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Way Too Early Top 25 Projections

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

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

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

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

Pred Off = Predicted Offense, Points Scored per 100 Possessions

Pred Def = Predicted Defense, Points Allowed per 100 Possessions

2014 Off = 2013-14 Offense

2014 Def = 2013-14 Defense

RMin = Projected Returning Minutes

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

Rnk

Team

Conf

Pred Pyth

Pred Off

Pred Def

2014 Off

2014 Def

RMin

T100

1

Arizona

P12

0.963

119.8

90.1

114.7

88.5

82%

8

2

Kansas

B12

0.952

120.0

92.5

116.8

96.3

68%

10

3

Duke

ACC

0.943

122.0

95.5

123.5

102.3

47%

10

4

Wisconsin

B10

0.934

121.9

96.7

120.8

97.6

82%

3

5

Florida

SEC

0.920

116.3

94.0

115.3

89.2

47%

7

6

Michigan

B10

0.919

121.8

98.6

124.1

102.1

73%

5

7

Kentucky

SEC

0.916

118.9

96.6

118.4

97.1

21%

7

8

N. Carolina

ACC

0.914

116.4

94.7

111.7

95.4

74%

10

9

Connecticut

AAC

0.910

113.8

93.1

112.5

92.5

55%

6

10

Virginia

ACC

0.909

112.7

92.3

114.4

90.1

72%

4

11

Villanova

BE

0.909

116.6

95.5

113.8

94.4

78%

7

12

Wichita St.

MVC

0.908

116.9

95.8

118.1

93.3

64%

0

13

VCU

A10

0.907

109.6

89.9

107.9

90.2

70%

4

14

Louisville

ACC

0.899

113.6

93.9

116.6

90.0

41%

8

15

Syracuse

ACC

0.899

113.2

93.6

112.3

93.6

41%

7

16

Ohio St.

B10

0.898

113.4

93.9

106.5

89.6

54%

8

17

SMU

AAC

0.895

113.3

94.1

110.1

94.7

75%

3

18

Colorado

P12

0.878

114.2

96.2

105.1

96.9

99%

4

19

Baylor

B12

0.877

117.6

99.2

117.8

100.0

61%

4

20

Texas

B12

0.876

115.8

97.7

111.0

98.4

100%

6

21

Maryland

B10

0.873

112.1

94.8

107.6

95.5

99%

9

22

Iowa

B10

0.873

118.9

100.6

119.8

102.7

69%

2

23

UCLA

P12

0.872

114.0

96.5

117.0

97.3

35%

6

24

Gonzaga

WCC

0.872

116.3

98.4

111.4

94.4

64%

4

25

Utah

P12

0.861

112.2

95.8

108.7

96.5

94%

2

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

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

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

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

Focusing on the rest of the Top 25:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sweet Sixteen Day 2

#2 Michigan defeated #11 Tennessee

Virginia fans feared the end of one of the most successful seasons in school history. Michigan St. fans knew that every four-year Spartan player under Tom Izzo has made the Final Four, and feared that the streak could be broken this year. Louisville fans feared that Russ Smith, one of the best players in school history, would see his career come to an end. Kentucky fans feared that the preseason #1 team would bow out to its bitter rival. Iowa St. fans feared that this might be Fred Hoiberg’s last game, given all the noise about NBA teams contacting him this off-season. Connecticut fans feared that if Kevin Ollie lost in the Garden, it would be a sign that the Connecticut program could no longer reach the heights it reached under Jim Calhoun. Friday night was a night where the fanbases had a lot on the line.

But oddly, the Michigan vs Tennessee game had the least tension. John Beilein is on an incredible roll, and if he can have this much success with this young group of players, the Wolverines future is incredibly bright. And while Tennessee fans wanted their team to advance, this NCAA tournament run has already been special.

Almost every NCAA tournament game is filled with tension, but to my eyes, Michigan vs Tennessee was all about the lack of tension. It was about the comfort that the players had on the floor.

In the first half, Michigan calmly ran their offense. They hit five of their first six threes. They ran around picks at the free throw line and drove for easy lay-ups. They played with such freedom in the first half that at one point Nik Stauskas threw the ball off the backboard, got it back, and kicked it out to Derrick Walton for a three. Walton was fouled and made all three free throws. It was backyard basketball and the Wolverines were playing like a team without a care in the world.

There were a few signs of concern. Michigan had some uncharacteristic puzzling turnovers in the first half. But with basically every shot dropping, they eventually built a 15 point lead.

Late in the second half, things changed. That is when the Volunteers started playing like a team with nothing to lose. They suddenly looked more comfortable on the court, and executed on offense and defense. They attacked the basket with reckless abandon. They reached for steals and knocked the ball off the Michigan players. And out of nowhere, the big Michigan lead was erased.

With Tennessee down three and needing to foul, we saw one of those perfectly amusing basketball plays. Michigan tried to push the ball ahead to beat the pressure, but the ball ricocheted off of several players. And as you watched the replay, you could just see all the players on both teams leaving it all on the floor, trying to reach for the ball. The Volunteers grabbed it, scored, and then caused one more turnover. This set up the games’ deciding play.

Michigan’s Jordan Morgan made a reputation in last year’s tournament as an outstanding interior defender. He drew a huge charge to get Michigan past Syracuse and into the title game. And anyone who has watched a Big Ten game and heard Dan Dakich on commentary is probably sick of hearing how great Morgan is at moving his feet defensively and holding his position.

But a funny thing happened this year. Because of the rule changes, Morgan has not had the same dynamic defensive season. There have been plenty of times when he’s been called for a foul instead of drawing the charges that he drew last year.

But on this night, Morgan was ready for the defensive challenge. Jarnell Stokes caught the ball in the corner, lowered his shoulder into Morgan, and the offensive foul was called. A few plays later, the Wolverines prevailed.

Final Random Note: I’ve talked before about how Michigan games don’t have whistles. At the end of the first half, we almost didn’t get the under 4 minute timeout. But eventually the ball was kicked out of bounds with 4.2 seconds left in the half. This begs the question: What happens if there is no under 4 minute time out in the first half? Does the game stop on the first whistle of the second half?

#7 Connecticut defeated #3 Iowa St.

Grantland’s Brian Phillips wrote a beautiful essay on Verne Lundquist and Bill Raftery this week.

“Lundquist and Raftery treat college basketball games like they’re important. But they always locate the games’ importance in the human beings who make them happen… Lundquist and Raftery project [that] the game is worth watching … because for the 25 or so players and six or eight coaches and handful of officials and timekeepers and cheerleaders and moms and dads and clarinetists, the game was worth having in the first place.”

And after reading that piece, I couldn’t help but watch UConn playing Iowa St. through that lens.

-Early in the game two players fell to the floor after a blocked shot. And Lundquist and Rafter reacted with genuine concern for the health of both players. That may seem minor, but it is too rare.

-Lundquist raved about Dustin Hogue’s haircut (chiseling Hogue in the back of his head.)  Raftery joked that Lundquist should copy Hogue. But as Lundquist put it, to carve Lundquist in the back of his head would require the barber to go “from ear to ear”.

-Lundquist praised Iowa St.’ DeAndre Kane for turning his basketball career around. After leading the NCAA in technical fouls at Marshall and having his scholarship revoked, Kane became a star player under Fred Hoiberg.

-And Raftery was lavish in his praise as always, “This is the best game I’ve ever seen DeAndre Daniels play.”

Statistically, there were a ton of key factors that swung the game. Iowa St. had a terrible night at the free throw line while Connecticut made almost every free throw attempt. Iowa St.’s superstar scorer Melvin Ejim couldn’t make a shot from anywhere on the floor. And Connecticut was incredibly hot from three point range early in the game.

But as in almost every Lundquist/Raftery game, it wasn’t the stats that mattered. The game was about the players who left it all on the floor.

#4 Michigan St. defeated #1 Virginia

Early in the game, Virginia forced a shot-clock violation. It sent a clear message. No matter how patient the Spartans were offensively, no matter how much they tried to attack in transition, Virginia was not going to go away. The Cavaliers play such fantastic defense at such a slow tempo, that it was virtually impossible for this game not to come down to the wire.

When Virginia tied the game at 23, at that point eight different Cavalier players had scored. Perhaps they lacked star power, but Virginia truly had the ultimate “team” this season. Everyone was capable of contributing offensively, and everybody was locked down in a stance defensively.

And for Michigan St., we finally got our litmus test. Could the Spartans find ways to score in the half-court in the final minutes of a close game with Keith Appling limited?

First, Appling did his best. He had an amazing drive for a bucket with the shot-clock winding down near the 6:50 mark. But Appling missed a key FT late in the game, and he could have been called for a push-off offensive foul late in the game. Appling was clearly giving his all, but it was also clear that he will never be 100% again this season.

And with Appling limited, Tom Izzo elected to yell at Adreian Payne in the huddle. Faced with that pep talk, the Spartan big man decided to be the closer. Payne nailed a clutch three. He fed Branden Dawson on a beautiful high-low pass to extend the lead. And then he knocked down some clutch free throws to seal the game. For Michigan St., Payne’s late play was the difference.

This game also showed that sometimes talent beats teamwork. Michigan St. clearly had the better athletes. Besides Payne, Branden Dawson was a beast again in the paint. Even when his shot was blocked, he was there corralling the rebound and putting it up again. And Travis Trice, whose three point shooting has reached new heights this year, hit a huge three in transition late. Against that athletic execution, Virginia had no chance.

The Spartans are still learning what it means to be a team. They’ve practiced little together this year because of all the injuries. But given their explosive ability in the half-court and in transition, if they ever do build perfect chemistry with one another, the sky is the limit.

#8 Kentucky defeated #4 Louisville

I thought there was something interesting in the difference in the reactions when Louisville’s Montrezl Harrell and Kentucky’s James Young fouled out. While Harrell was emotional and distraught, throwing his towel to the ground, Young seemed calm and observant.

In many ways, this shows why Kentucky will never be as sympathetic a team to most fans. For Young, a talented athlete who plans to play in the NBA soon, he has never been to the NCAA tournament before. He has never experienced the regret of losing in the tournament and seeing his season end. And he knows he will soon have professional opportunities to do more great things. Winning may be very important to Young, but he doesn’t view this moment as fleeting.

For Harrell, who spent most of last year coming off the bench, he knows that this was his window for success. Even if his team won a title last year, he knows the regret of not being able to make plays in tournament games. The off-season is long. The moment in the spotlight is short.

But even if many fans feel like they cannot relate to the one-and-done players, there are always stories of redemption. Alex Poythress was once an elite athlete. He initially expected to go to Kentucky, win lots of games, and become an NBA lottery pick. Instead he spent his freshman season on a team labeled as a failure. That was a lot to live down, but he was an efficient scorer, John Calipari wanted him back, and he accepted a bench role this season. And again, he had to live down the criticism that this team was a disappointment. Poythress started at the top of the mountain, and became the poster-child under-achiever.

Thus when Poythress got a key block late, and got a key offensive rebound that helped put the game away, it was more than just a few crucial plays by a bench player. It was a story of redemption. And that’s why Calipari was so emphatic in high-fiving and embracing Poythress in a late game time out. However demonized this squad may be by people who hate the one-and-done culture, these are still young adults struggling to find success in the world.

Russ Smith will go down as one of my favorite college basketball players of the decade. And in his final game, he played fantastic basketball. Smith attacked with such a frenetic pace in this game, that I personally found this game to be even more compelling than the Wichita St. vs Kentucky game that preceded it.

But it was crazy how this became a much bigger war of attrition than I would have ever expected. In the NCAA tournament, normally tight rotations and short benches dominate. But while Kentucky lost Willie Cauley-Stein to injury and James Young to foul trouble, they still had a Top 10 recruit in Dakari Johnson ready to step up his minutes and score big points. And they still had the aforementioned Alex Poythress.

But Louisville, usually one of the deepest teams in the land, seemed like the team more impacted by the foul situation. For the first time since early January, I found myself wondering how much this team missed Chane Behanan’s play as an inside scorer. No one really has an answer for Julius Randle, but this Louisville line-up seemed particularly ill-equipped to match the inside play of Randle and Johnson together. And no matter how well Smith and Luke Hancock played, their dream of back-to-back NCAA titles, came to an end.

The College Basketball Week in Review

Louisville / Kentucky

I’ve never had a problem with John Calipari’s decision to build his program with one-and-done players. If anything, I think it makes for a more amusing narrative nationally to have so many elite recruits on the same team. Kentucky is a team that fans will love or hate, but it is impossible not to care.

But I also understand why some segment of Kentucky’s own fans are not totally in love with the one-and-done system, and don’t flock out in droves for the non-conference games. While Kentucky fans will bleed blue until the end, I can understand the segment of folks that prefer to have a championship team built with a blend of talent and experience, not just one-and-done talent.

Heading into Saturday’s Kentucky/Louisville tilt, Louisville was the team where you got to see a 5th year senior center like Stephen Van Treese finally earning key minutes, after assuming he might have to transfer or simply end his basketball career. You got to cheer for a freshman center like Mangok Mathiang, knowing that he isn’t going to be gone in June. Mathiang’s first steps to developing into a post anchor, including 4 blocks, are only the beginning of his journey.

And when a player like Russ Smith, the criticized, the loved, the suddenly efficient, and the player who passed on his slim-NBA draft hopes to try to repeat as champion comes back, you cannot help but fall in love. And that is why, Smith’s driving dunk with Julius Randle narrowly contesting off to the side means that much more to Louisville fans. They may have lost the game, but they will always have that play. And in 10 years, current students will be heading to Louisville basketball games and raving to their kids about what it was like to see Smith play.

Will Kentucky fans feel the same way about Julius Randle in 10 years? For 20 minutes in the first half of the win over Louisville, before cramping reduced Randle to a shell of himself, Randle was by far the best player on the floor. Mathiang couldn’t get in the way of his strong finishes around the basket. The strong 5th year senior Van Treese tried unsuccessfully to front him, only to be tossed aside like a 160-lb freshman. Quite simply, when Randle’s game is on, there is no one in college basketball that can stop him.

But what fun is the journey, when the first step is the final result? Sure Kentucky fans want to win, and love beating their hated rival. But Kentucky fans are still a long way from falling in love with this year’s team. I’ve heard that criticism, and I get it.

But before Kentucky fans curse too much, they will find that these things tend to work out in the end. As hot as Calipari has been at developing one-and-done players, Kentucky may very well find they get two or three years out of someone in this year’s rotation. If Kentucky doesn’t win a national title, a player like James Young may be criminally under-rated in a loaded draft class this season, and might decide to come back and be “the man” like Marcus Smart.

Or perhaps Kentucky fans will just end up falling in love with someone like Dominique Hawkins. The Mr. Basketball in Kentucky plays sparingly as a guard reserve this year, but is there any doubt that he is going to have a huge game against Florida or in the NCAA tournament before his career is over? That’s just the way these things work out.

It is hard to fall in love with a team in two months, but beating your state-rival isn’t a bad start.

Can You Really Blame FTs for all those Losses?

At some point in a recent game, Dick Vitale mentioned that if North Carolina would have made their free throws, the Tar Heels would be undefeated.

(Before I nitpick, let me say that I’m glad Vitale is discussing a stat here, and discussing a completely relevant stat. North Carolina’s free throw shooting this season has been abysmal, ranking 333rd in the nation. This is essentially what happens when a team has had only two scholarship guards on the roster until recently, and when one of those is a freshman without much of a shooting stroke.)

But what I want to write about is this type of statement: “The losing team would have won had they made all their free throws.”

Factually this is not that uncommon. Of the 2036 games played through Dec. 25th, had the losing team made all its free throws, 504 times the game would have had a different outcome. That’s nearly 25% of the games. Another 95 games (just under 5%) would have gone to OT.

This year the team that has to be kicking itself the most about these types of games is defending CAA champ Northeastern. Despite a nice win against Georgetown in Puerto Rico, Northeastern sits at just 3-9 on the season thanks to 8 losses of this type. Marshall also has 7 losses of this type so far this year.

The most high profile program with a number of these type of losses is Maryland with four. If the Terrapins had simply made all their FTs, they would have won the game against Oregon St., Boston University, Connecticut, and George Washington.

But wait a minute, what does this statement even mean? “The losing team would have won had they made all their free throws.” Why do we assume that the losing team gets closer to perfection, but assume nothing about their opponent? Yes, Maryland was 15 of 26 against Boston University. But Boston was 23 of 36. Maryland only wins if they are somehow perfect, but Boston still is not.

And why do we even assume perfection is possible. Yes, we are talking about an uncontested shot. But teams very rarely make 100% of their free throws. In fact, in 2036 games, a team has only been perfect at the free throw line 21 times so far this year.

The next table tabulates the FT percentages for each team in every D1 game this year. (Thanks to Ken Pomeroy for sending over the game data. Abilene Christian and Bucknell each had a game with zero FT attempts, and that is not included in the table.) The median free throw percentage for a team in a game is 70%, nowhere near 100%.

FT Perc.

Count

 

96-100%

27

1%

91-95

71

2%

86-90

166

4%

81-85

334

8%

76-80

561

14%

71-75

725

18%

66-70

719

18%

61-65

612

15%

56-60

369

9%

51-55

193

5%

46-50

150

4%

41-45

71

2%

36-40

39

1%

31-35

14

0%

26-30

6

0%

0-25%

13

0%

Suffice-it-to-say, I really don’t like the “If the losing team had made all its FTs, the losing team would have won” narrative. But it turns out that coming up with a better definition for games where FTs cost a team the game is not trivial.

Does the timing of the missed FTs matter to you? If a team misses a clinching FT in the final minute, and then blows the game, that seems like a good time to blame FTs. But if a team was 19 of 19 and then blew the front-end of a one-and-one in the final seconds, would you still say they lost because of FT shooting?

Also, if you say the timing doesn’t matter, you ignore the strategic implications along the way. A team that is down 5 points with 3 minutes to play in the game has a different shot selection than a team that is up 5 points with 3 minutes to play. Clearly missing FTs early in the game can change the whole dynamic of play.

Still, I want to throw timing out of any FT failure definition, because I want something we can easily track with box scores. Consider the following definition for a FT flop game:

1. Team B wins

2. Team A shot a worse percentage on free throws, but if Team A had Team B’s FT percentage on Team A’s FT attempts, Team A would have won.

This seems like a better definition for where FTs changed the outcome of the game. And it has happened in about 90 games or about 4.4% of games this season. And taking Dick Vitale’s example from the opener, all three of the North Carolina losses would still meet this definition.

Of course even this definition is not perfect. Did Team A lose because of their poor free throw shooting, or did they lose because they took (what was for them) a lower percentage shot too often? To put it another way, should we be praising Team B for fouling the right people? Or should we be criticizing Team A for throwing the ball in the post to a guy who got hacked but couldn’t complete the play, when other scoring options were working better?

(And whenever one team gets a ton more FT opportunities, which happens very frequently in college basketball due to the trailing team fouling more, even this definition results in some quirky outcomes.)

Suffice it to say, coaches rarely want to blame just one factor for a loss. And when it comes to FTs, they are probably right. But if you were Mississippi and you were 10 of 21 from the FT line, La Salle was 13 of 18, and you lost last year’s NCAA tournament game by 2 points, go ahead and blame the FTs. Even according to my alternative definition, they did still swing the game.

Bullets

-There weren’t a lot of games this week, but the biggest loser has to be St. Mary’s. To go 0-3 in the Diamond Head Classic may have single-handedly ended St. Mary’s NCAA at large hopes. Head coach Randy Bennett has been an offensive mastermind at the school, but his team’s porous defense in Hawaii was costly.

-It may get old at some point, but Bill Walton’s random commentary continues to make Pac-12 games great. Didn’t we all want to know that Bill drinks a 48-ounce V8 every day?

-The team I most want to see this week is SMU. They’ve been much more dominant against cupcakes than in past seasons, suggesting that Larry Brown’s team has developed. But SMU still doesn’t hold a victory over a team in the Pomeroy Top 100. In the next 14 days, SMU plays Cincinnati, Connecticut, and Louisville. We are about to find out whether SMU’s improvement is real.

-Why does everyone keep apologizing for ranking Wisconsin in the Top 5? “I felt forced to rank them here based on what they have accomplished. I don’t really like this roster. I’m not sure they will be here at the end of the year.” Um, every year there are surprises in college basketball. No one would be shocked if Wisconsin won the Big Ten Title. And no one should doubt Wisconsin could make the Final Four. Sam Dekker looks very much like the kind of athletic forward who could make an NBA roster. So why does everyone feel the need to apologize for ranking the Badgers? The last time I checked, teams don’t have to have multiple NBA lottery picks to have a dominant season in college basketball.

-Syracuse sure seems to get off to a lot of slow starts. (They fell behind Villanova by 15 before going on a 20-0 run.) But a lot of that is the zone defense. Many teams have adrenaline and can knock down jumpers early in games, but few teams can win that way over 40 minutes.

-The loss of North Carolina’s PJ Hairston (not re-instated), Michigan’s Mitch McGary (back surgery), and Notre Dame’s Jerian Grant (ineligible) are all season-altering events. But Notre Dame is in the worst shape. Michigan and North Carolina have at least had a little more time to practice and play games without their star player. But Notre Dame is starting from scratch at a very late date. And Notre Dame needed OT to beat Canisius this weekend. Of course some of that had to do with the Golden Griffin’s 10 of 21 shooting from three point range. And those defensive holes were problematic for Notre Dame even before Grant was kicked off the team.

-On the good news front, Seth Allen made his return for Maryland and had 3 assists in the teams win against Tulsa. I think Maryland’s season still ultimately rests in freshman PG Roddy Peter’s hands, but having another ball-handler should help on nights when Peters is struggling.

-Transfer PG Trae Golden has not quite lived up to his reputation since joining Georgia Tech. His assist numbers are down as he doesn’t seem to have the same chemistry with his new teammates. But he finally had a huge scoring night, posting 24 points in the team’s narrow win against Charlotte.

-Small replacing big: What do you do when a 6’9” 255-lb center, Sam Dower, is out with a back injury for the conference play opener against Santa Clara? If you are Gonzaga, you simply ask the 5’11” David Stockton to more than double his season high with 21 points.

-South Carolina and Akron played an odd back-to-back with games in Hawaii in the Diamond Head Classic and then again in Columbia on Saturday. After losing both games by double-digits, Akron doesn’t want to see South Carolina again anytime soon.

-Washington St. fans have high expectations for Que Johnson, and the freshman has finally started to blossom, averaging over 20 points in his last two games. Johnson has made 9 of 18 from deep in those two games.

-Meanwhile, UCLA’s Tony Parker has back-to-back 15+ point games. The big man was considering transferring before the season, but his emergence also deserves further observation. The Wear twins are posting career lows in rebounding rates, making it all the more important that Parker stay on the floor this season.

Harvard Watch

Sophomore Agunwa Okolie had made just 18 buckets in his whole career, but he was 6 of 7 from the floor in Harvard’s closer than expected win against A10 bottom-feeder Fordham. Harvard’s defense has been extremely porous in the two games since finals. Ironically, they run into an ACC team with season-long problems on defense when they face Boston College on Wednesday.

Early Surprises And The Start Of Feast Week, Page 1

Can Michigan St. keep up its fast pace? And what teams have been playing better or worse than expected early in the year?

Final Thoughts On Ranking 351 D1 Teams

Over the past few days, Dan Hanner has presented his updated projection model, his season projections on ESPN Insider, Q&A's with Eamonn Brennon and John Templon, along with replying to questions on Twitter. Here are a few additional thoughts that didn't make the cut.

Predicting The Future: Adding A Simulation To The Lineup-Based Model

How do you take a lineup-based predictions model and make it even better? By adding a simulation and better evaluations of lower rated players.

Top College Basketball Conferences In 13-14

The ACC is eventually going to take over as the top basketball conference by just about every possible metric. If that doesnít happen this season with the addition of Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame, it should happen next year with the addition of Louisville.

American Conference Basketball Early Projection

Why Temple and Cincinnati might be worse than some experts think, and why Rutgers could have a competitive starting lineup if everything works out right.

JUCO Expectations

Chris Jones is the Top Juco recruit in the country. Is that a reason to elevate Louisville in next year's preseason rankings?

2013-2014 Preseason Top 25

A lineup-based statistical model projects the 2013-2014 season.

What Makes Louisville Special

Louisville is more vulnerable than Kentucky was last year, especially without Kevin Ware, but a lot of things will have to go wrong for them to lose. There isnít a team in Atlanta that can match their speed and athleticism at all five positions, a testament to the program Pitino has built.

The NCAA's Unpleasant Realities In Light Of Kevin Ware

Stripped of its pomp and pageantry, the business model of the NCAA is rather ugly: inner-city kids putting their bodies on the line in order to fund scholarships for suburban teenagers to play country club sports.

And Then There Were Four

How every player in the Final Four has done in the first four games of the tournament...

The Right Way To Measure The Hottest Teams

Want a Margin-of-Victory based stat that doesn't put Florida so close to the top? Click here to see the details.

Weaknesses of Title Contenders

In this edition, we take the teams in the Top 16 of the Pomeroy Rankings and figure out how often they look beatable on the basketball court.

NCAA Power Poll For February

While there are certainly no elite college teams this season, there are a host of teams that can reach the Final Four. In this edition, we outline the various tiers.

Losing Streaks And Injury Splits, Part 1

On why not all losing streaks are alike and how injuries/suspensions skew our evaluation of certain teams.

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.

Beating Kentucky

Kentucky has multiple defensive answers for the top players on Louisville, Ohio State and Kansas. On the other end of the floor, none of those teams have defensive answers for all of Kentuckyís weapons.

Player Performance In The NCAA Tournament

What star player in the Final Four has the worst efficiency rating in this year's NCAA tournament? And which players have raised their efficiency from the regular season?

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