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College Hoops Contender Series: Here Are Six Final Four Sleepers

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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.

First up: Final Four Sleepers

It takes a certain amount of talent to be able to win a national title in college basketball, even if that talent doesn’t always show up every night.

Winning four games in two weeks to get to the season’s final weekend can be done by a team with a handful of future pros and 10 losses on the season. We see it all the time.

Here are seven teams that have the tools to make a run to the Final Four even if they don’t have a great chance of winning their conference and look likely to enter the NCAA tournament outside the top four seeds.

Angel Delgado, Seton Hall (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

SETON HALL

If you’re not the kind of program that is going to be landing five-star, soon-to-be lottery pick freshmen by the car-load each and every fall, the best way to win basketball games is to get old and stay old. No one quite embodies that ethos this season like Seton Hall does.

Head coach Kevin Willard entered the 2015-16 season on the hot seat after his loaded 2014 recruiting class sparked a 13-3 start to the 2014-15 season before the team fell off a cliff, losing 12 of their last 15 games and missing out on the postseason entirely. Following that season, the Pirates jettisoned some of their baggage and returned a core of sophomores that would eventually lead the program to back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances despite losing Isaiah Whitehead to the 2016 NBA Draft.

And now, four members of that 2014 recruiting class — guards Khadeen Carrington and Desi Rodriguez, big men Angel Delgado and Ishmael Sanogo — are now seniors leading what may be the best Seton Hall team since the P.J. Carlesimo days. Delgado’s name is the one you need to know. The 6-foot-9 Dominican power forward is one of the toughest and most physical bigs in the country. It’s not a mistake that he averaged 15.2 points and 13.1 boards last season, numbers that jumped to 16.4 points and 14.5 boards in Big East play.

He’s Seton Hall’s All-American. He was also the team’s third-leading scorer last year, behind Carrington and Rodriguez, who are both tough, physical New York City guards; Carrington is more of a combo while Rodriguez is a wing. Sanogo Michael Nzei are tough, athletic, defensive-minded front court players, and you’re starting to see the trend here, right?

Playing Seton Hall is not going to be fun this season, and while they may not be the most talented team in the country this year, you’ll be hard-pressed to find one that plays harder.

There are going to be two things that determine Seton Hall’s ceiling:

  • Does Seton Hall have a point guard? Freshman Jordan Walker is the only true point that will be eligible this season, and the Pirates ran into some problems that came with a lack of playmakers last season. Asking a freshman to handle those responsibilities will be tough, but it helps that Carrington can handle the ball and that everyone else on the floor will be a veteran.
  • What does Myles Powell turn into? He had some promising moments as a freshman, including 26-point outbursts at Iowa and at Xavier. If he become a more consistent shooter, that opens up a lot more space for Delgado inside.
Collin Sexton (David Banks/Getty Images)

ALABAMA

Last year, Alabama finished the season as one of the top ten defensive teams in college basketball, according to KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric.

Not only do the Crimson Tide return essentially everyone from that team, they also add one of the nation’s best recruiting classes to the mix. More importantly, that recruiting class features players that are able to get buckets in a hurry, and if you any Alabama basketball a year ago, you know that was a major issue; they were 153rd in adjusted offensive efficiency and, in February, played a four-overtime game against South Carolina where they managed all of 90 points in 60 minutes of basketball.

The name that you’re going to want to be familiar with is Collin Sexton, a top ten prospect in the class and the pound-for-pound best freshman scorer in the country. Assuming he’s eligible – which is no guarantee given the fact that he appears to be linked to the college basketball bribery scandal that erupted last week – it’s going to be interesting to see how he adjusts to the college level — in high school, the 6-foot-2 guard’s game was centered around getting into the lane, throwing his body into people and getting to the foul line — but he should immediately help relieve some of those scoring issues, as will five-star off-guard John Petty. Braxton Key and Dazon Ingram are both back in the mix as well, while former four-star big man Daniel Giddens will be eligible after transferring in from Ohio State.

I’m still very-much taking a wait-and-see approach with the Tide this year, but the combination of last year’s defense combined with the influx of scoring talent Avery Johnson will see in his back court this year gets the Tide a ceiling that is as high as anyone’s in the SEC this side of Kentucky and Florida.

UCLA

It’s going to be easy for people to write off this UCLA team.

Lonzo Ball is gone, as is T.J. Leaf, Ike Anigbogu, Isaac Hamilton and Bryce Alford. Instead, the Bruins will enroll Liangelo Ball, the worst of the three Ball brothers and the one that may end up igniting LaVar’s ire if he does not play the kind of minutes and get the kind of shots he envisions.

Frankly, I’m not even going to bother trying to convince you otherwise. There are major, major question marks surrounding this team.

But let’s pretend, for a second, that LaVar Ball did not exist.

The Bruins may have the best point guard in the Pac-12 in Aaron Holiday, who is one of the nation’s most underrated players. They have Thomas Welsh, a senior big man that can space the floor, and G.G. Goloman, another veteran front court presence. Prince Ali is coming off of an injury but he was a five-star prospect coming out of high school. Then there is the recruiting class: Jaylen Hands might be the reason that Holiday isn’t the best point guard on UCLA this year, and wing Kris Wilkes may actually have the biggest impact as a freshman. Throw in four-star recruits Chris Smith, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill, and there is talent, depth and experience up and down this lineup.

They’ve got a shot to make some noise.

J.P. Macura, Trevon Bluiett (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

XAVIER

You want a sneaky sleeper pick for National Player of the Year that no one seems to be talking about?

Trevon Bluiett.

The 6-foot-6 wing was an absolute killer when he wasn’t dealing with an ankle injury last season, and through the first three rounds of last year’s NCAA tournament, he was the best player in the event. He’ll be back, potentially as a Preseason First-Team All-American, to anchor a roster that is probably more talented and athletic than you realize.

Senior wing J.P. Macura is back, as is sophomore Quentin Goodin, a former four-star recruit that has some promising moments as in an up-and-down freshman season filling in for the injured Edmond Sumner. Throw in a trio of four-star perimeter recruits, an experienced and versatile frontline and The Return of the (Chris) Mack, who was a target during Indiana’s coaching search, and there is a lot to like about this team.

But it’s Bluiett that is the centerpiece. As much as anyone in college basketball, he can put this group on his back and carry them to four straight wins in March, and with this supporting cast and coaching staff, that make Xavier a dangerous team.

MINNESOTA

The Golden Gophers were one of college basketball’s biggest surprises a season ago. Richard Pitino entered the season on the hot seat before winning 12 of their first 13 games only to lose five straight midway through Big Ten play. They would regroup, however, winning eight straight down the stretch, finishing the year with 24 wins and, somehow, turning into the obvious first round NCAA tournament upset as a No. 5 seed.

It was a roller coaster, but given the youth that was on that roster and the fact that Akeem Springs is the only contributor that won’t be returning to school, it was a nice starting point for what could turn into an extended run of Big Ten success.

Nate Mason is back for his senior year while junior Dupree McBrayer and freshman Isaiah Washington give Pitino plenty of back court options. Amir Coffey, a former five-star recruit, had a terrific freshman campaign as a versatile wing while the front court options are plentiful — Reggie Lynch and Bakary Konate return, and Davante Fitzgerald’s return to health should help mitigate the loss of Eric Curry.

All told, that means a Pitino-coached team has a talented, experienced perimeter attack with a bevy of big bodies on the front line. If Coffey can grow into an all-Big Ten talent, Minnesota will have the horses to give Michigan State a run for their money atop the league.

Matt Farrell, Bonzie Colson (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

NOTRE DAME

To me, the Fighting Irish have reached the point in their program development that they are to the ACC what Wisconsin was to the Big Ten under Bo Ryan. Instead of trying to figure out who is going to play what role, just assume that the pieces Mike Brey has matriculating through his program will find a way to figure it out.

There is no better example of this than last year, when the Irish lost Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste from a team that went 24-12 and somehow managed to win more games with a better ACC record despite using 6-foot-5 Bonzie Colson as their small-ball center for much of the year.

And never has there been a player more perfectly-suited to a role than Colson is to playing in Mike Brey’s system. He’s borderline unstoppable one-on-one, and when the Irish plant knockdown shooters everywhere around him, they become a nightmare to defend.

Matt Farrell, who was one of the most pleasant surprises in college basketball last season, will return as well, but the key for this group is going to be three-fold:

  1. Will Temple Gibbs and Rex Pflueger, two wings that entered Notre Dame with expectations and a high rankings by recruiting services, take advantage of the minutes made available by the graduation of Steve Vasturia and V.J. Beachem?
  2. Will D.J. Harvey, a talented forward that was once a top ten player in the Class of 2017, have an immediate impact as the big wing that the Irish currently lack?
  3. Does Martinas Geben become a player that can anchor a front line when needed?

If all three of those things happen, Notre Dame will once again be a top 20 team that can beat anyone on any given night.

Notre Dame gets commitment from four-star guard

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Mike Brey’s 2018 recruiting class just got stronger Thursday.

Notre Dame added its second four-star prospect, Robby Carmody, a 6-foot-4 guard from Pennsylvania.

“The recruiting process has been a humbling and exciting experience!” Carmody wrote on social media. “My sincerest appreciation goes out to all the coaches and schools that invested time getting to know me throughout the process.

“Today I am blessed and excited to announce that I am committing to the University of Notre Dame!”

Carmody, who just recently visited the Fighting Irish and Purdue,  joins Prentiss Hubb as the first two pieces of Brey’s 2018 class. Hubb is a 6-foot-2 guard from Washington, DC and a top-75 ranked player nationally.

The Irish will need some major pieces in 2018 after losing the likes of Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell to graduation after this upcoming season. Notre Dame has won at least one NCAA tournament game in each of the last three seasons, making two Elite Eights during that time.

Four-star guard commits to Notre Dame

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Notre Dame’s 2018 class just added its first piece in a major way.

Prentiss Hubb, a top-40 shooting guard, committed to the Fighting Irish on Wednesday night.

“I am proud to announce my commitment to Coach (Mike) Brey and Notre Dame University,” Hubb wrote on social media. “I want to thank all the coaches who took the time to recruit me.

“I also want to thank my family, friends, coaches, trainers and everyone who has motivated me and helped me through my career thus far. I am excited for what the future has in store for me.”

Hubb is a 6-foot-2 off-guard out of Washington, D.C. He chose the Irish over the likes of Maryland and Villanova.

His commitment puts Notre Dame in a very strong spot in 2018. It’s a class that will be tasked with replacing some serious talent in South Bend as the Fighting Irish will be losing Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell to graduation after the 2017-18 campaign.

West Virginia’s offense powers it past Notre Dame

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West Virginia’s defense powered it to 26 regular season wins, a second-place finish in the Big 12 and a four-seed in the NCAA tournament.

The Mountaineers’ offense got them to the Sweet 16.

West Virginia shot 50 percent from the floor and 57.1 percent from 3-point range to defeat Notre Dame, 83-71, and earn a spot in San Jose.

Now, West Virginia didn’t do it on offense alone as its defense did cause the Irish trouble. Notre Dame barely cracked 40 percent shooting and turned it over 14 times. The Irish were only competitive because of Bonzie Colson’s 27 points and 17 of 17 shooting from the free-throw line.

The story, though, was West Virginia’s ability to get buckets.

West Virginia simply hasn’t been a very good shooting team this season. The Mountaineers aren’t exactly bad shooters, but they’re decidedly mediocre. From 3-point range, they convert at 36.3 percent, and from inside the arc, they’re at 50.4 percent.

Against Notre Dame, they went  8 of 14 from deep while getting just 15 of their points off turnovers. Jevon Carter went for 24, making 4 of 5 3-pointers. Daxter Miles scored 18 and Tarik Philip added 12 to give West Virginia a dynamic backcourt presence Saturday.

If the Mountaineers are making shots, they’re a totally different – and more dangerous – animal.

Teams know they have to prepare for West Virginia’s press. It’s a unique system that’s difficult to replicate. The press is hurried and unpredictable. It takes teams out of their primary actions and forces opponents to operate in uncomfortable situations. It creates 94 feet of chaos.

If that’s paired with a team capable of getting buckets at a high rate and not disproportionately dependent on live-ball turnovers, the Mountaineers just became an especially tough out.

Beyond the obvious of putting points on the board, West Virginia scoring at an efficient clip gives them more opportunities to set its press and put more pressure on opponents. A productive West Virginia offense puts its defense in the best situation to succeed.

Bob Huggins’ group was always going to be a tough matchup for teams unfamiliar with their style, but if the Mountaineers can shoot it like they did against Notre Dame, they’ll be adding a dimension that creates even further headaches for opposing coaches.

Notre Dame survives first round scare from Princeton

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Notre Dame staved off the madness to start the NCAA tournament.

The fifth-seeded Fighting Irish fought off an upset bid from No. 12 Princeton and claimed a 60-58 victory in a first-round matchup in Buffalo.

The Tigers had multiple chances late to either tie or take a lead, but were unable to convert, keeping them without an NCAA tournament win since 1998. Princeton had a look to tie it with 18 seconds left, but Steven Cook’s 3-pointer was off the mark, though a tip-in from Pete Miller pulled the Tigers within one. Matt Farrell then missed the front-end of a one-and-one, giving Princeton the ball down one.

The Tigers pushed the ball past halfcourt, but Devin Cannady settled for a decent 3-point look rather than attack the rim and his offering clanked off the rim.

Notre Dame entered the game as the country’s top free-throw shooting team at 79.9 percent, but struggled mightily at the line this day, going 14 of 21 (66.7 percent), which in no small part helped the Tigers stick around and ultimately have a chance to win the game on the final possession.

Bonzie Colson had 18 points, seven rebounds and two assists for the Irish. Farrell had 16 points, four rebounds and four assists.

Princeton got 15 points from Spencer Weisz in a game in which they shot 38.6 percent from the floor and 25.8 percent from 3-point range, but still had an opportunity to win.

The Irish will now await the winner of No. 4 West Virginia and No. 13 Bucknell for the right to advance to the Sweet 16 in the West region.

No. 25 Notre Dame rallies for 84-76 win over BC

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BOSTON (AP) Bonzie Colson remembered running around Boston College, having birthday parties and shooting around with some of the Eagles’ notable players when his dad was an assistant coach.

He was having fun again Tuesday night.

Colson scored 20 points, Matt Farrell had 19 and No. 25 Notre Dame overcame a 13-point first-half deficit for an 84-76 victory over Boston College, sending the Eagles to their 10th straight loss.

“I just remember a lot of times shooting around before practice, being a ball boy. Just trying to learn the game and learn from them,” said Colson, who recalled being around former Eagles like current NBA players Jared Dudley and Reggie Jackson to name a few.

“It’s been something that’s always been a huge part of my life and I’ll never forget those memories,” Colson said.

V.J. Beachem had 16 points and Steve Vasturia added 15 for the Fighting Irish (20-7, 9-5 Atlantic Coast Conference). It is coach Mike Brey’s 13th time winning at least 20 games with Notre Dame.

Ky Bowman led Boston College (9-18, 2-12) with 29 points and Mo Jeffers had 12.

BC had sliced it to 78-76 on Bowman’s two free throws with just under a minute to play, but Beachem grabbed an offensive rebound and was fouled on the ensuing possession. He hit both free throws with 24.1 seconds to play.

“When you get opportunities in the ACC, you’ve got to make the play,” BC coach Jim Christian said of the rebound. “We didn’t. It’s a short answer to a complicated question, but it’s the truth.”

The Fighting Irish trailed by 10 points early in the second half before outscoring BC 21-3 over a 4:50 span.

Consecutive 3s from Farrell 29 seconds apart tied it at 59 before Colson’s putback jam on their next possession gave them their first lead of the game with just under 13 minutes to play. Farrell let out a loud yell when he was running down the court.

“I think in the first half we weren’t playing with any energy or any of that passion we need to play with,” he said.

Farrell had committed to BC out of high school but opted out after Steve Donahue was fired in March 2014.

“I was thinking about some extra stuff,” he said. “Some guys called me `traitor.’ It was awesome.”

The Eagles had led by 13 points and posted a season-high for a first half with 49 points to open a 10-point lead at intermission. They shot 58.6 percent (17 of 29) and also went 9 for 10 from the free throw line.

BIG PICTURE

Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish need to take advantage of a softer portion of their schedule – with games coming up against North Carolina State, Georgia Tech and another with BC to have a chance to make a run to the top of the ACC.

Boston College: Like a number of games this season, the Eagles showed spunk but couldn’t close out a win. With leading scorer Jerome Robinson (19.4) struggling down the stretch, they really looked challenged offensively. He finished with 11 points on 3-of-12 shooting.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Notre Dame: The Irish climbed back into the poll this week after being out for one week. A loss to BC and some weaker opponents coming up would have made it very hard to get back in the next few weeks.

NICE RUN

Brey talked about how consistent his program has remained in its fourth season in the ACC, posting a third straight 20-win season.

“We’ve been on a great run,” he said. “I’m really proud of our program. We had a pretty consistent program when were in the Big East. I was worried bringing it to the ACC.”

FAMILY HISTORY

Colson’s dad – also Bonzie – was an assistant at BC under Al Skinner for nine years.

NUMBER CHANGE

BC forward Conar Tava wore No. 30 instead of his usual No. 2 for the second half after playing the final few minutes of the first with a large tear down the left side.

UP NEXT

Notre Dame: At NC State on Saturday.

Boston College: At No. 17 Florida State on Monday. The Eagles are 0-6 on the road in league play.

More AP college basketball: http://www.collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25.