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Final Thoughts On Ranking 351 D1 Teams

In case you missed it, last Thursday I presented my upgraded projections model. Then I presented my 13-14 season projections on ESPN Insider. My projections included the median simulation, best case, and worst case for every team. I also did a Q & A session with Eamonn Brennan and another one with John Templon. I have also been answering a few questions on Twitter. You would think after all those words I would have run out of things to say, but here are a few thoughts that did not quite make the cut in those articles:

The Underrated Club

Q: Why does the simulation hate Arizona St.? Jahii Carson is one of the best players in the country.

A: Arizona St. is a team with a lot of two-star players on the roster. In fact, they have the second lowest average star rating in the entire Pac-12, ahead of only Utah. Luckily a few of those players are transfers who played well for other teams. But what this really means is that Arizona St. just doesn’t have the same upside as many of the other schools in the Pac-12. Herb Sendek’s track record on defense is also a huge concern.

Q: Why does the simulation hate Maryland? A lineup of Shaquille Cleare, Evan Smotrycz, Dez Wells, Nick Faust and Roddy Peters sounds like it could hang with anyone. And Seth Allen, Charles Mitchell, and Damonte Dodd all seem like solid reserves. Why is the model so pessimistic?

A: The simulation is concerned that Maryland has only nine scholarship players on the roster. There is real downside risk with such a short bench because if a couple of players struggle or get injured, there are no alternates. Last year N.C. State entered the year with just nine scholarship players and things turned south early. Now, that doesn’t mean Maryland is destined to fail, but depth is a risk with this type of roster.

Q: Why does the simulation hate Denver? They had a great margin-of-victory numbers last year.

A: While I truly believe star ratings are important, the focus on recruiting evaluations really hurts the small conference squads in my projections. Only when a small conference team has virtually no lineup questions will that team be ranked near the top. (This year the two exceptions are North Dakota St. and Harvard. North Dakota St. brings back 95 percent of its minutes and gets a player back who was injured for much of last year. Meanwhile Harvard gets two star players back who were suspended last season.)

In Denver’s case even with several efficient players back, particularly star Chris Udofia, winning seems likely. But Denver has to replace two of the three players that played the most minutes last season. And the likely replacements will only be two-star athletes. That’s not to say that head coach Joe Scott cannot build a winner again. But it is very hard to get a Top 50 margin-of-victory in a small conference. And if Scott does it again, that should be considered a huge accomplishment. It shouldn’t be the expectation. (The real issue for Denver is finding another ball-handler to compliment Udofia. Last year Royce O’Neale and Udofia both were key distributors for the team, but with O’Neale transferring to Baylor, the remaining options are not great.)

Random Thoughts on Some Major Conference Teams

- In my Insider column, I said that the Spartans were the lowest risk team in the nation which sparked some jokes from Michigan St. fans on Twitter. I think this points out how insanely volatile college basketball can be. Even when the Spartans bring back five of their six top rotation players including three clear stars, their fanbase in nervous. Part of that is the fact that Tom Izzo’s teams notoriously struggle in November. But when a team with Top 10 talent brings nearly everyone back and their fans are nervous, you know that anything can happen in college basketball.

- Michigan’s position in 12th in my rankings is a little misleading. I honestly believe that Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson can lead this team a long way. But I am legitimately concerned about the guard rotation. John Beilein was very reluctant to play Jordan Morgan and Mitch McGary together last season because they weren’t outside shooters. So I have to assume Robinson will play most of his minutes at the four-spot again this year. But then how does the guard rotation work? Does the team play Spike Albrecht, Derrick Walton, and Nick Stauskas together? What if Albrecht and Walton aren’t ready? That is why my model has such a low downside for the Wolverines. (And don’t tell me Caris LeVert is the answer. He was a low-ranked recruit and nothing he did last season leads me to believe he should be a key player on a Top 10 team.)

- When I first ran the model, I was a little surprised the downside for Kentucky was not lower. After all, a young Kentucky team lost in the first round of the NIT last season. But this is what happens when you return two efficient high potential players (in Alex Poythress and Will Cauley-Stein), and add five Top 10 recruits. With that many high potential players, even if two or three of them struggle immensely, Kentucky can still win. Kentucky could not afford for Archie Goodwin to struggle and Nerlens Noel to get injured last season. This year if Julius Randle struggles and Will Cauley-Stein gets hurt, the team can just say “Next man in.”

- I love the range for Indiana in my ESPN Insider rankings. The team has 7 top 100 recruits, and an elite season is still possible. But given all the new faces and how little most of the returning sophomores played last year, the downside risk is major.

- If you want to vote any of my model’s Top 34 teams into the Top 25, I can see arguments for all of them. But I stick by my model’s skepticism of Baylor. Pierre Jackson carried the Bears last year and I don’t see how they can be a better team without him. Their margin of victory was 26th last year (thanks to winning the NIT) and I only give them about a 20 percent chance to do better than that.

- If you have ESPN Insider, look at how painfully low Alabama’s downside is this year. After Devonta Pollard was arrested this offseason, the team is down to nine scholarship players who are eligible this year. If someone on Alabama’s squad doesn't play well, there are no alternatives. This is too bad because Anthony Grant is such a talented young coach, but off-court issues keep derailing his teams.

- Iowa St. made a great move adding Marshall transfer DeAndre Kane. But I suspect Fred Hoiberg needed to add a couple more transfers to keep his transfer winning streak going. With 64% of the lineup gone and four of Iowa St.'s six most efficient players departing (Melvin Ejim and George Niang return), expect Iowa St. to take a step back.

- My model is more optimistic about Seton Hall than what you see in some other rankings. Texas transfer Sterling Gibbs will be a huge upgrade over Tom Maayan and his 50% turnover rate. And with fewer injuries, Kevin Willard should have the defense playing better.

Random Thoughts on Some Mid-Major Conferences

- I’ve still got St. Mary’s on the NCAA bubble. Many will discount the team after Matthew Dellavedova's departure. But Beau Leveasque and Stephen Holt aren't suddenly going to forget how to shoot. Brad Wadlow isn't going to stop being a physical force on the boards and finishing over 60 percent of his shots. This team still has talent.

- The team I think most pundits have over-rated this year is Northeastern. The Huskies were extremely lucky last year. Despite the 7th best MOV in the CAA, they won a ton of close games, including a 4-1 record in OT. Their conference title is very deceiving. With the team's leading scorer and most efficient player Joel Smith gone, a repeat conference title seems unlikely.

- One team I am buying is Weber St. Weber St. had the best margin-of-victory in the Big Sky last year. They even outscored Montana by 19 points in their three meetings. But somehow they went 1-2 against the Grizzlies and that 1-2 mark gave Montana the regular season and conference tournament title. Weber St.’s aggressive and efficient inside-outside combination of Davion Berry and Kyle Tresnak is going to make sure that doesn't happen again.

- The conference champion I expect to come out of nowhere this year is Manhattan. Manhattan somehow lost 10 games to conference foes, but only one of those games was by double digits. This team was much better than last year's conference record would indicate.

- The race for the Big West title is wide open. I have five teams projected within one game of first place in that league.

- The CUSA race should also be highly entertaining. Louisiana Tech is the only team in CUSA that returns over 70 percent of its minutes from last year. (Tech brings back 85 percent of its minutes.) And Tech's losses won't hurt the offense. The team loses its least efficient player Brandon Gibson, and the extremely passive JL Lewis. With an already solid defense and an improved offense, Louisiana Tech could be headed for the NCAA tournament. But Southern Miss is just as formidable a competitor. The newest Golden Eagle, transfer Aaron Brown, shot the ball extremely well as a sophomore at Temple. His addition could give Southern Miss the CUSA title.

- Speaking of transfers, transfer Jay Harris was the PG on a Valparaiso team that won the Horizon league title in 2012. He could be the key addition that gets Wagner an NEC conference title in 2014.

- Finally, Indiana St. PG Jake Odum has to be kicking himself that RJ Mahurin transferred out in order to play his senior year with his younger brother. Mahurin was the team's only efficient big man, and the Sycamores could have been a more realistic NCAA bubble team had Mahurin returned.

Late Breaking News

- The news that Josh Smith was eligible immediately didn’t break until after I finished my rankings. With a full season of Smith you can move the Hoyas up to 27th in my projections. But as many people have noted, because of his conditioning, it still isn’t clear how much Smith will play. The downside risk for the Hoyas remains real. However, I do think that it is a major break that Smith will be around from the start of the season. The Hoya offense is a nuanced system that depends on precise cuts and passes, and integrating Smith mid-season would have been much more difficult.

- I had already assumed Joseph Young would be eligible for Oregon so their ranking is not affected by that news. It is clear that the transfer combination of Mike Moser and Young could be one of the best inside-outside combinations in the country. But I want to offer several cautionary tales. Ryan Harrow, Trey Ziegler, and Aaric Murray were three transfers that received a ton of hype last summer, and they were all such poor fits in the new environment, they have all moved on again. We’ve seen teams bring in a bunch of transfers and live up to expectations (like Iowa St.), but we have also seen teams take in a lot of transfer and disappoint (like Missouri last year.) Transfers are high risk players, and that is why my model has such a large range for the Ducks this season.

Dan Hanner vs Ken Pomeroy

Ken Pomeroy also released his preseason rankings on Saturday. While he is rather humble about his algorithm, I think it is important to note how well his system did last season. From a modeling perspective, a more complex system is not always better.

I would argue that the real advantage of my lineup-based system is not the predictive power. The advantage is that by focusing on the lineup, my model has fewer head-scratching conclusions. For example, Ken’s team level model has Miami at 62nd this year. With basically everyone in last year’s rotation gone and Angel Rodriguez electing not to apply for a transfer waiver, that’s an extremely optimistic prediction. But that prediction is based on how well Miami did last season, not any reasonable evaluation of the current roster. The same can probably be said of Minnesota at No. 35. The Gophers had strong margin-of-victory numbers last year, so Ken’s model loves them again this season. But my model sees that the Gophers made a substantial downgrade in the front-court and added an unproven coach. My model based on the current lineup has Miami at No. 102 and Minnesota at No. 63, and I think that’s much closer to what I have seen in most expert rankings.

But while Ken’s model can cause us to scratch our heads at certain results, do not overlook his predictions. The last five seasons of data are a very strong predictor in the aggregate. (If a team had a great offense before it tends to have better facilities, higher caliber recruits, and better coaches today.) And when the results of both our models agree, those are probably the strongest predictions of all. 

YABC Column, Dec. 19 (On Perry Jones, Miami, BYU, Illinois & More)

Last week was quiet due to finals, but the weekend was the complete opposite. Ohio St.’s Jared Sullinger suffered a minor foot injury.  Kentucky’s Terrence Jones suffered a pinky contusion. Cincinnati crushed Radford despite the suspension of several players after last weekend’s brawl. But Xavier wasn’t as fortunate, losing to Oral Roberts without Tu Holloway and company. 

And there were plenty of dramatic games. Butler came back to beat Purdue on a last second put back by Andrew Smith. Georgia came back to beat USC thanks to a huge game from freshmen Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Meanwhile, top-ranked Syracuse left the state of New York for the first time and looked dominant in their first true road test. And these headlines are only the beginning:

Game of the Weekend: Baylor defeats BYU 

Coming to you courtesy of the newest channel to air college sports, BYU TV, the sixth ranked Baylor Bears traveled to BYU to take on the Cougars. Usually when a heavily favored team goes on the road in college, the underdog will take a conservative approach. They will try to shorten the game, and take perfect shots, and hope that over a shortened game they might outscore their opponent. But when an underdog starts out super-aggressive, you know the game is going to be special.

And from the beginning BYU was the more aggressive team. They were the team diving for loose balls and causing steals. They were the team relentlessly taking the ball to the basket and callously shooting open jumpers early in the shot-clock. If you thought Dave Rose would slow things down with Jimmer Fredette having graduated, think again.

And so the game had several acts.  Act one was dominated on the boards. BYU grabbed the first 14 rebounds of the game. Shooting percentages always have something to do with rebounding, but there isn’t a scenarios where that isn’t an impressive stat. 

And Brandon Davies was leading the way.  Early on, Davies caught the ball off the post, and began what looked like a classic hook-shot move. But instead of taking a hook shot, he angled to the basket, and dunked over the Baylor defense. BYU was not afraid, and as the team built a 13 point lead, the home-team BYU announcers called it the best game of Brandon Davies’ career. 

But then Davies picked up his second foul. And Baylor immediately went on a run. Baylor cut the lead to four points at halftime, but more than cutting into the lead, the fear of foul trouble seemed to reduce Davies’ aggressiveness the rest of the game. And that’s when BYU turned to its second option, Matt Carlino. Carlino was an Indiana kid who looked headed to the Hoosiers, but then went to UCLA, and then transferred after playing one exhibition game. Carlino was finally eligible for this game at the semester break, and he made the most of his BYU debut. Carlino started playing and shooting like he was the Jimmer, (complete with the ridiculous three point attempts from 8 feet beyond the arc.) And even though a lot of Carlino’s shots made you shake your head, quite a few of his crazy shots were going in.  And 4 minutes into the second half, BYU had a nine-point lead again.

And that’s when the game entered its final act.  Perry Jones III received a lot of accolades as a high school player. But with Baylor struggling to a disappointing season last year, and PJ3 often deferring in critical situations, there were questions about whether he could really become a star at the college level. Those questions were answered on Saturday. Jones decided to take over the game and there was nothing BYU could do to stop him. Whether Jones wanted to take a perimeter jumper, drive and pull-up in the lane, or post-up and finish inside, there was no one on BYU that could stop his game.

And just when you weren’t impressed enough with Jones leading the comeback, he had his hero moment. With two minutes left in the game Jones went down with a knee injury. It looked ugly and fears or an ACL or MCL tear seemed realistic. But after sitting on the bench for a few moments, Jones re-entered the game, found a spot in the lane, and sent home a Baylor miss to give his team a three point lead. His offensive rebound and finish was the final dagger.

The 5’10” Pierre Jackson ended the game with a great visual, blocking the 6’9” Brandon Davies three point attempt at the buzzer.  But Davies was not a great three point shooter, and that was academic. The moment belonged to Perry Jones III.

I still have my questions about this Baylor team. People complain that Jones defers to much to his teammates. Fran Fraschilla says that Jones is too nice a player. But I think the problem is that Baylor plays like Texas prior to this season. They have so many scorers and playmakers, that everyone feels like they need to shoot when they get a chance.  No one feels like they need to get Jones a touch on every possession. But by putting his team on his back on Saturday, his teammates may have learned a valuable lesson.  With Jones leading the way, there is no team Baylor can’t beat.

Hidden Game of the Weekend:  Miami (FL) defeats Florida Atlantic in double overtime. 

This game had absurd imagery. I would love to have a photo of 5’6” 145 lb Florida Atlantic guard Raymond Taylor grabbing 6’10” 295 lb Miami FL forward Reggie Johnson’s jersey from behind to stop a breakout opportunity. (He was called for an intentional foul on the play, but the idea that Taylor could ever stop Johnson’s momentum was rather preposterous.)

This game had teeth rattling plays. Raymond Taylor had some crazy lay-ups in this game, and one of his drives nearly knocked Kenny Kadji’s teeth out.

This game had buzzer beating shots.  With 1.8 seconds left before halftime, Miami used a double screen to get a tip-in lay-up.  Then at the end of regulation, Florida Atlatic’s Omari Grier hit a three pointer to send the game into OT.

This game had buzzer beating misses.  Miami tried to run a simple hand-off three at the end of the first overtime, and Malcolm Grant did such a poor job setting a screen, that Durant Scott barely got off a shot. Then at the end of the second OT, after making 15 threes, Florida Atlantic missed a deep but clean look, and fell 93-90. On paper, this game looked boring, but in execution this was basketball at its best.

I started watching this game to see how Reggie Johnson would perform in his return.  As already noted, the Hurricane forward is a mammoth player, and since he was coming back from knee surgery, there were significant questions about how he would look.  Would he be mobile enough to dominate the game?  Would he have the conditioning to play to the final whistle?  And this should matter a lot to ACC fans.  Johnson was Miami’s best interior player last season, and without him in the lineup Miami had struggled to a 5-4 start this year.  Their losses at Purdue, vs Memphis, at West Virginia, and at Ole Miss in OT are not horrible.  But you have to believe with a healthy Johnson, Miami will be much more dangerous.

For the most part Johnson looked great in his return to action.  He seemed to get up and down the court very easily for a player of his size.  He still had the lift to get five blocks.  He even drew a couple of charges.  Offensively, he looked strong making four of five baskets and drawing a number of fouls.  His passing was sharp both in and out of the post. And Johnson had plenty of stamina, hitting a critical lay-up in OT and playing 36 minutes in the game.

Johnson’s return was important to other Miami players too. He attracted a double team on multiple occasions, and his presence in the paint seemed to lead to more wide-open shots for the Hurricanes guards. And the biggest beneficiary might have been Miami Forward Kenny Kadji.  Because of his size at 6’11”, Kadji has had to play a lot in the paint with Johnson out. But with Reggie Johnson positioned for rebounds in the paint, Kadji was free to hang out on the perimeter, and Kadji made 3 of 3 three pointers in the game. Also, because of his quickness, Kadji was wasted defensively when he was forced to guard immobile post players on the opposing team. But with Johnson in the game, Kadji provided a nice lanky defender on some of the Florida Atlantic’s guards. This led to at least one critical steal. 

With all these positive signs, you might wonder why Miami needed double overtime to beat a 4-7 Florida Atlantic team playing without its most prolific scorer, Greg Gannt. But if Jim Larranaga was playing with a near full-set of playing cards for the first time this season, he finally got to see what was critically flawed about this Miami team last year. As great as Miami’s guards can be offensively, they tend to be terrible at defending the three point shot.  Last year Miami was 224th in the nation in three point FG defense, and time after time last year the team lost close games when the other team hit key perimeter shots late.

On Saturday, one sequence said it all. Leading 43-40, Durant Scott failed to get around a Florida Atlantic screen and FAU knocked down a three to tie the game.  But not only did Scott fail to get around the screen, he and Kenny Kadji did not communicate.  And Scott and Kaji ended up fouling the FAU screener while the shot was in the air.  That meant FAU got the ball back.  Before the possessions was over FAU had hit another three to take the lead 46-43.  Only the Hurricanes could find a way to give up a six point possession. Miami’s guards are fantastic, and as a team they hit 14 threes on Saturday.  But Miami allowed FAU to make 15 threes. Now that Jim Larranaga finally has enough defensive options in the interior, the goal should be clear.  Clean up the perimeter defense and turn Miami into an NCAA tournament team.

Other Notes 

- The comedy moment of the weekend may have come when Indiana’s Cody Zeller appeared to be called for fouling Indiana’s Victor Oladipo. Comedy aside, because Zeller was pushed into Oladipo by Notre Dame, it appeared to be the right call.

- Illinois shot 25% against UNLV and one key sequence summed it up.  First, Brandon Paul missed a wide-open three, then Meyers Leonard missed a put-back, then after another offensive rebound Tyler Griffey had his shot blocked.

- There is no worse feeling than when your team blows a double-digit lead in college basketball.  It isn’t just the loss.  It is the fact that every time your team has a 10-point lead the rest of the year, it will never feel safe.  And now Purdue has blown double digit leads twice, to Xavier and now to Butler. It wasn’t that Purdue didn’t make any plays down the stretch.  I thought for a moment that Ryne Smith’s steal of Ronald Nored on a late fast-break in the final two minutes might stop the momentum.  But when it comes to making plays in crunch time, Purdue is really struggling right now.

- Arizona St. is not very good, but they’ve had two exciting non-conference games in a row. A week ago ASU’s Carrick Felix hit a buzzer beating three to beat North Dakota St. Then this weekend, Northern Arizona’s Stallon Salvidar hit a three with one second left to beat ASU.

- St. Joe’s has produced some highlight reel baskets this season.  And in the few moments I watched of their game against Villanova, CJ Aiken added a killer dunk while Langston Galloway hit a ridiculous “throw it up on the rim and pray” shot.  You expect Villanova junior Mouphtaou Yarou to be blocking those shots at this point, but his block rate has become rather average. Why has that part of his game receded since his freshmen year?

- If returning players were supposed to spark their teams, it didn’t happen this weekend.  Khris Middleton is back for Texas A&M but the Aggies were blown out by Florida.  The Gators led the Aggies 50-25 at half-time.  And Festus Ezili’s return did not stop Vanderbilt from losing its third home game of the season, to Indiana St.

- Indiana St.’s Jake Odum was one of the best freshman point guards in the country last year, but he has struggled a bit with shooting this year. And down in Orlando, I saw possibly the worst five minutes of his career when Indiana St. blew a late lead to Minnesota. But against Vanderbilt, Odum owned the last 5 minutes of the game.  With the game on the line he (1) Drove into the lane and kicked to a wide open teammate who hit a three. (2) Drove into the lane and dished to a teammate for a lay-up. (3) Hit a jumper in the lane to give his team a 4 point lead and effectively seal the game.  It turns out you cannot keep a great player down.

- After Detroit’s Ray McCallum drove to the basket to tie the game at 75, who would you expect to try to take the game-winning shot for Mississippi St?  Would it be the ultra-talented PG Dee Bost, the enigma Renardo Sidney, ultra-rebounder Arnett Moultrie, or even guard Brian Bryant who had 17 points on Saturday.  No, it was Rodney Hood who took and made the game-winning basket. Basketball is like that.

By the way, don’t read too much into Renardo Sidney’s big day.  He did most if his damage in the first half when Eli Holman and LaMarcus Lowe were in foul trouble. (The 6’5” Doug Anderson didn’t stand a chance guarding him.) I still cannot believe how often Sidney walks up the court.  You keep thinking at some point he will get in shape but in never happens. 

At one point Detroit was expected to challenge for the Horizon league title, but even though Eli Holman finally returning to the team, remember that Nick Minnerath is still injured.  The 6’8” gunner was almost as prolific and efficient as Holman last year, and his absence is still a giant hole for Detroit.

 

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