College Hoops Contender Series: Three (flawed?) Final Four Favorites

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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.

Last week, we gave you our Final Four sleepers. Today, we talk Final Four contenders.

To me, there is a clear-cut line between the teams in the top five and the rest of the top 25. Duke probably should be ranked No. 1 in your preseason poll, but their question marks at the point guard spot are enough that I won’t completely discredit your opinion if you have any of those other five teams ranked above them.

I also think there is another clear-cut tier of teams, ranging from 6th-11th, that are good enough that they are a decent bet to get to the Final Four in Phoenix but flawed enough that we cannot consider them a true title contender, at least not in October.

We’ll take a look at three of those six teams right now.

MORE: 2016-17 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

Louisville Cardinals: The Cardinals, despite playing the latter half of ACC play with a self-imposed postseason ban hanging over their heads, still managed to finish the season with the look of a top 15 team. They finished the year ranked 10th in KenPom’s formula, second in his adjusted defensive efficiency metric and third in an ACC that sent a team to the national title game, two teams to the Final Four and six teams to the Sweet 16.

The bad news?

The three best players on that Louisville team are off to the professional ranks. Damion Lee and Trey Lewis, the two grad transfers that Rick Pitino brought into the program, left, as did Chinanu Onuaku, who declared for the NBA Draft.

The good news?

Last year was always supposed to be a bridge year. Pitino knew that he was losing Terry Rozier and Montrezl Harrell after the 2014-15 season, and he also knew that the talented 2015 recruiting class that he signed was going to need a year to adjust to playing in the collegiate ranks. So while losing Lee’s scoring certainly won’t help, it will open up minutes and shot attempts for Donovan Mitchell, a player that just about everyone expects to take a major step forward this season.

Louisville's Donovan Mitchell (45) reaches in against North Carolina State's Anthony Barber (12) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Louisville’s Donovan Mitchell (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

There are two reasons to be bullish on Mitchell: 1. He is built in the mold of a classic Rick Pitino off-guard, a big, strong athletic player that’s skilled with the rock and a menace defensively, and 2. He showed terrific flashes as a freshman: 17 points at Duke; 11 points and six boards at Virginia; 18 points against Wake Forest.

But Mitchell may not even be the best sophomore on Louisville’s roster. That title, some around the program believe, could belong to Deng Adel. Much of his freshman season was spent battling knee issues, but he’s the kind of big, athletic small forward that Pitino has success with.

That duo, plus the likes of Ray Spalding and V.J. King, should make Card fans excited.

There are, however, two major question marks on this roster: the point guard spot and the front court.

Quentin Snider was a top 30 recruit coming out of high school, but he hasn’t been quite good enough as a defender or a distributor to live up to that potential just yet. He’s not Peyton Siva and he’s not Chris Jones and he’s not Russ Smith, but he is the only true point guard on the roster. The Cards are going to need a big year out of him, just like they’re going to need a big year out of someone on their front line.

It doesn’t really matter who.

It could be Mangok Mathiang or Anas Mahmoud or Matz Stockman or Jaylen Johnson.

But one of those four is going to have to find a way to take over the starting center position and provide the backbone defensively, the rim protection and the work on the glass that left with Onuaku. He was one of the best defensive rebounders in the country and top 30 nationally in block percentage. He ended possessions and allowed Louisville to gamble on the perimeter. If they can’t replace his production, their defense takes a hit, and there isn’t enough offensive firepower for the Cards to be anything less than elite defensively.

RELATED: ACC Season Preview | Can Duke go undefeated this year?

North Carolina Tar Heels: UNC proved a lot of people wrong down the stretch of the season. The knock on them was toughness, both mental and physical. They struggled with late-game execution, they struggled in big games, they struggled when they were pushed around by an opponent. And then they went and beat Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium to lock up the outright ACC regular season title, they won the ACC tournament and they made it to the national title game, erasing a 10-point deficit in the final five minutes and getting one of the greatest shots in tourney history from Marcus Paige only to lose on the first title-winning buzzer-beater.

So yeah, all those people that questioned their toughness now have some explaining to do.

But there was also another issue with UNC, one that people didn’t talk about quite as much: While their roster was loaded with highly-ranked and highly-recruited players, it didn’t really have all that much NBA talent on it. And in the offseason, the two sure-fire pros on the roster — Brice Johnson and Paige — both graduated.

North Carolina guard Joel Berry II (2) moves the ball against Providence during the first half of a second-round men's college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Saturday, March 19, 2016, in Raleigh, N.C. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
North Carolina guard Joel Berry II (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

What’s left is a group of players have yet to live up to the hype that comes with the high school all-star games they played in and the number of stars next to their names on recruiting websites. In other words, what has Justin Jackson, or Isaiah Hicks, or Theo Pinson, or Kennedy Meeks done in their career in Chapel Hill that would make you believe that, as the core of a Tar Heel team, they can win a title?

The one potential exception to that is Joel Berry II. He was arguably UNC’s best player, and definitely their best guard, over the final month-or-so of last season, and I expect that development to continue into next season. That’s key, because the best UNC teams under Roy Williams have had terrific point guard play, from Ray Felton to Ty Lawson to Kendall Marshall.

But they’ve also had a hoss on the block to run their secondary break actions through, whether it be Sean May, Tyler Hansbrough, Tyler Zeller or Johnson.

All of them were All-Americans and NBA Draft picks.

Will Hicks or Meeks fall into that category?

And, for that matter, will Berry?

Virginia Cavaliers: The only real problem with Tony Bennett’s methodical, defensive-minded style of play is that the plodding nature of his teams makes it difficult for people to truly understand just how good some of the players on his roster are.

Case in point: Malcolm Brogdon.

Brogdon’s raw numbers last season were good enough, averaging 18.1 points, 4.1 boards and 3.1 assists while falling a total of 1.4 percentage points away from joining the 50-40-90 club. Those numbers were stymied, however, by the fact that Virginia was, quite literally, the slowest team in the country. No one played fewer possessions meaning no star player got fewer shots than Brogdon did, which is a long-winded way of saying that the loss of the first-team all-american will be a bigger void than folks may realize.

The issue isn’t on the defensive end of the floor. Virginia’s program, at this point, can plug-and-play just about anyone and still churn out one of the nation’s best defensive teams. Without Brogdon and Justin Anderson, they may not set records like they did two years ago, but this is still going to be a top ten defense.

No, the problem is going to be offensively. Brogdon was their go-to guy. He was the player that they ran off of screens and called plays for when they needed a bucket. He was their highest-usage player and 28.3% of his possessions came when he was run off of a screen; that equates to more than 7.5% of Virginia’s half-court possessions last season.

And it’s not just the shots that he made that Virginia will miss. It’s the shots that he created. He had ‘gravity’, meaning that as he ran off of those screens defenses had to adjust. That opened up chances for the players setting the picks to duck-in or slip a screen and it allowed Bennett more freedom with his play-calling.

Austin Nichols should have an all-ACC — maybe even an All-America — caliber season and I don’t think we’ve seen the best of London Perrantes yet, but if you cannot appreciate how much harder life will be offensively without Brogdon on the floor you don’t appreciate just how good he was last year.

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - DECEMBER 19: London Perrantes #32 of the Virginia Cavaliers dribbles the ball against Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats in the first half during a game at John Paul Jones Arena on December 19, 2015 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
London Perrantes (Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

Hoggard scores career-high 23, Michigan St snaps 2-game skid

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A.J. Hoggard scored a career-high 23 points, Joey Hauser had 12 points and 15 rebounds and Michigan State beat Penn State 67-58 on Wednesday night to snap a two-game losing streak.

Michigan State (6-4, 1-1 Big Ten) avoided going .500 or worse after 10 games for the first time in 18 seasons.

Hoggard blocked an open layup with less than a minute to play and Hauser grabbed the rebound before being fouled and making two free throws at the other end for a 66-58 lead.

Hoggard, Hauser and Tyson Walker combined for 31 of Michigan State’s 32 second-half points.

The Michigan State defense allowed only one made field goal in the final five minutes. Penn State was just 1 of 9 from 3-point range in the second half after 7 of 18 before halftime.

Walker scored 10 of his 14 points in the second half for Michigan State. Hoggard, who entered third in the conference in assists at 6.3, had six rebounds, two assists and one key block.

Hoggard gave Michigan State 35-33 lead – its first since 4-2 – after back-to-back three-point plays with 59.3 seconds left in the first half. It was tied at 35-all at the break.

Seth Lundy scored 16 points and Jalen Pickett had 13 points, 17 rebounds and eight assists for Penn State (6-3, 0-1)

Michigan State hosts Brown on Saturday. Penn State, which hadn’t played since a double-overtime loss to Clemson on Nov. 29, plays at No. 17 Illinois on Saturday.

No. 7 Virginia Tech posts 9th straight win, beats BC 73-58

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BOSTON — Reigning Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year Elizabeth Kitley had 22 points and 12 rebounds, and Cayla King scored 16 on Wednesday night to lead No. 7 Virginia Tech to a 73-58 victory over Boston College, the Hokies’ ninth straight win.

Taylor Soule, one of two BC transfers on the roster for Virginia Tech (9-0, 1-0 ACC), added nine points and five rebounds. Soule scored more than 1,500 points and grabbed almost 700 rebounds in four seasons at BC, earning All-ACC honors three times.

Andrea Daley scored 15 points and Maria Gakdeng scored 14 for BC (7-4, 0-1). They each grabbed six rebounds.

Virginia Tech scored 17 of the game’s first 21 points and led by as many as 19 in the third quarter before BC cut the deficit to 10 in the fourth. Leading 64-54 with under three minutes left and the shot clock expiring, Kayana Traylor hit a 3-pointer for the Hokies.

Gakdeng missed two free throws for BC, and then Kitley scored from inside to make it a 15-point game.

Clara Ford, who also played four years in Chestnut Hill, pitched in 2 points in 2 minutes against her former team.

BIG PICTURE

At No. 7, the Hokies have the highest ranking in the program’s history. With the victory over BC, a 10th straight win against North Carolina-Asheville on Sunday would leave Virginia Tech in position to move up even higher should a top five team falter.

UP NEXT

Virginia Tech: Hosts North Carolina-Asheville on Sunday.

Boston College: Hosts Albany on Saturday.

Michigan’s Jaelin Llewellyn out for season with knee injury

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan point guard Jaelin Llewellyn is out for the rest of the season with an injured left knee and is expected to have surgery next month.

Wolverines coach Juwan Howard made the announcement three days after Llewellyn was hurt in a loss to Kentucky in London.

Llewellyn transferred to Michigan from Princeton last spring and that seemed to lead to Frankie Collins transferring to Arizona State after a solid freshman season for the Wolverines.

Llewellyn averaged seven points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists in eight games at Michigan. He was an All-Ivy League player last season and averaged nearly 16 points over three seasons at Princeton.

Miles Kelly leads Georgia Tech to 79-77 win over rival Georgia

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 02 Northeastern at Georgia Tech
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ATLANTA – Georgia Tech’s Miles Kelly hit another winning shot against a state rival.

Terry Roberts endured a nightmarish final minute for Georgia.

Kelly hit a long 3-pointer and then a drove for the game-winning floater with 23 seconds remaining as the Yellow Jackets rallied to beat Georgia 79-77 on Tuesday night.

Kelly hit the winning shot in similar fashion against Georgia State on Nov. 12. He did it again to beat the Bulldogs, finishing with a team-high 17 points after failing to score in the first half.

“I’m going to continue to keep shooting, no matter how many times I miss,” Kelly said.

Roberts missed a 3-pointer, turned the ball over twice with bad passes, and was called for an offensive foul as he was trying to drive for the basket that would’ve sent the game to overtime.

“A tough finish for us,” Georgia first-year coach Mike White said. “We were in position to steal one on the road.”

A pair of second-chance buckets seemingly put Georgia (7-3) in control with a 77-73 lead.

The Bulldogs wouldn’t score again as Kelly led the comeback for the Yellow Jackets (6-3) – with a big assist from Roberts.

He had a chance to essentially seal it for the Bulldogs, but his jumper beyond the arc clanked off the rim.

Georgia Tech grabbed the rebound and raced down the court, where Kelly swished a 3 from well behind the stripe that brought Georgia Tech within a point with about a minute left.

Trying to work the ball inside, Roberts made an ill-advised entry pass that was deflected and stolen by Deivon Smith, setting up Kelly’s drive for the basket that put the Yellow Jackets back ahead,

Roberts tried a drive of his own, only to have it blocked by Jalon Moore. Georgia retained possession, but Roberts’ inbounds pass was stolen by Moore, who was fouled and made one of two free throws.

Roberts took the ball again and hurriedly dribbled toward the basket, only to be called for an offensive foul when he sent Smith flying.

“Just sacrificing my body for the team,” Smith said.

Georgia stole an inbounds pass around midcourt, giving Karlo Oquendo one last shot to launch a 3 that still would’ve won it for the Bulldogs. It bounced off the rim.

The game was tight throughout. Neither team led by more than eight, and a sequence in the second half showed just how tightly these rivals were matched.

With both squads playing at a frenetic pace and showing little regard for defense, the lead changed hands on eight straight possessions as the teams traded baskets.

Stunningly, they combined to score on 19 straight possessions before Georgia’s Matthew-Alexander Moncrieffe missed a pair of free throws with 5:17 remaining.

FIRING UP THE CROWD

Perhaps the biggest cheer of the night came when Georgia Tech football coach Brent Key addressed the crowd at halftime.

Key, who served as interim coach for the last eight games of the season, was introduced Monday as the full-time choice for job.

He fired up the fans by getting them to chant “To hell with Georgia” over and over again. When a smattering of Bulldogs fans responded with barks, Key smiled and egged on the Yellow Jackets crowd to drown them out.

He also declared Georgia Tech to be the “greatest school in the entire state, the entire country,” following up his vow the previous day to not back down from the defending national champion and top-ranked Bulldogs.

BIG PICTURE

Georgia: This will be a tough one to swallow for Roberts, who led his team with 16 points and seven assists. The Bulldogs lost despite shooting 53.4% from the field.

Georgia Tech: Four players scored in double figures, and two others players finished with eight points. But it was Kelly, as usual, who had the ball in his hands at the end of a tight game.

UP NEXT

Georgia: After a nearly two-week break, the Bulldogs return to Atlanta on Dec. 18 to face Notre Dame at State Farm Arena in the Holiday Hoopsgiving event.

Georgia Tech: Head to North Carolina on Saturday for the Atlantic Coast Conference opener against the struggling Tar Heels.

No. 17 Illinois rallies late, beats No. 2 Texas 85-78 in OT

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NEW YORK – Terrence Shannon Jr. scored 12 of his 16 points in overtime, including the tiebreaking 3-pointer with 3:34 remaining, and No. 17 Illinois rallied to hand second-ranked Texas its first loss of the season, 85-78 on Tuesday night in the Jimmy V Classic.

Jayden Epps added 11 points, including the final five points of regulation – a 3-pointer with 35 seconds left and two tying free throws with 8 seconds remaining. Epps then blocked Marcus Carr’s jumper in the lane just before the buzzer to force overtime in an entertaining showdown at Madison Square Garden.

Matthew Mayer, who faced Texas several times at Baylor, tied a career high with 21 points as he made his first seven shots and finished 8 of 10.

Shannon, who missed eight of nine shots in regulation, took over in the extra period to help Illinois (7-2) beat a ranked foe for the second time this season. He opened overtime with a jumper after Marcus Carr was called for traveling and then hit an open 3 from the right wing over Brock Cunningham for a 73-70 lead.

Shannon then converted a reverse layup and finished off a three-point play to make it 77-70 with 2:16 left. Carr hit two free throws to get Texas within one with 1:28 remaining. Jayden Epps hit a layup, RJ Melendez sank two free throws to put Illinois ahead by five, and Shannon made two free throws with 27.7 seconds left.

Timmy Allen scored a season-high 21 points for Texas (6-1), which failed to open 7-0 for the first time since 2014-15. Tyrese Hunter added 10 points but Carr was held to nine points on 3-of-14 shooting as Texas had 12 shots blocked and shot 42%.

Texas took its only double-digit lead when Dillon Mitchell hit a layup with 8:28 left. Illinois cut the lead to 58-56 on a 3 by Melendez nearly four minutes later. After Cunningham hit an open 3 with 4:15 remaining, Si’Jabari Rice made a 3 for a 64-58 lead.

Allen found Cunningham for an open jumper that counted when officials called goaltending on Illinois’ Coleman Hawkins. That gave Texas a 65-61 lead with with 1:51 remaining.

Carr’s rainbow jumper in the lane made it 68-63 with a minute left and Illinois had a 3-pointer by Melendez waved off because it called timeout with 45.3 seconds left. After the timeout, Epps made an open corner 3 with 33 seconds remaining.

Hunter missed the front end of a 1-and-1 to set up Epps’ tying free throws.

BIG PICTURE

Illinois: The Illini continued to struggle with turnovers, committing 17. But only two of them came in the final 10-plus minutes of regulation or overtime. Illinois’ 15th turnover was an offensive foul by Mayer, which sent him to the bench with four fouls with 10:42 remaining.

Texas: The Longhorns had little offense beyond Allen and Hunter. While the duo was a combined 13 of 29, the rest of the team missed 24 of 40 shots.

UP NEXT

Illinois hosts Penn State in its second Big Ten game on Saturday. The Illini lost their conference opener to No. 13 Maryland.

Texas hosts Arkansas-Pine Bluff in the Jimmy Blacklock Classic on Saturday.