Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Conference Calling 31 in 31 Series: 2012-13 MEAC Preview

The Conference Calling 31 in 31 preview series will examine each of the NCAA Division I auto-bid conferences (so no Great West or independents), one per day, leading up to college basketball's opening day on November 9.


If you know nothing else about the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, know this: the league is responsible for three of the biggest, most annoying, most bracket-shredding upsets in NCAA tournament history.

1997: Coppin State stops a B.J. McKie/Melvin Watson-led South Carolina team 78-65. The MEAC's first tournament win, and only the third time a 15-seed had beaten a No. 2.
2001: Hampton (another No. 15) beats Jamaal Tinsley's Iowa State team 58-57, scoring the final basket with less than seven seconds left.
2012: You know about Norfolk State over Missouri. This writer certainly does, because he pegged Mizzou as a Final Four team.

Six times a No. 15 has beaten a No. 2, and three of those upsets have been perpetrated by MEAC schools.

Are there schools in this year's MEAC that could add to the line of scalps on the league's figurative wall? There might be one. Read on to find out who.

1. Savannah State
--Say this for Coppin and Hampton: in the seasons preceding their NCAA tournament upsets, they were MEAC regular-season champions. Norfolk State, not so much. Savannah State showed up after nine years as an independent, with nine wins in its first four Division I seasons and only one winning season overall, and proceeded to win the MEAC regular-season title in its first try.

Everyone's back from the team that rolled the MEAC in 2012. That makes it unlikely that anyone will take the Tigers as lightly as they did last season. Unfortunately for the rest of the league, SSU simply has more talent than everyone else.

First of all, the Tigers were one of the top 50 defensive teams in America according to Ken Pomeroy.

Forward Rashad Hassan, shooting guard Deric Rudolph and point guard Preston Blackman could all be All-MEAC at season's end. Beyond those three, though, there's highly able support. It may not be hyperbole to say that SSU has six of the league's top 20 or so players.

Hassan played less than 23 minutes per game, but was still among the MEAC's top 10 scorers, and his .570 field goal percentage ranked third. He should be able to increase his 5.3 rebounds per game, especially if he becomes more assertive on the offensive glass. Hassan's 20.8 defensive rebounding percentage (DR%) ranked fifth in the league, but his 7.6 offensive rebounding percentage (OR%) came in 27th.

The 5'11" Rudolph is a volume shooter, ranking third in the nation with 282 three-point attempts and 11th with 98 threes made. By means of comparison, he shot 11-for-42 inside the arc. That's 26.2 percent. That's ugly. Still, if he keeps bombing, he'll open up a lot of space inside for Hassan.

Blackman was not only one of the best playmakers in the MEAC, but one of the best in America. He assisted on a whopping 41.3 percent of SSU's baskets when he was on the floor. That assist percentage led the MEAC and ranked seventh nationally. He can also stroke the three with slightly better efficiency than Rudolph (36.4 percent to 34.8), but he's more content to set up teammates.

Forward Arnold Louis started only nine games, but he played starter's minutes and used them well. Louis scored nearly 10 points a night and came in fifth in the league with 7.8 rebounds per game. Guard Cedric Smith and forward Jyles Smith start due to their defensive presence and strong rebounding abilities.

They're good.

2. Delaware State
--The Hornets are probably the only team with as many potential MEAC stars as Savannah State, but one of their biggest is gone, and he'll be hard to replace.

Point guard Jay Threatt was among the nation's leaders in steals and dished six assists a night, leading the league by a full dime over his nearest pursuer. His heir apparent could be the team's leading scorer and MEAC Rookie of the Year.

Sophomore Tahj Tate ranked fifth in the league with 16.4 PPG last season and opened a few eyes by dropping 29 on Notre Dame in his third collegiate game. Tate was also second on the team in assists with 2.7 per game. The Hornets could do much worse than to have the ball in their best player's hands every time down the court.

DSU does have one thing that Savannah State lacks, and that's inside bulk. Senior forward Marques Oliver (6'7", 235) and sophomore center Kendall Gray (6'10", 240) are both hard to dislodge from the block.

Oliver ranked 10th in the league in OR%, pulling down three offensive boards per night. Gray averaged 4.8 RPG, but his true value was as an eraser, leading the MEAC with 3.2 blocks per game. That average also ranked ninth in America.

Watch out for 6'5" guard Casey Walker, who was second on the team at 13.3 PPG and drained almost 37 percent of his three-point shots. There aren't many guards his size in the MEAC, so if Walker gets the green light, he can shoot over nearly anyone.

3. North Carolina Central
--Top scorer Dominique Sutton is gone, but his fellow Big XII transplant Ray Willis should be ready to assume full control of the Eagles' fortunes.

Sutton (ex-Kansas State) and Willis (Oklahoma transfer) both ranked in the MEAC's top 15 rebounders and top eight scorers. Willis isn't quite as automatic from the floor as Sutton was, but draws just as much contact and converts a lot more of his free throws (79 percent last season).

Ball State transfer Jay Copeland may get a shot at replacing Sutton's production. Copeland is a burly 6'7", 235-pound forward who only played 37 minutes in Muncie.

NCCU was one of the league's best three-point shooting teams last season and was also one of the best at stopping the three. With shooters like Deric Rudolph and Casey Walker in their way, that defense will need to remain on point.

Speaking of "on point," playmaker Emanuel Chapman finished second in the league in assists last season, mainly because he was one of the conference's most unselfish players. Chapman dished 162 assists and took only 109 shots. Backcourt mate Ebuka Anyaorah, a 34 percent three-point shooter, should be on the receiving end of a few more assists this season.

4. Norfolk State
--Not only is Norfolk hero (get it? Folk hero? Eh, never mind) Kyle O'Quinn gone, but so are three other starters. Junior guard Pendarvis Williams is the primary returning option.

Some publications, including Lindy's, have selected Williams as the MEAC Player of the Year, and he'll need to play to that level until coach Anthony Evans finds the players who can best support him. The 6'6" Williams is one of the league's most efficient scorers, ranking 11th last season in eFG% and fourth in TS%.

Senior forward Rob Johnson averaged better than 14 points and seven rebounds per 40 minutes, and he should get first crack at sidekick duty. The 6'7" Johnson racked a double-double (19 points, 15 rebounds) against Hampton last January.

Without O'Quinn, the Spartans have no experienced size on the roster. Junior Brandon Goode played only 3.5 minutes per game as O'Quinn's backup last season. 7'1" Lithuanian Paulius Vinogradovas might be better served by redshirting, but Evans may be forced to use him anyway.

Freshman Rashid Gaston may get some run, as well. The 6'8", 235-pound Gaston was ranked as the No. 42 center in America by ESPN.

5. Morgan State
--For MSU coach Todd Bozeman, the long and short of this season will come down to players both long and short.

The proven commodities are 6'8" senior forward DeWayne Jackson and 7'2" junior behemoth Ian Chiles. Jackson led the team with 12.1 PPG and finished fourth in the league with 1.7 steals per night. He's far from an efficient scorer, mainly because of iffy shot selection. Jackson made only 29% from beyond the arc, yet more than half of his shots were from deep.

Chiles, weighing in at 270 pounds, is the biggest man in the conference, but is nowhere near as assertive a rebounder as he should be. A man his size should average more than four rebounds per game whether he's playing 20 minutes a night or not. Chiles did rank seventh in the league in blocks at 1.6 per game, so he does bring some defensive presence.

The short player spoken of above is former UMass guard Daryl Traynham. The 5'9" Traynham only played 10 games in Amherst, but averaged nearly eight assists and four steals per 40 minutes. He should be one of the league's top playmakers from day one.

Finally, a compelling story presents itself in the form of 6'5" swingman Anthony Hubbard. Hubbard spent almost four years in jail for armed robbery, signed with Iowa, then abruptly left. After a highly productive (21 PPG, 11 RPG, 4.5 APG) year in junior college, the 26-year-old is in Baltimore for one final season of eligibility. Hubbard can play three positions, and may duel with Traynham for MEAC Newcomer of the Year.

6. Bethune-Cookman
--Second-year coach Gravelle Craig has a strong backcourt combination, but a familiar issue could derail the Wildcats' title hopes.

First, the good news. Guards Kevin Dukes (5'9", 155) and Adrien Coleman (6'5", 190) may be the best veteran backcourt in the MEAC. Dukes is a highly efficient scorer for his size, ranking among the league's top 15 in both eFG% and TS%. Coleman can get to the basket and finish well, but struggles from the line.

Dukes is not a great distributor, so 5'9" sophomore Ricky Johnson may start alongside him. Johnson is a true passer and a deadly free-throw shooter, but struggles from the floor.

Junior college transfer Malik Jackson is a 6'6" wing who shot 38 percent from long range last season at Miami-Dade State College. Senior Javoris Bryant is likewise 6'6" and may be counted upon to be the team's top rebounder. He averaged around eight boards per 40 last season and racked a 15-15 double-double against Hampton.

One thing that has yet to be mentioned is any player taller than 6'8". That's because B-CU doesn't have any. Juco transfer Myron Respress stands 6'8", weighs 220, and is the monster on this roster. Size is a problem, which puts tremendous pressure on the shooters to connect early and often.

7. Hampton
--The Pirates have a lot to replace from last season, with four of the top five scorers departed. There's still experience on hand, though, which is more than some league opponents can say.

Center David Bruce could be an All-MEAC candidate. Bruce averaged over nine points and seven rebounds in only 22 minutes per game. At 6'10" and 235 pounds, there aren't many bigger men in the MEAC. He recorded six double-doubles last season against opponents like Fordham and James Madison, but struggled late in the year.

Bruce should get able frontcourt support from senior Wesley Dunning (4.3 PPG, 4.0 RPG) and freshman Dionte Adams (Charlotte, NC). The 6'7" Adams, one of North Carolina's top 25 prospects according to ESPN, averaged a double-double throughout his high school career.

In the backcourt, senior Jasper Williams may be the main scoring threat early on. Williams scored 20 against Morgan State in the first round of the conference tournament, the only time after New Year's Day that he broke double figures. He'll need to improve his 29 percent overall shooting.

Freshman Deron Powers skipped an offer from Florida Atlantic to stay near home, and he may get first crack at the point guard position. Juco transfer Ramon Mercado should provide another shooter.

8. North Carolina A&T
--A&T is the only MEAC school with a new coach, hiring former South Carolina State and Tennessee State boss Cy Alexander. On the plus side, Alexander's time at SCSU gives him a decent perspective on the MEAC landscape. On the minus, his 67-106 record in the OVC and two years out of a head coaching position don't lend much hope that he's the man to affect a quick rise to the top of the league.

Two double-digit scorers are gone, and only one returns. Senior forward Adrian Powell produced 10.2 PPG last season, and did it in a pretty efficient manner (.459/.359/.738 shooting percentages). Powell also has the ability to make plays defensively, ranking sixth in the league in steals.

He'll need some scoring help, and 6'8" senior Austin Witter may be able to provide it. Witter's a shaky shooter from range, but can get to the basket and finish. If he could convert the foul shots that come after drawing contact, he'd be a truly dangerous scorer. He also led the team with 34 blocks last season.

Junior Jeremy Underwood should take over the point after dishing 65 assists last season. He'll need to turn around his assist/turnover ratio, though, and make more than 28 percent of his shots.

Freshman forwards Bruce Beckford and Corvon Butler and juco guard Lamont Middleton may see immediate run, especially the forwards. The pair of 6'6" 220-pounders may join with Witter as the only "big men" on this team.

9. Howard
--The Bison struggled offensively last season, ranking next to last in scoring. In related news, Howard also placed 12th in field goal percentage, turnovers and turnover margin while sitting dead last in assist/turnover ratio.

If the efficiency's going to improve, it has to start with sophomore point guard Simuel Frazier. He dished 105 assists last year, but matched that with 103 turnovers. He was, however, the team's only halfway efficient three-point shooter, making 26 of 61 attempts (42.6 percent).

Seniors Mike Phillips and Calvin Thompson should provide some offense. Both are reasonable free throw shooters, but lack the strength to finish when they draw those fouls. Phillips shot 37 percent from the floor, and Thompson 33. Phillips also led the team with 5.2 RPG.

Sophomore Prince Okoroh, a 41 percent shooter, may be the most likely to step up to double-figure scoring. Okoroh scored 10 or more in eight of his final 10 games last season.

Unlike some MEAC teams, the Bison do have some length inside, even if it is skinny length. Junior Alphonso Leary (6'11", 205) and sophomore Oliver Ellison (6'8", 190) were reliable rebounders and tied for the team lead in blocks. Freshman Marcel Boyd (6'10", 225) may also get immediate minutes.

10. Coppin State
--Coach Ron "Fang" Mitchell has been at Coppin for more than a quarter-century now, and while it may be blasphemous to say, the program is stagnant. It's a long way from ruling the '90s with nine regular-season titles in 10 years to only two winning seasons this century.

This season may promise more of the same, with Mitchell needing to replace the top five scorers from last season's sixth-place team. 5'10" sophomore guard Taariq Cephas is the top returnee, averaging 5.7 PPG. Cephas was a fairly efficient scorer when he took his shots, but continuing that level of performance will be harder as a top option.

Newcomers will be prominent figures in the Eagles' backcourt. Senior Troy Franklin may be the league's top newcomer if he continues the form he was flashing before transferring from Towson. Franklin was averaging 12.6 points, 4.6 assists and nearly two steals per game before leaving eight games into the 2010-11 season.

Juco guard Andre Armstrong averaged 12 PPG at Monroe CC in Queens, NY last season. A 34% three-point shooter against NJCAA competition, Armstrong will need to at least maintain that level in MEAC play.

The guards will need to provide the offense, since there is no productive size on the roster. Sophomore Brandon St. Louis averaged one point and one rebound in eight minutes last year. At 6'8", he's the team's biggest interior option.

11. Maryland-Eastern Shore
--One thing we can say about the Shore: its fans love their ball. Even in the rubble of a 7-23 season, the Hawks were second in the MEAC in attendance, drawing 2360 fans per game. By comparison, Bethune-Cookman, Delaware State and SC State drew less than 2600 per game. Combined.

Okay, there's another thing we can say about the Shore. The UMES lineup could easily be one of the MEAC's tallest. The backcourt will likely consist of All-Rookie teamer Ishaq Pitt and junior Louis Bell, both 6'4".

Up front, 6'9" center Ron Spencer yanked down 7.7 RPG, which would have ranked sixth in the league if he hadn't missed 11 games. He's supported by a pair of senior backups native to Africa, 6'11" Nigerian Olatunji Kosile and 6'9" Pina Guillaume from Chad. Another big Nigerian, 6'10" Francis Ezeiru, joins the roster this season from junior college.

One wing position will likely be filled by 6'7" junior Troy Snyder, a transfer from Green Bay. Snyder averaged 4.3 PPG and 3.6 RPG for the Phoenix while playing only about 13 minutes per game in 2010-11.

Perimeter depth will be provided by juco transfers Donald Williams and Kyree Jones, plus 5'7" freshman Dominique Crowell.

The veterans were steady last season, but somebody will need to step up as a bona fide star for this team to gain much traction in the conference race.

You've heard of one-man teams, but this is nuts.
12. Florida A&M
--FAMU's roster must have gone through tremendous upheaval, because even the school's official site can't keep up. See right.

Lindy's claims that the Rattlers have to replace two starters, one of them junior double-double man Amin Stevens. Internet searches turn up no report that Stevens has left the program, not that FAMU's basketball fortunes are all that hot an item online.

The Rattlers do return 6'2" guard Reggie Lewis, who was second on the team at 11.2 PPG last season.

Junior guard Avery Moore should provide a major offensive spark, as he's scored nearly 10 PPG for his career. He's only a 35 percent shooter, though.

Senior forward Jeremy Dean is 6'6" and 205 pounds, a similar build to Stevens, and he may be the best option for replacing some of Stevens' production. Dean ripped more than eight rebounds per 40 minutes last season.

The roster on Verbal Commits shows no FAMU player taller than 6'7". It also still shows Amin Stevens as part of the roster. Hard to preview a team when even the school itself doesn't know who the players are.

13. South Carolina State
--SC State took the collar in conference last season. A big fat donut. 0-16. And it lost four starters. The big question may not be whether the Bulldogs will escape the basement, but if they will escape another oh-fer.

In fairness, the one starter back for the Bulldogs is pretty good. Point guard Khalif Toombs ended last season in the league's top five in assists and carded a reasonable 1.6 A/T ratio while also scoring about 11 PPG. He broke double figures against Virginia, Baylor, Pitt and Hawaii.

The major question regards what kind of warm bodies are available for Toombs to pass to. The rest of SCSU's top seven scorers are gone, and the most experienced returnee is 6'9" sophomore Luka Radovic. Radovic scored the whopping total of 15 points in the last 12 games last season, coming off a stretch of five double-figure scoring nights in six games. Which one's the real guy? He could be strong on the offensive glass (13.1 OR% last season, fourth in the league), and if he is, he'll make a decent starter.

Coach Tim Carter has brought in another pair of tall bodies to compete with Radovic, adding juco bigs Dominique Youmans (6'10", 230) and Matthew Hezekiah (6'11", 235).

Other than sophomore forward Devin Joint, the rest of the roster is made of newcomers. Freshman shooting guard Patrick Myers, 6'4" wing Shaquille Mitchell and 6'7" forward Darryl Palmer may get to contribute quickly.

In this section: each team's top non-conference game, weighted for visibility and possibility of a win.

Bethune-Cookman: Nov. 9 at St. Bonaventure
--Opening day against an Atlantic-10 squad seeking to replace one of its all-time greats.
Coppin State: Dec. 4 vs. St. Joseph's
--St. Joe's is getting preseason top 25 buzz, and getting them to Baltimore should draw some fans.
Delaware State: Dec. 8 at Delaware
--The battle for in-state bragging rights, and both also expect to make a lot of noise in their conferences.
Florida A&M: Dec. 18 at Texas Tech
--Games like this one will be the major tests of how well the Red Raiders are recovering from the Billy Gillispie, era.
Hampton: Nov. 15 at Richmond
--An in-state rival that is seeking to make some buzz in the A-10 and could be looking ahead to a trip to Minnesota three days later.
Howard: Dec. 4 vs. American
--A home matchup against their D.C. rivals, and the Bison get to face Stephen Lumpkins, perhaps the Patriot League's second-best big man.
Maryland-Eastern Shore: Dec. 5 at Maryland
--Likely a blowout, but a short trip for the apparently dedicated Eastern Shore faithful.
Morgan State: Nov. 16 at South Carolina
--The Gamecocks are easing into the Frank Martin era with a tray of cupcakes, so the games may be worth keeping tabs on just to see if the unthinkable happens. If it does, Martin will spontaneously combust, and that's always entertaining.
Norfolk State: Dec. 23 at Iona
--This could be a BracketBusters game now, given the increased profile both programs earned last season.
North Carolina A&T: Nov. 23 vs. Campbell (Global Sports Classic, Las Vegas)
--It's Vegas. And it's against one of the favorites in the Big South, so it could be a useful measuring stick for the Bulldogs.
North Carolina Central: Nov. 24 vs. Wagner
--Wagner will be coming off a tricky game at Delaware State and a body-bag game at Syracuse in the start of Bashir Mason's coaching tenure. NCCU will be the Seahawks' first trip outside of the Northeast corridor.
Savannah State: Nov. 13 vs. Middle Tennessee
--SSU draws a couple of fellow minor-conference contenders, but this season opener will give a good measure of both the Tigers and Blue Raiders.
South Carolina State: Dec. 23 at Clemson
--Clemson's struggling to find talent lately, and this would be an interesting matchup if SCSU wasn't the MEAC doormat. But are home-and-homes with Albany and NJIT interesting in the slightest? Nah, didn't think so.

Tahj Tate (Courtesy DSU Athletics)
G Preston Blackman, Savannah State (6'0", 170, Sr.)
--He was a 12.5-PPG man as a sophomore, but didn't score as much last year because he didn't have to.
F Rashad Hassan, Savannah State (6'7", 215, Sr.)
--Put up 20 points and 14 boards on a relentless Tennessee team in the NIT. If he sustains that momentum, this conference will throw him a going-away party on Senior Night.
F Marques Oliver, Delaware State (6'7", 235, Sr.)
--Probably the league's top defensive player. Only returnee to average more than one steal and two blocks last season.
G Tahj Tate, Delaware State (6'4", 170, Soph.)
--Proven scorer who may now get to handle the ball on every play. That should equal lots of stuffed stat sheets.
F/G Ray Willis, North Carolina Central (6'6", 185, Sr.)
--It's Willis's team now. A guy who scored 40 points in two games against ACC opponents (Wake Forest and NC State) can certainly ball out against the MEAC for one more season.

C David Bruce, Hampton (6'10", 235, Jr.)
--One of the league's only real quality big men.
G Deric Rudolph, Savannah State (5'11", 175, Sr.)
--There are lots of other weapons on the Tiger roster, but they serve to draw attention away from Rudolph's mad bombing.
G Khalif Toombs, South Carolina State (5'9", 165, Sr.)
--May stuff the stat sheet out of necessity if no one else comes up to support him.
G Casey Walker, Delaware State (6'5", 180, Jr.)
--A third straight season of 13-plus PPG is a baseline expectation.
G Pendarvis Williams, Norfolk State (6'6", 175, Jr.)
--The nation knows who his team is now, and the league knows he's the man. Don't doubt that he can handle the pressure, but will anyone help him out?

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Tahj Tate, Delaware State
COACH OF THE YEAR: Levelle Moton, North Carolina Central
--He lost one of the best players in the conference, and his team may be every bit as good if not better.
NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: Anthony Hubbard, Morgan State
--Go back up and look at that juco stat line again, then consider that few of his new teammates have anywhere near his skills. Hubbard may make first team all-league by the time he's done.

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