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College Hoops Contender Series: Can Sean Miller overcome scandal to (finally) get Arizona to the Final Four?

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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’ve gone through Kentucky and Kansas already this week. Today, we’ll take a look at Arizona.

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Allonzo Trier (Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

WHY THEY WILL WIN

There are two ways to answer this question.

The first is relatively simple. Arizona has three things that, alone, would make them relevant in the Pac-12 title and Final Four discussion:

  1. They have a junior that will be a Preseason All-American, in the mix for National Player of the Year and could end up leading all of high-major basketball in scoring this season. His name is Allonzo Trier.
  2. They have the potential No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, and his name is not Allonzo Trier. It’s Deandre Ayton, who has a shot at earning those same accolades that Trier will be in the mix for.
  3. Those two will be coached by Sean Miller, who is the best coach in the country to never reach a Final Four and may be the best coach in the country, period.

But, and this may actually be more important than any of those three things individually, Arizona also has the perfect blend of ridiculous incoming freshmen talent and talented returning veterans that can provide the kind of leadership and experience that you don’t see from 18 and 19-year olds.

The Wildcats will likely start just one freshmen this season. Three of their starters — Trier, a junior, and seniors Dusan Ristic and Parker Jackson-Carterwright — are upper-classmen. Sophomore Rawle Alkins should also slide into the starting lineup center he returns from a foot injury that is expected to keep him out for the first couple of weeks of the season.

The best teams during the one-and-done era — Kentucky’s title-winning team in 2012, Duke’s title-winning team in 2015, Kentucky’s Final Four team in 2015 — have all had that blend.

It’s why Arizona will be in the top three of every preseason top 25 you see coming out this month.

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Deandre Ayton (Getty Images)

WHY THEY WON’T WIN

Before we get into the off-the-court stuff, let’s talk on-the-court.

The way that I see it, there are four things to be worried about with this Arizona team. Let’s walk through each one of them, in order of the most concerning to the least concerning:

1. Point guard play: There are two point guards on Arizona’s roster as of today. One of them is a freshman named Alex Barcello, a borderline top 100 prospect that, in an ideal world, won’t be playing major minutes for a national title-contending team, at least not as a freshman. The other is Parker Jackson-Cartwright, a senior and former four-star recruit that has spent his entire Arizona career has the second option at the point.

The last two years, he played behind Kadeem Allen, a converted scoring guard and tenacious defender that turned himself into the kind of a player that piqued the interest of the Boston Celtics in last year’s NBA Draft. He was a physically imposing, 6-foot-3 menace that also happened to be a 43 percent three-point shooter. Before that, Jackson-Cartwright slotted in behind T.J. McConnell, another savvy, defensive menace that has carved out an NBA career for himself.

That is not the kind of point guard that Jackson-Cartwright is. He has some of the same skills offensively that McConnell had, and his ability to facilitate at the point without needing shots to be happy will be valuable on a roster that has enough guys that want to score, but can he have an impact defensively? Is he a leader the way that past Arizona point guards have been? The answer to both of those questions may be ‘yes’, but if they are ‘no’, will some combination of Barcello, Allonzo Trier and Emmanuel Akot rotating through those lead guard minutes be enough for Arizona to win a title?

We’ve seen what happens when title favorites — ahem, Duke — have question marks at the point, and until Jackson-Cartwright proves otherwise, he falls into that category.

2. Which Deandre Ayton are we going to see this year?: There has never been a question about the amount of talent that Ayton has. He’s 7-foot with a 7-foot-6 wingspan. He’s athletic, he’s fluid, he’s mobile and he has a back to the basket game and three-point range. He, quite literally, is the prototype for a big man in this modern era of basketball.

But he doesn’t always play like it.

The knock on him has always been his motor. When he decides to show up, like he did at Peach Jam during the summer of 2016, he dominates anyone that gets in his way — Wendell Carter, Mitchell Robinson, Marvin Bagley III — but we’ve yet to see Ayton consistently churn out those kind of performances. His detractors will say it is because he is lazy, or he isn’t competitive, or he doesn’t love basketball; you know the clichés. Others will tell you that it is because he was never challenged at the high school level and that when he was, he showed up to play. That idea is supported by the reports coming out of Tucson, that Ayton has been terrific to date.

The truth is that we won’t know which Ayton we are going to see until we actually see him. He might end up being the best player in college hoops. He also might end up being Perry Jones.

3. Are there enough shots to go around?: Allonzo Trier is going to be Arizona’s go-to guy. He may end up being the best scorer in college basketball this season. He’s going to get his shots. Then there’s Rawle Alkins, a former five-star prospect that averaged double-figures as a freshman and opted to return to school to try and boost his NBA stock. He’s going to need shots, too. Ayton is going to need shots. Dusan Ristic is going to need post touches.

The bottom line is this: the hardest thing to do at this level of college basketball is to convince players to buy into a role. John Calipari is the best at it, but he doesn’t even have a perfect track record. In a perfect world, the No. 1 pick might end up being Arizona’s third option offensively this season. Is everyone going to be OK with that?

4. Who plays the four?: Like the point guard spot, the four is going to be something of a question mark for Arizona this season.

Ayton will likely end up starting there, because Ristic is a senior and because he is much more skilled on the perimeter than the 7-foot Serbian. But I still think that Ayton’s best position at the college level is as a small-ball five, and if he is playing at the five, who does Miller line up at the four? Keanu Pinder might be the answer, but he’s a JuCo transfer that played all of 12 minutes per game last season. It might be Ira Lee, but an all-freshmen front court isn’t always the easiest answer. Maybe Miller plays Akot there and fully dives into the small-ball era?

I don’t know.

And frankly, I’m less concerned about this than I am intrigued. I think Arizona has enough talent and enough different pieces that it should be fine however Miller decides it will come together.

Assuming the season goes as planned, which brings us to …

5. … Arizona’s involvement with the FBI investigation: Arizona is all over the FBI complaints that came down last month. Book Richardson, an assistant coach that had been with Sean Miller for 11 years, was arrested. Richardson allegedly took bribes to influence where players on the roster would invest their money and accepted a $15,000 payment that was earmarked for a Class of 2018 prospect named Jahvon Quinerly. Two players currently on the Arizona roster were mentioned by Richardson during the commission of the alleged crimes, although the FBI did not release their names, and another assistant coach, who was with the program as of last spring, was also involved in a dinner with the uncle of one of Arizona’s top recruits.

And we don’t know if that’s all that the FBI has. All we know is what they have released.

Are there going to be more Arizona players or coaches involved in this scandal? Will Arizona get wind of any potential arrests or players that may be deemed ineligible? Is this a situation where the Wildcats will try to fall on their own sword?

Only time will tell.

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

Rawle Alkins (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

PREDICTION

Barring some kind of craziness – and craziness enveloping this Arizona season certainly has a greater-than-zero possibility – Arizona is going to end up winning the Pac-12 regular season title. That became a safe bet after the Pac-12 decided that the Wildcats will only be playing UCLA and USC once, and that both of those games will be played in Tucson.

But Arizona fans probably don’t care all that much about Pac-12 titles at this point.

They’ve been there.

What they want is a Final Four, which is more or less the only thing that Sean Miller doesn’t have on his coaching résumé at this point. The 48-year old currently holds the title of ‘best coach to never make a Final Four,’ something he inherited from Mark Few, who inherited it from Bill Self, who inherited it from Jim Calhoun.

Point being, sooner or later, Miller is going to make that run to the final weekend of the college basketball season.

And with the amount of talent, depth, experience and versatility he has with this group, I fully expect that this will be the year he gets it done.

If, you know, nothing crazy happens.

Coaches Poll: Villanova climbs to the No. 1 spot

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The new top 25 coaches poll is out, and the No. 1 team in college basketball is now Villanova.

Michigan State, who received 10 of a possible 32 first-place votes, came in at No. 2 while Duke, last week’s No. 1 team, fell to No. 4 with a loss to Boston College.

After winning at Kansas this week, Arizona State vaulted up to the No. 6 spot, while the Jayhawks fell to No. 12.

Here is the full coaches poll.

1. Villanova (22 first-place votes)
2. Michigan State (10)
3. Wichita State
4. Duke
5. Kentucky
6. Arizona State
7. North Carolina
8. Miami
9. Xavier
10. Texas A&M
11. West Virginia
12. Kansas
13. Gonzaga
14. TCU
15. Seton Hall
16. Virginia
17. Purdue
18. Notre Dame
19. Florida State
20. Tennessee
21. Baylor
22. Florida
23. Arizona
24. Oklahoma
25. Creighton

Villanova hops over Michigan State for No. 1 in AP Top 25

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Villanova’s unbeaten start now includes a No. 1 ranking in the AP Top 25 , while Arizona State is making a rapid rise into the top 10 under third-year coach Bobby Hurley.

After a tumultuous week in which unanimous No. 1 Duke and No. 2 Kansas lost, the Wildcats (10-0) earned 41 of 65 first-place votes to hop over Michigan State and reach the top for the third straight season.

Villanova and Michigan State were the favorites to take over at the top after the Blue Devils’ weekend loss at Boston College, though there was far less certainty for voters about who was now the nation’s top team. The Spartans (9-1) earned 19 first-place votes to climb from third to second, while the other five first-place votes went to the Sun Devils — who leapt 11 spots to No. 5 after Sunday’s win at Kansas.

Arizona State (9-0) is off to its best start since the 1974-75 season. Now the Sun Devils — who also have a win against Xavier this season — have their highest ranking since reaching third during the 1980-81 season.

Wichita State climbed three spots to No. 3, followed by Duke and Arizona State. Unbeaten Miami climbed four spots to No. 6, followed by North Carolina, Kentucky, Texas A&M and Xavier to round out the top 10.

Villanova helped itself with an impressive win against No. 12 Gonzaga last week in New York, though the Wildcats had to fight to the final minute Sunday to close out a La Salle team that entered at 5-5.

“It’s always an honor to be ranked No. 1,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said in a statement. “It’s great for the Nova Nation and we appreciate the respect of the writers. We know it’s early, though, and we need to get a lot better.”

KANSAS’ FALL

The Jayhawks (7-2) slid 11 spots to No. 13 after two losses last week, the first coming against Washington in Kansas City, Missouri, before losing to the Sun Devils in Allen Fieldhouse.

SHUFFLE UP

Only two teams — No. 8 Kentucky and No. 12 Gonzaga — stayed in the same spot. Thirteen teams rose in the poll, while four of the seven teams that fell slid at least eight spots.

TOP RISERS

Arizona State’s leap was the biggest, though No. 11 West Virginia (9-1) moved up seven spots after beating then-No. 15 Virginia. No. 14 TCU (10-0) climbed six spots after a win against a then-ranked Nevada team.

Miami, UNC, No. 15 Seton Hall, No. 17 Purdue and No. 20 Tennessee all climbed four spots.

LONGEST SLIDES

While Kansas’ losses stood out, No. 22 Florida had the biggest fall of the week.

The Gators (6-3) slid 17 spots after home losses to Florida State and to Loyola Chicago — a game in which they led for all of 93 seconds. Florida salvaged a win against Cincinnati in the Never Forget Tribute Classic in Newark, New Jersey, to avoid a four-game skid.

No. 18 Notre Dame (8-2) fell nine spots after an upset loss to Ball State, while the No. 25 Bearcats (7-2) slid eight spots.

NEWCOMERS

There were three newcomers to this week’s poll, though one is more of a welcome back.

The list included No. 19 Florida State (9-0) and No. 24 Texas Tech (7-1), while Arizona returned to the rankings at No. 23.

Arizona’s 0-3 showing at the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas made the Wildcats the first team in three decades to go from No. 2 in the AP Top 25 to unranked in a week. But four straight wins have the preseason Final Four favorite back in the poll.

SLIDING OUT

Minnesota (No. 14 last week), Nevada (No. 22) and Southern California (No. 25) all fell out of the poll.

1. Villanova (41 first-place votes)
2. Michigan State (19)
3. Wichita State
4. Duke
5. Arizona State (5)
6. Miami
7. North Carolina
8. Kentucky
9. Texas A&M
10. Xavier
11. West Virginia
12. Gonzaga
13. Kansas
14. TCU
15. Seton Hall
16. Virginia
17. Purdue
18. Notre Dame
19. Florida State
20. Tennessee
21. Baylor
22. Florida
23. Arizona
24. Texas Tech
25. Cincinnati

Expelled Yale captain has enrolled at Belmont University

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NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) — Former Yale basketball captain Jack Montague, who was expelled from the Ivy League school in 2016 for sexual misconduct, has enrolled at Belmont University in Tennessee.

Montague, who is still suing to be readmitted to Yale, complained in a court deposition last spring that he was unable to apply to other schools. He said Yale would not release his transcript until he paid a disputed tuition bill.

Karen Schwartzman, a spokeswoman for Montague, says Yale later released the transcript, allowing Montague to enroll at Belmont this fall. She says not all of his credits transferred and he will need two semesters to graduate.

He exhausted his basketball eligibility at Yale.

Montague denies the sexual misconduct allegations. No criminal charges were ever sought.

Yale’s attorneys have said the school and its officials acted appropriately.

The lawsuit, which also seeks monetary damages, is expected to go to trial next year.

Player of the Week: Tayler Persons, Ball State

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In a week where Jy Bowman put 30 on Duke, Tra Holder had 29 in Phog Allen Fieldhouse and Mikal Bridges popped off for 28 in Madison Square Garden, the Player of the Week this week was shockingly easy to pick.

Tayler Persons, Ball State.

And I know what you’re saying. “Who?”

That was my reaction, too, when I found out that Persons was the man that hit the game-winning 25-footer to give the Cardinals a victory at No. 9 Notre Dame on Tuesday. When he hit another game-winner against Valpo on Saturday, I knew who he was.

And when I realized that, in those two games, Ball State’s leading scorer had averaged 23.5 points, 5. boards and 4.0 assists in those two wins, it made sense.

If you’re going to hit the game-winning shot in the two biggest wins of the season for your team, chances are that you’re a pretty good player.

I do have some advice for young Tayler, however.

He left 1.5 seconds on the clock at Notre Dame and 3.3 seconds on the clock against Valpo. Next time, make the shot at the buzzer. It’s cooler that way, and you’ll probably get on Sportscenter.

THE ALL-‘THEY WERE GOOD, TOO’ TEAM

  • KY BOWMAN, Boston College: Bowman damn near had a triple-double on Saturday, finishing with 30 points, 10 boards and nine assists to lead Boston College to a 89-84 upset win over No. 1 Duke. His partner in crime, Jerome Robinson, was pretty good as well. He finished with 25 points, including a pair of massive threes in the final five minutes of the game.
  • MIKAL BRIDGES, Villanova: Bridges has been having a terrific season, but he finally had his moment on Tuesday in the Jimmy V Classic. Bridges went for 28 points and six boards, including an emphatic dunk, as the Wildcats knocked off No. 12 Gonzaga is fairly uneventful fashion.
  • TERANCE MANN, Florida State: Mann has been Florida State’s best player this season, and he was certainly their best player on Monday, when the Seminoles went into the O-Dome and knocked off their rival, Florida, by 17 points. Mann went for 25 points in that one.
  • TRA HOLDER, Arizona State: Holder had 29 points and seven assists as the Sun Devils went into Phog Allen Fieldhouse and knocked off No. 2 Kansas, 95-85, and you can make the argument that it wasn’t one of his two-best performances of the season. That’s pretty good.
  • LANDRY SHAMET, Wichita State: After going for 21 points and eight assists to lead the Shockers past South Dakota State on Tuesday night, Shamet had a career-high 30 points to help Gregg Marshall’s club come from behind to beat Oklahoma State in Stillwater.

Team of the Week: Arizona State Sun Devils

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Arizona State had themselves a week, didn’t they?

It was impressive enough before they went into Phog Allen Fieldhouse on Sunday after. They had already beaten St. John’s in the Staples Center for the opener of the Hall Of Fame Classic. With a blowout win over Xavier and wins over San Diego State and Kansas State already on their résumé, the Sun Devils were playing with house money on Sunday.

No one would blame them if they took a loss in the Phog. All but ten teams that have played their while Bill Self has been the head coach have taken a loss. You don’t just walk into Lawrence, Kansas, and expect to leave with a win.

But … they did win.

And suddenly, there is a totally different vibe around this Arizona State program.

They’re going to be ranked in the top five on Monday. They’re going to be receiving first-place votes in both top 25 polls. They’re going to be looked at as the best team out west, the favorite to win the Pac-12, the best program in Arizona. Hell, you’ll probably start hearing people say that Bobby Hurley is the answer to the ‘who replaces Coach K?’ question.

That’s when you know you’ve got something rolling.

When people like me start talking about your next job.

Personally, I’m far more interested in seeing if Arizona State can keep this thing going. They are 154th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom, and while they are the second-best team in the country at getting to the foul line, there best performances have all come when they shot the grip off the ball.

But as of now, that doesn’t really matter.

Arizona State is the most fun team in the country and totally deserving of whether they end up being ranked.

THEY WERE GOOD, TOO

  • BOSTON COLLEGE: The Eagles did something on Saturday that no one else has been able to do this season: They outplayed Duke for 35 minutes and then managed to avoid choking the game away down the stretch as Marvin Bagley III took over. Ky Bowman and Jerome Robinson were nothing short of sensational.
  • ARIZONA: The Wildcats are back. They picked up a pair of impressive wins this week, knocking off Alabama at home on Saturday night after landing a marquee win over No. 7 Texas A&M in Phoenix on Tuesday night. Throw in the win at UNLV last weekend, and Sean Miller’s club has officially turned this thing around.
  • MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE: The Blue Raiders won at Vanderbilt and beat Ole Miss at home this week, meaning that Kermit Davis is now 5-0 against the SEC over the course of the last two-plus seasons.
  • TCU: The Horned Frogs moved to 10-0 on the season this week by landing their two best wins to date. They knocked off SMU at home on Tuesday night before going into LA late on Friday evening to beat No. 22 Nevada.
  • LOYOLA-CHICAGO: The MVC should be on the lookout for the Ramblers after they went into the O-Dome and landed a win over No. 5 Florida.