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College Basketball Preview 14-15: Mountain West

My numeric projections will be available near the start of the season, but today I want to write a few words about each team’s outlook. I see seven teams as having a shot at the tournament. UNLV has talent. Wyoming should be strong defensively. Boise St., Colorado St., and Fresno St. should be strong on offense. And New Mexico has some quality players. But San Diego St. is the class of the league, and no one else is even close.

MWC Favorite

San Diego St: The Aztecs are the prohibitive favorite in most people’s mind and for good reason. No team can go thirteen players deep quite like San Diego St. The problem is that a healthy college basketball rotation is typically only eight or nine players deep. If your eleventh best player is better than your opponent’s eleventh best player, that typically isn’t going to win basketball games.

But that versatility also makes the team an enigma. SDSU’s season could evolve in a number of ways depending on which rotation head coach Steve Fisher settles on. On the one hand, the team had an outstanding defense last year. And with just about all of last year’s rotation player’s back, San Diego St. could choose to play its veterans and be an elite defensive squad again.

But most people expect the Aztecs to rely a lot on the team’s three Top 100 freshmen recruits Malik Pope, Trey Kell and Zylan Cheatem, along with Arizona transfer and former Top 100 recruit Angelo Chol. If those players play, that means more skill, but those fresh faces could hurt the continuity on defense. Moreover, Kell and Cheatem were low-end Top 100 recruits, and those types of players typically struggle with shot selection and turnovers when they first make the jump to the college level.

Furthermore, the returning rotation and incoming recruiting class is weakest at the PG spot, the position of greatest need after Xavier Thames departed. Certainly it helps that the offense can run through Winston Shepard, a superb passer at 6’8”. But San Diego St. will still need someone as a primary ball-handler and lock down defender on opposing smaller speedy guards. D’Erryl Williams played sparingly as the backup PG last year. And incoming recruit Kevin Zabo might not be a Top 100 recruit, but he will compete with Williams for primary ball-handling duties. But somehow a team with unusual depth also has a big question mark at PG.

The good news is that Steve Fisher can play a deep rotation in November and December and simply settle on his most consistent players for conference play. And that’s why my model still loves this team even if the rotation is uncertain. We might not know who the nine man rotation will be, but we can be sure that the winners of the playing time competition will be quality players, ready to take San Diego St. to a MWC title.

Hoping for the NCAA Tournament

Wyoming: A lot of people think Wyoming will be a MWC contender if Larry Nance is healthy and I completely endorse that view. First Larry Shyatt is a strong defensive coach. You might not quite know that from last year’s ranking of 93rd nationally, but the team’s defense really fell apart down the stretch after Larry Nance was injured:

Mountain West Conf. Games Only

Adjusted Offense

Adjusted Defense

W

L

PWP

Wyoming (with Nance)

106.7

97.5

8

5

0.7367

Wyoming (w/o Nance)

103.0

109.8

1

5

0.3241

Nance was dominant on the defensive glass, dominant at blocking shots, and quite good at getting steals for a big man. Another factor on defense might be the team’s depth. Wyoming essentially went with only two big men in the rotation last year, but 6’9” freshman Jonathan Barnes could help. Barnes is still raw, he was a late-growing high school player, but given his athleticism he should provide some key length off the bench.

The bigger question for Wyoming always seems to be the offense. Wyoming struggles to recruit elite athletes, (the team still has no former consensus Top 100 recruits,) and that makes it hard to build a dominant offense. Nonetheless, the starting five looks like it could be very good. Nance is obviously an offensive star (in addition to the defensive stats I mentioned above.) And Josh Adams was one of the most improved players in the country last year. Adams used 8% more possessions when on the floor and improved his ORtg by 12 points. Riley Grabau (42% three point shooter) and Derek Cooke (64% of his twos) were both dominant and efficient. And if former Alabama transfer Charles Hankerson, reinstated from suspension, ever lives up to his high potential, that core could be in the NCAA tournament.

UNLV: Rashad Vaughn, Dwayne Morgan and Goodluck Okonoboh might be the highest scoring freshmen trio in the nation. I’m not saying they are better than some of the other recruiting classes. For example, last week I reviewed the North Carolina trio, and I love their skill and potential. But unlike those Tar Heels, because of all the UNLV roster turnover, the UNLV freshmen face almost no competition for playing time.

A lot of experts think the UNLV offense will finally click this year because UNLV will have two true PGs to run the show. Both San Francisco transfer Cody Doolin and Rutgers transfer Jerome Seagears have posted great per minute assist rates in their career, and they could finally help a team of talented players reach their full potential.

On the other hand, for three straight years head coach Dave Rice has had lots of former Top 100 recruits on his roster. And yet his team has never had an offense that ranked better than 89th in the nation. His team has never won more than 10 games in the MWC. When you watch a team with eight former Top 100 recruits (last year’s squad) fail to even sniff the NCAA tournament bubble, you start to wonder whether Rice has the X’s and O’s coaching ability to match his recruiting pedigree.

Fresno St and Colorado St.: On paper, Fresno St. feels like the better team. They finished two games better in the conference standings. Fresno St. returns 69% of its minutes vs 54% for Colorado St. And when you look at the starting lineup, Fresno St. feels like it has more household names. But the numbers actually suggest this is a pretty tight race, and let me see if I can explain why.

First, my model loves Fresno St.’s backcourt. Oklahoma St. transfer Cezar Guerrero joined the team last year and became a high volume scorer and passer. This year the team adds Texas transfer Julien Lewis. And while Lewis may have been part of some dysfunctional Texas squads, he was always an efficient quality scorer. Throw in returning efficient starters like Marvelle Harris and Paul Watson, and the Fresno St. perimeter is very good.

Fresno St.’s paint presence is sorely lacking. 6’9” forward Alex Davis had a low ORtg and was a terrible rebounder last year. Braeden Anderson might be back after a car accident cost him last season, but he has never posted reliable numbers. And that means Fresno St. might have to consider using a pair of freshmen big men.

Colorado St.’s backcourt is also very talented. Daniel Bejarano and JJ Avila were two of the most efficient high-volume scorers in the country last year. And transfers will also boost Colorado St.’s cause. You might not be familiar with Arkansas Little Rock transfer John Gillon or Southern Illinois transfer Dantiel Daniels. But their projections are outstanding. They were both efficient and prolific per minute scorers in quality leagues before transferring to Colorado St. and that’s a good sign for their future performance. Throw in another efficient starter like Joe De Ciman, and Colorado St.’s perimeter should score plenty of points too.

Colorado St. also has a huge weakness in the frontcourt. They will be hoping that JUCO recruit, Daniel Mulamba is ready to play major minutes at the D1 level next year. Offensively, my model says the matchup is a draw.

Thus what it comes down to is which team is expected to have a better season defensively. Fresno St.’s defense was better by 2.3 points per possession last season, and Fresno returns more minutes. That would seem to cut in Fresno St.’s favor. But when you dig deeper, that advantage dissipates.

Advanced stats suggest that teams have very little control over the free throw percentage of their opposition and very little control over the three point percentage of their opposition. And Colorado St.’s opponents killed the Rams by knocking down free throws and threes at an above average rate last year. Meanwhile Fresno St.’s opponents struggled massively at the three point line. Here’s how each team’s points per possession defense was impacted by these factors that are mostly beyond their control:

Team

Impact of opponent FT% and 3PT% on PPP defense

Colorado St.

+1.5

Nevada

+1.1

New Mexico

+0.7

Boise St.

+0.4

Air Force

0.0

Utah St.

-0.2

Wyoming

-0.6

San Jose St.

-0.7

Fresno St.

-0.8

UNLV

-1.2

San Diego St.

-1.2

Essentially the ENTIRE difference in last year’s defensive performance between Colorado St. and Fresno St. was opponent three-point shooting and free throw shooting.

Returning minutes would still seem to tip things in Fresno St.’s favor, but not necessarily. While Fresno St. loses one of the best rebounding guards in the country, Colorado St.’s losses include a couple of big men who were terrible rebounders and who played much smaller than their size would indicate.

This matchup may come down to the men on the sideline and my model slightly favors the veteran Larry Eustachy over Rodney Terry. But the reality is that it could go either way. And if things break right, either of these teams could make the NCAA tournament.

Boise St: Sometimes a team’s fortunes depend entirely on its conference peers. In 2012-13, the MWC did well in the non-conference, Boise St. had opportunities for Top 100 wins, and they snuck in with one of the last bids to NCAA tournament. In 2013-14, the MWC struggled in the non-conference, and Boise St. didn’t even play in the NIT. Boise St. was a little worse on defense, and they went from one game over .500 in the conference to exactly .500. But even if the post-season outcome was substantially different, it was pretty much the same team. They were a guard-oriented offensive juggernaut in both years.

The best news is that Leon Rice’s success is finally paying off in recruiting. After turning 2 star recruits like Derrick Marks and Anthony Drmic into scoring stars, those seniors are now being joined by 3 or 4 star freshmen recruits. This year’s recruiting class is led by Chandler Hutchinson, a player that both Scout and ESPN’s recruiting services loved. Throw in a JUCO big man addition like Kevin Allen, and Boise St. looks like an offensive juggernaut with some defensive issues once again. Whether they can make the NCAA tournament may well depend on how well the MWC plays in the non-conference schedule.

New Mexico: The Lobos return three rotation players from a team that nearly won the MWC title last year, Hugh Greenwood, Cullen Neal, and Deshawn Delaney. All will be relied on more heavily this year. But the only immediate impact player the team adds is Top 10 JUCO recruit Jordan Goodman. And he can’t replace Kendall Williams, Cameron Bairstow, Alex Kirk, and Cleveland Thomas by himself. New Mexico simply doesn’t have the depth to compete for a league title in 2014-15. The recent decision of Merv Lindsay to transfer  does not help matters. If the freshmen or JUCO recruit JJ N’Ganga blossom early, the NCAA tournament is a possibility. But if those new faces struggle, this could be a long season.

Building for the Future

Nevada: Nevada wasn’t as good as their 10-8 conference record would indicate. The team was fortunate in close games last year. Six of those conference wins came by four points or less or in OT. Worse yet, the team’s three best players, Deonte Burton, Jerry Evans, and Cole Huff are gone.

There is some good news. Nevada was better in the second half of the season, and it wasn’t just a fluke. After AJ West became eligible, he became one of the best offensive rebounders in the country, and his presence really did make the Nevada better. West and Michael Perez will form a formidable, efficient inside-outside combination in 2014-15. But on paper, the rest of the roster looks too weak for Nevada to really compete for an NCAA bid.

Air Force: It is hard to win at the military academies. You basically have to try to win with a bunch of 2-star recruits, and when someone like Tre’ Coggins breaks out, they often leave.The best thing I can say is that 74% of the team’s minutes return, so in general, this year should be trending up.

Utah St: I’ve been a huge advocate of Stew Morril. From 2004 to 2010, he produced some of the best offensive teams in the nation without playing in an elite conference. In 2011, he had one of the best defensive teams in the nation. But things have been trending down since 2011, and this year could be rock bottom. After four senior starters graduated, four of the most important bench players transferred. And thus Morrill is basically starting from scratch with this year’s roster.

San Jose St: As hard as it is to win at a program like Air Force, somehow it is even harder to win at San Jose St. Even if a post-season trip was unlikely, the post-season APR ban just makes recruiting a bigger uphill battle.

And even when San Jose St. tries to build through transfers, it doesn’t attract the cream of the crop. San Jose St. adds two players with ORtgs under 90 at their last school, Pepperdine’s Jordan Baker and San Jose St.’s Frank Rogers. In fairness, Baker was a high volume scorer, and his efficiency is probably not reflective of his overall ability. But it just goes to show that even when San Jose St. tries to build its program through alternative methods, it isn’t easy. But perhaps the traditional way of building a program will work the best. Rashad Muhammad was brilliant as a freshman. And with the typical sophomore leap, he will be worth the price of admission.

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

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. 

MWC Basketball Early Projection

Why a conference that seemed dominant last season could be poised for a big fall.

Major Conference Tournaments Day 1 and 2

Time to recap the games. Forget the stats and analysis, this is all about uniforms, announcers, holograms, and carved floors.

Revisiting Recruiting Classes

Michigan's freshmen have exceeded expectations and in this edition we examine other top classes such as N.C. State, UNLV, UCLA, Kentucky, Duke, Indiana, Arizona, Michigan State and North Carolina.

Injury Splits, Part 2

On what Georgetown, Northwestern, Providence, Memphis, UNLV, North Carolina have done to compensate for playing without vital members of their team.

Final Exam Time

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

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

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

Where College Coaches Matter

Because of the large correlation between talent-on-hand and coaching, discrepancies usually only exist when a coaches ability doesnít match up with who he has in the lineup. Here are some teams whose rankings would change meaningfully if coaching effects were ignored.

Initial Bracket Thoughts

A few preliminary thoughts on matchups and which teams will advance deep in the tournament.

The Many Facets & Unpredictability Of March Madness

While personnel determine scheme in the NBA, college basketball coaches recruit players that fit their schemes.

YABC Column For Feb. 27th (POY Races, Improbabilities & More)

As Draymond Green locked up the Big Ten POY award and Kansas battled Missouri for a likely No. 1 seed, Saturday afternoon encapsulated everything that is great about the NCAA regular season.

Understanding Breakout Players

Thomas Robinson, J'Covan Brown, Meyers Leonard, Jamaal Franklin and Trae Golden are amongst the Top-20 Breakout Players in college basketball.

Five Surprises From The Second Weekend In January

The theme heading into this weekend was that there were not many must-see games. But with college basketball, the sheer volume of games ensures there will always be a few surprises.

Colleges On NBA Rosters

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

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

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

YACB Column, Dec. 5th (On UNC/UK, Conference Ratings, Cincinnati & More)

Yet Another College Basketball Column checks in on whether we'll see a UK/UNC rematch in the title game, the surprise conferences and much more.

Printable Brackets And Early Season Tournament Odds

Don't wait until March to start printing out college basketball brackets. With the Preseason NIT, Maui Invitational, Puerto Rico Tipoff and other excellent tournaments, you can start the madness in November.

Why Transfers Matter, Plus Big 12 And MWC Notes

The value of transfers to BCS schools, plus why Baylor could have a top-10 team (if Bill Self was their coach instead of Scott Drew).

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