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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.

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.

Injury Splits - March Edition

Today I once again look at all meaningful injuries and suspensions for teams in consideration for an at large bid. I am generally going to limit the splits to situations where we have at least three games with and without the player. I also limit my analysis to players who were playing at least 20 minutes per game when in the lineup. Obviously, all of these splits involve small samples. These stats are descriptive, but not necessarily predictive of the future. But part of the discussion below will be to decide whether what we see in the splits was caused by the injury and whether the trend is likely to continue. This analysis is through games on Saturday, March 8th.

AdjOff = Points Scored Per 100 Possessions, Adjusting for Opponent and Venue

AdjDef = Points Allowed Per 100 Possessions, Adjusting for Opponent and Venue

W = Wins

L = Losses

PWP = Pythagorean Winning Percentage

Team

AdjOff

AdjDef

W

L

PWP

Arizona

115.8

86.8

21

0

0.965

Arizona (without Ashley)

112.4

87.9

7

3

0.944

           

Georgetown

116.1

97.4

10

3

0.883

Georgetown (no Smith, Trawick)

104.7

104.2

1

4

0.512

Georgetown (no Smith)

114.4

101.3

6

6

0.802

           

Louisiana Tech

107.3

95.3

11

3

0.797

Louisiana Tech (no Appleby)

108.6

98.8

9

3

0.748

Louisiana Tech (Appleby limited)

105.1

88.1

4

0

0.897

-I include Arizona’s loss at California in the “no Brandon Ashley” category because Ashley played only 2 minutes in that game.

Arizona’s record is clearly worse without Brandon Ashley in the lineup, but Arizona’s schedule has been much tougher in the last 10 game stretch. Adjusting for opponent and venue, Arizona has still been playing like the 3rd best team in the country even without him, with margin-of-victory numbers worse than only Louisville and Florida. To lose a key starter and continue to play like a national title favorite is an impressive feat. The biggest issue is Arizona’s offense. With Ashley out, the team has been more likely to struggle to score. The poor offensive game at Oregon was particularly distressing given how porous Oregon’s defense has been this season.

-Meanwhile, Georgetown has rebounded from a pitiful stretch of basketball without Jabril Trawick and Joshua Smith. With Trawick back in the lineup, Georgetown has been competitive.

-Finally, Raheem Appleby’s injury splits are a bit complicated. He missed 12 games due to injury. But in the game prior to his injury and the three games since he has returned, Appleby has played minimal minutes. Thus I group these four games separately (noting that Appleby was limited in these games.)

Louisiana Tech suffered its worst loss of the season, to East Carolina, when Appleby was out. But overall Louisiana Tech was still playing very good basketball while Appleby was out. Surprisingly, despite his scoring prowess, the defense took the biggest hit when he was absent. And in more of a puzzle, Louisiana Tech has actually played its best defense in the recent stretch were Appleby has played minimally.

There are several key lessons from this first table:

1)      The quality of the replacement player matters a lot.

And by replacement player, I don’t just mean the player who takes the spot in the starting lineup. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson started a number of games and most closely absorbs Ashley’s direct minutes. But Hollis-Jefferson was already playing quite a bit for Arizona. The real replacement players for Arizona are Gabe York and Elliot Pitts. And while both are not quite as impactful on offense as Ashley, York is a former Top 50 recruit, and Pitts is another 4-star recruit who just missed the Top 100. Both are quality players that are strong-enough to keep Arizona in the elite class of teams.

But contrast that to Georgetown when Smith and Trawick first went down. Georgetown ended up elevating the playing time of walk-on John Caprio. Caprio even played 22 minutes in the OT home loss to Marquette. Let’s just say that Georgetown’s replacement players were not nearly as good as Arizona’s replacement players.

2)      You need a decent sample of games before you can really trust an injury split.

I think Georgetown’s performance in the 5 games without Smith and Trawick shows the danger of any small sample split. Georgetown went 1-4 when Trawick was out of the lineup, the worst basketball of John Thompson’s entire career with the Hoyas. I highly doubt that would have continued permanently. But it was brutally tough to replace two starters at once.

Similarly, we only have four games with a part-time Raheem Appleby. And Louisiana Tech’s defense has been outstanding lately. But that’s such a small sample; they probably did hit a few teams that had bad games.

Conversely, we now have 12 games with no Josh Smith, but a healthy Trawick, and that feels like a decent enough sample to get a real read on the current version of the Hoyas. We’ve seen Georgetown play well (beating Creighton) and play poorly (blowout loss to Villanova) with the current lineup, and that’s what you want to see before you feel like you have a full read on a team’s new level of play.

3)      Expect the committee to ignore all three of these injuries.

The committee says that in order for an injury to really impact its seeding that a player must be a major contributor. But while Jabril Trawick has clearly been essential to Georgetown’s success, he only scores 9 PPG, and there is no way the committee elevates him to a major factor.

Conversely, Raheem Appleby, 14 PPG, is a major contributor for Louisiana Tech. But in order to count his return as significant, the committee needs to believe he will be healthy and scoring at a high rate again. In the three games since his return, Appleby has scored a total of six points. Unless he suddenly has a huge scoring game in the CUSA tournament, I am skeptical that the committee will factor in his return to a large degree.

That said, the above splits also suggest that Appleby’s injury was not catastrophic to Louisiana Tech. We probably shouldn’t look to give them a ton of credit for his absence.

Team

AdjOff

AdjDef

W

L

PWP

California (no Solomon)

114.5

118.2

0

2

0.409

California (no Kreklow)

112.6

96.5

7

4

0.855

California (Full Strength)

108.6

99.6

12

6

0.729

           

Colorado

110.4

95.6

14

3

0.840

Colorado (without Dinwiddie)

106.9

96.7

7

7

0.760

           

George Washington (no Garino)

114.4

100.7

7

0

0.813

George Washington

109.5

94.5

8

3

0.845

George Washington (no Savage)

109.4

94.7

8

3

0.840

-California remains a bit of a mystery. When Ricky Kreklow was out with an injury (Jabari Bird also missed games in this stretch), California actually played its best basketball of the season. And with Kreklow and Bird returning to the lineup, it sure seemed like California was poised to jump to the top of the Pac-12. Instead, the team has stagnated since their returns.

Mike Montgomery has forgotten more about basketball than I will ever know, so I suspect he sees value in Kreklow that I don’t, but if you want to make an argument against using him I can see it. When Kreklow plays in the post, he’s undersized, and he basically doesn’t have a block all year. And when he plays on the perimeter, California already had two very good big perimeter players in Tyrone Wallace and Jordan Mathews. I honestly think this is a case where those two should be on the floor in critical minutes, and not Kreklow.

-Colorado has played admirably since Spencer Dinwiddie went down, but let’s not kid ourselves into thinking this is the same team. Since Dinwiddie has gone down, Colorado is playing like the 62nd best team in the country. With wins at Stanford and Arizona St. in that stretch, there is no question they have a good enough profile to make the NCAA tournament. But just realize that if you are picking Colorado to advance in your bracket, you are picking against the margin-of-victory stats.

-One quick note on the George Washington splits. I’ve thrown out the game against Dayton because Kethan Savage, Maurice Creek, and Joe McDonald were out in that game. There really isn’t anything we can learn about any team from that game.

Ignoring that game, I’m shocked at how well GW has survived without 13 PPG scorer Kethan Savage. True, their only real big win over a quality team in that stretch was against St. Joseph’s, but they really kept up their high level of play. The game at Fordham on Saturday was closer than expected, but even with that game, they’ve been playing like the 36th best team in the country without Savage. Ever since Patricio Garino got healthy and boosted the defense, GW has become a legitimate tournament sleeper.

Team

AdjOff

AdjDef

W

L

PWP

Nebraska

106.5

99.7

7

8

0.680

Nebraska (without Biggs)

110.0

94.9

11

3

0.846

           

Oklahoma St.

119.6

94.4

11

1

0.938

Oklahoma St. (no Smart & Cobbins)

104.7

102.0

0

3

0.573

Oklahoma St. (no Cobbins)

115.7

96.3

9

7

0.892

           

Pittsburgh

118.5

93.4

15

1

0.939

Pittsburgh (no Johnson)

114.8

99.1

7

7

0.844

           

West Virginia

115.6

102.7

14

11

0.797

West Virginia (no Henderson)

109.4

111.8

2

3

0.438

Nebraska’s Deverell Biggs might be the clearest case of addition by subtraction I have seen this year. He went down in mid-January, and Nebraska has actually been playing much better basketball since he went down. While Biggs scored a lot for the Huskers, he was also one of the team’s least efficient players. By allocating his shots to other more efficient players, Nebraska’s offense has improved. The defensive improvement is more of a surprise. Part of that is because David Rivers has been playing more in that span, and the 6’7” Rivers is a solid all-around defender. Also, Benny Parker has seen his playing time increase, and Parker has the best steal rate on the team. But surprisingly, the current Nebraska lineup looks dangerous enough to win a game in the tournament if they get there.

-Oklahoma St. really did miss Marcus Smart when he was suspended. But I don’t understand why people say the committee will treat this 3 game stretch like an injury. If a player fouls out in a game and that changes the outcome, the team doesn’t get a benefit from that. So if Smart did something that got him banned for three games, it isn’t clear to me why Oklahoma St. should get a pass on those three outcomes.

Regardless, with Smart but without Cobbins’ defense in the paint, Oklahoma St. is playing like a Top 15 team. That’s better than during the swoon, but still not at the top 10 level they played at early in the year.

-We got caught up quite a bit in talking about Pittsburgh’s resume because of all the close losses to elite teams. But the reality is that this team has been performing at a much lower level since Durand Johnson went down. The splits say this is only the 34th best team in the nation right now.

And if you want to talk about luck, in the last 14 games, Pittsburgh has just seven wins, and four of those have come in OT. Yes, Pittsburgh was unlucky against Syracuse. But they are fortunate they escaped against Virginia Tech, Miami, Notre Dame, and Clemson.

-Finally, I include some splits for West Virginia. Terry Henderson missed four recent games due to an illness and he missed the season opener back in November. (Henderson played limited minutes in the Kansas win, so I’m leaving that out of either category. This is probably a mistake because the Kansas game was WVU’s best offensive game of the year, but I didn’t think Henderson was 100% back in that game.) Regardless, the point of the table is clear: When Henderson was out with an illness, West Virginia played some lousy basketball.

Other Notes

-I’ve thrown up my hands with Michigan St. I’m not even sure which split to create. Is Keith Appling injured or still hurt? Is Branden Dawson 100%? Let’s put it this way. The only two Michigan St. players to play in every game this year are Denzel Valentine and Gavin Schilling.

-Kansas’s Joel Embiid missed loss to West Virginia. He also missed the TCU and Texas Tech games, but mismatches of that magnitude are hard to judge, so I’m not going to run that split.

-Mississippi’s Derrick Millinghaus was suspended for three recent games, but his minutes were steadily falling before that, so it didn’t make sense to do a split. Realistically, he was only critical to the team in November and December.

-Southern Miss’s Michael Craig has a high ankle sprain. The team hasn’t lost when he’s been out yet, but it is worth tracking.

-Richmond isn’t on the bubble, but I wanted to note that the team really has fallen on hard times without Cedrick Lindsay and Derrick Williams.

Quick Events

-UCLA was missing Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson in the 2 OT loss to Oregon. Other than the George Washington game at Dayton listed above, I can’t think of a game the committee will put less weight on than that game. Beating a team without its two leading scorers just isn’t worth much.

-Kansas St.’s Shane Southwell missed the team’s 2OT loss at Baylor. Remember that Thomas Gipson missed season opening loss to Northern Colorado. The committee might not care, but these injuries could have easily swung those two games.

-Green Bay is obviously going to be a huge point of discussion for the committee this year after they lost in the Horizon League semifinals at home. Keep in mind that Green Bay’s 7'1" center Alec Brown was out in the team’s loss at Valparaiso.

-Syracuse’s Jerami Grant missed the loss to Georgia Tech.

-Colorado’s Wesley Gordon missed the team’s loss at UCLA.

-Connecticut’s DeAndre Daniels did not play in team's loss to Cincinnati.

-Harvard’s Wesley Saunders missed the team’s loss to Connecticut.

-St. John’s Orlando Sanchez missed the three point loss to Villanova due to the birth of his daughter.

-Arkansas’ Michael Qualls and Alandise Harris were suspended and did not play in loss at LSU, one of only three Arkanasas' losses since the start of February.

-Minnesota’s Andre Hollins missed losses to Nebraska and Northwestern.

-Indiana’s Will Sheehy missed Michigan St. loss and Noah Vonleh was out in the Nebraska loss.

-Clemson’s Landry Nnoko missed the team’s five point loss to Virginia.

-Florida St.’s Ian Miller missed the team’s loss at Maryland.

And if that isn’t enough for you, I also discussed a plethora of early season injuries back in January. Click here for the full analysis.

Do Freshmen-Filled Teams Get Better In-Season?

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Final Thoughts On Ranking 351 D1 Teams

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2013-2014 Preseason Top 25 Part 2

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

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Early Season Tournaments: Brackets, Observations, And Odds: Part 1

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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.

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.

The Anti-Recruiting Tool

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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).

Relative Value Losers, Pac-12 And Horizon League Notes

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

How The Big 12 Looks Like A Typical Little League Team

The Big 12 is like a Little League team. Texas is the star shortstop, and Oklahoma is the best pitcher. Texas A&M is a quality hitting second baseman. And Baylor is the kid who got cut after the first few practices.

College Coaching Series Part 6

In this edition, we look at pace for all BCS coaches, with the Big 12 and SEC expected to play at the fastest rate in the nation.

College Coaching Series Part 5

The offensive four factors for coaches in the SEC, Big East and Big 12 reveal interesting results.

State Of College Coaching 2011 – Part 1

Only 10 BCS conference coaching jobs changed this offseason, but it is still an opportune time to update the coaching tree.

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