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College Hoops Contender Series: Can Kentucky’s talent overcome their issues?

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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 talked about six different Final Four contenders that are just flawed enough that we can’t call them contenders.

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

This week, we will be taking a deeper dive into all five of those teams, breaking down why they can win a national title and why they won’t win a national title.

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WHY THEY CAN WIN: It’s John Calipari and it’s a team full of elite players. That has, generally speaking, always been a formula that, at the least, has the Wildcats in contention.

Cal has been at Kentucky for seven years. He’s made the Final Four in four of those seven years. One of the three years that he didn’t get to the Final Four he saw his best player, Nerlens Noel, tear an ACL in conference play. Another one of the years he didn’t get to the Final Four he had the most talented team in the country and it got bounced in the Elite 8.

He’s won a national title.

He won 38 straight games.

And he’ll have one of the most talented teams in the country again this season.

It starts in the back court, where Kentucky will have the most athletic pair of guards in the country in De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk. Both Fox and Monk are potential lottery picks – Fox playing the role of point guard with Monk playing off the ball – and the duo should make life hell for opposing back courts; Fox may be the best back court defender in the country, while Monk’s athleticism is impressive enough that effort is the only thing that should keep him from being a lockdown defender. They are the engine that should let Kentucky run as one of the nation’s best defenses.

Isaiah Briscoe is the third guard on Kentucky’s roster, and the Wildcats could do worse than slotting Dominique Hawkins in for 10 minutes a night in their back court.

Kentucky’s front court is even deeper. Bam Adebayo is the name to know there. A thrillingly athletic, 6-foot-10 power forward, Bam has the best chance to be the superstar on this team. He was known in high school for his powerful dunking ability, but he has a solid face-up game and should be able to step away from the rim to create space when Kentucky wants to play big.

It will be interesting to see how the rest of the front court rotation will work itself out. Sophomore 7-footer Isaac Humphries has drawn rave reviews this summer, but he’s not exactly a typical Kentucky big man. He’s less athlete than he is land warrior, and while he’s a good rebounder with some skill in the post, he’s not exactly an intimidating shot-blocker.

Humphries – and to a lesser extent, Tai Wynyard – has value and a role on this Kentucky team, but his limitations are what make Wenyen Gabriel such an intriguing piece. Gabriel is another prospective first round pick for the Wildcats, although his hype is built more around his potential as a player than his expected production. He’s a lanky, mobile and athletic forward that can knock down threes and defend multiple positions. A lineup that features Gabriel at the four and Bam at the five will be athletic, versatile and a lot of fun to watch. I also think it would be the best defensive lineup that Kentucky can put on the floor.

And I think this is going to be a team that has to win games with their defense – we’ll get into that in a minute – which is why Derek Willis is this team’s x-factor. To put it bluntly, Kentucky has a major issue shooting the ball, and that just so happens to be Willis’ strength. He shot 44.2 percent from three on 120 threes attempted last season, he was the most efficient player on Kentucky’s roster and his presence in the lineup is what sparked the late season surge for the Wildcats last year. His issue, other than staying healthy, is on the defensive end of the floor, but he at least has the length and the physical tools to hold his own.

With the rest of the defensive options on the floor around him, that may end up being good enough.

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WHY THEY WON’T WIN: I love the pieces on this Kentucky team.

I don’t love how the pieces fit together.

The biggest issue for me is the lack of perimeter shooting. De’Aaron Fox thrives in transition but he’s somewhat limited in the half court offensively, particularly when it comes to shooting the ball. Malik Monk is a streaky three-point shooter, the kind of player that can make six in a row in one game and then make four of his next 30. Isaiah Briscoe shot 13.5 percent from three last season. Hawkins shot 27.6 percent.

When Kentucky plays three guards together, there isn’t going to be much space inside the arc to operate, which creates problems for the guards on the perimeter that slash to the rim and the bigs that operate in the paint. One solution to this problem is playing Derek Willis, but the question then becomes where does he fit on the floor? Does he see time at the three, forcing Briscoe to the bench, or will he be used as a stretch four like he was last season?

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 15: East Team MVP De’Aaron Fox (Katy, TX) in action during the 15th iteration of the Jordan Brand Classic at Barclays Center on April 15, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images for Jordan Brand )
De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky Wildcats (Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images)

The other question mark is Monk. The biggest reason he’s been such an inefficient jump shooter throughout his high school career is his shot selection. He loves firing up deep threes early in the clock and he has no conscience when it comes to letting fly with a hand in his face, but that all came while playing for the high school team in Bentonville, Arkansas. He wasn’t doing this while on the roster at, say, Oak Hill Academy or Findlay Prep. It will be interesting to see how he adapts to playing on a team where he isn’t by far the best player.

However Cal decides to build his rotation, the bottom-line is that floor-spacing will be a concern for the Wildcats throughout the year.

Which brings us to the second question mark with this team: Their defense. Cal’s best teams are not only elite on the defensive end of the floor – John Wall’s 2010 team finished sixth in defensive efficiency, the 2012 title winning team finished eighth and the 2015 team that went 38-0 finished first – they all finished in the top two is block percentage.

To put it simply: When there are a slew of really big, really long and really athletic dudes standing in front of the rim, it makes it really easy for the really quick, really athletic dudes on the perimeter to get out and pressure on the perimeter. If they get beaten or gamble and miss on a steal, so what? Good luck finishing over Anthony Davis or Karl Towns.

This year, Kentucky doesn’t really have that rim protector, at least not on paper. Isaac Humphries is their best returning shot-blocker, but he doesn’t project as an elite rim protector the way Towns and Davis did. The other issue with Humphries is that he’s nowhere near as fleet-a-foot as a typical Kentucky big man; he’s not going to be switching ball-screens.

Bam is athletic enough to be that guy, but he’s not as big as Towns or Davis and doesn’t have the same reputation as a shot-blocker. In lineups where he’s asked to play the five, that slots Gabriel, Killeya-Jones or even Willis at the four. That front line is not all that big. Defensive rebounding could be a real problem.

I bring up these issues on the defensive end because I think this team is going to have issues offensively. If they’re going to win the national title, they’re going to have to be one of, if not the best defensive team in the country.

NASHVILLE, TN - MARCH 11: Isaiah Briscoe #13 of the Kentucky Wildcats celebrates in the game against the Alabama Crimson Tide during the quarterfinals of the SEC Basketball Tournament at Bridgestone Arena on March 11, 2016 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Isaiah Briscoe of the Kentucky Wildcats (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

PREDICTION: This team reminds me an awful lot of the 2010 team that lost to West Virginia in the Elite 8. That team featured John Wall and Eric Bledsoe in the back court with a front line of DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson.

But here’s the thing: Wall and Bledsoe were probably better than Fox and Monk will be. Cousins is markedly better than Humphries, and if Bam ends up being better than Patterson – who averaged 17.9 points and 9.3 boards as a sophomore in 2008-09 – he’ll be a second-team all-american at worst.

That 2010 team went 35-3. After a slow start to the year, they cruised to regular season and tournament titles in a mediocre, but were done in by a 4-for-32 three-point shooting performance against West Virginia in the Elite 8.

I would not be the least surprised to see this season play out the exact same way.

Bam Adebayo (Photo by Roberto Serra/Iguana Press/Getty Images)
Bam Adebayo, Kentucky Wildcats (Photo by Roberto Serra/Iguana Press/Getty Images)

Louisville’s Deng Adel and Ray Spalding to test draft process

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A season that began with the firing of Rick Pitino in mid-October came to an end Tuesday night, as Louisville lost to Mississippi State 79-56 in a Postseason NIT regional final. There are a lot of questions to be answered, most notably who will lead the program moving forward after interim head coach David Padgett led the Cardinals to 22 wins.

As for the players, two announced following the loss that they will be going through the NBA Draft process. Junior wing Deng Adel and junior forward Ray Spalding both confirmed that they will be entering the NBA Draft but not hiring agents, so as to preserve their collegiate eligibility should they decide to return to school.

This will be the second time that Adel has entered the NBA Draft, doing so last spring before making the decision to return to school.

Playing just over 33 minutes per game, the 6-foot-8 Adel averaged 15.1 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.8 assists per contest, shooting 44.8 percent from the field and 35.0 percent from three. Moving into the starting lineup after serving as a reserve in each of his first two seasons at Louisville, the 6-foot-10 Spalding averaged 12.3 points, 8.6 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in 27.4 minutes per game.

Mississippi State advances to NIT semifinals at MSG

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Quinndary Weatherspoon scored 19 points and grabbed 14 rebounds and Mississippi State advanced to the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden in New York with a 79-56 victory over Louisville on Tuesday night.

Mississippi State (25-11) will face Penn State (24-13) on March 27.

Lamar Peters opened the second quarter with a 3-pointer and Mississippi State led by at least nine points the rest of the way. Weatherspoon scored eight points during a 12-3 run to start the third for a 51-31 advantage and MSU cruised.

Aric Holman added 16 points and eight rebounds for Mississippi State, which has won its most games since the 2009-10 season. Xavian Stapleton and Nick Weatherspoon each chipped in with 12 points. Abdul Ado had three blocks to tie Jarvis Varnado for the most blocks by a MSU freshman with 67.

Ray Spalding paced Louisville (22-14) with 13 points and 11 rebounds for his 11th double-double of the season. The Cardinals shot 35 percent from the floor and were outrebounded 42-32.

Gregg Marshall does right by Alex Lomax with NLI release

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Memphis introduced Penny Hardaway as its new head coach Tuesday morning, with the former Tiger great and Memphis native making his triumphant return to campus.

And it didn’t take long for Hardaway’s hiring to have an impact on the recruiting trail either, as the point guard who led Hardaway’s Memphis East squad to its third straight TSSAA AAA state title is expected to play for his longtime mentor.

Alex Lomax, who signed a National Letter of Intent to play for Gregg Marshall at Wichita State, requested to be released from his NLI on Tuesday. It didn’t take Marshall long to make his decision, granting Lomax’s request and citing the unique circumstances in his statement as to why.

“Obviously, we take commitments to the Shocker program very seriously, but this is a very unique situation where a young man’s mentor and coach since the 5th grade has become a Division I head coach,” Marshall said. “Allowing him out of his NLI without any penalty is the right thing to do.”

The National Letter of Intent, for those who may not be too familiar with it, is a document that when signed binds the recruit in question to the school they’ve committed to. If the circumstances surrounding the recruitment change, getting released from the NLI can be incredibly difficult. Coaches and universities have no obligation to release a recruit once they sign, and it seems like every year we run into a situation where a coach is refusing to so.

Kansas point guard Devonte’ Graham is only a senior this season because, after signing an NLI with Appalachian State, he was not given a release and forced to go to prep school for a year. That’s not as uncommon as you might think.

That is also perfectly within the bounds of the rules, if not the laws of being a decent human being.

Wichita State and Marshall could have taken this opportunity to make life miserable for Lomax, and there would have been those who rushed to say that since the young man made a commitment he should stick by it no matter what. Lomax was a noteworthy recruiting win for the program during its first season in the American Athletic Conference, as the Wichita State went into Memphis and landed a pledge from a prospect who was likely to be a key part of the program’s plans moving forward.

But the hit that comes with allowing Lomax to leave without fuss is far less severe than what happens if Wichita State and Marshall make things difficult for him.

Faced with the opportunity to do the right thing and help out a young player, Marshall and Wichita State did just that.

The program should, and will, be applauded for it.

Stevens’ 30 points leads Penn State past Marquette in NIT

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Lamar Stevens tied his career high with 30 points, Tony Carr added 25 and Penn State beat Marquette 85-80 on Tuesday night to advance to the NIT semifinals.

The Nittany Lions (24-13) will face either Mississippi State or Louisville at Madison Square Garden in New York on March 27. They advanced to the NIT semis for the first time since winning the 2009 tournament.

Stevens hit three crucial buckets in the final three minutes, including a dunk off an alley-oop pass from Josh Reaves for an eight-point lead with one minute left. The 6-foot-8 Stevens then maneuvered through a couple Marquette players to secure a rebound off Andrew Rowsey’s missed 3 with 46 seconds left.

Carr went 5 of 8 from the foul line over the final 30 seconds to give Marquette another chance. Rowsey hit a 3 and a layup to get the Golden Eagles as close as 83-80 with six seconds left before the Golden Eagles ran out of time.

Rowsey, a senior, scored 29 points for Marquette (21-14).

The Golden Eagles had whittled a 14-point deficit early in the second half to 72-68 with 2:39 left on three foul shots by Rowsey. Penn State went nearly three minutes without a bucket and got sloppy with the ball and the sharpshooting Golden Eagles started hitting 3s to get back in the game.

Report: Joseph Chartouny to transfer from Fordham

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After three seasons at Fordham, guard Joseph Chartouny will be leaving the school to play his final year elsewhere. News of Chartouny’s transfer was reported Tuesday afternoon by ESPN’s Jeff Goodman, and the 6-foot-3 guard from Montreal will be eligible immediately as a graduate transfer.

Chartouny made 28 starts for the Rams this season, averaging 12.2 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 3.3 steals in 36.0 minutes per game. Leading the nation in both total steals and steals per game, Chartouny was an Atlantic 10 All-Defensive Team selection.

In three seasons at Fordham Chartouny, the 2016 Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year, averaged 11.9 points, 5.0 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 2.9 steals per game. Given his abilities as a defender and a distributor, Chartouny stands to be a popular player amongst programs looking to add an immediately eligible contributor who also has ample experience at the Division I level.

With Chartouny reportedly moving on, Fordham head coach Jeff Neubauer has a significant hole to fill in his backcourt rotation for 2018-19.

Transfers Antwon Portley (Saint Peters’s) and Erten Gazi (DePaul) will be eligible next season, with reserve Cavit Havsa set to be a junior next season. Fordham’s also landed three perimeter recruits in its 2018 class, with three-star point guard Nick Honor among that trio.