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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.

NCAA Tournament Day 4

After what I thought was the most dramatic day of the tournament so far (and please go back and relive it with my recap), I entered Sunday exhausted. And Sunday’s tournament games seemed exhausted too. There were a few too many mismatches and a few too many blowouts. But before we get to those, let’s start with the good stuff:

#3 Iowa St. defeated #6 North Carolina

There are a lot of ways I expected North Carolina’s season to end.

-I expected the Tar Heels to have a game where they missed a bunch of threes and couldn’t compete. But Leslie McDonald nailed a late three to give the Tar Heels a 79-76 lead.

-I expected the Tar Heels to miss some key free throws and have that cost them a tournament game. But North Carolina wasn’t even in the bonus until the final seconds, and when James Michael McAdoo went to the line, he buried both shots in crunch time.

Instead we got the unexpected.

-Marcus Paige, a brilliant ball-handler, threw the ball away in the final minutes.

-North Carolina, a team that loves to run, was out-run by Iowa St.’s Naz Long, who snuck behind the defense for a three in the final minute.

-And a North Carolina team that has played better defense than offense, couldn’t keep the opposing team out of the lane in the final seconds of a tie game. DeAndre Kane unexpectedly cut to his left, and cut through a double team for the go-ahead lay-up.

Perhaps for North Carolina, the unexpected only made sense. The Tar Heels this year beat the teams ranked first, second, third, and fourth in the preseason AP poll. They also lost to multiple teams outside the Top 100. They started ACC play 1-4 and ended ACC play 12-1. So of course, the moment Iowa St.’s Georges Niang went out with a foot injury, and North Carolina became the presumptive favorite, they went down. The moment Steve Kerr began discussing how Iowa St.’s team had nothing left in the tank, the Tar Heels played their worst stretch of basketball. In this season, it only made sense.

North Carolina fans will and should complain about the clock operation on the final possession. The fact that the clock did not start on time may have impacted whether the player put up a prayer shot or Roy Williams called timeout. But Kane’s shot was the difference, and on an afternoon where he scored 24 points, Kane was the hero.

#8 Kentucky defeated #1 Wichita St.

Experience vs talent.

The world’s greatest mid-major vs a power conference blue blood.

An undefeated record vs a decorated history.

A Final Four club from last year still looking for respect vs an underachieving team still looking for redemption.

Many people wanted to see one of the two teams go down in flames. But neither team seemed overmatched. No one was exposed. No one was overrated.

For a time, the game seemed to swing on experience. Wichita St. did a fabulous job anticipating where Kentucky would pass the ball and converted several live ball steals into fast-break baskets. This gave Wichita St. the early lead.

For a time, the game seemed to swing on talent. At the start of the second half, Julius Randle had a monster dunk, a beautiful assist on a three, and he muscled for an offensive rebound to get his team back in the game.

Sometimes the two themes swung in contrast. Wichita St. had been killing Kentucky by sneaking players along the baseline for alley-oops or back-door cuts. Then Julius Randle decided he had seen enough. At 9:10 left he made an amazing block to stop Ron Baker from sneaking behind the defense one more time.

And then a funny thing happened down the stretch. The game stopped being about a contrast in styles, and started being about who would make more plays. James Young drove the lane for a gorgeous basket. Cleanthony Early hit an impossible turn-around jumper along the baseline. James Young nailed a three. Ron Baker nailed a three. And the game came down to a shot at the buzzer that was off the mark.

I don’t think the game quite lived up to the immense hype. (This wasn’t quite Duke vs Syracuse for the first time in ACC play.) But it came close.

#10 Stanford defeated #2 Kansas

I want to apologize to Stanford fans. I have never believed in this team because I have never believed in the lineup rotation. After Aaron Bright was declared out for the season, Johnny Dawkins decided that he was going to run three forwards out on the floor at all times, with much of the offense running through point forward Dwight Powell.

In 2014, I don’t believe in that philosophy. It is just too hard to get the right spacing with three big men on the floor. More distressingly, despite a tall front line, Stanford’s defense has often been porous. They effectively had the 13th tallest lineup in the nation (according to Kenpom.com), and often had four players 6’6” or taller on the floor, but with the team getting shredded by Arizona, Arizona St., and UCLA late in the season, it didn’t quite seem like the right formula.

But in the NCAA tournament, Dawkins lineup choice has proven to be brilliant. His tall wing players frustrated New Mexico’s Kendall Williams in the first round. And his tall front line put up a wall against Kansas. Much like San Diego St. had done against the Jayhawks, by simply holding their position, Stanford kept the Jayhawks from getting buckets inside.

(Stanford’s ability to get back defensively and keep the game in the half-court was also remarkable. Even when Kansas got steals late in the game, the Jayhawks couldn’t turn those steals into lay-ups, and still had to work half-court sets.)

But having said all that, I still can’t get enthusiastic about this upset because of what we missed out on. Because Kansas went out so early, we never got to see Joel Embiid in the NCAA tournament. And because this game got caught up in the half-court, Andrew Wiggins was not able to show his full-court athleticism to the nation.

Stanford had the right plan, but as a viewer I still felt cheated. I think it says a lot when the key sequence of the game might have been a series of inside baskets by Stanford’s Stefan Nastic. Nastic is a solid college post-player. But as the announcers noted, he isn’t the kind of player who can make a shot beyond three feet. And you couldn’t help but feel that if Joel Embiid had been in the game, Nastic might not have got those inside looks. Nastic’s baskets gave Stanford a 7 point lead early in the second half. Normally, that wouldn’t be much, but given the half-court game and tempo, it was actually too much for Kansas to overcome.

But I also have to point some of the finger at the Kansas players who were in the game. Despite playing in a friendly environment in St. Louis, the Jayhawks never did enough to create energy and get the fans in the game. There was a sequence in the second half where Kansas turned the ball over, saved it from going out of bounds, and then no one on Kansas made a real effort to run and get the ball. The Jayhawks seemed like they were sleepwalking.

Whereas Duke lacked the personnel on defense, and Syracuse hit a huge rut offensively, Kansas had a versatile lineup that should have been able to compete in any situation. But on Sunday, they showed almost none of that. Besides Conner Frankamp’s late threes and Tarik Black’s key baskets, all the Kansas players that played meaningful minutes had ORtgs below 75. Given the talent on this team, that sort of execution left a bit of an empty feeling.

- The Land of Blowouts

#4 UCLA defeated #12 SF Austin

On Friday I raved about UCLA sharing the ball, and that was even more on display in this mismatch. The Bruins had 21 assists and even Travis Wear got in the act with six dimes. According the announcers, the Bruins also went a full 30 minutes without a turnover.

#1 Virginia defeated #8 Memphis

Rachel Nichols shared this nice anecdote: Virginia’s Joe Harris not only talks in his sleep, he sleepwalks. But given how well he is playing this season, his teammates/roommates told him he can do whatever he wants.

#1 Arizona defeated #8 Gonzaga

The turnover differential (21 for Gonzaga, six for Arizona was highlighted all game long), but it is worth noting that until garbage time Arizona was also shooting over 50%.

#6 Baylor defeated #3 Creighton

I picked Baylor to advance to the Sweet Sixteen in part because of their amazing late season splits. And after Creighton struggled with Providence’s zone defense in the Big East tournament, I thought the Blue Jays would have trouble against Baylor’s zone. But I never expected that Doug McDermott would score only three points in the first half of a game.

The most touching moment in this game was probably head coach Greg McDermott pulling his starters off the floor, one at a time, for a series of embraces. I think we sometimes forget that not only was this Doug McDermott’s final game, this was also the final game for play-maker Grant Gibbs, and shot-maker Jahenns Manigat. And Ethan Wragge’s career also comes to a close. Wragge, who shot better than 41% in every year of his career, and made at least 66 threes in every year of his career, was the perfect three point shooter to play off of McDermott’s double teams. Creighton had a Top 10 offense for three straight years, and this was more than just Greg McDermott.

#11 Tennessee defeated #14 Mercer

Tennessee held a 24-4 rebounding advantage at the end of the first half. Sometimes we talk about how the raw rebounding numbers are misleading. Offensive rebounding percentages say a lot more. But this is a case where the counting stats speak emphatically. Rebounding differentials like that aren’t supposed to happen after middle school.

When Tennessee is clicking, their length and athleticism can be suffocating. They started out the game against Mercer with a steal and easy fast-break basket. The next possession, Tennessee forced a shot-clock violation. Tennessee also ended the first half by forcing a shot-clock violation. (This is almost impossible to do but there was a 0.6 second differential between the shot-clock and game clock.)

This is a team that absolutely blew Virginia out of the water in late December.  This is a team that has absolutely been crushing teams in March.

And that’s why I am always surprised when I look up the Volunteer’s stats. They rank near 250th in the country in the rate of turnovers forced. They don’t actually get out and run much, as they have one of the slower paces in the country. Tennessee is one of those teams where the eye test doesn’t really match the recorded stats.

Or maybe Tennessee is simply this tournament’s biggest enigma. On the one hand, they barely qualified for the tournament. They were lucky to draw a slumping UMass team. They were also lucky to draw an underdog Mercer team. On the other hand, their margin-of-victory stats now suggest they are one of the top teams in the country. The Sweet Sixteen will provide a fine litmus test.

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.

Early Surprises And The Start Of Feast Week, Page 1

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Final Thoughts On Ranking 351 D1 Teams

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ACC Basketball Early Projection

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

2013-2014 Preseason Top 25

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Revisiting Recruiting Classes

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Syracuse Without James Southerland Revisited

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Injury Splits, Part 2

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

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Early Season Tournaments: Brackets, Observations, And Odds: Part 2

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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?

And Then There Were Four

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Will The Madness Continue Into Sweet 16?

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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.

Looking Back, Looking Ahead To Tournament Week

Examining the final regular season weekend of the Big Ten, ACC and SEC, along with everything you really need to know to enjoy Tournament Week.

YABC Column For Feb. 27th (POY Races, Improbabilities & More)

As Draymond Green locked up the Big Ten POY award and Kansas battled Missouri for a likely No. 1 seed, Saturday afternoon encapsulated everything that is great about the NCAA regular season.

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