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Wayne Cavadi | NCAA.com | September 26, 2019

DII men's basketball preseason rankings: The top 25, projected

Northwest Missouri State claims the 2019 DII Men's Basketball Championship

The 2019-20 DII men's basketball season tips off Nov. 1 when defending national champion Northwest Missouri State and seven others take the court in the Small College Basketball Hall of Fame Classic. The Bearcats, who ran the table in a historic 2019 season, should enter the season No. 1 and look to extend their 38-game winning streak.

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Before the season gets rolling, and before the NABC preseason poll comes out, let's take a look at how the top 25 could look. First, let's explain how we got to these 25 teams.

The way things ended last season figured heavily into my preseason top 25. After studying rosters, stats and the 2019 DII men's basketball bracket, I came up with 30 to 35 teams I thought should be in the preseason top 25 poll. I then contacted those coaches and SIDs to find out more about under-the-radar freshmen or transfers expected to make an impact. That helped shape where the teams fell into place and was well worth it to come up with what we believe is a fair and sensible top 25.

Let's get to it. 

DII men's basketball preseason top 25: The top 5 

No. 1 Northwest Missouri State

File under no-brainer. Let's review how last season went down in Maryville. The Bearcats entered the 2019-20 season seen by many as rebuilders, losing three of the big pieces that led them to the 2017 national championship. Instead, then-freshman Trevor Hudgins blossomed into one of the best players DII had to offer, fellow freshman Diego Bernard became an exciting spark plug that worked his way into the starting rotation. Ryan Hawkins became one of the biggest X-factors on the court, a player who was less flashy than the Bearcats stars, but seemingly had 10 points and 10 rebounds while stuffing the paint every night.

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Somehow, that rebuilding team went 38-0 and pretty much dominated its way to the championship. Now, they lose Joey "Buckets" Witthus, but all those other guys? They return, along with Ryan Welty, Kirk Finley, and Tyler Dougherty — each played pivotal roles in that perfect season. This team is set up for another deep run and it's fair to think they'll be the first repeat champions in the last 25 years of DII men's basketball.

No. 2 Bellarmine

It seems like this has become the norm in Louisville, Kentucky. Head coach Scott Davenport has built a perennial contender who defends its home court better than anyone. The Knights went from Dec. 13, 2014, to Feb. 3, 2019, without losing at Knights Hall. This new incarnation looks to start those winning ways once again.

So, why am I so high on a team that loses two of its top scorers from a season ago, one of which — Adam Eberhard — leaves Bellarmine as one of the most prolific players in program history? Two reasons, really. Alex Cook and Ben Weyer are legitimate Bevo Francis Award contenders and it's their turn to lead the Knights as the Eberhard era comes to an end. CJ Fleming and Dylan Penn logged valuable minutes as reserves last year and will step into expanded roles while Eastern Kentucky transfer Pedro Bradshaw should make a big impact. The Knights are alive and well and should be exciting once again in 2019-20.

No. 3 West Liberty

The heart and shooting of Dalton Bolon get West Liberty this lofty ranking. Bolon was one of the more remarkable stories from the 2019-20 season. He led the top scoring offense in DII men's basketball, dropping 20.7 points per night. And he did it all with one eye, wearing an eye patch after suffering nerve damage in the summer. 

Bolon returns as a serious Bevo Francis Award contender — this year ditching the eye patch for goggles. So does Will Yoakum, the second-leading scorer in DII's most potent offense. The Hilltoppers were the only team to average more than 100 points per game last season. Preston Boswell, who sat out last year after transferring, and Patrick Robinson, the CACC 2019 freshman of the year, make for a pair of interesting transfers that should immediately impact West Liberty. And keep your eyes on Bryce Butler as the next big freshman to come out of West Liberty. Historically speaking, we know that any team that faces the Hilltoppers will have to score points just to keep up, and this rendition of West Liberty looks like more of the same.

No. 4 Nova Southeastern

Unlike No. 3 West Liberty who returns its best player, the No. 4 Sharks lose one of the single most important players in program history. David Dennis helped lead Nova Southeastern to its first tournament appearance last year, getting the Sharks all the way to the Elite Eight.

But Nova Southeastern should be just fine. Head coach Jim Crutchfield began his career as the architect of West Liberty's high-flying offense and brought that tempo and style — and Dennis — with him to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, two years ago. In turn, the Sharks turned into an offensive powerhouse, finishing behind West Liberty last season averaging 96.6 points per game.

Mark Matthews returns and he, too, is yet another Bevo Francis Award contender populating the top 10. Three-point specialist Mikkel Kolstad — who shot 51.9 percent from downtown in 2019 —  is also back as is Nick Smith and Connor Zinaich who averaged 19.7 points in just half a season a year ago. A trio of intriguing transfers — Bryce Schneider, RJ Sunahara, and Matt Weir — give the Sharks depth while freshmen Shane Hunter, Jake Maranville, and Tommy Sala give us players to watch. 

No. 5 West Texas A&M

This may be a little aggressive in the rankings. But head coach Tom Brown has created a model of consistency in Canyon, Texas, with the Buffs reaching the round of 16 three years in a row and the Elite Eight the past two seasons. 

It's true that a lot of those pieces are gone, but last year's Buffs overcame the loss of David Chavlovich — the Lone Star Conference's all-time leading scorer — and made it right back to the Elite Eight. Qua Grant and Joel Murray were big reasons why, who performed extremely well as freshmen and should only be better come this season. Transfers John Brown and Jon'il Fugett  join the mix while freshman Zach Toussaint was a scoring machine in high school. There may be a learning curve early in the season, but West Texas A&M should be competitive once more.

DII men's basketball preseason top 25: The next 5 

No. 6 Missouri Southern

If I were going to pick a preseason player of the year, it could be the Lions' Cam Martin. The 6-9 junior dominated last season, averaging 22.5 points and 9.7 rebounds per game. He exploded into the national spotlight with a 46-point outburst in the first round of the DII men's basketball tournament and helped lead the Lions to the round of 16. Here's what makes Martin most dangerous, however. All four of his fellow starters are back and could give the Bearcats fits, especially if they meet again in the tournament.

No. 7 Queens (NC)

Lincoln Memorial is returning a tough squad and could make things tough for the Royals, but both teams are capable of contending in the top 10. Head coach Bart Lundy has had Queens (NC) in the rankings for 60 consecutive weeks, and while it will be tough to replace Mr. Double-Double Shaun Willett, the Royals return three starters, including likely Bevo Francis candidate Daniel Carr. Both Jordan Oakley and Peanut Cunningham are interesting transfers to monitor while incoming freshmen AJ McKee — the best defensive player in North Carolina high schools — Gavin Rains, and Jay'Den Turner could get into the mix much sooner than later.

No. 8 Tarleton State

The Texans' success starts with senior forward Josh Hawley. Always a beast on defense, Hawley came out of the gates hot at the opening SCB Hall of Fame Classic and never slowed down. While starters Randall Broddie and Jaraan Land — who returns after missing all but seven games last year — are back, it is the incoming transfers and freshmen, nine to be exact, that could make the largest impact. Zach Naylor,  who transfers in from Ole Miss, gives Hawley a dangerous guard to work with and forms a scary starting five. 

No. 9 Lincoln Memorial

Two years ago, the Railsplitters looked unstoppable with the exciting trio of Trevon Shaw, Dorian Pinson and Emanuel Terry leading the way. They lost all three last season and still found a way to win 20 games for the tenth year in a row. Unlike two seasons ago when the Railsplitters lost so much, they return seven of their eight top scorers and have eight newcomers, which should be led by Devin Whitfield who redshirted after transferring last year, scoring 20.5 points the last time he played DII basketball in 2017-18.

No. 10 St. Edwards

Another Hilltoppers enter the top 10. Head coach Andre Cook has had some up-and-down seasons with St. Edward's, but last year was one of historic proportions. The Hilltoppers set the program record with 30 wins and return all five starters from a team that made it all the way to the round of 16. The biggest challenge will be adapting to a tough Lone Star Conference schedule that has plenty of star power, but that experience — headed up by likely Bevo Francis candidate Ashton Spears — plus interesting transfer Jake Krafka, should make the Hilltoppers tough in 2019-20.

How the rest of the DII men's basketball top 25 unfolds: Nos. 11-25

This is where it gets tricky. The next 15 teams are all super competitive and could fall anywhere into the mix. Here is the rest of the top 25 with a caveat that I predict a lot more movement here than in the top 10.

No. 11 Alabama-Huntsville: The Chargers improved from a 16-win team in 2018 to a 24-win team in 2019, earning a tournament berth. The three top scorers return for new head coach John Shulman, while transfer Triston Chambers and freshman Nathan Moore are players to watch.

No. 12 Findlay: Three returning starters, two All-Ohio freshmen, and two big transfers will have the Oilers competitive once again. Findlay has won at least 25 games in each of the past three seasons, and there's little reason to think they aren't capable of doing it once more. 

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No. 13 Davenport: The Panthers improved by 14 wins last season and four big returners from that team are back, including Avery Hudson who averaged 15.3 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 5.0 assists per game. Evan Hines, a transfer from MSU Moorhead who sat out last year, should be an instant impact and a player to watch.

No. 14 Indiana (Pa): The Crimson Hawks lose a lot of firepower, but head coach Joe Lombardi always seems to get the most out of his players. Malik Miller is an early player-of-the-year candidate and three DI transfers should provide IUP with the depth it needs to stay competitive. 

No. 15 Southern Nazarene: Leading scorer Jhonathan Dunn returns as does starter Micah Speight who scored 14.5 points per game while dishing out a team-best 180 assists. This team has 56 wins over the past two seasons and is showing they are a force to reckoned with in the Great American Conference. 

No. 16 Azusa Pacific: The Cougars return six players who saw significant minutes in 2019, including Selom Mawugbe who should find his way onto the Bevo Francis watchlist. The addition of Brennan Rymer from Alaska Anchorage — who scored 9.6 points with 4.1 rebounds and a team-high 134 assists last year — should be impactful right out of the gate.

No. 17 USC Aiken: Three starters return from a 27-win team. That includes Xzavier Barmore, who scored 18.5 points and dished out 193 assists in a record-setting season. 

No. 18 Colorado School of Mines: Expect a bigger and more athletic team in 2019-20, which is impressive considering last year's rendition reeled off 25 wins. Three starters return and transfer Kobi Betts should make an instant impact while Kai Barr is a freshman to keep tabs on in 2020.

No. 19 Concordia (CA): Returning starters Kayle Knuckles, Robert Taylor and Jamel White will have plenty of experience with key reserves Austin Clarke, Cameron English and Kyle Gray — who all appeared in more than 30 games each last season — back for an expanded role. This team fell just short of a big run in the DII men's basketball tournament last year.

No. 20 Lewis: The Flyers ended a 25-win season at the buzzer as one of No. 8 seeded Southern Indiana's three upsets on its run to the semifinals. You can be sure returning starters Anthony D'Avanzo, Donovan Oliver, and Adam Pischke will use that as fuel to fire off another big run. 

No. 21 Ashland: Four starters return, including Drew Noble who should be on your player of the year watchlist. 

No. 22 Catawba: Devin Cooper and Marcell Hasket return from a 25-win team that nearly defeated Queens (NC) in the second round of the 2019 DII men's basketball tournament. Four big transfers should give the Indians plenty of depth.

No. 23 Florida Southern: Jonathan Lawton — who was one of the most fun players to watch in DII men's basketball last season — is gone. But the Mocs have four big transfers, freshman Malik Jordan and two starters returning, including Brett Hanson who should find himself in early Bevo Francis talks. 

No. 24 Daemen: The Wildcats return four players from the starting rotation last season including Andrew Sischo, one of DII's elite big men who averaged a double-double last season. Daemen has improved its win total in each of the last three seasons, culminating with its NCAA tournament debut last season. I expect big things this year.

No. 25 UC San Diego: Four of the five starters return, including Chris Hansen who led the team with a 14.6 scoring average while pulling down a team-best 8.1 rebounds. If Christian Oshita is healthy — who averaged 19.5 points in his first four games before succumbing to a shoulder injury — the Tritons could be very dangerous. 

Others that could land in the preseason top 25

Augusta: Returns four of its top six scorers from a season ago, but will have to replace a lot in the paint with the loss of Deane Williams and Tyvez Monroe. 

Mercyhurst: The Lakers lost so much from that historic run to the Elite Eight, but the lasting impression of how they hung with Northwest Missouri State could merit them some votes.

Point Loma: It's hard to imagine the reigning national runners-up not in the preseason top 25, but the Sea Lions lost all five starters and will have a new head coach in 2019-20.

Saint Anselm: The Hawks didn't simply lose their best scorer, but one of the most prolific scorers in DII men's basketball in Tim Guers. Still, the returning starters should keep Saint Anselm competitive and garner them votes in the preseason poll. 

Seattle Pacific: The GNAC reigning conference tourney champions will garner some attention, especially with top scorer Gavin Long back. 

Southern Indiana: The dream run of the Screaming Eagles to the national semifinals was a fun one to watch. Replacing Alex Stein — who seemed to be the heart of this team the past few seasons — will be no easy task, but returners Kobe Caldwell, Emmanuel Little, and Mateo Rivera should be up for the task. 

Virginia State: Will be much younger than last year's team but could impress. 

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