The other side of the July live period: Recruits continue to strive for attention and offers

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Trevon Mollison (Drew Ebanks/OnPointBasketball)

MORE: All of our July Evaluation Period coverage can be found here

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — The third and final five-day July live evaluation period ended on Sunday afternoon on ESPNU. It was a live broadcast of a doubleheader from the adidas Super 64 in Las Vegas, the city where elite recruits, celebrity head coaches and media members alike annually end their travels during the busiest month on the recruiting calendar.

That’s the glamorous side of this month. Top prospects playing in front of a national audience with high-major coaches scattered throughout the stands. It’s a much different live period than the one Trevon Mollison, a point guard from Brampton, Ontario, experienced.

He didn’t travel by plane to his tournaments. Several weeks ago, Mollison, his coach, Jason Fowler, and five of his teammates packed into a gray, 2006 Pontiac Montana — borrowed from Mollison’s mother — as they made the seven-hour drive from the home of Anthony Bennett and Tyler Ennis to the birthplace of basketball, Springfield, Massachusetts, for the Hall of Fame National Invitational Tournament.

Forget sponsored uniforms provided by the likes of Nike, adidas or Under Armour. Mollison’s team, Venom Elite, didn’t even have matching shorts, and only some of them wore the same black-and-white, reversible, mesh jerseys.

Still, it was a first-class tournament put on by BasketBull with four full-size courts placed in a rented out exhibition hall. One of the courts was shipped up from Hartford, the same floor the national champion UConn Huskies play on. It didn’t matter what court Mollison was on or what jersey he wore, just as long as someone watched him.

That was the second weekend of the July live period, and Trevon Mollison is a 2014 point guard still in search of that elusive Division I scholarship offer. The live period can take its toll on any recruit, as they are making life-changing decisions at 17 and 18 years old. It’s a little more stressful when your hopes of playing Division I basketball in the United States hang in the balance.

RELATED: One college coach’s unique connection to Peach Jam

“I know that this is one shot that I might not get again, so I have to leave it all out on the table,” Mollison told NBCSports.com on July 19 after going for 12 points (off 3-of-4 shooting from three), four assists and two steals in a win.

The 6-foot Mollison entered the tournament relatively unknown. He doesn’t have a recruiting page on Rivals, nor ESPN, nor Scout. Mollison also wasn’t with one of Canada’s premier grassroots teams. Spending five years playing high school ball in Canada while the nation’s top prospects bolted for schools in the U.S. hasn’t helped his recruitment either.

He did, however, hit the summer with a head of steam.

In March, Mollison led Notre Dame Catholic Secondary School to an unlikely Cinderella postseason run in the Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations (OFSAA) tournament, which included an upset win over the top-ranked team, and ended with a bronze medal. He led the OFSAA in points (24.7 PPG), assists (8.3 APG) and steals (4.1 SPG) during that run. The next month, he was named Mr. Peel Basketball, the region’s most valuable player.

“Trevon was kind of an afterthought this year,” said Mark Bairos, a scout for HoopsHype Canada. “He had the odds against him, and he had one of the more jaw-dropping seasons. He was unbelievable during the season and the playoff stretch. He kind of put it all together, took what he had and made the most of it.”

The postseason performance helped build up his stock as a college prospect, but the July live period has come and gone, and his future remains uncertain. The time is ticking for Mollison’s Division I hopes. He’s a member of the Class of 2014, looking to enroll in college next fall not a prep school like the other Division I hopefuls that fall short of that offer.

Classes at most schools will begin in less than a month.

Ryan Peterson decided this spring to do a postgraduate year. He returned to the Hall of Fame National Invitational Tournament again this summer. Last year, he had latched on to the right team for July, the Connecticut Basketball Club (CBC), typically the strongest AAU program that state has to offer.

At the same tournament in 2013, a host of Division I coaches sat in to watch CBC play. Providence head coach Ed Cooley was there with multiple assistants, the sign that a program is serious about a recruit. Most, if not all of those coaches, were locked in on Peterson’s teammate, 7-foot-2 center Paschal Chukwu, who eventually committed to the Friars.

“I think when I went out there, I did do some good things. But I had joined the team late, as well,” Peterson said. “It’s a little nerve-racking with all the D-I coaches on the sidelines, but it was exciting, too.”

Peterson was hoping he’d be the one to garner Division I attention during this live period. The 6-foot-6 wing played with the CT Roughriders, an AAU team he’s played for since the fall. The personnel on the roster, as opposed to his high school, allowed him to play out on the perimeter, where he is more comfortable.

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Peterson’s size forced him, at times, to match up with opposing team’s big men during his time at Wethersfield High. It became a double-edged sword. On one hand, he was a mismatch with his ability to stretch the floor with his 3-point shooting, complimented by his knack for making the occasional fancy pass. It wouldn’t be wrong to label him a “tweener”, having to defend post players with the skill set of a wing.

“That’s what people think,” he said, “that I’m in between a post and a wing or a guard.”

The only Division I interest he received coming out of high school was a preferred walk-on spot from Central Connecticut State with additional looks from Sacred Heart. Peterson is off to the St. Thomas More School in Oakdale, Connecticut, this fall. He’ll be playing under Jere Quinn, who coached Andre Drummond, and will have another team in 2014-2015 filled with Division I talent.

For Peterson, the July live period was a chance for him to add some college interest before the season starts, hoping that it will carry over to next season, where he will continue to play out on the perimeter for one of the top prep school teams in the northeast.

“The coaches said there are five, six D-I players on the roster,” Peterson said. “So I’m just going to have to work my way up.”

Another Connecticut 2014 prospect, Isaac Vann, is taking the prep school route, as well, although he’s doing so with multiple Division I scholarship offers. After the first week of July, Iona and Wagner both offered the athletic, 6-foot-5 wing. He had previously been offered by Canisius and Sacred Heart.

It’s the second summer in a row he’s excelled in front of Division I coaches. In 2013, he led his AAU team, United Sons and Daughters (USAD), to the 17u title with 33 points in the BasketBull Summer Championships title game. USAD defeated Isaiah Whitehead and the Juice All-Stars in the semifinals.

“I think I’ve just been playing hard in front of coaches, showing I can be a versatile player on offense and defense, and showing I can help my team win,” Vann said. “I definitely improved my jump shot. I’ve been shooting a lot better, and I think coaches have noticed that.”

He will attend Coastal Academy (New Jersey) this fall, a school which describes itself as “a premier basketball academy with a college-level training program that is designed to help our student-athletes succeed.” Despite the concerns that come with being associated with a basketball-centric prep school, Coastal Academy has lived up to its mission statement, sending players to schools in the Big East, American, Mountain West, MAC and MAAC.

Vann will need to commit to the weight room if he wants attract more schools, but this summer has already been a positive one. He’s boosted his recruitment. Like Peterson, Vann played with the luxury of knowing he has another year of prep basketball ahead of him with several opportunities to play in front of college coaches this winter at various showcases and tournaments.

Mollison has done all he can do. He’s been to Hoop Group and Five-Star camps. Fowler has sent emails to countless coaches on his behalf. There are also multiple recruiting videos of him on YouTube. On top of all that, he played well during the live period, drawing interest from a Division II program in Michigan.

In the three-day tournament in Springfield, Mollison looked like a recruit trying to land a late scholarship offer. He was playing hard on every possession, but it was clear he was pressing at times.

“This is the most coaches he’s played in front of,” Fowler told NBCSports.com on July 19.

Mollison is quick with the ball in his hands. He’s a solid defender and a gifted passer. At times he is too fast, losing control of the ball while trying to beat his man off the dribble. Defensively, he had the tendency to gamble. Overall, he was a dynamic lead guard. He started off one game with two 3-pointers despite an odd shooting form. After his team gave up a double-digit lead, he rallied for five straight points, swinging momentum, as Venom Elite advanced to the second round.

Several Division I coaches took in his games, but it’s tough to determine their interest level. One low-major assistant coach watched for a half, but his team, which finished last in its conference this past season, is looking to replace its leading scorer. Other coaches appeared to float from court to court throughout the day.

Mollison left Springfield disappointed, but not defeated. His still clinging to the hopes of Division I basketball, but realizes he might need to utilize his backup plan whether it be Division II, JuCo, prep school, or accepting a partial scholarship at one of the universities in Canada pursuing him. Or maybe Mollison, with a recent history of long-shot victories, can pull off another one and score that coveted offer.

“I didn’t know if any coaches saw me play, or if they were impressed with me,” Mollison said. “I don’t know if anyone spoke to Jason. I’m still in the blind. Still in the same situation I came in with. I went into that tournament, played and still left with nothing.

“I’m just hoping and praying that I can get that one call, or get that one letter in the mail from a school, saying they’ve seen my talent and my potential.”

He did what he said, he left it all out on the table, now he waits to see if anyone noticed.

“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?