Previewing Tight Races in the Mid-Majors: Part IPosted by Will Ezekowitz on November 2nd, 2016
In this NCAA Basketball preview season, we are bombarded with lists. One common list is that of the trendy mid-major ready to wreak havoc on an unsuspecting college hoops world. Unfortunately, some of these high-quality teams find themselves in the same conference staring each other down for scarce March Madness bids. No mid-major is ever guaranteed an invitation to the Field of 68, of course, no matter how impressive it looks in November and December. Just ask the 2015-16 iterations of Monmouth and St. Mary’s about that. In this preseason post we will analyze several mid-major conference races that should be two-horse races, with details on each team, why they will (or not), and a bonus sleeper who isn’t yet in the conversation. Part I covering the WCC and Atlantic 10 will publish today. Part II on the Ivy League and MAAC will release later this week.
West Coast Conference—Saint Mary’s vs. Gonzaga
- Who they are: Randy Bennett’s team came out of absolutely nowhere last year to become an offensive juggernaut, and the Gaels return every important piece from that 29-6 team. All six returning perimeter players are above average three-point shooters, with junior Aussie guard Emmett Naar looking an awful lot like the next Matthew Dellavedova and Joe Rahon acting as a capable secondary playmaker. On the inside, Dane Pineau is ruthlessly efficient and productive, and his backup Jock Landale is no slouch either. The Gaels play at a glacial pace and they don’t beat themselves.
- Why they will win: This is going to be one of the most efficient offenses in college basketball once again. Last year’s team went 29-6 and last year’s team is essentially this year’s team with another year of experience. The Gaels could be second weekend good.
- Why they will lose: If we learned anything last year, it is that St. Mary’s has no margin for error with Gonzaga also in the conference. The defense has to be good enough to compete and the outside shots have to fall. Otherwise, the Gaels may be on the outside looking in once again.
- Who they are: How do you replace players like Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis? A great start would be to add Nigel Williams-Goss, a second team all-Pac-12 point guard two years ago, Jordan Matthews, who averaged 13 points per game for Cal last year, and Jonathan Williams, who logged 12 points and seven rebounds per game at Missouri two years ago. That might do the trick. The backcourt of Williams-Goss (an immediate WCC Player of the Year favorite) and Matthews immediately displace last year’s starters, Silas Melson and Josh Perkins, giving Mark Few great backcourt depth. Polish center Pzremek Karnowski, who is back for a fifth season after injuries cut last year short, anchors the frontcourt. There’s a lot to replace up front (including wings Eric McLellan and Kyle Dranginis), but the pieces are already in place for another great year in Spokane.
- Why they will win: Williams-Goss experienced plenty of success as a sophomore in the Pac-12, and as a redshirt junior he should be ready to dominate the WCC. Each of Mark Few’s last six teams have ranked among the top 50 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and there’s no reason to think that this year’s team will be an exception.
- Why they won’t win: Even though we are entering an era of position-less basketball, the only small forward on this roster is a walk-on and the only power forward is Williams.
- Third team that could spoil it all: BYU. Nick Emery and T.J. Haws may just achieve more than their brothers did at BYU when it’s all said and done –it just is unlikely to happen this year.
Atlantic 10—Dayton vs. Rhode Island
- Who they are: A team full of high-powered guards and wings, Dayton isn’t necessarily the team you’d expect. Charles Cooke and Scoochie Smith can score with anyone, and Kendall Pollard (though often inefficient) can put up big numbers too. Last year’s team didn’t start a single player over 6’6” and this year’s team is unlikely to as well. But don’t put Archie Miller’s Flyers into a box based upon their height and scoring ability. The reason Dayton was a #7 seed last year was the nation’s 15th-best defense featuring the nation’s sixth-best defensive rebounding rate. The only major contributor no longer around is Dyshawn Pierre; Bradley transfer Josh Cunningham will step in to replace him.
- Why they will win: Led by Cooke, this team will start four senior guards. You know the Flyers will defend well. You know Archie Miller is a great coach. And they’re probably better than last season’s group that earned a #7 seed.
- Why they will lose: Last year’s team was close to the D-I average in offensive efficiency, and mostly the same group returns. If the Flyers can’t improve that metric to at least the top 75 nationally, winning the competitive Atlantic 10 could be a lot to ask.
- Who they are: This team has seemed ready to break out forever. Last year was supposed to be the year that the Rams did so, but superstar combo guard E.C. Matthews blew out his knee a mere 10 minutes into the season before more nagging injuries dogged them to a 9-9 conference finish. The silver lining to those injuries is that the absence of Matthews allowed underclassmen Jarvis Garrett and Jared Terrell to play huge minutes last season. Hassan Martin is the best interior defensive presence in the Atlantic 10, and Kuran Iverson is a double-double waiting to happen. Dan Hurley has consistently delivered good defensive teams throughout his career, and this year should be no exception.
- Why they will win: The pieces are there for a healthy E.C. Matthews to propel the Rams to greatness. Transfer Stanford Robinson received consistent minutes at Indiana for two years, and he’s the fourth-best guard on this team. If everything breaks just right, this is a Top 25 team.
- Why they will lose: We are giving last year’s team the benefit of the doubt because of its injuries, but the Rams need to really improve if they want to win the conference. While Matthews was a fantastic volume scorer in 2014-15, he wasn’t especially efficient and he’s returning to a team that finished outside the top 100 in offensive efficiency last year. The narrative is there for Rhode Island to make the leap, but it’s not a sure thing.
- Third team that could spoil it all: VCU: KenPom and Luke Winn’s preview models both like VCU as much as Rhode Island and Dayton. JaQuan Lewis is a great floor general, but the Rams’ roster does not appear as deep or talented as Dayton and Rhode Island.