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Way Too Early Top 25 Projections

I am once again breaking out my lineup-based projection model to predict the 2014-15 season. A lot can still change. ESPN’s #2 Recruit Myles Turner has yet to make his college choice. There are a number of intriguing players available who have graduated and are eligible immediately. And there are also several Top 10 JUCO recruits who have yet to commit. Last year, I had Kansas as a borderline Top 25 squad in my first projection, and then they added Andrew Wiggins and Tarik Black and became an obvious Top 10 squad.

Somewhat unusually, I think we have a pretty good idea who is leaving in the draft this year. When a player’s decision is an open question, I list that in my discussion below. For the record, I’m projecting that Julius Randle, Will Cauley-Stein, James Young, and both Harrison twins leave Kentucky, but that everyone else returns. And I’m assuming that Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams leave UCLA based on the CBS Sports notes that suggest they will leave.

One final technical note: The results I am presenting are based on the mean projection for each player. I am saving the simulation portion of the model for later this year. The idea of the simulation is to show what happens if players fall above or below expectations and show the best and worst case scenario for each team. But the real purpose of the simulation model is to evaluate each team’s depth. And right now a number of quality teams would look pretty bad based on limited depth. That will be corrected with the addition of a late signing, eligible transfer, or JUCO recruit. Because the bottom of each team’s roster is in such flux, I don’t think it makes sense to show the simulation results at this point in the year.

Pred Pyth = Predicted Pythagorean Winning Percentage, the winning percentage against an average D1 team on a neutral floor.

Pred Off = Predicted Offense, Points Scored per 100 Possessions

Pred Def = Predicted Defense, Points Allowed per 100 Possessions

2014 Off = 2013-14 Offense

2014 Def = 2013-14 Defense

RMin = Projected Returning Minutes

T100 = Projected Players on Roster who were once Top 100 recruits

Rnk

Team

Conf

Pred Pyth

Pred Off

Pred Def

2014 Off

2014 Def

RMin

T100

1

Arizona

P12

0.963

119.8

90.1

114.7

88.5

82%

8

2

Kansas

B12

0.952

120.0

92.5

116.8

96.3

68%

10

3

Duke

ACC

0.943

122.0

95.5

123.5

102.3

47%

10

4

Wisconsin

B10

0.934

121.9

96.7

120.8

97.6

82%

3

5

Florida

SEC

0.920

116.3

94.0

115.3

89.2

47%

7

6

Michigan

B10

0.919

121.8

98.6

124.1

102.1

73%

5

7

Kentucky

SEC

0.916

118.9

96.6

118.4

97.1

21%

7

8

N. Carolina

ACC

0.914

116.4

94.7

111.7

95.4

74%

10

9

Connecticut

AAC

0.910

113.8

93.1

112.5

92.5

55%

6

10

Virginia

ACC

0.909

112.7

92.3

114.4

90.1

72%

4

11

Villanova

BE

0.909

116.6

95.5

113.8

94.4

78%

7

12

Wichita St.

MVC

0.908

116.9

95.8

118.1

93.3

64%

0

13

VCU

A10

0.907

109.6

89.9

107.9

90.2

70%

4

14

Louisville

ACC

0.899

113.6

93.9

116.6

90.0

41%

8

15

Syracuse

ACC

0.899

113.2

93.6

112.3

93.6

41%

7

16

Ohio St.

B10

0.898

113.4

93.9

106.5

89.6

54%

8

17

SMU

AAC

0.895

113.3

94.1

110.1

94.7

75%

3

18

Colorado

P12

0.878

114.2

96.2

105.1

96.9

99%

4

19

Baylor

B12

0.877

117.6

99.2

117.8

100.0

61%

4

20

Texas

B12

0.876

115.8

97.7

111.0

98.4

100%

6

21

Maryland

B10

0.873

112.1

94.8

107.6

95.5

99%

9

22

Iowa

B10

0.873

118.9

100.6

119.8

102.7

69%

2

23

UCLA

P12

0.872

114.0

96.5

117.0

97.3

35%

6

24

Gonzaga

WCC

0.872

116.3

98.4

111.4

94.4

64%

4

25

Utah

P12

0.861

112.2

95.8

108.7

96.5

94%

2

I see three teams that missed the NCAA tournament jumping into the Top 25:

SMU: The Mustangs had the 30th best margin-of-victory in the nation, and Nic Moore and Markus Kennedy are back. The team also adds elite PG recruit Emmanuel Mudiay.

Maryland: The Terrapins finished with the 41st best margin-of-victory in the nation in 2014. With virtually everyone on the roster back, and four four-star prospects joining the roster, there are no more excuses for losses. If Mark Turgeon cannot turn Maryland into a winner now, he is not going to keep his job.

Utah: The Utes had the 42nd best margin-of-victory in the nation last year and they bring basically everyone back. By simply upgrading the non-conference schedule, the Utes will be in the NCAA tournament hunt.

Focusing on the rest of the Top 25:

Arizona: Aaron Gordon was the least efficient offensive player in Arizona’s primary rotation, but he was also the heart of Arizona's defense. Thus as Arizona seeks to replace Aaron Gordon with elite recruit Stanley Johnson, I project that as helping the offense but hurting the defense. But the real reason I expect a big jump in Arizona's offense is the return of Brandon Ashley. Arizona's offense was four points better with Ashley in the lineup. If you don't like Arizona near the top of the rankings, you must think Nick Johnson is going to declare for the draft (which seems like a mistake) or that the defense is going to fall apart without Gordon. Given the athleticism Rondae Hollis-Jefferson showed this year, I think Arizona's defense will still be championship caliber.

Kansas: Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins should enjoy life in the NBA next year, but don't cry for Bill Self. With elite recruits Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre joining fold, he has already found replacements. Also, don’t forget about Arkansas transfer and former elite recruit Hunter Mickelson who is joining the team. Finally, Kansas gave a lot of minutes to freshmen besides Embiid or Wiggins, and you can expect a big sophomore leap for many of those players, including Wayne Selden.

Duke: Even without Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood, Duke has a loaded recruiting class, and I think a lot of people will be tempted to slot them #1 overall. I agree that the offense will be great and project Duke's offense as the best in the nation. The overall ranking depends on how high you project Duke's defense relative to last year. Jahlil Okafor and a more mature Marshall Plumlee will help, but Mike Krzyzewski's defensive prowess has faded in recent years. Can he really depend on a freshman to anchor the defense when the scouting reports say Okafor is good but not great on D?

Wisconsin: Only Ben Brust departs from a Badger team that was one shot away from the national title game.

Florida: The Gators front-court is graduating and the defense will take a hit. But I'm projecting Chris Walker to return, and along with Dorian Finney-Smith, Kasey Hill, and Michael Frazier the Gators should still have a dominant lineup. Also, don't overlook the importance of a healthy Eli Carter and elite recruit Devin Robinson.

Michigan: I'm assuming Nik Stauskas leaves and Mitch McGary comes back. If both come back, Michigan will have a real chance at a national title.

Kentucky: James Young got a huge steal late in the national semifinal against Wisconsin. But he had only 29 steals on the full season before that. And despite NBA size, Young and the Harrison Twins were not elite defensive players on the full season. Having a player with the quickness of elite recruit Tyler Ulis will certainly help the perimeter defense next season, and even without Will Cauley-Stein, Kentucky should still have enough elite athletes to best this year's defensive effort. Offensively, Kentucky has reached another level in the NCAA tournament, and I don't expect next year's club to match that. But with a few more non-freshmen on the team, they might be able to avoid some of the mid-season struggles, and I see a slightly better offense on the whole year.

North Carolina: The Tar Heels found a rotation late in the year that really worked. Replacing James McAdoo should be doable with incoming elite wing Justin Jackson, who lit up the McDonald’s All-American game, and returning big man Brice Johnson. The real question is perimeter depth, but the team will have three elite passing PGs. And as Connecticut and Florida showed this year, that's a formula that can work.

Connecticut: Replacing Shabazz Napier's defense might be harder than replacing his offense. Napier was an elite defensive rebounder for a guard, and he was fantastic at getting steals. The combination of NC State transfer Rodney Purvis and elite recruit Leonard Hamilton should fill in for the loss of Napier's offense, especially with Ryan Boatright easily taking over the PG role.

Virginia: A year ago I would have said Virginia would fall off a cliff when Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell graduated. But with the emergence of Malcolm Brogdon and a strong core back, Virginia should have another extremely strong season.

Villanova: Every critical player but James Bell should be back from a team that dominated the Big East.

Wichita St.: I feel like my model is under-valuing the contributions of Cleanthonly Early. But Wichita St. has four super-efficient rotation players returning (Fred Van Vleet, Darius Carter, Tekele Cotton, and Ron Baker).  And while they'll need to pick up some frontcourt size from the JUCO ranks again, that plan has worked well in recent years. Overall, Gregg Marshall is on such a role developing less heralded players, there is no reason to expect that to stop next season.

VCU: PG Briante Weber, a healthy three point shooter Melvin Johnson, and leader Treveon Graham will be back. But the best news is that Shaka Smart has finally broken into the elite recruiting game with three Top 100 freshmen coming in this year. That formula doesn't always work. Sometimes managing elite prospects is more difficult than it sounds. But on paper, this is the most athletic team Shaka Smart has ever assembled.

Louisville: Losing Russ Smith will be devastating to the offense, but you cannot under-state Smith's impact on defense too. Right now the team has enough elite recruits and returning players that the perimeter offense will be solid. But most of the young forwards are a year away from dominating at the D1 level. Thus Montrezl Harrell's NBA decision might be the most critical of any player in the country. If Harrell comes back, Louisville is a real Final Four threat. Here I project Louisville without Harrell in the lineup. Either way, I think Louisville is a team that will benefit from the simulation model when I break that out later this summer, as they have significant quality depth.

Syracuse: Based on where he is showing up in mock drafts, I'm assuming Jerami Grant declares for the draft. Even without Grant, CJ Fair, and Tyler Ennis, Syracuse still has talent. Rakeem Christmas became a better defender last year. (Jim Boeheim no longer had to give him the hook for Baye Keita nearly as often.) Chris McCullough is a quality big man recruit. And DaJuan Coleman still has the recruiting profile to say he will be a dominant player if he ever stays healthy. Michael Gbinije is a natural wing. Trevor Cooney slumped at times, but he can be a dominant shooter. And thus you can see why Jim Boeheim is so frustrated that Tyler Ennis declared for the draft. For Syracuse to stay at an elite level, they need an elite PG. Kaleb Joseph had a lower recruiting rank than Ennis, and the reality is that freshmen PGs are a big risk.

Ohio St.: Ohio St. loses the three most important offensive players from a team that was not that great offensively last season. They are easy to write off. But they have a veteran PG in Shannon Scott, they gained a huge boost with the addition of Temple transfer Anthony Lee who is eligible immediately. They add three Top 30 recruits who should boost the offense. And they get back Kam Williams, a great SG prospect who was injured and forced to red-shirt this year. Ohio St. isn't going to be the same elite defensive team, but the talent is there for the offense to make a meaningful jump.

Colorado: Colorado finished the year with the 77th best margin-of-victory numbers in the nation. Thus they make the biggest jump of anyone in my projections. There are two key reasons. First, they gave a ton of minutes to freshmen, who should take a big jump forward. Second, PG Spencer Dinwiddie should return from his injury and substantially improve the team’s offensive execution.

Baylor: Kenny Chery was a brilliant PG last year. Ish Wainwright and Allerik Freeman (an injury redshirt) won't match Bradly Heslip's shooting, but the former elite recruits should improve on his defense. Royce O'Neale is a dominant wing who should take on a larger role. Rico Gathers is a dominant rebounder. And if Austin comes back, Baylor is clearly a Top 25 team. Isaiah Austin says he hasn't made up his mind about going pro. And given that he is projected as a 2nd round pick in most mock drafts, I’m projecting that he returns here.

Texas: The Longhorns made the Round of 32 and everyone is back. They should be in everyone's Top 25.

Iowa: The Hawkeyes lose three seniors, but given how many players the team used last year, those losses are not devastating. The addition of elite JUCO PG Trey Dickerson should also help the team to find the right scorers in more situations. But the real reason this team fell apart down the stretch was because the defense collapsed. Head coach Fran McCaffery has had mixed success on defense in his career. He's had some good defensive teams and some bad ones. With just a little defensive improvement, Iowa should be back in the Top 25.

UCLA: Bryce Alford, Norman Powell, and a now-eligible Isaac Hamilton will man the perimeter. Meanwhile elite recruits Kevon Looney and Thomas Welsh will join Tony Parker in the paint. That's a pretty good core, but the lack of depth is a concern. On paper, UCLA is not that much better than Stanford, but the model has more faith in head coach Steve Alford than Johnny Dawkins over the long grind of the regular season.

Gonzaga: Transfer big man Kyle Witjer was a very good shooter at Kentucky, but his defense was suspect.

And a few notes on teams that surprised me by missing the cut:

Iowa St: If Bryce Dejean-Jones makes the jump from UNLV, that should bump the Cyclones into the Top 25. I’m making projections based on current commitments, but given Fred Hoiberg’s track record in closing the deal with transfers, I don’t have a problem with anyone assuming he will get that commitment. And I don’t have a problem with anyone putting Iowa St. in their Top 25 right now.

Oregon:  Super-scorer Joseph Young, Dominic Artis, elite PG recruit JaQuan Lyle,  elite transfer recruit Brandon Austin (eligible in December), Elgin Cook (who broke out against BYU in the tournament), elite recruit Jordan Bell (a late qualifier and red-shirt), and Top 10 JUCO forward Michael Chandler are all reasons to love this team. But I think Oregon had more talent last year, and they still finished 29th nationally. Right now this team has limited depth in the paint, but with one more transfer addition in the front-court, they can easily jump into the Top 25.

San Diego St: It cannot be over-stated how vital Xavier Thames was to the Aztecs offense and how important Josh Davis' rebounding was to the team's defense. San Diego St. has a great recruiting class filled with players who should be stars in 2016. And Angelo Chol is a transfer who could put the team over the top. But without Thames and Davis, the team falls just outside the Top 25.

Stanford: I really feel like Stanford should be in the Top 25. With Chasson Randle, Anthony Brown, Stefan Nastic, and three elite recruits, this is a team that can build on the Sweet Sixteen run. But even with the Sweet Sixteen run, Stanford's margin-of-victory on the season was only 36th nationally. And that continued a trend where Johnny Dawkins has failed to develop teams that perform on a per possession basis. Dawkins saved his job this year by making the tournament, but the long-run stats say he hasn't been great at developing players. Perhaps he will prove the model wrong by turning Reid Travis into a star this year, but right now the model isn’t convinced.

Dayton: The Flyers will show up in many people's Top 25 rankings because they played a deep lineup and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen. But they lose their two most important offensive players (Devin Oliver and Vee Sanford), and don't have anyone coming in to replace them. For a team that finished 38th nationally in margin-of-victory, that isn't the formula to move up into the Top 25. But if you are looking for a reason these projections are wrong, consider that Dayton played much better basketball after February 1st.

And now a note on a few other teams that might spend some time in the Top 25 next year:

Michigan St.: The Spartans lose three critical offensive players in Adreian Payne, Gary Harris, and Keith Appling and they don’t have anyone coming in who projects to make an immediate impact. The return of key role players like Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine will keep them near the edges of the Top 25, but the Spartans take a big step back this year.

Pittsburgh: The return of Durand Johnson from injury should help offset the loss of two key seniors.

Bottom Line: Even though Michigan St. and Pittsburgh are not in my top 25, never bet against Tom Izzo and Jamie Dixon. These teams will still be very dangerous.

Georgetown, Seton Hall, UNLV: Great recruiting classes, but each team needs to improve in a number of areas to be a Top 25 team.

LSU: Another team with elite talent, that isn’t quite there yet.

Memphis: The Tigers have enough elite talent to finish in the Top 25. But they had Top 25 talent last season, and they finished with the 37th best margin-of-victory numbers. Realistically, with zero seniors in 2014-15, Memphis projects to peak in 2015-16.

Tennessee:  The Volunteers lose a ton of production, but if Jarnell Stokes comes back, they will be in the hunt.

Illinois: Jon Groce’s team finished with the 49th best margin-of-victory in the nation last year, and the team adds three quality transfers, plus incoming Top 100 recruit Leron Black in the paint. They still don’t have many star scorers besides Rayvonte Rice, but given the upgrade at PG and PF, Illinois is intriguing.

Nebraska: Tim Miles is very close and brings almost everyone back. But considering that Nebraska still has zero Top 100 recruits, if Tim Miles can get the team to jump from 44th to 30th nationally, that would still be a huge accomplishment.

Cincinnati: The offense was bad with Sean Kilpatrick and Justin Jackson in the fold. They deserve respect as the defending American Conference champs, but it is hard to see this team defending that title.

All Stars Must Pass

When Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker played each other in the first week of the season, it looked like the start of something big. The NCAA was supposed to be a formality for the two freshmen stars, a one-year layover before the NBA draft. Duke and Kansas were supposed to meet again in the Final Four, not lose in the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Wiggins and Parker, for all their talent, have a long way to go. The road to stardom is not smooth.

In many ways, they were both were victims of the hype machine that has enveloped the sport. As freshmen, they were first-team All-Conference selections in two of the best conferences in the country. Wiggins averaged 17 points and six rebounds a game on 45 percent shooting while Parker averaged 19 points and nine rebounds a game on 47 percent shooting. Nor were they putting up empty stats on bad teams - Kansas had a 25-10 record and a Big 12 title while Duke was 26-9.

Nevertheless, while the Jayhawks were a No. 2 seed and the Blue Devils were a No. 3 seed, both teams had serious issues coming into the Tourney. Kansas never got consistent point guard play or outside shooting from their other guards and they had no replacement for Joel Embiid when he went down at the end of the season. Duke had similar holes at PG and C - Quinn Cook lost the PG job halfway through the season and they were starting a 6’9 210 PF (Amile Jefferson) upfront.

The NCAA Tournament, like the NBA playoffs, has a way of exposing every hole on your roster. In their first-round loss to Mercer, Duke could not match up with Daniel Coursey, a 6’10 220 center who had 17 points on 7-12 shooting. Kansas, after barely scraping by Eastern Kentucky in the first round, fell to Stanford in the second. They had no answer for Stefan Nastic and Dwight Powell upfront and they shot 5-of-16 from three, allowing Stanford to sit in a zone.

It wasn’t a matter of bad match-ups either - there were systemic issues on both rosters that were going to be exploited at some point in the Tourney. Mercer was run out the gym in the second round by Tennessee, an 11-seed who played in the First Four. Stanford is a middling Pac-12 team without a PG - there’s no guarantee they get by Dayton in the Sweet 16. The issues on Kansas and Duke went way deeper than Wiggins and Parker, so it’s unfair to blame them for the loss.

That said, neither one of them had a good showing in the biggest games of their young career. Parker had 14 points and seven rebounds on 4-for-14 shooting; Wiggins had four points and four rebounds on 1-of-6 shooting. If their teams were going to make the Sweet 16, they needed more from their best players. They needed more points, but they also needed more rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. If Wiggins and Parker aren’t scoring, they have a hard time impacting the game.

Charles Barkley talked about it in the postgame show - even the greatest scorers have nights when their shot isn’t falling. Kevin Durant shoots 51 percent from the field this season, which means he still misses every other shot he takes. He was even more accomplished than Wiggins and Parker at Texas, but he lost in the second round of the Tourney as well. Assists are the biggest difference between Durant at 18 and 25 - he averaged 1.3 a game in college and he is at 5.6 now.

A great basketball player makes his teammates better. When Durant is hot, the Oklahoma City Thunder aren’t just getting points from him, they are getting points from the other four players on the floor. When Durant is cold, he can focus on drawing double teams and creating open shots for everyone else. That’s how a scorer gets back into rhythm - by letting the game come to them. When you keep making the extra pass, eventually the defense will stop sending help.

That was the problem for Wiggins and Parker this weekend. When their shot wasn’t going in, neither had a Plan B they could go to. If you miss shots, the solution shouldn’t be to keep shooting. That way lies the path of Carmelo Anthony. Stanford and Mercer weren’t AAU teams - they played team basketball on both ends of the floor. No one can consistently beat a set defense 1-on-5 - not Kevin Durant, not LeBron James and certainly not Jabari Parker or Andrew Wiggins.

The higher the level of basketball, the more individual talent starts to equalize. At the AAU and high school levels, Wiggins and Parker could take over whenever they felt like it. There’s nothing the average 18-year-old basketball player can do to stop a 6’8 200 SG with elite athleticism, or a 6’9 250 PF with the ability to shoot and handle like a guard. At the college level, you can’t beat a good defense with just the drive or the shot; you have to beat them with the pass too.

That’s what the third member of the hyped troika of freshman figured out on Sunday. While Julius Randle only had 13 points in Kentucky’s win over Wichita State, he had a career-high six assists. Instead of forcing the issue against an undersized team that packed the paint, Randle patiently played out of the high post, surveying the floor and hitting open shooters. Kentucky doesn’t win if they don’t go 8-for-14 from long range and Randle’s passing created a lot of those shots.

To win in March, you have to move the ball and play defense. If Kentucky is going to beat Louisville in the Sweet 16, Randle will have to shut down Montrezl Harrell, keep him off the boards and take some of the playmaking pressure off the Harrisons. You win as a team and you lose as a team - a basketball team is only as strong as its weakest link. Wiggins, Parker and Randle all had more turnovers than assists this season; they weren’t making anyone else better.

You don’t have to be a great athlete to pass the ball. Passing, more than any of the other phases of the game, is mental. A great passer thinks the game - instead of reacting to the defense, they anticipate it. They see 2-3 moves ahead, making the pass before the other player is even open. They play at their own pace and they play under control; the defense can’t speed them up or force them to take difficult shots. That’s the next step for both Wiggins and Parker.

Wiggins turned 19 in February and Parker turned 19 in March - they are the farthest things from finished products, on and off the court. College is supposed to be a learning experience and neither one is likely to go back to school, so you just hope they learned something in this last year. I don’t have a crystal ball and I don’t know where their journeys will take them, but I can make this prediction - neither is ever going to win an NBA title averaging 1.5 assists a game.

NCAA Tournament Day 2

#14 Mercer defeated #3 Duke

The Duke game has already been over-analyzed. Did they take too many threes? Maybe, but they did score 1.21 points per possession by making 15 threes on 37 shots from deep. Did Duke’s inexperience hurt them? Maybe, the Blue Devils allowed a home run pass for a lay-up after they cut the lead to three late in the game. That kind of mistake could be the result of the team’s youth. Did the Blue Devils fail to utilize Jabari Parker properly? Almost certainly they should have given him more post touches. But Parker was 4 of 11 on his twos, and getting Parker the ball more didn’t seem like a totally dominant strategy against Mercer’s defensive alignment.

To be realistic, college basketball analysts knew this was coming. We’ve known all year that Duke was going to lose in the NCAA tournament because their defense couldn’t get enough stops. On Friday, Mercer made 56% of its shots and hit almost every key free throw down the stretch. We didn’t know Duke would go down in the first round, but we knew this would happen eventually. And as Mike Krzyzewski himself noted, it was a beautiful thing to see seven Mercer seniors (who should have been in the NCAA tournament last year if not for Florida Gulf Coast), finally receiving the payoff from all their hard work.

#6 Baylor defeated #11 Nebraska

Nebraska looked lost against a zone defense. In the first half they went 0 for 11 from three. At halftime, head coach Tim Miles said his team was 4 of 5 when it got the ball in the paint, and they needed to stop settling for jump shots. For a stretch at the start of the first half, Nebraska responded and finally made a few shots. Then Miles got a technical. Then Miles went to complain about the shot-clock not working and got ejected from the game.

In the first half the announcers noted that Tim Miles is a “one question coach”. If you want to do a media interview, all you have to do is ask him one question, and he will talk for 10 minutes. Normally his energy and enthusiasm helps build excitement for the program.

But in this case, Miles words, his constant harassing of the referees, eventually got him kicked out. The technical for complaining about the shot-clock was clearly a tough call. But given all of Miles complaints leading up to it, he certainly bears some responsibility for what happened.

Sadly, Nebraska’s offensive ineptitude and Miles antics distracted from an impressive victory for Baylor. Baylor’s splits this season are insane:

Baylor

Off

Def

W

L

PWP

Early

115.5

97.3

12

1

0.878

Midseason

108.6

103.2

2

8

0.643

Late

122.7

100.3

11

2

0.910

In the middle of the season, Baylor was playing like a team outside the Top 100. But since Feb 12th, Baylor has been playing like a Top 10 team. A lot of people want to point to Kenny Cherry’s ankle injury as a reason for the team’s swoon. But that isn’t the full story. Cherry had some good games when Baylor was losing, including 22 in a loss to Texas Tech.

Realistically, Baylor has simply played better in every offensive category late in the season. They’ve shot better, turned the ball over less, grabbed more offensive rebounds, and got to the foul line more since that swoon. They’ve also been playing at a slower and more controlled pace, with about 4 fewer possessions per game. On Friday, the free throw attempts were the difference. But as Baylor heads into Sunday’s match-up with Creighton, they are clearly clicking on all cylinders.

#10 Stanford defeated #7 New Mexico

Stanford led 20-4 early, but New Mexico kept crawling back. Eventually the Lobos tied the game on a Cullen Neal fast-break bucket with about 10 minutes left in the game. But as well as Cameron Bairstow played, he simply didn’t have any support. Kendall Williams, a former MWC player-of-the-year, couldn’t get a clean look at the basket. Normally given Williams 6’4” frame, he can shoot over anyone. But Stanford harassed him with bigger defenders, including the 6’10” Dwight Powell. And Williams struggled to beat Stanford’s defense off the dribble. The net result was a nearly 7 minute scoring drought that locked the game up for Stanford.

We often write about redemption in the NCAA tournament. Last year New Mexico had one of the best seasons in program history. But New Mexico lost to Harvard in round of 64, and it felt like this team had some unfinished business. With four starters back from last year’s team, 2014 was supposed to be a year for redemption.

But a Stanford team full of juniors and seniors decided to write the happy ending for their team instead. Senior Josh Huestis hit a late jumper to put Stanford up 7. Senior John Gage played some great minutes in relief of foul plagued Stefan Nastic. And even though Senior Dwight Powell had an off night offensively, thanks to the team’s all-around defensive effort, Powell earned another game to show his stuff in the NCAA tournament.

#11 Tennessee defeated #6 UMass

“This is the lowest number of points UMass has scored in any half of any game this season.” UMass struggled to just 22 points in the first half against Tennessee, and despite a valiant effort to create chaos and gamble for steals in the second half, the 19 point deficit was simply too big to overcome.

Somehow Tennessee has gone from a team that barely made the NCAA tournament, to a Sweet Sixteen favorite. And it might not stop there. Tennessee has been winning by such a large margin since March 1st, that they would actually be favored against Michigan according to Kenpom.com.

#3 Creighton defeated #14 Louisiana Lafayette

Doug McDermott went 13 minutes without scoring in the second half, and the Ragin Cajuns pulled within three points. But even when McDermott doesn’t score, he still makes a huge difference on the court. The almost constant double-teams of McDermott gave his teammates wide open looks from three point range. And McDermott even had a block in crunch time. Then, when his team needed it again, he nailed a dagger three. The fifth all-time scorer in NCAA history scored 30 points in the win.

#2 Kansas defeated #15 Eastern Kentucky

In the RealGM.com bracket podcast, I said that Eastern Kentucky wasn’t going to win, but at some point they were going to make some threes and give Kansas a scare. Well, EKU’s 8th three of the game gave the EKU a 48-45 lead. EKU’s 9th three of the game (a ridiculous step-back three by Orlando Williams) made it 53-51 in favor of EKU. And EKU’s 10th three of the game gave EKU a 56-53 lead. At one point, Kansas was shooting 62% and still losing.

But that’s when Jamari Traylor really took over. I’ve spent this season being skeptical of the Kansas big man. Traylor shot 42% from the floor last year while taking mostly lay-ups. He’s the lowest ranked recruit on scholarship with the Jayhawks. And while he has played better this year, I’ve never quite believed he would be an impact player. But with Joel Embiid out, Kansas needed Traylor to rise to the occasion, and he did. Traylor hit two huge buckets when EKU was knocking down its threes. And then, when EKU went on one last run to cut the lead to 64-61, Traylor’s offensive rebound put-back essentially sealed the victory. Traylor’s previous season best was 10 points against TCU, but he scored 17 in the Jayhawks close victory.

#8 Gonzaga beat #9 Oklahoma St.

There were 61 fouls in this game, the most in a non-OT NCAA tournament game since 1975. There are a number of people that are going to call the foul situation an abomination. But I found it more fascinating what this game revealed about how the players involved respond to pressure.

With the pressure on, Marcus Smart continued to make questionable decisions. He turned the ball over. He missed free throws. And when a call went against him (an out-of-bounds that he never touched), he did not react in a relaxed fashion. Instead he exaggerated his frustration by jumping up and down. If we hoped Smart had somehow matured into a different player due to his suspension, that was probably not accurate.

LeBryan Nash has matured this season. But under the pressure of the tournament, he again wilted. His shirt-grab for a fifth foul was probably a call the officials should let go. But it was also dumb to reach with four fouls. Travis Ford even seemed like a coach who got caught up in the emotion of the moment, picking up a technical at the end of the first half.

In my opinion, the player who truly matured for Oklahoma St. this season was Markel Brown. Brown raised his career ORtg from 90 as a freshman, to 96 as a sophomore, to 110 last year, to 118 this season. And when the game was being decided, Brown was the only player taking to the ball to the basket and converting easy looks for Oklahoma St.

To see Brown go down like this is difficult. But for the rest of the Oklahoma St. team, this game showed the dangers of putting all your hopes and dreams in one basket. Marcus Smart came back to Oklahoma St. because he wasn’t satisfied with last year’s first round NCAA tournament exit. He was betting on a better outcome this year. But no one can go back to school and expect to settle unfinished business. Too much depends on injuries, match-ups, teammates, and referees.

You can’t go back to win a Big 12 title. You can’t go back to win a national title. You can’t even go back to win a game in the round of 64. You can only go back to be a better player and hope for an opportunity.

#6 North Carolina defeated #11 Providence

Like I was saying, no single player can do it all. Bryce Cotton scored a career high 36 points on Friday. He had 8 assists, 5 rebounds, 2 steals, and he seemingly did it all. He hit crunch time threes. He was fouled on crunch time three attempts. He got transition baskets. He attacked the rim in the half-court and was fouled. Cotton refused to spend a moment on the bench. But you can’t win a basketball game alone. And with North Carolina dominating the rebounding game (grabbing over half of its missed shots), Cotton’s amazing performance simply wasn’t enough.

#8 Memphis defeated #9 George Washington

For 5th year transfers, the long end of a career can be fascinating. Maurice Creek, who transferred from Indiana to George Washington, has nothing to regret. The once elite prospect (and often prolific scorer) spent his entire Indiana career injured. But at GW he finally got a chance to be the star. And even though his shot was off in the NCAA tournament (including an airball with one second left), at least he got to go down swinging.

I wonder how David Pellom feels. He played 27 minutes a game for George Washington last season. But he used a graduate school transfer to leave for Memphis. At Memphis, he has seen his playing time cut in half. He hasn’t played 20 minutes in a game since January. With the young Memphis frontcourt players emerging, his biggest role has been as a practice adversary. Yes, his current team got the last laugh on his old team. Memphis beat GW in the NCAA tournament. But if he had stuck around in the nation’s capital, would things have been different? Would it have been a more satisfying ending to his career?

Michael Dixon isn’t questioning his decision. The Missouri player who transferred to Memphis didn’t have a choice to continue his career at his old school. And in a two point game, Dixon provided the needed cushion with a clutch three. Dixon was also more than willing to go to the line to put the game away at the charity stripe. For these three 5th year transfers, the first NCAA tournament game could not have been more different.

#12 Stephen F Austin defeated #5 VCU

This feels like the worst mistake ever! Leading by 4 points, the only way VCU could blow the game against SFA was by fouling a SFA player in the act of shooting a three. The game was essentially over. But somehow VCU’s JeQuan Lewis got caught up in the heat of the moment and got too aggressive. SFA’s Desmond Haymon made a three pointer, Lewis tackled him, and the 4 point play sent the game into OT.

Kenny Smith was more generous in one of the halftime segments. He said these things happen in basketball games. He knew that labeling a college player as a “choker” is harsh and unfair. But I don’t see how Lewis can ever live this moment down.

Besides the horrible foul, perhaps we should just realize that when teams get on winning streaks, miraculous things seem to happen. When Syracuse was on a long winning streak, Tyler Ennis made the amazing buzzer beater at Pittsburgh. When you win every game, you start to believe you will win every game.

How else do you describe moments like in OT, when Trey Pinkney was about to turn it over, but he somehow miraculously rolled the ball to Jacob Parker who picked it up and nailed a shot before the shot clock expired? SFA’s golden horseshoe has not expired yet.

Finally, I must say that in a tournament full of upsets, almost none were completely out of nowhere. Many experts thought Harvard was a better team than Cincinnati. I knew Duke was a bad defensive team. But SFA’s win truly came out of left field. Even with the 28 game winning streak, this was a hugely under-sized team. And even without Melvin Johnson, VCU’s HAVOC defense was dominant in the second half. VCU built a double digit lead and seemingly put the game away. This comeback was truly what March Madness is all about.

#1 Virginia defeated #16 Coastal Carolina

#1 Arizona defeated #16 Weber St.

#1 Wichita St. defeated #16 Cal Poly

It still hasn’t happened. But wow, there sure is an exhilarating feeling when you flip over and see Coastal Carolina leading Virginia by 10 points in the first half. Meanwhile Arizona’s close win against Weber St. knocked them out of first place in the Pomeroy rankings for the first time since January 1st.

#3 Iowa St. defeated #14 North Carolina Central

According to Marv Albert, Emanuel “Poobie” Chapman is called this because he could not pronounce “Winnie the Pooh” when he was a kid. Steve Kerr is skeptical of Albert’s internet research. Yes, this game was a blowout.

The big story of the game was that Iowa St.'s Georges Niang broke his foot late in the game and will be out for the remainder of the tournament.

#8 Kentucky defeated #9 Kansas St.

Kansas St. made a late run in this game, but for the first time in a long-time, Kentucky’s defense looked like it might be national championship caliber. I also thought Greg Anthony had a nice comment at the end of the game. In the preseason, Kentucky thought they would be undefeated. Now on Sunday, they get to play a team that is undefeated. The hype for Wichita St. vs Kentucky is just beginning. This is going to be the most watched Round of 32 game in a long time.

#4 UCLA defeated #13 Tulsa

Remember in the preseason when everyone was writing about how UCLA didn’t have a clear answer at PG. Well, all Kyle Anderson has done is become an All-American candidate as an elite distributor. But as the team showed on Friday, even if Anderson is off (5 turnovers), UCLA still has plenty of other players who can distribute. Jordan Adams took over offensively at the start of the second half and really broke the game open. And over the course of the game Adams dished 4 assists. Meanwhile Bryce Alford had 4 assists of his own, and should have had a fifth on a beautiful no look pass to Tony Parker in the lane. But Parker missed the lay-up and cost Alford the dime. Regardless, UCLA’s willingness to share the ball stands in stark contrast to last year when Shabazz Muhammad had just 27 assists on the whole season. This is a less selfish team than last year’s squad, and that’s a good sign if this year’s team wants to go on a run.

Major Conference Tournaments Underway

How good would Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, and Arizona be if their freshmen stuck around? I also check in on some seniors and the first day of the major conference tournaments.

The Top 100 Recruits After Two Months, Part 1

Wayne Selden, Tyler Ennis, Josh Hart, and a full look at how the Top 100 freshmen have performed to date.

Feast Week Wrap

By almost any metric, the winner of Feast Week was the ACC. Also, notes on Scott Drew and Baylor, the turkeys of the week, Duke's defense, Harvard Watch and more.

Final Thoughts On Ranking 351 D1 Teams

Over the past few days, Dan Hanner has presented his updated projection model, his season projections on ESPN Insider, Q&A's with Eamonn Brennon and John Templon, along with replying to questions on Twitter. Here are a few additional thoughts that didn't make the cut.

Welcome Back, Part 2

Returning minutes are sometimes deceiving. Thatís because a number of teams will welcome back players who missed all or nearly all of last season. Letís take a look at some of those players such as Andre Dawkins, Anthony Brown, Malcolm Brogdon and Drew Crawford.

Freshmen Playing Time Part 2

Given a sophomore and freshmen with equivalent stats, how much less will the freshmen play for each major conference coach?

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.

2013-2014 Preseason Top 25

A lineup-based statistical model projects the 2013-2014 season.

The Stretch 4 Era

Just like in the NBA, floor spacing has become the name of the game at the top of the NCAA. Nine of the top 12 seeds start a three-point shooter in their frontcourt. Get as much shooting on the floor as possible without compromising your defense and rebounding.

Injury Splits, March Edition: Is Duke Now The Favorite?

Oregon, North Dakota St., Florida and Duke all got key players back recently and given how these teams performed without these players, the returns could not have come at a better time.

Weaknesses of Title Contenders

In this edition, we take the teams in the Top 16 of the Pomeroy Rankings and figure out how often they look beatable on the basketball court.

NCAA Power Poll For February

While there are certainly no elite college teams this season, there are a host of teams that can reach the Final Four. In this edition, we outline the various tiers.

Revisiting Recruiting Classes

Michigan's freshmen have exceeded expectations and in this edition we examine other top classes such as N.C. State, UNLV, UCLA, Kentucky, Duke, Indiana, Arizona, Michigan State and North Carolina.

Losing Streaks And Injury Splits, Part 1

On why not all losing streaks are alike and how injuries/suspensions skew our evaluation of certain teams.

A Super Saturday

On LeBryan Nash, Davante Gardner, Elston Turner, Rontei Clarke, Wisconsin/Illinois, and every minute of two games between real Final Four contenders (Minnesota/Indiana and Duke/NC State).

Who Have You Played?

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

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

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

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