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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.

The Storylines Of The Basketball World Cup

If you have been looking for a basketball fix in the dog days of summer, wait no longer. The FIBA World Championships are finally here. Even though this is ‘Murica, this tournament allows hoop heads to take note of the global influence of the game because, as it turns out other countries play and love the sport as much as we do. When they’re not playing soccer, of course.

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. So before this whirlwind event kicks into gear, let’s take a look at the most pressing storylines. 

First and foremost, can anyone push the US to the brink before the Semifinals?

Short answer, no. If you’re a fan of blowouts, then Team USA’s draw in the bottom half of the bracket are going to make all your dreams come true. Their opponents in Group C should offer very little resistance. Finland has a few fringe NBA talents in current Cavalier, Erik Murphy and former second round pick Petteri Koponen (currently plying his trade in Russia), but their extremely slim chances of testing the U.S. went to none the minute NBA vet Drew Gooden couldn’t get dual citizenship. The Dominican Republic, New Zealand and Ukraine all lack to pose a serious threat to Team USA, even on an off night.

That leaves just Turkey. NBA defensive stalwart, Omir Asik, who will be joined in the frontcourt by talented European-based bigs, Ogus Savas (a beast on the glass) and Emir Preldzic provide the Turkish team with a capable front line. Up front, Turkey should be able to compete with the US despite not having NBA veterans Ersan Ilyasova and Enes Kanter. But the fact that Turkish League veteran Sinan Gular is their only capable ballhandler (for this level), makes it extremely unlikely this game comes down to the wire.

In the first two knockout rounds, Team USA is likely to draw (at worst) Mexico, Slovenia and Lithuania. As we saw in their exhibition opener, Phoenix’s Goran Dragic (and his brother, Zoran!) will have trouble making it a game, as we saw in the most recent exhibition matchup. Lithuania has an NBA frontline of Toronto’s Jonas Valanciunas and Houston’s Donatas Motiejunas and a strong record in international play. But team captain and starting point guard Mantas Kalnietes dislocated his collarbone and will miss the tournament. Losing such an integral player likely means it will be another lopsided affair for Team USA should the two sides meet. On the bright side, lots of Anthony Davis lobs should be fun for the whole family. 

An ugly send off to a Golden Generation?

On the opposite side of the bracket, it seems like it will be a long, painful farewell to one of the most incredible basketball generations we’ve ever seen. Argentina has become a staple of international basketball over the past dozen years but their run of relevance may soon come to a disappointing end. Three members of the old guard, Manu Ginobili, Fabricio Oberto and Carlos Delfino are either retired (Oberto) or out injured. The team’s bell cow in recent years, Luis Scola, is 34. Savvy veteran point guard Pablo Prigioni is 37. Rugged forward Andres Nocioni will turn 35 this fall and is playing out his career in Spain. It’s truly the last gasp for a country that has beaten the US twice and medaled in multiple international tournaments, including taking home the gold in the 2004 Olympics, during an amazing decade plus.

With the only young talent on the roster being 23-year-old point guard Facundo Campazzo, it’s very possible that this squad could barely end up qualifying in a group containing three quality opponents in Greece, Croatia and Puerto Rico. Getting anywhere in the knockout rounds with Brazil and Spain lurking makes it likely that Argentina’s tournament run ends early. But given the competitive spirit that has embodied this program since the burst onto the international scene, they may will their way to one last inspiring run. 

Does France pose a real threat without Tony Parker and Nando De Colo?

With Parker in the fold, France would have been one of the favorites in the tournament and presented Team USA with a real challenge in a possible final. Unfortunately for France, Parker is out and so is his understudy, Nando de Colo, due to a broken hand. Left in their stead are virtual unknowns Thomas Heurtel (playing for a mid-tier Spanish team) and Antoine Diot (plying his trade in France’s domestic league). Those two have reportedly looked shaky in exhibitions (though France did smack Australia 73-50 in their last warm up game) and it’s likely that France will be forced to rely on NBA veterans Nicolas Batum, Evan Fournier and Boris Diaw to handle the ball and create in the half court. As we saw in the NBA Finals, Diaw can do things with the ball in his hands most 6’9” people can’t and Batum is equally as capable. Yet asking one (or all) of those three to shoulder the burden of running an offense for multiple games in the tournament seems like a recipe for failure. France will still be a tough out, but the injuries to de Colo and Parker have likely ended any hope of a gold medal. 

Which country is primed to take the next step?

Australia suffered a major blow when Spurs scoring machine Patty Mills suffered a serious shoulder injury. Without Mills, it seemed like the Boomers were destined to just another respectable, yet uninspiring finish. But in the absence of Mills, sharp-shooting Ryan Broekhoff has emerged to shoulder some of the burden.

If Broekhoff’s name caused you to mutter “who?”, don’t feel bad. Only the dedicated hoops junkies may remember when his solid career at Valparaiso University had him (briefly) on the radar as a potential second round draft pick last summer. Broekhoff’s solid play in warm-up games has cemented a spot in the starting lineup next to precocious pick-and-roll maestro Matthew Dellavedova (Cavaliers), small forward Joe Ingles (a member of Euroleague champion, Maccabi Tel Aviv), former NBA journeyman David Anderson and Spurs big man Aron Baynes. That group will be supported by a bench of guards Chris Goulding (scoring machine in the Australian league), Brad Newley (veteran of both the Australian and high-level European leagues), Dante Exum (Utah Jazz lottery pick), along with big men Cameron Bairstow (Bulls second round pick) and Brock Motum (recently signed by the Jazz). Not a single member of this team is a big time talent (yet, in Exum’s case), but it’s a tough, productive group that should be the favorite to win Group D. Doing so would all but guarantee a potential match up with Team USA in the semi-finals. If Australia pushes the U.S. to the limit in that game it will officially announce their presence as a force to be reckoned with in international basketball. 

Can Spain win it all?

For the most part, the prevailing wisdom seems to be that this tournament is destined for a redux of the 2012 Olympics. Only a major upset should stop Team USA from reaching the final, but the Spanish squad will have their work cut out for them. Despite being the hosts, Spain will have to navigate a group containing France and a very tough Brazil team featuring the likes of Nene (Wizards), Anderson Varejao (Cavs), Tiago Splitter (Spurs), Leandro Barbosa (Warriors) and the Steve Nash of Europe, Marcelinho Huertas. In the knockout stages, Argentina, Greece and Croatia (a country that, like Australia, could make a name for itself in this tournament) all have varying chances of scoring an upset. The road to even meet the U.S. in the Finals is going to be a challenging one at the very least.

Should Spain make it through safely, it should set up an epic rematch of the gold medal game two years ago. With Serge Ibaka, Marc and Pau Gasol all participating in the tournament, the U.S. has been (rightfully) concerned with matching Span’s size. But it’s really the guard play that will ultimately decide this potential matchup. Because of Team USA’s aggressive style of defense, the playmaking and shooting of NBA veterans Jose Calderon and Ricky Rubio along with former NBA players Juan Carlos Navarro and Rudy Fernandez will be vital (keep an eye on Spanish pro Sergio Llull too). If those four players can avoid turnovers and knock down open shots -- along with steady support from their more heralded big men -- a win against of the U.S. is a real possibility.

But no matter how it ends, Spain’s journey will likely be the most exciting subplot of the entire tournament.

College Basketball Preview 14-15: Big East

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

Earlier Previews: ACC Preview, MWC Preview, SEC Preview, WCC Preview, Atlantic-10 Preview

Big East Favorite

Villanova: It hardly seems fair to the rest of the league that last year’s Big East regular season champion also has the most returning minutes in the conference. Incoming Top 100 freshmen like Phil Booth and Mikal Bridges can simply be eased into the lineup on a team like Villanova instead of thrown into the fire. Villanova is also tied with Georgetown and Marquette for the most former Top 100 recruits on the roster with seven.

James Bell is gone, but when you have a player like Josh Hart ready to move from the bench and into the starting lineup, the future is bright. Hart was great at getting to the line, great at finishing around the rim, and even more efficient than Bell last season. With all those veterans, Villanova has very little downside risk.

Hoping for the Top 25

Georgetown: John Thompson III is confident that Joshua Smith will be eligible this year, and when Smith is on the floor, he is a dominant offensive force. Given that Smith has never played 20 minutes a game, and rarely played a full season of games, I’m a little skeptical that he can dominate for a full year. But even if Smith does not play major minutes, the Hoyas are still going to be substantially improved because of a strong recruiting class that includes Top 100 recruits Isaac Copeland, LJ Peak, and Paul White. Their size and athleticism should easily compliment a back court of D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera and Jabril Trawick. For a team that gave major minutes to three offensive liabilities last year, I will be shocked if Georgetown’s offense is not better.

But my real question is on defense. In January, I wrote how some coaches appeared to be adapting poorly to the change in the way fouls were being called. Despite the fact that their teams have fouled at a fairly consistent rate throughout their careers, John Thompson III, Roy Williams and Bill Self were all fouling at a dramatically higher rate than they had historically.

A very smart Michigan writer tweeted me and was skeptical of the numbers. After all, a handful of coaches will have outlier years every season. And the truth is, we can’t rule out that possibility. Perhaps Georgetown just happened to have some players that were particularly poor at keeping their opponent in front of them last year, and they had to foul too much. Perhaps, despite the presence of Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, Kansas just had an unorthodox team, and that explains why Bill Self had the worst defensive team he’s ever had at Kansas. I’ve run some statistical tests, and the increase in fouling appears to go above and beyond the normal amount of statistical variation, but with one data point after the rule change, it is possible this was just a fluke.

But if you are looking for a reason to doubt Georgetown, the question of whether John Thompson III’s defense is too physical for the new foul rules is an important one. The next table shows the coaches who saw the largest uptick in fouls committed last year:

Coaches with the Biggest Increases in FTA per FGA on Defense

Coach

Team

2013

2014

Change

J. P. Piper

Nicholls St.

39

61

+22

Brian Katz

Sacramento St.

28

49

+21

Roman Banks

Southern

35

54

+19

Jim Molinari

Western Illinois

28

47

+19

Willie Hayes

Alabama A&M

36

55

+19

Kevin Nickelberry

Howard

37

54

+17

John Thompson

Georgetown

35

52

+17

Doug Wojcik

Charleston

27

43

+16

Steve Pikiell

Stony Brook

27

42

+15

Scott Sutton

Oral Roberts

28

43

+15

Howard Moore

Illinois Chicago

35

50

+15

Brian Jones

North Dakota

34

49

+15

Ray McCallum

Detroit

36

50

+15

Dana Altman

Oregon

33

48

+15

Roy Williams

North Carolina

27

41

+14

Clemon Johnson

Florida A&M

42

56

+14

Scott Nagy

South Dakota St.

24

38

+14

Mark Gottfried

North Carolina St.

29

43

+14

Randy Monroe

UMBC

44

58

+14

Cy Alexander

North Carolina A&T

41

54

+13

Bill Self

Kansas

32

45

+13

Hoping for the NCAA Tournament

Xavier: When I was reading the offseason headlines, “Semaj Christon declares for the draft”, “Justin Martin transfers”, I assumed Xavier was headed for a rebuilding season. But when you look at the Xavier lineup, it is much stronger than you might think. First, Dee Davis was not as good a scorer as Semaj Christon, but he had a very strong assist rate, and he should be able to keep the Xavier offense running at a high level. And incoming PG Edmond Sumner is viewed as a Top 100 recruit by everyone except Rivals. Off the ball, Xavier adds transfer Remy Abell, who was highly efficient at Indiana. Rising sophomore Miles Davis was also efficient and with the typical sophomore leap he should be in for a strong season. The guards might not score as much as last season, but that’s a solid group.

At the wing, the team adds Trevon Bluiett. If you are looking for a reason Justin Martin transferred, Bluiett might be the reason. The Top 40 recruit is so talented, he would have taken many of Martin’s minutes regardless. And the post might be the team’s area of greatest strength. Matt Stainbrook is a star. James Farr and Jalen Reynolds were two of the best reserve forwards in the country last year, and the team adds top 100 recruit Makinde London in the paint. Xavier lacks a little star power, and that may keep them from reaching the highest levels of performance. But their quality depth will win a ton of games.

St. John’s: This team is an enigma. They had star power with D’Angelo Harrison and JaKarr Sampson, quality depth, and they played solid defense, but they weren’t an NCAA tournament team last year. They had plenty of highly ranked recruits, but they couldn’t score.

And this offseason provides more of the same. On the one hand, the team takes a big step back in the paint, with three of the team’s four primary post players moving on. On the other hand, that means Chris Obekpa should play more minutes, and his shot-blocking can make up for a lot of errors. On the one hand, more Chris Obekpa and less JaKarr Sampson is bad for the offense. On the other hand, Rysheed Jordan should be better. Jordan was the typical freshman PG last year. He had moments of brilliance but also a bunch of games where he looked lost. If Jordan shows the typical sophomore leap and becomes more consistent this year, St. John’s offense should be better.

This seems like a key season for Steve Lavin in terms of proving he still has this team headed in the right direction. But almost any outcome seems possible at this point.

Marquette: The Big East may face tough times if the Power Five conferences begin to offer stipends and other compensation and the Big East is not allowed to match those policies. But right now, there is no reason to expect the conference to fall off the map. The Big East currently has more former RSCI Top 100 recruits per team than every conference except the ACC:

Conf

Teams

RSCI Top 100 Recruits

Top 100 Per Team

ACC

15

66

4.4

Big East

10

38

3.8

SEC

14

47

3.4

Big Ten

14

45

3.2

Pac 12

12

38

3.2

Big 12

10

31

3.1

Amer

11

20

1.8

MWC

11

15

1.4

A10

14

9

0.6

WCC

10

5

0.5

MVC

10

1

0.1

Marquette has seven former Top 100 recruits and adds BYU’s explosive scorer Matt Carlino as a transfer this season. That sounds like a dangerous lineup, but the problem is that not all Top 100 recruits are created equally.  Steve Taylor and Juan Anderson are former Top 100 recruits on Marquette’s roster, but they have largely been busts. And freshman Sandy Cohen is probably a year away from dominating at the D1 level. (Recruits ranked 51-100 are often inconsistent in their first season.) Indiana transfer and former Top 100 recruit Luke Fischer will not be available until December as he transferred mid-season, and that can often be disruptive to a team’s chemistry.

The good news is that three of the other Top 100 recruits still have lots of upside. Deonte Burton is one of my Top 10 breakout players in the country. He was an efficient high volume scorer with a great recruiting pedigree, and with more playing time he should be a star next year. Duane Wilson missed all of last year due to injury, but he still projects as a key player. And as the highest ranked recruit in the bunch, JaJuan Johnson still projects as another key player for Marquette. But even with seven former Top 100 recruits on the roster, Marquette’s roster is a work in progress.

Providence: Is it possible for me to both rave about the job Ed Cooley is doing and say that most people are probably over-rating the Friars NCAA chances? Well, that’s exactly what I am about to do.

On the one hand, Providence’s program is as healthy as it has been in a long time. The team is getting key commitments from quality players years in advance. To say the talent level on this team has been upgraded is a huge understatement. LaDontae Henton is now the ONLY player on the roster who was not a consensus 3-star recruit out of high school. And Henton has turned into a star anyhow. Given where this program was five years ago, that’s amazing.

But despite a very positive outlook in the long-run, 2014-15 looks like a bit of a transition year. First, this team barely snuck into the NCAA tournament last year. They may have given North Carolina a scare, but their margin-of-victory was only 51st in the nation. And losing Bryce Cotton, their most efficient player, their best passer, their best scorer, and a player who never left the floor, is going to hurt.

Second, the team is going to have to give more minutes to freshmen. Last year with Brandon Austin and Rodney Bullock suspended, Providence basically never used any first-year players. This year with Bullock eligible and an outstanding recruiting class coming in, Providence projects to give substantially more minutes to its young players. And while many of them are talented, playing inexperienced players will lead to more mistakes. There will be games where players don’t rotate properly defensively, and games where players simply stand around and don’t run the offensive sets with the same crispness of a veteran team.

And while many of the names sounds scary, many of the players don’t have great projections for this season. PG Kris Dunn was an elite recruit, but he has struggled massively with injuries, and hasn’t been able to perform at an elite level in his two seasons with the team. That may mean more minutes for freshman PG Kyron Cartwright. Meanwhile Carson Desrosiers is a quality shot-blocking big man, but he is a very passive offensive player. And while transfer Junior Lomomba has received some positive reviews on the team’s European tour, he didn’t have great efficiency numbers at Cleveland St. That doesn’t necessarily bode well for him being an efficient player in the Big East. Rodney Bullock seems like a household name at this point because of the off-court issues, but I also think we need to recognize that he was only a 3-star recruit. He does not necessarily project as a star. Honestly, the true freshmen may be deserving of the most love. Paschal Chukwu and Jalen Lindsey were both consensus Top 100 recruits, and Ben Bentil may be the most polished of the young big men.

The good news is that Providence has great depth in the front-court. Despite being a guard-heavy, defensively weak team the last few years, the upgrade in the team’s post-players means the team’s defense may finally take a key step forward. But the numbers suggest Providence’s offense will take a key step back. Obviously with quality returning double figure scorers LaDontae Henton and Tyler Harris leading the way, Providence could be back in the tournament. But this is a team that needs to try out a number of unproven pieces, and a couple of bad losses in the non-conference schedule could leave this team on the wrong side of the bubble.

Hoping for the NIT

Seton Hall: And if you think Providence is going to have a young team, Seton Hall is going to be even younger. If I were to rank the Pirate’s seven best players heading into next season, I would say that four of them are freshmen. The best news is that the team has an experienced PG in Sterling Gibbs, so even if the team is young, at least they have a leader on the floor.

Isaiah Whitehead is a Top 20 recruit, but given how much Seton Hall will be relying on him, he will probably finish in the Top 10 in freshmen scoring nationally. Realistically, Seton Hall is a year away. Brandon Mobley is the only key player who will run out of eligibility at the end of the season, so if the team can convince Whitehead to stick around for his sophomore year and develop enough of the young players, there is no reason this team cannot be one of the best teams in the conference next season.

Creighton: Creighton is going to be worse without Doug McDermott. But it isn’t just McDermott. The team also lost a number of sharp-shooting veteran perimeter players as well. Center Will Artino made 67% of his buckets last year, but that was because he was taking mostly wide-open lay-ups. Without the same players spreading the floor next season, his shooting percentage is going to plummet. But there is one critical reason for optimism. McDermott stayed on as a walk-on last year which allowed the team to stockpile more players on the bench. And even though Creighton lost a ton of production, this is not a particularly young team. With additions like Cal transfer Ricky Kreklow and Top 100 recruit Ronnie Harrell, this team may surprise us.

Butler: The return of Roosevelt Jones from injury will be huge. Andrew Chrabascz is much better than most people think. And Kellen Dunham is still a star. But the drop-off to the rest of the roster is pretty significant.

Alex Barlow might be the best “former walk-on” in the country, but even giving it his all, he doesn’t have the athleticism to truly be a star. Kameron Woods can rebound quite well, but he has horrible hands for a big man. Indiana transfer Austin Etherington might sound like a key player, but he couldn’t even earn playing time in a down year for the Hoosiers, and he injured his foot this summer. That does not foretell a breakout season.

More of the Same

DePaul: Whenever ESPN does a star-watch feature on DePaul this year, expect them to focus on Billy Garrett. Garrett was a former 4-star recruit and he is the team’s leading returning scorer. Maybe, since he is only a sophomore, DePaul will have a good season before he graduates. The Blue Demons hope that by adding three Top 100 JUCO transfers and Illinois transfer Myke Henrythat they will play better. But they have a long way to go to be competitive with the rest of this league.

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