College Hoops Contender Series: Three more (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 (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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Markis McDuffie (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

WICHITA STATE

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.

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MIAMI

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.

Miami.

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.

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USC

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Charlotte head coach Ron Sanchez resigns after winning CBI title

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Ron Sanchez resigned as head coach of the Charlotte 49ers.

Sanchez took over the 49ers on March 19, 2018, inheriting a team coming off a 6-23 campaign. In five years Charlotte went 72-78 under Sanchez, highlighted by winning the College Basketball Invitational championship this past season, the Niners’ first post-season tournament title in school history.

The 22 wins this past season are the most for Charlotte since 2001.

“Ron took over a proud but struggling program and carefully rebuilt it into a 22-game winner. He has led with class, dignity and devotion to our young men,” Charlotte director of athletics Mike Hill said. “His decision to step down from Charlotte was a difficult one for him and everyone associated with our program. We wish him and his family every happiness.”

Hill said the team has already begun a national search for a replacement.

“This is a bittersweet day for me and my family as I step down to pursue other opportunities,” said Sanchez, who came the 49ers after working as an assistant coach at Virginia under Tony Bennett. “It has been a tremendous privilege to lead the 49ers basketball program over the past five years and I want to thank Niner Nation for its support. I will be forever grateful to my staff, players and the university.”

Marquette extends Shaka Smart’s contract through 2029-30 season

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MILWAUKEE — Marquette coach Shaka Smart has received a contract extension after leading the Golden Eagles to their first outright regular-season championship and tournament title in the Big East.

Smart’s contract now runs through the 2029-30 season. This is the first extension Smart has received since signing a six-year deal when he took over as Marquette’s coach in 2021.

Marquette didn’t release financial terms of Smart’s deal.

“In a very short period of time, Shaka and his staff have done a tremendous job of establishing a winning culture, both on and off the court,” athletic director Bill Scholl said in a statement. “Shaka’s vision for the program is focused on extended, sustainable success. The individuals who interact with the team on a daily basis are able to observe frequent examples of growth and the excitement around the program is contagious.”

Marquette has gone 48-20 in Smart’s two seasons and reached the NCAA Tournament each of those years.

The Golden Eagles went 29-7 and won the Big East’s regular-season and tournament championships last season after the league’s coaches had picked them to finish ninth out of 11 teams. Marquette’s season ended with a 69-60 loss to Michigan State in the NCAA Tournament’s round of 32.

Purdue’s Edey returning to school at NBA draft deadline; Kentucky’s Tshiebwe stays in

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Purdue’s Zach Edey decided it was the right call to go back to school instead of staying in the NBA draft. His predecessor as national player of the year, Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe, is sticking with his pro pursuit.

And Connecticut’s reign as NCAA champion will begin with multiple starters having left for the NBA draft and one returning after flirting with doing the same.

The 7-foot-4 Edey and UConn guard Tristen Newton were among the notable names to announce that they were withdrawing from the draft, the NCAA’s deadline for players who declared as early entrants to pull out and retain their college eligibility.

Edey’s decision came in social media posts from both the center and the Boilermakers program that earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament behind Edey, The Associated Press men’s national player of the year.

But Tshiebwe announced late in the afternoon that he would remain in the draft after a college career that included being named the AP national player of the year in 2022.

For the current champions, Newton (10.1 points, 4.7 assists, 4.5 rebounds) is returning after being one of four Huskies to declare for the draft after a run to UConn’s fifth national championship in early April. He scored a game-high 19 points to go with 10 rebounds in the victory over San Diego State in the title game.

The others were Final Four Most Outstanding Player Adama Sanogo, wing Jordan Hawkins and versatile guard Andre Jackson Jr. Sanogo (17.8 points) and Hawkins (16.3) have made it clear they have closed the door on their college careers, while team spokesman Phil Chardis said that Jackson (6.1 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.6 assists) would remain in the draft.

The Huskies have 247sports’ No. 3-ranked recruiting class for next year to restock the roster, led by McDonald’s All-American point guard Stephon Castle.

The NBA’s withdrawal deadline is June 12, but is moot when it comes to college players returning to school due to the NCAA’s earlier timeline to retain playing eligibility.

STAYING IN SCHOOL

TREY ALEXANDER: Creighton gets back a 6-4 guard who averaged 13.6 points and shot 41% from 3-point range in his first full season as a starter.

ADEM BONA: The 6-foot-10 forward and Pac-12 freshman of the year is returning to UCLA after starting 32 games as a rookie and averaging 7.7 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks – with coach Mick Cronin praising his toughness for “competing through multiple injuries for as long as he could” in a statement Wednesday.

EDEY: He averaged 22.3 points, 12.9 rebounds, 2.1 blocks and 1.5 assists while shooting 60.7% from the field. His presence alone helps Purdue be a factor in the Big Ten race.

JOSIAH-JORDAN JAMES: The 6-6 guard went through the NBA G League Combine and had workouts with multiple teams before opting to return to Tennessee for a fifth season alongside teammate Santiago Vescovi.

JUDAH MINTZ: The 6-3 freshman averaged 16.3 points and 4.6 assists for Syracuse, ranking third among Division I freshmen in scoring behind only Alabama’s Brandon Miller and Lamar’s Nate Calmese.

OWLS’ RETURNEES: Florida Atlantic got good news after its surprise Final Four run with the return leading scorers Johnell Davis (13.8) and Alijah Martin (13.4). ESPN first reported their decisions, while Martin later posted a social media statement.

TERRENCE SHANNON JR.: Illinois got a big boost with Shannon announcing his night in a social media post. The 6-6 guard is returning for a fifth college season after averaging 17.2 points.

SPARTANS’ RETURNEES: Michigan State announced that guards Jaden Akins and A.J. Hoggard have withdrawn from the NBA draft. Standout guard Tyson Walker had previously withdrawn in April, setting up Tom Izzo to have five of his top scorers back.

GOING PRO

KOBE BROWN: Missouri’s 6-8 swingman opted against returning for a fifth college season after being an AP first-team all-Southeastern Conference pick averaging 15.8 points last season.

JAYLEN CLARK: The third-year UCLA guard averaged 13.0 points and 6.0 rebounds while leading the Pac-12 with 2.6 steals en route to being named Naismith national defensive player of the year. Cronin called him a winner with strong intangibles who made UCLA “a better program because he chose to be a Bruin.”

BRICE SENSABAUGH: The Ohio State freshman averaged 16.3 points and 5.4 rebounds in 31 games before missing his final two in the Big Ten Tournament due to a knee injury. He’s a potential first-round prospect.

TSHIEBWE: The 6-9, 260-pound forward is a tough interior presence who led the country in rebounds for two straight seasons (15.1 in 2022, 13.7 in 2023) while racking up 48 double-doubles. But he faces an uncertain next stop and is projected at best as a second-round prospect.

North Carolina transfer Caleb Love commits to Arizona

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Caleb Love is now headed to Arizona.

The North Carolina transfer tweeted, less than a month after decommitting from Michigan, that he will play next season with the Wildcats.

“Caleb is a tremendously talented guard who has significant experience playing college basketball at a high level,” Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd said in a statement. “We look forward to helping Caleb grow his game at Arizona. And as we near the completion of the roster for the upcoming season, we feel great about how everything has come together. Now it’s time for the real work to start.”

A 6-foot-4 guard, Love averaged 14.6 points and 3.3 assists in three seasons at North Carolina. He averaged 17.6 points in seven NCAA Tournament games, helping lead the Tar Heels to the 2022 national championship game.

Love entered the transfer portal after leading North Carolina with 73 3-pointers as a junior and initially committed to Michigan. He decommitted from the Wolverines earlier this month, reportedly due to an admissions issue involving academic credits.

Love narrowed his transfer targets to three schools before choosing to play at Arizona over Gonzaga and Texas.

Love will likely start on a team that will have dynamic perimeter players, including Pelle Larsson, Kylan Boswell and Alabama transfer Jaden Bradley.

Biden celebrates LSU women’s and UConn men’s basketball teams at separate White House events

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WASHINGTON – All of the past drama and sore feelings associated with Louisiana State’s invitation to the White House were seemingly forgotten or set aside Friday as President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden welcomed the championship women’s basketball team to the mansion with smiles, hugs and lavish praise all around.

The visit had once appeared in jeopardy after Jill Biden suggested that the losing Iowa team be invited, too. But none of that was mentioned as both Bidens heralded the players for their performance and the way they have helped advance women’s sports.

“Folks, we witnessed history,” the president said. “In this team, we saw hope, we saw pride and we saw purpose. It matters.”

The ceremony was halted for about 10 minutes after forward Sa’Myah Smith appeared to collapse as she and her teammates stood behind Biden. A wheelchair was brought in and coach Kim Mulkey assured the audience that Smith was fine.

LSU said in a statement that Smith felt overheated, nauseous and thought she might faint. She was evaluated by LSU and White House medical staff and was later able to rejoin the team. “She is feeling well, in good spirits, and will undergo further evaluation once back in Baton Rouge,” the LSU statement said.

Since the passage of Title IX in 1972, Biden said, more than half of all college students are women, and there are now 10 times more female athletes in college and high school. He said most sports stories are still about men, and that that needs to change.

Title IX prohibits discrimination based on sex in federally funded education programs and activities.

“Folks, we need to support women sports, not just during the championship run but during the entire year,” President Biden said.

After the Tigers beat Iowa for the NCAA title in April in a game the first lady attended, she caused an uproar by suggesting that the Hawkeyes also come to the White House.

LSU star Angel Reese called the idea “A JOKE” and said she would prefer to visit with former President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, instead. The LSU team largely is Black, while Iowa’s top player, Caitlin Clark, is white, as are most of her teammates.

Nothing came of Jill Biden’s idea and the White House only invited the Tigers. Reese ultimately said she would not skip the White House visit. She and co-captain Emily Ward presented team jerseys bearing the number “46” to Biden and the first lady. Hugs were exchanged.

Jill Biden also lavished praise on the team, saying the players showed “what it means to be a champion.”

“In this room, I see the absolute best of the best,” she said, adding that watching them play was “pure magic.”

“Every basket was pure joy and I kept thinking about how far women’s sports have come,” the first lady added, noting that she grew up before Title IX was passed. “We’ve made so much progress and we still have so much more work to do.”

The president added that “the way in which women’s sports has come along is just incredible. It’s really neat to see, since I’ve got four granddaughters.”

After Smith was helped to a wheelchair, Mulkey told the audience the player was OK.

“As you can see, we leave our mark where we go,” Mulkey joked. “Sa’Myah is fine. She’s kind of, right now, embarrassed.”

A few members of Congress and Biden aides past and present with Louisiana roots dropped what they were doing to attend the East Room event, including White House budget director Shalanda Young. Young is in the thick of negotiations with House Republicans to reach a deal by the middle of next week to stave off what would be a globally calamitous U.S. financial default if the U.S. can no longer borrow the money it needs to pay its bills.

The president, who wore a necktie in the shade of LSU’s purple, said Young, who grew up in Baton Rouge, told him, “I’m leaving the talks to be here.” Rep. Garret Graves, one of the House GOP negotiators, also attended.

Biden closed sports Friday by changing to a blue tie and welcoming the UConn’s men’s championship team for its own celebration. The Huskies won their fifth national title by defeating San Diego State, 76-59, in April.

“Congratulations to the whole UConn nation,” he said.