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College Basketball Preview 14-15: American Athletic Conference

My numeric projections will be available near the start of the season, but today I want to write a few words about each American Conference team’s outlook.

Earlier Previews: ACC Preview, MWC Preview, SEC Preview, WCC Preview, A10 Preview, Big East Preview

American Conference Co-Favorites

SMU: Even though Emmanuel Mudiay decided to skip college, SMU still deserves to be in the preseason Top 25. SMU had the 30th best margin-of-victory in the nation last year, they don’t have any freshman on the roster (who might waste possessions), and they return 74% of their minutes. With stars Nic Moore and Markus Kennedy returning, this team has Top 25 level talent.

But the reasons for optimism go beyond those basic stats. The reality is that several bench players are prepared to break out and take on larger roles. Keith Frazier was a Top 30 guard prospect last year, and as a rising sophomore, there is a strong chance he becomes a star this year. Former Top 10 JUCO recruit Yanick Moreira was injured last year, but when fully healthy he was dominant. All Moreira needs to be a major scorer at the D1 level is more minutes. And even if Ben Moore and Cannen Cunningham were not ranked quite as high out of high school, they were efficient last season and they could thrive with a larger role too.

The team also adds one of the best transfers in the nation in Xavier’s Justin Martin. Without Mudiay, this might not be a Top 10 team, but this team still has the depth and strength to win the league.

Connecticut: The next table shows UConn’s offensive and defensive performance in the regular season and in their six game NCAA tournament run:

Connecticut

Adj Off

Adj Def

Pyth.

Rank

First 34 Games

109.5

92.8

0.8688

25th

NCAA Tournament

120.5

89.1

0.9698

1st

Many believe the NCAA tournament is about luck. Unlike the NBA’s best of seven series, the one and done format is not about finding the best team. But even if you don’t believe Connecticut was the best team in college basketball over five months, you have to give the Huskies a lot of credit for how they played in that closing stretch. In those six games, the Huskies really were playing like the best team in the nation.

And as I said at the time, I think this national title is a huge boon for the long-run strength and stability of the program. A year ago teams recruiting against Connecticut could claim that the level of competition in the American Conference was not going to be good enough to prepare UConn for the NCAA tournament. A year ago teams recruiting against Connecticut could claim that while Kevin Ollie was a nice guy, he was no Jim Calhoun. But last year’s run erases those arguments.

Basically any guard that dreams of leading his team to NCAA glory has to believe that those goals can be achieved at UConn. From Khalid El-Amin to Kemba Walker to Shabazz Napier, Connecticut is a program where guards leave a permanent legacy. Thus perhaps it is not a surprise that Connecticut has ridiculous guard depth this year. Ryan Boatright is a star. NC State transfer Rodney Purvis was a Top 20 recruit a few years ago. Daniel Hamilton is a Top 20 recruit this year. Sam Cassell Jr is a Top 10 JUCO addition. Terrence Samuel played a vital role for the Huskies late in the season. And even if he fell off the map last year, Omar Calhoun still has talent; he just needs to find a way to channel it.

Despite that guard depth, the hardest player for UConn to replace may be DeAndre Daniels. I wonder if Daniel Hamilton might be the answer in certain situations. Coaches like to have their four best players on the floor. And at 6’6” or 6’7”, if Hamilton can hold his own defending certain types of opposing big men, Kevin Ollie might be able to unleash a lethal 4-guard attack at times this season.

Hoping for the NCAA Tournament

Memphis: When you hear about player commitments in August, it rarely sinks in. Who really cares about Indiana offering a 13th scholarship to some player that re-classified from 2015 to 2014? But as someone who has studied the rosters extensively this summer, I can tell you that almost every one of these August commitments has occurred because of a very strong need that a team had for depth or strength at a particular position.

First, Oregon has a talented starting lineup, but the team had only nine scholarship players. If you look at what happened to Temple last year when the Owls didn’t have enough scholarship players, you realize that teams vitally need depth. And thus Dillon Brooks re-classified from 2015 to 2014 to join the Oregon recruiting class.

A few weeks ago I wrote how Auburn had upgraded its talent level, but how the Tigers were not quite an NCAA tournament team yet. I said the Tigers lacked the talented big men to complement their talented backcourt in 2014-15. And so Bruce Pearl went out and made an offer to former Maryland commit Trayvon Reed. Reed won’t be eligible until at least December, and his recent arrest makes him a risk. But given that Auburn still needed quality players in the front-court, Reed was a natural choice.

When St. John’s forward JaKarr Sampson declared for the NBA draft, Steve Lavin said all the right things. But when he said, “We have a lot of confidence in Christian Jones” that was clearly coach-speak. Jones was a 2-star forward, who wasn’t a great finisher as a freshman. St. John’s needed more frontcourt depth. And Lavin did the only thing he could do late in the game, adding international forward Amar Alibegovic.

Two of the critical August roster changes involved the Memphis Tigers. At the start of August, Memphis simply had too much frontcourt depth. Incumbents and former Top 40 recruits Shaq Goodwin and Austin Nichols need minutes, transfer Calvin Godfrey is too good to ride the pine, and former Top 40 recruit Kuran Iverson seems poised to breakout. It simply wasn’t clear how elite big man prospect Dominic Woodson was going to get on the court. And suddenly, Woodson left Memphis and enrolled at a Tennessee program with one of the weakest frontcourts in the SEC.

Meanwhile, Memphis’ guard depth was not great. While Rashawn Powell and Markel Crawford can step in after sitting out last year, while Avery Woodson was a Top 100 JUCO guard, and while Dominic McGee is a Top 100 freshman, none of those players had played meaningful minutes against power conference competition. Thus Memphis added Vanderbilt guard Kedren Johnson. Johnson was a high volume scorer who had played over 1500 minutes in the SEC. Memphis lost a quality big man and added a quality guard, but what really happened in August is that the Tigers re-shuffled their lineup to get better roster balance.

And with great depth at the wing, where Nick King seems prepared for a breakout season and where Trahson Burrell was a Top 10 JUCO, the Tigers currently have incredible depth at forward, guard, and wing.

The real question for Memphis is not talent. The question is whether Josh Pastner’s sideline execution can begin to match his impeccable recruiting. While Pastner’s teams are almost always overwhelmingly stocked with blue chip recruits, he has only had a Top 25 margin-of-victory once in his career. Last year was pretty typical. Despite being ranked 13th in the AP preseason poll, the Tigers finished 37th in margin-of-victory. Memphis is recruiting at a level where they could compete for the American Conference Title every year. But until they start executing at that level, Pastner will never be viewed as an elite coach.

Tulsa: Two years ago Tulsa played an unusually high number of freshmen and lost a lot of games. Last year Tulsa rode the sophomore leap to an NCAA tournament bid. This year Tulsa is hoping to catch lighting in a bottle with Frank Haith.

When Haith took over at Missouri, he led a veteran team to 30 wins, a 2-seed in the NCAA tournament, and a Big 12 tournament title. Tulsa is hoping Haith can take over a veteran Tulsa squad and lead the Golden Hurricanes to similar success in a power conference.

That Missouri squad went with a tight seven-player rotation of veteran players. Something similar is possible here as James Woodard, Shaquille Harrison, Rashad Ray, Steve Repichowski, Rashad Smith, Brandon Swannegan, and D’Andre Wright are all back.

Cincinnati: A lot of words will be written about how an offensively challenged Cincinnati team will struggle to replace Sean Kilpatrick’s scoring. But I think we need to be equally aware that Cincinnati loses three extremely talented defenders. Kilpatrick, Titus Rubles, and Justin Jackson were all among the nation’s best at getting steals. Justin Jackson was an elite shot-blocker, and Rubles was a good shot-blocker for his size. And Jackson and Rubles were the Bearcats two best defensive rebounders. In terms of measured defensive stats, Cincinnati loses as much production as almost any team in the nation this off-season.

Cincinnati was also fairly fortunate on defense last year. Teams made just 32% of their threes and only 68% of their free throws against the Bearcats last year. (In the American Conference, Memphis was actually more fortunate, with teams making just 31% of their threes and 65% of their free throws against the Tigers.) But to put it simply, all indicators suggest the Cincinnati defense will take a significant step back.

The good news is that the offense is probably not as bad as it sounds. True, there are no clear stars at this point, but there are lots of quality pieces. Troy Caupain looks like he can be a quality PG. He was very good at getting steals, a quality passer, and very efficient in limited minutes as a freshman. Elite JUCO transfers like Octavious Ellis and Coreontae DeBerry should supplement the frontcourt nicely. And even if Shaquille Thomas is the only former Top 100 recruit on the roster, Cincinnati has a number of 3 and 4 star prospects that continue to have promise.

Hoping for the NIT

Houston: Kelvin Sampson, dismissed at Indiana for recruiting violations, is getting a second chance to be a college basketball head coach at Houston. And his starting lineup may include four former Top 100 recruits who are also looking for redemption. Former RSCI #22 Devonta Pollard went through an incredible kidnapping saga because of his mother, and he joins the team after transferring from Alabama. He joins former RSCI #64 Chicken Knowles in the front-court. Knowles received a lot of hype out of high school, had eligibility issues, and finally has a chance to start after being under-utilized last year. The team also adds former RSCI #72 Torian Graham. Due to academic issues Graham had to spend a couple of years playing junior college ball, but now he has his chance in a major conference. Finally, former RSCI #66 L.J. Rose blossomed after transferring from Baylor last year. The PG cut down on his turnovers significantly, but he still has to prove that he can lead a winning team in a power league.

Those four will likely be joined by the always efficient and effective Jherrod Stiggers in the starting lineup. The team also adds three Top 100 JUCO recruits in Eric Weary, Cavon Baker, and Betrand Nkali. Weary and Baker played at the D1 level at New Mexico St. and Florida Atlantic two years ago.

That sounds like a strong lineup on paper, but whether Sampson’s team is in the NCAA tournament hunt really depends on how quickly he changes the defensive culture at Houston. Houston had a great offense last year, but they never forced any steals or forced missed shots. While the roster turnover this off-season hurt the offense, it may actually help Sampson to more quickly implement a better defensive mentality. More importantly, these eight players all have two years of eligibility remaining. Even if the team needs a year to build chemistry with one another, there’s no reason this same core can’t have an even better shot at the tournament in 2015-16.

Temple: Last year I nailed the Temple collapse. While most experts had Temple in their Top 5 in the conference in the preseason, I pointed out that the Owls had very little depth and I pegged the Owls to be among the worst teams in the conference. Injuries certainly contributed to making that happen. At one point last season, Temple was down to six healthy scholarship players.

In 2014-15, I remain a little concerned about the Owl’s depth. A year after injuries derailed the season, I’m a little surprised Fran Dunphy once again has scholarships that are not being used. But there is no question that the Owls are going to be better. Will Cummings and Quenton DeCosey are quality scorers and they are back. Texas transfer Jaylen Bond will be a huge upgrade as will Clemson transfer Devin Coleman once he becomes eligible in December. ESPN also views big man Obi Enechionyia as a 4-star recruit, the type that should make a difference from the beginning. And with more health to players like Daniel Dingle, Temple will not be among the worst teams in the American Conference again. Fran Dunphy is a quality coach and last year was clearly an outlier.

Dragging Down UConn’s RPI

The bottom of this league is light years from the top of the league. There is a very good chance that the only wins these four squads get in conference play are against one another.

East Carolina and Tulane: At least you can say the two teams entering the league have veteran squads. East Carolina returns 70% of its minutes from last year and Tulane returns 86% of its minutes. East Carolina also adds Florida St. transfer and three-point gunner Terry Whisnant. I project both teams (particularly both offenses) to be significantly improved from last year, but that won’t be enough to make them competitive with the top of the league.

UCF: I will now spend more time debating the quality of UCF’s roster than you will read anywhere else: On the one hand, Kasey Wilson and Matt Williams were very efficient players for UCF last year, and their return is reason for optimism. On the other hand, the team used to have Isaiah Sykes and Calvin Newell using a high volume of possessions. Their departure means Wilson and Williams will have to increase their shot volume, essentially take more contested shots, and their efficiency could take a hit. On the other hand, Newell was actually a fairly dreadful offensive player last year. He made just 25% of his threes, 44% of his twos, and turned the ball over a bunch. And Sykes also had a down year in some respects. Despite being one of the best in the nation at getting to the line, Sykes made just 54% of his 192 free throws. Their loss is probably not as bad as it sounds. On the other hand, UCF doesn’t have a lot of elite prospects. On the other hand, Top 100 JUCO Shaheed Davis and Adonys Henriquez (who ESPN viewed as a 4 star prospect) are two players who might make an immediate impact, and none of the returning players except the PGs were inefficient last year. On the other hand, UCF’s returning PGs were not very good. On the other hand, freshman PG Barry Taylor is a three star prospect, and he might be able to play right away.

South Florida: I am very curious to see whether former Kentucky assistant and new head coach Orlando Antigua can boost USF’s recruiting going forward and make this team relevant in future seasons. In the short run, the team will rely heavily on forward Chris Perry, whose quality should shine through now that Victor Rudd and John Egbunu are gone. But the reality is that Antigua needs to turn this team over to a bunch of three star freshmen and hope it doesn’t get too ugly before they develop.

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. 

American Conference Basketball Early Projection

The American Conference was in the news this last week. They launched a beta version of their new website complete with a logo. And Commissioner Mike Aresco sat down for a Q & A with Matt Norlander of CBS Sports.com. The best part might have been Aresco’s admission that losing the Big East brand might not be a bad situation for football.

In terms of expectations for next year, pretty much every preview I have read has said the same thing: Louisville, Connecticut, Memphis, Cincinnati, and Temple will be good enough to make the league relevant.

From a historical perspective, that’s correct. Those are the five teams with the most NCAA tournament appearances and most basketball success. But I don’t think people have looked hard enough at Temple’s roster or considered who the Owls have coming back next year. Temple’s streak of six straight NCAA appearances is very much in doubt. More in a moment, but first, here are my lineup-based model’s projections for the American Conference:

Team

Proj CW

Proj CL

Proj Off

Proj Def

Last Off

Last Def

T100

Ret Min

Ret Poss

Louisville

15

3

115.4

87.4

118.9

83.1

8

70%

71%

Connecticut

14

4

115.7

92.1

108.5

94.2

5

93%

95%

Memphis

12

6

110.7

91.0

105.8

90.0

7

55%

59%

Cincinnati

10

8

104.0

91.4

104.2

88.7

2

60%

60%

SMU

7

11

105.6

98.0

98.3

100.2

3

90%

94%

UCF

7

11

106.6

99.5

105.1

102.6

1

79%

77%

Temple

7

11

103.1

96.8

110.2

97.4

1

31%

28%

Rutgers

6

12

106.0

99.8

105.9

99.7

4

40%

40%

Houston

6

12

110.0

104.2

105.9

107.2

2

80%

81%

USF

6

12

102.0

96.8

98.8

97.4

1

63%

63%

For an explanation of the column headings, click here.

Louisville: We all agree Louisville is a Final Four favorite and national title contender. But here is why I will still be watching the team in November and December.

1) I want to see how Rick Pitino replaces Gorgui Dieng in the middle.

Chane Behanan and Montrezl Harrell will probably be the best offensive post players on the team. But Pitino seemed reluctant to play Behanan at times last year against larger opponents (mainly Syracuse), and while Harrell is taller, he is no 7 footer. For defensive reasons it may be desirable to play either Akoy Agau and Mangok Mathiang in the post. That will probably lead to some growing pains offensively, but their defensive presence may make up for it. Finding the right balance of players should be interesting.

2) I want to see if Russ Smith can do it again.

Russ Smith was the kenpom.com player-of-the-year because of his amazing efficiency last season, but I think there are a lot of reasons to doubt he can repeat that. For starters, players that see big jumps in efficiency typically fall back slightly the next season. And Louisville had two of the bigger jumps in ORtg last year. Luke Hancock went from an ORtg of 114 to 121, and Smith went from an ORtg of 92 to 109. In both cases it was largely due to improved shooting. Whether that improved shooting is sustainable remains to be seen.

It is also possible that Smith might be less efficient, even if he isn’t a worse player. First, teams weren’t necessarily game-planning to stop Smith last summer. You can bet that UConn coach Kevin Ollie is getting out the tape and breaking down Smith’s weaknesses this off-season. For UConn to win a league title, they have to beat Louisville. And that means shutting down Smith.

Second, NBA scouts have made a big deal of the fact that Smith has to play point guard to make it to the NBA. I think this is a little silly. Smith has already proven he can create his own shot and create for other players. His assist rate is already above 20% which would make him the lead PG on a lot of teams. But it will be interesting to see if Smith has the ball more often in next year’s offense, and if he passes more. If he does pass more, will that lead to more turnovers or even better offense?

Certainly, Smith will not have to be the primary ball-handler with Terry Rozier and Chris Jones coming in. But I expect that Smith will want to look more like a PG this year.

Connecticut: Inefficient senior RJ Evans is gone. Enosch Wolf might be gone. But with basically everyone else back, the additions of George Washington transfer Lasan Kromah and borderline Top 100 forward Kentan Facey, everyone agrees Connecticut will be better than last year. The only question is how much better. My model is optimistic, in part because Kevin Ollie did well in his first year. Ollie took over a team decimated by unanticipated transfers and guided them to a winning record in the Big East.

If you think UConn needs a dominant forward to truly be considered a Top 25 squad, then you probably remain among the skeptics. But Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright are really the dream college backcourt at this point. They are aggressive, talented, and efficient. And having played together for two seasons, they have great chemistry with one another. With two players like that in the backcourt, UConn should be able to challenge for a league title.

Memphis: At this point Memphis has so much talent in the front-court that the addition of Top 100 center Dominic Woodson barely moved the needle.* Memphis jumped from 25th to 23rd in my model nationally. And there is no question that Memphis has a deeper and more talented lineup than Connecticut. They have talented seniors, a talented graduate transfer from George Washington named David Pellom, and five Top 100 recruits coming in. So why doesn’t my model have them higher? The answer is Josh Pastner. He has had talent before, but usually under-achieved.

Pastner’s team has been in the preseason Top 25 the last three seasons, ranked 19th, 11th, and 17th. But in terms of margin-of-victory, only one of the three years was a success. His teams finished 87th, 8th, and 40th in margin of victory those three years. His teams also never earned better than a 6-seed in those three NCAA tournaments. And his 0-11 record all-time against Top 25 teams is a symptom of those overall struggles. With a different coach, Memphis would likely be second in the projected standings.

*Note: It may seem puzzling why Woodson would de-commit from Baylor due to playing time concerns, but commit to a Memphis front-court where there are already 4 players likely to play a lot of minutes. But Woodson is the only true center joining Memphis’ squad. He has more weight and size than some of the other Memphis post players and will likely be better positioned to play right away. The reason Memphis’ projection doesn’t jump up more is because Woodson is mostly just taking minutes from a similar player.

Cincinnati: While Cincinnati was in most people’s preseason Top 25 rankings last season, I had serious questions. I noted that the front-court was likely to be well below-average. I didn’t get everything right, but I nailed that prediction.

Unfortunately, most of those players are back and Mick Cronin is left to rebuild around them. I particularly feel bad for Cronin’s relationship with Justin Jackson. Jackson has been an offensive liability his entire career. But he has always worked hard and Cronin seems reluctant to bench him. Last year Shaquille Thomas was inefficient too. David Nyarsuk shot a higher percentage, but he basically only shot when he had a wide-open lay-up. And Titus Rubles looked good for awhile, but he ended the season on a horrible streak. Rubles got above 1 point per possession just once in his final 13 games.

And if that isn’t bad enough, the team doesn’t have an obvious choice at PG next year. One of three unranked recruits will likely battle for that job. Sean Kilpatrick is back, but make no mistake, this is going to be an ugly offensive team.

Luckily, Mick Cronin has really found a niche as a strong defensive coach in recent years. Assuming he can keep that up, his team will be on the NCAA bubble. But there is no guarantee that they will make the field.

SMU: Last year SMU finished near the cellar of Conference-USA which is not a good sign. But keep in mind that SMU’s margin-of-victory numbers were better than their final record. They were 316th in “Luck” according to Kenpom.com. One factor that may have prevented them from winning close games is that the team was simply exhausted. SMU gave the fewest minutes to its bench of any D1 team. Larry Brown rode his five starters as much as he possibly could.

The great news is that those five starters are back and the team adds five players that should meaningfully improve the offense. The list includes three D1 transfers (Nic Moore from Illinois St., Markus Kennedy from Villanova, Crandall Head from Illinois), and a Top 10 JUCO player in Yanick Moreira. The team also adds Top 100 freshman Keith Frazier. With that kind of talent coming in and that kind of experience coming back, SMU should improve substantially on offense this season.

UCF: Star Keith Clanton is gone and that is a big loss. But basically everyone else is back, and with so many players returning the offense will probably be even better than last year. Isaah Sykes will be on many people’s preseason all-conference ballots. He has great size for the PG position and he is aggressive and efficient. Tristan Spurlock was a Top 100 recruit out of high school and he should continue to dominate in the paint. And Calvin Newell and Kasey Wilson bring a lot to the table too (Newell more on defense than on offense.) Add JUCO transfer Eugene McCrory and a bunch of rising sophomores, and UCF looks poised for another solid year.

The reason I cannot project them for the upper-echelons of the American Conference are the questions on defense. With so many of the same players coming back who couldn’t stop teams last year, it seems likely the team’s defense will not quite be NCAA tournament caliber.

Temple: I am assuming UMass transfer Jesse Morgan will not get eligible. Eric Angevine had a nice summary of this recently. Basically, it is going to take a lot for Morgan to play basketball this season. Of course if Dez Wells got kicked out of school and managed to land on another team immediately, anything is possible. For now, this projection assumes Morgan won’t play.

Looking at Temple’s rotation from last year, here is who is departing and who is returning.

ORtg, PctPoss, Player

Leaving

108, 32% Khalif Wyatt

116, 20% Jake O'Brien

106, 19% Scootie Randall

104, 19% Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson

122, 9% TJ Dileo

Returning

108, 20% Anthony Lee

95, 17% Will Cummings

89, 17% Dalton Pepper

86, 19% Quenton DeCosey

I love Anthony Lee as much as the next guy, but it doesn’t take any advanced math to realize that Temple is losing a bunch of efficient players and returning a bunch of inefficient players. Worse yet, Khalif Wyatt shot so much, opposing defenses were focused on him. If Cummings and Pepper were struggling to score with Wyatt on the floor, how efficient are they going to be when they are asked to take more shots this season?

Temple doesn’t have an instant-impact recruiting class to depend on either. There are no transfers and none of Temple’s incoming recruits are Top 100 recruits. In fact, only one current roster player, Dalton Pepper, was a Top 100 recruit out of high school. That isn’t that unusual for Fran Dunphy. Dunphy has made the tournament six years in a row and never had multiple Top 100 recruits on the roster.

But Dunphy isn’t superhuman. He has usually achieved that success by having a veteran team and relying on returning efficient players who he can develop into stars. That’s why most experts are willing to overlook Temple’s roster uncertainty. Dunphy has surprised us before, and it isn’t a stretch to think he will do it again.

But the difference is that Dunphy has never lost this much production in one year. In his previous seven years at Temple, Dunphy has always welcomed back over 50% of the team’s minutes from the year before. This year he welcomes back just 31% of his team’s minutes. And losing Wyatt means the team returns just 28% of its offensive possessions. And as noted in the table, these are low efficiency players that are returning.

Dunphy might still surprise us. But on paper, this is clearly the worst team in Dunphy’s tenure. Even in the A-10, my model would have pegged them for a disappointing season.

Rutgers: Rutgers hasn’t received any good news in awhile, but the recent additions of transfers Kerwin Okoro and JJ Moore was a huge development. Unlike Morgan, both will be filing for fairly normal family illness immediate eligibility waivers and I’ve assumed both requests are granted.

Moore is an extremely under-rated player.  At Pitt he almost never turned the ball over despite being an aggressive inside scorer. He has shot over 50% every year in his entire career, raised his free throw percentage to 81% last season, and his career ORtgs are 108, 109, and 120. That’s the kind of smart effective player Rutgers has usually been missing on its roster.

Also, despite all the crazy transfers this off-season, Myles Mack did not depart. Mack was easily the most efficient player on the roster last year, and almost certainly the team’s MVP.

Combine Mack, Moore, a pair of JUCO guards, and hope that Kadeem Jack and Wally Judge start living up to their high potential and Rutgers might actually have a starting lineup that can compete with the better teams in the league.

But if anything goes wrong, it is going to be a total disaster. There is no depth. (That is literally true now, but assuming Jordan signs a few players before the end of the summer, they will likely only be 2 star recruits who cannot be expected to contribute as freshmen.) You can’t mention names like Malick Kone or Greg Lewis and expect to win in this league. It just isn’t feasible.

Houston: Let’s just get this out of the way. The model hates Houston’s defense. 269th in the nation is just embarrassing. Worse yet, Houston’s defense has pretty much always been at that level under James Dickey.

Now if this team gets you a little excited, particularly with elite recruit Chicken Knowles finally becoming eligible, I get that. In fact, the model above pegs them as the fourth best offense in the conference.

Lineup-wise, the only weakness is PG, but that is probably a little deceiving. Dickey’s offense doesn’t take many threes, and the pressure to get the ball into the paint contributes to an above average TO rate for any ball-handler. But obviously, if you can get the ball to a front-court of Knowles, TaShawn Thomas, and Danuel House, good things will happen. And that has meant in the rare occasions when off-guards Joseph Young and Jherrod Stiggers do shoot threes, they are usually wide open. Really, I’m excited about this team. They just need to realize you have to play both ends of the court.

USF: One player had an ORtg over 100 last year so Stan Health decided to start from scratch. In a new league where even a bad team will have more chances to win, he is going all in with six freshmen, led by Top 100 recruit John Egbunu. That should pay off someday, just not this year.

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