College Hoops Contender Series: Here are seven 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 real shot at winning their conference and will likely enter the NCAA tournament outside the top four seeds.

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Steve and Bryce Alford (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

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UCLA Bruins: Do you know what to make of this UCLA team?

Seriously.

I’m asking for your help.

Because I have no idea what to expect.

On the one hand, the Bruins have as much talent as on their roster any just about anyone in the country, save for Duke. Lonzo Ball is an intriguing talent that some believe will be the most exciting Pac-12 freshman since Jason Kidd, and he may not even be the best point guard on the roster with Aaron Holiday by his side. Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton are both all-Pac-12 talents, while T.J. Leaf and Ike Anigbogu join G.G. Goloman and Thomas Welsh to give Steve Alford some lineup versatility up front.

There are the pieces on that roster to be a Pac-12 champ and a Final Four team.

But …

What has Alford done at UCLA to make us believe that he can make all those pieces fit together? He reached two Sweet 16s in his first two years after relatively disappointing regular seasons and followed that up by going 15-17 in 2015-16. There are some new and talented pieces on the roster, but there are just as many question marks. Will Bryce be able to cede some control of the lead guard duties to more talented, younger teammates? Will the Bruins staff find a way to utilize Ball, who has never played for a team that wasn’t built entirely around him? Will egos be pushed aside for the betterment of the team?

Talent usually wins out in college basketball.

Usually.

Syracuse Orange: I initially thought the people ranking Syracuse after their run to the Final Four were crazy. They lost two fifth-year guards in Trevor Cooney and Michael Gbinije, who was criminally underrated last season, and watched the guy that sparked their Final Four run, Malachi Richardson, bolt for the NBA. They had two guards slated to be on their roster once Kaleb Joseph transferred.

But then Tyler Lydon decided to come back to school while the Orange dabbled in the transfer market, adding a pair of fifth-year grad transfers in John Gillon and Andrew White. Throw in a talented freshman like Tyus Battle and all 7-foot-2 of Providence transfer Paschal Chukwu, and suddenly things don’t look quite as bleak.

I’m still not convinced that the Orange actually have a point guard on this roster, but this may be the longest team that Jim Boeheim has ever had at his disposal. If Lydon takes a step forward, if Battle can be a significant contributor off the bat, if White can embrace playing a role, if this team can find a way to get a defensive rebound …

That’s a lot of ‘ifs’. I know. But Jim Boeheim is a Hall of Famer, and on paper, this group looks the kind of team he has success with.

Creighton Bluejays: The value of a talented, veteran back court during the month of March cannot be overrated, and there may not be a team in the country that has a better back court this season than the Bluejays. I don’t say that lightly, either, but I certainly mean it. It starts with fifth-year senior point guard Mo Watson, a dynamic-albeit-diminutive lead guard that averaged 14.4 points and 6.5 assists last season, his first playing at the high-major level. He has to get his turnovers down and his three-point shooting up, but he the talent is there.

Marcus Foster (Creighton Athletics)
Marcus Foster (Creighton Athletics)

And he may not even be the best guard on the Creighton roster. That title likely goes to Marcus Foster, the former Kansas State scoring guard that left the program after his sophomore season. You should remember Foster. He burst on the scene as a freshman, averaging 15.5 points, before a falling out with his coaching staff resulted in a transfer out of Manhattan. He’ll have something to prove.

There’s more to this roster as well. Justin Patton is a former top 50 recruit that redshirted last season and will join a veteran front line. Isaiah Zierden is a dangerous shooter. And then there is Cole Huff, a talented but inconsistent forward that will be the difference-maker for this team. He had a couple huge nights last season — 35 points against Seton Hall, 28 points against DePaul, 26 points against Rutgers — and also had stretches where he seemed out of favor. If he can pick up where he left off last year, reaching double-figures in eight-of-nine games before the start of the NIT, Creighton has the pieces to be quite potent.

Florida State Seminoles: How many teams are going to have more talent on the floor on a nightly basis than Florida State will? Dwayne Bacon has the physical tools of a first round pick, averaged 15.8 points as a freshman and is a consistent jumper away from being a nightmare to deal with. Xavier Rathan-Mayes probably doesn’t have the same upside as Bacon, but he’s a talented lead guard that is in his fourth year on campus and once scored 30 points in less than five minutes. Then there’s Terrence Mann, a sophomore that was productive and efficient in limited minutes playing behind first round Malik Beasley as a freshman.

Both Bacon and Rathan-Mayes have some efficiency issues to work through — they shot under 29 percent from three combined — but if that perimeter attack can somehow put all the pieces together, they will be a problem.

And that’s before you factor in Jonathan Isaac. Isaac is a bit of a unknown commodity at this point. He’s a 6-foot-11 combo-forward with a combination of skill and fluidity that has him projected as a lottery pick. But he also weighs a Chipotle burrito over 200 pounds and is still figuring out how to use his length to be effective. There are going to be growing pains, especially if the Seminoles cannot find anyone to make a jumper, but if we’re picking teams that can win four straight games in March, the ‘Noles have the talent to be on that list.

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Rhode Island Rams: Last year was supposed to be the year for the Rams, as they had as much talent on their roster as we’ve seen in an Atlantic 10 program in a long time, but injuries just obliterated what should have been a wildly successful season.

URI should be back at full strength this season, which means that they’ll have one of the best perimeter attacks in all of college basketball. Jarvis Garrett and Jared Terrell are both back, Indiana transfer Stanford Robinson is eligible and E.C. Matthews, a potential NBA Draft pick that averaged 16.9 points as a sophomore, will be back after tearing his ACL.

Power forward Hassan Martin, who may be the best pound-for-pound defender in the sport, should be back and healthy as well, as he missed the last month of the season with a knee injury. Front court depth is going to be an issue, as the Rams have a lot of bodies but not much experience, meaning the x-factor is likely going to end up being Kuran Iverson. A 6-foot-9 small forward, Iverson was at one point considered to be a top five prospect in his recruiting class. But after a disappointing conclusion to his high school career and an unimpressive layover at Memphis, Iverson churned out a modest 9.8 points, 7.1 boards and 1.2 blocks as a junior, shooting 39.0 percent from three.

If Iverson can play the four defensively, if he can be a guy that rebounds and blocks shots while creating a mismatch on the offensive end of the floor, URI will a nightmare to stop and a pleasure to watch on the offensive end of the floor.

Virginia Tech Hokies: I’m all in on Buzz Williams’ boys this season. There isn’t a coach in the country that is better at slapping together a group of players that were overlooked, under-recruited and are hungry-to-prove-themselves and winning with them. He did it at Marquette for years, and the result was a whole lot of wins and guys like Jae Crowder, Jimmy Butler and Wesley Matthews in the NBA.

That’s precisely who he has on his roster this year. I’d be willing to bet even die-hard ACC fans can’t name more than one player on Virginia Tech’s roster right now, but Buzz has some guys that can play. Zach LeDay and Seth Allen are probably the two best players he has at his disposal, but Buzz has talent, depth and grit up and down his roster.

Virginia Tech head coach Buzz Williams celebrates a play in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Virginia, Monday, Jan. 4, 2016, in Blacksburg, Va. (Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times via AP) LOCAL STATIONS OUT; LOCAL INTERNET OUT; LOCAL PRINT OUT (SALEM TIMES REGISTER; FINCASTLE HERALD; CHRISTIANSBURG NEWS MESSENGER; RADFORD NEWS JOURNAL; ROANOKE STAR SENTINEL; MANDATORY CREDIT
Virginia Tech head coach Buzz Williams (Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times via AP)

The Hokies got off to a rough start last season — they lost to Alabama State at home, which is … yuck — but they finished with 19 wins and a 10-8 record in the ACC. That includes wins at home over Virginia and Miami, who was a top ten team at the time.

And they bring everyone back from last season while adding a healthy Ahmed Hill and Ty Outlaw to the mix.

The Hokies aren’t “win the ACC” good, not with how loaded the ACC is this season, but they are “win four games in March” good.

St. Mary’s Gaels: There is going to be a lot of hype surrounding Gonzaga as we head into the college basketball season, but the WCC is going to be more than just the Zags this season. BYU will be dangerous in their own right, but I’m going to talk about the Gaels in this space.

St. Mary’s went 29-6 last season, sweeping Sweet 16-bound Gonzaga during the regular season and picking off Stanford at home. They missed out on the NCAA tournament because they didn’t leave the state of California until the end of January and lost to the Zags in the WCC tournament final, but this was a good basketball team that returns everyone from last season.

They’re old — they start a redshirt senior, regular senior, two redshirt juniors and a redshirt sophomore — and they’re deliberate, but they play a super-efficient brand of basketball on the offensive end of the floor and shoot the hell out of the ball from three. They’ll need the right matchups to make a run, but teams that don’t make mistakes and do make threes are always a tough out.

Zach Edey has 19 points, No. 1 Purdue beats Michigan 75-70

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Zach Edey had 15 of his 19 points in the first half and Fletcher Loyer finished with 17 points to help No. 1 Purdue hold off Michigan 75-70 on Thursday night.

The Boilermakers (20-1, 9-1 Big Ten) had a 15-0 run to go ahead 41-28 lead in the first half after there were 10 lead changes and four ties, but they couldn’t pull away.

The Wolverines (11-9, 5-4) were without standout freshman Jett Howard, who missed the game with an ankle injury, and still hung around until the final seconds.

Joey Baker made a 3-pointer – off the glass – with 5.9 seconds left to pull Michigan within three points, but Purdue’s Brandon Newman sealed the victory with two free throws.

Purdue coach Matt Painter said Michigan slowed down Edey in the second half by pushing him away from the basket.

“They got him out a little more, and got him bottled up,” Painter said.

The 7-foot-4 Edey, though, was too tough to stop early in the game.

“He’s one of the best in the country for a reason,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “He’s very effective, especially if he’s 8 feet and in.”

With size and skills such as a hook shot, the junior center from Toronto scored Purdue’s first seven points and finished the first half 7 of 12 from the field and 1 of 2 at the line.

“He did a great job in the first half, going to his right shoulder and using his left hand,” Painter said. “He made four baskets with his left hand which is huge.”

Freshman Braden Smith had 10 points for the Boilermakers.

Purdue’s defense ultimately denied Michigan’s comeback hopes, holding a 22nd straight opponent to 70 or fewer points.

Hunter Dickinson scored 21, Kobe Bufkin had 16 points and Baker added 11 points for the Wolverines, who have lost four of their last six games.

Dickinson, a 7-1 center, matched up with Edey defensively and pulled him out of the lane offensively by making 3 of 7 3-pointers.

“Half his shots were from the 3, and that’s a little different,” Painter said. “His meat and potatoes are on that block. He’s the real deal.”

POLL IMPLICATIONS

The Boilermakers got the top spot in the AP Top 25 this week after winning six games, a stretch that followed a loss to Rutgers on Jan. 3 that dropped them from No. 1 in the poll. Purdue improved to 7-2 as the top-ranked team.

BIG PICTURE

Purdue: Edey can’t beat teams by himself and he’s surrounded by a lot of role players and a potential standout in Loyer. The 6-4 guard was the Big Ten player of the week earlier this month, become the first Boilermaker freshman to win the award since Robbie Hummel in 2008.

“Fletcher is somebody who has played better in the second half, and on the road,” Painter said.

Michigan: Jett Howard’s health is a critical factor for the Wolverines, who will have some work to do over the second half of the Big Ten season to avoid missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015. Howard averages 14.6 points and is the most dynamic player on his father’s team.

ROAD WARRIORS

The Boilermakers were away from home for 12 of 23 days, winning all five of their road games. They won at Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan for the first time since the 1997-98 season and beat the Spartans and Wolverines on their home court in the same season for the first time in 12 years.

UP NEXT

Purdue: Hosts Michigan State on Sunday, nearly two weeks after the Boilermakers beat the Spartans by a point on Edey’s shot with 2.2 seconds left.

Michigan: Plays at Penn State on Sunday.

Miller scores 23, No. 10 Maryland tops No. 13 Michigan 72-64

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COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Diamond Miller scored 23 points, and No. 10 Maryland closed the first quarter with a 13-2 run and led the rest of the way in a 72-64 victory over No. 13 Michigan on Thursday night.

Abby Meyers contributed 12 points and 11 rebounds for the Terrapins (17-4, 8-2), who won for the 10th time in 11 games. Lavender Briggs scored 14 points and Shyanne Sellers added 13.

Maryland gained a measure of revenge after losing twice to Michigan last season – including a 20-point rout in College Park.

Leigha Brown led the Wolverines with 16 points.

Michigan (16-5, 6-4) led 13-9 in the first quarter before a three-point play by Miller started Maryland’s big run. Briggs and Faith Masonius made 3-pointers during that stretch.

The Terps pushed the lead to 16 in the third quarter before the Wolverines were able to chip away. Miller sat for a bit with four fouls, and Michigan cut the lead to seven in the fourth quarter, but the Wolverines still wasted too many possessions with turnovers to mount much of a comeback.

Michigan ended up with 24 turnovers, and Maryland had a 25-5 advantage in points off turnovers.

Miller fouled out with 2:19 remaining, but even after those two free throws, the Terps led 65-57 and had little trouble holding on.

Michigan lost for the second time in four days against a top-10 opponent. No. 6 Indiana beat the Wolverines 92-83 on Monday.

BIG PICTURE

Michigan: Whether it was against Maryland’s press or in their half-court offense, the Wolverines turned the ball over too much to score consistently. This was a lower-scoring game than the loss to Indiana, but the margin ended up being similar.

Maryland: While Miller clearly led the way, the Terps had plenty of offensive contributors. They also held Michigan to 13 points below its season average entering the game.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

The Wolverines have appeared in 48 straight AP polls, and although a two-loss week could certainly drop them, the quality of their opponents could save them from a substantial plunge.

Maryland is tied for 10th with an Iowa team that beat No. 2 Ohio State on Monday night. Now the Terps can boast an impressive victory of their own.

UP NEXT

Michigan: The Wolverines play their third game of the week when they visit Minnesota on Sunday.

Maryland: The Terps host Penn State on Monday night.

 

Boum, Jones lead No. 13 Xavier over No. 19 UConn, 82-79

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STORRS, Conn. – Souley Boum scored 21 points, Colby Jones added 20 and No. 13 Xavier went on the road and held off No. 19 Connecticut 82-79 Wednesday night.

The win was the 13th in 14 games for the Musketeers (17-4, 9-1 Big East) and it gave them a season sweep over the struggling Huskies (16-6, 5-6).

Jack Nunge had 12 points and Jerome Hunter added 11 for Xavier, which led by 17 in the first half and 39-24 at halftime.

Jordan Hawkins scored 26 of his 28 points in the second half for UConn, leading a comeback that fell just short.

Tristen Newton added 23 points for the Huskies, who won their first 14 games this season but have dropped six of eight since.

The Musketeers never trailed but had to withstand UConn runs that cut the lead to a single point four times in the second half.

A three-point play from Hawkins made it 78-77 with 2:40 left. But a second-chance layup from Nunge put the lead at 80-77 just over a minute later.

Newton was fouled with two seconds left by Desmond Claude, but his apparent attempt to miss his second free throw went into the basket.

Boum then hit two free throws at the other end, and Newton’s final attempt from just beyond halfcourt was well short.

Xavier jumped out to a 9-0 lead as UConn missed its first nine shots.

A 3-pointer from Zach Freemantle gave the Musketeers their first double-digit lead at 20-9, and another from Jones pushed it to 35-18.

BIG PICTURE

Xavier: The Musketeers lead the Big East, and the win over UConn was their ninth conference victory this season, eclipsing their total from last season.

UConn: The Huskies came in with a 17-game winning streak at Gampel Pavilion dating to February 2021. They fell to 1-4 against the four teams in front of them in the Big East standings. The lone win came at Gampel against Creighton.

UP NEXT

Xavier: The Musketeers continue their road trip with a visit to Creighton on Saturday.

UConn: Doesn’t play again until next Tuesday, when the Huskies visit DePaul.

No. 12 Iowa State holds on to beat No. 5 Kansas State 80-76

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AMES, Iowa – Jaren Holmes matched his season high with 23 points as No. 12 Iowa State held on to beat No. 5 Kansas State 80-76 on Tuesday night.

The Cyclones (15-4, 6-2 Big 12) moved into a three-way tie atop the conference standings with the Wildcats and Texas.

Gabe Kalscheur added 19 points for Iowa State. Osun Osunniyi finished with 16.

Markquis Nowell led Kansas State (17-3, 6-2) with 23 points.

A 3-pointer from Holmes gave Iowa State a 59-49 advantage with 8:12 remaining. Kansas State responded with a 10-1 run to trim the margin to 60-59.

Caleb Grill’s 3-pointer steadied the Cyclones and pushed the lead back to 63-59 with five minutes left.

Free throws by Osunniyi, Grill and Holmes sealed the victory in the final 24 seconds.

The first half featured eight lead changes and ended with Kansas State up 33-31.

A 3-pointer by Kalscheur ignited an early 9-0 run for the Cyclones and helped them build a 19-14 lead. Iowa State made just one of nine 3-point tries in the first 20 minutes.

BIG PICTURE

Kansas State was trying to extend its best start to a season since 1961-62.

Iowa State improved to 11-0 at home. The Cyclones have not lost back-to-back games this season.

UP NEXT

Kansas State hosts Florida on Saturday as part of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.

Iowa State travels to Missouri on Saturday.

Georgetown snaps 29-game conference losing streak

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WASHINGTON – Primo Spears scored 21 points and Georgetown snapped a 29-game conference losing streak with an 81-76 victory over DePaul on Tuesday night.

Georgetown (6-15, 1-9) won its first Big East game since March 13, 2021, ending the longest skid in the history of the conference. The Hoyas also ended a 10-game losing streak this season.

Spears also contributed six assists for the Hoyas. Akok Akok scored 12 points and added six rebounds and four blocks and Brandon Murray recorded 12 points.

Umoja Gibson led the Blue Demons (9-12, 3-7) in scoring, finishing with 24 points, four assists and three steals. Javan Johnson added 13 points.

Spears scored nine points in the first half and Georgetown went into the break trailing 37-36. Georgetown used a 10-0 run in the second half to build a 12-point lead at 75-63 with 1:39 remaining.