Player of the Year: Justin Wright-Foreman, Hofstra, Sr.
Coach of the Year: Bill Coen, Northeastern
Newcomer of the Year: Brian Fobbs, Towson, Jr.
Freshman of the Year: Zep Jasper, Charleston, R Fr.
Key Returners: Vasa Pusica, Shawn Occeus, Donnell Gresham Jr., Bolden Brace, Anthony Green, Maxime Boursiquot, Tomas Murphy
Key Losses: Devon Begley
Key Newcomers: Jordan Roland (George Washington), Jason Strong (redshirt)
Outlook: Quick tangent: Northeastern will always have a warm, cozy place in my heart because they were part of the very first NCAA Tournament game that 3MW watched together in beautiful Las Vegas, Nevada. Ky Ky the Married Guy couldn’t make the first trip, but he came in hot in Year 2 by accidentally betting on Northeastern when the entire group was on Notre Dame, the opening game on Thursday morning. Of course, Northeastern nearly snuck out a win, and Ky happily counted his (unintentional) monies – and folks, there’s never a bad way to win your first bet in Vegas.
Anyways, Bill Coen proved his excellence as a coach that day, almost pulling off the upset despite stud Scott Eatherton being saddled with foul trouble. Coen did it again last year, tying for the conference title despite being picked a lowly sixth in the preseason poll (and winning Coach of the Year for his troubles). Part of what makes him so brilliant is his flexibility as a coach – after playing a ton of zone in 2015-16 and 2016-17, he recognized the switchability of his roster, playing nearly all man-to-man (stats per Synergy):
With Devon Begley, Vasa Pusica, Maxime Boursiquot, Bolden Brace, and CAA Defensive Player of the Year Shawn Occeus, Coen had five 6’4-6’6 guys with whom he could switch most screens, allowing the Huskies to swarm any perimeter exchanges, take away the three-point line, and force opponents into difficult isolation possessions. Northeastern allowed the the country’s second-lowest three-point rate (percentage of total shots that are threes) and the fifth-lowest assist rate (measure of how many baskets are assisted), evidencing just how effective the strategy was, all leading to what was far and away the CAA’s best defense. Though they didn’t have shot-blocking inside, they were a superb rebounding team, buoyed by Brace, 6’10 center Anthony Green, and Boursiquot.
Offensively, the Huskies weren’t as lights-out as William & Mary or Hofstra, but with Vasa the Wizard at the helm, Coen found a way to coax enough points out of the roster to complement his defense. More than a third of the Huskies’ possessions involved a pick-and-roll of some sort to get the offense flowing (36%, in fact – 9th-most in the country, per Synergy), with Pusica entrusted with the freedom to pull up, find the roll man, or drive-and-dish to spot up shooters like Occeus, Brace, or Donnell Gresham. This clip illustrates his abilities as a maestro:
Pusica comes off a dribble hand-off, reverses direction to re-use Green as a screener, then reads the help and throws a pinpoint skip pass that leads to a four-point play. He doesn’t get the assist, but the combination of the attention he draws and his vision at 6’5 makes that play happen. Despite the massive production of Hofstra’s Justin Wright-Foreman, Pusica should be right with him in the race for conference player of the year, especially if Northeastern repeats atop the league.
Another instance of Coen’s adaptability as a coach: Northeastern barely took any threes from 2013-2015, but then they leaned hard into the long-range trend, ranking in the nation’s top 30 in proportion of shots from deep the past three seasons. Their best four shooters return this year, which should open up the court for rising sophomore Tomas Murphy and Green to go to work in the interior. Both were effective roll men playing in tandem with Pusica, and Murphy is a burgeoning star in the post after flashing serious potential there in relatively limited minutes. If he makes a leap as a sophomore, Northeastern’s offense as a whole could as well.
Bottom Line: After a heartbreaking loss in overtime of the CAA title game (led by 17 in the second half but still had it – alas, don’t foul three-point shooters, especially up 5 with 30 seconds left!!), Northeastern brings back everyone except Begley – a valuable defender, but not irreplaceable. Pusica won’t take anyone by surprise this season (he exceeded any and all expectations after transferring from San Diego), but he’s good enough to be successful anyways. Coen is a great basketball mind, and I wouldn’t be one bit surprised if the Weave is once again intently watching the Huskies from Vegas next March – perhaps we’ll all intentionally bet on them this time around.
Key Returners: Justin Wright-Foreman, Eli Pemberton, Desure Buie, Jalen Ray
Key Losses: Rokas Gustys
Key Newcomers: Jacquil Taylor (Purdue), Tareq Coburn (St. Bonaventure), Kevin Schutte (didn’t play), Hal Hughes
Outlook: Hofstra is, to me, the platonic ideal of a CAA team: purveyors of a wide open, spaced out offensive attack that lights it up from the perimeter with an arsenal of talented offensive players, all while generally not caring how many baskets the opponent scores. Indeed, the CAA ranked first out of all 32 conferences in effective field goal percentage, demonstrating just how much the offenses dominate this league. Hofstra manifested that league-wide offense/defense imbalance: the Pride’s defense ranked a dismal 282nd nationally, per KenPom (out of 351 teams), yet that same defense finished in the top half of the conference (5th of 10). Let’s get buckets, Colonial fellas!
Joe Mihalich’s spread pick-and-roll offense is a thing of beauty, particularly with the perimeter talent he currently (and usually) possesses. Justin Wright-Foreman is one of the nation’s leading scorers thanks in part to his PnR potency; per Synergy, he ranked in the 88th percentile out of this play type, partially because he can alternate between dropping tough threes in your face even when you go over screens:
Or speeding to his left and turning the corner to finish over a shot-blocker (aside - that James Madison court design looks like Spike from Tom and Jerry put on a duke’s hat and melted into a basketball court):
Wright-Foreman isn’t alone on offense, though; his running mate on the wing, Eli Pemberton, is also adept running off ball screens, ranking in the 84th percentile himself. Both are traditionally free to focus on scoring thanks to the presence of Desure Buie at the point, and Jalen Ray is a shooting threat at 2-guard. Kenny Wormley and St. Bonnie's transfer Tareq Coburn round out a deep group of guards/wings; the depth is more than welcome given how often Mihalich opts to have four of them on the floor (Pemberton - and possibly now Coburn - becomes the second "big").
The biggest question is in the middle, as Rokas Gustys, the Lithuanian Lord of the Rebound, finally departs after setting a school record on the boards. Purdue grad transfer Jacquil Taylor is a good bet to replace a chunk of those minutes, but he'll face competition from Dutch forward Kevin Schutte and possibly mystery Aussie freshman Hal Hughes. Gustys was a skilled screener and smart roller, meaning his replacement's role is more important than it may appear in such a perimeter-based offense. Stafford Trueheart offers Mihalich some lineup flexibility if the four-guard squad isn't working, providing some size (6'8) and shooting (14/42 from downtown) as a more traditional power forward.
Playing so small has its drawbacks, though - the defense was constantly gashed, forcing the Pride to simply outscore teams. Gustys, for all of his strengths on the glass, was a non-factor as a shot-blocker, and opponents shot a healthy 65.2% at the rim against Hofstra, the 32nd-highest in the country per hoop-math. Mihalich tries to compensate for his lack of size by playing a ton of zone (and even looks to take away the three-point line), but they're simply too exposed inside. Taylor's abilities as an actual shot-blocker offer some hope for improvement, though.
Bottom Line: With Wright-Foreman, Pemberton, Buie, and Ray all returning, the Pride's offense is nearly certain to be at or near the top of the league once again. Pride games will still be a blast to watch (do NOT miss them when they play fellow offense-heavy William & Mary - that's right, the Pride vs. Tribe battle), but the defense will have to see an uptick for an NCAA bid to make its way out onto Long Island.
Key Returners: Jarrell Brantley, Grant Riller, Marquise Pointer, Nick Harris
Key Losses: Joe Chealey, Cameron Johnson
Key Newcomers: Zep Jasper (redshirt), Isaih Moore, Quan McCluney
Outlook: The Cougars entered 2017-18 with high expectations: they returned every player of significace from a team that went 14-4 the year before and made the NIT, were the near unanimous Colonial favorite, and lurked near the top of almost every mid-major ranking. Unfortunately, an injury cost forward Jarrell Brantley the first ten games of the season, and the Cougars struggled to find their rhythm early in CAA play (3-3 start featuring losses to teams who would all finish below .500 in the league), causing many to forget about them. Charleston then ended the year on a 14-1 tear, earning its first NCAA bid from the CAA, before narrowly falling to Auburn in the opening round. Although Joe Chealey departs, the Cougars still have plenty of ammo to contend for the conference title once again.
The biggest surprise for Earl Grant’s group, year over year, was the decline on defense. Like his mentor Gregg Marshall, Grant prefers to play a physical, switching man-to-man, and the Cougars will constantly make you work against a set, well-organized halfcourt defense. (they allowed the least amount of shots in transition in the entire country, per hoop-math). The difference can almost exclusively be boiled down to opponents’ shooting: they shot 3.5% better from downtown and a whopping 7.7% better from the free throw line, some of which can simply be attributed to worse luck than in the previous year. The tenets (and most of the personnel) remain the same, though – can you score against them in the halfcourt? – and having Brantley back for a full season alongside 6’10 rim protector Nick Harris should bolster the defense.
While the luck and shooting numbers did not favor the Cougars on defense, they saw some positive trends from deep on the other end of the floor. Buoyed by strong seasons from Brantley, Grant Riller, and the departed Cameron Johnson, Charleston shot 38% from deep in conference play, contributing to the league’s top-ranked offense on a per-possession basis. Grant’s system is one of the most pick-and-roll heavy in the entire country, and although Chealey’s departure hurts, Riller and Marquise Pointer were both superb, as well. Riller will likely take over a lot of Chealey’s volume, a versatile offensive player who can score at all three levels while also creating for others. His presence on the court was worth worth 24 points per 100 possessions last year (+14 with him, -10 without him):
Don’t count out redshirt freshman Zep Jasper as a possible primary handler, though. He’s a quick driver who can shoot off the dribble, and I’m expecting a strong season from him right off the bat. Even when the PnR doesn’t directly lead to a bucket, it opens the court for jump shots and dumpoffs to Harris or Brantley inside, and Jasper is an adept passer.
Speaking of Brantley, he proved to be a strong post threat last year, giving the Cougars an option when the pick-and-roll game isn’t clicking. Playing four out with Brantley at center and one of Jaylen McManus or freshmen Quan McCluney or Isiah Moore could prove to be a beneficial changeup, as well – the offense scored a scintillating 1.22 points per possession last year when Brantley played without Harris, per Hoop Lens (though the defense suffered).
Bottom Line: It’s the worst way to dumb down basketball, but for Charleston, a lot of their success comes down to who makes shots (both for and against them). I’m confident the defense will be back in the top 100 this year, anchored by Brantley, Pointer, and Harris, and with plenty of offensive threats back as well, the Cougars will once again be battling at or near the top of the CAA.
4. William & Mary
Key Returners: Nathan Knight, Justin Pierce, Matt Milon, Paul Rowley
Key Losses: David Cohn, Connor Burchfield
Key Newcomers: LJ Owens, Chase Audige, Thornton Scott, Quinn Blair
Outlook: William & Mary was essentially HGH Hofstra last year, owning an ultra-potent offense coupled with one of the country’s very worst defenses on a per possession basis. They actually had the widest dichotomy between one end of the court and the other, per KenPom’s rankings (also notice Hofstra down there at 12th):
My colleague Ky affectionately dubbed this phenomenon “Lopsided Lovelies” in a December 2016 article, reflecting on how teams simply can’t ignore one side of the court and expect to succeed. Of course, the Tribe put every one-sided team in that article to shame, as their gargantuan 308-ranking gap dwarfed that of Old Dominion (265-rank difference).
The offense has consistently been prolific under longtime head coach Tony Shaver, finishing in Mr. Pomeroy’s top 52 nationally for five straight seasons. Shaver has long been a proponent of bombing away from deep in his four-out motion offense, always looking to get four shooters around a big man finisher/rebounder. Nathan Knight is already probably the best player to fill that role in Shaver’s 15 seasons, and he’s threatening to become fifth shooter – although he only hit a pedestrian 10/34 (29%) from deep last year, his free throw percentage leapt from 57% as a freshman to 77% in his second year (on double the volume), exhibiting a developing stroke that could eventually make him an NBA prospect.
Knight’s constant threat on the interior opened up even more room on the perimeter for scorers Justin Pierce (great breakdown of his game by Jackson Hoy of The Stepien here) and Matt Milon. They do lose one of the country’s best pure shooters in Connor Burchfield (50.4% from deep) and point guard David Cohn, but Pierce appears ready for an even larger offensive load as a 6’7 weapon who can make plays off the bounce for himself and others. Freshmen LJ Owens, Chase Audige, and Thornton Scott will all get chances to play in the backcourt, with Owens the most likely option to start at PG. Due to the nature of the motion offense, Shaver doesn’t have to over-rely on his lead ball-handler to make plays, so Owens should be eased into the role. Audige, on the other hand, is more of a shooting guard and looks ready to contribute immediately; he may be impossible to keep off the court for too long. Luke Loewe and Jihar Williams both played minimally as freshmen behind the team's seasoned backcourt, but they could also see more time after an offseason of improvement.
The Tribe can’t be discussed in depth without mentioning the toxic waste dump that is their defense, though. Shaver has traditionally played a Downy-soft zone that neither forces turnovers nor crowds the lane, and while it’s clear that he is not focused on this side of the ball, his best teams in Williamsburg have ranked inside the Top 200. Slashing their ranking in half in one season is a tall task, but playing more lineups with some size (i.e., Knight and two of Pierce/Rowley/froshy Quinn Blair) would help without sacrificing much on offense. One other beneficial factor should be increased depth; the Tribe ranked 346th in bench minutes last year (of course, they need the freshmen to step up for that to come to fruition).
Bottom Line: For those that complain about college basketball’s slow, bricky game, William & Mary is the team for you. They’ll play relatively fast, chuck threes from all over the court while surrounding a skilled interior player, and offer little-to-no resistance on defense. In the Tribe’s 31 games last season, at least one team scored 80 points in 27 of them, and had 10 in which both teams eclipsed that threshold. There will be points on both ends of the court, but unless Shaver’s defense finds a way to tighten the screws even a little, it may be a waste of another fireworks display on O.
5. James Madison
Key Returners: Stuckey Mosley, Matt Lewis, Darius Banks, Develle Phillips
Key Losses: Ramone Snowden, Joey McLean
Key Newcomers: DeShon Parker, Jonathan Hicklin, Matthew Urbach, Devon Flowers
Outlook: Despite some fairly major stylistic changes in year two of the Louis Rowe era, James Madison felt “stuck in the mud” last season. The results were nearly the same as his debut: 10-22 (6-12), ranked 229th in KenPom looks awfully similar to 10-23 (7-11), ranked 223rd. The roster turned almost completely over between those two seasons, though, so in effect, this is really Rowe’s second go-round with the team he assembled.
A talented three-headed backcourt will spearhead the Dukes’ offense, as Stuckey Mosley, Matt Lewis, and Darius Banks all averaged double-figures in their inaugural seasons in Harrisonburg. Mosley, a redshirt senior who began his career at Toledo, is the headliner, an instinctive scorer who is constantly hunting his shot. Lewis and Banks are both 6’5 sophomores, but they play different roles: Lewis is the nominal point guard (although all three operate in a kind of committee fashion) and more of a shooter, while Banks is a burly 225 pounds and a menace defensively. All three will attack off the pick-and-roll at times, often trying to pinpoint the opponent’s worst defender, but the success rate dropped drastically when Banks had the ball:
I’m not sure why Banks closed his eyes when coming off ball screens, but I do think part of Rowe’s offseason should be forcing his eyes open, Clockwork Orange-style. Freshman Jonathan Hicklin looks like a very good bet to play right away, possessing a stout 6’4, 205-pound frame, a silky lefty jumper, and impressive hops - his tape (read: Youtube highlights) really popped. Rowe can also turn to freshman Deshon Parker if he wants to play a true point guard, or Matthew Urbach if he needs pure shooting.
The roll man in these sets will often be Develle Phillips, a superb “Know Your Role” big man who does a little bit of everything. He’s a surprisingly effective post player, providing an additional option if the guards are struggling. Two rising sophomores, Greg Jones and Zach Jacobs, will battle to start alongside him (my money is on Jacobs), and another sophomore, widebody Dwight Wilson, will provide ferocious rebounding off the bench. The wildcard up front is freshman Devon Flowers, an athletic 6’8 ‘tweener forward.
The Dukes are a bit of a backwards squad relative to the rest of the conference – they want to execute in the halfcourt offensively and speed teams up when on defense. They’ll mix in some press and zone looks primarily to keep opponents off balance, not necessarily looking for turnovers. Phillips is a steadying force in the paint, and with so much length on the perimeter, there’s upside to improve on last year.
Bottom Line: Rowe is still very unproven as a coach – he only became a grad assistant in 2007 at age 34 – and he never assisted at a level higher than Bowling Green in the MAC. This is his alma mater, though, so the school knew what it was getting when they hired him. With a full contingent of players he brought to campus returning this year, fans should expect to see some progress this year – a .500 record (or better) in conference, growth from the promising sophomore class, and increased hope for contending in the future.
6. UNC Wilmington
Key Returners: Devontae Cacok, Ty Taylor, Jaylen Fornes, Jay Estime’, Jeffrey Gary
Key Losses: Jordon Talley, Marcus Bryan
Key Newcomers: Jeantal Cylla (Florida Atlantic), Ty Gadsden (JUCO), Jaylen Sims, Kai Toews, Shawn O’Connell (Georgia Southern)
Outlook: After rising coaching star Kevin Keatts left for NC State, hiring a Roy Williams disciple – longtime assistant C.B. McGrath – seemed like an outrageously perfect fit for all-world big man Devontae Cacok. And it was! Although he didn’t shoot 80% from the field again, Cacok led the nation in rebounding (13.5 per game) and scored in double-figures in 30 of 32 games. *Stephen A. Smith voice* HOWEVER, McGrath’s style didn’t fit the rest of the roster the same way, and the Seahawks were felled by their total lack of a defensive identity.
As good as Cacok is on the glass, he’s not a rim protector, and neither was fellow big Marcus Bryan. Without any hindrance to speak of, opponents shot a scorching 67.9% at the rim against UNCW. The perimeter defenders couldn’t stay in front of a moss-covered log (moss slows logs down, trust me), opening easy lanes to drive and finish or dish to big men. Oh, and don’t even ask how UNCW was at defending the pick-and-roll (sigh, you asked? Well, they were rotten, 5th percentile nationally). After playing in Keatts’s pressure-heavy, turnover-reliant system, McGrath cut that almost completely – the Seahawks went from pressing 35% of the time (second-most in the country) to just 4% last year. The halfcourt defense was repeatedly blitzed, constantly scrambling and giving up countless open shots, inside and out (opponents shot 39.6% from three, as well – 339th in the country).
Although the roster welcomes transfer bigs Jeantal Cylla and Shawn O’Connell, McGrath still lacks an enforcer in the paint, so he’ll need the guards to stop being turnstiles. It’s probably unfair to pinpoint any single player as it was a team-wide epidemic, but none of the starting backcourt of Ty Taylor, Jaylen Fornes, or the departed Jordon Talley acquitted themselves well. In a league full of great PnR teams and drivers, the Seahawks may continue to get cooked on this end.
Luckily, they’ll continue being able to play through the incredible Cacok, a one-man wrecking crew on the offensive glass and a terror as a rim runner in transition or in pick-and-roll. Some blend of Taylor, little-used reserve Jacque Brown, and JUCO transfer Ty Gadsden will take over the crucial point guard role following Talley’s graduation, and since Taylor is probably best as an off-ball attacker (along with Fornes), I’m putting my money on Gadsden. He ran the show for powerhouse Vincennes as a freshman, and he should fit comfortably into to McGrath’s uptempo attack.
Like his mentor’s squads, McGrath wants to attack the rim in transition and in the halfcourt (often through some flex action after a secondary break), hoping to play volleyball on the glass with Cacok, Cylla, and O’Connell to steal some easy putbacks. Fornes, Gadsden, and reserves Jay Estime’ and Jeffrey Gary will provide some spacing, but the Seahawks likely won’t be following the 2017-18 Tar Heels as a “bombs away”-type of attack.
Bottom Line: McGrath brought the Tar Heel identity to Wilmington, but unfortunately, the Seahawk roster he brought it to wasn’t quite ready to defend in the halfcourt. As he adds more of “his guys” to the roster (hopefully emphasizing perimeter defense), the Seahawks will find more stops, but for now, they may just be stock riding Cacok as far as he can take them in his final campaign (that could be surprisingly far, though).
Key Returners: Dennis Tunstall, Alex Thomas, Jordan McNeil
Key Losses: Zane Martin (transfer), Mike Morsell, Justin Gorham (transfer), Eddie Keith, Brian Starr, Deshaun Morman
Key Newcomers: Brian Fobbs (JUCO), TJ Howard (JUCO), Nakye Sanders (Duquesne), Solomon Uyaelunmo, Jakigh Dottin, Allen Bertrand, Quinton Drayton (redshirt)
Outlook: Whenever the subject of NBA vs. NCAA hoops comes up, one of my central reasons for preferring the college variety is due to the distinct styles that exist. Due to having far fewer teams, the shorter shot clock, and a narrower talent gap, a lot of the NBA is homogenized in style, at least more so than in the college game, where massive outliers exist. Few teams exemplify that difference more than Towson under Pat Skerry, a disciple of both Jim Baron, Tom Herrion, and Keno Davis, all of whom greatly valued physical play and/or the offensive glass.
Skerry has cranked that style to the max, selling out for second chance points while completely ignoring the three-point line. His teams want to beat you up inside physically, using an onslaught of big bodies to eventually foul out opponents or wear them down and rack up second chance points. Last year’s frontline was not one of Skerry’s biggest or deepest; to that end, he adds Duquesne transfer Nakye Sanders (6’8, 236 pounds) and true freshmen Solomon Uyaelunmo (6’7, 229) and Yagizhan Selcuk (6’7, 235) to beef up the rotation. Uyaelunmo is an ideal fit for the system – a physically mature, aggressive post player who will attack the glass relentlessly. More irregular for a Skerry big – he has nice touch from the midrange, as well. With some D-I experience under his belt, Sanders may start early in the season alongside returning banger Alex Thomas, but expect Uyaelunmo to eventually seize that spot and not let go for the duration of his time at Towson. Dennis Tunstall is a serviceable backup big who knows his role: chase down rebounds and only shoot if it’s a dunk or a layup.
Although the backcourt is devalued in his system, Skerry had some major holes to plug following the graduation of transfer of nearly every significant piece. Last year’s team ended up revolving around the scoring of Zane Martin at point guard, but with junior college transfers likely to man the perimeter slots alongside Jordan McNeil, the scoring burden should spread more evenly or even tilt towards the bigs. TJ Howard comes in from Chipola College as a solid passer and shooter, but he’ll defer far more than the scoring-minded Martin. Fellow JUCO transfer Brian Fobbs won’t be shy after tearing up the Division 2 ranks to the tune of 26.4ppg and 12.7rpg; he likely slides into the Mike Morsell role immediately as a burly wing. They’ll run a ton of pick-and-roll (12th-most in the country last year, per Synergy), primarily aimed at getting drives going downhill and a rim runner crashing through the lane.
Given the size and strength of the athletes he recruits, Skerry employs a tough man-to-man that is – surprise! – extremely physical. The Tigers have long been one of the more foul-prone defenses in the country, giving up free points as they attempt to assert their will. This isn’t so much reaches or attempts to force turnovers as it is the bigs aggressively challenging shots at the rim: opponents shot only 56.0% at the rim, per hoop-math, 299th-lowest in the country, so the strategy is working (when they don’t foul).
Bottom Line: Skerry’s distinct style of play and the promising frontline that should put it effectively in practice likely raises the Tigers’ floor, preventing the bottom from dropping out despite the loss of nearly every relevant guard. In fact, this roster probably fits his style more than last year’s, and with McNeil and Thomas probably the only seniors in the rotation, the Tigers should aim to build toward contention in 2019-20.
Key Returners: Ryan Allen, Kevin Anderson (missed time w/ injury), Eric Carter, Darian Bryant
Key Losses: Ryan Daly (transfer), Anthony Mosley
Key Newcomers: Collin Goss (George Washington), Ithiel Horton, Matt Veretto, Aleks Novakovich
Outlook: After going a combined 11-25 in his first two seasons at Delaware, Martin Ingelsby has made perhaps his biggest mistake: no true freshman named Ryan. In back-to-back years, Ryan Daly and Ryan Allen have won the Colonial’s Freshman of the Year award, theoretically giving the Blue Hens a rock solid base to build around. Alas, Daly transferred to Saint Joseph’s, and Ingelsby failed to replenish his Ryan’s (apologies to little-used Mercer grad transfer Ryan Johnson), likely making 2018-19 another challenging campaign.
Ingelsby brought Mike Brey’s distinct style of offense with him from Notre Dame (his alma mater) after being on the staff there for 13 years. That involves strict ball control, a variety of sets and actions, and (most importantly) excessive patience. Blue Hen offensive possessions are often exercises in precision, waiting for the right combination of screens and cuts to finally shoot late in the shot clock. Unfortunately, Ingelsby hasn’t really had the talent to properly execute the system. The loss of Kevin Anderson to a knee injury 11 games into the season was a crushing blow, as an already-thin team had to over-rely on its starters (331st in bench mintes). Plus, only Anderson (pre-injury) and Allen were true perimeter threats, as Darian Bryant and Jacob Cushing bricked their way to a combined 32/119 (27%) from deep and Daly regressed slightly. The best Irish offenses have pristine spacing around one quality big man, and although Delaware may not have quite the level of elite shooting that many of Mike Brey’s offenses did, he’ll likely construct his attack in a similar way.
Thankfully, Ingelsby does have that stout big to center his offense around. Eric Carter nearly averaged a double-double last year, showing skill in the post and as a roll man in the team’s spread pick-and-roll sets. He was often crowded inside, though, and despite being a fairly willing passer, the Hens simply couldn’t punish opponents enough. Delaware needs a healthy season from Anderson, continued brilliance from Allen, a bounceback from Bryant, and possibly some contributions from freshman guard Ithiel Horton. Horton is a well-regarded newcomer who hails from powerhouses St. Anthony (until it closed) and Roselle Catholic, which has churned out plenty of great NCAA players lately, including Jameel Warney, Malachi Richardson, Isaiah Briscoe, Chris Silva, and LSU freshman Naz Reid. Plus, he has this sweet bio on the team’s website:
What a thrilling peek into the personal life of a Division I athlete! I feel like I’m lacing them up right next to my guy Ithiel right this second.
Much like Brey, Ingelsby plays an extremely conservative mixture of man and zone on defense, eschewing aggression and turnovers to avoid giving up easy points at the free throw line and on the offensive glass. The lack of physicality sometimes hurt, though, as the Blue Hens were crushed at the rim – despite Carter’s size at 6’9, 235 pounds, he’s not a shot-blocker, and it was too easy to get by the perimeter defenders. It’s unclear how much George Washington transfer Collin Goss will contribute, but at 6’11, he should at least be able to get in the way on the interior.
Bottom Line: Had Daly not opted to transfer, there might be some real optimism in Newark (Delaware, that is), and even without him, it does feel like Ingelsby at least has the program moving in a positive direction. Allen is a future (and current?) star in the Colonial, and Anderson and Horton could give him two strong running mates for the future. Plus, Nate Darling (UAB) and Justyn Mutts (High Point) are promising transfers sitting out this year, so Blue Hen fans should maintain faith in their third-year coach.
Key Returners: Kurk Lee, Troy Harper, Alihan Demir, Sam Green
Key Losses: Tramaine Isabell (transfer), Sammy Mojica, Austin Williams
Key Newcomers: Zach Walton (JUCO), Coletrane Washington, James Butler (Navy), Trevor John (Cal Poly), Tim Perry Jr. (redshirt), Camren Wynter
Outlook: Let’s start with the negatives: Drexel finished a dismal 6-12 in the CAA last year, two senior starters graduated, and leading scorer Tramaine Isabell grad transferred to Saint Louis. Alright, how about the positives? The Dragons were actually three games better than 2016-17, Zach Spiker is widely regarded as an excellent coach, and – AND – Drexel had the largest comeback in Division I history last year, coming back from down 34 (53-19 in the first half) to beat Delaware. Just look at this beauty of a win probability graph:
Unfortunately, the Dragons didn’t gain any momentum from that, losing two of their next three to end their season, so…maybe it wasn’t much of a positive. But it’s still cool! And the other two points stand!
Despite the loss of primary offensive weapon Isabell, Spiker will likely push the tempo (as he preferred to do at Army) behind rising junior point guard Kurk Lee. Lee struggled somewhat as the second banana to Isabell, but as he retakes over full-time primary ball-handling duties, expect a breakout season. His running mates will likely be some combination of senior Troy Harper, JUCO transfer Zach Walton, Cal Poly grad transfer Trevor John, and freshmen Camren Wynter and Coletrane Washington. Yes, you read that right, COLETRANE WASHINGTON is going to be getting buckets for the Dragons this year – I could not be any more excited, frankly. He’s a superb shooter (as is John), while Harper is more of a quick driver, and Walton brings a bully ball game as a 6’6 wing (something the Dragons lacked entirely last year).
Once in the halfcourt, the offense was very pick-and-roll and isolation-heavy, although I’d expect the isolation to decrease without Isabell’s dynamism. Lee and Harper were merely average in this situation last year, and finding a new big partner is a concern. Pick-and-pops with 6’9 Alihan Demir should continue to be a viable option, but unless Jarvis Doles develops quite a bit or redshirt freshman Tim Perry surprises in his first campaign, the Dragons will lack a physical roll threat.
Defensively, Spiker has yet to figure it out. He plays a fairly conservative man-to-man with few wrinkles (zone or press) thrown into the mix, and with the loss of Austin Williams as a paint protector, the Dragons may be vulnerable inside. Perry has some upside as a rim protector at 6’10, and sophomore Tadas Kararinas is a big body, but neither looks to be a glass-cleaning intimidator in Williams’s vein. The addition of more size in the backcourt (6’6 Walton, 6’4 Washington) and a healthy Sam Green should juice the perimeter versatility and ability to challenge shooters, an area Spiker harped on during his final seasons at Army.
Bottom Line: Spiker is a good coach, but he’s struggling to bring in (and retain) top talent. The defense has a long way to go to become respectable, although he’s on the right track by trying to take away the three-ball in a shot-happy CAA. If Lee and Walton (plus the freshman guards) can carry the scoring load and one of the bigs emerges as a paint presence, perhaps Drexel can climb the standings, but it appears unlikely at this stage.
Key Returners: Tyler Seibring, Dainan Swoope, Steven Santa Ana, Sheldon Eberhart
Key Losses: Brian Dawkins, Dmitri Thompson
Key Newcomers: Andy Pack, Kris Wooten, Chuck Hannah
Outlook: Elon was the subject of great consternation for 3MW last year. Despite returning a massive chunk of their rotation from 2016-17 (they ranked 3rd in the country in minutes continuity), the defense tanked from 113th to 301st, contributing to a ghastly 9-20 record against the spread. The main differences: a decline in the team’s defensive rebounding ability (hard to explain given the similar rotation), and opponents suddenly got hot from three-point range (37.1% in 2017-18, compared to 32.2% in 2016-17) – that’s variance, folks. Given the high volume of threes that coach Matt Matheny’s soft man-to-man allows, that adverse trend was doubly harmful.
The defense faces an uphill battle this year with the losses of Dmitri Thompson, the team’s best rebounding guard, and widebody Brian Dawkins. Sheldon Eberhart should slide into the starting lineup on the wing, and Simon Wright or Karolis Kundrotas (or even freshman Chuck Hannah) are solid options up front, but the problem remains that the Phoenix allow copious perimeter shots in a league that shot 36.2% from deep last year, 4th-best in the country:
Again, with their style allowing so many threes (335th in 3PA rate allowed), the defense’s effectiveness is overly leveraged on hoping that opponents miss, an extremely dangerous game in the CAA.
Offensively, it’s a slightly more positive outlook: Matheny is a longtime Bob McKillop disciple, and his intricate motion offense has the pieces to put up points. Tyler Seibring, the “Peyton Aldridge” of Elon, is the linchpin as a versatile scoring big with soft touch that extends beyond the arc, forcing opposing bigs out onto the perimeter (Wright and Kundrotas can hit a wide open shot, too). Point guard Dainan Swoope’s season-long shooting slump was a killer – after ranking 4th in CAA play at 41.7% from deep in 2017, he bricked his way to a gross 28.9% for the full season last year, including 26.0% in conference play. If he can’t bounce back, an even heavier burden falls on Steven Santa Ana (best known for having his foot brutally mangled by the monstrous Grayson Allen), Eberhart, and freshmen Andy Pack and Kris Wooten to provide to provide the necessary perimeter shooting. Elon’s motion and emphasis on transition defense completely devalues the offensive glass, which makes knocking down shots even more paramount.
Bottom Line: After having the worst three-point defense in the league last year, it will be interesting to see if Matheny tweaks the approach at all. He doesn’t really have the athletes to play overly aggressive, but given the bevy of shooting throughout the conference, giving them up en masse is suboptimal. Seibring and the offense could pull them out of the league cellar, but the ceiling feels relatively low this year unless the shooting variance swings back in their favor.