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College Basketball Preview 14-15: Big Ten

My numeric projections will be available near the start of the season. Earlier Previews: ACC Preview, MWC Preview, SEC Preview, WCC Preview, A10 Preview, Big East Preview, American Preview, Pac-12 Preview, MVC Preview, Big 12 Preview and The Rest of the Conferences.

Big Ten Favorite

Wisconsin: Wisconsin was dominant on a per-possession basis last year, they went to the Final Four, and they bring nearly everyone back. Frank Kaminsky has emerged as a player who is basically un-guardable because of his perimeter and low-post skills. For once, the tempo free numbers and the experts agree, Wisconsin is one of the best teams in the country.

With guard Ben Brust graduating, expect Wisconsin to use fewer three guard lineups and more three forward lineups. Forward Nigel Hayes was terrific in the paint last season, and he is ready for a larger role. Sometimes using a bigger lineup can hurt a team's spacing, but because Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky's are such good outside shooters, that is not the case with Wisconsin.

The Unheralded Contender

Ohio St: Let me make a statement that may seem controversial: Ohio St.'s offense will be substantially better in 2014-15. I understand why people expect the Buckeyes to fall off the map. They weren't a very good offensive team last year, and they lose three key scorers from last year's team. But I think people are massively under-estimating this year's team. Thad Matta is a great offensive coach. Since 2007, his offenses have ranked 3rd, 63rd, 30th, 8th, 1st, 5th, and 11th in the nation, before the offense was 128th last season. Last season looks like a tremendous fluke.I can point to the minor issues that the team had last year:

-They struggled to make threes. This was a result of giving major minutes to two PGs who were not good outside shooters. This year with D'Angelo Russell and a healthy Kam Williams, the team has better shooters.

-They struggled with offensive rebounds. The addition of Anthony Lee should help a lot.

-Their bench was inefficient. Amedeo Della Valle is gone, and thanks to Anthony Lee, Trey McDonald should play less this season.

But I think the best way to illustrate Ohio St.'s likely strength is to simply look at their lineup:

PG Shannon Scott (former RSCI #32 recruit): Even though Aaron Craft received an overwhelming amount of hype, Shannon Scott was basically an equivalent player on a per-possession basis last year. And for all the talk about Craft's elite steal rate, Scott's steal rate was even higher last year. Scott averaged 7.5 PPG last year, but expect that to grow to near 10 PPG this season due to his increased playing time.

SG D'Angelo Russell (RSCI #16 recruit): Russell is going to be the team's go-to scorer. I'm not quite buying that he'll be a 14-17 PPG guy, but he has more help than most people appreciate.

Wing Sam Thompson (former RSCI #46 recruit): When it came to 2PT%/3PT%/FT%, in 2012-13 Thompson was a 53/40/70 player. In 2013-14 he was a 50/36/62 player. Players with that type of profile typically bounce back.

F Marc Loving (former RSCI #66 recruit): Loving looks like one of the nation's most likely break-out candidates. Loving was an aggressive and relatively efficient shooter as a freshman. All he needs is more playing time and his PPG numbers are going to sky-rocket.

F Anthony Lee (Temple Transfer): Lee averaged 13.6 in a major conference and was very efficient. He was also a very strong rebounder with his former team.

And I'd project the bench to include:

F Amir Williams (former RSCI #50 recruit): The ability to rotate Williams and Lee instead of the ineffective Trey McDonald, is going to make Ohio St. a much better team in the post.

F Keita Bates-Diop (RSCI #29 recruit): Based on where Bates-Diop is ranked, he should be a key contributor in year one.

SG Kam Williams (former RSCI #76 recruit): He sat out last year due to an early season illness, but he's a natural scorer, and the year of practicing with the team should make him less likely to make freshman mistakes.

Wing Jae'Sean Tate (RSCI #54 recruit): Based on where he is ranked, he may not be a huge contributor, but Ohio St. is only asking him to be the 9th player in their rotation.

I don't buy for a moment that Ohio St. is going to be an inept offensive team again in 2015. And I don't buy that the defense is going to fall off the map either. The defense will be worse without Craft, but with eight players that were Top 100 recruits out of high school, including a shot-blocker as good as Amir Williams, and a steal-artist as good as Scott, Ohio St.'s defense will still be strong.

Hoping for the Top 25

Iowa: The Hawkeyes seemed like a lock for the NCAA tournament, but they stumbled to a 1-6 finish and barely qualified for the play-in game. The Hawkeyes late-season collapse was largely triggered by the team's defensive struggles. It's very hard to say whether that's a permanent trend or just a fluke. Head coach Fran McCaffery's defenses have really jumped around the last several years. At Iowa, McCaffery's defense has been 62nd, 197th, 22nd, and 120th.

Iowa's offense was one of the best in the nation last year, and they have enough players coming back that they should still be strong. The front-court remains absolutely loaded with Adam Woodbury (ORtg 110 and former Top 50 recruit), Gabriel Olaseni (ORtg 120, monster offensive rebounder, and shot-blocker), Jarrod Uthoff (ORtg 120 and monster defensive rebounder), and Aaron White (ORtg 123, made 63% of his two last year). White and Uthoff will probably play a little more because of their outside shooting ability, but regardless of who plays, Iowa’s front-court is strong.

The guards are also strong. Mike Gesell is a quality ball-handler and former elite recruit, Josh Oglesby can be a difference making three-point shooter at times, and Top 10 JUCO recruit Trey Dickerson can do a little bit of everything. Peter Jok is the wildcard at this point. Jok was aggressive and efficient last year, which could make him a breakout player. But he didn’t play enough minutes last season to really know if he is the real deal. Luckily, Iowa doesn’t need Jok to be a star to be good. With a deep lineup, Iowa’s biggest strength is the team’s balance. When you look at the projections for the individual players on paper, this is a Top 25 squad that should easily make the tournament. But last year's team looked like it should easily make the tournament too.

Michigan St: Only four players on Michigan St.'s current roster were Top 100 recruits out of high school. That's the lowest number in over a decade.

Top 100 Players on Michigan St. roster

Year

Count

2006

7

2007

5

2008

9

2009

10

2010

10

2011

8

2012

6

2013

8

2014

8

2015

4

Michigan St. still has talent. Cleveland St. transfer Bryn Forbes was a major scorer in a quality league. Even with the upgrade in competition in the Big Ten, he will be a major contributor. And Travis Trice, despite being just a 3-star prospect out of high school, clearly became an efficient and effective player last year. Trice cut down his turnovers and became a much more dangerous three point shooter.

But the Big Ten is a brutal league from top to bottom. Sometimes the difference between winning and losing is star power. And Michigan St. no longer has a clear advantage in star power. Players like Tum Tum Nairn (RSCI Top 100) and Javon Bess (3.7 star recruit) are probably a year away from being dominant Big Ten players.

And for the first time in a long time, missing the tournament is within the realm of possibility for the Spartans. I still have them as a preseason Top 25 team and I'd only put their odds of missing the tournament in the 20-25% range. But you can no longer look at the Michigan St. roster and say a post-season trip is a sure thing.

Michigan: Over the last five years, the five best coaches at developing lightly recruited players into offensive stars are (1) Tim Cluess at Iona, (2) Gregg Marshall at Wichita St., (3) Bo Ryan at Wisconsin, (4) Tim Miles at Nebraska, and (5) John Beilein at Michigan.

(I say this based on a data project discussed in previous previews. I took data from the last five years and projected every player's ORtg given their recruiting rank and previous college stats. Then I took the ratio of their actual ORtg to their projected ORtg, and I took the average for each coach. The coaches with the highest ratios were the coaches whose players most exceeded expectations.)

That’s a terrific top five, and three of those coaches are in the Big Ten. (The Big Ten as a whole is full of great player development coaches, but these coaches are the cream of the crop at developing offensive players.) Last year, Beilein's surprise project was Caris LeVert. LeVert was an afterthought in the 2012 recruiting class. ESPN had him as a 2-star prospect and the 69th best shooting guard in one of their last online evaluations. Scout and Rivals viewed him as a 3-star prospect. And yet there he was averaging 13 points per game and making 40% of his threes last season.

In 2014, LeVert will be flanked by Derrick Walton (who had a very efficient freshmen season), Zak Irvin (who is due for a breakout season), and freshman Kameron Chatman (who was ranked high enough that he would star for any coach). The front court of Mark Donnal (who red-shirted last year but was a 4-star prospect), and DJ Wilson (who everyone but ESPN viewed as a 4-star prospect) might need a little time. But Beilein’s been a master of getting the most out of players. Even if most of the other players on the roster are ranked somewhere between 2 and 3 stars, you just know that when called upon, they can almost always shoot.

The only thing holding Michigan back is a subpar defense. And that’s where the loss of a terrific rebounder like Jon Horford, who transferred this offseason, hurts. But even if Beilein’s defenses aren’t the most physical in the Big Ten, they are usually good enough to win their fair share of games.

Maryland: It is easy to write off Maryland because of all the players that transferred or failed to enroll this off-season. But most of those players transferred because they were likely to see their playing time cut. Trayvon Reed's arrest and dismissal was more harmful, because it was unexpected. But Maryland has retained a very strong core rotation. Dez Wells, Evan Smotrycz, and Jake Layman are all quality scorers. And the team adds 7 footer and Top 100 recruit Michal Cekovsky in the paint. I think the comparisons to Alex Len are a bit premature, but most scouting services focus on US high school players, and Cekovsky's recruiting ranking is almost certainly under-stated. At PG, the team will turn to Top 40 prospect Romelo Trimble.

Besides those five, the team also adds transfer Richaud Pack. Pack averaged 17 PPG at North Carolina A&T. And while I don't expect him to score like that in the Big Ten, he was an especially efficient player at his former school. I project his ORtg to fall by about 13 points due to the upgrade in competition, but that would still make him a quality offensive player for the Terrapins. Finally, the team adds Dion Wiley and Jared Nickens, two more Top 100 recruits who should thrive as key reserves.

My main concern for Maryland is simply the team's lack of depth. Much like Syracuse, the questions about the PG position are huge. If Trimble struggles to lead the team, Maryland doesn't have a lot of alternatives. We already saw how poorly the team played last fall when Dez Wells tried to be the lead PG. And without Reed, Cekovsky has to play major minutes right away.

Mark Turgeon's tenure at Maryland has been exceedingly disappointing so far. And in many ways, this year's team is the perfect litmus test for him. There is enough talent that Maryland could win a game in the NCAA tournament and earn Turgeon a big contract extension. But missing the tournament is also on the table, and if that happens Turgeon will likely be done.

Hoping for the NCAA Tournament

The next four Big Ten teams have star players (Terran Petteway, Rayvonte Rice, Andre Hollins, Yogi Ferrell), but each one of these rosters has a significant hole.

Nebraska: As noted above, Tim Miles is one of the best coaches in the country at developing players. And Terran Petteway and Shavon Shields, two of the best scorers in the Big Ten are back. Along with transfer Walter Pitchford, who resurrected his career last year, that's a great core.

In my April Rankings I had Nebraska just outside my Top 25. But two things caused the Corhuskers to drop. First, Leslee Smith tore his ACL. That hurt a lot more than most people realize because Smith was one of Nebraska's best defensive players. He was great at getting steals, blocks, and rebounds.

Second, as readers of my preview series are aware, one of the things I've added to my model this summer is a focus on the fundamental measures of defense. Teams have very little control over their opponent's FT% and 3 PT%. When a team's defense is good because of these areas, that is less likely to be repeated the following season.

Nebraska's opponents made only 32% of their threes and 68% of their free throws last season. That was slightly lucky, but what amplifies those numbers is that Nebraska opponents took an unusually large number of free throws. While I think some of Nebraska's players might improve as defenders, if their opponents make 34% of their threes and 70% of their free throws (which is what you would expect), that is going to eat away a lot of the improvement the team makes. And without Smith, I just don't see Nebraska's defense playing better than last year.

Offensively, I'm also quite worried that the team will almost always have two non-scorers on the floor. With players as good at Petteway and Shields, you aren't necessarily asking a lot of your other players. But the other players need to keep the defense honest, and I'm not sure Nebraska can do that at center and point-guard. First, at center the team will likely rely on Georgetown transfer Moses Ayegba and three star big man Jacob Hammond. Ayegba was an offensive liability at Georgetown and Hammond is young and raw. Meanwhile at PG, Tai Webster was one of the least efficient players in the Big Ten, while Benny Parker was exceedingly passive offensively. That may open the door for freshman PG Tarin Smith to play right away, but based on where Smith is ranked, you can’t expect Smith to be an efficient player in year one.

Stating it differently, the scouting in the Big Ten is very good. Teams will be game-planning to get the ball out of Petteway and Shields hands and into the hands of those less skilled players. Maybe because of Tim Miles, Nebraska will once again exceed expectations. But this isn’t a perfect roster.

Illinois: The big reason a lot of people expect Illinois to play better this season is the addition of Seton Hall transfer Aaron Cosby and Oregon St. transfer Ahmad Starks. Both were efficient players in a major conference, and their ability to knock down three pointers should give Illinois star Rayvonte Rice more room to operate. The Illinois offense was also exceedingly young last season. Malcolm Hill, Kendrick Nunn, Jaylon Tate, Austin Colbert, and Maverick Morgan all played as freshmen last year, and Illinois will be substantially better this year simply because they will make fewer freshmen mistakes.

But like Nebraska, Illinois is a team that I loved a lot more this spring then I do right now. First, forward Darius Paul was dismissed for off-court reasons, and then Tracy Abrams tore his ACL. The loss of Abrams is not the end of the world. With transfers Aaron Cosby and Ahmad Starks joining the rotation, Abrams was likely to see his minutes decrease somewhat anyhow. Abrams has never been a natural point guard, and it is possible the team will be better with Starks leading the team and playing more often. (Of course, Starks wasn't the lead PG for Oregon St. either.) But whenever you lose a player as good as Abrams, the margin-for-error gets smaller. Now instead of Abrams splitting PG duty, the team may have to turn more to Jaylon Tate. And Tate was very turnover prone last year. The loss of a lock-down defender like Tracy Abrams also really hurts the defense.

That said, I think the Illinois back-court will be good enough for the team to win. The real question is the front-court. Nnnana Egwu is a defender, but a limited offensive player. The team's season really hinges on the play at the four. Malcolm Hill was a former Top 100 recruit who played well last season, particularly after he joined the starting rotation. And he will split time with Leron Black, a freshman Top 50 recruit. Illinois needs significant scoring out of that position if the offense is to improve enough for the team to make the tournament.

Minnesota: I often refer to Top 100 JUCO players as lottery tickets. Well, Minnesota won the lottery with PG Deandre Mathieu. The Gophers had struggled over the previous several seasons with PG transfers, PG injuries, and non-PG ball-handlers, and not surprisingly their record in close games was very poor. But with Mathieu the team not only had an efficient and effective scorer, but the team finally had someone who could make sure the team got a good shot in the final minutes. The net result was that Richard Pitino's squad won the NIT in his first year as head coach.

Minnesota will roll the dice on another Top 100 JUCO player in Carlos Morris at the wing. With super-scorer Andre Hollins returning, with the efficient Joey King returning, and with the defense/offense combination of Elliott Eliason and Maurice Walker in the paint, Minnesota's top six players are good enough to make the NCAA tournament. The problem the Gophers face is simply a lack of depth. It might be hard to squeeze much production out of the group of 3-star or lower underclassman that make up the rest of the roster.

Indiana: I fear Indiana may look a lot like the Hoosiers did in the years before Cody Zeller arrived. Back in the pre-Zeller days, Indiana had some star guards, and they played physical defense, but the complete lack of scoring by post players limited the team's upside. The Hoosiers post options are just not very attractive. I'm not as down on Hanner Mosquera-Perea as some folks. Sometimes big men take time to mature, and he was a Top 50 recruit out of high school. But he's contributed very little in his first two years with the team. And freshmen Max Hoetzel, Tim Priller, and Jeremiah April, are far below the caliber of player that Indiana normally recruits. The best option will probably be to play Troy Williams and Devin Davis since both played well last year. But both are under-sized forwards.

Indiana's backcourt is good enough that they might win a lot of games even without much front-court production. Yogi Ferrell is an elite PG. James Blackmon is the RSCI #21 recruit, and a lights out three point shooter. Transfer Nick Ziesloft isn't quite the scorer most people think. If he was a passive shooter in the MVC, he will probably be a passive shooter in the Big Ten. But the coaching staff loves all the other things Ziesloft brings to the table. And Top 100 prospects like Stanford Robinson and Robert Johnson have a large amount of upside, it is just a matter of how long until they show it.

Hoping for the NIT

Penn St: With Tim Frazier graduating this off-season, I thought Penn St. might fall off the map. But when you look closely, this is not a terrible roster. First, Penn St. was much better last year than I remembered. Their margin-of-victory was 82nd in the nation. Second, even if you can't replace a star like Frazier, Penn St. remains strong at the PG position. Geno Thorpe was recruited as a PG, and while he had to play almost exclusively off the ball last year, he was very efficient because he was great at getting to the line. He also shot 60% on his twos last year which speaks to his ability to take the ball inside. And the team adds Top 100 JUCO Devin Foster as well. If neither of them are ready to be the lead PG, the team also has an insurance policy. Two years ago DJ Newbill played the PG position when Frazier was injured, and Newbill was one of the best passers in the league that year. Passing won't be the team's weakness, nor will guard play.

Penn St.'s weakness is typically the front-court, and that's why I'm actually cautiously optimistic about this squad. For the first time in a long time, Penn St. seems like they've actually found a few solid front-court options. Forward Brandon Taylor was one of the most improved players in the Big Ten last year, upping his ORtg from 88 to 107, while becoming a strong rebounder and shot-blocker. Donovon Jack was the most efficient rotation player on the team last year thanks to his low turnover rate and high shooting percentage. And Ross Travis, while undersized, continues to rebound and score at a remarkable rate.

Because of the Big Ten's incredible depth, Penn St. will probably still end up near the bottom of the standings. But this team is much better than most people think. This could be one of those years where Penn St. wins 8 games in the Big Ten and everyone scratches their head about how they unexpectedly ended up on the bubble.

Northwestern: Don't judge head coach Chris Collins based on last season. As I noted last fall, Northwestern didn't have a player on the roster who was projected to have an ORtg over 100. The offense ended up 309th in the nation, and I honestly don't think any coach in the country could have done any better.

This year Northwestern's roster remains under-manned, but at least the team has a few players who might be able to put the ball in the basket. First, Collins did a good job developing 7 footer Alex Olah last year. Olah saw his ORtg jump from 89 to 101, and the big man became a confident finisher around the rim. He is someone Northwestern can lean on this year when they need an easy bucket. Second, Tre Demps emerged as a quality scorer. Third, Jershon Cobb, when he isn't injured or suspended, has been effective. Fourth, freshman Vic Law will likely be a key contributor. I've talked a lot about how players ranked further down in the Top 100 don't always make an immediate impact, and Law is ranked 91st nationally. But when a team was as inept as Northwestern was offensively last year, a player like Law is still a big upgrade. Fifth, the team adds Yale transfer Jeremiah Kreisberg.

The real question is who gets these improved scorers the ball. Dave Sobolewski's ORtg has been trending in the wrong direction. His ORtg was 111 in 2012, 98 in 2013, and 81 in 2014. Part of that has been the team's lack of scorers. It was hard to be an effective point-guard when almost no one could make an open jumper last year. Sobolewski was also ineffective due to injuries, particularly a concussion he sustained in January. I suspect the coaching staff may be ready to move on to someone new, like Bryant McIntosh, but I'm not convinced that Sobolewski is as bad a player as last year's numbers would suggest. Overall, Northwestern is still at least a year away. But I can promise the games won't be as brutally ugly offensively as they were last season.

Purdue: When you get down to the thirteenth best team in a conference, you are often talking about a terrible team. Purdue isn't terrible; the Big Ten is just deep. AJ Hammons, Kendall Stephens, and Bryson Scott were all former Top 100 prospects who I expect to break out this year. They've all shown flashes of brilliance, and after a summer of transfers, this is their team. Rapheal Davis and Basil Smotherman are two more efficient players who can fill out a rotation.

The roster does have flaws. Purdue will be very young. And the team will probably have to rely a lot on freshman PG PJ Thompson. Based on his recruiting rank, Thompson is the kind of player that will struggle in Big Ten play.

But my main concern is the defense. Two years ago Josh Reed wrote a brilliant column on Matt Painter's defense entitled, "Was it the system, or was it JaJuan Johnson?" Essentially, Painter's only great defensive seasons came with JaJuan Johnson playing major minutes. And after two more seasons of mediocre defense, it appears that Johnson deserves the credit and not Painter for Purdue’s past success. This year, with a ton of new faces in the rotation, I don't expect Purdue's defense to be adequate.

Dragging Down the Big Ten's RPI

Rutgers: Forward Kadeem Jack and lead-guard Myles Mack were stars last year. I sense some sort of rhyming t-shirt "Jack and Mack Attack" is going to be big. The additions, former Miami FL player Bishop Daniels, and a bunch of three star recruits, might not be enough to make up for what they lost, but any team with two players as good as Jack and Mack should still be competitive. But Rutgers defense was so terrible last year that they were not competitive. The Scarlet Knights were 0-13 against the Pomeroy Top 100 last season. And since every other team in the Big Ten projects as a Top 100 squad right now, I don’t see a lot of victories on Rutgers’ schedule.

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. 

American Conference Basketball Early Projection

The American Conference was in the news this last week. They launched a beta version of their new website complete with a logo. And Commissioner Mike Aresco sat down for a Q & A with Matt Norlander of CBS Sports.com. The best part might have been Aresco’s admission that losing the Big East brand might not be a bad situation for football.

In terms of expectations for next year, pretty much every preview I have read has said the same thing: Louisville, Connecticut, Memphis, Cincinnati, and Temple will be good enough to make the league relevant.

From a historical perspective, that’s correct. Those are the five teams with the most NCAA tournament appearances and most basketball success. But I don’t think people have looked hard enough at Temple’s roster or considered who the Owls have coming back next year. Temple’s streak of six straight NCAA appearances is very much in doubt. More in a moment, but first, here are my lineup-based model’s projections for the American Conference:

Team

Proj CW

Proj CL

Proj Off

Proj Def

Last Off

Last Def

T100

Ret Min

Ret Poss

Louisville

15

3

115.4

87.4

118.9

83.1

8

70%

71%

Connecticut

14

4

115.7

92.1

108.5

94.2

5

93%

95%

Memphis

12

6

110.7

91.0

105.8

90.0

7

55%

59%

Cincinnati

10

8

104.0

91.4

104.2

88.7

2

60%

60%

SMU

7

11

105.6

98.0

98.3

100.2

3

90%

94%

UCF

7

11

106.6

99.5

105.1

102.6

1

79%

77%

Temple

7

11

103.1

96.8

110.2

97.4

1

31%

28%

Rutgers

6

12

106.0

99.8

105.9

99.7

4

40%

40%

Houston

6

12

110.0

104.2

105.9

107.2

2

80%

81%

USF

6

12

102.0

96.8

98.8

97.4

1

63%

63%

For an explanation of the column headings, click here.

Louisville: We all agree Louisville is a Final Four favorite and national title contender. But here is why I will still be watching the team in November and December.

1) I want to see how Rick Pitino replaces Gorgui Dieng in the middle.

Chane Behanan and Montrezl Harrell will probably be the best offensive post players on the team. But Pitino seemed reluctant to play Behanan at times last year against larger opponents (mainly Syracuse), and while Harrell is taller, he is no 7 footer. For defensive reasons it may be desirable to play either Akoy Agau and Mangok Mathiang in the post. That will probably lead to some growing pains offensively, but their defensive presence may make up for it. Finding the right balance of players should be interesting.

2) I want to see if Russ Smith can do it again.

Russ Smith was the kenpom.com player-of-the-year because of his amazing efficiency last season, but I think there are a lot of reasons to doubt he can repeat that. For starters, players that see big jumps in efficiency typically fall back slightly the next season. And Louisville had two of the bigger jumps in ORtg last year. Luke Hancock went from an ORtg of 114 to 121, and Smith went from an ORtg of 92 to 109. In both cases it was largely due to improved shooting. Whether that improved shooting is sustainable remains to be seen.

It is also possible that Smith might be less efficient, even if he isn’t a worse player. First, teams weren’t necessarily game-planning to stop Smith last summer. You can bet that UConn coach Kevin Ollie is getting out the tape and breaking down Smith’s weaknesses this off-season. For UConn to win a league title, they have to beat Louisville. And that means shutting down Smith.

Second, NBA scouts have made a big deal of the fact that Smith has to play point guard to make it to the NBA. I think this is a little silly. Smith has already proven he can create his own shot and create for other players. His assist rate is already above 20% which would make him the lead PG on a lot of teams. But it will be interesting to see if Smith has the ball more often in next year’s offense, and if he passes more. If he does pass more, will that lead to more turnovers or even better offense?

Certainly, Smith will not have to be the primary ball-handler with Terry Rozier and Chris Jones coming in. But I expect that Smith will want to look more like a PG this year.

Connecticut: Inefficient senior RJ Evans is gone. Enosch Wolf might be gone. But with basically everyone else back, the additions of George Washington transfer Lasan Kromah and borderline Top 100 forward Kentan Facey, everyone agrees Connecticut will be better than last year. The only question is how much better. My model is optimistic, in part because Kevin Ollie did well in his first year. Ollie took over a team decimated by unanticipated transfers and guided them to a winning record in the Big East.

If you think UConn needs a dominant forward to truly be considered a Top 25 squad, then you probably remain among the skeptics. But Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright are really the dream college backcourt at this point. They are aggressive, talented, and efficient. And having played together for two seasons, they have great chemistry with one another. With two players like that in the backcourt, UConn should be able to challenge for a league title.

Memphis: At this point Memphis has so much talent in the front-court that the addition of Top 100 center Dominic Woodson barely moved the needle.* Memphis jumped from 25th to 23rd in my model nationally. And there is no question that Memphis has a deeper and more talented lineup than Connecticut. They have talented seniors, a talented graduate transfer from George Washington named David Pellom, and five Top 100 recruits coming in. So why doesn’t my model have them higher? The answer is Josh Pastner. He has had talent before, but usually under-achieved.

Pastner’s team has been in the preseason Top 25 the last three seasons, ranked 19th, 11th, and 17th. But in terms of margin-of-victory, only one of the three years was a success. His teams finished 87th, 8th, and 40th in margin of victory those three years. His teams also never earned better than a 6-seed in those three NCAA tournaments. And his 0-11 record all-time against Top 25 teams is a symptom of those overall struggles. With a different coach, Memphis would likely be second in the projected standings.

*Note: It may seem puzzling why Woodson would de-commit from Baylor due to playing time concerns, but commit to a Memphis front-court where there are already 4 players likely to play a lot of minutes. But Woodson is the only true center joining Memphis’ squad. He has more weight and size than some of the other Memphis post players and will likely be better positioned to play right away. The reason Memphis’ projection doesn’t jump up more is because Woodson is mostly just taking minutes from a similar player.

Cincinnati: While Cincinnati was in most people’s preseason Top 25 rankings last season, I had serious questions. I noted that the front-court was likely to be well below-average. I didn’t get everything right, but I nailed that prediction.

Unfortunately, most of those players are back and Mick Cronin is left to rebuild around them. I particularly feel bad for Cronin’s relationship with Justin Jackson. Jackson has been an offensive liability his entire career. But he has always worked hard and Cronin seems reluctant to bench him. Last year Shaquille Thomas was inefficient too. David Nyarsuk shot a higher percentage, but he basically only shot when he had a wide-open lay-up. And Titus Rubles looked good for awhile, but he ended the season on a horrible streak. Rubles got above 1 point per possession just once in his final 13 games.

And if that isn’t bad enough, the team doesn’t have an obvious choice at PG next year. One of three unranked recruits will likely battle for that job. Sean Kilpatrick is back, but make no mistake, this is going to be an ugly offensive team.

Luckily, Mick Cronin has really found a niche as a strong defensive coach in recent years. Assuming he can keep that up, his team will be on the NCAA bubble. But there is no guarantee that they will make the field.

SMU: Last year SMU finished near the cellar of Conference-USA which is not a good sign. But keep in mind that SMU’s margin-of-victory numbers were better than their final record. They were 316th in “Luck” according to Kenpom.com. One factor that may have prevented them from winning close games is that the team was simply exhausted. SMU gave the fewest minutes to its bench of any D1 team. Larry Brown rode his five starters as much as he possibly could.

The great news is that those five starters are back and the team adds five players that should meaningfully improve the offense. The list includes three D1 transfers (Nic Moore from Illinois St., Markus Kennedy from Villanova, Crandall Head from Illinois), and a Top 10 JUCO player in Yanick Moreira. The team also adds Top 100 freshman Keith Frazier. With that kind of talent coming in and that kind of experience coming back, SMU should improve substantially on offense this season.

UCF: Star Keith Clanton is gone and that is a big loss. But basically everyone else is back, and with so many players returning the offense will probably be even better than last year. Isaah Sykes will be on many people’s preseason all-conference ballots. He has great size for the PG position and he is aggressive and efficient. Tristan Spurlock was a Top 100 recruit out of high school and he should continue to dominate in the paint. And Calvin Newell and Kasey Wilson bring a lot to the table too (Newell more on defense than on offense.) Add JUCO transfer Eugene McCrory and a bunch of rising sophomores, and UCF looks poised for another solid year.

The reason I cannot project them for the upper-echelons of the American Conference are the questions on defense. With so many of the same players coming back who couldn’t stop teams last year, it seems likely the team’s defense will not quite be NCAA tournament caliber.

Temple: I am assuming UMass transfer Jesse Morgan will not get eligible. Eric Angevine had a nice summary of this recently. Basically, it is going to take a lot for Morgan to play basketball this season. Of course if Dez Wells got kicked out of school and managed to land on another team immediately, anything is possible. For now, this projection assumes Morgan won’t play.

Looking at Temple’s rotation from last year, here is who is departing and who is returning.

ORtg, PctPoss, Player

Leaving

108, 32% Khalif Wyatt

116, 20% Jake O'Brien

106, 19% Scootie Randall

104, 19% Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson

122, 9% TJ Dileo

Returning

108, 20% Anthony Lee

95, 17% Will Cummings

89, 17% Dalton Pepper

86, 19% Quenton DeCosey

I love Anthony Lee as much as the next guy, but it doesn’t take any advanced math to realize that Temple is losing a bunch of efficient players and returning a bunch of inefficient players. Worse yet, Khalif Wyatt shot so much, opposing defenses were focused on him. If Cummings and Pepper were struggling to score with Wyatt on the floor, how efficient are they going to be when they are asked to take more shots this season?

Temple doesn’t have an instant-impact recruiting class to depend on either. There are no transfers and none of Temple’s incoming recruits are Top 100 recruits. In fact, only one current roster player, Dalton Pepper, was a Top 100 recruit out of high school. That isn’t that unusual for Fran Dunphy. Dunphy has made the tournament six years in a row and never had multiple Top 100 recruits on the roster.

But Dunphy isn’t superhuman. He has usually achieved that success by having a veteran team and relying on returning efficient players who he can develop into stars. That’s why most experts are willing to overlook Temple’s roster uncertainty. Dunphy has surprised us before, and it isn’t a stretch to think he will do it again.

But the difference is that Dunphy has never lost this much production in one year. In his previous seven years at Temple, Dunphy has always welcomed back over 50% of the team’s minutes from the year before. This year he welcomes back just 31% of his team’s minutes. And losing Wyatt means the team returns just 28% of its offensive possessions. And as noted in the table, these are low efficiency players that are returning.

Dunphy might still surprise us. But on paper, this is clearly the worst team in Dunphy’s tenure. Even in the A-10, my model would have pegged them for a disappointing season.

Rutgers: Rutgers hasn’t received any good news in awhile, but the recent additions of transfers Kerwin Okoro and JJ Moore was a huge development. Unlike Morgan, both will be filing for fairly normal family illness immediate eligibility waivers and I’ve assumed both requests are granted.

Moore is an extremely under-rated player.  At Pitt he almost never turned the ball over despite being an aggressive inside scorer. He has shot over 50% every year in his entire career, raised his free throw percentage to 81% last season, and his career ORtgs are 108, 109, and 120. That’s the kind of smart effective player Rutgers has usually been missing on its roster.

Also, despite all the crazy transfers this off-season, Myles Mack did not depart. Mack was easily the most efficient player on the roster last year, and almost certainly the team’s MVP.

Combine Mack, Moore, a pair of JUCO guards, and hope that Kadeem Jack and Wally Judge start living up to their high potential and Rutgers might actually have a starting lineup that can compete with the better teams in the league.

But if anything goes wrong, it is going to be a total disaster. There is no depth. (That is literally true now, but assuming Jordan signs a few players before the end of the summer, they will likely only be 2 star recruits who cannot be expected to contribute as freshmen.) You can’t mention names like Malick Kone or Greg Lewis and expect to win in this league. It just isn’t feasible.

Houston: Let’s just get this out of the way. The model hates Houston’s defense. 269th in the nation is just embarrassing. Worse yet, Houston’s defense has pretty much always been at that level under James Dickey.

Now if this team gets you a little excited, particularly with elite recruit Chicken Knowles finally becoming eligible, I get that. In fact, the model above pegs them as the fourth best offense in the conference.

Lineup-wise, the only weakness is PG, but that is probably a little deceiving. Dickey’s offense doesn’t take many threes, and the pressure to get the ball into the paint contributes to an above average TO rate for any ball-handler. But obviously, if you can get the ball to a front-court of Knowles, TaShawn Thomas, and Danuel House, good things will happen. And that has meant in the rare occasions when off-guards Joseph Young and Jherrod Stiggers do shoot threes, they are usually wide open. Really, I’m excited about this team. They just need to realize you have to play both ends of the court.

USF: One player had an ORtg over 100 last year so Stan Health decided to start from scratch. In a new league where even a bad team will have more chances to win, he is going all in with six freshmen, led by Top 100 recruit John Egbunu. That should pay off someday, just not this year.

Slim Margins

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YABC Column For Feb. 27th (POY Races, Improbabilities & More)

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

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The Anti-Recruiting Tool

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Big East And WCC Notes, Plus An Obvious Observation About School Prestige

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College Coaching Series Part 5

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State Of College Coaching 2011 Ė Part 1

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Yet Another College Basketball Column (Mar 9th Bonus Midweek Edition)

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Yet Another College Basketball Column (Feb. 21st)

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Former Big East Players In The NBA

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