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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.

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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.

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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.

Thursday’s Three Things To Know: Nebraska, Saint Mary’s land big upsets

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Thursday nights are slow in the college basketball world, but that doesn’t me we don’t have stuff to talk about.

Here are the three things you need to know about.

1. TIM MILES IS WELL ON HIS WAY TO SAVING HIS JOB

One of the most underdiscussed storylines of the college basketball season to date is that the coaches that entered the year on the hot seat are winning.

Clemson’s Brad Brownell might get back to the NCAA tournament. Bruce Pearl has made people at Auburn forget – briefly – about the internal investigation into the FBI allegations against the program. Even Jim Christian looks like he’s going to force BC to give him more time.

But Tim Miles might be the best example of this. After a flurry of transfers in the offseason and a change in athletic director, things looked pretty bleak for Miles. But he now has his Nebraska team sitting in a position where they are at least in the conversation for the bubble at beating No. 23 Michigan at home by 20 points.

The Huskers are not quite there yet. Monday’s game at No. 22 Ohio State is huge because it is the last ranked team on Nebraska’s schedule.

But that’s a ways off.

As of now, Nebraska fans can enjoy the fact that they’re 14-7 on the season and 5-3 in the Big Ten.

2. SAINT MARY’S WON THE MOST IMPORTANT GAME OF THEIR SEASON

Jock Landale went off for 26 points, 12 boards and three assists as Saint Mary’s extended their winning streak to 13 games and put themselves in a position where making a run at an NCAA tournament bid looks likely.

Our Travis Hines has a column up on this game here.

3. VIRGINIA CONTINUES TO LOOK LIKE THE BEST TEAM IN THE ACC

The Wahoos went into Atlanta and beat down Georgia Tech, 64-48, on Thursday night.

The most impressive thing about this season for Virginia isn’t that they are winning these games or that they are playing great defense or whatever. It’s that all of these wins they are collecting are impressive.

Georgia Tech never looked like they were really in this one, and the Yellow Jackets have been playing better of late and were at home. They beat N.C. State by 17. They handled North Carolina fairly easily. They embarrassed Virginia Tech on the road.

Virginia is really, really good, and the truth is that they are probably a year away from being their best selves.

CBT Podcast: Wichita State’s a mess, Trae Young’s struggles, Jamion Christian on transfers

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Rob Dauster was joined on Friday by Jamion Christian, the head coach of Mount St. Mary’s, for an enlightening and honest discussion about college basketball and transfers. There is a push to get transfers to be allowed to be immediately eligible, a push that many believe will have drastic, negative effects on coaches like Jamion. The two talk for 30 minutes about the ramifications of changing the rules before Rob is joined by Reags from the Fundamentally Sound podcast to go over the what happened to Trae Young, what happened to Wichita State’s defense and the weekend’s biggest games.

OPEN: Jamion Christian interview

30:22: Trae Young’s offensive issues

44:50: Does Wichita State have the most pressing defensive worries?

52:45: Weekend preview and picks ATS

Craft Beer Of The Week: Stone Xocoveza

Hunter scores 17 points, No. 2 Virginia beats Ga Tech 64-48

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ATLANTA (AP) — Virginia got off to a sluggish start offensively.

Fortunately for the Cavaliers, their defense never takes a night off.

De’Andre Hunter came off the bench to score 17 points and No. 2 Virginia turned in another defensive masterpiece Thursday, stretching its winning streak to nine in a row with a 64-48 victory over Georgia Tech.

The Cavaliers (17-1, 6-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) limited Georgia Tech to 40.5 percent shooting and forced 18 turnovers, leading to 16 points.

“The defense held us in there until we got a little rhythm and hit some shots,” coach Tony Bennett said. “We were stingy to score against. That always carries you on the road.”

Virginia snapped a four-game winning streak for the Yellow Jackets (10-8, 3-2).

After making the first basket of the game, Georgia Tech quickly got an idea of what kind of night it would be. The Jackets missed their next eight shots and turned it over four times before Josh Okogie finally broke a nearly eight-minute scoreless drought with a dunk off a backdoor pass.

Virginia shot just 40 percent in the first half but still led 28-19 at the break.

Georgia Tech never got any closer the rest of the way.

“They’re just a very disciplined team offensively and defensively,” Yellow Jackets center Ben Lammers said. “That makes it very difficult. You can’t make a mistake or you’ll pay for it.”

The last gasp for the home team essentially came in the closing seconds of the first half. It looked as though the Jackets would go to the locker room on a bit of a high after Curtis Haywood hit his second 3-pointer from far beyond the stripe, closing the gap to 24-19.

But Hunter got free in the corner and knocked down a trey with 0.1 seconds left in the half, turning it into a four-point play when Abdoulaye Gueye foolishly went for the block and sent the Virginia player sprawling to the court .

The free throw gave the Cavaliers their biggest lead of the opening period.

“That’s definitely not the way you want to end a half,” Lammers said. “We were on a little bit of a roll. It’s definitely a bit of a downer for our team. I think it helped their momentum.”

Virginia steadily pulled away over the final 20 minutes, dominating the inside for a 44-20 edge on points in the paint. Ty Jerome added 12 points, while Devon Hall and Kyle Guy had 11 apiece.

Tadric Jackson led Georgia Tech with 14 points. No one else was in double figures.

BIG PICTURE

Virginia: The Cavaliers held an opponent under 50 points for the eighth time this season. They came into the night allowing the fewest points of any Division I team, and actually improved on their 52.9 average. That helped to cover for a tough night from 3-point range on which the Cavs connected on just 3 of 13 attempts.

Georgia Tech: Okogie, averaging 18.8 points per game, struggled to get open and finished with just nine points on 3-of-8 shooting. But coach Josh Pastner is especially concerned about Lammers, who attempted only five shots, made one and finished with four points. “We’ve got to get more out of him offensively,” Pastner said. “When you’re not scoring, it sucks the life out of you.”

WILKINS STEPS UP

The Cavaliers switched things up a bit against Lammers, turning to Isaiah Wilkins to handle the bulk of the defensive duties.

When the teams met last season , 6-foot-10 Jack Salt limited Lammers to seven points on 3-of-12 shooting.

This time, it was the 6-foot-7 Wilkins — the stepson of former Atlanta Hawks great Dominique Wilkins — making life miserable for Georgia Tech’s big man.

“He played to his personality,” Bennett said. “He’s such a giver. He thinks help. He thinks cover for teammates. He knows how to anticipate. If you can find that, it’s worth its weight in gold for a defensive player.”

PACKED PAVILION

It was an especially disappointing performance for the Yellow Jackets, considering it came before their first sellout of the season at 8,600-seat McCamish Pavilion.

UP NEXT

Virginia: Plays its second straight ACC road game at Wake Forest on Sunday.

Georgia Tech: Faces a short turnaround before traveling to Chapel Hill on Saturday for another game against a ranked opponent, No. 15 North Carolina.

Palmer scores 19, leads Huskers in 72-52 rout of Michigan

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LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — James Palmer Jr. scored 19 points, Isaiah Roby had a career-high 14 and Nebraska beat No. 23 Michigan 72-52 on Thursday night for its first win over the Wolverines since joining the Big Ten.

Nebraska (14-7, 5-3), which needed Palmer’s 3-pointer to beat last-place Illinois 64-63 on Monday, led 32-21 at the half and never let Michigan get closer than 10 points in the last 17 minutes.

Michigan (16-5, 5-3), which had won nine of its last 10, suffered its most lopsided loss of the season and had a season-low for points. Charles Matthews had 15 points for the Wolverines, who shot 37.5 percent from the floor and a season-low 22.2 percent (4 of 18) on 3-pointers.

The Wolverines had come in 8-0 against the Huskers since Nebraska joined the Big Ten in 2011-12, and they had won 10 straight in the series.

In the final regular-season game last year, Michigan won 93-57 in Lincoln, the Huskers’ most lopsided home loss in program history. Michigan set the arena record for points by an opponent and matched the arena record with 14 made 13-pointers in that game.

Nebraska was in total control this time.

The Huskers played strong defense on the perimeter and forced nine of Michigan’s 12 turnovers the first 20 minutes. Roby, Duby Okeke and Jordy Tshimanga rendered Moritz Wagner a non-factor.

Wagner, who scored 27 points last Saturday against Michigan State and had reached double figures in all but two games, missed his only shot of the half. He finished with a season-low two points, his only basket coming on a dunk early in the second half.

Roby had two dunks and another basket during an 18-4 run that turned Nebraska’s 12-10 deficit into a 28-16 lead. The Wolverines went scoreless for more than 6 minutes and without a field goal for 7½ as the Huskers broke things open. The Wolverines missed 14 of their last 16 shots of the half.

The Huskers built the lead to 21 with less than 5 minutes to play.

Tshimanga, who missed the last two games for personal reasons, entered the game in the middle of the first half. The first time he touched the ball, he passed to Roby for a dunk.

BIG PICTURE

Michigan: Though the Wolverines have owned Nebraska, Pinnacle Bank Arena is a tough place to play, and they might have been out of gas after an emotional win over Michigan State and having to rally to beat Maryland 68-67 on Monday.

Nebraska: This was a crucial win for a team that has hopes of returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014. Michigan came into the game No. 30 in the RPI; no other opponent Nebraska has beaten is in the top 50. Another big opportunity comes Monday when the Huskers visit Ohio State (No. 18 RPI).

UP NEXT

Michigan hosts Rutgers on Sunday.

Nebraska visits No. 22 Ohio State on Monday.

St. Mary’s gets critical NCAA tourney resume win over No. 13 Gonzaga

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No one should probably get too worked about about one game in mid-January.

First of all, it’s one game. Forty minutes of small sample size randomness that could very well mean next to nothing.

Second, there is still nearly two months of regular season to play. What seems important now very well could fade to irrelevance come mid-March. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense to attach much meaning to one game between two teams well ahead of when the stakes are actually clear.

Unless you’re St. Mary’s and you’re at Gonzaga.

Then, you can get hyped.

The Gaels finally delivered a resume-boosting win this season by dispatching the 13th-ranked Bulldogs, 74-71, in Spokane to invigorate a season that seemed destined to end with plenty of wins but few – if any – that really mattered.

Yeah, it’s one game. Yeah, it’s mid-January. Yeah, a lot can happen between now and Selection Sunday to render this moot. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

But make no mistake about it, St. Mary’s beating Gonzaga at The Kennell is a monumental victory for Randy Bennett’s team when the Gaels lacked even a notable one before it.

St. Mary’s non-conference schedule has become a tired topic, but it is absolutely why they find themselves in such a high-stake game just a couple weeks after New Year’s. It’s also perhaps maybe less their fault than ever. Bennett can’t be faulted for Cal being awful and Dayton being down. Those should be solid wins. But they aren’t. Then there’s the loss to Washington State. That should have been an opportunity for a good win. Instead it’s become a blight on their resume with the Cougars unable to compete in the anemic Pac 12.The one true chance for a meaningful win came against Georgia, and the Bulldogs nipped them in OT.

Beyond that, there’s a lot of wins on the resume for the Gaels, but not a lot of substance. Beating up a couple times each the likes of Loyola Marymount, Pepperdine and Santa Clara doesn’t exactly move the needle.

That’s what made Thursday night so incredibly critical for St. Mary’s, and, if we’re being honest, for college basketball. The Gaels are absolutely one of the 68 best teams in the country. Conservatively, I’d say somewhere around the top 30. The NCAA tournament simply would have been worse off without them.

They showed why against Gonzaga.

The Bulldogs looked poised to pull away on numerous occasions, leading by as many as nine in the second half, but the Gaels wouldn’t let them gain comfortable separation. There was always an answer.

At least there was always Jock Landale.

The 6-foot-11 senior brought his All-American stuff to Spokane, going for 26 points on 12 of 15 shooting while also posting 12 rebounds and three assists. There’s not much flash to Landale’s game, but his fundamentals do the work for him. He established great position early and just went to work, abusing Gonzaga’s frontline time and again.

Landale is one of the most efficient offensive players in the country while simultaneously being one of its better rebounders. That’s a dude who in his senior year needs to be in the NCAA tournament. I won’t hear arguments to the contrary.

This win doesn’t guarantee a spot for the Gaels, obviously. They can’t afford a major slip-up, and another win against the Zags would go a long way, but it at least puts them in a tenable position with more than six weeks until March.

It’s the cruel reality of life in the WCC. Whether it would have won or lost Thursday night, St. Mary’s clearly established itself as a peer to Gonzaga, a team whom no one wonders about its NCAA tournament viability. St. Mary’s is right there with them. If they would have lost, it may not have mattered. The W-L, the RPI and the resume just wouldn’t have enough evidence to support what was so readily apparent to anyone watching.

They did win, though.

Sure, it’s still only one game. Sure, it’s still early. Sure, plenty can still go wrong.

Sure beats the alternative, though.