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College Hoops Contender Series: Three (flawed?) Final Four favorites

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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. Today, we talk Final Four contenders.

To me, there is a clear-cut line between the teams ranked in the top four or five and the rest of the top 25. Duke probably should be ranked No. 1 in your preseason poll, but their question marks at the point guard spot and the youth on the roster are enough that I can see two teams arguably being ranked above them.

I also think there is another clear-cut tier of teams, through the top 12, that are good enough that they are a decent bet to get to the Final Four in San Antonio while being flawed enough that we cannot consider them a true title contender, at least not in October.

Two of those teams won a national title in recent years: Villanova and Louisville. Another, West Virginia, has yet to make it out of the Sweet 16 as Press Virginia. Let’s take a dive into those three teams, shall we?

RELATED: Big Ten PreviewACC Preview | Perry Ellis All-Stars | Contender Series

Jalen Brunson (Eric Francis/Getty Images)

VILLANOVA

Over the course of the last four years, Villanova has done the following:

  • Won four outright Big East regular season titles, with each title coming by at least two full games.
  • In those four seasons, they’ve gone 63-9 in Big East play and 129-17 overall.
  • The next-best record in the Big East over those four years is Xavier’s 42-30 mark.
  • The combined-record of the conference runner-up during this Villanova dynasty is 52-20, 11 games worse than the Wildcats. Including Big East tournament games, Villanova has lost just 11 times to Big East teams during those four years.
  • They’ve won two Big East tournament titles.
  • They won the 2016 national title.

There has not been a more successful team in college basketball over the course of that four-year period, so why in the world would it make sense to assume that trend would change heading into the 2017-18 season?

Well, the Wildcats lost Josh Hart, a first-team all-american last season and a first round draft pick last June, as well as Kris Jenkins, the man who gave Villanova their first national title since 1985.

Those are big, big losses, and it would be silly to argue otherwise, but losing stars has not slowed Villanova down during this run. They lost James Bell and Jayvaughn Pinkston after the first league title. They lost Darrun Hilliard the year after. Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu graduated after the Wildcats won the title. Jay Wright has built a program that is as adept as any at handling turnover within a roster, and this season should be no exception.

It starts with Jalen Brunson, the former McDonald’s All-American point guard who was arguably Villanova’s best player for a stretch at the end of his sophomore season. I’m not sure there is a higher IQ player in the country than Brunson, who has done nothing but win throughout the entirety of basketball career, whether it was at the high school or college level.

He’ll be an all-american this season, the biggest reason that Villanova remains at the top of the Big East standings.

Even with the loss of Hart, Villanova will have some of the best wings in the sport. Phil Booth is back after missing last season through injury, and Mikal Bridges should take another step forward this year. The guy to watch here is Donte DiVincenzo, who had a terrific redshirt freshman season and will be atop every list of breakout players this year. Eric Paschall is back, former five-star center Omari Spellman will be eligible and Jermaine Samuels has all the makings of the next great Villanova wing.

Change doesn’t hurt this program.

I’m not sure what would actually hurt this program.

But I do know this: Villanova has one of the nation’s best coaches. They have one of the nation’s best point guards. They have three redshirt juniors and a redshirt sophomore that will rotate through on the wings. And they have a pair of freshmen that picked the Wildcats over the nation’s bluebloods.

The only thing that makes me hesitant to put Villanova on this list is the narrative. They won the 2016 national title. They didn’t get out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament in 2014, 2015 or 2017.

Can we really call them a Final Four favorite if all they do is win national titles or get upset?

MORE2017-18 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

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LOUISVILLE

Back in May, back before Donovan Mitchell had climbed his way into the lottery of NBA Draft boards and when it looked like there was at least a shot that he would be returning to school, Louisville was very much in the conversation to be the preseason No. 1 overall team in the country.

That, however, has changed just a bit.

Not only did Mitchell leave, and not only did Louisville find out that the banners that they hung in 2012 (Final Four) and 2013 (National Title) may end up coming down, but the Cardinals were implicated in last month’s FBI complaints that resulted in the arrest of ten people. Rick Pitino was fired. Star freshman Brian Bowen will probably never play college basketball.

And here we are.

The Cardinals still have a bevy of talent on their roster this season, enough that, in a vacuum, they would be able to make a return to the Final Four, a nice consolation prize should all of the 2012 and 2013 seasons get wiped off the books. But that is assuming that this group is able to band together playing for interim head coach David Padgett. That’s not out of the question. The Louisville players have been through more than any college team ever should have to go through. They lived through the escort scandal, the banners coming down and now the end of the Pitino era.

There is a chance the ends up being a story with a happy ending.

Strictly in terms of basketball, the way I see it there are three specific issues that are going to have to be addressed in one way or another for Louisville this year:

  1. Who get better? After a freshman season that went to ruin because of injury, Deng Adel quietly had a good sophomore year that was particularly impressive down the stretch of the season. Will he take another step forward this year? Will V.J. King, a former five-star prospect that Rick Pitino has said is in line for a Mitchell-esque jump as a sophomore this season? What about Ray Spalding and Anas Mahmoud? Both front court players have NBA measureables and unique skillsets, but neither have been able to put together consistent performances.
  2. Just how good are the freshmen? The star of this class was Brian Bowen, a five-star recruit that fell into Pitino’s lap after stars at Arizona and Michigan State opted not to enter the NBA Draft. But he will likely end up ineligible as fallout from the FBI complaints last month. The next name to know, then, is Malik Williams, who was something of a late-bloomer and, like Spalding and Mahmoud, has some intriguing longterm potential. Jordan Nwora is a floor-spacing forward and Lance Thomas is another big body up front, but the most interesting guy here may be Darius Perry because …
  3. … point guard is still a problem position. Quentin Snider has had moments of brilliance for the Cardinals. He was sensational in last year’s win over Kentucky and, after returning from injury, was really good for U of L down the stretch of last season. But he also put together a disastrous performance in the upset loss against Michigan in the second round of the Big Dance and, frankly, he’s not exactly what you think of when you think of a Rick Pitino point guard. Perry, however, is. He’s quick, he’s athletic, he’s a pest defensively and he’s aggressive going towards the rim. It will be good for Louisville if Perry pushes Snider for playing time, even if Snider remains the starter.

It’s impossible to know what to expect from David Padgett in his first season as a head coach, but the good news is that he’ll have the pieces to put together a good team. I still expect the Cardinals to be pretty typical Louisville — a nightmare for opponents on the defensive end, at times unwatchable offensively, potentially in the mix for an ACC title come February.

And if you’re in the mix for an ACC title, you have the kind of talent that could can together and make a deep run in March.

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

Jevon Carter (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

WEST VIRGINIA

I have a theory, and it dates back years and years and is the biggest reason that VCU fans generally despise my being.

In reality, it’s pretty simple, and to date I’ve been proven nothing but right: Teams that survive on a full court press inevitably have a ceiling.

Why?

Because the way that those teams play is built around the idea that they are going to out-effort, out-athlete and out-tough their opponent for 40 minutes. They win by wearing opponent’s out and by forcing ball-handlers into bad decisions. They need their opponent to make mistakes, and, generally speaking, the better a college basketball team is, the better their guards are. Better guards are less prone to making mistakes or getting flustered by a trapping press.

Put another way, why do you think that there are no full court pressing teams in the NBA?

Over the course of the last three seasons, West Virginia has redefined themselves as Press Virginia, playing as aggressive and as intense of a full court press as you’ll find anywhere in the country. The results have been impressive: at least 25 wins in three straight years, a 36-12 record in the Big 12 and back-to-back-to-back top-five seeds in the NCAA tournament.

But despite all that, West Virginia has yet to make it past the Sweet 16 despite ranking as a top-eight team on KenPom in each of the last two seasons.

Will this year be the year that the narrative changes?

It may be. Jevon Carter is back and may end up being the Big 12 Preseason Player of the Year. With Esa Ahmad and Daxter Miles Jr. alongside, him, the Mountaineers have experience and leadership to lean on. That said, the key to the success that Bob Huggins’ has had playing this style hasn’t been his stars, it’s the depth and the myriad bodies that he has at his disposal. That depth is going to be young this year, but Huggins does add a couple of JuCo wings while bringing along redshirt sophomore James Bolden, who showed flashes of potential last year. Throw in a half-dozen front court pieces, and the Mountaineers have the bodies.

They’ll miss Nathan Adrian’s shooting and his effort at the top of their zone. They’ll miss Teyvon Myers and Tarik Phillip torturing opposing ball-handlers. But we also thought they’d miss Devin Williams and Jonathan Holton and Jaysean Paige.

The program just keeps humming along.

This year should be no different. The question is whether or not it will end in the Sweet 16 once again.

CBT Podcast: Creighton’s Greg McDermott, plus a preview of the weekend

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Rob Dauster was joined on Thursday by Creighton head coach Greg McDermott to discuss, among other things, how his philosophy as a head coach has changed since he made it to Omaha from Northern Iowa as well as what it’s like being an NBA dad with a program of his own to run. We also attempted to re-cast White Men Can’t Jump. The second half of the podcast, Rob is joined by Sam Vecenie of The Athletic and the Game Theory Podcast to roll through the weekend’s games and betting lines.

College Basketball Futures Watch Part III: Syracuse through Xavier

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Over the course of the next three days, we at College Basketball Talk will be cruising through the best, the most surprising and the most disappointing teams in college basketball.

As of today, how should we view the 45 most interesting teams in the country based on preseason expectation? 

Are we more confident in them? Less confident? Still unsure?

We used five different labels here to help define how we feel about each of the 45 teams mentioned:

  • Bet The Mortgage
  • Raise
  • Check
  • Fold
  • Get Your Stuff And Go Home

Today, we go through everyone from Syracuse to Xavier.

Let’s get into it.

SYRACUSE: Check

I thought Syracuse was going to be awful this year. They are decidedly not awful … but I’m not quite sure if they are good, at least not yet anyway. Matthew Moyer has been a pleasant surprise, as has Oshae Brissett, but are we sure their centers are any good? Can Tyus Battle actually make his teammates better? I’m not sure. So I’m saying let’s wait and see what happens. (Rob Dauster)

TCU: Raise

The Horned Frogs are barreling toward conference play with an undefeated record and a juggernaut offense. Jamie Dixon has transformed his alma mater into a Big 12 contender in just year two on the strength of an offense that makes 43.7 percent of its threes and 58.9 percent of its twos. The defense isn’t elite, but it may be good enough to make TCU a true threat to Kansas in the Big 12. (Travis Hines)

TENNESSEE: Check

I was high on this Tennessee team entering the year, and they’ve made me look smart for saying they could push for an NCAA tournament berth. Grant Williams is a problem, but the rest of the guys on this roster are talented try-hards. Put another way, I think that the Vols are punching above their weight right now, and while I think the way they play works for them – they are going to out-effort and out-tough just about everyone – the reality is that they’re at something of a talent deficit. They’re a good team, but at No. 20 in the AP Poll, they’re right at their ceiling. (RD)

TEXAS: Check

The loss to Michigan at home last night was bad, but that loss also came without Andrew Jones on the floor. He’s their most important piece offensively. Until he’s back in the lineup, it’s really hard to get a full sense of what this team is moving forward. I was very high on them at the start of the year, but Mo Bamba has not quite had the impact I expected him to have defensively. We’ll see. (RD)

Tyler Davis (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

TEXAS A&M: Raise

The Aggies slipped up against a wounded Arizona team last week, but there’s a lot to like with Billy Kennedy’s team. The defense is among the best in the country with Robert Williams and Tyler Davis patrolling the paint, and the offense is steady as well. (TH)

TEXAS TECH: Fold

Texas Tech blasted Northwestern last month by 36 points, but lost to Seton Hall and needed OT to beat a solid Nevada team at home. Chris Beard has his team playing a lot of defense, but they’re not making a lot of shots. The defense should translate against a tougher schedule, but getting more buckets seems unlikely. (TH)

UCLA: Check

I certainly wouldn’t say that UCLA won’t be an NCAA tournament team; they should be. But this season was thrown for a loop from the start thanks to some “sticky fingers” in China, and that may have upset the Bruins’ routine during the first month. Now that a personnel move has been made, maybe Steve Alford’s team can use this time to refocus as they prepare for conference play. There’s some good young talent, most notably Jaylen Hands and Kris Wilkes, and Aaron Holiday and Thomas Welsh are two experienced options who can earn all-conference honors at season’s end. This isn’t a “fold” or “run away before you blow your mortgage payment” situation, but it’s isn’t one where you throw more money into the pot or go all-in, either. (RJ)

UCONN: Get Your Stuff And Go Home

This is rough to say as someone that grew up a UConn fan, but at this point there are no more excuses for Kevin Ollie and the Connecticut program. They’re just not good enough. If the 35-point blowout against Arkansas wasn’t enough of a sign, it was struggling to overtime wins against 1-10 Columbia and Monmouth at home. It’s hard to think that less than four years ago, the Huskies were in the process of winning their second national title in four years. (RD)

USC: Check, but I’m ready to fold

The reason why I’d check when it comes to the Trojans is the sheer amount of talent on the roster. Jordan McLaughlin, Chimezie Metu, Bennie Boatwright, Elijah Stewart, etc. Andy Enfield has a host of options who can get the job done offensively, making USC a tough team for opponents to defend. That being said, if anything we’ve learned just how important DeAnthony Melton is. On a roster filled with guys who seemingly fill one particular role, Melton was the guy who served as the “mixing agent” on both ends. He can play with or without the ball in his hands on offense, and defensively he can take on a variety of assignments as well. When (or if) he returns USC becomes a better team immediately, but with there being no set time frame who knows if Melton will suit up. And if he were to be ruled out for the rest of the season as the school looks to stay in the NCAA’s good graces, that would be the time to get out. (RJ)

VILLANOVA: Bet The Mortgage

They’re the best team in the country, particularly is Mikal Bridges is going to continue to be a go-to scorer for them. If he’s a guy that can get Jay Wright 17-19 points a night, Villanova is scary. The one place where I think they can be taken advantage of is up front. I’m not totally sold on Omari Spellman as a defender yet, and I don’t think that they’ve been fully-tested with the schedule they’ve played. (RD)

VIRGINIA: Raise

I’ll take the L on this one. I did not see a way for the Cavaliers to be able to continue to be as good as they’ve been defensively with the number of young guys on this roster, and I did not think that Kyle Guy was ready to be a go-to scorer in the ACC just yet. I was wrong. KenPom, who has them ranked 3rd nationally, is way too high on this group – I think Virginia is the new Wisconsin, where there’s something weird about the formula that makes them pop in his metric – but they might be better than where they are sitting in both polls (16th). Wa-Hoo-Wa. (RD)

Kyle Guy (Chet Strange/Getty Images)

VIRGINIA TECH: Check

It’s hard to tell if Virginia Tech is legitimate since their schedule has been so weak. Sporting the No. 340 non-conference strength of schedule in the country, the Hokies have only played one true road game, an unimpressive OT win over Ole Miss. This team might be good, but it’s hard to tell since the schedule is so bad. (SP)

WEST VIRGINIA: Raise

The Mountaineers have come a long way since getting worked by Texas A&M in their season opener. West Virginia has won nine-straight since that drubbing, including a victory over Virginia. Press Virginia has been as good as ever with a 27.9 percent defensive turnover percentage. The question will be if the offense can shoot it well enough to not depend solely on those takeaways. (TH)

WICHITA STATE: Bet The Mortgage

The Shockers are really, really good. A one-point loss to Notre Dame is the only thing keeping them from a clean sheet, and they look to have a team as capable as any Gregg Marshall has fielded in Wichita. Now in the AAC, the Shockers are going to be more battle-tested then ever and should be in line for a high seed, making them a threat to return to the Final Four – and maybe even win the whole thing. (TH)

WISCONSIN: Fold

I just don’t think it’s going to happen for the Badgers this year. They have too many young guards and not enough reliable shooting or playmaking around Ethan Happ. The biggest issue that the Badgers now face is that they did not do anything in the non-conference and now enter the Big Ten season, where the conference as a whole is down. Forget finishing top four in the league, will they be able to rally like they did in 2016 and make the NCAA tournament? (RD)

XAVIER: Bet The Mortgage

Besides for a loss against red-hot Arizona State, the Musketeers are 9-0 with night double-digit wins this season. With a star in senior Trevon Bluiett and a rotation that goes nine deep, Xavier has capable players at every position and a ton of March experience from last season’s Elite Eight run. (SP)

Weekend Preview: Oklahoma-Wichita State, North Carolina-Tennessee

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THE WEEKEND SHOWDOWNS

*(NOTE: Lines are not posted for Saturday or Sunday games as of publication. Spreads referenced are via Kenpom.com)

No. 7 NORTH CAROLINA (-1) at No. 20 TENNESSEE, Sun. 3:00 p.m.

The game of the weekend, as the Vols host the Tar Heels in a rematch of what was a thrilling game at the Dean Dome last season. This one will be decidedly different, as UNC is missing the majority of last season’s roster. As it would happen, Luke Maye has grown into one of the best players in college basketball – seriously – while Joel Berry II is humming along as one of the nation’s best point guards. To me, the bigger question here is going to be the Vols. Tennessee is tough, they’re scrappy, they defend like hell. They are not a fun team to play against, and Roy Williams will certainly have his hands full.

The name to know for Tennessee is Grant Williams, an undersized four-man that will hopefully get matched up against Maye is one of the most fun individual matchups of the weekend.

  • PREDICTION: I think North Carolina gets the win here, but given the size of the UNC fan base, I would not be surprised to see this line move more towards the Heels. If that’s the case, Tennessee might end up being the better bet. For now, it’s UNC (-1)

OKLAHOMA at No. 3 WICHITA STATE (-9), Sat. 4:00 p.m.

The best individual matchup of the weekend will be between Landry Shamet and Trae Young. Young looks like arguably the best point guard in college basketball – and potentially the National Player of the Year – while Shamet is the first opponent that Young will face with this kind of size and length; Shamet is 6-foot-5. Wichita State’s defense has not been as good as it has been in past years, but Gregg Marshall knows how to scheme. This will also be the first true road game in a rough environment that Young has experienced as a collegian.

  • PREDICTION: Nine points is a lot of points, but I think that the Shockers will cover that. I also expect the line to be less when it comes out. Wichita State (-9)

VIRGINIA TECH at No. 8 KENTUCKY (-6), Sat. 2:00 p.m.

The most important game of the weekend in the sense that we are going to get a better sense of just how good both of these teams are. Virginia Tech has been putting up some impressive shooting and scoring numbers, but they haven’t really played anyone of note yet this season. Kentucky is, in theory, a terrific defensive team, but the only test they’ve had this year is a Kansas team that was worked at home by Arizona State. I think both of these teams are really good. We’ll find out how correct those thoughts are on Saturday.

  • PREDICTION: I like Virginia Tech plus the points. I elaborated on why I do on the podcast. Listen to it hereVirginia Tech (+6)

No. 25 CINCINNATI (-3) at UCLA, Sat. 3:30 p.m.

This is a game that both of these teams really, really need to win. UCLA’s season has been something close to a disaster through the first month. It’s not quite as bad as, say, Wisconsin or UConn, but it is clear that this is not the Bruin team we saw last season. The Bearcats, on the other hand, lost to both Xavier and Florida in the last two weeks. They need to start adding to their non-conference résumé and should not have an issue doing so against a team that should not be able to handle their toughness.

  • PREDICTION: I think the Bearcat bigs are too physical for UCLA in this game. Cincinnati (-3)

WHAT ELSE IS THERE TO WATCH?

  • BUTLER vs. No. 17 PURDUE (-7), Sat. 12:00 p.m.: I think Purdue is really, really good, and while I do have faith that LaVall Jordan will get this thing figured out for Butler, this is not the matchup for it. Purdue (-7)
  • SYRACUSE (-1) at GEORGETOWN, Sat. 12:30 p.m.: I don’t know if Syracuse is all that good. I don’t think Georgetown is good at all. I also don’t think Georgetown has much, if any, home court advantage at the Verizon Center. Their undefeated record is a mirage. Syracuse (-1)
  • DAVIDSON at No. 16 VIRGINIA (-14), Sat. 2:00 p.m.: The way to beat Virginia’s Pack-Line defense is to make tough jumpers over the top of it. Davidson, if nothing, can shoot the laces off the ball. Davidson (+14)
  • INDIANA vs. No. 18 NOTRE DAME (-9), Sat. 2:30 p.m.: As good as I think Notre Dame is, I think the Hoosiers will keep this one close. I like the way Archie Miller’s team is playing. There’s a scrappiness to them, and I think they matchup as well as you can with the Irish. Indiana (+9)
  • No. 22 FLORIDA (-4) vs. CLEMSON, Sat. 4:30 p.m.: This is technically a neutral court game, but it is being played in Florida. The Gators also seemed to answer some of their issues last weekend, and I’m not convinced Clemson is actually good. Florida (+4)
  • No. 13 KANSAS (-9) at NEBRASKA, Sat. 8:00 p.m.: Nebraska is tougher than you realize at home. They put 15,000 fans in seats, and you know those fans will be well-lubricated with the Jayhawks in town. Timmy Miles gets it done. Nebraska (+9)

THE REST OF THE WEEKEND’S ACTION

Louisville vs. Memphis, Sat. 12:00 p.m.
Middle Tennessee State vs. Auburn, Sat. 6:00 p.m.
No. 23 Arizona at New Mexico, Sat. 8:00 p.m.
Utah at BYU, Sat. 11:00 p.m.
Vanderbilt at No. 5 Arizona State, Sun. 2:00 p.m.
No. 2 Michigan State vs. Oakland, Sat. 2:00 p.m.
No. 6 Miami at George Washington, Sat. 12:00 p.m.
No. 15 Seton Hall at Rutgers, Sat. 12:00 p.m.
East Tennessee State at No. 10 Xavier, Sat. 2:00 p.m.
Oklahoma State at No. 19 Florida State, Sat. 2:00 p.m.

Self says he’s “optimistic” about Preston playing for Jayhawks

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There hasn’t been much new good around Lawrence lately with Kansas dropping its last two games, but the Jayhawks apparently have reason for hope.

Kansas coach Bill Self said he is “optimistic” that freshman Billy Preston, who has been held out of competition while the school investigates the financial background of a car he has been driving, will play for the Jayhawks this season, according to the Kansas City Star.

“I think our school has done a great job in creating, getting, all the information that could possibly be pertinent to his situation,” Self said, according to the Star. “The other thing you don’t know … they (NCAA officials) could come back and say, ‘We need more information.’ They could come back and say, ‘OK good to go.’ They could come back and say, ‘No it’s not good to go.’.

“Who knows what the response will be because it will be determined by somebody else. The reality of it is us putting a total package together from every scenario … we’ve done a good job. Hopefully, whatever information that is given to the deciding parties, it’ll be a quick turnaround … but we don’t know that yet either.”

Preston, a top-20 recruit in 2017, has yet to play for the Jayhawks after being suspended for the team’s season opener and then because questions were raised about a car he was driving when he was involved in a single-car accident. The Jayhawks could use the 6-foot-9 Preston in the lineup to help right the ship after these back-to-back losses that have, in part, shown just how thin up front the Jayhawks are.

There is also the possibility that Silvio De Sousa, a 6-foot-9 2018 commit, could enroll this semester.

“There are questions, but the answers will probably take place I would say in the next week to 10 days.”

Former NBA star Mark Price fired by Charlotte

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The college basketball coaching carousel now has three openings just over a month into the season, as Charlotte announced that head coach Mark Price has been “released from his contract.”

“We appreciate all that coach Price has done for our program,” said athletic director Judy Rose. “His background and knowledge were assets to our young players and we appreciate him sharing his talents with our team. This was a difficult decision, especially as we make plans to open conference play, but we do feel it is in the best interest of our basketball program.”

Assistant coach Houston Fancher has been tabbed as the interim coach.

Charlotte is 3-6 this season. Through two and a half years, Price had a record of 30-42 with the 49ers and was 16-20 in Conference USA play.

East Carolina’s Jeff Lebo and UTEP’s Tim Floyd both resigned earlier this season.