O26 Top Five (and More), Because It’s Never Too EarlyPosted by Tommy Lemoine on April 7th, 2014
Don’t look now, but college basketball season is only seven months away! Sure, this one hasn’t technically ended yet, but with Dayton respectably bowing out in the Elite Eight and only one game left to play between two power conference teams, O26 folks need something to look forward to. So let’s examine a few teams sure to make some noise in 2014-15.
- VCU. The Rams lose Juvonte Reddic – the team’s leading rebounder, second-leading scorer and an unquestioned leader – along with Rob Brandenberg, who’s been a reliable offensive weapon for the past four years. Still, contrary to what folks in Milwaukee had us recently believing, it does not appear they will lose Shaka Smart to another program. And that’s a victory in itself. The coveted head coach will remain in Richmond to lead a group that could be even better than this year’s unit, which grabbed a #5 seed in the NCAA Tournament and ranked sixth overall in adjusted defensive efficiency. Dynamic weapon Treveon Graham returns along with quick-handed guard Briante Weber and a cast of other players capable of wreaking HAVOC in 2014-15. To boot, Smart welcomes his best recruiting class yet, led by top-50 forward Terry Larrier, who should see significant playing time right away.
- Wichita State. Star forward Cleanthony Early graduates along with role player Nick Wiggins and forwards Chadrack Lufile and Kadeem Coleby, so Wichita State will miss some big-time pieces next year. But the Shockers still return a solid core from this season’s 35-1 squad, including point guard and Missouri Valley Player of the Year Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker, Tekele Cotton and Darius Carter. The frontcourt might be a bit thin – redshirt freshman Shaq Morris and incoming seven-foot transfer Bush Wamukota need to contribute alongside Carter – and Early (a likely NBA first-rounder) is probably irreplaceable, but Gregg Marshall has always relied more on balance and depth than he has on individual talent. Another conference title and single-digit seed in the NCAA Tournament should be doable for next season’s bunch.
- San Diego State. Can the Aztecs contend for the Mountain West title next year without Xavier Thames? Why yes, yes they can. Sure, the conference Player of the Year was their only reliable offensive threat for much of this past season, and yeah, rebounding maven Josh Davis also graduates. But Steve Fisher welcomes back a core of long-armed athletes, including NCAA Tournament stud Dwayne Polee and 6’10’’ shot-blocker Skylar Spencer, along with a top-notch recruiting class. Among the incoming freshmen are five-star forward Malik Pope, four-star forward Zylan Cheatham and four-star point guard Trey Kell, each good enough to find minutes right away. Oh, and Arizona transfer Angelo Chol, an athletic 6’9’’ power forward, will also be eligible after sitting out this season.
- Gonzaga. David Stockton led the team in assists and Sam Dower was one of the most efficient big men in the country in 2013-14, so next year will be an adjustment for Gonzaga. But the rest of the backcourt – led by Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. – remains intact, while year three of Przemek Karnowski should mean good things down low. That trio alone accounted for nearly 47 percent of the Bulldogs scoring this season. Throw in the arrival of Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer, an improved Kyle Dranginis (small forward who scored 12 points against Oklahoma State in the NCAA Tournament) and a solid recruiting class – including four-star guard Josh Perkins – and Mark Few’s club has a legitimate chance to be better next season.
- UNLV. Since recruits and transfers tend to matter in college basketball, UNLV belongs on this list. The Rebels took a hit when Bryce Dejean-Jones announced his decision to transfer and Roscoe Smith declared for the NBA Draft, but the return of Khem Birch, Deville Smith, Jelan Kendrick and others, along with incoming San Francisco transfer Cody Doolin, will make Dave Rice’s group a Mountain West contender next season. The addition of three highly-coveted recruits, including wing Rashad Vaughn – a McDonald’s All-American – should propel UNLV back to the NCAA Tournament.
- Harvard. Tommy Amaker spurned Boston College and will likely remain at Harvard, which is great news for a program fresh off another NCAA Tournament victory. Seniors Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey depart, but their absence a year ago enabled guys like Siyani Chambers and Steve Moundou-Missi to flourish over the past two seasons. Along with Ivy League Player of the Year Wesley Saunders, Chambers, Mondou-Missi and a stable of talented frontcourt contributors – including 6’8’’ Kenyatta Smith, who missed this year with a foot injury – round out a roster good enough to get back to the Dance and do more damage. Sharpshooting guard Laurent Rivard will be tough to replace, but the arrival of highly-touted recruits Chris Egi and Andre Chatfield should help further mitigate the graduating offensive production.
- Louisiana-Lafayette. If Elfrid Payton returns for his senior season – he currently projects as a first-rounder – the Ragin’ Cajuns will be scary next year. The 6’3’’ point guard posted 19 points, six rebounds and six assists per game this season, which might not have been the best stat line on his own team: power forward Shaun Long averaged a double-double and nearly three blocks per night. The inside-outside combination of Payton and Long will make UL-Lafayette a Sun Belt favorite in 2014-15, while sharpshooting guard Xavian Rimmer could be the X-factor that makes Bob Marlin’s club a Cinderella threat next March.
- Toledo. Aside from wing Rian Pearson, every other starter returns for a team that won 27 games this season. Incoming Mississippi State transfer Dre Applewhite (eligible in December) could be solid a replacement for Pearson, while the further improvement of point guard Juice Brown and center Nathan Boothe should make Toledo the MAC favorites. Versatile transfers Justin Drummond and J.D. Weatherspoon each averaged over 10 points and five boards per game for the Rockets in 2013-14, and both will be back for another year.
- UTEP. Seem like a stretch? Perhaps. But the Miners suffered some serious attrition last season, forcing Tim Floyd to work with a short bench and several very young players and yet they still won 23 games. Those young guys – like super-athletic freshman Vince Hunter – will have both in-game experience and a summer of improvement under their belts next year. Plus, Floyd welcomes in a solid recruiting class that includes several three-to-four-star caliber players. The frontcourt will miss leading rebounder John Bohannon, but 7’1’’ freshman starter Matt Willms should be even better as a sophomore in 2014-2015. Expect UTEP to finish near the top of the Conference USA standings.
- Dayton. The very depth and balance that carried Dayton to the Elite Eight this season should make it an Atlantic 10 contender in 2014-2015. The Flyers lose Devin Oliver, Vee Sanford and Matt Kavanaugh to graduation, but since Archie Miller played 10 to 12 guys a night this year, a slew of proven contributors return. Among them are leading scorer Jordan Sibert and skilled forward Dyshawn Pierre. Incoming freshman guard Darrell Davis, who received offers from several high-major programs, will also join the fold. With Saint Louis, Saint Joseph’s and others expected to take steps back next season, Dayton should finish near the top of the league and be in contention for another at-large NCAA Tournament bid.