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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. 

MWC Basketball Early Projection

Late last season, the Mountain West Conference rose up to have the top average RPI in the nation. Andy Glockner of Sports Illustrated had a brilliant article explaining why this happened. Essentially the RPI favors power conferences where the home teams dominate, and the MWC teams were the best in the nation at winning at home last year. (For those that care about the math behind this, skip to the end of this post.)

Second, the RPI of MWC teams was boosted by Wyoming. A good team in November and December, but when Luke Martinez was kicked off the team for an off-court incident, Wyoming simply couldn’t score. And the RPI wasn’t smart enough realize that Wyoming was a bad team in January and February.

Finally, the other big factor in the MWC’s great RPI was that the bottom of the league was remarkably strong. Traditional power Nevada was the league’s bottom-feeder and even Nevada wasn’t a terrible team last season. The Wolfpack won at Washington in December.

All in all, it was a perfect storm that made the MWC seem like a dominant league, at least in the RPI’s eyes. The margin-of-victory systems thought the league was good too, but not nearly as dominant as what the RPI thought. And as is usually the case, the margin-of-victory metrics had the better forecast. In the NCAA tournament, MWC champion New Mexico lost in the first round to Harvard, and the rest of the league struggled as well.

Unfortunately for fans of the MWC, there is no reason to expect any of those factors to repeat this year. Home teams probably won’t win at a disproportionate rate. Wyoming won’t be dominant and then bad. And the bottom of the league will be bad again. (With San Jose St. coming aboard and Air Force rebuilding behind a bunch of 2-star recruits, a drop-off at the bottom of the league is almost unavoidable). Five teams might be in the conversation for the NCAA tournament, but a year after dominating the regular season, it wouldn’t be out of the question for the league to get only two bids.

Here is my lineup-based prediction model's projections for the league in 2013-14:

Team

Proj CW

Proj CL

Proj Off

Proj Def

Last Off

Last Def

T100

Ret Min

Ret Poss

New Mexico

15

3

108.2

88.4

108.4

89.7

2

63%

65%

Boise St.

13

5

113.7

97.0

111.1

97.6

0

91%

94%

Utah St.

12

6

112.6

100.1

107.0

102.4

0

78%

80%

UNLV

11

7

101.7

91.7

103.8

88.9

8

29%

29%

San Diego St.

11

7

101.9

92.8

106.3

89.7

4

48%

43%

Wyoming

8

10

100.7

96.5

99.7

96.1

0

62%

52%

Fresno St.

8

10

99.1

95.6

97.9

93.2

2

55%

57%

Nevada

7

11

104.6

102.9

102.6

104.6

0

48%

50%

Colorado St.

7

11

101.3

99.9

117.1

97.8

1

27%

22%

Air Force

5

13

100.3

104.7

109.2

103.2

0

34%

33%

San Jose St.

2

16

92.6

104.9

87.1

104.3

0

35%

35%

For column heading definitions, click here.

New Mexico: New Mexico returns four starters (Alex Kirk, Cameron Bairstow, Kendall Williams, and Hugh Greenwood) from last year’s conference winning squad. And they added Cullen Neal who has only recently risen up into ESPNU Top 100. That starting lineup should be competitive with any team in the country. But the team has little proven depth. (Will Kansas transfer Merv Lindsay contribute?) And since this is Craig Neal’s first head coaching job, there are questions of whether he can lead a team to a league title in his first year. The MWC spends as much on coaching as the traditional power leagues, and opposing coaches will heavily scout the Lobos. Will Neal be ready?

Boise St.: I’ve seen a lot of people with Boise St. in their Top 25 and I understand the logic. This was a good team last year and they bring back 91% of their minutes from last season. But my model has them a little bit lower because there are still some real question marks. In particular, Boise St.’s primary offense was a 4-guard lineup last year. But a number of the guards they played simply weren’t very good. Mikey Thompson, Igor Hadziomerovic, and Joe Hanstad were big drains on the offense because of their turnovers and/or bad shooting. If I could say with confidence those three would be relegated to the bench this season, it would be a no-brainer to put Boise St. in the Top 25. But Boise St. isn’t bringing in any can’t miss prospects to ensure that this happens.

Realistically the team will probably hope to get more out of some of its forwards. JUCO transfer James Webb, red-shirt freshman Edmund Dukulis, incoming freshman Nick Duncan, and seldom-used Darrious Hamilton or Vukasin Vujovic will probably get a chance to play more post minutes next year. If they can earn time, the taller lineup might help improve the defense some. But none of them have particularly high expectations either.

Leon Rice is doing a fantastic job, and the expectation for this team should absolutely be the NCAA tournament. But on paper, there are still too many lineup questions to view Boise St. as a clear Top 25 team.

Utah St.: Most people probably won’t have Utah St. this high because of how they ended their tenure in the WAC conference. To finish  11-7 in that league which really only had three good teams was pretty disappointing. But that completely overlooks what happened last year. In mid-January, Utah St. lost its too most efficient players in Preston Medlin and Kyisean Reed. And both were relatively high usage players too, they weren’t just role players. Those type of injuries are devastating at that point in the season and Utah St. could never really recover in conference play.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t sound like Reed will be back. He went through senior day festivities and I haven’t heard any news that he will apply for an extra hardship year. But the return of Medlin from injury should instantly upgrade the offense.

And Utah St. is once again very mature. The team can put together an 8-man lineup with one sophomore, two juniors, and five seniors. The fact that the team doesn’t need to break in a lot of freshmen should help the offense click. Add to that the fact that Stew Morrill has been one of the most under-rated offensive coaches in the nation, and Utah St. will be good again. They might not win the MWC this year, but they will absolutely be close to the top.

UNLV: Click here for a more detailed preview of UNLV.

San Diego St.: JJ O’Brien and Xavier Thames are solid players. And I can write down a seven or eight player rotation for San Diego St. that sounds reasonably intimidating on paper.  But San Diego St. loses its two most important players in Chase Tapley and Jamaal Franklin. Both took a high volume of shots, played a ton of minutes, and were super efficient. (Departing senior DeShawn Stephens rarely shot, but he was very efficient too.) Losing players like that just isn’t a recipe for a better season. And San Diego St. had only the 36th best margin-of-victory last year. 

The recent addition of Tulane graduate transfer Josh Davis helps a lot. Davis was an unbelievably dominant forward without much help around him. And incoming freshman Dakarai Allen also has high expectations. But expecting those two to do better than Tapley and Franklin seems like a little bit of a stretch.

To truly make the NCAA tournament, San Diego St. is going to need more out of Winston Shepherd, Dwayne Polee, and James Johnson. All three were Top 100 recruits out of high school, but none of them has posted an ORtg above 100 yet. (And Johnson played a rather distressing four minutes per game last year.) Unless a couple of those players break out rather unexpectedly, San Diego St. will have a hard time making a fifth straight NCAA tournament.

Wyoming and Fresno St: The best thing you can say about Wyoming and Fresno St. is that they will probably be competitive defensively. Wyoming head coach Larry Shyatt has produced Top 100 defenses in back-to-back years. After how poorly Henry Schroyer’s defenses did over the previous four years, Shyatt at least has his team working hard. Similarly Rodney Terry orchestrated a remarkable defensive turnaround this least season. Fresno St.’s adjusted defense fell from 101.3 to 93.2.

Offensively, it is harder to be optimistic, but here are a couple of points on the two teams. In Wyoming’s case freshman Josh Adams was dreadful. Larry Shyatt clearly thought he was valuable giving him major minutes throughout the season, but Adams was a terrible shooter. Adams will be better as a sophomore, but he was only a 2-star player, and it isn’t clear that he has a very high ceiling. If Wyoming would limit Adams shot selection, the offense could take more of a bump.

In Fresno St.’s case, prized recruit Robert Upshaw was also awful, but he was hampered by injuries all year. If he is fully healthy from the start of the year, he could improve significantly. And the addition of elite transfer recruit Cezar Guerrero should also help. But with few above average efficiency players returning, Fresno St.’s offense will still likely be below average.

Nevada: David Carter has proven to be a poor defensive coach. And after making the tournament four years in a row, Nevada now hasn’t been to the tournament in six years. I feel bad for Deonte Burton (and to a lesser extent Jerry Evans). Burton is a fabulous PG, but he just doesn’t have a lot of quality offensive players to feed the ball to. And with the team exerting no effort on defense, Nevada won’t score enough points to win consistently.

Colorado St.: Colorado St. is poised for a hard fall this year. It isn’t just that Colorado St. loses 5 starters. Returning only 27% of the team’s minutes is bad enough. But the team also loses all its high volume shooters. The returning players like Daniel Bejarano and Gerson Santo were efficient last year, but they also deferred a lot in last year’s offense. The model is skeptical they can maintain their efficiency when asked to shoot more. That is why the model projects Colorado St. to have one of the biggest offensive collapses of any team in the country this off-season. The team also doesn’t add any can’t miss recruits. The team adds two JUCO transfers, which should help, and Dwight Smith will be back from an injury. But with all that roster attrition, the best case scenario is probably a season like Vanderbilt had last year.

Air Force: Dave Pilipovich did a fantastic job in his first season with the team, but Air Force is a very hard place to win. To return just one-third of the team’s minutes from last year and try to create a winning team with only 2-star recruits is a major undertaking.

San Jose St.: San Jose St. returns only four scholarship players from last year. When you don’t have enough quality upperclassman at San Jose St., the odds of winning are slim to none.

And now the math based reason that the RPI favors conferences where the home team wins. (Again I am just lifting this idea from Andy Glockner.)

Imagine there are just three games, a neutral site non-conference game which the power conference team wins, and then two conference games home and road, which are split. Under the RPI formula, the neutral site win counts as 1 win. But how the W-L split is counted will depend on where the win and loss happen. If the home team wins both, the weight is 0.6, if the road team wins both, the weight is 1.4. So if the home team wins both, the W-L record will be 1.6 and 0.6. If road teams win, the W-L record will be 2.4 and 1.4. The former works out to a 73 percent winning percentage, the later works out to a 63 percent winning percentage. Even though the venues, opponents, and W-L records are the same, the RPI gives higher credit to the league where the home team dominates.

Amusingly, in bad leagues that don’t win many non-conference games, the RPI ratings will be higher if the road teams win more conference games.

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.

Team

Adj Off

Adj Def

W

L

Pyth.

Illinois*

112.7

91.3

14

2

0.8965

Illinois (losing streak)

99.1

106.8

0

3

0.3163

 

 

 

 

 

 

Minnesota

117.4

85.6

15

1

0.9622

Minnesota (losing streak)

110.8

92.2

0

4

0.8681

 

 

 

 

 

 

Louisville

113.9

79.2

16

1

0.9764

Louisville (losing streak)

105.9

91.4

0

3

0.8181

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kentucky (non-conference)

111.7

84.4

9

4

0.9467

Kentucky (SEC play)

107.8

96.7

4

2

0.7543

*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.

Team

Adj Off

Adj Def

W

L

Pyth.

Duke

119.5

82.4

15

0

0.9785

Duke (without Ryan Kelly)

115.3

95.7

2

2

0.8719

           

Wyoming

111.0

88.1

10

0

0.9142

Wyoming (without Luke Martinez)

95.2

88.9

3

4

0.6685

           

Marquette

109.4

91.0

7

3

0.8685

Marquette (with Todd Mayo)

117.0

95.5

7

1

0.8889

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.

Team

Adj Off

Adj Def

W

L

Pyth.

Long Island

110.7

112.6

4

4

0.4571

Long Island (without Julian Boyd)

105.5

115.4

6

6

0.2857

           

Valparaiso

102.4

93.1

6

3

0.7254

Valparaiso (with LaVonte Dority)

107.5

96.6

9

2

0.7480

           

Wichita St.

109.1

89.1

9

1

0.8890

Wichita St. (since 3 players out)

109.2

86.3

10

1

0.9183

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.

Team

Adj Off

Adj Def

W

L

Pyth.

Missouri (Full Strength)

119.2

86.6

2

0

0.9638

Missouri (without Tony Criswell)

120.9

97.7

2

1

0.8988

Missouri (without Jabari Brown)

110.3

91.6

8

1

0.8703

Missouri (without Laurence Bowers)

107.5

94.8

3

2

0.7845

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.

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