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College Basketball’s X-Factors: Eight story lines that will determine the national title

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The season will finally be here on Friday, meaning that the time for previewing the year is just about over. 

But we’re not there yet.

Before things officially kick off, let’s take a closer look at the eight things will could end up deciding how the season plays out.

League titles.

Final Four trips.

Even the national title.

You can call them story lines, you can call them positional battles, you can call them whatever you like.

Here are the x-factors as we enter the 2017-18 college basketball season. 

CONTENDER SERIES: Kentucky | Kansas | Arizona | Michigan State | Duke


As much as I would love to be able to focus on nothing but the teams and the players and the games, this story is never going to go away. It’s something that we, as college basketball fans, are going to have to come to grips with. This is the biggest story in the sport, and that fact is magnified this season because of who is involved.

Four of the top 12 and five of the top 25 teams in the NBC Sports Preseason Power Rankings have direct ties to the FBI complaint. Would it be crazy to think that the Final Four this season could end up being Arizona, USC, Louisville and Miami? (The answer is ‘no’. No, it wouldn’t.)

Arizona is probably the program with the most to lose here simply because this finally appears to be the team that Sean Miller can take to the Final Four. If it wasn’t for this impending investigation – and, frankly, the injury to Rawle Alkins – then I think theres is a real chance that the Wildcats could have ended up being the preseason No. 1 team in college basketball. As it stands, in a best-case scenario Arizona is likely going to end up being without at least one player currently on their roster, and that’s assuming that everything the FBI knows is public and the investigation grinds to a halt. If Alkins is the only Arizona player that sits during the first game of the season, it will probably be safe to assume that he is the one that was caught.

The same can be said for USC. Both programs had unnamed players in the FBI complaint allegedly accepting money either from a coach or from a financial advisor in a deal facilitated by the coach. Sources have told NBC Sports that USC’s De’Anthony Melton – who, as a sophomore with NBA potential, fits as one of the players in the complaint – has not yet played in one of USC’s secret scrimmages. If he ends up missing time, that’s a major blow for the Trojans.

Louisville has already seen their Hall of Fame head coach get run out of town while it seems incredibly unlikely that five-star freshman Brian Bowen will ever suit up for the Cardinals. Louisville has the talent to be a Final Four team, but until we see David Padgett running a team from the sidelines, it’s hard to know what, exactly, he is as a coach. Miami didn’t actually have a player named in the complaint, but head coach Jim Larrañaga has said publicly that he believes he was Coach-3 in the complaint, and that coach was alleged to have known about and requested a $150,000 payday for a player they were recruiting.

They arrived at that number because they believed it is what the player was offered by … Arizona.

The last program in the mix is Alabama. A member of the Alabama staff was bribed to facilitate a meeting between the father of a star freshman and a financial planner in Atlanta, the city where Collin Sexton, a potential lottery pick, is from. Sexton is the best scorer in the freshman class joining a team that returns everyone after finishing 10th in defensive efficiency and 153rd in offensive efficiency last season. He’s why they have hype.

What happens with these five teams will be massive.

We’re talking about five top 25 teams, one of whom could be the best team in the country, in addition to two Pac-12 title contenders, two ACC title contenders and an SEC contender. Those are some big name programs with quite a bit on the line.

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Trevon Duval (Reagan Lunn/Duke Athletics)


I’m on the record saying that this Duke team is the most talented starting five in the country. I’ll spare you rehashing the ‘why’ – you can read that all here – but suffice to say that the best five that Duke can run out there is better, on paper, than the best five that any other program can.

The problem, if there is one, is Duval. He’s the best point guard in the Class of 2017, a top five prospect and a potential first round pick, but he may not be the point guard that Duke needs. Duval is big, athletic and explosive, but he’s not much of a shooter, he’s not necessarily a facilitator and he doesn’t always make people around him better. Think Derrick Rose, not Tyus Jones. That becomes a problem when Duval, as talented as he is, ends up being the fifth-best player in Duke’s starting lineup.

Each of the last two years, Duke has struggled their way through point guard problems. Whether it was Derryck Thornton or Frank Jackson, Matt Jones or Grayson Allen, this program has struggled for an answer. If Duval succeeds, Duke seems like a good bet to win the national title. If he doesn’t, last year’s flameout – which resulted in a 25-win season, an ACC tournament title, a No. 2 seed and a first weekend exit in the NCAA tournament – may be repeated.

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Duke is not the only Final Four contender with point guard problems

  • Seton Hall is a trendy pick to finish in the top 15 and push Villanova for the Big East regular season title, but as good as the Pirates appear to be, they are playing this season with Khadeen Carrington running the show offensively. Carrington is a terrific player, a guy that averaged 17 points and three assists last season, but he put up those numbers playing off the ball. Playing the point is a different story, and his ability to adapt is what will determine Seton Hall’s ceiling.
  • Seton Hall’s Big East rival Xavier got a head start on their transition last season, as Quentin Goodin was forced into the starting point guard role when Edmond Sumner went down with a torn ACL in January. Goodin was fine – good in moments, a freshman in others – but he got somewhat bailed out by the fact that Trevon Bluiett was a man amongst boys for stretches in March. With Bluiett back, a good Goodin makes the Musketeers a real Final Four contender.
  • Xavier’s crosstown rival Cincinnati has some point guard issues of their own. Troy Caupain wasn’t the best player on the Bearcat roster last year, but he was a terrific leader at the point guard spot. He’s gone, and in his stead will be Cane Broome, a transfer from Sacred Heart that averaged 23 points as a sophomore, and Justin Jenifer, who has never proven to be much more than a role player. Even with the point guard question marks, Cincinnati is a borderline top ten team.
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Landry Shamet (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)


No team has gone more underlooked during this preseason than Wichita State. They finished last season ranked eighth in KenPom, gave Kentucky all they wanted in the second round of the NCAA tournament and returned everyone from last year’s team. Throw in the fact that this group is joining a new conference this offseason, and this might be the most exciting winter in the history of the city of Wichita; a can’t imagine there are too many contenders.

But all of that is assuming that Wichita State will remain healthy. It starts with Landry Shamet, who is the team’s starting point guard and their best NBA Draft prospect. He underwent surgery to repair a stress reaction injury in his right foot this summer. He already had surgery to repair a broken bone in his left foot as a freshman. He is expected to be healthy by the time Wichita State tips off this weekend, but as of now there is no guarantee that will happen, or that his foot issues won’t pop back up.

And then there is Markis McDuffie, who is dealing with a similar injury, although his prognosis is much less clear. As of the timing of this posting, there is no guarantee that McDuffie, a 6-foot-8 forward that is arguably Wichita State’s best all-around player and the guy that gives them lineup and matchup versatility, will return by the start of AAC play.

If those two are not at 100 percent, Wichita State’s ceiling – which is a national title – is no where near the same.

John Calipari (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)


We’re used to the unknown when it comes to John Calipari’s Kentucky teams. That’s part of the deal when you coach with this one-and-done model.

That said, Cal has never had this much uncertainty about his roster heading into a season, at least not since he arrived in Lexington. This is his youngest and most inexperienced team. Wenyen Gabriel is the only returnee that was a rotation player by conference play last season, and even he was barely cracking double-digit minutes by the end of the season. Cal has never had a team who didn’t return at least one player averaging 5.0 points before, and if we’ve learned anything over the years, it’s that the best one-and-done teams have some experienced leaders blended in.

And that’s only half of Cal’s problem. The other issue is that he has a ton of big men that cannot all play together, and it’s unclear where he is going to get offense, and perimeter shooting, from. Quade Green has played well during the exhibitions, as has Wenyen Gabriel and Kevin Knox. P.J. Washington may have more of an impact than we initially expected, and that’s important.

I’ve fleshed this line of thinking out in full here, if you’re interested in a more in-depth look at the issues. If anything, I’m excited to see how Cal figures this out, because I fully expect that he will.

Miles Bridges (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)


Some may think that it’s Michigan State’s guards that will determine the outcome of their season, but I think that we generally know what we’re going to get out of the back court. Cassius Winston and Josh Langford will take a step forward, Tum Tum Nairn will continue to be very, very fast and Matt McQuaid will make some shots and do his job.

They’re going to be fine.

That said, ‘fine’ won’t be enough for the Spartans to live up to their lofty preseason expectations if their front court does not deliver. This is where things get interesting to me. Miles Bridges, the NBC Sports Preseason National Player of the Year, played the four last season. He’s likely going to end up playing the three this year with another freshman, Jaren Jackson, playing the four. Nick Ward will get first crack at the five.

But will Ward be good enough defensively to warrant a bump in the 20 minutes he played last season if he doesn’t improve defensively? How will Bridges adjust to a new position and a new role? Is Jackson a stretchy enough stretch four? Can the likes of Gavin Schilling, Ben Carter and Kenny Goins accept a role? Is Xavier Tillman OK with being the seventh big Michigan State has?

That will determine Michigan State’s ceiling. Their guards determine their floor.


Bill Self had always played two bigs and run a ton of high-low actions before last season. The combination of Udoka Azubuike’s wrist injury and Josh Jackson’s ability to play a small-ball four role, the Jayhawks went full Golden State, playing four-out, one-in for just about the entire season. That worked because Josh Jackson is an NBA two-guard in a 6-foot-8 body with the athleticism and timing to block shots and the toughness to hold his own in the paint.

They don’t have a Josh Jackson this year. They also only really have two front court players that are ready to handle the Big 12 schedule this season. There isn’t the depth to play big and there isn’t the right piece to play small. So what’s the answer?


Isaac Haas is one of the biggest players in basketball. He stands 7-foot-3 and 300 pounds of muscle. He is a big, big boy, so it’s understandable that he’s never exactly been the quickest or most explosive player, or that he’s been able to get into the kind of shape that would let him play 32 minutes a night. It takes a lot to get that body from one end of the court to the other.

The problem is that Purdue, who might actually be the second-best team in the Big Ten, doesn’t have all that much interior depth. Matt Haarms is another 7-foot-3 big man, but he’s a redshirt freshman. Jacqul Taylor is back, but he missed the entire 2016-17 season and has been out since October after he aggravated the stress fracture in that ankle. Haas needs to carry the load, and if he can, the reigning Big Ten champs are going to sneak up on some people.


I don’t know if I can get on board with the idea that Florida is a top ten team this season for one, simple reason: Mike White’s teams thrive because of what they can do on the defensive end of the floor – last year, the Gators finished second nationally in defensive efficiency – and the Gators may have lost their three best defenders this offseason.

Kasey Hill graduated. The severely underrated Justin Leon graduated. Devin Robinson headed off to the NBA. That trio gave Florida so much length and athleticism, and both Robinson and Leon were able to stretch the floor. Florida brought in some talent, but if they can’t defend like they did last season, we may have a problem.

VIDEOS: Villanova team bus stuck on icy roads trying to leave campus

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Villanova’s road to the Sweet 16 hit its roughest patch yet on Wednesday as the team attempted to leave campus for the team’s flight to Boston.

Since the Philadelphia area has been slammed with a snowstorm, the Wildcat team bus had issues leaving to get to the team’s chartered flight.

A struggle between team bus and ice ensued. The bus was delayed by 30 minutes before finally being able to leave.

Villanova continues its NCAA tournament journey on Friday when the No. 1 seed Wildcats play No. 5 seed West Virginia in Boston.

Wake Forest guard Keyshawn Woods to transfer or go pro after graduation

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Wake Forest will be down a key player next season as the school announced that guard Keyshawn Woods will either transfer or go pro after graduation.

The 6-foot-3 Woods was the team’s second-leading scorer this season as he put up 11.9 points, 2.5 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game. Woods shot 43 percent from the floor and 37 percent from three-point range for the 2017-18 campaign.

Also a key member of last season’s NCAA tournament team for the Demon Deacons, Woods transferred to Wake Forest after spending his first season at Charlotte.

“I appreciate the opportunity that Coach Manning gave me to be a part of this program and to graduate from this great university,” said Woods in the release. “I am proud that I was able to help the coaches change the culture of the program and build a foundation for the future.”

The loss of Woods won’t be easy for Wake Forest, but the team is scheduled to return some talented guards like Bryant Crawford and Brandon Childress next season. Incoming freshmen like Jaime Lewis and Sharone Wright Jr. are also signed to add to the perimeter depth.

David Padgett not retained as Louisville coach

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Louisville announced on Wednesday afternoon that interim head coach David Padgett would not be retained.

Padgett, who is 32 years old, stepped in and took the program over in the wake of a scandal that cost Hall of Fame head coach Rick Pitino his job.

“We all owe a great debt of gratitude to David for his leadership and poise this season,” said U of L Interim Director of Athletics Vince Tyra. “He took over during incredible circumstances, has handled himself respectfully throughout the season and I believe he has a bright future in coaching. We expect to determine a new head coach in a short period to build upon the great basketball tradition of this university.”

Pitino was fired because an FBI complaint contained an allegation that he and his staff had arranged for a $100,000 payment to be funneled to Brian Bowen from Adidas.

In his one season with the Cardinals, Padgett went 22-14 and reached the quarterfinals of the NIT.

Louisville will now conduct a search for their next head coach, and current Xavier coach Chris Mack has long been considered the favorite to take that job.

Kansas State’s injured star hoping to play Thursday

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One of the most surprising parts about Kansas State’s run to the Sweet 16 is that they have done it without the services of their leading scorer, Dean Wade.

Wade injured his foot prior to the Big 12 tournament loss to Kansas. He did not play in that game or in either of Kansas State’s first two tournament games, but it is looking more and more like he’ll be on the floor on Thursday night when they play Kentucky.

“I don’t play percentages very well, but I’m feeling good,” Wade said, via SEC Country. “I’m very positive about it. It’s getting better every day and today I felt great out there, doing a little more than usual. It felt good.”

Wade averaged 16.5 points per game, but the big question is going to be whether or not he is actually healthy when he takes the court. Just because he’s on the floor doesn’t mean he’s at 100 percent.

“Really just trying to get it out of my mind that it’s not hurt,” Wade said. “Just more of a mental thing, just getting out there and running around. I think I got moved past that and it’s feeling better.”

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.