Player of the Year: Jon Elmore, Sr., Marshall
Coach of the Year: Grant McCasland, North Texas
Newcomer of the Year: Charles Bassey, Western Kentucky
Freshman of the Year: Charles Bassey, Western Kentucky
1. Western Kentucky
Key Returners: Lamonte Bearden, Taveion Hollingsworth, Josh Anderson, Jake Ohmer, Marek Nelson
Key Losses: Darius Thompson, Justin Johnson, Dwight Coleby
Key Newcomers: DeSean Murray (Auburn transfer), Charles Bassey, Jared Savage (Austin Peay transfer), Matthew Horton, Dalano Banton, Tolu Smith, Jeremiah Gambrell
*NOTE* - Lamonte Bearden has been ruled ineligible for the 1st semester
Outlook: Remember that whole Mitchell Robinson saga? Hilltopper nation almost witnessed a Déjà vu episode this summer when a report brought into question whether or not 5-star freshman Charles Bassey had actually graduated from high school. Turns out there was no real teeth to the initial speculation, but can you imagine if Rick Stansbury had managed to lure not one but two 5-star prospects to Bowling Green, only to have them both never suit up in a Western Kentucky uniform?
WKU fans don’t want to think about that nightmare either…
Fortunately for the Tops, that’s now an irrelevant discussion – Bassey is officially eligible and enlisted on the team roster, which solidifies WKU is the clear-cut favorite to run away with the C-USA title in 2019.
Last year, the Hilltoppers essentially looked like a C-USA expansion team as Stansbury constructed an entirely new roster that, outside of Justin Johnson, looked nothing like the 2016-17 squad. Stansbury whipped up a perfect perimeter concoction that fused together experienced veterans from cerebral basketball coaches (Lamonte Bearden from Buffalo, Darius Thompson from Virginia) with marquee freshmen oozing with talent (Josh Anderson and Taveion Hollingsworth).
Despite never playing together in live Division 1 action, this group of perimeter assets wasted no time becoming a cohesive unit as the individual playing styles fit together like a glove. Bearden and Thompson willingly shared the rock as co-playmakers and their ownership of the ball handling and decision-making responsibilities helped alleviate a ton of pressure off Hollingsworth and Anderson. This made life easy for the young prodigies and allowed them to focus on doing precisely what they were brought in to do – get buckets. For the exception of Thompson, the ‘backcourt boys’ are all back in town (including the forgotten floor-spacing sharpshooter Jake Ohmer), which gives the Stansbury one of the deepest and most talented perimeter corps in the conference.
For the rest of the C-USA, trying to slow down Western Kentucky’s explosive offense was like trying to stop a runaway freight train, as the talent gap was just too sizable to overcome. With all the shiny new objects Stansbury brought in last year to boost the offense, Justin Johnson remained the constant as a reliable inside-out scorer who paced the Hilltoppers night-in and night-out. What he needed more than anything was some support defensively after being unfairly asked to single handedly protect the rim and clean up the glass in 2016-17.
He got just what doctor ordered with Ole Miss transfer Dwight Coleby, who allowed the relatively undersized Johnson (in height, not in girth) to slide down to the 4 spot. Even with a human giant and former top-50 recruit Moustapha Diagne in his back pocket, Stansbury fell in love with the frontcourt pairing of Johnson and Coleby at the 4 and 5, respectively:
With Johnson and Coleby both gone, the pressure is on Bassey and Auburn transfer DeSean Murray to hold down the fort inside. Murray and Bassey better be regular attendees to WKU’s offseason conditioning program because, much like last year, the depth behind them is scarce. Murray is a built like a brick house with a body type that’s reminiscent of his predecessor Johnson, and plays much longer than his 6’5 listed height. Bassey will undoubtedly replace Coleby at the 5, and while his physical gifts and talent level dwarf Coleby, don’t for a second think that simply plugging in Bassey for Coleby is guaranteed to be a defensive upgrade. As gifted as Bassey is, he’s still a freshman who must learn the nuances of policing the back end of a defense, which will shift between a basic man-to-man and a slightly more confusing zone scheme.
Stansbury has clearly taken a liking to this zone, as evidenced by the fact that WKU featured it on 33% of all defensive possessions last year, compared to 26% and 11% in 2017 and 2016, respectively – the GIF below gives a quick glimpse as to what the extended 1-3-1 looks like:
It’s worth noting the Tops were significantly better in straight-up man last year (per Synergy), but this 1-1-3-1 defensive ‘change-up’ is still a valuable chess piece for Stansbury to throw at opposing ball handlers.
Bottom Line: If you’re looking for something to nitpick about last year’s roster, it was the lack of depth across all five positions. Per kenpom.com’s ‘Bench Minutes’ metric, WKU starters played 80% of all available minutes last season – for context, only two teams in America ignored their bench more. Bassey’s prominence has overshadowed some of the other newcomers, many of whom could start for just about every other team in this league. Austin Peay transfer Jared Savage gives Stansbury an additional shooter on the perimeter, top-100 freshman Dalano Banton will inject even more talent to an already stacked group of wings and 6’11 JUCO transfer Matthew Horton could blossom into a critical minutes eater off the pine up front (assuming Diagne remains relatively buried).
On paper, it’s tough to find any glaring holes on this roster. Losing Thompson and Coleby are big blows, but Stansbury is well positioned to replace their production. The Tops are a near lock to win the league this year, but something tells be Stansbury has more aspirational goals in mind - as he should…
2. North Texas
Key Returners: Ryan Woolridge, Roosevelt Smart, Jorden Duffy, AJ Lawson, DJ Draper, Michael Miller, Zachary Simmons
Key Losses: AJ Lawson, Allante Holston
Key Newcomers: Abdul Mohamed (JUCO), Jahmiah Simmons (Arkansas State transfer), JJ Murray (JUCO), Larry Wise, Shakeem Alcindor
Outlook: I present to you, the 2018 CBI Champs! That’s right, the Mean Green of North Texas took home the forgettable, quirky consolation tournament trophy that uses a best of 3 series to crown the champion. While the CBI is far from the holy grail of college basketball accolades, it’s a symbolic piece of hardware that denotes the strong foundation 2nd year head coach Grant McCasland has already laid in just one season in Denton, Texas. For the record, Steve Henson was masterful on the sidelines for UTSA last season, but my vote for C-USA coach of the year would’ve gone to the guy who orchestrated a 12-win improvement in the blink of an eye.
With just one season as a D1 head coach under his belt, it was tough to anticipate how McCasland would shake things up in his first year at UNT. It became clear right away that he wanted to replicate the style that made his lone season at Arkansas State so successful – a perimeter-dominated lineup that leverages an array of big, position-less guards. Roosevelt Smart (6’3), Ryan Woolridge (6’3) and AJ Lawson (6’5) were tailor-made fits to this mold last year with their ability to slide up and down the lineup defensively. Even with a roster over indexed on guards, the Mean Green refused to be bullied on the boards, thanks to a gang-rebounding mentality from all five guys on the floor.
Credit for last year’s drastic improvement in the rebounding department from 2016-17 to last year belongs to McCasland’s refurbished defense. Mean Green fans saw a completely different defensive approach last year as McCasland scrapped the zone Tony Bedford leaned on so frequently.
UNT still checked in at 9th in the conference in adjusted defensive efficiency last season, but it was leaps and bounds better than the 1.10 points per possessions defensive efficiency clip posted the year prior.
On the other side of the ball, McCasland reconstructed the offense to maximize the output of all his perimeter horses – along with Smart and Woolridge, DJ Draper, Jorden Duffy, Michael Miller and Umjoa Gibson will all be fixtures in the rotation this season. With such a deep and versatile backcourt at his disposal, McCasland will aim to put constant pressure on opposing guards with perpetual drive-and-kick movement, much of which stems from high pick-n-roll action. Smart and Woolridge are a near-perfect backcourt pairing (Woolridge, the primary facilitator; Smart, the go-to scorer) and will once again set the tone offensively, but Miller and Duffy’s coming out party during the CBI title run are why I’m so bullish on the Mean Green in 2019.
Up until the postseason, the two juniors were borderline benchwarmers and were often omitted from the primary lineup combinations. While nagging injuries held Duffy back for most of the year, Miller’s shooting woes kept him on the back-burner of the depth chart – that is, until mastermind McCasland pushed yet another right button by doing the unthinkable before the CBI opener against South Dakota…
In the pregame walkthrough, McCasland pulled the former NJCAA All-American aside and told him to start shooting righthanded for the rest of the shootaround (Miller’s left hand dominant). Advising a player to change shooting hands at that stage in his basketball career is nuts – but suggesting he make this adjustment just hours before tip-off 30 games into the season is pure insanity.
McCasland was not messin’ around – he then proceeded to double down on that outrageous idea with the following mandate (report courtesy of Mid-Major Madness):
“I told Mike, ‘here’s the deal: I’m going to start you tonight and I want you to shoot eight three pointers and I don’t care if you make them,’” McCasland said.
Perhaps Miller should’ve taken that mandate literally – he only hoisted 5 threes, but four of them found the bottom of the net. He and Duffy combined for 38 points that night, helping the Mean Green notch a momentous opening round win over SoDak.
The rest, as they say, is history. Miller and Duffy would go on to start all six games of the CBI run, only once failing to score in double figures. The Miller / Duffy infused starting lineup meant the 6’5 Lawson became the odd man out, a risky proposition given how valuable he was defensively as the de facto 4 in the 4-guard lineup. But as the tournament played out, those concerns were promptly silenced as the somewhat undersized backcourt held their own defensively and willingly joined the rebounding brigade.
Bottom Line: The CBI allowed McCasland to find the secret sauce for success in 2019, which appears to be a potent top-5 of Smart, Woolridge, Duffy, Miller and Zachary Simmons – but don’t let the recency bias of that 6-game run distract you from all the other bullets McCasland has in the chamber:
Tope Arikawe brings back his muscle to the interior with a chiseled 6’8 frame – expect him to spell Simmons at the 5.
DJ Draper set the standard for offensive efficiency last season – his lofty 130 O-Rating was tops in the C-USA – and should likely retain his role as a human flare off-the-bench.
Umoja Gibson started the first two games of the season before a broken ankle cut a promising freshman campaign short – with all the depth on the perimeter, Gibson’s role this year remains a mystery, but don’t be shocked to see him re-claim his rightful place in the starting lineup.
Newcomers Abdul Mohamed, Jahmiah Simmons and Larry Wise headline a new wave of reinforcements, each of whom will be gunning for big minutes right out of the gate. Mohamed is yet another NJCAA All-American lured in by McCasland, who averaged 16 and 7 at Gillette College last year. Simmons comes over from Arkansas State after starting 9 games for the Red Wolves before following McCasland to his new home. Wise was pegged as a 3-star recruit by Rivals.com and chose the Mean Green over Texas A&M, SMU, Tulsa and Middle Tennessee.
Giving a mad genius like McCasland all of these options to tinker with is like giving Jeff Bezos and a team of Silicon Valley engineers an endless supply of time and resources. Perhaps I’m drinking too much of the green-colored kool-aid, but I devoutly believe this is a top-3 team in the league and a darkhorse contender to potentially give Western Kentucky a scare.
Key Returners: Jon Elmore, CJ Burks, Jarrod West, Rondale Watson, Jannson Williams, Darius George
Key Losses: Adjin Penava
Key Newcomers: Iran Bennett (redshirted last year), Ante Sustic, Cam Brooks-Harris, Taevion Kinsey, DeAundra Murphy, Jeremy Dillon, Luke Thomas
Outlook: Oh, how the stars aligned last year for Dan D’Antoni. The offensive innovator and analytics advocate watched his vision of NBA-ifying Marshall basketball come to life as the Herd ‘stampeded’ through most of the Conference USA and right over Wichita State in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. That national platform brought ‘the cat out of the bag’, so to speak, as the national media finally shined light on the NASCAR-paced, 3-point chucking offense that D’Antoni has stubbornly stood by since taking over in 2012.
The high-octane offense is spearheaded by the 1-2 punch of Jon Elmore (the ‘Batman’) and CJ Burks (the ‘Robin’). Elmore rose to national fame in the Herd’s opening round upset over the Shockers, but the 6-3 table setter was already a known commodity around C-USA. The combination of his pristine shooting splits and astronomical assist rate bear a striking resemblance to James Harden, the poster child for offensive efficiency at the lead guard spot. Like Harden, Elmore is a savvy penetrator with an uncanny knack for drawing whistles, which earns him countless trips to the charity stripe (where he shoots 83%). His plus size also helps him finish over and around opposing forwards in the middle and there’s no limit to where his shooting range ends out on the perimeter.
Both Elmore and Burks (a dual-threat combo guard), thrive in D’Antoni’s offense that features a steady stream of screen-n-roll. Per Synergy, the Thundering Herd ranked 40th overall in points per possession on pick-n-roll possessions when the ball handler shot (typically Elmore or Burks) and 5th nationally when the roll man received the ball. Elmore and Burks are nearly impossible to corral coming off ball screens with how well they read and react to what the defenses gives them. If their primary defender goes under the screen, they won’t hesitate to pull from deep; if they draw a switch with a slower big, they’ll turn on the burners and attack the rim fearlessly; if there’s an extended hard hedge, they’ll find the screener rolling hard down the lane for an alley-oop or easy lay-up. Last year, Adjin Penava feasted on dimes from Elmore and Burks as few could match his versatility at the rim.
Rising sophomore Jarrod West was another pleasant surprise for D’Anotni last year – he proved to be a two-way asset, leading the Herd in both 3-point shooting accuracy (40%) and steals (2 per game). Rondale Watson, a former Wake Forest transfer, rounds out the four primary components of the Thundering Herd’s perimeter scoring machine.
As much ink as the offense receives, it was Herd’s drastic improvement defensively that vaulted them up to 4th place in the league standings last year. As great as the high-flying Penava was as a rim-runner and pick-n-roll diver, his value defensively was unrivaled by any player in the conference. Blessed with Elastigirl reach and springboard hops, the 6’9 Penava acted as human drywall for any and all holes on defense. D’Antoni had virtually no depth or experience up front last season, often relying on a pair of freshmen (Jannson Williams and Darius George) to implant some size and length at the 4 position. But without Penava alongside them as a crutch, the Herd’s defense went from dependable to depressing the second he stepped off the floor:
With how much D’Antoni emphasizes running shooters off the 3-point line, having a human eraser in the middle is critical to bothering close proximity shots inside.
Bottom Line: Guess what – Penava is now gone, which gives me pause as to how D’Anotni plans to solidify the last line of defense. Human refrigerator Iran Bennett is now eligible after redshirting last year, but he’s the antithesis of Penava as a more grounded, plodding option inside and 6’10 Crotian Ante Sustic played just 10 minutes for his JUCO team last year. Even if Bennett, Sustic or one of the another newcomers emerges, D’Antoni will still have to put a ton of eggs in the George / Williams frontcourt pairing, which could be exposed without Penava there as a backstop.
To be clear, I’m a large fan of Williams’ upside and he’s the obvious breakout candidate on this roster – but even a best case scenario season from Williams won’t fully mitigate the loss of Penava, whose importance to this team may have been overshadowed by Elmore and the gaudy offensive scoring numbers last year.
4. Old Dominion
Key Returners: Ahmad Caver, BJ Stith, Aaron Carver, Xavier Green
Key Losses: Trey Porter, Brandan Stith, Randy Haynes
Key Newcomers: Elbert Robinson (LSU transfer), Justice Kithcart (Pitt transfer)
*Note* - Old Dominion is pursuing a waiver to allow Dajour Dickens to play immediately. He is currently enlisted on the roster and it appears he’s expected to be eligible for the entirety of the 2018-19 season.
Outlook: First of all, nothing below this paragraph matters one iota in the grand scheme. Earlier this summer, Jeff Jones stunned the ODU family when he announced he’s been undergoing treatment for a recurrence of prostate cancer, which he was first diagnosed with three years ago. Despite learning of the recurrence last summer, Jones went about his business as if nothing was up – the following quote from Jones rose the hairs right off my skin:
“I’d dare anybody to come up with a way that it has negatively impacted me or our team or our program,” he said. “... I don’t expect and I can’t imagine that anything is going to happen, certainly anytime soon, to have any kind of a negative impact or even be noticeable, quite honestly.Rather than spending a whole lot of time thinking about prostate cancer, I just try to just go about doing my daily routine and doing my job and living my life.”
Thoughts and prayers ‘ought be sent promptly to Jones and his loved ones… but now, on to basketball…
Old Dominion entered the 2017-18 campaign as one of the handful of teams predicted to reign supreme atop a sneaky deep C-USA (for the record, we picked them to win it outright). Only Kermit Davis and the Blue Raiders outpaced ODU as Jones led the Monarchs to a 15-3 league record, the program’s best showing since Jones took over in 2013.
Since Jones took command five years ago, no team has cemented a more distinct reputation around the C-USA than the Monarchs. Every conference foe knows exactly what the Old Dominion scouting report reads – physical, tough, athletic and physical (did I say physical twice?). As my colleague Jim and I always say, ODU passes the ‘walk off the bus eye-test’ – they could easily be confused for the football team.
And despite losing the bruising Brandan Stith, that aforementioned repute shouldn’t change much in 2019. Jones brings back two of last year’s cornerstones in Brandan’s little brother (BJ Stith) and floor general Ahmad Caver. Caver and Stith are lockdown ball stoppers at their respective positions and should anchor what should be another blanketing defensive unit. Jones typically plays a rock solid man-to-man that walls off the lane at all costs, which has consistently suffocated C-USA opponents. The difference is last year, when opponents did manage to penetrate that first line of defense, there was a shot-swatting supremacist in Trey Porter waiting to swallow up anything at the rim.
The 6’10 Porter will now be replaced by an even longer interior centerpiece in 7’1 LSU transfer Elbert Robinson and / or 7’0 Dajour Dickens. The absence of any other size will force Jones and the staff to roll the dice with these two high-risk, high-reward trees in the middle. Dickens’ eligibility hasn’t been confirmed, but assuming he is cleared to play, he has yet to play meaningful minutes at the D1 level. A back injury stunted any potential growth as a freshman at Providence, but his ceiling is limitless after multiple recruiting outlets graded Dickens as a top-15 center coming out of high school.
Robinson has a similar back story as Dickens, but is an even bigger question mark than his twin tower brethren. On one hand, you could argue Robinson has yet to scratch the surface of his true potential after entering college as a top-75 recruit and one of the best forwards in the 2014 recruiting class. On the other hand, Robinson is a walking giant who missed all of last season with injury issues and had trouble keeping his playing weight in check during his time in Baton Rouge.
Robinson’s AAU coach, Lawrence Johns, hinted at the fact that Johnny Jones misused him at LSU– yes, Johns is almost certainly biased, but that doesn’t make him wrong. After all, we’ve seen Johnny Jones mishandle top-tier talent before.
Not to over index this preview on Robinson and Dickens, but if they can’t stay healthy and serve as a steady defensive presence in the middle, it will force Jones to completely reshape the rotations. Over the last two years, Jones has exclusively played either Porter or Brandan Stith at the 5 – thus, removing Robinson from the equation means athletic wing Aaron Carver is effectively ODU’s tallest player and while he’s got big time hops, he’s nowhere near as sturdy the 6’7 240 pound Stith. The last resort would be big bodied freshman Kalu Ezikpe, who certainly has the physical makeup with nearly the same measurables as Stith, but asking him to be the primary rim protector would be a tall ask in his first collegiate season.
Rounding out the rest of the primary rotation will be a pair of returners in Xavier Green and Marquis Godwin, along with Pitt transfer Justice Kithcart. Though ODU typically looks to score in the lane and at the rim, Godwin is a pure long-range shooter and should be an offensive microwave off the pine. Green’s ceiling for improvement is one of the highest on the team as he now enters his sophomore season and Kithcart will be a serviceable backup to Caver at the point (though, Jones could play them together at times).
Bottom Line: As bearish as I am on Robinson and Dickens to a) stay on the floor and b) be effective when on the floor, I refuse to slide ODU too far down my final predictions. Caver and Stith are bedrocks of this program and their presence alone should act as a safety net to the Monarchs falling out of the top-5 in the standings.
Key Returners: Jhivvan Jackson, Giovanni De Nicolao, Bryon Frohnen, Keaton Wallace, Nick Allen
Key Losses: George Willborn, Deon Lyle
Key Newcomers: Atem Bior, Tamir Bynum, Adokiye Iyaye
Outlook: The turnaround Steve Henson engineered last year in San Antonio was remarkable. The former OU assistant certainly caught the attention of his peers around the league as Henson took home C-USA coach of the year honors in just his 2nd season at his new employer. That was not the only hardware claimed by the Roadrunners in 2018 as Jhvivan Jackson took home Freshman of the Year honors (and etched his name on the 2nd Team All-CUSA 2nd roster), while Deon Lyle was voted 6th Man of the Year. As they say, ‘to the victors go the spoils’, so when you tally up 18 victories and finish top-5 in the league, the accolades are bound to fall in your lap.
Henson’s decision to completely reinvent UTSA’s offense from an interior-focused, methodically paced style into an exciting ‘run and gun’ system epitomizes his coaching wisdom. After attempting the 3rd fewest three pointers and playing at a medium-paced tempo in 2017, Henson rebranded his squad to emulate the school’s mascot - that is to say, the ‘Roadrunners’ ran, ran and ran some more. In fact, only Dan D’Antoni’s Thundering Herd played faster and chucked up more 3s than the Roadrunners did last year. Post-up? Psh, forget about it… UTSA’s possessions ran through the post just 1.4% of the time last season (4th lowest rate in the country), instead opting to stretch out the defense with continuous spread pick-n-rolls and generate odd man situations on the break with a relentless transition attack.
Jackson and his freshman running mate Keaton Wallace return as the primary gunners this year, while veteran point guard Giovanni De Nicolao will return as the steadying ‘glue guy’ at point. Wallace quickly asserted himself as a defensive ball hawk, which gave Henson no choice but to play him big time minutes right out the gate. Wallace got a head start on his offensive development last season, so expect his overall efficiency to trend in a positive direction as he gains experience with more and more reps.
This is precisely what we witnessed with De Nicolao, as well as with the frontcourt tandem Byron Frohnen and Nick Allen last year, all of whom saw their offensive games expand with newfound freedom in Henson’s track meet style of play. Two seasons ago, De Nicolao, Frohnen and Allen essentially put dents in the backboard, combining to shoot 23% from long distance (37/161) – oh what a difference a year can make. De Nicolao bumped his 3-point accuracy up to a respectable 36% last year, Allen’s 41% 3-point conversion rate was tops on the team and Frohnen’s individual offensive efficiency spiked substantially as he gained confidence and strength in his 2ndyear. The leaps made by these three upperclassmen are why Jackson and Wallace are good bets to ascend to new heights in 2019, which is bad news for the rest of the C-USA given how productive they were last season.
Along with the three-pronged perimeter attack in De Nicolao, Wallace and Jackson, Frohnen and Allen are perfect prototypes for their respective roles at the 4 and 5. Frohnen was a steal of a pickup by the Henson coaching staff as an under-the-radar prospect coming out of Las Vegas basketball factory Bishop Gorman High School. There’s nothing flashy about Frohnen’s stat sheet - he just does all the little things that don’t show up in the box score and has a motor fixed in high gear on both ends of the floor. Allen brings what little Frohnen lacks to the mix with his more traditional forward size at 6’8 and the ability to stroke it from deep. You could argue both Frohnen and Allen are both playing one position ‘up’ from what their true place on the floor is, but this works wonders in Henson’s style.
To keep the ‘pedal to the metal’ for a full 40 minutes each game, Henson will need immediate assistance from his freshmen. The notable names here are Tamir Bynum and Adokiye Iyaye, both of whom were big time scorers in high school and should feel right at home playing in a system that imposes few restrictions on shot selection.
Bottom Line: Henson and McCasland are two prime examples of why coaching is so critical at the mid-major level. The disparity in talent begins to shrink once you get past the blue-chip talent of Western Kentucky, which is where brilliant coaching minds can be the difference between an 8-10 and 10-8 conference record. Henson and McCasland were Exhibits A and B of this value last year, and now have rosters in-tact that are thrived to execute their stylistic vision.
The Roadrunners lose a dynamite scorer in Lyle, but everyone else of importance is back with a full year of experience mastering the spread and shoot system under Henson. UTSA should be penciled in for a top-5 finish and begin to separate themselves from a muddled middle tier that clogged the league standings last season.
6. Southern Miss
Key Returners: Cortez Edwards, Tyree Griffin, Dominic Magee, Kevin Holland
Key Losses: Eddie Davis, D’Angelo Richardson
Key Newcomers: LaDarius Marshall, Tyler Stevenson, Shakur Daniel, Gabe Watson, Christian Clark, Boban Jacdonmi, Leonard Harper-Baker
Outlook: Dating back to 1982 as a young, hungry assistant at Arkansas, Doc Sadler has seen just about everything in his long and windy coaching career path. Not many coaches would be willing to walk into the shitstorm of a situation left behind by Donnie Tyndall, but perhaps that enduring career explains how Sadler has remained patient with the process since arriving in Hattiesburg back in 2014. The Golden Eagles have improved incrementally in each of the past four seasons, notching one more conference win than the year prior as Sadler is now close to having a full roster on his hand. While last season’s 7-11 record doesn’t jump out as a major leap forward, Southern Miss jumped 100 spots from 2017 to 2018 in kenpom.com’s overall rankings, a tell-tale sign of the steady strides made by Sadler. To ‘keep up with the Jones’s’, Sadler will need banner years from his backcourt triumvirate of Cortez Edwards, Tyree Griffin and Dominic Magee.
Edwards now enters his senior year after suffering through the dark days of the post Donnie Tyndall era. He’s the consummate team-first guy and has been a workhorse for two straight seasons (Edwards set a school record for minutes played last year). His unselfishness and commitment to winning was exemplified by his willingness to slide off-the-ball to make room for the highly-talented Griffin at the point. Like Edwards, Griffin rarely came off the floor last year. Sadler needed both Griffin and Edwards to carry the offense, all while wreaking havoc in the backcourt defensively to cover up the glaring lack of size behind them. Their collective heady decision-making on offense and relentless perimeter pressure on defense helped the Eagles win the turnover battle throughout conference play - USM ranked 1st and 3rd in the C-USA in offensive and defensive turnover rate, respectively. Magee took advantage of his role as a small-ball 4 and enjoyed the luxury of drawing some favorable matchups offensively. Kevin Holland also emerged as a low-usage, low-risk floor-spacing weapon off-the-ball who connected on 41% of his 121 triples.
But even with the quick hands and feet of Edwards and Griffin swarming all over the floor, it still wasn’t enough to hide the obvious weakness of last year’s roster – interior defense. The void of a reliable rim protector gave way to C-USA opponents getting uncontested, undisturbed looks inside, which explains how the Golden Eagles posted the 2nd worst defensive effective field goal percentage in the conference. This was mostly a roster limitation issue, but it was also a purposeful tradeoff made by Sadler. He knows the strength of this team lies on the perimeter and what better way to leverage that than by playing as many guards as possible. Hell, he even played a true 5-out, all-guard lineup with Dom Magee (6’4) at the 5 for short spurts!
With Eddie Davis leaving, Tim Rowe is the lone returning big on the roster standing taller than 6’7. Rowe’s 6’11 frame makes him a serviceable defender at the very least, but he provides nothing of value offensively. I’d wager his experience gives him the upper hand in edging out younger, less experienced newcomers for the final starting spot, but don’t be surprised to see either Boban Jacdomni or LaDarius Marshall emerge as solutions in the middle. Per an offseason article from the Hattiesburg American, Jacdomni is physical force at 6’9 that redshirted last year after coming over Chattanooga State Community College. As Sadler points out in the report, he’s just looking for Jacdomni to do the dirty work inside defensively while the guards still carry the bulk of the scoring load. Marshall, on the other hand, is a much more complete player, but projects as more of a hybrid wing / forward at 6’5. The 3-star recruit received interest from the likes of Baylor, Ohio state and Tennessee before opting to stay home in Mississippi and his stat-stuffing production in high-school explains why – he scored 17 a game, to go along with 11 boards and 4 blocks a contest.
Bottom Line: I’ll be honest – I was all the way in on the Golden Eagles’ talent last year and under the supervision of Sadler on the sidelines, I was in no way surprised by the turnaround. The question is can the Golden Eagles continue their climb up the C-USA standings with all of the once talented newcomers now maturing into experienced veterans. Even though USM technically finished 10th last year, the margin of separation between them and 5th place finisher UTSA was razor thin, which makes me feel better about putting all my chips in on Sadler and the boys knocking on the doorstep of a top-5 finish in 2019.
7. Louisiana Tech
Key Returners: DaQuan Bracey, Derric Jean, Amorie Archibald, Anthony Duruji, Oliver Powell
Key Losses: Jacobi Boykins, Jalen Harris, Jy’lan Washington, Joniah White
Key Newcomers: Kalob Ledoux, Ra’Shawn Langston, Mubarak Muhammed, Stacey Thomas
Outlook: No one bought more stock in Louisiana Tech than I did heading into last season – I picked them to finish 2nd in the league– but recurring injuries and untimely roster defections kept the Bulldogs stuck in cruise control for the entire year. Big things were expected of backcourt dynamo DaQuan Bracey, but back injuries stunted what was supposed to be a breakout sophomore campaign. Joniah White’s tragic heart-related issues cut his season short, gutting the Bulldogs of their primary rim protector and best two way rebounder. Jalen Harris became frustrated with his role and ultimately chose to follow the cool kids and bolted for popular transfer destination Nevada.
All-in-all, it had to be a frustrating year for Eric Konkol and his staff, who now get a ‘do-over’ in hopes that the injury curse that plagued the roster last year doesn’t come back to haunt them in 2019. Hitting the reset button starts with Bracey and Derric Jean regaining their form after both saw their individual offensive games plateau last season. While Bracey’s back issues give him a valid excuse, Jean just hasn’t improved much since bursting onto the scene as a freshman two years back. Despite hitting a wall last year, it’s clear both Jean and Bracey have the talent and tools to ascend into All-Conference caliber players if they can put it all together (and stay healthy).
Jacobi Boykins’ departure means Jean and Bracey will now be asked to co-lead the offense as the next wave of young talent – most notably Amorie Archibald and Anthony Duruji– is ready for their moment in the sun. Last year’s injury bug that continuously bit the Bulldogs helped Archibald and Duruji expedite their learning curve progressions as they now enter their sophomore seasons overflowing with confidence. Archibald essentially replaced Bracey as the primary point guard throughout conference play, but assuming Bracey has been nursed back to full-strength, NJCAA All-American Ra’Shawn Langston could replace Archibald in the starting lineup. The number 24 ranked JUCO prospect (per JUCORecruiting.com) lit the nets on fire last season, pouring in 20 points a game on an efficient 53% shooting from the field and 39% from behind the arc. Archibald possesses a world of potential with his vision and handles at 6’3, but Langston is the more polished outside shooter, a skill that’s in high demand with Boykins graduating. Regardless of who starts and who doesn’t, Bracey, Jean, Langston and Archibald will form the primary perimeter quartet, assuming all can stay healthy.
This guard depth will enable Konkol to flex some extended full-court defensive pressure with the intent of catching opposing ball handlers napping. In the half-court, Konkol will also throw out some well-timed, unpredictable zone trapping schemes, which will add yet another layer of discomfort to C-USA backcourts. However, injury constrains forced Konkol to call off the dogs defensively as La Tech’s team turnover rate and steal rate both deflated to more pedestrian figures last year. Over the past seven seasons – Mike White’s 4-year tenure plus the most recent three seasons under Konkol – 2018 marked the first time La Tech failed to finish 1st or 2nd in the league in either steal percentage or turnover percentage. Without ‘stealing’ possessions from C-USA foes, the Bulldogs’ overall defensive efficiency dropped to 10th best in the league, a precipitous drop from the 3rd ranked unit the two years prior.
Bottom Line: The reinsertion of a few key cogs who missed time last year will obviously help, but the loss of Boykins can’t be shrugged off. The smooth shooting lefty rained in 96 threes at an efficient 40% clip, which served as the catalyst for an offense that lived and died by the 3-ball last year.
However, the addition of Langston, along with an uptick in minutes for Duruji (39% from 3 last year) and [hopefully] a full-season of Bracey (40% from 3 last year), the Bulldogs should continue to torch opponents from the land of plenty. Interior depth remains the glaring weakness with no proven producers behind Oliver Powell left on the roster, but if you’ve read the entirety of this preview, you’re well aware that guards drive the bus in this conference – with the vast majority of the C-USA rosters littered with guards and versatile wings, not having a dominant front line with elite size is a manageable issue.
Konkol would be wise to showcase his own robust collection of guards / wings by turning up the heat defensively, which would also help cover up some of the soft spots inside. Even with a proven backup in Archibald waiting in the wings, I still think a fully healthy Bracey is necessary for a bounce back 2019 campaign – if he’s at 100%, La Tech has a game-breaking offensive spark plug that few teams in the C-USA possess.
Key Returners: Zack Bryant, Lewis Sullivan, Jalen Perry, Makhtar Gueye
Key Losses: Chris Cokley, William Lee, Nate Darling, Nick Norton
Key Newcomers: Wil Bathurst (Cornell grad transfer), Tyreek Scott-Grayson, Nolan Bertain, Will Butler, Jude Akabueze, Tamell Pearson, Tavin Lovan, Joshua Sippial
Outlook: A changing of the guard is in effect in Birmingham, Alabama. The Blazers wave goodbye to two of the most decorated players in program history, Chris Cokley and William Lee, who have been synonymous with the UAB basketball brand for the last four years. Walking out the door behind them will also be Nick Norton, a bedrock of the Blazer backcourt, who could fill thousands of piggy banks with all the dimes he dropped to both Cokley and Lee over the past four seasons – and that only captures a sliver of what he meant to this team dating all the way back to the 2014-15 season (the same year UAB stunned Iowa State in the opening round of the NCAA tournament).
In order for Robert Ehsan to build a bridge into a new era of Blazer basketball, he’ll need Lewis Sullivan– a forgotten member of that special 2014 freshman class – to assume a leadership role in his final year in Birmingham and help shepherd the herd of young freshmen infiltrating the 2019 roster. After taking a redshirt in 2016-17, Sullivan finally carved out a niche in the primary rotation last season – he’ll never be a marked man on defensive scouting reports, but he willingly accepts his role as a multi-positional defender, relentless glass crasher and opportunistic scorer.
Outside of Sullivan, Jalen Perry is the only other returning upperclassmen on the roster worth mentioning who, like Sullivan, will now get his moment in the sun as he likely slides into the starting lineup. Perry came to UAB as a highly touted shooter from the JUCO ranks, so there’s reason to believe he can improve upon the 36% shooting clip he posted last year from behind the stripe. Ehsan will also import some additional experience in the form of Cornell grad transfer Wil Bathurst, who will bolster what will be a deep and balanced perimeter crew and face fierce competition from Nolan Bertain, Tyreek Scott-Grayson, and Tavin Lovan for minutes at the three guard spots along the perimeter.
All of those aforementioned names will defer to a pair of 2ndyear studs in Zack Bryant and Luis Hurtado, who must carry the torch forward from the Cokely / Lee / Norton graduating class. Bryant wasted no time making a name for himself as a young workhorse playing alongside a bunch of establish veterans. Norton’s presence last year allowed Bryant to lock in on scoring, but he’ll now become the nominal point guard with Norton, Deion Lavender and Nate Darling all gone. As good as Bryant was last season, many recruiting analysts pegged Hurtado as the gem of Ehsan’s 2017 recruiting class - both 247sports.com and rivals.com graded him as a 3-star.
There’s a lot riding on Bryant and Hurtado to pick up the slack left behind by Cokley, Lee, Norton and Darling, but don’t expect this dynamic duo to start gunning recklessly. Even with the offense revolving around Cokley in the post last year, the Blazers still diligently adhered to Jon Rothstein’s infamous slogan, “sharing is caring” – in other words, UAB was one of the most unselfish teams in the country, as evidenced by the…
29th highest team assist rate in the country (per kenpom.com)
7th lowest isolation rate in the country (per Synergy)
While Norton deserves a lot of credit here for disseminating a culture of unselfishness, I have confidence that the young Bryant and Hurtado will shun hero ball tactics and strike the right balance of knowing when to get their own and knowing when to get teammates involved.
Bottom Line: There’s no debating that the loss of Cokley and Lee will sting. Cokley was a wizard in the low-post, while Lee was a dynamic defender by just about every possible measure. That said, Ehsan has a few replacements coming in right behind them who could lessen the blow of the Cokely / Lee exit. 6’10 Tamell Pearson anchored back-to-back state championship runs at Chicago powerhouse Morgan Park high school, 6’8 Will Butler enters as a top-50 ranked JUCO player and Jude Azkabueze casually tallied 19 PPG, 16 RPG and 5 BPG last season at North Marion High School in West Virginia.
Listen, I’m not saying they’ll be Cokely / Lee 2.0 right away – but the net drop off won’t be that catastrophic. With a young core in-tact, the future looks bright for the Blazers, but some regression will be unavoidable with such a special senior class graduating this summer.
Key Returners: Brian Beard, Willy Nunez, Trejon Jacob, Michael Douglas
Key Losses: Eric Lockett, Josh Stamps, Jay Harvey
Key Newcomers: Antonio Daye Jr.,Marcus Burwell,Cordell Veira, Phillip Smith
Outlook: First of all, I owe an apology to the FIU faithful after basically dismissing this team altogether last year. Shame on me for not giving the JUCO newcomers their proper due as Brian Beard made a mockery of my last place projection – though, surpassing my expectations was not good enough for Anthony Evans to keep his job as the Athletic Department decided to go in a new direction.
That direction followed a similar path as conference rival Rice last year, who identified former VCU assistant Scott Pera as the man to steer their program back to prominence. FIU reached into that same VCU coaching tree to nab Jeremy Ballard as the successor to Evans, which marks yet another Shaka Smart disciple to receive a promotion. But unlike the roster turnover that crippled Pera at Rice last year, Ballard actually retained a fair amount of last season’s production.
Now that we’re halfway through the C-USA, the regurgitation of guard importance is becoming a broken record. The same rings true for the Panthers and their own triplets on the perimeter in Beard, Willy Nunez and Trejon Jacob. As good as Jacob and Lockett were last season, Beard was the undisputed offensive dictator. Much like many of the C-USA coaches, Evans last year let his guards run the show and gave them ample freedom to drive and create with a flurry of pick-n-rolls. Whenever opposing defenses were able to get set and stall FIU’s transition attack, Evans would constantly send screeners to Beard and Lockett to try and free them up and get them going downhill toward the rim.
With Lockett out of the picture, Nunez is the next man up after injuries limited him to just six games last year – he was a big-time bucket getter at his previous JUCO stop, pouring in 21 points a game before coming to FIU. Plugging him in place of Lockett will give Ballard an eerily similar roster DNA as what Curry had last year with Beard flanked by a trio of 6’5 wings in Nunez, Jacob and Michael Douglas (arguably the Panthers best and most versatile defender). Since Nunez, Jacob and Douglas are all confident outside shooters, Beard will have plenty of real estate to knife through the lane, which will set up drive-and-dish kick outs for open 3s – though, a lot more of those need to drop this year if FIU wants to leave last year’s shooting woes behind.
Bottom Line: Along with freshman Antonio Daye and JUCO signee Marcus Burwell, Ballard has himself a guard-littered roster that looks primed to replicate some of the classic VCU havoc. This should help alleviate the choppiness of a typical coaching transition, as well as the fact that Curry was already trending toward revving up the offense to a faster speed last year. There isn’t much size outside of Elhadji Dieng (a regular starter over the first 20 games of the season), but this is a common weakness shared by almost all C-USA competitors and point production in the paint will likely be de-prioritized by Ballard. Some outlets have the Panthers finishing as high as 5th, but I just don’t see the shooting consistency needed to score at an efficient rate with a perimeter-oriented lineup. Still, Ballard carries with him a high reputation from his coaching peers, which bodes well for the long-term prognosis of the FIU hoops program.
10. Middle Tennessee
Key Returners: Karl Gamble, Donovan Sims
Key Losses: Giddy Potts, Nick King, Tyrik Dixon, Antwain Johnson, Brandon Walters
Key Newcomers: Junior Farquhar, TJ Massenburg, Reggie Scurry, Chase Miller, Darnell Butler Jr., Jayce Johnson, Anthony Crump
Outlook: Uhhhh, not great!
I’m not quite sure where to start with this preview, but let’s travel back in time to March 1st, 2018. The Blue Raiders were on cloud 9 after walloping Western Kentucky by 18 at home to clinch their 2nd straight C-USA regular season title. I can’t attest to what went down during the celebratory festivities, but whatever happened, MTSU came down with a hangover to end all hangovers…
Less than 48 hours later, Marshall waltzed into the Murphy Athletic Center and handed the Blue Raiders their 2nd conference loss, spoiling an emotional senior night for Giddy Potts and Nick King, among others. In the grand scheme, this wasn’t a damning blemish on MTSU’s at-large tournament resume – most felt that a C-USA tournament title game appearance would be enough to punch their ticket to the dance.
Yeahhhh, about that – the hungover trance somehow lingered into the following weekend and a pesky Southern Miss team stunned the defending C-USA champs in an overtime thriller, sending the Blue Raiders home packing with a long and stressful waiting period before the Selection Show.
Turns out that opening round loss to the Golden Eagles would serve as the final nail in the coffin of MTSU’s season and the Kermit Davis era in Murfreesboro. When Davis announced he was officially taking the Ole Miss job, the ship began to sink as players began fleeing the program for a variety of reasons (a couple of which were involuntary). It would take hours to detail the specifics behind all the departures, so let’s fast forward to ‘Live TV’ and cover what’s in store for 1st year head coach Nick McDevitt (formerly of UNC Asheville) as he tries to keep the Blue Raiders afloat in 2019.
Much like last year, the forte of the 2019 roster will be the frontline – though, it doesn’t hold a candle to the Nick King / Brandon Walters twosome. Huge news recently broke with the confirmation that Missouri State transfer Reggie Scurry will in fact be eligible immediately. Scurry is currently recovering from one of the most bizarre injuries I’ve ever heard of – all I know is that I won’t be dipping my toe into the world of cryotherapy anytime soon - but all signs point to him being ready to go for the season opener. Scurry is a physical and active presence defensively, who plays much bigger than his 6’6 frame and has shown brief flashes of an improving offensive repertoire. He’ll be paired with MTSU’s top returning scorer Karl Gamble, who lit up the scoreboard for 3.9 points per game last year (*sarcasm*).
By process of elimination, Donovan Sims and / or Antonio Green could find themselves in the starting lineup when the season commences. Don’t be fooled by Sims deflated counting stats – he earned his stripes playing big minutes in high leverage situations down the stretch last year. Green, on the other hand, hasn’t played a meaningful game his entire collegiate career after spending his first two seasons at WAC bottom-feeder UT Rio Grande Valley. Despite stepping up in competition, Green will have every opportunity to let it fly from distance, which is precisely what he does best. The redshirt junior is the quintessential volume shooter and knocked down a respectable 36% of a whopping 259 tries during the 2016-17 campaign at UTRGV. Green might single-handedly win McDevitt a game or two this season with a “holy s*&$, did you see that?!” outburst of 3s – two years ago, he hit at least 9 triples in a game twice.
That leaves Canadian phenom Junior Farquhar and JUCO sharpshooter Darnell Butler as the final two perimeter parts. Farquhar is precisely the kind of centerpiece McDevitt can build around – he’s a slab of muscle at 6’2 200 pounds and is a stat-stuffing machine at the guard position (Jordan Goodwin of SLU is a decent comparison). He was the 13th ranked prospect in Canada and came just one assist and one rebound shy of averaging a triple-double in high-school. Butler is even bigger than his backcourt counterpart at 6’4 220 pounds, a deceiving build for a guy with silky smooth jumper – the combination of his chiseled frame and pure jump-shot should bring about comparisons to Giddy Potts (though, Butler stands 4-5 inches taller than Giddy).
Bottom Line: Strap in Blue Raider nation – 2019 will be a bumpy ride. Once Kermit Davis accepted the Ole Miss job, the roster was effectively blown to pieces with everyone of relevance bolting for the nearest exit. Down the road, I think we’ll look back and give the McDevitt hiring a “two thumbs up” approval rating, but there’s just way too many unknowns this season to feel even remotely confident about MTSU remaining in the upper half of the standings. It’s hard to drop MTSU this low in the projected standings given the recent institutional success, but there’s question mark after question mark all over this roster.
Key Returners: Evan Gilyard, Paul Thomas, Kobe Magee
Key Losses: Omega Harris, Jake Flaggert, Matt Wilms, Keith Frazier, Isiah Osborne, Trey Wade
Key Newcomers: Jordan Lathon, Efe Odigie, Brandon Averitt, Nigel Hawkins, Garrett Sullivan, Jakobe Dill, Kaosi Ezeagu, Ountae Campbell, Gilles Dekoninck
Outlook: The final chapter of the Tim Floyd regime was a runaway ‘mine’ train (see what I did there) that ultimately fell off the rails. After engineering an unthinkable turnaround to save the 2016-17 season – the Miners won 11 of their final 14 contests after stumbling to a 2-13 start – the momentum came to a screeching halt last year. It was Déjà Vu all over again as the Miners opened the season sleep walking, losing all six tilts against D1 opponents – but instead of staying the course in hopes of flipping the switch again, Timmy Floyd decided to hang up the clipboard and called it quits just seven games in to the season. Interim replacement Phil Johnson teased us with a 4-1 record after taking over the reins, but that early success quickly faded into oblivion and the Miners went back into a tailspin for the remainder of the year.
Rodney Terry now returns to his old stomping grounds as the new head honcho tasked with steering the ship back on course in El Paso. Much like so many of the other first year head coaches across the college hoops landscape, Terry has his work cut out for him in year 1 as he tries to lay the groundwork for 2020 and beyond. As many as 8 newcomers will be vying for legitimate playing time, so it’ll be interesting to see how deep Terry goes into his bench.
Of the new additions, none come as highly anticipated as Jordan Lathon, a 4-star recruit from Missouri who has a chance to be the best freshman in the C-USA not named Charles Bassey. Lathon is versatility personified at the guard position – his size and length at the point will give the Miner backcourt somewhat of an inverted look with the 6’4 Lathon at the point of attack next to two compact dynamos in Evan Gilyard (5’10, 155 pounds) and Kobe Magee (6’1, 150 pounds). Gilyard is a blur in the open floor, and Magee is a flamethrower from long range, but both can be erratic at times – Terry will need Lathon to be a savvy decision-maker and fortify what was a relatively inconsistent backcourt last year.
Everything will revolve around this perimeter triumvirate, but don’t snooze on Nigel Hawkins, another highly rated prospect with plus size. So far this offseason, Terry has been very candid about his desire to put the pedal to metal on both sides of the ball. On offense, the Miners will look to keep pace with some of the high-speed transition attacks found around the rest of the league. On defense, look for Terry to try and agitate opposing ball handlers by picking up full court – last season at Fresno, Terry pressed on 20% of all defensive possessions, the 30th highest rate in the country (per Synergy). This is precisely why boosting the backcourt depth with a guy of Hawkins caliber was high on Terry’s priority list, which should keep the guards well rested as the wear and tear of the season drags on.
With so few ‘true’ big men found around the C-USA, Paul Thomas may emerge as one of the league’s top rebounders in 2019. One of the few incumbent veterans who chose to stick around during the coaching change, Thomas was sharpie-d into the starting lineup last season and should retain his rightful spot in the top-5 this year. He’ll get some much needed support up-front with 3-star recruit Efe Odigie and Isaiah Rhyanes from the JUCO talent pool.
Bottom Line: The Miners have a deceptively potent backcourt with Lathon, Gilyard, Magee and Hawkins, all of whom should be salivating to play for Terry this year with his plans to take the offense into overdrive. Gilyard, in particular, should shine in the open floor, while Lathon’s playmaking and vision should create a platter of open looks for the sharpshooting Magee. UTEP will be an entertaining team to watch, but it should take some time for this young backcourt to gel and get acclimated with a whole new philosophy under Terry.
12. Florida Atlantic
Key Returners: Anthony Adger, Jailyn Ingram
Key Losses: Ronald Delph, William Pfister, Gerdarius Troutman, Justin Massey
Key Newcomers: Jaylen Sebree, Xavian Stapleton (Miss State), Jaylen Sebree, Madiaw Niang, Michael Forrest
Outlook: With the football program on a steep upward trajectory, FAU’s athletic department felt it was necessary to make a change on the basketball side of the house. After failing to surpass 6 conference wins in any of his four seasons at the helm, Michael Curry was shown the door this offseason. This marks yet another failed experiment of a high profile, big splash coaching hire for the hoops program – as Shandel Richardson of the Sun Sentinel points out, Mike Jarvis, Rex Walters, Matt Doherty and Sidney Green were never able to gain much steam during their brief stints.
With Curry out, Dusty May – a longtime D1 assistant now in his first head coaching gig – was tagged as the guy to pick up the pieces in Boca Raton. May inherits a roster that has been patched up with a slew of new faces and contains only two key contributors from last year.
Ronald Delph is the notable loss from last year’s squad, an gargantuan individual at 7’0 who policed the paint for three years under Curry. To keep his big man on the floor more consistently, Curry implemented a special type of zone to help Delph stay out of the foul trouble, a big reason he clocked more minutes than his sophomore or junior campaigns. It certainly paid dividends from a pure production standpoint as Delph turned in by far his best individual performance of his collegiate career, earning him 3rd Team All-Conference honors.
However, a deeper dive into the advanced on/off numbers tells a slightly more damning story. Per hooplens.com, the Owls actually surrendered more points per possession with Delph on the floor.
In fact, FAU got stops more consistently when William Pfister – a slightly quicker, more fleet of foot big – was in the game in place of Delph (the towering tandem hardly ever played together). That said, while the on/off numbers expose Delph as a borderline liability on defense, I’m not ready to declare a full blown ‘Ewing theory’ (addition by subtraction) will work in the Owls favor this season.
With Dusty May calling the shots this season, we may might see a faster, more athletic Owls lineup. Given May’s recent experience under his former boss Mike White, May ‘may’ try to emulate a similar roster DNA to what he helped mold at Florida – that is, a team that utilizes versatile forwards who can play inside or out with ease. May is thrilled to welcome two highly touted newcomers in Mississippi State transfer Xavian Stapleton and fringe 4-star prospect Jaylen Sebree to the mix. Along with incumbent wing Jailyn Ingram, May will have a trio of 6’7 multi-positional wing assets in his back pocket.
While Ingram has been deadweight on offense in each of his first two seasons, Stapleton and Sebree both bring tremendous upside to a team in desperate need of offensive skill (the Owls were dead last in the C-USA in effective FG% last year). Sebree was a finalist for Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball and came through the perennial powerhouse IMG Academy pipeline. Stapleton was a spot starter for a competitive Mississippi State team last year and turned in a few big scoring outings against some stellar SEC defenses.
The backcourt depth chart remains largely up in the air, but veteran Anthony Adger should provide some leadership and stability as the transition to the Dusty May era ensues. Of all the freshmen in May’s inaugural recruiting class, Michael Forrest seems to have generated the most buzz this offseason apart from Sebree. A local product from Ely, Forrest scored 26 a game in high school and could play his way into the starting lineup early on.
Bottom Line: As excited as I am about Dusty May beginning his reign, as well as the addition of potential stars in Stapleton and Sebree, the Owls have a long way to go before they can realistically expect to compete with the top dogs in the C-USA. The arrival of Stapleton and Sebree will help, but FAU loses its two most efficient players from an offensively challenged team last year (Gerdarius Troutman and Justin Massey), a scary proposition given only 5 teams in all of college basketball posted a worst effective FG% in 2018.
Key Returners: Jon Davis, Najee Garvin, Milos Supica, Jailan Haslem
Key Losses: Andrien White, Austin Ajukwa
Key Newcomers: Dravon Mangum, Malik Martin, Brandon Younger, Cooper Robb
Outlook: Keep your head up Mark Price. Just think of it this way – a decade from now, no one will remember that whole coaching experiment blowing up in your face. Just like Michael Jordan, your greatness on the court will always drown out your failures off of it.
Mike Hill, Charlotte’s new athletic director, wasted no time taking action in his new position of power and pounced on the opportunity to hire Ron Sanchez, a decade-long disciple of Tony Bennett at both Virginia and Washington State. Other than a cup of coffee at Indiana under Mike Davis, the pack line defense and mover-blocker offense is all Sanchez has known since entering the college coaching profession. Thus, projecting the stylistic changes he’ll implement in year 1 seems rather obvious.
Defensively, the shell-like nature of the pack line defense is the polar opposite of the principles instilled under Price. Over the past two seasons, the 49ers picked up defensively well beyond the 3-point line and were actually effective at taking away open looks from the outside - unfortunately, that’s about all that went well on that side of the ball as Charlotte got beaten to a pulp inside.
Sanchez brings back three of his primary four interior contributors from last year, which is somewhat of a double-edged sword. On one hand, the continuity should bode well for Jailan Haslem and Milos Supica as they each gain one more year of experience. On the other hand, the Haslem / Supica duo gave 6’7 wing athlete Najee Garvin little to no help on the glass and even 6’3 guard Andrien White posted a higher defensive rebounding rate than either Haslem or Supica. While they both did work on the offensive boards, that same rebounding prowess was absent on the other side of the ball – Sanchez will have little tolerance for getting bullied on the glass, so look for this to be a point of emphasis in 2019.
Charlotte lifer Jon Davis will have to adapt his game in a major way now playing in what should be a much more systematic, methodically-paced offense. Under Price, Davis could do pretty much whatever he wanted, often looking to get out and go in transition when the opportunity arose. Assuming Sanchez takes after his mentor, Davis won’t have the rope he had last year to initiate the fast break at his discretion. Though, perhaps adding some structure to the offense could simplify the game for Davis’ counterparts.
Outside of the freshmen (none of whom are highly rated by any of the major recruiting services) and the aforementioned returners, Davis’ only other scoring support will come from Luka Vasic and Jaylan McGill, both of whom are probably best in lower usage, spot-up shooter type roles. Asking them to play in transition or play 1-v-1 in the half-court is probably not the best use of their skillsets, so they might be more effective in Sanchez’s system curling or fading off screens to get open catch-and-shoot looks.
Bottom Line: With what appears to be a mega-upgrade in the coaching department, along with an All-Everything lead guard in Davis, the 49ers should outlast Rice in the race for last place. It will be interesting to watch this squad assimilate into Ron Sanchez’s offensive and defensive designs, which have proven to be successful time and time again without marquee talent and blue-chip prospects at Virginia. Regardless, the ceiling in the C-USA standings likely tops out around 11th place, barring any unforeseen leap from an unusual suspect or two.
Key Returners: Ako Adams
Key Losses: Connor Cashaw, Malik Osborne, Najja Hunter, Bishop Mency
Key Newcomers: Jack Williams (Pacific transfer), Josh Parrish (TCU transfer), Drew Peterson, Payton Moore, Trey Murphy III, Chris Mullins, Quentin Millora-Brown
Outlook: This might be a knee-jerk reaction to a one-year sample size, but the Mike Rhoades-to-Scott Pera coaching handoff is off to a rocky start. When the Rice athletic department chose to anoint Pera as the successor to Rhoades, it felt like a smart, low-risk decision. The intended benefits seemed trivial – 1) sustain established relationships with both current players and recruiting targets, as well as 2) build new recruiting networks in hope of luring in the next generation of young talent.
So far, Pera is batting 1 for 2 on those expectations. While he’s plucked some enticing young talent from the grassroots and transfer domains, his inability to retain that talent has stunted any momentum of revitalizing the program in the near-future (again, it’s only been one year). Malik Osborne and Najja Hunter – the cream of last year’s freshmen crop – chose to take their talents elsewhere, both of whom could’ve been foundational pieces to build on going forward. With veterans Connor Cashaw and Bishop Mency also walking out the door, Pera will turn to Ako Adams, Robert Martin and a fresh batch of newcomers in 2019.
Former 4-star recruit and TCU import Josh Parrish should inject some electricity to the backcourt alongside Adams and Martin. Similar to last season, Pera also adds two 3-star freshmen in Payton Moore and Chris Mullins to the perimeter depth chart, giving the Owls a respectable 5-man rotation to spread across the 1, 2, and 3 spots on the perimeter. Guards dictate everything in Pera’s spread-it-out, let-it-fly offense, so the newcomers will need to knock down shots at a much higher rate than Adams, Cashaw and Mency did a year ago – the Owls hoisted the 13th most 3s in the country last year but only 32% of those triples managed to fall.
The shooting upgrades weren’t limited to the perimeter - Pera also added a pair of stretch forwards who can stroke it from distance in freshmen Drew Peterson and Pacific grad transfer Jack Williams. If Pera wants to live and die by the 3-ball, then a frontcourt pairing of Peterson and Williams will be an intriguing matchup conundrum for opposing C-USA coaches, who will have to figure out how to check two 6’8 inverse forwards at the 4 and 5.
And since neither carries a repute for being an enforcer in the middle, I’d wager Pera continues to play his beloved matchup zone on the defensive end to try and keep Rice bodies close to the rim. In fact, Syracuse was the only team in the country who played zone more often, as the Owls showcased their confusing zone scheme on 93% of all defensive possessions – for context, Syracuse played zone on 94% of defensive possessions (per Synergy).
Bottom Line: Rice and Charlotte will have to scratch and claw their way out of the C-USA basement, but I don’t see either team making any forward progress in 2019. Coming off an abysmal season, the Owls lose a substantial chunk of last year’s production, a toxic combination for Scott Pera and a coaching staff in desperate need of some positive momentum. The talent base isn’t completely barren, but it’s still not robust enough to combat the lack of roster continuity, which is not a good omen for a team that won just five games last year against D-I opponents.