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College Hoops Contender Series: Here Are Six Final Four Sleepers

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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.

First up: Final Four Sleepers

It takes a certain amount of talent to be able to win a national title in college basketball, even if that talent doesn’t always show up every night.

Winning four games in two weeks to get to the season’s final weekend can be done by a team with a handful of future pros and 10 losses on the season. We see it all the time.

Here are seven teams that have the tools to make a run to the Final Four even if they don’t have a great chance of winning their conference and look likely to enter the NCAA tournament outside the top four seeds.

Angel Delgado, Seton Hall (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

SETON HALL

If you’re not the kind of program that is going to be landing five-star, soon-to-be lottery pick freshmen by the car-load each and every fall, the best way to win basketball games is to get old and stay old. No one quite embodies that ethos this season like Seton Hall does.

Head coach Kevin Willard entered the 2015-16 season on the hot seat after his loaded 2014 recruiting class sparked a 13-3 start to the 2014-15 season before the team fell off a cliff, losing 12 of their last 15 games and missing out on the postseason entirely. Following that season, the Pirates jettisoned some of their baggage and returned a core of sophomores that would eventually lead the program to back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances despite losing Isaiah Whitehead to the 2016 NBA Draft.

And now, four members of that 2014 recruiting class — guards Khadeen Carrington and Desi Rodriguez, big men Angel Delgado and Ishmael Sanogo — are now seniors leading what may be the best Seton Hall team since the P.J. Carlesimo days. Delgado’s name is the one you need to know. The 6-foot-9 Dominican power forward is one of the toughest and most physical bigs in the country. It’s not a mistake that he averaged 15.2 points and 13.1 boards last season, numbers that jumped to 16.4 points and 14.5 boards in Big East play.

He’s Seton Hall’s All-American. He was also the team’s third-leading scorer last year, behind Carrington and Rodriguez, who are both tough, physical New York City guards; Carrington is more of a combo while Rodriguez is a wing. Sanogo Michael Nzei are tough, athletic, defensive-minded front court players, and you’re starting to see the trend here, right?

Playing Seton Hall is not going to be fun this season, and while they may not be the most talented team in the country this year, you’ll be hard-pressed to find one that plays harder.

There are going to be two things that determine Seton Hall’s ceiling:

  • Does Seton Hall have a point guard? Freshman Jordan Walker is the only true point that will be eligible this season, and the Pirates ran into some problems that came with a lack of playmakers last season. Asking a freshman to handle those responsibilities will be tough, but it helps that Carrington can handle the ball and that everyone else on the floor will be a veteran.
  • What does Myles Powell turn into? He had some promising moments as a freshman, including 26-point outbursts at Iowa and at Xavier. If he become a more consistent shooter, that opens up a lot more space for Delgado inside.
Collin Sexton (David Banks/Getty Images)

ALABAMA

Last year, Alabama finished the season as one of the top ten defensive teams in college basketball, according to KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric.

Not only do the Crimson Tide return essentially everyone from that team, they also add one of the nation’s best recruiting classes to the mix. More importantly, that recruiting class features players that are able to get buckets in a hurry, and if you any Alabama basketball a year ago, you know that was a major issue; they were 153rd in adjusted offensive efficiency and, in February, played a four-overtime game against South Carolina where they managed all of 90 points in 60 minutes of basketball.

The name that you’re going to want to be familiar with is Collin Sexton, a top ten prospect in the class and the pound-for-pound best freshman scorer in the country. Assuming he’s eligible – which is no guarantee given the fact that he appears to be linked to the college basketball bribery scandal that erupted last week – it’s going to be interesting to see how he adjusts to the college level — in high school, the 6-foot-2 guard’s game was centered around getting into the lane, throwing his body into people and getting to the foul line — but he should immediately help relieve some of those scoring issues, as will five-star off-guard John Petty. Braxton Key and Dazon Ingram are both back in the mix as well, while former four-star big man Daniel Giddens will be eligible after transferring in from Ohio State.

I’m still very-much taking a wait-and-see approach with the Tide this year, but the combination of last year’s defense combined with the influx of scoring talent Avery Johnson will see in his back court this year gets the Tide a ceiling that is as high as anyone’s in the SEC this side of Kentucky and Florida.

UCLA

It’s going to be easy for people to write off this UCLA team.

Lonzo Ball is gone, as is T.J. Leaf, Ike Anigbogu, Isaac Hamilton and Bryce Alford. Instead, the Bruins will enroll Liangelo Ball, the worst of the three Ball brothers and the one that may end up igniting LaVar’s ire if he does not play the kind of minutes and get the kind of shots he envisions.

Frankly, I’m not even going to bother trying to convince you otherwise. There are major, major question marks surrounding this team.

But let’s pretend, for a second, that LaVar Ball did not exist.

The Bruins may have the best point guard in the Pac-12 in Aaron Holiday, who is one of the nation’s most underrated players. They have Thomas Welsh, a senior big man that can space the floor, and G.G. Goloman, another veteran front court presence. Prince Ali is coming off of an injury but he was a five-star prospect coming out of high school. Then there is the recruiting class: Jaylen Hands might be the reason that Holiday isn’t the best point guard on UCLA this year, and wing Kris Wilkes may actually have the biggest impact as a freshman. Throw in four-star recruits Chris Smith, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill, and there is talent, depth and experience up and down this lineup.

They’ve got a shot to make some noise.

J.P. Macura, Trevon Bluiett (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

XAVIER

You want a sneaky sleeper pick for National Player of the Year that no one seems to be talking about?

Trevon Bluiett.

The 6-foot-6 wing was an absolute killer when he wasn’t dealing with an ankle injury last season, and through the first three rounds of last year’s NCAA tournament, he was the best player in the event. He’ll be back, potentially as a Preseason First-Team All-American, to anchor a roster that is probably more talented and athletic than you realize.

Senior wing J.P. Macura is back, as is sophomore Quentin Goodin, a former four-star recruit that has some promising moments as in an up-and-down freshman season filling in for the injured Edmond Sumner. Throw in a trio of four-star perimeter recruits, an experienced and versatile frontline and The Return of the (Chris) Mack, who was a target during Indiana’s coaching search, and there is a lot to like about this team.

But it’s Bluiett that is the centerpiece. As much as anyone in college basketball, he can put this group on his back and carry them to four straight wins in March, and with this supporting cast and coaching staff, that make Xavier a dangerous team.

MINNESOTA

The Golden Gophers were one of college basketball’s biggest surprises a season ago. Richard Pitino entered the season on the hot seat before winning 12 of their first 13 games only to lose five straight midway through Big Ten play. They would regroup, however, winning eight straight down the stretch, finishing the year with 24 wins and, somehow, turning into the obvious first round NCAA tournament upset as a No. 5 seed.

It was a roller coaster, but given the youth that was on that roster and the fact that Akeem Springs is the only contributor that won’t be returning to school, it was a nice starting point for what could turn into an extended run of Big Ten success.

Nate Mason is back for his senior year while junior Dupree McBrayer and freshman Isaiah Washington give Pitino plenty of back court options. Amir Coffey, a former five-star recruit, had a terrific freshman campaign as a versatile wing while the front court options are plentiful — Reggie Lynch and Bakary Konate return, and Davante Fitzgerald’s return to health should help mitigate the loss of Eric Curry.

All told, that means a Pitino-coached team has a talented, experienced perimeter attack with a bevy of big bodies on the front line. If Coffey can grow into an all-Big Ten talent, Minnesota will have the horses to give Michigan State a run for their money atop the league.

Matt Farrell, Bonzie Colson (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

NOTRE DAME

To me, the Fighting Irish have reached the point in their program development that they are to the ACC what Wisconsin was to the Big Ten under Bo Ryan. Instead of trying to figure out who is going to play what role, just assume that the pieces Mike Brey has matriculating through his program will find a way to figure it out.

There is no better example of this than last year, when the Irish lost Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste from a team that went 24-12 and somehow managed to win more games with a better ACC record despite using 6-foot-5 Bonzie Colson as their small-ball center for much of the year.

And never has there been a player more perfectly-suited to a role than Colson is to playing in Mike Brey’s system. He’s borderline unstoppable one-on-one, and when the Irish plant knockdown shooters everywhere around him, they become a nightmare to defend.

Matt Farrell, who was one of the most pleasant surprises in college basketball last season, will return as well, but the key for this group is going to be three-fold:

  1. Will Temple Gibbs and Rex Pflueger, two wings that entered Notre Dame with expectations and a high rankings by recruiting services, take advantage of the minutes made available by the graduation of Steve Vasturia and V.J. Beachem?
  2. Will D.J. Harvey, a talented forward that was once a top ten player in the Class of 2017, have an immediate impact as the big wing that the Irish currently lack?
  3. Does Martinas Geben become a player that can anchor a front line when needed?

If all three of those things happen, Notre Dame will once again be a top 20 team that can beat anyone on any given night.

No. 17 Michigan beats Maryland 85-61 for 5th straight win

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COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman scored 22 of his career-high 28 points in the decisive first half, and No. 17 Michigan easily defeated Maryland 85-61 Saturday for its fifth straight victory.

Using runs of 9-0 and 16-3, the Wolverines built a 54-24 halftime lead and cruised to the finish. Michigan went 17 for 28 from the floor in the first half, including 11 for 19 from 3-point range.

The Wolverines (24-7, 13-5 Big Ten) have clinched the No. 5 seed in the conference tournament, but can earn a No. 4 seed and a double bye if Nebraska loses to Penn State on Sunday.

Anthony Cowan Jr. scored 17 for Maryland, which suffered its most lopsided home loss since a 104-72 defeat against Duke on Jan 3, 1998.

The Terrapins (19-12, 8-10) were 15-2 at home and lost to Michigan on the road by just one point on Jan. 15, which made the blowout that much more surprising.

Abdur-Rahkman made six 3-pointers in the first half and also led the Wolverines with five rebounds and four assists. The senior guard cooled off in the second half, but nevertheless surpassed his previous career best of 26 points.

After Michigan rattled off 10 straight points to take a 20-12 lead, Kevin Huerter hit a 3 for Maryland before Jaaron Simmons launched the pivotal 16-3 run with a long-range jumper. Jordan Poole chipped in with a pair of 3-pointers and another by Abdur-Rahkman made it 34-18.

The Wolverines had three turnovers in their opening four possessions, but added only one more before halftime.

BIG PICTURE

Michigan: The Wolverines have plenty of momentum to bring into the Big Ten Tournament. Michigan won it all last year, and again appears ready to take on the big boys in the conference.

Maryland: A flat performance at home means the Terrapins have to win the Big Ten Tournament to extend their run of appearances in the NCAA Tournament to four.

CELEBRITY SIGHTINGS

Former Maryland WR Torrey Smith, who earned his second career Super Bowl ring this season, returned to his alma mater to promote a charity basketball tournament next month in Baltimore. Also, Ravens coach John Harbaugh, the brother of Michigan football Jim Harbaugh, sat courtside.

UP NEXT

Michigan: Big Ten Tournament in New York.

Maryland: Big Ten Tournament on Thursday.

Mark Emmert hints at changes coming to rules regulating agents in college basketball

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Whatever changes Mark Emmert has planned, they’re going to happen quickly.

In an interview with CBS Sports prior to the start of Saturday’s college hoops action, Emmert said that the “systemic changes” that he is hoping to implement will, ideally, be in place for the start of the 2018-2019 season.

“They’re going to be putting forth their recommendations and bringing them forward during the month of April, and then the boards are going to act on them and act on them quickly,” Emmert said. “We need to act and have changes in place before tipoff of next season. Failure to do that will really erode everyone’s confidence in what this wonderful game is truly all about.”

What are the changes going to be?

Emmert didn’t spill the beans there, but it does seems like the NCAA will consider changing the rules involving agents and college basketball players. When asked why there’s a difference between the way the NCAA views hockey/baseball players and basketball players with regards to agents, Emmert said, “It makes perfect sense to me that it ought to be very different than it is now.”

This would be the smart move to make. Of Friday, I wrote a long column about how the only way to clean up college basketball is to allow players to have agents and to eliminate amateurism. This would not entirely solve the problem, but it would be a major step in the right direction.

Emmert also said that he hopes that the eligibility concerns involving the players that are mentioned in these reports will be figured out by the start of the NCAA tournament. The process for determining this is simple: Right now, the onus falls on the school. They essentially have three options:

  1. They can provisionally suspend the player, keeping them out of competition until they can determine whether or not a violation took place. This is why Collin Sexton and Jeffery Carroll missed time earlier this season.
  2. They can self-report a violation, announce that the player is ineligible and immediately apply for reinstatement with the NCAA. The player would have to make restitution for the impermissible benefits and, depending on the value of those benefits, they’d face some kind of suspension. This is like what happened with the Georgia Tech players earlier this season.
  3. They can announce that they do not believe any violations occurred, play out the rest of the season and hope that no evidence pops up that proves the guys that played were ineligible at the time.

At this time, we are still waiting to hear from Alabama on Collin Sexton, Michigan State on Miles Bridges and Arizona on Deandre Ayton and Sean Miller.

Chimezie Metu cleared to play by USC

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USC has cleared junior forward Chimezie Metu as he’ll be allowed to play on Saturday against Utah, the school announced.

The 6-foot-11 Metu is the leading scorer and rebounder for the Trojans this season as he was one of the players named in the Friday reports that linked him to NBA agent Andy Miller and Christian Dawkins.

The Trojans are the latest school to allow their player to play after the reports as they follow schools like Duke and Kentucky, as they also did the same with allowing Wendell Carter Jr. and Kevin Knox Jr. to play.

It’s also noted in the release that USC is reviewing Bennie Boatwright’s eligibility as well even though he’s out for the season with a knee injury.

On Friday, Yahoo Sports reported a wide-scale payment operation from Miller and Dawkins in order to recruit players for Miller’s agency. The records allege that Bennie Boatwright Sr. received about $2,000. The records also allege that Metu or his advisor, Johnnie Parker, also got $2,000.

Although the allegations look serious, Dawkins has also proven to be untrustworthy in many instances and it’s hard to tell what might be real and what might be a cover for another expense. It’s hard to prove a lot of these things presented in a business expenses spreadsheet. USC is backing Metu by saying he never received anything that would harm his eligibility as they try to make a final push at Arizona before the postseason.

Bubble Banter: There will be some NCAA tournament bids determined today

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As we will do every day throughout the rest of the season, here is a look at how college basketball’s bubble teams fared on Saturday.

It’s worth reminding you here that the way winning are labeled have changed this season. Instead of looking at all top 50 wins equally, the selection committee will be using criteria that breaks wins down into four quadrants, using the RPI:

  • Quadrant 1: Home vs. 1-30, Neutral vs. 1-50, Road vs. 1-75
  • Quadrant 2: Home vs. 31-75, Neutral vs. 51-100, Road vs. 76-135
  • Quadrant 3: Home vs. 76-160, Neutral vs. 101-200, Road vs. 136-240
  • Quadrant 4: Home vs. 161 plus, Neutral vs. 201 plus, Road vs. 240 plus

The latest NBC Sports Bracketology can be found here.

WINNERS

PROVIDENCE (RPI: 43, KenPom: 71, NBC seed: 10): The Friars avoided what could have been a disastrous loss by handing on to beat Georgetown in Washington D.C. on Saturday. The Friars had lost two in a row — at Butler and Seton Hall at home — and play at Xavier on Wednesday, meaning that they would be staring a four-game losing streak in the face had they lost at Georgetown. As it stands, Providence is 3-7 against Quadrant 1, which includes home wins over Xavier and Villanova, but they’ve also lost two Quadrant 3 and one Quadrant 4 games.

SETON HALL (RPI: 21, KenPom: 31, NBC seed: 8): Seton Hall stumbled their way onto the bubble by losing four straight to start February, but they’re rebounded with three straight wins. Surviving a postponed game at Providence might have been what put the Pirates in the Dance. I think they are a lock with one more win.

TCU (RPI: 20, KenPom: 21, NBC seed: 9): The Horned Frogs have just about punched their ticket. A win over Baylor today was yet another good win. They now have four Quadrant 1 and four Quadrant 2 wins without a single loss outside the top two Quadrants. If they lose out it will be interesting, so I would say they need one more win to lock up a bid.

LOSERS

BAYLOR (RPI: 58, KenPom: 38, NBC seed: Play-in game): The Bears lost their second straight game on Saturday, falling to 16-12 overall and 7-9 in the Big 12. They are in a tough spot now. They have four Quadrant 1 wins but they are just 4-10 in those Quadrant 1 games. All 12 of their losses, however, are “good” losses, and they still play Oklahoma at home and Kansas State on the road before the Big 12 tournament. I don’t think they can get a big with 14 losses, so I think they need to win two more during the regular season and maybe another one in the Big 12 tournament.

MARQUETTE (RPI: 64, KenPom: 52, NBC seed: First four out): Marquette took their worst loss of the season on Saturday afternoon, going into Chicago and losing at DePaul, the first Quadrant 3 loss for the Golden Eagles. They are now 16-12 on the season and 7-9 in the Big East with just four Quadrant 1 wins. I don’t think the dream is dead yet, but the biggest issue Marquette currently faces is that they cannot help themselves without winning a game or two in the Big East tournament.

YET TO PLAY

LOUISVILLE
VIRGINIA TECH
SMU
MIAMI
LSU
TEXAS
USC
UTAH
MISSISSIPPI STATE
TEXAS A&M
WASHINGTON
ALABAMA
KANSAS STATE
OKLAHOMA
MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE
ST. BONAVENTURE
FLORIDA

Marvin Bagley III returning to Duke lineup against Syracuse after knee injury

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Duke star freshman Marvin Bagley III will be available for the Blue Devils on Saturday when they play Syracuse in an ACC home game.

Bagley missed the past four games due to a knee strain that he suffered in the Feb. 8 game against North Carolina. During Bagley’s absence, the Blue Devils went 4-0 as their defense looked very good and senior Grayson Allen became an aggressive scorer.

It’ll be interesting to see what kind of changes Duke makes with Bagley’s return. Watching Bagley’s health and seeing how many minutes he plays will be another subplot to watch against the Orange.