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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.

MOREThe Enigma of Miles Bridges | NBC Sports Preseason All-American Team

Miles Bridges (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

WHY THEY WILL WIN

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)

WHY THEY WON’T WIN

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)

PREDICTION

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?

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.