One of the regrets of our preview this season is that we could not tackle all 341 D-I teams in the detail we did for the teams in the power conferences. Generally speaking, this site will focus on the squads that have a chance to make an impact nationally, and the top conferences produce the vast majority of those teams. There’s one thing we knowm though: the rest of college hoops will produce a team or three that we’ll hear from in March.
(Ed. note: No, we haven't forgotten about the Big East. We'll have a preview of the megaconference up over the weekend.--JSS)
Finding the quality teams from the middle and lower parts of Division I is more difficult than figuring out who the best teams are in the upper reaches of college hoops. The team that was undoubtedly the best from the “other” conferences last season-–Butler-–was picked to finish sixth in the Horizon League by the conference’s own media. With that in mind, we present five teams that we think will win their conference and have a shot at making noise in March, knowing full well that we’ll have to be on the lookout for others that emerge during the season. With that in mind, I’ve added five more teams that could derail these conference favorites and enjoy some of their own March glory.
For the better part of the past decade, there’s been one team that’s easy to peg as an at-large candidate before the season starts, so let’s begin with them...
West Coast Conference: Gonzaga
’07 WCC Pythag wins: 11.2 out of 14 (1st)
Returning Minutes: 63.0%
‘08 Prediction: 12-2
It should be another stellar year for the Zags. They lose starting point guard Derek Raivio off last season’s roster, and reserve point guard Pierre Marie Altidor-Cespedes transferred to Marshall, so this team's experience resides up front. Junior center Josh Heytvelt returns after being suspended for the final nine games of last season. While Heytvelt should be the team’s top offensive threat–-he put up good numbers against good competition last season–-his defensive presence is also important. Combined with 6'9" senior Abdullahi Kuso, Gonzaga held opponents to just 43.9% on two-point shooting. This defense wasn’t saved for the weaklings of the WCC-–The Zags held their three ACC foes (North Carolina, Duke and Virginia) to a combined 36.5% on twos.
Unfortunately, opponents relied on threes and made a bunch. They also didn’t commit turnovers, which meant that Gonzaga’s defense overall was uninspiring, though improved over the recent Adam Morrison-led editions. Gonzaga also still has Micah Downs, who became eligible midway through last season after transferring from Kansas. Downs, at 6'8", should see a lot of minutes at the three. This will be a big team, and possibly a team with a defense that even confident offenses are not excited to face, something that hasn’t been seen for a while in Spokane. The starting backcourt will be 6'2" junior Jeremy Pargo and 6'5" sophomore Matt Bouldin. Expect a typical Gonzaga offemse under Mark Few, because this team should have no problem putting up points. A more effective defense would mean that the Zags will be seeded highly come March.
Potential foil: Saint Mary’s
’07 WCC Pythag wins: 9.1 out of 14 (3rd)
Returning Minutes: 76.8%
‘08 Prediction: 10-4
If any WCC team is going to end Gonzaga’s run at the top of the conference it will be Saint Mary’s. The Gaels may have the best defense in the league, and they certainly possess the most formidable shot-blocking duo in Diamon Simpson and Omar Samhan. Simpson is one of the most active players in the college game. He was the best shot-blocker in the WCC, as well as having excellent rebounding rates on both ends of the floor and a high steal rate. He is also hard to guard, getting to the free throw line 211 times last season. Samhan, who was the conference’s freshman of the year in ’07, might be following in Simpson’s footsteps in a year or two. He doesn’t yet possess the free throw and steal rates of Simpson, but he may be a more valuable offensive and rebounding weapon right now.
Horizon League: Butler
’07 Horizon Pythag wins: 14.4 out of 16 (1st)
Returning Minutes: 60.3%
‘08 Prediction: 14-4
The Bulldogs are the only team on this list that has a new coach this season. Todd Lickliter sought greener pastures in Iowa after pulling off one of the more surprising seasons last year, leading Butler to the Sweet 16. Lickliter’s top assistant, Brad Stevens, was the obvious choice to fill the vacancy. When you have an offensive system as successful as the one Lickliter built, you are pretty much obligated to keep one of his disciples around.
The typical Butler preview will point out that the Bulldogs return three starters. However, one of the departing starters, Brian Ligon, played just 18 minutes per game. His backup, Drew Streicher, played 23 mpg and will be back as a senior. Butler will be starting four seniors, possibly five if 6'7" forward Pete Campbell sticks in the starting lineup. Campbell made 51.9% of his three-pointers and took a whopping 32.3% of Butler’s shots when he played. Campbell embodies the Butler offense: he makes a bunch of threes, doesn’t commit turnovers (10 in 511 minutes) and doesn’t rebound (an OR% of 3.7 and a DR% of 10.7-–two-guard numbers).
Butler is dependent on its offense for success, and its offense is dependent on the three. Almost half of its shots come from three-point range, so Butler tends to be inconsistent, especially when you consider it plays at such a slow pace. On a good night in ’07 the Bulldogs could play with anybody, and on a bad night they could lose to Illinois-Chicago. This season shouldn’t be any different. If Butler can get back to the NCAA Tournament, it can do damage, but because the Bulldogs' resume will probably be flimsy come March, they might need to win the Horizon League tourney to punch a ticket.
Potential foil: Wisconsin-Milwaukee
’07 Horizon Pythag wins: 5.0 out of 16 (8th)
Returning Minutes: 80.5%
‘08 Prediction: 12-6
There’s a possible rags-to-riches story looming in Milwaukee, where third-year head coach Rob Jeter tries to rebound after a 9-22 campaign. Torre Johnson will play out his final year of eligibility after putting up impressive stats in limited minutes during his only season at Oklahoma State. The 6'6" forward shot 55.8% (eFG) while being the Cowboys most frequent per-minute shooter. With plenty of young talent, the Panthers are probably a year away from getting back to the tippy-top of the Horizon. However, if Johnson can cooperate with 6'3" wing Avery Smith, who took a prodigious 32.2% of the Panthers’ shots while he was on the floor, UWM’s offense should go from bad to acceptable. This scenario may be a long shot, though; Smith was suspended indefinitely for a violation of team rules before the team’s first exhibition game.
Southern Conference: Davidson
’07 SoCon Pythag wins: 15.6 out of 18 (1st)
Returning Minutes: 100.0%
‘08 Prediction: 18-2
Last season, Davidson surprised the Southern Conference by dominating the league with a young team. It returns everybody for 2008 and therefore should be just as good, if not better. That doesn’t necessarily mean the team will roll through the SoCon with the same ease as last season. Like any team that posts a one-loss conference record, the Wildcats needed a little luck to attain that mark. They finished with 17 conference wins, when their point differential suggested something like 15.6. Most readers should be familiar with sophomore shooting guard Stephen Curry, who saved his best for the national stage with a 30-point performance in a first-round NCAA Tournament loss to Maryland. Davidson will have an opportunity to position itself for an at-large bid with early games against North Carolina, Duke, UCLA, Charlotte and NC State. One interesting thing about Davidson is that because it rebounds and forces turnovers so well, opponents’ shooting was often an unimportant statistic in assessing how well the Davidson defense played.
Potential foil: Appalachian State
’07 SoCon Pythag wins: 14.6 out of 18 (2nd)
Returning Minutes: 54.7%
‘08 Prediction: 14-6
It’s a little deceiving that App State loses nearly half of its ’07 minutes, because it will get more playing time from 6'8" senior Donte Minter. Minter averaged 11.5 points and five rebounds in just 20 minutes per game last season, his first in the SoCon after transferring from Virginia. He was able to post absurdly good shooting and defensive rebounding stats in addition to a solid block rate during his part-time duty. However, it would take an intervention for Davidson to come back to the pack of the conference, especially given the league's new 20-game schedule, which will take more luck out of the regular-season race.
Colonial Athletic Association: George Mason
’07 CAA Pythag wins: 12.4 out of 18 (3rd)
Returning Minutes: 90.4%
‘08 Prediction: 14-4
Mason slipped back into obscurity in ’07, but in the context of the CAA the Patriots weren’t a disappointment. They had realistic hopes of taking the CAA tourney in March, winning three straight in Richmond before falling to VCU in the title game. The Patriots were one of the most unfortunate teams in the country, ranking as the 26th unluckiest using Dean Oliver’s bell curve method. Mason loses only one contributor from last season’s roster--reserve defensive specialist Gabe Norwood. In returning all five starters, it has two, Will Thomas and Folarin Campbell, who have started a Final Four game, which makes GMU one of just four teams in the country to have more than one Final Four starter on their roster. The Final Four run was certainly a fluke for a few reasons, but there is also evidence that the mediocre record in ’07 was just as much of an anomaly in the other direction. Watch for the Patriots to rebound this season.
Potential foil: VCU
’07 CAA Pythag wins: 14.0 out of 18 (2nd)
Returning Minutes: 65.1%
‘08 Prediction: 11-5
The CAA is George Mason’s to lose, but if any team will topple Mason, it’s VCU, which captivated a segment of the nation by knocking off Duke in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and then taking Pitt to overtime in the second round. The Rams return their point guard, Eric Maynor, whose stock skyrocketed during that week in March. Just as important, the Rams also retained the services of their head coach, Anthony Grant, who was widely assumed for a few days in April to be headed back to Florida after his initial season at VCU. The problem for Grant is that his two best offensive players, B.A. Walker and Jesse Pellot-Rosa, exhausted their eligibility. There’s no knocking Maynor’s game, but he was a better distributor than scorer. He took the vast majority of his shots from two-point range and made just 43% of those attempts. VCU had one of the country’s best offenses at any level last season. If Grant figures out a way to maintain that, his return to Richmond for year three would seem to be unlikely.
Mid American Conference: Akron
’07 MAC Pythag wins: 13.2 out of 16 (1st)
Returning Minutes: 69.3%
‘08 Prediction: 12-4
It’s true: the Zips were nearly unbeaten heading into the MAC Championship game. Akron’s season ended there with a one-point loss to Miami in the MAC semi-finals. At that point, the Zips’ six losses were by a total of 24 points, including one in overtime. More sadly, Akron’s season really did end at that point–-it didn’t even get an invite from the NIT. As the MAC’s best team, winning the more difficult East division with a 13-3 record, this was the ultimate post-season injustice of 2007. Akron isn’t getting much preseason respect (it was picked to finish 4th in the MAC East by the local media) because even though they lose just two contributors from last season’s team, they lose their two most famous ’07 players. The departure of point guard Dru Joyce and undersized--but very effective--forward/center Romeo Travis has lowered expectations for the Zips, but that doesn’t mean Akron won’t be a factor. MAC fans are already familiar with 6'6" senior Jeremiah Wood, who returned to action last season after missing a season and a half with a torn ACL. Wood healed completely and was a consistent scoring threat. Most impressively was his domination of the boards at both ends of the floor-–he was one of a dozen players to finish in the top 50 in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage.
Potential foil: Kent State
’07 MAC Pythag wins: 11.4 out of 16 (3rd)
Returning Minutes: 72.4%
‘08 Prediction: 11-5
As usual in the MAC, the league race is up for grabs, and Western Michigan and Toledo also have a legitimate shot at emerging as the best team. Kent State has one of my favorite players at any level-–Haminn Quaintance. Quaintance tore up the Atlantic Sun for one season while at Jacksonville, and he duplicated that activity in his first season in the MAC in ’07. Quaintance will get more minutes this season, and Kent State will continue to have an at-large quality defense (as they did last season). Points will probably still be hard to come by, though. Still, if there’s one thing we know about the MAC, it’s that the top of the league is balanced. Kent should be one of a few teams in the conference title hunt.
Ken Pomeroy is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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