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 (more) 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 are known as football schools and currently find themselves stuck in the middle of one of the biggest scandals in college sports history: Miami and USC. A third, Wichita State, has yet to play a game as a member of a high-major conference. Let’s take a dive into those three teams, shall we?
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This year will be a first for Wichita State.
Five years after Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet led the Shockers to the 2013 Final Four, five years after Gregg Marshall’s club became a stalwart in the top 25 and a nationally-recognized program, Wichita State is now officially a high-major basketball team.
The Shockers officially left the Missouri Valley this summer, becoming a member of the American and, instantly, the favorite to win the league this year. Because after a season where Wichita State finished 31-5 and ranked 8th nationally, according to KenPom, the Shockers brought back everyone.
Landry Shamet, who is a darkhorse all-american pick, is back for his sophomore year. Markis McDuffie, who is probably the best all-around player on the roster, is back for his junior year. Fifth-year senior Connor Frankamp rounds out the back court while Darral Willis, Zach Brown, Shaq Morris and Rashard Kelly are all back along the front line.
The Shockers are loaded with precisely the kind of players you would expect a Gregg Marshall-coached team to be loaded with: Underrated back court talent, big and old and physical posts, and a roster full of players that are going to grind you down defensively.
More importantly, they’re already proven to be successful. We know they’re good. They won 31 games a season ago! They finished the year ranked 8th in KenPom! Everyone is back!
The difference is that this season, instead of playing in the Missouri Valley, where computer numbers get pulled down and the Shockers end up as a No. 10 seed — one of the worst mis-seedings in NCAA history — they will be playing American competition. Games against the likes of Cincinnati, SMU, UConn, UCF and Houston will do a lot more for their tournament profile than Indiana State and Missouri State did.
Assuming the Shockers are as good as they should be, they’ll be seeded fairly this year, meaning that they won’t be playing a team as talented as last year’s Kentucky team was until at least the Sweet 16.
And that is what makes them such an intriguing Final Four pick.
The issue, however, is health, and it’s no small problem. Shamet had surgery in early August to repair a stress fracture in his right foot. A similar injury kept him on the shelf for much of the 2015-16 season. Shamet is expected to return to the floor by the start of the season, which is good news, but there’s no guarantee that, coming off of a surgery and an injury that kept him out for three months, that he’ll be in shape and on form immediately.
Shamet is also not the only player that is injured. McDuffie, who led the team in scoring and rebounding a year ago, has a stress fracture in the navicular bone in his left foot. That’s the same bone that derailed careers of many an NBA player, including Joel Embiid. He’s expected to be out until December, meaning there is a possibility that Wichita State begins the season without their top two players.
If those two are both back and healthy come March, it’ll be something of a moot point.
But there’s no guarantee that will happen.
Everyone say it with me now: The second-best team in the ACC this season will be Miami.
Not Louisville. Not North Carolina. Not Notre Dame or Virginia or Syracuse.
And the biggest reason why is a young man that you’ve probably never heard of. Bruce Brown, a former safety and wide receiver at the high school level, still plays like a football player now that he’s fully committed to the hardwood. He’s an aggressive slasher, an athletic finisher and one of the best perimeter defenders in the country. He’s also now a guy that can operate in pick-and-rolls and knock down a spot-up jumper, and playing for a coach in Jim Larrañaga that has thrived with talented lead guards and athletic wings, he’s the perfect combination of both.
He’ll also be flanked by a couple more players of that ilk in senior JaQuan Newtown and freshman Lonnie Walker. Newton had a good, not great, junior season for the Hurricanes, but part of the reason for that was due to Brown’s emergence down the stretch. Walker is a top-15 prospect that picked Miami over the likes of Arizona and Villanova. He’ll be an instant impact guy assuming his knee is healthy.
Throw in sophomore center Dewan Huell, a former five-star recruit in his own right, four-star freshmen Chris Lykes, a 5-foot-7 point guard, and Deng Gak, a 7-foot four-man, and there is a lot to like about the pieces Larrañaga has at his disposal.
There is also a lot missing with one piece they lost from last season: Davon Reed. A physical, athletic, 6-foot-6 wing, Reed was one of the most underrated players in the ACC a season ago. An elite defender with three-point stroke that went down at a 40 percent clip, Reed was everything a team needs in the day and age of positionless basketball. He could guard three or four positions, he could space the floor and, if need be, he could pop off for 2o points on any given night. There’s a reason he was the No. 32 pick in the NBA Draft.
That’s going to be a massive hole to fill, and the Hurricanes are going to hope junior Anthony Lawrence can replace him.
I’m not sure that he will be able — Reed was a helluva player — but it may not matter.
Larrañaga is at his best when he has talented, dynamic lead guards paired athletics bigs, and there is no questioning that this year’s roster construction fits that mold.
Every few years, Larrañaga pops up with an ACC title contender. It happened when Shane Larkin and Durand Scott manned his back court. It happened with Angel Rodriguez and Sheldon McClellan. And it will happen with this group as well.
What we will need to track, however, is the status of the FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball. A Miami assistant coach was referenced in the FBI complaints on a phone call involving two of the men that were arrested. The assistant, according to an Adidas executive, was hoping to get the shoe company to fund a $150,000 payment to the family of a prospect that appears to be Nassir Little.
None of the Hurricane coaches were arrested on September 26th, but that doesn’t mean their out of the woods, in the eyes of the FBI or in the eyes of the NCAA.
The season has been three years in the making for the Trojans has a black cloud the size of California hanging over it.
Andy Enfield’s tenure with Dunk City West started out dreadfully, amassing a grand total of five Pac-12 wins in his first two seasons at the helm. Things started to turn around during his third season, when the Trojans, without a senior on their roster, climbed their way into the NCAA tournament. Last season was supposed to be their year, but the combination of injuries and a pair unexpected defections to the professional ranks meant that Enfield, again, would be without a senior.
And again, USC made a run to the NCAA tournament, getting out of the play-in game and pulling off an upset of No. 6 seed SMU.
Now, finally, is the year for USC.
The Trojans are loaded. They have experience — their starting back court of Jordan McLaughlin and Elijah Stewart are both seniors and both potential all-Pac-12 guards. They have size — Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu, both juniors, are NBA prospects while Nik Rakocevic, Harrison Henderson and Shaqquan Aaron give Enfield the kind of depth and positional versatility his style of play calls for. De’anthony Melton, Jonah Mathews and Charles O’Bannon provide the young, dynamic talent in the back court, and that’s before you factor in Derryck Thornton, the former Duke point guard that was once thought to be among the best high school point guards in the country.
The last time there was this much reason to be excited about USC basketball, O.J. Mayo landed on Tim Floyd’s doorstep.
On the court, the question mark with this group is two-fold:
- Can they defend? In each of the last two seasons, USC has ranked outside the top 80 on KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric. That, quite simply, is not going to be good enough for a team that is planning on competing for a Pac-12 title, let alone a national title.
- Is everyone going to buy-in? This may be a bigger concern than the defensive side of the ball. The Trojans don’t have the kind of star power on their roster that you’ll see at UCLA or Arizona, but the depth of their talent is impressive. There are seven or eight players on the roster that have a shot of playing in the NBA. At least five of them flirted with the idea of leaving school early to enter last year’s NBA Draft, meaning that there are going to be quite a few guys on this roster looking to impress NBA scouts. Not all of them are going to be able to get as many shots as they might like. Convincing players that want the be a star to embrace playing a role is the hardest thing to do at this level, and Enfield is going to have his work cut out for him.
Off the court, however, is a bigger problem.
Tony Bland, an assistant coach for USC, was arrested during the FBI’s sting operation investigating corruption in college basketball. He was alleged to have been paid $13,000 in bribe money to get two players currently on the USC team to work with a specific financial advisor when they get to the NBA. He also helped facilitate $9,000 that was supposed to go to the families of an unnamed freshman on the team and an unnamed sophomore.
Those players have not yet been positively identified, but there should be some concern as to whether or not those kids will actually be eligible to play this season.
I’m not sure there are five teams in the country that are going to be more talented than USC this season if they have all their pieces available. But until we get answers on how they are going to defend, who is going to be asked to play what role and who is going to be able to play, it’s going to be hard to know if they actually are Arizona’s biggest challenger in the Pac-12.