Welcome back for some more AAC hoops talk here in the indefinite offseason. Try as I might, I could not find any cutesy/too clever by a half way of tying together Wichita State, the directional Florida schools, SMU and ECU beyond present conference affiliation.
What I found as I wrote about each of these 5 teams is that I really don’t have an earthly idea how 3rd through 11th is going to shake out whenever we are lucky enough to have college basketball back in our lives.
Stay safe out there friends and enjoy some hoops talk.
2019-20 Record: 23-8 overall, 11-7 AAC (4th)
Final KenPom Ranking: 39
Final NET Ranking: 41
While the last few weeks have put the meaning of ‘bad news’ in its proper perspective for everyone, there’s been basically nothing but bad news for Shocker fans the last couple weeks. This is in stark contrast to the beginning of the calendar year when the Shockers looked like a contender for the league title in the short and long term. They were incredibly young and had as much raw talent as any team coach Gregg Marshall’s had here.
The Shockers were a top 25 team in non-conference play, with their only loss coming on a neutral site to a good West Virginia team. They scored dominant wins over South Carolina and Oklahoma State away from home, along with a home win over Oklahoma. After a completely bonkers 89-86 double OT win on January 12 at UConn, the Shockers had a 15-1 overall record.
From that point on they finished the year 8-7, including 2 decisive losses to Houston and 3 more heartbreaking 1-possession losses in games involving Cincy and Tulsa. Marshall openly questioned his team after their 33-point loss at Houston and you could tell even though the Shockers still had a good chance to make the NCAA Tournament that something was off here. But this was still one of the youngest teams in the country and I figured guys like Erik Stevenson, Jamarius Burton, Grant Sherfield and Noah Fernandes would develop and eventually become the upperclassman core of a very good team in a year or two. Well, about that…
After it became clear the 2019-20 season was ending early, the wave of transfers began. At this point, Stevenson, Burton, Sherfield, Fernandes, Morris Udeze and DeAntoni Gordon are the scholarship players that have announced they’re leaving the Shocker program. As I write this, I am not even sure that will be the last of the transfers. The current group of transfers represents 5 of last year’s top 8 scorers and in total the departing players (transfers, plus graduating big man Jaime Echenique) represent over 65% of the team’s scoring output. Any mass exodus of players isn’t a good sign, but most of these guys came in as big recruits and that has to be salt in the wound for Marshall, his coaching staff and Shocker fans.
So, who is coming back to Wichita? The top 2 returning scorers are junior Dexter Dennis (9.2 pts/game, 5 rebs/game, 20 starts) and sophomore Tyson Etienne (9.4 pts/game, 38.8 3-pt FG %, 17 starts). Etienne was easily the team’s best high volume 3-point shooter and while Dennis had a tough sophomore season, he was one of the league’s better shooters as a freshman. Trey Wade, a JuCO bounceback who started his college career at UTEP, is the kind of guy who can match up with bigger guards or smaller forwards and leads all returners in rebounds. Isaiah Poor Bear Chandler and Asbjorn Mitgaard are both projected returning big men with fantastic names. But neither guy has proved they can play more than a handful of minutes per game. That’s it, those are the 5 returning scholarship guys.
Right now, WSU only has 1 prospect committed: JaDun Michael, a 4-star high school wing from North Carolina. I’d imagine Marshall and his staff will be aggressively trying to fill holes left by this wave of transfers. Although, trying to fill in for a large departing class is partly what got Marshall into this predicament in the first place as he tried to replace the enormous senior class (plus the early departure of Landry Shamet) from the 2017-18 team.
Not many coaches have a longer leash from their employer than Marshall, but with the amount of unknown about the 2020-21 team it’s hard to feel too confident the Shockers will return to the dance next year. At the same time, I have a hard time saying there’s no chance Marshall will keep this team in the top half of the league standings.
Confidence Interval: 5th to 9th
2019-20 Record: 19-11 overall, 9-9 AAC (7th)
Final KenPom Ranking: 88
Final NET Ranking: 88
In terms of conference wins and overall wins, SMU finally took a step forward this past season after a forgettable prior couple seasons. But this was still a very flawed Mustang team: specifically, when it came to the defensive end of the floor. While this was the best offensive team in AAC play, they were just barely not the worst defense.
No matter the team, you’re going to see some variance between home and road performance, but I don’t know if any team was more ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ than SMU. At Moody Coliseum the Mustangs were 15-2 overall and their only conference home loss was when they blew a 24-point lead in the final 13:39 of a game to Wichita State. Away from home they were 4-9 on the year, losing to both ECU and Tulane while going 1-8 in conference road games. Individual efforts from guys like Kendric Davis, Isiaha Mike and Tyson Jolly were encouraging, and the team was top 30 nationally in: 2-point field goal %, free throw % and offensive rebounding %. But they were outside the top 100 nationally in just about every defensive metric and were a woeful 202nd in defensive efficiency.
The good news for SMU fans is that this team didn’t have any seniors and as of writing this no Mustang player has announced they’re leaving the program. Just the return of Davis, Mike and Jolly would be good news enough, but they also get back Feron Hunt, Emmanuel Bandoumel and Ethan Chargois who have all been varying degrees of useful role players in their career. Darius McNeil, who played a bunch his first 2 college seasons at Cal, should also play a ton now that he’s eligible. Offensively, some rotation of these 7 players shouldn’t have trouble scoring a lot of points.
For me, the sticking point is whether 5th year coach Tim Jankovich can ever get this unbelievably experienced team to play any defense. This past season was the 2nd in a row where the Mustangs were outside the national top 200 defensively. At some point, you have to look at the coaching staff and the players the staff is bringing in and ask whether this combination is capable of producing good team defense. I am not sure the answer is yes, but teams can also dramatically improve year-to-year and betting on experience usually pays off. With Cincy and Wichita State looking like they’ll be re-tooling for 2020-21, the Mustangs look like a team ready to step into this void of top tier AAC teams.
You have to look past a lot of ‘warts’ of the 2019-20 Mustang team to predict this, but I won’t be surprised if SMU is one of the teams representing the AAC in the NCAA Tournament next time around. I also won’t be surprised if they fail to finish in the top 6 of the league standings. No AAC team has a higher ‘delta’ between their ceiling and floor for me than SMU.
Confidence Interval: 2nd to 8th
2019-20 Record: 16-14 overall, 7-11 AAC (T-8th)
Final KenPom Ranking: 117
Final NET Ranking: 124
When I started forming my thoughts about the 2019-20 Knights team, it was hard to really come up with much. Other than Collin Smith there wasn’t a ton that stood out to me about this team, although in the long-term this Knights program could be in pretty good shape. There wasn’t a failure to meet expectations last year, as no AAC team was hit harder by graduation than the Knights off a historic 2018-19 season. Smith and a couple bench players were all that returned and it’s a credit to coach Johnny Dawkins he was able to throw together a decent roster.
Smith was the closest thing the Knights had to a ‘go to’ offensively and he became a more efficient scorer despite being asked to take way more shots. Guys who are 6 foot 11 with good post moves and a decent outside shot like Smith aren’t a dime a dozen. If he takes another step forward in 2020-21, the ceiling for him is 1st team all-conference. I was really impressed with Darin Green Jr later in the season. Green scored in double figures in 8 of the season's last 9 games and went unconscious from 3-point range in wins over Tulsa and ECU. The guy made 41.7% of his 3-pointers while volume shooting, which is crazy good for a freshman. Brandon Mahan, one-time Texas A&M transfer, wasn’t that consistent but had his moments like a monster performance in a season-highlighting double OT win over Cincy. Dre Fuller showed some promise before missing most of conference play with injuries. That’s it in terms of guys with meaningful returning experience. Grad transfer Dazon Ingram was a nice stop-gap at point guard, but he is gone and so is 4th-leading scorer Ceasar DeJesus.
Any team that has Smith is going to be better for it and the more I write about Green, the more I think in a year or two he’ll be in the AAC player of the year conversation. Mahan has a long way to go to be an efficient scorer and only 1 more year of college eligibility left to make it happen. I think Fuller and Tony Johnson are high-upside guys, but right now they both have a lot of unrealized potential. Sean Mobley played a bunch at VCU his first 2 seasons and sat out last year. I am not sure Mobley will be anything more than a role player though, based on his career numbers. None of the incoming players look like sure instant-impact guys and I am really not sure a lot most of the Knights’ regular rotation is going to look like.
Having Dawkins as head coach and Smith and Green as cornerstone guys I think raises the floor for UCF comfortably above last place. But the lack of a proven supporting cast behind those 2 cornerstone guys also considerably lowers this team’s ceiling in my opinion.
Confidence Interval: 6th to 8th
2019-20 Record: 14-17 overall, 7-11 AAC (T-8th)
Final KenPom Ranking: 125
Final NET Ranking: 125
Since Brian Gregory took over prior to the 2017-18 season I have been fascinated with the rebuild (or I guess, the build) of USF basketball under this staff. Gregory was forced to re-build the roster from scratch, relying heavily on transfers and duct tape in the first year or so. By the end of the 2018-19 season the Bulls had drastically exceeded preseason expectations by winning 8 conference games and winning the postseason CBI. It was a modest start, but it felt like the program was ahead of schedule and 2019-20 could be the year the Bulls pushed for an NIT or even a March Madness postseason trip.
Those dreams were all but dashed when Alexis Yetna suffered a season-ending knee injury just prior to the start of this past season. Yetna wasn’t the only positive difference maker on that CBI championship team, but he was the AAC’s best rebounder and a critical part of the Bulls being a really tough defensive team. Without Yetna, the Bulls never really got into a rhythm and despite having experienced guards David Collins and LaQuincy Rideau running the show were still a bad offensive team. Its worth noting that the 15 AAC wins the Bulls have accrued in the past 2 years are the most they’ve had over a 2-year stretch since 2011-13 under Stan Heath. This is modest but considering how badly the program has struggled most of its recent history it’s an endorsement of what Gregory is doing in Tampa.
Nearly all the 2019-20 team projects to return, minus 2-year starting point guard Rideau who was one of the best guards in the country at grabbing steals in his 2 years at USF. The volume of returning experience and Yetna coming back will be nice but figuring out who’s going to step in for Rideau is an important question. David Collins has become the face of this program and was one of the best players in the country at getting to the free throw line. The cruel irony of Collins’ skill is he shot a pedestrian 65.3% on free throws last season. If he ever gets into the 75-80% range, then I think he’ll be on an all-conference team.
Michael Durr developed positively from being asked to do more while Yetna was out and with those 2 guys reunited this will be a fearsome frontcourt. Justin Brown, Zac Dawson and Xavier Castaneda are all useful rotation guys that are back. Dawson was someone I had high hopes for as a former top 100 recruit, but I am not sure he'll ever be a consistent difference maker for the Bulls. The incoming players are intriguing too: Luke Anderson, a 6’8” power forward and one-time high 3-star recruit who transferred from Iowa State on the eve of the 2019-20 season and 4-star shooting guard Caleb Murphy from Georgia. Both will have 4 years of eligibility and that should be pretty exciting for Bulls fans. Murphy and Houston’s Tramon Mark are the top 2 rated signees among all AAC teams.
Even with all of the reasons for optimism, Gregory hasn’t had a team here since taking over that rated any better than ‘bad’ offensively. I realize this is a team designed to win with defense and rebounding, but let’s look at the Bulls’ turnover % the last 3 seasons:
· 2017-18: 21.4% (328th in Division 1)
· 2018-19: 22.6% (336th in Division 1)
· 2019-20: 22.2% (335th in Division 1)
That’s not good enough to be a top half of the AAC team and they’ll have to improve in this area without the guy who was the primary ball handler the last 2 years (Rideau).If the combination of Murphy and Anderson coming in, plus all of the returning talent gets this team somewhere around ‘average’ offensively, I expect they’ll defend/rebound at a high enough level to easily be top half of the AAC and in the top 100 of KenPom and the NET rankings. However, that’s a big ‘if’.
Confidence Interval: 5th to 9th
2019-20 Record: 11-20 overall, 5-13 AAC (11th)
Final KenPom Ranking: 217
Final NET Ranking: 208
ECU basketball has seen 2 winning seasons since 2010 and none since 2013, and in program history a total of 2 NCAA Tournament appearances. Its clear hard to win here in the present and it clearly hasn't been much easier historically. Despite last year being Joe Dooley’s 2nd year in charge, it was really a ‘year zero’ as the Pirates had 1 scholarship player from 2018-19 still on the team for most of the season: Jayden Gardner. And while Gardner is the most exciting player ECU has had in ages, blending in a completely new supporting cast isn’t easy. The Pirates did notch some modest accomplishments in the past season: winning back-to-back conference games for the first time since January 2016 and not finishing last in the league. When you’re the 340th most experienced team in the country and early in the rebuild cycle under a new coach you’ll take what you can get.
Gardner is so incredible because he has been at the top of every opponent scouting report of ECU at least the last year and a half and yet he keeps getting harder to defend. He is not a guy chucking up tons of shots for a bad team, he scores for volume and efficiency. Last season he took 164 more shots than any other Pirate and still led the team in field goal % (52.1). After Houston played ECU, Kelvin Sampson was unusually effusive about Gardner and I’d imagine his opinion is shared by fellow AAC coaches.
Obviously top billing is going to Gardner, but I was impressed with freshmen Tristen Newton and Brandon Suggs. Newton led the Pirates in assists and 3-point field goal % and was the only Pirate besides Gardner who averaged double figures scoring (11.0 points/game). The JuCO transfer trio of JJ Miles, Tremont Robinson-White and Tyrie Jackson each had their moments last year. More than 1 person who follows ECU has told me that Robinson-White and Jackson being hurt early cost the team at least 2 non-conference wins. Charles Coleman didn’t have a great freshman season, but he has the frame (listed 7 foot/255 pounds) and recruiting pedigree to justify patience while he develops.
Some roster stability (as of 03/22- ECU has no players listed in the transfer portal) for the first time under Dooley will do wonders. If Gardner has done this well with a roster of completely new teammates his first 2 seasons, imagine how he’ll do with a group of teammates he actually has some experience playing alongside. Beyond Gardner I think Pirate fans should be cautiously optimistic about Newton and Suggs, who I think could both develop into strong players. Even if the metrics liked Tulane a bit more, I think Dooley going full reboot on the roster could mean the Pirates eventually leave the AAC cellar before the Green Wave, who went heavier on grad transfers. Even more impressively, Dooley completely flipped the roster while not creating an imbalance of freshmen or upperclassmen.
I could easily see the Pirates getting a couple more wins in conference and removing themselves from bottom 3 of the AAC standings for the first time since 2014-15. Paired with a friendly non-conference schedule I feel confident 2020-21 will be the Pirates’ first winning season since they finished with a 23-12 record and won the CIT (CollegeInsider dot com Tournament, baby) in 2012-13.
Confidence Interval: 8th to 11th