Point guard Chaz Williams is an early frontrunner for A-10 player of the year honors. (Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)
Stock up: UMass
In his first season at UMass (2008-09), coach Derek Kellogg led his alma mater to 12 wins and a 10th place finish in the A-10. Another 12-win campaign came one year later, followed by a three-win bump to a tidy 0.500 record (15-15) in 2010-11. The Minutemen have cracked the 20-win barrier the past two seasons -- reaching 25 and 21 victories in 2011-12 and 2012-13, respectively -- both times finishing with a 9-7 mark in conference play, and both times missing the NCAA tournament. After logging more than 20 wins the past two seasons, can UMass tack on a few more in 2013-14? And will that be enough, in a slightly watered down A-10, to notch the program’s first tournament birth since 1998?
It certainly has a good chance. Diminutive point guard (5-foot-9, 175 pounds) Chaz Williams returns after receiving first-team All-A-10 honors last season, and is one of the early frontrunners to win the conference’s player of the year award. Junior center Cady LaLanne posted an impressive 110.0 offensive rating on 17.9 percent usage in 2012-13, according to Kenpom.com, and should take on an expanded role this season. And Western Kentucky transfer Derrick Gordon, who earned third-team All-Sun Belt honors while leading the Hilltoppers in scoring (11.8 ppg) and rebounding (6.7 rpg) as a true freshman, rounds out one of the better starting trios in the league.
Losing forward Terrell Vinson and guard Jesse Morgan (to reported disciplinary issues) in the offseason hurts, and an apparent lack of proven three-point shooters could limit UMass’s offensive productivity, but the biggest question with the Minutemen has less to do with personnel than style of play. If you watched even half of UMass basketball last season, there was one overriding takeaway: the Minutemen play fast. Indeed, UMass logged an average of 70.8 possessions per game in 2012-13, the 12th most in the nation (per Kenpom), and there’s little reason to think it won’t push the pace again this season.
The problem? That speed often left the Minutemen vulnerable on the defensive end; their 97.9 points per possession allowed last season ranked 115th in the country, according to Kenpom. UMass has proven it can win while running its preferred up-tempo style. The question is whether it can improve its defense while maintaining that tempo. If the answer is yes, an NCAA tournament berth is well within reach.
Stock down: St. Bonaventure
Scoring wasn’t an issue for St. Bonaventure last season. Coach Mark Schmidt’s team averaged 107.9 points per possession, good for 62nd in the country, according to Kenpom. The three players who accounted for the bulk of that offensive production, seniors Eric Mosely, Demitrius Conger and Chris Johnson (all of whom posted offensive ratings above 108, according to Kenpom), are gone, meaning the Bonnies will need a host of relatively underused guards -- projected major contributors Charlon Kloof, Matthew Wright and Jordan Gathers all used fewer than 20 percent of available possessions last season, according to Kenpom -- to take on larger scoring loads.
Replacing that efficient offensive output is a huge concern in itself, and even if St. Bonaventure can somehow manage to recreate Mosely, Conger and Johnson’s scoring through other players, there are other, deeper concerns at hand. Most glaring, St. Bonaventure got worked on the defensive glass last season, allowing opponents to grab 34.2 percent of their misses; 270 Division I teams did a better job of preventing offensive rebounds, per Kenpom. Defense was another issue: The Bonnies ranked 289th nationally in effective field goal percentage defense and 14th (out of 16) in the A-10 in defensive efficiency, according to Kenpom.
The prospective growth of junior seven-footer Youssou Ndoye, who should pair alongside senior Marquise Simmons to improve the Bonnies’ frontcourt defense and rebounding, is promising. And maybe replacing all that senior scoring won’t be as difficult as it sounds.
The baseline for improvement is not high; St. Bonaventure finished 14-15 last season and won seven games in a conference that -- following the departures of Charlotte, Temple, Butler and Xavier -- should be slightly less rigorous top-to-bottom. It’s not crazy to think the Bonnies, if they can improve defensively and rebound more effectively, can approach last season’s win-loss total.
More realistically, St. Bonaventure will regress, and development, more so than results, will become the focus of its 2012-13 season. This feels more like a long-term project for Schmidt than a team ready to make a breakthrough.