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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.

Will Duke Or Kansas Have A Better Defense In 14-15?

After I presented my early Top 25 last week, Kansas PG Naadir Tharpe left the team for personal reasons, and PG recruit Devonte Graham committed to the Jayhawks. I’m not going to fully re-run the projections again until after the Spring signing period, but based on the early numbers, my model seems to be a tad higher on Kansas than most experts. My model’s confidence is based on Bill Self’s per-possession track record (as reflected in 10 straight conference titles.) In particular, the model expects Kansas’ defense to bounce back substantially this year. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized there was plenty of nuance to the defensive projection.

Before I get to the defensive discussion, let me say that there is a high probability that Duke will have a better offense than Kansas next year. Duke’s returning players (Quinn Cook, Rasheed Sulaimon and Amile Jefferson) were more efficient than Kansas’ returning players. Perry Ellis was very efficient, but Wayne Selden was not a natural scorer last year, and the Kansas PG situation is still a little unsettled. Both teams bring in multiple impact freshmen, but based on the entire roster, Duke has more offensive weapons. The more interesting question is whether Kansas or Duke will have the better defense in 14-15.

Unfortunately, our current methods for predicting defense are not great. Individual defense is extremely poorly measured with current statistics. I can tell you that Duke’s Matt Jones had a higher steal rate than Rodney Hood. But that doesn’t mean Jones was a better defender. Hood’s size might have altered more shots. We also don’t know who Jones was matched-up against defensively. We don’t have a statistical measure of whether Jones took more chances and gave up more drives to get those steals. And we don’t know if Jones got a few more deflections because he played sparingly and didn’t need to conserve his energy for the offensive end of the floor. Perhaps if Jones played starters’ minutes, his defense wouldn’t be nearly as good.

Team defense is also astonishingly unpredictable. North Dakota St. brought everyone back last season, and yet NDSU’s defense fell from 59th to 131st. NDSU’s offense was good enough that Saul Phillips’ squad won the Summit League and defeated Oklahoma in the NCAA tournament. But even for teams with little roster turnover, the small sample of college basketball games in a season means we do not always have a true barometer of a team’s defense.

The larger sample of games for each coach may be more reliable, and that’s why my model includes coach effects on defense. The next table shows the national rank of Bill Self and Mike Krzyzewski’s defense in each season over the last 10 years, measured on a per-possession basis, adjusting for opponent and venue.  The table makes a pretty compelling case that Bill Self has been a better defensive coach over the last 10 years, and that Kansas will have a better defense in 14-15.

Def Rank

Bill Self

Mike Krzyzewski

2013-14

31st

116th

2012-13

5th

31st

2011-12

3rd

81st

2010-11

11th

21st

2009-10

9th

8th

2008-09

9th

36th

2007-08

1st

8th

2006-07

1st

7th

2005-06

3rd

18th

2004-05

25th

3rd 

But the personnel situation for Duke makes it a little less certain. Duke’s biggest problem on defense last year was that they did not play a true low post defender. Duke essentially played Jabari Parker out of position at the center spot for much of the season, rather than give Marshall Plumlee a chance to develop in the paint. Mike Krzyzewski clearly thought he had a better chance to outscore teams with that small lineup, but the defense was bad all year. This year with Jahlil Okafor in the paint, and a more mature Marshall Plumlee playing more minutes, Duke will almost certainly improve its interior defense. An argument can be made that Okafor is a uniquely talented center, and Duke’s defense will look more like it did in 2010, when Duke had Brian Zoubek in the middle. Meanwhile Kansas, which has often featured 7 foot shot blockers in the middle, may end up playing a slightly smaller front line of Cliff Alexander and Perry Ellis next year.

The above table also raises another issue. 13-14 was the worst defensive season for both Bill Self and Mike Krzyzewski since Ken Pomeroy began tracking the per-possession stats. And there was something else that changed in 2013-14 besides each team’s personnel. The NCAA also changed its rules about hand-checking perimeter players and drawing charges. And as the next table shows, Bill Self and Mike Krzyzewski’s teams both struggled with sending players to the free throw line after this change. Bill Self’s team particularly struggled in this area. While the average NCAA team sent players to the line 4 to 5 more times per 100 shots, Kansas sent players to the line 13 more times per 100 shots last year.

And this may not have been the only impact of the rule changes. If Duke’s defenders could no longer step in front and draw charges as they did in previous seasons, that may be more of a permanent concern for Krzyzewski’s team. Both teams were worse at creating turnovers in 2013-14, but both showed similar drops to the national average.

Def Free Throw Rate

Bill Self

Mike Krzyzewski

Bo Ryan

National Average

2013-14

45

41

27

41

2012-13

32

33

26

36

2011-12

33

33

30

37

2010-11

32

30

33

38

2009-10

31

34

36

38

2008-09

35

31

34

37

2007-08

31

32

25

37

2006-07

34

30

28

37

2005-06

32

28

31

36

2004-05

38

32

28

37 

It is obviously too soon to tell whether the rule changes have a unique effect on these two coaches. A strong argument can be made that the primary reason Kansas fouled so much last year was because of the team’s excessive youth. 2013-14 was the youngest team of Bill Self’s career.

But it is worth asking whether coaches that are particularly good at teaching their teams to play defense without fouling (Bo Ryan), coaches that play zone defense (Jim Boeheim), or coaches that play pack-line defense (Tony Bennett) will be better prepared to play elite defense going forward. Bill Self is clearly one of the best teachers of physical man-to-man defense in the nation, but it is harder to bank on his historic track record in an environment where the rules have changed.

Overall, I remain optimistic about both team’s defense next year. If you have watched any of Duke or Kansas’ recruits play, or read the scouting reports, it is clear they have the type of athletes coming in to be a real threat defensively.

Paul Biancardi says Duke’s Justise Winslow might be the best defensive player in the country. Duke’s Tyus Jones has such an impressive ability to drive and create using his low-center of gravity, I will be shocked if he doesn’t have the ability to keep opposing guards out of the lane. Kansas’ Cliff Alexander is an aggressive defensive rebounder. And Kansas’s Kelly Oubre has an impressive wingspan, the kind of arms that should cause a lot of deflections this year. Certainly, the incoming personnel are capable of playing elite defense.

But the changes in the rules make me nervous about including defensive coach effects in my model. An unusual number of great defensive coaches had mediocre defensive seasons in 13-14. In next fall’s projections, I may need to lower the impact of coach effects on the predictions. I’m projecting Duke’s offense to be better than Kansas’ offense, and I’m quite confident in that prediction. I’m also projecting Kansas’ defense to be better than Duke’s defense, but that is far from guaranteed.

NCAA Top 25 Projections (Post NBA Draft Declaration Deadline)

Before I share the projections, I want to comment on a few places where my rankings disagree with some other experts. I explain the statistical reasons why my model is more skeptical of Texas, SMU, San Diego St., and Oklahoma. But I also do not completely agree with what the model is currently suggesting. The lineup-based statistical projection seems to be falling in love with teams with a lot of unproven high school talent.

Where My Model Disagrees with Other Experts

Texas (Too High Elsewhere): Texas returns 100% of their minutes from last year, they have super-recruit Myles Turner joining the front-court, and they made the round of 32 last year. But I think it is important to emphasize that Texas finished with the 6th best margin-of-victory in the Big 12, and the 39th best margin-of-victory nationally. In terms of NCAA at-large teams without major injuries, Texas was the luckiest team in the nation last year, winning a ton of close games. Heck, even their NCAA win came by the slimmest of margins on a last-second buzzer beater. If you start from the premise that Texas was a Top 25 team, you could justify a Top 5 ranking. But based on how they really played, and how inconsistently their lineup performed individually, I have them just behind the other elite teams in 9th.

SMU (Too High Elsewhere): A lot of SMU’s players had huge jumps in efficiency last year.  Marcus Kennedy had an ORtg of 88 at Villanova and an ORtg of 106 at SMU last season. Nic Moore had an ORtg of 106 at Illinois St. and an ORtg of 118 at SMU last season. But big leaps in efficiency are usually followed by players slipping back some. AAC coaches are studying film of Kennedy and Moore’s game this off-season and figuring out ways to slow them down. The addition of Emmanuel Mudiay is why I have SMU improving its margin of victory from 30th to 16th, but without Myles Turner, I think it is premature to put them in the Top 10.

San Diego St.  (Too High Elsewhere): Most people account for Xavier Thames impact on the offense, but not enough people are recognizing how special it was to have an elite defensive rebounder like Josh Davis. Remember what happened to Oregon’s defense after Arsalan Kazemi graduated? Oregon fell from 10th to 88th on defense.

Oregon (Too High Elsewhere): Speaking of Oregon, I love the backcourt, but for a team that was horrible on defense last year, the lack of clear defenders in the paint is a red flag. Perhaps the highly regarded JUCO recruits will make a difference, but the front-court weakness is what is keeping Oregon out of my Top 25.

Oklahoma  (Too High Elsewhere): Oklahoma finished 2nd in the Big 12 last year, but the Sooners only had the  5th best margin-of-victory in the conference, and nationally their margin-of-victory was only 33rd. That said, Oklahoma’s potential starting lineup is impressive:

-Ryan Spangler, a dominant rebounder, who rarely touched the ball, but had an ORtg of 125

-Dante Buford, the nation’s #72 recruit and a needed piece at forward

-Jordan Woodard, who had a 28% assist rate as a freshmen, and an ORtg of 108

-Isaiah Cousins, a 40% three point shooter with an ORtg of 112

-And Buddy Hield, a high volume shooter who made 90/233 or 39% of his threes last season

On paper, that should lead to a very good offense. But my model is skeptical that it will be better than last year’s offense. Oklahoma loses a player that took 30% of the shots last year, and was extremely efficient, in Cam Clark. The most likely scenario next season is that Oklahoma will replace Clark with some of its less skilled big men. Either veteran DJ Bennett, or one of the three freshmen bigs (of which Buford is the most highly ranked) will take Clark’s minutes. The increased size will improve the defense, but it will also hurt Oklahoma’s offense. While Buford is a Top 100 recruit, based on where he is ranked, we can’t expect him to be a consistent offensive player immediately.

What could overcome the loss of Clark is if Hield, Cousins, or Woodard took a significant step forward. But what you have to remember is that none of these guys was a Top 100 recruit out of high school. Realistically, they are all playing pretty close to their ceiling. Woodard has the biggest chance to improve, as the sophomore leap is typically the biggest, but he didn’t make a ton of mistakes as a freshman, so he doesn’t have as much room to grow.

As I’ve shown on many occasions, to win at the highest levels, having elite high school talent is important. It isn’t completely necessary, but the stats show that on average, a high school recruiting rank is an important predictor of career development. And Oklahoma has only one former Top 100 recruit on its roster.

That emphasis on the potential of Top 100 recruits, particularly former Top 30 recruits, is why my model likes the next three teams that many experts are skeptical about. Essentially, if you have 7-8 players with solid recruiting backgrounds, and a coach that has been highly successful in recent seasons, my model tends to project great things. Let’s take a quick look at the elite prospects on three rosters:

Syracuse (Too High in My Projections):

#50 recruit, 6’3” PG Kaleb Joseph

#79 recruit, 6’4” SG Trevor Cooney, ORtg 122, 90/240 or 38% of threes last year

#28 recruit, 6’7” G/F Michael Gbinje, ORtg 111, passable 15.6% assist rate as backup PG

#37 recruit, 6’8” F Tyler Roberson, ORtg 89, best DR% on team last year

#24 recruit, 6’10” F Chris McCullough

#18 recruit, 6’9” C DaJuan Coleman, ORtg 109, almost always injured, but good per-minute rebounder

#21 recruit, 6’9” C Rakeem Christmas, ORtg 126 but far too passive with 11% of shots last year, best shot-blocker on team last year

Ohio St. (Too High in My Projections):

#32 recruit, 6’1” PG Shannon Scott, ORtg 101, 25.5% assist rate last year

#13 recruit, 6’5” SG D'Angelo Russell

#76 recruit, 6’3” SG Kam Williams, great shooter who red-shirted last year

#28 recruit, 6’5” SF Jae'Sean Tate

#46 recruit, 6’7” SF Sam Thompson, decent scorer, ORtg 105, but terrible rebounder

#22 recruit, 6’7” F Keita Bates-Diop

#66 recruit, 6’7” F Marc Loving, ORtg 101, aggressive scorer, possible break-out candidate as a sophomore

Temple Transfer, 6’9” F Anthony Lee, ORtg 107 on bad team, great offensive and defensive rebounder

#50 recruit, 6’11” C Amir Williams, ORtg 110, great offensive rebounder

UCLA (Too High in My Projections):

Unranked, 6’3” PG Bryce Alford, ORtg 110, 19% assist rate last year as backup PG

#53 recruit, 6’4” SG Norman Powell, ORtg 120, high steal rate last year

#19 recruit, 6’5” SF Isaac Hamilton, red-shirted after he could not get out of NLI

#12 recruit, 6’8”  F Kevon Looney

#36 recruit, 6’8” F Thomas Welsh

#69 recruit, 6’11” C Jonah Bolden

#24 recruit, 6’9” C Tony Parker, ORtg 108, strong rebounder last year

That’s a ton of players that were elite prospects coming out of high school. Given how well Jim Boeheim’s defense has performed in recent seasons, Syracuse should be ranked, no matter how much talent they lose. And Thad Matta might be the most under-rated coach in the nation. In the 12 years, Ken Pomeroy has been keeping track of the stats, Matta’s teams have never finished worse than 33rd in margin-of-victory. Steve Alford has also done a brilliant job developing players over the last several years. For example, Kyle Anderson became a star under Alford, after struggling to find a college role under Ben Howland. Talent + Great Coaching = Teams that should be ranked.

But a word of caution is warranted. This version of my model is based on the mean projection for every player. Later this summer, when teams fully fill out their depth chart, I will run my full simulation and project scenarios where players are allowed to have good or bad seasons. When I allow for the possibility that one or more of these recruits are busts, teams like Syracuse and UCLA are going to have a very worrisome downside. For example, if Syracuse PG Kaleb Joseph isn’t ready to play major minutes, Syracuse’s season could be a disaster.  The whole point of the above exercise is simply to point out that as much as these teams lose, their primary rotation has the athletes to be competitive with anyone.

Of course, you might also ask why teams like Stanford, UNLV, and Memphis are not ranked because they are also filled with elite recruits. Personally, I’m particularly high on Stanford based on their returning players and recruiting class. But my statistical model basically says this: If you look at the last several years on a per-possession basis, Jim Boeheim, Thad Matta, and Steve Alford, have been great at molding their players into efficient contributors. Meanwhile, despite occasional flashes of brilliance, Johnny Dawkins, Dave Rice, and Josh Pastner have been a lot less effective. Even in making the Sweet Sixteen last season, Dawkins team was only 36th in the nation in margin-of-victory.

Someone has to fill out the Top 25, and arguments can be made against all these teams. But that is always the case outside the Top 10-12 teams. For a description of the headings in the table, and a deeper run-down on some of the teams, click here.

Rnk

Team

Conf

Pred Pyth

Pred Off

Pred Def

LastOff

LastDef

Rmin

T100

1

Kentucky

SEC

0.959

123.0

93.5

117.6

96.9

65%

10

2

Duke

ACC

0.950

122.0

94.5

123.5

102.3

47%

10

3

Kansas

B12

0.950

120.0

93.0

116.8

96.3

68%

10

4

Arizona

P12

0.935

117.0

92.8

114.7

88.5

65%

7

5

Wisconsin

B10

0.934

121.9

96.7

120.8

97.6

82%

3

6

Louisville

ACC

0.926

116.4

93.5

116.7

90.0

56%

9

7

Florida

SEC

0.920

116.3

94.0

115.3

89.2

47%

8

8

N. Carolina

ACC

0.914

116.4

94.7

111.7

95.4

74%

10

9

Texas

B12

0.912

117.8

96.1

111.0

98.4

100%

7

10

Villanova

BE

0.909

116.6

95.5

113.8

94.4

78%

7

11

Wichita St.

MVC

0.908

116.9

95.8

118.1

93.3

64%

0

12

Virginia

ACC

0.907

112.5

92.3

114.4

90.1

70%

4

13

VCU

A10

0.907

109.6

89.9

107.9

90.2

70%

4

14

Syracuse

ACC

0.899

113.2

93.6

112.3

93.6

41%

7

15

Ohio St.

B10

0.898

113.4

93.9

106.5

89.6

54%

8

16

SMU

AAC

0.895

113.3

94.1

110.1

94.7

74%

3

17

Iowa St.

B12

0.888

118.0

98.6

118.4

99.9

65%

3

18

Iowa

B10

0.873

118.9

100.6

119.8

102.7

67%

2

19

UCLA

P12

0.872

114

96.5

117

97.3

35%

6

20

Gonzaga

WCC

0.872

116.3

98.4

111.4

94.4

64%

4

21

Connecticut

AAC

0.867

109.7

93.2

112.2

91.8

42%

5

22

Oklahoma

B12

0.861

114.3

97.6

116.3

100.6

70%

1

23

Michigan St.

B10

0.860

113.6

97.0

117.2

96.1

59%

6

24

San Diego St.

MWC

0.856

108.8

93.2

109.5

91.6

67%

7

25

Pittsburgh

ACC

0.851

113.1

97.2

114.8

96.2

69%

4

Moving Up Since Early April

Team – Players That I Did Not Expect to Stay: Analysis

Kentucky – Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison, Willie Cauley-Stein:  Kentucky now has eight players who were former Top 20 recruits out of high school. And the other two, Willie Cauley-Stein, and Tyler Ulis, might end up being the most important players on the team next year. Cauley-Stein is an elite rim-protector. And Ulis is a true PG who will be a better defensive match-up against speedy perimeter players, as well as a true facilitator. With experience to go along with all its talent, Kentucky is the clear favorite. 

Louisville - Montrezl Harrell:  Russ Smith and Luke Hancock were high volume efficient shooters who will be hard to replace. But keep in mind how many minutes Stephen Van Treese played last year, and he basically never shot. In net, you have a team with elite high school recruits at every position, depth at every position, and thanks to the return of Montrezl Harrell, you have a clear offensive star. The offense should be fine. As I've said before, the thing that will be harder to replace is Russ Smith's ability to create steals. 

Dropping

Team – Players That I Did Not Expect to Leave: Analysis

Arizona – Nick Johnson (pro): Nick Johnson is not a consensus first round pick, so in my first set of predictions, I assumed he would return to school. But even if the NBA doesn't value him as a first round pick, that was how he played. Johnson was the most efficient of Arizona's starters, and he used the highest shot volume last year. Arizona has a stacked recruiting class, and has talent across the board. But the model no longer predicts the same big offensive jump now that the top offensive producer from last year is gone. The defense should still be elite, but keep in mind that Johnson was also better at grabbing steals and blocking shots than Gabe York and Elliott Pitts. His loss does hurt. 

Connecticut -DeAndre Daniels (pro): Daniels was a unique forward who could spread the floor, but who also had an uncanny ability to block shots. Lineups with Phil Nolan and Amida Brimah might be dominant defensively, but they won't have nearly the same great spacing on offense.

Minor note: Virginia lost Teven Jones to transfer. His playing time fell off last year, so this was not a huge surprise, but he did play 500 minutes in his career, and he was expected to be a backup guard next season. His departure makes a miniscule change in Virginia’s projection. This caused Virginia to fall below Villanova and Wichita St.

Dropping Out of My Top 25

Michigan – Mitch McGary (pro), Glenn Robinson (pro), Jon Horford (transfer): I thought Michigan could be a Top 10 team even without Nik Stauskas, but after losing basically the entire front-court, Michigan will have to deal with somewhat of a rebuilding process, at least early in the season. You are going to start hearing a lot about red-shirt freshman forward Mark Donnal in the coming weeks. Donnal was not a consensus Top 100 recruit, but he was a 4-star prospect, and he is the type of player that should have an impact offensively. But keep in mind that Donnal did not burn his red-shirt when Mitch McGary went down last year. The fact that he didn't says we shouldn't expect Donnal to be a superstar. If Michigan adds a JUCO forward, that would likely move the Wolverines back into my Top 25, but right now the front-court depth is lacking and Michigan sits at 26th in my projections. 

Colorado – Spencer Dinwiddie (pro): Because of the sophomore leap, I expect a number of Colorado’s players to get better this year. But there is no way they can be ranked without Spencer Dinwiddie. Colorado’s margin-of-victory fell to 77th late in the season with Dinwiddie out. Saying that Askia Booker's experience can make up for Dinwiddie’s departure is a joke. Dinwiddie had an ORtg of 129 last year, while Booker's ORtg was 99. Top 100 recruit and PG Dominique Collier will help a lot, but given where he is ranked, he is probably about a year away from dominating at the college level.

Maryland – Nick Faust (transfer), Shaq Cleare (transfer), Roddy Peters (transfer): Maryland was my sleeper team, but they fall a little bit due to these departures. Maryland was still incredibly unlucky last season. By just winning a few more close games, they should be in the NCAA tournament hunt. And they bring in a great recruiting class. But without Faust, they no longer project as a Top 25 team.

Baylor – Isiah Austin (pro): I thought after Austin’s stats fell off in every area and after he was no longer projected as a first round pick that Austin might spend another year in college. I was wrong. I don't hate the Bears roster. Kenny Chery, Royce O'Neale, and Rico Gathers are all talented players. But they are not quite a Top 25 squad anymore.

Utah – Princeton Onwas (transfer):  Onwas departure knocks Utah out of my Top 25, but they are close, and this should still be the year that Utah returns to the NCAA tournament. (Utah also added an international center, but he hasn’t been fully scouted by the US scouting services, and it is hard to project a big impact for him this year.)

Moving into My Top 25

Iowa St.: Bryce Dejean-Jones committed to Iowa St. this month, and his addition moves the Cyclones from 27th to 17th. Dejean-Jones was a high volume scorer and efficient passer for UNLV.

Oklahoma: While Je’lon Hornbeak wasn’t terrible by any means, he was the least efficient player on Oklahoma last year, and swapping him for a JUCO PG didn’t drop the Sooners. Oklahoma basically moved into the Top 25 because some of the above teams fell out.

Michigan St., San Diego St., Pittsburgh: Gary Harris’ departure was not a surprise, so these teams did not add or lose any key pieces since my initial rankings. But with the above teams losing key pieces, the Spartans, Aztecs, and Panthers moved into the Top 25.

Next week: I will have a few more comments on the defensive projection for Duke and Kansas.

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