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Final Thoughts On Ranking 351 D1 Teams

In case you missed it, last Thursday I presented my upgraded projections model. Then I presented my 13-14 season projections on ESPN Insider. My projections included the median simulation, best case, and worst case for every team. I also did a Q & A session with Eamonn Brennan and another one with John Templon. I have also been answering a few questions on Twitter. You would think after all those words I would have run out of things to say, but here are a few thoughts that did not quite make the cut in those articles:

The Underrated Club

Q: Why does the simulation hate Arizona St.? Jahii Carson is one of the best players in the country.

A: Arizona St. is a team with a lot of two-star players on the roster. In fact, they have the second lowest average star rating in the entire Pac-12, ahead of only Utah. Luckily a few of those players are transfers who played well for other teams. But what this really means is that Arizona St. just doesn’t have the same upside as many of the other schools in the Pac-12. Herb Sendek’s track record on defense is also a huge concern.

Q: Why does the simulation hate Maryland? A lineup of Shaquille Cleare, Evan Smotrycz, Dez Wells, Nick Faust and Roddy Peters sounds like it could hang with anyone. And Seth Allen, Charles Mitchell, and Damonte Dodd all seem like solid reserves. Why is the model so pessimistic?

A: The simulation is concerned that Maryland has only nine scholarship players on the roster. There is real downside risk with such a short bench because if a couple of players struggle or get injured, there are no alternates. Last year N.C. State entered the year with just nine scholarship players and things turned south early. Now, that doesn’t mean Maryland is destined to fail, but depth is a risk with this type of roster.

Q: Why does the simulation hate Denver? They had a great margin-of-victory numbers last year.

A: While I truly believe star ratings are important, the focus on recruiting evaluations really hurts the small conference squads in my projections. Only when a small conference team has virtually no lineup questions will that team be ranked near the top. (This year the two exceptions are North Dakota St. and Harvard. North Dakota St. brings back 95 percent of its minutes and gets a player back who was injured for much of last year. Meanwhile Harvard gets two star players back who were suspended last season.)

In Denver’s case even with several efficient players back, particularly star Chris Udofia, winning seems likely. But Denver has to replace two of the three players that played the most minutes last season. And the likely replacements will only be two-star athletes. That’s not to say that head coach Joe Scott cannot build a winner again. But it is very hard to get a Top 50 margin-of-victory in a small conference. And if Scott does it again, that should be considered a huge accomplishment. It shouldn’t be the expectation. (The real issue for Denver is finding another ball-handler to compliment Udofia. Last year Royce O’Neale and Udofia both were key distributors for the team, but with O’Neale transferring to Baylor, the remaining options are not great.)

Random Thoughts on Some Major Conference Teams

- In my Insider column, I said that the Spartans were the lowest risk team in the nation which sparked some jokes from Michigan St. fans on Twitter. I think this points out how insanely volatile college basketball can be. Even when the Spartans bring back five of their six top rotation players including three clear stars, their fanbase in nervous. Part of that is the fact that Tom Izzo’s teams notoriously struggle in November. But when a team with Top 10 talent brings nearly everyone back and their fans are nervous, you know that anything can happen in college basketball.

- Michigan’s position in 12th in my rankings is a little misleading. I honestly believe that Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson can lead this team a long way. But I am legitimately concerned about the guard rotation. John Beilein was very reluctant to play Jordan Morgan and Mitch McGary together last season because they weren’t outside shooters. So I have to assume Robinson will play most of his minutes at the four-spot again this year. But then how does the guard rotation work? Does the team play Spike Albrecht, Derrick Walton, and Nick Stauskas together? What if Albrecht and Walton aren’t ready? That is why my model has such a low downside for the Wolverines. (And don’t tell me Caris LeVert is the answer. He was a low-ranked recruit and nothing he did last season leads me to believe he should be a key player on a Top 10 team.)

- When I first ran the model, I was a little surprised the downside for Kentucky was not lower. After all, a young Kentucky team lost in the first round of the NIT last season. But this is what happens when you return two efficient high potential players (in Alex Poythress and Will Cauley-Stein), and add five Top 10 recruits. With that many high potential players, even if two or three of them struggle immensely, Kentucky can still win. Kentucky could not afford for Archie Goodwin to struggle and Nerlens Noel to get injured last season. This year if Julius Randle struggles and Will Cauley-Stein gets hurt, the team can just say “Next man in.”

- I love the range for Indiana in my ESPN Insider rankings. The team has 7 top 100 recruits, and an elite season is still possible. But given all the new faces and how little most of the returning sophomores played last year, the downside risk is major.

- If you want to vote any of my model’s Top 34 teams into the Top 25, I can see arguments for all of them. But I stick by my model’s skepticism of Baylor. Pierre Jackson carried the Bears last year and I don’t see how they can be a better team without him. Their margin of victory was 26th last year (thanks to winning the NIT) and I only give them about a 20 percent chance to do better than that.

- If you have ESPN Insider, look at how painfully low Alabama’s downside is this year. After Devonta Pollard was arrested this offseason, the team is down to nine scholarship players who are eligible this year. If someone on Alabama’s squad doesn't play well, there are no alternatives. This is too bad because Anthony Grant is such a talented young coach, but off-court issues keep derailing his teams.

- Iowa St. made a great move adding Marshall transfer DeAndre Kane. But I suspect Fred Hoiberg needed to add a couple more transfers to keep his transfer winning streak going. With 64% of the lineup gone and four of Iowa St.'s six most efficient players departing (Melvin Ejim and George Niang return), expect Iowa St. to take a step back.

- My model is more optimistic about Seton Hall than what you see in some other rankings. Texas transfer Sterling Gibbs will be a huge upgrade over Tom Maayan and his 50% turnover rate. And with fewer injuries, Kevin Willard should have the defense playing better.

Random Thoughts on Some Mid-Major Conferences

- I’ve still got St. Mary’s on the NCAA bubble. Many will discount the team after Matthew Dellavedova's departure. But Beau Leveasque and Stephen Holt aren't suddenly going to forget how to shoot. Brad Wadlow isn't going to stop being a physical force on the boards and finishing over 60 percent of his shots. This team still has talent.

- The team I think most pundits have over-rated this year is Northeastern. The Huskies were extremely lucky last year. Despite the 7th best MOV in the CAA, they won a ton of close games, including a 4-1 record in OT. Their conference title is very deceiving. With the team's leading scorer and most efficient player Joel Smith gone, a repeat conference title seems unlikely.

- One team I am buying is Weber St. Weber St. had the best margin-of-victory in the Big Sky last year. They even outscored Montana by 19 points in their three meetings. But somehow they went 1-2 against the Grizzlies and that 1-2 mark gave Montana the regular season and conference tournament title. Weber St.’s aggressive and efficient inside-outside combination of Davion Berry and Kyle Tresnak is going to make sure that doesn't happen again.

- The conference champion I expect to come out of nowhere this year is Manhattan. Manhattan somehow lost 10 games to conference foes, but only one of those games was by double digits. This team was much better than last year's conference record would indicate.

- The race for the Big West title is wide open. I have five teams projected within one game of first place in that league.

- The CUSA race should also be highly entertaining. Louisiana Tech is the only team in CUSA that returns over 70 percent of its minutes from last year. (Tech brings back 85 percent of its minutes.) And Tech's losses won't hurt the offense. The team loses its least efficient player Brandon Gibson, and the extremely passive JL Lewis. With an already solid defense and an improved offense, Louisiana Tech could be headed for the NCAA tournament. But Southern Miss is just as formidable a competitor. The newest Golden Eagle, transfer Aaron Brown, shot the ball extremely well as a sophomore at Temple. His addition could give Southern Miss the CUSA title.

- Speaking of transfers, transfer Jay Harris was the PG on a Valparaiso team that won the Horizon league title in 2012. He could be the key addition that gets Wagner an NEC conference title in 2014.

- Finally, Indiana St. PG Jake Odum has to be kicking himself that RJ Mahurin transferred out in order to play his senior year with his younger brother. Mahurin was the team's only efficient big man, and the Sycamores could have been a more realistic NCAA bubble team had Mahurin returned.

Late Breaking News

- The news that Josh Smith was eligible immediately didn’t break until after I finished my rankings. With a full season of Smith you can move the Hoyas up to 27th in my projections. But as many people have noted, because of his conditioning, it still isn’t clear how much Smith will play. The downside risk for the Hoyas remains real. However, I do think that it is a major break that Smith will be around from the start of the season. The Hoya offense is a nuanced system that depends on precise cuts and passes, and integrating Smith mid-season would have been much more difficult.

- I had already assumed Joseph Young would be eligible for Oregon so their ranking is not affected by that news. It is clear that the transfer combination of Mike Moser and Young could be one of the best inside-outside combinations in the country. But I want to offer several cautionary tales. Ryan Harrow, Trey Ziegler, and Aaric Murray were three transfers that received a ton of hype last summer, and they were all such poor fits in the new environment, they have all moved on again. We’ve seen teams bring in a bunch of transfers and live up to expectations (like Iowa St.), but we have also seen teams take in a lot of transfer and disappoint (like Missouri last year.) Transfers are high risk players, and that is why my model has such a large range for the Ducks this season.

Dan Hanner vs Ken Pomeroy

Ken Pomeroy also released his preseason rankings on Saturday. While he is rather humble about his algorithm, I think it is important to note how well his system did last season. From a modeling perspective, a more complex system is not always better.

I would argue that the real advantage of my lineup-based system is not the predictive power. The advantage is that by focusing on the lineup, my model has fewer head-scratching conclusions. For example, Ken’s team level model has Miami at 62nd this year. With basically everyone in last year’s rotation gone and Angel Rodriguez electing not to apply for a transfer waiver, that’s an extremely optimistic prediction. But that prediction is based on how well Miami did last season, not any reasonable evaluation of the current roster. The same can probably be said of Minnesota at No. 35. The Gophers had strong margin-of-victory numbers last year, so Ken’s model loves them again this season. But my model sees that the Gophers made a substantial downgrade in the front-court and added an unproven coach. My model based on the current lineup has Miami at No. 102 and Minnesota at No. 63, and I think that’s much closer to what I have seen in most expert rankings.

But while Ken’s model can cause us to scratch our heads at certain results, do not overlook his predictions. The last five seasons of data are a very strong predictor in the aggregate. (If a team had a great offense before it tends to have better facilities, higher caliber recruits, and better coaches today.) And when the results of both our models agree, those are probably the strongest predictions of all. 

ACC Basketball Early Projection

Last fall on Basketball Prospectus I introduced the first ever lineup-based statistical model. Today, I use that model to project the 2013-2014 ACC college basketball standings:

 

Team

Proj CW

Proj CL

Proj Off

Proj Def

T100

Ret Min

Ret Poss

Last Off

Last Def

Duke

14

4

115.4

90.6

10

58%

50%

118.9

90.3

N. Carolina

13

5

114.3

89.8

10

69%

73%

111.6

92.9

Virginia

13

5

112.9

89.6

5

74%

82%

107.0

89.7

Syracuse

12

6

110.3

89.2

8

52%

45%

112.5

85.7

Pittsburgh

12

6

113.1

92.0

4

59%

58%

115.4

89.2

Maryland

11

7

111.4

93.0

6

61%

64%

106.2

92.3

Notre Dame

10

8

111.1

96.7

3

78%

78%

113.6

95.8

Florida St.

9

9

110.1

96.9

5

84%

80%

105.0

101.1

B. College

8

10

111.1

100.0

0

95%

96%

109.3

101.8

NC State

7

11

109.2

100.6

6

21%

18%

115.7

97.8

Wake Forest

6

12

103.1

97.3

3

76%

76%

99.2

96.6

Georgia Tech

6

12

98.7

93.4

5

80%

83%

98.2

91.8

Clemson

6

12

99.2

94.6

0

64%

61%

98.6

94.1

Miami FL

5

13

99.2

97.8

1

18%

14%

113.7

90.3

Virginia Tech

3

15

100.9

106.0

3

68%

55%

105.0

105.9

Proj CW, CL = Projected conference wins and losses

Proj Off, Def = Projected points scored and allowed per 100 possessions against an average D1 team on a neutral floor

Top 100 = Number of players ranked in the RSCI Top 100 out of high school who are on the roster 

Ret Min, Ret Poss = Returning minutes and possessions

Last Off, Last Def = Last year’s offense and defense

Duke: Quinn Cook, Andre Dawkins, Rasheed Sulaimon, Mississippi St. transfer Rodney Hood, Amile Jefferson, #2 recruit Jabari Parker. Yes, Duke is going to be dominant again.

North Carolina: Marcus Paige, PJ Hairston, Leslie McDonald, James McAdoo, and four high potential young forwards (either ready to make the sophomore leap or contribute from day one) should make for a dominant lineup.

Virginia: At the start of April I wrote this: “Everything is coming together for Virginia. They have their three top scorers (really the only guys who scored at all) back from last year. Former Top 100 recruit Mike Tobey should be ready for that sophomore year leap in production. They add depth with South Carolina transfer Anthony Gill. Malcolm Brogdon (who missed the entire season) and Darion Atkins should be back healthy. And Virginia played very good basketball in conference games last year.” The only question mark is point-guard. London Perrantes, Teven Jones, and/or Devon Hall have to come through for this team to meet its expectations. And while at #97 ESPN recruit Perrantes isn’t a sure thing, the model thinks he will easily exceed the efficiency of Jontel Evans. Evans couldn’t shoot at all last year and posted an 83.4 ORtg. When a team loses its most inefficient players and has solid replacements coming in, that team should be substantially improved.

Syracuse: Unfortunately, Syracuse seems poised for another brutal offensive year. There were basically only four guys on the team that could score last year, and three of them are gone. The real problem is the lack of depth on the perimeter. My model has Duke transfer Michael Gbinije playing some minutes at the shooting-guard spot, but as Georgetown saw last year when they tried to play Otto Porter at that spot, a four forward lineup doesn’t have the right spacing. This is especially true given that among Syracuse’s returning forwards only CJ Fair has a true jump shot.

That means Syracuse will have to give a lot of minute to Tyler Ennis, Trevor Cooney, and Ron Patterson. Tyler Ennis might have a higher recruiting rank than Virginia’s London Perrantes, but he still isn’t a guaranteed star where he is rated. And Trevor Cooney was brutal last season. While the model predicts Cooney will be better this year, he certainly can’t be counted on to be a star. And Syracuse hasn’t had much success utilizing unranked freshmen right of the bat which isn’t good for Ron Patterson’s expectations.

DaJuan Coleman might become a high scorer next year, but it is a catch-22. While he is the only returning player who was a high volume shooter, he wasn’t very efficient (89.1 ORtg) last year. Part of that was an injury issue, but even with a fairly sizable jump in efficiency this year, he won’t be able to carry the offense. Don’t be fooled by transfer Michael Gbinije’s ORtg on Statsheet.com. He basically never played for Duke two years ago. The fact that he didn’t play says more about his expectations then whatever numbers he posted in garbage time in a few games. And don’t be fooled by Baye Moussa Keita’s efficiency either. Keita basically never shot last year. Syracuse has eight former Top 100 recruits on the roster, so they have talent. But it isn’t quite the right fit to expect a dominant offense.

 

Player

Ht In

RSCI Rnk

Class

Pred ORtg

Pred Pct Min

Pred Pct Poss

C.J. Fair

6'8"

96

Sr

113.1

88%

23%

Tyler Ennis

6'2"

38

Fr

100.1

69%

21%

Trevor Cooney

6'4"

79

Jr

100.4

69%

19%

Jerami Grant

6'8"

41

So

108.7

50%

20%

R. Christmas

6'9"

21

Jr

110.5

50%

16%

Michael Gbinije

6'6"

28

So

103.5

39%

20%

Tyler Roberson

6'7"

27

Fr

100.1

38%

21%

Baye M. Keita

6'10"

 

Sr

120.0

37%

13%

Ron Patterson

6'3"

 

Fr

93.1

31%

19%

DaJuan Coleman

6'9"

18

So

97.6

30%

27%

Head Coach:

   

SOSmod

1.05

   

Syracuse

   

Pred Off

110.3

   

Where I think the model may be wrong is not the offense, but the defense. The model is skeptical because Jim Boeheim has only had an adjusted defense below 89.0 once in his career. That one year was last season, so perhaps it will be repeatable. But Michael Carter-Williams had rare size at the PG spot. He made it brutally hard for teams like Indiana to get open looks at three and for players to make basic entry passes. If Cooney and Ennis can duplicate that, then Syracuse may be a Top 10 team.  My model expects a solid but not historic defensive performance from Syracuse.

Pittsburgh: This is going to sound odd, but Pittsburgh probably has a better starting rotation than Syracuse. Talib Zanna was Pittsburgh’s best forward last season. James Robinson was impressive as a first-year PG, and Lamar Patterson was a do-everything player. Meanwhile, JJ Moore is back and he was Pittsburgh’s most efficient bench player. The team also adds highly ranked freshman recruit Mike Young at forward. The real weakness for Pittsburgh is going to be depth. After those five guys, there is a serious drop-off. But keep in mind that Jamie Dixon has only finished with more than six conference losses once in his career. That isn’t going to change even in a stacked ACC.

Maryland: Replacing Alex Len won’t be easy, but the combination of Shaquille Cleare and Charles Mitchell’s development, combined with the addition of a lights out perimeter shooting forward (Michigan transfer Evan Smotrycz) should make it palatable. Pe’shon Howard was so inefficient at the PG slot that his departure is probably addition by subtraction.

Notre Dame: For those of you keeping track, despite being listed as seniors last year, Garrick Sherman and Tom Knight are coming back. I am most interested to see how Mike Brey utilizes freshmen Demetrius Jackson. Brey usually has a short-leash with freshmen. The exception was Luke Harangody, and Jackson might just be that kind of freshmen. What is holding Notre Dame back is that Mike Brey is not an elite defensive coach. And that means the loss of a premiere defensive rebounder like Jack Cooley is a real problem.

Florida St.: Somehow, despite a horrible non-conference season, and terrible margin-of-victory numbers, the Seminoles won nine ACC games last year. I expect Florida St.’s offense and defense to be substantially better than last year. But I don’t expect them to match last year’s exceptional luck. And in an improved ACC, I project Florida St. as a 9-9 team. They will be better, but they might not have more conference wins to show for it.

Of course, if Andrew Wiggins matriculates, this expectation will be much higher.

Looking back, it is hard to believe how dreadful Florida St. played at times last season. The Seminoles scored 36 against Virginia and an even more embarrassing 46 against defensively challenged Wake Forest.  Highly rated freshman Montay Brandon had one of those avert-your-eyes awful seasons. It was amazing how much Leonard Hamilton stuck with him despite his clear offensive struggles. Brandon’s poor performance shows the difference between an old-school coach and a new-school coach. Buzz Williams and Brad Stevens would have never let a player like Brandon waste so many possessions.

But despite these offensive concerns, the real problem was the defense. How did one of the top defensive coaches suddenly forget what he was doing? I think the injury to Ian Miller had a lot to do with it, but the overall team performance was head-scratching. With a healthy Ian Miller, I predict a substantial bounce-back on both ends of the court. But it also depends on Hamilton making better lineup decisions than last season.

Boston College: Notre Dame transfer Alex Dragicevich will add to the team’s depth. But until Boston College starts playing better defense, they won’t make the tournament.

NC State: If you ask Mark Gottfried, he will admit that the lack of depth last year was frustrating. It made it hard to hold legitimate practices. But thanks to a host of defections NC State only has eight scholarship players again. One of those eight players, Jordan Vandenburg has struggled to ever earn playing time and was injured for much of last year. It is possible Vandenburg will break out as a fifth-year senior, but the expectations cannot be that high. The other seven players (including LSU transfer Ralston Turner and JUCO addition Desmond Lee) should all be solid players. But at this point, you have to bank on extreme luck to even put together a decent rotation. No one can get injured. None of the prized recruits can be a bust.

And Mark Gottfried hasn’t exactly been the kind of guy to bring a new crop of recruits together and play top defense right away. NC State probably has a higher upside than some of the teams listed ahead of them, but the downside risk is pretty high too. If everyone (but Vandenburg) comes back, this team will be in much better shape in 2014-15.

Wake Forest: Wait, why is Jeff Bzdelik still the head coach? Senior Travis McKie deserves better.

Georgia Tech: Marcus George-Hunt and Robert Carter were solid scorers as freshman last season and as highly ranked high school recruits, there is no reason to think they won’t make the sophomore leap and become stars this year. Overall Georgia Tech’s offense would be rated higher, but there is a major question mark at the PG slot. Solomon Poole wasn’t ready last year, but the alternatives Corey Heyward and Travis Jorgenson don’t have obvious pedigrees either. Without a strong point-guard and with several offensive liabilities in the rotation, the offense will still be bad.

Clemson: Given that they lose their two best players and have zero players who were elite high school recruits on their roster, I think a lot of preseason predictions will have them even lower than this. There really isn’t anyone on the roster who looks like a likely offensive star. (The only good news is that Clemson was young last year and the sophomore leap should help at least a couple of their freshmen become solid players.) But let’s face it, this is going to be an ugly team to watch. The only reason the model doesn’t have Clemson lower is because of Brad Brownell’s ability to teach defense.

Miami: Give Jim Larranaga credit for what Miami did last year, but this is a rebuilding year. This team was just devastated by graduations and Shane Larkin’s early entry into the draft. I think the lineup-based model may be a little too pessimistic. But the best-case scenario here is probably what Vanderbilt did in the SEC last year.  Don’t count on much from guys like Tony Jekiri and Erik Swoope. Guys who shoot that little rarely become big scorers. I feel bad for Rion Brown.

Virginia Tech: Goodbye Erick Green. Yep, next year isn’t going to be any better.

Revisiting Recruiting Classes

During the preseason I went on a podcast with some fine folks from Michigan and said something like this. “Michigan’s freshmen are likely to show flashes of brilliance. But based on where they are in the rankings, I would expect them to be very inconsistent.”

And hey, I’m pretty sure Glenn Robinson had a bad game against Indiana. That’s a sign of inconsistency, right? OK, maybe struggling for one game at the No. 1 team in the nation isn’t a sign of inconsistency. And all Nik Stauskas has done is score in double figures in 21 of the teams 23 games this year. Sure, he needed a few more shots in some of those games, but you can pretty much guarantee he is going to give you 10 points every time out. Meanwhile, Mitch McGary only seems to be getting better as the year goes on. And it hasn’t just been the three ranked recruits. The unranked recruits have been incredibly efficient too.

So I was wrong about Michigan’s freshmen. Without a doubt, I was wrong. But I still think that having Michigan in the preseason Top 10 was a bit of a mistake. This team has clearly exceeded all expectations. Teams with brilliant recruiting classes don’t typically get this type of production.

Let’s take a look back at the teams that were supposed to have the best recruiting classes this year. The next table lists the percentage of minutes freshmen have played for their teams, the percentage of possessions’ used, and the possession-weighted ORtg for these players.

I list the teams with the Top 13 recruiting classes according to CBS Sports.com. For the record, Michigan had the 12th best recruiting class. (Numbers through Tuesday’s games. These are raw ORtg numbers, but adjusting for defensive schedule strength makes a trivial difference as Michigan has played an equivalent or stronger schedule than most of the teams on the list.)

Freshmen Contributions

ORtg

PctPoss

PctMin

Michigan Freshmen

124.6

42%

50%

NC State Freshmen

111.1

30%

33%

UNLV Freshmen

108.5

37%

33%

UCLA Freshmen

108.1

53%

44%

Michigan St. Freshmen

107.8

24%

25%

Duke Freshmen*

107.6

23%

25%

Kentucky Freshmen

106.5

58%

53%

Indiana Freshmen

104.6

19%

20%

Arizona Freshmen

103.4

29%

33%

Baylor Freshmen

99.6

32%

29%

North Carolina Freshmen

96.5

30%

31%

Providence Freshmen

89.4

18%

21%

Texas Freshmen

87.0

53%

58%

*Technically, the table shows freshmen performance, not recruiting class performance. Alex Murphy and Marshall Plumlee were recruited last year, but red-shirted.

The first thing that should be obvious is that Michigan’s freshmen are far and away the most efficient. I believe there are a number of mitigating factors, and I’ll list those in a moment, but the numbers aren’t even close. Michigan’s freshmen have been unbelievable.

Michigan’s freshmen have also had to play a ton. Due to attrition, John Beilein hasn’t been in a position where he could bring his freshmen along slowly. As we’ve seen with Texas and Kentucky, usually when you have to play freshmen major minutes, there are some growing pains along the way.

Another thing to keep in mind is that Michigan’s freshmen have all been healthy and eligible.

Providence was the only team in the above table deemed to have a worse recruiting class than Michigan. Providence was #13. But the reason I included Providence was to emphasize that sometimes injuries and academic issues can derail a great recruiting class too.  (Suspensions also contributed to Indiana’s poor recruiting class performance.)

Now, there are some mitigating factors. First, Michigan’s freshmen have used relatively few possessions. Because Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. have shot so much, Michigan’s freshmen get to be more judicious in when they attack. But that isn’t always an advantage. Duke’s Amile Jefferson has played better now that he gets to touch the ball more. For young players, playing off the ball and rarely getting touches doesn’t always lead to great shot-selection.

Michigan’s freshmen also get a huge advantage because of the talent level of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. Plenty of the other teams on this list returned talent too. Pierre Jackson and Brady Heslip were plenty good, Indiana’s returning offensive players were the best in the nation, and so forth. But Michigan’s freshmen stepped into a much more advantageous position than those recruits at Texas. But ultimately, you have to take some credit for what you do on the floor. I can list a lot of unranked freshmen who have gone to talented teams, played very controlled minutes, and still not performed as consistently as Michigan’s Caris Levert and Spike Albrecht.

I also think it is worth noting how these players have helped improve Trey Burke’s game. Now when Burke finds open players, they are finishing. Burke’s assist percentage has improved from 28.6% to 39.8%. And Burke is among the most improved players in the country.

The next table shows the most improved players in the Big Ten in terms of efficiency rating. (Table only includes rotation players, players with over 40% of a team’s minutes.)

In the Big Ten, the only players with bigger ORtg improvements than Trey Burke are Shannon Scott and David Rivers. And both of those players played trivial minutes last year while posting horrific ORtgs. Meanwhile, the player listed in fourth place on this list, Eric May is shooting substantially less than last year. May’s percentage of possessions used has decreased from 19 percent to 14 percent, which likely explains his improvement in efficiency. But Burke is actually shooting more than last year, and he has still improved his ORtg by an unusual amount. The next entry in this table is Victor Oladipo who also deserves all the credit he is getting this season for improving substantially. Given how much Oladipo has improved, to say Burke has improved more is rather unbelievable. 

Big Ten

Team

Change Ortg

Ortg 2013

Ortg 2012

Shannon Scott

Ohio St.

39.9

108.1

68.2

David Rivers

Nebraska

36.2

100

63.8

Trey Burke

Michigan

23.1

128.7

105.6

Eric May

Iowa

21.8

113.6

91.8

Victor Oladipo

Indiana

19.7

126.3

106.6

Andre Hollins

Minnesota

16.8

116

99.2

Nnanna Egwu

Illinois

15.6

98.4

82.8

Austin Hollins

Minnesota

14.8

124.8

110

Jared Berggren

Wisconsin

13.1

118.5

105.4

Christian Watford

Indiana

12.1

122.7

110.6

Jordan Hulls

Indiana

12

133

121

Joseph Bertrand

Illinois

11.8

117.4

105.6

Tim Hardaway

Michigan

10.5

113.6

103.1

Tracy Abrams

Illinois

10.1

98.7

88.6

Nick Colella

Penn St.

9.6

97.8

88.2

Since I happen to have them handy, here are the biggest improvements in the Pac-12. Andy Brown played trivial minutes last year, so his improvement is also less significant. Byron Wesley is shooting less, so that explains some of his improvement. Thus in the Pac-12, the only two players that are showing meaningfully similar improvements to Trey Burke are Nick Johnson and Carrick Felix.

Pac-12

Team

Change Ortg

Ortg 2013

Ortg 2012

Andy Brown

Stanford

29.2

105.7

76.5

Nick Johnson

Arizona

19.4

114.4

95

Byron Wesley

USC

18.5

99.2

80.7

Carrick Felix

Arizona St.

16.4

112.5

96.1

Kevin Parrom

Arizona

15.9

124.6

108.7

Aziz N`Diaye

Washington

12.5

108.4

95.9

Eric Moreland

Oregon St.

11.6

109.4

97.8

Cedric Martin

Utah

11.6

107.2

95.6

Dwight Powell

Stanford

11.6

105.6

94

Dexter Kernich-Drew

Washington St.

10.2

103.8

93.6

Roberto Nelson

Oregon St.

9.8

111.6

101.8

Chris Colvin

Arizona St.

9.3

91

81.7

Mike Ladd

Washington St.

9

105.9

96.9

Solomon Hill

Arizona

8.5

119

110.5

Tony Woods

Oregon

5.9

105.5

99.6

By the way, is there anything worse than getting better for a bad team? Mike Ladd and Dexter Kernich-Drew are playing better than last season. But because Washington St. is struggling in the standings, almost no one has noticed. 

Big Ten

Team

Change Ortg

Ortg 2013

Ortg 2012

Cody Zeller

Indiana

-1.2

125.7

126.9

Terone Johnson

Purdue

-1.6

97.2

98.8

Anthony Johnson

Purdue

-2.3

90.3

92.6

Roy Devyn Marble

Iowa

-2.5

105.4

107.9

Lenzelle Smith Jr.

Ohio St.

-2.5

110.4

112.9

Zach McCabe

Iowa

-3.7

101

104.7

Alex Marcotullio

Northwestern

-4.3

108.5

112.8

Dave Sobolewski

Northwestern

-5

106.8

111.8

Deshaun Thomas

Ohio St.

-5.2

117.3

122.5

Aaron Craft

Ohio St.

-6

105.5

111.5

Branden Dawson

Michigan St.

-8.7

101.3

110

Ryan Evans

Wisconsin

-11.6

90.2

101.8

Dylan Talley

Nebraska

-12.7

89.2

101.9

D.J. Byrd

Purdue

-13.7

110

123.7

Brandon Ubel

Nebraska

-16.2

103.4

119.6

Ross Travis

Penn St.

-17.6

80.3

97.9

On the flip side, we have players who have lost efficiency this year. Don’t blame Brandon Ubel and Dylan Talley too much. Given all the player losses at Nebraska, they’ve had to shoot a lot more. But the key thing I want to emphasize is how Cody Zeller’s efficiency has not improved from last season. Zeller was a preseason player-of-the-year favorite because of how he performed last year. But unlike many of the other player-of-the-year candidates, Zeller has treaded water. It isn’t that Zeller isn’t good. But Zeller hasn’t taken the step forward that some of us imagined. And Zeller doesn’t have the excuse of shooting more. He basically uses the same number of possessions he used last year.

Big Ten

Team

Change Ortg

Ortg 2013

Ortg 2012

David Wear

UCLA

-7

103.6

110.6

Chasson Randle

Stanford

-7.5

101.7

109.2

Andre Roberson

Colorado

-7.6

100.9

108.5

Justin Cobbs

California

-8

105.4

113.4

Abdul Gaddy

Washington

-8.6

96

104.6

Travis Wear

UCLA

-9.5

107

116.5

Richard Solomon

California

-10.7

93

103.7

Angus Brandt

Oregon St.

-10.8

104.2

115

Aaron Bright

Stanford

-14.4

97.4

111.8

Devon Collier

Oregon St.

-14.9

107.2

122.1

E.J. Singler

Oregon

-15.3

102.4

117.7

Robert Thurman

California

-15.9

100.3

116.2

David Kravish

California

-16.2

102.6

118.8

Johnathan Loyd

Oregon

-17.3

78.6

95.9

D.J. Shelton

Washington St.

-20

85.8

105.8

I’m surprised the Pac-12 shows so many big declines as the Pac-12 did add quite a bit of talent this year. One issue is that Pac-12 defense are better, but it is surprising that some former stars are slipping. Abdul Gaddy and Chasson Randle at least have the excuse that they are shooting more. But that doesn’t explain every drop-off on this list. David Wear and Travis Wear are actually shooting less than last year, but the lower shot volume has not translated into a more efficient season.

Bottom line: Michigan deserves to be praised for performing like a Top 10 team this year. But the Wolverines have exceeded expectations to accomplish that. The freshmen have performed above and beyond all expectations. And Trey Burke has improved tremendously from last season. Michigan’s defense still isn’t quite Top 10 caliber. But for a group this young to have the #1 offense in the nation is truly an accomplishment.

A Super Saturday

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

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.

Why Every College Game Matters

We’ve seen Kobe Bryant and LeBron James play thousands of basketball games; at this point, we have a pretty good idea of what they are all about. So while the level of play in the NBA is much higher, you never know what you are going to get in the NCAA.

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.

Early Season Tournaments: Brackets, Observations, And Odds: Part 1

Sorting through the odds of the NIT, 2K Sports Classic, Charleston Classic, Puerto Rico Tipoff, Coaches Vs. Cancer, Paradise Jam and Hall of Fame Tip-Off.

Reviewing The 2012 McDonald's All-American Game

Shabazz Muhammad deservedly won the MVP award, but Alex Poythress had the most surprisingly outstanding game. How did the other players distinguish themselves?

Will The Madness Continue Into Sweet 16?

The first weekend of the NCAA Tournament was one of the most unpredictable in recent memory. Now, with the second weekend set to tip-off, the Madness may have only just begun.

NCAA Tournament Day 2

A running diary of a historic day in the NCAA tournament.

Initial Bracket Thoughts

A few preliminary thoughts on matchups and which teams will advance deep in the tournament.

The Many Facets & Unpredictability Of March Madness

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

YACB Column, Jan. 30th (On The Weaknesses Of The Top-25 & More)

Many have called this a down year for college basketball and though that argument can be made about elite teams, there are still plenty of reasons why it's a fallacy.

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.

Ryan Boatright, Trevor Mbakwe, Bruce Ellington, Tyshawn Taylor & The Season's First Splits

Ryan Boatright's arrival has completely turned around Connecticut's early season performance. Here's why it is sometimes isn't too soon to look at small sample sizes.

The Anti-Recruiting Tool

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

Printable Brackets And Early Season Tournament Odds

Don't wait until March to start printing out college basketball brackets. With the Preseason NIT, Maui Invitational, Puerto Rico Tipoff and other excellent tournaments, you can start the madness in November.

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

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

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