All Conference Awards
Player of the Year: Tiwian Kendley, G/F, Sr., Morgan St.
Coach of the Year: Horace Broadnax, Savannah St.
Newcomer of the Year: Rashann London, G, R Jr., NC Central
Freshman of the Year: RJ Cole, G, Howard
Key Returners: Jermaine Marrow, Kalin Fisher, Trevond Barnes, AJ Astroth, Akim Mitchell, Lysander Bracey
Key Losses: Lawrence Cooks
Key Newcomers: Greg Heckstall
Postseason Projection: NCAA Tournament - 16 seed (likely a PIG in Dayton)
Outlook: Coach Buck Joyner has built the closet thing possible to a MEAC dynasty, given how much turnover league rosters tend to have, having made three NCAA Tournaments in eight years and winning double-digit league games five of eight times (under .500 only once). His uptempo, transition-based attack fits the style of players he’s able to draw quite well, and in a year where he returns nearly his entire rotation from an 11-5 third-place finisher, there’s little doubt that dynasty has another strong year coming.
One of the key elements of this transition attack is a primary ball-handler who can draw defenses’ attention and set his teammates up to score, all in the open floor situations that the system provides. Jermaine Marrow asserted himself in that role as a freshman, and with a year of growing within Joyner’s system and maturation, he’s a conference POY candidate this year. Between that growth and the return of some solid weapons running the wing with him, his efficiency should rise.
Kalin Fisher, Akim Mitchell, and Lysander Bracey are those wings, with each bringing something unique to the table. Fisher was kind of a “Marrow Lite” last year, a high usage guard who flashed some passing ability but struggled mightily to finish/shoot. Mitchell is the best defender due to his size (6’5) and switchability (make it a word, Merriam Webster), while Bracey has the most potential as a shooter (although he was a bricky 29% last season). On a macro level, shooting is the offense’s largest concern, as the only guy who shot over 30% (!!) graduated. They aren’t overly reliant on the three, but some threat of it would prevent the halfcourt offense from being too stagnant (a serious issue last year).
They only play one true big, instead opting to have a versatile 3/4 tweener at the four spot - to me, this is an obvious move, as no one in the MEAC really boasts two offensive threats on the low block. AJ Astroth is a crucial piece for this scheme because at 6'6, he can nearly guard all five positions on the floor, yet he is also the best two-way rebounder in the entire conference - his conference-only defensive rebound rate would have ranked seventh in the entire country (!!). Mitchell is a different player, but he can also slide down to the four when necessary.
That positional flexibility keys the Pirates' turnover-based defense - the ball is treasure and they want to plunder it!! Reader: I hope you actually got angry at me for that one, because it sucked. This is the 124th team preview I've written, cut me some slack. Anyways - Trevond Barnes was the best shot-blocker in the MEAC, and his presence (along with quality backup Charlie Wilson-Fisher) shuts down the paint for many of the inferior offenses.
Bottom Line: With a deep stable of returning guards and a budding MEAC star in Marrow, Hampton undoubtedly will be in the conference title race once again. Joyner’s transition attack and frenzied defense gives many undisciplined MEAC teams fits, and although Morgan State returns two excellent scorers, Hampton’s strength-in-numbers could easily overwhelm them for the right to lose to a 1 seed come mid-March.
2. Morgan St.
Key Returners: Tiwian Kendley, Phillip Carr, Martez Cameron, Antonio Gillespie, David Syfax
Key Losses: Kyle Thomas
Key Newcomers: Kyson Rawls, Khalil Gracey
Postseason Projection: NIT
Outlook: After an ignominious exit from the head coaching position at Cal in 1996, Todd Bozeman received an eight-year show cause penalty that barred him from the NCAA ranks. After serving that time (mostly as an NBA scout), Morgan State took a shot on the former rising star coach, and it paid immediate dividends. The Bears went to the first (and second) ever NCAA Tournaments in 2009 and 2010, and Bozeman seemingly has the talent to once again win the MEAC.
3MW’s preseason MEAC Player of the Year Tiwian Kendley is the linchpin for the offense, a mismatch due to his length and ability to draw contact going to the rim. He’s an inefficient scorer outside of the free throw line, but that doesn’t show the value of him drawing a second defender and simply getting the ball on the rim for the Bears’ relentless offensive rebounders to pounce on. Phillip Carr nearly averaged a double-double, and Alex Ennis was one of the conference’s best offensive rebounders on a per minute basis. The growth of sophomore David Syfax gives Bozeman yet another athletic body to throw at the boards.
Kendley is not the facilitator, though; that role belongs to junior Martez Cameron, who ranked third in the conference in assist rate. He might have led the league if it weren’t for Morgan State’s dreadful shooting; they were dead last in the MEAC from two-point range and 10th from three. Antonio Gillespie is the best shooter, but he’s tremendously streaky, and no one else shot better than Kendley’s 31% on a reasonable volume (Carr was 13/29, 45%, though - stretch it out, big man!).
Where the Bears really thrive is on the defensive end, using a variety of zone trapping schemes to wreak havoc in a league short on true ball-handlers. They led the league in turnover rate forced, and the frenzied nature of opponents’ possessions often led to hurried shots from deep, where all foes shot a combined 29%, the best defensive rate in the entire country. To beat the Bears’ defense, you need to have stout guards who can deal with the pressure and eventually get the ball inside, where only the foul-prone Tyjhai Byers poses a rim-protecting threat.
Bottom Line: The lack of offensive efficiency is a major concern, but the presence of Kendley combined with a cadre of aggressive rebounders should help boost that. No key defensive pieces departed, meaning it should be as harassing as ever, so if the offense can improve, a conference title is possible. Bozeman is banking on his seasoned backcourt to continue his redemption tour, possibly vaulting him to a better job (Patriot League? A-Sun?).
3. Norfolk St.
Key Returners: Zaynah Robinson, Alex Long, Kyle Williams, Preston Bungei, Dan Robinson
Key Losses: Jonathan Wade, Jordan Butler, Kerwin Okoro
Key Newcomers: Diesel Whitley, Derrik Jamerson, Nic Thomas, Mastadi Pitt, CJ Kelly (if eligible)
Postseason Projection: CBI/CIT
Outlook: Norfolk State apparently sold its postseason soul for the out of body experience it had in the 2012 NCAA Tournament (scored 1.34 points per possession to beat Mizzou); since then, they’ve been 11-5 or better in every MEAC season, but have yet to return to the NCAA Tournament. Robert Jones has built on the program Anthony Evans had at a high level, but he’s still waiting on his first NCAA bid; with a few bounces going the right way, this could finally be the year.
Jones’s teams value the rim above all else on both ends of the floor – whether that it’s attacking the glass via the drive and the offensive glass on offense, or using their big-for-the-MEAC frontcourt to make finishing a chore for opponents. Slashing wing Jonathan Wade is a big loss, so veteran point guard Zaynah Robinson will need to step into even more of a leadership role, both vocally and within the offense. His value was particularly pronounced in the numbers, as the Spartans became a catastrophe on both ends with him off the court:
Jones also adds Steven “Diesel” Whitley, a Robert Morris transfer, a brickhouse of a man that fits perfectly into the slashing offense. The offense doesn’t take many threes, but Kyle Williams and JUCO newcomer Derrik Jamerson provide that dimension to keep defenses honest.
A big addition (kind of a returner) will be Preston Bungei, who missed last season with an injury. At 6’6, he’s the team’s most positionally versatile defender, and he fits the offensive and defensive schemes perfectly. He attacks the rim with ferocity, all while putting up a superb block rate to help the team’s big men protect the paint.
Meanwhile, teams shot only 52.8% at the rim against the Spartans, 24th-lowest in the country. Most of that was due to the presence of Jordan Butler (second in the MEAC in block rate), who is no longer with the team due to some off the court issues. In his stead, Jones will turn to Alex Long and 7-footer Dan Robinson to wall off the paint, and both seemed up to the challenge last season. Bryan Gellineau is a more plodding option, but his sheer size at 6’11, 280 lbs. is enough to make would-be drivers think twice. The perimeter defenders focus on cutting off driving gaps, which leads to frequent three-point attempts. However, that’s less of a problem in a league that lacks shooters. Jones will mix in a little bit of zone as well, and the principles of that zone align with the Spartans’ man-to-man: wall off the paint, allow threes if need be, take care of the defensive glass and finish possessions.
Bottom Line: The team’s defensive should continue to be stout (best in the MEAC last year), as the team’s size and scheme take away what most foes want to do. The offensive ceiling is the major question mark, though. Robinson is a solid place to start, but unless Whitley and/or Jamerson emerge as a go-to option, the Spartans may come up short once again when the postseason rolls around.
4. North Carolina Central
Key Returners: Pablo Rivas
Key Losses: Patrick Cole, Dajuan Graf, Del’Vin Dickerson, Rashaun Madison, Kyle Benton, Ron Trapps, Will Ransom
Key Newcomers: Rashann London, Larry McKnight, Alston Jones, Raasean Davis, Dom Reid, Zac Douglas, Brandon Goldsmith, Alex Mills, Reggie Gardner, Jordan Perkins
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: It’s easy to think about Kentucky and how much it lost from its NCAA Tournament team last year – basically everyone except Wenyen Gabriel left. But somehow, North Carolina Central returns even fewer minutes than the Wildcats, with only Pablo Rivas returning among last year’s rotation players. So how can they be ranked 4th in the MEAC, you ask?
Well, first of all, Levelle Moton is still in charge. Moton has shown the ability to dominate the league, and in four of his last five seasons, the Eagles have gone 15-1 or better in the conference (61-3 in those four years, good lord). Sure, there was a 7-9 rebuilding year in there, but it’s clear that Moton knows how to win – and win big – at this level. So while it is shocking that a larger east coast school hasn’t come calling, Moton will likely continue to win, and a talented corps of newcomers should allow him to do just that.
Moton’s best teams thrive defensively, using their quickness and depth to harass opponents into poor shots and turnovers. Moton favors a switchy man-to-man, and he’s brought in more high-level athletes to utilize that scheme. Rashann London arrives from Drexel, a previously inefficient gunner who should thrive given the step down in competition, and four junior college guards will see the floor right away as well. Alston Jones will be the table-setter on both ends, using his quickness to make opposing guards’ lives difficult, while Brandon Goldsmith has the length that Moton craves in his perimeter defenders. Larry McKnight is a bowling ball-type wing at 6’3, 215 lbs, but he will also be an asset on D due to his strength. Alex Mills is more of a shooter (and he missed last year with an Achilles injury), but if Moton’s history is any indication, he’ll have Mills playing solid team defense as well.
Moton’s scheme also requires solid size to protect the rim behind the aggressive guards, and he has that in spades this season. Rivas was 9th in the conference in block rate last year, and he’ll be joined by former Kent State widebody Raasean Davis, an effective shot-blocker in his own right. Fellow transfers Zac Douglas (CSUN) and Dom Reid (Niagara and JUCO) provide additional size, though not quite the same type of intimidation in the paint.
With so much higher-conference talent dropping down into Durham, Moton’s defense appears set; the larger question may be shot creation on offense. As mentioned, Jones is a nice facilitator, and Reid (an extremely high-usage player at Niagara in 2014-15) should allow them to play through the post at times. Rivas was also a phenomenal finisher in his own right, shooting a blistering 70% from the field (although last season’s excellent guards set him up on most of those). Freshman guard Reggie Gardner could also see the court right away – he comes to NCC from renowned high school program DeMatha Catholic (played alongside Markelle Fultz), so he should be ready for the rigors of college basketball.
Bottom Line: Year after year, Moton has done a superb job of reloading the program with talent from any and all avenues, and despite unprecedented roster turnover, he should have the Eagles right back in contention this season. Contrary to last year, though, only Rivas is a senior, so 2018-19 could be a yet another 15-1 or 16-0 year for NCC if everyone sticks around.
5. Savannah St.
Key Returners: Dexter McClanahan, Austin Dasent, Joshua Floyd, Zach Sellers, Jahir Cabeza
Key Losses: Troyce Manassa, Robert Kelly, Casey Wells
Key Newcomers: Ralueke Orizu, Ty’lik Evans, Jahlin Smith, John Grant, Juwan Grant
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: As Savannah State begins its transition down to Division II, longtime coach Horace Broadnax will himself continue with year 2 of his experiment with what he calls “Tiger Tempo” (I would argue that it should be called “Broadnax-tion”). It’s an extreme version of basketball’s pace-and-space revolution, a kind of Duggar Baucom-ball on speed, hellbent on getting up and down the floor and bombing away from three-point range.
“Tiger Tempo” was the nation’s quickest pace by more than a full possession last year, and Savannah State also led the country in three-point rate (threes attempted / total shots) by a gigantic margin as well. This was all after Broadnax had played at a crawling tempo for nearly a decade, and the new approach seemed to catch some opponents off guard. Troyce Manassa is gone (and a few of the younger players transferred in response to the D-II news), but plenty of key components return for another year.
Dexter McClanahan is the primary weapon, a shameless gunner who launched 196 threes last year after attempting only 36 the prior year (massive upticks in 3PA is a common thread among the team). Joshua Floyd and Austin Dasent were two of the more damaging components of the offense due to their inefficient shooting and propensity for turnovers, but another year within Broadnax-tion should have them more comfortable. Zach Sellers can run some point and Jahir Cabeza at least acknowledged that rebounding was a thing you need to do in basketball, so they’ll see minutes too.
The hellish pace requires a deep bench (17th in the country in bench minutes last year), so Broadnax will count on several junior college transfers, most notably Ty’lik Evans (who could start at point guard) and Jahlin Smith. The offense needs to replace Robert Kelly as a rim-running big man who took advantage of defenders scrambling to guard shooters (he shot 68% from the field last season), so expect some run for freshman Ralueke Orizu as well.
“Tiger Tempo” is less interested in the defensive end, preferring to try and force turnovers to get the ball back as quickly as possible, and if they can’t do that, they’re fairly content giving you an open two (Broadnax has crunched the numbers, and it’s official: 3 > 2). When they don’t get a steal or give up a transition lay-up, Broadnax had them drop into a very compact zone, subsequently allowing flurries of threes and getting crushed on the offensive glass as they tried to immediately start a fastbreak. Patient teams will score at dizzying rates.
Bottom Line: Broadnax has at least made Savannah State must-watch basketball with his severe stylistic shift, and the Tigers are going to go down to D-II fighting all the way. There’s enough talent here to make a run up the standings after a solid 10-6 finish last year, but the high variability of relying so heavily on threes means they they’ll lay some eggs at times, too.
6. Maryland-Eastern Shore
Key Returners: Ryan Andino, Logan McIntosh, Dontae Caldwell, Tyler Jones, Isaac Taylor
Key Losses: Bakari Copeland, Thomas Rivera, Derrico Peck
Key Newcomers: Cam Bacote, Miryne Thomas, LeAndro Thomas, Colen Gaynor
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: Bobby Collins has done a masterful job in Princess Anne, Maryland, resurrecting a MEAC also-ran into a consistently competitive squad in the league for three straight seasons. They should be in the upper half of the league once again this season, buoyed by a few key pieces returning from the league’s second-best offense and a slight scheme advantage over many conference foes.
That scheme involves having perhaps the best high volume gunner in the league, Ryan Andino. He’s an eye-popping 229/598 (38%) from deep in his career, including 109/287 (also 38%) last year. So many MEAC teams focus on cutting off the paint that having a gunner like Andino really causes problems. They also have forwards Tyler Jones and Miryne Thomas to invert the floor as well, drawing out opposing shot-blockers and forcing them to play perimeter defense.
The shooters will open things up for slashing point guards Logan McIntosh and Ahmad Frost (returning from a torn ACL). McIntosh ran hot and cold last year, but he has the size and vision to find shooters all over the court. Frost is a potential star in the future, as his stout frame and smooth outside stroke could make him a matchup nightmare for smaller MEAC guards. He rarely looked at the basket as a freshman, though, so he’ll need to show more aggressiveness to score after missing last year. Collins’s offenses traditionally have a back to the basket threat to suck in defenders, and the most likely candidate there is returning starter Isaac Taylor, a widebody at 6’8, 250 lbs., although he rebounded like a 5’11 guard on the defensive end – that will need to change.
The whole team really struggled on the defensive glass, as represented by 6’5 wing Dontae Caldwell being the best returning rebounder on that end. For that reason, Collins will look to the Thomas and fellow true freshman LeAndre Thomas to shore up the glass. Miryne’s length should help him, and given his offensive skillset, he seems like a lock for playing time. The Hawks tried to cover up their soft defensive interior by forcing turnovers at the league’s 4th-highest rate, but given the graduation of Derrico Peck (the team’s best defender), they might be best served by packing the paint more (and Collins is willing to play zone).
Bottom Line: With a nice collection of outside shooters, UMES is a tough matchup for many MEAC defenses that are content to allow perimeter looks. Andino’s volume and proficiency is unique in the league outside of Savannah, GA, and if Miryne Thomas and Jones can knock down shots from the frontcourt spots, the Hawks become a sneaky dark horse. The giant neon question mark is the defense – if Collins can shore up the interior, whether through the new personnel or a more conservative scheme, then UMES can truly push its ceiling as a team.
Key Returners: Jeffrey Altidort, Brandon Tabb, Ulmer Manzie
Key Losses: Diamante Lewis, Reggie Baker, Quinton Forrest, Brandon Suggs
Key Newcomers: Malik Maitland, Armani Collins, Soufiyane Diakite, QV Johnson, Isaiah Bailey, Shawntrez Davis, David Francis
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: Located in Daytona Beach, Florida, a fact everyone definitely knew before reading this preview, the Wildcats struggled last season, winning only one non-conference game against D-I competition. In response, the administration let coach Gravelle Craig go (very strong name, you’ll bounce back Gravelle) and brought in Ryan Ridder, the 32-year old head man at nearby Daytona State College – like, very nearby, we’re talking 1.3 miles here:
After picking up some Krispy Kreme and Steak 'n Shake on his quick 3-minute drive up the road, Ridder got to the task at hand, which was filling out the roster around high-scoring wing Brandon Tabb, one of the better offensive players in the entire league. He scoured the JUCO ranks (surprisingly, none of his Daytona State players followed him), and his biggest coups may be nabbing Morehead State transfers Malik Maitland and Soufiyane Diakite – otherwise known as the recipients of ex-Morehead State coach Sean Woods’s alleged assaults.
If eligible right away (I’m sure the NCAA will F this up somehow), Maitland will be the starting point guard, a productive player in the OVC who is a pest on the ball. Ridder aims to be a defensive-oriented team, and Maitland’s in-your-shorts defense would be the perfect table-setter for that. Jeffrey Altidort makes it something of a two-PG system, though his severe turnover issues make him better off the ball. Tabb hit nearly 100 threes at 34% last year, a volume and percentage combination that makes him a sniper in the bricky MEAC, and Ridder hopes Maitland, Altidort, and high-scoring JUCO guard QV Johnson can command defenses’ respect.
Ridder’s predecessor employed zone around 60% of the time, but given the amount of turnover the roster has, he’s certaintly not tied to that style. Tabb, Diakite, Armani Collins, David Francis, and Houston Smith give him a small army of 6’5-6’6 that can switch most screens, and Shawntrez Davis has potential as a rim protector and paint enforcer after transferring in from JUCO powerhouse South Plains. Ulmer Manzie returns with some upside in the paint, as well – he was fifth in the MEAC in block rate as a freshman.
Bottom Line: Figuring out how to best use Tabb and his numerous offensive abilities will be Ridder’s first challenge, along with plugging in the holes of a leaky defense. He did an excellent job of finding pieces during a tumultuous first offseason in charge, and if Maitland and the other promising newcomers can step into roles immediately, Bethune-Cookman could improve on last season’s nightmarish year, despite the personnel and coaching turnover.
Key Returners: Charles Williams, Dalique Mingo
Key Losses: James Daniel, James Miller, Damon Collins, Solomon Mangham, Marcel Boyd, Tyler Stone
Key Newcomers: RJ Cole, Kai Tease, Kyle Foster, Zion Cousins, Henry Odunze
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: Last year was supposed to be #theyear for Howard, as they returned James Daniel, the nation’s leading scorer, and nearly the entire roster from a promising 2015-16 squad – plus James Miller coming back from injury. Alas, Daniel got hurt, and the rest of the roster fell apart without him, stumbling to a 5-11 conference record. Daniel exercised the graduate transfer rule in the offseason, and Miller left the program as well; along with heavy graduation losses, this offseason robbed the Bison of most of their talent.
The stone rolled all the way back down the hill on coach Kevin Nickelberry, and he’ll begin his Sispyhus-esque task anew – thankfully with a boost from a highly promising rising sophomore, Charles Williams. Williams entered the Howard program with a bang, leading the MEAC in percentage of shots taken (and ranking 25th nationally in that category). He’s purely a wing scorer, so he’ll need talented freshman point guard RJ Cole to help get him into scoring positions. Cole and and redshirt freshman Kai Tease (plus Williams) form a terrific perimeter nucleus for the future, though this year could be one of growing pains. Dalique Mingo provides some senior leadership, but he only managed to play 12 games last season before succumbing to injury.
Nickelberry hopes to have some addition by subtraction, as the team’s primary usage guys (outside of Williams) were awfully turnover-prone. Unfortunately, those departures also rob Howard if its primary offensive rebounders, a key facet of Nickelberry’s offenses. He’ll look to Michael Obindu and Cameron Lewis to fill that role, bit players last year, and potentially Henry Odunze and Tyler Williams as well (redshirt freshman and freshman, respectively).
Nickelberry will play a lot of zone, and by extension of that defense, the Bison give up a lot of threes. In a league with very few true deadeye shooters, though, that’s not a bad strategy. The Bison protect the paint, forcing opponents to score from places they’re not comfortable. Of course, the zone leaves them vulnerable on the glass in spite of their size, and the newcomers may struggle to pick up the zone right away.
Bottom Line: With so much roster turnover, it’s hard to know what to expect from Howard this year. The extreme youth on the roster (starting 4 freshmen and a sophomore isn’t out of the realm of possibility) leave them prone to mistakes and sloppy play, but with development over the next couple of years, Nickelberry could have a MEAC monster on his hands. The question is whether he has enough job security to survive the inevitable down year(s) that occur while the young guards mature.
9. Delaware St.
Key Returners: Kavon Waller, Artem Tavakalyan, Kobe Gantz
Key Losses: Devin Morgan, DeVaughn Mallory, DeAndre Haywood, Dana Raysor
Key Newcomers: Daivon Gamble, Jonathan Mitchell, Saleik Edwards, Pinky Wiley, Simon Okolue
Outlook: After taking over for longtime coach Greg Jackson and his notoriously deliberate teams (read: sloooow), Keith Walker turned up the pace in 2014-15, and Delaware State finished with a solid 18-18 (9-7) record. Strangely, though, he pumped the breaks the last two seasons, and the Hornets subsequently struggled (perhaps not directly correlated, but the relationship is notable, at the very least). With a young but talented backcourt, speeding up again might help juice the anemic offense, though Walker will have to tolerate the inevitable uptick in turnovers.
Sophomore Kobe Gantz and freshman Pinky Wiley should share ball-handling duties, and certain lineups may see them on the floor together, particulary due to Gantz’s size and length. Wiley is a crafty passer at 5’11, and if he shows an ability to hit outside shots, that will heighten Walker’s lineup flexibility (Gantz is a pretty poor shooter). Both guys will constantly feed wing scorers Karon Waller and Artem Tavakalyan; Waller should see a significant uptick in usage with the loss of the Hornets’ three best scorers.
DSU had some of the nation’s longest average possessions on offense last year, a testament to 1) their deliberate nature in attempting to break down defenses, and 2) the lack of true dynamic scoring talents. This crawling nature contrasted starkly to their helter-skelter defense, an extended 3-2 zone that attempts to speed up opponents and generate turnovers. The primary pieces of that perimeter pressure are gone, so Wiley and JUCO guards Jonathan Mitchell and Saleik Edwards will need to step into those roles.
They have the advantage of having some shot-blocking behind them in Joseph Lewis and Demola Onifade, two 6’9 players who will also need to improve their rebounding to help fix the Hornets’ woeful glass work on the defensive end (350th in the country in defensive rebounding rate). If they can’t, JUCO transfers Daivon Gamble and Simon Okolue will be prominently featured in the frontcourt rotation right away. Gamble and Okolue have higher ceilings than the returning forwards, but Walker will need to see how they react to D-I competition.
Bottom Line: The Hornets lost a great deal of scoring from a middling MEAC team – not usually a great sign. They’ll likely struggle to find points unless Gantz and Wiley can get into the paint consistently or the Waller/Tavakalyan wing duo is more prolific than expected. Walker has some nice size to park in the line as the anchors to his 3-2 zone, but too often opposing guards were easily able to get in the paint, a trend that appears likely to continue while employing the same scheme.
10. Coppin St.
Key Returners: DeJuan Clayton, Tre’ Thomas, Lucian Brownlee
Key Losses: Joshua Treadwell, Keith Shivers, Terry Harris, Chas Brown
Key Newcomers: Karonn Davis, Adam Traore, KeAndre Fair, Chad Andrews-Fulton, Lamar Morgan
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: In one of the most intriguing hires of the offseason, Coppin State hired local hero Juan Dixon, former national champion as a player at Maryland. Despite a ridiculously limited coaching career (full extent: one year at the helm of the District of Columbia College women’s team), Dixon infuses life and optimism into a downtrodden program, one that’s been under .500 in the MEAC for five straight years.
Dixon is easily the most important new face in the program, but several transfers should help him boost an anemic offense. Karonn Davis comes over from Niagara after not playing last year (mysteriously – the internet doesn’t give many clues), and his creation should complement aggressive returning PG DeJuan Clayton quite well. Four junior college transfers also bolster the ranks, led by Adam Traore in the post and Lamar Morgan on the wing. Traore has a chance to be a smaller, Coppin State-sized version of Lonny Baxter (major throwback to Dixon’s Maryland squads) – a strong, physical force around the rim and on the glass on both ends.
Clayton should be most thrilled at the new coaching hire, as Dixon’s tutelage should allow him to realize his potential as a scoring guard in the MEAC. He’s a solid passer as well, but he needs his teammates to finish his passes more efficiently. He was the Eagles’ best offensive player as a freshman, and his presence kept the already-poor offense from devolving into an unwatchable festival of slop:
Williams’s squads also played at a breakneck pace on offense, always looking to get out in transition and get going downhill towards the rim. Having two capable ball-handlers in Clayton and Davis should make this attack a reality for Coppin State as well, and the rest of the roster does appears to be a solid fit for such an offense. The bigs are mobile, and wings like Morgan and Tre’ Thomas will enjoy having more freedom and open shots while on the break.
Opponents torched the Eagles in the paint last season, and only Blake Simpson offered any resistance at the rim among the returners. Dixon will hope that Traore, Cedric Council, and Chad Andrews-Fulton can provide a better back line of defense. Dixon’s mentor, Gary Williams, consistently had nationally elite shot-blockers to rely on, allowing his guards to extend past the three-point line and gamble for steals. Dixon may not have that luxury from day one, however, so I expect a slightly more conservative approach.
Bottom Line: Expectations should be tempered for this year, despite the thrilling move to bring Dixon home, but the roster isn’t where it needs to be yet. If Dixon can keep Clayton in the program for the next three years and build out the talent around him, I expect to see Coppin State back towards the top of the league soon.
11. South Carolina St.
Key Returners: Tashombe Riley, James Richardson, Ian Kinard, Janai Raynor Powell
Key Losses: Greg Mortimer, Eric Eaves, Ed Stephens
Key Newcomers: Lavar Harewood, Justin Jones, Rayshawn Neal
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: Upon taking over for Tim Carter following his resignation in February 2013, Murray Garvin did well in his first D-I head coaching position. The Bulldogs improved each of his first two years, and after a 12-4 MEAC record in 2015-16, they appeared to be a title contender last season. Unfortunately, the bottom fell out defensively without Daryll Palmer cleaning up the middle, and SC State’s 12th-ranked MEAC D dragged them to a 7-9 finish (only NC A&T’s appalling defense saved them the dishonor of finishing 13th).
This year, they lose essentially their entire wing corps, but with Tashombe Riley and Ian Kinard back in the frontcourt, Garvin’s strategy of eschewing the three-ball on offense to attack more inside should still be a viable option. Riley is the key, a guy who was supposed to break out last year but struggled with his efficiency due to settling for so many two-point jumpers. If he can get all the way to the rim more frequently (certainly possible with his versatility), he’ll be more effective. Even though he wasn’t the statistical star that many expected, his impact was significant:
With him on the court, the Bulldogs edged opponents; without him, they became a whipping boy, particularly on the defensive end.
Of course, with so much turnover in the backcourt, someone will need to bring the ball up and get it to the big men. Ty Solomon appears the most likely starter at PG, and pass he will – he only took a paltry 7.5% of the team’s shots while on the court, which KenPom generously classifies as “nearly invisible.” Though the Bulldogs traditionally don’t shoot many threes, James Richardson and Maine transfer (by way of junior college) Lavar Harewood do provide options from behind the arc, and Harewood showed a penchant for getting to the foul line while at Maine in 2015-16 (which Garvin will appreciate).
Again, though, the issue is defense. SC State was a sieve inside, and no one on the roster projects as even an average shot-blocker. To that point, the Bulldogs might be better served playing a more compact defense, as last year’s version pushed out too far to take away threes, leaving the undermanned frontcourt constantly under siege from drivers. Garvin is happy to mix in a 3-2 zone as a way to combat this, but they play it so softly in the middle that teams can essentially make one pass and have the ball at the rim. They were also trounced on the offensive glass, so it’s kind of a pick-your-poison conundrum.
Bottom Line: Last year seemed like Garvin's big chance to break through with a talented backcourt, but instead, he learned the value of having quality defensive big men. Unfortunately, he wasn’t really able to re-stock that cupboard, so he’ll have to hope for internal improvement with so many similar pieces on the frontline. Riley may emerge into a first team all-conference caliber player this year, but it will all be for naught if Garvin can’t find a way to plug the defense’s holes.
12. Florida A&M
Key Returners: Desmond Williams, Marcus Barham, Nasir Core, Justin Ravenal, Nick Severado
Key Losses: Derrick Dandridge, Elijah Mays
Key Newcomers: Javonni Harrell, Isaiah Martin, DJ Jones
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: Florida A&M’s coaching search was quietly one of the longer ones, stretching almost exactly two months from March 17th, when they “opted to part ways” with Byron Samuels, to May 16th, when Robert McCullum was introduced. McCullum has one of the most eccentric coaching history pages I’ve ever seen, with stints in China, at a junior high, and a brief cameo in charge of the Nigerian national team (?):
I’m not sure if McCullum was FAMU’s first choice (doubtful after a two month search), but after a disastrous stint at USF from 2003-2007 where he went 40-76 (10-54 in league play), what could possibly go wrong??
Thankfully, the bar couldn’t be lower – FAMU has finished inside KenPom’s top 300 exactly once in the past 10 years (they were 297th), so any progress would be impressive. Dear lord, that is horrendous.
It’s hard to get a sense of how McCullum will play given that he’s had so many coaching stops, but if his time at USF is any indication, the Rattlers will (attempt to) have a stout interior defense, using a physical man-to-man to force opponents into difficult shots. Whether he has the personnel to play that style is up for debate – FAMU was 10th in the MEAC in 2P% defense last year, so a shift will be needed. One or two of returner Nick Severado, St. Francis (PA) transfer Ifyeani Umezurike, JUCO transfer Isaiah Martin, and redshirt freshman DJ Jones will need to show some rim protection; Severado actually had a solid 6.4% block rate last year, and along with undersize four-man Desmond Williams, McCullum may actually be able to forge some interior resistance.
Williams and wings Marcus Barham and Justin Ravenel will lead the offense, and the two guards were sharpshooters from downtown in MEAC play, ranking 8th and 1st, respectively, percentage-wise. Their shooting should spread the floor for Williams to attack. He took 165 free throws last season, and he and rising sophomore Nasir Core should fit nicely into McCullum’s system that places a premium on earning trips to the stripe. He also has historically emphasized the offensive glass, but the Rattlers ranked dead last in the MEAC in offensive rebound rate last season, so a major shift will need to take place if that is to come to fruition.
Bottom Line: McCullum hasn’t been overly successful at previous head coaching stops, but he’s stop around the game and was an assistant for two consecutive Final Four teams at Oregon the past two years. The process may be a slow one, but after the exhaustive coaching search, it seems that the Rattlers at least have a hint of promise of better things to come for the first time in a while.
13. North Carolina A&T
Key Returners: Davaris McGowens, Amari Hamilton, Donte Watson, Raymon Pratt
Key Losses: Sam Hunt, Eliel Gonzalez, Aaron Scales
Key Newcomers: Aaron Edmead, Japhet Kadji, Devonte Boykins, Femi Olujobi, Kwei Lartey, Milik Gantz, D’Andre Johnson
Outlook: Despite not winning a Division I game until March (!!!), North Carolina A&T somehow avoided falling to dead last in Mr. Ken Pomeroy’s rankings (thanks Alabama A&M). The Aggies were able to knock off MEAC champ NC Central in the regular season finale (in a game that meant less than nothing to NCC, who had long since clinched the title), but Jay Joyner knows the country’s worst defense must improve to dig his squad out of the cellar.
In his first full year after taking over mid-MEAC season in 2016, the bottom truly fell out on D, forcing Joyner to play more zone (67% of the time, nearly double previous seasons). The conservative nature of the zone allowed for an extremely high volume of open threes, as NC A&T gave up the highest share of threes AND the highest percentage from deep in the conference - that’s a bad combo, folks. The packed-in concept also prevented them from forcing any turnovers, so opponents simply passed it around until they found a shot they liked.
Joyner hopes a massive crop of newcomers can solve some of the defensive issues. Four Division I transfers should help, including likely starting PG Aaron Edmead and his Wagner teammate, Japhet Kadji. Both guys were in the rotation for the NEC’s second best defense in 2015-16, and Kadji in particular has real upside as a switchable, multi-positional defender. Femi Olujobi from Oakland won’t offer the shot-blocking that NC A&T needs, but he’s a stout rebounder, and the gap in talent between the Horizon and the MEAC is significant. D’Andre Johnson is really the only other option as a big in the paint to replace Aaron Scales, though he is extremely raw and will need time to develop.
Contrary to their awful three-point D, the Aggies actually led the MEAC in 3-point percentage on offense. Donte Watson and Amari Hamilton are nice spot-up options (if little else), and Georgia Southern grad transfer Devonte Boykins hit 36% in the Sun Belt as well. Joyner also emphasizes the offensive glass and the necessity for cheap points (particularly for a team that struggles to create in the halfcourt), and Davaris McGowens excelled in that regard. He’ll look to Kadji and Olujobi for reinforcements now that they’re eligible.
Bottom Line: Joyner made the major mistake of being both terrible AND boring last year, as the Aggies played at the slowest tempo in the conference (and 341st in the country). The influx of new talent – Joyner also nabbed quality guards Kwei Lartey and Milik Gantz from the JUCO ranks, plus freshman Kameron Langley – gives some semblance of hope, but it would be a serious surprise if NC A&T finished in the top 10 of the league.