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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.

Denver’s Michael Porter Jr. is the posterchild for both sides of the one-and-done debate

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The NBA’s age-limit seems all but assured to disappear at some point.

The NBA sent out a memo this spring indicating that the age limit, the restriction of players under the age of 19 being drafted by NBA teams that created the one-and-done rule in college basketball, will be in effect through at least the 2021 draft. Last week reports suggested that the 2022 draft is more likely. The question isn’t if the rule will be changed, but when, which will be sure to create a contentious debate in the coming years over whether or not the one-and-done rule, which will have sent more than 100 stars through the college basketball ranks since its 2007 inception, was actually a good one.

If you’ve read this space over the years, you should know my stance by now: I’m staunchly against the idea of those in power — who are often old, rich and white — creating barriers to entry for young, often black, people from being able to capitalize monetarily on their value. It’s why I believe amateurism in college sports is reprehensible, and it’s why, with that rule in mind, I believe that the one-and-done rule should be abolished.

But I’m also not naïve.

Three months before the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball opened the eyes of some folks that wanted to remain in the dark I took a deep-dive into amateurism, the one-and-done rule and why going to college was still a pretty damn good option for college kids even with the knowledge that the money they accept could get them into trouble.

Read that before you read this, because I’m not here to today to talk about whether or not the one-and-done rule works.

I’m here to talk about Michael Porter Jr., who has managed to become the posterchild for people on both sides of this debate.

Heading into his freshman season at Missouri, Porter was considered by many to be a contender, if not the favorite, for the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. A 6-foot-11 athlete that plays the wing, that in theory has the tools to be a multi-positional defender and that is known for his ability to shoot the rock? Of course he’s going to ride that hype train in an NBA dominated by small-ball, pace-and-space and 7-footers trying to be Kevin Durant.

We all know what happened.

Porter had surgery on his back in November. He tried to return in March and it was clear he wasn’t back to being himself. He went through some workouts this spring, but suffered setbacks — at one point he reportedly couldn’t get out of bed — and has since undergone a second surgery on his back, according to a report for NBA.com.

That surgery came after Porter fell all the way to 14th in June’s draft, after Boston College’s Jerome Robinson.

If you’re an advocate for the players, Porter is the perfect example of everything that is wrong with the one-and-done rule. He lost nearly $20 million in guaranteed money dropping from the No. 1 pick to the No. 14 pick, which bloated NBA salaries might have made you forget is, quite literally, a fortune. You could make the argument that, if his back was so messed up, he would have fallen in the draft once NBA teams got a glance at his medicals, but he also could have withheld those medicals. He’s not required to give anyone anything pre-draft, and also ignores the red flags that were raised as intel leaked out about the kind of teammate he was at Missouri. Would he have been drafted higher than 14 had people close to the Missouri program called him something other than entitled and arrogant? Maybe? Probably?

Porter is the perfect example of the risk, for players, that comes with giving NBA decision-makers more information to make a decision.

And he’s also precisely why NBA owners wanted this rule in the first place, and why they likely wouldn’t complain about keeping players in college for another year if they could get that rule passed.

The one-and-done rule exists because NBA owners were tired of drafting high school kids that they couldn’t properly evaluate. Giving them a year to compete in college, where they play on national television every night against 22-year olds that have been coached by some great basketball minds, gives owners more data to analyze. Can the kid play a role? What happens when they play people the same size with comparable athleticism? Can they handle the rigors of league play? In Porter’s case, are they actually healthy?

Owners also didn’t want to give an 18-year old millions of dollars and let then loose in America’s best party cities with NBA celebrity attached to his name, and they didn’t want to pay a seven-figure salary to develop these kids as players only to see them bolt for greener pastures when they hit their prime. By delaying things for a year on the front end they are able to keep those players under contract and reap the benefits of their investment for an extra year on the back end. In other words, instead of paying an 18-year old to learn, put on weight and ride the bench, you send them to college for a year and then pay them to, hopefully, help your team win a lot of games as a 27-year old.

But it’s the former that was arguably the most important, because so much can be determined at the top of an NBA draft, especially for small-market teams that can’t attract big free agents. If, say, Milwaukee doesn’t draft Giannis Antetokounmpo, would they ever be able to sign a player of his talent? It’s why Sam Hinkie developed The Process. Drafting accuracy is so important in the NBA (see: Warriors, Golden State), and by sending the best prospects in the world to college for a year, NBA teams believe they will be more accurate.

And I can’t blame them for that.

The NBA is a business, and that’s just good business sense.

It’s why I’m starting to come around on the one-and-done rule.

I don’t want to see it go because I don’t think it’s necessarily the problem. Don’t listen to what Mark Emmert or Condoleeza Rice tries to tell you, college basketball is better for having the likes of Marvin Bagley III and Deandre Ayton on campus for a year. NBA teams are probably better off getting another 12 months to evaluate those prospects.

The issue, to me, isn’t that the kids have to go to college.

The issue is that they can’t get paid (legally) in college, and that heading to the G League is, by just about any measure imaginable, a lesser option.

Porter was compensated with one-year’s worth of an education that he may never actually use for a season that cost him $20 million.

It’s amazing how much in the sport of basketball can be solved if we stopped pretending that players getting paid was a bad thing.

Clemson, Brad Brownell agree to six-year contract

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Fresh off of leading the Tigers to the Sweet 16, Clemson agreed to a six-year contract extension with head coach Brownell that is worth $15 million.

“I want to thank Dan Radakovich, President Jim Clements and the Board of Trustees for continuing to support my leadership of our Clemson basketball program,” said Brownell. “I’m extremely thankful and blessed to have the opportunity to coach at this great University. I’m also grateful for the outstanding young men I’ve coached and for the dedicated assistant coaches and staff who’ve worked alongside me the past eight years. I’m proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish, both on and off the court, and look forward to building upon the success of last season.”

Brownell was on the hot seat entering the 2018-19 season, but the Tigers, who were picked 13th in the 15-team ACC, finished third in the conference, earned a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament and advanced to the Sweet 16. Brownell will also bring back a team talented enough to enter the year ranked in the preseason top 25.

Prior to last year’s run to the NCAA tournament, Brownell had gone six years — since his first season at Clemson back in 2010-11 — without reaching the Big Dance.

Nevada faces challenging non-conference schedule

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Nevada will likely be a preseason top 10 team as the Wolf Pack have major expectations following last year’s Sweet 16 appearance.

With head coach Eric Musselman returning most of last season’s roster, while adding some key new pieces, Nevada has huge expectations entering the 2018-19 season. That means a proper non-conference schedule to challenge this team, which was released on Wednesday.

A Sweet 16 rematch with Loyola is one of the key games on the schedule as the Wolf Pack will head to Chicago for a game on Nov. 27. Nevada will also play some Pac-12 opponents with road games at USC and Utah and a neutral court game against Arizona State. BYU, South Dakota State and Grand Canyon are a few of the challenging opponents from mid-major leagues while the team also had neutral court games against Tulsa and either UMass or Southern Illinois.

It seems as though Nevada will only have a few cracks at top-25 caliber opponents during non-conference play, but this schedule doesn’t have a lot of bad games while also including a healthy amount of neutral games. Since Nevada won’t get as many challenges playing in the Mountain West as a typical top-25 team, they’ll have a lot of eyeballs on them during some of these games — particularly the USC and Arizona State matchups.

The rematch with Loyola should be another fun road test as the crowd should be rocking in Chicago for that one.

Former Mizzou tutor plans to reveal ‘full list’ of participants in academic fraud case

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A former Missouri tutor that admitted in 2016 to providing improper academic benefits to multiple Tiger athletes on Monday said that she has been named in a new Notice of Allegations and intends to expose more people attached to the investigation.

Yolanda Kumar tweeted that she is planning on releasing “the full list of students, classes and coordinators on twitter” at 6:39 p.m. on Wednesday, adding that she was dropped from the original NOA but was added back into the latest version after she refused to sign a confidentiality agreement.

Missouri responded on Monday by acknowledging they had met with the Committee on Infractions and that the result of the investigation will prove that they acted with “integrity.”

“On June 13, 2018, the University appeared before the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions to review its investigative findings, and the Committee has since added a previously unnamed involved party and given notice of the Committee’s allegation to that individual,” a statement Missouri released to ESPN said. “While the University may not disclose the names of any involved student due to FERPA, we remain confident that this review will reveal that the University, as well as its student-athletes and staff, have shown great integrity in responding to the allegations raised. In order to protect the investigation’s integrity and in accordance with NCAA rules relative to ongoing investigations, we are unable to comment further any part of the process until it is completed.”

In 2016, Kumar told the Kansas City Star that she had been asked to offer special assistance to football and men’s basketball players, and confirmed to compliance officials that she had acquiesced, helping a dozen athletes. That led to the NCAA’s investigation, and as a result, a defensive tackle named A.J. Logan was suspended for six games.

Kumar also tweeted in 2017 that she was willing to sell the information she had involving the case for the $3,000 fee she needed to pay Missouri to get her transcripts from the school. On Monday, she tweeted that her debt was cleared by a couple from Kansas City.

All of this allegedly occurred during the tenure of former Missouri head coach Kim Anderson.

Michigan, John Beilien ink five-year extension

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Michigan announced on Wednesday that head coach John Beilein has signed a five-year contract extension with the school that will keep him in Ann Arbor through the 2023 season, at least.

“I am grateful for the opportunity the University of Michigan has given to me over the past 11 years,” said Beilein. “Kathleen and I love Ann Arbor, our University, our fans and the state of Michigan. We will continue to work very hard in the future to have our basketball team reflect the greatness of this University. I thank Mark Schlissel and Warde Manuel for their faith and commitment to our coaching staff and basketball program. The future of men’s basketball is bright and I am excited to be a part of it.”

The deal that Beilein signed is a rollover deal, which means that the contract will renew every year. In other words, as long as Beilein and Michigan want the option picked up each April, he will have a five-year contract with Michigan regardless of how long he coaches at the school.

This is Beilein’s 12th year with the Wolverines. Last season, they won a program-record 33 games and reached the Final Four, losing in the national title game for the second time in six seasons.

He is already Michigan’s all-time leader in wins with 248, and, through 41 seasons as a college coach, has amassed a career record of 799-461. In 11 seasons in Ann Arbor, Michigan has made eight NCAA Tournament appearances with four Sweet 16s and three Elite Eights in addition to the two trips to the Final Four. He was named the he 2013 Big Ten Coach of the Year and has won two Big Ten regular-season titles as well as the last two Big Ten Tournament titles.

There was some speculation earlier this month that Beilein would be leaving Michigan after he had an interview with the Detroit Pistons, but he withdrew from that search after the news became public and it seemed likely that Dwayne Casey would be hired.