The non-conference portion of our 2014-15 Seton Hall Basketball Preview Series came to a conclusion on Sunday with a look at the Maine Black Bears. With all ten schools that the Pirates will face and the entire Paradise Jam Field now analyzed, a ranking of the Hall's opponents is in order before the Big East is dissected starting this Sunday.
Venue, returning players, coaching changes and more will all be taken into account below. Seton Hall's most likely opponents in round two and three of the Paradise Jam (Clemson, Gardner-Webb, LSU, & Illinois State) will be appropriately included in the rankings, but not assigned a number.
After the schools are graded from 10 (weakest) to 1 (strongest), I will take another shot at placing the Hall's opponents in RPI categories, like I did here prior to last season (and at the bottom of this article are how the predictions turned out.)
Without further ado, the rankings:
New head coach Bob Walsh has a major rebuilding project on his hands after the 338th-best team in the country last year, according to KenPom, loses two of its three top scorers to transfer.
The only way that Seton Hall will face Gardner-Webb is if they lose to Nevada in the first round of the Paradise Jam. Clemson will be heavily favored to knock off the Big South squad while the Pirates will be favored to edge Nevada.
Tim Craft loses his second and third leading scorers from a team that finished in the bottom third of the country last season. Gardner-Webb only beat one team (Morehead State, No. 180) in the top-200 of KenPom a season ago.
The Mount reached the NCAA tournament last season, but were quite fortunate to do so. Head coach Jamion Christian loses his top-three scorers from 2013-14 and will look to incoming transfers Chris Martin (Marshall) and Andrew Smeathers (Butler) to keep his team in NEC contention.
Like Mount St. Mary's, Mercer reached last year's NCAA tournament, beating Duke in the round-of-64. Also like The Mount, Bob Hoffman's team loses significant talent in six key starters. The Bears will have to rely on role players off of last season's bench and a trio of junior college transfers this winter.
The Antigua brothers will combat high roster turnover in the wake of fired head coach Stan Heath after two graduated players and seven transfers departed in the off-season. One of just three players returning from the Bulls' 2013-14 roster is point guard Anthony Collins, who is coming off a medical redshirt season due to knee tendinitis.
The Mountain West school has added a few talented players via junior college, but the departed trio of Deonte Burton, Cole Huff, and Jerry Evans Jr. will be a tough hill to climb. Those three players alone accounted for around 62-percent of Nevada's scoring last season.
In a surprise move to some, John Dunne's squad is No. 5 on my list. While a handful of teams with question marks precede Saint Peter's on this list, the Peacocks lose just one player of note, Chris Burke, from the team that upset Seton Hall at Prudential Center last season. Key players Desi Washington and Marvin Dominique will look to knock off the Hall for the second time in a row.
Dan Muller's squad is my darkhorse pick for the Paradise Jam and a team that can give Wichita State a scare in the Missouri Valley this season. Illinois State lose two players from their rotation, but add two junior college transfers that averaged 20 ppg last season as well as forward MiKyle McIntosh, who received offers from UCLA and Miami (Fla.) but ultimately had to sit last season due to academic ineligibility. If these three players can mesh well with the rest of the Redbirds' core, I wouldn't be surprised to see them upset LSU.
The scenario for Seton Hall to meet Illinois State is if the Hall loses to Clemson and ISU loses to LSU in the second round of the Paradise Jam -- the schools would then meet in the third place game. In my view, this is the most likely route for both schools to take, assuming they can dispatch of Nevada and Weber State in the first round, respectively.
As always, this meeting of local rivals projects to be a dog fight. Three key players in J.J. Moore, Wally Judge, and Jerome Seagears have departed, but the Myles Mack and Kadeem Jack attack will be Eddie Jordan's go-to combo while youngsters like Junior Etou and Mike Williams will be looked upon to contribute early and often.
Mike Lonergan will be without key duo Maurice Creek and Isaiah Armwood, but returns three double-digit scorers in Kethan Savage, Patricio Garino, and Kevin Larsen from last year's NCAA tournament team. It should be noted that Savage missed significant time last season and is therefore a question mark, much like South Florida's Anthony Collins.
It can be argued that LSU should be between George Washington and Rutgers, or perhaps even ranked lower, due to losing around 65-percent of their scoring from 2013-14. However, the Tigers will add talented UNC-Asheville point guard Keith Hornsby, All-American shooting guard Josh Gray, and Elbert Robinson, a 7-foot top-75 center. Like Georgia, LSU fell in the second round of the NIT this spring.
Clemson comes in ahead of LSU since they only lose one starter from last season, though K.J. Daniels, who left for the NBA a year early, was by far their most talented player. These Tigers reached the semi-final of the NIT at Madison Square Garden last season and will look to take the next step, an NCAA berth, without Daniels.
Mark Fox's team bowed out in the second round of the NIT last year and look to make NCAA noise this time around; only two players of note are gone from Georgia's 20-win team. The Dawgs were 14-2 at their on-campus venue last season, but that should be partially negated by this clash being scheduled during winter break.
I proposed in my preview that Seton Hall's trip to Wichita may be one of their toughest road games in recent history, second to only Duke (05-06), Louisville (03-04), and Michigan State (01-02) since the Amaker era. The Shockers lose Cleanthony Early from their 35-1 season that ended against Kentucky in the round-of-32 and will have a few question marks in their frontcourt, but guards Fred Van Vleet, Ron Baker, and Tekele Cotton look to be one of the best backcourts in the country this year.
RPI category projections:
RPI 1-50 (Great schedule): @ Wichita State, @ Georgia
RPI 51-100 (Good schedule): vs. Clemson, George Washington (-), vs. LSU (-)
RPI 101-200 (Neutral): vs. Nevada, Saint Peter's, Illinois State (+), Rutgers (-)
RPI 201-250 (Bad): vs. Gardner-Webb, Mount St. Mary's (-), Mercer, @ South Florida
RPI 251+ (RPI killer): Maine
* - potential opponent; (+) - potential to move up a bracket; (-) - potential to move down a bracket