We put "What if?" scenarios into our model to evaluate how draft decisions, coaching changes and commits shook up the 2017-18 season. 

By Dan Hanner and Chris Johnson
November 02, 2017

Sports Illustrated’s 2017-18 college basketball projections are a collaboration between economist Dan Hanner, SI’s Chris Johnson and SI’s Jeremy Fuchs. The system uses college and AAU statistics, recruiting rankings and coaching data to project every Division I player and team. For a deeper look at how the system works, read this explainer. SI’s ranking of teams 1-351 has been more accurate than similar 1-351 rankings produced by ESPN, CBS Sports and noted analyst Ken Pomeroy for three consecutive years.

In the final installment of our preview, we’re veering from projecting what will happen this season to projecting would have happened in different scenarios. In these “what if” hypotheticals, we used our model to evaluate how certain draft decisions, recruiting wins/losses and coaching changes would have affected the college basketball landscape in 2017-18. The many ideas offered on social media last week are much appreciated, but we decided on the following seven, which had the most impact on the national title race or caused the most extreme shifts in a team’s ranking.​

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Last March, well before multiple outlets reported he intended to reclassify from 2018 to 2017, Marvin Bagley III released a list of six finalists: Arizona, Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, UCLA and USC. A few months later, after taking visits to three of those programs (Duke, UCLA and USC), Bagley announced on SportsCenter that he’d chosen to play for the Blue Devils.

The addition of Bagley, widely considered the top recruit in the class of 2017, was enough for Duke to receive 20 of 32 first place votes in the preseason Coaches Poll and 33 of 65 in the AP Poll. The newfound Blue Devils hype was well-founded: Bagley is a transcendent talent with the potential to tilt the ACC championship race in Duke’s favor and lead it to a national title.

Yet Bagley didn’t move the Blue Devils to the top of our projections. Instead, Duke jumped from sixth to third. Its upward mobility was limited by a defense we project to rank 46th in Division I. Even with Bagley swatting shots in the paint and vacuuming up opponents’ missed shots, our model is skeptical of Duke’s capacity to play elite D because of the number of freshmen in its rotation and Krzyzewski’s recent coaching track record on that end of the court.

The chart below shows how the Blue Devils’ rotation stacks up as is.

Bagley’s presence reduces both the offensive and playing time workloads of five-star recruits Wendell Carter Jr. and Marques Bolden, although both of them project to score at more efficient rates than would have been the case had Bagley headed elsewhere. Here’s what Duke’s rotation would have looked like without the Sierra Canyon (Calif.) High product around.

Of the five other programs on Bagley’s list of finalists, Kansas would have received the biggest boost had he picked it instead of Duke. The Jayhawks, which won’t have Memphis forward transfers Dedric and K.J. Lawson eligible until next season, are thin in the front court—head coach Bill Self is going to have to roll with some smallball looks at times—and Bagley would have bolstered their interior defense, rebounded at high volume and provided efficient two-point scoring. With talented guards and Bagley in the fold as part of a beefed-up big man corps, Kansas would have risen from No. 7 to the top of our preseason rankings.

Bagley’s impact would have been the smallest at Arizona. The Wildcats are already stocked with quality contributors at the four and the five, including one player (DeAndre Ayton) who, like Bagley, should hear his name called near or at the top of the 2018 NBA draft. Arizona would have been a better team with Bagley than without him, but it leads our preseason projections anyway, on the assumption that none of its current players will be impacted by the FBI’s investigation into corruption across college basketball.

Here’s a closer look at how much Bagley’s signing improved Duke, and how much it would have improved the five other schools on his list.

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One of the biggest news items to come out of the revelation of the FBI’s investigation into corruption into college basketball involved Louisville recruit Brian Bowen. An Adidas executive allegedly agreed to route a $100,000 payment to the family of the five-star wing shortly before he issued a verbal commitment to the Cardinals last June. Bowen was suspended from team activities indefinitely, although he has reportedly retained an attorney in an attempt to be reinstated.

Louisville presumably won’t have him available at any point this season. Although our model projects its offense to take a hit without Bowen—who averaged 22 points and three assists per game as a senior at La Lumiere School in La Porte, Ind., en route to being named a McDonald’s All-American and Indiana’s Gatorade Player of the Year in 2017—his absence isn’t expected to detract from Louisville’s defense. Not having Bowen around isn’t a deal-breaker for the Cardinals in terms of their ACC and national championship prospects.

Instead, another factor is causing our model to project Louisville’s D to slip: The firing of head coach Rick Pitino, whose recent defensive coaching history is unimpeachable. Louisville has not finished lower than eighth in KenPom’s adjusted points allowed per possession over the last seven seasons, and it finished first or second three times during that span. The Cardinals will be a chore to score against even with assistant David Padgett taking over for Pitino on an interim basis, though, thanks in part to stout paint defender Anas Mahmoud, who ranked fourth in Division I in block rate in 2016–17.

Taking all of this into account, Louisville would have ranked fourth in our projections with Pitino as head coach and Bowen eligible. Cut only Bowen out of the picture, and the Cardinals drop to sixth. IRL, Louisville ranks ninth, although our model still has it checking in at 13th in the country on the defensive end.

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One of the most convoluted recruitments in recent memory drew to a close in September when Mitchell Robinson said he would leave Western Kentucky and begin preparing for the draft. The No. 8 prospect in the class of 2017 Recruiting Services Consensus Index, a composite that incorporates data from multiple services, Robinson originally committed to the Hilltoppers in June 2016, the same month the program hired his godfather Shammond Williams as an assistant coach. About a year later, after Williams reportedly resigned from head coach Rick Stansbury’s staff, Robinson left campus and took visits to several schools before returning to Western Kentucky. He ultimately decided to bypass college in order to focus on getting ready for his professional career.

Had he honored his pledge to the Hilltoppers, Robinson would have wreaked havoc on Conference USA opponents. He’s a big-time shot-blocker and rebounder with the capacity to drastically elevate Western Kentucky’s defense and offense. SI projects he would have put up 17.0 points and 10.8 rebounds per game.

His presence would have turned the Hilltoppers into one of the 50 best teams in Division I, according to our projections. Without Robinson, our model pegs them as CUSA’s No. 2 team, behind Middle Tennessee, and has them ranked 100th in the country. This is still a quality mid-major team, fortified with high-major talent like Virginia transfer Darius Thompson and Kansas transfer Dwight Coleby, plus Buffalo import Lamonte Bearden, who ranked second in the MAC in assist rate and first in steal rate during conference play in 2015–16 before sitting out last season. 

It’s important to note that we’re operating under the assumption that potential eligibility issues involving two of Western Kentucky’s projected rotation players will be resolved: Josh Anderson, a 6' 6" guard from Baton Rouge, La., rated No. 62 in the class of 2017 RSCI, and Moustapha Diagne, a 6' 9" redshirt sophomore who initially committed to Syracuse as a member of the class of 2015 and spent a year at junior college (Northwest Florida State) before making his way to Bowling Green, Ky. If either Anderson or Diagne is unavailable, the Hilltoppers’ projected ranking would fall further.

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SI is bullish on Purdue even though it lost Big Ten player of the year Caleb Swanigan to the NBA this offseason. We view the Boilermakers as the No. 2 team in the conference, second only to Michigan State, and the No. 17 team in the country. Our model likes the abundance of proven contributors coming back to West Lafayette, the Boilermakers’ wealth of perimeter shooting threats, the return of a promising point guard (Carsen Edwards) coming off a big summer with team USA at the FIBA U19 World Cup and the availability of a mammoth center (Isaac Haas) to sop up some of the minutes Swanigan leaves behind.

It is tempting to wonder how good Purdue would have been had Swanigan chosen to stay for his junior season. (You might recall that he waited until just hours before the early-entry deadline to announce his decision.) The answer: Really good! The Boilermakers would have opened 2017-18 as the No. 2 team in the country, just behind Arizona at No. 1, according to our model. Swanigan’s efficient scoring on both sides of the arc and prolific rebounding would have elevated a potential Sweet 16 team to a Final Four contender, one capable of rivaling the Purdue outfit that won 29 games, rose as high as No. 3 in the AP Top 25 Poll and fell to eventual national champion Duke in the NCAAs in 2010. 

On another note, it would have been fascinating to track what arguably would have been the two leading National Player of the Year candidates battle for the award while trying to guide their respective teams to the top of the same league. Swanigan is one of those candidates. As for the other…

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Perhaps the most surprising announcement at the draft withdrawal deadline last spring was Miles Bridges’s decision to come back for his sophomore season. Bridges had been showing up as a possible lottery pick in mocks, yet he’d chosen to pass on guaranteed millions for another year in East Lansing. Bridges’s return put Michigan State firmly in the national championship picture and made it the obvious favorite to win the Big Ten. It turns out, however, that the Spartans, which currently hold the No. 2 slot in our projections, would not have slipped that far without him. A Bridges-less Spartans squad would have began 2017-18 ranked sixth in the country, still well ahead of the Big Ten’s No. 2 squad, Purdue (which we discuss in more detail above).

Even if Bridges bolted for the pros, Michigan State still would have had a premier big man to hold down its front court in Nick Ward, an ace shot-blocker, foul-drawer and rebounder who posted one of the 20 highest usage percentages in the country last season. Ward was hampered by foul trouble as a freshman, but he should play more often this season. He and incoming power forward Jaren Jackson Jr., the No. 9 prospect in the class of 2017 RSCI, would have provided the Spartans with the foundation of a sturdier defense than the one that failed to consistently get stops in 2016-17 chiefly because of insufficient frontcourt depth. Michigan State also would have Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter back after both forwards sat out last season with knee injuries.

Still, removing Bridges—who can play both forward positions but is expected to spend more time at the 3 in 2017-18—from the roster would have affected the Spartans’ rotations on the perimeter and in the post. Head coach Tom Izzo would lose an efficient, high-volume scorer, shifting more of the shot-creating burden onto players like Jackson and sophomores Ward, Joshua Langford and Cassius Winston, with consequent reductions in offensive efficiency.

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Thad Matta’s abrupt dismissal from Ohio State this summer opened up one of the best high-major head coaching jobs in the country late in the offseason and vacated a different head coaching job previously occupied by Matta’s replacement. Amid speculation about high-profile names like Arizona’s Sean Miller and Xavier’s Chris Mack potentially succeeding Matta, the Buckeyes settled on a less highly touted, but still respected, HC: Butler’s Chris Holtmann. Less than two weeks after Ohio State announced it had hired Holtmann, a four-star recruit who’d signed to play for him at Butler the previous November revealed that he, too, was headed to Columbus. That prospect is Kyle Young, a 6’6’’ forward from Massillon, Ohio, who assessed a four-star rating from 247Sports. The Buckeyes’ roster changed in a few other ways after Holtmann was brought in: three-star shooting guard Musa Jallow committed to Ohio State in July and then reclassified from 2018 to 2017, three-star point guard Braxton Beverly left the team, and PG graduate transfer Andrew Dakich enrolled.

The combination of the coaching swap and the personnel movement that took place in its aftermath pushed the Buckeyes up from 87th to 77th in our projections. That bump had more to do with Young and the addition of roster depth than the regime change. Although Holtmann acquitted himself well at Butler, leading the Bulldogs to 70 total wins and an NCAA tournament appearance in each of his three seasons in charge of the program, Matta is a longtime winner in the Big Ten who twice reached the Final Four. And it wasn’t that long ago that he groomed D’Angelo Russell into the Big Ten freshman of the year and a top-two pick in the draft. The Buckeyes’ recent dip in form did not shake our model’s faith in Matta’s in-season coaching ability, but his recruiting prowess has tailed off since Russell left campus. To give one example, none of the five players in Matta’s 2015 class are still with the team. It would be a significant challenge for either Matta or Holtmann to get this roster into the NCAAs. The summer pickups helped a little, but probably not enough to put the Buckeyes in position to claim an at-large bid.

For Butler, losing Young isn’t a major blow this season. Although he would have battled for playing time as a freshman, the Bulldogs have enough bodies in the frontcourt to weather his departure, including preseason first-team All-Big East forward Kelan Martin. Butler is more likely to suffer from Young’s absence in two or three years, at which point he could have developed into a valuable contributor in the Big East.

On the flip side, our model is dinging the Bulldogs because of their coaching switch. Although former Butler guard LaVall Jordan comes well regarded from previous stints as a high-major assistant, he lacks head coaching experience. The Bulldogs have had success hiring “within the family” in the past, but Jordan’s ties to the program don’t ensure he’ll thrive in his new position, especially right away. 

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Last November, Washington signed a stacked recruiting class that promised to infuse the program with the sort of high-end talent it needed to reverse head coach Lorenzo Romar’s flagging tenure and restore the Huskies as a Pac-12 power. Less than a year later, the class had fallen apart and Romar was looking for a new job. 

The centerpiece of the haul was Michael Porter Jr., a top candidate to be selected with the No. 1 pick in the draft. He’d committed to Washington in the summer of 2016, after they hired his father as an assistant coach. The following March, after Romar was axed and Porter received his release from the Huskies, he pledged to Missouri, which—like Washington before it—hired Porter’s father as an assistant coach. Porter’s younger brother, five-star power forward prospect Jontay, made the call for the Tigers about two months later and he subsequently decided to classify from 2018 to 2017. Blake Harris, a four-star point guard in the class of 2017 from North Carolina, followed the Porter brothers in leaving Seattle for Columbia.

Those additions radically altered Missouri’s outlook for this season. The Tigers jumped from No. 121 in our rankings to No. 35, good enough to claim a No. 10 seed in the NCAAs after three consecutive seasons finishing in last place in the SEC and totaling just 27 wins. Michael Porter Jr. is an NPOY candidate whom we project to average 9.4 rebounds and 19.3 points per game, highest among freshmen. (Bagley is second, at 16.5 PPG.) 

Although the Tigers are the biggest beneficiary of the disintegration of Washington’s stellar 2017 haul, other members of that group landed in favorable situations elsewhere. At Stanford, Daejon Davis, a combo guard from Seattle rated the No. 50 prospect in the RSCI, is projected to average 8.4 points per game, the most of any of the Cardinal’s non-seniors. Davis raises Stanford’s projection six spots, and unlike with Porter, there seems a decent chance he’ll stick around for more than one season. At Cincinnati, Mamoudou Diarra, a three-star forward from Mali, could develop into a solid rotation piece for head coach Mick Cronin down the road, but during 2017-18, at least, his addition probably won’t do much for the Bearcats. Their margin-of-victory projection barely changed as a result of bringing him in, and they remained sixth in the country.

It should come as no surprise that our model expects Washington to be much, much worse without its 2017 recruiting class than it would have been with it. Yet even if the Huskies kept all of their recruits, SI would have pegged them to miss the NCAAs, largely because of Romar. Plenty of other high-major coaches could have gotten that hypothetical team to the Big Dance, but our model doubts Romar’s capacity to do the same because of his history of squandering talented rosters: The Huskies have not reached the tourney since 2011 despite producing six first-round picks over the last six drafts, including three in the top 10. Washington’s replacement for Romar, former Syracuse assistant Mike Hopkins, has never been a Division I head coach before, but SI is giving him some credit for his long run as an assistant under elite zone defense practitioner Jim Boeheim. 

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