College Basketball Talk’s staff Final Four picks

Kentucky is the choice of many to win it all (AP Photo)

Six weeks after the start of practices the moment we’ve all been waiting for is finally here, with Friday marking the start of the 2014-15 regular season. There have been no shortage of opinions on how this season will shake out, with No. 1 Kentucky seen by many as the favorites to cut down the nets in Indianapolis. However that doesn’t mean every fan or pundit will subscribe to the thinking that John Calipari’s team will coast to the storied program’s ninth national title.

Below are the College Basketball Talk staff’s picks for the Final Four and national champion, with each writer providing reasons for their selections as well.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

Rob Dauster (@RobDauster)

Final Four: Arizona, Kentucky, Gonzaga and Oklahoma
National champion: Arizona

I think Arizona and Kentucky are easily the two most talented teams in the country this season, and when it comes to NCAA tournament success, talent is a pretty good indicator of who will advance. No one should argue with picking either of those two teams to reach Indy. As far as Gonzaga is concerned, I think this is the year that they make the jump (finally!). A healthy Kevin Pangos combined with the additions of Kyle Wiltjer, Byron Wesley and Domantas Sabonis will make this group unstoppable offensively.

Oklahoma is the final pick for me, and I’m basing this on the assumption that Tashawn Thomas will eventually get a waiver to be eligible to play this season. Jordan Woodard and Buddy Hield make up the nation’s most underrated back court, Ryan Spangler is a hoss in the paint and Thomas provides the athleticism and versatility that they lacked from a true four last year.

Raphielle Johnson (@raphiellej)

Final Four: Kentucky, Arizona, North Carolina and VCU
National champion: Kentucky

Unlike last season I have a hard time picking against Kentucky, not only because of their talent but also the mix of freshmen and returnees who experienced last year’s run to the national title game and all of the publicity that preceded it (remember the 40-0 talk?). I think the experiences of Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, the Harrison twins and the other returning players helps Kentucky as they deal with the hype, and all involved will benefit. As for their biggest threat, I’ll take Arizona because Sean Miller has a group that certainly doesn’t lack for talent or experience. The one question mark for Arizona: consistent perimeter shooting. If Stanley Johnson, Gabe York and T.J. McConnell can provide that help, things open up for Brandon Ashley (who was arguably their best perimeter shooter before hurting his foot) and Kaleb Tarczewski in the front court. They’re going to be really good defensively; if the offense takes a step forward they’ll be in Indianapolis.

As for North Carolina, the Tar Heels have something they didn’t have a season ago: more help for Marcus Paige. The three freshman, especially Justin Jackson, will help him offensively as will an improved J.P. Tokoto. And in the paint both Brice Johnson (who’s gained weight) and Kennedy Meeks (who’s lost weight) enter the season with transformed bodies, which will mean even better seasons for them. Lastly, I really like VCU. They lost Juvonte Reddic but they’re deeper in the front court than they were a season ago, and Treveon Graham and Briante Weber will lead the way on the perimeter. Look for their loss to Stephen F. Austin to serve as fuel for Shaka Smart’s Rams, and do not gloss over the return of Melvin Johnson when assessing their chances. He wasn’t available late last season due to a knee injury, and that’s a big deal given his ability to provide an offensive spark off the bench.

Scott Phillips (@phillipshoops)

Final Four: Arizona, Kentucky, Texas and Wichita State
National champion: Arizona

Arizona is the biggest national championship contender to enter the 2014-15 season, but by a slim margin. Sean Miller’s team isn’t even the most talented group of Wildcats in the country — more on them in a second — but the West Coast version of the Wildcats play a more selfless brand of ball. Without the injury to Brandon Ashley last season, Arizona could have very easily entered this season as the defending champions. Now that they’re healthy, Stanley Johnson is a better lineup fit for Arizona than Aaron Gordon was last season and this Arizona team has more depth than last season. Kentucky is my close runner-up, as John Calipari’s ballclub once again features an absurd amount of talent (and egos) that have to come together for a common goal. If Calipari can get those egos to mesh together, they’ll assuredly win the national championship, but Kentucky has only earned one national championship in five years under Calipari and the Harrison twins need to grow as players — and leaders — in order for Kentucky to win.

As for Texas, the Longhorns only lose Martez Walker from last season — who was, truthfully, a distraction — and gain McDonald’s All-American big man Myles Turner to a team that exceeded expectations in an incredibly difficult Big 12 last season. Point guard Isaiah Taylor is more experienced, Texas has the bodies inside to match up with any team in the country and they have a lot of depth. Lastly, things are way too quiet in Wichita, Kansas this preseason. I watched Wichita State lose to Kentucky in the Round of 32 last season and that was a Final Four-caliber matchup in the first weekend. The Shockers return all three members of its backcourt from the past two seasons of ridiculous success and new starting front court member Darius Carter had some solid games last year as a first-year Division I player. The Shockers could also have more depth this season — depending on the contributions of their newcomers — and as Shabazz Napier proved last March, great guard play wins in the NCAA Tournament and Wichita State has the most tournament-experienced group of guards in the country.

Terrence Payne (@terrence_payne)

Final Four: Kentucky, Arizona, Wisconsin and Villanova
National champions: Kentucky

Kentucky is the preseason favorite, and we’ve seen these Wildcats perform on the court in multiple nationally-televised games already. Platoon system will likely have its ups and downs, but Kentucky’s depth will wear down opponents. Arizona has the most talent in the country outside of UK, and that’s saying something given the departures of Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon. Sean Miller was somewhat critical of his team last week, but this roster is loaded enough to get him to his first Final Four. 

Bo Ryan waited 13 years for last season’s Final Four trip, but shouldn’t have to wait that long for his second. He’s got a team of veterans with All American candidates Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker on the frontline with seniors Trae Jackson and Josh Gasser in the back court. For my final team, I’ll go with Villanova. A 29-win season was overshadowed by early exits in the Big East and NCAA tournament, but Jay Wright brings back essentially the same team. The Wildcats should breeze through the Big East, and early on last season they proved they were a top-10 after winning the Battle 4 Atlantis.

Charlotte head coach Ron Sanchez resigns after winning CBI title

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Ron Sanchez resigned as head coach of the Charlotte 49ers.

Sanchez took over the 49ers on March 19, 2018, inheriting a team coming off a 6-23 campaign. In five years Charlotte went 72-78 under Sanchez, highlighted by winning the College Basketball Invitational championship this past season, the Niners’ first post-season tournament title in school history.

The 22 wins this past season are the most for Charlotte since 2001.

“Ron took over a proud but struggling program and carefully rebuilt it into a 22-game winner. He has led with class, dignity and devotion to our young men,” Charlotte director of athletics Mike Hill said. “His decision to step down from Charlotte was a difficult one for him and everyone associated with our program. We wish him and his family every happiness.”

Hill said the team has already begun a national search for a replacement.

“This is a bittersweet day for me and my family as I step down to pursue other opportunities,” said Sanchez, who came the 49ers after working as an assistant coach at Virginia under Tony Bennett. “It has been a tremendous privilege to lead the 49ers basketball program over the past five years and I want to thank Niner Nation for its support. I will be forever grateful to my staff, players and the university.”

Marquette extends Shaka Smart’s contract through 2029-30 season

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MILWAUKEE — Marquette coach Shaka Smart has received a contract extension after leading the Golden Eagles to their first outright regular-season championship and tournament title in the Big East.

Smart’s contract now runs through the 2029-30 season. This is the first extension Smart has received since signing a six-year deal when he took over as Marquette’s coach in 2021.

Marquette didn’t release financial terms of Smart’s deal.

“In a very short period of time, Shaka and his staff have done a tremendous job of establishing a winning culture, both on and off the court,” athletic director Bill Scholl said in a statement. “Shaka’s vision for the program is focused on extended, sustainable success. The individuals who interact with the team on a daily basis are able to observe frequent examples of growth and the excitement around the program is contagious.”

Marquette has gone 48-20 in Smart’s two seasons and reached the NCAA Tournament each of those years.

The Golden Eagles went 29-7 and won the Big East’s regular-season and tournament championships last season after the league’s coaches had picked them to finish ninth out of 11 teams. Marquette’s season ended with a 69-60 loss to Michigan State in the NCAA Tournament’s round of 32.

Purdue’s Edey returning to school at NBA draft deadline; Kentucky’s Tshiebwe stays in

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Purdue’s Zach Edey decided it was the right call to go back to school instead of staying in the NBA draft. His predecessor as national player of the year, Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe, is sticking with his pro pursuit.

And Connecticut’s reign as NCAA champion will begin with multiple starters having left for the NBA draft and one returning after flirting with doing the same.

The 7-foot-4 Edey and UConn guard Tristen Newton were among the notable names to announce that they were withdrawing from the draft, the NCAA’s deadline for players who declared as early entrants to pull out and retain their college eligibility.

Edey’s decision came in social media posts from both the center and the Boilermakers program that earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament behind Edey, The Associated Press men’s national player of the year.

But Tshiebwe announced late in the afternoon that he would remain in the draft after a college career that included being named the AP national player of the year in 2022.

For the current champions, Newton (10.1 points, 4.7 assists, 4.5 rebounds) is returning after being one of four Huskies to declare for the draft after a run to UConn’s fifth national championship in early April. He scored a game-high 19 points to go with 10 rebounds in the victory over San Diego State in the title game.

The others were Final Four Most Outstanding Player Adama Sanogo, wing Jordan Hawkins and versatile guard Andre Jackson Jr. Sanogo (17.8 points) and Hawkins (16.3) have made it clear they have closed the door on their college careers, while team spokesman Phil Chardis said that Jackson (6.1 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.6 assists) would remain in the draft.

The Huskies have 247sports’ No. 3-ranked recruiting class for next year to restock the roster, led by McDonald’s All-American point guard Stephon Castle.

The NBA’s withdrawal deadline is June 12, but is moot when it comes to college players returning to school due to the NCAA’s earlier timeline to retain playing eligibility.


TREY ALEXANDER: Creighton gets back a 6-4 guard who averaged 13.6 points and shot 41% from 3-point range in his first full season as a starter.

ADEM BONA: The 6-foot-10 forward and Pac-12 freshman of the year is returning to UCLA after starting 32 games as a rookie and averaging 7.7 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks – with coach Mick Cronin praising his toughness for “competing through multiple injuries for as long as he could” in a statement Wednesday.

EDEY: He averaged 22.3 points, 12.9 rebounds, 2.1 blocks and 1.5 assists while shooting 60.7% from the field. His presence alone helps Purdue be a factor in the Big Ten race.

JOSIAH-JORDAN JAMES: The 6-6 guard went through the NBA G League Combine and had workouts with multiple teams before opting to return to Tennessee for a fifth season alongside teammate Santiago Vescovi.

JUDAH MINTZ: The 6-3 freshman averaged 16.3 points and 4.6 assists for Syracuse, ranking third among Division I freshmen in scoring behind only Alabama’s Brandon Miller and Lamar’s Nate Calmese.

OWLS’ RETURNEES: Florida Atlantic got good news after its surprise Final Four run with the return leading scorers Johnell Davis (13.8) and Alijah Martin (13.4). ESPN first reported their decisions, while Martin later posted a social media statement.

TERRENCE SHANNON JR.: Illinois got a big boost with Shannon announcing his night in a social media post. The 6-6 guard is returning for a fifth college season after averaging 17.2 points.

SPARTANS’ RETURNEES: Michigan State announced that guards Jaden Akins and A.J. Hoggard have withdrawn from the NBA draft. Standout guard Tyson Walker had previously withdrawn in April, setting up Tom Izzo to have five of his top scorers back.


KOBE BROWN: Missouri’s 6-8 swingman opted against returning for a fifth college season after being an AP first-team all-Southeastern Conference pick averaging 15.8 points last season.

JAYLEN CLARK: The third-year UCLA guard averaged 13.0 points and 6.0 rebounds while leading the Pac-12 with 2.6 steals en route to being named Naismith national defensive player of the year. Cronin called him a winner with strong intangibles who made UCLA “a better program because he chose to be a Bruin.”

BRICE SENSABAUGH: The Ohio State freshman averaged 16.3 points and 5.4 rebounds in 31 games before missing his final two in the Big Ten Tournament due to a knee injury. He’s a potential first-round prospect.

TSHIEBWE: The 6-9, 260-pound forward is a tough interior presence who led the country in rebounds for two straight seasons (15.1 in 2022, 13.7 in 2023) while racking up 48 double-doubles. But he faces an uncertain next stop and is projected at best as a second-round prospect.

North Carolina transfer Caleb Love commits to Arizona

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Caleb Love is now headed to Arizona.

The North Carolina transfer tweeted, less than a month after decommitting from Michigan, that he will play next season with the Wildcats.

“Caleb is a tremendously talented guard who has significant experience playing college basketball at a high level,” Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd said in a statement. “We look forward to helping Caleb grow his game at Arizona. And as we near the completion of the roster for the upcoming season, we feel great about how everything has come together. Now it’s time for the real work to start.”

A 6-foot-4 guard, Love averaged 14.6 points and 3.3 assists in three seasons at North Carolina. He averaged 17.6 points in seven NCAA Tournament games, helping lead the Tar Heels to the 2022 national championship game.

Love entered the transfer portal after leading North Carolina with 73 3-pointers as a junior and initially committed to Michigan. He decommitted from the Wolverines earlier this month, reportedly due to an admissions issue involving academic credits.

Love narrowed his transfer targets to three schools before choosing to play at Arizona over Gonzaga and Texas.

Love will likely start on a team that will have dynamic perimeter players, including Pelle Larsson, Kylan Boswell and Alabama transfer Jaden Bradley.

Biden celebrates LSU women’s and UConn men’s basketball teams at separate White House events


WASHINGTON – All of the past drama and sore feelings associated with Louisiana State’s invitation to the White House were seemingly forgotten or set aside Friday as President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden welcomed the championship women’s basketball team to the mansion with smiles, hugs and lavish praise all around.

The visit had once appeared in jeopardy after Jill Biden suggested that the losing Iowa team be invited, too. But none of that was mentioned as both Bidens heralded the players for their performance and the way they have helped advance women’s sports.

“Folks, we witnessed history,” the president said. “In this team, we saw hope, we saw pride and we saw purpose. It matters.”

The ceremony was halted for about 10 minutes after forward Sa’Myah Smith appeared to collapse as she and her teammates stood behind Biden. A wheelchair was brought in and coach Kim Mulkey assured the audience that Smith was fine.

LSU said in a statement that Smith felt overheated, nauseous and thought she might faint. She was evaluated by LSU and White House medical staff and was later able to rejoin the team. “She is feeling well, in good spirits, and will undergo further evaluation once back in Baton Rouge,” the LSU statement said.

Since the passage of Title IX in 1972, Biden said, more than half of all college students are women, and there are now 10 times more female athletes in college and high school. He said most sports stories are still about men, and that that needs to change.

Title IX prohibits discrimination based on sex in federally funded education programs and activities.

“Folks, we need to support women sports, not just during the championship run but during the entire year,” President Biden said.

After the Tigers beat Iowa for the NCAA title in April in a game the first lady attended, she caused an uproar by suggesting that the Hawkeyes also come to the White House.

LSU star Angel Reese called the idea “A JOKE” and said she would prefer to visit with former President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, instead. The LSU team largely is Black, while Iowa’s top player, Caitlin Clark, is white, as are most of her teammates.

Nothing came of Jill Biden’s idea and the White House only invited the Tigers. Reese ultimately said she would not skip the White House visit. She and co-captain Emily Ward presented team jerseys bearing the number “46” to Biden and the first lady. Hugs were exchanged.

Jill Biden also lavished praise on the team, saying the players showed “what it means to be a champion.”

“In this room, I see the absolute best of the best,” she said, adding that watching them play was “pure magic.”

“Every basket was pure joy and I kept thinking about how far women’s sports have come,” the first lady added, noting that she grew up before Title IX was passed. “We’ve made so much progress and we still have so much more work to do.”

The president added that “the way in which women’s sports has come along is just incredible. It’s really neat to see, since I’ve got four granddaughters.”

After Smith was helped to a wheelchair, Mulkey told the audience the player was OK.

“As you can see, we leave our mark where we go,” Mulkey joked. “Sa’Myah is fine. She’s kind of, right now, embarrassed.”

A few members of Congress and Biden aides past and present with Louisiana roots dropped what they were doing to attend the East Room event, including White House budget director Shalanda Young. Young is in the thick of negotiations with House Republicans to reach a deal by the middle of next week to stave off what would be a globally calamitous U.S. financial default if the U.S. can no longer borrow the money it needs to pay its bills.

The president, who wore a necktie in the shade of LSU’s purple, said Young, who grew up in Baton Rouge, told him, “I’m leaving the talks to be here.” Rep. Garret Graves, one of the House GOP negotiators, also attended.

Biden closed sports Friday by changing to a blue tie and welcoming the UConn’s men’s championship team for its own celebration. The Huskies won their fifth national title by defeating San Diego State, 76-59, in April.

“Congratulations to the whole UConn nation,” he said.