Player of the Year: RJ Cole, So., Howard
Coach of the Year: Levelle Moton, North Carolina Central
Newcomer of the Year: Jermaine Bishop, R Jr., Norfolk St.
Freshman of the Year: Malik Miller, Morgan State
1. North Carolina Central
Key Returners: Raasean Davis, Jordan Perkins, Reggie Gardner, Zacarry Douglas, Larry McKnight
Key Losses: Pablo Rivas
Key Newcomers: Jibri Blount (Cleveland St.), Rashann London (Drexel), Roderick Taylor (UL Monroe), Randy Miller (JUCO)
Outlook: North Carolina Central enters 2018-19 as basically an inversion of the 2017-18 squad. Last year, the only rotation guy returning was Pablo Rivas, leading to a year in which NCCU ranked 347th nationally in minutes continuity, a measure of year-over-year roster turnover. This season, Rivas is the only departure among the team’s top five players, and Levelle Moton brings in another crop of talented transfers to give the Eagles perhaps the conference’s most talented roster. That’s an issue for the rest of the MEAC, especially given Hampton’s departure – the Pirates were the only other team to claim the league’s NCAA bid over the past five seasons. Even in such a transition season last year, Moton rallied the troops late to win four games in five days.
With so much production returning on the offensive end, expect the Eagles to attack in a similar fashion. That means letting the team’s extremely talented guard trio – point guard Jordan Perkins, downhill wing Larry McKnight, shooter Reggie Gardner – to attack in transition when the opportunity presents itself. The sophomores (Perkins and Gardner) struggled to finish in the open floor, but Perkins was indisputably crucial in his first year. His assist rate (36.7%) ranked 20th in the country, and his passing made everyone better offensively:
Like all frosh PGs, turnovers were an issue, but experience should help, as should the addition of JUCO transfer Randy Miller, another wing shooter type who can space the floor. If Rashann London is healthy (missed last season with a knee injury after transferring from Drexel), the backcourt becomes even more potent. Low usage wing John Guerra actually started 15 of the year’s final 16 games, and the Eagles went 6-2 in games where he played 15+ minutes.
If the Eagles can’t find a shot on the break, the offense slows down quite a bit and becomes one of patience and execution. NCCU ranked 19th in the country in percentage of possessions ending with an off-ball cut, with Raasean Davis or another big being the beneficiary of some clever off-ball action (Jibri Blount and Zacarry Douglas should see plenty of usage here, as well). Those three (and ULM grad transfer Roderick Taylor) will also be a wrecking crew on the offensive glass, where NCCU was one of the country’s most prolific and efficient squads last year (10th in frequency, 19th in points per possession). Davis is simply too athletic and skilled at his size for most MEAC opponents to handle.
Moton’s defenses are truly his calling card, though. During his seven years in the MEAC (first two years were independent), he’s had the Eagles’ D inside the KenPom top 110 four times; the rest of the conference (12 teams) has combined to accomplish that feat only five times. He mixes zone and man with aplomb, confusing offenses and consistently forcing difficult shots, weaponizing the athleticism
Bottom Line: With Ed Joyner and Hampton off to the Big South, Moton has his sights set on a MEAC dynasty (or, finally, a more prestigious job?). His ability to bring in “second chance” players from bigger programs usually leaves the Eagles a step ahead in overall talent, and he’s a shrewd X-and-O’s coach, as well. NCCU is comfortably in the league’s top tier this season, and a second straight NCAA bid is very much within reach.
Key Returners: Isaiah Bailey, Soufiyane Diakite, Shawntrez Davis, Malik Maitland, Houston Smith
Key Losses: Brandon Tabb, Jeffrey Altidort
Key Newcomers: Dondre Duffus (SEMO), Leon Redd (JUCO), Cletrell Pope (JUCO), Wali Parks (JUCO)
Outlook: Gonna start with an outdated reference here, just warning you. Remember in Spaceballs, when Dark Helmet insists that the Spaceball One go to “Ludicrous Speed”? The whole crew reacts in horror, never having gone that fast before. I’d imagine something similar happened when Ryan Ridder arrived down the street from Daytona State College, when he asked a program that had not ranked in the top 148 nationally in tempo since 2006 (including seven years ranking 329th or slower) to play at a frenetic, breakneck pace on both ends. They ended up ranking third nationally in tempo, and thankfully, it turned out far better for the Wildcats than for Lord Helmet (the Schwartz was with them). Bethune-Cookman had its second-best conference season in the KenPom era (since 2002), and Ridder’s crew returns plenty of weapons to mount a repeat performance.
Expect “ludicrous speed” to continue with Malik Maitland at the helm, a 5’9 lightning bolt who can create for others and cover ground in a hurry. He missed the latter part of the year with injury, and the Wildcats lost two of their first three without him and and fell in the opening round of the MEAC Tournament. Isaiah Bailey is versatile enough to play some point, but Ridder will likely also look to Leon Redd at times if Maitland’s ailments recur. Bailey succeeded at PG last year, but he is truly a terror attacking off the bounce from the wing and drawing contact. Brandon Tabb is a big loss from the conference’s top offense, but SEMO transfer Dondre Duffus could help replace his prolific scoring, provided that he’s healthy/eligible.
Like many other MEAC teams that struggle to score from the outside, B-CU hammers the offensive glass (this will be a theme through this conference preview…). Shawntrez Davis and Soufiyane Diakite (who came over from Morehead State with Maitland) both eat on the boards, a major reason for their combined 59% shooting from the field. JUCO newcomers Cletrell Pope and Wali Parks provide depth options; Parks’s versatility makes him a logical understudy to Diakite as a stopper.
For playing at such a blistering pace, the Wildcats’ defense was a pleasant surprise. Diakite was also the defensive player of the year in the league due to his elite rebounding, active hands, and ability to guard multiple positions, and lineups with Diakite, Parks, and Bailey all on the floor with two guards will be switchable to the max. Ridder mixes defenses quite a bit, but the focus remains on sealing the paint, forcing difficult shots against Diakite and Davis, and allowing the bricky MEAC to launch from deep.
A note worth its own paragraph: Monday, February 18th is a “mark your calendar” day – yes, for a MEAC game. Bethune-Cookman travels to Savannah State, a matchup that will be more track meet than basketball game; last year’s matchup featured a staggering 92 possessions in regulation.
Bottom Line: The outrageous pace of play inflates the Wildcats’ individual stats somewhat, but make no mistake about it, Ridder has a roster capable of competing on both ends and winning the league. Duffus is the wildcard; if he plays and plays well, he’ll supplement the already-impressive roster with his quickness and scoring, a perfect fit for Ridder’s style of play. If things break right, B-CU may find itself invited to college hoops’ biggest bash for the first time ever.
3. Norfolk State
Key Returners: Steven Whitley, Alex Long, Jordan Butler (pink eye), Derrik Jamerson, Nic Thomas, Mastadi Pitt
Key Losses: Preston Bungei, Kyle Williams
Key Newcomers: Jermaine Bishop (SLU), Armani Branch (VMI), Obi Momah (Marist), CJ Kelly (redshirt)
Outlook: Rob Jones has had some tough postseason luck during his five years at Norfolk State. He’s gone 11-5 or 12-4 in conference all five seasons (amassing an impressive 58-22 MEAC record), and yet he has only even made the conference title game once (and lost), despite the tournament being held two miles from the Spartans’ own arena in Norfolk. Single elimination tournaments can be extremely fickle beasts, and one would think that if Jones and his squads keep up the consistent winning, the Spartans will find their postseason glory one of these years. Given the talented roster that Jones has assembled for this year, this could be that glorious campaign…
Norfolk’s offense, like so many in the MEAC, revolves around transition. The Spartans ended 21.4% of their possessions in transition, per Synergy; that was 18th-highest in the country, but it didn’t even rank in the MEAC’s top four:
That uptempo approach will continue, with Steven “Diesel” Whitley at the helm. SLU transfer Jermaine Bishop gives Jones a dual-PG system of sorts, where both players can score inside and out while also making teammates better. Bishop had some issues with a Title IX investigation at SLU, but he should be good to go, and he could be a 15+ppg guy right off the bat. What could differentiate Norfolk on offense, though, is the shooting of Bishop, Derrik Jamerson, Nic Thomas, and Mastadi Pitt. As a team, NSU shot 37% from deep last year, best in the league, and the addition of Bishop should only raise the ceiling for the rest of the offense.
Whitley also keys the defense as a ball-pressuring tank (kind of a low-major Marcus Smart), bolstering Jones’s various pressing and zone trapping schemes. That defense is geared specifically to frustrate MEAC opponents. Many of the league’s teams lack proven ball-handlers, allowing the Spartans to get easy points off turnovers, but they’re also smart enough to pack it in once in the halfcourt and force opponents to take threes on 44.2% of their possessions, most in the league. With precious few knockdown shooters around the conference, that approach worked wonders. Jones frequently employs an amoeba-esque 2-3 matchup zone, which gives many opponents fits as it morphs to mirror the offensive alignment.
It also helps to have rim protection taking away the paint, and Alex Long is solid in that regard. Even more of an intimidator, though, is forward Jordan Butler, who missed all of last year with pink eye (?!?!). Butler swatted 8.9% of opposing shots in MEAC play in 2016-17, 2nd-best in the league, and his return should only further fortify the Spartans’ already stout interior defense.
Bottom Line: Norfolk State has excellent pieces with which to work, and with a proven winner at the helm, the Spartans should be comfortably back near the top of the MEAC standings once again. If Bishop immediately becomes a first-team all-conference type of guy (as I’m predicting), Norfolk may even end up winning the league. The ultimate question, though, will be whether Jones can banish his postseason demons and secure the team’s second ever NCAA Tournament bid (I have no memory of what happened in the first one. None at all. So don’t ask!).
Key Returners: RJ Cole, Charles Williams, Kyle Foster, Zion Cousins, Cameron Lewis, Jalen Jones
Key Losses: Dalique Mingo
Key Newcomers: Chad Lott (Rice), Akuwovo Ogheneyole, Tyler Williams (redshirt), Langston Gaither, Ray Bethea
Outlook: Last year may not have been terribly successful for the Bison, finishing a dismal 10-23 (7-9), but the direction of the program is pointing up following the emergence of perhaps the MEAC’s best backcourt. Kevin Nickelberry has been hurt by transfers in the past, but with the return of that backcourt – RJ Cole and Charles Williams – he can cautiously eye his first NCAA Tournament berth and not feel like he’s getting too far ahead of himself.
Cole and Williams are the “Alpha and the Omega” of the Bison offense, two prolific scorers who exhibited the ability to score inside and out. Bozeman handed Cole the car keys (and house keys and pretty much the university master key) from Day 1, as Cole ended up ranking 10th in the entire country in usage. In terms of freshman PGs, he was a little behind Trae Young, but ahead of Collin Sexton. He responded by hitting 36.3% of his 281 threes and ranking 25th in the country in assist rate (1.57 assist-to-turnover ratio), all while playing 14th nationally in percentage of minutes played. Williams wasn’t far behind (95th in minutes), and while his shot distribution was far less sabermetric-friendly (48.3% of his shots were 2-point jumpers), he hit enough threes, finished well enough at the rim, and avoided turnovers enough to remain efficient.
You’ll notice I’m not really mentioning any other Howard players – that’s largely because no one else averaged more than 6.4ppg (that was bricky freshman Kyle Foster). The offense was pretty simple: give the ball to RJ, let him run a pick-and-roll, rinse and repeat. Cole ranked 4th in the entire country in pick-and-roll possessions per game (17.8, to be exact), per Synergy, evidencing even further how reliant the Bison were on the freshman. However, the addition of Chad Lott, a combo guard transfer from Rice, adds another creator who can move Cole off the ball every once in a while and balance the offense a bit more.
Due to Nickelberry’s offensive approach, Howard’s big guys are basically glorified garbage men. The three primary forwards (Cameron Lewis, Zion Cousins, Jalen Jones) had a combined usage rate of 32.1% – which was lower than Cole by himself (33.5%). All three attacked the glass and finished inside, but the lack of a true defensive stalwart among them hurt the team. Freshmen Akuwovo Ogheneyole, Prince Anosike, and Andre Toure will all have chances to play, and Nickelberry is particularly excited about Ogheneyole.
Given a longer, more athletic roster last year, Nickelberry altered his defensive approach quite a bit. The Bison’s share of zone possessions dropped from 78% to 43%:
That was one of the largest swings in the country for a team that didn’t have a coaching change, but it didn’t really change anything – Howard still couldn’t challenge teams at the rim, still couldn’t secure defensive rebounds, and still fouled far too much to outweigh the relatively meager amount of steals they got. Lott and Cole should be a fearsome duo against opposing ball-handlers, but there’s very little reason to believe the rest of the defense gets much better.
Bottom Line: There’s a dream scenario here where the backcourt trio of Cole, Williams, and Lott goes supernova this year and carries the Bison to a MEAC title. The defensive issues may still linger, but even slight progress on that end could be enough to let Howard outscore everyone. I’d like to see Nickelberry get more creative with how he uses them, but that’s nit-picking. I think Howard is in the top tier, but until I see that aforementioned defensive progress, I’m keeping them at the bottom of that group.
5. North Carolina A&T
Key Returners: Aaren Edmead, Kameron Langley
Key Losses: Femi Olujobi (transfer), Davaris McGowens, Denzel Keyes, Devonte Boykins
Key Newcomers: Terry Harris (Eastern Michigan), Quavius Copeland (Middle Tenn), Nelson Nweke (Arkansas St.), Andre Jackson (JUCO), Ronald Jackson (JUCO), Ed Ferguson, Travon Mayo, Tyrone Lyons
Outlook: Jay Joyner has to feel just a tiny bit of déjà vu entering his second season on the job in Greensboro. The time leading up to his first season was spent scrambling to fill roster and rotation spots, and the Aggies ended up 341st in minutes continuity after the severe roster upheaval. This year, only 1.5 starters return (Aaren Edmead started 16 games), and a sizable chunk of the rest of the rotation is gone as well. Per barttorvik.com’s estimates, NC A&T returns just 36.5% of its minutes from last year, 313th in the country, rocing Joyner to once again search far and wide for new players.
Like last year, though, he appears to have succeeded in that quest. The diverse group of newcomers include freshmen, grad transfers, and junior college imports, all set to pair with the returning backcourt of Edmead and highly promising sophomore Kameron Langley. Langley should assert himself as the floor general after leading the team in minutes played and ranking 108th nationally in assist rate during his freshman season, a physical guard who focuses on setting the table for his more scoring-centric teammates. The team was demonstrably better with Langley running the show, as opposed to Wagner transfer Edmead:
Langley thrives as a distributor, so he’ll need the newcomers to put the biscuit in the basket. Quavius Copeland stands out as a potential scorer after the step down from C-USA ball, a smaller guard who can get away with playing off the ball at in the MEAC. JUCO transfer Andre Jackson may actually end up as the leading scorer after averaging 21.2ppg at his previous stop; his combination of size (6’4), slashing, and shooting should make him a potent weapon. Returners Amari Hamilton and Milik Gantz weren’t shy about shooting last year, but they may see limited playing time due to their crippling inefficiency.
The Aggies were the most efficient transition offense in the conference last year, per Synergy, largely thanks to the mobility of their bigs. Femi Olujobi and Davaris McGowens often beat opponents down the floor and finished with authority when they did, usually off feeds from Langley or Edmead. Terry Harris from Eastern Michigan (Tobias Harris’s little bro), JUCO transfer Ronald Jackson appear capable of continuing that trend, and recently added Northern Colorado grad transfer Ibrahim Sylla may contribute as well. Arkansas State’s Nelson Nweke joins the roster as well, and he’ll battle D’Andre Johnson for minutes whenever Joyner decides to play a true center.
Joyner could also opt to play four guards at times, especially given the size of freshmen wings Ed Ferguson, Tyrone Lyons, Travon Mayo, and Webster Fillmore (all 6’5-6’6). Ferguson and Mayo seem like the most college-ready, but any of the four could command playing time early on. Playing smaller would make it more likely that Joyner frequently employs his 3-2 matchup zone, which helped the Aggies sneak into the conference’s top half on defense last year.
Bottom Line: Projections for the Eagles are not rosy: KenPom places them 346th, while barttorvik.com is even more pessimistic, slotting them 352nd. NC A&T is flush with newcomers, but they have intriguing talent, and Joyner showed last year that he can immediately craft a new roster into a contender. To reach their ceiling, the Eagles’ will need the “JUCO Jacksons” and one or two of the freshmen to help carry the scoring burden. I’m guessing a middle of the pack finish is most likely.
Key Returners: Ryan Andino (injury), Dontae Caldwell (injury), Isaac Taylor (injury), Ahmad Frost, Tyler Jones, Colen Gaynor, Leandre Thomas
Key Losses: Logan McIntosh, Miryne Thomas (transfer), Cam Bacote (transfer)
Key Newcomers: Marlon Adams (JUCO), Justice Bartley (Virginia), Gabriel Gyamfi (JUCO), AJ Cheeseman (JUCO), Bryan Urrutia (JUCO), Canaan Bartley (JUCO)
Outlook: UMES’s locker room was converted into a field hospital for basically the entirety of 2017-18, as the Hawks saw three projected starters not play a single minute of basketball all year due to injury. Those injuries – particularly to perhaps the MEAC’s best high-volume ginner, Ryan Andino – crippled Bobby Collins’s team on both ends, and the coach’s contract was not renewed by the university this offseason. They’ll go with an interim coach this year in Clifford Reed, who actually began his coaching career under Savannah State’s Horace Broadnax (at a third MEAC school, Bethune-Cookman). He ended up being the head man at BCU from 2002-2011, and it’s that league experience that has the UMES administration comfortable with giving him the (temporary) reins.
At Bethune-Cookman, Reed’s teams played at a glacial pace on both ends, emphasizing aggressive offense via the offensive glass and getting to the line. The current roster should be accustomed to the tempo given the way Collins had them play last year, but although the interior combo of Tyler Jones and Isaac Taylor (another of the starters absent in ’17-18) are solid, the strength of this roster is with Andino, Ahmad Frost, and Dontae Caldwell (the last of the MASH unit) on the perimeter. With Andino on the court in 2016-17, the Hawks scored at 1.04 points per possession, compare to a dismal 0.91ppp without him (and 0.92ppp all of last year). His shooting threat makes him a gravitational force for defensive attention, making the lives of his teammates much easier.
A cadre of newcomers should complement the returning roster, and Reed will hope that they can bolster a putrid defense. Marlon Adams, Gabriel Gyamfi, and AJ Cheeseman are all bigger wing/forward types who can play and defend multiple positions, and their length will be beneficial when Reed opts to go zone (UMES has played more than 30% zone each of the last three years, with Reed on the staff). Former Virginia walk-on Justice Bartley could be a contributor as well after learning Tony Bennett’s disciplined system for three years. Bartley played on a loaded Montrose Christian team in high school (Allonzo Trier, Jarrell Brantley, Pat McCaw) and may finally find some college playing time as he enters the MEAC.
One key difference between Reed’s approach at BCU and Collins’s last year is the defensive tendency to force turnovers. Reed extended his defense quite a bit, leading to steals (and fouls), antithetical to the pack-it-in tenets of the prior regime (UMES ranked 12th of 13 teams in turnover percentage forced). Frost should find some success through this change with his quickness/strength combo, and JUCO transfer Bryan Urrutia will compete for playing time as well (his offense ain’t bad either - 8 assists per game at Cochise College). Wing Colen Gaynor can wreak a little havoc, but even so, massive improvements would need to be made for the Hawks to have a respectable defense.
Bottom Line: I was fairly high on this team last year before they were gutted by injuries, and I think the Hawks can have a bounce-back campaign. The “interim coach for a year” strategy is not ideal, but hopefully Reed can draw on his plentiful MEAC experience to point UMES in the right direction.
7. Morgan State
Key Returners: Martez Cameron, Stanley Davis, David Syfax, Kyson Rawls, LaPri McCray-Pace
Key Losses: Phillip Carr, Tiwian Kendley
Key Newcomers: Malik Miller, Sherwyn Devonish-Prince, Victor Curry (JUCO), Taron Oliver Jr. (JUCO/Tulane), Isaiah Burke, Ranel Bell (JUCO/military)
Outlook: Last year didn’t quite go as planned for the Bears, as Morgan State (1st in the MEAC preseason poll, 2nd in 3MW’s preview) stumbled to a 7-9 finish despite the presence of senior stars Phillip Carr and Tiwian Kendley. Without them, the rest of the roster has to rise into more prominent roles, and coach Todd Bozeman must re-shuffle his maniacally rim-focused attack.
Replacing Kendley will be particularly difficult given how heavily the Bears relied on him. He was second in the country in both usage rate and percentage of shots taken, and his game – barrel his way through the lane, draw contact, get to the line (he drew 9.8 fouls per 40 minutes, most in the country) – fit Bozeman’s style perfectly. Most of the offensive responsibility will fall to the backcourt trio of Martez Cameron, Stanley Davis, and LaPri McCray-Pace. They’ll push the tempo to the limit – the Bears ranked 12th in the entire country in transition possessions, per Synergy – although all three of those returning guards ranked in the bottom third nationally in points per possession. Cameron was especially terrible, scoring 0.523ppp on 111 transition possessions, putting him in the 2nd percentile (2nd percentile!!!). If Cameron can’t figure it out, he runs the risk of losing playing time to Sherwyn Devonish-Prince, a promising freshman from Upper Marlboro, MD. Rising sophomore Kyson Rawls was in and out of the lineup, but he was tremendously effective when on the court, and he could see a major boost in production this year.
The Bears also crash the offensive glass, sending a group of athletic forwards to the boards on almost every possession. Carr was the linchpin, but David Syfax and McCray-Pace grabbed their fair share of boards, and Bozeman brings in a few promising additions to the frontline. Victor Curry and Taron Oliver likely contribute immediately, but perhaps the highest-impact newcomer might be Malik Miller, a scrappy 6’4 wing/forward. He’s a ‘tweener, but he also grabbed over 19 rebounds per game in high school, and he seems like a match made in heaven for the Bozeman system.
Bozeman’s defensive strategy has long been to extend with trapping zone schemes, pressuring on the perimeter and forcing opponents to put the ball on the floor. He switched that up last year, though, playing far more man-to-man and forcing teams into more jumpers. The MEAC was the worst three-point shooting league in the country last year (and ranked 31st the prior two seasons), so the more jumpers they can force, the better. The Bears still ranked second in the league in forced turnover rate, though, with Cameron, McCray-Pace, and Rawls all showing a penchant for ball pressure.
Bottom Line: The Bears lose some serious contributors, but Bozeman has been remarkably consistent within the MEAC, so I actually think the Bears have a relatively high floor. It will be interesting to see if the shift in defensive style sticks this year, because in the MEAC, forcing opponents into jumpers is pretty much always the best strategy. To me, the most likely scenario is that the Bears float in the middle of the pack, hoping to gear up for a run next year.
8. Coppin St.
Key Returners: Lamar Morgan, Dejuan Clayton (injury), Lucian Brownlee, Cedric Council, Chad Andrews-Fulton, Taqwain Drummond, Kent Auslander
Key Losses: Karonn Davis, Adam Traore (transfer), Tre’ Thomas
Key Newcomers: Nigel Marshall, Ibn Williams, Giir Ring, Justin Steers
Outlook: The MEAC – nay, the whole country – was not kind to local legend Juan Dixon in his first campaign at the helm, making him wait two months into the season to earn his first win. Dixon did manage a “surge” where the Eagles won 5 of 9 games from early January to early February, but those ended up being the only wins, and Coppin State finished with the country’s worst offense, per KenPom, en route to a 5-27 finish overall.
Dixon’s offense was probably doomed from the moment Dejuan Clayton injured his shoulder during the team’s sixth game. Clayton had been one of the MEAC’s best offensive players during conference play of his freshman year, and he looked poised to be an all-conference-level guy as a sophomore. Instead, Karonn Davis was basically the only facilitator on the roster, and while he did an admirable job (10th nationally in assist rate), he was miscast as a primary scorer. Dixon’s offense also calls for multiple ball-handlers, as it’s a steady flow of pick-and-rolls, handoffs, and isolations, all designed for creative guards who can make things happen with the ball in their hands. Clayton will be the primary force in this role, but freshmen Ibn Williams, Justin Steers, and Nigel Marshall should be able to augment the attack. Dixon is extraordinarily high on Marshall (perhaps insanely so), if this quote from Blue Ribbon is any indication:
Ummm…okay Juan! That seems 1) pretty laughable to compare a MEAC recruit to the King, and 2) unfair to Marshall, as that sets expectations at an unrealistic level. Our friend Kevin Sweeney (@CBB_Central) is quite high on Steers, selecting him as his MEAC Newcomer of the Year, so it seems like Dixon has unearthed a few gems here. The Eagles also chucked a ton of threes (8th highest 3PA rate nationally), and while that was partially due to lacking interior scorers, they’ll continue to rely on Lamar Morgan (88 triples at 37%) and Lucian Brownlee (31 makes at 40%) to bolster the rest of the bricky roster.
The defense was actually a bright spot for the Eagles, ranking fifth during MEAC play, using waves of mobile athletes to force opponents into difficult shots. Dixon stocked the roster with interchangeable players like Morgan, Kent Auslander, and Taqwain Drummond, allowing him to install man-to-man nearly full-time:
A group of mobile bigs certainly helped as well, and the returning rotation of Chad Andrews-Fulton, Cedric Council, and Jordan Hardwick plus freshman Giir Ring all have the versatility to guard multiple positions. As a group, though, their defensive rebounding has a long way to go.
Bottom Line: Dixon seemed to have trouble figuring out who to play last year (Coppin State ranked 18th in bench minutes), and he has plenty of candidates for minutes once again this year. For some reason, the Eagles still played relatively slow last year despite having so many bodies, and I would hope Dixon takes a nod from the rest of the league and cranks the tempo a bit. Clayton’s return should be a major boost, and if the freshmen emerge as complementary creators, Coppin State will creep up the MEAC ladder.
9. Savannah State
Key Returners: Zach Sellers, Jahlin Smith
Key Losses: Alante Fenner, Austin Dasent, Dexter McClanahan (transfer), Javaris Jenkins, Ty’lik Evans, Jahir Cabeza
Key Newcomers: Zaquavian Smith (Nicholls), Jaquan Dotson (JUCO), Adam Saeed (JUCO), Collins Joseph, Amaru Bryant (JUCO), Romani Hansen (JUCO), Tyrell Harper
Outlook: I will be fully expecting a farewell tour for the Savannah State hoops squad as it goes through its final season in Division I, something akin to Derek Jeter’s gift-laden journey through the MLB in 2014. Horace Broadnax and his “Tiger Tempo” will be sorely missed in the sport’s highest tier, a truly unique style that has helped the Tigers to a 22-10 MEAC record over the last two seasons. As the program struggled financially, Broadnax leaned all the way into the pace and space revolution, and he’s been able to attract players despite the impending relegation.
Most of last year’s rotation is gone, but Broadnax’s unique pitch to players – basically, come here and put up stats in our absurd system, and then transfer to a better school – has brought in some intriguing pieces. Broadnax plays a ton of guys (17th in the country in bench minutes), so basically every newcomer will have a chance to play alongside the lone mainstay Zach Sellers. The offense is truly unique: Savannah State led the country in transition possessions, ranked in the bottom ten in total PnR possessions, and employed a ton of spot up and isolation. It’s basically “roll the balls out,” with some added (loose) principles.
Zaquavian Smith looks like the best bet to start next to Sellers; Smith’s career never really got going at Nicholls, but he did manage to put up 25 points at Villanova in November, so that’s something? Freshman Collins Joseph and JUCO transfer Jaquan Dotson will battle each other for a starting role, with the winner likely being whoever makes the most triples out of 100 (it’ll actually probably be Dotson for some semblance of size). Joseph fits perfectly as a mega-microwave chucker off the bench. Sellers is the lone returner, and he should see his scoring average rise to 15+ with so many shots available.
Due to roster composition, Broadnax will have to play a lot of two big lineups (not ideal for the run and gun, ignore-the-paint scheme). John Grant has the highest upside as a 6’6 gunner (hit a combined 11/19 threes against the pack line defenses of Texas Tech and Virginia), so I’d bet he plays a lot more this season. Jahlin Smith, Adam Saeed, Romani Hansen, and Tyrell Harper all will see the court, and although Smith vanished from the rotation after nine games last year (I’m assuming injury, but finding MEAC detail is like hunting the Holy Grail), it seems like a total toss-up as to who seizes the most minutes.
There’s not much reason to discuss the defense – the Tigers finished 350th nationally in 2P% defense and 349th in defensive rebounding rate – as it really only serves as a slight delay to launching another three. Broadnax extended pressure last year in the hopes of gaining extra possessions (content to allow lay-up lines at the rim), although he may resort to his 2-3 zone more now based on the volume of bigs in the rotation.
Bottom Line: The Savannah State swan song should be interesting, at the very least – a mostly brand new cast of characters putting on a show in one of the nation’s most unique genres of hoop. Broadnax’s impressive candor in regards to his program has been admirable through the process of leaving D-I, and I would be 100% on board with a magical run to the NCAA Tournament for his first ever dance invite.
10. Florida A&M
Key Returners: Justin Ravenel, Isaiah Martin, Nasir Core, Kamron Reaves
Key Losses: Desmond Williams, Marcus Barham, Elijah Mayes, Nick Severado
Key Newcomers: DJ Jones (Tulane), Rod Melton Jr. (JUCO), Rich Anderson (JUCO), Tracy Hector Jr. (JUCO), MJ Randolph, Randall Leath Jr.
Outlook: We’ll start this Florida A&M preview as we should begin every Florida A&M preview: with a tribute to Terrence Woods, a favorite of both Ky and myself way back in 2002-2004. The Tennessee transfer’s illustrious career included the insane double of ranking 17th nationally in usage while ALSO leading the entire country in offensive rating in 2003, perhaps one of the best offensive seasons ever (they even made the NCAA Tourney in 2004). He made a mind-boggling 279 threes in 59 games, 4.73 per game; for reference, Steph Curry made 5.1 per game in his NBA-record 2015-16 season (second-most ever is 4.1/game, also Steph). This 2003 KenPom line is simply gorgeous:
Unfortunately, no Woods-ian sniper will don the orange-and-green this year (a cynic might say it’s a knock-off Miami Hurricane color combo…). Justin Ravenel is no slouch – he’s one of the MEAC’s top 5 returning three-point shooters – but he’s more of a standstill, catch-and-shoot player. His presence is key given how poor the rest of the roster’s shot selection is; the Rattlers ranked second in the country in frequency of inefficient two-point jumpers (43.1% of their shots), per hoop-math. This puts a mathematical cap on FAMU’s efficiency, so unless penetrating guards like Nasir Core and JUCO newcomer Rod Melton can get to the rim more consistently, FAMU’s offense is going to finish uncomfortably close to where KenPom projects it (352nd). Coach Robert McCullum hopes JUCO transfers Rich Anderson and Dex Smith can help boost the shot-making, as well.
The defense isn’t getting much more love, either, and given last year’s debacle, that isn’t wholly unfair. The Rattlers were crushed inside, both around the basket and on the glass. Opponents shot 66% at the rim per hoop-math, which ranked FAMU 328th in the country in that regard, and their defensive rebounding rate ranked 350th. Transfers DJ Jones (Tulane) and Ifyeani Umezurike (St. Francis PA) offer some size inside, but the real key is getting Isaiah Martin back at the start of the second semester. He missed all of MEAC play, but he’ll be one of the conference’s best shot-blockers this year (his 8.4% block rate would have comfortably led last year). Another JUCO transfer, Tracy Hector Jr., could be a crucial defensive piece as a hyper-versatile 6’5 wing. He’ll reinforce the defensive glass and should be able to match up with almost any offensive player in the league (he’s a stout 220 pounds).
Bottom Line: McCullum did an excellent job of stabilizing the program last year; a 7-9 league record has to be considered a success after a nightmarish nonconference season in which the Rattlers won zero D-I games (and only one single-digit loss). Most of last year’s heavy hitters are gone, though, so he’s basically starting over. That may be an opportunity, as he can reshape the team’s style into (hopefully) a more efficient unit on both ends, but it’s more likely the Rattlers don’t take a step forward until 2019-20.
11. South Carolina State
Key Returners: Damani Applewhite, Janai Raynor-Powell, Ian Kinard, Ozante Fields
Key Losses: Donte Wright, James Richardson, Tashombe Riley (transfer)
Key Newcomers: Lavar Harewood (Maine/JUCO/redshirt), Jahmari Etienne (JUCO), Allen Hatchett Jr., Savion Dawkins, Fahmmi Mamo
Outlook: Easily the biggest storyline for Murray Garvin and the Bulldogs was the near-tragedy involving Tyvoris Solomon. He suffered cardiac arrest during the team’s eighth game, barely escaping with his life, and a pall was cast over the Bulldogs’ season. They managed six wins in league play even without Solomon and injured star Tashombe Riley (who grad transferred to South Alabama), but the potential for anything truly great always felt unlikely after that shocking incident. This year brings a fresh start to go with a roster that gained quite a bit of experience during a trying campaign.
Garvin employed an up-tempo, transition-heavy attack last year while also featuring his athletic bigs (especially without Solomon and Riley in the backcourt). Damani Applewhite emerged as a viable weapon, proving to be a solid rebounder and interior scorer; he’ll lead a deep-ish frontcourt that includes steady juniors Ian Kinard and Ozante Fields, as well as the mammoth Alex Taylor. Taylor was a monster on the offensive glass, but he struggled to stay on the floor while tipping scales at over three bills. If he can become a steady part of the rotation, he’ll be a force to be reckoned with – but his FT shooting (39%) and his foul issues (9.1 per 40 minutes) may limit him even more than his weight.
South Carolina State will need some creators to emerge on the perimeter, as well. Jamari Raynor-Powell and Rayshawn Neal should be effective on the break, and JUCO wings Lavar Harewood and Jahmari Etienne are promising, but the offense will still be limited without more shooting or scoring-minded players.
Of course, the bigger Bulldog problem is on the defensive end, where SC State ranked 12th in the league. The Bulldogs were especially vulnerable at the rim – per hoop-math.com, opponents got there at the 39th-highest rate, and converted 65.1% of their shots once there (34th-highest). Applewhite, Kinard, and Fields simply don’t intimidate would-be finishers, and the perimeter players were overmatched against skilled drivers. Garvin plays quite a bit of zone, but he’s only had one defense finish inside the KenPom top 300 – he simply hasn’t been able to accumulate the talent and implement a system capable of consistently preventing buckets.
The roster’s promise lies with the newcomers. Harewood and Etienne have the size to excel on both ends of the floor, and the freshman class – most notably Allen Hatchett and Savion Dawkins – could provide some under-the-radar offensive punch.
Bottom Line: The Bulldogs haven’t made an NCAA Tournament since 2003, when Cy Alexander was in charge. Alexander has since been fired from two jobs, including a different one in the MEAC (okay, he didn’t technically get fired at NC A&T, but you get the picture). Garvin has run into some difficult roadblocks in his quest to get South Carolina State back there, and it appears this year will bring more struggles.
12. Delaware State
Key Returners: Kobe Gantz (ACL tear), Pinky Wiley, Jonathan Mitchell
Key Losses: Marquis Collins (transfer), Simon Okolue (transfer), Artem Tavakalyan, Kavon Waller, Jonathan Walker, Joseph Lewis
Key Newcomers: Kevin Larkin (Niagara), Ronald Lucas, Montrell Horsey, Fahim Jenneto
Outlook: Delaware State waited over three months for its first Division I win last year (it didn’t come until February 19th), but the Hornets one-upped themselves this offseason. After firing Keith Walker on February 22nd (yes, right after finally capturing his first D-I win of the year), the administration scoured the coaching landscape for FIVE MONTHS in search of its next head coach, ultimately landing (settling on?) longtime D-I assistant Eric Skeeters as the man for the job. He has his work cut out for him, but in the MEAC, progress can happen quickly if the coach can get the attention of his players (see NC A&T last year).
And luckily, the Hornets actually have some intriguing guards to build around, especially if Kobe Gantz is fully healthy following an ACL tear right after Thanksgiving. He’ll pair with sophomore Pinky Wiley, whose passing should complement Gantz’s scoring nicely. Skeeters would love to use them similar to how UMBC (where he coached for the past two seasons) used KJ Maura and Jairus Lyles, although the Retrievers’ stars were significantly better shooters. UMBC tried to open up the floor with shooting around their star guards, allowing them to attack via PnR and kick out for spot up jumpers, which means Skeeters needs to find shooters ASAP.
The returning roster offers little in the way of perimeter shooting, so the newcomers need to step up: Niagara grad transfer Kevin Larkin and freshman Montrell Horsey will have every chance to play in the backcourt, and Fahim Jenneto (another freshman) is a near-lock for minutes with his smooth stroke at 6’8. This team is a long way from UMBC’s level, but at least Skeeters can begin to cultivate a similar culture.
The defense also needs work; KenPom projects the Hornets to be 352nd in the country on that end. Keith Walker played zone 60-70% of the time, and without many high-level athletes, they were predictively crushed on the boards (335th in defensive rebound rate) and from beyond the arc (340th in defensive 3PA rate, 333rd in 3P% defense). Skeeters will likely employ far more man to man, and wing Jonathan Mitchell, freshman forward Ronald Lucas, and Larkin seem like the most impactful defenders, but the center rotation of Ameer Bennett and Demola Onifade is pretty limited on both ends.
Bottom Line: An elongated hiring process and a questionable returning roster leave Skeeters with a titanic job on his hands, but he should be given a couple years to attempt to build something. The important part of this year will be finding out what he has in his young guys, molding a style, and determining what to look for in future recruiting voyages. Given the entirely uninspiring bottom tier in the MEAC, the Hornets could finish a couple spots higher, but truly contending would be a shock.