Boise State v Kentucky

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.

Duke’s Azura Stevens transfers to UConn

Duke's Azura Stevens (11) steals the ball from North Carolina A&T's Kenya Hailey, right, as Duke's Ka'lia Johnson watches during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Friday, Jan. 2, 2015, in Durham, N.C. (AP Photo/Ellen Ozier)
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STORRS, Conn. (AP) Azura Stevens, the leading scorer and rebounder for Duke, has decided to transfer to UConn.

The 6-foot-6 sophomore center from Raleigh, North Carolina will sit out next season and will have two years of eligibility remaining when the 2017-18 season begins the school announced Saturday.

Stevens averaged 18.9 points and 9.6 rebounds a game and was named to the ACC’s all-conference first team.

She was second in the league both scoring and rebounding.

UConn coach Geno Auriemma said Saturday that he normally doesn’t get involved in transfer situations, but Stevens convinced him that Storrs would be the right place for her going forward.

Beachem says he’ll be back at Notre Dame for senior season

Notre Dame's V.J. Beachem reacts during the second half of the team's NCAA college basketball game against Wisconsin in the regional semifinals of the men's NCAA Tournament, Friday, March 25, 2016, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) Forward V.J. Beachem has withdrawn his name from the NBA draft and will return to Notre Dame for his senior season.

Beachem made the announcement Sunday night on Twitter, writing that he was thankful for the opportunity to experience the NBA draft process and invitations to work out for teams, “but now I’m ready to lead [Notre Dame]. #IMBACK.”

The 6-foot-8, 200-pound forward finished third on the team in scoring, averaging 12.0 points and 3.9 rebounds as the Irish finished 24-12. He was at his best in the NCAA Tournament, when he averaged 17.5 points as the Irish advanced to the Elite Eight for a second straight year.

Coach Mike Brey sent a Tweet saying he was thrilled Beachem will return.

How did Bob Knight wind up leading Donald Trump rallies in Indiana?

Former Indiana basketball coach Bob Knight shakes hands with Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during a campaign stop at Old National Events Plaza, Thursday, April 28, 2016, in Evansville, Ind. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
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As Donald Trump makes his way through the state of Indiana, looking to beat Ted Cruz in the Indiana primary, he’s managed to team up with disgraced — and somehow still-beloved — for Hoosier head coach Bobby Knight.

How did those two end up together? From Time.com:

Knight says he told a mutual friend in New York that he’d like to talk to Trump, who he had never met. They connected on the phone. “I just told him I thought that we needed him,” says Knight. “That right now, in this moment in time, he was the man who should be in charge. He should be the guy that can get us back to where we want to be.”

According to Knight, Trump responded: “Coach, I know exactly how I want you involved. And when the time comes, I will give you a call and we’ll go from there.”

Sounds about right.

It makes too much sense that Knight would be a loyal Trump supporter, and the marriage is perfect for Trump as well. Knight is still basketball royalty to many in the most basketball-mad state in America, and just last week Cruz tried to reenact a scene from Hoosiers while calling the rim a “basketball ring”. (Her face!!!)

All Trump had to do was get ‘The General’ involved to prove to the Hoosier Hoop Heads just how much he loved basketball.

And then he went and tweeted this:

ChdcXjVWgAAW1w0

Stick to politics, fellas. Please.

Looking Forward: What does the ACC have in store for us next season?

Grayson Allen, Jake Allsmiller
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The NBA Draft’s Early Entry Deadline has come and gone. Just about every elite recruit has decided where they will be playing their college ball next season. The coaching carousel, which ended up spinning a bit faster than initially expected, has come to a close for all of the major programs. 

In other words, by now, we have a pretty good feel for what college basketball is going to look like during the 2016-17 season. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what has happened — and what will happen — in the ACC over the next six months. 

KEY OFFSEASON STORYLINES

1. So about those NCAA investigations … : You know which ones I’m talking about: Louisville’s alleged use of hookers as recruiting tools and North Carolina’s faux-class scandal. Initially, there was hope that they would both come to an end during the offseason, but that may not end up being the case.

Why?

Well, for starters, Louisville has not yet received their Notice of Allegations, which is the first step towards the NCAA actually putting together some kind of punishment for the program. To get an idea of what the timeline for this kind of thing looks like, North Carolina actually received their second Notice of Allegations last week — their first came last May, but they have since self-reported more violations — and that punishment isn’t expected to come until early in 2017.

So expect a lot of chatter about those investigations this summer, but that doesn’t mean you should be expecting a resolution.

2. When will the ‘Duke can go 40-0’ chatter pick up?: Duke is going to be the consensus Preseason No. 1 team in the country when all of those polls eventually come out. That will happen when you have a roster where a second-team all-american in Grayson Allen could end up being a forgotten man. Think about it: Duke adds three top ten recruits in Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum and Frank Jackson, returns Luke Kennard and Amile Jefferson and also brings in Javin DeLaurier. And that’s before you consider the possibility of Marques Bolden joining the ranks in Durham. If Duke does land Bolden, there’s an argument to be made that this is the best recruiting class that anyone has landed in the one-and-done era.

So at what point do people starting talking about Duke’s chances of going 40-0? Because that’s what typically happens with Kentucky whenever they land a recruiting class that is this talented, isn’t it? I usually spend far too much energy talking and writing about how silly that notion is, particularly when we’re more than 11 months away from what would be Game No. 40, but, regardless of how good the Blue Devils end up being, the idea of Duke going 40-0 is particularly far-fetched this season …

3. … because the conference is loaded: In our Preseason top 25, there are four top ten teams from the ACC — Duke, Virginia, UNC and Louisville. Another — Syracuse — is in the top 15, seven total are ranked in the top 25 and an eighth finds themselves sitting just outside the top 25. This is all coming from a league that got six teams to the Sweet 16 in 2016, and that doesn’t include teams that will be adding top 15 freshmen and potential lottery picks.

4. Who’s coming back to school?: The one caveat when talking about how good the ACC is figuring out who is going to be playing in what league. Will Justin Jackson and Kennedy Meeks return to North Carolina for their senior seasons? Will Louisville get Chinanu Onuaku back? Florida State is waiting to hear from Xavier Rathan-Mayes, while Syracuse guard Malachi Richardson entered his name in the NBA Draft. Notre Dame’s V.J. Beachem, N.C. State’s Abdul-Malik Abu and Clemson’s Jaron Blossomgame have also entered their names into the draft.

Virginia transfer Austin Nichols (AP Photo)
Virginia transfer Austin Nichols (AP Photo)

NOTABLE NEWCOMERS

  • Duke’s freshman class: It’s loaded. But we’ve talked about that, so this is where I’m going to voice my concern: They still don’t really have a point guard. I know that’s what Jackson is listed at, and that’s what I think his best position will be long-term, but he’s still learning the position. Jackson is one of those combo-guards that is a natural scorer, a guy that is being force-fit into the point guard spot because he can dribble, work in ball-screen actions and create off the bounce. But it creates a bit of a dilemma for the Duke staff. Thanks to Derryck Thornton’s departure, Jackson is the only point guard on the roster, meaning that their four-best perimeter players all need the ball in their hands to be effective. I’m nit-picking, I know, but it’s something to keep an eye on.
  • Austin Nichols, Virginia: As a sophomore at Memphis, Nichols averaged 13.3 points, 6.1 boards and 3.4 blocks, and the former top 25 recruit spend the 2015-16 season at Virginia working with a coaching staff that is as good as any in the country at developing their talent. He’ll step in and immediately fill the void left by the perennially-underrated Anthony Gill, and maybe more. He’s a potential first-team all-ACC player.
  • Jonathan Isaac, Florida State: Isaac is the highest-rated freshman in the ACC that’s not headed to Tobacco Road. A long and lacky 6-foot-9 forward, Isaac’s build and skill-set will draw some comparisons to former Duke star Brandon Ingram. He may not have the same impact as Ingram, however, as the hype surrounding Isaac is built a bit more on his potential more than his instant production. But with him on the floor alongside the likes of Xavier Rathan-Mayes, Dwayne Bacon and Terrence Mann, Leonard Hamilton has a dangerous roster.
  • Dennis Smith Jr., N.C. State: Smith was considered the best point guard in the class for a good stretch of his high school career, but he tore his ACL, which cost him his senior season in high school, and enrolled at N.C. State for the spring semester to get better medical care. He relies quite a bit on his explosiveness, so it will be interesting to see how he recovers from the injury.

SURPRISING DEPARTURES

  • N.C. State’s turnover: Cat Barber turned pro and signed with an agent. Abdul-Malik Abu put his name in the draft. Cody and Caleb Martin transferred out of the program. Assistant coaches Bobby Lutz and Rob Moxley were reassigned while Butch Pierre and Heath Schroyer were hired to replace them. They better hope Dennis Smith Jr. is as good as advertised.
  • Chinanu Onuaku, Louisville: Onuaku may be the most influential name left in the draft in the ACC. The Cardinals have the makeup of a top 10 team this season even without Onuaku, but if he returns he’ll give them a physical presence in the paint that they wouldn’t otherwise have. He’s a borderline first round pick, and while his decision is still up in the air, it seems likely that he’ll end up remaining in the draft.
  • Malik Beasley, Florida State: This wasn’t surprising in the sense that Beasley shouldn’t have turned pro — he has a real shot to end up being a first round pick — it’s surprising when you consider where he was ranked in high school. Entering the season, he wasn’t considered a potential one-and-done prospect, but his productivity (expected) and his efficiency putting up those numbers (not so expected) intrigues scouts.

COACHING CHANGES

  • Josh Pastner, Georgia Tech: Tech let Brian Gregory go thinking that their AD — former Xavier AD Mike Bobinski — would have a shot at landing former Xavier coaches Chris Mack and Sean Miller, or Miller’s little brother, Archie. Well, they didn’t. They ended up with the guy that Memphis paid more than $1.2 million to go away. Pastner’s probably not as bad as his reputation would have you believe. He made four tournaments in his first five seasons at Memphis, before everything went downhill for him, and he landed two McDonald’s All-Americans out of Atlanta. And he’s only 38 years old, with all the motivation in the world to prove to everyone that he wasn’t some overhyped, under-prepared coaching bust. Time will tell, but it shouldn’t be a shock to anyone that Pastner didn’t exactly invigorate the fan base.
  • Kevin Stallings, Pitt: Like Pastner, Stallings was hired away from a situation at Vanderbilt where he very well could’ve lost his job after Jamie Dixon left Pitt for TCU. Stallings has a terrific reputation in coaching circles, but the results that he had with the Commodores left much to be desired.
North Carolina guard Joel Berry II (2) moves the ball against Providence during the first half of a second-round men's college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Saturday, March 19, 2016, in Raleigh, N.C. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
North Carolina guard Joel Berry II (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

WAY-TOO-EARLY ALL-CONFERENCE PREDICTIONS

Grayson Allen, Duke (Player of the Year)
Joel Berry II, North Carolina
Donovan Mitchell, Louisville
Harry Giles III, Duke
Austin Nichols, Virginia

WAY-TOO-EARLY POWER RANKINGS, IN TWEETS

  1. Duke: Consensus Preseason No. 1 in the country means they’re going to top the ACC Power Rankings.
  2. Virginia: UVA is a ‘program’ by now. Lose Brogdon and Gill? NBD, London’s back and they’ve guys ready for a bigger role: Nichols, Hall, Thompson.
  3. North Carolina: Much depends on Jackson and Meeks returning, but there’s more talent on the Tar Heel roster than people probably realize.
  4. Louisville: Even w/out Onuaku, Pitino has a team that should be a factor at the top of the league. Expect big years out of Mitchell, Spalding and Adel.
  5. Virginia Tech: Our ACC sleeper. They went 10-8 in the league, beat two top ten teams, return basically everyone and are a prototype Buzz Williams team.
  6. Syracuse: The PG spot is a question mark, but is Richardson and Lydon have big sophomore seasons, there are pieces on this roster to be a top 15 team.
  7. Miami: The Canes lost a lot, but Newton and Reed should thrive in bigger roles and keep this group in the NCAA tournament picture.
  8. Florida State: The Noles are loaded with talent — Bacon, Isaac, XRM, Mann — but will Hamilton find a way to get the pieces to fit together this season?
  9. Notre Dame: In Brey we trust, but losing Jackson and Auguste a year after losing Grant and Connaughton is tough. This is their rebuild year.
  10. N.C. State: Does Abu come back? Is Smith healthy? How good will Dorn and Rowan be? They have some talent, but that didn’t matter last season.
  11. Pitt: Pitt has a solid trio of forwards in Artis, Young and Jeter. Can Stallings find more success with them than he had with Vandy last year?
  12. Clemson: Clemson hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament in the last five years. It’s probably going to be six after this season.
  13. Georgia Tech: Josh Pastner takes over a program that has lost their top four scorers to graduation. Welp.
  14. Wake Forest: Wake won one ACC game last year and lose their two most talented pieces. Yikes. Addition by subtraction? Or just regular old subtraction?
  15. Boston College: The Eagles went winless in the ACC last season and lost two of their top three scorers. Double yikes.

Syracuse adds point guard grad transfer

Colorado State's John Gillon (4) shoots against Fresno State during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the semifinals at the Mountain West Conference men's tournament Friday, March 11, 2016, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Becker)
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Syracuse landed a commitment from Colorado State grad transfer John Gillon over the weekend, a potentially critical piece for the Orange next season. He’ll be eligible immediately for his senior season.

Jim Boeheim’s club lost a lot in their back court this offseason. Trevor Cooney and Michael Gbinije both graduated, Kaleb Joseph transferred out of the program and there’s no guarantee that Malachi Richardson will withdraw his name from NBA Draft consideration.

Assuming Richardson does return, he’ll be joined in the back court by Franklin Howard and Tyus Battle, none of whom are point guards. That’s where Gillon’s addition matters. He averaged 13.2 points and 3.9 assists for the Rams last season and is certainly a guy with the quickness to get into the lane and make plays.

Gillon, who is 6-foot-0, is not a pure point guard like, say, a Tyler Ennis. He’s going to attack. He’s going to put the ball on the floor. He’s going to try and get fouled or draw an extra defender, and he’s not always going to be doing so out of a ball-screen action; last year, Syracuse’s offensive attack was centered abour Gbinije’s ability in ball-screens. As one Mountain West coach put it, “he doesn’t have a point guard mentality from a leadership standpoint and a complete demand of the game,” referring to Gillon as more of a combo-guard than a facilitator.

In other words, it will be interesting to see how Gillon’s skill-set fits, but the bottom-line is that Syracuse added a talented, veteran ball-handler to their back court, and that’s something that the Orange really needed.