Friday’s Pregame Beat: Previewing your college hoops weekend

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UPSET ALERT

Sat. 6:00 pm: No. 6 SDSU @ New Mexico: With Duke’s loss to Florida State on Wednesday night, there are now just four undefeated teams left in the country — Ohio State, Kansas, Syracuse, and SDSU. And while, on paper, SDSU seems to be the outlier in this group, don’t be fooled by their non-BCS conference affiliation. This team is legit.

They have arguably the best, and most versatile, front line in the country with Kawhi Leonard, Malcolm Thomas, Billy White, and Brian Carlwell. DJ Gay is an underrated point guard, and the addition of a shooter in James Rahon on the perimeter has given the Aztecs another dimension. But do not sleep on this Lobo team, especially at the Pit. They have a high-major front line with Drew Gordon and Emmanuel Negedu complementing Alex Kirk and AJ Hardemann. Dairese Gary, Kendall Williams, and Philip McDonald one of the best back courts out west.

Steve Alford’s crew has struggled early in the season, but this is a group that is still coming together with the addition of Gordon that will be playing in front of a raucous home crowd. This is a better game than the records indicate, and New Mexico has a real chance to beat the Aztecs and get a win they really need on their resume.

UPSET SPECIAL

Sat. 11:00 am: Marquette @ No. 17 Louisville: These two teams matchup really well with each other. Both are heavy on talented guards, both shoot a lot of threes, and neither is afraid to play an uptempo game. As Notre Dame found out on Monday, this Marquette club — as they seemingly are every season — is much better than their record indicates. The key for Marquette? Defend the three — which the haven’t done all that well this season — and get the ball to Jae Crowder and Jimmy Butler.

Sat. 1:00 pm: Northwestern @ No. 24 Michigan State: Northwestern has to get a win against a few of the big boys in the Big Ten if they are serious about making a run at their first NCAA Tournament bid. I think this is a pretty good matchup for the Wildcats. They spread the floor, they execute a difficult offensive to defend, and they are going against a team that has not defended the three point line all that well through two months. Shurna had 24 points in a win over Iowa on Tuesday. Is he finally healthy?

Sat. 5:00 pm: No. 22 UCF @ Southern Miss: UCF has played as well as anyone in Conference USA this season, but with Memphis slowly fading out of the picture, USM may actually be the most talented team in the league. The Golden Eagles have a couple of good perimeters to throw at Marcus Jordan, but the most intriguing matchup in this one is between Gary Flowers and Keith Clanton.

Sat. 6:00 pm: Baylor @ Iowa State: This would seem silly at first glance, but hear me out. Baylor is not as good as we all expected them to be this season. In the same way Kansas State has struggled, Baylor has as well. They have an all-american guard and a loaded front court. But do the Bears have anyone that can get LaceDarius Dunn or one of Baylor’s big men an open look? ISU hasn’t been terrible this season. They gave Kansas a bit of a scare on Wednesday night. Diante Garrett and Scott Christopherson deserve some national pub, as well.

Sat. 8:00 pm: Loyola Marymount @ Gonzaga: In terms of raw talent, there might not be a team in the WCC better than the Lions not named the Zags. With guys like Vernon Teel and Drew Viney, this LMU group was picked second in the preseason. They’ve lost a few games here early, but that talent is still on the roster. Teel-Viney going against Stephen Gray and Elias Harris? That’s worth it back ground noise as you pregame for your Saturday night.

Sun. 12:00 pm: No. 11 Notre Dame @ St. John’s: Notre Dame is 14-3 on the season. Their three losses? To Kentucky at Freedom Hall in Louisville, to Syracuse at the Carrier Dome, and to Marquette at the Bradley Center. They are 14-0 in home and neutral site games. Just like the Irish need to get a win on the road, the Johnnies need to get a win, period. They are in the midst of a tough eight game stretch, and coming off of a 15 point shellacking at the hands of the Irish in South Bend last Saturday. Now’s the time to turn around this losing streak.

Sun. 1:30 pm: No. 8 Purdue @ West Virginia: I made the decision to slot this game into the Upset Special category before I saw the Boilermakers nearly knock off Minnesota on the road despite getting poor performances out of, well, everyone except JaJuan Johnson. Johnson, on the other hand, torched a big Gopher front line for 29 points and 11 boards. That said, Bob Huggins has started to quiz his team on their scouting reports, and the difference is noticeable, as the ‘Eers are finally playing like they are capable of. They just beat Georgetown in Georgetown on Monday and on Thursday they mollywhopped Providence by 30 points. Morgantown is usually a great environment when West Virginia is good. Let’s hope that trend continues.

BEST MATCHUPS

Sat. 12:00 pm: Cincinnati @ No. 4 Syracuse: Actually, if I’m being truthful, I think that the Bearcats are going to get smoked against the Orange. Just like St. John’s got smoked on Wednesday night. This year’s version of the Syracuse zone just keeps getting scarier and scarier. Cincy is a bigger team that lacks a bit in the playmaking and shooting departments. Based on Syracuse’s size this season, and with Kris Joseph turning into the elite slasher we expected him to be and James Southerland providing just that much more versatility, Bearcat fans should be nervous.

Sat. 12:00 pm: Vanderbilt @ Tennessee
: Two games in, and the Tony Jones experiment has gotten off to a pretty poor start. Vanderbilt looks like they could end up being the second best team in the SEC East with Tennessee’s recent struggles, but remember, this is a Tennessee team that has beaten both Villanova and Pitt this year. The matchup of Jeff Taylor and Scotty Hopson could be the best individual matchup of the weekend.

Sat. No. 12 Missouri @ No. 13 Texas A&M: You cannot get two more differing styles than the Tigers and the Aggies. Mizzou likes to pressure for 40 minutes, push the tempo, force turnovers, and shoot threes. Texas A&M wins with ball control, half court defense, and rebounding. Kansas seems to be the best team in the conference with these two, and Texas, fighting for that second spot. Mizzou lost their first conference road game to Colorado, but the Aggies are relatively unproved. This should be a good gauge for both teams.

Sat. 1:00 pm: Maryland @ No. 7 Villanova: This Terrapins team has a bit of Marquette in them. What I mean is that they are now 11-5 on the season, but they aren’t your typical 11-5 team. All five losses have come to likely tournament teams, none by more than nine points. This is a tough, scrappy team that is still learning how to win. That said, Nova is a tough team to learn against. The Terp’s back court will have their work cut out for them against the likes of Maalik Wayns and My Two Corey’s. The key to this one? Jordan Williams staying out of foul trouble.

Sat. 3:00 pm: No. 16 Illinios @ No. 21 Wisconsin: I can’t imagine two teams with as similar a roster composition playing such different styles. Two talented points guard in Demetri McCamey. Nary a physical big man in sight, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better front court matchup than Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil going against Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis. Quality role players all over the place. The Kohl Center is a tough place to win, but this should be a dandy.

Sat. 7:00 pm: Seton Hall @ No. 5 Pitt: I don’t necessarily believe that the Pirates can win this game. The Peterson Events Center is not a place where road warriors win battles. But the storyline in this game deserves elaboration. Just a few days before Thanksgiving, Jeremy Hazel broke his wrist. He had surgery on Dec. 2nd to repair the wrist. On Christmas day, he was shot in an attempted robbery. On Wednesday night, he played against DePaul and had 23 points on 10-17 shooting. Tough kid.

BEST STORYLINES

Friday

  • 7:00 pm: Valpo @ Wright State; 9:00 pm: Butler @ Detroit: All four of these teams are tied atop the Horizon League standings at 4-1.

Saturday

  • 12:00 pm: No. 23 Temple @ Duquesne: Duquesne is a good team, but Temple looks to be the hands down favorite to win the A-10 this season.
  • 12:00 pm: No. 19 Georgetown @ Rutgers: No one in the country needs a win as badly as Georgetown does. But remember, they lost at the RAC last season.
  • 12:00 pm: Marshall @ Memphis: Can the Tigers snap out of their funk without Wesley Witherspoon?
  • 1:30 pm: Oklahoma State @ Colorado: The battle of the “we just upset Kansas State” teams.
  • 1:30 pm: Texas Tech @ No. 20 Kansas State: Well, maybe Kansas State needs a win as badly as Georgetown.
  • 1:30 pm: South Carolina @ Florida: If it seems like the SEC East is giving us a good game daily, its because they are.
  • 2:00 pm: Virginia @ No. 1 Duke: Virginia will be playing their first game without Mike Scott, while Duke will be taking the floor for the first time since their loss to FSU.
  • 2:00 pm: Nebraska @ No. 3 Kansas: With Wednesday’s performance by the twins, I must ask — are they the Morri, the Morrii, or the Morii? I’ve always gone Morrii.
  • 2:00 pm: No. 9 DePaul @ UConn: Cleveland Melvin originally committed to UConn. He parted ways, ended up at DePaul, and is averaging 13.5 ppg as a freshman.
  • 2:30 pm: Arizona State @ Arizona: Derrick Williams against a front line of … Kyle Cain? Pick him up for your fantasy team.
  • 4:00 pm: Oklahoma @ No. 14 Texas: The Red River rivalry doesn’t have much sizzle on the hardwood this year.
  • 4:00 pm: LSU @ No. 15 Kentucky: LSU has a better record in the SEC than Kentucky does. Enjoy it while it lasts.
  • 4:00 pm: NC State @ Florida State: The Seminoles can beat anyone when they are shooting well. They can lose to anyone when they aren’t. The Wolfpack really need this win.
  • 4:00 pm: Old Dominion @ Hofstra: This might be the best mid-major matchup of the day.
  • 4:00 pm: Austin Peay @ Tennessee State: The Governors have a chance to extend their lead on one of the teams chasing them in the OVC.
  • 5:00 pm: Georgia @ Ole Miss: Renardo Sidney has his best game of the season against Ole Miss on Thursday. Trey Thompkins is what Sidney would be if he actually cared.
  • 5:30 pm: Penn State @ No. 2 Ohio State: Note to the Buckeyes — all Penn State does is upset ranked teams. You’ve been warned.
  • 6:00 pm: UNLV @ Air Force: UNLV cannot afford to lose a game like this if they want to compete in the MWC, but Air Force has been a bit of a surprise this year.
  • 6:00 pm: Boston College @ Miami FL: You probably won’t find a better back court matchup than Reggie Jackson going against Durand Scott and Malcolm Grant.
  • 6:00 pm: UCLA @ Oregon: Have fun watching a game on Matt Court.
  • 7:00 pm: Oakland @ IUPUI: A matchup of the Summit favorites.
  • 8:00 pm: Washington State @ Stanford: After knocking off Washington, Stanford all of a sudden is in second place in the conference.
  • 8:00 pm: Wake Forest @ Virginia Tech: If Virginia Tech loses to Wake, the Hokies might as well pack in their season.
  • 8:00 pm: Dayton @ Xavier: This game looked much better before the season started.
  • 11:00 pm: Utah State @ Fresno State: The Aggies are already head and shoulders above the rest of the WAC, but this is a chance to further distance themselves from the pack.

Sunday

  • 1:00 pm: Valpo @ Detroit; 7:00 pm: Butler @ Wright State: Those Horizon League games from Friday? Butler goes from Detroit to Wright State while Valpo heads the other way.
  • 6:00 pm: Iowa @ No. 25 Minnesota: The Gophers must take care of business coming off of a big win against Purdue.
  • 7:45 pm: North Carolina @ Georgia Tech: The Tar Heels and the Yellow Jackets are probably doing the least with the talent on their respective rosters.
  • 10:00 pm: Washington @ Cal: Cal seems to be handling the loss of Gary Franklin better than U-Dub is the loss of Abdul Gaddy. The Huskies struggle on the road, and they cannot afford to get swept in their northern California trip.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.

Louisville officially fires Rick Pitino

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Louisville’s Athletic Association has officially fired head coach Rick Pitino nearly three weeks after an FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball linked the Hall of Fame head coach and his program to a $100,000 payment from Adidas to a recruit that enrolled at Louisville.

The association, made up of trustees, faculty, student and administrators, oversees Louisville athletics. They voted unanimously to fire Pitino.

Pitino has $44 million in salary remaining on his contract, which extends through the 2026 season. He was with Louisville for 16 seasons.

Pitino had been ‘effectively fired‘ by the university on September 27th, the day after the scandal first broke.

Earlier this summer, Louisville had received their sanctions from the NCAA in a different scandal that enveloped Pitino’s program. In October of 2015, a book was published by an escort named Katina Powell who alleged that a member of Pitino’s staff had paid for strippers and prostitutes for recruits and members of the Louisville team, some of whom were underage. The NCAA’s sanctions, which included vacating the 2012 Final Four and 2013 National Title in addition to Louisville’s self-imposed 2016 postseason ban, were handed down in June, two weeks after a Louisville coach had allegedly helped facilitate a $100,000 payment from Adidas to Brian Bowen’s family and six weeks before another coach would allegedly attempt to do the same for a 2019 prospect.

Kansas’ Self: Adidas case a “dark cloud on our profession’

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LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — Kansas coach Bill Self had come to know James Gatto well over the years, along with just about everyone else involved with the college basketball side of the athletic apparel giant Adidas.

It comes with the territory as one of the company’s flagship schools.

But when Self first heard that Gatto had been swept up in a wide-ranging FBI investigation, centered on Louisville but uncovering corruption elsewhere in college basketball, the Jayhawks’ coach admitted being “very disappointed and disheartened” and likened it to a “dark cloud for our profession.”

Prosecutors have accused the 47-year-old Gatto of conspiring with coaches and others to funnel payments to top prospects and their families to win commitments to play at schools sponsored by Adidas. The idea was that their relationship with Adidas would continue whenever they reached the professional level.

The family of one prospect was allegedly paid $100,000 to commit, according to court documents, and the school was later revealed to be Louisville. The school has since placed coach Rick Pitino on administrative leave while the federal investigation is being resolved. Nine others, including former Oklahoma State assistant Lamont Evans, have been charged in the case.

Self said during a lengthy interview Friday that the cash payments from Adidas surprised him, but “what is not surprising is third parties’ involvement in recruiting. Everyone should know that.”

“That’s prevalent everywhere,” he said. “There’s nothing illegal about agents talking to kids and their families in ninth and 10th grade. There’s nothing illegal about shoe companies funding AAU programs. That is what’s been encouraged and done, so it shouldn’t be a surprise you could have influence from third parties.”

Kansas officials insist they have not been contacted by the FBI, and the school is not under any sort of investigation. It

Kansas recently reached a 12-year contract extension with Adidas that will ultimately provide the school with $191 million in sponsorship money and apparel. Self suggested the affiliation is being used by rivals on the recruiting trail.

“Whenever in recruiting there is something out there that has been reported, whether it’s reliable or unreliable, total myth, whatever, there’s usually competitors that make sure that information gets to people. Unfortunately, that’s how it works,” Self said. “You can say that’s negative recruiting … but a lot of times the things that are reported are so inaccurate it puts you on the defense.”

The Jayhawks already have commitments from two top-100 prospects in 6-foot-9 forward Silvio de Sousa from Florida’s IMG Academy and 6-10 center David McCormack from Virginia’s Oak Hill Academy.

They are also in the mix for several more top-50 prospects in what could be a crucial class for them.

“I’d be lying,” Self said, “if I told you we hadn’t discussed these issues with kids. And has it hurt us to date? I don’t think it has. But it’s not signing day, either.”

Attorney makes case for Louisville to retain Pitino as coach

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Rick Pitino’s attorney has told the Louisville Athletic Association that it should not fire the coach of the men’s basketball program because his client “could not have known” about activities alleged in a national federal investigation of the sport.

Steve Pence made his case Monday while the ULAA was meeting to discuss whether to fire Pitino nearly three weeks after the school acknowledged the program’s involvement in the investigation. The association board is still meeting and has not announced its decision.

Association, a separate body that oversees Louisville’s sports programs and comprised of trustees, faculty, students and administrators, on Oct. 2 authorized university interim President Greg Postel to begin the process of firing Pitino for cause after Postel placed him on unpaid administrative leave Sept. 27.

Pitino, 65, is not named in court complaints in the federal probe but Postel said in a disciplinary letter that the allegations violated his contract.

Pence has contended that Louisville rushed to judgment and made his case before the board for 45 minutes on Monday.

He said Pitino should be retained and noted, “The coach did not engage in any of this activity, he didn’t know about the activity. I think we made a very compelling case to the board, I think they listened attentively and we’ll just have to wait and see what they say.”

Pitino has coached 16 years with the program, a run that included winning the 2013 NCAA championship but was tarnished by several embarrassing off-court incidents.

AP Exclusive: Corruption probe prompts reviews of NCAA teams

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The spate of arrests, details of under-the-table bribes to teenagers and the expected downfall of one of the sport’s best-known coaches has triggered uncomfortable soul-searching among the institutions at the heart of college basketball, including internal reviews by more than two dozen schools of their own prominent programs.

At stake is the future of a business that, over the span of 22 years ending in 2032, will produce $19.6 billion in TV money for the NCAA Tournament, known to the public, simply, as March Madness.

The NCAA distributes those billions to its conferences and universities, and that figure doesn’t include the millions splashed around by shoe companies, who play an outsized role in the success of the programs and the careers of some of their top players.

More than two dozen universities with major hoops programs — including Louisville, where Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino is in the process of being fired after 16 seasons — have responded to news of the sport’s bribery scandal by conducting internal reviews of their compliance operations.

The Associated Press asked 84 schools, including all the nation’s power programs, and six top conferences about their response to the arrests that upended college hoops mere days before practices for the 2017-18 season began around the country.

Of 63 schools that responded, 28 said the probe prompted their own internal reviews. So did the Pac-12 Conference, which formed a task force to dive into the culture and issues of recruiting.

Among the schools reviewing their programs are Arizona, Auburn, Oklahoma State and Southern California; each had assistant coaches arrested as part of the sting.

The list also includes Alabama, where a review led to the resignation of basketball administrator Kobie Baker but unearthed no NCAA violations, according to school officials.

A representative from one school, St. Johns, told AP the NCAA directed all Division I programs to examine their programs for potential rules violations after the federal complaints were filed. The NCAA declined to comment when asked about that specific directive.

But last week, the NCAA formed a fact-finding commission to be led by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, with results expected in April — right around the time the NCAA Tournament comes to an end.

“My only piece of advice (to young players), don’t let the process ruin you because we will. I blame myself,” said Tom Izzo of Michigan State, one of the schools conducting a review.

Izzo is convinced players’ circles grow too large as they near the big-time and fill up with too many people with different agendas.

But in an illustration of wide-ranging perceptions of the issue, Michigan State’s cross-state rival, Michigan, said it isn’t conducting an internal review and its coach, John Beilein, said “I don’t think the sky is falling in college basketball.”

“I think that there’s certainly some rogue coaches,” Beilein said. “How many? Maybe I’ll be proven wrong, but I can’t believe there’s too much of that going out there.”

Michigan, 34 other schools and the Big East Conference said they were not specifically responding to the federal probe. But many of the “no” responses came with the caveat that the school’s athletic department is always reviewing its compliance.

Four conferences and 21 schools declined to respond to the AP’s survey, including one university that declined to respond on the record but acknowledged privately that it was reviewing its program because of the probe.

The vast majority of schools surveyed have shoe deals with Nike, Adidas or Under Armour. A top Adidas marketing executive was among the 10 people arrested, after authorities spent two years untangling schemes, often bankrolled with money from the apparel companies, to steer future NBA players toward particular sports agents and financial advisers. No players were accused of doing anything illegal, but any recruits found taking any improper benefits could lose eligibility to play.

In many corners, the arrests have been portrayed as the government’s response to activities that have long been viewed as business-as-usual in big-time hoops — a long-awaited reckoning with problems the NCAA has been unwilling or unable to rein in.

An announcement Friday by the NCAA that a seven-year-long investigation into academic fraud at North Carolina would result in no sanctions for the Tar Heels did nothing to promote confidence in the body tasked with keeping its sports clean.

The AP also asked universities if they had been contacted by federal or state law enforcement. Only the schools involved in the federal complaints acknowledged being contacted.

That doesn’t mean more isn’t coming. Prosecutors have made clear the probe could widen in scope as the investigation continues.

“I’d say most people agree that this is the tip of the iceberg,” said John Tauer, the coach at St. Thomas in Minnesota, which has won two Division III titles this decade. “Over the next six months to a year, a lot more chips are going to fall, and you’d have to think that schools that aren’t diligent right now could end up paying dearly.”

Tauer, who doubles as a social psychology professor specializing in issues of sports in society, spends a lot of time wrestling with the NCAA rulebook. His task isn’t as high-stakes, though, because scholarship money and big-time shoe deals are essentially nonexistent in Division III.

“As an educator and a coach, you’re certainly disappointed but not shocked to know this kind of thing goes on,” Tauer said. “You hear rumors and stories of things that go on in the underworld of recruiting. You always hope they’re not true, but you probably know, deep down…”

Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak told a story of losing a hard recruiting battle, and his initial reaction was “at least we didn’t cheat.”

He called it his heat-of-the-moment reaction, though he’s certainly not blind to the issues confronting his sport. When he arrived at Utah in 2011, his two guiding principles were: “We are never going to cheat,” and “We aren’t going to recruit any turds.”

“I wasn’t sure in my lifetime that we were going to see anything of this magnitude where the lid got blown off,” Krystkowiak said. “I was hopeful that at some point somebody’s going to pay the price. Now when you get the feds and the FBI involved, it takes it to a new level.”

Kansas coach Bill Self, whose school is among those conducting an internal review, said he harbors no illusions about what’s at stake.

“This is bigger than us just coming up with ideas, this is us coming up with ideas that can withhold all the headwind that’s going to be coming toward it,” Self said.

College Hoops Contender Series: Where is Kentucky’s scoring going to come from?

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Who are the favorites to win a national title? Who can legitimately be called a contender? Who has the pieces to make a run to the Final Four? We’ll break that all down for you over the next three weeks in our Contender Series.

Last week, we gave you our Final Four sleepers and talked about six different Final Four contenders – Louisville, West Virginia, Villanova, Wichita State, USC and Miami – that are just flawed enough that we can’t call them contenders.

There is a pretty clear-cut delineation between the four or five best teams, the clear national title challengers, and the rest of the country this season.

This week, we will be taking a deeper dive into five of those teams.

What makes them good enough to win a national title?

But why won’t they win a national title?

Let’s break it down, starting with Kentucky, who, for my money, has the lowest floor of any team in this series.

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Hamidou Diallo playing for USA Basketball this summer (USA Basketball)

WHY THEY CAN WIN

As we have become accustomed to, Kentucky is as talented, as deep and as loaded with high-priority recruits as any team in college basketball.

There are eight former five-star recruits on the roster, three of whom joined the program for the 2016-17 season, as well as another pair of former four-star prospects. The amount of size, length and athleticism on this roster is going to make some NBA teams jealous. There will be times this season where the five Kentucky Wildcats on the floor will be Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Hamidou Diallo, Kevin Knox, Jarred Vanderbilt and Nick Richards. Diallo, who is 6-foot-4 with a 6-foot-11 wingspan and a 44.5″ vertical, would be the smallest player on the floor, and that’s before you throw P.J. Washington, Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones into the mix.

Simply put, this Kentucky team is going to be a nightmare to play against.

They probably won’t be as good as the 2015 team was defensively – I’m not sure people really appreciate just how good Willie Cauley-Stein was as a defender at the college level – but they’ll likely end up being one of the best defensive teams in the country this season. They have size and athleticism at every position, switchable defenders all over the floor and shot-blocking at the rim, and that is before we mention that Kentucky happens to have a coach on the sidelines who is as good as anyone in the sport at getting his players to buy-in to the role he needs them to play.

What they won’t have is someone like Karl-Anthony Towns or Devin Booker, which is where Quade Green, the five-star point guard recruit, comes into play. He’ll be tasked with creating shots – or, as we’ll get into in a second, dunks and layups – for the rest of the roster, and it should not surprise you if much of Kentucky’s offense ends up coming in transition. Since arriving in Lexington, John Calipari has not generally been known as a coach that runs a transition-based attack. The only two times he’s ranked in the top 140 in tempo, according to KenPom, were the years he had De’Aaron Fox and John Wall at the point, but scoring in transition will be easier for this year’s team that scoring against a set defense.

That said, Kentucky won’t have to score much, not with the way this group will be able to defend.

If their defense lives up to its potential, we may be looking at a year where the Wildcats win simply by getting to 60 points.

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LEXINGTON, KY – JANUARY 21: Wenyen Gabriel (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

WHY THEY WON’T WIN

There are two things that this Kentucky team lacks, both of which have the potential to derail the season for the Wildcats: Veteran leadership and proven offensive weapons.

Let’s start with the former.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the loss of Isaiah Briscoe hurts Kentucky more than the loss of De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk or Bam Adebayo. John Calipari planned for those three to head to the NBA after one season. The core tenet of his recruiting philosophy at Kentucky has been to get the best players on his roster to the NBA as quickly as possible and to replace them with a new crop of soon-to-be NBA lottery picks. Fox, Monk and Adebayo are gone but Quade Green, Hamidou Diallo and a handful of five-star big men are on campus.

Briscoe, despite being a five-star recruit in the Class of 2015, didn’t exactly fall under that umbrella. He was a very, very good college player that, predictably, went undrafted back in June after leaving school as a sophomore. Had he returned, he would have been precisely the veteran leader that the Wildcats currently lack; the 2017 version of Darius Miller, if you will.

This may be surprising, but this is going to end up being the youngest, least-experienced Kentucky team that Calipari has ever had as the head coach of the Wildcats. Only one of Kentucky’s nine rotation players from last season returns, and that’s Wenyen Gabriel, who averaged 4.6 points in just under 18 minutes per game. By the time the NCAA tournament rolled around last year, Gabriel was barely cracking double-digit minutes. This is just the second time that Cal has a team with no returnee that averaged more than 18 minutes and the first time that he’s had a team with a leading returning scorer that averaged fewer than 5.0 points. The only other time that was comparable was in 2012-13, when Kyle Wiltjer, who had averaged 5.0 points and 11.6 minutes on the 2012 title-winning team, was the leading-returning scorer, transfers Ryan Harrow and Julius Mays made up the starting back court and a team that lost Nerlens Noel to a torn ACL in February lost to Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT.

The year was a disaster.

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And there’s a chance this season could end up like that season. The best teams that Kentucky and Duke have produced in the one-and-done era have all featured veterans playing prominent roles. In 2010, John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins had junior Patrick Patterson to lean on. Kentucky’s 2012 national title-winning team featured sophomores Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb as well as senior Darius Miller in prominent roles. Duke won the title in 2015 in large part due to the fact that Quinn Cook, a former McDonald’s All-American and a three-year starter at the point, played his senior season off the ball.

That would have been the role that Briscoe played for this team.

Instead, we’re looking at Hamidou Diallo being a resident veteran on the Kentucky roster because he enrolled early and redshirted the second semester of the 2016-17 season.

Kentucky will miss Isaiah Briscoe (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Which leads me to the second issue that this Kentucky team is going to face this year: There isn’t much polish on this roster. There’s talent – Kentucky has eight five-star recruits on the roster, including a pair heading into their sophomore seasons, and two more four-star prospects – but there aren’t many instant impact players, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. In other words, Kentucky has a team full of raw athleticism, players whose potential in the future is more intriguing than what their current production is expected to be.

Hamidou Diallo, Nick Richards, Kevin Knox, Wenyen Gabriel, Sacha Killeya-Jones and, when he returns from injury, Jarred Vanderbilt. They all have the kind of long-term potential that will force NBA teams to take notice. None of them are considered to be much of a threat offensively heading into this season.

Think about it like this: In the final minute of a close game, who are you giving the ball to if you are Calipari? Where is that bucket going to come from?

The lack of creators isn’t the only issue, either. Where is the shooting going to come from? How will the Wildcats be able to space the floor? If your answer is Jemarl Baker, then that means you’re pulling Diallo or Vanderbilt off the floor. If the answer is Gabriel, it means Knox is sitting or Kentucky is playing a lineup that features no true post presence.

All told, of the 10 players expected to be in Kentucky’s rotation, six of them play in the front court and two of the guards — Diallo and Gilgeous-Alexander — have major question marks with their ability to shoot the ball. That’s going to be an issue alone, before you factor in the lack of a go-to guy.

The easiest way to phrase the issue is like this: I’m worried that this Kentucky roster features a wealth of role players without one true star.


Kevin Knox II (David Banks/Getty Images)

PREDICTION

The that lack of one true star may ultimately end up being the downfall of this group.

In the last ten years, there have been 50 players taken as top five draft picks. Of those 50, 28 were top ten players in their class (all of whom were one-and-dones) and seven more were international prospects, which means that there have only been 15 players drafted in the top five in the last ten seasons that were not top ten prospects in their recruiting class. Of those 15, 13 were sophomores, juniors or seniors. One was Enes Kanter, who arguably should be listed as an international prospect.

The other was D’Angelo Russell, one of the most unique and electrifying offensive talents we’ve seen in college basketball in recent years.

Kentucky has just a single player currently on their roster that ranked in the top ten of their recruiting class in 247 Sports’ composite rankings, and that’s Hamidou Diallo. He was ranked 10th in his class, but as a prospect, he was not enough of a sure thing to keep his name in the 2017 NBA Draft.

To be clear, you don’t have to be a top five pick to carry a great college team, even as a one-and-done. Malik Monk did it. Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow did it. Jamal Murray did it.

But all of those guys were top ten players in their recruiting class. I challenge you to find a freshman that wasn’t a top ten recruit or a top five pick that managed to be the star for a team that contended for a national title. It’s not easy to do, which means that in order for Kentucky to compete for a national title, they will be relying on one of three things to happen this season:

  1. Hamidou Diallo, whose offensive limitations kept him from getting picked where he would have liked to be picked in June, turning into a superstar at this level.
  2. Wenyen Gabriel or Sacha Killeya-Jones turning into a star as a sophomore in college.
  3. One of Kentucky’s other freshmen having a season that, essentially, is unprecedented; Russell’s 2015 Ohio State team was a No. 10 seed entering the NCAA tournament.

That’s the bet that you’re making when you pick the Wildcats to get to the 2018 Final Four.