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College Basketball Preview 14-15: Big 12 Conference

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

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

Big 12 Favorite

Kansas: Some people are worried about the Jayhawks’ point guard situation, but I think that concern is overstated. Throughout the last four seasons the Jayhawks’ PG position has been in flux, and Kansas has had no trouble extending their Big 12 regular season title streak.

Devonte Graham’s consensus recruiting ranking was 65th according to RSCI. And even if Graham is not ready, Kansas has other options. Frank Mason was better last year than most people appreciate, and as the #89 RSCI recruit he still hasn’t reached his ceiling. Conner Frankamp played more off the ball last year, but the former #40 recruit also has some PG skills. With Mason and Frankamp likely to benefit from the sophomore leap, Kansas has options.

Syracuse is another team with PG questions, and I would argue unambiguously that Kansas is in better shape, even if Kaleb Joseph was ranked slightly higher than Graham in this year’s recruiting class. Joseph is going to play almost every minute (because Syracuse doesn’t have other options), so his stats might be better. But Syracuse simply has no options if Joseph suffers a minor injury or falls into a slump. Kansas on the other hand, will use the competition to be the starting PG to keep Graham and Mason sharp in practice, and ultimately the better player will be finishing key games at the end of the year.

Surprisingly, my bigger question for Kansas is on defense. Bill Self has been the top defensive coach in the nation in the tempo-free era, but last year was his worst defensive team. Evidence suggests that the change in the way fouls were called may have hurt Bill Self more than other coaches. Typically opposing teams earn 31 to 35 free throws per 100 shots against a Bill Self coached team. But last year Self’s team allowed 45 free throws per 100 shots. The NCAA average increased by about 4 free throw attempts per 100 shots, so this was a larger than expected increase. Bill Self’s teams have been known for their physical aggressive defense, and there is a real question whether the new foul rules hurt Kansas more because Kansas players don’t shy away from contact.

If not the foul rules, another explanation for Kansas’ proclivity to foul last year may have been the team’s extreme youth. This year Kansas will be young again with super-recruits Cliff Alexander, Kelly Oubre, and Graham all expected to play major minutes. But Kansas was unbelievably young last year with six freshmen in their ten man rotation. With an addition like transfer Hunter Mickelson complimenting veterans Perry Ellis and Wayne Selden, Kansas is unlikely to make quite as many freshmen mistakes on defense as they did last year.

The Top Challengers

Texas: I know a lot of people view Texas as a clear Top 10 team. After all, they return 100% of their rotation from last year and they add a Top 10 recruit in the post in Myles Turner. The problem is that unlike the other teams in the Top 10, Texas appears to have a weakness at the off-guard position. Demarcus Holland has played a bunch of minutes the last two years, but he is not an elite shooter. And that lack of an outside shot has allowed teams to sag off him defensively which has made him turnover prone. I thought Holland might play less this year, but with Martez Walker recently suspended for some off-court incidents, there is no guarantee. Kendal Yancy will probably see some time, but other than an odd 3-3 game against Baylor, Yancy didn’t make a three in Big 12 play either. And Damarcus Croaker was the least efficient player on the team last year.

The best Texas lineup might actually be one without a true off-guard. PGs Isaiah Taylor and Javan Felix can play together, and Jonathan Holmes has enough of a perimeter game that he can play some at the wing.

The Texas frontcourt is almost too stacked, but I think the players will complement each other well. Cameron Ridley is a pure inside threat, while Myles Turner is a more skilled player who can knock down jump shots. And Connor Lammert does a little bit of everything. Lammert and Prince Ibeh might be the best back-up big men in the nation this season.

Iowa St: Fred Hoiberg is the king of the transfers. The next table shows the coaches whose debuting Division 1 transfers have produced the most points from 2011-2014. Points Produced (PP) is the numerator of the ORtg formula which gives credit to assists and offensive rebounds that create points, as well as the buckets. I also list the three debuting D1 transfers with the most points produced for each coach.

 

Coach

Teams

PP

Most Prolific

 

 

1

Fred Hoiberg

Iowa St.

2908

DeAndre Kane

Royce White

Will Clyburn

 

 

2

Dana Altman

Oregon

2721

Joseph Young

Devoe Joseph

Mike Moser

 

 

3

Tod Kowalczyk

Toledo

2320

Rian Pearson

Justin Drummond

Dominique Buckley

 

 

4

LeVelle Moton

NC Central

2318

Dominique Sutton

Landon Clement

Ray Willis

 

 

5

Dave Rice

UNLV

2237

Mike Moser

Bryce Dejean-Jones

Roscoe Smith

 

 

6

Frank Haith

Missouri

2117

Jordan Clarkson

Alex Oriakhi

Earnest Ross

 

 

7

Larry Eustachy

Colorado St.

Southern Miss

2112

JJ Avila

Colton Iverson

Neil Watson

 

 

8

Rod Barnes

CS Bakersfield

Georgia St.

2068

Issiah Grayson

Brandon Barnes

Javonte Maynor

 

 

9

Gib Arnold

Hawaii

1995

Christian Standhardinger

Zen Johnson

Keith Shamburger

 


10

Anthony Evans

FIU

Norfolk St.

1935

Rakeem Buckles

Dennis Mavin

Malcolm Hawkins

Bryce Dejean-Jones has already been an impact transfer at UNLV under Dave Rice and he hopes to do it a second time after joining Iowa St. this offseason. But he wouldn’t be the first player to be a productive transfer for two teams. Mike Moser did the same thing at UNLV and Oregon.

There is some concern whether Dejean-Jones great stats actually mask the fact that he is not a great team player. Despite being surrounded with Top 100 athletes at UNLV, the PG somehow seemed to fill his own box score, while not really running a crisp or coherent offense. But Hoiberg’s done a great job integrating misunderstood players, from Royce White to DeAndre Kane. And I think he gets the benefit of the doubt with Dejean-Jones.

It would seem that Hoiberg has the winning formula down. Find talented athletes, give them freedom offensively, and use a tight rotation that allows everyone to have great chemistry. On that last point, Hoiberg’s biggest problem this year may be that the team is actually too deep. How does Clayton Custer, a freshman PG that Rivals deemed to be a 4-star recruit, fit in with PGs Dejean-Jones and Monte Morris already on the roster. A year after Iowa St. thrived with its three forwards playing major minutes, can Hoiberg really find time for Georges Niang, Dustin Hogue, and incoming transfers Jameel McKay and Abdel Nader? When your biggest question mark heading into a season is whether you have too many talented players, you know your program has arrived.

The Debate

Kansas St and Oklahoma: My model has Oklahoma lower than just about every preseason poll. But let me explain why I think Kansas St., a team that finished two games behind Oklahoma in the Big 12 standings, may be the better team in 2014-15.

Roster Changes: Kansas St. loses Will Spradling who was a quality three point gunner for four seasons. But Kansas St. can replace Spradling with Maine transfer Justin Edwards. The “smart” fans immediate reaction may be that this is a downgrade because Edwards was far less efficient than Spradling. But that ignores the importance of shot volume. Edwards played on a bad Maine team and had to take a ton of shots. He used 32% of his team’s possessions when on the floor. Edwards will get to be much more selective at Kansas St. and that will help his efficiency tremendously. Spradling used just 14% of the possessions for Kansas St. and Edwards diverse offensive skillset will not be a downgrade.

Kansas St. also loses Shane Southwell. But the team adds Top 10 JUCO recruit Stephen Hurt, who was the freshman of the year in the A-Sun a couple of year ago. Hurt is more of a center (more on this in a moment), but if Kansas St. needs traditional wing players, Nino Williams was very efficient reserve last season. Kansas St. also adds forwards Malek Harris and Branden Bolden. Harris isn’t ranked in the Top 100, so he is not a guarantee, but Rivals and Scout were particularly fond of his game. Bolden is a transfer from Georgetown who did little with his former team, but perhaps the change of scenery will benefit him.

Because of Edwards and Hurt, my model does not see a downgrade for Kansas St.’s lineup.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma loses reserve guard Je’lon Hornbeak. The Cowboys add JUCO Dinjiyl Walker as a replacement. Walker is a bit of a risk, since JUCO players at his level don’t always translate, but it isn’t a stretch to think he can replace Hornbeak as a reserve. Even if he cannot, Frank Booker can easily expand his role from last season.

The bigger question will be Oklahoma’s forward rotation. Last year Cameron Clark played major minutes at the 4-slot. Clark was not only one of Oklahoma’s most efficient players, he was also Oklahoma’s most aggressive offensive player. That means other players will have to shoot more now that Clark is gone, which could hurt their efficiency. Oklahoma also loses forward Tyler Neal.

Oklahoma’s replacements at this point are Dante Buford and Khadeem Lattin. ESPN liked them both (though Rivals and Scout were not as high on them), but again neither was a Top 100 recruit. The downgrade from Cam Clark to these freshmen is significant and meaningful.

Advantage: Kansas St.

Growth potential: Both teams appear to downgrade their perimeter shooting with these changes, which may hurt their overall floor spacing. Additionally, while most of the teams in the Top 25 are filled with Top 100 recruits, (an average of five and a half per Top 25 team), Kansas St. and Oklahoma have zero players who were consensus Top 100 recruits out of high school.

What that means for projection purposes is that the incumbent players may not have a ton of room to grow. Oklahoma’s Isaiah Cousins was a 2.7 star recruit who saw his ORtg leap from 72 to 112 last year. He was phenomenal, but there is a lot of statistical evidence that Cousins has reached his ceiling. The same can be said of Kansas St.’s senior Thomas Gibson.

The biggest place to expect improvement is with the freshmen. Kansas St. gave major minutes to Marcus Foster, Wesley Iwundu, Nigel Johnson, and Jevon Thomas, while Oklahoma gave major minutes to Jordan Woodard and Frank Booker. The sophomore leap should benefit all these players, but since Kansas St.’s freshmen played more, they should get a bigger boost from player development.

Advantage: Kansas St.

Defensively, both teams should be better. While Oklahoma’s Cameron Clark played admirably and rebounded extremely well, he was a big guard playing out of position. Meanwhile Kansas St. did not have a single rotation player over 6’7” last season. Height at the center position is a huge factor in a team’s 2 PT FG% defense, and the addition of 6’11” Stephen Hurt should pay huge dividends for the Wildcats.

Advantage: Draw

Overall, my model likes Kansas St. to improve on offense and defense, while Oklahoma should be slightly worse on offense but better on defense. A lot of people will have both teams in their Top 25 this year. And that’s a very defensible position, particularly if you thought Oklahoma was a Top 25 team last year. Since the margin-of-victory numbers suggest Oklahoma was really only the 33rd best team in the nation last year, my model has the Sooners just outside the Top 25.

The Sooners do have one ace in the hole that could turn the tide. Houston transfer TaShawn Thomas joined the team this summer. Thomas has filed a waiver and applied for immediate eligibility. If Thomas becomes available as a replacement for Clark, Oklahoma is inarguably a Top 25 team.

But I am not crediting this because I have yet to hear a good reason why Thomas’ wavier would be approved. Thomas is not a graduate transfer. He is not moving closer to home for an ill relative. His former school is not banned from the NCAA tournament. His former coach was not accused of misconduct. His former coach did resign, but I don’t see the precedent for that kind of waiver approval, and I think the odds are against Thomas suiting up in 2014-15.

Hoping for the NCAA Tournament

The top five teams in the Big 12 are likely to be so dominant that the rest of the teams in the league may all finish below .500 in conference play. There are advantages to this kind of strength at the top. Everyone will have plenty of chances to pick up resume building quality wins. But it can be hard to break out of a losing streak when you are playing elite opponents game-after-game.

Oklahoma St.: Your gut instinct may be that Oklahoma St. is going to fall off the map now that Marcus Smart is gone. But keep in mind that Oklahoma St. was a much better team than their 8-10 conference record last year. An untimely suspension to Marcus Smart and limited depth in the front-court hurt the Cowboy’s win-loss record, but that doesn’t prove that Travis Ford is an incompetent coach.

Oklahoma St. retains a couple of quality players. LeBryan Nash is the rare Top 10 recruit to spend four years in college. But thanks to his improved shot selection, he finally became an efficient player last season. Meanwhile, Phil Forte is one of the best three point shooters in the country.

Oklahoma St. also adds one of the biggest impact transfers in the nation in PG Anthony Hickey. Hickey was a quality shooter and passer which made him one of the most efficient players in the nation at LSU. Top 100 JUCO Jeff Newberry also adds to the teams’ perimeter depth.

And if Oklahoma St. was lacking for big bodies last season, that isn’t the case anymore. The team adds Top 100 freshmen Joe Burton, near Top 100 recruit Mitch Solomon, and Top 100 JUCO prospect Anthony Allen, to compliment a now healthy Michael Cobbins.

Baylor: Baylor is in similar shape with a nice core, and some new pieces that might be able to step up and play well enough for a return tournament trip. Kenny Chery is the returning superstar PG. And Royce O’Neale and Taurean Prince are quality wing players. People are worried about their post depth, but Ricardo Gathers and Top 10 JUCO prospect Deng Deng are not scrubs.

People seem to be down on Gathers at this point, as the once #32 RSCI recruit has been stuck in a reserve role. But Gathers is a tremendous rebounder. If Oklahoma could make the tournament with Ryan Spangler in the middle last year, I don’t see why Baylor cannot have a quality team anchored by Gathers.

I think the season really comes down to Ish Wainwright and Allerik Freeman. Wainwright and Freeman were ranked 58th and 62nd nationally out of high school. I think people sometimes misunderstand the Top 100. Only players in the Top 10 are locks to be instant impact players. And only player in the Top 30 are frequently instant impact players. For most players in the Top 100, they settle into a role as a star as a sophomore or junior. While Wainwright played poorly last year, and while Freeman was injured, that doesn’t mean they both don’t have high potential. How quickly Baylor’s younger players develop is the mystery of their season.

West Virginia: When Bob Huggins joined the Big 12 and saw the first media poll he laughed. To paraphrase, “If you think we’re in the bottom half of the Big 12, this must be one hell of a conference.” But that’s where this team is projected once again.

Given that Terry Henderson and Eron Harris decided to transfer this off-season, it is tempting to conclude that WVU is headed in the wrong direction. But keep in mind that there were no senior graduations for the Mountaineers this off-season. The transfer of those two players does not mean WVU is starting over, it just means WVU has a couple of rotation spots to fill. That’s normal for power conference teams. WVU’s solution to this roster vacancy is to add three Top 100 JUCO transfer guards, Tarik Phillip, BillyDee Williams, and Jaysean Paige. (The team will also finally get to use Jonathan Holton, the former Top 100 JUCO and former Rhode Island forward, who was denied a waiver last year and had to sit out.)

I’ve said on many occasions that JUCO recruits of this type are lottery tickets. But Bob Huggins made his career at Cincinnati with JUCO players, and if anyone deserves the benefit of the doubt using this approach, it is him.

Still at the Bottom

Texas Tech: In his first year, Tubby Smith managed to double Texas Tech’s conference win total. The problem Smith faces, (exacerbated by Texas Tech’s current basketball reputation), is that he is no longer an elite recruiter. When his team loses a star like Jaye Crockett to graduation, when his team loses quality players like Jordan Tolbert and Dusty Hannahs to transfer, it is very hard to replace them with recruits ranked three stars or lower.

TCU: Even though I think TCU might be the worst team in the Big 12 again, I see the team improving substantially this season. First, the team adds Pitt transfer Trey Zeigler. Zeigler’s bounced around at this point, and he isn’t a clear star. But the former RSCI #29 recruit clearly has talent. And after TCU struggled with Christian Gore, Hudson Price, Thomas Montigel, and Michale Williams last season, Zeigler is a clear upgrade. PG Kyan Anderson is the real deal. And with Amric Fields and Devonte Abron returning after being injured last season, Karviar Shepherd will finally have some help in the front court. This team won’t go winless in the Big 12 again. Three of four conference wins is far more likely.

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

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College Basketball Preview 14-15: Big East

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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.

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

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