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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.

NCAA Tournament Day 3

Friday was an exciting day in the NCAA tournament. Duke lost. We saw a crazy comeback by Stephen F Austin. We saw Virginia avoid the 16 vs 1 upset.

But if Friday’s games were fun, Saturday’s games were art. If you wrote a Shakespearean play, this is exactly the format you would use.

Act 1

The day started with familiar faces (Luke Hancock, Russ Smith) to set the stage and introduce the format. There are favored teams and there are underdogs, and the favored team usually wins in the end.

We also paused for a moment of performance art. Michigan played an absolutely flawless first half of basketball against Texas. There were so few whistles at the start of the game that we didn’t get the under 16 minute timeout until under 12 minutes. The Wolverines did not commit a foul until 4:12 left in the first half. Michigan made almost every shot and committee almost no turnovers. This is how James Naismith intended the game of basketball to be played.

Act 2

Now the drama started to build again. An underdog North Dakota St. team momentarily took an early lead on San Diego St., only to be crushed down. Remember the underdogs don’t win. Dayton held close with Syracuse, but only led by 2 at the break. It was hope, but faint hope.

Off we went to Wisconsin for a different story. Bo Ryan has been in the tournament before. He has 700 career wins. But he’s never had a team quite like this. His team has more offensive skill than ever. It would be a shame to see this skilled team bow out too soon. The only problem was that Wisconsin was going up against an equally talented offensive team in Oregon. The Badgers were favored, but if the game was in Portland instead of Milwaukee, that might not have been the case.

The game started with offensive basketball at its finest. Both teams made huge shots. But Oregon was better at taking the ball inside and getting to the line. And thanks to 19 fast break points, Oregon had 49 points at the break.

Act 3

The scene shifted back to New York where the underdog Dayton team was playing amazing basketball. At 4:45 in the second half, Dayton displayed some of the crispest, most impressive passing you will ever see. It led to a jaw-dropping three. Later Jordan Sibert hit a three late in the shot-clock that had no business going in. While Syracuse was missing every perimeter shot, Dayton was making just enough to pull ahead by seven.

Jim Boeheim believes in playing a zone defense, because even when his offense is not working in the half-court, the zone defense positions his players to get a head start in transition. And late in the game whenever Dayton turned the ball over, or took one step forward for an offensive rebound, the Syracuse guards leaked out for fast-break buckets. Syracuse could barely make a shot in the half-court, but just when it seemed like the underdog was going to win, the Syracuse system led to a relentless string of fast-break baskets.

Tyler Ennis was the catalyst of the comeback. And the Syracuse guard has been college basketball’s biggest protagonist this season. He hit the season’s most memorable shot (a three to beat Pitt at the buzzer), he made key plays in the season’s biggest game (an OT win over Duke), and he had a reputation as a player who was basically perfect in the clutch this year.

And on Saturday, Tyler Ennis could not be stopped taking the ball to the hole. He scored the last 11 points for the team in Orange. And when Dayton turned the ball over in the final seconds, the comeback felt inevitable.

But suddenly, the story changed. Ennis slowed down his relentless charge to the basket. He settled for a jumper. And everyone in the arena and on TV was shocked. Why did he take that shot? Moments later, Ennis had a chance for redemption. Down two, he got one of the best looks at a game-winning three anyone will ever get. But it bounced off the back rim. The season’s biggest clutch player had failed in his moment.

Meanwhile in Wisconsin, the Badgers were storming back. Even if you didn’t care about the participants, you couldn’t help but get sucked in by the Wisconsin crowd. Every time down the floor Wisconsin made big shots. They hit 10 of 13 to start the second half. And suddenly a 14 point Oregon lead was gone in an instant.

As Charles Barkley said in the post-game, in past year’s Wisconsin never comes back from that deficit. They were too slow, and too offensively challenged. Only this year’s Wisconsin team could put together an offensive surge of that nature.

But it was not over. Joseph Young refused to let Oregon go down.  He scored his 29th point of the game with 2:53 left, and his clutch three gave Oregon a one point lead once again. Wisconsin had played well, but they looked like they were out of gas.

And then we had a possession that Oregon fans will not soon forget. The Badgers held the ball for a full 49 seconds. They grabbed three offensive rebounds. And when Ben Brust made a three pointer to give Wisconsin the lead again, the fans in the arena were in ecstasy. Brust had just made the 228th three of his career, the most threes of any player in Wisconsin history, and given the Badgers a narrow two point lead.

The most skilled offensive team in the last 10 years at Wisconsin would not bow out early. It wasn’t an underdog winning, but it was still high drama.

Act 4

Remember how much Michigan St. dominated in the Big Ten Tournament by forcing turnovers and getting fast-break baskets? They were equally good on Saturday. In the first four minutes, every time a post-player on Harvard touched the ball, Michigan St. was suddenly in a fast-break headed the other way.

Doug Gottlieb was left to utter statements like, “What player on Harvard is better than the player guarding him?”  And, “Harvard has a talented team, but Michigan St. is at another level.” Harvard seemingly had no way to score.

And then a funny thing happened in the second half. Harvard kept chipping away. Even though Harvard forward Kyle Casey got more headlines after returning from last year’s suspension, if you’ve followed the Crimson this season, you know that Steve Moundou-Missi has clearly been Harvard’s most consistent interior player. And with the season on the line, Moundou-Missi suddenly started making his own luck. Somehow, possession after possession Moundou-Missi found himself in the right spot for offensive rebounds and put-backs.

When Harvard tied the game at 55, CBS cut to the Harvard student announce team for the dramatic call of the moment. It was sports drama at its finest.

Moments later, the greatest three point shooter in Harvard history, Laurent Rivard caught the ball in the corner and buried a three to give Harvard a 62-60 lead. We were on the verge of an epic, tournament altering upset. The evening was at its peak.

Next Gary Harris hit some timely shots for Michigan St. And just as the day started for the underdog, the narrative turned into a tragedy. But Tom Izzo hit the perfect note in his post-game interview. When asked what Michigan St. did to win, Izzo simply talked about Harvard. The story of the game wasn’t Michigan St.’s clutch play. It was that Tommy Amaker’s club never gave up. Sometimes in sports, there really are no losers in a game.

Epilogue

UConn and Villanova had no chance after all that. UConn was an underdog in about the same way Tom Brady is an under-dog when his team is seeded 5th in the AFC playoffs. The nightcap was more of a movie trailer for next week. UConn gets to make a trip to Madison Square Garden for the Sweet Sixteen. With the Big East affiliation over, it seemed like UConn players would no longer get to have their big moment on basketball’s biggest stage. But Shabazz Napier will get one more trip to the big city, and you cannot write a script more inviting than that one.

If any day in the rest of the tournament lives up to Saturday, we should all count ourselves lucky.

Bullets

-Mercer’s Monty Brown has no memory of Friday’s shocking win over Duke due to a concussion. That’s the kind of news that makes you re-evaluate life’s priorities. Is it really about the destination or the journey?

-Saul Phillips choked back tears in the North Dakota St. post-game press-conference. And Charles Barkley had a genuinely sympathetic reaction in one of the post-game shows. Losing is difficult. But the truth is, the real loss for Phillips isn’t the NCAA tournament game. The loss is that for a special group of seniors, that won NDSU’s first NCAA tournament game in history, the journey is over. Phillips will never get to work with them again.

-I’m not sure if the DVR is a blessing or a curse. I record as many games as possible and try to watch them in their entirety. On the one hand, I wouldn’t have seen the brilliant Oregon vs Wisconsin beginning or all Harvard’s first-half turnovers without the DVR. On the other hand, I’ve just watched more TV than any human should ever consume.

#1 Arizona defeated #9 Pittsburgh

It seems almost pointless to dissect the day’s opener after everything that followed, but as well as Pittsburgh has played at times this year, Florida seemed like Pitt’s nightmare match-up. Pitt’s perimeter players (James Robinson, Lamar Patterson) couldn’t get any penetration against Florida’s quickness. And even though Talib Zanna has a huge strength advantage against 98% of the forwards in college basketball, he didn’t have that advantage against Patric Young. I feel like if Pitt and Florida played 20 times, Florida would win every game.

That said, if you want to pull an upset, you have to execute. When Pittsburgh had two fouls to give at the end of the first half, and still gave up a clean three to Scottie Wilbekin, you knew it wasn’t Pitt’s day.

#4 Louisville defeated #5 St. Louis

On the flip side, if St. Louis and Louisville played 20 times, I think St. Louis would win its share of games. For elite teams like Louisville, the worst kind of underdog is an opponent that plays elite defense but can’t score. St. Louis disrupted what Louisville wanted to do; meanwhile the Billikens were not distressed by their own inability to score against Louisville.

In this game, it was a few calls that really seemed to make the difference. Jordair Jett got a tough charge call on one of the first possessions of the game. Also, Rob Loe picked up three fouls in the first half, including a very foolish flagrant for swinging his elbows. I think those plays clearly changed St. Louis’ rotation and how those players acted on the court. Jett in particular is so essential to the St. Louis offense, that making him even a hair more hesitant to drive inside was crippling. (And let’s not forget Jake Barnett’s bonus slap for a technical in the second half too.)

Russ Smith, Montrezl Harrel, and Luke Hancock all made huge plays to pull Louisville ahead when St. Louis took the lead. And Louisville is clearly the better team. But that was a nightmare match-up for Louisville, and they deserve credit for escaping with the win.

Bonus Note: CBS was showing a video on Russ Smith’s dad and missed showing the bucket when St. Louis scored to go from 14 to 16 points. Those type of production mistakes happen, but it is inexcusable that they didn’t bother to show a replay of the score on the subsequent timeout.

#4 San Diego St. defeated #12 North Dakota St.

Final notes on NDSU’s Marschall Bjorklund: Doug Gottlieb asked Bjorkland how he can stand the smell of a pig farm. Bjorklund responded, “That’s the smell of money.” Good answer.

San Diego St. won comfortably, so perhaps I should just note that San Diego St. is a lot like St. Louis. They are a nightmare match-up because of their elite defense, and they won’t be phased if they can’t score against Arizona in the next round.

#2 Michigan defeated #7 Texas

I alluded to it above, but I love watching Michigan games because of the complete lack of whistles. Michigan never fouls.

Texas fans might have thought the refs were unfair, but this is just what Michigan players are taught to do defensively. The only call that Texas fans can really cry about is Cameron Ridley’s offensive foul in the second half. Ridley bumped into Michigan’s Jordan Morgan, but didn’t move Morgan and didn’t gain an advantage. I’ve never seen an offensive foul called when the defender was less impacted.

Texas played better in the second half, but give Michigan’s Spike Albrecht credit for helping seal the game for the Wolverines. Albrecht hasn’t become a huge scorer this year, but when Texas was using its late pressure, Albrecht’s ball-handling really saved the day for his team.

#11 Dayton defeated #3 Syracuse

Syracuse fans can take solace in the fact that they won’t have to sit through another horrible shooting night with this team. But the sting of the loss is made worse by the fact that this was a win for Vee Sanford, a transfer from arch-rival Georgetown.

Sanford has had an amazing journey. He was an efficient scorer for the Hoyas, but John Thompson III wouldn’t play him because of his defense. He eventually transferred, but he struggled as a starter for Dayton last year. In a number of late game situations, his defense allowed the opposing team to win, and Dayton had a horrible record in close games last year. This year Sanford has become a 6th man for the Flyers, and even though he’s coming off the bench, his defense seems better. Moreover, he hit the game-winner against Ohio St. On Saturday, all Sanford provided was the key scoring that Dayton needed to take a lead into half-time.

#4 Michigan St. defeated #12 Harvard

I’ve wondered how Michigan St. would do in a close game without Keith Appling playing well, but Appling picked up four fouls Saturday, and the Spartans made their game-saving run with Appling on the bench. That’s a good sign.

Branden Dawson was obviously brilliant. While he is a little under-sized as a forward in the Big Ten, you could really see how well he did when guarded by Harvard’s smaller forwards. His explosive leaping ability led to his best day of the season. I imagine if Dawson played in a league like the MAC or the Horizon League that he could be the conference player-of-the-year.

Michigan St. had zero turnovers until 4:20 left in the first half. That’s just staggering for a team that has often struggled with turnovers in Izzo’s tenure.

#2 Wisconsin defeated #7 Oregon

Why did Oregon’s Jason Calliste have to shove Wisconsin’s Traevon Jackson down at the end of the game after Calliste had played so well. He’s a brilliant player and I hate for that to be the last memory of his career.

#7 UConn defeated #2 Villanova

When UConn’s Terrence Samuel scored on a lay-up late in the game, Verne Lundquist didn’t even call out his name. I’m not sure the announcers knew who he was. But somehow the UConn freshman scored a career high 11 points in the NCAA tournament. It is never too late.

The Top 100 Recruits After Two Months, Part 1

The Top 100 Freshmen

On a weekend when Andrew Wiggins was 4 of 14 from the floor and Kansas couldn’t get Joel Embiid the ball in scoring position, the only Kansas freshman to get hot was Frank Mason. Mason isn’t going to be confused with an NBA lottery pick any time soon. But his performance does make it seem like it might be a good time to look at how ALL the elite recruits are doing this year, not just those at the top. The following tables show the RSCI Top 100 freshmen and how they are performing based on standard metrics.

Rnk = Consensus recruiting rank

PPG = Points per game

Min Pct = Percentage of minutes on season

Poss Pct = Aggressiveness, percentage of possessions used

ORtg = Points created per 100 possessions

OR Pct = Offensive rebounding percentage

DR Pct = Defensive rebounding percentage

Ast Pct = Assist rate

One thing we should be concerned about when looking at the numbers is how unequal the schedules have been to this point. And that is a reason that I would put more stock in things like minutes and aggressiveness than true efficiency at this point. But for what it is worth, on average Kansas, Xavier, Wisconsin, and Tennessee have played relatively tough defenses.  And on average TCU, Indiana, UNLV, Arkansas, Illinois, UCLA, Notre Dame, West Virginia, Purdue, Washington, California, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati have played weaker defenses. Almost everyone’s efficiency will fall in conference play, but this will be particularly true for the players on teams in that second group.

Rnk

Player

Team

PPG

Min Pct

Poss Pct

ORtg

OR Pct

DR Pct

Ast Pct

1

Andrew Wiggins

Kansas

15.8

79

24

112

7

13

9

2

Julius Randle

Kentucky

18.1

74

30

115

14

23

12

3

Jabari Parker

Duke

20.4

75

31

115

7

23

12

4

Aaron Gordon

Arizona

12.4

76

23

107

11

19

9

5

Andrew Harrison

Kentucky

11.2

73

22

107

2

6

20

6

Aaron Harrison

Kentucky

14.7

75

22

119

2

9

15

8

Noah Vonleh

Indiana

11.8

57

24

113

13

29

5

9

James Young

Kentucky

13.8

78

22

111

4

9

11

9

Dakari Johnson

Kentucky

3.6

23

20

110

19

16

3

-The knock on Andrew Wiggins so far has been his aggressiveness. While Julius Randle and Jabari Parker have usage rates over 30%, Wiggins usage is at 24%.

-Dakari Johnson is really being hurt by Kentucky’s front court depth. He is playing less than 25% of Kentucky’s minutes at this point. That’s a very low figure for a player that many recruiting services had in the Top 10.

Rnk

Player

Team

PPG

Min Pct

Poss Pct

ORtg

OR Pct

DR Pct

Ast Pct

11

Kasey Hill

Florida

7.6

41

20

106

1

8

27

12

Jarell Martin

LSU

8.0

43

20

96

6

11

5

13

Wayne Selden

Kansas

8.5

65

19

97

5

8

15

14

Bobby Portis

Arkansas

12.8

61

21

131

11

16

13

14

Isaiah Hicks

N. Carolina

1.9

22

12

103

8

11

5

16

R. Hollis-Jefferson

Arizona

8.4

58

19

124

11

14

12

16

Joel Embiid

Kansas

10.8

54

23

120

13

24

11

18

Marcus Lee

Kentucky

3.6

15

18

134

15

14

3

20

Austin Nichols

Memphis

8.5

53

17

108

7

14

2

20

Jabari Bird

California

11.3

61

22

111

4

10

9

-Florida’s Kasey Hill has missed time due to injuries, Jarell Martin was out at the start of the season, and Kansas’ schedule has been brutal, giving Wayne Selden little time to gain confidence. Still, the drop-off from the Top 10 to the next 10 is rather remarkable.

-Though inflated by the weak set of defenses faced so far, no one has talked much about Bobby Portis’ first year efficiency. He was a perfect 8 for 8 from the floor against his final non-conference cupcake on Saturday.

-It is amazing how much a player’s struggle can be about a lack of opportunity. Isaiah Hicks has been outplayed by fellow UNC bench paint players Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson and even after Joel James went down, he has struggled to get enough minutes to show his ability. Similarly Marcus Lee is buried on the Kentucky bench.

-Joel Embiid has the most blocks of any Top 20 player. Embiid’s rise continues to amaze me. As they noted again during Sunday’s telecast, he has only been playing organized basketball for three years. He was a late riser, and some of the later recruiting rankings even put him in the Top 10. And now some scouts view him as the top prospect in the NBA draft. Given Embiid’s raw talent level, I think it is phenomenal that he is posting an ORtg of 120 at this point. If he is this good now, it is scary to think how good he might become.

Rnk

Player

Team

PPG

Min Pct

Poss Pct

ORtg

OR Pct

DR Pct

Ast Pct

22

Robert Hubbs

Tennessee

5.1

46

18

94

5

5

7

23

Tyler Ennis

Syracuse

11.6

81

21

122

2

10

32

24

Anthony Barber

NC State

12.0

73

26

103

2

9

29

25

Jermaine Lawrence

Cincinnati

4.2

43

18

88

10

12

8

26

Rysheed Jordan

St. John's

6.9

41

25

96

8

8

24

27

Keith Frazier

SMU

6.5

40

19

108

3

9

15

27

Nigel Williams-Goss

Washington

12.3

79

23

99

4

12

27

29

Zak Irvin

Michigan

8.2

43

20

120

5

10

8

30

Kuran Iverson

Memphis

2.1

16

22

74

9

11

17

30

JaJuan Johnson

Marquette

6.1

36

17

117

1

7

14

32

Semi Ojeleye

Duke

2.6

9

20

114

12

11

3

33

Demetrius Jackson

Notre Dame

7.4

61

15

120

2

11

13

34

Matt Jones

Duke

2.8

20

19

98

5

6

4

34

Sindarius Thornwell

S. Carolina

10.8

64

24

101

5

11

14

36

Branden Greene

Kansas

2.3

12

20

88

0

12

9

37

Tyler Roberson

Syracuse

2.9

15

21

93

10

23

7

38

Jordan Mickey

LSU

14.1

78

21

109

9

16

6

39

Eric Mika

BYU

13.9

62

23

116

13

12

8

40

Conner Frankamp

Kansas

1.7

13

17

91

2

11

10

40

Nick King

Memphis

5.8

25

29

100

14

21

6

42

Johnathan Williams III

Missouri

6.8

68

16

112

16

16

5

44

Derrick Walton

Michigan

7.6

62

20

98

1

11

20

45

Christian Wood

UNLV

5.0

27

18

116

7

19

6

46

Roddy Peters

Maryland

6.6

51

23

94

2

5

32

47

Moses Kingsley

Arkansas

6.1

26

21

136

19

21

4

49

Zach LaVine

UCLA

12.4

63

19

124

2

9

14

50

Anton Gill

Louisville

1.6

11

16

105

3

17

5

Outside the Top 20, there are no guarantees. Tennessee’s Robert Hubbs, Cincinnati’s Jermaine Lawrence, and Memphis’ Kuran Iverson all have struggled with turnovers or shot selection this year. But the point of these tables isn’t to pick on the players with slow starts. The point is to praise players, who despite not wowing every recruiting service have dominated for their team.

For example, UCLA’s Zach LaVine has been much better than similarly ranked players. Thanks to his team’s tempo, his impressive efficiency, and his ability to earn his coaches trust and get playing time, LaVine has been scoring at an impressive rate this year.

And everyone has been raving about Tyler Ennis. His assist rate of 32 is tied for the top rate in the Top 50. But what makes it all the more remarkable is his extremely low turnover rate. It is shocking for someone that handles the ball as much as Ennis to turn it over only 11% of the time. His ability to create for others in such an efficient manner means that even when Ennis doesn’t have a big scoring day, he still makes Syracuse better.

Yes, Syracuse struggled against Miami on Saturday thanks to Cooney’s poor afternoon. But with Cooney’s shooting last year, and Ennis’ non-elite recruiting rank, I expected there to be a lot more frustrating afternoons for the Orange this year. Instead Ennis’s steady play has turned Syracuse from a Top 10 team into the clear ACC favorite.

And Ennis’s production is even more impressive when you compare him to other PGs outside the Top 20. St. John’s Rysheed Jordan was similarly ranked, but his inability to make 3’s or intermediate jumpers has hurt his overall game and limited his playing time. Michigan’s Derrick Walton has a less than impressive assist-to-turnover ratio and is not a reliable creator. Maryland’s Roddy Peter’s really struggles with TOs. And in the end, St. John’s, Michigan, and Maryland have all been disappointments. It is not automatic that PGs outside the Top 20 will step in and dominate, and that’s why Ennis deserves all the more praise for his fine play.

A few other thoughts:

-If anyone should be complaining about playing time, it is Duke’s Semi Ojeleye. But Duke’s biggest weakness is the lack of a shot-blocker in the middle, and as an undersized forward Ojeleye can’t fill that role.

-SMU resurgence has mostly been fueled without Top 100 recruits, but it doesn’t hurt to have one on the roster. With the SMU-Connecticut game tied on Saturday, Frazier’s assist, three, and driving basket in transition broke the game open in SMU’s favor.

-LSU’s Jordan Mickey has 43 blocks so far.

-Missouri’s Johnathan Williams hasn’t been asked to score much given the Tigers talented guards. But his offensive rebounding has still been a huge asset.

-Michigan’s  Zak Irvin is a big wing/guard, and I wondered whether he was going to get stuck behind Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson. But what I forgot was that John Beilein really knows how to find shooters. Even at 6’6”, Irvin has a natural 3 point shot, and you can never have too many outside shooters. Irvin’s points were particularly valuable in the Minnesota game given that Glenn Robinson went down early with an injury.

Click Here for Part 2

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