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College Basketball Preview 14-15: Missouri Valley Conference

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

Earlier Previews: ACC Preview, MWC Preview, SEC Preview, WCC Preview, A10 Preview, Big East Preview, American Preview, Pac-12 Preview

MVC Favorite

Wichita St.: There is no consensus on where to rank Wichita St. this year and that is probably fair. That is because we honestly couldn’t decide how good this team was last season. The Shockers didn’t play a Top 80 opponent from mid-December until the NCAA tournament. Because they were stuck playing huge mismatches, it was simply impossible to get a conclusive evaluation of how they stacked up against other elite teams. (Margin-of-victory is far less informative when games are mismatches.) One thrilling game against Kentucky in the NCAA tournament hardly answered the question of how good the Shockers were.

Ironically, Wichita St.’s first best chance to prove themselves this season may come on Nov. 18th against the former big fish in a small pond, Memphis. In Memphis’s final eight years in CUSA, the Tigers lost a total of 13 conference games. While Memphis had NBA level talent, a creative offense, and some great defensive teams, every year college basketball experts would quibble about their worth. After going 16-2 in the MVC three years ago, and 18-0 last year, Gregg Marshall’s squad seems to be headed for a similar pattern. It makes me wish that college basketball had some sort of Champions League like European football. We need more opportunities to evaluate the Shockers against the best of the best. Since that does not exist, you’ll read a lot about Ron Baker, Fred Van Vleet, Tekele Cotton, Darius Carter, JUCO’s Bush Wamukota and Tevin Glass, and 3-star freshmen like Zach Brown and Rashard Kelly. But you won’t get to see them on TV nearly enough.

Hoping for the NCAA Tournament

Northern Iowa: What Wichita St. could use more than anything is for the MVC as a whole to return to its glory days. Just a few short years ago, the league would have four to six teams on the NCAA tournament bubble. And even two years ago, the battle between Creighton and Wichita St. at least made for must-see TV. One thing that will help tremendously this season is that the MVC has a high number of returning players. This will be a very mature league:

Conference

Avg. Returning Minutes

MVC

65%

B12

62%

B10

60%

A10

58%

ACC

57%

WCC

56%

Amer

56%

Horz

56%

SEC

56%

BE

55%

MWC

54%

P12

53%

Northern Iowa returns 88% of their roster from last year. And with a quality coach who led the team to a 2010 NCAA tournament victory over Kansas, there is no reason Northern Iowa should not get better on both sides of the ball. But after the team finished just 16-15 last year, with the 94th best margin-of-victory in the nation, just bringing players back probably will not be enough. Northern Iowa needs to make an unexpected improvement on offense or defense if they want to make the tournament.

Offensively, transfer Paul Jesperson might be the key piece that puts Northern Iowa over the top, but he is no guarantee. Jesperson basically only did one thing at Virginia, take and make wide open threes. He never attacked the basket, and despite his size 6’6” he was not a rebounder or shot-blocker. He couldn’t even make intermediate jumpers. He simply stood on the perimeter and rarely shot. Still Jesperson had a higher high school recruiting rank than anyone else on Northern Iowa’s roster, and if another year of practice has expanded his game, Jesperson’s presence could be a deciding factor.

Defensively, the real issue is the team’s interior depth. Seth Tuttle and Nate Buss were both quality interior scorers, but because the team needed their scoring, they were afraid to get in foul trouble last season. And that meant the team was a revolving door defensively. 6’6” Marvin Singleton chipped in some late in the year, but he was not much of a rebounder. And freshman Ted Friedman was not ready last season. This year’s post additions are 2-star recruits who are unlikely to move the needle. And that leaves head coach Ben Jacobson with a real dilemma. He must improve his teams’ defensive aggressiveness while ensuring that Tuttle and Buss stay on the floor.

Hoping for the NIT

Illinois St: Illinois St. is becoming JUCO University. Last year head coach Dan Muller rolled the dice with four Top 100 JUCO players, Daishon Knight, Bobby Hunter, Michael Middlebrooks, and Zach Lofton. Middlebrooks was a bust. He was suspended and ultimately left the team. Lofton was a high volume low efficiency scorer, and he ultimately transferred. But Knight and Hunter are returning, and they are probably the Redbirds best two players. And a year after rolling the dice with four JUCO players, Dan Muller is adding four JUCO recruits again. This time Devaughn Purcell is the highest rated among a group that includes Will Ransom, Mark Hall, and Justin McCloud.

Highly touted freshmen MiKyle McIntosh and Deontae Hawkins are also now available after both were partial qualifiers last year. That means Illinois St.’s roster includes six JUCO recruits and two partial qualifiers. Coaches often get criticized for this type of roster construction. (I recall Bob Huggins used to take a lot of flack for constructing rosters of this type at Cincinnati.) But before opposing fan-bases complain, they should realize that EVERY team in the MVC is adding at least one JUCO recruit this year (except for Drake). And among major conferences, the MVC adds the most JUCO recruits. Furthermore, adding up the D1 transfers and JUCO transfers debuting this season, the MVC is tied for the lead in transfer debuts per team:

Debuts in 2014-2015

Teams

D1 Transfer Debuts

JUCO Debuts

Transfer Debuts Per Team

MVC

10

4

20

2.4

Horz

9

9

13

2.4

Amer

11

12

14

2.4

MWC

11

12

14

2.4

B12

10

10

12

2.2

SEC

14

20

6

1.9

WCC

10

12

6

1.8

P12

12

7

9

1.3

BE

10

8

5

1.3

ACC

15

11

5

1.1

A10

14

8

6

1.0

B10

14

9

3

0.9

Notes: Not all waivers for immediate eligibility have been processed, but I took my best guess about eligibility for 2014-15 based on the available information. Second, some players played at a D1 school and then spent a year playing JUCO ball. I count these players in the D1 transfer category and not the JUCO category.

Aside: This week Gary Parrish noted that the SEC has a rule about recruiting certain types of JUCO players. And clearly, with just six JUCO recruits, the SEC will have a limited number of JUCO players debuting this year. But the SEC is not the league to use the fewest JUCO recruits. The Big Ten has just three JUCO transfers coming in this season.

There are positives and negatives associated with the MVC using so many JUCO players. One positive is that the MVC won’t waste a lot of possessions on freshmen this season. On the other hand, as I’ve said many times, JUCO recruits are lottery tickets. Sometimes teams hit the jackpot, but often times JUCO recruits can’t make the leap and don’t become quality D1 players.

Evansville: I’ve said before that returning minutes are over-rated, and the large number of transfers in the previous table should make that clear. A league can lose a lot of talent, and still not be very young. I used my simulation model to project 10,000 scenarios for each league this season. I account for the possibility that players may exceed or fail to live up to expectations and for the possibility of injury. Using these simulations, the next table shows the average percentage of minutes I expect each conference to give to each class. The A10 is going to be very young next year. While the A10 returned 58% of its minutes, which was not particularly low, because the A10 is adding so few transfers this year, expect the league to experience significant growing pains.

But as the earlier tables showed, the MVC returns the most minutes of any of these top leagues, the MVC adds a number of transfers, and the MVC projects to have just 38% of its minutes go to first or second year players this year.

Conf

Pct Min Fresh

Pct Min Soph

Pct Min Jr

Pct Min Sr

B12

18%

27%

32%

23%

MVC

19%

19%

38%

23%

Horz

19%

19%

34%

28%

Amer

19%

23%

41%

17%

WCC

23%

15%

25%

37%

SEC

25%

25%

28%

22%

BE

26%

19%

24%

32%

MWC

26%

20%

23%

31%

P12

26%

22%

31%

20%

ACC

26%

23%

33%

19%

B10

27%

18%

25%

31%

A10

30%

20%

30%

20%

That experience could mean a resurgence for the MVC in 2014-15. But as I noted in my Big East Preview (scroll down to the Marquette blurb), the MVC has just one player who was a Top 100 recruit out of high school, Bradley’s Mike Shaw. And not only did Shaw score less than 1 PPG at Illinois (before transferring to Bradley), Shaw is currently sidelined with an injury.

That talent disparity is going to make it hard for the MVC to climb into the Top 6 or 7 again. If another league struggles with youth (I’m looking at you A10), it is possible the MVC can be a Top 10 league again. But the glory days, when the league had multiple at large candidates, seem distant at this point.

The Purple Aces return 96% of their minutes from last year. The team also adds two Top 100 JUCO recruits in Willie Wiley and Taylor Stafford. The team has one of the most under-rated big men in the country in Egidijus Mockevicius. DJ Balentine is a quality guard. But in February and March, the team beat just one team ranked above 200th by Kenpom.com, and that win came in OT at home. Even with zero freshmen on the roster, Evansville is still light years away from being able to compete with a team like Wichita St.

Indiana St: You can’t replace a four-year leader and starter at PG like Jake Odum. First, you can’t recruit a replacement while that player is still around, because no one wants to be glued to the bench. And Indiana St. can’t recruit the type of freshman who would be an instant impact recruit. And thus the Sycamores did the only sensible thing they could do. They added a Top 100 JUCO recruit, PG Tre Bennett. With Bennett feeding the ball to Justin Gant and Khristian Smith, Indiana St. will still be one of the better teams in the MVC next year. But they don’t add enough instant impact players to replace the three key seniors they lost, and they will take a step back.

Southern Illinois: Barry Hinson was a consistent winner at Missouri St. He might not have been a tournament regular, but he almost always had a winning record in the league. I knew when he took over at Southern Illinois that he might not have enough talent to win right away, but I thought at minimum, he would be able to improve the Saluki’s defense. That hasn’t happened yet, but the answer might be on the way in the form of 7’1” JUCO transfer Deng Leek.

Offensively, the team just needs to share the ball more. For two years in a row, Southern Illinois has had one of the worst assist/FGM ratios in the nation. Anthony Beane is an efficient super-scorer, but he only calls his own number. Entering year three Hinson now has his players. But the need to build a better team defense around Leek, and the need to build an offense that shares the ball more, means Hinson still has a lot of work to do.

Missouri St: You probably think the loss of Jarmar Gulley (30% shot volume, 108 ORtg) will hurt the Missouri St. offense. But two factors should help off-set that. First, Marcus Marshall should be back after missing last year with an injury and Marshall was a tremendous scorer. Second, the further development of super-three point gunner Austin Rudder, who made 70 threes as a freshman, will help.

The bigger problem will be replacing Gulley’s defense. At 6’5” he was the team’s best rebounder and the team leader in steals. When the defense was already poor, a player like Gulley is very difficult to replace.

Not Looking Good

Bradley: Bradley is the only team in the league that is returning less than half its minutes. But fourth year head coach Geno Ford wasn’t willing to spend a year rebuilding and he added four JUCO prospects and Illinois transfer Mike Shaw to ensure the team stayed competitive. Unfortunately, summer injuries have kept key players from practicing and senior forward Auston Barnes was arrested in August. There are reasons for optimism. Rivals and ESPN rated freshman Josh Cunningham a 4-star prospect and Omari Grier is a quality scorer. But this hasn’t been an easy summer.

Loyola Chicago: I never understood why the MVC replaced Creighton with a middling team from the Horizon League. The justification given was that the MVC locked up the Chicago market, and it was also argued that Loyola was upgrading its facilities. Well, even if the facilities are getting better, the recruiting is not keeping up. Loyola still has the worst recruiting in the conference. They only have one player ranked above 2 stars on their roster.

Drake: Sophomore Jacob Jensen is still raw offensively, but he was a tremendous defensive rebounder last year. Among freshmen to play at least 16 MPG in 2014, only Julius Randle, Kennedy Meeks, Noah Vonleh, Joel Embiid, and Rice’s Sean Obi had a higher defensive rebounding rate than Jensen. Drake has some nice pieces, but with lots of roster turnover, and no transfers debuting, Drake could be in for a long year.

College Basketball Preview 14-15: Pacific-12

My numeric projections will be available near the start of the season, but today I want to write a few words about each Pac-12 team’s outlook.

Earlier Previews: ACC Preview, MWC Preview, SEC Preview, WCC Preview, A10 Preview, Big East Preview, American Preview

Pac-12 Favorite

Arizona: Given the importance of the recruiting rankings in my player projections, it was not a huge surprise that Kentucky was the #1 team in my team projections in April. But I want to be clear that Kentucky was not the overwhelming favorite. In terms of probabilities, I project that three teams have a 25-30% chance of finishing with the best margin-of-victory at the end of the year, and Arizona is one of those three teams.

The case for Arizona is very simple. Arizona had the best defense in the nation last year and the vast majority of Arizona’s rotation is back. With all due respect to Nick Johnson, Arizona’s biggest defensive dilemma is replacing Aaron Gordon. And while that won’t be trivial, my model thinks Top 10 recruit Stanley Johnson can step into the lineup without the defense missing a beat. Meanwhile Kentucky brings back a number of lackluster defenders (see the Harrison twins), Kentucky will likely be playing an unorthodox lineup (big men guarding guards at times), and Kentucky also has a lot of young players. The most likely scenario is that Arizona’s defense will allow 4-5 fewer points per 100 possessions than Kentucky this year.

Whether Kentucky has a better season will depend on whether Kentucky is more than 4-5 points better per 100 possessions on offense. And Arizona does have some offensive questions. ESPN even had a recent headline on this point. But I am optimistic for several reasons. First, Arizona was a good offensive team (and was an undefeated team) last year until Brandon Ashley got hurt. You cannot overlook the importance of Ashley’s ability to knock down jump shots and help with the team’s offensive spacing. Second, chemistry matters for an offense. Returning minutes are a little overrated, but teams with a lot of returning minutes do tend to improve on offense on average. The fact that TJ McConnell has now had a year to work with most of Arizona’s roster means everyone should be better. Third, the team adds JUCO Top 10 recruit Kadeem Allen. I’ve said on many occasions that JUCO recruits are lottery tickets, but Allen performed well enough at the JUCO level that he projects as a quality scorer. And most importantly the team adds Stanley Johnson. My model likes Johnson to be the Wildcats leading scorer next year, but that doesn’t mean he has to do it all. I project a balanced rotation with four players in double figures and seven players scoring quite a bit.

I am not saying Arizona should be ahead of Kentucky in the preseason polls, but if this team isn’t receiving some consideration for the top spot, they are being badly under-judged.

Hoping for the Top 25

UCLA: Height, athleticism (recruiting rankings), and past player stats (rebounds, blocks, steals) contribute to my projection of each team’s defense. But often the only piece of information we have that seems to have any real predictive power is the past defensive performances of the head coach.

But looking at the past track record of coaches is not a foolproof way to predict defense. Here are the defensive ranks of Stanford’s Johnny Dawkins and UCLA’s Steve Alford as D1 head coaches in the tempo free era.

PPP

Def Rank

Johnny Dawkins

Steve Alford

2014

43rd

45th

2013

70th

18th

2012

18th

20th

2011

91st

67th

2010

120th

97th

2009

85th

62nd

2008

 

28th

2007

 

76th

2006

 

1st

2005

 

40th

2004

 

49th

2003

 

101st

2002

 

51st

You can look at these numbers and say Alford has been a slightly better defensive coach than Dawkins. But that is not an unambiguous conclusion from this data. It took Dawkins a few years to develop some quality post defenders after Brook and Robin Lopez left for the NBA. And while Alford has had some great seasons in the past (particularly 2006 at Iowa), he hasn’t had a great defensive team every year.

These defensive differences were a key reason why I had UCLA ahead of Stanford in my spring projections. But every year I re-fit the model to the historical data and I found the predictive power of a coach’s historical defense fell in 2014. Perhaps because of the change in the way fouls were called (scoring rose about 3 points per 100 possessions across the nation but all coaches were not impacted equally), there was less correlation between a coach’s historical defense and his 2014 performance. And because historical defensive performances now have a smaller weight in my model, UCLA and Stanford now have a much more similar prediction than when I first ran the numbers this spring.

Whether you agree with that, or like UCLA or Stanford more, I think we all have to acknowledge that predicting defense is extremely difficult. If either UCLA or Stanford is particularly dominant on defense, they could have a borderline Top 10 squad. But with so many new faces, if either team is particularly poor on defense, it isn’t out of the question that either team could miss the tournament too. I spend a lot of time making predictions about teams, but one of the most important things I want to reflect in my rankings is that there is variance in the team projections. Arizona is unlikely to fall out of the Top 10. But for teams like UCLA and Stanford that break in a large number of new players, a wide range of season outcomes are on the table, particularly on defense.

We can feel much more confident in the offensive prediction. And UCLA has some quality pieces on that side of the ball. Kevon Looney, Thomas Welsh, and Jonah Bolden are three Top 50 freshmen. Tony Parker has waited his turn and finally has his chance to shine in the post. Bryce Alford was a very efficient backup PG last year, and Norman Powell was an efficient off-guard as well. There are some concerns about UCLA’s outside shooting since Powell’s three point stroke is poor, but with elite prospect Isaac Hamilton finally eligible after sitting out his letter-of-intent issue, UCLA should have enough weapons to score points at a high level. But seasons are made or broken on whether teams make stops, and for UCLA and Stanford, that’s the key question.

Stanford: Johnny Dawkins job was on the line last season. I remember the Twitter debate quite well. One person would write how Dawkins’ career hinged on a player making a pair of free throws to seal a game, and someone would respond by saying that this was a ridiculous standard. Winning a close game to make the NCAA tournament should not be the measuring stick.

But at some point, for most coaches it will come down to a couple of bounces of the basketball. Obviously, for some coaches like Oregon St.’s Craig Robinson, the team’s performance is so consistently poor, that one game was not going to swing the difference between Robinson keeping or losing his job. And obviously, for some coaches like Arizona’s Sean Miller, the team performed at such a high level, that one loss would not cost him his job. But that doesn’t mean that other coaches don’t fall somewhere in the middle. Johnny Dawkins was a coach who wasn’t terrible at his job, but who wasn’t performing at an elite level either. At some point, a coach like that is going to live or die based on the outcome of a handful of games.

It is fortunate that Dawkins made the Sweet Sixteen last year and saved his job, because on paper this is the best roster he has assembled at Stanford. Dawkins has veteran talent with Chasson Randle, Anthony Brown, and Stefan Nastic and he has a great recruiting class with Reid Travis, Robert Cartwright, and Michael Humphrey. Stanford’s expectations should be as high as they have been since Brook and Robin Lopez left for the NBA.

The real knock on Dawkins is not the quality of his roster. The knock is that Dawkins margin-of-victory has never been above 36th in the nation. Even with the team making the Sweet Sixteen last year, Stanford’s per possession performance was no better than that of a bubble team. And as you will see below in my discussion of California, among current Pac-12 coaches, Dawkins actually has the worst track record of developing players on offense. Signs point towards a great season, but Dawkins must be a better offensive teacher if the team is to live up to the lofty standards it set last year.

Utah: Utah’s margin-of-victory rose from 297th three years ago to 108th two years ago to 42nd last year. Due to a weak non-conference schedule, Utah was left out of the NCAA tournament last year. But with all the key players back, except the inefficient Princeton Onwas, Utah is close to a lock for this year’s tournament. In fact, I wouldn’t argue with anyone that put Utah in their preseason Top 25. My main problem with Utah’s roster is the lack of elite athletes. The average star rating (high school potential) of Utah’s roster remains among the lowest in the conference. You can make the tournament without elite athletes, but to stay in the Top 25 all season usually requires those types of players. There was a key recruiting breakthrough this year. One of the only Top 100 recruits in-state, Brekkot Chapman, decided to stay home. But Utah hopes another year of sustained success will make that type of commitment less rare.

Hoping for the NCAA Tournament

Colorado: The injury splits were definitive. After Spencer Dinwiddie was injured last season, Colorado became a vastly inferior team. It culminated with a blowout loss to Pittsburgh in the NCAA tournament.

On paper, having 91% of the team’s minutes back is a reason for optimism. But Colorado’s full-season margin-of-victory was only 77th in the nation last year (thanks to that brutal closing stretch). The team just wasn’t very good without Dinwiddie. And without a second star to compliment the super-efficient Josh Scott, the team has a ceiling.

At this point, for Colorado to truly reach that next level is going to require for one of Colorado’s player to take a greater than expected step forward. Xavier Talton needs to lower his turnover rate (26%) and raise his assist rate (15%). Askia Booker needs to get in the gym and improve his three point percentage (27%). Wesley Gordon’s hands have to get better (24% turnover rate). And Xavier Johnson needs to improve his free throw percentage (61%). Colorado currently projects as a 10 seed in the NCAA tournament in my model. But to reach that next level, they need another player to become an efficient star.

Oregon: Sharp-shooting three-point gunner Joseph Young is one of the best players in the Pac-12. Forwards Michael Chandler and Dwayne Benjamin are both elite JUCO prospects. Elgin Cook was a very efficient player who was under-utilized last year due to the team’s depth. And if JaQuan Lyle is eligible, his Top 30 recruiting rank is good enough to expect him to be a key player in year one.

When you have five players that good, you can usually compete with anyone. But after a massive scandal decimated the roster this spring, the question was whether Oregon had enough depth to survive the season. Now that Dillon Brooks has re-classified to 2014, Oregon should have 10 quality scholarship players if everyone is eligible. The young guards on the bench might be a little raw, and Jalil Abdul-Bassit might be a weak link given how he played last year. But Altman added enough pieces that the two-year NCAA tournament streak doesn’t have to end.

Cal: With Ty Wallace and David Kravish Back, and with Jabari Bird and Jordan Mathews likely to make the sophomore leap and become dominant players, California’s core four players are very strong. But the rest of the roster is filled with a bunch of recruits with fairly low potential. The key question for the teams is whether Martin can develop a few of those unknown players into role players and build a competent rotation. The tempo free numbers suggest that he can.

For the last seven years, based on previous college stats and recruiting rankings, I calculated a projected ORtg for every player. Then I divided each player’s observed ORtg by his projected ORtg and calculated the average ratio for each coach. You can think of this as a measure of each coach’s track record at developing players on offense.

Oregon head coach Dana Altman typically gets his players to perform significantly above where they were recruited, at least on offense. Conversely, Johnny Dawkins players have performed about where you would expect, no worse, no better.

Coach

Current Team

Ratio

Dana Altman

Oregon

1.034

Wayne Tinkle

Oregon St.

1.027

Cuonzo Martin

California

1.026

Herb Sendek

Arizona St.

1.026

Steve Alford

UCLA

1.022

Lorenzo Romar

Washington

1.020

Andy Enfield

USC

1.020

Ernie Kent

Washington St.

1.013

Sean Miller

Arizona

1.005

Larry Krystkowiak

Utah

1.004

Tad Boyle

Colorado

1.000

Johnny Dawkins

Stanford

0.999

You may wonder why Sean Miller is so low on the list despite his success at Arizona. But Sean Miller has been winning by recruiting. Not only has Miller been bringing in Top 100 recruits, he has also been adding some very productive transfers. TJ McConnell was already a very productive player before he came to Arizona, so Miller does not get as much credit for developing his offensive game. This table is also focused on offense, and does not give Miller credit for his team’s great defense last year.

You may wonder why there are no coaches with ratios significantly below one. This is not unusual for a major conference. Coaches that do a poor job developing their players typically get fired. If you are looking for the worst coach at developing offensive players in the Pac-12 in the recent past, that would be Kevin O’Neill. O’Neill’s ratio was 0.972.

Moreover, when programs hire new coaches, they tend to hire coaches that have a great track record of developing players. I have very limited data on Ernie Kent because he has not been a D1 head coach for several years, but Wayne Tinkle and Cuonzo Martin were both among the best at getting the most out of their players. Tinkle took two and three star recruits at Montana and turned them into stars. And Martin improved Tennessee’s offense from 114th in his first year to 63rd two years ago to 17th in the country last season. If that track record continues, California can sneak into the tournament.

Washington: A year ago injuries and inconsistent play in the frontcourt meant Lorenzo Romar had by far the worst defensive team he has had in the last 10 years. This year the team adds 7 foot shot-blocker and former Top 100 recruit Robert Upshaw which should solve a lot of those problems. The team should also get back Jernard Jarreau who blew out his knee in November last year. Not only will the team be taller, it should also be less reliant on freshmen, and that should lead to fewer defensive mistakes.

Washington’s defense should be substantially improved, but I am less confident in the offense. Many people do not appreciate how dominant CJ Wilcox was last season or how much he will be missed. And for everything he brings defensively, Robert Upshaw was a very raw offensive player at Fresno St. But the improvements on defense should allow the Huskies to get back into the bubble picture.

Hoping for the NIT

Arizona St.: On the flip side, Arizona St’s defense should be substantially worse. Only two teams in the nation had better free throw defense, and that probably isn’t something the team can count on again. More importantly, the 7’2” Jordan Bachynski has graduated and his height and shot-blocking will be very difficult to replace. Thanks to Bachynski, Herb Sendek had his best defensive team ever at Arizona St. last season. But the team was still only 50th nationally on defense, and all signs suggest the defense will be inadequate this year.

With JUCO Top 100 recruits Gerry Blakes, Willie Atwood, and Roosevelt Scott joining the team, and with transfer Savon Goodman (a top 100 high school recruit who played for UNLV) joining the fold, Arizona St.’s offense will probably be better than most people think. Jahii Carson was not as irreplaceable offensively as his hype would suggest. Yes, Carson was a high volume shooter, but Carson didn’t have a great ORtg. And Herb Sendek is very good at teaching an offense that spreads the floor and attacks with cuts to the basket. Sendek can figure out a way to replace Carson, but replacing Bachynski will be a challenge.

USC: USC adds three Top 100 recruits, Jordan McLaughlin, Elijah Stewart, and Malik Marquetti. Even though none of them are ranked in the Top 30, I could easily see a couple of them finishing as Top 30 freshmen scorers for the simple reason that USC is rebuilding and will give those players lots of playing time this year. The team also adds UNLV transfer Katin Reinhart who was a Top 100 recruit out of high school. Andy Enfield is raising the talent level of the program, but this team is still at least a year away.

Washington St.: Ernie Kent will get Washington St. playing at a faster pace. And with the typical sophomore leap Ike Iroegbu and Que Johnson should thrive in that system. Alongside super-scorer DeVonte Lacy, Washington St. will hope to out-score teams. But the talent level on this roster is still very low relative to the rest of the Pac-12. Iroegbu and Johnson are the only two players on the roster that were rated three stars or higher out of high school, and Kent needs to upgrade the team’s talent level before the team can hope for anything other than the NIT.

Avert Your Eyes

Oregon St.: What’s the worst Power Five conference team this year? In the Big Ten, I dislike Rutgers, but at least they have Myles Mack. In the ACC, I’m down on Georgia Tech, but Marcus Georges-Hunt is a quality player. In the SEC, I’m not a huge fan of Mississippi St.’s roster, but at least they have experience with 74% of their minutes back from last year. And in the Big 12, I think TCU will be substantially improved as they get several players back from injury.

Right now, I’m looking at Oregon St. as the worst team in the Power Five conferences. Langston Morris-Walker and Malcolm Duvivier are the leading returning scorers at 4.1 PPG and 3.1 PPG respectively. That puts a huge burden on the recruiting class. JUCO Gary Payton Jr is going to have to play a lot. But he is going to face immense pressure to live up to his father’s name, and the team is expecting far too much of a player who was great but not super-elite at the JUCO level. Perhaps Cameron Oliver will be the answer. ESPN only thought he was a three star recruit, but Scout.com thought Oliver was a four star prospect. The good news is that the 2015 recruiting class is off to a nice start. But in 2014-15 new head coach Wayne Tinkle has a lot of work to do.

College Basketball Preview 14-15: American Athletic Conference

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

Earlier Previews: ACC Preview, MWC Preview, SEC Preview, WCC Preview, A10 Preview, Big East Preview

American Conference Co-Favorites

SMU: Even though Emmanuel Mudiay decided to skip college, SMU still deserves to be in the preseason Top 25. SMU had the 30th best margin-of-victory in the nation last year, they don’t have any freshman on the roster (who might waste possessions), and they return 74% of their minutes. With stars Nic Moore and Markus Kennedy returning, this team has Top 25 level talent.

But the reasons for optimism go beyond those basic stats. The reality is that several bench players are prepared to break out and take on larger roles. Keith Frazier was a Top 30 guard prospect last year, and as a rising sophomore, there is a strong chance he becomes a star this year. Former Top 10 JUCO recruit Yanick Moreira was injured last year, but when fully healthy he was dominant. All Moreira needs to be a major scorer at the D1 level is more minutes. And even if Ben Moore and Cannen Cunningham were not ranked quite as high out of high school, they were efficient last season and they could thrive with a larger role too.

The team also adds one of the best transfers in the nation in Xavier’s Justin Martin. Without Mudiay, this might not be a Top 10 team, but this team still has the depth and strength to win the league.

Connecticut: The next table shows UConn’s offensive and defensive performance in the regular season and in their six game NCAA tournament run:

Connecticut

Adj Off

Adj Def

Pyth.

Rank

First 34 Games

109.5

92.8

0.8688

25th

NCAA Tournament

120.5

89.1

0.9698

1st

Many believe the NCAA tournament is about luck. Unlike the NBA’s best of seven series, the one and done format is not about finding the best team. But even if you don’t believe Connecticut was the best team in college basketball over five months, you have to give the Huskies a lot of credit for how they played in that closing stretch. In those six games, the Huskies really were playing like the best team in the nation.

And as I said at the time, I think this national title is a huge boon for the long-run strength and stability of the program. A year ago teams recruiting against Connecticut could claim that the level of competition in the American Conference was not going to be good enough to prepare UConn for the NCAA tournament. A year ago teams recruiting against Connecticut could claim that while Kevin Ollie was a nice guy, he was no Jim Calhoun. But last year’s run erases those arguments.

Basically any guard that dreams of leading his team to NCAA glory has to believe that those goals can be achieved at UConn. From Khalid El-Amin to Kemba Walker to Shabazz Napier, Connecticut is a program where guards leave a permanent legacy. Thus perhaps it is not a surprise that Connecticut has ridiculous guard depth this year. Ryan Boatright is a star. NC State transfer Rodney Purvis was a Top 20 recruit a few years ago. Daniel Hamilton is a Top 20 recruit this year. Sam Cassell Jr is a Top 10 JUCO addition. Terrence Samuel played a vital role for the Huskies late in the season. And even if he fell off the map last year, Omar Calhoun still has talent; he just needs to find a way to channel it.

Despite that guard depth, the hardest player for UConn to replace may be DeAndre Daniels. I wonder if Daniel Hamilton might be the answer in certain situations. Coaches like to have their four best players on the floor. And at 6’6” or 6’7”, if Hamilton can hold his own defending certain types of opposing big men, Kevin Ollie might be able to unleash a lethal 4-guard attack at times this season.

Hoping for the NCAA Tournament

Memphis: When you hear about player commitments in August, it rarely sinks in. Who really cares about Indiana offering a 13th scholarship to some player that re-classified from 2015 to 2014? But as someone who has studied the rosters extensively this summer, I can tell you that almost every one of these August commitments has occurred because of a very strong need that a team had for depth or strength at a particular position.

First, Oregon has a talented starting lineup, but the team had only nine scholarship players. If you look at what happened to Temple last year when the Owls didn’t have enough scholarship players, you realize that teams vitally need depth. And thus Dillon Brooks re-classified from 2015 to 2014 to join the Oregon recruiting class.

A few weeks ago I wrote how Auburn had upgraded its talent level, but how the Tigers were not quite an NCAA tournament team yet. I said the Tigers lacked the talented big men to complement their talented backcourt in 2014-15. And so Bruce Pearl went out and made an offer to former Maryland commit Trayvon Reed. Reed won’t be eligible until at least December, and his recent arrest makes him a risk. But given that Auburn still needed quality players in the front-court, Reed was a natural choice.

When St. John’s forward JaKarr Sampson declared for the NBA draft, Steve Lavin said all the right things. But when he said, “We have a lot of confidence in Christian Jones” that was clearly coach-speak. Jones was a 2-star forward, who wasn’t a great finisher as a freshman. St. John’s needed more frontcourt depth. And Lavin did the only thing he could do late in the game, adding international forward Amar Alibegovic.

Two of the critical August roster changes involved the Memphis Tigers. At the start of August, Memphis simply had too much frontcourt depth. Incumbents and former Top 40 recruits Shaq Goodwin and Austin Nichols need minutes, transfer Calvin Godfrey is too good to ride the pine, and former Top 40 recruit Kuran Iverson seems poised to breakout. It simply wasn’t clear how elite big man prospect Dominic Woodson was going to get on the court. And suddenly, Woodson left Memphis and enrolled at a Tennessee program with one of the weakest frontcourts in the SEC.

Meanwhile, Memphis’ guard depth was not great. While Rashawn Powell and Markel Crawford can step in after sitting out last year, while Avery Woodson was a Top 100 JUCO guard, and while Dominic McGee is a Top 100 freshman, none of those players had played meaningful minutes against power conference competition. Thus Memphis added Vanderbilt guard Kedren Johnson. Johnson was a high volume scorer who had played over 1500 minutes in the SEC. Memphis lost a quality big man and added a quality guard, but what really happened in August is that the Tigers re-shuffled their lineup to get better roster balance.

And with great depth at the wing, where Nick King seems prepared for a breakout season and where Trahson Burrell was a Top 10 JUCO, the Tigers currently have incredible depth at forward, guard, and wing.

The real question for Memphis is not talent. The question is whether Josh Pastner’s sideline execution can begin to match his impeccable recruiting. While Pastner’s teams are almost always overwhelmingly stocked with blue chip recruits, he has only had a Top 25 margin-of-victory once in his career. Last year was pretty typical. Despite being ranked 13th in the AP preseason poll, the Tigers finished 37th in margin-of-victory. Memphis is recruiting at a level where they could compete for the American Conference Title every year. But until they start executing at that level, Pastner will never be viewed as an elite coach.

Tulsa: Two years ago Tulsa played an unusually high number of freshmen and lost a lot of games. Last year Tulsa rode the sophomore leap to an NCAA tournament bid. This year Tulsa is hoping to catch lighting in a bottle with Frank Haith.

When Haith took over at Missouri, he led a veteran team to 30 wins, a 2-seed in the NCAA tournament, and a Big 12 tournament title. Tulsa is hoping Haith can take over a veteran Tulsa squad and lead the Golden Hurricanes to similar success in a power conference.

That Missouri squad went with a tight seven-player rotation of veteran players. Something similar is possible here as James Woodard, Shaquille Harrison, Rashad Ray, Steve Repichowski, Rashad Smith, Brandon Swannegan, and D’Andre Wright are all back.

Cincinnati: A lot of words will be written about how an offensively challenged Cincinnati team will struggle to replace Sean Kilpatrick’s scoring. But I think we need to be equally aware that Cincinnati loses three extremely talented defenders. Kilpatrick, Titus Rubles, and Justin Jackson were all among the nation’s best at getting steals. Justin Jackson was an elite shot-blocker, and Rubles was a good shot-blocker for his size. And Jackson and Rubles were the Bearcats two best defensive rebounders. In terms of measured defensive stats, Cincinnati loses as much production as almost any team in the nation this off-season.

Cincinnati was also fairly fortunate on defense last year. Teams made just 32% of their threes and only 68% of their free throws against the Bearcats last year. (In the American Conference, Memphis was actually more fortunate, with teams making just 31% of their threes and 65% of their free throws against the Tigers.) But to put it simply, all indicators suggest the Cincinnati defense will take a significant step back.

The good news is that the offense is probably not as bad as it sounds. True, there are no clear stars at this point, but there are lots of quality pieces. Troy Caupain looks like he can be a quality PG. He was very good at getting steals, a quality passer, and very efficient in limited minutes as a freshman. Elite JUCO transfers like Octavious Ellis and Coreontae DeBerry should supplement the frontcourt nicely. And even if Shaquille Thomas is the only former Top 100 recruit on the roster, Cincinnati has a number of 3 and 4 star prospects that continue to have promise.

Hoping for the NIT

Houston: Kelvin Sampson, dismissed at Indiana for recruiting violations, is getting a second chance to be a college basketball head coach at Houston. And his starting lineup may include four former Top 100 recruits who are also looking for redemption. Former RSCI #22 Devonta Pollard went through an incredible kidnapping saga because of his mother, and he joins the team after transferring from Alabama. He joins former RSCI #64 Chicken Knowles in the front-court. Knowles received a lot of hype out of high school, had eligibility issues, and finally has a chance to start after being under-utilized last year. The team also adds former RSCI #72 Torian Graham. Due to academic issues Graham had to spend a couple of years playing junior college ball, but now he has his chance in a major conference. Finally, former RSCI #66 L.J. Rose blossomed after transferring from Baylor last year. The PG cut down on his turnovers significantly, but he still has to prove that he can lead a winning team in a power league.

Those four will likely be joined by the always efficient and effective Jherrod Stiggers in the starting lineup. The team also adds three Top 100 JUCO recruits in Eric Weary, Cavon Baker, and Betrand Nkali. Weary and Baker played at the D1 level at New Mexico St. and Florida Atlantic two years ago.

That sounds like a strong lineup on paper, but whether Sampson’s team is in the NCAA tournament hunt really depends on how quickly he changes the defensive culture at Houston. Houston had a great offense last year, but they never forced any steals or forced missed shots. While the roster turnover this off-season hurt the offense, it may actually help Sampson to more quickly implement a better defensive mentality. More importantly, these eight players all have two years of eligibility remaining. Even if the team needs a year to build chemistry with one another, there’s no reason this same core can’t have an even better shot at the tournament in 2015-16.

Temple: Last year I nailed the Temple collapse. While most experts had Temple in their Top 5 in the conference in the preseason, I pointed out that the Owls had very little depth and I pegged the Owls to be among the worst teams in the conference. Injuries certainly contributed to making that happen. At one point last season, Temple was down to six healthy scholarship players.

In 2014-15, I remain a little concerned about the Owl’s depth. A year after injuries derailed the season, I’m a little surprised Fran Dunphy once again has scholarships that are not being used. But there is no question that the Owls are going to be better. Will Cummings and Quenton DeCosey are quality scorers and they are back. Texas transfer Jaylen Bond will be a huge upgrade as will Clemson transfer Devin Coleman once he becomes eligible in December. ESPN also views big man Obi Enechionyia as a 4-star recruit, the type that should make a difference from the beginning. And with more health to players like Daniel Dingle, Temple will not be among the worst teams in the American Conference again. Fran Dunphy is a quality coach and last year was clearly an outlier.

Dragging Down UConn’s RPI

The bottom of this league is light years from the top of the league. There is a very good chance that the only wins these four squads get in conference play are against one another.

East Carolina and Tulane: At least you can say the two teams entering the league have veteran squads. East Carolina returns 70% of its minutes from last year and Tulane returns 86% of its minutes. East Carolina also adds Florida St. transfer and three-point gunner Terry Whisnant. I project both teams (particularly both offenses) to be significantly improved from last year, but that won’t be enough to make them competitive with the top of the league.

UCF: I will now spend more time debating the quality of UCF’s roster than you will read anywhere else: On the one hand, Kasey Wilson and Matt Williams were very efficient players for UCF last year, and their return is reason for optimism. On the other hand, the team used to have Isaiah Sykes and Calvin Newell using a high volume of possessions. Their departure means Wilson and Williams will have to increase their shot volume, essentially take more contested shots, and their efficiency could take a hit. On the other hand, Newell was actually a fairly dreadful offensive player last year. He made just 25% of his threes, 44% of his twos, and turned the ball over a bunch. And Sykes also had a down year in some respects. Despite being one of the best in the nation at getting to the line, Sykes made just 54% of his 192 free throws. Their loss is probably not as bad as it sounds. On the other hand, UCF doesn’t have a lot of elite prospects. On the other hand, Top 100 JUCO Shaheed Davis and Adonys Henriquez (who ESPN viewed as a 4 star prospect) are two players who might make an immediate impact, and none of the returning players except the PGs were inefficient last year. On the other hand, UCF’s returning PGs were not very good. On the other hand, freshman PG Barry Taylor is a three star prospect, and he might be able to play right away.

South Florida: I am very curious to see whether former Kentucky assistant and new head coach Orlando Antigua can boost USF’s recruiting going forward and make this team relevant in future seasons. In the short run, the team will rely heavily on forward Chris Perry, whose quality should shine through now that Victor Rudd and John Egbunu are gone. But the reality is that Antigua needs to turn this team over to a bunch of three star freshmen and hope it doesn’t get too ugly before they develop.

College Basketball Preview 14-15: Big East

Villanova won the Big East last season and it hardly seems fair that they also have the most returning minutes. Georgetown will be hoping for a place in the top-25, while Xavier, St. John's, Marquette and Providence will be tourney bubble teams.

College Basketball Preview 14-15: Atlantic-10

The problem for teams in the A10 is that it can take longer to restock the cabinet. When talented seniors leave, teams in the A10 sometimes need a year or two to rebuild, while teams in the Power Five conferences simply reload.

College Basketball Preview 14-15: WCC

Gonzaga could become a top-10 team in the country, while BYU and Saint Mary's are hoping to merely make the NCAA tournament.

College Basketball Preview 14-15: SEC

Kentucky and Florida are obviously playing for top seeds in the tourney, while Arkansas should comfortably be in the field. You can throw the next eight teams in a hat, and defend almost any ordering.

College Basketball Preview 14-15: Mountain West

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.

College Basketball Preview 14-15: ACC

Duke are their favorites and their season will hinge on the play of Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones, while Louisville, North Carolina and Virginia will challenge.

Ten College Teams That Will Play Faster

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Which Types of Players Benefited the Most From Change in Way Fouls Called? (Part 2)

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Marcus Smart: Why College Coaching Even Matters For Top-5 Picks

Marcus Smart just lived through the worst possible timeline at Oklahoma State, but he's an ideal player for a rebuilding team because he can be successful next to any type of guard.

Which Types of Players Benefited The Most From Change In Way Fouls Called? (Part 1)

Points per possession were higher, free throw attempts were up, and turnovers were down. But we have not seen any discussion about how this impacted different types of players.

College Basketball Greatness Is Always Fleeting

In the major conferences, no team has improved more than three years in a row right now. Iowa St., Oklahoma, Houston, Wake Forest, and Virginia have all made improvements for three straight years.

Draft Report: Adreian Payne Of Michigan State

Adreian Payne is a stretch 4 with elite athleticism and prototype size for the position. He has a lot of Serge Ibaka in his game. Payne is one of the most complete big men in the country and his skill-set can improve every team in the league.

Players In NCAA With Biggest Jumps In Points Per Game

It’s easy to look at the summer as a chance to earn money, play video games, and catch your breath. But for a select few players every year, the time they put into the gym results in huge gains in every measurable category.

Quoting The NBA Combine

NBA TV hosted a 2014 NBA Combine Special show on Wednesday, featuring interviews with some of the top prospects in this year’s class. The interviews conducted by Seth Davis and Steve Smith each lasted around five minutes but gave a better understanding of how each prospect can handle the attention off the court.

Should We Ignore The Components Of Defense That Teams Can't Control?

college basketball analysts should be thinking of this a bit like Batting Average on Balls in Play in baseball. If a team is way too high or way too low in free throw defense or three point percentage defense, that probably is a bit about luck. Both within seasons and between seasons, we shouldn’t necessarily expect that component of defensive performance to persist.

The Clowney Conundrum For The NBA

If a player like Jadaveon Clowney was in the NBA draft, there is little chance he would go No. 1 overall. When it comes to evaluating prospects, NFL teams don't seem to be as much in the thrall of individual statistics

Will Duke Or Kansas Have A Better Defense In 14-15?

Both teams bring in multiple impact freshmen, but based on the entire roster, Duke has more offensive weapons. The more interesting question is whether Kansas or Duke will have the better defense in 14-15.

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