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Final Thoughts On Ranking 351 D1 Teams

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

The Underrated Club

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Random Thoughts on Some Major Conference Teams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Random Thoughts on Some Mid-Major Conferences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Late Breaking News

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

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

Dan Hanner vs Ken Pomeroy

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

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

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

Big East Basketball Early Projection

Had Otto Porter or Vander Blue returned, Georgetown and Marquette might have been in the Top 10 nationally. Unfortunately, the NBA draft was not as kind to the new Big East as it was to the Big 12. But even if the league does not have any true national title contenders, when the 8th place team (Xavier) is ranked 52nd nationally in my model, this could be the most entertaining bubble race in the country.

Click here for an explanation of column headings and click here for a description of the model that generated these results.

Team

Proj CW

Proj CL

Proj Off

Proj Def

Last Off

Last Def

T100

Ret Min

Ret Poss

Georgetown

12

6

109.8

88.5

107.7

85.4

6

82%

79%

Marquette

12

6

113.5

92.2

112.4

93.2

6

56%

53%

Creighton

10

8

117.1

98.7

116.8

94.3

0

65%

66%

Butler

10

8

108.7

91.6

108.5

93.4

1

66%

62%

Villanova

9

9

108.5

92.7

105.3

90.4

6

76%

78%

St. John's

9

9

104.7

90.5

97.9

92.2

6

89%

91%

Providence

9

9

110.6

95.7

107.0

95.3

3

86%

83%

Xavier

8

10

109.1

95.3

104.5

95.4

3

58%

63%

Seton Hall

7

11

105.2

94.7

102.9

97.5

1

70%

73%

DePaul

4

14

108.4

104.1

104.1

104.6

1

56%

66%

Georgetown: Greg Whittington was injured in January, and after his injury Georgetown refocused itself around Otto Porter. Porter’s PPG production almost doubled and Georgetown went from being a fringe bubble team to the Big East champion. But the Hoyas were still an over-achieving team and Georgetown lost to Florida Gulf Coast in their opening game in the NCAA tournament. That’s a fair narrative on the season. And given that narrative I understand why many people do not view Georgetown as a Top 25 team without Otto Porter.

But let’s remember that John Thompson III has taken the Hoyas to the post-season in seven of his eight seasons, and usually with a dominant Big East squad. His average NCAA tournament seed in those seven years has been just better than the 4-line. To do that he has had to replace a lot of NBA players over the years from Jeff Green to Roy Hibbert to Greg Monroe to now Otto Porter.

The real question is on offense. Georgetown might not quite be as good offensively as they were in February and March where they posted an adjusted offensive rating of 113.1, but the model expects them to come close at 109.8. Markel Starks and D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera are an elite offensive back-court. And Nate Lubick has been solid, if passive in his first three years.

The real question is which forward runs the high post attack the team utilized last year. Mikael Hopkins was truly dreadful in that role early in the year, but he was still a Top 100 athlete out of high school. It is possible Hopkins will learn from all his turnovers last season. And if Hopkins isn’t better, the team adds UCLA transfer Josh Smith mid-season. Smith was once a dominant player at UCLA but conditioning and effort issue have prevented him from reaching his full potential.

Regardless, the defense should be dominant again. The team brings back 82 percent of its minutes from one of the nation’s best defenses. And a healthy Greg Whittington should be able to replicate a lot of what Porter did defensively. JT3 often referred to Whittington as his best and most versatile defender before his injury.

Marquette: Juan Anderson had an ORtg of 89 last year, second worst among Marquette regulars. Anderson’s biggest problem was Marquette’s biggest weakness last year. He couldn’t make jump shots. And this spring Anderson announced he was transferring. But after evaluating the decision, Anderson decided to return to Marquette. The model isn’t in love with that decision. Buzz Williams (more than any coach except maybe Mike Brey) tends to rely heavily on his veteran players and not give time to freshmen. And the model fears that Anderson’s return will take playing time away from Buzz Williams’ best recruiting class yet. Elite recruits JaJuan Johnson, Deonte Burton, and Duane Wilson need a chance to see if they can be stars, and Anderson’s presence could hinder that.

PG recruit Duane Wilson is particularly critical this season because Derrick Wilson was not an effective PG last year. Derrick had the worst ORtg on the team due to his own shooting woes.

The other big question for Marquette is the forward rotation. Buzz Williams has been reluctant to play traditional “bigs” together in his offense. He prefers versatile players who can drive the ball. But with Chris Otule getting a 6th year of eligibility, Davante Gardner proving to be an elite offensive force, and Top 100 JUCO recruit Jameel McKay joining the team, Buzz will almost certainly find it favorable to play a bigger lineup at times next year.

The rotation is a question mark, but there are a lot of very nice parts. And with five straight NCAA appearances, an average NCAA seed just better than the six line, and fewer NCAA tournament flops than John Thompson III, Buzz Williams will get it figured out. The model views the race between Georgetown and Marquette as a coin flip.

Creighton: Last year Grant Gibbs was Doug McDermott’s super pick-and-roll partner. If the NCAA gives Gibbs a 6th year of eligibility, I’ll move Creighton into the Top 25. Unfortunately, it currently seems likely that Austin Chatman, JUCO guard Devin Brooks, and JUCO guard James Milliken will have to fight it out to become Doug McDermott’s new pick-and-roll partner. I currently have Creighton at 29th nationally without Gibbs.

The loss of Gregory Echenique means Creighton’s defense is going to be worse. Defense has rarely been head coach Greg McDermott’s calling card. But let’s not dwell on the negative. Doug McDermott didn’t declare for the draft. Creighton’s explosive offense will be back. And if I’m right about the depth of this league, Creighton will be playing NCAA caliber teams on a regular basis on Fox Sports One. Life is good.

Butler: I’m not in love with the roster on paper. With a different coach and these players, Butler might be projected for 7th or 8th in the league. But my model really respects Brad Stevens at this point. Very few coaches could lose Rotnei Clarke and Andrew Smith, bring in a bunch of 3-star recruits, and expect to finish 4th in the Big East. But Stevens does a tremendous job of maximizing his talent. If the team doesn’t make Kellen Dunham into a national star, I will be shocked.

Villanova: The loss of Mouphtaou Yarou should hurt the defense a little, but this team is surprisingly loaded. Everyone will write about Ryan Arciando and JayVaughn Pinkston, but with Rice transfer Dylan Ennis and Top 100 recruits Kris Jenkins and Josh Hart joining the fold, the top 8 players in the rotation look very solid. You could argue that Villanova is a little thin on the front line, but Jay Wright’s teams seem to do their best when they are slightly under-sized upfront.

St. John’s: Three years ago Steve Lavin took a veteran St. John’s team to the NCAA tournament. Unfortunately, the last two years the team has had almost zero upperclassman. To say the young team struggled with growing pains would be an understatement. St. John’s would upset a Top 25 team one game, and then not show up the next game. But with a veteran lineup at last, the NCAA tournament should be the goal again. For fun, let’s discuss what the team’s best lineup might look like:

G – Rysheed Jordan – Elite PG prospect who should start from day one. He may make some mistakes in November and December, but given his ceiling the team needs to get him on the floor and see what he can do.

G – D’Angelo Harrison – A late season suspension might have cost him some All-Big East team votes, but he is still the most effective offensive player on the team. The fact that he is sticking around for a third season is huge.

G – Dominic Pointer – Given that Jordan’s scoring game is more developed than his passing game, having another starter with solid passing skills is critical. Luckily St. John’s has two solid options in Pointer and Jamal Branch. Pointer had the most steals on the team last year and was fantastic at getting to the free throw line. His minutes steadily increased as the season went on and I don’t know how you leave him out of the starting lineup at this point.

F – Jakarr Sampson – He needed an extra year to get his academics in order, but the star forward was the Big East Rookie-of-the-year last year. He took a few too many bad shots last year, but I expect him to make the sophomore leap and become a much more polished player this season.

C – Chris Obekpa – His offensive game still needs work, but the shot-blocking monster has unbelievable athleticism.

Bench

G - Phil Greene – I know it is blasphemy to say Phil Greene should be coming off the bench given that he has played the most minutes of any St. John’s player the last two years, but I think that time may be coming. And St. John’s fans should take this as a good sign. Greene is a solid player, but he isn’t a star by any means. He’s a below-average shooter, he doesn’t get to the line, and he doesn’t create turnovers. On a young team without a lot of talent, he was solid as a rock. But St. John’s is reaching the point where Greene probably isn’t one of the team’s top 5 options anymore.

G - Jamal Branch – The Texas A&M transfer took over at PG after joining the team last year, but with Jordan coming in, I think he is better off coming off the bench. He displayed similar passing skills to Pointer, but struggled to make jump shots, making Pointer the better choice for a starter.

F – Orlando Sanchez – After initially declaring him ineligible, the NCAA finally granted the JUCO player a year of eligibility. He’ll provide another solid option in the paint.

Honestly, I’m looking forward to watching St. John’s more than just about any team in the country. Steve Lavin has a nice combination of athletes and scorers, and I am very curious to see if it all clicks. My model has St. John’s at 44th nationally which given the typical number of at-large bids each year puts them squarely on the NCAA bubble.

Providence: Random question: Is Sidiki Johnson ever going to play basketball? He played briefly for Arizona, was suspended, and transferred in December. Then he joined Providence, played a few games, and left the team for personal reasons. I can’t decide whether I should criticize him or have sympathy for him. On the one hand, it seems very selfish that he quit on two teams after only a handful of games. On the other hand, I think we are putting too much pressure on 18 and 19 year old kids to have everything figured out.

A lot of people will write Providence off with Ricardo Ledo declaring for the pros. That isn’t fair because it overlooks what Ed Cooley was building last year. Ed Cooley developed Bryce Cotton, LaDontae Henton and Kadeem Batts into three very good basketball players. And Top 20 recruit Kris Dunn only began to show flashes of his PG skills with Vincent Council playing at such a high level. With Council gone, Dunn learning from last year’s mistakes, and Dunn being such a high ceiling player, I expect him to make great strides this off-season.

This year the team adds Top 100 recruit Brandon Austin, and transfer Carson Desrosiers from Wake Forest and transfer Tyler Harris from NC State. With that seven player core, Providence will be much better than a lot of people think. But the margin for error is slim. If one of these guys gets hurt, or plays poorly, the drop off is pretty substantial. Providence could be a sleeper NCAA team, but they need all seven of these players to live up to their potential.

Xavier: I know a lot of people are excited about this team because of star PG Semaj Christon. And I agree he is a talented player. There are also some nice additions like Western Michigan transfer Matt Stainbrook and Top 100 freshman Brandon Randolph. But last year was Xavier’s worst season since 2005 and the Muskateers must replace three of their better players. (That includes two starting forwards, and SG Brad Redford who wasn’t a starter but who made 66 threes on the year.) I think Xavier will be in the hunt for an NCAA bid; I have them 52nd nationally. But the Muskateers could improve from last season and still miss the tournament.

Seton Hall: The model thinks that last year’s disaster was a bit of an outlier. Patrick Auda was injured early, Brandon Mobley was injured later in the year, and the lack of quality forwards definitely caused the defense to slip. Kevin Willard may not be a recruiting mastermind, but he’s a solid defensive coach, and a bounce-back on defense seems likely.

Also, did PG Tom Maayan have some incriminating pictures of Willard or what? How could Willard give so much playing time to a guy with a 50% TO rate who couldn’t shoot? Maayan is likely to leave the team, and this might just be the biggest case of addition by subtraction in the country. Texas transfer Sterling Gibbs might not be a star, but he’ll be a tremendous upgrade.

Meanwhile I expect SG Brian Oliver to bounce back. Oliver was a much better player for Georgia Tech but had a career low in ORtg last year, at least in part because the offense was broken without a PG last year.

And don’t forget the team’s best player, Fuquan Edwin, is back.

But even if many of Seton Hall’s problem areas will be better, this team still lacks elite talent. And all the blame for last year’s turnover prone offense can’t fall on the players. Some of that has to fall on Kevin Willard’s offensive system.

DePaul: At one time Oliver Purnell was a solid defensive coach. His teams used pressure defense, and while they sometimes gave up easy baskets, in the aggregate they caused enough chaos to be competitive. But it hasn’t worked at all at DePaul. DePaul’s defense under Purnell has been disastrous for three straight years. If the defense doesn’t start playing better, even a change in league membership won’t lead to more wins.

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

Today, I continue to preview the early season tournaments with printable bracket links, title odds, and commentary. Click here for Part 1.

Legends Classic Printable Bracket

Nov 19-20

 

Georgia

1.1%

Indiana

54.7%

Georgetown

9.0%

UCLA

35.1%

The Legends Classic might be the most highly anticipated early season tournament because of the potential finals matchup between Indiana and UCLA. Both highly acclaimed programs have had struggles in recent seasons, and with both teams returning to the top of the polls, this game will generate more than its normal share of interest.

Indiana should have an advantage early in the season since they can depend so heavily on last year’s starting lineup. But I would expect at least one new face to make a big impact for the Hoosiers. Whether it will be freshman Yogi Ferrell, Jeremy Hollowell, or Hanner Perea providing a key spark, or the oft-injured Maurice Creek, the joy for the Hoosiers will be seeing which new player helps take the team to a championship level.

For UCLA, adding Top-5 recruit Kyle Anderson will be a big help, but the key question will be how such a tall lineup can function effectively. Offensively, UCLA needs to worry about its spacing and figure out what to do when teams dare the Bruins to take threes. Defensively, UCLA may have to play more zone than Ben Howland has ever utilized because his players may not have the quickness to keep perimeter players in front of them. But as Georgetown showed last year, a zone with four players 6’8” or taller can be extremely effective.

CBE Classic Printable Bracket

Nov 19-20

 

St. Louis

30.8%

Texas A&M

3.9%

Kansas

59.6%

Washington St.

5.7%

The expectations for St. Louis are somewhat lower now that head coach Rick Majerus has left the team for health reasons. But the Billikens returning lineup still looks strong enough to win the A10, and early in the season they should be particularly dangerous. Last year ineligibility issues limited the Jayhawks, but this year’s lineup looks like what you would traditionally expect from a Bill Self team. There are the veterans with Final Four experience like Jeff Withey, Elijah Johnson, and Travis Releford who should anchor the team in difficult situations. And there is a talented group of newcomers like Perry Ellis and Ben McLemore who should provide the athleticism to compete against the elite teams. Washington St. lineup is not strong enough to hang with the Jayhawks, but look for Kansas transfer Royce Woolridge to try to have a big game against his former team.

Maui Invitational Printable Bracket

Nov 19-21

 

Marquette

16.7%

Butler

11.1%

North Carolina

23.5%

Mississippi St.

0.0%

Chaminade

0.0%

Texas

33.2%

Illinois

6.4%

USC

9.0%

I think that there is a misconception that teams are only exciting to watch if they have Final Four expectations. North Carolina may be in rebuilding mode, but in my eyes that actually makes them more fascinating to follow this year. Freshman Marcus Paige will likely take over at the point-guard slot, and given Roy Williams track record as a coach who lets his elite freshmen recruits play, the team may live or die by how ready Paige is to pilot the Tar Heels fast-break offense. But North Carolina doesn’t have to depend on Paige to win this year. Dexter Strickland has some experience as a point-guard from last season and I would expect him to play major minutes at point-guard as well. But the real key is that North Carolina doesn’t have to run-and-gun to win this year. All the returning talent at the 2-guard spot should mean that North Carolina has the profile of a team that will be lethal in the half-court. If they choose to go four-guards around James McAdoo, they could attempt to replicate what Missouri did last year, and be plenty effective.

More realistically, Roy Williams will try to develop a few more post players alongside McAdoo. And Tar Heels fans may have to wait patiently as freshmen forwards Brice Johnson and Joel James make their share of mistakes early in the season. But it is all part of the broader North Carolina strategy. While Mike Krzyzewski’s Duke teams are usually in top shape in November and prepared to dominate from the start of the season, Roy Williams runs his lineup to be peaking in March. And all the mistakes Paige, Johnson, and James make in November should be worth it late in the season.

As usual, Texas has high expectations because of its talent including seven players who were top 100 recruits coming out of high school. This year the hype is focused on freshman forward Cameron Ridley. But for a team that will be relying entirely on freshmen and sophomores, Texas is surprisingly experienced. Myck Kabongo, Sheldon McClellan, Jonathan Holmes, and Julien Lewis all played major minutes last year and should be poised for breakout seasons. Their experience could very well carry Texas to the Maui title.

Marquette also has a number of quality pieces if only Buzz Williams can find a way to put them all together. How will he best utilize a roster of offensive specialists (like Davante Gardner) and defensive specialists (like Chris Otule) will determine how far the Golden Eagles can fly. But Buzz Williams has proven he can fill in for major losses year after year, and I would expect nothing less this season.

On paper, Marquette’s season outlook isn’t much worse than that of North Carolina or Texas. But this tournament ‘s title odds aren’t based on team quality as much as they are based on match-ups. Texas gets the favorable draw on the south side of the bracket with non-D1 Chaminade and offensively challenged USC or Illinois in the semis. Meanwhile North Carolina gets a favorable first round match-up with a decimated Mississippi St. roster but will face a tough semi-final matchup. On the other hand, Marquette gets the worst of all worlds, likely needing to beat a much improved Butler team to even get a crack at the semis.

Cancun Challenge Printable Bracket

Nov 20-21

 

Wichita St.

15.5%

DePaul

25.8%

Western Kentucky

8.8%

Iowa

50.0%

Iowa and DePaul are both slowly improving, but not at a rate that would perk any national interest.

Great Alaska Shootout Printable Bracket

Nov 21-24

 

Alaska-Anch.

0.0%

Belmont

52.7%

UC Riverside

0.3%

Northeastern

21.0%

Loy.-Marymount

5.2%

Oral Roberts

14.9%

Texas St.

3.0%

Charlotte

2.8%

The two most intriguing teams are teams that are switching conferences this year. Oral Roberts is joining the Southland conference where they will immediately be the favorite. And Belmont has dominated the ASun prompting the move to the OVC this year. Look for those two teams to meet in the final.

Battle 4 Atlantis Printable Bracket

Nov 22-24

 

Northern Iowa

4.6%

Louisville

23.4%

Stanford

8.4%

Missouri

12.7%

VCU

4.1%

Memphis

13.5%

Minnesota

8.8%

Duke

24.6%

Last year’s Maui invitational may have had more big names. But the 2012 Battle 4 Atlantis tournament may very well be the strongest early season tournament that we have seen in a long time. It would not be a surprise for all 8 of these teams to make the NCAA tournament at the end of the year.

I have already explained why Duke should expect a bounce-back season. And while Louisville might have the best defensive team in the nation, the team has enough questions on offense to keep Rick Pitino up at night. I have already written about Missouri’s talented transfer class. And Josh Pastner is becoming a better coach as his roster of talented players matures into upperclassman.

But the real story here is the first round underdogs that could still make a deep run. Minnesota brings back all its key players from last year’s NIT runner-up team and adds Trevor Mbakwe back into the mix. Mbakwe was arguably Minnesota’s best player prior to his injury, and so his return is huge for the Gophers. Former Blue Devil assistant Johnny Dawkins is sadly on the opposite side of the bracket as Duke. But behind superstar sophomore Chasson Randle, Stanford might just be able to steal a couple of wins to give Dawkins a shot at his mentor.

Northern Iowa head coach Ben Jacobson took a veteran team to the NCAA tournament and upset Kansas three years ago, and he has a veteran team again this year. With all but one key rotation player returning, this looks like the year Northern Iowa makes some noise again. Finally, leading scorer Bradford Burgess is gone which will mean VCU will be searching for a new identity early in the year. But you can never count Shaka Smart out in a tournament setting.

Old Spice Classic Printable Bracket

Nov 22-25

 

Marist

0.3%

West Virginia

19.9%

Davidson

21.1%

Vanderbilt

0.4%

Oklahoma

14.4%

UTEP

2.9%

Gonzaga

37.2%

Clemson

3.6%

This is another tournament where the mid-major squads should dominate. I can’t quite decide which under-the-radar player nationally I am more excited to see, Gary Bell Jr. of Gonzaga or Jake Cohen of Davidson. All Bell did last season was make 48% of his threes as a freshmen. And he almost single-handedly kept Gonzaga in its NCAA tournament game against Ohio St. last year. On the other hand, on a points per minute basis, few players are as productive as Davidson senior Jake Cohen. Cohen has never averaged worse than 12 PPG, despite never playing more than 62% of his team’s minutes. But when the season was on the line last year, he came up the biggest. Louisville’s defense was extremely stingy last season but all Cohen did was score 24 points against Louisville in the first round of the tournament.

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