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College Basketball Preview 14-15: Big 12 Conference

My numeric projections will be available near the start of the season, but today I want to write a few words about each Big 12 team’s outlook.

Earlier Previews: ACC Preview, MWC Preview, SEC Preview, WCC Preview, A10 Preview, Big East Preview, American Preview, Pac-12 Preview, MVC Preview

Big 12 Favorite

Kansas: Some people are worried about the Jayhawks’ point guard situation, but I think that concern is overstated. Throughout the last four seasons the Jayhawks’ PG position has been in flux, and Kansas has had no trouble extending their Big 12 regular season title streak.

Devonte Graham’s consensus recruiting ranking was 65th according to RSCI. And even if Graham is not ready, Kansas has other options. Frank Mason was better last year than most people appreciate, and as the #89 RSCI recruit he still hasn’t reached his ceiling. Conner Frankamp played more off the ball last year, but the former #40 recruit also has some PG skills. With Mason and Frankamp likely to benefit from the sophomore leap, Kansas has options.

Syracuse is another team with PG questions, and I would argue unambiguously that Kansas is in better shape, even if Kaleb Joseph was ranked slightly higher than Graham in this year’s recruiting class. Joseph is going to play almost every minute (because Syracuse doesn’t have other options), so his stats might be better. But Syracuse simply has no options if Joseph suffers a minor injury or falls into a slump. Kansas on the other hand, will use the competition to be the starting PG to keep Graham and Mason sharp in practice, and ultimately the better player will be finishing key games at the end of the year.

Surprisingly, my bigger question for Kansas is on defense. Bill Self has been the top defensive coach in the nation in the tempo-free era, but last year was his worst defensive team. Evidence suggests that the change in the way fouls were called may have hurt Bill Self more than other coaches. Typically opposing teams earn 31 to 35 free throws per 100 shots against a Bill Self coached team. But last year Self’s team allowed 45 free throws per 100 shots. The NCAA average increased by about 4 free throw attempts per 100 shots, so this was a larger than expected increase. Bill Self’s teams have been known for their physical aggressive defense, and there is a real question whether the new foul rules hurt Kansas more because Kansas players don’t shy away from contact.

If not the foul rules, another explanation for Kansas’ proclivity to foul last year may have been the team’s extreme youth. This year Kansas will be young again with super-recruits Cliff Alexander, Kelly Oubre, and Graham all expected to play major minutes. But Kansas was unbelievably young last year with six freshmen in their ten man rotation. With an addition like transfer Hunter Mickelson complimenting veterans Perry Ellis and Wayne Selden, Kansas is unlikely to make quite as many freshmen mistakes on defense as they did last year.

The Top Challengers

Texas: I know a lot of people view Texas as a clear Top 10 team. After all, they return 100% of their rotation from last year and they add a Top 10 recruit in the post in Myles Turner. The problem is that unlike the other teams in the Top 10, Texas appears to have a weakness at the off-guard position. Demarcus Holland has played a bunch of minutes the last two years, but he is not an elite shooter. And that lack of an outside shot has allowed teams to sag off him defensively which has made him turnover prone. I thought Holland might play less this year, but with Martez Walker recently suspended for some off-court incidents, there is no guarantee. Kendal Yancy will probably see some time, but other than an odd 3-3 game against Baylor, Yancy didn’t make a three in Big 12 play either. And Damarcus Croaker was the least efficient player on the team last year.

The best Texas lineup might actually be one without a true off-guard. PGs Isaiah Taylor and Javan Felix can play together, and Jonathan Holmes has enough of a perimeter game that he can play some at the wing.

The Texas frontcourt is almost too stacked, but I think the players will complement each other well. Cameron Ridley is a pure inside threat, while Myles Turner is a more skilled player who can knock down jump shots. And Connor Lammert does a little bit of everything. Lammert and Prince Ibeh might be the best back-up big men in the nation this season.

Iowa St: Fred Hoiberg is the king of the transfers. The next table shows the coaches whose debuting Division 1 transfers have produced the most points from 2011-2014. Points Produced (PP) is the numerator of the ORtg formula which gives credit to assists and offensive rebounds that create points, as well as the buckets. I also list the three debuting D1 transfers with the most points produced for each coach.

 

Coach

Teams

PP

Most Prolific

 

 

1

Fred Hoiberg

Iowa St.

2908

DeAndre Kane

Royce White

Will Clyburn

 

 

2

Dana Altman

Oregon

2721

Joseph Young

Devoe Joseph

Mike Moser

 

 

3

Tod Kowalczyk

Toledo

2320

Rian Pearson

Justin Drummond

Dominique Buckley

 

 

4

LeVelle Moton

NC Central

2318

Dominique Sutton

Landon Clement

Ray Willis

 

 

5

Dave Rice

UNLV

2237

Mike Moser

Bryce Dejean-Jones

Roscoe Smith

 

 

6

Frank Haith

Missouri

2117

Jordan Clarkson

Alex Oriakhi

Earnest Ross

 

 

7

Larry Eustachy

Colorado St.

Southern Miss

2112

JJ Avila

Colton Iverson

Neil Watson

 

 

8

Rod Barnes

CS Bakersfield

Georgia St.

2068

Issiah Grayson

Brandon Barnes

Javonte Maynor

 

 

9

Gib Arnold

Hawaii

1995

Christian Standhardinger

Zen Johnson

Keith Shamburger

 


10

Anthony Evans

FIU

Norfolk St.

1935

Rakeem Buckles

Dennis Mavin

Malcolm Hawkins

Bryce Dejean-Jones has already been an impact transfer at UNLV under Dave Rice and he hopes to do it a second time after joining Iowa St. this offseason. But he wouldn’t be the first player to be a productive transfer for two teams. Mike Moser did the same thing at UNLV and Oregon.

There is some concern whether Dejean-Jones great stats actually mask the fact that he is not a great team player. Despite being surrounded with Top 100 athletes at UNLV, the PG somehow seemed to fill his own box score, while not really running a crisp or coherent offense. But Hoiberg’s done a great job integrating misunderstood players, from Royce White to DeAndre Kane. And I think he gets the benefit of the doubt with Dejean-Jones.

It would seem that Hoiberg has the winning formula down. Find talented athletes, give them freedom offensively, and use a tight rotation that allows everyone to have great chemistry. On that last point, Hoiberg’s biggest problem this year may be that the team is actually too deep. How does Clayton Custer, a freshman PG that Rivals deemed to be a 4-star recruit, fit in with PGs Dejean-Jones and Monte Morris already on the roster. A year after Iowa St. thrived with its three forwards playing major minutes, can Hoiberg really find time for Georges Niang, Dustin Hogue, and incoming transfers Jameel McKay and Abdel Nader? When your biggest question mark heading into a season is whether you have too many talented players, you know your program has arrived.

The Debate

Kansas St and Oklahoma: My model has Oklahoma lower than just about every preseason poll. But let me explain why I think Kansas St., a team that finished two games behind Oklahoma in the Big 12 standings, may be the better team in 2014-15.

Roster Changes: Kansas St. loses Will Spradling who was a quality three point gunner for four seasons. But Kansas St. can replace Spradling with Maine transfer Justin Edwards. The “smart” fans immediate reaction may be that this is a downgrade because Edwards was far less efficient than Spradling. But that ignores the importance of shot volume. Edwards played on a bad Maine team and had to take a ton of shots. He used 32% of his team’s possessions when on the floor. Edwards will get to be much more selective at Kansas St. and that will help his efficiency tremendously. Spradling used just 14% of the possessions for Kansas St. and Edwards diverse offensive skillset will not be a downgrade.

Kansas St. also loses Shane Southwell. But the team adds Top 10 JUCO recruit Stephen Hurt, who was the freshman of the year in the A-Sun a couple of year ago. Hurt is more of a center (more on this in a moment), but if Kansas St. needs traditional wing players, Nino Williams was very efficient reserve last season. Kansas St. also adds forwards Malek Harris and Branden Bolden. Harris isn’t ranked in the Top 100, so he is not a guarantee, but Rivals and Scout were particularly fond of his game. Bolden is a transfer from Georgetown who did little with his former team, but perhaps the change of scenery will benefit him.

Because of Edwards and Hurt, my model does not see a downgrade for Kansas St.’s lineup.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma loses reserve guard Je’lon Hornbeak. The Cowboys add JUCO Dinjiyl Walker as a replacement. Walker is a bit of a risk, since JUCO players at his level don’t always translate, but it isn’t a stretch to think he can replace Hornbeak as a reserve. Even if he cannot, Frank Booker can easily expand his role from last season.

The bigger question will be Oklahoma’s forward rotation. Last year Cameron Clark played major minutes at the 4-slot. Clark was not only one of Oklahoma’s most efficient players, he was also Oklahoma’s most aggressive offensive player. That means other players will have to shoot more now that Clark is gone, which could hurt their efficiency. Oklahoma also loses forward Tyler Neal.

Oklahoma’s replacements at this point are Dante Buford and Khadeem Lattin. ESPN liked them both (though Rivals and Scout were not as high on them), but again neither was a Top 100 recruit. The downgrade from Cam Clark to these freshmen is significant and meaningful.

Advantage: Kansas St.

Growth potential: Both teams appear to downgrade their perimeter shooting with these changes, which may hurt their overall floor spacing. Additionally, while most of the teams in the Top 25 are filled with Top 100 recruits, (an average of five and a half per Top 25 team), Kansas St. and Oklahoma have zero players who were consensus Top 100 recruits out of high school.

What that means for projection purposes is that the incumbent players may not have a ton of room to grow. Oklahoma’s Isaiah Cousins was a 2.7 star recruit who saw his ORtg leap from 72 to 112 last year. He was phenomenal, but there is a lot of statistical evidence that Cousins has reached his ceiling. The same can be said of Kansas St.’s senior Thomas Gibson.

The biggest place to expect improvement is with the freshmen. Kansas St. gave major minutes to Marcus Foster, Wesley Iwundu, Nigel Johnson, and Jevon Thomas, while Oklahoma gave major minutes to Jordan Woodard and Frank Booker. The sophomore leap should benefit all these players, but since Kansas St.’s freshmen played more, they should get a bigger boost from player development.

Advantage: Kansas St.

Defensively, both teams should be better. While Oklahoma’s Cameron Clark played admirably and rebounded extremely well, he was a big guard playing out of position. Meanwhile Kansas St. did not have a single rotation player over 6’7” last season. Height at the center position is a huge factor in a team’s 2 PT FG% defense, and the addition of 6’11” Stephen Hurt should pay huge dividends for the Wildcats.

Advantage: Draw

Overall, my model likes Kansas St. to improve on offense and defense, while Oklahoma should be slightly worse on offense but better on defense. A lot of people will have both teams in their Top 25 this year. And that’s a very defensible position, particularly if you thought Oklahoma was a Top 25 team last year. Since the margin-of-victory numbers suggest Oklahoma was really only the 33rd best team in the nation last year, my model has the Sooners just outside the Top 25.

The Sooners do have one ace in the hole that could turn the tide. Houston transfer TaShawn Thomas joined the team this summer. Thomas has filed a waiver and applied for immediate eligibility. If Thomas becomes available as a replacement for Clark, Oklahoma is inarguably a Top 25 team.

But I am not crediting this because I have yet to hear a good reason why Thomas’ wavier would be approved. Thomas is not a graduate transfer. He is not moving closer to home for an ill relative. His former school is not banned from the NCAA tournament. His former coach was not accused of misconduct. His former coach did resign, but I don’t see the precedent for that kind of waiver approval, and I think the odds are against Thomas suiting up in 2014-15.

Hoping for the NCAA Tournament

The top five teams in the Big 12 are likely to be so dominant that the rest of the teams in the league may all finish below .500 in conference play. There are advantages to this kind of strength at the top. Everyone will have plenty of chances to pick up resume building quality wins. But it can be hard to break out of a losing streak when you are playing elite opponents game-after-game.

Oklahoma St.: Your gut instinct may be that Oklahoma St. is going to fall off the map now that Marcus Smart is gone. But keep in mind that Oklahoma St. was a much better team than their 8-10 conference record last year. An untimely suspension to Marcus Smart and limited depth in the front-court hurt the Cowboy’s win-loss record, but that doesn’t prove that Travis Ford is an incompetent coach.

Oklahoma St. retains a couple of quality players. LeBryan Nash is the rare Top 10 recruit to spend four years in college. But thanks to his improved shot selection, he finally became an efficient player last season. Meanwhile, Phil Forte is one of the best three point shooters in the country.

Oklahoma St. also adds one of the biggest impact transfers in the nation in PG Anthony Hickey. Hickey was a quality shooter and passer which made him one of the most efficient players in the nation at LSU. Top 100 JUCO Jeff Newberry also adds to the teams’ perimeter depth.

And if Oklahoma St. was lacking for big bodies last season, that isn’t the case anymore. The team adds Top 100 freshmen Joe Burton, near Top 100 recruit Mitch Solomon, and Top 100 JUCO prospect Anthony Allen, to compliment a now healthy Michael Cobbins.

Baylor: Baylor is in similar shape with a nice core, and some new pieces that might be able to step up and play well enough for a return tournament trip. Kenny Chery is the returning superstar PG. And Royce O’Neale and Taurean Prince are quality wing players. People are worried about their post depth, but Ricardo Gathers and Top 10 JUCO prospect Deng Deng are not scrubs.

People seem to be down on Gathers at this point, as the once #32 RSCI recruit has been stuck in a reserve role. But Gathers is a tremendous rebounder. If Oklahoma could make the tournament with Ryan Spangler in the middle last year, I don’t see why Baylor cannot have a quality team anchored by Gathers.

I think the season really comes down to Ish Wainwright and Allerik Freeman. Wainwright and Freeman were ranked 58th and 62nd nationally out of high school. I think people sometimes misunderstand the Top 100. Only players in the Top 10 are locks to be instant impact players. And only player in the Top 30 are frequently instant impact players. For most players in the Top 100, they settle into a role as a star as a sophomore or junior. While Wainwright played poorly last year, and while Freeman was injured, that doesn’t mean they both don’t have high potential. How quickly Baylor’s younger players develop is the mystery of their season.

West Virginia: When Bob Huggins joined the Big 12 and saw the first media poll he laughed. To paraphrase, “If you think we’re in the bottom half of the Big 12, this must be one hell of a conference.” But that’s where this team is projected once again.

Given that Terry Henderson and Eron Harris decided to transfer this off-season, it is tempting to conclude that WVU is headed in the wrong direction. But keep in mind that there were no senior graduations for the Mountaineers this off-season. The transfer of those two players does not mean WVU is starting over, it just means WVU has a couple of rotation spots to fill. That’s normal for power conference teams. WVU’s solution to this roster vacancy is to add three Top 100 JUCO transfer guards, Tarik Phillip, BillyDee Williams, and Jaysean Paige. (The team will also finally get to use Jonathan Holton, the former Top 100 JUCO and former Rhode Island forward, who was denied a waiver last year and had to sit out.)

I’ve said on many occasions that JUCO recruits of this type are lottery tickets. But Bob Huggins made his career at Cincinnati with JUCO players, and if anyone deserves the benefit of the doubt using this approach, it is him.

Still at the Bottom

Texas Tech: In his first year, Tubby Smith managed to double Texas Tech’s conference win total. The problem Smith faces, (exacerbated by Texas Tech’s current basketball reputation), is that he is no longer an elite recruiter. When his team loses a star like Jaye Crockett to graduation, when his team loses quality players like Jordan Tolbert and Dusty Hannahs to transfer, it is very hard to replace them with recruits ranked three stars or lower.

TCU: Even though I think TCU might be the worst team in the Big 12 again, I see the team improving substantially this season. First, the team adds Pitt transfer Trey Zeigler. Zeigler’s bounced around at this point, and he isn’t a clear star. But the former RSCI #29 recruit clearly has talent. And after TCU struggled with Christian Gore, Hudson Price, Thomas Montigel, and Michale Williams last season, Zeigler is a clear upgrade. PG Kyan Anderson is the real deal. And with Amric Fields and Devonte Abron returning after being injured last season, Karviar Shepherd will finally have some help in the front court. This team won’t go winless in the Big 12 again. Three of four conference wins is far more likely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Def Rank

Bill Self

Mike Krzyzewski

2013-14

31st

116th

2012-13

5th

31st

2011-12

3rd

81st

2010-11

11th

21st

2009-10

9th

8th

2008-09

9th

36th

2007-08

1st

8th

2006-07

1st

7th

2005-06

3rd

18th

2004-05

25th

3rd 

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

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

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

Def Free Throw Rate

Bill Self

Mike Krzyzewski

Bo Ryan

National Average

2013-14

45

41

27

41

2012-13

32

33

26

36

2011-12

33

33

30

37

2010-11

32

30

33

38

2009-10

31

34

36

38

2008-09

35

31

34

37

2007-08

31

32

25

37

2006-07

34

30

28

37

2005-06

32

28

31

36

2004-05

38

32

28

37 

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

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

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

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

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

NCAA Top 25 Projections (Post NBA Draft Declaration Deadline)

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

Where My Model Disagrees with Other Experts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Syracuse (Too High in My Projections):

#50 recruit, 6’3” PG Kaleb Joseph

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

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

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

#24 recruit, 6’10” F Chris McCullough

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

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

Ohio St. (Too High in My Projections):

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

#13 recruit, 6’5” SG D'Angelo Russell

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

#28 recruit, 6’5” SF Jae'Sean Tate

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

#22 recruit, 6’7” F Keita Bates-Diop

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

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

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

UCLA (Too High in My Projections):

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

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

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

#12 recruit, 6’8”  F Kevon Looney

#36 recruit, 6’8” F Thomas Welsh

#69 recruit, 6’11” C Jonah Bolden

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

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

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

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

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

Rnk

Team

Conf

Pred Pyth

Pred Off

Pred Def

LastOff

LastDef

Rmin

T100

1

Kentucky

SEC

0.959

123.0

93.5

117.6

96.9

65%

10

2

Duke

ACC

0.950

122.0

94.5

123.5

102.3

47%

10

3

Kansas

B12

0.950

120.0

93.0

116.8

96.3

68%

10

4

Arizona

P12

0.935

117.0

92.8

114.7

88.5

65%

7

5

Wisconsin

B10

0.934

121.9

96.7

120.8

97.6

82%

3

6

Louisville

ACC

0.926

116.4

93.5

116.7

90.0

56%

9

7

Florida

SEC

0.920

116.3

94.0

115.3

89.2

47%

8

8

N. Carolina

ACC

0.914

116.4

94.7

111.7

95.4

74%

10

9

Texas

B12

0.912

117.8

96.1

111.0

98.4

100%

7

10

Villanova

BE

0.909

116.6

95.5

113.8

94.4

78%

7

11

Wichita St.

MVC

0.908

116.9

95.8

118.1

93.3

64%

0

12

Virginia

ACC

0.907

112.5

92.3

114.4

90.1

70%

4

13

VCU

A10

0.907

109.6

89.9

107.9

90.2

70%

4

14

Syracuse

ACC

0.899

113.2

93.6

112.3

93.6

41%

7

15

Ohio St.

B10

0.898

113.4

93.9

106.5

89.6

54%

8

16

SMU

AAC

0.895

113.3

94.1

110.1

94.7

74%

3

17

Iowa St.

B12

0.888

118.0

98.6

118.4

99.9

65%

3

18

Iowa

B10

0.873

118.9

100.6

119.8

102.7

67%

2

19

UCLA

P12

0.872

114

96.5

117

97.3

35%

6

20

Gonzaga

WCC

0.872

116.3

98.4

111.4

94.4

64%

4

21

Connecticut

AAC

0.867

109.7

93.2

112.2

91.8

42%

5

22

Oklahoma

B12

0.861

114.3

97.6

116.3

100.6

70%

1

23

Michigan St.

B10

0.860

113.6

97.0

117.2

96.1

59%

6

24

San Diego St.

MWC

0.856

108.8

93.2

109.5

91.6

67%

7

25

Pittsburgh

ACC

0.851

113.1

97.2

114.8

96.2

69%

4

Moving Up Since Early April

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

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

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

Dropping

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

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

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

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

Dropping Out of My Top 25

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

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

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

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

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

Moving into My Top 25

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

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

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

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

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