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MWC Basketball Early Projection

Late last season, the Mountain West Conference rose up to have the top average RPI in the nation. Andy Glockner of Sports Illustrated had a brilliant article explaining why this happened. Essentially the RPI favors power conferences where the home teams dominate, and the MWC teams were the best in the nation at winning at home last year. (For those that care about the math behind this, skip to the end of this post.)

Second, the RPI of MWC teams was boosted by Wyoming. A good team in November and December, but when Luke Martinez was kicked off the team for an off-court incident, Wyoming simply couldn’t score. And the RPI wasn’t smart enough realize that Wyoming was a bad team in January and February.

Finally, the other big factor in the MWC’s great RPI was that the bottom of the league was remarkably strong. Traditional power Nevada was the league’s bottom-feeder and even Nevada wasn’t a terrible team last season. The Wolfpack won at Washington in December.

All in all, it was a perfect storm that made the MWC seem like a dominant league, at least in the RPI’s eyes. The margin-of-victory systems thought the league was good too, but not nearly as dominant as what the RPI thought. And as is usually the case, the margin-of-victory metrics had the better forecast. In the NCAA tournament, MWC champion New Mexico lost in the first round to Harvard, and the rest of the league struggled as well.

Unfortunately for fans of the MWC, there is no reason to expect any of those factors to repeat this year. Home teams probably won’t win at a disproportionate rate. Wyoming won’t be dominant and then bad. And the bottom of the league will be bad again. (With San Jose St. coming aboard and Air Force rebuilding behind a bunch of 2-star recruits, a drop-off at the bottom of the league is almost unavoidable). Five teams might be in the conversation for the NCAA tournament, but a year after dominating the regular season, it wouldn’t be out of the question for the league to get only two bids.

Here is my lineup-based prediction model's projections for the league in 2013-14:

Team

Proj CW

Proj CL

Proj Off

Proj Def

Last Off

Last Def

T100

Ret Min

Ret Poss

New Mexico

15

3

108.2

88.4

108.4

89.7

2

63%

65%

Boise St.

13

5

113.7

97.0

111.1

97.6

0

91%

94%

Utah St.

12

6

112.6

100.1

107.0

102.4

0

78%

80%

UNLV

11

7

101.7

91.7

103.8

88.9

8

29%

29%

San Diego St.

11

7

101.9

92.8

106.3

89.7

4

48%

43%

Wyoming

8

10

100.7

96.5

99.7

96.1

0

62%

52%

Fresno St.

8

10

99.1

95.6

97.9

93.2

2

55%

57%

Nevada

7

11

104.6

102.9

102.6

104.6

0

48%

50%

Colorado St.

7

11

101.3

99.9

117.1

97.8

1

27%

22%

Air Force

5

13

100.3

104.7

109.2

103.2

0

34%

33%

San Jose St.

2

16

92.6

104.9

87.1

104.3

0

35%

35%

For column heading definitions, click here.

New Mexico: New Mexico returns four starters (Alex Kirk, Cameron Bairstow, Kendall Williams, and Hugh Greenwood) from last year’s conference winning squad. And they added Cullen Neal who has only recently risen up into ESPNU Top 100. That starting lineup should be competitive with any team in the country. But the team has little proven depth. (Will Kansas transfer Merv Lindsay contribute?) And since this is Craig Neal’s first head coaching job, there are questions of whether he can lead a team to a league title in his first year. The MWC spends as much on coaching as the traditional power leagues, and opposing coaches will heavily scout the Lobos. Will Neal be ready?

Boise St.: I’ve seen a lot of people with Boise St. in their Top 25 and I understand the logic. This was a good team last year and they bring back 91% of their minutes from last season. But my model has them a little bit lower because there are still some real question marks. In particular, Boise St.’s primary offense was a 4-guard lineup last year. But a number of the guards they played simply weren’t very good. Mikey Thompson, Igor Hadziomerovic, and Joe Hanstad were big drains on the offense because of their turnovers and/or bad shooting. If I could say with confidence those three would be relegated to the bench this season, it would be a no-brainer to put Boise St. in the Top 25. But Boise St. isn’t bringing in any can’t miss prospects to ensure that this happens.

Realistically the team will probably hope to get more out of some of its forwards. JUCO transfer James Webb, red-shirt freshman Edmund Dukulis, incoming freshman Nick Duncan, and seldom-used Darrious Hamilton or Vukasin Vujovic will probably get a chance to play more post minutes next year. If they can earn time, the taller lineup might help improve the defense some. But none of them have particularly high expectations either.

Leon Rice is doing a fantastic job, and the expectation for this team should absolutely be the NCAA tournament. But on paper, there are still too many lineup questions to view Boise St. as a clear Top 25 team.

Utah St.: Most people probably won’t have Utah St. this high because of how they ended their tenure in the WAC conference. To finish  11-7 in that league which really only had three good teams was pretty disappointing. But that completely overlooks what happened last year. In mid-January, Utah St. lost its too most efficient players in Preston Medlin and Kyisean Reed. And both were relatively high usage players too, they weren’t just role players. Those type of injuries are devastating at that point in the season and Utah St. could never really recover in conference play.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t sound like Reed will be back. He went through senior day festivities and I haven’t heard any news that he will apply for an extra hardship year. But the return of Medlin from injury should instantly upgrade the offense.

And Utah St. is once again very mature. The team can put together an 8-man lineup with one sophomore, two juniors, and five seniors. The fact that the team doesn’t need to break in a lot of freshmen should help the offense click. Add to that the fact that Stew Morrill has been one of the most under-rated offensive coaches in the nation, and Utah St. will be good again. They might not win the MWC this year, but they will absolutely be close to the top.

UNLV: Click here for a more detailed preview of UNLV.

San Diego St.: JJ O’Brien and Xavier Thames are solid players. And I can write down a seven or eight player rotation for San Diego St. that sounds reasonably intimidating on paper.  But San Diego St. loses its two most important players in Chase Tapley and Jamaal Franklin. Both took a high volume of shots, played a ton of minutes, and were super efficient. (Departing senior DeShawn Stephens rarely shot, but he was very efficient too.) Losing players like that just isn’t a recipe for a better season. And San Diego St. had only the 36th best margin-of-victory last year. 

The recent addition of Tulane graduate transfer Josh Davis helps a lot. Davis was an unbelievably dominant forward without much help around him. And incoming freshman Dakarai Allen also has high expectations. But expecting those two to do better than Tapley and Franklin seems like a little bit of a stretch.

To truly make the NCAA tournament, San Diego St. is going to need more out of Winston Shepherd, Dwayne Polee, and James Johnson. All three were Top 100 recruits out of high school, but none of them has posted an ORtg above 100 yet. (And Johnson played a rather distressing four minutes per game last year.) Unless a couple of those players break out rather unexpectedly, San Diego St. will have a hard time making a fifth straight NCAA tournament.

Wyoming and Fresno St: The best thing you can say about Wyoming and Fresno St. is that they will probably be competitive defensively. Wyoming head coach Larry Shyatt has produced Top 100 defenses in back-to-back years. After how poorly Henry Schroyer’s defenses did over the previous four years, Shyatt at least has his team working hard. Similarly Rodney Terry orchestrated a remarkable defensive turnaround this least season. Fresno St.’s adjusted defense fell from 101.3 to 93.2.

Offensively, it is harder to be optimistic, but here are a couple of points on the two teams. In Wyoming’s case freshman Josh Adams was dreadful. Larry Shyatt clearly thought he was valuable giving him major minutes throughout the season, but Adams was a terrible shooter. Adams will be better as a sophomore, but he was only a 2-star player, and it isn’t clear that he has a very high ceiling. If Wyoming would limit Adams shot selection, the offense could take more of a bump.

In Fresno St.’s case, prized recruit Robert Upshaw was also awful, but he was hampered by injuries all year. If he is fully healthy from the start of the year, he could improve significantly. And the addition of elite transfer recruit Cezar Guerrero should also help. But with few above average efficiency players returning, Fresno St.’s offense will still likely be below average.

Nevada: David Carter has proven to be a poor defensive coach. And after making the tournament four years in a row, Nevada now hasn’t been to the tournament in six years. I feel bad for Deonte Burton (and to a lesser extent Jerry Evans). Burton is a fabulous PG, but he just doesn’t have a lot of quality offensive players to feed the ball to. And with the team exerting no effort on defense, Nevada won’t score enough points to win consistently.

Colorado St.: Colorado St. is poised for a hard fall this year. It isn’t just that Colorado St. loses 5 starters. Returning only 27% of the team’s minutes is bad enough. But the team also loses all its high volume shooters. The returning players like Daniel Bejarano and Gerson Santo were efficient last year, but they also deferred a lot in last year’s offense. The model is skeptical they can maintain their efficiency when asked to shoot more. That is why the model projects Colorado St. to have one of the biggest offensive collapses of any team in the country this off-season. The team also doesn’t add any can’t miss recruits. The team adds two JUCO transfers, which should help, and Dwight Smith will be back from an injury. But with all that roster attrition, the best case scenario is probably a season like Vanderbilt had last year.

Air Force: Dave Pilipovich did a fantastic job in his first season with the team, but Air Force is a very hard place to win. To return just one-third of the team’s minutes from last year and try to create a winning team with only 2-star recruits is a major undertaking.

San Jose St.: San Jose St. returns only four scholarship players from last year. When you don’t have enough quality upperclassman at San Jose St., the odds of winning are slim to none.

And now the math based reason that the RPI favors conferences where the home team wins. (Again I am just lifting this idea from Andy Glockner.)

Imagine there are just three games, a neutral site non-conference game which the power conference team wins, and then two conference games home and road, which are split. Under the RPI formula, the neutral site win counts as 1 win. But how the W-L split is counted will depend on where the win and loss happen. If the home team wins both, the weight is 0.6, if the road team wins both, the weight is 1.4. So if the home team wins both, the W-L record will be 1.6 and 0.6. If road teams win, the W-L record will be 2.4 and 1.4. The former works out to a 73 percent winning percentage, the later works out to a 63 percent winning percentage. Even though the venues, opponents, and W-L records are the same, the RPI gives higher credit to the league where the home team dominates.

Amusingly, in bad leagues that don’t win many non-conference games, the RPI ratings will be higher if the road teams win more conference games.

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