- A lot has happened since SI dropped its preseason 1–351 team rankings. More developments in the FBI's investigation into college hoops, injuries and minor suspensions have left several rosters altered at the start of a new year.
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. In the next installment of our preview, we’re revealing how our model stacks up every Division I team at the outset of the season according to projected margin of victory, which we calculated by combining each team’s predicted offensive and defensive output. SI’s 1–351 ranking has been more accurate than similar 1–351 rankings produced by ESPN, CBS Sports and noted analyst Ken Pomeroy for three consecutive years.
Last week, we posted our assessment of how all 351 Division I teams stack up relative to one another at the outset of the 2017-18 season, but several news items that broke since then caused movement in our rankings. This fresh 1–351 ranking reflects those recent developments. Many teams are holding players out one to three games because of minor suspensions or will have players sitting for a short period of time with minor injuries. Most squads with a veteran coach and a deep roster can withstand the unavailability of one quality contributor without suffering a major drop-off. For example, BYU’s loss of leading returning scorer Nick Emery amid a reported impermissible benefits investigation would cause the Cougars to fall fewer than 10 spots, to 87th from 80th. Accordingly, we are ignoring most potential absences. Nonetheless, an updated ranking is warranted in light of some recent developments.
The Houston Astros may have vanquished the Sports Illustrated cover jinx by winning the World Series, but shortly after we put the finishing touches on our initial 1–351, bad news struck two of the teams we predicted would make the NCAA tournament for the first time in over a decade. UCF junior guard/forward Aubrey Dawkins, who reportedly suffered a shoulder injury, announced that he would sit out the entire season. Dawkins, the son of Knights coach Johnny Dawkins, projected as one of the team’s primary scorers and most accurate three-point shooters. UCF, which hasn’t earned an invitation to the Big Dance since 2005, slips from a projected No. 7 seed to a projected No. 10 seed as a result of this loss. The Knights’ quest to end their tourney drought now seems far more precarious.
A few days after the revelation involving Dawkins, Auburn announced that it was indefinitely withholding sophomore center Austin Wiley and sophomore forward Danjel Purifoy from competition amid concerns over potential eligibility issues. The Tigers are one of four programs with an assistant coach indicted by a federal grand jury on fraud, conspiracy and bribery charges stemming from the FBI’s investigation into corruption across college basketball. Auburn announced this week that it has fired the assistant in question, Chuck Person. Both Wiley and Purifoy are believed to be connected to the probe. We are assuming neither player will suit up for the Tigers this season, and an ESPN report this week suggested head coach Bruce Pearl’s job may be in jeopardy. Although Auburn, which has not reached the NCAAs since 2003, remains talented enough to vie for an at-large bid, we now think it is more likely now that the Tigers come up short. In the update, they fell to No. 57 from No. 33.
Auburn’s in-state rival was also dropped a couple of spots in the new ranking. Alabama’s projected No. 2 scorer at 12.4 points per game, sophomore forward Braxton Key, is expected to sit out at least four weeks after undergoing surgery to address a torn meniscus in his left knee. We’re assuming he’ll be back at full strength by SEC play, which for Alabama begins on Dec. 30 with a home game against Texas A&M. The Crimson Tide’s outlook was far grimmer before Thursday night, when athletic director Greg Byrne announced that Collin Sexton, Alabama’s projected No. 1 scorer at 16.4 points per game, would serve just a one-game suspension before playing in the the Crimson Tide’s Nov. 14 home opener against Lipscomb. Byrne said earlier this week that Sexton, a five-star recruit from Mableton, Ga., had yet to be ruled eligible by the NCAA. According to an ESPN report, program officials had determined that Sexton was the player referenced, but not explicitly named, in a federal complaint tied to the FBI inquiry. Alabama won’t have Sexton in the lineup for Friday’s season opener against Memphis in Annapolis, Md.
One ray of positivity involving a different program: Connor McCaffery, the son of Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery, will not redshirt this season, as initially expected. The four-star guard’s availability adds some upside to the Iowa roster, bumping the Hawkeyes to 47th from 52nd, one spot shy of a spot in our projected First Four.
The arrest of UCLA freshman LiAngelo Ball on shoplifting charges in China attracted outsize attention because of his relation to a boastful father, LaVar; one brother, Lonzo, who is the Lakers’ starting point guard after being drafted No. 2 overall last summer; and another brother, LaMelo, who has cultivated a massive online following and now owns a Ferrari. Yet the impact of losing the two other players arrested with Ball, top-50 recruit Cody Riley and top-70 recruit Jalen Hill, for an extended period of time would be more significant than that of Ball being unable to play. Riley and Hill project to play major minutes in the paint for the Bruins this season alongside efficient senior Thomas Welsh. We’re operating under the assumption that the three freshmen will be allowed to return to Los Angeles and will sit out only 15% of the season. In that scenario, the Bruins remain among our top 25 teams (at No. 22). Were they prohibited from taking the court at any point in 2017–18, UCLA would plummet to No. 42 in our rankings.
Likewise, we’re assuming that an improper benefits case involving Georgia Tech sophomore guard Josh Okogie and senior guard Tadrick Jackson will cost them only 15% of the season. Okogie and Jackson are two of the Yellow Jackets’ best players; our model sees them averaging 17.7 and 13.8 points per game, respectively. Their absence is expected to temporarily reduce Georgia Tech to playing about like the No. 125 team in the country and causes it to fall to No. 82 from No. 72 in the update. Almost every scenario in which the Yellow Jackets reach the NCAAs for the first time since 2010 involves Okogie breaking out as a star in his second college season, so it’s critical that he’s back in uniform as soon as possible.