Top MEAC storylines to watch in 2017-18:

1. North Carolina Central is looking to extend their MEAC regular season dominance with their fourth title in five years, but the Eagles lose nearly everyone from last year’s team, and the contenders behind them last year are loaded.

2. Robert McCullum (Florida A&M), Juan Dixon (Coppin State), and Ryan Ridder (Bethune Cookman) join the league as new head coaches, and all are interesting hires for a variety of reasons. McCullum is 63 and has had stops nearly everywhere. Dixon is of course a high profile former Terp, and he knows Baltimore but is short on experience. Ridder has an extensive Daytona network and is seemingly the perfect hire at Bethune Cookman.

3. Savannah State announced they’ll be transitioning back to D2 by the 2019-20 season, and to make matters worse, the Tigers were hit with second straight APR postseason ban.

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH:

1. Hampton– The Pirates finished 11-5 in a rebuilding year for Buck Joyner. That should be a terrifying notion for the rest of the MEAC, as the Pirates return everyone but Lawrence Cooks this year. Joyner has built a roster ideal for his physical, aggressive pressure defense with interchangeable parts, and I expect Hampton to leap back into the top 20 in terms of tempo. Joyner’s offensive attack will be led by dual ball handlers Jermaine Marrow and Kalin Fisher, who can both create offense off the dribble, but neither is what you would consider a reliable jump shooter. Marrow hit just 27 percent from 3, and he’s a volume shooter, while Fisher was even worse. That’s where Cooks’ absence will really be felt. TCU transfer Malique Trent will be a difference maker in the backcourt when he’s eligible come second semester. He’ll automatically become Joyner’s best on-ball defender, a perfect match for Joyner’s system. While Marrow and Fisher are the scorers, the heart of Hampton’s team is likely his deep, versatile wing corps. Akim Mitchell, A.J. Astroth, Lysander Bracey, Trey Carver and newcomer Greg Heckstall are all 6-foot-5-plus and are key to Joyner’s defense with their length, athleticism and versatility. The slashing Astroth is the most consistent offensive threat of that group, but Bracey has the highest ceiling if his jump shot improves, as his length on the ball is a mismatch in the MEAC. Carver has a wide body for the wing and has the tight end frame that Joyner loves to use in his press. The frontcourt has depth and athleticism as well, with Trevond Barnes leading the way. Barnes posted the league’s highests block rate and a 125 ORtg in MEAC play. With his ability to be used in pick-and-pop and stretch defenses, expect Joyner to run more halfcourt offense through him when the Pirates aren’t in transition. Charles Wilson-Fisher is yet another athletic frontcourt fixture that can play 3-5 and stretch defenses. 6-foot-8 Austin Colbert is eligible after stops at Illinois and Old Dominion and gives Joyner another high-level frontcourt option. With the Pirates more seasoned after a "rebuilding year" and nearly everyone returning, Joyner should be more aggressive with his press, and Hampton should be back at the top of the league. The lack of perimeter shooting could be Hampton’s downfall however, as Morgan State, Norfolk State and North Carolina Central are right behind.

2. Norfolk State– No team has been more consistent than Norfolk State in MEAC play than the Spartans since Robert Jones took over. NSU is coming off three straight 12-4 seasons, but they have yet to break through in the MEAC tournament and return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since the Kyle O’Quinn led team that upset Frank Haith’s second-seeded Missouri squad in 2011-12. This year, the Spartans are as good a bet as any to take the MEAC title, as they return Zaynah Robinson at the point, one of the league’s best distributor, penetrators and on-ball defenders. In MEAC play, Robinson was fourth in assist rate and sixth in steal rate while heading up Jones’ infamous "floppy defense" that makes it excessively difficult for opposing offenses to determine if they’re in 2-3, 3-2 or man. The "floppy defense" led to NSU posting the league’s highest-rated defense, but the offense was 11th in efficiency, which is even worse than it sounds because there were some BAD offenses in the MEAC. The inefficient offense was the result of the league’s third-worst turnover rate and 31 percent shooting from 3, and with Jonathan Wade gone, that shooting doesn’t seem likely to significantly improve. 6-foot-4 senior Kyle Williams is Jones’ most likely shooter to replace Wade’s production. Williams shot 34 percent from 3 last season but just 26 percent in MEAC play. The wing will also be bolstered by the return of Preston Bungei, Jones’ most versatile defender who’s capable of guarding 2-4 and is a havoc wreaker in the floppy defense. He’s unproven offensively, though, outside of some flashes as a penetrator from the perimeter. Two transfers figure to slot into major minutes in the backcourt/wing, with 6-foot-4 Derrik Jamerson adding some much needed sharp shooting from the JUCO ranks and Diesel Whitley coming in from Robert Morris as a slasher. Future point guard Mastadi Pitt and Nic Thomas provide depth behind Robinson. Jones has a strong frontcourt, assuming Jordan Butler returns from his indefinite suspension. Butler posted the second-highest block rate in the league and drew fouls at the highest rate on the offensive end. If Jones maintains Butler’s suspension, it will be a devastating loss for the Spartans. Alex Long slots in next to Butler and is another outstanding rim protector who had the league’s second-highest free throw rate. 6-foot-7 Stavian Allen is yet another versatile defender in Jones’ floppy defense and can play the 3 and 4. As you can probably gather, the Spartans shoot a ton of free throws and dominate the interior defensively, posting the nation’s 25th-best field goal percentage allowed at the rim. With three elite rim protectors (Butler, Long, Bungei) and a scheme that doesn’t allow a lot of interior shots to begin with, you have to hit jump shots to beat NSU – MEAC teams as a whole shot 32 percent from 3, the second-worst conference rate in the country. With the league’s best defense and one of the MEAC’s best floor generals, any improvement offensively would likely make the Spartans the team to beat. That is, of course, dependent on Butler’s status as well, and in an ominous sign, he’s not currently listed on the Norfolk State roster.

3. Morgan State– Todd Bozeman returns nearly everyone to a Morgan State team that went 11-5 last year, and most importantly, the duo of Tiwian Kendley and Phillip Carr return – both are MEAC POY candidates. With Kendley on the wing and Carr in the paint, Bozeman easily has his best team in Baltimore since back-to-back title teams in 2008-10. Kendley led the MEAC in usage and was second in shot rate (sixth and 18th nationally, respectively), and drew contact as a slasher off the wing at the league’s highest rate. Kendley did turn the ball over quite a bit, but his length and athleticism was valuable in Bozeman’s defensive scheme that places a high premium on entirely taking away the 3-point line with extended pressure from long, versatile wings. Last season’s Bears allowed a nation low 28 percent shooting from 3 while funneling offenses into the paint, as they disallowed attempts at a near top-50 rate. Offensively, the Bears are always going to be a two big, relentlessly slashing team. The focus of Bozeman’s offense is clearly Kendley on the wing, but Carr emerged as the more efficient offensive option in the paint with his ability to draw contact (a must for a Bozeman big) and step outside the lane on occasion. Carr was also named the MEAC’s Defensive Player of the Year and led the MEAC in defensive rebounding rate. Bozeman has depth in the frontcourt with David Syfax, Alex Ennis, oft-injured Azariah Sykes and Tyjhai Byers returning. That depth is essential, because the defensive scheme allows for a plethora of shots at the rim (eighth-highest rate in the country last year), and consequently a lot of fouls from the bigs (50th-highest foul rate nationally last year). Byers has the ability to turn into the high-level rim protector that Bozeman’s defense typically features, but the sophomore has to pair his 11 percent block rate with a significantly lower foul rate in his second season. He also has a very limited offensive game. Lost in the shuffle between Kendley and Carr was the solid season junior Martez Cameron had at the point. Cameron posted the league’s third-highest assist rate, but struggled with turnovers and shooting from basically anywhere on the floor. He displayed a quick first ste, and drew a lot of contact off the dribble, another Bozeman staple. Cameron’s running mate in the backcourt was Antonio Gillespie, who is Bozeman’s only consistent jump shooter, hitting 42 percent from deep in league contests. Tyler Streeter provides depth and defense on the wing when healthy and can guard 2-4. With Kendley and Carr, Morgan State has arguably the league’s best returning nucleus. The issue is that Bozeman’s scheme on both ends routinely exposes the Bears to several problems. 1) An over-reliance on offensive rebounding (the Bears are generally a top-five offensive rebounding rate team annually) leads to a lot of transition opportunities the other way, and the MEAC is a league that loves to run. 2) Funneling shooters off the 3-point line is a fine strategy in, say, a league like the Big Sky, where shooters litter rosters and a coach like Randy Rahe at Weber State recognizes that. But in a league like the MEAC, where teams shot the 3 at the second-worst clip as a conference and rosters are loaded with penetrators, it’s often counterproductive.

4. North Carolina Central– Under LeVelle Moton, the Eagles have been the dominant class of the MEAC for four of the last five years, losing only five league games in the last five years if you exclude the the 2015-16 season when they went 7-9. Unfortunately for Moton, this year’s Eagles might be trending toward that wayward rebuild season of two years ago. Moton enjoyed the fruits of having the nation’s most experienced roster, but when you have the oldest team in the country, you’re likely to follow up with one of the youngest. Moton essentially returns only two players from last year’s MEAC champs, and they aren’t even rotation regulars. Moton will once again be relying on transfers to restock, but his best teams have understandably been the veteran squads that bought into his nationally elite defense and "The Standard" (think "The Butler Way," but for a low-mid). The heart and soul of NCCU under Moton will always be a defense that extends pressure on the perimeter and stifles everything at the rim. It’s hard to score on a man-to-man defense when they have the nation’s 21st-best FG percent allowed at the rim while simultaneously holding teams to 29 percent shooting from 3, the third-best rate in the country. A sizable percentage of 3-point defense involves a certain amount of luck, but the sample size for Moton is significant at this point. In six of the past seven seasons, the Eagles have been a top-50 3-point percentage defense, and twice they’ve been in the top five. (The year the Eagles ran the MEAC regular season table, they were fourth nationally in both 2PT and 3PT percentage defense). Unfortunately for Moton, the 2015-16 rebuild season saw his defense fall off the map, and while this year’s team might not plummet to 1.11 points per possession, they certainly won’t be defending at a nationally elite level. That 2015-16 season even saw Moton use some zone, which is practically unheard of. Personnel wise, C.J. Wiggins needs to build off his promising freshman season of two years ago. He was essentially a non-factor in the point guard rotation last year when Moton replaced him with talented transfers, and Moton has JUCO transfer Alston Jones ready if Wiggins struggles on the ball. 6-foot-2 freshman Jordan Perkins could be a factor at the point as well if he doesn’t redshirt. Moton recruits to his defense, and that’s where JUCOs Larry McKnight and Brandon Goldsmith will fit in the backcourt, while Alex Mills could be Moton’s best shooter and freshman Reggie Gardner should provide immediate offense as well. Three D1 transfers will comprise NCCU’s frontcourt. Dom Reid (Niagara) is the most accomplished scorer of the three, while CSUN transfer Zac Douglass was a monster on the glass in the Big West when given the opportunity. Raasean Davis comes in from Kent State,and will be one of the biggest posts in the league at 6-foot-8 and 270 lbs. It’s essentially a given that the defense will drop off this year, as should the league’s most efficient offense from a year ago. Just how far depends on how quickly the slew of transfers pick up "The Standard."

5. Bethune-Cookman– I’m taking a bit of a flyer on the Wildcats in new head coach Ryan Ridder’s first season. Ridder is a seemingly fantastic hire with all his local connections, and he leveraged that into immediate dividends by landing Morehead State transfer Malik Maitland, a Daytona Beach native. Maitland appears to be eligible after receiving a waiver from the NCAA and will immediately be one of the best point guards in the league. Ridder was also able to keep high-scoring 6-foot-5 wing Brandon Tabb in the fold, and with a point guard like Maitland, Tabb’s efficiency should improve as he likely won’t need to jack up 300-plus 3-point attempts this year. He’s probably Ridder’s best defender as well. 6-foot-6 JUCO Armani Collins should be a factor immediately, as he’s able to play 2-4, as are fellow JUCOs Isaiah Bailey and Soufiyane Diakite, who come over from Morehead State with Maitland after they were involved in the infamous Sean Woods incident. Rounding out the backcourt is Jeff Altidort, who can play on the ball if Maitland’s waiver is for some reason denied, and Quvondo Johnson, another JUCO that Ridder will be relying on early. Two more JUCOs in Cletrell Pope and David Francis should provide Ridder with some glass eaters. Pope led all JUCOs in rebounding last season. Ulmer Manzie returns as a sophomore rim protector as well. There are a LOT of new faces around Tabb, including the man in charge on the bench, but if Maitland is indeed cleared and the JUCOs mesh quickly, Bethune Cookman could be a MEAC sleeper.

6. Maryland Eastern Shore– Total MEAC wins by UMES in the six seasons prior to Bobby Collins’ arrival: 26. Total MEAC wins by UMES in Collins’ three seasons at the helm: 27. The job Collins has done turning around a completely moribund program in Princess Anne deserves more national recognition. Collins has his work cut out for him in his fourth season at UMES, however, as he loses a lot of talent, especially in the frontcourt. A highly skilled interior threat has been a staple of Collins’ teams at UMES, from Buddy Myers to Dom Elliott to Bakari Copeland. I’m uncertain of who that torch gets passed to this year, leaving a veteran backcourt as the strength of this year’s Hawk squad. Logan McIntosh is a talented if erratic senior point guard, while Ryan Andino is one of the best volume 3-point shooters in the league off the ball. Ahmad Frost returns to the backcourt as well after taking a medical redshirt, and he can give Collins a second point guard in a small lineup. Dontae Caldwell shot 41 percent from 3 in MEAC play and is Collins’ best rebounder as a 6-foot-5 wing, which is good for Caldwell but bad for the Hawks. Isaac Taylor and Tyler Jones will comprise Collins’ frontcourt, with Taylor being the back-to-the-basket scorer and Jones the floor stretcher. Unfortunately, neither showed a strong rebounding game last year, and that’s an area UMES really struggled. Freshman Miyrne Thomas will be an immediate contributor on the glass with his athleticism at 6-foot-7. Defensively, Collins will mix in some 1-2-2 zone press, and that might be more of an option this year with the backcourt depth and relatively unproven frontcourt. Collins has shown a penchant to develop big men seemingly out of nowhere, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it happen again, whether it be veterans Taylor and/or Jones or a newcomer like Thomas.

7. Howard– It was a disappointing year for Kevin Nickelberry and the Bison, as injuries derailed what was supposed to be a probable MEAC title team before the season really even started. The most brutal loss came with uber-scorer James Daniel’s ankle injury just two games into the season. Daniel eventually transferred to Tennessee, but all of the available shots last year led to the emergence of 6-foot-6 wing C.J. Williams as one of the league’s more potent scorers. The slashing wing with a solid jump shot was Howard’s sole efficient scoring option on a team that finished 347th in offensive efficiency rating with a paltry 0.90 points per possession. Nickelberry will rely on a pair of highly talented freshmen in the backcourt, including a 17-year-old point guard in R.J. Cole, the best recruit Nickelberry has had at Howard. Cole comes from St. Anthony and will run the offense immediately. Off the ball will be Kai Tease, whose season ended before it began due to injury last year. He’s reportedly a lethal scorer off the dribble. Joining Williams on the wing is veteran Jalen Jones, a solid defender in Nickelberry’s 3-2 base defense, and Dalique Mingo, another versatile defender at 6-foot-2. The rest of the rotation will be rounded out by freshmen Nate Garvey as well as Kyle Foster, who should fill a role as a much-needed shooter. In the frontcourt, Nickelberry is looking for production out of a trio including Cameron Lewis, Michael Obindu and frosh Tyler Williams. Your guess is as good as mine as to who can provide any sort of paint production from that group. With a talented freshmen duo of Cole and Tease in the backcourt and the sophomore wing Williams, Howard has a potentially explosive but unproven scoring trio. Nickelberry is building his program with four-year players, rare for a low mid-major, and the Bison are at least a year away from being a true MEAC contender.

8. South Carolina State– Murray Garvin’s squad has one of the league’s best frontcourts, but he has to replace nearly his entire backcourt. Tashombe Riley becomes the focus of this year’s SCSU team, and the athletic 6-foot-7 4 could be a matchup nightmare if his jump shot continues to develop. Three sophomores look poised to make a jump at the 5 beside Riley. Ian Kinard, Ozante Fields and Damani Applewhite showed flashes of promise in the post last year, with the latter two having the higher ceilings thanks to their athleticism. Unfortunately, no one in the frontcourt defended at the rim with any measurable success, and the Bulldogs allowed the sixth-highest FG attempt rate at the rim last year, compounded by the fact that SCSU had the league’s lowest block rate. The problem was twofold for Garvin, as not only did he lack a shot blocker, but his backcourt simply didn’t stay in front of anyone – a death sentence in a penetration-heavy league like the MEAC. Garvin will rely on a healthy Ty Solomon to run the point, with J.J. Richardson running next to him as a volume shooter and SCSU’s best perimeter defender. A pair of JUCO slashers in Levar Harewood and Justin Jones should round out the backcourt. SCSU has to improve dramatically on the defensive end after finishing second to last in terms of efficiency rating. Better perimeter defense from the newcomers would help, but that won’t mask the fact that Garvin doesn’t have a shot blocker.

9. Savannah State– You have to love Horace Broadnax. How many veteran coaches would be willing to completely embrace an entirely different brand of basketball? After averaging around 64 possessions for 11 seasons at Savannah State, Broadnax installed "Tiger Tempo" and led the country with 81 possessions while attempting 3-pointers at the highest rate in the country. To say Savannah State played fast last year isn’t putting that statement into proper context. 44 percent of the Tigers’ shots came in transition – a full 10 percent higher than Duggar Baucom’s notorious "Loot and Shoot" at The Citadel. The Tigers’ average possession length was over a full second quicker than second fastest Marshall, and their 57.4 percent 3-point attempt rate was by far the fastest of the KenPom era (dating back to the 2001-02 season), with the widest gap between first and second highest rate as well. 6-foot-5 wing Dexter McClanahan will lead the Tiger Tempo attack this year after shooting nearly 200 3-pointers last year. A tetrad of ball handlers will run Broadnax’s fast break, with veterans Austin Dasent, Josh Floyd, Zach Sellers and newcomer Ty’lik Evans surrounding McClanahan. Evans should be a menace defensively in Broadnax’s pressure zone after leading the JUCO ranks in steals last year. Jahir Cabeza is Broadnax’s version of a stretch 4 at 6-foot-5, but he’s a solid rebounder and the Tigers’ best overall defender. Losing highly efficient Robert Kelly at the 5 really hurt, and JUCO Jahlin Smith and Javaris Jenkins figure to factor as the lone big on the floor along with Juwan Grant, whose twin brother John will be on the wing this year after they transferred in from the JUCO ranks as well. Unfortunately for Broadnax and the Tigers, Savannah State’s administration decided to transition down to D2, and this will be SSU’s second-to-last season as D1 members, and they’re under another APR postseason ban this year.

10. Delaware State– Keith Walker lost nearly all his scoring from last year making a significant move up the MEAC standings unlikely, but he does return at least some firepower. The Hornets will be centered around volume shooter Kavon Waller on the wing. Fellow senior wing Artem Tavakalyan should make a scoring jump as well with all the available shots. Kobe Gantz is an intriguing prospect on the ball as a sophomore for Walker. Gantz could be a matchup problem with his size at the point, but he has to make a massive improvement in his turnover rate as a sophomore. Look for frosh Pinky Wiley to run the point if the turnovers are still an issue. The Hornets have been one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the country the past two years, and some of that can be chalked up to Walker’s 3-2 zone. Walker is looking for a slew of JUCO transfers led by Daivon Gamble and Simon Okolue to shore that up. Walker is also confident two veterans, Demola Onifade and Joe Lewis, will make big jumps in the frontcourt. Onifade is the team’s best rim protector, while Lewis has to improve on a ghastly 67.8 ORtg.

=-11. North Carolina A&T– Jay Joyner’s squad won one game versus a D1 opponent last year, and it oddly came against NCCU on the final day of the regular season. The Aggie offense was terrible, but the defense was beyond horrific, allowing 1.23 point per possession, easily the worst mark in the country and the worst mark in the entirety of the KenPom database dating back to the 2001-02 season. The good news is that a slew of eligible transfers should improve that number immediately. Wagner transfer Aaren Edmead should start at the point immediately, and he’ll be one of the best on-ball defenders in the league as well. Bashir Mason at Wagner doesn’t recruit you if you can’t defend. Devonte Boykins is another option in the backcourt out of Georgia Southern, and he should make an immediate impact. Freshman Kameron Langley is a do-everything combo guard, while returnees Amari Hamilton, Raymon Pratt and Austin Williams will all factor into a suddenly deep backcourt. Hamilton could be in for the biggest scoring bump as the most likely candidate to take Sam Hunt’s vacated shots, as is wing Donte Watson. Davaris McGowens is Joyner’s top frontcourt option, as he turned in a surprisingly efficient season on the block last year and posted the league’s second-highest rebounding rate. Japhet Kadji, another Wagner transfer, should see immediate minutes at the 5, along with Oakland transfer Femi Olujobi. The Aggies should be improved from last year, especially defensively, but that’s a pretty low hurdle to clear.

12. Coppin State– Juan Dixon was certainly a splashy hire for Coppin State, but without much coaching experience and roster equally short on D1 experience, it will be interesting to see how this plays out, although I’m not one to count out Dixon given his track record as a person and player. Dixon does inherit Dejuan Clayton, who is coming off a quietly spectacular freshman year at the point, posting an ORtg of 116 in MEAC play and showing a penchant for getting into the paint off the dribble and drawing contact; he has plus jump shoot to boot as well. Dixon brought in Niagara transfer Karonn Davis to the backcourt as a secondary ball handler and two veterans in Tre Thomas and Lucian Brownlee are proven shooters. JUCO Lamar Morgan figures to start on the wing immediately, but the frontcourt is a major question mark. Dixon naturally hit the JUCO ranks to fill out the frontline, and Adam Traore has a MEAC ready game and should be one of the league’s best rebounders. Clayton alone gives Coppin State a chance to move up the rankings, but the Eagles are a team to watch mostly just to see what kind of style and scheme Dixon brings to Baltimore.

13. Florida A&M– The Rattlers are on their fifth head coach in the last 12 years, as grizzly vet Robert McCullum takes over for Byron Samuels. The 63-year-old McCullum has been an assistant nearly everywhere, and he was the head coach at USF and Western Michigan. McCullum ran a sort of modified flex offense in those two stops, preferring to get the ball to the rim as often as possible, but the hallmark of his teams came on the defensive end, where they were excellent at clogging the lane and protecting the rim. The good news for McCullum is that his best inherited player fits that bill on both ends. Desmond Williams is undersized, but he led the Rattlers in scoring, rebounding and blocks, and he’s an absolutely perfect starting point for McCullum’s style of basketball. Leon Williams is another solid frontcourt piece returning from injury. The backcourt is led by Marcus Barham, a volume shooter who hit at 40 percent from 3 in MEAC play and is the Rattlers’ best overall defender in the backcourt at 6-foot-4. Veterans Nasir Core and Craig Bowman and freshman Kamron Reaves will all compete for point guard minutes, while Justin Ravenel is a volume shooter who led the MEAC at 44 percent from deep. He’s going to have to improve his defense, however, if he’s going to continue to see significant minutes for McCullum. It’s going to be a total rebuild for the old school McCullum, but he has a roster in place capable of playing his scheme.

FINAL OUTLOOK: The MEAC should be an interesting four-team race between Hampton, Norfolk State, Morgan State and NCCU, with the winner seemingly destined for Dayton.

MEAC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Tiwian Kendley, Morgan State

ALL MEAC FIRST TEAM:
Tiwian Kendley, Morgan St
Phillip Carr, Morgan St
Jermaine Marrow, Hampton
Brandon Tabb, Bethune Cookman
Charles Williams, Howard

ALL MEAC SECOND TEAM:
Zaynah Robinson, Norfolk St
Tashombe Riley, South Carolina St
Dom Reid, North Carolina Central
Trevond Barnes, Hampton
Dexter McClanahan, Savannah St

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