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 (again) 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.

Three of those teams are in the ACC: Louisville, North Carolina and Virginia. We broke them down on Monday. We’ll take a look at other three right now:

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

Michigan State: It’s not hard to see why people will pick the Spartans to win the Big Ten and get to the Final Four.

For starters, they have a head coach by the name of Tom Izzo. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but he’s pretty OK at coaching. Combine that with the fact that Izzo has landed one of the best recruiting classes of his career — two McDonalds All-Americans, a third top 30 prospect and another four-star recruit — in a year where the incoming freshman class is as talented, and deeper, at the top than the vaunted Class of 2013, which included the likes of Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle and Aaron Gordon.

So yeah, I get it.

I picked Michigan State to win the Big Ten.

I think they are going to be really good.

RELATED: Big Ten Conference Preview | Big Ten Preview Podcast

Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo watches during practice ahead of a first-round men's college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Thursday, March 17, 2016, in St. Louis. Michigan State plays Middle Tennessee on Friday. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

But the main reason I have them coming out of the Big Ten as champs is because I’m not exactly sold on anyone in the conference. All talent aside, the Spartans have their warts, the biggest of which is the point guard spot. LouRawls ‘Tum Tum’ Nairn Jr., the owner of the best name in college basketball history, will be a junior and will likely get first crack at winning the starting job. The problem? Nairn just isn’t much of a threat offensively, particularly in a half court setting. The junior has never averaged more than 2.8 points in a season — despite seeing more than 18 minutes a night. His competition at the point guard spot will be Cassius Winston, a highly-touted freshman but a freshman nonetheless.

That’s going to be a familiar theme for the Spartans this season.

Eron Harris, a redshirt senior that averaged 17 points as a sophomore at West Virginia, is in line to start at the shooting guard spot, but after an unconvincing first year with the Spartans, Josh Langford is going to be expected to contribute minutes — and production — from the wing.

And then there is Miles Bridges, the most highly-regarded of the Spartan newbies. He’s an elite-level athlete, and at 6-foot-7, is strong and physical enough that he can play some small-ball four. He’s going to posterize more than one defender, and he’s going to have an impact defensively and on the glass.

But just how much is he going to be able to score?

Because at the end of the day, that’s where the major question marks are with this team. The Spartans lost four of their top five scorers from last season, which includes Denzel Valentine, who was our National Player of the Year and perhaps the most important offensive weapon for any team in the country. Hell, even losing Matt Costello hurts, as none of the four bigs on Sparty’s roster have proven to be effective low-post scorers. (You could argue UNLV transfer Ben Carter would have been, but he is coming off of a torn ACL and underwent another surgery this week after reinjuring the knee.)

So where is the offense coming from?

Harris is going to have to be a provider. So will Winston and Langford, and it will be interesting to see what Matt McQuaid — who had some promising flashes as a frosh — can add.

Those are nice complimentary pieces. Bridges is the guy that has the potential to be a game-changer, I just wonder how he scores consistently. He’s not exactly a low-post threat but his jumper isn’t consistent enough to play strictly on the perimeter. If he proves himself a go-to guy, Michigan State has Final Four potential. If he proves himself to be Branden Dawson, bet the under when the Spartans play.

Wisconsin: On paper, the Badgers look great.

Nigel Hayes is back for his senior year. Bronson Koenig is back for his senior year. Ethan Happ, who may actually be the best player on the team, is back for his sophomore year. In fact, not only is everyone meaningful from last season returning, the Badgers will have a healthy Brevin Pritzl and an eligible Andy Van Vliet.

And that’s before you consider the Greg Gard Effect. Gard, who took over for Hall of Famer Bo Ryan in the middle of the season, turned around what looked to be a dismal season, taking a 9-9 Wisconsin team on a streak where they won 11 of 12 and earned a No. 7 seed in the NCAA tournament, eventually advancing to the Sweet 16.

Throw in the fact that the Badgers have a favorable league schedule, and you’re looking at a savvy bet to with the Big Ten regular season title.

The question we need to ask is just how valuable that experience is.

RELATED: Big Ten Conference Preview | Big Ten Preview Podcast

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 28: Nigel Hayes #10 of the Wisconsin Badgers cuts the net after the Badgers 85-78 victory against the Arizona Wildcats during the West Regional Final of the 2015 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Staples Center on March 28, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Wisconsin’s Nigel Hayes (Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

Hayes was one of the most inconsistent players in the country last season. He could look like an NBA combo-forward one night and a guy that doesn’t belong in the Big Ten the next. He could score 32 points against Milwaukee and follow it up with a 4-for-18 performance in a home loss to Marquette. He could score 30 at Purdue and then shoot 2-for-15 in a Big Ten tournament loss to Nebraska. On the season, he shot a dismal 36.8 percent from the floor and 29.3 percent from three, which is not a good sign for a team’s highest-usage player.

He’s not the only inefficient star on the Badgers, either. Koenig hit one of the best shots of the season, drilling a fade-away, step-back three at the buzzer as he disappeared into the bench in a second round win over Xavier, but on the season his shot just 39.2 percent from the floor and, as a point guard, finished the year averaging 2.4 assists in 34 minutes.

The end result for the Badgers was terrific, but individually, both players left plenty of room for improvement in their first post-Frank Kaminsky season.

Part of the reason the inefficiency of Koenig and Hayes is a concern is that Happ has a chance to be special. He averaged 12.4 points and 7.9 boards as a redshirt freshman, and there’s no reason to think that he won’t improve at the same rate as every good Wisconsin big man has in the last decade. Putting a big that good on the floor with a pair of inefficient, shoot-first stars is not generally ideal.

RELATED: ‘I Am A Role Model’: Bronson Koenig’s Native American Activism

Ever since Bo Ryan took over, the Wisconsin program has won. It didn’t matter how good the players were on the roster, the Badgers were, quite literally, a lock to finish top four in the Big Ten standings. They did just that last year with Gard at the helm, finishing tied for third despite starting league play 1-4.

Gard could very well be as effective of a coach as Ryan was. The early returns are, in a word, sensational, and having them outside of the top two in the Big Ten, at this point, is crazy.

But given some of the limitations of their best players, and considering just how talented the best teams in the country are this season, it’s hard for me to justify calling them a national title contender at this point.

Gonzaga: The Zags lost Kyle Wiltjer. They lost Domantas Sabonis. Eric McClellan graduated. So how is it possible that a No. 11 seed that lost their three best players can be considered for the preseason top ten?

It’s simple: Transfers!

Gonzaga is bringing in three players that should immediately contend for all-WCC first team honors in Nigel Williams-Goss, Jonathan Williams III and Jordan Mathews.

RELATED: WCC Season Preview | Gonzaga, BYU or St. Mary’s?

Williams-Goss is probably the biggest name on this list. He’s a former all-Pac 12 point guard that averaged 15.6 points and 5.9 assists as a sophomore with Washington. Mathews will start at the two after averaging better than 13 points while shooting better than 41 percent from three each of the last two seasons at Cal. Williams is a four-man that posted 11.9 points and 7.1 boards at Missouri before leaving that program in 2015.

Przemek Karnowski will once again anchor Gonzaga’s defense after he was granted a fifth-year of eligibility stemming from a back injury he suffered last season. Josh Perkins, Silas Melson and a loaded recruiting class, headlined by McDonalds All-American Zach Collins and sharpshooter Zach Norvell, gives Mark Few a roster that is as talented as any he’s had in Spokane.

The question, for me, is how the roster comes together.

Josh Perkins served as Kevin Pangos’ backup for a year before having a pretty successful season in a starting role. Will he be willing to cede the starting spot to Williams-Goss for two seasons? Can they play together? More importantly, will they be able to keep any back court from getting into the lane at will if they play together?

And what about in the paint, where Karnowski, all 7-foot-1, 280 pounds, takes up roughly half of the lane? Is Williams enough of a shooter to space the floor? Can Karnowski and Collins be on the court at the same time?

The addition of Mathews was huge. He’s an experienced, knockdown perimeter shooter that doesn’t need the ball in his hands and has proven he can play a role. That was a big get for Few, one that helps make some of Gonzaga’s pieces fit better. But again, he’s a guy that’s going to come in and take the minutes of a player that has paid their dues within the program.

To me, the key to Gonzaga’s season is getting all of those pieces to work together, and doing so through the transfer market is not easy. Few’s had some success with it — Kyle Wiltjer, Byron Wesley — and had some transfers that never fully panned out — Gerard Coleman, McClellan.

And, not to go all #narrative on you, but it is worth pointing out that Gonzaga has never made the Final Four. They didn’t get to the Elite 8 under Few until 2015. Will this be the year that changes?

Gonzaga head coach Mark Few (Getty Images)
Gonzaga head coach Mark Few (Getty Images)

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

Sam Upshaw Jr./Courier Journal/USA TODAY NETWORK

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky will play its annual Blue-White men’s basketball scrimmage in Eastern Kentucky to benefit victims of the devastating summer floods.

The school announced that the Oct. 22 event at Appalachian Wireless Arena in Pikeville will feature a pregame Fan Fest. Ticket proceeds will go through Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief.

Wildcat players will also participate in a community service activity with local organizations in the relief effort.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said the team was excited to play for Eastern Kentucky fans and added, “We hope we can provide a temporary escape with basketball and community engagement.”

The scrimmage traditionally is held at Rupp Arena. It will occur eight days after its Big Blue Madness public workout at Rupp.

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

Rich Janzaruk/Herald-Times/USA TODAY NETWORK

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies


SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.

Dream’s McDonald returning to Arizona to coach under Barnes

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Atlanta Dream guard Aari McDonald is returning to Arizona to work under coach Adia Barnes.

The school announced that McDonald will serve as director of recruiting operations while continuing to fulfill her WNBA commitments. She will oversee all recruiting logistics, assist with on-campus visits, manage recruit information and social media content at Arizona.

McDonald was one of the best players in Arizona history after transferring from Washington as a sophomore. She was an All-American and the Pac-12 player of the year in 2020-21, leading the Wildcats to the national championship game, which they lost to Stanford.

McDonald broke Barnes’ single-season scoring record and had the highest career scoring average in school history before being selected by the Dream with the third overall pick of the 2021 WNBA draft.