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Projections, The Year After A Breakout Season, And The Importance Of Scouting

This past week at Sports Illustrated, Luke Winn and I revealed our Top 100 Scorers for 2014-15, our Top Freshman Scorers, our Breakout Scorers and our Top D1 Transfers. Past college stats, coach effects, and recruiting rankings were used to predict player performance.

Every year I try to do something new with my projections. Last year I added a simulation. Rather than simply project a mean for each player, I looked at the variance in performance based on player type (freshman, senior, transfer), and I allowed individual performances to vary as some players outperform or underperform expectations. I simulated the season 10,000 times and used the median projections to rank all 351 D1 teams. This year’s team rankings will be revealed by SI on Nov 4th.

This year the biggest thing I wanted to do was to make player projections more accessible to readers by projecting PPG, RPG, APG for some of the nation’s top players. I chose to focus on PPG in large part because I think it is more accessible to most casual fans of college basketball. I certainly understand how PPG can be misleading in certain situations. There are certainly a large group of fans that value ORtg and usage over PPG and would prefer we not indulge in “paceism” thereby elevating players from North Carolina at the expense of players from Virginia.

But I don’t think we should completely trash PPG. As a single measure, it contains a lot of information. PPG incorporates both information on efficiency and usage. It also incorporates information on a player’s relative value to a team. Coaches are interested in playing their best players major minutes. In the preseason, it doesn’t make sense to project a bench player to be very efficient and under-utilized unless a team is extremely deep at a certain position. Certainly in most sensible preseason models, minutes will be correlated with player quality. And because PPG incorporates efficiency, usage, and player value (through minutes), it says a lot about who are the most important players in college basketball.

PPG is very sensitive to the minutes’ projection. And that’s why working with Luke Winn has been such a tremendous advantage. Luke has the contacts to help vet more of our lineup projections. But Luke also has a great statistical background as well. One of the first things Luke noticed when he saw the player projections was that we needed to adjust playing time based on coach-specific rotation patterns. For example, Notre Dame’s Mike Brey tends to give his best players major minutes, while Arkansas’ Mike Anderson tends to use a more balanced rotation. Thus this year we added coach-specific rotations to the model.

That said I am always looking for areas to improve the model. And that’s why I love Twitter questions. Sometimes readers innocently ask questions that shed a lot of nuance and light into the projection process:

Paraphrasing @DarenHill: Why is Branden Dawson projected to have fewer RPG than last year?

First, we think Dawson will be one of the best rebounders in college basketball this year. We project him to have the 26th most rebounds per game in the nation.

When I first saw this question, I panicked and wondered if the model was putting too much emphasis on Dawson’s height. I have a separate regression equation for freshman, transfers, and veteran players based on various characteristics, and height is an important predictor of rebounding. Dawson is an under-sized post-player and I was worried that the model might be weighting his height too heavily. But when I double-checked the numbers, Dawson’s height was not the key factor. For a senior like Dawson with three years of player stats, height is almost irrelevant in the model.

The second thing I was worried about was that we had Dawson’s minutes’ projection wrong. We project Dawson to play around 30 minutes per game. That could be low for a player many of us think will be Michigan St.’s best player this season. But keep in mind that Dawson is a forward and it is hard for forwards to get major minutes because they are more likely to get foul trouble. The current model will sometimes project a guard to play 35 minutes per game, but that’s a very dubious prediction for a post player. More importantly, Tom Izzo is not a coach who overuses his best players early in the season. Izzo really likes to give his bench a chance to play to evaluate his players. Dawson was playing more than 30 minutes per game in the post-season last year, but on the full year that was a fair representation of his playing time.

As it turns out, the reasons for Dawson’s slight decrease in rebounding is Dawson’s past college stats. But before I delve into Dawson’s situation, I want to talk about the problem of small sample sizes and bounce-back seasons. If I have a college three point shooter who shoots 40% on 30 shots from three as a freshman and 30% on 50 shots from three as a sophomore, I think we’d all acknowledge that we would expect him to bounce back and shoot better on his threes as a junior. And 10 years of historical data back that up. Last year’s performance is the best predictor, but we shouldn’t throw out the data on what happened two years ago.

The dilemma we often face when projecting players is what to make of players with a huge improvement in performance. For example, if a player shot 30% on 30 shots from three as a freshman and 40% on 50 shots from three as a sophomore, is that a breakout performance or a hot-streak? I can tell you based on the historic stats that when a player has this profile, on average he will make about 38.5% of his threes as a junior. And that slight drop in efficiency can actually lead to a lower ORtg prediction and a lower PPG prediction for what everyone perceived to be a breakout player.

Oklahoma’s Isaiah Cousins is a good current example of this. He improved his ORtg from 72.9 as a freshman and 112.8 last year. I now project him to have an ORtg of 110.0 this year. The reason last year gets so much weight is because college players are at the developmental stage of their career and breakouts are quite common. But it should also make some sense that the previous season should get some weight. The college season is short and we have a limited sample of games to ever have full confidence in a player’s ability. Cousins made 38 of 94 threes last year, but that’s not a large enough sample to really know that he is an elite three point shooter. (The model is also worried because Cousins was a 2.7 star recruit out of high school. Star ratings often provide information about a players potential and they suggest that Cousins may be close to his ceiling.) Regardless, when you see my projections for Oklahoma this is one of the reasons my model doesn’t have the Sooners as high as some other college basketball experts.

Jumping back to Branden Dawson, as a sophomore he grabbed 16% of the available defensive rebounds. As a junior he grabbed 21% of the available defensive rebounds. My model projects him to grab 20% of the available defensive rebounds this season. Thus his overall rebounding numbers are projected to be a little worse.

The historic stats say this is the most likely outcome for Cousins and we can debate whether last year’s improvement was real. But there’s an added wrinkle with Dawson and that’s the reason I wrote this longer column. Dawson essentially changed positions between his sophomore and junior seasons. As a sophomore, Dawson played a lot on the wing and spent a lot less time close to the basket. As a junior, particularly late in the season, Dawson was playing almost exclusively at the four-spot. And Dawson is expected to play major minutes at the four this year. Thus we should probably weight last season even more highly and discount his sophomore season when projecting Dawson’s numbers.

This is a hard adjustment to make systematically. In terms of Dawson’s position on the official Michigan St. roster, nothing has changed. But there is some data of this type available. Here at RealGM.com, we have a projection for player position based on the recorded stats. Ken Pomeroy also added this feature last season. Perhaps by incorporating this type of information, we can do an even better job projecting players in the future.

But in college basketball there is still a lot that the stats overlook and that we can only learn from watching the games. As much as I believe in the projection model Luke Winn and I have been working on, I can say emphatically that over the next month as teams begin to have exhibition games and host their first early season opponents, you will learn things that dispute what our numbers suggest. Basketball is still a sport where scouting and watching film is incredibly important. But to me, this is also the beauty of college basketball relative to MLB. In baseball, almost everything, including range on defense, can now be quantified to some degree. But in basketball, there is still a lot to be learned by watching the games.

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.

College Basketball Preview 14-15: The Rest

Big Ten fans will have to wait one more week for my final preview, but my ACC Preview, MWC Preview, SEC Preview, WCC Preview, A10 Preview, Big East Preview, American Preview, Pac-12 Preview, MVC Preview, and Big 12 Preview are now online. Today I want to talk about the other 21 conferences.

Most college basketball writers (including me) will tend to focus on the 11 conferences above because those are the conferences that are the most likely to produce multiple bids to the NCAA tournament. The WCC is really only on the list because of the top of the league (Gonzaga, BYU, and St. Mary's), and the MVC has been fading in recent years. But since the MVC has a high number of returning minutes this year, you can make a compelling case that the distinction between the Top 11 and the Next 21 is only going to grow.

Conference realignment has only magnified the separation, as the major conferences have done their best to absorb the most successful mid-major programs. If you take the average Pythagorean Winning Percentage of every D1 program since Ken Pomeroy has been tracking the stat, the Top 70 programs are all in those 11 conferences. In fact, 94 of the Top 100 programs in that time span are in those 11 conferences. The exceptions are UAB, Kent St., Old Dominion, Akron, UTEP, and Charlotte. (Kent St. may be a bit of a surprise since they haven't been to the tournament a lot, but last year was Kent St.'s first losing season in the MAC since 1997.)

Recruiting is a key distinction between the top 11 and the next 21. The Top 11 conferences have 314 players who were Top 100 recruits out of high school. The other 21 conferences have only 18 players who were Top 100 recruits out of high school. But teams in the next 21 conferences are often very skilled even without elite recruits. Often the bigger obstacle these teams face is the lack of opportunities to play Top 100 opponents at home or on a neutral court. Without those chances, it can be difficult to build an at-large worthy resume.

Stephen F. Austin isn't going to make the tournament based on great margin-of-victory numbers. Their only hope is to pick up two or three signature non-conference wins against elite programs. Every year someone will do that, but guessing which of the many talented teams from these 21 leagues will build the best non-conference profile is always a roll of the dice. And the team that picks up a couple of signature non-conference wins isn't necessarily the best team.

The next table shows how I project these leagues shaking out this season. Rank LY is the rank of the conference last year based on the average Pythagorean winning percentage of the teams. Proj Rk is the rank of the conference this season based on the average projected Pythagorean winning percentage. Avg RM is the average returning minutes in the conference.

Conf

Rank LY

Avg RM

Proj Rk

Ivy

3

69%

1

BW

8

66%

2

MAC

5

66%

3

Horz

1

54%

4

CUSA

4

54%

5

MAAC

2

64%

6

Pat

10

75%

7

Sum

7

57%

8

CAA

6

51%

9

OVC

12

56%

10

SB

9

49%

11

BSth

16

64%

12

WAC

11

44%

13

BSky

15

63%

14

AE

17

57%

15

ASun

14

62%

16

SC

19

59%

17

NEC

13

59%

18

Slnd

18

54%

19

MEAC

20

53%

20

SWAC

21

55%

21

Obviously a conference average doesn't tell the whole story:

Ivy League: I won't argue with anyone that puts Harvard in their Top 25, but they don't have quite enough guard depth for my model to put them there. Siyani Chambers and Wesley Saunders are going to have to play basically the whole game, and they need Corbin Miller, returning from his LDS mission, to pick up where he left off and make some threes. It is amazing to say it, because Kyle Casey was a brilliant player, but Harvard's frontcourt may be even more productive this season. Steve Moundou-Missi is a total stat-sheet stuffer. Jonah Travis is a pure scorer (who might have to play some at the wing this year.) Kenyatta Smith is returning from injury and he's going to play a major role. Zena Edosmwan didn't play much last year, but as one of the highest ranked Harvard recruits of all time, either the recruiting experts were wrong or he is in for a big sophomore leap. Angunwa Okolie will also benefit from the sophomore leap, and Chris Egi is another very highly ranked freshmen. I don't know exactly which players win that competition for playing time, but I'm pretty sure the winners are going to be good.

But the reason the Ivy League moves up to the best of the rest this year is because there are three other very good teams at the top. My model always seems to love Columbia a little too much, but head coach Kyle Smith has steadily improved this program. Columbia used to finish every season in the 250-300 range. But under Smith they finished with the 123rd best margin-of-victory in the nation last year. And with everyone back, a Top 100 finish is within reach. Meanwhile, Yale brings nearly everyone back, Princeton is always good, and all three of those teams can give Harvard a competitive game.

But it doesn't just end at the top. Brown and Dartmouth bring nearly everyone back and will be better. And even bottom feeder Cornell should benefit from the return of Shonn Miller, who was injured last year. Only Penn seems headed in the wrong direction. Last year's 5-9 Ivy League mark looked like rock-bottom, but based on the improvements elsewhere in the league, Penn could be headed to even fewer conference wins this season. Penn head coach Jerome Allen is firmly on the hot seat.

My main worry with Ivy League is simply the lack of neutral site games against quality opponents. Since the Ivy League teams still have to play most of their marquee games on the road, I'm not sure their non-conference win-loss profile will reflect how good the conference is this year.

Big West: Thanks to 7'6" Mamadou Ndiaye, UC Irvine's defense should stay elite. UC Irvine’s offense was pretty dreadful last year, but with the majority of the rotation back, the offense should improve. And with a passable offense, Irvine might even be able to sneak into the at-large discussion. UC Santa Barbara still has super-scorer Alan Williams and they get TJ Taylor back from injury. Taylor was a great passer and solid outside shooter as a sophomore, but he had hip problems that held him out last season. Meanwhile, Long Beach St. was a different team after UCLA transfer Tyler Lamb became eligible last December. Having Lamb for the full season will be huge.

Even the bottom of the league will be better. CS Fullerton adds some key transfers that are going to move the needle quite a bit. And after three key players sat last year (two due to injury) for UC Davis, I expect the return of those players to make UC Davis one of the most improved teams in the country. I still expect UC Davis to finish near the bottom of the Big West, but because the Big West will be better from top to bottom, I expect this to be one of the most improved conferences in the nation.

MAC: Toledo is going to get a lot of love based on the players they have coming back. The only reason I don’t have them as the clear MAC favorite is that I think they still have a lot of questions in the front-court. Nathan Boone is 6'9" but he is a poor rebounder and he plays much smaller than his size. Matt Smith is gone. And as great a rebounder as JD Weatherspoon is, he's still only 6'6". Toledo was a brilliant offensive team last year, but the lack of quality interior play meant the team's 2 PT FG% defense was dreadful. And if Toledo can't stop opponent from making 2's, I'm not sure they can do much to improve on last year's record. They need one of the young forwards to take an unexpected leap forward. Unfortunately, Zach Garber was very passive last year, and Aubrey Williams barely saw the court, so there isn't a lot of reason to expect those two to be quality post players this year.

Akron loses a ton of production, but Deji Ibitayo and Isaiah Johnson were quality reserves that should be ready to step into bigger roles and keep the team on a winning roll. The return of Jake Kretzer, who was injured in mid-February last year, will also be huge. Ohio also loses a ton of production, but their MAC title chances hinge on whether Kenny Kaminsky is granted immediate eligibility. Since he was dismissed from Michigan St., I think there is a strong chance Kaminsky will be granted a waiver.

When you look at my rankings at the end of October, Western Michigan may stand out as a surprise. A lot of people will have them as the MAC favorites after star David Brown was granted an extra year of eligibility. But I’m really concerned about the loss of 6'11" center Shayne Whittingon. Western Michigan didn't have another player over 6'6" in the final rotation last year and they don't have any key transfers coming in. They will likely be using a low-skilled inexperienced big man, or a very small lineup next year. Brown's return means the offense will be better, but with a slightly worse defense, I see them as a MAC title contender, not the favorite.

Finally, Kent St. looks like a sleeper team. Not only are four efficient starters back (Kris Brewer, Derek Jackson, Devareaux Manley, and Kellon Thomas), the team also adds three D1 transfers. The key is Jimmy Hall. Hall was kicked out of Hofstra after being arrested for burglary, but he was off to a brilliant start as a freshman. He looks like a very high potential option. Rutgers transfer Craig Brown and Rhode Island transfer Blake Vedder don't have quite the same upside, but the drop in competition level should help them, and after how poorly Kent St.'s bench played last year, their experience will help a lot.

Horizon: In March, Cleveland St. looked like they might be the favorite. But then it was announced that Sebastian Douglas was done with basketball due to all his knee injuries. And then it was announced that leading scorer Bryn Forbes was transferring to Michigan St. Defending champ Green Bay brings back a lot of players, but the loss of the 7 footer in the middle is going to hurt the defense quite a bit. Both teams will still be the class of the conference, but they don’t look quite as strong as last year.

Conference USA: CUSA has more high school talent than the other conferences in this preview, but they lack a clear at-large caliber team at the top, largely because many of the top teams have suffered devastating talent defections this off-season. Southern Miss, UAB, and Middle Tennessee are basically starting over, and while they have some transfers to help with that process, they will have a hard time finishing in the Top 4 in CUSA.

Louisiana Tech loses a ton of talent to graduation, but the return of Raheem Appleby, who missed much of last year due to injury, might make them the favorite. UTEP should also be in the conversation for the league title. Few teams could lose a post player that rebounds and scores as effectively as John Bohannon and not suffer because of it, but UTEP had incredible post depth with Matt Wilms, Cedrick Lang, and Vince Hunter last year. They shouldn’t miss a beat.

Old Dominion might be my biggest sleeper team nationally. I know Dimitri Batten left for Boston College, but he shot too much, and his efficiency was below that of most of his teammates. ODU returns six effective players, Aaron Bacote, Keenan Palmore, Richard Ross, Denzell Taylor, Ambrose Mosley, and Jordan Baker, the last three of whom should benefit from the sophomore leap. Deion Clark should be back after suffering a knee injury last summer. But the reason I have ODU jumping up so much nationally is that they add two high impact transfers. Trey Freeman was a very efficient PG who played major minutes and scored major points for Campbell two years ago. And George Mason’s Jonathan Arledge was a dominant big man. Arledge was aggressive, efficient, great on the boards, and an occasional shot-blocker for George Mason. Those two players will upgrade ODU substantially.

I’m also very high on Western Kentucky. They only have 60% of their minutes back which doesn’t sound that high, but that is deceiving. Aleksej Rostov and Kevin Kaspar played limited minutes last year due to injury. And Chris Harrison-Docks and Trency Jackson didn’t debut until December. The loss of senior starter Caden Dickerson is also highly over-rated as Dickerson used only 11% of his team’s possessions when on the floor. WKU is really a veteran team with most of its points’ producers returning.

The one team I’m not as high on as some other prognosticators is Charlotte. The 49ers add two 4-star transfers in Clemson’s Bernard Sullivan and Florida’s Braxton Ogbueze. You might think I’m not excited because those two players didn’t perform well with their last teams. But with talented athletes, sometimes they just weren’t a good fit with the previous team. The real issue is that my model doesn’t believe in head coach Alan Major at this point. I know that the Charlotte roster was not in great shape when he took over, but Charlotte was not one of the dregs of D1 either. They have had plenty of 3 star recruits and transfers to work with the last four years. And yet in four seasons, Major has never produced an offense better than 190th in the country. With the resources at his disposal at Charlotte that’s under-achieving. Major is firmly on the hot-seat this season.

MAAC: The MAAC's ranking in the above table is a bit misleading because the average is really being dragged down by the bottom of the league. Marist and Niagara's programs are not in good shape right now. Niagara in particular was terrible last year and they lose all their best players. Canisius was good last year, but they had a ton of roster turnover, and they are going with a freshmen heavy roster this year.

But that shouldn't distract us from the fact that the top three teams in the league are very strong. I think Manhattan is probably getting too much hype with the addition of Cincinnati transfer and former Top 25 recruit Jermaine Lawrence. Manhattan loses two of the best guards in the league, and they will be hard to replace. But Manhattan will be in the mix. Siena returns everyone who played last year, and Jimmy Patsos team should be in the hunt for the league title. And don't overlook Iona. While they lose some key players, transfer Jeylani Dublin was an amazing per minute scorer at Longwood. He averaged 10 PPG while playing 20 minutes per game. And I need to start campaigning for Iona head coach Tim Cluess for consideration for a Top 11 job. The man is brilliant offensively. His offenses have ranked 27th, 17th, 19th, and 7th in the nation the last four years.

One final note on the MAAC: When my numbers are released, you will see that Rider gets a big boost defensively from the addition of 7 foot Utah St. transfer Matt Lopez. Lopez hasn't played major minutes at his previous two programs, but given Rider's rotation I think he is going to get meaningful playing time. And 7 footers often improve a team’s 2 PT defense. If I'm wrong about Lopez's playing time, the defensive prediction may be too optimistic. But there are other reasons to expect Rider's defense to be better. Rider's defense fell off a cliff last season, but they also were a little unlucky. Teams made threes and free throws at a very high rate against them. Weaknesses in those areas are unlikely to be repeated. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that last year's defensive collapse was a fluke.

Patriot League: The Patriot League is a mixed bag. While the league as a whole is very experienced, I’m not sure the teams at the top will be better. And a league like the Patriot league is judged based on its best teams, not its depth. Boston University lost several key players to graduation, and Maurice Watson’s decision to transfer to Creighton may have ruined their chances of repeating as conference champs. Big man Tony Wroblicky was probably American’s most important player, and while Nevada transfer Kevin Panzer might take some of his minutes, he seems like a pretty significant downgrade. Similarly, Holy Cross simply has no one on the roster who can replace big man Dave Dudzinski. Army, Lafayette, and Navy should be better in the middle and bottom of the league, but that might not help the league’s reputation.

Summit: The top teams in the league all lost multiple valuable players, which may make Denver the favorite. But even Denver loses all-around star Chris Udofia. On paper, the top of the conference takes a big step back.Oral Roberts is back after spending two years in the Southland. Oral Robert’s head coach Scott Sutton had the worst season of his career last year, and my model thinks it was a bit of a fluke.

CAA: I’ve never seen a circumstance where a league’s standings could almost completely flip upside-down, but that could happen in the CAA this year. Hofstra was the second to worst team in the CAA last season, but I actually think they might be the favorite this season. What you have to remember is that when Joe Mihalich came from Niagara, he brought two of his best players with him in Juan’ya Green and Ameen Tanksley. They had to sit out last year, but now they are eligible. Meanwhile, Hofstra returns three very good players in Jamall Robinson, Dion Nesmith, and Moussa Kone. The lack of depth on the roster is very disturbing, but as Towson showed when they added some key transfers a couple of years ago, sometimes all you need is two or three outstanding transfers, and a team’s outlook can change in a second.

Meanwhile, first place Delaware is a shell of the team that won the league last season. Losing the best four players is bad enough, but what you have to remember is that they were not only four very efficient players, they were all very aggressive too. Delaware’s four returning rotation players used 17%, 14%, 12%, and 9% of the possessions when on the floor last season. When you ask players like that to shoot 20% or more, their efficiency tends to plummet. Delaware is headed for one of the biggest falls in D1.

Towson may be headed for a big fall too given that they also lose their best players, but Towson is rolling the dice on another group of under-achieving major conference transfers. That worked two years ago, so perhaps they aren’t in for a big fall. But based on who they lost, a big collapse isn’t out of the question. Drexel also loses a ton of production, but at least they get Damion Lee back. Overall the conference standings may look nothing like they did last season.

OVC: On the flip side, I don’t expect much change in the OVC standings. When I listed the top 100 programs in the tempo free era, Murray St. and Belmont narrowly missed the cut. And there is no reason they won’t be the OVC favorites again.

Sun Belt: Besides Harvard, and Irvine, the other great small conference team this year is Georgia St. Did you know that even though Georgia finished third in the SEC, Georgia St. actually had a better margin-of-victory than Georgia last season? The Panthers lost by one point in OT to Elfrid Payton and Louisiana Lafayette in the Sun Belt tournament, but that should not take away from how great this team was. Ryan Harrow might have been a bust for Kentucky, but he wasn’t a bust for the Panthers. And along with the super-efficient RJ Hunter, who made 95 threes last year, and Curtis Washington, who shot 65% while becoming a dominant shot-blocker and rebounder, Georgia St. has enough key pieces back to be great again. The team does lose a couple of key starters, but with a quality bench, and the addition of former 4-star recruit and Louisville transfer Kevin Ware, the sky is the limit.

The only thing that may hold Georgia St. back is that the Sun Belt as a whole is going to be weaker this year. Western Kentucky has left for CUSA, Payton has left Louisiana Lafayette for the NBA, and as a whole the league does not return a lot of minutes. I fear Georgia St. may be criminally under-seeded come tournament time.

Big South: South Carolina transfer Brian Richardson will help High Point challenge a veteran Coastal Carolina squad for the league title.

WAC: New Mexico St. will take a big step back defensively with the loss of 7’5” Sim Bhullar in the middle. I know he received a lot of criticism for leaving early for the NBA draft, but he still earned a contract with the Sacramento Kings, and I certainly understand his comments that he will receive better training and medical care with a professional team. With Daniel Mullings, Tshilidzi Nephawe, and DK Eldridge back, no one should feel sorry for New Mexico St. They still have the most tradition, most talent, and given how few players are returning in the WAC this season, they are the overwhelming favorite.

I still don’t know how Utah Valley won the regular season title last year. At the start of conference play, they were 6-7, with the 240th best margin-of-victory in the nation. Yet somehow Utah Valley won more conference games than a very talented New Mexico St. team. According to Kenpom.com, Utah Valley was the second luckiest team in the nation (behind only Tulane). I don’t expect a repeat.

Big Sky: Jack Murphy has taken Northern Arizona from 342nd nationally, to 294th two years ago, to 262nd last year. And with almost everyone back, I see them reaching new heights. I think Weber St. and Montana’s dominance at the top of the conference standings may be about to end.

American East: Even though Vermont and Stony Brook lose a lot, I don’t expect their dominance at the top of the conference standings to end.

Atlantic-Sun: Brent Comer and Bernard Thompson are still around and Florida Gulf Coast adds five transfers with D1 experience. That core should be good enough for a league title.

Southern Conference: The top eight players are back on a Wofford team that made the NCAA tournament last year.

NEC: Robert Morris might still be the favorite, but they aren’t the overwhelming best team in the league like last season.

Southland: After two of the best seasons in team history, Stephen F. Austin loses quite a few key players and should take a step back. But with Thomas Walkup, Jacob Parker, and a few key transfers, they are still the favorite.

MEAC:  I’m very excited about the group of transfers joining North Carolina Central this season.

SWAC: The APR ban hit some teams hard. Central Arkansas and Florida A&M rosters were completely decimated by the ban. But somehow Lewis Jackson held the Alabama St. roster together. And now his team will be in an intense battle with Texas Southern for the regular season title.

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