EXPLAINING SI'S METHODOLOGY FOR PICKING THE TOP TEAMS, PROJECTING TRENDS AND PREDICTING THE CHAMPION
SI'S COLLEGE BASKETBALL PROJECTION SYSTEM, now in its fourth year, simulates the season 10,000 times and then ranks teams from 1 to 351 according to their average efficiency.
This forecast starts with an assessment of every player. For offense, the system projects efficiency and shot volume based on past performance, recruiting rankings, development curves for similar Division I players over the past 14 seasons, the quality of a player's teammates and his coach's ability to maximize talent. That collection of data is weighted based on the team's rotation—including scouting intel on who's expected to play—then used to produce each team's projected offensive efficiency. (The simulations account for variance in individual performances and for potential injuries.) Team defensive efficiency projections are based on the players' projected rebound, steal and block percentages; their height (taller frontcourts make for stingier D); their experience (veterans have fewer lapses); and their coaches' defensive résumés.
The complete rankings and player forecasts—and much more—can be found in the following pages and on SI.com, but here's a deeper look at our analysis for 2017--18.
1 THE TRANSFER TREND
Last season Mark Few and Gonzaga finally made the national championship game behind a trio of players who started out with other Division I teams: Nigel Williams-Goss (Washington), Jordan Mathews (Cal) and Johnathan Williams (Missouri). Transfers are not a new fad in college basketball, which has the second-highest rate of players switching schools (after men's soccer). But led in part by the implementation of the grad-transfer rule in 2011--12, which allows fifth-year seniors who have graduated to play at a new school, transfers are increasingly earning minutes at major programs. More than 800 players left D-I teams this offseason, and SI expects 128 transfers with D-I experience to earn significant minutes (11.3%) on the 115 major conference teams—those in the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, Pac-12, Big East, American, A-10 and MWC, along with the top three in the WCC (chart, below).
Kansas is one team embracing the high reward—and high risk—of transfers. Malik Newman, a 6'3" shooting guard who started his career at Mississippi State, will play a huge role this year in Lawrence, but almost by necessity: By also giving three scholarships to transfers who will have to sit out the season (Charlie Moore, Dedric Lawson and K.J. Lawson), the Jayhawks have shockingly little depth. An injury to one of their eight scholarship players could wreak havoc. The bench will get longer, though, when Sam Cunliffe (a 6'6" forward who played as a freshman at Arizona State) becomes eligible in December.
2 CRASHING THE DANCE
Though SI's projection system has been the most accurate of any major news outlet's over the past four years, uncertainty is at the heart of college basketball: It's impossible to predict how college kids will navigate the ups and downs of such a long season. Yet that didn't stop us from thinking about how the final games will play out next spring, and making a few fearless predictions.
The most likely candidate to break an extended NCAA tournament drought is Central Florida. Its D should be elite thanks to 7'6" junior center Tacko Fall, the reigning AAC defensive player of the year, and several quality transfers (notably Aubrey Dawkins, a 44.0% three-point shooter formerly of Michigan) will improve the offense. For the first time in 12 seasons, the Knights will get their NCAA ticket punched.
Auburn, led by shooters Mustapha Heron (projected to score 15.4 points) and Bryce Brown (11.4), now has undersized bulldog DeSean Murray, a 6'3" junior transfer from Presbyterian, and 6'8" freshman Chuma Okeke, who join 6'11" sophomore Austin Wiley to provide true depth in the paint. They'll end the Tigers' decadelong exile from the Big Dance.
Jamie Dixon is no stranger to March Madness; his teams at Pitt made the tournament in 11 of his 13 seasons. But Dixon's new school—and alma mater—TCU has not qualified since 1998. The Horned Frogs have key pieces back from last year's NIT championship squad, and with the addition of 6'9" VCU transfer Ahmed Hamdy-Mohamed, they will rank 30th in offensive (115.7) and 35th in defensive (96.4) efficiency, and grab a No. 6 seed.
Northwestern made the NCAAs for the first time last season. How will the longtime Big Ten afterthought handle the pressure of a preseason Top 25 ranking? Led by 6'7" Vic Law, an explosive wing, and Bryant McIntosh, a senior point guard who has been a starter and double-digit scorer for his entire career, and strengthened by the return of Aaron Falzon from a knee injury, the Wildcats should have no trouble living up to their billing.
Finally, USC has its top eight scorers back from last year's tournament team and adds 6'2" guard Derryck Thornton, a former Top 20 recruit who transferred from Duke. That mix will enable the Trojans to reach their first Sweet 16 since 2007.
3 ONE-AND-DONE OR EXPERIENCE?
During the 2017 NCAA championship game North Carolina junior Joel Berry hit several key three-pointers while junior Justin Jackson earned an old-fashioned three-point play late and senior Kennedy Meeks had a sensational block with 15 seconds left. In a season that began with hype of rival Duke's vaunted freshman class and other NBA-ready prospects such as Washington's Markelle Fultz and N.C. State's Dennis Smith Jr., it was the Tar Heels' old hands who decided the ultimate outcome, a 71--65 victory over the Zags.
Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that SI projects an experienced Arizona team as the title favorite. Led by junior guard Allonzo Trier, who averaged 20.6 points over the final 10 games last season—and had an offensive rating above 120 during the same stretch—and senior center Dusan Ristic, who has hit at least 55.0% of his shots from the field in each of his three seasons, the Wildcats have the most veteran talent in the country. Arizona also adds likely one-and-done 7-foot freshman power forward DeAndre Ayton (page 54).
But this formidable rotation has question marks that have nothing to do with the action on the court. Since Sept. 26, when Joon Kim, the acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced the arrests of 10 people in connection with two related fraud and corruption schemes, a feeling of uncertainty has hovered over the 2017--18 season.
That investigation has already affected Arizona, as assistant coach Emmanuel (Book) Richardson was one of four D-I coaches arrested. The Wildcats remain No. 1, but the fear is that members of the roster could eventually be declared ineligible. Louisville, which dropped from No. 4 to No. 9 in SI's rankings, was also caught up in the scandal.
Duke is once again the team with the nation's best group of freshmen, after 6'11" power forward Marvin Bagley III surprised the hoops world by enrolling in college a year early. Bagley joins 6'10" power forward Wendell Carter Jr., 6'6" shooting guard Gary Trent Jr. and 6'3" point guard Trevon Duval to give the Blue Devils the nation's most heralded quartet of freshmen.
Since 2009, when John Calipari arrived at Kentucky, seven teams whose rosters featured multiple top 10 recruits (and an abundance of top 100 recruits) allotted more than half their minutes to freshmen. Two of those teams have won a national title (chart, above). Both Duke and Kentucky fall into that category this year; their rosters run deep with premier high school talent, and both teams should give two-thirds of their minutes to freshmen, if not more. SI projects Duke several spots higher than Kentucky in the rankings because the Blue Devils have a greater abundance of likely one-and-dones and projected lottery picks.
PERCENTAGE OF MINUTES PLAYED BY D-I TRANSFERS
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How teams dominated by first-year players have fared in the NCAA tournament
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