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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. 

Initial Bracket Thoughts

Because of the fast pace of both teams, BYU versus Iona has the potential to be one of the most entertaining First Four games of all-time. Also, I am salivating at seeing Missouri’s guards and Florida’s guards potentially clashing in the round of 32. But before I start breaking down the bracket, let’s throw a few quick stats at the wall:

Which Conferences Did the Best?

One thing I like to track during the NCAA tournament is whether conferences are exceeding expectations or falling short. One way to do that is to look at how seeds have performed from 1985 to 2011 and predict an expected number of wins for each conference.

(Note: In all tables I am only counting wins in the Round of 64 and beyond.)

Seed

Expected Wins

1

3.37

2

2.43

3

1.86

4

1.47

5

1.19

6

1.19

7

0.82

8

0.69

9

0.58

10

0.65

11

0.54

12

0.52

13

0.25

14

0.17

15

0.04

16

0.00

Based on these seed expectations and the seeds received, the Big East should win the most games in the tournament, but the Big Ten is expected to win nearly as many games with three fewer teams.

Conference

Teams

EW

Big East

9

12.06

Big Ten

6

10.86

ACC

5

8.85

Big 12

6

8.64

SEC

4

5.96

MWC

4

4.11

A10

4

2.59

MVC

2

1.88

WCC

3

1.73

CUSA

2

1.27

Pac12

2

0.80

MAAC

2

0.13

Other

19

4.21

We can also use this year’s margin-of-victory numbers to form an expectation. In the next table I use Ken Pomeroy’s predicted probabilities. Here we get a slightly different picture. His model expects the Big Ten to win the most games in the tournament, with the ACC earning far fewer wins than their high seeds would indicate:

Conference

Teams

Pomeroy

Big Ten

6

12.03

Big 12

6

9.70

Big East

9

9.36

ACC

5

6.99

SEC

4

6.34

MWC

4

3.63

A10

4

2.67

MVC

2

2.30

WCC

3

1.56

CUSA

2

1.44

Pac12

2

1.13

MAAC

2

0.29

Other

19

5.55

Team-By-Team

2012 is the year of the clear favorite. It will be virtually impossible for any of the experts who follow college basketball not to pick Kentucky to win the national championship. In terms of the measured statistics like margin-of-victory, in terms of the NBA ready talent on the floor, in terms of 34 games on TV over four months, no one has come close to the Wildcats this season.

But more importantly, there are no clear alternatives to the Wildcats. Again using Ken Pomeroy’s formula, here are the expected wins for each team in the tournament this year:

Team

Seed

EW

Kentucky

1

3.38

Ohio St.

2

3.38

Michigan St.

1

2.80

Kansas

2

2.74

North Carolina

1

2.56

Missouri

2

2.47

Syracuse

1

2.25

Wisconsin

4

2.09

Duke

2

1.75

Rather than showing one clear alternative, the numbers show a great deal of balance between the top seeds.

The Right Side of the Bracket (East and Midwest)

The margin-of-victory crowd is going to love Ohio St., but they might be the only ones. Despite bringing back one of the top post players in the country in Jared Sullinger, one of the top defenders in Aaron Craft, one of the most prolific two-guards in William Buford, and watching Deshaun Thomas emerge into a versatile scoring threat, Ohio St.’s offense has struggled at times this year. Ohio St. has simply not been able to replace the outside shooting of Jon Diebler. And by sharing the Big Ten title and falling to Michigan St. in the conference tournament, very few people are going to be in love with this team. Add in a potential Sweet Sixteen match-up with a Florida St. team that has two wins against Duke and two wins against North Carolina, and Ohio St. will get far less love than these numbers would suggest.

Syracuse is the more traditional favorite, but they are the worst defensive rebounding team in the field, and their offense can look stagnant when they aren’t forcing turnovers. Even a second round match-up against Kansas St. could be a nightmare for Syracuse. Kansas St.’s team is built to crash the glass, and if Angel Rodriguez can simply throw up jump shots (instead of turning the ball over at his normally high rate), Kansas St. might have a chance for an upset.

North Carolina is the choice for people who like NBA talent, but the ACC was so weak this year, the Tar Heels didn’t get their normal share of big games. And when they did play quality teams, they would usually be close. UNC would win 54-51 against Virginia or 69-67 against NC State. Certainly everyone says North Carolina has a lot of NBA ready talent on paper, but unlike Kentucky, it never felt like North Carolina was unbeatable. Ever since the big win over Michigan St. on an aircraft carrier to start the season, they rarely gave off that aura of invincibility. And with John Henson’s injury this weekend, there are additional doubts about the Tar Heels.

If you are scared away by Kentucky’s inexperience, you might like Kansas. The Jayhawks don’t have any amazing freshmen this year because the majority of their recruiting class was declared academically ineligible to start the season. That has left Kansas with a veteran lineup and Bill Self has clearly got the most out of every player on the floor. The once ridiculed Tyshawn Taylor has emerged as a polished superstar and Thomas Robinson emerged into quite possibly the best player in the country.

But when you look at this group of four teams (Syracuse, Ohio St., North Carolina, and Kansas) any honest evaluation would say that it truly is a toss-up. I would unquestionably pick these four teams for the regional finals on that half of the bracket, but I have no idea which of these teams will play in the national title game.

The Left Side of the Bracket (West)

On the other side of the bracket, it is hard not to love what Michigan St. has accomplished this year. But the Spartans got the worst possible second round draw. Memphis has been absolutely demolishing teams lately, winning their last seven games by 18 points or more. Michigan St. may be able to exploit Memphis’ lack of size in the paint better than any team in the nation, but they shouldn’t have to face such a dominant team in the second round. (Oh, and if St. Louis upsets Memphis, they have elite margin-of-victory numbers too.) So even if Michigan St. was a reasonable pick for a deep run based on their performance in the toughest conference in the country this year, the bracket makes the Spartans a very risky bet.

Instead many people will be drawn to the sentimental favorite Missouri. Don’t pick against the Tigers because of their lack of depth. They’ve played smart and avoided foul trouble all year. Don’t pick against the Tigers because of their lack of size. They’ve played bigger teams all year, and they’ve actually struggled more against smaller quicker teams. In fact, I would argue that picking against Missouri is the most unpleasant thing you could possibly do this year. With only 7 scholarship players, this group has developed a type of offensive chemistry that will help you rediscover a love for basketball.

I think part of what made the Missouri offense so good this year was the change of pace. Normally when a player goes to the NBA they realize that the game is much faster. But eventually the game slows down. Well, Missouri is having a slow-down moment. While Missouri still plays at an exceedingly fast-pace relative to most teams, it is much slower than what they played under Mike Anderson. Somehow the game is very calm and controlled for them, while remaining at a fever pitch for opponents.

Ricardo Ratliffe is the perfect example. Teams know that he shoots nearly 70% in the paint so they cannot afford to let him get paint touches, but somehow the Missouri guards are always cutting and using screens and finding a way to get him the ball in scoring position. And Ratliffe probably has the quickest release of any post player in college today. He rarely holds the ball and lets the defense react. He catches the ball and gets it up on the backboard immediately

Having said all that, I’m not in love with Missouri’s draw. Let me get to that:

First, I really like Florida over Virginia. A number of the experts say that Virginia likes to play a pack-line defense and force teams to shoot over the top. Well, Florida is not afraid to shoot over the top. But I actually think that is a little over-rated. Virginia has played the pack-line defense, but still been quick enough to get out on shooters. What concerns me more than anything is how poorly Virginia has played since Assane Sene has gone down. The defense just hasn’t been the same without the 7 footer in the middle, and he is not going to be back for the tournament.

And if Florida advances to face Missouri, that’s a dream match-up on paper. While Missouri has succeeded by playing four guards around Ricardo Ratliffe, that will allow Florida to play four guards around Patric Young. And while Kentucky has almost single-handedly convinced the country that Florida isn’t very good, realistically Florida is almost the mirror-image of Missouri. Missouri might be the favorite, but that game would be very close to a toss-up.

And if Missouri faces Marquette in the Sweet Sixteen, Marquette is another team that has the quickness to stay with Missouri. Plus Buzz Williams clearly takes his scouting to another level in the NCAA tournament. Facing his team after a four day break would be a nightmare.

The Left Side of the Bracket (South)

Duke drew the short straw getting placed in the same region as Kentucky. And the Blue Devils were also clearly the least dominant of the 1 and 2 seeds during the regular season. Give Mike Krzyzewski credit for putting together the right non-conference schedule that got Duke the quality wins they need to be a 2-seed, but even the usually Duke-loving Dick Vitale has said that this is not a vintage Duke team. When Vitale says the Blue Devils might lose in the second round of the tournament, you know they have flaws. Now is probably a good time for me to show another Expected Win chart:

Team

Seed

EW

Baylor

3

1.73

Wichita St.

5

1.61

Marquette

3

1.51

Indiana

4

1.48

Georgetown

3

1.36

New Mexico

5

1.34

Michigan

4

1.33

Louisville

4

1.24

Florida St.

3

1.19

Vanderbilt

5

1.17

Baylor will be the clear pick to upset Duke for some people based on the large amount of NBA talent on their roster. But as an NBA-centered team, they remind me a lot of recent Texas teams under Rick Barnes. Somehow showing off their game for NBA scouts is more important than winning. Baylor proved some skeptics wrong by beating Kansas in the Big 12 tournament, but if Missouri will make you love college basketball, cheering for Baylor will absolutely drive you nuts. You almost have to beg for Perry Jones III to get a post touch, and while Brady Heslip is a great sharp-shooter, he doesn’t seem to have any feel for when to take threes and when to work the offense.

Dark Horses

- I’ve already written at length about how Wisconsin’s numbers are inflated based on crushing a bunch of small teams early in the season. But I do believe the Badgers are dangerous. My main concern with picking them is that at their slow pace, they open up the door to losing any game. Montana is clearly not in Wisconsin’s league, but in a 58 possession game, against a solid Montana defense, the game will probably be close.

- Wichita St. is the most dominant MVC team since Ken Pomeroy began tracking stats, and they have the kind of 7-foot center in Garrett Stutz that a lot of mid-major teams do not. That is why Seth Davis was professing his love for this team on CBS.

- Vanderbilt absolutely has the talent at every position to beat any team in the country. And they should long savor their win over Kentucky in the SEC final. But the main complaint is that the Commodores have failed to play well against weaker teams. With basically the same lineup they’ve lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament in previous years, and they had many games this season where they struggled with weaker opponents. Sure, I’ll believe you if you say they can beat Syracuse. But can they even get to that game?

- Finally, Florida St. is the team that a lot of people are going to be picking based on the ACC tournament title. But again, they have a potential nightmare match-up if they face Cincinnati. The Bearcats are one of the best teams in the country at forcing steals and Florida St.’s biggest weakness is holding on to the ball. Sure, they might be able to beat Ohio St. But can they even get to that game?

Here are more expected wins in the round of 64 and beyond:

Team

Seed

EW

Kansas St.

8

1.14

UNLV

6

1.11

Memphis

8

1.09

Florida

7

0.95

Purdue

10

0.94

Murray St.

6

0.92

Notre Dame

7

0.90

Texas

11

0.90

Temple

5

0.84

Alabama

9

0.84

Belmont

14

0.81

Cincinnati

6

0.79

NC State

11

0.78

Gonzaga

7

0.75

Iowa St.

8

0.71

Virginia

10

0.71

Creighton

8

0.69

Xavier

10

0.67

California

12

0.67

St. Louis

9

0.66

San Diego St.

6

0.64

Connecticut

9

0.56

West Virginia

10

0.55

Colorado St.

11

0.54

St. Mary's

7

0.53

Long Beach St.

12

0.52

St. Bonaventure

14

0.50

Colorado

11

0.46

Harvard

12

0.46

South Dakota St.

14

0.44

Ohio

13

0.44

Davidson

13

0.39

Southern Miss

9

0.35

- In case it wasn’t clear how terrible the draw is for Memphis and St. Louis. Memphis has the 9th best Pomeroy ranking, but is 22nd in expected wins. St. Louis had the 15th best Pomeroy ranking, but is 39th in expected wins.

- Southern Miss has some of the worst margin-of-victory stats in the field. Don’t pick them to upset Kansas St.

And here is the last of the list:

Team

Seed

EW

Lehigh

15

0.34

VCU

12

0.32

New Mexico St.

13

0.29

BYU

14

0.28

Iona

14

0.23

South Florida

12

0.21

Montana

13

0.17

NC Asheville

16

0.12

Detroit

15

0.11

Lamar

16

0.09

Loyola MD

15

0.06

Vermont

16

0.05

Norfolk St.

15

0.04

Long Island

16

0.04

Western Kentucky

16

0.02

Miss. Valley St.

16

0.00

Parting Thoughts

- Seth Davis said it well at the end of the selection special, the NCAA committee sent a message that non-conference strength-of-schedule matters. That’s why Iona got in ahead of Drexel. And that’s why Missouri was not a #1 seed. A lot of people will argue with that message. What does non-conference strength-of-schedule have to do with evaluating the quality of a team? Isn’t the goal to pick the best teams? But I’ve been watching this show for 20 years, and the committee has always had this emphasis. They want to incentivize teams to play big games early in the season, and whether it is an explicit criteria or not, it is a criteria.

- I still can’t believe Kevin Harlan weaved in a comment about Peyton Manning during the Arizona vs Colorado Pac-12 final. (Yes, Manning probably won’t be choosing between Denver and Arizona based on the outcome of that game.)

- Finally, only Bob Knight could manage to eat an ice cream cone while calling a college basketball game.

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