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.

North Texas reaches NIT finals, shuts down Wisconsin 56-54

Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports

LAS VEGAS – Tylor Perry scored 14 of his 16 points in the first half, Rubin Jones scored all 12 of his after halftime and North Texas closed on a 10-0 run to beat Wisconsin 56-54 on Tuesday night in the semifinals of the NIT.

North Texas (30-7) advances to the program’s first NIT championship game on Thursday. Conference USA is now 16-1 this postseason.

North Texas, which trailed 41-29 at halftime, took its first lead of the game at 56-54 with 2:08 remaining on Moulaye Sissoko’s shot in the lane to cap a 10-0 run.

Wisconsin forward Tyler Wahl missed two free throws with 49.1 seconds left and North Texas worked the clock down before Perry had it poked away. Wahl had a shot blocked at the rim, but Wisconsin secured the loose ball and called a timeout with 5.8 left. Wisconsin got it inside to Wahl but Sissoko knocked it away and dove on the ball to end it.

The Mean Green, the nation’s leader in scoring defense at 55.7 points per game, held Wisconsin without a point for the final 9:07 of the game. The Badgers made just one of their last 16 shots – with 10 straight misses.

Kai Huntsberry scored four of his 12 points in the game-closing run for North Texas, which extended its program record for wins this season.

Chucky Hepburn scored all 15 of his points in the first half for Wisconsin (20-15), which was making its first appearance in the NIT semifinals.

Wisconsin dropped to 13-8 this season in games decided by five points or fewer.


The semifinals and final are being played at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas after Madison Square Garden in New York hosted every year but two since 1938, with the 2020 tournament canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2021 event held in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The 2024 semifinals and final will be played at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

LSU’s Mulkey senses reunion in trip to Texas for Final Four

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DALLAS – Kim Mulkey is returning to Texas for another Final Four, keenly aware that her LSU Tigers will play a short road trip from the school she made synonymous with women’s basketball.

Mulkey is the third coach to take multiple schools to the Final Four, doing so in her second season back in her home state of Louisiana after leading Baylor to the national semifinals four times in 21 seasons.

The Bears won three national championships under Mulkey, combined for 23 regular-season and tournament titles in the Big 12 Conference and made the NCAA Tournament in all but one of her seasons.

“You never spend 21 years of your life building a dynasty, and that’s what we did at Baylor. I think we can all agree with that,” Mulkey said Tuesday. “I still have a home there. My grandchildren are there. So my heart will always be there.”

Mulkey and the Tigers (33-2) will face first-time Final Four qualifier Virginia Tech (31-4) in the opener Friday night in Dallas, about 100 miles (160 km) north of Mulkey’s former college home in Waco. Defending champion South Carolina (36-0) plays Iowa (30-6) in the late game.

Hall of Fame coach C. Vivian Stringer took three teams to the Final Four, and Gary Blair made it that far with two.

Blair’s second was Texas A&M in 2011, when he won an Elite Eight showdown with Mulkey at American Airlines Center. Five years later in Dallas, the Bears again fell one win short of the Final Four.

Mulkey is back in Dallas with a new team after a 54-42 Elite Eight victory over Miami.

“There will be Baylor people sitting in my section that are heartbroken that I left,” Mulkey said. “I get it. Someday when I’m retired, maybe I’ll write another book and have more details, but I love Baylor University, the fans there, the Lady Bear fans there. But it was time. Timing is everything in life.”

South Carolina coach Dawn Staley has fonder memories of the home of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks. The Gamecocks won their first national title there five years ago, beating Mississippi State after the Bulldogs ended Connecticut’s 111-game winning streak in the semifinals.

“Dallas, it will be etched in my memory forever,” said Staley, whose team – the No. 1 overall seed – earned a return trip with an 86-75 victory over Maryland. “I remember vividly the police escorts. I remember our fans. I remember UConn losing. That was a huge moment in college women’s basketball.”

Virginia Tech coach Kenny Brooks is a Dallas Cowboys fan, so he remembers seeing star quarterback Dak Prescott in the stands five years ago rooting for his alma mater, Mississippi State.

Prescott remembers the “huge moment” to which Staley referred. His reaction to Morgan William’s buzzer-beating game-winner in overtime made the rounds on social media five years ago.

“That was a surreal moment,” Brooks said. “But my surreal moment was last night.”

That’s when the No. 1 seed Hokies beat Ohio State 84-74 to reach their first Final Four in Brooks’ seventh season. Iowa, which beat Louisville 97-83 in the Elite Eight, has advanced this far for the first time since 1993, when Stringer became the first coach to lead multiple teams to the Final Four.

Stringer had done it with Cheyney in the inaugural tournament season of 1982, and after the Iowa trip, she went twice more with Rutgers in 2000 and 2007.

“She called me immediately after we beat Louisville,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “In fact, she was my first voice message I got that night. I know coach Stringer is behind us. I haven’t been able to get back to her yet, but I will soon.”

Mulkey’s Bears were one of the top seeds in 2017, hoping to chase a title just up the road from their Waco campus. Mississippi State beat Baylor in overtime in the Elite Eight before the OT thriller against UConn.

The Tigers are this deep in the tournament for the first time since the last of five consecutive Final Four appearances in 2008, all of which ended in the semifinals.

Mulkey was asked if she felt the burden of living up to those glory years.

“We’ve already done that,” said Mulkey, who has now reached the NCAA Tournament in 19 consecutive seasons as a coach. “Winning a national championship will only put an exclamation mark on it. We have exceeded probably what anybody could just realistically say was possible this quickly.”

Black female athletes: Having Black female coach is crucial

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South Carolina senior guard Brea Beal knew she could trust Dawn Staley before she even suited up for the Gamecocks.

It wasn’t just Staley’s coaching accolades, which include fueling South Carolina’s meteoric rise in women’s basketball, that sold Beal. Beal knew that Staley – a Black woman like her – would best understand how to guide her as she navigated both life and playing basketball on a big stage.

“People that were telling me what this community was about, I know it’s somewhere I wanted to be,” Beal said. “As soon as I got here, she definitely led me down a journey so I could find out who I am.”

Black female representation in the coaching and sports administrative ranks has existed on a minute scale – even in a sport like basketball, which along with track and field has the highest concentration of Black female college athletes. Black female players who have been coached by a Black woman told The Associated Press that it was crucial to their development.

“There are some coaches who will just have all guys with no understanding that there are sometimes things that a young woman may need to talk to another woman about,” said Kiki Barnes, a former basketball player and jumper at New Orleans and current Gulf Coast Athletic Conference commissioner.

While the number of women coaching women’s sports has increased in the past decade, Black women continue to lag behind most other groups. During the 2021-22 school year, 399 Black women coached women’s NCAA sports teams in Divisions I, II and III, compared with 3,760 white women and 5,236 white men.

In women’s NCAA basketball, a sport made up of 30% Black athletes, Black women made up 12% of head coaches across all divisions during the 2021-22 season, according to the NCAA’s demographics database.

Fourteen Black women led women’s basketball teams across 65 Power Five programs this past season – up one from 2021. That’s less than 22% of the total in a sport that was played by more Black athletes (40.7%) than any other race in Division I, according to a report with data from the 2020-21 season.

For the first time in a decade, four Black coaches advanced to the Sweet 16 of the women’s basketball tournament, including Staley, who said she believes it’s more popular to hire a woman at “this stage of the game.”

“And it’s not to say that I’m going to sit here and male bash, because we have a lot of male coaches who have been in our game for decades upon decades,” said Staley, who will lead her team into the Final Four this weekend. “But I will say that giving women an opportunity to coach women and helping women navigate through life like they have navigated through life will allow your student-athletes a different experience than having a male coach.”

For years Staley has been an advocate for hiring more female coaches – especially minorities – in college basketball, but WNBA player Angel McCoughtry said Black female coaches as successful as Staley are still too few and far between in the sport.

“When I was getting recruited in high school, I don’t remember having a Dawn Staley to look up to,” said McCoughtry, who played at Louisville from 2005-09.

McCoughtry also named Carolyn Peck, the first African American woman to coach her team to an NCAA women’s basketball title in 1999 with Purdue, as another example of representation in the sport.

“So there’s one or two every decade,” McCoughtry said. “Why can’t we have 10? There’s 10 Caucasian coaches every decade.”

McCoughtry, a former No. 1 overall pick by the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream, got used to being around people who didn’t look like or understand her. She is Black. Her AAU and high school coaches were Black men. Her college coaches were white men. Marynell Meadors, a white woman, was her first coach in Atlanta.

She has fielded frustrating questions from white peers, coaches and owners – like how often she washes her hair, or whether her passionate play was because she was from Baltimore.

“There’s just a disconnect in understanding things,” the 36-year-old said, adding: “We need more coaches to protect us.”

McCoughtry has never had a Black female head coach but did have the impactful guidance of Michelle Clark-Heard, a Black woman whom Jeff Walz brought on as an assistant when he took over at Louisville in 2008.

She also leaned on Tim Eaton, a Black assistant coach who she said advocated for her in her freshman year, when then-coach Tom Collen wanted to send her back to Baltimore because she was late to one of her first practices. Similarly, McCoughtry said, she felt she had less room to make mistakes than white teammates. When she questioned a coach, she was labeled a troublemaker; when she got fired up about a play, she was told she had a bad attitude.

“We just never had any inch to be human, like our Caucasian counterparts,” she said, adding: “But who understands that? Our Black coaches. Because they went through everything we went through. They have a story, too.”

Part of the reason for the lack of Black female coaches is because of who ultimately holds the power to hire, Barnes said. That’s often athletic directors, a level where there is an even greater lack of diversity – 224 of 350 in Division I are white men. Plus, she added, there are changing requirements for what it takes to get leadership opportunities.

“And now the system has changed to where now you’ve got to know search firms because now search firms are the ones that are managing and determining who gets these opportunities,” she said. “Every time we understand how to get in the room and what it takes to be prepared, it’s like the rules change.”

Barnes played high school basketball in her hometown of Minden, Louisiana, where she had an assistant coach who was a Black woman; Barnes still refers to her as “Coach Smith.”

“For her, it wasn’t just about basketball. It was about who I was as a young lady,” Barnes recalled, adding, “I would say it’s similar with a young woman wanting to talk to a mom about womanly things. It’s not that a man couldn’t do it, but I wouldn’t feel as comfortable talking to either my dad or any other man about woman things.”

Priscilla Loomis, a 2016 Olympic high jumper who is Black, said she became a coach to provide kids that look like her the representation the sport has lacked. NCAA track and field numbers mirrored women’s basketball numbers in 2021-22: 5% of head coaches were Black women, while 19% of women’s NCAA track and field athletes are Black.

“They want so badly to feel seen and to feel loved and to be given guidance,” Loomis said. “And so that’s why I always say it’s important to get women of color, men of color to the starting line, because a lot of times we’re so many steps behind.”

Auburn’s top ’22 hoops signee, Traore, plans to transfer

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AUBURN, Ala. – Auburn’s top signee from last year, center Yohan Traore, plans to transfer.

The five-star recruit from France, who played a limited role as a freshman, announced his plans in an Instagram post on Tuesday.

The 6-foot-10 Traore initially committed to LSU but landed at Auburn after the firing of coach Will Wade a little more than a year ago. He was rated the No. 24 overall recruit and No. 5 center according to the 247Sports composite rankings.

Traore averaged 2.1 points and 1.4 rebounds after arriving from Dream City Christian School in Arizona.

Traore was a member of the U15 and U16 French National Team.

He played nine minutes in Auburn’s opening NCAA Tournament game against Iowa. Traore failed to score and didn’t play in the second-round loss to Houston.

Unbeaten Gamecocks, Iowa’s Caitlin Clark star in women’s Final Four


SEATTLE ⁠— An undefeated South Carolina team led by star Aliyah Boston and guided by vaunted Dawn Staley, an Iowa squad that features high-scoring Caitlin Clark and the return of LSU and flashy coach Kim Mulkey headline the women’s Final Four this weekend.

Virginia Tech is the newcomer to the group as the Hokies are making their first appearance in the national semifinals. Hokies coach Kenny Brooks became the third Black male coach to take a team to the Final Four in women’s basketball history.

All of the women’s basketball world will descend on Dallas this week as the Division I, II and III championships will be held there. It’s only the second time that all three divisions will have their title games in the same place.

Staley and the Gamecocks are looking to become the 10th team to go through a season unbeaten and the first to repeat as champions since UConn won four in a row from 2013-16. South Carolina advanced to its third consecutive national semifinals and fifth since 2015 thanks to another superb effort by Boston, the reigning AP Player of the Year. The three-time All-American had 22 points and 10 rebounds in a win over Maryland on Monday night.

Next up for the Gamecocks is Iowa and the sensational Clark. She helped the Hawkeyes reach their first Final Four in 30 years with a game for the ages in the regional semifinals on Sunday night. The junior guard had the first 40-point triple-double in NCAA history in the win over Louisville.

The Gamecocks have the experience edge having reached the Final Four so often with this group. No one on Iowa’s roster was alive the last time the team advanced to the game’s biggest stage. C. Vivian Stringer was the coach of that team in 1993 that reached the Final Four before losing to Ohio State in overtime.

“It is like a storybook, but it’s kind of been like that for us all year long,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “I mean, we have had — honestly, we keep talking about destiny and how it’s supposed to happen and it is happening. But I’m so happy for Caitlin. I can remember sitting in her living room and her saying, I want to go to a Final Four. And I’m saying, We can do it together. And she believed me. And so I’m very thankful for that.”

The other game will pit LSU against Virginia Tech. The Tigers are making their first trip to the national semifinals since 2008 when Sylvia Fowles dominated the paint. Now LSU is led by another stellar post player in Angel Reese.

She broke Fowles’ record for double-doubles in a season earlier this year and was key in the Tigers’ win over Miami in the Elite Eight.

Reese, who transferred in this season from Maryland, has made Mulkey’s second season at the school a special one. She came to LSU with a resume headlined by three NCAA titles from her time at Baylor along with some flamboyant sideline looks such as her silver-shimmering jacket with white pants that she wore in the Elite Eight game Sunday.

“What really makes me smile is not cutting that net down,” Mulkey said. “It’s looking around out there at all those LSU people, looking at that team I get to coach experience it for the first time.”

LSU’s opponent is also making its first appearance at the Final Four. The Hokies have had the best season in school history, winning the ACC crown as well under Brooks. He joined former Syracuse Quentin Hillsman and Cheyney State’s Winthrop “Windy” McGriff.

The significance has not been lost on Brooks, who hopes he can inspire other Black male coaches to get more opportunities.

The Hokies run to the national semifinals has been led by star post Elizabeth Kitley and sharpshooter Georgia Amoore. The pair combined for 49 points in the win over Ohio State in the Elite Eight.