O26 Programs on the Rise: Eight Teams Poised to Break Out

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on October 28th, 2016

On Monday, we brought you a list of under-the-radar O26 players primed for big seasons in 2016-17. This time around, we’re examining several programs on the cusp of making serious moves upward, either within their respective conferences or on the postseason stage.

  • Cal State Northridge – 2015-16 Record: 10-20 (5-11 Big West): Cal State Northridge (CSUN) may not have been very good last season, but it was certainly better after Kendall Smith became eligible in December. The UNLV transfer led the club in scoring (15.3 PPG) and was among the league’s best at drawing fouls. He, along with the team’s next four top weapons, all return — a fact which would alone be enough to portend improvement. Then consider what the Matadors added. Along with his intact roster, head coach Reggie Theus lured four high-major transfers—Darin Johnson (Washington), Dylan Johns (Texas A&M), Rakim Lubin (Connecticut), and Reggie Theus, Jr. (South Carolina)— each of whom bring positional size and talent to a squad already known for scoring points in the paint. If the pieces gel, CSUN can reverse its conference record and finish among the top four in the Big West.
One of the nation's top defensive units, College of Charleston may be smiling a lot in 2016-17. (kingkresse.com)

With one of the nation’s top defenses, College of Charleston could have a lot to smile about in 2016-17. (kingkresse.com)

  • College of Charleston – 2015-16 Record: 17-14 (8-10 Colonial Athletic): College of Charleston was defensively elite last season, and not just in the CAA—its adjusted defensive efficiency (93.3 AdjD) ranked 20th in the country, ahead of teams like North Carolina, Michigan State, and Oregon, among others. Then again, its offense ranked dead-last in the conference and among the 100 worst nationally. The return of nearly their entire roster, including CAA Rookie of the Year Jarrell Brantley (11.6 PPG, 7.3 RPG), should help the Cougars improve in that department, especially with an entire offseason to gel without the expectation of Canyon Berry’s return. If Earl Grant’s crew can put up just a few more points to complement that suffocating defense, look out. A conference title is within reach.

  • Eastern Michigan – 2015-16 Record: 18-15 (9-9 Mid-American): After an up-and-down 2015-16 campaign, there hasn’t been much chatter about Eastern Michigan this offseason. Perhaps there should be. The Eagles welcome back five of their top six scorers from the most efficient offensive unit Rob Murphy has had since taking over the program in 2012. That includes guard Ray Lee (15.1 PPG), who dropped 46 points against Miami (OH) last year, and forward James Thompson IV (14.8 PPG, 10.6 RPG), who logged 19 double-doubles on his way to MAC Freshman of the Year honors. Of course, last year’s squad happened to also be Murphy’s worst defensive unit, but the addition of 6’9″ Binghamton transfer Nick Madray should enable the former Syracuse assistant to insert more perimeter length atop his 2-3 zone. MAC West foes Northern Illinois and Ball State also return much of their rosters, but keep an eye on the Eagles.
  • Illinois State – 2015-16 Record: 18-14 (12-6 Missouri Valley): In a league that suffered more than its share of turnover this offseason—think Baker, VanVleet, and Balentine—Illinois State, with perhaps the league’s strongest trio of returnees, could be in position for a banner year. Point guard Paris Lee (11.1 PPG) and forwards Kyle McIntosh (10.9 PPG) and Deontae Hawkins (10.3 PPG) are each all-MVC-caliber players (Lee and McIntosh were named preseason first-teamers on Wednesday), while guard Tony Wills should bring another level of defensive toughness to the starting lineup. Depth may be an issue, especially for a club that’s relied so heavily on bench minutes over the years, but nearly every game on the Redbirds’ schedule—non-conference included—is plausibly winnable.
Cam Oliver and the Nevada Wolfpack are legitimate Mountain West contenders. (Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports)

Cam Oliver and the Nevada Wolfpack are legitimate Mountain West contenders. (Lance Iversen/USA TODAY Sports)

  • Nevada – 2015-16 Record: 24-14 (10-8 Mountain West): New head man Eric Musselman found immediate success in Reno last season, pacing Nevada to its first above-.500 campaign since 2013 and winning the CBI championship. Year two under the longtime professional coach should be even better. Not only does Musselman welcome back NBA-caliber forward Cam Oliver (13.4 PPG, 9.1 RPG, 2.6 BPG)—a legitimate Mountain West Player of the Year candidate—but he also adds former Missouri State guard Marcus Marshall, who averaged 19.5 PPG before transferring midway through the 2014-15 season. His scoring chops should adequately fill the void left by Marqueze Coleman (15.1 PPG), while point guard Lindsey Drew (son of Larry Drew) and versatile guard-forward D.J. Fenner (13.7 PPG, 4.6 RPG) help fortify a roster good enough to compete for the league crown. If the Wolfpack can pull a road upset at Saint Mary’s on college basketball’s opening night or knock off Washington in mid-December, expect to hear a lot about this team.
  • Liberty – 2015-16 Record: 13-19 (10-8 Big South): Before John Dawson became eligible last season, Liberty was 0-8 against Division I opponents, including a 15-point home loss to Southland Conference cellar-dweller Lamar. Once the Marquette transfer suited up, however, things turned dramatically for the better. The rock-solid guard helped lead the Flames to a 10-8 Big South record, including two victories over eventual league champion High Point—a massive improvement on the team’s 2-16 campaign the year before. With much of Liberty’s deep, youthful roster back, Dawson—the team’s leading scorer, rebounder and assist man—should help the Flames compete for a top-three conference finish and possible postseason bid. Veteran coach Ritchie McKay is (once again) doing work in Lynchburg.
  • North Dakota – 2015-16 Record: 17-16 (10-8 Big Sky): Shooting guard Quinton Hooker (20.2 PPG) ranked among the Big Sky’s best in a multitude of statistical categories last season, including offensive rating among often-used players (first), and three-point percentage (second). He, along with nearly every other contributor on North Dakota’s roster, is back. Assuming Hooker’s teammates (including a pair of solid JuCo additions) can catch up offensively, the no-longer-nameless Fighting Hawks have the depth and defensive chops to compete with league powerhouses Weber State and Montana. This is North Dakota’s best team since becoming eligible for the NCAA Tournament in 2013.
  • Siena – 2015-16 Record: 21-13 (13-7 Metro Atlantic): Monmouth will catch the headlines this season, and deservedly so. The Hawks are going to be really good. But so is Siena. In fact, with their top five scorers from 2015-16 rejoining the fold—including first team all-conference forward Brett Bisping (15.9 PPG,10.4 RPG) and MAAC Defensive Player of the Year Javion Ogunyemi (14.9 PPG, 2.1 RPG)—the Saints may well end up atop the league standings come March. Sophomore wing Nico Clareth (13.1 PPG, 3.4% steal rate) was something of an X-factor for Jimmy Patsos last year, so his return from offseason knee surgery will be key, but don’t be surprised if this team reaches its first NCAA Tournament since 2010. Early season road tilts against George Washington, Saint Bonaventure, and Florida Gulf Coast are all winnable.
Tommy Lemoine (250 Posts)

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