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May 26, 2011
When Top Recruits Go Mid-Major
Grading the Predictions

by Drew Cannon

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The reason Billy Packer drove me crazy was that he'd make a bunch of predictions over the course of a game, then hammer home whichever one came true. Take the 2004 Final Four matchup between Duke and Connecticut. Packer claimed that the first center to pick up his third foul, Duke's Shelden Williams or UConn's Emeka Okafor, would see their team go on to lose the game. Now, this is certainly a valid point in that both teams want their best interior players on the floor. If Okafor gets his third foul immediately after Williams, though, there's really no difference at all.

So Packer yelped his claim as the Huskies took a lead, went quiet as the Blue Devils erased it, stayed quiet as Duke led by eight with three minutes to go, and yelped again as Connecticut stormed back for the win. Packer made predictions, but only held onto them if they were right, and therefore didn't learn from them.

All of which is to say I made some predictions last summer. Now I'm going to see what I did wrong.

Top-100 Freshmen Who Went Mid-Major
In last year's College Basketball Prospectus book I looked at seven top-100 players who had committed to mid-major programs and tried to project their performance as freshmen. Here they are, listed in order of freshman performance. The number that appears next to each name is their Dave Telep (then of Scout.com, now of ESPN.com) ranking out of high school. At the time, I was higher on Zeigler, Ferguson, and Staten, than Dave was. We more or less agreed on Kirk and Latham. And I was more skeptical of McCallum and Canty than Dave was.

Ray McCallum, Detroit (No. 22)
I actually refused to project McCallum's stats, due to a total dearth of similar players in recent years who could provide a precedent. But I did say this: "I really want to predict that Ray McCallum, Jr.'s arrival in the Horizon League will be like dropping the Beatles into the rock world of 1962 -- especially when I realize that, with his dad coaching, the cautionary tale of Adrion Graves' 113 freshman minutes will likely be moot. But, being the kind of person who gets nervous looking at last season's numbers for Michael Snaer, Wally Judge, and Tyler Honeycutt, I'm not going to make that prediction. Still, it's hard to imagine McCallum not, at the very least, making the Horizon All-Rookie team, and it's easy to see him making first team all-conference." And the verdict? Second team all-conference! All right, Drew!

Trey Zeigler, Central Michigan (No. 48)
Zeigler was given the unfortunate task of carrying kenpom.com's 323rd ranked offense. Yes, with an offensive rating of just 87 he took 33 percent of the Chippewas' shots when he was on the floor, but he wasn't exactly taking shots away from superstars. Only senior Jalin Thomas played more than a fifth of the team's minutes and had an offensive rating over 93 (106 on 25 percent of possessions). On a better offensive team, Zeigler would have been much more efficient with a normal load. He made the MAC All-Freshman team, and was a legitimately disruptive defender.

Better than projected: 32% possessions (27%), 18 TO% (23%)
Worse than projected: 57% FT (72%), 41% 2FG (51%)

Juwan Staten, Dayton (No. 70)
You can make Staten's season sound really impressive if you want. He was A-10 All-Freshman and finished tenth in the country in assist rate. You can also make that season sound awfully shaky. He shot percentages of 41/15/60, led rotation players in turnover rate, and beefed with head coach Brian Gregory to the point that he transferred to Penn State at the end of March. (When he transferred Staten told the Dayton Daily News, "I like Coach Gregory as a person. I respect him. But I just don't feel like I got any better this year. I don't feel like I could reach my full potential if I stayed at Dayton." But now that Ed DeChellis has left PSU, Staten's future is again, as he puts it, "such a mystery!") Overall, I'm rating a largely one-dimensional player like Staten below someone like Zeigler, who at least takes control of an offense (though with marginal success).

Better than projected: 40% assist rate (26%)
Worse than projected: 15% 3FG (32%), 60% FT (77%)

Alex Kirk, New Mexico (No. 76)
The Mountain West doesn't name an All-Freshman team, but it would have been awfully tough to build one without Kirk. His teammate, MWC freshman of the year Kendall Williams, was pretty clearly the cream of the conference's freshman class, but Kirk can at least stake a claim as the best of the rest. He played the role of traditional big man, though he did step out for 36 more three-point tries than the zero I put him down for. (Oops.) If he was doing that as a high schooler, I must have blocked it from my mind to mash him into that poor-man's "young Harangody" mold I had all ready to go. Nevertheless, he was a solid big man in a conference no worse than the 2011 SEC or Pac-10, and he'd rank higher on this list with more playing time.

Better than projected: 5% block rate (2%), 28% 3FG (0%)
Worse than projected: 27% free throw rate (46%), 62% FT (80%)

Dominique Ferguson, Florida International (No. 58)
This one threw me for a loop. Ferguson, who had been a big demander of the ball playing on AAU and camp teams with equally gifted players, rolled into the Sun Belt Conference...and turned into a role player. His shooting percentages were just 43/28/58 despite his limited role, but he did keep his turnovers down more than I expected. Ferguson's the only player of this seven-player group who has demonstrably changed my expectations for him going forward. I was, on the other hand, vindicated by nailing his six percent block rate and the existence of a discernible steal rate; at the time I was consistently derided for claiming Ferguson caused problems as a defender. So there.

Better than expected: 16% TO (25%)
Worse than expected: 17% possessions (28%), 12% defensive rebounds (18%), 43% 2FG (52%)

Jay Canty (No. 83) & Jordan Latham (No. 94), Xavier
The two Musketeers scarcely saw the floor, and Latham in particular didn't play enough for anyone to get a sense of his ability. Both players were handed much smaller offensive roles than expected (Canty 12% of possessions rather than 21% projected, Latham 10% rather than 19%), and Canty made more of his twos and spent less time at the free throw line than I predicted.

What We've Learned
1. Xavier is not a mid-major. Since 2005, they've signed four top-100 players. The highest ranked of those, no. 48 Kenny Frease in 2008, played 35 percent of the Musketeers' minutes. None of the other three logged more than ten percent. Respect the difficulty of cracking the Xavier lineup.

2. Pay attention to team quality, even when the team isn't Xavier. This is the Trey Zeigler Corollary to the Xavier Rule. If a team's offense looks bad the year before a highly-rated freshman arrives, the incoming stud will have to take on a big load. Unless you're Dominique Ferguson, apparently.

3. Dial back the free throw percentage expectations. I put Kirk and Staten down for free throw percentages above 75, and, looking back, only three of the 17 mid-major top-100 signees from the classes of 2006-09 shot that well. So that's just me not paying enough attention.

4. Everyone wants to shoot threes now. Kirk, Ferguson, and Staten were all comfortable shooting more than 25 threes without hitting 30 percent of them.

All in all, though, I did better than I expected.

Drew Cannon is a college student and a regular contributor to Basketball Prospectus.

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Drew Cannon is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Drew by clicking here or click here to see Drew's other articles.

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