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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.

 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.

Best Bets: Previewing the weekend’s biggest college basketball games

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There are no Vegas lines for these games just yet. All analysis will be based on KenPom projections, which typically end up close to the opening lines anyway.

No. 7 NORTH CAROLINA at No. 5 VIRGINIA, Sun. 4:00 p.m.

  • KENPOM: Virginia 61, North Carolina 55
  • TICKETS: Click here

I am going to be fascinated to see where the line for this game opens up, because neither of these teams are playing all that well right now, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. Virginia was blown out by unranked Purdue on the road, 69-40, while North Carolina is coming off of a drubbing at the hands of Ohio State in their own building, 74-49.

My initial lean here is going to be the Virginia side, depending on how much they are laying, but I do think that the best bet would likely be the under assuming the line opens at or around 116. The logic is relatively simple, really. Virginia has still been one of college basketball’s most intimidating defenses this season despite what happened against Purdue. While nice, 69 points doesn’t sound like a lot, but the 1.19 points-per-possession the Boilermakers did post was one of just four times in the last two-plus years that a team has done that against Virginia.

Purdue has done it twice.

That’s because the Boilermakers run the precise kind of action you need to run to beat the Pack-Line. There is a ton of motion, guys running off of screens every which way and action happening simultaneously on both sides of the floor. This is not what North Carolina does, and when combined with the fact that – as shown in the video embedded below – the Tar Heels have basically one option offensively right now, leads me to believe that the Wahoos will control tempo, overwhelm UNC defensively and keep this game in the 50s.

Think about it like this. Ohio State-UNC finished at 123 total points. Virginia is the only defense in the country ranked higher on KenPom that Ohio State, and Virginia is a full 100 spots lower offensively.

PICKS: I like Virginia -5 and below, and I like the under for everything 115 and above.

No. 12 ARIZONA at No. 18 BAYLOR, Sat. 12:00 p.m.

  • KENPOM: Baylor 75, Arizona 71
  • TICKETS: Click here

There are a couple of things to take into account here.

For starters, this game is being played in Waco, but there are some real questions about just how much of a home court advantage the Bears are going to have here. The football team is in the Big 12 title game, which will be played at the same time. I have a feeling that is going to take priority for the majority of the Baylor fanbase. Baylor has resorted to giving away free tickets to make sure the stands are filled.

That said, I think that Baylor has the matchup advantage here. The Bears haven’t been playing as much zone this year but it’s still something they can fall back into, which will be tricky for an Arizona team built around three freshmen. I also think the size Baylor has inside is less than ideal for a team that relies on Zeke Nnaji quite a bit. Then throw in the fact that this is Arizona’s first true road game and first game outside of the western time zone, and I like the spot for Baylor.

PICKS: I’m refraining from betting on this. I don’t have a great feel.

No. 9 GONZAGA at No. 22 WASHINGTON, Sun. 7:00 p.m.

  • KENPOM: Gonzaga 73, Washington 71
  • TICKETS: Click here

A rivalry game, one where I expect Gonzaga to be favored on the road. I think I like Washington here. I don’t fully trust Gonzaga’s guard play at this point in the season, and if anyone remembers the way that the Washington-Baylor game ended the first week of the season, Isaiah Stewart completely dominated Baylor’s frontline down the stretch. I can see that happening again, considering just how much Gonzaga relies on running offense through their posts.

PICKS: I think Washington will win, so getting the Huskies on the money line at +125 would be nice.

FLORIDA at No. 24 BUTLER, Sat. 12:00 p.m.

  • KENPOM: Butler 63, Florida 57
  • TICKETS: Click here

We’ve been betting Butler this season because the Bulldogs have been undervalued by the market all year. But now that they have that number next to their name and coming off of a really impressive win at Ole Miss, I think our chance to be all in on this team may have come to an end.

I also think that six points is a lot in this matchup, which I expect to be really low-scoring. The Gators can defend, are good at running teams off of the three-point line and can’t make threes themselves. They have a number of guards they can throw at Kamar Baldwin and have shown no desire to play fast at all this season. Butler is 348th in average possession length offensively.

PICKS: Let’s see where the total opens, but if it’s in the low-to-mid 120s, I think the under is the play in this game.

No. 20 COLORADO at No. 2 KANSAS, Sat. 7:00 p.m.

  • KENPOM: Kansas 73, Colorado 65
  • TICKETS: Click here

I am definitely looking forward to this game because I feel like I haven’t had a chance to really watch Colorado yet this season. I saw a little bit of their game against Arizona State in the opener, but that’s it. So keep that in mind as I proceed to tout the Buffaloes. Here’s the logic: The Jayhawks want to run their offense through Udoka Azubuike in the post, and Colorado is top ten nationally in defensive two-point field goal percentage. They have big bodies, they have strong posts and they can make life tough for Azubuike inside.

PICKS: I think this line will open up higher than Colorado (+8). Getting the Buffaloes (+10.5) would make all of my wildest dreams come true.

No. 19 DAYTON vs. SAINT MARY’S, Sun. 4:00 p.m. (Phoenix)

  • KENPOM: Dayton 70, Saint Mary’s 68
  • TICKETS: Click here

I’ll be on Dayton here. What makes Saint Mary’s dangerous is their ability to spread teams out with their shooting and create mismatches all over the court. Dayton does the same thing, only they have Player of the Year candidate Obi Toppin creating mismatches, who should, in theory, be able to limit Malik Fitts’ advantage at the four. Playing this game at a neutral site is a bonus as well.

PICKS: I like Dayton up to (-4.5), and I would think about the under as well. Both of these teams are built on shooting, and neutral sites environments can be tough to shoot in. Saint Mary’s wanting to play at a slow pace will help as well.

CINCINNATI at XAVIER, Sat. 5:00 p.m.

  • KENPOM: Xavier 73, Cincinnati 67
  • TICKETS: Click here

My take on Cincinnati is that the Bearcats are overvalued right now. The biggest reason for that is that there seems to still be some tension between new head coach John Brannen and star guard Jarron Cumberland. I also think that Xavier is one of the teams that is being undervalued at this point. I know they struggle shooting the rock, but they are tough, they are athletic and they have a couple of game-changers in Naji Marshall, Tyrique Jones and Paul Scruggs. If Kyky Tandy can provide a bit of shooting and Quentin Goodin is truly out of his funk, the Musketeers are a top 20 team.

The only concern I have: This is a rivalry game. If Jarron Cumberland is ever going to play like a National Player of the Year candidate, this is the game he’ll do it.

PICKS: I will probably be staying away at Xavier (-6).

CBT Podcast: Georgetown’s problems, the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, a weekend preview

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Rob Dauster and Bobby Reagan from the Fundamentally Sound podcast go through everything that happened in a wild week of basketball, from the four – yes, four! – blowouts of in the marquee games of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge as well as the rise of DePaul and the enigma that is Indiana. Rob also discusses the situation at Georgetown at the top, and the podcast ends with a preview of what should be a lively weekend of college hoops.

North Carolina’s Armando Bacot to be ‘out a while’

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North Carolina’s freshman center Armando Bacot suffered a left ankle injury in the first half of Wednesday night’s game against Ohio State and did not return.

Bacot, who came down on a defender’s foot and had to be helped off of the floor, immediately when back to the locker.

“It was swollen by the time he got to the locker room,” coach Roy Williams said. “My guess is he’ll be out a while.”

The 6-foot-10 Bacot was averaging 11.7 points and 9.6 boards and was coming off of his best game of the season, when he posted 23 points, 12 boards and six blocks while playing a season-high 30 minutes against Oregon.

Michigan, Kentucky schedule basketball game in London

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan and Kentucky have agreed to play a basketball game in London next season as part of a three-year deal that also includes a home-and-home series between the two programs.

Michigan announced the deal Thursday. The teams will play at O2 Arena in London in December 2020. The teams will meet at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor in 2021 and at Kentucky’s Rupp Arena in 2022.

“When the idea of playing Kentucky came up, we knew it would be an exciting opportunity, not only for ourselves, but for our fans as well,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “What a unique three-game series. First, we get to showcase collegiate basketball overseas in London before playing that traditional home-and-home series in front of two of the nation’s best basketball environments.”

The teams have met seven times previously, with Kentucky holding a 5-2 edge. The Wildcats beat Michigan in a 2014 Elite Eight game in their most recent contest. When Howard was a player at Michigan, his Wolverines beat Kentucky in a 1993 national semifinal.

Film Room: How Ohio State handed North Carolina their worst loss in nearly two decades

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At this point, no one should be surprised when Chris Holtmann does something smart as a head coach, and I certainly was not surprised to see him find a way to smother North Carolina on the defensive side of the ball on Wednesday night.

In a 74-49 win in the Dean Dome, the worst home loss the Tar Heels have taken since 2002, when Matt Doherty was in charge, the Buckeyes held North Carolina to just 27.8 percent shooting from the floor. They shot 25.6 percent on two-point field goal attempts, the lowest number of the Roy Williams era. And I think so much of it had to do with what Holtmann did defensively on Cole Anthony.

The game-plan was, frankly, pretty simple. When Anthony had the ball, Ohio State climbed up in him, they hedged hard on all ball-screens and they sent bodies at him whenever he put the ball on the floor to drive. They made a conscious decision to force Anthony into either playing 1-on-2 and 1-on-3 or giving the ball up to a teammate. As soon as he gave the ball up, they face-guarded him. Full denial, even if it meant playing 4-on-4 for the rest of that possession.

And it worked.

Starting point guard C.J. Walker did the heavy lifting on Anthony, but he was hardly the only one. Luther Muhammad started out on Anthony before getting into foul trouble and playing just nine minutes. D.J. Carton, Andre Wesson and Duane Washington all took a shot at UNC’s freshman stud as well. That’s a lot of bodies, all of whom have some size, some length and some athleticism, and happen to be good individual defenders. Anthony got tired before they did.

This method was effective mainly due to the fact that Ohio State is one of the nation’s elite defenses. Combining all those athletic wings with a center in Kaleb Wesson that dropped the baby fat this summer is a luxury for Holtmann.

But it wasn’t all Ohio State.

Because what became painfully obvious for those that had not yet recognized it is that North Carolina has a startling lack of offensive weaponry. It’s almost like losing five NBA players to the draft is tough to deal with.

No matter who is on the floor with him, defenses are going to dedicate the majority of their attention to Anthony. He’s a game-changing talent. We saw him blow the game wide open against Notre Dame in the opener. He’s going to be the most dangerous player on the floor in just about every game he plays this season. But with a limited supporting cast to rely on, this is the decision Ohio State forced Roy Williams into:

1. Allow Anthony to go full iso-ball and try to win this game on his own by taking deep, contested threes off the dribble or driving into two or three defenders;

or

2. Run offense for the other guys on the roster even if the shots they are getting are tough shots for them. To put this into context, watch the clip below:

North Carolina ran that first play for Cam Johnson, the No. 11 pick in the draft, last season. This year it’s Brandon Robinson. In past seasons, the guy getting the post touch in the second clip was Kennedy Meeks, or Luke Maye, or Brice Johnson. Last night, it was Brandon Huffman. When they’re running pick-and-pop action like the third clip, it’s Garrison Brooks, not Maye, that is taking those jumpers.

If you’re coaching against North Carolina, I think you’re just fine with Brooks shooting 17-footers. That’s the shot you live with.

Now, to be clear, Robinson is not a bad player. In fact, he’s significantly better than I realized coming into the season. And the x-factor here is that Armando Bacot played just seven minutes before spraining his ankle. He may “be out for a while,” as Roy Williams put it after the game, and even then, he’s been much better as a guy that cleans up misses than as a go-to scorer in the post. According to Synergy, he’s scored just .769 points-per-possession on post-ups, which is in the 42nd percentile nationally. You just saw all four of the post-up buckets he’s scored against high-major foes this season if you watched that clip above.

Bacot is a monster on the offensive glass, and his return will help keep defenses honest because of that. Sell out on a Cole Anthony drive, and Bacot is putting that miss back with a tip-dunk.

But that only mitigates the issue North Carolina has this season.

They don’t have enough talent around Cole Anthony.