2011-2012 College Basketball Previews: The Little Guys

Basketball is back! Well, real basketball is back at least. Take my bias against the NBA for what it’s worth (I disliked the Association long before all this lockout crap), but it’s hard to deny how exciting the college game is from start to finish. And today, we’ll look at some of the teams that could make March very, very interesting. The small conferences are what I’ll focus on today, throwing out names that you’ll be hearing for the next 3 weeks and then not again until March during conference tournaments and then again during the Tournament as the victims or early-round beatings.

America East
Favorite: Boston University
Why would I call a team that’s losing their top scorer and American East Player of the Year John Holland to graduation to repeat as AE Champions? Well, the Terriers have the talent to replace Holland’s production in senior F Jake O’Brien (back from a foot injury that sidelined him last season) and fellow POY candidate G Daryl Partin (40.5% FG, 35.8% 3PT, 14.3 ppg last season) to form one of the most potent inside-out duos in the AE.
Contender: Stony Brook
The Seawolves are experienced and deep this season, returning four of five starters from last year. The focus of this team will be All-AE 1st teamer F Tommy Brenton (9.7 rpg in 2009-2010, missed last season with a knee injury). The other reason Stony Brook will be in the title hunt will be their defense. They sported the 9th-ranked field goal defense in the nation a year ago, even with most of the roster spending some part of the season injured. Their downside is a woeful 38% shooting from the field last year. Improve health and shooting and this team is there in March.
Darkhorses: Albany, Verrmont
Atlantic Sun
Favorite: Belmont
One of the easiest calls I had to make for these. The Bruins return all but two pieces of the 30-5 team that set the record for the most wins in A-Sun history. Defensively, they were stellar. Only Duquesne was better at forcing opponents to turn the ball over and they’ll be lead on the offensive side by preseason A-Sun Player of the Year G Ian Clark (12,2 ppg). Plus, they are deep. 11 Bruins averaged at least ten minutes a game last year and they lead the nation in bench points, averaging just over 40 a game. Will they be a threat to the big boys at the end of the year? Well they already played #6 Duke very close, falling by one point last Friday and then lost to #10 Memphis yesterday by 16 after staying with them for most of the game. They were the popular upset pick in last year’s Round of 64 only to have their glass slipper shattered by Wisconsin. You know they want another shot at the Cinderella title.
Contender: Jacksonville
Even after losing two seniors, their top two scorers, this is still an experienced team with clear leadership. They’re lead by junior PG Russell Powell, whose started all sixty-five games in his time at Jacksonville and lead the team in assists last year. Being thin down low could hold the Dolphins back, but this is a team that has shined when it counts. They’re coming off of back-to-back 20-win seasons and two postseason wins over the last two years.
Darkhorses: ETSU, Kennesaw State 
Big Sky
Favorite: Weber State
Two words: Damian Lillard. The junior guard and 2009-2010 league MVP is back after sitting out last year with a foot injury. Also, the Wildcats return two All-Big Sky 1st-teamers in Scott Bamforth (12.2 ppg) and Kyle Bullinger (6.3 rpg, conference best) to form the dominating frontcourt in the Big Sky. All the offensiver firepower have the Wildcats poised for their 4th conference title in the last six years.
Contender: Montana
Again, this depth issue I keep harping on is present for the Grizzlies. Eleven players are back from last year
s 21-win team, lead by junior G Will Cherry (All-Big Sky last year). They do lose their leading scorer, forcing Cherry or 7’0″ center Derek Selvig (10.1 ppg, 5.2 rpg) to step up and become the go-to scorer.
Darkhorse: Portland State
Big South
Favorite: UNC Asheville
The Bulldogs are the popular pick to repeat as conference champs, as they return four starters. More importantly, the backcourt duo of seniors Matt Dickey and J.P. Primm. Both are All-BSC 1st-teamers and two of the best playmakers in the league. UNCA needs 6’10” forward DJ Cunningham to stay healthy to remain a defensive presence but with a deep frontcourt bench, a repeat looks like a good bet.
Contender: VMI
The Keydets did and will do what they’ve been doing for the last few seasons, score, score and score some more. They lead the nation in scoring last year for the fifth straight season and could do it again. This is a team that has senior guard Keith Gabriel back to lead a team that sunk 11.3 threes a game. The big difference from past seasons is a defensive presence down low in 6’9″ DJ Covington, last year’s Big South Freshman of the Year. He lead the league with 2.3 blocks a game. 
Darkhorses: Coastal Carolina, Liberty
Big West
Favorite: Long Beach State
Another easy call. LBSU dominated the league last year and was onyl held out of the tournament because of a conference tournament upset. They return four starters and will be lead by senior guard Casper Ware, the first man to win both the Big West Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season. He averaged 17.2 points a game, shot 42% from the floor, and made 1.6 swipes a game. When you have three starters voted preseason first-team all-conference, your program is in pretty good shape.
Contender: Cal State Fullerton
Three starters are back from a team that underachieved last year. They boast the Big West’s Newcomer of the Year Andre Hardy and Sixth Man of the Year Isaiah Umipig and two more returning starters. The reason that they should improve is in the infusion of the transfers. Kwame Vaughn averaged 12.6 points two years ago at San Francisco and Omondi Amoke was a role player on the California squad that won the PAC-10 in 2009-2010. The talent to chase down the Beach is there. The question is can they turn potential into wins.
Darkhorses: UC Santa Barbara, UC Riverside
Ivy League
Favorite: Harvard
As thrilling as the one-game playoff was last season, there should be now extra game to keep the Crimson out of the NCAA Tournament this time. This finally looks like the year that Harvard breaks their Tournament drought, one that’s lasted since 1946. 6’8″ F and preseason Ivy Player of the Year Keith Wright leads all five starters back and all five of them averaged double-digit scoring. It’ll be tough to repeat a league-leading 47.5% field goal percentage,  but when you look at all the talent coming back and add in the League’s best recruiting class, it would not be out of the realm of possibility. 
Contender: Yale
Harvard’s top rival will also be the most likely team to take them down this year. A upperclassman-laden team lead by center Greg Mangano (16.3 ppg, 10. rpg) is also bringing along sophomore Jeremiah Kreisberg to take his place next season. Yale will grind down their opponents with their big physical play and hoe to repeat their Ivy League-best field goal defensive percentage (42%). Junior scorer Austin Morgan (12.6 ppg) will also help bring the offensive firepower needed to rise in the race for a title. 

Darkhorses: Princeton, Penn
MAAC
Favorite: Iona
I said earlier that when you have multiple players named to the preseason all-conference first team, you’re probably in good shape. Well, the Gaels are in just that position with G Scott Machado and preseason POY Michael Glover listed. Glover is also on the preseason Wooden watch list. Glover netted 21 double-doubles last year and was second in the country with 7.6 assists per game. They also dropped a leaguge-best 37.5% from behind the arc.

Contender: Fairfield
Two more of the preseason All-MAAC first team reside at Fairfield with G Derek Needham and F Rakim Sanders.They join two more returning starters to form one of the MAAC’s most experienced teams.They add two transfers (Desmond Wade from Houston and Rakim Sanders coming from Boston College) to a team that lead the MAAC in scoring defense (58.3 ppg) and this will be a very tough Stags team. Ask Providence how tough Fairfield will play this year. They took the Friars to the limit the other day.

Darkhorses: Rider, Loyola

MEAC
Favorite: Hampton
The Pirates have two important things going for them: momentum and their top two scorers returning. Darrion Pellum (17.5 ppg) and Kwame Morgan (16,1 ppg) will form the offensive core with a defensive unit that lead the league in blocks and field-goal defense (38.4% – 4th nationally). The experience is there too, with only one freshman and one sophomore in the rotation. 
Contender: Morgan State
Again with the All-conference members here. Forwards DeWayne Jackson and Kevin Thompson lead the Bears, who had a few missteps last season and had their run of conference titles snapped. They’ll look to get back to the Tournament on the back of Thompson (13.1 ppg, 9.1 rpg) and their rough defense that only allowed opponents to shoot 42.9% and 32.1% from beyond the arc. It’s that grinding defense and tough inside play that could get the Bears back to the Dance.

Darkhorses: Bethune-Cookman, Norfolk State

Northeastern
Favorite: Long Island 
The Blackbirds will lean on their two All-NEC big men to help carry them to back-to-back titles. Julian Boyd (13 ppg) and Jamal Olasewere (12.9 ppg) were integral parts of an offense that scored 82.7 points a game, the fourth-best mark in the nation. While they had to score that much in order to keep up (allowed 74.7 ppg, 306th), their perimeter defense was one of the best in the nation, allowing only 29.7% from three point land, 7th in the country. Junior Kenny Onyechi needs to help lead the defensive resurgence but this is still a powerful offense that should outrun most opponents.
Contender: Central Connecticut State
This one’s kind of conditional, since so much of the Blue Devils’ season rests on senior forward Ken Norton. The reigning NEC Player of the Year was a do-all player, averaging 19.5 points a game, 8.9 rebounds a game, 1.9 assists per game, 1.6 blocks a game and 1.4 steals a game. He’ll get plenty of help as well as two other starters return to a rotations that will go at least 9 deep and averaged 3.9 blocks a game. 
Darkhorses: Robert Morris, Wagner
Ohio Valley
Favorite: Austin Peay 
Player of the Year candidate Tyshwan Edmondson leads the Governors to the best shot they’ve got a the Tournament in several years. Edmondson lead the team in points, threes, and steals (17.1 ppg, 72, 60) and was right behind Morehead State’s Kenneth Faired. Now, Edmondson welcomes Anthony Campbell back after he missed all but ten games last season due to injury. Campbell was 4th in scoring in the OVC two seasons ago and looks ready to make an immediate impact in the lineup. Josh Terry will also contribute in the frontcourt as he’s a tenacious defender, even though he may be needed to step up and score a little more in the post. 

Contender: Tennessee Tech
The Golden Eagles are based on another OVC POY candidate in Kevin Murphy. The Senior averaged 17 points a game, but turned the ball over a little more than 3 times a game. Point guard Zac Swansey is a pass first guard who lead the OVC in assists and steals last season. He’s got amazing court vision and will have big targets in Jud Dillard and Zach Bailey. Basically, TTU just needs to make sure they hold onto the ball and extend possessions and they have a great shot at going to the Dance.
Darkhorses: Murray State, Tennessee State   
Patriot League
Favorite: Bucknell
The defending champs have last year’s Player of the Year back, along with three other starters. Mike Muscala returns to lead the Bison to back-to-back titles after posting a 14.9 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 2 bpg season. With so much talent back, he won’t have to worry about carrying the workload again. Senior guard Bryan Cohen returns after earning Defensive Player of the Year honors last season to form a potent backcourt with junior Bryon Johnson, who lead the PL with 99 tres made. Cameron Ayers will have to be ready to step up and fill a bigger role int eh rotation, but he proved himself as one of the more capable reserves last season
Contender: Lehigh
The Mountain Hawks will be lead by one of the nation’s top scorers in POY candidate C.J. McCollum. He was 9th nationally last year, dropping 21.8 points a game. He also led the Patriot League in steals (2.5 spg) and was 3rd in rebounds (7.8 rpg). He won’t have to do it all himself though, with junior guard Gabe Knutson back. He added 12.2 ppg last season. Role players will become even more valueable as Lehigh needs to improve their assist to turnover ratio and overall defense to make a serious run at the title. 
Darkhorses: Lafayette, Holy Cross
Southern
Favorite: Davidson
Can the Wildcats work their way back to the domination of the SoCon that they enjoyed a few seasons ago? Coming off of a 10-8 conference mark last year, they look poised to return to the top of the heap. Four juniors look ready to break through and lead the squad, centered around JP Kuhlman. Kuhlman, a preseason All-SoCon 1st teamer needs to improve his shooting percentage, but will have a talented trio in Jake Cohen and Nik Cochran. Cohen averaged 12.2 points a game last year and will be the big presence down low. Cochran has a shooters touch that really sparked runs last year, especially when he hit the big shots off the bench last season. Now that he’ll start in the backcourt, he’s a legit threat from downtown on every possession. 

Contender: Chattanooga
The Mocs will have to improve defensively before anything else. They were the 3rd worst in defending from the floor (74.4 ppg allowed) last year. However, they return four starters including Omar Wattad, a POY candidate at guard. Wattad (14.3 ppg last year) is a Georgetown transfer who was banged up for most of last year. PG Keegan Bell is one of the best passers in the SoCon, with the best court vision in the league. He’s a special distributor and should help by imporving his shooting as well (9.8 ppg). Chattanooga will have to improve on the glass as well, as Chris Early looks like the only rebounding threat in the post. A lot had to come together for the Mocs to walk away with a division title, but I’m seeing the pieces in place for that to happen. 

Darkhorses: College of Charleston, Wofford
Southland
Favorite: Texas – San Antonio
The Roadrunners look to take one more tournament title with them when they head to the WAC next season and they are in good shape to head head back to the Dance. While they lose point guard Devin Gibson, they do return four starters and make some good adds from the junior college ranks. They’ll be lead by guard Melvin Johnson III, who averaged 14.9 ppg and sunk 80 tres. Returning more than 75% of last year’s scoring and carrying over momentum from last season, that saw them win six straight elimination games before falling to Ohio State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. UTSA could be looking at another 20-win season and shouldn’t have to start their NCAA experience in Dayton this time around.

Contender: Northwestern State
Defense and depth are what the Demons do and it all starts in the middle with center William Mosely. Last season’s leading blocker (156) is the anchor in the pivot of a team that is quick and deep. They’ll need to punch up the offense though, as their best returner only averaged just under 9 points a game (Louis Ellis – 8.9 ppg).
Darkhorses: Lamar, Texas-Arlington
Summit League
Favorite: Oakland
The Golden Grizzlies have won the Summit for the last two years, going 17-1 in conference in that stretch. They lose Summit League Player of the Year Keith Benson, but the cupboard is far from bare. Three starters return, including Reggie Hamilton who was right behind Benson in scoring and shooting percentage and was second int eh league in assists per game with 5.3. This team is looking like the squad that was second in the nation in scoring last season and as always, they’re playing a brutal non-conference schedule with Alabama, Tennessee, Michigan and Arizona (3 top-15 teams), once again putting this team through a trial by fire.
Contender: Oral Roberts
If Oral Roberts wants to take the mantle of the Summit League back, preseason Player of the Year Dominique Morrison will have to lead them there. He averaged 19.5 points a game and is the type of wing that can take over a game and makes things happen. He’s not the only Golden Eagle who can shoot though. Four more starters return with Michael Craion leading the way. The 2009-2010 league Newcomer of the Year returns from a foot injury that held him out for almost all of last season. Damien Bell-Holter is an under-appreciated big man who averaged 7.8 rebounds a game (3rd best in the league). Even with a loaded squar, they still have to beat Oakland, a squad they haven’t downed since January 2009.

Darkhorses: IUPUI, South Dakota State

Sun Belt
Favorite: Florida Atlantic
The Owls look to be in pole position in the Sun Belt this year to repeat as champions. They return the league’s best backcourt, anchored by Player of the Year candidate Raymond Taylor (11.6 ppg, 3.9 apg) and sharpshooter Greg Gantt (14 ppg, 45.9% FG,). Both play much bigger than their frames. Seniors Shavar Richardson and Alex Tucker round out the guard rotation that could run a four guard set. This is a team that will push the pace and is one of the most accurate shooting teams in the conference.

Contender: Middle Tennessee
The Blue Raiders are becoming a mainstay at the top of the Sun Belt, a testament to the job long-time coach Kermit Davis had done here since 2002. No one player sticks out as the star, but the bench is so deep, with junior J.T. Sulton emerging as the team’s best scoring option. Jason Jones is the squad’s top returning scorer. MYSU will need to keep their defense up to last year’s pace. Opponents shot 42.6% against them, second-best in the Sun Belt.

Darkhorses: Arkansas State, Denver
At this point, the season will be over before I finish this so here’s the quick and dirty version of the last two small conferences. More coming on the mid-majors and the big boys this weekend and into next week. Yes, I know the season’s already in full swing, but conference play doesn’t start for two more months. That’s how I’m going to justify my laziness on this one…
 SWAC
Favorite: Mississippi Valley State
Contender: Jackson State
Darkhorses: Texas Southern, Alabama State

WAC
Favorite: Utah State
Contender: New Mexico State
Darkhorses: Hawaii, Nevada 

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