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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. 

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:


Proj CW

Proj CL

Proj Off

Proj Def

Last Off

Last Def


Ret Min

Ret Poss

New Mexico










Boise St.










Utah St.




















San Diego St.




















Fresno St.




















Colorado St.










Air Force










San Jose St.










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.

The Many Facets & Unpredictability Of March Madness

The older I get, the more I see that one of the things I love most about sports is the variety of it, the diversity of it and the CHARACTERS. Men’s tennis is at its best in many years because, for the first time in a long time, the top three or four players all have wildly different styles. The Tim Tebow story was fun on so many levels, but one of those levels was that he was just SO DIFFERENT in how he played — I’d say we are entering a great time for quarterbacks, because Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning and Drew Brees and Michael Vick and Cam Newton and Tebow and others are not really alike at all.

-- Joe Posnanski

As a basketball fan, I’ve never understood the division that exists between fans of the NBA and the NCAA. While the NBA has the best basketball players in the world, March Madness is compelling in its own right and as entertaining as anything that happens on the professional level.

In the NBA, the owners of the 30 franchises consider turning a profit and getting an equal shot at the top players a right, regardless of how well (or how poorly) they run their organization and the respective size of their fan-bases. Since every losing team is a few ping pong balls from the rights to a LeBron James, Kevin Durant or Dwight Howard, personnel determines scheme in the NBA.

In contrast, the vast majority of the 344 Division I programs in college basketball have little chance of ever receiving a commitment from a McDonald’s All-American. But instead of petulantly trying to sabotage the sport in a misguided effort to legislate fairness, schools try many creative ways of leveraging the talents of the players they can recruit. As a result, scheme determines personnel in the NCAA.

At Syracuse, Jim Boeheim has made a Hall of Fame career out of running a contrarian scheme, in his case an aggressive 2-3 zone. The Orange traditionally have rosters full of “1.5’s”, 6’3+ combo guards lacking the quickness to defend elite PG’s and the size to defend SG’s, and “3.5’s”, 6’8+ combo forwards lacking the quickness to defend elite SF’s and the size to defend PF’s. However, because Syracuse never plays man defense, the athletic deficiencies of their players are minimized.

So while nearly every NBA team runs a fairly similar system of isolations, pick-and-rolls and man defense, an incredibly diverse array of styles can be found in the college game. On one end of the spectrum, teams like Missouri play four guards and pressure the ball 94 feet for 48 minutes, on the other, teams like Wisconsin run a deliberate motion offense, trying to minimize the number of possessions and shoot at the very end of the shot-clock.

In the NBA, the players are too good for the “40 Minutes of Hell” system (which Mike Anderson has brought to Missouri and Arkansas in the last few years) to be successful. Like Mike Leach’s bizarre pass-happy offense in college football, Anderson’s system, which he learned as a member of Nolan Richardson’s staff in Arkansas in the 1990’s, has philosophical holes that professional athletes can exploit. Nevertheless, that doesn’t make them any less entertaining on the collegiate level.

And with 68 teams set to compete in the NCAA Tournament, there are a lot more surprises in the college game. Even programs ranked in the top-15 like Murray State have barely been on national TV this season.

We have a pretty good idea of how teams like the Pacers and the 76ers match up with the top of the Eastern Conference but not whether an undersized Murray State squad can handle the size of an elite team from a Power Six conference. It’s an open question how Isaiah Canaan’s speed and athleticism translates outside of the Ohio Valley Conference. Non-conference play in college basketball generally ends in late December, so it’s almost impossible to gauge how younger teams like Texas, Washington and Tennessee who have found their groove in the last two months will fare in March.

In the NBA, it’s hard to envision a scenario where Chicago, Miami and Oklahoma City aren’t three of the final four teams left in the playoffs. In the NCAA, as many as two dozen teams have a legitimate shot at making a run at the Final Four.

Of course, in terms of entertainment, none of this makes the NCAA necessarily better or worse than the NBA, just different. But, as Posnanski writes, there’s something to be said for the concept of “different” in the modern sports world. Basketball fans of all stripes should enjoy March Madness; the NBA will still be here in a few weeks.

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Same NBA Team, Same College

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