These previews are intended to be in the style of Basketball Prospectus’ ongoing D-I previews. See part 1 of their Pac-10 team previews here for an example.
We’ll save the best for first, just because I was the most excited to preview the Bisons. You’ll have to forgive me. I’ll do the rest of the West in near-alphabetical order, starting with Arkansas Tech on Wednesday.
What Harding Did Well (in 2006-2007): Play solid overall defense.
It’s not something you really think about, given Harding’s comparatively fast-paced style, but the Bisons played solid defense all year. Only Henderson State was consistently better than Harding at defending shots of any type.
The Bisons’ overall defensive efficiency was 96.3 (that’s .963 points per possession allowed), second-best in the division. They didn’t achieve it through turnovers (a league average turnover rate of 16.5 wouldn’t explain it), but they did several other things well. All of these things are obscured if you only look at game-level stats, but when you adjust for pace, you can really see how that played to their advantage, at least on that end of the court.
First, the Bisons were the best GSC West team at defending the three, holding opponents to 31.2% shooting from beyond the arc. At the same time, they forced opponents to settle for those lower-percentage shots. Harding opponents took 36.6% of their shots from 3-point range, a figure that only UAM and SAU eclipsed.
Second, Harding held opponents to 49.5% shooting from inside the arc, which was basically a league-average rate, but that’s more impressive when you consider that the Bisons played with a smaller (and faster) lineup than most teams. Also impressive is that the Bisons did a pretty good job keeping opponents from getting second chances, pulling down 71% of their defensive rebound chances, compared to a league average of 68.8%.
The Bisons’ fast pace may not have helped on offense, where their 105.1 rating was exactly the league average, but it certainly did on the defensive end. If Coach Morgan feels like his team has a competitive advantage in conditioning, helped along by the Bisons’ tendency to play a smaller, faster team, then this is probably not a bad way to implement it.
What we learned in 2007: A more limited version of Matt Hall is still one of the top three players in the conference.
The very best offensive players have a way of doing two things well: using a high percentage of his team’s offensive possessions, and doing so with a high efficiency rating. Hall was eclipsed only by CBU’s Kevin Weybright in that regard last season. Only Nate Newell “produced” (not scored) more points through his play than did Hall, though you could argue (and I have) that Newell’s points often came at the expense of some of his better teammates.
Hall is now the two-time defending GSC West POY (going back to his last full year), and he’ll be returning for what I’m hoping is a more successful senior season.
What’s in store for 2008: More high expectations.
Harding was picked first in the division in last year’s preseason coaches poll, and this year, the rest of the division seems to have come to the proper conclusion that Christian Brothers is actually the team to beat. Still, the coaches rate Harding #2, and that expectation is not without merit.
Players who received minutes last year and are gone are: Patrick Andrepont, Reggie Bibb, Brandon Sims, Cole Kee, Rick Hamilton, and Jordan Wise. They accounted for 48.6% of offensive possessions (and about the same percentage of minutes) and an aggregate efficiency rating of 101.5, a fair amount below the team’s average. Still, that’s a lot of production to replace, even if some of it (Kee, Andrepont) wasn’t great production.
With Hall returning, there’s still a go-to scorer, but that hasn’t been a problem in recent years. Finding a second scorer has, and I’m not sure any of the returning players are going to provide that. Based on seniority and last year’s playing time, you would expect the starting lineup to include Barnett and Trent Morgan at guard, Hall and Howard (?) at forward, and Thies at center. That would leave the team with no shooting threat at guard, and only one real scoring threat up front in Hall.
So, where might the Bisons go to replace all of that lost production?
The most promising incoming talent is Rivals 3-star recruit Kevin Brown. After all of his years as an ace pitcher, Brown has decided to use his remaining years of basketball eligibility at Harding. (What…this is a different Kevin Brown?) Seriously, this Kevin Brown is a freshman out of Hughes, the same HS that produced former Bison sharpshooter Lonnie Smith. Brown is a 6’5″ forward who averaged 21 points and 13 rebounds during his senior year, leading Hughes to the 3A state finals. If Coach Morgan doesn’t redshirt him, I imagine that he’ll step in immediately as a starter (and possibly as a #2 scoring threat).
The revolving door of shooting guards will likely continue this year, with Tarleton State transfer Chris Dixon and JC transfers Calvin Rayford and Matt Garner the likely combatants for playing time. Dixon hasn’t played many meaningful games at all in recent years, but he did shoot 42% from outside in his short time at the D-II level. Rayford (a junior) and Garner (soph) have similar profiles, with both scoring about 8 ppg and making nearly 2 threes per game at the JC level.
5’11” freshman point Alex Beene will also be another consideration for guard time, if he doesn’t redshirt. He would be the likely backup for Steven Barnett, even though his HS stats suggest that he may have the higher ceiling as a player. Beene will make the long journey to Harding from Searcy’s own Harding Academy, where he averaged 20 points, 4.8 assists, and 2.6 steals per game as a senior. Even more remarkably, he averaged four made threes per game, shooting 50% from outside. That’s some serious long-range firepower.
Lastly, 5’11” Patrick Hester is also in the mix at guard. Hester averaged just 10 ppg at Bentonville HS, but he has a reputation for quickness. That’s about all I know.
There are really no newcomers with size, so it looks like the Bisons will be running the floor and trying to wear down the opposition for the foreseeable future. 6’6″ freshman Kirk Porter led Greene County Tech (HS) to the Arkansas 5A state finals, averaging 15 points and 7 boards, so he may see some reserve time (again, if he doesn’t redshirt). 6’7″ redshirt freshman Matt Ragsdale was a year ahead of Patrick Hester at Bentonville, averaging 12 and 6 during his senior season. I suppose he’s another bench possibility.
That’s the extent of my knowledge about these newcomers. If I had to guess based on reputation alone, having not seen any of them play, I’d guess that Brown will see the most minutes, possibly even taking a starting role. Dixon looks like the most proven option at guard, though the others (esp. the transfers) will probably be in the mix. Beene looks like a good player as well, so I wouldn’t mind seeing him get some early action.
Here’s my guess for the starting lineup and regular rotation:
C – Jacob Thies – needs to cut down on turnovers and become at least a slight offensive threat to take some pressure off the outside shooters – Brian Howard will probably also get minutes here
F – Matt Hall – he didn’t really look like as much of a physical player last year after the injury, so maybe we’ll see an even better Hall this year
F – Kevin Brown – if not right away, he could be a legitimate force one day
G – Trent Morgan – needs to vastly improve his shooting, both inside and outside the arc, though he’s already a solid defender – perhaps some of the transfers or Beene (or Kellen Morgan) will also get time here, allowing the Bisons to run a deep 3-guard set
PG – Steven Barnett – the junior point may never be a good shooter or scorer, and he still needs to cut down on his turnovers…but like Morgan, he’s a solid defender
To me, it’s a solid group of players, but the lack of size is somewhat concerning. I’ll be interested to see how Ragsdale/Brown/Porter/Howard handle playing inside, since even Hall does most of his damage now away from the basket. Conditioning will be important, and some improvements by returning players will be absolutely necessary if this team is actually going to finish second in the division. Let’s hope they’ve got it together a month from now.