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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.

PHOTO: Purdue unveils statue of John Wooden outside Mackey Arena

John Wooden (Purdue Athletics)
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John Wooden will forever be associated with the UCLA program for what he did while coaching there.

10 national titles in 12 years, including seven in a row. Not bad, right?

What some people may forget is that before he got into coaching, Wooden was one of the best basketball players in the world. He played his collegiate ball at Purdue, where he was a three-time all-american and the 1932 National Player of the Year.

To honor Wooden’s legacy as one of the greatest Boilermakers ever, Purdue built a statue of Wooden and unveiled it in front of Mackey Arena this weekend:

“Not many people think of Johnny Wooden as a Boilermaker, but when I got here in 1957, some of the old-timers still remembered him as a player,” Jim Hicks, the alumnus that donated the statue, said. “I’m so delighted that people will see this statue and read his Pyramid of Success because I think the pyramid was his most important contribution.”

One of the neat touches of the statue: Wooden’s Pyramid of Success is right there for all to see.

North Carolina lands third commitment in 2017 class

SAN ANTONIO, TX - MARCH 23: Head coach Roy Williams of the North Carolina Tar Heels looks on during the third round of the 2014 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament against the Iowa State Cyclones at the AT&T Center on March 23, 2014 in San Antonio, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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North Carolina picked up their third commitment in the Class of 2017 on Monday in big man Brandon Huffman.

A four-star prospect who will play his final season of high school ball at Word of God Academy in North Carolina, Huffman’s strength at this point in his development is as a defensive presence around the basket. He stands 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-5 wingspan and should be able to help replace Kennedy Meeks, who graduates this spring.

Huffman’s development on the offensive end of the floor isn’t quite there yet. A native of Anchorage, Alaska, Huffman is still learning how to be more influential on that end.

Huffman joins Jalek Felton and Andrew Platek in UNC’s 2017 class.

VCU lands third commitment in Class of 2017

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VCU landed their third commitment in the Class of 2017 over the weekend, as 6-foot-8 forward Sean Mobley announced that he will play his college ball for the Rams.

A three-star prospect, Mobley is a nice program piece for the Rams. He’s not an overpowering athlete or a menace on the low block, but he is good rebounder, a guy that can space the floor with his jump shot and a smart player that should be able to find and fit into a role.

Mobley picked VCU over Dayton and West Virginia, joining top 75 point guard and big man Marcus Santos-Silva in Will Wade’s recruiting class.

Top 25 Non-Conference Games

LAWRENCE, KS - JANUARY 30:  Head coach John Calipari of the Kentucky Wildcats and head coach Bill Self of the Kansas Jayhawks greet each other prior to the game at Allen Fieldhouse on January 30, 2016 in Lawrence, Kansas.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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Beginning in September and running up until November 11th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2016-2017 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Non-conference scheduling has rightfully been much maligned in recent years with many programs opting to keep their non-league slates as a tune-up rather than a challenge, but there are still plenty of gems out there in the season’s first two months. Neutral-site event games again provide some of the strongest matchups, but there are plenty of on-campus contests that will be among the year’s best as well.

THE TOP 15

1. Kansas vs. Duke – Champions Classic (New York) – Nov. 15 (9 p.m.): The Champions Classic has easily become the most anticipated non-conference event most years (until the PK80 next year), and this year’s matchup between the Jayhawks and Blue Devils is the premier non-conference game of the season. Both teams return a ton from last year’s successful seasons and also add stellar recruiting classes. It’s not hard to envision this as a Final Four or national title preview, and there’s a very real chance that it could end up being a matchup between No. 1 Duke vs. No. 2 Kansas.

2. Michigan State at Duke – ACC/Big Ten Challenge – Nov. 29 (9:30 p.m.): This game gets the nod over similarly interesting matchups because it’s going to be played on campus in Durham at Cameron Indoor. It pits two Hall of Fame coaches operating near the height of their powers with teams expected to contend for a national championship. It’s sure to be an electric evening.

MORE: 2016-17 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

3. Kentucky at Louisville – Dec. 21 (7 p.m.): John Calipari has another powerhouse on his hands while Rick Pitino’s squad is expected to continue its upward progression and be a potential top-10 team. This in-state rivalry game will have all the gravitas it normally has along with the national implications that come when two potential No. 1 seeds meet in the non-conference.

4. Kansas at Kentucky – Jan. 28 (6 p.m.): The SEC/Big 12 Challenge is largely irrelevant this season because the Big 12 is down and the SEC looks like a mid-major conference outside of Kentucky. But the Wildcats, who nearly beat Kansas in overtime in Phog Allen last season, and the Jayhawks are both preseason top five teams loaded with NBA talent and positioned to make a run towards another national title.

5. Michigan State vs. Kentucky – Champions Classic (New York) – Nov. 15 (7 p.m.): The other half of the Champions Classic, the Spartans and Wildcats will provide nearly just as much entertainment. The matchup between Michigan State’s super-recruit Miles Bridges and Kentucky’s squadron of them could be the highlight of the night.

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - DECEMBER 19: London Perrantes #32 of the Virginia Cavaliers dribbles the ball against Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats in the first half during a game at John Paul Jones Arena on December 19, 2015 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
UVA’s London Perrantes guarded by Villanova’s Josh Hart (Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

6. Virginia at Villanova – Jan. 28 – (1 p.m.): Virginia deserves credit as one of the elite programs that’s unafraid to challenge themselves with home-and-home series, but I can’t imagine that, when Tony Bennett signed up for this, he knew he’d be taking his team on the road, in the middle of ACC play, to square off with the reigning national champs. It will be an intriguing matchup of styles, both in terms of basketball and the suits worn by the opposing head coaches.

7. UCLA at Kentucky – Dec. 3 (12:30 p.m.): Two of the most storied programs in the sport, the Bruins and Wildcats both figure to have interesting seasons as Steve Alford looks to satiate uneasy UCLA fans and Calipari looks to add another national championship to his resume. UCLA freshman Lonzo Ball facing off against Kentucky’s backcourt in Rupp Arena will garner a lot of headlines. And we shouldn’t forget that the Bruins picks off Kentucky in LA last December.

8. North Carolina vs. Kentucky – Las Vegas – Dec. 17 (5:45 p.m.): UNC is coming off a season where they finished as the national runners-up. Losing Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson will hurt, no doubt, but there is still some talent on the roster. Kentucky, as we’ve mentioned, is once again loaded. Both teams will likely be ranked in the top-10 when they meet in Sin City in yet another clash of the sport’s heavyweights.

9. Michigan State vs. Arizona – Armed Forces Classic (Honolulu) – Nov. 11 (7 p.m.): Not a bad way to tip off the season with the Spartans and Wildcats squaring off in Hawaii on opening night. The game was originally to be played at Pearl Harbor, but was moved to the Stan Sheriff Center at the University of Hawaii. Arizona may have lost Terrence Ferguson to the pros, but it’ll have plenty of firepower to match up against Michigan State with Allonzo Trier, Lauri Markkanen and Rawle Atkins.

10. Louisville vs. Indiana – Indianapolis – Dec. 31 (12:30 p.m.): This border battle game will be played off-campus at the home of the Pacers, but with Indy’s close proximity to both schools and a pair of fervent fanbases, this one should have that big-time collegiate feel with two top-15 teams.

11. Kansas vs. Indiana – Armed Forces Classic (Honolulu) – Nov. 11 (9 p.m.): The nightcap of the Armed Forces Classic is another incredibly strong game that will pit the two midwestern powers against each other. Thomas Bryant and OG Anunoby will provide quite the test for Kansas’ revamped frontcourt while the Hoosiers will have to contend with one of the country’s strongest backcourts in Kansas’ Frank Mason III and Devonte Graham.

12. Wisconsin at Creighton – Gavitt Games – Nov. 15 (8:30 p.m.): The country knows how strong the Badgers will be this year after the transition to coach Greg Gard propelled them into the Sweet 16, but Creighton is flying a bit under the radar despite having some top-level talent in Mo Watson and Marcus Foster. The Blue Jays also have one of the more underrated home crowds in the game. This one will be a treat in the season’s opening week.

13. Arizona vs. Gonzaga – Naismith Memorial HOF Game (Los Angeles) – Dec. 3 (6:30 p.m.): Two West Coast powers face off in L.A. a month into the season with perhaps a seed line at stake. Gonzaga will likely open the season in the top-15 on the strength of getting senior center Przmek Karnowski back and the Nigel Williams-Goss eligible after transferring from Washington.

t-14. North Carolina at Indiana – ACC/Big Ten Challenge – Nov. 30 (9 p.m.)

t-14. Syracuse at Wisconsin – ACC/Big Ten Challenge – Nov. 29 (9 p.m.): The ACC/Big Ten Challenge provides two more top games with the Tar Heels visiting Bloomington and the Badgers hosting the Orange. The Bryant-Kennedy Meeks matchup will be one to watch, while NBA scouts and draftniks will be tuning in to this one to see how Tyler Lydon and Nigel Hayes matchup. The game itself will provide college hoops fans plenty with the Badgers being a Big Ten favorite and Syracuse bolstering its ranks with Nebraska graduate transfer Andrew White.

15. Washington at Gonzaga – Dec. 7 (11 p.m.): The Huskies aren’t a lock to make the NCAA tournament this year, but this game will still be a must-watch thanks to Gonzaga’s strength, Markelle Fultz’s talent and it being an in-state rivalry game played on campus. Don’t underestimate how much these two fanbases dislike each other.

MORE: 2016-17 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

TEN MORE TIMES YOU’LL NEED TO SET YOUR DVR

16. UConn vs. Syracuse – New York City – Dec. 5 (7 p.m.): Madison Square Garden will play host to this former Big East rivalry game. This is the loudest you’ll hear the Garden all season long, and that includes the games that the Knicks play.
17. Valparaiso at Oregon – Nov. 17 (9 p.m.): Valpo might be the best mid-major in the country and has a potential All-American in Alec Peters. The Ducks may not have Dillon Brooks for this one, but will still likely be ranked in the top-10.
18. Indiana vs Butler – Crossroads Classic – Dec. 17 (5 p.m.): A Hoosier State rivalry game that’s sure to be closely contested.
19. Villanova vs. Notre Dame – Never Forget Games (Newark, N.J.) – 12 p.m.: The defending champs take on one of the ACC’s best.
20. Purdue at Louisville – ACC/Big Ten Challenge – Nov. 30: Another strong game courtesy of the cross-conference challenge.
21. Villanova at Purdue – Nov. 14 (7 p.m.): This game got more difficult for the ‘Cats without Omari Spellman to combat Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas.
22. Northern Iowa vs. Xavier – Nov. 16 (12 p.m.): A sneaky-strong game with Xavier being a team that figures to push Villanova in the Big East and the Panthers featuring potential MVC player of the year Jeremy Morgan.
23. Oregon at Baylor – Nov. 15 (3:30 p.m.): This will be the Ducks’ only true road game in the non-conference. Baylor’s Johnathan Motley figures to be a tough guard for the Pac-12 favorites.
24. Arizona vs. Texas A&M – Dec 17 (1 p.m.): The Aggies lost quite a bit from last year’s team, but will still be a top-25 contender.
25. Florida State at Florida – Dec. 11 (4 p.m.): The Seminoles will bring quite a bit of talent with them to Gainesville in Dwayne Bacon and Jonathan Isaac for this intrastate rivalry game.

DURHAM, NC - NOVEMBER 13: Grayson Allen #3 of the Duke Blue Devils dunks over Javion Ogunyemi #0 of the Siena Saints during their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on November 13, 2015 in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Grayson Allen (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Vanderbilt lands commitment from top 100 big man

COLUMBUS, OH - MARCH 20: Head coach Bryce Drew of the Valparaiso Crusaders directs his team during the second round of the Men's NCAA Basketball Tournament at Nationwide Arena on March 20, 2015 in Columbus, Ohio.  (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
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Bryce Drew reached up into Virginia to land a commitment from Ejike Obinna this weekend.

Obinna is a top 100 big man originally from Nigeria. At 6-foot-9, he’s one of the better rebounders in the Class of 2017 and should have an immediate impact on the glass for the Commodores.

Drew beat out Florida, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, and Virginia Tech, among others, for Obinna’s commitment.

Obinna joins wings Saben Lee and Maxwell Evans in Vandy’s 2017 class.