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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.

Sweet Sixteen Day 1

#11 Dayton defeated #10 Stanford

I am very happy that Dayton advanced in the NCAA tournament this season. If you looked at the last round of conference re-alignment, Dayton is absolutely one of those programs that should have been invited to join the Big East. Even in 2013, when the program went 17-14, the Flyers had fantastic attendance.

(And in my opinion, Dayton has one of the Top 10 pep bands in college basketball. Sadly, demonstrating this is a little tough. For whatever reason, I’m not finding a Youtube video that really shows how much fun this group has. This video shows the energy of band director Dr. Willie Morris, his jacket, and some weird hats, but it doesn’t really capture the spirit of the group. This video kind of captures the idea, as the Dayton band sneaks up behind a VCU fan cheering for the wrong team. I see nothing mean-spirited about the encounter; this is exactly what college fandom is all about. But perhaps I can explain it best in words. In the NCAA tournament in 2009, Dayton was playing Kansas and there were plenty of Michigan St. fans in attendance in the other half of the bracket. So in order to get the Michigan St. fans cheering for the Flyers, the Dayton pep band played the Spartan’s fight song.)

The only thing holding Dayton back from Big East selection was the fact that the team hasn’t really had a deep NCAA tournament run in recent seasons. Butler was selected for the Big East based on its recent history, and even a program like VCU seemed to be ahead of Dayton for future expansion based on what Shaka Smart had done. But I’m not sure I agree with that logic. The reason Dayton should be one of the next top expansion candidates, is because the Dayton fans turn out whether the team wins or loses. Coaches can come and go, but a passionate fanbase is a very valuable commodity.

As for the game, we got our first Cole Aldrich moment of the round. (Cole Aldrich was a Kansas freshman who barely played during the regular season but who broke out in the tournament.) In this case it was Dayton’s Kendall Pollard who had a career high 12 points coming off the bench. On Tuesday this week, I labeled Pollard as a defensive stopper, as he had scored less than 70 points on the full season. So of course on Thursday he had eight points in the first half, and really provided the key spark to give Dayton the lead.

The other key factor was obviously that Dayton played a ton of players, got Stanford in foul trouble, and got Stanford to go deep into its bench. While the Flyers were getting 34 points from their bench, Stanford played guys a bunch of minutes and only got two points.

The worst part for Stanford was that Dayton could not figure out a way to guard Stefan Nastic in the game, and yet Nastic kept committing dumb fouls. The most egregious was his fourth where he lost the ball and then grabbed a Dayton player around the neck while they were both on the ground. It was the kind of move you cannot make when you are in foul trouble.

I also thought that when Stanford went on its run and cut the lead early in the second half, the Cardinal were not playing great basketball. They took two or three bad shots in transition that really prevented the team from grabbing full momentum.

Thus despite the presence of Condaleezza Rice and Richard Sherman (who appeared to be chatting with each other), Stanford did not have enough to reach the Elite Eight.

#2 Wisconsin defeated # 6 Baylor

Baylor supporters were out again this week to claim that this Sweet Sixteen run means we cannot criticize Scott Drew. But they continue to miss the point. Scott Drew is a complicated coach whose impact cannot just be explained by saying he wins in March or his teams underachieve relative to their talent levels.

In my opinion, Scott Drew is basically a younger version of Roy Williams. I say this for a few reasons. First, Scott Drew is an outstanding recruiter. Second, he gives his players a large amount of freedom on the court. Baylor players have the freedom to be successful and the freedom to fail. Mike Krzyzewski likes to say he gives his players the freedom to grow, but that’s not how he coaches. If a Duke player makes a dumb decision, he is going to spend plenty of time sitting on the bench. But Roy Williams and Scott Drew are the kind of coaches who let their players get on the floor and play through their mistakes.

By not forcing former players like Perry Jones and current players like Isaiah Austin to focus on their strengths, those players have actually seen their draft stock plummet under Drew. But like Roy Williams Drew knows that if you let elite recruits work through their issues on the court, they often become elite performers.

It is fair to say that Drew is not a great in-game adjuster. We saw that in the Sweet Sixteen when Wisconsin absolutely shredded the Baylor zone. And by taking good shots and controlling the tempo, Wisconsin made sure Baylor never got any rhythm.

Drew never really adjusted when the zone wasn’t working. His team seemed to play a few possessions of man, but it mostly seemed to give up when nothing was working.

In-game adjustments are harder than they sound. Some coaches like Rick Pitino are great at making in-game adjustments in strategy. Pitino’s team can press or play straight defense; they can play zone or man; they can respond to the opponent.

But you might say that there are not very many Rick Pitino’s in college basketball. You might also argue that Jim Boeheim doesn’t switch out of his zone just because the opposing offense is shredding it. But if you watch Syracuse, they do make adjustments. Syracuse’s zone changes throughout the game. Sometimes it hugs three point shooters, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the forwards lay back, sometimes they attack the player at the high post.

Scott Drew at this point in his career is not a coach who can match those legends. But he is still an outstanding teacher. He took a Baylor team that was playing horrible defense for a stretch this year, and got them to play the kind of zone defense that shut Doug McDermott down completely.

And this is all a long way of saying that Drew is a bit of an enigma. He absolutely deserves a ton of credit for turning Baylor from one of the worst power conference schools into a consistent winner. But he also deserves some blame for the times when his team looks lost on the court.

But give Wisconsin credit for winning this game too. The Badgers almost never turn the ball over, and that was a huge reason they controlled this game. The Badgers had four turnovers in the first half. They had a travel, they had two odd throw-aways, and the ball also was dribbled off a Baylor leg and the officials got the call wrong. But the beauty of all four of those plays is that even when the Badgers turned the ball over, they weren’t live ball turnovers. They didn’t allow Baylor to get out in transition and get some confidence. To not have any live-ball turnovers against a zone defense is a truly impressive feat.

#1 Florida defeated #4 UCLA/#1 Arizona defeated #4 San Diego St.

These games happened nearly simultaneously, so let’s talk about them together.

Which was the better dunk in the losing effort? Was it Dwayne Polee’s steal and emphatic throw-down to make it 27-22 San Diego St? Or was it UCLA’s Norman Powell with the coast-to-coast semi-posterization of Patric Young?

The insanity of these two games was that the two best offensive players, Florida’s Scottie Wilbekin and Arizona’s Nick Johnson were playing equally terrible basketball and almost cost their teams the game. The evening seemed particularly cruel for Johnson. Not only did he have a buzzer beater disallowed before the half, he hit a shot that rolled around the entire rim before popping out near the 10 minute mark of the second half. It seemed like it wasn’t the night for either of these guys. But then Wilbekin hit a step-back three for Florida. Johnson caught a fast-break pass for a lay-up and nailed a three. And Wilbekin hit a ridiculous bank-shot while being guarded by one of the Wear twins in the post. By the end of the night, the two goats were heroes once again.

....

The UCLA game drove me the most insane because UCLA kept leaving Michael Frazier open for three. I know Frazier had been in a mini-slump, but when a player has over 100 threes on the year, you don’t leave him open for any reason. Even if you are playing zone, you never help off that kind of player. But as I thought about it later in the game, this is the story of the Bruins season. UCLA gives up more points from three point range than any team left in the tournament, by far.

The real issue was that when Kyle Anderson went out, UCLA fell apart. As Kevin Harlan noted late in the game, UCLA was +6 with Anderson on the floor and -14 with Anderson on the bench.

It wasn’t that the UCLA subs were terrible. Zach Levine’s draft stock probably got a little too high with his play early in the season. He slumped late in the year and had just 6 points in UCLA’s last 4 games. But Levine was aggressive in the first half, taking the ball to the basket on numerous occasions.

The problem is just that you cannot replace Anderson’s production in all areas of the floor. And you have to think that the turning point in the game might have been when he picked up two fouls early in the first half. Granted, Steve Alford was smart enough not to make Anderson sit for the whole first half with the two fouls. But the two deficits when Anderson was out were the difference in the game.

On the flip side, Florida’s impressive depth was on display. It must feel wonderful to bring a PG as skilled as Kasey Hill of the bench. When Wilbekin sat down, Florida was still aggressive at attacking the basket.

....

As for the Arizona game, I said last week that San Diego St. might be the toughest matchup Arizona faces all tournament. It isn’t that I don’t believe in Wisconsin. This is a dynamic Badger offense. And I certainly like a bunch of the teams that will make the Final Four. But from the opening tip, Arizona was never going to see a team as physical and dominant on the glass as San Diego St. When the Aztecs scored on their fifth shot of the opening possession, you knew it was going to be a tough game.

Josh Davis hit that shot and I loved Craig Sager’s feature on his recruitment. Apparently Steve Fisher did not fly to Tulane to recruit Davis as a graduate student. Instead Fisher met with Davis’ mom, a math teacher, and shared his own background as a math teacher. Mom told her son that Fisher was a “nice old man” and that Davis should go and play for him. That’s just a wonderful story.

Even though I think this is the only truly physical team left that can manhandle Arizona like this, it was concerning how little depth the Wildcats had after Rondae Hollis-Jefferson fouled out. Had Kaleb Tarczewski picked up his fifth, it could have been a dangerous situation for the Wildcats. But oddly San Diego St. started jacking up three pointers very early. Since many of them went in, it wasn’t terrible strategy, but against a foul-plagued team, it seemed like the Aztecs should have considered attacking the basket more in the final minute.

But probably my final words of praise should be saved for Arizona’s Aaron Gordon. He hit a rare three to give his team a 22-20 lead in the first half. And he had a crazy tip for a bucket to make it 52-50 Arizona in the second half. His video in the second half said it all. Gordon doesn’t care about the stats, he is playing to win a national title. Every team should want an elite recruit with priorities like that.

The Development Of Big Men Prospects

Coming into the season, Kentucky’s game with Baylor at Jerry World looked like a sure thing for Big Blue Nation, mostly a way for Julius Randle to play in front of a hometown crowd. For the fifth consecutive year, John Calipari had brought in the No. 1 recruiting class in the country. Many were calling it his best class, if not the greatest class of all-time. People were selling 40-0 T-shirts. Kentucky was No. 1 in the preseason polls; Baylor was No. 25.

Isaiah Austin might be the only person who would have put those two teams on the same level. In the week before the game, the Baylor sophomore made some eyebrow-raising comments to the Dallas Morning News: “Coming out of high school, everyone wants to go with the hype. Coach [Scott] Drew is just as great a coach as coach Calipari. We have just as great as faculty and staff … Kentucky is not better than us in any way, shape or form.”

That hot take is not shared by many talent evaluators. DraftExpress has Austin at No. 26 on their Big Board; Chad Ford has him at No. 41. Randle is No. 2 on both lists, behind only Andrew Wiggins. Austin is averaging 11 points and five rebounds as a sophomore, an underachiever who might sneak into the late first round. Randle, averaging 18 and 12 in his first nine college games, already has NBA teams jockeying to draft him.

Kentucky comes into 95 percent of their games with an overwhelming physical advantage, but there’s no intimidation factor against Austin. After all, he was this close to being a Kentucky player himself. He was the No. 3 player in the class of 2012, a McDonald’s All-American pursued by every big program in the country. Basketball is in his blood; he’s the nephew of Ike Austin, a journeyman center who played for eight NBA teams in nine seasons.

Austin and Randle are both Dallas products. Austin went to Arlington Grace Prep and played for Texas PRO in the summer; Randle went to Prestonwood Christian Academy and played for the Texas Titans. One was the No. 1 PF in the class of 2012 and the other was the No. 1 PF in the class of 2013, so an AAU rivalry was inevitable. That’s what Austin was telling the media -- don’t talk to me about these guys like I don’t know exactly who they are.

At the start of the game on Friday, you could see where Austin’s confidence came from. On Baylor’s second possession, he isolated Randle in the low post. He faked to the middle, turned back towards the baseline and hit an easy 6-foot bank-shot. Two plays later, he took Randle out to the perimeter, faking a dribble hand-off before casually nailing a step-back 3 in his eye. At 7’1 225 with a 7’3 wingspan, Austin has no trouble shooting over Randle.

Randle, at 6’9 255 with a 6’11 wingspan, is no slouch physically. But while he has the size and speed of a high-level NBA PF, he lacks elite length for the position at the next level. He is vulnerable to tall shooters like Austin, particularly if he doesn’t use his strength to be physical and knock them off their position. That’s the type of weakness only NBA prospects can expose; the average college big man has little chance of scoring over the top of Randle.

Kentucky vs. Baylor was the rare NCAA game that featured two NBA-caliber frontlines. Randle is flanked by Willie Cauley-Stein, 7’0 245 with a 7’3 wingspan, and backed up by Alex Poythress, 6’9 230 with a 7’0 wingspan. Austin’s frontcourt partner is Cory Jefferson, 6’9 220 with a 7’0 wingspan. Rico Gathers, their back-up, is listed generously at 6’8 270. The only one of the six without a definite NBA future, Gathers could probably be a great NFL TE.

The result was a game played well above the rim, putting the strengths and weaknesses of each big man on display. Jefferson had four rim-rattling dunks off offensive boards and pick-and-rolls, but he struggled to create his own shots against the bigger Kentucky defenders. Randle, meanwhile, had problems with the length of Baylor’s hybrid zone. Austin blocked his shot several times -- he kept going to the lefty hook, no matter what side of the box he was on.

Calipari switched the defensive assignments at half-time, putting Cauley-Stein on Austin and Randle on Jefferson. Not only is Cauley-Stein as long as Austin, he’s stronger and more athletic too. A late-bloomer who played WR in high school, he moves far more fluidly than most centers his size. He’s a human eraser, averaging 9 points, 8 rebounds and 4 blocks a game on 60% shooting. It’s early, but those are basically Nerlens Noel’s numbers.

With Cauley-Stein keeping Austin in check, Kentucky carved out a small lead. Randle patiently played out of the high post, finding the open man in the zone and dishing out four assists. The Wildcats defense, though, kept the Bears in it, unable to keep them out of sets or turn them over. Up 2 with 4 minutes left, Austin got the ball on a back-door cut, showed it on one side of the rim and then dunked over Cauley-Stein on the other, giving Baylor a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

Austin finished with 13 points, six rebounds and five blocks, playing Randle (16 points and 8 rebounds) to a draw. The Baylor zone did a great job of minimizing his weaknesses, allowing him to use his length without getting into individual wrestling matches in the paint. But while it’s a big win for the Bears, it doesn’t mean they have turned the corner -- Austin and Jefferson outplayed Noel and Poythress in 64-55 victory in Lexington last season.

Nevertheless, on an individual level, Baylor’s big men made some money on Friday. What 4’s and 5’s with NBA potential do against each other is more important than what they do against guys going pro in something other than sports. Two years ago, when judging Thomas Robinson and Terrence Jones, you were better off throwing away their statistics and focusing on how they fared in the two games that Kentucky played Kansas.

Neither Randle nor Austin is anywhere close to a finished product. At 19 and 20, respectively, they are still 7-8 years away from the prime of their careers. Randle is better equipped to physically dominate undermanned opponents, but there aren’t many of those guys at the next level. And while he is the safer bet right now, that doesn’t mean it’s a guarantee. Young big men don’t necessarily develop on a straight line. 

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Recruiting And Player Development, 2012 Edition

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