Preseason polls have traditionally been an average of perceptions -- of returning talent and key additions, and of a coaching staff's ability to convert all of that into wins. This season Sports Illustrated has adopted a rigorously empirical approach to its 1-351 rankings. Economist Dan Hanner has spent four years developing a statistical model that works from the bottom up, projecting advanced statistics -- including offensive rating, possession usage, and rebound steal and block rates -- for every Division I player, then using the results to forecast overall team performance. Hanner's model simulates the 2014-15 season 10,000 times, accounting for fluctuations in individual performances and health, and ranks teams according to their median efficiency.
This is the first season Hanner, working with SI's Luke Winn, has attempted to forecast (and publish) raw points-, rebounds- and assists-per-game totals for every player in the top 11 conferences. These projections are based on past advanced-statistical performance in the context of more than a decade of player data; the predictive power of recruiting rankings, both on immediate freshman performance and longer-term development; the quality of teammates and coaches; specific coaches' playing-time distribution tendencies; the estimated pace at which a team will play; and intelligence gleaned from coaches on how their rotations will be structured, which helped Hanner and Winn better understand how many minutes and shots will be available to each player. Read on to see how the 25 teams stack up -- and read full scouting reports on the Sweet 16.
1. Kentucky Wildcats
Kentucky coach John Calipari was at a high altitude when he came up with a solution to his high-end problem: how to keep a roster filled with nine McDonald’s All-Americans happy. The answer: a two-platoon system. Read more from Seth Davis.
2. Arizona Wildcats
Wildcats coach Sean Miller is a daily visitor to the national defensive efficiency rankings on kenpom.com. “It keeps me sane,” he says. “Those are the numbers that I believe in.” Miller knows—and this is backed up by a decade’s worth of data—that you can’t contend for a national title without being near the top of those rankings. He frequently lets his team know how its help-oriented, man-to-man D stacks up; last season Arizona ascended to No. 1 on kenpom in January, then earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. These Wildcats are aiming to set themselves apart by having another top-ranked D that’s powered by senior T.J. McConnell, their pest of a point guard; sophomore Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, a 6' 7" lockdown wing; and the length of juniors Brandon Ashley (6' 9") and Kaleb Tarczewski (7 feet). Read more from Luke Winn.
3. Wisconsin Badgers
In July forward Frank Kaminsky wrote a post on his personal blog headlined, If the Badgers Were a Baseball Team . . . (With Player Comparisons). Although he anointed himself the pitcher—with a comparison to fireballer Randy Johnson—Kaminsky reserved the most lavish praise for his shortstop, calling fourth-year starter Josh Gasser Wisconsin’s version of Derek Jeter. “Josh is our glue guy and our captain,” Kaminsky says. “He doesn’t do anything that’s flashy or exceptional, he just does everything well.” Read more from Luke Winn.
4. Duke Blue Devils
With two of the nation’s top freshmen due to arrive in Durham and a devastating NCAA tournament loss to Mercer lingering in the rearview mirror, coach Mike Krzyzewski let his returning players know he was wiping the slate clean. Past mistakes would be forgotten, but so would any goodwill the players had built up. “When you come off a loss in the first round, you get bad credit,” senior point guard Quinn Cook says. “Your credit isn’t where it needs to be.” Read more from Brian Hamilton.
5. Kansas Jayhawks
The Jayhawks deal in whens, not ifs. When they sort out their rotation. When they lock down their defense. Coming off a 10th consecutive Big 12 regular-season title, Kansas again sits at the top of the conference, and it seems as if nothing has changed—except so much has. Read more from Joan Niesen.
6. Florida Gators
On the day Chris Walker became academically eligible to play last December, 15 NBA scouts came to watch him practice. A 6' 10" sophomore with a 7' 3" wingspan and 39-inch vertical, Walker is the kind of athletic big man the pros covet. But his tantalizing potential and short résumé—a career total of 34 points—sum up the issues with these Gators: Can a team filled with mock-draft potential deliver real-life results? Read more from Pete Thamel.
7. Louisville Cardinals
On April 14, Montrezl Harrell texted coach Rick Pitino, saying that he wanted to enter the NBA draft. Two hours later Harrell changed his mind. In those 120 minutes Louisville went from being a bubble team back to being a Final Four contender. The Cardinals’ forward, who was named first team All-AAC last season, after averaging 14.0 points and 8.4 rebounds, is that good—and he’s worked to get better. In the off-season he put himself through lonely, late-night workouts in Louisville’s practice facility, perfecting his ballhandling and midrange jumper. Though he made just two three-pointers last season, Harrell was 7 for 18 from behind the arc in the Cardinals’ three preseason intrasquad scrimmages. “I’m still going to stick to what I do best, which is finishing around the rim,” he says. “But I’m going to be able to step away and take people off the bounce too. That’s going to help our team out a lot more.” Read more from Seth Davis.
8. Villanova Wildcats
There are plenty of ways to use an agile, savvy big man like junior Daniel Ochefu. He can be the defensive anchor in the Big East’s smallest lineup, blocking 7.7% of opponents’ two-point attempts (fourth best in the conference). And because of his quickness, he can also defend the perimeter, enabling the Wildcats to trap and switch. On offense, too, he can venture away from the basket for pick-and-pops and dribble-handoffs. “Just because he’s 6' 11",” says coach Jay Wright, “we don’t want to lock him on the block.” Read more from Dan Greene.
9. Virginia Cavaliers
Last year, when point guard London Perrantes arrived as a freshman, his teammates and coaches worried that the laid-back Californian wasn’t ready for the pace of D-I basketball. “They were on my case about going too slow,” he says. “But now I don’t get any of that.” Read more from Dan Greene.
10. Gonzaga Bulldogs
The real Kevin Pangos was last seen on Nov. 27, 2013, in Gonzaga’s final game of the Maui Invitational. The point guard torched Arkansas for 34 points and committed just one turnover in 39 minutes against the Razorbacks’ press. But soon after, he suffered a turf-toe injury in his right foot, and a series of left-ankle sprains followed. “Everything got thrown off,” Pangos says, including his balance, speed-changing ability and cutting. “He -couldn’t even walk after games,” says coach Mark Few. Read more from Luke Winn.
Coach Roy Williams is already sick of repeating the key to the Tar Heels’ success this season: At least one of their big men must become the kind of go-to inside presence that helped lift the program to NCAA titles in 2005 (with center Sean May) and in ’09 (forward Tyler Hansbrough). Fortunately for Williams, North Carolina has two promising options. Read more from Sarah Kwak.
12. Texas Longhorns
This time last year the only buzz about the Longhorns involved speculation about potential replacements for coach Rick Barnes. (Buzz Williams? Shaka Smart?) A flurry of transfers had left Texas with an underwhelming roster and little hope for a ticket to the Big Dance. But the Longhorns adopted a gritty, defense-first identity, advanced to the NCAA round of 32 and got Barnes a contract extension through 2019—as well as a commitment from consensus top 10 recruit Myles Turner. Read more from Pete Thamel.
The Buckeyes know they won’t be the same team defensively after the graduation of pit bull point guard Aaron Craft. More important, they know they can’t be the same offensively. The ball rarely rotated last season, and when it did, players often stood around waiting for someone else to shoot. The result was the nation’s 128th most-efficient attack. “One guy would have the ball on one side of the floor for 10, 15, 20 seconds,” forward Sam Thompson says. “It’s hard to have a fluid offense like that.” Read more from Brian Hamilton.
14. San Diego State Aztecs
Stud players have come and gone in recent years, yet San Diego State keeps right on winning. The first to depart was Kawhi Leonard, then Jamaal Franklin and now Xavier Thames, a three-year starter at point guard and 2014 Mountain West player of the year. His exit makes way for junior Winston Shepard, a 6' 8" swingman whose performance is finally matching his potential. “He read everything that was written, and he let all that bother him,” coach Steve Fisher says, “but he’s beyond that now.” Shepard’s versatility should help replace Thames’s offensive production, but the Aztecs’ strength remains their D: Last season they ranked in the top 10 in scoring defense, field goal percentage defense and three-point percentage defense. Read more from Seth Davis.
Every March loss hurts, but the sting after Iowa State’s Sweet 16 exit against UConn last spring was especially sharp for 6' 8" forward Georges Niang. In the Cyclones’ opening win a weekend earlier, Niang scored 24 points but broke the fifth metatarsal in his right foot, reducing him to a boot-footed spectator for the 81–76 loss to the Huskies. Read more from Dan Greene.
Having a quintet of key contributors return from a 35–1 team that earned the program’s first No. 1 seed is a coach’s dream. Choosing sides for an intrasquad scrimmage can get complicated, though, especially with the arrival of seven newcomers. Coach Gregg Marshall “put all of us veterans together one day, and it -didn’t go so well,” says junior point guard Fred VanVleet. “They scored the first two points. Then five minutes later it was 20–2.” Read more from Dan Greene.
17. SMU Mustangs
No, the Mustangs do not have Emmanuel Mudiay. Yes, they do have enough talent to end their 21-year NCAA tournament drought. Mudiay, the No. 2 player in the Class of 2014, elected to play professionally overseas rather than enroll at SMU, but Larry Brown has a solid returning core from a team that won 27 games and reached the finals of the NIT last April. Five of the top six scorers are back for the Mustangs, including a pair of juniors, guard Nic Moore and forward Markus Kennedy, who were the team’s only two players to average in double-figures. The key player, though, is sophomore Keith Frazier, a former McDonald’s All-American who averaged just 5.4 points and played fewer than 15 minutes per game last season. A breakout season from him will go a long way toward making everyone forget about Mudiay. -- Ted Keith
18. VCU Rams
Shaka Smart is still searching for his first regular-season conference championship, and this should be the year that he gets it. The Rams will be the class of the A-10, according to our projection. Senior Treveon Graham should be the league's best player, and Briante Weber its best defender. There's some concern about scoring on this team, but our projections put them at an offensive efficiency of 113.1, which is comparable to other defensive-minded teams like Virginia (114.4) and Ohio State (112.2). Still, the X-factor for this team will be Melvin Johnson, who was a streaky shooter a season ago, but who we project to be the team's second-leading scorer and to do so efficiently. The Rams should have no trouble in the A-10, and if they can find an extra spark on offense, they could be in for a deep run in the tournament again too. -- David Gardner
19. Connecticut Huskies
What will the Huskies do for an encore after winning their second national championship in four seasons? Shabazz Napier is gone, but coach Kevin Ollie returns after reportedly receiving NBA coaching interest. Also back is senior guard Ryan Boatright, who will lead a skilled group of auxiliary threats. Former five-star recruit Rodney Purvis is eligible this season after sitting out 2013-14 following a transfer from N.C. State, while freshman wing Daniel Hamilton projects to make an impact right away. The Huskies will hope sophomore big man Amida Brimah can make strides offensively while continuing to serve as an elite rim protector. -- Chris Johnson
20. Iowa Hawkeyes
Few teams cratered as badly as the Hawkeyes did last season. After starting the year 15-3, Iowa hit a lull at midseason but was still 19-6 in mid-February. From there, however, Iowa lost all but one game, nearly missing the NCAA tournament for the ninth straight season altogether but winding up in the First Four, where it lost in overtime to Tennessee. Roy Devyn Marble graduated, leaving a 17-points-per-game hole in a lineup that had only one other player – now-senior forward Aaron White (12.8) – average half that many. White will be counted on to pick up much of that slack, but junior college transfer Trey Dickerson will help, too. Perimeter scoring will be a major question mark that head coach Fran McCaffery’s team will have to answer. -- Ted Keith
Michigan State lost a ton of production in the offseason, including first-round picks Adreian Payne and Gary Harris. But Tom Izzo is still in charge in East Lansing, so you shouldn't worry too much about the Spartans. And Izzo may have something to prove this season, too, after Payne, Harris and co. became his the first four-year players in his tenure not to reach the Final Four. Senior forward Branden Dawson will be the focal point of the offense, with Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine projected to average double-digit points as well. Does this team have the firepower to make a Final Four run? It's too soon to tell, but don't bet against Izzo. -- David Gardner
Get familiar with Marcus Foster. The sophomore guard led Kansas State with 15.5 points per game in 2013-14 and figures to be the focal point of the Wildcats’ offense again this season. The question is whether Foster’s teammates can provide enough complementary production to lift Kansas State into the upper half of the Big 12. Senior forward Thomas Gipson should provide a strong presence on the offensive and defensive glass, while Maine transfer Justin Edwards can draw defensive attention away from Foster. Expect this team to uphold Bruce Weber’s reputation as one of the better defensive coaches in the nation. -- Chris Johnson
23. Syracuse Orange
Another season, another point guard for the Orange. After Michael Carter-Williams starred in 2012-13 before bolting to the NBA after his sophomore season, and Tyler Ennis did the same after his freshman campaign a year ago, the job – and the Orange’s hopes – will now likely fall to another freshman, Kaleb Joseph, the nation’s No. 46 recruit according to Rivals.com. Junior Michael Gbinijie might also see time at the point as Joseph gets acclimated. Jim Boeheim also must replace leading scorer C.J. Fair, who graduated, and forward Jerami Grant, who left early for the NBA. Center Rakeem Christmas (5.8 points, 5.1 rebounds) and shooting guard Trevor Cooney (12.1 points) are the main holdovers from a year ago, and both will have to show marked improvement in their larger roles to keep Syracuse from falling to the middle of the pack of what should be a loaded ACC. -- Ted Keith
24. Michigan Wolverines
Michigan's biggest concern isn't a lack of talent, but a lack of experience. The Wolverines return just 46 percent of their minutes, fourth-lowest among teams in the top 25. The only senior on the roster is Max Bielfeldt who averaged less than a point a game last season. But talent should trump experience in the long-run for the Wolverines. Sophomore Zak Irvin, who SI projects to score 14.1 points per game this year, was a 42.5-percent three-pointer shooter a season ago. Junior forward Caris LeVert is a potential all-conference candidate after his breakout sophomore season in which he scored 12.9 points per game. John Beilein has shown he can win big with a young roster: In 2013, starting three freshmen, a sophomore and a junior, the Wolverines went all the way to the national title game. -- David Gardner
25. Utah Utes
The Utes probably would have made the NCAA tournament last season if they could have turned a few close conference losses into wins. Instead, Utah settled for a bid to the NIT, where it was eliminated in the first round by Saint Mary’s. The good news is coach Larry Krystkowiak’s team appears poised to break through to the Big Dance this season. Top scorers Delon Wright and Jordan Loveridge return alongside a strong supporting cast that includes guard Brandon Taylor and center Dallin Bachynski. The Utes may be the strongest candidate to challenge Pac-12 favorite Arizona for the conference title. -- Chris Johnson