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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.

College Basketball Preview 14-15: WCC

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

Earlier Previews: ACC Preview, MWC Preview, SEC Preview

WCC Favorite

Gonzaga: Jeff Goodman publishes an incredibly valuable transfer list every spring. (I’m honestly awed by how he talks to so many coaches and collects so much information in such a short amount of time.) Some people have seen the increase in his count of players transferring out and used it to argue that we have a transfer epidemic in college basketball. I’ve always been skeptical. I prefer to think of Goodman’s list as the “departure” list, not the transfer list. Many of the players on Goodman’s list will never play D1 basketball again. And since the dawn of the scholarship limit for basketball, coaches have quietly been asking their least productive players to leave.

Luke Winn has tried to answer the question of whether transfers between D1 programs have ticked up by using the NCAA’s fact book on transfers, and by looking through the VerbalCommits.com database. He has concluded that the raw number of D1 transfers has increased slightly, but that the big change is that more players are transferring up to quality programs. And most experts agree that the number of “quality” transfers in D1 basketball is on the uptick. Coaches are now recruiting away good players from mid-majors and opposing squads in a way they never have before.

I recently ran some numbers on the RealGM.com database, and found even more evidence of the quality transfer trend. The Points Produced by D1 transfers, in their debut season with their new team, has basically doubled since 2009. (Points Produced is a measure that includes points produced through assists and offensive rebounds. It is the numerator of the ORtg formula.)

And the number of players to produce positive points for their new team has also been ticking up. While just over 200 players did this a few years ago, over 360 players debuted with new teams and produced positive points last year. Of course, if a player only produces a handful of points, that probably is not meaningful. But if you raise the cutoff to 100 or 300 points, the number of productive transfers debuting has also been increasing.

Year

D1 Transfers

Total PP

 Debut Season

Number of Players PP>0

Number of Players PP>100

Number of Players PP>300

2006-07

39,978

207

141

51

2007-08

39,253

202

139

46

2008-09

39,352

221

136

43

2009-10

47,563

235

156

64

2010-11

41,314

226

144

53

2011-12

57,583

268

194

75

2012-13

59,421

281

199

83

2013-14

77,180

360

260

104

Maybe I’m just the final person to admit that Goodman was right. But this table convinces me that something has changed. Quality players are changing teams like never before.

Gonzaga head coach Mark Few is not behind the curve when it comes to transfers. Last summer Few added Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer and this spring he added USC graduate transfer Byron Wesley. Wiltjer is not a perfect player. He is a relatively poor defender who lacks the strength and quickness to be an elite defender. But Wiltjer is a dynamic offensive player. He’s a former Top 20 recruit and efficient scorer. He’s a stretch-4 with an outstanding outside shot. And even if he wasn’t good enough to be a starter for Kentucky, Wiltjer would be good enough to start for over half the teams in the Top 25. Meanwhile, despite playing on one of the worst teams in the Pac-12 last year, Wesley somehow made huge personal strides. Wesley became one of the most efficient high volume shooters in the Pac-12. Gonzaga already had three super-efficient double-digit scorers in Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell, and Przemek Karnowski, and now they have five super-efficient double-digit scorers.

Gonzaga has one of the scariest starling lineups in the nation, but Gonzaga has depth too. Domantas Sabonis, son of the NBA legend, and Josh Perkins are elite recruits who will be super-subs. And Kyle Dranginis is a very efficient reserve guard. Vanderbilt transfer Eric McClellan, whose eligibility hinges on when he finishes three classes, is another high-scoring addition from the SEC. But McClellan’s low efficiency suggests he isn’t even one of Gonzaga’s eight best players.

When I shared my way-too-early Top 25 in April, I had Gonzaga in the Top 25. But after Wesley joined the team, a strong argument could be made that Gonzaga is a Top 10 squad.  Realistically, it depends on how good you think the defense will be next year. I see the defense slipping slightly because Wiltjer and Wesley were not great defensive players, but whether you put Gonzaga in the Top 10 or not, they are going to win a ton of games.

Hoping for the NCAA Tournament

BYU: The formula for BYU is very simple. Basketball teams only need five players on the floor at once, and when you have one of the best scorers in the nation, in Tyler Haws, your odds of winning are very good. Matt Carlino’s transfer hurts, but it helps that Kyle Collinsworth became a tremendous facilitator last season, and that Skyler Halford was an aggressive efficient scorer in the limited minutes he played. The team also adds Wake Forest transfer Chase Fischer and elite recruit TJ Haws, the younger brother of Tyler. Those four players should be able to replace Carlino’s production.

Eric Mika also left on an LDS mission, and UNLV transfer Jamal Aytes will try to help fill in for his size and athleticism. But the reality is that it doesn’t really matter who plays in the post for BYU. Players like Nate Austin and Josh Sharp aren’t stars. They barely ever touch the ball. But because they are only needed to put-back lay-ups, they are incredibly efficient. The story of BYU is really about how Tyler Haws impressive scoring makes everyone on BYU an efficient player.

Saint Mary’s: Brad Waldow is one of the best returning big men in the WCC. And Kerry Carter is a solid guard. But they needed help, and having mentioned the importance of transfers at the start of this piece, head coach Randy Bennett noticed the trend as well. Bennett added three key transfers in Stanford point-guard Aaron Bright, Minnesota guard Joe Coleman, and Washington forward Desmond Simmons.  Not only were these three players former starters in major conferences, they were very efficient at their former schools as well.

But even if the Gaels starting lineup is formidable, there are some questions about the team. First, the bench is unproven. USC transfer Garrett Jackson was inconsistent last year. Big man Dane Pineau showed some promise on the offensive glass, but didn’t really play enough to know how good he will be.

And while the three transfers all have skills, they all had flaws as well. Joe Coleman was a fabulous penetrator at Minnesota, but he struggled with his jump shot, and that one-dimensional play made him easy to scout. Meanwhile, Bright and Simmons were very passive offensive players at their former schools. When Waldow is on the bench, it is not clear who St. Mary’s can rely on if they need to get a bucket.

Hoping for the NIT

San Francisco: In May, PG Avry Holmes announced he was transferring to Clemson. It was a bit of a disaster for the Dons. While Matt Glover had shown some nice complimentary passing as an off-guard, it would be a struggle if Glover had to become the full-time PG. But last year Rex Walter’s team hit new heights at 13-5 in the conference, and recruits notice that kind of success.

Despite the late transfer news, Walters was able to secure a commitment from one of the better remaining PGs on the board, former Oregon St. commit Devin Watson in June. Watson is still a freshman, and he will make some mistakes. But as a three-star recruit, he should be able to hold his own in year one. Moreover, his recruitment shows that the program is on the rise. Because of the team’s recent success, even when USF had to recruit at the last minute, they didn’t have to settle.

San Francisco also welcomes three transfers from major conference schools. Derrell Robertson and Montray Clemons both used to play for DePaul. And while they put up fairly weak numbers two years ago for a bad DePaul team, they will have the advantage of playing next to one of the best post-players in the WCC in Kruize Pinkins. Their main role will simply be to grad rebounds and play physical defense. The team also adds Uche Ofoegbu, who struggled as a freshmen wing at SMU. But with one of the best wing players in the country in Mark Tollefsen on the squad, the team won’t need to rely on Ofoegbu until he is ready.

Realistically, it will probably take a little more roster stability for USF to become a true NCAA bubble team. But if Rex Walters keeps developing players at such a high rate, and if the success continues to improve the team’s recruiting, the sky is the limit.

Portland: Scouting a team like Portland can be very difficult. The Pilots bring in five freshmen, but they are all two star recruits, and in my model, players like that all receive essentially the same prediction. But if you want to learn more about the recruiting classes at some of these smaller schools, I highly recommend Kellon Hassenstab’s “2014 College Basketball Newcomers Guide”. This year Portland brings back all its key players except elite rebounding forward Ryan Nicholas. And the Newcomer’s Guide at least provides a few more details about the team’s two big men recruits Gabe Taylor and Philipp Hartwich. The guide points out that freshman Taylor played high school basketball for a coach connected to the team (suggesting he may have an edge for playing time.) The guide also notes that Taylor was a good outside shooter for his size. Finally, the guide points out that Hartwich is thin, but that based on his experience in Germany, he may be more experienced playing against older players. If you are an information junkie, you may want to give Hassenstab’s guide a look.

Regardless, the margin-of-victory numbers suggest Portland was a better team than their 7-11 conference record would indicate, and with 78% of the minutes back from last year, they are likely to move into the upper half of the league.

San Diego: These are the kind of seasons that make or break head coaches. Bill Grier took San Diego to the NCAA tournament in his first season, but now he is entering year eight, and he has not been able to duplicate that success. This year he has a veteran team. The rotation will likely include eight juniors and seniors and 86% of the rotation is back from last year.

Cal St. Northridge transfer Brandon Perry will provide a key boost at one of the forward spots. Johnny Dee and Christopher Anderson are star players, efficient and effective, the kind of players that a winning team can rely on. But this team still has the lowest average star rating (least potential evaluated based on high school talent) in the WCC. And it is very hard to win when your team has less athleticism than its opponents. The pressure is on Grier to win now, but he still doesn’t have the horses to really go head-to-head with the top of the league.

Building for the Future

Santa Clara: Santa Clara is a bit like BYU above. Because Jared Brownridge and Brandon Clark are so dominant, it should allow the complimentary Santa Clara players to improve their efficiency. Moreover, the team may benefit from the departure of senior Evan Roquemore. Roquemore was once a good player, but thanks to a preseason back injury, he had a horrific slump as a senior. Roquemore’s eFG%, assist rate, and turnover rate plummeted last year. Santa Clara would have missed the younger Roquemore, but they will not miss the inefficient senior he became last season.

Pepperdine: A lot of people love this team because of Stacy Davis and Jeremy Major. Lamond Murray Jr. also looks like a likely breakout candidate as a sophomore. He was efficient and aggressive as a freshman in limited minutes. But Pepperdine’s defense fell off a cliff last year, and now the WCC defensive-player-of-the-year, Brendan Lane, has graduated. Lane was the team’s best defensive rebounder and shot-blocker. It is hard to see how the defense will get better without its best player. And if the defense is worse or comparable to last year, that will make it very hard to win games.

Loyola Marymount: Mike Dunlap is returning to college basketball from the NBA, and he is returning to the school where he began his career as an assistant. He inherits a last place team that has one real asset, high volume scorer Evan Payne. If everyone on the roster lives up to their potential, Dunlap might be able to craft a competitive lineup. But it is a long-shot. The entire roster is filled with risky players that might produce very little this season.

Chase Flint and Marin Mornar were efficient, but they never shot last year. They don’t project as anything other than role players. Godwin Okonji is the highest ranked high school prospect on the team, but he was injured in a preseason car accident last year, and there are no guarantees he will come back strong after sitting out a year. Patson Siame was supposed to be a quality recruit last year, but he was a partial qualifier and the model wonders how he will play after sitting out for a year. Ayodeji Egbeyemi was injured last year and is another risky lineup option. JUCOs David Humphries and Matt Hayes seem like key pickups, but JUCO players are almost always lottery tickets, and Humphries and Hayes are not ranked high enough by most JUCO services to expect them to dominate. Worse yet, none of the freshmen have been ranked above two stars. If the JUCOs and the players coming off injuries play to their capacity, new head coach Mike Dunlap might be able to work some magic. But with that kind of roster, odds are strong LMU will spend another year at the bottom of the conference.

Pacific: Pacific returns only 16% of its minutes from last season. With that much roster turnover, the only way to plausibly have a chance to be competitive is to go the JUCO route. And the Tigers add four JUCO prospects in Dulani Robinson, Sami Elarky, Eric Thompson, and Alec Kobre. If all those players click, Pacific may be competitive in the WCC. If not, this will be a long season.

College Basketball Preview 14-15: SEC

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

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

SEC Favorite

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

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

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

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

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

The Only Real Challenger

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

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

Hoping for the Top 25

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

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

Hoping for the NCAA Tournament

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Team

Returning Minutes

Projected Change in Minutes Given to Freshmen

South Carolina

76%

-28%

Mississippi St.

74%

5%

Georgia

72%

-1%

Mississippi

69%

-15%

Kentucky

65%

-46%

Texas A&M

64%

12%

Arkansas

64%

-5%

Alabama

62%

6%

Vanderbilt

60%

21%

Auburn

55%

-13%

Florida

41%

12%

Missouri

40%

3%

LSU

37%

-2%

Tennessee

28%

16%

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jalyn Patterson – A three star freshman.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#50 Jakeenan Gant, an elite freshman big man.

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

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

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

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

Hoping for the NIT

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

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

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

College Basketball Preview 14-15: Mountain West

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The Clowney Conundrum For The NBA

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