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Zags Could Finally Be Sweeter Than Sweet

Mark Few has built a mid-major powerhouse at Gonzaga since taking over the head coaching role back in 1999. The Bulldogs have qualified for every NCAA Tournament with Few at the helm, but have faced scrutiny over the past few years due to the inability to advance past the Sweet 16. While it’s early in the season, Few’s squad looks poised to break the trend and push for a deep postseason run.

Gonzaga has started the year 3-0 with wins over Sacramento State, SMU, and Saint Joseph’s. None of the contests have been even remotely close, as the Zags topped their opponents by an average of 38 points per game. SMU is the only ranked opponent Gonzaga has seen, but the Bulldogs dominated from start to finish in a 72-56 win.

For the Zags, it all starts with the play in the backcourt. Seniors Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. are experienced leaders that can shoot the lights out. Pangos had a big day with 17 points, seven assists, five rebounds, and three steals against SMU. He was 6-of-11 from the field and nailed 5-of-8 attempts from three-point range.

On Wednesday against St. Joseph’s, it was Bell Jr.’s turn to ignite the scoring column. He posted 18 points on 6-of-8 shooting including a blistering 5-of-7 display from behind the arc.

“I love coaching him,” Few said of Bell Jr. after the game. “I wish I could be coach him for the rest of my life. He’s just an absolute joy. He’s absolutely the most consistent guy as far as effort and mood.”

The sweet-shooting backcourt will provide plenty of spacing throughout the season. Pangos is averaging 13.0 points and 5.3 assists per game while shooting 68.1% from the field and 58.3% from three-point range. Bell Jr. has made at least two three-pointers in every game this year and is shooting 47.8% from the field and 47.4% from deep. He’s also performed well on the defensive end. The duo may be the best shooting backcourt in the country and will give opponents fits all year long. They may lack ideal size, as both are listed at 6-foot-2, but there’s no doubting their overall impact on the game.

On the wing, USC transfer Byron Wesley is the perfect compliment to Pangos and Bell Jr. The 6-foot-5 senior averaged 17.8 points per game at USC last year and provides a slashing skill set. He isn’t a major shooting threat, as he’s 0-of-3 from deep this season, but has still averaged 9.3 points per game on 44.4% shooting. In addition, he’s contributed 5.7 rebounds, 4.7 assists, and 2.3 steals per game early on. Wesley made the move to Spokane to join a winning program and it’s evident early on that he’ll make any contributions necessary to make his final collegiate season a success. He impacts the game on both ends of the floor and will be another vital piece.

In addition to Wesley, Few has another transfer making an impact. Former SEC Sixth Man of the Year Kyle Wiltjer spent his first two seasons at Kentucky, but decided to make the move to Gonzaga and sat out last year due to NCAA transfer rules. He’s a sweet-shooting 6-foot-10 forward that provides a mismatch offensively. Wiltjer is averaging 11.7 points per game this season while shooting 5-of-11 from three-point range.

“I think I’m a good passer and I shoot the ball well, so I think I can just play off that,” Wiltjer said after the Sacramento State win. “If I can continue to get better down in the post, I think it will be tougher for teams to guard with the more things I do.”

Wiltjer may not bring a physical defensive presence down low, but his ability to spread the floor adds another dynamic weapon to Few’s offensive attack. With so much shooting available, teams will have a tough time helping off any particular defender.

Down low, 7-foot-1 junior Przemek Karnowski brings the interior presence. At 288 pounds, he gets good positioning in the post and can score with hook shots or mid-range jumpers. Karnowski started every game for the Bulldogs last season and adds even more experience to the starting lineup. He’s averaging 8.7 points and 6.0 rebounds per game this year. While he isn’t the most athletic big man you’ll find, Karnowski is a savvy player in the post.

Off the bench, the Zags have a pair of talented freshmen already showing promise. Lithuanian power forward Domantas Sabonis, the son of Hall of Famer Arvydas Sabonis, adds toughness and rebounding down low. He’s scored in double figures in all three games thus far and has shown the ability to create his own offense on the block. Sabonis oozes with upside since he is so athletic and beats his man down the floor consistently. He’s averaging 12.3 points and 9.3 rebounds per game already while shooting 66.7% from the floor. Sabonis is a nice complementary piece off the bench, as he is a better rebounder than Wiltjer and Karnowski. He’ll see plenty of action this season since he can play either position up front.

Fellow freshman Josh Perkins will also play a critical role in the rotation as a 6-foot-3 guard that can play either spot in the backcourt. He’s a good ball handler that sees the floor well but his size will also allow him to play off the ball. Perkins has added 8.3 points and 3.3 assists off the bench and has a bright future ahead.

Senior Angel Nunez, a 6-foot-8 forward that previously played at Louisville, and junior Kyle Dranginis, a versatile 6-foot-5 guard, will also see minutes. They’ll be good glue pieces off the bench. Gonzaga will add even more firepower when former Vanderbilt guard Eric McClellan becomes eligible. He averaged 14.3 points per game for the Commodores before he was dismissed due to a violation of university policy. He’ll become eligible in December and will give add another scoring option in the backcourt.

Gonzaga has so much talent on the offensive end that opposing coaches will have a nightmare game planning against them. If opponents take away the outside shooting, Sabonis and Karnowski are talented post players that can feast inside while Wiltjer is improving in that area. Doubling the post will open up the shooting for Pangos and Bell Jr. Even with an off shooting night, Wesley can put the ball on the floor and attack. There’s so much variety that shutting down one particular player will not get the job done.

“We’ve been continuing to share the ball on the offensive end and find the guy that has the right matchup or where we can get the best shot,” Few said on Wednesday. “That’s a good recipe.”

Defensively, the Zags have been just as impressive. They limited St. Joseph’s to just 10 first half points on 3-of-28 shooting. While they don’t switch on many defensive possessions, the Bulldogs rotate well and help when necessary.

“I loved how we came out especially on the defensive end and we sustained it pretty much for that whole half,” said Few. “It had to be one of the better – if not best – defensive halves we’ve ever played. I thought we challenged pretty much every shot they took in the half and they came in as a pretty good rebounding team. We did a nice job choking that off.”

Gonzaga will have a heavyweight matchup with Arizona on December 6th that should give a better indication of where the Bulldogs stand. With a West Coast Conference schedule in store, this game could be a crucial piece to the seeding puzzle in March.

While a Sweet 16 appearance is a major accomplishment in itself, critics will undoubtedly question if the Zags can break through and finally make that push to the next level. With the way the Zags have played early on, they don’t only look ready to take a small step forward, but possibly make a giant leap into the national title hunt.

College Basketball Preview 14-15: WCC

My numeric projections will be available near the start of the season, but today I want to write a few words about each WCC team’s outlook.

Earlier Previews: ACC Preview, MWC Preview, SEC Preview

WCC Favorite

Gonzaga: Jeff Goodman publishes an incredibly valuable transfer list every spring. (I’m honestly awed by how he talks to so many coaches and collects so much information in such a short amount of time.) Some people have seen the increase in his count of players transferring out and used it to argue that we have a transfer epidemic in college basketball. I’ve always been skeptical. I prefer to think of Goodman’s list as the “departure” list, not the transfer list. Many of the players on Goodman’s list will never play D1 basketball again. And since the dawn of the scholarship limit for basketball, coaches have quietly been asking their least productive players to leave.

Luke Winn has tried to answer the question of whether transfers between D1 programs have ticked up by using the NCAA’s fact book on transfers, and by looking through the VerbalCommits.com database. He has concluded that the raw number of D1 transfers has increased slightly, but that the big change is that more players are transferring up to quality programs. And most experts agree that the number of “quality” transfers in D1 basketball is on the uptick. Coaches are now recruiting away good players from mid-majors and opposing squads in a way they never have before.

I recently ran some numbers on the RealGM.com database, and found even more evidence of the quality transfer trend. The Points Produced by D1 transfers, in their debut season with their new team, has basically doubled since 2009. (Points Produced is a measure that includes points produced through assists and offensive rebounds. It is the numerator of the ORtg formula.)

And the number of players to produce positive points for their new team has also been ticking up. While just over 200 players did this a few years ago, over 360 players debuted with new teams and produced positive points last year. Of course, if a player only produces a handful of points, that probably is not meaningful. But if you raise the cutoff to 100 or 300 points, the number of productive transfers debuting has also been increasing.

Year

D1 Transfers

Total PP

 Debut Season

Number of Players PP>0

Number of Players PP>100

Number of Players PP>300

2006-07

39,978

207

141

51

2007-08

39,253

202

139

46

2008-09

39,352

221

136

43

2009-10

47,563

235

156

64

2010-11

41,314

226

144

53

2011-12

57,583

268

194

75

2012-13

59,421

281

199

83

2013-14

77,180

360

260

104

Maybe I’m just the final person to admit that Goodman was right. But this table convinces me that something has changed. Quality players are changing teams like never before.

Gonzaga head coach Mark Few is not behind the curve when it comes to transfers. Last summer Few added Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer and this spring he added USC graduate transfer Byron Wesley. Wiltjer is not a perfect player. He is a relatively poor defender who lacks the strength and quickness to be an elite defender. But Wiltjer is a dynamic offensive player. He’s a former Top 20 recruit and efficient scorer. He’s a stretch-4 with an outstanding outside shot. And even if he wasn’t good enough to be a starter for Kentucky, Wiltjer would be good enough to start for over half the teams in the Top 25. Meanwhile, despite playing on one of the worst teams in the Pac-12 last year, Wesley somehow made huge personal strides. Wesley became one of the most efficient high volume shooters in the Pac-12. Gonzaga already had three super-efficient double-digit scorers in Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell, and Przemek Karnowski, and now they have five super-efficient double-digit scorers.

Gonzaga has one of the scariest starling lineups in the nation, but Gonzaga has depth too. Domantas Sabonis, son of the NBA legend, and Josh Perkins are elite recruits who will be super-subs. And Kyle Dranginis is a very efficient reserve guard. Vanderbilt transfer Eric McClellan, whose eligibility hinges on when he finishes three classes, is another high-scoring addition from the SEC. But McClellan’s low efficiency suggests he isn’t even one of Gonzaga’s eight best players.

When I shared my way-too-early Top 25 in April, I had Gonzaga in the Top 25. But after Wesley joined the team, a strong argument could be made that Gonzaga is a Top 10 squad.  Realistically, it depends on how good you think the defense will be next year. I see the defense slipping slightly because Wiltjer and Wesley were not great defensive players, but whether you put Gonzaga in the Top 10 or not, they are going to win a ton of games.

Hoping for the NCAA Tournament

BYU: The formula for BYU is very simple. Basketball teams only need five players on the floor at once, and when you have one of the best scorers in the nation, in Tyler Haws, your odds of winning are very good. Matt Carlino’s transfer hurts, but it helps that Kyle Collinsworth became a tremendous facilitator last season, and that Skyler Halford was an aggressive efficient scorer in the limited minutes he played. The team also adds Wake Forest transfer Chase Fischer and elite recruit TJ Haws, the younger brother of Tyler. Those four players should be able to replace Carlino’s production.

Eric Mika also left on an LDS mission, and UNLV transfer Jamal Aytes will try to help fill in for his size and athleticism. But the reality is that it doesn’t really matter who plays in the post for BYU. Players like Nate Austin and Josh Sharp aren’t stars. They barely ever touch the ball. But because they are only needed to put-back lay-ups, they are incredibly efficient. The story of BYU is really about how Tyler Haws impressive scoring makes everyone on BYU an efficient player.

Saint Mary’s: Brad Waldow is one of the best returning big men in the WCC. And Kerry Carter is a solid guard. But they needed help, and having mentioned the importance of transfers at the start of this piece, head coach Randy Bennett noticed the trend as well. Bennett added three key transfers in Stanford point-guard Aaron Bright, Minnesota guard Joe Coleman, and Washington forward Desmond Simmons.  Not only were these three players former starters in major conferences, they were very efficient at their former schools as well.

But even if the Gaels starting lineup is formidable, there are some questions about the team. First, the bench is unproven. USC transfer Garrett Jackson was inconsistent last year. Big man Dane Pineau showed some promise on the offensive glass, but didn’t really play enough to know how good he will be.

And while the three transfers all have skills, they all had flaws as well. Joe Coleman was a fabulous penetrator at Minnesota, but he struggled with his jump shot, and that one-dimensional play made him easy to scout. Meanwhile, Bright and Simmons were very passive offensive players at their former schools. When Waldow is on the bench, it is not clear who St. Mary’s can rely on if they need to get a bucket.

Hoping for the NIT

San Francisco: In May, PG Avry Holmes announced he was transferring to Clemson. It was a bit of a disaster for the Dons. While Matt Glover had shown some nice complimentary passing as an off-guard, it would be a struggle if Glover had to become the full-time PG. But last year Rex Walter’s team hit new heights at 13-5 in the conference, and recruits notice that kind of success.

Despite the late transfer news, Walters was able to secure a commitment from one of the better remaining PGs on the board, former Oregon St. commit Devin Watson in June. Watson is still a freshman, and he will make some mistakes. But as a three-star recruit, he should be able to hold his own in year one. Moreover, his recruitment shows that the program is on the rise. Because of the team’s recent success, even when USF had to recruit at the last minute, they didn’t have to settle.

San Francisco also welcomes three transfers from major conference schools. Derrell Robertson and Montray Clemons both used to play for DePaul. And while they put up fairly weak numbers two years ago for a bad DePaul team, they will have the advantage of playing next to one of the best post-players in the WCC in Kruize Pinkins. Their main role will simply be to grad rebounds and play physical defense. The team also adds Uche Ofoegbu, who struggled as a freshmen wing at SMU. But with one of the best wing players in the country in Mark Tollefsen on the squad, the team won’t need to rely on Ofoegbu until he is ready.

Realistically, it will probably take a little more roster stability for USF to become a true NCAA bubble team. But if Rex Walters keeps developing players at such a high rate, and if the success continues to improve the team’s recruiting, the sky is the limit.

Portland: Scouting a team like Portland can be very difficult. The Pilots bring in five freshmen, but they are all two star recruits, and in my model, players like that all receive essentially the same prediction. But if you want to learn more about the recruiting classes at some of these smaller schools, I highly recommend Kellon Hassenstab’s “2014 College Basketball Newcomers Guide”. This year Portland brings back all its key players except elite rebounding forward Ryan Nicholas. And the Newcomer’s Guide at least provides a few more details about the team’s two big men recruits Gabe Taylor and Philipp Hartwich. The guide points out that freshman Taylor played high school basketball for a coach connected to the team (suggesting he may have an edge for playing time.) The guide also notes that Taylor was a good outside shooter for his size. Finally, the guide points out that Hartwich is thin, but that based on his experience in Germany, he may be more experienced playing against older players. If you are an information junkie, you may want to give Hassenstab’s guide a look.

Regardless, the margin-of-victory numbers suggest Portland was a better team than their 7-11 conference record would indicate, and with 78% of the minutes back from last year, they are likely to move into the upper half of the league.

San Diego: These are the kind of seasons that make or break head coaches. Bill Grier took San Diego to the NCAA tournament in his first season, but now he is entering year eight, and he has not been able to duplicate that success. This year he has a veteran team. The rotation will likely include eight juniors and seniors and 86% of the rotation is back from last year.

Cal St. Northridge transfer Brandon Perry will provide a key boost at one of the forward spots. Johnny Dee and Christopher Anderson are star players, efficient and effective, the kind of players that a winning team can rely on. But this team still has the lowest average star rating (least potential evaluated based on high school talent) in the WCC. And it is very hard to win when your team has less athleticism than its opponents. The pressure is on Grier to win now, but he still doesn’t have the horses to really go head-to-head with the top of the league.

Building for the Future

Santa Clara: Santa Clara is a bit like BYU above. Because Jared Brownridge and Brandon Clark are so dominant, it should allow the complimentary Santa Clara players to improve their efficiency. Moreover, the team may benefit from the departure of senior Evan Roquemore. Roquemore was once a good player, but thanks to a preseason back injury, he had a horrific slump as a senior. Roquemore’s eFG%, assist rate, and turnover rate plummeted last year. Santa Clara would have missed the younger Roquemore, but they will not miss the inefficient senior he became last season.

Pepperdine: A lot of people love this team because of Stacy Davis and Jeremy Major. Lamond Murray Jr. also looks like a likely breakout candidate as a sophomore. He was efficient and aggressive as a freshman in limited minutes. But Pepperdine’s defense fell off a cliff last year, and now the WCC defensive-player-of-the-year, Brendan Lane, has graduated. Lane was the team’s best defensive rebounder and shot-blocker. It is hard to see how the defense will get better without its best player. And if the defense is worse or comparable to last year, that will make it very hard to win games.

Loyola Marymount: Mike Dunlap is returning to college basketball from the NBA, and he is returning to the school where he began his career as an assistant. He inherits a last place team that has one real asset, high volume scorer Evan Payne. If everyone on the roster lives up to their potential, Dunlap might be able to craft a competitive lineup. But it is a long-shot. The entire roster is filled with risky players that might produce very little this season.

Chase Flint and Marin Mornar were efficient, but they never shot last year. They don’t project as anything other than role players. Godwin Okonji is the highest ranked high school prospect on the team, but he was injured in a preseason car accident last year, and there are no guarantees he will come back strong after sitting out a year. Patson Siame was supposed to be a quality recruit last year, but he was a partial qualifier and the model wonders how he will play after sitting out for a year. Ayodeji Egbeyemi was injured last year and is another risky lineup option. JUCOs David Humphries and Matt Hayes seem like key pickups, but JUCO players are almost always lottery tickets, and Humphries and Hayes are not ranked high enough by most JUCO services to expect them to dominate. Worse yet, none of the freshmen have been ranked above two stars. If the JUCOs and the players coming off injuries play to their capacity, new head coach Mike Dunlap might be able to work some magic. But with that kind of roster, odds are strong LMU will spend another year at the bottom of the conference.

Pacific: Pacific returns only 16% of its minutes from last season. With that much roster turnover, the only way to plausibly have a chance to be competitive is to go the JUCO route. And the Tigers add four JUCO prospects in Dulani Robinson, Sami Elarky, Eric Thompson, and Alec Kobre. If all those players click, Pacific may be competitive in the WCC. If not, this will be a long season.

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

Over the past few days, Dan Hanner has presented his updated projection model, his season projections on ESPN Insider, Q&A's with Eamonn Brennon and John Templon, along with replying to questions on Twitter. Here are a few additional thoughts that didn't make the cut.

NCAA Tournament Day 3

A day of blowouts suddenly changed when two of the evening's contests went down to the wire.

The Stretch 4 Era

Just like in the NBA, floor spacing has become the name of the game at the top of the NCAA. Nine of the top 12 seeds start a three-point shooter in their frontcourt. Get as much shooting on the floor as possible without compromising your defense and rebounding.

Weaknesses of Title Contenders

In this edition, we take the teams in the Top 16 of the Pomeroy Rankings and figure out how often they look beatable on the basketball court.

NCAA Power Poll For February

While there are certainly no elite college teams this season, there are a host of teams that can reach the Final Four. In this edition, we outline the various tiers.

Slim Margins

On Butler/Gonzaga, winning the right way, quantity leading to quality, quality leading to quality, Syracuse, Cincinnati, Rutgers and more.

Mike Krzyzewski Owns November

Duke may not be #1 in the polls, but in terms of accomplishments, no one has more quality wins than the Blue Devils at this point. They’ve beaten two preseason Top-5 teams and two more probable tournament teams.

Tempo Free Predictions For MVC/WCC

The Missouri Valley and West Coast Conference don't have the same level of glamour as the major ones, but they are both firmly in the top-10.

Initial Bracket Thoughts

A few preliminary thoughts on matchups and which teams will advance deep in the tournament.

The Many Facets & Unpredictability Of March Madness

While personnel determine scheme in the NBA, college basketball coaches recruit players that fit their schemes.

Looking Back, Looking Ahead To Tournament Week

Examining the final regular season weekend of the Big Ten, ACC and SEC, along with everything you really need to know to enjoy Tournament Week.

YABC Column For Feb. 27th (POY Races, Improbabilities & More)

As Draymond Green locked up the Big Ten POY award and Kansas battled Missouri for a likely No. 1 seed, Saturday afternoon encapsulated everything that is great about the NCAA regular season.

Colleges On NBA Rosters

Duke, Kentucky, UCLA, Texas, Kansas, North Carolina, UConn, Florida and Arizona each begin the 11-12 NBA season with 10 or more players on NBA rosters.

Yet Another College Basketball Column (Post-Selection Edition)

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

Counting All-WCC Selections

How has each school from the conference of Bill Russell, Steve Nash, Kurt Rambis and Hank Gathers fared in this category since the 99-00 season?

 

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