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College Basketball Preview 14-15: American Athletic Conference

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

Earlier Previews: ACC Preview, MWC Preview, SEC Preview, WCC Preview, A10 Preview, Big East Preview

American Conference Co-Favorites

SMU: Even though Emmanuel Mudiay decided to skip college, SMU still deserves to be in the preseason Top 25. SMU had the 30th best margin-of-victory in the nation last year, they don’t have any freshman on the roster (who might waste possessions), and they return 74% of their minutes. With stars Nic Moore and Markus Kennedy returning, this team has Top 25 level talent.

But the reasons for optimism go beyond those basic stats. The reality is that several bench players are prepared to break out and take on larger roles. Keith Frazier was a Top 30 guard prospect last year, and as a rising sophomore, there is a strong chance he becomes a star this year. Former Top 10 JUCO recruit Yanick Moreira was injured last year, but when fully healthy he was dominant. All Moreira needs to be a major scorer at the D1 level is more minutes. And even if Ben Moore and Cannen Cunningham were not ranked quite as high out of high school, they were efficient last season and they could thrive with a larger role too.

The team also adds one of the best transfers in the nation in Xavier’s Justin Martin. Without Mudiay, this might not be a Top 10 team, but this team still has the depth and strength to win the league.

Connecticut: The next table shows UConn’s offensive and defensive performance in the regular season and in their six game NCAA tournament run:

Connecticut

Adj Off

Adj Def

Pyth.

Rank

First 34 Games

109.5

92.8

0.8688

25th

NCAA Tournament

120.5

89.1

0.9698

1st

Many believe the NCAA tournament is about luck. Unlike the NBA’s best of seven series, the one and done format is not about finding the best team. But even if you don’t believe Connecticut was the best team in college basketball over five months, you have to give the Huskies a lot of credit for how they played in that closing stretch. In those six games, the Huskies really were playing like the best team in the nation.

And as I said at the time, I think this national title is a huge boon for the long-run strength and stability of the program. A year ago teams recruiting against Connecticut could claim that the level of competition in the American Conference was not going to be good enough to prepare UConn for the NCAA tournament. A year ago teams recruiting against Connecticut could claim that while Kevin Ollie was a nice guy, he was no Jim Calhoun. But last year’s run erases those arguments.

Basically any guard that dreams of leading his team to NCAA glory has to believe that those goals can be achieved at UConn. From Khalid El-Amin to Kemba Walker to Shabazz Napier, Connecticut is a program where guards leave a permanent legacy. Thus perhaps it is not a surprise that Connecticut has ridiculous guard depth this year. Ryan Boatright is a star. NC State transfer Rodney Purvis was a Top 20 recruit a few years ago. Daniel Hamilton is a Top 20 recruit this year. Sam Cassell Jr is a Top 10 JUCO addition. Terrence Samuel played a vital role for the Huskies late in the season. And even if he fell off the map last year, Omar Calhoun still has talent; he just needs to find a way to channel it.

Despite that guard depth, the hardest player for UConn to replace may be DeAndre Daniels. I wonder if Daniel Hamilton might be the answer in certain situations. Coaches like to have their four best players on the floor. And at 6’6” or 6’7”, if Hamilton can hold his own defending certain types of opposing big men, Kevin Ollie might be able to unleash a lethal 4-guard attack at times this season.

Hoping for the NCAA Tournament

Memphis: When you hear about player commitments in August, it rarely sinks in. Who really cares about Indiana offering a 13th scholarship to some player that re-classified from 2015 to 2014? But as someone who has studied the rosters extensively this summer, I can tell you that almost every one of these August commitments has occurred because of a very strong need that a team had for depth or strength at a particular position.

First, Oregon has a talented starting lineup, but the team had only nine scholarship players. If you look at what happened to Temple last year when the Owls didn’t have enough scholarship players, you realize that teams vitally need depth. And thus Dillon Brooks re-classified from 2015 to 2014 to join the Oregon recruiting class.

A few weeks ago I wrote how Auburn had upgraded its talent level, but how the Tigers were not quite an NCAA tournament team yet. I said the Tigers lacked the talented big men to complement their talented backcourt in 2014-15. And so Bruce Pearl went out and made an offer to former Maryland commit Trayvon Reed. Reed won’t be eligible until at least December, and his recent arrest makes him a risk. But given that Auburn still needed quality players in the front-court, Reed was a natural choice.

When St. John’s forward JaKarr Sampson declared for the NBA draft, Steve Lavin said all the right things. But when he said, “We have a lot of confidence in Christian Jones” that was clearly coach-speak. Jones was a 2-star forward, who wasn’t a great finisher as a freshman. St. John’s needed more frontcourt depth. And Lavin did the only thing he could do late in the game, adding international forward Amar Alibegovic.

Two of the critical August roster changes involved the Memphis Tigers. At the start of August, Memphis simply had too much frontcourt depth. Incumbents and former Top 40 recruits Shaq Goodwin and Austin Nichols need minutes, transfer Calvin Godfrey is too good to ride the pine, and former Top 40 recruit Kuran Iverson seems poised to breakout. It simply wasn’t clear how elite big man prospect Dominic Woodson was going to get on the court. And suddenly, Woodson left Memphis and enrolled at a Tennessee program with one of the weakest frontcourts in the SEC.

Meanwhile, Memphis’ guard depth was not great. While Rashawn Powell and Markel Crawford can step in after sitting out last year, while Avery Woodson was a Top 100 JUCO guard, and while Dominic McGee is a Top 100 freshman, none of those players had played meaningful minutes against power conference competition. Thus Memphis added Vanderbilt guard Kedren Johnson. Johnson was a high volume scorer who had played over 1500 minutes in the SEC. Memphis lost a quality big man and added a quality guard, but what really happened in August is that the Tigers re-shuffled their lineup to get better roster balance.

And with great depth at the wing, where Nick King seems prepared for a breakout season and where Trahson Burrell was a Top 10 JUCO, the Tigers currently have incredible depth at forward, guard, and wing.

The real question for Memphis is not talent. The question is whether Josh Pastner’s sideline execution can begin to match his impeccable recruiting. While Pastner’s teams are almost always overwhelmingly stocked with blue chip recruits, he has only had a Top 25 margin-of-victory once in his career. Last year was pretty typical. Despite being ranked 13th in the AP preseason poll, the Tigers finished 37th in margin-of-victory. Memphis is recruiting at a level where they could compete for the American Conference Title every year. But until they start executing at that level, Pastner will never be viewed as an elite coach.

Tulsa: Two years ago Tulsa played an unusually high number of freshmen and lost a lot of games. Last year Tulsa rode the sophomore leap to an NCAA tournament bid. This year Tulsa is hoping to catch lighting in a bottle with Frank Haith.

When Haith took over at Missouri, he led a veteran team to 30 wins, a 2-seed in the NCAA tournament, and a Big 12 tournament title. Tulsa is hoping Haith can take over a veteran Tulsa squad and lead the Golden Hurricanes to similar success in a power conference.

That Missouri squad went with a tight seven-player rotation of veteran players. Something similar is possible here as James Woodard, Shaquille Harrison, Rashad Ray, Steve Repichowski, Rashad Smith, Brandon Swannegan, and D’Andre Wright are all back.

Cincinnati: A lot of words will be written about how an offensively challenged Cincinnati team will struggle to replace Sean Kilpatrick’s scoring. But I think we need to be equally aware that Cincinnati loses three extremely talented defenders. Kilpatrick, Titus Rubles, and Justin Jackson were all among the nation’s best at getting steals. Justin Jackson was an elite shot-blocker, and Rubles was a good shot-blocker for his size. And Jackson and Rubles were the Bearcats two best defensive rebounders. In terms of measured defensive stats, Cincinnati loses as much production as almost any team in the nation this off-season.

Cincinnati was also fairly fortunate on defense last year. Teams made just 32% of their threes and only 68% of their free throws against the Bearcats last year. (In the American Conference, Memphis was actually more fortunate, with teams making just 31% of their threes and 65% of their free throws against the Tigers.) But to put it simply, all indicators suggest the Cincinnati defense will take a significant step back.

The good news is that the offense is probably not as bad as it sounds. True, there are no clear stars at this point, but there are lots of quality pieces. Troy Caupain looks like he can be a quality PG. He was very good at getting steals, a quality passer, and very efficient in limited minutes as a freshman. Elite JUCO transfers like Octavious Ellis and Coreontae DeBerry should supplement the frontcourt nicely. And even if Shaquille Thomas is the only former Top 100 recruit on the roster, Cincinnati has a number of 3 and 4 star prospects that continue to have promise.

Hoping for the NIT

Houston: Kelvin Sampson, dismissed at Indiana for recruiting violations, is getting a second chance to be a college basketball head coach at Houston. And his starting lineup may include four former Top 100 recruits who are also looking for redemption. Former RSCI #22 Devonta Pollard went through an incredible kidnapping saga because of his mother, and he joins the team after transferring from Alabama. He joins former RSCI #64 Chicken Knowles in the front-court. Knowles received a lot of hype out of high school, had eligibility issues, and finally has a chance to start after being under-utilized last year. The team also adds former RSCI #72 Torian Graham. Due to academic issues Graham had to spend a couple of years playing junior college ball, but now he has his chance in a major conference. Finally, former RSCI #66 L.J. Rose blossomed after transferring from Baylor last year. The PG cut down on his turnovers significantly, but he still has to prove that he can lead a winning team in a power league.

Those four will likely be joined by the always efficient and effective Jherrod Stiggers in the starting lineup. The team also adds three Top 100 JUCO recruits in Eric Weary, Cavon Baker, and Betrand Nkali. Weary and Baker played at the D1 level at New Mexico St. and Florida Atlantic two years ago.

That sounds like a strong lineup on paper, but whether Sampson’s team is in the NCAA tournament hunt really depends on how quickly he changes the defensive culture at Houston. Houston had a great offense last year, but they never forced any steals or forced missed shots. While the roster turnover this off-season hurt the offense, it may actually help Sampson to more quickly implement a better defensive mentality. More importantly, these eight players all have two years of eligibility remaining. Even if the team needs a year to build chemistry with one another, there’s no reason this same core can’t have an even better shot at the tournament in 2015-16.

Temple: Last year I nailed the Temple collapse. While most experts had Temple in their Top 5 in the conference in the preseason, I pointed out that the Owls had very little depth and I pegged the Owls to be among the worst teams in the conference. Injuries certainly contributed to making that happen. At one point last season, Temple was down to six healthy scholarship players.

In 2014-15, I remain a little concerned about the Owl’s depth. A year after injuries derailed the season, I’m a little surprised Fran Dunphy once again has scholarships that are not being used. But there is no question that the Owls are going to be better. Will Cummings and Quenton DeCosey are quality scorers and they are back. Texas transfer Jaylen Bond will be a huge upgrade as will Clemson transfer Devin Coleman once he becomes eligible in December. ESPN also views big man Obi Enechionyia as a 4-star recruit, the type that should make a difference from the beginning. And with more health to players like Daniel Dingle, Temple will not be among the worst teams in the American Conference again. Fran Dunphy is a quality coach and last year was clearly an outlier.

Dragging Down UConn’s RPI

The bottom of this league is light years from the top of the league. There is a very good chance that the only wins these four squads get in conference play are against one another.

East Carolina and Tulane: At least you can say the two teams entering the league have veteran squads. East Carolina returns 70% of its minutes from last year and Tulane returns 86% of its minutes. East Carolina also adds Florida St. transfer and three-point gunner Terry Whisnant. I project both teams (particularly both offenses) to be significantly improved from last year, but that won’t be enough to make them competitive with the top of the league.

UCF: I will now spend more time debating the quality of UCF’s roster than you will read anywhere else: On the one hand, Kasey Wilson and Matt Williams were very efficient players for UCF last year, and their return is reason for optimism. On the other hand, the team used to have Isaiah Sykes and Calvin Newell using a high volume of possessions. Their departure means Wilson and Williams will have to increase their shot volume, essentially take more contested shots, and their efficiency could take a hit. On the other hand, Newell was actually a fairly dreadful offensive player last year. He made just 25% of his threes, 44% of his twos, and turned the ball over a bunch. And Sykes also had a down year in some respects. Despite being one of the best in the nation at getting to the line, Sykes made just 54% of his 192 free throws. Their loss is probably not as bad as it sounds. On the other hand, UCF doesn’t have a lot of elite prospects. On the other hand, Top 100 JUCO Shaheed Davis and Adonys Henriquez (who ESPN viewed as a 4 star prospect) are two players who might make an immediate impact, and none of the returning players except the PGs were inefficient last year. On the other hand, UCF’s returning PGs were not very good. On the other hand, freshman PG Barry Taylor is a three star prospect, and he might be able to play right away.

South Florida: I am very curious to see whether former Kentucky assistant and new head coach Orlando Antigua can boost USF’s recruiting going forward and make this team relevant in future seasons. In the short run, the team will rely heavily on forward Chris Perry, whose quality should shine through now that Victor Rudd and John Egbunu are gone. But the reality is that Antigua needs to turn this team over to a bunch of three star freshmen and hope it doesn’t get too ugly before they develop.

College Basketball Preview 14-15: Big East

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

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

Big East Favorite

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

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

Hoping for the Top 25

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

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

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

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

Coaches with the Biggest Increases in FTA per FGA on Defense

Coach

Team

2013

2014

Change

J. P. Piper

Nicholls St.

39

61

+22

Brian Katz

Sacramento St.

28

49

+21

Roman Banks

Southern

35

54

+19

Jim Molinari

Western Illinois

28

47

+19

Willie Hayes

Alabama A&M

36

55

+19

Kevin Nickelberry

Howard

37

54

+17

John Thompson

Georgetown

35

52

+17

Doug Wojcik

Charleston

27

43

+16

Steve Pikiell

Stony Brook

27

42

+15

Scott Sutton

Oral Roberts

28

43

+15

Howard Moore

Illinois Chicago

35

50

+15

Brian Jones

North Dakota

34

49

+15

Ray McCallum

Detroit

36

50

+15

Dana Altman

Oregon

33

48

+15

Roy Williams

North Carolina

27

41

+14

Clemon Johnson

Florida A&M

42

56

+14

Scott Nagy

South Dakota St.

24

38

+14

Mark Gottfried

North Carolina St.

29

43

+14

Randy Monroe

UMBC

44

58

+14

Cy Alexander

North Carolina A&T

41

54

+13

Bill Self

Kansas

32

45

+13

Hoping for the NCAA Tournament

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conf

Teams

RSCI Top 100 Recruits

Top 100 Per Team

ACC

15

66

4.4

Big East

10

38

3.8

SEC

14

47

3.4

Big Ten

14

45

3.2

Pac 12

12

38

3.2

Big 12

10

31

3.1

Amer

11

20

1.8

MWC

11

15

1.4

A10

14

9

0.6

WCC

10

5

0.5

MVC

10

1

0.1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hoping for the NIT

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

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

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

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

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

More of the Same

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

College Basketball Preview 14-15: Atlantic-10

Earlier Previews: ACC Preview, MWC Preview, SEC Preview, WCC Preview

Now that the Power Five conferences have achieved autonomy, a lot of people fear that this will destroy a league like the Atlantic-10. I’m not buying it. Even today, the A10 is not recruiting on a level comparable with the top leagues. There are only nine former Top 100 high school recruits in the entire A10 right now. Compare that to a league like the Big Ten, which is supposedly not a great recruiting league, and you see that the Big Ten has 45 former Top 100 high school recruits on its rosters.

In the new era, A10 teams will have to try to win the way they always have, by finding hidden gems, developing players, and giving players a second chance. (Of the A10’s nine former Top 100 recruits, four are transfers from Power Five conferences.) Even with this strategy, the A10 can continue to occasionally have brilliant seasons. Last year the A10 sent six teams to the NCAA tournament. The problem for teams in the A10 is that it can take longer to restock the cabinet. Five of last year’s tournament teams; Datyon, UMass, George Washington, St. Louis and St. Joseph’s all lost significant pieces. 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.

VCU is the prohibitive favorite behind a stellar recruiting class. Dayton will be good again. And UMass and George Washington still retain enough of their best pieces to make another run at the tournament. Jon Rothstein is correct that Rhode Island is the trendy pick to jump up in the standings. And in this case, that trend is backed up by the numbers. With better injury luck, Richmond should be better too. But the league as a whole looks like it will be taking a small step back.

A10 Favorite

VCU: Many expected the new foul rules to hit pressing teams harder. If hand-checks prevented players from grabbing on the perimeter and if defenders could no longer step in to draw charges at the last minute, HAVOC might become less effective. But at least last season, that was not the case. VCU fouled less than the year before, VCU forced more turnover than the year before (the most in the country), and VCU’s defense was as dangerous as ever.

And with Shaka Smart repeatedly turning down contract offers from other power conference teams, recruits are starting to believe he’ll stick around. This year, Smart has by far the best recruiting class in his tenure, led by Top 50 recruit Terry Larrier. And VCU’s roster now has the highest average star rating (most potential as measured in high school) in the A10. VCU is no longer the plucky underdog trying to win in the big bad A10. Thanks to Shaka Smart, VCU is now the blue blood program in this league.

Hoping for the Top 25

Dayton: Dayton made the Elite Eight last year, but they were only rated the 38th best team in the country by the margin-of-victory numbers. Still, I felt like the margin-of-victory numbers might be wrong because they might overlook the incredible winning streak Dayton went on to end the year. But after I crunched the numbers, they were less impressive than I expected.  During Dayton’s brilliant 13-3 finish to the season, Dayton’s opponent adjusted margin-of-victory was only the 31st best in the nation. Dayton’s Pythagorean Winning Percentage was only 0.8487 in that stretch with an adjusted offense of 113.6 and an adjusted defense of 97.8.

And maybe that shouldn’t be a huge surprise. Dayton was quite fortunate during their Elite Eight run. Dayton drew two offensively challenged teams in Ohio St. and Syracuse in the NCAA tournament and beat them by a combined three points. And the Flyers were fortunate to draw a low-seeded Stanford team in the Sweet Sixteen. It was an incredible and memorable run, but it isn’t necessarily indicative of a team that was playing dominant basketball.

The good news is that during last year’s tournament run Dayton played 11 (and sometimes 12) players, and seven of those players are back. The bad news is that four of the returning players had very low ORtgs last season, and one of those players (Kyle Davis) didn’t really play enough minutes to fully evaluate his game. With Jordan Sibert and Dyshawn Pierre back next year, Dayton will still have a very good team. The Flyers should make the tournament again. But my statistical projections think Dayton will spend more days sweating the bubble than they spend in the Top 25.

Hoping to Make the NCAA Tournament

George Washington: When ESPN ran its college coaching series this spring, I was shocked that Dayton’s Archie Miller was voted the 26th best coach in the country. How is it possible that a coach that has never achieved a margin of victory better than 31st in the country could be the 26th best coach? It is not as if Miller took over a moribund program. In the ten years prior to Miller taking over, Dayton won 58% of its conference games. In the three year’s Miller has been a head coach, Dayton has won 54% of its conference games.

George Washington wasn’t really a moribund program either. But head coach Mike Lonergan has taken the team on an upward trajectory in his tenure and Lonergan was a proven winner at his former school Vermont. And despite a series of critical injuries to Patricio Garino and Kethan Savage, Lonergan kept George Washington playing at a high level and managed to avoid any long losing streaks last year. Miller and Lonergan are both entering their fourth year in the A10, and if you asked me whether I think that Miller is a better head coach than Lonergan, I think it should be a tough call, not a landslide vote for Miller.

With Garino, Savage, point guard Joe McDonald, and big man Kevin Larsen back, George Washington has a solid nucleus of four players with great efficiency numbers, solid rebounding, and effective passing. But the drop-off to the rest of the roster is pretty steep. John Kopriva has posted horrible numbers for three straight years, and he should not be playing meaningful minutes for an NCAA tournament team. Nick Griffin had a few moments of brilliance, but played so little last year it is hard to evaluate his game. And the rest of the roster is filled with freshmen. Many of those young players are three star recruits which means they may be able to play well from day one. But whether George Washington makes the tournament will depend on how fast those new faces adjust to the college game, and how many mistakes they make in the process.

Massachusetts: Cady LaLanne, Trey Davis, Maxie Esho, and Derrick Gordon were all quality players on last year’s NCAA tournament team. And the team doesn’t have to go with a young unproven PG to replace Chaz Williams. West Virginia transfer Jabarie Hinds is a former Top 100 recruit, and he’ll slide nicely into the lineup.

But there are three major problems. First, UMass may have earned a six seed last year, but they weren’t really that good. They won key non-conference games against bubble teams like LSU and Nebraska that boosted their profile, but they won those games early in the year, before a team like Nebraska really hit its stride. In A10 play, the Minutemen were just 10-6, and their margin-of-victory said they were really a bubble team, not the tournament lock their seed would suggest.

Second, like George Washington, the drop-off from the starters to the projected bench is pretty steep. Don’t let Tyler Bergantino’s high efficiency rating fool you, he basically never shot last year. After the starting five, the bench projects to be a major liability. Third, Hinds is a significant downgrade from Chaz Williams. Hinds had a worse assist rate, worse turnover rate, and he never got to the free throw line at West Virginia. Finally, Hinds was a worse outside shooter than Williams, which is saying something given that Williams wasn’t known for his outside shot. If Hinds has made significant personal strides in his year practicing with the team, UMass can make the tournament again. But it won’t be easy.

Rhode Island: With every key player except Xavier Munford back, with the likely upgrade in the post with the return of Jordan Hare (who missed last year due to personal reasons), with the addition of Top 100 JUCO Earl Watson and the addition of Top 100 recruit Jared Terrell, Rhode Island will finish in the Top half of the A10 next season.

The question is how high they rise, and that may depend on two things. First, it will depend on how loyal Danny Hurley is to his veteran players. Jarelle Reischel, Biggie Minnis, and Mathew Butler all played last season, but all three players were extremely inefficient. All three were also 2-star recruits. With the talent that is coming in, they should be used sparingly next year. If that happens, Rhode Island’s offense should take a major step forward. But if Hurley gives these players another chance to prove themselves, it could hold the team back.

Second, there are questions how good the defense will be. Rhode Island’s defense took a huge step forward last year, but it might have been a bit of a mirage. Rhode Island’s opponents made only 29% of their trees and 67% of their free throws last year. Rhode Island probably won’t be nearly that fortunate this season. Obviously the return of Jordan Hare will help, but big improvements on offense might be slightly mitigated with more typical luck on defense.

Richmond: Chris Mooney’s version of the Princeton offense works best when you have a big man who can step out beyond the arc and knock down outside shots. When the offense can put four or five players on the perimeter and draw the defense out of the paint, that opens things up for cuts to the basket. The last time Richmond made the NCAA tournament was when Justin Harper was playing in the post for the Spiders. Harper was a great rebounder and shot-blocker, but most importantly, Harper was a lights out perimeter shooter. Since Harper has departed, Richmond hasn’t really been able to duplicate that same level of dominance with its Princeton sets.

Last year’s big men Terry Allen, Alonzo Nelson-Ododa, and Deion Taylor tried to make the perimeter attack work, but they all struggled to consistently make outside shots. On the full season they made 14, 13, an 17 threes respectively. It wasn’t the kind of perimeter threat to really draw opposing defenses out of the paint. Enter Niagara transfer TJ Cline. Cline was a solid rebounder and post-player on a winning Niagara squad two years ago. But what makes Cline a potential difference maker is that Cline has a much better outside shot. Cline made 40 threes two years ago.

Moreover, Cline appears to be natural fit for a cutting offense. At Niagara he rarely turned the ball over while finishing 67% of his two point shots. If his goal is to take threes and then back-cut the defense, everything about Cline’s statistical profile fits the bill.

The team’s guard play will probably take a step back, so Richmond projects as a fringe bubble team. But if Chris Mooney can develop one of the young guards to compliment Kendall Anthony and ShawnDre’ Jones, the improved post-play might just be enough to sneak Richmond into the tournament.

Hoping for the NIT

La Salle: Jerrell Wright and Steve Zack make up one of the best frontcourts in the A10. And even though Tyrone Garland has departed, after he struggled so much with his shooting last year (23% of his threes and 39% of his twos), his loss might be addition by subtraction. But Wright and Zack can’t do it alone, so let’s spend a minute talking about transfers.

Last week I noted that the number of points produced by D1 transfers in their debut season has nearly doubled over the last few years. But you may be wondering whether this growth is due to the increase in scoring by graduate transfers or transfers that sit out. The next table shows this comparison. The first column shows the points produced by players that were eligible immediately (EI) or who played back-to-back seasons because they were a mid-year transfer (MYT). The second column shows the points produced by players that sat out during their transfer year (SO) or who spent a year at a JUCO before transferring to another D1 school.

Since 2007, the points produced by transfers who were eligible immediately has grown by 441%. Meanwhile, the points produced by transfers who sat out has grown 56%. Spinning the table another way, transfers that play in back-to-back seasons for different schools once accounted for 8-13% of transfer scoring. Now they account for 27% of transfer scoring.

Year

EI or MYT

SO or JUCO

2007

380,678

3,617,092

2008

323,027

3,602,261

2009

526,820

3,408,367

2010

397,456

4,358,821

2011

783,590

3,347,771

2012

907,914

4,850,382

2013

1,421,079

4,521,055

2014

2,060,438

5,657,524

Obviously graduate transfers and hardship waivers are fueling the transfer trend, but I think it is important to note that graduate transfers do not account for all the growth in scoring by D1 transfers. D1 transfers that sit out have actually added 2 million points since 2011.And for most teams, transfers that sit out will still be the most important.This is particularly true because my data reveals that transfers that sit out a year will typically debut with ORtgs 3 to 4 points higher because of the year of practice with the team.

La Salle is banking on that fact. La Salle is re-stocking their roster with former Top 100 recruit and Auburn transfer Jordan Price, as well as Georgia Southern transfer Cleon Roberts. Both players were efficient with their previous team. But thanks to a year of working with the head coach in practice, and learning the offensive system, they should be more prepared to win right away.

The PG situation is very much up in the air for La Salle. And the team’s depth is not strong. But with two returning quality big men, and two transfers that they hope will have an impact, La Salle has a chance to finish in the top half of the league.

St. Bonaventure:  The Bonnies used a tight seven man rotation last year, and their offense was better than you remember. Unfortunately, three of the most efficient and important offensive players have graduated, which means the offense will probably take a small step back. On the other hand, the core is still very talented. Dion Wright, Youssou Ndoye, Andell Cumberbatch, and Jordan Gathers could all average in double figures this year. And with two key JUCO PGs (Lakeem Alston and Marcus Posley) coming in along with three star freshman big man Jordan Tyson, the offense will still be good. The question is whether the defense can take a big enough step forward to really make the Bonnies competitive with the top half of the league. Even with the shot-blocking 7 footer Ndoye playing major minutes last year, St. Bonaventure’s defense was among the worst in the conference.

George Mason: George Mason has incredible depth in the frontcourt. It starts with former Top 100 recruit and Georgia Tech transfer Julian Royal who is debuting this season. But don’t overlook the slightly undersized Jalen Jenkins and Eric Copes, who were outstanding shot-blockers and rebounders last year, though Jenkins is the better offensive player. And while ESPN, Rivals, and Scout had mixed reviews, Scout gave a very high ranking to freshman Therence Mayimba. The difference in recruiting ranking probably comes down to potential vs ability. Mayimba is a great athlete and rebounder who is raw. Meanwhile Top 100 JUCO recruit Shevon Thompson is a true 7 footer who should make an impact right away. I honestly keep waiting to hear that incumbent junior forward Marko Gujanicic has transferred. That’s what tends to happen in these situations. And I don’t know why three star forward Trey Porter chose George Mason over George Washington when he’s almost guaranteed to redshirt at GMU.

The backcourt has one true asset, lights out three point shooter Patrick Holloway. But Vaughn Gray is a weak backup and there are no other obvious three point-shooters on the team. The PG spot is also very shaky with either turnover prone Marquise Moore, turnover prone Corey Edwards, or freshman Isaiah Jackson taking the reins. Most importantly, Paul Hewitt checks in as one of the worst player development coaches in my data set. He’s a solid recruiter, but his offenses rarely live up to expectations.

And even if you don’t buy the historical stats, when you look at that type of roster construction you can still sort of see why the model would not be in love with this team. With only one good shooter and no good passers, it is not clear how the team will have the spacing to run a competent offense.

St. Louis: The only reason I’m not picking St. Louis to finish even lower in the A10 is because Jim Crews kept the defense playing at a high level after taking over for Rick Majerus. If he can get a young group of players to play defense, they can be competitive. But on paper, this looks like the worst offense in the A10. No player projects to have an ORtg over 100 at this point.

(For those of you who care about the details, while Austin McBroom had an ORtg over 100 last year, with 71% of the team’s minutes leaving, over 71% of the team’s points leaving, and most of the replacements being sub 3-star recruits, McBroom will probably see even fewer open shots than last year. Similarly, Tanner Lacona had a decent ORtg last year, but he only took 33 shots all year. Not only don’t we have enough data to know if Lacona is good, he’s going to have to be more aggressive this year, and that should hurt his efficiency.)

Villanova transfer Achraf Yacoubout will get his chance, but if fans in St. Louis have suffered through some ugly games the last few years, things could be even more ugly this season.

Davidson: I could write a lot about how Davidson will struggle to replace De’Mon Brooks. Brooks may not have been the player of the decade (thanks to Stephen Curry), but his four year numbers should be enough to get his jersey retired. But rather than harp on the past, I should emphasize that five of Davidson’s returning rotation players (Tyler Kalinoski, Brian Sullivan, Jack Gibbs, Jordan Barham, Jake Belford) were efficient and skilled and that should keep the Wildcats competitive.

If Davidson was a different type of academic institution, they could have added a couple of transfers and had a shot at the tournament this season. Instead, Davidson will go young this year, with five sub-3 star freshmen and the very raw sophomore Andrew McAuliffe. That’s going to leave them extremely weak in the front-court, something that will be exposed more in the A10 than it would have been in the Southern Conference.

Duquesne: Micah Mason fascinates me. On the one hand, the 152.7 ORtg he posted last year cannot be sustainable. He clearly isn’t going to make 56% of his threes again next year. And then you remember that Mason made 50% of his threes as a freshman. Better yet, he’s an outstanding passer who gets bonus credit for his assists. And yet Duquesne doesn’t need him to be the primary ball-handler thanks to Derrick Colter, and so Mason’s turnover rate plummeted last season. Mason almost certainly won’t post an ORtg over 150 again, but fundamentally there is no reason he can’t be fighting to be the nation’s most efficient player again.

As for the team outlook, the biggest problem is that besides Dominique McKoy, there are no quality post players. The defense was already dreadful last year and the lack of experienced post players will make it hard to improve in that area.

St. Joseph’s: A lot of emotions were obviously going through Phil Martelli’s head as he wiped away tears after winning the A10 tournament last year. But one of those feelings had to be relief. While he had built a dominant team a decade earlier, there were questions about whether the game had passed him by. Could he still build a team that was tournament worthy?

Clearly Martelli could still recruit and develop players. His roster the last two seasons was one of the most exciting in the A10, with dynamic drivers, athletic dunkers, and big men with crazy passing skills. But despite putting together a talented roster, St. Joseph’s didn’t make the tournament in 2013. And if they failed in 2014, it might have been time to walk away. Instead, Martelli gets the green light on one more rebuilding project.

And make no mistake, this will be a rebuilding year. St. Joseph’s rode its five starters more than any team in the country last year, and the three most efficient and talented (Halil Kanacevic, Ronald Roberts, and Langston Galloway) are gone. The team can and will try to ride DeAndre Bembry, Chris Wilson, Papa Ndao, and West Virginia transfer Aaron Brown to as many victories as possible. But the downgrade in skill from last year’s starters to this year’s projected starters is enormous.

And, at some point this season Martelli will have to turn the reins over to his freshmen class and let them learn through their mistakes. This is a really outstanding recruiting class and with Bembry just a sophomore, the future can still be bright. St. Joseph’s just won’t be a very good team in 2014-15.

When will it end?

Fordham: Fordham’s combined record in the A10 the last six years is 10-86. That’s 1.7 wins per year and a winning percentage of 10%. Jon Severe is the only player on the roster who was rated 3 stars or higher out of high school and he should lead the team in scoring again.

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