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Six College Basketball Choices

1. Would you rather be a fan of Dayton (8-2, Kenpom #59) or Marquette (6-4, Kenpom #108)?

Despite the season-long profiles, this one is a bit of a no-brainer. Marquette struggled to start the season, but they were playing without a true big man on the roster. Since Luke Fischer became eligible in December, Fischer has been averaging 21 points and 8 boards per game. Fischer’s FG% is unsustainable (Fischer is 17 of 19 from the floor), but Marquette certainly feels like a team prepared to turn its season around now that it has a true post presence.

On the flip side, Dayton was forced to kick its two tallest players, Jalen Robinson and Devon Scott off the team this week, and with freshmen center Steve McElvene declared a partial qualifier in the preseason, the Flyers have no players over 6’6” on the active roster. The lack of size is eventually going to cause Dayton to fall behind Marquette in the rankings and the NCAA tournament projections.

2. Would you rather be a fan of Colorado St. (11-0, Kenpom #58) or Wyoming (10-2, Kenpom #54)?

If this match-up sounds like a no-brainer because of Colorado St.’s undefeated record, it shouldn’t be. Colorado St. may be receiving poll votes because they haven’t lost yet, but their profile is a little bit of fool’s gold. Four of their wins came by three points or less. The real issue for Colorado St. is that their defense has been far from perfect. A mid-level Denver team had a ridiculous 75% eFG% against the Rams this week. Colorado St. held on to win by a point, but eventually their lack of size in the paint and inability to get stops is going to lead to some losses to some lower division teams in the MWC.

Wyoming on the other hand, has a pair of road losses, at SMU, and at California by three points, neither of which will be embarrassing at the end of the year. Both teams own an impressive victory over Colorado. And the margin-of-victory numbers (Kenpom, Sagarin Predictor) think this is a toss-up.

3. Would you rather be a fan of Penn St. (11-1, Kenpom #92) or South Carolina (7-3, Kenpom #34)?

Both teams were picked near the cellars of their leagues. My preseason projection model liked both teams a little more than most experts because both teams had veteran rosters. Oddly despite three losses, the margin-of-victory numbers love South Carolina right now. That’s because South Carolina’s wins have all come by huge margins, particularly against Oklahoma St. and Clemson in recent weeks. Penn St., on the other hand is 7-0 in games decided by 6 points or less, and has snuck by some teams (Cornell, Duquesne, USC, Virginia Tech) that aren’t very good yet. I love DJ Newbill in close game situations. He is brilliant at getting to the line or getting a lay-up. But no team wins every close game.

I’d like to say that South Carolina’s better per-possession performance will eventually catch up and that the Gamecocks will earn enough victories in conference to show they are playing like a tournament team. I’d also like to say that South Carolina really is a better team since Laimonas Chatkevicius became a starter. But I’m worried about the small sample sizes. South Carolina has yet to perform well against quality teams away from home, and even if the margin-of-victory numbers look good, they haven’t proven anything yet.

South Carolina has almost no room for error at this point if they want to make an NCAA tournament run. On the other hand, if Penn St. finishes 8-10 in the Big Ten with some key quality wins in conference, this kind of non-conference profile would certainly make the committee look closely.

If the Big Ten was winning like the league was last year, I’d say Penn St. clearly had higher NCAA tournament odds. But it is worth noting that the SEC’s RPI is not inferior to the Big Ten’s RPI like in past seasons. While SEC teams have a few more non-conference losses, the SEC has succeeded in upgrading its non-conference strength of schedule. Surprisingly both the Big Ten and SEC may offer a similar number of chances for quality wins in conference play.

4. Would you rather be a fan of Ole Miss (7-3, Kenpom #93) or Oregon St. (8-3, Kenpom #120)?

These team evaluations have been focused on this season, but I bring this example up because it brings up the short-run vs long-run contrast with teams. Ole Miss has a pre-season all-conference player in Jarvis Summers, a host of potentially productive transfers led by Stefan Moody, and a senior LaDarius White, who has upped his ORtg from 91, 95, and 95, to 115 this season. There is no question that Ole Miss is the better team on paper.

And yet despite having a team with few freshman faces, Ole Miss has already lost three times at home to Charleston Southern, TCU, and Western Kentucky. That kind of performance is simply unacceptable for a bubble NCAA team. Andy Kennedy is in his 9th season, but he has made the NCAA tournament only once. And you can’t help but feel like this season will end with yet another NIT trip and a new head coach next spring.

Oregon St. still has just eight scholarship players, and lost to Quinnipiac on Sunday. They are not a good team. And yet it’s hard not to appreciate what Wayne Tinkle has done so far. The successful mid-major coach has taken a bunch of role players and lightly recruited athletes, and been competitive against peer-level schools. I thought by now Oregon St. would have 6 of 7 losses. Instead, they beat Mississippi St. and DePaul and lost by two to Auburn on a neutral floor.  Wayne Tinkle is showing that against teams with similar talent limitations, he can coach his team to success. And that suggests that when Oregon St.’s talent is upgraded, real success may be possible. Oregon St. already has some nice recruits signed for next season, and as crazy as it may sound since Oregon St. probably won’t be NCAA tournament competitive until 2016-17, it is starting to feel like Oregon St. is better positioned in the long-run.  The Beavers may be further along in the rebuilding process.

5. Would you rather be a fan of SMU (8-3, Kenpom #32) or Michigan (6-5, Kenpom #75)?

Both teams were in the preseason Top 25 but quickly fell out. On the one hand, SMU has now won six in a row including a decisive win at Michigan, and Markus Kennedy is now eligible. SMU is really starting to feel like the American Conference’s best team.

On the other hand, the American is absolutely terrible this season. Even if SMU wins the league outright, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see SMU end up with an 8 seed in the NCAA tournament. Last year head coach Larry Brown complained that the American conference didn’t get enough respect from the committee. Well, this year that could easily happen again. Add in the fact that John Beilein’s teams have consistently performed better after February 1st than in the early season, and you can at least make a case for Michigan.

But it would be a foolish case. The Wolverines are a mess right now. Offensively, they can’t score against a zone defense or create if they aren’t making perimeter jumpers. Defensively, they break down at key moments. And even if SMU doesn’t have the perfect  resume, the committee will recognize the importance of Markus Kennedy’s absence. SMU should win more games and earn national respect again soon.

6. Would you rather be a fan of Kentucky (12-0, Kenpom #1) or Duke (10-0, Kenpom #3)?

Kentucky’s defense seems impenetrable at this point. With a PG who is as good an on-ball defender as Tyler Ulis, with tall 6’6” guards like the Harrison Twins, with a deep wall of post players defending the basket, and with a player like Will Cauley-Stein who is 7 feet tall and also has the quickness to defend versatile scoring wings, Kentucky might be able to defend their way to a national title.

For a long time, the platoon system seemed like a concern, but even if Kentucky continues to use a version of it, with the loss of Alex Poythress, it seems certain that by the tournament that John Calipari will have a natural rotation where he plays his best players more minutes. It is impossible not to love what you see from the Wildcats.

But I tipped towards Duke during the Wisconsin win, and I’m still leaning towards the Blue Devils at this point in the season. It sure feels like a more natural situation to have a few alpha-dog players on a team and a few complimentary role players. When Duke needs a basket, you know the plan is to try to get the ball to Jahlil Okafor, you know that Tyus Jones has an uncanny ability to get lay-ups, and you know that veteran Quinn Cook is making fantastic decisions off or on-the ball. We still don’t really have a feel for which Kentucky player should take the key shot.

The tempo free stats say Duke’s defense is substantially improved from last year, but not quite in the Top 10 yet. But the sample size is so small that I’m not willing to draw any huge conclusions. Everything I have seen has been positive. First, Duke doesn’t seem to have any huge defensive liabilities on the perimeter like in past seasons. Second, Duke’s help defense has been much better. As impressive as Duke’s lights out shooting was earlier in the month at Wisconsin, I was more impressed that the help defense that denied the Badgers easy baskets.

Perhaps the best part of the debate is the hope that the teams will meet in the NCAA tournament. It may be December, but we are already salivating about the possibility of a Duke-Kentucky final.

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.

NCAA Top 25 Projections (Post NBA Draft Declaration Deadline)

Before I share the projections, I want to comment on a few places where my rankings disagree with some other experts. I explain the statistical reasons why my model is more skeptical of Texas, SMU, San Diego St., and Oklahoma. But I also do not completely agree with what the model is currently suggesting. The lineup-based statistical projection seems to be falling in love with teams with a lot of unproven high school talent.

Where My Model Disagrees with Other Experts

Texas (Too High Elsewhere): Texas returns 100% of their minutes from last year, they have super-recruit Myles Turner joining the front-court, and they made the round of 32 last year. But I think it is important to emphasize that Texas finished with the 6th best margin-of-victory in the Big 12, and the 39th best margin-of-victory nationally. In terms of NCAA at-large teams without major injuries, Texas was the luckiest team in the nation last year, winning a ton of close games. Heck, even their NCAA win came by the slimmest of margins on a last-second buzzer beater. If you start from the premise that Texas was a Top 25 team, you could justify a Top 5 ranking. But based on how they really played, and how inconsistently their lineup performed individually, I have them just behind the other elite teams in 9th.

SMU (Too High Elsewhere): A lot of SMU’s players had huge jumps in efficiency last year.  Marcus Kennedy had an ORtg of 88 at Villanova and an ORtg of 106 at SMU last season. Nic Moore had an ORtg of 106 at Illinois St. and an ORtg of 118 at SMU last season. But big leaps in efficiency are usually followed by players slipping back some. AAC coaches are studying film of Kennedy and Moore’s game this off-season and figuring out ways to slow them down. The addition of Emmanuel Mudiay is why I have SMU improving its margin of victory from 30th to 16th, but without Myles Turner, I think it is premature to put them in the Top 10.

San Diego St.  (Too High Elsewhere): Most people account for Xavier Thames impact on the offense, but not enough people are recognizing how special it was to have an elite defensive rebounder like Josh Davis. Remember what happened to Oregon’s defense after Arsalan Kazemi graduated? Oregon fell from 10th to 88th on defense.

Oregon (Too High Elsewhere): Speaking of Oregon, I love the backcourt, but for a team that was horrible on defense last year, the lack of clear defenders in the paint is a red flag. Perhaps the highly regarded JUCO recruits will make a difference, but the front-court weakness is what is keeping Oregon out of my Top 25.

Oklahoma  (Too High Elsewhere): Oklahoma finished 2nd in the Big 12 last year, but the Sooners only had the  5th best margin-of-victory in the conference, and nationally their margin-of-victory was only 33rd. That said, Oklahoma’s potential starting lineup is impressive:

-Ryan Spangler, a dominant rebounder, who rarely touched the ball, but had an ORtg of 125

-Dante Buford, the nation’s #72 recruit and a needed piece at forward

-Jordan Woodard, who had a 28% assist rate as a freshmen, and an ORtg of 108

-Isaiah Cousins, a 40% three point shooter with an ORtg of 112

-And Buddy Hield, a high volume shooter who made 90/233 or 39% of his threes last season

On paper, that should lead to a very good offense. But my model is skeptical that it will be better than last year’s offense. Oklahoma loses a player that took 30% of the shots last year, and was extremely efficient, in Cam Clark. The most likely scenario next season is that Oklahoma will replace Clark with some of its less skilled big men. Either veteran DJ Bennett, or one of the three freshmen bigs (of which Buford is the most highly ranked) will take Clark’s minutes. The increased size will improve the defense, but it will also hurt Oklahoma’s offense. While Buford is a Top 100 recruit, based on where he is ranked, we can’t expect him to be a consistent offensive player immediately.

What could overcome the loss of Clark is if Hield, Cousins, or Woodard took a significant step forward. But what you have to remember is that none of these guys was a Top 100 recruit out of high school. Realistically, they are all playing pretty close to their ceiling. Woodard has the biggest chance to improve, as the sophomore leap is typically the biggest, but he didn’t make a ton of mistakes as a freshman, so he doesn’t have as much room to grow.

As I’ve shown on many occasions, to win at the highest levels, having elite high school talent is important. It isn’t completely necessary, but the stats show that on average, a high school recruiting rank is an important predictor of career development. And Oklahoma has only one former Top 100 recruit on its roster.

That emphasis on the potential of Top 100 recruits, particularly former Top 30 recruits, is why my model likes the next three teams that many experts are skeptical about. Essentially, if you have 7-8 players with solid recruiting backgrounds, and a coach that has been highly successful in recent seasons, my model tends to project great things. Let’s take a quick look at the elite prospects on three rosters:

Syracuse (Too High in My Projections):

#50 recruit, 6’3” PG Kaleb Joseph

#79 recruit, 6’4” SG Trevor Cooney, ORtg 122, 90/240 or 38% of threes last year

#28 recruit, 6’7” G/F Michael Gbinje, ORtg 111, passable 15.6% assist rate as backup PG

#37 recruit, 6’8” F Tyler Roberson, ORtg 89, best DR% on team last year

#24 recruit, 6’10” F Chris McCullough

#18 recruit, 6’9” C DaJuan Coleman, ORtg 109, almost always injured, but good per-minute rebounder

#21 recruit, 6’9” C Rakeem Christmas, ORtg 126 but far too passive with 11% of shots last year, best shot-blocker on team last year

Ohio St. (Too High in My Projections):

#32 recruit, 6’1” PG Shannon Scott, ORtg 101, 25.5% assist rate last year

#13 recruit, 6’5” SG D'Angelo Russell

#76 recruit, 6’3” SG Kam Williams, great shooter who red-shirted last year

#28 recruit, 6’5” SF Jae'Sean Tate

#46 recruit, 6’7” SF Sam Thompson, decent scorer, ORtg 105, but terrible rebounder

#22 recruit, 6’7” F Keita Bates-Diop

#66 recruit, 6’7” F Marc Loving, ORtg 101, aggressive scorer, possible break-out candidate as a sophomore

Temple Transfer, 6’9” F Anthony Lee, ORtg 107 on bad team, great offensive and defensive rebounder

#50 recruit, 6’11” C Amir Williams, ORtg 110, great offensive rebounder

UCLA (Too High in My Projections):

Unranked, 6’3” PG Bryce Alford, ORtg 110, 19% assist rate last year as backup PG

#53 recruit, 6’4” SG Norman Powell, ORtg 120, high steal rate last year

#19 recruit, 6’5” SF Isaac Hamilton, red-shirted after he could not get out of NLI

#12 recruit, 6’8”  F Kevon Looney

#36 recruit, 6’8” F Thomas Welsh

#69 recruit, 6’11” C Jonah Bolden

#24 recruit, 6’9” C Tony Parker, ORtg 108, strong rebounder last year

That’s a ton of players that were elite prospects coming out of high school. Given how well Jim Boeheim’s defense has performed in recent seasons, Syracuse should be ranked, no matter how much talent they lose. And Thad Matta might be the most under-rated coach in the nation. In the 12 years, Ken Pomeroy has been keeping track of the stats, Matta’s teams have never finished worse than 33rd in margin-of-victory. Steve Alford has also done a brilliant job developing players over the last several years. For example, Kyle Anderson became a star under Alford, after struggling to find a college role under Ben Howland. Talent + Great Coaching = Teams that should be ranked.

But a word of caution is warranted. This version of my model is based on the mean projection for every player. Later this summer, when teams fully fill out their depth chart, I will run my full simulation and project scenarios where players are allowed to have good or bad seasons. When I allow for the possibility that one or more of these recruits are busts, teams like Syracuse and UCLA are going to have a very worrisome downside. For example, if Syracuse PG Kaleb Joseph isn’t ready to play major minutes, Syracuse’s season could be a disaster.  The whole point of the above exercise is simply to point out that as much as these teams lose, their primary rotation has the athletes to be competitive with anyone.

Of course, you might also ask why teams like Stanford, UNLV, and Memphis are not ranked because they are also filled with elite recruits. Personally, I’m particularly high on Stanford based on their returning players and recruiting class. But my statistical model basically says this: If you look at the last several years on a per-possession basis, Jim Boeheim, Thad Matta, and Steve Alford, have been great at molding their players into efficient contributors. Meanwhile, despite occasional flashes of brilliance, Johnny Dawkins, Dave Rice, and Josh Pastner have been a lot less effective. Even in making the Sweet Sixteen last season, Dawkins team was only 36th in the nation in margin-of-victory.

Someone has to fill out the Top 25, and arguments can be made against all these teams. But that is always the case outside the Top 10-12 teams. For a description of the headings in the table, and a deeper run-down on some of the teams, click here.

Rnk

Team

Conf

Pred Pyth

Pred Off

Pred Def

LastOff

LastDef

Rmin

T100

1

Kentucky

SEC

0.959

123.0

93.5

117.6

96.9

65%

10

2

Duke

ACC

0.950

122.0

94.5

123.5

102.3

47%

10

3

Kansas

B12

0.950

120.0

93.0

116.8

96.3

68%

10

4

Arizona

P12

0.935

117.0

92.8

114.7

88.5

65%

7

5

Wisconsin

B10

0.934

121.9

96.7

120.8

97.6

82%

3

6

Louisville

ACC

0.926

116.4

93.5

116.7

90.0

56%

9

7

Florida

SEC

0.920

116.3

94.0

115.3

89.2

47%

8

8

N. Carolina

ACC

0.914

116.4

94.7

111.7

95.4

74%

10

9

Texas

B12

0.912

117.8

96.1

111.0

98.4

100%

7

10

Villanova

BE

0.909

116.6

95.5

113.8

94.4

78%

7

11

Wichita St.

MVC

0.908

116.9

95.8

118.1

93.3

64%

0

12

Virginia

ACC

0.907

112.5

92.3

114.4

90.1

70%

4

13

VCU

A10

0.907

109.6

89.9

107.9

90.2

70%

4

14

Syracuse

ACC

0.899

113.2

93.6

112.3

93.6

41%

7

15

Ohio St.

B10

0.898

113.4

93.9

106.5

89.6

54%

8

16

SMU

AAC

0.895

113.3

94.1

110.1

94.7

74%

3

17

Iowa St.

B12

0.888

118.0

98.6

118.4

99.9

65%

3

18

Iowa

B10

0.873

118.9

100.6

119.8

102.7

67%

2

19

UCLA

P12

0.872

114

96.5

117

97.3

35%

6

20

Gonzaga

WCC

0.872

116.3

98.4

111.4

94.4

64%

4

21

Connecticut

AAC

0.867

109.7

93.2

112.2

91.8

42%

5

22

Oklahoma

B12

0.861

114.3

97.6

116.3

100.6

70%

1

23

Michigan St.

B10

0.860

113.6

97.0

117.2

96.1

59%

6

24

San Diego St.

MWC

0.856

108.8

93.2

109.5

91.6

67%

7

25

Pittsburgh

ACC

0.851

113.1

97.2

114.8

96.2

69%

4

Moving Up Since Early April

Team – Players That I Did Not Expect to Stay: Analysis

Kentucky – Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison, Willie Cauley-Stein:  Kentucky now has eight players who were former Top 20 recruits out of high school. And the other two, Willie Cauley-Stein, and Tyler Ulis, might end up being the most important players on the team next year. Cauley-Stein is an elite rim-protector. And Ulis is a true PG who will be a better defensive match-up against speedy perimeter players, as well as a true facilitator. With experience to go along with all its talent, Kentucky is the clear favorite. 

Louisville - Montrezl Harrell:  Russ Smith and Luke Hancock were high volume efficient shooters who will be hard to replace. But keep in mind how many minutes Stephen Van Treese played last year, and he basically never shot. In net, you have a team with elite high school recruits at every position, depth at every position, and thanks to the return of Montrezl Harrell, you have a clear offensive star. The offense should be fine. As I've said before, the thing that will be harder to replace is Russ Smith's ability to create steals. 

Dropping

Team – Players That I Did Not Expect to Leave: Analysis

Arizona – Nick Johnson (pro): Nick Johnson is not a consensus first round pick, so in my first set of predictions, I assumed he would return to school. But even if the NBA doesn't value him as a first round pick, that was how he played. Johnson was the most efficient of Arizona's starters, and he used the highest shot volume last year. Arizona has a stacked recruiting class, and has talent across the board. But the model no longer predicts the same big offensive jump now that the top offensive producer from last year is gone. The defense should still be elite, but keep in mind that Johnson was also better at grabbing steals and blocking shots than Gabe York and Elliott Pitts. His loss does hurt. 

Connecticut -DeAndre Daniels (pro): Daniels was a unique forward who could spread the floor, but who also had an uncanny ability to block shots. Lineups with Phil Nolan and Amida Brimah might be dominant defensively, but they won't have nearly the same great spacing on offense.

Minor note: Virginia lost Teven Jones to transfer. His playing time fell off last year, so this was not a huge surprise, but he did play 500 minutes in his career, and he was expected to be a backup guard next season. His departure makes a miniscule change in Virginia’s projection. This caused Virginia to fall below Villanova and Wichita St.

Dropping Out of My Top 25

Michigan – Mitch McGary (pro), Glenn Robinson (pro), Jon Horford (transfer): I thought Michigan could be a Top 10 team even without Nik Stauskas, but after losing basically the entire front-court, Michigan will have to deal with somewhat of a rebuilding process, at least early in the season. You are going to start hearing a lot about red-shirt freshman forward Mark Donnal in the coming weeks. Donnal was not a consensus Top 100 recruit, but he was a 4-star prospect, and he is the type of player that should have an impact offensively. But keep in mind that Donnal did not burn his red-shirt when Mitch McGary went down last year. The fact that he didn't says we shouldn't expect Donnal to be a superstar. If Michigan adds a JUCO forward, that would likely move the Wolverines back into my Top 25, but right now the front-court depth is lacking and Michigan sits at 26th in my projections. 

Colorado – Spencer Dinwiddie (pro): Because of the sophomore leap, I expect a number of Colorado’s players to get better this year. But there is no way they can be ranked without Spencer Dinwiddie. Colorado’s margin-of-victory fell to 77th late in the season with Dinwiddie out. Saying that Askia Booker's experience can make up for Dinwiddie’s departure is a joke. Dinwiddie had an ORtg of 129 last year, while Booker's ORtg was 99. Top 100 recruit and PG Dominique Collier will help a lot, but given where he is ranked, he is probably about a year away from dominating at the college level.

Maryland – Nick Faust (transfer), Shaq Cleare (transfer), Roddy Peters (transfer): Maryland was my sleeper team, but they fall a little bit due to these departures. Maryland was still incredibly unlucky last season. By just winning a few more close games, they should be in the NCAA tournament hunt. And they bring in a great recruiting class. But without Faust, they no longer project as a Top 25 team.

Baylor – Isiah Austin (pro): I thought after Austin’s stats fell off in every area and after he was no longer projected as a first round pick that Austin might spend another year in college. I was wrong. I don't hate the Bears roster. Kenny Chery, Royce O'Neale, and Rico Gathers are all talented players. But they are not quite a Top 25 squad anymore.

Utah – Princeton Onwas (transfer):  Onwas departure knocks Utah out of my Top 25, but they are close, and this should still be the year that Utah returns to the NCAA tournament. (Utah also added an international center, but he hasn’t been fully scouted by the US scouting services, and it is hard to project a big impact for him this year.)

Moving into My Top 25

Iowa St.: Bryce Dejean-Jones committed to Iowa St. this month, and his addition moves the Cyclones from 27th to 17th. Dejean-Jones was a high volume scorer and efficient passer for UNLV.

Oklahoma: While Je’lon Hornbeak wasn’t terrible by any means, he was the least efficient player on Oklahoma last year, and swapping him for a JUCO PG didn’t drop the Sooners. Oklahoma basically moved into the Top 25 because some of the above teams fell out.

Michigan St., San Diego St., Pittsburgh: Gary Harris’ departure was not a surprise, so these teams did not add or lose any key pieces since my initial rankings. But with the above teams losing key pieces, the Spartans, Aztecs, and Panthers moved into the Top 25.

Next week: I will have a few more comments on the defensive projection for Duke and Kansas.

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