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College Basketball Preview 14-15: The Rest

Big Ten fans will have to wait one more week for my final preview, but my ACC Preview, MWC Preview, SEC Preview, WCC Preview, A10 Preview, Big East Preview, American Preview, Pac-12 Preview, MVC Preview, and Big 12 Preview are now online. Today I want to talk about the other 21 conferences.

Most college basketball writers (including me) will tend to focus on the 11 conferences above because those are the conferences that are the most likely to produce multiple bids to the NCAA tournament. The WCC is really only on the list because of the top of the league (Gonzaga, BYU, and St. Mary's), and the MVC has been fading in recent years. But since the MVC has a high number of returning minutes this year, you can make a compelling case that the distinction between the Top 11 and the Next 21 is only going to grow.

Conference realignment has only magnified the separation, as the major conferences have done their best to absorb the most successful mid-major programs. If you take the average Pythagorean Winning Percentage of every D1 program since Ken Pomeroy has been tracking the stat, the Top 70 programs are all in those 11 conferences. In fact, 94 of the Top 100 programs in that time span are in those 11 conferences. The exceptions are UAB, Kent St., Old Dominion, Akron, UTEP, and Charlotte. (Kent St. may be a bit of a surprise since they haven't been to the tournament a lot, but last year was Kent St.'s first losing season in the MAC since 1997.)

Recruiting is a key distinction between the top 11 and the next 21. The Top 11 conferences have 314 players who were Top 100 recruits out of high school. The other 21 conferences have only 18 players who were Top 100 recruits out of high school. But teams in the next 21 conferences are often very skilled even without elite recruits. Often the bigger obstacle these teams face is the lack of opportunities to play Top 100 opponents at home or on a neutral court. Without those chances, it can be difficult to build an at-large worthy resume.

Stephen F. Austin isn't going to make the tournament based on great margin-of-victory numbers. Their only hope is to pick up two or three signature non-conference wins against elite programs. Every year someone will do that, but guessing which of the many talented teams from these 21 leagues will build the best non-conference profile is always a roll of the dice. And the team that picks up a couple of signature non-conference wins isn't necessarily the best team.

The next table shows how I project these leagues shaking out this season. Rank LY is the rank of the conference last year based on the average Pythagorean winning percentage of the teams. Proj Rk is the rank of the conference this season based on the average projected Pythagorean winning percentage. Avg RM is the average returning minutes in the conference.

Conf

Rank LY

Avg RM

Proj Rk

Ivy

3

69%

1

BW

8

66%

2

MAC

5

66%

3

Horz

1

54%

4

CUSA

4

54%

5

MAAC

2

64%

6

Pat

10

75%

7

Sum

7

57%

8

CAA

6

51%

9

OVC

12

56%

10

SB

9

49%

11

BSth

16

64%

12

WAC

11

44%

13

BSky

15

63%

14

AE

17

57%

15

ASun

14

62%

16

SC

19

59%

17

NEC

13

59%

18

Slnd

18

54%

19

MEAC

20

53%

20

SWAC

21

55%

21

Obviously a conference average doesn't tell the whole story:

Ivy League: I won't argue with anyone that puts Harvard in their Top 25, but they don't have quite enough guard depth for my model to put them there. Siyani Chambers and Wesley Saunders are going to have to play basically the whole game, and they need Corbin Miller, returning from his LDS mission, to pick up where he left off and make some threes. It is amazing to say it, because Kyle Casey was a brilliant player, but Harvard's frontcourt may be even more productive this season. Steve Moundou-Missi is a total stat-sheet stuffer. Jonah Travis is a pure scorer (who might have to play some at the wing this year.) Kenyatta Smith is returning from injury and he's going to play a major role. Zena Edosmwan didn't play much last year, but as one of the highest ranked Harvard recruits of all time, either the recruiting experts were wrong or he is in for a big sophomore leap. Angunwa Okolie will also benefit from the sophomore leap, and Chris Egi is another very highly ranked freshmen. I don't know exactly which players win that competition for playing time, but I'm pretty sure the winners are going to be good.

But the reason the Ivy League moves up to the best of the rest this year is because there are three other very good teams at the top. My model always seems to love Columbia a little too much, but head coach Kyle Smith has steadily improved this program. Columbia used to finish every season in the 250-300 range. But under Smith they finished with the 123rd best margin-of-victory in the nation last year. And with everyone back, a Top 100 finish is within reach. Meanwhile, Yale brings nearly everyone back, Princeton is always good, and all three of those teams can give Harvard a competitive game.

But it doesn't just end at the top. Brown and Dartmouth bring nearly everyone back and will be better. And even bottom feeder Cornell should benefit from the return of Shonn Miller, who was injured last year. Only Penn seems headed in the wrong direction. Last year's 5-9 Ivy League mark looked like rock-bottom, but based on the improvements elsewhere in the league, Penn could be headed to even fewer conference wins this season. Penn head coach Jerome Allen is firmly on the hot seat.

My main worry with Ivy League is simply the lack of neutral site games against quality opponents. Since the Ivy League teams still have to play most of their marquee games on the road, I'm not sure their non-conference win-loss profile will reflect how good the conference is this year.

Big West: Thanks to 7'6" Mamadou Ndiaye, UC Irvine's defense should stay elite. UC Irvine’s offense was pretty dreadful last year, but with the majority of the rotation back, the offense should improve. And with a passable offense, Irvine might even be able to sneak into the at-large discussion. UC Santa Barbara still has super-scorer Alan Williams and they get TJ Taylor back from injury. Taylor was a great passer and solid outside shooter as a sophomore, but he had hip problems that held him out last season. Meanwhile, Long Beach St. was a different team after UCLA transfer Tyler Lamb became eligible last December. Having Lamb for the full season will be huge.

Even the bottom of the league will be better. CS Fullerton adds some key transfers that are going to move the needle quite a bit. And after three key players sat last year (two due to injury) for UC Davis, I expect the return of those players to make UC Davis one of the most improved teams in the country. I still expect UC Davis to finish near the bottom of the Big West, but because the Big West will be better from top to bottom, I expect this to be one of the most improved conferences in the nation.

MAC: Toledo is going to get a lot of love based on the players they have coming back. The only reason I don’t have them as the clear MAC favorite is that I think they still have a lot of questions in the front-court. Nathan Boone is 6'9" but he is a poor rebounder and he plays much smaller than his size. Matt Smith is gone. And as great a rebounder as JD Weatherspoon is, he's still only 6'6". Toledo was a brilliant offensive team last year, but the lack of quality interior play meant the team's 2 PT FG% defense was dreadful. And if Toledo can't stop opponent from making 2's, I'm not sure they can do much to improve on last year's record. They need one of the young forwards to take an unexpected leap forward. Unfortunately, Zach Garber was very passive last year, and Aubrey Williams barely saw the court, so there isn't a lot of reason to expect those two to be quality post players this year.

Akron loses a ton of production, but Deji Ibitayo and Isaiah Johnson were quality reserves that should be ready to step into bigger roles and keep the team on a winning roll. The return of Jake Kretzer, who was injured in mid-February last year, will also be huge. Ohio also loses a ton of production, but their MAC title chances hinge on whether Kenny Kaminsky is granted immediate eligibility. Since he was dismissed from Michigan St., I think there is a strong chance Kaminsky will be granted a waiver.

When you look at my rankings at the end of October, Western Michigan may stand out as a surprise. A lot of people will have them as the MAC favorites after star David Brown was granted an extra year of eligibility. But I’m really concerned about the loss of 6'11" center Shayne Whittingon. Western Michigan didn't have another player over 6'6" in the final rotation last year and they don't have any key transfers coming in. They will likely be using a low-skilled inexperienced big man, or a very small lineup next year. Brown's return means the offense will be better, but with a slightly worse defense, I see them as a MAC title contender, not the favorite.

Finally, Kent St. looks like a sleeper team. Not only are four efficient starters back (Kris Brewer, Derek Jackson, Devareaux Manley, and Kellon Thomas), the team also adds three D1 transfers. The key is Jimmy Hall. Hall was kicked out of Hofstra after being arrested for burglary, but he was off to a brilliant start as a freshman. He looks like a very high potential option. Rutgers transfer Craig Brown and Rhode Island transfer Blake Vedder don't have quite the same upside, but the drop in competition level should help them, and after how poorly Kent St.'s bench played last year, their experience will help a lot.

Horizon: In March, Cleveland St. looked like they might be the favorite. But then it was announced that Sebastian Douglas was done with basketball due to all his knee injuries. And then it was announced that leading scorer Bryn Forbes was transferring to Michigan St. Defending champ Green Bay brings back a lot of players, but the loss of the 7 footer in the middle is going to hurt the defense quite a bit. Both teams will still be the class of the conference, but they don’t look quite as strong as last year.

Conference USA: CUSA has more high school talent than the other conferences in this preview, but they lack a clear at-large caliber team at the top, largely because many of the top teams have suffered devastating talent defections this off-season. Southern Miss, UAB, and Middle Tennessee are basically starting over, and while they have some transfers to help with that process, they will have a hard time finishing in the Top 4 in CUSA.

Louisiana Tech loses a ton of talent to graduation, but the return of Raheem Appleby, who missed much of last year due to injury, might make them the favorite. UTEP should also be in the conversation for the league title. Few teams could lose a post player that rebounds and scores as effectively as John Bohannon and not suffer because of it, but UTEP had incredible post depth with Matt Wilms, Cedrick Lang, and Vince Hunter last year. They shouldn’t miss a beat.

Old Dominion might be my biggest sleeper team nationally. I know Dimitri Batten left for Boston College, but he shot too much, and his efficiency was below that of most of his teammates. ODU returns six effective players, Aaron Bacote, Keenan Palmore, Richard Ross, Denzell Taylor, Ambrose Mosley, and Jordan Baker, the last three of whom should benefit from the sophomore leap. Deion Clark should be back after suffering a knee injury last summer. But the reason I have ODU jumping up so much nationally is that they add two high impact transfers. Trey Freeman was a very efficient PG who played major minutes and scored major points for Campbell two years ago. And George Mason’s Jonathan Arledge was a dominant big man. Arledge was aggressive, efficient, great on the boards, and an occasional shot-blocker for George Mason. Those two players will upgrade ODU substantially.

I’m also very high on Western Kentucky. They only have 60% of their minutes back which doesn’t sound that high, but that is deceiving. Aleksej Rostov and Kevin Kaspar played limited minutes last year due to injury. And Chris Harrison-Docks and Trency Jackson didn’t debut until December. The loss of senior starter Caden Dickerson is also highly over-rated as Dickerson used only 11% of his team’s possessions when on the floor. WKU is really a veteran team with most of its points’ producers returning.

The one team I’m not as high on as some other prognosticators is Charlotte. The 49ers add two 4-star transfers in Clemson’s Bernard Sullivan and Florida’s Braxton Ogbueze. You might think I’m not excited because those two players didn’t perform well with their last teams. But with talented athletes, sometimes they just weren’t a good fit with the previous team. The real issue is that my model doesn’t believe in head coach Alan Major at this point. I know that the Charlotte roster was not in great shape when he took over, but Charlotte was not one of the dregs of D1 either. They have had plenty of 3 star recruits and transfers to work with the last four years. And yet in four seasons, Major has never produced an offense better than 190th in the country. With the resources at his disposal at Charlotte that’s under-achieving. Major is firmly on the hot-seat this season.

MAAC: The MAAC's ranking in the above table is a bit misleading because the average is really being dragged down by the bottom of the league. Marist and Niagara's programs are not in good shape right now. Niagara in particular was terrible last year and they lose all their best players. Canisius was good last year, but they had a ton of roster turnover, and they are going with a freshmen heavy roster this year.

But that shouldn't distract us from the fact that the top three teams in the league are very strong. I think Manhattan is probably getting too much hype with the addition of Cincinnati transfer and former Top 25 recruit Jermaine Lawrence. Manhattan loses two of the best guards in the league, and they will be hard to replace. But Manhattan will be in the mix. Siena returns everyone who played last year, and Jimmy Patsos team should be in the hunt for the league title. And don't overlook Iona. While they lose some key players, transfer Jeylani Dublin was an amazing per minute scorer at Longwood. He averaged 10 PPG while playing 20 minutes per game. And I need to start campaigning for Iona head coach Tim Cluess for consideration for a Top 11 job. The man is brilliant offensively. His offenses have ranked 27th, 17th, 19th, and 7th in the nation the last four years.

One final note on the MAAC: When my numbers are released, you will see that Rider gets a big boost defensively from the addition of 7 foot Utah St. transfer Matt Lopez. Lopez hasn't played major minutes at his previous two programs, but given Rider's rotation I think he is going to get meaningful playing time. And 7 footers often improve a team’s 2 PT defense. If I'm wrong about Lopez's playing time, the defensive prediction may be too optimistic. But there are other reasons to expect Rider's defense to be better. Rider's defense fell off a cliff last season, but they also were a little unlucky. Teams made threes and free throws at a very high rate against them. Weaknesses in those areas are unlikely to be repeated. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that last year's defensive collapse was a fluke.

Patriot League: The Patriot League is a mixed bag. While the league as a whole is very experienced, I’m not sure the teams at the top will be better. And a league like the Patriot league is judged based on its best teams, not its depth. Boston University lost several key players to graduation, and Maurice Watson’s decision to transfer to Creighton may have ruined their chances of repeating as conference champs. Big man Tony Wroblicky was probably American’s most important player, and while Nevada transfer Kevin Panzer might take some of his minutes, he seems like a pretty significant downgrade. Similarly, Holy Cross simply has no one on the roster who can replace big man Dave Dudzinski. Army, Lafayette, and Navy should be better in the middle and bottom of the league, but that might not help the league’s reputation.

Summit: The top teams in the league all lost multiple valuable players, which may make Denver the favorite. But even Denver loses all-around star Chris Udofia. On paper, the top of the conference takes a big step back.Oral Roberts is back after spending two years in the Southland. Oral Robert’s head coach Scott Sutton had the worst season of his career last year, and my model thinks it was a bit of a fluke.

CAA: I’ve never seen a circumstance where a league’s standings could almost completely flip upside-down, but that could happen in the CAA this year. Hofstra was the second to worst team in the CAA last season, but I actually think they might be the favorite this season. What you have to remember is that when Joe Mihalich came from Niagara, he brought two of his best players with him in Juan’ya Green and Ameen Tanksley. They had to sit out last year, but now they are eligible. Meanwhile, Hofstra returns three very good players in Jamall Robinson, Dion Nesmith, and Moussa Kone. The lack of depth on the roster is very disturbing, but as Towson showed when they added some key transfers a couple of years ago, sometimes all you need is two or three outstanding transfers, and a team’s outlook can change in a second.

Meanwhile, first place Delaware is a shell of the team that won the league last season. Losing the best four players is bad enough, but what you have to remember is that they were not only four very efficient players, they were all very aggressive too. Delaware’s four returning rotation players used 17%, 14%, 12%, and 9% of the possessions when on the floor last season. When you ask players like that to shoot 20% or more, their efficiency tends to plummet. Delaware is headed for one of the biggest falls in D1.

Towson may be headed for a big fall too given that they also lose their best players, but Towson is rolling the dice on another group of under-achieving major conference transfers. That worked two years ago, so perhaps they aren’t in for a big fall. But based on who they lost, a big collapse isn’t out of the question. Drexel also loses a ton of production, but at least they get Damion Lee back. Overall the conference standings may look nothing like they did last season.

OVC: On the flip side, I don’t expect much change in the OVC standings. When I listed the top 100 programs in the tempo free era, Murray St. and Belmont narrowly missed the cut. And there is no reason they won’t be the OVC favorites again.

Sun Belt: Besides Harvard, and Irvine, the other great small conference team this year is Georgia St. Did you know that even though Georgia finished third in the SEC, Georgia St. actually had a better margin-of-victory than Georgia last season? The Panthers lost by one point in OT to Elfrid Payton and Louisiana Lafayette in the Sun Belt tournament, but that should not take away from how great this team was. Ryan Harrow might have been a bust for Kentucky, but he wasn’t a bust for the Panthers. And along with the super-efficient RJ Hunter, who made 95 threes last year, and Curtis Washington, who shot 65% while becoming a dominant shot-blocker and rebounder, Georgia St. has enough key pieces back to be great again. The team does lose a couple of key starters, but with a quality bench, and the addition of former 4-star recruit and Louisville transfer Kevin Ware, the sky is the limit.

The only thing that may hold Georgia St. back is that the Sun Belt as a whole is going to be weaker this year. Western Kentucky has left for CUSA, Payton has left Louisiana Lafayette for the NBA, and as a whole the league does not return a lot of minutes. I fear Georgia St. may be criminally under-seeded come tournament time.

Big South: South Carolina transfer Brian Richardson will help High Point challenge a veteran Coastal Carolina squad for the league title.

WAC: New Mexico St. will take a big step back defensively with the loss of 7’5” Sim Bhullar in the middle. I know he received a lot of criticism for leaving early for the NBA draft, but he still earned a contract with the Sacramento Kings, and I certainly understand his comments that he will receive better training and medical care with a professional team. With Daniel Mullings, Tshilidzi Nephawe, and DK Eldridge back, no one should feel sorry for New Mexico St. They still have the most tradition, most talent, and given how few players are returning in the WAC this season, they are the overwhelming favorite.

I still don’t know how Utah Valley won the regular season title last year. At the start of conference play, they were 6-7, with the 240th best margin-of-victory in the nation. Yet somehow Utah Valley won more conference games than a very talented New Mexico St. team. According to Kenpom.com, Utah Valley was the second luckiest team in the nation (behind only Tulane). I don’t expect a repeat.

Big Sky: Jack Murphy has taken Northern Arizona from 342nd nationally, to 294th two years ago, to 262nd last year. And with almost everyone back, I see them reaching new heights. I think Weber St. and Montana’s dominance at the top of the conference standings may be about to end.

American East: Even though Vermont and Stony Brook lose a lot, I don’t expect their dominance at the top of the conference standings to end.

Atlantic-Sun: Brent Comer and Bernard Thompson are still around and Florida Gulf Coast adds five transfers with D1 experience. That core should be good enough for a league title.

Southern Conference: The top eight players are back on a Wofford team that made the NCAA tournament last year.

NEC: Robert Morris might still be the favorite, but they aren’t the overwhelming best team in the league like last season.

Southland: After two of the best seasons in team history, Stephen F. Austin loses quite a few key players and should take a step back. But with Thomas Walkup, Jacob Parker, and a few key transfers, they are still the favorite.

MEAC:  I’m very excited about the group of transfers joining North Carolina Central this season.

SWAC: The APR ban hit some teams hard. Central Arkansas and Florida A&M rosters were completely decimated by the ban. But somehow Lewis Jackson held the Alabama St. roster together. And now his team will be in an intense battle with Texas Southern for the regular season title.

Rondo Injury Leads To Experiment At Point Guard

The Boston Celtics will be without Rajon Rondo to begin the season for the second time in as many years following last week’s much-discussed left hand injury. Rondo suffered a left metacarpal fracture last Thursday night when he slipped in the shower.

There had been reports that Rondo injured himself at a local trampoline park, a visit he made with his children at least twice last week, but he was adamant that his story was legitimate during the team’s annual media day on Monday. 

Rondo expects to miss 8-10 weeks, which means the Celtics will be without their starting point guard for at least the first few weeks of the regular season. Danny Ainge said the club would be “cautious” with Rondo even though the injury is to his off-hand.

Regardless of whether Rondo is out for two weeks or more than a month, Brad Stevens will be forced to improvise. That means more ball-handling duties for two newcomers -- rookie Marcus Smart and free-agent addition Evan Turner. 

“Marcus being a rookie, it’s very important for him not to feel like he has to fill Rondo’s shoes. We’ll do that as a team and we’ll do that collectively,” Ainge said at the team’s practice facility in Waltham. “Evan will probably play some point guard, those are questions you can ask Brad. Phil [Pressey] can play some point guard.”

Boston has never had a ton of depth behind Rondo in terms of a true point guard, but this year the cupboard is more empty than usual. Avery Bradley spent a decent amount of time running the point with Rondo recovering from a torn ACL in each of the last two seasons, but wasn’t listed by Stevens as a potential option this time around. 

“We have multiple primary ball-handers on this team. I’ve always been a guy that thinks you can play two point guards together and you can play two combo guards together,” Stevens said. “We’ve just got to figure out who can best get the most out of everyone else and at the same time get the most out of the position as they can. 

“It’s an opportunity for Marcus. It’s an opportunity for Phil Pressey; it’s an opportunity for Evan Turner. It’s an opportunity for all those guys. The answer to that is only time will tell, I think that’s the best way to go about it.”

No mention was made of Bradley, who the coach raved about as a fill-in for Rondo prior to last season. Stevens told the Boston Herald in September 2013: I don’t think there is any doubt that Avery has elite ability in a lot of ways as a point guard. He’s an elite defender at the position. He’s an elite athlete at the point guard position. I think he’s a guy that’s gotten better. I think he’s a guy with more confidence, and I think he’s excited about the challenge if Rajon is out [in reference to Rondo’s ACL injury].

“As I’ve watched it, I didn’t think the struggles [at the point last season, which referred to 2012-13] were as bad as they were made out to be. The other thing is he did that midstream. He had to make that adjustment within a system already created. Maybe we do things that fit him a bit better early that you can tweak when Rajon comes back. You know, Bradley is still going to play. He’s still going to play a lot. He’s going to play off the ball and with the ball.”

It could very well be that Bradley hasn’t been considered because Rondo’s absence should be short. While not proven, Stevens has options worth looking at for the 8-to-16 games Rondo is expected to miss.

Pressey carries experience from last season, his first as a professional, when he played 15.1 minutes per game and started 11 times. His usage rate was low, 14.3%, but he showed an ability to distribute the ball effectively -- accounting for 44.3% of Boston’s assists when on the court.

It’s odd to think of him as the best option, but that may only be because he went undrafted 16 months ago.

Turner has the most NBA experience of the three -- having logged 306 games, mostly with the Philadelphia 76ers -- but could be third on the point guard depth chart when the season begins.

The No. 2 overall pick in 2010, Turner hasn’t played much point guard in the NBA, but the Indiana Pacers did experiment with him at the position sparingly during his brief tenure with the club. Ironically enough, the Celtics were one of the teams against which Frank Vogel played Turner at the point. I wrote about Indiana’s experiment here -- Pacers Show New Wrinkle With Turner At Point Guard -- in March.

Vogel made the decision to have Turner run the point -- which was forced by a brief injury to George Hill -- because the former National Player of the Year did so for a season at Ohio State. Stevens also referenced that when I asked him about his lack of professional experience running an offense.

“I think the [lack of] experience way, way, way outdistances any [lack of] success. I don’t think he’s played a lot of point, but maybe I’m wrong,” Stevens said. “I do know that he played point one year in college and was the National Player of the Year.”

The results weren’t bad in the limited time Turner spent at the point for the Pacers, but the situation was vastly different than the one in Boston. Hill, Indiana’s starting “point guard” is really one in name only, while Rondo carries much more responsibility. The cast of characters around Turner with Indiana was also more talented. Turner’s stat line was impressive in the aforementioned March game against the Celtics, which may have Stevens more optimistic than he should be about his skills as the primary ball-hander.

To his credit, Turner expressed a desire to do whatever Stevens asks him to do for the Celtics. “I’ve played the perimeter lately, and I’ve guarded the one-through-three,” he said. “I just want to do whatever is best to help the team.”

Regardless of how comfortable he is handing Turner the keys to the offense, Stevens seems most inclined to give Smart a chance to win the job outright. He made a point of emphasizing that he won’t restrict the sixth overall pick from starting simply because he’s a rookie.

“Marcus is going to get a ton of opportunity on and off the ball. I think he is physical, mentally and emotionally ready for those,” the coach said. “He doesn’t have any experience yet, but that will come quick.”

Warriors Enter 14-15 With New Coach Yet Same Problem With David Lee

With a huge number of quality teams in the middle of the Western Conference, there doesn’t appear to be much separation between those fighting for homecourt advantage in the first round and the ones trying to sneak into the playoffs. And while most tried to upgrade their personnel in the offseason, the Golden State Warriors took a different tack. They are counting on improvement from their coaching staff, replacing Mark Jackson with Sterr Kerr.

Jackson was a polarizing figure in Golden State. On one hand, the Warriors improved their win total in each of his three seasons with the club, going from perennial lottery contender to playoff fixture. On the other, he was a very stubborn coach whose offensive philosophies seemed stuck in his playing days, a bit of anachronism in the modern NBA. And while he was beloved in the locker room, he didn’t have a great relationship with management.

If the transition from Jackson to Kerr causes an on the court improvement, it will likely come on the offensive end of the floor. Despite having a starting line-up brimming with firepower, the Warriors were 11th and 12th in offensive rating in the last two seasons. Many blamed that on Jackson’s fondness for isolations and post-ups, as Golden State was second lowest in the league in the number of passes per possession, according to SportsVU. 

Kerr is promising to install a more free-flowing offensive system, one that includes many principles of the Triangle he learned from playing under Phil Jackson. The primary beneficiaries may be the Warriors second unit, as they traditionally struggled to score under Jackson, perhaps because they lacked the playmaking ability of guys like Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and David Lee to create good shots out of 1-out-1 situations.

The new coaching staff probably won’t make many adjustments on the defensive side of the floor, where Jackson’s teams were among the best in the NBA. Despite giving so many minutes to defensive liabilities like Curry and Lee, the Warriors had a Top 5 defense in each of the last two seasons. Like many players who learned the game in the 1990’s, Jackson firmly believed the old adage that defense wins championships and emphasized that side of the ball. 

And while he was widely viewed a “player’s coach” and not a tactician, Jackson more than held his own against some of the league’s best coaches in the last two postseasons. Both years, he had to deal with a significant injury to one of his primary frontcourt players and was forced to change the identity of his team on the fly. That’s easier said than done, as the Oklahoma City Thunder’s struggles without Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka have shown.

In 2012, Lee went down with a hip injury in the first game of the playoffs. The obvious move would have been to insert Carl Landry into the starting line-up, but Jackson decided to slide Harrison Barnes to the power forward position, turning the Warriors into a four-out team overnight. With four perimeter players spotted up at the three-point line, Golden State turned the tables on the Denver Nuggets and beat them at their own game. 

Since Kenneth Faried didn’t have the post game to take advantage of Barnes lack of size, the Warriors were able to improve their floor spacing on offense without sacrificing much on defense. Under George Karl, the Nuggets had been a contrarian power, taking advantage of the altitude in Denver to run slower teams off the floor. That didn’t work against the new-look Warriors, who had more firepower and more size, thanks to the presence of Andrew Bogut. 

In 2013, Bogut went down before the start of their first-round series against the Los Angeles Clippers, a loss even more devastating than Lee’s. Bogut was the anchor of their defense and his ability to screen open shooters and facilitate out of the high post was a huge part of the Warriors offense. After falling behind 2-1 to the Clippers, Jackson made another great adjustment, sliding Lee to center and inserting Draymond Green into the starting line-up at PF. 

He went back to the same playbook he used in 2012, knowing he could hide a smaller player on a limited big man like DeAndre Jordan. Just as important, Green’s ability to stretch the floor from the PF spot opened up the paint for Golden State’s offense and forced Blake Griffin to play defense 25+ feet from the basket. Even though the Warriors were dramatically undermanned, they almost came back to win the series, narrowly losing a Game 7 thriller. 

In both instances, Jackson showed he understood the importance of spreading the floor as well as how to manipulate match-ups and force the opposing coach into a difficult situation. Karl didn’t want to take Faried off the floor and Doc Rivers felt the same away about Jordan - Jackson’s substitutions forced them to pay a price for sticking with their big men. That’s how the Warriors were able to punch above their weight in each of the last two playoffs. 

The interesting question is what would have happened if Bogut had stayed healthy and Jackson had tried the same tactic. Since neither Lee nor Green could protect the rim, the Clippers were able to shred the Warriors defense as the series went on. A frontcourt of Bogut and Green, in contrast, would have still been able to stretch the floor and compromise the Clippers defense while also having the ability to shut off the paint and protect the defensive glass. 

Throughout Jackson’s tenure in Golden State, the only guy who came under more fire than the coach was Lee, who has never really been able to justify the huge contract he received in 2010. While he’s a skilled player who puts up big stats, he’s not capable of scoring over the top of bigger players in the post, he doesn’t have the shooting range to stretch the floor and he’s not good defensively. In a lot of ways, Lee is the worst of both worlds at the power forward position.

As long as Lee is on the floor, the Warriors have to use a two-post offense that doesn’t maximize the talents of their perimeter players. Most teams who make that decision do so with the idea that playing two big men together will fortify their defense, but Lee doesn’t bring much to that end of the floor either. He has never been on an elite team in his 9-year NBA career and Golden State certainly seemed to play better without him in the 2012 playoffs. 

And while Green gives up a lot of size on defense, he makes up for it by having long arms, very quick feet and a strong base. He made Griffin work for his points when matched up against him in the playoffs, something Lee has never been accused of doing. There’s even more benefit to playing Green on offense, since he gives the Warriors another shooter and another guy who can break the defense down off the dribble and create plays for others off the bounce. 

If Kerr is given the freedom to make a move like that, he may be able to take the Warriors to the next level.

While Jackson had a lot of success in Golden State, he was far from a perfect coach, so there’s nothing wrong with replacing him. However, if Lee ends up having more job security than Jackson, Golden State has been wasting their time. For as much press as coaches get in the modern NBA, basketball is still more about Jimmies and Joes than X’s and O’s.

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Reviewing Brooklyn's 2014 Offseason

Outside of the Jason Kidd saga, the Nets experienced a relatively quiet offseason. Their lack of cap flexibility made it difficult for them to add any impactful players and even retain their own free agents. The loss of two key contributors and the injury-riddled histories of their star players could cause the Nets to struggle to make the 2015 Playoffs.

USA Fully Restores Order In Basketball Universe

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The 250-Pound Swiss Army Life Of France And San Antonio

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Spain And The Beautiful Game

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SMU and UConn are the co-favorites to win the American Conference, with Memphis, Tulsa and Cincinnati hoping to reach the Big Dance.

The Storylines Of The Basketball World Cup

Every national program involved enters this tournament with the goal of trying to make their country proud. For some countries, that means toppling the mighty U.S.A. For others, it’s one last shot at glory. And a few programs lurking in the shadows are hoping to use this platform to announce themselves as the world’s newest global power.

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.

Why Eric Bledsoe's Max Contract Awaits

Once Eric Bledsoe gets more NBA games under his belt, there’s really no ceiling to how good he can be - imagine Chris Paul’s brain in Derrick Rose’s body. He's also already one of the best two-way players in the NBA.

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.

Kyrie Irving's Transformation Starts With Admission He Needs LeBron, Cavs' New Vets

He wasn’t a leader of men in his first three pro seasons, and he had erratic moments as an A-list star. And suddenly, here come LeBron James and Kevin Love arriving into a defective locker room, and no one needs them all more than Kyrie Irving.

15 Most Anticipated Games Of 14-15 NBA Season

The release of the NBA schedule lets us put some date on some of the more compelling matchups (no repeats) that will take place during the 2014-15 regular season.

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.

Grading The Deal: Cavaliers Trade For Kevin Love

Kevin Love was the best procurable player in the NBA for the Cavaliers, a top-10 talent at the age of 26 who will excellently complement LeBron James and Kyrie Irving.

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