CBT Weekly Roundtable: Are Kentucky, Louisville still among title contenders?

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In a new series here on College Basketball Talk, every Thursday we’re going to have a discussion about some of the hot topics in college basketball. Today’s installment? National title contenders. Are Louisville, Kentucky and Michigan State still on that list? Where do Arizona and Syracuse fall in the equation? What about Kansas and Oklahoma State?

Rob Dauster: With non-conference play more-or-less over with — with the obvious exception of tomorrow’s pair of primetime battles — I think it’s safe to say that we have a pretty good feel for just about every relevant team across the country. As such, that makes now a perfect time to reflect on some of our preseason predictions. Today, we’ll be taking a look at some of the national title contenders.

Entering the season, Michigan State, Kentucky and Louisville were the consensus top three teams in the country. As of today, all three have at least one loss, while the likes of Arizona, Syracuse and Wisconsin have looked like the three best teams in the country to date. Where do you stand on title contenders today? Can Kentucky still win it all? IS Arizona truly the nation’s best team? How do you value the likes of Kansas or Florida?

Raphielle Johnson: I don’t think I’d rule out any of the three teams we had atop the polls to start the season, but there are concerns. With Louisville, the development of Mangok Mathiang will be a key even with the presence of Chane Behanan, Montrezl Harrell and Stephen Van Treese in the front court. To expect Mathiang to be “Gorgui Dieng 2.0” at this point in his career would be grossly unfair, but the Cardinals will need to get something from him. As for Michigan State, can they stay healthy? If you ask me, that may be the biggest issue for the Spartans, especially when looking at Gary Harris. As for Kentucky, who’s their leader? At some point John Calipari can’t be considered their best leader; excellent coach but at some point the guys on the floor need to grab the reins both in game action and just as importantly in the locker room. Of the three, UK has the biggest issue because having leadership questions for such a young team can be a troubling sign looking forward.

As for the best team in the country right now, considering talent and depth I’m taking Syracuse. And the backcourt tandem of Tyler Ennis and Trevor Cooney should only get better as the Orange take on ACC play.

Scott Phillips: I think to count out Michigan State, Kentucky, or Louisville at this juncture in the season would be silly because all three have shown positive signs going into conference play, even though none of them are the No. 1 team at the moment. Michigan State needs to get healthy, Kentucky needs to mature and Louisville needs their new pieces to mesh with their experienced parts from last season’s run. All three of them should be fine and all three are very realistic contenders if you look forward to March.

As for Arizona, Syracuse, and Wisconsin it is hard to ignore how well those teams have started the season. Arizona owns solid wins at Madison Square Garden over Duke and on the road at Michigan and their starting five has meshed far quicker than I imagined and Wisconsin is impressive because Bo Ryan has a team that can score over 100 and win or be held below 50 and win — the Badgers can play a lot of different styles this season.

As for Syracuse, wake me up when they leave the state of New York. The Orange deserve props for winning Maui, but it was a down year for the Invitational and the Orange won’t leave the state of New York — besides that Maui trip — until their January 7th ACC contest at Virginia Tech. They’ve had one true road game and it came at Madison Square Garden against St. John’s, which is hardly a true test of how good this team really is.

And you certainly can’t count out Kansas or Florida going forward either, especially with Joel Embiid’s rapid development and Florida getting healthy and likely adding Chris Walker. It should be a fun couple of months with conference play on the horizon.

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Kevin Doyle: Everyone has touched on the top six or seven teams already, but I find it interesting there has been no mention of Oklahoma State. They do have the best guard in the country in Marcus Smart. In fact, perhaps they have the best back-court in the country with Smart and his counterpart in Markel Brown. It seems like the Cowboys are being overlooked. Maybe it’s because Travis Ford is their coach and they don’t have the brand name on the front of their jersey like a Louisville, Kentucky, or Michigan State has, but they are legit. Looking at their resume alone, Oklahoma State has wins over Memphis and Colorado, along with solid victories over Butler and Louisiana Tech.

Oklahoma State hasn’t played as tough a slate as Kansas, Wisconsin, or Florida, so I think we will learn a lot more about them during their stretch against Kansas State, Texas, and West Virginia to begin Big 12 play. The duo of Smart and Brown cannot be discounted, though.

RD: For my money, Arizona is the best team in the country right now and the most likely to win the national title. The Wildcats might just be the best defensive team in the country, but what makes them so dangerous is that they will never face a team where you say, ‘Man, Arizona just doesn’t matchup with them.’ When it comes to the tournament, matchups — the luck of the draw — matter so, so, so much. As the saying goes, style wins the fight, and the versatility of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Aaron Gordon means that Sean Miller’s club will never be at a disadvantage. They can field a team that’s as big as Baylor and they can matchup with Duke when Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood are at the four and the five.

Raph already covered Syracuse, who is legit this season even if Scott decides that we have to discount Syracuse beating a top 15 team in a gym halfway across the world and earning a win over St. John’s in the Garden.

But I’l tell you what: I think we may be sleeping on Kansas. You guys can laugh at me if you want, but I don’t think there is a front line in the country that is nearly as good as the combination of Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, Perry Ellis and Tarik Black. The Jayhawks still need to find consistent back court play, especially out of Naadir Tharpe, but those big guys have the potential to be utterly terrifying in three months.

RJ: Here’s my issue with Arizona: when Kaleb Tarczewski’s healthy their bench has essentially consisted of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Is that enough to win a national title? I’m not sure, which means they really need a guy like Gabe York to step up and prove that he can hit a couple shots when in the game. And heaven forbid if someone were to go down with a significant injury. Really like that team and the talent at Sean Miller’s disposal, but the depth concerns me when looking forward to a possible national title run.

As for Kansas, Tharpe’s the key. Don’t care how good that front court is, if the man in charge of running the show struggles the entire team will feel the effects. Frank Mason’s been solid, but right now Tharpe’s the one who’s best equipped to run the show based upon his experience and talent level. Over the last three games he’s got 18 assists and eight turnovers, good but not good enough when considering the best teams in the Big 12 and nationally. And to Kevin’s point earlier, my biggest issue with Oklahoma State is rebounding. Colorado grabbed 18 offensive boards last Saturday, and while the Pokes still won the game that may not be the case against the Big 12’s best. If Michael Cobbins and Kamari Murphy can consistently hold their own on the boards the I have no problem putting them in the mix as they’re a Top 15 team in both offensive and defensive efficiency.

SP: I also believe that Arizona is the deserving No. 1 team and I love how they take good shots and share the ball. The Wildcats top five scorers are all shooting 50 percent from the field, which tells you that they’re not forcing things and have a good grasp on what they’re capable of on the offensive end. But will they be the No. 1 team at the end of the year? I’m still a bit skeptical for now and Raph brought up a great point about their depth.

But what about Kentucky? Here we had this preseason juggernaut with the “greatest recruiting class of all-time” and they’ve lost on neutral courts to Michigan State, Baylor and on the road to North Carolina and we’re already seemingly writing them off? Aren’t young teams supposed to stumble early in big games like that? I know it is concerning that they haven’t picked up a marquee win — or they don’t have a true leader — but Kentucky is still the most talented team in the country and they’ll have plenty of time to learn to play together running through a weak SEC.

Are we being too hard on Kentucky? And what of the other top-10 unbeatens we’ve neglected to mention: Ohio State, Villanova and Wichita State? Do those teams fall in line as contenders going forward as well?

RD: The other top 10 unbeatens are easy to diagnose: Ohio State is a contender on the nights where LaQuinton Ross is shooting the ball well. Wichita State is a contender on the nights Cleanthony Early plays like a first round pick. Villanova is a sneaky, matchup-based Final Four contender given how good their guards are and how well they can defend.

As far as Kentucky is concerned, I have a sinking feeling that this is an inherently-flawed basketball team. Their four best players all are scorers that need the ball in their hands to be effective. There aren’t enough role players on this roster. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the beauty of that 2012 team was that Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist were role players at heart. Those two would dominate on a nightly basis without needing to touch the ball offensively. There isn’t anyone on this Kentucky team willing to do that.

And all that said, remember, this team has lost to Michigan State on a neutral floor, to Baylor in Dallas and at North Carolina. They could have won all three is they shot a little bit better from the free throw line, or a little bit better from three, or did a little bit better job on the defensive glass. Kentucky has, more or less, stunk this year, and look at where they are now.

If it ever does click, they are going to be scary.

Report: Pat Kelsey will not take the UMass job

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Moments before Pat Kelsey was set to be formally introduced as the new head coach at the University of Massachusetts, the school canceled the press conference citing, “unforeseen circumstances.”

According to Jeff Goodman of ESPN, the former Winthrop coach has decided not to accept the job.

Virginia’s Thompson to transfer

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Virginia lost another member of its team Thursday.

The Cavaliers announced Darius Thompson will transfer out of the program, a day after the news of Marial Shayok and Jarred Reuter’s departures.

“Darius Thompson informed me he has decided to play his final season at another school following his graduation from Virginia,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said in a statement released by the school. “Although you never want to see young men transfer, I understand this is part of coaching. Darius, Marial, and Jarred feel it’s in their best interests to pursue other options for the remainder of their college careers.

“I will always appreciate the contributions they made to our program.”

Thompson, who would be immediately eligible as a graduate transfer, began his career at Tennessee before transferring to Charlottesville, where he averaged 5.2 points and 1.8 assists over two seasons. The 6-foot-4 guard shot 44.8 percent from the field and 35.1 percent from 3-point range last season.

Despite the three defections, Virginia returns a number of pieces that contributed to their 23-11 season.

As we look forward, we have a strong nucleus of players returning,” Bennett said, “and I’m excited for their continued development. As a staff, we are focused on finding student-athletes who want to be a part of this program and all the University of Virginia has to offer.”

Georgetown, John Thompson III part ways

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Georgetown has parted ways with head coach John Thompson III, sources confirmed to NBC Sports.

Thompson has been the head coach of the Hoyas for 13 seasons, going 278-151 during his tenure. He won three Big East regular season titles with the program, the last of which came in 2013, and he reached the 2007 Final Four, but in recent years the program has fallen on hard times.

Georgetown confirmed the news Thursday afternoon.

“For thirteen years, he has been one of the elite coaches in college basketball,” Georgetown president John J. DeGioia said in a statement released by the school. “His performance as a coach has been exceptional, and he has served our community with remarkable distinction and integrity, sustaining our commitment to the academic performance of our students and providing them with the very best preparation for their lives beyond the Hilltop.”

Georgetown is 29-36 over the course of the last two seasons and the Hoyas have missed the NCAA tournament in three of the last four years. They’ve failed to make it out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament since that Final Four, losing to five double-digit seeds in their last six NCAA tournament appearances.

Thompson is the son of John Thompson Jr., the Hall of Fame head coach that built the Hoyas into a national power in the 80s and 90s. The University just invested more than $60 million into a renovation of the team’s practice facility which is now named The Thompson Center.

“We are committed to taking the necessary steps to strengthen our program and maintaining the highest levels of academic integrity and national competitiveness,” DeGioia said. “We will work immediately to begin a national search for a new head men’s basketball coach.

“I remain deeply grateful to John for all that he has done on behalf of Georgetown University.”

The news was first reported by CasualHoya.com.

Jeter to transfer from Duke

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A former five-star recruit is hitting the transfer market.

Chase Jeter, a top-20 talent in the Class of 2015, will transfer from Duke, the school announced Thursday.

The 6-foot-10 sophomore could never really crack the rotation with the Blue Devils, playing less than 500 minutes total over two seasons. He averaged 14.9 minutes in 16 appearances this past season.

“Chase has been an outstanding young man in our program for the last two years,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said in a statement released by the school. “He has been one of our top academic performers since he arrived on campus. Unfortunately, he was held back this season due to injury. We wish nothing but the absolute best for Chase and his family.”

This past season Jeter dealt with a back injury, and he did not play after Jan. 14.

“I have loved my time at Duke, getting a world-class education and competing alongside my brothers every day,” Jeter said in a statement. “After careful consideration, I decided it would be best for me to transfer to a school closer to home. I’ve made long-lasting relationships here and I want to thank my teammates and coaches for the support they’ve given me over the last two years.”

Jeter, a Las Vegas native, chose Duke in the summer of 2014 over Arizona, UNLV and UCLA.

Feeling the love: Men’s hoops squad toast of South Carolina

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) Sindarius Thornwell knew South Carolina fans would be excited about the team’s Sweet 16 appearance. The response since he has been on campus, though, surprised even him.

As Thornwell walked to the student union after class, he couldn’t take more than a couple of steps without students swarming him for selfies or asking for some tidbit about the win against Duke on Sunday.

“We’re trying to embrace the moment,” Thornwell said Tuesday. “But that was wild.”

Everyone on campus, around Columbia and even the state seem to be savoring every minute. It’s understandable, the Gamecocks haven’t been in the Sweet 16 since 1973.

It’s been a wild ride for the Gamecocks (24-10), who some wondered if they’d even get invited to the NCAA Tournament let alone produce one of the signature moments so far with their 88-81 win over the second-seeded Blue Devi ls in the East Region.

Next up is third seeded Baylor (27-7) on Friday night at Madison Square Garden for the chance to advance.

Coach Frank Martin said he’s gotten more than 1,100 text messages about Sunday night’s win and two or three from people wondering, “So I guess you’re not going to respond?” he joked.

“That’s a good problem to have,” he said.

South Carolina is gaining the attention Gamecock fans have recently showered on the football, baseball or women’s basketball programs.

Steve Spurrier, featuring NFL standouts like defensive end Jadeveon Clowney , receiver Alshon Jeffrey and cornerback Stephon Gilmore, won the Southeastern Conference East Division in 2010 and had three straight 11-2 seasons from 2011-13.

Baseball won back-to-back College World Series under now athletic director Ray Tanner in 2010 and 2011. Thousands turned out for victory parades to the Statehouse when the team returned home.

Most recently, South Carolina’s women’s basketball team, led by new U.S. women’s national team coach Dawn Staley, has gained much of the attention with four straight SEC regular season titles. The Gamecocks have led the women’s game in attendance the past three seasons.

Now, men’s basketball is getting some love.

“We’re happy to be part of that,” sophomore point guard P.J. Dozier said.

There was a time when men’s basketball led the way at South Carolina when New York City native Frank McGuire turned a sleepy program into a national power with a pipeline of NYC kids like John Roche, Tom Owens, Bobby Cremins, Brian Winters and Mike Dunleavy Sr.

McGuire led the Gamecocks to the NCAA round of 16 three straight seasons from 1971-73 – there were just 25 schools involved – and his team was considered the cream of the crop in South Carolina athletic circles.

But McGuire’s touch ran out in the mid-1970s and the Gamecocks have struggled for an identity for more than 40 years.

South Carolina won its only Southeastern Conference crown in 1997, but lost in the NCAAs as a No. 2 seed. The Gamecocks returned to the tournament the next season, that time falling as a No. 3 seed.

The Gamecocks high-water mark until now may be the consecutive NIT crowns won by coach Dave Odom in 2005 and 2006.

Martin and these Gamecocks are out to add another level of success to the program.

The fifth-year coach said that being around Spurrier – “Steve calls me every day,” Martin said – Tanner and Staley make him a better leader and give him examples of building winning cultures.

“I’m a big believer in winning leads to winning,” he said.

An emotional Martin, overcome by his team’s Duke win, told the players in the locker room, “Let’s go win this thing.”

He said Tuesday he wanted his players to know that by beating Duke, they proved they’re good enough to play with anyone left in the field.

Thornwell heard that over and over from friends, family and hundreds of new acquaintances he’s made the past 48 hours.

“We’re just having fun,” he said, “enjoying the game, enjoying every moment.”