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College Basketball Preview 14-15: Pacific-12

My numeric projections will be available near the start of the season, but today I want to write a few words about each Pac-12 team’s outlook.

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

Pac-12 Favorite

Arizona: Given the importance of the recruiting rankings in my player projections, it was not a huge surprise that Kentucky was the #1 team in my team projections in April. But I want to be clear that Kentucky was not the overwhelming favorite. In terms of probabilities, I project that three teams have a 25-30% chance of finishing with the best margin-of-victory at the end of the year, and Arizona is one of those three teams.

The case for Arizona is very simple. Arizona had the best defense in the nation last year and the vast majority of Arizona’s rotation is back. With all due respect to Nick Johnson, Arizona’s biggest defensive dilemma is replacing Aaron Gordon. And while that won’t be trivial, my model thinks Top 10 recruit Stanley Johnson can step into the lineup without the defense missing a beat. Meanwhile Kentucky brings back a number of lackluster defenders (see the Harrison twins), Kentucky will likely be playing an unorthodox lineup (big men guarding guards at times), and Kentucky also has a lot of young players. The most likely scenario is that Arizona’s defense will allow 4-5 fewer points per 100 possessions than Kentucky this year.

Whether Kentucky has a better season will depend on whether Kentucky is more than 4-5 points better per 100 possessions on offense. And Arizona does have some offensive questions. ESPN even had a recent headline on this point. But I am optimistic for several reasons. First, Arizona was a good offensive team (and was an undefeated team) last year until Brandon Ashley got hurt. You cannot overlook the importance of Ashley’s ability to knock down jump shots and help with the team’s offensive spacing. Second, chemistry matters for an offense. Returning minutes are a little overrated, but teams with a lot of returning minutes do tend to improve on offense on average. The fact that TJ McConnell has now had a year to work with most of Arizona’s roster means everyone should be better. Third, the team adds JUCO Top 10 recruit Kadeem Allen. I’ve said on many occasions that JUCO recruits are lottery tickets, but Allen performed well enough at the JUCO level that he projects as a quality scorer. And most importantly the team adds Stanley Johnson. My model likes Johnson to be the Wildcats leading scorer next year, but that doesn’t mean he has to do it all. I project a balanced rotation with four players in double figures and seven players scoring quite a bit.

I am not saying Arizona should be ahead of Kentucky in the preseason polls, but if this team isn’t receiving some consideration for the top spot, they are being badly under-judged.

Hoping for the Top 25

UCLA: Height, athleticism (recruiting rankings), and past player stats (rebounds, blocks, steals) contribute to my projection of each team’s defense. But often the only piece of information we have that seems to have any real predictive power is the past defensive performances of the head coach.

But looking at the past track record of coaches is not a foolproof way to predict defense. Here are the defensive ranks of Stanford’s Johnny Dawkins and UCLA’s Steve Alford as D1 head coaches in the tempo free era.

PPP

Def Rank

Johnny Dawkins

Steve Alford

2014

43rd

45th

2013

70th

18th

2012

18th

20th

2011

91st

67th

2010

120th

97th

2009

85th

62nd

2008

 

28th

2007

 

76th

2006

 

1st

2005

 

40th

2004

 

49th

2003

 

101st

2002

 

51st

You can look at these numbers and say Alford has been a slightly better defensive coach than Dawkins. But that is not an unambiguous conclusion from this data. It took Dawkins a few years to develop some quality post defenders after Brook and Robin Lopez left for the NBA. And while Alford has had some great seasons in the past (particularly 2006 at Iowa), he hasn’t had a great defensive team every year.

These defensive differences were a key reason why I had UCLA ahead of Stanford in my spring projections. But every year I re-fit the model to the historical data and I found the predictive power of a coach’s historical defense fell in 2014. Perhaps because of the change in the way fouls were called (scoring rose about 3 points per 100 possessions across the nation but all coaches were not impacted equally), there was less correlation between a coach’s historical defense and his 2014 performance. And because historical defensive performances now have a smaller weight in my model, UCLA and Stanford now have a much more similar prediction than when I first ran the numbers this spring.

Whether you agree with that, or like UCLA or Stanford more, I think we all have to acknowledge that predicting defense is extremely difficult. If either UCLA or Stanford is particularly dominant on defense, they could have a borderline Top 10 squad. But with so many new faces, if either team is particularly poor on defense, it isn’t out of the question that either team could miss the tournament too. I spend a lot of time making predictions about teams, but one of the most important things I want to reflect in my rankings is that there is variance in the team projections. Arizona is unlikely to fall out of the Top 10. But for teams like UCLA and Stanford that break in a large number of new players, a wide range of season outcomes are on the table, particularly on defense.

We can feel much more confident in the offensive prediction. And UCLA has some quality pieces on that side of the ball. Kevon Looney, Thomas Welsh, and Jonah Bolden are three Top 50 freshmen. Tony Parker has waited his turn and finally has his chance to shine in the post. Bryce Alford was a very efficient backup PG last year, and Norman Powell was an efficient off-guard as well. There are some concerns about UCLA’s outside shooting since Powell’s three point stroke is poor, but with elite prospect Isaac Hamilton finally eligible after sitting out his letter-of-intent issue, UCLA should have enough weapons to score points at a high level. But seasons are made or broken on whether teams make stops, and for UCLA and Stanford, that’s the key question.

Stanford: Johnny Dawkins job was on the line last season. I remember the Twitter debate quite well. One person would write how Dawkins’ career hinged on a player making a pair of free throws to seal a game, and someone would respond by saying that this was a ridiculous standard. Winning a close game to make the NCAA tournament should not be the measuring stick.

But at some point, for most coaches it will come down to a couple of bounces of the basketball. Obviously, for some coaches like Oregon St.’s Craig Robinson, the team’s performance is so consistently poor, that one game was not going to swing the difference between Robinson keeping or losing his job. And obviously, for some coaches like Arizona’s Sean Miller, the team performed at such a high level, that one loss would not cost him his job. But that doesn’t mean that other coaches don’t fall somewhere in the middle. Johnny Dawkins was a coach who wasn’t terrible at his job, but who wasn’t performing at an elite level either. At some point, a coach like that is going to live or die based on the outcome of a handful of games.

It is fortunate that Dawkins made the Sweet Sixteen last year and saved his job, because on paper this is the best roster he has assembled at Stanford. Dawkins has veteran talent with Chasson Randle, Anthony Brown, and Stefan Nastic and he has a great recruiting class with Reid Travis, Robert Cartwright, and Michael Humphrey. Stanford’s expectations should be as high as they have been since Brook and Robin Lopez left for the NBA.

The real knock on Dawkins is not the quality of his roster. The knock is that Dawkins margin-of-victory has never been above 36th in the nation. Even with the team making the Sweet Sixteen last year, Stanford’s per possession performance was no better than that of a bubble team. And as you will see below in my discussion of California, among current Pac-12 coaches, Dawkins actually has the worst track record of developing players on offense. Signs point towards a great season, but Dawkins must be a better offensive teacher if the team is to live up to the lofty standards it set last year.

Utah: Utah’s margin-of-victory rose from 297th three years ago to 108th two years ago to 42nd last year. Due to a weak non-conference schedule, Utah was left out of the NCAA tournament last year. But with all the key players back, except the inefficient Princeton Onwas, Utah is close to a lock for this year’s tournament. In fact, I wouldn’t argue with anyone that put Utah in their preseason Top 25. My main problem with Utah’s roster is the lack of elite athletes. The average star rating (high school potential) of Utah’s roster remains among the lowest in the conference. You can make the tournament without elite athletes, but to stay in the Top 25 all season usually requires those types of players. There was a key recruiting breakthrough this year. One of the only Top 100 recruits in-state, Brekkot Chapman, decided to stay home. But Utah hopes another year of sustained success will make that type of commitment less rare.

Hoping for the NCAA Tournament

Colorado: The injury splits were definitive. After Spencer Dinwiddie was injured last season, Colorado became a vastly inferior team. It culminated with a blowout loss to Pittsburgh in the NCAA tournament.

On paper, having 91% of the team’s minutes back is a reason for optimism. But Colorado’s full-season margin-of-victory was only 77th in the nation last year (thanks to that brutal closing stretch). The team just wasn’t very good without Dinwiddie. And without a second star to compliment the super-efficient Josh Scott, the team has a ceiling.

At this point, for Colorado to truly reach that next level is going to require for one of Colorado’s player to take a greater than expected step forward. Xavier Talton needs to lower his turnover rate (26%) and raise his assist rate (15%). Askia Booker needs to get in the gym and improve his three point percentage (27%). Wesley Gordon’s hands have to get better (24% turnover rate). And Xavier Johnson needs to improve his free throw percentage (61%). Colorado currently projects as a 10 seed in the NCAA tournament in my model. But to reach that next level, they need another player to become an efficient star.

Oregon: Sharp-shooting three-point gunner Joseph Young is one of the best players in the Pac-12. Forwards Michael Chandler and Dwayne Benjamin are both elite JUCO prospects. Elgin Cook was a very efficient player who was under-utilized last year due to the team’s depth. And if JaQuan Lyle is eligible, his Top 30 recruiting rank is good enough to expect him to be a key player in year one.

When you have five players that good, you can usually compete with anyone. But after a massive scandal decimated the roster this spring, the question was whether Oregon had enough depth to survive the season. Now that Dillon Brooks has re-classified to 2014, Oregon should have 10 quality scholarship players if everyone is eligible. The young guards on the bench might be a little raw, and Jalil Abdul-Bassit might be a weak link given how he played last year. But Altman added enough pieces that the two-year NCAA tournament streak doesn’t have to end.

Cal: With Ty Wallace and David Kravish Back, and with Jabari Bird and Jordan Mathews likely to make the sophomore leap and become dominant players, California’s core four players are very strong. But the rest of the roster is filled with a bunch of recruits with fairly low potential. The key question for the teams is whether Martin can develop a few of those unknown players into role players and build a competent rotation. The tempo free numbers suggest that he can.

For the last seven years, based on previous college stats and recruiting rankings, I calculated a projected ORtg for every player. Then I divided each player’s observed ORtg by his projected ORtg and calculated the average ratio for each coach. You can think of this as a measure of each coach’s track record at developing players on offense.

Oregon head coach Dana Altman typically gets his players to perform significantly above where they were recruited, at least on offense. Conversely, Johnny Dawkins players have performed about where you would expect, no worse, no better.

Coach

Current Team

Ratio

Dana Altman

Oregon

1.034

Wayne Tinkle

Oregon St.

1.027

Cuonzo Martin

California

1.026

Herb Sendek

Arizona St.

1.026

Steve Alford

UCLA

1.022

Lorenzo Romar

Washington

1.020

Andy Enfield

USC

1.020

Ernie Kent

Washington St.

1.013

Sean Miller

Arizona

1.005

Larry Krystkowiak

Utah

1.004

Tad Boyle

Colorado

1.000

Johnny Dawkins

Stanford

0.999

You may wonder why Sean Miller is so low on the list despite his success at Arizona. But Sean Miller has been winning by recruiting. Not only has Miller been bringing in Top 100 recruits, he has also been adding some very productive transfers. TJ McConnell was already a very productive player before he came to Arizona, so Miller does not get as much credit for developing his offensive game. This table is also focused on offense, and does not give Miller credit for his team’s great defense last year.

You may wonder why there are no coaches with ratios significantly below one. This is not unusual for a major conference. Coaches that do a poor job developing their players typically get fired. If you are looking for the worst coach at developing offensive players in the Pac-12 in the recent past, that would be Kevin O’Neill. O’Neill’s ratio was 0.972.

Moreover, when programs hire new coaches, they tend to hire coaches that have a great track record of developing players. I have very limited data on Ernie Kent because he has not been a D1 head coach for several years, but Wayne Tinkle and Cuonzo Martin were both among the best at getting the most out of their players. Tinkle took two and three star recruits at Montana and turned them into stars. And Martin improved Tennessee’s offense from 114th in his first year to 63rd two years ago to 17th in the country last season. If that track record continues, California can sneak into the tournament.

Washington: A year ago injuries and inconsistent play in the frontcourt meant Lorenzo Romar had by far the worst defensive team he has had in the last 10 years. This year the team adds 7 foot shot-blocker and former Top 100 recruit Robert Upshaw which should solve a lot of those problems. The team should also get back Jernard Jarreau who blew out his knee in November last year. Not only will the team be taller, it should also be less reliant on freshmen, and that should lead to fewer defensive mistakes.

Washington’s defense should be substantially improved, but I am less confident in the offense. Many people do not appreciate how dominant CJ Wilcox was last season or how much he will be missed. And for everything he brings defensively, Robert Upshaw was a very raw offensive player at Fresno St. But the improvements on defense should allow the Huskies to get back into the bubble picture.

Hoping for the NIT

Arizona St.: On the flip side, Arizona St’s defense should be substantially worse. Only two teams in the nation had better free throw defense, and that probably isn’t something the team can count on again. More importantly, the 7’2” Jordan Bachynski has graduated and his height and shot-blocking will be very difficult to replace. Thanks to Bachynski, Herb Sendek had his best defensive team ever at Arizona St. last season. But the team was still only 50th nationally on defense, and all signs suggest the defense will be inadequate this year.

With JUCO Top 100 recruits Gerry Blakes, Willie Atwood, and Roosevelt Scott joining the team, and with transfer Savon Goodman (a top 100 high school recruit who played for UNLV) joining the fold, Arizona St.’s offense will probably be better than most people think. Jahii Carson was not as irreplaceable offensively as his hype would suggest. Yes, Carson was a high volume shooter, but Carson didn’t have a great ORtg. And Herb Sendek is very good at teaching an offense that spreads the floor and attacks with cuts to the basket. Sendek can figure out a way to replace Carson, but replacing Bachynski will be a challenge.

USC: USC adds three Top 100 recruits, Jordan McLaughlin, Elijah Stewart, and Malik Marquetti. Even though none of them are ranked in the Top 30, I could easily see a couple of them finishing as Top 30 freshmen scorers for the simple reason that USC is rebuilding and will give those players lots of playing time this year. The team also adds UNLV transfer Katin Reinhart who was a Top 100 recruit out of high school. Andy Enfield is raising the talent level of the program, but this team is still at least a year away.

Washington St.: Ernie Kent will get Washington St. playing at a faster pace. And with the typical sophomore leap Ike Iroegbu and Que Johnson should thrive in that system. Alongside super-scorer DeVonte Lacy, Washington St. will hope to out-score teams. But the talent level on this roster is still very low relative to the rest of the Pac-12. Iroegbu and Johnson are the only two players on the roster that were rated three stars or higher out of high school, and Kent needs to upgrade the team’s talent level before the team can hope for anything other than the NIT.

Avert Your Eyes

Oregon St.: What’s the worst Power Five conference team this year? In the Big Ten, I dislike Rutgers, but at least they have Myles Mack. In the ACC, I’m down on Georgia Tech, but Marcus Georges-Hunt is a quality player. In the SEC, I’m not a huge fan of Mississippi St.’s roster, but at least they have experience with 74% of their minutes back from last year. And in the Big 12, I think TCU will be substantially improved as they get several players back from injury.

Right now, I’m looking at Oregon St. as the worst team in the Power Five conferences. Langston Morris-Walker and Malcolm Duvivier are the leading returning scorers at 4.1 PPG and 3.1 PPG respectively. That puts a huge burden on the recruiting class. JUCO Gary Payton Jr is going to have to play a lot. But he is going to face immense pressure to live up to his father’s name, and the team is expecting far too much of a player who was great but not super-elite at the JUCO level. Perhaps Cameron Oliver will be the answer. ESPN only thought he was a three star recruit, but Scout.com thought Oliver was a four star prospect. The good news is that the 2015 recruiting class is off to a nice start. But in 2014-15 new head coach Wayne Tinkle has a lot of work to do.

Draft Report: Aaron Gordon Of Arizona

- The following is an excerpt from Jonathan Tjarks' e-book about the NBA Draft that can be purchased for just $3.99.

For a player whose athletic ability has been compared to Blake Griffin, Aaron Gordon does a remarkable job of staying under the radar. He averaged only 12 points a game as a freshman, but he was every bit as effective as Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Julius Randle. Nick Johnson was their leading scorer, but Gordon was Arizona’s best player and the engine of their team. There’s a lot more that goes into winning basketball games than taking a lot of shots.

Season

G

MP

FG

FGA

FG%

3P

3PA

3P%

FT

FTA

FT%

RB

AS

ST

BK

TO

PF

PTS

2013-14

37

31.2

5.0

10.1

.495

0.4

1.2

.345

2.0

4.7

.420

8.0

2.0

0.9

1.0

1.4

2.4

12.4

*Stats courtesy of basketball-reference

At 6’9 225 with a 6’11 wingspan, Gordon was one of the most versatile defensive players in the country as a freshman. He had the size and athleticism to defend all five positions at the college level, with the quickness to switch on the pick-and-roll and the strength to hold position on the low block. Gordon could suffocate smaller players on the perimeter and play in front of bigger players in the post - he was the glue that held together a suffocating Arizona defense.

Gordon lead the Wildcats in rebounding, was tied for second in blocks and was third in steals. He helped their big men clean the defensive glass and protect the rim and he helped their guards pressure the ball and force turnovers. When he was on the floor, the Arizona defense could attack you in multiple ways. If Gordon was on the ball, he could choke off dribble penetration. When he was off the ball, he could jump passing lanes and serve as the second line of defense.

Arizona could go from defense to offense as well as any team in the country, in large part due to Gordon’s ability to run the lanes or start the break himself. He’s one of the rare players who is  just as comfortable throwing the alley-oop or finishing it. You can see where the Blake comparisons come from when he’s playing in transition - you don’t see a 6’9 player with his combination of quickness, leaping ability, ball-handling and basketball IQ very often.

In the halfcourt, Gordon served as one of the hubs of the Arizona offense, moving the ball and setting everyone else up. While he averaged only two assists a game, he had a positive assist-to-turnover ratio, unlike Parker, Wiggins or Randle. He can run the pick-and-roll and see over the defense, allowing him to find the open man anywhere on the floor. That’s one of the most remarkable things about Gordon - he almost always makes the right play.

Shooting from the perimeter, particularly the free-throw line, was the one weakness in his game as a freshman. Opposing teams played off him, almost daring him to shoot the ball, and when he drove the lane, they knew they could always foul him. It’s not that his jumper is broken - he went 16-45 from the three-point line - but he lost confidence in it as the season went on. For a player with his ability, shooting 42% from the free-throw line is as much mental as physical.

Gordon might never be a guy who averages 18-20 points a game, but he does everything else on the court that helps you win. He’s the ultimate teammate, a guy who plays elite defense at multiple positions and moves the ball on offense. Passing the ball and playing defense is how you make your teammates better and no one was better at that than Gordon this season. Even though he didn’t score a lot of points, he was one of the most valuable players in the country.

Doug McDermott won the Wooden Award, but Creighton is a much better team if Gordon takes his place. All of a sudden, Creighton would have someone who could lock down the other team’s best player, protect the rim, clean the defensive glass and make plays out of their frontcourt. The shots that McDermott took, meanwhile, would have been redistributed to Ethan Wragge. It’s not that hard to replace a guy who takes a lot of shots and does nothing else. 

Switch Gordon and Jabari and Duke has more shot-blocking, rebounding and passing in their frontcourt and Rodney Hood becomes their primary scorer. Switch him with Wiggins and he plays a deadly high-low game with Joel Embiid and Wayne Selden becomes their primary scorer. Switch him with Randle and Kentucky has a shut-down perimeter defender and plays a more uptempo, 4-out style that gets their perimeter players easier shots in transition.

Gordon is high-level defender, rebounder and passer and he can get buckets without dominating the ball. He does so many things well that he can fit with any team. It’s not about how many points, rebounds, assists, steals or blocks any individual player gets - it’s how many the team gets in each category. Gordon is like a ghost in the box score. Whatever category his team needs, he can give them. Just as important, he can do it from any number of positions on the floor.

At Arizona, he could play as a big small forward next to Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski or as a small-ball center with Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and three shooters in front of him. Gordon gives his coach a tremendous amount of versatility on both sides of the ball, allowing his team to match up with almost any kind of opponent. He won’t be quite as versatile in the NBA, but he should be able to play as a 3 or a 4 on offense and guard every position but center.

If there’s a player he resembles at the next level, it’s Andrei Kirilenko or Shawn Marion. And while both are universally recognized as great players, neither has ever quite gotten the respect they deserve. Even in their second decade in the league, they are both still key cogs on good teams because they bring value in so many different aspects of the game. They are two of the best defensive players in the NBA while still stuffing the stat-sheet in every category.

There are other players in this draft who might be better than Gordon in a specific role, but there are none who can play as many different roles as Gordon. You never know who your teammates are going to be at the next level - the NBA is a business and rosters change every year. Contracts happen. Injuries happen. Life happens. Just look at Arizona this season, which had to re-invent its identity on the fly when Ashley went down with a season-ending injury.

The Wildcats started the season 21-0, went 3-2 after Ashley got hurt and then finished the season 10-3. They were a different team in each of those stretches - Gordon’s versatility allowed Sean Miller to try a bunch of lineups until he found one that worked. I don’t know how many points a game Gordon will score at the next level or whether he will rack up any individual awards, but I can make this prediction - whoever drafts Gordon won’t be a bad team for long.

- This was an excerpt from Jonathan Tjarks' e-book about the NBA Draft that can be purchased for $3.99.

NCAA Top 25 Projections (Post NBA Draft Declaration Deadline)

Before I share the projections, I want to comment on a few places where my rankings disagree with some other experts. I explain the statistical reasons why my model is more skeptical of Texas, SMU, San Diego St., and Oklahoma. But I also do not completely agree with what the model is currently suggesting. The lineup-based statistical projection seems to be falling in love with teams with a lot of unproven high school talent.

Where My Model Disagrees with Other Experts

Texas (Too High Elsewhere): Texas returns 100% of their minutes from last year, they have super-recruit Myles Turner joining the front-court, and they made the round of 32 last year. But I think it is important to emphasize that Texas finished with the 6th best margin-of-victory in the Big 12, and the 39th best margin-of-victory nationally. In terms of NCAA at-large teams without major injuries, Texas was the luckiest team in the nation last year, winning a ton of close games. Heck, even their NCAA win came by the slimmest of margins on a last-second buzzer beater. If you start from the premise that Texas was a Top 25 team, you could justify a Top 5 ranking. But based on how they really played, and how inconsistently their lineup performed individually, I have them just behind the other elite teams in 9th.

SMU (Too High Elsewhere): A lot of SMU’s players had huge jumps in efficiency last year.  Marcus Kennedy had an ORtg of 88 at Villanova and an ORtg of 106 at SMU last season. Nic Moore had an ORtg of 106 at Illinois St. and an ORtg of 118 at SMU last season. But big leaps in efficiency are usually followed by players slipping back some. AAC coaches are studying film of Kennedy and Moore’s game this off-season and figuring out ways to slow them down. The addition of Emmanuel Mudiay is why I have SMU improving its margin of victory from 30th to 16th, but without Myles Turner, I think it is premature to put them in the Top 10.

San Diego St.  (Too High Elsewhere): Most people account for Xavier Thames impact on the offense, but not enough people are recognizing how special it was to have an elite defensive rebounder like Josh Davis. Remember what happened to Oregon’s defense after Arsalan Kazemi graduated? Oregon fell from 10th to 88th on defense.

Oregon (Too High Elsewhere): Speaking of Oregon, I love the backcourt, but for a team that was horrible on defense last year, the lack of clear defenders in the paint is a red flag. Perhaps the highly regarded JUCO recruits will make a difference, but the front-court weakness is what is keeping Oregon out of my Top 25.

Oklahoma  (Too High Elsewhere): Oklahoma finished 2nd in the Big 12 last year, but the Sooners only had the  5th best margin-of-victory in the conference, and nationally their margin-of-victory was only 33rd. That said, Oklahoma’s potential starting lineup is impressive:

-Ryan Spangler, a dominant rebounder, who rarely touched the ball, but had an ORtg of 125

-Dante Buford, the nation’s #72 recruit and a needed piece at forward

-Jordan Woodard, who had a 28% assist rate as a freshmen, and an ORtg of 108

-Isaiah Cousins, a 40% three point shooter with an ORtg of 112

-And Buddy Hield, a high volume shooter who made 90/233 or 39% of his threes last season

On paper, that should lead to a very good offense. But my model is skeptical that it will be better than last year’s offense. Oklahoma loses a player that took 30% of the shots last year, and was extremely efficient, in Cam Clark. The most likely scenario next season is that Oklahoma will replace Clark with some of its less skilled big men. Either veteran DJ Bennett, or one of the three freshmen bigs (of which Buford is the most highly ranked) will take Clark’s minutes. The increased size will improve the defense, but it will also hurt Oklahoma’s offense. While Buford is a Top 100 recruit, based on where he is ranked, we can’t expect him to be a consistent offensive player immediately.

What could overcome the loss of Clark is if Hield, Cousins, or Woodard took a significant step forward. But what you have to remember is that none of these guys was a Top 100 recruit out of high school. Realistically, they are all playing pretty close to their ceiling. Woodard has the biggest chance to improve, as the sophomore leap is typically the biggest, but he didn’t make a ton of mistakes as a freshman, so he doesn’t have as much room to grow.

As I’ve shown on many occasions, to win at the highest levels, having elite high school talent is important. It isn’t completely necessary, but the stats show that on average, a high school recruiting rank is an important predictor of career development. And Oklahoma has only one former Top 100 recruit on its roster.

That emphasis on the potential of Top 100 recruits, particularly former Top 30 recruits, is why my model likes the next three teams that many experts are skeptical about. Essentially, if you have 7-8 players with solid recruiting backgrounds, and a coach that has been highly successful in recent seasons, my model tends to project great things. Let’s take a quick look at the elite prospects on three rosters:

Syracuse (Too High in My Projections):

#50 recruit, 6’3” PG Kaleb Joseph

#79 recruit, 6’4” SG Trevor Cooney, ORtg 122, 90/240 or 38% of threes last year

#28 recruit, 6’7” G/F Michael Gbinje, ORtg 111, passable 15.6% assist rate as backup PG

#37 recruit, 6’8” F Tyler Roberson, ORtg 89, best DR% on team last year

#24 recruit, 6’10” F Chris McCullough

#18 recruit, 6’9” C DaJuan Coleman, ORtg 109, almost always injured, but good per-minute rebounder

#21 recruit, 6’9” C Rakeem Christmas, ORtg 126 but far too passive with 11% of shots last year, best shot-blocker on team last year

Ohio St. (Too High in My Projections):

#32 recruit, 6’1” PG Shannon Scott, ORtg 101, 25.5% assist rate last year

#13 recruit, 6’5” SG D'Angelo Russell

#76 recruit, 6’3” SG Kam Williams, great shooter who red-shirted last year

#28 recruit, 6’5” SF Jae'Sean Tate

#46 recruit, 6’7” SF Sam Thompson, decent scorer, ORtg 105, but terrible rebounder

#22 recruit, 6’7” F Keita Bates-Diop

#66 recruit, 6’7” F Marc Loving, ORtg 101, aggressive scorer, possible break-out candidate as a sophomore

Temple Transfer, 6’9” F Anthony Lee, ORtg 107 on bad team, great offensive and defensive rebounder

#50 recruit, 6’11” C Amir Williams, ORtg 110, great offensive rebounder

UCLA (Too High in My Projections):

Unranked, 6’3” PG Bryce Alford, ORtg 110, 19% assist rate last year as backup PG

#53 recruit, 6’4” SG Norman Powell, ORtg 120, high steal rate last year

#19 recruit, 6’5” SF Isaac Hamilton, red-shirted after he could not get out of NLI

#12 recruit, 6’8”  F Kevon Looney

#36 recruit, 6’8” F Thomas Welsh

#69 recruit, 6’11” C Jonah Bolden

#24 recruit, 6’9” C Tony Parker, ORtg 108, strong rebounder last year

That’s a ton of players that were elite prospects coming out of high school. Given how well Jim Boeheim’s defense has performed in recent seasons, Syracuse should be ranked, no matter how much talent they lose. And Thad Matta might be the most under-rated coach in the nation. In the 12 years, Ken Pomeroy has been keeping track of the stats, Matta’s teams have never finished worse than 33rd in margin-of-victory. Steve Alford has also done a brilliant job developing players over the last several years. For example, Kyle Anderson became a star under Alford, after struggling to find a college role under Ben Howland. Talent + Great Coaching = Teams that should be ranked.

But a word of caution is warranted. This version of my model is based on the mean projection for every player. Later this summer, when teams fully fill out their depth chart, I will run my full simulation and project scenarios where players are allowed to have good or bad seasons. When I allow for the possibility that one or more of these recruits are busts, teams like Syracuse and UCLA are going to have a very worrisome downside. For example, if Syracuse PG Kaleb Joseph isn’t ready to play major minutes, Syracuse’s season could be a disaster.  The whole point of the above exercise is simply to point out that as much as these teams lose, their primary rotation has the athletes to be competitive with anyone.

Of course, you might also ask why teams like Stanford, UNLV, and Memphis are not ranked because they are also filled with elite recruits. Personally, I’m particularly high on Stanford based on their returning players and recruiting class. But my statistical model basically says this: If you look at the last several years on a per-possession basis, Jim Boeheim, Thad Matta, and Steve Alford, have been great at molding their players into efficient contributors. Meanwhile, despite occasional flashes of brilliance, Johnny Dawkins, Dave Rice, and Josh Pastner have been a lot less effective. Even in making the Sweet Sixteen last season, Dawkins team was only 36th in the nation in margin-of-victory.

Someone has to fill out the Top 25, and arguments can be made against all these teams. But that is always the case outside the Top 10-12 teams. For a description of the headings in the table, and a deeper run-down on some of the teams, click here.

Rnk

Team

Conf

Pred Pyth

Pred Off

Pred Def

LastOff

LastDef

Rmin

T100

1

Kentucky

SEC

0.959

123.0

93.5

117.6

96.9

65%

10

2

Duke

ACC

0.950

122.0

94.5

123.5

102.3

47%

10

3

Kansas

B12

0.950

120.0

93.0

116.8

96.3

68%

10

4

Arizona

P12

0.935

117.0

92.8

114.7

88.5

65%

7

5

Wisconsin

B10

0.934

121.9

96.7

120.8

97.6

82%

3

6

Louisville

ACC

0.926

116.4

93.5

116.7

90.0

56%

9

7

Florida

SEC

0.920

116.3

94.0

115.3

89.2

47%

8

8

N. Carolina

ACC

0.914

116.4

94.7

111.7

95.4

74%

10

9

Texas

B12

0.912

117.8

96.1

111.0

98.4

100%

7

10

Villanova

BE

0.909

116.6

95.5

113.8

94.4

78%

7

11

Wichita St.

MVC

0.908

116.9

95.8

118.1

93.3

64%

0

12

Virginia

ACC

0.907

112.5

92.3

114.4

90.1

70%

4

13

VCU

A10

0.907

109.6

89.9

107.9

90.2

70%

4

14

Syracuse

ACC

0.899

113.2

93.6

112.3

93.6

41%

7

15

Ohio St.

B10

0.898

113.4

93.9

106.5

89.6

54%

8

16

SMU

AAC

0.895

113.3

94.1

110.1

94.7

74%

3

17

Iowa St.

B12

0.888

118.0

98.6

118.4

99.9

65%

3

18

Iowa

B10

0.873

118.9

100.6

119.8

102.7

67%

2

19

UCLA

P12

0.872

114

96.5

117

97.3

35%

6

20

Gonzaga

WCC

0.872

116.3

98.4

111.4

94.4

64%

4

21

Connecticut

AAC

0.867

109.7

93.2

112.2

91.8

42%

5

22

Oklahoma

B12

0.861

114.3

97.6

116.3

100.6

70%

1

23

Michigan St.

B10

0.860

113.6

97.0

117.2

96.1

59%

6

24

San Diego St.

MWC

0.856

108.8

93.2

109.5

91.6

67%

7

25

Pittsburgh

ACC

0.851

113.1

97.2

114.8

96.2

69%

4

Moving Up Since Early April

Team – Players That I Did Not Expect to Stay: Analysis

Kentucky – Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison, Willie Cauley-Stein:  Kentucky now has eight players who were former Top 20 recruits out of high school. And the other two, Willie Cauley-Stein, and Tyler Ulis, might end up being the most important players on the team next year. Cauley-Stein is an elite rim-protector. And Ulis is a true PG who will be a better defensive match-up against speedy perimeter players, as well as a true facilitator. With experience to go along with all its talent, Kentucky is the clear favorite. 

Louisville - Montrezl Harrell:  Russ Smith and Luke Hancock were high volume efficient shooters who will be hard to replace. But keep in mind how many minutes Stephen Van Treese played last year, and he basically never shot. In net, you have a team with elite high school recruits at every position, depth at every position, and thanks to the return of Montrezl Harrell, you have a clear offensive star. The offense should be fine. As I've said before, the thing that will be harder to replace is Russ Smith's ability to create steals. 

Dropping

Team – Players That I Did Not Expect to Leave: Analysis

Arizona – Nick Johnson (pro): Nick Johnson is not a consensus first round pick, so in my first set of predictions, I assumed he would return to school. But even if the NBA doesn't value him as a first round pick, that was how he played. Johnson was the most efficient of Arizona's starters, and he used the highest shot volume last year. Arizona has a stacked recruiting class, and has talent across the board. But the model no longer predicts the same big offensive jump now that the top offensive producer from last year is gone. The defense should still be elite, but keep in mind that Johnson was also better at grabbing steals and blocking shots than Gabe York and Elliott Pitts. His loss does hurt. 

Connecticut -DeAndre Daniels (pro): Daniels was a unique forward who could spread the floor, but who also had an uncanny ability to block shots. Lineups with Phil Nolan and Amida Brimah might be dominant defensively, but they won't have nearly the same great spacing on offense.

Minor note: Virginia lost Teven Jones to transfer. His playing time fell off last year, so this was not a huge surprise, but he did play 500 minutes in his career, and he was expected to be a backup guard next season. His departure makes a miniscule change in Virginia’s projection. This caused Virginia to fall below Villanova and Wichita St.

Dropping Out of My Top 25

Michigan – Mitch McGary (pro), Glenn Robinson (pro), Jon Horford (transfer): I thought Michigan could be a Top 10 team even without Nik Stauskas, but after losing basically the entire front-court, Michigan will have to deal with somewhat of a rebuilding process, at least early in the season. You are going to start hearing a lot about red-shirt freshman forward Mark Donnal in the coming weeks. Donnal was not a consensus Top 100 recruit, but he was a 4-star prospect, and he is the type of player that should have an impact offensively. But keep in mind that Donnal did not burn his red-shirt when Mitch McGary went down last year. The fact that he didn't says we shouldn't expect Donnal to be a superstar. If Michigan adds a JUCO forward, that would likely move the Wolverines back into my Top 25, but right now the front-court depth is lacking and Michigan sits at 26th in my projections. 

Colorado – Spencer Dinwiddie (pro): Because of the sophomore leap, I expect a number of Colorado’s players to get better this year. But there is no way they can be ranked without Spencer Dinwiddie. Colorado’s margin-of-victory fell to 77th late in the season with Dinwiddie out. Saying that Askia Booker's experience can make up for Dinwiddie’s departure is a joke. Dinwiddie had an ORtg of 129 last year, while Booker's ORtg was 99. Top 100 recruit and PG Dominique Collier will help a lot, but given where he is ranked, he is probably about a year away from dominating at the college level.

Maryland – Nick Faust (transfer), Shaq Cleare (transfer), Roddy Peters (transfer): Maryland was my sleeper team, but they fall a little bit due to these departures. Maryland was still incredibly unlucky last season. By just winning a few more close games, they should be in the NCAA tournament hunt. And they bring in a great recruiting class. But without Faust, they no longer project as a Top 25 team.

Baylor – Isiah Austin (pro): I thought after Austin’s stats fell off in every area and after he was no longer projected as a first round pick that Austin might spend another year in college. I was wrong. I don't hate the Bears roster. Kenny Chery, Royce O'Neale, and Rico Gathers are all talented players. But they are not quite a Top 25 squad anymore.

Utah – Princeton Onwas (transfer):  Onwas departure knocks Utah out of my Top 25, but they are close, and this should still be the year that Utah returns to the NCAA tournament. (Utah also added an international center, but he hasn’t been fully scouted by the US scouting services, and it is hard to project a big impact for him this year.)

Moving into My Top 25

Iowa St.: Bryce Dejean-Jones committed to Iowa St. this month, and his addition moves the Cyclones from 27th to 17th. Dejean-Jones was a high volume scorer and efficient passer for UNLV.

Oklahoma: While Je’lon Hornbeak wasn’t terrible by any means, he was the least efficient player on Oklahoma last year, and swapping him for a JUCO PG didn’t drop the Sooners. Oklahoma basically moved into the Top 25 because some of the above teams fell out.

Michigan St., San Diego St., Pittsburgh: Gary Harris’ departure was not a surprise, so these teams did not add or lose any key pieces since my initial rankings. But with the above teams losing key pieces, the Spartans, Aztecs, and Panthers moved into the Top 25.

Next week: I will have a few more comments on the defensive projection for Duke and Kansas.

Way Too Early Top 25 Projections

I break out my lineup-based projections model to predict the 2014-15 season.

Counting Down To Four

Why Bo Ryan deserved a Final Four trip, Michigan St.'s poor half-court offense, and other thoughts as we set the field for the Final Four.

Sweet Sixteen Day 1

What it means to have a Cole Aldrich moment, Scott Drew's enigmatic coaching, UCLA's three point defense, and Aaron Gordon's promotional video highlight Day 1 of the Sweet Sixteen.

Major Conference Tournaments Underway

How good would Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, and Arizona be if their freshmen stuck around? I also check in on some seniors and the first day of the major conference tournaments.

Injury Splits - March Edition

How well has Arizona played without Brandon Ashley? What about Pittsburgh without Durand Johnson? What about Colorado without Spencer Dinwiddie?

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.

Pac-12 Basketball Early Projection

With the MWC taking a step back, eight Pac-12 teams should be in the NCAA tournament hunt in 2013-14.

2013-2014 Preseason Top 25

A lineup-based statistical model projects the 2013-2014 season.

Weaknesses of Title Contenders

In this edition, we take the teams in the Top 16 of the Pomeroy Rankings and figure out how often they look beatable on the basketball court.

NCAA Power Poll For February

While there are certainly no elite college teams this season, there are a host of teams that can reach the Final Four. In this edition, we outline the various tiers.

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.

Slim Margins

On Butler/Gonzaga, winning the right way, quantity leading to quality, quality leading to quality, Syracuse, Cincinnati, Rutgers and more.

Who Have You Played?

On the legitimacy of Arizona and Florida as national championship contenders, who has quality wins already and more.

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.

Projecting The 2013 Season (Page 3)

Hot Off the Presses: Projecting the 2013 Season!

Projecting The 2013 Season (Page 2)

Hot off the Presses, Page 2 of the 2013 Projections

Projecting The 2013 Season

Hot Off the Presses: The First Look at the 2013 Season!

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