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Super Sophomore Point Guards

Typically in college basketball, point guards see the most dramatic improvement between their freshman and sophomore seasons. Last year, Michigan’s Trey Burke, Syracuse’s Michael Carter-Williams and Miami’s Shane Larkin were prime examples. There’s now a new trio of floor generals who have seen major progress over the offseason with Marcus Smart, Marcus Paige and Jahii Carson.

Smart, who was projected to be a top-five pick in last year’s draft, returned to Oklahoma State for his sophomore season and has been one of the best players in the country. The 6-foot-4, 220 pounder is averaging 21 points, 4.2 steals, 4 rebounds, and 3.6 assists per game this season and had the performance of the year in a 101-80 win against Memphis. Smart went off for 39 points, five steals, four rebounds, and four assists on 11-of-21 shooting from the field (5-of-10 from three-point range). This all came in front of NBA star Kevin Durant, who had high praise for Smart.

"He is poised," Durant told Eric Prisbell of USA Today. "And the extra year will help him out as far as knowing the game more. I wish him good luck." Durant also added that Smart could “play in the league right now. Definitely.”

The biggest question on Smart’s NBA future was his shooting ability. He could already lead an offense and outmuscle smaller defenders, but his 29 percent shooting from three-point range was a cause for concern. Early on this year, Smart is shooting an improved 35 percent (11-of-31) from behind the arc. Although he can still improve as the season progresses, his draft stock certainly hasn’t taken a hit and he has made Oklahoma State look like a legitimate contender.

Another Marcus who has shown remarkable improvement is North Carolina’s Marcus Paige. After averaging 8.2 points per game last season, Paige’s scoring ability has skyrocketed as the southpaw is now putting up 22.4 points per game while shooting 53 percent from the field and three-point range.

Despite North Carolina’s disappointing loss to Belmont, Paige led the Tar Heels to a big win over Louisville behind his 32-point effort.

''The coaches keep telling me I've got to be more aggressive and attack from the perimeter,'' Paige told the Associated Press. ''It's just something I have to do. I'm starting to feel more comfortable with it.''

Paige’s development is one of the great aspects of college basketball. The role player has developed into a star for North Carolina and it will be interesting to track his progress as the season continues.

Arizona State’s Jahii Carson has been phenomenal as well. The explosive, 5-foot-10 point guard considered entering the draft last season, but certainly made the right decision by spending another year in Tempe. He’s averaging 23 points, 5.3 assists, and 3.3 rebounds per contest while shooting both 55 percent from the field and three-point range.

Carson’s premier performance came in an 86-80 win over UNLV where he exploded for 40 points and dished seven assists. He also had 23 points and five assists to lead the Sun Devils over #25 Marquette.

"He's handled enormous expectations with poise and coolness beyond his years," Arizona State coach Herb Sendek told Nicole Auerbach of USA Today. "He has the amazing trait of performing his best when the lights are the brightest. The bigger the stage, the bigger the moment, he seems to have a special ability to rise to that occasion. He does so very matter-of-factly. He has a great even keel about him.”

Carson’s only drawback is his size, but with his quickness and talent he’s certainly made up for it. He has become one of the most exciting players in the nation and will have a national game against Creighton on Thursday. If he leads the undefeated Sun Devils past another ranked opponent, Arizona State will certainly be ranked next week.

These three sophomore point guards have already shown extensive progress in their skill sets early in the season. With plenty of games remaining, it will be fun to follow the three vastly different floor generals for the rest of their sophomore campaigns.

Pac 12 Early Projection Part 2

Click here for Part 1 including the projected conference standings.

Arizona St.: Everyone knows about last year’s super-frosh PG Jahii Carson, but the player who amuses me most is stretch-4 Jonathan Gilling. Despite great rebounding numbers and post-play on defense, he lived on the perimeter on offense. Gilling took four times as many three pointers as two pointers, and made 84 threes on the year.

And that will be useful because the biggest question market for Arizona St. next year is outside shooting. There just aren’t many attractive candidates at the off-guard position. Last year’s Hawaii transfer Bo Barnes wasn’t able to contribute much. And I’m not that much more excited about Michigan St. transfer Brandon Kearney. Kearney rarely took outside shots at Michigan St. and made them even less often. Freshman Chance Murray might eventually be the answer, but his recruiting rank suggests he may not be ready this year.

Arizona St. has more depth at forward with Valparaiso transfer Richie Edwards and JUCO transfer Sai Tummala joining the team. But the lack of perimeter shooting will hurt.

Oregon: Here is something you may not know. Oregon wasn’t a very good offense team last year. They got out in transition and so their games weren’t stuck in the 50’s, but they were much less skilled offensively than you might think.

The reason Oregon had its best season under Dana Altman was that Altman’s defense was the best of his career. Somehow, after back-to-back years of lackluster defense, the Ducks had an elite defensive unit. A large part of that was the late addition of Arsalan Kazemi. He personally ate up so many defensive rebounds that Oregon’s defensive rebounding improved from 162nd to 27th nationally. To say Kazemi will be missed is an understatement. Expect Oregon to be competitive defensively this year, but more in line with Altman’s historical performance.

Thus to return to the tournament the team will have to be better on offense. And while Oregon adds some nice pieces, they also lose four of their five most efficient offensive players (EJ Singler, Carlos Emory, Tony Woods, and Kazemi).

UNLV transfer Mike Moser can replace some of that production. Elite recruit Jordan Bell can replace some of it. Top 10 JUCO Elgin Cook is another nice piece. And Dominic Artis should be able to chip in by avoiding injury this year.

But it will take a special season for all those players to replace what was lost. In expectation, Oregon looks a little worse on offense, and meaningfully worse on defense, which should make them a fringe bubble team. My model currently has them 60th nationally.

But Altman has proven he can win with a whole new group of players, and if anyone can prove my model wrong, I would not count him out.

Oregon St.: With Oregon St. returning nearly 70 percent of its minutes, you might think this will be a veteran squad next year. But many of those minutes went to players like Challe Barton and Jarmal Reid who do not appear to be Pac-12 caliber players. Because of the need to look for better options, the team is going to have to give a lot of time to new lineup pieces again. The team has three Pac-12 quality starters in Roberto Nelson, Devon Collier, and Eric Moreland, but the rest of the lineup is relatively weak.

Washington St.: Brock Motum, the team’s best player is gone, and there aren’t any players who can replace his star quality. This is the only team in the Pac-12 without any Top 100 athletes. Teams can win without elite talent if the coach is good at developing players, but after four seasons Ken Bone has proven to be below average in that regard. If Bone doesn’t develop a few hidden gems this season, he will likely be replaced.

Assuming last year’s partial qualifier Que Johnson has his academics in order now, he could help. And transfers Brett Kingma (ORtg of 97 at Oregon), Jordan Railey (ORtgs of 85 and 68 at Iowa St.), and Danny Lawhorn (46th ranked JUCO) will try to upgrade the offense too. I don’t want to make it sound hopeless, but Bone absolutely must break the trend if he wants to keep his job.

USC: Omar Oraby is the only returning player with an ORtg over 100. Worse yet, the retuning players that couldn’t score last year had a quality point-guard feeding them the ball in scoring position. Now Jio Fontan is gone and the team’s PG prospects are thin. Will the highly inefficient P’Shon Howard become eligible immediately? Will the team turn to unranked freshman recruit Julian Jacobs or Kahlil Dukes? Will former walk-on Chass Bryan, who played major PG minutes last year get the call? None of them is a particularly attractive option.

This also explains why UNLV transfer Katin Reinhardt was willing to sign with USC this off-season. Reinhardt left UNLV because he wants to play the PG position. And Reinhardt is likely going to have to sit out this season. But USC’s options at the PG spot are so under-whelming that Reinhardt is confident he will be the starter next season.

It is possible that a less structured, run-and-gun, dunk-city offense help the team score more effectively. I certainly trust that kind of system more in the Pac-12 than a league like the Big 10 where you run into coaches like Bo Ryan on a regular basis. But give Andy Enfield some time. Wait until Reinhardt and fellow transfer Darion Clark become eligible next year. Until then, this could be the worst offense in the Pac-12 again.

Utah: I expect Jordan Loveridge to become a household name as a sophomore. He is a former top 100 recruit and he was an aggressive and surprisingly efficient given his large role as a freshman. But the Utes bring in seven new players including three junior college transfers. Expect more growing pains.

Comparing The Conferences

The Pac-12 has been suffering through a long dark period. The Big Ten has been dominant (at least in the pre-conference schedule) for the last few years. Should we expect a change this year? Is the Pac-12’s slump over? Is the Big Ten’s boom about to come to an end? Let’s take a quick look at some basic roster data and see if we can uncover any trends.

Part of predicting the season is noting the number of elite high school prospects on each roster. Not only are these players more likely to play well as freshmen, but they are also more likely to breakout later in their career. Recall, for example, Michael Snaer of Florida St. Snaer was a former Top 20 recruit, and while it took him three seasons, he broke out in a big way in 2011-12. After adding up the numbers…

- The Big East has the most former RSCI Top 100 prospects on rosters heading into the season with 58.

- But the Big East has more teams, and the Big East has only 3.9 elite recruits per team. The ACC has the most former Top 100 recruits per team with 4.6 per team.

- But James McAdoo is the only former Top 10 prospect in the ACC this season. That seems like an unprecedented lack of super-elite talent for the conference. If you want super elite talent, you probably want to watch the SEC, assuming everyone is declared academically eligible. John Calipari never lets us down on the recruiting trail.

- The SEC, however, is only welcoming ten Top 100 freshmen this year as a whole. Even the Big Ten, the land of typically poor recruiting, is welcoming more Top 100 freshmen than the SEC this season. And yes, the slumping Pac-12 brings in quite a few elite recruits this year.

Conf

T10

T100

T100 Fr

ACC

1

55

22

BE

1

58

17

SEC

4

49

10

B10

1

40

15

B12

3

33

11

P12

3

37

15

MWC

1

15

5

A10

0

11

3

The next table isn’t really roster data, but it does reflect some of my preliminary projections about playing time.

- The ACC is going to be the youngest conference in the nation this year, according to my projections.

- The Big East has a startlingly low number of key seniors on rosters this year.

- As usual, the MWC and A10 have more mature rosters. They lose fewer players to the NBA and that helps the top MWC and A10 teams compete, even without a plethora of blue chip talent.

Class

Sr%

Jr%

So%

Fr%

MWC

35%

30%

17%

17%

A10

33%

27%

19%

21%

P12

28%

32%

18%

22%

B12

32%

19%

26%

23%

BE

22%

32%

27%

19%

B10

27%

26%

23%

24%

SEC

25%

28%

24%

22%

ACC

25%

22%

23%

31%

The Pac-12 is getting older in a hurry, thanks in no small part to an influx of transfers. Note that your transfer numbers may vary slightly. I’m excluding transfer walk-ons and a few JUCOs who seem unlikely to play in the next table.

Incoming Transfers

D1

JUCO+

P12

15

8

SEC

10

11

BE

14

6

MWC

7

5

B12

7

5

A10

8

3

ACC

3

3

B10

5

1

The transfer table doesn’t mean the Pac-12 has suddenly become the conference of transfers. This is all a natural consequence of recent league history. The Pac-12 teams have struggled the last few years making those teams particularly attractive places for transfers to matriculate. If you want to transfer and PLAY in an elite league, you would have chosen the Pac-12 too.  On the other hand, the Big Ten has been on an upswing and few coaches have needed to dip into the JUCO ranks as a quick fix. Deverell Biggs of Nebraska is currently the only incoming JUCO player projected for the Big Ten this year.

Overall, the Pac-12 was a depleted league, but it is adding a number of impact freshmen and key transfers this year. The days of the league failing to field a Top 25 team are over. As for the Big Ten, the jury is still out. The teams at the top still have plenty of talent, but programs like Purdue could be in for a bit of a slip without an influx of can’t miss players coming in.

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