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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.

Spain And The Beautiful Game

Through the end of group play at the World Cup, two countries - Spain and the US - have separated themselves from the pack. They dominated their respective groups, with both teams going 5-0 and winning every game by double digits. The surprise isn’t that the Spanish have looked as good as the Americans, especially playing at home, but that they have had as many highlights and are playing the more entertaining brand of basketball.

With Ricky Rubio pushing the pace and getting anywhere he wants to go on the court and the Gasol brothers stepping out on the perimeter and making pinpoint passes out of the post, Spain spreads the floor and zips the ball from side to side. Everyone in Spain’s rotation is an NBA-caliber player and they can all shoot, pass and make decisions on the fly. If they keep this level of play up, they could go down as the best international team of the modern era.

After a wave of last-minute withdrawals from Team USA, the talent gap between the Americans and their biggest rival is as small as it has been since 2006, the last time they lost a game in a major international tournament. The US would still be the heavy favorite in a seven-game series, but in a one-and-done scenario, the team with more size and skill upfront, more perimeter shooting and more overall continuity has a real chance of winning.

When you watch the two teams play, there’s little comparison as to which is group more comfortable playing with each other. While the US has to essentially build a team from scratch every two years, the core of the Spanish team has been together for more than a decade. Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol, Jose Calderon, Juan Carlos Navarro, Rudy Fernandez and Rubio all played in the Olympics in 2008 - none of the Americans from that team are still around.

After showing his age in his last few seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers, where he didn’t really fit with either Dwight Howard or Mike D’Antoni’s four-out system, Pau appears rejuvenated by playing in his home country and being featured in a pass-heavy two-post offense. He is averaging 21 points, 6 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 2 blocks a game on 62% shooting - through the first five games, he would have to be the MVP of the entire tournament.

And while the US has a first-team All-NBA guard (James Harden) and a guy who may be the third best player in the world (Anthony Davis), Spain may have the more valuable NBA player in Marc Gasol. Marc won the Defensive Player of the Year Award two seasons ago and is one of the best passing big men in the world. He makes his teammates significantly better on both sides of the ball, something you can’t really say about any of the Americans.

With the US starting a 220-pound center (Davis) and a 6’8 power forward (Kenneth Faried), Spain would have a significant advantage in the post in a hypothetical gold medal game. The problem is that the Gasol brothers are looking to pass - if they force the Americans to pack the paint, they will be able to find shooters on the perimeter and you don’t want to give Fernandez, Navarro and Calderon too many open looks from beyond the three-point line.

Rubio and Calderon are their only perimeter players in the NBA, but you can’t overlook any of the guys in Spain’s rotation. Fernandez, Navarro and Sergio Rodriguez all had their moments in the league and none of them looked out of place going against the best in the world. Sergio Llull, their other main perimeter reserve, was the No. 34 overall pick in 2009 and Alex Abrines was taken by the Oklahoma City Thunder at No. 32 overall in 2013.

None of this, of course, means the Spaniards are unbeatable. No one in their group had the team speed to really challenge their perimeter defense and take the ball at the Gasol brothers. Fernandez is also their only wing with the size to match up against guys like Harden and Klay Thompson, so the American guards should be able to make a killing in the post. If Harden can get Pau or Marc in foul trouble, that could really change the dynamic of the game.

When you look at the box scores of the last two times these countries met - the gold medal games in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics - that’s one of the things that really jumps out at you. Fernandez fouled out of both games and Marc Gasol was in foul trouble throughout - he had 4 fouls and played 17 minutes in London. Serge Ibaka is a very capable reserve, but he can’t create his own shot and Spain needs to be able to run offense through their big men.

The referees, who haven’t exactly been playing to rave reviews so far, could end up having a huge role in what happens in the medal rounds. That’s where having home-court advantage at the World Cup could really come into play for Spain. If the Spanish fans pack the gym and create a raucous atmosphere in Madrid, the FIBA referees could feel pressure to swallow their whistles and negate one of the biggest advantages the Americans would have.

There’s still a lot of basketball to be played before Spain and the US would meet and both teams should be challenged in the quarterfinals and semifinals. Nevertheless, it would be a major surprise if either ended up losing. These are two teams playing basketball at a really high level - everyone knows how talented the US is, but if the Spanish national team was playing in the NBA, they would have a good chance of making the Eastern Conference Finals.

As enjoyable as it is to watch Team USA curb stomp other countries, at some point you want to see them challenged. That’s what grows the game, which is really the point of these international tournaments. If the US loses to Spain, they shouldn’t hang their head. The Spaniards are a talented team who play the game the right way and have a ton of flair to boot. If I was trying to sell someone on the beauty of basketball, Spain is the team I’d have them watch.

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

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

College Basketball Preview 14-15: Big East

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

Why Eric Bledsoe's Max Contract Awaits

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

College Basketball Preview 14-15: Atlantic-10

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

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

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

15 Most Anticipated Games Of 14-15 NBA Season

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

College Basketball Preview 14-15: WCC

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

Grading The Deal: Cavaliers Trade For Kevin Love

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

College Basketball Preview 14-15: SEC

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

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

Monta Ellis went from laughingstock to cornerstone, the latest in a long line of guards to benefit from playing next to Dirk Nowitzki. But the holes in his game that haunted him with the Warriors and Bucks are still there and it's unclear how he fits long-term in Dallas.

College Basketball Preview 14-15: Mountain West

UNLV has talent. Wyoming should be strong defensively. Boise St., Colorado St., and Fresno St. should be strong on offense. And New Mexico has some quality players. But San Diego St. is the class of the league, and no one else is even close.

An Economic Argument For NBA Expansion

When considering in the benefits of a substantial up-front payment from the expansion fees (including factoring in the time value of money) and the threat of bubble in relation to team values, it would behoove the owners to reincarnate the Sonics and a second franchise.

Finding Terrence Jones In Morey's Disappointing Offseason

Without Chandler Parsons, the Rockets don't have much room for internal improvement left on their roster. They have only one young player they can dream on - Terrence Jones. The good news for them is that he can really play.

College Basketball Preview 14-15: ACC

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

How Lance Stephenson Will Make Everyone In Charlotte Better

Lance Stephenson's new contract wasn't one of the bigger ones handed out this offseason, but it was one of the most important. The Pacers are going to have a tough time replacing him and the Hornets look like a team on the rise.

Daryl Morey, Major Markets & The Fierce Urgency Of Now

Daryl Morey and the Rockets created a good but not perfect enough situation to lure Carmelo Anthony or Chris Bosh. His strategy of flexibility and asset accumulation would work in one of the NBA's major markets.

Interview: Marco Baldi Of Alba Berlin

RealGM sat down with Marco Baldi in Berlin to talk about his vision for Alba, German basketball, the financial side of European basketball, their upcoming friendly game against San Antonio Spurs and much more.

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