It’s tough to nit-pick a team that won 26 games last season and returns all but one player from last year’s roster. The Blazers will certainly need some time to adjust with the departure of Robert Brown who was a vital piece to UAB’s success over the past two seasons. However, I don’t believe filling his void will be Coach Rob Ehsan’s toughest task.
UAB’s tremendous depth might prove to be it’s largest hurdle early on. You could argue that Tosin Mehinti, Dirk Williams, Nick Norton, William Lee, Hakeem Baxter, and Chris Cokley all deserve to start and take the lion’s share of the minutes. Nipping at their heels are a bevy of upper-class men chomping at the bit.
Last season Coach Jerod Haase was frequently toying with his starting rotation – most notably in the loss to WKU in the CUSA tournament when Lee and Williams didn’t enter the game until almost five minutes in.
Was this a mistake? Should two of the best players on the team miss the beginning of a win or go home game?
With a chess board full of options to pick from, will new Coach Rob Ehsan find a consistent depth chart before the competition greatly stiffens in late November?
2. Middle Tennessee
The Blue Raiders’ veteran coach Kermit Davis is faced with the daunting task of replacing three senior starters who led them to the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance since the 2012-13 season.
Forward’s Perrin Buford and Darnell Harris were two of the most versatile players in the conference last season at any position. Buford, at 6-foot-6, led the team in blocks, while also hitting 16 3-pointers and dishing out more assists than starting point guard Jaqawn Raymond. Harris at 6-foot-8 hit 58 3-pointers and was a constant problem for team’s to defend with his ability to stretch the floor.
There will be some stability for Coach Davis given he’ll have all-conference players Reggie Upshaw and Giddy Potts returning to anchor the team. Potts can take on the point guard duties if needed without much of a let down, if any. But how will Coach Davis replace his star forwards Buford and Harris?
Will Coach Davis look to 6-foot-8 Arkansas transfer JaCorey William and 6-foot-10 JUCO transfer Brandon Walters to fill the void left by Buford and Harris? Will Potts and committee be able to take over Raymond’s point guard duties?
3. Western Kentucky
We’re just a few short weeks away from seeing the mad scientist Coach Rick Stansbury’s Frankenstein roster in action. Other than UAB, WKU has been the only other team’s scrimmage I’ve been able to catch. Scrimmages won’t answer all the questions going into the season, but they certainly can answer some.
WKU has a potential point guard problem. In the scrimmage the majority of the ball handling went through freshman Demari Parris and ineligible Buffalo transfer Lamonte Bearden. I’ll admit both played well, but tossing out a freshman to handle the point guard duties day one seems like a tall task even for Stansbury.
Maybe we’ll see the point duties go to Pancake Thomas, Que Johnson, or even a point forward role at times through Justin Johnson.
Who will be the primary ball handler for the Hilltoppers this season? Will all the new pieces be able to fit?
I have to give Coach Dan D’Antoni a lot of credit because there really aren’t many unknowns or major questions for the Herd going into the season. Sure the departure of James Kelly will have an initial effect given his ability to score at will last season. However, I believe his departure will be a blessing in disguise.
Kelly was a force in the interior but at times he was a liability lumbering behind the Herd’s fast paced offense in transition. Not to mention the ball sure liked to stick in his hands.
The tempo statistics clearly show that Coach D’Antoni wants to run a similar version to his brother Mike D’Antoni’s Phoenix Sun’s “7 Seconds Or Less” offense. With Kelly gone and 6-foot-5 Ryan Taylor likely becoming the interior focal point, D’Antoni should be able to run his offensive exactly the way he wants.
Clearly Ryan Taylor alone cannot be tasked with defending the main post players from every team the Herd will face this season. There will be many situations that he’ll need help. There are only a few post players on the roster, and really only 6-foot-7 Terrance Thompson has seen a considerable amount of playing time.
Will Marshall be able to maintain their prolific scoring offense from last season with out James Kelly? Who will help Ryan Taylor on defense in the paint?
5. Old Dominion
It’s strange to see the Monarchs not near the top of the conference and expert’s preseason rankings. I, like many, are extremely high on their defense going into this season and for good reason.
ODU has a collection of some of the toughest and most versatile forwards in the country in the Stith brothers, Zoran Talley, and Denzell Taylor. Defense will not be their problem this season.
Coach Jeff Jones is likely losing sleep at night wondering how he is going to replace two players that accounted for 1,337 points of the team’s 2,604 last season. Aaron Bacote, and more specifically Trey Freeman, were the Monarchs offense last season.
Trey Freeman led the NCAA in field goals, field goal attempts, and played the fourth most minutes. The Monarchs reliance on Freeman was staggering.
Will ODU be able to replace Freeman’s offensive output by committee next season? Can the Monarch defense dominate enough to allow for their offense to develop early on?
If you asked me last March what teams could contend for a conference title this season, UTEP would have been one of those teams. Then things got weird. Lee Moore ill advisedly left early to test the NBA waters and three other potential contributors transferred. Fortunately, the cupboard is far from bare in El Paso.
As I mentioned, the Miner’s leading scorer Moore left early. He and departing senior guard Earvin Morris leave 429 points and 50 3-pointers to be replaced.
To offset those loses Coach Floyd will have 7-foot-1 junior center Matt Willms returning after missing all last season due to injury. Willms, by all accounts, will likely be one of the only truly effective seven footers in Conference USA this season.
With Willms back in the fold, UTEP practically has four returning starters, which should put them in position to fight for one of the coveted top four spots in the conference.
Who will help in replacing the nearly 1,000 points scored by Morris and Moore last season? Can Terry Winn, Omega Harris, and Dominic Artis lift their ceilings and supplement the missing offense?
7. Louisiana Tech
Like Old Dominion, it’s extremely odd seeing the Bulldogs projected as a middle of the pack team this season. All they’ve done is continued to win and reload when program greats have left Ruston recently.
Last season’s Conference USA player of the year Alex Hamilton is gone, along with his gaudy statistical averages of 19.8 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 6.2 assists per game. He was not only the most valuable play in the conference, but in the entire country.
Don’t forget Coach Eric Konkol was in this same boat leading into last season when Speedy Smith, the 2014-15 CUSA Player of the Year graduated along with the top two leaders in points. Konkol adapted and his Bulldogs still won 23 games.
To make matters more tough, starter Dayon Griffin and major contributor Merrill Holden transferred in the off-season.
To offset those losses, the Bulldogs will have 6-foot-9 Miami transfer Omar Sherman eligible. He has the ability to be one of the surprises of the season in Conference USA.
Fortunately for the Bulldogs, senior guard Qiydar Davis was granted a medical hardship and will be returning for a final season. Davis averaged more than 10 points per game before his season-ending injury seven games into last year.
Who will Coach Konkol look to to take over the point guard duties? Will Derric Jean be asked to pick up where Hamilton left off? Can all-conference forward Erik McCree will the Bulldogs to another 20 win season?