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College Basketball Preview 14-15: SEC

My numeric projections will be available near the start of the season, but today I want to write a few words about each SEC team’s outlook. Kentucky and Florida are obviously playing for top seeds in the NCAA tournament. Arkansas should be in the field. And you can throw the next eight teams in a hat, and defend almost any ordering. Alabama has Anthony Grant’s defense. Georgia is coming off a nice run to end 2013-14. Mississippi and South Carolina have experience. LSU has a dominant frontcourt but weak backcourt. Tennessee has a potentially dominant perimeter but weak frontcourt. Auburn has quality starters, but not enough depth (or enough tall athletic players) to optimally run Bruce Pearl’s system. And Missouri has talent, but few proven scorers.

A couple of those teams will likely be in the tournament, but strong arguments can be made for and against all of them.

SEC Favorite

Kentucky: Three of Kentucky’s best players are centers, junior Willie Cauley-Stein, sophomore Dakari Johnson and freshman Karl Towns Jr. Some people wonder whether they can play together. But “center” is a distinction that lacks meaning. Has Tim Duncan been a center or a power forward in the NBA? It doesn’t matter what position is listed on the scoresheet, it matters whether the players have the right set of skills to work together. And Kentucky’s centers have a diverse set of skills. Cauley-Stein is an elite shot-blocker. Johnson is a monster offensive rebounder. And Towns probably has the most offensive skill. Depending on the situation, they can complement one another and play together.

The key issue with playing the big men together is offensive spacing. To play multiple centers, power forwards Trey Lyles and Alex Poythress will probably play some at the wing position. But it isn’t clear whether Lyles or Poythress can shoot well enough from the perimeter to keep their defender from cheating into the paint. Still, I think this is a red-herring. A lot of teams will risk giving up open threes rather than let Kentucky’s big men slam home dunk after dunk. Having three big men on the floor isn’t going to ruin the spacing this season – opponent desperation is going to ruin the spacing. Moreover, even if Kentucky’s wings misses a bunch of open jumpers this year, with players like Johnson and Marcus Lee crashing the offensive boards, a low percentage jumper may still be great offense.

The other key issue with playing the big men together is defense. A lot of us were yelling at the TV last year when Kentucky did not play a zone defense. Last year none of the perimeter players were great defenders and it felt like Kentucky’s personnel would have been better off using their length to cause tips and deflections in a zone defense. This year’s team seems equally likely to thrive with a zone. But I don’t see John Calipari becoming a zone defense coach. He wants to prepare his players for the NBA, and NBA teams hate to see college prospects playing zone.

Assuming the team plays man-to-man defense, the weakness of having three big men on the floor is that someone might get beat off the dribble by a smaller opposing guard. But as long as Willie Cauley-Stein is providing elite help defense, getting beat won’t be a huge concern.

Now I’m not saying Kentucky will play a big lineup all the time. In close games and against elite competition, Calipari will play the lineup that gives his team the best chance to win. But Kentucky has room for error against most of its schedule. And I’m certain Kentucky’s elite centers will get a chance to play together.

The Only Real Challenger

Florida: The player stats suggest Florida’s outgoing players were critical to the defense and will be difficult to replace. Billy Donovan’s coaching record suggests he has not always been an elite defensive coach. His defense was elite when Al Horford and Joakim Noah were manning the middle. It was elite with Patric Young and Will Yeguete in the paint. And in the five years in the interim, it was average. Overall, the stats suggest Florida’s defense will fall off significantly.

Now, that doesn’t mean that Florida won’t be worthy of the Top 10. Donovan’s offenses are consistently among the nation’s best, and the lineup still has plenty of quality players. Kasey Hill, Michael Frazier, Dorian Finney-Smith, #20 freshmen Devin Robinson, and Chris Walker form a potentially elite starting unit. A now healthy Eli Carter should be back to his scoring ways, and Top 100 freshmen Brandone Francis and Chris Chiozza can ease into the lineup backing up the perimeter. Michigan transfer Jon Horford and Alex Murphy (once he becomes eligible in December) can spell the players in the front-court. But last year’s defense was special, it led to 30 wins in a row, and Florida probably won’t be good enough at getting stops to duplicate that consistency this season.

Hoping for the Top 25

Arkansas: Slowly but surely, Mike Anderson has been building things up at Arkansas. Arkansas’ margin-of-victory was 132nd three years ago, 79th two years ago, and 52nd last year. All Anderson really needed was a quiet off-season where no one foolishly left early in the draft or transferred because of playing time. And that finally happened this year. Throw in the addition of West Virginia transfer Keaton Miles, Top 100 JUCO Jabril Durham, and a skilled freshmen PG recruit named Anton Beard, and this is the year.

Probably the most interesting statistical wrinkle with Arkansas is that most of the Arkansas players that graduated were low-volume shooters. The pessimist would say there won’t be enough balls to go around this year. The optimist will say Arkansas’ best players will have to be more selective, and that should lead to a bump in efficiency for everyone.

Hoping for the NCAA Tournament

Alabama: While Anthony Grant’s teams finished 6th, 5th, and 20th in adjusted defense over the previous three seasons, his team’s defense plummeted to 76th nationally last year. The answer may be transfer Michael Kessens. Kessens was an elite defensive rebounder at Longwood, and rebounding is the type of skill that translates well across leagues. I’m not sure Kessen’s  scoring touch will translate from the Big South to the SEC, but for one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the country last year, Alabama needs Kessens rebounding as much as his points. Meanwhile, with shot-blocking Jimmie Taylor playing more minutes as he makes the expected sophomore leap to relevance, Alabama’s post defense should return to a near-elite level. And with quality defense, you are always in the hunt for the NCAA tournament.

But the story of Alabama is probably a player like Retin Obasohan. At 6’1”, Obasohan somehow got 29 blocks last season, and he’s great at getting steals. He’s a one-man havoc defense. But in two seasons he’s shown he can’t shoot worth a lick. And at this point, Alabama has a bunch of players that have offensive flaws. Levi Randolph, Rodney Cooper, and Shannon Hale have significant minutes at the college level and we know none of them are offensive stars. Even if the defense is good again, it remains to be seen whether Alabama can score enough points.

Tulane transfer Ricky Tarrant will do his best to replace Alabama’s one dominant offensive player, the departed Trevor Releford. But perhaps the most intriguing pick-up of the off-season is Christophe Varidel. Varidel started as a freshman at Florida Gulf Coast, and has always shot well from three point range. And yet, the longer he stayed at FGCU, the fewer minutes he played. In the year FGCU went to the Sweet Sixteen, Varidel played the fewest minutes of his career, and posted the lowest ORtg. Varidel transferred to Chaminade, content to end his career in Hawaii, with one more shot at the big boys in the Maui Invitational. But after an injury caused him to red-shirt last year, Varidel decided to pack his bags for Alabama.

You have to hand it to a player that first chose the dorm-room views at FGCU and then chose to play in Hawaii. Varidel clearly understands how to maximize the off-court benefits of his scholarship. But the uncertainty about Varidel is important. The question is whether Alabama is getting a truly great three point shooter that will help their broken offense click, or the player who became a minor role player in the Atlantic Sun.

Georgia: On February 1st, Georgia sat at 10-10 on the season, having just lost to Auburn. Mark Fox’s job seemed like it might be on the line. Then amazingly, he got his team to finish 10-4, including a trip to the second round of the NIT. But don’t kid yourself into thinking last year’s 12-6 SEC record meant this was a dominant team. Georgia played the easiest schedule in the SEC, and didn’t beat a single team in the Pomeroy top 50 all year. Georgia’s lineup was solid, but far from elite.

And that’s my biggest problem with Georgia heading into this year. There simply isn’t a lot of reason to believe this team will become elite. There are still no former Top 100 high school recruits on the roster. Mark Fox got his roster to play well this year, but there aren’t a lot of guys with potential they haven’t realized. Backup guards Juwan Parker and JJ Frazier will probably play a little better thanks to the sophomore leap. (Parker’s free throw percentage was good, so he’ll almost certainly shoot better from the field next year.) And Georgia will probably avoid some of the early season losses they had last season. But this is a bubble team.

Ole Miss and South Carolina: One of the biggest things that drags down a team’s offense and defense is the use of freshmen. Freshmen simply make a ton of mistakes. And while returning minutes is correlated with usage of freshmen (South Carolina returns a lot of minutes and will play very few freshmen), the correlation isn’t perfect.

The time when teams often make a big leap forward is when they begin to rely less on freshmen. In the following table, I project each team’s rotation for this season and then show whether they will give more or less minutes to freshmen than the year before.

Team

Returning Minutes

Projected Change in Minutes Given to Freshmen

South Carolina

76%

-28%

Mississippi St.

74%

5%

Georgia

72%

-1%

Mississippi

69%

-15%

Kentucky

65%

-46%

Texas A&M

64%

12%

Arkansas

64%

-5%

Alabama

62%

6%

Vanderbilt

60%

21%

Auburn

55%

-13%

Florida

41%

12%

Missouri

40%

3%

LSU

37%

-2%

Tennessee

28%

16%

Ole Miss and South Carolina are both expected to rely substantially less on freshmen, which is why I expect those teams to be a lot more efficient. They won’t quite have the star power to compete with the elite teams in the SEC. But, by avoiding mistakes, by avoiding costly “bad losses” in the non-conference schedule, and by beating some more talented teams with experience, they could squeak into the NCAA tournament.

Mississippi’s roster is surprisingly intriguing. First, Jarvis Summers became a real star last year. He’s always been a quality passer, but he improved his shooting and became a high volume scorer last year. He should be on some of the all-SEC preseason teams. The Rebels also have quality frontcourt depth. Sebastian Saiz is a quality rebounder, Aaron Jones is a great shot-blocker, and Anthony Perez is the more prolific scorer and former elite recruit. (That depth is why Demarco Cox packed his bags for Georgia Tech this off-season.)

That core would be intriguing, but probably not strong enough to win on its own, but Andy Kennedy added four transfers, including three who averaged double-digits at mid-major level schools. He added Stefan Moody, who shined at Florida Atlantic before taking the JUCO route, Terrence Smith, a high scoring graduate transfer from Tennessee Martin, MJ Rhett, a quality big man from Tennessee St, and Roderick Lawrence, a quality JUCO guard. That’s a roster designed to make a run at an NCAA tournament bid, even if none of the names (other than Summers) really jump off the page.

For South Carolina, Ty Johnson returns from an injury, and he should help make up for the graduation of Brenton Williams. The biggest place I expect the team to improve is in the front-court. Laimonas Chatkevicius improved substantially at rebounding, blocking shots, and finishing around the rim last year, and it will be hard to keep him in a reserve role this year. That will be good because his added size should help the defense quite a bit. But elite forward prospect Demetrius Henry should also be better. Even though Henry struggled as a freshman, his potential is still very high (as seen by his high offensive rebounding rate and high school recruiting rank.) Sindarius Thornwell and Duane Notice will also benefit from the typical sophomore leap. South Carolina looked bad at times last year, but they were very young last year. For head coach Frank Martin, youth is no longer an excuse.

LSU: Media reports suggest that head coach Johnny Jones forced Anthony Hickey to transfer this off-season. And while it might have been the right thing to do in the long-term, (a coach needs players that will listen to him and follow his rules), it is a devastating short-run outcome. While LSU is one of the only teams in the SEC with the front-court to hang with Kentucky, their back-court is now shockingly weak. Here is what’s left:

Josh Gray – A 100 JUCO recruit, the kind of prospect that is very much a lottery ticket.

Keith Hornsby – A nice transfer from UNC Asheville, but remember that Asheville faced the 281st defensive schedule strength. He’ll be facing a huge upgrade in competition in jumping to the SEC.

Tim Quarterman – A former Top 100 recruit, but he was very turnover prone, one of the worst shooters in the SEC last year, and he had one of the lowest ORtgs in the SEC last season.

Jalyn Patterson – A three star freshman.

LSU will still be very good because Jordan Mickey and Jarrell Martin are two of the best forwards in the SEC. And LSU adds a true 7 footer in Elbert Robinson. (Height at the center position is an important predictor of defensive performance, and no SEC team adds inches at the center position quite like LSU.) But there might not be a player whose transfer was more damaging in the short-run than the loss of Hickey. His departure turned LSU from a team on the cusp of greatness, to a team that will likely spend much of the season on the bubble.

Tennessee: We have no idea who will be the primary PG for Tennessee. The two Top 100 JUCO transfers, Kevin Punter and Devon Baulkman are combo guards who might split that duty, but neither is a natural PG. A lot of people also like IUPUI transfer Ian Chiles. But the only reason Chiles resembles a PG is because of his height. Chiles was not a passer at his former school. He was basically just a guy who shot a ton, whether the shots went in or not. Yes he scored nearly 16 points per game, but making 45% of your twos and 29% of your threes in the Summit league, doesn’t necessarily lend itself to dominating in the SEC.

The other perimeter positions will be the team’s strength. Josh Richardson was a dominant wing player in the SEC last year. Robert Hubbs is back from an injury, and he has the potential to be very good, and Detrick Mostella has been a commit at many programs, but he’s a Top 100 recruit who could also do plenty of damage. And don’t forget about Armani Moore. He was a very quiet offensive player, but he made very few mistakes and was very good at blocking shots and grabbing steals.

Then there are more big questions up front. Derek Reese played sparingly last year, and quite frankly, he doesn’t project as an SEC quality starter. JUCO center Rawane Ndiaye was supposed to help last year, but he was injured early and missed most of the season. And that means three star freshman Tariq Owens may be pressed into starting early in his career.

In my simulation I project an upside and downside for each team. The Volunteers are one of the highest variance teams in the nation. They bring in a number of quality parts, but there are also no proven commodities on the roster. Almost any outcome is possible.

Auburn: New head coach Bruce Pearl’s excitement and energy is contagious. It is hard to listen to him describe his team and not pick Auburn for an upper-division finish in the SEC. But the numbers say it might take a little time.

The two returning starters, KT Harrell and Tahj Shamsid-Deen are better than most people realize, while Cinmeon Bowers will almost certainly be an impact JUCO forward. But I think it is important not to get too excited about the two transfers.

Antoine Mason is getting a little too much pub this off-season. Yes, he is the nation’s leading returning scorer. But Mason’s scoring was high because Niagara played almost no defense and played at one of the fastest paces in the country. Mason never left the game and he had the green light to shoot constantly. He was somewhat efficient, but only because he never turned the ball over. But he only made 29% of the 168 threes he took last year. The step up to the SEC will be significant. While Niagara’s defensive schedule strength was 197th, Auburn’s was 70th.

KC Ross-Miller is a talented player, but he’s on his third school, and he was kicked out of the last school for an off-court incident. That’s not necessarily the type of player you can build a program around. And Ross-Miller played in an even weaker league than Mason. That’s not to say that Mason and Ross-Miller won’t be important players next year. But you can’t simply assume they will dominate the SEC like they did at their previous schools. Moreover, the rest of Auburn’s roster remains weak. Auburn’s average star rating (the high school graded potential of its roster) is still the lowest in the SEC.

Most importantly, Bruce Pearl would like to use pressure defense and force turnovers. But four of his best five players are guards. He simply doesn’t have the length at key positions to run his patented pressure defense at full throttle yet.

Missouri: It might surprise you to hear that Missouri has the third most former Top 100 recruits in the SEC, behind only Kentucky and Florida. These include:

#42 Johnathan Williams, an elite offensive rebounder and the team’s best returning player.

#72 Wes Clark, a sophomore PG, who struggled with turnovers last year, but who could become a key player with the typical sophomore leap.

#56 Deuce Bello, an elite athlete at guard who struggled mightily at Baylor and is looking for a fresh start.

#50 Jakeenan Gant, an elite freshman big man.

#93 Namon Wright, an elite freshman off-guard.

#38 (estimate) Montaque Gill-Ceaser, an elite freshmen wing who just re-classified from the 2015 class to the 2014 class.

#46 Cameron Biedscheid, a transfer from Notre Dame who will be eligible in December.

The team also has a nice PG transfer in Keith Shamburger and a veteran center named Ryan Rosburg. That sounds like a quality rotation, but then you realize that even though the team has talent, it is sorely lacking offense. All of the returning players were very passive offensive players last year, and asking them to shoot more should hurt their efficiency. Gill-Ceaser, Gant, and Wright are not ranked high enough to expect them to carry a team in year one. Shamburger will probably be a good player, but making the leap from the Big West to the SEC will be a significant upgrade in competition. And it may sound crazy to say this, but Biedsheid has a very good chance to lead the team in scoring once he becomes eligible mid-season.

Hoping for the NIT

Texas A&M and Vanderbilt: The Commodores probably aren’t going to be fortunate enough to have their opponent’s make only 65% of their free throws and 30% of their threes again this season. And the Aggies opponents only made 29% of their threes. Both defenses were lucky and probably not as good as their points per possession numbers would suggest.

But that’s a real problem because both offenses were brutal last year. I do expect both offenses to make strides because each team has talent. In A&M’s case, the offense should improve with the addition of SMU transfer Jalen Jones. In Vanderbilt’s case, the team gets Josh Henderson back from injury, and adds a big recruiting class led by Shelton Mitchell. But both offenses still have light years to go to be NCAA tournament caliber. And if the defenses aren’t as lucky this year, the NIT might be the ceiling.

Mississippi St: The best thing you can say about Mississippi St. is that most of the players in last year’s rotation are back. Wait, after how they played last year, that might be the worst thing you can say.

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. 

SEC Basketball Early Projection

Andrew Wiggins is expected to make his college decision on Tuesday afternoon. Assuming the announcement is not leaked on Monday, I plan to post an updated Top 25 around 7pm ET on Tuesday evening. Even if Wiggins commits to Kentucky, the numbers below will not change substantially. The Wildcats are already projected as the No. 1 team in the nation and Kentucky is deep enough that another elite recruit won’t dramatically change the team’s outlook.

But this week I wanted to focus on the SEC because two other key decisions have already happened. First, Florida added Rutgers transfer Eli Carter. Second, it was announced that Tennessee guard Trae Golden will not return next year. With that news, here is how my lineup-based model projects the SEC standings to shake out next year:

Team

Proj CW

Proj CL

Proj Off

Proj Def

Last Off

Last Def

T100

Ret Min

Ret Poss

Kentucky

15

3

123.6

92.5

110.3

95.4

9

44%

42%

Florida

15

3

115.7

87.2

117.2

83.5

7

54%

51%

Alabama

11

7

106.0

89.2

102.5

89.7

6

70%

72%

Tennessee

11

7

109.2

93.5

108.3

97.7

4

60%

64%

LSU

10

8

110.9

96.4

104.7

97.9

4

75%

76%

Vanderbilt

10

8

105.5

92.2

101.8

93.8

4

100%

100%

Arkansas

10

8

110.3

96.6

105.4

95.1

3

65%

55%

Mississippi

8

10

106.6

96.8

111.6

93.3

1

58%

60%

Missouri

8

10

106.8

97.0

114.5

93.9

3

39%

37%

Auburn

7

11

104.5

98.7

96.8

100.2

2

50%

47%

Texas A&M

6

12

101.2

96.2

103.1

96.8

3

63%

60%

S. Carolina

6

12

104.8

100.2

98.8

104.4

3

45%

50%

Georgia

5

13

99.4

96.5

101.2

94.9

0

57%

58%

Mississippi St.

4

14

94.3

95.3

89.9

99.5

0

96%

97%

For a list of column definitions, click here.

Kentucky: Even if Kentucky is young, I completely agree with the model’s conclusion that this is the No. 1 team in the nation. The roster is full of instant impact Top 20 recruits, and even if a few don’t pan out, there is so much depth that it won’t matter. Probably the only place where Kentucky doesn’t have great depth is the back-court, so only an injury or poor play by Andrew or Aaron Harrison could derail the team’s season.

But let’s not get carried away with the undefeated talk either. Even if SEC basketball is in a down period, there are enough quality teams and differences in styles of play that the odds still favor the Wildcats tripping up a few times in conference play.

Florida: There seems to be a clear consensus that Kentucky, Louisville, and Michigan St. are the top three teams in the nation. But this week Florida added Rutger’s transfer Eli Carter. And while there is no guarantee that Carter should be eligible immediately, if the Arsalan Kazemi situation is any indication, I think there is a good chance Carter will be eligible to play next season. After the mistreatment of players at Rutgers, I think the NCAA will be hesitant to turn down a waiver request. And since Eli Carter gives the Gators another perimeter scorer (one of the team’s only question-markets), the model now likes them to jump ahead of Louisville for third nationally.

And looking at the roster, I cannot help but agree. Florida goes two deep at basically every position. There is basically no downside risk for this roster. Is Scottie Wilbekin or Top 10 recruit Kasey Hill the better PG. It doesn’t matter, they can play together. Should they be joined by hot-shooting Michael Frazier or Eli Carter? And what about the front-court? Will Top 20 recruit Chris Walker and South Carolina transfer Damontre Harris be able to earn playing time with Patrick Young and Will Yeguete coming back? And Casey Prather and Virginia Tech transfer Dorian Finney-Smith are plenty good too. Honestly, who is the weakest player in that 10-man rotation? All 10 of those guys are SEC-caliber starters. Is it any wonder why DeVon Walker and Cody Larson transferred out? They weren’t even going to have a chance to play this year.

Alabama: Alabama point-guard Trevor Releford remains a true star and Levi Randolph is still becoming one. But the biggest improvement should be in the front-court. With former #22 recruit Devonta Pollard becoming a sophomore, I expect a big jump in his efficiency. It will help that Pollard will be joined in the front-court by Top 100 recruits Jimmy Taylor and Shannon Hale. The team also adds a JUCO transfer Algie Key. Combine that talent with Anthony Grant’s ability to teach defense and you have a solid NCAA tournament team. Before Trevor Lacey transferred, I had Alabama in the preseason Top 25.

Tennessee: This week Tennessee lost PG Trae Golden. While the university cannot issue a formal statement, it is likely he is leaving because of academic issues. Cuonzo Martin went on the offensive with reporters and tried to claim that his team’s expectations shouldn’t slip without Golden. But that is ludicrous. Golden had an ORtg of 110 and 107 the last two seasons and that kind of veteran offensive efficiency at the PG spot is very hard to replace. The team is now projected to start unranked freshman point-guard Darius Thompson and I project Thompson to have an ORtg of 97. No matter what Cuonzo Martin says, freshmen simply make more turnovers and mistakes. Overall, Tennessee’s offensive projection drops from 115 to 109 thanks to Golden’s departure. Like Alabama, Tennessee fell out of my preseason Top 25.

LSU: Second year head coach Johnny Jones has upgraded the quality of recruiting with Top 100 players Jarrell Martin, Jordan Mickey, and Tim Quarterman joining the fold. He has also added JUCO transfer John Odo to provide size in the paint, just in case Mickey and Martin aren’t ready to lead from day one. And that added talent should help high volume shooter and high potential forward Johnny O’Bryant improve his efficiency. With Anthony Hickey returning to man the PG slot and Andre Stringer knocking down threes, LSU has a solid rotation on paper. But LSU is still a bubble team. And with all those new players playing major minutes, expect some puzzling losses at times this season.

Vanderbilt: A year after losing everyone to graduation, Vanderbilt returns their entire rotation. The team also adds Top 100 recruit Damian Jones and Tulsa transfer Eric McCllelan. With some normal player development, Vanderbilt will be better. But Kedren Johnson is the only player who looks like he might be a star.

Arkansas: With Hunter Mickelson transferring and Marshawn Powell and BJ Young declaring for the draft, it sure feels like Arkansas is headed in the wrong direction. And with Young departing, the team has a glaring need at PG. Arkansas made a play for Rutgers transfer Jerome Seagers but Seagers chose Auburn. Probably the only thing that could make Razorbacks fans feel worse than losing three key players unexpectedly was losing out on a player to Auburn. Still, if you are expecting Arkansas to fall off the map, the recruiting class will probably stop that from happening. Bobby Portis is an instant impact recruit in the post, and Moses Kingsley will provide some key minutes as well. Houston transfer Alandise Harris will also chip in this season. And Mike Anderson is a solid coach. But the recent string of departures is disheartening.

Ole Miss: The back-court of Marshall Henderson and Jarvis Summers is back but the other three starters are gone. And without a slew of elite recruits (either new or incumbent on the roster), replacing those missing players will be difficult. In the front court, the return of DeMarco Cox may help, but he is the kind of player that never shoots the basketball unless wide-open, and coming off an injury he certainly does not project as a big-time scorer. The same can be said for Aaron Jones who was also rather passive last season. And that means unranked freshmen recruits like Dwight Coleby and Sebastian Saiz will play more than Andy Kennedy would probably like.

Last season was head coach Andy Kennedy’s best defensive season of his career. But Murphy Holloway, the team’s best ball thief, and Reginald Buckner, the team’s best shot-blocker, are gone. And unless they can duplicate that kind of defensive performance, they probably won’t have enough offense to make the NCAA tournament. Aaron Jones was a solid shot-blocker in limited minutes last season, so another strong defensive season is possible, but certainly not probable.

Missouri: While Missouri can put together a pretty solid rotation of 7 players, the team will struggle to replace so many star players. PG Wes Clark is a Top 100 recruit and he will start from Day 1, but he is no Phil Pressey. Johnathan Williams is another Top 100 recruit and JUCO transfer Keanau Post was a Top 10 JUCO player. But neither projects at Laurence Bowers or Alex Oriakhi’s level. Perhaps the only player who can match last year’s quality is Tulsa transfer Jordan Clarkson who can probably match what Keion Bell brought to the team last year. But if Missouri is going to have any chance of matching last year, they are going to need one of the three returning players to step up their game. And while Earnest Ross and Tony Criswell will be nice pieces, the player most likely to break out is Jabari Brown. Brown was a Top 20 recruit out of high school, and joined the team mid-season last year. With a full fall of games under his belt, perhaps Brown can reach that next level. But his development won’t make up for what the team loses. And given Frank Haith’s struggles at teaching defense, the tournament seems unlikely.

Auburn: I’m assuming Rutgers transfer Jerome Seagers will get a waiver to play right away. Seagers and Virginia transfer KT Harrell will join Chris Denson and Jordan Price to form a passable SEC back-court. But the lack of talent in the front-court will keep this team near the bottom of the SEC.

Texas A&M: PG Fabyon Harris and forward Kourtney Roberson are fantastic players. But the rest of the roster is hideously inefficient. Normally I’d talk about how former Top 100 recruits Alex Caruso and J-Mychal Reese are poised for a breakout sophomore season. But after they posted ORtgs of 88 and 83 last year, it would take a minor miracle for them to become dependable players next season. And Florida St. transfer Antwan Space looked ill-equipped to play major college ball in his short time at that school too.

South Carolina:  My model still loves what Frank Martin did at Kansas St. He was a consistent winner, and other than his first season, he did it without a roster full of elite talent.  This Post & Courier story about the night SC’s Brenton Williams scored 38 points summed up Martin’s views perfectly. “My whole thing is, I don’t care what your talent level is. That’s irrelevant to me. I don’t care if you have 96 stars. I don’t care if somebody rated you a 99… I watch guys play 50 times over a course of a year, including summer basketball, and I still don’t know if they’re good enough. How people can watch somebody play three times and determine whether they’re a three-star, four-star, I don’t get that. I don’t care how many stars you’ve got. I don’t care who you are. I don’t care what your talent level is. Bring some positive energy every day.” Martin inherited a rag-tag bunch of players that went 2-14 the previous year and believed he could win with that group because he had done it before. But last year a coach who had never had a defensive performance outside the top 50, suddenly coached a team to the 228th best defense in the nation. His team was hard-nosed and physical as always, committing fouls at a record pace. But unlike most seasons, that didn’t translate to a hard-nosed two-point defense. Instead of fouling to stop lay-ups, South Carolina fouled and allowed lay-ups. 

The real problem was the lack of size and depth in the front-court. Michael Carrera was an under-sized rebounding machine (much like Colorado St.’s Pierce Hornung), but he wasn’t the type of guy who could anchor the defense. It hurt the team that Carlton Geathers was injured. It also hurt that RJ Slawson could never live up to Frank Martin’s high expectations. (I wasn’t even remotely shocked to see that Slawson transferred this off-season) But that meant the focus had to be on freshmen front-court players, and they weren’t ready.

Bruce Ellington (when he returns from football), Sindarius Thornwell (the top 100 recruit), Ty Johnson (the mid-season Villanova transfer who struggled mightily for Jay Wright), and Brenton Williams (efficient but as Martin put it “he might be slower than me”) all provide something. And ideally Carrera could play more minutes at small-forward (at least defensively). But the 5 other players competing for time in the front-court have nearly equivalently low expectations. And that means no matter what Frank Martin has accomplished in the past, the turnaround will take time.

Georgia: When Georgia hired Mark Fox, I thought he was a great hire. But with Gerald Robinson graduating and Ketavious Caldwell-Pope leaving in the draft, there is literally nothing left. There are no Top 100 recruits left on the roster. There are no obvious stars.

Mississippi St.: Everyone is back. But last year’s team was so horrible that even with substantial improvement on offense and defense, this is still by far the worst team in the SEC.

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