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College Basketball Preview 14-15: Missouri Valley Conference

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

Earlier Previews: ACC Preview, MWC Preview, SEC Preview, WCC Preview, A10 Preview, Big East Preview, American Preview, Pac-12 Preview

MVC Favorite

Wichita St.: There is no consensus on where to rank Wichita St. this year and that is probably fair. That is because we honestly couldn’t decide how good this team was last season. The Shockers didn’t play a Top 80 opponent from mid-December until the NCAA tournament. Because they were stuck playing huge mismatches, it was simply impossible to get a conclusive evaluation of how they stacked up against other elite teams. (Margin-of-victory is far less informative when games are mismatches.) One thrilling game against Kentucky in the NCAA tournament hardly answered the question of how good the Shockers were.

Ironically, Wichita St.’s first best chance to prove themselves this season may come on Nov. 18th against the former big fish in a small pond, Memphis. In Memphis’s final eight years in CUSA, the Tigers lost a total of 13 conference games. While Memphis had NBA level talent, a creative offense, and some great defensive teams, every year college basketball experts would quibble about their worth. After going 16-2 in the MVC three years ago, and 18-0 last year, Gregg Marshall’s squad seems to be headed for a similar pattern. It makes me wish that college basketball had some sort of Champions League like European football. We need more opportunities to evaluate the Shockers against the best of the best. Since that does not exist, you’ll read a lot about Ron Baker, Fred Van Vleet, Tekele Cotton, Darius Carter, JUCO’s Bush Wamukota and Tevin Glass, and 3-star freshmen like Zach Brown and Rashard Kelly. But you won’t get to see them on TV nearly enough.

Hoping for the NCAA Tournament

Northern Iowa: What Wichita St. could use more than anything is for the MVC as a whole to return to its glory days. Just a few short years ago, the league would have four to six teams on the NCAA tournament bubble. And even two years ago, the battle between Creighton and Wichita St. at least made for must-see TV. One thing that will help tremendously this season is that the MVC has a high number of returning players. This will be a very mature league:

Conference

Avg. Returning Minutes

MVC

65%

B12

62%

B10

60%

A10

58%

ACC

57%

WCC

56%

Amer

56%

Horz

56%

SEC

56%

BE

55%

MWC

54%

P12

53%

Northern Iowa returns 88% of their roster from last year. And with a quality coach who led the team to a 2010 NCAA tournament victory over Kansas, there is no reason Northern Iowa should not get better on both sides of the ball. But after the team finished just 16-15 last year, with the 94th best margin-of-victory in the nation, just bringing players back probably will not be enough. Northern Iowa needs to make an unexpected improvement on offense or defense if they want to make the tournament.

Offensively, transfer Paul Jesperson might be the key piece that puts Northern Iowa over the top, but he is no guarantee. Jesperson basically only did one thing at Virginia, take and make wide open threes. He never attacked the basket, and despite his size 6’6” he was not a rebounder or shot-blocker. He couldn’t even make intermediate jumpers. He simply stood on the perimeter and rarely shot. Still Jesperson had a higher high school recruiting rank than anyone else on Northern Iowa’s roster, and if another year of practice has expanded his game, Jesperson’s presence could be a deciding factor.

Defensively, the real issue is the team’s interior depth. Seth Tuttle and Nate Buss were both quality interior scorers, but because the team needed their scoring, they were afraid to get in foul trouble last season. And that meant the team was a revolving door defensively. 6’6” Marvin Singleton chipped in some late in the year, but he was not much of a rebounder. And freshman Ted Friedman was not ready last season. This year’s post additions are 2-star recruits who are unlikely to move the needle. And that leaves head coach Ben Jacobson with a real dilemma. He must improve his teams’ defensive aggressiveness while ensuring that Tuttle and Buss stay on the floor.

Hoping for the NIT

Illinois St: Illinois St. is becoming JUCO University. Last year head coach Dan Muller rolled the dice with four Top 100 JUCO players, Daishon Knight, Bobby Hunter, Michael Middlebrooks, and Zach Lofton. Middlebrooks was a bust. He was suspended and ultimately left the team. Lofton was a high volume low efficiency scorer, and he ultimately transferred. But Knight and Hunter are returning, and they are probably the Redbirds best two players. And a year after rolling the dice with four JUCO players, Dan Muller is adding four JUCO recruits again. This time Devaughn Purcell is the highest rated among a group that includes Will Ransom, Mark Hall, and Justin McCloud.

Highly touted freshmen MiKyle McIntosh and Deontae Hawkins are also now available after both were partial qualifiers last year. That means Illinois St.’s roster includes six JUCO recruits and two partial qualifiers. Coaches often get criticized for this type of roster construction. (I recall Bob Huggins used to take a lot of flack for constructing rosters of this type at Cincinnati.) But before opposing fan-bases complain, they should realize that EVERY team in the MVC is adding at least one JUCO recruit this year (except for Drake). And among major conferences, the MVC adds the most JUCO recruits. Furthermore, adding up the D1 transfers and JUCO transfers debuting this season, the MVC is tied for the lead in transfer debuts per team:

Debuts in 2014-2015

Teams

D1 Transfer Debuts

JUCO Debuts

Transfer Debuts Per Team

MVC

10

4

20

2.4

Horz

9

9

13

2.4

Amer

11

12

14

2.4

MWC

11

12

14

2.4

B12

10

10

12

2.2

SEC

14

20

6

1.9

WCC

10

12

6

1.8

P12

12

7

9

1.3

BE

10

8

5

1.3

ACC

15

11

5

1.1

A10

14

8

6

1.0

B10

14

9

3

0.9

Notes: Not all waivers for immediate eligibility have been processed, but I took my best guess about eligibility for 2014-15 based on the available information. Second, some players played at a D1 school and then spent a year playing JUCO ball. I count these players in the D1 transfer category and not the JUCO category.

Aside: This week Gary Parrish noted that the SEC has a rule about recruiting certain types of JUCO players. And clearly, with just six JUCO recruits, the SEC will have a limited number of JUCO players debuting this year. But the SEC is not the league to use the fewest JUCO recruits. The Big Ten has just three JUCO transfers coming in this season.

There are positives and negatives associated with the MVC using so many JUCO players. One positive is that the MVC won’t waste a lot of possessions on freshmen this season. On the other hand, as I’ve said many times, JUCO recruits are lottery tickets. Sometimes teams hit the jackpot, but often times JUCO recruits can’t make the leap and don’t become quality D1 players.

Evansville: I’ve said before that returning minutes are over-rated, and the large number of transfers in the previous table should make that clear. A league can lose a lot of talent, and still not be very young. I used my simulation model to project 10,000 scenarios for each league this season. I account for the possibility that players may exceed or fail to live up to expectations and for the possibility of injury. Using these simulations, the next table shows the average percentage of minutes I expect each conference to give to each class. The A10 is going to be very young next year. While the A10 returned 58% of its minutes, which was not particularly low, because the A10 is adding so few transfers this year, expect the league to experience significant growing pains.

But as the earlier tables showed, the MVC returns the most minutes of any of these top leagues, the MVC adds a number of transfers, and the MVC projects to have just 38% of its minutes go to first or second year players this year.

Conf

Pct Min Fresh

Pct Min Soph

Pct Min Jr

Pct Min Sr

B12

18%

27%

32%

23%

MVC

19%

19%

38%

23%

Horz

19%

19%

34%

28%

Amer

19%

23%

41%

17%

WCC

23%

15%

25%

37%

SEC

25%

25%

28%

22%

BE

26%

19%

24%

32%

MWC

26%

20%

23%

31%

P12

26%

22%

31%

20%

ACC

26%

23%

33%

19%

B10

27%

18%

25%

31%

A10

30%

20%

30%

20%

That experience could mean a resurgence for the MVC in 2014-15. But as I noted in my Big East Preview (scroll down to the Marquette blurb), the MVC has just one player who was a Top 100 recruit out of high school, Bradley’s Mike Shaw. And not only did Shaw score less than 1 PPG at Illinois (before transferring to Bradley), Shaw is currently sidelined with an injury.

That talent disparity is going to make it hard for the MVC to climb into the Top 6 or 7 again. If another league struggles with youth (I’m looking at you A10), it is possible the MVC can be a Top 10 league again. But the glory days, when the league had multiple at large candidates, seem distant at this point.

The Purple Aces return 96% of their minutes from last year. The team also adds two Top 100 JUCO recruits in Willie Wiley and Taylor Stafford. The team has one of the most under-rated big men in the country in Egidijus Mockevicius. DJ Balentine is a quality guard. But in February and March, the team beat just one team ranked above 200th by Kenpom.com, and that win came in OT at home. Even with zero freshmen on the roster, Evansville is still light years away from being able to compete with a team like Wichita St.

Indiana St: You can’t replace a four-year leader and starter at PG like Jake Odum. First, you can’t recruit a replacement while that player is still around, because no one wants to be glued to the bench. And Indiana St. can’t recruit the type of freshman who would be an instant impact recruit. And thus the Sycamores did the only sensible thing they could do. They added a Top 100 JUCO recruit, PG Tre Bennett. With Bennett feeding the ball to Justin Gant and Khristian Smith, Indiana St. will still be one of the better teams in the MVC next year. But they don’t add enough instant impact players to replace the three key seniors they lost, and they will take a step back.

Southern Illinois: Barry Hinson was a consistent winner at Missouri St. He might not have been a tournament regular, but he almost always had a winning record in the league. I knew when he took over at Southern Illinois that he might not have enough talent to win right away, but I thought at minimum, he would be able to improve the Saluki’s defense. That hasn’t happened yet, but the answer might be on the way in the form of 7’1” JUCO transfer Deng Leek.

Offensively, the team just needs to share the ball more. For two years in a row, Southern Illinois has had one of the worst assist/FGM ratios in the nation. Anthony Beane is an efficient super-scorer, but he only calls his own number. Entering year three Hinson now has his players. But the need to build a better team defense around Leek, and the need to build an offense that shares the ball more, means Hinson still has a lot of work to do.

Missouri St: You probably think the loss of Jarmar Gulley (30% shot volume, 108 ORtg) will hurt the Missouri St. offense. But two factors should help off-set that. First, Marcus Marshall should be back after missing last year with an injury and Marshall was a tremendous scorer. Second, the further development of super-three point gunner Austin Rudder, who made 70 threes as a freshman, will help.

The bigger problem will be replacing Gulley’s defense. At 6’5” he was the team’s best rebounder and the team leader in steals. When the defense was already poor, a player like Gulley is very difficult to replace.

Not Looking Good

Bradley: Bradley is the only team in the league that is returning less than half its minutes. But fourth year head coach Geno Ford wasn’t willing to spend a year rebuilding and he added four JUCO prospects and Illinois transfer Mike Shaw to ensure the team stayed competitive. Unfortunately, summer injuries have kept key players from practicing and senior forward Auston Barnes was arrested in August. There are reasons for optimism. Rivals and ESPN rated freshman Josh Cunningham a 4-star prospect and Omari Grier is a quality scorer. But this hasn’t been an easy summer.

Loyola Chicago: I never understood why the MVC replaced Creighton with a middling team from the Horizon League. The justification given was that the MVC locked up the Chicago market, and it was also argued that Loyola was upgrading its facilities. Well, even if the facilities are getting better, the recruiting is not keeping up. Loyola still has the worst recruiting in the conference. They only have one player ranked above 2 stars on their roster.

Drake: Sophomore Jacob Jensen is still raw offensively, but he was a tremendous defensive rebounder last year. Among freshmen to play at least 16 MPG in 2014, only Julius Randle, Kennedy Meeks, Noah Vonleh, Joel Embiid, and Rice’s Sean Obi had a higher defensive rebounding rate than Jensen. Drake has some nice pieces, but with lots of roster turnover, and no transfers debuting, Drake could be in for a long year.

Should We Ignore The Components Of Defense That Teams Can't Control?

Given the small sample of games in a college basketball season, even if every player returns, a team’s defense is surprisingly unpredictable. As an anecdotal illustration of that point, in last week’s column I noted that North Dakota St. brought back essentially its entire roster in 2014, and yet NDSU’s defense was much worse than in 2013. But brilliant South Carolina Gamecock writer @chickenhoops emailed me and pointed out that North Dakota St. wasn’t necessarily a worse defensive team last year, they were just unlucky. The Bison’s collapse on defense was almost entirely driven by factors outside their control. Notably, North Dakota St.’s opponents hit an incredibly high percentage of three pointers, and made an extremely high percentage of free throws on the season. I had noted that North Dakota St.’s defense fell from 59th to 131st. But ChickenHoops noted that if opponents had made the same percentage of threes or the same percentage of free throws as the average D1 team, North Dakota St.’s defense would have ranked 70th in 2013 and 74th in 2014.

Most people would agree that teams have little control over their opponent’s free throw percentage. And Ken Pomeroy has argued that an opponent’s three point percentage is something teams also have little control over. (Ken argues that teams have control over whether opponents take threes, but have substantially less control over whether those shots fall.)

And as ChickenHoops proposes, we can easily recalculate each team’s points allowed per 100 possessions, assuming their opponents hit the D1 average percentage of free throws and threes. This new measure of defense will be the points allowed per 100 possessions, assuming more typical luck. In the next table I show how each team’s defense would have looked last season using this new measure.

In the major conferences, a team like Vanderbilt stands out as fortunate last year. While the average team made roughly 70% of its free throws last year, Vanderbilt’s opponents made only 65% of their free throws. And while the average team made 35% of its threes last year, Vanderbilt opponents made only 30% of their threes.

On the flip side, a team like Notre Dame was probably very unfortunate to have such a bad defensive season last year. Opponents made 75% of their free throws and 39% of their threes against Notre Dame last year, far above the national averages.

Team

Conf

Def

New Def

Change

Vanderbilt

SEC

99.0

101.3

2.3

Clemson

ACC

95.0

97.2

2.2

Memphis

AAC

98.1

100.0

1.9

Texas A&M

SEC

96.3

98.1

1.8

Louisville

AAC

90.0

91.8

1.8

Arizona St.

P12

97.6

99.4

1.8

Northwestern

B10

94.2

95.9

1.7

Kansas St.

B12

94.8

96.4

1.6

North Carolina

ACC

95.4

96.9

1.5

Virginia

ACC

90.1

91.6

1.5

Virginia Tech

ACC

100.5

101.9

1.4

Nebraska

B10

96.1

97.4

1.3

Connecticut

AAC

91.8

93.1

1.3

Cincinnati

AAC

91.3

92.5

1.2

Utah

P12

96.5

97.6

1.1

USC

P12

102.2

103.2

1.0

Ohio St.

B10

89.6

90.6

1.0

Butler

BE

99.6

100.6

1.0

Wake Forest

ACC

101.9

102.8

0.9

South Carolina

SEC

102.3

103.2

0.9

Syracuse

ACC

93.6

94.4

0.8

Duke

ACC

102.3

103.1

0.8

SMU

AAC

94.7

95.5

0.8

UCF

AAC

106.1

106.9

0.8

Missouri

SEC

104.4

105.2

0.8

Oklahoma St.

B12

96.6

97.4

0.8

Kentucky

SEC

96.9

97.7

0.8

Maryland

ACC

95.5

96.2

0.7

Indiana

B10

97.5

98.2

0.7

Washington

P12

104.5

105.2

0.7

Xavier

BE

100.6

101.3

0.7

West Virginia

B12

104.2

104.8

0.6

UCLA

P12

97.3

97.9

0.6

Miami FL

ACC

100.0

100.6

0.6

Providence

BE

102.2

102.8

0.6

Florida St.

ACC

98.8

99.4

0.6

Iowa

B10

102.7

103.3

0.6

Florida

SEC

89.3

89.8

0.5

Baylor

B12

100.0

100.4

0.4

Georgia

SEC

99.1

99.5

0.4

Kansas

B12

96.3

96.7

0.4

Georgetown

BE

102.1

102.5

0.4

Pittsburgh

ACC

96.2

96.5

0.3

Mississippi

SEC

102.7

102.9

0.2

Marquette

BE

100.2

100.4

0.2

Creighton

BE

104.1

104.3

0.2

Temple

AAC

109.1

109.3

0.2

Mississippi St.

SEC

103.7

103.9

0.2

Georgia Tech

ACC

99.8

99.9

0.1

Oregon

P12

100.6

100.7

0.1

Purdue

B10

101.2

101.3

0.1

NC State

ACC

102.9

103.0

0.1

Arizona

P12

88.5

88.6

0.1

Arkansas

SEC

98.1

98.1

0.0

Illinois

B10

93.3

93.3

0.0

Texas

B12

98.4

98.4

0.0

Michigan

B10

102.1

102.1

0.0

TCU

B12

103.1

103.0

-0.1

Houston

AAC

108.0

107.9

-0.1

Tennessee

SEC

94.8

94.7

-0.1

St. John's

BE

96.8

96.6

-0.2

Washington St.

P12

103.5

103.2

-0.3

LSU

SEC

99.4

99.1

-0.3

Oklahoma

B12

100.6

100.2

-0.4

Colorado

P12

96.9

96.5

-0.4

Wisconsin

B10

97.6

97.2

-0.4

Villanova

BE

94.5

94.1

-0.4

Oregon St.

P12

107.1

106.6

-0.5

Seton Hall

BE

101.2

100.7

-0.5

Alabama

SEC

100.0

99.5

-0.5

Michigan St.

B10

96.2

95.7

-0.5

Stanford

P12

97.0

96.4

-0.6

Penn St.

B10

100.8

100.2

-0.6

Iowa St.

B12

99.9

99.2

-0.7

DePaul

BE

107.3

106.5

-0.8

Texas Tech

B12

102.2

101.4

-0.8

Auburn

SEC

106.5

105.7

-0.8

Minnesota

B10

100.4

99.6

-0.8

South Florida

AAC

104.1

103.2

-0.9

California

P12

100.6

99.6

-1.0

Rutgers

AAC

106.3

104.9

-1.4

Boston College

ACC

111.4

109.9

-1.5

Notre Dame

ACC

106.4

104.1

-2.3

Though not listed in the above table, Wichita St. was also extremely fortunate last year. The Shockers opponents made only 65% of their free throws and 31% of their threes last year. Wichita St.’s opponents rarely had scorching shooting nights, and when they did, (Evansville making 5 of 11 threes and 15 of 16 free throws), the game was enough of a mismatch that it didn’t matter. The Kentucky game was arguably the first time on the season that one of Wichita St.’s quality opponents had an unusually good shooting night.

This is worth revisiting in the middle of next season, to see if the margin-of-victory rankings are misleading us about the top teams. But it can make a meaningful difference. With this alternative metric, Notre Dame was not the 99th best team in the nation last year, but they were the 82nd best team.

Another way to think about this is to think about performance between seasons. A team’s adjusted defense is correlated year-to-year. But if I use this new measure of defense, the year-to-year correlation is meaningfully higher. The improvement in the unexplained variation is a bit difficult to put into words, but perhaps a comparison will help. One of the factors that matters in my model is the height of each team’s center. Using this new measure of defense improves the performance of my prediction model four times as much as adding the height of each team’s center to the model.

Since my prediction model is a bit complicated, for now let’s think about the simplest possible prediction model which accounts for returning minutes (but which does not account for individual player stats, player heights, recruiting rankings, or coaching). I’m discussing results based on the last 10 seasons of data. In this simple prediction model, if a team brings back the average number of minutes, having a defense that is 1 point better predicts that the defense will be 0.67 points better the following season. But when we use this new measure of defense, a defense that is 1 point better predicts that the defense will be 0.72 points better the following season. For a team on the unfortunate end of the scale, like Notre Dame, using the new measure of defense essentially moves them up about 12 spots in my projections for next year.

It is not fair to say that teams have no control over their opponent’s free throw percentage. FT defense depends on which players a team fouls. And Pomeroy has admitted that three point percentage includes some information. But college basketball analysts should be thinking of this a bit like Batting Average on Balls in Play in baseball. If a team is way too high or way too low in free throw defense or three point percentage defense, that probably is a bit about luck. Both within seasons and between seasons, we shouldn’t necessarily expect that component of defensive performance to persist.

Way Too Early Top 25 Projections

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

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

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

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

Pred Off = Predicted Offense, Points Scored per 100 Possessions

Pred Def = Predicted Defense, Points Allowed per 100 Possessions

2014 Off = 2013-14 Offense

2014 Def = 2013-14 Defense

RMin = Projected Returning Minutes

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

Rnk

Team

Conf

Pred Pyth

Pred Off

Pred Def

2014 Off

2014 Def

RMin

T100

1

Arizona

P12

0.963

119.8

90.1

114.7

88.5

82%

8

2

Kansas

B12

0.952

120.0

92.5

116.8

96.3

68%

10

3

Duke

ACC

0.943

122.0

95.5

123.5

102.3

47%

10

4

Wisconsin

B10

0.934

121.9

96.7

120.8

97.6

82%

3

5

Florida

SEC

0.920

116.3

94.0

115.3

89.2

47%

7

6

Michigan

B10

0.919

121.8

98.6

124.1

102.1

73%

5

7

Kentucky

SEC

0.916

118.9

96.6

118.4

97.1

21%

7

8

N. Carolina

ACC

0.914

116.4

94.7

111.7

95.4

74%

10

9

Connecticut

AAC

0.910

113.8

93.1

112.5

92.5

55%

6

10

Virginia

ACC

0.909

112.7

92.3

114.4

90.1

72%

4

11

Villanova

BE

0.909

116.6

95.5

113.8

94.4

78%

7

12

Wichita St.

MVC

0.908

116.9

95.8

118.1

93.3

64%

0

13

VCU

A10

0.907

109.6

89.9

107.9

90.2

70%

4

14

Louisville

ACC

0.899

113.6

93.9

116.6

90.0

41%

8

15

Syracuse

ACC

0.899

113.2

93.6

112.3

93.6

41%

7

16

Ohio St.

B10

0.898

113.4

93.9

106.5

89.6

54%

8

17

SMU

AAC

0.895

113.3

94.1

110.1

94.7

75%

3

18

Colorado

P12

0.878

114.2

96.2

105.1

96.9

99%

4

19

Baylor

B12

0.877

117.6

99.2

117.8

100.0

61%

4

20

Texas

B12

0.876

115.8

97.7

111.0

98.4

100%

6

21

Maryland

B10

0.873

112.1

94.8

107.6

95.5

99%

9

22

Iowa

B10

0.873

118.9

100.6

119.8

102.7

69%

2

23

UCLA

P12

0.872

114.0

96.5

117.0

97.3

35%

6

24

Gonzaga

WCC

0.872

116.3

98.4

111.4

94.4

64%

4

25

Utah

P12

0.861

112.2

95.8

108.7

96.5

94%

2

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

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

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

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

Focusing on the rest of the Top 25:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Thoughts On Ranking 351 D1 Teams

Over the past few days, Dan Hanner has presented his updated projection model, his season projections on ESPN Insider, Q&A's with Eamonn Brennon and John Templon, along with replying to questions on Twitter. Here are a few additional thoughts that didn't make the cut.

And Then There Were Four

How every player in the Final Four has done in the first four games of the tournament...

NCAA Tournament Day 3

A day of blowouts suddenly changed when two of the evening's contests went down to the wire.

Losing Streaks And Injury Splits, Part 1

On why not all losing streaks are alike and how injuries/suspensions skew our evaluation of certain teams.

What Happens When No One is Back?

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

Early Season Tournaments: Brackets, Observations, And Odds: Part 2

The Legends Classic might be the most highly anticipated early season tournament because of the potential finals matchup between Indiana and UCLA. We also look at the CBE Classic, Maui Invitational, Cancun Challenge, Great Alaska Shootout, Battle 4 Atlantis and the Old Spice Classic.

Tempo Free Predictions For MVC/WCC

The Missouri Valley and West Coast Conference don't have the same level of glamour as the major ones, but they are both firmly in the top-10.

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.

How To Think About College Basketball Defense, A10 And MVC Notes

Why we can project Kentucky and Kansas as having great defenses despite significant turnover and projecting the Atlantic-10 and MIssouri Valley.

Yet Another College Basketball Column (Feb. 21st)

Dissecting how Nebraska upset Rick Barnes' Longhorns, losing faith in Villanova's Antonio Pena, random bullets and a Bracket Buster rant.

Counting Missouri Valley All-Conference Selections

The conference of Larry Bird, even naming their Player of the Year award after him, has enjoyed an encouraging amount of mid-major success.

Which Colleges Have Produced The NBA's Best Rookies?

Predictably, the big-time programs in Chapel Hill, Storrs, Durham and D.C. have produced several excellent rookies.

 

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