2015-16 Mid-Major Previews

Associated Press

Mid-majors capable of wrecking some brackets

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It never fails.

Every March some plucky underdog seemingly comes out of nowhere to pull off an upset in the NCAA tournament, wrecking brackets across the country in the process. The key word in that sentence is “seemingly,” because each year there are teams that show signs throughout the season that they’re capable of winning once in the NCAA tournament.

Below are ten programs capable of pulling off an upset in the NCAA tournament as we approach the start of the 2015-16 campaign.

1. UAB: Jerod Haase’s Blazers pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the 2015 NCAA tournament, as they sent home three-seed and trendy Final Four pick Iowa State in the round of 64. All five starters from that team have returned, including two players in forward William Lee and guard Nick Norton who ranked among the top freshmen in Conference USA a season ago and conference tournament MVP Robert Brown. Reigning C-USA Sixth Man of the Year Chris Cokley anchors a deep and experienced bench. And with Brown being the Blazers’ lone senior, they could be at the top of this list in 2016-17 as well.

2. Valparaiso: The Crusaders narrowly missed out on an upset back in March, falling by just three points to four-seed Maryland. Vashil Fernandez receiving his fourth season of eligibility means that head coach Bryce Drew can call upon one of the top front court tandems around, pairing Fernandez with junior Alec Peters. Peters was a first team all-Horizon League selection last season, with Fernandez being the Defensive Player of the Year. In total ten of the eleven players who scored a point for Valparaiso last season are back, with guards Tevonn Walker and Darien Walker and wing E. Victor Nickerson among those contributors.

3. Stephen F. Austin: Brad Underwood’s first two seasons at SFA have produced consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, and the Lumberjacks have enough experience and talent to push that streak to three. Five seniors led by reigning Southland Conference Player of the Year Thomas Walkup have seen a lot in their college careers, including a wild win over VCU in the 2014 NCAA tournament. A group that was good on both ends of the floor (they ranked fifth in defensive turnover percentage, too) and won 29 of their final 30 games a season ago should pick up right where they left off in March.

4. Belmont: Like the three teams ahead of them on this list Rick Byrd’s Bruins reached the NCAA tournament a season ago, where they ran into a tough matchup in Virginia’s pack line defense. However it should be noted that Belmont scored 67 points in that loss, a mark met or surpassed by Virginia opponents just four times in 2014-15. Four starters from that team are back in Nashville, led by the OVC’s best player in senior guard Craig Bradshaw and the nation’s field goal percentage champion Evan Bradds (68.8 percent). The Bruins are highly efficient offensively, and that could make life difficult for an opponent unfamiliar with their style/personnel.

5. Old Dominion: Jeff Jones’ Monarchs fell short of their goal of an NCAA tournament bid a season ago, but they didn’t sulk once in the Postseason NIT. Trey Freeman and company reached the semifinals of that event, and the postseason experience should serve this group well. Freeman’s one of the best players in Conference USA, and in total ODU welcomes back three starters and four of their top six scorers. East Carolina transfer Brandan Stith pairs up with leading rebounder Denzell Taylor to help ODU account for the loss of Jonathan Arledge and Richard Ross from their front court, and this is a group that can be dangerous in a one-and-done scenario.

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Old Dominion’s Trey Freeman (AP Photo)

6. UC Irvine: The prohibitive favorites in the Big West, Russell Turner’s Anteaters had eventual Elite Eight participant Louisville on the ropes back in March. UC Irvine fell by just two points on that day, and many of the key contributors from that team have returned for another run at the NCAA tournament. That includes experienced guards Alex Young and Luke Nelson, wing Dominque Dunning and a front court with some serious size led by 7-foot-6 junior Mamadou Ndiaye. While UC Irvine isn’t an explosive offensive team, their defense is what makes them such a tough matchup for team not used to their style and personnel.

7. Iona: There’s no denying the fact that Tim Cluess’ Gaels are going to score points. Last season Iona averaged 79.5 points per game, and from an adjusted tempo standpoint only 11 teams played faster. Iona does have to account for the loss of MAAC Player of the Year David Laury, but four of the team’s top five scorers from a season ago are back led by high-scoring guards A.J. English and Shadrac Casimir. The key for Iona, especially in the MAAC tournament where they’ve fallen to rival Manhattan in each of the last two title games, will be their commitment on the defensive end. As we saw with Eastern Washington in March, being able to score doesn’t mean much if you can’t get stops.

8. Evansville: The Purple Aces have one of the better inside/out combinations around in high-scoring guard D.J. Balentine and forward/center Egidijus Mockevicius, who combined to average 32.6 points per game in 2014-15. That tandem helped lead Marty Simmons’ team to the CIT championship, and with all five starters back expectations are high for the Purple Aces. They’re in position to challenge preseason Missouri Valley favorite Wichita State, and given their talent and experience should Evansville reach the NCAA tournament they can cause trouble.

9. Central Michigan: Keno Davis’ Chippewas won 23 games and a MAC West Division title last season with an offense that shot the ball well and took good care of it too. All five starters, led by guard Chris Fowler and forward John Simons, are back on campus which should allow them to hit the ground running in 2015-16. The key for this group will be to get better on the defensive end of the floor (MAC foes shot nearly 54 percent from two), as they ranked 11th in field goal percentage defense, seventh in three-point percentage defense and ninth in effective field goal percentage defense (conference games only).

10. Louisiana: The biggest reason for the Ragin’ Cajuns’ inclusion on this list is the fact that they’ve got a likely pro in Shawn Long in their front court. The 6-foot-11 senior is the preseason pick for Sun Belt Player of the Year, coming off of a junior campaign in which he averaged 16.4 points and 10.2 rebounds per game. All five starters are back for head coach Bob Marlin, and while the Ragin’ Cajuns didn’t reach the NCAA tournament they did play in the CIT (losing to Evansville in the quarters) so there is some postseason experience to call upon.

Five others to keep in mind: Hofstra, Columbia, North Florida, Stony Brook, Pepperdine

WAC Preview: Can anyone catch New Mexico State?

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Beginning in October and running up through November 13th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2015-2016 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the WAC.

While realignment has drastically changed the WAC, there’s been one constant over the last four seasons: New Mexico State representing the league in the NCAA tournament. Marvin Menzies’ program has won at least 23 games in each of those seasons, and even with personnel losses to account for the Aggies have remained the WAC’s dominant program. However New Mexico State lost a lot of production from last year’s team, and with that being the case there’s a feeling that the rest of the WAC may be able to get closer to dethroning the reigning kings.

Four of the team’s top six scorers from a season ago, including forward Remi Barry and guard Daniel Mullings, have moved on. However, with forward Pascal Siakam (12.8 ppg, 7.7 rpg) and the WAC’s best three-point shooter in guard Ian Baker (9.3 ppg, 45.7 percent 3PT) back in Las Cruces it isn’t as if Menzies and his staff will be building from scratch.

As for who can step in to help fill the the void, players such as guards Jalyn Pennie and Braxton Huggins and forward Jonathon Wilkins will have the opportunity to contribute. And another positive of last season was that New Mexico State had enough available talent to redshirt five freshmen, and while those players may not have Division I experience they were part of the program a season ago. That all should help New Mexico State as they look to hold off a group of contenders led by one of Division I’s newest additions.

Grand Canyon has only been a Division I program since 2013, and as a result they won’t be eligible for an NCAA tournament bid until the year 2017. But it should be noted that in each of the last two seasons Dan Majerle’s program has played in the CIT, and a third straight appearance isn’t out of the realm of possibility. Senior point guard De’Wayne Russell averaged 14.2 points and 3.9 assists per game last season, and he’ll lead a group that also returns redshirt sophomore guard Joshua Braun.

GCU’s rotation will be bolstered by multiple transfers, including forward Grandy Glaze (Saint Louis) and Dominic Magee (Memphis). But if the Antelopes are to harbor any thoughts of dethroning New Mexico State, they have to get better defensively. Last season GCU ranked at or near the bottom of the WAC in many of the major defensive categories (conference games only), including field goal (last in the WAC) and effective field goal (6th) percentages.

Kansas City lost three of its top five scorers from a season ago, but they do return one of the WAC’s best players in guard Martez Harrison. Named WAC Player of the Year last season, Harrison averaged 17.5 points and 3.9 assists per game but he still has room for growth when it comes to the shooting percentages (39.3 percent FG, 28.0 percent 3PT). What should help Harrison is the improved health of point guard Noah Knight, forward Shayok Shayok and center Thaddeus Smith, as all three missed time due to injury last season with Shayok playing in just eight games before being lost for the season.

The Kangaroos’ returnees will be joined by a seven-member recruiting class that has six junior college transfers, with forward Kyle Steward (Butler CC), guard LaVell Boyd (South Suburban College) and wing Dashawn King (Erie CC) being possible immediate impact players. If the parts can mesh together in time for conference play, thus helping Harrison with the scoring load and in turn making him a more efficient scorer, UMKC has the pieces needed to contend.

Rod Barnes’ CSU Bakersfield Roadrunners finished right in the middle of the WAC standings a season ago, and with one of the WAC’s best post players in Aly Ahmed leading the way they’re hoping to take a step forward in 2015-16. In his first season on the court for CSU Bakersfield Ahmed averaged 13.9 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, with fellow forward Kevin Mays averaging 9.4 points and 8.0 rebounds per contest despite being just 6-foot-4. Add in redshirt junior Jaylin Airington and CSU Bakersfield returns not only three of its top four scorers but arguably the best front court in the WAC.

Whether or not the Roadrunners make a run at the WAC title will ultimately depend upon their guard play, with Brent Wrapp (4.4 ppg, 20.6 mpg) being their lone returnee, and junior college transfers Dedrick Basile and Justin Pride and freshman Damiyne Durham needing to be immediate contributors. The big men can get Bakersfield to the finish line, but where they’re positioned for the stretch run will be decided by the growth of their perimeter options.

Beyond the top four, Seattle and Utah Valley may be best equipped to make a push to get into the top half of the WAC. While the Redhawks did lose leading scorers Isiah Umipig and Jarell Flora from last season’s team, they do welcome back one of the conference’s better forwards in junior William Powell and Deshaun Sunderhaus returns after playing in just eight games due to injury.

As for the Wolverines, they embark on a new era as former BYU assistant Mark Pope takes over as head coach. While they did lose two of their top three scorers from a season ago, forward Donte Williams and guard Marcel Davis return, giving Pope some solid options to work with. Closing out the standings are UT-Rio Grande Valley and Chicago State, with the Vaqueros returning four starters from a season ago (but adding ten newcomers) and CSU working to account for the loss of four starters.

While conference realignment dealt New Mexico State a tough hand, the Aggies have set their sights on dominating the WAC and over the last four years they’ve managed to do that. With this being the case, it’s going to take an awful lot for someone to knock NMSU out of the WAC’s top spot.

MORE: 2015-16 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

COACH’S TAKE

  • Favorite: “Absolutely New Mexico State’s the favorite. They should be, hands down, until somebody proves that they can consistently contend with them. What makes them dangerous is that they’re big, they’re athletic. They have high-major size and high-major athleticism; they can roll the ball out with just about any team in the country in those aspects.”
  • Sleeper: “I think that Grand Canyon’s done a good job in recruiting. I know they can’t go to the (NCAA) tournament, but I think they’ve done a good job in building their program with some transfers and they’ve got some talented guys who have come in.””I think everybody (in the league) has upped their talent, size and athleticism. Bakersfield with what Coach (Rod) Barnes is doing over there and their size, and they’ve improved their guard play. I wouldn’t be surprised if they pushed New Mexico State. Dan Majerle and Grand Canyon. As far as the regular season, with their size and athleticism they have a chance to do some things as well.”
  • Stars to watch: “I love Siakam at New Mexico State. I thought he was a Player of the Year-caliber player last season as a freshman. I think he poses so many challenges. He’s tremendous offensively and defensively; there’s nothing the kid can’t do so. I think he’s a big-time talent.””Martez Harrison at UMKC is a very, very talented player. He’s a special guard, and I think his defensive prowess is really undersold by a lot of people. And Aly Ahmed at Bakersfield is another one who jumps out at me as being a really skilled big man who’s versatile and really hard to guard.”

PRESEASON WAC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Martez Harrison, Kansas City

Harrison’s percentages leave something to be desired, as he shot 39.3 percent from the field and 28.0 percent from three. But in spite of that he still averaged 17.5 points to go along with nearly four assists per contest last season. UMKC enters this season healthy, and those additional options should help make Harrison a more efficient player as a junior.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-WAC TEAM:

  • DeWayne Russell, Grand Canyon: Russell averaged 14.2 points, 3.0 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game in his first season at GCU.
  • Ian Baker, New Mexico State: One of the top three-point shooters in the WAC, Baker will be asked to do even more on the perimeter this season.
  • Pascal Siakam, New Mexico State: Last year’s top freshman, Siakam was the media’s choice for Preseason WAC Player of the Year and with good reason.
  • Aly Ahmed, CSU Bakersfield: Ahmed averaged 13.9 points and 7.2 rebounds per game last season, and he can be even better if the field goal percentage (49.2 percent) improves.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @WACSports

PREDICTED FINISH

1. New Mexico State
2. Grand Canyon
3. Kansas City
4. CSU Bakersfield
5. Seattle
6. Utah Valley
7. UT-Rio Grande Valley
8. Chicago State

Sun Belt Preview: Louisiana to overtake Georgia State?

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Beginning in October and running up through November 13th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2015-2016 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Sun Belt Conference.

The last two seasons, Ron Hunter’s Georgia State team has reigned supreme over the Sun Belt Conference. They’ve won 34 league games and a pair of outright regular season titles during that stretch, advancing to the 2015 NCAA tournament where they pulled off an upset of No. 3 seed Baylor in the opening round.

But that GSU team is gone for the most part. R.J. Hunter went pro while Curtis Washington and Ryan Harrow graduated, but the Panthers still should be able to compete at the top of the league this season. Former Louisville guard Kevin Ware is back for his senior season while Indiana transfer Jeremy Hollowell is eligible to play this year. Throw in the return of Marcus Crider, a physical, undersized four that was named to the preseason  all-Sun Belt second-team, and Hunter has a group capable of making it a three-peat.

They won’t, however, be favored to do it. Louisiana will be, as Bob Marlin returned the league’s best player in Shawn Long. Long is a difference maker at this level, a 6-foot-9 shot-blocker with three-point range and the ability to pop off for a double-double on any given night. He can win games on his own, but the good news for the Ragin’ Cajuns is that he won’t have to. Devonta Walker is back up front while Kasey Shepard and Jay Wright man an underrated back court.

The third real contender for Sun Belt supremacy is Louisiana-Monroe. Losing Tylor Ongwae is going to hurt, but the Warhawks do bring back two all-conference caliber players in big man Majok Deng and guard Nick Coppolla. They have size, they have length and they can defend. The question is going to be whether or not they can score enough without Ongwae; they struggled in the game they were missing him last season.

Both Arkansas State and South Alabama are worth keeping an eye on if, for no other reason, than because they have two of the best players in the league on their roster. Arkansas State big man Anthony Livingston averaged a double-double as a sophomore and would be the best front court player in most mid-major conferences. USA’s Ken Williams is the best guard in the conference and is a very well-coached team that swept Louisiana last season. Texas State also falls in this category. They can really defend and have a first-team all-league player in Emani Gant, although their issues on the offensive end will be tough to overcome.

Georgia Southern and Arkansas-Little Rock both lost a ton of talent, but UALR was able to land FAMU transfer Jermaine Ruttley, which is a major reason they’re picked to finish in the middle of the pack instead of the bottom of the league.

MORE: 2015-16 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

COACH’S TAKE

  • Favorite: “Louisiana-Lafayette. They have a ton of talent, not just Shawn Long. They have a really nice front court, Jay Wright is underrated in the back court. They have the most coming, the best player coming back. They’re good, and there’s a reason they got picked to win. Bob Marlin does a fantastic job.”
  • Sleeper: “You gotta talk about Arkansas State. Livingston is really good. They missed the conference tournament last year, but they bring everybody back.”
  • Star to watch: “Shawn Long is the best player in the league. There are two ‘high major’ players in the conference — Long and Livingston — but Long, on a great night, can win game by himself. Talent wise, size wise, he’s an NBA guy. When he’s on, nobody in the league can stop him. He’s that level of player.”

PRESEASON SUN BELT PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Shawn Long, Louisiana

With R.J. Hunter in the NBA and Ryan Harrow lost to graduation, Long becomes the biggest name in a league that has become known as a place for high major transfers to land on their feet. Long, whose career at Mississippi State was derailed by the post-Renardo Sidney fallout, is arguably the best big man in mid-major basketball. He’s a 6-foot-10 low post scorer that can knock down threes and is the best rim protector in the league. He’s got a shot at an NBA career when he’s done in college.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-SUN BELT TEAM:

  • Anthony Livington, Arkansas State: Still just a junior, Livingston averaged 15.3 points and 10.0 boards last season.
  • Emani Gant, Texas State: An excellent defender, Gant is the best offensive weapon on a team that can struggle to score.
  • Ken Williams, South Alabama: With the Georgia State guys gone, Williams is the best guard in the league.
  • Kevin Ware, Georgia State: Ware will have plenty of opportunity as a senior after playing behind a pair of shot-happy guards last year.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @(link)

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Louisiana
2. Louisiana-Monroe
3. Georgia State
4. Arkansas State
5. South Alabama
6. Arkansas-Little Rock
7. Texas State
8. Georgia Southern
9. Appalachian State
10. UT-Arlington
11. Troy

Southland Preview: Stephen F. Austin returns as heavy favorite

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Beginning in October and running up through November 13th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2015-2016 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Southland.

The Southland has turned into a league in which its Stephen F. Austin and everybody else. This isn’t to insult a league which features some talented teams and players, but the Lumberjacks have won three consecutive regular-season titles, have three consecutive players of the year and own a dominating 35-1 mark in league play over the last two seasons.

This season, Stephen F. Austin looks to once again be one of the better mid-major programs in the country as head coach Brad Underwood returns Southland Player of the Year Thomas Walkup and three other starters. While the versatile Walkup will be the team’s main catalyst, standout defender Trey Pinkney returns along with talented sophomore guard Ty Charles. The Lumberjacks have lost some talented players from back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances but when you go 61-8 over two seasons and win a tournament game, you land some talented recruits. With more size and depth, Underwood might actually have his most talented team in three seasons.

Although Stephen F. Austin is the favorite, Northwestern State returns the highest-scoring duo in Division I basketball from last season as both senior guard Jalan West and junior guard Zeek Woodley return. The Demons were the highest scoring team in the country last season, as they averaged 84 points per game, but their scoring defense ranked dead last as they allowed 83 points per game. If Northwestern State can get a bit better on the defensive end, they could compete with Stephen F. Austin, but that remains a giant question mark heading into the season.

Texas A&M-Corpus Christi is coming off of a solid season which saw them finish 20-14 with a second round appearance in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament. Do-it-all guard John Jordan has exhausted his eligibility but junior forward Rashawn Thomas is an all-league candidate and he’s flanked by a very experienced roster that includes eight seniors. Head coach Willis Wilson got his team to really defend last season and they’re hoping for more of the same in 2015-16. It will be a new-look Sam Houston State as the team loses four starters, including Defensive Player of the Year Michael Holyfield. Senior guard Paul Baxter is the team’s lone returning starter and the Bearkats will rely on a deep recruiting class that features six junior college players.

Opening some eyes last season was Incarnate Word, who picked up road wins at Nebraska and UMKC before going a respectable 10-8 in league play. All-league candidate Kyle Hittle is back to lead the Cardinals and sophomore guard Jontrell Walker had some big games before an ankle injury slowed him down. Incarnate Word is still in the third year of a four-year transition phase from Division II to Division I but making last season’s CollegeInsider.com Tournament is a great step for the program. Lamar loses its top three scorers, but head coach Tic Price led a remarkable turnaround last season that saw the Cardinals finish .500 (15-15, 9-9) after only winning seven games the previous two seasons. The top three scorers might be history, but the rest of the rotation returns, including promising freshman point guard Kevin Booze.

Houston Baptist returns eight rotation players from last season, including talented senior guard Anthony Odunsi and junior forward Colter Lasher. Turnovers were a huge issue for the Huskies last season, so if a recruiting class filled with perimeter options can help in that category, Ron Cottrell’s team could be in good shape. If Nicholls State can improve its woeful perimeter shooting, they return nearly the entire roster from a team that went 7-11 in league play. Senior guard T.J. Carpenter and junior forward Ja’Dante’ Frye are both double-digit scorers who return for the Colonels.

With three double-digit scorers returning in junior guard Christavious Gill, senior forward Kevin Hill and junior guard Nate Frye, New Orleans can certainly put the ball in the basket, they just have to get better on the defensive end. The Privateers allowed opposing teams to shoot 48 percent against them last season, good for 342 out of 345 Division I teams. Southeastern Louisiana returns some scoring in guards Zay Jackson and Joshua Filmore but a lot of question marks fill the rest of Jay Ladner’s roster. If Leroy Fludd, the NCJAA Division I National Tournament MVP is as good as advertised, the Lions might be able to finish in the league’s top half.

Showing some life at the end of conference play was McNeese State, who closed the Southland season nicely after a 1-6 start. Only two starters and the entire bench are back from that group, but head coach Dave Simmons had his group playing hard and playing good ball in the late weeks. Abilene Christian is still two years from full Division I status and they’ve struggled to win league games. The Wildcats only have one conference road win in two seasons, but return four of its top six rotation players from last season. Central Arkansas played eight freshman last season and still have a very young team. Southland Freshman of the Year Jordan Howard is back but the Bears had the worst field-goal percentage defense of any team in the country last season, allowing opponents to shoot 49.6 percent from the field.

 

MORE: 2015-16 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

COACH’S TAKE

  • Favorite: “Stephen F. Austin has completely dominated our league and they’ve done a great job of reloading in problem areas through recruiting.”
  • Sleeper: “You saw Incarnate Word go into Nebraska and win last season; they have no fear. Ken has a lot of pieces back and Kyle Hittle is a problem.”
  • Star to watch: “Thomas Walkup is the deserving Player of the Year on the league’s best team, but I think the average basketball fan would be blown away by how talented Jalan West is.”

PRESEASON SOUTHLAND PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Thomas Walkup, Stephen F. Austin

The senior is the reigning Southland Player of the Year and also made the league’s All-Defensive team last year, so this is a pretty obvious choice. Walkup is a solid all-around contributor for the Lumberjacks as he led the team in points, rebounds, steals and field goal percentage last season. Although his 3-point percentage dipped a little as a junior, Walkup is still a threat to score from many places on the floor and he’s also a very good distributor, averaging 3.7 assists per game.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-SOUTHLAND TEAM:

  • Jalan West, Northwestern State: One half of the nation’s highest-scoring duo last season, West averaged 7.7 assists per game to go along with his stellar 20 points per game. Besides being an offensive force, West is a three-time conference All-Defense selection.
  • Zeek Woodley, Northwestern State: The Robin to Jalan West’s Batman, the junior averaged 22 points and 5 rebounds per game last season. The 6-foot-2 guard also shot a ridiculous 56 percent from the line while also shooting 39 percent from 3-point range.
  • Kyle Hittle, Incarnate Word: The senior had a very efficient junior season shooting the ball as he put up great splits (49% FG, 75% FT, 41% 3PT) while averaging 15.3 points and 6.4 rebounds per game.
  • Rashawn Thomas, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi: A second-team All-Southland selection a season ago, this is now Thomas’ team after the departure of talented guard John Jordan. Thomas put up 13.3 points, 7.7 rebounds per game as a sophomore.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @SouthlandSports

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Stephen F. Austin
2. Northwestern State
3. Texas A&M CC
4. Sam Houston State
5. Incarnate Word
6. Lamar
7. Houston Baptist
8. Nicholls State
9. New Orleans
10. Southeastern Louisiana
11. McNeese State
12. Abilene Christian
13. Central Arkansas

SoCon Preview: Can Chattanooga knock Wofford off their perch?

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Beginning in October and running up through November 13th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2015-2016 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Southern Conference.

Wofford has reigned supreme in the SoCon the past two seasons, as Mike Young has led the Terriers to back-to-back NCAA tournaments. They currently rein supreme as the regular season champs as well, but it’s going to be tough for this group to repeat as the dual-SoCon champs with star guard Karl Cochran and veteran big man Lee Skinner graduation. That’s a lot to replace, but the good news is that Wofford has a strong enough program established to be able to handle that kind of turnover. Seven of their top ten players return from last season, including second-leading scorer Spencer Collins and starting point guard Eric Garcia. Big men Justin Gordon, a senior, and Cameron Jackson, a sophomore who lost 20 pounds this offseason, will be counted on for front court production.

The Terriers will certainly be in the mix once again this season, but they’re not going to be entering the season as a favorite. That title belongs to Chattanooga despite the fact that they lost their head coach, Will Wade, back to VCU. He’ll be replaced by Matt McCall, as assistant from Florida, which means that the players on the Mocs roster shouldn’t have to adjust to too much this year. Wade is part of Shaka Smart’s coaching tree, and Shaka got his start as an assistant under Billy Donovan at Florida.

The Mocs will be led by Casey Jones, a 6-foot-5 senior wing that is our Preseason SoCon Player of the Year pick. Jones averaged 14.5 points and 7.0 boards last season, and while he’s not the greatest athlete in the world or the best shooter, he’s a smooth, strong player with a knack for getting into the lane and finishing. McCall will also get back Justin Tuoyo, the league’s best shot blocker, and veteran guard Greg Pryor back.

East Tennessee State is going to look nothing like the team they were last season. Head coach Murray Bartow was fired and the Buccaneers lost their top two scorers from last season. New head coach Steve Forbes, a former assistant at Wichita State and Tennessee, took over and immediately added nine new players this season. With Indiana transfer Peter Jurkin, Cincinnati transfer Ge’Lawn Guyn and Missouri transfer Deuce Bello joining a roster that includes Lester Wilson and A.J. Merriweather, the Bucs will make some noise.

After those top three, things get wide open. Mercer is led by arguably the best coach in the conference in Bob Hoffman, but the Bears lose their top three players from last season and didn’t have all that much depth on their roster in the first place. He’ll win games on his coaching acumen alone, but this could end up being a rebuilding year.

UNC-Greensboro is routinely one of the most talented teams in the conference, but they’ve always had trouble turning that talent into wins. Led by Tevon Saddler, Kayel Locke and R.J. White — all of whom could end up being first-team all-SoCon this season — the Spartans have one of the best starting fives in the league. But can they finally start winning close games?

There are two x-factors in the league race this year. The first is Furman, who came within a couple of possessions of going from dead last in the SoCon standings to the NCAA tournament. The good news is Niko Medved returns everyone from last year’s team. The bad news is that their run to the SoCon title game doesn’t mask that the Palladins finished with just four regular season league wins. Samford, like Furman, had a late season run — they won five straight at one point after losing their first eight in the league — and they return a handful of key pieces as well.

MORE: 2015-16 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

COACH’S TAKE

  • Favorite: “Chattanooga. I think their experience, with Casey Jones leading the charge, and depth. At every position. They’ve got size, shooting, they’re athletic. They’ve got the total package. They’re poised for a very good year.”
  • Sleeper: “Samford. They went on a streak late in the year, winning five in a row, and finished really well. They played with more confidence and belief and swagger. They started seeing it all come together last year. They return some guys, add some good recruits. I could see them being a team that makes a jump. Their senior, Darius Jones-Gibson, is a stud.”
  • Star to watch: “Casey Jones. He’s a matchup nightmare with his versatility. He’s a hybrid position guy: four and the three. He lets them play small or play big. He’s hard for bigs to guard, hard for guards to guard. He has a uncanny touch in the paint. If he gets the ball in the lane, he doesn’t miss, just a natural touch in the mid-range. Gets going down hill, spins, rises up and it’s in.”

PRESEASON SOCON PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Casey Jones, Chattanooga

The coach we quoted above basically said it all. Jones, a 6-foot-5 wing, causes all sorts of problems for opponents. Bigs can’t guard him because he takes them out onto the perimeter. Guards can’t guard him because he takes them down to the block. And he can guard threes or fours, meaning that he fills that Draymond Green-esque role for the Mocs; he lets them play really big or really small. That versatility is what makes Chattanooga so tough.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON SOCON TEAM:

  • Justin Tuoyo, Chattanooga: A Player of the Year candidate, Tuoyo is the league’s best defender (3.3 blocks) and a nightly double-double threat.
  • Spencer Collins, Wofford: With Cochran gone, Collins will take over the lead-dog role for the Terriers this season.
  • Darius Jones-Gibson, Samford: A bit out there, but if Jones-Gibson makes the leap so many junior college transfers make in their second year, he could be the difference between Samford struggling and finishing in the top half of the league.
  • Tevon Saddler, UNCG: Saddler is arguably the most talented play maker in the conference.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @SoConSports

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Chattanooga
2. Wofford
3. East Tennessee State
4. Mercer
5. UNC Greensboro
6. Furman
7. Samford
8. Western Carolina
9. VMI
10. The Citadel

Patriot League Preview: Can anyone catch Lehigh?

Lehigh forward Tim Kempton, AP Photo
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Beginning in October and running up through November 13th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2015-2016 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Patriot League.

The Patriot League is a conference with many familiar faces in 2015-16, which should make for a competitive race, one that could involve a handful of teams.

Lehigh should be pegged as the preseason favorite. The Mountain Hawks bring back four starters, none bigger than Tim Kempton, the 6-foot-10 junior who took home Patriot League Player of the Year honors last season. Kempton is joined by Kahron Ross, a playmaking point guard who led the league in assists, and Austin Price, the team’s second leading scorer from a season ago. Justin Goldsborough adds some support on the frontline, but the Lehigh back court took a hit this fall with Brandon Alston tore his ACL.

After seven seasons and a pair of NCAA tournament appearances, Dave Paulsen left Bucknell for George Mason. Nathan Davis, a former Bucknell assistant, steps into a good situation with four starters back from a team that won the regular season title in 2014-15. Chris Hass is one of the more gifted scorers in the league and anchors the perimeter, which includes Ryan Frazier and Stephen Brown. Nana Foulland, a 6-foot-9 forward who started every game last season, could be in for a monster sophomore campaign.

Boston University and Army both have their entire starting fives back from a season ago. The Black Knights didn’t have the season in envisioned, but the duo of Kyle Wilson, who has led the league in scoring at 17.5 points per game, and forward Tanner Plomb, who scored in double figures in all but three league games, can skyrocket them up the Patriot League standings. The Terriers have two double-digit scorers of their own in Cedric Hankerson and Eric Fanning. BU’s supporting cast should be more comfortable in their roles this season. Hankerson, who is recovering from an ACL tear, could be back in December, Joe Jones told ESPN.

Jesse Reed will attempt to lead American to another Patriot League Tournament title game (winning in 2014, losing in 2015), but he’ll have to do so without Pee-Wee Gardner. The Eagles could benefit from transfers Paris Maragkos and Leon Tolksdorf. Lafayette, the reigning champion, will likely take a step back, but guards Nick Lindner and Bryce Scott could keep things interesting in league play.

MORE: 2015-16 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

COACH’S TAKE

  • Favorite: “I would say Lehigh. Anytime you bring back the player of the year, it’ll obviously give you an advantage. Having him (Tim Kempton) along with the rookie of the year, Kahron Ross, I think those two are one of the best tandems in the league.”
  • Sleeper: “Colgate. With some of the guys they had sitting out, I’d probably say them. They’re going to be so different compared to what they had last season. With so many new faces those guys will come in and provide meaningful stuff for them right away.”
  • Star to watch: “To me, it’ll be Kyle Wilson. In our league, he’s one of the most talented scorers. He can score in so many different ways.”

PRESEASON PATRIOT LEAGUE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Tim Kempton, Lehigh

The reigning Patriot League Player of the Year returns following a sophomore campaign averaging 15.3 points and a league-high 8.7 boards per game. Not many can handle the 6-foot-10 big man on the block. Adding to the mismatch, Kempton can also do damage with his mid-range game. Kempton and point guard Kahron Ross make for a lethal one-two punch in the Patriot League.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON PATRIOT LEAGUE TEAM:

  • Chris Hass, Bucknell: Ten times Hass went for 20 or more. Six happened in league play. Two more happened in back-to-back games: 21 against Michigan and 32 vs. Villanova.
  • Nick Lindner, Lafayette: The Patriot League Tournament MVP averaged 12.5 points, 5.2 assists per game.
  • Jesse Reed, American: The Eagles may be relying on new pieces this season, but they will expect the same offensive production from Reed, who averaged double figures in each of the last two seasons. The 6-foot-5 guard was a marathon man for American in 2014-15, never coming off the floor in 16 games.
  • Kyle Wilson, Army: The 6-foot-4 senior led the league in scoring the past two seasons.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @PL_MBB

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Lehigh
2. Bucknell
3. Boston University
4. Army
5. American
6. Lafayette
7. Colgate
8. Holy Cross
9. Loyola (Md.)
10. Navy