After finishing up my initial set of 2012-13 conference previews, it's time for my first bracket projection of the 2012-13 season. Obviously there are still a lot of unknowns. We don't yet know exactly who will be in or out of the NBA Draft, we don't yet know who will transfer this summer, and there are still some blue chip 2012 recruits out there.
As the spring turns to summer and fall, I'll keep you all updated on it, and this bracket projection will change. My next BP68 will be out the week of the NBA Draft. After that I'll have a BP68 the week of Midnight Madness, and then the next one will be after the regular season begins.
Once we get into the fall the media will decide on a consensus #1 team, but in my opinion the top spot is much more open than it's usually been over the past decade. I can make an argument why every team I have as a 1 or 2 seed should be the #1 team in the nation next season. Let's see if we get a slightly clearer picture after the final NBA decisions are made, and after players like Nerlens Noel and Shabazz Muhammad sign.
For now, here's how I see things ending up:
1. INDIANA (BIG TEN)
1. LOUISVILLE (BIG EAST)
1. DUKE (ACC)
1. FLORIDA (SEC)
2. KANSAS (BIG 12)
2. Ohio State
2. North Carolina
3. MEMPHIS (CONFERENCE USA)
3. Notre Dame
4. ST. LOUIS (ATLANTIC TEN)
4. Michigan State
4. SAN DIEGO STATE (MOUNTAIN WEST)
5. GONZAGA (WCC)
5. CREIGHTON (MVC)
6. Iowa State
6. BUTLER (HORIZON)
6. STANFORD (PAC-12)
8. Miami (Fl)
8. New Mexico
9. NC State
9. VCU (COLONIAL)
10. St. Mary's
10. West Virginia
11. DAVIDSON (SOCON)
12. Virginia Tech
13. MURRAY STATE (OVC)
13. Illinois State
13. HARVARD (IVY)
13. UTAH STATE (WAC)
14. OHIO (MAC)
14. LOYOLA-MARYLAND (MAAC)
14. SOUTH DAKOTA STATE (SUMMIT)
14. MERCER (ATLANTIC SUN)
15. MONTANA (BIG SKY)
15. MIDDLE TENNESSEE (SUN BELT)
15. VERMONT (AMERICA EAST)
15. ROBERT MORRIS (NEC)
16. CAL STATE FULLERTON (BIG WEST)
16. BUCKNELL (PATRIOT)
16. CHARLESTON SOUTHERN (BIG SOUTH)
16. STEPHEN F AUSTIN (SOUTHLAND)
16. SAVANNAH STATE (MEAC)
16. TEXAS SOUTHERN (SWAC)
Teams seriously considered that just missed the cut:
Clemson, Maryland, La Salle, Xavier, Rutgers, Kansas State, Oklahoma, Central Florida, Akron, Northern Iowa, Colorado State, Arizona, Washington, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt
Other teams with a decent shot to get onto the bubble:
Florida State, St. Joseph's, Providence, Seton Hall, South Florida, Villanova, Illinois, Northwestern, Oklahoma State, Marshall, Valparaiso, Toledo, Wichita State, Nevada, North Dakota State, Colorado, Oregon, Oregon State, Washington State, Auburn, Georgia, Texas A&M, New Mexico State
Other teams I'm keeping my eye on:
Georgia Tech, Dayton, UConn, Penn State, Texas Tech, Delaware, George Mason, Houston, UTEP, Tulsa, Cleveland State, Wisconsin-Green Bay, Fairfield, Drake, Evansville, Boise State, Belmont, North Texas, USC, LSU, Mississippi State, Loyola-Marymount, San Diego, Denver, Louisiana Tech
Tuesday, April 10, 2012
It was jarring seeing so many poor teams in the ACC this past season. Over the past 20 years, no conference has consistently been stronger at the bottom of the league than the ACC. There were many years where there were simply no easy games in the ACC. But Wake Forest, Boston College and Georgia Tech this past season? Those were easy opponents. It's not an issue that will resolve itself in one season, but as you can see in the chart above, the bottom of the ACC was awfully young this past season. The league should be improved next season.
The class of the ACC this past season was North Carolina. Tar Heel fans will swear for the next 50 years that they would have won the National Title this year if Kendall Marshall hadn't broken his wrist. UNC was decimated by injuries all season: Dexter Strickland missed half the season, Leslie McDonald missed the whole season, and John Henson also missed some time. Tyler Zeller is the only graduation, but Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Kendall Marshall are all going pro. James Michael McAdoo is back for another season, and I think that PJ Hairston will be back as well. Reggie Bullock is the other top returner. Stillman White might have earned some playing time next year as well. Roy Williams, of course, has another recruiting class full of blue chippers: Marcus Paige (Scout: 3 PG, Rivals: 41), Brice Johnson (Scout: 11 PF, Rivals: 49), Joel James (Scout: 18 C, Rivals: 61) and JP Tokoto (Scout: 20 SF, Rivals: 68). Paige and Strickland should form an excellent backcourt, but the front court is going to be a major question mark heading into next season.
This was not a banner year for Duke. The Blue Devils were not nearly as good as their won-loss record would suggest. The loss to Lehigh was a big upset, but it wasn't anywhere near the upset that Norfolk State over Missouri was. Duke finished the season rated 20th in Pomeroy and 18th in the Sagarin PREDICTOR. Things are looking up for next year, though. Miles Plumlee graduates and Austin Rivers is going pro, while Mason Plumlee is very much on the fence for the NBA Draft. But I felt that Austin Rivers was overrated - he scored a lot of points, but it was because he took a ton of shots. He didn't make his teammates better, and too often attacked the rim with his head down. If Mason Plumlee comes back, Duke should be improved next season. In the backcourt, Seth Curry, Andre Dawkins and Tyler Thornton will all be back, along with Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon (Scout: 2 SG, Rivals: 32). In the front court, Ryan Kelly, Josh Hairston and Michael Gbinije all return. Even if Mason Plumlee goes pro there will be yet another Plumlee to take his place: Marshall Plumlee.
Florida State was the third best team in the ACC, but they are decimated by graduations: Bernard James, Xavier Gibson, Deividas Dulkys, Luke Loucks, Jon Kreft and Jeff Peterson. Michael Snaer, Ian Miller and Okaro White will be the core of next year's team. Shooting guard Terry Whisnant and small forward Antwan Space are two good prospects, as are Montay Brandon (Scout: 11 SF, Rivals: 59) and Aaron Thomas (Scout: 13 SG). The most jarring thing about next year's team is the loss of the bigs: James, Gibson and Kreft. Florida State's complete domination of the paint on defense has been the core of their success for half a decade now, while their offense has been inconsistent at best. If their defense drops a level, is Michael Snaer really going to pick up the slack? I doubt it.
NC State struggled badly early this past season, but finished strong. They won four straight games before a very tight two-point loss to North Carolina in the ACC tournament, followed by one of the all-time greatest Selection Sunday videos of them finding out that they earned an at-large bid. The Wolfpack then beat San Diego State and Georgetown to make the Sweet 16. CJ Williams and Alex Johnson graduate, but the bigger question is CJ Leslie and whether he'll go pro. If he comes back then NC State could very well be even better. Lorenzo Brown is a good point guard, and Richard Howell is a really good front court player when he can stay out of foul trouble. Scott Wood's outside shooting will be back, as will 6'9" DeShawn Painter. Power forward Tyler Harris should see increased playing time. Mark Gottfried has landed three 2012 blue chippers: Rodney Purvis (Scout: 6 SG, Rivals: 6), TJ Warren (Scout: 5 SF, Rivals: 23) and Tyler Lewis (Scout: 6 PG, Rivals: 55).
The biggest surprise in the ACC this past season might have been Virginia. Tony Bennett is one of the best coaches in the nation, but nobody thought they had the talent to compete near the top of the ACC. Mike Scott was tremendous, though. In my opinion, he was the best player in the entire ACC. But Scott graduates, as does Sammy Zeglinski. Without Scott, Virginia's offensive talent is a question mark. You can only win so many games, no matter how good your defense is, if you can't score. Joe Harris is the one proven scorer returning. Shooting guard Malcolm Brogdon and power forward Darion Atkins are two good prospects, and Bennett has put together a deep 2012 recruiting class led by Justin Anderson (Scout: 12 SF, Rivals: 35), Mike Tobey (Scout: 23 C, Rivals: 109) and Evan Nolte (Scout: 18 PF, Rivals: 120). The top-to-bottom talent will be increased from last season, but that doesn't necessarily mean that Virginia will be better.
Clemson will be rebuilding next season. A very deep 2011 recruiting class will be the core for the future, but Andre Young and Tanner Smith are two huge losses. A more likely team to improve next season is the University of Miami. Malcolm Grant and DeQuan Jones both graduate, but everybody else will be back. Durand Scott will be one of the best players in the ACC next season, and Reggie Johnson has one year of eligibility left as well. Kenny Kadji is a defensive force, and Trey McKinney Jones is another key returner. I also like Shane Larkin as a point guard of the future.
A dark horse in the ACC for next season is Virginia Tech. They lose Dorenzo Hudson and Victor Davila graduate, but Erick Green and Jarell Eddie (their two best players) will be back. And Seth Greenberg had a very production freshman class, led by Dorian Finney-Smith and Robert Brown. Their biggest need is rebounding, and Cadarian Raines is another player who should help in that respect with added playing time. If JT Thompson can ever get healthy then he'll be a big contributor in the paint as well. Montrezl Harrell (Scout: 14 PF, Rivals: 86) is their top 2012 recruit.
Don't sleep on a Maryland team that will be boosted by a huge 2012 recruiting class, led by Shaquille Cleare (Scout: 12 C, Rivals: 44) and Charles Mitchell (Scout: 27 C, Rivals: 76). Terrell Stoglin improved dramatically over the past season, and with another leap like that could be the ACC Player of the Year next season. James Padgett and Ashton Pankey give Maryland a pair of good interior players and rebounders. But there was a gigantic gap between Maryland in the top few spots in the conference, so don't expect Mark Turgeon to complete for an ACC title quite yet.
1. Duke - The loss of Austin Rivers is overrated. The Duke backcourt should be improved next season. The only real concern is front court depth if Mason Plumlee goes pro. Marshall Plumlee was a big time recruit, though, and Ryan Kelly is a very good player. And don't sleep on Michael Gbinije.
2. North Carolina - I don't think any team other than Duke or UNC has a good chance of winning the ACC (tell me where you've heard that before). The loss of Zeller, Henson and Barnes devastates their front court, though. And we have seen over the past two seasons just how important Kendall Marshall is to UNC's offense... and now he's gone for good.
3. Virginia - In no way do I have a lot of confidence in putting Virginia here. Any of the next three or four teams could work their way up to third place. But this pick is me having a lot of faith in Tony Bennett to find some offense from his young players to go with what will surely be an elite defense.
4. Miami - The Hurricanes were better this past season than most people realized, and they should be even better next season. Durand Scott could be first team All-ACC player next season, and Kenny Kadji is a force in the paint (as is Reggie Johnson... in more ways than one).
5. NC State - If CJ Leslie comes back then I could end up moving NC State as high as third place. I need more than one good season to buy into Mark Gottfried, but he does have NCAA Tournament talent coming back next season.
6. Virginia Tech - It didn't feel like an NCAA Tournament bubble without Virginia Tech on it. I think they'll be back there next season with improved play from rising-sophomores like Dorian Finney-Smith.
7. Maryland - I know that others will have Maryland rated higher, but Terrell Stoglin and James Padgett are the only real proven ACC players on this team. Maybe the highly-rated recruiting class will pan out, and maybe it won't. There are too many uncertainties.
8. Clemson - It's going to be a little bit of a rebuilding season. Andre Young and Tanner Smith were arguably their two best players last season, and both are gone. Brad Brownell had a good, deep 2011 recruiting class, but it takes time for players like that to develop.
9. Florida State - The Seminoles are totally devastated by graduations. It's going to be weird watching this team without the overwhelming length and athleticism in the paint.
10. Georgia Tech - Brian Gregory is upgrading the talent level, which was needed desperately. Kammeon Holsey and Daniel Miller were the only Georgia Tech players that were any good last season other than Glen Rice, Jr, who was booted off the team.
11. Boston College - The good news is: everybody comes back. The bad news is: these guys were awful last season. Four of their top five minute earners were freshmen, though, so these players might develop into something decent in a couple of years.
12. Wake Forest - I do think that Wake Forest has finally hit bottom. Jeff Bzdelik has been cleaning up his roster and getting rid of the knuckleheads. Bzdelik's 2012 recruiting class is very deep, so it does seem like things are finally getting better in Winston-Salem.
Monday, April 09, 2012
The Big East is beginning to undergo major changes. Only West Virginia leaves this season, but Syracuse and Pittsburgh are on their way to the ACC soon. A whole slew of teams are on their way to the Big East in 2013, though as fluid as the situation is I'd say that we shouldn't assume anything will happen until it actually does.
The past few seasons I've talked a lot about how much the media over-hyped Big East basketball, and compared it to SEC football. And obviously the vicinity to New York City and ESPN headquarters plays a role in that, but I would argue that the Big East was actually underrated this past season. The fact that so many traditional powers were down and that the top of the conference wasn't nearly as strong as it has been recently meant that the media mostly acknowledged the reality that the Big Ten was the best conference. And that is a clear difference between Big East basketball and SEC football, because it's become increasingly clear that, for the foreseeable future, SEC football will be declared the best conference in the nation regardless of all of the evidence to the contrary. And because of the BCS system that actually matters - Oklahoma State got screwed out of a chance to play in the National Title game in January because the media declared the SEC the far superior conference in the land, even though every computer rating I saw had the Big 12 as the clear #1 conference. What's particularly laughable about the SEC football hype is how easily disprovable it is. The media tells us that SEC football players are more athletic and much faster than the athletes in any other conference... yet the SEC doesn't outperform the other top conferences at the scouting combine or in the NFL. And despite quasi-homefield advantage, the SEC's bowl record over the past 20 years isn't much above .500. But this type of blindness doesn't infect the media's coverage of basketball. The Big East was acknowledged as being down, even while you can argue that their NCAA Tournament performance was as good as the Big Ten's, and certainly was superior to the Big 12.
Getting back to college basketball, the biggest offseason topic in the Big East is UConn's postseason ban for next season, which is based on poor academic performance. They in theory lost their final appeal last week, though I'm guessing that lawyers will be keeping themselves busy on this issue for at least a few more weeks, if not a few more months. But even if they have their postseason ban rescinded, the damage has been done. Alex Oriakhi is transferring out, and it seems very likely that both Andre Drummond and Jeremy Lamb will go pro. There is a risk for more defections, too. So far UConn has one recruit signed - Omar Calhoun (Scout: 11 SG, Rivals: 38) - but there's no guarantee that he'll stay either. And you have to wonder whether Jim Calhoun will want to stick this out. Unless he can pull together a big time 2013 recruiting class, UConn is going to turn into a real rebuilding situation. Will Calhoun, at his age, want to stick it out? And with the uncertainty in the Big East conference, UConn has to be concerned about a future without Calhoun's presence. They will need to spend the megabucks to bring in a guy like Shaka Smart to keep the program moving forward.
The best team in the Big East this past season, of course, was Syracuse. But Kris Joseph and Scoop Jardine graduate while Fab Melo and Dion Waiters are going pro. That leaves Brandon Triche and CJ Fair as the only returning starters, though both James Southerland and Rakeem Christmas played well after Fab Melo was suspended late in the season. Baye Moussa Keita is another good interior player, and they have two new good prospects: DaJuan Coleman (Scout: 6 C, Rivals: 27) and Jerami Grant (Scout: 7 PF, Rivals: 60). With all that talent and Jim Boeheim as coach, the Syracuse zone will be strong again. The concern is perimeter play with Michael Carter-Williams the only returner alongside Brandon Triche. Players like Keita and Christmas are good players, but they don't go looking for their own shot. I worry about how Syracuse can score consistently.
Louisville struggled with consistency in conference play, but pulled everything together late in the season, winning the Big East tournament and then playing their way into the Final Four. Kyle Kuric and Chris Smith, their two most efficient scorers, graduate, but everybody else will come back. Peyton Siva and Russ Smith both return, as does Gorgui Dieng, Chance Behanan and Jared Swopshire. They also will get back top 2011 recruit Wayne Blackshear and swing foward Rakeem Buckles, both of whom missed most of the season with an injury. Shooting guard Kevin Ware is another prospect, as is 6'10" Zach Price. Rick Pitino also adds Terry Rozier (Scout: 14 PG, Rivals: 112). Louisville will have an elite defense again, but the concern will be offense. The offense was inconsistent as it was, and loses its two steadiest players. If Peyton Siva and Russ Smith can stop forcing so many dumb shots and can get their teammates more involved, Louisville could be one of the five best teams in the country. But if not, they're going to continue being inefficient and limited over the course of the season.
Marquette finished in second place with their very aggressive, athletic style. They attacked defensively and on the offensive glass, and tended to just wear opponents down with their depth. That said, they do lose Big East Player of the Year Jae Crowder, as well as Darius Johnson-Odom. Their key perimeter returners are Vander Blue, Junior Cadougan and Todd Mayo. Derrick Wilson and Juan Anderson are two perimeter prospects. On the interior, Davante Gardner played very well in short minutes, and Marquette will hope to get a full season out of Chris Otule, who suffered a season-ending ACL injury. 6'6" Juan Anderson is a good prospect, as is Steve Taylor (Scout: 13 PF, Rivals: 108).
Notre Dame was the biggest overachiever in the Big East last season. They started the season without high expectations, and hopes appeared to be dashed when star Tim Abromaitis was lost for the season. But young guards Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant both improved dramatically and led Notre Dame to a 13-5 record. And there's a chance that everybody will be back next season. Both Scott Martin and Tim Abromaitis are appealing for a 6th year of eligibility because of medical hardship. Jack Cooley has become Luke Harangody 2.0 while Pat Connaughton and Alex Dragicevich were two young players that look to be even better next season. Mike Brey's 2012 recruiting class is led by Cameron Biedscheid (Scout: 10 SF, Rivals: 30) and Zach Auguste (Scout: 25 PF, Rivals: 93).
According to the computers, the second best team in the Big East was Georgetown. Though after another disappointing loss to a lower seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Hoyas are starting to get a reputation as a regular season team that struggles in March. They are only five past a trip to the Final Four, though, so I wouldn't put too much stock in a few upsets. They lose two seniors: Jason Clark and Henry Sims. Sims wasn't the type of superstar that got a lot of media attention, but he was so important to the entire Georgetown offense. Despite being 6'10", Sims ran the offense, finishing with nearly twice as many assists as any other player on the team. Clark is a key loss also - he was the team's best perimeter creator. Hollis Thompson, the team's most versatile scorer, is leaving early for the NBA. Markel Starks is the only proven perimeter player returning, though 6'5" Jabril Trawick and D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera (Scout: 8 SG, Rivals: 22) are a good prospects, and positions are a big interchangeable in JTIII's system anyway, as Henry Sims proved. Otto Porter and Nate Lubick will do their best to replace Thompson and Sims, while 6'9" Mikael Hopkins is another 2011 recruit to keep an eye on.
Cincinnati's season looked to be over after a slow start and then that brawl against Xavier. The brawl seemed to bring the team together, though, and they played their best basketball of the season in February and March to earn a 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament and then a trip to the Sweet 16. Yancy Gates finally graduates - he looked like a future Big East superstar as a freshman but never really got any better, though he did play well in the Big East tournament and NCAA Tournament as his career was coming to a close. Shooting guard Dion Dixon is the other key graduation. Point guard Cashmere Wright will be back, with Jaquon Parker and Sean Kilpatrick alongside. Cincy isn't as deep in the front court, where Justin Jackson is the only proven returner. Cincinnati will hope to finally get 6'6" 2011 recruit Shaquille Thomas on the floor.
South Florida had a remarkably successful season in 2011-12, but they have a lot to replace next season. Three senior starters will be gone, led by Augustus Gilchrist. They will lose their entire starting front line, though Victor Rudd is saying that he will withdraw his name from the NBA Draft to come back for another season. The future of USF will probably be built around Anthony Collins, who was a really good point guard as a true freshman. Seton Hall is another team that will be rebuilding a bit with Jordan Theodore and Herb Pope graduating. Their next eight minute earners were all freshmen and sophomores, though, so Kevin Willard does have a good base for the future. Aaron Cosby and Fuquan Edwin will be the best players on the team going forward. Their biggest concern, with Pope graduating, is interior defense. Pope cleaned up mistakes all season long, and there is no obvious replacement for him on the roster. 6'11" Aaron Geramipoor is probably the best prospect to fill that role.
Rutgers is a sleeper team for next season. They have no graduations from their rotation and five of their top six minute earners were freshmen or sophomores, though Gilvydas Biruta is leaving via transfer. Point guard Myles Mack is a player I really expect to break out in his sophomore season next year. Eli Carter and Jerome Seagers are two other players from Mike Rice's deep 2011 recruiting class who played well as true freshmen. With Biruta leaving, size will be a concern. Dane Miller is a proven Big East player, but after that Mike Rice will have to develop some prospects. Derrick Randall played well in limited minutes as a freshman. Kadeem Jack didn't do much in his freshman year, but he was a very highly touted recruit who could be a big contributor in expanded minutes.
1. Louisville - I think this is a pretty easy selection. The defense will be really good, and with the press there will be no way for opponents to avoid it. The only thing that can hold them back is erratic, selfish play from Peyton Siva and Russ Smith. I actually was disappointed in Siva's development in this respect since a year ago, but another year of seasoning could help. And remember, they get back Rakeem Buckles and Wayne Blackshear, neither of whom had a chance to contribute to that late season run.
2. Notre Dame - Even if Tim Abromaitis and Scott Martin fail to get a 6th year, I still think Notre Dame should be very much improved. Abromaitis barely played last season anyway, and Martin wasn't a particularly efficient player. A whole bunch of young players made huge year-over-year improvements for the Irish, and if that continues next season then they really could win a Big East title.
3. Syracuse - Backcourt depth is definitely a major concern, but Syracuse is going to be as good defensively as they always are. I also expect Jim Boeheim to improve the Cuse defensive rebounding, which was their achilles heel throughout the season.
4. Marquette - They lose their two most important players, but will still have plenty of talent. If Davante Gardner and Chris Otule can both stay healthy all season then Marquette will have all of the size that they need to navigate the conference. They will have plenty of backcourt depth.
5. Georgetown - Henry Sims might be the most important graduation for any team in the entire Big East, though players like Otto Porter and Nate Lubick are both also ideal big men for Georgetown's quasi-Princeton system.
6. Cincinnati - I think there's a big drop off from the top four teams in the conference to everybody else. I think Cincinnati is a bubble team, but that could be good for anything between 5th and 9th in the Big East. I think that the loss of Yancy Gates is overrated - he shows flashes of brilliance, but overall has been just good-but-not-great.
7. Pittsburgh - Everything went wrong that could possibly go wrong for Pitt last season, but they really weren't that bad when the whole roster was together and they gave maximum effort. Tray Woodall will hope to stay healthy for the whole season, while Talib Zanna is developing into a really good big man. Ashton Gibbs is one of the great scorers in the history of Pittsburgh, but with a very good 2012 recruiting class I think the team will actually be deeper next season.
8. Rutgers - The talent level at Rutgers continues to improve, but they struggled this past season in games they were "supposed" to win. If they're going to make the NCAA Tournament, it's going to require a big improvement from young prospects like Myles Mack and Kadeem Jack.
9. Villanova - Maalik Wayns is going to pro, but everybody else will be back. Villanova wasn't nearly as bad as their Big East record would suggest (they were undone by a 2-6 record in games decided by five points or less), and have a lot of raw talent (6'10" 2012 recruit Daniel Ochefu is a blue chipper).
10. Providence - Ed Cooley showed up with a bang, landing two true blue chip records in his first recruiting class: Ricardo Ledo and Kris Dunn. They're not joining a very talented roster, but the team should be better next season.
11. South Florida - I don't want to drop them too far as their defense should still be pretty good, but they lose basically their entire front court and have shown no hints of an efficient offense. If Anthony Collins can turn into an elite point guard, though, then they could work their way back to the Tournament bubble.
12. Seton Hall - It's a rebuilding season for Seton Hall. If Kevin Willard's young prospects don't develop (particularly guys like Aaron Cosby and Patrick Audo, for whom there is a lot of hype) then Willard's seat could start getting warm.
13. Connecticut - It's hard to project where UConn is going to be because we don't know how the postseason ban is going to impact their roster. It can't be good, though. Assuming Lamb and Drummond both go pro, and if Omar Calhoun decided to go somewhere else, then the roster could be really thin. The "Will Jim Calhoun retire or not" media hype will drain the team as well.
14. St. John's - Moe Harkless going pro doesn't help things. Steve Lavin's health struggles have also clearly impacted recruiting, as Lavin's second recruiting class isn't nearly as strong as his first recruiting class. Another year of seasoning can only help all of these young returners, though. The offense was really sloppy and ugly at times this past season.
15. DePaul - The Blue Demons were feisty at times, but they lack an upper echelon Big East talent. A player like Cleveland Melvin just doesn't scare opponents. With Krys Faber graduating, their lack of size becomes even more glaring.
All season long the Big Ten was the top conference in the nation according to the computers, and I didn't disagree. It's hard to argue when Ohio State spent the season dueling with Kentucky for the #1 spot in the computers while only going 13-5 in conference play, or when a team as good as Purdue only went 10-8. Other than home games against Penn State and Nebraska, there were no easy games for anybody in the conference. Of the six BCS conferences, the Big Ten had the fewest turnovers, the fewest steals, the fewest offensive rebounds, the fewest blocks and the slowest tempo per game in conference play.... in other words, the conference was everything we thought it was. People who complain about Big Ten basketball should spent less time watching basketball and more time watching track & field. I love fundamental play and games where every possession counts. Watching a lot of people who are great runners and jumpers but who don't seem to really understand how to play basketball just isn't as enjoyable to me. But that's just my opinion.
The class of the Big Ten this past season, of course, was Ohio State. Their only loss to graduation is William Buford, though Jared Sullinger will be going pro. But with DeShaun Thomas coming back, Ohio State will again contend for a Big Ten title. Aaron Craft, perhaps the best on-ball defender in the nation, will be back to play the point. Lenzelle Smith, a good scorer and perimeter defender, will be back as well. Thad Matta gave heavy minutes to all five of his starters, though as I explained all season, this is not because he doesn't have talent on his bench. In fact, he had tons of talent on his bench - he just didn't see the need to take out his best players as long as they could handle it physically. Amir Williams is going to be one of the best interior defenders in the nation eventually, while Evan Ravenel and LaQuinton Ross are two other interior prospects. Sam Thompson and JD Williams should get additional playing time on the wing, while Shannon Scott should get more time backing up Craft. They're in the mix for some blue chip 2012 recruits, though Thad Matta hasn't signed one yet. But even if he doesn't, just the players on the roster already are enough to make OSU a Big Ten title contender again.
The team that earned the 1 seed in the Big Ten tournament, and a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, was Michigan State. They lose superstar Draymond Green, though, along with Brandon Wood and Austin Thornton. No one player will replace Green's wide array of abilities, but Michigan State will again have a formidable front court, led by Adreian Payne, Derrick Nix and Branden Dawson. They also add Matt Costello (Scout: 22 C, Rivals: 82) and Kenny Kaminski (Scout: 21 PF, Rivals: 84). On the wing they return Russell Byrd and add Denzel Valentine (Scout: 29 SF, Rivals: 80). On the perimeter, Keith Appling will be the primary playmaker again. There aren't any other proven returners, but Branden Kearney and Travis Trice are both nice prospects, as is Gary Harris (Rivals: 25). Izzo's squad should be better and deeper at every position besides Draymond Green's point forward position. Green can't be replaced, but Michigan State has to be considered a Big Ten contender.
Michigan only tied for third (with Wisconsin) with a +0.07 PPP margin in conference play, but they went 7-1 in games decided by five points or less or in overtime against Big Ten opponents. That luck earned them a share of the Big Ten regular season title and a 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The big question mark, though, is the NBA Draft status of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr. Neither player has made a public decision yet, though my guess is that Burke will go while Hardaway will stay. They also lose Zach Novak and Stu Douglas to graduation, and Evan Smotrycz to transfer. That means that the only player from the six man regular rotation who will certainly be back next season is big man Jordan Morgan. They also return Matt Vogrich, who is a decent shooting guard, along with big man Jon Horford, who missed more than half of last season with a foot injury. But with a thin roster, a lot of pressure will fall on the 2012 recruiting class: Mitch McGary (Rivals: 3), Glen Robinson III (Scout: 7 SF, Rivals: 34) and Nick Skauskus (Scout: 17 SF, Rivals: 79). Robinson and McGary alongside Morgan should give Michigan a really talented front court, but I have major concerns with that backcourt, even if Hardaway comes back. There is just zero depth. A very underrated loss is Carlton Brundidge, a 2011 shooting guard who played very rarely as a true freshman, but who is also transferring.
Indiana is a team getting a lot of hype for next season. They beat Kentucky, Ohio State and Michigan State before making a run to the Sweet 16, and none of their top five scorers graduate. Their only graduations are Verdell Jones, Matt Roth and Tom Pritchard. The concern is the NBA Draft, which both Cody Zeller and Christian Watford are considering. At this point, though, it does look like both will be back. Jordan Hulls will handle the point, while both Victor Oladipo and Remy Abell can play shooting guard. There's always a chance that Maurice Creek, who was excellent as a freshman, can finally get healthy. They also add Kevin Ferrell (Scout: 4 PG, Rivals: 17) and Ron Patterson (Rivals: 131). Assuming Zeller and Watford come back, Indiana will have the deepest front court they've had since the Bob Knight era, with Will Sheehey, Derek Elston and Austin Hetherington back, along with the additions of Hanner Perea (Scout: 5 PF, Rivals: 16) and Jeremy Hollowell (Scout: 6 SF, Rivals: 48). If Zeller and Watford do return, Indiana will get hype as a potential #1 team in the nation next season.
One of the misconceptions about Wisconsin each year is that their offense isn't any good. It's natural when a team plays at a slow pace. But Wisconsin was 43rd in the nation in offensive efficiency, and after you control for strength of schedule they're much higher (Pomeroy rated them the 18th best offense in the nation). The concern is that do-everything star Jordan Taylor graduates. With Rob Wilson graduating also, that leaves a lot of perimeter offense gone. Josh Gasser and Ben Brust are the only tested perimeter players. A lot of next year's success will depend on the development of George Marshall, a 2011 recruit who took a redshirt but who will likely take over the point next season. Traevon Jackson is another potential perimeter contributor. While backcourt depth is an issue, Wisconsin's entire front court will be back. The starters were Jared Berggren, Ryan Evans and Mike Bruesewitz. Frank Kaminsky, Evan Anderson and 2011 recruit Jarrod Uthoff are three other young prospects. Bo Ryan also adds a blue chip recruit: Sam Dekker (Scout: 8 SF, Rivals: 18). With all of their best defenders back (Jordan Taylor often took it easy on defense to save himself for offense), Wisconsin will be excellent defensively again. They have enough weapons to remain good offensively, and will be awfully deep. More importantly, Bo Ryan has been at Wisconsin for 11 seasons and has never missed the NCAA Tournament and has never finished worse than a tie for fourth in the Big Ten. Don't bet against that streak extending to a 12th season.
Purdue suffers heavy losses: Robbie Hummel, Lewis Jackson and Ryne Smith. Terone Johnson will take over the point, though he didn't show improvement over his freshman season. DJ Byrd is a quality scorer, and they have a pair of quality big man prospects: Travis Carroll and Jacob Lawson. But compared to the other top teams in the Big Ten, that's very little experience back. Matt Painter does have a deep 2012 recruiting class to build around for the future, but it's hard to not see the team dropping off a bit next season. Northwestern is another team that suffers heavy losses: John Shurna, Davide Curletti and Luka Mirkovic out of an eight man rotation. They will get back Tre Demps and Mike Turner, though. Demps missed most of last season with an injury while Turner redshirted. Demps, alongside Dave Sobolewski, Alex Marcotullio, JerShon Cobb and Reggie Hearn will form a very deep backcourt. Their concern is on the interior, where they return zero players with experience. Mike Turner will be pressed into immediate service, as will top 2012 recruit Kale Abrahamson (Scout: 30 SF, Rivals: 138).
Minnesota is the dark horse team in the Big Ten for next season. The Gophers were a fairly good team this past season but were undone by a killer schedule to finish the regular season which sent them into a losing streak they couldn't recover from in time. A win over Northwestern in the Big Ten tournament and then a run to the NIT title game was an encouraging finish to the season. In addition, they got a sixth year of eligibility for star big man Trevor Mbakwe, who missed most of last season with an injury. The only graduation is Ralph Sampson, and they also lose Chip Armelin to transfer. Rodney Williams is expected to come back for another season, and they also hope to have Trent Lockett, the transfer from Arizona State, able to play right away. With Austin Hollins, Andre Hollins, Julian Welch and Joe Coleman back, that's a deep set of talent, even before mentioning prospects like Elliot Eliason and Andre Ingram.
Iowa is another team that should be improved next season. They lose star sharpshooter Matt Gatens, along with Bryce Cartwright, but have a whole bunch of good young players. Roy Devyn Marble, Aaron Wright, Josh Oglesby, Zach McCabe and Melsahn Basabe all played well this past season and all have at least two seasons of eligibility remaining. Fran McCaffery has a deep recruiting class also, led by Adam Woodbury (Scout: 14 C, Rivals: 42) and Mike Gesell (Scout: 17 PG, Rivals: 96). The ability of Gesell to take over the point for the graduating Cartwright is probably the biggest concern for the team, as is a defense that needs to improve in the half court. McCaffery has tried to install a very high tempo team, but if they're not forcing turnovers and can't get stops in the half court, it's always going to limit their ceiling in the Big Ten.
1. Indiana - I will obviously drop Indiana if they lose Zeller and/or Watford go pro, but if both of them come back then Indiana will have a good chance to be the #1 team in the nation next season. Tom Crean will have tons of talent to work with. My one concern is whether they'll be able to play better when the pressure is on them. Last season they were at their best at home and when they had no pressure on them. They struggled when they were "supposed" to win games, particularly on the road. That will have to improve to win the Big Ten.
2. Ohio State - If either Cody Zeller or Christian Watford go pro, I'll move Ohio State up to the #1 spot. Jared Sullinger was the key to the offense this past season and he leaves, but DeShaun Thomas has monster talent. If Amir Williams starts then he will, along with Aaron Craft, anchor a defense that could be the best in the nation.
3. Wisconsin - The Badgers will be a lot deeper and could be even better defensively than last season. The concern is replacing the creative abilities of Jordan Taylor on offense, but it seems like almost every year we wonder that about Wisconsin, and Bo Ryan always delivers. If star recruit Sam Dekker can be a big weapon as a true freshman then Wisconsin could contend for a Big Ten title.
4. Michigan State - Tom Izzo will have a lot of depth, and again will have a physical and formidable front line, but Keith Appling was very inconsistent last season. Without Draymond Green, the Spartans do not have a lot of reliable, experienced scoring back. With all of the premier defenses in the Big Ten, Michigan State is going to have to be strong offensively to have a chance to win the conference.
5. Minnesota - Tubby Smith will have more talent than he's ever had at Minnesota, though the reality is that Minnesota has had a lot of raw talent each of the past few seasons. They keep under-performing because of off-court issues and on-court injuries. And you wonder how the team is going to respond to yet another player being run off to replace an incomer (does anybody really believe that Chip Armelin's transfer was voluntary?). I just get bad vibes from this program, which is the only reason I don't have them a spot or two higher.
6. Michigan - The Wolverines are the hardest team in the conference to predict because of the NBA uncertainty. If Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr come back for another season then I could see myself moving them as high as third or fourth, but if both go then the Wolverines are going to be a bubble team at best. They'll be strong on the interior but will have almost no backcourt. The transfers of Evan Smotrycz and Carlton Brundidge are the two most underrated losses in the entire conference.
7. Iowa - I though Iowa was going to be better this past season. They showed flashes of brilliance, but also inconsistency. Fran McCaffery has drastically improved the talent level at Iowa since taking over for Todd Lickliter, but he's not going to win consistently in the Big Ten by trying to out-athlete his opponents. They will have to get more consistent offensively and their defensive efficiency will have to improve.
8. Purdue - Matt Painter is one of the best coaches in the nation and he has a lot of talent to work with, but it's awfully young. Robbie Hummel and Lewis Jackson were the two indispensable players this past season, and both are gone. It's going to be a rebuilding season for Purdue.
9. Northwestern - You can argue that John Shurna is the most Northwestern-y player ever. In a line of goofy white guys who score a lot of points, Shurna might be the goofiest of them all and he's also the all-time leading scorer at Northwestern. Northwestern's front court will be almost completely bereft of talent next season. I do really like their backcourt, particularly Dave Sobolewski, and if you could combine the Northwestern backcourt with the Michigan front court than you'd have a heck of a team... but without any defensive stoppers or rebounders I just struggle to see where Northwestern will find enough offense.
10. Illinois - If John Groce can hang onto his entire roster then Illinois can contend to get back to the NCAA Tournament, with only Sam Maniscalco graduating. But Meyers Leonard is probably going pro, and there's a risk of multiple players leaving via transfer. There was a horrible chemistry with this team this past season, and I don't expect Groce to be able to clean it up immediately, particularly without any big 2012 recruits yet signed.
11. Penn State - Only Cammeron Woodyard graduates from a team that was frisky this past season. Pat Chambers did a really nice job getting his kids to give maximum effort, and he just lacked the talent to execute it. Tim Frazier got a lot credit from the media, but the reality is that he's overrated - he put up a lot of stats just because he was the playmaker on almost every offensive possession all season. They should be better next season, but still lack the top of the rotation talent to hang at the top half of the league.
12. Nebraska - I really like the hire of Tim Miles, but he's taking over a roster that loses four key players to graduation, and a fifth (Jorge Brian Diaz) to professional basketball overseas. Brandon Ubel is the only player Nebraska has coming back who is a proven Big Ten quality talent. Unless Tim Miles pulls some nice prospects or Juco transfers out of a hat this summer, Nebraska is going to struggle to win more than one or two Big Ten games next season.
Sunday, April 08, 2012
The Big 12 membership continues to change each year, and continues to be unstable. For now, they're still at ten teams. Missouri and Texas A&M are out, while West Virginia and TCU are in. On the court, Kansas won at least a share of the Big 12 regular season title for the eighth consecutive season, which is a tremendous record of dominance in the modern era. We're not in the 1950s anymore - it's a lot harder to be dominant every single year. That said, I do wonder just how good the Big 12 was this past season. Throughout the regular season the Big 12 looked like the clear second best conference in the nation, behind only the Big Ten. But other than Kansas and Baylor, the Big 12 really underwhelmed in the NCAA Tournament, to the point that the Big East caught up in the computer polls. It's a mistake to overreact to a limited sample size like the NCAA Tournament, but in a 30 game season you're working with a limited sample size by definition. I'll admit uncertainty - I just don't know how good this conference was.
Kansas loses Tyshawn Taylor and Connor Teahan to graduation. Thomas Robinson hasn't yet officially announced that he's going pro, but it's almost a certainty that he will. Elijah Johnson and Jeff Withey are two players that could go pro, but both are saying for now that they'll be back. With Robinson gone, Withey is going to be very important next season. For some reason, the media doesn't want to recognize how good Withey is defensively. It was Withey, not Anthony Davis, who led the nation in block percentage, and Withey completely shut down Anthony Davis in the National Title game. Withey's offense can use some major work, but he will probably be the premier interior defensive player in the nation next season. With Tyshawn Taylor leaving, a big question is who will handle the point next season. Elijah Johnson might be the team's primary playmaker, but he's better as a scorer than as a creator. Naadir Thorpe, a 2011 recruit, could take over the point. Travis Releford is another perimeter scorer, and they will add Ben McLemore, a 2011 recruit who took a redshirt, and 2012 recruit Anrio Adams. In the front court alongside Withey, Kevin Young and Justin Wesley are the only two returners. Jamari Traylor was a 2011 recruit who took a redshirt, while Bill Self has a deep set of 2012 recruits: Perry Ellis (Scout: 6 PF, Rivals: 24), Andrew White (Scout: 9 SF, Rivals: 56) and Zach Peters (Scout: 26 PF, Rivals: 144). Obviously Thomas Robinson is a huge loss, but Tyshawn Taylor was sometimes more trouble than he was worth. With so much new talent coming in, and with Bill Self's history at Kansas, it seems a near certainty that Kansas will contend for another Big 12 title.
With Missouri gone, the next team to talk about is a Baylor squad that made it all the way to the Elite 8 - the only other Big 12 team to be satisfied with their NCAA Tournament performance. Baylor loses Quincy Acy and Anthony Jones to graduation, but the real question is the NBA Draft. I expect Perry Jones III to go pro, but Quincy Miller is a really tough call, and I'll have to do this preview not knowing. If they both go pro then Baylor will return almost no front court experience. Anthony Jones and Corey Jefferson are both very good prospects, though not very tested. There will be a lot of pressure put on the shoulders of 2012 recruits Isaiah Austin (Scout: 2 C, Rivals: 5), Ricardo Gathers (Scout: 10 PF, Rivals: 37) and Chad Rykhoek (Rivals: 135). Regardless of what happens, Baylor will have a really good backcourt. Pierre Jackson is an explosive offensive creator, and the whole nation saw how Brady Heslip could shoot in the NCAA Tournament. AJ Walton can handle the point when Jackson is on the bench, and Deuce Bello is a solid prospect for the future. Baylor also adds LJ Rose (Scout: 10 PG, Rivals: 95).
The breakout team in the Big 12 was Iowa State. There's no question that it was a remarkable job by Fred Hoiberg, who only increased the size of his legend in Ames. The question I've had all season long, however, has been the sustainability of their success because of the dependence on transfers. The flow of transfers hasn't stopped yet, though. Korie Lucious comes in from Michigan State (he's a really good offensive creator, though inconsistent) and Will Clyburn (a good interior scorer) comes in from Utah. Both players will be immediately important. Iowa State lacked a real point guard last season, so I'd expect Lucious to take over that role. Clyburn will help replace star Royce White, who is going pro. Percy Gibson and Anthony Booker will help replace White's production as well. Iowa State's graduations are Chris Allen and Scott Christopherson. Both were quality perimeter players, but Hoiberg has plenty of options to replace them. Their top recruits are Georges Niang (Scout: 20 PF, Rivals: 98) and Sherron Dorsey-Walker (Rivals: 122). Honestly, with this level of depth, my only real concern is if Iowa State has the front of the line talent to go toe-to-toe with the starers on Kansas, Baylor and Texas. Royce White was so dominant last season.
Texas was one of the most disappointing teams in the nation this past season. With the talent to win the Big 12 they ended up spending most of the season around 25-30th in the computers. Normally a team that young will improve throughout the season, but Texas did not. Throw in some brutal luck (2-7 in games decided by five points or less or in overtime) and you have a team that almost missed the NCAA Tournament altogether. Clint Chapman and Alex Wangmene graduate, while J'Covan Brown is going pro. Myck Kabongo will handle the point again, and he'll have Sheldon McClellan alongside. Julien Lewis started 25 games last season, though he struggled at times and could lose his spot Sterling Gibbs or Javan Felix (Scout: 13 PG, Rivals: 92). Clint Chapman's post defense will be difficult to replace, though Jonathan Holmes and Jaylen Bond played well in short minutes. Rick Barnes stocked his 2012 recruiting class with size: Cameron Ridley (Scout: 5 C, Rivals: 21), Prince Ibeh (Scout: 16 C, Rivals: 54) and 6'10" Connor Lammert. I think Texas will have more NBA talent on next year's team, but I worry about the loss of Chapman and Brown's experience. In big games this past season those were the two that made almost every big play.
Kansas State is an intriguing team. I know that most Kansas State fans are upset about losing Frank Martin, and obviously he's had tremendous success and is a tremendous recruiter, but (as I've said many times) Kansas State always looks poorly coached. They are sloppy and lack at fundamentals. Bruce Weber is not a Hall of Fame coach, but he did a good job in an overrated situation at Illinois. Illinois is not Indiana or Duke, despite what the media thinks. Bill Self had a lot of success, but he took over an Illinois program that had made four Sweet Sixteens since the early 1960s. People who think Illinois is such a premier job generally do not understand that the school is no closer to Chicago than Notre Dame, Purdue or Wisconsin, and that the Chicago AAU scene is so complicated that nobody is even going to dominate recruiting there. And I really like the hiring of Chris Lowery as an assistant. Lowery was an assistant under Weber at Southern Illinois and then had a lot of success as a head coach there (three NCAA Tournaments, including a Sweet 16), and who is known for his defensive coaching. As for the team itself, everybody is back other than Jamar Samuels, Rodney McGruder is becoming one of the best players in the Big 12, and a deep 2011 recruiting class could become much more involved after a year of seasoning under the new coaching staff. They allowed only 0.95 PPP in conference play last season (2nd best in the Big 12), and should be even better next season. Kansas State fans are very concerned, but I don't see any reason to expect a big drop-off.
West Virginia, heading into their first Big 12 season, is experiencing a lot of turnover. Superstar Kevin Jones (who would have earned my vote for Big East Player of the Year last season) is gone, as is point guard Truck Bryant. Gary Browne will likely take over the point - he was inconsistent as a freshman, but that could change with experience. Jabarie Hinds is another key returner. A huge addition is Juwan Staten, who was a very highly touted Penn State recruit who left that program without playing a game because of the coaching change there. In the front court, Deniz Kilicli is the only real proven returner, but they have another huge transfer in 6'10" Aaric Murray, who averaged 13.7 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game in two seasons at La Salle. 6'10" Kevin Noreen played well as a freshman and could be a big contributor next season. Elijah Macon (Scout: 12 PF, Rivals: 57) is a good prospect as well.
A dark horse team has to be Oklahoma because they return all five starters, four of whom will be seniors next season. Steven Pledger is the star while Romero Osby is a solid interior player and Sam Grooms is a capable point guard. Their biggest problem last season was depth, and Lon Kruger has a deep recruiting class coming in, led by Jelon Hornbeak (Rivals: 89) and Buddy Hield (Rivals: 94).
1. Kansas - I might just stop picking against Kansas to win the Big 12 until after they actually fail to win a share of the title. Assuming Jeff Withey and Elijah Johnson stick to their word and come back they will be awfully deep and talented, and one of the best teams in the nation.
2. Baylor - After Kansas, the Big 12 is wide open. And if Quincy Miller goes pro then I might drop Baylor a spot or two, but their backcourt should be even better than it was this past season, and Scott Drew has a new crop of long, athletic bigs ready to go.
3. Iowa State - I don't know if Fred Hoiberg can continue to win by depending on multiple quality transfers each season - it's kind of the bizarro-Calipari system - but Iowa State should be deeper than last season and better at every spot other than center, where Royce White was tremendous.
4. Texas - Myck Kabongo could be the best point guard in the Big 12 next season, and Texas will have more depth and NBA talent than this past season. Replacing J'Covan Brown's scoring and Clint Chapman's interior defense is going to be very difficult, though. If all of their recruits pan out then the Longhorns could challenge for the Big 12 title. If they don't? Texas could miss the NCAA Tournament altogether. They're a difficult team to project.
5. West Virginia - Kevin Jones is irreplaceable, but I really like the additions of Juwan Staten and Aaric Murray. You could plug those two in as Big 12 starters right away. Front court depth and the development of Gary Browne will probably be the keys to next season's success.
6. Oklahoma - The talent level at Oklahoma needs to be drastically improved. There are no real blue chippers in Lon Kruger's 2012 recruiting class, but scouting is an inexact science. With a recruiting class that large, it's not unreasonable to think they could get a hit or two. And a team that returns all five starters and then that will likely start four seniors next season? They should be improved, at least.
7. Kansas State - The program is in an uncertain place in the short term because you never know how a team will react to a totally different type of head coach. In the long term I expect Bruce Weber and Chris Lowery to have this program in the NCAA Tournament most seasons, but they have to hang onto all of their returning players and recruits to have a good shot next season.
8. Oklahoma State - The seat is starting to get warm under Travis Ford, and the team loses Keiton Page, who I believe was a 12th year senior (maybe it just seemed that way). They did get a ton of production from a very good 2011 recruiting class, but the star of that class (Le'Bryan Nash) could decide to go pro. In my opinion, Nash should stick around for another season. He has tremendous talent, but it's still really raw. He's the type of player who will likely go in the First Round and then will get buried in the D-League or as a team's 12th man for the next three seasons. If he does come back then OSU should be improved next season, but probably not enough to get back to the NCAA Tournament.
9. Texas Tech - Billy Gillispie will have Texas Tech better in year two than they were in year one, but the cupboard was totally bare when he took over. His 2011 recruiting class was deep, as is his 2012 class, but he doesn't have the type of blue chip superstars who will immediately vault Texas Tech up the standings. It's going to take a few years.
10. TCU - Being in the Big 12 can only help with recruiting, and new head coach Trent Johnson has had success rebuilding both Nevada and Stanford. He struggled at LSU, but he deserves a fair chance at TCU. He's going to have to completely rebuild their roster to fill it with Big 12 quality talent, though. They're going to really struggle in year one.
The Pac-12 was the most underrated conference in the nation.
Before you tell me I'm an idiot, let me say first that the conference was historically awful both at the top and at the bottom, and was brutally bad in early season non-conference play. By my count the conference finished the regular season 1-32 against non-conference RPI Top 50 opponents. Advanced stats go back more than a decade, and there has never been a team from a power six conference rated outside the Top 300 in that time. Utah not only finished outside the Top 300 in both Pomeroy and the Sagarin PREDICTOR, but they didn't even finish in last in the conference. California was the only team in the conference that deserved an at-large bid, and anybody complaining about Washington's at-large resume didn't compare Washington's at-large resume to the resume of teams like NC State or South Florida. But that all said, Sagarin rated the Pac-12 the 6th best conference in the nation while Pomeroy had them in 7th (in a virtual tie with the Atlantic Ten for 6th). And even before their success in the NIT the conference spent most of the season rated 7th or 8th in the computers, which is no worse than the conference has been in several recent seasons. Yet according to the media and casual fans, the Pac-12 was so historically awful that they were a punch line. Suggesting that the Pac-12 was as good as the Mountain West or Atlantic Ten was a viewpoint that was laughed at.
Why did the computers have so much more respect for the Pac-12 than the media and most fans? Because the media noticed how bad the Pac-12 was at the very top and very bottom. What the media never notices is the depth of a conference. The Pac-12 finished with 9 (nine!) teams rated 88th or higher in Pomeroy. Getting 3/4 of the conference in the Pomeroy Top 100 was a feat only outdone by the Big Ten this past season, and tied with the Big East. It's a higher ratio than either the SEC or Big 12. Four Pac-12 teams got into the NIT: three made the Elite 8, two made the Final Four (the only Elite 8 loser fell to another Pac-12 team), and Stanford won the title. The Pac-12 also produced two of the four semifinalists in the CBI. So while the Pac-12 only had one at-large quality team, they had a whole bunch of teams like Washington, Arizona, Stanford, Oregon and Colorado that were legitimately solid teams.
I'll start previewing next season with last year's best team: California. Cal loses only two players, but they're arguably the two most important players on the roster: Jorge Gutierrez and Harper Kamp. That said, they have young players ready to fill in. Richard Solomon, assuming he comes back from his academic suspension, can replace a lot of Kamp's numbers. 6'9" David Kravish was excellent as a true freshman as well. Allen Crabbe will be back on the wing, and 6'10" Robert Thurman could be a contributor as well. 6'8" Kaileb Rodriguez joins as part of the 2012 recruiting class. In the backcourt, depth is more of a concern. Justin Cobbs is the only reliable perimeter player coming back. A lot will be needed from top 2012 recruit Tyrone Wallace (Scout: 16 PG, Rivals: 78) for Cal to contend for another Pac-12 title.
The Pac-12 regular season champ was Washington. Darnell Gant is the only graduation, but Tony Wroten and Terrence Ross are leaving early for the NBA Draft. They do return point guard Abdul Gaddy, perimeter scorer CJ Wilcox as well as big men Desmond Simmons and 7-footer Aziz N'Diaye. And while their 2012 recruiting class is light (so far only a single Juco transfer signed), they will get back Scott Suggs, who is 6'6" and hit 45% of his threes in 2010-11 before missing the 2011-12 season with an injury. They also have a bunch of 2011 prospects with a lot of talent that simply didn't get a lot of playing time as freshmen. Shawn Kemp, Jr got the most playing time of the bunch, but the one with the highest ceiling might be shooting guard Hikeem Stewart.
Colorado won the Pac-12 tournament and then shocked UNLV in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. It was a great run, though obviously nobody could have seen it coming. They lost three of their final four regular season conference games, including a sweep on a road trip to Oregon. They suffer heavy losses, with three starters graduating. Their best player was Andre Roberson, and he does have two years of eligibility left if he wants them. For this preview I'm going to assume he comes back for his junior season, though he could still choose to go pro. But even though Colorado won't likely be as good next season, there's no question that Tad Boyle has put together a nice young core for the future. Spencer Dinwiddie and Askia Booker both played very well as true freshman and will likely be the starting backcourt next season. 6'6" Damiene Cain is another good prospect. Meanwhile, the 2012 recruiting class is very deep, led by Josh Scott (Scout: 17 C, Rivals: 65), Xavier Johnson (Scout: 15 SF, Rivals: 83) and Wesley Gordon (Scout: 26 C).
For much of the season, Stanford was the clear second best team in the Pac-12. They didn't have a lot of raw talent, but they were well coached and played tough defense. A brutal stretch from late January through early February led to five losses in six games and ruined their at-large chances. They did play better ball toward the end of the regular season and lost a narrow game to California in the Pac-12 tournament before going out and winning the NIT - a nice end to the season for a very young team. They lose Josh Owens and Jarrett Mann to graduation, but five of their top seven minute earners were freshmen or sophomores. The best of the bunch is Chasson Randle, who emerged as their best scorer late in the season despite being a true freshman. Josh Huestis is going to be a good interior player, as is Josh Powell. Aaron Bright is already a capable point guard. 6'9" John Gage is another good prospect. Johnny Dawkins has three excellent recruits: Rosco Allen (Scout: 17 PF, Rivals: 73), Grant Verhoeven (Scout: 21 C, Rivals: 132) and Christian Sanders (Scout: 22 SG). After their NIT title, their Sagarin and Pomeroy ratings both moved into the Top 35 in the nation, and they should be even better next season.
Oregon was solid this past season, but they lose three starters and two key bench players to graduation, so they should take a step backwards. EJ Singler does return for one more season, and they have a nice point guard for the future in Johnathan Loyd. 2011 recruit Brett Kingma did very little as a true freshman, and will need to step up as a scorer on the perimeter. Dana Altman's top 2012 recruit is Dominic Artis (Scout: 8 PG, Rivals: 52). A team more likely to have success next season is Arizona. They lose three regular players to graduation: Kyle Fogg, Jesse Perry and Brendon Lavender, but they do return Solomon Hill and will hope to get Kevin Parrom back to where he was in 2010-11. Sean Miller got a lot of production from his 2011-12 freshman, led by a dynamic backcourt duo: Josiah Turner and Nick Johnson. 6'9" Angelo Choi is another 2011 recruit to keep an eye on for the future. Sean Miller's 2012 recruiting class is also ridiculous: Brandon Ashley (Scout: 1 PF, Rivals: 13), Kaleb Tarczewski (Scout: 4 C, Rivals: 20), Gabe York (Scout: 10 SG, Rivals: 31) and Grant Jerrett (Scout: 7 C, Rivals: 50).
UCLA was probably the most underrated team in the Pac-12. They outscored opponents by +0.10 PPP, just narrowly behind conference leader California's +0.13 PPP. The team played much better after Ben Howland finally booted Reeves Nelson off the team, and only loses Lazeric Jones and Jerime Anderson to graduation. Josh Smith could go pro, though he's been so underwhelming in his two seasons that he's never going to be one of the most important players on this Bruins team. The Wear twins will anchor the front court next season, and Anthony Stover is a prospect who will play more minutes if Josh Smith does leave. They have two blue chip prospects: Kyle Anderson (Scout: 2 SF, Rivals: 2) and Jordan Adams (Scout: 16 SF, Rivals: 74). In the backcourt, they have scorers in Norman Powell and Tyler Lamb, but they need a point guard and they need depth. If Ben Howland doesn't add another backcourt prospect, they could play Kyle Anderson at shooting guard as part of a very long lineup.
If there's a dark horse team in the Pac-12 it's Oregon State. They were only 7-11 in conference play, but they did get to the Pac-12 tournament semifinals, and then to the semifinals of the CBI. More importantly, they don't have a single graduation among their top eight minute earners. That said, it does look like Jared Cunningham will leave for the NBA Draft. The biggest area where they'll miss Cunningham will be on defense, where Oregon State was putrid this past season (tied for second worst in the Pac-12 with 1.06 PPP allowed in conference play). Their interior defense should be better with more playing time for 6'10" Eric Moreland. They also will get 6'9" Daniel Gomis, who redshirted and has four years of eligibility left. Assuming Jared Cunningham goes pro, Oregon State will only have two backcourt regulars back: Ahmad Starks and Roberto Nelson. That will put a lot of pressure on top 2012 recruit, 6'4" Langston Morris-Walker (Rivals: 146).
1. Stanford - With the NIT title, Stanford finishes the season ranked only narrowly behind California as the second best team in the Pac-12 by both Sagarin and Pomeroy. And if not for a couple of losses that they allowed to snowball in the middle of the conference season (something that will occur from time to time with young teams) they would have ended the season the #1 team in the Pac-12. With five of their top seven minute earners, a deep recruiting class, and a superb rising-sophomore to build around (Chasson Randle), they could be a borderline Top 25 team next season.
2. California - Cal loses arguably their two best players, but I don't think they're going to fall off a cliff. Replacing leadership is difficult, but Mike Montgomery has plenty of talent to replace most of their production. The Cal Bears should contend for another at-large bid.
3. UCLA - I might drop the Bruins a spot or two if Josh Smith goes pro, but I do think that UCLA was a lot better this past season than most other people thought they were. The Wear twins plus Tyler Lamb will form a very good trio, and Ben Howland has a solid recruiting class. Obviously they had some chemistry/off-court issues the past few years, but I don't buy the idea that Ben Howland suddenly forgot how to coach. They played much better after the Reeves Nelson circus left town, and should be better next season.
4. Arizona - Sean Miller has been bringing in blue chip recruiting classes every season. Eventually they're going to have to win some games, or else the University of Arizona needs to get somebody else to coach Miller's recruits.
5. Washington - Losing Tony Wroten, Terrence Ross and Darnell Gant is a big problem, but Washington does still have talents like Abdul Gaddy and CJ Wilcox back, and a 2011 recruiting class that had a lot of raw talent but that just couldn't get a lot of playing time this past season. They'll still have the athletes to look really good for stretches next season.
6. Oregon State - Even if Jared Cunningham goes pro, Oregon State will still return seven of their top eight minute earners, and have a full offseason to figure out their defensive woes.
7. Colorado - Tad Boyle has a talented young core for the future, but it's to imagine them not taking a step back for one year at least with so many players gone, even if Andre Roberson comes back.
8. Washington State - A run to the finals of the CBI should give Ken Bone's squad some confidence heading into next season. They have one more season of Brock Motum, and a nice prospect to build around in rising-sophomore DaVonte Lacey.
9. Oregon - I'm not quite sure what is going on at Oregon. They have oodles of money and a new arena, but Dana Altman seems to be a little too focused at jumping to his next job, even though he really hasn't had much success at Oregon yet.
10. USC - This USC team wasn't particularly good to begin with, and injuries sent them into a tailspin. Getting Jio Fontan (who missed the entire season) and Aaron Fuller back will make a huge difference. Remember how much their 2010-11 season turned around after Jio Fontan became eligible. The offense was horrific (0.82 PPP in conference play - dead last in the Pac-12), and Fontan could play a huge role in turning that around. It's almost impossible for a team that finished near 250th in the computers to get remotely near a postseason appearance in only one season, though.
11. Arizona State - It's been a tough stretch for Herb Sendek at Arizona State, and the hits keep coming. Star Trent Lockett is transferring out with one year of eligibility, and there's still no guarantee that blue chip 2011 recruit Jahii Caron will ever suit up for the Sun Devils. That said, if Carson does play, then with zero graduations and a deep recruiting class, Arizona State should be better than they were this past season.
12. Utah - Being the worst team from any major conference in more than a decade means that things probably can only get better for Utah. Josh Watkins led the team with 15.6 points per game, but he was a volume scorer (a horrible 41.8 eFG%) and was considered a bad apple in the locker room. Utah played better after he was booted from the team. With everybody else back and with a decent and deep recruiting class, it's hard to imagine Larry Krystkowiak not putting a better team on the floor next season. I still don't think it will be enough to pull them out of the cellar, though.
The talk about Kentucky every year is about winning with one-and-done freshmen. John Calipari courts this attention each year because of his recruiting and coaching style, though sometimes the media behaves like every player on Kentucky is a freshman. The reality is that older players have always been key contributors on Calipari's most successful teams. Derrick Rose was a key player on that Memphis team that made the National Title game, but the best and most important player on that team was senior Chris Douglas-Roberts. And this past year's Kentucky team not only got major contributions (particularly in the NCAA Tournament) from senior Darius Miller, but they also would not have won the National Title without Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb eschewing the NBA Draft to come back for another season.
John Calipari has another recruiting class chock full of blue chippers, but it's the returning experience that is a concern. Darius Miller graduates, as does Eloy Vargas. Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Terrence Jones are all definitely gone to the NBA Draft, while Marquis Teague and Doron Lamb are both projected to go in the first round. If they all go then the only returning player will be Kyle Wiltjer. Wiltjer is a really good talent who could be a big scorer next season, but I just don't see where all the hype of Kentucky being the #1 team in the nation next season is coming from. No batch of freshmen with Kyle Wiltjer is going to be the best team in the country. If all of the other players leave then Kentucky is going to take at least a little step back. So far, Calipari has signed three blue chippers: Archie Goodwin (Scout: 5 SG, Rivals: 12), Alex Poythress (Scout: 3 SF, Rivals: 19) and Willie Cauley (Scout: 11 C, Rivals: 39). Calipari certainly isn't done, though. He is involved with top recruits like Nerlens Noel and Shabazz Muhammad, and I'll be surprised if he doesn't sign at least two more blue chippers. Certainly he needs them if he only has one returning player. I'll be sure to continue posting over the summer about these new signings.
The team that knocked off Kentucky in the SEC tournament title game was Vanderbilt. Kevin Stallings has done a great job of winning consistently at a school that didn't have much basketball history before he showed up, but now it's time to see how well he is able to replenish the coffers. Festus Ezeli, Jeffery Taylor, Brad Tinsley, Steve Tchiengang and Lance Goulbourne all graduate. Look for 2011 recruit Kedren Johnson to take over the point, and for Rod Odom to play a larger role in the paint. The other good returning prospect is 6'3" Dai-John Parker. Their top 2012 recruits are shooting guards AJ Astroth and Kevin Bright.
Florida was probably the most underrated team in the SEC, going only 2-5 in game decided by five points or less or in overtime. I heard a lot of folks in the media talk about Florida's Elite 8 run coming "out of nowhere". Yet from Midnight Madness through Selection Sunday, Florida was never rated worse than 19th in the Pomeroy ratings. They were always a contender to make a Tournament run. With Patric Young and Kenny Boynton both skipping the NBA Draft, they should be an excellent team again. Erving Walker is the only graduation from the regular rotation, and the only other potential loss is Brad Beal, who might not decided his NBA Draft status until the final week of April. Beal is a projected lottery pick, though, so I think he'll go. The backcourt will still have plenty of offense with Boynton, Scottie Wilbekin and Mike Rosario, along with Michael Frazier (Scout: 20 SG, Rivals: 87). The only concern is the point, where Billy Donovan will probably turn things over to star 2012 recruit Braxton Ogbueze (Scout: 5 PG, Rivals: 62). The front court, with every key player back, will be formidable next season. Patric Young and Erik Murphy both improved in a big way throughout this past season, and Will Yeguete can be a big contributor as well if he can avoid another injury.
The SEC adds two new teams, of course: Missouri and Texas A&M. Missouri had an unbelievable regular season last season. Frank Haith, who was an underwhelming head coach at the University of Miami and who was not Missouri's top choice after Mike Anderson left, ended up being named the Associated Press Coach of the Year. That said, there's no less meaningful award in any sport than the Coach of the Year, which might as well be named the "Coach who happened to be in charge of a high profile team that beat the media's preseason expectations the most" Award. We have seen other coaches take over another coach's players and have success in year one, Bruce Weber at Illinois being a classic example (Bruce Weber also won AP National Coach of the Year in his first season... and 7 years later was fired). Let's see what happens next season when Frank Haith has to start bringing in his own players. Marcus Denmon, Ricardo Ratliffe, Kim English, Matt Pressey and Steve Moore are all gone. The only returning players with experience are Phil Pressey, Michael Dixon and Laurence Bowers (who missed last season with injury, but has been granted a medical redshift for one more season). With so many scholarships open, Frank Haith has a gigantic 2012 recruiting class in place, with at least six players already signed. But not one is a Rivals Top 150 player, so it's unlikely that any are going to be stars as true freshmen. It will take another year or two at least for Haith to get this team back near the top of a conference.
Alabama was the final SEC team to make the NCAA Tournament this past season. Alabama's defense was against excellent, but worries are beginning to crop up about Anthony Grant's ability to develop offense. They have been mediocre offensively in the half court every season that Grant has been there, without showing any clear improvement. And offensive player development hasn't been very good either. As good as their defense is, their ceiling will always be limited if they're not able to score efficiently. JaMychal Green is the only graduation, though it looks like Tony Mitchell will not be back after being suspended and missing much of the latter half of the season. Those losses put a lot of pressure on 2011-12 true freshmen Nick Jacobs and Rodney Cooper to be bigger producers next season. With everybody back, the Alabama backcourt should continue to be ferocious defensively, led by Trevor Releford. Trevor Lacey, Levi Randolph and Andrew Steele are three other proven, quality perimeter players.
Tennessee turned their season around in a big way midway through Year One of the Cuonzo Martin era. The catalyst was the arrival of Jarnell Stokes, whose physical presence was tremendous for a player so young. Cameron Tatum graduates from the starting lineup, as does Renardo Woolridge off the bench, but Jeronne Maymon was better than either of them as a swing forward and will be back, as will Jordan McRae and Josh Richardson. The entire backcourt will be back next season, with Trae Golden developing into one of the best point guards in the nation and Skylar McBee as a strong outside shooter. Wes Washpun is a good backcourt prospect, as is 2012 recruit Armani Moore.
Mississippi State spent much of the year in the Top 25, though they were just the beneficiaries of some luck early in the season which evened out in February and March. Despite a couple of months in the Top 25, they were never rated higher than 50th in Pomeroy. They lost five of their final seven regular season games, and then lost their first round SEC tournament game to Georgia, and then a first round NIT game to UMass. We now enter a new era for a Mississippi State program that has been oozing with NBA talent but that has consistently struggled with attitude problems and maturity. Star Dee Bost finally graduates, as does Brian Bryant. Renardo Sidney and Arnett Moultrie are going pro. Rick Stansbury is out as well, replaced as head coach by Rick Ray, the former Clemson assistant, who has never been a head coach before. Jalen Steele, Rodney Hood and Wendell Lewis are the three returners with extensive experience. Deville Smith, a 2011 recruit, will probably take over the point. DJ Gardner, a highly rated 2011 recruit, would be very useful right now, but he was booted off the team for being a knucklehead on twitter. The biggest concern now is recruiting. Rick Stansbury had a really nice and deep 2012 recruiting class in place. How many of those kids stay? Can Rick Ray add some new recruits? Those are the questions.
Ole Miss loses leading scorer Terrance Henry, but everybody else returns. And despite his size, Henry was actually not a good rebounder. Murphy Holloway led the team in rebounding. Reginald Buckner was very good as well, and was also the team's premier interior defender. I doubt Jelan Kendrick will be back after all of his misbehavior, but Andy Kennedy does add 6'9" Anthony Cortesia (Scout: 13 SF). Jarvis Summers was a capable point guard, and Ladarius White is a nice perimeter prospect. Their top 2012 recruit is arguably Martavious Newby (Scout: 24 SG, Rivals: 97). In my opinion, Henry was a bit overrated as a player - he didn't do anything but score, and wasn't a tremendously efficient scorer either. With some nice young talent, Ole Miss should be better next season.
Arkansas is another team that should be improved next season. They are on the same Mike Anderson plan that Missouri was on five years ago. Anderson was able to install his uptempo, aggressive defense right away, but he still lacks the personnel to execute it properly. This team in particular had problems turning the ball over on offense, which was similar to the case in his first couple of seasons at Missouri. Not only do they return all five starters, but four of their top eight minute earners were freshmen this past season. Anderson put together a sterling 2011 class, led by point guard BJ Young and 6'10" Hunter Mickelson (who was 5th in the nation with a 13.5% block rate). Their 2012 recruiting class is led by small forward JaCorey Williams (Rivals: 127). Mike Anderson is bringing in the players he wants, and now it's just a matter of seasoning.
Here is how I see the SEC ending up:
1. Florida - Even if Brad Beal goes pro, the Florida backcourt should still have plenty of weapons. And with everybody back in the front court, they are going to be very tough to keep off the boards, particularly with the way that Billy Donovan spreads the floor. By the time John Calipari is done with his 2012 recruiting class he'll surely have more NBA talent on his roster, but I don't think they'll have enough experience to beat an underrated Florida team.
2. Kentucky - It's hard to project Kentucky right now because they haven't finished recruiting yet. If Lamb and Teague leave, with only three 2012 recruits signed, Kentucky would basically have four players left. Of course, Calipari is surely going to sign at least two more blue chippers, and perhaps three or four. But my concern, as I said above, is the total lack of experience. If Lamb and Teague leave then the only returner with any experience will be Kyle Wiltjer. There will be no Chris Douglas-Roberts or Terrence Jones or Patrick Patterson on Kentucky next season.
3. Alabama - I'm worried about the ability of Anthony Grant to develop offense, but their defense is going to be excellent again next season. If they can have fewer off-the-court issues they should be a Top 25 team.
4. Tennessee - Depending on which recruits Kentucky lands between now and October, Tennessee could be the SEC team best able to bang bodies with Florida in the paint. Their biggest concern is offensive consistency. They finished dead last in SEC play this last season in offensive turnover rate. That can't all be on Trae Golden - the other players are going to have to learn that they can't win consistently on athleticism alone.
5. Arkansas - Even if Mike Anderson was bringing in blue chippers, it would still end up taking him a few seasons to build an SEC contender. It's just hard for young players to experience such a hectic game on defense without being hectic on offense. Missouri experienced the same problem in Mike Anderson's first few seasons. But if their defense is good enough, they'll win plenty of games even if their offense is sloppy.
6. Missouri - The Tigers obviously aren't going to be nearly as good next season. They aren't going to be bottom feeders, though, with three proven, experienced players in Bowers, Dixon and Flip Pressey. But now here comes the test for Frank Haith. He proved that he could win with Mike Anderson's players. But after that loss to Norfolk State, Missouri fans could turn on him quick if they struggle badly next season.
7. Ole Miss - Terrance Henry is gone, but every other key player will be back. Andy Kennedy has been building a talented roster, so now let's see if he can get Ole Miss to their first NCAA Tournament in more than a decade.
8. Vanderbilt - The roster is completely decimated, but Kevin Stallings is too good of a coach for this team to drop into the SEC cellar.
9. Texas A&M - This team really fell apart late in the season, losing 9 of their final 10 regular season games. They lose David Loubeau and Dash Harris, but will have Khris Middleton and every other key player back, plus a good 2012 recruiting class, led by point guard J-Mychal Reese and shooting guard Alex Caruso.
10. Georgia - Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was probably the best true freshman in the country that nobody heard of in 2011-12. The problem is, who does he have around him? Their offense was brutal, and things could get worse with starting point guard Gerald Robinson graduating.
11. Auburn - Tony Barbee put together a really highly rated 2011 recruiting class, and then got almost zero production out of them as true freshmen. That doesn't mean that they won't eventually turn into good players, but it means that I'm not going to overreact to a highly rated 2012 recruiting class.
12. LSU - The Tigers actually return everybody but Storm Warren, so they have the talent to be better next season. But they don't even have a head coach right now, so it's hard to move them too high in the standings.
13. Mississippi State - Obviously Mississippi State is hoping that a coaching staff change will clean up all of the off court (and on court) maturity problems. But Rick Ray loses his two superstars, as well as two other key contributors. Ray also has no head coaching experience. He may end up being a good coach, but expecting an immediate turnaround is too optimistic.
14. South Carolina - It's the Frank Martin era now in South Carolina. All things considered, it's a really nice hire. But Martin is the prototype of a tremendous recruiter, horrible game coach. People think he's a disciplinarian because of his animated screaming at players, but his players always show everything that a horribly coached team shows: a lot of turnovers, bad defensive rebounding, bad free throw shooting and show-boating. Unless he grabs a couple of blue chippers this summer, it's going to take a full recruiting class or two for Frank Martin to get South Carolina back to the middle of the SEC.
St. Louis was one of the most underrated teams in the nation all season long. They were the team that the dinosaurs in the media used to attack the computer ratings because, of course, it was "preposterous" that they were in the Top 20. But the reality is that they were a Top 20 team. Rick Majerus always builds strong defensive teams, and St. Louis was excellent (Pomeroy rated their defense 10th in the nation). And what changed this year is that they could score both inside and out. The St. Louis resume was mediocre because they scheduled a very soft non-conference schedule (which was their fault), and because they finished the season only 2-5 in games decided by five points or less or in overtime (that's just bad luck). But they proved that their rating wasn't a joke by beating an outstanding Memphis team in the NCAA Tournament before falling in a really close, well-played game against 1-seed Michigan State.
St. Louis does lose two regulars to graduation: Brian Conklin (13.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and Kyle Cassity (3.3 ppg, 1.4 rpg, 1.9 apg), but everybody else will be back. St. Louis has plenty of good perimeter ball handlers with Jordair Jett, Kwamain Mitchell and Mike McCall, so the biggest concern is Conklin and his rebounds. 6'11" Rob Loe (5.2 points and 2.9 rebounds in only 16.3 minutes per game) should fill some of that with additional playing time. St. Louis also expects contributions from 2011 recruits Grandy Glaze and 7-footer John Manning, who both played very lightly as true freshmen. St. Louis retains their best defenders, their best shooters and their best ball handlers, and they've shown consistent improvement in every year since Rick Majerus showed up on campus. As good as they were this past season, there's every reason to think they'll be even better next season.
Temple won the Atlantic Ten regular season title, though their season ended on a sour note with a loss to UMass in the A-10 tournament followed by an upset loss to South Florida in the NCAA Tournament Round of 64. They have a key graduation in Juan Fernandez (11.1 ppg, 43.1 3P%, 3.8 apg), and they also lose Michael Eric, who missed 13 games with injuries. Even though Fernandez led the team in assists, the Owls should still be fine in the ball handling department. Khalif Wyatt and Ramone Moore both averaged more than 3 assists per game, while Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson (9.3 ppg, 56.7 FG%, 6.6 rpg, 2.4 apg) can create offense as well. Their biggest concern this past season was rebounding, particularly with Michael Eric missing time. Anthony Lee (5.0 ppg, 5.2 rpg and 1.2 bpg in only 17.9 minutes per game as a freshman) should develop into a good inside presence, while Fran Dunphy added Daniel Dingle (Scout: 23 PF) and 6'10" DeVontae Watson to his 2012 recruiting class. Another addition is 6'5" Dalton Pepper, a transfer from West Virginia.
Xavier was the third at-large NCAA Tournament team out of the A-10, though they took a circuitous route. After spending time in the Top Ten early on, their season seemed to fall apart after that brawl with Cincinnati, but they recovered in time to get to 10-6 in conference play. A win over St. Louis in the A-10 tournament went a long way toward securing that at-large bid. They lose three starters though, including star Tu Holloway and 7-footer Kenny Frease. The other graduation is Andre Walker (5.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg). Mark Lyons (15.1 ppg, 39.2 3P%, 2.8 apg) is the top returner, while Dez Wells (9.8 ppg, 54.6 eFG% and 4.9 rpg as a true freshman) is their top prospect for the future. Their biggest need is a point guard and another perimeter creator, after years of having Holloway generate the offense. 2011 recruit Dee Davis is a potential point guard of the future, but next year's starter should be Semaj Christon (Scout: 2 PG, Rivals: 72). Chris Mack's other top 2012 recruits are Myles Davis (Scout: 21 SG, Rivals: 140) and Jalen Reynolds (Scout: 19 PF). They also add 6'8" Isaiah Philmore, who scored 15.3 points per game for Towson in 2010-11.
The team that won the A-10 tournament, of course, was St. Bonaventure. That run through the A-10 tournament was driven by Andrew Nicholson (18.5 ppg, 60.1 eFG%, 8.4 rpg, 2.0 bpg), who was spectacular. Nicholson graduates, as does Da'Quan Cook (7.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg). Demitrius Cooper (12.1 ppg, 55.7 eFG%, 6.2 rpg, 2.3 apg) is a really good player who was overshadowed by Nicholson, and the Bonnies also return a couple of good guards in Matthew Wright and Charlon Kloof. They do lack a point guard, though. The point guard of the future was supposed to be 2011 recruit Derrick Millinghaus, but he decided to to take a prep year instead and he has now verbally committed to Ole Miss. They don't yet have a point guard signed in their 2012 class. With Nicholson and Cook leaving, size is also a concern, though again there don't appear to have recruits in place to fill in. It's hard to not see a large drop-off in talent next season.
Dayton is a team that will have a large change-over in roster with three graduating starters, led by Chris Johnson (12.4 ppg, 58.7 eFG%, 6.4 rpg). Their top returners are Kevin Dillard (13.3 ppg, 6.0 apg, 1.4 spg) and Matt Kavanaugh (9.0 ppg, 54.6 FG%, 5.9 rpg). They had a nice freshman in 6'9" Alex Gavrilovic (4.0 points and 2.8 rebounds in 12.9 minutes per game). Archie Miller has a whole bunch of new players coming in, though. Matt Derenbecker scored 6.5 points per game for LSU in 2010-11, and 6'3" Vee Sanford comes in from Georgetown. Their recruiting class features Jevon Thomas (Scout: 22 PG, Rivals: 139) and a pair of 6'8" forwards: Devon Scott and Jalen Robinson.
St. Joe's is a team that should be improved. They played a seven man rotation this past season, zero of whom were seniors and only one of whom was a junior. Carl Jones led the team in scoring (17.0 per game), though the most efficient scorers were Langston Galloway and CJ Aiken (both had an effective field goal percentage over 59%). Halil Kanacevic anchors the defense in the paint and is also a capable passer. Their biggest need is front court depth. 6'8" Papa Ndao only played 8.7 minutes per game off the bench as a freshman, but could see more time next season. Javon Baumann and Isaiah Miles are two 2012 recruits who could provide front court depth as well.
The most underrated team in the A-10 other than St. Louis was La Salle. They only went 3-8 this past season in games decided by five points or less or in overtime, and are also in a good position to be better next season with the graduation of only one starter (Earl Pettis - 15.4 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 1.9 spg). Ramon Galloway was a transfer from South Carolina who was very effective after becoming eligible midseason, and who should shine in a full season. In the middle of next season they'll get the services of 6'1" Tyrone Garland, a transfer from Virginia Tech. They also add another big in 6'8" 2012 recruit Jermaine Davis. Look for expanded play for 6'6" DJ Peterson (48.1% behind the arc as a true freshman).
One last team to keep an eye on for next season is a UMass team that improved dramatically throughout last season. Their Pomeroy rating in late December was around 130th, then moved up to 90th after the A-10 tournament, and then up to 72nd after a run to the NIT Final Four. They lose only one graduation from their regular rotation: Sean Carter (8.1 ppg, 57.3 FG%, 6.7 rpg). Their top returner is Chaz Williams (16.9 ppg, 41.9 3P%, 6.2 apg, 2.2 spg), and their excellent defense (they finished second in the A-10 with 0.96 PPP allowed in conference play) should be even better with additional playing time for Cady Lalanne (1.5 blocks in 14.9 minutes per game as a freshman), who missed half the season with a foot injury. They also will get back top 2011 recruit Jordan Laguerre, who failed to qualify academically for the 2011-12 season, but who should be able to play next season.
1. St. Louis
5. La Salle
6. St. Joseph's
Coming off the conference's second Final Four appearance in less than a decade, the Colonial didn't earn an at-large bid. You can argue that it's a bit disrespectful since Drexel was clearly playing better basketball at the end of the season than a bunch of teams that earned at-large bids, and Drexel was the one team in the Field of 68 that I missed on, but I didn't believe that they earned a bid when I put them in my bracket projection. I was responding to a week of everybody in the media promoting Drexel as a team that deserved to get in, and I thought the Selection Committee would respond to the hype. In reality, Drexel earning an at-large bid would not have made sense based on the history of the Selection Committee. Drexel was only 56th in the Sagarin ELO_CHESS, and it's rare for teams outside the major conferences to get in with an ELO_CHESS that poor. The Selection Committee does not put much more weight on the final 10 or 12 games than the rest of the season, so we can't throw out Drexel's early season struggles. And more importantly, I believe Drexel would have had the softest non-conference strength of schedule for any mid-major team to ever earn an at-large bid. The Selection Committee wants to reward hard schedules so that we have better games in November and December. The sport doesn't want to be like college football, where teams are punished for putting together hard schedules, which leads to only a small handful of quality non-conference games each college football season. Drexel should have had a tougher schedule if they wanted more at-large consideration.
That said, this is supposed to be a preview for next season, and Drexel should be in good shape with only one graduating player: Samme Givens (11.6 ppg, 7.9 rpg). Star Frantz Massenat (13.7 ppg, 45.0 3P%, 4.8 apg) still has two years of eligibility, while Damion Lee (12.0 ppg, 55.4 eFG%, 4.4 rpg) was only a true freshman in 2011-12. Daryl McCoy (6.7 rebounds in only 24.3 minutes per game) is another important returner. Their two biggest concerns this past season were ball handling and interior scoring. Turnovers killed them in their CAA tournament loss to VCU, though Massenat should be much steadier with the ball after another year of seasoning. Interior scoring is a bigger question mark. It's possible that a player like Dartaye Ruffin will become a more aggressive and efficient scorer inside. Bruiser Flint also (I believe) still has a scholarship available to go after a big, though it's unlikely at this point that there are any 2012 bigs that are unsigned that will be skilled enough to score a lot in the Colonial as a true freshman.
VCU loses Bradford Burgess (13.4 ppg, 5.0 rpg), whose leadership was so key this past season. But every other player will be back. Shaka Smart looks like he's going to stay for at least one more season, and he's going to keep his aggressive pressing defense, with the athletes to make it work. This past season they led the entire nation in steals per game (10.5) and turnovers forced per game (17.5). They also led the nation in defensive steals rate (16.0%) and defensive turnover rate (27.3%), so their stats aren't functions of tempo. They were also second in the conference in 3PA/FGA ratio (28.4). It just made it extremely difficult to get consistent scoring against them. I don't think that's going to change next season. The craziest stat to me is that Briante Weber led the entire nation in individual steal percentage (he collected a steal on 7.0% of defensive possessions that he was on the floor) as a true freshman. What does VCU need? Rebounding. Extra playing time for 7-footer DJ Haley will help, while 6'5" Traveon Graham was pretty good on the boards as a true freshman. Shaka Smart has also focused his 2012 recruiting class on size, with players like 6'9" Justin Tuoyo and 6'5" Jordan Burgess. VCU should definitely be improved next season.
The team that finished third in the conference was a disappointing George Mason squad that badly underachieved its talent. I didn't like the Paul Hewitt hire, and he didn't do anything in year one to dissuade me of that view. They lose two starters to graduation, including star Ryan Pearson (17.0 ppg, 53.8 eFG%, 8.2 rp). With Mike Morrison graduating also, the top returning rebounder had 3.3 per game this past season. Obviously they'll look for additional production from Erik Copes, who was a big time 2011 recruit who was underwhelming in his freshman season. They also add Anali Okoloi, a 6'8" transfer from Seton Hall. Their key returners on the perimeter are Bryon Allen (7.5 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 3.7 apg) and Sherrod Wright (9.6 ppg, 57.9 eFG%, 3.3 rpg). With a need for outside shooting, additional playing time for Vaughn Gray (17-for-42 on threes in only 11.3 minutes per game as a true freshman) should help. But without any big recruits for next season, George Mason should be less talented than they were this past season, so I see no reason to think they'll win more games.
Old Dominion loses four starters, including Kent Bazemore (15.4 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 3.1 apg, 2.1 spg) and Chris Cooper (10.5 ppg, 10.1 rpg). Of their six top minute earners returning, though, five were freshmen or sophomores this past season. Redshirt freshman Dimitri Batten is already a quality CAA player, while true freshman Jason Pimental looks like he'll be good down the road as well. Blaine Taylor's 2012 recruiting class is deep, too, so he's clearly restocking the Old Dominion program with plenty of talent. Georgia State is another team that loses four starters. They had a tremendously successful season by their standards, earning a trip to the CIT where they fell to eventual-champion Mercer in the second round. But they don't have the depth on their bench or in their 2012 recruiting class to be set up for the future like Old Dominion is.
Delaware quietly worked their way to a 12-6 conference record, their best since joining the Colonial more than a decade ago. And it was no fluke - they outscored opponents by 0.05 PPP in conference play, the sixth best margin in the conference. And they should be even better next season, with all seven players that earned double-digit minutes per game returning. And they have a player who could eventually become one of the best players in the CAA in Jarvis Threatt (10.7 ppg, 3.9 rpg and 2.3 apg as a true freshman). They add 6'8" Carl Baptiste from St. Joseph's, and have a 6'8" high school recruit in Maurice Jeffers.
One other dark horse team is Northeastern, simply because they return their top six minute earners. But my concern with them is that they may be deep, but they lack the front of the rotation talent that teams like VCU and Drexel have. They turned the ball over on 23.1% of possessions in conference play, and were particularly eaten alive by those top teams (they turned the ball over on 35.8% of offensive possessions in the CAA tournament against VCU). They also lack an explosive scorer - the closest being Jonathan Lee (14.5 ppg, 55.0 eFG%, 3.5 apg). So they should be improved, but their ceiling is limited. One other team to keep an eye on is Hofstra, because of the transfers of Taran Buie from Penn State and Jamal Coombs-McDaniel from UConn, though the rest of their roster has a long way to go to compete in the top half of the Colonial.
4. George Mason
5. Old Dominion
I talked extensively throughout the season about how underrated this Memphis team was. Back in 2010-11 they were a tremendously lucky 14-2 in games decided by five points or less or in overtime. It got them ranked in the Top Ten in the human polls early in the season. Despite the extra experience of returning every player from their regular rotation but one they went 4-5 in games decided by five points or less this past season, and were rated the 306th luckiest team in the nation by Pomeroy. It just goes to show, as I often say, that performances in very close games are basically entirely luck. If players "just know how to win", how did the entire Memphis roster collectively forget how to win with an extra year of experience? They obviously didn't - they were just unlucky, and were very underrated. I was primed to make Memphis one of the dark horses in my Tournament bracket, along with St. Louis (another team that the computers said was very unlucky and underrated). That's when the Selection Committee made its most egregious decision: forcing those two teams to play in the Round of 64. I even joked (kind of) that this might have been the dinosaurs on the Selection Committee sticking it to the stat-heads, like baseball giving the Gold Glove to Derek Jeter long after even most casual fans recognized how bad he is defensively. So instead of a deep Tournament run, Memphis went out in the Round of 64.
Memphis was a young team again this past season, and they will lose only Wesley Witherspoon (7.2 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 1.5 spg) to graduation. Will Barton (18.0 ppg, 55.0 eFG%, 8.0 rpg, 2.9 apg, 1.4 spg) is off to the NBA, though. Adonis Thomas considered leaving for the Draft, but it sound like he's going to stay for another season (he missed half this past season, but averaged 8.8 points and 3.2 rebounds per game when he played). Memphis does basically play like an All-Star AAU team, and their offense relies on having tremendously athletic perimeter players attacking the rim. They will have Joe Jackson, Antonio Barton and Chris Crawford back to do that, as well as 2012 recruit Damien Wilson (Scout: 25 SF, Rivals: 90) and 6'4" Geron Johnson. If they can find a way to work more of the ball through the paint, Tarik Black (10.7 ppg, 68.9 FG%, 4.9 rpg, 1.5 bpg) could be their leading scorer next season, though there isn't a ton of other proven talent in the front court. Adonis Thomas is more of a swing forward, and 6'8" Farrokhan Hall has not played particularly well since transferring in from Seton Hall. They will be looking for major contributions from the gem of Josh Pastner's 2012 recruiting class: Shaq Goodwin (Scout: 4 PF, Rivals: 26).
Southern Miss split the season series with Memphis, was basically identical in the RPI and also got put by the Selection Committee into an 8/9 game, but the reality is that Memphis was the far better team. Where Memphis was unlucky, Southern Miss was lucky, going 12-5 in games decided by five points or less or in overtime. The team suffer major losses, though. They had eight players this past season that earned 15 minutes or more per game, and four of them will graduate, led by Maurice Bolden (9.7 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 1.0 bpg) and Torye Pelham (6.2 ppg, 65.6 eFG% and 2.9 offensive rebounds per game). They also lose Darnell Dodson, a scoring spark off the bench. That said, they do return three excellent players: LaShay Page (11.6 ppg, 3.4 rpg), Neil Watson (12.3 ppg, 4.4 apg) and Jonathan Mills (9.5 ppg, 6.0 rpg). With Bolden and Pelham gone, Mills is the only proven rebounder back, meaning that the development of some bigs should be the most important offseason objective for Larry Eustachy. The best prospect, 7-foot 2011 recruit Christian Robbins, missed last season with an injury. 6'8" Juco transfer Mike Myers is another possibility.
Early in the season, Central Florida looked like a contender to win Conference USA, starting the season 15-4 with wins over Memphis and UConn, and only one bad loss (Louisiana-Lafayette). They faded late, though, going 5-5 in their final ten regular season conference games, then got thumped by 31 points by Memphis in the C-USA tournament, and then by 25 points to Drexel in the first round of the NIT. They should be better next season, though, losing only one of their top six minute earners: AJ Rompza (7.1 ppg, 4.4 apg, 2.4 spg). They should be able to immediately replace most of Rompza's production at the point with transfer CJ Reed, who averaged 16.5 points and 4.3 assists per game over three full seasons at Bethune Cookman. Their strength is in the paint, where they are led by Keith Clanton (14.5 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 1.8 bpg) and Isaiah Sykes (12.3 ppg, 55.5 eFG%, 6.4 rpg). They have a nice up-and-comer in 6'7" Kasey Wilson (3.1 points and 2.2 rebounds in only 7.4 minutes per game as a true freshman, with a 55.9 eFG%). 6'6" Rod Days is another prospect. Their top 2012 recruit is 6'8" Staphon Blair. UCF's concern is on the perimeter. Michael Jordan's son Marcus was the team's second leading scorer (13.7 per game), but he was a volume scorer (a 44.4 eFG%). Matt Williams and Taylor Barnette are two shooting guard prospects in their 2012 class. They need somebody that can hit threes consistently (UCF was dead last in Conference USA with a 31.5 3P% in conference play) to open their offense up.
The other Conference USA team to make the NIT was Marshall, though they were also dumped in the first round (by Middle Tennessee). They lose two starters to graduation as well as their 6th man. The toughest loss is starting point guard Damier Pitts (14.7 ppg, 4.3 apg). The strength of this team was offensive rebounding, though - they led Conference USA with a 40.1 offensive rebounding percentage in conference play - and they will return their four leading rebounders... assuming Dennis Tinnon gets another year of eligibility. Tinnon has only played three years of college basketball, but he has a weird situation where he went to community college and then back to high school to get a high school diploma, and then back to more college, and so the NCAA claims his "five year clock" has run out. Marshall has appealed, and the NCAA has not ruled on the appeal yet. Tinnon (10.2 ppg, 10.0 rpg) was the best rebounder on last year's team. They do have some big man prospects to fill in if Tinnon doesn't return, including 6'10" Nigel Spikes (4.8 rebounds per game), 6'8" Jamir Hanner (2.4 rebounds in only 5.3 minutes per game) and 7'2" Yous Mbao. On the perimeter their star is obviously DeAndre Kane (16.5 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 3.5 apg), and they have a nice prospect in 2011 recruit DeVince Boykins, who took a redshirt last season. Their biggest need is a point guard, though. The starting job might fall to top 2012 recruit Kareem Canty (Scout: 21 PG, Rivals: 121).
Tulsa was another underrated team. They actually finished second in the conference in PPP margin (+0.09). A highlight was a seven game winning streak in C-USA play from January through early February. But it wasn't enough to save Doug Wojcik's job, and he has been replaced by Danny Manning (yes, that Danny Manning). Manning will go into next season losing three key front court players, led by Steven Idlet (10.6 ppg, 53.2 eFG%, 5.3 rpg). DJ Magley and Joe Richard are the other two front court losses. The only returning front court player with any experience is Kodi Maduka (8.1 ppg, 6.3 rpg). Lightly used 7'2" David Wishon is probably the best big man prospect left on the roster. They will be fine on the perimeter, though, returning every player from a roster that led Conference USA in 3P% (38.1% in conference play). Jordan Clarkson (16.5 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 2.5 apg) will be the man on next year's team, and Scottie Haralson (11.1 ppg, 40.7 3P%) is another key returner. But the team is going to be thin, particularly in the front court. They didn't have a big recruiting class in place even before Wojcik was dismissed. Let's see if Danny Manning can find some summer additions.
UAB is another team that has made a change at head coach. Mike Davis is out, replaced by Jerod Haase, who played for Roy Williams and then was a longtime assistant under him at both Kansas and North Carolina. They lose star Cameron Moore (16.1 ppg, 10.5 rpg, 2.4 bpg), but every other player from their regular rotation is back. Jordan Swing (11.2 ppg, 38.7 3P%, 3.9 rpg) is the top returning scorer and Ovie Soko (8.3 ppg, 6.8 rpg) is a quality interior player. They have two other quality perimeter scorers in Quincy Taylor and Preston Purifoy. They don't have any highly touted recruits, though they might even lose one or two of those with Mike Davis being relieved of his duties, but with so much production back I doubt UAB will drop off a cliff next season.
Tulane is a team that should be improved, though they don't have the type of talent at the top of their roster yet to compete near the top of Conference USA. UTEP is team that does have some up-and-coming talent like John Bohannon (11.5 ppg, 58.5 FG%, 7.3 rpg). They lose Gabriel McCulley (11.1 ppg, 56.5 eFG%, 5.5 rpg) to graduation, but they had some nice freshmen this past season that should excel with an extra year of experience. 6'7" Julian Washburn was the second leading scorer on the team (11.2 per game) while Cedric Lang and D'Von Campbell were two other good true freshmen. They have a quality recruiting class led by Twymond Howard (Scout: 24 SF, Rivals: 69) and Chris Washburn (Scout: 25 C, Rivals: 111).
Houston is an intriguing sleeper team, as all three of James Dickey's recruiting classes have been filthy good. Their 2012 class is rated in the Top 20 in the nation by Scout, Rivals & ESPN, with two true blue chippers in Danuel House (Scout: 7 SG, Rivals: 15) and Danrad Knowles (Scout: 16 PF, Rivals: 47). The star of their 2011 class, TaShawn Thomas, has already made a big impact (10.7 ppg, 57.7 FG%, 8.2 rpg, 2.1 bpg). Jherrod Stiggers, another big time 2011 recruit, missed this past season with injury and will be back for next season. They have two other good scorers in Jonathan Simmons and Alandise Harris. Dickey didn't win a lot of games in his first two seasons at Houston, but with this much talent you have to figure that they're going to win games eventually.
2. Central Florida
7. Southern Miss