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College Basketball Preview 14-15: Atlantic-10

Earlier Previews: ACC Preview, MWC Preview, SEC Preview, WCC Preview

Now that the Power Five conferences have achieved autonomy, a lot of people fear that this will destroy a league like the Atlantic-10. I’m not buying it. Even today, the A10 is not recruiting on a level comparable with the top leagues. There are only nine former Top 100 high school recruits in the entire A10 right now. Compare that to a league like the Big Ten, which is supposedly not a great recruiting league, and you see that the Big Ten has 45 former Top 100 high school recruits on its rosters.

In the new era, A10 teams will have to try to win the way they always have, by finding hidden gems, developing players, and giving players a second chance. (Of the A10’s nine former Top 100 recruits, four are transfers from Power Five conferences.) Even with this strategy, the A10 can continue to occasionally have brilliant seasons. Last year the A10 sent six teams to the NCAA tournament. The problem for teams in the A10 is that it can take longer to restock the cabinet. Five of last year’s tournament teams; Datyon, UMass, George Washington, St. Louis and St. Joseph’s all lost significant pieces. When talented seniors leave, teams in the A10 sometimes need a year or two to rebuild, while teams in the Power Five conferences simply reload.

VCU is the prohibitive favorite behind a stellar recruiting class. Dayton will be good again. And UMass and George Washington still retain enough of their best pieces to make another run at the tournament. Jon Rothstein is correct that Rhode Island is the trendy pick to jump up in the standings. And in this case, that trend is backed up by the numbers. With better injury luck, Richmond should be better too. But the league as a whole looks like it will be taking a small step back.

A10 Favorite

VCU: Many expected the new foul rules to hit pressing teams harder. If hand-checks prevented players from grabbing on the perimeter and if defenders could no longer step in to draw charges at the last minute, HAVOC might become less effective. But at least last season, that was not the case. VCU fouled less than the year before, VCU forced more turnover than the year before (the most in the country), and VCU’s defense was as dangerous as ever.

And with Shaka Smart repeatedly turning down contract offers from other power conference teams, recruits are starting to believe he’ll stick around. This year, Smart has by far the best recruiting class in his tenure, led by Top 50 recruit Terry Larrier. And VCU’s roster now has the highest average star rating (most potential as measured in high school) in the A10. VCU is no longer the plucky underdog trying to win in the big bad A10. Thanks to Shaka Smart, VCU is now the blue blood program in this league.

Hoping for the Top 25

Dayton: Dayton made the Elite Eight last year, but they were only rated the 38th best team in the country by the margin-of-victory numbers. Still, I felt like the margin-of-victory numbers might be wrong because they might overlook the incredible winning streak Dayton went on to end the year. But after I crunched the numbers, they were less impressive than I expected.  During Dayton’s brilliant 13-3 finish to the season, Dayton’s opponent adjusted margin-of-victory was only the 31st best in the nation. Dayton’s Pythagorean Winning Percentage was only 0.8487 in that stretch with an adjusted offense of 113.6 and an adjusted defense of 97.8.

And maybe that shouldn’t be a huge surprise. Dayton was quite fortunate during their Elite Eight run. Dayton drew two offensively challenged teams in Ohio St. and Syracuse in the NCAA tournament and beat them by a combined three points. And the Flyers were fortunate to draw a low-seeded Stanford team in the Sweet Sixteen. It was an incredible and memorable run, but it isn’t necessarily indicative of a team that was playing dominant basketball.

The good news is that during last year’s tournament run Dayton played 11 (and sometimes 12) players, and seven of those players are back. The bad news is that four of the returning players had very low ORtgs last season, and one of those players (Kyle Davis) didn’t really play enough minutes to fully evaluate his game. With Jordan Sibert and Dyshawn Pierre back next year, Dayton will still have a very good team. The Flyers should make the tournament again. But my statistical projections think Dayton will spend more days sweating the bubble than they spend in the Top 25.

Hoping to Make the NCAA Tournament

George Washington: When ESPN ran its college coaching series this spring, I was shocked that Dayton’s Archie Miller was voted the 26th best coach in the country. How is it possible that a coach that has never achieved a margin of victory better than 31st in the country could be the 26th best coach? It is not as if Miller took over a moribund program. In the ten years prior to Miller taking over, Dayton won 58% of its conference games. In the three year’s Miller has been a head coach, Dayton has won 54% of its conference games.

George Washington wasn’t really a moribund program either. But head coach Mike Lonergan has taken the team on an upward trajectory in his tenure and Lonergan was a proven winner at his former school Vermont. And despite a series of critical injuries to Patricio Garino and Kethan Savage, Lonergan kept George Washington playing at a high level and managed to avoid any long losing streaks last year. Miller and Lonergan are both entering their fourth year in the A10, and if you asked me whether I think that Miller is a better head coach than Lonergan, I think it should be a tough call, not a landslide vote for Miller.

With Garino, Savage, point guard Joe McDonald, and big man Kevin Larsen back, George Washington has a solid nucleus of four players with great efficiency numbers, solid rebounding, and effective passing. But the drop-off to the rest of the roster is pretty steep. John Kopriva has posted horrible numbers for three straight years, and he should not be playing meaningful minutes for an NCAA tournament team. Nick Griffin had a few moments of brilliance, but played so little last year it is hard to evaluate his game. And the rest of the roster is filled with freshmen. Many of those young players are three star recruits which means they may be able to play well from day one. But whether George Washington makes the tournament will depend on how fast those new faces adjust to the college game, and how many mistakes they make in the process.

Massachusetts: Cady LaLanne, Trey Davis, Maxie Esho, and Derrick Gordon were all quality players on last year’s NCAA tournament team. And the team doesn’t have to go with a young unproven PG to replace Chaz Williams. West Virginia transfer Jabarie Hinds is a former Top 100 recruit, and he’ll slide nicely into the lineup.

But there are three major problems. First, UMass may have earned a six seed last year, but they weren’t really that good. They won key non-conference games against bubble teams like LSU and Nebraska that boosted their profile, but they won those games early in the year, before a team like Nebraska really hit its stride. In A10 play, the Minutemen were just 10-6, and their margin-of-victory said they were really a bubble team, not the tournament lock their seed would suggest.

Second, like George Washington, the drop-off from the starters to the projected bench is pretty steep. Don’t let Tyler Bergantino’s high efficiency rating fool you, he basically never shot last year. After the starting five, the bench projects to be a major liability. Third, Hinds is a significant downgrade from Chaz Williams. Hinds had a worse assist rate, worse turnover rate, and he never got to the free throw line at West Virginia. Finally, Hinds was a worse outside shooter than Williams, which is saying something given that Williams wasn’t known for his outside shot. If Hinds has made significant personal strides in his year practicing with the team, UMass can make the tournament again. But it won’t be easy.

Rhode Island: With every key player except Xavier Munford back, with the likely upgrade in the post with the return of Jordan Hare (who missed last year due to personal reasons), with the addition of Top 100 JUCO Earl Watson and the addition of Top 100 recruit Jared Terrell, Rhode Island will finish in the Top half of the A10 next season.

The question is how high they rise, and that may depend on two things. First, it will depend on how loyal Danny Hurley is to his veteran players. Jarelle Reischel, Biggie Minnis, and Mathew Butler all played last season, but all three players were extremely inefficient. All three were also 2-star recruits. With the talent that is coming in, they should be used sparingly next year. If that happens, Rhode Island’s offense should take a major step forward. But if Hurley gives these players another chance to prove themselves, it could hold the team back.

Second, there are questions how good the defense will be. Rhode Island’s defense took a huge step forward last year, but it might have been a bit of a mirage. Rhode Island’s opponents made only 29% of their trees and 67% of their free throws last year. Rhode Island probably won’t be nearly that fortunate this season. Obviously the return of Jordan Hare will help, but big improvements on offense might be slightly mitigated with more typical luck on defense.

Richmond: Chris Mooney’s version of the Princeton offense works best when you have a big man who can step out beyond the arc and knock down outside shots. When the offense can put four or five players on the perimeter and draw the defense out of the paint, that opens things up for cuts to the basket. The last time Richmond made the NCAA tournament was when Justin Harper was playing in the post for the Spiders. Harper was a great rebounder and shot-blocker, but most importantly, Harper was a lights out perimeter shooter. Since Harper has departed, Richmond hasn’t really been able to duplicate that same level of dominance with its Princeton sets.

Last year’s big men Terry Allen, Alonzo Nelson-Ododa, and Deion Taylor tried to make the perimeter attack work, but they all struggled to consistently make outside shots. On the full season they made 14, 13, an 17 threes respectively. It wasn’t the kind of perimeter threat to really draw opposing defenses out of the paint. Enter Niagara transfer TJ Cline. Cline was a solid rebounder and post-player on a winning Niagara squad two years ago. But what makes Cline a potential difference maker is that Cline has a much better outside shot. Cline made 40 threes two years ago.

Moreover, Cline appears to be natural fit for a cutting offense. At Niagara he rarely turned the ball over while finishing 67% of his two point shots. If his goal is to take threes and then back-cut the defense, everything about Cline’s statistical profile fits the bill.

The team’s guard play will probably take a step back, so Richmond projects as a fringe bubble team. But if Chris Mooney can develop one of the young guards to compliment Kendall Anthony and ShawnDre’ Jones, the improved post-play might just be enough to sneak Richmond into the tournament.

Hoping for the NIT

La Salle: Jerrell Wright and Steve Zack make up one of the best frontcourts in the A10. And even though Tyrone Garland has departed, after he struggled so much with his shooting last year (23% of his threes and 39% of his twos), his loss might be addition by subtraction. But Wright and Zack can’t do it alone, so let’s spend a minute talking about transfers.

Last week I noted that the number of points produced by D1 transfers in their debut season has nearly doubled over the last few years. But you may be wondering whether this growth is due to the increase in scoring by graduate transfers or transfers that sit out. The next table shows this comparison. The first column shows the points produced by players that were eligible immediately (EI) or who played back-to-back seasons because they were a mid-year transfer (MYT). The second column shows the points produced by players that sat out during their transfer year (SO) or who spent a year at a JUCO before transferring to another D1 school.

Since 2007, the points produced by transfers who were eligible immediately has grown by 441%. Meanwhile, the points produced by transfers who sat out has grown 56%. Spinning the table another way, transfers that play in back-to-back seasons for different schools once accounted for 8-13% of transfer scoring. Now they account for 27% of transfer scoring.

Year

EI or MYT

SO or JUCO

2007

380,678

3,617,092

2008

323,027

3,602,261

2009

526,820

3,408,367

2010

397,456

4,358,821

2011

783,590

3,347,771

2012

907,914

4,850,382

2013

1,421,079

4,521,055

2014

2,060,438

5,657,524

Obviously graduate transfers and hardship waivers are fueling the transfer trend, but I think it is important to note that graduate transfers do not account for all the growth in scoring by D1 transfers. D1 transfers that sit out have actually added 2 million points since 2011.And for most teams, transfers that sit out will still be the most important.This is particularly true because my data reveals that transfers that sit out a year will typically debut with ORtgs 3 to 4 points higher because of the year of practice with the team.

La Salle is banking on that fact. La Salle is re-stocking their roster with former Top 100 recruit and Auburn transfer Jordan Price, as well as Georgia Southern transfer Cleon Roberts. Both players were efficient with their previous team. But thanks to a year of working with the head coach in practice, and learning the offensive system, they should be more prepared to win right away.

The PG situation is very much up in the air for La Salle. And the team’s depth is not strong. But with two returning quality big men, and two transfers that they hope will have an impact, La Salle has a chance to finish in the top half of the league.

St. Bonaventure:  The Bonnies used a tight seven man rotation last year, and their offense was better than you remember. Unfortunately, three of the most efficient and important offensive players have graduated, which means the offense will probably take a small step back. On the other hand, the core is still very talented. Dion Wright, Youssou Ndoye, Andell Cumberbatch, and Jordan Gathers could all average in double figures this year. And with two key JUCO PGs (Lakeem Alston and Marcus Posley) coming in along with three star freshman big man Jordan Tyson, the offense will still be good. The question is whether the defense can take a big enough step forward to really make the Bonnies competitive with the top half of the league. Even with the shot-blocking 7 footer Ndoye playing major minutes last year, St. Bonaventure’s defense was among the worst in the conference.

George Mason: George Mason has incredible depth in the frontcourt. It starts with former Top 100 recruit and Georgia Tech transfer Julian Royal who is debuting this season. But don’t overlook the slightly undersized Jalen Jenkins and Eric Copes, who were outstanding shot-blockers and rebounders last year, though Jenkins is the better offensive player. And while ESPN, Rivals, and Scout had mixed reviews, Scout gave a very high ranking to freshman Therence Mayimba. The difference in recruiting ranking probably comes down to potential vs ability. Mayimba is a great athlete and rebounder who is raw. Meanwhile Top 100 JUCO recruit Shevon Thompson is a true 7 footer who should make an impact right away. I honestly keep waiting to hear that incumbent junior forward Marko Gujanicic has transferred. That’s what tends to happen in these situations. And I don’t know why three star forward Trey Porter chose George Mason over George Washington when he’s almost guaranteed to redshirt at GMU.

The backcourt has one true asset, lights out three point shooter Patrick Holloway. But Vaughn Gray is a weak backup and there are no other obvious three point-shooters on the team. The PG spot is also very shaky with either turnover prone Marquise Moore, turnover prone Corey Edwards, or freshman Isaiah Jackson taking the reins. Most importantly, Paul Hewitt checks in as one of the worst player development coaches in my data set. He’s a solid recruiter, but his offenses rarely live up to expectations.

And even if you don’t buy the historical stats, when you look at that type of roster construction you can still sort of see why the model would not be in love with this team. With only one good shooter and no good passers, it is not clear how the team will have the spacing to run a competent offense.

St. Louis: The only reason I’m not picking St. Louis to finish even lower in the A10 is because Jim Crews kept the defense playing at a high level after taking over for Rick Majerus. If he can get a young group of players to play defense, they can be competitive. But on paper, this looks like the worst offense in the A10. No player projects to have an ORtg over 100 at this point.

(For those of you who care about the details, while Austin McBroom had an ORtg over 100 last year, with 71% of the team’s minutes leaving, over 71% of the team’s points leaving, and most of the replacements being sub 3-star recruits, McBroom will probably see even fewer open shots than last year. Similarly, Tanner Lacona had a decent ORtg last year, but he only took 33 shots all year. Not only don’t we have enough data to know if Lacona is good, he’s going to have to be more aggressive this year, and that should hurt his efficiency.)

Villanova transfer Achraf Yacoubout will get his chance, but if fans in St. Louis have suffered through some ugly games the last few years, things could be even more ugly this season.

Davidson: I could write a lot about how Davidson will struggle to replace De’Mon Brooks. Brooks may not have been the player of the decade (thanks to Stephen Curry), but his four year numbers should be enough to get his jersey retired. But rather than harp on the past, I should emphasize that five of Davidson’s returning rotation players (Tyler Kalinoski, Brian Sullivan, Jack Gibbs, Jordan Barham, Jake Belford) were efficient and skilled and that should keep the Wildcats competitive.

If Davidson was a different type of academic institution, they could have added a couple of transfers and had a shot at the tournament this season. Instead, Davidson will go young this year, with five sub-3 star freshmen and the very raw sophomore Andrew McAuliffe. That’s going to leave them extremely weak in the front-court, something that will be exposed more in the A10 than it would have been in the Southern Conference.

Duquesne: Micah Mason fascinates me. On the one hand, the 152.7 ORtg he posted last year cannot be sustainable. He clearly isn’t going to make 56% of his threes again next year. And then you remember that Mason made 50% of his threes as a freshman. Better yet, he’s an outstanding passer who gets bonus credit for his assists. And yet Duquesne doesn’t need him to be the primary ball-handler thanks to Derrick Colter, and so Mason’s turnover rate plummeted last season. Mason almost certainly won’t post an ORtg over 150 again, but fundamentally there is no reason he can’t be fighting to be the nation’s most efficient player again.

As for the team outlook, the biggest problem is that besides Dominique McKoy, there are no quality post players. The defense was already dreadful last year and the lack of experienced post players will make it hard to improve in that area.

St. Joseph’s: A lot of emotions were obviously going through Phil Martelli’s head as he wiped away tears after winning the A10 tournament last year. But one of those feelings had to be relief. While he had built a dominant team a decade earlier, there were questions about whether the game had passed him by. Could he still build a team that was tournament worthy?

Clearly Martelli could still recruit and develop players. His roster the last two seasons was one of the most exciting in the A10, with dynamic drivers, athletic dunkers, and big men with crazy passing skills. But despite putting together a talented roster, St. Joseph’s didn’t make the tournament in 2013. And if they failed in 2014, it might have been time to walk away. Instead, Martelli gets the green light on one more rebuilding project.

And make no mistake, this will be a rebuilding year. St. Joseph’s rode its five starters more than any team in the country last year, and the three most efficient and talented (Halil Kanacevic, Ronald Roberts, and Langston Galloway) are gone. The team can and will try to ride DeAndre Bembry, Chris Wilson, Papa Ndao, and West Virginia transfer Aaron Brown to as many victories as possible. But the downgrade in skill from last year’s starters to this year’s projected starters is enormous.

And, at some point this season Martelli will have to turn the reins over to his freshmen class and let them learn through their mistakes. This is a really outstanding recruiting class and with Bembry just a sophomore, the future can still be bright. St. Joseph’s just won’t be a very good team in 2014-15.

When will it end?

Fordham: Fordham’s combined record in the A10 the last six years is 10-86. That’s 1.7 wins per year and a winning percentage of 10%. Jon Severe is the only player on the roster who was rated 3 stars or higher out of high school and he should lead the team in scoring again.

Final Thoughts On Ranking 351 D1 Teams

In case you missed it, last Thursday I presented my upgraded projections model. Then I presented my 13-14 season projections on ESPN Insider. My projections included the median simulation, best case, and worst case for every team. I also did a Q & A session with Eamonn Brennan and another one with John Templon. I have also been answering a few questions on Twitter. You would think after all those words I would have run out of things to say, but here are a few thoughts that did not quite make the cut in those articles:

The Underrated Club

Q: Why does the simulation hate Arizona St.? Jahii Carson is one of the best players in the country.

A: Arizona St. is a team with a lot of two-star players on the roster. In fact, they have the second lowest average star rating in the entire Pac-12, ahead of only Utah. Luckily a few of those players are transfers who played well for other teams. But what this really means is that Arizona St. just doesn’t have the same upside as many of the other schools in the Pac-12. Herb Sendek’s track record on defense is also a huge concern.

Q: Why does the simulation hate Maryland? A lineup of Shaquille Cleare, Evan Smotrycz, Dez Wells, Nick Faust and Roddy Peters sounds like it could hang with anyone. And Seth Allen, Charles Mitchell, and Damonte Dodd all seem like solid reserves. Why is the model so pessimistic?

A: The simulation is concerned that Maryland has only nine scholarship players on the roster. There is real downside risk with such a short bench because if a couple of players struggle or get injured, there are no alternates. Last year N.C. State entered the year with just nine scholarship players and things turned south early. Now, that doesn’t mean Maryland is destined to fail, but depth is a risk with this type of roster.

Q: Why does the simulation hate Denver? They had a great margin-of-victory numbers last year.

A: While I truly believe star ratings are important, the focus on recruiting evaluations really hurts the small conference squads in my projections. Only when a small conference team has virtually no lineup questions will that team be ranked near the top. (This year the two exceptions are North Dakota St. and Harvard. North Dakota St. brings back 95 percent of its minutes and gets a player back who was injured for much of last year. Meanwhile Harvard gets two star players back who were suspended last season.)

In Denver’s case even with several efficient players back, particularly star Chris Udofia, winning seems likely. But Denver has to replace two of the three players that played the most minutes last season. And the likely replacements will only be two-star athletes. That’s not to say that head coach Joe Scott cannot build a winner again. But it is very hard to get a Top 50 margin-of-victory in a small conference. And if Scott does it again, that should be considered a huge accomplishment. It shouldn’t be the expectation. (The real issue for Denver is finding another ball-handler to compliment Udofia. Last year Royce O’Neale and Udofia both were key distributors for the team, but with O’Neale transferring to Baylor, the remaining options are not great.)

Random Thoughts on Some Major Conference Teams

- In my Insider column, I said that the Spartans were the lowest risk team in the nation which sparked some jokes from Michigan St. fans on Twitter. I think this points out how insanely volatile college basketball can be. Even when the Spartans bring back five of their six top rotation players including three clear stars, their fanbase in nervous. Part of that is the fact that Tom Izzo’s teams notoriously struggle in November. But when a team with Top 10 talent brings nearly everyone back and their fans are nervous, you know that anything can happen in college basketball.

- Michigan’s position in 12th in my rankings is a little misleading. I honestly believe that Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson can lead this team a long way. But I am legitimately concerned about the guard rotation. John Beilein was very reluctant to play Jordan Morgan and Mitch McGary together last season because they weren’t outside shooters. So I have to assume Robinson will play most of his minutes at the four-spot again this year. But then how does the guard rotation work? Does the team play Spike Albrecht, Derrick Walton, and Nick Stauskas together? What if Albrecht and Walton aren’t ready? That is why my model has such a low downside for the Wolverines. (And don’t tell me Caris LeVert is the answer. He was a low-ranked recruit and nothing he did last season leads me to believe he should be a key player on a Top 10 team.)

- When I first ran the model, I was a little surprised the downside for Kentucky was not lower. After all, a young Kentucky team lost in the first round of the NIT last season. But this is what happens when you return two efficient high potential players (in Alex Poythress and Will Cauley-Stein), and add five Top 10 recruits. With that many high potential players, even if two or three of them struggle immensely, Kentucky can still win. Kentucky could not afford for Archie Goodwin to struggle and Nerlens Noel to get injured last season. This year if Julius Randle struggles and Will Cauley-Stein gets hurt, the team can just say “Next man in.”

- I love the range for Indiana in my ESPN Insider rankings. The team has 7 top 100 recruits, and an elite season is still possible. But given all the new faces and how little most of the returning sophomores played last year, the downside risk is major.

- If you want to vote any of my model’s Top 34 teams into the Top 25, I can see arguments for all of them. But I stick by my model’s skepticism of Baylor. Pierre Jackson carried the Bears last year and I don’t see how they can be a better team without him. Their margin of victory was 26th last year (thanks to winning the NIT) and I only give them about a 20 percent chance to do better than that.

- If you have ESPN Insider, look at how painfully low Alabama’s downside is this year. After Devonta Pollard was arrested this offseason, the team is down to nine scholarship players who are eligible this year. If someone on Alabama’s squad doesn't play well, there are no alternatives. This is too bad because Anthony Grant is such a talented young coach, but off-court issues keep derailing his teams.

- Iowa St. made a great move adding Marshall transfer DeAndre Kane. But I suspect Fred Hoiberg needed to add a couple more transfers to keep his transfer winning streak going. With 64% of the lineup gone and four of Iowa St.'s six most efficient players departing (Melvin Ejim and George Niang return), expect Iowa St. to take a step back.

- My model is more optimistic about Seton Hall than what you see in some other rankings. Texas transfer Sterling Gibbs will be a huge upgrade over Tom Maayan and his 50% turnover rate. And with fewer injuries, Kevin Willard should have the defense playing better.

Random Thoughts on Some Mid-Major Conferences

- I’ve still got St. Mary’s on the NCAA bubble. Many will discount the team after Matthew Dellavedova's departure. But Beau Leveasque and Stephen Holt aren't suddenly going to forget how to shoot. Brad Wadlow isn't going to stop being a physical force on the boards and finishing over 60 percent of his shots. This team still has talent.

- The team I think most pundits have over-rated this year is Northeastern. The Huskies were extremely lucky last year. Despite the 7th best MOV in the CAA, they won a ton of close games, including a 4-1 record in OT. Their conference title is very deceiving. With the team's leading scorer and most efficient player Joel Smith gone, a repeat conference title seems unlikely.

- One team I am buying is Weber St. Weber St. had the best margin-of-victory in the Big Sky last year. They even outscored Montana by 19 points in their three meetings. But somehow they went 1-2 against the Grizzlies and that 1-2 mark gave Montana the regular season and conference tournament title. Weber St.’s aggressive and efficient inside-outside combination of Davion Berry and Kyle Tresnak is going to make sure that doesn't happen again.

- The conference champion I expect to come out of nowhere this year is Manhattan. Manhattan somehow lost 10 games to conference foes, but only one of those games was by double digits. This team was much better than last year's conference record would indicate.

- The race for the Big West title is wide open. I have five teams projected within one game of first place in that league.

- The CUSA race should also be highly entertaining. Louisiana Tech is the only team in CUSA that returns over 70 percent of its minutes from last year. (Tech brings back 85 percent of its minutes.) And Tech's losses won't hurt the offense. The team loses its least efficient player Brandon Gibson, and the extremely passive JL Lewis. With an already solid defense and an improved offense, Louisiana Tech could be headed for the NCAA tournament. But Southern Miss is just as formidable a competitor. The newest Golden Eagle, transfer Aaron Brown, shot the ball extremely well as a sophomore at Temple. His addition could give Southern Miss the CUSA title.

- Speaking of transfers, transfer Jay Harris was the PG on a Valparaiso team that won the Horizon league title in 2012. He could be the key addition that gets Wagner an NEC conference title in 2014.

- Finally, Indiana St. PG Jake Odum has to be kicking himself that RJ Mahurin transferred out in order to play his senior year with his younger brother. Mahurin was the team's only efficient big man, and the Sycamores could have been a more realistic NCAA bubble team had Mahurin returned.

Late Breaking News

- The news that Josh Smith was eligible immediately didn’t break until after I finished my rankings. With a full season of Smith you can move the Hoyas up to 27th in my projections. But as many people have noted, because of his conditioning, it still isn’t clear how much Smith will play. The downside risk for the Hoyas remains real. However, I do think that it is a major break that Smith will be around from the start of the season. The Hoya offense is a nuanced system that depends on precise cuts and passes, and integrating Smith mid-season would have been much more difficult.

- I had already assumed Joseph Young would be eligible for Oregon so their ranking is not affected by that news. It is clear that the transfer combination of Mike Moser and Young could be one of the best inside-outside combinations in the country. But I want to offer several cautionary tales. Ryan Harrow, Trey Ziegler, and Aaric Murray were three transfers that received a ton of hype last summer, and they were all such poor fits in the new environment, they have all moved on again. We’ve seen teams bring in a bunch of transfers and live up to expectations (like Iowa St.), but we have also seen teams take in a lot of transfer and disappoint (like Missouri last year.) Transfers are high risk players, and that is why my model has such a large range for the Ducks this season.

Dan Hanner vs Ken Pomeroy

Ken Pomeroy also released his preseason rankings on Saturday. While he is rather humble about his algorithm, I think it is important to note how well his system did last season. From a modeling perspective, a more complex system is not always better.

I would argue that the real advantage of my lineup-based system is not the predictive power. The advantage is that by focusing on the lineup, my model has fewer head-scratching conclusions. For example, Ken’s team level model has Miami at 62nd this year. With basically everyone in last year’s rotation gone and Angel Rodriguez electing not to apply for a transfer waiver, that’s an extremely optimistic prediction. But that prediction is based on how well Miami did last season, not any reasonable evaluation of the current roster. The same can probably be said of Minnesota at No. 35. The Gophers had strong margin-of-victory numbers last year, so Ken’s model loves them again this season. But my model sees that the Gophers made a substantial downgrade in the front-court and added an unproven coach. My model based on the current lineup has Miami at No. 102 and Minnesota at No. 63, and I think that’s much closer to what I have seen in most expert rankings.

But while Ken’s model can cause us to scratch our heads at certain results, do not overlook his predictions. The last five seasons of data are a very strong predictor in the aggregate. (If a team had a great offense before it tends to have better facilities, higher caliber recruits, and better coaches today.) And when the results of both our models agree, those are probably the strongest predictions of all. 

Feast Week And More Conference Realignment

Maryland joined the Big Ten on Monday and based on their Tweets, Maryland alumni were not pleased. In fact, even among those who have defended the move, the initial reaction was usually a sense of sadness.

This puzzled me at first. Why does a team make a move that is almost universally derided by its own fanbase? I thought perhaps Maryland fans just needed to hear a little bit of the logic before they would endorse the move. When the SEC first expressed interest in Texas A&M, Aggies’ fans hated the notion. As Big 12 fans, the Aggies had spent their lifetimes screaming that the SEC was overrated. But then Texas A&M fans watched big brothers Texas and Oklahoma dictate terms in the revamped Big 12, and the Texas A&M alumni suddenly changed their tune. The A&M alumni realized that being wanted by a dominant and stable conference was not necessarily a bad thing. And before long it was the A&M alumni pushing for the move to the SEC.

And thus my initial reaction to the Maryland news was that Terrapins’ fans would eventually fall in step. They would eventually realize that having Duke and North Carolina dictate the basketball schedule was irritating. They would eventually realize that the quality of Big Ten basketball has upgraded substantially over the past few seasons. The main problem was the shock of the news. No one had time to let it settle in and contemplate the change of leagues. With time, Terps fans would start to get excited about the future.

(I enjoy the online commentary either way. Isn’t it amazing how each side loves to pull out the least attractive match-ups to support their argument. Critics of the move are quick to point out that Maryland will now play games against Minnesota, Iowa, and Nebraska. Supporters of the move will point out that Maryland no longer has to play games against Notre Dame, Boston College and Miami.)

But I felt Maryland fans would eventually come around. I thought ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt hit the nail on the head on his radio show. Van Pelt noted that the twinge of sadness Terps fans felt was nostalgia for the past, but it was nostalgia for an ACC that didn’t exist anymore. The days of the double round robin were gone. The days of a fierce rivalry with Duke were over. With 15 schools in the new ACC, a Maryland student enrolling at the school would likely get two home basketball games against Duke in their entire career! It was reasonable to have memories for the past, but under all circumstances the league that most Maryland fans fell in love with was gone. And it had nothing to do with Maryland joining the Big Ten.

And yet the more reaction I read from Maryland fans, the more I am convinced the move was still a disappointment. Terps supporters do lose something permanent with the move. To a large degree, Maryland loses their identity.

It isn’t the school’s identity as a past basketball national champion that is lost. If Maryland returns to the Top 10 they could easily become the Big Ten’s signature basketball property. Do you think Maryland is ever playing the Champions Classic with Duke and North Carolina in the league? But with another NCAA title, it wouldn’t be out of the question in the Big Ten. The Big Ten’s signature basketball team has evolved over the years from Indiana to Michigan to Michigan St., and that title is almost annually up for grabs. Thus this isn’t really about Maryland fans losing their team identity as a past basketball power.

But what Maryland fans lose is spelled out in this simple phrase: “ACC basketball is the best in the nation.” You can throw out whatever statistical argument you want for why that phrase isn’t true. The Big East has been better and deeper over the last five years. The Big Ten has started winning the Big Ten/ACC challenge. Kentucky single-handedly recruited more Top 10 recruits than the ACC this year. But this isn’t a statistical argument. It is about an identity. What players like Vince Carter, Tim Duncan, JJ Redick and Steve Blake did was convince a generation of fans that ACC basketball is always the best in the nation. And now Maryland loses that identity.

Feast Week

Last Friday Sam Gardner made the argument that there might be too many early season tournaments. He argued that the empty seats in Madison Square Garden for an Alabama vs Villanova game prove that the early season tournaments are presenting a watered-down product. I understand the criticism, but I disagree whole-heartedly.

First, I love the empty seats at these events. While the general public may disagree, there is something extremely charming about the general admission nature of an event like the Charleston Classic. You can easily get a seat at mid-court three rows back and watch your team play three games in four days. For anyone who no longer lives in the same town as their favorite college basketball team, you cannot duplicate this type of access. The problem with attendance is that most people do not pay attention to basketball during football season and most people want to spend time with their families rather than vacation this close to Thanksgiving. But if the events are profitable (and each BCS team gets one or two extra exempt home games in addition to the TV revenue), then they could play these games in empty arenas and still provide a valuable product.

And the joy of college basketball is seeing legitimate match-ups between high major teams. These neutral site events ensure that we get quality matchups night after night, and even if some of them are sparsely attended, I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

At a tournament like Charleston, we learn something from every game. We learn that sometimes there are other stars. We put Murray St.’s Isaiah Canaan and Baylor’s Pierre Jackson on the Wooden Award and Naismith Watch List, but then a curly haired sophomore guard from Colorado, Askia Booker ends up stealing the show. All Booker did was set a career high for points on back-to-back nights as Colorado knocked off Murray St. and Baylor.

Meanwhile, we watch a young St. John’s team show signs of promise behind its one returning star, D’Angelo Harrison.

We watch a young Boston College team, whose system should be hard to prepare for on one day’s notice, lose three straight games. And we began to ask what head coach Steve Donahue is building at BC.

And we see the drama as a College of Charleston team blows any chance it has of an at large bid with back to back losses to St. John’s and Auburn, all thanks to Andrew Lawrence having the stomach flu. Every game counts. In addition to the Charleston Classic, there were five more events that just wrapped up:

2K Sports Classic

Memorable Moment: Alabama’s second buzzer beating three of the season, this time by Rodney Cooper, deserves honorable mention. But the image that will stick with me is Purdue blowing a late four-point lead when Purdue’s DJ Byrd was called for a flagrant foul for swinging his elbows. Villanova made two free throws, sank a bucket, and sent the game into OT where Villanova prevailed. The look on Byrd’s face on the sideline during the OT loss was painful. It wasn’t just that he let his team down in this game, but having missed the wide open three against Bucknell a few games earlier, he looked like a player who was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.

But as bad as Byrd feels, he isn’t the only one who deserves blame. Purdue blew a bunch of close games last year due to bad free throw shooting and if early returns are any indication, Terone Johnson still has problems at the charity stripe. Johnson shot 44% on his free throws last year and is shooting 50% this year. He had two key misses late against Villanova, and if he makes those shots DJ Byrd doesn’t look like the goat.

Coaches vs Cancer

Memorable Moment: St. Joseph’s Langston Galloway had his head crushed against the floor and a tooth came flying out of his mouth against Notre Dame. Galloway went to the sideline, and after holding a towel in his mouth to slow the bleeding, Galloway returned to the game. Galloway then made a key driving lay-up as his team rallied from eight points down in the final minutes to knock off the Fighting Irish in OT.

I am far too enamored with St. Joe’s this season, but I cannot help but gush about this team. Besides CJ Aiken’s shot-blocking and Galloway’s efficiency, the complimentary players for St. Joe’s all have such incredible skill. With Tay Jones missing for one of the games, Chris Wilson showed great quickness in penetrating to the basket. Halil Kanacevic continued to be an extremely impressive passer for a big man. And Ronald Roberts, always good for the occasional amazing dunk, is starting to turn his athleticism into a true skill as a dominant rebounder. Roberts has averaged 13 rebounds per game through 3 games.  The top six players for St. Joe’s have the ability to hang with anyone, but they have to make sure their decision making and defense match their highlight reel ability.

Puerto Rico Tip-Off

Memorable Moment: NC State’s CJ Leslie and Lorenzo Brown sat on the sideline with dejected looks as Oklahoma St. blew out #6 NC State in the title game. What really disturbed me about this loss was that I didn’t think Oklahoma St. played a perfect game. The Cowboys offense settles for far too many bad shots and on too many possessions, the offensive plan seems to be to get the ball to LeBryan Nash or Marcus Smart and hope. But NC State did nothing to take advantage of that. On one possession in the second half, Oklahoma St. failed to run its offense and forced a bad three as the shot clock was winding down. Normally that is the type of shot that results in a lay-up on the other end. But instead of NC State grabbing the rebound and attacking, they seemed unaware of the ball. It hit the floor, was picked up by an Oklahoma St. player, and that player was fouled. Dan Dakich can rub people the wrong way with his commentary, and I’m sure a lot of NC State fans thought he was going too far by questioning the Wolfpack’s effort. But he was right. NC State didn’t just lose because they couldn’t make shots. They lost because they were out-worked.

Hall of Fame Tip-Off

Memorable Moment: Seton Hall was not outworked. I look at Seton Hall’s lineup and wonder where the scoring is going to come from. And thus it was not surprising that the Pirates trailed by 16 and 10 at halftime in both games in the Hall of Fame tournament. But thanks to some defensive adjustments, Seton Hall came back to force OT in the first game (before ultimately losing) and then won the second game. I’m not sure I’ve seen a team shoot as many airballs in crunch time as the Pirates did in this tournament, but they showed plenty of heart.

Paradise Jam

Memorable Moment: As ugly as Seton Hall’s shots were, the games in the Virgin Islands were just the opposite. Quinnipiac and UConn played a 2 OT instant classic that involved a buzzer beating three by Quinnipiac at the end of OT, and a 10 point comeback by UConn in the final four minutes of regulation. Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright were basically un-guardable at the end of the semifinal game.

But it wasn’t the best ending of the tournament. Trailing George Mason by five in the final minute, New Mexico’s Kendall Williams took three steps past half-court and unleashed a true prayer for three. It swished through the rim. Then Williams stole the inbounds. The ball was then kicked to Tony Snell who knocked down a three at the buzzer to give New Mexico the win. It was an unbelievable sequence and no matter what New Mexico does this season, they will always have that game.

With these six tournaments in the books, there are still thirteen more tournaments to be completed during Feast Week. The Legends Classic isn’t over, but Georgetown pulled a nice upset over UCLA. UCLA struggled against the Hoyas zone defense, which is too bad because the Bruins have potentially one of the best zone-busters in the country in Kyle Anderson. Anderson is a tremendous passer for his size, but Anderson did not have a good game on Monday and UCLA played with little energy. In Maui, I’m going to have a hard time choosing a memorable moment as Rotnei Clarke had a ridiculous buzzer beater as Butler beat Marquette, and Texas playing without Myck Kabongo, lost to Chaminade. The feast is just getting started.

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