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Cal Basketball

Prairie View A&M is Coming Off its Best Hoops Season in Recent History

September 16, 2019

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Byron Smith is entering his fourth season as a full-time head coach, but he has already taken the Prairie View A&M Panthers to a new level. Smith took over the program in 2017 after Byron Rimm was let go. In three quick years, Smith, who was an assistant under Rimm, led the Panthers to its highest KenPom ranking (209) and arguably its best team in program history, finishing 22-13 (17-1), winning both the Southwestern Athletic Conference regular-season and tournament titles en route to the team’s second-ever NCAA appearance. The 1998 Panther team, which also won regular-season and conference tournament titles is the only other team in program history to make the NCAA tourney.

However, Smith and the Panthers lost some key players and despite having a lineup full of seniors and juniors, Torvik’s preseason projections have the Panthers taking a step back.

Prairie View A&M Panthers

Last season: 22-13 (17-1), KenPom: 209

2020 Torvik Projection: 316

Head Coach: Byron Smith

Smith, who will turn 50 later this month, has been coaching since 1998 but got his first head coaching gig three years ago. So far, it’s been a success and if he keeps up the momentum he’s built in Prairie View, Texas — about 50 miles northwest of Houston — his name could start popping up for some mid-major or lower high-major programs.

Prairie View A&M has been a pretty bad program — finishing in the top-300 of KenPom’s rankings just three times since 2002. But since taking over the program, Smith has taken the Panthers to a KenPom ranking of 313 in 2017 to 269 in 2018 to 209 last season. That’s some significant improvement.

Smith has done it by building an elite turnover-forcing defense — something he likely picked up from Rimm. Last year, the Panthers turned over other teams at a rate of 24.7%, which was the best in the nation. The year before, the rate was 22.7%, or seventh in the country. Not surprisingly, the Panthers were in the top-10 in steals forced as well as non-steal turnovers forced. The Panthers were also adept at guarding the three-point line, forcing teams into a 31.2% season average, which was 28th in the country.

However, the Panthers were particularly bad at keeping teams off the free-throw line, guarding two-point shots, blocking shots, and keeping teams off the offensive glass. This was likely less of a coaching issue and more of a lineup issue as the Panthers’ two tallest players were just 6-7. Their next tallest was just 6-5. There were high school teams with taller lineups last year.

On offense, the Panthers were good at getting to the line themselves as well as minimizing steals from other teams. Other than that, they were pretty average or below average in all offensive areas. 

Key returners:

Devonte Patterson, 6-7, SR., 13.5 pts, 5.0 rbds, 1.3 stls, 1.3 assts

Gerard Andrus, 6-5, SR., 10.0 pts, 5.7 rbds, 1.1 stls, 1.0 assts

Darius Williams, 6-0, SR., 8.6 pts, 2.2 rbds, 1.1 stls

The three seniors above are the core of last year’s major contributors that are returning. Patterson, in particular, was very successful at drawing fouls last season, drawing 6.1 per 40 minutes, which was 66th out of all college players last season. Meanwhile, Darius Williams was in the top-100 for steal-rate last season. And Andrus led the team for offensive rebounding efficiency and protecting the ball with the lowest turnover rate.

Key incoming players:

Lenell Henry, 6-8, JR., 3.5 pts, 2.8 rbds (Northern Arizona)

Caleb Coleman, 6-7, JR. (JUCO)

Jawaun Daniels, 6-7, JR. (JUCO)

All three of the Panther’s key incoming players are fairly unproven, but all three add something the Panthers desperately need heading into this season: some height. While Coleman and Daniels are coming from junior college, Henry spent one season at Northern Arizona before being dismissed from the team following an arrest on a domestic violence misdemeanor charge. 

Key losses:

Gary Blackston, 15.6 pts, 7.0 rbds, 1.9 assts, 1.7 stls

Dennis Jones, 8.5 pts, 4.5 assts, 2.0 rbds, 2.0 stls

Taishaun Johnson, 7.1 pts, 2.4 assts, 2.2 rbds

Losing Gary Blackston is a fairly sizeable hole for the Panthers. Despite being just 6-2, Blackston led the team in rebounds with seven per game. Averaging 15.6 points a game, Blackston was also the team’s leading scorer last season. The Panthers also lose its top passer in Jones, who led the team with 4.5 assists last season. Jones and Blackston also both average the most steals on last year’s team.

Torvik’s early projections give Cal a 93% chance of winning this game with a margin of 16 points and that seems about right. With Cal’s talent and coaching, this should be one of the easier wins of the season. After starting the season with four winnable games, Cal will head to New York where it will take on Duke and then Texas or Georgetown at Madison Square Garden. We’ll take a look at all three of those teams later this week.

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