Rob Dauster

Jayson Tatum (photo courtesy Duke Athletics)
Jayson Tatum (photo courtesy Duke Athletics

College Basketball’s X-Factors: 14 storylines that will determine champions

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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 before we get there, let’s take a closer look at 14 things that could end up deciding league titles, who gets to the Final Four and, eventually, who wins the national title.

Call them story lines, call them positional battles, call them what you like. Here are the most important x-factors as we enter the 2016-17 college basketball season: 

So … is Duke ever going to be healthy or nah?: The major issue that Duke is dealing with right now is the health of Harry Giles III’s knees. He had yet to be fully cleared from a torn ACL he suffered in the first game of his senior season in high school when, in September, he underwent a procedure on his other knee, the one that he tore up after his freshman year in high school. The question of whether or not Giles plays – and just how effective he will be if he does – has been swirling around the Duke program since news of his second ACL tear came out a year ago.

But he’s not the only Blue Devil currently battling an injury. Jayson Tatum sprained a bone in his foot and is expected back for Friday’s season-opener. Marques Bolden suffered what the program is calling a “lower leg injury” this week and is expected to miss the first two games of the season. And Grayson Allen is banged up, having been pulled from Duke’s exhibition against Virginia State after hurting his shoulder.

The latter three listed here are not dealing with serious injuries and should, in theory, be able to get healthy before the first Christmas Carol of the year is sung. But Giles is the ultimate difference maker for this team – think Karl-Anthony Towns and Kentucky in 2015 – and his absence for this group is massive.

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Speaking of health, Dillon Brooks and his balky foot: Oregon was a No. 1 seed last season, returns plenty of talent from a team that won a dual-conference title and will enter this year as the favorite to win the Pac-12 once again. But they are doing so without their all-american Dillon Brooks, who is battling a foot injury that kept him out during Oregon’s trip to Spain over the summer. Brooks is the most talented player on this team and the one guy that plays the position that would allow Oregon lineup versatility. Just how long is he going to be out for and, when he returns, just how effective is he going to be?

Is Malik Monk a streaky shooter, a dumb shooter or a good shooter finally on a real team?: Monk shot around 32 percent from three as a high schooler, per Draft Express, and developed a reputation for being as streaky as anyone at any level. He might go for 40 and hit nine threes one game and follow that up with a 2-for-18 performance the next. That kind of inconsistency won’t fly at Kentucky, but neither will Monk’s shot selection, which had much more to do with his shooting percentages than anything else. He played on a high school team that was almost as bad as Anthony Davis’. He played on an AAU team where his point guards liked to shoot just as much as he did. We’ve never seen him on a team like Kentucky, where he isn’t far and away the most talented player.

So how will this play out? Will Monk embrace being a part of an offense, being a guy that is asked to execute sets and play within the confines of a system? Or will he buck at being reined in and spend the season trying to prove that he is Russell Westbrook? No one questions the talent, the scoring ability, the athleticism. They do, however, question whether he can be a consistent jump-shooter, and if he is, than the biggest concern about these Wildcats – their ability to make perimeter shots – is, in part, answered.

Just how effective will Villanova’s small-ball lineups be?: Because they are going to have to be very, very good if the Wildcats are going to have a real shot at repeating as national champs. That’s what happens when the only true low-post threat on last year’s team, Daniel Ochefu, graduates while the only true low-post threat on this year’s team, Omari Spellman, has been ruled ineligible for this year. Darryl Reynolds was effective in his minutes last season, but Darryl Reynolds is not the answer for a team looking to win another ring. That leaves Villanova in a position where they’ll be using, essentially, five guards sets, the Villanova ‘Death Lineup’, if you will. The physicality and length of guys like Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins, Mikal Bridges and Eric Paschall makes this option not only possible, but likely to succeed, at least to some degree.

CONTENDER SERIES: Duke | Oregon | Kentucky | Kansas | Villanova

LOUISVILLE, KY - MARCH 26:  Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats dunks the ball in the first half against the Kansas Jayhawks during the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament South Regional at KFC YUM! Center on March 26, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Josh Hart, Villanova Wildcats (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

How will Gonzaga’s veterans adjust to losing minutes?: The four most important players on Gonzaga’s roster this season are taking someone else’s minutes. Nigel Williams-Goss and Johnathan Williams III were transfers that sat out last season. Jordan Mathews is a grad transfer from Cal. Prezemek Karnowski was supposed to graduate this summer and received a waiver to play one more year due to injury issues. What that means is that the Bulldogs are going to have a lot of pieces on their roster that were either expecting to play – or how gotten used to playing – major minutes. I worry about how that will affect team chemistry considering that the Zags are ranked eighth in our preseason poll.

Is there anyone on Louisville that can replace Chinanu Onuaku’s interior presence?: Because that is what the Cardinals are going to miss from the pieces they lost this offseason. I’m not worried about Rick Pitino’s club finding a way to replace Damion Lee’s scoring or Trey Lewis’ minutes at the lead guard spot. Between the jump I expect Donovan Mitchell, Deng Adel and Ray Spalding to make along with the addition of V.J. King, the Cards have more than enough talent and athleticism on the perimeter to play the way that Pitino wants to play. But do they have someone to replace Onuaku, who was one of the nation’s most effective shot-blockers and rebounders?

Michigan State’s point guard play: The Spartans have had some brutal injury luck during the fall, as both Ben Carter and Gavin Schilling suffered knee injuries that could very likely keep Michigan State from having any sort of front court depth this season. That means that the play of freshman Nick Ward is going to be critical to their season, as is Miles Bridges’ ability to be a small-ball four that exceeds the substantial hype he is entering the season with. This is as young of a team as Izzo has ever coached at Michigan State, which is why I think it will be the point guard play of Tum Tum Nairn and Cassius Winston that determines just how far this team goes. A young roster needs an alpha-dog with the ball in his hands, someone that can direct traffic on the floor, get players the ball in a spot where they can be effective and that can take over when needed. Nairn, through two seasons, hasn’t yet proven he can be that guy, and Winston is a freshman himself.

Speaking of point guards … hello, Syracuse: Do the Orange have a point guard on their roster? Is Franklin Howard the next Michael Gbinije? Can John Gillon adjust to the rigors of the ACC game? Because the rest of this Orange roster looks intimidating. It may be the longest team that Boeheim has ever had at his disposal. Tyus Battle has a chance to be a really good player for the Orange, while Tyler Lydon is on the verge of becoming a lottery pick. Throw in the addition of Andrew White – whose ability to assimilate into a team is an x-factor in its own right – and there are pieces here. But there aren’t a ton of guys that can take a game over or create their own shot. Which is why the point guard play is so important: Who is going to be the player that makes offense easier for everyone else?

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HOUSTON, TEXAS - APRIL 02:  Tyler Lydon #20 of the Syracuse Orange attempts to dunk the ball against Isaiah Hicks #4 of the North Carolina Tar Heels in the first half during the NCAA Men's Final Four Semifinal at NRG Stadium on April 2, 2016 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Tyler Lydon, Syracuse Orange (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

And hello, Indiana: The Hoosiers have a pair of potential lottery picks on their roster in Thomas Bryant and O.G. Anunoby, so I understand why they’re showing up in the top 15 of national polls. I have them there myself. But I think that we are all undervaluing just how much Yogi Ferrell meant to this team last season, and just how much his absence is going to cost them. Can Robert Johnson and Josh Newkirk adequately fill in that role? And if they can’t, who on this Indiana team do you trust to have the ball in their hands on a critical possession when the Hoosiers have to have a bucket?

And are any of these point guards ‘Point Gods’?: These five point guards have the ability to end up somewhere on an all-america team. Do they have the talent around them to win enough games to be considered?

  1. Dennis Smith Jr., N.C. State: Now healthy after recovering from a torn ACL, the uber-explosive Smith has an outside shot at being the No. 1 overall pick while the talent on the Wolfpack gives them a ceiling of being a top 15 team.
  2. Melo Trimble, Maryland: Trimble had a rough year in 2015-16, but with some roster turnover this season, expect the veteran point guard to be on a mission this season.
  3. Markelle Fultz, Washington: Fultz, like Smith, has a shot at being the No. 1 overall pick. Unlike Smith, however, Washington doesn’t have the same kind of talent around him.
  4. Monte’ Morris, Iowa State: Morris is a name that college basketball junkies have been familiar with for some time. It will be his show this season as Georges Niang (finally) graduated after what felt like a ten-year career.
  5. Jalen Adams, UConn: Adams isn’t as well-known as the other four names here, but he’s a sophomore point guard that was a top 25 prospect coming out of high school who should thrive in a Kevin Ollie system geared towards players of his ilk.

Will Allonzo Trier be eligible?: It’s mind-blowing just how much talent Arizona has lost this offseason that they expected to suit up from day one. Justin Simon transferred. Chance Comanche has been suspended for an academic issue. Terrence Ferguson is playing in Australia. Ray Smith tore his ACL. Now imagine you add Trier, who is dealing with an eligibility issue right now, to that list. He would Arizona’s leading returning scorer and the only non-freshman on the roster that might scare opposing game-planners. Without him, Arizona has seven scholarship players remaining and a starting five that may not be better than the five players they lost.

Can Ike Anigbogu anchor UCLA’s defense?: All the banter about the Bruins this summer centered around Bryce Alford, Lonzo Ball and whether or not head coach Steve Alford would be able to find a way to get all of the UCLA talent to play together. And while that is a definite concern, UCLA is only going to go so far this season if they can’t find a way to get tougher on the defensive end of the floor. They finished last season 119th in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com. Only Washington State was worse in the Pac-12. They couldn’t force turnovers, they couldn’t get defensive rebounds and they couldn’t defend the rim. Anigbogu, a five-star freshman big man, is the guy that has the ability to solve some of those issues, but he’s dealing with a tear in the meniscus in his right knee.

Is there a go-to low-post presence on North Carolina’s roster?: North Carolina’s best teams under Roy Williams all have two thing in common: NBA-caliber point guard play and a first round draft pick playing in the post. Think about it: Ray Felton and Sean May; Ty Lawson and Tyler Hansbrough; Kendall Marshall and Tyler Zeller; Marcus Paige/Joel Berry II and Brice Johnson. Berry is back for his junior season, but who will he pair with on the block? Is Kennedy Meeks (finally?) ready to take that next step forward? Will Isaiah Hicks find a way to transfer his effectiveness in practice into consistent positive contributions in games?

Which Marcus Foster shows up at Creighton?: It’s been two years so I’ll forgive you if you’ve forgotten, but Marcus Foster was so good during his freshman season at Kansas State. He averaged 15.5 points and led the Wildcats to the NCAA tournament despite entering the Big 12 program without being considered a top 100 recruit. Then, as a sophomore, he found himself out of shape, unmotivated and, eventually, in the doghouse. So he left, sitting out last season after transferring to Creighton. Will the motivated Marcus Foster show up this winter, or is that guy officially gone forever?

Malik Monk (Kentucky Athletics)
Malik Monk (Kentucky Athletics)

Clemson G Mitchell to miss Georgia game with knee injury

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CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) Clemson guard Shelton Mitchell will miss the Tigers’ opener against Georgia on Friday night after a suffering a knee injury at practice.

The school announced Tuesday that 6-foot-3 Mitchell had a non-contact knee injury at practice Tuesday. He is expected to undergo a procedure on the knee. There is no timetable for his return.

Mitchell is a transfer from Vanderbilt who sat out last season. He started 11 of 31 games for the Commodores in 2014-15, averaging four points, three assists and two rebounds a game.

Mitchell was among three high-profile transfers expected to play significant minutes this fall. Guard Marcquise Reed came in from Robert Morris and forward Elijah Thomas came to Clemson from Texas A&M. Thomas will be eligible in December.

More AP College Basketball: http://www.collegebasketball.ap.org

Syracuse freshman to redshirt due to injury

Jim Boeheim
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Syracuse freshman Matthew Moyer will redshirt this season, the school announced on Tuesday.

The reason, according to head coach Jim Boeheim, is, “preseason time missed with an injury.” Moyer sat out more than a month after injuring his toe this summer. In the first exhibition game that Syracuse played, Moyer saw just nine minutes, the lowest total for anyone on the roster.

Moyer is a 6-foot-8 freshman from Ohio by way of South Kent Prep in Connecticut. Given the amount of depth the Orange have on their front court this season, this loss should not affect their season much.

The Orange open the year with Colgate on Friday.

No. 13 Lady Vols honoring Summitt with commemorative patch

KNOXVILLE, TN - JULY 14:  Flower wreaths line the wall at Pat Summitt Plaza before the start of a ceremony to celebrate the life of former Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt at the Thompson-Boling Arena on July 14, 2016 in Knoxville, Tennessee. Summitt died June 28 at the age of 64, five years after being diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. (Photo by Craig Bisacre/Tennessee Athletics - Pool/Getty Images)
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee is wearing commemorative patches on its jerseys to honor former Lady Volunteers coach Pat Summitt, who led the program to eight national titles.

The 13th-ranked Lady Vols wore the patches Monday during a 95-56 exhibition victory over Carson-Newman. Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said the patches would remain on the Lady Vols’ jerseys all season.

The patches include a capital “P” inside a circle. The “P” is based off Summitt’s actual signature. Tennessee’s football team has helmet stickers this season with a similar logo.

Summitt died June 28 after battling early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type. She stepped down as Tennessee’s coach in 2012, one year after announcing her diagnosis. Her 1,098 wins are the most of any Division I men’s or women’s coach.

Tennessee opens the season Friday at James Madison.

CBT Podcast: Previewing the Big East Conference

HOUSTON, TEXAS - APRIL 04:  Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats cuts the net after defeating the North Carolina Tar Heels 77-74 to win the 2016 NCAA Men's Final Four National Championship game at NRG Stadium on April 4, 2016 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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Today is Big East preview day here at College Basketball Talk.

We published our league preview here, and below, you can listen to an in-depth breakdown of every team in the conference.

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Nigel Hayes tweets essay about racism on Wisconsin’s campus

ST LOUIS, MO - MARCH 20: Nigel Hayes #10 of the Wisconsin Badgers handles the ball in the first half against the Xavier Musketeers during the second round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Scottrade Center on March 20, 2016 in St Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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Wisconsin’s Nigel Hayes has taken another political stand, this time joining a group of university athletes that tweeted out an essay addressing racism they say exists on the school’s campus. The essay demands action from the school’s administration.

There is some strong language in the essay.

This came nine days after a Wisconsin fan was photographed wearing an Obama mask while wearing a noose around his neck when the Badgers hosted Nebraska in football. The fan had his season tickets revoked and Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said the incident was “deeply troubling”.

School officials have not committed on the essay.

Hayes, who was named the Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year, has blasted the NCAA for keeping players broke and, earlier this fall, took a strong, public stand on racial inequality in America.