College Hoops Contender Series: Might Kansas actually be the nation’s best team?

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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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LAWRENCE, KS - FEBRUARY 27: Bill Self head coach of the Kansas Jayhawks claps for his team as they celebrate winning the Big 12 Conference Championship after they defeated Texas Tech Red Raiders 67-58 at Allen Fieldhouse on February 27, 2016 in Lawrence, Kansas. With the win, Kansas clinched its 12th straight conference championship. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
Bill Self (Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

KANSAS JAYHAWKS

WHY THEY CAN WIN: Because Josh Jackson will be everything that Andrew Wiggins was without the unrealistic expectations or the pressure of having to carry a team as a freshman.

A quick refresher before we move forward: In a vacuum, Andrew Wiggins was awesome in college. He averaged 17.7 points as the leading scorer and the best perimeter defender on a top five team that probably would have gotten to the Final Four if Joel Embiid’s two-and-a-half year run of injuries hadn’t started that February. The problem for Wiggins was the expectations. He wasn’t the second-coming of Kevin Durant. He didn’t have the same impact as LeBron James would have. In hindsight, it was totally unfair to expect him to be either of those guys, and just because he wasn’t a legend as a freshman there was almost a sense of failure regarding his one year in Lawrence.

The other part of it was that Wiggins wasn’t ready to takeover games or handle the pressure that comes with being the go-to star on one of the most high-profile teams in the country. That’s just not who he was at that point in his basketball development.

Jackson, on the other hand, has that mentality. Think about all the clichés we, the media, love to label the best hoopers in the world with: he’s a killer, he’s a closer, he wants the big shot, he lives to the big moments, he’s clutch. Jackson’s reputation in the high school ranks would fill all of those narratives. He’s got that competitive streak, that alpha-dog mentality that Wiggins needed to develop.

And perhaps the most promising part is that Jackson isn’t going to have to be the leader on this team. Senior point guard Frank Mason is. Junior guard Devonte’ Graham could be as well. Landen Lucas, this team’s front court anchor, is a senior as well. The veterans on Wiggins’ Kansas team? Naadir Tharpe, who was more or less forced out of the program after the season, and … a sophomore year version of Perry Ellis?

In other words, Jackson can be a leader at this level and at this age, but he won’t have to be. Wiggins wasn’t ready for the role but was forced into it.

Jackson also doesn’t have the pressure that comes with the being labeled as the as a prospect on the same level as Durant or LeBron, like Wiggins was. Every time Wiggins stepped on the floor was a referendum on whether or not he was actually a star. That can weigh on a kid, particularly a kid that isn’t exactly predisposed to loving the limelight. And while being the No. 1 player in a class as good as the 2016 recruiting class comes with a significant element of pressure, there is nowhere near the hype for this crop of kids as there was in 2013.

That’s all a long way of saying that I love the makeup of this team on paper.

Josh Jackson, from Napa, Calif.,, dunks over Nancy Mulkey, from Cypress, Texas, as he competes in the slam dunk contest during the McDonald's All-American Jam Fest, Monday, March 28, 2016, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Matt Marton)
Josh Jackson (AP Photo/Matt Marton)

I also love the way that they’re going to come together on the floor.

Let’s start on the defensive end of the floor. Mason and Graham will be one of the best defensive back courts in the country, and Jackson will be an elite wing defender. Throw in Landen Lucas, who was a dominant rebounder and a capable shot-blocker in the minutes he played last year, and the Jayhawks have the pieces to be the nation’s best defensive team. Think about it like this: Kansas was the third-best defensive team in the country last season, according to KenPom, and they get a significant upgrade in Jackson over Wayne Selden at the three.

The offensive end is going to be a bit more of a concern – more on that in a second – but Carlton Bragg should be able to step into that role. He is a decent bet to lead the Jayhawks in scoring, and there are other reasons to be hopeful of the Jayhawks offensively:

  • Mason proved as a sophomore that he can be effective as a focal point offensively.
  • I don’t think we’ve seen the best of Graham just yet.
  • Jackson is a guy I think has the talent to average 16 points.
  • Lineup versatility. Kansas has the size to play big, but it’s their small-ball lineup – with two point guards on the floor with Jackson and, say, Svi Mykhailiuk – that is the most intriguing.

The Jayhawks are not going to be the Golden State Warriors offensively, but given how tough they will be on the defensive end of the floor, they won’t need to be.

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WHY THEY WON’T WIN: The concerns about what Kansas will do offensively are probably legitimate.

By the time he graduated from the Jayhawks, Perry Ellis had turned into a running joke. His hairline combined with the fact that he was a relevant player on Kansas for all four years that he was in college made him one of the most recognizable – and notorious – college basketball players in the country.

But he was also may be the most under-appreciated player in the history of Kansas basketball. The guy was terrific. He averaged 16.9 points as the focal point offensively for Kansas, and his ability to space the floor as a shooter combined with his efficiency on the perimeter and in the post made him so valuable.

Replacing that is not going to be easy.

Carlton Bragg should be able to do a decent job. A former five-star recruit, Bragg was targeted by the Jayhawks because of his ability to operate as a face-up four, because he had a skill-set that would, in theory, allow him to play that role one day. He had flashes as a freshman, but he never did enough to force his way into the Kansas rotation.

So just how much did he develop this offseason?

Kansas forward Carlton Bragg Jr. (15) celebrates a teammate's three-point basket during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Kansas State in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 conference tournament in Kansas City, Mo., Thursday, March 10, 2016. Kansas defeated Kansas State 85-63. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
Kansas forward Carlton Bragg Jr. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

Early reviews out of Lawrence were positive, but early reviews from every college campus are generally positive. The only coaches that tell the press their team is going to be bad are coaches that are looking to limit expectations because their job is on the line or they’re in a new town and are looking to get credit for a big year. So only time will tell.

I don’t think that Bragg, as a sophomore, is going to be what Ellis was as a senior. That’s a big ask, and a nod to just how good Ellis was. He doesn’t have to be either. He just has to be good enough to give the Jayhawk offense some balance and provide the perimeter with a pressure release, because if he’s not, I don’t know if the Kansas guards are good enough to survive playing a four-out offense with Landen Lucas as the big man.

There is one other minor issue I wanted to touch on: Depth. The Jayhawks don’t have a ton of it in their back court. Mason and Graham are the only two point guards on the roster, and both of them are going to be starting. Jackson isn’t quite ready to be a pure two-guard just yet, while Svi and LaGerald Vick are yet unproven.

Mason and Graham averaged 34 minutes apiece in league play last season, and Kansas should be able to survive the 10-12 minutes that Bill Self tries to steal with one or both of them on the bench. My concern is what happens if, say, Mason sprains and ankle or if Graham takes a knee to the thigh. The margin for error there is limited.

PREDICTION: I’m all in on the Jayhawks this season, probably more than any other member of the media.

I think they’re closer to being the best team in the country than they are to being the No. 3 team in the country.

I think the trio of Frank Mason, Devonte’ Graham and Josh Jackson will give Kansas the best perimeter defense in college basketball.

As long as Landen Lucas and whoever is slotted in at the four – be it Carlton Bragg, Svi Mykhailiuk, whoever – can provide enough of a scoring bump to mitigate their defensive question marks, the Jayhawks are primed to storm through the Big 12 and earn Bill Self his second national title.

Kansas guard Devonte' Graham (4) celebrates a 3-point basket during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Iowa State in Lawrence, Kan., Saturday, March 5, 2016. Kansas defeated Iowa State 85-78. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
Kansas guard Devonte’ Graham (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

Newton has triple-double, No. 21 UConn tops No. 10 Marquette

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HARTFORD, Conn. – UConn appears to have its mojo back.

Jordan Hawkins scored 20 points and Tristen Newton recorded his second triple-double of the season as No. 21 Connecticut ran away from No. 10 Marquette 87-72 on Tuesday night.

Newton had 12 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds for the Huskies (19-6, 8-6 Big East), who won their third straight game after losing six of eight. They started the season 14-0, rising to No. 2 in the AP Top 25.

“Teams go through tough stretches during the course of the season,” coach Dan Hurley said. “The bottom line is we’re 19-6. You know, we beat some of the best teams in the country.”

Adama Sanogo added 18 points, while Alex Karaban and Nahiem Alleyne each chipped in with 13 for Connecticut, which never trailed.

Tyler Kolek had 17 points to lead Marquette (19-6, 11-3), which had its five-game winning streak snapped. Ben Gold and Stevie Mitchell each scored 12.

The Huskies outrebounded Marquette 48-24 and used 21 offensive boards to help them get 27 second-chance points. The Huskies also had 20 assists on 31 baskets, while holding Marquette to just seven assists.

UConn opened the game on a 22-6 run, highlighted by a fast-break lob from Newton to Andre Jackson for a dunk that brought the crowd to its feet. The Huskies made their first four 3-point shots, three by Hawkins, who had 14 points in the first half.

A hook shot by Sanogo gave UConn its first 20-point lead at 32-12 .

A late first-half run by Marquette cut the margin to 43-29, but Alleyne hit a 3-pointer from almost half court to send UConn into the break with a 17-point cushion.

Another 3-pointer from Alleyne gave the Huskies a 59-38 lead in the second half.

UConn led by 25 before Marquette went on an 8-0 run to pull within 17. But the Golden Eagles never threatened to get back in the game.

“We won two or three games in January,” Hawkins said. “It was definitely a tough stretch, definitely going to shake your confidence. But you just have to stay the course, trust the process and that’s what we did and that’s what we’re going to continue to do during this last stretch.”

BIG PICTURE

Marquette: The Golden Eagles had won nine of 10. They are trying to win a regular-season conference title after being picked ninth in the preseason poll by the league’s coaches.

UConn: Entered 1-5 against the top five teams in the Big East and 1-3 versus ranked opponents. UConn lost 82-76 at Marquette on Jan. 11 after leading by 11 points in the first half.

“The rankings mean nothing,” Marquette coach Shaka Smart said. “It’s amazing the disparity – no disrespect to anyone here – between what the ranking means to media and fans in the middle of a season and what it means to players and coaches. It just doesn’t mean anything.”

BACK FROM INJURY

Marquette’s Sean Jones, who missed the previous three games with a wrist injury, had 11 points in just over 19 minutes. He came down hard on the wrist in the second half, but appeared to shake it off and continued playing.

REPEAT PERFORMANCE

Newton’s first triple-double came in November against Buffalo, when he had 22 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds. He joined Shabazz Napier as the only Huskies players to get more than one.

“My amigos right here, they were going crazy hitting shots,” Newton said. “They were boxing out and I was getting the rebound, so I just had the easy job, just get them the ball.”

UP NEXT

Marquette: At last-place Georgetown on Saturday.

UConn: Will visit No. 23 Creighton on Saturday.

Jackson-Davis leads No. 18 Indiana past No. 24 Rutgers 66-60

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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – The milestone moments keep piling up for Trayce Jackson-Davis.

Only one really mattered Tuesday night.

While he scored 20 points to become the sixth player in Hoosiers’ history with 2,000 and the first among that group with 1,000 career rebounds, the most satisfying celebration came after No. 18 Indiana beat No. 24 Rutgers 66-60 – Jackson-Davis’ first win in the series.

“I think that’s the last team in the Big Ten I hadn’t beaten,” Jackson-Davis said after finishing with 18 rebounds and six assists.

From the moment Jackson-Davis announced he would attend Indiana, the expectations were great even as critics contended the results were underwhelming.

Nobody’s complaining now. Jackson-Davis now has 2,004 points, 1,035 rebounds, a school-record 242 blocks and ranks fourth all-time with 44 double-doubles after breaking a tie with Steve Downing.

After helping the Hoosiers snap a five-year NCAA Tournament drought last season and falling out of the rankings after three straight January losses, Jackson-Davis has almost single-handedly led the Hoosiers (17-7, 8-5 Big Ten) into a second-place tie by winning seven of eight.

And his dominance is starting to open things up for his teammate. Or perhaps it’s the other way around.

“I think we’ve gotten a lot better playing around Trayce, giving him space,” Miller Kopp said after scoring 18 points. “It comes down to getting better at what the coaches are asking us to do and we’re all feeling more comfortable with where our looks are coming from.”

It certainly showed against the Scarlet Knights (16-8, 8-5), who had won six straight over Indiana including a 15-point blowout in December.

This time, though, they spent most of the game playing catchup. Clifford Omoruyi had 15 points, Cam Spencer had 14 and nobody else made more than three baskets.

“It’s a one-possession game with three minutes left, but I look at the (free throw) disparity and you can’t defend the foul line,” coach Steve Pikiell said. “Give Indiana credit, they got there. Tracye Jackson-Davis was a problem.”

The Hoosiers started fast and then scored 12 straight points to take a 30-14 lead midway through the first half but even without injured starting forward Mawot Mag, Rutgers charged back. It closed the first half on an 11-2 run, then tied it at 38 when Spencer opened the second half with a 3-pointer.

Kopp broke the tie with his third 3 of the game to start an 11-0 run and Jackson-Davis’ monumental basket, a putback dunk off his own miss, made it 54-44 with 11:13 to go.

The Scarlet Knights could have tied it on Caleb McConnell’s 3 with 3:02 left, but it bounced off the back of the rim and the Hoosiers closed Jackson-Davis’ big win with a 7-2 spurt.

“He’s a man who’s done a lot since he’s been here,” said coach Mike Woodson, who is 57 points ahead of Jackson-Davis on the Hoosiers’ scoring list. “He’s a phenomenal player who does a lot of beautiful things on the court. To get 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds says a lot.”

BIG PICTURE

Rutgers: Mag missed his first game with a torn ACL in his right knee and Rutgers struggled against Indiana’s size and speed. There could be similar challenges over the final eight regular-season games.

Indiana: Woodson’s team is playing, at times, like the conference’s preseason pick to win the league title. When the Hoosiers make perimeter shots and defend well, they’re a difficult matchup for anyone. They just need fewer lulls.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

The victory should help solidify Indiana’s top-20 status – at least until it hits the road for their next two games. Losing Mag and Tuesday’s game may make Rutgers’ return to the rankings short-lived regardless of what happens later this week.

UP NEXT

Rutgers: Visits Illinois on Saturday

Indiana: Heads to Michigan on Saturday.

Pitt moves into 1st-place ACC tie destroying Louisville

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PITTSBURGH – Nike Sibande scored 15 points off the bench, nine Pittsburgh players entered the scoring column and the Panthers demolished Louisville 91-57 on Tuesday night and moved into a first-place tie with Clemson in the ACC.

Entering play Tuesday, the top five teams in the ACC were separated by just a game in the standings. A win by No. 8 Virginia against No. 22 North Carolina State Tuesday would create a three-way tie for first between Clemson, Pitt and the Cavaliers.

Against Louisville, the Panthers (17-7, 10-3) distributed 23 assists on 28-made baskets. Defensively, Pitt held Louisville (3-21, 1-12) to 27.6% (16 for 58) shooting and outrebounded the Cardinals 37-30. Mike James scored 11 points for Louisville.

El Ellis made a pair of foul shots to bring Louisville into a 14-all tie with 13:36 before halftime. Pitt then went on a 16-2 run over nearly the next five minutes. Six-different Panthers scored during the run. Nate Santos’ 3-pointer with 9:38 before the break made it 27-16 and Pitt led by double digits the rest of the way. A 47-27 halftime lead turned into a 58-28 margin just 1:59 into the second half.

With the win, the Panthers reached double digits in conference wins for just the second time in 10 ACC seasons. Pitt went 11-7 in its first year in the ACC following its 12-6 campaign in its final year in the Big East in 2012-13.

Louisville will continue its road trip when it takes on No. 19 Miami on Saturday. Pitt travels to face Florida State on Saturday.

Appleby scores 35 as Wake Forest holds off Tar Heels 92-85

William Howard-USA TODAY Sports
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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – Tyree Appleby scored a season-high 35 points, 23 coming at the free-throw line, and Wake Forest built a big lead early then held on for a 92-85 victory over North Carolina on Tuesday night.

Appleby was just two points short of his career high while tying his best of 11 assists and sharing the team lead with seven rebounds. Though only 6 of 20 from the floor, he made a career-best 23 of 28 free throws including 13 straight in the final two minutes when the Tar Heels got as close as seven after trailing by 26 early in the second half.

Damari Monsanto had three 3-pointers and 16 points with seven rebounds and Matthew Marsh came off the bench to score 10 points for the Demon Deacons (16-9, 8-6 ACC), who won their second straight after losing four in a row.

Caleb Love made all four of North Carolina’s 3-pointers, including three in the final minute, and finished with 24 points for the Tar Heels (15-9, 7-6), who have lost three straight. Armando Bacot, who played only eight minutes of the second half before fouling out, had 17 points and 11 rebounds. RJ Davis added 16 points and Pete Nance had 11 points and 10 rebounds.

When these teams met on Jan. 4, an 88-79 win for North Carolina, there were 20 lead changes. Tuesday night, there was a lone lead change two minutes into the game as Wake Forest quickly took control and led 47-25 at halftime.

The Tar Heels trailed by 10 with 3 1/2 minutes left in the game not long after Bacot fouled out. They got as close as seven in the final minute thanks to Love but no closer because of Appleby.

Still, it took two from the line by Daivien Williamson with 12 seconds left for a 10-point lead that finally ensured the win before Love hit his final 3-pointer.

In their Jan. 4 game, North Carolina scored 32 points off 15 turnovers. Tuesday, the Deacons committed just five. They finished 33 of 42 at the line to 21 of 26 for the Heels.

North Carolina is home against Clemson and Wake Forest is host to Georgia Tech, both games on Saturday.

Texas A&M beats Auburn 83-78, completes season sweep

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COLLEGE STATION, Texas – Wade Taylor IV had 22 points and seven assists, Julius Marble scored a career-high 20 points and Texas A&M beat Auburn 83-78 on Tuesday night to complete a regular-season sweep.

The last of 11 lead changes in the final eight minutes came after Texas A&M made 7 of 9 shots, with three straight makes from Marble, to build a 78-74 lead with 2:09 left.

Auburn guard Wendell Green Jr. was short on a long 3-pointer and Tyrece Radford secured the defensive rebound before being fouled with 24.9 seconds left. Radford made two free throws to extend Texas A&M’s lead to 80-76. Green had a layup roll off the rim and Andersson Garcia went 1 of 2 from the line for a five-point lead before Auburn was short on another 3-pointer with 10.8 left.

Texas A&M was 31 of 39 from the free-throw line compared to 9 of 14 for Auburn.

Garcia added 11 points and Radford scored 10 for Texas A&M (17-7, 9-2 SEC), which also beat then-No. 15 Auburn 79-63 on Jan. 25. The Aggies are off to their best conference start since joining the SEC in 2012.

Green finished with 20 points and six assists for Auburn (17-7, 7-4). Johni Broome had 18 points and 10 rebounds before fouling out late and Jaylin Williams and Allen Flanigan each scored 12 points.

Texas A&M plays at LSU on Saturday. Auburn, which has lost four of its last five games, hosts No. 3 Alabama on Saturday.