Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Morning News: Cuonzo Martin To California, Plus A Slew Of Draft Decisions

Thompson-Boling has at times been less-than-friendly for Cuonzo Martin

During the offseason, I'll have occasional Morning News posts. Unlike the regular season, these won't be daily. I'll post them whenever a few interesting pieces of news pile up. Follow me on twitter, or click on the bottom right of the page to follow the blog. Either will let you know when new posts are up.

Cuonzo Martin To California In a sense, this came out of nowhere. California seems like a lateral move from Tennessee. But really, it's because the fans and administration were not supportive of Martin as coach. For a while this season, even as his team was borderline Top 15-20 in the computers, there were continued calls for his firing, including a huge petition to bring back Bruce Pearl. These tweets from his former players say it all. Is Cuonzo Martin a brilliant coach? Probably not. But a fan base that doesn't support its coach is going to find itself in a situation like this, and they're going to find it hard to hire their next coach.

It will take some time to settle out the direct effects on next season. We have to see who Tennessee hires, how many Tennessee recruits decommit, and whether Cuonzo Martin can hold the entire California roster together. But California is a team that is really just one more solid player away from earning an at-large bid next season, while Tennessee was going to be right on the bubble even with Cuonzo. Assuming a few decommits, I'm likely going to drop Tennessee from my next bracket projection.

Willie Cauley-Stein Returns To Kentucky This is big news for a Kentucky team that looks to again be in serious contention for a 1 seed. As always with Kentucky, it's wise to wait until we have a roster that is more firmed up. We still need to figure out the draft status for the Harrison twins and Dakari Johnson, for example, and John Calipari is still in the mix for another recruit or two. But if nothing else, this Kentucky team will not lack for height and length on the front line next season.

Jerami Grant To The NBA Draft This is a significant loss for a Syracuse team already losing Tyler Ennis and CJ Fair. Trevor Cooney is the only returning Syracuse player to be any kind of offensive threat this past season. A year ago we were all wondering where Syracuse would find some offense, and then Tyler Ennis happened. This season, Kaleb Joseph will have even less to work with (at least Ennis had Grant and Fair returning). Unless Joseph turns into Ennis, it could be a long season offensively for the Orange.

Michigan Loses Stauskas And GRII, Still Waiting On McGary Honestly, there's not a whole lot here quite yet. We all knew Stauskas was going pro. Glenn Robinson III is a significant loss, but only because the Jon Horford transfer now makes the Mitch McGary decision a huge one. If McGary goes pro, Michigan will not return a single front court player who got even 100 minutes this past season. If he leaves, Michigan will plummet down my bracket projection.

Montrezl Harrell Returning This is big, fairly surprising news for Louisville. Most analysts expected Harrell to leave. Chris Jones, Terry Rozier and Wayne Blackshear give Louisville proven backcourt options to fill Russ Smith's loss fairly well. Harrell's return gives Louisville a proven front court offensive threat, and will substantially reduce the pressure on Rick Pitino's big 2014 recruiting class.

Bryce Dejean-Jones To Iowa State This isn't a surprising transfer pickup. I actually talked about it in my 2014-15 Big 12 preview. This has become the Fred Hoiberg modus operandi at this point. Is Dejean-Jones the next DeAndre Kane? Probably not. But Hoiberg was going to need a transfer or two to get his team back to the Top 25, and this is a big one.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Preseason BP68

The thing about putting a bracket together just four days after the national title game is that the rosters are still going to change a lot. We still have guys deciding on the draft, we still have transfers in and out, we still have recruits to sign, etc.

But this bracket serves as a starting point. You can click on my conference previews, where I go through all 32 conferences and tell you who I think is coming in and leaving, and why I have teams where I have them.

From here on out, we'll see what happens with certain players. For example, at this point I'm assuming Jabari Parker and Mitch McGary stay. If either one chooses to go pro, their team will drop in the next bracket. But we need to start somewhere, so let's start here.

As for the next bracket, it will be posted around the NBA Draft. After that I'll have a bracket around Midnight Madness. After that will be the "W-17 BP68", 17 weeks from Selection Sunday.

For now, here's how I see things ending up on Selection Sunday 2015:


2. KANSAS (BIG 12)
2. North Carolina
2. Michigan

3. Texas
3. Florida
3. Virginia

4. Oklahoma
4. SMU (AAC)

5. Utah
5. Ohio State
5. Louisville
5. Iowa

6. West Virginia
6. Dayton

7. UConn
7. Pittsburgh
7. Illinois
7. Colorado

8. Iowa State
8. Stanford
8. Maryland
8. Syracuse

9. Xavier
9. Nebraska
9. Georgetown
9. Cincinnati

10. UNLV
10. Miami-Florida
10. Oregon
10. Northern Iowa

11. BYU
11. Richmond
11. Michigan State

12. Arkansas
12. Oklahoma State
12. Butler
12. Tennessee





Teams seriously considered that just missed the cut:
Memphis, Tulsa, Clemson, Notre Dame, Wake Forest, Rhode Island, Providence, Minnesota, Purdue, Baylor, Kansas State, Illinois State, Colorado State, California, Georgia, Texas A&M

Other teams with a decent shot to get onto the bubble:
Temple, Florida State, NC State, George Washington, UMass, Creighton, Marquette, Seton Hall, Indiana, Northwestern, UC-Irvine, Northeastern, Louisiana Tech, Green Bay, Iona, Western Michigan, Missouri State, Fresno State, New Mexico, Arizona State, Washington, Alabama, LSU, Mississippi, Missouri, South Carolina, San Francisco

Other teams I'm keeping my eye on:
Houston, Boston College, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Duquesne, St. John's, Penn State, Texas Tech, Delaware, Charlotte, Old Dominion, Columbia, Princeton, Northern Illinois, Evansville, Southern Illinois, Boise State, Wyoming, Oregon State, USC, Washington State, Auburn, Vanderbilt, Portland, Saint Mary's, San Diego

2014-15 Preview: ACC

Atlantic Coast Conference

With the addition of Pittsburgh and Syracuse, and the impending addition of Louisville, there was a lot of hype about the ACC becoming the new basketball power. And it didn't quite work out in year one, though it would be silly to be too down on the ACC. After all, the league had three legitimate contenders for a 1 seed, landing one in the end with Virginia. But still, most of the league ended on a disappointing note. Virginia ended up going down in the Sweet 16, Duke went down to Mercer, Syracuse faded badly... But so it goes. Adding the team that was arguably the best in the nation this past season means that the ACC is primed to be even stronger next season. And maybe they'll get back to being the nation's strongest conference.

Let's start with the Virginia team that earned the outright ACC regular season title. I've been a big Tony Bennett fan for years, and it was nice to see him finally break through and win a conference title, and to finally begin shedding the stereotypes that his teams can't score or don't have enough talent to compete at the highest levels. Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell graduate, but everybody else should be back. Malcolm Brogdon was the team's leading scorer, and he'll start in the backcourt again with point guard London Perrantes, who had a really nice freshman season. They need more backcourt depth, but could get it from 2013 recruit Devon Hall or BJ Stith (Scout: 16 SF, Rivals: 48). The front court is a bit more of a concern. Mike Tobey, Anthony Gill and Justin Anderson are all good players, but none is much of a scorer. Of the three, Gill was the most efficient scorer this past season, finishing with a 58.7 eFG%. The Cavaliers also add 6'8" Isaiah Wilkins (Rivals: 107).

Duke is a tough team to figure out because it really does seem like Jabari Parker is on the fence about entering the NBA Draft. Rodney Hood is likely going pro, and the team loses Andre Dawkins, Tyler Thornton and Josh Hairston to graduation, but if Parker returns they'll very likely be the #1 team in the country preseason. Aside from Parker, who are the key returners? The backcourt will again be strong, returning Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon, and likely getting a lot more from 6'4" Matt Jones, who struggled at times as a true freshman. Coach K adds Tyus Jones (Scout: 2 PG, Rivals: 5) and Grayson Allen (Scout: 7 SG, Rivals: 34). The front court will be a bigger question mark if Parker leaves, as he really was the only productive true front court player (Rodney Hood was basically a 6'8" shooting guard). Marshall Plumlee could be more of a factor next season, though he's still not much of an offensive player. 6'6" Semi Ojeleye didn't play much as a true freshman, but he was a blue chip 2013 recruit. And the team adds 6'10" Jahlil Okafor (Scout: 1 C, Rivals: 1) and Justise Winslow (Scout: 4 SF, Rivals: 9). Parker was forced to play center all season because the team didn't have any other real bigs, but if he somehow comes back and can shift to power forward with Okafor at center, he will suddenly look a lot better defensively and make this Duke team just filthy deep and talented.

Syracuse had a crazy string of luck, winning their first eight games decided by six points or less before losing five of their final six. We were deluded with the insane stats that Tyler Ennis had in the clutch (like this), but then Ennis made several key mistakes and missed several key shots late in close games late in the season. It's just the zillionth example of "clutch stats are random and should not be treated like a repeatable skill". But this Syracuse team was, if anything, a little underrated by the end of the season. They have several key losses, though. CJ Fair graduates and Tyler Ennis is off to the NBA. Jerami Grant is 50/50 on going to the Draft, but for the sake of this preview I'm going to assume he stays. The key returner is Trevor Cooney, who shot out of his mind earlier in the season before regressing to the mean later on, so it's not totally clear what type of player he'll be next season. They also return Rakeem Christmas and Michael Gbinije, and also get back DaJuan Coleman, who missed most of the season with injury. Also look for 6'7" Tyler Roberson and 6'7" BJ Johnson, both 2013 recruits who played sparingly as true freshmen, to contribute more next season. They also add Chris McCullough (Scout: 3 PF, Rivals: 16). But while the Orange will have a ton of size and likely a good defense again, the question comes back to offense. They magically found offense early in the season with the emergence of Tyler Ennis as a star point guard and playmaker. Next year they'll be back (likely) to another freshman point guard: Kaleb Joseph (Scout: 16 PG, Rivals: 55). If he doesn't play really well right off the bat, Syracuse could be in big trouble scoring the ball.

Louisville is the ACC newcomer, coming off two seasons of arguably being the best team in the nation with arguably the best player in the nation (Russ Smith). But this is perhaps the end of an era for Louisville, with the loss of Russ Smith. Luke Hancock also graduates, as does Stephen Van Treese, and most people think that Montrezl Harrell will go pro. That would leave only Chris Jones back from the starting lineup. Off the bench, Louisville returns combo guard Terry Rozier, shooting guard Wayne Blackshear and 6'10" Mangok Mathiang. Of the three, Rozier is the one most likely to develop into a star player next season. Shooting guard Anton Gill, a 2013 recruit, is another player expected to take a step forward next season. But Louisville's success next season will come down to the play of a gigantic 2014 recruiting class, led by Shaqquan Aaron (Scout: 11 SF, Rivals: 27), Quentin Snider (Scout: 7 PG, Rivals: 31), Jaylen Johnson (Scout: 14 PF, Rivals: 56) and Chinanu Onuaku (Scout: 9 C, Rivals: 65).

North Carolina is a team that finished the season very strong, including that late 12 game winning streak, and they should be even better next season. James Michael McAdoo is going pro, and with his physical size and strength he should be an okay pro, but I don't think it's a huge loss for North Carolina. It was a running joke that almost every North Carolina game I saw the announcers would bemoan that McAdoo was having a tough game... if that's the case every game, maybe it's just that everybody's expectations for him were too high. The real superstar for North Carolina this past season was Marcus Paige, and he says he'll back, along with Brice Johnson. The one graduation is Leslie McDonald. Kennedy Meeks will be back, and he along with Brice Johnson both look like really special players who could be an awfully good starting front court next season. Look for 6'8" Isaiah Hicks, a highly touted 2013 recruit, to be a much bigger part next season with McAdoo gone. Roy Williams has two blue chippers coming on board in the front court, too: Justin Jackson (Scout: 3 SF, Rivals: 10) and Theo Pinson (Scout: 10 SF, Rivals: 19). In the backcourt, starters Paige and JP Tokoto return. Nate Britt is the one returner off the bench, and they add Joel Berry (Scout: 3 PG, Rivals: 25). If Jabari Parker goes pro, expect a lot of people to project UNC as the ACC favorite.

Pitt was an underrated team all season long, finishing with a nearly identical efficiency margin in conference play (+0.05 PPP) to North Carolina (+0.07), and deservedly being a big Vegas favorite in their 8/9 game. They lose do-everything star Lamar Patterson, along with Talib Zanna. They have a couple of good offensive creators in James Robinson and Josh Newkirk, so I wouldn't expect their offense to fall off a cliff. Their front court will be anchored by Michael Young, and they also get back 6'6" Durand Johnson, who was lost for the season with a knee injury in early January. Off the bench, 6'7" Jamel Artis seems like the best sleeper to take the next step to being a quality ACC player next season. Jamie Dixon's 2014 recruiting class is deep, but without any blue chippers. The most talented of the bunch, 6'11" Shaquille Doorson, is considered a project. So I'm not sure I'd bet on Pitt getting back to the Top 25, but they have to at least be in that discussion.

The final NCAA Tournament team out of the ACC this past season was NC State... for some reason. They were far and away the oddest at-large team chosen. Though whether it's motivation from being trashed all week or what, that last team in always seems to do well, and NC State won their play-in game and would have taken out St. Louis if not for a brutal collapse late in that Round of 64 game. They lose Jordan Vandenberg to graduation, star TJ Warren to the NBA, and Tyler Lewis to transfer. The backcourt returns Anthony Barber, Ralston Turner and Desmond Lee from the regular rotation, and they add Trevor Lacey (11.3 ppg, 3.8 rpg and 3.2 apg as a sophomore at Alabama). Twins Caleb Martin (Scout: 13 SF, Rivals: 59) and Cody Martin (Scout: 26 SF, Rivals: 106) could play in the backcourt as well. The front court is going to be very young next season, as all of the top returners were freshmen this past season, led by 6'8" Leonard Freeman. Their highest rated 2014 recruit is 6'8" Abdul-Malik Abu (Scout: 12 PF, Rivals: 50). The concern for the team is definitely going to be offensive playmaking, though. Trevor Lacey is going to have to be a star for this team to be better.

Florida State went through a fun four year run from 2008-09 to 2011-12 where they were arguably the best defense in the nation every year, featuring probably the most imposing front line in the nation. Then everybody graduated and the defense was pretty bad in 2012-13. But now, Leonard Hamilton has a new bunch of impressive defensive bigs, and while the overall team defense wasn't great this past season, you can see the pieces of a potentially strong defense next season, led by Boris Bojanovsky, Michael Ojo and Jacquez Smith. And they should get back 7-footer Kiel Turpin, who missed the season with injury, and would give Florida State three 7+ foot players in their regular rotation. That said, Okaro White graduates, as does point guard Ian Miller. Devon Bookert and Aaron Thomas are the top two backcourt returners, but I don't think they really going to scare anybody in the ACC. A big need will be shooting guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes, their top 2013 recruit, who was academically ineligible to play this past season. 6'7" Montay Brandon, a wing player, also looked a lot better late in the season and should be improved next season.

Clemson was a team that played in a whole lot of ugly games. Their defense was strong, but their offense was brutal, particularly shooting the ball. They were dead last in the ACC in 3P% and 2nd to last in eFG%. And the one guy on the team who could score consistently, KJ McDaniels, looks like he's more likely than not leaving for the NBA Draft. But with everybody else back, the defense should still be strong. Rod Hall and Damarcus Harrison are a solid backcourt, with Landry Nooko anchoring the paint defensively. 6'7" Jaron Blossomgame is a freshman who came on strong late in the season and should be better next season. They will get back shooting guard Patrick Rooks, a 2013 recruit who took a redshirt. Also look for a lot of playing time for 6'8" Donte Grantham (Scout: 21 SF, Rivals: 66), who should immediately be one of the best offensive players on the roster.

While you can't quibble too much with Tony Bennett getting an ACC Coach of the Year award, I believe that the team which outperformed its roster the most this past season was Miami. They lost everybody from their 2012-13 team other than Rion Brown. That said, they got Garrius Adams back and added Donnavan Kirk as a transfer, and those three all started this past season and now all graduate. So Miami is losing three starters again. They also lose Erik Swoope off the bench. But Jim Larranaga has some good young returning talent, and is again bringing in some transfers. The top returners are 5'9" Manu Lecomte, 6'7" James Kelly and 7-footer Tonye Jekiri. They should get back shooting guard Deandre Burnett, a 2013 recruit who missed the season with injury. The transfers are Angel Rodriguez (11.4 ppg and 5.2 apg as a sophomore at Kansas State) and Sheldon McClellan (13.5 ppg and 3.9 rpg as a sophomore at Texas). The 2014 recruiting class is led by Ja'Quan Newton (Scout: 10 SG, Rivals: 35). They'll definitely have more offensive weapons next season, but the question is where the big man depth and talent will come from.

Danny Manning absolutely could not have walked into a better situation than Wake Forest. I actually perfectly predicted the Jeff Bzdelik tenure at Wake Forest four years ago. Bzdelik is a fairly good coach, but he's not a quick-fixer-upper. Coming into a totally screwed up situation where the few good players had to be jettisoned for bad behavior, it was always going to take him four or five years to get the team back to the NCAA Tournament. Throw that in with his slow style of basketball and I figured Wake Forest fans and the media were going to hate him too much to let him complete his rebuild. Which is exactly what happened. This Wake Forest team actually was fairly decent this past season, finishing just outside the Top 100 in the computers. With everybody by Coron Williams and Travis McKie coming back, this Wake Forest team is primed to make a run at an at-large bid next season. And now Manning walks in with tons of media love after winning an at-large bid with Tulsa. He has to be the preseason pick for ACC Coach of the Year. Their star is Codi Miller-McIntyre, and he'll be back along with 6'9" Devin Thomas. They should get back 6'6" Greg McClinton, their top 2013 recruit who missed the season with a torn ACL. Their top 2014 recruit is 6'3" Shelton Mitchell (Scout: 15 PG, Rivals: 67). Expectations are going to be incredibly low for this team next season, but expect them to be exceeded. Is Manning a better head coach than Bzdelik? I don't think we can know that yet, as Manning has only coached for two seasons. But the visceral hatred the entire campus had for Bzdelik will give Manning a nice several-year honeymoon in Winston Salem.

In the end, here's how I see the ACC playing out:

1. Duke - If Jabari Parker comes back, Duke will be the preseason #1. Even without him, they'll contend for the ACC title.
2. North Carolina - If Parker goes pro, I wouldn't be surprised to see North Carolina the preseason ACC favorite. I really like Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson to be stars next year.
3. Virginia - This team was a lot more than Joe Harris. They'll again be great defensively, and have a likely first team All-ACC player in Malcolm Brogdon.
4. Louisville - It's hard to figure out where to put this Louisville team. They'll have blue chip recruits out to their 8th and 9th men, but so much of next year's projection is just potential. They lose a ton.
5. Pittsburgh - They lose Lamar Patterson, but Pittsburgh's offense is always good (even if they never get credit for it because their tempo is too slow). I'm concerned about their depth, though.
6. Syracuse - This Syracuse team feels a whole lot like last year's team. If Kaleb Joseph turns into Tyler Ennis, this is a borderline Top Ten team. But if he isn't particularly good, the Syracuse offense will be just awful.
7. Miami - I'm not sure any team in the country is landing two transfers as skilled as Angel Rodriguez and Sheldon McClellon. Rodriguez could end up first or second team All-ACC.
8. Notre Dame - Assuming Jerian Grant comes back, the Irish should be improved next season. It can't be overstated how important Garrick Sherman was to this team, though. He'll be very missed.
9. Wake Forest - This team probably needs one more player to make the NCAA Tournament, but they have to be in the discussion. Danny Manning is a huge unknown after only two seasons. This hire could end up blowing up in their face, but it could be brilliant. We can't know for a few years.
10. Clemson - Assuming KJ McDaniels is gone, it's going to be another year of ugly, low scoring games for Clemson.
11. Florida State -  I might be too low on the Seminoles here, but I'm concerned about their lack of depth and playmaking ability.
12. NC State - This is a team full of highly rated recruits, but Mark Gottfried isn't exactly known for getting the most out of talented recruits. The loss of Tyler Lewis is quietly a really brutal one, as he would have been their primary playmaker after the loss of TJ Warren.
13. Boston College - I kind of have to assume that Jim Christian will retain this roster. After all, a big reason Steve Donahue was fired was because of the players threatening to leave. If Christian can hold this roster together, it actually has some really talented offensive players on it. They just need to get (a whole lot) better defensively.
14. Georgia Tech - The Yellow Jackets lose three of their top four players off a team that wasn't good to begin with, and don't really have the top level talent to compete with the top half of the league.
15. Virginia Tech - I'm sure Buzz Williams will upgrade the talent level, but it's going to take time to get new players in here. And in the short term, as is often the case in coaching transitions, he's actually starting to lose players. Trevor Thompson has already announced that he's leaving via transfer.

2014-15 Preview: Big East

Big East Conference

How was year one of the New Big East? Meh, I guess. The Big East was certainly underrated, I think. People on twitter would get apoplectic when I'd point out that every computer rating I was aware of had the Big East rated higher than the AAC. But that's the nature of conference ratings. Most fans look at the top four or five teams, where the Big East was certainly weaker than the AAC. But the computers see that the second-to-worst Big East team (Butler) was inside the Top 100 in the computers, and thus well ahead of the 6th best AAC team. The Big East was a deep league, even if it was soft in the upper half. Villanova's 16-2 record was still awfully impressive.

But there are some cracks in the facade with players leaving and rumors of maybe another coach or two leaving. Buzz Williams leaving Marquette to get paid less at Virginia Tech next year is a big blow. I feel like we need to give the Big East a few years to find an equilibrium. How does Creighton do in the post-Doug McDermott world? Can Butler still thrive in the post-Brad Stevens world? What happens to Marquette now? What is going on at St. John's? There is a lot in flux with the Big East right now, as one would expect with a new conference. And the poor NCAA Tournament performance was not a good start.

Let's begin with Villanova. Was this team really underrated or really overrated? I feel like I'm leaning toward the former, but I can see the argument for the latter. Their season was just so bizarre. Getting crushed by Creighton twice but going 16-0 against the rest of the Big East is just the start of it. And this team should be stronger next season, losing just James Bell from the starting rotation and Tony Chennault off the bench. Ryan Arcidiacono will be back to run the point, and their backcourt will be boosted by the return of Dylan Ennis, along with Phil Booth (Scout: 12 SG, Rivals: 85). Their strength is going to be on the wings, where Darrun Hilliard (who technically played shooting guard for the team) will be back, and they have two very good up-and-comers in 2013 recruits Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins. Mikal Bridges (Scout: 22 SF, Rivals: 84) also joins the team. All of the bigs from this past season will be back, led by JayVaughn Pinkston and Daniel Ochefu. Because of their poor NCAA Tournament performance, Villanova won't get a lot of respect in the preseason polls, but this is a team that should be awfully good next season. If there's one thing that keeps them from being a 1 seed it will be Ryan Arcidiacono. He has already started getting some of the Aaron Craft gritty, hustling white guy hype, but he just committed far too many turnovers for the number of assists he gets. That needs to get better.

A whole lot of people had the same thought about Creighton over the last few weeks: "Let's see how Greg McDermott does without Doug McDermott." In a sense that's unfair, as he won at Northern Iowa, and this past year's Creighton team was about a whole lot more than Doug McDermott, but the roster also loses a lot more than just Doug McDermott. Grant Gibbs, Ethan Wragge and Jahenns Manigat all graduate as well, making Austin Chatman the only returning starter. Who else returns from the regular rotation? Backup point guard Devin Brooks, 6'11" Will Artino and 6'6" Avery Dingman. Brooks is probably the strongest player of the three. They also get back Isaiah Zierden, who was lost for the season with injury on March 1st, and might end up the starting shooting guard next season. They do get back some redshirts from the 2013 recruiting class, including power forward Tony Hegner and 6'6" Darian Harris, but neither of them is a blue chip recruit. The 2014 recruiting class is led by 6'7" Leon Gilmore (Rivals: 121). It's hard not to see Creighton taking a big step back next season.

Xavier was set to just lose Isaiah Philmore from their starting lineup, but star playmaker Semaj Christon is off to the NBA, The three returning starters of Dee Davis, Justin Martin and big man Matt Stainbrook are all good (Davis will be the primary playmaker, presumably), but a lot of next season's success will come down to a very strong and deep (but young) core. Shooting guard Myles Davis and big men James Farr and Jalen Reynolds all played well in limited minutes this past season. Top 2013 recruit Brandon Reynolds, a point guard, didn't get on the court much as a true freshman, but could be a big part of next season. They add 6'4" Remy Abell (4.0 ppg and 1.5 rpg as a sophomore at Indiana) as well. And Chris Mack has a huge 2014 recruiting class signed: Trevon Bluiett (Scout: 12 SF, Rivals: 45), Makinde London (Scout: 17 PF, Rivals: 79), J.P. Macura (Scout: 20 SG, Rivals: 104), Edmond Summer (Scout: 27 SG, Rivals: 133) and Sean O'Mara (Scout: 25 C). So if that young talent pans out, Xavier should be better next season. But if it doesn't, or if Chris Mack leaves to take another job (he's been rumored for a couple already this offseason), then all bets are off.

The last NCAA Tournament team out of the Big East was Providence, but going one-and-done in the NCAA Tournament meant that Bryce Cotton didn't get the national attention that he deserved. He played a staggering 41.3 minutes per game in Big East play and 39.9 minutes per game on the season, which seems almost impossible. And he ran Providence's entire offense, made all their big plays, and did it all in an efficient way. He'll be missed big time, and Kadeem Batts graduates as well. As the team played a six man rotation, that means that they return four guys who got regular minutes, led by Josh Fortune and LaDontae Henton on the wings. They do have some key additions, as well as some question marks. Kris Dunn, the once highly touted recruit who has struggled badly with injuries and missed almost the entire 2013-14 season should be back, though obviously it would be a mistake at this point to expect too much of him. The 2013 recruiting class of Brandon Austin and Rodney Bullock, both wings, ended up involved in a sexual assault incident and were suspended for the entire season. Austin has since transferred out, but Bullock in theory will be back next season. The team also adds 6'5" Junior Lomomba, who averaged 5.8 points and 2.3 rebounds per game as a freshman at Cleveland State in 2012-13. Ed Cooley has a big recruiting class coming in also, led by 7'1" Paschal Chukwu (Scout: 8 C, Rivals: 60) and Jalen Lindsey (Scout: 19 SF, Rivals: 68). Depending on the production from Kris Dunn and the freshmen, and whether Bullock comes back, there's a large variance when trying to project Providence for next season.

St. John's was a very talented team that just didn't seem to fit together, and after a disappointing miss of the NCAA Tournament followed by a loss in the opening round of the NIT to NIT Giant Killer Robert Morris, the Johnnies are in trouble for next season. Orlando Sanchez and God'sgift Achiuwa graduate, Jakarr Sampson is off to the NBA, and Chris Obekpa and Max Hooper are going to transfer. And there are rumors floating around about both D'Angelo Harrison and Rysheed Jordan transferring, but at this time both are still saying that they're staying. So who do we actually know will be on the roster next season? Phil Greene, Sir'Dominic Pointer and Jamal Branch, none of whom is taller than 6'5". 6'4" Felix Balamou played sparingly this past season and 6'7" Christian Jones took a redshirt, so those two players could potentially contribute next season. And they now have a big man as they recently inked 6'10" Adonis DeLaRosa. It's a start, but realistically Steve Lavin needs to avoid any more transfers and needs to add another big man or two (perhaps Juco transfers) this summer to have any chance of getting back to the Tourney bubble.

Georgetown had one of the more disappointing seasons in the entire nation, including quite a few heartbreaking losses. Next season, though, this roster will look very, very different. They lose a lot, but also bring in a real blue chip recruiting class. First, they lose Markel Starks, Nate Lubick and Moses Ayegba. The front court should be okay, even with all of those losses, with Joshua Smith expected back from his academic suspension and Mikael Hopkins turning into a really nice player defensively (though he needs an offensive game). 6'7" Reggie Cameron, a 2013 recruit who struggled as a true freshman, should be a significantly more important player next season, and they also add Isaac Copeland (Scout: 10 PF, Rivals: 37) and Paul White (Scout: 11 PF, Rivals: 54). On the wings, Jabril Trawick and Aaron Bowen both return, with Trawick potentially shifting down to be the starting shooting guard next season. The backcourt is the one place that Georgetown might have an issue. They return D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera and add LJ Peak (Scout: 15 SG, Rivals: 76) and Tre Campbell (Scout: 19 PG, Rivals: 115). That's a quality starting backcourt, but not a lot of depth. I'd expect Georgetown to play much of the time without a traditional point guard, using Smith-Rivera as the de facto PG but running a lot of the offense through Trawick and Josh Smith. It's a team that should be better, if JTII can make this roster construction work.

Butler was a team that suffered more than its share of bad luck this past season, and I'm not even including the loss of Brad Stevens in that. Even before the season started they lost their primary playmaker, Roosevelt Jones, to injury. Then, they proceeded to go 5-8 in games decided by six points or less or in overtime, including a crazy stretch around the start of the season where three out of four games were overtime losses. But despite going 4-14 in a disrespected league, they were still a borderline Top 100 team and will get back Roosevelt Jones. That said, I believe transfer Tyler Lewis will have to sit out the next season, and they lose Khyle Marshall and Erik Fromm. The trio of Jones, Kellen Dunham and Alex Barlow gives them three strong offensive players, with Kam Woods and Andrew Chrabascz anchoring the paint. If there's a sleeper for next season it's 6'4" Elijah Brown, a 2013 recruit who struggled to shoot as a true freshman. Their 2014 recruiting class is led by 6'6" Kelan Martin (Rivals: 143).

In the end, here's how I see the Big East playing out next season:

1. Villanova - This is an easy pick. Villanova is going to start the season ranked in the 10-15 range in the national polls, but I think they'll be underrated. This is a team that can make a run at a 1 seed.
2. Xavier - This spot is entirely predicated on Chris Mack staying and keeping this roster together. But if he does, Xavier should be improved.
3. Georgetown - Because of their reliance on young players, Georgetown could miss the tourney again, but they could also get back to being a borderline Top 25 team. They definitely have depth and talent. A full season of Josh Smith is key.
4. Butler - Kellen Dunham looked like a superstar at times, but he was awfully inconsistent. If he can pull his game together, this could be a really good Butler squad.
5. Providence - Can Kris Dunn actually play a full season and live up to the hype he got out of high school? If he can, this can be a tourney team again.
6. Creighton - Welp. It's a cliche, but let's see what Greg McDermott does without Doug McDermott.
7. Marquette - Buzz Williams put together a nice recruiting class before jumping ship. The first job for Steve Wojciechowski is holding that class together, particularly with the graduation of four of their top six minute earners. At last count, he was already down Marial Shayok, and Sandy Cohen might go as well.
8. Seton Hall - Kevin Willard is on the hot seat, but he has a nice recruiting class coming in, led by blue chipper Isaiah Whitehead (Scout: 1 SG, Rivals: 14). Replacing Big East Defensive Player of the Year Fuquan Edwin is the biggest concern.
9. St. John's - Things are getting to be a mess with the Johnnies. Don't be surprised if this is Steve Lavin's last season coming up.
10. DePaul - No, I don't know why Oliver Purnell wasn't fired. If anything, DePaul will be worse next season. They lose a lot to graduation and have nobody of note coming in their recruiting class.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

2014-15 Preview: Big Ten

Big Ten Conference

Was the Big Ten the best conference in the nation? I argued all season long that I felt it was, though you could certainly argue for the Big 12. Those two were clearly a step ahead of every other league. The Big Ten came within a single day of matching the all-time record with three teams in the Final Four, but in the end only Wisconsin got there, and the Big Ten's title drought continues. Next year the league is going to be very different, though. My argument for the Big Ten over the Big 12 consisted of, basically, "The Big 12 has TCU and the Big Ten doesn't", which of course led to the point that from TCU's perspective, the Big 12 was probably the nation's toughest conference. Fair enough. But the Big Ten is now getting its own TCU in Rutgers.

Now, let's not forget that Nebraska basketball was basically Rutgers for most of the last 20 years, and Rutgers should get a boost from being in the Big Ten. And that's all true, but there are two big differences that suggest Rutgers fans shouldn't prepare for an at-large bid in two seasons. First, Nebraska has Tim Miles and Rutgers doesn't. Second, Nebraska invested heavily in facilities, which made it easier to upgrade their talent. Maybe the new Big Ten Network money will lead Rutgers to invest more heavily in basketball, but it hasn't happened yet.

Anyway, that's enough talking about Rutgers. Let's talk about the Big Ten's Final Four team: Wisconsin. Both Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky are saying that they'll return next season, which immediately puts Wisconsin in the discussion for the best team in the nation. The only player that they lose from their regular rotation is Ben Brust. And people who don't pay attention to college basketball before March might have just discovered Frank Kaminsky in the Elite 8, the reality is that he was great all season long. The Pomeroy ratings had him the Big Ten Player of the Year even before the tourney tipped off. With him back, along with Dekker, Nigel Hayes and Duje Dukan, along with 2013 recruit Vitto Brown and 6'7" Ethan Happ (Rivals: 140), the Wisconsin front court can only be better next season. Losing Brust means that they lose a backcourt starter, but they still return three very strong players (Traevon Jackson, Josh Gasser and Bronson Koenig), all of whom can play the point. The fourth guard will either be 2013 recruit Riley Dearring or Zak Showalter, who played off the bench as a freshman in 2012-13 season and took a redshirt this past season. Assuming Dekker and Kaminsky do indeed return, Wisconsin will likely be the preseason Big Ten favorite and a Top 5 team in the nation.

Michigan was the Big Ten's regular season champion, though they were a bit lucky to get there, going 5-0 in Big Ten regular season games decided by six points or less. Their efficiency margin in conference play (+0.10 PPP) was the same was Wisconsin and not much better than Iowa (+0.07 PPP). But they did it without Mitch McGary, which was extremely impressive, getting within a single play of the Final Four in the end. But for next year, they're awfully hard to project. Most people assume Nik Stauskas will go pro, even if it's not official yet. Mitch McGary and Glen Robinson III are on the draft bubble, though, as both are expected to be late first or early second round picks if they choose to come out. What about the rest of the rotation? Jordan Morgan graduates and Jon Horford announced earlier today his intent to transfer, which means that if McGary goes then there won't be a single proven big man returner. They will get back 6'8" 2013 recruit Mark Donnal, who took a redshirt season, and add Kameron Chatman (Scout: 8 SF, Rivals: 29), 6'8" DJ Wilson (Rivals: 135) and 6'7" Ricky Doyle. They don't have any backcourt players coming in, but will have both Derrick Walton and Spike Albrecht, who can both handle the point. Caris LeVert was always a good defender, but improved a ton offensively as a sophomore, and could be the team's top scoring option next season. Zak Irvin will fill a lot of the Stauskas role next season as well. If Michigan can bring back McGary and Robinson, they will have the top-to-bottom talent to challenge Wisconsin. If those two players leave, though, the Wolverines will plummet down the standings.

Michigan State had perhaps a slightly unsatisfying season, as they were beat up with injuries all season long. They got the full roster back for the Big Ten tournament, and looked awfully impressive winning the title, but then had a clunker in the Elite 8 against UConn. Adreian Payne and Keith Appling graduate, while Gary Harris and Branden Dawson are both weighing whether to go pro. For the sake of this preview, I'm going to assume Harris goes and Dawson stays. The proven returners aside from (potentially) Dawson are Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine, who will likely be the starting backcourt next season. In the front court, they'll return Kenny Kaminski and Matt Costello off the bench. Alex Gauna and Russell Byrd could also return, but both are graduating with a year of eligibility left, and there are rumors about both players leaving to use their final year of eligibility at a school where they can play more. Gavin Schilling and Alvin Ellis were the 2013 recruiting class, and neither played much as a true freshman, but Schilling in particular should be due significantly more minutes as a sophomore. Tom Izzo's 2014 recruiting class is led by Lourawls Nairn (Scout: 24 PG, Rivals: 61).

Ohio State's season started out really well, but they faded a bit late. Still, they were better than their resume, and were a strong 6 seed that just ran into the buzzsaw of Dayton and lost on the final play of the game in the Round of 64. A tough end to the lightning rod career of Aaron Craft. Lenzelle Smith graduates as well, and LaQuinton Ross is going to the NBA. Amadeo Della Valle is leaving to go pro in Europe. Ohio State's front court should be improved next season, returning Sam Thompson and Amir Williams as likely starters, with the talented Marc Loving returning as well, along with the addition of 6'9" Anthony Lee (13.6 ppg and 8.6 rpg as a junior at Temple this past season), Keita Bates-Diop (Scout: 6 SF, Rivals: 24) and 6'9" David Bell. The backcourt returns a very talented defender in Shannon Scott (honestly, he was arguably better than Craft was), but he's not much of an offensive player. Shooting guard Kam Williams, a 2013 recruit, took a redshirt season and will likely feature prominently next season. They also add D'Angelo Russell (Scout: 3 SG, Rivals: 21) and Jae'Sean Tate (Scout: 14 SF, Rivals: 75), who was a small forward in high school but at 6'5", 200 pounds will likely be a shooting guard in the Big Ten. This is definitely where the concern is. I'm not sure who Ohio State's offensive creator is, and they might have another year of great defense with mediocre offense.

The final NCAA Tournament team from the Big Ten was Nebraska, with their amazing late season run, taking 10 of their final 12 regular season games to sneak in as an 11 seed. And with only Ray Gallegos graduating from their regular rotation, the question is whether Terran Petteway goes pro. The smart move would be to stay, and if he does then it would be hard for Nebraska not to be improved. Their top returners aside from Petteway are probably 6'7" wing Shavon Shields and 6'10" Walter Pitchford. But before we put Nebraska into Big Ten title contention, or even the Top 25, the concern has to be raised about the level of raw talent at Nebraska. Tim Miles did a fantastic job squeezing what he could out of this roster with a really solid defense (their 0.98 PPP allowed in conference play were second only to Ohio State), but the defense was not explosive (they didn't force a lot of turnovers or block a lot of shots) and their offense was pretty mediocre. They just don't have blue chip talent, and don't have any of it coming in next season either. The best up-and-comer from the 2013 recruits is point guard Tai Webster, and their 2014 recruiting class is headed by 6'8" Jacob Hammond.

Iowa was probably the most underrated team in the nation this past season, due to horrifically bad luck in close games (2-9 in games decided by six points or less or in overtime, including 0-6 against Big Ten opponents). It's fitting that even in an NCAA Tournament play-in game they somehow ended up stuck playing one of the 20 best teams in the country... and then losing in overtime. It basically summed up their entire season. Yet despite having the toughest Big Ten SOS of any team in the top half of the league, their efficiency margin in conference play (+0.07 PPP) wasn't significantly behind regular season champion Michigan (+0.10 PPP). So we can play the guessing game what the narrative will be when next season, like Florida this past season, Iowa's luck in close games regresses to the mean. What about next season's roster? They lose star Roy Devyn Marble and Melsahn Basabe, along with Zach McCabe off the bench. The front court should be fine, returning Aaron White, Gabriel Olaseni, Adam Woodbury and Jarrod Uthoff. On the wing they should look for increased production from Peter Jok, and also return Josh Oglesby. The question is going to be ball handling with the loss of Marble. Mike Gesell is going to have to take the next step as a player, because there aren't other obviously good options. Juco transfer Trey Dickerson might be the next man up.

Maryland has spent the last two seasons finishing up just on the wrong side of the bubble. Now that they're joining the Big Ten, can Mark Turgeon finally get this team Dancing? Well, they didn't have a single senior in their regular rotation, but Mark Turgeon signed a massive 2014 recruiting class, leading them to be way oversigned. The result was that three players are transferring out, and all three were from the regular rotation: Nick Faust, Shaq Cleare and Roddy Peters. Star Dez Wells and wing Evan Smotrycz will both be seniors next season, and the team also returns big man Charles Mitchell. But the front court is a concern with the transfers out, without much in the way of proven returners. 6'9" 2013 recruit Damonte Dodd didn't do much as a true freshman, but could see much more playing time if he can improve over the offseason. The 2014 recruiting class includes a pair of 7-footers: 7'1" Trayvon Reed (Scout: 12 C, Rivals: 96) and 7'0" Michal Cekovsky. The backcourt should be strong, with Seth Allen running the point and Dez Wells alongside. They also add a pair of blue chippers in Romelo Trimble (Scout: 8 PG, Rivals: 36) and Dion Wiley (Scout: 4 SG, Rivals: 49).

Indiana continues to have massive roster turnover every year under Tom Crean. Yogi Ferrell improved significantly from his freshman season, and he will anchor next season's team, but after him there are going to be a lot of changes. Will Sheehey and Evan Gordon graduate, Noah Vonleh is off to the NBA, and Jeremy Hollowell and Austin Etherington are leaving via transfer (not to mention Luke Fischer who left via transfer midseason). This means that the only really proven players returning alongside Ferrell are Stanford Robinson, who struggled mightily as a true freshman, and wing Troy Williams. Bigs Devin Davis and Hanner Mosquera-Perea played sparingly this past season, but could see more time simply because somebody has to be on the floor. Tom Crean has a pair of blue chippers coming in: James Blackmon (Scout: 6 SG, Rivals: 23) and Robert Johnson (Scout: 9 SG, Rivals: 42).

Minnesota had a solid first season under Richard Pitino, winning the NIT. Austin Hollins graduates, but the Gophers should be fine in the backcourt, returning Andre Hollins and point guard Deandre Mathieu, while adding Juco transfer Carlos Morris, but they might need a little more depth. Minnesota will probably have a bigger lineup next season, returning 6'11" Elliott Eliason while having more minutes available for 6'10" Maurice Walker, 6'9" Joey King and 6'8" Oto Osenieks.

It feels like a million years ago, but Illinois was ranked in the Top 25 when Big Ten play tipped off this season. They didn't deserve to be ranked, sitting in the mid-40s in the computers, but if not for a brutal 8 game losing streak from January into early February, they actually would have had a pretty successful season. They still managed to get to 7-11 in Big Ten play, and were starting to get into the bubble discussion before falling short against Michigan by 1 point in the Big Ten tournament. They should be significantly stronger next season, losing only Joseph Bertrand and Jon Ekey and adding three transfers: Aaron Cosby (12.6 ppg and 3.0 apg as a sophomore at Seton Hall), Ahmad Starks (10.4 ppg and 2.3 apg as a junior at Oregon State) and Darius Paul (10.4 ppg and 5.7 rpg as a freshman at Western Michigan). With Rayvonte Rice, Tracy Abrams and NNanna Egwu all seniors next season, Illinois has a nice mix of experienced quality players and up-and-coming raw talent. Look for more production out of shooting guard Kendrick Nunn and wing Malcolm Hill, both of whom are wing players. John Groce has a 2014 recruiting class highlighted by Leron Black (Scout: 9 PF, Rivals: 41).

In the end, here's how I see the Big Ten playing out:

1. Wisconsin - It's going to be hard to find a weakness for this Wisconsin team. They needed more size and rebounding this past season, but Vitto Brown and Ethan Happ should help. Also, considering the natural progression of big men at Wisconsin, Nigel Hayes could be scary good next season.
2. Michigan - This is the one Big Ten team that you can argue as a Big Ten favorite over Wisconsin, assuming they get back Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III. But you can make a good case that there isn't a single NBA Draft "bubble" candidate who will mean more to his team by coming back than McGary. There simply isn't another proven big man on the roster.
3. Ohio State - A lot of people are down on Ohio State next season, but they actually should be a similar team. They're still going to be viciously good defensively. The question is offense, but it's not like their offense was good this past season either.
4. Iowa - The Hawkeyes might take a little step back next season, but they should still be a borderline Top 25 team at worst. Backcourt depth is their biggest concern.
5. Illinois - This is going to be the most talented Illinois team in years, but to be a real contender for second or third place in the Big Ten they're going to need a second scorer beyond Rayvonte Rice. That scorer might have to be one of the transfers.
6. Maryland - The Terps definitely seemed on pace to be a Top 25 team next season, but the three players who chose to clear up scholarships are a bad sign. Nick Faust, in particular, is a tough loss.
7. Nebraska - The Huskers should get back to the NCAA Tournament if Terran Petteway is back, but the offense is going to need to get a lot better for them to reach the Top 25.
8. Michigan State - Even assuming Branden Dawson is back, I still need to drop the Spartans here. Their offense is going to struggle in a big way without Appling, Harris or Payne.
9. Minnesota - The Gophers have a good chance to get back to the NCAA Tournament, but backcourt depth is a problem if Carlos Morris doesn't live up the hopes that Minnesota fans have for him.
10. Purdue - The Boilermakers need AJ Hammons to skip the NBA Draft to have a real chance at an at-large bid, but they still have some young talent to build around. Kendall Stephens and Basil Smotherman both had very strong freshman seasons, and their 2014 recruiting class is led by 7'1" Isaac Haas.
11. Indiana - Unless Tom Crean finds some quality additions before next season tips off, his seat might actually start getting a bit warm.
12. Northwestern - With Drew Crawford leaving, Northwestern could take a small step back next season, but it seems like Chris Collins is upgrading the level of talent in Evanston with a really nice recruiting class (by Northwestern standards), led by Vic Law (Scout: 17 SF, Rivals: 86).
13. Penn State - Tim Frazier graduates, which means that the team turns over to DJ Newbill. But who else do they have who can create their own shot?
14. Rutgers - I wasn't a big fan of the Eddie Jordan hire, and there's no sign right now that he's putting together a program that can compete seriously in the Big Ten. It could be a very long season in Piscataway.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

2014-15 Preview: Big 12

Big 12 Conference 

Kansas won the Big 12, which was the least stunning news in college basketball this past season. Bill Self always wins the Big 12. But in the end, despite the fact that some computer ratings had the Big 12 the best conference in the nation (the Big Ten and Big 12 were clearly the top two leagues, in some order), the league fell relatively flat in the NCAA Tournament. Kansas was stunned in the Round of 32 by Stanford. Oklahoma was stunned by North Dakota State in the Round of 64. Oklahoma State fell apart due to injuries and foul trouble and was playing walk-ons in crunch time in a Round of 64 loss to Gonzaga (cult hero Mason Cox played ten minutes). The only two Big 12 teams to make the Sweet 16 were Baylor and Iowa State, and both lost, with Baylor going down in an embarrassing rout (Iowa State, to be fair, was missing perhaps their second best player). But as I always say, you should never draw conclusions about players, coaches or conferences by the results of a single elimination tournament. The Big 12 was still unquestionably one of the two best leagues in the nation.

Let's start with that Kansas team. Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid are off to the NBA, but everybody else from the regular rotation other than Tarik Black will be back. Expect Frank Mason to take over more of the ball handling from the talented but inconsistent Naadir Tharpe. Wayne Seldon will return on the wing, along with Perry Ellis, who looks like he's 40 years old but improved a whole lot between his freshman and sophomore seasons. Jamari Taylor is the other proven front court returner, and the team also adds 6'10" Hunter Mickelson, who averaged 5.2 points, 3.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game over two seasons at Arkansas. Look for Conner Frankamp to see more of a regular role next season, along with 6'6" Brannen Greene. Bill Self's 2014 recruiting class had two more blue chippers in Cliff Alexander (Scout: 3 C, Rivals: 4) and Kelly Oubre (Scout: 1 SF, Rivals: 12). And Kansas is still in the mix for Myles Turner. In other words, don't expect them to give up that Big 12 title streak easily next season.

Iowa State won the Big 12 tournament title and had all sorts of hype before the NCAA Tournament before it got derailed by the Georges Niang injury. That said, it's worth noting that they were 6-1 in games decided by 6 points or less against Big 12 opponents, and that their efficiency margin in conference play (+0.01 PPP) was barely better than West Virginia (-0.00 PPP). They simply weren't as good as their resume. Melvin Ejim somehow won the Big 12 Player of the Year despite (in my opinion) being only the third best player on his own team, but the best player on his team (DeAndre Kane) also graduates. Niang should be back with Dustin Hogue, and starting point guard Monte Morris was only a true freshman. Matt Thomas and Naz Long are two wings who should be strong players next season. They don't have any highly touted 2014 recruits signed yet, but the question with Iowa State is always transfers. They add former Marquette recruit Jameel McKay, who is 6'9", along with 6'7" Abdel Nader, who averaged 13.1 points and 5.6 rebounds per game for Northern Illinois in 2012-13. They're also in the mix for Bryce DeJean-Jones of UNLV, though that is still undecided.

Oklahoma State had a wildly frustrating season. They were super talented, and clearly a top ten team in the computers prior to losing Michael Cobbins to injury and Stevie Clark to team dismissal. Even with all the losses (Marcus Smart's three game suspension nearly cost the team an at-large bid) the team still finished third in the league in efficiency margin (+0.06 PPP), which was better than Iowa State. But by the end of the season the team was so beat up with bumps and bruises that Travis Ford either had to play limping players or walk-ons (hello, Mason Cox) late in competitive games. And so a season that had national title aspirations early on ended up in a Round of 64 loss. Marcus Smart is off to the NBA, while Le'Bryan Nash is supposedly 50/50 for the draft. For the sake of this preview, I'm going to assume Nash is gone as well. Markel Brown graduates, which would make Cobbins, Phil Forte, Kamari Murphy and Brian Williams the only returners from the regular rotation. There's still a small chance that Stevie Clark will return to the school next season, but if not then the most promising member of that 2013 recruiting class is 6'7" Leyton Hammonds, who showed some sparks late in the season when his playing time was increased due to the other absences. Ford does have a deep 2014 recruiting class lined up, headed by Jared Terrell (Scout: 16 SG, Rivals: 63), Mitch Solomon (Scout: 11 C, Rivals: 72) and Joe Burton (Scout: 18 SF, Rivals: 89).

Oklahoma was the quiet, solid team in the Big 12 all season long, working their to second place in the Big 12 and a 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament. But North Dakota State was a tough draw and took them down in the Round of 64, dealing a sour end to the season. But they lose only Cameron Clark from their regular rotation. In fact, their other four starters were all freshmen and sophomores, led by leading-scorer Buddy Hield and big man Ryan Spangler. Wing players Je'lon Hornbeak and Frank Booker are two other young players who should be better in increased playing time next season. The biggest need for Oklahoma is a back-to-the-basket post scorer, and they will hope to have that in a 2014 recruiting class led by Khadeem Lattin (Scout: 16 C, Rivals: 124) and Dante Buford (Scout: 28 PF, Rivals: 128).

The biggest positive surprise in the Big 12 this past season was Texas, powered by a stud freshman (point guard Isaiah Taylor) and a vastly improved front court (led by Cameron Ridley, Jonathan Holmes and Connor Lammert) that dominated the glass. 5'11" Javan Felix was also a freshman, and the team also had several key bench pieces who were freshmen and sophomores, including 6'10" Prince Ibeh and 6'3" Kendal Yancy. In fact, they didn't have a single senior on the roster. They've also signed Jordan Barnett (Scout: 28 SF, Rivals: 101), and are in the mix for another blue chip recruit or two. They'll enter next season as one of the top challengers to Kansas.

Baylor made at least the Sweet 16 in 2010, 2012 and 2014. Of course, they missed the NCAA Tournament altogether in 2009, 2011 and 2013. So if the pattern holds, next year it's back to the NIT. Will it hold? Well, a lot will depend on Isaiah Austin, who would likely be a first round pick if he decides to leave. Cory Jefferson, Brady Heslip and Gary Franklin graduate as well. They will return point guard Kenny Cherry and explosive big men Rico Gathers and Royce O'Neale, but after that? 6'7" Taurean Prince is the only other returner from the regular rotation. Two 2013 recruits who you didn't see much of but could contribute a lot next season are 6'6" Ish Wainright and shooting guard Allerik Freeman. Scott Drew's 2014 recruiting class doesn't have any big names signed yet (6'5" Kobe Eubanks is the highest rated thus far), but he's in the mix for a couple of blue chippers. He'll need one, though, or else Baylor will take a significant step back.

The last NCAA Tournament team from the Big 12 was Kansas State, and at this point we know the Bruce Weber routine. He's great at building a smart, high-IQ basketball team that plays solid defense and minimizes mistakes, but he can't recruit. So give him Frank Martin's team and he'll win you a share of the Big 12 title. But the talent level declined significantly in year two, and it's likely going to decline even more in year three. Shane Southwell and Will Spradling graduate, as does Omari Lawrence off the bench. They do have the tremendously talented Marcus Foster, who might have been the most underrated freshman in the nation, along with Thomas Gipson on the inside, but not much else. 6'7" Wesley Iwundu and 6'5" Nino Williams are the next two top returners. There's not much of a 2014 recruiting class (6'11" Juco transfer Stephen Hurt seems the best), but Bruce Weber does add a pair of solid transfers in Justin Edwards (15.3 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game over two seasons at Maine) and 6'11" Brandon Bolden, who played sparingly as a freshman at Georgetown in 2012-13. Kansas State will remain a competitive team, but it's hard to see them not taking at least a small step back next season.

The one bubblish team in the Big 12 to miss the NCAA Tournament was West Virginia. They got great news with  Juwan Staten choosing to come back for his senior season. If Eron Harris wasn't leaving via transfer, the entire roster would be back. The loss of Harris means they might need another scoring guard to step up, but they should be really strong in the front court, led by Devin Williams and Nathan Adrian, who were both true freshmen this past season. They also have a slew of newcomers, led by power forwards Elijah Macon and Jonathan Holton, both 2013 recruits who were declared academically ineligible and missed the season. They also add 5'11" James Long, who played sparingly at Wofford as a freshman, and a recruiting class led by point guard Daxter Miles. They'll definitely be improved.

In the end, here's how I see the Big 12 playing out.

1. Kansas - I mean, I kind of have to. Though they need one more blue chipper if they're going to get back to a 1 seed, I think.
2. Texas - To win a Big 12 title, Texas is going to have to be more than a dominant offensive rebounding team. They'll need to find a second scoring option beyond Isaiah Taylor.
3. Oklahoma - I'm not sure Oklahoma has the top end talent to challenge Kansas, but it's hard to see them not being a Top 25 next season.
4. West Virginia - Juwan Staten could be the Big 12 Player of the Year next season. The Mountaineers should get back to the NCAA Tournament.
5. Iowa State - I can't drop Iowa State further than this, but Fred Hoiberg is going to need another transfer or two over the summer to get back to the Top 25. Don't put it past him, though. Bryce DeJean-Jones has already come to campus for a visit.
6. Oklahoma State - I'm not sure Oklahoma State fans totally appreciated just how good Marcus Smart was this past season. He was significantly improved from his freshman season, despite media coverage to the contrary. That's a huge roster hole to fill.
7. Kansas State - Bruce Weber's teams will always be tough to beat, and they'll never be out of the bubble hunt, but I don't think they'll be quite as good next season as they were this past season.
8. Baylor - The Bears definitely have a chance to get back to the NCAA Tournament, but only if Scott Drew can land at least one more quality recruit.
9. Texas Tech - If Coach of the Year awards made any sense, Tubby Smith would have won in the Big 12. The job he did with a roster completely bereft of talent was incredible this past season. The problem is, I don't see any reason they're going to be any more talented next season. Tubby needs a bit recruit to change momentum.
10. TCU - The Horned Frogs should be a little bit better next season. Which is nice.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

2014-15 Preview: Pac-12

Pacific-12 Conference

The Pac-12 is a league that has been improving the last two seasons, and was highlighted by an awfully good Arizona team this past season. Arizona was probably the best team in the nation prior to the Brandon Ashley injury, and it was extremely impressive how they didn't even really drop off much after that injury. Heading into the NCAA Tournament, I had them as one of the three best teams in the nation (with Florida and Louisville), in spite of the Ashley injury. And there were plenty of other good teams. It felt like the rest of the league was on the bubble, and that was basically true. UCLA got in safely, but the next six teams in the standings were all fighting for the last few at-large spots. Interestingly, the team Pomeroy rated best of that bunch was Utah, a team that did not get in (more on that in my Utah preview below). Colorado did well to go Dancing despite the Spencer Dinwiddie injury. Oregon seemed the most dangerous of the bunch heading into the Tournament, but lost a classic to Wisconsin in the Round of 32. In the end it was Stanford that went furthest of the non-Arizona/UCLA squads, making it to the Sweet 16.

Let's start with that Arizona team that lost a heartbreaking Elite 8 game by a single point in overtime. This has become a theme for Sean Miller, who is now 0-3 in Elite 8 games in his first ten seasons as a head coach. But remember, narratives built around three game sample sizes are absurd. Going 0-3 in Elite 8 games in your first ten seasons is damn impressive - most coaches don't get to three Elite 8 games in their career. It's only a matter of time until Miller breaks through to a Final Four. Will it be next season? Well, Arizona was actually one of the youngest teams in the nation. None of their top eight minute earners were seniors, and they should get Brandon Ashley back. The question is, what happens with the Draft, where Aaron Gordon, Nick Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Kaleb Tarczewski are all questionable to enter or stay. For the sake of this preview, I'm guessing that Gordon and Johnson leave, while Hollis-Jefferson and Tarczewski return.

If that happens, Arizona will still return three proven front court players, along with Stanley Johnson (Scout; 2 SF, Rivals: 3) and Craig Victor (Scout: 4 PF, Rivals: 28). The question mark will be the backcourt. TJ McConnell will likely be the best point guard in the Pac-12, but neither of their other returners (Gabe York and Elliott Pitts) lit the world on fire this past season. They do add a blue chip backcourt recruit in Parker Jackson-Cartwright (Scout: 12 PG, Rivals: 57). Losing their two best players would be a blow, but Arizona would remain one of the best teams in the nation.

UCLA was the clear second best team in the Pac-12. Unfortunately, they ran into Florida in the Sweet 16, and the Gators have now knocked them out of four of the last nine NCAA Tournaments. They lose the Wear twins, who played so long that I believe they were originally recruited by Bill Guthridge, but the real concern is the NBA Draft, which has already claimed Kyle Anderson and Zach LaVine, and could take Jordan Adams as well. If Adams goes, UCLA gets awfully thin in terms of returners. They'll have Norman Powell back, as well as big man Tony Parker and combo guard Bryce Alford, but that still leaves them in need of a point guard, a post scorer, and depth. They will get back shooting guard Isaac Hamilton, a highly touted 2013 recruit who took a redshirt season. They have a strong 2014 recruiting class, highlighted by Kevon Looney (Scout: 2 PF, Rivals; 13), Thomas Welch (Scout: 6 C, Rivals: 52) and Jonah Bolden (Scout: 6 PF, Rivals: 62). Their big need is definitely point guard.

Stanford might have saved the job of Johnny Dawkins with a strong Pac-12 tournament performance that earned them an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. And they followed that up by upsetting New Mexico and Kansas en route to the Sweet 16. They lose two starters, as well as their top two bench players. That includes leading rebounder Josh Huestis and leading assist man Dwight Powell. Aaron Bright is also transferring out, though he missed most of this past season with injury anyway. They will get back 6'9" Rosco Allen and 6'4" Christian Sanders, who both were on the edge of the rotation in 2012-13 but missed the 2013-14 season with injury (Allen played in one game while Sanders played in none). If Stanford is going to get back to the NCAA Tournament, however, they're going to need significant contributions from a deep and strong 2014 recruiting class consisting of Reid Travis (Scout: 7 PF, Rivals: 40), Michael Humphrey (Scout: 10 C, Rivals: 74), Robert Cartwright (Scout: 13 PG, Rivals: 78) and Dorian Pickens (Rivals: 126).

Oregon had an interesting season, though it was more a funny change in luck in close games than anything else. They started the season 13-0, lost 8 of their next 10, and then won their final 7 games. A lot of #narrative was written about that, but the dominant factor was luck in close games: they were 6-0 in games decided by 7 or less during that 13-0 start, then 0-5 during their losing streak, and 4-0 during their final winning streak. That's why the Pomeroy ratings had them 22nd when they were 13-0, 32nd after their losing streak, and 25th at the end of the regular season. In other words, they were basically a borderline Top 25 team all season long that just had wild drifts in dumb luck. But this was certainly a dangerous Oregon team that only went down in an absolute classic in the Round of 32 against Wisconsin (one of the two or three best games in the entire Tournament). What about next season? They lose three starters, and a pair of key bench pieces, led by Mike Moser, Johnathan Loyd and Jason Calliste. They return Joseph Young, Dominic Artis and Damyeon Dotson on the perimeter, but not much on the interior. 6'8" Ben Carter is probably their best returning big man. Their stud 2014 recruit is JaQuan Lyle (Scout: 4 PG, Rivals: 22).

Colorado was both very lucky and unlucky this past season. Unlucky in losing star Spencer Dinwiddie to injury midway through the season. But lucky in going 10-2 in games decided by six points or less. That's why they earned their 8 seed, but were a massive Vegas underdog against 9 seeded Pittsburgh. In fact, the computers generally had them as the second weakest at-large team in the entire field, ahead of only NC State. So what about next season? It seems like Dinwiddie is likely off to the NBA, but everybody else should be back, led by point guard Askia Booker and big man Josh Scott. And the most talented returner might be 6'9" Wesley Gordon, who led the team in offensive rebounding percentage as a redshirt freshman. One bench player to keep an eye on for next season is 6'7" Tre'Shaun Fletcher, Colorado's highest rated 2013 recruit. Their 2014 recruiting class is highlighted by Dominique Collier (Scout: 21 PG, Rivals: 94). Even if Dinwiddie leaves, Colorado should be significantly improved next season.

The final NCAA Tournament team from the Pac-12 was Arizona State. They are going to lose Jahii Carson to the NBA Draft, as well as Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Jordan Bachynski to graduation, along with Jermaine Marshall. Jonathan Gilling leads the returners, and Shaquielle McKissic could be back as well, though he needs to get approval from the NCAA for one more year of eligibility. But without much else, Herb Sendek is going to be leaning heavily on a big 2014 recruiting class, led by Connor MacDougall (Scout: 17 C, Rivals: 91) and Tra Holder (Scout: 20 PG, Rivals: 109).

I talked above about how good Utah's computer numbers were, yet they weren't even really on the bubble on Selection Sunday, ending up as a 5 seed in the NIT. How was that possible? An awfully unlucky 3-8 record in games decided by six points or less. The good news for the Utes is that their entire starting rotation is back, led by primary playmaker Delon Wright and Jordan Loveridge. One player to look for next season from the bench is 7-footer Dallin Bachynski. Larry Krystkowiak has a strong 2014 recruiting class, led by Brekkott Chapman (Scout: 18 PF, Rivals: 53) and Kyle Kuzma (Scout: 26 PF). Barring any offseason roster losses, Utah should be a Top 25 team next season.

The other Pac-12 bubble team to end up in the NIT was California, who ended up a 2 seed, losing to SMU in the quarterfinals. They're in a bit of flux, though, with Mike Montgomery retiring and the graduations of Justin Cobbs and Richard Solomon. They return a strong core of David Kravish, Jordan Mathews and Tyrone Wallace, as well as an up-and-comer in Jabari Bird, their top 2013 recruit, but you never know during these coaching transitions if some players will choose to leave. A solid 2014 recruiting class will also need to be held onto.

Of the four teams at the bottom of the conference, which are the most dangerous for next season? I think it has to be Washington, more than anything because they weren't that bad this past season to begin with, finishing with the same efficiency margin in conference play (-0.02 PPP) as Colorado. They lose CJ Wilcox and leading-rebounder Perris Blackwell to graduation (and lose bench piece Desmond Simmons via transfer), but they return a nice young backcourt duo of Nigel Williams-Goss and Andrew Andrews. They add 6'11" Robert Upshaw, who averaged 4.1 ppg, 3.8 rpg and 1.8 bpg as a freshman at Fresno State, though there are some off-court issues that mean it's not a certainty that he'll take the floor for the Huskies next season. Their 2014 recruiting class is highlighted by Donaven Dorsey (Scout: 24 SF, Rivals: 112).

In the end, here's how I see the Pac-12 playing out next season:

1. Arizona - Assuming that Arizona just loses Gordon and Johnson, they should be fairly heavy favorite to win the Pac-12 again, though they might not be quite as good of a team.
2. Utah - The Utes were arguably the strongest Pac-12 team not named Arizona or UCLA, and they return their entire starting rotation with a strong recruiting class. The media probably won't vote them Top 25 preseason, but I expect them to get there eventually.
3. UCLA - The Bruins need some playmakers, and they aren't going to have a lot of depth, but they probably have more raw talent than any Pac-12 team other than Arizona.
4. Colorado - Even assuming that Dinwiddie leaves for the NBA, Colorado should be significantly stronger next season.
5. Stanford - The Cardinal have a real chance to be improved next season from a team that made the Sweet 16. Don't sleep on them.
6. Oregon - Can't drop the Ducks any lower than this, though there is going to be a lot of pressure on JaQuan Lyle to produce right off the bat.
7. California - If the new coach loses players over the summer, I'll drop the Bears, but if they can keep the full roster together there's no reason they can't make another run at the bubble.
8. Washington - The Huskies definitely need Robert Upshaw to get on the court next season if they're going to make a run at an at-large bid. If they don't, you have to wonder if the seat is going to start getting hot under Lorenzo Romar.
9. Arizona State - There just isn't a lot coming back for Herb Sendek next season, even if Shaquielle McKissic gains another year of eligibility.
10. USC - Andy Enfield has a strong recruiting class coming in, led by Jordan McLaughlin (Scout: 9 PG, Rivals: 43), but he doesn't return much beyond Byron Wesley. At some point, Enfield has to start winning games or the media love is going to fade.
11. Oregon State - I honestly thought Craig Robinson was going to get fired this offseason. There is just no sense of positive momentum for this program.
12. Washington State - It might be a long season for the Cougars, but I like the hire of Ernie Kent. I wouldn't be stunned if they are a feisty team to play at home next season and if they steal a quality win or two.

2014-15 Preview: SEC

Southeastern Conference

Well, the SEC had its brief moment in the sun, opening up the NCAA Tournament 7-0 in its first seven games. As I always say, you don't want to draw conclusions about conferences by the results of a single elimination tournament. And as you can see from the computer ratings above (those ratings are all pre-tourney), there was reason to expect big things from Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee. But of course, the league didn't deserve a fourth tourney team - there wasn't even anybody else particularly close. The conference's next four teams went a combined 4-4 in NIT games. And if you have a 14 team league that only has three deserved tourney teams, it's hard to really compare it to the Big Ten or Big 12, or even to the ACC or Pac-12.

I want to actually start with Florida, who might have been the best team in the country (it was either them or Arizona or Louisville, in my opinion). And it's worth asking whether this class of seniors will feel like a disappointment after making the Elite 8 in all four seasons, including the Final Four this season. It certainly seems absurd, and it is statistically absurd. If we go by PASE, Florida should have expected 8.45 tourney wins over the last four seasons and ended up with 13. They have overperformed in the NCAA Tournament. But still, you could make the argument both this past season and the season before that they were the best team in the nation. And when you have a two year window like that, it has to feel like a letdown to not get at least one shot at a title game. Now, a quick note for readers who might not be regulars to my blog, and who might be wondering why I said last year's team was arguably the best in the nation. They were a 3 seed. Well, the thing is, statistically they were nearly identical. Both teams outscored the SEC by precisely 0.19 PPP. The difference was that last year's team was a horribly unlucky 0-6 in games decided by six points or less while this year's team was a lucky 9-2. There were plenty of narratives to explain this gap. I like to make fun of ESPN's Jimmy Dykes for this, because he'd give the same speech six times a game about how this year's team was "more experienced" and "were better on defense", so they "knew how to win" and "could get a stop when they needed it." The only problem being that last year's team was actually better defensively and more experienced. Results in close games are mostly random statistical chance, Jimmy.

Anyway, there will be a lot of turnover with this Florida roster, as Casey Prather, Scottie Wilbekin, Patric Young and Will Yeguette all graduate. The only returners from the regular rotation are sharpshooter Michael Frazier III, big man Dorian Finney-Smith, backup point guard Kasey Hill and 6'6 wing DeVon Walker. Chris Walker is debating going to the NBA after basically not playing as a freshman, so we'll have to see what comes of that. Two players who aren't technically "additions" but basically didn't play this past season are Alex Murphy and Eli Carter. The 6'8" Murphy barely played at Duke over two seasons, while the 6'2" Carter averaged 14.9 points per game as a sophomore at Rutgers, but took a medical redshirt after just 7 games this past season at Florida. Billy Donovan also has three blue chippers signed up for his 2014 class: Devin Robinson (Scout: 5 PF, Rivals: 20), Brandone Francis (Scout: 8 SG, Rivals: 26) and Chris Chiozza (Scout: 11 PG, Rivals: 38). Florida will certainly be an SEC contender again next season, but it's hard to see how they can replace four starters without taking at least a little bit of a step back.

Kentucky, as always, is a tough roster to figure out. There's going to be a lot of turnover, even assuming that Rex Chapman didn't know what he was talking about when suggesting John Calipari will take the Lakers job at the end of the NBA season. No player has announced that they're going to the NBA yet, but most people believe that Julius Randle, Willie Cauley-Stein, James Young and the Harrison twins will be gone. That leaves Alex Poythress and Dakari Johnson on the bubble, and for the sake of this preview I'm going to assume that they're back. But obviously I'll come back and re-evaluate Kentucky this summer after we know the NBA defections for sure. The returners we know will be back are power forward Marcus Lee and combo guard Dominique Hawkins. Calipari has already signed Trey Lyles (Scout: 1 PF, Rivals: 8), Karl Towns (Scout: 4 C, Rivals: 11), Devin Booker (Scout: 5 SG, Rivals: 30) and Tyler Ulis (Scout: 6 PG, Rivals: 33). And don't expect that to be it, as Calipari is still in the mix for another recruit or two, as well as a transfer like Bryce Dejean-Jones. So as always, Kentucky's starting lineup is still a guess in mid-April.

The third NCAA Tournament team was Tennessee, a team that was probably the best 11 seed in the history of the NCAA Tournament. Their resume deserved the 11 seed, but they entered the NCAA Tournament 13th in Pomeroy, finishing it 7th. They were deservedly a big favorite over 6 seed UMass, and arguably should have been a narrow favorite over 2 seed Michigan. They had a better efficiency margin in conference play (+0.13 PPP) than Kentucky (+0.11). The key question for them is Jarnell Stokes, and whether he leaves for the NBA Draft. If he does go, and it seems like he's leaning that way, then they lose four starters, Jordan McRae being the toughest. McRae not making first team All-SEC was ridiculous, by the way. I don't care who you take off that team, but McRae has to be on there. They return 6'6" Josh Richardson from the starting lineup, along with point guard Darius Thompson and shooting guard Armani Moore off the bench. They will get back shooting guard Robert Hubbs, their top 2013 recruit, who missed most of the season with injury, and also add a recruiting class featuring Larry Austin (Scout: 29 PG, Rivals: 111) and power forward Phil Cofer (Rivals: 113).

A big reason the SEC wasn't that good of a conference this past season was because a team like Georgia, who lost to five Pomeroy 100+ opponents, finished in third. But though they weren't particularly good this past season, they should be stronger next season, losing only big man Donte' Williams from their regular rotation. Top returners are point guard Charles Mann, shooting guard Kenny Gaines and 6'8" Marcus Thornton. The concern for them, though, is top end talent. They just don't have the blue chip raw talent that teams like Florida and Kentucky have, and they don't have any blue chippers coming in next season either. So you have to wonder whether the ceiling for this team is higher than the bubble.

The SEC team in the NIT that came closest to going Dancing was probably Arkansas. The Razorbacks lose two starters (Coty Clarke and Fred Gulley), but the concern is really the NBA prospects of Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls. Assuming that both return (and they should, as neither will likely be drafted early), Arkansas should be significantly stronger last season. Mike Anderson played a massive rotation (12 different players earned at least 8.6 minutes per game), so he has plenty of options. But Portis is really the one high-end, blue chip talent that Anderson needs to take this team to the next level. They add 6'7" Keaton Miles, who averaged 2.0 points and 1.8 rebounds per game over two seasons at West Virginia, as well as Anton Beard (Scout: 25 PG, Rivals: 110) and small forward Nick Babb (Rivals: 131). Assuming Portis and Qualls come back, Anderson has a team that can get back to the tourney.

LSU was a team that actually got its fan bases hopes up for a few weeks about an at-large bid before fading late. That said, they lose a pair of starters to graduation, and lose Johnny O'Bryant to the NBA. Both 6'8" Jordan Mickey and 6'9" Jarell Martin should return, though both are at least considering the NBA Draft, and those two will give LSU a strong starting front line again. They also return point guard Anthony Hickey. After that, they don't return much. LSU adds 6'4" Keith Hornsby, averaged 15.0 points, 4.2 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game as a sophomore at UNC-Asheville in 2012-13, and a recruiting class led by Elbert Robinson (Scout: 7 C, Rivals: 51).

Missouri only had one senior in the starting lineup (Earnest Ross), but Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson are off to the NBA. Also, Wes Clark and Tony Criswell both had off the court issues that left them suspended from the team at the end of the season, as did 6'10" Louisville transfer Zach Price, and so all three are question marks for next season. So the only players from the regular rotation who we know will be back are 6'9" Johnathan Williams and 6'10" Ryan Rosburg, neither of whom is much of a scorer. Missouri does add 6'4" Deuce Bello (2.8 ppg over two seasons at Baylor) and 6'7" Cameron Biedscheid (6.2 ppg as a freshman at Notre Dame in 2012-13). They have Jakeenan Grant (Scout: 13 PF, Rivals: 47) and Namon Wright (Scout: 11 SG, Rivals: 87) signed for next season. If all of those suspended players come back, Missouri should still be decent, but if they don't then they could have a long 2014-15 season.

Mississippi is a team that could be better next season. Marshall Henderson and his absurd number of three-point attempts per game are gone, but there's some addition from that subtraction. He was clearly a great shooter and talent, but his obsession with taking every shot often hurt his team. The only other regulars they lose are Demarco Cox and Derrick Millinghaus. They should get back point guard Jarvis Summers, starting center Aaron Jones, and an up-and-coming big man in Sebastian Saiz, who might have been the team's best rebounder as a true freshman. They'll be looking for more production from their highest rated 2013 recruit, 6'9" Dwight Coleby, and their 2014 recruiting class is led by 6'7" Marcanvis Hymon (Rivals: 132). The big need next season is going to be more offensive playmaking from the perimeter.

You get the feeling that Anthony Grant will get one more season at Alabama to show some improvement or he'll be gone. And that might be tough to do, as his team will be very dependent on incoming players. Star Trevor Releford is graduating, combo guard Algie Key will transfer, and 7'1" Carl Engstrom will leave to go play pro ball in Europe. The team does return a core of five guys from the regular rotation, including Levi Randolph and a pair of impressive bigs from the 2013 recruiting class in Shannon Hale and Jimmie Taylor. But after that? There's not much else, particularly if Nick Jacobs ends up transferring off the bench. They do have five quality additions, though: 6'9" Michael Kessens (13.7 ppg and 8.8 rpg at Longwood as a freshman in 2012-13), Ricky Tarrant (15.3 ppg and 3.4 apg over two seasons at Tulane), Justin Coleman (Scout: 18 PG, Rivals: 82), Riley Norris (Scout: 27 SF, Rivals: 116) and Devin Mitchell (Scout: 22 SG, 129).

Two more teams likely to improve next season are Texas A&M and South Carolina. The Aggies lose just Fabyon Harris from the regular rotation, getting stars Jamal Jones and Kourtney Robertson back for one last season. Point guard Alex Caruso is a player who should be much better known by casual fans next season, and they add another quality point guard in Alex Robinson (Scout: 10 PG, Rivals: 58). Frank Martin has been raising the level of talent at South Carolina. 9 of the 11 players that got non-garbage time minutes were freshmen and sophomores, and only one graduates (combo guard Brenton Williams). They should also get back shooting guard Tyrone Johnson, who missed most of the season with injury. Their top two returners are probably Sindarius Thornwell (their primary playmaker as a true freshman) and 6'7" Mindaugus Kacinas. Expect Tyrone Johnson to take over the point with Thornwell moving back to his more natural shooting guard position. Shooting guard Duane Notice didn't do much as a true freshman, but he's a talent who could be a sleeper for next season. Their 2014 recruiting class is headed by Marcus Stroman (Scout: 26 PG, Rivals: 83).

In the end, here's how I see the SEC playing out:

1. Kentucky - I'm assuming that Alex Poythress and Dakari Johnson are back. If either of them leave then they'll drop. But even with them back, I don't think Kentucky will be quite as strong next season unless Calipari can add another big talent or two before the season starts.
2. Florida - It's going to be a very different Florida team next year, but one that still has a lot of high end talent all over the court.
3. Arkansas - This rating is assuming that Portis and Qualls return. Portis, in particular, is the one player that Arkansas cannot afford to lose if they're going to get back to the NCAA Tournament.
4. Tennessee - I'm assuming that Jarnell Stokes leaves. If he comes back then they'll pass Arkansas for third place.
5. Georgia - The Bulldogs should be better next season, but they just do not have a high end talent who can be a 1st team All-SEC player, and I think that limits their ceiling.
6. Texas A&M - The Aggies definitely will be stronger, and will enter next season believing that they can get back to the NCAA Tournament.
7. South Carolina - Frank Martin is going to continue upgrading the talent level at South Carolina. The problem is that those talented players are going to be coached by Frank Martin.
8. Alabama - This has the feeling of "one more run" for this Alabama program. Either it ends in an at-large bid or a new coach and a very different roster in 2015-16.
9. Mississippi - It will be interesting to see how Ole Miss responds to losing Marshall Henderson. Was he the one superstar that held them together, or will his absence be a bit of addition by subtraction because of the way he hogged the ball?
10. Missouri - The Tigers roster is hard to figure out with all of the off-the-court issues at the end of this past season. But unless all of those suspended players come back next season, it's hard to see them making a run at an at-large bid.
11. LSU - Johnny O'Bryant leaving means that LSU just won't have a whole lot returning.
12. Vanderbilt - Getting back Eric McClellan will help in a big way, but they're going to need a whole lot of production from a deep recruiting class.
13. Auburn - Bruce Pearl will upgrade the talent level at Auburn and will do it fairly quickly, but until he starts actually adding those players to the active roster it's impossible to rate the team higher than this. Auburn is not a program that can be fixed in a single season.
14. Mississippi State - There's not a whole lot of positive momentum for the Mississippi State program under Rick Ray. They should be a little bit better next season, but are unlikely to be significantly improved.

2014-15 Preview: Mid Majors, Part III

American Athletic Conference

Well... we knew the AAC had a premier national title contender. But they weren't the AAC team that ended up winning the title. Congratulations to UConn for an incredible run. We knew that they were a strong 7 seed, but there was no sense during the regular season that they were going to play at this level during the NCAA Tournament. Of course, they were one bounce away from going out in the Round of 64 against St. Joe's, but any team needs quite a bit of luck to win a title in a single elimination tournament.

Now, why have I dumped the AAC to the "mid-majors", instead of giving them the major conference treatment in my previews? Well, for one thing, the AAC really wasn't that good this year. It was strong at the top, but the bottom half of the league was awful. Both Sagarin and Pomeroy rated the league 7th best, behind the Big East and SEC, even after UConn's title run. And the league's best team (all apologies to the national champions) is off to the ACC, while the league adds Tulsa, Tulane and East Carolina. Hardly an even trade. It's hard to see why the AAC should be better than, say, the Atlantic Ten or Mountain West next season. It's a mid-major league.

Anyway, let's start with the national champions. And as this is a preview of the future, we have to get past the celebrations to talk about where this program goes from here. And it's a bit of an elephant in the room, but UConn's entire starting lineup was Jim Calhoun players. And that's not to say that Kevin Ollie is Tubby Smith or Bruce Weber (though I wouldn't even use those names as insults, as I think both of those guys are far better coaches than they get credit for from the media or the average fan), but it's only to say that Ollie is still very much an unknown as a head coach. They had an incredible NCAA Tournament run, but it's really only about a four game sample size of great play at a perfect time. And whatever you think of Ollie, the team has still been jettisoned by the Big East and is in an inferior conference, meaning some negative impact on recruiting.

So who is gone from UConn next season? Shabazz Napier, of course, along with Niels Giffey and Lason Kromah. The question mark is DeAndre Daniels. Right now the media insiders think he's leaning toward the NBA Draft, so for the sake of this preview I'm going to assume that as well. If he comes back obviously he'll give the team a huge boost. Who do we know will be back? Ryan Boatright, Amida Brimah and Phillip Nolan from the end-of-season rotation. Shooting guard Terrence Samuel didn't play much as a true freshman, but could play much more next season. A big question mark is 6'6" Omar Calhoun, a very highly touted high school recruit who has been slowed by injuries and other problems and barely played late in the season. There are rumors of him transferring, though he is still saying publicly that he's going to stay. They add Rodney Purvis, who averaged 8.3 points per game as a freshman at NC State. Also look for power forward Kenton Facey, who played sparingly as a true freshman, to see more playing time. So far, Kevin Ollie has one blue chipper signed for his 2014 class: Daniel Hamilton (Scout: 5 SF, Rivals: 18).

Cincinnati "won" a coin toss for the 1 seed in the AAC tournament over Louisville. The prize for "winning" was getting to play UConn in the AAC semis while Louisville played Houston. They were a strong team, but suffered a brutal Round of 64 loss to Harvard, and are hit hard with three big graduations: star Sean Kilpatrick, AAC Defensive Player of the Year Justin Jackson, and Titus Rubles. Their top returners are point guard Troy Caupain, swing forward Shaquille Thomas and shooting guard Jermaine Sanders. Their most talented up-and-comer is 6'9" Jermaine Lawrence, a highly touted 2013 recruit who struggled as a true freshman. Mick Cronin's 2014 recruiting class is led by Quadri Moore (Scout: 14 C, Rivals: 103) and Gary Clark (Scout: 23 PF, Rivals: 145). With all of that size returning, Cincinnati will have one of the biggest front lines in the conference, and I'd expect them to be strong defensively again. But without Sean Kilpatrick, I'm not sure where the Bearcats find offense. Their offense aside from him was awful this past season. To make a run at a conference title they'll need Caupain to take a leap, along with a younger bench player, like 6'2" Kevin Johnson, perhaps.

The final NCAA Tournament team out of the AAC was Memphis, a team that hung in the Top 25 all season basically out of inertia. Whether you were judging this team on its ability or its resume, they were more of a borderline Top 40 team than a Top 25 team. They just weren't that good, and now they lose four starters, led by Joe Jackson and Michael Dixon. The only returner starter is big man Shaq Goodwin. From the rest of their regular rotation, the Tigers return 6'8" Austin Nichols and 6'7" Nick King, both of whom were true freshmen this past season. Josh Pastner is going to need major production from 2013 recruits who didn't see much of the floor this past season, led by 6'8" Kuran Iverson and 6'10" Dominic Woodson. Their biggest need is perimeter playmaking, and Pastner will partially address that with his one blue chip 2014 recruit, Dominic Magee (Scout: 27 PG, Rivals: 71).

SMU certainly had a strong at-large case, but I understand why they were left out. The Selection Committee has made it clear that they care about non-conference strength of schedule in a big way. And for good reason, as it encourages teams to generate more interesting non-conference games. But SMU went ahead and made it all the way to the NIT title game, proving that they were still taking the postseason seriously. And next year they expect to finally go Dancing again. They lose a pair of senior starters (Nick Russell and Shawn Williams), but return star Nic Moore, big man Markus Kennedy, and an up-and-coming swing forward in Sterling Brown. Off the bench, they return a very talented shooting guard in Keith Frazier, but the real excitement for next year is going to be Emmanuel Mudiay (Scout: 1 PG, Rivals: 2). On top of that, SMU has added Jordan Tolbert (10.7 points and 5.7 rebounds per game over three seasons at Texas Tech), though they have to wait to see if he can be eligible to play next season or will have to sit out a year. There's no question that SMU will be better. The only real question is: Can they actually win the conference title?

Tulsa is the one newcomer to the AAC that made the NCAA Tournament this past season, and only one of their top seven minute earners was a senior (Tim Peete), but there are several concerns. First, recall that Tulsa was nowhere near the bubble and benefited from a lucky Conference USA tourney draw. Also, Danny Manning has left, and he might be taking a player or two with him. For now, though, they are still on pace to return six of their top seven minute earners, led by leading-scoring James Woodard, point guard Shaquille Harrison and 6'7" wing Rashad Smith. Can Tulsa make a run at an at-large bid? If the new coach keeps the roster together, yes. But I don't think Tulsa has the high end talent to be any more than a bubble team.

Of the teams in the bottom half of the AAC this past season, Houston and Temple are the two most likely to to get back into the Top 100. Houston is going through a coaching transition to Kelvin Sampson. Sampson should eventually increase the talent level, but for now he has to hold together a roster that returns 8 players from their 11 man rotation, including a really good point guard in LJ Rose and a strong big man in TaShawn Thomas (though there are rumors of Thomas maybe being a graduate transfer somewhere else). Temple had an awful number of excruciating losses this past season, and they lose star Dalton Pepper to graduation and Anthony Lee to transfer. That said, they have a good point guard in Will Cummings and an up-and-coming big man in 6'8" Mark Williams. They'll also get back 6'7" Daniel Dingle, who missed most of the season with an injury. But with such a thin roster, Fran Dunphy had plenty of room for additions. He is adding three transfers: 6'7" Jaylen Bond (3.1 points and 4.1 rebounds per game over two seasons at Texas), Jesse Morgan (13.4 points per game at UMass in 2012-13) and Devin Coleman (5.4 points per game as a sophomore at Clemson this past season). Coleman won't be eligible until the end of the fall semester. Dunphy also adds 6'8" Obi Enechionyia (Scout: 22 PF, Rivals: 117).

In the end, I'm giving the narrow edge to SMU for the title in the AAC. I don't think they're going to be a Top Ten team or anything, but they should be Top 25, and assuming DeAndre Daniels goes pro, they should be favored. If Daniels comes back, I'll probably leapfrog UConn back over SMU. Here's how I see the top of the league playing out:

1. SMU
2. UConn
3. Cincinnati
4. Tulsa
5. Memphis
6. Temple
7. Houston

Atlantic Ten Conference 

This was an odd season for the Atlantic Ten. In some sense it was a down season, as the league was ranked in Sagarin and Pomeroy only the 8th best league, which is well down from where it was the year before. This was inevitable, as the league lost Butler, Xavier and Temple. But at the same time, the top of the league was strong. Their RPIs were inflated (you can compare each team's RPI with the other computer ratings in the table above), but the league deservedly got six teams into the NCAA Tournament, and ended up with their fifth place team making a run to the Elite 8. In the end, that's a heck of a season for a "mid-major" conference.

I guess we need to start with that magical Dayton team. How much of their Elite 8 run was improvement throughout the season and how much of it was a fluke? Well, obviously "fluke" is a big part of a run that involves two straight wins that came down to the final possession and some hot outside shooting. But Dayton also was a team that was a lot better in March than they were in January. They won 10 of their final 12 games heading into the NCAA Tournament, during which time their Pomeroy rating rose from 75th to 53rd. And after their Elite 8 run, that Pomeroy rating rose all the way up to 39th. What changed? Well their offense was good all along, and they ended up leading the league in offensive efficiency, but their defense went from "terrible" to "decent". From the start of conference play through February 12th, 8 of 10 opponents scored at least 1.03 PPP. The rest of the season, just 5 of 12 opponents broke that mark.

Dayton does lose two of their top five minute earners - Vee Sanford and Devin Oliver - but nearly the rest of their regular rotation was made up of freshmen and sophomores. So if Archie Miller stays (and his name is certainly now in the mix for a bunch of other jobs), Dayton should remain in Atlantic Ten contention for a while. The biggest need for next season is probably in the front court, as they lose leading-rebounder Oliver as well as 6'10" Matt Kavanaugh. The backcourt should be fine with Scoochie Smith at the point and Jordan Sibert at shooting guard. Dyshawn Pierre is their top front court returner. They have a pair of nice recruits in 6'3" Darrell Davis (Rivals: 102) and 6'11" Steve McElvene. Dayton might not be quite as good next season, but there's no reason to expect a significant drop-off.

VCU is another team that should be strong again next season (assuming Shaka Smart does stay, which I think he will). One thing lost in VCU's tourney failures the past two seasons is that his teams have actually gotten better every season since his Final Four run. Don't overreact to what happens in a single-elimination tournament (and that goes for VCU's Final Four team, which was the weakest Final Four team in at least the last 20 seasons). And while they might not improve on their Top 20 Pomeroy rating next season, they'll be strong once again. They lose Juvonte Reddic and Rob Brandenberg, their last two rotation players from that Final Four team, but everybody else returns. Briante Weber tied for the national lead in steals per game (6.0) and will be back. They should also get back their leading scorer (Treveon Graham) and their best shooter, Melvin Johnson (who missed the NCAA Tournament with an injury). Also look for an increased role for 6'6" Mo Allie-Cox, who was a really impressive scorer and rebounder as a redshirt freshman. Their deep 2013 recruiting class has barely seen the floor yet, with only JeQuan Lewis playing extended minutes. Look for shooting guard Douglas Brooks to have a bigger role next season. And their 2014 recruiting class is one of the best in the nation, led by Terry Larrier (Scout: 15 SF, Rivals: 39), Justin Tillman (Scout: 29 PF, Rivals: 137) and Michael Gilmore (Scout: 24 PF).

George Washington loses three of their top six minute earners, including Maurice Creek and Isaiah Armwood. That said, they should get back Kethan Savage, who was averaging 12.7 ppg before being lost for the season to injury in mid-January. They also return starting point guard Joe McDonald and 6'10" Kevin Larson. They add 6'9" Ryan McCoy, who averaged 9.2 minutes per game for Manhattan as a sophomore in 2012-13. They also add a deep recruiting class, led by 6'10" Matt Cimino (Scout: 20 C). A need for the offseason is another guard who can handle the ball.

A lot of the top teams in the Atlantic Ten will be hit very hard by graduations, however. Saint Louis is finally really moving beyond the Rick Majerus era, as the last big recruiting class he put together graduates. They lose all five starters, and will be a completely new team next season. They have a very strong and very deep 2014 recruiting class led by 6'10" Brett Jolly and 6'4" Davell Roby (they also add 6'4" Achraf Yacoubou from Villanova), but they'll obviously take a big step back for at least one season. St. Joe's is also hit hard, losing three starters from a team that didn't get much at all from its bench, including star Langston Galloway and big man Halil Kanacevic. Their top returner is probably 6'6" DeAndre Bembry, who was only a true freshman this past season. Their key additions are 6'5" Aaron Brown (3.2 points and 1.5 rebounds per game over 1.5 seasons at West Virginia) and 6'4" James Demery (Scout: 24 SG).

UMass and St. Bonaventure are two other teams suffering significant losses. UMass was very overrated during the season, of course. Their resume deserved the 6 seed they got in the NCAA Tournament, but the computers had them ranked around 50th, and they were a deserved underdog against 11 seed Tennessee. And star playmaker Chaz Williams graduates, as do two other starters. Big man Cady Lalanne will be back for one more season, and they do add Jabarie Hinds (7.4 points and 2.5 assists per game over two seasons at West Virginia) and Donte Clark, who was originally a highly touted Virginia Tech recruit but could not qualify to play there. St. Bonaventure loses three starters as well, including leading scorer Matthew Wright, though they do get 7'0" defensive anchor Youssou Ndoye for one more season. But without any significant transfers or recruits coming in, it's hard to see how they don't take a big step back next season.

Richmond is a team that should be improved next season. The only starter they lose is Cedric Lindsay, but even he was lost for the season on February 1st with an injury anyway. 5'8" Kendall Anthony was their leading scorer, their best rebounder was Trey Davis, and they have a good interior defender in 6'9" Alonzo Nelson-Ododa. Their top addition is 6'8" TJ Cline (7.9 points and 4.6 rebounds per game as a freshman at Niagara in 2012-13).

Rhode Island was a team significantly better than their record. They were 4-9 in games decided by six points or less or in overtime, including 1-7 against Atlantic Ten opponents. Their efficiency margin in conference play (-0.03 PPP) was actually not too different from Dayton (+0.00 PPP). They lose leading scorer Xavier Mumford, but everybody else from their regular rotation returns, led by explosive shooting guard EC Mattthews, who averaged 14.3 points and 2.3 assists per game as a true freshman. 6'7" Hassan Martin, who led the team with 2.5 blocks per game, was also a true freshman. Their top addition is probably 6'7" Earl Watson, a Juco transfer who was originally supposed to play for Wichita State before academic issues cropped up. Considering that Rhode Island was a borderline Top 100 team in the computers and should be better next season, it's not out of the realm of possibility for them to make a run at an at-large bid. I really like the job that Dan Hurley has done there.

If there's one more sleeper in the Atlantic Ten next season it's Duquesne. The Dukes lose leading scorer and rebounder Ovie Soko, but return everybody else from their starting lineup. That includes point guard Derrick Colter, 6'8" Dominique McKoy, and one of the best shooters in the nation in Micah Mason (his 56.0% three-point shooting led the entire nation). One addition will be 6'8" Jordan Robinson, who was their top rated 2013 recruit but missed the season as a partial qualifier. Another 2013 recruit who should see increased playing time is 6'8" Isaiah Watkins. Those two should help fill the hole in the front line left by Ovie Soko.

In the end, here's how I see the top of the Atlantic Ten playing out:

1. VCU
2. Dayton
3. Richmond
4. Rhode Island
5. UMass
6. George Washington
7. Duquesne

Colonial Athletic Association

It was not a banner year for the Colonial, which didn't get a single team in the Top 100 of Pomeroy or the Sagarin PREDICTOR. Both Sagarin and Pomeroy rated the league behind the Ivy League. Sagarin had it behind the Summit. The best team won the regular season title and took the tourney title, but the 13 seed just led them to have to play Michigan State and to never really have a chance to win. The only other team to go to a postseason tournament was Towson, who went to the CIT, where they fell in the quarterfinals to Murray State.

It's not even really obvious that the CAA should have a team back in the Top 100 next season, as both Delaware and Towson are hit hard by graduations. Delaware loses three starters: Davon Usher,  Devon Saddler and leading rebounder Carl Baptiste (7.9 per game). They have two proven returners in Jarvis Threatt and Kyle Anderson, but after that all they return is potential. The top prospect for next season is probably 6'7" Marvin King-Davis. Their recruiting class is big, but without anybody who stands out.

Towson is hit even harder by graduations, losing four starters, led by Colonial Player of the Year Jerrelle Benimon. Pat Skerry has a nice young core for the future, though, led by Timajh Parker-Rivera and former Vermont transfer Four McGlynn, both of whom were sophomores this past season. Their top 2013 recruit so far has been 6'8" Walter Foster. They add 6'6" AJ Astroth, who played sparingly as a freshman at Vanderbilt in 2012-13, as well as several high school recruits.

The only other team to finish above .500 in conference play was William & Mary. The Tribe made it all the way to the Colonial title game before losing a heartbreaker by a single point to Delaware. They lose three starters, though, as well as a key bench player. That includes a pair of outside sharpshooters in Brandon Britt and Julian Boatner. They do return their leading scorer Marcus Thornton and leading rebounder Terry Tarpey. They really need size, both for defensive purposes and rebounding. One option is 6'9" Jack Whitman, a 2013 recruit who took a redshirt season. Another option is 6'6" 2014 recruit Oliver Tot.

According to the computers, the third best team in the Colonial was actually Drexel. The Dragons lose their foundation of their team, though, in starting backcourt Chris Fouch and Franz Massenat, as well as leading rebounder Dartaye Ruffin. That said, they should get back 6'6" Damion Lee, who was a starter before being lost for the season to injury in November. They'll also get back 6'7" Kazembe Abif, who missed about half the season with his own injury. One player who should see more time is 6'9" Moahamed Bah, who was effective in limited minutes as a true freshman. Somebody is going to have to be the new primary ball handler next season after the loss of Massenat. Freddie Wilson is an option, as is 2013 recruit Major Canady.

With the teams at the top of the conference all hit hard from graduations, which of the teams that finished below .500 this past season have the ability to rise into the Colonial's top tier? Well, with College of Charleston losing three of their top five minute earners, the answer seems to obviously be Northeastern. The Huskies return their entire regular rotation, led by Colonial Defensive Player of the Year Scott Eatherton. But despite their size (6'7" Reggie Spener is another key returner) and defensive abilities, their offense was pretty awful this past season. The finished 7th out of 9 CAA teams this past season in offensive efficiency in conference play, and were below the league average in both eFG% and turnover rate. TJ Williams, who was just a freshman this past season, could see the start at point guard next season, and Northeastern is also in the mix for an addition or two in the backcourt to help clean their offense up. If they can figure out their point guard and add a shooter or two as well, Northeastern should contend near the top of the league next season.

If there's a deep sleeper for the future it's James Madison. Of the 11 players who earned non-garbage minutes for them this past season, all but one was a freshman or sophomore. They have some decent young talents in point guard Ron Curry and 6'6" forward Charles Cooke, who led the team in scoring. But they need offensive talent badly. Their 27.3 3P% shooting during the season was third worst in the nation, and their eFG% and offensive efficiency led only UNC-Wilmington in the Colonial this past season. So in the end, here's how I see the top half of the league finishing up:

1. Drexel
2. Northeastern
3. Delaware
4.William & Mary