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Way Too Early Top 25 Projections

I am once again breaking out my lineup-based projection model to predict the 2014-15 season. A lot can still change. ESPN’s #2 Recruit Myles Turner has yet to make his college choice. There are a number of intriguing players available who have graduated and are eligible immediately. And there are also several Top 10 JUCO recruits who have yet to commit. Last year, I had Kansas as a borderline Top 25 squad in my first projection, and then they added Andrew Wiggins and Tarik Black and became an obvious Top 10 squad.

Somewhat unusually, I think we have a pretty good idea who is leaving in the draft this year. When a player’s decision is an open question, I list that in my discussion below. For the record, I’m projecting that Julius Randle, Will Cauley-Stein, James Young, and both Harrison twins leave Kentucky, but that everyone else returns. And I’m assuming that Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams leave UCLA based on the CBS Sports notes that suggest they will leave.

One final technical note: The results I am presenting are based on the mean projection for each player. I am saving the simulation portion of the model for later this year. The idea of the simulation is to show what happens if players fall above or below expectations and show the best and worst case scenario for each team. But the real purpose of the simulation model is to evaluate each team’s depth. And right now a number of quality teams would look pretty bad based on limited depth. That will be corrected with the addition of a late signing, eligible transfer, or JUCO recruit. Because the bottom of each team’s roster is in such flux, I don’t think it makes sense to show the simulation results at this point in the year.

Pred Pyth = Predicted Pythagorean Winning Percentage, the winning percentage against an average D1 team on a neutral floor.

Pred Off = Predicted Offense, Points Scored per 100 Possessions

Pred Def = Predicted Defense, Points Allowed per 100 Possessions

2014 Off = 2013-14 Offense

2014 Def = 2013-14 Defense

RMin = Projected Returning Minutes

T100 = Projected Players on Roster who were once Top 100 recruits

Rnk

Team

Conf

Pred Pyth

Pred Off

Pred Def

2014 Off

2014 Def

RMin

T100

1

Arizona

P12

0.963

119.8

90.1

114.7

88.5

82%

8

2

Kansas

B12

0.952

120.0

92.5

116.8

96.3

68%

10

3

Duke

ACC

0.943

122.0

95.5

123.5

102.3

47%

10

4

Wisconsin

B10

0.934

121.9

96.7

120.8

97.6

82%

3

5

Florida

SEC

0.920

116.3

94.0

115.3

89.2

47%

7

6

Michigan

B10

0.919

121.8

98.6

124.1

102.1

73%

5

7

Kentucky

SEC

0.916

118.9

96.6

118.4

97.1

21%

7

8

N. Carolina

ACC

0.914

116.4

94.7

111.7

95.4

74%

10

9

Connecticut

AAC

0.910

113.8

93.1

112.5

92.5

55%

6

10

Virginia

ACC

0.909

112.7

92.3

114.4

90.1

72%

4

11

Villanova

BE

0.909

116.6

95.5

113.8

94.4

78%

7

12

Wichita St.

MVC

0.908

116.9

95.8

118.1

93.3

64%

0

13

VCU

A10

0.907

109.6

89.9

107.9

90.2

70%

4

14

Louisville

ACC

0.899

113.6

93.9

116.6

90.0

41%

8

15

Syracuse

ACC

0.899

113.2

93.6

112.3

93.6

41%

7

16

Ohio St.

B10

0.898

113.4

93.9

106.5

89.6

54%

8

17

SMU

AAC

0.895

113.3

94.1

110.1

94.7

75%

3

18

Colorado

P12

0.878

114.2

96.2

105.1

96.9

99%

4

19

Baylor

B12

0.877

117.6

99.2

117.8

100.0

61%

4

20

Texas

B12

0.876

115.8

97.7

111.0

98.4

100%

6

21

Maryland

B10

0.873

112.1

94.8

107.6

95.5

99%

9

22

Iowa

B10

0.873

118.9

100.6

119.8

102.7

69%

2

23

UCLA

P12

0.872

114.0

96.5

117.0

97.3

35%

6

24

Gonzaga

WCC

0.872

116.3

98.4

111.4

94.4

64%

4

25

Utah

P12

0.861

112.2

95.8

108.7

96.5

94%

2

I see three teams that missed the NCAA tournament jumping into the Top 25:

SMU: The Mustangs had the 30th best margin-of-victory in the nation, and Nic Moore and Markus Kennedy are back. The team also adds elite PG recruit Emmanuel Mudiay.

Maryland: The Terrapins finished with the 41st best margin-of-victory in the nation in 2014. With virtually everyone on the roster back, and four four-star prospects joining the roster, there are no more excuses for losses. If Mark Turgeon cannot turn Maryland into a winner now, he is not going to keep his job.

Utah: The Utes had the 42nd best margin-of-victory in the nation last year and they bring basically everyone back. By simply upgrading the non-conference schedule, the Utes will be in the NCAA tournament hunt.

Focusing on the rest of the Top 25:

Arizona: Aaron Gordon was the least efficient offensive player in Arizona’s primary rotation, but he was also the heart of Arizona's defense. Thus as Arizona seeks to replace Aaron Gordon with elite recruit Stanley Johnson, I project that as helping the offense but hurting the defense. But the real reason I expect a big jump in Arizona's offense is the return of Brandon Ashley. Arizona's offense was four points better with Ashley in the lineup. If you don't like Arizona near the top of the rankings, you must think Nick Johnson is going to declare for the draft (which seems like a mistake) or that the defense is going to fall apart without Gordon. Given the athleticism Rondae Hollis-Jefferson showed this year, I think Arizona's defense will still be championship caliber.

Kansas: Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins should enjoy life in the NBA next year, but don't cry for Bill Self. With elite recruits Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre joining fold, he has already found replacements. Also, don’t forget about Arkansas transfer and former elite recruit Hunter Mickelson who is joining the team. Finally, Kansas gave a lot of minutes to freshmen besides Embiid or Wiggins, and you can expect a big sophomore leap for many of those players, including Wayne Selden.

Duke: Even without Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood, Duke has a loaded recruiting class, and I think a lot of people will be tempted to slot them #1 overall. I agree that the offense will be great and project Duke's offense as the best in the nation. The overall ranking depends on how high you project Duke's defense relative to last year. Jahlil Okafor and a more mature Marshall Plumlee will help, but Mike Krzyzewski's defensive prowess has faded in recent years. Can he really depend on a freshman to anchor the defense when the scouting reports say Okafor is good but not great on D?

Wisconsin: Only Ben Brust departs from a Badger team that was one shot away from the national title game.

Florida: The Gators front-court is graduating and the defense will take a hit. But I'm projecting Chris Walker to return, and along with Dorian Finney-Smith, Kasey Hill, and Michael Frazier the Gators should still have a dominant lineup. Also, don't overlook the importance of a healthy Eli Carter and elite recruit Devin Robinson.

Michigan: I'm assuming Nik Stauskas leaves and Mitch McGary comes back. If both come back, Michigan will have a real chance at a national title.

Kentucky: James Young got a huge steal late in the national semifinal against Wisconsin. But he had only 29 steals on the full season before that. And despite NBA size, Young and the Harrison Twins were not elite defensive players on the full season. Having a player with the quickness of elite recruit Tyler Ulis will certainly help the perimeter defense next season, and even without Will Cauley-Stein, Kentucky should still have enough elite athletes to best this year's defensive effort. Offensively, Kentucky has reached another level in the NCAA tournament, and I don't expect next year's club to match that. But with a few more non-freshmen on the team, they might be able to avoid some of the mid-season struggles, and I see a slightly better offense on the whole year.

North Carolina: The Tar Heels found a rotation late in the year that really worked. Replacing James McAdoo should be doable with incoming elite wing Justin Jackson, who lit up the McDonald’s All-American game, and returning big man Brice Johnson. The real question is perimeter depth, but the team will have three elite passing PGs. And as Connecticut and Florida showed this year, that's a formula that can work.

Connecticut: Replacing Shabazz Napier's defense might be harder than replacing his offense. Napier was an elite defensive rebounder for a guard, and he was fantastic at getting steals. The combination of NC State transfer Rodney Purvis and elite recruit Leonard Hamilton should fill in for the loss of Napier's offense, especially with Ryan Boatright easily taking over the PG role.

Virginia: A year ago I would have said Virginia would fall off a cliff when Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell graduated. But with the emergence of Malcolm Brogdon and a strong core back, Virginia should have another extremely strong season.

Villanova: Every critical player but James Bell should be back from a team that dominated the Big East.

Wichita St.: I feel like my model is under-valuing the contributions of Cleanthonly Early. But Wichita St. has four super-efficient rotation players returning (Fred Van Vleet, Darius Carter, Tekele Cotton, and Ron Baker).  And while they'll need to pick up some frontcourt size from the JUCO ranks again, that plan has worked well in recent years. Overall, Gregg Marshall is on such a role developing less heralded players, there is no reason to expect that to stop next season.

VCU: PG Briante Weber, a healthy three point shooter Melvin Johnson, and leader Treveon Graham will be back. But the best news is that Shaka Smart has finally broken into the elite recruiting game with three Top 100 freshmen coming in this year. That formula doesn't always work. Sometimes managing elite prospects is more difficult than it sounds. But on paper, this is the most athletic team Shaka Smart has ever assembled.

Louisville: Losing Russ Smith will be devastating to the offense, but you cannot under-state Smith's impact on defense too. Right now the team has enough elite recruits and returning players that the perimeter offense will be solid. But most of the young forwards are a year away from dominating at the D1 level. Thus Montrezl Harrell's NBA decision might be the most critical of any player in the country. If Harrell comes back, Louisville is a real Final Four threat. Here I project Louisville without Harrell in the lineup. Either way, I think Louisville is a team that will benefit from the simulation model when I break that out later this summer, as they have significant quality depth.

Syracuse: Based on where he is showing up in mock drafts, I'm assuming Jerami Grant declares for the draft. Even without Grant, CJ Fair, and Tyler Ennis, Syracuse still has talent. Rakeem Christmas became a better defender last year. (Jim Boeheim no longer had to give him the hook for Baye Keita nearly as often.) Chris McCullough is a quality big man recruit. And DaJuan Coleman still has the recruiting profile to say he will be a dominant player if he ever stays healthy. Michael Gbinije is a natural wing. Trevor Cooney slumped at times, but he can be a dominant shooter. And thus you can see why Jim Boeheim is so frustrated that Tyler Ennis declared for the draft. For Syracuse to stay at an elite level, they need an elite PG. Kaleb Joseph had a lower recruiting rank than Ennis, and the reality is that freshmen PGs are a big risk.

Ohio St.: Ohio St. loses the three most important offensive players from a team that was not that great offensively last season. They are easy to write off. But they have a veteran PG in Shannon Scott, they gained a huge boost with the addition of Temple transfer Anthony Lee who is eligible immediately. They add three Top 30 recruits who should boost the offense. And they get back Kam Williams, a great SG prospect who was injured and forced to red-shirt this year. Ohio St. isn't going to be the same elite defensive team, but the talent is there for the offense to make a meaningful jump.

Colorado: Colorado finished the year with the 77th best margin-of-victory numbers in the nation. Thus they make the biggest jump of anyone in my projections. There are two key reasons. First, they gave a ton of minutes to freshmen, who should take a big jump forward. Second, PG Spencer Dinwiddie should return from his injury and substantially improve the team’s offensive execution.

Baylor: Kenny Chery was a brilliant PG last year. Ish Wainwright and Allerik Freeman (an injury redshirt) won't match Bradly Heslip's shooting, but the former elite recruits should improve on his defense. Royce O'Neale is a dominant wing who should take on a larger role. Rico Gathers is a dominant rebounder. And if Austin comes back, Baylor is clearly a Top 25 team. Isaiah Austin says he hasn't made up his mind about going pro. And given that he is projected as a 2nd round pick in most mock drafts, I’m projecting that he returns here.

Texas: The Longhorns made the Round of 32 and everyone is back. They should be in everyone's Top 25.

Iowa: The Hawkeyes lose three seniors, but given how many players the team used last year, those losses are not devastating. The addition of elite JUCO PG Trey Dickerson should also help the team to find the right scorers in more situations. But the real reason this team fell apart down the stretch was because the defense collapsed. Head coach Fran McCaffery has had mixed success on defense in his career. He's had some good defensive teams and some bad ones. With just a little defensive improvement, Iowa should be back in the Top 25.

UCLA: Bryce Alford, Norman Powell, and a now-eligible Isaac Hamilton will man the perimeter. Meanwhile elite recruits Kevon Looney and Thomas Welsh will join Tony Parker in the paint. That's a pretty good core, but the lack of depth is a concern. On paper, UCLA is not that much better than Stanford, but the model has more faith in head coach Steve Alford than Johnny Dawkins over the long grind of the regular season.

Gonzaga: Transfer big man Kyle Witjer was a very good shooter at Kentucky, but his defense was suspect.

And a few notes on teams that surprised me by missing the cut:

Iowa St: If Bryce Dejean-Jones makes the jump from UNLV, that should bump the Cyclones into the Top 25. I’m making projections based on current commitments, but given Fred Hoiberg’s track record in closing the deal with transfers, I don’t have a problem with anyone assuming he will get that commitment. And I don’t have a problem with anyone putting Iowa St. in their Top 25 right now.

Oregon:  Super-scorer Joseph Young, Dominic Artis, elite PG recruit JaQuan Lyle,  elite transfer recruit Brandon Austin (eligible in December), Elgin Cook (who broke out against BYU in the tournament), elite recruit Jordan Bell (a late qualifier and red-shirt), and Top 10 JUCO forward Michael Chandler are all reasons to love this team. But I think Oregon had more talent last year, and they still finished 29th nationally. Right now this team has limited depth in the paint, but with one more transfer addition in the front-court, they can easily jump into the Top 25.

San Diego St: It cannot be over-stated how vital Xavier Thames was to the Aztecs offense and how important Josh Davis' rebounding was to the team's defense. San Diego St. has a great recruiting class filled with players who should be stars in 2016. And Angelo Chol is a transfer who could put the team over the top. But without Thames and Davis, the team falls just outside the Top 25.

Stanford: I really feel like Stanford should be in the Top 25. With Chasson Randle, Anthony Brown, Stefan Nastic, and three elite recruits, this is a team that can build on the Sweet Sixteen run. But even with the Sweet Sixteen run, Stanford's margin-of-victory on the season was only 36th nationally. And that continued a trend where Johnny Dawkins has failed to develop teams that perform on a per possession basis. Dawkins saved his job this year by making the tournament, but the long-run stats say he hasn't been great at developing players. Perhaps he will prove the model wrong by turning Reid Travis into a star this year, but right now the model isn’t convinced.

Dayton: The Flyers will show up in many people's Top 25 rankings because they played a deep lineup and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen. But they lose their two most important offensive players (Devin Oliver and Vee Sanford), and don't have anyone coming in to replace them. For a team that finished 38th nationally in margin-of-victory, that isn't the formula to move up into the Top 25. But if you are looking for a reason these projections are wrong, consider that Dayton played much better basketball after February 1st.

And now a note on a few other teams that might spend some time in the Top 25 next year:

Michigan St.: The Spartans lose three critical offensive players in Adreian Payne, Gary Harris, and Keith Appling and they don’t have anyone coming in who projects to make an immediate impact. The return of key role players like Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine will keep them near the edges of the Top 25, but the Spartans take a big step back this year.

Pittsburgh: The return of Durand Johnson from injury should help offset the loss of two key seniors.

Bottom Line: Even though Michigan St. and Pittsburgh are not in my top 25, never bet against Tom Izzo and Jamie Dixon. These teams will still be very dangerous.

Georgetown, Seton Hall, UNLV: Great recruiting classes, but each team needs to improve in a number of areas to be a Top 25 team.

LSU: Another team with elite talent, that isn’t quite there yet.

Memphis: The Tigers have enough elite talent to finish in the Top 25. But they had Top 25 talent last season, and they finished with the 37th best margin-of-victory numbers. Realistically, with zero seniors in 2014-15, Memphis projects to peak in 2015-16.

Tennessee:  The Volunteers lose a ton of production, but if Jarnell Stokes comes back, they will be in the hunt.

Illinois: Jon Groce’s team finished with the 49th best margin-of-victory in the nation last year, and the team adds three quality transfers, plus incoming Top 100 recruit Leron Black in the paint. They still don’t have many star scorers besides Rayvonte Rice, but given the upgrade at PG and PF, Illinois is intriguing.

Nebraska: Tim Miles is very close and brings almost everyone back. But considering that Nebraska still has zero Top 100 recruits, if Tim Miles can get the team to jump from 44th to 30th nationally, that would still be a huge accomplishment.

Cincinnati: The offense was bad with Sean Kilpatrick and Justin Jackson in the fold. They deserve respect as the defending American Conference champs, but it is hard to see this team defending that title.

Feast Week Wrap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

American – 2 titles (UConn, Memphis)

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

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

MWC 5-1

ACC 21-11

American 9-5

A10 13-9

Big Ten 13-10

Big12 11-9

Big East 13-14

SEC 9-12

Pac-12 7-11

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

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

Turkeys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surprise Thanksgiving Blessings

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

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

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

Baylor and Expectations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on Duke’s Defense

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

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

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

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

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

Harvard Watch Week 4

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

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

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

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

Final Thoughts On Ranking 351 D1 Teams

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

The Underrated Club

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Random Thoughts on Some Major Conference Teams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Random Thoughts on Some Mid-Major Conferences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Late Breaking News

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

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

Dan Hanner vs Ken Pomeroy

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

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

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

Big 12 Basketball Early Projection

With Andrew Wiggins joining Kansas, the Jayhawks should stay at the Top of the Big 12. But the projection for West Virginia, Kansas St., and Oklahoma is entirely different from last season.

Canada's 2020 Operation

Canada, the only other country with an NBA franchise, has steadily developed a basketball culture over the last generation, the fruits of which are taking shape in college basketball this season. The level of talent being developed could culminate in a remarkable showdown in the 2020 Olympics.

Final Exam Time

Final exams are here in college basketball, making this the quiet period of the season. After the excitement of the Champions Classic, the Holiday Tournaments, and the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, college basketball must make it through a relatively boring stretch on the schedule.

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

On Nerlens Noel, Isaiah Austin, Kyle Anderson and the rest of the freshman class as they play such prominent roles to begin the 12-13 NCAA season.

Feast Week And More Conference Realignment

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

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

The Legends Classic might be the most highly anticipated early season tournament because of the potential finals matchup between Indiana and UCLA. We also look at the CBE Classic, Maui Invitational, Cancun Challenge, Great Alaska Shootout, Battle 4 Atlantis and the Old Spice Classic.

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?

NCAA Tournament Day 2

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

Beating The Top Teams

Which teams have the best and worst performance against other NCAA tournament teams? And which teams have the best and worst performance in the last 10 games?

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.

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.

Recruiting And Player Development, 2012 Edition

The best way to examine the value of specific college coaches is to examine how well they recruit and subsequently develop their talent. Let's examine the top 49 coaches from the Power 6 conferences.

YACB Column, Jan. 23rd: On Duke's Home Loss, Big Win For Kansas & More

On a great weekend of college basketball that saw Florida State beat Duke at Cameron, Syracuse get their first loss, Kansas stave off Texas, as well as the reasoning why we must look at match-ups and reevaluations.

BCS Basketball Power Poll January 2012

Separating the BCS schools into tiers named after John Wooden, Dean Smith, Gene Keady, Rollie Massimino, John Chaney, Kelvin Sampson, Tim Welsh, Pat Knight and Sidney Lowe, how does everyone stand?

Colleges On NBA Rosters

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

The Anti-Recruiting Tool

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

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