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College Basketball Preview 14-15: SEC

My numeric projections will be available near the start of the season, but today I want to write a few words about each SEC team’s outlook. Kentucky and Florida are obviously playing for top seeds in the NCAA tournament. Arkansas should be in the field. And you can throw the next eight teams in a hat, and defend almost any ordering. Alabama has Anthony Grant’s defense. Georgia is coming off a nice run to end 2013-14. Mississippi and South Carolina have experience. LSU has a dominant frontcourt but weak backcourt. Tennessee has a potentially dominant perimeter but weak frontcourt. Auburn has quality starters, but not enough depth (or enough tall athletic players) to optimally run Bruce Pearl’s system. And Missouri has talent, but few proven scorers.

A couple of those teams will likely be in the tournament, but strong arguments can be made for and against all of them.

SEC Favorite

Kentucky: Three of Kentucky’s best players are centers, junior Willie Cauley-Stein, sophomore Dakari Johnson and freshman Karl Towns Jr. Some people wonder whether they can play together. But “center” is a distinction that lacks meaning. Has Tim Duncan been a center or a power forward in the NBA? It doesn’t matter what position is listed on the scoresheet, it matters whether the players have the right set of skills to work together. And Kentucky’s centers have a diverse set of skills. Cauley-Stein is an elite shot-blocker. Johnson is a monster offensive rebounder. And Towns probably has the most offensive skill. Depending on the situation, they can complement one another and play together.

The key issue with playing the big men together is offensive spacing. To play multiple centers, power forwards Trey Lyles and Alex Poythress will probably play some at the wing position. But it isn’t clear whether Lyles or Poythress can shoot well enough from the perimeter to keep their defender from cheating into the paint. Still, I think this is a red-herring. A lot of teams will risk giving up open threes rather than let Kentucky’s big men slam home dunk after dunk. Having three big men on the floor isn’t going to ruin the spacing this season – opponent desperation is going to ruin the spacing. Moreover, even if Kentucky’s wings misses a bunch of open jumpers this year, with players like Johnson and Marcus Lee crashing the offensive boards, a low percentage jumper may still be great offense.

The other key issue with playing the big men together is defense. A lot of us were yelling at the TV last year when Kentucky did not play a zone defense. Last year none of the perimeter players were great defenders and it felt like Kentucky’s personnel would have been better off using their length to cause tips and deflections in a zone defense. This year’s team seems equally likely to thrive with a zone. But I don’t see John Calipari becoming a zone defense coach. He wants to prepare his players for the NBA, and NBA teams hate to see college prospects playing zone.

Assuming the team plays man-to-man defense, the weakness of having three big men on the floor is that someone might get beat off the dribble by a smaller opposing guard. But as long as Willie Cauley-Stein is providing elite help defense, getting beat won’t be a huge concern.

Now I’m not saying Kentucky will play a big lineup all the time. In close games and against elite competition, Calipari will play the lineup that gives his team the best chance to win. But Kentucky has room for error against most of its schedule. And I’m certain Kentucky’s elite centers will get a chance to play together.

The Only Real Challenger

Florida: The player stats suggest Florida’s outgoing players were critical to the defense and will be difficult to replace. Billy Donovan’s coaching record suggests he has not always been an elite defensive coach. His defense was elite when Al Horford and Joakim Noah were manning the middle. It was elite with Patric Young and Will Yeguete in the paint. And in the five years in the interim, it was average. Overall, the stats suggest Florida’s defense will fall off significantly.

Now, that doesn’t mean that Florida won’t be worthy of the Top 10. Donovan’s offenses are consistently among the nation’s best, and the lineup still has plenty of quality players. Kasey Hill, Michael Frazier, Dorian Finney-Smith, #20 freshmen Devin Robinson, and Chris Walker form a potentially elite starting unit. A now healthy Eli Carter should be back to his scoring ways, and Top 100 freshmen Brandone Francis and Chris Chiozza can ease into the lineup backing up the perimeter. Michigan transfer Jon Horford and Alex Murphy (once he becomes eligible in December) can spell the players in the front-court. But last year’s defense was special, it led to 30 wins in a row, and Florida probably won’t be good enough at getting stops to duplicate that consistency this season.

Hoping for the Top 25

Arkansas: Slowly but surely, Mike Anderson has been building things up at Arkansas. Arkansas’ margin-of-victory was 132nd three years ago, 79th two years ago, and 52nd last year. All Anderson really needed was a quiet off-season where no one foolishly left early in the draft or transferred because of playing time. And that finally happened this year. Throw in the addition of West Virginia transfer Keaton Miles, Top 100 JUCO Jabril Durham, and a skilled freshmen PG recruit named Anton Beard, and this is the year.

Probably the most interesting statistical wrinkle with Arkansas is that most of the Arkansas players that graduated were low-volume shooters. The pessimist would say there won’t be enough balls to go around this year. The optimist will say Arkansas’ best players will have to be more selective, and that should lead to a bump in efficiency for everyone.

Hoping for the NCAA Tournament

Alabama: While Anthony Grant’s teams finished 6th, 5th, and 20th in adjusted defense over the previous three seasons, his team’s defense plummeted to 76th nationally last year. The answer may be transfer Michael Kessens. Kessens was an elite defensive rebounder at Longwood, and rebounding is the type of skill that translates well across leagues. I’m not sure Kessen’s  scoring touch will translate from the Big South to the SEC, but for one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the country last year, Alabama needs Kessens rebounding as much as his points. Meanwhile, with shot-blocking Jimmie Taylor playing more minutes as he makes the expected sophomore leap to relevance, Alabama’s post defense should return to a near-elite level. And with quality defense, you are always in the hunt for the NCAA tournament.

But the story of Alabama is probably a player like Retin Obasohan. At 6’1”, Obasohan somehow got 29 blocks last season, and he’s great at getting steals. He’s a one-man havoc defense. But in two seasons he’s shown he can’t shoot worth a lick. And at this point, Alabama has a bunch of players that have offensive flaws. Levi Randolph, Rodney Cooper, and Shannon Hale have significant minutes at the college level and we know none of them are offensive stars. Even if the defense is good again, it remains to be seen whether Alabama can score enough points.

Tulane transfer Ricky Tarrant will do his best to replace Alabama’s one dominant offensive player, the departed Trevor Releford. But perhaps the most intriguing pick-up of the off-season is Christophe Varidel. Varidel started as a freshman at Florida Gulf Coast, and has always shot well from three point range. And yet, the longer he stayed at FGCU, the fewer minutes he played. In the year FGCU went to the Sweet Sixteen, Varidel played the fewest minutes of his career, and posted the lowest ORtg. Varidel transferred to Chaminade, content to end his career in Hawaii, with one more shot at the big boys in the Maui Invitational. But after an injury caused him to red-shirt last year, Varidel decided to pack his bags for Alabama.

You have to hand it to a player that first chose the dorm-room views at FGCU and then chose to play in Hawaii. Varidel clearly understands how to maximize the off-court benefits of his scholarship. But the uncertainty about Varidel is important. The question is whether Alabama is getting a truly great three point shooter that will help their broken offense click, or the player who became a minor role player in the Atlantic Sun.

Georgia: On February 1st, Georgia sat at 10-10 on the season, having just lost to Auburn. Mark Fox’s job seemed like it might be on the line. Then amazingly, he got his team to finish 10-4, including a trip to the second round of the NIT. But don’t kid yourself into thinking last year’s 12-6 SEC record meant this was a dominant team. Georgia played the easiest schedule in the SEC, and didn’t beat a single team in the Pomeroy top 50 all year. Georgia’s lineup was solid, but far from elite.

And that’s my biggest problem with Georgia heading into this year. There simply isn’t a lot of reason to believe this team will become elite. There are still no former Top 100 high school recruits on the roster. Mark Fox got his roster to play well this year, but there aren’t a lot of guys with potential they haven’t realized. Backup guards Juwan Parker and JJ Frazier will probably play a little better thanks to the sophomore leap. (Parker’s free throw percentage was good, so he’ll almost certainly shoot better from the field next year.) And Georgia will probably avoid some of the early season losses they had last season. But this is a bubble team.

Ole Miss and South Carolina: One of the biggest things that drags down a team’s offense and defense is the use of freshmen. Freshmen simply make a ton of mistakes. And while returning minutes is correlated with usage of freshmen (South Carolina returns a lot of minutes and will play very few freshmen), the correlation isn’t perfect.

The time when teams often make a big leap forward is when they begin to rely less on freshmen. In the following table, I project each team’s rotation for this season and then show whether they will give more or less minutes to freshmen than the year before.

Team

Returning Minutes

Projected Change in Minutes Given to Freshmen

South Carolina

76%

-28%

Mississippi St.

74%

5%

Georgia

72%

-1%

Mississippi

69%

-15%

Kentucky

65%

-46%

Texas A&M

64%

12%

Arkansas

64%

-5%

Alabama

62%

6%

Vanderbilt

60%

21%

Auburn

55%

-13%

Florida

41%

12%

Missouri

40%

3%

LSU

37%

-2%

Tennessee

28%

16%

Ole Miss and South Carolina are both expected to rely substantially less on freshmen, which is why I expect those teams to be a lot more efficient. They won’t quite have the star power to compete with the elite teams in the SEC. But, by avoiding mistakes, by avoiding costly “bad losses” in the non-conference schedule, and by beating some more talented teams with experience, they could squeak into the NCAA tournament.

Mississippi’s roster is surprisingly intriguing. First, Jarvis Summers became a real star last year. He’s always been a quality passer, but he improved his shooting and became a high volume scorer last year. He should be on some of the all-SEC preseason teams. The Rebels also have quality frontcourt depth. Sebastian Saiz is a quality rebounder, Aaron Jones is a great shot-blocker, and Anthony Perez is the more prolific scorer and former elite recruit. (That depth is why Demarco Cox packed his bags for Georgia Tech this off-season.)

That core would be intriguing, but probably not strong enough to win on its own, but Andy Kennedy added four transfers, including three who averaged double-digits at mid-major level schools. He added Stefan Moody, who shined at Florida Atlantic before taking the JUCO route, Terrence Smith, a high scoring graduate transfer from Tennessee Martin, MJ Rhett, a quality big man from Tennessee St, and Roderick Lawrence, a quality JUCO guard. That’s a roster designed to make a run at an NCAA tournament bid, even if none of the names (other than Summers) really jump off the page.

For South Carolina, Ty Johnson returns from an injury, and he should help make up for the graduation of Brenton Williams. The biggest place I expect the team to improve is in the front-court. Laimonas Chatkevicius improved substantially at rebounding, blocking shots, and finishing around the rim last year, and it will be hard to keep him in a reserve role this year. That will be good because his added size should help the defense quite a bit. But elite forward prospect Demetrius Henry should also be better. Even though Henry struggled as a freshman, his potential is still very high (as seen by his high offensive rebounding rate and high school recruiting rank.) Sindarius Thornwell and Duane Notice will also benefit from the typical sophomore leap. South Carolina looked bad at times last year, but they were very young last year. For head coach Frank Martin, youth is no longer an excuse.

LSU: Media reports suggest that head coach Johnny Jones forced Anthony Hickey to transfer this off-season. And while it might have been the right thing to do in the long-term, (a coach needs players that will listen to him and follow his rules), it is a devastating short-run outcome. While LSU is one of the only teams in the SEC with the front-court to hang with Kentucky, their back-court is now shockingly weak. Here is what’s left:

Josh Gray – A 100 JUCO recruit, the kind of prospect that is very much a lottery ticket.

Keith Hornsby – A nice transfer from UNC Asheville, but remember that Asheville faced the 281st defensive schedule strength. He’ll be facing a huge upgrade in competition in jumping to the SEC.

Tim Quarterman – A former Top 100 recruit, but he was very turnover prone, one of the worst shooters in the SEC last year, and he had one of the lowest ORtgs in the SEC last season.

Jalyn Patterson – A three star freshman.

LSU will still be very good because Jordan Mickey and Jarrell Martin are two of the best forwards in the SEC. And LSU adds a true 7 footer in Elbert Robinson. (Height at the center position is an important predictor of defensive performance, and no SEC team adds inches at the center position quite like LSU.) But there might not be a player whose transfer was more damaging in the short-run than the loss of Hickey. His departure turned LSU from a team on the cusp of greatness, to a team that will likely spend much of the season on the bubble.

Tennessee: We have no idea who will be the primary PG for Tennessee. The two Top 100 JUCO transfers, Kevin Punter and Devon Baulkman are combo guards who might split that duty, but neither is a natural PG. A lot of people also like IUPUI transfer Ian Chiles. But the only reason Chiles resembles a PG is because of his height. Chiles was not a passer at his former school. He was basically just a guy who shot a ton, whether the shots went in or not. Yes he scored nearly 16 points per game, but making 45% of your twos and 29% of your threes in the Summit league, doesn’t necessarily lend itself to dominating in the SEC.

The other perimeter positions will be the team’s strength. Josh Richardson was a dominant wing player in the SEC last year. Robert Hubbs is back from an injury, and he has the potential to be very good, and Detrick Mostella has been a commit at many programs, but he’s a Top 100 recruit who could also do plenty of damage. And don’t forget about Armani Moore. He was a very quiet offensive player, but he made very few mistakes and was very good at blocking shots and grabbing steals.

Then there are more big questions up front. Derek Reese played sparingly last year, and quite frankly, he doesn’t project as an SEC quality starter. JUCO center Rawane Ndiaye was supposed to help last year, but he was injured early and missed most of the season. And that means three star freshman Tariq Owens may be pressed into starting early in his career.

In my simulation I project an upside and downside for each team. The Volunteers are one of the highest variance teams in the nation. They bring in a number of quality parts, but there are also no proven commodities on the roster. Almost any outcome is possible.

Auburn: New head coach Bruce Pearl’s excitement and energy is contagious. It is hard to listen to him describe his team and not pick Auburn for an upper-division finish in the SEC. But the numbers say it might take a little time.

The two returning starters, KT Harrell and Tahj Shamsid-Deen are better than most people realize, while Cinmeon Bowers will almost certainly be an impact JUCO forward. But I think it is important not to get too excited about the two transfers.

Antoine Mason is getting a little too much pub this off-season. Yes, he is the nation’s leading returning scorer. But Mason’s scoring was high because Niagara played almost no defense and played at one of the fastest paces in the country. Mason never left the game and he had the green light to shoot constantly. He was somewhat efficient, but only because he never turned the ball over. But he only made 29% of the 168 threes he took last year. The step up to the SEC will be significant. While Niagara’s defensive schedule strength was 197th, Auburn’s was 70th.

KC Ross-Miller is a talented player, but he’s on his third school, and he was kicked out of the last school for an off-court incident. That’s not necessarily the type of player you can build a program around. And Ross-Miller played in an even weaker league than Mason. That’s not to say that Mason and Ross-Miller won’t be important players next year. But you can’t simply assume they will dominate the SEC like they did at their previous schools. Moreover, the rest of Auburn’s roster remains weak. Auburn’s average star rating (the high school graded potential of its roster) is still the lowest in the SEC.

Most importantly, Bruce Pearl would like to use pressure defense and force turnovers. But four of his best five players are guards. He simply doesn’t have the length at key positions to run his patented pressure defense at full throttle yet.

Missouri: It might surprise you to hear that Missouri has the third most former Top 100 recruits in the SEC, behind only Kentucky and Florida. These include:

#42 Johnathan Williams, an elite offensive rebounder and the team’s best returning player.

#72 Wes Clark, a sophomore PG, who struggled with turnovers last year, but who could become a key player with the typical sophomore leap.

#56 Deuce Bello, an elite athlete at guard who struggled mightily at Baylor and is looking for a fresh start.

#50 Jakeenan Gant, an elite freshman big man.

#93 Namon Wright, an elite freshman off-guard.

#38 (estimate) Montaque Gill-Ceaser, an elite freshmen wing who just re-classified from the 2015 class to the 2014 class.

#46 Cameron Biedscheid, a transfer from Notre Dame who will be eligible in December.

The team also has a nice PG transfer in Keith Shamburger and a veteran center named Ryan Rosburg. That sounds like a quality rotation, but then you realize that even though the team has talent, it is sorely lacking offense. All of the returning players were very passive offensive players last year, and asking them to shoot more should hurt their efficiency. Gill-Ceaser, Gant, and Wright are not ranked high enough to expect them to carry a team in year one. Shamburger will probably be a good player, but making the leap from the Big West to the SEC will be a significant upgrade in competition. And it may sound crazy to say this, but Biedsheid has a very good chance to lead the team in scoring once he becomes eligible mid-season.

Hoping for the NIT

Texas A&M and Vanderbilt: The Commodores probably aren’t going to be fortunate enough to have their opponent’s make only 65% of their free throws and 30% of their threes again this season. And the Aggies opponents only made 29% of their threes. Both defenses were lucky and probably not as good as their points per possession numbers would suggest.

But that’s a real problem because both offenses were brutal last year. I do expect both offenses to make strides because each team has talent. In A&M’s case, the offense should improve with the addition of SMU transfer Jalen Jones. In Vanderbilt’s case, the team gets Josh Henderson back from injury, and adds a big recruiting class led by Shelton Mitchell. But both offenses still have light years to go to be NCAA tournament caliber. And if the defenses aren’t as lucky this year, the NIT might be the ceiling.

Mississippi St: The best thing you can say about Mississippi St. is that most of the players in last year’s rotation are back. Wait, after how they played last year, that might be the worst thing you can say.

Why Monta Ellis Could Soon Be Searching For Next Change Of Scenery

No player benefitted from a change of scenery last season more than Monta Ellis. After seeing his career spiral downward in an ill-fated stint with the Milwaukee Bucks, Monta found a new home with the Dallas Mavericks, where he was surrounded by three-point shooting and installed in a system that suited his talents. He averaged 19 points and 6 assists per game on 45% shooting and was one of the main catalysts for the Mavs return to the playoffs after a one-year hiatus. 

Monta went from laughingstock to cornerstone, the latest in a long line of guards to benefit from playing next to Dirk Nowitzki. His slashing ability was the perfect complement to Dirk's ability to stretch the floor and their two-man game became one of the most indefensible combinations in the league. However, for as well as he played, the holes in his game that haunted him in Golden State and Milwaukee are still there and it's unclear how he fits long-term in Dallas.

Last season was only the third time in Monta's nine-year career he made the playoffs and that's not entirely a coincidence, as he has a unique combination of strengths and weaknesses that make it difficult to build an elite team around him. Very few players can successfully share a backcourt with him - he didn't fit next to Steph Curry, Brandon Jennings or Jose Calderon. A team with Monta as a primary option has to pound a lot of square pegs into round holes.

At 6'3 185 with a 6'3 wingspan, he's a SG with the size of a PG. While he is a much better passer than he's often given credit for, he's an inconsistent decision-maker who needs to be paired with another ball-handler who can initiate the offense and control the tempo of the game. Monta is a SG who can't shoot 3's or play defense, which puts a tremendous amount of pressure on both sides of the ball for the other starting guard, regardless of which position they play.

Since Monta can't stretch the floor, he can't play with another guard who needs the ball in his hands and since he can't defend his position, he can't play with another minus defender. Monta's ideal backcourt partner should be able to defend both backcourt positions and shoot the ball at a high level while still being able to handle and take care of the ball like a PG. Here's the problem - if you look around the NBA, there are not many guards with that skill-set. 

As a rule, the type of guard that makes sense next to Monta on offense doesn't make sense next to him on defense. Calderon is a perfect example - at 6'3 210, he's a big PG who is one of the best shooters (45% from 3) and decision-makers (4.7 assists on 1.3 turnovers) in the NBA. Not only was he an elite floor spacer in Dallas, which opened up a ton of driving lanes, he rarely turned the ball over, which created a ton of possessions for Monta to do his thing.

The problem came on the other side of the ball, as a starting backcourt of Calderon and Monta was bleeding points defensively. When you add a 35-year-old Dirk to the mix, you had a starting unit regularly directing conga lanes to the front of the rim. As a result, Shawn Marion, the Mavs' small forward, was forced to defend four different positions, far too much to ask of a 34-year-old. When you have to cover for Calderon, Monta and Dirk, you don't get many nights off.

As versatile as Marion was on defense, his offensive game started to decline in his 15th season in the NBA, so the Mavs decided to upgrade the SF position this offseason with the signing of Chandler Parsons. And while Parsons is a decent defender, he's not capable of locking down an opposing team's PG or SG. That's the problem with building a team around multiple players with holes in their game - it's hard to create a line-up that works on both sides of the ball.

Parsons isn't the only new starter on the perimeter next season, as the Mavs brought in Jameer Nelson to replace Calderon at PG. Nelson is a good shooter and passer and is a much better defensive player than Calderon, but he's an undersized PG (6’0 190) in his 30’s. He will have to guard the opposing team's PG, which means that with Marion gone, Monta will spend a lot of nights guarding guys like Kobe Bryant, James Harden, Klay Thompson and Goran Dragic. 

In order to combat those defensive issues, Dallas will likely close games with Devin Harris, their best defensive guard, running point. That, however, opens up a whole different can of worms, as Harris shot only 31% from three last season and a back-court of Monta and Harris will struggle to space the floor for Dirk and Parsons. Rick Carlisle is a great coach, but there's only so much he can do - if he plugs a hole on offense, it opens one up on defense and vice versa.

Going forward, the big question in Dallas is how to best maximize Dirk's remaining years in the NBA. As great a combination as him and Monta are, you don't pay a guy like Parsons $15 million a season in order for him to be third option. And if Parsons and Dirk are going to be your top two options, you want as much defense and three-point shooting next to them as possible. So while the Mavs improved this offseason, but there's still a ceiling on their roster.

Dallas is committed to Parsons and Dirk for the next three years, but Monta has a player option in his contract and could hit free agency next summer. At 29, he would be looking for one last long-term deal, which would lock the Mavs into a core with a number of defensive issues. From there, it's hard to see the guard who makes Monta-Parsons-Dirk work. That's what it comes down too when trying to build an elite team - what a guy can't do is as important as what he can.

College Basketball Preview 14-15: Mountain West

My numeric projections will be available near the start of the season, but today I want to write a few words about each team’s outlook. I see seven teams as having a shot at the tournament. UNLV has talent. Wyoming should be strong defensively. Boise St., Colorado St., and Fresno St. should be strong on offense. And New Mexico has some quality players. But San Diego St. is the class of the league, and no one else is even close.

MWC Favorite

San Diego St: The Aztecs are the prohibitive favorite in most people’s mind and for good reason. No team can go thirteen players deep quite like San Diego St. The problem is that a healthy college basketball rotation is typically only eight or nine players deep. If your eleventh best player is better than your opponent’s eleventh best player, that typically isn’t going to win basketball games.

But that versatility also makes the team an enigma. SDSU’s season could evolve in a number of ways depending on which rotation head coach Steve Fisher settles on. On the one hand, the team had an outstanding defense last year. And with just about all of last year’s rotation player’s back, San Diego St. could choose to play its veterans and be an elite defensive squad again.

But most people expect the Aztecs to rely a lot on the team’s three Top 100 freshmen recruits Malik Pope, Trey Kell and Zylan Cheatem, along with Arizona transfer and former Top 100 recruit Angelo Chol. If those players play, that means more skill, but those fresh faces could hurt the continuity on defense. Moreover, Kell and Cheatem were low-end Top 100 recruits, and those types of players typically struggle with shot selection and turnovers when they first make the jump to the college level.

Furthermore, the returning rotation and incoming recruiting class is weakest at the PG spot, the position of greatest need after Xavier Thames departed. Certainly it helps that the offense can run through Winston Shepard, a superb passer at 6’8”. But San Diego St. will still need someone as a primary ball-handler and lock down defender on opposing smaller speedy guards. D’Erryl Williams played sparingly as the backup PG last year. And incoming recruit Kevin Zabo might not be a Top 100 recruit, but he will compete with Williams for primary ball-handling duties. But somehow a team with unusual depth also has a big question mark at PG.

The good news is that Steve Fisher can play a deep rotation in November and December and simply settle on his most consistent players for conference play. And that’s why my model still loves this team even if the rotation is uncertain. We might not know who the nine man rotation will be, but we can be sure that the winners of the playing time competition will be quality players, ready to take San Diego St. to a MWC title.

Hoping for the NCAA Tournament

Wyoming: A lot of people think Wyoming will be a MWC contender if Larry Nance is healthy and I completely endorse that view. First Larry Shyatt is a strong defensive coach. You might not quite know that from last year’s ranking of 93rd nationally, but the team’s defense really fell apart down the stretch after Larry Nance was injured:

Mountain West Conf. Games Only

Adjusted Offense

Adjusted Defense

W

L

PWP

Wyoming (with Nance)

106.7

97.5

8

5

0.7367

Wyoming (w/o Nance)

103.0

109.8

1

5

0.3241

Nance was dominant on the defensive glass, dominant at blocking shots, and quite good at getting steals for a big man. Another factor on defense might be the team’s depth. Wyoming essentially went with only two big men in the rotation last year, but 6’9” freshman Jonathan Barnes could help. Barnes is still raw, he was a late-growing high school player, but given his athleticism he should provide some key length off the bench.

The bigger question for Wyoming always seems to be the offense. Wyoming struggles to recruit elite athletes, (the team still has no former consensus Top 100 recruits,) and that makes it hard to build a dominant offense. Nonetheless, the starting five looks like it could be very good. Nance is obviously an offensive star (in addition to the defensive stats I mentioned above.) And Josh Adams was one of the most improved players in the country last year. Adams used 8% more possessions when on the floor and improved his ORtg by 12 points. Riley Grabau (42% three point shooter) and Derek Cooke (64% of his twos) were both dominant and efficient. And if former Alabama transfer Charles Hankerson, reinstated from suspension, ever lives up to his high potential, that core could be in the NCAA tournament.

UNLV: Rashad Vaughn, Dwayne Morgan and Goodluck Okonoboh might be the highest scoring freshmen trio in the nation. I’m not saying they are better than some of the other recruiting classes. For example, last week I reviewed the North Carolina trio, and I love their skill and potential. But unlike those Tar Heels, because of all the UNLV roster turnover, the UNLV freshmen face almost no competition for playing time.

A lot of experts think the UNLV offense will finally click this year because UNLV will have two true PGs to run the show. Both San Francisco transfer Cody Doolin and Rutgers transfer Jerome Seagears have posted great per minute assist rates in their career, and they could finally help a team of talented players reach their full potential.

On the other hand, for three straight years head coach Dave Rice has had lots of former Top 100 recruits on his roster. And yet his team has never had an offense that ranked better than 89th in the nation. His team has never won more than 10 games in the MWC. When you watch a team with eight former Top 100 recruits (last year’s squad) fail to even sniff the NCAA tournament bubble, you start to wonder whether Rice has the X’s and O’s coaching ability to match his recruiting pedigree.

Fresno St and Colorado St.: On paper, Fresno St. feels like the better team. They finished two games better in the conference standings. Fresno St. returns 69% of its minutes vs 54% for Colorado St. And when you look at the starting lineup, Fresno St. feels like it has more household names. But the numbers actually suggest this is a pretty tight race, and let me see if I can explain why.

First, my model loves Fresno St.’s backcourt. Oklahoma St. transfer Cezar Guerrero joined the team last year and became a high volume scorer and passer. This year the team adds Texas transfer Julien Lewis. And while Lewis may have been part of some dysfunctional Texas squads, he was always an efficient quality scorer. Throw in returning efficient starters like Marvelle Harris and Paul Watson, and the Fresno St. perimeter is very good.

Fresno St.’s paint presence is sorely lacking. 6’9” forward Alex Davis had a low ORtg and was a terrible rebounder last year. Braeden Anderson might be back after a car accident cost him last season, but he has never posted reliable numbers. And that means Fresno St. might have to consider using a pair of freshmen big men.

Colorado St.’s backcourt is also very talented. Daniel Bejarano and JJ Avila were two of the most efficient high-volume scorers in the country last year. And transfers will also boost Colorado St.’s cause. You might not be familiar with Arkansas Little Rock transfer John Gillon or Southern Illinois transfer Dantiel Daniels. But their projections are outstanding. They were both efficient and prolific per minute scorers in quality leagues before transferring to Colorado St. and that’s a good sign for their future performance. Throw in another efficient starter like Joe De Ciman, and Colorado St.’s perimeter should score plenty of points too.

Colorado St. also has a huge weakness in the frontcourt. They will be hoping that JUCO recruit, Daniel Mulamba is ready to play major minutes at the D1 level next year. Offensively, my model says the matchup is a draw.

Thus what it comes down to is which team is expected to have a better season defensively. Fresno St.’s defense was better by 2.3 points per possession last season, and Fresno returns more minutes. That would seem to cut in Fresno St.’s favor. But when you dig deeper, that advantage dissipates.

Advanced stats suggest that teams have very little control over the free throw percentage of their opposition and very little control over the three point percentage of their opposition. And Colorado St.’s opponents killed the Rams by knocking down free throws and threes at an above average rate last year. Meanwhile Fresno St.’s opponents struggled massively at the three point line. Here’s how each team’s points per possession defense was impacted by these factors that are mostly beyond their control:

Team

Impact of opponent FT% and 3PT% on PPP defense

Colorado St.

+1.5

Nevada

+1.1

New Mexico

+0.7

Boise St.

+0.4

Air Force

0.0

Utah St.

-0.2

Wyoming

-0.6

San Jose St.

-0.7

Fresno St.

-0.8

UNLV

-1.2

San Diego St.

-1.2

Essentially the ENTIRE difference in last year’s defensive performance between Colorado St. and Fresno St. was opponent three-point shooting and free throw shooting.

Returning minutes would still seem to tip things in Fresno St.’s favor, but not necessarily. While Fresno St. loses one of the best rebounding guards in the country, Colorado St.’s losses include a couple of big men who were terrible rebounders and who played much smaller than their size would indicate.

This matchup may come down to the men on the sideline and my model slightly favors the veteran Larry Eustachy over Rodney Terry. But the reality is that it could go either way. And if things break right, either of these teams could make the NCAA tournament.

Boise St: Sometimes a team’s fortunes depend entirely on its conference peers. In 2012-13, the MWC did well in the non-conference, Boise St. had opportunities for Top 100 wins, and they snuck in with one of the last bids to NCAA tournament. In 2013-14, the MWC struggled in the non-conference, and Boise St. didn’t even play in the NIT. Boise St. was a little worse on defense, and they went from one game over .500 in the conference to exactly .500. But even if the post-season outcome was substantially different, it was pretty much the same team. They were a guard-oriented offensive juggernaut in both years.

The best news is that Leon Rice’s success is finally paying off in recruiting. After turning 2 star recruits like Derrick Marks and Anthony Drmic into scoring stars, those seniors are now being joined by 3 or 4 star freshmen recruits. This year’s recruiting class is led by Chandler Hutchinson, a player that both Scout and ESPN’s recruiting services loved. Throw in a JUCO big man addition like Kevin Allen, and Boise St. looks like an offensive juggernaut with some defensive issues once again. Whether they can make the NCAA tournament may well depend on how well the MWC plays in the non-conference schedule.

New Mexico: The Lobos return three rotation players from a team that nearly won the MWC title last year, Hugh Greenwood, Cullen Neal, and Deshawn Delaney. All will be relied on more heavily this year. But the only immediate impact player the team adds is Top 10 JUCO recruit Jordan Goodman. And he can’t replace Kendall Williams, Cameron Bairstow, Alex Kirk, and Cleveland Thomas by himself. New Mexico simply doesn’t have the depth to compete for a league title in 2014-15. The recent decision of Merv Lindsay to transfer  does not help matters. If the freshmen or JUCO recruit JJ N’Ganga blossom early, the NCAA tournament is a possibility. But if those new faces struggle, this could be a long season.

Building for the Future

Nevada: Nevada wasn’t as good as their 10-8 conference record would indicate. The team was fortunate in close games last year. Six of those conference wins came by four points or less or in OT. Worse yet, the team’s three best players, Deonte Burton, Jerry Evans, and Cole Huff are gone.

There is some good news. Nevada was better in the second half of the season, and it wasn’t just a fluke. After AJ West became eligible, he became one of the best offensive rebounders in the country, and his presence really did make the Nevada better. West and Michael Perez will form a formidable, efficient inside-outside combination in 2014-15. But on paper, the rest of the roster looks too weak for Nevada to really compete for an NCAA bid.

Air Force: It is hard to win at the military academies. You basically have to try to win with a bunch of 2-star recruits, and when someone like Tre’ Coggins breaks out, they often leave.The best thing I can say is that 74% of the team’s minutes return, so in general, this year should be trending up.

Utah St: I’ve been a huge advocate of Stew Morril. From 2004 to 2010, he produced some of the best offensive teams in the nation without playing in an elite conference. In 2011, he had one of the best defensive teams in the nation. But things have been trending down since 2011, and this year could be rock bottom. After four senior starters graduated, four of the most important bench players transferred. And thus Morrill is basically starting from scratch with this year’s roster.

San Jose St: As hard as it is to win at a program like Air Force, somehow it is even harder to win at San Jose St. Even if a post-season trip was unlikely, the post-season APR ban just makes recruiting a bigger uphill battle.

And even when San Jose St. tries to build through transfers, it doesn’t attract the cream of the crop. San Jose St. adds two players with ORtgs under 90 at their last school, Pepperdine’s Jordan Baker and San Jose St.’s Frank Rogers. In fairness, Baker was a high volume scorer, and his efficiency is probably not reflective of his overall ability. But it just goes to show that even when San Jose St. tries to build its program through alternative methods, it isn’t easy. But perhaps the traditional way of building a program will work the best. Rashad Muhammad was brilliant as a freshman. And with the typical sophomore leap, he will be worth the price of admission.

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