Friday, November 2, 2007

Yet Another Preview

The Early Season – Forming A New Identity

If you are a college basketball fan, you don’t have to wait another decade for Tom Brady to retire. You don’t have to wait for the Yankees roster to finally get old enough that they miss the playoffs. The beauty of college sports is that one quarter of the roster turns over every year. No matter what you think you know about a team, a lot is going to be different the next fall. If a star player dominated your team last year (think Kevin Durant), there’s a good chance he’s playing in the NBA right now. Not everyone jumps early, (think JJ Reddick), but eventually everyone runs out of eligibility.

This makes any type of preseason prediction a bit silly. Every year each team forms a new identity, and the teams that blend together are often the teams we least expect. As I pointed out recently, for four straight seasons, no Elite Eight team has advanced further in the following year’s tournament. And, while that trend may not continue, there is plenty to learn before the start of conference play in January.

1) Which marquee freshmen are for real? Like Ohio St. last year, Duke has three McDonald’s All-Americans coming in this year and Syracuse has two that should play dominant roles. You’ve probably also heard that Indiana has a sensational freshman guard, that UCLA has a sensational freshman forward, that USC has arguably one of the most hyped high school players in recent history, that Georgetown has two outstanding guards coming in, and so on.

2) Which bench players will earn vacant starting spots? I often believe that having one or two starters graduate is beneficial because it gives the reserves the incentive to compete for a starting spot. And it is frequently the case that an unknown underclassman will step up and become a star.

Darren Collison
05-06 FR, 32.8% of threes, 5.5 PPG and 2.3 APG
06-07 SO, 44.7% of threes, 12.7 PPG and 5.7 APG

Eric Maynor
05-06 FR 4.7 PPG and 2.2 APG, VCU 19-10
06-07 SO 13.9 PPG and 6.4 APG, VCU 28-7 with an NCAA win

Last year Darrell Arthur was an ultra-talented freshman for Kansas, but he played less than 20 minutes per game. Will Julian Wright’s exit open the door for him to become a superstar?

3) Which starters will have unexpected improvements in their game?

Everyone seems to think that returning the majority of your players will lead to a successful season. While experience can help early in the year, when a team brings everyone back, it can also become complacent because everyone’s role is defined. For experienced teams to get better, it often requires that a starter become much more efficient in the same number of minutes.

Luther Head
03-04 JR, 34.3% of threes, 11.0 PPG and 2.6 APG, Illinois 26-7 Sweet Sixteen
04-05 SR, 41.0% of threes, 15.9 PPG and 3.8 APG, Illinois 37-2 National Runner-up

Al Horford
04-05 FR, 48% of FGs, 5.6 PPG and 6.6 RPG, Florida 24-8 Lost Second Round
05-06 SO, 60% of FGs, 11.3 PPG and 7.6 RPG, Florida 33-6 National Champs

Horford and Head played only slightly more minutes in the second seasons listed above, but both had dramatic improvements in personal efficiency.

Will Goran Suton elevate his game and allow Michigan St. to live up to its preseason billing, or will he suffer through another year of inconsistency. Last year Wayne Ellington was a quiet assassin for North Carolina, hitting tons of threes, but missing them in critical games. Will this be the year he makes the buzzer beaters?

For a team like Memphis that has made the Elite Eight in two straight years, but has failed to make the Final Four, who will be the difference maker this year? What player has made strides that will finally allow Memphis to take the final step and reach the Final Four?

4) How will teams adjust to new styles of play?

Will Michigan struggle to learn John Beilein’s offense? Or will the fact that Michigan lost so many seniors mean that the new players will immediately buy into the new system? Duke seems loaded on the perimeter. Will Duke operate with more four guard lineups than ever before?

Yet Another Prediction

Another year has passed and much has changed. has become Ken Pomeroy and John Gassaway (Big Ten Wonk) have joined a new site called Basketball Prospectus. And another slew of ESPN columns are insider-only reading. On the plus side, Yoni Cohen’s blog is still free.

I’m going to leave it to the experts to do a comprehensive preview of the season, but one question that I was asked over the summer was whether or not my coach evaluation tool could be used to predict the upcoming season. The answer of course is that it can, but that it is a very blunt instrument for predicting this year’s performance.

Using essentially the same model as I used this spring where McDonald’s All-Americans and senior and junior Top 100 recruits best predict victory, my model concludes that the most talented teams in the country are:

1. Duke (8 McDonald’s All-Americans)
2. Kansas (5 MAA, more Upper Class T100 than UNC)
3. North Carolina (5 MAA)
4. Arizona (3 MAA)
5. Georgetown (3 MAA)
6. Syracuse (3 MAA)
8. Louisville
9. Indiana
10. Oklahoma St.
Honorable mention: Texas, Villanova

And after I factor in regular season and post-season coaching ability, the model predicts Duke to win it all. Is this a bad prediction?

Let’s look at those MAAs?
Senior DeMarcus Nelson
Junior Greg Paulus
Sophomores Lance Thomas, Gerald Henderson, and John Scheyer
Freshmen Taylor King, Nolan Smith, and Kyle Singler

Nelson and Paulus haven’t blossomed into stars yet, but the rest of these players have substantial upside. Shouldn’t Coach K be able to turn 6 young MAAs into something? Would you feel differently if it was Thad Matta bringing in another class of 3 freshmen MAAs?

Even so, it is hard to see how this young Duke team could be favored over the talented AND experienced Kansas and North Carolina teams. So clearly there is a flaw in the model. As I see it, there are at least two obvious problems.

1) Freshman MAAs have clearly had a huge impact in the last 10 years, but not all MAAs are created equal. Daequan Cook and Greg Oden were both freshmen MAAs, but it was because of Oden that Ohio St. made the Final Four, not because of Cook. So I really need a separate indicator for Oden-level freshman. But who knows who the Oden level freshman are ahead of time? Yes, sometimes they are obvious, but no one saw Durant coming last year, and Carmelo Anthony certainly did not receive Oden level hype out of high school either. Both were McDonald’s All-Americans, but I’m not sure I could tell you how we can clearly tell that Kyle Singler is worse than Kevin Durant until we see him play in the college atmosphere.

2) Last season matters. That’s why no one has Syracuse or Oklahoma St. in their top 10 this year. But does it really? When I looked within coaches, there is actually very little year-to-year correlation. Good years are usually followed by bad years (the best players leave), and bad years are usually followed by good years (the best players stay.) As I said recently, for four straight tournaments, no elite eight team has advanced further in the following years’ NCAA tournament.

And not surprisingly, this should be a bit of a down year for Ohio St. and Florida. But for other teams that return the majority of their players (UCLA, Georgetown, North Carolina, Kansas), the drop-off shouldn’t be so big. In some sense, the key is to control for percentage of returning minutes and returning scoring when considering the impact of the previous year. Basketball Prospectus appears to factor in returning minutes when making their predictions. I use a simpler model which codes for substantial NBA defections.

The model works basically like this:
1) Start with the high school talent level of each current player.
2) Adjust for experience, (the teams success the previous year unless there are major NBA defections).
3) Add the coaches’ regular season success over the past 5 years and spit out the regular season league champions.
4) Add the coaches’ tournament success over the past 10 years and spit out the tournament predictions.

And here’s what I get:

League Champ
ACC – North Carolina edges Duke
Big East – Georgetown wins easily, Pittsburgh second
Pac 10 – UCLA wins easily, Arizona second
Big 12 – Kansas wins easily, Texas second
Big 10 – Wisconsin narrowly edges Indiana
SEC – Kentucky edges Tennessee

The only surprises here are Pittsburgh and Wisconsin. But, Jamie Dixon and Bo Ryan have done such an amazing job developing players and winning regular season games over the last 5 years, that this would not be a real surprise. It doesn’t hurt that Wisconsin returns a dominant MAA center. Michigan St. has not had much regular season success in the last 5 years which is why they are rated lower than an extremely talented Indiana team.

National Title: UCLA over Georgetown
Final Four includes: North Carolina, Kansas
Elite Eight includes: Duke, Memphis, USC, Louisville

OK, so my coaching model spits out something that looks fairly similar to the pre-season Top 25. But I don’t actually believe any of this. The beauty of autumn college basketball is what you don’t know, not what you know.

When to Watch

For those of you who don’t care about the subtleties of early season games, you can always look to the holiday tournaments to deliver some outstanding hoops.

Teams participate in exempt tournaments so that they can play more games than the NCAA normally allows. This increases revenue, but many of these tournaments aren’t really tournaments at all. They’re just round-robin events that give extra home games to major teams. (Even some mid-majors have joined in. Drake hosts both a Drake Classic and a Drake Invitational.) I’m not going to list any tournaments with fewer than 8 teams. If you’d like to see these small tournaments and the one-day events like the Jimmy V Classic and the Wooden Tradition, someone was kind enough to compile them here.

But there are still 3 “challenges” and 18 tournaments worth keeping an eye out for:

ACC/Big Ten Challenge, Nov 26-28
Big 12/Pac10 Challenge, Nov 29-Dec 2
SEC/Big East Challenge, Dec 5-Dec. 6, sadly only 4 games and 8 teams

Pre-season NIT, November 12-23
Includes: Syracuse, Ohio State, Washington, Texas A&M, Utah, UTEP, St. Joe’s, Siena, Delaware St., Oral Roberts

Virgin Islands Paradise Jam, Nov 16-19
Georgia Tech, Notre Dame, Baylor, Wichita St., Charlotte, Illinois-Chicago, Winthrop, Monmouth

Maui Invitational, Nov 19-21
Duke, Marquette, LSU, Oklahoma St., Illinois, Arizona St., Princeton, Chaminade

Rainbow Classic, Dec. 19-22
Georgia, St. John’s, Ohio, Tulane, St. Mary’s, Louisiana-Lafayette, East Tennessee St., Hawaii

Great Alaska Shootout, Nov 21-24
Michigan, Texas Tech, Gonzaga, Virginia Tech, Butler, W. Kentucky, E. Washington, Alaska Anchorage

Puerto Rico Tipoff, Nov 15-18
Arkansas, Miami (FL), Providence, Temple, VCU, Houston, College of Charleston, Marist

Old Spice Classic, Nov 22-25
Villanova, Kansas St., South Carolina, Penn St., NC State, George Mason, UCF, Rider

Anaheim Classic, Nov 22-25
USC, Mississippi St., Miami (OH), Southern Illinois, San Diego, South Alabama, UC Irvine, Chattanooga

2K Sports College Hoops Classic for Coaches vs Cancer, Nov 5-16
Includes: UConn, Oklahoma, Memphis, Kentucky, Richmond, San Francisco, Buffalo

CBE Classic, Nov 11-20
Includes: Michigan St., Maryland, UCLA, Missouri, Fordham, Central Michigan, Tulsa, Weber St.

Top of the World Classic, Nov 15-18
Includes: Colorado St., Oregon St., Akron

The rest of these kind of stretch the idea of a “tournament”, but here they are anyway:

South Padre Island Invitational, Nov 18-24
Includes: Iowa, Vanderbilt, Bradley, Utah St., Austin Peay, Valparaiso

Chicago Invitational Challenge, Nov 18-24,
Includes: Indiana, Xavier, Illinois St., Kent St., UNC-Wilmington
An invitational & challenge all in one? Really? When’s the Chicago Classic Invitational Challenge?

Las Vegas Invitational, Nov 18-24
Includes: North Carolina, Louisville, BYU, Old Dominion

Las Vegas Classic, Dec 17-23
Not to be confused with the Las Vegas Invitational
Includes: Purdue, Alabama, Iowa St., Missouri St.

Legends Classic, Nov 14-24
Includes: Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia, New Mexico St.

Philly Classic, Nov 11-24
Includes: Seton Hall, Virginia, Drexel, Navy, Penn

Glenn Wilkes Classic, Nov 9-18
Includes: Florida State, South Florida, Rhode Island, UAB

Enjoy the start of the season!