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College Hoops Contender Series: Is Duke really the favorite to win the national title?

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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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WHY THEY CAN WIN: Duke is the most talented team in college basketball this season, and frankly, it’s really not close. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that, with a healthy Harry Giles III in March, this group is more talented than the Karl Towns-led Kentucky team that took a 38-0 record into the Final Four.

They’re not going to flirt with a 40-0 season – no one has finished the ACC regular season unscathed since Duke in 1999 and no one has finished with just a single loss since Maryland in 2002 – but if Duke plays up to their potential, we’ll be talking about this as one of the best college basketball teams of all-time.

That’s not hyperbole, either.

Duke has two potential top five picks on their roster in Jayson Tatum and Giles. Tatum is a smooth, high-scoring 6-foot-9 small forward that isn’t all that dissimilar from Brandon Ingram. He has shorter arms, shorter hair and less tattoos, but he’s an elite 1-on-1 scorer with ever-improving range on his jumper.

Giles, at full strength and full health, is an absolute difference-maker. If he regains his explosiveness and his mobility, his ceiling as a player is somewhere between Chris Webber and Amare Stoudamire. For his one-and-done season, however, the most apt comparison is Towns, moreso for the role he’ll play as opposed to the player he is. Towns didn’t need the offense to run through him every night. He didn’t need to get 18 shots and lead the team in scoring, but the threat was always there. Like Towns, a healthy Giles would always have the potential to be the most dominant player on the floor every time he suits up. He wouldn’t have to be, not with the amount of talent surrounding him, but on the nights where Duke would need him to get 25 points and 15 boards, he could do that.

Duke also has another potential lottery pick on their roster in freshman Marques Bolden, who will share the front line with senior Amile Jefferson, who averaged nearly a double-double last season, and a former McDonald’s All-American in Chase Jeter.

The Blue Devils also have a kid by the name of Grayson Allen, the Preseason National Player of the Year that is coming off of a season where he averaged 21.6 points, 4.6 boards, 3.5 assists and notched a 61.6 true-shooting percentage. No one at the high-major level had ever posted a season with those splits before Allen. Damian Lillard, who is now a top ten point guard in the NBA, did it at Weber State.

Allen did it at Duke.

And he might be Duke’s third-best player this season.

There’s more.

Sophomore Luke Kennard is talented enough to average 15 points in the ACC at any other school, and he’s likely going to be coming off the bench this season. Matt Jones will be asked to play the Quinn Cook role this year, moving into a much more limited role as a senior. Freshman Frank Jackson could end up being a first round pick by the time he leaves Duke.

Should I mention that Duke has the luxury of allowing Mike Krzyzewski to figure out how to get all of those pieces to fit together?, a well-respected website used to analyze college basketball team-by-team efficiency, has 15 seasons worth of data in its database. In seven of those 15 years, Duke has ranked top five in his offensive efficiency metric, including each of the last four years. Just once in those 15 seasons have the Blue Devils ranked outside the top 15.

And this team will be more talented than just about any team Coach K has fielded during that time.

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LOUISVILLE, KY - FEBRUARY 20: Grayson Allen #3 of the Duke Blue Devils dribbles the ball during the game against the Louisville Cardinals at KFC YUM! Center on February 20, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Grayson Allen (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

WHY THEY WON’T WIN: The way I see it, there are three major question marks surrounding this team and this program, the biggest of which is the status of Giles’ knees.

A quick summary: In the summer before his sophomore season in high school, Giles shredded the ligaments in his left knee. He tore his ACL, his MCL and his meniscus. He missed his entire sophomore season, obviously, and didn’t really get back to full strength until his junior season in high school. After a terrific junior year and an impressive performance on his final summer circuit, Giles tore the ACL in his right knee in the opening game of his senior season in high school. He’s been rehabbing the knee ever since but wasn’t yet cleared despite being more than 11 months removed from the injury when the school announced that he underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in early October.

Giles will be out at least six weeks. He’ll likely miss the start of the season, including the Champions Classic, and there’s no guarantee that: A) he’ll actually decide to suit up for the Blue Devils this season, of B) if he does play, he’ll be anywhere near 100 percent.

I don’t want to get into the specifics about whether or not it’s worth it for Giles to test himself (we did that on the podcast below and in the column linked here), but it is worth noting that while Duke can withstand the loss of Giles – Marques Bolden is a potential lottery pick in his own right, and Amile Jefferson averaged nearly a double-double last season – they are not the same team without him.

The second question I have with this Duke team is their point guard play. When Derryck Thornton announced that he was transferring out of the program, the Blue Devils were left with a roster that didn’t really have a true lead guard present. Frank Jackson might be able to adapt to that role down the road, but there are enough concerns with his ability to be a full-time point guard as a freshman that Grayson Allen is going to be asked to handle the ball more this season.

Allen, who was a second-team All-American last season, can make plays off the dribble. But being able to create off the bounce is much different than being a facilitating point guard, particularly with the way that the Duke roster is constructed. The four best perimeter players on the roster – Allen, Jackson, Jayson Tatum and Luke Kennard – are all at their best when they are allowed to have the ball in their hands and given a chance to create.

To be fair, this isn’t much different than what the Blue Devils dealt with last season. Coach K’s offense essentially was a series of isolations for Brandon Ingram and Allen, who were both near-impossible to stop in 1-on-1 situations. Considering the depth issues and roster limitations they had, it was a pretty successful 2015-16 campaign using that strategy. This season should probably be more of the same, although there is one major red flag with that: Most of Duke’s fellow contenders have terrific defensive back courts. We all saw what happened in the Champions Classic last season when the Blue Devils played a team with a pair of guards that could lock down ball-handlers, as Kentucky molly-whopped them and forced Allen into the worst game he’s ever played at the college level.

If that’s the blueprint to beat this Duke team as well, the teams that actually have the talent to beat them in March have the personnel to effectively employ that game-plan.

The third and final question mark with the Blue Devils comes on the defensive end of the floor. In the last five seasons, the five years in which Coach K has seemed to fully embrace the idea of building a team around one-and-done superstars, the Blue Devils have been unable to shed their defensive question marks.

In three of those five years, Duke finished outside the top 75 in KenPom’s defensive efficiency rankings. Those three years resulted in two early rounds tournament exits (to No. 15 Lehigh in 2012 and No. 14 Mercer in 2014) and last year’s trip to the Sweet 16 that included single-digits wins over UNC Wilmington and Yale. In 2013, Duke finished 26th in defensive efficiency, but that also happened to be the year where their team was built around seniors Seth Curry and Mason Plumlee.

The outlier in that group?

The national title run in 2015. They finished the season 12th in defensive efficiency, but that was the result of Duke turning into a different team in the tournament. Duke ranked in the 60s in defensive efficiency before the tournament began and, in their six-game title run, played defense that, when projected over an entire season, would have been record-setting.

Jayson Tatum (photo courtesy Duke Athletics)
Jayson Tatum (photo courtesy Duke Athletics)

PREDICTION: The ACC is absolutely loaded this season. There are 12 teams that, on paper, look good enough to make a run at an at-large bid, and I don’t think it’s crazy to think 10 or 11 teams in the league can reach the Big Dance. We have four ACC teams in our preseason top 10 and six in our top 20.

For my money, this conference is as strong, top-to-bottom, as any league that we’ve ever seen.

And I think the Blue Devils win the regular season title by multiple games.

Will they win the national title? My pick is Kansas, but I’ll fully admit it’s something of a contrarian pick. Duke is the title favorite, and deservedly so.

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

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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

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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

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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

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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.