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