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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.

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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)

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports
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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.

UConn’s Tyrese Martin granted waiver to play this season

David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports
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STORRS, Conn. — UConn swingman Tyrese Martin, who transferred from Rhode Island in April, has been granted a waiver that will allow him to play for the Huskies this season.

The 6-foot-6 junior averaged 12.8 points and 7.1 rebounds and started every game last season for URI, where he was recruited by current UConn coach Dan Hurley.

NCAA rules require undergraduate transfers to sit out a season, but the organization has been more lenient in granting waivers during the pandemic.

Martin, 21, is expected to compete for playing time at UConn on the wing as both a guard and small forward.