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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.

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

Today, I continue to preview the early season tournaments with printable bracket links, title odds, and commentary. Click here for Part 1.

Legends Classic Printable Bracket

Nov 19-20

 

Georgia

1.1%

Indiana

54.7%

Georgetown

9.0%

UCLA

35.1%

The Legends Classic might be the most highly anticipated early season tournament because of the potential finals matchup between Indiana and UCLA. Both highly acclaimed programs have had struggles in recent seasons, and with both teams returning to the top of the polls, this game will generate more than its normal share of interest.

Indiana should have an advantage early in the season since they can depend so heavily on last year’s starting lineup. But I would expect at least one new face to make a big impact for the Hoosiers. Whether it will be freshman Yogi Ferrell, Jeremy Hollowell, or Hanner Perea providing a key spark, or the oft-injured Maurice Creek, the joy for the Hoosiers will be seeing which new player helps take the team to a championship level.

For UCLA, adding Top-5 recruit Kyle Anderson will be a big help, but the key question will be how such a tall lineup can function effectively. Offensively, UCLA needs to worry about its spacing and figure out what to do when teams dare the Bruins to take threes. Defensively, UCLA may have to play more zone than Ben Howland has ever utilized because his players may not have the quickness to keep perimeter players in front of them. But as Georgetown showed last year, a zone with four players 6’8” or taller can be extremely effective.

CBE Classic Printable Bracket

Nov 19-20

 

St. Louis

30.8%

Texas A&M

3.9%

Kansas

59.6%

Washington St.

5.7%

The expectations for St. Louis are somewhat lower now that head coach Rick Majerus has left the team for health reasons. But the Billikens returning lineup still looks strong enough to win the A10, and early in the season they should be particularly dangerous. Last year ineligibility issues limited the Jayhawks, but this year’s lineup looks like what you would traditionally expect from a Bill Self team. There are the veterans with Final Four experience like Jeff Withey, Elijah Johnson, and Travis Releford who should anchor the team in difficult situations. And there is a talented group of newcomers like Perry Ellis and Ben McLemore who should provide the athleticism to compete against the elite teams. Washington St. lineup is not strong enough to hang with the Jayhawks, but look for Kansas transfer Royce Woolridge to try to have a big game against his former team.

Maui Invitational Printable Bracket

Nov 19-21

 

Marquette

16.7%

Butler

11.1%

North Carolina

23.5%

Mississippi St.

0.0%

Chaminade

0.0%

Texas

33.2%

Illinois

6.4%

USC

9.0%

I think that there is a misconception that teams are only exciting to watch if they have Final Four expectations. North Carolina may be in rebuilding mode, but in my eyes that actually makes them more fascinating to follow this year. Freshman Marcus Paige will likely take over at the point-guard slot, and given Roy Williams track record as a coach who lets his elite freshmen recruits play, the team may live or die by how ready Paige is to pilot the Tar Heels fast-break offense. But North Carolina doesn’t have to depend on Paige to win this year. Dexter Strickland has some experience as a point-guard from last season and I would expect him to play major minutes at point-guard as well. But the real key is that North Carolina doesn’t have to run-and-gun to win this year. All the returning talent at the 2-guard spot should mean that North Carolina has the profile of a team that will be lethal in the half-court. If they choose to go four-guards around James McAdoo, they could attempt to replicate what Missouri did last year, and be plenty effective.

More realistically, Roy Williams will try to develop a few more post players alongside McAdoo. And Tar Heels fans may have to wait patiently as freshmen forwards Brice Johnson and Joel James make their share of mistakes early in the season. But it is all part of the broader North Carolina strategy. While Mike Krzyzewski’s Duke teams are usually in top shape in November and prepared to dominate from the start of the season, Roy Williams runs his lineup to be peaking in March. And all the mistakes Paige, Johnson, and James make in November should be worth it late in the season.

As usual, Texas has high expectations because of its talent including seven players who were top 100 recruits coming out of high school. This year the hype is focused on freshman forward Cameron Ridley. But for a team that will be relying entirely on freshmen and sophomores, Texas is surprisingly experienced. Myck Kabongo, Sheldon McClellan, Jonathan Holmes, and Julien Lewis all played major minutes last year and should be poised for breakout seasons. Their experience could very well carry Texas to the Maui title.

Marquette also has a number of quality pieces if only Buzz Williams can find a way to put them all together. How will he best utilize a roster of offensive specialists (like Davante Gardner) and defensive specialists (like Chris Otule) will determine how far the Golden Eagles can fly. But Buzz Williams has proven he can fill in for major losses year after year, and I would expect nothing less this season.

On paper, Marquette’s season outlook isn’t much worse than that of North Carolina or Texas. But this tournament ‘s title odds aren’t based on team quality as much as they are based on match-ups. Texas gets the favorable draw on the south side of the bracket with non-D1 Chaminade and offensively challenged USC or Illinois in the semis. Meanwhile North Carolina gets a favorable first round match-up with a decimated Mississippi St. roster but will face a tough semi-final matchup. On the other hand, Marquette gets the worst of all worlds, likely needing to beat a much improved Butler team to even get a crack at the semis.

Cancun Challenge Printable Bracket

Nov 20-21

 

Wichita St.

15.5%

DePaul

25.8%

Western Kentucky

8.8%

Iowa

50.0%

Iowa and DePaul are both slowly improving, but not at a rate that would perk any national interest.

Great Alaska Shootout Printable Bracket

Nov 21-24

 

Alaska-Anch.

0.0%

Belmont

52.7%

UC Riverside

0.3%

Northeastern

21.0%

Loy.-Marymount

5.2%

Oral Roberts

14.9%

Texas St.

3.0%

Charlotte

2.8%

The two most intriguing teams are teams that are switching conferences this year. Oral Roberts is joining the Southland conference where they will immediately be the favorite. And Belmont has dominated the ASun prompting the move to the OVC this year. Look for those two teams to meet in the final.

Battle 4 Atlantis Printable Bracket

Nov 22-24

 

Northern Iowa

4.6%

Louisville

23.4%

Stanford

8.4%

Missouri

12.7%

VCU

4.1%

Memphis

13.5%

Minnesota

8.8%

Duke

24.6%

Last year’s Maui invitational may have had more big names. But the 2012 Battle 4 Atlantis tournament may very well be the strongest early season tournament that we have seen in a long time. It would not be a surprise for all 8 of these teams to make the NCAA tournament at the end of the year.

I have already explained why Duke should expect a bounce-back season. And while Louisville might have the best defensive team in the nation, the team has enough questions on offense to keep Rick Pitino up at night. I have already written about Missouri’s talented transfer class. And Josh Pastner is becoming a better coach as his roster of talented players matures into upperclassman.

But the real story here is the first round underdogs that could still make a deep run. Minnesota brings back all its key players from last year’s NIT runner-up team and adds Trevor Mbakwe back into the mix. Mbakwe was arguably Minnesota’s best player prior to his injury, and so his return is huge for the Gophers. Former Blue Devil assistant Johnny Dawkins is sadly on the opposite side of the bracket as Duke. But behind superstar sophomore Chasson Randle, Stanford might just be able to steal a couple of wins to give Dawkins a shot at his mentor.

Northern Iowa head coach Ben Jacobson took a veteran team to the NCAA tournament and upset Kansas three years ago, and he has a veteran team again this year. With all but one key rotation player returning, this looks like the year Northern Iowa makes some noise again. Finally, leading scorer Bradford Burgess is gone which will mean VCU will be searching for a new identity early in the year. But you can never count Shaka Smart out in a tournament setting.

Old Spice Classic Printable Bracket

Nov 22-25

 

Marist

0.3%

West Virginia

19.9%

Davidson

21.1%

Vanderbilt

0.4%

Oklahoma

14.4%

UTEP

2.9%

Gonzaga

37.2%

Clemson

3.6%

This is another tournament where the mid-major squads should dominate. I can’t quite decide which under-the-radar player nationally I am more excited to see, Gary Bell Jr. of Gonzaga or Jake Cohen of Davidson. All Bell did last season was make 48% of his threes as a freshmen. And he almost single-handedly kept Gonzaga in its NCAA tournament game against Ohio St. last year. On the other hand, on a points per minute basis, few players are as productive as Davidson senior Jake Cohen. Cohen has never averaged worse than 12 PPG, despite never playing more than 62% of his team’s minutes. But when the season was on the line last year, he came up the biggest. Louisville’s defense was extremely stingy last season but all Cohen did was score 24 points against Louisville in the first round of the tournament.

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The Anti-Recruiting Tool

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Printable Brackets And Early Season Tournament Odds

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SEC And CAA Notes

While Vanderbilt returns so many of the 'right' players, Kentucky's incoming class is loaded with talent and there are several reasons to be bullish on Alabama.

Do NCAA Football Rivalries Translate To Basketball?

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

Updated Conference Predictions

A look at next year's standings removing early entrants and this month's transfers.

College Coaching Series Part 6

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

College Coaching Series Part 5

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

State Of College Coaching 2011 Ė Part 1

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

Yet Another College Basketball Column (Post-Selection Edition)

The field of 68 has been set and the four No. 1 seeds boringly look like good bets to reach the Final Four, but here are a few teams capable of overachieving.

Counting All-SEC Selections

As most would anticipate, Kentucky and Florida have had the most First Team selections since the 00-01 season.

Which Colleges Have Produced The NBA's Best Rookies?

Predictably, the big-time programs in Chapel Hill, Storrs, Durham and D.C. have produced several excellent rookies.

 

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