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College Hoops Contender Series: Three (flawed?) Final Four favorites

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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. Today, we talk Final Four contenders.

To me, there is a clear-cut line between the teams ranked in the top four or five and the rest of the top 25. Duke probably should be ranked No. 1 in your preseason poll, but their question marks at the point guard spot and the youth on the roster are enough that I can see two teams arguably being ranked above them.

I also think there is another clear-cut tier of teams, through the top 12, that are good enough that they are a decent bet to get to the Final Four in San Antonio while being flawed enough that we cannot consider them a true title contender, at least not in October.

Two of those teams won a national title in recent years: Villanova and Louisville. Another, West Virginia, has yet to make it out of the Sweet 16 as Press Virginia. Let’s take a dive into those three teams, shall we?

RELATED: Big Ten PreviewACC Preview | Perry Ellis All-Stars | Contender Series

Jalen Brunson (Eric Francis/Getty Images)

VILLANOVA

Over the course of the last four years, Villanova has done the following:

  • Won four outright Big East regular season titles, with each title coming by at least two full games.
  • In those four seasons, they’ve gone 63-9 in Big East play and 129-17 overall.
  • The next-best record in the Big East over those four years is Xavier’s 42-30 mark.
  • The combined-record of the conference runner-up during this Villanova dynasty is 52-20, 11 games worse than the Wildcats. Including Big East tournament games, Villanova has lost just 11 times to Big East teams during those four years.
  • They’ve won two Big East tournament titles.
  • They won the 2016 national title.

There has not been a more successful team in college basketball over the course of that four-year period, so why in the world would it make sense to assume that trend would change heading into the 2017-18 season?

Well, the Wildcats lost Josh Hart, a first-team all-american last season and a first round draft pick last June, as well as Kris Jenkins, the man who gave Villanova their first national title since 1985.

Those are big, big losses, and it would be silly to argue otherwise, but losing stars has not slowed Villanova down during this run. They lost James Bell and Jayvaughn Pinkston after the first league title. They lost Darrun Hilliard the year after. Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu graduated after the Wildcats won the title. Jay Wright has built a program that is as adept as any at handling turnover within a roster, and this season should be no exception.

It starts with Jalen Brunson, the former McDonald’s All-American point guard who was arguably Villanova’s best player for a stretch at the end of his sophomore season. I’m not sure there is a higher IQ player in the country than Brunson, who has done nothing but win throughout the entirety of basketball career, whether it was at the high school or college level.

He’ll be an all-american this season, the biggest reason that Villanova remains at the top of the Big East standings.

Even with the loss of Hart, Villanova will have some of the best wings in the sport. Phil Booth is back after missing last season through injury, and Mikal Bridges should take another step forward this year. The guy to watch here is Donte DiVincenzo, who had a terrific redshirt freshman season and will be atop every list of breakout players this year. Eric Paschall is back, former five-star center Omari Spellman will be eligible and Jermaine Samuels has all the makings of the next great Villanova wing.

Change doesn’t hurt this program.

I’m not sure what would actually hurt this program.

But I do know this: Villanova has one of the nation’s best coaches. They have one of the nation’s best point guards. They have three redshirt juniors and a redshirt sophomore that will rotate through on the wings. And they have a pair of freshmen that picked the Wildcats over the nation’s bluebloods.

The only thing that makes me hesitant to put Villanova on this list is the narrative. They won the 2016 national title. They didn’t get out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament in 2014, 2015 or 2017.

Can we really call them a Final Four favorite if all they do is win national titles or get upset?

MORE2017-18 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

V.J. King (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

LOUISVILLE

Back in May, back before Donovan Mitchell had climbed his way into the lottery of NBA Draft boards and when it looked like there was at least a shot that he would be returning to school, Louisville was very much in the conversation to be the preseason No. 1 overall team in the country.

That, however, has changed just a bit.

Not only did Mitchell leave, and not only did Louisville find out that the banners that they hung in 2012 (Final Four) and 2013 (National Title) may end up coming down, but the Cardinals were implicated in last month’s FBI complaints that resulted in the arrest of ten people. Rick Pitino was fired. Star freshman Brian Bowen will probably never play college basketball.

And here we are.

The Cardinals still have a bevy of talent on their roster this season, enough that, in a vacuum, they would be able to make a return to the Final Four, a nice consolation prize should all of the 2012 and 2013 seasons get wiped off the books. But that is assuming that this group is able to band together playing for interim head coach David Padgett. That’s not out of the question. The Louisville players have been through more than any college team ever should have to go through. They lived through the escort scandal, the banners coming down and now the end of the Pitino era.

There is a chance the ends up being a story with a happy ending.

Strictly in terms of basketball, the way I see it there are three specific issues that are going to have to be addressed in one way or another for Louisville this year:

  1. Who get better? After a freshman season that went to ruin because of injury, Deng Adel quietly had a good sophomore year that was particularly impressive down the stretch of the season. Will he take another step forward this year? Will V.J. King, a former five-star prospect that Rick Pitino has said is in line for a Mitchell-esque jump as a sophomore this season? What about Ray Spalding and Anas Mahmoud? Both front court players have NBA measureables and unique skillsets, but neither have been able to put together consistent performances.
  2. Just how good are the freshmen? The star of this class was Brian Bowen, a five-star recruit that fell into Pitino’s lap after stars at Arizona and Michigan State opted not to enter the NBA Draft. But he will likely end up ineligible as fallout from the FBI complaints last month. The next name to know, then, is Malik Williams, who was something of a late-bloomer and, like Spalding and Mahmoud, has some intriguing longterm potential. Jordan Nwora is a floor-spacing forward and Lance Thomas is another big body up front, but the most interesting guy here may be Darius Perry because …
  3. … point guard is still a problem position. Quentin Snider has had moments of brilliance for the Cardinals. He was sensational in last year’s win over Kentucky and, after returning from injury, was really good for U of L down the stretch of last season. But he also put together a disastrous performance in the upset loss against Michigan in the second round of the Big Dance and, frankly, he’s not exactly what you think of when you think of a Rick Pitino point guard. Perry, however, is. He’s quick, he’s athletic, he’s a pest defensively and he’s aggressive going towards the rim. It will be good for Louisville if Perry pushes Snider for playing time, even if Snider remains the starter.

It’s impossible to know what to expect from David Padgett in his first season as a head coach, but the good news is that he’ll have the pieces to put together a good team. I still expect the Cardinals to be pretty typical Louisville — a nightmare for opponents on the defensive end, at times unwatchable offensively, potentially in the mix for an ACC title come February.

And if you’re in the mix for an ACC title, you have the kind of talent that could can together and make a deep run in March.

MOREThe Enigma of Miles Bridges | NBC Sports Preseason All-American Team

Jevon Carter (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

WEST VIRGINIA

I have a theory, and it dates back years and years and is the biggest reason that VCU fans generally despise my being.

In reality, it’s pretty simple, and to date I’ve been proven nothing but right: Teams that survive on a full court press inevitably have a ceiling.

Why?

Because the way that those teams play is built around the idea that they are going to out-effort, out-athlete and out-tough their opponent for 40 minutes. They win by wearing opponent’s out and by forcing ball-handlers into bad decisions. They need their opponent to make mistakes, and, generally speaking, the better a college basketball team is, the better their guards are. Better guards are less prone to making mistakes or getting flustered by a trapping press.

Put another way, why do you think that there are no full court pressing teams in the NBA?

Over the course of the last three seasons, West Virginia has redefined themselves as Press Virginia, playing as aggressive and as intense of a full court press as you’ll find anywhere in the country. The results have been impressive: at least 25 wins in three straight years, a 36-12 record in the Big 12 and back-to-back-to-back top-five seeds in the NCAA tournament.

But despite all that, West Virginia has yet to make it past the Sweet 16 despite ranking as a top-eight team on KenPom in each of the last two seasons.

Will this year be the year that the narrative changes?

It may be. Jevon Carter is back and may end up being the Big 12 Preseason Player of the Year. With Esa Ahmad and Daxter Miles Jr. alongside, him, the Mountaineers have experience and leadership to lean on. That said, the key to the success that Bob Huggins’ has had playing this style hasn’t been his stars, it’s the depth and the myriad bodies that he has at his disposal. That depth is going to be young this year, but Huggins does add a couple of JuCo wings while bringing along redshirt sophomore James Bolden, who showed flashes of potential last year. Throw in a half-dozen front court pieces, and the Mountaineers have the bodies.

They’ll miss Nathan Adrian’s shooting and his effort at the top of their zone. They’ll miss Teyvon Myers and Tarik Phillip torturing opposing ball-handlers. But we also thought they’d miss Devin Williams and Jonathan Holton and Jaysean Paige.

The program just keeps humming along.

This year should be no different. The question is whether or not it will end in the Sweet 16 once again.

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.