|Posted by Brian Dickmann on November 10, 2016 at 1:50 PM|
Photo: Sue Ogrocki / AggieSports.com
No matter what publication or sports website you’re reading, for the most part they all look the same at the top when it comes to Horizon League preseason predictions: #1 Valparaiso, #2 Oakland, and then everyone else.
In most places – including the Horizon League’s preseason poll of coaches, sports information directors, and media – the Phoenix are tabbed to finish third.
Green Bay head coach Linc Darner agrees with the top two but says the conference will be tough from top to bottom.
“I think it’s going to be very good,” Darner said in a recent appearance on the Bill Michaels Show. “Valpo and Oakland I think right now are probably the two best teams in the league and that’s because they return the most guys.”
“Some of the bottom teams last year that struggled a little bit return a lot of guys that are a year older.”
For its part, the Phoenix will have a veteran roster this season with 9 of its 13 scholarship players being upperclassmen – 6 seniors and 3 juniors.
Like the season before last when Green Bay had to replace Keifer Sykes, Greg Mays, and Alfonzo McKinnie, the Phoenix will be tasked with replacing several program-changing players again this season – Carrington Love and Jordan Fouse – and the production they provided at both ends of the floor.
Green Bay was successful in replacing the production lost to graduation last season, going 23-13 overall and 11-7 in the Horizon League, good for fourth place during the regular season.
“I joke with people, other than Milwaukee, we probably lost as much as anybody else with the two guys that we lost,” Darner said. “Our leading scorers, our leading rebounder, our two leading assist guys, our two leading steals guys….we probably lost more than anybody but Milwaukee and we got picked higher this year than we finished last year.”
“If we didn’t win the Horizon League Tournament we’d probably be picked 7th or 8th to start the season.”
As for Valparaiso, despite losing head coach Bryce Drew to Vanderbilt in the offseason, the Crusaders are favored yet again to win the Horizon League championship. Valpo returns several key players from a team that finished 30-7 last season, losing to Green Bay in the Horizon League Tournament semifinals.
After barely missing out on an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament, the Crusaders went on an incredible run all the way to NIT championship game where they fell 76-60 to George Washington at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Valpo’s best returning player is the Horizon League’s preseason Player of the Year, Alec Peters. A third team preseason All-American this year, he entered the NBA Draft after his junior season but decided to withdraw and return to school before the draft in June. He considered transferring to a high major for his senior season after the coaching change but ultimately returned to Valparaiso.
The 6’9” Peters led Valpo last season in scoring at 18.4 points per game, good for 5th in the conference, as well as rebounding at 8.4 rebounds per game, which was 2nd in the league behind only Oakland’s Jalen Hayes. He also shot an unbelievable 44% from beyond the three point line.
He is a likely NBA Draft pick next June and is on pace to become the program’s career leader in points scored and rebounds.
The list of the Crusaders’ other key returning players includes Shane Hammink, Tevonn Walker, and Jubril Adekoya.
Hammink, a 6’7” junior, finished 3rd on the team in scoring a season ago at 8.9 points per game to go along with 3.1 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game. The LSU transfer was named second team preseason all-Horizon League this October.
Walker is Valpo’s best returning guard but was hampered by injuries a season ago. Still, he was able to be productive averaging 8.8 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 1.6 assists in 22.6 minutes per game. He will likely get a shot at the vacant point guard position along with prized freshman Micah Bradford, but can also play off the ball as well.
Adekoya has mainly been a role player off the bench during his career but will likely take a more prominent role this season as a senior. He averaged 6.1 points and 4.1 rebounds in 18.5 minutes per game last season.
The Crusaders do have some key components to replace. Five key players departed in the offseason through graduation or transfer accounting for 43% of the team’s scoring a season ago.
One of the biggest losses is last year’s starting point guard and 2nd leading scorer Keith Carter, who had his waiver appeal to gain an extra season of eligibility denied by the NCAA this past summer. He finished his senior season scoring 10.3 points per game and added 4.5 assists per game while shooting a blistering 39.4% from beyond the arc.
Vashil Fernandez, last season’s National Defensive Player of the Year and the only two-time Horizon League Defensive Player of the Year in conference history, graduated and signed a contract with the NBA’s Miami Heat.
Also gone is David Skara (6.5 points, 3.1 rebounds per game), who transferred to Clemson in the offseason. Darien Walker, a key role player who started 18 games last season, finished his Valpo career scoring 8.0 points per game in 20.1 minutes of action during his final season in Valparaiso.
Without question, the biggest individual loss ahead of the new season was Oakland’s Kay Felder deciding to forgo his senior season and enter the NBA Draft. His decision paid off as he was drafted with the 54th overall pick in the draft by the Atlanta Hawks who traded his rights to the Cleveland where he signed a 3-year, $2.4 million contract with the Cavaliers.
Felder led the Horizon League in scoring last season at 24.4 points per game and led the nation in assists at 9.3 per game. He led the conference in assists for all three of his seasons at Oakland and set the conference record for career assists (699) despite playing just three years.
He was named the Horizon League Player of the Year last season and leaves a massive void for the Grizzlies to fill at point guard.
Oakland also lost their third and fourth leading scorers from a season ago, Percy Gibson and Max Hooper.
Gibson appeared in all 35 games for the Grizzlies, scoring 11.3 points and grabbing 6.2 rebounds in 22.5 minutes per game. The 6’9” center played just one season for Oakland after transferring in from Iowa State.
Hooper, an outstanding perimeter shooter, became famous for not attempting a single two-point shot last season. He averaged 10.5 points per game while shooting 45.5% from beyond the arc and 96.2% from the free throw line.
The cupboard is not bare, however. The Grizzlies returning players are led by preseason first team all-league selection Jalen Hayes, the conference’s leading rebounder a season ago. The 6’7” forward has seen his production increase in all three of his collegiate seasons so far, notching career bests in points (13.6) and rebounds (8.6) per game last season.
Besides their stud Hayes, Oakland has sophomore Brad Brechting in the post to replace Gibson. The 6’11 center started 13 games for the Grizzlies as a true freshman last season, though he scored just 59 points total during the year. They will need a big increase in production from the big man down low.
One of the starting guard spots will likely belong to Sherron Dorsey-Walker.
At 6’4”, Dorsey-Walker is one of only two seniors on the team’s roster this year. After two seasons at Iowa State, he appeared in all 35 games last year for Oakland scoring 6.5 points and grabbing 5.0 rebounds in just over 24 minutes per contest.
Oakland scored 88.2 points per game last season, the most in all of Division I college basketball. They will need to find help to replace the scoring lost from the departure of Felder, and one of those sources will likely be Martez Walker.
Another 6’4” guard, Walker appeared in 26 games last season after becoming eligible following the first semester due to NCAA transfer rules. He transferred in from Texas where he played 12.7 minutes per game for the Longhorns in the Big 12 as a true freshman.
This season as a junior, Oakland will look to Walker to shoot from the outside. Almost half of his shots from the floor last season were from beyond the arc, connecting on 41.3% of his three point attempts en route to scoring 10.5 points per game.
The real x-factor will be who mans the point guard position to replace Felder. The most likely option is Stevie Clark, who was a top 70 high school recruit and played his freshman year at Oklahoma State before being kicked off the team. He played last season at the JUCO level at Arkansas Baptist.
There’s no doubt that, despite significant losses, the top two teams return solid players and have added solid pieces as well.
Expectations are high at Valparaiso, where the Crusaders are coming off their first ever 30-win season and an appearance in the NIT title game.
Oakland returns all of their key players, with one massive exception. The Grizzlies went 23-12 last year, finishing second in the conference standings at 13-5, and expect another similar type season.
As far as expectations for Green Bay this season, Darner is looking for a repeat of last season. The bar has been raised, however, now that the Phoenix have made their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 20 years.
“We have the same goal that we always have,” Darner said. “We want to compete to win the Horizon League and try to win the Horizon League Tournament and go to the NCAA Tournament.”
There’s no doubting the challenge the Phoenix will have replacing Love and Fouse, but an aspect that is stronger this season than it was a year ago for Green Bay is its depth. The Phoenix will not necessarily need to rely on one or two players to provide their scoring punch this season.
So while Charles Cooper will likely be Green Bay’s leading scorer this season, the head coach hopes he doesn’t have to do it all by himself most nights.
“We could be really, really good if we have 7 or 8 guys average between 10 to 14 points instead of one guy averaging 25,” Darner said. “I think our guys are still trying to feel out who’s going to score, who’s going to get to do what. But I think we have a lot of interchangeable parts which is good for us right now.”
As for utilizing that depth, during the non-conference schedule last season Darner used a few different starting lineups before settling on the same starting five for the final 28 games of last season.
He also whittled down his rotation, going from a 10 or 11 player rotation at the beginning of the season to an 8 man lineup during the stretch run at the conference tournament. This season, the Phoenix depth has to be considered one of their strengths.
“Right now here in the preseason we’ve got a lot of feeling out to do to see who’s going to fit those roles, who’s going to play well together because we are deeper, we’re a lot deeper than we were last year,” Darner said. “We can go probably 11 or 12 deep. Who’s going to be good playing with each other, who struggles playing with each other…trying different combinations and different things like that here early.”
Despite the two major losses to graduation, Green Bay does return 64% of its scoring and 71% of its rebounding from last season. Perhaps the biggest key will be who can replace the scoring void as Green Bay lost two of its top three leading scorers from a season ago. The Phoenix head coach will lean towards his senior leadership to help guide the way.
“We have 6 seniors on the team, 5 of them played last year,” said Darner. “Many of their roles are changing from what they were last year. Now we’re asking a little bit more out of them.”
“Charles Cooper’s got to do a little bit more than he did last year. Jamar Hurdle, who really came on at the end of the year, has a really nice game. Kenneth Lowe and Turner Botz are kind of role players, we need them to step it up a little bit more.”
As was the case last season, Darner seems like he will use the non-conference portion of the schedule to tinker and figure out the best roles for players as they build towards March. Getting the Phoenix playing their best basketball during the conference season in time for the conference tournament is the coach’s number one goal, hoping to pick up victories and learn from mistakes along the way.
“We may hit some bumps in the road,” Darner said. “I’ve learned a lot being in Green Bay that when you lose a couple games everybody thinks the world is coming down and it’s falling apart, so we’ve just got to stay the course.”
In a season where questions marks abound throughout the entire conference, the Phoenix are not immune. But with a stable of upperclassmen and a full offseason in Darner’s system, they should be able to make the Horizon League at least a three team race.
Green Bay likely won’t be competing for an at-large bid this season, but it has the firepower to challenge for the regular season conference championship and to repeat as conference tournament champions in Detroit this coming March.
“We know what we can do and get ready to be hot at the end of the year like we were last year.”
Categories: Phoenix Preview