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College Hoops Contender Series: Duke is the most talented team in the country … sound familiar?

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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?

After deep dives into Kentucky, Kansas, Arizona and Michigan State, we finish it up with the Duke Blue Devils.

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Grayson Allen (Chet Strange/Getty Images)

WHY THEY WILL WIN

Duke is the most talented team in college basketball.

Forget, for a second, how old these kids are, the way that the roster fits together or whether or not there is enough shooting on this team to keep the floor spaced.

When talking purely about talent, Duke is step above anyone else in the sport.

It starts with Marvin Bagley III, who may just end up being the National Player of the Year and the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.

And then there is Grayson Allen. Love him or hate him, these three things are facts:

  1. Allen was a second-team all-american as a sophomore.
  2. Prior to his junior season, a year that Allen spent battling foot and ankle injuries, he was picked by the majority of the outlets that do these things as the Preseason National Player of the Year.
  3. He’s healthy now.

There’s more.

Trevon Duval, a projected lottery pick, is the top-ranked point guard in the Class of 2017. Wendell Carter, who is also projected to go in the lottery, was the top power forward in the class until Bagley joined the class. Gary Trent Jr., another potential first round pick, was the second-best shooting guard in the class. Off the bench, there is former five-star recruit Marques Bolden along with a trio of former four-star prospects.

Mike Krzyzewski has won national titles with less.

And if games were played on paper, he would probably win a national title this season.

But, as we learned last season with this very same Duke team, the games are not played on paper.

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Marvin Bagley III (Reagan Lunn/Duke Athletics)

WHY THEY WON’T WIN

The biggest question mark, the one that has made it so difficult for so many teams in the one-and-done era to win with a roster based entirely on freshmen, is just how much youth is on this roster.

Four of the five starters are going to be freshmen. The four bench players that seemed destined to fill out the rotation are either freshmen or sophomores that barely saw any action as freshmen. The only true veteran on the roster is Grayson Allen, and if we’ve learned anything over the course of his collegiate career, it’s that there are valid reasons to wonder whether he is the kind of leader that the Blue Devils will need.

And, as always, there are going to be questions about role allocation, particularly on a roster with this much talent on it. Marques Bolden wasn’t thrilled about coming off the bench last season, contemplated a transfer this offseason and then returned to Duke thinking that he would be the starting center for the Blue Devils this year. Wendell Carter committed to Duke under the pretense that he would be slotted in as the four in Duke’s lineup, allowing him to play away from the basket more than on the block.

Then Marvin Bagley III decided he would be going to Duke.

Suddenly, those plans have changed.

Carter and Bolden are going to be competing for the right to start at center for the Blue Devils, because Bagley will be starting at the four. He is a perfect fit there. Not only can he step out and play on the perimeter, allowing Duke to continue using the four-around-one offense that has been so effective in each of the last four years, but he’ll make them infinitely better defensively than they were with Jayson Tatum, Brandon Ingram or Jabari Parker in that role.

What that means is that either Bolden or Carter is going to be playing a different role than they expected this season; hell, they both might end up there.

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Wendell Carter (Reagan Lunn/Duke Athletics)

And that’s before you consider the shots that Bagley is going to get.

There were already going to be players sacrificing shots somewhere on this roster, whether it was Grayson Allen, Gary Trent or Trevon Duval, and I fully expect Bagley to now end up as Duke’s leading scorer.

Someone is going to have to make a sacrifice, and it’s not always easy to get guys to think that is a good idea.

But the biggest question mark facing the Blue Devils this season is the same question mark they’ve dealt with over the course of the last two years: Does Duke have the point guard they need on their roster?

On the one hand, the answer is pretty obvious. Duval is a potential lottery pick. He’s the top point guard in the Class of 2017 and one of the top five prospects in a class that has at least three guys every NBA team is going to be tanking to try and draft. He’s 6-foot-3, he’s incredibly athletic and he’s a talent when he can get going downhill, attacking the rim.

On paper, that’s a tremendous addition.

The problem is that Duval is a score-first slasher with an unreliable jumper on a team that is going to have some issues spacing the floor and is crying out for a facilitator at the point. This team needs Tyus Jones, and what they added is Derrick Rose. That could end up being a good thing — Rose was the No. 1 pick after he averaged 14.9 points, 4.7 assists and 4.5 boards while shooting 34 percent from three for a Memphis team that would have won the national title if he could make free throws. But that Rose’s team. Chris Douglas-Roberts may have been the leading scorer and Joey Dorsey may have been the heart and soul of the group, but what they did was built around what Rose was able to do with the ball in his hands.

Duval may play like Rose, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to be as good as Rose.

And if he doesn’t have an offense suited to his skill set, it’s fair to wonder just how valuable he will be in that position.

What Duke needs from their point guard is a player that can get them into an offense, distribute the ball and make a play when the shot clock is winding down. Frank Jackson wasn’t that guy. Derryck Thornton wasn’t that guy.

Is Duval?


Trevon Duval (Reagan Lunn/Duke Athletics)

PREDICTION

Duke is going to be very good, just like they were last season.

I know people don’t want to hear that, but the fact of the matter is that Duke finished last year as the ACC tournament champion, earning a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament with a valid argument to be the fourth No. 1 seed despite having a roller coaster of a season that involved four of their stars and their Hall of Fame head coach miss significant time with injuries.

At the very least, this season will be a smoother ride because I’m not sure it’s possible for a season to be more difficult than the one Duke had in 2016-17.

So what will that turn into?

I think it’s as simple as this: If Trevon Duval turns into a top 15 point guard in the sport, then I think the Blue Devils win the ACC regular season title and enter the NCAA tournament as one of, if not the favorite to win the whole thing. They’re better defensively than they’ve been in some time, and they should be able to overwhelm teams with their talent.

But if Duval struggles, if Duke spends the season trying to figure out an answer to their point guard situation, then I would not be surprised to see a repeat of last season — questionable losses sprinkled in amongst impressive wins, inconsistency night-to-night and a number of people willing to overlook it and pick Duke to win the national title on Selection Sunday anyway.

No. 19 Wichita State upends No. 5 Cincinnati 76-72

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HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. (AP) — Dave Stallworth was running the show the last time Wichita State beat a Top 5 team on the road. Landry Shamet took the lead as the Shockers did it again 54 years later.

This one, too, will be a reference point, given all that was at stake.

Shamet scored 19 points, and No. 19 Wichita State ended the nation’s longest home-court winning streak, beating No. 5 Cincinnati 76-72 on Sunday to leave the American Athletic Conference race wide open.

The Shockers (21-5, 11-3) beat a Top 5 team on the road for the first time since 1964. They led most of the way, building an 11-point lead midway through the second half and holding on. Shaquille Morris’ dunk with 5 seconds left finished it off.

The Shockers ran onto the floor for congratulatory chest bumps. Coach Gregg Marshall got a celebratory dunking in the locker room, leaving his light-colored shirt clinging to him.

“It’s tremendous,” Marshall said. “Look at my shirt. College basketball has such tremendous parity. The games are decided by great players making great plays. Landry is a tremendous player.”

The Bearcats (23-4, 12-2) had won their last 39 home games. In their first real home challenge of the season, they wound up playing catch-up and coming up short. Cincinnati hasn’t beaten a ranked team all season, falling to 0-3 with losses to Xavier and Florida.

Cincinnati and Wichita State were expected to contend for the title in the Shockers’ first season in the AAC. Wichita State gave itself a chance with a solid all-around game led by its point guard. Shamet had 16 points in the first half, when the Shockers shredded the nation’s second-ranked defense to take control.

Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin was bothered by his team’s “gross, mind-boggling defensive breakdowns,” including allowing the Shockers to get open for those two late layups. Wichita State shot 53 percent from the field, getting open 3-pointers in the first half and layups in the second half.

“We’re just not in a good place right now,” Cronin said. “I hadn’t slept much. We’re not in a good place for a lot of reasons.”

Wichita State closes the regular season by hosting Cincinnati on March 4. Houston (21-5, 11-3) also is in the running for the league title after beating Temple on Sunday.

The Shockers hit seven of eight shots during a 17-3 run that gave them a 34-23 lead. Cincinnati responded by turning up its full-court defense, forcing three quick turnovers, and going on a run that cut the deficit to 42-40 at halftime.

The Shockers showed a little defense of their own, forcing five turnovers while rebuilding their lead to 59-48 with 11 minutes left, matching its biggest of the game. Cincinnati closed to 72-70 on Trevon Scott’s dunk with 13 seconds left, but the Shockers scored on a pair of inbound passes by Landry, the last a full-court heave to Morris for a dunk that provided the final margin.

“This is what we do,” said Austin Reaves, who made the first of the two decisive layups. “We stick together on the road.”

BIG PICTURE

Wichita State: The Shockers needed a win to maintain their chances of a regular season title, and they got it with another good showing on the road. The Shockers are the most successful road team in the nation over the past five years at 47-8, including 7-2 this season.

“This is like our 50th red-out or white-out or black-out,” Marshall said. “We feel comfortable when that happens.”

Cincinnati: The Bearcats moved into the Top 5 even though they hadn’t beaten a ranked team all season. Losses at Houston and at home to Wichita State left them prepared for a plummet.

“As it gets later in the season, every team is better,” said Jacob Evans III, who had 16 points. “It’s not the beginning of conference or the season. Every team knows us well. We’ve got to be able to go to second options when they take away the first ones.”

NO LONGER A SWEET HOME

The Bearcats hadn’t lost at home since a 77-70 defeat against Temple on Dec. 29, 2015. They went 18-0 at Fifth Third Arena last season and were 13-0 at Northern Kentucky’s BB&T Arena, where they’re playing this season while their on-campus arena is renovated.

LONG TIME NO SEE

The Shockers and Bearcats played regularly as members of the Missouri Valley Conference from 1958-70, but it was their first game since 1981.

TOP 5 HISTORY

It was only the fourth time the Shockers have beaten a Top 5 team on the road. They beat No. 5 Oklahoma A&M in 1954 and topped No. 3 Loyola in 1963 and again in 1964 behind Stallworth.

TOUGH WEEKEND IN CINCY

Cincinnati had two teams in the Top 5, and both of them lost at home over the weekend. No. 4 Xavier lost to No. 3 Villanova 95-79 on Saturday at Cintas Center.cincinnati

Andy Kennedy resigns from Ole Miss effective immediately

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Andy Kennedy announced that, effective immediately, he will be stepping down as the head coach at Ole Miss. Tony Madlock will serve as the interim head coach for the remainder of the season.

The reason is simple: Kennedy wanted to “relieve any external pressure being felt by our current players” and he did not believe that last week’s announcement that this would be his final season in Oxford accomplished that.

“It has become readily apparent to me that my continued presence as the head coach is proving detrimental to these players finishing the season in a fashion that is representative of The Standard for this program that has been clearly established and maintained for over a decade,” Kennedy said in a statement. “Yherefore, I believe that it is in everyone’s best interest that I exit my role as head coach effective immediately. We all know that “clean breaks” are always best, and I should have realized this last Monday. My apologies.”

On Saturday, Ole Miss lost by 17 points at Mississippi State. That came two days after Kennedy went viral for a brutally honest criticism of what his team was going through.

“I can’t get to them,” he said. “I can’t reach them.”

It’s sad that this is the way that it had to end for the best basketball coach that Ole Miss has ever had. But it had to be done.

No. 12 Duke beats No. 11 Clemson as defensive resurgence continues

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Grayson Allen finished with 19 points, four assists and four steals, scoring 17 of his points in the first half, and Wendell Carter added 15 points, 10 boards and three blocks as No. 12 Duke won their fourth straight game without Marvin Bagley III, 66-57.

No. 11 Clemson was short-handed as well, and that’s something that needs to be noted. Not only are they playing without Donte Grantham, who tore his ACL earlier this year, but Shelton Mitchell was not in the lineup after suffering a nasty concussion at Florida State on Wednesday.

The Tigers were a No. 3 seed when the bracket reveal occurred last Sunday, but like Ohio State and Oklahoma, they have now lost back-to-back games; 11 of the top 16 teams have lost a game in the last week.

But the story here more than anything is Duke.

Yes, Allen finished with 19 points and continues to play well without Bagley on the floor. Getting him into a rhythm is critically important for this team. He was averaging 14.7 points in 24 games with Bagley. He is averaging 22.3 points in the last three games that Bagley has missed, and that does not include the 37-point outburst he had when Bagley went down with an injury against Michigan State.

Coach K also has had a chance to develop some confidence in his bench. Javin DeLaurier had 10 boards on Sunday. Marques Bolden didn’t play a done of minutes, but he still finished with five points, three boards and a pair of blocks. He was, generally speaking, a positive influence on the game.

But here is the most important and perplexing nugget: Duke, for the third straight game, was excellent defensively. They’ve now allowed fewer than 1.0 points-per-possession in each of the last three games. They are clearly not the same time offensively without Bagley’s presence on the floor, but it is impossible to ignore what they have been defensively in the last 10 days without him.

To put it into context: For all the talk about how much of a problem Duke’s defense has been, the Blue Devils are now ranked 43rd in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom. They were 79th after they lost to North Carolina, the last game that Bagley played. Villanova, who many believe is the best team in the country when healthy, is 42nd.

The question we need to ask is whether or not that will continue once Bagley makes his return.

Because the only thing standing between Duke and a Final Four is their inability to defend.

No. 8 Ohio State falls at No. 22 Michigan, Michigan State moves into first in Big Ten

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After all of the drama and the speculation about whether or not Ohio State or Purdue was the best team in the Big Ten, water has seemingly found its level.

On Sunday afternoon in Ann Arbor, No. 8 Ohio State lost their second straight game, falling 74-62 at No. 22 Michigan and allowing No. 2 Michigan State — who had one of college basketball’s greatest comebacks on Saturday at Northwestern — to slide into sole possession of first place in the Big Ten with just one week left of the regular season.

Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman led the way with 17 points while Jordan Poole added 15 off the bench in the win.

The Wolverines did a good job of slowing down Ohio State’s all-american forward, Keita Bates-Diop. KBD finished with 17 points and seven boards, but he shot just 5-for-17 from the floor. Jae-Sean Tate led the way with 20 points and 15 boards for the Buckeyes.

There was a special moment before this game even started as Austin Hatch, a two-time survivor of plane crashes that killed his entire immediate family, took part in the team’s Senior Day.

VIDEO: Michigan celebrates plane crash survivor Austin Hatch’s Senior Day

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If you don’t know the story of Michigan senior Austin Hatch, you should.

He’s survived two plane crashes in his life. The first, in 2003, robbed him of his mother, 11-year old sister and five-year old brother. In 2011, to celebrate his commitment to the Wolverines, Hatch’s father flew them up to the family’s vacation home, but the plane crashed into a garage killing Hatch’s dad and his stepmom and leaving Austin critically injured.

He had a severe brain trauma, a punctured lung, broken ribs and a broken collarbone, and in order to manage the swelling in his brain, he was put into a medically-induced coma for eight months.

He managed to return and even played for the Wolverines during the 2014-15 season, but he eventually made the decision to retire from basketball at the end of the year. He did, however, remain a part of the program and on Sunday, during Michigan’s Senior Day, he warmed up with the team and was introduced to the crowd as a starter and no, I’m not crying, YOU’RE crying: