College Hoops Contender Series: Can Kentucky’s talent overcome their issues?

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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 talked about six different Final Four contenders that are just flawed enough that we can’t call them contenders.

There is a pretty clear-cut delineation between the five best teams, the five clear national title challengers, and the rest of the country this season.

This week, we will be taking a deeper dive into all five of those teams, breaking down why they can win a national title and why they won’t win a national title.

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Kentucky Athletics
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KENTUCKY WILDCATS

WHY THEY CAN WIN: It’s John Calipari and it’s a team full of elite players. That has, generally speaking, always been a formula that, at the least, has the Wildcats in contention.

Cal has been at Kentucky for seven years. He’s made the Final Four in four of those seven years. One of the three years that he didn’t get to the Final Four he saw his best player, Nerlens Noel, tear an ACL in conference play. Another one of the years he didn’t get to the Final Four he had the most talented team in the country and it got bounced in the Elite 8.

He’s won a national title.

He won 38 straight games.

And he’ll have one of the most talented teams in the country again this season.

It starts in the back court, where Kentucky will have the most athletic pair of guards in the country in De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk. Both Fox and Monk are potential lottery picks – Fox playing the role of point guard with Monk playing off the ball – and the duo should make life hell for opposing back courts; Fox may be the best back court defender in the country, while Monk’s athleticism is impressive enough that effort is the only thing that should keep him from being a lockdown defender. They are the engine that should let Kentucky run as one of the nation’s best defenses.

Isaiah Briscoe is the third guard on Kentucky’s roster, and the Wildcats could do worse than slotting Dominique Hawkins in for 10 minutes a night in their back court.

Kentucky’s front court is even deeper. Bam Adebayo is the name to know there. A thrillingly athletic, 6-foot-10 power forward, Bam has the best chance to be the superstar on this team. He was known in high school for his powerful dunking ability, but he has a solid face-up game and should be able to step away from the rim to create space when Kentucky wants to play big.

It will be interesting to see how the rest of the front court rotation will work itself out. Sophomore 7-footer Isaac Humphries has drawn rave reviews this summer, but he’s not exactly a typical Kentucky big man. He’s less athlete than he is land warrior, and while he’s a good rebounder with some skill in the post, he’s not exactly an intimidating shot-blocker.

Humphries – and to a lesser extent, Tai Wynyard – has value and a role on this Kentucky team, but his limitations are what make Wenyen Gabriel such an intriguing piece. Gabriel is another prospective first round pick for the Wildcats, although his hype is built more around his potential as a player than his expected production. He’s a lanky, mobile and athletic forward that can knock down threes and defend multiple positions. A lineup that features Gabriel at the four and Bam at the five will be athletic, versatile and a lot of fun to watch. I also think it would be the best defensive lineup that Kentucky can put on the floor.

And I think this is going to be a team that has to win games with their defense – we’ll get into that in a minute – which is why Derek Willis is this team’s x-factor. To put it bluntly, Kentucky has a major issue shooting the ball, and that just so happens to be Willis’ strength. He shot 44.2 percent from three on 120 threes attempted last season, he was the most efficient player on Kentucky’s roster and his presence in the lineup is what sparked the late season surge for the Wildcats last year. His issue, other than staying healthy, is on the defensive end of the floor, but he at least has the length and the physical tools to hold his own.

With the rest of the defensive options on the floor around him, that may end up being good enough.

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WHY THEY WON’T WIN: I love the pieces on this Kentucky team.

I don’t love how the pieces fit together.

The biggest issue for me is the lack of perimeter shooting. De’Aaron Fox thrives in transition but he’s somewhat limited in the half court offensively, particularly when it comes to shooting the ball. Malik Monk is a streaky three-point shooter, the kind of player that can make six in a row in one game and then make four of his next 30. Isaiah Briscoe shot 13.5 percent from three last season. Hawkins shot 27.6 percent.

When Kentucky plays three guards together, there isn’t going to be much space inside the arc to operate, which creates problems for the guards on the perimeter that slash to the rim and the bigs that operate in the paint. One solution to this problem is playing Derek Willis, but the question then becomes where does he fit on the floor? Does he see time at the three, forcing Briscoe to the bench, or will he be used as a stretch four like he was last season?

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 15: East Team MVP De’Aaron Fox (Katy, TX) in action during the 15th iteration of the Jordan Brand Classic at Barclays Center on April 15, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images for Jordan Brand )
De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky Wildcats (Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images)

The other question mark is Monk. The biggest reason he’s been such an inefficient jump shooter throughout his high school career is his shot selection. He loves firing up deep threes early in the clock and he has no conscience when it comes to letting fly with a hand in his face, but that all came while playing for the high school team in Bentonville, Arkansas. He wasn’t doing this while on the roster at, say, Oak Hill Academy or Findlay Prep. It will be interesting to see how he adapts to playing on a team where he isn’t by far the best player.

However Cal decides to build his rotation, the bottom-line is that floor-spacing will be a concern for the Wildcats throughout the year.

Which brings us to the second question mark with this team: Their defense. Cal’s best teams are not only elite on the defensive end of the floor – John Wall’s 2010 team finished sixth in defensive efficiency, the 2012 title winning team finished eighth and the 2015 team that went 38-0 finished first – they all finished in the top two is block percentage.

To put it simply: When there are a slew of really big, really long and really athletic dudes standing in front of the rim, it makes it really easy for the really quick, really athletic dudes on the perimeter to get out and pressure on the perimeter. If they get beaten or gamble and miss on a steal, so what? Good luck finishing over Anthony Davis or Karl Towns.

This year, Kentucky doesn’t really have that rim protector, at least not on paper. Isaac Humphries is their best returning shot-blocker, but he doesn’t project as an elite rim protector the way Towns and Davis did. The other issue with Humphries is that he’s nowhere near as fleet-a-foot as a typical Kentucky big man; he’s not going to be switching ball-screens.

Bam is athletic enough to be that guy, but he’s not as big as Towns or Davis and doesn’t have the same reputation as a shot-blocker. In lineups where he’s asked to play the five, that slots Gabriel, Killeya-Jones or even Willis at the four. That front line is not all that big. Defensive rebounding could be a real problem.

I bring up these issues on the defensive end because I think this team is going to have issues offensively. If they’re going to win the national title, they’re going to have to be one of, if not the best defensive team in the country.

NASHVILLE, TN - MARCH 11: Isaiah Briscoe #13 of the Kentucky Wildcats celebrates in the game against the Alabama Crimson Tide during the quarterfinals of the SEC Basketball Tournament at Bridgestone Arena on March 11, 2016 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Isaiah Briscoe of the Kentucky Wildcats (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

PREDICTION: This team reminds me an awful lot of the 2010 team that lost to West Virginia in the Elite 8. That team featured John Wall and Eric Bledsoe in the back court with a front line of DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson.

But here’s the thing: Wall and Bledsoe were probably better than Fox and Monk will be. Cousins is markedly better than Humphries, and if Bam ends up being better than Patterson – who averaged 17.9 points and 9.3 boards as a sophomore in 2008-09 – he’ll be a second-team all-american at worst.

That 2010 team went 35-3. After a slow start to the year, they cruised to regular season and tournament titles in a mediocre, but were done in by a 4-for-32 three-point shooting performance against West Virginia in the Elite 8.

I would not be the least surprised to see this season play out the exact same way.

Bam Adebayo (Photo by Roberto Serra/Iguana Press/Getty Images)
Bam Adebayo, Kentucky Wildcats (Photo by Roberto Serra/Iguana Press/Getty Images)

College basketball broadcaster Billy Packer dies at 82

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Billy Packer, an Emmy award-winning college basketball broadcaster who covered 34 Final Fours for NBC and CBS, died Thursday. He was 82.

Packer’s son, Mark, told The Associated Press that his father had been hospitalized in Charlotte for the past three weeks and had several medical issues, and ultimately succumbed to kidney failure.

Packer’s broadcasting career coincided with the growth of college basketball. He worked as analyst or color commentator on every Final Four from 1975 to 2008. He received a Sports Emmy for Outstanding Sports Personality, Studio and Sports Analyst in 1993.

“He really enjoyed doing the Final Fours,” Mark Packer said. “He timed it right. Everything in life is about timing. The ability to get involved in something that, frankly, he was going to watch anyway, was a joy to him. And then college basketball just sort of took off with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and that became, I think, the catalyst for college basketball fans to just go crazy with March Madness.”

Packer played three seasons at Wake Forest, and helped lead the Demon Deacons to the Final Four in 1962, but it was his work as an analyst that brought him the most acclaim.

He joined NBC in 1974 and called his first Final Four in 1975. UCLA beat Kentucky in the title game that year in what was John Wooden’s final game as coach.

Packer was also part of the broadcast in 1979 with Dick Enberg and Al McGuire when Magic Johnson’s Michigan State team beat Larry Bird’s Indiana State squad in the title game. That remains highest-rated game in basketball history with a 24.1 Nielsen rating, which is an estimated 35.1 million viewers.

Packer went to CBS in the fall of 1981, when the network acquired the rights to the NCAA Tournament. He remained the network’s main analyst until the 2008 Final Four.

In 1996 at CBS, Packer was involved in controversy when he used the term “tough monkey? to describe then-Georgetown star Allen Iverson during a game. Packer later said he “was not apologizing for what I said, because what I said has no implications in my mind whatsoever to do with Allen Iverson’s race.?

Sean McManus, the chairman of CBS Sports, said Packer was “synonymous with college basketball for more than three decades and set the standard of excellence as the voice of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.”

“He had a tremendous impact on the growth and popularity of the sport.” McManus said. “In true Billy fashion, he analyzed the game with his own unique style, perspective and opinions, yet always kept the focus on the game. As passionate as he was about basketball, at his heart Billy was a family man. He leaves part of his legacy at CBS Sports, across college basketball and, most importantly, as a beloved husband, father and grandfather. He will be deeply missed by all.”

Packer was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008.

ESPN broadcaster Dick Vitale took to Twitter as word of Packer’s death spread. “So sad to learn of the passing of Billy Packer who had such a passion for college basketball,” Vitale tweeted. “My (prayers) go out to Billy’s son Mark & the entire Packer family. Always had great RESPECT for Billy & his partners Dick Enberg & Al McGuire-they were super. May Billy RIP.”

College basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla tweeted: “We fell in love (with) college basketball because of you. Your voice will remain in my head forever.”

Packer was viewed as a controversial figure during his broadcasting days, often drawing the ire of college basketball fans, particularly on North Carolina’s “Tobacco Road.”

“As a kid, I was a big NC State fan growing up, and I would watch a game and the next day I’d be like, `Boy you sure have it out for NC State, don’t you?’ And he would just laugh,” Mark Packer said.

The younger Packer, who is the host of ACC PM on the ACC Network, said it didn’t matter what school – most fans felt the same way about his father.

“He would cover North Carolina game and Tar Heels fans would be like, `you hate North Carolina,”‘ Mark Packer said. “Wake (Forest) fans would be like, `you hate us.’ And Billy just sort of got a kick out of that.”

Mark Packer said that while most fans will remember his father as a broadcaster, he’ll remember him even more for his business acumen. He said his father was a big real estate investor, and also owned a vape company, among other ventures.

“Billy was always a bit of a hustler – he was always looking for that next business deal,” Packer said.

Clemson starter Galloway will miss time after surgery

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CLEMSON, S.C. — Clemson starter Brevin Galloway is expected to miss games for the 24th-ranked Tigers after having surgery on his groin area Thursday.

The 6-foot-3 Galloway has started 20 of 21 games after transferring from Boston College this past offseason.

Galloway posted on social media that he’d had the surgery. Clemson coach Brad Brownell confirmed in a text to The Associated Press that Galloway had the operation.

Galloway said in his post he will be in uniform soon. He is not expected to play at Florida State on Saturday.

A fifth-year player, Galloway has averaged 10.6 points a game this season. He’s second on the Tigers with 55 assists and 18 steals.

The Tigers (17-4) lead the Atlantic Coast Conference at 9-1 in league play.

Clemson is already down two experienced players due to injury.

Point guard Chase Hunter, who started the team’s first 18 games, has missed the past three with a foot injury.

Guard Alex Hemenway, in his fourth season, has missed the past nine games with a foot injury. Hemenway was the team’s leading 3-point shooter (27 of 54) before getting hurt.

Zach Edey has 19 points, No. 1 Purdue beats Michigan 75-70

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Zach Edey had 15 of his 19 points in the first half and Fletcher Loyer finished with 17 points to help No. 1 Purdue hold off Michigan 75-70 on Thursday night.

The Boilermakers (20-1, 9-1 Big Ten) had a 15-0 run to go ahead 41-28 lead in the first half after there were 10 lead changes and four ties, but they couldn’t pull away.

The Wolverines (11-9, 5-4) were without standout freshman Jett Howard, who missed the game with an ankle injury, and still hung around until the final seconds.

Joey Baker made a 3-pointer – off the glass – with 5.9 seconds left to pull Michigan within three points, but Purdue’s Brandon Newman sealed the victory with two free throws.

Purdue coach Matt Painter said Michigan slowed down Edey in the second half by pushing him away from the basket.

“They got him out a little more, and got him bottled up,” Painter said.

The 7-foot-4 Edey, though, was too tough to stop early in the game.

“He’s one of the best in the country for a reason,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “He’s very effective, especially if he’s 8 feet and in.”

With size and skills such as a hook shot, the junior center from Toronto scored Purdue’s first seven points and finished the first half 7 of 12 from the field and 1 of 2 at the line.

“He did a great job in the first half, going to his right shoulder and using his left hand,” Painter said. “He made four baskets with his left hand which is huge.”

Freshman Braden Smith had 10 points for the Boilermakers.

Purdue’s defense ultimately denied Michigan’s comeback hopes, holding a 22nd straight opponent to 70 or fewer points.

Hunter Dickinson scored 21, Kobe Bufkin had 16 points and Baker added 11 points for the Wolverines, who have lost four of their last six games.

Dickinson, a 7-1 center, matched up with Edey defensively and pulled him out of the lane offensively by making 3 of 7 3-pointers.

“Half his shots were from the 3, and that’s a little different,” Painter said. “His meat and potatoes are on that block. He’s the real deal.”

POLL IMPLICATIONS

The Boilermakers got the top spot in the AP Top 25 this week after winning six games, a stretch that followed a loss to Rutgers on Jan. 3 that dropped them from No. 1 in the poll. Purdue improved to 7-2 as the top-ranked team.

BIG PICTURE

Purdue: Edey can’t beat teams by himself and he’s surrounded by a lot of role players and a potential standout in Loyer. The 6-4 guard was the Big Ten player of the week earlier this month, become the first Boilermaker freshman to win the award since Robbie Hummel in 2008.

“Fletcher is somebody who has played better in the second half, and on the road,” Painter said.

Michigan: Jett Howard’s health is a critical factor for the Wolverines, who will have some work to do over the second half of the Big Ten season to avoid missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015. Howard averages 14.6 points and is the most dynamic player on his father’s team.

ROAD WARRIORS

The Boilermakers were away from home for 12 of 23 days, winning all five of their road games. They won at Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan for the first time since the 1997-98 season and beat the Spartans and Wolverines on their home court in the same season for the first time in 12 years.

UP NEXT

Purdue: Hosts Michigan State on Sunday, nearly two weeks after the Boilermakers beat the Spartans by a point on Edey’s shot with 2.2 seconds left.

Michigan: Plays at Penn State on Sunday.

Miller scores 23, No. 10 Maryland tops No. 13 Michigan 72-64

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COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Diamond Miller scored 23 points, and No. 10 Maryland closed the first quarter with a 13-2 run and led the rest of the way in a 72-64 victory over No. 13 Michigan on Thursday night.

Abby Meyers contributed 12 points and 11 rebounds for the Terrapins (17-4, 8-2), who won for the 10th time in 11 games. Lavender Briggs scored 14 points and Shyanne Sellers added 13.

Maryland gained a measure of revenge after losing twice to Michigan last season – including a 20-point rout in College Park.

Leigha Brown led the Wolverines with 16 points.

Michigan (16-5, 6-4) led 13-9 in the first quarter before a three-point play by Miller started Maryland’s big run. Briggs and Faith Masonius made 3-pointers during that stretch.

The Terps pushed the lead to 16 in the third quarter before the Wolverines were able to chip away. Miller sat for a bit with four fouls, and Michigan cut the lead to seven in the fourth quarter, but the Wolverines still wasted too many possessions with turnovers to mount much of a comeback.

Michigan ended up with 24 turnovers, and Maryland had a 25-5 advantage in points off turnovers.

Miller fouled out with 2:19 remaining, but even after those two free throws, the Terps led 65-57 and had little trouble holding on.

Michigan lost for the second time in four days against a top-10 opponent. No. 6 Indiana beat the Wolverines 92-83 on Monday.

BIG PICTURE

Michigan: Whether it was against Maryland’s press or in their half-court offense, the Wolverines turned the ball over too much to score consistently. This was a lower-scoring game than the loss to Indiana, but the margin ended up being similar.

Maryland: While Miller clearly led the way, the Terps had plenty of offensive contributors. They also held Michigan to 13 points below its season average entering the game.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

The Wolverines have appeared in 48 straight AP polls, and although a two-loss week could certainly drop them, the quality of their opponents could save them from a substantial plunge.

Maryland is tied for 10th with an Iowa team that beat No. 2 Ohio State on Monday night. Now the Terps can boast an impressive victory of their own.

UP NEXT

Michigan: The Wolverines play their third game of the week when they visit Minnesota on Sunday.

Maryland: The Terps host Penn State on Monday night.

 

Boum, Jones lead No. 13 Xavier over No. 19 UConn, 82-79

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STORRS, Conn. – Souley Boum scored 21 points, Colby Jones added 20 and No. 13 Xavier went on the road and held off No. 19 Connecticut 82-79 Wednesday night.

The win was the 13th in 14 games for the Musketeers (17-4, 9-1 Big East) and it gave them a season sweep over the struggling Huskies (16-6, 5-6).

Jack Nunge had 12 points and Jerome Hunter added 11 for Xavier, which led by 17 in the first half and 39-24 at halftime.

Jordan Hawkins scored 26 of his 28 points in the second half for UConn, leading a comeback that fell just short.

Tristen Newton added 23 points for the Huskies, who won their first 14 games this season but have dropped six of eight since.

The Musketeers never trailed but had to withstand UConn runs that cut the lead to a single point four times in the second half.

A three-point play from Hawkins made it 78-77 with 2:40 left. But a second-chance layup from Nunge put the lead at 80-77 just over a minute later.

Newton was fouled with two seconds left by Desmond Claude, but his apparent attempt to miss his second free throw went into the basket.

Boum then hit two free throws at the other end, and Newton’s final attempt from just beyond halfcourt was well short.

Xavier jumped out to a 9-0 lead as UConn missed its first nine shots.

A 3-pointer from Zach Freemantle gave the Musketeers their first double-digit lead at 20-9, and another from Jones pushed it to 35-18.

BIG PICTURE

Xavier: The Musketeers lead the Big East, and the win over UConn was their ninth conference victory this season, eclipsing their total from last season.

UConn: The Huskies came in with a 17-game winning streak at Gampel Pavilion dating to February 2021. They fell to 1-4 against the four teams in front of them in the Big East standings. The lone win came at Gampel against Creighton.

UP NEXT

Xavier: The Musketeers continue their road trip with a visit to Creighton on Saturday.

UConn: Doesn’t play again until next Tuesday, when the Huskies visit DePaul.