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Internal Improvement Candidates: Pacific Division

We continue our division-by-division look at candidates for internal improvement on each team with the Pacific Division, which features teams at every stage of the building process. The Los Angeles Clippers and the Golden State Warriors are contenders with a foundation in place, the Phoenix Suns are trying to establish themselves as a perennial playoff team and the Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings are trying to find a foundation. 

The Clippers and Warriors built through the draft and then swung for the fences when their young core was on the cusp of contention, with Los Angeles adding Chris Paul and Golden State adding Andrew Bogut and Andre Iguodala. They have pretty much set rotations and are only looking to tinker around the edges, either by adding a young player or bringing in a veteran who can offer a different look to their rotation and help with a match-up in a playoff series. 

The Suns were supposed to be at the very beginning of a rebuilding process last season, but they skipped their place in line when a bunch of young guys - Eric Bledsoe, Miles Plumlee and the Morris Twins - broke out simultaneously. Winning brings its own set of problems, as they have already had to shell out over $120 million to Bledsoe and the Morrii and now have to prove they aren’t a one-year wonder but have a group ready to win over the long-haul. 

The Lakers and the Kings, meanwhile, have made noises about contending, but they have gone about it in the exact opposite way as the Suns. Instead of taking flyers on young guys with room to grow, they have been bringing in name brand veterans like Carlos Boozer and Darren Collison, in the hopes that they can cobble a back-door run at an 8 seed. This approach, if not done carefully, can end up impeding internal development and keep a team stuck in place.

- Los Angeles Clippers: Reggie Bullock

Like most rookies on contending teams, Bullock’s first season in the NBA was essentially a glorified internship, running errands for veteran players and competing against them in practice without ever having much of a chance to earn consistent playing time. JJ Redick, Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes will still get the majority of the minutes on the wings, but Bullock still has a chance to carve out a role for himself as a 3-and-D player this season.

At 6’7 205, he has prototype size and athleticism for a perimeter defender and he displayed a good shooting touch at UNC, where he shot 44% from 3. The Clippers loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the second round of the playoffs showed they need a player like Bullock, as Barnes had to spend his time defending Kevin Durant and neither Chris Paul nor Redick had the size and athleticism to prevent Russell Westbrook from going crazy

- Golden State Warriors: Draymond Green 

Green had a breakout performance in last year’s playoffs, when he was inserted into the starting line-up as a small-ball PF in the aftermath of an injury to Bogut. He averaged 12 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks a game on 47% shooting and his ability to spread the floor from the PF position allowed the Warriors to come this close to stealing their first-round series with the Clippers, which they lost in a Game 7 heartbreaker on the road.

With a new coaching staff in place in Golden State, it will be interesting to see how much they stick to a two-post offense as opposed to trying to spread the floor and creating more opportunities for young guys like Green and Harrison Barnes. The key for Draymond is becoming a more consistent three-point shooter - while he had a green light to shoot from deep in the post-season, he was only at 33% in the regular season and 28% in the playoffs. 

- Phoenix Suns: Alex Len 

The Suns unexpected emergence into a playoff contender last season meant there was little time for Len, the No. 5 pick in the 2013 draft. He has become a bit of a forgotten man - a raw young center whom many considered a reach and didn’t have the chance to get much playing time as a rookie. Nevertheless, he is still an intriguing prospect with a lot of tools and he represents one of the best avenues for internal improvement in Phoenix, going forward. 

At 7’1 255, Len is a big body with the athleticism to run up and down the court and play in the Suns uptempo system. In a best-case scenario, he can replicate Plumlee’s ability to set screens and finish at the rim while also providing a defensive presence in the paint and a more balanced skill-set on the offensive side of the floor, with the ability to post up and knock down the perimeter jumper. Len is only 21 and he is very skilled for a guy his size. 

- Los Angeles Lakers: Wesley Johnson

The Lakers went all-in on building a super team around Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash in 2012 and they are still feeling the after-effects two seasons later. After selling off most of their draft picks, there wasn’t much young talent on hand when the whole thing fell apart and they had to scour the waiver wire for reclamation projects. Johnson, one of their best finds, began turning his career around last season under Mike D’Antoni.

The No. 4 overall pick in 2010, Johnson was unable to shoulder much of an offensive burden in Minnesota, but he has re-invented himself as a 3-and-D player in Los Angeles. He shot 37% from 3 and matched up with multiple positions on defense, giving D’Antoni the type of versatility his system required. The question is how Johnson will fit in Byron Scott’s more conventional system, without the type of space he was able to play in under D’Antoni. 

- Sacramento Kings: Ben McLemore

After a disappointing rookie season where he shot only 38% from the floor, the Kings seemed to lose faith in McLemore, the No. 7 pick in 2013. They drafted over him this season, taking another SG (Nik Stauskas) in the lottery and now the two young players will have to compete for playing time as well as a place in the pecking order, going forward. McLemore may end up being a bust, but it’s still way too early to make that declaration with any certainty.

Stauskas showed more of an ability to create his own shot and distribute the ball in college, but McLemore is a far better athlete who projects as a much better defensive player down the line. The problem is that it’s going to be hard for them to grow together, as neither has the game to be a full-time PG or the size to swing to the SF position. The crazy part about doubling up at SG is that the Kings still don’t have a long-term answer at PG, SF or PF.

14-15 Euroleague Power Rankings: Centers

As the 14-15 Euroleague season begins, RealGM presents the ultimate positional rankings of the league's best players. In this first edition, we ranked the elite centers from one to ten. 

1. Gustavo Ayon (Real, Spain)

Statistics in 2013-14 (NBA): 4.3 points and 4.8 rebounds.

Euroleague finalist Real Madrid won the biggest fight of the offseason in signing Gustavo Ayon. One of the best big men in 2014 FIBA World Cup, Ayon has joined Real for the next two seasons as a replacement for Nikola Mirotic. Ayon can unquestionably contribute as much as Mirotic did in 13-14 statistically - Ayon failed to establish himself as anything more than an NBA role player but has always been very productive in international competitions. The 29-year-old center averaged 17.6 points and 7.6 rebounds in the World Cup, including 25 points performance in the quarterfinal match against Team USA.

2. Ante Tomic (FC Barcelona, Spain)

Statistics in 2013-14 (Euroleague): 11.7 points and 6.4 rebounds. 

Ante Tomic stands out statistically from the other players ranked here. The Croatian big man was the only Euroleague center that ranked in the Top 15 in scoring last season and also was the second best rebounder of the league. In 13-14, Tomic was not only as productive as the previous season, but also had a career performance in a game against Anadolu Efes in which he scored 26 points, grabbed 15 boards and collected career-high 40 performance index rating (PIR) points. Numbers don’t lie and the 27-year-old Tomic is expected to remain in elite for the upcoming years.

3. Tibor Pleiss (FC Barcelona, Spain)

Statistics in 2013-14 (Euroleague): 12 points (86% FT) and 5.4 rebounds.

Now it is obvious that moving to Laboral Kutxa in 2012 was a great move for Tibor Pleiss. After adjusting in 12-13, last season was a great success for Pleiss. He more than doubled his stats in Euroleague (12 points and 5.4 rebounds), while he was also a dominant figure in Spanish league (12.7 points and 6.5 rebounds per game). If Dunk-O-Meterexists in Europe, Pleiss would had been among leaguers as the German center successfully used his height (7-foot-1), long arms and often finished off plays with dunks. As Pleiss joined Tomic at FC Barcelona by signing a two-year contract, it is going to be interesting to see how two elite centers will fit together on the same team.

4. Ioannis Bourousis (Real, Spain)

Statistics in 2013-14 (Euroleague): 8.3 points (86% FT) and 5.9 rebounds.

After spending two title-less years with EA7 Emporio Armani Milan, last season Ioannis Bourousis finally got into a winning situation and was a part of an astonishing Real Madrid run. Real was only one win away from becoming one of the most remarkable teams in the history of Euroleague. However, Bourousis is not the one to blame for loss as the Greek center was one of the most effective players in the final game, where he scored 12 points and grabbed nine boards. With Mirotic gone, the biggest challenge for Bourousis will be to use all his experience to help Real maintain the impressive level of play as it was last season.

5. Bryant Dunston (Olympiacos, Greece)

Statistics in 2013-2014 (Euroleague): 10.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks. 

Last season Bryant Dunston, now a second-year center, stepped into a difficult role as a rookie as he became a starting big man of back-to-back Euroleague champion Olympiakos. It did not take long until Dunston turned into a dominant player inside the paint who was a difference maker on both sides of the floor. Dunston's defensive skills and rim-protection was noticed by Euroleague coaches, who voted Dunston to become 2014 Euroleague Best Defender trophy winner. Despite Olympiakos tried to strengthen their frontcourt by adding Othello Hunter, it seems that Olympiakos will still rely mostly on Dunston, who will again be the strongest candidate to win Best Defender award.

6. Shawn James (EA7 Emporio Armani, Italy)

Statistics in 2013-14 (Euroleague): 9.8 points, 3.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocks.

Shawn James missed a big part of last season as he recovered after having back surgery in January and had to watch his teammates lifting Euroleague trophy in Milan. However, most of Euroleague fans should still remember his game from 12-13 season as back then James led the league in blocks (1.9) and was named to the 2012-13 All-Euroleague Second Team. Now James moved to Milan, where he might become a piece that kept EA7 Emporio Armani team way from winning a playoff series. If James gets back to the level he was in 12-13, Milan will become a real contender to play in Euroleague Final Four.

7. Sofoklis Schortsanitis (Maccabi, Israel)

Statistics in 2013-14 (Euroleague): 9.6 points, 3.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocks.

Sofoklis Schortsanitis is one of the most unique players in the Euroleague as he didn’t receive more than 15 minutes of playing time per game in last three seasons but still remained among elite centers. Due to his condition, Schortsanitis’ playing time was limited in 13-14 but the Greek as usual was able to do a lot of damage in a short period of time - Schortsanitis also led the league in points per 28 minutes (19). Do not expect to see Schortsanitis to climb the ranking in the upcoming seasons but the current Euroleague champion should remain a guy who can get the job done in 15 minutes.

8. Sasha Kaun (CSKA, Russia)

Statistics in 2013-14 (Euroleague): 8.4 points and 3.5 rebounds.

Now as the only center on a Euroleague title contender, 14-15 is going to be a make or break season for Sasha Kaun. The big man was very efficient on pick and roll situations and was productive when CSKA needed that the most. Kaun scored 29 points in the last two playoffs games against Panathinaikos and collected 27 points in two 2014 Euroleague Final Four games. It is going to be interesting to see how Kaun will look on the court together with Nando de Colo and if he can develop himself into a big man, who put double-digit performances on a game-by-game basis.

9. Lamont Hamilton (Laboral Kutxa, Spain)

Statistics in 2013-14 (Euroleague): 10.3 points, 3.6 rebounds and 1.3 assists.

Even though he missed half of the Euroleague games last season due to injury, Lamont Hamilton was still selected to RealGM’s Euroleague All-Rookie 2nd Team and in general had a productive season. Hamilton was one of the best sixth men in the league as he averaged 10.3 points and 3.6 boards in 19 minutes of action. With Pleiss gone to FC Barcelona, Hamilton’s role is set to increase but as Laboral Kutxa acquired Ryan Gomes, Davis Bertans, and Thomas Heurtel flashed in 2014 FIBA World Cup, the center’s touches will be limited.

10. Nenad Krstic (Anadolu Efes, Turkey)

Statistics in 2013-14 (Euroleague): 9.6 points and 3.2 rebounds.

After a slow start last season, Nenad Krstic finally became himself in the beginning of Top 16 stage, where he put four 20 PIR points performances in a row but after the seventh game of the second stage Krstic disappeared and never came back. Overall, Krstic has been in decline over the past few seasons. In the 2014 FIBA World Cup, Krstic’s playing time was limited due to his poor conditioning, which was mainly caused by a knee injury, therefore it is unsure if he can get back this season at the top level that he was just couple years ago.

College Basketball Preview 14-15: Big Ten

My numeric projections will be available near the start of the season. Earlier Previews: ACC Preview, MWC Preview, SEC Preview, WCC Preview, A10 Preview, Big East Preview, American Preview, Pac-12 Preview, MVC Preview, Big 12 Preview and The Rest of the Conferences.

Big Ten Favorite

Wisconsin: Wisconsin was dominant on a per-possession basis last year, they went to the Final Four, and they bring nearly everyone back. Frank Kaminsky has emerged as a player who is basically un-guardable because of his perimeter and low-post skills. For once, the tempo free numbers and the experts agree, Wisconsin is one of the best teams in the country.

With guard Ben Brust graduating, expect Wisconsin to use fewer three guard lineups and more three forward lineups. Forward Nigel Hayes was terrific in the paint last season, and he is ready for a larger role. Sometimes using a bigger lineup can hurt a team's spacing, but because Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky's are such good outside shooters, that is not the case with Wisconsin.

The Unheralded Contender

Ohio St: Let me make a statement that may seem controversial: Ohio St.'s offense will be substantially better in 2014-15. I understand why people expect the Buckeyes to fall off the map. They weren't a very good offensive team last year, and they lose three key scorers from last year's team. But I think people are massively under-estimating this year's team. Thad Matta is a great offensive coach. Since 2007, his offenses have ranked 3rd, 63rd, 30th, 8th, 1st, 5th, and 11th in the nation, before the offense was 128th last season. Last season looks like a tremendous fluke.I can point to the minor issues that the team had last year:

-They struggled to make threes. This was a result of giving major minutes to two PGs who were not good outside shooters. This year with D'Angelo Russell and a healthy Kam Williams, the team has better shooters.

-They struggled with offensive rebounds. The addition of Anthony Lee should help a lot.

-Their bench was inefficient. Amedeo Della Valle is gone, and thanks to Anthony Lee, Trey McDonald should play less this season.

But I think the best way to illustrate Ohio St.'s likely strength is to simply look at their lineup:

PG Shannon Scott (former RSCI #32 recruit): Even though Aaron Craft received an overwhelming amount of hype, Shannon Scott was basically an equivalent player on a per-possession basis last year. And for all the talk about Craft's elite steal rate, Scott's steal rate was even higher last year. Scott averaged 7.5 PPG last year, but expect that to grow to near 10 PPG this season due to his increased playing time.

SG D'Angelo Russell (RSCI #16 recruit): Russell is going to be the team's go-to scorer. I'm not quite buying that he'll be a 14-17 PPG guy, but he has more help than most people appreciate.

Wing Sam Thompson (former RSCI #46 recruit): When it came to 2PT%/3PT%/FT%, in 2012-13 Thompson was a 53/40/70 player. In 2013-14 he was a 50/36/62 player. Players with that type of profile typically bounce back.

F Marc Loving (former RSCI #66 recruit): Loving looks like one of the nation's most likely break-out candidates. Loving was an aggressive and relatively efficient shooter as a freshman. All he needs is more playing time and his PPG numbers are going to sky-rocket.

F Anthony Lee (Temple Transfer): Lee averaged 13.6 in a major conference and was very efficient. He was also a very strong rebounder with his former team.

And I'd project the bench to include:

F Amir Williams (former RSCI #50 recruit): The ability to rotate Williams and Lee instead of the ineffective Trey McDonald, is going to make Ohio St. a much better team in the post.

F Keita Bates-Diop (RSCI #29 recruit): Based on where Bates-Diop is ranked, he should be a key contributor in year one.

SG Kam Williams (former RSCI #76 recruit): He sat out last year due to an early season illness, but he's a natural scorer, and the year of practicing with the team should make him less likely to make freshman mistakes.

Wing Jae'Sean Tate (RSCI #54 recruit): Based on where he is ranked, he may not be a huge contributor, but Ohio St. is only asking him to be the 9th player in their rotation.

I don't buy for a moment that Ohio St. is going to be an inept offensive team again in 2015. And I don't buy that the defense is going to fall off the map either. The defense will be worse without Craft, but with eight players that were Top 100 recruits out of high school, including a shot-blocker as good as Amir Williams, and a steal-artist as good as Scott, Ohio St.'s defense will still be strong.

Hoping for the Top 25

Iowa: The Hawkeyes seemed like a lock for the NCAA tournament, but they stumbled to a 1-6 finish and barely qualified for the play-in game. The Hawkeyes late-season collapse was largely triggered by the team's defensive struggles. It's very hard to say whether that's a permanent trend or just a fluke. Head coach Fran McCaffery's defenses have really jumped around the last several years. At Iowa, McCaffery's defense has been 62nd, 197th, 22nd, and 120th.

Iowa's offense was one of the best in the nation last year, and they have enough players coming back that they should still be strong. The front-court remains absolutely loaded with Adam Woodbury (ORtg 110 and former Top 50 recruit), Gabriel Olaseni (ORtg 120, monster offensive rebounder, and shot-blocker), Jarrod Uthoff (ORtg 120 and monster defensive rebounder), and Aaron White (ORtg 123, made 63% of his two last year). White and Uthoff will probably play a little more because of their outside shooting ability, but regardless of who plays, Iowa’s front-court is strong.

The guards are also strong. Mike Gesell is a quality ball-handler and former elite recruit, Josh Oglesby can be a difference making three-point shooter at times, and Top 10 JUCO recruit Trey Dickerson can do a little bit of everything. Peter Jok is the wildcard at this point. Jok was aggressive and efficient last year, which could make him a breakout player. But he didn’t play enough minutes last season to really know if he is the real deal. Luckily, Iowa doesn’t need Jok to be a star to be good. With a deep lineup, Iowa’s biggest strength is the team’s balance. When you look at the projections for the individual players on paper, this is a Top 25 squad that should easily make the tournament. But last year's team looked like it should easily make the tournament too.

Michigan St: Only four players on Michigan St.'s current roster were Top 100 recruits out of high school. That's the lowest number in over a decade.

Top 100 Players on Michigan St. roster

Year

Count

2006

7

2007

5

2008

9

2009

10

2010

10

2011

8

2012

6

2013

8

2014

8

2015

4

Michigan St. still has talent. Cleveland St. transfer Bryn Forbes was a major scorer in a quality league. Even with the upgrade in competition in the Big Ten, he will be a major contributor. And Travis Trice, despite being just a 3-star prospect out of high school, clearly became an efficient and effective player last year. Trice cut down his turnovers and became a much more dangerous three point shooter.

But the Big Ten is a brutal league from top to bottom. Sometimes the difference between winning and losing is star power. And Michigan St. no longer has a clear advantage in star power. Players like Tum Tum Nairn (RSCI Top 100) and Javon Bess (3.7 star recruit) are probably a year away from being dominant Big Ten players.

And for the first time in a long time, missing the tournament is within the realm of possibility for the Spartans. I still have them as a preseason Top 25 team and I'd only put their odds of missing the tournament in the 20-25% range. But you can no longer look at the Michigan St. roster and say a post-season trip is a sure thing.

Michigan: Over the last five years, the five best coaches at developing lightly recruited players into offensive stars are (1) Tim Cluess at Iona, (2) Gregg Marshall at Wichita St., (3) Bo Ryan at Wisconsin, (4) Tim Miles at Nebraska, and (5) John Beilein at Michigan.

(I say this based on a data project discussed in previous previews. I took data from the last five years and projected every player's ORtg given their recruiting rank and previous college stats. Then I took the ratio of their actual ORtg to their projected ORtg, and I took the average for each coach. The coaches with the highest ratios were the coaches whose players most exceeded expectations.)

That’s a terrific top five, and three of those coaches are in the Big Ten. (The Big Ten as a whole is full of great player development coaches, but these coaches are the cream of the crop at developing offensive players.) Last year, Beilein's surprise project was Caris LeVert. LeVert was an afterthought in the 2012 recruiting class. ESPN had him as a 2-star prospect and the 69th best shooting guard in one of their last online evaluations. Scout and Rivals viewed him as a 3-star prospect. And yet there he was averaging 13 points per game and making 40% of his threes last season.

In 2014, LeVert will be flanked by Derrick Walton (who had a very efficient freshmen season), Zak Irvin (who is due for a breakout season), and freshman Kameron Chatman (who was ranked high enough that he would star for any coach). The front court of Mark Donnal (who red-shirted last year but was a 4-star prospect), and DJ Wilson (who everyone but ESPN viewed as a 4-star prospect) might need a little time. But Beilein’s been a master of getting the most out of players. Even if most of the other players on the roster are ranked somewhere between 2 and 3 stars, you just know that when called upon, they can almost always shoot.

The only thing holding Michigan back is a subpar defense. And that’s where the loss of a terrific rebounder like Jon Horford, who transferred this offseason, hurts. But even if Beilein’s defenses aren’t the most physical in the Big Ten, they are usually good enough to win their fair share of games.

Maryland: It is easy to write off Maryland because of all the players that transferred or failed to enroll this off-season. But most of those players transferred because they were likely to see their playing time cut. Trayvon Reed's arrest and dismissal was more harmful, because it was unexpected. But Maryland has retained a very strong core rotation. Dez Wells, Evan Smotrycz, and Jake Layman are all quality scorers. And the team adds 7 footer and Top 100 recruit Michal Cekovsky in the paint. I think the comparisons to Alex Len are a bit premature, but most scouting services focus on US high school players, and Cekovsky's recruiting ranking is almost certainly under-stated. At PG, the team will turn to Top 40 prospect Romelo Trimble.

Besides those five, the team also adds transfer Richaud Pack. Pack averaged 17 PPG at North Carolina A&T. And while I don't expect him to score like that in the Big Ten, he was an especially efficient player at his former school. I project his ORtg to fall by about 13 points due to the upgrade in competition, but that would still make him a quality offensive player for the Terrapins. Finally, the team adds Dion Wiley and Jared Nickens, two more Top 100 recruits who should thrive as key reserves.

My main concern for Maryland is simply the team's lack of depth. Much like Syracuse, the questions about the PG position are huge. If Trimble struggles to lead the team, Maryland doesn't have a lot of alternatives. We already saw how poorly the team played last fall when Dez Wells tried to be the lead PG. And without Reed, Cekovsky has to play major minutes right away.

Mark Turgeon's tenure at Maryland has been exceedingly disappointing so far. And in many ways, this year's team is the perfect litmus test for him. There is enough talent that Maryland could win a game in the NCAA tournament and earn Turgeon a big contract extension. But missing the tournament is also on the table, and if that happens Turgeon will likely be done.

Hoping for the NCAA Tournament

The next four Big Ten teams have star players (Terran Petteway, Rayvonte Rice, Andre Hollins, Yogi Ferrell), but each one of these rosters has a significant hole.

Nebraska: As noted above, Tim Miles is one of the best coaches in the country at developing players. And Terran Petteway and Shavon Shields, two of the best scorers in the Big Ten are back. Along with transfer Walter Pitchford, who resurrected his career last year, that's a great core.

In my April Rankings I had Nebraska just outside my Top 25. But two things caused the Corhuskers to drop. First, Leslee Smith tore his ACL. That hurt a lot more than most people realize because Smith was one of Nebraska's best defensive players. He was great at getting steals, blocks, and rebounds.

Second, as readers of my preview series are aware, one of the things I've added to my model this summer is a focus on the fundamental measures of defense. Teams have very little control over their opponent's FT% and 3 PT%. When a team's defense is good because of these areas, that is less likely to be repeated the following season.

Nebraska's opponents made only 32% of their threes and 68% of their free throws last season. That was slightly lucky, but what amplifies those numbers is that Nebraska opponents took an unusually large number of free throws. While I think some of Nebraska's players might improve as defenders, if their opponents make 34% of their threes and 70% of their free throws (which is what you would expect), that is going to eat away a lot of the improvement the team makes. And without Smith, I just don't see Nebraska's defense playing better than last year.

Offensively, I'm also quite worried that the team will almost always have two non-scorers on the floor. With players as good at Petteway and Shields, you aren't necessarily asking a lot of your other players. But the other players need to keep the defense honest, and I'm not sure Nebraska can do that at center and point-guard. First, at center the team will likely rely on Georgetown transfer Moses Ayegba and three star big man Jacob Hammond. Ayegba was an offensive liability at Georgetown and Hammond is young and raw. Meanwhile at PG, Tai Webster was one of the least efficient players in the Big Ten, while Benny Parker was exceedingly passive offensively. That may open the door for freshman PG Tarin Smith to play right away, but based on where Smith is ranked, you can’t expect Smith to be an efficient player in year one.

Stating it differently, the scouting in the Big Ten is very good. Teams will be game-planning to get the ball out of Petteway and Shields hands and into the hands of those less skilled players. Maybe because of Tim Miles, Nebraska will once again exceed expectations. But this isn’t a perfect roster.

Illinois: The big reason a lot of people expect Illinois to play better this season is the addition of Seton Hall transfer Aaron Cosby and Oregon St. transfer Ahmad Starks. Both were efficient players in a major conference, and their ability to knock down three pointers should give Illinois star Rayvonte Rice more room to operate. The Illinois offense was also exceedingly young last season. Malcolm Hill, Kendrick Nunn, Jaylon Tate, Austin Colbert, and Maverick Morgan all played as freshmen last year, and Illinois will be substantially better this year simply because they will make fewer freshmen mistakes.

But like Nebraska, Illinois is a team that I loved a lot more this spring then I do right now. First, forward Darius Paul was dismissed for off-court reasons, and then Tracy Abrams tore his ACL. The loss of Abrams is not the end of the world. With transfers Aaron Cosby and Ahmad Starks joining the rotation, Abrams was likely to see his minutes decrease somewhat anyhow. Abrams has never been a natural point guard, and it is possible the team will be better with Starks leading the team and playing more often. (Of course, Starks wasn't the lead PG for Oregon St. either.) But whenever you lose a player as good as Abrams, the margin-for-error gets smaller. Now instead of Abrams splitting PG duty, the team may have to turn more to Jaylon Tate. And Tate was very turnover prone last year. The loss of a lock-down defender like Tracy Abrams also really hurts the defense.

That said, I think the Illinois back-court will be good enough for the team to win. The real question is the front-court. Nnnana Egwu is a defender, but a limited offensive player. The team's season really hinges on the play at the four. Malcolm Hill was a former Top 100 recruit who played well last season, particularly after he joined the starting rotation. And he will split time with Leron Black, a freshman Top 50 recruit. Illinois needs significant scoring out of that position if the offense is to improve enough for the team to make the tournament.

Minnesota: I often refer to Top 100 JUCO players as lottery tickets. Well, Minnesota won the lottery with PG Deandre Mathieu. The Gophers had struggled over the previous several seasons with PG transfers, PG injuries, and non-PG ball-handlers, and not surprisingly their record in close games was very poor. But with Mathieu the team not only had an efficient and effective scorer, but the team finally had someone who could make sure the team got a good shot in the final minutes. The net result was that Richard Pitino's squad won the NIT in his first year as head coach.

Minnesota will roll the dice on another Top 100 JUCO player in Carlos Morris at the wing. With super-scorer Andre Hollins returning, with the efficient Joey King returning, and with the defense/offense combination of Elliott Eliason and Maurice Walker in the paint, Minnesota's top six players are good enough to make the NCAA tournament. The problem the Gophers face is simply a lack of depth. It might be hard to squeeze much production out of the group of 3-star or lower underclassman that make up the rest of the roster.

Indiana: I fear Indiana may look a lot like the Hoosiers did in the years before Cody Zeller arrived. Back in the pre-Zeller days, Indiana had some star guards, and they played physical defense, but the complete lack of scoring by post players limited the team's upside. The Hoosiers post options are just not very attractive. I'm not as down on Hanner Mosquera-Perea as some folks. Sometimes big men take time to mature, and he was a Top 50 recruit out of high school. But he's contributed very little in his first two years with the team. And freshmen Max Hoetzel, Tim Priller, and Jeremiah April, are far below the caliber of player that Indiana normally recruits. The best option will probably be to play Troy Williams and Devin Davis since both played well last year. But both are under-sized forwards.

Indiana's backcourt is good enough that they might win a lot of games even without much front-court production. Yogi Ferrell is an elite PG. James Blackmon is the RSCI #21 recruit, and a lights out three point shooter. Transfer Nick Ziesloft isn't quite the scorer most people think. If he was a passive shooter in the MVC, he will probably be a passive shooter in the Big Ten. But the coaching staff loves all the other things Ziesloft brings to the table. And Top 100 prospects like Stanford Robinson and Robert Johnson have a large amount of upside, it is just a matter of how long until they show it.

Hoping for the NIT

Penn St: With Tim Frazier graduating this off-season, I thought Penn St. might fall off the map. But when you look closely, this is not a terrible roster. First, Penn St. was much better last year than I remembered. Their margin-of-victory was 82nd in the nation. Second, even if you can't replace a star like Frazier, Penn St. remains strong at the PG position. Geno Thorpe was recruited as a PG, and while he had to play almost exclusively off the ball last year, he was very efficient because he was great at getting to the line. He also shot 60% on his twos last year which speaks to his ability to take the ball inside. And the team adds Top 100 JUCO Devin Foster as well. If neither of them are ready to be the lead PG, the team also has an insurance policy. Two years ago DJ Newbill played the PG position when Frazier was injured, and Newbill was one of the best passers in the league that year. Passing won't be the team's weakness, nor will guard play.

Penn St.'s weakness is typically the front-court, and that's why I'm actually cautiously optimistic about this squad. For the first time in a long time, Penn St. seems like they've actually found a few solid front-court options. Forward Brandon Taylor was one of the most improved players in the Big Ten last year, upping his ORtg from 88 to 107, while becoming a strong rebounder and shot-blocker. Donovon Jack was the most efficient rotation player on the team last year thanks to his low turnover rate and high shooting percentage. And Ross Travis, while undersized, continues to rebound and score at a remarkable rate.

Because of the Big Ten's incredible depth, Penn St. will probably still end up near the bottom of the standings. But this team is much better than most people think. This could be one of those years where Penn St. wins 8 games in the Big Ten and everyone scratches their head about how they unexpectedly ended up on the bubble.

Northwestern: Don't judge head coach Chris Collins based on last season. As I noted last fall, Northwestern didn't have a player on the roster who was projected to have an ORtg over 100. The offense ended up 309th in the nation, and I honestly don't think any coach in the country could have done any better.

This year Northwestern's roster remains under-manned, but at least the team has a few players who might be able to put the ball in the basket. First, Collins did a good job developing 7 footer Alex Olah last year. Olah saw his ORtg jump from 89 to 101, and the big man became a confident finisher around the rim. He is someone Northwestern can lean on this year when they need an easy bucket. Second, Tre Demps emerged as a quality scorer. Third, Jershon Cobb, when he isn't injured or suspended, has been effective. Fourth, freshman Vic Law will likely be a key contributor. I've talked a lot about how players ranked further down in the Top 100 don't always make an immediate impact, and Law is ranked 91st nationally. But when a team was as inept as Northwestern was offensively last year, a player like Law is still a big upgrade. Fifth, the team adds Yale transfer Jeremiah Kreisberg.

The real question is who gets these improved scorers the ball. Dave Sobolewski's ORtg has been trending in the wrong direction. His ORtg was 111 in 2012, 98 in 2013, and 81 in 2014. Part of that has been the team's lack of scorers. It was hard to be an effective point-guard when almost no one could make an open jumper last year. Sobolewski was also ineffective due to injuries, particularly a concussion he sustained in January. I suspect the coaching staff may be ready to move on to someone new, like Bryant McIntosh, but I'm not convinced that Sobolewski is as bad a player as last year's numbers would suggest. Overall, Northwestern is still at least a year away. But I can promise the games won't be as brutally ugly offensively as they were last season.

Purdue: When you get down to the thirteenth best team in a conference, you are often talking about a terrible team. Purdue isn't terrible; the Big Ten is just deep. AJ Hammons, Kendall Stephens, and Bryson Scott were all former Top 100 prospects who I expect to break out this year. They've all shown flashes of brilliance, and after a summer of transfers, this is their team. Rapheal Davis and Basil Smotherman are two more efficient players who can fill out a rotation.

The roster does have flaws. Purdue will be very young. And the team will probably have to rely a lot on freshman PG PJ Thompson. Based on his recruiting rank, Thompson is the kind of player that will struggle in Big Ten play.

But my main concern is the defense. Two years ago Josh Reed wrote a brilliant column on Matt Painter's defense entitled, "Was it the system, or was it JaJuan Johnson?" Essentially, Painter's only great defensive seasons came with JaJuan Johnson playing major minutes. And after two more seasons of mediocre defense, it appears that Johnson deserves the credit and not Painter for Purdue’s past success. This year, with a ton of new faces in the rotation, I don't expect Purdue's defense to be adequate.

Dragging Down the Big Ten's RPI

Rutgers: Forward Kadeem Jack and lead-guard Myles Mack were stars last year. I sense some sort of rhyming t-shirt "Jack and Mack Attack" is going to be big. The additions, former Miami FL player Bishop Daniels, and a bunch of three star recruits, might not be enough to make up for what they lost, but any team with two players as good as Jack and Mack should still be competitive. But Rutgers defense was so terrible last year that they were not competitive. The Scarlet Knights were 0-13 against the Pomeroy Top 100 last season. And since every other team in the Big Ten projects as a Top 100 squad right now, I don’t see a lot of victories on Rutgers’ schedule.

Boston's Rebuild After 16 Months: Time For Patience And Optimism

Since Danny Ainge made his 180 in May 2013 by cashing in on Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Doc Rivers, he has done a remarkable job of implementing a serious rebuild and putting the Celtics in a position to succeed.

Rondo Injury Leads To Experiment At Point Guard

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

College Basketball Preview 14-15: The Rest

In this piece, we preview the Ivy, Big West, MAC, Horizon, MAAC, Conference-USA, Patriot, Summit, CAA, Ohio Valley, Sun Belt, Big South, WAC, Big Sky, America East, Atlantic Sun, Southern, NEC, Southland, MEAC and SWAC.

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

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

College Basketball Preview 14-15: Big 12 Conference

Despite an uncertain point guard situation, Kansas remains the clear favorite in the Big 12 with Texas and Iowa State a clear step behind.

Thunder Facing Another Extension Dilemma In Reggie Jackson

As players from the 2011 NBA Draft negotiate extensions on their rookie deals, none will have a more interesting decision to make than Reggie Jackson. Jackson’s current situation is fairly comparable to Eric Bledsoe, who spent most of his first three seasons playing behind Chris Paul.

Reviewing Brooklyn's 2014 Offseason

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

USA Fully Restores Order In Basketball Universe

The scariest part about the United States' performance is that this wasn’t even the team Mike Krzyzewski and Jerry Colangelo envisioned sending to Spain, yet they still haven't lost a game since 2006.

College Basketball Preview 14-15: Missouri Valley Conference

While it is unclear where Wichita State ranks nationally, they're the clear favorites to win the Missouri Valley Conference ahead of Northern Iowa.

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

Boris Diaw served as France’s primary playmaker and one of the main hubs of their offense in their upset win of Spain. The upset is a culmination of a remarkable year of basketball for Diaw, both internationally and in the NBA.

College Basketball Preview 14-15: Pacific-12

Arizona are the clear favorites to win the Pac-12 again in 2015 with UCLA, Stanford and Utah hoping for a place in the top-25.

Spain And The Beautiful Game

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.

College Basketball Preview 14-15: American Athletic Conference

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

The Storylines Of The Basketball World Cup

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

College Basketball Preview 14-15: Big East

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

Why Eric Bledsoe's Max Contract Awaits

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

College Basketball Preview 14-15: Atlantic-10

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

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