21. Saint Louis
The Atlantic 10 champs lost five scholarship players, but with the exception of 6-8 Cody Ellis, they were all role players. Four starters return for Jim Crews' 2nd year at the helm, and Saint Louis will be one of the most experienced teams in the nation. The seniors are likely to go out as the winningest class in school history, and a few of them will also be leaving marks in the record books. 6-5 Dwayne Evans needs 280 rebounds finish his career as one of four players to grab 1,000. And Jordair Jett and Mike McCall Jr should both finish top-5 all time in steals. They will continue to get it done on the defensive end (No. 6 in the nation in defensive efficiency), and with that much experience and another year working with coach Crews, their offense should be marginally better.
Coach McDermott received two great pieces of news this offseason. First, Doug McDermott - the nation's 2nd leading scorer - would return. Second, Grant Gibbs received a sixth year of eligibility. Having Gibbs back is key as the Bluejays are entering their first season in the Big East. Much tougher competition lay ahead. The scouting report was simple last year. Creighton was going to score (8th in offensive efficiency) but they were also going to get scored upon (80th defensively). With that kind of offense, this could be an elite team, but there's really no reason to think that their defense will be anything close to their offense. They're going to lose some games they shouldn't due to their inability to get stops. But they're also going to be an awful lot of fun to watch, again.
23. New Mexico
Noodles Neal gets a pretty sweet gig in his first head coaching job. The Lobos return four starters, and they're all upperclassmen. It will be interesting to see how the system changes with Steve Alford off to coach UCLA, but this was a high end defense (18th nationally) coupled with an offense that got just enough done (53rd). Losing Tony Snell to the NBA will obviously be huge, but they have JUCO transfer Deshawn Delaney, Kansas transfer Merv Lindsay, and one-time Saint Mary's signee Cullen Neal (the coaches son) to help fill that void. We know the team is going to play defense, but the offense remains a bit of a mystery. The biggest concern is outside shooting, where they'll need Kendall Williams to return to something resembling his freshman form (when he made 43% of his 3s) as opposed to the past two seasons (35% and 36%).
Now that the APR issues are behind them, UConn wins actually count this year. They return all five starters from a team that was decent (62nd nationally) on offense, and decent (57th) on defense. Their biggest problem was losing the hidden game of possessions. The Huskies were 278th nationally in grabbing offensive boards, and 319th on the defensive end. That totaled about 80 more possessions extended by their opponents. Considering they ended up in seven overtime games, those 2-3 extra possessions a game they were handing away cost the team a couple of wins, and made them work harder than they needed to in several others. So how is that going to change with essentially the same roster? Good question.
Following back-to-back years where they didn't make the tourney, the Volunteers fortunes should change this year. Jeronne Maymon returns to give Jarnell Stokes some help holding down the interior, and Antonio Barton slides over from Memphis to help fill the void left by Trae Golden (who transferred to Georgia Tech). The key will be a return to playing defense, after the short-handed squad last year finished 122nd in the nation in defensive efficiency, and 11th in SEC play. In Cuonzo Martin's first year, Tennessee was 30th in the nation. Assuming the defensive issues get cleaned up, the offensive challenge will be in replacing Trae Golden who has been in the SEC's top four in assist rate in each of his three seasons.
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