College Basketballs X-Factors: Cheick Diallo, Thomas Bryant and many more

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Here are 12 things to keep a close eye on this year, as they are the x-factors that could eventually end up shaping the college hoops season:

Cheick Diallo’s eligibility

This is the most obvious one, right? Not only is Diallo — who is still waiting to be cleared by the NCAA due to issues with his high school transcript — a top ten recruit on a top five team, but he’s the one piece that the talented and deep Jayhawks are missing. They’ve got the quality guard play, they’ve got weapons on the wing and they have both big bodies and versatile scorers in their front court. What they don’t have, however, is a player that can do the things that Diallo excels at. Diallo is raw. He doesn’t have Jahlil Okafor’s post game or Henry Ellenson’s face-up game. He’s not a guy that Bill Self can isolate 1-on-1 and expect positive results; that’s what Perry Ellis and Carlton Bragg are for.

[MORE: Top 100 players | CBT Top 25]

But Diallo is 6-foot-9, athletic and aggressive. He’ll run the floor in transition. He’ll play tough, physical defense. He’ll block shots and attack the glass on both ends. He brings an edge, an effort level and a toughness that the Jayhawks have been missing for a few years now. He’s everything that Cliff Alexander was supposed to be last season, and his presence would put Kansas in the conversation as the best team in the country.

Thomas Bryant’s defense

A couple of stats for you from last season. Indiana was ninth nationally in offensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com. They were 214th in overall defensive efficiency, 224th in effective field goal percentage defense, 330th in defensive turnover percentage, 188th in defensive rebound percentage, 283rd in in two-point field goal defense and 251st in block percentage. That’s a really long-winded way of saying that IU could light it up offensively last season and, at the same time, would have let me get 20 against them.

Enter Bryant, a 6-foot-10 McDonald’s All-American known for his motor, his defense and his ability to get on the glass. He’s not going to solve all of Indiana’s defensive issues — their perimeter is a sieve — but he will help erase shots at the rim and clean up the glass defensively. For perspective: Duke earned a No. 1 seed entering the tournament with an elite offense and a defense that ranked in the 60s. Notre Dame reached the Elite 8 with the nation’s second-best offense and a defensive efficiency that ranked 102nd.

Michigan’s health

Michigan’s perimeter attack is absolutely loaded. Caris LeVert could end up being an all-american this season. Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin are both all-Big Ten-caliber talents. They also all have dealt with serious injuries in 2015. LeVert broke his foot for the second time in a 10 month span midway through last season. Walton saw his season ruined by a sprained toe that limited him for two months before he finally shut it down in late-January. Irvin had offseason back surgery. Even with the front court question marks, Michigan looks like a top 20 team entering the season. That’s assuming their three best players can make it through the next five months without getting hurt.

RELATED: NBCSports All-Americans | Best Freshman | Breakout Stars

Cal’s Jaylen Brown as Draymond Green

Cuonzo Martin has it rolling out in Berkeley right now, putting together the most talented team that he’s ever had as a head coach. The Bears are loaded with perimeter talent, and while they have five-star freshman Ivan Rabb at center, they are limited with front court depth. Enter freshman Jaylen Brown, a top three player in the class. He’s a physical, 6-foot-7 wing that has the athleticism and versatility to play a number of different roles, similar to another Bay Area combo-forward: Draymond Green’s. Green’s ability to defend fours, rebound and stretch the floor offensively is a major reason why Golden State has become the best team in the NBA. If Brown can find success playing the same way this season, Cal may be looking at a Pac-12 title come March.

North Carolina’s point guard play

Perhaps the real question here is whether Marcus Paige can actually stay healthy once he returns from his broken hand, but assuming he does, the key for UNC is to be able to move him off the ball with a point guard that can hit open threes. Joel Berry II may be the best fit. The ideal role for Paige this season would be to play off the ball in transition and on the ball at the end of a clock, meaning that Berry will be asked to handle the point in transition situations while spacing the floor when Paige has the ball in his hands in the half court. If he can do that, the Tar Heels become a much more dangerous team offensively.

Marshall Plumlee as … Brian Zoubek?

This Duke team reminds me quite a bit of the 2010 team that won the national title. Question marks at the point, off-guards handling the ball, future first round pick on a wing and a front line rotation that had yet to be established. Midway through the season, Zoubek, a former McDonald’s All-American that failed to live up to his hype for three and a half years, suddenly turned into a force of nature in the paint, blocking shots and dominating the glass on both ends. His emergence turned Duke into a team that could win the title. Could Plumlee have the same impact as a senior as Zoubek did? If this Duke team is missing anything, it’s a veteran anchor in the paint.

Is Ryan Anderson Arizona’s best player?

Who is going to be Arizona’s leading scorer this season? Who is going to start at the point? Will Kaleb Tarzewski keep the starting center role over Dusan Ristic? Who gets minutes at the two? There are so many questions to be answered with an Arizona team that lost four starters this offseason, but the key may end up being just how good Anderson ends up being. He was productive despite his limited athleticism during his time at Boston College and sat out last season as a transfer. Now he’s a redshirt senior at a new program that has yet to play a game for a team that was relevant nationally. If he’s truly a 15-point, eight-rebound kind of guy, Arizona will have a real chance to win a Pac-12 title. If he’s not, who knows.

Kentucky’s role players

Specifically, I’m talking about Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress. Poythress has been snake-bit throughout his career with the Wildcats, being asked to play out of position as a three and tearing an ACL. He’s a senior now and will finally have a chance to thrive as a purely effort guy at the four. That’s his best role. And as for Lee, he’s impressed in his limited minutes over the last two years, but playing well for spurts and proving to be a worthy starter on a team with national title aspirations are two very different things.

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AP Photo

Charles Matthews and Isaiah Briscoe can also be lumped in here as well. Matthews has earned a rep for being a gritty, athletic wing defender that will fit will along side Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray quite nicely. If the newly-slimmed down Isaiah Briscoe can embrace that role as well, it will make UK just that much more dangerous. I’m not as high on Briscoe as some others, but I love the idea of him being the fourth option in an offense.

MORE: Top leads guards | Top off guards | Top Wings | Top Bigs

Can Marial Shayok replace Justin Anderson?

Virginia returns quite a bit this season, namely all-american Malcolm Brogdon and head coach Tony Bennett, but the public is undervaluing just how much they’re losing. Darion Atkins was an elite front court defender, one that will be tough to replace. But more notable is the loss of Anderson, who left a year early for the NBA. Anderson was the best shooter and perimeter defender on UVA’s roster last season, and when he broke his thumb it changed the Cavs from a title contender to just another good team susceptible to getting picked off in the Round of 32. Sophomore Marial Shayok, as well as senior Evan Nolte, will be tasked with replacing him this season. They were not consistent in that role last year.

Rasheed Sulaimon the role player: Sulaimon was, more or less, kicked off of Duke because he struggled with the idea of buying into a role for the Blue Devils. They got awesome after he left. He’s going to be asked to do the same thing with the Terps. Will he be OK with being the fourth, and sometimes the fifth, options on the offensive end of the floor? Is he truly volunteering to come off the bench? If he is, he’s such a weapon for Mark Turgeon.

Purdue’s shooting

Purdue’s front line is awesome. A.J. Hammons, when he’s dialed in, is as dominant at the five spot as anyone in the country, Isaac Haas looked really good in spurts last season and Caleb Swanigan may actually be the best of the three. Throw in guys like Vince Edwards and Rapheal Davis, and the Boilermakers are going to be able to overpower just about anyone in college basketball this season. The issue is going to be spacing. Is Swanigan skilled enough on the perimeter to create space for Hammons to operate, or will that force the freshman to play a role where he has less of an impact? Can Edwards and Davis shoot well enough from the perimeter to space the floor, or will Painter be forced to play guys like Ryan Cline and Kendall Stephens more minutes? How effective will Johnny Hill be? If it all comes together, Purdue has Final Four potential.

Rodney Bullock and Ben Bentil replacing ‘Buckets’

The toughest job Ed Cooley will have this season is replacing LaDontae ‘Buckets’ Henton. Kris Dunn may be the best player in college basketball, but if he doesn’t get any help from his supporting cast, what is the ceiling for this team? Fifth in the Big East? The Round of 32? Bentil was very good in spurts at the end of last season and Bullock enters this year with all the hype. Dunn needs them to be good if he’s going to make any real impact this season.

EIGHT MORE X-FACTORS

  • Utah’s point guard: Who replaces Delon Wright? Can Lorenzo Banum or Isaiah Wright take advantage of Jakob Poeltl’s ability as a roll man in ball-screen actions? Delon made his teammates better. Does that mean we’re overrating them this year?
  • Kelan Martin, Butler: Martin was promising as a freshman and should have a good sophomore season. But can his ability on the offensive end help make up for the loss of Kameron Woods’ ability on the defensive end of the floor?
  • Texas freshmen: We know how good Isaiah Taylor is and we know how deep the Texas front line is. But if Kerwin Roach, Tevin Mack and Eric Davis can live up to the early hype, the Longhorns could end up being a top 25 team.
  • Kuran Iverson: The Rams are the most talented team in the Atlantic 10, but talent doesn’t always win out at this level. Iverson, a 6-foot-9 wing, was at one point the No. 1 player in his high school class. He’s that skilled. If he accepts his role on this team, they can be scary.
  • Josh Perkins at the point: Gonzaga’s front line is huge, but people are forgetting that they are losing two four-year starters in the back court. In steps Perkins, who missed most of his freshman season with a broken jaw. Kevin Pangos left big shoes to fill.
  • Georgetown’s big men: The Hoyas lost Josh Smith and Mikael Hopkins to graduation and Akoy Agau to a torn ACL. They’ve got the perimeter weapons and a handful of versatile four-men. But who plays the five — the Roy Hibbert, Henry Sims role — on this team, arguably the most important spot in JT III’s offense?
  • Rashard Kelly’s development: We know how good Ron Baker and Fred Van Vleet are but we don’t know how good Wichita State’s front line is going to be. Kelly, 6-foot-7 forward that had promising flashes as a freshman, is the guy some have pegged to take on a bigger role. Can he be that third option?

Houston reaches No. 1 in AP poll for first time since 1983

Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports
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Make some room, Phi Slama Jama. Another Houston team has reached the top of men’s college basketball.

Nearly four decades after Clyde Drexler and Akeem Olajuwon took the Cougars to No. 1, the latest bunch led by Marcus Sasser and star freshman Jarace Walker took over the top spot in the AP Top 25. They received 45 of 63 first-place votes from the national media panel, easily outdistancing second-place Texas and third-place Virginia.

“It’s not like we went online and applied for it and waited for a response back. We’ve been working for this,” said Houston coach Kelvin Sampson, whose team is coming off a Final Four and Elite Eight trip the past two seasons. “But remember, it’s a rental. You don’t own it. You’re just renting it because someday somebody else is going to be No. 1.”

North Carolina had been No. 1 all season, but the Tar Heels lost to Iowa State and in a four-overtime thriller to Alabama at the Phil Knight Invitational to cede the top spot to Houston, which beat Kent State in its only game last week.

The last time the Cougars ascended to No. 1 was the final poll of the 1982-83 season, when “The Glide” and “The Dream” along with coach Guy Lewis were the favorites to win it all. They rolled through the NCAA Tournament before falling to Jim Valvano and North Carolina State in an iconic championship game in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

“I’ve never been ranked No. 1,” said Sampson, now in his 34th season as a college basketball coach. “We were ranked all 12 years at Oklahoma. I’m sure we were ranked at Indiana. Then we’ve been ranked five or six straight years. We’re used to having a high level of success.”

Texas received eight first-place votes and Virginia received two. Arizona climbed from 14th to fourth after emerging from a stacked field to win the Maui Invitational. Purdue jumped from 24th all the way to fifth and scooped up eight first-place votes after beating West Virginia, Gonzaga and Duke at the Phil Knight Legacy tourney.

“Our guys are competitive. They’re fun to coach. They get along. They’re out there playing with purpose and that’s what you have to have,” said Boilermakers coach Matt Painter, whose team was briefly No. 1 about this time last season.

“Early in the season, very few teams play with the purpose collectively,” he said. “I thought our guys played with a purpose.”

Baylor was sixth, Creighton seventh and U Conn climbed from 20th to eighth after beating Oregon, Alabama and Iowa State to win the Phil Knight Invitational. Kansas fell from third to ninth after losing to Tennessee in the championship game of the Battle 4 Atlantis, while Indiana rounded out the top 10.

There was a tie for 11th between SEC rivals Alabama and Arkansas with the Volunteers, another conference foe, right behind them. Gonzaga dropped from sixth to 14th, its first time outside the top 10 since Feb. 5, 2018, and Auburn was 15th.

Illinois was next followed by Duke and North Carolina in a tough week for Tobacco Road. The Blue Devils fell from eighth after their 75-56 loss to the Boilermakers.

Kentucky and Michigan State joined UCLA, Maryland, Iowa State, San Diego State and Ohio State in rounding out the poll.

RISING AND FALLING

Purdue made a rare 19-spot jump as the poll underwent a massive shakeup. UConn climbed 12 spots, Arizona moved up 10, Tennessee climbed nine and Alabama seven. On the flip side, the Tar Heels tumbled 17 spots, Duke dropped nine, Gonzaga fell eight and San Diego State fell seven.

IN AND OUT

Despite all the movement, Iowa State was the only newcomer this week, checking in at No. 23 after beating Villanova and North Carolina before falling to UConn. The Cyclones replaced Iowa, which dropped out after a one-week stay following its loss to TCU in the title game of the Emerald Coast Classic.

CONFERENCE WATCH

There are six difference conferences represented in the first seven teams in the poll. The Big Ten leads the way with six in the Top 25 while the SEC has five and the Big 12 has four, though three of them are in the top 10.

South Carolina tops women’s AP Top 25; Stanford, UConn next

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South Carolina remained the unanimous No. 1 choice in The Associated Press women’s poll, as the Gamecocks keep close watch on the foot injury of reigning Player of the Year Aliyah Boston.

The Gamecocks received all 29 first-place votes in the poll, a day after Boston left a game with her injury. Coach Dawn Staley said Boston was “questionable” going forward but added that the “team doctor wasn’t too, too concerned.”

South Carolina’s next game is at home against No. 15 UCLA.

Stanford remained No. 2 after cruising through a tournament in Hawaii. It’s the 618th appearance for Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer, tying the late Pat Summitt for most all-time. Summitt’s teams only missed being in the poll 14 times during her Hall of Fame career at Tennessee.

UConn, Ohio State and Indiana rounded out the top five.

The Huskies are one of four Big East teams to be ranked this week as Marquette entered the poll at No. 24. It’s the first time the Big East has four ranked teams since the conference realigned in 2014. The league is 56-14 so far this season, including going 8-2 against ranked teams.

“We’ve been trying to earn a little more respect,” Marquette coach Megan Duffy said of the Big East. “Tried to schedule tougher non-conference (games). ‘Nova’s playing people. Us going to the Bahamas was great. Creighton’s doing what they’ve been doing since last season. Getting some of those quality wins is everything.”

North Carolina moved up two spots to No. 6 after rallying to beat then-No. 5 Iowa State in the Phil Knight tournament. The Cyclones fell to eighth.

The Tar Heels visit the Hoosiers on Tuesday in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Indiana returns home after winning two games in Las Vegas at a subpar venue that lacked basic necessities.

Notre Dame remained No. 7 while Virginia Tech and Iowa finished off the top 10. At No. 9, Virginia Tech has matched its best ranking ever and is in the top 10 for the first time since 1999.

Tennessee fell out of the poll this week marking the 56th time in the 827-week history of the poll that the Lady Vols weren’t ranked. Kansas State also fell out with Gonzaga moving in at No. 23.

FALLING CARDINALS

Louisville dropped to 18th in the poll this week after falling to South Dakota State in the fifth place game at the Battle 4 Atlantis last week. It’s the Cardinals lowest ranking since Jan. 11, 2016.

Louisville entered the top 10 in the preseason poll in 2017 and hadn’t been out since, a span of 98 consecutive weeks. It was the longest active streak.

“It’s a compliment to the consistency that we built here,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz said of being ranked in the top 10 for so long. “Obviously are goal would have been to stay in the top 10, but it’s a new team and growing.”

Edey scores 21 as No. 24 Purdue beats No. 8 Duke 75-56

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PORTLAND, Ore. – Zach Edey and No. 24 Purdue shook off a slow start. When No. 8 Duke tried to rally in the second half, the Boilermakers finished strong.

Edey had 21 points and 12 rebounds, and Purdue beat Duke 75-56 on Sunday in the championship game of the Phil Knight Legacy men’s tournament.

Fletcher Loyer scored 18 points for Purdue (6-0), and reserve Caleb Furst finished with 11 points and 10 rebounds.

“I feel like we weren’t getting the looks we wanted early. As we settled into the game, we kept our poise and kept getting the shots that we wanted,” Edey said. “They were making some tough twos at the beginning of the game, shots we’re OK with all season.”

The 7-foot-4 Edey was 7 for 13 from the field and 7 for 8 at the line. He was named tournament MVP.

“They have the most unique player in the country,” Duke coach Jon Scheyer said of Edey. “He’s a hard guy to prepare for because there’s nobody else like him.”

Duke (6-2) shot 36.2% (21 for 58) from the field. Tyres Proctor scored 16 points for the Blue Devils. Kyle Filipowski and Jeremy Roach each had 14.

Ethan Morton had a steal and a dunk to help Purdue open a 58-41 lead with 15:37 left in the second half.

Duke countered with an 8-0 run, capped by two foul shots by Dariq Whitehead. But Furst made a layup and a jumper to help hold off the Blue Devils.

A hook by Edey and a 3-pointer by Loyer made it 68-56 with 5:03 remaining.

Duke got off to a 14-7 start before Purdue worked its way back into the game.

“I don’t feel like we came out bad today, but they matched our energy,” Edey said.

A 3-pointer by Brandon Newman pushed the Purdue lead to 46-28. A late run by Duke cut the Boilermakers’ lead to 46-35 at halftime.

BIG PICTURE

Duke: It looked as if Roach had an issue with his left foot at one point, but he went back into the game. Scheyer said Roach had hurt his toe.

Purdue: Although neither team had great offensive games, Purdue was the better team from range. Purdue made seven 3-pointers to just two for Duke.

UP NEXT

Duke: Hosts Ohio State on Wednesday.

Purdue: Visits Florida State on Wednesday.

No. 18 Alabama beats No. 1 North Carolina 103-101 in 4 OTs

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PORTLAND, Ore. – Mark Sears had 24 points, five rebounds and five assists, and No. 18 Alabama sent top-ranked North Carolina to a second straight loss with a 103-101 victory in a quadruple-overtime thriller on Sunday in the third-place game of the Phil Knight Invitational tournament.

Jahvon Quinerly added 21 points off the bench for the Crimson Tide (6-1), who knocked off the top-ranked team for the first time since upsetting Stanford in the 2004 NCAA Tournament.

“I was losing track of how many overtimes we were in there at the end,” Crimson Tide coach Nate Oats said. “A lot of credit to our guys. I thought they showed a lot of character when we could have folded.”

Charles Bediako had 14 points, 16 rebounds and three blocks, while Brandon Miller also scored 14 points.

Caleb Love led the Tar Heels (5-2) with 34 points, nine rebounds, four assists and three steals. Armando Bacot contributed 20 points and 10 rebounds, and R.J. Davis had 19 points and nine rebounds in the second four-overtime game in North Carolina history. The other was a victory over Tulane in 1976.

“At the end of the day, Alabama made one more play than we did,” North Carolina coach Hubert Davis said. “I walked in the locker room and a number of the guys had their head down and I told them to pick their head up. I’m just as disappointed (as the players) in terms of the final outcome, but I couldn’t be any more proud about the way they competed.”

Bediako gave the Crimson Tide the lead for good on a layup with 26 seconds remaining in the fourth overtime.

The Tar Heels, who lost to Iowa State in the semifinals, led by as much as eight in the second half before Alabama came back to tie it. The Crimson Tide retook the lead on a pair of free throws from Gurley with 2 minutes remaining, and later tied with another free throw from Sears with 51 seconds remaining in regulation.

Alabama starting forward Noah Clowney took a hard fall on a dunk attempt four minutes into the first half and had to be helped off the court. He did not return.

The Crimson Tide were 16 for 38 (42.1%) from 3-point range, with Sears making seven.

BIG PICTURE

North Carolina: The Tar Heels figure to take a deep drop in the Top 25 poll.

Alabama: The Crimson Tide bounced back nicely following their loss to No. 20 UConn in the semifinals, beating a top-ranked team in the regular season for the first time since a 66-64 victory over eventual national champion Arkansas on Jan. 8, 1994.

UP NEXT:

North Carolina: The Tar Heels travel to Bloomington to face No. 11 Indiana on Wednesday.

Alabama: The Crimson Tide return home to face South Dakota State on Saturday.

Clingan lifts UConn past Iowa State for Phil Knight title

Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports
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PORTLAND, Ore. – Donovan Clingan had 15 points and 10 rebounds to power No. 20 UConn to a 71-53 win over Iowa State in the championship game of the Phil Knight Invitational on Sunday night.

Tristen Newton scored 13 points for the Huskies (8-0), who went 20 for 25 at the free-throw line. Alex Karaban and Andre Jackson, Jr. each had 10 points.

Osun Osunniyi led Iowa State (5-1) with 14 points. Tamin Lipsey had 12 points and Jaren Holmes finished with 11.

“They were the more aggressive team,” Iowa State coach T.J. Otzelberger said. “We wanted a physical game. We didn’t want a physical game with them getting the rebounds and then also us putting them on the foul line. Lesson that we’ve got to learn is we need to embrace being the aggressor at both ends of the floor at all times.”

The Huskies had more offensive rebounds (20) than the Cyclones had total rebounds (19), and capitalized on that disparity with 20 second-chance points.

“Those guys are tough,” UConn coach Dan Hurley said. “T.J.`s an excellent coach. They grind people up. To outrebound them, it just speaks to how tough we were.”

Clingan, who was named tournament MVP, scored eight points to help UConn to a 38-28 lead at the break.

Iowa State closed to 53-48 on Holmes’ 3-pointer midway through the second half. But Karaban made a 3 and a dunk, and Newton’s jumper made it 60-48 with 7:13 remaining.

BIG PICTURE

UConn: The Huskies couldn’t have asked for a better showing in Portland, winning all three of their games.

Iowa State: The Cyclones picked up nice wins over Villanova and top-ranked North Carolina in the earlier rounds but ended with their first loss of the season.

UP NEXT

UConn: The Huskies return home to face Oklahoma State on Thursday.

Iowa State: The Cyclones return home to face North Dakota on Tuesday.