College Basketball Preseason Top 26: 16-13

The toughest teams for me personally to rank are mid-majors (or, since I hate that term, teams that are commonly referred to as mid-majors). Even with the increased parity in college basketball, watching Gonzaga destroy WCC team after WCC team does not provide clarity into whether this Gonzaga squad, as the yearly refrain goes, is different from previous editions. I love watching mid-major basketball, I love talking about mid-major basketball, and I love when the lesser known (to all but hardcore college basketball fans) get a chance to knock off the big boys in the NCAA tournament. I just hate trying to objectively rank them. It is not a surprise at all, then, that by the luck of the draw I have to talk about three mid-majors in this group of four teams.


16. San Diego State. | (31-5, 16-2 Mountain West) | 2014 postseason: Sweet 16

Last season tweetcap: “The Aztecs staved off a first-round upset, but almost pulled off one of their own in the Sweet 16 against Arizona.”

Key number: 304: San Diego State’s rank in two-point field goal percentage, out of 351 teams.

San Diego State, as alluded to above, struggled mightily last season on offense, ranking 304th in making twos and 288th in effective field goal percentage. The Aztecs managed to not turn the ball over and grabbed enough offensive rebounds to score enough points to allow their incredible defense to win games for them. Said defense ranked ninth in the Pomeroy ratings, but did not excel in any one area. The Aztecs were very good at preventing teams from scoring inside and outside, decent at forcing turnovers, and roughly average at defensive rebounding, but they were not elite at anything. More to the point, they were not bad at anything. It combined for the aforementioned number nine ranking in the Pomeroy ratings, and it won them a lot of games.

As much as the offense struggled last season, this season could be worse. Xavier Thames had an All-American-like season for the Aztecs, but with him gone to graduation, a lot of the onus to score will be placed on Winston Shepard and Dwayne Polee. Polee was the Mountain West sixth man of the year last season, and he made the MWC’s all-tournament team. He took a high percentage of shots for the Aztecs while on the floor (25.3 percent, just four percent lower than Thames) and was the second most efficient scorer on the team. There is plenty of hope that, while he will not be able to replace Thames, he can provide a large portion of the value Thames brought to San Diego State.

Shepard, meanwhile, is a high-usage, low-efficiency player whose best skill is drawing fouls. He made just 43 % of his twos despite being 6-8 and did not rebound well. Given that San Diego State lost its best rebounder, that could be a problem this season.

15. Texas | 24-11 (11-7 Big 12) | Postseason: Round of 32

2014 tweetcap: “A buzzer beater against Arizona State gave Texas its first NCAA tournament win since 2011.”

Key number: 42.9 %. Texas allowed opponents to shoot just under 43 percent inside the arc, ranking 11th in the nation.

Texas returns everyone from last year’s club, and adds elite recruit Myles Turner to its ranks. Turner is a fantastically talented prospect. Though he stands at 6-11, he probably will help Texas most in terms of perimeter scoring. Draft Express calls him a comfortable jump shooter, but lacking a low post game. With Cameron Ridley and Jonathan Holmes able to handle the bulk of the interior work, Turner’s ability to shoot from the outside will come in handy, given Texas’s lack of options on the perimeter.

Isaiah Taylor has gotten most of the publicity in terms of the Longhorns’ guards, but I’m not seeing it from him. He was a very high usage player, which is valuable, but he made just 40 percent of his twos and made only five threes last year. With Kansas’s backcourt improving, Texas will have to get improved play from its guards as well in order to take down the Jayhawks and win what will likely be the best conference in the country.

14. Gonzaga | 29-7 (15-3 WCC) | Postseason: Round of 32

2013-14 tweetcap: “Debuting in seemingly 1965, Kevin Pangos is this year’s winner of the Aaron Craft ‘seems like he’s been in school forever’ award.”

Key number: 234. Gonzaga’s rank in forcing turnovers in 2014.

I remember the debut of the Kevin Pangos show. It has since grown from fun story to legitimate All-American candidate. Pangos is best known for his three-point shooting, making 41 percent of those shots for his career, but he has also improved his rebounding and passing, growing into one of the best players in the country.

Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer should provide an extra spark of shooting for the Zags. While he did not get to play much at Kentucky, he has made 39 percent of his shots beyond the arc for his career.

I am not sure who Gonzaga’s best addition will be, but I know its most talked about addition will be Domantas Sabonis. The son of former Portland TrailBlazer Arvydas, Sabonis is an agile 6-8 forward who is reportedly athletic and skilled.

He will provide a nice inside one-two punch with Przemek Karnowski, who shot 59 percent on twos and was the team’s second best rebounder.


Other programs continue to want Shaka Smart to coach for them. Smart continues to stay at Virginia Commonwealth. We'll see what Smart does this season, as he tries to get his program to shake off the haunting memory of a late collapse against Stephen F. Austin in the 2014 NCAA Tournament.

Other programs continue to want Shaka Smart to coach for them. Smart continues to stay at Virginia Commonwealth. We’ll see what Smart does this season, as he tries to get his program to shake off the haunting memory of a late collapse against Stephen F. Austin in the 2014 NCAA Tournament.

13. VCU | (26-9, 12-4 Atlantic 10) | 2014 Postseason: Round of 64

2014 tweetcap: “After a shock 2011 Final Four run, VCU has won just two NCAA games. Shaka’s star dimming?”

Key number: 3. Number of years in a row VCU has led the nation in forced turnover percentage.

For all of the talk about Shaka Smart being the next head coach at Duke, or Texas, or UCLA, or insert power program here, he has never won a conference title, regular season or tournament. VCU has also finished inside the KenPom top 20 just once under Smart.

Last year’s team was probably Smart’s worst offensively, finishing 107th in offensive efficiency, and making fewer than 46 percent of its twos. Defensively, the Rams benefited from opponents shooting just 30.3 percent beyond the arc. Some of this is due to limiting three-point attempts and a swarming defense that likely does not give up many good looks, but some of this is likely due to luck, which means the Rams’ defensive efficiency could be dropping. We have known this for awhile, but Smart’s teams demand forcing turnovers, because teams score far too easily on VCU in the half court.

The Rams return three of their top five options offensively, and add Terry Larrier, a lanky athlete who should do well in the open floor and be a big part of VCU’s HAVOC. If he adds some offensive consistency, Larrier could provide a spark for the Rams, perhaps off the bench.