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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.

Draft Report: Adreian Payne Of Michigan State

Adreian Payne doesn’t have the upside of some of the players at the top of the draft, but he is as ready as any to make an immediate impact as a rookie. He’s part of a vanishing breed - a senior who improved in each of his four seasons in college and doesn’t need to be developed much in the NBA. Payne is one of the most complete big men in the country and his skill-set can improve every team in the league. It shouldn’t take long for his name to come off the board. 

Payne is coming off a dominant season at Michigan State, where he averaged 16 points, 7 rebounds and 1 block a game on 50% shooting. He was their best player on both sides of the ball - a defensive anchor in their frontcourt who could draw a double-team in the post and shoot the ball out to the three-point line. At 6’10 240 with a 7’4 wingspan, Payne is a stretch 4 with elite athleticism and prototype size for the position. He has a lot of Serge Ibaka in his game.

He’s not the shot-blocker Ibaka is, but his length makes him an extremely effective interior defender and he’s just as good a shooter from the perimeter. That combination of skills is what makes Ibaka such an incredibly valuable player, as the Oklahoma City Thunder are finding out in the Western Conference Finals. Ibaka makes everyone better on both sides of the ball and there’s no other big man on their roster who can come close to replicating his two-way impact.

With the vast majority of big men, you have to balance one side of the floor off the other. For the most part, defensive-minded centers are raw offensive players who can barely catch and finish around the rim, much less spread the floor and open up driving lanes to the rim. Conversely, most stretch 4’s are defensive liabilities, players whose lack of athleticism prevents them from matching up with their position who force their team to send help on defense.

A two-way big man is a force multiplier, a guy who improves your offense and your defense, which is the quickest way to improve your team. When Ibaka is in the game, the Thunder have a foundational piece for an elite defense and an elite offense. You need multiple players to replace what he can do, which is a problem since you still only have five spots in a line-up without him. A jump-shooting shot-blocker is one of the most important skill-sets in the game.

Payne’s ability to play defense and shoot 3’s at 6’10 will improve any team he is on. Like Gorgui Dieng and Mason Plumlee in 2013, he’s slipping in the pre-draft process because of concerns about his age, but the rules for evaluating players have to be a little different for guys with their size. Imagine how effective Dieng and Plumlee would have been as rookies if they could stroke 3’s - Payne shot 42% from beyond the arc on 3 attempts a game last season.

He doesn’t have the upside to be taken in the Top 5 in a draft like 2014, but you don’t have to go too far down in the lottery to start finding teams that Payne would immediately improve next season. You can find a quality perimeter player in free agency, but the only way to acquire an athletic 6’10+ shooter like Payne is to draft him. He’s the ideal complementary piece for any young team trying to make a push to the playoffs and he won’t cost much money either. 

Start with the Sacramento Kings at No. 8. With Isaiah Thomas, Rudy Gay and DeMarcus Cousins in the fold, they don’t need another player who needs the ball in his hands. As is, there aren’t enough shots to go around to fully develop Ben McLemore, their lottery pick in 2013. The Kings need a frontcourt player who can improve their defense without taking the ball away from their stars. If they trade the pick, they should be looking for a guy with Payne’s skill-set. 

Jason Thompson is a solid NBA player, but he doesn’t have Payne’s length or athleticism and he can’t shoot 3’s. With so many elite PF’s in the Western Conference, Thompson is stretched as a starter, particularly next to a C with as many defensive issues as Cousins. Payne and Cousins, in contrast, would be a perfect mix on both sides of the ball. They would be one of the biggest and most athletic frontcourts in the NBA while still being able to space the floor. 

At No. 9, Payne would make a lot of sense next to Al Jefferson for the same reasons he makes sense next to Cousins. For the Orlando Magic and Philadelphia 76ers, two teams who should be able to grab a franchise player in the Top 4, Payne would be a great complementary piece in their frontcourt. He would space the floor for Nerlens Noel in Philadelphia and he would help Nik Vucevic with interior defense in Orlando. He’s a good fit on almost any team. 

A player with Payne’s length, athleticism and shooting ability is inherently valuable. In the modern NBA, teams have to decide whether they will play 4-out or with two post players. Payne gives his team the best both of both worlds - the floor spacing of a 4-out offense and the interior defense of a two-post team. Upside isn’t everything, especially for teams looking to win now. If he doesn’t get any better, Payne will still have a 10-year career as a starter on a good team.

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.

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Looking Back, Looking Ahead To Tournament Week

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