Late Night Snacks: No. 16 Iowa State, N.C. State among Friday’s winners

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Friday’s Bubble Banter

GAME OF THE DAY: Arkansas State 116, Arkansas-Little Rock 114 (4OT)

The wildest game of the day was played at the Sun Belt tournament in New Orleans, with the Red Wolves final beating the Trojans after four overtimes were played and 230 points were scored. Melvin Johnson III’s three-point play with six seconds remaining in the fourth overtime was the difference for Arkansas State, who will face top-seed Georgia State in Saturday’s semifinals. Ed Townsel led five Arkansas State players in double figures with 32 points, and Leroy Isler paced six Trojans in double figures with 25.

IMPORTANT OUTCOMES

1) No. 16 Iowa State 94, No. 10 Kansas 83

Not having Joel Embiid in the lineup certainly impacts the way Kansas defends, and that was the case in their loss to Iowa State in the Big 12 semifinals. Iowa State shot 54% from the field and 11-for-19 from beyond the arc, and all five starters scored in double figures with Georges Niang scoring 25 points. Perry Ellis scored 30 points in a losing effort with Andrew Wiggins adding 22 (on 7-for-21 shooting), but the shoddy defense was too much to overcome.

2) N.C. State 66, No. 11 Syracuse 63

The Orange lost for the fifth time in their last seven games Friday night, dropping a three-point decision to N.C. State in Greensboro. T.J. Warren scored 28 points and grabbed eight rebounds for the Wolfpack, who will play No. 7 Duke in the ACC semifinals, but the issue for Syracuse was their offense. C.J. Fair shot 3-for-16 and Trevor Cooney 1-for-6, and as a team the Orange shot 32.7%. Syracuse has shot 40% or better in just two of their last eight games.

3) No. 24 Ohio State 71, Nebraska 67

With just under 14 minutes remaining the Huskers led 48-30 and looked poised to reach the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament for the first time in their short time as a member of the league. But Ohio State decided to take better shots and not turn the ball over, and the Buckeyes were able to come back and win as a result. LaQuinton Ross scored 26 points and Amedeo Della Valle gave the Buckeyes some really good minutes off the bench, scoring 12 points.

STARRED 

1) Russ Smith (Louisville) 

Smith scored a career-high 42 points (14-for-22 FG) to go along with three rebounds and three assists in the Cardinals’ 94-65 win over Houston in an American semifinal.

2) Ed Townsel (Arkansas State)

Accounted for 32 points, seven rebounds and six assists in the Red Wolves’ 116-114 quadruple overtime win over UALR in a Sun Belt quarterfinal.

3) LaDontae Henton (Providence) 

Scored 26 points (9-for-13 FG) and grabbed 14 rebounds in Providence’s 80-74 win over Seton Hall in a Big East semifinal.

STRUGGLED

1) Andre Hollins (Minnesota) 

Hollins shot 2-for-14 in Minnesota’s 83-57 loss to No. 12 Wisconsin in a Big Ten quarterfinal.

2) C.J. Fair (Syracuse) 

Fair made just three of his 16 shot attempts in Syracuse’s 66-63 loss to N.C. State in an ACC quarterfinal.

3) Kendall Anthony (Richmond) 

Anthony shot 2-for-15 from the field in the Spiders’ 71-53 loss to VCU in an Atlantic 10 quarterfinal.

CONFERENCE TOURNAMENTS 

  • ACC: No. 7 Duke withstands furious Clemson rally
    Up 12 in the second half the Blue Devils looked to be on their way to another ACC semifinal appearance, but their taking the air out of the basketball helped get Clemson back into the game. Two Rodney Hood free throws with 3.8 seconds remaining gave Duke the 63-62 win, but they’ll need to be better against N.C. State. The other winners on Friday were top-seed Virginia and five-seed Pittsburgh, with the latter beating North Carolina and adding a quality win to its resume.
  • American: No. 21 UConn eliminates top-seed No. 13 Cincinnati
    Kevin Ollie’s Huskies put forth one of their best defensive efforts of the season, limiting the Bearcats to 37.9% shooting in their 58-56 win. Shabazz Napier scored 15 points and DeAndre Daniels added 14 and nine rebounds, with Ryan Boatright, Niels Giffey and Amida Brimah also contributing. UConn will play No. 5 Louisville in the title game, with the Cardinals whipping Houston 94-65 in the other semifinal.
  • Atlantic 10: St. Bonaventure upsets top-seed Saint Louis
    The will be a new champion in the Atlantic 10, as Jordan Gathers’ three-pointer as time expired gave the Bonnies a 71-68 win over the 18th-ranked Billikens. Mark Schmidt’s team will face Saint Joseph’s in one semifinal, with Langston Galloway’s three-pointer with 17.9 second remaining giving the Hawks the lead for good in their 70-67 win over Dayton. The other semifinal matches VCU and George Washington, with the Rams beating Richmond and GW holding off UMass.
  • Big 12: Baylor moves to 10-1 in its last 11 games
    Scott Drew’s Bears are playing their best basketball of the season at the right time, with their latest victory being an 86-69 whipping of Texas. Brady Heslip scored 24 points and Cory Jefferson added 20 to go along with 13 rebounds and three blocks. Baylor takes on No. 16 Iowa State in the title game.
  • Big East: Providence, Creighton advance to title game
    Of the two winners Providence, still fighting to lock up a spot in the NCAA tournament field, had more to lose. LaDontae Henton scored 26 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in the Friars’ 80-74 win over Seton Hall. As for the Bluejays, they continued their march with an 86-78 win over Xavier and Doug McDermott led the way with 32 points.
  • Big Sky: North Dakota, Weber State move on to Saturday’s final
    Weber State needed five extra minutes in their semifinal, beating Northern Colorado 66-63 in overtime. Their opponent in Saturday’s title game will be North Dakota, which beat Portland State 79-63. Davion Berry (Weber State) and Troy Huff (North Dakota) on the same court should be fun to watch.
  • Big Ten: Did No. 12 Wisconsin punch Minnesota’s ticket to the NIT?
    That’s the question some Minnesota fans may ask themselves in the aftermath of the Badgers’ 83-57 pasting of the Golden Gophers, and that may turn out to be the case. Next up for Wisconsin is No. 22 Michigan State, who took care of Northwestern. The first semifinal matches No. 24 Ohio State and No. 8 Michigan, with the Wolverines beating Illinois 64-63 in the first game of the day.
  • Big West: Cal Poly picks off UC Irvine
    One day after eliminating two-seed UCSB the Mustangs were at it again, this time beating top-seed UC Irvine 61-58. The opponent for the seven-seed in Saturday’s title game: five-seed Cal-State Northridge, which beat Long Beach State 82-77 in the nightcap. Given both teams’ records the winner is almost a lock to be headed to Dayton for the First Four.
  • Conference USA: Louisiana Tech rolls over Southern Miss
    The semifinals matched the four teams that finished tied atop the C-USA standings, and the game between Louisiana Tech and Southern Miss wasn’t very close with the Bulldogs winning 88-70. Louisiana Tech will take on Tulsa for the league’s automatic bid, with the Golden Hurricane holding on to beat Middle Tennessee in the other semifinal.
  • MAC: Top two seeds advance to title game
    Western Michigan (beat Akron in overtime) and Toledo (beat Eastern Michigan) took care of business Friday night in Cleveland, meaning that the top two seeds will play for the league’s automatic bid. What it also means is that the West Division will represent the MAC in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2004, when Western Michigan beat Kent State in the final.
  • MEAC: North Carolina Central one win away
    Levelle Moton’s North Carolina Central squad moved one step closer to its goal of reaching the NCAA tournament with a 68-45 win over Norfolk State. Next up for the Eagles is Morgan State, which beat Coppin State 79-64 in the other semifinal.
  • Mountain West: Round three set up for Saturday night
    With No. 8 San Diego State and No. 20 New Mexico splitting the regular season series, a third meeting to determine the league’s tournament champ isn’t a bad deal at all. SDSU held off UNLV 58-51, with the Lobos hanging on to beat Boise State 70-67 in the other semifinal.
  • Pac-12: No. 4 Arizona, UCLA roll into title game
    For some reason there was just one regular season meeting scheduled between the Wildcats and Bruins. Luckily fans will get to see a second meeting, as both Arizona and UCLA coasted into the title game with commanding wins Friday night. Arizona clamped down on Colorado in the first game, with UCLA blitzing Stanford right out of the gates in the nightcap.
  • SEC: Top four seeds advance
    Missouri had a chance to enhance its profile with a win over No. 1 Florida, but a 12-0 second half run sparked by Scottie Wilbekin put an end to that drama. The Gators will face Tennessee in one semifinal, with Kentucky and Georgia meeting in the other. Florida/Kentucky, round three? Maybe, but the Volunteers have played well recently.
  • Southland: Stephen F. Austin wins 27th straight game
    It was close down the stretch but the Lumberjacks made the plays they needed to make late in order to hold off Northwestern State, 85-78. Standing in between SFA and a trip to the NCAA tournament is Sam Houston State, which beat two-seed Texas A&M-Corpus Christi in the other semifinal.
  • SWAC: Texas Southern, Prairie View A&M advance to title game
    The best team in the SWAC eligible for postseason play, Mike Davis’ Tigers are one win away from the NCAA tournament after beating Alabama State 73-61. Next up for Aaric Murray and company is eight-seed Prairie View A&M, which upset Alabama A&M 55-49 in the other semifinal.
  • Sun Belt: Xavian Rimmer leads Louisiana past UT Arlington
    Xavian Rimmer scored 24 points and dished out three assists in the Ragin’ Cajuns’ 91-85 win over the Mavericks, setting up a semifinal matchup with two-seed Western Kentucky. The other semifinal will match top-seed Georgia State and four-seed Arkansas State, with the Red Wolves coming off of a four-overtime win.
  • WAC: Idaho eliminates top-seed Utah Valley
    Stephen Madison scored 25 points as five-seed Idaho beat the regular season champions 74-69. Idaho will meet preseason favorite New Mexico State in the title game, with the Aggies beating Bakersfield 69-63.

“It doesn’t happen with Nike,” Boeheim says of FBI investigation

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One of the prevailing thoughts regarding this opening salvo of the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball is that while it’s currently adidas’ turn in the barrel, whatever malfeasance may be occurring is unlikely to be just isolated to that single shoe company.

When the FBI says they “have your playbook” in regards to alleged corruption,  it would seem they’re indicating at a systemic issue in college basketball rather than a single apparel company like adidas, which had two executives arrested amid the probe that shaken the hoops landscape.

Jim Boeheim, though, does not share those sentiments.

“It doesn’t happen with Nike,” Boeheim said at Syracuse’s media day, according to the Syracuse Post-Standard. “Nike has about 80 schools. The guys we’re recruiting, we’re recruiting against three or four Nike schools most of the time. (Nike) isn’t going to help one of those schools.”

Well, that settles it. Nike and its schools are in the clear. Even if the apparel giant’s grassroots hoops division was reportedly served a subpoena last month. And that Merl Code, one of the adidas executives arrested, worked for Nike previously.

Of course, there may be issues with some of the logic Boeheim employs here. While, as he says, Syracuse may often being going against other Nike schools in recruiting, there are surely times when adidas or Under Armour schools are in the mix. What happens then? Or even if it’s multiple Nike schools competing, the hypothetical money changing hands is illicit, and thereby under the table and unofficial, so it’s not like there wouldn’t be plausible deniability if a coach on the losing end of a recruitment  ever went to express his displeasure at any particular rumors. And how hard – or publicly – is a coach going to complain when his school is securing millions from Nike in cash and gear each year?

It’s also worth noting that not all schools are created equal, even if they’re under the same apparel umbrella. Ohio State’s contract is worth $16.8 million a year while someone like Kansas State’s is worth $1.9 million, according to Forbes. Nike may have an interest in helping one school over the other, theoretically.

Maybe Boeheim is correct, but it’s clear the entire system – and all the entities its made up of – are going to be under scrutiny. So the FBI probably isn’t going to exempt Nike, or any other apparel company, from its ongoing investigation, regardless of what a coach at a Nike school says. It’s also worth noting, in deference to full disclosure, that Nike has long outfitted Syracuse, and Boeheim has been very active as a part of Team USA basketball, where Nike is quite influential

“First of all, I think the FBI could do a lot better investigating criminals and terrorists than they can investigating college basketball,” Boeheim said. “In my opinion. I’m a tax-payer. There’s a few tax-payers here. I’d sure as hell rather have them looking into terrorism and not spending three years investigating AAU programs or shoe companies. That’s the least of our concern.”

 

Watch list released for Abdul-Jabbar award

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Twenty players were announced as members of the preseason watch list for the Karee Abdul-Jabbar Center of the Year award.

Among the 20 are Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ, Texas A&M’s Tyler Davis, Texas’ Mohamed Bamba, St. Mary’s senior Jock Landale and Purdue’s Isaac Haas.

“I would like to thank the Basketball Hall of Fame for the honor of being the namesake of this award,” said Abdul-Jabbar, a 1995 inductee of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and six-time NBA Champion, said in a release. “The student-athletes recognized have worked tirelessly to earn their spots on this list and I look forward to seeing how their hard work will pay off this season.”

Previous winners include Przemek Karnowski (2017), Jakob Poetl (2016) and Frank Kaminsky (2015).

The group of 20 (though players not included in the preseason watch list can be later included) will be trimmed to 10 in February and five finalists in March. The winner will be announced April 6.

2018 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Center of the Year Award Candidates

Dusan Ristic Arizona
Austin Wiley Auburn
Kingsley Okoroh California
Tacko Fall Central Florida
Marques Bolden Duke
John Egbunu Florida
Jessie Govan Georgetown
Ben Lammers Georgia Tech
Nick Richards Kentucky
Omer Yurtseven NC State
Isaac Haas Purdue
Jock Landale Saint Mary’s
Angel Delgado Seton Hall
Michael Humphrey Stanford
Vladimir Brodziansky TCU
Mohamed Bamba Texas
Tyler Davis Texas A&M
Thomas Welsh UCLA
Chimezie Metu USC
Ethan Happ Wisconsin

 

Southland Preview: Can Stephen F. Austin regain the throne?

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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 Southland.

The Southland finally saw Stephen F. Austin‘s dominant run end last season as New Orleans claimed the regular season title and NCAA tournament autobid. Although the Lumberjacks finished in second place in head coach Kyle Keller’s first season, expectations are in place for another potential conference title in 2017-18. Stephen F. Austin returns eight of their top nine producers from last season including Player of the Year candidate T.J. Holyfield on the interior. If Stephen F. Austin’s offense can get a boost then they could be in for another dangerous season.

Texas A&M-Corpus Christi has to replace the scoring punch of forward Rashawn Thomas but do-it-all senior Ehab Amin is back to lead the charge. Amin led the nation in steals last season while filling up the box score in many other ways as he’s flanked by guards Kareem South and Joseph Kilgore. Lamar made a leap last season as they won 19 games and made a CIT appearance. Senior forward Colton Weisbrod is a throwback undersized frontcourt presence while the backcourt of point guard Joey Frenchwood and shooter Nick Garth is among the league’s stronger returning duos.

Returning most of last season’s contributors, Abilene Christian is hoping to make a major leap up the Southland standings. Sophomore big man Jalone Friday is a promising player to build around while junior guards Jaren Lewis and Jaylen Franklin both put up double-figures in the scoring column last season. Incarnate Word is going to put up points but the Cardinals will need to figure things out on the defensive end. Jalin Hart, Simi Socks and Shawn Johnson are all returning upperclassmen who averaged at least 14 points per game each last season.

Southeastern Louisiana has a chance to make noise as junior point guard Marlain Veal and junior forward Moses Greenwood are a solid 1-2 punch. With a deep bench returning, the Lions have a lot of upperclass experience and could be a surprise team. The return of Jalan West for a seventh season is a major story for Northwestern State. The former Player of the Year candidate has to stay healthy but he’s joined by junior big man Ishmael Lane and senior guard Devonte Hall to form a solid nucleus.

Losing four starters will be tough for Sam Houston State but junior point guard John Dewey III is back to lead the team’s offense. Senior big man Chris Galbreath has a chance to be a breakout player. Central Arkansas has the Southland’s returning leading scorer in senior guard Jordan Howard but the Bears have to make major strides on the defensive end and controlling turnovers.

New Orleans has a lot of new pieces after last year’s run to the Big Dance as the Privateers need to replace three starters. Senior forward Travin Thibodeaux and senior big man Makur Puou are back along with a lot of question marks. After a CIT appearance, Houston Baptist loses five seniors and multiple transfers but senior center Josh Ibarra is an all-league threat.  

Nicholls lost seven seniors and needs to rebuild as senior point guard Jahvaughn Powell has a chance to have a big year. McNeese finished in last place a season ago but most of that group is back. Sophomore guard Kalob Ledoux has a chance to be one of the league’s better guards.

MORE: 2017-18 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

PRESEASON SOUTHLAND PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Ehab Amin, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi

College basketball’s leader with 124 total steals last season (3.4 per game), this 6-foot-4 senior guard can also put up numbers all over the stat sheet. The Egyptian averaged 16.9 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game last season while shooting 46 percent from the floor. If Amin improves his 28 percent three-point shooting then he could be in for a monster season.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON SOUTHLAND TEAM

  • Colton Weisbrod, Lamar: Undersized at 6-foot-5 but great in the paint, this senior averaged 15.1 points and 8.1 boards per contest. Weisbrod shot 52 percent from the floor but only 16 percent from three-point range.
  • T.J. Holyfield, Stephen F. Austin: Versatile junior forward averaged 11.7 points, 7.2 rebounds, 1.2 blocks and 1.0 steals per game while shooting 52 percent from the floor.
  • Jordan Howard, Central Arkansas: The senior has a chance to reach 2,000 career points after dropping 19.5 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game last season. Howard could stand to improve his shooting efficiency.
  • Jalone Friday, Abilene Christian: Intriguing sophomore big man had tremendous splits (52% FG, 45% 3PT, 82% FT) and put up 13.7 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game last season in only 21.7 minutes per contest.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @SouthlandSports

PREDICTED FINISH

  1. Stephen F. Austin
  2. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi
  3. Lamar
  4. Abliene Christian
  5. Incarnate Word
  6. Southeastern Louisiana
  7. Northwestern State
  8. Sam Houston State
  9. Central Arkansas
  10. New Orleans
  11. Houston Baptist
  12. Nicholls
  13. McNeese

‘Border War’ exhibition to be streamed

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The 19,000 fans who secured tickets to the Sprint Center for the charity-inspired reignition of the Border War won’t be the only ones to be able to watch Kansas and Missouri play Sunday.

The exhibition game, whose proceeds will be used for hurricane relief, will be streamed live for those willing to spend $40, the schools announced Friday.

“Our first objective was to sell out Sprint Center,” the two schools said jointly in a release. “Once we achieved the sellout so quickly, our fans who could not get tickets expressed tremendous interest in having the game televised. We wanted to make sure that the charities we’ve identified would be the only entities to derive revenue from this game.  SIDEARM Sports has provided the platform to allow us to create a second stream of revenue via this telecast.”

The broadcast will feature Leif Lisec doing play-by-play and ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla and Holly Rowe as the analyst and sideline reporter, respectively. The trio are donating their time for the broadcast.

The Jayhawks and Tigers haven’t played since 2012, when Missouri bolted the Big 12 for the SEC. There certainly has been resentment from the move, which has kept the two from scheduling a non-conference tilt. Now, though, they’re hoping the layoff has built enough anticipation to raise upward of $1 million for the Houston Harvey Relief Fund, the Rebuild Texas Fund, the Florida Disaster Fund, Juntos y Unidos Por Puerto Rico and the Fund for the U.S. Virgin Islands after a devastating hurricane season in the United States.

The game will pit the perennial powerhouse Jayhawks, expected to be a top-five preseason team and strong favorite to win the Big 12, against an ascendant Missouri, which has the potential 2018 No. 1 NBA draft pick Michael Porter, Jr. headlining the roster reboot under first-year coach Cuonzo Martin.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for two schools to do something together for the better of the masses,” Kansas coach Bill Self said last week, “and be able to send a significant amount of money to people that are suffering right now. So that is going to come to fruition, and we’re real happy about it.”

College Hoops Contender Series: Can Michigan State’s sophomore class carry them to a title?

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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.

Last week, we gave you our Final Four sleepers and talked about six different Final Four contenders – Louisville, West Virginia, Villanova, Wichita State, USC and Miami – that are just flawed enough that we can’t call them contenders.

There is a pretty clear-cut delineation between the four or five best teams, the clear national title challengers, and the rest of the country this season.

This week, we will be taking a deeper dive into five of those teams.

What makes them good enough to win a national title?

But why won’t they win a national title?

After looking at Kentucky, Kansas and Arizona, we’re on to my pick to win the national title: The Michigan State Spartans.

MOREThe Enigma of Miles Bridges | NBC Sports Preseason All-American Team

Miles Bridges (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

WHY THEY WILL WIN

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.

Big Ten Preview | ACC Preview | Atlantic 10 PreviewMountain West Preview

Nick Ward (Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)

WHY THEY WON’T WIN

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.

Final Four Sleepers | Louisville | Villanova | West Virginia | USC | Wichita State | Miami
Cassius Winston (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

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.


Miles Bridges (J Pat Carter/Getty Images)

PREDICTION

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.

Will this be the year that bucks that trend?