– G: Marcus Paige, So.
– G: Leslie McDonald, Sr.
– F: P.J. Hairston, Jr.
– F: James Michael McAdoo, Jr.
– C: Brice Johnson, So.
– Bench: Nate Britt, Fr.; J.P. Tokoto, So.; Isaiah Hicks, Fr.; Kennedy Meeks, Fr.; Joel James, So.; Desmond Hubert, Jr.
They’ll be good because …: The Tar Heels certainly don’t lack the talent. Of the 11 players that figure to have a shot at seeing time in the North Carolina rotation, 10 were four-star recruits coming out of high school. Three — P.J. Hairston, James Michael McAdoo and Isaiah Hicks — were five-star recruits. There aren’t many programs in the country that can boast that kind of talent, and what’s more is that the Heels have a nice blend of veterans — senior Leslie McDonald, juniors Hairston and McAdoo — and promising newcomers.
One of the issues last season was that freshman Marcus Paige was the only point guard on the roster, and he wasn’t a natural fit for the kind of system that Roy Williams likes to play. Not only does he now have another year under his belt, but he’ll be joined in the back court by Nate Britt, a talented freshman with the quicks to really push the ball up and down the floor.
Oh, and how could I forget: Hairston didn’t actually get booted off the team after a summer spent running afoul of the law. He only got suspended, which was huge news for a team that doesn’t have a ton of perimeter depth.
But they might disappoint because …: They have so many question marks up front. Last season, North Carolina made their run late in the season when they switched to a smaller lineup, using McAdoo as their center and playing Reggie Bullock and Hairston, bigger wings that can score on the perimeter, at the forwards spots. It made UNC a difficult team to defend. But with Bullock off to the NBA and a front line that goes six-deep, the Heels will likely revert to using a more traditional lineup.
But what do we really know about those big men? McAdoo has all the talent and potential in the world, but he’s yet to really define himself as a player. He’s not a back-to-the-basket scorer but he’s not a face-up four man. Is he simply an athlete that can do some impressive things in transition? Brice Johnson reportedly put on about 20 pounds this offseason, but he’s still only about 207 pounds. Kennedy Meeks and Joel James have the ability to be the low-post threat that makes North Carolina so dangerous, but can they run the floor? Are they in good enough shape to really be effective? Is Isaiah Hicks ready to contribute as a freshman, or is he just an athlete as well? Would UNC fans really feel comfortable with Desmond Hubert as their starting center?
Outlook: Last year, North Carolina was able to turn their season around by going small and playing even faster than they already do. But that wasn’t a long-term answer to what ails them. It was a quick fix, a band-aid that covered up a bigger problem. When Roy Williams’ teams are doing what his system is designed to do, the two most important pieces he has are: a) a point guard that can distribute the ball and push it up the floor, either via the dribble or via the pass; and b) a big man that can beat people down the floor in transition and has to be double-teamed when he catches the ball on the block. Think about it: Ty Lawson, Ray Felton and Kendall Marshall. Sean May, Tyler Hansbrough and Tyler Zeller.
Do the Heels have that this year? James and Kennedy can score in the post, but they might struggle to beat the UNC beat writers down the floor. Johnson, Hicks and McAdoo can get out and run, but do any of them scare you on the block? And what about the point guard spot? Paige wasn’t a great fit last year, and while having Britt will help, he’s still a freshman. There are a lot of good basketball players on this team, and they’re led by a head coach that’s won two national titles since 2005, but I’m having trouble seeing how all these pieces come together.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.”
The first Coaches Poll of the season was released on Thursday as Duke is the No. 1 team for the second consecutive season. Despite overhauling the roster with new freshmen talent, the Blue Devils received 20 first-place votes while Michigan State, Arizona and Florida also drew first-place consideration.
The top five isn’t too much of a surprise, although Florida getting a No. 1 vote while finishing at No. 7 in the poll is a bit puzzling. For a mid-major team, Oakland also received a considerable amount of votes just outside of the top 25.
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 SoCon.
The SoCon has been one of the most unpredictable conferences in college hoops over the last several years. Last season saw a three-way tie for first place in the regular season and the conference saw its third unique NCAA tournament representative in three years. This season should be wild as well as the SoCon has many of the nation’s elite three-point shooters returning.
Furman has a new head coach as Bob Richey was promoted to take over for Niko Medved (Drake) as he inherits a strong roster that won 23 games and tied for first last season. Four starters return for the Paladins, including senior guard and reigning SoCon Player of the Year Devin Sibley along with double-figure scorer Daniel Fowler. If Furman can get more interior help for its guard-heavy team then they could be the team to beat.
Returning the top seven scorers from a 20-win team, Samford has a lot of positive momentum in head coach Scott Padgett’s third season. Senior Demetrius Denzel-Dyson is one of the league’s most versatile talents as he’s joined by three more returning double-figure scorers. UNC Greensboro loses some firepower from a 25-win NIT team but junior sharpshooter Francis Alonso returns along with a good amount of interior depth. Replacing point guard Diante Baldwin could be key.
Five senior starters are back for Mercer including the dynamic backcourt duo of Ria’n Holland and Jordan Strawberry. Small forward Demetre Rivers also returns along with the frontcourt of Desmond Ringer and Stephon Jelks. The Bears have a lot of size but they need to improve defensively. East Tennessee State was the league’s autobid last season but the Buccaneers lose six dynamic seniors from that group. Guard Desonta Bradford is the team’s only returning double-figure scorer while junior college transfer forward Jeromy Rodriguez has a lot of hype as a scorer.
Wofford could be an intriguing team to watch as junior scorer Fletcher Magee leads the backcourt. Junior forward Cameron Jackson also returns as the Terriers have the personnel to either play a perimeter-oriented attack or more of a traditional lineup. Good news for Western Carolina as all five starters are back from last season’s team. But the Catamounts struggled to a 9-win season as the offense only shot 39 percent from the floor. Haboubacar Mutombo, nephew of Dikembe Mutombo, headlines the returning core.
The Citadel should continue to play fast as double-figure scorers like junior forward Zane Najdawi and sophomore gunner Preston Parks return. New head coach Lamont Paris comes from Wisconsin to Chattanooga, and he doesn’t have any starters coming back from a 19-win team. Junior big man Makinde London showed promise as a role player last season for the Mocs. VMI lost its top three scorers from a young roster. Senior forward Armani Branch is the team’s only returning starter.
PRESEASON SOCON PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Devin Sibley, Furman
The reigning SoCon Player of the Year, the 6-foot-2 Sibley was a big-time scorer for Furman last season. Putting up 17.7 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game, Sibley’s efficiency stood out. Shooting 52 percent from the floor and 44 percent from three-point range, Sibley rarely takes a bad shot.
THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-SOCON TEAM
Ria’n Holland, Mercer: With 11 20-point games last season, this 6-foot, 152-pound senior is small but he packs a powerful scoring punch.
Francis Alonso, UNC Greensboro: A lethal perimeter shooter, the 6-foot-3 junior hit 102 triples at a 46 percent clip last season while putting up 14.9 points per game.
Demetrius Denzel-Dyson, Samford: Capable of playing multiple spots, the 6-foot-5 senior averaged 16.1 points and 4.8 rebounds per game while shooting 46 percent from three-point.
Fletcher Magee, Wofford: The 6-foot-4 junior averaged 18.6 points and 3.3 rebounds per game last season while shooting 42 percent from three-point range and 89 percent from the free-throw line.