Ten teams capable of winning the national title

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Before the NCAA Tournament bracket was released there were a number of teams many believe to be capable of winning a national title. Given how wild the regular season was that list is longer this season than in years prior, but there’s only so much that can be determined without knowing what the paths of those teams would be. Now that we know the field of 68, which ten teams are most capable of winning the national title?

1. Louisville 

The Cardinals are the top overall seed and with good reason, given their 29-5 overall record and Big East tournament title (after winning a share of the regular season title). The Cardinals aren’t the best perimeter shooting team, with Luke Hancock being their best long-range option, but they defend well and have depth at all positions. If Russ Smith can remain under control (by Russ standards, of course), Louisville can win another six games in a row.

2. Indiana

The Hoosiers may have lost in the semis of the Big Ten tournament but that’s just as much an issue of the matchup (Wisconsin’s won 12 straight in the series) as it was how well Tom Crean’s team played. Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo lead the way for the Hoosiers, who certainly don’t lack for depth. Three key veterans over the next couple of weeks are Jordan Hulls, Will Sheehey and Christian Watford. If they all contribute that helps make up for an off night from either Oladipo or Zeller. And if this group defends, Indiana can win it all.

3. Duke

The Blue Devils are 17-1 this season with their full rotation available, with stretch four Ryan Kelly being a difficult matchup offensively and a key figure defensively. With Mason Plumlee in the middle and Seth Curry on the perimeter Duke has three primary scorers on which to rely, and guards Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon will figure prominently as well. They also have head coach Mike Krzyzewski, who’s been through more than a few of these rodeos himself.

4. Kansas

Point guard play is still somewhat of a concern for the Jayhawks but it must be noted that both Elijah Johnson and Naadir Tharpe have raised their level of play over the last month. The other key for Kansas: Ben McLemore embracing the moment as this team’s star. There will be a point in this tournament when the Jayhawks need him to make a play, and while most remember the three against Iowa State there have been moments where the freshman hasn’t grabbed the reins. With veterans such as Johnson, Travis Releford and Jeff Withey at Bill Self’s disposal the Jayhawks have plenty of experience both on the court and on the sideline.

5. Gonzaga

More than a few people have rushed to discount the Bulldogs due to the number of wins against teams ranked outside of the RPI Top 100, with many of those coming against WCC opposition. But Gonzaga has the tools needed to win a national title, led by forward Elias Harris and Kelly Olynyk. Olynyk went from redshirting last season to earning All-America honors, and Harris has been a dependable figure in Mark Few’s rotation for four years. The guard play is solid, and if they defend well on the perimeter the Zags can go where no prior Gonzaga team has gone before.

6. Miami 

With an average age of 22.3 years the Hurricanes are the oldest team in the field, and they’re talented as well. Sophomore Shane Larkin leads the way at the point and the other four starters are all seniors. Kenny Kadji causes problems for opponents at the four with his ability to step out beyond the three-point line and Durand Scott and Trey McKinney-Jones are both quality options on the perimeter. The key for Miami: Reggie Johnson. While he didn’t have the best of weeks in Greensboro his talent should not be underestimated, and head coach Jim Larranaga has the experience needed to help the Canes navigate the Big Dance.

7. New Mexico

The Lobos won both the regular season and tournament titles in the Mountain West, and given their performance on the court throughout the season Steve Alford’s team should be considered a serious threat to win it all. Kendall Williams and Tony Snell form one of the best backcourt tandems in the tournament, and with Hugh Greenwood and Jamal Fenton the Lobos have some depth there as well. Inside Alex Kirk’s path is similar to that of Kelly Olynyk’s as a back injury forced him to redshirt last season. They’re not a great offensive team but due to their execution and defense, New Mexico has no issue winning “ugly.”

8. Georgetown

The Hoyas have one of the best players in the country but this pick isn’t solely about sophomore forward Otto Porter. John Thompson III’s team has matured steadily as the season’s worn on, with point guard Markel Starks and freshman D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera being two of the players who have shown the most growth. Georgetown’s solid offensively but they’re even better defensively, as their defensive efficiency is among the best in the country. And with a talent like Porter, Georgetown has a star capable of carrying the team a long way.

9. Michigan State

Keith Appling’s gone through his struggles this season but the prospect of facing non-Big Ten opponents could result in a jump in his performance. Inside the Spartans have Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix, with the latter playing very well in their Big Ten semifinal loss to Ohio State on Saturday. Freshman shooting guard Gary Harris is their best perimeter shooter, and then there’s the Tom Izzo factor. He’s been one of the game’s most successful NCAA tournament coaches over the last decade, which will only help Michigan State in tense situations.

10. Michigan

The Wolverines didn’t finish the regular season well, losing three of their last six games, but don’t give up on John Beilein’s squad. Trey Burke has been the best point guard in the country, and with Tim Hardaway Jr. and Nik Stauskas the Wolverines don’t lack for shooters. Michigan was one of the most efficient teams in the country and they take care of the basketball as well. Inside Jordan Morgan and Mitch McGary will need to hold their own on the glass, and if Michigan can regain some sense of balance (Burke can’t do everything) they can get rolling again.

Raphielle also writes for the NBE Basketball Report and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej.

USC lands four-star 2018 guard Elijah Weaver

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USC landed an important commitment for its future on Monday night as four-star Class of 2018 guard Elijah Weaver.

Regarded as the No. 35 overall prospect in the Rivals’ national Class of 2018 rankings, the 6-foot-5 Weaver gives the Trojans a floor leader to build around for the future as he provides great size in the backcourt. Capable of playing multiple guard spots, Weaver has a lot of upside for a program that has done a very solid job of developing backcourt talent under head coach Andy Enfield.

Weaver’s commitment is also important for the Trojans because it comes despite the looming FBI investigation that the program is dealing with thanks to former assistant coach Tony Bland. USC had recently lost a four-star commitment from forward J’Raan Brooks, so the commitment of Weaver is a huge momentum boost for them as they get right back on track in the Class of 2018.

With Weaver in the mix, USC now owns three four-star pledges in the 2018 class as he joins four-star forward Taeshon Cherry and four-star guard Kevin Porter.

Jim Larranaga believes he’s ‘Coach-3’ in FBI investigation

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Despite losing key contributors Davon Reed and Kamari Murphy from last season’s NCAA tournament team, the Miami Hurricanes are expected to be a player both within the ACC and nationally this season. But instead of having the focus solely on the likes of JaQuan Newton, Bruce Brown and Lonnie Walker, Jim Larrañaga’s program is also having to deal with the impact of the ongoing FBI investigation into corruption and fraud in college basketball.

While no one connected to the Miami men’s basketball program was arrested last month, the program is referenced in the FBI report. On Monday, Larrañaga stated during a press conference that he believes that he is “Coach-3” in the FBI report. Larrañaga also maintained his innocence, saying that he had done nothing wrong while also being thankful that none of his assistant coaches were involved.

“It’s been a strain, physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually,” Larrañaga said according to the Palm Beach Post. “It’s something that’s there. I have to deal with it. I have the support of my wife and a wonderful family. I have the support of the university, my staff and players.”

According to the FBI report, “Coach-3” requested that payments totaling $150,000 be funneled to “Player-12” in order to ensure his commitment to their university. It has been reported that “Player-12” was 2018 five-star prospect Nassir Little, who has also stated that he had done nothing wrong. Two of the schools recruiting Little at the time, Arizona and Miami, have been entangled in the FBI investigation to varying degrees.

While Miami has not had anyone connected to its program arrested, Arizona assistant coach Emmanuel “Book” Richardson was one of the four Division I coaches were were indicted. As a result Little removed both Arizona and Miami from consideration before ultimately committing to North Carolina earlier this month.

There’s no telling what the FBI investigation will ultimately uncover, which for the schools involved could take a heavy toll not only for the 2017-18 season but for future years as well. The FBI case has been comparatively quiet since the first set of indictments, with future moves likely to be influenced by what authorities learn from the ten individuals named in the first announcement.

Miles Bridges discusses being offered money during recruiting process

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With the FBI launching an investigation into corruption and fraud in college basketball last month, the entire sport has found itself under the microscope. Ten people, including four Division I assistant coaches, were arrested and there’s no telling just how long the FBI’s investigation will last or what information it will produce.

Michigan State forward Miles Bridges is considered by many to be the leading candidate for national Player of the Yeah honors, and he had the opportunity to turn pro after a good freshman season. But Bridges made the decision to return to East Lansing, and with that comes questions as to why he would do that as opposed to cashing in on his NBA potential as soon as possible.

In an interview with Brendan Quinn of The Athletic (subscription required) Bridges discussed a host of issues, including being offered money by people while going through the recruiting process.

“I mean, if you get caught, that might be the end of your career. I wanted to play in college really bad,” Bridges told Quinn. “I don’t know — materialistic things, they don’t really get to me. So when people were offering me money, I would say no right away, because I wanted to be able to live out my college experience. But really, I don’t know, it is hard, especially because I was so young at the time — 17.”

Given the ongoing investigation, high-profile players and teams will be on the receiving end of increased scrutiny even if they aren’t part of the FBI probe. It’s an unfair situation for a player like Bridges to deal with, as even in the actual cases of alleged wrongdoing the players themselves are essentially commodities whose services are being auctioned as opposed to the main characters looking to cash in.

Unfortunately, due to recent events a decision like the one made by Bridges will result in some questioning whether or not the player received something from the school or another entity/individual. And that’s a tough — and unfair — thing for a young player to have to deal with.

Broken hand sidelines North Carolina PG Joel Berry II

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North Carolina’s defense of its national title will likely begin without its most important player, as it was announced on Monday that senior point guard Joel Berry II will miss approximately four weeks due to a broken bone in his right hand.

Berry started at the point each of the last two seasons, earning Most Outstanding Player honors in April as the Tar Heels defeated Gonzaga to win the national title. As a junior, Berry averaged 14.7 points, 3.6 assists and 3.1 rebounds per game and started 37 of the 38 games in which he played. Berry shot 42.6 percent from the field and 38.3 percent from three, with the latter percentage being the best on team amongst players who attempted at least two three-pointers per game.

Berry was named an NBC Sports Preseason Third-Team All-American in late September.

With Berry out of the lineup, North Carolina loses its floor general as well as one of their top perimeter shooters. Sophomore Seventh Woods and freshman Jalek Felton become more important options at the point as a result of Berry’s injury, and the team doesn’t lack for perimeter shooters either with Cameron Johnson, Brandon Robinson, Kenny Williams and freshman Andrew Platek all being capable of helping to pick up the slack.

North Carolina opens its regular season on November 10 against Northern Iowa.

Bill Self’s stance on Kansas/Missouri series remains unchanged

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Sunday afternoon in Kansas City, bitter rivals Kansas and Missouri got together on the basketball court for the first time since 2012, with the Showdown for Relief raising $1.75 million for recent hurricane victims. In what was an entertaining game, the Jayhawks won by the final score of 93-87 with point guard Devonté Graham leading the way for the winners with 25 points and ten rebounds.

Kansas finished the game with five players in double figures, including Mississippi State transfer Malik Newman (17 points) and center Udoka Azubuike (16). On the other side freshman Michael Porter Jr. paced four Tigers in double figures with 21 points while younger brother Jontay grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds off the bench.

However despite the excitement for the two rivals being on the same court in any capacity, Sunday’s meeting was different given the circumstances. Following the game Kansas head coach Bill Self was asked about the possibility of the two teams meeting in a regular season game, and he maintained the stance he’s held since Missouri left the Big 12 for the SEC.

“I’m not going to say never, but I don’t think there’s been any change in our position as far as the university goes,” Self said following Sunday’s exhibition. “I’m the spokesman, I guess, on this but trust me, I’m not the only one that feels that way.”

While it would certainly benefit college basketball if Kansas and Missouri were to renew acquaintances down the line, it is understandable that Self — and maybe some others on the Kansas side of things — would have reservations. The programs, even with the arrival of Cuonzo Martin in Columbia and the freshman class led by the aforementioned Michael Porter Jr., are in different places right now.

The Jayhawks have their sights set on a 14th consecutive Big 12 title and a run at their first national title since 2008, Missouri is looking to fast-track a rebuilding process after struggling mightily under former head coach Kim Anderson. Yet with that being said, the state of the two athletic departments during realignment likely has more to do with the teams not playing each other.

Missouri was a school with options earlier this decade before joining the SEC, but that was not the case for Kansas. Had the Big 12 broken up as some believed would be the case, where would the Jayhawks have landed? Fortunately for the school the Big 12 survived the realignment craze, losing four schools (Missouri and Texas A&M to the SEC, Colorado to the Pac-12 and Nebraska to the Big Ten) and adding TCU and West Virginia to get their membership number to ten.

Given that, the best bet for college basketball fans who want to see this rivalry played during the regular season may be to hope for the programs wind up in the same in-season tournament. Even better, how about the same NCAA tournament region?