Bubble update: Tennessee making a push for NCAA consideration

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Riding a six-game conference winning streak, the Tennessee Volunteers find themselves in the thick of the at-large conversation.  Since losing at home to Georgia in early February, the Vols have won three league road games and beaten Kentucky and Florida in Knoxville.  And while one could argue (correctly) that the SEC isn’t particularly strong or deep, Tennessee has given itself a chance to participate in March Madness.  Such a scenario would have been considered a stretch a month ago.

A similar streak helped Illinois overcome a 2-7 mark in the Big Ten.  Without a major slip, the Illini are now a likely NCAA participant.  A lot can change in two weeks.

Which brings us to Selection Sunday – now just over two weeks away.

Our latest bubble update finds teams moving both toward and away from the cutline.  Besides the aforementioned Volunteers, here are some teams climbing the at-large ladder: Temple, Saint Mary’s, and California.  Akron should be included too.  The Zips beat Ohio for a second time Wednesday and have a clear path toward an outright Mid-American Conference title.  That will add credibility to the Zips’ profile if they were to fall short in the MAC tournament.

Teams moving in the opposite direction include Arkansas, Charlotte, and Indiana State.  The Sycamores have lost any momentum they once had and probably need to win the MVC tournament in St. Louis to reach the NCAA tournament.  For now, they’ve been removed from the bubble.

One other Missouri Valley note: Both Creighton and Wichita State remain as “Should Be In” teams at the time of this update.  However, both have slipped a bit of late and certainly aren’t locks.  Saturday, they battle for the MVC title.  The winner takes a significant step toward an NCAA bid as it’s hard to imagine the outright MVC champion being left out of the Field.

RPI and SOS data is credited to ESPN and is for games played through Wednesday, February 27.

UPDATED: Thursday, February 28

Total Spots (68): Number of teams in the Field.

Automatic Bids (31): None at this time

  • Projected Locks (20): Teams who project to have secured a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
  • Should Be In (16): These teams are in solid position to receive an at-large bid.
  • Bubble: (31): Teams projected to be under consideration for at-large selection.
  • Spots Available (11): Estimated number of openings after Automatic Bids, Locks, and Should Be Ins are considered.
  • RPI and SOS: RPI and SOS data are updated through games completed on Wednesday, February 27.
Atlantic 10
Locks: Butler, Saint Louis | Should Be In: VCU | Bubble: La Salle, Temple, Charlotte, Massachusetts, Xavier
  • Charlotte (18-9 | 6-7) | RPI: 63 | SOS: 97 | – Dayton handed Charlotte its third straight loss Wednesday. Unless the 49ers make a serious run in the A10 tourney, an NCAA bid now appears unlikely.
  • La Salle (19-7 | 9-4) | RPI: 35 | SOS: 73 | – The only thing lacking from La Salle’s resume at this point is a volume of quality wins. A one-point win over Butler and a road victory at VCU stand on their own. The Explorers’ other Top 100 wins are Villanova, Richmond and Saint Joseph’s. So it’s too early to move La Salle off the bubble. Assuming they can avoid a home upset in the next two (Duquesne, Geo Washington), the closing road trip to Saint Louis will tell us how much work – if any – is needed at the A10 tourney.
  • Massachusetts (17-9 | 7-6) | RPI: 57 | SOS: 67 | – UMass beat Dayton last weekend to stay alive in the bubble conversation. But the Minutemen have still lost 3 of 4 games. The next two are big: Xavier and Butler. While the Minutemen are 7-7 vs. the Top 100, they are just 1-5 vs. Top 50 teams. Win their next two and we’ll re-evaluate.
  • Temple (19-8 | 8-5) | RPI: 41 | SOS: 37 | – The Owls have won three straight over fellow A-10 bubble teams – including a 20-point victory over Charlotte. Other victories of note: Syracuse, Saint Louis, and Villanova. A tidy 8-6 mark vs. Top 100 teams is pretty nice given some other bubble teams. With three of four at home down the stretch, Temple controls its NCAA fate.
  • Xavier (16-11 | 8-5) | RPI: 86 | SOS: 96 | – Just when the RPI numbers suggested it was time to remove XU from the bubble, the Musketeers held off Memphis for a crucial victory. When you factor in wins over Butler, Temple, and La Salle, XU has a decent top-end profile. The problem remains overcoming five sub-100 RPI losses and a 4-6 mark vs. Top 100 teams. Xavier has home games left with UMass and Saint Louis before a trip to Butler. A tough slate, but one the Musketeers needs if they want to make a late charge.
ACC
Locks: Duke, Miami-FL | Should Be In: NC State | Bubble: North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland
  • Maryland (19-9 | 7-8) | RPI: 73 | SOS: 119 | – The Terrapins have lost back-to-back road games to Boston College and Georgia Tech. That’s an NIT recipe for a bubble team – especially one with a weak non-conference schedule (ranked No. 291). Despite wins over NC State and Duke, Maryland needs to sweep it’s last three to regain any real foothold for an at-large bid. And two of those (Wake Forest and Virginia) are on the road.
  • North Carolina (18-8 | 9-5) | RPI: 20 | SOS: 9 | – Three straight wins have certainly helped the Tar Heels, and their power numbers suggest they are on fairly solid footing. But the Committee won’t overlook a 2-6 mark vs. Top 50 teams – both victories at home. The closing stretch isn’t easy: it includes games at Clemson and Maryland. And there’s that rematch with Duke on March 9.
  • Virginia (19-8 | 9-5) | RPI: 65 | SOS: 142 | – The next two weeks are huge for the Cavaliers – beginning with Duke at home on Thursday night. Even with a pile of questionable losses, Virginia has put itself in position for at-large consideration thanks to wins over NC State, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Wisconsin – the latter at the Kohl Center during the Big10-ACC Challenge. But a mediocre finish could still spell trouble. A non-conference SOS ranked above 290 is a major reason why.
BIG EAST
Locks: Syracuse, Louisville, Georgetown, Marquette | Should Be In: Pittsburgh, Notre Dame | Bubble: Cincinnati, Villanova, St. John’s
  • Cincinnati (19-9 | 7-8) | RPI: 49 | SOS: 26 |After losing three straight and five of six, the Bearcats find themselves moving in the wrong direction. There are plenty of positives – including non-conference wins over Oregon, Iowa State, and Alabama – and no bad losses. But Cincinnati’s final three games now have added importance. They have a solid Connecticut team at home Saturday before a trip to Louisville. A split would be very helpful. Losing both would certainly create some anxious moments heading into the Big East tourney.
  • St. John’s (16-11 | 8-7) | RPI: 61 | SOS: 30 | – Following Sunday’s loss home loss to Pittsburgh (SJU’s third loss in four games), time is quickly working against the Red Storm. And the final three aren’t easy – at Providence, at Notre Dame, Marquette. Winning at least two of those is critical. Anything less and there will be a hill to climb in New York. SJU is 4-8 vs. Top 100 teams.
  • Villanova (17-11 | 9-7) | RPI: 55 | SOS: 39 | – Villanova found a way to lose at Seton Hall Monday. With games at Pittsburgh and home to Georgetown still ahead, that loss could create some issues. Of course, victories over Louisville, Syracuse, and Marquette still hold a lot of weight (3-1 vs. Top 25 teams). Other than SHU, the only other “bad” loss on the Wildcats’ resume is to Columbia in November. A split down the stretch would take some pressure of an early game (or two) at the BE tourney.
BIG 10
Locks: Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin | Should Be In: Illinois, Minnesota | Bubble: Iowa
  • Iowa (18-10 | 7-8) | RPI: 90 | SOS: 139 | – Letting a big lead slip away at Nebraska put the Hawkeyes on the fringe of the bubble even with Wednesday’s home win over Purdue. Given a horrible non-conference SOS number (321), a so-so Big Ten profile won’t be enough. It doesn’t help that they are 2-7 in games played outside Carver Hawkeye Arena. And a trip to Bloomington is up next.
BIG 12
Locks: Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State | Should Be In: None | Bubble: Baylor, Oklahoma, Iowa State
  • Baylor (16-11 | 8-7) | RPI: 58 | SOS: 36 | – The Bears ended a three-game slide and avoided further trouble by winning at West Virginia. Next up is Kansas State at home. Then it’s a trip to Texas before the home finale with Kansas. Baylor really needs a split with the Kansas schools and a victory at Texas. That would put them in position to do some work at the B12 tourney. The Bears are 4-9 vs. Top 100 teams and have a troubling 9-11 mark vs. the Top 150.
  • Iowa State (19-9 | 9-6) | RPI: 53 | SOS: 72 | – Some tough luck has left Iowa State’s resume a bit bare. That said, the Cyclones look like an NCAA team when you watch them play. If the “eye test” matters in the Committee room, ISU might be okay. At the same time, there’s no escaping a 2-6 mark vs. Top 50 teams and a 3-7 record in road games. A sweep of Baylor helps, but not as much if the Bears fall short. Right now, ISU has just two wins against NCAA teams (K-State, Oklahoma). And there’s the ugly loss at Texas Tech. It would be best for the Cyclones to at least split their upcoming games with Oklahoma and Oklahoma State and then take care of West Virginia in Morgantown.
  • Oklahoma (18-9 | 9-6) | RPI: 29 | SOS: 10 | – Although the Sooners have a great computer profile (which helps), their lack of high quality wins remains a concern. Which means losing a big lead against Texas Wednesday wasn’t ideal. OU’s best wins are very good (Oklahoma State, Kansas) but a 2-5 mark overall against Top 50 teams suggests an NCAA berth isn’t wrapped up. A sweep of Baylor helps and the closing stretch is favorable – although Iowa State will be motivated for Saturday’s game in Norman. After that, it’s a home date with West Virginia before a closing trip to TCU. Losing more than one of the closing three would create some uncertainty heading into B12 tournament play. Winning all three would be ideal.
CONFERENCE USA
Locks: None | Should Be In: Memphis | Bubble: Southern Miss
  • Southern Miss (19-7 | 10-3) | RPI: 38 | SOS: 80 | – Other than some decent computer numbers Southern Miss doesn’t have much too offer. The Golden Eagles’ best wins are Denver, East Carolina, and UTEP, and they were swept by C-USA leader Memphis.
MISSOURI VALLEY
Locks: None | Should Be In: Creighton, Wichita State | Bubble: None
MOUNTAIN WEST
Locks: New Mexico | Should Be In: Colorado State, San Diego State, UNLV | Bubble: Boise State, Air Force
  • Air Force (14-10 | 7-6) | RPI: 64 | SOS: 52 | – The Falcons’ stayed on the at-large board thanks to a home win over Wyoming Tuesday. But AFA still has considerable work to do given a 3-8 mark vs. Top 50 teams, a 3-7 road record, and a less-than-stellar non-conference schedule (best win was Arkansas Pine-Bluff). Closing games include San Diego State and at New Mexico. AFA really needs both of those.
  • Boise State (17-8 | 7-6) | RPI: 47 | SOS: 99 | – Boise took care of business Wednesday against Nevada. Now, the NCAA push begins for real. The Broncos end with this slate: Colorado State, at UNLV, San Diego State. Win two of those and Boise has a chance for serious consideration. Anything less will leave some work to do at the MTW tournament. A non-conference win at Creighton is a potentially nice wildcard.
PAC 12
Locks: Arizona | Should Be In: Oregon, UCLA, Colorado | Bubble: Arizona State, California
  • Arizona State (20-9 | 9-7) | RPI: 88 | SOS: 128 | – A three-game road trip to end the season – which will likely determine ASU’s post-season invitation – started with an overtime loss at UCLA. Next is USC, which upset Arizona Wednesday. Then it’s off to Arizona. Win both of those and the Sun Devils can stay in the conversation. Lose both and it’ll probably take the P12 tournament title to qualify. Although ASU has four Top 50 wins (including a sweep of Colorado), their overall SOS is suspect. They have played 16 games against teams ranked 150 or lower in the RPI (and gone 14-2 in the those games).
  • California (18-9 | 10-5) | RPI: 46 | SOS: 32 | – After sweeping the Oregon schools, Cal is probably in better shape than some people think. Their 5-game winning streak includes victories at Arizona and over UCLA. That’s improved Cal to 4-5 vs. Top 50 teams (although they have just 5 Top 100 wins overall). They also have not lost to anyone outside the RPI Top 100. With three games at home to close (Utah, Colorado, and Stanford), a sweep would likely land the Bears in the Field of 68. Some sort of odd split might leave them a little patch-up work to do in the Pac-12 tourney.
SEC
Locks: Florida | Should Be In: Missouri | Bubble: Mississippi, Kentucky, Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee
  • Tennessee (17-10 | 9-6) | RPI: 51 | SOS: 19 | – It’s been a productive two weeks or so for the Volunteers, and they’ve moved from the fringe of bubble consideration all the way to serious at-large consideration. Six straight conference wins have a way of helping (ask Illinois). An earlier blowout of rival Kentucky was followed by Tuesday’s victory over Florida. With two other Top 100 games in that stretch, UT’s record against that group is now 8-9. The Vols also have a win over Wichita State, and their only questionable loss is against Georgia. If Tennessee can avoid two road landmines (@Georgia, @Auburn) up next, they close with Missouri in Knoxville.
  • Alabama (18-9 | 11-4) | RPI: 62 | SOS: 106 | – Piling up SEC wins isn’t necessarily the same as piling up quality wins. Alabama took care of Auburn Tuesday but they still have just one Top 50 RPI win (Kentucky at home). The Crimson Tide split with Tennessee and did beat Villanova. But there are also four sub-100 RPI losses – which include Mercer and Tulane. Upcoming trips to Florida and Ole Miss will likely make or break the Tide’s chances.
  • Arkansas (17-11 | 8-7) | RPI: 81 | SOS: 89 | – Arkansas spent Wednesday night losing at LSU – which dropped the Razorbacks to an ugly 1-8 mark in road games. It’s the sort of thing that sticks out like a sore thumb because there aren’t an NCAA games in Bud Walton Arena. Fortunately, the Hogs have home games remaining with Kentucky and Texas AM. But it might be the trip to Missouri that determines whether this team stays in the hunt. A home victory over Florida is the biggest highlight. But that’s one of only four wins against Top 100 teams.
  • Kentucky (20-8 | 11-4) | RPI: 50 | SOS: 66 | – UK routed Mississippi State Wednesday at Rupp Arena. Which sets the Wildcats up for their stretch run. It begins Saturday with a trip to Arkansas and ends with a home date against the Gators. In between there’s a somewhat testy trip to Georgia. Can UK survive? How the Selection Committee ultimately judges Kentucky without Nerlens Noel remains to be seen. Another quality win or two would make it a lot easier to figure out.
  • Mississippi (21-7 | 10-5) | RPI: 56 | SOS: 149 | – Ole Miss beat Texas AM at home Wednesday and remains firmly on the bubble. The positives are a home win over Missouri and a sweep of Tennessee. The negatives are a weak non-conference SOS (No. 283), a loss at South Carolina last week, and 10 wins against teams ranked 200 or lower in the RPI. There’s aren’t any “up” games left on the Rebels’ schedule – the best is Alabama at home. Best to keep on winning and hope that a high volume of wins makes up for a lack of high-quality ones.
WEST COAST
Locks: Gonzaga | Should Be In: None | Bubble: St. Mary’s
  • Saint Mary’s (24-5 | 13-2) | RPI: 45 | SOS: 135 | – Saint Mary’s is playing some pretty good basketball these days. But will the “eye test” surpass the resume test? That could be huge for the Gaels. They lost both games to Gonzaga, but looked the part against Creighton last weekend. After blowing past Pepperdine Wednesday, the Gaels close with Santa Clara at home. Win that and Saint Mary’s will be in decent shape heading into the WCC tournament. A potential third matchup with BYU in the WCC semis could yet be important.
BEST OF THE REST
Locks: None | Should Be In: None | Bubble: Middle Tennessee, Belmont, Bucknell, Akron, Louisiana Tech
  • Akron (22-4 | 13-0) | RPI: 36 | SOS: 129 | – The Zips have not lost since December 15 (at Detroit). And Wednesday, they took a major step toward wrapping up an outright MAC title by winning at (and sweeping) Ohio. A clear league championship by multiple games has proven helpful to teams like Akron in the past. An early win over Middle Tennessee State helps, giving the Zips a 3-3 mark vs. the Top 100. The potential negative is a 16-1 mark against teams ranked below 150 in the RPI. Assuming they win out, reaching the MAC title game will give the Committee a reason to seriously consider the Zips for an at-large bid.
  • Belmont (21-6 | 13-2) | RPI: 26 | SOS: 77 | – Good scheduling and a 5-4 mark vs. Top 100 teams has put the Bruins on the radar for at-large consideration. A win over Middle Tennessee State is the Bruins’ best RPI win, although a victory at Stanford might be equally important. There are no “ugly” losses on the Bruins’ resume – although Northeastern isn’t great. If Belmont wins the OVC outright and makes it to the title game the Committee will have an interesting decision. From there, it depends on the overall landscape.
  • Bucknell (23-5 | 11-2) | RPI: 54 | SOS: 173 | – A victory over La Salle highlights a resume that shows a lot of wins but not a lot of quality W’s. Bucknell has beaten New Mexico St and won at Purdue. Unfortunately, the latter isn’t helping like it normally might. The negatives are losses at Penn State and Princeton and a very weak overall schedule.
  • Louisiana Tech (23-3 | 14-0) | RPI: 52 | SOS: 269 | – La Tech’s strength of schedule is a major hurdle to overcome – reflected by 20 games (19-1 record) against sub-150 opponents. The Bulldogs’ best win is over bubble-dweller Southern Miss. There’s also an ugly loss at McNeese State. Despite a high volume of wins, an at-large bid is unlikely.
  • Middle Tennessee (25-4 | 17-1) | RPI: 23 | SOS: 120 | – An early win over Ole Miss helps but the Blue Raiders’ only other Top 100 win is Central Florida. Like some others on this list, a 16-0 mark vs. sub-150 teams is a drag on the schedule. Middle Tennessee also has losses to fellow bubble-dwellers Belmont and Akron – although both were on the road.

Southland Preview: Can Stephen F. Austin regain the throne?

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Beginning in September and running up through November 10th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Southland.

The Southland finally saw Stephen F. Austin‘s dominant run end last season as New Orleans claimed the regular season title and NCAA tournament autobid. Although the Lumberjacks finished in second place in head coach Kyle Keller’s first season, expectations are in place for another potential conference title in 2017-18. Stephen F. Austin returns eight of their top nine producers from last season including Player of the Year candidate T.J. Holyfield on the interior. If Stephen F. Austin’s offense can get a boost then they could be in for another dangerous season.

Texas A&M-Corpus Christi has to replace the scoring punch of forward Rashawn Thomas but do-it-all senior Ehab Amin is back to lead the charge. Amin led the nation in steals last season while filling up the box score in many other ways as he’s flanked by guards Kareem South and Joseph Kilgore. Lamar made a leap last season as they won 19 games and made a CIT appearance. Senior forward Colton Weisbrod is a throwback undersized frontcourt presence while the backcourt of point guard Joey Frenchwood and shooter Nick Garth is among the league’s stronger returning duos.

Returning most of last season’s contributors, Abilene Christian is hoping to make a major leap up the Southland standings. Sophomore big man Jalone Friday is a promising player to build around while junior guards Jaren Lewis and Jaylen Franklin both put up double-figures in the scoring column last season. Incarnate Word is going to put up points but the Cardinals will need to figure things out on the defensive end. Jalin Hart, Simi Socks and Shawn Johnson are all returning upperclassmen who averaged at least 14 points per game each last season.

Southeastern Louisiana has a chance to make noise as junior point guard Marlain Veal and junior forward Moses Greenwood are a solid 1-2 punch. With a deep bench returning, the Lions have a lot of upperclass experience and could be a surprise team. The return of Jalan West for a seventh season is a major story for Northwestern State. The former Player of the Year candidate has to stay healthy but he’s joined by junior big man Ishmael Lane and senior guard Devonte Hall to form a solid nucleus.

Losing four starters will be tough for Sam Houston State but junior point guard John Dewey III is back to lead the team’s offense. Senior big man Chris Galbreath has a chance to be a breakout player. Central Arkansas has the Southland’s returning leading scorer in senior guard Jordan Howard but the Bears have to make major strides on the defensive end and controlling turnovers.

New Orleans has a lot of new pieces after last year’s run to the Big Dance as the Privateers need to replace three starters. Senior forward Travin Thibodeaux and senior big man Makur Puou are back along with a lot of question marks. After a CIT appearance, Houston Baptist loses five seniors and multiple transfers but senior center Josh Ibarra is an all-league threat.  

Nicholls lost seven seniors and needs to rebuild as senior point guard Jahvaughn Powell has a chance to have a big year. McNeese finished in last place a season ago but most of that group is back. Sophomore guard Kalob Ledoux has a chance to be one of the league’s better guards.

MORE: 2017-18 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

PRESEASON SOUTHLAND PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Ehab Amin, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi

College basketball’s leader with 124 total steals last season (3.4 per game), this 6-foot-4 senior guard can also put up numbers all over the stat sheet. The Egyptian averaged 16.9 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game last season while shooting 46 percent from the floor. If Amin improves his 28 percent three-point shooting then he could be in for a monster season.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON SOUTHLAND TEAM

  • Colton Weisbrod, Lamar: Undersized at 6-foot-5 but great in the paint, this senior averaged 15.1 points and 8.1 boards per contest. Weisbrod shot 52 percent from the floor but only 16 percent from three-point range.
  • T.J. Holyfield, Stephen F. Austin: Versatile junior forward averaged 11.7 points, 7.2 rebounds, 1.2 blocks and 1.0 steals per game while shooting 52 percent from the floor.
  • Jordan Howard, Central Arkansas: The senior has a chance to reach 2,000 career points after dropping 19.5 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game last season. Howard could stand to improve his shooting efficiency.
  • Jalone Friday, Abilene Christian: Intriguing sophomore big man had tremendous splits (52% FG, 45% 3PT, 82% FT) and put up 13.7 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game last season in only 21.7 minutes per contest.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @SouthlandSports

PREDICTED FINISH

  1. Stephen F. Austin
  2. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi
  3. Lamar
  4. Abliene Christian
  5. Incarnate Word
  6. Southeastern Louisiana
  7. Northwestern State
  8. Sam Houston State
  9. Central Arkansas
  10. New Orleans
  11. Houston Baptist
  12. Nicholls
  13. McNeese

‘Border War’ exhibition to be streamed

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The 19,000 fans who secured tickets to the Sprint Center for the charity-inspired reignition of the Border War won’t be the only ones to be able to watch Kansas and Missouri play Sunday.

The exhibition game, whose proceeds will be used for hurricane relief, will be streamed live for those willing to spend $40, the schools announced Friday.

“Our first objective was to sell out Sprint Center,” the two schools said jointly in a release. “Once we achieved the sellout so quickly, our fans who could not get tickets expressed tremendous interest in having the game televised. We wanted to make sure that the charities we’ve identified would be the only entities to derive revenue from this game.  SIDEARM Sports has provided the platform to allow us to create a second stream of revenue via this telecast.”

The broadcast will feature Leif Lisec doing play-by-play and ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla and Holly Rowe as the analyst and sideline reporter, respectively. The trio are donating their time for the broadcast.

The Jayhawks and Tigers haven’t played since 2012, when Missouri bolted the Big 12 for the SEC. There certainly has been resentment from the move, which has kept the two from scheduling a non-conference tilt. Now, though, they’re hoping the layoff has built enough anticipation to raise upward of $1 million for the Houston Harvey Relief Fund, the Rebuild Texas Fund, the Florida Disaster Fund, Juntos y Unidos Por Puerto Rico and the Fund for the U.S. Virgin Islands after a devastating hurricane season in the United States.

The game will pit the perennial powerhouse Jayhawks, expected to be a top-five preseason team and strong favorite to win the Big 12, against an ascendant Missouri, which has the potential 2018 No. 1 NBA draft pick Michael Porter, Jr. headlining the roster reboot under first-year coach Cuonzo Martin.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for two schools to do something together for the better of the masses,” Kansas coach Bill Self said last week, “and be able to send a significant amount of money to people that are suffering right now. So that is going to come to fruition, and we’re real happy about it.”

College Hoops Contender Series: Can Michigan State’s sophomore class carry them to a title?

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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?

After looking at Kentucky, Kansas and Arizona, we’re on to my pick to win the national title: The Michigan State Spartans.

MOREThe Enigma of Miles Bridges | NBC Sports Preseason All-American Team

Miles Bridges (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

WHY THEY WILL WIN

We should start with Miles Bridges here, shouldn’t we?

Bridges is the NBC Sports Preseason National Player of the Year. He averaged 16.9 points, 8.3 boards, 2.1 assists and 1.5 steals while shooting 38.9 percent from three on more than five threes per game as a freshman. He was a top ten pick in last year’s loaded NBA Draft and he made the decision to return to school. That doesn’t happen all that often, so it should come as no surprise that Bridges will enter the year as a potential top five pick and the star of a team everyone believes will be in the top five. ‘Who has the best player in college basketball?’ is a great starting point for trying to figure out who are the best teams in college basketball, and Bridges, on paper, is a good bet to be the best player in college basketball.

But there is more to this than the simple fact that Tom Izzo more or less lucked his way into not only having the local five-star prospect pick the Spartans over the likes of Kentucky, but then opt to stay with the Spartans over heading to the NBA Draft.

Bridges is so perfect for what the way that Izzo wants to play.

He’s arguably the best athlete is all of college basketball. He can guards threes and fours. He can protect the rim. He attacks the glass, particularly on the offensive end of the floor, and he can get out and run in transition. Defense, rebounding and the transition game are staples of the teams Izzo wants at his disposal, and Bridges can do all three things well.

Then throw in the rest of the Michigan State front court. Nick Ward is a throwback. He’s a 6-foot-8, 260 pound left-handed behemoth that is impossible to stop one-on-one on the block. He averaged 13.9 points in less than 20 minutes as a freshman. Freshmen aren’t supposed to do that. Sophomores aren’t, either. Ward will be paired up front with Jaren Jackson, who couldn’t be a more perfect compliment to Ward and Bridges. He’s a 6-foot-11 power forward with all the skills you expect out of a modern power forward: He protects the rim, he rebounds and he can space the floor offensively with his three-point shot. He may not have the hype of some of the other big men in the 2017 recruiting class, but he projects as a one-and-done lottery pick all the same.

I still haven’t even mentioned Xavier Tillman, another land-warrior freshman in the front court. He may surprise some people this season. Throw in Ben Carter, Gavin Schilling and Kenny Goins, and there may not be a more talented and deep front line in the country.

The back court is where the issues lie — we’ll get to that in a second — but there are some things to like about this group. For starters, both Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford were top 30 recruits in the Class of 2016. Neither were all that impressive during their first year in East Lansing, but the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores. Langford shot 41.6 percent from three last year and Winston averaged 5.2 assists in just over 20 minutes. They are talented and they should continue to improve.

Lourawls ‘Tum Tum’ Nairn Jr. is back for his senior season, and his ability to push the ball in transition has made him a favorite of Izzo, while Matt McQuaid is somehow only a junior. Assuming that both Winston and Langford take a fairly significant step forward, Nairn and McQuaid will be rotation players off the bench, and if that is the case, this Spartan roster looks as strong as any roster in the country.

Big Ten Preview | ACC Preview | Atlantic 10 PreviewMountain West Preview

Nick Ward (Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)

WHY THEY WON’T WIN

There are two real concerns that I have with this Michigan State team heading into next season.

The first, believe it or not, is with Bridges. I don’t see anyway that you can question his ability. He’s a monster. But part of what made him just so effective as a freshman was because he is the prototype for what you look for in a college four in modern — read: small-ball — basketball. He’s big enough to guard power forwards defensively. He rebounds the ball, he protects the rim, he can switch onto anyone defensively and he just so happens to be a perimeter player on the other end of the floor. In other words, he can guard college power forwards but they cannot guard him.

That is an incredibly valuable weapon for a team like Michigan State to have.

And as a sophomore, he won’t be taking advantage of that versatility in the same way. He’ll likely end up playing the majority of his minutes at the three. Jaren Jackson is too good to keep on the floor, particularly when it would mean playing Matt McQuaid of Tum Tum Nairn over him, but Jackson is a full-blown power forward.

It begs the question: Just how effective is Bridges going to be if he is playing at the three? Will it be easier for college small forwards to cover him? Will he be able to take them into the paint if Ward is already occupying space down there? And what about his three-point shot? He made 38.9 percent as a freshman, but how many of those were a result of getting clean looks at the rim because the power forwards guarding him didn’t know how to guard a player like that on the perimeter?

I don’t think this will end up being an issue — hell, we have Bridges as the Preseason National Player of the Year — but it will definitely be something to monitor moving forward.

Final Four Sleepers | Louisville | Villanova | West Virginia | USC | Wichita State | Miami
Cassius Winston (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

The bigger question mark, however, will likely end up being Winston, and to a lesser degree Langford.

I love Tum Tum. I wrote a story on him when he was still in high school. His name is awesome. He’s a terrific personality with the kind of back story that makes you want to root for him. But he’s just not good enough to be the starting point guard for a team with national title aspirations. Last season, Nairn started 30 games at the point. Winston started five, and while Izzo had found ways to manufacture minutes for the duo to play to together later in the season, this much was clear: there was something that the Hall of Fame head coach didn’t quite trust about Winston.

Maybe it was his 23 percent turnover rate. Maybe it was Winston’s issues on the defensive end of the floor, or the fact that he didn’t lead the way that Izzo wanted his point guards to. Most likely it was all of the above, and as a sophomore, those are issues that Winston will have to fix.

And I think that he will.

Again, Michigan State is a consensus top three team for a reason. They’re my pick to win the national title this season.

But I can certainly tell myself a story where the Spartans don’t quite come together, and it starts with Winston’s issues at the point.

Langford I am less worried about. He will mostly be fine. Yes, he needs to be more aggressive as a scorer, and we saw some of that late in the season. But mostly he needs to be a guy that can knock down open shots, provide a consistent defensive threat and be a threat in transition, whether he’s spotting up for a three or finishing at the rim. He will be, at best, the third option for these Spartans offensively, and I don’t think it will be that hard for him to fill that role.


Miles Bridges (J Pat Carter/Getty Images)

PREDICTION

Michigan State is my pick to win the national title.

I’m sure I won’t be the only one to say that between now and the start of the season.

And as good as Tom Izzo is, it’s worth noting that when he has had a team projected as a title contender, the season usually ends up being disappointing. Since the Spartans won the title in 1999, there have been four seasons where they were considered to be a favorite to win the title at some point during the season. In 2009-10, they were No. 2 in the preseason top 25 and limped their way to a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament; they would eventually get to the Final Four in Detroit that year. In 2010-11, they were again the preseason No. 2 team in the country and finished the year 19-15 with a loss to UCLA in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

In 2013-14, they were the preseason No. 2 team yet again, living up to the hype for most of the year until a wrist injury suffered by point guard Keith Appling derailed their season; Sparty still found a way to win the Big Ten tournament and get to the Elite 8. Then in 2015-16, the Spartans quickly emerged as one of the nation’s best team before losing to Middle Tennessee State in the first round of the NCAA tournament as a No. 2 seed.

Will this be the year that bucks that trend?

Five-star point guard decommits from Arizona

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The scope and ramifications of the investigation by the FBI into corruption in college basketball remains an unknown.Who will be ensnared, what programs will be impacted and how the sport as a whole will cope are all pressing questions that will likely unfold over weeks, months and maybe years.

In the short-term, though, the fallout is already being felt.

Arizona lost the commitment Thursday of five-star point guard Jahvon Quinerly, he announced via social media.

“After careful consideration, my family and I have determined it is in my best interest to retract my verbal commitment to The University of Arizona,”  Quinerly posted to Twitter. “I’d like to thank my extended family and fans for your continued love and support. Your positivity and kindness never goes unnoticed.”

While Quinerly didn’t address the investigation, it’s easy to draw a line from the arrest and eventual firing of Arizona assistant Book Richardson and Quinerly’s decision. Quinerly is believed to be the player referenced in federal court documents that was on the receiving end of money Richardson took from agents, according to the Arizona Republic.

What’s next for Quinerly will certainly be worth watching. How seriously will other schools pursue him? Will he opt to just go overseas and bypass the NCAA – and any investigations it may launch – all together?

Quinerly is not the first recruit to alter his plans in the wake of the investigation. USC, which also had an assistant coach (Tony Bland) arrested, lost the commitment of J’Raan Brooks last weekend.

The dominos of this investigation are sure to continue to fall. Just how many remains one of the many questions that will only be answered in time.

Illinois adds five-star guard

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The first commit for Illinois in 2018 is a significant in state addition.

Ayo Dosunmu, a top-30 guard from Chicago, announced Thursday that he’s staying in the Land of Lincoln and joining Brad Underwood’s Illini program.

“We know that I could only attend one school. After great thought and consideration,” Dosunmu wrote before posting a picture of him in an Illini jersey.

The 6-foot-4 Dosunmu averaged more than 23 points per game in the EYBL last summer for the Mac Irvin Fire while shooting 47.8 percent from the field. His decision to stay home and attend Illinois is a huge win for Underwood ahead of his first season in Champaign. Chicago is no easy place to recruit, but if Underwood can establish that pipeline, it would go a long way in bringing the Illini back to the top of the Big 10.

“I can come in and play in front of my home state,” Dosunmu told Rivals. “I want to do it for my home state and become the first five-star recruit to play for my state in a long time. I just want to start a new trend.“I know somebody would have to eventually do it.

“A team is never bad for so long. Just look at the Chicago Cubs; they were bad for 100 years but eventually they won the World Series. I just want to help start something new.”