Conference USA 2019-20 Preview

-Jim Root

Preseason Predictions

Player of the Year: Jhivvan Jackson, Jr., UTSA
Coach of the Year:
Rodney Terry, UTEP
Newcomer of the Year:
Bryson Williams, R Jr., UTEP
Freshman of the Year:
Jahmir Young, Charlotte


Tier 1

1. Western Kentucky

Key Returners: Charles Bassey, Taevion Hollingsworth, Jared Savage, Josh Anderson
Key Losses:
Lamonte Bearden, Dalano Banton (transfer)
Key Newcomers:
Camron Justice (IUPUI), Carson Williams (NKU), Jordan Rawls, Jackson Harlan, Isaiah Cozart, Eli Wright (Miss State/St. John’s)***, Kenny Cooper (Lipscomb)***

Lineup:

Note: Wright and Cooper are both attempting to obtain waivers for immediate eligibility. Both may have decent cases, but the NCAA remains the NCAA, so feel free to flip a coin.

Outlook: To quote Stadium’s Jeff Goodman, “the smart money remains on Rick Stansbury in recruiting,” and that trend continued this offseason. Whether you like his methods or not, it’s impossible to deny that Stansbury has accumulated players in Bowling Green at the rate of a C-USA nuclear arms race, and only UTEP can really contend with the Hilltoppers’ arsenal on a pure talent base. Stansbury expanded his base, too: he nabbed an elite grad transfer scorer (Camron Justice), will get a bruising interior presence eligible after a sit-out year (Carson Williams), and he even convinced 2020 point guard Jordan Rawls to re-classify and fill the roster’s biggest void. Combine all that with the return of star center Charles Bassey after testing the NBA Draft waters and the deep stable of wing talent, and WKU looks to be head and shoulders above the rest of the league, on paper at least.

Thankfully, they still actually play college basketball games, so the rest of the league will have a chance to dispel that notion. Western Kentucky also topped last season’s preseason C-USA poll thanks to its collection of talent, but turnover issues and a dearth of perimeter shooting pushed the ‘Toppers into a four-way tie for second at 11-7. With many of the same players back, similar questions about ball control and overall utilization of talent will plague them all the way until the day they clinch the league title.

For a team that has turnover issues, relying on a guy who should be a senior in high school (Rawls) as the primary ball-handler does little to quell those concerns. Lipscomb transfer Kenny Cooper would be a steady hand who has played in an uptempo system, but he’s still waiting on a waiver from the NCAA to play immediately. Justice and Taevion Hollingsworth will take some turns on the ball; both have play-making skills but thrive more as off-ball assassins looking for their own offense. But unless Cooper gets his waiver, Rawls is the only true pass-first player, and with Josh Anderson, Charles Bassey, and another waiver candidate - wing Eli Wright - also commanding plenty of touches, the old adage that “there’s only one ball!!!” becomes a genuine concern.

Williams and Jared Savage can thrive in complementary roles, should they choose to accept them. Williams, who simply changed points on the state compass after leaving Northern Kentucky, is an undersized but brawny rebounding force with some vertical pop, and he’ll eat on the offensive boards and as a low post finisher with so much defensive attention being paid elsewhere. Savage, on the other hand, is a perimeter sniper, a crucial role for a team that needs to space the floor for Bassey’s post play and Anderson/Hollingsworth drives.

And make no mistake: playing through Bassey should be options 1, 2, and 3. He simply out-muscled and out-athleted (yes, that’s now a word) most of his C-USA competition – even ODU’s hyper-physical bigs:

That second seal is a particularly cruel example of telling someone “weight room,” as well as a smart use of angles. Bassey ultimately shot 63.4% from two-point range while also being one of the league’s best two-way rebounders. He scored a solid 0.917 points per possession in the post (73rd percentile nationally), a rate that should only improve in his second year as he refines his moves.

Defensively, Stansbury’s teams are known for their lack of fouling, aided by his judicious use of zones, particularly against teams he feels lack perimeter shooting. The perimeter athletes that this roster features helps the Hilltoppers generate more turnovers than in years past, and Bassey is a major deterrent at the rim. The team often leans too heavily on Bassey to grab every defensive rebound, though, and a lack of discipline on the glass can sometimes concede second chance opportunities.

Bottom Line: The questions around Western Kentucky are more of the “how will it work?” variety, with numerous lineup and strategic decisions resting on Stansbury and associate head coach Phil Cunningham’s shoulders. They are good problems to have, though, as the roster is flush with scoring and high-level athleticism; as long as they are deployed in an intelligent, cohesive plan, Western Kentucky should sit atop the league. I’m not absolutely certain that will happen, though (with last year as exhibit A in my evidence), so expect a few head-scratching performances during the doldrums of conference play, which may undermine any shot at an at-large bid. Still, the talent and experience gap is wide enough to place WKU at #1 in the preseason.

2. North Texas

Key Returners: Umoja Gibson, Roosevelt Smart, Zachary Simmons, DJ Draper, Jahmiah Simmons
Key Losses:
Ryan Woolridge (transfer), Jorden Duffy, Michael Miller
Key Newcomers:
Javion Hamlet (JUCO), Deng Geu (North Dakota St.), Thomas Bell (JUCO), James Reese (JUCO), Jalen Jackson

Lineup:

Outlook: The horror movie is (hopefully) finally over in Denton, Texas. Given all the firepower that sharp young coach Grant McCasland had assembled, last season had promised to be an ascension to the top tier of Conference USA, and like many a first act of a slasher film, things had started off rosy. On January 10th, the Mean Green sat at 16-1 (4-0), albeit against one of the country’s weakest schedules, and a run at the league title seemed inevitable. But the warning signs were there, especially star wing Roosevelt Smart’s limited production upon his return from a torn calf muscle and the Mean Green’s middling analytics rankings. Then, one by one, injuries started to pick off the rest of the core rotation like supporting characters in a horror movie. It all culminated in a loss at Florida International in which the team used only six players; four of whom went the 40 minute distance, and reserve Tope Arikawe clocked just eight minutes off the bench. McCasland likely still has nightmares about the dark cloud that consumed his team, but with any luck at all, the Mean Green will avoid a sequel this year.

That’s a long-winded intro, but a necessary one. Despite the swoon they took to end the season, the Mean Green remain a formidable C-USA team if fully healthy, and McCasland is still a rising coaching star in our eyes. Contextualizing such a collapse is crucial to understanding why a major bounce-back should be in store.

For that to take place, though, Smart needs to rediscover what made him such a scoring presence in his first D1 season. His production tumbled across the board, precipitously in some categories:

Perhaps the most telling stat in that graphic is the “FTA per 40 minutes.” Smart is a shooter first and foremost, but what made him so dangerous as a rookie was his ability to attack a closeout and get to the rim. He simply did not have that same pop last year, and failing to get to the stripe reflects that loss of athleticism. The lack of lift clearly affected his shooting numbers, as well, and we’ll likely be able to tell immediately if he has it back based on how often he gets to the free throw line.  

A key to Smart’s resurgence will be playing more in transition. The injury plague sapped the Mean Green roster of its depth, and McCasland was forced to grind the team’s tempo to a halt to conserve his remaining players’ energy. Point guard Ryan Woolridge transferred to Gonzaga, but JUCO newcomer Javion Hamlet looks like an ideal replacement, a prolific scorer and passer at Northwest Florida State who can command an offense in an up-tempo system. Umoja Gibson can also play some point guard in a pinch, but he’s better off the ball, torching nets and bending defenses with his perimeter shooting. Backcourt depth should suddenly be a strength, too, with glue guy DJ Draper back and wings Larry Wise and Abdul Mohamed both healthy after redshirting last year with minor injuries. Both were highly-regarded additions last offseason that bring size to a team that sorely lacked it at the guard spots. Another JUCO star, sniper James Reese, will earn minutes with his shooting, as well.

Up front, Zachary Simmons was the only player to start every game last year, and his rebounding and finishing will continue to be invaluable. Jahmiah Simmons (no relation) is a versatile ‘tweener who allows the team to switch 1 through 4 when he’s on the court, while North Dakota State grad transfer Deng Geu could be a major difference-maker given his combination of size and perimeter skill.

Bottom Line: One of McCasland’s greatest strengths as a coach is his switching man-to-man defense that extends in the half court and makes opponents uncomfortable; with a fresh influx of size, athleticism, and depth, he can more easily employ that this year. There’s simply no way that the Mean Green will face such a rash of simultaneous injuries, and if Smart and Hamlet can reignite the anemic offense, North Texas may actually challenge for the league title a year later than expected.



3. UTEP

Key Returners: Efe Odigie, Jordan Lathon, Nigel Hawkins, Ountae Campbell
Key Losses:
Evan Gilyard (transfer), Paul Thomas, Kobe Magee (transfer)
Key Newcomers:
Bryson Williams (Fresno St.), Anthony Tarke (NJIT), Souley Boum (San Francisco), Tydus Verhoeven (Duquesne), Eric Vila (JUCO), Daryl Edwards (LSU), Kaden Archie (TCU)

Lineup:

Note: Kaden Archie will be eligible in December after transferring from TCU mid-year.

Outlook: Last year’s UTEP season was a lot like The Battle of Helm’s Deep (I’m a nerd – bear with me). In a dire situation (new coach, tons of roster turnover), too many youngsters were pressed into duty (344th in experience), and the night grew dark despite a valiant defense (3-15 in C-USA with the league’s worst offense). After the terrors of the night, though, the sun rises on a new season with a bevy of reinforcements arriving to support the cause (hello, Éomer/transfers!), and the outlook suddenly looks much brighter for Rohan/UTEP.

Tangent: I always laugh thinking about the off-screen conversation where, prior to the final cavalry charge, Aragorn and Theoden tell Gimli, “sorry bud, you’ll be useless on a horse…but you can go blow a horn!!”

Have I annoyed all of the Miner fans reading this yet? Hopefully not - I promise I’m saying your team will be categorically better than last year!

After coming over from Fresno St., Rodney Terry accepted that his team would take some lumps in season one, taking four sit-out transfers and tossing his freshmen into the fire. Those decisions will now pay huge dividends, as the Miners, suddenly flush with talent, look to make a giant leap up the C-USA standings.

Despite that talent influx, though, UTEP’s identity will remain on the defensive end. Terry is a devout man-to-man acolyte, using his athletic rosters to extend pressure out to (and sometimes beyond) half court. Sophomore point guard Jordan Lathon will set the tone there, and though none of the expected wing rotation – sophomore Nigel Hawkins, San Francisco transfer Souley Boum, NJIT transfer Anthony Tarke, freshman Deon Stroud – are particularly known for their defensive capabilities, Terry’s scheme should prevent that from being an issue. Tarke’s size and anticipation are intriguing fits, and redshirt senior Ountae Campbell will probably earn some minutes just for his prowess on that end.

The paint defense will be intimidating, as well: likely starting pair Efe Odigie and Bryson Williams (who came with Terry from Fresno) boast over 500 pounds of raw power, and they’ll dominate the glass on both ends of the court. Terry also brings in Tydus Verhoeven from Duquesne, one of the nation’s best shot-blockers on a per-minute basis as a freshman, to come off the bench and erase the hopes of opponents who manage to crack the Miners’ perimeter shell. JUCO transfer Eric Vila is more of a skilled four option, while sophomore Kaosi Ezeagu will have to fight for any minutes he can find behind that foursome. Having so much size plays into Terry’s plan to force opponents into inefficient midrange jump shots.

Offensively, the turnaround should be one of the largest in the country after the Miners stumbled to a nightmarish 343rd in the nation, per KenPom’s AdjOE. Tarke and Williams are proven offensive weapons, and Boum and Hawkins should be far more efficient in their second collegiate campaigns. Terry wants to spread the court and play through his bigs in the post; Odigie struggled mightily with his efficiency as a freshman (far too many midrange jumpers, 3.0 turnovers per game), but his development and the addition of Williams should reinforce the Miners’ interior scoring.

The biggest question will be if UTEP can shoot it from deep well enough to prevent teams from blanketing the bigs. Boum and Lathon have at least had respectable shooting seasons in the past, but Hawkins, Tarke, and the non-Vila bigs won’t scare anyone. If that becomes an issue, Vila may play more than expected.

Bottom Line: Terry loaded up last offseason, knowing full well that his team would experience growing pains in his first year. Seeing a team go from dead last to top 3 in a 14-team conference is extremely rare, but when factoring in transfers and fresman-to-sophomore development, this year’s team will barely even resemble last year’s disaster. UTEP may face some role allocation questions – most of the players will expect a considerable share of the team’s shots – but if Terry can get them to embrace team > me, UTEP has the talent to contend with the best of C-USA.



4. UTSA

Key Returners: Jhivvan Jackson, Keaton Wallace, Byron Frohnen, Atem Bior, Adokiye Iyaye
Key Losses:
Nick Allen, Giovanni De Nicolao (pro)
Key Newcomers:
Knox Hellums (Pepperdine), Luka Barisic (JUCO), Jacob Germany, Makani Whiteside, Phoenix Ford (JUCO)

Lineup:

Outlook: UTSA’s rise from the depths of the Brooks Thompson tenure (5-27 in his final year) continued in 2018-19, as the Roadrunners qualified for the “top tier” in Conference USA’s flex scheduling in the format’s first year. Nearly all of the pieces return for another go-round, most notably the incendiary duo of Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace, and UTSA has every right to believe it can compete for a conference championship.

Steve Henson’s uptempo attack starts and ends with the backcourt, where Jackson and Wallace are perhaps the most exciting twosome in the country. Despite Jackson missing the first three games of the year (and being on a minutes limit for five games upon his return), the two flamethrowers combined to make the second-most threes in the country among teammates:

Only Fletch Magee’s ridiculous shooting display topped them, and Jackson and Wallace actually made more threes on a per game basis than Magee and his teammate, Nathan Hoover. Jackson and Wallace have become modern Texas basketball’s answer to the old western shootouts, and both gunslingers have the greenest of lights when it comes to shot selection. Jackson led the entire country in percentage of shots taken while on the court, per KenPom, firing at a Russell Westbrook-ian 40.1% rate, and the two combined to take nearly 70% of the Roadrunners’ shots when they shared the floor.

That may seem like an insane imbalance on offense, but, the thing is…it worked! When the two played together, UTSA was a top-tier C-USA team, but when one or both sat, things fell apart (per Hoop Lens):

Point guard Giovanni De Nicolao was a smart third wheel, but he opted to turn pro in his native Italy. That means Jackson will likely handle the ball more frequently, with the other option being another Italian point guard, freshman Erik Czumbel. He won’t have the same chemistry with the two hoop outlaws, though - at least not right away.

Beyond simply “Wallace and Jackson need to make shots,” the key for UTSA will be finding the right role players to build an acceptable defense and complement the two gunners with finishing and shooting. Rising sophomore Adrian Rodriguez is the best bet to be a presence at the rim on both ends, although JUCO newcomers Luka Barisic and Phoenix Ford offer more size and experience. Rodriguez struggled with foul issues, but he’s a stout rebounder and can block a few shots, so he’ll get minutes up front alongside Atem Bior, another rebounding body. Byron Frohnen is an effort guy at forward, but he can’t make free throws (43%) and won’t have a giant impact.  

A major difference-maker could be Pepperdine transfer Knox Hellums, a knockdown shooter with some size at 6’5. Last year’s Roadrunners didn’t have any floor spacers that could punish defenses for swarming the frequent Jackson and Wallace pick-and-rolls, but Hellums hit 42% of his threes over two years in Malibu, and defenses will have to account for another weapon when calculating how far to help on the primary scoring duo. UTSA saw flashes of how he could contribute last summer on the team’s foreign tour in Costa Rica, where he averaged 13.7ppg. Sophomore Adokiye Iyaye attempted to fill that role as a freshman, but he struggled with his perimeter shot, making it likely he cedes time to the smoother, bigger Hellums.

Bottom Line: At the very least, UTSA will be a treat to watch thanks to the possibility that Jackson and Wallace could go supernova at a moment’s notice – and if they both do simultaneously, it’s absolutely must-watch college hoops. Their most dramatic feat last year was erasing a 14-point deficit in the final 2:13 of a home game with Old Dominion, thanks to five combined threes and 19 total points from Jackson and Wallace in that short span. As the two juniors continue to grow and the rest of the roster solidifies around them, the Roadrunners should find greater consistency and challenge for the C-USA title.

5. Louisiana Tech

Key Returners: Daquan Bracey, Exavian Christon (injury), Amorie Archibald, JaColby Pemberton, Derric Jean, Oliver Powell, Mubarak Muhammed
Key Losses:
Anthony Duruji (transfer), Ra’Shawn Langston (transfer)
Key Newcomers:
Kalob Ledoux (McNeese St.), Xaiver Armstead (JUCO), Isaiah Crawford, Cobe Williams, Andrew Gordon (West Virginia)***

Lineup:

Note: Gordon is waiting on a possible waiver from the NCAA to play right away.

Outlook: Replicating Mike White’s success at Louisiana Tech was always going to be a considerable challenge, but Eric Konkol seemed well on his way to doing so after going 46-20 (26-10) in his first two seasons. The last two years, though, have been bitten by the injury bug, pulling the Bulldogs back towards mediocrity (record of 37-29, 16-20 in C-USA). Now in year five, Konkol has the backcourt talent to re-enter the league’s top tier, and the ailments of the last two seasons have built considerable depth there, too. If Konkol can dial up the right pieces up front to supplement the talented guards, the ‘Dogs could even compete for a championship.

That’s a fairly sizable “if,” though. Versatile four man Anthony Duruji transferred to Florida (blast that Mike White’s legacy!!), robbing Konkol of a matchup nightmare thanks to his size, strength, and skill. Without him, Louisiana Tech was forced to play all conventional, two-big lineups featuring two of Oliver Powell, Mubarak Muhammed, and Stacey Thomas. Those lineups lacked spacing in a major way, and the offense completely tanked as a result:

Unless Muhammed can significantly increase his volume as a threat from deep (he did hit 10/24 threes last year, 41.7%), that trend will continue, especially with the possible addition of West Virginia grad transfer Andrew Gordon, a 6’10, 250-pound behemoth.  That means Konkol must be prepared with alternatives.

One option is sliding one of his 6’5 guards, JaColby Pemberton or JUCO transfer Xaiver Armstead, down to a small-ball four role. Pemberton actually rebounded quite well on the wing last year, so he could hold up against all but the most brutish power forwards. Freshman forward Isaiah Crawford would be closer to a like-for-like replacement for Duruji, and his defensive ability (7’1 wingspan) might help him find the court early.

That aforementioned glut of guards is a nice problem to have after injuries have depleted Konkol’s options the past two seasons. DaQuan Bracey is the undisputed star, a dynamic point guard who can create shots for himself or others equally well out of Konkol’s spread PnR attack. He’ll have multiple weapons to kick to, with potent shooters in Amorie Archibald, Exavian Christon, and McNeese St. transfer Kalob Ledoux all lurking on the wings. Christon and Derric Jean started 15 of the 16 games that they combined to play in, but with so many other options, the competition for those spots will be intense. Ledoux probably profiles best as a high-usage microwave scorer off the bench after taking a step up in competition, whereas Jean and Archibald have greater “secondary ball-handler” skills that will be valuable when attacking closeouts. And none of this even mentions jitterbug freshman Cobe Williams – you can see why it would make sense to employ some four-guard lineups.

Bottom Line: Konkol likely faces some degree of “pick your poison” with his lineups, as the four-guard options could be deadly offensively but vulnerable on D, while playing two of his bigs and Pemberton/Armstead at the three gives him more size and versatility. The former Jim Larranaga assistant should welcome the challenge, though, even against a relatively deep upper tier within Conference USA. I like the Bulldogs as a dark horse contender challenger for the league title, so long as Konkol is able to determine a clear identity for a team that currently lacks one.

6. Old Dominion

Key Returners: Xavier Green, Aaron Carver, Marquis Godwin (injury), Jason Wade, Dajour Dickens
Key Losses:
BJ Stith, Ahmad Caver
Key Newcomers:
Malik Curry (JUCO), AJ Oliver (Clemson), Jaylin Hunter, Dimitris Karaiskos

Lineup:

Outlook: Welcome to the “grit and grind” of Conference USA, where Jeff Jones has used a physical, disciplined defense to amass an impressive 122 wins over the last five seasons, finally earning his first NCAA Tournament bid while at Old Dominion last year. That team wasn’t doing anything new, though - the Monarchs have developed a clear identity in terms of tempo and their (im)balance between offense and defense:

Last year’s two clear stars have graduated, but Jones has shown an impressive ability to avoid any drop-off in the past, and plenty of pieces remain to build another stout defensive unit, keeping the floor relatively stable for the Monarchs.

Jones will build from the inside out, with big men Dajour Dickens and Kalu Ezikpe establishing a no-fly zone around the rim. Dickens ranked 8th in the country with a 12.8% block rate, while Ezikpe put up an impressive 9.4% rate of his own as a freshman (would have ranked 30th nationally in more minutes). Those two, along with forward Aaron Carver, also helped the Monarchs continue their rebounding dominance on both ends of the floor, a staple of Jones teams. Joe Reece likely earns a few minutes behind Carver, and Jones may even experiment with some massive lineups where Dickens and Ezikpe play together. In a very limited sample last year (57 possessions), that alignment held opponents to a staggering 0.67 points per possession; that’s incredibly unsustainable, but scoring inside would be a near impossibility. 

Old Dominion also sports a collection of long wings that can bother drivers and shooters alike. BJ Stith departs, but Xavier Green was a first team all-defense selection last year, and rising sophomore Jason Wade looks ready to ascend into a starring role defensively, as well. Clemson transfer AJ Oliver will be looked to more for scoring, and Marquis Godwin is mostly a shooter, but both have size, as well.

If the defense keeps the floor stable, any upward potential is heavily dependent on who fills Ahmad Caver’s role as a creator and scorer. JUCO transfer Malik Curry is the obvious candidate after racking up stats at Palm Beach State (21.9ppg, 5.9rpg, 6.3apg), but he’ll be playing in a drastically different scheme in ODU’s crawling motion offense. Oliver and Godwin will need to hit shots off screens, filling Stith’s role, or Curry (or freshman Jaylin Hunter) will be swarmed by defenses who aren’t terribly worried about all of the off-ball action. Under Jones, the offensive ceiling has almost always been capped by the team’s tendency to take a plethora of long two-point jumpers.  

Ezikpe’s development is an X-factor. He’s a tremendous offensive rebounder, and his bounce should make him a tremendous finisher. He was the rare ODU big last year who actually showed some interest in scoring (Dickens and Carver’s percentage of shots taken combined were less than Ezikpe’s), and having an interior threat would ease the significant burden on Curry, Oliver, and the rest of the perimeter group.

Bottom Line: Questions about the offense are real following Caver and Stith’s graduations (for reference, barttorvik.com projects it to rank a grisly 309th in the country), so Oliver, Curry, and Hunter will need to make an impact right away. Still, though, the Monarchs’ grinding physicality and strong individual defenders should keep them near the top of the league on that end, and I’ll bet on the consistency Jones has maintained since arriving in Norfolk.


Tier 2

7. UAB

Key Returners: Zak Bryant, Makhtar Gueye, Will Butler (injury), Tavin Lovan, Tyreek Scott-Grayson
Key Losses:
Lewis Sullivan, Jeremiah Bell, Jalen Perry
Key Newcomers:
Jordan Brinson, Jalen Benjamin, Kassim Nicholson (JUCO), Jahein Spencer

Lineup:

Outlook: Under fourth-year coach Rob Ehsan, UAB has become Mr. Consistent within Conference USA; unfortunately, that’s meant “consistently slightly above average,” having gone 9-9, 10-8, 10-8 in the league over his first three seasons. Although he’s failed to reach the heights of the program’s “Magic Mikes” before him (Mike Davis and Mike Anderson), Ehsan has maintained the level that Jerod Haase established before him, and this year looks like another solid iteration in Birmingham.

The team’s upside lies in junior guard Zak Bryant and his potential to rise to another level of stardom after an excellent sophomore campaign. Ehsan correctly recognized Bryant’s abilities and handed him the keys to the Chevy Blazer, allowing Bryant to drive the team offensively via copious pick-and-roll and isolation situations. He carries a lot of weight as a playmaker (only Blazer to average more than 1.5 assists per game), and the team’s ball movement as a whole was poor last year, ranking just 339th nationally in assist rate. That’s a major departure from Ehsan’s first two teams (29th and 36th in that same stat), largely due to Bryant’s ability and the lack of other creators. Luis Hurtado looked like a talented secondary creator, but the Venezuelan struggled all year with stomach pains and was diagnosed with testicular cancer in February. He’ll be around the program, but it’s almost certain he won’t contribute anything on the court this year.

Last year’s squad lacked shooting around Bryant, and that will be an issue this year, as well. Tyreek Scott-Grayson was competent on low volume, but the rest of the returning roster made just 21 threes combined, 17 of which came from big man Makhtar Gueye. Gueye converted just 26% of his attempts, hardly posing a threat to defenses, which means newcomers like JUCO transfer Kassim Nicholson and freshmen Jahein Spencer, Jalen Benjamin, and Jordan Brinson can claim immediate playing time by proving their ability to knock down shots. Benjamin has the smoothest stroke, but he’s tiny (only listed at 140 pounds), so Ehsan will need to use him creatively to avoid opponents picking on him.

Gueye anchors the defense with his length and rebounding, although Lewis Sullivan’s activity level will be greatly missed. Will Butler is a brutish big man who can pick up some of that slack, but he sat the final 18 games last year after tearing his ACL in mid-January, so he’ll need to prove he’s completely healthy before he absorbs a large minutes work load. If not, Nigerian redshirt freshman Jude Akabueze will be pressed into immediate duty, and the Blazers will also probably test smaller lineups with physical wing Tavin Lovan or Scott-Grayson playing the nominal four spot. Ehsan mixes in some zone, which will help the lack of size and interior depth, and he’ll deploy Bryant, Lovan, and Benjamin to apply ball pressure at times. Largely, though, it’s a conservative scheme that encourages opponents to take quick jumpers as a trade-off for protecting the paint and sealing off the defensive glass.

Bottom Line: Barring a true, national-level star turn from Bryant, UAB looks like middle of the road C-USA team to me once again. There’s some downside, as well, if the newcomers aren’t able to help offensively and Butler is limited by his injury, but Bryant is probably too good to allow the Blazers to tumble into the depths of the C-USA. I expect Ehsan to land right back in his 9-9 comfort zone.

8. Florida Atlantic

Key Returners: Jailyn Ingram (injury), Jaylen Sebree (injury), Michael Forrest, Karlis Silins, Richardson Maitre
Key Losses:
Anthony Adger, Xavian Stapleton, Simeon Lepichev
Key Newcomers:
Carrington McCaskill, Everett Winchester (Wright St.), Kenan Blackshear, Cornelius Taylor (D-II), DJ Robertson

Lineup:

Outlook: For an organization like us at the Weave that prides itself on tracking teams at all levels of college hoops, Florida Atlantic was a special kind of nightmare last year. Injuries ravaged the Owls, sidelining star forward Jailyn Ingram for the season’s final 23 games and wing Jaylen Sebree for the last 19. Xavian Stapleton missed all of December and seemed on a minutes limit following his return. Due to a variety of other ailments, only one player (graduated guard Anthony Adger) started every game, and when it was all said and done, the Owls had used a dumbfounding 16 different starting lineups in 33 games. Despite all that, Florida Atlantic rode the conference’s second-best defense to a respectable 8-10 finish.

Like its rival in the southeastern part of the state, Florida Atlantic was in the first year with a new coach, but Dusty May did not take anywhere near the extreme stylistic approach that Jeremy Ballard did at FIU. It’s hard to take last year as a true example of his tactics given his constant roster shuffle, but he smartly leaned on his senior leaders in Adger and Stapleton for offensive production. Adger and sophomore PG Michael Forrest ran a ton of pick-and-roll to generate offense, which is not surprising given May’s background. He was an assistant under Mike White at both Florida and Louisiana Tech, and his system involves quite a bit of side PnR using multiple ball-handlers; expect Richardson Maitre and maybe even Division 2 transfer Cornelius Taylor to supplement Forrest. Neither returner was particularly effective in the PnR last year, and the offense utterly collapsed when they played without Adger:

In case it wasn’t clear, dark red = very bad. Still, Forrest flashed enough potential as a freshman to feel comfortable handing him the reins, and the addition of other weapons will divert defensive attention from the guards.  

Chief among those other weapons are Ingram and Sebree, whose returns to health will give a major jolt to the scuffling Owls. Ingram is a matchup nightmare, the perfect pick-and-pop threat in May’s offense who can shoot, attack a close-out, or back down a smaller player caught in a switch. May put the ball in his hands quite a bit early in the year, too, and he has terrific ball skills for a man of his size. Sebree, meanwhile, showed impressive skill of his own in the first 14 games of his college career, knocking down 13/34 (38%) from deep and proving to be a pest defensively.

If May’s schemes mirror White’s on D, too, that disruptive ability will play well. White’s teams use athleticism and cohesion to frustrate opponents into careless turnovers and long possessions, with versatile wings like Dorian Finney-Smith and Devin Robinson excelling under his tutelage. This FAU roter is stacked with versatile 6’7 wing types - Ingram, Sebree, freshman Carrington McCaskill, Wright State transfer Everette Hammond - so May has a ton of optionality in how he matches up on the defensive end.

Having some size at the rim helps, too, and sophomore Karlis Silins is an extremely large human. He’s not vertically explosive, but his sheer stature can help deter opposing drives. Per Hoop Lens, FAU surrendered just 0.89 points per possession when he played, compared to 0.99ppp with him on the bench.

Bottom Line: With greater health and a second year under May (who definitely seems to be a competent head coach), FAU should be at least as good as last year’s middle of the pack team. Ingram’s star upside raises the ceiling, too, although I don’t think the Owls can quite score with the WKUs or UTSAs of the world. If the sophomore class (Sebree, Forrest, Silins) develops more than expected and the newcomers provide some offensive pop, though, this prediction may be underselling May and the Owls.

9. Florida International

Key Returners: Antonio Daye, Devon Andrews, Trejon Jacob, Osasumwen Osaghae, Isaiah Banks
Key Losses:
Brian Beard, Willy Nunez
Key Newcomers:
Eric Lovett (JUCO), Sedee Keita (St. John’s), Dimon Carrigan (JUCO), Tevin Brewer (JUCO), Cameron Corcoran (Little Rock), Dante Wilcox

Lineup:

Outlook: Remember in Toy Story when Woody and Buzz get left behind in the move and have to chase the moving truck? Woody eventually remembers that Buzz is wearing a rocket, so they light the fuse and take off at a reality-warping speed, nearly melting Woody’s face off in the process. Well, that was me watching FIU last year, as first-year head coach Jeremy Ballard dumped vats of jet fuel into the Panthers’ water jugs and pushed the tempo to previously unseen levels. It worked, too: FIU won 20 games for the first time since 1998 and finished above .500 in conference play for just the second time in 19 years.

To illustrate just how much Ballard altered the Panthers’ style of play, just look at these comparisons to the previous season, the last of five years under Anthony Evans:

That drastic shift suited point guard Brian Beard perfectly, and the biggest question mark facing the Panthers this season is replacing his production and leadership (17.3ppg, 6.0apg, 2.9spg). Beard set the tone on both ends of the floor: offensively, he was a blur with the ball and a constant downhill attacking force, and on defense, his relentless ball pressure and quick hands keyed Ballard’s aggressive, opportunistic scheme. Sophomore Antonio Daye is the most obvious candidate to fill that void after showing his defensive potential last year, but he’ll have to hold off Third Team JUCO All-American Tevin Brewer, a 5’8 bolt of lightning with a pure perimeter jumper. Beard finished the fifth-most possessions in the country in pick-and-roll; he essentially was the half court offense by himself, so getting production from the PG spot will be pivotal.

If it wasn’t Beard, it was 6’6 wing Devon Andrews, a former JUCO player himself, whose physical driving and ability to get the line rewarded him frequently in the Panthers’ transition attack. Another Third Team JUCO All-American, Eric Lovett, brings a similar game to the wing, and he even adds a dose of knockdown three-point shooting (41% on 193 attempts). Trejon Jacob and Isaiah Banks started a combined 30 games last year, and Little Rock transfer Cameron Corcoran is a standstill sniper from the perimeter, giving Ballard the depth he needs to play his ludicrous tempo.

It should be no surprise that Ballard relies so heavily on pressure defensively (seventh nationally in turnover rate); after all, he’s a former Shaka Smart assistant, and the apples rarely fall far from that coaching tree. Andrews, Brewer, Banks, and Daye will wreak plenty of havoc (Shaka!!!) on the perimeter, and they will do so knowing FIU has perhaps the best trio of shot-blockers in the entire country securing the paint behind them. Osasumwen Osaghae ranked sixth in the country last season with a 13.3% block rate, and Ballard added St. John’s grad transfer Sedee Keita and JUCO product Dimon Carrigan in the offseason, two more intimidating rim protectors. Keita has had a circuitous college career (started at South Carolina), while Carrigan is an octopus-armed monster whose rawness offensively is balanced out by his absurd shot-swatting; he blocked 2.7 shots per game in just 18.9 minutes.

Bottom Line: FIU’s horrific shooting (29.4% from 3, 64.8% from the FT line) and soft interior defense limited the team’s ceiling last year, but pieces like Lovett and Corcoran will help the former, and Keita and Carrigan should reinforce the latter. Still, though, replacing Beard will be a massive challenge given how vital he was to the Panthers’ identity, and FIU will struggle against patient, sure-handed teams. I expect another “middle of the pack” season in Miami, albeit another one with plenty of external appeal for fans of the blistering pace. 

10.  Middle Tennessee

Key Returners: Antonio Green, Donovan Sims, Reggie Scurry, Jayce Johnson, Anthony Crump (injury)
Key Losses:
Karl Gamble, James Hawthorne, Junior Farquhar (transfer)
Key Newcomers:
CJ Jones (Arkansas), Tyson Jackson, Jo’Vontae Millner (JUCO), Eli Lawrence, Tyler Millin

Lineup:

Note: Dishman will miss the season after suffering a season-ending knee injury during the team’s foreign trip to Costa Rica in August.

Outlook: Through no fault of its own, Middle Tennessee was forced into a hard reboot of the program last year after longtime coach Kermit Davis departed to Mississippi and the roster suffered heavy graduation losses. The administration turned to rising coaching star Nick McDevitt to rebuild in Murfreesboro, and the Blue Raiders showed positive signs in his debut campaign despite ranking 344th nationally in minutes continuity.

McDevitt had spent nearly his entire life in Asheville (grew up just north of the city, played at UNC-A, coached there immediately after graduation), so he may still be getting settled, but his talent accumulation has been impressive already. Redshirt senior Reggie Scurry performed well after coming over from Missouri State and recovering from a bizarre battle with cryotherapy, and newly-eligible CJ Jones from Arkansas has star potential in the C-USA. Plus, McDevitt has Dayton transfer Jordan Davis sitting out this year, who could be an all-conference level player the second he steps on the court as a redshirt sophomore. Unfortunately, EKU transfer DeAndre Dishman sustained a season-ending knee injury during the team’s foreign tour in the offseason, and Scurry will miss the first 11 games of the year as part of his NCAA eligibility waiver.

Middle Tennessee struggled against a brutal non-conference slate last year, going 3-10 (1-10 against Division I competition), and without Scurry, the early part of the year could be rough again this year. Still, it’s hard to fault them for scuffling against a murderers’ row that featured teams like Virginia, Butler, Belmont, Lipscomb, Murray St., Rhode Island, and Kermit’s Mississippi squad. The Raiders did claw to 8-10 in Conference USA, though, and added depth and talent should accelerate the improvement this year.

The ’18-19 team was heavily reliant on UT-Rio Grande Valley transfer Antonio Green and sophomore Donovan Sims to create shots via the pick-and-roll and Scurry in the post, and while they managed acceptable production, the complementary pieces really struggled. Sophomore Jayce Johnson (not to be confused with this Jayce Johnson) was one of the least efficient players in the country, and he may lose time to Jones, a pure shooter, and redshirt freshman Anthony Crump, who started seven games before missing most of the year with a knee injury.

Scurry will start once he’s eligible, with freshman Tyson Jackson, a product of Hargrave Military Academy, a strong candidate to join him up front. Jackson possesses significant upside and would form a physically intimidating duo. Having depth on the roster – JUCO transfer Jo’Vontae Millner, freshmen Tyler Millin and Eli Lawrence – will allow McDevitt to apply more pressure defensively, as well, which is his preferred style. Like at UNC-Asheville, he ran a bunch of zone, but the best McDevitt defenses will trap and get easy points going the other way.

Bottom Line: The post-Kermit rebuild should take another step forward this year, anchored by the backcourt trio of Sims, Green, and Jones. The Blue Raiders’ offense dragged their efficiency down last year, especially due to severe turnover issues, but many of the primary culprits have left Murfreesboro or will be relegated to smaller roles. If the defense can force more turnovers and the addition of Jones adds real potency from the perimeter, Middle Tennessee will be a tough out this year with McDevitt at the helm.


Tier 3

11.  Marshall

Key Returners: Taevion Kinsey, Jannson Williams, Jarrod West, Darius George
Key Losses:
Jon Elmore, CJ Burks, Rondale Watson
Key Newcomers:
Dajour Rucker, Marko Sarenac, Jeremy Dillon (redshirt), Goran Miladinovic, Cameron Brooks-Harris (redshirt)

Lineup:

Outlook: The encore to Marshall’s first ever NCAA Tournament win did not go as planned. After stunning Wichita State in 2018 as a 13-seed, the Herd brought back most of its considerable offensive firepower. Unfortunately, the loss of Ajdin Penava as a fearsome presence at the rim gutted the Thundering Herd’s defense, and despite Jon Elmore’s heroics, Marshall did not even qualify for C-USA’s top tier in its first year of flex scheduling. The Herd did manage to capture the CollegeInsider.com Tournament championship, but that feels a little like starring in a PBS drama after having a cameo appearance on HBO.

Following the departures of Elmore and CJ Burks (plus rotation piece Rondale Watson), Marshall likely enters a rebuilding phase. Elmore in particular will be crippling; he started all 131 games of his decorated college career, blossoming into a college Steve Nash while guiding the amateur version of the Seven Seconds or Less Suns. His name is littered throughout the Herd record books, including becoming the all-time leading scorer for both a single season (as a junior) and a career. His mastery of coach Dan D’Antoni’s system was an enormous part of what made Marshall dangerous, and even a slightly “down” year, by his standards, the Herd still crumbled without him on the floor in 2018-19:

Burks racked up significant career numbers of his own as the Robin to Elmore’s Batman, leaving a massive pool of shots to be re-distributed among the remainder of the roster.

Marshall will continue to push the pace even without Elmore running the show, with Jarrod West likely to take over primary ball-handling responsibilities. D’Antoni’s offense also uses a massive amount of pick-and-rolls, and although it’s unfair to ask West to display the same mastery as Elmore did, he does have experience in the system. He has also been an excellent off-the-dribble shooter in limited opportunities, ranking in the 90th percentile in the country last year. D’Antoni may also put the ball in the hands of talented sophomore Taevion Kinsey more often, as the athletic dynamo oozes upside and could be a nightmare when attacking downhill. He was mostly a recipient of pinpoint Elmore passes last year, but like West, he did flash some ball skills in limited PnR action, and his insane bounce gives him all-conference (and possibly professional) potential.

Jannson Williams did an admirable job stepping into the Penava role (blocked 7.9% of shots, hit 62 threes), and D’Antoni may even experiment with some lineups where he plays alongside the colossal Iran Bennett, a 350-pound center who absorbs space with his size. Though it’s hard to play Bennett in long bursts at Marshall’s breakneck tempo, he does reinforce the defense: Marshall conceded a miniscule 0.86 points per possession when he played, compared to 1.05ppp when he sat. Darius George and Mikel Beyers provide seasoned depth, though neither is a standout in any one area.

The freshman class will be crucial considering the lack of guard and wing depth currently on the roster. Cameron Brooks-Harris and Jeremy Dillon redshirted last year with Elmore and Burks rarely leaving the floor, but the true freshman duo of Marko Sarenac and Dajour Rucker may steal playing time right away. Sarenac is thin but a pure shooter, while Rucker is a wide-bodied ‘tweener forward who can interchange with the bouncier Kinsey at the 3 or 4. Depending on the kind of lineup D’Antoni wants to roll out, one or both could start (I’d bet on Rucker first, then Sarenac).

Bottom Line: Losing one of the best players in program history and his skilled sidekick would be a blow for anyone, but especially so for the Herd, whose identity was so wrapped up in Elmore’s preternatural skill with the ball in his hands. Kinsey is a future star (perhaps even this year), and I like the Rucker/Sarenac freshman combination quite a bit, but I think this will be a bumpy year before Marshall trends back up in 2020-21.

 

12.  Rice

Key Returners: Chris Mullins, Ako Adams, Robert Martin, Drew Peterson, Trey Murphy, Josh Parrish
Key Losses:
Quentin Millora-Brown (transfer), Jack Williams
Key Newcomers:
Zach Crisler, Quincy Olivari, Max Fiedler, Tommy McCarthy (Harvard)

Lineup:

Outlook: Year two of the Scott Pera era (the P-era!!) saw the Owls take slight steps forward despite personnel losses last offseason, as Rice saw a 6-win improvement overall, including going from 4-14 to 8-10 within Conference USA. Granted, three of those wins came after the new C-USA “flex scheduling” had sorted the Owls into the league’s bottom tier, but wins are wins. For a team that ranked 318th nationally in minutes continuity and 333rd in experience, per KenPom, showing improvement of any kind is notable, and it’s reasonable to expect that roster to progress even more this year.

Pera was known more as a recruiter in his assistant days while working under Herb Sendek at Arizona State, Jerome Allen at Penn, and Mike Rhoades at Rice – perhaps the name James Harden rings a bell? That’s an extremely diverse set of coaching styles to have been a part of, though, and it seems Pera has been trying to settle on his own identity as a head coach.

Part of the reason for Rice’s improvement was one of the more drastic stylistic shifts in the country for a team playing under the same coach. In Pera’s first year, the Owls were one of the most zone-heavy teams in the country, playing it 93% of the time, but that number dropped precipitously to only 2% in 2018-19, with many telling defensive stats trending similarly:

Unsurprisingly, the Owls gave up fewer threes and assisted jumpers while beefing up their defensive rebounding, all clear signs of moving away from zone. Pera’s man-to-man was also a more conservative one, sitting back and walling off the paint rather than extending into passing lanes.

The shift to man-to-man was aided by the addition of a strong recruiting class and two “down-transfers,” increasing the depth, size, and athleticism of the roster. Sophomores Drew Peterson and Trey Murphy are two taller wings, and TCU transfer Josh Parrish is a high-level athlete and defensive whiz. The “size” portion took a hit this offseason, though, as sophomore Quentin Millora-Brown transferred and grad transfer Jack Williams graduated. That means early playing time for freshmen Zach Crisler and Max Fiedler, two 3-star recruits.

Pera also showed a very distinct system offensively: put the ball in the hands of his playmakers, namely senior Ako Adams and sophomore Chris Mullins, and let them go to work. Rice ran one of the highest percentages of ball screens in the country, per Synergy, while also ranking highly in dribble handoffs. With both guards back, expect that to continue, and Mullins in particular should amp up his efficiency with more experience. Freshman Quincy Olivari and Harvard grad transfer Tommy McCarthy provide depth, but neither should be leaned on as a primary piece this year. Stretch four Robert Martin helps extend the defense with his perimeter shooting, and Pera’s embrace of the deep ball has paid dividends thus far in his tenure.  

Bottom Line: As Pera grows more comfortable in his position, a more cogent identity should form on the court for the Owls, which may in turn slow down the flow of transfers out of the program (this summer was better than last, at least). Year three will be pivotal to see if he can get the roster to coalesce together into something more than a “bottom tier” C-USA team, and despite the team’s youth in the interior, another step should be expected on the shoulders of Adams, Mullins, and Martin.  

13.  Charlotte

Key Returners: Malik Martin, Cooper Robb, Milos Supica, Brandon Younger
Key Losses:
Jon Davis, Dravon Mangum (transfer), Jaylan McGill
Key Newcomers:
Jahmir Young, Jordan Shepherd (Oklahoma), Drew Edwards (Providence), Caleb Stone-Carrawell, Anzac Rissetto, Amidou Bamba (Coastal Carolina), Brice Williams

Lineup:

Outlook: Year one of the “Mini-UVA” era was a predictably difficult one, as Ron Sanchez brought an entirely new system to a roster recruited to play almost exclusively in transition. As a result, Sanchez threw his freshman class into the fire, with four rookies starting 10+ games and garnering considerable minutes. It’s a system that takes tremendous discipline and time to master, which is why, like Sanchez, even Tony Bennett only won five conference games in his first season at Virginia. So rest easy, 49er fans, because that means a national title is in your future!!

Fine, discussing a national title is some extreme “putting the cart in front of the (newborn baby) horse,” so let’s focus on how Charlotte can continue to improve in year two. Sanchez ran some of his mentor’s infamous mover-blocker last year, but it was limited in its effectiveness, and it did not utilize the ball skills of his best player, the now-graduated Jon Davis. For that reason, he mixed in more ball screens, something he may continue to do with the addition of Oklahoma transfer Jordan Shepherd and heralded freshman Jahmir Young. Shepherd showed promise during his freshman year, especially down the stretch, but his sophomore year was essentially a lost season spent buried under a mega-pile of Trae Young hype and production. Jahmir Young, meanwhile, is a quick point guard and a product of the illustrious DeMatha High School and Team Takeover AAU program, and he may even be underrated entering college after playing behind 2020 5-star Jeremy Roach on the grassroots circuit.

Sanchez will still base the offense around mover-blocker, though, and sophomore wings Malik Martin and Cooper Robb will need to take a leap following bricky freshman campaigns. Brandon Younger is a bigger wing who flashed some mismatch potential last year, but he, too, had some growing pains in his first college season. Providence grad transfer Drew Edwards and freshman Caleb Stone-Carrawell may leapfrog all of them into the starting lineup; Edwards never found a defined role for the Friars, but he has a smooth shooting stroke, and Stone-Carrawell, the son of Duke legend Chris Carrawell, is a skilled athlete who won two state titles in North Carolina alongside Duke recruit Wendell Moore.

The 49ers were strangely impotent on the offensive glass (334th nationally), always a staple of Bennett’s system. Charlotte did lack size and bulk up front last year outside of centers Milos Supica and Jailan Haslem, and Haslem graduated, so getting contributions from freshman Anzac Rissetto and Coastal Carolina grad transfer Amidou Bamba will be crucial. Bamba in particular is a perfect fit at the four in the mover-blocker scheme, where his lack of offensive polish won’t really stand out and his physicality on the glass can earn the 49ers some extra shots.

Defensively, it’s all about repetition and continuing to learn the principles of the scheme. Bringing in more physical athletes should help as well, as teams were able to find quality shots more quickly than Sanchez would like. Bennett’s defenses always rank among the highest in average possession length, showing how they can frustrate teams into late shot clock situations. That comes with knowing the scheme and the rotations, particularly out of doubling the post. This team still has plenty of newcomers, so it won’t be perfect, but the defense should be better than 13th in the C-USA.

Bottom Line: Making such a massive stylistic shift within a program takes time, and last year was the “demolition” phase of the remodel. This season should see more of the build-out taking place, with incremental progress made in all facets of the game. Sanchez was not hired as a “quick fix,” and as long as the Charlotte administration gives him time to lay down the infrastructure of the system (which he’s started to do with his first recruiting classes), the 49ers future looks bright into the 2020s.

14.  Southern Miss

Key Returners: LaDavius Draine, Leonard Harper-Baker, Gabe Watson
Key Losses:
Tyree Griffin, Cortez Edwards, Dominic Magee, Kevin Holland, Tim Rowe
Key Newcomers:
Isaiah Jones (JUCO), Denijay Harris (JUCO), Jay Malone (JUCO), Jeff Armstrong, Auston Leslie, Jorell Satterfield, Angel Smith, Hunter Dean

Lineup:

Outlook: In a move that was nearly as shocking as Southern Miss losing to NAIA William Carey last year, Doc Sadler resigned from his head coaching post in Hattiesburg to join Fred Hoiberg’s staff at Nebraska. Sure, Sadler worked with Hoiberg in 2013-14 as well, but that move is still surprising for three reasons:

  1. He voluntarily chose an assistant gig over a head coaching job in a decent league.

  2. He had finally gotten the Golden Eagles to be competitive: the ’18-19 Golden Eagles won 20 games, a stark contrast Sadler’s first three years, when they combined for 26 wins (and six were technically vacated).

  3. He’s been the head coach at Nebraska before…and he ended up getting fired.

Though Sadler’s departure may have been unexpected, the Southern Miss administration pivoted to a savvy hire: Jay Ladner from Southeastern Louisiana, a successful boss in the Southland who also happens to be returning to his alma mater. Ladner has risen from 20-year high school coach through JUCO to where he is now, so you know he’s a grinder, but he’ll have his work cut out for him.  

Unfortunately, the Golden Eagles’ roster offers a heavy hint as to another reason Sadler may have left: the graduation of nearly every relevant guard. Only sophomore Gabe Watson returns in the backcourt, and Ladner was forced to fill a lot of holes with JUCO transfers to attempt to avoid tumbling into the C-USA cellar. Ladner has extended his guards more on the defensive perimeter in the past couple of seasons, so he’ll expect Jay Malone and freshman Jeff Armstrong to harass opposing ball-handlers with their quickness. Malone had some success in that regard at nearby Southwest Mississippi CC, and his shot creation will be relied on immediately, as well.

Fortunately, two effective lineup pieces return around whom Ladner can build the team: LaDavius Draine and Leonard Harper-Baker. If you’re curious about Draine’s game, just re-read his last name – the 6’4 forward buried a sizzling 47% of his threes and led the country in turnover rate (read: stand and shoot). Harper-Baker, on the other hand, is a Swiss Army Knife: at 6’5, he played plenty of center last year in Sadler’s hyper-small rotation, but his lack of size belies his rebounding and shot-blocking talents. Ladner will probably play him at power forward more frequently, and his persistence on the offensive boards will fit nicely into Ladner’s style. The JUCO-heavy frontcourt will also feature Denijay Harris and Isaiah Jones; both were effective rebounders in their previous stops, and Harris should have some chemistry with Malone after the two played together at SW Mississippi.

Ladner’s offensive system involves a ton of off-ball movement, and for that reason, it may take time for the heavy batch of newcomers to get used to it. Some of the cuts are by design, but there’s also freedom to go back door when available, and timing/continuity is crucial on plays like that. Ladner’s SELA teams never even fully mastered it, consistently ranking in the bottom 15 in the country in turnover rate. Draine’s deadly shooting will open space for all of the cutting, but expect some bumps in the road as the roster adapts to Ladner’s principles.

Bottom Line: We likw Ladner quite a bit, but he’s entering a tough situation as he returns to his roots, and it may take a year or two for his influence to clearly take effect. He may be best served by throwing his freshmen into the fire and figuring out which will be primary parts of the long-term plan, especially the trio of rookie wings in Auston Leslie, Artur Konontsuk, and Angel Smith. When his talent level was lower at SELA, he played a more conservative, zone-heavy scheme, and we may see that again as he works through the transition at his new gig. I expect the Golden Eagles to struggle, but they’ll be feisty and steal a game or two from the C-USA heavy hitters.