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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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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.

 Big Ten Preview | ACC Preview | Atlantic 10 PreviewMountain West Preview

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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.

Wednesday’s Things to Know: Buckeye guards star, Marquette comes back and LSU loses to VCU

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There were top-25 teams in action, the Gavitt Games rolled on and there was something of an awkward homecoming in Richmond.

Here are the most important things you need to know from the action around the country Wednesday.

Ohio State’s guards can elevate the Buckeyes

When we talk about Ohio State, we inevitably start with the Buckeyes’ frontcourt. And with good reason. Kaleb Wesson is a hulking 6-foot-9, 270-pound throwback double-double machine. He’s the type of player we just don’t see as often anymore up front, and as such, few teams have a true counter for him.

What we saw Wednesday in the Buckeyes’ 76-51 dismantling of Villanova, though, was that Chris Holtmann’s guards might hold the key to success in Columbus this season. If nothing else, they certainly opened a lot of eyes against the Wildcats.

Duane Washington Jr (14), Luther Muhammad (11), D.J. Carter (11) and CJ Walker (10) all scored in double-figures while Walker had seven assists, Washington had five rebounds and Carton had five rebounds and five assists. That’s on top of Wesson doing Wesson things like recording 10 points, 11 rebounds, four blocks and three assists.

If the Buckeyes’ guards can give them this kind of production, it’s really not much of a leap to consider this team a serious threat to Michigan State in the Big Ten, and maybe even a bigger contender nationally than we’ve given them credit for this preseason. The team that took apart Villanova on Wednesday night looked like a team that could make it to Atlanta in April. It was that complete a performance.

It’s easy to draw a line from this Ohio State performance against Villanova to Michigan’s last year against Jay Wright’s team, which took a 27-point L to John Beilein last November. The ‘Cats ultimately bounced back and found their stride, but that lopsided result probably said more about how good that Wolverines team was as they eventually went on to secure a 2-seed in the NCAA tournament.

Can the Buckeyes replicate that path? That question is probably best answered with another – can their guards replicate the night they had against Villanova?

Marquette erases 18-point deficit to beat Purdue

Marquette is one of the country’s biggest question marks. There were a few fleeting moments last spring when they looked like a national title contender when Markus Howard decided to return to school, but the Golden Eagles were flung into the “mystery” category after the Hauser brothers decided to bolt, leaving Marquette with an interesting albeit uncertain roster.

Steve Wojciechowski’s team looked like it answered some questions Wednesday, coming from 18 behind to defeat Purdue, 65-55, in Milwaukee.

Howard was his dynamic self with 18 points, four rebounds and three assists on 6 of 12 shooting, but it was the play of Kobe McEwen that is perhaps the most promising. The Utah State transfer went for 23 points, five rebounds, four assists and a steal to help Marquette claw back and win the game.

Marquette needs McEwen to be that productive this season as an offensive second option as defenses do everything they can to try to bottle up Howard. If McEwen can not only be a viable No. 2 but make teams truly pay for throwing the kitchen sink at Howard defensively, Marquette can be closer to that upper-echelon Big East team we thought they might be last spring rather than the enigma they became this summer.

Purdue, meanwhile, saw its offense implode, shooting 33.9 percent from the floor and 25 percent from 3-point range. Given the departures from last year’s team, offense is understandably a work in progress, though that progression looked stalled in a second half in which Matt Painter’s team scored just 17 points – while buckling defensively, giving up 40 to Marquette.

Will Wade loses to his former school

As a program that sends many of its coaches on to bigger stages and brighter lights, VCU has figured out quite a few ways to make their status as a stepping stone to their advantage. First off, it’s an attractive job for talented coaches because of the track record. A smaller, but interesting, way the Rams have maneuvered is to work into the coaches’ contract that if they leave for another gig, they have to bring that team back to Richmond.

That’s why LSU and Will Wade were in town Wednesday, taking a 84-82 loss. If they hadn’t, Wade would have owed VCU $250,000.

That bit of info turned out to be at least a little funny, given that a few VCU students dressed up as FBI agents as an allusion to reports that Wade was caught on a wiretap discussing a “strong-ass offer” to a recruit as part of the federal government’s investigation into corruption into college basketball.

Here’s guessing Wade and LSU get plenty of this treatment throughout the season, though it’s probably worth noting the Tigers made it to the Sweet 16 last year amid the controversy and Wade hasn’t missed a beat on the recruiting trail – they inked five-star Trendon Watford last May – so whatever lingering controversy there may be probably isn’t going to be too bothersome to them.

No. 11 Texas Tech rolls To 103-74 win over Houston Baptist

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MIDLAND, Texas (AP) — Texas Tech coach Chris Beard called a timeout after his No. 11 Red Raiders, playing at a neutral site about 120 miles from their campus, had three turnovers without getting off a shot and quickly fell behind to Houston Baptist.

“Just upset with our start. I didn’t think we were being aggressive,” Beard said, after initially joking that he asked his players where they wanted to eat after the game.

“I’m OK if you start the game and have some adversity. I’m OK if you start the game and the ball doesn’t go in when you shoot,” he said. “I didn’t like our energy. I didn’t like our execution of our early game plan.”

The Red Raiders responded with 14 points in a row, going ahead to stay on the way to a 103-74 victory Wednesday night.

Freshman Jahmi’us Ramsey scored 25 points on 10-of-13 shooting and graduate transfer TJ Holyfield had 21 points on 9-of-10 field goals. Kyler Edwards added 13 points with three 3-pointers while Davide Moretti scored 12 points and had six assists.

“My teammates are doing a great job of getting me the ball in scoring position,” Ramsey said. “I believe the chemistry is really high right now. … Everybody connects on and off the floor. It’s a great start.”

Jalon Gates had 21 points with five 3-pointers to lead Houston Baptist. Ian DuBose added 20 points.

Texas Tech shot 60% overall (40 of 67) and made its first four field goals in the game, but only after the early turnovers while Houston Baptist (0-3) jumped out to a 9-0 lead in just over two minutes. After the timeout, the Red Raiders’ fourth field goal was a layup by Ramsey that tied the game 9-9 with 16:18 left, and they went ahead to stay on a 3-pointer by Edwards.

“Just reminded the guys with our truth-telling culture, ‘This is where we’re at. This is where we have to go.’ I think on the flip side to that there’s some positive, though, to respond that quickly,” Beard said. “As disappointed as we were in our start, we were positive on the fact that we showed that bounce-back.”

Ramsey had 20 of his points by halftime, when Texas Tech led 54-39.

PERMIAN STRONG

The game was played inside Midland College’s Chaparral Center, marking Texas Tech’s first regular season game in the Permian Basin since 1951.

Texas Tech players wore “Permian Basin Strong” shirts during pregame warmups prior to tipoff to honor and remember those affected by an August 31 shooting spree.

A gunman killed seven people and injured about two dozen more while firing indiscriminately from his car into passing vehicles and shopping plazas in Odessa and Midland, the two biggest cities in the Permian Basin. The shooter, who was killed by officers, also hijacked a U.S. Postal Service mail truck, killing the driver.

“We were really pleased and proud that we put this game together,” Beard said. “To play this game in Midland for the Permian Basin fans is special.”

BIG ASSIST

Chris Clarke, the other grad transfer, had four points and nine assists and seems to be filling the role as Tech’s sixth man.

“He’s a skilled player. He’s a position-less basketball player,” Beard said. “He’s just an unselfish guy. He’s a guy who’s trying to win the possession. … There will be days sooner rather than later where he’s our leading scorer as well. He’s a guy that can play the game.”

BIG PICTURE

Houston Baptist: The aggressiveness by Houston Baptist inside the paint forced the Red Raiders into foul trouble. The winless Huskies playing tough opponents early on will help them down the road in the Southland Conference.

Texas Tech: The Red Raiders’ defense was put to the test against the Huskies, who made their first four shots. Quick adjustments and getting their legs underneath them on offense helped lead them to victory. The Red Raiders did score 56 points in the paint.

UP NEXT

Houston Baptist plays the third of six consecutive games away from campus to start the season, Nov. 22 at Michigan.

Texas Tech is back home Nov. 21 against Tennessee State.

Nwora leads No. 4 Louisville past Indiana State 91-62

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Jordan Nwora scored 21 points, Dwayne Sutton added 14 and No. 4 Louisville shot 59% from the field to run past Indiana State 91-62 on Wednesday night.

Two days after moving up a spot in the AP Top 25, the Cardinals (3-0) made 14 of their first 17 shots for a 16-point lead through 11 minutes on the way to a 47-26 advantage at the break. Nwora’s 14 points, including a pair of 3s got Louisville going, and Sutton had 10 before the break.

Nwora, a junior forward, finished 5 of 10 shooting for his third consecutive game of 20 points or more. Sutton and Steven Enoch each grabbed 10 rebounds as Louisville owned the glass 42-21. The Cardinals shot above 50% for the third consecutive game.

Tyreke Key led the Sycamores (0-2) with 20 points including four 3-pointers, two of which came during a 14-2 early second-half run that got them within 51-40. They got no closer as Louisville quickly answered to stretch the lead above 20 as it shot 58% in the final 20 minutes.

Indiana State shot 34% in its only game this season against a Power Five opponent. The Sycamores haven’t beaten a ranked opponent since topping Butler 72-71 in December 2016.

BIG PICTURE

Indiana State: After making two of their first three baskets, the Sycamores were no match physically against Louisville’s taller lineup. Perimeter shooting was a bright spot as they extended their streak to 345 games with at least one 3-pointer.

Louisville: The Cardinals seemingly couldn’t miss at the start and stayed hot throughout. They never let up even after the outcome was settled.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

The Cardinals took a step toward remaining in the top five with another game to play this week.

UP NEXT

Indiana State faces Ball State on Sunday in Indianapolis.

Louisville hosts North Carolina Central on Sunday in the third of a four-game homestand.

Hot start helps No. 18 Ohio State rout No. 10 Villanova

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Duane Washington Jr. had 14 points and four other players scored in double figures as No. 18 Ohio State started hot and ran over No. 10 Villanova 76-51 on Wednesday night.

Washington opened the game with a pair of 3-pointers to set the tone as the Buckeyes moved to 3-0 with a significant early-season victory.

D.J. Carton and Luther Muhammad each had 11 points, and CJ Walker and Kaleb Wesson added 10 apiece.

Jermaine Samuels had 14 points and Cole Swider had 11 for the Wildcats (1-1), who shot poorly out of the gate and managed just 30.6% for the game. They were held to a dozen points in the first 16 minutes.

The Buckeyes came out firing, bolted to a 19-3 lead, led by as many as 27 and held a 40-22 advantage at the intermission of this Gavitt Tipoff Game, a November series that matches up the Big Ten and the Big East.

Villanova was stunned by the Buckeyes’ start and didn’t show signs of life until a 9-0 run late in the first half. Kyle Young started the second half with a dunk and the Buckeyes never backed off the gas, leading by as many as 30.

BIG PICTURE

Villanova: Starting a pair of freshmen, Villanova shot poorly and could never catch up with the hustling Buckeyes. The crowd in Columbus chanted “overrated,” which could be the case.

Ohio State: Most everything was clicking in the Buckeyes’ third game of the season. If they can sustain it, they should be able to play with nearly any team in the country.

UP NEXT

Villanova: Hosts Ohio on Saturday.

Ohio State: Hosts Stetson on Monday.

Santos-Silva leads VCU past No. 23 LSU, 84-82, in Wade’s return

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RICHMOND, Va. — Marcus Santos-Silva had 17 points and 11 rebounds and VCU turned 26 turnovers by No. 23 LSU into 37 points in an 84-82 victory Wednesday night.

The Rams (3-0), whose contract with former coach Will Wade mandated he bring his new team to the Siegel Center or have his school pay $250,000, improved to 5-2 against ranked opponents on their home court.

VCU withstood a rally that saw the Tigers take their first lead of the half on two free throws by Skylar Mays with 41 second left.

The Tigers (1-1) had a chance after Santos-Silva made one of two free throws with 4.9 seconds left, but Mays raced up court and lost control of the ball.

De’Riante Jenkins and Marcus Evans added 15 points each for VCU, which was outscored 46-30 in the paint.

Mays led the Tigers with 23 points, but also had seven turnovers. Javinte Smart added 15 points and Trendon Watford scored 11.

The Rams led for most of the game, but a 15-2 run by the Tigers — despite a stretch of five turnovers in six possessions — tied the game at 67-all with 8:56 to go.

The Rams responded with an 11-4 run started by Santos-Silva to lead 78-71 with 3:22 to play before the Tigers rallied again, scoring 11 of the next 14 points and taking their first lead since the early going on a pair of free throws by Mays with 41 seconds remaining.

Jenkins, fouled on a 3-point try, made two of three free throws, and the Tigers missed their final three field-goal tries.

BIG PICTURE

LSU: Wade said he was concerned about how much the Tigers turned the ball over in their opener against Bowling Green, surely with an eye toward the “havoc” style Rhoades has reintroduced at VCU. The Rams certainly made them believers, forcing 12 first-half takeaways and turning them into 24 points.

VCU: The Rams had trouble getting ball inside, but their 3-point shooting and defense bailed them out, especially during an 18-4 first-half run. In one sequence, Isaac Vann made a 3 for VCU, which then forced a turnover, leading to Evans’ 3. The Tigers then turned it over again, leading to a 3 by Vince Williams. All in 53 seconds.

UP NEXT

The Tigers should have a much easier time in their next outing, at home against Nicholls on Saturday.

The Rams continue a six-game homestand to open the season, welcoming Jacksonville State on Sunday.