State of the Conference – December 31

Since I haven’t kept up my weekly conference updates during this lull in the schedule, I thought I might take some time to look at where the teams stand and how they might fare in the upcoming conference season. First, I’ll go through my team rankings, and then I’ll look at the players.

1. Delta State (currently 8-1)

If the close loss to Florida State didn’t scare the rest of the conference back in November, maybe last night’s win over D-I Lamar will. The Statesmen have D-I talent and still have no respect in the national polls, which will change by the end of the season. Jasper Johnson is a monster inside, which should be expected, since he was a solid C-USA player at Southern Miss before this year. He has been easily the best player in the conference so far this year. Jeremy Richardson is expanding on last year’s solid year and is now one of the top 15 players in the conference in PER. This team is also deep, with four other players cracking the top half of GSC regulars in PER. I’ll predict a 13-3 conference record, which means they would be about 23-4 when tournament time comes around.

2. Arkansas-Monticello (6-4)

Looks can be deceiving, especially when it comes to non-conference records in D-II basketball. Some D-II teams load up their schedules with D-III and NAIA opponents in November and December, while others like to test themselves against top D-II teams and look for D-I road games to schedule. Count UAM in this latter group, except that they have even played some good D-I teams, not just small conference schools. UAM lost three in a row to Dayton, Cincinnati, and LSU before hammering D-I UC-Irvine and good D-II Northern Michigan, escaping their brutal non-conference schedule with a winning record. They did most of this damage without their best player, center Johnathan Holland, who has missed every game this month for an unknown reason. If Holland returns, this team is probably as good as Delta State. If not, they’re still very dangerous and still the second-best team in the division. My prediction: 12-4 in GSC West games, leaving them at 19-8 heading into the conference tourney (18-5 vs. D-II or lower opponents).

3. Central Arkansas (7-2)

UCA is still a tough team to place, since they haven’t played a tough non-conference schedule and are just 7-2. The losses were to solid (but not great) D-II teams (North Alabama and Rollins), and their best wins were against slightly less solid D-IIs like SW Oklahoma State and Washburn. The Bears have played great defense, easily racking up the best defensive efficiency in the conference so far (90.9 points per 100 possessions), and their offense, while not great, has been serviceable enough. Darryl Jones leads the team in scoring with 17.7 ppg and is a top-15 conference player, but no one else has really stepped up. I still think this will be a good team, but it may be a rougher transition year than UCA hoped. If they expect to compete in the D-I Southland Conference next year, they will need to finish strong this year. I’m predicting an 11-5 conference record, which will make them either 20-7 or 19-8 at the end of February.

4. Harding (7-2)

The Bisons have played well without junior forward Matt Hall, who was lost for the season due to an injury against Missouri-Rolla on November 19th. The schedule has been somewhat light, aside from the game against Northwestern State, but the team is still meeting expectations thus far. Lonnie Smith has been among the conference’s best players, lighting it up (as usual) from three-point range. Brandon Sims, Patrick Andrepont, and Alassane Savadogo have all been solid contributors, but there is a weakness at point guard that is hard to overlook. Reggie Bibb has the highest Pure Point Rating in the conference, meaning that he’s doing well as a distributor, but he needs to add some semblance of a scoring game or a strong defensive presence in order to truly be effective. Steven Barnett has been very poor so far, actually among the least efficient players in the conference, so this area of weakness may determine how far the Bisons can go this year. I’ll predict a 10-6 conference record, good enough for fourth in the division. It won’t be an easy start (at home against DSU, at UAM, at SAU, vs UCA), but I think the Bisons will be fine.

5. Arkansas Tech (9-2)

The Wonder Boys have really surprised me this year, starting off incredibly strong at 9-2 after a terrible ’04-’05 campaign. Their schedule has been remarkably weak, though, so only a few of those wins have been quality wins. Still, they avenged an early-season loss to Missouri-St. Louis, and their only other loss was to a very large D-I team, Colorado State. Forward Rone Smith is again among the conference’s most efficient players, and ATU has added scoring from Denarryl Rice, solid play from sharp-shooter Andrew Stanek, and a good inside game from Ike O’Hanson. I predicted this team to finish last at the beginning of the season, but I clearly can’t do that now. I don’t think they will continue their torrid start, but I can envision an 8-8 conference record (17-10 overall) and a fifth-place finish, good enough for the last spot in the conference tournament.

6. Henderson State (3-4)

If there was ever a talented, but ultimately uncoachable team, this may be it. The Reddies have been in free-fall mode since Rand Chappell left the program to coach at UCA before last season, amassing a roster full of me-first, good one-on-one players that just can’t play together as a team. I’m afraid to say much more, fearing for my life, but I’m reminded somewhat of the last 10 years of Portland Trailblazers teams. Dedric Spooner, who initially signed with Charlotte after his JUCO career, was one of the GSC’s best players last year, but he has been a mystery this year. Randy George, Brandon Daniels, and Murray State transfer Kelvin Brown have been solid so far, but I just don’t know what to expect. Coach Joe Redmond has another monumental task this year, as the talent in the GSC West should make every game a tough contest. The Reddies have yet to lose to any really bad teams, but their only quality win was against West Georgia, a team that came back and beat them a month later. I’m reluctant to predict anything higher than this sixth-place finish, but the Reddies could really end up anywhere in the standings and not surprise me. Right now, I think they’ll finish a disappointing 6-10 in conference (12-14 overall), two games out of the last playoff spot.

7. Ouachita Baptist (7-5)

This initially appeared to be a rebuilding year for Charlie Schaef and his staff at OBU, but the Tigers have a couple of quality wins against Missouri Western and Midwestern State, along with some tough, close losses. They managed to finish their non-conference schedule over .500, which is usually a good sign, so they may be more competitive this year than I originally thought. Still, they lack a truly good player. Leading scorer Lucky Butler has been solid, but not spectacular, and I think this team just doesn’t have the talent on paper to win a lot of GSC games. This team is sort of the opposite of cross-town rival Henderson State, a team without a ton of talent, but still with the capability to win a few games. I see them also finishing 6-10 in the West (14-15 overall), tied with the Reddies for sixth place.

8. Christian Brothers (5-4)

The fate of the CBU Buccaneers this year rests squarely in the hands of sophomore forward Kevin Weybright, who is already one of the GSC’s best players. He is currently the conference’s second-leading scorer (to HU’s Lonnie Smith) and is fourth in PER. Sam Bradley has been a solid second option, but that’s basically it for this team. With zero quality wins (and no impressive losses, either), I could have put either them or Southern Arkansas in last place. Both teams will struggle, but at least Christian Brothers has a winning record so far. I think they will finish GSC play at 4-12, winning just enough home games to stay out of the cellar.

9. Southern Arkansas (3-8)

I thought this might be a year for improvement in Magnolia, with a new coach (from D-I, no less) and a young team that lost practically no one from last year’s awful team. That, however, is the problem. This is still not a good team, although they are probably better than last year’s version. Arkansas Tech has shown the marked improvement I expected out of SAU this year, leaving the Muleriders as this year’s cellar dwellers. Only Henderson State shares their losing record so far, but the Reddies still have three non-conference games remaining, while SAU’s non-conference games are done. Kenny Langhorne has been a standout, but this is still not a good team. The Muleriders do have a quality win against Midwestern State and a quality loss at D-I Tulsa, but the confidence I got from those games was quickly erased. SAU was blown out in the rematch with MSU and in the game following the Tulsa loss, an inexplicable 73-37 loss to SE Oklahoma State. I see a 2-14 conference record in their future, making their final mark an ugly 5-22.

Now, on to the players. My revised all-conference teams are as follows:

All-GSC 1st Team:
Jasper Johnson, DSU (Player of the Year)
Johnathan Holland, UAM
Kevin Weybright, CBU
Lonnie Smith, HU
Jeremy Richardson, DSU

All-GSC 2nd Team:
Kenny Langhorne, SAU
Nate Newell, UAM
Rone Smith, ATU
M’Jumbe Williams, UAM
Kelvin Brown, HSU

All-GSC Newcomer Team:
Jasper Johnson, DSU
M’Jumbe Williams, UAM
Kelvin Brown, HSU
Brandon Sims, HU
Alassane Savadogo, HU

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