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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.

Way Too Early Top 25 Projections

I am once again breaking out my lineup-based projection model to predict the 2014-15 season. A lot can still change. ESPN’s #2 Recruit Myles Turner has yet to make his college choice. There are a number of intriguing players available who have graduated and are eligible immediately. And there are also several Top 10 JUCO recruits who have yet to commit. Last year, I had Kansas as a borderline Top 25 squad in my first projection, and then they added Andrew Wiggins and Tarik Black and became an obvious Top 10 squad.

Somewhat unusually, I think we have a pretty good idea who is leaving in the draft this year. When a player’s decision is an open question, I list that in my discussion below. For the record, I’m projecting that Julius Randle, Will Cauley-Stein, James Young, and both Harrison twins leave Kentucky, but that everyone else returns. And I’m assuming that Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams leave UCLA based on the CBS Sports notes that suggest they will leave.

One final technical note: The results I am presenting are based on the mean projection for each player. I am saving the simulation portion of the model for later this year. The idea of the simulation is to show what happens if players fall above or below expectations and show the best and worst case scenario for each team. But the real purpose of the simulation model is to evaluate each team’s depth. And right now a number of quality teams would look pretty bad based on limited depth. That will be corrected with the addition of a late signing, eligible transfer, or JUCO recruit. Because the bottom of each team’s roster is in such flux, I don’t think it makes sense to show the simulation results at this point in the year.

Pred Pyth = Predicted Pythagorean Winning Percentage, the winning percentage against an average D1 team on a neutral floor.

Pred Off = Predicted Offense, Points Scored per 100 Possessions

Pred Def = Predicted Defense, Points Allowed per 100 Possessions

2014 Off = 2013-14 Offense

2014 Def = 2013-14 Defense

RMin = Projected Returning Minutes

T100 = Projected Players on Roster who were once Top 100 recruits

Rnk

Team

Conf

Pred Pyth

Pred Off

Pred Def

2014 Off

2014 Def

RMin

T100

1

Arizona

P12

0.963

119.8

90.1

114.7

88.5

82%

8

2

Kansas

B12

0.952

120.0

92.5

116.8

96.3

68%

10

3

Duke

ACC

0.943

122.0

95.5

123.5

102.3

47%

10

4

Wisconsin

B10

0.934

121.9

96.7

120.8

97.6

82%

3

5

Florida

SEC

0.920

116.3

94.0

115.3

89.2

47%

7

6

Michigan

B10

0.919

121.8

98.6

124.1

102.1

73%

5

7

Kentucky

SEC

0.916

118.9

96.6

118.4

97.1

21%

7

8

N. Carolina

ACC

0.914

116.4

94.7

111.7

95.4

74%

10

9

Connecticut

AAC

0.910

113.8

93.1

112.5

92.5

55%

6

10

Virginia

ACC

0.909

112.7

92.3

114.4

90.1

72%

4

11

Villanova

BE

0.909

116.6

95.5

113.8

94.4

78%

7

12

Wichita St.

MVC

0.908

116.9

95.8

118.1

93.3

64%

0

13

VCU

A10

0.907

109.6

89.9

107.9

90.2

70%

4

14

Louisville

ACC

0.899

113.6

93.9

116.6

90.0

41%

8

15

Syracuse

ACC

0.899

113.2

93.6

112.3

93.6

41%

7

16

Ohio St.

B10

0.898

113.4

93.9

106.5

89.6

54%

8

17

SMU

AAC

0.895

113.3

94.1

110.1

94.7

75%

3

18

Colorado

P12

0.878

114.2

96.2

105.1

96.9

99%

4

19

Baylor

B12

0.877

117.6

99.2

117.8

100.0

61%

4

20

Texas

B12

0.876

115.8

97.7

111.0

98.4

100%

6

21

Maryland

B10

0.873

112.1

94.8

107.6

95.5

99%

9

22

Iowa

B10

0.873

118.9

100.6

119.8

102.7

69%

2

23

UCLA

P12

0.872

114.0

96.5

117.0

97.3

35%

6

24

Gonzaga

WCC

0.872

116.3

98.4

111.4

94.4

64%

4

25

Utah

P12

0.861

112.2

95.8

108.7

96.5

94%

2

I see three teams that missed the NCAA tournament jumping into the Top 25:

SMU: The Mustangs had the 30th best margin-of-victory in the nation, and Nic Moore and Markus Kennedy are back. The team also adds elite PG recruit Emmanuel Mudiay.

Maryland: The Terrapins finished with the 41st best margin-of-victory in the nation in 2014. With virtually everyone on the roster back, and four four-star prospects joining the roster, there are no more excuses for losses. If Mark Turgeon cannot turn Maryland into a winner now, he is not going to keep his job.

Utah: The Utes had the 42nd best margin-of-victory in the nation last year and they bring basically everyone back. By simply upgrading the non-conference schedule, the Utes will be in the NCAA tournament hunt.

Focusing on the rest of the Top 25:

Arizona: Aaron Gordon was the least efficient offensive player in Arizona’s primary rotation, but he was also the heart of Arizona's defense. Thus as Arizona seeks to replace Aaron Gordon with elite recruit Stanley Johnson, I project that as helping the offense but hurting the defense. But the real reason I expect a big jump in Arizona's offense is the return of Brandon Ashley. Arizona's offense was four points better with Ashley in the lineup. If you don't like Arizona near the top of the rankings, you must think Nick Johnson is going to declare for the draft (which seems like a mistake) or that the defense is going to fall apart without Gordon. Given the athleticism Rondae Hollis-Jefferson showed this year, I think Arizona's defense will still be championship caliber.

Kansas: Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins should enjoy life in the NBA next year, but don't cry for Bill Self. With elite recruits Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre joining fold, he has already found replacements. Also, don’t forget about Arkansas transfer and former elite recruit Hunter Mickelson who is joining the team. Finally, Kansas gave a lot of minutes to freshmen besides Embiid or Wiggins, and you can expect a big sophomore leap for many of those players, including Wayne Selden.

Duke: Even without Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood, Duke has a loaded recruiting class, and I think a lot of people will be tempted to slot them #1 overall. I agree that the offense will be great and project Duke's offense as the best in the nation. The overall ranking depends on how high you project Duke's defense relative to last year. Jahlil Okafor and a more mature Marshall Plumlee will help, but Mike Krzyzewski's defensive prowess has faded in recent years. Can he really depend on a freshman to anchor the defense when the scouting reports say Okafor is good but not great on D?

Wisconsin: Only Ben Brust departs from a Badger team that was one shot away from the national title game.

Florida: The Gators front-court is graduating and the defense will take a hit. But I'm projecting Chris Walker to return, and along with Dorian Finney-Smith, Kasey Hill, and Michael Frazier the Gators should still have a dominant lineup. Also, don't overlook the importance of a healthy Eli Carter and elite recruit Devin Robinson.

Michigan: I'm assuming Nik Stauskas leaves and Mitch McGary comes back. If both come back, Michigan will have a real chance at a national title.

Kentucky: James Young got a huge steal late in the national semifinal against Wisconsin. But he had only 29 steals on the full season before that. And despite NBA size, Young and the Harrison Twins were not elite defensive players on the full season. Having a player with the quickness of elite recruit Tyler Ulis will certainly help the perimeter defense next season, and even without Will Cauley-Stein, Kentucky should still have enough elite athletes to best this year's defensive effort. Offensively, Kentucky has reached another level in the NCAA tournament, and I don't expect next year's club to match that. But with a few more non-freshmen on the team, they might be able to avoid some of the mid-season struggles, and I see a slightly better offense on the whole year.

North Carolina: The Tar Heels found a rotation late in the year that really worked. Replacing James McAdoo should be doable with incoming elite wing Justin Jackson, who lit up the McDonald’s All-American game, and returning big man Brice Johnson. The real question is perimeter depth, but the team will have three elite passing PGs. And as Connecticut and Florida showed this year, that's a formula that can work.

Connecticut: Replacing Shabazz Napier's defense might be harder than replacing his offense. Napier was an elite defensive rebounder for a guard, and he was fantastic at getting steals. The combination of NC State transfer Rodney Purvis and elite recruit Leonard Hamilton should fill in for the loss of Napier's offense, especially with Ryan Boatright easily taking over the PG role.

Virginia: A year ago I would have said Virginia would fall off a cliff when Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell graduated. But with the emergence of Malcolm Brogdon and a strong core back, Virginia should have another extremely strong season.

Villanova: Every critical player but James Bell should be back from a team that dominated the Big East.

Wichita St.: I feel like my model is under-valuing the contributions of Cleanthonly Early. But Wichita St. has four super-efficient rotation players returning (Fred Van Vleet, Darius Carter, Tekele Cotton, and Ron Baker).  And while they'll need to pick up some frontcourt size from the JUCO ranks again, that plan has worked well in recent years. Overall, Gregg Marshall is on such a role developing less heralded players, there is no reason to expect that to stop next season.

VCU: PG Briante Weber, a healthy three point shooter Melvin Johnson, and leader Treveon Graham will be back. But the best news is that Shaka Smart has finally broken into the elite recruiting game with three Top 100 freshmen coming in this year. That formula doesn't always work. Sometimes managing elite prospects is more difficult than it sounds. But on paper, this is the most athletic team Shaka Smart has ever assembled.

Louisville: Losing Russ Smith will be devastating to the offense, but you cannot under-state Smith's impact on defense too. Right now the team has enough elite recruits and returning players that the perimeter offense will be solid. But most of the young forwards are a year away from dominating at the D1 level. Thus Montrezl Harrell's NBA decision might be the most critical of any player in the country. If Harrell comes back, Louisville is a real Final Four threat. Here I project Louisville without Harrell in the lineup. Either way, I think Louisville is a team that will benefit from the simulation model when I break that out later this summer, as they have significant quality depth.

Syracuse: Based on where he is showing up in mock drafts, I'm assuming Jerami Grant declares for the draft. Even without Grant, CJ Fair, and Tyler Ennis, Syracuse still has talent. Rakeem Christmas became a better defender last year. (Jim Boeheim no longer had to give him the hook for Baye Keita nearly as often.) Chris McCullough is a quality big man recruit. And DaJuan Coleman still has the recruiting profile to say he will be a dominant player if he ever stays healthy. Michael Gbinije is a natural wing. Trevor Cooney slumped at times, but he can be a dominant shooter. And thus you can see why Jim Boeheim is so frustrated that Tyler Ennis declared for the draft. For Syracuse to stay at an elite level, they need an elite PG. Kaleb Joseph had a lower recruiting rank than Ennis, and the reality is that freshmen PGs are a big risk.

Ohio St.: Ohio St. loses the three most important offensive players from a team that was not that great offensively last season. They are easy to write off. But they have a veteran PG in Shannon Scott, they gained a huge boost with the addition of Temple transfer Anthony Lee who is eligible immediately. They add three Top 30 recruits who should boost the offense. And they get back Kam Williams, a great SG prospect who was injured and forced to red-shirt this year. Ohio St. isn't going to be the same elite defensive team, but the talent is there for the offense to make a meaningful jump.

Colorado: Colorado finished the year with the 77th best margin-of-victory numbers in the nation. Thus they make the biggest jump of anyone in my projections. There are two key reasons. First, they gave a ton of minutes to freshmen, who should take a big jump forward. Second, PG Spencer Dinwiddie should return from his injury and substantially improve the team’s offensive execution.

Baylor: Kenny Chery was a brilliant PG last year. Ish Wainwright and Allerik Freeman (an injury redshirt) won't match Bradly Heslip's shooting, but the former elite recruits should improve on his defense. Royce O'Neale is a dominant wing who should take on a larger role. Rico Gathers is a dominant rebounder. And if Austin comes back, Baylor is clearly a Top 25 team. Isaiah Austin says he hasn't made up his mind about going pro. And given that he is projected as a 2nd round pick in most mock drafts, I’m projecting that he returns here.

Texas: The Longhorns made the Round of 32 and everyone is back. They should be in everyone's Top 25.

Iowa: The Hawkeyes lose three seniors, but given how many players the team used last year, those losses are not devastating. The addition of elite JUCO PG Trey Dickerson should also help the team to find the right scorers in more situations. But the real reason this team fell apart down the stretch was because the defense collapsed. Head coach Fran McCaffery has had mixed success on defense in his career. He's had some good defensive teams and some bad ones. With just a little defensive improvement, Iowa should be back in the Top 25.

UCLA: Bryce Alford, Norman Powell, and a now-eligible Isaac Hamilton will man the perimeter. Meanwhile elite recruits Kevon Looney and Thomas Welsh will join Tony Parker in the paint. That's a pretty good core, but the lack of depth is a concern. On paper, UCLA is not that much better than Stanford, but the model has more faith in head coach Steve Alford than Johnny Dawkins over the long grind of the regular season.

Gonzaga: Transfer big man Kyle Witjer was a very good shooter at Kentucky, but his defense was suspect.

And a few notes on teams that surprised me by missing the cut:

Iowa St: If Bryce Dejean-Jones makes the jump from UNLV, that should bump the Cyclones into the Top 25. I’m making projections based on current commitments, but given Fred Hoiberg’s track record in closing the deal with transfers, I don’t have a problem with anyone assuming he will get that commitment. And I don’t have a problem with anyone putting Iowa St. in their Top 25 right now.

Oregon:  Super-scorer Joseph Young, Dominic Artis, elite PG recruit JaQuan Lyle,  elite transfer recruit Brandon Austin (eligible in December), Elgin Cook (who broke out against BYU in the tournament), elite recruit Jordan Bell (a late qualifier and red-shirt), and Top 10 JUCO forward Michael Chandler are all reasons to love this team. But I think Oregon had more talent last year, and they still finished 29th nationally. Right now this team has limited depth in the paint, but with one more transfer addition in the front-court, they can easily jump into the Top 25.

San Diego St: It cannot be over-stated how vital Xavier Thames was to the Aztecs offense and how important Josh Davis' rebounding was to the team's defense. San Diego St. has a great recruiting class filled with players who should be stars in 2016. And Angelo Chol is a transfer who could put the team over the top. But without Thames and Davis, the team falls just outside the Top 25.

Stanford: I really feel like Stanford should be in the Top 25. With Chasson Randle, Anthony Brown, Stefan Nastic, and three elite recruits, this is a team that can build on the Sweet Sixteen run. But even with the Sweet Sixteen run, Stanford's margin-of-victory on the season was only 36th nationally. And that continued a trend where Johnny Dawkins has failed to develop teams that perform on a per possession basis. Dawkins saved his job this year by making the tournament, but the long-run stats say he hasn't been great at developing players. Perhaps he will prove the model wrong by turning Reid Travis into a star this year, but right now the model isn’t convinced.

Dayton: The Flyers will show up in many people's Top 25 rankings because they played a deep lineup and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen. But they lose their two most important offensive players (Devin Oliver and Vee Sanford), and don't have anyone coming in to replace them. For a team that finished 38th nationally in margin-of-victory, that isn't the formula to move up into the Top 25. But if you are looking for a reason these projections are wrong, consider that Dayton played much better basketball after February 1st.

And now a note on a few other teams that might spend some time in the Top 25 next year:

Michigan St.: The Spartans lose three critical offensive players in Adreian Payne, Gary Harris, and Keith Appling and they don’t have anyone coming in who projects to make an immediate impact. The return of key role players like Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine will keep them near the edges of the Top 25, but the Spartans take a big step back this year.

Pittsburgh: The return of Durand Johnson from injury should help offset the loss of two key seniors.

Bottom Line: Even though Michigan St. and Pittsburgh are not in my top 25, never bet against Tom Izzo and Jamie Dixon. These teams will still be very dangerous.

Georgetown, Seton Hall, UNLV: Great recruiting classes, but each team needs to improve in a number of areas to be a Top 25 team.

LSU: Another team with elite talent, that isn’t quite there yet.

Memphis: The Tigers have enough elite talent to finish in the Top 25. But they had Top 25 talent last season, and they finished with the 37th best margin-of-victory numbers. Realistically, with zero seniors in 2014-15, Memphis projects to peak in 2015-16.

Tennessee:  The Volunteers lose a ton of production, but if Jarnell Stokes comes back, they will be in the hunt.

Illinois: Jon Groce’s team finished with the 49th best margin-of-victory in the nation last year, and the team adds three quality transfers, plus incoming Top 100 recruit Leron Black in the paint. They still don’t have many star scorers besides Rayvonte Rice, but given the upgrade at PG and PF, Illinois is intriguing.

Nebraska: Tim Miles is very close and brings almost everyone back. But considering that Nebraska still has zero Top 100 recruits, if Tim Miles can get the team to jump from 44th to 30th nationally, that would still be a huge accomplishment.

Cincinnati: The offense was bad with Sean Kilpatrick and Justin Jackson in the fold. They deserve respect as the defending American Conference champs, but it is hard to see this team defending that title.

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

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The Failure And Success Of Trent Johnson

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The Many Facets & Unpredictability Of March Madness

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Recruiting And Player Development, 2012 Edition

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YABC Column For Feb. 6th (Iowa St., Florida St., Robbie Hummel & More)

On Florida State with and without Ian Miller, Miami's upset of Duke, Missouri as a No. 1 seed, Iowa State, Robbie Hummel as a spot-up shooter and more.

BCS Basketball Power Poll January 2012

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Colleges On NBA Rosters

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The Anti-Recruiting Tool

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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.

Updated Conference Predictions

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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.

Counting All-SEC Selections

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Same NBA Team, Same College

Through the middle of January, there are 22 sets of NBA teammates who played for the same college.

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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