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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.

Opening Weekend Thoughts

Georgetown’s New Big Man

At a neutral site military base, when the crowd does not have a rooting interest, it is pretty difficult for a player on the losing team to stand out. But not only did Joshua Smith stand out for Georgetown, when he finally fouled out, he drew a standing ovation.

Joshua (don’t call him Josh) Smith did a little bit of everything in his Hoyas debut. He backed defenders down and finished in the lane. He fouled two Oregon centers out of the game. He showed great vision, passing and hitting cutters for easy baskets. He ate up space, blocking off defenders to give his guards wide-open lanes to the basket. And it became clear that no one watching Georgetown this season is going to be able to talk about anything other Georgetown’s new 350 pound center.

But as NBC’s Rob Dauster was quick to point out on Twitter, Joshua Smith had zero defensive rebounds in the loss. And the Hoya’s defense, not its offense, was the reason Georgetown lost the game. On Saturday, I sat down and watched the full game tape to see if Smith really was such a defensive liability. And the game film confirms that conclusion.

The big problem wasn’t Smith’s court awareness. I only caught two possessions where Smith seemed to be unaware of the ball and out of position. (Most notably this happened on the second possession of the game.) And Smith was mostly able to adjust to take away penetration. He even drew a key charge in the second half.

But the big problem is that Smith’s poor defensive rebounding wasn’t random chance. I counted at least four possessions during the game where the rebound careened into Smith’s zone and he didn’t even make an effort to jump for the ball. All four possessions came while the Hoyas were playing zone defense. I really got the sense that Smith was conserving energy by not jumping. And if you don’t jump, even a 6’10” player can seem small on the court.

Smith looked better as a defender when Georgetown was playing man-to-man defense. That is because when Smith boxes a player out, that player truly has no shot at the rebound. But you cannot win every rebound battle by just boxing out. Smith’s style of play means players like Nate Lubick and Mikael Hopkins have to be beasts on the boards. And neither one of those players had elite defensive rebounding rates last season. This is where Georgetown really misses Greg Whittington’s size and rebounding from a small forward role. But assuming Whittington doesn’t come back, John Thompson will have to work hard to find the right defensive lineup to balance out the Hoya’s new dominant big man.

Oregon’s Transfers

As fascinated as I was to see Smith, I was just as interested to see Oregon’s transfers in action. Joseph Young was clearly the star. I knew he could knock down wide open threes. But Young looked extremely comfortable knocking down two point jumpers in traffic as well. Most importantly, if there were any concerns that Young was just a spot-up shooter, his hustle on the court was apparent. At one point in the second half, he dove for the ball on the sideline and did a complete flip onto his back on the scorer’s table. That’s the kind of hustle that Dana Altman will love to see this year.

Mike Moser’s debut was a little more disappointing. I thought he settled for far too many jump shots. Certainly Georgetown’s defense had something to do with that, but I’m not a big believer that Ben Carter is going to come back in a month and own the inside. Carter was far too passive last season. And Waverly Austin just isn’t an offensive force. Austin’s numbers last year were poor, and he even had his shot blocked by the 6’5” Jabril Trawick in the second half. As big a win as this was for Oregon, for the Ducks to truly reach their goals, they need Moser to spend less time on the perimeter.

The biggest pleasant surprise was actually the play of transfer Jason Calliste. The former Detroit guard is getting a big chance to prove himself with Dominic Artis suspended, and he looked sharp. His understanding of floor spacing and ability to get to the free throw line really kept Oregon ahead in the game when Georgetown seemed to be taking control.

I Hate Suspensions

Oregon St. lost at home to Coppin St., but the Beavers were playing without two of their three best players in Eric Moreland and Devon Collier. Purdue won by just one point against Northern Kentucky, but the Boilermakers were playing without star center AJ Hammons.  Top 10 ranked Florida won by only eight against North Florida. But the Gator roster has been so depleted by eligibility and suspension issues that walk-on Jacob Kurtz played 26 minutes. Finally, Syracuse trailed Cornell by 6 at halftime, but Syracuse’s Jerami Grant did not play.

The most frustrating part of these early season suspensions is that they can wreck a team’s computer numbers. Even if the selection committee may be aware of what happens, Oregon St.’s RPI is going to be permanently damaged by that kind of loss. And that can hurt everyone else in the Pac-12.

Worse yet, we often don’t even know what the suspensions are about. I loved the TV commentary in the Syracuse game. “We spoke to Jim Boeheim about why Jerami Grant isn’t playing. He said ‘Grant isn’t injured, so you figure it out.’”

(Speaking of Syracuse, give credit to Trevor Cooney for making 7 of 8 threes in the opener. Cooney looked like he added a lot of muscle this off-season.)

Harvard Watch Week 1

Harvard may not be in the national title hunt, but the storyline of an Ivy League team on the edge of the Top 25 is too good to pass up. I hope to track Harvard’s progress throughout the season.

Harvard narrowly beat Holy Cross in its opener. I thought Harvard used a small lineup too much, left its best defender Steve Moundou-Missi on the bench far too long, and Holy Cross’s Dave Dudzinski displayed some outstanding outside shooting which made Harvard’s defense looked fairly pedestrian. Meanwhile reserve forward Jonah Travis carried Harvard with a career high 20 points and 10 boards thanks to some beautiful twisting moves around the basket.

But the real interest in game 1 wasn't the outcome, it was the debuts. Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey missed all of last season due to off-court issues, and I was curious whether they could pick up where they left off.  Kyle Casey announced his return emphatically with a dunk on Harvard’s opening possession. But then he was very quiet and eventually fouled out with 6:30 left in the second half.

Curry’s return was more nuanced. Curry was the primary ball-handler for Harvard two years ago, but Siyani Chambers broke out as a dominant PG last season and Wesley Saunders emerged as a capable creator as well. Thus there were real questions about how Curry would fit into the lineup.

For much of the game, I thought Curry looked a little rusty. He struggled to beat his man off the dribble, and Malcom Miller blocked the ball back in his face when he tried to attack the basket in transition. But Curry hit a buzzer-beating three before half-time. And down the stretch in the second half, Harvard’s trio started to build some beautiful rhythm with one another.

On one possession near the 7:30 mark of the second half, Saunders took the ball into the paint, drew the double team and kicked it out to Chambers. Chambers faked the drive and reversed to Curry. Then Curry drove the lane and kicked it back to Chambers for a wide-open three from the top of the key. Chambers missed the shot, but with three creators attacking, Harvard showed how tough this team will be to defend this season.

Classic Bo Ryan

I love watching debuts. Orlando Sanchez has been waiting forever  to be eligible at St. John’s and the 24 year old started his career by making his first three. Meanwhile Josh Gasser returned from his season long injury and knocked down his first three as well.

But one play in the second half of Wisconsin’s win over St. John’s pretty much sums up Wisconsin basketball. The play started with combo guard Josh Gasser posting up his guard defender. Then, when the defense collapsed around Gasser, he kicked the ball out to red-shirt forward Duje Dukan who knocked down the three. Guards playing inside and 21-year old redshirts breaking out after years of practice - that pretty much sums up Bo Ryan basketball. Dukan had 15 points in the win.

Connecticut Big Men

A lot of people are picking Connecticut to have a great season because the Huskies bring back 88% of their minutes. Meanwhile Maryland has no scholarship seniors on the roster. Thus it would be easy to write off Connecticut’s close win as a bad sign. If Connecticut isn’t better than Maryland now, will they really be the better team in March?

But that’s the wrong narrative. Even though Connecticut is a veteran team, the Huskies are still a team that is experimenting in the frontcourt. And Connecticut fans saw a couple of sequences that should have them excited. First, rising sophomore Phillip Nolan got the start and he looked explosive early with a couple of key offensive rebounds. Then seven foot freshman center Amida Brimah took over the game defensively with some huge blocks at the end of the first half. While both players picked up far too many fouls, their athleticism was tantalizing. Tyler Olander and DeAndre Daniels made some shots, but if Connecticut is truly going to reach that next level, they have to hope that Nolan or Brimah can develop over the course of the season.

Bullets

-Maryland fans may be cursing the fact that Dez Wells settled for a tough jumper at the end of regulation in the 1 point loss to Connecticut. But perhaps Maryland fans can take solace in this. Former PG Pe’Shon Howard was 1 of 7 in his debut for USC.

-One of my biggest frustrations with Oklahoma St. has been the fact that LeBryan Nash has spent far too much time floating on the perimeter, trying to showcase that he can play a wing role in the NBA. And while it was only one game, I was extremely pleased to see that Nash grabbed 10 rebounds in 27 minutes of play on Friday. Nash didn’t have double-digits in rebounds in a single game last year.

-Duke’s Marshall Plumlee played just five minutes, so it seems that smaller lineups are a certainty for the Blue Devils this season. Davidson wasn’t really able to expose that, but other teams might. But if Duke’s perimeter oriented big men can play this well, the team may still roll over teams. The Blue Devils 82% eFG% in the opening game (including 13 of 21 threes was just ridiculous.)

-I didn’t think I could have any more respect for Nebraska head coach Tim Miles, but then I heard this. Nebraska held Florida Gulf Cost to zero first half fast-break points in the win.

-Rutgers fans have been waiting a long time for Kadeem Jack to finally play like he did against Florida A&M scoring 30 points and grabbing 12 boards.

-I didn’t expect much from Minnesota’s newest transfer Joey King because he wasn’t even given a scholarship. But he made his first three and scored 20 points in his Gopher debut.

Boston College Needs More Athletes

5’9” UMass PG Chaz Williams is one of the quickest players in the country and an amazing driver and distributor. And when he is shooting well from the outside (as he did on Sunday when he went 5 of 5 from three point range), he is simply un-guardable. Williams led UMass to a win against Boston College on Sunday.

Meanwhile, the speedy 6’1” Bryce Cotton showed tremendous heart, scoring 28 points in Providence’s OT win over Boston College on Friday.

It is clear Boston College is the best 0-2 team in country. They will make some noise in the ACC this season thanks to Olivier Hanlan and Ryan Anderson. But these games do expose the weakness of Steve Donahue’s plan. Donahue isn’t recruiting true athletic players and hopes to rely on execution. But when you cannot keep speedy guards out of the lane and when you cannot compete on the boards because you don’t have the athletes, Boston College’s ceiling is limited.

Were These Upsets?

Kansas St. seemingly couldn’t grab a defensive rebound down the stretch and Northern Colorado pulled off the surprise win. But it is worth noting that Kansas St. has zero Top 100 recruits and zero JUCO Top 100 recruits on its roster right now. Bruce Weber did get his team to play defense (holding Northern Colorado to 89 points per 100 possessions), and that should keep Kansas St. competitive in Big 12 play. But on a roster without any high potential offensive players, this might not be the only ugly game Kansas St. plays this year.

Virginia Tech falling to USC Upstate hardly qualifies as a surprise given how much the Hokies struggled last year.

Finally, given that Miami FL lost 6 of its top 7 players from last year’s squad, and did not put together an elite recruiting class, I think we all knew Miami was going to fall at some point. St. Francis Brooklyn was glad to be the first team to pull off the feat.

Final Thoughts On Ranking 351 D1 Teams

In case you missed it, last Thursday I presented my upgraded projections model. Then I presented my 13-14 season projections on ESPN Insider. My projections included the median simulation, best case, and worst case for every team. I also did a Q & A session with Eamonn Brennan and another one with John Templon. I have also been answering a few questions on Twitter. You would think after all those words I would have run out of things to say, but here are a few thoughts that did not quite make the cut in those articles:

The Underrated Club

Q: Why does the simulation hate Arizona St.? Jahii Carson is one of the best players in the country.

A: Arizona St. is a team with a lot of two-star players on the roster. In fact, they have the second lowest average star rating in the entire Pac-12, ahead of only Utah. Luckily a few of those players are transfers who played well for other teams. But what this really means is that Arizona St. just doesn’t have the same upside as many of the other schools in the Pac-12. Herb Sendek’s track record on defense is also a huge concern.

Q: Why does the simulation hate Maryland? A lineup of Shaquille Cleare, Evan Smotrycz, Dez Wells, Nick Faust and Roddy Peters sounds like it could hang with anyone. And Seth Allen, Charles Mitchell, and Damonte Dodd all seem like solid reserves. Why is the model so pessimistic?

A: The simulation is concerned that Maryland has only nine scholarship players on the roster. There is real downside risk with such a short bench because if a couple of players struggle or get injured, there are no alternates. Last year N.C. State entered the year with just nine scholarship players and things turned south early. Now, that doesn’t mean Maryland is destined to fail, but depth is a risk with this type of roster.

Q: Why does the simulation hate Denver? They had a great margin-of-victory numbers last year.

A: While I truly believe star ratings are important, the focus on recruiting evaluations really hurts the small conference squads in my projections. Only when a small conference team has virtually no lineup questions will that team be ranked near the top. (This year the two exceptions are North Dakota St. and Harvard. North Dakota St. brings back 95 percent of its minutes and gets a player back who was injured for much of last year. Meanwhile Harvard gets two star players back who were suspended last season.)

In Denver’s case even with several efficient players back, particularly star Chris Udofia, winning seems likely. But Denver has to replace two of the three players that played the most minutes last season. And the likely replacements will only be two-star athletes. That’s not to say that head coach Joe Scott cannot build a winner again. But it is very hard to get a Top 50 margin-of-victory in a small conference. And if Scott does it again, that should be considered a huge accomplishment. It shouldn’t be the expectation. (The real issue for Denver is finding another ball-handler to compliment Udofia. Last year Royce O’Neale and Udofia both were key distributors for the team, but with O’Neale transferring to Baylor, the remaining options are not great.)

Random Thoughts on Some Major Conference Teams

- In my Insider column, I said that the Spartans were the lowest risk team in the nation which sparked some jokes from Michigan St. fans on Twitter. I think this points out how insanely volatile college basketball can be. Even when the Spartans bring back five of their six top rotation players including three clear stars, their fanbase in nervous. Part of that is the fact that Tom Izzo’s teams notoriously struggle in November. But when a team with Top 10 talent brings nearly everyone back and their fans are nervous, you know that anything can happen in college basketball.

- Michigan’s position in 12th in my rankings is a little misleading. I honestly believe that Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson can lead this team a long way. But I am legitimately concerned about the guard rotation. John Beilein was very reluctant to play Jordan Morgan and Mitch McGary together last season because they weren’t outside shooters. So I have to assume Robinson will play most of his minutes at the four-spot again this year. But then how does the guard rotation work? Does the team play Spike Albrecht, Derrick Walton, and Nick Stauskas together? What if Albrecht and Walton aren’t ready? That is why my model has such a low downside for the Wolverines. (And don’t tell me Caris LeVert is the answer. He was a low-ranked recruit and nothing he did last season leads me to believe he should be a key player on a Top 10 team.)

- When I first ran the model, I was a little surprised the downside for Kentucky was not lower. After all, a young Kentucky team lost in the first round of the NIT last season. But this is what happens when you return two efficient high potential players (in Alex Poythress and Will Cauley-Stein), and add five Top 10 recruits. With that many high potential players, even if two or three of them struggle immensely, Kentucky can still win. Kentucky could not afford for Archie Goodwin to struggle and Nerlens Noel to get injured last season. This year if Julius Randle struggles and Will Cauley-Stein gets hurt, the team can just say “Next man in.”

- I love the range for Indiana in my ESPN Insider rankings. The team has 7 top 100 recruits, and an elite season is still possible. But given all the new faces and how little most of the returning sophomores played last year, the downside risk is major.

- If you want to vote any of my model’s Top 34 teams into the Top 25, I can see arguments for all of them. But I stick by my model’s skepticism of Baylor. Pierre Jackson carried the Bears last year and I don’t see how they can be a better team without him. Their margin of victory was 26th last year (thanks to winning the NIT) and I only give them about a 20 percent chance to do better than that.

- If you have ESPN Insider, look at how painfully low Alabama’s downside is this year. After Devonta Pollard was arrested this offseason, the team is down to nine scholarship players who are eligible this year. If someone on Alabama’s squad doesn't play well, there are no alternatives. This is too bad because Anthony Grant is such a talented young coach, but off-court issues keep derailing his teams.

- Iowa St. made a great move adding Marshall transfer DeAndre Kane. But I suspect Fred Hoiberg needed to add a couple more transfers to keep his transfer winning streak going. With 64% of the lineup gone and four of Iowa St.'s six most efficient players departing (Melvin Ejim and George Niang return), expect Iowa St. to take a step back.

- My model is more optimistic about Seton Hall than what you see in some other rankings. Texas transfer Sterling Gibbs will be a huge upgrade over Tom Maayan and his 50% turnover rate. And with fewer injuries, Kevin Willard should have the defense playing better.

Random Thoughts on Some Mid-Major Conferences

- I’ve still got St. Mary’s on the NCAA bubble. Many will discount the team after Matthew Dellavedova's departure. But Beau Leveasque and Stephen Holt aren't suddenly going to forget how to shoot. Brad Wadlow isn't going to stop being a physical force on the boards and finishing over 60 percent of his shots. This team still has talent.

- The team I think most pundits have over-rated this year is Northeastern. The Huskies were extremely lucky last year. Despite the 7th best MOV in the CAA, they won a ton of close games, including a 4-1 record in OT. Their conference title is very deceiving. With the team's leading scorer and most efficient player Joel Smith gone, a repeat conference title seems unlikely.

- One team I am buying is Weber St. Weber St. had the best margin-of-victory in the Big Sky last year. They even outscored Montana by 19 points in their three meetings. But somehow they went 1-2 against the Grizzlies and that 1-2 mark gave Montana the regular season and conference tournament title. Weber St.’s aggressive and efficient inside-outside combination of Davion Berry and Kyle Tresnak is going to make sure that doesn't happen again.

- The conference champion I expect to come out of nowhere this year is Manhattan. Manhattan somehow lost 10 games to conference foes, but only one of those games was by double digits. This team was much better than last year's conference record would indicate.

- The race for the Big West title is wide open. I have five teams projected within one game of first place in that league.

- The CUSA race should also be highly entertaining. Louisiana Tech is the only team in CUSA that returns over 70 percent of its minutes from last year. (Tech brings back 85 percent of its minutes.) And Tech's losses won't hurt the offense. The team loses its least efficient player Brandon Gibson, and the extremely passive JL Lewis. With an already solid defense and an improved offense, Louisiana Tech could be headed for the NCAA tournament. But Southern Miss is just as formidable a competitor. The newest Golden Eagle, transfer Aaron Brown, shot the ball extremely well as a sophomore at Temple. His addition could give Southern Miss the CUSA title.

- Speaking of transfers, transfer Jay Harris was the PG on a Valparaiso team that won the Horizon league title in 2012. He could be the key addition that gets Wagner an NEC conference title in 2014.

- Finally, Indiana St. PG Jake Odum has to be kicking himself that RJ Mahurin transferred out in order to play his senior year with his younger brother. Mahurin was the team's only efficient big man, and the Sycamores could have been a more realistic NCAA bubble team had Mahurin returned.

Late Breaking News

- The news that Josh Smith was eligible immediately didn’t break until after I finished my rankings. With a full season of Smith you can move the Hoyas up to 27th in my projections. But as many people have noted, because of his conditioning, it still isn’t clear how much Smith will play. The downside risk for the Hoyas remains real. However, I do think that it is a major break that Smith will be around from the start of the season. The Hoya offense is a nuanced system that depends on precise cuts and passes, and integrating Smith mid-season would have been much more difficult.

- I had already assumed Joseph Young would be eligible for Oregon so their ranking is not affected by that news. It is clear that the transfer combination of Mike Moser and Young could be one of the best inside-outside combinations in the country. But I want to offer several cautionary tales. Ryan Harrow, Trey Ziegler, and Aaric Murray were three transfers that received a ton of hype last summer, and they were all such poor fits in the new environment, they have all moved on again. We’ve seen teams bring in a bunch of transfers and live up to expectations (like Iowa St.), but we have also seen teams take in a lot of transfer and disappoint (like Missouri last year.) Transfers are high risk players, and that is why my model has such a large range for the Ducks this season.

Dan Hanner vs Ken Pomeroy

Ken Pomeroy also released his preseason rankings on Saturday. While he is rather humble about his algorithm, I think it is important to note how well his system did last season. From a modeling perspective, a more complex system is not always better.

I would argue that the real advantage of my lineup-based system is not the predictive power. The advantage is that by focusing on the lineup, my model has fewer head-scratching conclusions. For example, Ken’s team level model has Miami at 62nd this year. With basically everyone in last year’s rotation gone and Angel Rodriguez electing not to apply for a transfer waiver, that’s an extremely optimistic prediction. But that prediction is based on how well Miami did last season, not any reasonable evaluation of the current roster. The same can probably be said of Minnesota at No. 35. The Gophers had strong margin-of-victory numbers last year, so Ken’s model loves them again this season. But my model sees that the Gophers made a substantial downgrade in the front-court and added an unproven coach. My model based on the current lineup has Miami at No. 102 and Minnesota at No. 63, and I think that’s much closer to what I have seen in most expert rankings.

But while Ken’s model can cause us to scratch our heads at certain results, do not overlook his predictions. The last five seasons of data are a very strong predictor in the aggregate. (If a team had a great offense before it tends to have better facilities, higher caliber recruits, and better coaches today.) And when the results of both our models agree, those are probably the strongest predictions of all. 

Big Ten Basketball Early Projection

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

Final Exam Time

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

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

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

What Happens When No One is Back?

We need to change the question from “How many minutes does a team have coming back?” to “Who is likely to step into the lineup?” An inside look at Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, and Purdue.

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.

Overlooked NCAA Games From 11-12

While the DVR is bad for tweeting, the college basketball season was full of moments that were best appreciated with the magic of recording technology.

NCAA Tournament Day 2

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

NCAA Tournament Day 1

Which players have contributed to Purdue's offensive resurgence, the storylines from Day 1 of the NCAA tournament, and an explanation why various teams tournament expecations are changing.

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.

Recruiting And Player Development, 2012 Edition

The best way to examine the value of specific college coaches is to examine how well they recruit and subsequently develop their talent. Let's examine the top 49 coaches from the Power 6 conferences.

Big Ten Bracketology

Selection Sunday is about a month away, which makes it an opportune time to examine which Big Ten teams will be dancing and which ones could dance into the Elite Eight or even the Final Four.

YABC Column For Feb. 6th (Iowa St., Florida St., Robbie Hummel & More)

On Florida State with and without Ian Miller, Miami's upset of Duke, Missouri as a No. 1 seed, Iowa State, Robbie Hummel as a spot-up shooter and more.

BCS Basketball Power Poll January 2012

Separating the BCS schools into tiers named after John Wooden, Dean Smith, Gene Keady, Rollie Massimino, John Chaney, Kelvin Sampson, Tim Welsh, Pat Knight and Sidney Lowe, how does everyone stand?

Colleges On NBA Rosters

Duke, Kentucky, UCLA, Texas, Kansas, North Carolina, UConn, Florida and Arizona each begin the 11-12 NBA season with 10 or more players on NBA rosters.

YABC Column, Dec. 19 (On Perry Jones, Miami, BYU, Illinois & More)

A hero moment for Perry Jones III, BYU doesn't slow down offense post-Jimmer, Reggie Johnson's return to the Miami lineup and much more.

A Major Conference Without One-And-Done Talent

If you throw Ohio State out of the equation, the Big Ten's one-and-done talent over the past five years is limited to Eric Gordon. Why has a major conference not experienced such a prominent trend and why may it be changing soon?

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