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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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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.

Bridges perfect from 3, No. 5 Villanova blows out Lafayette

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ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Mikal Bridges set a school record by hitting all six of his 3-point shots and scored a career-high 24 points in No. 5 Villanova’s 104-57 rout of Lafayette on Friday night.

Jalen Brunson added 22 points and hit 4 of 6 3s in another dominant performance by the Wildcats (3-0), who made 16 of 30 from long range.

Three nights after setting a school record with 13 blocked shots in a blowout of Nicholls, the versatile and deep Wildcats showed another strength and overwhelmed the Leopards (0-3).

Led by Bridges’ 4 of 4 long-distance shooting, Villanova hit 11 of its first 14 3s in racing to a 39-16 lead. The Wildcats had a stretch of nine straight baskets being 3s en route to a 56-23 halftime lead.

Matt Klinewski had 16 points and six rebounds for Lafayette, which was 7 of 29 from 3-point range.

Bridges finished 9 of 10 from the field before he sat out the final 10 minutes. The junior bested his previous career-high by one point set Tuesday.

While it was a Villanova home game, it was played about 50 miles from campus at the PPL Center, home of minor league hockey’s Lehigh Valley Phantoms. It was a 20-mile drive for Lafayette, but the Wildcats sure seemed at home.

Villanova spent much of the second half going inside to score. Omari Spellman had 15 points and nine rebounds and Eric Paschall had 14 points and eight boards.

BIG PICTURE

Lafayette: Try as a Patriot League school squaring off against one of the best teams in the nation and watching the opponent shoot like that, Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon’s alma mater never had a chance.

Villanova: The Wildcats have perimeter shooting, depth inside and play good defense. They’ve been dominant against inferior competition, and will finally get tested next week.

SO MANY 3-POINTERS

Bridges surpassed Doug West in 1988 and John Celestand in 1999, each of whom went 5 of 5 from long range. Villanova finished one shy of the school record of 17 3s set against Lehigh on Nov. 27, 2005.

NO LUCK

Lafayette coach Fran O’Hanlon fell to 0-6 against his alma mater. O’Hanlon still holds the Villanova record for assists in a game with 16 set against Toledo on Feb. 24, 1970.

Only six Division I coaches have been at their schools longer than O’Hanlon, in his 23rd season.

UP NEXT

Lafayette visits Princeton on Wednesday.

Villanova faces Western Kentucky on Wednesday in the first of three games at the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas. No. 19 Purdue and No. 3 Arizona are possible opponents the following two days.

Mykhailiuk helps No. 4 Kansas rout South Dakota State, 98-64

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LAWRENCE, Kan. — Svi Mykhailiuk scored a career-high 27 points, Lagerald Vick finished with 22 and fourth-ranked Kansas routed Summit League favorite South Dakota State 98-64 on Friday night.

Udoka Azubuike added 17 points and Malik Newman had 13 for the Jayhawks (3-0), who shot 60 percent from the field and didn’t commit a turnover until midway through the second half.

By that point, the Jackrabbits (3-1) were staring at a 30-point deficit.

Mike Daum led South Dakota State with 21 points and 11 rebounds. Tevin King contributed 12 points and David Jenkins Jr. scored 10 off the bench.

Once again without heralded freshman Billy Preston, the Jayhawks were forced to use the same reduced rotation that managed to top seventh-ranked Kentucky on Tuesday night. But their perilous lack of depth became crippling in the first half when Azubuike and Mitch Lightfoot picked up two fouls each.

That forced coach Bill Self to use walk-on Clay Young in the post.

The 6-foot-5 senior turned out to be a bright spot, too, keeping the ball moving on offense and handling the 6-9 Daum inside. The Jackrabbits’ leading scorer at more than 21 points per game had eight on 2-for-8 shooting in the first half, when Young spent a good chunk of time covering him.

Nobody could cover Mykhailiuk, though.

The senior from the Ukraine hit his first three shots — the Jayhawks made eight of their first nine — while getting into an easy rhythm. Even on the seemingly rare occasion that his jumper didn’t splash the net, it often rattled around the rim and dropped through to a thunderous ovation.

Several of his baskets came on feeds from Devonte Graham, who didn’t hit a field goal until deep in the second half. He finished with eight points but also had 11 assists and five boards.

PRESTON SITS

Preston went through early warmups but remained on the bench as Kansas investigates an on-campus incident that raised questions about the “financial picture” of the car he was driving. Self declined to discuss the situation other than to say “we’re definitely going to hold him out until we get to the bottom of this.” Self did say he expects a resolution soon.

BIG PICTURE

South Dakota State can recover from its thumping in paradise with a trip to the Cayman Islands Classic up next. But their next trip to the Sunflower State figures to be just as tough: They visit No. 6 Wichita State on Dec. 5.

Kansas cruised despite a shortened lineup again, and help is only a month away. Arizona State transfer Sam Cunliffe becomes eligible for a trip to Nebraska on Dec. 16, and there is a chance five-star prospect Silvio De Sousa from Florida’s IMG Academy enrolls at the semester break.

UP NEXT

South Dakota State plays Wyoming on Monday in George Town, Cayman Islands.

Kansas continues a four-game home stand against Texas Southern on Tuesday night.

No. 18 Louisville hangs on over Omaha 87-78

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Ray Spalding had a career-high 19 points and 11 rebounds, Deng Adel had a game-high 21 points and Anas Mahmoud had eight of his team’s 15 blocked shots as No. 18 Louisville outlasted Omaha 87-78 on Friday night.

Spalding scored 14 points after halftime, and Adel made 7 of 8 shots from both the field and the free-throw line to pace the offense for the Cardinals (2-0), who led by 20 early in the second half but didn’t make a field for the last 4:36 of the game.

Omaha (0-4) was competitive in facing its highest-ranked opponent since becoming an NCAA Division I program in the 2011-12 season. The Mavericks hung around with a 12-0 second-half run and got within 71-64 on KJ Robinson’s 3-pointer with 5:45 left, but Louisville answered with seven straight points to keep the lead large enough to stay unbeaten under interim coach David Padgett.

Louisville’s three primary big men — Spalding (6-foot-10), Mahmoud (7-0) and Malik Williams (6-11) — bothered Omaha with their length around the rim. Mahmoud flirted with a triple-double, posting 10 points and eight rebounds to go with his blocks. Williams, a former five-star recruit who made his first career start in place of Mahmoud, had eight points, four rebounds and three blocks. Spalding blocked three shots, too.

Daniel Norl led five Omaha scorers in double figures with 16 points and eight rebounds.

BIG PICTURE

Omaha: The Mavericks averaged 83.9 points in their first three games but dug a hole in the first half when they shot only 24.4 percent to go down 40-25 at halftime. Louisville finished the first half on an 18-7 run, and Omaha made only one of its final nine shots before the break.

Louisville: Adel, who scored 20 points in the season-opening win over George Mason, continues to impress with his slicing drives and up-tempo play and shapes up as one of the top wings in the Atlantic Coast Conference. He made his first seven shots and added eight rebounds.

UP NEXT

Omaha plays at TCU on Monday as part of the Emerald Coast Classic, the fourth of seven straight games away from home to start the season while the Mavericks’ home arena hosts the U.S. Olympic Curling Trials.

Louisville has home games against Southern Illinois on Tuesday and Saint Francis next Friday before traveling to Purdue on Nov. 28 for the Big 10/ACC Challenge.

No. 7 Kentucky cruises past East Tennessee State, 78-61

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Quade Green scored a career-high 21 points, Kevin Knox had 17 points with 10 rebounds and No. 7 Kentucky overcame an early deficit to run away from East Tennessee State 78-61 on Friday night.

Bouncing back from Tuesday’s 65-61, Champions Classic loss to No. 4 Kansas required the Wildcats (3-1) overcoming an 18-8 first-half hole. Green took charge to score 10 of their next 12 points to cut the lead to 23-20, and Hamidou Diallo and Wenyen Gabriel combined for 11 of the next 16 as Kentucky outscored ETSU 28-12 over the final 10:05 for a 36-30 halftime lead.

The Wildcats kept rolling behind defense that held the Buccaneers (1-2) to 32 percent shooting, including just 10 of 36 (28 percent) in the second half. They also owned the paint (38-22), fast break points (14-2) and registered eight blocks to win their first game of the Adolph Rupp Classic.

Green made 9 of 13 from the field to top his previous high of 15 points on Sunday against Vermont.

Peter Jurkin had 17 points and David Burrell 11 for ETSU.

BIG PICTURE

ETSU: The Buccaneers started four seniors and initially flexed their experience on Kentucky’s young lineup. They shot well at first but went cold after starting 7 of 13 from the field. ETSU couldn’t match the Wildcats inside nor slow them on the break. They were outrebounded 40-37 but stayed close most of the night.

Kentucky: The learning curve continued as another veteran squad knocked the young Wildcats on their heels before they found their resolve and shooting touch. This hole occurred early enough for them to regroup from 4-of-14 shooting, and they didn’t look back in making 57 percent from the field. While Green provided the offensive spark, Sacha Killeya-Jones (eight rebounds) and Knox handled the boards. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander came off the bench to post 10 points and a career-high six assists.

UP NEXT

ETSU hosts Delaware State on Monday night.

Kentucky hosts Troy on Monday night.

Wendell Carter Jr. scores 20, No. 1 Duke beats Southern 78-61

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DURHAM, N.C. — No. 1 Duke proved this week it’s talented enough to beat the best team on its schedule — but not so dominant that it can take one of the worst for granted.

The Blue Devils beat Southern 78-61 on Friday night behind 20 points and 11 rebounds from Wendell Carter Jr.

“We just didn’t come ready to play,” Carter said. “I can’t really speak for everybody, I don’t know if everybody was energized or not or if people were hurt or not. Just as a team, we didn’t play as a unit. We starters had an opportunity just to be selfish, and that’s not the way to go. We’ve got to take every game seriously, and we did not do that tonight.”

Marvin Bagley III added 19 points and 11 rebounds and Grayson Allen and Trevon Duval finished with 10 points apiece for the Blue Devils (4-0).

Coming off a victory over No. 2 Michigan State three nights earlier, Duke showed several classic symptoms of a letdown — in part, coach Mike Krzyzewski explained, because the Blue Devils didn’t practice the previous two days due to NCAA time-management rules.

The Blue Devils finished with a season-high 15 turnovers, shot just 4 of 20 from 3-point range and for a while struggled to keep Southern off the offensive glass before regrouping to finish with a 51-34 rebounding advantage.

“There was something missing tonight,” Krzyzewski said.

Gary Trent Jr. had 10 rebounds but was 3-of-11 shooting for Duke, which never led by fewer than 10 points in the second half, but also had trouble putting Southern away, not pushing its lead into the 20s until the final 5 minutes.

Jamar Sandifer had 14 points and Torrey Mayo added 11 to lead the Jaguars (0-4) — whose resume included a 102-55 loss to Illinois, an 86-58 loss at Missouri State and the No. 319 spot in an unofficial replication of the RPI formula.

They gave the Blue Devils about 15 minutes’ worth of serious headaches before Trent hit two 3-pointers during a 15-3 run late in the first half that pushed Duke’s lead into double figures to stay.

BIG PICTURE

Southern: The Jaguars open the season with five road games in 10 days, and this should have been the most daunting. Instead, Southern made it competitive for far longer than expected by taking advantage of the Blue Devils’ numerous turnovers, repeatedly sending Bagley — who entered as a 22 percent free-throw shooter — to the line and holding their own on the glass.

“We talked about just trying to get better, each and every game, and tonight we fought as a unit and tried to instill in those guys that if we continue to do that, by the time we get to league play … we can compete” for the Southwestern Athletic Conference title, interim head coach Morris Scott said.

Duke: This should lead to quite the educational film review session for Krzyzewski, his assistants and players. For a team that has reasonable Final Four expectations, the tape will show plenty of teachable moments — starting with the turnovers, many of which were unforced. Because the Blue Devils took the previous two days off, Krzyzewski said they will practice Saturday and Sunday.

“They thought it would be a lot easier than it was, and that’s on us, too, to make sure,” Krzyzewski said. “We’re all responsible for it. The other thing is, we won. We won. So that’s a good thing.”

THE EYES HAVE IT

Allen was poked in the left eye when he was fouled by Southern’s Chris Thomas with 1:08 left in the half. Allen hit 1 of 2 free throws before heading to the bench for treatment with the eye swelling almost immediately. He was back to start the second half. Three nights earlier, Bagley didn’t return after he was poked in the eye during the Michigan State game.

HIGHLIGHT REEL

Southern was still in the game, trailing just 30-27 with about 5 minutes before the break when Sandifer put up a jumper in the lane. Bagley blocked it all the way to midcourt and Allen chased it down, whipped the ball behind his back and converted a left-handed layup that energized what had been a morose Cameron Indoor Stadium.

CAPEL’S RETURN

Associate head coach Jeff Capel was back on the Duke bench. He didn’t make the trip to Chicago for the Michigan State game after his father, former Old Dominion coach Jeff Capel Jr., died less than two years after he was diagnosed with ALS. He was honored with a moment of silence before tipoff.

UP NEXT

Southern: The Jaguars stick around Durham to face N.C. Central on Sunday.

Duke: The Blue Devils wrap up their quick home stand Monday night against Furman.