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College Hoops Contender Series: Does Kansas have the talent to overcome awkward roster construction?

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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?

We took a look at Kentucky yesterday. Now let’s break down Kansas and what makes them a title contender.

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Devonte’ Graham (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

WHY THEY WILL WIN

They’re Kansas, and Kansas does not lose Big 12 races.

I don’t expect that that will change this year, and there are four reasons why:

  1. Phog Allen Fieldhouse: Kansas does not lose there. It just doesn’t happen, which means that you can pencil in nine Big 12 wins for them off the bat. Then, consider that …
  2. … the rest of the Big 12 is down: Outside of West Virginia, is there anyone in the league that should scare Kansas? Baylor could be a top 25 team, but losing Jonathan Motley will keep them out of the Big 12 title discussion. Texas should be relevant again, but even with the addition of Mo Bamba and the return of Andrew Jones, I think they’re more ‘top 25 good’ than ‘challenge Kansas’ good. Oklahoma is still rebuilding. Texas Tech and TCU look like they could be NCAA tournament teams, but not much more. Iowa State lost what feels like everyone. Oklahoma State and Kansas State are … whatever.
  3. And Bill Self is still Bill Self: There’s a reason that he is already a Hall of Famer despite being just 54 years old. He’s one of the best in this business, and if the 13 straight regular season titles didn’t convince you yet, I’m not sure that anything will. At this point there is no reason to assume anything other than Self trotting out a team that is going to be in and around the top ten, in the mix for a No. 1 seed and, as such, a Final Four and title contender. It’s just what Kansas does.
  4. Most importantly, Kansas is still super-talented: It starts with Devonte’ Graham, who I think has a real shot at being an all-american this season. He’ll be playing his more natural point guard position, and he may actually be a better pure point guard than National Player of the Year Frank Mason was last season. Malik Newman, a former top ten recruit that redshirted last season, will be joining Graham in the back court. Svi Mykhailiuk is back, as is LaGerald Vick, while another transfer — Sam Cunliffe — will be eligible come December. Throw in Udoka Azubuike and Billy Preston up front, and the Jayhawks have a nice blend of talent, youth and experience.

All that said, I don’t think this will be the best Kansas team we’ve seen in recent years.

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Lagerald Vick (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

WHY THEY WON’T WIN

Everything about this Kansas team just feels kind of … weird.

Let’s start with the transfers. They have five of them on the roster this year. Three will be redshirting this season. One, Sam Cunliffe, won’t be eligible until December after transferring out of Arizona State just one semester into his Sun Devil career. Another, Malik Newman, will be eligible to play this season after redshirting last year, teaming up in the back court with Devonte’ Graham, who is in a weird position in his own right.

Graham was a point guard in high school. He was a point guard when he signed with Appalachian State and he was a point guard when he was forced to go to prep school for a year because the Mountaineers wouldn’t let him out of his Letter Of Intent. He was also a point guard when he arrived at Kansas, and he proceeded to spend the next three years playing off the ball as point guard Frank Mason went from being the other guy in a recruiting class that included Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid to the National Player of the Year as a senior.

For the first time in his college career, Graham will be taking over the primary point guard duties in a back court that includes a player in Newman that wants the ball in his hands and likes to shoot as much as anyone in college hoops.

How that back court pairing gels will likely end up being the most influential part of the Jayhawk season.

But there’s more.

Let’s talk small-ball for a second.

Bill Self, for years, was a coach that wanted to do nothing more than he wanted to play two bigs. Sometimes, those bigs were the Perry Ellis-type, face-up fours whose ability to score in the mid-range was elite. Sometimes, like when he made it to the national title game in 2012, he had Thomas Robinson lining up next to Jeff Withey.

However it played out, the constant was two big men … until last season, when Josh Jackson showed up and suddenly Self had the ideal small-ball lineup: Two point guards, two tough and athletic wings that could make threes and a big body in the post that can block shots and get rebounds. With Jackson now gone, Kansas and Self now have something of a problem on their hands. As it stands, there are just nine eligible scholarship players on the Jayhawks roster. Only three of them can be considered big men — Udoka Azubuike, Billy Preston and Mitch Lightfoot.

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Udoka Azubuike (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

In an ideal world, one where Self has a back court that includes a pair of ball-handlers that will be in his starting lineup and a shortage of big bodies, the Jayhawks would once again play small-ball.

The problem?

Jackson was the glue that held that lineup together. He was the prototype college four. He was tough as nails defensively, he could rebound like a power forward and he defended the rim when needed. He was also a matchup nightmare on the offensive end, a natural wing and skilled playmaker with three-point range and the ability to grab a rebound and immediately spark transition.

Kansas does not have that guy anymore. LaGerald Vick is an excellent spot-up three-point shooter and the kind of athlete that will be a plus-wing defender, but he’s all of 6-foot-4 and he’s nowhere near the playmaker that Jackson was. Cunliffe, when he finally gets eligible, is a little bit bigger than Vick but not all that different of a player. Svi Mykhailiuk is a skilled player on the offensive end of the floor that has, shall we say, question marks defensively.

In theory, the answer to this problem would be for the Jayhawks to play Azubuike, a former five-star recruit, and Preston, a five-star prospect in the Class of 2017, together. Frankly, they actually fit fairly well together. The problem is that this would mean that the only front court depth that Self would have is Lightfoot, who looked out of his element in the 102 minutes he played as a freshman.

There isn’t an easy answer to this issue.

It’s one of the pitfalls of taking three sit-out transfers the same year.

Which is why this Kansas team has such a weird feel to it.


Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

PREDICTION

Overall, Kansas is going to be fine.

Outside of West Virginia, the rest of the Big 12 is not all that intimidating. The Jayhawks should win their 14th straight Big 12 title.

But there is valid reason to be concerned about what this team is going to be able to accomplish against the best teams in the country. Last year, they were the team that created the mismatches, that forced teams to play their way or take the loss.

I just don’t see how that happens this season. I’m not sure Kansas going small would force the best teams to match them because I don’t think it’s all that worrisome having a college four guard the likes of Vick, Cunliffe or Svi. I also don’t think their two-big lineup will be all that effective unless Preston has a bigger impact — i.e. all-Big 12ish — than I expect and Lightfoot proves to be a better bench presence than I realized.

The combination of Bill Self, the amount of talent on the roster and Phog Allen Fieldhouse will keep the Jayhawks in and around the top five throughout the year.

But I think they will be more matchup-dependent in the NCAA tournament than you would think a potential No. 1 seed would be.

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.