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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.

Final Thoughts On Ranking 351 D1 Teams

In case you missed it, last Thursday I presented my upgraded projections model. Then I presented my 13-14 season projections on ESPN Insider. My projections included the median simulation, best case, and worst case for every team. I also did a Q & A session with Eamonn Brennan and another one with John Templon. I have also been answering a few questions on Twitter. You would think after all those words I would have run out of things to say, but here are a few thoughts that did not quite make the cut in those articles:

The Underrated Club

Q: Why does the simulation hate Arizona St.? Jahii Carson is one of the best players in the country.

A: Arizona St. is a team with a lot of two-star players on the roster. In fact, they have the second lowest average star rating in the entire Pac-12, ahead of only Utah. Luckily a few of those players are transfers who played well for other teams. But what this really means is that Arizona St. just doesn’t have the same upside as many of the other schools in the Pac-12. Herb Sendek’s track record on defense is also a huge concern.

Q: Why does the simulation hate Maryland? A lineup of Shaquille Cleare, Evan Smotrycz, Dez Wells, Nick Faust and Roddy Peters sounds like it could hang with anyone. And Seth Allen, Charles Mitchell, and Damonte Dodd all seem like solid reserves. Why is the model so pessimistic?

A: The simulation is concerned that Maryland has only nine scholarship players on the roster. There is real downside risk with such a short bench because if a couple of players struggle or get injured, there are no alternates. Last year N.C. State entered the year with just nine scholarship players and things turned south early. Now, that doesn’t mean Maryland is destined to fail, but depth is a risk with this type of roster.

Q: Why does the simulation hate Denver? They had a great margin-of-victory numbers last year.

A: While I truly believe star ratings are important, the focus on recruiting evaluations really hurts the small conference squads in my projections. Only when a small conference team has virtually no lineup questions will that team be ranked near the top. (This year the two exceptions are North Dakota St. and Harvard. North Dakota St. brings back 95 percent of its minutes and gets a player back who was injured for much of last year. Meanwhile Harvard gets two star players back who were suspended last season.)

In Denver’s case even with several efficient players back, particularly star Chris Udofia, winning seems likely. But Denver has to replace two of the three players that played the most minutes last season. And the likely replacements will only be two-star athletes. That’s not to say that head coach Joe Scott cannot build a winner again. But it is very hard to get a Top 50 margin-of-victory in a small conference. And if Scott does it again, that should be considered a huge accomplishment. It shouldn’t be the expectation. (The real issue for Denver is finding another ball-handler to compliment Udofia. Last year Royce O’Neale and Udofia both were key distributors for the team, but with O’Neale transferring to Baylor, the remaining options are not great.)

Random Thoughts on Some Major Conference Teams

- In my Insider column, I said that the Spartans were the lowest risk team in the nation which sparked some jokes from Michigan St. fans on Twitter. I think this points out how insanely volatile college basketball can be. Even when the Spartans bring back five of their six top rotation players including three clear stars, their fanbase in nervous. Part of that is the fact that Tom Izzo’s teams notoriously struggle in November. But when a team with Top 10 talent brings nearly everyone back and their fans are nervous, you know that anything can happen in college basketball.

- Michigan’s position in 12th in my rankings is a little misleading. I honestly believe that Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson can lead this team a long way. But I am legitimately concerned about the guard rotation. John Beilein was very reluctant to play Jordan Morgan and Mitch McGary together last season because they weren’t outside shooters. So I have to assume Robinson will play most of his minutes at the four-spot again this year. But then how does the guard rotation work? Does the team play Spike Albrecht, Derrick Walton, and Nick Stauskas together? What if Albrecht and Walton aren’t ready? That is why my model has such a low downside for the Wolverines. (And don’t tell me Caris LeVert is the answer. He was a low-ranked recruit and nothing he did last season leads me to believe he should be a key player on a Top 10 team.)

- When I first ran the model, I was a little surprised the downside for Kentucky was not lower. After all, a young Kentucky team lost in the first round of the NIT last season. But this is what happens when you return two efficient high potential players (in Alex Poythress and Will Cauley-Stein), and add five Top 10 recruits. With that many high potential players, even if two or three of them struggle immensely, Kentucky can still win. Kentucky could not afford for Archie Goodwin to struggle and Nerlens Noel to get injured last season. This year if Julius Randle struggles and Will Cauley-Stein gets hurt, the team can just say “Next man in.”

- I love the range for Indiana in my ESPN Insider rankings. The team has 7 top 100 recruits, and an elite season is still possible. But given all the new faces and how little most of the returning sophomores played last year, the downside risk is major.

- If you want to vote any of my model’s Top 34 teams into the Top 25, I can see arguments for all of them. But I stick by my model’s skepticism of Baylor. Pierre Jackson carried the Bears last year and I don’t see how they can be a better team without him. Their margin of victory was 26th last year (thanks to winning the NIT) and I only give them about a 20 percent chance to do better than that.

- If you have ESPN Insider, look at how painfully low Alabama’s downside is this year. After Devonta Pollard was arrested this offseason, the team is down to nine scholarship players who are eligible this year. If someone on Alabama’s squad doesn't play well, there are no alternatives. This is too bad because Anthony Grant is such a talented young coach, but off-court issues keep derailing his teams.

- Iowa St. made a great move adding Marshall transfer DeAndre Kane. But I suspect Fred Hoiberg needed to add a couple more transfers to keep his transfer winning streak going. With 64% of the lineup gone and four of Iowa St.'s six most efficient players departing (Melvin Ejim and George Niang return), expect Iowa St. to take a step back.

- My model is more optimistic about Seton Hall than what you see in some other rankings. Texas transfer Sterling Gibbs will be a huge upgrade over Tom Maayan and his 50% turnover rate. And with fewer injuries, Kevin Willard should have the defense playing better.

Random Thoughts on Some Mid-Major Conferences

- I’ve still got St. Mary’s on the NCAA bubble. Many will discount the team after Matthew Dellavedova's departure. But Beau Leveasque and Stephen Holt aren't suddenly going to forget how to shoot. Brad Wadlow isn't going to stop being a physical force on the boards and finishing over 60 percent of his shots. This team still has talent.

- The team I think most pundits have over-rated this year is Northeastern. The Huskies were extremely lucky last year. Despite the 7th best MOV in the CAA, they won a ton of close games, including a 4-1 record in OT. Their conference title is very deceiving. With the team's leading scorer and most efficient player Joel Smith gone, a repeat conference title seems unlikely.

- One team I am buying is Weber St. Weber St. had the best margin-of-victory in the Big Sky last year. They even outscored Montana by 19 points in their three meetings. But somehow they went 1-2 against the Grizzlies and that 1-2 mark gave Montana the regular season and conference tournament title. Weber St.’s aggressive and efficient inside-outside combination of Davion Berry and Kyle Tresnak is going to make sure that doesn't happen again.

- The conference champion I expect to come out of nowhere this year is Manhattan. Manhattan somehow lost 10 games to conference foes, but only one of those games was by double digits. This team was much better than last year's conference record would indicate.

- The race for the Big West title is wide open. I have five teams projected within one game of first place in that league.

- The CUSA race should also be highly entertaining. Louisiana Tech is the only team in CUSA that returns over 70 percent of its minutes from last year. (Tech brings back 85 percent of its minutes.) And Tech's losses won't hurt the offense. The team loses its least efficient player Brandon Gibson, and the extremely passive JL Lewis. With an already solid defense and an improved offense, Louisiana Tech could be headed for the NCAA tournament. But Southern Miss is just as formidable a competitor. The newest Golden Eagle, transfer Aaron Brown, shot the ball extremely well as a sophomore at Temple. His addition could give Southern Miss the CUSA title.

- Speaking of transfers, transfer Jay Harris was the PG on a Valparaiso team that won the Horizon league title in 2012. He could be the key addition that gets Wagner an NEC conference title in 2014.

- Finally, Indiana St. PG Jake Odum has to be kicking himself that RJ Mahurin transferred out in order to play his senior year with his younger brother. Mahurin was the team's only efficient big man, and the Sycamores could have been a more realistic NCAA bubble team had Mahurin returned.

Late Breaking News

- The news that Josh Smith was eligible immediately didn’t break until after I finished my rankings. With a full season of Smith you can move the Hoyas up to 27th in my projections. But as many people have noted, because of his conditioning, it still isn’t clear how much Smith will play. The downside risk for the Hoyas remains real. However, I do think that it is a major break that Smith will be around from the start of the season. The Hoya offense is a nuanced system that depends on precise cuts and passes, and integrating Smith mid-season would have been much more difficult.

- I had already assumed Joseph Young would be eligible for Oregon so their ranking is not affected by that news. It is clear that the transfer combination of Mike Moser and Young could be one of the best inside-outside combinations in the country. But I want to offer several cautionary tales. Ryan Harrow, Trey Ziegler, and Aaric Murray were three transfers that received a ton of hype last summer, and they were all such poor fits in the new environment, they have all moved on again. We’ve seen teams bring in a bunch of transfers and live up to expectations (like Iowa St.), but we have also seen teams take in a lot of transfer and disappoint (like Missouri last year.) Transfers are high risk players, and that is why my model has such a large range for the Ducks this season.

Dan Hanner vs Ken Pomeroy

Ken Pomeroy also released his preseason rankings on Saturday. While he is rather humble about his algorithm, I think it is important to note how well his system did last season. From a modeling perspective, a more complex system is not always better.

I would argue that the real advantage of my lineup-based system is not the predictive power. The advantage is that by focusing on the lineup, my model has fewer head-scratching conclusions. For example, Ken’s team level model has Miami at 62nd this year. With basically everyone in last year’s rotation gone and Angel Rodriguez electing not to apply for a transfer waiver, that’s an extremely optimistic prediction. But that prediction is based on how well Miami did last season, not any reasonable evaluation of the current roster. The same can probably be said of Minnesota at No. 35. The Gophers had strong margin-of-victory numbers last year, so Ken’s model loves them again this season. But my model sees that the Gophers made a substantial downgrade in the front-court and added an unproven coach. My model based on the current lineup has Miami at No. 102 and Minnesota at No. 63, and I think that’s much closer to what I have seen in most expert rankings.

But while Ken’s model can cause us to scratch our heads at certain results, do not overlook his predictions. The last five seasons of data are a very strong predictor in the aggregate. (If a team had a great offense before it tends to have better facilities, higher caliber recruits, and better coaches today.) And when the results of both our models agree, those are probably the strongest predictions of all. 

Pac-12 Basketball Early Projection

The Pac-12 won’t have as many national title contenders as say the Big Ten or ACC, but with 8 teams likely to be competitive for an NCAA bid, the Pac-12 will be plenty relevant next year.                                                                                                                                                              

Team

Proj CW

Proj CL

Proj Off

Proj Def

Last Off

Last Def

T100

Ret Min

Ret Poss

Arizona

14

4

116.2

91.2

114.9

91.8

7

44%

42%

UCLA

12

6

113.0

92.7

109.7

94.6

7

67%

64%

Colorado

11

7

112.1

93.7

104.7

90.3

3

64%

69%

Stanford

11

7

111.0

93.1

109.1

94.5

5

84%

88%

Washington

10

8

111.8

95.8

105.9

96.8

1

55%

54%

California

10

8

107.4

93.2

105.6

92.4

2

63%

62%

Arizona St.

9

9

109.7

96.7

107.5

96.6

1

53%

56%

Oregon

9

9

104.5

92.6

105.9

87.9

2

44%

42%

Oregon St.

7

11

106.6

98.9

107.9

101.0

1

69%

68%

Wash. St.

5

13

102.2

98.0

106.6

98.0

0

67%

58%

USC

5

13

99.6

95.5

101.3

94.7

2

46%

46%

Utah

5

13

101.4

98.5

103.2

98.1

1

40%

43%

For a description of the lineup-based model that generated these results, click here. For a description of column headings, click here.

Arizona: I love what NBC’s Rob Dauster wrote here. For Arizona to reach its full potential, elite recruit Aaron Gordon has to play the power forward position. Arizona doesn’t need a repeat of what we saw with Baylor’s Perry Jones who floated too much on the perimeter and fell from the 8th ranked prospect out of high school to the 28th pick in the NBA draft.

Arizona’s ideal forward rotation would be a three man split between Kaleb Tarczewski, Brandon Ashley and Gordon. To reach its full potential, the team doesn’t want to have to rely on Matt Korchek or Zach Peters for major minutes next year.

That doesn’t mean Gordon cannot display his perimeter skills. He can draw opposing bigs out by shooting threes and then blow by them to the hoop. That doesn’t mean Gordon might not start at the small forward position. A starting lineup of transfer PG TJ McConnell, returning star Nick Johnson, Gordon, Ashley, and Tarczweski is certainly a possibility. But the team would be better off getting Rondae Hollis-Jefferson on the court at the SF position as much as possible, and if that means playing Gordon at the PF position, so be it.

UCLA: UCLA recently added forward Wannah Bail to provide more depth in the front court. Prior to Bail joining the team, the model had no choice but to assume all the post minutes were going to go to The Wear twins and Tony Parker who are all talented high potential athletes. But if Alford plays Bail some minutes, because Bail wasn’t rated as highly out of high school, the model thinks Bail is only going to be a drag on the offense. Thus UCLA slipped a few spots in the Top 25 since my last projection.

This is one of the things I plan to tweak in the model going forward. I think players should generally only have positive option value. If Bail isn’t very good, Alford doesn’t have to play him. There really is no downside risk to having another post option.

On the other hand, there probably is something to be said about having a tight lineup. Part of why Missouri’s offense was so crisp two years ago is that they literally only had seven guys to play. If Alford sticks to playing his seven highly rated athletes (Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams, Norman Powell, freshman Zach LaVine, Parker, and the Wear twins), that seven man rotation may be able to develop incredible chemistry with one another. But the fear of foul trouble, exhaustion, and the desire to prepare players for the future will probably lead Alford to give some minutes to the less highly rated freshmen in his incoming class.

Colorado: I was a little surprised that Colorado didn’t fall out of more people’s Top 25 rankings with the loss of Andre Roberson. Part of that may be Roberson’s offensive regression last year. Roberson’s shooting percentage was down across the board, and he had a career worst turnover rate. But Roberson wasn’t just valuable because of his offense; Roberson was a truly elite defensive player. Roberson had a ridiculous 27 percent defensive rebounding rate and was the only Colorado player with a defensive rebounding rate above 15 percent last year. He was also an incredible shot-blocker and ball-thief. And he posted great numbers in defensive boards, blocks, and steals throughout his career. My model is predicting that Colorado will take a step back on defense this year without Roberson in the lineup.

Offensively, I expect a big jump. Xavier Johnson, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Josh Scott are young and talented players who are only going to get better. And while Askia Booker really struggled with his three point shooting last year, he is still an asset. Top 100 recruit TreShaun Fletcher will be too. That starting lineup has a lot of people excited.

But there are questions about offensive depth. Last year Colorado’s bench was dreadful. Despite being low volume shooters, Jeremy Adams, Shane Harris-Tunks, Xavier Talton, and Eli Stalzer were not Pac-12 caliber players. Two of those players have transferred. The result is that Colorado is probably going to end up giving a bunch of bench minutes to freshmen again this year.  Expect Colorado to have a lot of games where they win the first five minutes, but then fall behind once some of the reserves take the court.

Now that doesn’t mean Colorado won’t be good. Tad Boyle has been remarkably good at developing offensive players and playing the best basketball at the end of the season. That should continue and Colorado’s offense should take a big step up from last year. But in the final evaluation, my model places them 27th nationally, not in the Top 25.

Final note: The Buffaloes have a chance to be truly elite in 2014 because none of their key players are seniors.

Stanford: No team vexes me more than Stanford. The Cardinal show up as 28th in my model nationally, which seems way too high to me. Stanford struggled mightily down the stretch last year, and even if they return 88 percent of their offensive possessions from last year, I wasn’t in love with last year’s lineup. Johnny Dawkins has been at Stanford for five years and while his teams have generally been competitive, they have never been to the NCAA tournament yet. In fact, they’ve never finished better than 6th in the conference. To project them at 28th suggests this team is close to a tournament lock.

But I’m not the only one to see some value in this team. Jason King slotted the Cardinal in his initial Top 25. And I do understand where the numbers are coming from. Stanford actually had solid margin of victory numbers last year, finishing 50th in the country. They simply lost a ton of close games. In fact, they were 323rd in terms of luck according to kenpom.com.

And next year’s team should be very experienced. They will likely put together a solid 10-player rotation without a single freshman. They won’t have the growing pains of other teams and that will help them tremendously early in the season. They may be able to pull off a few non-conference upsets based on experience alone. And yet, I still can’t get that excited about this team.

Washington: When UCLA was looking for a new coach, Lorenzo Romar’s name came up a few times as a possibility. I get the feeling Washington fans weren’t terribly worried about losing him. It isn’t that they don’t respect what Romar has done with the team. But with just three NCAA appearances in the last seven years, and three more key seniors starters departing, it feels like the program isn’t trending in the right direction.

But the model is way more optimistic. First, the team returns its best player (by far) in CJ Wilcox.

Second, the team adds Nigel Williams-Goss at PG. Williams-Goss might be the best recruit anyone picks up this year. He is an incredibly intelligent and hard-working player, the kind of player that improves the character of a basketball team. And while he is good enough to lead his team from Day 1, he isn’t a super-athlete. He doesn’t have NBA teams salivating over him for next year. To get an instant impact player who might stick around for several years is the ideal situation.

Third, the team adds San Francisco transfer Perris Blackwell, a forward who dominated in the WCC. While the WCC isn’t quite at the Pac-12 level, Blackwell has played against NCAA tournament caliber teams like Gonzaga, St. Mary’s, and BYU on a regular a basis. The team also adds JUCO small forward Mike Anderson.

Fourth, Shawn Kemp Jr. will be healthy from the start of the year and that should help his development.

Finally, while many of the backups on last year’s team weren’t stars, they were still solid. Players like Andrew Andrews should be ready for an expanded role.

Overall, Washington can go a solid eight players deep without needing to depend on any unranked freshmen recruits. Saying this team returns just 55 percent of its minutes is deceiving. The combination of experience and talent at the top should put Washington back in the tournament.

California: If you want to be pessimistic, let me hand you some ammunition.

-California was lucky to make the NCAA tournament last year. They had the 56th best margin-of-victory numbers nationally which normally wouldn’t make the cut.

-The team’s best offensive player, Allen Crabbe, declared for the draft.

-Last year was Montgomery’s worst offensive team in his five years at California. And Tyrone Wallace was Montgomery’s personal kryptonite. Montgomery stuck by the shooting guard and Top 100 recruit even though he couldn’t make a perimeter shot to save his life (22 of 98 on the year). And Wallace is expected to return and play a similarly large role in the offense this year.

-The team gave tons of rotation time to Brandon Smith even though over four years he proved his idea of offense was dribbling into traffic and losing the ball. If he was good enough to play major minutes after four years of struggles, that suggests the players sitting on the bench aren’t ready.

-That means the team is probably going to rely a lot on a group of three-star freshmen. There will be some growing pains with that endeavor.

Still, let’s not get overly pessimistic. With four quality starters (Justin Cobbs, David Kravish, Richard Solomon, and instant impact recruit Jabari Bird), and a coach who has dominated the Pac-12 for most of his career, there is plenty to work with. California may not be a lock for the tournament, but they’ll be in the hunt.

Click here for a discussion of Arizona St., Oregon, and the rest of the league.

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