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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.

Counting Down To Four

#8 Kentucky defeated #2 Michigan

No head coach has embraced one-and-done recruiting quite like John Calipari. And many folks have viewed this season as a referendum on that approach. This season was proof that it takes teamwork, continuity, and experience to reach the highest levels of performance. Kentucky played mediocre basketball for much of the year and limped to an 8-seed in the NCAA tournament.

But a funny thing happened once the tournament was underway. It turned out that you could win big games with talented freshmen.

-It turned out that next-level size mattered. Even with a big athletic guard, Caris Levert, perfectly positioned to contest the shot, Kentucky's Aaron Harrison got off the game-winner.

-It turned out that next-level skill mattered. With all due respect to the all-around skill of Frank Kaminsky, no one in this tournament can catch the ball in the paint, and score with such ease as Kentucky's Julius Randle. He truly is the most talented back-to-the-basket player left in the tournament.

-And it turned out that even for your bench, it didn’t hurt to recruit next-level athletes. A lot of people had asked whether Kentucky would be better off with some less-skilled, multi-year players on the bench. But former Top 20 recruit Marcus Lee was more than happy to be the equalizer in this game. His four put-back dunks were special. But Lee also showed the importance of athleticism on defense with a tremendous block on a three point shot.

That three-point defense, was also the most interesting strategy in the game. John Calipari challenged his team to hug three point shooters in this game. At times, that seemed to back-fire. With the floor spread, Michigan was smart enough to attack off the dribble for easy inside baskets. (Kentucky’s season-long problem with pick-and-roll defense was also evident.) But against a Michigan team that lives with the three, forcing contested inside baskets was clearly the best strategy. And in a game where both teams grabbed a crazy number of offensive rebounds, the Wildcats prevailed.

Like it or not, the referendum against young talent has failed. Kansas may have bowed out early, but Joel Embiid was injured. Duke may have bowed out early, but Duke lacked the interior defenders for a long tournament run. Arizona may have lost to Wisconsin, but Wisconsin played brilliant basketball and Arizona lost a heart-breaker in OT. The era of one-and-done players dominating college basketball is not over.

#2 Wisconsin defeated #1 Arizona

Bo Ryan no longer has to hear that phrase, “Best Coach never to make the Final Four.”

But why did he have that reputation? People have different reasons for that statement, but the following table is how I made the argument. For all active coaches, this table shows their per possession performance in the 12 years Ken Pomeroy has been tracking the stats. In that time frame, Bo Ryan has been the fourth most dominant coach. And for the first time on Saturday, he made the Final Four.

NT = National Titles in Last 12 Years

FF = Final Fours in Last 12 Years

Rnk

Coach

Current Team

Avg Off

Avg Def

Avg Pyth

NT

FF

1

Bill Self

Kansas

113.6

90.2

0.930

1

1

2

Mike Krzyzewski

Duke

116.2

92.8

0.926

1

2

3

Roy Williams

N. Carolina

114.9

92.6

0.911

2

4

4

Bo Ryan

Wisconsin

112.5

92.2

0.903

0

1

5

Rick Pitino

Louisville

111.1

90.7

0.902

1

3

6

Thad Matta

Ohio St.

113.3

92.5

0.901

0

2

7

John Calipari

Kentucky

112.7

91.8

0.896

1

3

8

Billy Donovan

Florida

115.1

94.5

0.894

2

3

9

Jamie Dixon

Pittsburgh

113.8

93.9

0.892

0

0

10

Tom Izzo

Michigan St.

112.6

93.2

0.891

0

3

11

Jim Boeheim

Syracuse

112.5

93.7

0.884

1

2

12

Rick Barnes

Texas

113.1

95.4

0.863

0

1

Note: By taking the average, this type of calculation does not reward coaches who started the decade at smaller schools. Scroll to the bottom of this post for a list of the top per possession coaches over the last 5 years.

Having said all that, I do think this table is a little misleading. Bo Ryan’s biggest strength is that his teams are consistently good. But he has never been able to put together that one super-elite team that dominated college basketball. The next table shows the peak Pythagorean Rating for active coaches in the last 12 years.

Bo Ryan’s best team by this measure was the 2008 squad that went 16-2 in the Big Ten. But that was a largely defense-oriented team. And when they ran into Steph Curry in the NCAA tournament, they simply lacked the offense to keep up.

Based on this measure of peak performance, Sean Miller is now the one who should complain. Despite having a dominant team this season, he still has no Final Four trip to show for it.

Rnk

Coach

Current Team

Best Pyth

Year

1

Bill Self

Kansas

0.976

2008

2

Rick Pitino

Louisville

0.971

2013

3

John Calipari

Kentucky

0.969

2012

4

Bruce Weber

Kansas St.

0.968

2005

5

M. Krzyzewski

Duke

0.967

2010

6

Thad Matta

Ohio St.

0.966

2011

7

Roy Williams

N. Carolina

0.964

2005

8

Billy Donovan

Florida

0.958

2007

9

Sean Miller

Arizona

0.952

2014

10

Tubby Smith

Texas Tech

0.952

2003

11

Jamie Dixon

Pittsburgh

0.949

2004

12

Tom Izzo

Michigan St.

0.948

2012

13

John Thompson

Georgetown

0.948

2007

14

Tom Crean

Indiana

0.943

2013

15

Tony Bennett

Virginia

0.943

2014

16

Phil Martelli

St. Joseph's

0.943

2004

17

John Beilein

Michigan

0.943

2013

18

Bo Ryan

Wisconsin

0.942

2008

19

Mark Few

Gonzaga

0.941

2013

20

Gregg Marshall

Wichita St.

0.938

2014

21

Jim Boeheim

Syracuse

0.936

2012

22

Bob McKillop

Davidson

0.936

2008

23

Rick Barnes

Texas

0.932

2011

24

Frank Martin

S. Carolina

0.932

2010

25

Scott Drew

Baylor

0.930

2010

For my detailed take on Wisconsin's win over Arizona, click here. I scouted Aaron Gordon from the opening tip to the closing horn. But while I focus on Gordon, Wisconsin deserves all the credit for making Gordon look like a bad defensive player. This was truly a game where outstanding offense beat outstanding defense. One possession was probably symbolic of the whole game. From 11:16 to 10:08 in the first half, Arizona played incredible defense. And the Badgers still scored.

#7 Connecticut defeated #4 Michigan St.

In November, the Spartans were a heavy favorite to go to the Final Four. A string of injuries appeared to derail those plans. But after an impressive run in the Big Ten tournament, most people anointed Michigan St. as the heavy-favorite again.

But if you followed the the Spartans all year, there were signs that this type of loss could happen. This Spartans squad was explosive in transition, but beatable in the half-court. You saw the first signs of concern in the Champions Classic. Michigan St. blitzed Kentucky by getting behind the young Kentucky back-court for lay-ups. But when Kentucky made it a half-court game, the Spartans struggled.

Then the Spartans went 5-6 down the stretch in the Big Ten. This included a tough home loss to Nebraska. Most people assumed you could not learn anything from those games, because Michigan St. had so many injuries. But even on the night Branden Dawson returned from his injury and Michigan St. was at full strength for the first time, the Spartans lost at home to a struggling Illinois squad. In that game, the Spartans lost because they could not score in the half-court. In fact, Michigan St. had so little success scoring in the half-court against Illinois, that they basically gave up fouling with 30 seconds left.

Flash forward to Sunday at Madison Square Garden. Michigan St. was dynamic at the end of the first half because they were able to get out and run and take shots before the defense was set. But in the second half, Connecticut took that away, and the game flipped.

Give Bill Raftery credit. At some point when Michigan St. still had the lead, he commented that the Spartans were not getting any inside touches. And that was a season-long issue. Michigan was 10th in Big Ten games in free throw rate, and 316th in all games nationally. This was not a team that could consistently get easy paint touches in the half-court.

(Consistently is the key word. They could do this at times, but they also would have puzzling droughts.)

And then there were the turnovers. This has been a career long problem for Tom Izzo’s squads. They tend to take a lot of chances. But in 2014, that area was significantly cleaned up. Heading into Sunday, Tom Izzo’s club ranked 89th nationally in turnovers which was the best rating of Izzo’s whole career. And yet this game was full of dumb plays. There was Gary Harris with a totally unnecessary travel beyond the three point line. There was Adreian Payne inbounding the ball to Keith Appling with zero pressure, and Appling not even paying attention as the ball ricocheted off him and went out of bounds. And of course, Denzel Valentine, the one Spartan who Izzo continued to yell at game after game for making two or three bad decisions, had a completely unnecessary travel with 12:58 left in the game.

When turnovers happen in the process of trying to get an easier basket, they hurt. But when you make the kind of unforced mental errors the Spartans were making on Sunday, it is inexcusable.

And given the opportunity, Shabazz Napier did what he has done all season. In a close game, he made the decisions his team needed to win. Despite a bloodied nose from an accidental arm slap across the face, Napier was nearly perfect down the stretch.

They call UCLA’s Kyle Anderson “slo-mo” because he is so deliberate. But for Napier, when the pressure is on, the other team moves in slow motion. He gets to his spots, and he executes with precision. I hate the Kemba Walker comparison’s because I don’t think Napier has nearly the same athleticism. But he makes all his free throws. He knows exactly where he can get on the floor. And he knows exactly what is the right shot.

(Napier may not have Walker’s athleticism, but at 6:55 of the first half, he had a drive around three Spartans which was truly jaw-dropping.)

And because the Huskies were able to keep Branden Dawson from getting any post-touches, (Amida Brimah had one of the most impactful nights you can have with a club trillion stat-line), the Huskies prevailed. Despite an off-shooting night by several players, UConn is headed to the Final Four.

But I don’t want to hear any revisionist history that we should have seen this coming. Connecticut had more than their fair share of head-scratching losses this season. And the Huskies nearly lost to St. Joseph’s in the opener of the tournament. They caught a break when they faced an Iowa St. team without Georges Niang. And they played in a familiar building. This was not an obvious path to the Final Four. But the Huskies players over-achieved to get here and made it happen.

And for the trainloads of fans who made the trip down into the city, they had reason to celebrate. The Kevin Ollie era has made its first mark, proving that the UConn tradition is alive and well even without Jim Calhoun on the sideline.

#1 Florida defeated #11 Dayton

Florida’s win was not without drama. It was a joy to see Patric Young make the Final Four for the first time after three straight losses in the Elite Eight. I was also enthralled with the sequence after Dayton cut the lead to 58-50. Florida held the ball for over a minute thanks to a flurry of offensive rebounds, and that possession crushed the Flyer’s momentum.

But with the game becoming a blowout late in the first half, I spent more time thinking how wise the Turner channels are to use the multi-channel simulcast approach at the Final Four next weekend. When ESPN rolled it out for college football’s national title game, it was fabulous to be able to hear the different voices and opinions call the game. And I think we need as many channels as possible in these single game situations.

I wanted a full channel dedicated to those fans sitting in Dayton, Ohio and watching the game on a big screen in an auditorium. Early on they cheered when Scoochie Smith hit a rare three. Later they were shown holding their arms up in free throw position when Matt Kavanaugh went to the line. When the game was beyond double digits, I would have rather watched that fanbase cringe at every moment then watch Dayton continue to fail to get the ball inside against the Florida defense.

Top PPP Coaches Last 5 Years, Minimum 3 Seasons

Coach

Current Team

Avg Off

Rank

Avg Def

Rank

Avg Pyth

Rank

Bill Self

Kansas

114.7

4th

90.4

2nd

0.936

1st

Thad Matta

Ohio St.

115.2

2nd

90.9

3rd

0.932

2nd

M. Krzyzewski

Duke

118.5

1st

94.9

24th

0.921

3rd

Jim Boeheim

Syracuse

113.2

13th

91.7

4th

0.916

4th

Bo Ryan

Wisconsin

113.8

8th

92.5

8th

0.915

5th

Rick Pitino

Louisville

111.7

21st

89.8

1st

0.911

6th

Billy Donovan

Florida

114.7

3rd

93.3

13th

0.905

7th

John Calipari

Kentucky

114.7

5th

93.0

10th

0.897

8th

Tom Izzo

Michigan St.

111.6

22nd

91.8

5th

0.896

9th

Gregg Marshall

Wichita St.

112.3

19th

94.2

16th

0.871

10th

Jamie Dixon

Pittsburgh

113.1

14th

94.8

21st

0.871

11th

Mark Few

Gonzaga

112.4

18th

94.8

22nd

0.868

12th

Roy Williams

N. Carolina

110.4

29th

93.2

12th

0.867

13th

John Beilein

Michigan

114.4

6th

96.3

38th

0.866

14th

Steve Alford

UCLA

111.3

24th

95.1

28th

0.857

15th

John Thompson

Georgetown

110.6

28th

94.1

15th

0.856

16th

Steve Fisher

S. Diego St.

107.9

58th

92.1

7th

0.850

17th

Scott Drew

Baylor

113.8

9th

96.9

49th

0.846

18th

Shaka Smart

VCU

109.7

36th

94.6

20th

0.843

19th

Buzz Williams

V. Tech

110.7

26th

95.4

32nd

0.840

20th

Sean Miller

Arizona

111.3

23rd

94.9

25th

0.838

21st

Mick Cronin

Cincinnati

106.3

73rd

92.1

6th

0.834

22nd

Jay Wright

Villanova

110.4

30th

95.9

36th

0.824

23rd

Rick Barnes

Texas

109.8

35th

95.0

26th

0.823

24th

Dave Rose

BYU

110.9

25th

96.3

40th

0.822

25th

Fred Hoiberg

Iowa St.

113.1

15th

98.4

78th

0.818

26th

Frank Haith

Missouri

114.2

7th

99.6

99th

0.816

27th

Mike Brey

Notre Dame

113.7

11th

99.1

93rd

0.815

28th

Matt Painter

Purdue

109.6

37th

95.4

30th

0.813

29th

Bruce Weber

Kansas St.

107.5

60th

94.3

17th

0.811

30th

This last table speaks for itself, but I want to point to one fact that might be missed. Look at the gap in average offense between Mike Krzyzewski and the rest of the coaches! He is not only the top offensive coach of the last five years, he is the top offensive coach by a wide margin.

Sweet Sixteen Day 2

#2 Michigan defeated #11 Tennessee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#7 Connecticut defeated #3 Iowa St.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#4 Michigan St. defeated #1 Virginia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#8 Kentucky defeated #4 Louisville

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Season Improvement, Part 2

Final Thoughts On Ranking 351 D1 Teams

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

Big Ten Basketball Early Projection

A way too early projection of the Big Ten standings in 2013-2014.

2013-2014 Preseason Top 25

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

And Then There Were Four

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

Weaknesses of Title Contenders

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

NCAA Power Poll For February

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

Revisiting Recruiting Classes

Michigan's freshmen have exceeded expectations and in this edition we examine other top classes such as N.C. State, UNLV, UCLA, Kentucky, Duke, Indiana, Arizona, Michigan State and North Carolina.

Who Have You Played?

On the legitimacy of Arizona and Florida as national championship contenders, who has quality wins already and more.

Final Exam Time

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

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

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

Mike Krzyzewski Owns November

Duke may not be #1 in the polls, but in terms of accomplishments, no one has more quality wins than the Blue Devils at this point. Theyíve beaten two preseason Top-5 teams and two more probable tournament teams.

Early Season Tournaments: Brackets, Observations, And Odds: Part 1

Sorting through the odds of the NIT, 2K Sports Classic, Charleston Classic, Puerto Rico Tipoff, Coaches Vs. Cancer, Paradise Jam and Hall of Fame Tip-Off.

NCAA Tournament Day 2

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

Initial Bracket Thoughts

A few preliminary thoughts on matchups and which teams will advance deep in the tournament.

The Many Facets & Unpredictability Of March Madness

While personnel determine scheme in the NBA, college basketball coaches recruit players that fit their schemes.

Looking Back, Looking Ahead To Tournament Week

Examining the final regular season weekend of the Big Ten, ACC and SEC, along with everything you really need to know to enjoy Tournament Week.

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