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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.

Feast Week Wrap

Every non-conference game matters when it comes to determining conference strength. For example, Mississippi St.’s one point overtime win over Loyola Illinois might not mean much to you. But for the other SEC teams, when Mississippi St. avoided a bad home loss on Sunday, it helps ensure the conference’s RPI is stronger in March.

But even if every non-conference game matters, the Feast Week Tournaments sure feel a lot more important. The opportunity to see games at neutral sites is huge. (Just ask Memphis which was crushed on the road at Oklahoma St. but won the rematch on a neutral court.)

And the opportunity to see teams play multiple quality teams means you get to see players respond to success and adversity. Butler’s Kellen Dunham looked like a world beater scoring 32 points, including several late threes from way beyond the arc, that sealed the Bulldogs win against Washington St.  But then Dunham went up against Marcus Smart and Oklahoma St. and looked pedestrian. Then Dunham bounced back and made several huge shots in guiding his team to OT against LSU.

Meanwhile, LSU’s Johnny O’Bryant calmly sunk a basket to hold off Butler in OT. And this came a day after O’Bryant looked rattled with 10 turnovers vs Memphis. Good and bad, you learn a lot about your team during Feast Week.

Heck, even when teams go 0-3, you often get a chance to see them play well. Xavier may have exited the Battle for Atlantis at 0-3. But prior to Semaj Christon’s cramping episode against Iowa, the Muskateers looked legitimate.

Given the importance of these Feast Week tournaments, here are a few key summary stats. In the 16 Feast Week Tournaments featuring multiple power-conference teams and real brackets, here were the results:

ACC - 5 titles (North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Syracuse and Pitt)

Big Ten – 2 titles (Wisconsin, Michigan St.)

American – 2 titles (UConn, Memphis)

The Big East (Villanova), Pac-12 (Arizona), SEC (Ole Miss), A10 (UMass), MVC (Wichita St.), MWC (San Diego St.), and A10 (Charlotte) also chipped in with 1 tournament title each.

Records in these 16 events (excluding the “home” rounds in events with 4 team semis):

MWC 5-1

ACC 21-11

American 9-5

A10 13-9

Big Ten 13-10

Big12 11-9

Big East 13-14

SEC 9-12

Pac-12 7-11

By almost any metric, the winner of Feast Week was the ACC. The first two weeks of the season may have been a bit of a disappointment for the league, but the holiday tournaments have helped save the league’s reputation.

And when a lower-division ACC team like Miami FL can knock off Jahii Carson and Arizona St. (albeit in a game in which Carson twisted his ankle), the real winners are ACC bubble teams like Maryland and Florida St.

Turkeys

- Has any transfer have had a more disappointing start than that of Kansas’ Tarick Black? I probably should have known something was up when Memphis message boards basically said “Good Riddance” when he elected to transfer. And yet with Bill Self’s ability to develop post-players, Black’s natural talent seemed like the perfect fit. But if Black was supposed to tide Kansas over until Joel Embiid was ready, he hasn’t succeeded. Despite starting, Black has essentially been a non-factor this season. And with Embiid in foul trouble in the Jayhawks loss to Villanova, Bill Self still refused to give Black more playing time. Embiid will probably take over the starting job sooner than later. (On the topic of disappointing transfers, Florida’s Eli Carter has also been a bust, but he has struggled with injuries, so I am giving him a pass.)

-Purdue’s AJ Hammons might be the most disappointing sophomore in the nation. A year ago he was a high volume shooter and efficient scorer, and he looked like he might be Purdue’s best player this season. But Hammons shot percentage has fallen from 25% to 15% this year, and he was basically non-existent in Purdue’s loss to Washington St. in Orlando. Hammons did bounce back with 7 of 9 shooting against Siena in the Old Spice 7th place game (and that was vital because Purdue nearly lost that game. But if Hammons isn’t breaking out, Purdue is going to struggle to reach .500 in the Big Ten. 

-Texas has to be the luckiest 6-1 team in the country. They once again trailed at home by 9 points with under 10 minutes left. But for the fourth time this year, they pulled the late comeback, this week against Texas-Arlington.

-A lot of people liked Houston as a sleeper in the American Athletic Conference this year, but their defense was subpar in the Legend’s Classic. That was the teams Achilles heel last year, and the early returns are not great.

-Antonio Barton was supposed to step in and be the PG for Tennessee this season with Trae Golden departing, but he isn’t a PG. Instead freshmen Darius Thompson has been asked to step into a larger role as creator. But Thompson fouled out against UTEP, and Tennessee looked completely disorganized in their surprise Battle for Atlantis first round loss.

-I mentioned it above, but did any team have a worse Feast Week then Arizona St.? First, in the battle of Naismith Candidates, Doug McDermott’s Creighton team crushed Jahii Carson’s Arizona St. team by 28 points. And not only did Carson’s team lose, but Carson was contained by a team that can struggle defensively. Then Carson injured his ankle in the team’s loss to a lower-division ACC team in Miami.

And if you are looking for long-term concerns, those are there too. In Arizona St.’s three games against power conference schools (Marquette at home, Creighton, and Miami), Arizona St.’s defense has been mediocre. The win against UNLV was nice, but UNLV is not playing great basketball this year. And if Arizona St.’s defense is not better this year, they are not going to live up to many people’s lofty expectations.

Surprise Thanksgiving Blessings

- Chris Fouch’s steal with 17 seconds left against Alabama tied the game and allowed Drexel to prevail in OT. It was one of the most clutch one-on-one steals you will ever see. I had Drexel as the surprise CAA champ in my model this spring. The injury to Damion Lee now throws that into doubt, but with wins against Rutgers and Alabama, and a close loss to Arizona, Drexel fans should be very proud of their squad.

-Adam Smith was an undersized scoring guard on a dreadful UNC-Wilmington squad. But the sophomore transfer has proven to be a surprisingly key transfer for Virginia Tech. He is averaging 15 PPG. And on a team that has needed to replace Erick Green’s scoring, his aggressiveness has been a huge lift. Virginia Tech may still be the worst team in the ACC, but when a kid named after a famous economist is scoring like crazy, I can’t let it pass.

-Sidney Sanders Jr. had an ORtg of 86.3 last season for Fairleigh Dickinson and scored barely 5 points per game despite playing 23 minutes per game. But all of a sudden, he has become a star. His ORtg has shot up 20 points. His shot volume has more than doubled. And thanks to his emergence, a team that was supposed to be one of the worst teams in D1 has wins at Rutgers and at Seton Hall.

Baylor and Expectations

One of the unfortunate things about human nature is that once you make up your mind about a player or team, it is hard to change the narrative. For example, once the announcers started to view Dallas WR Dez Bryant as a selfish teammate, it is almost impossible for him to get out of that box. There is almost nothing Bryant can do on the field that will cause certain folks to view him in a positive light.

And I am just as guilty as anyone. When it comes to Baylor head coach Scott Drew, I have seen so many ultra-talented Baylor teams under-achieve that I cannot help but see everything Drew’s team does as a coaching failure.

In the Maui semi-final against Dayton, there was a TV timeout in a close game with under 4 minutes to play. After the timeout, Dayton was going to inbound with only 1 second on the shot-clock. Everyone watching at home knew Dayton was going to attempt a lob at the basket. Presumably the Baylor coaching staff knew that too. And yet no one bothered to remind the players. And Dayton threw the lob for an uncontested bucket at the rim. That kind of defense after a timeout is simply inexcusable.

Meanwhile, Baylor opened the game against Syracuse with an attempted alley-oop pass at the basket. I can’t think of a lower percentage play than an alley-oop pass when the entire defense is playing zone and staring at the guy throwing the ball. You need to get players facing the wrong way or out of position to attempt that kind of play. But Baylor went for it and Syracuse’s Rakeem Christmas came down with the ball.

Meanwhile, I continue to pull my hair out that Baylor doesn’t seem to run any plays to get Isaiah Austin the ball. The center once considered a lottery pick has seen his scoring and rebounding dip, and seems even less a focal point in the Baylor offense than in previous seasons. In fairness, his dip in production is mostly due to a dip in minutes and that might rebound in conference play. But in Maui, Austin only played 21 minutes per game in two exceptionally close games against Dayton and Syracuse.

Meanwhile, while most teams trim their rotations in the early season tournaments (to focus on wins instead of player development), Baylor continues to start the totally ineffective Ish Wainwright. Was this a promise made in recruiting? Is this just to allow the team to run some offense and keep Brady Heslip from jacking up threes to open the game? I just don’t get it.

I know Baylor has a ton of talent. And I know many people reasonably view a team that beat Colorado and has just one loss (to Syracuse) as a Top 25 team. But until Scott Drew can improve his team’s basketball IQ over a full season (and competed for a Big 12 title), the Bears remain in my personal doghouse.

More on Duke’s Defense

Speaking of expectations, I think a lot of people previewing Duke vs Arizona in the NIT felt that Arizona’s depth in the paint would overwhelm a Duke team with limited size inside. And when Duke hung tough in the game, I read a lot of recaps that described Duke’s defensive weakness as being less of a liability than expected.

But I disagree with that analysis for two reasons. First, Duke compensated for Arizona’s size inside by starting Josh Hairston. But Hairston is a non-factor offensively and had zero points in 20 minutes of game time. That isn’t the end of the world on a team that has Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood taking offensive basketball to another level, but when Duke also feels the need to play Tyler Thornton for defensive purposes, the presence of two non-scorers on the floor is eventually going to lower the quality of shot Parker and Hood can get.

Second, the real weakness of Duke’s defense isn’t necessarily that opponents are going to throw the ball in the post and back the Duke defenders down. Low-post play is rare in college basketball in the current era. Even Arizona, which supposedly has one of the deepest interior teams in the country doesn’t really have great low-post play. Brandon Ashley seems like he would prefer to take jump shots. And even as a highly ranked center and emerging sophomore, Kaleb Tarczewski still hasn’t figured out how to consistently beat his man inside. Most of Tarczewski’s points seem to come off offensive rebounds and transition baskets, not true one-on-one play. So the fact that Arizona’s big men didn’t dominate on post-ups is not a complete surprise.

What I am concerned about is that Duke’s defense is predicated on not allowing the opposing team to get open looks at three point shots. But what that means is that Duke is more likely to overplay, and teams are more likely to get the ball in the lane against the Blue Devils. And without a true shot-blocking center to back things up, those drives become lethal.

Make no mistake, Duke has the offensive stars to win the ACC. But unless something changes (such as Amile Jefferson deciding to become an elite defensive rebounder), I stick by the contention that Duke will fall before the Final Four. You can’t win multiple tournament games without a quality defense.

Harvard Watch Week 4

Harvard won the Great Alaska Shootout, a tournament I did not include in the Feast Week analysis above because of the weakness of the field. But even if the field was not littered with ACC and Big Ten schools, it was important for Harvard to win some neutral site games against teams like Denver or Green Bay that might win their conference. That will help Harvard’s seed in March if they win the Ivy League.

Overall, Harvard looked solid in the tournament. Laurent Rivard broke out of his three point shooting slump.  After making 80 threes last year (and 40% or higher in all three years at Harvard), Rivard started this year making only 9 of 29 threes (31%). But Rivard finally broke out making five threes against Green Bay and TCU. No team can win without floor balance, and Rivard appears to be back on track after the final two games in Alaska.

But on the inside I continue to feel like Kyle Casey is not himself. Casey had a missed dunk late in a close game against Denver, and overall his footwork just seems off. He gets offensive rebounds and puts up wild-shots instead of finishing around the rim. Casey has played more minutes than Steve Moundou-Missi in some of the games, but I feel like Harvard is not the same team when Moundou-Missi is not on the floor. Moundou-Missi just has great footwork and body-position and in the tight early game against Denver, his inside scoring helped keep Denver at arms-length.

With the tournament win in hand, Harvard now heads back to Boston to take on Northeastern. The Huskies beat Georgetown and nearly beat Florida St. down in Puerto Rico and should provide a real test.

Opening Weekend Thoughts

Georgetown’s New Big Man

At a neutral site military base, when the crowd does not have a rooting interest, it is pretty difficult for a player on the losing team to stand out. But not only did Joshua Smith stand out for Georgetown, when he finally fouled out, he drew a standing ovation.

Joshua (don’t call him Josh) Smith did a little bit of everything in his Hoyas debut. He backed defenders down and finished in the lane. He fouled two Oregon centers out of the game. He showed great vision, passing and hitting cutters for easy baskets. He ate up space, blocking off defenders to give his guards wide-open lanes to the basket. And it became clear that no one watching Georgetown this season is going to be able to talk about anything other Georgetown’s new 350 pound center.

But as NBC’s Rob Dauster was quick to point out on Twitter, Joshua Smith had zero defensive rebounds in the loss. And the Hoya’s defense, not its offense, was the reason Georgetown lost the game. On Saturday, I sat down and watched the full game tape to see if Smith really was such a defensive liability. And the game film confirms that conclusion.

The big problem wasn’t Smith’s court awareness. I only caught two possessions where Smith seemed to be unaware of the ball and out of position. (Most notably this happened on the second possession of the game.) And Smith was mostly able to adjust to take away penetration. He even drew a key charge in the second half.

But the big problem is that Smith’s poor defensive rebounding wasn’t random chance. I counted at least four possessions during the game where the rebound careened into Smith’s zone and he didn’t even make an effort to jump for the ball. All four possessions came while the Hoyas were playing zone defense. I really got the sense that Smith was conserving energy by not jumping. And if you don’t jump, even a 6’10” player can seem small on the court.

Smith looked better as a defender when Georgetown was playing man-to-man defense. That is because when Smith boxes a player out, that player truly has no shot at the rebound. But you cannot win every rebound battle by just boxing out. Smith’s style of play means players like Nate Lubick and Mikael Hopkins have to be beasts on the boards. And neither one of those players had elite defensive rebounding rates last season. This is where Georgetown really misses Greg Whittington’s size and rebounding from a small forward role. But assuming Whittington doesn’t come back, John Thompson will have to work hard to find the right defensive lineup to balance out the Hoya’s new dominant big man.

Oregon’s Transfers

As fascinated as I was to see Smith, I was just as interested to see Oregon’s transfers in action. Joseph Young was clearly the star. I knew he could knock down wide open threes. But Young looked extremely comfortable knocking down two point jumpers in traffic as well. Most importantly, if there were any concerns that Young was just a spot-up shooter, his hustle on the court was apparent. At one point in the second half, he dove for the ball on the sideline and did a complete flip onto his back on the scorer’s table. That’s the kind of hustle that Dana Altman will love to see this year.

Mike Moser’s debut was a little more disappointing. I thought he settled for far too many jump shots. Certainly Georgetown’s defense had something to do with that, but I’m not a big believer that Ben Carter is going to come back in a month and own the inside. Carter was far too passive last season. And Waverly Austin just isn’t an offensive force. Austin’s numbers last year were poor, and he even had his shot blocked by the 6’5” Jabril Trawick in the second half. As big a win as this was for Oregon, for the Ducks to truly reach their goals, they need Moser to spend less time on the perimeter.

The biggest pleasant surprise was actually the play of transfer Jason Calliste. The former Detroit guard is getting a big chance to prove himself with Dominic Artis suspended, and he looked sharp. His understanding of floor spacing and ability to get to the free throw line really kept Oregon ahead in the game when Georgetown seemed to be taking control.

I Hate Suspensions

Oregon St. lost at home to Coppin St., but the Beavers were playing without two of their three best players in Eric Moreland and Devon Collier. Purdue won by just one point against Northern Kentucky, but the Boilermakers were playing without star center AJ Hammons.  Top 10 ranked Florida won by only eight against North Florida. But the Gator roster has been so depleted by eligibility and suspension issues that walk-on Jacob Kurtz played 26 minutes. Finally, Syracuse trailed Cornell by 6 at halftime, but Syracuse’s Jerami Grant did not play.

The most frustrating part of these early season suspensions is that they can wreck a team’s computer numbers. Even if the selection committee may be aware of what happens, Oregon St.’s RPI is going to be permanently damaged by that kind of loss. And that can hurt everyone else in the Pac-12.

Worse yet, we often don’t even know what the suspensions are about. I loved the TV commentary in the Syracuse game. “We spoke to Jim Boeheim about why Jerami Grant isn’t playing. He said ‘Grant isn’t injured, so you figure it out.’”

(Speaking of Syracuse, give credit to Trevor Cooney for making 7 of 8 threes in the opener. Cooney looked like he added a lot of muscle this off-season.)

Harvard Watch Week 1

Harvard may not be in the national title hunt, but the storyline of an Ivy League team on the edge of the Top 25 is too good to pass up. I hope to track Harvard’s progress throughout the season.

Harvard narrowly beat Holy Cross in its opener. I thought Harvard used a small lineup too much, left its best defender Steve Moundou-Missi on the bench far too long, and Holy Cross’s Dave Dudzinski displayed some outstanding outside shooting which made Harvard’s defense looked fairly pedestrian. Meanwhile reserve forward Jonah Travis carried Harvard with a career high 20 points and 10 boards thanks to some beautiful twisting moves around the basket.

But the real interest in game 1 wasn't the outcome, it was the debuts. Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey missed all of last season due to off-court issues, and I was curious whether they could pick up where they left off.  Kyle Casey announced his return emphatically with a dunk on Harvard’s opening possession. But then he was very quiet and eventually fouled out with 6:30 left in the second half.

Curry’s return was more nuanced. Curry was the primary ball-handler for Harvard two years ago, but Siyani Chambers broke out as a dominant PG last season and Wesley Saunders emerged as a capable creator as well. Thus there were real questions about how Curry would fit into the lineup.

For much of the game, I thought Curry looked a little rusty. He struggled to beat his man off the dribble, and Malcom Miller blocked the ball back in his face when he tried to attack the basket in transition. But Curry hit a buzzer-beating three before half-time. And down the stretch in the second half, Harvard’s trio started to build some beautiful rhythm with one another.

On one possession near the 7:30 mark of the second half, Saunders took the ball into the paint, drew the double team and kicked it out to Chambers. Chambers faked the drive and reversed to Curry. Then Curry drove the lane and kicked it back to Chambers for a wide-open three from the top of the key. Chambers missed the shot, but with three creators attacking, Harvard showed how tough this team will be to defend this season.

Classic Bo Ryan

I love watching debuts. Orlando Sanchez has been waiting forever  to be eligible at St. John’s and the 24 year old started his career by making his first three. Meanwhile Josh Gasser returned from his season long injury and knocked down his first three as well.

But one play in the second half of Wisconsin’s win over St. John’s pretty much sums up Wisconsin basketball. The play started with combo guard Josh Gasser posting up his guard defender. Then, when the defense collapsed around Gasser, he kicked the ball out to red-shirt forward Duje Dukan who knocked down the three. Guards playing inside and 21-year old redshirts breaking out after years of practice - that pretty much sums up Bo Ryan basketball. Dukan had 15 points in the win.

Connecticut Big Men

A lot of people are picking Connecticut to have a great season because the Huskies bring back 88% of their minutes. Meanwhile Maryland has no scholarship seniors on the roster. Thus it would be easy to write off Connecticut’s close win as a bad sign. If Connecticut isn’t better than Maryland now, will they really be the better team in March?

But that’s the wrong narrative. Even though Connecticut is a veteran team, the Huskies are still a team that is experimenting in the frontcourt. And Connecticut fans saw a couple of sequences that should have them excited. First, rising sophomore Phillip Nolan got the start and he looked explosive early with a couple of key offensive rebounds. Then seven foot freshman center Amida Brimah took over the game defensively with some huge blocks at the end of the first half. While both players picked up far too many fouls, their athleticism was tantalizing. Tyler Olander and DeAndre Daniels made some shots, but if Connecticut is truly going to reach that next level, they have to hope that Nolan or Brimah can develop over the course of the season.

Bullets

-Maryland fans may be cursing the fact that Dez Wells settled for a tough jumper at the end of regulation in the 1 point loss to Connecticut. But perhaps Maryland fans can take solace in this. Former PG Pe’Shon Howard was 1 of 7 in his debut for USC.

-One of my biggest frustrations with Oklahoma St. has been the fact that LeBryan Nash has spent far too much time floating on the perimeter, trying to showcase that he can play a wing role in the NBA. And while it was only one game, I was extremely pleased to see that Nash grabbed 10 rebounds in 27 minutes of play on Friday. Nash didn’t have double-digits in rebounds in a single game last year.

-Duke’s Marshall Plumlee played just five minutes, so it seems that smaller lineups are a certainty for the Blue Devils this season. Davidson wasn’t really able to expose that, but other teams might. But if Duke’s perimeter oriented big men can play this well, the team may still roll over teams. The Blue Devils 82% eFG% in the opening game (including 13 of 21 threes was just ridiculous.)

-I didn’t think I could have any more respect for Nebraska head coach Tim Miles, but then I heard this. Nebraska held Florida Gulf Cost to zero first half fast-break points in the win.

-Rutgers fans have been waiting a long time for Kadeem Jack to finally play like he did against Florida A&M scoring 30 points and grabbing 12 boards.

-I didn’t expect much from Minnesota’s newest transfer Joey King because he wasn’t even given a scholarship. But he made his first three and scored 20 points in his Gopher debut.

Boston College Needs More Athletes

5’9” UMass PG Chaz Williams is one of the quickest players in the country and an amazing driver and distributor. And when he is shooting well from the outside (as he did on Sunday when he went 5 of 5 from three point range), he is simply un-guardable. Williams led UMass to a win against Boston College on Sunday.

Meanwhile, the speedy 6’1” Bryce Cotton showed tremendous heart, scoring 28 points in Providence’s OT win over Boston College on Friday.

It is clear Boston College is the best 0-2 team in country. They will make some noise in the ACC this season thanks to Olivier Hanlan and Ryan Anderson. But these games do expose the weakness of Steve Donahue’s plan. Donahue isn’t recruiting true athletic players and hopes to rely on execution. But when you cannot keep speedy guards out of the lane and when you cannot compete on the boards because you don’t have the athletes, Boston College’s ceiling is limited.

Were These Upsets?

Kansas St. seemingly couldn’t grab a defensive rebound down the stretch and Northern Colorado pulled off the surprise win. But it is worth noting that Kansas St. has zero Top 100 recruits and zero JUCO Top 100 recruits on its roster right now. Bruce Weber did get his team to play defense (holding Northern Colorado to 89 points per 100 possessions), and that should keep Kansas St. competitive in Big 12 play. But on a roster without any high potential offensive players, this might not be the only ugly game Kansas St. plays this year.

Virginia Tech falling to USC Upstate hardly qualifies as a surprise given how much the Hokies struggled last year.

Finally, given that Miami FL lost 6 of its top 7 players from last year’s squad, and did not put together an elite recruiting class, I think we all knew Miami was going to fall at some point. St. Francis Brooklyn was glad to be the first team to pull off the feat.

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.

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.

New Year, New Start

Examining the impact made by transfers on Missouri, USC, Utah, West Virginia, Seton Hall, Towson, Maryland, UCLA, Illinois 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.

Feast Week And More Conference Realignment

On the reality of Maryland's move to the Big Ten and the greatness of the early season tournaments.

The Many Facets & Unpredictability Of March Madness

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

Understanding Breakout Players

Thomas Robinson, J'Covan Brown, Meyers Leonard, Jamaal Franklin and Trae Golden are amongst the Top-20 Breakout Players in college basketball.

YABC Column For Feb. 6th (Iowa St., Florida St., Robbie Hummel & More)

On Florida State with and without Ian Miller, Miami's upset of Duke, Missouri as a No. 1 seed, Iowa State, Robbie Hummel as a spot-up shooter and more.

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?

Colleges On NBA Rosters

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

The Anti-Recruiting Tool

There are many ways to build a winning program. John Calipariís focus on younger players may be the best way to get elite recruits, but it isnít the only way to build a winning program.

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 Ė 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 (March 6th)

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

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