AP Photo/Mel Evans

College Hoops Contender Series: Here Are Six Final Four Sleepers

1 Comment

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.

First up: Final Four Sleepers

It takes a certain amount of talent to be able to win a national title in college basketball, even if that talent doesn’t always show up every night.

Winning four games in two weeks to get to the season’s final weekend can be done by a team with a handful of future pros and 10 losses on the season. We see it all the time.

Here are seven teams that have the tools to make a run to the Final Four even if they don’t have a great chance of winning their conference and look likely to enter the NCAA tournament outside the top four seeds.

Angel Delgado, Seton Hall (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

SETON HALL

If you’re not the kind of program that is going to be landing five-star, soon-to-be lottery pick freshmen by the car-load each and every fall, the best way to win basketball games is to get old and stay old. No one quite embodies that ethos this season like Seton Hall does.

Head coach Kevin Willard entered the 2015-16 season on the hot seat after his loaded 2014 recruiting class sparked a 13-3 start to the 2014-15 season before the team fell off a cliff, losing 12 of their last 15 games and missing out on the postseason entirely. Following that season, the Pirates jettisoned some of their baggage and returned a core of sophomores that would eventually lead the program to back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances despite losing Isaiah Whitehead to the 2016 NBA Draft.

And now, four members of that 2014 recruiting class — guards Khadeen Carrington and Desi Rodriguez, big men Angel Delgado and Ishmael Sanogo — are now seniors leading what may be the best Seton Hall team since the P.J. Carlesimo days. Delgado’s name is the one you need to know. The 6-foot-9 Dominican power forward is one of the toughest and most physical bigs in the country. It’s not a mistake that he averaged 15.2 points and 13.1 boards last season, numbers that jumped to 16.4 points and 14.5 boards in Big East play.

He’s Seton Hall’s All-American. He was also the team’s third-leading scorer last year, behind Carrington and Rodriguez, who are both tough, physical New York City guards; Carrington is more of a combo while Rodriguez is a wing. Sanogo Michael Nzei are tough, athletic, defensive-minded front court players, and you’re starting to see the trend here, right?

Playing Seton Hall is not going to be fun this season, and while they may not be the most talented team in the country this year, you’ll be hard-pressed to find one that plays harder.

There are going to be two things that determine Seton Hall’s ceiling:

  • Does Seton Hall have a point guard? Freshman Jordan Walker is the only true point that will be eligible this season, and the Pirates ran into some problems that came with a lack of playmakers last season. Asking a freshman to handle those responsibilities will be tough, but it helps that Carrington can handle the ball and that everyone else on the floor will be a veteran.
  • What does Myles Powell turn into? He had some promising moments as a freshman, including 26-point outbursts at Iowa and at Xavier. If he become a more consistent shooter, that opens up a lot more space for Delgado inside.
Collin Sexton (David Banks/Getty Images)

ALABAMA

Last year, Alabama finished the season as one of the top ten defensive teams in college basketball, according to KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric.

Not only do the Crimson Tide return essentially everyone from that team, they also add one of the nation’s best recruiting classes to the mix. More importantly, that recruiting class features players that are able to get buckets in a hurry, and if you any Alabama basketball a year ago, you know that was a major issue; they were 153rd in adjusted offensive efficiency and, in February, played a four-overtime game against South Carolina where they managed all of 90 points in 60 minutes of basketball.

The name that you’re going to want to be familiar with is Collin Sexton, a top ten prospect in the class and the pound-for-pound best freshman scorer in the country. Assuming he’s eligible – which is no guarantee given the fact that he appears to be linked to the college basketball bribery scandal that erupted last week – it’s going to be interesting to see how he adjusts to the college level — in high school, the 6-foot-2 guard’s game was centered around getting into the lane, throwing his body into people and getting to the foul line — but he should immediately help relieve some of those scoring issues, as will five-star off-guard John Petty. Braxton Key and Dazon Ingram are both back in the mix as well, while former four-star big man Daniel Giddens will be eligible after transferring in from Ohio State.

I’m still very-much taking a wait-and-see approach with the Tide this year, but the combination of last year’s defense combined with the influx of scoring talent Avery Johnson will see in his back court this year gets the Tide a ceiling that is as high as anyone’s in the SEC this side of Kentucky and Florida.

UCLA

It’s going to be easy for people to write off this UCLA team.

Lonzo Ball is gone, as is T.J. Leaf, Ike Anigbogu, Isaac Hamilton and Bryce Alford. Instead, the Bruins will enroll Liangelo Ball, the worst of the three Ball brothers and the one that may end up igniting LaVar’s ire if he does not play the kind of minutes and get the kind of shots he envisions.

Frankly, I’m not even going to bother trying to convince you otherwise. There are major, major question marks surrounding this team.

But let’s pretend, for a second, that LaVar Ball did not exist.

The Bruins may have the best point guard in the Pac-12 in Aaron Holiday, who is one of the nation’s most underrated players. They have Thomas Welsh, a senior big man that can space the floor, and G.G. Goloman, another veteran front court presence. Prince Ali is coming off of an injury but he was a five-star prospect coming out of high school. Then there is the recruiting class: Jaylen Hands might be the reason that Holiday isn’t the best point guard on UCLA this year, and wing Kris Wilkes may actually have the biggest impact as a freshman. Throw in four-star recruits Chris Smith, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill, and there is talent, depth and experience up and down this lineup.

They’ve got a shot to make some noise.

J.P. Macura, Trevon Bluiett (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

XAVIER

You want a sneaky sleeper pick for National Player of the Year that no one seems to be talking about?

Trevon Bluiett.

The 6-foot-6 wing was an absolute killer when he wasn’t dealing with an ankle injury last season, and through the first three rounds of last year’s NCAA tournament, he was the best player in the event. He’ll be back, potentially as a Preseason First-Team All-American, to anchor a roster that is probably more talented and athletic than you realize.

Senior wing J.P. Macura is back, as is sophomore Quentin Goodin, a former four-star recruit that has some promising moments as in an up-and-down freshman season filling in for the injured Edmond Sumner. Throw in a trio of four-star perimeter recruits, an experienced and versatile frontline and The Return of the (Chris) Mack, who was a target during Indiana’s coaching search, and there is a lot to like about this team.

But it’s Bluiett that is the centerpiece. As much as anyone in college basketball, he can put this group on his back and carry them to four straight wins in March, and with this supporting cast and coaching staff, that make Xavier a dangerous team.

MINNESOTA

The Golden Gophers were one of college basketball’s biggest surprises a season ago. Richard Pitino entered the season on the hot seat before winning 12 of their first 13 games only to lose five straight midway through Big Ten play. They would regroup, however, winning eight straight down the stretch, finishing the year with 24 wins and, somehow, turning into the obvious first round NCAA tournament upset as a No. 5 seed.

It was a roller coaster, but given the youth that was on that roster and the fact that Akeem Springs is the only contributor that won’t be returning to school, it was a nice starting point for what could turn into an extended run of Big Ten success.

Nate Mason is back for his senior year while junior Dupree McBrayer and freshman Isaiah Washington give Pitino plenty of back court options. Amir Coffey, a former five-star recruit, had a terrific freshman campaign as a versatile wing while the front court options are plentiful — Reggie Lynch and Bakary Konate return, and Davante Fitzgerald’s return to health should help mitigate the loss of Eric Curry.

All told, that means a Pitino-coached team has a talented, experienced perimeter attack with a bevy of big bodies on the front line. If Coffey can grow into an all-Big Ten talent, Minnesota will have the horses to give Michigan State a run for their money atop the league.

Matt Farrell, Bonzie Colson (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

NOTRE DAME

To me, the Fighting Irish have reached the point in their program development that they are to the ACC what Wisconsin was to the Big Ten under Bo Ryan. Instead of trying to figure out who is going to play what role, just assume that the pieces Mike Brey has matriculating through his program will find a way to figure it out.

There is no better example of this than last year, when the Irish lost Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste from a team that went 24-12 and somehow managed to win more games with a better ACC record despite using 6-foot-5 Bonzie Colson as their small-ball center for much of the year.

And never has there been a player more perfectly-suited to a role than Colson is to playing in Mike Brey’s system. He’s borderline unstoppable one-on-one, and when the Irish plant knockdown shooters everywhere around him, they become a nightmare to defend.

Matt Farrell, who was one of the most pleasant surprises in college basketball last season, will return as well, but the key for this group is going to be three-fold:

  1. Will Temple Gibbs and Rex Pflueger, two wings that entered Notre Dame with expectations and a high rankings by recruiting services, take advantage of the minutes made available by the graduation of Steve Vasturia and V.J. Beachem?
  2. Will D.J. Harvey, a talented forward that was once a top ten player in the Class of 2017, have an immediate impact as the big wing that the Irish currently lack?
  3. Does Martinas Geben become a player that can anchor a front line when needed?

If all three of those things happen, Notre Dame will once again be a top 20 team that can beat anyone on any given night.

Kansas transfer Grimes receives waiver, eligible immediately at Houston

Patrick Smith/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Maybe we now know why Houston was picked to win the AAC over Memphis.

On Tuesday, news broke that Quentin Grimes had won his appeal and received a waiver to gain immediate eligibility this season. Grimes was a top ten prospect in the Class of 2018, but after going for 21 points in the season opening Champions Classic, he struggled. In 36 games, Grimes averaged just 8.4 points and 2.0 assists while failing to prove himself a lead guard and struggling with consistency as a shooter.

Part of the reason why Grimes eventually was ruled eligible for this season was that Kansas did not have a scholarship available for him. The Jayhawks supported his eligibility throughout the process.

Grimes will get a chance at starting over with Houston, where Kelvin Sampson has proven to be exceptional at getting the most out of his backcourt. He’ll join DeJon Jarreau, one of this year’s breakout stars, and Nate Hinton in Houston’s perimeter.

With Grimes in the mix, Houston has the making of a top 20 team.

Grimes released the following statement on twitter:

Michigan State’s Langford out until January with ankle injury

Rey Del Rio/Getty Images
Leave a comment

The joy of being named the No. 1 team in the AP preseason poll lasted for a matter of hours for Michigan State.

Because that’s when the Spartans found out that Joshua Langford, who missed the second half of last season, would be out for another three months after suffering a setback in his attempt to return from that ankle injury.

“It breaks my heart,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo told reporters on Tuesday. “I love Josh Langford. He’s given me everything on the court, off the court, in the classroom.”

Langford started the first 13 games last season before the ankle injury kept him out, but he was cleared to practice in full in September. But Izzo said on Tuesday that Langford’s ankle had limited him of late and that he did not play when the Spartans scrimmaged Gonzaga in Denver on Saturday.

College Basketball’s Breakout Stars: Who will be this year’s most improved players?

Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Leave a comment

One of my favorite things to do heading into a season is to put together a list of the season’s Breakout Stars. 

Sometimes, the picks are just too obvious – think De’Andre Hunter, or P.J. Washington, or Nickeil Alexander-Walker. 

Sometimes, those obvious picks just don’t pan out – like Herb Jones, or M.J. Walker, or Cane Broome.

Sometimes, a guy needs to be on the list for a couple years before he actually reaches said breakout – hi Jermaine Samuels!

Some people have strictly-defined parameters for putting together a list like this. I do not, beyond the basic principle that the player will be going from playing a role to being a star, whether that means he was a starter that will become an all-american or a bit-player slated to be a key cog on a potential Final Four team matters not.

Anyway, here are the 17 players that will be household names by the end of the year:



JERMAINE SAMUELS, Villanova

There’s an argument to make that Samuels’ breakout already happened.

It happened on February 28th of last season. Samuels popped off for a career-high 29 points, hitting five threes, as Villanova snapped a three-game losing streak by knocking off Marquette at home. During that three-game losing streak, Samuels had gone scoreless while attempting just two shots. Over the final seven games of the season, he averaged 11.0 points, cracked double-figures five times and helped lead the Wildcats to their fifth Big East regular season title and fourth Big East tournament title in the last six years.

And now the Wildcats are entering a season without Phil Booth and Eric Paschall to carry the offense while Bryan Antoine, their five-star freshman guard, is out with a shoulder injury. Someone needs to provide Villanova with some scoring. Samuels is a former top 40 recruit that picked Villanova over Duke and Kansas, that has proven the ability to put up big numbers and is a perfect fit for what Villanova’s offense has been over the course of the last half-decade. He’s a junior now. This is the year that players make the leap on the Main Line, and I’ll be ready for it.

ANDREW NEMBHARD, Florida

Everyone wants to talk about Kerry Blackshear and what his arrival will mean for Florida. What people seem to be forgetting is that Andrew Nembhard is a former five-star recruits that averaged 8.0 points and 5.4 assists as a freshman for the Gators and will be helping to fill the “role” vacated by uber-inefficient gunners Jalen Hudson and Kevaughn Allen. I think Blackshear ends up being the best player on the Gators this season, but Nembhard may end up being their MVP and their leader. On a team that projects to finish in the top ten and contend for SEC titles and the Final Four, that’s going to put him in the All-American conversation. That, to me, counts as a breakout star.

TRE JONES, Duke

This all hinges on what Jones becomes as a shooter this season. We’ve talked about this ad nauseum. I put together an entire video about it. Jones may just be the most influential player in all of college basketball this season.

TYRESE HALIBURTON, Iowa State

I’m torn about having Haliburton on this list because I’m not exactly sure how much better he can play than he did over the first three months of last season. That said, Iowa State is going to be one of the better teams in the Big 12 this season, and after a terrific performance playing for Team USA in the U-19 World Cup, Haliburton returns to Ames to play for an Iowa State team that lost pretty much everyone in front of him in the offensive pecking order.

The thing to note here is that I am not expecting Haliburton to suddenly become a guy that averages 18 points. That’s not who he is or how he plays. But I do think that there is a chance that he puts up a stat line that is somewhere around 12 points, six boards, six assists and two steals while shooting better than 40 percent from three. Put another way, we’re going to know that he is a star without having to look at the counting numbers to confirm it.

JAY HUFF, Virginia

We have talked plenty about Jay Huff and Virginia’s big guys in this space, but I think that he is in line for a massive jump this season. On the one hand, he’s actually going to be playing. Huff was in the same recruiting class as Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy. He redshirted his first year in Charlottesville, he played just twelve games as a freshman and managed to see the floor for roughly 10 minutes a night last year. With so much of Virginia’s frontcourt depth gone, he is going to be getting 30-35 minutes a night this year.

But as we talked about in the video below, it’s not just the added minutes that changes things. It’s how good Huff is as the big guy in ball-screen actions and the fact that Virginia ran a more ball-screen heavy offense last season. Huff is a 7-foot-1 rim-running, lob-catching, shot-blocking menace that also shoots threes at a 45 percent clip while being able to put the ball on the floor. He’s going to have a massive year.

ISAIAH LIVERS, Michigan

With Iggy Brazdeikis gone after his one-and-done season, Livers is going to be the guy that steps up for the Wolverines. A hyper-athletic, 6-foot-7 combo-forward, Livers is a good, versatile defensive weapon that shot 42.6 percent from three last year. Someone is going to have to step up and fill the scoring void that has been vacated by the departures, and Livers seems to be the obvious fit. I would not be shocked to see Livers showing up in NBA mock drafts at some point during this season.

DEJON JARREAU, Houston

This one is simple, really. Jarreau played just 18 minutes per game last season and still managed to put up 8.7 points and 3.3 assists despite sharing the backcourt with the likes of Corey Davis, Armoni Brooks and Galen Robinson. This year, those three are gone, which means that Jarreau is going to be the guy that the offense runs through. I think that he is up for the task, and considering Kelvin Sampson’s track record of finding a way to figure things out with his lead guards, all the dots connect.

NOJEL EASTERN, Purdue

Matt Painter has been as good as anyone in the country at finding ways to get his best players into positions where they can succeed, and I think that this year is the year that he figures out how to take advantage of the things that Eastern does well. He’s a skilled passer that has terrific size at the point and has proven the ability to take smaller guards into the post. I think that Aaron Wheeler and Trevion Williams are candidates for this list as well, but I tend to lean towards the veterans when it comes to Painter working his magic.

OCHAI AGBAJI, Kansas

This pick is not actually as easy as it may seem, and that’s because Agbaji’s emergence last season came after Udoka Azubuike went down with his wrist injury. So while Kansas is losing Dedric Lawson, among other, Azubuike is coming back and is going to demand a very large market share of the Jayhawks offense. Throw in Devon Dotson’s continued development, and the added opportunities for Agbaji may not be there. That said, I think that he is clearly the most talented perimeter player on the Jayhawks roster this season, and given his size, athleticism and ability from the perimeter, I think there is a real chance that he ends up playing major minutes as the four in this Kansas system.

Put another way, he’s definitely going to be better than he was when his redshirt was pulled midway through his first season in Lawrence, and he is definitely going to be a useful weapon for Bill Self, I just don’t see him emerging as a guy that scores 15 points per game.

COREY KISPERT and FILIP PETRUSEV, Gonzaga

These decisions somewhat hinge on whether or not Killian Tillie is back and fully healthy this season. If he is, then I think that Kispert is the guy that takes the biggest step forward for the Zags. He’s an underrated talent that has been hidden by the likes of Zach Norvell and Rui Hachimura, but he’s a guy that has the potential to be an all-WCC performer if given the opportunity. If Tillie ends up being banged up all season long, than Petrusev is the obvious pick. He’s a really talented big that will carry even more of the load without Tillie’s presence.

REGGIE PERRY, Mississippi State

After getting off to a relatively slow start to his freshman season, Perry was absolutely dominant for long stretches of SEC play. He averaged 11.2 points and 8.2 boards during conference play, posting eight double-doubles. After an offseason to develop, he should end up being the focal point of Ben Howland’s offense as a sophomore.

KIRA LEWIS, Alabama

The way that Nate Oats played at Buffalo, he gave his lead guards quite a bit of responsibility. Lewis is going to be his lead guard this season. As a 17-year old in the SEC, he averaged 13.5 points and 2.9 assists. He’s heading into his sophomore season at the same age as the kids in the Class of 2019 heading into their freshmen year.

JOE WIESKAMP, Iowa

As a freshman, Wieskamp was one of the best shooters in the Big Ten, averaging 11.1 points and shooting 42.4 percent from three. Then Iowa lost Tyler Cook to the draft and lost Isaiah Moss to transfer and look like they may have lost Jordan Bohannon for the season. Someone is going to have to score, and Wieskamp is certainly capable of that.

OSUN OSUNNIYI, St. Bonaventure

Osunniyi was one of the best defensive players in all of college basketball last season, averaging 2.7 blocks to go along with his 7.5 points and 7.6 boards. With three of the Bonnies’ top four scorers graduating, he is going to be asked to play a much bigger role this season.

NATE REUVERS, Wisconsin

There is always someone waiting in the wings in Wisconsin’s frontcourt, and this year it is Nate Reuvers. As a sophomore, playing on a team that ran their offense through Ethan Happ, Reuvers averaged 7.9 points, 3.9 boards and 1.8 blocks while shooting 38.1 percent from three. If the Badgers are going to get back to the NCAA tournament, they are going to need Reuvers to have a monster junior season.

JALEN HILL, UCLA

Hill is a bit of a reach, but someone is going to have to step up and be Mick Cronin’s frontcourt anchor, and Hill makes sense. He’s long and athletic, he can rebound and he can block shots, he can do all of the things that Cronin got out of his big men for the last 13 years in Cincinnati. There is more talent in Westwood than people realize. Hill is the perfect example of that.

Michigan’s Franz Wagner out 4-6 weeks with fractured wrist

Michael Reaves/Getty Images
Leave a comment

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan freshman Franz Wagner is expected to miss four to six weeks with a fractured right wrist.

The school said Monday a full recovery is anticipated. The 6-foot-8 Wagner is the younger brother of former Michigan standout Moe Wagner. He’s expected to be a key newcomer in the basketball team’s first season under new coach Juwan Howard.

The Wolverines open Nov. 5 against Appalachian State. They face Creighton on Nov. 12 and Louisville on Dec. 3, and play in a tournament in the Bahamas in late November. Those are all games Wagner could conceivably miss if he ends up on the long end of his recovery timeline.

Michigan opens Big Ten play Dec. 6 against Iowa.

Kansas-Missouri hoops series to resume next season in KC

Ed Zurga/Getty Images
Leave a comment

LAWRENCE, Kan. — The Border War is returning to college basketball.

The acrimonious rivalry between Kansas and Missouri, once the longest continually played series west of the Mississippi River, will resume next season in Kansas City. The schools have agreed to play six times, with four of those matchups taking place on their respective campuses.

“Having coached a lot of games versus Missouri in my time in Kansas, I could not be more excited to start this series up again,” Jayhawks coach Bill Self, who had been among the biggest reasons the teams never played, said in a statement announcing the series Monday night.

The series began in 1907 with a pair of wins by Missouri in Lawrence. The schools went on to play 269 times over 105 years. The last meeting was on Feb. 25, 2012, when the No. 4 Jayhawks rallied from a 19-point second-half deficit to beat the No. 3 Tigers in overtime at Allen Fieldhouse.

The reason the series ended can be traced to Missouri’s decision to depart its longtime home in the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference. During a period of chaotic conference realignment, the Tigers moved to what they considered a more lucrative league — even though it made far less geographic sense — and in doing so left the Big 12 scrambling for its very survival.

Many coaches and administrators at Kansas not only took umbrage with their decision but held a grudge for years. Among them was Self, who was asked periodically over the years if he could envision playing the Tigers again, and was usually steadfast in his refusal to schedule them.

Tensions finally cooled enough that on Oct. 22, 2017, the schools agreed to play an exhibition game in Kansas City dubbed “The Showdown for Relief” to raise money for hurricane relief efforts.

Kansas won 93-87 in their first meeting in five years.

The thousands of fans who turned up for the game, coupled with the buzz it generated on both sides of the Kansas-Missouri border, piqued the interest of new Kansas athletic director Jeff Long. He was not part of the conference realignment mess and harbored no ill will toward Missouri, making him the ideal figure to help patch up relationships and ultimately resume the rivalry.

“One of the best aspects of college athletics is rivalries,” Long said. “We have quietly sought input from fans and supporters on the renewal of this series and we believe the overriding sentiments are that this historic rivalry should resume.”

After the initial game scheduled for Dec. 12, 2020, at the Sprint Center in downtown Kansas City, the schools will alternate between Allen Fieldhouse and Mizzou Arena for the next four games. The final scheduled matchup will return to Sprint Center, though it’s possible the series continues.

It’s also possible that the basketball matchups are just the beginning.

“Hopefully, this renewal on the hardwood will lead to more opportunities down the road in other sports,” Tigers athletic director Jim Sterk said. “Rivalries make college sports great, and there is no question that when Missouri and Kansas face off in any sport, it’s important to a lot of people.”