What do Saint Louis and Massachusetts have in common? Both teams hired new coaches in the last 2 seasons, and those new coaches went out and played the hell out of the transfer market. Travis Ford went out and immediately grabbed Adonys Henriquez (UCF), Javon Bess (Michigan St.), and D.J. Foreman (Rutgers). All 3 players had to sit out last season but will take the floor once more this year.
All of a sudden, Saint Louis’ expectations have skyrocketed. A team that finished 13th in the A-10 2 seasons ago and 11th last year is now the “surprise” pick to climb the leaderboard — some even say the Billikens could finish as high as 4th or 5th in the league. It’s almost as if picking SLU to finish in the top half of the league is no longer an “upset” pick. The popular pick is to have the Billikens ascending at least 5 slots in the conference standings.
Let’s take a step back. While the Billikens should be much-improved, it’s easy to jump the gun when a ton of new transfers get drawn into the equation. Let’s look at La Salle last year. The Explorers were 14th in the conference in 2015-16, but once Dr. Giannini secured the commitments of Powell, Henry, Johnson, and more, the Explorers were a popular pick to finish in the top 6. I certainly thought La Salle had a chance at cracking the Top 5, and though the Explorers got off to a hot start in conference play, they’d defuse down to the 8th spot.
Transfers are not the end all be all to a team’s progression, but if we look at La Salle now, the Explorers are a whole heck of a lot better off thanks to outside additions. B.J. Johnson is the returning leading scorer, and he’ll have a chance at first team All-Conference after averaging less than 5 points per game at Syracuse. Pookie Powell comes into the A-10 quietly as one of the best point guards in the conference. At the end of the day, La Salle was not one of the best in the league, but the Explorers jumped 6 spots in the conference standings, and if we’re looking at why, we can’t ignore an influx of incoming transfers as a major reason.
So let’s look at Saint Louis. The Billikens not only add the 3 aforementioned transfers, but they bring in 2 top 100 recruits and keep a number of weapons from last year like Davell Roby and up-and-coming players Elliott Welmer and Jalen Johnson. If SLU was able to finish 11th last year without the addition of all this new talent, what can the 2017-18 season bring? I don’t want to make the same mistake I did last year and assume that incoming transfers automatically leads to a Top 5 finish in the league; that being said, there’s reason to believe Saint Louis is more suited for a significant climb in the A-10 standings than La Salle was last season.
That brings us to Massachusetts. The Minutemen are more or less “next in line” in this transfer influx. The Minutemen fire their head coach and bring in a new one, and subsequently, Matt McCall adds 4 impact transfers that have to sit out a season. Next year, we could be saying the same thing about the Minutemen that we’re saying about the Billikens right now. They’ll have Rashaan Holloway and LuWane Pipkins around as well as rising sophomores. Not to mention, who will McCall be able to secure in the 2018 freshman class?
Keon Clergeot, Curtis Cobb, Kieran Hayward, and Jonathan Laurent will add a lot to this program; it’s just going to take a year for them to sit out and become eligible. So when we ask how good can Massachusetts be in 2018-19, we’ll have to look at teams that have gone through similar large-scale changes: La Salle and Saint Louis. The Explorers made a big jump — maybe not as big as some may have thought, but certainly significant. Saint Louis is poised to make a run up the league standings. Then it’s Massachusetts’ time. It will be interesting to see how an array of high-level transfers will affect the two of these programs in the next few years.