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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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Bruce Brown (Al Bello/Getty Images)

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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Jordan McLaughlin (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

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.

ACC coaches back idea of all D-I teams in 2021 NCAA tourney

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Atlantic Coast Conference men’s basketball coaches are pushing the idea of having next year’s NCAA Tournament include all eligible teams in Division I.

Numerous league schools and coaches released statements Wednesday after the coaches held their weekly call to discuss the proposal, which was first reported by Stadium. There are 357 Division I programs in the country, with NCAA spokeswoman Meghan Durham saying 346 of those are eligible to play in next year’s tournament.

Virginia coach Tony Bennett said the ACC coaches are “united in strongly pursuing this” in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic that led to the cancellation of last year’s NCAA Tournament days before the field of 68 was set to be revealed. Multiple coaches said creating an everybody-gets-in format would be an incentive for schools as they create the safest conditions possible for returning to play.

“This is not a regular season,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said in a statement. “It is clearly an irregular season that will require something different. Our sport needs to be agile and creative. Most importantly, an all-inclusive postseason tournament will allow a unique and unprecedented opportunity for every team and every student-athlete to compete for a national championship.”

Durham declined comment specifically on the proposal in an email to The Associated Press on Wednesday. Last month, NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt said the Division I oversight committees for men’s and women’s basketball planned to announce by mid-September plans for whether the season and preseason practice would start on time or require a delay due to the pandemic.

Louisville coach Chris Mack said the proposal would provide flexibility during the season without mandating a number of nonconference or conference games to be played. And the league has already experienced that scheduling challenge with football and other fall sports.

The ACC announced in July that it would have each football team play 10 league games – including the addition of Notre Dame as a football member this year – and one nonconference game to be played in the home state of the member school. Those schedules were released in early August, slightly more than a month before Thursday’s UAB-Miami game kicks off the season.

“This is a time to think differently,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said, adding: “After all these players have been through, what better way to reward them than the opportunity to compete in an unprecedented version of the most exciting event in sports.”

College basketball floats idea of bubbles for safe season

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The NBA bubble has held. So has the NHL’s double bubble. The WNBA and MLS, no leaks.

In this unprecedented landscape of sports in a pandemic world, one indisputable fact has emerged: bubbles work.

Thousands of tests, minimal to no positive COVID-19 test results.

So as the NCAA gets set announce its plans for the 2020-21 college basketball season, there are clear precedents and blueprints in place should it decide to go the bubble route.

“It’s certainly viable,” said Mark Starsiak, vice president of sports at Intersport, a Chicago-based sports marketing and media agency, “From a basketball standpoint, I think we can follow those models.”

The college football restart has been scattershot. The season has already started, yet 53 FBS schools have the pads and helmets hanging on hooks while waiting for better pandemic news.

A much more unified plan is in place for the college basketball season.

The NCAA is hoping to start the season in late November/early December, with a vote by the Division I council expected Sept. 16.

A partnership between the Pac-12 and Quidel Corp. to potentially do daily, rapid COVID-19 tests on athletes should help smooth a return to the court.

The question then becomes: What’s the best way to safely play basketball again?

Bubbles may be the answer.

While bubble football would be next to impossible logistically, basketball could fit nicely.

The travel parties are much smaller and college basketball already has plenty of multiple-team events, from holiday and conference tournaments to the NCAA Tournament. Add the effective safety measures of the pro leagues, find suitable sites and bubble basketball could work.

The NCAA is already looking at it, reportedly filing a trademark for the phrase “Battle in the Bubble.” Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont also said there have been preliminary talks for bubble basketball at the Mohegan Sun resort.

“The idea of a bubble would be a really good idea, just to isolate all the teams who want to play against each other in that bubble and keep things safe, keep away from the public and keep us in our own area where we’re able to play the game the right way and safely,” Duke sophomore forward Wendell Moore, Jr. said.

A big key will be finding the right places to bubble.

The NBA has the ideal setup at Disney World, but college basketball might be better suited to follow the NHL’s lead.

Hockey’s two bubbles – Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta – cordoned off areas enclosing the arena and several nearby hotels. All personnel entering are tested and strict protocols are in place for vendors delivering food and packages into the bubbles.

Similar bubbles for college basketball could be set up at smaller resorts, cities with arenas and hotels nearby, or Division II or III schools with arenas not being used during the pandemic.

The NCAA could set up pods of multiple nonconference teams, conference tournaments could be held in similar fashion and so could the NCAA Tournament.

In other words, basketball bubbles could pop up all over the country.

“Maybe do it for maybe a week or two at a time, playing a certain amount of games and getting retested after you come back or something like that,” Memphis coach Penny Hardaway said. “It’s possible, but it’s not going to be easy.”

Pulling off a college basketball bubble, however, comes with a caveat.

NCAA players are considered students, so academics would have to be part of the equation.

Division I players are already accustomed to doing school work on the road and the majority take primarily online classes. To make the bubbles work, socially distant space would have to be carved out for the players to take their classes and study.

The programs may also have to rethink the size of their traveling parties.

“Discussions about the right amount of tutors or academic staff would need to take place,” said Starsiak, who has operated high-level sports and entertainment events for 15 years. ”

You have to look at, do we need three managers this time around? No, probably not. Do you take two and have a tutor or an academic come with us? Yeah, I think you could. I think there’s a way to kind of combine both things to have some live, in-person resources.”

The NCAA is going to do everything possible to have a basketball season.

The pandemic wiped out the NCAA Tournament last spring and the NCAA collected $270 million in cancellation insurance instead of the $1 billion TV payout it normally gets. A second straight year without March Madness could be devastating.

Bubbles may be the way to go.

‘Father of the Final Four’ Tom Jernestedt dies at 75

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INDIANAPOLIS — Tom Jernstedt, a member of the Naismith Hall of Fame for his contributions to college basketball and the NCAA Tournament, has died. He was 75.

The NCAA said Sunday Jernstedt died this weekend.

Nicknamed “Father of the Final Four,” Jernstedt has widely been credited with transforming the NCAA Tournament into the billion-dollar March Madness it has become today.

“A decade after his departure from the NCAA, Tom Jernstedt’s fingertips remain visible during March Madness and the Final Four,” NCAA senior vice president Dan Gavitt said in a statement. “His innovation and superb ability to develop relationships turned a basketball tournament into a three-week phenomenon that became a global event.”

A former back-up quarterback, Jernstedt worked his first Final Four in 1973 and helped push the growth of the NCAA Tournament from 25 teams to the 68, anything-can-happen bonanza held every spring.

Jernstedt helped the NCAA increase its television contract from just over $1 million to more than $10 billion when he left in 2011. He served as president of USA Basketball, was a member of the College Football Selection committee and was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame as a contributor in 2017.

“Tom Jernstedt was a humble and unsung steward of the game,” John L. Doleva, president and CEO of the Basketball Hall of Fame, said in a statement. “Under his direction, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament grew into a phenomenon that brings college basketball fans together on a global scale. He will forever be remembered as the Father of the Final Four and one of the most respected leaders in basketball.”

Jernstedt established himself as a team leader despite being a backup quarterback at Oregon from 1964-66 and went on to serve as the Ducks’ events manager. He joined the NCAA in 1972 and spent 38 years with the organization.

“Tom served as a friend and mentor to countless people in and around collegiate athletics, and I’m proud to be among that vast group of people,” Gavitt said. “His legacy within the NCAA and its membership, and his impact on the sport of college basketball, is eternal. We extend our deepest condolences to Tom’s family.”

Aztecs extend Brian Dutcher’s contract 3 years through 2026

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SAN DIEGO — San Diego State basketball coach Brian Dutcher has signed a three-year contract extension through the 2025-26 season.

Dutcher signed the deal following one of the most successful seasons in school history. The Aztecs went 30-2, won the Mountain West regular-season title and were expected to be a No. 1 or 2 seed before the NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. They opened the season 26-0 and were the nation’s last undefeated team.

“Having spent more than 20 years at San Diego State University I understand what a special place this is,” Dutcher said in a statement Friday. “I am humbled and honored to continue to represent SDSU and Aztec Basketball as its head coach.”

Dutcher is 73-26 in three seasons, the most victories by an Aztecs coach in his first three seasons. He spent 18 seasons as Steve Fisher’s top assistant, including six as associate head coach/head coach in waiting. He took over as head coach after Fisher retired following the 2016-17 season. The Aztecs reached the NCAA Tournament in his first season.

Before that, he spent 10 seasons with Fisher at Michigan. In Dutcher’s first season with the Wolverines, Fisher was promoted to interim head coach on the eve of the NCAA Tournament and won the national championship.

Indiana halts all voluntary workouts

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Indiana has halted all voluntary workouts indefinitely for its men’s basketball, field hockey, men’s soccer and wrestling teams after 14 participants tested positive for the coronavirus this week.

The Hoosiers did not identify which teams recorded the positive tests. The football team, like other Big Ten programs, is not playing this fall. Indiana said 63 positives have been reported from more than 1,400 tests of athletes, coaches and staff since June 8.

“Our athletic program is following strict protocols during these unprecedented times and we strongly support our medical staff as we try and mitigate this issue,” men’s basketball coach Archie Miller said.