Dan Hanner of RealGM.com each year posts his projections for all 351 teams in college basketball, with the same statistical bent of Ken Pomeroy, whose work I trust a lot and use very frequently throughout the season. So, when Dan posted his projections, it was of great interest to me, and quite honestly has caused me to re-think many of my projections heading into the season.
From his article on ESPN, here is how he ranks them, along with their national rank:
1. Weber State (95)
2. Montana (134)
3. North Dakota (197)
4. Eastern Washington (250)
5. Northern Colorado (251)
6. Northern Arizona (291)
7. Portland State (299)
8. Idaho State (307)
9. Montana State (308)
10. Sacramento State (315)
11. Southern Utah (319)
I was quite intrigued, and fortunately Dan was gracious enough to let me pick his brain and ask a few questions about the rankings and how he views some of the teams. Here is the transcript (my questions in bold):
1) Heading into the season, the coaches and many pundits (myself included) like North Dakota as the second best team in the conference over Montana. However, your model has Montana, and it's not even really all that close (Montana is projected 134th, while North Dakota is 197th). What does your model love about Montana? Does it have to do with Wayne Tinkle's ability to coach defense and his outstanding track record?
First, this isn't a knock on North Dakota. Last year North Dakota was 242nd in margin-of-victory and I am expecting the team to make a big jump to 197. But Montana was 136th last season, and I don't see North Dakota quite reaching Montana's level.
Since we agree that North Dakota will be better, the more controversial part of the question is Montana. Why does the model think they can be about as good as last year? Certainly the loss of stars Will Cherry and Mathias Ward could be devastating. But they still have one of the best players in the Big Sky in Kareem Jamar. His rebounding, passing, and scoring numbers were extremely impressive last season. And we saw enough from 4 other rotation players last year for the model to be confident in their ability. Guards Jordan Gregory and Keron DeShields, and forwards Michael Weisner and Eric Hutchinson are all projected to have ORtgs above 100 this year.
If that lineup projection is right and Weisner and Hutchinson do play more minutes, that would also be a taller lineup than the team used last season. A taller lineup will generally cause a slight tick up in defense. Plus, as you note Tinkle's track-record on defense is pretty outstanding. It took him awhile to get his players, but since he got things rolling, his team's have been fairly consistent in that area.
As far as the bench, Montana adds Mario Dunn at PG. Dunn was someone that both Scout and Rivals liked quite a bit and gave a 3 star rating to. In the Big Sky, that's the kind of player who can usually contribute early. Throw in Riley Bradshaw (the Utah St. transfer who is eligible in December) and the 7 footer Andy Martin who could make a bit of a sophomore leap to relevance, and Montana won't have to rely heavily on any 2-star freshmen. Montana retains a solid rotation, and with a minimally higher expectation on defense, this should continue to be a very strong team.
2) Two other teams that seem lower than would be expected based on the polls are Montana State (308th overall, 9th in the Big Sky) and Sacramento State (315th, 10th in the Big Sky). What do you think is the biggest issues for these two teams?
Last year's conference records were a little deceiving in the Big Sky. This league was very tightly bunched below the top with teams 5 through 11 having nearly identical margin-of-victory numbers on the year.
Montana St. won 10 conference games last year, but 8 of those were by six points or less or in OT. They were very fortunate to finish in 5th place. And Christian Moon (by far Montana St.'s most efficient offensive player) is gone.
Meanwhile, Sacramento St. loses over half of its minutes from last season, and only two players are now projected to be efficient offensive starters.
3) Weber State is number 95 in your projection, but they have a best case scenario of #59. What do you think their ceiling is in terms of the Big Sky (Montana has gone 19-1 each of the last two years, can WSU reach those lofty heights?) and nationally?
Montana was very lucky to finish 19-1 last season. I think Randy Rahe has said it in interviews, but normally if you go 18-2 in conference, that is good enough to win the league. But last year was just one of those odd years. The reason I love Weber St.'s upside is Davion Berry and Kyle Tresnak. No one else in the Big Sky has too aggressive shooters who are this efficient. The hard part for most teams is finding star players, not role players. And if Weber St. can just find the right rotation around Berry and Tresnak, they can absolutely finish with outstanding margin-of-victory numbers.
4) Finally, it's no secret within the Big Sky that the last couple of years have been pretty ugly in terms of depth. At times, it has almost looked as though Montana and Weber State were varsity teams playing against the JV. Do you think this year can bring better depth and balance across the league, or will it again be a very top heavy league?
Just by chance, the bottom of the league should pull a few more upsets this year. And Eastern Washington, which gave a lot of minutes to freshmen last year, should make a nice leap forward. But the reality is that Weber St. and Montana are on another level right now.
Thanks again to Dan! Any thoughts from the readers?
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