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.

No. 22 Tennessee beats No. 3 Kansas 64-50 for Atlantis title

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PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas – Tennessee’s players proved to be determined defenders and relentless rebounders, along with having the kind of toughness to ensure the reigning national champions would have little chance to get comfortable.

It was all enough to give the 22nd-ranked Volunteers a title of their own, along with the blueprint that coach Rick Barnes hopes they follow the rest of the year.

Santiago Vescovi scored 20 points while Tennessee locked down on third-ranked Kansas in a 64-50 win Friday night in the championship game at the Battle 4 Atlantis, snapping the Jayhawks’ 17-game winning streak.

Vescovi hit five 3-pointers as the tournament’s most valuable player for the Volunteers (5-1), who dominated the glass, overcame their own turnover troubles and made the Jayhawks work for clean looks. And for the third time in as many days, Tennessee won without leading scorer Josiah-Jordan James (knee soreness).

Perhaps that’s why reserve guard Zakai Zeigler, who had 14 points and four steals, showed up wearing sunglasses to the postgame news conference after the Volunteers had danced and hollered through the on-court trophy ceremony.

“We know if you can’t stop the man in front of you, then you’ll have no shot at winning the game,” Zeigler said, adding: “We just like to play defense, and we just happen to be good at it.”

The Vols held the Jayhawks to 32.1% shooting, bothering them with size and length around the rim. They also took the ball right at the Jayhawks with 5-foot-9 Zeigler leading the way, down to him refusing to let go of a jump ball and trading words with 6-8 forward Jalen Wilson.

Zeigler’s night included a 3-pointer to beat the shot clock at the 7-minute mark to push Tennessee’s lead to 56-38. He followed with another big one from the right wing with 4:42 left after Kansas had closed within 11.

Wilson and Joseph Yesefu each scored 14 points to lead the Jayhawks (6-1), who shot 28.6% in the first half and never warmed up. They made 5 of 21 3-pointers in what was an all-around rough night, from losing starting guard Dajuan Harris to fouls with 9 minutes left to failing to keep the Vols off the glass (45-27).

“We played a team tonight that was older and more mature and obviously played stronger and tougher,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “We didn’t handle the situation near as well as what I would hope a poised team would.”


Tennessee: The Volunteers opened the tournament with a win over Butler, then grinded through an overtime win against Southern California in Thursday’s semifinals. This time, Tennessee played in front the entire way en route to its first title in three tries at the Atlantis resort.

“I think the main thing from the whole week was stay together through tough times, that’s what you’ve got to do,” Vescovi said.

Kansas: The Jayhawks didn’t have an easy first two days in the Bahamas. First came a battle to the final minutes with North Carolina State. Then came Thursday’s overtime win against Wisconsin on Bobby Pettiford Jr.’s last-second putback. But they never looked in any type of offensive flow this time with their smaller lineup.

“I feel like if we were able to get them out of place and not just have them standing there, waiting to contest a layup, that could’ve gave us some better chances at finishing at the rim,” Wilson said.


Tennessee held its three Atlantis opponents to 36.9% shooting and 15 of 59 (25.4%) from 3-point range. The Volunteers also averaged a +9 rebounding margin, ending with having Jonas Aidoo (nine) leading five players snagging at least six rebounds against Kansas.

“You can be a good defensive team but if you can’t be a great one if you give them second and third shots,” Barnes said.


Beyond Harris’ foul trouble, the Jayhawks played most of the way without Pettiford, who exited midway through the first half grabbing at his right leg.

Afterward, Self said he would be out “for a while” with a hamstring strain.


Tennessee: The Volunteers return home to host McNeese State on Wednesday.

Kansas: The Jayhawks host Texas Southern on Monday.

BYU erases 23-point deficit, beats Dayton in overtime 79-75

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NASSAU, Bahamas – Gideon George scored 21 points and combined with Jaxson Robinson and Rudi Williams for BYU’s 15 overtime points as the Cougars came back from a 23-point deficit to beat Dayton 79-75 in overtime Friday.

BYU’s victory came in the seventh-place game in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament.

George’s 3-pointer with 2:19 left in regulation gave BYU (4-3) its first lead after Dayton scored the first 10 points of the game and led 32-9 with six minutes left in the first half.

Mike Sharavjamts’ basket gave the lead back to Dayton but George’s free throw with a minute left sent the game into overtime.

Dayton got the first points in overtime but Robinson’s 3-pointer gave BYU the lead for good halfway through the extra period.

Robinson had 14 points, Dallin Hall 12 and Williams 11 to join George in double figures for BYU.

DaRon Holmes II scored 21 points and Sharavjamts 15 for Dayton (3-4). The Flyers lost starting guards Kobe Elvis and Malachi Smith to lower-body injuries in the second half, Smith with with just seconds left in regulation.

Portland beats Villanova 83-71 in Phil Knight Invitational

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PORTLAND, Ore. – Moses Wood scored 16 points and Portland beat Villanova 83-71 on Friday in the Phil Knight Invitational.

Villanova (2-4) has lost three straight games, including an overtime loss to Iowa State on Thursday to drop below .500 for the first time since March 7, 2012.

Vasilije Vucinic’s layup with 4:16 remaining in the first half gave Portland the lead for good. The Pilots had an eight-point lead at halftime and scored the first 10 points of the second half.

Wood added six rebounds and three blocks for the Pilots (5-3). Tyler Robertson scored 15 points while shooting 6 for 12 (1 for 5 from 3-point range) and added seven rebounds and eight assists. Kristian Sjolund recorded 14 points and shot 5 for 7 (2 for 3 from 3-point range).

Caleb Daniels finished with 18 points and seven rebounds for the Wildcats. Villanova also got 14 points from Jordan Longino. Brandon Slater had 11 points.

Caleb Grill, Iowa State topples No. 1 North Carolina 70-65

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PORTLAND, Ore. – Caleb Grill has followed T.J. Otzelberger from South Dakota State to UNLV and now back to Iowa State hoping the pair could share a moment like they did Friday.

Taking down the No. 1 team in the country was another bookmark moment in a long journey for the pair.

“I’m actually really enjoying sitting next to him from this moment right now just thinking about how long we’ve known each other and how cool this really was,” Otzelberger said.

Grill hit seven 3-pointers and scored a career-high 31 points and Iowa State rallied in the final five minutes to stun No. 1 North Carolina 70-65 in the semifinals of the Phil Knight Invitational.

Iowa State (5-0) picked up just its third win over a team ranked No. 1 in the AP Top 25. The Cyclones are 3-22 against No. 1 teams, with the other wins coming against Kansas in 1957 and Oklahoma in 2016.

The Cyclones can now add North Carolina (5-1) to the list.

“I was just staying the course of the game. I never really thought about it and the game just kind of came to me,” Grill said.

Grill was averaging 7.3 points and had made just 4 of 24 3-point attempts for the season entering Friday. But he couldn’t be stopped from beyond the arc, hitting a pair of big 3s to spark Iowa State’s late rally. His deep fadeaway jumper just inside the 3-point line with 1:40 left gave Iowa State a 63-61 lead and the Cyclones did just enough at the free throw line in the final minute to close out the upset victory.

Grill’s previous career high was 27 points while playing for UNLV in the 2020-21 season against Alabama. He also hit seven 3-pointers in that game.

Grill originally signed with South Dakota State when Otzelberger was the coach there. He was released from his commitment when Otzelberger took the head job at UNLV and started his career at Iowa State before deciding to join his coach in Las Vegas.

When Otzelberger returned to Ames, Grill followed again.

“Just having him be the first person that really had belief in me, it’s just really special what he’s done for me and my family and everything we’ve done,” Grill said.

Jaren Holmes added 22 points and the Cyclones withstood off shooting games from Aljaz Kunc and Gabe Kalscheur, who combined for three points and missed all eight of their shot attempts. Both were averaging double figures scoring for Iowa State.

RJ Davis led North Carolina with 15 points, Armando Bacot added 14 and Caleb Love scored 12. But the Tar Heels will lament a series of mistakes in the closing minutes that allowed Iowa State to rally.

“We had wide open threes. We were able to get to the basket. We were able to get whatever we wanted, we just didn’t make those shots,” North Carolina coach Hubert Davis said.

North Carolina led 57-49 after Leaky Black’s layup with 5:43 left, but missed four of its final six shots and had four turnovers during that span.

“We turned the ball over a couple of times and you just can’t do that in late-game situations,” Davis said. “You have to be sound and discipline and you have to do that on both ends of the floor and we just didn’t do it.”


North Carolina lost as the No. 1 team in the country for the first time since Nov. 21, 2015 when it lost 71-67 at Northern Iowa. The Tar Heels also lost as No. 1 to UNLV in 2011 at a Thanksgiving tournament.


North Carolina: Pete Nance wasn’t able to contribute in the same way he did in Thursday’s opening round. Nance, who tied his career high with 28 points against Portland, didn’t score for the first 27 minutes and finished with seven points.

Iowa State: The Cyclones were playing a No. 1 team from outside their conference for the first time since 1999 when they faced Cincinnati in the championship game of the Big Island Invitational.


Iowa State will face either No. 18 Alabama or No. 20 UConn in the championship game while the Tar Heels will face the loser for third place.

No. 8 Duke locks down late, holds off Xavier 71-64

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PORTLAND, Ore. – After a shaky offensive performance in the opening round of the Phil Knight Legacy tournament, Duke coach Jon Scheyer wanted to see Jeremy Roach get back to playing more instinctively, especially at the offensive end of the floor.

Roach responded with a season-high 21 points, Mark Mitchell added 16 and No. 8 Duke withstood Xavier’s second-half comeback for a 71-64 win on Friday.

The Blue Devils (6-1) advanced to the championship game thanks to the play of their standout guard and another strong defensive effort. Roach came one point shy of matching his career high, and the Blue Devils rebounded after an unexpectedly tight victory over Oregon State in the opening round of the event.

Roach was 3 of 14 shooting against Oregon State as the Blue Devils scored a season-low 54 points. He made 9 of 15 shots and had five assists against Xavier.

“There’s a lot that falls on your shoulders so you can end up overthinking it a little bit,” Scheyer said. “The thing that I love for him today is he just was him. And when he’s that way, he is to me the best guard in the country.”

The Musketeers (4-2) were held to two points over the final five minutes and missed their last four shot attempts. Souley Boum scored 23 points and Adam Kunkel had 13. Kunkel didn’t play the last 11 minutes after taking a hard fall committing a foul.

Xavier leading scorer Jack Nudge was 1 of 13 shooting and finished with five points.

“Jack played a great effort. He really did. He was ready for the game. He just had one of those nights where the ball didn’t go in the basket,” Xavier coach Sean Miller said.

At the same time, Miller was disappointed in what he called the “fracturing” he saw from his team.

“There were spurts and segments of the game where I thought we reflected our style, how we’re trying to play, whether it be defense and offense. But there were way too many segments of the game, if not most of the game, where we were at times in our own way,” Miller said.

Mitchell scored seven points in the opening minutes of the second half, including a pair of layups, and he hit a 3-pointer from the wing that gave Duke a 49-36 lead, its largest of the game.

That’s when Xavier’s comeback started. The Musketeers pulled within three points on several occasions, but Duke answered each time. Desmond Claude’s driving layup pulled Xavier within 63-60 with 5:51 left, but Ryan Young scored for Duke and Xavier didn’t make another basket.

Roach’s jumper with 2:40 left pushed Duke’s lead to 69-62.

“We like to play inside out but I mean, when guys are hitting shots it just opens up for everybody else,” Roach said. “Just try to continue to be consistent hitting shots and I think we’ll be fine.”

Kyle Filipowski had 12 points and was not Duke’s leading scorer for the first time in five games.


Duke: The Blue Devils’ dominance on the backboards finally came to an end. Duke had outrebounded each of its first six opponents by double figures, the longest such stretch in school history. But Xavier’s interior size limited Duke to a 33-32 advantage on the glass. The Blue Devils had 12 second-chance points.

Xavier: The Musketeers played an Atlantic Coast Conference team for the first time since beating Virginia Tech in last year’s NIT Season Tip-Off. Xavier dropped to 0-2 against ranked opponents this season, having lost to Indiana last week. The Musketeers will play another ranked foe in Sunday’s third-place game.


Duke will face the Gonzaga-Purdue winner in the championship game on Sunday, while Xavier will play the loser.