Monday, April 15, 2013

Preseason BP68

Here we go, folks. My first bracket projection of the season. If you want to know why teams are where they are, please read my conference previews, where I talk about every single team listed before. There are still some recruiting, NBA Draft and transfer decisions to be made, so things are likely to change, but so it goes. I'll have another bracket projection the week of the NBA Draft, where I'll incorporate as much new information as I can.

For those new to this website, I want to explain a few things about the bracket projection below. First, teams in all caps are my projected conference tournament winners. Second, I break up my teams out of the NCAA Tournament by group rather than trying to rank each individual team. I don't think there's much point to trying to separate out the 30th team out of the Field of 68 vs the 31st team out of the Field of 68. It's meaningless.

So I can tell you that St. John's is my first team out of the NCAA Tournament, but don't ask me to list teams beyond that. Because I break up teams out of the Field of 68 into groups, they are sorted alphabetically, first by conference and then within each conference. So for example, Atlantic Ten teams are listed before Big East teams, and within the Atlantic Ten Richmond is listed before St. Joe's. I hope that makes sense.

It's a long way out to next season, and after all of the blogging I've done the past few weeks I'm going to need a little bit of a break here. But enjoy this bracket, interact with me in the comments, on twitter or via e-mail, and let's all settle into the offseason.

Here's how I see things ending up on Selection Sunday 2014:

1. Kentucky

2. Ohio State
2. KANSAS (BIG 12)

3. Virginia
3. Georgetown

4. Oklahoma State
4. Wisconsin
4. North Carolina

5. Iowa
5. Villanova
5. St. Louis

6. Butler
6. Indiana
6. Pittsburgh
6. UConn

7. Colorado
7. Creighton
7. Tennessee
7. Michigan

8. Boise State
8. Notre Dame
8. Baylor

9. Stanford
9. Memphis
9. Syracuse
9. La Salle

10. UCLA
10. Cincinnati
10. UNLV
10. Maryland

11. Kansas State
11. Alabama
11. Purdue

12. Dayton
12. Texas
12. BYU
12. Boston College





Teams seriously considered that just missed the cut:
Houston, Georgia Tech, UMass, Providence, St. John's, Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa State, Oklahoma, Indiana State, Utah State, Arizona State, California, Oregon, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, Denver, St. Mary's

Other teams with a decent shot to get onto the bubble:
SMU, Florida State, Miami (Fl), Richmond, St. Joseph's, Xavier, Northwestern, West Virginia, Southern Miss, UTEP, Wright State, Northern Iowa, Fresno State, San Diego State, Washington, Washington State, Arkansas, LSU, Missouri, San Francisco

Other teams I'm keeping my eye on:
Central Florida, Temple, NC State, Wake Forest, George Mason, Rhode Island, Seton Hall, Montana, Penn State, Drexel, Northeastern, Charlotte, Middle Tennessee, Detroit, Niagara, Buffalo, Western Michigan, Missouri State, Nevada, Oregon State, Lehigh, Texas A&M

2013-14 Preview: AAC

American Athletic Conference

Poor Memphis just can't get out of Conference USA. They finally think they've escaped to the Big East when the Big East pulls the football away Lucy-style, and Memphis ends up back in a conference with UCF, Houston and SMU. And it's just going to get worse a year from now, when Louisville and Rutgers will leave, to be replaced by Tulsa, Tulane and East Carolina. So while this year I'm breaking down the AAC as a major conference, there's a good chance that next year I'll demote them to "mid-major". There's just not a whole lot here. On the plus side, at least this conference has an awesome new name that totally isn't bland corporate nonsense. Who doesn't get excited about the American Athlzzzzzzzzzz.....

Let's pep things up by talking about the defending National Champions, Louisville. And since it looks like Russ Smith is going pro, let me say one last time just how underrated Russ Smith was this past season. He happened to have a clunker in the 5OT Notre Dame game that everybody watched, which meant that the rest of the season he got the blame whenever Louisville didn't play well. A lot of people in the media spent a lot of time playing amateur psychiatrist with him, while the net total of his season blew away what every other player in the nation accomplished. For example, Russ Smith managed to have a better eFG% than Marcus Smart, despite playing a much larger role in his team's offense, yet Smart was given credit for OSU's turnaround and was never accused of shooting him team out of game. Meanwhile, Russ was probably the best defensive player on the best defense in the nation. Not only were they the best defense in the nation, but the Pomeroy ratings had them as the best defense since that 2008-09 Memphis team with Tyreke Evans, Robert Dozier and Shawn Taggert.

Anyway, as I said, Smith is likely gone, as is Gorgui Dieng. Peyton Siva graduates. Obviously there's a hope that Kevin Ware will be able to return from his gruesome injury, but I don't know how they can count on anything from him until we see how his leg heals. That leaves Wayne Blackshear as the only proven backcourt returner. Mike Marra is an option, but he's missed almost the entire last two seasons with injuries, so it's probably asking a lot for him to be productive next season. That will put a lot of pressure on Terry Rozier (Scout: 3 PG) and Anton Gill (Scout: 11 SG, Rivals: 50) to provide significant backcourt productivity. The front court should be okay without Dieng, I think. They don't have anybody who can provide a paint presence defensively like he can, but Chane Behanan, Stephan Van Treese and Montrezl Harrell are all pretty big players, and that doesn't even include Luke Hancock. But Rick Pitino teams depend on that aggressive perimeter defense and quick, athletic perimeter offensive players. Peyton Siva and Russ Smith were as good as Pitino ever had in those roles, and that's why he ended up with his best team at Louisville (and arguably his best team ever... other than maybe that 1996 Kentucky team). If Kevin Ware can't come back and be effective, it's hard to see how Louisville doesn't take a significant step backwards.

Memphis is a hot pick for next season. They were overrated and over-seeded this past season (they went 9-1 in games decided by seven points or less on in overtime), but the only senior in their regular rotation was DJ Stephens. That said, Adonis Thomas is off to the NBA while Tarik Black and Antonio Barton are leaving via transfer. Joe Jackson and Chris Crawford will still give Memphis a really nice starting backcourt with Geron Johnson a pretty nice third guard. But other than that, the only proven returner is big man Shaq Goodwin. Josh Pastner does still have 6'6" Damien Wilson from his 2012 recruiting class, as well as a stacked 2013 recruiting class, led by Austin Nichols (Scout: 11 PF, Rivals: 17), Kuran Iverson (Scout: 13 PF, Rivals: 28) and Nick King (Scout: 8 SF, Rivals: 46). Memphis is the perfect storm of a team likely to fall short of expectations next season. They were lucky in close games this past season and are hit really hard by transfer defections, which are often not noticed by preseason pollsters and prognosticators. Memphis will likely start the season in the middle of the Top 25, but in my opinion they're barely a Tournament team.

The Cincinnati Bearcats were really tough defensively, but their offense was inconsistent (to say the least). They do get star scorer Sean Kilpatrick back, though he wasn't the explosive scorer late in the season that he occasionally has been in the past. Cashmere Wright, JaQuon Parker and Cheikh Mbodj are all graduating, which means that scoring will be a real concern whenever Kilpatrick isn't going off for 30+. Their top returners aside from Kilpatrick are probably 6'7" Titus Robles and 6'8" Justin Jackson, with 6'7" Shaquille Thomas being their best young prospect. Mick Cronin's 2013 recruiting class has one blue chipper: Jermaine Lawrence (Scout: 7 PF, Rivals: 26).

The final NCAA Tournament team from the programs making up this conference next season is Temple. It was nice to see Fran Dunphy break through with a big NCAA Tournament win. He's a fantastic coach, and has been unfairly tarred as one of those coaches who "can't win in the NCAA Tournament". That said, they're heading into a rebuilding season. Star Khalif Wyatt is gone, as is Scootie Randall, Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson, Jake O'Brien and TJ Dileo.  Shooting guard Will Cummings and big man Anthony Lee are the only returners from their regular rotation. So how is Fran Dunphy going to repopulate his roster? With such an experienced roster, he barely touched his 2012 recruiting class. So 6'5" Quentin DeCosey, 6'6" Daniel Dingle and 6'10" Devontae Watson are all good prospects for next season. The highlight of Dunphy's 2013 recruiting class is Josh Brown (Scout: 26 PG, Rivals: 128). But it's going to be a major rebuilding season.

UConn was a very intriguing team this past season. Kevin Ollie did a really nice job holding his team together through the postseason sanctions. Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright and DeAndre Daniels are all considering the NBA Draft, but as far as I can tell they're all likely to return. Omar Calhoun is going to be a very good player, and he will return along with Niels Giffey. A question mark surrounds Enosch Wolf aand Tyler Olander, both of whom have had off-the-court problems which could lead to suspensions or worse. Their top recruit is Kentan Facey (Scout: 15 C, Rivals: 66). So right now, a full five members of their regular rotation are uncertain for next year (Napier, Boatright, Daniels, Wolf and Olander). But if all five return, the Huskies will be clearly improved and will almost certainly return to the NCAA Tournament.

The sleeper team in the AAC for next season is Houston. The Cougars really were not that bad of a team this past season. They went 7-9 in Conference USA and won 20 games, including a victory over Texas in the CBI. And they should expect to be a lot better next season. Their top four minute earners this past season were freshmen and sophomores, and their only graduation from their regular rotation came off the bench (Leon Gibson). They have two legitimately explosive scorers (TaShawn Thomas and Joseph Young), who should become a lot better known by casual college basketball fans next season. They also got a lot of nice production from star 2012 recruit Danuel House. The other blue chipper in that 2012 class, 6'9" Danrad Knowles, could not qualify academically, but hopes to rejoin the team next season. Another prospect to keep an eye on is 6'10" Valentine Izundu. Considering how bad Houston's interior defense was this past season, they could really use a big man shot blocker like Izundu.

In the end, here's how I see the inaugural AAC season playing out:

1. Louisville - The Cardinals are going to take a big step back next season, even if Kevin Ware comes back, but the AAC just isn't going to be that strong of a conference. Even if Louisville is only a borderline Top 25 team, they still will have a good shot to win this league.
2. UConn - This rating assumes that they don't lose any players to the NBA or to suspensions, but I think there's a good chance of that. They should be improved and they should get back to the NCAA Tournament.
3. Memphis - Like I said, this is going to be a team that disappoints. They had three key players who, fairly unexpectedly, left for the NBA or to transfer, and it's going to make them much more of a bubble team than an elite team.
4. Cincinnati - Their defense should still be pretty good, and Sean Kilpatrick will win two or three games by himself, but I don't think they'll be as strong next season as they were this past season.
5. Houston - Like I said, this is my sleeper team. They have the talent to make a run at an at-large bid.
6. SMU - It was a long first season for Larry Brown at SMU. He does have some transfers ready to go for year #2, though: Nic Moore (Illinois St), Markus Kennedy (Villanova) and Crandall Head (Illinois). They'll definitely be improved next season, but it remains to be seen just how motivated Larry Brown is going to continue to be playing teams like Central Florida and Rutgers. How long until things get turned over to Tim Jankovich?
7. Temple - It's going to be a total rebuilding season for Fran Dunphy. I can't drop them lower than this, though. Dunphy is such an underrated coach.
8. Central Florida - Like UConn, UCF was forbidden from postseason play this past season. Unlike UConn, Donnie Jones hasn't been able to bring in and hang on to the talent required to build an NCAA Tournament team.
9. South Florida - I'm not sure why USF should be significantly better next season than they were this past season. At least Stan Heath has a nice, deep 2013 recruiting class.
10. Rutgers - Look, we all know Rutgers is going to be a disaster next season. And probably the season after that. But what's startling to me is that it's widely reported that Rutgers refuses to pay more than $800,000 per year for their next head coach. Their athletic department is in a financial mess right now, and when they move to the Big Ten their basketball program is even going to get swamped financially by programs like Nebraska and Northwestern. I don't see how they have any hope of competing in the Big Ten in basketball anytime soon.

2013-14 Preview: ACC

Atlantic Coast Conference

While we tend to think of the ACC as a static group of teams, the reality is that the league has been steadily growing for decades. Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College all came over from the Big East in the middle of the last decade, Florida State joined in the early 90s and Georgia Tech came over from the Metro Conference in the late-1970s. At the same time, the league has rarely lost teams. Prior to this year, the ACC had only lost one team ever: South Carolina, more than 40 years ago. They are continuing to grow this summer, gaining Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Syracuse. A year from now the membership will change again, with Louisville coming in and with Maryland off to the Big Ten. But with these big programs coming in, we will hopefully get past the idea in the media that the ACC only consists of Duke and North Carolina. For the past few decades, the conference is "strong" if Duke and North Carolina are good, even if the rest of the league stinks, while the conference is "down" if either Duke or North Carolina is down, even if the rest of the league is awesome. But with perennial powers like Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame coming in, the ACC might start getting viewed in a much more balanced fashion.

Despite what I said in that last paragraph, I'd like to start with Duke. Heading into the NCAA Tournament I felt that they and Louisville were the two best teams in the country, and as I said in my NCAA Tournament preview, I felt that whoever won the Duke/Louisville Elite 8 game was likely to win the National Title. The reason Duke was a bit further back in the computer ratings was because their defense just wasn't nearly as good when Ryan Kelly was out. In my opinion, Kelly was their best interior defender, and the stats were staggering regarding just how much better the defense was with Kelly in the lineup (despite the media obsession with Kelly's offense, the reality is that Duke had the #1 offense in the ACC while Kelly was out injured). That said, Kelly and Mason Plumlee both graduate, which opens a massive hole in Duke's front line. Seth Curry also graduates, though Duke has a ton of perimeter options.

For some reason, Rasheed Sulaimon is getting a little bit of NBA Draft hype. I think he'll make the smart move and come back for another season, though. Assuming that he comes back, Duke should be very strong in the backcourt, even with the graduation of Curry. Quinn Cook and Tyler Thornton will be back, as will Andre Dawkins, who averaged. 6.9 ppg and shot 40% behind the arc in three seasons at Duke before taking off the 2012-13 season. They also add Matt Jones (Scout: 3 SG, Rivals: 36). The front court is a bigger question mark. Duke will have a ton of talent, but it will be talent unproven in the ACC. Rodney Hood, the transfer from Mississippi State, is probably the most proven NCAA front court player (although he's more of a wing player than a true big man). Amile Jefferson was, I thought, a very good player for Duke in limited action as a true freshman. Josh Hairston, who is more of a real big man than either Jefferson or Hood, will play big minutes next season as well. And Duke has a pair of blue chippers coming in next season: Jabari Parker (Scout: 2 PF, Rivals: 4) and Semi Ojeleye (Scout: 7 SF, Rivals: 31). Marshall Plumlee is an option, too.

Miami was the regular season ACC champion. Next season will be a rebuilding year for them, however. Durant Scott, Kenny Kadji, Trey McKinney-Jones, Julian Gamble and Reggie Johnson all graduate, and Shane Larkin may go into the NBA Draft. Larkin is only a borderline first round prospect, but players often don't want to stick around for total rebuilding jobs, so there's a good chance that he'll be gone. Their top returners are swing forward Rion Brown and 7-footer Tonye Jekiri, and they will hope to get back Garrius Adams for a fifth year after he missed all of 2012-13. Jim Larranaga will be building around a very deep 2013 recruiting class, highlighted by Davon Reed (Scout: 26 SG, Rivals: 104) and Deandre Burnett (Scout: 28 SG, Rivals: 109).

North Carolina was actually somewhat underrated this past season. They were playing their best basketball late in the season, and were probably one of the 25 best teams in the nation over the final month. The two keys to North Carolina's late-season push were the development of true freshman point guard Marcus Paige, as well as the turnover of the offense from the vastly overrated James Michael-McAdoo to the vastly underrated Reggie Bullock. Their only loss to graduation is Dexter Strickland, So with Bullock, McAdoo and Hairston all saying that they were coming back for next season, I originally had UNC as the preseason ACC favorite. But just a few minutes ago the news broke that Bullock is leaving, which is brutal. So while I still expect UNC to be very good next season, they are no longer my pick to win the ACC. One other 2012-13 true freshman who looked really good in limited minutes was 6'9" Brice Johnson. North Carolina's 2013 recruiting class features Isaiah Hicks (Scout: 8 PF, Rivals: 16), Kennedy Meeks (Scout: 5 C, Rivals: 57) and Nate Britt (Scout: 21 PG, Rivals: 90). Roy Williams has been less than impressive at getting his teams to live up to expectations in recent seasons, and he'll need to get the most of a team that is still going to be highly rated, even after the loss of Bullock.

Another team that should be awfully good next season is Virginia. The Cavaliers had some terrible losses this past season, but they also had some really nice wins and had bad luck in close games (3-8 in games decided by six points or less). Depending on which computer rating you prefer, Virginia finished the season (after a poor postseason) down around 35-40th in the nation. But next season? They lose only point guard Jontel Evans and overrated swing forward Paul Jesperson, and get several key additions. First, they get back Malcolm Brogdon, who averaged 6.5 ppg and 2.8 rpg for Virginia in 2011-12 but missed this past season with injury. They also add 6'8" Anthony Gill, who averaged 7.6 ppg and 4.5 rpg for South Carolina in 2011-12. Their recruiting class is also solid: Devon Hall (Scout: 22 PG, Rivals: 122) and London Perrantes (Scout: 23 PG). Their top returners are obviously Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell. A good young player that I like is 6'8" Evan Nolte, who was only a true freshman this past season. A key for next season will be finding a point guard to take over for Jontel Evans. Teven Jones is a possibility there.

NC State, on the other hand, is a team likely to take a significant step backwards. Richard Howell and Scott Wood graduate, Lorenzo Brown and CJ Leslie are both off to the NBA, and Rodney Purvis is leaving via transfer. TJ Warren is a good returner, but the only other returner from the regular rotation is point guard Tyler Lewis, who was a true freshman in 2012-13. They do add 6'5" Ralston Turner, who averaged 10.6 ppg over two seasons at LSU, but after that they're basically looking at whatever 2013 recruits they can sign. Mark Gottlieb has so far signed Anthony Barber (Scout: 4 PG, Rivals: 27), Beejay Anya (Scout: 7 C, Rivals: 58) and Kyle Washington (Scout: 12 C, Rivals: 93).

Maryland loses Alex Len to the NBA Draft, but the rest of their starting lineup returns. They lose only James Padgett and Logan Aronhalt off the bench. And as good as Len was at times, he also disappeared for large portions of games. Dez Wells was Maryland's primary playmaker and scorer, and he will be back. The Terps also return Pe'Shon Howard, Nick Faust and Seth Allen from their starting lineup. Jake Layman and Shaquille Cleare are two good young big men that came off the bench this past season, and they also add 6'9" Evan Smotrycz, the transfer from Michigan. Their top 2013 recruit is Roddy Peters (Scout: 8 PG, Rivals: 48).

At this point I want to talk about the new ACC teams. Pittsburgh is another one of those teams (like Georgetown) that gets unfairly smeared as a team that "can't win in the NCAA Tournament." The computers don't love Pitt because they have an irrational love for Jamie Dixon, but because Pitt was second in the Big East in efficiency margin (+0.12 PPP, compared to +0.11 PPP for Georgetown and +0.08 PPP for Marquette). Pitt got a tough blow with star big man Steven Adams going pro, though. Their other key loss is point guard Tray Woodall, as well as Dante Taylor off the bench. A key for next season is going to be whether James Robinson, a true freshman in 2012-13, can provide similar point guard play to Tray Woodall. At the other positions, Pitt should be fine. Their key returners are Lamar Patterson, Talib Zanna and JJ Moore, all of whom will be seniors next season. Their top recruits are Mike Young (Scout: 21 PF, Rivals: 102) and Josh Newkirk (Scout: 20 PG, Rivals: 129).

Syracuse will suffer fairly heavy losses. Brandon Triche and James Southerland are graduating while Michael Carter-Williams is off to the NBA. CJ Fair is also considering the NBA Draft, but he's unlikely to be a first round pick so I think he'll be back. They're still going to have a ton of front court athleticism and length, such as Rakeem Christmas, Baye Keita, DaJuan Coleman and Jerami Grant. They also add 6'7" Michael Gbinije, the former Duke recruit. The concern is in the backcourt, where the only returner from the regular rotation will be Trevor Cooney. A lot of pressure will fall on 2013 recruit Tyler Ennis (Scout: 5 SG, Rivals: 22), who will need to take over the point. The other key perimeter recruit is 6'6" BJ Johnson (Scout: 20 SF, Rivals: 136).

If there's a sleeper team for next season, it's Boston College. They finished below .500 for the season, but were really not that bad of a team. They finished right around 100th in both Sagarin and Pomeroy, and were awfully young. Their top seven minute earners were all freshmen or sophomores, led by Ryan Anderson and Olivier Hanlan. They also add 6'7" Alex Dragicevich, who averaged 6.6 ppg for Notre Dame in 2011-12. Their most important player next season might be Joe Rahon, who handled the point reasonably well as a true freshman this past season.

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

1. Duke - Jabari Parker needs to live up to expectations for Duke to stay in the Top Ten. Losing Ryan Kelly and Mason Plumlee means that they lose their two best rebounders and interior defenders. That said, Duke's backcourt should be really good once again.
2. Virginia - The Cavaliers obviously will need to play more consistently if they're going to earn a high seed in the NCAA Tournament, but they're very likely to be one of the 25 best teams in the nation.
3. North Carolina - I had UNC as my preseason ACC favorite, but with the loss of Reggie Bullock they tumble two spots to third. They're still a borderline Top 25 team, but Bullock was just really, really good. And now they're back to depending on the overrated James Michael-McAdoo.
4  Pittsburgh - If Steven Adams hadn't left I would have given serious consideration to rating Pitt as a preseason Top Ten team. He's going to be really good in a year or two (although he probably would have been better off taking one more year in college to get more seasoned). But without Adams, the Panthers are likely going to be closer to a 5-7 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
5. Notre Dame - The Irish suffer significant losses, but I can't drop them below here. They have Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins for another season, and I really like Pat Connaughton and Cameron Biedscheid as prospects for the future. Also keep an eye on star 2013 recruit Demetrius Jackson (Scout: 6 PG, Rivals: 38).
6. Syracuse - The Orange offense could be really ugly next season, but I can't drop them below here. Their defense is going to be awfully good yet again
7. Maryland - I think the loss of Alex Len is overrated. At his best he was one of the most dominant big men in the nation, but I watched him disappear for entire games. The Terps should be improved next season. I only have them 7th because the ACC is going to be awfully deep next season. They should be a Tournament team.
8. Boston College - This is my sleeper team in the ACC for next season. They should be a bubble team.
9. Georgia Tech - Only Mfon Udofia graduates, so Georgia Tech is a team that should be improved next season. As good as the ACC is going to be, though, it's going to be an uphill path to the NCAA Tournament.
10. Florida State - The Seminoles had a total rebuilding season in 2012-13, and their defense should be significantly improved with another year of seasoning. But without Michael Snaer, offense is a real concern.
11. Miami (Fl) - Total rebuilding season for Jim Larranaga. Even if Shane Larkin comes back, I don't see how they can get back to the NCAA Tournament in what's going to be an awfully deep ACC.
12. NC State - It's a total rebuilding season for Mark Gottfried. The one bright spot is going to be TJ Warren, though if he's as good as I think he's going to be then he'll probably leave early for the 2014 NBA Draft.
13. Wake Forest - I'm aware that I'm basically the captain of the Jeff Bzdelik fan club at this point. Wake Forest fans hate him, and I get angry tweets from them every time I say anything nice about him. I don't even think he's a particularly great coach, but the criticism of him really isn't fair. Every attack on him is against his career record with Wake Forest, after his first two years were about cleaning up a program in crisis. This past year his team got significantly better, and he did it with an awfully young team that should only be better in 2013-14 and even better than that in 2014-15. The ACC is going to be awfully good next season, which is why Wake Forest will still likely finish near the bottom of the league. But they should be a Top 100 team and will have a good shot at getting back to the NCAA Tournament in 2015.
14. Clemson - With as strong as the ACC is going to be next season, I don't see a reason why Clemson will be contending for anything but trying to avoid the conference basement.
15. Virginia Tech - There was no player in the nation more underrated than Erick Green this past season. He was far and away the best player in the ACC, and got robbed from postseason awards by the typical bias against players with bad teammates. For a player to put up his kind of efficiency stats while taking a full 33% of his team's shots while on the floor when every team was focusing its entire defense on stopping him, was astonishing. The bad news for Virginia Tech is that Erick Green is gone, and now they're just stuck with his crappy teammates.

2013-14 Preview: Big East

Big East Conference

There was a lot of gnashing of teeth this past year about the death of the Big East. ESPN's coverage of the "final Big East tournament ever at Madison Square Garden" felt more like a funeral than a basketball tournament. But besides the irony of fretting about a league that was formed three decades ago by a bunch of teams hoping to combine in order to land a big television contract (and that expanded in a big way less than a decade ago to grab teams like Louisville, Cincinnati and Marquette), there's the fact that the Big East Conference is basically still with us. It still has a lot of the same teams, it's still going to be good at basketball, and it's still likely to play its conference tournament at Madison Square Garden. The league has changed its membership, but how much is really changing? If the league was just fine adding Louisville and Cincinnati, it's going to be just fine adding Butler, Xavier and Creighton.

Let's start with this Georgetown team that had yet another NCAA Tournament disappointment. I don't buy the stupid argument that John Thompson III could have so much Tournament success earlier in his career but then suddenly forget how to win NCAA Tournament games (any evidence that certain coaches or styles work better or worse in the regular season versus the NCAA Tournament is dubious, at best), but the media pressure has got to wear on the program and the players. This Hoyas team was really young, without a single senior on the roster, but Otto Porter is off to the NBA. Still, Georgetown has a lot of talent on the roster. Markel Starks and D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera are their key perimeter returners, with Nate Lubick and Mikael Hopkins anchoring the front court. It seems as though Greg Whittington should be able to return from his academic suspension to play a key role in the front court as well. The big question mark is going to be Josh Smith, the UCLA transfer who will become eligible midseason. Smith has the potential to be a really good player for Georgetown if he can keep his attitude and weight in the right spot. Also keep an eye out on 6'7" Stephen Domingo and 6'7" Reggie Cameron (Scout: 27 PF, Rivals: 87) as prospects for the future. The concern for Georgetown is going to be offense. They're similar to Ohio State in that they had an excellent defense, but an offense that was occasionally iffy despite having a superb individual scorer... a scorer who is now gone to the NBA. While Markel Starks is already a quality scorer, I think it's D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera who has the talent upside to be a really good scorer if he can work on his shot over the summer.

Marquette finished the regular season ranked in the Top 15 of the human polls, earned a 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and then made it to the Elite 8. The thing is, they weren't as good as their resume. They went 9-4 this season in games decided by six points or less or in overtime, and were a terrible turnover away from falling to Davidson in the Round of 64. They actually dropped from 25th to 27th in the Pomeroy ratings during their run to the Elite 8. There is a risk of both Vander Blue and Davante Gardner going pro, but at this point I do think that both will stay. Their graduation losses are Chris Otule, Junior Cadougan and Trent Lockett. Assuming Blue and Gardner return, Marquette should remain in really good shape for next season both on the inside and outside, as well as on the wings with Jamil Wilson. Of the other returners, the guy I like best is Steve Taylor, their top 2012 recruit and a guy who can play both on the wing and in the paint. Buzz Williams has a deep recruiting class put together, headed by Duane Wilson (Scout: 12 PG, Rivals: 56), Deonte Burton (Scout: 13 SF, Rivals: 57) and JaJuan Johnson (Scout: 7 SG, Rivals: 64). It's essential that at least one or two of those recruits provide a significant impact as a true freshman for Marquette to live up to what will likely be very high preseason expectations.

Creighton was a really simple team to figure out this past season. No team in the nation shot the ball better than them (they led the nation in eFG% and 3P% and were third in 2P%), but if those shots didn't go in then they really struggled at everything else. Their defense and rebounding were both mediocre. So in the end, they were 1-7 in games where they had an eFG% of 51.0% or worse. they were 27-1 in games where their eFG% was over 51.0%. The draft status of Doug McDermott is the biggest offseason concern for Creighton. For now I'm going to assume that he will come back, though I wouldn't be shocked if he didn't. Creighton will be losing big man Gregory Echenique and Grant Gibbs. Echenique was the only really physical big man that they had, so his absence will be felt. And Gibbs transformed himself this last year from a "glue guy" to a legitimate quality scorer.

Assuming that McDermott returns, Creighton will return every outside shooter other than Gibbs. That includes Austin Chatman, Avery Dingman and the ultimate three-point specialist, Ethan Wragge. Chatman will presumably take over the primary playmaking role with Gibbs gone, and Jahenns Manigat will presumably occupy one of the starting backcourt spots as well. Shooting guard Isaiah Zierden, who will be a redshirt freshman next season, also might get a lot of time in the backcourt. But the problem that I see for Creighton is that they were already about as explosive offensively as they can be this past season. Their defense and rebounding were very mediocre, and that's what held them back. But now they head into next season down their best defender and rebounder in Echenique (and you can argue that Gibbs was their best perimeter defender). So even if McDermott returns, it's hard to argue that Creighton can be as good next season. A key prospect to keep an eye on is 6'11" Will Artino, who will be expected to eat a lot of Echenique's minutes next season, and to provide a lot of that rebounding.

Butler has had a meteoric rise, not just in performances but in conferences (i.e. money). In less than 12 months they have moved from the Horizon League to the Atlantic Ten to the Big East. And Brad Stevens does not seem at all eager to leave, so they should be in good shape financially and in terms of coaching for quite some time. They lose Rotnei Clarke and Andrew Smith to graduation, as well as Chase Stigall off the bench. Butler still has Khyle Marshall, Kameron Woods and Erik Fromm manning the front court, so the loss of Rotnei Clarke's shooting is probably the toughest thing to replace. Alex Barlow and Roosevelt Jones return on the perimeter, as does Kellen Dunham. While Jones has developed into a really tough offensive mismatch, Dunham has a really high ceiling as a player. While Butler was overrated this past season, it's reasonable to think that they'll be better next season.

The final returning NCAA Tournament team from the new Big East is Villanova. All of the attention this past season was focused on true freshman Ryan Arcidiacono. That said, while his hustle and attitude are great, I don't think the statistics back up the idea that he was behind their success. Villanova finished 14th in the Big East in offensive turnover rate and 7th in A/TO ratio, but they were 4th in defensive efficiency (0.93 PPP) and second in defensive 2P%. So while Arcidiacono is a great prospect for the future, you can argue that their most important true freshman was actually big man Daniel Ochefu. He will take a lot of the minutes of Mouphtaou Yarou, their one important graduation, and will be just fine. Offensively, JayVaughn Pinkston will still be the go-to scorer. Darrun Hilliard and James Bell will be starting next year as well. Assuming a typical progression for Arcidiacono and Ochefu, it's reasonable to expect Villanova to be improved next season.

Providence got good news when Kadeem Batts announced that he'll come back for a final season as a graduate student. Ricky Ledo is off to the NBA, but he never qualified to play for the team anyway, so that's not a real loss. Vincent Council is thus the only loss from the regular rotation. Kris Dunn will be expected to take over the point guard position from Council, and Bryce Cotton is a really good shooting guard. LaDontae Henton is a strong wing player, and the Friars also add 7-footer Carson Desrosiers, who averaged 4.8 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game for Wake Forest in 2011-12. Providence has not been to the NCAA Tournament since 2004, but this coming season will probably be their best shot since. Now that Ed Cooley has assembled the talent that he needs, the question will be whether he can coach them to that next level.

A sleeper team for next season is St. John's. Not just do they return everybody, but all but one player who earned two or more minutes per game was a freshman or sophomore. They also get additions, with God'sgift Achiuwa coming back after a redshirt season and with the addition of Rysheed Jordan (Scout: 11 PG, Rivals: 20). The one question is shooting guard D'Angelo Harrison, who was suspended late in the season and may not be able to return from suspension (it's still up in the air, as far as I can tell). Sir'Dominic Pointer will be back to handle the point, Phil Greene is a solid shooting guard and Jakarr Sampson was their leading scorer aside from D'Angelo Harrison. One player who will become much better known nationally if St. John's is more relevant next season is 6'9" Chris Obekpa, who actually led the nation in block percentage (15.8%). He's a defensive menace. So there's no question that the Johnnies will be improved next season. The only question is whether they can get back to the NCAA Tournament.

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

1. Marquette - It's really hard to separate Marquette and Georgetown here. Obviously I'm assuming that Marquette is not going to lose anybody to the NBA.
2. Georgetown - Even with Otto Porter gone, Georgetown has an excellent shot to win the Big East. And if they do win the league, it's likely because Josh Smith plays really well after becoming eligible.
3. Villanova - They're going to need to be significantly more efficient offensively, but I think Ryan Arcidiacono will be much stronger with a year to work on his game and with an extra year of experience.
4. Butler - I think Butler will be improved next season, but I still don't think they can realistically contend with Marquette or Georgetown. They remain in desperate need for quality ball handling, and they could struggle to score against top flight Big East defenses.
5. Creighton - Even if Doug McDermott returns, I really don't like the losses of Grant Gibbs and Gregory Echenique. They were already the best shooting team in the country this past season, and got as much out of that as you can. They're going to need Will Artino to take a big leap as a player.
6. St. John's - I think the Johnnies have a really good chance to make the NCAA Tournament. Don't be surprised if Chris Obekpa is the Big East Defensive Player of the Year.
7. Providence - I like the talent that Ed Cooley has assembled, but let's not forget what happened last season. There was a ton of hype about all of the talent they had going in, but they had off-court issues and ended up very mediocre. They're going to be even more talented (on paper) in 2013-14, but Cooley has to get his whole team on the floor and has to get them playing well together. I still think that at best they're a bubble team.
8. Xavier - The Musketeers were not particularly good this past season and lose a lot to graduation, but I do think that 2012 recruiting class is one that they can build around. And Semaj Christon was already a very strong player as a true freshman. Among their additions are Matt Stainbrook, who was Western Michigan's best big man.
9. Seton Hall - Only Kyle Smyth graduates, and additions include Sterling Gibbs from Texas. So they'll definitely be better next season, but probably not good enough to contend for an at-large bid.
10. DePaul - It's shocking how awful DePaul has been since joining the Big East. And it's not going to change anytime soon. Considering how much more successful they were in Conference USA, maybe they should have stayed in Conference USA 2.0 (the old Big East).

Sunday, April 14, 2013

2013-14 Preview: Big Ten

Big Ten Conference

I've talked before about what makes a "great" conference, and how we judge conferences. The Big Ten was clearly the best conference this past season, of course, but were they an all-time great league? Eh... probably not. The media tends to judge conferences by how good the top three or four teams are, and by that sense the Big Ten was awesome. Five of the top 10 or 12 teams in the nation came from the Big Ten. But there were still three mediocre teams at the bottom. If you want to talk about top-to-bottom depth, I still think that no conference in recent memory can match 2009-10 ACC. That conference was called "down" by the media, but if you go back and read my blog posts from that year I was infuriated by that idea. It was called "down" because North Carolina  was down and only one team (Duke) earned greater than a 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. But not a single team was rated worse than 76th in the Pomeroy ratings. That is incredible. Every game was a battle. Miami was Top 50 in Pomeroy and finished in dead last place in the standings. Imagine that.

Anyway, to get this conversation back to the Big Ten, let's start with Indiana. The Hoosiers had a tremendous season, earning the outright regular season title in the nation's best conference, though it ended on a sour note with their total clunker against Syracuse. Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo go off to the NBA. And as I've said before, I do think that Zeller was awfully underrated. The media writes him off as a soft guy who disappears in big games, but when I watched him play big games he either played really well or spent the whole game fighting for position in the post while his teammates refused to give him the ball. Point guard play and offensive distribution was an issue for Indiana this past season, and he will improve with NBA point guards. Either way, Christian Watford and Jordan Hulls graduate as well. So the Hoosiers now lose their best interior defender, their best perimeter defender, their only post scorer and three of their four 40%+ three-point shooters. Indiana's gigantic defensive improvement and their outside shooting (4th in the nation with a 40.3 3P%) were why they were so good this past season.

So who returns for Indiana? Yogi Ferrell is the returning starter, and they also have Will Sheehey and Remy Abell (Abell was the fourth 40%+ three-point shooter). Ferrell and Abell will be a strong starting backcourt, though their backcourt bench is going to be relatively thin. They might be leaning heavily on Jonny Marlin, who averaged 4.3 ppg and 3.5 apg for IPFW in 2011-12. Their only quality backcourt recruit is Stanford Robinson (Scout: 14 SG, Rivals: 51). In the front court, things are going to turn over to Jeremy Hollowell and Hanner Mosquera-Perra, two 2012 recruits who occasionally were able to get on the floor as true freshmen (Peter Jurkin was the third big in that 2012 class, but he never saw the floor outside garbage time as a true freshman, so it's hard to expect a lot from him as a sophomore). Tom Crean's 2013 recruiting class is again heavy on size: Noah Vonleh (Scout: 3 PF, Rivals: 7), Troy Williams (Scout: 16 SF, Rivals: 38) and Luke Fischer (Scout: 16 C, Rivals: 116). So the Hoosiers aren't going away, but it's hard to see how these freshmen can replace Zeller, Oladipo, Watford and Hulls. Not many productive players return, so Indiana should be expected to take a little step back.

[edit] I forgot that Remy Abell is transferring out. That's even more brutal for Indiana. I still think that 5th place is a reasonable projection for them, but they're definitely going to take a big step back.

Of the five teams atop the Big Ten, Michigan looked least likely to make a run in the NCAA Tournament. They faded to fifth in the regular season standings, were easily handled by Wisconsin in the Big Ten tournament, and appeared to have peaked earlier in the season. It just goes to show yet again how dumb the concept of "momentum" is. Of the Final Four teams this season, only one (Louisville) was playing anything like its best basketball of the season late in the year. Ironically, the Tournament run could hurt Michigan for next season. The Mitch McGary phenomenon, in particular, baffled me. I spent all season driving the Mitch McGary bandwagon, arguing that he was way underrated and had the potential to be the best big man in the Big Ten in a year or two. Most people disagreed with me, and he didn't even crack the Big Ten's All-Freshman team. Nobody considered the possibility that he'd be a one-and-done player. And then he had a massive second half against Kansas and the game of his life in the Final Four against Syracuse, and suddenly all of the folks in the media who never watched him play all season were hyping him up as a Top 5 draft pick. That is... insane. He's a good prospect, but he's at best a decent NBA rebounder at this point. His offensive game has a long, long way to go. So what about those NBA decisions? Trey Burke has already said he's going pro, but McGary, Tim Hardaway and Glenn Robinson III are all in limbo. McGary and Robinson are both projected as lottery picks, and history says that guys like that tend to go and get paid. So I think they're gone. For the sake of this preview I'm going to assume that Hardaway returns. Hardaway is a terrific raw talent, but he's not yet playing up to his talent. Another year of seasoning could move him up from being a borderline first round pick to a lottery pick.

So who will definitely be returning for Michigan? In the backcourt, Spike Albrecht and Chris LeVert return. Despite his crazy shooting in the first half of the title game, I wouldn't expect a whole lot from Albrecht as a sophomore. LeVert is the better talent. He's already proven to be a really strong defender, and has the talent to develop a strong offensive game. Alongside Tim Hardaway, Jr, and with Derrick Walton (Scout: 7 PG, Rivals: 47) off the bench, Michigan should be okay there. Nik Stauskas will patrol the wing again, along with 6'6" Zak Irvin (Scout: 12 SF, Rivals: 34). In the front court, the loss of Mitch McGary will hurt, because I'm sure that John Beilein was assuming he'd be back. Jordan Morgan will be back for one more season. Morgan is a superb defender, but he's never going to be a big offensive player. Jon Horford is a decent bench player, but it's hard to see him improving enough to be a quality Big Ten starter next season. Mark Donnal (Scout: 13 C, Rivals: 107) might immediately be thrust into the starting lineup. Should McGary and Robinson come back then this Michigan team immediately becomes a possible Top Ten team again. But assuming that they go, Beilein is going to have a difficult time putting together starting lineup.

Michigan State is a very popular top pick for next season. The big question mark, though, is the draft status of Adreian Payne and Gary Harris. Derrick Nix is the only graduating player, so if Payne and Harris both come back then Michigan State will be significantly improved over a squad that was borderline Top Ten this past season. I keep seeing Payne projected as a borderline first round pick, so he really might go. I think Harris will be back, though. Keith Appling will return to handle the point alongside Gary Harris, with Denzel Valentine and Travis Trice returning off the bench. If Payne goes pro then, along with the Derrick Nix graduation, the front court will be a bit more of a question mark. Branden Dawson will be back, of course. Matt Costello should be good also - I like what I saw out of him in limited minutes. After that they're looking at 6'7" Kenny Kaminski (a 2012 recruit who took a redshirt season) and 6'9" 2013 recruit Gavin Schilling. So you can see just why that Adreian Payne draft decision is so huge. If he returns then I like them as a Top 5 team in the nation. Without him, they actually might not be as good as they were in 2012-13.

Ohio State was a young team this past season. Only backup big man Evan Ravenel was a senior. DeShaun Thomas is going pro, though, and that's a significant concern. Outside of Trey Burke, DeShaun Thomas was probably the best pure scorer in NCAA basketball this past season. And even with him, Ohio State's offense got stuck at times. Scoring will be a significant concern heading into next season. Aaron Craft, Lenzelle Smith and Shannon Scott will all be back, so Ohio State's backcourt defense should be spectacular. In the front court they will return Sam Thompson, LaQuinton Ross and Amir Williams. Of all of those returners, though, Thompson is the only real "scorer". So 2013-14 Ohio State could look a lot like 2012-13 Wisconsin in terms of a superb defense that disappears at times offensively. Who will be the new additions? Shooting guard Amedeo Della Valle isn't technically an addition, but he only played 108 minutes all season long. Thad Matta's 2013 recruiting class features Marc Loving (Scout: 16 PF, Rivals: 63) and Kameron Williams (Scout: 23 SG, Rivals: 83).

Speaking of Wisconsin, I know that I spend a lot of time fighting the common stereotype around teams like the Badgers, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame that play a slow tempo and don't have a ton of NBA lottery pick talent, and so get the descriptions "ugly" and "defense-first" applied by the media. Wisconsin has actually had the strongest offense in the Big Ten in three of the past five seasons, and is typically better on offense than on defense. This past season, though, the stereotype was actually not that far off from reality. Their offense wasn't terrible (their 0.98 PPP were tied for sixth best in the Big Ten, and Pomeroy rated them 64th best in adjusted offensive efficiency), but when their jump shots weren't falling then they could really struggle. Their shooting abandoned them at a historic rate in that shocking loss to Ole Miss in the NCAA Tournament (it was their worst eFG% in a game in 7 seasons). Their losses to graduation are their starting front court of Jared Berggren, Ryan Evans and Mike Bruesewitz, and that should fix the balance between offense and defense. Berggren was a strong offensive player, but the other two were not, and the offense should improve from addition by subtraction. At the same time, it's hard to fathom Wisconsin being as dominant defensively without those three. What made those three so good defensively wasn't just that they were strong at defending their position, but that they were flexible. Bo Ryan could have his team switch every screen and be confident that Evans and Bruesewitz could defend both shooting guards and centers. He won't have that type of flexibility next season.

So who returns for Wisconsin? Their backcourt should be excellent, with every regular returning (Ben Brust, Traevon Jackson and George Marshall). They also get Josh Gasser back from injury, and I'd actually expect Gasser to start in a three-guard starting lineup. Their strongest 2013 recruit is also a perimeter player - Bronson Koenig (Scout: 27 SG, Rivals: 73). The front court is going to be a bigger concern. Sam Dekker is going to be really good, but he's more of a wing player. Frank Kaminsky is the only proven big man coming back. The most likely new player to step into a key role is 6'7" 2013 recruit Nigel Hayes. 6'7" Vitto Brown is another possibility, as is 6'6" Zach Bohannon, who played around 5 minutes per game for Wisconsin this past season.

Both Minnesota and Iowa were victims of the Big Ten was this past year. Either team would have likely gone 11-7 or 12-6 in a conference like the Big 12 and been in much better shape on Selection Sunday. Instead, Minnesota dropped to an 11 seed and Iowa got dumped to the NIT, where they went all the way to the title game. Iowa entered the NIT sitting near 30th in the both Sagarin and Pomeroy, and they pushed up to near 25th by the end of the tournament. And they should be even better next season, with only one senior in their regular rotation (Eric May). Roy Devyn Marble and Mike Gesell are their two primary playmakers, and Melsahn Basabe is a good big man, but the player I really like is Aaron White. White is 6'8", but has a remarkably smooth ability to get into the paint and both score and get to the line. He's also a strong defensive player. Keep an eye on him as a potential first team All-Big Ten player. Another young player to keep an eye on is 7'1" Adam Woodbury, who hasn't developed an offensive game yet but is a superb defender. Iowa's offense actually didn't improve relative to 2011-12 - they got better because their defense got a lot better, and Woodbury was a significant reason why. They have no new significant prospects, but Iowa doesn't need new players. Natural progression from a year of extra experience should make the Hawkeyes a Top 25 team next season.

Minnesota is a lot less certain. They moved on from Tubby Smith, who (in my opinion) is in the same boat as Ben Howland. Firing either Smith or Howland a year ago might have made sense after several tough seasons, but both UCLA and Minnesota were dramatically improved in 2012-13. The fact that Minnesota was in the Big Ten, and went 3-6 against Big Ten opponents in games decided by seven points or less, meant that they were significantly underrated by the media and fans. But unlike Iowa, there's no reason to expect Minnesota to keep progressing forward next season. Richard Pitino might turn into a good coach, but he's clearly got a rebuilding job on his hands. Trevor Mbakwe, Rodney Williams and Julian Welch graduate, and Minnesota's entire 2013 recruiting class has decommitted. There is talk of transfers out also, though so far nothing is certain. Who are the top returners for now? Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins are a really nice backcourt, along with Joe Coleman as a third guard/swing forward. Maverick Ahanmisi is a decent shooting guard off the bench. The front court is thinner, with Elliott Eliason the only proven returner. It's a safe assumption that Richard Pitino will add some recruits and/or transfers this summer. But his roster is pretty thin until he does.

Speaking of teams that were underrated because they were in the Big Ten: Purdue. The Boilermakers didn't even make the NIT, yet they finished in the Top 70 in both Pomeroy and the Sagarin  PREDICTOR, which put them on par with the last couple of at-large teams in the NCAA Tournament field. And this was an awfully young team. Six of their top eight minute earners were freshmen or sophomores, and they lose only one senior from their regular rotation (DJ Byrd). Byrd's loss takes away their only quality outside shooter, but there is a lot of young talent on that roster. Ronnie and Terone Johnson both show flashes of brilliance, though it's inconsistent. Raphael Davis is another backcourt option, and their top 2013 recruit is Kendall Stephens (Scout: 16 SG, Rivals: 59). In the front court, Purdue will be building around 7-footer AJ Hammons, who is going to be really good. Travis Carroll, Donnie Hale and Jacob Lawson will fill up most of the other front court playing time.

Northwestern is an intriguing team for next season. We don't yet know what type of head coach Chris Collins will be, but he should get back some of the significant losses that Northwestern suffered during the last year. Before the season, Drew Crawford and JerShon Cobb looked like the most likely players to lead the team in scoring. Cobb missed the entire season with an academic suspension, while Crawford was lost for the season to injury after only 10 games (and with the coaching transition, I know that there's concern in Evanston that Crawford will transfer out should he get that medical redshirt). Jared Swopshire was also lost for the season to injury in early February. With Tre Demps playing really well in the extra playing time he got, Northwestern is going to have a lot of strong perimeter playmakers next season. They also will return Dave Sobolewski, though Alex Marcotullio graduates. In the front court, Alex Olah was the star of their 2012 recruiting class, and 6'7" Kale Abrahamson looks good, too. In short, this team should score plenty next season. The concern for Collins is going to be solving the problem that Bill Carmody couldn't solve: defense. They need to figure out how to get stops.

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

1. Michigan State - If Adreian Payne goes pro then Michigan State's front court gets very thin and I might drop them a spot or two, but if he comes back then I would expect the Spartans to be the overwhelming preseason favorite in the Big Ten.
2. Ohio State - Offense is a serious concern with DeShaun Thomas going pro, but this team is going to be awfully talented and awfully good defensively, and their offense really won't need to be that good for them to challenge for a Big Ten title.
3. Wisconsin - The next few spots are going to be really close in the Big Ten, but I'm giving the edge to Wisconsin here. Their defensive losses are significant, but it's important to remember that Josh Gasser was probably their best defender prior to his injury. Bo Ryan is going to need at least one of those 2013 front court recruits to come through as a true freshman, though.
4. Iowa - I'm pretty confident in picking Iowa as a Top 25 team here. They were a borderline Top 25 team in the computers this past season, and return basically everybody.
5. Indiana - The Hoosiers should still be safely in the NCAA Tournament and a borderline Top 25 team, but their losses are absolutely massive. Tom Crean has a ton of talent in those 2012 and 2013 recruiting classes, but the amount of proven returning talent isn't anywhere near what the top four teams in the league will have.
6. Michigan - I'm assuming here that Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III will go pro but Tim Hardaway, Jr will stay. If they get more returners then I'll move them up, but if Hardaway goes I might drop them another spot.
7. Purdue - I think the Boilermakers have an excellent chance to get back to the NCAA Tournament. They are going to need more consistent playmaking from their backcourt, though. If Terone or Ronnie Johnson ever put it all together, Purdue could be really good next season.
8. Minnesota - I'm going out on a limb here and assuming that Richard Pitino is going to land some talent this summer to fill in his roster. He's going to need to if they're going to have a realistic chance of getting back to the NCAA Tournament.
9. Illinois - The Illini lose four of their top seven minutes earners, but they're also losing a couple of overrated players who played way too much one-on-one basketball (Brandon Paul and DJ Richardson). I really like Joseph Bertrand getting more of the ball next season. A bigger concern is filling in a decimated front court.
10. Northwestern - I'm assuming here that the Wildcats get one more season of Drew Crawford. If they do, they should at least be able to score the ball efficiently. They need to defend and need to figure out how to rebound.
11. Penn State - Getting Tim Frazier back is very nice, but overall there just isn't a lot of Big Ten talent on this roster. I like the energy that Pat Chambers brings, and his team always plays really hard (particularly at home), but they play more like a feisty mid-major than a serious Big Ten contender.
12. Nebraska - I love Tim Miles, but he has a lot of developing to do with his young roster. There are no blue chippers that I can see, and so in the battle for last place I give the edge to Tim Frazier and Penn State.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

2013-14 Preview: Big 12

Big 12 Conference 

The way that Bill Self has dominated the Big 12 has been remarkable. Not only has he won at least a share of the regular season title for eight straight seasons, but he also has won the Big 12 tournament title in six of those seasons. Everybody else is always playing for second place. And despite tying for the regular season title this past season with Kansas State, nobody had any questions about who the best team was. Kansas earned a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, where they were eventually undone in that remarkable Michigan comeback, highlighted by Trey Burke's 30-footer to send the game to overtime. But it's really reasonable to ask if the Kansas streak will end next season, because they are going to have an awful lot of turnover. The biggest loss, regardless of what the NBA Draft thinks, is Jeff Withey. His interior defense is remarkable, and he's the reason Kansas led the nation in 2P% defense. In the last four seasons, only three Division I teams have held opponents below 40% two-point shooting, and two of them featured Jeff Withey (the third was 2011-12 Kentucky). And the 39.3% that they held opponents to this season was the lowest by any Division I team since 2005-06 Kansas held opponents to 38.4%. I know that Withey is a senior, but he's improved dramatically the past few years, and some NBA team is going to get a steal in the Draft with him.

Withey is not the only loss for Kansas, of course. They also lose Ben McLemore, Elijah Johnson, Travis Relefort and Kevin Young. That's their entire starting lineup. They return three players that earned regular minutes this past season: point guard Naadir Tharpe and big men Perry Ellis and Jamari Taylor. But it would be a mistake to think that Kansas is going to be wholly dependent on their 2013 recruiting class. For one thing, Perry Ellis is going to be really good. Second of all, there are three other blue chip recruits from that 2012 recruiting class who simply couldn't get on the floor this past season. Swing forward Andrew White and shooting guard Rio Adams played limited minutes off the bench while 6'8" Landen Lucas took a redshirt. Any of those three could be a big contributor next season. And then there's that 2013 recruiting class, highlighted by Brannen Greene (Scout: 10 PF, Rivals: 25), Wayne Selden (Scout: 6 SF, Rivals: 26), Conner Frankamp (Scout: 9 PG, Rivals: 31) and Joel Embiid (Scout: 8 C, Rivals: 37). So in a sense, Kansas is similar to Kentucky next season. There is a wide range over how good this team could be, and it's going to come down to how good a bunch of players are that none of us really watched play last season.

Kansas State earned a share of the Big 12 title, and it really shouldn't have been that shocking that Bruce Weber did a better job with Frank Martin's players than Frank Martin did. I don't think Weber is a coaching genius, but he's pretty good, and Frank Martin is just terrible at teaching fundamentals. So this Kansas State team dramatically reduced turnovers, shot the ball better and was more sound defensively. But of course, there's a reason that Weber ran his course at Illinois. Can he recruit the type of talent that Frank Martin could? The jury is still out, but his 2013 recruiting class certainly doesn't look that great. What about his returners? They lose star Rodney McGruder, and also lose shooting guard Martavious Irving and backup big man Jordan Henriquez. They do return a lot of talent, though. Point guard Angel Rodriguez, shooting guard Will Spradling, swing forward Shane Southwell and big man Thomas Gipson. All four of those players are proven and should provide a strong foundation for next season. 6'8" DJ Johnson was effective in limited minutes as a true freshman, and 6'10" Adrian Diaz has shown flashes of athleticism but is a significant drop off from Jordan Henriquez. But like I said, the incoming recruits aren't as good as the outgoing players were, and there's a real risk of a drop off in talent over time, just like Weber had during his years at Illinois. It's definitely a concern.

Oklahoma State is a team that is hard to figure out until we know what their NBA decisions will be. Marcus Smart, Le'Bryan Nash and Markel Brown are all considering leaving, and none are known for certain now. For the sake of this preview, I'm going to assume that Smart is gone but Nash and Brown will come back. Marcus Smart is projected basically everywhere to be a top ten pick, so it's hard to see him passing that up. The thing with Marcus Smart is that he was overrated by the media because of his NBA potential. He's a very strong defender, but his offense varied between inconsistent and mediocre. It improved throughout the season, but he still ended up with only a 45.5 eFG% while taking only 24.5% of his team's shots while on the floor (for comparison, Russ Smith was derided by the media a guy who shot his team out of games, yet had a 47.0 eFG% despite taking a full 32.7% of his team's shots while on the floor). But even though Smart's impact on the offense was overstated, his defensive loss is big. The reason Oklahoma State was much better this past season relative to 2011-12 was because their defense was much better.

Oklahoma State's defense should still be in pretty good shape next year, though. They lose Philip Jurick, who was a strong interior defender, but everybody else will be back. Michael Cobbins and Kamari Murphy are both strong interior defenders, and Cobbins is an efficient scorer as well. Phil Forte will be back as well (I already know that by the time he's a senior, we're all going to think Forte has been around since 2004). Their 2013 recruiting class is deep, led by Detrick Mostella (Scout: 21 SG, Rivals: 68) and Stevie Clark (Scout: 13 PG, Rivals: 96). Oklahoma State will have a deep roster next season, with a lot of options. The question will be whether their defense can stay strong enough without Smart and Jurick to compete for a Big 12 title.

Iowa State reached a second straight NCAA Tournament under Fred Hoiberg last month. Hype is already starting to grow that Hoiberg is looking at NBA jobs, though for the time being he's still employed by the Cyclones. Even if he's back, though, he'll be down three starters (Will Clyburn, Korie Lucious and Chris Babb) and his sixth man (Tyrus McGee). Clyburn, their leading scorer, is probably their toughest loss. Melvin Ejim was probably their best player, though, and he'll be back for one more season. And Georges Niang is a guy to get to know, because he had a fabulous true freshman season. Perimeter playmaking is going to be a significant concern, though. Their top perimeter returner is Bubu Palo, who hasn't played a whole lot over three seasons. Who can fill in? Three players from their 2012 recruiting class either redshirted or played sparingly in 2012-13 (shooting guard Sherron Dorsey-Walker and Nkereuwem Okoro seem the best options), and their 2013 recruiting class. Their top 2013 recruit is shooting guard Matt Thomas (Scout: 13 SG, Rivals: 58).

Baylor... basically was what Baylor has been every year under Scott Drew. They have a ton of talent, particularly in the front court, but they don't get those big guys the ball. Instead, they have a ball-hogging point guard who takes way too many shots. Oh, and they stink at defensive rebounding. Seriously, that's been Baylor for the past 5 or 6 seasons. The ball-hogging point guard this past season was Pierre Jackson, who was a really good player at times (I don't mean to be entirely negative about him), and he'll be graduating. AJ Walton also graduates, and the team has to worry about big man Isaiah Austin going into the NBA Draft (and it's not inconceivable that Cory Jefferson will go as well). My guess at this point is that Austin will go but Jefferson will stay. And Cory Jefferson might have been one of the five most underrated players in the entire country this past season. If you go through my blog from this past season I talked over and over and over again how much better Baylor was when Jefferson took more shots. Rico Gathers and Taurean Prince should both be reasonably effective alongside Jefferson, as should Dominic Woodson (Scout: 11 C, Rivals: 39). In the backcourt, Brady Heslip will be back, along with Gary Franklin, but they need a primary playmaker. LJ Rose, a highly touted 2012 recruit who got on the floor sparingly as a true freshman, is a possibility there. Another option in Juco transfer Kenny Chery. But overall, I think it's hard to argue that Baylor will be more talented next season unless Isaiah Austin comes back. But talent has never been what has held up Baylor's success in the past.

The final NCAA Tournament team that I haven't talked about yet is Oklahoma. The Sooners really did have a good season, even if it's easy to forget after the disappointing way that it ended (a shocking upset to TCU followed by a one-and-done Big 12 tournament and NCAA Tournament). They do have one of the weirder NBA Draft early entrants in Amath M'Baye. In reality, he has no chance of being drafted - he's simply leaving college early to go play pro in Europe. They do lose their two best players to graduation, though - Romero Osby and Steven Pledger - and also lose Andrew Fitzgerald and Sam Grooms off the bench. So who is left? Shooting guards Buddy Hield and Je'lon Hornbeak and swing forward Cameron Clark are their top returners. They have a few players who redshirted this past year who will become available, including 6'8" Ryan Spangler, who averaged 2.5 points and 2.4 rebounds per game for Gonzaga in 2011-12. Their top 2013 recruit is point guard Jordan Woodard (Rivals: 135), who might be asked to take over the point guard position next season.

One team that I think is going to be really underrated heading into next season is Texas. It's obvious why most people think they're going to stink - they were brutal for much of this past season (particularly offensively) and they are losing Myck Kabongo to the NBA Draft. But first of all, I don't see how the Kabongo decision is supposed to make them significantly worse. He only play in 11 games, and (as I've mentioned on the blog several times before) his hype is a lot greater than anything he's ever actually done in college basketball. He's a decent player, but not a top Big 12 player by any means. Texas was 95th in the Pomeroy ratings when he returned to the lineup, and they finished the season 99th. They're really going to miss him that much? So if we assume that they were the 95th best team in the nation without Kabongo, they return absolutely everybody. Texas was awfully young this past season - absolutely everybody in their regular rotation was a freshman or sophomore. Their top players next season will likely be point guard Javan Felix, shooting guard Sheldon McClellan and big man Johnathan Holmes. Big men Prince Ibeh and Cameron Ridley are both good prospects going forward, and their highest rated 2013 recruit is probably Kendal Yancey-Harris (Scout: 27 PG, Rivals: 109).

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

1. Kansas - I'd be very willing to pick against Kansas here if there was a good enough team to challenge them. Certainly Kansas won't be as good next season, but the Big 12 looks like it's going to be pretty weak at the top next season. The Jayhawks have a ton of young talent in Bill Self's 2012 and 2013 recruiting classes.
2. Oklahoma State - I'm assuming that Le'Bryan Nash and Markel Brown are coming back. If one or both of them go pro then they'll drop. This position does assume that Marcus Smart is gone, though.
3. Baylor - If Isaiah Austin comes back then they'll move up. If Cory Jefferson goes pro then they'll drop. But really, Baylor, just trust me: Get Cory Jefferson the ball. He will win you games.
4. Kansas State - Are we in for Illinois, Part Deux for Bruce Weber? His first full recruiting class is not a good sign. There will be less talent on the roster in 2013-14 than there was in 2012-13.
5. Texas - Like I said, the Longhorns are a sleeper. It really would not be that surprising to me if they get back to the NCAA Tournament.
6. Iowa State - Georges Niang is going to be really good. But aside from Melvin Ejim, there isn't a whole lot on this roster coming back. Who exactly is playing guard for Iowa State next season? Bubu Palo?
7. Oklahoma - Every big win they had this past season came on the back of big games from Steven Pledger and Romero Osby, and those two are gone. It's hard to see the Sooners not taking a step back next season.
8. West Virginia - The three transfers out were a bad sign, but the reality is that Jabarie Hinds is the only of the three that was in the regular rotation this past season, and Deniz Kilicli is the only graduation from the regular rotation. So it's realistic to think West Virginia will be improved next season... I still don't think they're a Tournament team, though.
9. Texas Tech - Tubby Smith is a great hire for Texas Tech, and a great sign that they're serious about improving their program. They should be a better team next year, but the gap between them and the rest of the conference (not including TCU) was just massive this past season. It's going to take Tubby a while.
10. TCU - Texas Tech was slightly better this past season, returns more talent, and now has a clearly better head coach. It's pretty hard to argue for TCU being anything other than last place in the Big 12 next season.

Friday, April 12, 2013

2013-14 Preview: Pac-12

Pacific-12 Conference

After the embarrassment of the 2011-12 season, the Pac-12 was significantly improved in 2012-13. And it's a league primed to be even better in 2013-14, though the offseason buzz is currently being dominated by a couple of coaching hires. UCLA fired Ben Howland and USC fired Kevin O'Neill. The Howland firing I don't really understand since UCLA actually had a very strong season. Injuries derailed them late in the season, which led to the Round of 64 loss in the NCAA Tournament, but they won the Pac-12 regular season title outright. If they wanted to fire Howland, they should have fired him a year ago, when it made a lot more sense. That said, I think they did a good job landing Steve Alford. Some of the messaging from UCLA's athletic department suggests that they really don't know why they actually hired him (they kept hammering "tempo" as a way to get fans back, even though Alford's teams always have played at a slower tempo than Ben Howland's teams), but he's a coach who did have a ton of success at New Mexico. I don't feel the same about the Andy Enfield hire. I don't want to go too deeply into this since I ranted about it a week ago, but Andy Enfield is a guy who the USC athletic department had never heard of two weeks before they hired him. His team had two fluke wins in the NCAA Tournament, and suddenly he gets hired just so that USC can "win the press conference" and get a lot of positive buzz. USC should have been able to do better than a guy whose best ever coaching performance was a second placed finish in the Atlantic Sun.

Anyway, I want to actually start my discussion of the Pac-12 with its best team from the past season: Arizona. Sean Miller is a top flight recruiter, and he's put together some really nice talent in Tucson. And with another really good recruiting class on the way, there's a good chance that the Wildcats will be even stronger next season. They lose three key players - Mark Lyons, Kevin Parrom and Solomon Hill. Lyons is the toughest loss because he was their primary playmaker and go-to scorer. Their only proven backcourt returner will be Nick Johnson. Jordin Mayes has been pretty useless and has not developed over his three seasons, so any other backcourt production is going to have to come from new or unproven players. They add 6'1" TJ McConnell, who averaged 11.1 ppg over two seasons at Duquesne, and also have a prospect in 6'1" Gabe York, who played light minutes as a true freshman in 2012-13. Elliott Pitts (Scout: 30 SG, Rivals: 120) is their only 2013 backcourt recruit. While their backcourt has question marks, Arizona's front court should be excellent next season. Miller's 2012 recruiting class featured three big men who all had excellent true freshmen seasons: Kaleb Tarczewski, Brandon Ashley and Grant Jerrett. Tarczewksi, in particular, looks like he's going to be really special in a year or two. Miller's 2013 recruiting class potentially features two more, in Aaron Gordon (Scout: 2 PF, Rivals: 6) and 6'7" Randae Hollis-Jefferson (Scout: 4 SF, Rivals: 19).

I would have assumed before the season that UCLA and Shabazz Muhammad would both be overrated by the media... but somehow they both ended up underrated. I have no idea how that happened. That said, Muhammad is gone to the NBA. And even though Kyle Anderson looks like he'll be back for another season, depth is going to be a concern during this coaching transition. Howland had two blue chip recruits signed - Zach LaVine (Scout: 4 SG, Rivals: 44) and Allerik Freeman (Scout: 15 SG, Rivals: 55) - but it remains to be seen if Alford can hang onto them. With Larry Drew III graduating, UCLA does return Jordan Adams and the Wear twins to go with Anderson. Adams is a very explosive scorer, and will likely be the team's primary scorer and playmaker next season. Those front court players are solid, but not great. Shooting guard Norman Powell can be effective if he can shoot the ball better (29.3 3P%). If Alford keeps his roster intact but doesn't add anybody, I think it's unlikely that UCLA will be improved next season. But I would also be surprised if Alford doesn't add a player or two this offseason. By my calculation they have two scholarships available after Muhammad officially leaves, and other scholarships will open up if anybody else leaves.

The Pac-12 tournament champion was Oregon, and the Ducks played terrific in that run to the Sweet 16, even if they didn't show anything like that level of play all regular season long. They're going to have a ton of turnover in their roster next season, though. EJ Singler, Arsalan Kazemi, Carlos Emory and Tony Woods all graduate. Oregon will be an awfully young team next season, led by rising-sophomores Dominic Artis, Damyeon Dotson and Ben Carter. The only non-freshman or sophomore likely to play a large role next season is Johnathan Loyd. Front court play is the biggest concern, with Ben Carter being the best returner. Dana Altman's top 2013 recruit is 6'7" Jordan Bell (Rivals: 70). The other top recruit in a deep 2013 recruiting class ia 6'3" Tyree Robinson (Scout: 25 SG, Rivals: 123).

A team that is going to get a lot of hype heading into next season is Colorado. They had an inflated RPI early this past season, which perhaps raised expectations a little bit too high, and they faded to 10-8 in Pac-12 play and a 10 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They face one of the biggest offseason question marks, though: will Andre Roberson stay or go? Roberson is their premier rebounder and interior defender, and would be the only senior starter if he returns next season. Other than him, the only loss from the regular rotation will be Sabatino Chen. They will return a strong scorer and playmaker in Spencer Dinwiddie, and a pair of very effective true freshmen this past season: 6'10" Josh Scott and 6'6" wing player Xavier Johnson. If Roberson goes then they'll need some more size (Scott is efficient, but not particularly physical). 6'8" Wesley Gordon, a 2012 recruit who took a redshirt season, could be productive off the bench next season. 6'8" 2013 recruit Dustin Thomas might also be able to produce off the bench next season. 6'6" Tre'Shaun Fletcher (Scout: 21 SF) is a possibility in the front court as well. Should Roberson come back, Colorado will be a very likely Top 25 team, and a contender to win the Pac-12. But should he go? I still like them as a Tournament team, but they'll be in the Pac-12's second tier.

California is the final NCAA Tournament team that I have not talked about yet. Only two of their top seven minute earners graduate (Robert Thurman and Brandon Smith), but they are going to lose Allen Crabbe to the NBA. Justin Cobbs, Cal's primary playmaker, will be back. Without Crabbe, though, Cobbs will see a lot more defensive focus and the team will need to find another scoring option. Richard Solomon has the raw talent to be a force offensively in the paint, but hasn't really developed the skills for that. David Kravish, Ricky Kreklow (should he ever be able to get healthy) and Tyrone Wallace will all be big contributors next season but, again, were not particularly offensively efficient. Remember, Cal only scored 0.98 this past season, and that was with Allen Crabbe. Cal fans will be putting a lot of next season's hopes in the hands of 2013 star recruit Jabari Bird (Scout: 5 SF, Rivals: 23).

Stanford was by far the most underrated team in the Pac-12. They finished 9-9, despite having a chance in the final game of the season to lead the Pac-12 in efficiency rating. In the end, here is the where the efficiency ratings ended up for regular season Pac-12 play:

+0.08 PPP Arizona
+0.06 PPP Stanford
+0.04 PPP UCLA
+0.03 PPP Colorado
+0.02 PPP Oregon

A 1-5 record in games decided by five points or less against Pac-12 teams, unfortunately, sent them off to the NIT. The good news is that their top seven minute earners are back, led by point guard Aaron Bright, scoring guard Chasson Randle and big men Aaron Bright and Dwight Powell (Powell considered the NBA Draft but said that he is returning). Stanford needs to improve their defense to get to the next level, but they also need to get the ball around the rim more. They were very much a jump shooting team this past season, and that can undo a team if they don't have elite shooters or an elite defense. One place they might look for more paint offense is from 2012 recruits Rosco Allen and Grant Verhoeven, both of whom are at least 6'8" and were highly touted out of high school, but played very limited minutes as true freshmen. Stanford 2013 recruiting class is highlighted by Marcus Allen (Scout: 10 SG, Rivals: 136).

Arizona State is another intriguing team for next season. They finally got a chance to see Jahii Carson play, and he looks awfully good. They lose Carrick Felix, but have a really good front court prospect in 7'2" Jordan Bachynski and another good returner in 6'7" Jonathan Gilling. One of their big problems this past season was offensive rebounding, and 6'10" Eric Jacobsen (a true freshman in 2012-13) could provide an answer there. Arizona State has a couple of other young prospects to keep an eye on. 6'2" point guard Calaen Robinson failed to quality to play in 2012-13, but supposedly is going to be able to rejoin the team in 2013-14. Also keep an eye on 6'9" Kenny Martin, a highly touted 2012 recruit who didn't play much as a true freshman.

One final sleeper for next season is Washington State. The Cougars were 4-14 this past season, but they were stronger than their record (they had the same efficiency margin in conference play, -0.05 PPP, as 9-9 USC). They lose leading-scorer Brock Motum and Mike Ladd, but return six players from their regular rotation, including Davonte Lacy, who missed significant time with an injury. They also add 6'1" Brett Kingma, who averaged 3.1 ppg for Oregon as a freshman in 2011-12, and have a pair of 2012 prospects who played light minutes as true freshmen but have a lot of raw talent (6'5" Demarquise Johnson and 6'6" Richard Longrus). Look for point guard Royce Woolridge to be their primary playmaker next season.

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

1. Arizona - The Wildcats will be the best and most talented team in the Pac-12. Sean Miller has proven that he can recruit, so now we'll see if he can coach a Final Four-caliber team.
2. Colorado - I'm assuming that Andre Roberson comes back. If he goes pro then I'll probably drop the Buffaloes a couple of spots.
3. Stanford - An extremely underrated team that returns basically everybody. You've been warned - I'll be very surprised if they don't make the NCAA Tournament.
4. UCLA - If Steve Alford can hang onto the entire roster and adds a recruit or two over the summer then I might slide UCLA up a bit. But I think a lot of people don't realize just how well Shabazz Muhammad played and just how important he was to this team last season.
5. Arizona State - Don't sleep on this Arizona State team to be an NCAA Tournament team. Jahii Carson transformed this team, and they should be bubble quality next season.
6. Oregon - I have them this low simply because there's so much uncertainty around their young roster. They certainly have the potential to be a Top 25 team if a whole bunch of these 2012 and 2013 recruits suddenly blow up.
7. California - Offense is going to be hard to come by with Allen Crabbe of to the NBA. There is a lot of hype around Jabari Bird's ability to score, and the Bears are going to need him to deliver that in order to get back to the NCAA Tournament.
8. Washington State - A team that definitely should finish significantly better than 4-14 next season. Do they have the top end talent to make the NCAA Tournament, though? Probably not.
9. Washington - The Huskies have been stuck in purgatory for a few years now, and the fans are starting to get restless. Is Lorenzo Romar on the hot seat?
10. Oregon State - Should be improved next season. But Craig Robinson has never, in five seasons, even reached .500 in Pac-10/12 play. At least Lorenzo Romar built up some capital with his fan base by having a lot of success earlier in his career.
11. USC - This team was very lucky just to get to 9-9 in Pac-12 play, and now they lose Jio Fontan and Eric Wise. Andy Enfield is hot right now, but best case scenario for next year is that he lands some nice recruits/transfers in the offseason and USC fans have something to look forward to in the near future. Next year's team is going to struggle.
12. Utah - Larry Krystkowiak's 2012-13 team improved dramatically over his 2011-12 team, which might have been the worst team in a BCS conference in modern NCAA history, but the program is likely going to go over a little speed bump next season with the loss of three key senior starters. Next year's team should be heavy on freshmen and sophomores, though, so they should be improved in 2014-15.

2013-14 Preview: SEC

Southeastern Conference

The story in the SEC this past season was, of course, Florida. In every statistical sense they were one of the four best teams in the nation. They absolutely dominated the SEC this past season, outscoring opponents by 0.29 PPP. For comparison, 2011-12 Kentucky outscored the SEC by only 0.27 PPP. Now, the SEC was a little bit stronger in 2011-12 than 2012-13, but not by much. The problem for Florida was that they went 0-6 in games decided by single digits. So my regular readers know that this means they're unlucky and underrated. But the media declared that they were "not clutch" and "couldn't win close games". And the people in the media who really hate modern statistical analysis (Seth Davis, Jeff Goodman, etc) actually argued that Florida was overrated as a 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. That was, of course, nonsense. Florida did the media a favor by being upset in the Elite 8 by Michigan, which allowed them to crow that they knew all along that Florida "couldn't make the Final Four", as dumb as that concept is. Florida "didn't beat anybody on the road" because they didn't play anybody on the road. Who did Wichita State beat on the road prior to the NCAA Tournament? Oh, and who did 2010-11 VCU beat? Of course, if Florida had won the National Title then it wouldn't have proven that they were the best team in the nation. As I always say, the NCAA Tournament doesn't really prove anything. It's a ton of fun, but it's (at most) six games out of a 30-40 game season. There is a ton of randomness. And that, really, is the difference between the stats based community and the "Dinosaur community". You wouldn't see Ken Pomeroy or John Gasaway (or me, for that matter) thumping their chest if Florida had won the National Title. They'd recognize the randomness of it all.

Anyway, the point of that last paragraph is to tell you that Florida is going to be underrated heading into next season. Teams are always projected by taking where a team was this past season, rating the additions and losses, and then moving them up or down the rankings. If you think Florida was only the 15-20th best team in the country this past, you're probably going to underrate them. So what about those additions/losses? Well, getting Patric Young back is huge. Their graduations were Kenny Boynton, Mike Rosario and Erik Murphy. All are tough losses, of course, but the Gators do return point guard Scott Wilbekin, shooting guard Michael Frazier, and forwards Casey Prather and Will Yeguette. So Florida's front court defense should still be excellent. To replace Murphy, they save several options. First, they bring 6'8" Dorien Finney-Smith, who averaged 6.3 points and 7.0 rebounds per game for Virginia Tech in 2011-12, and 6'10" Damontre Harris, who averaged 6.8 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game for South Carolina in 2011-12. They also bring in Chris Walker (Scout: 4 PF, Rivals: 9).

The backcourt is a little bit more of a question mark, which only two proven returners. Billy Donovan will be looking to Brandon Ogbueze, DeVon Walker and Dillon Graham, all of whom were highly touted 2012 recruits who could not crack the rotation, and who rarely played outside garbage time. To be fair, Billy Donovan had a really good team and a tight rotation, and the fact that those guys didn't play doesn't mean that they're not good. Florida also adds Kasey Hill (Scout: 2 PG, Rivals: 9). Of these five relative unknowns (the 2013 recruits and the three 2012 recruits that didn't play much), Florida only needs one or two of them to be decent rotation players for Florida to have a real chance to be a Top 5 team yet again. So for all of the hype Kentucky is getting, do not sleep on Florida for a potential SEC title.

Let's talk about that Kentucky team now. Why are they going to be seen as the almost-unanimous #1 team in the nation heading into next season? It's their recruiting class, which is just ridiculous. Let's assume for now that they aren't getting Andrew Wiggins, the top high schooler in the 2013 class (since at least as far as the media seems to think, he's leaning elsewhere). Even without him, here are their top five recruits: Andrew Harrison (Scout: 1 PG, Rivals: 5), Aaron Harrison (Scout: 1 SG, Rivals: 4), James Young (Scout: 1 SF, Rivals: 10), Julius Randle (Scout: 1 PF, Rivals: 2) and Dakari Johnson (Scout: 1 C, Rivals: 13). Yes, that's the #1 PG, the #1 SG, the #1 SF, the #1 PF and the #1 C, all of whom are among the top 15 recruits in the nation. Oh, and they also have Marcus Lee (Scout: 2 C, Rivals: 18), Derek Willis (Scout: 29 PF, Rivals: 129), and a 6'3" recruit in Dominique Hawkins who isn't an Rivals Top 150 player (the horrors!). It's probably the greatest recruiting class ever assembled. And they still have a chance to sign the #1 overall recruit in the nation, small forward Andrew Wiggins.

The thing is, you can't win a title with just freshmen. I mean, you can, but it's awfully difficult. You can win with a team that gets a ton of minutes from freshmen, but you need some more experienced role players. That 2011-12 Kentucky team got key contributions from non-freshmen like Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb and Darius Miller. So the most underrated news regarding Kentucky is the fact that Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress and Kyle Wiltjer all say that they will be back. The ability of Wiltjer and Poythress to score efficiently is good, but Cauley-Stein's defense is essential. With these very young teams, their biggest problem tends to be defense. 2012-13 Kentucky was undone by a  defense that was mediocre even before Nerlens Noel went down with his injury. Can these freshmen play defense? We'll find out. The other concern is ball distribution. All of these freshmen are used to scoring a whole lot. Can they work well off the ball? Also, can they find a good distributor? Andrew Harrison is not known as a true point guard, and with all of this talent I can't fathom that we're going to get another ride on the Jarred Polson Experience. So there are a lot of question marks around this Kentucky team. No team in the nation will have as much raw talent as Kentucky. But would it shock me if they end up losing a bunch of games and falling to a 4 or 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament? No.

Ole Miss was, in short, a Marshall Henderson Show all season long. He only hit 35% of his three-pointers this season, but he launched an absurd 394 of them (10.9 per game). The thing with taking so many difficult shots is that at least one is going to inevitably go in during a clutch moment of the game, and so Henderson got absolutely all of the credit for any win Ole Miss had, even though he generally wasn't his team's best player and often shot them out of games. The Rebels were really powered by big men Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner, both of whom will be gone next season. They also lose swing man Nick Williams. They do return starting point guard Jarvis Summers, along with Marshall Henderson. Their other key returner is backup point guard Derrick Millinghaus. They also have a backcourt prospect in shooting guard Martavious Newby, who played very limited minutes as a true freshman. The big need, though, is in the front court, where they have no proven returners. They get back 6'8" Demarco Cox, who averaged 3.2 points and 2.9 rebounds per game in 2011-12, but missed almost the entire 2012-13 season with injury. They also add 6'8" Jason Carter, who averaged 6 minutes per game for Alabama in 2011-12. Ole Miss can also look to Terry Brutus and Anthony Perez, a pair of highly touted 2012 front court recruits who played very limited minutes as true freshmen. Their top 2013 recruit is also a big man: Dwight Coleby (Scout: 26 C, Rivals: 149).

Missouri was a team that was over-hyped early in the season, but after they became another one of those teams lazily described as "they can't win a close game" by the media, they became one of the most underrated teams in the nation late in the season. They finished second in the conference in efficiency margin (+0.11 PPP, compared to +0.06 PPP for Ole Miss and +0.04 PPP for Kentucky and Alabama), and were in the Top 20 in the computers when handed a 9 seed by the Selection Committee. They lose their starting front court (Alex Oriakhi and Lawrence Bowers) to graduation, though, and also shooting guard Keion Bell. And Phil Pressey will be leaving early for the NBA. That leaves Earnest Ross, Jabari Brown and Tony Criswell as the only returners from their regular rotation. They do get a big addition from 6'5" Jordan Clarkson (14.2 ppg over two seasons at Tulsa), but Missouri's success or failure going forward is going to come from Frank Haith's recruits. Mike Anderson's players are now almost entirely gone. They do have a couple of good big man prospects from Haith's 2012 recruiting class - Stefan Jankovic and Ryan Rosburg - and also add Johnathan Williams (Scout: 9 PF, Rivals: 50), Wes Clark (Scout: 16 PG, Rivals: 71) and Torren Jones (Rivals: 117).

The story for Alabama has remained the same every season under Anthony Grant: they play good defense but can't score. This past season, they were the second best defense in the SEC (behind only Florida), but scored only 0.97 PPP in conference play. You would think that would improve next year, however, with the return of their top eight minute earners, led by point guard Trevor Lacey and leading-scorer Trevor Releford. While the team will be very experienced next season, they do have a really nice young prospect in 6'8" Devonta Pollard. As a true freshman he was terribly raw offensively, but he showed great raw athletic talent. Another young prospect to keep an eye on is 6'8" Nick Jacobs, who played very effectively in 21 minutes off the bench this past season. Grant's recruiting class features a pair of bigs: Jimmie Taylor (Scout: 10 C, Rivals: 60) and Shannon Hale (Scout: 23 PF, Rivals: 93).

Tennessee is another team that should expect to be stronger next season. From their regular rotation, they only lose Skylar McBee and Kenny Hall. Hall's rebounding and defense is probably the bigger loss of the two. Hall wasn't Tennessee's best big man, Jarnell Stokes was, but the Vols only have question marks among their other bigs. Jeronne Maymon is a ferocious rebounder when healthy, but that's continued to be a problem for him and he missed the entire 2012-13 season with another injury. Yemi Makanjuola and Derek Reese are a pair of big man prospects who were okay in limited minutes this past season as well. The backcourt is a much more stable situation for Tennessee. Trae Golden and Jordan McRae are a strong pair of starters, and they have a blue chipper coming in 2013: Robert Hubbs (Scout: 2 SG, Rivals: 15).

Arkansas was a team that disappointed a little bit, because I thought they'd make more progress in Year Two of the Mike Anderson era. Their two biggest areas of struggle were shooting (dead last in the SEC with a 28.2 3P% in conference play) and rebounding (bottom three in the SEC in both OR% and DR%). They didn't have a single senior on the roster, but will be losing Marshawn Powell and BJ Young to the NBA Draft. Their front court should still be fine with Hunter Mickelson and Cotey Clarke, though neither was a great rebounder. They add 6'6" Alandise Harris, who averaged 13.3 points and 6.4 rebounds per game for Houston in 2011-12. Backcourt play will be a bigger concern for Arkansas, though, particularly because of the tempo Mike Anderson likes to play. Young ball handlers tend to turn the ball over a lot in Anderson's system. Rashad Madden and Mardracus Wade should be solid backcourt players. Anthlon Bell, a true freshman in 2012-13, is a good prospect for the future, as is 6'5" Michael Qualls. Those young ball handlers are going to have to step up, because Mike Anderson clearly put together his recruiting class with his team's front court woes in mind, signing Bobby Portis (Scout: 6 PF, Rivals: 17) and Moses Kingsley (Scout: 4 C, Rivals: 62).

Vanderbilt had the dictionary definition of a "rebuilding season", after losing the top six minute earners off their 2011-12 team. This young team got off to a really slow start to the season, but finished strong. They ended up with an efficiency margin of -0.00 PPP (very narrowly outscored) in conference play, and won six of their final eight games, including upsets of Kentucky and Arkansas. Their computer numbers (Pomeroy and Sagarin) rose from around 150th early in conference play to well inside the Top 100 by the end of the season. Everybody will be back next season, too, led by primary playmaker Kedren Johnson and big man Rod Odum. They have a really nice prospect in 6'7" Sheldon Jeter, who was a true freshman in 2012-13. They have a couple of nice incoming prospects in 6'5" Eric McClellan (8.5 ppg for Tulsa in 2011-12) and Damion Jones (Scout: 26 PF, Rivals: 82).

Georgia is a team that would likely be improved if Kentavious Caldwell-Pope returns, but it's looking more and more like he won't. He's done absolutely everything for that team the past couple of years, and they'll be in trouble if he goes. So if there's a sleeper for next season, it's an LSU team that returns their top six minute earners. LSU returns star big man Johnny O'Bryant, primary playmaker Charles Carmouche and defensive menace Anthony Hickey. 2012-13 true freshman shooting guard Malik Morgan is a nice prospect for the future, and Johnny Jones has a nice recruiting class signed, headed by Jarell Martin (Scout: 5 PF, Rivals: 12), Jordan Mickey (Scout: 12 PF, Rivals: 41) and Tim Quarterman (Scout: 18 SF, Rivals: 66).

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

1. Florida - I don't think there's much to separate Kentucky or Florida. There's a chance that both will end up as Top 5 teams in the nation. I'm giving the slight edge to a Florida team that is much more certain and has much clearer roles and a much clearer identity.
2. Kentucky - If they sign Andrew Wiggins then I'll move them over Florida, but for now I think that ball distribution and defensive efficiency are too large of an uncertainty, despite the ridiculous amount of raw talent that John Calipari will have at his disposal.
3. Tennessee - Assuming Jeronne Maymon can get healthy and can play a full season (which he's only done once in his college career), Tennessee should get back to the NCAA Tournament, even if they really have no chance of challenging Florida and Kentucky at the top of the league.
4. Alabama - Another team that should be better and has a good chance of making the Tournament. But at some point they've got to become efficient offensively, because there's only so far you can get by being really good defensively.
5. Vanderbilt - A team that definitely should be improved. They don't have really have high end raw talent, though, so they might need another year of seasoning before they can challenge near the top of the SEC.
6. Ole Miss - If Marshall Henderson can be put on a leash, he really has a lot of talent. But I have never seen a player take dumber shots than he does. He shoots more than Jimmer Fredette, Steph Curry or Adam Morrison did, and all three of those guys had far nicer touches with their shot than Henderson does.
7. LSU - A team with a realistic shot to make the NCAA Tournament. Johnny Jones knows how to recruit, so now let's find out if he can coach players effectively at this level.
8. Missouri - A rebuilding year for Frank Haith's team. It's time for Haith to prove that his success in his first two seasons at Missouri was due to his coaching and recruiting, and not just to riding Mike Anderson's players.
9. Arkansas - The NBA defection of BJ Young really hurts. I'm a huge Mike Anderson fan, but there's a real risk of him not making the NCAA Tournament in any of his first three seasons at Arkansas.
10. Texas A&M - Do-everything star Elston Turner is gone, but the Aggies really shouldn't have a significant drop off. They have a very good big man in rising-junior Kourtney Roberson. 
11. Mississippi State - If Wendell Lewis can get a medical redshirt and can be back next season, Mississippi State really might not be that bad next season. They were awfully young in 2012-13. Five of their top six minute earners were freshmen or sophomores.
12. Georgia - They'll slide up a few places in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope comes back for another season, but he's being projected by a lot of people as a potential lottery pick, so he's probably gone. It's hard to overstate just how much better Caldwell-Pope was at playing basketball than everybody else on his team.
13. South Carolina - My regular readers know that I'm not a big fan of Frank Martin. For all of his screaming, his players tend to be horrible at basic basketball fundamentals. He won at Kansas State by recruiting some really elite talent, but so far he doesn't even any of that at South Carolina.
14. Auburn - This team was flat out awful this past season, and lost games to teams like Winthrop, DePaul and Rhode Island. And they somehow did this with three seniors in their starting lineup. There's a reasonable chance that next season will be Tony Barbee's last at Auburn.