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College Basketball Preview 14-15: ACC

If you are looking for my traditional projections for offense and defense, those will be available near the start of the college basketball season. But since we still have many weeks to go until November, I thought I would dig a little deeper and write some team previews for next year. (I also wrote a few more words on some of the potential Top 25 squads in early April and late April.)

ACC Favorite

Duke: Duke’s season will hinge on the play of Top 10 recruits forward Jahlil Okafor and point-guard Tyus Jones. And I think they will live up to the hype. But the player some fans may be overlooking is Rasheed Sulaimon. Some feel that Sulaimon had a bad year last year, but that’s not the case at all. On a per-possession basis he improved from his freshman to sophomore seasons. The problem was that Rodney Hood’s presence really dug into Sulaimon’s playing time. With Hood out of the picture, Sulaimon should bounce-back and become a lethal scorer once again.

Challengers

Louisville: While they will miss the all-around dominance and wins that Russ Smith brought to the table, Terry Rozier and Chris Jones have to be licking their chops now that Russ Smith is gone. Rozier and Jones were elite PGs who spent a lot of last season playing off-the-ball. Now they get to run the show, and the best part is that they still have Montrezl Harrell to throw the ball to in the paint. Louisville has another three Top 100 recruits coming in, led by Shaqquan Aaron. Wayne Blackshear is back and he significantly improved his outside shooting last year. And thanks to the success of Gorgui Dieng, Rick Pitino has seemingly fallen in love with a host of foreign centers with hard to pronounce names. That seems like a nice formula, but this is Rozier and Jones show.

Of course the PGs aren’t the only players who may be itching to get out from underneath someone else’s shadow. Blackshear was a Top 30 recruit and McDonald’s All-American, he’s started a bunch of games, he’s been very efficient, and he contributed to a national championship. And yet he’s never played more than 20 minutes a game, never felt like he has a natural position, and often spent the end of games glued to the bench thanks to Luke Hancock. If Blackshear had a different personality (or if Louisville hadn’t been winning so much), Blackshear might have transferred. But I am very curious to see whether Blackshear has the mentality to become a star now that Luke Hancock has graduated.

North Carolina: PG Nate Britt and SF JP Tokoto are likely to see their playing time cut thanks to the additions of Top 30 recruits PG Joel Berry, and SFs Theo Pinson and Justin Jackson. That may make for an awkward locker-room, but it should also mean an upgrade in efficiency. Marcus Paige may be playing out of position at SG for stretches of game time, but he thrived at that position last year. Meanwhile in the frontcourt, James McAdoo will be gone but shockingly Brice Johnson was better than McAdoo in almost every statistical category except free throw rate. And as long as the efficient Kennedy Meeks gets more playing time at the other front-court slot, North Carolina’s offense should be substantially better than last season.

Virginia:  Virginia’s junior class is special. Justin Anderson, Mike Tobey, Evan Nolte, Malcolm Brogdon, and Anthony Gill were all quality prospects out of high school. (While they are all juniors, Brogdon started a year earlier but had to red-shirt due to injury, and Gill was a transfer from South Carolina.) None of these players were instant impact superstars as freshmen. But they matured together, and as sophomores they helped Virginia make the leap to an ACC title. We tend to fall in love with the Top 10 recruits and future NBA draft prospects. But Virginia’s core shows the true value of low-end Top 100 recruits. They are efficient, hard-working, and they look like they will probably stick around for two more years and graduate. Throw in London Perrantes, a sophomore PG, and you have the ideal core of a winning team.

Hoping for the Top 25

Pittsburgh: PG James Robinson has played a ton of minutes the last two years. He’s not aggressive enough to be a star, but he is more than capable of running an offense that wins a bunch of games. Cameron Wright is your typical Jamie Dixon starter, a solid senior who doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. Durand Johnson was playing well last year until a knee injury derailed his season. Josh Newkirk, Michael Young, and Jamel Artis were three freshmen who were very effective last year and who should be ready to make the sophomore leap. Pitt also adds Vanderbilt transfer Shelton Jeter and JUCO Top 100 recruit Tyrone Haughton in the front-court. Former elite forward recruit Joseph Uchebo should finally be healthy.

This lineup perfectly fits the stereotype for Pitt basketball. There are no sexy choices in the lineup. But everyone has experience. And Jamie Dixon remains among the best at developing players.

The easiest way to see this is with my player projections model. I project what we should have expected for every player over the past five years based on their high school recruiting rank and previous NCAA stats. Then I compare those expectations to how those players performed. Only Mike Brey has been better at developing the offense of his players than Jamie Dixon. No, Pittsburgh doesn’t have 9 or 10 former elite recruits like Duke, Louisville, and North Carolina. But with Dixon developing players at an above average rate, Pitt is always a title contender.

Team

Coach

Player ORtg Relative to Expectations

Notre Dame

Mike Brey

1.034

Pittsburgh

Jamie Dixon

1.031

Louisville

Rick Pitino

1.022

Syracuse

Jim Boeheim

1.020

Miami FL

Jim Larranaga

1.020

Boston College

Jim Christian

1.019

Duke

Mike Krzyzewski

1.017

Virginia Tech

Buzz Williams

1.013

Wake Forest

Danny Manning

1.013

NC State

Mark Gottfried

1.009

Virginia

Tony Bennett

1.005

North Carolina

Roy Williams

1.000

Clemson

Brad Brownell

0.997

Florida St.

Leonard Hamilton

0.991

Georgia Tech

Brian Gregory

0.976

Most major conference coaches tend to exceed expectations when developing players. That is why they have jobs in a major conference. But while Brad Brownell and Leonard Hamilton have struggled to develop offensive talent, they are elite defensive coaches.

Roy Williams is probably the baseline. He has recruited at a high level and his players have tended to perform about where you would expect for elite recruits. Rick Pitino’s players have exceeded expectations on offense in recent seasons. And  when a coach recruits well and develops players, that’s the formula for a national title.

Syracuse: Even with major losses, you can never count Syracuse out. Their zone defense will still be very hard to score against. Trevor Cooney became a star SG last year. Forward Chris McCullough is the type of highly ranked recruit who should make an impact from Day 1. Obviously, for the second year in a row, the season will come down to the play of a freshman PG. This year his name is Kaleb Joseph. No PG can be expected to replace Tyler Ennis. Ennis’ low turnover rate was not just special for a Syracuse PG, it was basically unprecedented for a college freshman.

But I think the differences in opinion for Syracuse come down to how you evaluate the rest of the Syracuse roster. Is DaJuan Coleman a player that is still injured, a career disappointment, and never going to be a star? Or is he an explosive former Top 25 recruit who will provide a key punch late in the season once he finally gets back to 100%? Is Rakeem Christmas a passive offensive player who lacks the killer instinct to ever be anything other than a role player? Or is Christmas a player who improved on defense last year, a player who deferred to CJ Fair and Jerami Grant, but another former Top 25 recruit who can still be a late bloomer and star now that he’ll get more touches on offense? Is Tyler Roberson the freshman who posted an 89 ORtg last year, and couldn’t even finish simple baskets? Or is he the former Top 40 recruit who never got to show his stuff last year because of the depth chart, and who should mature as a sophomore into a true star? The reality is that we don’t know. And that is why we want to watch.

But my biggest concern for Syracuse is the overall lack of depth. There are just 10 scholarship players on the roster right now, and right now they are not all healthy. That lack of depth is going to force Syracuse to play slower than they want again this season, and open them up to losses to some inferior teams.

Notre Dame: Jerian Grant was injured in the middle of last year and Notre Dame fell apart. You probably expect me to write some story about how you can’t blame a team’s collapse on just one player. But when you look at the numbers, I think you can. The splits show that Notre Dame was brutal after Grant went down. And Grant’s stats last year were unbelievable. His ORtg was 132, he was making 58% of his threes, 40% of his twos, and averaging 19 points per game. And he was making his teammates better. His assist rate was 36. He was even contributing on defense. His steal rate was 3.5%. Now, a lot of that came against a weaker non-conference schedule. But even so, Grant was posting the kind of numbers where you would have had to include him in the conversation for ACC player-of-the-year. With Grant back, Notre Dame will look like a traditional Mike Brey team. The Fighting Irish will be an elite offensive team, that plays passive zone defense, hangs around the edges of the Top 25, and lacks the defensive toughness for a deep NCAA tournament run.

Hoping for the NCAA Tournament

Florida St.: Florida St.’s defense bounced back last season behind a bruising front-line and the soft hands of steal artist Aaron Thomas. There are still some flaws. How does 7’3” Boris Bojanovsky grab so few defensive rebounds? But Leonard Hamilton has proven to be a strong defensive coach at this point.

The bad news is that the lethal inside-outside combination of Ian Miller and Okaro White has graduated and their star power will be hard to replace on offense. Xavier Rathan-Mayes was an elite recruit who was academically ineligible last year, but his shooting should help tremendously. The return of center Kiel Turpin should also help. Turpin was granted a sixth year of eligibility after missing last year with a leg injury and he was much more efficient than Michael Ojo.  Add Top 100 JUCO guards like Dayshawn Watkins and Kedar Edwards, and replacing Miller and White seems a little more plausible.

But the Florida St. offense is mostly limited by Hamilton’s system. For six straight years Hamilton’s teams have been among the nation’s most turnover prone teams. That’s a flaw Hamilton needs to fix if his team is ever going to reach the next level.

Clemson: I’ll understand if you view the loss of KJ McDaniels as a sign of the apocalypse. Clemson wasn’t a good offensive team last year and now their best player is headed to the NBA. Worse yet, while the program brings in prized recruit Donte Grantham, he’s ranked low enough that there is no guarantee he will be a star this year. And there are no other Top 100 recruits on the roster.

But I’m optimistic about Clemson for two reasons. First, Brad Brownell’s formula isn’t going to be recruiting or dynamic offense. When his teams win, they are going to win with defense. And most of the roster is back from a quality defensive team last year.

Second, Clemson has two highly underrated upperclassman who may be able to step into a larger roles. Demarcus Harrison and Jordan Roper both used a high volume of possessions and were very efficient with the basketball last year. A long time ago, Ken Pomeroy emphasized the importance of free throw shooting as a predictor of future offensive performance. And Harrison and Roper were both excellent free throw shooters last year. If they get the playing time, they should be able to produce some points to replace what McDaniels took to the NBA.

Miami FL: I really don’t understand the roster Jim Larranaga put together last year. It felt like before the season started the coaching staff decided that trying to make the NCAA tournament wasn’t that important. Last year Miami went into the year with such a short bench, and so few scholarship players, that winning was virtually impossible. But then a funny thing happened. Because the Miami coaching staff are really good at their jobs, they focused on their team’s strengths, and actually got the Hurricane roster to play competitive basketball with just about everyone in the ACC.

This year, Miami has done the right things to make sure they have the depth to be competitive. Additions like Niagara graduate transfer Joe Thomas and Top 100 recruit Ivan Uceda don’t project to be stars. But they are the kind of veteran role players you need if you want to compete for an NCAA tournament bid. The star power will have to come from Texas transfer Sheldon McClellan, Kansas St. transfer Angel Rodriguez, and Top 50 high school recruit Ja’Quan Newton. And that might not be enough to compete at the highest level in the ACC. But unlike last year, Miami at least enters this year with the kind of roster that could make the NCAA tournament if things work out right.

NC State: Only Duke, Louisville, and North Carolina can top NC State’s eight players who were RSCI Top 100 recruits out of high school. And Desmond Lee was a Top 10 JUCO recruit last year, meaning that at some point in time, the scouts were raving about just about everyone on NC State’s roster. And yet for the second year in a row, I find myself saying that NC State is a year away. With TJ Warren and Tyler Lewis leaving with eligibility left, the Wolfpack again has a roster of almost all sophomores and freshmen.

The frontcourt is the biggest question mark, but the simulation model thinks that because NC State has so many options, the team will find an answer.  No player has a great projection individually, but Beejay Anja, Kyle Washington, Abdul-Malik Abu, Cody Martin, and Caleb Martin are all former Top 100 recruits, and Lennard Freeman was an effective, if reluctant scorer. The top 3 or 4 of those players should be able to compliment a quality backcourt that adds Alabama transfer Trevor Lacey.

Occasionally my projection system will reveal some under-the-radar roster trend that seems somewhat controversial. For NC State, while Kyle Washington played more than Beejay Anja last year, the model likes Anja to pass Washington in the rotation this year. The reason is somewhat simple. Anja was more highly ranked out of high school, and while Washington was a more consistent player last year, Anja’s higher block rate is a reflection of Anja’s greater athleticism. Additionally, while Anja rarely shot, Washington’s efficiency was extremely low. I’m not sure it means anything, but it does line up a little bit with roster utilization last year. While Washington’s minutes decreased as the season progressed, Anja’s playing time increased. Whether Anja actually passes Washington in the rotation remains to be seen, but that is what the model predicts.

Hoping for the NIT

Boston College: Returning minutes don’t mean everything. Exhibit A might be last year’s Boston College squad. Despite returning the team’s top six rotation players, BC fell from 96th in margin-of-victory to 138th and it cost head coach Steve Donahue his job. The drop-off was all on the defensive side of the ball. Part of it was an injury that kept center Dennis Clifford out of action. And part of it was that Boston College went from being a team that almost never fouled to a team that fouled a lot. (Was it the new defensive foul rules?)

This year BC can put together a rotation without any freshmen. And with an offensive superstar like Olivier Hanlon, that’s a formula for a solid offense. But for new head coach Jim Christian to succeed, he needs to somehow upgrade the defense while using many of the same players.

Virginia Tech: Buzz Williams has never believed he has had a lot of job security. He’s always had to fight to earn his place in the coaching profession, and he’s never had the luxury of putting a freshmen team on the floor and letting them work through their issues with a patient fan-base. But this year’s Virginia Tech roster might break that mold. Given the current Virginia Tech options, it is hard to envision a scenario where Top 100 freshmen like Ahmed Hill and Justin Bibbs won’t get their chance.

JUCO Shane Henry seems like the classic Buzz Williams player. A Top 10 JUCO recruit, he should slide into the lineup and be a focal point on offense. And Adam Smith, injured for much of last season, looks like he might be the ideal late bloomer. But overall, there are not enough skilled players to field a solid offense.

Wake Forest: I hope the Wake Forest fans are still enjoying watching Tim Duncan win titles in the NBA. Because I don’t see how Danny Manning has signed up for anything other than a long rebuilding project. In the short-run, Wake Forest’s three most efficient offensive players have graduated. The team adds Campbell transfer Darius Leonard, but he doesn’t have the pedigree to carry an ACC team. This year’s recruiting class is not great (although perhaps last year’s recruit Greg McClinton can be the answer if he ever gets healthy). And Wake only projects to have two scholarships available for next year, so Manning will have to force several players to transfer if he wants to bring in a big recruiting class next year. It is going to take some time to get this program back in order.

Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets should have been competitive last year. Trae Golden, Marcus Georges-Hunt, Kam Holsey, Robert Carter, and Daniel Miller were all very good players. And while Carter’s injury was not timely, there is no reason that a starting rotation with that caliber of talent should not have been competitive for an NCAA tournament bid. They won at Syracuse late in the year, and given their rotation, that type of success should not have been so rare. But the individual talents never seemed to click, the bench was terrible, and head coach Brian Gregory continued a trend that was apparent at Dayton. Even when he had talented players at Dayton, his teams could never put it all together.

Of the team’s five best players listed above, only Georges-Hunt returns. Ole Miss transfer Demarco Cox, East Carolina transfer Robert Sampson, and freshmen prospect Tadric Jackson will help. (I’m not sure South Florida transfer Josh Heath will help given that Heath couldn’t shoot at all last year.) But on paper, those four don’t replace what Georgia Tech loses. Basically if Brian Gregory could only get Georgia Tech to a 6-12 ACC record with last year’s roster, he could be headed to the cellar with this year’s roster.

Upsets, Adjustments, And The Game The President Missed

We Don’t Know Anything

With the NFL season coming to a close, many fans will turn their attention to college basketball. This should be the time when college basketball analysts tell you what to expect in the next two months. But the truth is that we don’t know much of anything.

-I thought Kansas was establishing itself as one of the best teams in the nation. Lottery picks Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid were hitting their stride, Kansas was 7-0 in the Big 12, and Texas was a team that had over-achieved to date. So of course Kansas shot 26 percent in the first half at Texas, Andrew Wiggins shot 2-of-12 from the floor and fouled out, and Kansas was blown out on Saturday.

-I thought that Pitt’s great margin-of-victory numbers were evidence that the Panthers were an elite team, even if they lacked a signature victory. But after back-to-back home losses to Duke and Virginia, it is getting harder and harder to make that argument.

-I thought that Duke had turned a corner with a deeper lineup and an improved emphasis on rebounds in recent games. I thought that Duke might be well positioned to give Syracuse their first loss of the year. And Duke seemingly got exactly what they wanted on Saturday. With the exception of one play in the first half (which caused Mike Krzyzewski to call a timeout), the Blue Devils kept Trevor Cooney from coming around on curl cuts for open threes and held Syracuse to just 4 three point attempts in the entire game. Duke made an impressive 15 three pointers against the zone, avoided turnovers, and crashed the offensive glass. The Blue Devils hit a game-tying three at the end of regulation. And yet, Duke had no answer for CJ Fair throughout the game, or Rakeem Christmas in OT. And even if Duke is playing better, the Blue Devils sit three games back in the loss column in the ACC standings.

-I thought Michigan St. had proven that it could win and thrive even with injuries, and that without Joshua Smith, Georgetown’s season was in the tank. The Hoyas had lost six of seven, with the only victory coming in OT against the Big East’s last place team. But the Spartans lack of paint depth is proving significant as Georgetown had its best offensive rebounding performance since December in knocking off the Spartans.

-I thought UNLV head coach Dave Rice was looking to get fired and that his team was on its way to a disappointing sixth home loss of the season. But down by 11 to Boise St. near the four minute mark in the second half, the Running Rebels went on an amazing 12-0 run, including a huge bucket, steal, and bucket by Deville Smith near the 90 second mark. Somehow, UNLV escaped with a victory.

-I thought that Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan never lost at home and that the starting five for the Badgers was one of the most explosive in the nation. But after Wisconsin shot a miserable 26 percent in the home loss to Northwestern, the Badger starters shot a miserable 31 percent from the floor against Ohio St. And Wisconsin lost three home games in a row for the first time since 1998.

-I thought Northwestern was the only truly terrible team in the Big Ten after they started the season 7-9, and had lost the opening three games in Big Ten play by 27, 23 and 26 points. But after Minnesota missed a number of point-blank shots in the final four minutes, Northwestern hung on for the win, and improved to 5-5 in the Big Ten. The Wildcats have won three straight Big Ten road games for the first time since 1960.

-I thought Baylor’s season was over. At 1-6 in the Big 12, with starting PG Kenny Chery ruled out before the game, a trip to Oklahoma St. seemed like the worst case scenario. Scott Drew’s teams have spiraled to dreadful Big 12 finishes before, and when Oklahoma St. went on a second half run to eliminate a nine point deficit, this seemed like more of the same. But of course that is when Baylor’s Gary Franklin, who had made all of four three-pointers in his last six games, made back-to-back triples. The Bears picked up the key road win, and thanks to their non-conference schedule, they remain on the bubble.

-And finally, I thought Arizona was the best team in the country. They have a tight, defense-oriented rotation that has been dominating the Pac-12. They have a great combination of talented post-players and a veteran perimeter scorer in Nick Johnson. And yet, all it took was a rough outside shooting night, and even though Arizona won every other statistical category (rebounds, turnovers, 16 of 16 free throw shooting), the Wildcats were knocked off. Worse yet, Brandon Ashley went down with a foot injury and could be out for an extended period of time. Given Arizona’s lack of rotation depth generally, his injury could be more crippling than the overall loss.

Sure Syracuse is undefeated. Sure, a 2 point loss does nothing to obscure Arizona’s dominant seasonal. But this weekend’s games revealed the truth about college basketball this year. This season is wide open.

Adjusting to the New Rules?

Last week I wrote about coaches who were sending opponents to the free throw line at an unprecedented rate relative to their career numbers. Certainly the new defensive freedom of movement rules contributed somewhat to those numbers.

Nationally, the turnover numbers are also down. The next table shows the major conference coaches with the highest career steal rate (prior to this year) and their steal rate this season. Even if turnovers are down generally, this table suggests that an active zone defense or a full court pressure defense can still be effective at generating turnovers:

Steal Rate

Career

This Year

Shaka Smart

14.6

16.3

M. Anderson

14.0

11.5

Anthony Grant

12.3

10.8

Jim Boeheim

12.3

14.3

Oliver Purnell

12.2

10.2

Josh Pastner

12.2

13.3

Rick Pitino

12.1

13.6

I should be a little careful in presenting this table. While Louisville’s steal rate is higher than it has been for most of the last decade, Louisville’s steals are down from last season. The new rules could be contributing to the dropoff from 2013 to 2014. But I am skeptical that we can blame the entire decrease on the rule changes. Last year was Rick Pitino’s best ball-swiping team ever, and at least part of the decrease in steals should be attributed to the loss of the team leader in steals, Peyton Siva. Also, Louisville has not been able to gamble as much this year because Gorgui Dieng has not been available to bail the defense out when it makes a mistake.

In general, it certainly seems like aggressive defensive strategies can still be effective at forcing turnovers, even with the officials calling more hand-checking violations.

Of course, even if all coaches are not abandoning aggressive defensive strategies, some coaches have made changes this year. I find the numbers for Clemson head coach Brad Brownell to be particularly fascinating. Whether because of the new foul rules, or other reasons, his defense looks substantially different this year.

Despite the fact that FTs are up nationally, Brad Brownell’s team is actually sending opponents to the FT line at a career low rate. Meanwhile, his team is also forcing turnovers at a career low rate. And yet his team’s eFG% against is a career best:

Brad Brownell

Year

eFG% against

TO% forced

FTA per FGA allowed

UNC-Wilm.

2003

46

25

35

UNC-Wilm.

2004

48

25

38

UNC-Wilm.

2005

50

22

41

UNC-Wilm.

2006

44

23

44

Wright St.

2007

49

22

33

Wright St.

2008

48

20

30

Wright St.

2009

45

24

38

Wright St.

2010

49

25

44

Clemson

2011

46

23

35

Clemson

2012

49

23

30

Clemson

2013

47

20

33

Clemson

2014

42

18

29

Essentially, Brownell has evolved his coaching style to take less chances. Clemson is gambling for fewer steals and committing fewer fouls. But by staying home and preventing easy looks, they are still winning games with defense.

Now, I don’t mean to say that Clemson has suddenly evolved into an elite team. They still got blown out at North Carolina as they do every year. But they are sitting at fifth place in the ACC, and they out-defensed Florida St. in an impressive road win on Saturday. One possession before the four-minute mark at the end of the game summed it up perfectly. Florida St. drove inside and there were three Clemson defenders under the basket with their hands straight up. FSU got two looks, but neither shot went in, and Clemson went right back down the court and scored. Florida St. is a team that historically turns the ball over a lot. But even without forcing turnovers, Clemson found a way to shut FSU down. Brad Brownell is showing that a coach can evolve his approach, and still win.

What the President Missed

Last Tuesday, the President apparently wanted to watch Michigan St. at Iowa instead of watching folks file into the capital building on CSPAN. If you were curious about the game he wanted to see, here’s the run-down:

This was one of those sneaky compelling games. Both teams were playing with a “nobody believes in us” chip on their shoulder. For Iowa, despite the fact that this is clearly Fran McCaffery’s best team ever, Iowa has consistently come up short in big games. And to a certain segment of observers, until the Hawkeyes beat the other elite teams, they are not legitimate. Iowa supposedly earned their breakthrough win at Ohio St. a few weeks ago, but with the Buckeyes falling apart since that game, the skeptics remain. Meanwhile Michigan St. was without Branden Dawson and Adreian Payne, and after the home loss to the Michigan Wolverines, the Spartans had to prove they were still a legitimate contender for the Big Ten title. The game delivered:

-In the halftime interview, a visibly shaken Tom Izzo said he had “weird guys” on the floor in the first half. Mike Tirico tried to make it sound a little better by saying Izzo had “weird lineup combinations, not weird guys,” but the comment was both funny and accurate. With Michigan St.’s limited frontcourt depth, Iowa killed the Spartans by throwing lob passes to its big men in the paint. Aaron White and Adam Woodbury combined had as many FT attempts as the Spartans, and Iowa more than doubled up on FT opportunities in the game.

-Meanwhile, we got some flawless basketball to start the second half. The under 16 minute TV timeout was not called until 11:25. Basketball without whistles is beautiful.

-We saw Roy Devyn Marble do his thing as he and his father are now the ninth highest scoring father-son duo in NCAA history. Both are also 1000 point scorers.

-We saw Michigan St.’s Denzel Valentine both make me cringe and smile at the same time. Valentine is not a great three point shooter. But despite a few questionable threes (2-for-7 on the night), at one point he had a brilliant pump-fake on a three and his drive for a dunk was back-breaking.

-We got to see brilliant half-court defense. There’s a certain feeling in a college basketball game when the home team has played lock-down defense for 30 seconds. The road team desperately passes it around the perimeter and starts to realize that no one can even get a clean look at the basket. The crowd becomes more frenetic as the seconds tick down and finally exhales when the shot-clock expires. At 6:30 left in the second half, Iowa executed this to perfection.

-And this even continued into OT. Iowa played brilliant lock-down defense for the first 3 minutes of OT. Michigan St. seemingly couldn’t even get a clean look. And yet MSU’s Keith Appling still got free and nailed a dagger three pointer at the end of one shot-clock. Appling remains one of college baskeball’s best closers. That isn’t to say his is a perfect clutch player. Appling did miss a pair of free throws that would have sealed the game in OT. But whether he is abusing an opponent’s tired legs at the end of regulation, or knocking down a dagger three, Appling know how to win in a hostile environment.

It wasn’t Duke-Syracuse. It wasn’t the game-of-the-year. But it was compelling basketball. At least when it comes to college basketball games, the president has good taste.

Final Comment: I don’t think enough people have been discussing Fran McCaffery technical with Iowa leading 32-30 in the second half. First, I think we have to all acknowledge that McCaffery was correct. Michigan St.’s Keith Appling clearly took three steps in transition and he should have been called for a travelling violation. Sometimes on breakaways, refs will just let that stuff go, but the travel was particularly egregious because if Appling didn’t take three steps, he probably would not have been able to get around the Iowa defender so easily. But even if McCaffery was right to question the call, this marks the second time this year that his technical may have cost his team the game. Michigan St. made both free throws, and in a game that was tied at the end of regulation, and won by two points in OT, those two points seemed particularly important.

Bonus final comment: I can’t believe that Mike Tirico and Jay Bilas were still making the joke about how the Big Ten has 12 teams and Big 12 has 10 teams. First, can we all acknowledge that this is about branding? The Big Ten brand has been around for 100 years, and if they didn’t give it up when they went to 11 teams, they aren’t going to give it up when they go to 14 teams. Brands matter even if they are not factually accurate. I imagine most people aren’t bothered when their local 7-11 store is open until 2am. But more importantly, the joke has been played out. It might have been cute once in 2011, but in 2014 announcers need to let it rest.

Bullets

-Last week Nebraska trailed Indiana by 13, but outscored the Hoosiers by 18 in the second half en route to the victory. I’m paraphrasing here, but after the game, Tim Miles was asked what he said in the locker-room at half-time. “You know I can’t answer that. My mom is watching.”

-Rick Pitino seemed angrier than normal after Louisville’s home loss to Cincinnati, but I think the anger had more to do with the team’s lack of focus than the team’s play. A coach can live with poor physical performance, but Louisville clearly screwed up the execution of the trap/fouling strategy in the final 20 seconds and that type of mental error is not something any coach will accept.

-Speaking of mental errors, leading by one point at Notre Dame, Boston College’s Olivier Hanlan inexplicably hacked ND’s Eric Atkins across the arms with 0.7 seconds left in the game. Atkins hit one of two free throws to send the game to an extra session, and then hit a three point buzzer beater to win in the extra session. Boston College seemingly can never get defensive stops this year, but fouling with less than a second left when the opposing player is 10 feet from the basket is particularly egregious.

-St. Louis remains undefeated in the Atlantic 10 and they owe a huge thanks to 6’11” forward Rob Loe. Loe hit the game-tying three at the end of regulation and another pair of threes in OT, in the narrow win over George Mason.

-The Memphis frontline has really developed this season. But they absolutely did not have an answer for SMU’s Markus Kennedy who was 10 for 10 from the floor with 15 rebounds on Saturday.

-I have an unhealthy love for all-around stat-sheet stuffers like UCLA’s Kyle Anderson, but you have to love a player who can help his team win even when he shoots 1-for-8 from the floor. Anderson dished out 10 assists in Thursday’s win at Oregon, and had the game-sealing block in the final seconds.

Harvard Watch: The news that center Kenyatta Smith would not be playing again this season after breaking his foot is not completely devastating. Although Smith had two of his best games of the year last year against Penn and Princeton, Harvard won against both teams this weekend, even without Smith. Still, against a bigger power conference school in the NCAA tournament, his size would have been a nice option.

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. 

ACC Basketball Early Projection

I use my lineup-based model to project the 2013-2014 ACC standings. Find out why Virginia is a sleeper cotender and Syracuse's offense may still be a weakness.

The Many Facets & Unpredictability Of March Madness

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BCS Basketball Power Poll January 2012

Separating the BCS schools into tiers named after John Wooden, Dean Smith, Gene Keady, Rollie Massimino, John Chaney, Kelvin Sampson, Tim Welsh, Pat Knight and Sidney Lowe, how does everyone stand?

The Anti-Recruiting Tool

There are many ways to build a winning program. John Calipari’s focus on younger players may be the best way to get elite recruits, but it isn’t the only way to build a winning program.

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.

ACC Preview Part 2: What Are Duke's Chances?

Since Roy Williams arrived, North Carolina has consistently finished ahead of Duke in the ACC when they return more minutes from the previous season. But Duke will bring in Austin Rivers and four other elite recruits.

ACC Preview Part 1: Can Anyone Compete With The Tar Heels?

No ACC opponent has the talent and experience to match the Tar Heels and Blue Devils. But with fewer possessions per game, even mediocre ACC teams may be an occasional upset threat.

College Coaching Series Part 6

In this edition, we look at pace for all BCS coaches, with the Big 12 and SEC expected to play at the fastest rate in the nation.

College Coaching Series Part 4

Jim Larranaga is the new head coach at the University of Miami, meaning all BCS positions are now filled and we can look at how each coach ranks in the Four Factors.

State Of College Coaching 2011 – Part 1

Only 10 BCS conference coaching jobs changed this offseason, but it is still an opportune time to update the coaching tree.

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.

Yet Another College Basketball Column (March 6th)

Printable conference tournament brackets, Nitty Gritty stats, Senior Day, and what UNC's win over Duke really means.

Yet Another College Basketball Column (Feb. 21st)

Dissecting how Nebraska upset Rick Barnes' Longhorns, losing faith in Villanova's Antonio Pena, random bullets and a Bracket Buster rant.

Counting All-ACC Representatives

Duke has had 15 First Team All-ACC selections over the past decade, compared to nine for UNC. How does the rest of the conference rank?

 

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