Player of the Year: Chris Clemons, Sr., Campbell
Coach of the Year: Mike Jones, Radford
Newcomer of the Year: Tim Cameron, R So., High Point
Freshman of the Year: DeVon Baker, UNC Asheville
Key Returners: Carlik Jones, Ed Polite, Donald Hicks, Travis Fields
Key Losses: Randy Phillips, Christian Bradford
Key Newcomers: Mawdo Sallah (Kansas State), Cle’von Greene, Josiah Jeffers, Devin Hutchinson (JUCO)
Outlook: Bringing back almost everyone from a 14-18 team in 2016-17, expectations were relatively low for Radford last year. The Highlanders were picked to finish a lowly 7th in the preseason poll, some distance behind the “true contenders” of UNC Asheville, Winthrop, and Liberty. Back then, no one wanted Mike Jones’s squad, but after winning the Big South tourney, everyone was all on them (I promise I’ll only make that one Mike Jones joke, that’s it). But few saw the emergence of then-redshirt freshman Carlik Jones into an all-conference-caliber player, taking the reins as lead ball-handler from now-departed Christian Bradford. With those adjusted roles, everything fell into place, and Jones and star forward Ed Polite led a stout man-to-man defense to an NCAA bid (and First Four win!) after finishing one game back for the regular season title.
With Jones and Polite back, the defense should once again be the Highlanders’ catalyst. Standing at an athletic 6’5, Polite is a monster in a league like the Big South, a versatile forward who can guard all five positions and create havoc with his shot-blocking (18th in the conference in block rate) or quick hands (1st in the conference in steal rate, 28th in the country). Jones is a solid point-of-attack defender, and Jones also has 5’10 jitterbug Travis Fields with which to harass opposing ball-handlers. Incoming Kansas State grad transfer Mawdo Sallah should take over Randy Phillips’s duties as rim enforcer and glass-cleaner, and Leroy Butts (I love hindparts-named athletes – shouts to Jake Butt) and Devonnte Holland also return as rotational players. Both have some sneaky upside, and Holland could battle Sallah for the starting center spot.
The frontcourt was crucial on offense, as well, spearheading Radford’s attack by way of the offensive glass. Phillips was one of the best offensive rebounders in the country (and the best in the Big South, by rate), but even with his departure, Polite, Sallah, and Holland will make sure Mike Jones’s squad is still tippin’ (ok FINE I had to do one more, but I’m done I swear). Just like on defense, Polite’s versatility makes him a nightmare, as he can go through wings with his strength or around big men with his quickness and athleticism. And sometimes, he just decides to go over people:
That’s rude. In fact, I’d go so far as to call it downright (im)Polite!
Jones is an effective pick-and-roll facilitator, shooter, and driver, and the floor stays reasonably spaced thanks to the shooting of Fields, Donald Hicks, and Caleb Tanner. Bradford’s graduation opens some minutes for another role player, and JUCO transfer Devin Hutchinson or freshman Cle’von Greene seem like the best bets. Greene in particular has the look of a future Radford star, a super bouncy scorer who should fit into the team’s system well.
Bottom Line: Radford isn’t going to blow anyone away with scoring and flash – although Ed Polite will find his way into a couple Sportscenter highlight reels – but the players are disciplined and fit well into their roles. The Highlanders ranked 344th in the country in tempo last year, a testament to their deliberate nature and patient shot selection, and given the amount of roster continuity that they have, expect that same unhurried style to remain. Jones and Polite are both potential first-teamers, and if Sallah and/or Holland make a major impact inside, even more college basketball fans are going to know: who is Mike Jones (yup, snuck a trifecta in there, couldn’t help myself).
Key Returners: Chris Clemons, Andrew Eudy, Jon Ander Cuadra, Cory Gensler
Key Losses: Marcus Burk, Shane Whitfield, Mogga Lado
Key Newcomers: Isaac Chatman, Ladarius Knight, Milos Stajcic, Noah Saunders (JUCO), Trey Spencer (JUCO), Ricky Clemons
Outlook: Following last year’s promising 10-8 finish in the league and slated to return their top four scorers, the Camels seemed primed to make a run at the conference title in 2018-19. But then, Marcus Burk – the Robin to star guard Chris Clemons’s Batman – shockingly transferred to IUPUI, leaving more questions for Campbell and coach Kevin McGeehan. With Clemons around, there’s always hope for Campbell: see the near-miracle run in the 2017 Big South Tournament, when his 51 points in the semifinals nearly launched the Camels into the NCAAs.
As delightful as the offensive fireworks can be from Clemons, it demands mentioning that his diminutive 5’9 stature can undercut the Camels’ defense at times. The on-off numbers tell an ugly tale, as the team was 16 points per 100 possessions better defensively with him on the bench:
Of course, I’m not insane enough to suggest that Campbell would be a better team without Clemons. Rather, McGeehan should strive to find more ways to hide him on defense while continuing to feature his dazzling talents on the other end.
The defense as a whole was poor, ranking 294th in the country per KenPom’s rankings, showing particular vulnerability on the interior. Andrew Eudy was actually an excellent rim protector for his size (just 6’7, but ranked 3rd in the league in block rate), but the guards struggled mightily to stay in front of opposing guards. Considering how much zone the Camels played (28% of the time), that’s a serious red flag. Brooks Cluxton looks to be emerging this offseason as a possible counterpart to Eudy up front, but he was mostly invisible during his rookie year, and Jon Ander Cuadra barely saw the floor (despite the deceiving 6.2ppg average, he only played 5 games).
Without Burk, the offensive pecking order becomes a bit murkier. He was the clear #2, as evidenced by one outrageous game against Liberty in which Burk and Clemons combined to go 20/30 from three-point range (10 each). Eudy is an effective big man in McGeehan’s system, giving them an option on the block and a tremendous facilitator in the high post. The Camels run Clemons and the rest of their guards off a plethora of dribble handoffs, and Eudy actually led the Camels in assist rate (9th in the Big South). JUCO transfer Trey Spencer and rising sophomores Jordan Whitfield and Ja’Cor Nelson will likely take many of the opportunities vacated by Burk, with Corey Gensler continuing to be a spot-up floor spacer on the wing.
The offensive wild cards are two freshmen, LaDarius Knight and Isaac Chatman, both of whom were absurdly productive as Alabama preps. They’ll provide a nice spark off the bench, with the chance of earning a starting spot if Spencer or Gensler faltered.
Bottom Line: Clemons is a tremendous linchpin, but the defense needs to see massive improvements for Campbell to challenge in the Big South. Last year’s 10-8 finish was actually the best year McGeehan’s had in the Big South, and he’ll have one last go-round with his diminutive dynamo to try and get over the hump. That may be too tall of a task (sorry for the height joke), but The Clemons Show will still be a must-watch.
3. Charleston Southern
Key Returners: Christian Keeling, Phlandrous Fleming, Travis McConico, Ty Jones, Deontaye Buskey
Key Losses: Cortez Mitchell, Javis Howard
Key Newcomers: Nate Louis (JUCO), Duncan LeXander, Timmy Sellers, Dontrell Shuler, Sadarius Bowser, Jamir Moore, Travis Anderson
Outlook: The longest-tenured of the Big South coaches, Barclay Radebaugh has had his share of ups and downs in his 13 seasons. This year is definitely shaping up as a high, though, as he rides perhaps the conference’s best overall backcourt to what he hopes is his first ever outright Big South title and NCAA Tournament bid.
Random aside - but did you know Charleston Southern is 18 miles northwest of Charleston?
It is *Chris Traeger voice* literally north of North Charleston. That’s just atrocious branding!
Note: I did some (very limited) research trying to figure out why it’s called Charleston “Southern” and couldn’t find a reason, so feel free to dunk on me in the comments/on Twitter if you know.
Alright, you’re not hear for geography or crappy jokes. Radebaugh is a card-carrying member of the “Three-Pointers Are Dope” club, often playing four guards to space the floor and open up driving lanes. Although the 3PA frequency has tailed off the last two years, he’ll still frequently roll out skilled gunners on both wings in sophomore Phlandrous Fleming and senior Travis McConico. Part of the decline in threes has been due to the presence of high-usage star guard Christian Keeling, a lanky driver and midrange assassin who is still developing his long distance stroke (though I expect him to unleash it this year). Sean Price and freshman Jamir White should fight for playing time as well; both are skilled shooters at 6’5.
Another factor that should reinvigorate the offense is having a point guard that can bomb away – Deontaye Buskey was serviceable as a freshman, but he and Cortez Mitchell were consistently hazardous to the backboard when firing from deep. Enter JUCO transfer Nate Louis, who knocked down 113 threes at 42.8% last year while also averaging 6.1 assists per game (admittedly against questionable competition). If he can seize the lead guard job from Buskey, offenses will have to respect him quite a bit more (in addition to helping less on Keeling drives). A starting job is no guarantee, though, as the offense surged last year when Buskey played alongside Keeling:
A final note that would help the three-point heavy offense: making them! The Buccaneers ranked 293rd in the country in 3FG%, as good a deterrent as any to simply stop shooting them.
In case you haven’t gotten the message yet, shooting is huge for the success of this Charleston Southern team. The very nature of the Charleston Southern offense limits the ceiling of its big men, as post ups are treated like Ebola, but Radebaugh did embrace offensive rebounding as an outlet to cheap points last year. Undersized Ty Jones and freshmen Sadarius Bowser (top-shelf name) and Duncan LeXander (also very excellent) offer differing games up front, with Bowser as the most conventional big man and LeXander being more of a versatile three-four ‘tweener. They’ll all earn minutes as Radebaugh hunts for the best lineup combinations.
Bottom Line: Behind the talented and deep backcourt, Radebaugh should be salivating for the season’s start. The Buccaneers have a real chance at winning the league given how young they were last year (337th) and the wide open nature of the league behind presumed favorite Radford. As long as the defense can maintain its press-heavy style on defense (12th nationally in forced turnover rate), expect Charleston Southern to have a breakout year.
Key Returners: Jermaine Marrow, Kalin Fisher, Akim Mitchell, Greg Heckstall, Trevond Barnes, Lysander Bracey
Key Losses: Malique Street-Trent, Charles Wilson-Fisher
Key Newcomers: JJ Watson, Pierre Sow (redshirt), James Dunlop (redshirt), Ricquall Smoot (JUCO)
Outlook: If college basketball had promotion / relegation, Hampton definitely just stepped up from the bottom tier of Division I into a more competitive league, earning “promotion” via a consistent track record of success in the lowly MEAC. Edward Joyner has built a mini-dynasty there, but his Pirates face a brand new challenge now in the Big South, unquestionably a step up in competition. As a quick gut-check, I went back through Hampton’s results against Big South opponents during Joyner’s tenure (nine seasons):
The Pirates have competed well, by and large, supporting the baseline theory that they can compete in their new digs, at the very least. And lucky for Joyner, he returns most of the key pieces from Hampton’s MEAC regular season champ squad, so the Pirates have to be considered a threat in their new league from the outset.
Aside from the competition level, the biggest change in going from MEAC to Big South will be the speed of the game. The MEAC ranked 2nd of 32 conferences in tempo last year, per KenPom.com, compared to the plodding Big South, which ranked 29th. Hampton was one of the leaders in that movement, riding the talented backcourt duo of Jermaine Marrow and Kalin Fisher on a breakneck chase for buckets. The Pirates have never had much shooting under Joyner, instead preferring to push to the rim at every chance, yet another stylistic clash with the 3-point-heavy Big South. Marrow is a star already and only getting better, a likely all-conference performer and potential 20ppg scorer if Hampton continues to slam the gas pedal. They are not entirely without shooters, though – Lysander Bracey is thin but deadly and stretch big Greg Heckstall keeps defenses honest without getting bullied on D.
Heckstall, Akim Mitchell, and shot-swatter Trevond Barnes constitute a solid frontcourt that makes things difficult inside and on the glass; Barnes is a legit rim protector, but his foul issues necessitate that one of the newcomers – redshirt freshmen Pierre Sow and James Dunlop, JUCO transfer Ricquall Smoot – emerges as a rotational big to spell him.
When not in transition, the offense is mostly going to try to score via spread PnR and attacking off of drives. Marrow will run a great deal of these, but look for Fisher and Dondre Griffin to get some opportunities as well. Malique Trent-Street graduated, taking a strong ball-handler and elite on-ball defender from the roster, but Griffin can make up for some of that at 6’3, 200 pounds. Rest assured, though: Hampton will want/need to push the tempo, as their efficiency suffers mightily when forced to execute and score against a set defense.
Bottom Line: The roster has plenty of familiarity, but the schedule does not. Deciphering how those two variables will interplay this year is the chief mystery with the Pirates. Will they be able to speed games up? Can they hit enough perimeter shots to allow their rim onslaught to be successful against better defenses? They likely won’t win the league right off the bat, but contending in the top four is certainly possible, and Joyner has proven time and again he’s a tremendous low-major coach. I’m gambling that Hampton announces its presence loudly and quickly, with Marrow leading the way.
Key Returners: David Efianayi, DJ Laster, Jaheam Cornwall, Christian Turner
Key Losses: Liam O’Reilly, Patrick Zeck, L’Hassane Niangane
Key Newcomers: Jose Perez, Jaylen Alston, Ludovic Dufeal, Erick Valdez, Gabe Bryant
Outlook: The Bulldogs are a popular pick to be in the top 2 or 3 this year, and really, they’re very similar Charleston Southern. Both bring key pieces back (including a star wing) after a 9-9 conference finish, and both struggled to put the biscuit in the basket but held up well defensively. Picking between the two (and Campbell and Hampton and Winthrop and High Point) is splitting hairs, yet another reason why I’m glad we’ve decided to show our conference standings in tiers. Coach Tim Craft has won between 9 and 11 games in the league in all five of his seasons, but he’s hoping his talented backcourt can get him over that hump this year and edge towards a championship.
Craft is a strange case as a head coach. In 2014-15 and 2015-16, his teams fired away from deep (despite having several terrific frontcourt players). Then in the past two seasons, they’ve largely stopped their aggressive ways, despite having personnel far more geared towards a perimeter attack. David Efianayi is the star, a multi-level scorer at 6’2 who has grown quite a bit as a perimeter shooter since a bricky freshman year, although he’s still probably best attacking the rim and drawing contact. Rising sophomore point guard Jaheam Cornwall and the graduated Liam O’Reilly were weapons as well, and although DJ Laster only hit 29% of his threes, his ability to stretch to the perimeter makes him a difficult matchup as the nominal power forward. This year’s squad adds major firepower in the form of Jose Perez, a highly-touted 6’5 wing who may start immediately alongside Efianayi and one of the team’s two ball-handlers.
Cornwall and Christian Turner were a true platoon last year (the two PGs played only 24 possessions together during the entire season), with Turner starting most games as the defensive specialist and Cornwall coming in to provide offensive pop. Their lineup figures alongside the steady Efianayi tell the tale:
Turner is nearly invisible offensively, which causes issues for a system that isn’t wholly reliant on one player or style. Cornwall, on the other hand, lacks the hands and anticipation to disrupt offenses like Turner can; Craft will need to deploy the two PGs optimally to maximize Gardner-Webb’s potential.
The team’s biggest player, L’Hassane Niangane, graduated, and ultra-reliable post man Patrick Zeck left the team, leaving a glaring hole on the interior for a defense that excelled on the glass. Freshman Gabe Bryant is a candidate to start right away, although graduate student Brandon Miller is a battler who is back from an injury that cut short his year after eight games. Eric Jamison will play some undersized four as well, and he proved to be an extremely scrappy rebounder who gained playing time late in the year for his hustle.
Bottom Line: Gardner-Webb’s backcourt gives it a chance to be excellent: if Cornwall makes a sophomore leap and Perez is good right away, then Craft will have a plethora of options both offensively and defensively on how to deploy his lineup. A defensive anchor needs to emerge inside, but that should continue to be a strength for the Bulldogs, and they could end up challenging with the very top of the conference.
6. High Point
Key Returners: Jahaad Proctor, Brandonn Kamga, Denny Slay, Ricky Madison
Key Losses: Andre Fox, Jordan Whitehead, Austin White, Justyn Mutts
Key Newcomers: Tim Cameron (UTEP), Rob Peterson III, John-Michael Hughes, Curtis Holland III, Caden Sanchez (redshirt), Othello Smith
Outlook: I did a bit of research, and I feel fairly confident that Tubby Smith is the best coach to ever ply his trade in the Big South. Gregg Marshall has a pretty good chance to surpass him, but Tubby has won 107 more games in much tougher conferences and a national title, so I’m giving him the edge until further notice (probably another like, 5 years). Here’s an entirely subjective ranking of coaches who have spent any time in the Big South since 1991:
It’s pretty convenient for High Point that an alumnus like Smith was available this offseason, although it led to a probably-slightly-unfair “mutually parting of the ways” with former coach Scott Cherry. Cherry had racked up a 92-65 Big South record in his nine seasons, but that wasn’t enough when Smith was let go at Memphis (in similar circumstances, coincidentally).
In a relatively surprising move, wing scorer Andre Fox transferred in the offseason, but the returning core is far from devoid of talent. Former Iona Gael Jahaad Proctor immediately stepped into the primary creator role and excelled, and Brandonn Kamga is a nice compliment as a transfer himself (formerly of Northeastern before starting every game at HP last year). I was extremely high on Tim Cameron a couple years back as a freshman at UTEP, but he flamed out miserably in El Paso. I’ll hop on board the train again, though, as he’s a talented wing who can do almost everything on the court. Curtis Holland III will be a highly impactful freshman due to his outrageous vertical pop, and fellow rookie Rob Peterson III (son of Michael Jordan’s UNC roommate and teammate, Buzz Peterson) can hoop too.
Shooting and spacing will be a slight concern, as Proctor is the only proven college shooter, but Peterson figures to knock down shots as well. Point guards Denny Slay and Jamal Wright combined to go a gross 17-64 (27%), meaning the makes will almost certainly have to come from the wing - thankfully, the team has strong depth in the backcourt.
However, Tubby’s teams are usually more reliant on a bruising frontcourt – throughout his career, his squads have consistently been among the country’s best on the offensive glass. The personnel up front is less inspiring, but I still expect most lineups to feature two true bigs. Undersized Jordan Whitehead and Ricky Madison are the most likely candidates to start after being productive role players last year, but Tubby may be seduced by the size of Sam Berlin and/or freshman Othello Smith, both 6’10. Whitehead and Madison both posted offensive rebounding rates north of 12.0% – nationally elite marks – and if they continue that work rate on the glass, they’ll see playing time regardless.
Strangely, despite the offensive emphasis on rebounding, Tubby squads have been poor on the defensive glass, not ranking above 236th in D-rebound rate since 2011-12. This may be due to his propensity to mix in zone with his multiple bigs, and the lack of specific matchups can lead to missed box outs. High Point also loses its best defenders in Fox and Justyn Mutts, so this end will boil down to whether the 67-year-old can get his players to buy in.
Bottom Line: The roster makeup probably doesn’t mesh well enough with Tubby’s preferred style for this to be a surprise year of contending (will he dare play four guards at times??), but I’d expect steady progress within short order from a coach who should be head-and-shoulders ahead of most of his counterparts.
Key Returners: Bjorn Broman, Adam Pickett, Josh Ferguson, Nych Smith, Kyle Zunic
Key Losses: Xavier Cooks, Anders Broman
Key Newcomers: Keondre Schumacher (redshirt), Michael Anumba
Outlook: All things considered, spurning UMass to stay in Rock Hill worked out fairly well for Pat Kelsey. His Eagles made a run at the Big South title, ultimately falling short by one game to an excellent UNC Asheville squad, and actually ranked as the best team in the league at KenPom.com. As such, it feels dangerous to put a program as consistent as Winthrop this low in the standings, but the loss of Xavier Cooks is a massive blow. The do-everything forward was the Eagles’ engine last year, leading the team in points, rebounds, assists, and blocks, and on/off numbers had him worth an astounding 29 points (+20 with him, -9 without him):
Seventh-year coach Pat Kelsey will need some serious development from the rest of his roster to prevent dropping this far in the league standings.
Of course, that’s not even mentioning the loss of the Broman Brothers Bond, as Anders sails off into the sunset. Baby bro-man Bjorn Broman returns, likely as part of a dual-PG system with Nych Smith, who was suspended for the second half of the year after not student-ing well enough. Given how frequently the Eagles used Cooks as a facilitator (he actually led the team in assist rate), having multiple ball-handlers on the court to fill that role will be crucial. Kelsey runs a lot of pick-and-roll, an area where Broman excelled last year (84th percentile nationally, per Synergy), but having a second option with which to attack should open up the court even more. Smith’s presence also allows Bjorn – screw it, I’m going first name basis, despite Anders’s graduation – to spot up on the perimeter, where he and fellow senior Adam Pickett were positively deadly. Kyle Zunic is yet another shooting option, and Austin Awad showed promise as a stretch four in his first year out of junior college.
The other key part of Winthrop’s offense is transition; they had the 27th-shortest average offensive possession last year, demonstrating a constant propensity for attacking early in the shot clock. They weren’t very good at it last year (“Poor,” as Synergy would put it), but even an average transition possession is more efficient than playing in the half-court. Athletic big man Josh Ferguson is a weapon due to his ability to beat opposing bigs down the floor, and he’s a tremendous rebounder to either clean up a missed lay-up or start the break with an outlet pass or block. He is also a strong roll threat with the floor spaced by the rest of the aforementioned shooters. Charles Falden showed promise attacking the rim in the open court, as well.
Contrary to that sped up offensive approach, Winthrop emphasized getting back on defense and forcing opponents to grind out points against a set defense. True freshman Michael Anunmba appears to be a defensive stopper right away, and he should fit nicely into Kelsey’s exclusively man-to-man scheme (literally played 0% zone last year). The backcourt depth should allow them to be aggressive on the perimeter, but someone will need to pick up the slack alongside Ferguson on the defensive glass without Cooks around. Awad and Jermaine Ukaegbu are the most likely candidates, and Kelsey would love to see Awad win the majority of the minutes due to his far superior offensive upside.
Bottom Line: If you haven’t gotten the message yet, Cooks is a massive loss. He affected every part of the game for the Eagles, and his presence made everything easier for his teammates. Winthrop will need (Bjorn) Broman, Pickett, or Ferguson to rise into more of a starring role, or this predicted dip in the standings will become a reality.
8. UNC Asheville
Key Returners: Uh-oh
Key Losses: Ahmad Thomas, MaCio Teague (transfer), Raekwon Miller, Kevin Vannatta, Jonathan Baehre (transfer), Alec Wnuk, Drew Rackley (transfer)
Key Newcomers: Devon Baker, Cress Worthy, TaJion Jones (redshirt), LJ Thorpe (redshirt), Stephen Edoka, Luke Lawson, Coty Jude, Deacon Heath
Outlook: As mentioned in the “Key Returners” section…uh-oh. Coming off a superb three-year run under Nick McDevitt in which the Bulldogs went 66-35 (40-14), the program is essentially starting over. McDevitt left for Middle Tennessee, four rotation players graduated, and star juniors MaCio Teague and Jonathan Baehre both transferred to Power 6 schools (Baylor and Clemson, respectively). That all adds up to Asheville returning a depressing 7% of its minutes from last season, 352nd in the country per barttorvik.com. If this roster was a person, it’d be a stranger wearing Miami (FL) football’s turnover chain, sitting on Boise’s turnover throne, eating an apple turnover – you get the idea.
Taking over is Mike Morrell, a 36-year-old former Shaka Smart assistant, attempting to rebuild with a slew of freshmen, one transfer, and a couple minor holdovers from the McDevitt era. The strength of the squad will be its athleticism and mobility, fitting for a coach who will likely engage the pressure a la Shaka’s Havoc at VCU as a way to level the playing field slightly. LJ Thorpe compiled four steals in his only game before being lost for the season with injury, he’ll join fellow redshirt freshman Tajion Jones and true freshmen Cress Worthy, Devon Baker, and Stephen Edoka in what is likely the country’s youngest backcourt (shouts to Kentucky and Duke, though). Worthy has drawn praise for his defensive efforts – the baseline for earning playing time under Morrell’s regime – while Baker probably gets the keys to the offense from day one. Jalen Seegars will provide essentially the only backcourt experience after starting five games last year, another stout defender that brings some size at 6’4, 210 pounds. Jones is the best shooter of the group, something that might confuse Morrell after sitting on the sidelines with the heinously bricky Texas squads of the past three years, but if Jones can defend, he’ll be a major asset.
Mobile bigs are crucial in the Havoc system, which likely means more freshmen will play or even start: Coty Jude and Luke Lawson fit the bill, although playing both at the same time might be an issue on the glass. That means time for Drexel transfer Jeremy Peck, more of a stout rebounding presence. None of the three are really “shot-blockers” in the vein of Shaka bigs Jarrett Allen or even Mo Alie-Cox (to say nothing Mo Bamba), though, which will leave the back line exposed if the opposition breaks the pressure. Lone senior Donovan Gilmore has shown flashes, but he’s more of a disruptive forward than a true paint presence.
Bottom Line: The joys of the past three seasons have sadly come to an end. The optimistic Morrell sees it as an opportunity to instill his vision for the program and style immediately with so many new faces, though, and he seems like as solid a bet as any to build a winner (Will Wade, another former Shaka assistant, has done okay for himself). It will take patience, but the freshman class is solid, so if Morrell can keep them around for four years, he can have the program back near the McDevitt heights within a couple years.
Key Returners: Francois Lewis (ineligible for second half), Davon Bell, JC Younger, Romeo Crouch, Armel TeTe, Ethan Kay
Key Losses: Reggie Dillard, Jaron Withers, Ruben Arroyo
Key Newcomers: Cory Hightower, Adam Flagler, Jordan Gibson, Chris Martin, Kody Shubert
Outlook: In 11 seasons as a Division I program (ten in the Big South), the Blue Hose have yet to climb the .500 mountain (more like a hill, really). Longtime coach Gregg Nibert saw the program’s “peak” – relative term here – at 14-15 (8-10) in 2011-12, followed by a tumble all the way down to 5-25 (1-17) in 2016-17, resulting in his termination. New coach Dustin Kerns found success just as hard to come by in Clinton: Presbyterian finished outside of the country’s top 325 per KenPom for the sixth consecutive season. Although the offense showed some signs of life due to emphasizing the three-point line a little more, it wasn’t enough to avoid being in the bowels of the league (eight of its ten teams finished 9-9 or better).
That burgeoning offense (again, relative terms) is the primary reason for hope this year, as Kerns opened things up on the perimeter, allowing his guards more freedom and space to attack. Presbyterian ranked in the top 30 in the country in both “spot up” and “isolation” play types, and although Reggie Dillard graduated, both Davon Bell and Romeo Crouch return as leaders of the attack. Bell was excellent for the Blue Hose last year, leading the conference in assist rate and using his quickness and craft to get into the lane at will.
The presence of JC Younger and Ethan Kay aided Bell quite a bit, as both perimeter shooters demanded attention. Younger is a consistent rotation player, but Kay deserves a spot in the Chuckers Hall of Fame: in just 344 minutes, Kay took 137 threes, which means he fired away once every 2.5 minutes that he was on the floor. For comparison, Marshall Henderson – probably the most unabashed three-point bomber I can think of – took 377 in 934 minutes during his final season at Mississippi, also right around that “once every 2.5 minutes” threshold. If you’re shooting threes as often as Marshall freakin’ Henderson, you’re a star in my book, and I don’t care if only 31.6% of them go in. Kay managed only 5 FT attempts and 6 two-point shots in his time, as well, further increasing his legend in my eyes.
Kay aside, there are two key factors that will determine whether Presbyterian can ascend from the league’s depths. One is Francois Lewis, a multi-talented big man who can knock down threes (42% on 55 attempts) while also being a strong rebounder and a force in the post (98th percentile, per Synergy, albeit on limited possessions). Problem was, Lewis missed the “student” part of student-athlete and was academically ineligible for the second semester, and Kerns’s Krew lost 13 of 16 Big South games without him (they were 8-8 with him).
The second factor is the talented group of freshmen, all of whom will get a chance to play immediately. My beloved Ethan Kay’s playing time will be threatened by more dynamic guards in Chris Martin and Adam Flagler, while Kody Shubert looks like the point guard of the future once Bell graduates. Martin looks like the key, a quick 6-footer who attacks the basket like a much bigger guard. Jordan Gibson adds some much-needed height on the perimeter at 6’5 (and he can play some small-ball four), while Cory Hightower, who originally committed to Detroit, should provide depth inside and potentially battle incumbent Armel TeTe for a starting spot.
Bottom Line: The offense provides the upside, but the defense is what can actually raise the floor for Presbyterian. They were a nightmare on that end last year, getting completely torched inside. The holdover players from the Nibert era were recruited to play zone, while Kerns prefers man-to-man, so the influx of newcomers can only help a defense that finished comfortably as the Big South’s worst. If so, then Kerns can continue the progress he showed last year, slowly but surely building the Blue Hose into respectability.
Key Returners: Isaiah Walton, JaShaun Smith, Damarion Geter, Spencer Franklin
Key Losses: BK Ashe, Charles Glover
Key Newcomers: Jaylon Wilson (JUCO), Lorenzo Phillips (JUCO), Abraham Deng, Gus Okafor, Pernell Adgei (JUCO/redshirt), Sean Flood (JUCO), Joey Lipp, Michael Smith
Outlook: One of the more peculiar hires of the offseason was Longwood snatching Griff Aldrich from UMBC. Aldrich was the Terriers’ Director of Recruiting for two seasons, following 16 years of working as a lawyer, CFO, and AAU coach in Houston. He has exactly one season of true college “coaching” experience (as an assistant at his alma mater, Hampden-Sydney College, in 1999-2000) and is a giant swing for the fences for a Lancers program that probably needed the shot in the arm.
If he succeeds, then it’s an incredible find for the administration, and if he fails, well – they’re back where they are now. Longwood has had just two coaches in its D-I tenure: Mike Gillian led them through the transition and independent stages, followed by Jayson Gee taking over for the program’s second year in the Big South. Gee’s five seasons resulted in records of 42-120 overall, 19-69 in conference, which is how you end up hiring a private sector alpha as your head coach.
Given Aldrich’s background (or lack thereof), pegging his preferred style of play is a challenge, but I’ll venture to guess he coaches similarly to his pal Ryan Odom – smart, disciplined offense that emphasizes the three-ball via a spread, guard-based attack, and a mostly man-to-man approach on defense. The offense could certainly use any kind of jolt after finishing 347th of 351 in KenPom’s offensive rankings last year. Isaiah Walton, the team’s leading scorer, and JaShaun Smith return as respectable perimeter shooters, and most of the team’s bricklayers departed. Beyond those two, the perimeter offense will be inexperienced at the D-I level. Juan Munoz has missed two years with knee injuries but has the skills to direct Aldrich’s offense, and JUCO Sean Flood will almost certainly play due to his proficiency from deep (53% last year). Lorenzo “Shabooty” Phillips – that’s right, Shabooty – is another PG option, and sophomore Kamil Chapman showed some potential last year despite poor perimeter shooting.
The guards get to take so many shots because of the presence of Damarion Geter in the frontcourt, a Swiss army knife who forget to get the scoring attachment installed. He’s a great facilitator in the frontcourt along with being a strong rebounder and shot-blocker, but I’m concerned he’s becoming a ball-hog after more than doubling his usage rate from 6.9% to 14.6% last year (to be clear – those are both in the “nearly invisible” realm).
The most intriguing frontcourt option, though, is Abraham Deng, a shot-blocking extraordinaire who still needs some meat on his bones. His length and bounce may allow him to impact games, though, and his long-term potential is tremendous in the Big South.
Bottom Line: The combination of several important newcomers in the backcourt and a complete and total wild card as a head coach makes Longwood nearly impossible to figure out. Aldrich is looking to follow in Andy Enfield’s footsteps as successful private sector executives-turned-head-coaches, and for some weird reason, I think he’ll end up being a solid hire. It may not come this year, but I’ll be keeping an eye on the Lancers out of curiosity in the next few years.
11. USC Upstate
Key Returners: Deion Holmes, Malik Moore, Jure Span, Thomas Booker
Key Losses: Mike Cunningham, Ramel Thompkins
Key Newcomers: Bryson Mozone, Brandon Martin, Everette Hammond, Dalvin White, Jordan Furlough, Ross Ryan, Josh Aldrich, Nevin Zink
Outlook: The second Big South newcomer along with Hampton, USC Upstate is coming off a truly “impressive” season in which they set a KenPom record: they had the worst defense in the 17-year history of the website! The Spartans held only three opponents below 1.0 points per possession, and all three of them were non-Division I teams (one non-D-I team, Coastal Georgia, actually scored 1.12ppp). That is a truly remarkable level of defensive incompetence! Interim coach Kyle Perry was simply lost following Eddie Payne’s retirement late in the offseason, and Upstate’s 2017-18 numbers against new league opponents are terrifying unless new hire Dave Dickerson fixes something fast:
Four rotation players return, but Dickerson brings in eight true freshmen to hopefully make a fresh start on defense – new players CANNOT be a bad thing after last season’s fiasco. Of course, the biggest differentiating factor should be having a permanent coach in place. Dickerson has been all over the places, including head coach at Tulane and associate head coach at Ohio State, but he most recently served as a scout for the Utah Jazz. His copious experience should lead to some stability in Spartanburg, and his defensive mind will be a key rebuilding tool, as well.
Upstate tried everything – they ran man 49% of the time, zone 51% - and none of it worked. Returning offensive threats like Deion Holmes and point guard Jure Span is nice, but when they can’t stop anyone, Dickerson may have to turn to the newcomers. Nevin Zink and Ross Ryan will have to play out of necessity after the loss of nearly the entire frontcourt – Malik Moore will probably man a smallball four role – and Dickerson will have to hope the two youngsters can put up more opposition at the rim than the overmatched group of 2017-18 bigs. Of course, the guards can’t simply “ole” drivers to the rim, either. Thomas Booker will play more minutes thanks to his defense, while freshmen Everette Hammond, Dalvin White, and Bryson Mouzone will need to prove they can play on this end before unleashing their considerable offensive abilities.
Perhaps the most notable defensive addition is Brandon Martin – yes, he has the size and versatility at 6’6 to guard most positions, but even more notably, he’s Frank Martin’s son. You think he’s been yelled at a time or two about effort on D?
Bottom Line: Holmes, Moore, and Span are a solid foundation offensively, and the freshmen guards look like keepers on that end too, but none of it will matter unless Dickerson can somehow plug the iceberg-sized holes in the defense. I’d guess he plays more man-to-man than his predecessor given his NBA background, which means he’ll need a lot of minutes from the freshmen class. The upside here seems very limited with how much youth is present, but if the defense improves from *literally* the worst unit in the history of KenPom, then at least they’ll be more competitive.