By Luke Winn
October 11, 2012

In the NBA, a franchise center is the rare, elite big man whom a team can build around for a decade. The college equivalent is the rare, elite big man whom a program can build around for more than one season. Cody Zeller is the NCAA's first back-to-the-basket, "franchise" center since Brook Lopez at Stanford in 2007-08 -- and the primary reason Indiana gets my preseason No. 1 nod over Louisville. Now, we get to find out if the Hoosiers can capitalize.

College Hoops Power Rankings: Midnight Madness Edition
1 Indiana Hoosiers
Offseason intel on Zeller indicates that he's been extending his offensive game, taking mid- and even long-range jumpers that should stretch defenses and keep him from being double-teamed too often on the low block. Charting that expansion will be among the Power Rankings' chief projects during 2012-13 (with Jared Sullinger, Anthony Davis and Repetitive Ricardo Ratliffe gone, I need new subjects), but first, it's worth acknowledging how good Zeller was even without the jump-shot option as a freshman.

By comparing Zeller's efficiency and usage rate against the freshman-year production of the last 10 college centers who went on to be Lottery Picks -- Andre Drummond (UConn), Meyers Leonard (Illinois), DeMarcus Cousins (Kentucky), Greg Monroe (Georgetown), Cole Aldrich (Kansas), Hasheem Thabeet (UConn), Brook Lopez (Stanford), Greg Oden (Ohio State), Joakim Noah (Florida) and Spencer Hawes (Washington) -- a case can be made that Zeller is the most offensively advanced big man of that group.* Take a look at their stats on the matrix below; you'll see that while Cousins, Lopez and Oden had higher usage rates, Zeller's efficiency was unmatched.

* I could make another chart that suggests Zeller is the lowest-impact defender of that group, in terms of defensive rebounding percentage and block percentage ... but it's pretty well-known that he has strides to make on the defensive end.
2 Louisville <a href=Cardinals" title="Louisville-Cardinals">
The heart of college hoops this season isn't situated on Tobacco Road; it's the 175-mile route that connects Bloomington, Louisville and Lexington. All three schools could very well be in the top five of the Associated Press' preseason poll for the first time since 1980-81, when Isiah Thomas and Indiana went on to win the national title.

The last time the Hoosiers were ranked ahead of Louisville and Kentucky in a preseason poll was '91-92 -- the year that Laettner happened -- and the AP's preseason perceptions of the three teams have since fluctuated like this*:

(* I'm projecting the 2012-13 poll based on pundits' early rankings. If accurate, they represent the highest hopes, collectively, for the three teams in the 21-year stretch on the chart.)
3 NC State <a href=Wolfpack" title="NC State Wolfpack">
The Power Rankings will also be starting a Scott Wood Watch, inspired by an offseason nugget in the Fayetteville Observer. The paper said that the Wolfpack's senior sharpshooter, who's made more than 40 percent of his threes the past two seasons, altered his workouts this summer in hopes of becoming more than just a catch-and-shoot guy:

Instead of running off down screens, which allow [Wood] to get open on the perimeter for catch-and-shoot opportunities, he'd use ball screens, create space with pump fakes and penetrate with a crossover or behind-the-back move. He'd also perform a rip-through move in which he sweeps the ball directly over the defender's top foot and goes past him, shoulder to shoulder, before rising for a shot.

From an efficiency standpoint, this sounds like a fantastic idea. Last season, the expected value of a Scott Wood possession (1.25 points) was two-tenths of a point higher than one from Lorenzo Brown or C.J. Leslie. Wood was almost automatic from the free-throw line (90.7 percent), but didn't get there incredibly often, creating just 31.3 free throws per 100 field-goal attempts. The more he gets to the stripe, the more State's offense will improve.
The question is if a mentality change is actually possible. According to Synergy, 83.6 percent of Wood's possessions were of the catch-and-shoot variety last season; two seasons ago, that figure was 81.9 percent. Is it too late for a catch-and-shoot senior to start scoring off the dribble?
4 Kentucky-<a href=Wildcats" title="Kentucky-Wildcats">
Wildcats coach John Calipari is considering using a "Twin Towers" lineup of freshmen Nerlens Noel (who's 6-foot-10) and Willie Cauley-Stein (7-0), which might be able to keep opponents' two-point field-goal percentage under 40 for a second straight year. But Kentucky isn't the only school enjoying an influx of blue-chip frontcourt talent. This is a big year for big recruits.

I analyzed heights of the past five ESPN top 100s, and while the average size of a top-100 recruit has consistently been 6-6, the number of elite big men has varied. The chart below singles out players 6-10 or taller:

The Class of 2008 had more 6-10s than this year's class does, but 2012 has more quality -- six of its 6-10s are in the top 20, which means they're more likely to have an immediate impact. After Noel (who's ranked No. 1 overall), there's Baylor's Isaiah Austin (3), Arizona's Kaleb Tarczewski (4), Pitt's Steven Adams (6), Texas' Cameron Ridley (8) and Arizona's Grant Jerrett (9). Considering that the Power Rankings' first two teams already have high-impact bigs (Zeller and Louisville's Gorgui Dieng), it should be quite a year for giants.
5 Florida <a href=Gators" title="Florida Gators">
There's nothing more eye-roll inducing than the genre of preseason story in which we're supposed to take Player X's word that he used the summer to become a leader, become more vocal, find confidence, gain experience, fix all of his flaws and get into the best shape of his life. Which is why I'm fond of Gators forward Patric Young: He actually tweets videos of absurd workout routines that suggest he'll be in absurdly good shape this season. If you can push a Nissan Frontier around, keeping Nerlens Noel off the blocks should be pretty easy:

(I hope Young's newfound ferocity means he'll out-defensive-rebound all of the guards on his team this season. Last year, he was beaten by 6-3 Bradley Beal in that category, 18.2 percent to 16.3 percent.)
6 Ohio State <a href=Buckeyes" title="Ohio State Buckeyes">
This is the year that Deshaun Thomas becomes the Buckeyes' go-to-guy. But what will Thomas' offensive game look like now that Jared Sullinger is in the NBA? He played off of Sullinger for two years, cutting to the rim when he was double-teamed, crashing the offensive glass to clean up his misses, and taking spot-up jumpers against sagged-in defenses. As a sophomore, Thomas' most frequent possession type (23.1 percent of them) was the spot-up shot, and despite being 6-7 and 225 pounds, only 13.1 percent of his possessions came on feeds to the post.

The thing is, Thomas is actually an asset on the blocks, averaging 1.041 PPP there. Whether that was due to limited defensive attention is TBD. But one imagines that without Sullinger to cut and crash off of, Thomas' offensive profile will include more work on the interior, and as a result, more trips to the free-throw line. His free-throw rate (23.8 per 100 FGA) was less than half of Sullinger's last season (51.9), and if Thomas wants to carry the offense, that will have to change.
7 Kansas <a href=Jayhawks" title="Kansas Jayhawks">
There may be no elite team with a bigger backcourt than KU, which is likely to use 6-4 Elijah Johnson, 6-5 Ben McLemore and 6-5 Travis Releford as the first three guards in its rotation. Big frontcourts have a stronger correlation to defensive success than do big backcourts, but one imagines that those guards combined with 6-11 center Jeff Withey and 6-8 freshman Perry Ellis up front will lead to the Jayhawks having another top-10 defense. That, and the fact that Bill Self has produced top-10 defenses (according to adjusted efficiency) for seven straight years, a run that's nearly as impressive as his streak of eight straight Big 12 titles. KU has some problems to solve -- like figuring out who's going to actually take shots now that Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson are gone -- but defense will keep that Big 12 streak alive.
8 Duke <a href=Blue Devils" title="Duke Blue Devils">
Until I saw these on Duke's house blog, I was unaware that Nike made Special Forces Boots:

Why were the boots on a Blue Devils blog? Because Coach K's team will wear the SFBs when they train at Fort Bragg on Oct. 15. They're scheduled for push-ups, sit-ups, an obstacle course, a two-mile run and basketball practice -- and I would encourage them to keep the boots on for practice. No better way to send a message that you're fixing your defensive issues from 2011-12 than by hooping in combat boots.

The reviews on the SFBs, from military members who've bought them to replace their standard-issue boots, are quite good, BTW. As long as Duke doesn't need to kick in doors, it should be fine:"I have worn these boots all over Afghanistan in a variety of different terrains. They are solid and reliable. I really enjoy how lightweight they are when every pound adds up. ... They are not suited for kicking in doors or other activities that require a more robust boot. Also, the tread on the sole does not do well in mud or very slick surfaces. Aside from that, I love this boot and REALLY hope they come back in stock soon."
9 Michigan <a href=Wolverines" title="Michigan Wolverines">
There are better overall 2012 recruiting classes than Michigan's, but I'm not sure if there's one with more potential to transform a starting lineup. Glen Robinson III, Big Dog's five-star progeny, has the size (6-6, 210 pounds) and skill set of a prototypical major-conference small forward. His arrival allows junior Tim Hardaway Jr. to slide a spot down to shooting guard, his more natural position. Four-star Mitch McGary is a prototypical Big Ten 4/5 (at 6-10, 250) who joins 6-8 Jordan Morgan and 6-10 Jon Horford in the frontcourt and gives John Beilein the option -- for the first time in his tenure in Ann Arbor -- of playing a dual-big-man lineup for extended minutes. For a team that had 6-4 Zack Novak guarding power forwards last season, that's a major development.

How exactly Beilein's two-guard front offense will adapt to this, I'm not sure; I've rarely seen it run without four three-point threats on the floor who have the green light to shoot. The nature of the transformation is TBD, but with more size and athleticism at his disposal than ever before, Beilein will have less need to rely on the long-range lottery.
10 Arizona Wildcats
One big question surrounding the Wildcats, who have more than enough talent to make a Final Four run: Can graduate transfer Mark Lyons be converted into a capable point guard, after spending the past two seasons in an auxiliary, combo-guard role alongside Tu Holloway at Xavier?

Lyons doesn't have a rep as a playmaker -- his career assist-to-turnover ratio is around 1.2 -- but he made some promising changes last season that suggest the conversion can work. As this radar-plot graphic shows, he morphed from being a primarily spot-up shooter as a sophomore into a guard who got most of his offense through pick-and-rolls and isolations as a junior -- and got more efficient in both of those categories. If Lyons continues that progress while looking to create offense for teammates, he has potential to thrive.

11 Michigan State <a href=Spartans" title="Michigan State Spartans">
Sophomore small forward Branden Dawson is apparently way ahead of schedule in his rehab from a March ACL tear -- "[Dawson] needs to donate his body to science," said teammate Travis Trice, "because that dude is a freak of nature" -- which means we can expect him to continue his offensive rebounding dominance. Before his injury, the 6-6 Dawson was one of the best undersized glass-crashers in the country.

There were only four major-conference* players 6-6 or smaller who ranked in the top 200 in offensive rebounding percentage last season (according to StatSheet), and Dawson was the best of them:

Rk.  Player, Yr., Team                  Ht.   OReb%
74 Branden Dawson, Fr., Michigan St. 6-6 13.2
109 Chane Behanan, Fr., Louisville 6-6 12.5
148 Melvin Ejim, So., Iowa State 6-6 12.1
191 Nasir Robinson, Sr., Pittsburgh 6-5 11.6
12 North Carolina <a href=Tar Heels" title="North Carolina Tar Heels">
Will the bluebloods ever join in the decorative flooring craze? So far it's just been programs that need to clamor for attention: Oregon, trying to reboot its image with a new arena and a court that doubles as a forest; Long Beach, trying to become a national mid-major brand with its palmy SoCal motif; Towson, reminding the nation of its existence by adding tiger stripes; and Northwestern, briefly considering an all-purple surface to distract us from talking about the Wildcats' never-ending NCAA tournament drought.
Seeing the subtle herringbone pattern of the Brooklyn Nets' new court at the Barclays Center gave me inspiration, though:

If the Nets can go herringbone, why can't the Tar Heels put down some of their signature argyle? After an offseason rife with scandalous stories about academic malfeasance and Tami Hansbrough's travels, this could be UNC's conversation-changer:

13 Missouri <a href=Tigers" title="Missouri Tigers">
As talented as the Tigers are, there's no way their No. 1-on-KenPom offense doesn't take a step back after losing three of the nation's most efficient scorers in Marcus Denmon, Kim English and Ricardo Ratliffe. The good thing is that there's plenty of room for Mizzou's No. 115-on-KenPom defense to improve, and its new-look frontcourt of Laurence Bowers (who missed all of '11-12 due to injury) and Alex Oriakhi (transferred from UConn) is very, very likely to make that happen.

If Oriakhi, who needed a change of scenery after an abysmal junior year in Storrs, can rediscover the defensive fire he displayed as a sophomore during the Huskies' national-title run, he'll be a major asset. He was their best defender in the 2011 NCAA tournament. This is what I wrote in last year's SI preview issue after myself and David Hess charted UConn's final 20 games of the '10-11 season:

Oriakhi went into Hulk mode after Selection Sunday: In the 14 games before March Madness he was involved in 16.0% of defensive possessions; during the tournament that number jumped to 24.4%, the highest of any UConn player. Not only that, but he had the team's best defensive rating (73.5) over that six-game stretch.
14 Notre Dame <a href=Fighting Irish" title="Notre Dame Fighting Irish">
The Irish's move to the ACC -- which is primed to be the nation's best hoops conference, while the Big East's power erodes -- won't happen until 2013-14. In the meantime they look like the Big East's second- or third-best team for '12-13, as they bring back the very underrated power forward Jack Cooley, who's a legitimate conference Player of the Year candidate, and a strong cast of role-playing veterans. And when Notre Dame does jump to the ACC, it should still be able to land NCAA tournament bids on the regular. For the past five years, its adjusted efficiency rankings from the actual Big East versus the realigned ACC (with Pitt and Syracuse) are surprisingly not all that different:

Eff. Rank In ...    2008   2009   2010   2011   2012
Actual Big East 7 9 7 3 7
Hypothetical ACC 5 8 9 5 7
15 Syracuse <a href=Orange" title="Syracuse Orange">
I follow a set of statistical rules when selecting my Breakout Sophomore team every offseason: The players must have acted like go-to-guys, with above-average usage rates and decent efficiency ratings, while playing limited minutes as freshmen. Thus the five picks were VCU's Treveon Graham, Minnesota's Andre Hollins, La Salle's Jerrell Wright, Iowa's Aaron White, UC-Santa Barbara's Alan Williams and Cleveland State's Anton Grady -- not exactly a list of major prospects, but all guys whom I think will be deserving of attention in 2012-13.

The other method of selecting breakout players -- and the one that's far more mainstream -- is to ID guys who were once highly-rated recruits, but, usually due to roster logjams, were prevented from being showcased as freshmen. If you prefer this method, then your prime picks are Syracuse's Michael Carter-Williams, who'll be taking over the point now that Scoop Jardine and Dion Waiters are gone, and North Carolina's James Michael McAdoo, who'll be a featured frontcourt option now that John Henson and Tyler Zeller are gone. Carter-Williams' usage rate was low as a freshman (a very role-playerish 18.7 percent), but he was a smart playmaker (3.4-to-1 assist/turnover ratio) and has the length (at 6-5) to be a valuable top-of-the-zone defender. He doesn't fit my breakout-scorer formula, but that doesn't mean he isn't well-positioned for a breakout season.
16 Wisconsin <a href=Badgers" title="Wisconsin Badgers">
Now, for a breakout candidate that no formula can ID ...

George Marshall's name surfaced in hoops stories last week because the UW guard used his Chicago connections to help arrange a meeting between the Badgers and President Obama on Oct. 4, prior to the prez's campaign rally on the UW campus. (Mitt Romney, not to be outdone, name-checked George Marshall in a speech at Virginia Military Institute a few days later ... although he was referencing the Marshall Plan George Marshall, a VMI graduate, rather than the Badgers' guard. Romney has never showed much interest in basketball.)

Marshall is way under the radar for a reason: The 5-11, three-star recruit out of Chicago has yet to log a college minute. He redshirted '11-12 and apprenticed under Jordan Taylor, earning rave reviews from coaches for his work on the scout team. Now that Taylor's gone, Marshall is a candidate to either take over the starting point guard gig or share it with junior Josh Gasser, who played off the ball in his first two seasons. Remember that Taylor was also a three-star recruit whom no one talked about out of high school ... and by his junior season, he blossomed into the Big Ten's best floor general.

The Next 16: 17. UCLA* (In purgatory until Shabazz Muhammad is cleared; when that happens, the Bruins are top 10.), 18. Baylor, 19. Gonzaga, 20. Memphis, 21. VCU, 22. UNLV, 23. Creighton, 24. San Diego State, 25. Pittsburgh, 26. Minnesota, 27. Tennessee, 28. Texas, 29. West Virginia, 30. Georgetown, 31. Ohio, 32. Murray State

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