Ryan Woolridge, Shane Temara
Key Losses: J-Mychal Reese, Ja'Michael Brown, Derail Green
Key Newcomers: Jorden Duffy (JUCO), Roosevelt Smart (JUCO), Michael Miller (JUCO)
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: The Tony Benford era has come to a close at North Texas, which now paves the way for a promising up-and-comer in Grant McCasland to steer the Mean Green program back on track in Denton, TX. After learning under the wing of Scott Drew as an assistant at Baylor, McCasland took his clipboard to Arkansas State where he instantly transformed the Red Wolves into 20-win ball club last season. So when the job opening at North Texas presented itself this summer, McCasland – who grew up less than hour away from campus – pounced on the opportunity to rebuild a program that just stumbled their way to a forgettable 2-16 record in the C-USA last year.
McCasland will have to start from the ground up with a roster that was gutted with some veteran talent this offseason. However, he does inherit a young backcourt foundation to build upon for the next three seasons with Ryan Woolridge and AJ Lawson. While both took some lumps along the way during their first season at the D1 level, McCasland knows at the very least he has a pair of ball hawks on the perimeter defensively. While Lawson was just outside the top-20 in steal rate in the C-USA ranks last year, Woolridge tallied a ridiculous 3.7% steal rate which was 31st highest in the entire country. Given how poor the Mean Green were on the defensive glass last year, McCasland will have no choice, but to gamble a bit defensively to prevent opposing teams gashing his subpar frontline down low. In fact, McCasland may just say the hell with playing any true bigs and roll with a 5-out, 0-in all guard lineup just as he did during stretches at Arkansas State last season. Allante Holston and Shane Temara are two fungible assets at the forward spot who should feel right at home playing in McCasland’s position-less lineups.
McCasland hit the JUCO recruiting trail hard this offseason to fill in some gaps on the returning roster. The most exciting prospect of the newcomers is Jorden Duffy, a former JUCO All-American who should help relieve some of the playmaking pressure off of Lawson and Woolridge. Roosevelt Smart should also crack the core rotation, especially if he can knock down outside shots at a consistent rate.
Bottom Line: This year is all about experimentation as McCasland will look to integrate the young cornerstones pieces into his preferred style of basketball. What that identity will ultimately be remains an unsolved riddle, given this is only McCasland’s 2nd full year as a head coach in the D1 ranks. Mean Green fans should not concern themselves with the win and loss column this year, but rather focus on how the likes of Lawson and Woolridge buy-in to a whole new system and whether or not that system appears to get the most of their skill sets.
Key Returners: Eric Lockett, Hassan Hussein
Key Losses: Donte McGill, Eric Nottage, Michael Kessens, Elmo Stephen
Key Newcomers: Josh Stamps (JUCO), Willy Nunez Jr. (JUCO)
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: Welp, let’s see if we can squeeze out a few hundred words on the FIU basketball program quickly before signing off – Reader beware: Given how dependent the Panthers will be on incoming JUCO players this season, there’s a non-zero chance I completely whiff on this preview. That’s just the nature of the beast when you lose all five starters from a team that finished 2nd to last in the conference. What’s even more gut-wrenching is that a handful of the 15 conference defeats were by the slimmest of margins, which has probably given head coach Anthony Evans nightmares all offseason long.
The biggest flaw of last year’s troubled FIU squad was the complete and utter lack of rim protection, even with a promising high-major transfer in Michael Kessens holding down the middle of the lane. Despite finishing the season as the league’s best defensive rebounder on a per minute basis, his 2% block rate was far too low for a team with no other viable candidates to challenge shots at the rim. Evans is hoping that the raw Hassan Hussein can assert himself as the primary paint protector this year and hopefully continue to round out his offensive game which has been relatively unpolished in his first two seasons in Miami.
Other than Hussein, the only notable returners are Eric Locket and Michael Douglas, neither of whom were all that impressive in limited action last year. That means the influx of JUCO talent will have every opportunity to assert themselves as go-to-guys in their first season of division 1 basketball. When it’s all said and done, Willy Nunez and Josh Stamps could wind up being the top two scorers for the Panthers and they’ll also give Evans the option of showcasing a sneaky long lineup with 6’4, 6’4, 6’5 and 6’5 at the 1 through 4 positions. Simply the length should pose enough problems defensively to improve on what was the C-USA’s worst 2-point percentage defense last year. Evans must prioritize keeping the ball out of the lane at all costs and force the opposition to beat them by making jump shots from the outside.
Bottom Line: After dominating the MEAC for a few years at Norfolk St. (I know Mizzou fans have fond memories of the 2013 team with Kyle O’Quinn) Evans has failed to gain any real momentum at his new home on South Beach. The Panthers hovered just under .500 for his first three years before taking a nose dive during last season’s misfortune. I’d suspect Evans may find himself on the hot seat by next March if his new look roster can’t shake some of the bad luck that has haunted the Panthers during close games in recent years.