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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)


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?

Arizona’s Sean Miller: ‘I am not a candidate’ at Pitt

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With speculation mounting about who Pitt will hire to replace Kevin Stallings as their new head coach, current Arizona head coach Sean Miller released a statement saying that he is not in the running to fill the opening.

“I am not a candidate for the University of Pittsburgh men’s basketball head coaching vacancy. I wish them well in their search for a new coach,” the statement read.

Miller is a native of Pittsburgh and an alumni of the school — he’s the guy that had the assist on Jerome Lane’s famous dunk — and with the issues that are currently swirling around him and the Arizona program, there was speculation that he was looking for an escape plan.

Maybe he wasn’t.

Maybe he was and the Pitt administration decided they couldn’t risk hiring someone who had an assistant coach arrested in the FBI’s sweep of college basketball and who himself may be on wiretaps talking about who knows what. Releasing this statement would then be a way for him to save face and say he was never interested.

And then maybe there’s option No. 3: Pitt has won the Dan Hurley sweepstakes.

As it stands, both the Panthers and UConn are in the process of chasing after the Rhode Island head coach, and it’s not uncommon in coaching searches for a coach to announce that he is not a candidate for the job after the job decides they want someone else. Call it a professional courtesy.

But that’s neither here nor there.

What we do know now is that Sean Miller will not be the next head coach at Pitt.

Report: Notre Dame’s Bonzie Colson suffers another fracture in foot

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Bonzie Colson rushed back from a broken foot to try and help his Notre Dame team get into the NCAA tournament this season.

They were bumped out of the field when Davidson upset Rhode Island and earned the Atlantic 10’s third bid to the league tournament. The Fighting Irish were NIT bound, and in their second round loss to Penn State late last week, Colson reinjured the left foot that held him out of action for eight weeks.

On Wednesday, Yahoo reported that Colson suffered another fracture in the foot.

“I’m sitting there and he’s limping off and I’m going, ‘You gotta be kidding me,’” coach Mike Brey said after the game. “Everything we’ve been through? I thought we were out of the woods with him.”

There was a poignant moment at the end of the game.

Colson’s injury came during the third quarter. He returned to the bench at Purcell Pavilion with ice on his foot after going into the locker room. With 30 seconds left and a loss imminent, Colson walked right past Mike Brey, said “I’m going in”, and finished his college career on the court.

Colson is a potential second round pick. He was an all-american last year and a preseason selection this year. He was averaging 19.7 points, 10.2 boards and 2.2 blocks when he was injured.

N.C. State star to consider turning pro and transferring

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It appears as it Omer Yurtseven’s time as a member of the N.C. State Wolfpack will be coming to a close.

On Wednesday morning, the program issued a release announcing that Yurtseven has “expressed his intentions to either pursue a professional career or consider transferring.”

Yurtseven, who was initially recruited by Mark Gottfried, averaging 14.9 points in his first season under new Wolfpack head coach Kevin Keatts while also shooting 46 percent from three. Yurtseven is projected as a second round-at-best pick in the NBA Draft.

Keatts announced that he would grant Yurtseven a release if it comes to that.

2018 NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 Preview: Ranking the eight games

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The Sweet 16 is going to kick off in less than 36 hours, which means that it is time for us to dive into the matchups and the games themselves.

Here are the eight games that we have on the docket on Thursday and Friday, with an in-depth look at each one, including some analysis on betting lines and how I expect each game to play out.

8. No. 2 DUKE vs. No. 11 SYRACUSE, Friday 9:37 p.m.

  • Line: Duke -11.5
  • O/U: 133.5
  • Projected score: Duke 72.5, Syracuse 61

All the zone! Syracuse has been playing a 2-3 zone for as long as Jim Boeheim has been a surly, bespectacled basketball coach. But now, Duke is doing the same thing! They couldn’t guard anyone when Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter were forced to run around on the perimeter, guarding small fours and switching ball-screens, but now that Duke is in this zone, they can fully take advantage of their size without having to worry about dealing with the mismatches at the other end.

I think Duke runs away with this. For starters, they have better perimeter shooters than they get credit for — both Grayson Allen and Gary Trent Jr. can stroke it — and Bagley and Carter are both skilled and versatile enough to be killers at the high-post. Throw in that Duke is the nation’s best offensive rebounding team and Syracuse gets annihilated on the defensive glass, and I think the Blue Devils roll.

PICKS: Duke and the under. Betting Duke unders has been very profitable of late, mainly because it took a while for the public to catch up to the pace — and defense — that Duke was playing with this zone. And Syracuse? They’re not much different than Virginia, only they play a zone instead of a 2-3 (and win in the tournament … too soon?) so while 133.5 is low, I would still hammer the under here. I think this ends up somewhere around a 75-55 game. When they played in Cameron a month ago, the final score was 60-44 Duke.

7. No. 4 GONZAGA vs. No. 9 FLORIDA STATE, Thursday 10:07 p.m.

  • Line: Gonzaga -5.5
  • O/U: 153.5
  • Projected score: Gonzaga 79.5, Florida State 74

This Florida State team is not like the Florida State teams that you remember from Leonard Hamilton. In the past, Hamilton has seemingly recruited every big body that he can possibly find to pack into the paint and defend like hell while struggling to buy a bucket. This team? They have a slew of talented guards, they love to get out and run in transition and they’ll even play some small-ball.

To be honest, I think that will play into Gonzaga’s hands. The Zags have enough athletic and mobile big men to be able to handle any kind of matchup, particularly when Rui Hachimura is playing the way he has of late. The big question I have is for Josh Perkins and Silas Melson. They were not their best during the first weekend, and if they are not their best Gonzaga is only going to go so far relying on both Rui and Zach Norvell to have career performances.

PICKS: I do think Gonzaga wins, although I don’t love that line. What I do think is a sneaky-good bet is the over. The line is 153.5 while KenPom projects it at 158 points.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

6. No. 5 KENTUCKY vs. No. 9 KANSAS STATE, Thursday 9:37 p.m.

  • Line: Kentucky -5.5
  • O/U: 138.5
  • Projected score: Kentucky 72, Kansas State 66.5

Let’s pretend that Florida game three weeks ago — the one that happened in the regular season finale for the Wildcats — never happened. Erase that from your memory, and the Wildcats have won their last nine games, and many of them in impressive fashion. They’re defending at the same level they’ve guarded all year long, but with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander playing the way that he has over the course of the last two months and Kevin Knox seemingly finding more consistency, I do think that Kentucky is playing as well as anyone left in this tournament not named Villanova or Duke.

The big question here is the health of Dean Wade. He told reporters after the win over UMBC that he would be playing on Thursday night, but we’ll see if that comes to fruition. If he does play, I can’t imagine that he’ll be at 100 percent.

PICKS: If Wade plays at 100 percent, I like Kentucky here. If Wade doesn’t play or is limited, I love Kentucky. I just think the Blue Wildcats are bigger, more athletic and more talented than Kansas State at every position, and that’s not good. Even if they guard Kentucky well, they are going to get killed on the defensive glass.

5. No. 1 KANSAS vs. No. 5 CLEMSON, Friday 7:07 p.m.

  • Line: Kansas -4.5
  • O/U: 143
  • Projected score: Kansas 73.75, Clemson 69.25

I have, not once this season, believed in Clemson. Not once. And every time I don’t believe in them — in the preseason, after Donte Grantham got injured, heading into the NCAA tournament — they do something to make me look like an idiot for not believing in them. So guess what? I’m not believing in them again!

Let me rephrase that. It’s not that I don’t believe in Clemson. I’ll admit it. I messed up. They’re really good; you have to be really good to beat the SEC regular season co-champions by 41 points. But I think that the way to beat Kansas is to be able to beat them up in the paint. Take advantage of the fact that they play Svi Mykhailiuk at the four. Clemson doesn’t really do that, so I think Kansas scoots on by Clemson to face Duke in the Midwest Regional final.

PICKS: Here’s the interesting thing about this game: The line is Kansas -4.5, and the projection on KenPom is Kansas -1. Generally speaking, those are inefficiencies to capitalize on, and it makes me want to take Clemson and the points even though my gut says go the other way. When that happens, I tend to stay away.

4. No. 7 NEVADA vs. No. 11 LOYOLA-CHICAGO, Thursday 7:07 p.m.

  • Line: Nevada -1.5
  • O/U: 143.5
  • Projected score: Nevada 72.5, Loyola-Chicago 71

I think the worst thing that could have happened to Loyola-Chicago was for Nevada to win the way they won the last two games. It basically came down to Eric Musselman having guys on his roster that could makes play and didn’t care what the scoreboard said or the pressure of the moment. And now those dudes are confident.

Loyola is a good, well-coached basketball team. They execute offensively, they shoot the leather off the ball and they clearly have God on their side with Sister Jean. But I would not want to play this Nevada team with the Martin twins, Jordan Caroline and Kendell Stephens in this kind of a rhythm.

PICKS: Give me the Wolf Pack. They were able to make shots on both Texas and Cincinnati, who were two of the very best defensive teams in the country this season. Playing against Loyola, who is a good defensive team in their own right, will feel like every shot is wide-open as a result. I’d lean the under here, but I probably will stay away myself.

3. No. 3 MICHIGAN vs. No. 7 TEXAS A&M, Thursday 7:37 p.m.

  • Line: Michigan -2.5
  • O/U: 136
  • Projected score: Michigan 69.25, Texas A&M 66.75

This is a fascinating contrast in lineup builds. Michigan doesn’t have all that much size inside but is, instead, built on their ability to limit opponent possessions and stifle the ones they do get; they don’t turn the ball over, they don’t give up offensive rebounds and they are the best defensive team left in the tournament according to KenPom. The Aggies are absolutely massive upfront but have had questionable guard play all season long.

Here’s what I think the key will be: Zavier Simpson vs. T.J. Starks. Simpson can erase a point guard from a game, and Starks is a freshman that has been, at times, erasable. Will he be able to get the ball to Big Bob Williams and Tyler Davis where they can be effective? Will Simpson, and Moe Wagner, be able to create enough in John Beilein’s ball-screen offense to score on one of the nation’s top ten defensive teams?

PICKS: I think they will. I think Michigan muddies this game up, their perimeter pressure prevents A&M from getting any kind of rhythm going and they do enough offensively and on the defensive glass to win a rock fight. Michigan and the under.

Keenan Evans (John Weast/Getty Images)

2. No. 2 PURDUE vs. No. 3 TEXAS TECH, Friday 9:57 p.m.

  • Line: Purdue -1.5
  • O/U: 137.5
  • Projected score: Purdue 69.5, Texas Tech 68

What makes this game so interesting to me is that we don’t really know what Matt Painter has up his sleeve. I’m operating under the assumption that Isaac Haas isn’t playing, and that even if he does, we’re looking at a situation where he is out there for limited minutes as a motivation tool more than his usual self. I don’t care how good your brace is, imagine shooting jump-hooks with a broken elbow. I don’t see it.

Painter will have had three or four days to figure out an answer, and my guess is that they use more spread pick-and-rolls, looking to get Haarms rolling with four shooters around him. Texas Tech should actually matchup with that pretty well — I’d be more concerned about them trying to slow down Haas one-on-one on the block — given their athleticism. Hell, I could see them using lineups with Zach Smith at the five quite a bit. They also have the ultimate trump card in Keenan Evans, who has been one of the best closers in college basketball this season.

PICKS: Texas Tech with the points. The Red Raiders are good at chasing teams off of the three-point line, they matchup well with Purdue and they are, according to KenPom, the second-best defensive team left in the tournament. The best — Michigan — beat Purdue pretty handily in the Big Ten tournament title game three weeks ago. If forced to, I’d bet the under here.

1. No. 1 VILLANOVA vs. No. 5 WEST VIRGINIA, Friday 7:27 p.m.

  • Line: Villanova (-5.5)
  • O/U: 152.5
  • Projected score: Villanova 79, West Virginia 73.5

I love Jevon Carter. I have the utmost respect for what Bob Huggins has been able to do with this West Virginia program. While what he does is the polar opposite from what Tony Bennett does at Virginia, the way they do it is not all that dissimilar: They find and recruit players that are going to buy into the program, that fit what they want to do and then, over the course of four or five years, develop them into stars. Some become pros. Most don’t. But they keep winning games.

But the reason that Press Virginia works is that their defensive identity speeds opponents up and forces them to make mistakes. No one is speeding Jalen Brunson up. No one is going to rattle him. Villanova doesn’t make mistakes. They don’t turn the ball over. But they do make a ton of threes, and what I’m picturing in my head is Jay Wright’s club breaking this West Virginia pressure with relative ease and getting open three after open three at the other end.

PICKS: I think Villanova covers fairly easily. The question here is whether or not you think West Virginia is going to keep their press on for the whole game. If they don’t — if they settle into a half-court defense or play a token, full-court man-to-man — then Villanova sometimes takes the air out of the ball. I’d bet the over, but I’m not entirely confident in that.

2018 NBA Draft Early Entry List: Who declared? Who is returning? Who are we waiting on?

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Here is a full list of the players that have signed with an agent, declared and are testing the waters and those that have decided to return to school.

We also and a long — but probably not complete — list of players that we are still waiting to hear from.





MILES BRIDGES, Michigan State
TONY CARR, Penn State
TERENCE DAVIS, Mississippi
JACOB EVANS, Cincinnati
ETHAN HAPP, Wisconsin
DJ HOGG, Texas A&M
ARIC HOLMAN, Mississippi State
JAREN JACKSON, Michigan State
SAGABA KONATE, West Virginia
KEVIN KNOX, Kentucky
MATUR MAKER, High School
LANDRY SHAMET, Wichita State
RAY SPALDING, Louisville
MOE WAGNER, Michigan