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College Hoops Contender Series: Where is Kentucky’s scoring going to come from?

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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 and talked about six different Final Four contenders – Louisville, West Virginia, Villanova, Wichita State, USC and Miami – that are just flawed enough that we can’t call them contenders.

There is a pretty clear-cut delineation between the four or five best teams, the clear national title challengers, and the rest of the country this season.

This week, we will be taking a deeper dive into five of those teams.

What makes them good enough to win a national title?

But why won’t they win a national title?

Let’s break it down, starting with Kentucky, who, for my money, has the lowest floor of any team in this series.

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Hamidou Diallo playing for USA Basketball this summer (USA Basketball)

WHY THEY CAN WIN

As we have become accustomed to, Kentucky is as talented, as deep and as loaded with high-priority recruits as any team in college basketball.

There are eight former five-star recruits on the roster, three of whom joined the program for the 2016-17 season, as well as another pair of former four-star prospects. The amount of size, length and athleticism on this roster is going to make some NBA teams jealous. There will be times this season where the five Kentucky Wildcats on the floor will be Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Hamidou Diallo, Kevin Knox, Jarred Vanderbilt and Nick Richards. Diallo, who is 6-foot-4 with a 6-foot-11 wingspan and a 44.5″ vertical, would be the smallest player on the floor, and that’s before you throw P.J. Washington, Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones into the mix.

Simply put, this Kentucky team is going to be a nightmare to play against.

They probably won’t be as good as the 2015 team was defensively – I’m not sure people really appreciate just how good Willie Cauley-Stein was as a defender at the college level – but they’ll likely end up being one of the best defensive teams in the country this season. They have size and athleticism at every position, switchable defenders all over the floor and shot-blocking at the rim, and that is before we mention that Kentucky happens to have a coach on the sidelines who is as good as anyone in the sport at getting his players to buy-in to the role he needs them to play.

What they won’t have is someone like Karl-Anthony Towns or Devin Booker, which is where Quade Green, the five-star point guard recruit, comes into play. He’ll be tasked with creating shots – or, as we’ll get into in a second, dunks and layups – for the rest of the roster, and it should not surprise you if much of Kentucky’s offense ends up coming in transition. Since arriving in Lexington, John Calipari has not generally been known as a coach that runs a transition-based attack. The only two times he’s ranked in the top 140 in tempo, according to KenPom, were the years he had De’Aaron Fox and John Wall at the point, but scoring in transition will be easier for this year’s team that scoring against a set defense.

That said, Kentucky won’t have to score much, not with the way this group will be able to defend.

If their defense lives up to its potential, we may be looking at a year where the Wildcats win simply by getting to 60 points.

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LEXINGTON, KY – JANUARY 21: Wenyen Gabriel (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

WHY THEY WON’T WIN

There are two things that this Kentucky team lacks, both of which have the potential to derail the season for the Wildcats: Veteran leadership and proven offensive weapons.

Let’s start with the former.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the loss of Isaiah Briscoe hurts Kentucky more than the loss of De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk or Bam Adebayo. John Calipari planned for those three to head to the NBA after one season. The core tenet of his recruiting philosophy at Kentucky has been to get the best players on his roster to the NBA as quickly as possible and to replace them with a new crop of soon-to-be NBA lottery picks. Fox, Monk and Adebayo are gone but Quade Green, Hamidou Diallo and a handful of five-star big men are on campus.

Briscoe, despite being a five-star recruit in the Class of 2015, didn’t exactly fall under that umbrella. He was a very, very good college player that, predictably, went undrafted back in June after leaving school as a sophomore. Had he returned, he would have been precisely the veteran leader that the Wildcats currently lack; the 2017 version of Darius Miller, if you will.

This may be surprising, but this is going to end up being the youngest, least-experienced Kentucky team that Calipari has ever had as the head coach of the Wildcats. Only one of Kentucky’s nine rotation players from last season returns, and that’s Wenyen Gabriel, who averaged 4.6 points in just under 18 minutes per game. By the time the NCAA tournament rolled around last year, Gabriel was barely cracking double-digit minutes. This is just the second time that Cal has a team with no returnee that averaged more than 18 minutes and the first time that he’s had a team with a leading returning scorer that averaged fewer than 5.0 points. The only other time that was comparable was in 2012-13, when Kyle Wiltjer, who had averaged 5.0 points and 11.6 minutes on the 2012 title-winning team, was the leading-returning scorer, transfers Ryan Harrow and Julius Mays made up the starting back court and a team that lost Nerlens Noel to a torn ACL in February lost to Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT.

The year was a disaster.

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And there’s a chance this season could end up like that season. The best teams that Kentucky and Duke have produced in the one-and-done era have all featured veterans playing prominent roles. In 2010, John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins had junior Patrick Patterson to lean on. Kentucky’s 2012 national title-winning team featured sophomores Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb as well as senior Darius Miller in prominent roles. Duke won the title in 2015 in large part due to the fact that Quinn Cook, a former McDonald’s All-American and a three-year starter at the point, played his senior season off the ball.

That would have been the role that Briscoe played for this team.

Instead, we’re looking at Hamidou Diallo being a resident veteran on the Kentucky roster because he enrolled early and redshirted the second semester of the 2016-17 season.

Kentucky will miss Isaiah Briscoe (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Which leads me to the second issue that this Kentucky team is going to face this year: There isn’t much polish on this roster. There’s talent – Kentucky has eight five-star recruits on the roster, including a pair heading into their sophomore seasons, and two more four-star prospects – but there aren’t many instant impact players, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. In other words, Kentucky has a team full of raw athleticism, players whose potential in the future is more intriguing than what their current production is expected to be.

Hamidou Diallo, Nick Richards, Kevin Knox, Wenyen Gabriel, Sacha Killeya-Jones and, when he returns from injury, Jarred Vanderbilt. They all have the kind of long-term potential that will force NBA teams to take notice. None of them are considered to be much of a threat offensively heading into this season.

Think about it like this: In the final minute of a close game, who are you giving the ball to if you are Calipari? Where is that bucket going to come from?

The lack of creators isn’t the only issue, either. Where is the shooting going to come from? How will the Wildcats be able to space the floor? If your answer is Jemarl Baker, then that means you’re pulling Diallo or Vanderbilt off the floor. If the answer is Gabriel, it means Knox is sitting or Kentucky is playing a lineup that features no true post presence.

All told, of the 10 players expected to be in Kentucky’s rotation, six of them play in the front court and two of the guards — Diallo and Gilgeous-Alexander — have major question marks with their ability to shoot the ball. That’s going to be an issue alone, before you factor in the lack of a go-to guy.

The easiest way to phrase the issue is like this: I’m worried that this Kentucky roster features a wealth of role players without one true star.


Kevin Knox II (David Banks/Getty Images)

PREDICTION

The that lack of one true star may ultimately end up being the downfall of this group.

In the last ten years, there have been 50 players taken as top five draft picks. Of those 50, 28 were top ten players in their class (all of whom were one-and-dones) and seven more were international prospects, which means that there have only been 15 players drafted in the top five in the last ten seasons that were not top ten prospects in their recruiting class. Of those 15, 13 were sophomores, juniors or seniors. One was Enes Kanter, who arguably should be listed as an international prospect.

The other was D’Angelo Russell, one of the most unique and electrifying offensive talents we’ve seen in college basketball in recent years.

Kentucky has just a single player currently on their roster that ranked in the top ten of their recruiting class in 247 Sports’ composite rankings, and that’s Hamidou Diallo. He was ranked 10th in his class, but as a prospect, he was not enough of a sure thing to keep his name in the 2017 NBA Draft.

To be clear, you don’t have to be a top five pick to carry a great college team, even as a one-and-done. Malik Monk did it. Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow did it. Jamal Murray did it.

But all of those guys were top ten players in their recruiting class. I challenge you to find a freshman that wasn’t a top ten recruit or a top five pick that managed to be the star for a team that contended for a national title. It’s not easy to do, which means that in order for Kentucky to compete for a national title, they will be relying on one of three things to happen this season:

  1. Hamidou Diallo, whose offensive limitations kept him from getting picked where he would have liked to be picked in June, turning into a superstar at this level.
  2. Wenyen Gabriel or Sacha Killeya-Jones turning into a star as a sophomore in college.
  3. One of Kentucky’s other freshmen having a season that, essentially, is unprecedented; Russell’s 2015 Ohio State team was a No. 10 seed entering the NCAA tournament.

That’s the bet that you’re making when you pick the Wildcats to get to the 2018 Final Four.

Ex-Michigan State star Mateen Cleaves acquitted in sex assault case

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FLINT, Mich. — A jury acquitted former Michigan State basketball star Mateen Cleaves Tuesday on charges alleging he sexually assaulted a woman in a motel room four years ago.

The verdict announced in a Genesee County courtroom in Cleaves’ hometown of Flint came after a nearly-two week trial that included the testimony of the Mount Morris woman, who told jurors that she had wanted to leave the motel room but Cleaves continued to force himself on her.

Evidence against Cleaves included a video that prosecutors contended showed the woman pulling away from Cleaves. Prosecutors argued she tried twice to escape from the motel room.

Cleaves did not testify. One of his attorneys, Frank Manley, said Cleaves had consensual sex with the woman who was in the motel room “of her own free will” after a charity golf tournament and visit to a bar. Cleaves’ attorneys told jurors that the woman lied about what happened because she felt guilty about cheating on her boyfriend.

The 41-year-old Cleaves was acquitted on all charges, including unlawful imprisonment and assault with intent to commit criminal sexual penetration. He had faced a maximum of 15 years in prison had he been convicted.

Cleaves has long denied the allegations, saying in a March 2016 tweet that he was “innocent and the allegations are without merit.”

The trial itself came after a long legal battle that started in late 2016 when a district judge dismissed the charges, saying that there were a number of factors that suggested “something else was going on” between Cleaves and the woman.

But in 2017, the charges were reinstated after the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office filed an appeal that contended the judge had abused her “discretion of power” in dismissing the charges. Then last year, the Michigan Supreme Court refused to review that decision, clearing the way for the trial.

Cleaves is a revered figure in Michigan, an integral part of a Michigan State team that won the national championship in 2000 before his six-year NBA career.

And on Tuesday, sitting in a courtroom was another reminder of that team: Coach Tom Izzo. Izzo told The Detroit News that he did not know the details about the allegations against his former star player but wanted to be in the courtroom to support Cleaves as he would “any of my guys.”

Mick Cronin lands first five-star recruit at UCLA

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Less than 24 hours after cutting his list to five schools, five-star point guard Daishen Nix committed to UCLA.

Nix is a 6-foot-5 point guard from Alaska that’s currently playing his high school ball in Las Vegas. He’s known for his court vision and elite basketball IQ with a developing jumper and a feel for the game that cannot be taught. He ranks as a top 15 prospect, according to 247 Sports.

He was Mick Cronin’s top target at the point guard spot, and Cronin landed him. That’s notable, because one of the concerns that people had about UCLA’s decision to hire Cronin was whether or not a coach known for his toughness, his intensity and his team’s propensity for being defense first would adjust to playing at California’s flagship program, where tempo is a must and defense has been, for the last half-decade, optional.

And while it remains to be seen how the team and program will adjust to his coaching style – I will have a story coming on that later this week – at the very least, Cronin has proven that he can dip his toe in the west coast recruiting waters and get a player that he prioritized.

Who are the best basketball prospects that have yet to play in the NBA?

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Over the course of the next two weeks, Pro Basketball Talk will be rolling out a project that we have been working on for the last month: Ranking the top 50 players five years from now.

Players ranked 46-50 were unveiled today.

You can find that list here.

In the meantime, since it is relevant, here at College Basketball Talk we are going to take a look at the guys that, in 2024, may actually deserve a spot on a top 50 players list that you may not know about just yet.

So without further ado, here are the ten best prospects that have yet to play a game in the professional ranks.

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1. Emoni Bates, Class of 2022

Bates is the shoe-in at No. 1 on this list. Over the years I’ve gotten to know quite a few of the scouts that do recruiting rankings and cover the sport at the high school level. These guys have been in the business for a long time – some for decades – and every single one of them rave about Bates in a way that you don’t often see players get talked about. One called him the best freshman he’s ever scouted. One called him as good as any prospect that he’s scouted in more than 20 years in the business. One called him the best prospect in high school hoops, which is exactly where I have him on this list. Personally, I think that he’s the closest thing that we’ve seen to Kevin Durant since Kevin Durant.

I wrote a story on Bates from Peach Jam back in July, and one of the things that I made sure to note in that story is the danger that comes with this level of hype at this age. Many of the things that are being said about Bates were said about Renardo Sidney at the same age, and we know how that turned out. Part of the reason I’m a little less-hesitant to make such proclamations with Bates is that he has an alpha mentality and competitive streak that you don’t see all that often. So not only does he have the physical tools as a super-skilled, 6-foot-9 scorer with range out to the NBA three-point line, but once he gets on the court, he’s an a–hole in all of the best ways.

2. Cade Cunningham, Class of 2020

Cunningham is tailor-made for modern basketball. He’s a 6-foot-7, 220 pound point forward. He’s a tough, physical and athletic wing that, two years ago, made the transition to playing the point full time. He has the savvy, the maturity and the polish of an NBA veteran. He doesn’t have the highlight reel athleticism of guys like Zion Williamson or Ja Morant, but he has the kind of functional athleticism that will allow him to split the defense, avoid the charge, absorb the contact and finish in traffic. He was the MVP of the EYBL circuit this past season, and if he continues to improve his shooting stroke, there’s a very real chance that he gets picked with the No. 1 pick in the 2021 draft.

I think the best way to phrase it is this: He will likely be the first player to ever get compared to Luka Doncic, and I’m not sure how much more complimentary you can get.

James Wiseman (Elsa/Getty Images)

3. James Wiseman, Memphis

4. Evan Mobley, Class of 2020

I’m listing these two together because they really are quite similar prospects. Both stand 7-foot. Both have the kind of length, mobility and athleticism that should allow them to thrive at the five in the modern NBA. Both of them are capable defenders with the potential to be very, very good with some added strength and a bit of motivation. And both of them are skilled enough where they have the potential of one day doing all four things modern fives are asked to do – protect the rim, switch ball-screens, space the floor to the three-point line, be a lob target as a roll-man in ball-screens.

Now, there are some differences. Wiseman, at this point, is probably more physically developed – he is a year older – while Mobley, at 6-foot-11 and 200 pounds, is going to have to make the absolute most of the meal plan USC gets him on. Mobley, on the other hand, seems to be more accepting of the fact that he’s destined to be a five in the NBA while Wiseman, in the words of one NBA draftnik, “thinks he’s Giannis when in reality he’s a lot closer to Myles Turner.”

There is nothing wrong with being Myles Turner. He just turned 23 years old and he is coming off of a season where he averaged 13.3 points, 7.2 boards and an NBA-best 2.7 blocks while shooting 38.8 percent from three. He’s really good. But he also knows what he is and what he isn’t, and he isn’t Giannis.

5. Jonathan Kuminga, Class of 2021

Kuminga is a super-explosive, 6-foot-8 wing that is just now starting to figure out how good he has the chance to be. He has all the physical tools that you want out of a wing – height, length, athleticism, versatility – and he has shown that he is willing and able to defend multiple positions. The big thing with him in the long-term is going to be how well his jumpshot develops, and if that comes along, his upside is as high as anyone on this list. I do think it’s worth noting that at Peach Jam, he was in the same group as Terrence Clarke and Patrick Baldwin Jr. and justified his spot on this list.

6. Jalen Green, Class of 2020

Green has all the makings of a future top five pick. At 6-foot-5, he’s a naturally gifted scorer that makes the game look easy. He’s at his best when he’s slashing to the bucket, where he can finish above the rim and also has a shiftiness about him in the lane. He’s a capable ball-handler and passer, but he’s going to make his money as a bucket-getter. If his jumper catches up to the rest of his game, look out.

7. Anthony Edwards, Georgia

Edwards is a big time scorer and athlete that has the ideal physical tools for a combo-guard. He’s a sturdy 6-foot-5 with length and explosive athleticism. His game is well-rounded. He’s a good shooter that can also operate in ball-screens, create for his teammates and shoot off the dribble. In theory, he’s an ideal fit for a sport that is becoming more and more reliant on scorers that can create in isolation with shooters spacing the court. Part of the reason he stayed home to play for Georgia is that Tom Crean coached both Victor Oladipo and Dwyane Wade in college, and those two are what Edwards has the potential to be at the next level.

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8. Cole Anthony, North Carolina

Anthony is going to get a lot of hype heading into the 2020 draft. Beyond the simple fact that he is the son of UNLV legend and NBA journeyman Greg Anthony, Cole Anthony is headed to North Carolina, where Roy Williams is going to slot him into the same role that he used Coby White in last year. He is going to get a lot of shots, he’s going to score a lot of points and he’s going to have a lot of highlight reel plays in the process. My big question with Cole longterm is that I’m not convinced that he is big enough to play off the ball, I’m not sure he is a natural point guard and I don’t know if he is quite good enough to be allowed to play the way he has throughout his career at the NBA level. There is definitely some potential here, but I think the fit at the NBA level makes more sense with Green and Edwards than it does with Anthony.

RISING SON: Cole Anthony remains grounded while following his father’s footsteps

9. Terrence Clarke, Class of 2021

Clarke is a wiry-strong, 6-foot-6 off-guard from Boston that has the potential to be the No. 1 pick in whatever draft he ends up in. (There’s a chance he can reclassify into 2020.) He’s an explosive athlete that can finish in traffic while also displaying a high-level feel for the game. He’s an improving shooter that can create off the bounce in isolation, and his court vision and passing gives him the upside of having some positional versatility down the road.

10. Patrick Baldwin Jr., Class of 2021

As one coach at a top ten program told me this summer, Patrick Baldwin Jr. “is the best shooting big man I’ve ever scouted.” Still just heading into his junior year in high school, Baldwin recently went through a growth spurt that saw him sprout up to 6-foot-10. He needs to add some strength and weight to his frame (what 16 year old doesn’t?) but that size and shooting ability is not something that we see all that often. The big question for Baldwin is how well the rest of his game develops. Is he simply a pick-and-pop five, or will he continue to develop a floor game and the physical tools that will allow him to be a plus-defender in the NBA?

THREE THAT JUST MISSED THIS LIST

Jaden McDaniels, Washington: McDaniels’ upside is as high as anyone on this list save for Bates and Cunningham. At 6-foot-10, he’s a skilled wing with a perimeter game and a developing shooting stroke. It’s not hard to watch him play and see what he can be if he continues to put in the work, but he has a ways to go to get there. He’s still just 190 pounds and, at this point, more of a prospect that a producer.

Paolo Banchero, Class of 2021: Banchero is a tough prospect to gauge the ceiling of. He’s already 6-foot-9 and 230 pounds with a frame that should easily be able to hold more muscle, but without the kind of physical tools that will set him apart from the field. I think it’s also fair to say that his best skill at this point is how well-rounded he is. Put another way, he’s one of those guys that can do everything well – he can shoot it, he can pass, he can beat bigger defenders facing up, he can hold his own defending the paint, etc. – with an exceedingly high basketball IQ. Put another way, outside of continuing to stretch out his shooting range, I’m not sure just how much better he’s going to end up getting.

Jalen Johnson, Class of 2020: Johnson’s biggest strength at this point is probably his basketball IQ and passing ability at this size. He’s a 6-foot-9 lefty with a complete skillset and the kind of floor vision at this size that will make you think Ben Simmons lost his Aussie accent. Already committed to Duke, Johnson will likely continue to generate buzz as his defense and perimeter stroke improve.

Michael Avennati makes court filing alleging Nike cleared payments to Zion Williamson, Romeo Langford

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Lawyers for Michael Avennati filed a court motion on Wednesday alleging that Nike approved under-the-table payments to Zion Williamson and Romeo Langford while they were still in high school.

The alleged offers, which were for $35,000 to Zion and $20,000 to Langford, were found in “text messages, emails and other documents fro 2016-17” and prove “Nike executives had arranged for and concealed payments, often in cash, to amateur basketball players and their families and ‘handlers,'” the motion, which was filed in U.S. District Court in New York, alleged.

Specifically, the motion alleges that:

  • EYBL manager Jamal James texted EYBL director Carlton DeBose and Nike’s recruiting coordinator John Stovall asking if they would be “willing to do … whatever may be needed for the Zion/Romeo situations as well as the money we’re now going to do for the [redacted because he is still a minor] kid in Michigan.” Stovall responded “Langford – 20 Zion – 35 [unnamed minor] – 15”. Stovall added that it was a bad idea for the offer to be put into print.
  • DeBose said in a text message with an unnamed Kentucky assistach coach that the shoe company was “funneling payments to high school players through at least 10 different EYBL coaches.”
  • An EYBL coach told Nike executives he was concerned about the money being paid to players and their families because it won’t end well for Nike and innocent coaches “will be deemed guilty by association.”
  • DeBose told Nico Harrison, Nike’s VP of North America basketball operations, that he’s “willing to bet that 38 of the 40 teams in the EYBL had to pay a moderate to considerable ransom to families just to play in the EYBL.” He also said the arrangements are “being viewed as a contract” by the players and their families.
  • Another Nike executive, Rachel Baker, allegedly said she was worried about carrying cash through an airport.

All the quotes listed above are from the motion itself. It refers to emails and text messages, but they are not attached. The motion can be read in its entirety here.

The motion does not make clear whether or not the money was actually delivered. Both Zion and Langford played their final season of AAU basketball on the Adidas circuit. Langford’s father was the coach of the AAU program that his son played for.

“Nike will not respond to the allegations of an individual facing federal charges of fraud and extortion,” Nike said in a statement. “Nike will continue its cooperation with the government’s investigation into grassroots basketball and the related extortion case.”

Avenatti was arrested in March and charged with attempting to extort more than $20 million from Nike by threatening to expose the way that the shoe company and its grassroots basketball league, the EYBL, funnel money to the elite high school players and their families. He threatened to hold a press conference at the start of the NCAA tournament announcing these allegations of misconduct.

Adding to the drama is the fact that Avennati represented Gary Franklin, who was the coach of the California Supreme at one point in time. Deandre Ayton, Bol Bol, Aaron Holiday, De’Anthony Melton, Solomon Hill and Brandon McCoy were among the players that spent time on his roster. The motion to dismiss also contains allegations that Franklin was directed by DeBose to make payments to people associated with Ayton, Bol and McCoy, and that he submitted false invoices to Nike to disguise the payments as expenses for the 501(c3) he operated.

Arkansas dismisses forward Gabe Osabuohien

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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Arkansas has dismissed forward Gabe Osabuohien from the men’s basketball program.

Coach Eric Musselman announced the move Thursday without disclosing the reason.

“We have set a level of expectations for our student-athletes on and off the court,” Musselman said. “After discussions with Gabe, it was decided that it would be best to part ways. We thank him for his time at Arkansas and wish him well.”

The 6-foot-8 Osabuohien was born in Toronto but played at Little Rock’s Southwest Christian Academy. He played in 54 games with eight starts in two seasons with Arkansas. He scored 128 points (2.4 per game) and had 136 rebounds (2.5).