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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?