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Way Too Early Top 25 Projections

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

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

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

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

Pred Off = Predicted Offense, Points Scored per 100 Possessions

Pred Def = Predicted Defense, Points Allowed per 100 Possessions

2014 Off = 2013-14 Offense

2014 Def = 2013-14 Defense

RMin = Projected Returning Minutes

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

Rnk

Team

Conf

Pred Pyth

Pred Off

Pred Def

2014 Off

2014 Def

RMin

T100

1

Arizona

P12

0.963

119.8

90.1

114.7

88.5

82%

8

2

Kansas

B12

0.952

120.0

92.5

116.8

96.3

68%

10

3

Duke

ACC

0.943

122.0

95.5

123.5

102.3

47%

10

4

Wisconsin

B10

0.934

121.9

96.7

120.8

97.6

82%

3

5

Florida

SEC

0.920

116.3

94.0

115.3

89.2

47%

7

6

Michigan

B10

0.919

121.8

98.6

124.1

102.1

73%

5

7

Kentucky

SEC

0.916

118.9

96.6

118.4

97.1

21%

7

8

N. Carolina

ACC

0.914

116.4

94.7

111.7

95.4

74%

10

9

Connecticut

AAC

0.910

113.8

93.1

112.5

92.5

55%

6

10

Virginia

ACC

0.909

112.7

92.3

114.4

90.1

72%

4

11

Villanova

BE

0.909

116.6

95.5

113.8

94.4

78%

7

12

Wichita St.

MVC

0.908

116.9

95.8

118.1

93.3

64%

0

13

VCU

A10

0.907

109.6

89.9

107.9

90.2

70%

4

14

Louisville

ACC

0.899

113.6

93.9

116.6

90.0

41%

8

15

Syracuse

ACC

0.899

113.2

93.6

112.3

93.6

41%

7

16

Ohio St.

B10

0.898

113.4

93.9

106.5

89.6

54%

8

17

SMU

AAC

0.895

113.3

94.1

110.1

94.7

75%

3

18

Colorado

P12

0.878

114.2

96.2

105.1

96.9

99%

4

19

Baylor

B12

0.877

117.6

99.2

117.8

100.0

61%

4

20

Texas

B12

0.876

115.8

97.7

111.0

98.4

100%

6

21

Maryland

B10

0.873

112.1

94.8

107.6

95.5

99%

9

22

Iowa

B10

0.873

118.9

100.6

119.8

102.7

69%

2

23

UCLA

P12

0.872

114.0

96.5

117.0

97.3

35%

6

24

Gonzaga

WCC

0.872

116.3

98.4

111.4

94.4

64%

4

25

Utah

P12

0.861

112.2

95.8

108.7

96.5

94%

2

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

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

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

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

Focusing on the rest of the Top 25:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NCAA Tournament Day 1

#11 Dayton defeated #6 Ohio St.

Verne Lundquist gave a huge amount of praise to Ohio St.’s Aaron Craft. He said in his 30 years calling the tournament, he has not been more impressed with a player than Craft. He said Craft represents the total package as a student athlete. And if you’ve watched Ohio St. for the last four years, you have heard comments like that often. For years people have been saying how Craft doesn’t have the talent to make it in the NBA, but that Craft is the proto-typical college star. He has been an excellent ball-handler. He has made plays to win games at the end of regulation. And he has built his reputation as one of the best on-ball defenders in college basketball.

That effusive praise has actually made Craft a bit of a divisive figure among college basketball fans. While there is a group that completely loves Craft and everything he represents, there is certainly another group that feels that Craft has gotten too much credit for Ohio St.’s success. Some argue that he gets too much praise for his defense, to the detriment of equally skilled players. And it was impossible to watch the opening game of the tournament and not see how it all revolved around Craft.

Initially, the key storyline involved Dayton’s Jordan Sibert, a transfer from Ohio St. With 9 minutes left in regulation, Sibert grabbed a loose ball and broke free in transition. He side-stepped Craft for a lay-up, and beating the Buckeye star made it all the sweeter. Then with 2:35 left in regulation, Sibert stole the ball and again broke free, and this time Craft had to grab him around the waist to deny a lay-up. Craft drew a flagrant foul in the process. For Sibert, beating Craft on those plays was the ultimate revenge and redemption.

But then, if that storyline was enough, the Craft storyline became even more important in the final minute. First Aaron Craft drove the lane for a bucket to give Ohio St. the one point lead. And then miraculously, it came down to the “best on ball defender in college basketball” on the other end. All Craft had to do was keep Vee Sanford in front of him to end the game. But he couldn’t. Sanford’s driving bank shot, gave the lead back to Dayton. Craft being the wise veteran did not wait for his coach to call timeout. Instead, he grabbed the ball and immediately rushed down-court for one last try. His lay-up attempt bounced off the rim as time expired.

For the Aaron Craft haters, it was the perfect revenge. Craft’s defense had let him down in the final moment of his career. For the Aaron Craft admirers, it was more proof of college basketball’s cruel fate. No matter how hard you work, no matter what you do in your career, it often comes down to just one play.

Speaking of one play, as I noted last weekend, in the last six NCAA tournaments, Ohio St. has lost by the slimmest of margins:

Year

Loss

Round

Margin

2014

Dayton

Round of 64

1 point

2013

Wichita St.

Elite 8

4 points

2012

Kansas

Final Four

2 points

2011

Kentucky

Sweet 16

2 points

2010

Tennessee

Sweet 16

3 points

2009

Siena

Round of 64

2 points

Two Final Notes:

-Bill Raftery had a priceless impression of Jim Boeheim at some point in the second half.

-I’m not giving Dayton nearly enough credit for winning this game, but no play was bigger than when Dyshawn Pierre, a 66% FT shooter went to the line and made three FTs in a row after being fouled on a three point shot.

#2 Wisconsin defeated #15 American

It is hard to find much to say about blowouts. At some point in the second half, the TV folks showed this graphic:

Eagles in the NCAA tournament

North Carolina Central Eagles – 1st NCAA Tournament Appearance

American Eagles – 3rd NCAA Tournament Appearance

Ian Eagle – CBS Announcer – 17th NCAA Tournament Appearance

If that isn’t graphical rock bottom, I don’t know what is.

#9 Pittsburgh defeated #8 Colorado

I’m stealing this directly from Seth Davis in his post-game comments. “Colorado had 17 turnovers. Pittsburgh had 3 turnovers. Pittsburgh took 19 more shots. It is hard to win when you let your opponent take 19 more shots.”

#12 Harvard defeated #5 Cincinnati

Cincinnati senior Justin Jackson sat crouched over after the Harvard game, his heart broken by a first round defeat. But Jackson and Cincinnati have nothing to hang their head about. This year’s Cincinnati team clearly lacked skilled offensive players. Besides Sean Kilpatrick, there just were not a lot of players that could be counted on consistently for points. The story of Cincinnati’s season was what happened at the end of the game. With 3:10 left, Harvard telegraphed a pass, Jackson intercepted it, and then proceeded to blow the lay-up. Then, with 51 seconds left, Cincinnati’s Titus Rubles drove for an easy lay-up and blew that shot too. Cincinnati was just not a naturally gifted scoring team. Yet despite all that, the Bearcats won the American Conference title. Despite all that, Cincinnati put together a defensive effort all season long that earned the team a 5-seed in the NCAA tournament.

And that is where life is not fair. Because Cincinnati did not get some un-prepared small school that they could harass into a NCAA victory. Cincinnati drew a Harvard squad that was nearly a Top 25 team in the preseason. The only reason Harvard was seeded so low is because they couldn’t put together a schedule with enough quality opponents to earn a higher seed. But make no mistake, this was a deep and talented Harvard squad.

Despite the depth and quality of Harvard, this was not an easy game. Kyle Casey got an easy dunk early,  but he struggled with Cincinnati’s physicality and often looked off-balance when he caught the ball in the lane. Wesley Saunders got an early dunk too, but Saunders, an Ivy League Player-of-the-Year candidate had an unusually quiet day for the all-around stat-sheet stuffer.

More amazingly, despite the presence of two players who had been key PGs for Harvard, Siyani Chambers and Brandyn Curry, Cincinnati did an amazing job keeping the ball out of the PGs hands. Far too often, Harvard was forced to inbound the ball to other players who struggled with their decision making.

But two things gave Harvard the advantage. First, Laurent Rivard, has hit more three pointers in his career than any player in Harvard history. He had shot 40% or better from three in every year of his career. And despite a sluggish start to the season, Rivard had made 45 of his last 89 three points attempts (51%) coming into the NCAA tournament. Rivard punished Cincinnati whenever they over-played and his presence opened up other cutting lanes for the Harvard players.

Second, when it came to crunch time, Siyani Chambers was not going to be denied. In the final five minutes, he broke free and demanded the ball on every inbounds pass. And Chambers ability to avoid pressure defense and knock down free throws sealed the game.

Harvard won, but it wasn’t the emotionally fueled, dramatic upset like in 2013. In 2014, Harvard was the veteran team that methodically fought off a team with less talent but plenty of heart.

Bonus Note: Cincinnati received an administrative technical foul for not submitting the proper roster information to the scorer’s table before the game. They will never live this down.

#3 Syracuse defeated #14 Western Michigan

This week I heard Jim Boeheim on the radio. He said that you don’t have to enter the NCAA tournament with momentum because you can build momentum in the tournament. I think that’s what you say when you go 2-5 in your last 7 games and struggle mightily to score down the stretch of the season. But hey, the Orange beat Western Michigan, and Ohio St. lost, so maybe he is right.

#7 Oregon defeated #10 BYU

Oregon vs BYU is the ideal tournament game to watch. Both teams are fast-paced and neither team plays a lot of defense. Sadly the Kyle Collingsworth injury made it a little one-sided. Sure, BYU went on a nice second half-run to cut it to 56-53, but it mostly felt like a game where Oregon could score every time down the floor, and where BYU didn’t have the firepower to keep up.

This got me thinking a bit about BYU head coach Dave Rose. He had great defensive teams from 2008 to 2012. But the last two years his defense has been pretty horrible. And surprisingly, I cannot link it to the departure of a key defensive player.

Dave Rose

Def Rank

2014

109th

2013

90th

2012

25th

2011

38th

2010

51st

2009

39th

2008

11th

#1 Florida defeated #16 Albany

You had to be tough to survive Thursday. Albany was hanging close to Florida until Kasey Hill accidently kneed Albany’s DJ Evans in the head. In the North Dakota St. game we not only had a cut below one player’s eye, we saw Taylor Braun take a brutally hard kick to the head, that was again an accident. For Florida fans, the close game might have felt like a kick-to-the-head, but the Gators have played plenty of close games against inferior opponents this year and risen to the occasion later.

#4 Michigan St. defeated #13 Delaware

Adreian Payne is going to get all the love for making 17 of 17 free throws and opening the game with four threes. But I thought Travis Trice’s play to open the second half, really sealed the victory. Davon Usher was hitting some big shots for Delaware, but Trice’s ability to attack in transition kept the game at a comfortable margin.

#2 Michigan defeated #15 Wofford

The ball got stuck behind the basket in the Michigan vs Wofford game requiring someone to get a ladder. Yep, that’s all I’ve got.

#7 UConn defeated #10 St. Joseph’s

Before we get to the game, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the additional coverage on Phil Martelli’s grandson. After imitating his grandfather in last Sunday’s game and garnering lots of camera time, Martelli’s grandson made TV and radio appearances this week. The best part was the CBS graphic. “Returned to preschool – classmates not impressed.”

UConn has an under-rated coach. The play Kevin Ollie designed at the end of regulation to get Shabazz Napier an open look at a three was brilliant. UConn has good outside shooters. Despite being out-played for much of the game, UConn made 11 threes and that allowed them to hang close. And UConn has good finishers. As they hit their 15th straight free throw in OT, it was clear that St. Joseph’s had no chance to come back. But the reality is that despite all of that, for UConn to truly make a run in the NCAA tournament, they needed one of their young post players to make some plays. Amida Brimah, one of those young post players, has been an excellent defender all year long. But his offense hasn’t been there. And that’s why Brimah’s play in the final minute of regulation was so significant. Brimah’s offensive rebound and three point play tied the game, and gave UConn that missing piece it needed to advance.

#5 St. Louis defeated #12 NC State

The coaching profession is just brutal. Objectively, the NC State fans should adore head coach Mark Gottfried. In his first season, he took the Wolfpack to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in 7 years. But then his players started hearing lots of talk about how they were first round picks in the NBA draft. And a team with high preseason expectations was a disappointment. That turned some of the fans against him.

Still, there was no way that this season could turn fans against Gottfried. He had a talented team, but one too young to accomplish much of anything. When a miraculous victory against Syracuse in the ACC tournament ended with Syracuse missing six shots in a row on a late game possession, NC State picked up a surprise NCAA tournament bid. Then things got even better as NC State beat Xavier in the First Four. Gottfried was riding on house money.

On Thursday, his team built a sixteen point lead on St. Louis. And then the fouling started. The end of the game could possibly be described at the most painful eight minutes of any NC State fan’s life. It was the kind of sequence that will probably cause some NC State fans to stop watching basketball permanently. St. Louis kept committing fouls and kept sending NC State to the line. NC State missed 12 free throws in the final five minutes. The clock just would not run out. Finally, with 19 seconds left St. Louis’ Jordair Jett tied the game.

But it wasn’t over. NC State fell behind in OT. But after a bucket, steal, and bucket, TJ Warren again went to the free throw line. His attempt would tie the game and keep the pressure on. Instead Warren again missed a critical free throw. He would foul out moments later. NC State lost.

And once again, NC State fans are asking how their coach could let them down. Why couldn’t he design plays to get the ball to someone who could make some free throws? Why couldn’t NC State keep St. Louis out of the lane in regulation and in OT? What should have been a gravy NCAA run, once again leads to some fans questioning whether Gottfried knows how to coach a talented team.

On the flip side, for St. Louis fans, who thought the season was ending with an epic collapse, the comeback redeems the season. Rob Loe redeemed himself with some early threes and late dunks. Jordair Jett, having the best passing (but worst shooting) year of his career, redeemed himself by finding the right player every time down the stretch. And in a moment, the end of season losses are forgiven.

#12 North Dakota St defeated #5 Oklahoma

Once again this year, CBS and Turner left almost no time in Spokane to clear the arena between the morning and afternoon session which meant the arena was practically empty for the start of the North Dakota St. vs Oklahoma game. This is unacceptable. These games are too important to those fans and players to do that. The NCAA either needs to issue a full-day ticket and not clear the arena, or the broadcasters need to start the games out west earlier in the afternoon session.

In the first half, Spiro Dedes told us the story of how Marshall Bjorkland was raised on a pig farm and when he went to North Dakota St. he didn’t get home-sick, he got farm-sick. Thus to keep him happy, the NDSU coaches found him a local farm in Fargo, ND where he could go and do some chores. You just cannot make this stuff up.

Like Harvard, this was a talented and veteran North Dakota St. team. I labeled them as the second best non-major in the preseason. Halfway through the second half, they were shooting 61% in the game. Normally that means the opposing defense is horrible or that the team is due for a bit of a letdown. But in this case, it made perfect sense. NDSU has the top FG% in the nation. This group barely gave any minutes to freshmen this year, and they know how to take good shots.

Yet somehow, Oklahoma hung around. After the Sooners went 5 minutes without scoring in the middle of the second half, Cameron Clark basically decided that he was going to put the team on his back. Down the stretch, no one could stop Clark from scoring.

But when NDSU’s guards started fouling out, the team was forced to bring in freshman Carlin Dupree. Somehow, in a tie game, Dupree was the difference. Despite making 58% of his free throws on the year, the freshman sank two in a row. And then on the subsequent possession, with NDSU still leading, instead of running the clock, Dupree attacked. He took what was probably a bad shot. Certainly it was a difficult shot. But it went in and gave NDSU a four point lead. And a team that has won all year with its seniors, won because of a freshman.

#7 Texas defeated #10 Arizona St.

I keep a notebook with comments to write up about various teams. Earlier this year, I started noting how many dunks and lay-ups Texas was missing when I watched their games. Cameron Ridley and Connor Lammert are fabulous offensive rebounders, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve turned on a Texas game and seen them blow a seemingly easy put-back. So hilariously, I started watching the Texas game in the second half and right from the start I saw Cameron Ridley miss a put-back dunk. I just have the magic touch with this team.

But what makes this really ironic is the end of the game. With less than a second left in a tie game, Ridley grabbed an offensive rebound, flipped it up on the rim, and watched it drop in for the buzzer beater. Despite a year filled with frustrating put-backs, when it mattered the most, Ridley made it count.

#2 Villanova defeated #15 Milwaukee

This game seemed close, but I think that was deceiving. Villanova easily dominated the paint and the overall play, but the game stayed close because they couldn’t make any jumpers. The Wildcats were 1 of 18 from three at some point in the second half. There’s nothing embarrassing about winning by 20 on a day when you can’t make any shots.

#4 Louisville defeated #13 Manhattan

Every once in awhile someone will say your seed in the NCAA tournament doesn’t matter. Well, just ask Rick Pitino whether he would have preferred to be a 2-seed and play Wofford on Thursday night rather than face a dangerous Manhattan squad. The storyline of the game was Steve Masiello, a former Rick Pitino assistant, giving his mentor everything he had. I found it fascinating that Russ Smith almost transferred to Manhattan to join Masiello after struggling during his freshman season. But Smith didn’t transfer, he stuck around and won a national title, and he made sure to hit a key three late in this game too.

#4 San Diego St. defeated #13 New Mexico St.

Running out of words and energy, I thought Doug Gottlieb said it best. Someone hit that darn Buffalo Wild Wings button again. Somehow despite no near-ball pressure, San Diego St. threw away the inbounds pass while leading by three in the final seconds. And somehow, despite being one of the best defensive teams in the country, San Diego St. let a guard dribble over to the top of the key for a wide open three. It had to be the button. The Aztecs finally prevailed in the extra session so we can all get some sleep before tomorrow’s games.

Do Freshmen-Filled Teams Get Better In-Season?

The Oklahoma St. and Colorado Litmus Test

Oklahoma St. has emerged as a true national title contender this season. That the defense has always been strong has been no consideration. At one point in the first half against Colorado, Oklahoma St. forced a 10-second violation, and Colorado looked shocked that time had expired. Oklahoma St. has a sneaky way of putting you in bad positions with their lengthy defenders. And everyone knows Marcus Smart is one of the best on-ball defenders in the nation. He had a steal on Spencer Dinwiddie on a fast-break in the first half, and I still have no idea how he escaped with the ball.

But the biggest reason Oklahoma St. has become a national title contender is the team’s offensive improvement. They no longer settle for so many bad three point attempts. LeBryan Nash still causes Cowboy fans to rip their hair out on occasions (his missed dunk in the final minutes led to an outlet for Colorado that almost got the Buffaloes back in the game). But Nash really has stopped taking bad outside shots. A year ago Nash was 12 of 50 from three point range. This year he has attempted just two outside shots.

Sometimes the difference between being an elite team isn’t the shots you take, it is the shots you don’t take. And that is why I was actually most closely glued on Askia Booker in this game. The Colorado junior guard has had an ORtg of 96.5, 92.9, and 96.6 the last three seasons, because he simply takes way too many low percentage shots.

And Fran Fraschilla was on him in this game from the beginning. “Booker keeps both teams in the game.” “He’s like a punt returner that never signals for a fair catch. He’s going to make some big plays but he is also going to fumble inside his 10 on a number of occasions.” “Booker has the green light even for low percentage shots. The coaches have decided to let him play his game.”

Given the emphasis on stats in the modern era, I find this a bit baffling. While Colorado should be doing everything in the team’s power to clear space for Dinwiddie and Josh Scott, for Colorado to truly reach its goals, Booker needs to cut back on his shots. Of course, this was hardly the game for Fraschilla or me to pick on Booker. Other than an early airball, and a couple puzzling turnovers, Booker mostly played within the offense on this night.

But the announcers were also quick to point out a reason for Booker’s wild shot selection. Booker often needs to take bad shots because of Colorado’s lack of depth. Colorado is actually the 15th youngest team in D1. And while that makes me extremely excited for next season, a key question is whether teams with a lot of freshmen are particularly likely to show improvement during the season.

Do freshmen-filled teams get better in-season?

I’ve written it on countless occasions. Team X is extremely young, so they will be much better later in the season. But do the stats back that up? The next table attempts to answer that question.

The Y-axis lists the change in Pythagorean Winning Percentage between the early season (before January 1st) and later (after January 1st). The X-axis lists the percentage of minutes given to freshmen.

I only include major conference teams in the table. For reference, the teams on the far right side include St. John’s in 2012, Indiana in 2009, Boston College in 2012, and Texas in 2007.

As the table shows, teams that give a lot of minutes to freshmen are not more likely to improve in-season. If that was the case, we would see more data points above zero on the right hand side of the picture.

Instead the entire table is very symmetric. Teams that give many or few minutes to freshmen sometimes get worse and sometimes get better.

 

This may come as a surprise, but I don’t think it should. After all, things are still going to get harder for many freshmen. They are going to play true road games for the first time. If they are lucky, they will face the bright lights of the NCAA tournament, where even super freshmen like Marcus Smart failed last year. And most importantly, the scouting reports are only going to get tougher. All those freshmen that are busting onto the scene right now, are about to find out what life is like when teams take away their favorite move.

Now, before you get too pessimistic based on this table, I think this table also shows quite a bit of reason for optimism. While the far left hand side of the picture is a little tighter (teams with almost no freshmen typically are more predictable), the truth is that virtually any roster can get better.

I always like to emphasize that Kansas forward Cole Aldrich didn’t break out until the NCAA tournament. I like to emphasize that Duke center Brian Zoubek didn’t break out until late in his senior year. The reality is that everyone playing D1 basketball is at a developmental stage of his career. These are not veteran 28-year olds. Whoever your team is, whether they are young or old, the future can still be brighter.

In fact, this is why college basketball is so fun to watch. Whatever we think we know now, given the small sample sizes, and emphasis on home games early in the season, the most important part of the season is just about to begin.

(Finally, before you write off Kansas or Kentucky based on this table, the reality is that both those teams are not terrible right now. Sure, with three losses, neither of these teams qualifies for the best-of-all-time debate. But given the large number of road and neutral games these teams have played against Top 25 teams, none of their losses is truly inexcusable. Whatever faults we attribute to Kansas’ youth, there are plenty of teams that would be jealous of the Jayhawks problems.)

Matchups Matter

We still have no idea how good Ohio St. is this year. They have a few good wins (against Marquette, Maryland, and North Dakota St.), but each of those teams has been weaker than expected. And unlike the other teams in the Top 10, Ohio St. has not scheduled many elite teams.

And after Saturday’s escape against Notre Dame, I’m still not sure we have many answers. Some folks will look at the narrow, come-from-behind victory against Notre Dame as a sign that Ohio St. is over-rated. But I don’t quite buy that. If Marquette was the ideal opponent for Ohio St., Notre Dame might be the worst possible matchup for the Buckeyes. Under Mike Brey, the Fighting Irish have been an unabashed jump-shooting team. Over the last 10 years, no team in the country depends less on dribble penetration and getting the ball in the paint to score. (See the very low turnover and free throw rate numbers annually.) But Ohio St.’s biggest strength is their ability to deny dribble penetration.

Thus if anyone was going to score against Ohio St.’s defense, it was Notre Dame.  And at times in the game, we saw just that. Late in the game, Notre Dame was up five points with 8 seconds on the shot-clock. Rather than force the ball inside, the team found Jerian Grant for a step-back three pointer that gave Notre Dame an 8 point lead. That’s the kind of shot that no defense can stop, even if Ohio St.’s defense has been one of the best in the nation.

But Ohio St. finally realized in the final minute, that if Notre Dame wasn’t going to force the action, Ohio St. needed to. Ohio St. scored and forced two straight turnovers, and within seconds, the 8 point lead was down to two. Ohio St. never let up and finished the comeback.

Even if Ohio St. didn’t prove they were an elite team, when you win the games where the matchup isn’t favorable, that’s a good sign for the long-run.

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 Part 2

A lineup-based statistical projection of the 2013-2014 season.

NCAA Tournament Day 4

Which conferences have exceeded expectations so far, looking back at 4 outstanding endings, Ben Howland, Ben McLemore, and saying goodbye to some seniors.

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.

A Super Saturday

On LeBryan Nash, Davante Gardner, Elston Turner, Rontei Clarke, Wisconsin/Illinois, and every minute of two games between real Final Four contenders (Minnesota/Indiana and Duke/NC State).

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.

Beating Kentucky

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

Player Performance In The NCAA Tournament

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

And Then There Were Four

Don't let the final score fool you. Kansas vs North Carolina was an instant classic.

Will The Madness Continue Into Sweet 16?

The first weekend of the NCAA Tournament was one of the most unpredictable in recent memory. Now, with the second weekend set to tip-off, the Madness may have only just begun.

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.

The Fredette Lesson

The struggles of Jimmer Fredette illustrates how superb college players are not guaranteed NBA success if they lack skills that provide useful in a complementary role. The example for the 2012 Draft class could become Jared Sullinger.

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.

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

As Draymond Green locked up the Big Ten POY award and Kansas battled Missouri for a likely No. 1 seed, Saturday afternoon encapsulated everything that is great about the NCAA regular season.

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