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College Basketball Preview 14-15: Mountain West

My numeric projections will be available near the start of the season, but today I want to write a few words about each team’s outlook. I see seven teams as having a shot at the tournament. UNLV has talent. Wyoming should be strong defensively. Boise St., Colorado St., and Fresno St. should be strong on offense. And New Mexico has some quality players. But San Diego St. is the class of the league, and no one else is even close.

MWC Favorite

San Diego St: The Aztecs are the prohibitive favorite in most people’s mind and for good reason. No team can go thirteen players deep quite like San Diego St. The problem is that a healthy college basketball rotation is typically only eight or nine players deep. If your eleventh best player is better than your opponent’s eleventh best player, that typically isn’t going to win basketball games.

But that versatility also makes the team an enigma. SDSU’s season could evolve in a number of ways depending on which rotation head coach Steve Fisher settles on. On the one hand, the team had an outstanding defense last year. And with just about all of last year’s rotation player’s back, San Diego St. could choose to play its veterans and be an elite defensive squad again.

But most people expect the Aztecs to rely a lot on the team’s three Top 100 freshmen recruits Malik Pope, Trey Kell and Zylan Cheatem, along with Arizona transfer and former Top 100 recruit Angelo Chol. If those players play, that means more skill, but those fresh faces could hurt the continuity on defense. Moreover, Kell and Cheatem were low-end Top 100 recruits, and those types of players typically struggle with shot selection and turnovers when they first make the jump to the college level.

Furthermore, the returning rotation and incoming recruiting class is weakest at the PG spot, the position of greatest need after Xavier Thames departed. Certainly it helps that the offense can run through Winston Shepard, a superb passer at 6’8”. But San Diego St. will still need someone as a primary ball-handler and lock down defender on opposing smaller speedy guards. D’Erryl Williams played sparingly as the backup PG last year. And incoming recruit Kevin Zabo might not be a Top 100 recruit, but he will compete with Williams for primary ball-handling duties. But somehow a team with unusual depth also has a big question mark at PG.

The good news is that Steve Fisher can play a deep rotation in November and December and simply settle on his most consistent players for conference play. And that’s why my model still loves this team even if the rotation is uncertain. We might not know who the nine man rotation will be, but we can be sure that the winners of the playing time competition will be quality players, ready to take San Diego St. to a MWC title.

Hoping for the NCAA Tournament

Wyoming: A lot of people think Wyoming will be a MWC contender if Larry Nance is healthy and I completely endorse that view. First Larry Shyatt is a strong defensive coach. You might not quite know that from last year’s ranking of 93rd nationally, but the team’s defense really fell apart down the stretch after Larry Nance was injured:

Mountain West Conf. Games Only

Adjusted Offense

Adjusted Defense

W

L

PWP

Wyoming (with Nance)

106.7

97.5

8

5

0.7367

Wyoming (w/o Nance)

103.0

109.8

1

5

0.3241

Nance was dominant on the defensive glass, dominant at blocking shots, and quite good at getting steals for a big man. Another factor on defense might be the team’s depth. Wyoming essentially went with only two big men in the rotation last year, but 6’9” freshman Jonathan Barnes could help. Barnes is still raw, he was a late-growing high school player, but given his athleticism he should provide some key length off the bench.

The bigger question for Wyoming always seems to be the offense. Wyoming struggles to recruit elite athletes, (the team still has no former consensus Top 100 recruits,) and that makes it hard to build a dominant offense. Nonetheless, the starting five looks like it could be very good. Nance is obviously an offensive star (in addition to the defensive stats I mentioned above.) And Josh Adams was one of the most improved players in the country last year. Adams used 8% more possessions when on the floor and improved his ORtg by 12 points. Riley Grabau (42% three point shooter) and Derek Cooke (64% of his twos) were both dominant and efficient. And if former Alabama transfer Charles Hankerson, reinstated from suspension, ever lives up to his high potential, that core could be in the NCAA tournament.

UNLV: Rashad Vaughn, Dwayne Morgan and Goodluck Okonoboh might be the highest scoring freshmen trio in the nation. I’m not saying they are better than some of the other recruiting classes. For example, last week I reviewed the North Carolina trio, and I love their skill and potential. But unlike those Tar Heels, because of all the UNLV roster turnover, the UNLV freshmen face almost no competition for playing time.

A lot of experts think the UNLV offense will finally click this year because UNLV will have two true PGs to run the show. Both San Francisco transfer Cody Doolin and Rutgers transfer Jerome Seagears have posted great per minute assist rates in their career, and they could finally help a team of talented players reach their full potential.

On the other hand, for three straight years head coach Dave Rice has had lots of former Top 100 recruits on his roster. And yet his team has never had an offense that ranked better than 89th in the nation. His team has never won more than 10 games in the MWC. When you watch a team with eight former Top 100 recruits (last year’s squad) fail to even sniff the NCAA tournament bubble, you start to wonder whether Rice has the X’s and O’s coaching ability to match his recruiting pedigree.

Fresno St and Colorado St.: On paper, Fresno St. feels like the better team. They finished two games better in the conference standings. Fresno St. returns 69% of its minutes vs 54% for Colorado St. And when you look at the starting lineup, Fresno St. feels like it has more household names. But the numbers actually suggest this is a pretty tight race, and let me see if I can explain why.

First, my model loves Fresno St.’s backcourt. Oklahoma St. transfer Cezar Guerrero joined the team last year and became a high volume scorer and passer. This year the team adds Texas transfer Julien Lewis. And while Lewis may have been part of some dysfunctional Texas squads, he was always an efficient quality scorer. Throw in returning efficient starters like Marvelle Harris and Paul Watson, and the Fresno St. perimeter is very good.

Fresno St.’s paint presence is sorely lacking. 6’9” forward Alex Davis had a low ORtg and was a terrible rebounder last year. Braeden Anderson might be back after a car accident cost him last season, but he has never posted reliable numbers. And that means Fresno St. might have to consider using a pair of freshmen big men.

Colorado St.’s backcourt is also very talented. Daniel Bejarano and JJ Avila were two of the most efficient high-volume scorers in the country last year. And transfers will also boost Colorado St.’s cause. You might not be familiar with Arkansas Little Rock transfer John Gillon or Southern Illinois transfer Dantiel Daniels. But their projections are outstanding. They were both efficient and prolific per minute scorers in quality leagues before transferring to Colorado St. and that’s a good sign for their future performance. Throw in another efficient starter like Joe De Ciman, and Colorado St.’s perimeter should score plenty of points too.

Colorado St. also has a huge weakness in the frontcourt. They will be hoping that JUCO recruit, Daniel Mulamba is ready to play major minutes at the D1 level next year. Offensively, my model says the matchup is a draw.

Thus what it comes down to is which team is expected to have a better season defensively. Fresno St.’s defense was better by 2.3 points per possession last season, and Fresno returns more minutes. That would seem to cut in Fresno St.’s favor. But when you dig deeper, that advantage dissipates.

Advanced stats suggest that teams have very little control over the free throw percentage of their opposition and very little control over the three point percentage of their opposition. And Colorado St.’s opponents killed the Rams by knocking down free throws and threes at an above average rate last year. Meanwhile Fresno St.’s opponents struggled massively at the three point line. Here’s how each team’s points per possession defense was impacted by these factors that are mostly beyond their control:

Team

Impact of opponent FT% and 3PT% on PPP defense

Colorado St.

+1.5

Nevada

+1.1

New Mexico

+0.7

Boise St.

+0.4

Air Force

0.0

Utah St.

-0.2

Wyoming

-0.6

San Jose St.

-0.7

Fresno St.

-0.8

UNLV

-1.2

San Diego St.

-1.2

Essentially the ENTIRE difference in last year’s defensive performance between Colorado St. and Fresno St. was opponent three-point shooting and free throw shooting.

Returning minutes would still seem to tip things in Fresno St.’s favor, but not necessarily. While Fresno St. loses one of the best rebounding guards in the country, Colorado St.’s losses include a couple of big men who were terrible rebounders and who played much smaller than their size would indicate.

This matchup may come down to the men on the sideline and my model slightly favors the veteran Larry Eustachy over Rodney Terry. But the reality is that it could go either way. And if things break right, either of these teams could make the NCAA tournament.

Boise St: Sometimes a team’s fortunes depend entirely on its conference peers. In 2012-13, the MWC did well in the non-conference, Boise St. had opportunities for Top 100 wins, and they snuck in with one of the last bids to NCAA tournament. In 2013-14, the MWC struggled in the non-conference, and Boise St. didn’t even play in the NIT. Boise St. was a little worse on defense, and they went from one game over .500 in the conference to exactly .500. But even if the post-season outcome was substantially different, it was pretty much the same team. They were a guard-oriented offensive juggernaut in both years.

The best news is that Leon Rice’s success is finally paying off in recruiting. After turning 2 star recruits like Derrick Marks and Anthony Drmic into scoring stars, those seniors are now being joined by 3 or 4 star freshmen recruits. This year’s recruiting class is led by Chandler Hutchinson, a player that both Scout and ESPN’s recruiting services loved. Throw in a JUCO big man addition like Kevin Allen, and Boise St. looks like an offensive juggernaut with some defensive issues once again. Whether they can make the NCAA tournament may well depend on how well the MWC plays in the non-conference schedule.

New Mexico: The Lobos return three rotation players from a team that nearly won the MWC title last year, Hugh Greenwood, Cullen Neal, and Deshawn Delaney. All will be relied on more heavily this year. But the only immediate impact player the team adds is Top 10 JUCO recruit Jordan Goodman. And he can’t replace Kendall Williams, Cameron Bairstow, Alex Kirk, and Cleveland Thomas by himself. New Mexico simply doesn’t have the depth to compete for a league title in 2014-15. The recent decision of Merv Lindsay to transfer  does not help matters. If the freshmen or JUCO recruit JJ N’Ganga blossom early, the NCAA tournament is a possibility. But if those new faces struggle, this could be a long season.

Building for the Future

Nevada: Nevada wasn’t as good as their 10-8 conference record would indicate. The team was fortunate in close games last year. Six of those conference wins came by four points or less or in OT. Worse yet, the team’s three best players, Deonte Burton, Jerry Evans, and Cole Huff are gone.

There is some good news. Nevada was better in the second half of the season, and it wasn’t just a fluke. After AJ West became eligible, he became one of the best offensive rebounders in the country, and his presence really did make the Nevada better. West and Michael Perez will form a formidable, efficient inside-outside combination in 2014-15. But on paper, the rest of the roster looks too weak for Nevada to really compete for an NCAA bid.

Air Force: It is hard to win at the military academies. You basically have to try to win with a bunch of 2-star recruits, and when someone like Tre’ Coggins breaks out, they often leave.The best thing I can say is that 74% of the team’s minutes return, so in general, this year should be trending up.

Utah St: I’ve been a huge advocate of Stew Morril. From 2004 to 2010, he produced some of the best offensive teams in the nation without playing in an elite conference. In 2011, he had one of the best defensive teams in the nation. But things have been trending down since 2011, and this year could be rock bottom. After four senior starters graduated, four of the most important bench players transferred. And thus Morrill is basically starting from scratch with this year’s roster.

San Jose St: As hard as it is to win at a program like Air Force, somehow it is even harder to win at San Jose St. Even if a post-season trip was unlikely, the post-season APR ban just makes recruiting a bigger uphill battle.

And even when San Jose St. tries to build through transfers, it doesn’t attract the cream of the crop. San Jose St. adds two players with ORtgs under 90 at their last school, Pepperdine’s Jordan Baker and San Jose St.’s Frank Rogers. In fairness, Baker was a high volume scorer, and his efficiency is probably not reflective of his overall ability. But it just goes to show that even when San Jose St. tries to build its program through alternative methods, it isn’t easy. But perhaps the traditional way of building a program will work the best. Rashad Muhammad was brilliant as a freshman. And with the typical sophomore leap, he will be worth the price of admission.

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. 

MWC Basketball Early Projection

Late last season, the Mountain West Conference rose up to have the top average RPI in the nation. Andy Glockner of Sports Illustrated had a brilliant article explaining why this happened. Essentially the RPI favors power conferences where the home teams dominate, and the MWC teams were the best in the nation at winning at home last year. (For those that care about the math behind this, skip to the end of this post.)

Second, the RPI of MWC teams was boosted by Wyoming. A good team in November and December, but when Luke Martinez was kicked off the team for an off-court incident, Wyoming simply couldn’t score. And the RPI wasn’t smart enough realize that Wyoming was a bad team in January and February.

Finally, the other big factor in the MWC’s great RPI was that the bottom of the league was remarkably strong. Traditional power Nevada was the league’s bottom-feeder and even Nevada wasn’t a terrible team last season. The Wolfpack won at Washington in December.

All in all, it was a perfect storm that made the MWC seem like a dominant league, at least in the RPI’s eyes. The margin-of-victory systems thought the league was good too, but not nearly as dominant as what the RPI thought. And as is usually the case, the margin-of-victory metrics had the better forecast. In the NCAA tournament, MWC champion New Mexico lost in the first round to Harvard, and the rest of the league struggled as well.

Unfortunately for fans of the MWC, there is no reason to expect any of those factors to repeat this year. Home teams probably won’t win at a disproportionate rate. Wyoming won’t be dominant and then bad. And the bottom of the league will be bad again. (With San Jose St. coming aboard and Air Force rebuilding behind a bunch of 2-star recruits, a drop-off at the bottom of the league is almost unavoidable). Five teams might be in the conversation for the NCAA tournament, but a year after dominating the regular season, it wouldn’t be out of the question for the league to get only two bids.

Here is my lineup-based prediction model's projections for the league in 2013-14:

Team

Proj CW

Proj CL

Proj Off

Proj Def

Last Off

Last Def

T100

Ret Min

Ret Poss

New Mexico

15

3

108.2

88.4

108.4

89.7

2

63%

65%

Boise St.

13

5

113.7

97.0

111.1

97.6

0

91%

94%

Utah St.

12

6

112.6

100.1

107.0

102.4

0

78%

80%

UNLV

11

7

101.7

91.7

103.8

88.9

8

29%

29%

San Diego St.

11

7

101.9

92.8

106.3

89.7

4

48%

43%

Wyoming

8

10

100.7

96.5

99.7

96.1

0

62%

52%

Fresno St.

8

10

99.1

95.6

97.9

93.2

2

55%

57%

Nevada

7

11

104.6

102.9

102.6

104.6

0

48%

50%

Colorado St.

7

11

101.3

99.9

117.1

97.8

1

27%

22%

Air Force

5

13

100.3

104.7

109.2

103.2

0

34%

33%

San Jose St.

2

16

92.6

104.9

87.1

104.3

0

35%

35%

For column heading definitions, click here.

New Mexico: New Mexico returns four starters (Alex Kirk, Cameron Bairstow, Kendall Williams, and Hugh Greenwood) from last year’s conference winning squad. And they added Cullen Neal who has only recently risen up into ESPNU Top 100. That starting lineup should be competitive with any team in the country. But the team has little proven depth. (Will Kansas transfer Merv Lindsay contribute?) And since this is Craig Neal’s first head coaching job, there are questions of whether he can lead a team to a league title in his first year. The MWC spends as much on coaching as the traditional power leagues, and opposing coaches will heavily scout the Lobos. Will Neal be ready?

Boise St.: I’ve seen a lot of people with Boise St. in their Top 25 and I understand the logic. This was a good team last year and they bring back 91% of their minutes from last season. But my model has them a little bit lower because there are still some real question marks. In particular, Boise St.’s primary offense was a 4-guard lineup last year. But a number of the guards they played simply weren’t very good. Mikey Thompson, Igor Hadziomerovic, and Joe Hanstad were big drains on the offense because of their turnovers and/or bad shooting. If I could say with confidence those three would be relegated to the bench this season, it would be a no-brainer to put Boise St. in the Top 25. But Boise St. isn’t bringing in any can’t miss prospects to ensure that this happens.

Realistically the team will probably hope to get more out of some of its forwards. JUCO transfer James Webb, red-shirt freshman Edmund Dukulis, incoming freshman Nick Duncan, and seldom-used Darrious Hamilton or Vukasin Vujovic will probably get a chance to play more post minutes next year. If they can earn time, the taller lineup might help improve the defense some. But none of them have particularly high expectations either.

Leon Rice is doing a fantastic job, and the expectation for this team should absolutely be the NCAA tournament. But on paper, there are still too many lineup questions to view Boise St. as a clear Top 25 team.

Utah St.: Most people probably won’t have Utah St. this high because of how they ended their tenure in the WAC conference. To finish  11-7 in that league which really only had three good teams was pretty disappointing. But that completely overlooks what happened last year. In mid-January, Utah St. lost its too most efficient players in Preston Medlin and Kyisean Reed. And both were relatively high usage players too, they weren’t just role players. Those type of injuries are devastating at that point in the season and Utah St. could never really recover in conference play.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t sound like Reed will be back. He went through senior day festivities and I haven’t heard any news that he will apply for an extra hardship year. But the return of Medlin from injury should instantly upgrade the offense.

And Utah St. is once again very mature. The team can put together an 8-man lineup with one sophomore, two juniors, and five seniors. The fact that the team doesn’t need to break in a lot of freshmen should help the offense click. Add to that the fact that Stew Morrill has been one of the most under-rated offensive coaches in the nation, and Utah St. will be good again. They might not win the MWC this year, but they will absolutely be close to the top.

UNLV: Click here for a more detailed preview of UNLV.

San Diego St.: JJ O’Brien and Xavier Thames are solid players. And I can write down a seven or eight player rotation for San Diego St. that sounds reasonably intimidating on paper.  But San Diego St. loses its two most important players in Chase Tapley and Jamaal Franklin. Both took a high volume of shots, played a ton of minutes, and were super efficient. (Departing senior DeShawn Stephens rarely shot, but he was very efficient too.) Losing players like that just isn’t a recipe for a better season. And San Diego St. had only the 36th best margin-of-victory last year. 

The recent addition of Tulane graduate transfer Josh Davis helps a lot. Davis was an unbelievably dominant forward without much help around him. And incoming freshman Dakarai Allen also has high expectations. But expecting those two to do better than Tapley and Franklin seems like a little bit of a stretch.

To truly make the NCAA tournament, San Diego St. is going to need more out of Winston Shepherd, Dwayne Polee, and James Johnson. All three were Top 100 recruits out of high school, but none of them has posted an ORtg above 100 yet. (And Johnson played a rather distressing four minutes per game last year.) Unless a couple of those players break out rather unexpectedly, San Diego St. will have a hard time making a fifth straight NCAA tournament.

Wyoming and Fresno St: The best thing you can say about Wyoming and Fresno St. is that they will probably be competitive defensively. Wyoming head coach Larry Shyatt has produced Top 100 defenses in back-to-back years. After how poorly Henry Schroyer’s defenses did over the previous four years, Shyatt at least has his team working hard. Similarly Rodney Terry orchestrated a remarkable defensive turnaround this least season. Fresno St.’s adjusted defense fell from 101.3 to 93.2.

Offensively, it is harder to be optimistic, but here are a couple of points on the two teams. In Wyoming’s case freshman Josh Adams was dreadful. Larry Shyatt clearly thought he was valuable giving him major minutes throughout the season, but Adams was a terrible shooter. Adams will be better as a sophomore, but he was only a 2-star player, and it isn’t clear that he has a very high ceiling. If Wyoming would limit Adams shot selection, the offense could take more of a bump.

In Fresno St.’s case, prized recruit Robert Upshaw was also awful, but he was hampered by injuries all year. If he is fully healthy from the start of the year, he could improve significantly. And the addition of elite transfer recruit Cezar Guerrero should also help. But with few above average efficiency players returning, Fresno St.’s offense will still likely be below average.

Nevada: David Carter has proven to be a poor defensive coach. And after making the tournament four years in a row, Nevada now hasn’t been to the tournament in six years. I feel bad for Deonte Burton (and to a lesser extent Jerry Evans). Burton is a fabulous PG, but he just doesn’t have a lot of quality offensive players to feed the ball to. And with the team exerting no effort on defense, Nevada won’t score enough points to win consistently.

Colorado St.: Colorado St. is poised for a hard fall this year. It isn’t just that Colorado St. loses 5 starters. Returning only 27% of the team’s minutes is bad enough. But the team also loses all its high volume shooters. The returning players like Daniel Bejarano and Gerson Santo were efficient last year, but they also deferred a lot in last year’s offense. The model is skeptical they can maintain their efficiency when asked to shoot more. That is why the model projects Colorado St. to have one of the biggest offensive collapses of any team in the country this off-season. The team also doesn’t add any can’t miss recruits. The team adds two JUCO transfers, which should help, and Dwight Smith will be back from an injury. But with all that roster attrition, the best case scenario is probably a season like Vanderbilt had last year.

Air Force: Dave Pilipovich did a fantastic job in his first season with the team, but Air Force is a very hard place to win. To return just one-third of the team’s minutes from last year and try to create a winning team with only 2-star recruits is a major undertaking.

San Jose St.: San Jose St. returns only four scholarship players from last year. When you don’t have enough quality upperclassman at San Jose St., the odds of winning are slim to none.

And now the math based reason that the RPI favors conferences where the home team wins. (Again I am just lifting this idea from Andy Glockner.)

Imagine there are just three games, a neutral site non-conference game which the power conference team wins, and then two conference games home and road, which are split. Under the RPI formula, the neutral site win counts as 1 win. But how the W-L split is counted will depend on where the win and loss happen. If the home team wins both, the weight is 0.6, if the road team wins both, the weight is 1.4. So if the home team wins both, the W-L record will be 1.6 and 0.6. If road teams win, the W-L record will be 2.4 and 1.4. The former works out to a 73 percent winning percentage, the later works out to a 63 percent winning percentage. Even though the venues, opponents, and W-L records are the same, the RPI gives higher credit to the league where the home team dominates.

Amusingly, in bad leagues that don’t win many non-conference games, the RPI ratings will be higher if the road teams win more conference games.

Nerlens Noel, Isaiah Austin, And A Quick Look At How The Top 80 Recruits Have Fared

On Nerlens Noel, Isaiah Austin, Kyle Anderson and the rest of the freshman class as they play such prominent roles to begin the 12-13 NCAA season.

The Many Facets & Unpredictability Of March Madness

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

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.

Counting All-WAC First Team Selections

Between the 00-01 and 09-10 seasons, there have been 50 players named to the WAC All-Conference First Team.

 

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