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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.

College Basketball Preview 14-15: ACC

If you are looking for my traditional projections for offense and defense, those will be available near the start of the college basketball season. But since we still have many weeks to go until November, I thought I would dig a little deeper and write some team previews for next year. (I also wrote a few more words on some of the potential Top 25 squads in early April and late April.)

ACC Favorite

Duke: Duke’s season will hinge on the play of Top 10 recruits forward Jahlil Okafor and point-guard Tyus Jones. And I think they will live up to the hype. But the player some fans may be overlooking is Rasheed Sulaimon. Some feel that Sulaimon had a bad year last year, but that’s not the case at all. On a per-possession basis he improved from his freshman to sophomore seasons. The problem was that Rodney Hood’s presence really dug into Sulaimon’s playing time. With Hood out of the picture, Sulaimon should bounce-back and become a lethal scorer once again.

Challengers

Louisville: While they will miss the all-around dominance and wins that Russ Smith brought to the table, Terry Rozier and Chris Jones have to be licking their chops now that Russ Smith is gone. Rozier and Jones were elite PGs who spent a lot of last season playing off-the-ball. Now they get to run the show, and the best part is that they still have Montrezl Harrell to throw the ball to in the paint. Louisville has another three Top 100 recruits coming in, led by Shaqquan Aaron. Wayne Blackshear is back and he significantly improved his outside shooting last year. And thanks to the success of Gorgui Dieng, Rick Pitino has seemingly fallen in love with a host of foreign centers with hard to pronounce names. That seems like a nice formula, but this is Rozier and Jones show.

Of course the PGs aren’t the only players who may be itching to get out from underneath someone else’s shadow. Blackshear was a Top 30 recruit and McDonald’s All-American, he’s started a bunch of games, he’s been very efficient, and he contributed to a national championship. And yet he’s never played more than 20 minutes a game, never felt like he has a natural position, and often spent the end of games glued to the bench thanks to Luke Hancock. If Blackshear had a different personality (or if Louisville hadn’t been winning so much), Blackshear might have transferred. But I am very curious to see whether Blackshear has the mentality to become a star now that Luke Hancock has graduated.

North Carolina: PG Nate Britt and SF JP Tokoto are likely to see their playing time cut thanks to the additions of Top 30 recruits PG Joel Berry, and SFs Theo Pinson and Justin Jackson. That may make for an awkward locker-room, but it should also mean an upgrade in efficiency. Marcus Paige may be playing out of position at SG for stretches of game time, but he thrived at that position last year. Meanwhile in the frontcourt, James McAdoo will be gone but shockingly Brice Johnson was better than McAdoo in almost every statistical category except free throw rate. And as long as the efficient Kennedy Meeks gets more playing time at the other front-court slot, North Carolina’s offense should be substantially better than last season.

Virginia:  Virginia’s junior class is special. Justin Anderson, Mike Tobey, Evan Nolte, Malcolm Brogdon, and Anthony Gill were all quality prospects out of high school. (While they are all juniors, Brogdon started a year earlier but had to red-shirt due to injury, and Gill was a transfer from South Carolina.) None of these players were instant impact superstars as freshmen. But they matured together, and as sophomores they helped Virginia make the leap to an ACC title. We tend to fall in love with the Top 10 recruits and future NBA draft prospects. But Virginia’s core shows the true value of low-end Top 100 recruits. They are efficient, hard-working, and they look like they will probably stick around for two more years and graduate. Throw in London Perrantes, a sophomore PG, and you have the ideal core of a winning team.

Hoping for the Top 25

Pittsburgh: PG James Robinson has played a ton of minutes the last two years. He’s not aggressive enough to be a star, but he is more than capable of running an offense that wins a bunch of games. Cameron Wright is your typical Jamie Dixon starter, a solid senior who doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. Durand Johnson was playing well last year until a knee injury derailed his season. Josh Newkirk, Michael Young, and Jamel Artis were three freshmen who were very effective last year and who should be ready to make the sophomore leap. Pitt also adds Vanderbilt transfer Shelton Jeter and JUCO Top 100 recruit Tyrone Haughton in the front-court. Former elite forward recruit Joseph Uchebo should finally be healthy.

This lineup perfectly fits the stereotype for Pitt basketball. There are no sexy choices in the lineup. But everyone has experience. And Jamie Dixon remains among the best at developing players.

The easiest way to see this is with my player projections model. I project what we should have expected for every player over the past five years based on their high school recruiting rank and previous NCAA stats. Then I compare those expectations to how those players performed. Only Mike Brey has been better at developing the offense of his players than Jamie Dixon. No, Pittsburgh doesn’t have 9 or 10 former elite recruits like Duke, Louisville, and North Carolina. But with Dixon developing players at an above average rate, Pitt is always a title contender.

Team

Coach

Player ORtg Relative to Expectations

Notre Dame

Mike Brey

1.034

Pittsburgh

Jamie Dixon

1.031

Louisville

Rick Pitino

1.022

Syracuse

Jim Boeheim

1.020

Miami FL

Jim Larranaga

1.020

Boston College

Jim Christian

1.019

Duke

Mike Krzyzewski

1.017

Virginia Tech

Buzz Williams

1.013

Wake Forest

Danny Manning

1.013

NC State

Mark Gottfried

1.009

Virginia

Tony Bennett

1.005

North Carolina

Roy Williams

1.000

Clemson

Brad Brownell

0.997

Florida St.

Leonard Hamilton

0.991

Georgia Tech

Brian Gregory

0.976

Most major conference coaches tend to exceed expectations when developing players. That is why they have jobs in a major conference. But while Brad Brownell and Leonard Hamilton have struggled to develop offensive talent, they are elite defensive coaches.

Roy Williams is probably the baseline. He has recruited at a high level and his players have tended to perform about where you would expect for elite recruits. Rick Pitino’s players have exceeded expectations on offense in recent seasons. And  when a coach recruits well and develops players, that’s the formula for a national title.

Syracuse: Even with major losses, you can never count Syracuse out. Their zone defense will still be very hard to score against. Trevor Cooney became a star SG last year. Forward Chris McCullough is the type of highly ranked recruit who should make an impact from Day 1. Obviously, for the second year in a row, the season will come down to the play of a freshman PG. This year his name is Kaleb Joseph. No PG can be expected to replace Tyler Ennis. Ennis’ low turnover rate was not just special for a Syracuse PG, it was basically unprecedented for a college freshman.

But I think the differences in opinion for Syracuse come down to how you evaluate the rest of the Syracuse roster. Is DaJuan Coleman a player that is still injured, a career disappointment, and never going to be a star? Or is he an explosive former Top 25 recruit who will provide a key punch late in the season once he finally gets back to 100%? Is Rakeem Christmas a passive offensive player who lacks the killer instinct to ever be anything other than a role player? Or is Christmas a player who improved on defense last year, a player who deferred to CJ Fair and Jerami Grant, but another former Top 25 recruit who can still be a late bloomer and star now that he’ll get more touches on offense? Is Tyler Roberson the freshman who posted an 89 ORtg last year, and couldn’t even finish simple baskets? Or is he the former Top 40 recruit who never got to show his stuff last year because of the depth chart, and who should mature as a sophomore into a true star? The reality is that we don’t know. And that is why we want to watch.

But my biggest concern for Syracuse is the overall lack of depth. There are just 10 scholarship players on the roster right now, and right now they are not all healthy. That lack of depth is going to force Syracuse to play slower than they want again this season, and open them up to losses to some inferior teams.

Notre Dame: Jerian Grant was injured in the middle of last year and Notre Dame fell apart. You probably expect me to write some story about how you can’t blame a team’s collapse on just one player. But when you look at the numbers, I think you can. The splits show that Notre Dame was brutal after Grant went down. And Grant’s stats last year were unbelievable. His ORtg was 132, he was making 58% of his threes, 40% of his twos, and averaging 19 points per game. And he was making his teammates better. His assist rate was 36. He was even contributing on defense. His steal rate was 3.5%. Now, a lot of that came against a weaker non-conference schedule. But even so, Grant was posting the kind of numbers where you would have had to include him in the conversation for ACC player-of-the-year. With Grant back, Notre Dame will look like a traditional Mike Brey team. The Fighting Irish will be an elite offensive team, that plays passive zone defense, hangs around the edges of the Top 25, and lacks the defensive toughness for a deep NCAA tournament run.

Hoping for the NCAA Tournament

Florida St.: Florida St.’s defense bounced back last season behind a bruising front-line and the soft hands of steal artist Aaron Thomas. There are still some flaws. How does 7’3” Boris Bojanovsky grab so few defensive rebounds? But Leonard Hamilton has proven to be a strong defensive coach at this point.

The bad news is that the lethal inside-outside combination of Ian Miller and Okaro White has graduated and their star power will be hard to replace on offense. Xavier Rathan-Mayes was an elite recruit who was academically ineligible last year, but his shooting should help tremendously. The return of center Kiel Turpin should also help. Turpin was granted a sixth year of eligibility after missing last year with a leg injury and he was much more efficient than Michael Ojo.  Add Top 100 JUCO guards like Dayshawn Watkins and Kedar Edwards, and replacing Miller and White seems a little more plausible.

But the Florida St. offense is mostly limited by Hamilton’s system. For six straight years Hamilton’s teams have been among the nation’s most turnover prone teams. That’s a flaw Hamilton needs to fix if his team is ever going to reach the next level.

Clemson: I’ll understand if you view the loss of KJ McDaniels as a sign of the apocalypse. Clemson wasn’t a good offensive team last year and now their best player is headed to the NBA. Worse yet, while the program brings in prized recruit Donte Grantham, he’s ranked low enough that there is no guarantee he will be a star this year. And there are no other Top 100 recruits on the roster.

But I’m optimistic about Clemson for two reasons. First, Brad Brownell’s formula isn’t going to be recruiting or dynamic offense. When his teams win, they are going to win with defense. And most of the roster is back from a quality defensive team last year.

Second, Clemson has two highly underrated upperclassman who may be able to step into a larger roles. Demarcus Harrison and Jordan Roper both used a high volume of possessions and were very efficient with the basketball last year. A long time ago, Ken Pomeroy emphasized the importance of free throw shooting as a predictor of future offensive performance. And Harrison and Roper were both excellent free throw shooters last year. If they get the playing time, they should be able to produce some points to replace what McDaniels took to the NBA.

Miami FL: I really don’t understand the roster Jim Larranaga put together last year. It felt like before the season started the coaching staff decided that trying to make the NCAA tournament wasn’t that important. Last year Miami went into the year with such a short bench, and so few scholarship players, that winning was virtually impossible. But then a funny thing happened. Because the Miami coaching staff are really good at their jobs, they focused on their team’s strengths, and actually got the Hurricane roster to play competitive basketball with just about everyone in the ACC.

This year, Miami has done the right things to make sure they have the depth to be competitive. Additions like Niagara graduate transfer Joe Thomas and Top 100 recruit Ivan Uceda don’t project to be stars. But they are the kind of veteran role players you need if you want to compete for an NCAA tournament bid. The star power will have to come from Texas transfer Sheldon McClellan, Kansas St. transfer Angel Rodriguez, and Top 50 high school recruit Ja’Quan Newton. And that might not be enough to compete at the highest level in the ACC. But unlike last year, Miami at least enters this year with the kind of roster that could make the NCAA tournament if things work out right.

NC State: Only Duke, Louisville, and North Carolina can top NC State’s eight players who were RSCI Top 100 recruits out of high school. And Desmond Lee was a Top 10 JUCO recruit last year, meaning that at some point in time, the scouts were raving about just about everyone on NC State’s roster. And yet for the second year in a row, I find myself saying that NC State is a year away. With TJ Warren and Tyler Lewis leaving with eligibility left, the Wolfpack again has a roster of almost all sophomores and freshmen.

The frontcourt is the biggest question mark, but the simulation model thinks that because NC State has so many options, the team will find an answer.  No player has a great projection individually, but Beejay Anja, Kyle Washington, Abdul-Malik Abu, Cody Martin, and Caleb Martin are all former Top 100 recruits, and Lennard Freeman was an effective, if reluctant scorer. The top 3 or 4 of those players should be able to compliment a quality backcourt that adds Alabama transfer Trevor Lacey.

Occasionally my projection system will reveal some under-the-radar roster trend that seems somewhat controversial. For NC State, while Kyle Washington played more than Beejay Anja last year, the model likes Anja to pass Washington in the rotation this year. The reason is somewhat simple. Anja was more highly ranked out of high school, and while Washington was a more consistent player last year, Anja’s higher block rate is a reflection of Anja’s greater athleticism. Additionally, while Anja rarely shot, Washington’s efficiency was extremely low. I’m not sure it means anything, but it does line up a little bit with roster utilization last year. While Washington’s minutes decreased as the season progressed, Anja’s playing time increased. Whether Anja actually passes Washington in the rotation remains to be seen, but that is what the model predicts.

Hoping for the NIT

Boston College: Returning minutes don’t mean everything. Exhibit A might be last year’s Boston College squad. Despite returning the team’s top six rotation players, BC fell from 96th in margin-of-victory to 138th and it cost head coach Steve Donahue his job. The drop-off was all on the defensive side of the ball. Part of it was an injury that kept center Dennis Clifford out of action. And part of it was that Boston College went from being a team that almost never fouled to a team that fouled a lot. (Was it the new defensive foul rules?)

This year BC can put together a rotation without any freshmen. And with an offensive superstar like Olivier Hanlon, that’s a formula for a solid offense. But for new head coach Jim Christian to succeed, he needs to somehow upgrade the defense while using many of the same players.

Virginia Tech: Buzz Williams has never believed he has had a lot of job security. He’s always had to fight to earn his place in the coaching profession, and he’s never had the luxury of putting a freshmen team on the floor and letting them work through their issues with a patient fan-base. But this year’s Virginia Tech roster might break that mold. Given the current Virginia Tech options, it is hard to envision a scenario where Top 100 freshmen like Ahmed Hill and Justin Bibbs won’t get their chance.

JUCO Shane Henry seems like the classic Buzz Williams player. A Top 10 JUCO recruit, he should slide into the lineup and be a focal point on offense. And Adam Smith, injured for much of last season, looks like he might be the ideal late bloomer. But overall, there are not enough skilled players to field a solid offense.

Wake Forest: I hope the Wake Forest fans are still enjoying watching Tim Duncan win titles in the NBA. Because I don’t see how Danny Manning has signed up for anything other than a long rebuilding project. In the short-run, Wake Forest’s three most efficient offensive players have graduated. The team adds Campbell transfer Darius Leonard, but he doesn’t have the pedigree to carry an ACC team. This year’s recruiting class is not great (although perhaps last year’s recruit Greg McClinton can be the answer if he ever gets healthy). And Wake only projects to have two scholarships available for next year, so Manning will have to force several players to transfer if he wants to bring in a big recruiting class next year. It is going to take some time to get this program back in order.

Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets should have been competitive last year. Trae Golden, Marcus Georges-Hunt, Kam Holsey, Robert Carter, and Daniel Miller were all very good players. And while Carter’s injury was not timely, there is no reason that a starting rotation with that caliber of talent should not have been competitive for an NCAA tournament bid. They won at Syracuse late in the year, and given their rotation, that type of success should not have been so rare. But the individual talents never seemed to click, the bench was terrible, and head coach Brian Gregory continued a trend that was apparent at Dayton. Even when he had talented players at Dayton, his teams could never put it all together.

Of the team’s five best players listed above, only Georges-Hunt returns. Ole Miss transfer Demarco Cox, East Carolina transfer Robert Sampson, and freshmen prospect Tadric Jackson will help. (I’m not sure South Florida transfer Josh Heath will help given that Heath couldn’t shoot at all last year.) But on paper, those four don’t replace what Georgia Tech loses. Basically if Brian Gregory could only get Georgia Tech to a 6-12 ACC record with last year’s roster, he could be headed to the cellar with this year’s roster.

Ten College Teams That Will Play Faster

Every summer coaches tend to give interviews and talk about how they plan to play faster the following season. But then the calendar turns to February, the games get tight, and coaches continue to exert a lot of control over what happens on the basketball court. Most of the summer talk about faster pace is just cheap talk.

But in a few cases, we may expect a faster tempo next year. Mostly this is due to coaching changes, but here are 10 teams that I am confident will play faster next year:

Washington St.: Former head coach Ken Bone wasn’t always a slow-paced coach. At Portland St., he once had one of the Top 25 fastest teams in the country. But given the way he was recruiting at Washington St., Bone soon learned that his only chance to win in the Pac-12 was to keep the score low and try to steal a victory at the end. By Bone’s final season the Cougars were 336th in the nation in tempo. New head coach Ernie Kent played at a much faster pace in his time at Oregon, and even if the talent level is not there in his first year, Kent will almost certainly increase Washington St.’s pace from last year.

Delaware St.: I don’t think Keith Walker will be a lightning fast coach. He has not been a D1 head coach before, and after he took over as interim coach in February, Delaware St. did not have a huge uptick in pace. But almost anyone would be expected to be faster than former head coach Greg Jackson. In the 13 years for which Ken Pomeroy has tracked the data, Jackson’s team always ranked as one of the 20 slowest teams in D1.

Montana: Montana’s Wayne Tinkle made the NCAA tournament in three of the previous four seasons, but last year Montana struggled. And Tinkle did what veteran coaches do when things are not working. He slowed things down, tried to get his team to focus on what they did well, and tried to ring a late season-run out of the team. The team finished 9-4 after starting 8-9 thanks in no small part to a more controlled pace. Tinkle departed for Oregon St. this off-season and new head coach Travis DeCuire will take over. But even if Tinkle had returned, Montana would have likely played faster than their unusually slow pace last year.

The next four teams are all from the ACC.

Virginia Tech: I’m going to go out on a limb here and make a bold statement. The ACC will not be the slowest conference in the nation for the second year in a row. A lot of people blame the addition of Pittsburgh, Syracuse, and Notre Dame for the ACC’s decreased pace. But the decrease in pace has actually been coming for a while. The conference couldn’t keep losing fast coaches like Gary Williams and adding slow coaches like Tony Bennett, Brad Brownell, and Steve Donahue, and expect to have the same up-tempo attack as always. The good news is that this year’s additions Buzz Williams (at Virginia Tech), Jim Christian (at Boston College), and Rick Pitino (as the league swaps Maryland for Louisville) should work towards increasing the tempo in the long-run. Williams will likely improve the pace at Virginia Tech in two ways. First, he uses a quicker system. Second, by upgrading the talent level, Virginia Tech will no longer need to play slow to be competitive.

Miami FL: A bigger reason the ACC will play faster next year is that many of the league’s coaches had unusually slow-paced years last year. Jim Boeheim had the slowest team of his career at Syracuse. And Jim Larranaga had the slowest team he’s had in the 13 years Ken Pomeroy has been tracking the stats. In Larranaga’s case, he felt his Miami team was under-manned and needed to play slow to have a chance to be competitive. But with key transfers like Angel Rodriguez and Sheldon McClellan joining the fold, Miami should not slow things down quite as much this season. The Hurricanes were the slowest team in the nation last season, and they won’t duplicate that.

Syracuse: I’m not quite as confident that Syracuse will play faster. The team will once again be breaking in a rookie PG. And like last year, the lack of depth could cause Jim Boeheim’s squad to play slower than he would like.

But when you look at the big picture, last year looks like a fluke in terms of Boeheim’s career tempo. Moreover, Syracuse’s pace was artificially deflated because Tyler Ennis never turned the ball over last year.

Year

Syracuse Raw Tempo

Avg 2002-2010

70.3

2011

66.3

2012

65.4

2013

65.2

2014

60.5 

On the other hand, it has now been four years since Syracuse has had a speedy team. While the Orange used to average over 70 possessions per game, Boeheim’s team has been trending towards a much slower pace of play in recent years. I’m projecting that Syracuse’s pace will increase significantly next year (to around 64-65 possessions per game). But without a lot of depth, I would still expect Syracuse to play slower than they have historically.

Boston College: Over his last two seasons, former head coach Steve Donahue slowed BC to a crawl. Donahue was hoping to ring out a few more close wins with the more deliberate pace, but it didn’t work and he lost his job.

Year

Boston College

Tempo Rank

2012

205th

2013

261st

2014

321st 

New head coach Jim Christian has been a mixed bag in terms of tempo. He’s had some fast seasons and some slow seasons with his former teams. But he should get BC to play faster than what we saw last year.

Western Illinois: Former head coach Jim Molinari preferred an extremely slow pace, as his team’s tempo ranked 325th or worse in his entire tenure with the school. Billy Wright just left a Ball St. team that played at a faster tempo. But again, this is really just a case where any new coach would be expected to speed things up when the team ranked just 332nd in tempo last year.

Lamar: This is a bit of a stretch because former head coach Pat Knight employed an up-tempo system. But if you look at what Tic Price did at McNeese St., he clearly believes in an up-tempo attack. And if Price’s historic coaching-style is a fair representation, you can expect Lamar’s players to go even faster next year.

Auburn: Whether it was at Wisconsin-Milwaukee or Tennessee, the numbers support the fact that Bruce Pearl is one of the fastest-paced coaches in the nation. He will install an up-tempo exciting system at Auburn, and put transfers like Antoine Mason and Cinmeon Bowers in a position to play well. Bruce Pearl might not contend for an SEC title right away like at Tennessee, but make no mistake, Auburn will be a running team under their new head coach.

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