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College Basketball Preview 14-15: Big East

My numeric projections will be available near the start of the season, but today I want to write a few words about each Big East team’s outlook.

Earlier Previews: ACC Preview, MWC Preview, SEC Preview, WCC Preview, Atlantic-10 Preview

Big East Favorite

Villanova: It hardly seems fair to the rest of the league that last year’s Big East regular season champion also has the most returning minutes in the conference. Incoming Top 100 freshmen like Phil Booth and Mikal Bridges can simply be eased into the lineup on a team like Villanova instead of thrown into the fire. Villanova is also tied with Georgetown and Marquette for the most former Top 100 recruits on the roster with seven.

James Bell is gone, but when you have a player like Josh Hart ready to move from the bench and into the starting lineup, the future is bright. Hart was great at getting to the line, great at finishing around the rim, and even more efficient than Bell last season. With all those veterans, Villanova has very little downside risk.

Hoping for the Top 25

Georgetown: John Thompson III is confident that Joshua Smith will be eligible this year, and when Smith is on the floor, he is a dominant offensive force. Given that Smith has never played 20 minutes a game, and rarely played a full season of games, I’m a little skeptical that he can dominate for a full year. But even if Smith does not play major minutes, the Hoyas are still going to be substantially improved because of a strong recruiting class that includes Top 100 recruits Isaac Copeland, LJ Peak, and Paul White. Their size and athleticism should easily compliment a back court of D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera and Jabril Trawick. For a team that gave major minutes to three offensive liabilities last year, I will be shocked if Georgetown’s offense is not better.

But my real question is on defense. In January, I wrote how some coaches appeared to be adapting poorly to the change in the way fouls were being called. Despite the fact that their teams have fouled at a fairly consistent rate throughout their careers, John Thompson III, Roy Williams and Bill Self were all fouling at a dramatically higher rate than they had historically.

A very smart Michigan writer tweeted me and was skeptical of the numbers. After all, a handful of coaches will have outlier years every season. And the truth is, we can’t rule out that possibility. Perhaps Georgetown just happened to have some players that were particularly poor at keeping their opponent in front of them last year, and they had to foul too much. Perhaps, despite the presence of Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, Kansas just had an unorthodox team, and that explains why Bill Self had the worst defensive team he’s ever had at Kansas. I’ve run some statistical tests, and the increase in fouling appears to go above and beyond the normal amount of statistical variation, but with one data point after the rule change, it is possible this was just a fluke.

But if you are looking for a reason to doubt Georgetown, the question of whether John Thompson III’s defense is too physical for the new foul rules is an important one. The next table shows the coaches who saw the largest uptick in fouls committed last year:

Coaches with the Biggest Increases in FTA per FGA on Defense

Coach

Team

2013

2014

Change

J. P. Piper

Nicholls St.

39

61

+22

Brian Katz

Sacramento St.

28

49

+21

Roman Banks

Southern

35

54

+19

Jim Molinari

Western Illinois

28

47

+19

Willie Hayes

Alabama A&M

36

55

+19

Kevin Nickelberry

Howard

37

54

+17

John Thompson

Georgetown

35

52

+17

Doug Wojcik

Charleston

27

43

+16

Steve Pikiell

Stony Brook

27

42

+15

Scott Sutton

Oral Roberts

28

43

+15

Howard Moore

Illinois Chicago

35

50

+15

Brian Jones

North Dakota

34

49

+15

Ray McCallum

Detroit

36

50

+15

Dana Altman

Oregon

33

48

+15

Roy Williams

North Carolina

27

41

+14

Clemon Johnson

Florida A&M

42

56

+14

Scott Nagy

South Dakota St.

24

38

+14

Mark Gottfried

North Carolina St.

29

43

+14

Randy Monroe

UMBC

44

58

+14

Cy Alexander

North Carolina A&T

41

54

+13

Bill Self

Kansas

32

45

+13

Hoping for the NCAA Tournament

Xavier: When I was reading the offseason headlines, “Semaj Christon declares for the draft”, “Justin Martin transfers”, I assumed Xavier was headed for a rebuilding season. But when you look at the Xavier lineup, it is much stronger than you might think. First, Dee Davis was not as good a scorer as Semaj Christon, but he had a very strong assist rate, and he should be able to keep the Xavier offense running at a high level. And incoming PG Edmond Sumner is viewed as a Top 100 recruit by everyone except Rivals. Off the ball, Xavier adds transfer Remy Abell, who was highly efficient at Indiana. Rising sophomore Miles Davis was also efficient and with the typical sophomore leap he should be in for a strong season. The guards might not score as much as last season, but that’s a solid group.

At the wing, the team adds Trevon Bluiett. If you are looking for a reason Justin Martin transferred, Bluiett might be the reason. The Top 40 recruit is so talented, he would have taken many of Martin’s minutes regardless. And the post might be the team’s area of greatest strength. Matt Stainbrook is a star. James Farr and Jalen Reynolds were two of the best reserve forwards in the country last year, and the team adds top 100 recruit Makinde London in the paint. Xavier lacks a little star power, and that may keep them from reaching the highest levels of performance. But their quality depth will win a ton of games.

St. John’s: This team is an enigma. They had star power with D’Angelo Harrison and JaKarr Sampson, quality depth, and they played solid defense, but they weren’t an NCAA tournament team last year. They had plenty of highly ranked recruits, but they couldn’t score.

And this offseason provides more of the same. On the one hand, the team takes a big step back in the paint, with three of the team’s four primary post players moving on. On the other hand, that means Chris Obekpa should play more minutes, and his shot-blocking can make up for a lot of errors. On the one hand, more Chris Obekpa and less JaKarr Sampson is bad for the offense. On the other hand, Rysheed Jordan should be better. Jordan was the typical freshman PG last year. He had moments of brilliance but also a bunch of games where he looked lost. If Jordan shows the typical sophomore leap and becomes more consistent this year, St. John’s offense should be better.

This seems like a key season for Steve Lavin in terms of proving he still has this team headed in the right direction. But almost any outcome seems possible at this point.

Marquette: The Big East may face tough times if the Power Five conferences begin to offer stipends and other compensation and the Big East is not allowed to match those policies. But right now, there is no reason to expect the conference to fall off the map. The Big East currently has more former RSCI Top 100 recruits per team than every conference except the ACC:

Conf

Teams

RSCI Top 100 Recruits

Top 100 Per Team

ACC

15

66

4.4

Big East

10

38

3.8

SEC

14

47

3.4

Big Ten

14

45

3.2

Pac 12

12

38

3.2

Big 12

10

31

3.1

Amer

11

20

1.8

MWC

11

15

1.4

A10

14

9

0.6

WCC

10

5

0.5

MVC

10

1

0.1

Marquette has seven former Top 100 recruits and adds BYU’s explosive scorer Matt Carlino as a transfer this season. That sounds like a dangerous lineup, but the problem is that not all Top 100 recruits are created equally.  Steve Taylor and Juan Anderson are former Top 100 recruits on Marquette’s roster, but they have largely been busts. And freshman Sandy Cohen is probably a year away from dominating at the D1 level. (Recruits ranked 51-100 are often inconsistent in their first season.) Indiana transfer and former Top 100 recruit Luke Fischer will not be available until December as he transferred mid-season, and that can often be disruptive to a team’s chemistry.

The good news is that three of the other Top 100 recruits still have lots of upside. Deonte Burton is one of my Top 10 breakout players in the country. He was an efficient high volume scorer with a great recruiting pedigree, and with more playing time he should be a star next year. Duane Wilson missed all of last year due to injury, but he still projects as a key player. And as the highest ranked recruit in the bunch, JaJuan Johnson still projects as another key player for Marquette. But even with seven former Top 100 recruits on the roster, Marquette’s roster is a work in progress.

Providence: Is it possible for me to both rave about the job Ed Cooley is doing and say that most people are probably over-rating the Friars NCAA chances? Well, that’s exactly what I am about to do.

On the one hand, Providence’s program is as healthy as it has been in a long time. The team is getting key commitments from quality players years in advance. To say the talent level on this team has been upgraded is a huge understatement. LaDontae Henton is now the ONLY player on the roster who was not a consensus 3-star recruit out of high school. And Henton has turned into a star anyhow. Given where this program was five years ago, that’s amazing.

But despite a very positive outlook in the long-run, 2014-15 looks like a bit of a transition year. First, this team barely snuck into the NCAA tournament last year. They may have given North Carolina a scare, but their margin-of-victory was only 51st in the nation. And losing Bryce Cotton, their most efficient player, their best passer, their best scorer, and a player who never left the floor, is going to hurt.

Second, the team is going to have to give more minutes to freshmen. Last year with Brandon Austin and Rodney Bullock suspended, Providence basically never used any first-year players. This year with Bullock eligible and an outstanding recruiting class coming in, Providence projects to give substantially more minutes to its young players. And while many of them are talented, playing inexperienced players will lead to more mistakes. There will be games where players don’t rotate properly defensively, and games where players simply stand around and don’t run the offensive sets with the same crispness of a veteran team.

And while many of the names sounds scary, many of the players don’t have great projections for this season. PG Kris Dunn was an elite recruit, but he has struggled massively with injuries, and hasn’t been able to perform at an elite level in his two seasons with the team. That may mean more minutes for freshman PG Kyron Cartwright. Meanwhile Carson Desrosiers is a quality shot-blocking big man, but he is a very passive offensive player. And while transfer Junior Lomomba has received some positive reviews on the team’s European tour, he didn’t have great efficiency numbers at Cleveland St. That doesn’t necessarily bode well for him being an efficient player in the Big East. Rodney Bullock seems like a household name at this point because of the off-court issues, but I also think we need to recognize that he was only a 3-star recruit. He does not necessarily project as a star. Honestly, the true freshmen may be deserving of the most love. Paschal Chukwu and Jalen Lindsey were both consensus Top 100 recruits, and Ben Bentil may be the most polished of the young big men.

The good news is that Providence has great depth in the front-court. Despite being a guard-heavy, defensively weak team the last few years, the upgrade in the team’s post-players means the team’s defense may finally take a key step forward. But the numbers suggest Providence’s offense will take a key step back. Obviously with quality returning double figure scorers LaDontae Henton and Tyler Harris leading the way, Providence could be back in the tournament. But this is a team that needs to try out a number of unproven pieces, and a couple of bad losses in the non-conference schedule could leave this team on the wrong side of the bubble.

Hoping for the NIT

Seton Hall: And if you think Providence is going to have a young team, Seton Hall is going to be even younger. If I were to rank the Pirate’s seven best players heading into next season, I would say that four of them are freshmen. The best news is that the team has an experienced PG in Sterling Gibbs, so even if the team is young, at least they have a leader on the floor.

Isaiah Whitehead is a Top 20 recruit, but given how much Seton Hall will be relying on him, he will probably finish in the Top 10 in freshmen scoring nationally. Realistically, Seton Hall is a year away. Brandon Mobley is the only key player who will run out of eligibility at the end of the season, so if the team can convince Whitehead to stick around for his sophomore year and develop enough of the young players, there is no reason this team cannot be one of the best teams in the conference next season.

Creighton: Creighton is going to be worse without Doug McDermott. But it isn’t just McDermott. The team also lost a number of sharp-shooting veteran perimeter players as well. Center Will Artino made 67% of his buckets last year, but that was because he was taking mostly wide-open lay-ups. Without the same players spreading the floor next season, his shooting percentage is going to plummet. But there is one critical reason for optimism. McDermott stayed on as a walk-on last year which allowed the team to stockpile more players on the bench. And even though Creighton lost a ton of production, this is not a particularly young team. With additions like Cal transfer Ricky Kreklow and Top 100 recruit Ronnie Harrell, this team may surprise us.

Butler: The return of Roosevelt Jones from injury will be huge. Andrew Chrabascz is much better than most people think. And Kellen Dunham is still a star. But the drop-off to the rest of the roster is pretty significant.

Alex Barlow might be the best “former walk-on” in the country, but even giving it his all, he doesn’t have the athleticism to truly be a star. Kameron Woods can rebound quite well, but he has horrible hands for a big man. Indiana transfer Austin Etherington might sound like a key player, but he couldn’t even earn playing time in a down year for the Hoosiers, and he injured his foot this summer. That does not foretell a breakout season.

More of the Same

DePaul: Whenever ESPN does a star-watch feature on DePaul this year, expect them to focus on Billy Garrett. Garrett was a former 4-star recruit and he is the team’s leading returning scorer. Maybe, since he is only a sophomore, DePaul will have a good season before he graduates. The Blue Demons hope that by adding three Top 100 JUCO transfers and Illinois transfer Myke Henrythat they will play better. But they have a long way to go to be competitive with the rest of this league.

In Season Improvement, Part 2

Click here for Page 1

If you are looking for a coach whose team typically does get better later in the year, look no further than Michigan head coach John Beilein. In 8 of the last 10 seasons and for six straight years, Beilein’s teams have seen their Pyth. Winning Percentage improve after the opening two months.

 John Beilein

Off Nov/Dec

Off Later

Def Nov/Dec

Def Later

Pyth Nov/Dec

Pyth Later

2004 West Virginia

106.0

107.7

98.1

96.7

0.6884

0.7508

2005 West Virginia

114.8

115.6

92.1

97.2

0.9053

0.8554

2006 West Virginia

115.6

117.8

96.6

93.9

0.8625

0.9108

2007 West Virginia

112.8

119.7

85.3

97.2

0.9460

0.8938

2008 Michigan

105.1

104.5

103.7

95.5

0.5348

0.7170

2009 Michigan

112.0

111.4

97.3

94.7

0.8087

0.8406

2010 Michigan

105.5

107.6

97.1

91.4

0.7006

0.8422

2011 Michigan

105.2

115.2

90.0

94.6

0.8315

0.8837

2012 Michigan

112.1

113.1

96.8

93.4

0.8187

0.8762

2013 Michigan

119.4

124.1

89.7

92.9

0.9496

0.9509

Michigan has been extremely underwhelming in its marquee games this year. But in the past John Beilein has been able to solve his team’s weaknesses, and based on his track record, it is fair to expect significant improvement.

In general, here are the Top 10 coaches at getting their teams to play better over the course of the season. (Note I am only counting seasons when coaching at a major program over the last 10 years, and including coaches with at least 4 years of data.)

Coach

Team

Pyth Nov/Dec

Pyth Later

Diff

Chris Mack

Xavier

0.7701

0.8387

0.0687

Mark Fox

Georgia/Nevada

0.6973

0.7601

0.0628

Mike Brey

Notre Dame

0.8273

0.8796

0.0523

John Beilein

Michigan/West Virginia

0.8046

0.8521

0.0475

Chris Mooney

Richmond/Air Force

0.5939

0.6393

0.0454

Shaka Smart

VCU

0.8001

0.8425

0.0425

Kevin Stallings

Vanderbilt

0.8166

0.8574

0.0408

Scott Drew

Baylor

0.6965

0.7371

0.0406

Fran Dunphy

Temple

0.7737

0.8088

0.0351

John Giannini

La Salle

0.5533

0.5833

0.0300

-Xavier’s Chris Mack is a perfect 4-for-4 at getting his team to play better later in the season.

-Michigan St.’s Tom Izzo would crack this list if not for a dreadful 2011 season. But in seven of the last 10 years, Michigan St. has improved during the year.

Bullets

-The talk this season has been about Wisconsin’s increased tempo, but that appears to have been a two game mirage. While the Badgers did play fast against Green Bay and North Dakota, they have reverted to their historical norm. The Badgers currently rank 349th in the nation in average possession length on offense. And this is not just because of the Virginia game. The Badgers had fallen to 331st in the nation in average possession length before that game.

-After making 42 percent of his three point attempts last year, Georgetown’s Markel Starks has made just 25 percent of his long range shots (11 of 44), and just 39 percent of his two point baskets this year. That has put huge pressure on Georgetown’s only other scoring guard, D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera. When Smith-Rivera has been off, Georgetown has lost (Oregon and Northeastern) or narrowly won (Saturday against Colgate). Everyone keeps talking about how Joshua Smith needs to be more consistent, but Georgetown actually needs more consistent play from its backcourt.

-If Kansas is willing to play Colorado (who left for the Pac-12), they need to start playing Missouri again too. Sure there were a lot of hard feelings about Missouri’s departure from the Big 12, but if Kansas fans think their school would not have done the same thing, they are crazy. In the long-run, there is no reason for conference realignment to destroy regional rivalries. If we can still get our Seton Hall vs Rutgers matchups, we should still get Kansas vs Missouri.

-Bill Carmody’s Northwestern teams were notoriously bad on defense, so Northwestern fans had to be pleased to see their team hold Western Michigan to 24 percent shooting on Saturday. New head coach Chris Collins needs to upgrade the talent at Northwestern to win in the Big Ten, but if he can get the team to play defense, they can be more competitive in year one.

Early Surprises

A few weeks ago I talked about why Washington, Iowa St., Duke, Oklahoma, and Florida St. were performing better or worse than expected this year. Today I want to look at two more teams.

Santa Barbara

Preseason Projection: One of six teams competing for Big West title

Current Performance: Big West Favorite

What has happened: Santa Barbara is 3-3 which might not grab your attention, but when you look inside the numbers, Santa Barbara’s start has been quite dominant. First Santa Barbara won at UNLV by 21. Given UNLV’s struggles this season, that may not hold up as a quality win at the end of the year, but the margin on the road was impressive.

Then Alan Williams missed Santa Barbara’s next two games against Utah St. and Colorado. Williams was one of the best high volume shooters in the nation last year, and so far in 2013-14 he leads the nation in percentage of shots when on the floor. But despite missing the team’s most critical offensive piece, Santa Barbara hung tough in both games and narrowly lost to two potential NCAA tournament teams.

Williams returned for the teams win against South Dakota St. and loss at UCLA. And then the Gauchos had their most impressive performance of the year, a home win against a California team that will likely make the NCAA tournament out of the Pac-12.

3-3 might not sound that great, but the teams underlying stats have been extremely impressive. JUCO transfer Zalmico Harmon was not a Top 100 JUCO player and was not a guarantee to be an impact player. But Harmon has been a gifted passer as the part-time PG, and his ability to find players in scoring position has led to a huge jump in the team’s offense. Guard Michael Bryson has seen his ORtg jump from 92 to 108 and forward Taran Brown has seen his ORtg jump from 92 to 138. Last year Santa Barbara’s offense consisted of Williams and no one else. Now with efficient players surrounding Williams, Santa Barbara looks like a team that could make some noise in March.

Is the change permanent? Small sample sizes dictate that this could be a fluke. But the reason this feels more real is because of the difficulty of Santa Barbara’s schedule. If players like Bryson and Brown can elevate their game against power conference competition, they should be much improved in Big West play.

Virginia

Preseason Projection: ACC Title Contender

Current Performance: NCAA Bubble Team

What has changed: The Cavaliers have lost their two biggest games of the season at home to VCU and Wisconsin and then went on the road and lost to Green Bay.

If you had told me Virginia lost these games before the season started, I would have assumed it was because of the team’s PG play. But as CBS Sports’ Jeff Borzello recently noted, freshman PG London Perrantes has not been the problem for the Cavs. Perrantes handled the ball better against VCU’s pressure than expected, and he was not the weak link against Wisconsin either.

The real problem is simple. Virginia was supposed to have two star players entering this year, Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell. And you simply are not going to beat quality teams if your star players do not play well. Against Wisconsin, Harris had his worst game in the last two years. But Mitchell’s performance this year has been even more distressing. A year ago, Mitchell was a high volume shooter and very efficient. But this year Mitchell’s shot volume has fallen from 25% to 15%, and his efficiency has dropped from 111 to 96.

Oh, and while Virginia’s defense had been dominant at home, the road trip to Green Bay resulted in Virginia’s worst defensive performance since a game against North Carolina in the middle of last season.

Is the change permanent? Harris and Mitchell will play better, and Virginia will still frustrate some quality teams in the ACC. But this team has been at its worst against quality opponents this season.

Harvard Watch Week 5

Continuing my series on an Ivy League Team on the edge of the Top 25…

Harvard missed four of its last six free throws, committed a turnover in the final minute, and nearly blew a late six-point lead against Boston University. But in OT Wesley Saunders took over and ensured that Harvard would not suffer its second defeat of the year.

Without question Saunders is the ultimate under-sized wing player. His passing is great, he crashes the offensive boards with reckless abandon, and he can create his own shot.

Harvard now has a two week break for Finals. The Harvard Watch feature will take a break with the team.

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. 

Big East Basketball Early Projection

Whether the Big East is a strong conference or a weak conference depends somewhat on the question. While the top of the league lacks national title contenders, the league has more depth than most of the other elite leagues.

Who Have You Played?

On the legitimacy of Arizona and Florida as national championship contenders, who has quality wins already and more.

Nerlens Noel, Isaiah Austin, And A Quick Look At How The Top 80 Recruits Have Fared

On Nerlens Noel, Isaiah Austin, Kyle Anderson and the rest of the freshman class as they play such prominent roles to begin the 12-13 NCAA season.

Predictions For A10/CUSA

In a surprise announcement, VCU is headed to the A10 for the upcoming season. Where do I project the Rams to finish?

Will The Madness Continue Into Sweet 16?

The first weekend of the NCAA Tournament was one of the most unpredictable in recent memory. Now, with the second weekend set to tip-off, the Madness may have only just begun.

NCAA Tournament Day 2

A running diary of a historic day in the NCAA tournament.

Initial Bracket Thoughts

A few preliminary thoughts on matchups and which teams will advance deep in the tournament.

The Many Facets & Unpredictability Of March Madness

While personnel determine scheme in the NBA, college basketball coaches recruit players that fit their schemes.

YACB Column, Jan. 30th (On The Weaknesses Of The Top-25 & More)

Many have called this a down year for college basketball and though that argument can be made about elite teams, there are still plenty of reasons why it's a fallacy.

More Injury Splits - Cincinnati And South Florida's Resurgence

How the returns of Khris Middleton, Festus Ezili, Jawanza Poland, and the Xavier-Cincinnati brawl have changed the course of the season.

Five Surprises From The Second Weekend In January

The theme heading into this weekend was that there were not many must-see games. But with college basketball, the sheer volume of games ensures there will always be a few surprises.

Colleges On NBA Rosters

Duke, Kentucky, UCLA, Texas, Kansas, North Carolina, UConn, Florida and Arizona each begin the 11-12 NBA season with 10 or more players on NBA rosters.

YABC Column, Dec. 19 (On Perry Jones, Miami, BYU, Illinois & More)

A hero moment for Perry Jones III, BYU doesn't slow down offense post-Jimmer, Reggie Johnson's return to the Miami lineup and much more.

YACB Column, Dec. 12: (On Indiana's Upset Of UK, Xavier/Cincinnati Brawl & More)

On why Indiana was going in the right direction before their upset of Kentucky, how the Xavier/Cincinnati brawl could have been prevented, Draymond Green, USC, Notre Dame and more.

Printable Brackets And Early Season Tournament Odds

Don't wait until March to start printing out college basketball brackets. With the Preseason NIT, Maui Invitational, Puerto Rico Tipoff and other excellent tournaments, you can start the madness in November.

How To Think About College Basketball Defense, A10 And MVC Notes

Why we can project Kentucky and Kansas as having great defenses despite significant turnover and projecting the Atlantic-10 and MIssouri Valley.

Yet Another College Basketball Column (Post-Selection Edition)

The field of 68 has been set and the four No. 1 seeds boringly look like good bets to reach the Final Four, but here are a few teams capable of overachieving.

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