Bob Johnson, Courtesy Emory & Henry Athletics

From Emory & Henry to the Big Dance: The man behind college basketball’s unlikeliest coaching tree

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For six months after he took his first head coaching job, Bob Johnson lived in a haunted old gym.

There, on the Emory & Henry campus, 700 miles away from his wife and two children, at a tiny school in a tinier town tucked away in the mountains of southwestern Virginia, surrounded by dairy farms and lonely roads, the Vietnam veteran and son of a former four-star Army general launched a coaching career that would last three decades and produce as many current Division I head coaches as Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, two of whom will hear their names called on Selection Sunday.

He never left that school, the one that never had a basketball history to speak of when he arrived, the one that had 13 straight losing seasons when he started spending his nights with the spirit of a confederate soldier.

Johnson died at Emory & Henry, two years after he retired and two days before his 63rd birthday, leaving a legacy that stretches far beyond his little corner of Appalachia and the confines of what we call family.


Jamion Christian of Mount St. Mary’s (Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

Jamion Christian is the baby of the Emory & Henry family.

He won’t turn 35 until after this year’s Final Four and looks more like one of his players than a head coach that is taking Mount St. Mary’s to the NCAA tournament for the second time in four years.

Christian got his start at Emory & Henry the day after he graduated from the Mount. At 22 years old, less than a month after finishing his career as a Division I basketball player, Christian’s parents were helping him unpack in the apartment he was moving into on campus. Johnson, his 57-year old boss with two knee replacements and a couple wins over cancer already on his résumé, appeared at the top of the stairs with Christian’s mattress on his back.

That’s who Johnson was. He was demanding as all hell, but he was never going to ask his staff or his players to do something he wouldn’t do himself. There was the time he didn’t think his team was doing medicine ball slides hard enough, so he grabbed the 25-pound ball, held it above his head and threw 20 minutes on the clock, forcing his team to watch as he bettered college athletes two decades his junior.

He was also the toughest son of a gun in every room he walked into. Mike Young, who has spent the last 15 seasons as the head coach at Wofford, drove from Spartanburg, S.C., to Bristol, Va., when Johnson’s first bout with cancer forced him to have a kidney removed. Young was in Johnson’s hospital room when Marcy, his nurse, came in to check on him and let him know there was a buzzer he was allowed to press if he needed anything.

“Marcy,” Johnson said, “there’s not another thing I need tonight. But tomorrow, after my surgery, I might be uncomfortable, and I’m going to hit this buzzer and I am going to expect you to be there immediately. If you’re not, Marcy, I’m going to throw this f—ing phone through that window over there.”

They all had a good laugh at that, Marcy included.

“But she was there,” Young said, “when he rang that buzzer.”

Johnson was back at practice five days later, which only added to the mystique of his persona. He loved regaling whomever would listen with stories of his time in Vietnam. One day, when he was at lunch with his assistant, current Radford Athletic Director Robert Lineburg, he told the tale of how he could kill a man six different ways with a spoon. That story got out, and for the rest of his tenure at Emory & Henry, students would hide their spoons whenever Johnson walked through the cafeteria.

But as tough as he was, the people that knew Johnson best knew there was so much more to him. He was a former U.S. Army Ranger that survived a year of heavy combat in the jungles of southeast Asia. He coached hard and his teams played harder. He was an intimidating presence, until you got to know him.

Nathan Davis is now the head coach at Bucknell, taking the Bison to this year’s NCAA tournament in just his second season running a Division I program. Before he took a job as an assistant at Emory & Henry he was an all-conference player at ODAC rival Randolph-Macon. Before a critical league game against Emory & Henry, Davis was walking off the court and heading into his locker room with a teammate when he was hit in the back with a balled up piece of paper.

It had been thrown by Bob Johnson.

“Come here,” Johnson said. “You two look too sick to play today.”

“It was surreal. Who does that?” Davis recalled in an interview last month. “It was so random and funny. At the time, everyone knew he’s a Vietnam veteran, he’s intense, his teams play so hard. He’s an intimidating figure, and an hour before the game he’s doing this? It’s pretty funny. We were like ‘Who is this guy?’ It was a side to him not a lot of people knew he had.”

Johnson had a way of connecting with people from all walks of life. From the cafeteria workers to the janitors to the maintenance men, he knew the name of everyone on campus. He never walked into the lunch room through the front door. He’d come in the back, swapping stories and handing out t-shirts and asking the cooks about their kids.

“He just really appreciated everybody who contributed,” Sherry Johnson said. “He taught that to these kids. They left knowing they need to respect everybody.”


Nathan Davis of Bucknell (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Bob and Sherry Johnson were friendly in high school. They went on a few dates, she visited him at West Point and, after he was kicked out, at Dickinson, but nothing serious ever developed between them until Bob came home from Vietnam.

“I ran into him at a party,” Sherry said, still chuckling at the story five decades later. “He drank all my date’s scotch then he took me home. And that was the beginning of our dating relationship.”

Bob’s father was Harold K. Johnson, a survivor of the Bataan Death March who would go on to become a four-star general and, from 1964-68, the Chief of Staff of the United States Army. That was enough to get Bob into West Point. As the story goes, he was cut from the basketball team by Bob Knight for throwing a behind-the-back pass and, not too long after, kicked out of school after refusing to rat out a friend that had been accused of cheating.

He would finish up his college degree at Dickinson before heading off to Vietnam, where he became a U.S. Army Ranger and a platoon leader in the 101st airborne infantry division. Seven times during his tour of duty, he was in a helicopter that was shot down, those landings so violent that the toll on his knees cut his time in the service was cut short.

He would return to Northern Virginia, and, after marrying Sherry in 1973, he spent four years coaching at Boy’s Clubs and high schools in Washington, D.C. Eventually, he landed a spot as an assistant at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He spent three years there, and two weeks before the start of the 1980 season, he got word that he had been tabbed to take over the Emory & Henry program.

“I have good news and bad news,” Sherry recalls her husband saying. “The good news is I’m taking you back to Virginia. The bad news is you’re six hours from Mommy.”

The Johnsons had two kids by that point. They couldn’t afford two mortgages, so Sherry stayed back in New York with the kids while Bob moved to Emory, Virginia, to begin his career and find a house the family could afford all while living in an abandoned gym, spending more time chasing off ghosts than chasing around his children.

“Martin Brock was the name of the old gym and there were supposed to be ghosts in there,” Sherry said, chuckling. “It was an experience for him.”

“Eventually, he found a house and so when the kids and I came down, we moved in and he got out of the gym. He lived there for a good six months.”


Mike Young of the Wofford Terriers (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Mike Young was the first.

When Johnson accepted the Emory & Henry head coaching job in 1980, it was, as Young described it, “the worst job in America.” The school hadn’t posted a winning season in 13 years and the program was hours and hours away from anywhere that could be considered a hotbed of high school talent.

“When he got down here nobody knew where the basketballs were,” Sherry said. “Literally. There was no history, no tradition, nothing.”

No hope either, it seemed.

“In the early 80s, the worst basketball in America was played in southwest Virginia,” Young said. “You had to get to Roanoke and east [to find players]. It was such a discount to get in-state kids, but Roanoke was two hours east. Then to get to Richmond or Northern Virginia, you’re passing by a lot of quality schools to get to good old Emory. You come off that exit off I-81 and there’s a big dairy farm. For a city guy, that’s not what you lie awake at night dreaming about as a college destination.”

That, however, was great news for Young, whose father had attended Emory & Henry.

“[Johnson] was in the market for bad players,” he said, “and I was a great fit.”

Young, who was a member of Johnson’s second recruiting class, became the first player to last four years with the hard-coaching Johnson, who rewarded him with a job as an assistant after graduation. That apprenticeship was the greatest initiation into the coaching ranks that a kid could ask for, in part because Young had to do everything.

He washed the practice gear, recruited, fundraised, connected with alumni, watched film, drew-up game-plans, made sure the vans were gassed up for road trips, found places they could afford to eat after games.

Everything.

Division III programs typically have just a single assistant coach, and at Emory & Henry, Young earned just $5,000 a year for the work.

“I absolutely loved it,” Young said.

Courtesy Emory & Henry Athletics

Not only did he learn how to run a basketball program, but Johnson ensured that Young learned as much as possible about basketball at the same time. At one point soon after Young was hired, Johnson shipped him off to Nashville for a week just to spend time with legendary Lipscomb head coach Don Meyer. He hung out in the offices, he sat in on practices, he even parked Meyer’s car during his daily lunch runs to Captain D’s. Jimmy Allen, Army’s head coach, was sent on that same trip. Nathan Davis, too.

After two seasons in the Emory & Henry program, Young left for Radford, where he spent a year under Oliver Purnell before becoming an assistant at Wofford. Young still hasn’t left. He spent 13 years as an assistant with the Terriers before becoming their head coach in 2002.

Two seasons were all you were afforded by Johnson. You entered the program, you gave him everything you had and he taught you everything he knows. Then he would send you on your way.

He did this at the detriment to his program. Continuity is key at any level, but particularly in Division III, where budgets are small, scholarships don’t exist and the athletes compete because of their love for the game and their loyalty to their teammates. Putting that much time and energy into molding a kid into a capable assistant coach is not an easy endeavor, not when the process begins anew every 24 months.

But that’s the way Johnson worked.

“There are a lot of head coaches that don’t want to let go of their assistants because they’ve just got to train somebody new,” Sherry said. “Bob’s outlook was you’ve got two years with me, after two years you need to go learn something from somebody else. He loved moving his assistants along.”

Seeing the people he developed, both coaches and players, thrive in their post-Emory & Henry career meant more to him than wins and losses, and he was as competitive as they come. One of the first tasks he required of his assistants was to call every one of his former assistants. He didn’t have the weight to get anyone a job, but he had a network that could be worked. Jimmy Allen, who just finished his first season as head coach at Army, played for Johnson for four years before becoming his assistant. When his two years were up, he went to Navy, where he helped get Davis on staff after Davis left Emory & Henry. Allen left Navy to join Young’s staff at Wofford when Young was named head coach.

Davis eventually left Navy and went to Colgate, where he spent one season working for Emmett Davis before taking over as the head coach at his alma mater. When Nathan Davis left, Emmett Davis hired another Emory & Henry product, Jon Coffman, the head coach of the Fort Wayne team that upset then-No. 3 Indiana in November.

Christian’s rise, however, is the most emblematic of Johnson’s steadfast refusal to allow his protégés to accept anything less than what they deserved. After leaving Emory & Henry, Christian got a job as an assistant at William & Mary, a job he got through Nathan Davis. After Christian’s first season at William & Mary, in 2007, Johnson decided that he would finally step down as Emory & Henry’s head coach. Christian, who was 25 years old at the time, interviewed for the job and was told that the position was his.

Until Johnson weighed in.

“I think you have bigger things ahead of you,” Johnson told Christian. “I’m not going to hire you.”

Christian believed him. He spent three more years at William & Mary before accepting a job as an assistant on Shaka Smart’s staff at VCU. Nine months later, Mount St. Mary’s was looking for a new head coach.

In 2012, at just 29 years old, Christian became one of the youngest head coaches in college basketball.


Jon Coffman of IPFW (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Bob Johnson wasn’t just a basketball coach. He had two different tenures as a football coach at Emory & Henry, he ran the athletic department and he was a professor at the university, teaching everything from Western Civilization to Great Books to Physical Education.

“He’s the most well-read man I’ve ever met,” Sherry said.

He made it a point with his players and his assistants to develop them as men, not just as coaches. “From Day One, we met as a team and coach is talking about how you act in the classroom, how you do things, how you carry yourself, how you treat people,” Allen said. “You’re not going to miss a class. It wasn’t about basketball. It was about you as a person.”

He challenged his coaches intellectually. It wasn’t uncommon for him to tell his assistant to drop whatever they were doing, read a 300 page book and meet him on his deck for beers that night to discuss it.

Coffman graduated from Washington & Lee, a white-collar school in Northern Virginia and ODAC rival that Johnson not-so-affectionately referred to as “cake-eaters”, and spent two years at a money management firm in San Francisco before getting into coaching. He sent out 250 résumés and Johnson was one of three people to respond. Coffman traveled to Virginia for a two-day interview, the majority of which saw the pair “hanging out on his back deck in the mountains of Virginia,” Coffman said. “I can’t even count how many oil cans of Fosters we put down, talking everything from politics to education to his army background to basketball.”

Johnson didn’t want people on his staff that had no interest in the world outside of basketball.

“He challenged you to go find new ideas,” Allen said.

For Davis, it was Johnson’s ability to balance his personal and professional lives that stuck with him. Davis had never been around a coach that was married. He had never learned from someone that put everything he had into coaching while ensuring that he was a good father and a good husband at the same time.

“That was important, understanding that it was OK to balance your life and it was OK to have kids and to want to spend time with them,” Davis, who is married with a young son, said. “You could do this job and do those things, and that was very valuable to me. It’s something I carry as much as anything.”

Johnson had a way of pushing people without pushing them too far. He could lead without being suffocating. He inspired loyalty because the people in his program knew he would do everything he possibly could to help them. His door was always open, and when he didn’t have time, he made time. “He didn’t make you feel like he cared,” Allen said. “He showed you he cared.”

“It was,” Coffman said, “like getting a master’s in leadership.”


The Emory & Henry family dinner (courtesy Jon Coffman)

Bob Johnson died on Aug. 22nd, 2009, finally succumbing to the cancer that had riddled his body for so many years.

He never got a chance to see Young reach any of his four NCAA tournaments. He never got to see Christian become a head coach at 29 years old. He never got to see Coffman get hired at Fort Wayne three years after he was out of a job, debating whether or not it was worth it to continue in the coaching business. He never saw Nathan Davis thrive as the head coach at Bucknell, or Allen get hired by Army, the university that asked Johnson to leave four decades earlier.

But his family did.

Sherry and Johnson’s son, Casey, were in attendance when Allen’s Army team erased a 25-point deficit in the final 12 minutes at Navy. They went to UNC Greensboro a couple years back when Coffman’s team played there. Sherry still hosts parties at the house she and Johnson shared during Emory & Henry’s homecoming weekend. The group still gets together every year for an Emory & Henry dinner at the Final Four. Every one of the five Division I head coaches that Johnson spawned calls one of the five their best friend in the business, or their mentor in the business, or the most important person in the growth of their career.

And that is despite the fact that their time at Emory & Henry never overlapped.

Young was gone by the time Allen arrived on campus. Allen played against Nathan Davis and Jon Coffman, but he was off to Navy by the time Davis was hired. Coffman was hired to replace Davis. Christian entered the fray four years after Coffman left.

Johnson spent 27 years as a head coach. He won 374 games, he reached the NCAA tournament five times and the Sweet 16 twice. He had three players get named all-americans. The playing floor at Emory & Henry is named Bob Johnson Court. Since 2009, the ODAC memorialized his career by giving out the “Bob Johnson Coach of the Year” award.

But his legacy, the one that Johnson cared about more than anything else in his career, is the Emory & Henry family that he built, a family that extends beyond just those five coaches. Lineburg spent 10 seasons as an assistant at SMU before eventually becoming Radford’s AD. R.J. Spelsberg, who won a Virginia state title in 2016, is one of a myriad of successful high school coaches Johnson mentored.

“He would be so proud,” Sherry said. “All of his assistants would eat with us two times a week, three times a week. We live a mile from campus and they were just part of our family.”

“We still stay in touch and support these kids because they are part of our family.”

“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.

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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.

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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?