College basketball preview: Best teams outside the big conferences
With the start of college basketball season less than a month away, we're previewing each team in nine conferences. Using a statistical projection system developed by economist Dan Hanner and SI's Luke Winn, which is now in its second season, we've forecast the conference standings and the top seven scorers from each team. Today we look at some top players and teams from outside the nine conferences we previewed specifically:
Coach of the group: Bryce Drew, Valparaiso
College hoops fans watched the Crusaders fall four points short of upsetting No. 4 seed Maryland in the second round of the 2015 NCAA tournament. Every starter from that team is back, including first team all-Horizon League forward Alec Peters and defensive player of the year Vashil Fernandez. Drew deserves credit for guiding Valpo to three regular-season conference titles over the last four seasons, but the Crusaders have yet to win a tourney game under his watch. That could change in 2016; Valpo would present a tough matchup for many high-major programs. In the meantime, expect the Crusaders to dominate Horizon competition and claim another conference championship.
Player of the group: Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga
We projected Wiltjer as a frontrunner for the National Player of the Year, which makes him an easy selection for this category. Opponents will have a hard enough time trying to stop one frontcourt teammate (Przemek Karnowski) from scoring in the low post and keeping another (Domantas Sabonis) off the offensive glass. Wiltjer is content to do his damage from outside of the paint. Last season he connected on 47% of his three-point attempts and posted the second highest offensive rating in the WCC during conference play while helping Gonzaga finish sixth in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com. He should put up similar numbers in his final season with the Zags.
Newcomer (s) of the group: Conner Frankamp/Anton Grady, Wichita State
Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker comprise the nation’s top backcourt duo, but the seniors will need some help from a pair of transfers. Frankamp decided to leave Kansas and join the Shockers after earning limited minutes as a freshman under Bill Self. The former top-40 recruit and prolific scorer at Wichita (Kan.) North High is renowned for his three-point shooting, but he won’t be eligible until the second semester. Meanwhile, Grady left Cleveland State with immediate eligibility as a graduate transfer for a one-season stint with one of the nation’s top mid majors. The 6'8", 230-pound first team all-Horizon League performer will help the Shockers overcome the loss of starting big man Darius Carter.
Each team's outlook in about 68 words
Below are the 10 highest-ranked teams in SI’s projections outside of the conferences we already previewed separately. The teams are listed in alphabetical order.
BYU: The Cougars could have one of the nation’s top offenses even though they lost the program's all-time leading scorer, Tyler Haws. Senior guard Chase Fischer can put up plenty of points in his own right, and first team all-WCC performer Kyle Collinsworth is one of the most skilled players in the country. BYU may not be able to challenge Gonzaga for the conference title, but it should earn a third consecutive tourney berth.
Central Michigan: The Mid-American Conference had four teams finish among the top 100 of kenpom.com’s team efficiency rankings last season, and three of them—Central Michigan, Toledo and Akron—checked in between 93rd and 96th. Of that group, the Chippewas probably have the best shot at winning the conference title this season in large part because of the presence of senior forward John Simons and senior guard Chris Fowler.
Evansville: Wichita State resides in a separate tier above the rest of the Missouri Valley Conference’s teams. Yet Evansville is the squad best equipped to at least make the Shockers work hard for a victory in conference play. The Purple Aces bring back one of the nation’s best players outside of the big conferences in D.J. Balentine, a 6'3" guard who last season led all MVC players in minutes played while ranking second in effective field goal percentage, according to sports-reference.com.
Gonzaga: Last season, the Zags advanced past the Sweet 16 in the NCAAs in 2015 for the first time since 1999. They have the potential to reach the Final Four in 2016 despite losing starters Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell Jr. and Byron Wesley. Wiltjer, Karnowski and Sabonis form the nation’s top frontcourt, and Gonzaga’s perimeter rotation should hold up if redshirt freshman Josh Perkins—who missed most of last season with a fractured jaw—can limit mistakes at point guard.
Louisiana-Lafayette: Shawn Long’s announcement last April that he would return for his senior season was great news for the Rajin’ Cajuns and terrible news for the rest of the Sun Belt. During conference play last season, the senior big man led all Sun Belt players in offensive rating and defensive rebounding percentage while ranking second in offensive rebounding percentage, true shooting percentage and effective field goal percentage, according to kenpom.com.
Old Dominion: Monarchs guard Trey Freeman drilled one of the most clutch shots in the country last March. The only downside was that it came against Murray State in the quarterfinals of the National Invitation Tournament. The senior guard led the Monarchs to 27 wins while earning first team all-Conference USA honors in his first season eligible after transferring from Campbell. Freeman could help Old Dominion challenge UAB for the league crown and a tourney bid in 2015-16.
Stephen F. Austin: You probably remember Stephen F. Austin as the team that shockingly upset No. 5 seed VCU in overtime during the 2014 NCAAs thanks to a ridiculous four-point play in the waning seconds of regulation. The Lumberjacks reached the Big Dance last year, too, but were eliminated in the opening round by Utah. Expect Coach Brad Underwood to lead SFA to at least 27 wins and a Southland Conference title for the fourth consecutive season.
UAB: After losing four of their final seven regular-season games and finishing in fourth place in Conference USA, the Blazers rolled through the league tournament to earn an automatic bid to the NCAAs, where they upended No. 3 seed Iowa State. UAB returns its top six scorers, including third team all-CUSA guard Robert Brown, league sixth man of the year Chris Cokley and all-freshman honorees William Lee and Nick Norton.
Valparaiso: Last season the Crusaders posted a program-record 28 victories and won both the Horizon regular-season and conference championships. Anything less than that in 2015-16 would register as a disappointment. With all of its major contributors back, Valparaiso should have little trouble navigating conference play. The question is whether the Crusaders can take down an opponent from a bigger league in the NCAAs a year after nearly upsetting Maryland.
Wichita State: Two important pieces of news released over a two-week stretch last April positioned Wichita State to enter 2015-16 in the top 15 of the polls. First, coach Gregg Marshall agreed to remain in charge of the Shockers, and then VanVleet and Baker decided to return to school. With Marshall calling shots from the sidelines and the two seniors anchoring the backcourt, Wichita State is poised to win the Missouri Valley Conference and make another run in the NCAAs.