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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.

Previously:

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DUKE BLUE DEVILS

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 NBCSports.com 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? KenPom.com, 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 NBCSports.com 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.

Mike Tirico to host NBC Sports’ new daily sports talk show ‘Lunch Talk Live’

We’re excited to bring viewers fresh programming every day with unique, topical conversations from prominent individuals in all corners of sports. This will be a daily lunch date to share sports and stories we miss during these unique times.
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A new daily sports talk shot called Lunch Talk Live will debut on NBCSN at noon ET on Monday, April 6th.

The show will feature Mike Tirico joined like by special guests every single day, including a lineup of NBC Sports’ on-air personalities, current and former athletes and prominent people in sports media.

The show will focus on how the sports world is navigating the coronavirus pandemic, providing a platform for intelligent discussion on the state of sports and how we, as a society, are adapting to living in this challenging time. the goal is to detail personal stories of how different people from across the sports industry are functioning in the day-to-day.

“In these challenging times, we are all missing sports and the people who make sports memories,” said Tirico. “Hopefully, we can bring a midday connection with some of them to help fill the void.”

“We’re excited to bring viewers fresh programming every day with unique, topical conversations from prominent individuals in all corners of sports,” said Sam Flood, the Executive Producer & President of Production for NBC Sports. “This will be a daily lunch date to share sports and stories we miss during these unique times.”

The show will be an hour long. It will air on weekdays at Noon ET on NBCSN and will be streaming on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app. Additionally, content will also be provided on the NBC Sports’ YouTube channel as well as other social media platforms.

All episodes of the show will be hosted remotely.

Michigan State AD defends Tom Izzo after witness report

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EAST LANSING, Mich. — Michigan State athletic director Bill Beekman defended basketball coach Tom Izzo on Thursday after Izzo was accused in

of contacting a witness who was part of a 2017 criminal sexual conduct investigation involving one of his players.

According to a police report obtained by ESPN, Michigan State student Brayden Smith was with basketball player Brock Washington on the night a female student said Washington forcibly groped her. When police interviewed Smith, he said he had already been contacted by Izzo and assistant coaches Dwayne Stephens and Mike Garland. They “asked (Smith) if he was OK and if there was anything that he had seen during the evening,” according to the report.

Beekman responded in a lengthy statement Thursday.

“Tom Izzo has been a beacon of integrity in his profession for nearly four decades, including a quarter century as head coach. Michigan State’s Office of Institutional Equity has gone on record to say that no policies were violated in regards to any actions taken by the men’s basketball staff during a Title IX investigation into a student,” Beekman said. “There’s nothing to support any claims that any member of the men’s basketball staff conducted their own investigation, or interfered with any ongoing investigation. Any insinuation to the contrary is nothing more than an attempt to smear a coach, a program, and an entire university.”

Smith, the son of former Michigan State player Steve Smith, has not played basketball for the Spartans. According to a Title IX report obtained by ESPN, Brayden Smith told investigators he considers the coaches his “godfathers” who check in on him occasionally.

According to ESPN, police said in their report that Brayden Smith’s perception of his conversation with the coaches about the night in question “was not to get information out of him, but rather to ensure that he was OK and remind him to be responsible.”

The school’s Title IX investigation determined that Washington was not responsible for having violated the university’s sexual misconduct policy, according to ESPN. The network

that in early 2018, Washington pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault under a provision allowing offenders to plead guilty without a court entering a judgment of conviction.

Earlier this week, ESPN reported that campus police told prosecutors they had probable cause that Brock Washington raped a woman Jan. 19 while she was too intoxicated to consent County prosecutors

because they didn’t feel they could prove their case to a jury.

Washington played a total of 19 minutes this season before he was suspended in late January.

NC State’s NCAA case recommended for independent process

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RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina State’s NCAA case involving recruiting violations tied to former Wolfpack one-and-done star Dennis Smith Jr. has been recommended to go through an independent investigation process created for complex cases.

In a statement Friday, athletics spokesman Fred Demarest said the school must respond by April 14 to the recommendation. Demarest said officials are “reviewing and evaluating our options.”

The NCAA created the Independent Accountability Resolution Process (IARP) last year, a product of proposals from the commission led by former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2018 to reform college basketball amid a federal corruption investigation into the sport. The process includes independent investigators and decision-makers with no direct ties to NCAA member schools, and rulings cannot be appealed.

The NCAA announced last month that Memphis’ case involving star freshman basketball player James Wiseman would go that route, becoming the first to enter the process.

IARP spokeswoman Whitney Ertel declined to comment on the N.C. State case, but said involved parties have the chance to respond to any recommendation before a determination is made.

“A case can either be accepted into the independent process or it can be denied,” Ertel said. “If any case is going to be accepted, then we will make an announcement.”

N.C. State was charged last summer with four violations, including former head coach Mark Gottfried being charged individually under the provision of head-coach responsibility for violations within his program.

Specifically, the NCAA has alleged ex-assistant Orlando Early provided Smith and his associates approximately $46,700 in impermissible benefits – including $40,000 that a government witness testified he delivered to Early intended for Smith’s family in 2015.

N.C. State has argued the NCAA had not proven money was actually provided to Smith or his family, noting Smith – picked ninth in the 2017 NBA draft after one year in Raleigh – denied receiving money in a school interview in 2019.

Attorneys for Gottfried, now coach at Cal State Northridge, have questioned the fairness of the process and argued Gottfried fulfilled obligations to monitor the program.

The NCAA enforcement staff’s response in February held firm that violations had occurred.

2020 NBA Draft Early Entry Tracker

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Here is CBT’s full 2020 NBA Draft early entry tracker. You’ll find a full breakdown of what players are deciding. We’ll track signing with agents, testing the waters and returning to school here. 

Underclassmen have until Sunday, April 26th at 11:59 p.m. EST to declare for the 2020 NBA Draft.

A deadline of Monday, June 15th at 5 p.m. EST is set for underclassmen to withdraw and retain college eligibility.

Of course, these dates are subject to change given the fluidity of the COVID-19 situation.

Here is the full list of the underclassmen who have declared for the 2020 NBA Draft. You can also find a list of the biggest names we’re waiting on.

NBA DRAFT EARLY ENTRY

Preseason Top 25 | Mock Draft | Early Entry Tracker

NBA DRAFT TESTING THE WATERS

  • PAUL ATKINSON, Yale
  • SADDIQ BEY, Villanova
  • TYLER BEY, Colorado
  • JERMAINE BISHOP, Norfolk State
  • JOMARU BROWN, Eastern Kentucky
  • JORDAN BRUNER, Yale
  • JORDAN BURNS, Colgate
  • MARCUS CARR, Minnesota
  • TAMENANG CHOH, Brown
  • DAVID COLLINS, South Florida
  • JALEN CRUTCHER, Dayton
  • RYAN DALY, St. Joseph’s
  • DEVON DANIELS, N.C. State
  • KENDRIC DAVIS, SMU
  • DEXTER DENNIS, Wichita State
  • MASON FAULKNER, Western Carolina
  • L.J. FIGUEROA, St. John’s
  • D.J. FUNDERBURK, N.C. State
  • ALONZO GAFFNEY, Ohio State
  • JIMMA GATWECH, Huntington Prep (WV)
  • JORDAN GOODWIN, Saint Louis
  • JAYVON GRAVES, Buffalo
  • RAYSHAUN HAMMONDS, Georgia
  • ELIJAH HUGHES, Syracuse
  • FERON HUNT, SMU
  • HERB JONES, Alabama
  • MASON JONES, Arkansas
  • KAMERON LANGLEY, North Carolina A&T
  • SABEN LEE, Vanderbilt
  • KIRA LEWIS, Alabama
  • ISAIAH LIVERS, Michigan
  • SANDRO MAMUKELASHVILI, Seton Hall
  • NICO MANNION, Arizona
  • NAJI MARSHALL, Xavier
  • KENYON MARTIN JR., IMG Academy (FL)
  • REMY MARTIN, Arizona State
  • MAC MCCLUNG, Georgetown
  • ISAIAH MILLER, UNCG
  • ELIJAH OLANIYI, Stony Brook
  • JOHN PETTY JR., Alabama
  • NATE PIERRE-LOUIS, Temple
  • XAVIER PINSON, Missouri
  • JEREMIAH ROBINSON-EARL, Villanova
  • MARCUS SANTOS-SILVA, VCU
  • JAY SCRUBB, John A. Logan College (Louisville commit)
  • MITCHELL SMITH, Missouri
  • STEF SMITH, Vermont
  • PARKER STEWART, UT Martin
  • MACIO TEAGUE, Baylor
  • XAVIER TILLMAN, Michigan State
  • JEREMIAH TILMON, Missouri
  • JORDAN TUCKER, Butler
  • KALEB WESSON, Ohio State
  • KEITH WILLIAMS, Cincinnati
  • MCKINLEY WRIGHT, Colorado

NOTABLES RETURNING TO SCHOOL

  • DEREK CULVER, West Virginia
  • OSCAR TSHIEBWE, West Virginia

NOTABLES YET TO ANNOUNCE

PRECIOUS ACHIUWA, Memphis
DERRICK ALSTON, Boise State
COLE ANTHONY, North Carolina
BRYAN ANTOINE, Villanova
JOEL AYAYI, Gonzaga
JARED BUTLER, Baylor
VERNON CAREY, Duke
AYO DOSUNMU, Illinois
DEVON DOTSON, Kansas
MALACHI FLYNN, San Diego State
LUKA GARZA, Iowa
JOSH GREEN, Arizona
ASHTON HAGANS, Kentucky
AARON HENRY, Michigan State
MATTHEW HURT, Duke
TRAYCE JACKSON-DAVIS, Indiana
ISAIAH JOE, Arkansas
DAVID JOHNSON, Louisville
A.J. LAWSON, South Carolina
SCOTTIE LEWIS, Florida
TYRESE MAXEY, Kentucky
JADEN MCDANIELS, Washington
WENDELL MOORE, Duke
JORDAN NWORA, Louisville
FILIP PETRUSEV, Gonzaga
YVES PONS, Tennessee
NEEMIAS QUETA, Utah State
IMMANUEL QUICKLEY, Kentucky
JAHMI’US RAMSEY, Texas Tech
NICK RICHARDS, Kentucky
JALEN SMITH, Maryland
CASSIUS STANLEY, Duke
TYRELL TERRY, Stanford
TRENDON WATFORD, LSU
ROMEO WEEMS, DePaul
KAHLIL WHITNEY, Kentucky
ROBERT WOODWARD, Mississippi State

Preseason Top 25 | Coaching Carousel | NBA Draft Early Entry (link)

WHEN IS THE 2020 NBA DRAFT?

The 2020 NBA Draft is currently scheduled to take place on June 25th, 2020, but that date is up in the air due to the spread of COVID-19. At the very least, the league is preparing as if the pre-draft process is going to be drastically different than it has been in past seasons.

WHEN IS THE DEADLINE FOR AN EARLY ENTRY TO DECLARE FOR THE 2020 NBA DRAFT?

Underclassmen have under April 26th to declare for the draft. Those that don’t sign with an agent have until June 15th to pull their name out of the draft and return to school.

WHERE CAN I FIND A 2020 MOCK DRAFT?

Right here, thanks for asking.

Dr. Anthony Fauci to Coach K: ‘We’re not even at halftime’ in fight against COVID-19

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Dr. Anthony Fauci appeared on the radio show of Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski — Basketball and Beyond with Coach K — on Thursday to discuss our nation’s battle with coronavirus and COVID-19. Fauci is an immunologist that has served as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) since 1984.

In an interview with Coach K that was overrun with basketball analogies, Fauci stressed the same talking points that he has stressed in every appearance that he has made over the course of the last month: The coronavirus pandemic is incredibly serious, we have not yet come close to winning the fight against it and the only way to save lives, slow this thing down and get back to normal is social distancing.

In simple terms, Fauci, again, told Krzyzewski we need to stay at home if they want COVID-19 to be a thing of the past.

“The [battle with coronavirus] is going to go on for several weeks, Coach K,” Fauci said. “The issue is that we have a large country and we have different metropolitan areas.”

Preseason Top 25 | Mock Draft | Early Entry Tracker

“If you want to do the basketball analogy, that right now we have a team that’s a very powerful team, and that’s the virus, and what we need to do is that we’ve got to play a full-court press. We can’t let them get the ball on the ground to dribble. We’ve just got to be all over them,” he added. “I mean, that’s what we’ve really got to do, because that’s the only tool we have right now.”

Fauci also told Krzyzewski that we are “not even at halftime,” and that the only way to truly combat the coronavirus is to do everything we can as a nation to avoid contact with other human beings.

“We are not yet at the point where we’re turning the corner and we’re coming around the bend and coming down as a country,” Fauci said later, a reference to flattening the curve. “There are some cities that have not yet even begun to spike and it’s our absolute responsibility to make sure that in those cities that people understand what they need to do to prevent that explosive spike that New York City has seen, that New Orleans has seen, that parts of New Jersey have seen, Detroit and on and on.”

These talking points are not new.

It’s what we’ve been hearing for months on end. It’s the reason sports in our country have been postponed for the foreseeable future, to avoid a situation like the one stemming from a Champions League soccer match in Italy.

Fauci has been steadfast in his efforts to get this message out. In addition to Coach K’s radio show, he appeared on an Instagram live with Stephen Curry and did an interview with Pardon My Take. It’s clear what he is trying to do, reaching the largest cross section of sports fans that he can. Put another way, I’d imagine the venn diagram of people that listen to Coach K’s radio show and Pardon My Take is basically two circles.

Hopefully people are listening.