2014-2015 Season Preview: Mid-Major Power Rankings

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Siyani Chambers, Wesley Saunders (AP Photo)

Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Here are our Mid-Major Power Rankings.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

A quick disclaimer before I begin, because determining who qualifies as a mid-major and who doesn’t is always a touchy subject. Here is how we broke it down for these rankings: The Mountain West, the Big East, the Atlantic 10 and the American were all, by default, barred from these rankings. The WCC was eligible with the exception of Gonzaga and BYU. The Missouri Valley was eligible with the exception of Wichita State. Everyone else was fair game.

Why did we eliminate the Shockers from contention? Well, the complicated answer is that “high-major” delegation is more about financial resources, support from the university, the fan base and the community, and consistent, high-level success during the season and on the recruiting trail, but the simple answer is that the Shockers would be the clear-cut No. 1 team here and it’s more fun to do this without them involved. Our rankings, our rules. Deal with it.

MORE: Top 25 Potential Breakout Stars | Top 25 Non-Conference Games | Coaches on the Hot Seat

1. Harvard, 27-5, 13-1 Ivy (1st): The Crimson return the core of a team that has won a game in back-to-back NCAA tournaments, notching upsets over No. 3 New Mexico and No. 5 Cincinnati. Their front court is deep, big and talented enough to matchup with just about any high-major. Their perimeter doesn’t have a ton of depth, but it does have Siyani Chambers and Wesley Saunders. Barring injuries, the Crimson look like a top 25 team.

2. Georgia State, 25-9, 17-1 Sun Belt (1st): The Panthers back court is absolutely loaded. Ryan Harrow, R.J. Hunter and Kevin Ware are as talented as any group of guards that you’ll find at the Division I level. There should be no drop-off from last season’s team, the one that went 17-1 in Sun Belt play, particularly if Ron Hunter can find someone to help Curtis Washington on the interior.

3. Louisiana Tech, 29-8, 13-3 Conference USA (t-1st): The Bulldogs lose three starters off of last year’s team, but more importantly that brought back head coach Mike White, who nearly took the Tennessee job, as well as their trio of talented guards, Alex Hamilton, Kenneth Smith and the now-healthy Raheem Appleby.

MORE: NBCSports.com’s Mid-Major All-Americans

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Daniel Mullings (Getty Images)

4. New Mexico State, 26-10, 12-4 WAC (2nd): The Aggies have made three straight NCAA tournaments and this season return reigning WAC Player of the Year, Daniel Mullings, as well as Tshilidzi Nephawe and DK Eldridge. NMSU hasn’t won the WAC regular season or a game in the NCAA tournament the past three seasons, and this year might change that.

5. Murray State, 23-11, 13-3 OVC West (1st): Thrust into the point guard role after Zay Jackson’s knee injury, freshman Cameron Payne quickly made Racer fans forget about Isaiah Canaan. Steve Prohm will return the top four scorers from that team, including double-double threat Jarvis Williams.

6. Saint Mary’s, 23-12, 11-7 WCC (4th): Losing Stephen Holt, Beau Levesque and James Walker III will hurt, but Brad Waldow is back and he’ll be joined by former Stanford point guard Aaron Bright, Minnesota wing Joe Coleman and Washington big man Desmond Simmons. They’ll compete with BYU for the title of second-best team in the WCC.

7. Green Bay, 24-7, 14-2 Horizon (1st): The Phoenix lose center Alec Brown, but they return four of their top five scorers — including star point guard Keifer Sykes — from a team that beat ACC champion Virginia last season.

8. Toledo, 27-7, 14-4 MAC West (1st): Fresh off a school record 27 wins and a trip to the NIT, Toledo returns six of their top seven scorers, including all-league guard ‘Juice’ Brown, who has started 98 games in his career.

9. Stephen F. Austin, 32-3, 18-0 Southland (1st): The Lumberjacks lost three key pieces from last season’s team, but they return reigning Southland Player of the Year Jacob Parker. Head coach Brad Underwood is back as well, meaning SFA will once again be a team capable of winning a game in the Big Dance.

10. Northern Iowa, 16-15, 10-8 Missouri Valley (3rd): The Panthers were a bit of a disappointment a season ago, but they return their top six scorers from last season, headlined by big man Seth Tuttle, while adding Virginia transfer Paul Jesperson.

11. Iona, 22-11, 17-3 MAAC (1st): The Gaels won 20 games for the fourth straight season a year ago. They return one of the best scorers at the mid-major level in A.J. English and should once again be the favorites to win the always-competitive MAAC.

12. Wofford, 20-13, 11-5 SoCon (t-3rd): The Terriers return everyone of significance from a team that won the SoCon tournament a season ago. Along with Chattanooga, the favorites to win the league with Davidson A-10 bound.

13. Yale, 19-14, 9-5 Ivy (2nd): Harvard is the favorite to win the Ivy League this year, but Yale, the only team to beat Harvard in Ivy play last season, brings back a loaded front line, headlined by NBCSports.com’s preseason Player of the Year Justin Sears.

14. UC Irvine, 23-12, 13-3 Big West (1st): The Anteaters rode a pair of freshmen to the Big West title last season — 7-foot-6 center Mamadou N’Diaye and 6-foot-3 guard and leading scorer Luke Nelson.

15. Florida-Gulf Coast, 22-13, 14-4 Atlantic Sun (t-1st): The Atlantic Sun may be withering with the loss of Belmont, Mercer and East Tennessee State in recent years, but FGCU’s program is as good as ever. Bernard Thompson and Brett Comer anchor the back court while another crop of high-major transfers will fill their supporting cast.

OTHERS RECEIVING VOTES: Belmont, Chattanooga, Cleveland State, Hofstra, Louisiana-Lafayette, Manhattan, Sam Houston State, Siena, Stony Brook, UC Santa Barbara, Western Michigan

Missouri’s Martin ready for game against former Vols team

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COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin has a job to do.

It doesn’t matter that his next game is against No. 21 Tennessee (12-4, 3-2 Southeastern Conference), a team he coached for three seasons. It doesn’t matter that it involves a fan base that didn’t exactly love Martin when he coached there.

Martin has to coach his players, and that’s that.

“Fans have the right to be fans if they want to be fans,” Martin said Tuesday, the day before the game. “It’s your choice to be a fan. I’m not going to tell you how to be a fan. It’s my job to do my job.”

Martin, now in his first year at Missouri, coached at Tennessee from 2011-2014. He went 63-41, with two NIT appearances and one NCAA regional semifinal berth.

But the last season, 2013-2014, was the most significant. With Tennessee on the NCAA Tournament bubble, a petition began circulating. Tennessee fans wanted to bring back Bruce Pearl, who was fired in 2011 because of an NCAA investigation. Martin was never as popular as Pearl in Knoxville, Tennessee.

“I’d like to think people appreciated the job he did because I think he did really a terrific job,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “I’m not sure how he was embraced. If he wasn’t truly embraced, people should be ashamed because I’m going to tell you, the guy’s a heck of a person, he’s a heck of a basketball coach.”

During that last season, Martin said he couldn’t get caught up in what was going on outside of his team. Tennessee was one of the last four teams to make the tournament. The Vols ended up in the Sweet 16, beating Iowa, Massachusetts and Mercer to get there before losing by 2 points to Michigan. Martin left for Cal after the season.

“More than anything, I had to keep their level of composure, because again, when you fight you battle together,” Martin said of that final season with the Vols. “I think there was mixed emotions for the guys from the standpoint of it was our coach, and they’re airing these things and how do we perceive them. It was strange. And like I told those guys, this is life and you have to push forward . Just a teaching point.”

On Wednesday, Missouri (12-5, 2-2) hosts the Vols in Mizzou Arena. For Martin, it doesn’t mean anything more than another conference game. Missouri has to be ready for Barnes’ talented team, and vice versa. Barnes said he has a lot of respect for Martin and what he has done in the short time he’s been in Columbia.

Missouri was just 8-24 last year, leading to Kim Anderson’s ouster, but has designs on making the NCAA Tournament this season.

“I think his teams embody who he is,” Barnes said. “Go back and think of him as a player and the way he played, what he wants from his players. There’s no doubt in my mind the job he’s doing at Missouri, he’ll continue to do a great job there.”

Martin doesn’t have to face the crowd at Thompson-Boling Arena just yet. Even so, Miami Heat guard Josh Richardson, who played for Martin at Tennessee, said facing the Vols will be a big deal.

“Tennessee means a lot to him,” Richardson said. “I know that, especially the relationships that we all made while we were there together. That’s definitely very important. But I think it’ll be a bigger game when he goes to Knoxville. I think the crowd will accept him, I hope he gets a nice ovation. I think he should, at least.”

A game in Knoxville will come, though not this season. When it does, Martin will just have a job to do.

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AP Sports Writers Tim Reynolds and Steve Megargee contributed to this report.

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More AP college basketball: http://collegebasketball.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_Top25

How Duke’s porous defense stacks up historically with past title winners

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For the last three years, Duke’s issues on the defensive side of the ball have been constant and pervasive.

Whether it’s their issues defending on the perimeter, or the problems they have dealing with ball-screens, or the freedom of movement rule changes inhibiting their ability to get out and pressure in the half court, the truth is that Mike Krzyzewski’s program has become synonymous with highlight reel offense and matador defense.

Since 2011, only two Duke teams have finished in the top 45 of KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric, and only one of those teams finished in the top 25. That was in 2015, when the Blue Devils went from being a mess on that end of the floor in January to the 37th-best defensive at the start of the NCAA tournament to national champions after playing defense at a level that would set records if it lasted for the entirety of a season.

The question this year is whether or not Duke will be capable of pulling off a similar turnaround in March, which made me wonder: How unique was Duke’s 2015 national title? Have we seen a team that struggled as much as they did defensively win a national title before? How many times have teams been able to fix their flaws by getting hot for six games in March?

I went back and looked at the offensive and defensive efficiency rankings for every Final Four team in the KenPom era, both after the tournament came to an end and prior to the start of the dance. The numbers that come before the start of the tournament are the most interesting to me, because teams making a run through the dance are going to see a significant chance in their rankings as they best good teams.

The numbers used in here are where each team ranks nationally. KenPom’s adjusted efficiency margins – what he uses to rank teams – cannot be compared across seasons. KenPom’s database dates back to the 2001-2002 season.

Here’s what I found:

1. NO CHAMPION HAS PLAYED WORSE DEFENSE THAN 2009 NORTH CAROLINA

North Carolina’s 2009 title team had the lowest defensive efficiency ranking of the KenPom era. They entered the NCAA tournament ranked 39th nationally, two spots worse than where the 2015 Duke team.

The 2014 UConn team that won the national title on the back of Shabazz Napier was the worst offensive team of the KenPom era to win a title, entering the tournament ranked 58th.  In fact, that 2014 UConn team was ranked lower than 2010 Butler, which is the only other team ranked outside the top 45 in offensive efficiency to get to the national title game.

Defense may win championships, but in college hoops, the average ranking for teams getting to the national title game – and for teams winning the national title – was higher in offensive efficiency than in defensive efficiency.

2. DUKE WOULD BE THE WORST DEFENSIVE TEAM TO GET TO THE TITLE GAME

Duke currently ranks 72nd in adjusted defensive efficiency. The only team to rank that low defensively was Butler in 2011, but that was also a weird year in the NCAA tournament. No. 3 seed UConn, No. 4 seed Kentucky, No. 8 seed Butler and No. 11 seed VCU all reached the Final Four; VCU made it after starting the tournament off in the First Four.

Butler got out of the first weekend that year thanks to what might be the weirdest finish to a game in NCAA tournament history. They handled good Wisconsin and Florida teams to get to the Final Four, where the Bulldogs faced off with VCU – by far the worst team to get to the Final Four in the KenPom era – before losing to UConn in the title game.

The only other team to rank outside of the top 40 defensively was Trey Burke’s 2013 Michigan team. They were 66th entering the tournament:

For comparison’s sake, UConn’s 2014 title is the only time a team outside of the top 50 offensively reached the title game. Only four other teams, all runner-ups, got to a title game ranked outside the top 25 in offensive efficiency, and the only other title team to rank outside the top 20 in offensive efficiency was UConn in 2011:

3. TO WIN A TITLE, YOU MUST BE ELITE AT SOMETHING OR HAVE A SUPERSTAR

Of the 16 national champions in the KenPom era, 75 percent of them ranked in the top 10 of either offensive or defensive efficiency entering the NCAA tournament.

The four that didn’t:

Syracuse was led by Carmelo Anthony in 2003. Florida has Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer in 2006 and went on to repeat with that same core of players the next year. UConn has Kemba Walker and Shabazz Napier in 2011 and 2014, respectively.

Player of the Year Power Rankings: Jalen Brunson is making up ground

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1. TRAE YOUNG, Oklahoma: Trae Young is the runaway favorite for National Player of the Year. At this point, if he doesn’t win the award, something crazy will have to happen.

So I’ll be using this space simply to take a look at my favorite part of the way that the players on this list play. Here is a look at the way that Young was able to create space to his threes off against TCU. Like Steph Curry, Young is short, doesn’t get all that much elevation when he shoots and a relatively low release-point. But quick feet, a super-quick release, ridiculous range and an innate ability to stay on-balance lets him do things like this:

(Some of these shots are insanely difficult.)

2. JALEN BRUNSON, Villanova: Brunson has added a new wrinkle to his game this season, as he is now being allowed to post up with more impunity. This creates a nightmare scenario for opponents. He is simply too good and too big for just about any point guard to stop on the block, but you cannot send an extra defender because double-teaming one of the best point guards in the country is just not doable, not when he is surrounded by four knock-down shooters.

Here’s a breakdown of why this makes Villanova that much more dangerous.

3. MARVIN BAGLEY III, Duke: The debate over whether or not Bagley is better than Ayton is going to rage all season long. Personally, I think that Ayton is a better prospect that Bagley largely because I think he has an easier fit defensively at the next level. Right now, however, Ayton is probably a marginally better defender while Bagley is a better offensive weapon.

But Bagley is clearly the leader in terms of the Player of the Year race for the simple fact that he has won games on his own by simply being absolutely dominant in the paint.

4. DEANDRE AYTON, Arizona: See above.

5. KEENAN EVANS, Texas Tech: For my money, four of the spots for first-team all-american are more or less locked in: Young, Brunson, Bagley and Ayton. There is a lot of season left to play, but right now those four have a solid lead on the field.

My favorite subplot of the race for the Big 12 title is that each of the four teams at the top of the conference are led by point guards that have a real shot at being first-team all-americans. Young, obviously, is going to be there. But the fifth-spot is race between Evans, Devonte’ Graham and Jevon Carter. A week ago I thought Carter was the pick. After seeing what Evans did down the stretch in a win over the Mountaineers over the weekend, I’m now leaning his way. But Graham, who has been terrific all season long, was good down the stretch in a win at West Virginia.

6. DEVONTE’ GRAHAM, Kansas
7. JEVON CARTER, West Virginia
8. TRA HOLDER, Arizona State
9. KEITA BATES-DIOP, Ohio State
10. TREVON BLUIETT, Xavier

ALSO CONSIDERED: MIKAL BRIDGES, Villanova; JOCK LANDALE, Saint Mary’s; DAKOTA MATHIAS, Purdue; YANTE MATEN, Georgia; LUKE MAYE, North Carolina; SHAKE MILTON, SMU; JORDAN MURPHY, Minnesota;  DESI RODRIGUEZ, Seton Hall; LANDRY SHAMET, Wichita State; KHYRI THOMAS, Creighton; ALLONZO TRIER, Arizona

VIDEO: Providence coach Ed Cooley always needs a mic

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On Friday night at DePaul, Providence head coach Ed Cooley allowed himself to be mic’d up for a TV broadcast, and things got interesting.

Around the 36 second mark, Cooley starts talking about … vampires and bats and dracula?

Then robbing banks and saying thank you?

I don’t know. Just watch.

VIDEO: Kansas celebrates in locker room after West Virginia win

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After coming from 16 points down to knock off No. 6 West Virginia in Morgantown on Monday night, Kansas had themselves some fun in the visitor’s locker room.

I’m not exactly sure what is happening here, but I do know Devonte’ Graham is having a hell of a time.

COLUMN: Kansas is back on top in the Big 12

My only question … where is Billy Preston’s shirt? He didn’t even play: