Player of the Year: Isaiah Miller, Jr., UNC Greensboro
Coach of the Year: Steve Forbes, ETSU
Newcomer of the Year: Keyshaun Langley, Fr., UNC Greensboro
Freshman of the Year: Keyshaun Langley, UNC Greensboro
** - if Samford’s Preston Parks gets a waiver, he would be my Newcomer of the Year pick and would displace either Abee or Bender off the Newcomer team
1. East Tennessee St.
Key Returners: Jeromy Rodriguez, Bo Hodges, Isaiah Tisdale, Tray Boyd, Patrick Good, Daivien Williamson, Lucas N’Guessan
Key Losses: Mladen Armus (transfer)
Key Newcomers: Joe Hugley (CCSU), Damari Monsanto, Vonnie Patterson (JUCO)
Outlook: In any normal SoCon year, last season’s East Tennessee State squad would have been a legitimate conference title contender, a clear top 100 team with plenty of size, depth, and offensive weaponry. Instead, the Buccaneers finished in a distant tie for third, two games behind 15-3 UNC Greensboro and a full five games back of the 18-0 Wofford Chainsaw Massacre. The league’s top four went a staggering 47-1 against the bottom six (51-1 if you include the conference tournament), with the only loss coming when Furman shockingly fell at home to Samford. Wofford was the best team the league has produced since Steph Curry nearly took Davidson to the Final Four, and Furman and UNCG flirted with earning the conference’s first at-large bid since…ever.
I say all that to say this: the rest of that top four all lose crucial seniors, while ETSU returns everyone except big man Mladen Armus, who transferred. That means Steve Forbes should have extremely high hopes for this year, returning an athletic and deep roster fully capable of taking the SoCon crown. Last season’s team was nearly brand new, ranking 331st in the country in minutes continuity, and having further familiarity with each other should only help the cause. Forbes wants to run opportunistically in transition and then spread the floor in the half court, attacking mismatches and allowing his superior athletes to wear teams down. He’s a former Bruce Pearl and Gregg Marshall assistant, and he’s taken plenty of traits from both – an ability to get players from all over and an affinity for pressure man-to-man defense chief among them.
Seven returning players started at least seven games each, so Forbes will have plenty of lineup options. The backcourt is stacked with a variety of pieces: a lights-out shooter (Patrick Good), a speedy point guard (Isaiah Tisdale), a burgeoning star combo guard (Daivien Williamson), a physical defensive whiz (Bo Hodges), and a high-usage scorer (Tray Boyd). Forbes has proven his ability to find the right combinations among them, mixing and matching depending on what the current game demands.
Good poured in 87 threes, including 11 in one game, but he faded severely down the stretch as a hip injury that plagued him all year worsened. He had offseason surgery to fix the issue and should be good to go for 2019-20. Tisdale and Williamson will share primary ball-handling duties, while Hodges brings an added edge with his size and ability to bully his way to the rim against weaker guards. He’ll also shift down to a smallball four at times when Forbes wants to crank the tempo. Boyd, meanwhile, was the only player to appear in all 34 games, eventually settling into a bench microwave role; he led the conference in percentage of shots taken while on the court at 32.5%.
With so many quality guards, it’s hard to pin down any of them as the team’s most important player. Rather, that title probably goes to maniacal rebounding banshee Jeromy Rodriguez, who considered transferring out of the program this offseason but ultimately decided to continue eating glass in Johnson City. He ranked in the top 100 in rebound rate on both ends of the floor (and led the SoCon in DReb%), constantly securing boards outside of his area that led to key ETSU buckets. His presence helped the Bucs be one of the best overall rebounding teams in the country. Losing Armus will hurt that somewhat, but Lucas N’Guessan is an athletic 7-footer, and CCSU transfer Joe Hugley adds another versatile forward who can knock down perimeter shots, a rarity for ETSU frontcourt players.
Newcomers Vonnie Patterson (JUCO) and Damari Monsanto (freshman) will scrap for playing time, with Patterson probably being more comfortable as an undersized forward, do-everything role player and Monsanto having more long-term upside. There simply aren’t many backcourt minutes available for the smaller Monsanto.
Bottom Line: Forbes is a proven commodity as a head coach, having improved the Bucs over the course of the season all four years he’s been there, usually by a significant amount:
ETSU won’t have the luxury of sneaking up on teams this year, though. Expectations will be the highest they’ve been during his tenure in Johnson City, and given how talented the roster us, they are justified. Wofford showed last year that a SoCon team can be good enough to merit an at-large bid (though the Terriers didn’t ultimately need it); unfortunately, the Bucs’ non-league slate may not be strong enough to make that case. Thus, Forbes & Co. will need to be playing their best ball come March to earn his second NCAA Tournament bid (and possibly catapult him to a more prominent coaching gig in the process).
2. UNC Greensboro
Key Returners: Isaiah Miller, Kyrin Galloway, James Dickey, Kaleb Hunter, Malik Massey
Key Losses: Francis Alonso, Demetrius Troy, Eric Hamilton
Key Newcomers: Keyshaun Langley, Kobe Langley, Michael Hueitt Jr. (Old Dominion), Dericko Williams, Bas Leyte, Arnas Adomavicius
Outlook: As a bracketologist, there’s two “extreme” types of bubble profiles: the confusing mess of “good wins + bad losses” (typically a power conference team that gets a surplus of opportunities) on one end of the spectrum, and the “did exactly what was expected” variety on the other. UNCG was the crystallization of the latter last year, losing its six toughest games (@ LSU, @ Kentucky, @ Furman, home/neutral/away against the Wofford buzzsaw) and sweeping the other 28. Such a clear divide left the Spartans on the outside looking in – the committee craves “big wins” like Thanos yearns for “balance” – but it was still a record-setting season for a program that continues to thrive under Wes Miller.
In one of the many cases that support giving a promising young coach time to build his program, Miller struggled through his first four seasons, limping to a measly 29-41 record in SoCon play. But after winning 81 games in three seasons, he appears to have the Spartans built for contention for years to come, even able to withstand the graduations of star scorer Francis Alonso, point guard Demetrius Troy, and role player Eric Hamilton.
Miller’s identity stems from his pressing defense, a constant swarm that generates copious turnovers via the quick hands of Isaiah Miller and the all-around brilliance of 2018 SoCon DPOY James Dickey. The Spartans are able to effortlessly shift between harassing the ball and sagging off into softer presses, refusing to give opponents a predictable look. Miller’s primary goal is to disrupt the flow of the offense, whether that’s via a steal or simply delaying the opponent’s ability to get into a set action. That helps explain this seemingly contradictory defensive trend that’s taken place over the past few years:
So despite extending full-court at one of the country’s highest rates, the Spartans force opponents into interminable possessions, backed up against the shot clock because they’re just not able to find a quality shot. Having Dickey (and, to a lesser extent, Kyrin Galloway) as a back-line intimidator certainly helps – what might otherwise be a break to the basket often results in opponents pulling the ball out to reset.
On the other end, the loss of Troy and Alonso paves the way for Miller to rise into true stardom. He came off the bench for 16 of the Spartans’ first 17 games last year, but his relentless ball pressure and knack for getting into the lane finally demanded a starting spot. He’s a poor shooter (27% from deep, 56% from the line), but he’s lightning quick and creative with how he uses his body:
He’s an excellent PnR player (92nd percentile last year), but he’ll get to continue not being the primary creator thanks to the additions of twins Kobe and Keyshaun Langley, two prized recruits who won two state championships at Southwest Guilford High School and excelled for Team CP3 in the EYBL. Keyshaun is the slightly better player and pure PG, but both will be immediate rotation players for Miller. Malik Massey is a solid role-playing wing, although his bricky outside shooting could cause him to cede playing time to Kobe Langley or rising sophomore Kaleb Hunter or Old Dominion transfer Michael Hueitt.
Bottom Line: It’s a mild upset that Miller has remained in Greensboro, as his youth and now-sustained run of success make him a tantalizing hire for power conference programs. The prevailing conspiracy theory is that he may just continue to win with the Spartans until Roy Williams hangs up the whistle in Chapel Hill, where he can take over for his ol’ ball coach. This year’s team looks primed to maintain his winning ways, with Isaiah Miller sure to be a SoCon star and a fully healthy Dickey owning the paint. If Miller keeps pulling in recruits like the Langleys, their mega-bouncy EYBL teammate Dericko Williams, and Dutch big man Bas Leyte, then UNCG will remain a power for the foreseeable future.
Key Returners: Nathan Hoover, Storm Murphy, Chevez Goodwin, Tray Hollowell
Key Losses: Fletcher Magee, Cam Jackson, Keve Aluma (transfer)
Key Newcomers: Zion Richardson, Morgan Safford, Messiah Jones (redshirt), David Appelgren (JUCO), Isaiah Bigelow (redshirt)
Outlook: How in the world do you follow a year like that? I mean, how did The Office follow season 3 ? With an excellent season 4, I would argue!
The Terriers will look to do the same after going on a season-long tear, at one point rattling off 21 wins in a row, including a first round demolition of the same Seton Hall roster that is now considered a top 15 team (less Ikey Obiagu). In terms of power ratings, Wofford emphatically disproved Michael Jordan’s claim that “the ceiling is the roof,” playing into the 90s and into the top 15-20 nationally. It’s easy to forecast a massive drop – sharpshooter Fletcher Magee, offensive hub Cam Jackson, and head coach Mike Young all departed in the offseason – but a savvy internal hire and a still-loaded backcourt will prevent an extreme drop-off.
With the brilliant Young off to Virginia Tech, the administration smartly chose continuity by promoting Jay McAuley, Young’s top assistant. He’s also coached under two names the Weave respects greatly: Niko Medved (at Furman) and Chris Holtmann (at Gardner-Webb), so the pristine offense and intelligent play should continue. And despite Magee’s graduation, the Terriers still have one of the country’s truly elite shooters in Nathan Hoover. As much love as Magee got last season (and it was deserved), you could make the argument that Hoover was just as good a sniper, if not even better by the thinnest of margins:
Young’s scheme ran Magee and Hoover through a tangled web of off-ball screens, opening up perimeter looks while also throwing the rest of the defense into chaos as it frantically tried to rotate to all of the movement. Of course, having two such snipers is what made the Wofford offense especially hard to guard, and Wofford has options to slide into the Magee role: Tray Hollowell was deadly on spot ups last season, and point guard Storm Murphy has a pure stroke of his own. It might hurt the defense size-wise, but McAuley may elect to move Murphy’s shooting off the ball at times and use sophomore Ryan Larson as the primary ball-handler.
The wing depth is plentiful, with reserve Donovan Theme-Love capable of playing a larger role and two promising freshmen, Zion Richardson and Morgan Safford, entering the fold. Both rookies can score inside and out, and they’ll be four-year pillars for McAuley if they choose to stick around.
Wofford should also have the full services of Trevor Stumpe, a full-time starter and dynamic offensive threat as a small-ball four two years ago who struggled while returning from back surgery last year, limiting him to just nine appearances. He should be fully ready to go (and really, he was towards the end of last year, but the rotation as it stood was torching people), and he’ll spread the floor even more around Wofford’s constant action.
Another strength of the Terrier offense last year was playing through the uber-skilled Cam Jackson in the high post, orbiting a variety cuts and hand-offs around his planetary mass at the free throw line or in the post. The rest of Wofford’s roster shrewdly played off him en route to easy buckets:
That role will be far more difficult to fill; Chevez Goodwin is a good player and the presumptive starter, but he lacks Jackson’s passing skill and court presence. With plenty of other weapons, the offense shouldn’t suffer too much, but the approach will need some slight alterations without its engine in the interior.
Jackson’s departure also hurts the defense quite a bit, as he was one of the country’s best at combining shot-blocking and quick hands to wreak havoc. His sheer size and surprisingly nimble feet made opponents’ lives difficult in the paint, and Stumpe retaking the power forward spot from Keve Aluma spot removes some interior bulk. Messiah Jones, a sophomore from Chicago’s famed Simeon Career Academy (Derrick Rose, Jahlil Okafor, ever heard of it?), is the kind of versatile forward that could be a defensive factor off the bench, and JUCO center David Appelgren brings a giant frame (7’1) and blocked 113 shots last year at Laramie County CC. The Terriers smallish guards will struggle to keep high-level penetrators out of the lane, so having some rim protection in Goodwin and the towering Swede Appelgren will be important.
Bottom Line: It’s easy to fret over the significant pieces that left town, and it’s certainly no easy task to replace two of the program’s all-time best players and its best coach. Still, the infrastructure and roster depth is in place to avoid falling out of the SoCon’s top tier, and if McAuley proves to be the sharp mind on the sideline that we expect, the Terriers will be in good hands for the foreseeable future. The Hoover fireworks display is alone is worth tuning in for, but if Stumpe rediscovers his game and Murphy/Hollowell/the freshmen guards provide complementary perimeter scoring, Wofford may be must-watch basketball for the second straight year.
Key Returners: Jordan Lyons, Noah Gurley, Clay Mounce, Alex Hunter, Tre Clark
Key Losses: Matt Rafferty, Andrew Brown
Key Newcomers: Marcus Foster, Colin Kenney, Jonny Lawrence
Outlook: The poor Paladins became the latest victim of the NCAA’s disgust for the little man, as a couple SoCon stumbles and some strange non-conference scheduling decisions (three non-D1 games? Why?) left Furman on the outside looking in, despite a marquee road win at Villanova and advanced metrics rankings that placed them ahead of such at-large teams as St. John’s, Seton Hall, and Temple. Who’s to say the Paladins couldn’t have gone 9-9 in the Big East, like the Pirates, or even 8-10 like the Red Storm? They did win in the conference champ’s building, after all…
Alright, going to stop myself before I go on an extended rant about the inherent scheduling imbalance in the NCAA. Despite returning four starters, Furman may struggle to replicate last season’s success without do-everything star forward Matt Rafferty, the team’s only true big and also its best passer. Bob Richey realized he had a gem in Rafferty, and he ran nearly all of the Paladins’ offensive action through him, whether that was via post ups or handoffs in the high post. He propped up an otherwise-pedestrian offense, and data from our good friend Hoop Lens backs that up:
Without such a singular talent directing the attack, Richey must turn to the copious perimeter shooting up and down his roster to find a new identity. Jordan Lyons emerged into a mega-volume gunner from deep, as evidenced by his 54-point explosion against poor North Georgia in which he hit 15 (!!) threes. Both he and fellow 5’11 starter Alex Hunter can bend the defense with their outside strokes, opening gaps for driving lanes and post ups. Expect to see more of promising sophomore Mike Bothwell, also, as yet another deep threat.
Richey may also try run more action through junior Clay Mounce, a 6’7 forward with a smooth perimeter stroke who showed flashes of passing ability last year. He won’t be Rafferty in terms of the load he can carry offensively, but he can tag into some of the sets Richey ran for his departed star, which would help avoid a complete offensive overhaul. Sophomore Noah Gurley is a model of versatility at 6’8; he hit 34 threes and blocked 24 shots in a promising rookie campaign. Depth behind those two is shaky unless freshman Jonny Lawrence can play right away, and at 6’10, he’s the roster’s closest thing to a natural center. Jalen Slawson contributed nicely in the paint in extremely limited minutes, so he could be a key contributor if he catches up with the speed of the game.
It should be noted that Furman also had the SoCon’s best defense last year, as the Paladins’ disciplined man-to-man smartly avoided conceding free points at the line while disrupting offensive flow and forcing a high percentage of isolation possessions. Mounce, Gurley, and Slawson can all protect the rim a little bit, and junior Tre Clark will garner minutes due to his defense, even if he continues to turn the ball over at an alarming rate on the other end. Plus, Richey found ways to weaponize the quickness of his tiny guard duo, rather than letting them be repeatedly picked on and turned into liabilities.
Bottom Line: As incredible as Wofford’s seniors were (Magee and Jackson), Rafferty may have been the single most important player in the SoCon last year. Even without him, Richey has the pieces to maintain Furman’s defensive success, and if he finds a way to re-work the offensive attack, Furman will remain a dangerous contender. He’s built the program for future success, as well: Marcus Foster and Colin Kenney (who gives me serious Matt Mooney vibes) will probably just be depth pieces as freshmen, but they can both really hoop. Richey has cultivated a position-less style while winning 48 games through two years, and that success should continue this year and beyond.
Key Returners: Josh Sharkey, Brandon Austin, Robert Allen, Myron Gordon
Key Losses: Ruben Guerrero, Kevion Nolan (transfer)
Key Newcomers: Jalen Dupree (Murray St.), Donte Tatum (JUCO), Stanley Henderson Jr. (redshirt), JP Robinson, Logan Padgett, Preston Parks (UT Martin)***, KJ Davis (East Carolina)***
Outlook: One of our favorite side stories to the 2018-19 college hoops season was the tiff between Samford coach Scott Padgett and longtime official Karl Hess, in which Hess appeared to challenge the 6’9, 240-pound head coach to a fight. Padgett’s incredulous response – “Are you stepping to me right now?” – became a Samford mantra, leading to a delightful clothing line featuring Padgett and that quote. Regarding actual basketball, though, Samford struggled against the SoCon’s tremendous top four, going a collective 1-8 against Wofford/Furman/ETSU/UNCG en route to a disappointing 6-12 league record.
If you read past the record, though, the Bulldogs’ progress was highly encouraging. Their KenPom ranking settled at 144, a full 154 spots higher than the disastrous 2018 campaign that ended 298th, and four starters return to mount a challenge atop the league. The linchpin is Josh Sharkey, a lightning-quick point guard and one of the best passers in all of college basketball. Samford ran some form of pick-and-roll on 38.8% of its possessions, per Synergy, the third-highest percentage in the country, and Sharkey had the rock for nearly all of those (Myron Gordon also ran a few). He has legitimate ball security issues (averaged a whopping five turnovers per game), but given the offensive load he’s asked to carry, it’s not crippling (and his assist-to-turnover ratio was still 1.45).
Losing Ruben Guerrero will be massive blow to the defense, though. The 7-footer dominated the paint on both ends of the floor, shooting 61% from the floor and ranking second in SoCon play with a 9.3% block rate. The Spaniard’s ability to play at the Bulldogs’ accelerated tempo at his size was vital, and his individual impact was clearly measurable via Hoop Lens stats - specifically note the opponents’ 2FG% (SoCon games only):
Sharkey was a major tone-setter defensively, as well, ranking 19th in the country in steal rate at 4.3%, constantly occupying the nightmares of opposing ball-handlers. When he and Guerrero played together, the defensive impact was amplified, compared to disastrous results in any other alignment (again - conference only):
Padgett runs a ton of zone, primarily 2-3 with some matchup elements, and he lets Sharkey roam the perimeter mostly as he pleases, racking up deflections and steals. Because of this scheme, Samford can be vulnerable to hot-shooting teams, an issue that plagued them last year in a league with plenty of effective perimeter attacks. Without Guerrero, the Bulldogs probably line up two 6’8 forwards inside, including returning starter Robert Allen and Murray State transfer Jalen Dupree. Dupree can do some Guerrero-esque things (blocked 5.3% of shots at Murray, gobbled up offensive boards), but he simply will not have the same kind of defense-altering effect.
Meanwhile, Gordon will continue his role as secondary play-maker in the Bulldogs offense, while former Alabama transfer Brandon Austin and rising sophomore Deandre Thomas will stretch the floor around the Sharkey/Dupree or Sharkey/Allen PnRs. Allen flashed a shooting stroke during his freshman season, and he looks like a potential SoCon star down the road as he continues to develop. JUCO transfer Donte Tatum will likely earn some playing time behind Sharkey and Gordon, a physical guard who can lead a transition offense and cause some defensive mayhem, as well.
The wild card in Birmingham is Preston Parks, a volcanic scorer who comes from UT Martin and The Citadel. He will likely have to sit out this year, but if he’s able to obtain a waiver, he adds another dynamic dimension to an already intimidating Bulldog offense. KJ Davis, formerly of East Carolina, is also seeking a waiver, and he would add another multi-positional defender that would further allow Padgett to play aggressively on D.
Bottom Line: Bringing back Sharkey to guide the team on both ends is a major point in the Bulldogs’ favor, but Guerrero’s graduation could end up limiting the defense, despite Padgett’s pledge to amp up the defensive pressure. If Gordon, Austin, and Thomas (and possibly even Parks) can continue to provide complementary scoring, and Allen progresses in his sophomore season, Samford will be in plenty of shootouts this year. With Sharkey leading such an explosive perimeter group, few teams will want to step to Samford this year.
Key Returners: Ross Cummings, Ethan Stair, Djordje Dimitrijevic
Key Losses: Jaylen Stowe, Cory Kilby, Fardaws Aimaq (transfer), Marcus Cohen (transfer)
Key Newcomers: Maciej Bender (West Virginia), Diego Rivera, Kamar Robertson, James Glisson, Jeff Gary (UNCW)
Outlook: Out goes 11-year head coach Bob Hoffman – the man who beat Duke as a 14-seed! – and in comes Greg Gary, an assistant under Matt Painter at Purdue for the last ten years. The program’s 2014 switch to the SoCon from the Atlantic Sun immediately after that victory over the Blue Devils ended up dooming Hoffman, whose resounding success in the A-Sun (73-41 in league play) didn’t quite translate (46-44). Gary will actually be starting his second tenure as a Division I head coach – I mean, who could forget his storied two-year run at Centenary from 2008 to 2010, prior to the school retreating to Division 3?! And yes, I absolutely just wanted to bring up Centenary to bask in the glory of its nickname: the Gentlemen. The Gentlemen!
Gary enters a situation that features a prolific wing scoring trio, but little else. The Bears lack a clear answer at point guard after pass-first Marcus Cohen transferred, so until Fairfield transfer Neftali Alvarez is eligible next season, Mercer will likely employ the “PG by committee” approach. Thankfully, Gary brings a motion offense from Purdue that is not reliant on a single dynamic guard creating plays, instead using precise off-ball movement and screening to generate open shots.
That’s good news for Ross Cummings, the Bears’ clear alpha, and fellow wings Ethan Stair and Djordje Dimitrijevic. Cummings may have something of a “Carsen Edwards Lite” role this year, as his deep range and quick trigger plus sneaky ability off the bounce will be deadly coming off an intricate network of screens. Stair is a smooth operator from deep as well, while Dimitrijevic is probably the closest thing to a driver/creator as the team has returning. Those three help juice the Bear offense when they play together, but unfortunately, the defense falls off at nearly the same rate:
That means the Bears will need immediate contributions from their many newcomers. Most notable among them is Maciej Bender, a 6’11 bruiser from the Bob Huggins school of Beat Your Opponent to a Pulp. Coming from one of the most physical teams in the Big Ten, Gary will be pleased to have the massive Polish man enforcing his will inside, and Brazilian sophomore Victor Bafutto provides depth (and more international flavor). Luke Hamilton is a Grady Eifert-type as a stretch four, while freshman James Glisson is a bouncier, more athletic option at power forward.
Gary may also try to solve the point guard issues with freshmen, as Alvarez’s old teammate at Miami Christian High School, Diego Rivera, arrives after a big senior season and Atlanta product Kamar Robertson is a smart passer with nice change of pace abilities. Gary has hinted at playing smallball with Stair shifting down to a forward, opening up a spot in the lineup for one of the freshmen or sophomores Daniel Love, who had wildly up-and-down first year, or Jeff Gary, the coach’s nephew.
Bottom Line: Hoffman was a very good coach, but the administration ultimately felt a new direction was necessary. You know a guy off the Matt Painter coaching tree will bring physical man-to-man defense (Purdue went zone a laughable 0.1% of the time last year), but the intricate offensive system may take time to implement. Painter’s best teams had plenty of experience within the scheme, able to read and react to what defenses tried to take away. Cummings and Stair will be constant threats on the outside, potent enough to steal some games against better teams when they’re both hot, but I’d guess Gary takes a little bit to fully make his imprint on the program and the SoCon.
7. Western Carolina
Key Returners: Kameron Gibson, Matt Halvorsen, Carlos Dotson, Onno Steger, Marcus Thomas
Key Losses: Marc Gosselin
Key Newcomers: Mason Faulkner (Northern Kentucky), Xavier Cork, Nick Evtimov, Tyler Harris, Travion McCray, Ahmir Langlais
Outlook: Mark Prosser’s first year at Western Carolina was a forgettable one, as the Catamounts managed a meager seven wins, the program’s fewest since 2003. The son of the late Skip Prosser, Mark made some beneficial changes to the offensive system, but a lack of high-level athleticism and a banner year for the conference relegated the Cats to a three-way tie for last in the league. WCU does return nearly 83% of its minutes, though, potentially setting the stage for a much-improved year two
The main issue with returning so many minutes is that the athletic limitations will remain, unless multiple of the newcomers seize playing time. WCU was shredded on the defensive end, particularly on the perimeter, as the SoCon’s bevy of scoring guards found open shots early and often against Prosser’s pack line scheme. The Catamounts ranked 350th nationally in block rate, 352nd in 2P% defense, and 346th in steal rate, all of which support the “lack of quickness and above-the-rim shot-blockers” that so clearly affected the Cats’ defensive ceiling.
Matt Halvorsen is a steady presence in the backcourt, but he will shift to more of an off-ball role with the arrival of Northern Kentucky transfer Mason Faulkner, a quicker, more natural option at PG and much more of a pest on the perimeter. And freshman forwards Xavier Cork and Ahmir Langlais can help solve some of the interior defensive issues with their size and bounce, though playing either one alongside returning star Carlos Dotson might doom the offense unless Cork’s perimeter shot continues to develop.
Prosser’s predecessor, Larry Hunter, often sprinkled in some zone as both a wrinkle and as a mechanism to help offset WCU’s athletic shortcomings, but Prosser went man on 99.7% of possessions per Synergy, insisting on establishing a new identity rather than conforming to the roster at hand. That means the individual defenders, including Halvorsen, Faulkner, and 6’3 wings Kameron Gibson and Marcus Thomas will need to do a much better job of keeping their man in front of them.
As much as the defense struggled, Prosser’s changes on the other end did help the Catamounts improve by nearly 90 spots in KenPom’s AdjOE rankings. He smartly spread the floor more around Dotson, a brute of a big man at 6’7, 265 pounds. Dotson shot 60% from the floor and ranked in the country’s top 50 in both offensive and defensive rebound rate, using his size and strength to maul defenders. He proved effective in a variety of play types – post ups, PnR roll man, isolation – and he’s the key to unlocking the Cats’ horde of outside shooters.
Halvorsen and Gibson each hit more than 70 threes, and rising senior Onno Steger wasn’t far behind with 65 makes of his own. Faulkner adds another scoring option, and his quickness and vision should open things up even more for the rest of the roster. Steger may slide down and play some stretch four, but Prosser will hope sophomore DJ Myers or one of freshman Tyler Harris or Nick Evtimov can earn the primary power forward job and provide more size and versatility. Evtimov spent the summer with France’s U19 team at the FIBA World Cup, and that experience could give him a leg up in earning immediate minutes in Cullowhee (editor’s note: that’s where Western Carolina is!).
Bottom Line: With Dotson dominating the paint, a lethal group of perimeter shooters, and a significant point guard transfer in Faulkner joining the fold, Western Carolina is a near-lock to improve on last year’s 7-25 (4-14) campaign. The swing factor will be how much the newcomers can help boost the porous defense and force opponents into more difficult shots. Catamount opponents converted 67.3% of their shots at the rim, 343rd in the country, per hoop-math, underscoring just how dire that situation is. Still, Prosser should have a better feel for how to construct his defense in year two, and the offense will be capable of going off on any night.
Key Returners: Ramon Vila, David Jean-Baptiste, Maurice Commander, Jonathan Scott, Justin Brown
Key Losses: Jerry Johnson (grad transfer), Kevin Easley (transfer), Donovann Toatley (transfer), Thomas Smallwood
Key Newcomers: Trey Doomes (West Virginia), Matt Ryan (Vandy), AJ Caldwell (South Alabama), Rod Johnson (JUCO)
Outlook: Around early mid-March 2019, the Chattanooga basketball program appeared to be firmly on the rise. Led by two freshmen, the Mocs had managed a decent 7-11 record in a hyper-competitive SoCon and nearly knocked off perennial threat East Tennessee State in the conference tournament. With nearly everyone back from that team and some impending leaps from two rising sophomores, optimism abounded. But then both of those freshmen, Kevin Easley and Donovann Toatley (plus veteran Jerry Johnson) transferred, leaving the Mocs in more of a limbo state entering 2019-20.
Chattanooga is coached by Lamont Paris, formerly a Bo Ryan (and Greg Gard) assistant at Wisconsin for seven seasons, and his background certainly has been apparent through his first two seasons in charge. The Mocs play at a glacial pace offensively, walking the ball up the floor and getting into Bo’s (and my) beloved Swing offense. Like so many Badger teams in the past, the Mocs end a ton of possessions in post ups (and cuts/spot ups derived from post ups), looking to take advantage of the mismatches that the frequent “screen the screener” action creates. Ramon Vila took advantage of these opportunities, scoring 0.954 points per possession (79th percentile in the country), and he’ll have even more this year with Easley gone.
Easley’s likely replacement in the starting lineup, Vandy grad transfer Matt Ryan, won’t be the same kind of complementary post option, but he does have a clear strength to his game: perimeter shooting. He’ll stretch the floor against opposing bigs anxious to help on Vila inside, having hit 37% of his 386 career attempts. David Jean-Baptiste and Jonathan Scott also have potent strokes from the wing, and they’ll play plenty if they continue to knock down shots.
They’ll compete with late waiver addition Trey Doomes, more of an attack-minded player on both ends of the court, but one that offers unique athletic upside for a team that doesn’t necessarily have much of that in the backcourt. He immediately becomes the team’s best slasher and perimeter defender, and although his shot is a question mark, Paris won’t be able to keep someone with his athleticism and talent (former consensus top 150 recruit) off the floor.
The largest worry for the Mocs is point guard play. Paris’s system leads to a ton of late shot clock situations, meaning sophomore Maurice Commander will face a heavy burden to create shots via pick-and-roll. He took a back seat to Toatley last year, and unless he makes major strides (or Jean-Baptiste/Doomes handle the ball more), the offense will struggle when the initial action sputters. The Mocs were also decidedly un-Wisconsin-like with turnover issues last year, but that’s likely a result of playing two freshmen as primary ball-handlers. Commander needs to showcase increased court awareness and decision-making to get promoted to (Floor) General (if you thought I wasn’t making a “point guard named Commander” joke, I don’t know what to tell you - this is who I am).
Defensively, the Mocs are what you’d expect of a Bo Ryan-influenced team: man-to-man, conservative (rarely forcing turnovers) but physical and disciplined, forcing opponents into isolation possessions and running them off the three-point line. Doomes will be a difference-maker, although the scheme change from Huggins to Paris is like moving from the heart of the Las Vegas Strip to a quiet Midwestern farm. The big man combination of Justin Brown and Vila can really shrink the floor with their combined size, but lineups with those two will struggle to score, as well.
Bottom Line: Easley (to TCU) and Toatley (to Monmouth) both skipping town hurts the outlook this year, but Paris did reload for the future by securing the commitments of Doomes, Wright St. wing Malachi Smith, and Cleveland State forward Stefan Kenic, the latter two of whom will sit this year. This season’s core may take some lumps, but adding those two with Doomes, Vila, Jean-Baptiste, Brown, and a more experienced Commander portends good things for the Moc program.
9. The Citadel
Key Returners: Connor Kern, Kaiden Rice, Alex Reed, Hayden Brown, Kaelon Harris
Key Losses: Lew Stallworth, Zane Najdawi, Matt Frierson
Key Newcomers: Tyson Baptiste (CCSU), Fletcher Abee, Jackson Gammons, Rudy Fitzgibbons, Brady Spence, Stephen Clark
Outlook: Welcome to the “Military School Tier,” where The Citadel and VMI wallow in the depths of a league that gets more and more competitive every single year. “Duggar Ball” had us on our heels early last season, starting off 9-2 with wins over South Florida (they were good last year!), future Big South champ Campbell, Tubby Smith-coached High Point, and conference foe Mercer. Grad transfer Lew Stallworth ascended into the alpha role seamlessly, and Duggar Baucom’s boys looked to be sneaky SoCon contenders. Alas, the conference caught up to them, and the Bulldogs won just three of their final 19 games, tumbling to a cellar-dwelling 4-14 league record. As fast as they rose in our power ratings, they sank even more rapidly.
Still, we are decidedly pro-Duggar Ball here at the Weave – it’s a distinct style, and a smart one to play at a military school that might otherwise struggle to attract offensive-minded hoopers. Relatively speaking, last year was actually Baucom’s slowest team since his first year at VMI back in 2006: the Bulldogs ranked “only” 10th nationally in tempo, a surprising drop from the last five years. Still, pace and space will always define The Citadel as long as Baucom is at the helm:
They obviously still bombed away from three, and that 53.6% three-point attempt rate is the second-highest in his 14-year career.
With Stallworth and four-year starter Zane Najdawi gone, Duggar Ball needs new primary options. Tyson Baptiste is the likely point guard after starting 22 games at CCSU last year, but he’s almost the anti-Duggar Ball player, given his miniscule 11.2% usage. Returning shooter Connor Kern is a similar “lurk in the corner” kind of player, so that means the veterans willing to fire away will have plenty of chances to do so. Kaiden Rice isn’t going to create for others, but he will blaze the nets from deep if given a hint of room, and Alex Reed should see an expanded role, as well. Hayden Brown and Kaelon Harris are similar players as well-built wings who don’t shoot it well, but they do bring a tiny hint of defense to a team that isn’t terribly interested in such frivolities.
All of this is to say: the incoming freshman class will (need to) make an immediate impact. Fletcher Abee is absolutely lethal from all over the court; he made a staggering 358 threes in his high school career and shot 49% from deep as a senior, a sentence which just caused Baucom to drool all over his keyboard. Brady Spence is a thin but bouncy forward, perhaps filling some of Najdawi’s minutes, while Stephen Clark is built similarly but probably less ready to contribute. Two other smaller guards, Jackson Gammons and Rudy Fitzgibbons, sound like local beat writers for a minor league baseball team, but they will likely earn playing time immediately too for a coach who prefers a deeper rotation. Fitzgibbons in particular is a blur who is perfectly suited for The Citadel’s style of play.
Bottom Line: There’s little reason to discuss defense with the Bulldogs, as they’re consistently among the worst in the country at 2P% defense - too often, it’s a layup line. And that’s sometimes okay, because they’re far more interested in trying to outscore you than putting up a major resistance on D. That may be a problem this year, as there aren’t as many clear offensive weapons on which to rely. At minimum, though, Duggar Ball will be entertaining to watch, including Fletcher Abee starting his chase for Fletcher Magee’s three-point shooting records, and we are always supportive of such a team. Oh, and a reminder to fade them against athletic Power 6 competition early in the year (hello, @Georgia on 11/12) – it’s typically a bloodbath.
Key Returners: Garrett Gilkeson, Myles Lewis, Greg Parham, Tyler Creammer, Jake Stephens
Key Losses: Bubba Parham (transfer), Sarju Patel (transfer), Jordan Ratliffe (injury + transfer), Austin Vereen (injury + transfer)
Key Newcomers: Sean Conway, Kamdyn Curfman, Travis Evee
Outlook: With a promising rising sophomore class and a few season veterans, last year looked to be one of progress for VMI. In fact, on this very site, my colleague Ky McKeon went so far as to say the Keydets could rise all the way to eighth in the 10-team SoCon! For a team that hasn’t been better than 4-14 in the league since 2015, that counts as clear progress. Unfortunately, season-ending injuries to presumed starting wings Jordan Ratliffe (torn ACL) and Austin Vereen (wrist surgery) depleted the lineup from day one, and the Keydets once again went 4-14 (thanks to a three-game winning streak to end the year). Still, the VMI administration must still see some intrinsic improvement, because they extended coach Dan Earl through 2021-22 despite a 35-87 (15-57) record over four years.
Things may not get any easier this season, either. Star scorer Bubba Parham took his talents to the ACC and Georgia Tech, while both injured guards and part-time starter Sarju Patel joined him in packing their bags. For an offense that was so reliant on Bubba Ball to get buckets – Earl allowed his tiny terror to push the tempo at will – this year’s edition may struggle to put points on the board. Unrelated returner Greg Parham and freshman Kamdyn Curfman will probably share the all-important lead ball-handling duties, with Myles Lewis and Garrett Gilkeson rounding out the four-guard starting lineup. Lewis is the featured player here, though his proclivity for firing mid-range jumpers hamstrings his ability to play efficient basketball.
Despite being an Ed DeChellis disciple (played for and coached under the current Navy boss), Earl is far more willing to play fast and use the three-pointer as a weapon (DeChellis does neither). As I mentioned in The Citadel preview, that’s probably a smart move at a military academy, where an intriguing style of play could help snare recruits who might otherwise be turned off by the rigorous demands of the lifestyle. Two more of those recruits, guards Sean Conway and Travis Evee will play right away thanks to their offensive abilities; Conway is a bigger, more versatile scorer, while Evee is a bomber who nailed 104 threes as a senior for Vermont Academy.
The biggest issue with VMI is that it’s hard to see how the defense isn’t doomed to being awful. Neither of the team’s centers (Jake Stephens and Tyler Creammer) are effective rim protectors, and many of the guards are too slow or too slight to keep opposing drivers in front of them. Earl essentially makes a choice with his bigs: all in on offense with Stephens’ perimeter stroke, or battle on the defensive glass with Creammer’s larger frame. Plus, the four guard lineup has obvious size limitations, and playing Will Miller as a second big disrupted the offense too much.
At the very least, though, I’ll leave you with this strangely charming picture of the new class of Keydets:
Bottom Line: Had the Keydets not lost that group of four guards to transfer, I might have matched Ky last year and placed them eighth in these standings. Unfortunately, the dynamic Parham is now under Josh Pastner’s wing, and the remaining roster is young and/or struggled last year. As a result, I unfortunately foresee another 4-14 (or worse) campaign for VMI, despite what the administration sees in Earl and his program.