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College Hoops Contender Series: Three more (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 (more) 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 are known as football schools and currently find themselves stuck in the middle of one of the biggest scandals in college sports history: Miami and USC. A third, Wichita State, has yet to play a game as a member of a high-major conference. Let’s take a dive into those three teams, shall we?

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Markis McDuffie (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

WICHITA STATE

This year will be a first for Wichita State.

Five years after Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet led the Shockers to the 2013 Final Four, five years after Gregg Marshall’s club became a stalwart in the top 25 and a nationally-recognized program, Wichita State is now officially a high-major basketball team.

The Shockers officially left the Missouri Valley this summer, becoming a member of the American and, instantly, the favorite to win the league this year. Because after a season where Wichita State finished 31-5 and ranked 8th nationally, according to KenPom, the Shockers brought back everyone.

Landry Shamet, who is a darkhorse all-american pick, is back for his sophomore year. Markis McDuffie, who is probably the best all-around player on the roster, is back for his junior year. Fifth-year senior Connor Frankamp rounds out the back court while Darral Willis, Zach Brown, Shaq Morris and Rashard Kelly are all back along the front line.

The Shockers are loaded with precisely the kind of players you would expect a Gregg Marshall-coached team to be loaded with: Underrated back court talent, big and old and physical posts, and a roster full of players that are going to grind you down defensively.

More importantly, they’re already proven to be successful. We know they’re good. They won 31 games a season ago! They finished the year ranked 8th in KenPom! Everyone is back!

The difference is that this season, instead of playing in the Missouri Valley, where computer numbers get pulled down and the Shockers end up as a No. 10 seed — one of the worst mis-seedings in NCAA history — they will be playing American competition. Games against the likes of Cincinnati, SMU, UConn, UCF and Houston will do a lot more for their tournament profile than Indiana State and Missouri State did.

Assuming the Shockers are as good as they should be, they’ll be seeded fairly this year, meaning that they won’t be playing a team as talented as last year’s Kentucky team was until at least the Sweet 16.

And that is what makes them such an intriguing Final Four pick.

The issue, however, is health, and it’s no small problem. Shamet had surgery in early August to repair a stress fracture in his right foot. A similar injury kept him on the shelf for much of the 2015-16 season. Shamet is expected to return to the floor by the start of the season, which is good news, but there’s no guarantee that, coming off of a surgery and an injury that kept him out for three months, that he’ll be in shape and on form immediately.

Shamet is also not the only player that is injured. McDuffie, who led the team in scoring and rebounding a year ago, has a stress fracture in the navicular bone in his left foot. That’s the same bone that derailed careers of many an NBA player, including Joel Embiid. He’s expected to be out until December, meaning there is a possibility that Wichita State begins the season without their top two players.

If those two are both back and healthy come March, it’ll be something of a moot point.

But there’s no guarantee that will happen.

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

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MIAMI

Everyone say it with me now: The second-best team in the ACC this season will be Miami.

Not Louisville. Not North Carolina. Not Notre Dame or Virginia or Syracuse.

Miami.

And the biggest reason why is a young man that you’ve probably never heard of. Bruce Brown, a former safety and wide receiver at the high school level, still plays like a football player now that he’s fully committed to the hardwood. He’s an aggressive slasher, an athletic finisher and one of the best perimeter defenders in the country. He’s also now a guy that can operate in pick-and-rolls and knock down a spot-up jumper, and playing for a coach in Jim Larrañaga that has thrived with talented lead guards and athletic wings, he’s the perfect combination of both.

He’ll also be flanked by a couple more players of that ilk in senior JaQuan Newtown and freshman Lonnie Walker. Newton had a good, not great, junior season for the Hurricanes, but part of the reason for that was due to Brown’s emergence down the stretch. Walker is a top-15 prospect that picked Miami over the likes of Arizona and Villanova. He’ll be an instant impact guy assuming his knee is healthy.

Throw in sophomore center Dewan Huell, a former five-star recruit in his own right, four-star freshmen Chris Lykes, a 5-foot-7 point guard, and Deng Gak, a 7-foot four-man, and there is a lot to like about the pieces Larrañaga has at his disposal.

There is also a lot missing with one piece they lost from last season: Davon Reed. A physical, athletic, 6-foot-6 wing, Reed was one of the most underrated players in the ACC a season ago. An elite defender with three-point stroke that went down at a 40 percent clip, Reed was everything a team needs in the day and age of positionless basketball. He could guard three or four positions, he could space the floor and, if need be, he could pop off for 2o points on any given night. There’s a reason he was the No. 32 pick in the NBA Draft.

That’s going to be a massive hole to fill, and the Hurricanes are going to hope junior Anthony Lawrence can replace him.

I’m not sure that he will be able — Reed was a helluva player — but it may not matter.

Larrañaga is at his best when he has talented, dynamic lead guards paired athletics bigs, and there is no questioning that this year’s roster construction fits that mold.

Every few years, Larrañaga pops up with an ACC title contender. It happened when Shane Larkin and Durand Scott manned his back court. It happened with Angel Rodriguez and Sheldon McClellan. And it will happen with this group as well.

What we will need to track, however, is the status of the FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball. A Miami assistant coach was referenced in the FBI complaints on a phone call involving two of the men that were arrested. The assistant, according to an Adidas executive, was hoping to get the shoe company to fund a $150,000 payment to the family of a prospect that appears to be Nassir Little.

None of the Hurricane coaches were arrested on September 26th, but that doesn’t mean their out of the woods, in the eyes of the FBI or in the eyes of the NCAA.

 Big Ten Preview | ACC Preview | Atlantic 10 PreviewMountain West Preview

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USC

The season has been three years in the making for the Trojans has a black cloud the size of California hanging over it.

Andy Enfield’s tenure with Dunk City West started out dreadfully, amassing a grand total of five Pac-12 wins in his first two seasons at the helm. Things started to turn around during his third season, when the Trojans, without a senior on their roster, climbed their way into the NCAA tournament. Last season was supposed to be their year, but the combination of injuries and a pair unexpected defections to the professional ranks meant that Enfield, again, would be without a senior.

And again, USC made a run to the NCAA tournament, getting out of the play-in game and pulling off an upset of No. 6 seed SMU.

Now, finally, is the year for USC.

The Trojans are loaded. They have experience — their starting back court of Jordan McLaughlin and Elijah Stewart are both seniors and both potential all-Pac-12 guards. They have size — Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu, both juniors, are NBA prospects while Nik Rakocevic, Harrison Henderson and Shaqquan Aaron give Enfield the kind of depth and positional versatility his style of play calls for. De’anthony Melton, Jonah Mathews and Charles O’Bannon provide the young, dynamic talent in the back court, and that’s before you factor in Derryck Thornton, the former Duke point guard that was once thought to be among the best high school point guards in the country.

The last time there was this much reason to be excited about USC basketball, O.J. Mayo landed on Tim Floyd’s doorstep.

On the court, the question mark with this group is two-fold:

  1. Can they defend? In each of the last two seasons, USC has ranked outside the top 80 on KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric. That, quite simply, is not going to be good enough for a team that is planning on competing for a Pac-12 title, let alone a national title.
  2. Is everyone going to buy-in? This may be a bigger concern than the defensive side of the ball. The Trojans don’t have the kind of star power on their roster that you’ll see at UCLA or Arizona, but the depth of their talent is impressive. There are seven or eight players on the roster that have a shot of playing in the NBA. At least five of them flirted with the idea of leaving school early to enter last year’s NBA Draft, meaning that there are going to be quite a few guys on this roster looking to impress NBA scouts. Not all of them are going to be able to get as many shots as they might like. Convincing players that want the be a star to embrace playing a role is the hardest thing to do at this level, and Enfield is going to have his work cut out for him.

Off the court, however, is a bigger problem.

Tony Bland, an assistant coach for USC, was arrested during the FBI’s sting operation investigating corruption in college basketball. He was alleged to have been paid $13,000 in bribe money to get two players currently on the USC team to work with a specific financial advisor when they get to the NBA. He also helped facilitate $9,000 that was supposed to go to the families of an unnamed freshman on the team and an unnamed sophomore.

Those players have not yet been positively identified, but there should be some concern as to whether or not those kids will actually be eligible to play this season.

I’m not sure there are five teams in the country that are going to be more talented than USC this season if they have all their pieces available. But until we get answers on how they are going to defend, who is going to be asked to play what role and who is going to be able to play, it’s going to be hard to know if they actually are Arizona’s biggest challenger in the Pac-12.

Penny Hardaway acknowledges links to college programs

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One of the most fascinating subplots to this year’s college coaching carousel is what will happen with Penny Hardaway.

A Memphis basketball legend, Penny is currently the head coach of the powerhouse Memphis East high school while running a Nike-affiliated AAU program aptly named Team Penny. Combined, those rosters include an absolutely ridiculous amount of talent. James Wiseman, who may just be the best player in the Class of 2019, plays for both East and Team Penny. Another five-star prospect in the Class of 2019, D.J. Jeffries, also plays for Team Penny while his cousins — Jonathan and Chandler Lawson, the younger brothers of former Memphis and current Kansas players Dedric and K.J. — play for East.

There’s a real debate about whether or not those teams would be able to beat the Memphis Tigers basketball team.

As in the University of Memphis.

That’s where things are in that city.

Which is why Penny Hardaway has been linked to a job that isn’t even open yet. It’s why his name is mentioned when discussing whether or not Ole Miss should hire him to replace Andy Kennedy. We’re talking about a guy with more than a decade of experience in the NBA that can, in theory, bring with him the kind of talent that you would expect to see on a roster like Kentucky or Duke. It would only make sense for the likes of Memphis and Ole Miss to kick the tires.

What if he says yes?

And, according to an interview he gave to SEC Country, it sounds like Penny would, at the very least, listen.

“It’s a huge compliment for any college to even think about wanting me to come in. I feel like I bring a lot to the table even though I haven’t coached college,” he told the site on Monday. “I feel like my NBA experience and the coaches I’ve had over the years, I’ve learned enough to be a head coach in college. But I’m really enjoying this right now and coaching these guys.”

If Louisville vacates the 2013 national title, does Michigan win the national title?

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Louisville lost their appeal, meaning that for the first time in college basketball history, a Division I program is going to have to take down a national title banner.

The details are pretty straight-forward: If one of the three enrolled student-athletes or 15 recruits that the were determined by the NCAA to have received “adult entertainment and/or sex acts” from strippers and sex workers played in any game from Dec. 2010 through July 2014, when Louisville staffer Andre McGee was paying for girls to come around Louisville’s Billy Minardi Hall, then that game is to be vacated from the Louisville record books.

That includes 123 regular season games and 15 NCAA tournament wins.

That also includes the 2012 Final Four and the 2013 National Title.

What does that mean? How does a program vacate records and titles?

Well, they can no longer do anything to officially reference winning that title. Banners come down. Record books must be changed. For all intents and purposes, Louisville must never again acknowledge that their run to the national title — which included Kevin Ware breaking his leg in the Elite 8 against Duke, a marvelous comeback in the Final Four against Wichita State and one of the most exciting halves of basketball in NCAA tournament history as Luke Hancock and Spike Albrecht went shot-for-shot — took place.

It doesn’t, however, mean that Michigan, whom Louisville beat in the national title game, won the 2013 National Championship.

This not like the Olympics. A silver medal does not turn to gold when the official winner is ruled a cheat. Michigan still lost that game in the eyes of the NCAA. Louisville did not forfeit the win. They just … also lost.

There is no winner.

Officially speaking, as of today, no one won the 2013 national title.

Louisville’s NCAA appeal denied, 2013 title banner to come down

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The NCAA announced on Tuesday morning that Louisvile’s appeal of NCAA rules violations has been denied.

The penalties are the results of an NCAA investigation into a former assistant coach and member of the basketball team, Andre McGee, providing players and recruits with strippers and sex workers at on-campus parties in Billy Minardi Hall, the Louisville basketball dorm. Louisville, in their appeal, referred to the penalties as “draconian”.

The NCAA did not agree.

“Louisville must vacate men’s basketball records in which student-athletes competed while ineligible during the 2011-12 through 2014-15 academic years,” the NCAA’s statement on Tuesday read.

The most significant and relevant piece of information here is that Louisville’s 2013 National Title will be vacated along with their 2012 trip to the Final Four. In total, Louisville will have to vacate 123 wins, which includes 15 NCAA tournament wins from 2011-2015, the seasons in which players that have retroactively been ruled ineligible played in games.

For the first time in college basketball history, a national title will be wiped from the record books. Michigan, who lost the 2013 national title game, will not be named the national champion.

“From here, we will officially remove the formal recognitions from our facilities,” interim AD Vince Tyra said, “but not from our minds.”

The Cardinals were placed on probation for four years when the initial penalties were handed down in June of 2017. They have also been hit with scholarship reductions and restrictions on their recruiting while being forced to pay back the money they received from conference revenue sharing as a result of the NCAA tournament wins. That number will be around $600,000, the school said in a press conference on Tuesday.

“I cannot say this strongly enough: We believe the NCAA is simply wrong to have made this decision,” interim president Greg Postel said.

These penalties were announced before the NCAA did any investigation into allegations that were made against the program during the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball. That investigation, which determined that an agreement was made between an Adidas executive and a member of the Louisville staff to funnel $100,000 to the family of five-star recruit Brian Bowen, eventually cost Rick Pitino his job.

Pitino has repeatedly denied knowledge of the parties that took place in the dorms. Before this title was vacated, he was the only Division I head coach to lead two different programs to a national title; he won the 1996 title with Kentucky.

Pitino was charged by the NCAA with failure to monitor an employee, one of the four Level I violationsthat the NCAA found in their initial investigation. Louisville contested the NCAA’s findingthat Pitino had “violated NCAA head coach responsibility legislation”. Plausible deniability is no longer a defense for head coaches in the eyes of the NCAA. In an effort to prevent the punishment for violations from being dumped on low-level staff members, the NCAA changed their rules to state that head coaches were at fault for anything that happened in their program under their watch whether the NCAA can prove they knew about it or not.

“By his own admission, the head coach and his assistants did not interact with prospects from 10 p.m. until the next morning,” the NCAA said in their findings. “The panel noted that the head coach essentially placed a peer of the student-athletes in a position of authority over them and visiting prospects, and assumed that all would behave appropriately in an environment that was, for all practical purposes, a basketball dorm.”

“This arrangement played a role in creating a location where the former operations director’s activities went undetected.”

Player Of The Year Power Rankings: Jalen Brunson has overtaken Trae Young

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Jalen Brunson is the National Player of the Year.

At least that’s the way that I see it.

If the season ended today, the award goes to Brunson. As incredible as Trae Young has been and as ridiculous as his efficiency stats and counting numbers are, winning has to matter when it comes to National Player of the Year. It has to matter when it comes to postseason awards. It’s why I campaigned against Ben Simmons being a Player of the Year or first-team all-american. It’s why I said that Markelle Fultz shouldn’t be considered for any preseason Player of the Year or all-american awards.

And it’s why Trae Young, in my mind, is no longer the National Player of the Year frontrunner.

I’ve talked about this a couple of different times before, but the simple fact of the matter is that we rarely see a player that isn’t on a national title favorite win the award. The last time a player that was on a team that wasn’t at least a top four seed that won the award was in 2005 when Utah’s Andrew Bogut was the consensus Player of the Year. Before that? You have to go all the way back to 1988, when Danny Manning and Hersey Hawkins both won three of the six major Player of the Year awards. Manning played on No. 6 seed Kansas, who went on to win the title that year. Hawkins played for No. 9 seed Bradley.

As it stands right now, Oklahoma is 16-11 overall. They’ve lost six in a row after getting mollywhopped at Kansas. They’ve dropped nine of their last 11 games. They’ve lost eight in a row on the road. They are 6-9 in the Big 12. If they go 1-2 in their final three games — which, at this rate, seems like a fairly likely scenario — they could end up missing the NCAA tournament entirely.

Seth Davis made an interesting point about this on a recent CBS broadcast, and one that I think it worth addressing: He said, and I’m summarizing here because I don’t remember the exact quote, that the award is the Player of the Year award and not the Player of the Month award, and I agree to an extent. A couple of bad games shouldn’t impact an entire season’s body of work.

My response to that is that we are talking about more than just a couple of games. Young and Oklahoma have struggled for the last 11 games. That’s more than 40 percent of Oklahoma’s season to date, and there are still three Big 12 games left before the Big 12 tournament kicks off. More importantly, the Big 12 season matters more than non-conference play. Does anyone really care that Young, say, tied the record for assists in a game against Northwestern State when he lost by 30 in the Phog?

Winning is the most important thing that a player can do. In any sport. If you are the star of a team that is not winning games, you are not having as good of a season as the star of a team that is winning games. That is a fundamental belief that I have that will not change.

And Brunson?

He’s having a historically good season from an efficiency perspective on a team that may just set the record for efficiency in the KenPom era. He can dominate a game when he needs to. He can also control a game as a facilitator, getting the ball to the guys that are cooking when he needs to. Case in point: at Xavier. Donte DiVincenzo and Mikal Bridges were on fire, so Brunson made sure they got their touches.

I love Trae Young’s game. I love the way he plays. His struggles down the stretch are not entirely his fault.

But when you are not a threat to win a national title, I do not think that you can be a threat to win National Player of the Year.

Anyway, here is my top ten:

1. JALEN BRUNSON, Villanova
2. DEANDRE AYTON, Arizona
3. TRAE YOUNG, Oklahoma
4. MARVIN BAGLEY III, Duke
5. TREVON BLUIETT, Xavier
6. KEENAN EVANS, Texas Tech
7. KEITA BATES-DIOP, Ohio State
8. JOCK LANDALE, Saint Mary’s
9. DEVONTE’ GRAHAM, Kansas
10. GARY CLARK, Cincinnati

ALSO CONSIDERED: MIKAL BRIDGES, Villanova; MILES BRIDGES, Michigan State; JEVON CARTER, West Virginia; CARSEN EDWARDS, Purdue; AARON HOLIDAY, UCLA; CHANDLER HUTCHISON, Boise State; CALEB MARTIN, Nevada; LUKE MAYE, North Carolina; LANDRY SHAMET, Wichita State

Tumble continues for Oklahoma as No. 8 Kansas cruises to win

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Oklahoma desperately needed a win. Not even necessarily in the classic sense of the term of outscoring your opponent. The Sooners just needed something, anything, positive to build on in a season that’s suddenly crumbling around them.

Unfortunately for Lon Kruger and his team, Allen Fieldhouse is not the place to go when you’re in need of a pick-me-up. It’s a place more suited for realizing your worst nightmares.

Eighth-ranked Kansas eviscerated the Sooners in a 104-74 beatdown that not only exposed Oklahoma’s problems but exacerbated them to the point where the NCAA tournament no longer looks to be assured.

Oh, and it set up a potential Big 12 title game in Lubbock later this week with a 13-year streak on the line, but more on that later.

The headline here is that Oklahoma and the man who set college basketball ablaze, Trae Young, look broken. And maybe beyond repair.

Oklahoma has now lost six in a row, tumbling from burgeoning Final Four contender to potential First Four hopeful. Things are spinning out of control fast.

The person who will draw the bulk of the blame, fair or not, is Young. The freshman from Norman North looked like the college basketball’s answer to Steph Curry while carrying his hometown university to a 12-1 start to the year, leading the country in scoring, assists and jaw-dropping plays and performances. The substance of his game matched the style, which was no small feat for a guy who routinely would splash shots from 35 feet out.

He’s been a bit of a disaster during this six-game slide, however. Young is just 11 of 56 (19.6 percent) from 3-point range and 27 of 57 (47.3 percent) from inside the arc during the losing streak. He’s also turned it over 25 times. He’s still distributing at a high-rate, but that’s not enough to offset his shooting numbers. His teammates don’t score it well enough to pick up the slack. They also can’t create for Young. He’s got to do all of it himself – get looks and dole them out.

Young and Oklahoma’s issue runs deeper than just the makes and misses of their offense, though. The Sooners’ defense has become a massive liability. Kansas took a sledgehammer to it and blasted it to smithereens in front of 16,300 witnesses in Allen Fieldhouse and millions more in their living rooms.

The Jayhawks shot 60.9 percent for the game. They made 16 of 29 of their 3-point attempts. That’s 55.2 percent from deep. Nineteen of their buckets came from layups or dunks and averaged 1.444 points per possession.

It was as if the Sooners weren’t there at all, which actually might have been of some consolation to Kruger because that would at least mean no one could see their baffling lack of effort, cohesiveness and pride on the defensive end. It was really a sight to behold for the rest of us, though.

Young is as big of culprit here as anyone. Yes, he carries an incredible offensive burden with a 39.6 usage rate. No one is expecting him to be Jevon Carter, but he has to offer some resistance some of the time. Against the Jayhawks, he died on screens again and again or simply didn’t even put up a fight too often when guarding the ball.

He’s not alone, however, as the Sooners looked disconnected as a unit. They were simply incapable of even slowing Kansas. The Jayhawks got hot, sure, but Oklahoma can’t write this off as just catching a team on a night they couldn’t miss. The Sooners had as much to do with it as anything.

That’s the area that’s got to get fixed. Young may not be able to put up the absurd numbers he did for long stretches earlier this season, but his talent is so immense that it would be foolish to expect this slump to stay this bad for too much longer. Without a superhuman Young, however, they’ve got to get some stops. Without them, Young may join the ignominious list of Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz as pheoms who failed to make the NCAA tournament.

Now, back to that Big 12 title game in West Texas.

Assuming Texas Tech can get in and out of Stillwater with a win over Oklahoma State – potentially without Keenan Evans – the Red Raiders and Jayhawks will be tied atop the Big 12 with matching 11-4 league records with Kansas making the trip to Lubbock.

The Jayhawks, you may have heard, have won 13 consecutive Big 12 regular season championships. It very well could be decided Saturday if there will be a 14th.

After a two-game hiccup of losses at Texas and Iowa State, Chris Beard’s team won seven-straight before falling to a resurgent Baylor on Saturday. They’re undefeated at home and possess one of the country’s best defenses. They’ve been the biggest threat to Kansas’ streak since they knocked off the Jayhawks in Lawrence in January.

The Jayhawks will go into the game with their best offensive performance of the season. Devonte Graham finally looked like he may be the Big 12’s best player – he certainly bested Young – and Svi Mykhailiuk, LeGerald VIck and Malik Newman looked like the more-than-capable secondary options this Jayhawks team desperately needs. Silvio De Sousa even looked serviceable for the first time, putting up 10 points and six rebounds in 13 minutes. Which is also to say nothing of Udoka Azubuike being one of the Big 12’s toughest matchups.

Kansas is a flawed team, but once again the Jayhawks have put themselves in enviable position and appear to be rounding into tip-top form toward the end of February. It’s their conference, and they’ll have the chance this weekend to keep it that way.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma is just trying to stay out of playing Wednesday in the Big 12 tournament. The Sooners sure could use a win. Of any kind.