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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?

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.