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College Hoops Contender Series: Can Michigan State’s sophomore class carry them to a title?

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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 looking at Kentucky, Kansas and Arizona, we’re on to my pick to win the national title: The Michigan State Spartans.

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Miles Bridges (Rob Carr/Getty Images)


We should start with Miles Bridges here, shouldn’t we?

Bridges is the NBC Sports Preseason National Player of the Year. He averaged 16.9 points, 8.3 boards, 2.1 assists and 1.5 steals while shooting 38.9 percent from three on more than five threes per game as a freshman. He was a top ten pick in last year’s loaded NBA Draft and he made the decision to return to school. That doesn’t happen all that often, so it should come as no surprise that Bridges will enter the year as a potential top five pick and the star of a team everyone believes will be in the top five. ‘Who has the best player in college basketball?’ is a great starting point for trying to figure out who are the best teams in college basketball, and Bridges, on paper, is a good bet to be the best player in college basketball.

But there is more to this than the simple fact that Tom Izzo more or less lucked his way into not only having the local five-star prospect pick the Spartans over the likes of Kentucky, but then opt to stay with the Spartans over heading to the NBA Draft.

Bridges is so perfect for what the way that Izzo wants to play.

He’s arguably the best athlete is all of college basketball. He can guards threes and fours. He can protect the rim. He attacks the glass, particularly on the offensive end of the floor, and he can get out and run in transition. Defense, rebounding and the transition game are staples of the teams Izzo wants at his disposal, and Bridges can do all three things well.

Then throw in the rest of the Michigan State front court. Nick Ward is a throwback. He’s a 6-foot-8, 260 pound left-handed behemoth that is impossible to stop one-on-one on the block. He averaged 13.9 points in less than 20 minutes as a freshman. Freshmen aren’t supposed to do that. Sophomores aren’t, either. Ward will be paired up front with Jaren Jackson, who couldn’t be a more perfect compliment to Ward and Bridges. He’s a 6-foot-11 power forward with all the skills you expect out of a modern power forward: He protects the rim, he rebounds and he can space the floor offensively with his three-point shot. He may not have the hype of some of the other big men in the 2017 recruiting class, but he projects as a one-and-done lottery pick all the same.

I still haven’t even mentioned Xavier Tillman, another land-warrior freshman in the front court. He may surprise some people this season. Throw in Ben Carter, Gavin Schilling and Kenny Goins, and there may not be a more talented and deep front line in the country.

The back court is where the issues lie — we’ll get to that in a second — but there are some things to like about this group. For starters, both Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford were top 30 recruits in the Class of 2016. Neither were all that impressive during their first year in East Lansing, but the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores. Langford shot 41.6 percent from three last year and Winston averaged 5.2 assists in just over 20 minutes. They are talented and they should continue to improve.

Lourawls ‘Tum Tum’ Nairn Jr. is back for his senior season, and his ability to push the ball in transition has made him a favorite of Izzo, while Matt McQuaid is somehow only a junior. Assuming that both Winston and Langford take a fairly significant step forward, Nairn and McQuaid will be rotation players off the bench, and if that is the case, this Spartan roster looks as strong as any roster in the country.

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Nick Ward (Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)


There are two real concerns that I have with this Michigan State team heading into next season.

The first, believe it or not, is with Bridges. I don’t see anyway that you can question his ability. He’s a monster. But part of what made him just so effective as a freshman was because he is the prototype for what you look for in a college four in modern — read: small-ball — basketball. He’s big enough to guard power forwards defensively. He rebounds the ball, he protects the rim, he can switch onto anyone defensively and he just so happens to be a perimeter player on the other end of the floor. In other words, he can guard college power forwards but they cannot guard him.

That is an incredibly valuable weapon for a team like Michigan State to have.

And as a sophomore, he won’t be taking advantage of that versatility in the same way. He’ll likely end up playing the majority of his minutes at the three. Jaren Jackson is too good to keep on the floor, particularly when it would mean playing Matt McQuaid of Tum Tum Nairn over him, but Jackson is a full-blown power forward.

It begs the question: Just how effective is Bridges going to be if he is playing at the three? Will it be easier for college small forwards to cover him? Will he be able to take them into the paint if Ward is already occupying space down there? And what about his three-point shot? He made 38.9 percent as a freshman, but how many of those were a result of getting clean looks at the rim because the power forwards guarding him didn’t know how to guard a player like that on the perimeter?

I don’t think this will end up being an issue — hell, we have Bridges as the Preseason National Player of the Year — but it will definitely be something to monitor moving forward.

Final Four Sleepers | Louisville | Villanova | West Virginia | USC | Wichita State | Miami
Cassius Winston (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

The bigger question mark, however, will likely end up being Winston, and to a lesser degree Langford.

I love Tum Tum. I wrote a story on him when he was still in high school. His name is awesome. He’s a terrific personality with the kind of back story that makes you want to root for him. But he’s just not good enough to be the starting point guard for a team with national title aspirations. Last season, Nairn started 30 games at the point. Winston started five, and while Izzo had found ways to manufacture minutes for the duo to play to together later in the season, this much was clear: there was something that the Hall of Fame head coach didn’t quite trust about Winston.

Maybe it was his 23 percent turnover rate. Maybe it was Winston’s issues on the defensive end of the floor, or the fact that he didn’t lead the way that Izzo wanted his point guards to. Most likely it was all of the above, and as a sophomore, those are issues that Winston will have to fix.

And I think that he will.

Again, Michigan State is a consensus top three team for a reason. They’re my pick to win the national title this season.

But I can certainly tell myself a story where the Spartans don’t quite come together, and it starts with Winston’s issues at the point.

Langford I am less worried about. He will mostly be fine. Yes, he needs to be more aggressive as a scorer, and we saw some of that late in the season. But mostly he needs to be a guy that can knock down open shots, provide a consistent defensive threat and be a threat in transition, whether he’s spotting up for a three or finishing at the rim. He will be, at best, the third option for these Spartans offensively, and I don’t think it will be that hard for him to fill that role.

Miles Bridges (J Pat Carter/Getty Images)


Michigan State is my pick to win the national title.

I’m sure I won’t be the only one to say that between now and the start of the season.

And as good as Tom Izzo is, it’s worth noting that when he has had a team projected as a title contender, the season usually ends up being disappointing. Since the Spartans won the title in 1999, there have been four seasons where they were considered to be a favorite to win the title at some point during the season. In 2009-10, they were No. 2 in the preseason top 25 and limped their way to a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament; they would eventually get to the Final Four in Detroit that year. In 2010-11, they were again the preseason No. 2 team in the country and finished the year 19-15 with a loss to UCLA in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

In 2013-14, they were the preseason No. 2 team yet again, living up to the hype for most of the year until a wrist injury suffered by point guard Keith Appling derailed their season; Sparty still found a way to win the Big Ten tournament and get to the Elite 8. Then in 2015-16, the Spartans quickly emerged as one of the nation’s best team before losing to Middle Tennessee State in the first round of the NCAA tournament as a No. 2 seed.

Will this be the year that bucks that trend?

Bill Self’s least impressive Kansas team is 40 minutes away from the Final Four

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OMAHA, Neb. — Kansas is vulnerable, exploitable and limited. The Jayhawks have no depth, are without a superstar and possess a middling defense.

They are Bill Self’s worst team.

And they have won the Big 12 regular season and tournament titles, secured a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and are a win away from the Final Four.

The Jayhawks shrugged off some late sluggishness to dispatch No. 5 Clemson 80-76 on Friday night in the Midwest Regional semifinal at CenturyLink Center to put themselves in the Elite Eight for the third-consecutive year with a date with Duke on Sunday.

This year has often been about what this Kansas team couldn’t do after the losses of Frank Mason and Josh Jackson and then the ineligibility of Billy Preston. Early-season losses to Washington and Arizona State, the latter at the usually impregnable Allen Fieldhouse, were the proof this Kansas team might finally be the one not to win a Big 12 title. Then Texas Tech beat the hell out of them in Lawrence and it looked like the streak was on its way to over.

Devonte Graham was a poor imitation of Mason.  Svi Mykhailiuk was too timid and inconsistent. Udoka Azubuike was foul-prone and unproven. The supporting cast was a rung or two lower than a team with national-championship aspirations could carry.

Those problems are real. Those issues are troublesome. Those deficiencies are critical.

In spite of it all, Kansas won the Big 12 by two games, ripped through the conference tournament and are on the doorstep of playing for a national championship.

Bill Self’s worst team has a chance to be the country’s best.

“I’m so proud of our team because I think of all the teams that we’ve had here, this would be the team that everyone would have thought would not be in this game,” Self said Friday. “And so, hey, we’re in this game. We’ve got a legitimate shot to go to San Antonio.

“You prepare the whole year to play in this game. So I think we’ll play with no what-ifs. I think we’ll let it go. I think we’ll be as loose as we can be and still you’ve got to make shots.

“I’d like nothing more than to take my team this year to San Antonio and let them experience what the best of the best is in college basketball.”

The key to Kansas’ season has been embracing its shortcomings. Azubuike is the only big they’ve got that can give them both scoring and defense consistently. It’s a 180 for a program that’s featured Thomas Robinson, Cole Aldrich, the Morris Twins and Jeff Withey. Kansas almost always plays through its bigs. This year, they’re playing around one.

“I never played like this,” Self said. “It just goes against the grain from the teams that we’ve had in the past, but these guys have figured it out. They’ve learned how to play through it, and we’ve had unbelievable guard play and unbelievable leadership from our vets, and had some guys have some outstanding seasons.

“There’s less margin for error but these guys have certainly rallied around that.”

Kansas’ shooting is why they’re in the Elite Eight. The Jayhawks are 10th nationally with a 40.5 3-point shooting percentage. It’s Azubuiike, though, that makes so many of those good looks possible. The man makes 77.5 percent of his shots from the floor. That demands defensive attention. And that means defenders aren’t shadowing shooters.

“He’s a guy we can throw the ball into and he can go get a basket,” Malik Newman, who had a team-high 17 points Friday, said. “I think his passing is underrated. That’s another big key for him. When we’re able to throw it in and the defense collapses on him, he is able to kick it out and find an open shooter.

“It just opens up the whole game for us.”

It’s opened up a whole world of possibility for Kansas and a world of hurt for their opponents.

“Most teams have somebody that you can kind of scratch off,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell mused. “So one of the reasons they’re so hard to guard is they’ve got a center that scores if he catches it deep, and he’s bigger than everybody on the floor so he does get position. And then you’ve got guards that can all make shots and drive by you and they play with great spacing.”

Now, Kansas isn’t full of slouches. Graham was the Big 12 player of the year, Azubuike’s talent was apparent even if it was raw before injury robbed him of a freshman year. Mykhailiuk is all-Big 12 while Malik Newman and LaGerald Vick were heralded prospects. Still, there’s not a lottery pick among them. No Andrew Wiggins or Ben McLemore or Josh Jackson. The fit is strange and the depth is zilch.

All that has eroded Kansas’ wiggle room for mistakes, but when they operate within their comfort zone, it can make for great offense. The first two minutes of the second half when the Jayhawks hit back-to-back 3s was a thing of beauty, ball movement and shot making. It was the blueprint for a buzzsaw.

Maybe Self’s worst team is pretty damn good.

Keenan Evans closes strong (again) as Texas Tech advances past Purdue to Elite Eight

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BOSTON — Second Half Keenan struck again on Friday night.

Keenan Evans scored 12 of his 16 points and handed out three of his four assists in the final 10 minutes of the game as No. 3-seed Texas Tech held off No. 2-seed Purdue, 78-65. Zach Smith and Justin Gray paced Tech early, combining for 26 points that helped the Red Raiders build a lead that reached as high as nine before Evans went into takeover mode. Zhaire Smith added 13 points of his own, while the Red Raiders forced 17 Purdue turnovers.

And with that, Texas Tech will to advance past the Sweet 16 for the first time since … ever.

This is uncharted territory for for the Red Raider program that has never been to an Elite Eight and will be playing for their first-ever trip to the Final Four.

“To build a program there has to be a lot of firsts so myself and Keenan have only been together for two years, so we’ve never been to the Elite Eight in two years,” Beard said. “That’s more accurate.”

It’s also fitting, really.

Because it more or less sums up what makes this Texas Tech program so interesting.

On a night where their three-leading scorers never really got going, the Red Raiders advanced on the stretch of two things: Their defense, and the fact that they can stay in a game on the nights when their best players don’t play their best.

With just over 10 minutes left in the game, when Purdue was getting ready to make one final run at advancing to the Elite Eight, is when Evans took over. And there’s no question about it: He closed out this game. Everything that the Red Raiders got on the offensive end of the floor came through Evans down the stretch, even the stuff that doesn’t show up in the score book; for example, the Red Raiders executed a pick-and-roll to perfection with three minutes left, but the lob that Evans threw to Zach Smith ended up as a missed dunk that Zhaire Smith was able to put right back in. Evans doesn’t get the assist, but he made that bucket possible.

I saw all that to say this: With 10 minutes left, the three leading scorers in the Tech program — Evans, Zhaire Smith and Jarrett Culver — were a combined 4-for-16 from the floor with just 11 points.

And Texas Tech held a 50-41 lead. If Evans is Texas Tech’s closer, this was a save that he earned with a three-run lead.

“It’s our identity,” Beard said. “We have a lot of faith in our whole roster, we use a lot of different guys and tonight was fitting. That is the way we have played all year.”

If that doesn’t sum up Chris Beard’s program, I don’t know what does.

No. 2 Duke goes inside to defeat No. 11 Syracuse

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OMAHA, Neb. — Second-seeded Duke made just 5 of its 26 3-point attempts against No. 11 Syracuse on Friday in the two ACC programs’ Sweet 16 matchup.

So the Blue Devils just went inside.

Marvin Bagley III and Wendel Carter, Jr. both had big games to help the Blue Devils outlast the Orange, 69-65, to put themselves in the Elite Eight on Sunday against top-seeded Kansas.

“This was a heck of a game,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “I thought both teams played their hearts out. A great game to win, a really difficult game to lose, because Syracuse played such winning basketball.”

While Duke couldn’t beat the zone that took Syracuse from the First Four to the second weekend with its outside shooting, its two big underclassmen provided plenty of production. Bagley had 22 points and eight rebounds while Carter added 14 points and 12 boards.

“It was a hard fought game. We knew they were going to compete every second of the game,” Bagley said, “and we just tried to compete as well. We had a little point in the game where we started turning it over, and things weren’t going our way, but we stayed tough mentally and we finished it out.”

Bagley was on the receiving end of a number of lobs behind the Syracuse zone that helped the Duke offense stay out in front.

“We practiced it all week,” Bagley said. “We try to look for different things and different ways to score against that zone, and we did a great job at that and got the win.”

Tyus Battle had 19 points to lead the Orange. Oshae Brissett added 15 points and seven boards while Marek Dolezaj had 13 points.

Syracuse shot 53.8 percent from the floor in the second half while Duke shot 36.4 percent (and 11.1 percent from distance), but it wasn’t enough to overcome the Orange’s 16 turnovers or Duke’s 17 second-chance points.

Grayson Allen had 15 points and eight assists for Duke. The Blue Devils had 32 points in the paint.

Duke will now turn its attention to the Jayhawks, who defeated Clemson earlier Friday to make it to their third-straight Elite Eight. The game will tipoff Sunday at 5:05 p.m. (ET).

“We just got to come out ready to play from the beginning,” Bagley said. “We were kind of slacking in this game. I think we’ll be ready for that game. Everybody’s going to be up. We should be coming out strong.”

VIDEO: Allen-to-Bagley oop beats the Syracuse zone

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Usually, you’ve got to shoot a team out of a zone.

Duke might be able to dunk Syracuse out of it.

Grayson Allen and Marvin Bagley connected for a beautiful alley-oop Friday in the second half of the Blue Devils’ Sweet 16 contest against the Orange.

That will work as a zone-buster.

VIDEO: Duke slaps the floor on defense…while playing zone

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Slapping the floor on defense has its advocates and its detractors.

Some applaud the old-school, hard-nosed nature of putting hand to floor. For others, its a bit corny.

What everyone agrees on is that you don’t drop a floor slap if you’re playing zone.

Unless you’re Duke, apparently.

Presumably, the whole point of slapping the floor is to psyche yourself and intimidate your opponent with aggressive man-to-man defense. Not sit-back-and-guard-this-spot-whether-there’s-a-guy-there-or-not defense.

C’mon, Duke. You’re making it too easy for your haters.