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College Hoops Contender Series: Where is Kentucky’s scoring going to come from?

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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?

Let’s break it down, starting with Kentucky, who, for my money, has the lowest floor of any team in this series.

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

Hamidou Diallo playing for USA Basketball this summer (USA Basketball)

WHY THEY CAN WIN

As we have become accustomed to, Kentucky is as talented, as deep and as loaded with high-priority recruits as any team in college basketball.

There are eight former five-star recruits on the roster, three of whom joined the program for the 2016-17 season, as well as another pair of former four-star prospects. The amount of size, length and athleticism on this roster is going to make some NBA teams jealous. There will be times this season where the five Kentucky Wildcats on the floor will be Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Hamidou Diallo, Kevin Knox, Jarred Vanderbilt and Nick Richards. Diallo, who is 6-foot-4 with a 6-foot-11 wingspan and a 44.5″ vertical, would be the smallest player on the floor, and that’s before you throw P.J. Washington, Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones into the mix.

Simply put, this Kentucky team is going to be a nightmare to play against.

They probably won’t be as good as the 2015 team was defensively – I’m not sure people really appreciate just how good Willie Cauley-Stein was as a defender at the college level – but they’ll likely end up being one of the best defensive teams in the country this season. They have size and athleticism at every position, switchable defenders all over the floor and shot-blocking at the rim, and that is before we mention that Kentucky happens to have a coach on the sidelines who is as good as anyone in the sport at getting his players to buy-in to the role he needs them to play.

What they won’t have is someone like Karl-Anthony Towns or Devin Booker, which is where Quade Green, the five-star point guard recruit, comes into play. He’ll be tasked with creating shots – or, as we’ll get into in a second, dunks and layups – for the rest of the roster, and it should not surprise you if much of Kentucky’s offense ends up coming in transition. Since arriving in Lexington, John Calipari has not generally been known as a coach that runs a transition-based attack. The only two times he’s ranked in the top 140 in tempo, according to KenPom, were the years he had De’Aaron Fox and John Wall at the point, but scoring in transition will be easier for this year’s team that scoring against a set defense.

That said, Kentucky won’t have to score much, not with the way this group will be able to defend.

If their defense lives up to its potential, we may be looking at a year where the Wildcats win simply by getting to 60 points.

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LEXINGTON, KY – JANUARY 21: Wenyen Gabriel (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

WHY THEY WON’T WIN

There are two things that this Kentucky team lacks, both of which have the potential to derail the season for the Wildcats: Veteran leadership and proven offensive weapons.

Let’s start with the former.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the loss of Isaiah Briscoe hurts Kentucky more than the loss of De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk or Bam Adebayo. John Calipari planned for those three to head to the NBA after one season. The core tenet of his recruiting philosophy at Kentucky has been to get the best players on his roster to the NBA as quickly as possible and to replace them with a new crop of soon-to-be NBA lottery picks. Fox, Monk and Adebayo are gone but Quade Green, Hamidou Diallo and a handful of five-star big men are on campus.

Briscoe, despite being a five-star recruit in the Class of 2015, didn’t exactly fall under that umbrella. He was a very, very good college player that, predictably, went undrafted back in June after leaving school as a sophomore. Had he returned, he would have been precisely the veteran leader that the Wildcats currently lack; the 2017 version of Darius Miller, if you will.

This may be surprising, but this is going to end up being the youngest, least-experienced Kentucky team that Calipari has ever had as the head coach of the Wildcats. Only one of Kentucky’s nine rotation players from last season returns, and that’s Wenyen Gabriel, who averaged 4.6 points in just under 18 minutes per game. By the time the NCAA tournament rolled around last year, Gabriel was barely cracking double-digit minutes. This is just the second time that Cal has a team with no returnee that averaged more than 18 minutes and the first time that he’s had a team with a leading returning scorer that averaged fewer than 5.0 points. The only other time that was comparable was in 2012-13, when Kyle Wiltjer, who had averaged 5.0 points and 11.6 minutes on the 2012 title-winning team, was the leading-returning scorer, transfers Ryan Harrow and Julius Mays made up the starting back court and a team that lost Nerlens Noel to a torn ACL in February lost to Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT.

The year was a disaster.

Final Four Sleepers | Louisville | Villanova | West Virginia | USC | Wichita State | Miami

And there’s a chance this season could end up like that season. The best teams that Kentucky and Duke have produced in the one-and-done era have all featured veterans playing prominent roles. In 2010, John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins had junior Patrick Patterson to lean on. Kentucky’s 2012 national title-winning team featured sophomores Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb as well as senior Darius Miller in prominent roles. Duke won the title in 2015 in large part due to the fact that Quinn Cook, a former McDonald’s All-American and a three-year starter at the point, played his senior season off the ball.

That would have been the role that Briscoe played for this team.

Instead, we’re looking at Hamidou Diallo being a resident veteran on the Kentucky roster because he enrolled early and redshirted the second semester of the 2016-17 season.

Kentucky will miss Isaiah Briscoe (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Which leads me to the second issue that this Kentucky team is going to face this year: There isn’t much polish on this roster. There’s talent – Kentucky has eight five-star recruits on the roster, including a pair heading into their sophomore seasons, and two more four-star prospects – but there aren’t many instant impact players, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. In other words, Kentucky has a team full of raw athleticism, players whose potential in the future is more intriguing than what their current production is expected to be.

Hamidou Diallo, Nick Richards, Kevin Knox, Wenyen Gabriel, Sacha Killeya-Jones and, when he returns from injury, Jarred Vanderbilt. They all have the kind of long-term potential that will force NBA teams to take notice. None of them are considered to be much of a threat offensively heading into this season.

Think about it like this: In the final minute of a close game, who are you giving the ball to if you are Calipari? Where is that bucket going to come from?

The lack of creators isn’t the only issue, either. Where is the shooting going to come from? How will the Wildcats be able to space the floor? If your answer is Jemarl Baker, then that means you’re pulling Diallo or Vanderbilt off the floor. If the answer is Gabriel, it means Knox is sitting or Kentucky is playing a lineup that features no true post presence.

All told, of the 10 players expected to be in Kentucky’s rotation, six of them play in the front court and two of the guards — Diallo and Gilgeous-Alexander — have major question marks with their ability to shoot the ball. That’s going to be an issue alone, before you factor in the lack of a go-to guy.

The easiest way to phrase the issue is like this: I’m worried that this Kentucky roster features a wealth of role players without one true star.


Kevin Knox II (David Banks/Getty Images)

PREDICTION

The that lack of one true star may ultimately end up being the downfall of this group.

In the last ten years, there have been 50 players taken as top five draft picks. Of those 50, 28 were top ten players in their class (all of whom were one-and-dones) and seven more were international prospects, which means that there have only been 15 players drafted in the top five in the last ten seasons that were not top ten prospects in their recruiting class. Of those 15, 13 were sophomores, juniors or seniors. One was Enes Kanter, who arguably should be listed as an international prospect.

The other was D’Angelo Russell, one of the most unique and electrifying offensive talents we’ve seen in college basketball in recent years.

Kentucky has just a single player currently on their roster that ranked in the top ten of their recruiting class in 247 Sports’ composite rankings, and that’s Hamidou Diallo. He was ranked 10th in his class, but as a prospect, he was not enough of a sure thing to keep his name in the 2017 NBA Draft.

To be clear, you don’t have to be a top five pick to carry a great college team, even as a one-and-done. Malik Monk did it. Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow did it. Jamal Murray did it.

But all of those guys were top ten players in their recruiting class. I challenge you to find a freshman that wasn’t a top ten recruit or a top five pick that managed to be the star for a team that contended for a national title. It’s not easy to do, which means that in order for Kentucky to compete for a national title, they will be relying on one of three things to happen this season:

  1. Hamidou Diallo, whose offensive limitations kept him from getting picked where he would have liked to be picked in June, turning into a superstar at this level.
  2. Wenyen Gabriel or Sacha Killeya-Jones turning into a star as a sophomore in college.
  3. One of Kentucky’s other freshmen having a season that, essentially, is unprecedented; Russell’s 2015 Ohio State team was a No. 10 seed entering the NCAA tournament.

That’s the bet that you’re making when you pick the Wildcats to get to the 2018 Final Four.

College Basketball Power Rankings: Duke to No. 1, Xavier and Minnesota climb

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At this point, there really is no choice but to put Duke at No. 1 in the Power Rankings this week.

That’s what happens when you’re a consensus top three team in the preseason and, five days into the regular season, you pick off another top three team. Hell, we had Michigan State ranked No. 1 in the NBC Sports Power Rankings last week.

At this point, Michigan State is still No. 2 for me. Their one loss this season came on a night where Grayson Allen went crazy and they gave up 25 offensive rebounds and committed 18 turnovers, and they still were in the game down the stretch. Beyond that, the only teams in the top 25 that have lost so far this season are Kentucky, Northwestern and Providence. The Wildcats fell to Kansas while playing their best game of the season, while Northwestern and Providence both dropped out of the top 25.

But the truth is that, as of today, we still don’t really know anything about these teams. Arizona, Villanova and Wichita State didn’t have to play anywhere near their best basketball to start the season 3-0. The same can be said for anyone that is currently sitting at or near the top of these rankings.

This week is when we start to really find out about them. Arizona is playing in the Battle 4 Atlantis. Duke, Michigan State, North Carolina and Florida are in the PK80. Wichita State is out in Maui. There are events in New York City all week. UCLA, Creighton, Baylor and Wisconsin are in Kansas City. There are games in Las Vegas and Orlando and California

And while my opinion on the glut of exempt events still stands, I do think that we learn more about, say, Wichita State seeing them play potentially overmatched opponents in Maui over the course of three straight days than we do seeing them beat the brakes off of mid-major competition in Koch Arena.

Anyway, here is the NBC Sports Top 25 in its entirety:

1. Duke, 4-0 (Last Week: No. 2)
2. Michigan State, 3-1 (1)
3. Arizona, 3-0 (3)
4. Kansas, 3-0 (4)
5. Villanova, 3-0 (5)
6. Wichita State, 2-0 (6)
7. Florida, 3-0 (7)
8. Cincinnati, 3-0 (8)
9. USC, 4-0 (9)
10. Miami, 3-0 (10)
11. Xavier, 3-0 (14)
12. Texas A&M, 2-0 (11)
13. Minnesota, 4-0 (19)
14. Louisville, 2-0 (12)
15. Notre Dame, 3-0 (13)
16. Seton Hall, 4-0 (15)
17. Kentucky, 3-1 (16)
18. North Carolina, 2-0 (17)
19. Saint Mary’s, 4-0 (21)
20. Alabama, 3-0 (22)
21. Purdue, 4-0 (24)
22. Gonzaga, 3-0 (23)
23. UCLA, 3-0 (18)
24. Texas, 3-0 (NR)
25. Texas Tech, 4-0 (NR)

NEW ADDITIONS: 24. Texas, 25. Texas Tech
DROPPED OUT: 20. Northwestern, No. 25 Providence

Texas Tech mollywhops No. 21 Northwestern, stakes claim to second-best in Big 12

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No. 21 Northwestern was, technically, never even tied with Texas Tech on Sunday evening.

The Wildcats were given a technical foul at the start of the game because their players were not in the scorebook, which was more than adequate foreshadowing for what was to come. Keenan Evans made a free throw before the ball was tipped, the Red Raiders would then score the next eight points and jump out to a 23-5 lead that Chris Collins’ club never recovered.

Northwestern never was within single-digits again, let alone close enough to make this a game. They lost 85-49, the worst loss for the Northwestern program in nearly a decade, since Nov. 27th, 2007.

I could recite the stats to you, if you’d like. Northwestern shot 26.7 percent from the floor. They were 6-for-23 from three. Texas Tech forced 17 turnovers, and Northwestern had 12 field goals to 11 steals for the Red Raiders.

It was as bad of a beatdown as you’ll see between two teams in the NCAA tournament discussion.

It’s easy to read into this loss, and the loss that Northwestern suffered at home against Creighton on Wednesday, and think that the Wildcats are not yet cut out for being the hunted, and that might be fair. As cliché as it is, there is something to be said for the way an opponent plays when you are the quality win. At some point, Northwestern is going to have to prove they can handle that.

But Sunday was not about Northwestern.

Sunday was about Texas Tech.

It was about Chris Beard putting the Big 12 on notice.

This team is tough and they are old. They have size and athleticism. They have a star in lead guard Keenan Evans and a roster that is more than willing to put in the work on the defensive end of the floor. Most importantly, however, is that Beard has built a team full of guys that all have something to prove. There aren’t any four or five-star freshmen on his roster. The elite recruits that he does have are all transfers, cast-offs from other programs.

That’s just how Beard like it.

Now I don’t think the Red Raiders are going to be winning the Big 12 and ending Kansas’ streak of 14 straight Big 12 titles. But I do think that they’ll be right there in the mix for the title of second-best in the Big 12, and I’m not sure I would have felt that way before the start of the season.

Miles Bridges hurt as No. 2 Michigan State cruises past Stony Brook

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EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Miles Bridges stayed in school to chase a national championship instead of cashing in on his potential in the NBA.

Three games into his sophomore season, he is hurt.

Bridges scored 20 points before limping off the court after injuring his left ankle, casting a pall over No. 2 Michigan State as it beat Stony Brook 93-71 on Sunday night.

“Thank God it’s not a high-ankle sprain,” coach Tom Izzo said. “It’s just a sprain where he rolled it. He’ll be day to day.”

The Spartans (2-1) bounced back from their loss to top-ranked Duke with a win that will be remembered as being costly if Bridges’ injury lingers.

Bridges was fouled with 8:32 left in the game as he went into the lane with the ball and awkwardly planted his left foot, rolling his ankle. After trying to stay in the game to shoot free throws, the preseason All-America player went back to the bench briefly before walking toward the locker room.

“By Tuesday morning, I’ll know more,” Izzo said. “Miles is tough enough to play through it but we’re not going to take any chances.”

Nick Ward scored a season-high 22 points, Joshua Langford had a career-high 19 points and Cassius Winston scored a season-high 13 points and had six assists for the Spartans.

The Seawolves (0-4) led for much of the first half, holding Bridges to two points as they led 22-15 midway through the first half.

Stony Brook’s Elijah Olaniyi scored 16, Akwasi Yeboah had 15 points, UC Iroegbu scored 12 and Tyrell Sturdivant added 10 points.

“The biggest positive was coming out and competing for 40 minutes,” coach Jeff Boals said. “We kept on fighting. I think we led 12 1/2 minutes in the first half. Our biggest thing was coming out and getting off to a good start, just to build some confidence.”

BIG PICTURE

Stony Brook: The America East Conference team made 13 of 26 3-pointers against one of the top teams in the country. That kind of shooting can help the Seawolves pull off an upset, something they had a chance to do in setbacks against Maryland and Connecticut.

“We’re 0-4 right now and it doesn’t look good on wins and losses, but we’ve competed in every game we’ve played,” Boals said.

Michigan State: Bridges’ health is a key factor for the team, and for himself. Izzo isn’t sure how long Bridges will be out.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

The Spartans will slip in The Associated Press poll after losing to the top-ranked Blue Devils and perhaps because Bridges is injured.

HUMBLED AT HOME

Michigan State standout freshman Jaren Jackson fouled out in 14 scoreless minutes. He missed his only shot, a 3-pointer, and had a team-high three turnovers.

“This might be the only time in that kid’s career he doesn’t score,” Boals said. “He is an unbelievable talent.”

The 6-foot-11 Jackson, rated as one of the top prospects for the 2018 NBA draft, was averaging 16 points and 10 rebounds.

“Jaren’s a great player, but he is a young player,” Langford said. “He’s way ahead of where I was.”

UP NEXT

Stony Brook: In its home opener on Wednesday night, hosts Brown.

Michigan State: Plays DePaul on Thursday night in Oregon at the Phil Knight Invitational. The Spartans will play the Ducks or Connecticut in the semifinals on Friday and could face No. 9 North Carolina on Sunday.

“It’s not the biggest stage like Duke was, but it’s time to get back to what we lost against Duke,” Langford said.

Donald Trump’s response to LaVar Ball: ‘I should’ve left them in jail!’

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I told you this was going to happen.

After LaVar Ball downplayed Donald Trump’s role in bringing home his son, LiAngelo, and the three other UCLA players that were arrested for shoplifting in China last week, Trump responded by taking to twitter and saying that he should have left American citizens in prison in a non-democratic, authoritarian country because they will not personally acknowledge his efforts enough:

Sigh.

Now we await LaVar’s response.

Five-star 2018 recruit Anfernee Simons could test NBA Draft process

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Five-star Class of 2018 guard Anfernee Simons is interested in potentially entering the 2018 NBA Draft.

According to a report from Jonathan Givony of ESPN, the former Louisville commit will likely be eligible to jump to the NBA straight out of high school since he graduated high school last year while turning 19 next June. The 6-foot-4 Simons, considered the No. 16 overall prospect in the Rivals’ Class of 2018 national rankings, is playing a post-grad season at IMG Academy for 2017-18 after reclassifying as a sophomore.

If Simons opts to go pro than college basketball loses a potential star as he’s been shooting up the national rankings over the past year. Simons was committed to the Cardinals since the beginning of his junior year but he opened things up once former head coach Rick Pitino lost his job in a fallout from the FBI investigation on college basketball.

Simons started his season at the National Prep Showcase this weekend as six NBA teams sent people to watch him play, according to Givony’s report.

It’ll be fascinating to see what happens in this situation as Simons hasn’t done much with the recruiting process over the last several months. Now that NBA teams are already watching him play, Simons could follow in Thon Maker’s footsteps and turn pro right away.