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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.

Sweet Sixteen Day 1

#11 Dayton defeated #10 Stanford

I am very happy that Dayton advanced in the NCAA tournament this season. If you looked at the last round of conference re-alignment, Dayton is absolutely one of those programs that should have been invited to join the Big East. Even in 2013, when the program went 17-14, the Flyers had fantastic attendance.

(And in my opinion, Dayton has one of the Top 10 pep bands in college basketball. Sadly, demonstrating this is a little tough. For whatever reason, I’m not finding a Youtube video that really shows how much fun this group has. This video shows the energy of band director Dr. Willie Morris, his jacket, and some weird hats, but it doesn’t really capture the spirit of the group. This video kind of captures the idea, as the Dayton band sneaks up behind a VCU fan cheering for the wrong team. I see nothing mean-spirited about the encounter; this is exactly what college fandom is all about. But perhaps I can explain it best in words. In the NCAA tournament in 2009, Dayton was playing Kansas and there were plenty of Michigan St. fans in attendance in the other half of the bracket. So in order to get the Michigan St. fans cheering for the Flyers, the Dayton pep band played the Spartan’s fight song.)

The only thing holding Dayton back from Big East selection was the fact that the team hasn’t really had a deep NCAA tournament run in recent seasons. Butler was selected for the Big East based on its recent history, and even a program like VCU seemed to be ahead of Dayton for future expansion based on what Shaka Smart had done. But I’m not sure I agree with that logic. The reason Dayton should be one of the next top expansion candidates, is because the Dayton fans turn out whether the team wins or loses. Coaches can come and go, but a passionate fanbase is a very valuable commodity.

As for the game, we got our first Cole Aldrich moment of the round. (Cole Aldrich was a Kansas freshman who barely played during the regular season but who broke out in the tournament.) In this case it was Dayton’s Kendall Pollard who had a career high 12 points coming off the bench. On Tuesday this week, I labeled Pollard as a defensive stopper, as he had scored less than 70 points on the full season. So of course on Thursday he had eight points in the first half, and really provided the key spark to give Dayton the lead.

The other key factor was obviously that Dayton played a ton of players, got Stanford in foul trouble, and got Stanford to go deep into its bench. While the Flyers were getting 34 points from their bench, Stanford played guys a bunch of minutes and only got two points.

The worst part for Stanford was that Dayton could not figure out a way to guard Stefan Nastic in the game, and yet Nastic kept committing dumb fouls. The most egregious was his fourth where he lost the ball and then grabbed a Dayton player around the neck while they were both on the ground. It was the kind of move you cannot make when you are in foul trouble.

I also thought that when Stanford went on its run and cut the lead early in the second half, the Cardinal were not playing great basketball. They took two or three bad shots in transition that really prevented the team from grabbing full momentum.

Thus despite the presence of Condaleezza Rice and Richard Sherman (who appeared to be chatting with each other), Stanford did not have enough to reach the Elite Eight.

#2 Wisconsin defeated # 6 Baylor

Baylor supporters were out again this week to claim that this Sweet Sixteen run means we cannot criticize Scott Drew. But they continue to miss the point. Scott Drew is a complicated coach whose impact cannot just be explained by saying he wins in March or his teams underachieve relative to their talent levels.

In my opinion, Scott Drew is basically a younger version of Roy Williams. I say this for a few reasons. First, Scott Drew is an outstanding recruiter. Second, he gives his players a large amount of freedom on the court. Baylor players have the freedom to be successful and the freedom to fail. Mike Krzyzewski likes to say he gives his players the freedom to grow, but that’s not how he coaches. If a Duke player makes a dumb decision, he is going to spend plenty of time sitting on the bench. But Roy Williams and Scott Drew are the kind of coaches who let their players get on the floor and play through their mistakes.

By not forcing former players like Perry Jones and current players like Isaiah Austin to focus on their strengths, those players have actually seen their draft stock plummet under Drew. But like Roy Williams Drew knows that if you let elite recruits work through their issues on the court, they often become elite performers.

It is fair to say that Drew is not a great in-game adjuster. We saw that in the Sweet Sixteen when Wisconsin absolutely shredded the Baylor zone. And by taking good shots and controlling the tempo, Wisconsin made sure Baylor never got any rhythm.

Drew never really adjusted when the zone wasn’t working. His team seemed to play a few possessions of man, but it mostly seemed to give up when nothing was working.

In-game adjustments are harder than they sound. Some coaches like Rick Pitino are great at making in-game adjustments in strategy. Pitino’s team can press or play straight defense; they can play zone or man; they can respond to the opponent.

But you might say that there are not very many Rick Pitino’s in college basketball. You might also argue that Jim Boeheim doesn’t switch out of his zone just because the opposing offense is shredding it. But if you watch Syracuse, they do make adjustments. Syracuse’s zone changes throughout the game. Sometimes it hugs three point shooters, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the forwards lay back, sometimes they attack the player at the high post.

Scott Drew at this point in his career is not a coach who can match those legends. But he is still an outstanding teacher. He took a Baylor team that was playing horrible defense for a stretch this year, and got them to play the kind of zone defense that shut Doug McDermott down completely.

And this is all a long way of saying that Drew is a bit of an enigma. He absolutely deserves a ton of credit for turning Baylor from one of the worst power conference schools into a consistent winner. But he also deserves some blame for the times when his team looks lost on the court.

But give Wisconsin credit for winning this game too. The Badgers almost never turn the ball over, and that was a huge reason they controlled this game. The Badgers had four turnovers in the first half. They had a travel, they had two odd throw-aways, and the ball also was dribbled off a Baylor leg and the officials got the call wrong. But the beauty of all four of those plays is that even when the Badgers turned the ball over, they weren’t live ball turnovers. They didn’t allow Baylor to get out in transition and get some confidence. To not have any live-ball turnovers against a zone defense is a truly impressive feat.

#1 Florida defeated #4 UCLA/#1 Arizona defeated #4 San Diego St.

These games happened nearly simultaneously, so let’s talk about them together.

Which was the better dunk in the losing effort? Was it Dwayne Polee’s steal and emphatic throw-down to make it 27-22 San Diego St? Or was it UCLA’s Norman Powell with the coast-to-coast semi-posterization of Patric Young?

The insanity of these two games was that the two best offensive players, Florida’s Scottie Wilbekin and Arizona’s Nick Johnson were playing equally terrible basketball and almost cost their teams the game. The evening seemed particularly cruel for Johnson. Not only did he have a buzzer beater disallowed before the half, he hit a shot that rolled around the entire rim before popping out near the 10 minute mark of the second half. It seemed like it wasn’t the night for either of these guys. But then Wilbekin hit a step-back three for Florida. Johnson caught a fast-break pass for a lay-up and nailed a three. And Wilbekin hit a ridiculous bank-shot while being guarded by one of the Wear twins in the post. By the end of the night, the two goats were heroes once again.

....

The UCLA game drove me the most insane because UCLA kept leaving Michael Frazier open for three. I know Frazier had been in a mini-slump, but when a player has over 100 threes on the year, you don’t leave him open for any reason. Even if you are playing zone, you never help off that kind of player. But as I thought about it later in the game, this is the story of the Bruins season. UCLA gives up more points from three point range than any team left in the tournament, by far.

The real issue was that when Kyle Anderson went out, UCLA fell apart. As Kevin Harlan noted late in the game, UCLA was +6 with Anderson on the floor and -14 with Anderson on the bench.

It wasn’t that the UCLA subs were terrible. Zach Levine’s draft stock probably got a little too high with his play early in the season. He slumped late in the year and had just 6 points in UCLA’s last 4 games. But Levine was aggressive in the first half, taking the ball to the basket on numerous occasions.

The problem is just that you cannot replace Anderson’s production in all areas of the floor. And you have to think that the turning point in the game might have been when he picked up two fouls early in the first half. Granted, Steve Alford was smart enough not to make Anderson sit for the whole first half with the two fouls. But the two deficits when Anderson was out were the difference in the game.

On the flip side, Florida’s impressive depth was on display. It must feel wonderful to bring a PG as skilled as Kasey Hill of the bench. When Wilbekin sat down, Florida was still aggressive at attacking the basket.

....

As for the Arizona game, I said last week that San Diego St. might be the toughest matchup Arizona faces all tournament. It isn’t that I don’t believe in Wisconsin. This is a dynamic Badger offense. And I certainly like a bunch of the teams that will make the Final Four. But from the opening tip, Arizona was never going to see a team as physical and dominant on the glass as San Diego St. When the Aztecs scored on their fifth shot of the opening possession, you knew it was going to be a tough game.

Josh Davis hit that shot and I loved Craig Sager’s feature on his recruitment. Apparently Steve Fisher did not fly to Tulane to recruit Davis as a graduate student. Instead Fisher met with Davis’ mom, a math teacher, and shared his own background as a math teacher. Mom told her son that Fisher was a “nice old man” and that Davis should go and play for him. That’s just a wonderful story.

Even though I think this is the only truly physical team left that can manhandle Arizona like this, it was concerning how little depth the Wildcats had after Rondae Hollis-Jefferson fouled out. Had Kaleb Tarczewski picked up his fifth, it could have been a dangerous situation for the Wildcats. But oddly San Diego St. started jacking up three pointers very early. Since many of them went in, it wasn’t terrible strategy, but against a foul-plagued team, it seemed like the Aztecs should have considered attacking the basket more in the final minute.

But probably my final words of praise should be saved for Arizona’s Aaron Gordon. He hit a rare three to give his team a 22-20 lead in the first half. And he had a crazy tip for a bucket to make it 52-50 Arizona in the second half. His video in the second half said it all. Gordon doesn’t care about the stats, he is playing to win a national title. Every team should want an elite recruit with priorities like that.

NCAA Tournament Day 4

After what I thought was the most dramatic day of the tournament so far (and please go back and relive it with my recap), I entered Sunday exhausted. And Sunday’s tournament games seemed exhausted too. There were a few too many mismatches and a few too many blowouts. But before we get to those, let’s start with the good stuff:

#3 Iowa St. defeated #6 North Carolina

There are a lot of ways I expected North Carolina’s season to end.

-I expected the Tar Heels to have a game where they missed a bunch of threes and couldn’t compete. But Leslie McDonald nailed a late three to give the Tar Heels a 79-76 lead.

-I expected the Tar Heels to miss some key free throws and have that cost them a tournament game. But North Carolina wasn’t even in the bonus until the final seconds, and when James Michael McAdoo went to the line, he buried both shots in crunch time.

Instead we got the unexpected.

-Marcus Paige, a brilliant ball-handler, threw the ball away in the final minutes.

-North Carolina, a team that loves to run, was out-run by Iowa St.’s Naz Long, who snuck behind the defense for a three in the final minute.

-And a North Carolina team that has played better defense than offense, couldn’t keep the opposing team out of the lane in the final seconds of a tie game. DeAndre Kane unexpectedly cut to his left, and cut through a double team for the go-ahead lay-up.

Perhaps for North Carolina, the unexpected only made sense. The Tar Heels this year beat the teams ranked first, second, third, and fourth in the preseason AP poll. They also lost to multiple teams outside the Top 100. They started ACC play 1-4 and ended ACC play 12-1. So of course, the moment Iowa St.’s Georges Niang went out with a foot injury, and North Carolina became the presumptive favorite, they went down. The moment Steve Kerr began discussing how Iowa St.’s team had nothing left in the tank, the Tar Heels played their worst stretch of basketball. In this season, it only made sense.

North Carolina fans will and should complain about the clock operation on the final possession. The fact that the clock did not start on time may have impacted whether the player put up a prayer shot or Roy Williams called timeout. But Kane’s shot was the difference, and on an afternoon where he scored 24 points, Kane was the hero.

#8 Kentucky defeated #1 Wichita St.

Experience vs talent.

The world’s greatest mid-major vs a power conference blue blood.

An undefeated record vs a decorated history.

A Final Four club from last year still looking for respect vs an underachieving team still looking for redemption.

Many people wanted to see one of the two teams go down in flames. But neither team seemed overmatched. No one was exposed. No one was overrated.

For a time, the game seemed to swing on experience. Wichita St. did a fabulous job anticipating where Kentucky would pass the ball and converted several live ball steals into fast-break baskets. This gave Wichita St. the early lead.

For a time, the game seemed to swing on talent. At the start of the second half, Julius Randle had a monster dunk, a beautiful assist on a three, and he muscled for an offensive rebound to get his team back in the game.

Sometimes the two themes swung in contrast. Wichita St. had been killing Kentucky by sneaking players along the baseline for alley-oops or back-door cuts. Then Julius Randle decided he had seen enough. At 9:10 left he made an amazing block to stop Ron Baker from sneaking behind the defense one more time.

And then a funny thing happened down the stretch. The game stopped being about a contrast in styles, and started being about who would make more plays. James Young drove the lane for a gorgeous basket. Cleanthony Early hit an impossible turn-around jumper along the baseline. James Young nailed a three. Ron Baker nailed a three. And the game came down to a shot at the buzzer that was off the mark.

I don’t think the game quite lived up to the immense hype. (This wasn’t quite Duke vs Syracuse for the first time in ACC play.) But it came close.

#10 Stanford defeated #2 Kansas

I want to apologize to Stanford fans. I have never believed in this team because I have never believed in the lineup rotation. After Aaron Bright was declared out for the season, Johnny Dawkins decided that he was going to run three forwards out on the floor at all times, with much of the offense running through point forward Dwight Powell.

In 2014, I don’t believe in that philosophy. It is just too hard to get the right spacing with three big men on the floor. More distressingly, despite a tall front line, Stanford’s defense has often been porous. They effectively had the 13th tallest lineup in the nation (according to Kenpom.com), and often had four players 6’6” or taller on the floor, but with the team getting shredded by Arizona, Arizona St., and UCLA late in the season, it didn’t quite seem like the right formula.

But in the NCAA tournament, Dawkins lineup choice has proven to be brilliant. His tall wing players frustrated New Mexico’s Kendall Williams in the first round. And his tall front line put up a wall against Kansas. Much like San Diego St. had done against the Jayhawks, by simply holding their position, Stanford kept the Jayhawks from getting buckets inside.

(Stanford’s ability to get back defensively and keep the game in the half-court was also remarkable. Even when Kansas got steals late in the game, the Jayhawks couldn’t turn those steals into lay-ups, and still had to work half-court sets.)

But having said all that, I still can’t get enthusiastic about this upset because of what we missed out on. Because Kansas went out so early, we never got to see Joel Embiid in the NCAA tournament. And because this game got caught up in the half-court, Andrew Wiggins was not able to show his full-court athleticism to the nation.

Stanford had the right plan, but as a viewer I still felt cheated. I think it says a lot when the key sequence of the game might have been a series of inside baskets by Stanford’s Stefan Nastic. Nastic is a solid college post-player. But as the announcers noted, he isn’t the kind of player who can make a shot beyond three feet. And you couldn’t help but feel that if Joel Embiid had been in the game, Nastic might not have got those inside looks. Nastic’s baskets gave Stanford a 7 point lead early in the second half. Normally, that wouldn’t be much, but given the half-court game and tempo, it was actually too much for Kansas to overcome.

But I also have to point some of the finger at the Kansas players who were in the game. Despite playing in a friendly environment in St. Louis, the Jayhawks never did enough to create energy and get the fans in the game. There was a sequence in the second half where Kansas turned the ball over, saved it from going out of bounds, and then no one on Kansas made a real effort to run and get the ball. The Jayhawks seemed like they were sleepwalking.

Whereas Duke lacked the personnel on defense, and Syracuse hit a huge rut offensively, Kansas had a versatile lineup that should have been able to compete in any situation. But on Sunday, they showed almost none of that. Besides Conner Frankamp’s late threes and Tarik Black’s key baskets, all the Kansas players that played meaningful minutes had ORtgs below 75. Given the talent on this team, that sort of execution left a bit of an empty feeling.

- The Land of Blowouts

#4 UCLA defeated #12 SF Austin

On Friday I raved about UCLA sharing the ball, and that was even more on display in this mismatch. The Bruins had 21 assists and even Travis Wear got in the act with six dimes. According the announcers, the Bruins also went a full 30 minutes without a turnover.

#1 Virginia defeated #8 Memphis

Rachel Nichols shared this nice anecdote: Virginia’s Joe Harris not only talks in his sleep, he sleepwalks. But given how well he is playing this season, his teammates/roommates told him he can do whatever he wants.

#1 Arizona defeated #8 Gonzaga

The turnover differential (21 for Gonzaga, six for Arizona was highlighted all game long), but it is worth noting that until garbage time Arizona was also shooting over 50%.

#6 Baylor defeated #3 Creighton

I picked Baylor to advance to the Sweet Sixteen in part because of their amazing late season splits. And after Creighton struggled with Providence’s zone defense in the Big East tournament, I thought the Blue Jays would have trouble against Baylor’s zone. But I never expected that Doug McDermott would score only three points in the first half of a game.

The most touching moment in this game was probably head coach Greg McDermott pulling his starters off the floor, one at a time, for a series of embraces. I think we sometimes forget that not only was this Doug McDermott’s final game, this was also the final game for play-maker Grant Gibbs, and shot-maker Jahenns Manigat. And Ethan Wragge’s career also comes to a close. Wragge, who shot better than 41% in every year of his career, and made at least 66 threes in every year of his career, was the perfect three point shooter to play off of McDermott’s double teams. Creighton had a Top 10 offense for three straight years, and this was more than just Greg McDermott.

#11 Tennessee defeated #14 Mercer

Tennessee held a 24-4 rebounding advantage at the end of the first half. Sometimes we talk about how the raw rebounding numbers are misleading. Offensive rebounding percentages say a lot more. But this is a case where the counting stats speak emphatically. Rebounding differentials like that aren’t supposed to happen after middle school.

When Tennessee is clicking, their length and athleticism can be suffocating. They started out the game against Mercer with a steal and easy fast-break basket. The next possession, Tennessee forced a shot-clock violation. Tennessee also ended the first half by forcing a shot-clock violation. (This is almost impossible to do but there was a 0.6 second differential between the shot-clock and game clock.)

This is a team that absolutely blew Virginia out of the water in late December.  This is a team that has absolutely been crushing teams in March.

And that’s why I am always surprised when I look up the Volunteer’s stats. They rank near 250th in the country in the rate of turnovers forced. They don’t actually get out and run much, as they have one of the slower paces in the country. Tennessee is one of those teams where the eye test doesn’t really match the recorded stats.

Or maybe Tennessee is simply this tournament’s biggest enigma. On the one hand, they barely qualified for the tournament. They were lucky to draw a slumping UMass team. They were also lucky to draw an underdog Mercer team. On the other hand, their margin-of-victory stats now suggest they are one of the top teams in the country. The Sweet Sixteen will provide a fine litmus test.

Year Four to Six (The Hot Seat Years)

Today I present the probability a D1 college basketball head coach survives in his job for six years and I show the efficiency numbers for 4th through 6th year head coaches.

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.

Welcome Back, Part 2

Returning minutes are sometimes deceiving. Thatís because a number of teams will welcome back players who missed all or nearly all of last season. Letís take a look at some of those players such as Andre Dawkins, Anthony Brown, Malcolm Brogdon and Drew Crawford.

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.

Injury Splits, Part 2

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

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.

Mike Krzyzewski Owns November

Duke may not be #1 in the polls, but in terms of accomplishments, no one has more quality wins than the Blue Devils at this point. Theyíve beaten two preseason Top-5 teams and two more probable tournament teams.

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

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

The Failure And Success Of Trent Johnson

Trent Johnson does not appear to be recruiting at the level consistent with an NCAA tournament coach. He seems to do a fine job developing players, but he needs to start with good players for that to be an NCAA tournament equation.

The Many Facets & Unpredictability Of March Madness

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

Recruiting And Player Development, 2012 Edition

The best way to examine the value of specific college coaches is to examine how well they recruit and subsequently develop their talent. Let's examine the top 49 coaches from the Power 6 conferences.

Conference Play Means Scouting Reports

On the first full weekend of conference play, there were 35 match-ups between BCS conference teams, which means the team that takes their information and executes better usually wins.

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

There are many ways to build a winning program. John Calipariís focus on younger players may be the best way to get elite recruits, but it isnít the only way to build a winning program.

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.

Do NCAA Football Rivalries Translate To Basketball?

In honor of the beginning of the 2011 college football season, here is a look at some of their biggest rivalries and whether they translate to the basketball court.

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.

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