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College Hoops Contender Series: Three more (flawed?) Final Four favorites

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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. Today, we talk (more) Final Four contenders.

To me, there is a clear-cut line between the teams ranked in the top four or five and the rest of the top 25. Duke probably should be ranked No. 1 in your preseason poll, but their question marks at the point guard spot and the youth on the roster are enough that I can see two teams arguably being ranked above them.

I also think there is another clear-cut tier of teams, through the top 12, that are good enough that they are a decent bet to get to the Final Four in San Antonio while being flawed enough that we cannot consider them a true title contender, at least not in October.

Two of those teams are known as football schools and currently find themselves stuck in the middle of one of the biggest scandals in college sports history: Miami and USC. A third, Wichita State, has yet to play a game as a member of a high-major conference. Let’s take a dive into those three teams, shall we?

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WICHITA STATE

This year will be a first for Wichita State.

Five years after Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet led the Shockers to the 2013 Final Four, five years after Gregg Marshall’s club became a stalwart in the top 25 and a nationally-recognized program, Wichita State is now officially a high-major basketball team.

The Shockers officially left the Missouri Valley this summer, becoming a member of the American and, instantly, the favorite to win the league this year. Because after a season where Wichita State finished 31-5 and ranked 8th nationally, according to KenPom, the Shockers brought back everyone.

Landry Shamet, who is a darkhorse all-american pick, is back for his sophomore year. Markis McDuffie, who is probably the best all-around player on the roster, is back for his junior year. Fifth-year senior Connor Frankamp rounds out the back court while Darral Willis, Zach Brown, Shaq Morris and Rashard Kelly are all back along the front line.

The Shockers are loaded with precisely the kind of players you would expect a Gregg Marshall-coached team to be loaded with: Underrated back court talent, big and old and physical posts, and a roster full of players that are going to grind you down defensively.

More importantly, they’re already proven to be successful. We know they’re good. They won 31 games a season ago! They finished the year ranked 8th in KenPom! Everyone is back!

The difference is that this season, instead of playing in the Missouri Valley, where computer numbers get pulled down and the Shockers end up as a No. 10 seed — one of the worst mis-seedings in NCAA history — they will be playing American competition. Games against the likes of Cincinnati, SMU, UConn, UCF and Houston will do a lot more for their tournament profile than Indiana State and Missouri State did.

Assuming the Shockers are as good as they should be, they’ll be seeded fairly this year, meaning that they won’t be playing a team as talented as last year’s Kentucky team was until at least the Sweet 16.

And that is what makes them such an intriguing Final Four pick.

The issue, however, is health, and it’s no small problem. Shamet had surgery in early August to repair a stress fracture in his right foot. A similar injury kept him on the shelf for much of the 2015-16 season. Shamet is expected to return to the floor by the start of the season, which is good news, but there’s no guarantee that, coming off of a surgery and an injury that kept him out for three months, that he’ll be in shape and on form immediately.

Shamet is also not the only player that is injured. McDuffie, who led the team in scoring and rebounding a year ago, has a stress fracture in the navicular bone in his left foot. That’s the same bone that derailed careers of many an NBA player, including Joel Embiid. He’s expected to be out until December, meaning there is a possibility that Wichita State begins the season without their top two players.

If those two are both back and healthy come March, it’ll be something of a moot point.

But there’s no guarantee that will happen.

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

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MIAMI

Everyone say it with me now: The second-best team in the ACC this season will be Miami.

Not Louisville. Not North Carolina. Not Notre Dame or Virginia or Syracuse.

Miami.

And the biggest reason why is a young man that you’ve probably never heard of. Bruce Brown, a former safety and wide receiver at the high school level, still plays like a football player now that he’s fully committed to the hardwood. He’s an aggressive slasher, an athletic finisher and one of the best perimeter defenders in the country. He’s also now a guy that can operate in pick-and-rolls and knock down a spot-up jumper, and playing for a coach in Jim Larrañaga that has thrived with talented lead guards and athletic wings, he’s the perfect combination of both.

He’ll also be flanked by a couple more players of that ilk in senior JaQuan Newtown and freshman Lonnie Walker. Newton had a good, not great, junior season for the Hurricanes, but part of the reason for that was due to Brown’s emergence down the stretch. Walker is a top-15 prospect that picked Miami over the likes of Arizona and Villanova. He’ll be an instant impact guy assuming his knee is healthy.

Throw in sophomore center Dewan Huell, a former five-star recruit in his own right, four-star freshmen Chris Lykes, a 5-foot-7 point guard, and Deng Gak, a 7-foot four-man, and there is a lot to like about the pieces Larrañaga has at his disposal.

There is also a lot missing with one piece they lost from last season: Davon Reed. A physical, athletic, 6-foot-6 wing, Reed was one of the most underrated players in the ACC a season ago. An elite defender with three-point stroke that went down at a 40 percent clip, Reed was everything a team needs in the day and age of positionless basketball. He could guard three or four positions, he could space the floor and, if need be, he could pop off for 2o points on any given night. There’s a reason he was the No. 32 pick in the NBA Draft.

That’s going to be a massive hole to fill, and the Hurricanes are going to hope junior Anthony Lawrence can replace him.

I’m not sure that he will be able — Reed was a helluva player — but it may not matter.

Larrañaga is at his best when he has talented, dynamic lead guards paired athletics bigs, and there is no questioning that this year’s roster construction fits that mold.

Every few years, Larrañaga pops up with an ACC title contender. It happened when Shane Larkin and Durand Scott manned his back court. It happened with Angel Rodriguez and Sheldon McClellan. And it will happen with this group as well.

What we will need to track, however, is the status of the FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball. A Miami assistant coach was referenced in the FBI complaints on a phone call involving two of the men that were arrested. The assistant, according to an Adidas executive, was hoping to get the shoe company to fund a $150,000 payment to the family of a prospect that appears to be Nassir Little.

None of the Hurricane coaches were arrested on September 26th, but that doesn’t mean their out of the woods, in the eyes of the FBI or in the eyes of the NCAA.

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USC

The season has been three years in the making for the Trojans has a black cloud the size of California hanging over it.

Andy Enfield’s tenure with Dunk City West started out dreadfully, amassing a grand total of five Pac-12 wins in his first two seasons at the helm. Things started to turn around during his third season, when the Trojans, without a senior on their roster, climbed their way into the NCAA tournament. Last season was supposed to be their year, but the combination of injuries and a pair unexpected defections to the professional ranks meant that Enfield, again, would be without a senior.

And again, USC made a run to the NCAA tournament, getting out of the play-in game and pulling off an upset of No. 6 seed SMU.

Now, finally, is the year for USC.

The Trojans are loaded. They have experience — their starting back court of Jordan McLaughlin and Elijah Stewart are both seniors and both potential all-Pac-12 guards. They have size — Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu, both juniors, are NBA prospects while Nik Rakocevic, Harrison Henderson and Shaqquan Aaron give Enfield the kind of depth and positional versatility his style of play calls for. De’anthony Melton, Jonah Mathews and Charles O’Bannon provide the young, dynamic talent in the back court, and that’s before you factor in Derryck Thornton, the former Duke point guard that was once thought to be among the best high school point guards in the country.

The last time there was this much reason to be excited about USC basketball, O.J. Mayo landed on Tim Floyd’s doorstep.

On the court, the question mark with this group is two-fold:

  1. Can they defend? In each of the last two seasons, USC has ranked outside the top 80 on KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric. That, quite simply, is not going to be good enough for a team that is planning on competing for a Pac-12 title, let alone a national title.
  2. Is everyone going to buy-in? This may be a bigger concern than the defensive side of the ball. The Trojans don’t have the kind of star power on their roster that you’ll see at UCLA or Arizona, but the depth of their talent is impressive. There are seven or eight players on the roster that have a shot of playing in the NBA. At least five of them flirted with the idea of leaving school early to enter last year’s NBA Draft, meaning that there are going to be quite a few guys on this roster looking to impress NBA scouts. Not all of them are going to be able to get as many shots as they might like. Convincing players that want the be a star to embrace playing a role is the hardest thing to do at this level, and Enfield is going to have his work cut out for him.

Off the court, however, is a bigger problem.

Tony Bland, an assistant coach for USC, was arrested during the FBI’s sting operation investigating corruption in college basketball. He was alleged to have been paid $13,000 in bribe money to get two players currently on the USC team to work with a specific financial advisor when they get to the NBA. He also helped facilitate $9,000 that was supposed to go to the families of an unnamed freshman on the team and an unnamed sophomore.

Those players have not yet been positively identified, but there should be some concern as to whether or not those kids will actually be eligible to play this season.

I’m not sure there are five teams in the country that are going to be more talented than USC this season if they have all their pieces available. But until we get answers on how they are going to defend, who is going to be asked to play what role and who is going to be able to play, it’s going to be hard to know if they actually are Arizona’s biggest challenger in the Pac-12.

Subpoenas, college basketball commissions prove NCAA is further than ever from the end of amateurism

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I thought that this would finally be the breaking point, the moment that changed everything.

The allegations detailed in the FBI complaints that were unveiled on September 26th were indisputable proof that college basketball players had massive value on the open market. If building a business relationship with an athlete that had the potential to sell millions of sneakers and generate a fortune in agent fees wasn’t enough for you to believe it, direct evidence of an apparel company funneling six figure payouts to players that were anything-but a lock to be one-and-dones in an effort to protect their biggest brands – and biggest investments – at the collegiate level should have been.

I thought that this would be the tipping point, the watershed moment that eliminated the term ‘amateurism’ from the NCAA’s rulebook.

This would be what led college athletics to adopt the Olympic model, I thought.

The truth is that we couldn’t be further away from seeing that change happen.

On Wednesday, NCAA President Mark Emmert announced that he would be forming a Commission on College Basketball, chaired by former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, to look into the corruption this FBI investigation exposed. The goal of the commission is to examine the relationship that shoes companies, agents/advisors and AAU programs have with college programs, coaching staffs and players; the status of the relationship between the NCAA and the NBA; and to evaluate whether the rules as written, which are so routinely broken and borderline unenforceable by the NCAA, need to be changed.

That might be good news if the release announcing the commission, which includes, at most, two former coaches that could have an actual understanding of how cheating in college basketball happens, didn’t include language like, “The culture of silence in college basketball enables bad actors, and we need them out of the game;” or, “We must take decisive action. This is not a time for half-measures or incremental change;” or, “ensure exploitation and corruption cannot hide in college sports.”

This commission isn’t being formed because the NCAA truly wants to evaluate whether or not going to the Olympic Model is something that would actually work. This commission is precisely the kind of committee that gets formed by multi-billion dollar corporations when they want to pretend like they’re taking a problem seriously.

Emmert’s statement might as well have read, “we take this issue so seriously that we’re forming a committee with a bunch of out-of-touch administrators that won’t issue any findings for six months, enough time to, hopefully, allow the speed of the 2017 news cycle will to erase this story from your memory FaceBook and Twitter feeds because your faux-trage will be focused somewhere else by then.”

The NCAA has absolutely no incentive to consider anything other than enforcing the status quo in regards to amateurism.

The way the current rules are written, they are the ones that make all the profits when it comes to advertising and sponsorships. Under Armour just invested $280 million into an apparel deal with UCLA. Louisville and Adidas have an $160 million deal. If Under Armour could pay, say, Lonzo, LiAngelo and LaMelo Ball 1 percent of that figure to wear and promote their brand, isn’t that something that would be more appealing than spending roughly $19 million a year to outfit an entire athletic department?

Would Adidas – who was caught by the FBI investing $100,000 into what amounted to an under-the-table sponsorship of Brian Bowen and attempting to invest another $150,000 into a 2018 prospect assumed to be Nassir Little to get him to go to an Adidas school – rather spend a couple of million on reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson or send 98 percent of their money straight to Rick Pitino?

It works on a smaller scale as well. Would a car dealership rather spend their advertising dollars promoting their product with in-stadium advertisements or by paying the all-american running back or point guard directly to be on billboards, sign autographs in the lobby and drive around town in a new Dodge Challenger, telling anyone that will listen they got a great deal on it from Bob’s Discount Motors?

I don’t know the answer to that. The schools probably do, but if they don’t I’m guessing they don’t want to find out. They don’t want to risk that revenue stream drying up.

And if the schools don’t want to make those changes, the NCAA is never going to make those changes. Because the NCAA is made up of those universities and colleges.

They’re not going to implement a rule that hurts themselves.

And they’re certainly not going to change that rule when the FBI has become their enforcement arm.

On Wednesday, The Oklahoman reported that Oklahoma State had received a subpoena from a grand jury in New York requesting any documents or communications from the last three years that show “actual or potential NCAA rules violations.” An attorney that has worked for a prosecutor and as a defender in the state of New York told NBC Sports that it is “unlikely” Oklahoma State was the only school to receive a subpoena of this nature.

Couple that nugget with this: One of the charges levied at the four assistant coaches arrested last month was conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Those charges were leveled because the coaches, in “concealing bribe payments to prospective and current student-athletes” caused their schools to “provide athletic scholarship to student-athletes who, in truth and in fact, were ineligible to compete as a result of the bribe payments.”

Think about that for a second.

Knowingly making a college athlete ineligible is now a federal crime.

I repeat: The U.S. Attorney of the Southern District of New York and the FBI went and made breaking NCAA rules a federal crime.

The reason cheating was so rampant and so open in college basketball was because the NCAA’s enforcement arm was toothless. They can’t file subpoenas. They can’t wiretap phones. They don’t go undercover or have the ability to turn criminal financial advisors into snitches with the threat of SEC violations. Hell, NCAA officials lost their jobs over the investigation into Miami and Nevin Shapiro in part because they sat in on a bankruptcy proceeding they were not allowed to have access to.

The only threat the NCAA really has in a case like this is to say, “If you lie to us and we catch you, you’re banned.”

That threat might hold some weight if the NCAA could actually catch people.

They can’t.

But the FBI, quite clearly, can.

And now that they’re involved, the NCAA has no reason to change their stance on amateurism.

By making it a federal crime to break NCAA rules, the most powerful prosecutor in the United States of America guaranteed that college athletes will never get paid their worth.

NCAA forms Commission on College Basketball headed by Condoleeza Rice

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Mark Emmert, the President of the NCAA, released a statement on Tuesday announced that a ‘Commission of College Basketball’ has been formed.

Headed by former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, the commission will be tasked with finding a way to clean up the corruption in college basketball that has come to light as the result of last month’s bombshell FBI Investigation.

“The culture of silence in college basketball enables bad actors, and we need them out of the game,” Emmert said in the statement. “We must take decisive action. This is not a time for half-measures or incremental change.”

The commission will be tasked with three things. The first will be the relationship that entities such as agents, shoe companies and AAU programs have with Division I coaches and the athletes themselves. The second is the relationship that college basketball has with the NBA, specifically with the one-and-done rule. The third is whether or not the way the rules are currently written and enforced actually works.

“We need to do right by student-athletes,” the statement read. “I believe we can — and we must — find a way to protect the integrity of college sports by addressing both sides of the coin: fairness and opportunity for college athletes, coupled with the enforcement capability to hold accountable those who undermine the standards of our community.”

The commission will include, among others, former Georgetown coach John Thompson III, former Stanford coach Mike Montgomery, David Robinson, Grant Hill and a slew of college presidents and athletic directors.

 

Report: Oklahoma State received a subpoena from New York grand jury

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If you needed evidence that the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball isn’t over, you got it today.

The Oklahoman obtained a subpoena that was sent by a New York grand jury to Oklahoma State on September 27th requesting any documentation or communications that show “actual or potential NCAA rules violations” by a member of or a person connected to the men’s basketball program.

The grand jury is requesting all of the documentation be sent in by October 17th, with the punishment for a lack of action being a contempt of court charge.

The time frame for the subpoena dates all the way back to the start of 2014, which means that three different Cowboy head coaches will be caught up in the mix here: Travis Ford, who was fired in 2016; Brad Underwood, who left for Illinois last March; and Mike Boynton, who was hired to replace Underwood.

Thus far, the only member of the Oklahoma State coaching staff that has been arrested or linked to any wrong doing is Lamont Evans, who spent just over a year on the OSU staff. Prior to that, he was an assistant coach with South Carolina. At both schools, according to the FBI complaints filed on September 26th, Evans is alleged to have taken bribes from a financial advisor that was working with the FBI in exchange for using his influence with players that were destined for the professional ranks.

Evans is expected to be arraigned in a New York City courtroom tomorrow.

2017-18 CBT Expert Picks

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We are now less than four weeks away from the start of the college basketball season, which means that it is time for us to officially get our picks on the record.

Here, our writers pick who we think will win each league, the national title and the major awards:

 Big Ten Preview | ACC Preview | Atlantic 10 PreviewMountain West Preview
Perry Ellis All-Stars | Final Four Sleepers | Louisville | Villanova | West Virginia
The Enigma of Miles Bridges | NBC Sports Preseason All-American Team

Three coaches arrested in college basketball corruption scandal appear in court

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Five of the ten men that were arrested two weeks ago as the result of an FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball were arraigned in a courthouse in Lower Manhattan on Tuesday morning and released on $100,000 bond.

Merl Code, an Adidas executive that previously worked for Nike’s grassroots circuit, and three assistant coaches – USC’s Tony Bland, Arizona’s Emmanuel ‘Book’ Richardson and Auburn’s Chuck Person – appeared before Judge Katherine Parker, according to ZagsBlog. Rashan Michel, a clothier from Atlanta, was arraigned separately.

Oklahoma State assistant coach Lamont Evans and another Adidas executive, Jim Gatto, are expected to appear in court on Thursday.

The five men that were arraigned on Tuesday now await a Nov. 9th preliminary hearing, where a trial will be scheduled if it is determined that there is enough evidence.

Gatto and Code are accused of helping to funnel $100,000 to the family of former Louisville freshman Brian Bowen to get the player to attend Louisville. Evans, Bland and Person are alleged to have taken bribes to steer players under their influence to specific financial advisors. Richardson is accused of doing the same, while also allegedly funneling $15,000 to the family of Jahvon Quinerly, a point guard committed to Arizona.

This weekend, Quinerly told reporters at a Team USA training camp in Colorado Springs that his family has hired a lawyer. He did not comment on whether or not his family had received money from Richardson.