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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. 

Losing Streaks And Injury Splits, Part 1

Before I start looking at the impact of injured or suspended players, I want to talk a little about losing streaks. (This piggy-backs nicely on Ken Pomeroy’s recent writing on the predictive power of wins.) This weekend we heard a lot about Louisville’s three-game losing streak and Minnesota’s four-game losing streak.

The point I want to make is that not all losing streaks are created equally. When Illinois went on a recent losing streak against Minnesota, Wisconsin and Northwestern, John Groce’s team played distressingly poor basketball. They played basketball roughly equivalent to the 229th best team in the nation. That was the type of losing streak that correctly caused people to adjust their expectations. Even if Illinois had a few nice wins early in the year, they were NOT a Top-25 team.

But Minnesota and Louisville’s recent losing streaks have been much less distressing. While losing four in a row, Minnesota has still played roughly equivalent to the 32nd best team in the nation. And while Louisville has lost three in a row, the Cardinals have been roughly equivalent to the 55th best team in the nation. Both losing streaks could have easily been stopped with a few bounces. Had Minnesota’s Rodney Williams made a free throw in a one point loss, or had Georgetown’s seldom used Aaron Bowen not tipped in a circus shot against Louisville, we wouldn’t be talking about long losing streaks at all.

That’s not to say that those two teams are playing well right now. Both team’s offenses and defenses have fallen off in recent games. But neither team’s performance is remarkably distressing. In fact, I’m much more distressed by how Kentucky is playing in the SEC this season. The Wildcats have gone 4-2, but given how poor the SEC is this year, Kentucky has actually been playing worse basketball than Louisville during the losing streak.


Adj Off

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Illinois (losing streak)


















Minnesota (losing streak)


















Louisville (losing streak)












Kentucky (non-conference)






Kentucky (SEC play)






*Does not include Sunday’s game.

Splits replicate the Adjusted Offense and Defense calculation on Kenpom.com which controls for opponent quality and venue. These measure how many points the team would score on a neutral floor against an average D1 team based on the team’s performance in the sample of games.

All this suggests that Minnesota and Louisville will be relevant at the end of the year, while I can’t be quite as certain about Kentucky.

For the record, I am a little nervous about Russ Smith’s play the last two games. Louisville’s national-player-of-the-year candidate has posted ORtgs below 100 in back-to-back games. (From the sideline, I can tell you Georgetown freshman D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera was very much bothering Russ Smith on Saturday.) Louisville hasn’t quite played a juggernaut schedule yet, and I’m worried if Smith might revert to his old inconsistency under the grind of Big East play.

Unfortunately, sometimes a breakout performance is just a hot-streak. As an example, look at Florida St.’s Michael Snaer. Snaer posted a career high 110 ORtg last year, and everyone thought he would be an ACC superstar this year. But Snaer has always had turnover problems prior to last season, and after a year of cutting down the turnovers, Snaer’s turnovers are back with a vengeance this season. Snaer’s ORtg has suffered because of it.

Similarly, Wisconsin's Ryan Evans is making last year look like the fluke. Here are Evan’s ORtgs over the last four years:

2009: 92

2010: 82

2011: 102

2012: 92

Sometimes when inefficient players suddenly look efficient, it really is just a temporary fluke. Russ Smith has clearly played brilliantly this season, but until we get to March, I am always going to wonder if the inconsistent Russ Smith, who falls in love with impossible shots, isn’t still around.

Of course, even if I believe in Minnesota and Louisville, these losing streaks will matter to the NCAA selection committee. And personally, I believe they should matter. A lot of people advocate for seeding the NCAA tournament based on team quality (read: Margin of Victory), not based on team accomplishment (read: Quality Wins). And I understand the arguments. Certainly, when you don’t seed by team quality, you run into situations where a 1-seed gets a horrible draw. And the NCAA committee is instructed to pick the BEST teams for the tournament.

But I view it this way. You can either win an NCAA title by over-achieving in the regular season or over-achieving in the post-season.

No one wins the NCAA tournament without performing above expectations. If you look pre-tournament, no team is favored to win more than four games. But every year someone wins 6 games and over-achieves. Similarly, some teams over-achieve in the regular season. They earn surprising wins and earn better seeds, even though they have to squeak by with a series of close wins. But why condemn over-achievement in the regular season when we don’t condemn over-achievement in the tournament?

Louisville and Minnesota are under-achieving. That just means they have a harder road to post-season glory. It doesn’t mean they are bad teams.

Injury Splits, Part 1

Over the next two days, I’m going to talk about where injuries or suspensions may be skewing our evaluation of various teams. I won’t be talking about all of this year’s critical injuries. For example, Wisconsin’s Josh Gasser, Missouri’s Michael Dixon, and Tennessee’s Jeronne Maymon have missed the entire season. While those injuries have clearly hurt their teams, because they didn’t play a minute this year, the Pomeroy and Sagarin ratings for those teams accurately reflect their future expectations.

But when players are out for a period of time (like Duke’s Ryan Kelly), it can take awhile for the rankings to catch up. Duke is now playing worse basketball, and we may want to look at how much worse the Blue Devils are playing without Kelly.

Of course not every player who is injured matters. For that reason I focus on players who play at least half their team’s minutes. And often we are looking at very small samples. Random noise may certainly explain some of the deviations from the norm. But I do think it is informative to look at how teams have performed without their missing stars.


Adj Off

Adj Def










Duke (without Ryan Kelly)













Wyoming (without Luke Martinez)













Marquette (with Todd Mayo)






A lot of smart folks have written about how Duke will be a much worse team without Ryan Kelly. I wasn’t quite as convinced because I happen to have high expectations for Duke’s Amile Jefferson. But through four games, the numbers are clearly worse without Kelly in the lineup. Duke’s offense has slid, and their defense has fallen off a cliff.

That’s probably too big a drop off to be permanent, and Duke’s horrific performance at Miami felt like a once-per-season collapse, not a permanent sign of bad things to come. But I think it is informative how Mike Krzyzewski is allocating playing time with Kelly out. While Amile Jefferson has seen his percentage of minutes increase from 21 percent to 58 percent in the four games Kelly has been out, the second biggest beneficiary of playing time is actually Mason Plumlee. And this worries me a little bit if I’m Duke. Plumlee has been playing 96 percent of Duke’s minutes since Ryan Kelly has been out, and Krzyzewski seems hesitant to ever take him out. I worry that all those minutes are having a negative impact on Plumlee’s energy level. Plumlee’s ORtg was 115 prior to Kelly going down, and has been just 95 in the four games since Kelly went down. Some of that is due to the tougher ACC defenses Plumlee has faced, but you have to wonder if the lack of rest time is hurting Plumlee’s overall performance.

However, I honestly think Duke may be better in the long-run if Kelly can come back. That’s because Jefferson has thrived as an offensive player now that he is getting more playing time. Jefferson has seen his ORtg increase from 104 before the Kelly injury to 119 after the injury. Now that he finally has a chance to get a rhythm in games, Jefferson is showing his offensive talents. If Jefferson can eventually improve his defense, his development will only be an asset for Duke come tournament time.

The second most important injury split in this column might be the Wyoming split listed above. Ever since Luke Martinez was suspended for his role in a bar room brawl, Wyoming’s offense has fallen off a cliff. You simply cannot lose such a potent scorer and expect to replace him with other rotation players. Larry Shyatt has done a masterful job keeping Wyoming playing elite defense without Martinez. And that defense will keep Wyoming competitive in the MWC this year. But Wyoming simply lacks offense without Martinez.

Lastly, Marquette’s offense has improved since Todd Mayo joined the team mid-semster. (Mayo was suspended for the first semester.) Mayo’s ORtg hasn’t been fantastic, but he has been aggressive and has attracted some offensive attention. The part I find more interesting is that Marquette’s defense has sagged since Mayo joined the team. In fact, in the last game against Providence, Mayo received an unusual DNP-Coach’s Decision.  Buzz Williams explained his decision not to play Mayo by saying he didn’t have anyone for Mayo to defend. But it certainly seemed puzzling for Mayo to go from over 20 minutes per game to riding the bench for a non-disciplinary reason.


Adj Off

Adj Def




Long Island






Long Island (without Julian Boyd)













Valparaiso (with LaVonte Dority)







Wichita St.






Wichita St. (since 3 players out)






Long Island was the media’s pick for the NEC title this year because they returned almost their entire rotation from last year’s tournament team. But Long Island’s season was off to a disappointing start, and then super-scorer Julian Boyd went down. And while a recent winning streak has improved expectations somewhat, this remains a heart-breaking season for fans of the team.

Former South Florida guard LaVonte Dority joined Valparaiso mid-season, and the aggressive offensive player has helped boost the team’s overall performance. He is attracting a ton of attention and making his teammates better.

Finally, Gregg Marshall has to be a national coach-of-the-year candidate. He lost virtually his entire rotation to graduation, but in November and December his team continued to play at a very high level. Then on Dec. 20th he faced a situation where three of his key rotation players were out. Carl Hall, Ron Baker, and Evan Wessel were all injured and missing in action. And yet since that time, Wichita St. has actually played better basketball. Carl Hall has returned for the last four of those games, but Gregg Marshall’s ability to find new players and stick them in the lineup has been nothing short of amazing.


Adj Off

Adj Def




Missouri (Full Strength)






Missouri (without Tony Criswell)






Missouri (without Jabari Brown)






Missouri (without Laurence Bowers)






Arguably, Missouri has never been at full strength (since Michael Dixon left the team), but for two games in December they had everyone else active. They crushed South Carolina St. by 50 and beat an Illinois team that was playing well at that time.

The rest of the season has seen key player’s missing and the team’s performance has suffered because of it. Bowers injury has clearly been the worst, but Missouri wasn’t exactly playing elite basketball before Jabari Brown became eligible either.

I’m not going to show the Kentucky or Louisville splits (since I discussed those teams at length earlier), but surprisingly, their struggles cannot really be tied to Willie Cauley-Stein’s injury, Ryan Harrow’s early absence, or Gorgui Dieng’s absence.

Click here for Part 2: James Southerland, Greg Whittington, Taylor Braun, CJ McCollum, Mike Moser, Kris Dunn and more.

The Many Facets & Unpredictability Of March Madness

The older I get, the more I see that one of the things I love most about sports is the variety of it, the diversity of it and the CHARACTERS. Men’s tennis is at its best in many years because, for the first time in a long time, the top three or four players all have wildly different styles. The Tim Tebow story was fun on so many levels, but one of those levels was that he was just SO DIFFERENT in how he played — I’d say we are entering a great time for quarterbacks, because Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning and Drew Brees and Michael Vick and Cam Newton and Tebow and others are not really alike at all.

-- Joe Posnanski

As a basketball fan, I’ve never understood the division that exists between fans of the NBA and the NCAA. While the NBA has the best basketball players in the world, March Madness is compelling in its own right and as entertaining as anything that happens on the professional level.

In the NBA, the owners of the 30 franchises consider turning a profit and getting an equal shot at the top players a right, regardless of how well (or how poorly) they run their organization and the respective size of their fan-bases. Since every losing team is a few ping pong balls from the rights to a LeBron James, Kevin Durant or Dwight Howard, personnel determines scheme in the NBA.

In contrast, the vast majority of the 344 Division I programs in college basketball have little chance of ever receiving a commitment from a McDonald’s All-American. But instead of petulantly trying to sabotage the sport in a misguided effort to legislate fairness, schools try many creative ways of leveraging the talents of the players they can recruit. As a result, scheme determines personnel in the NCAA.

At Syracuse, Jim Boeheim has made a Hall of Fame career out of running a contrarian scheme, in his case an aggressive 2-3 zone. The Orange traditionally have rosters full of “1.5’s”, 6’3+ combo guards lacking the quickness to defend elite PG’s and the size to defend SG’s, and “3.5’s”, 6’8+ combo forwards lacking the quickness to defend elite SF’s and the size to defend PF’s. However, because Syracuse never plays man defense, the athletic deficiencies of their players are minimized.

So while nearly every NBA team runs a fairly similar system of isolations, pick-and-rolls and man defense, an incredibly diverse array of styles can be found in the college game. On one end of the spectrum, teams like Missouri play four guards and pressure the ball 94 feet for 48 minutes, on the other, teams like Wisconsin run a deliberate motion offense, trying to minimize the number of possessions and shoot at the very end of the shot-clock.

In the NBA, the players are too good for the “40 Minutes of Hell” system (which Mike Anderson has brought to Missouri and Arkansas in the last few years) to be successful. Like Mike Leach’s bizarre pass-happy offense in college football, Anderson’s system, which he learned as a member of Nolan Richardson’s staff in Arkansas in the 1990’s, has philosophical holes that professional athletes can exploit. Nevertheless, that doesn’t make them any less entertaining on the collegiate level.

And with 68 teams set to compete in the NCAA Tournament, there are a lot more surprises in the college game. Even programs ranked in the top-15 like Murray State have barely been on national TV this season.

We have a pretty good idea of how teams like the Pacers and the 76ers match up with the top of the Eastern Conference but not whether an undersized Murray State squad can handle the size of an elite team from a Power Six conference. It’s an open question how Isaiah Canaan’s speed and athleticism translates outside of the Ohio Valley Conference. Non-conference play in college basketball generally ends in late December, so it’s almost impossible to gauge how younger teams like Texas, Washington and Tennessee who have found their groove in the last two months will fare in March.

In the NBA, it’s hard to envision a scenario where Chicago, Miami and Oklahoma City aren’t three of the final four teams left in the playoffs. In the NCAA, as many as two dozen teams have a legitimate shot at making a run at the Final Four.

Of course, in terms of entertainment, none of this makes the NCAA necessarily better or worse than the NBA, just different. But, as Posnanski writes, there’s something to be said for the concept of “different” in the modern sports world. Basketball fans of all stripes should enjoy March Madness; the NBA will still be here in a few weeks.

Relative Value Losers, Pac-12 And Horizon League Notes

Using Relative Value to identify teams that will struggle to repeat their 2011 success, along with looks at the Pac-12 and Horizon.

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