Rules for Making Preseason NCAA Basketball Predictions
Making college basketball predictions is an art, and there are a few key rules we all need to follow when engaging in this process.
We make a heck of a lot of predictions here at Bleacher Report, but rarely do we actually go back and evaluate our skills in prognostication.
In the days leading up to the 2013-14 season, we offered you a pair of pieces identified as expert predictions. The first was on All-Americans and the second on things like most disappointing team, best mid-major star and national champion.
Now, I'm not grading our experts' picks—partially because my prediction of Oklahoma State winning the national championship would be a nice big "F-"—but I read through what we each wrote to figure out where we did well, where we did horribly and, most importantly, why.
Unlike the NCAA tournament where one bad call, one rolled ankle or one bad shooting day can completely derail even the most brilliant bracket, thoughtful research should hold up well over the course of an entire season.
Maybe it's a bunch of overgeneralized hooey, but these are the five things I'll be keeping in mind over the course of the next five months of preseason predictions.
Pick Coaches, Not Players
When asked last November who we thought would be the most disappointing team, three of us (myself included) nominated Michigan.
I said, "Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. are gone, and no one seems to actually know how badly Mitch McGary's back is ailing him."
Scott Henry wrote, "Mitch McGary's back injury is beginning to sound very, very ominous. Glenn Robinson, Nik Stauskas and Zak Irvin will be helped tremendously by a low-post scoring presence, but Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford are not that guy."
Doug Brodess added, "Mitch McGary's status, because of his troublesome lower-back condition, creates serious questions for the Wolverines' prospects. ... Without him at full strength, they could be looking at an uneven season with a substandard finish."
Did you notice that not one of us even mentioned John Beilein? The man now has more than 700 career wins (443 at the D-I level) and had transformed Michigan into a contender before Burke, Hardaway or McGary ever played a collegiate game.
And yet, we doubted him.
When the Wolverines opened the season 6-4 and McGary was ailing, we looked relatively brilliant. But then Beilein worked his magic. They won the Big Ten by three full games and earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.
(Though we were pretty wrong, Thad Novak takes the cake for most inaccurate prediction of most disappointing team, having chosen Wichita State as his stinker.)
There are a few teams losing a lot of key players while maintaining their legendary coaches. First and foremost on that list are Florida and Syracuse.
I've already written several times this summer that Florida is likely to take a few steps back after losing four starters to graduation, and that the ACC figures to be a four-team race between Duke, North Carolina, Virginia and Louisville.
Don't be surprised if I renege on those suppositions over the next few months by placing more faith in Jim Boeheim and Billy Donovan.
Don't Forget About Transfers
You wouldn't give a preseason synopsis on the NBA without accounting for free-agency acquisitions, nor should you in college basketball.
Oh, sure, the NCAA calls its free agents "transfers" and may or may not make them sit out a season before playing for their new teams, but the general principle is the same.
We spend exorbitant amounts of time and energy talking about incoming freshmen. Even the 2015 and 2016 recruiting classes are already getting some love.
But transfers—both those between D-I schools and those from junior college (JUCO)—are practically ignored on a national level.
Case in point, you can probably name at least five of the top incoming freshmen and where they are playing this season, but can you name a single JUCO transfer who isn't coming to play for your favorite team?
And lest you think that transfers are simply castoffs or players selfishly looking for more playing time, ask yourself where Iowa State would have been without getting DeAndre Kane from Marshall last season, or how weak Utah would have been if not for JUCO transfer Delon Wright.
It's a shame that the de facto authority on D-I transfers is an unsortable list with no rating system and no indicator for whether each player will be eligible to play this season. It's a bummer that JUCO scouting reports are about as easy to find as people who still use AOL Instant Messenger.
That doesn't make those incoming players any less important to their new teams.
Look solely at the returning players and incoming freshmen and you might think teams like Baylor, Colorado State, Gonzaga, Illinois, Iowa State and Ole Miss are headed for a lackluster season. Dig through the list of transfers, however, and you're likely to be a bit more optimistic about their upcoming season.
Do Forget About What Happened in March
Perhaps "forget" is too strong of a word, because we don't want to completely disregard the 2014 NCAA tournament when thinking about the 2014-15 season.
However, it's important that you don't let the results of a single-elimination tournament serve as the backbone of your assumptions about a season starting more than seven months later.
Dayton had a magical run to the Elite Eight. VCU suffered a disappointing loss in its first game of the tournament. But if you've got the Flyers finishing ahead of the Rams in the Atlantic 10 this season, there's a good chance you're either disregarding 90 percent of last season, overlooking the three key players graduating from Dayton or overstating the impact of VCU's two departing players.
That isn't to suggest there aren't rational reasons for having great expectations for Dayton. It's simply a reminder that anyone can get hot for two weeks in March, and you should make sure that "recent" events aren't overclouding your judgment.
Most important of all: If you do insist on using the tournament as grounds for your predictions, at least be consistent with them.
Last summer, a lot of people had high hopes for Michigan because of what they saw from the Wolverines in the tournament, but they simultaneously expressed cynicism about Wichita State's 2013-14 potential because the run to the 2013 Final Four eliminated the Shockers' element of surprise.
Whether the tournament can create momentum for the following season is up to you to decide, but don't be all willy-nilly about it. If you like Dayton because of the tournament, you better throw a bone to Baylor, Connecticut and San Diego State, too.
Do Your Own Research
Groupthink is a powerful phenomenon when it comes to preseason predictions. Even in a professional sport with just 30 or 32 teams, it's incredible how things gradually coalesce over the course of an offseason until there is a consensus or near-unanimous agreement on the favorites.
It's even worse in college basketball where it would take nearly 12 times as much research to form an independent opinion about every team. As a result, there are usually six or seven teams occupying the top spots in everyone's poll when the season begins.
At a certain point, it's tough to distinguish between what you believe to be true and that which everyone has agreed is fact.
Regardless, don't take anything at face value.
If you can't explain what makes your top three teams better than the rest, it's time to go back to the drawing board. If you have Michael Frazier II on one of your preseason All-American teams and you don't know why, figure it out.
No one is interested in your baseless assumptions or your regurgitation of popular opinion.
Play It Safe, But Not Too Safe
If you submit a tournament bracket with nothing but double-digit seeds in the Final Four, you're simply begging to be called an idiot.
Why treat your preseason predictions with any less care?
There's a reason that teams like Arizona, Kentucky and Wisconsin will each open the season ranked in the Top Five and well ahead of every other team in its conference. Unless your own research reveals something to the contrary, make your predictions accordingly.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, you don't want to play it too safe, either. If you pick all chalk and end up winning a bracket pool, you won't impress anybody.
Similarly, you'll want to go against the grain with a few calculated risks in your preseason predictions.
For example, most preseason All-American teams had McGary as either a first- or second-team player last fall, but I was concerned enough with his back injury to omit him from my list. In his place, I included T.J. Warren based on the theory that someone had to score points for North Carolina State.
(That move would look much smarter if it weren't for five of my 15 picks failing to receive so much as an honorable mention from the AP.)
If you legitimately think a team like Wake Forest is headed for a breakout season, stand by it. If you think Sam Dekker is a legitimate candidate for Player of the Year, explain why.
But if more than 20 percent of your predictions are coming completely out of left field, don't bother telling us about them.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.