In the mid-major ranks, Gonzaga looks like a national title contender again thanks to its formidable frontcourt.
With spring recruiting having closed and nearly every transfer player in place, SI.com is here to catch you up on the state of each conference heading into the summer. So far we’ve covered the AAC, ACC, A-10, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Mountain West, Pac-12 and the SEC. And now we end with a round-up of the mid-major contenders.
State of the top projected national contender: Gonzaga
Gonzaga had spent years battling the perception that it’s a regular season juggernaut that can’t advance deep into the NCAA tournament. A breakthrough came in March, when the Zags knocked off North Dakota State, Iowa and UCLA to earn their first Elite Eight appearance since 1999.
They're strong contenders to enter 2015-16 bearing SI.com’s unofficial title of “best mid-major” and stand as the clear favorite to win the West Coast Conference. But first, Gonzaga will need to figure out how to replace backcourt starters Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. and wing Byron Wesley, all of whom are leaving after earning all-conference recognition as seniors. Few could choose former four-star recruit Josh Perkins—who missed most of last season after suffering a broken jaw when he was kicked in the face during a November game against Georgia—to fill in for Pangos. Eric McClellan, Kyle Dranginis, Bryan Alberts and Silas Melson could all contribute on the perimeter. Yet the Zags should feel confident even if the guard rotation needs some time to gel because they bring back one of the top frontcourts in the country.
Rising sophomore Domantas Sabonis and rising seniors Kyle Wiltjer and Przemek Karnowski all decided to return to school instead of entering the NBA draft. Wiltjer morphed into a lethal stretch forward last season; Sabonis is a potential future first-round pick who’s adept at finishing around the rim and crashing the glass; and Karnowski can back down defenders and score from close range or pass out of the post to open shooters. Few opponents will possess the length, athleticism and versatility to contain that trio. Assuming the Zags’ group of big men performs as well as expected, Few’s team will be poised to turn in another 30-plus win season with a conference title and possibly another NCAA Tournament run.
Notable newcomer(s): Conner Frankamp & Anton Grady, Wichita State
The most important news the Shockers received this off-season involved the return of a coach and two players. Greg Marshall rejected opportunities at high-major programs to resign a seven-year contract with Wichita State, and guards Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker opted to come back to school instead of leaving for the draft. Though the Shockers likely would have begun the season ranked in the Top 25 of the polls even if they weren’t adding Frankamp and Grady, the two newcomers elevate Wichita State’s ceiling.
A former top-40 recruit who attended Wichita North (Ks.) High, Frankamp elected to transfer out of Kansas last year after receiving limited playing time. When he becomes eligible at the conclusion of the fall semester, Frankamp will be able to stretch the floor with his ability to knock down three-point shots and should help Wichita State fill the void left by the departure of Missouri Valley Conference defensive player of the year Tekele Cotton. Meanwhile, Grady should mitigate the impact of the loss of another starter, big man Darius Carter. The 6’8’’ Grady joins the Shockers with immediate eligibility as a graduate transfer after averaging 14.3 points and 7.9 rebounds per game while earning all-Horizon League honors. The presence of Grady should fortify Wichita State’s Valley-best defense, as he ranked third in the Horizon League during conference play in block and steal percentage, according to kenpom.com.
Grady and Frankamp—who was arrested in January on suspicion of driving under the influence and applied for a diversion program the next month—will join a rotation that brings back Baker and VanVleet, starting forward Evan Wessel, wing Zach Brown and big men Shaq Morris, Rashard Kelly and Bush Wamukota, among other contributors.
Notable departure: Seth Tuttle, UNI
Tuttle started 136 games over four years for the Panthers, but he didn’t blossom into one of the top offensive players in the country until last season. The 6’8’’, 240-pound forward shot well from outside the three-point arc (43.%) and inside it (63.3%), cleared the defensive glass effectively (23.1 defensive rebounding percentage), drew contact at a high rate (6.2 fouls per 40 minutes) and served as the Panthers’ best facilitator (28.7 assist rate). Tuttle’s production earned him second-team Sports Illustrated All-America honors, helped the Panthers post a 31-4 record, including a 16-2 mark in Missouri Valley Conference play, and earn a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament. After Northern Iowa eased past Wyoming in the opening round, it was held under a point per possession in a Sweet 16 loss to No. 4 seed Louisville, with Tuttle scoring 14 points in both contests.
Expect the Panthers’ first run through the MVC without Tuttle to feature some turbulence. Though Northern Iowa’s perimeter rotation should acquit itself well with Wes Washpun, Paul Jesperson, Matt Bohannon and Jeremy Morgan returning, the Panthers will need to overcome the losses of big men Tuttle, Nate Buss and Marvin Singleton. The biggest challenge for coach Ben Jacobson will be reorienting his offense—which ranked 14th in the nation in adjusted points per possession last season, according to kenpom.com—without the skilled forward who made it hum last season.
Summer syllabus: Five teams to watch
BYU: The Cougars won’t have all-time program scoring leader Tyler Haws next season. The good news for coach Dave Rose is that BYU returns versatile guard Kyle Collinsworth and will have several new pieces eligible, including transfers Jamal Aytes and Kyle Davis. Can BYU maintain its place among the nation’s top offensive outfits after ranking 12th nationally in adjusted points per possession last season?
Gonzaga: Gonzaga needs to settle on a backcourt rotation that can facilitate scoring chances for its talented trio of big men. Is Perkins ready to fill in for Pangos? How will the rest of BYU’s guards operate around him? Replacing Pangos and Bell is a tall order, but with those Gonzaga’s frontcourt will help ease the transition.
Iona: The Gaels are set up to compete for their fourth Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference regular-season title in the last five seasons despite losing conference player of the year David Laury. Iona brings back fellow all-conference first team member A.J. English along with conference rookie of the year Schadrac Casimir from a squad that led the MAAC in adjusted offensive efficiency. Coach Tim Cluess will need to make a few tweaks to account for Laury’s departure, but don’t expect the Gaels to regress much after winning 26 games and falling one win short of reaching the NCAAs.
Valparaiso: The Crusaders were a trendy pick to upset No. 4 seed Maryland in the opening round of the NCAA tournament last season. They fell by three points, but that game offered a glimpse at a quality team that most college hoops fans hadn’t watched during the regular season. Valpo loses only one starter from that group, senior forward and Horizon League defensive player of the year Vashil Fernandez. Coach Bryce Drew should have his team on track for another conference title and NCAA tournament berth provided the Crusaders’ defense doesn’t falter without Fernandez’s rim protection.
Wichita State: Carving out roles for Grady, Frankamp, top-150 prospects Markis McDuffie and Landry Shemet and other rotation players is a problem, but a good problem to have. This is a talented, deep team that probably doesn’t need any significant changes. Marshall’s off-season to-do list would have been more extensive had either VanVleet or Baker opted to enter the draft.