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)

No. 1 South Carolina wins 28th straight 87-69 over ‘Cats

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COLUMBIA, S.C. — Dawn Staley’s pleased South Carolina had made its once-lopsided series with UConn more competitive the past few years.

She hopes her top-ranked team can accomplish another milestone when the teams meet for a top-five showdown on Sunday.

“It still stands true that we haven’t won up there,” Staley said.

Aliyah Boston had 14 points and 14 rebounds as South Carolina prepared for the top-five showdown with an 87-69 victory over Kentucky on Thursday night.

The Gamecocks (10-0 Southeastern Conference) improved to 22-0 and won their 28th straight, a run that included a 64-49 victory over the Huskies in Minneapolis last April to win the national championship.

Staley had lost her first seven games as South Carolina coach against UConn. The Gamecocks have won three of the past four matchups since.

“This particular class committed to each other,” Staley said. “When you have that type of commitment and you just want to win, you find yourself winning some games that you haven’t won before.”

Against Kentucky, reigning AP player of the year Boston extended her school mark with her 75th career double-double and moved within 11 of the SEC record of 86 games with a double-double held by LSU great Sylvia Fowles.

Things weren’t perfect for South Carolina, which fell behind early, then had its 15-point halftime lead cut to 54-48 midway through the third quarter.

Still, its dominant inside game – South Carolina outscored the Wildcats 62-14 in the paint – was more than enough to shut down Kentucky (10-12, 2-8), the last team to defeat the defending national champions at the SEC Tournament last March.

The Wildcats went on top 16-15 after a pair of baskets by Adebola Adeyeye.

That’s when South Carolina, fueled by its bench, took control with a 17-2 run. Ashlyn Watkins had three inside shots and Kamilla Cardoso scored four points during the surge.

The Wildcats used a 13-4 burst to start the third quarter to give South Carolina a few uncomfortable moments. But the Gamecocks got going once more with an 11-0 run to extend their margin.

Cardoso, the 6-foot-7 reserve, had 14 points and five of South Carolina’s 14 blocks. Defensive ace Brea Beal had 10 including both of the Gamecocks’ 3-pointers.

Beal thought the team held together well to blunt Kentucky’s runs and regain control. “I think it’s our mental aspect of the game and us believing in each other,” she said.

Robyn Benton had 24 points to lead Kentucky, which has lost three of its past four games.

Wildcats coach Kyra Elzy said South Carolina is difficult to match up with because of its deep bench. “They have depth after depth after depth,” she said. “They keep coming.”

BIG PICTURE

Kentucky: The Wildcats are the not the same team that featured two-time SEC player of the year Rhyne Howard the past few seasons. They have 10 newcomers – and six freshmen – who are still learning how to play against the SEC’s top teams like South Carolina.

South Carolina: Forgive the Gamecocks if their focus wasn’t fully on this one at first with a big week ahead. In an eight-game span, South Carolina will face No. 5 UConn and No. 3 LSU, a pair of high-profile games could expose any flaw – or show how powerful the Gamecocks are in chasing a second straight NCAA crown.

UCONN KARMA

South Carolina has opened 22-0 twice under coach Dawn Staley, in 2014-15 and the following year. Both runs ended against UConn. Next up for Gamecocks are the Huskies, although South Carolina has won three of the past four games over UConn including last April’s 64-49 victory to win the NCAA Tournament title.

UP NEXT

Kentucky returns home to face Alabama on Feb. 9.

South Carolina heads to No. 5 UConn on Sunday.

Miles, Citron lead No. 9 Irish past Boston College 72-59

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BOSTON — Olivia Miles and Sonia Citron had already scored 10 straight points to put away Boston College when they turned their attention to other things.

“I told Sonia I needed two more assists for the double-double. And she was like, `All right, I’ve got you,”‘ Miles said after helping No. 9 Notre Dame beat BC 72-59 on Thursday night.

“That’s just kind of our communication on the court,” said Miles, who found Citron for baskets on the next two Irish possessions to complete a 14-0 run – with all 14 points from Miles and Citron. “We just really play off each other really well.

Miles scored 22 points with 10 assists and eight rebounds, and Citron scored 23 for the Irish (18-2, 9-1 Atlantic Coast Conference).

Maria Gakdeng scored 16 points, T’Yana Todd had 13 and Andrea Daly scored 10 with eight rebounds for BC (14-11, 4-8). The Irish beat BC at home 85-48 on New Year’s Day but hadn’t won in Chestnut Hill since 2019.

“This is such a tough place to play,” said Notre Dame coach Niele Ivey, whose team faces No. 16 Duke next. “We’ll celebrate it until about 12:30, and then we’ve got film. Tomorrow we start focusing on Duke.”

BC came within five points, 55-50, before the Irish ran off 14 points in a row – nine by Citron, and five by Miles. That put an end to what had been a back-and-forth game in which the Irish opened big leads and then frittered them away.

“I always feel like we’re close,” BC coach Joanna Bernabei-McNamee said. “They’re young; I think consistency comes with experience.

“I think it’s a big improvement from the first time we played Notre Dame,” she said. “I still want to see more, and I want to see us grow up as fast as humanly possible because I think we do have a dangerous team when we going well.”

Notre Dame led by 11 in the first quarter and held a 38-30 lead with two minutes gone in the third. BC scored 13 of the next 18 points, capitalizing on back-to-back Irish turnovers to tie it 43-all with three minutes left in the quarter.

But Natalija Marshall put back the rebound of her own miss, Miles drove to the basket, Maddy Westbeld added a pair of baskets and then Miles stole the ball and found Citron on the fast break to make it 53-43.

BIG PICTURE

Notre Dame bounced back from their first league loss of the season, a 69-65 defeat at North Carolina State on Sunday. Now they face No. 16 Duke.

The Eagles, who beat Pittsburgh on Sunday to snap a five-game losing streak, were looking for their second victory over a Top 25 team this season, having also beaten then-No. 10 N.C. State on Jan. 5.

UP NEXT

Notre Dame: Hosts No. 16 Duke on Sunday.

Boston College: Visits Syracuse on Sunday.

No. 16 Xavier beats No. 17 Providence 85-83 in OT thriller

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CINCINNATI — Jack Nunge had 23 points and 14 rebounds as No. 16 Xavier held off No. 17 Providence 85-83 in an overtime thriller Wednesday night.

Colby Jones and Souley Boum each scored 20 for the Musketeers, who won a first-place showdown in the Big East without injured forward Zach Freemantle.

Noah Locke had 22 points and Ed Croswell added 21 for Providence (17-6, 9-3), which had beaten Xavier three straight times.

A layup by Boum put the Musketeers (18-5, 10-2) ahead 82-79 with 51 seconds remaining in overtime. A turnover by the Musketeers led to a layup by Devin Carter that cut Xavier’s lead to one with 24 seconds left.

Boum hit one of two free throws, and Jared Bynum’s 3-point attempt from the left corner rimmed out at the buzzer as the Musketeers held on.

Xavier played its first game without Freemantle, the team’s leading rebounder and second-leading scorer. He is expected to miss four weeks with a left foot injury, the same foot that required surgery in 2021.

Jerome Hunter, who has excelled off the bench for the Musketeers, made his first start of the season and scored nine points with eight rebounds. Xavier had used the same starting lineup in each of its previous 11 Big East games.

Things started well for the Musketeers. who went on a 12-1 run to build a 25-11 lead.

With Boum on the bench with two fouls, the Musketeers didn’t have a field goal in the final 4:18 of the first half and the Friars pulled to 39-35 at halftime.

Providence outscored Xavier 8-2 to start the second half and took its first lead, 43-41, with 17:41 left.

There was a frantic finish to the second half, with Adam Kunkel’s 3-pointer putting Xavier ahead 76-73 with 55 seconds left. But then Bynum banked in a tying 3 and Boum missed two long shots to send the game to overtime.

BIG PICTURE

Providence: The Friars, who won their first Big East regular-season title last year, entered the night tied atop the conference standings with Xavier and No. 14 Marquette, which hosted Villanova later. Providence was picked fifth in the preseason.

Xavier: Hunter, who averages 14 minutes, left with three minutes remaining in OT with an apparent cramp in his right leg. With Freemantle out, Hunter played 36 minutes.

UP NEXT

Providence: Hosts last-place Georgetown on Wednesday.

Xavier: Will host St. John’s on Saturday.

Florida upends No. 2 Tennessee 67-54 behind Colin Castleton

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Colin Castleton had 20 points and nine rebounds, Kyle Lofton added 14 points and Florida used a 13-0 run late in the second half to upend No. 2 Tennessee 67-54 on Wednesday night.

The Volunteers, playing with their highest ranking in four years, lost for the first time in five games. They had won nine of 10.

Tennessee (18-4, 7-2 Southeastern Conference) looked like it had taken control midway through the second half. They outscored Florida by 10 points in the early going to take a six-point lead.

But the Gators (13-9, 6-3) stormed back behind Castleton, who scored 11 of 14 points as Florida rallied. The senior had a dunk, two free throws, a three-point play, a layup and a short jumper – essentially putting the team on his back down the stretch.

Myreon Jones and Will Richard chipped in nine points apiece for the Gators.

Zakai Ziegler led the Vols with 15 points on 6-of-19 shooting. Olivier Nkamhoua added 11 points and nine rebounds for the vistors, who also got 11 points and eight boards from Vescovi Santiago.

Florida led 27-21 at halftime, just the fifth time the Volunteers has trailed at the break this season. Tennessee rallied to win three of the previous four.

The Gators were red hot to start, making six of their first eight shots – including all three from 3-point range – while building a 17-4 advantage. But they quickly cooled against the nation’s best defense, missing nine of their next 11 as Tennessee made cut it to 22-21.

The Vols had it going coming out of the locker room, with Ziegler getting into the paint and making things happen. But it was short-lived – thanks mostly to Castleton.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Tennessee surely will drop a few spots in next week’s AP Top 25 college basketball poll.

BIG PICTURE

Tennessee: The Volunteers gave up 10 points in the opening four minutes of the games, a rare sluggish start for the nation’s best defense. Tennessee had held four of its first eight SEC opponents scoreless at the first media timeout, roughly the first four minutes of games. It was a sign of things to come.

Florida: The Gators have been resilient much of the season, and this was arguably the most impressive comeback of the season for coach Todd Golden’s team. The Gators squandered a 13-point lead early and a six-point advantage in the second half. But they rallied when it mattered.

IN THE HOUSE

Football coach Billy Napier watched the game from a few rows behind Florida’s bench alongside his two sons and receiver Ricky Pearsall. Former Florida tennis star Ben Shelton, the NCAA singles champion in 2022, also was in attendance. So was former Gators and NFL quarterback Doug Johnson.

UP NEXT

Tennessee hosts No. 25 Auburn and former coach Bruce Pearl on Saturday.

Florida plays at Kentucky on Saturday. The Gators have lost seven of eight in the series.

No. 8 Kansas avenges earlier loss to No. 7 Kansas State, 90-78

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LAWRENCE, Kan. — Jalen Wilson had 20 points, Kevin McCullar Jr. added 16 points and 13 rebounds, and No. 8 Kansas avenged a loss to Kansas State just a couple of weeks ago with a 90-78 victory over the seventh-ranked Wildcats.

Dajuan Harris Jr. scored 18 for the Jayhawks (18-4, 6-3 Big 12), who built a 12-point halftime lead before coasting to their 17th straight home win over the Wildcats in the 10th matchup of top-10 teams in series history.

Kansas has rebounded nicely from a rare three-game skid that included the overtime loss to Kansas State, and made sure to avoid taking back-to-back losses in its storied home for the first time since the 1988-89 season.

Markquis Nowell scored 23 points and Keyontae Johnson had 22 to lead the Wildcats (18-4, 6-3), who were trying for their first regular-season sweep of their biggest rival in four decades. Nae’Qwan Tomlin added 11 points and David N’Guessan had 10.

In their first meeting on Jan. 17, the Wildcats raced to a big early lead and controlled the game until late in the second half, when the Jayhawks forced overtime — only for Kansas State to win on Johnson’s alley-oop dunk.

It was the Jayhawks who controlled the rematch.

They used a 16-7 run in the first half that included a technical foul on Kansas State coach Jerome Tang to build a 32-19 lead. And when Johnson answered with eight straight points for the Wildcats, and the lead was eventually trimmed to four, the reigning national champs pulled away again down the stretch.

It was 37-32 when Wilson hit back-to-back 3-pointers and Zach Clemence added one of his own. And by the time Wilson made two foul shots with about 10 seconds left, Kansas had built a 49-37 lead that it took to the break.

The Wildcats briefly got within six in the second half before the Jayhawks stretched their lead to as many as 16.

OFFICIATING OOPS

Johnson had to sit with two fouls just 2 1/2 minutes into the game. Only problem? The crew of John Higgins, Kip Kissinger and Marques Pettigrew gave one to the wrong player. By the time they corrected their mistake, the Wildcats’ leading scorer had unnecessarily ridden the bench for several minutes.

SELLOUT … AND THEN SOME

For the first time in more than 15 years, more Kansas students redeemed tickets than there was space available inside Allen Fieldhouse. The overflow had to watch the game on screens in the adjacent Horejsi Family Athletics Center, where the Jayhawks play volleyball games. Those students also got refunds and concessions vouchers.

BIG PICTURE

Kansas State’s three losses in league play have been to ranked teams on the road: TCU, Iowa State and Kansas. And with a more forgiving second half to the Big 12 schedule, the Wildcats remain firmly in the conference title hunt.

Kansas got its mojo back with its win over Kentucky last weekend. This victory over another bunch of Wildcats was crucial because the road doesn’t get any easier for the Jayhawks, who are in the midst of three straight games against teams ranked 13th or better.

UP NEXT

Kansas State returns home for another top-10 showdown Saturday against No. 10 Texas.

Kansas hits the road for the third time in four games against No. 13 Iowa State on Saturday.