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.
WHY THEY CAN WIN: It’s John Calipari and it’s a team full of elite players. That has, generally speaking, always been a formula that, at the least, has the Wildcats in contention.
Cal has been at Kentucky for seven years. He’s made the Final Four in four of those seven years. One of the three years that he didn’t get to the Final Four he saw his best player, Nerlens Noel, tear an ACL in conference play. Another one of the years he didn’t get to the Final Four he had the most talented team in the country and it got bounced in the Elite 8.
He’s won a national title.
He won 38 straight games.
And he’ll have one of the most talented teams in the country again this season.
It starts in the back court, where Kentucky will have the most athletic pair of guards in the country in De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk. Both Fox and Monk are potential lottery picks – Fox playing the role of point guard with Monk playing off the ball – and the duo should make life hell for opposing back courts; Fox may be the best back court defender in the country, while Monk’s athleticism is impressive enough that effort is the only thing that should keep him from being a lockdown defender. They are the engine that should let Kentucky run as one of the nation’s best defenses.
Isaiah Briscoe is the third guard on Kentucky’s roster, and the Wildcats could do worse than slotting Dominique Hawkins in for 10 minutes a night in their back court.
Kentucky’s front court is even deeper. Bam Adebayo is the name to know there. A thrillingly athletic, 6-foot-10 power forward, Bam has the best chance to be the superstar on this team. He was known in high school for his powerful dunking ability, but he has a solid face-up game and should be able to step away from the rim to create space when Kentucky wants to play big.
It will be interesting to see how the rest of the front court rotation will work itself out. Sophomore 7-footer Isaac Humphries has drawn rave reviews this summer, but he’s not exactly a typical Kentucky big man. He’s less athlete than he is land warrior, and while he’s a good rebounder with some skill in the post, he’s not exactly an intimidating shot-blocker.
Humphries – and to a lesser extent, Tai Wynyard – has value and a role on this Kentucky team, but his limitations are what make Wenyen Gabriel such an intriguing piece. Gabriel is another prospective first round pick for the Wildcats, although his hype is built more around his potential as a player than his expected production. He’s a lanky, mobile and athletic forward that can knock down threes and defend multiple positions. A lineup that features Gabriel at the four and Bam at the five will be athletic, versatile and a lot of fun to watch. I also think it would be the best defensive lineup that Kentucky can put on the floor.
And I think this is going to be a team that has to win games with their defense – we’ll get into that in a minute – which is why Derek Willis is this team’s x-factor. To put it bluntly, Kentucky has a major issue shooting the ball, and that just so happens to be Willis’ strength. He shot 44.2 percent from three on 120 threes attempted last season, he was the most efficient player on Kentucky’s roster and his presence in the lineup is what sparked the late season surge for the Wildcats last year. His issue, other than staying healthy, is on the defensive end of the floor, but he at least has the length and the physical tools to hold his own.
With the rest of the defensive options on the floor around him, that may end up being good enough.
WHY THEY WON’T WIN: I love the pieces on this Kentucky team.
I don’t love how the pieces fit together.
The biggest issue for me is the lack of perimeter shooting. De’Aaron Fox thrives in transition but he’s somewhat limited in the half court offensively, particularly when it comes to shooting the ball. Malik Monk is a streaky three-point shooter, the kind of player that can make six in a row in one game and then make four of his next 30. Isaiah Briscoe shot 13.5 percent from three last season. Hawkins shot 27.6 percent.
When Kentucky plays three guards together, there isn’t going to be much space inside the arc to operate, which creates problems for the guards on the perimeter that slash to the rim and the bigs that operate in the paint. One solution to this problem is playing Derek Willis, but the question then becomes where does he fit on the floor? Does he see time at the three, forcing Briscoe to the bench, or will he be used as a stretch four like he was last season?
The other question mark is Monk. The biggest reason he’s been such an inefficient jump shooter throughout his high school career is his shot selection. He loves firing up deep threes early in the clock and he has no conscience when it comes to letting fly with a hand in his face, but that all came while playing for the high school team in Bentonville, Arkansas. He wasn’t doing this while on the roster at, say, Oak Hill Academy or Findlay Prep. It will be interesting to see how he adapts to playing on a team where he isn’t by far the best player.
However Cal decides to build his rotation, the bottom-line is that floor-spacing will be a concern for the Wildcats throughout the year.
Which brings us to the second question mark with this team: Their defense. Cal’s best teams are not only elite on the defensive end of the floor – John Wall’s 2010 team finished sixth in defensive efficiency, the 2012 title winning team finished eighth and the 2015 team that went 38-0 finished first – they all finished in the top two is block percentage.
To put it simply: When there are a slew of really big, really long and really athletic dudes standing in front of the rim, it makes it really easy for the really quick, really athletic dudes on the perimeter to get out and pressure on the perimeter. If they get beaten or gamble and miss on a steal, so what? Good luck finishing over Anthony Davis or Karl Towns.
This year, Kentucky doesn’t really have that rim protector, at least not on paper. Isaac Humphries is their best returning shot-blocker, but he doesn’t project as an elite rim protector the way Towns and Davis did. The other issue with Humphries is that he’s nowhere near as fleet-a-foot as a typical Kentucky big man; he’s not going to be switching ball-screens.
Bam is athletic enough to be that guy, but he’s not as big as Towns or Davis and doesn’t have the same reputation as a shot-blocker. In lineups where he’s asked to play the five, that slots Gabriel, Killeya-Jones or even Willis at the four. That front line is not all that big. Defensive rebounding could be a real problem.
I bring up these issues on the defensive end because I think this team is going to have issues offensively. If they’re going to win the national title, they’re going to have to be one of, if not the best defensive team in the country.
PREDICTION: This team reminds me an awful lot of the 2010 team that lost to West Virginia in the Elite 8. That team featured John Wall and Eric Bledsoe in the back court with a front line of DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson.
But here’s the thing: Wall and Bledsoe were probably better than Fox and Monk will be. Cousins is markedly better than Humphries, and if Bam ends up being better than Patterson – who averaged 17.9 points and 9.3 boards as a sophomore in 2008-09 – he’ll be a second-team all-american at worst.
That 2010 team went 35-3. After a slow start to the year, they cruised to regular season and tournament titles in a mediocre, but were done in by a 4-for-32 three-point shooting performance against West Virginia in the Elite 8.
I would not be the least surprised to see this season play out the exact same way.
2016-17 NEC Season Preview: Is Fairleigh Dickinson for real?
Beginning in September and running up through November 11th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2016-2017 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.
Today, we are previewing the NEC.
The way that last season played out in the NEC was a bit of a stunner. Fairleigh Dickinson – who was coming off of a 3-15 season in the NEC, who started four sophomores and a freshman on a team with just one upperclassmen, who was picked 9th in the league’s preseason poll over hapless CCSU – went 11-7 in league play and won the NEC tournament. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more unlikely turnaround anywhere in college basketball last season, and the run shouldn’t stop there.
Because essentially everyone from that team returns. Juniors Earl Potts, Darian Anderson and Stephan Liggetts are all back, as is sophomore Mike Holloway, and those four will be the crux of the FDU attack, which was the best in the NEC offensively. Their issue was on the defensive end of the floor, where they were one of the worst teams in the country in defensive efficiency and defensive rebounding. An uptempo style of play plus an infusion of talent earned FDU a tourney bid. If they learn how to get stops as the players become veterans, the Knights might have a chance to actually win a game in March.
If FDU is the favorite to win the league, Mount St. Mary’s and Wagner shouldn’t be all that far behind. The Mount was the pick to win the league in 2015-16, but they struggled down the stretch of the season and finished in 5th play in NEC play. 5-foot-5 Junior Robinson is back, but with three of the top four scorers from last season gone, Jamion Christian’s club has some holes that will need to be filled.
Wagner, on the other hand, returns just about everyone: Michael Carey and Corey Henson both made all-NEC teams. Ramone Saunders and Mike Aaman return as well. Head coach Bashir Mason, who won his first NEC Coach of the Year award as the Seahawks won the league’s regular season title last year, added a class full of athletes to fill roles alongside their veteran core. This team has the horses to win the league again.
Bryant was expected to have a bit of a down season as they graduated three of the best players in program history the last two years, but I’m not sure anyone predicted the Bulldogs finishing ninth in the league last year. The good news is that Tim O’Shea has found his cornerstones in sophomores Nisre Zouzoua and Marcel Petteway. The bad news? They’ll likely be starting a true freshman at the point. Sacred Heart took a massive blow when Cane Broome, the NEC Player of the Year that averaged 23.1 points as a sophomore, decided to transfer to Cincinnati. With two more double-figures scorers graduation, the Pioneers will have to rely on sophomore Quincy McKnight.
LIU Brooklyn would have been considered a title contender if they hadn’t lost their starting back court, one to transfer and one to the professional ranks. Glenn Braica is a two-time NEC Coach of the Year for a reason, but with nearly two-thirds of his scoring from last season graduating, the St. Francis (NY) will have his work cut out for him. St. Francis (PA) was atop the conference at 9-4 at one point last season but lost their last six games and graduated three key seniors.
Robert Morris had a disappointing year in 2015-16 and lost their two best players to transfer. Donyell Marshall is a legend in the state, but he’ll have his work cut out for him turning around a once-proud Central Connecticut State program.
PRESEASON NEC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Earl Potts, Fairleigh Dickinson
Potts was the leading scorer for the Knight as a sophomore last season, and not much should change this year. With the amount of talent that FDU has coming back, this could be the year that we actually predict the NEC champs correctly. If so, Potts will be their best player.
THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-NEC TEAM:
Michael Carey, Wager: The second-leading scorer and leading rebounder on last year’s regular season champs.
Corey Henson, Wagner: Likewise, Henson is the leading returning scorer on last year’s team.
Jerome Frink, LIU-Brooklyn: The big man averaged 16.6 points and 8.9 boards a year ago. If only the Blackbirds brought back their back court.
The NCAA has ruled Oakland forward Isaiah Brock eligible to compete in games this season.
Brock is an army veteran that served two tours of duty. He did not have the grades to make it through the Eligibility Center initially, but once Oakland filed some extra paper work – and once the NCAA’s dismissal of one of our nation’s war heroes went viral – it was only a matter of time before Brock would be cleared.
Brock’s story is pretty amazing, if you are interested. He started out as a 6-foot high schooler, joined the Army, pulled the bodies of soldiers killed in action off the battlefield and brought them home, then left the service as a 6-foot-8, Division I caliber athlete.
The Cousy Award Watch List was released on Monday morning, and unlike past years, it doesn’t appear that anyone glaring was missed.
The Cousy Award is given annually to the nation’s best point guard. Kentucky’s Tyler Ulis won in 2016.
Sure, you can make an argument that Troy Caupain of Cincinnati or Emmett Naar of Saint Mary’s was overlooked, but given the absolutely loaded crop of point guards in college basketball this season, those guys aren’t glaring mistakes on a list that can only include 20 players.
Here’s the full list:
Jalen Adams, UConn
Maurice Watson Jr., Creighton
Jack Gibbs, Davidson
Frank Jackson, Duke
Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga
Monte Morris, Iowa St.
Frank Mason, Kansas
De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky
Melo Trimble, Maryland
Joel Berry II, North Carolina
Dennis Smith, North Carolina State
Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State
Lonzo Ball, UCLA
Jordan McLaughlin, USC
Jalen Brunson, Villanova
London Perrantes, Virginia
Seth Allen, Virginia Tech
Markelle Fultz, Washington
Bronson Koenig, Wisconsin
Edmund Sumner, Xavier
Wisconsin’s Nigel Hayes is the face the fight against NCAA, amateurism needs
WASHINGTON — Wisconsin forward Nigel Hayes has never been afraid of taking a fight public.
He was one of three named athletes to join a lawsuit against the NCAA two years ago. He has been outspoken on issues regarding race and police brutality in America. And over the weekend, a picture of Hayes holding a sign at College Gameday in Madison that read “Broke College Athlete Anything Helps” went viral.
(According to Deadspin, the Venmo account listed on that sign belongs to someone from Hayes’ hometown. A similar Venmo account that also received payments is registered to Hayes. Hayes told ESPN that any money sent to the accounts will be donated to Boys & Girls Clubs of Dane County.)
He’s exactly the spokesman that college kids need in this fight.
There’s no better example of a kid that is being taken advantage of by the NCAA’s rules on amateurism and the inability to pay a player what he or she is worth.
Because Hayes is getting screwed.
For the majority of Division I athletes, getting school paid for in exchange for playing a sport is actually a pretty good deal. The senior sixth-man playing for American or Quinnipiac getting a quality education paid for cannot complain about being ripped off.
Hayes played in the Final Four his first two seasons. He reached the national title game, playing alongside the National Player of the Year in Frank Kaminsky, as a sophomore. He was an all-Big Ten player as a junior and is the Preseason Big Ten Player of the Year as a senior. Not only that, but Hayes has spent his college career as one of the most colorful characters in the sport. Whether it was making a video as Nigel Burgundy, his infatuation with a stenographer that went viral, his shots at conference rivals or his charity work with Dictionary.com, Hayes is always in the spotlight for one reason or another. There’s an argument to be made that he’s the most recognizable face in college hoops this side of Grayson Allen.
The difference is that Hayes is well-known as opposed to notorious.
He’s smart, he’s funny, he’s likeable, he’s a good-looking kid. He’s everything that an advertiser would look for in a spokesman – more on that in a second.
Let’s add it all up. Hayes is worth $160,000 to his university simply for being a four-star prospect, but that’s before you consider his fame in the world of college athletics and the fact that he plays for Wisconsin, a massive national brand, in a league that pays the Badgers an estimated $40 million to broadcast football and basketball games.
I was able to speak to Hayes in a Washington D.C. Marriott where rooms start around $250 a night for Big Ten media day because the league made promises to Maryland and Rutgers that their push east – as blatant as blatant cash grabs can be – would mean the league would host more events on this side of the country. The Big Ten, a league centered in the midwest, will host its tournament at the Verizon Center in D.C. this March.
It’s probably worth mentioning here that Hayes will be wearing an Under Armour logo on every piece of Wisconsin gear he owns because the school signed an apparel deal worth nearly $100 million with the company this year.
In other words, based on the massive amount of money Wisconsin is bringing in via their football and men’s basketball programs this year and in the future, it’s safe to say Hayes is probably more valuable to Wisconsin than an average four-star recruit is to an average university.
And that’s before you consider the money that he loses out on due to amateurism.
How many car washes in Madison would want to be sponsored by Hayes? How many clothing stores would give him unlimited outfit options in exchange for wearing their products? I don’t know if Hayes loves cheese curds, but the good people of Wisconsin love cheese curds and I’m sure there are a few restaurants in the area that would be willing to spend some money to get Hayes to say his favorite cheese curds are their cheese curds.
But he’s not allowed to tap into that earning potential.
Because NCAA owns those rights.
And here is the most important part: Hayes is never again going to be this marketable.
There’s a reason he’s not in the NBA right now. Hayes declared. He went through the draft process and was told, more or less, that he’s not an NBA player, at least not right now. Not when he’s shooting 36 percent from the floor and 29 percent from three as a 6-foot-7 small-ball four.
This is as marketable and as profitable as he’s ever going to be, and the NCAA eliminates any ability he has to take advantage of that. Because they’re here for the academics, remember?
“We’re not student-athletes. We’re here to play sports,” Hayes, who is finishing up a business degree, said. “Some of us are missing class to be here right now.”
He’s stuck with a “salary” that the NCAA mandates cannot be more than his $40,000-a-year scholarship – in the 1990s, coaches won a lawsuit against the NCAA, saying their salaries were illegally restricted – and as nice as it is to be able to leave school without having to worry about those monthly loan payments for the next 30-something years, Hayes is good enough that he should be leaving school with enough money to put a down payment on a house and start a business so that he can put that degree to good use whether he decides to play professional basketball or not.
And if you think Hayes is going to spend his final year in college sitting idly by as money is taken out of his pocket, you’ve lost your mind.