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Five Player Defense (And Offense)

Ken Pomeroy added some data to his website last season showing the most common five-player lineups for college basketball teams. One of the things I'd love to see him add is the defensive rating when various five-player lineups are on the floor.

For example, last year I was very curious whether Duke's defense was generally better in five-player lineups that included the 7'0" Marshall Plumlee.

I don't know of a source that tracks five-player lineup defensive efficiency (or offensive efficiency) for every team, but @nuclearbdgr currently tracks this type of data for Wisconsin. And he was nice enough to share his data with me for last season. The next table shows Wisconsin's two most common lineups last year. This featured a trade-off of Frank Kaminsky and Nigel Hayes:



Off. Eff.

Def. Eff.


Traevon Jackson, Josh Gasser, Ben Brust, Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky





Traevon Jackson, Josh Gasser, Ben Brust, Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes





We could probably guess that because of Kaminsky's outside shooting that the Badger offense was better with Kaminsky on the floor. But not everyone would necessarily conclude Kaminsky was the better defender. Kaminsky is not the most agile defender, and Hayes was quite strong if undersized in the post. But the numbers suggest that having the 7 foot Kaminsky on the floor did make a big difference to the Badgers' defense. Wisconsin’s defense allowed 1.03 points per possession with Hayes vs 0.97 points per possession with Kaminsky with the same set of teammates on the floor.

Admittedly, this data isn’t adjusted for opponent. But the bigger problem with this data, as with most college basketball data, is simply the small sample sizes. These were the only five-player lineups that Wisconsin used for over 100 minutes last season. I can think of a lot more fun questions to ask with this data, but everything else in this column suffers from a significant small sample problem.

Many people project Traevon Jackson, Josh Gasser, Sam Dekker, Nigel Hayes, and Frank Kaminsky to be Wisconsin's five-man starting rotation this year, so a natural question is how these five played together last year. But this lineup played only 13.5 minutes together last season. I can tell you it was a dynamic group, scoring 1.54 points per possession while allowing 0.73 points per possession, but drawing conclusions based on 13.5 minutes of data is foolish.

To expand the sample size, we might ask how Wisconsin played last year whenever they played the three big men with any guards. When Dekker, Hayes, and Kaminsky were on the floor together, how did the Badgers perform?

Three Bigs With


UW Pts

Opp Pts

UW Poss

Opp Poss





































3 Big Total






Dividing Wisconsin's points by Wisconsin's possessions we see that a lineup with these three big men was much better offensively, with basically no impact on the team's defense:


Off Eff

Def Eff


Dekker/Hayes/Kaminsky together




All other Lineups




I find this fairly fascinating, even if the sample size is too small. Probably the biggest surprise is that the offense was so great last year with these three big men playing together. You might be surprised to see this since Hayes was Wisconsin's least efficient rotation player. But ORtg doesn't always explain a player's role in putting pressure on a defense.

For example, Traevon Jackson has never been Wisconsin's most efficient player, in part because he turns  the ball over on occasion. But that doesn't mean he isn't vital to making the Wisconsin offense work. Jackson is the best player at beating his man off the dribble and causing the defense to collapse. And when the shot-clock is winding down, Jackson is the one player who can create a shot other than a jacked-up three.

In the same vein, Hayes puts a real pressure on the defense whenever he is on the floor because he is such a great back-to-the basket player. Hayes is incredible at drawing fouls, and the attention he draws in the paint makes the Wisconsin offense better.

I think what you see here is that teams guarding Wisconsin faced a real dilemma with this bigger lineup. If they kept their big defenders in the paint to stop Hayes from posting up, that often means Dekker or Kaminsky were shooting over a shorter player, and three point shots are always easier without a hand in your face.

You might think with a taller group of players on the floor that Wisconsin would be better defensively, but the numbers don't support that. I suspect that with the bigger lineup that Wisconsin struggled to keep certain players from driving to the basket.

Of course, you may also wonder if these numbers are slanted because of the quality of competition. According to the data, Wisconsin used this lineup of three big men against a variety of opponents, as listed in the next table. The small sample size is a concern, but I don't think the quality of opponent is greatly impacting these numbers.  

Wisconsin played Minnesota three times, which is one reason they used this lineup the most against the Gophers.





Green Bay




St. Louis








Oral Roberts


E. Kentucky




Ohio St.






Michigan St.




North Dakota


Penn St.






Wisconsin doesn't have to play three big men this year. I suspect we will see lineups with Traevon Jackson, Josh Gasser, and Bronson Koenig playing together as well. But according to Nuclear Badgers' calculations, those lineups were not quite as dominant, with an offensive efficiency rating of 1.16 and a defensive efficiency rating of 1.04, a difference of just 0.12. Those three guards played together 132 minutes last year so we have a little more data on that group.

We also need to remember that Hayes and Koenig were true freshmen last year. Typically players improve a lot in their second season. So whether the Badgers use three guards or three forwards, the experience that Hayes and Koenig gained last season should significantly improve their efficiency.

And the reality with this team is clear. Any lineup with Dekker and Kaminsky, two forwards that have a chance to play in the NBA, is going to be extremely dangerous.

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























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.

NCAA Top 25 Projections (Post NBA Draft Declaration Deadline)

Before I share the projections, I want to comment on a few places where my rankings disagree with some other experts. I explain the statistical reasons why my model is more skeptical of Texas, SMU, San Diego St., and Oklahoma. But I also do not completely agree with what the model is currently suggesting. The lineup-based statistical projection seems to be falling in love with teams with a lot of unproven high school talent.

Where My Model Disagrees with Other Experts

Texas (Too High Elsewhere): Texas returns 100% of their minutes from last year, they have super-recruit Myles Turner joining the front-court, and they made the round of 32 last year. But I think it is important to emphasize that Texas finished with the 6th best margin-of-victory in the Big 12, and the 39th best margin-of-victory nationally. In terms of NCAA at-large teams without major injuries, Texas was the luckiest team in the nation last year, winning a ton of close games. Heck, even their NCAA win came by the slimmest of margins on a last-second buzzer beater. If you start from the premise that Texas was a Top 25 team, you could justify a Top 5 ranking. But based on how they really played, and how inconsistently their lineup performed individually, I have them just behind the other elite teams in 9th.

SMU (Too High Elsewhere): A lot of SMU’s players had huge jumps in efficiency last year.  Marcus Kennedy had an ORtg of 88 at Villanova and an ORtg of 106 at SMU last season. Nic Moore had an ORtg of 106 at Illinois St. and an ORtg of 118 at SMU last season. But big leaps in efficiency are usually followed by players slipping back some. AAC coaches are studying film of Kennedy and Moore’s game this off-season and figuring out ways to slow them down. The addition of Emmanuel Mudiay is why I have SMU improving its margin of victory from 30th to 16th, but without Myles Turner, I think it is premature to put them in the Top 10.

San Diego St.  (Too High Elsewhere): Most people account for Xavier Thames impact on the offense, but not enough people are recognizing how special it was to have an elite defensive rebounder like Josh Davis. Remember what happened to Oregon’s defense after Arsalan Kazemi graduated? Oregon fell from 10th to 88th on defense.

Oregon (Too High Elsewhere): Speaking of Oregon, I love the backcourt, but for a team that was horrible on defense last year, the lack of clear defenders in the paint is a red flag. Perhaps the highly regarded JUCO recruits will make a difference, but the front-court weakness is what is keeping Oregon out of my Top 25.

Oklahoma  (Too High Elsewhere): Oklahoma finished 2nd in the Big 12 last year, but the Sooners only had the  5th best margin-of-victory in the conference, and nationally their margin-of-victory was only 33rd. That said, Oklahoma’s potential starting lineup is impressive:

-Ryan Spangler, a dominant rebounder, who rarely touched the ball, but had an ORtg of 125

-Dante Buford, the nation’s #72 recruit and a needed piece at forward

-Jordan Woodard, who had a 28% assist rate as a freshmen, and an ORtg of 108

-Isaiah Cousins, a 40% three point shooter with an ORtg of 112

-And Buddy Hield, a high volume shooter who made 90/233 or 39% of his threes last season

On paper, that should lead to a very good offense. But my model is skeptical that it will be better than last year’s offense. Oklahoma loses a player that took 30% of the shots last year, and was extremely efficient, in Cam Clark. The most likely scenario next season is that Oklahoma will replace Clark with some of its less skilled big men. Either veteran DJ Bennett, or one of the three freshmen bigs (of which Buford is the most highly ranked) will take Clark’s minutes. The increased size will improve the defense, but it will also hurt Oklahoma’s offense. While Buford is a Top 100 recruit, based on where he is ranked, we can’t expect him to be a consistent offensive player immediately.

What could overcome the loss of Clark is if Hield, Cousins, or Woodard took a significant step forward. But what you have to remember is that none of these guys was a Top 100 recruit out of high school. Realistically, they are all playing pretty close to their ceiling. Woodard has the biggest chance to improve, as the sophomore leap is typically the biggest, but he didn’t make a ton of mistakes as a freshman, so he doesn’t have as much room to grow.

As I’ve shown on many occasions, to win at the highest levels, having elite high school talent is important. It isn’t completely necessary, but the stats show that on average, a high school recruiting rank is an important predictor of career development. And Oklahoma has only one former Top 100 recruit on its roster.

That emphasis on the potential of Top 100 recruits, particularly former Top 30 recruits, is why my model likes the next three teams that many experts are skeptical about. Essentially, if you have 7-8 players with solid recruiting backgrounds, and a coach that has been highly successful in recent seasons, my model tends to project great things. Let’s take a quick look at the elite prospects on three rosters:

Syracuse (Too High in My Projections):

#50 recruit, 6’3” PG Kaleb Joseph

#79 recruit, 6’4” SG Trevor Cooney, ORtg 122, 90/240 or 38% of threes last year

#28 recruit, 6’7” G/F Michael Gbinje, ORtg 111, passable 15.6% assist rate as backup PG

#37 recruit, 6’8” F Tyler Roberson, ORtg 89, best DR% on team last year

#24 recruit, 6’10” F Chris McCullough

#18 recruit, 6’9” C DaJuan Coleman, ORtg 109, almost always injured, but good per-minute rebounder

#21 recruit, 6’9” C Rakeem Christmas, ORtg 126 but far too passive with 11% of shots last year, best shot-blocker on team last year

Ohio St. (Too High in My Projections):

#32 recruit, 6’1” PG Shannon Scott, ORtg 101, 25.5% assist rate last year

#13 recruit, 6’5” SG D'Angelo Russell

#76 recruit, 6’3” SG Kam Williams, great shooter who red-shirted last year

#28 recruit, 6’5” SF Jae'Sean Tate

#46 recruit, 6’7” SF Sam Thompson, decent scorer, ORtg 105, but terrible rebounder

#22 recruit, 6’7” F Keita Bates-Diop

#66 recruit, 6’7” F Marc Loving, ORtg 101, aggressive scorer, possible break-out candidate as a sophomore

Temple Transfer, 6’9” F Anthony Lee, ORtg 107 on bad team, great offensive and defensive rebounder

#50 recruit, 6’11” C Amir Williams, ORtg 110, great offensive rebounder

UCLA (Too High in My Projections):

Unranked, 6’3” PG Bryce Alford, ORtg 110, 19% assist rate last year as backup PG

#53 recruit, 6’4” SG Norman Powell, ORtg 120, high steal rate last year

#19 recruit, 6’5” SF Isaac Hamilton, red-shirted after he could not get out of NLI

#12 recruit, 6’8”  F Kevon Looney

#36 recruit, 6’8” F Thomas Welsh

#69 recruit, 6’11” C Jonah Bolden

#24 recruit, 6’9” C Tony Parker, ORtg 108, strong rebounder last year

That’s a ton of players that were elite prospects coming out of high school. Given how well Jim Boeheim’s defense has performed in recent seasons, Syracuse should be ranked, no matter how much talent they lose. And Thad Matta might be the most under-rated coach in the nation. In the 12 years, Ken Pomeroy has been keeping track of the stats, Matta’s teams have never finished worse than 33rd in margin-of-victory. Steve Alford has also done a brilliant job developing players over the last several years. For example, Kyle Anderson became a star under Alford, after struggling to find a college role under Ben Howland. Talent + Great Coaching = Teams that should be ranked.

But a word of caution is warranted. This version of my model is based on the mean projection for every player. Later this summer, when teams fully fill out their depth chart, I will run my full simulation and project scenarios where players are allowed to have good or bad seasons. When I allow for the possibility that one or more of these recruits are busts, teams like Syracuse and UCLA are going to have a very worrisome downside. For example, if Syracuse PG Kaleb Joseph isn’t ready to play major minutes, Syracuse’s season could be a disaster.  The whole point of the above exercise is simply to point out that as much as these teams lose, their primary rotation has the athletes to be competitive with anyone.

Of course, you might also ask why teams like Stanford, UNLV, and Memphis are not ranked because they are also filled with elite recruits. Personally, I’m particularly high on Stanford based on their returning players and recruiting class. But my statistical model basically says this: If you look at the last several years on a per-possession basis, Jim Boeheim, Thad Matta, and Steve Alford, have been great at molding their players into efficient contributors. Meanwhile, despite occasional flashes of brilliance, Johnny Dawkins, Dave Rice, and Josh Pastner have been a lot less effective. Even in making the Sweet Sixteen last season, Dawkins team was only 36th in the nation in margin-of-victory.

Someone has to fill out the Top 25, and arguments can be made against all these teams. But that is always the case outside the Top 10-12 teams. For a description of the headings in the table, and a deeper run-down on some of the teams, click here.




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Moving Up Since Early April

Team – Players That I Did Not Expect to Stay: Analysis

Kentucky – Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison, Willie Cauley-Stein:  Kentucky now has eight players who were former Top 20 recruits out of high school. And the other two, Willie Cauley-Stein, and Tyler Ulis, might end up being the most important players on the team next year. Cauley-Stein is an elite rim-protector. And Ulis is a true PG who will be a better defensive match-up against speedy perimeter players, as well as a true facilitator. With experience to go along with all its talent, Kentucky is the clear favorite. 

Louisville - Montrezl Harrell:  Russ Smith and Luke Hancock were high volume efficient shooters who will be hard to replace. But keep in mind how many minutes Stephen Van Treese played last year, and he basically never shot. In net, you have a team with elite high school recruits at every position, depth at every position, and thanks to the return of Montrezl Harrell, you have a clear offensive star. The offense should be fine. As I've said before, the thing that will be harder to replace is Russ Smith's ability to create steals. 


Team – Players That I Did Not Expect to Leave: Analysis

Arizona – Nick Johnson (pro): Nick Johnson is not a consensus first round pick, so in my first set of predictions, I assumed he would return to school. But even if the NBA doesn't value him as a first round pick, that was how he played. Johnson was the most efficient of Arizona's starters, and he used the highest shot volume last year. Arizona has a stacked recruiting class, and has talent across the board. But the model no longer predicts the same big offensive jump now that the top offensive producer from last year is gone. The defense should still be elite, but keep in mind that Johnson was also better at grabbing steals and blocking shots than Gabe York and Elliott Pitts. His loss does hurt. 

Connecticut -DeAndre Daniels (pro): Daniels was a unique forward who could spread the floor, but who also had an uncanny ability to block shots. Lineups with Phil Nolan and Amida Brimah might be dominant defensively, but they won't have nearly the same great spacing on offense.

Minor note: Virginia lost Teven Jones to transfer. His playing time fell off last year, so this was not a huge surprise, but he did play 500 minutes in his career, and he was expected to be a backup guard next season. His departure makes a miniscule change in Virginia’s projection. This caused Virginia to fall below Villanova and Wichita St.

Dropping Out of My Top 25

Michigan – Mitch McGary (pro), Glenn Robinson (pro), Jon Horford (transfer): I thought Michigan could be a Top 10 team even without Nik Stauskas, but after losing basically the entire front-court, Michigan will have to deal with somewhat of a rebuilding process, at least early in the season. You are going to start hearing a lot about red-shirt freshman forward Mark Donnal in the coming weeks. Donnal was not a consensus Top 100 recruit, but he was a 4-star prospect, and he is the type of player that should have an impact offensively. But keep in mind that Donnal did not burn his red-shirt when Mitch McGary went down last year. The fact that he didn't says we shouldn't expect Donnal to be a superstar. If Michigan adds a JUCO forward, that would likely move the Wolverines back into my Top 25, but right now the front-court depth is lacking and Michigan sits at 26th in my projections. 

Colorado – Spencer Dinwiddie (pro): Because of the sophomore leap, I expect a number of Colorado’s players to get better this year. But there is no way they can be ranked without Spencer Dinwiddie. Colorado’s margin-of-victory fell to 77th late in the season with Dinwiddie out. Saying that Askia Booker's experience can make up for Dinwiddie’s departure is a joke. Dinwiddie had an ORtg of 129 last year, while Booker's ORtg was 99. Top 100 recruit and PG Dominique Collier will help a lot, but given where he is ranked, he is probably about a year away from dominating at the college level.

Maryland – Nick Faust (transfer), Shaq Cleare (transfer), Roddy Peters (transfer): Maryland was my sleeper team, but they fall a little bit due to these departures. Maryland was still incredibly unlucky last season. By just winning a few more close games, they should be in the NCAA tournament hunt. And they bring in a great recruiting class. But without Faust, they no longer project as a Top 25 team.

Baylor – Isiah Austin (pro): I thought after Austin’s stats fell off in every area and after he was no longer projected as a first round pick that Austin might spend another year in college. I was wrong. I don't hate the Bears roster. Kenny Chery, Royce O'Neale, and Rico Gathers are all talented players. But they are not quite a Top 25 squad anymore.

Utah – Princeton Onwas (transfer):  Onwas departure knocks Utah out of my Top 25, but they are close, and this should still be the year that Utah returns to the NCAA tournament. (Utah also added an international center, but he hasn’t been fully scouted by the US scouting services, and it is hard to project a big impact for him this year.)

Moving into My Top 25

Iowa St.: Bryce Dejean-Jones committed to Iowa St. this month, and his addition moves the Cyclones from 27th to 17th. Dejean-Jones was a high volume scorer and efficient passer for UNLV.

Oklahoma: While Je’lon Hornbeak wasn’t terrible by any means, he was the least efficient player on Oklahoma last year, and swapping him for a JUCO PG didn’t drop the Sooners. Oklahoma basically moved into the Top 25 because some of the above teams fell out.

Michigan St., San Diego St., Pittsburgh: Gary Harris’ departure was not a surprise, so these teams did not add or lose any key pieces since my initial rankings. But with the above teams losing key pieces, the Spartans, Aztecs, and Panthers moved into the Top 25.

Next week: I will have a few more comments on the defensive projection for Duke and Kansas.

Way Too Early Top 25 Projections

I break out my lineup-based projections model to predict the 2014-15 season.

Counting Down To Four

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Sweet Sixteen Day 1

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NCAA Tournament Day 3

Saturday wasn't basketball, it was art.

Final Thoughts On Ranking 351 D1 Teams

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Freshmen Playing Time Part 2

Given a sophomore and freshmen with equivalent stats, how much less will the freshmen play for each major conference coach?

Big Ten Basketball Early Projection

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2013-2014 Preseason Top 25

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

The Bo Ryan Conundrum and Conference Realignment Continues

Should we draw any conclusions from the fact that Bo Ryan consistently has Top 10 margin-of-victory numbers and no Final Fours? And how has the latest realignment changed the conference pecking order?

Weaknesses of Title Contenders

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NCAA Power Poll For February

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A Super Saturday

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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.

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.

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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