College Hoops Contender Series: Can Sean Miller overcome scandal to (finally) get Arizona to the Final Four?

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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?

We’ve gone through Kentucky and Kansas already this week. Today, we’ll take a look at Arizona.

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Allonzo Trier (Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

WHY THEY WILL WIN

There are two ways to answer this question.

The first is relatively simple. Arizona has three things that, alone, would make them relevant in the Pac-12 title and Final Four discussion:

  1. They have a junior that will be a Preseason All-American, in the mix for National Player of the Year and could end up leading all of high-major basketball in scoring this season. His name is Allonzo Trier.
  2. They have the potential No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, and his name is not Allonzo Trier. It’s Deandre Ayton, who has a shot at earning those same accolades that Trier will be in the mix for.
  3. Those two will be coached by Sean Miller, who is the best coach in the country to never reach a Final Four and may be the best coach in the country, period.

But, and this may actually be more important than any of those three things individually, Arizona also has the perfect blend of ridiculous incoming freshmen talent and talented returning veterans that can provide the kind of leadership and experience that you don’t see from 18 and 19-year olds.

The Wildcats will likely start just one freshmen this season. Three of their starters — Trier, a junior, and seniors Dusan Ristic and Parker Jackson-Carterwright — are upper-classmen. Sophomore Rawle Alkins should also slide into the starting lineup center he returns from a foot injury that is expected to keep him out for the first couple of weeks of the season.

The best teams during the one-and-done era — Kentucky’s title-winning team in 2012, Duke’s title-winning team in 2015, Kentucky’s Final Four team in 2015 — have all had that blend.

It’s why Arizona will be in the top three of every preseason top 25 you see coming out this month.

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Deandre Ayton (Getty Images)

WHY THEY WON’T WIN

Before we get into the off-the-court stuff, let’s talk on-the-court.

The way that I see it, there are four things to be worried about with this Arizona team. Let’s walk through each one of them, in order of the most concerning to the least concerning:

1. Point guard play: There are two point guards on Arizona’s roster as of today. One of them is a freshman named Alex Barcello, a borderline top 100 prospect that, in an ideal world, won’t be playing major minutes for a national title-contending team, at least not as a freshman. The other is Parker Jackson-Cartwright, a senior and former four-star recruit that has spent his entire Arizona career has the second option at the point.

The last two years, he played behind Kadeem Allen, a converted scoring guard and tenacious defender that turned himself into the kind of a player that piqued the interest of the Boston Celtics in last year’s NBA Draft. He was a physically imposing, 6-foot-3 menace that also happened to be a 43 percent three-point shooter. Before that, Jackson-Cartwright slotted in behind T.J. McConnell, another savvy, defensive menace that has carved out an NBA career for himself.

That is not the kind of point guard that Jackson-Cartwright is. He has some of the same skills offensively that McConnell had, and his ability to facilitate at the point without needing shots to be happy will be valuable on a roster that has enough guys that want to score, but can he have an impact defensively? Is he a leader the way that past Arizona point guards have been? The answer to both of those questions may be ‘yes’, but if they are ‘no’, will some combination of Barcello, Allonzo Trier and Emmanuel Akot rotating through those lead guard minutes be enough for Arizona to win a title?

We’ve seen what happens when title favorites — ahem, Duke — have question marks at the point, and until Jackson-Cartwright proves otherwise, he falls into that category.

2. Which Deandre Ayton are we going to see this year?: There has never been a question about the amount of talent that Ayton has. He’s 7-foot with a 7-foot-6 wingspan. He’s athletic, he’s fluid, he’s mobile and he has a back to the basket game and three-point range. He, quite literally, is the prototype for a big man in this modern era of basketball.

But he doesn’t always play like it.

The knock on him has always been his motor. When he decides to show up, like he did at Peach Jam during the summer of 2016, he dominates anyone that gets in his way — Wendell Carter, Mitchell Robinson, Marvin Bagley III — but we’ve yet to see Ayton consistently churn out those kind of performances. His detractors will say it is because he is lazy, or he isn’t competitive, or he doesn’t love basketball; you know the clichés. Others will tell you that it is because he was never challenged at the high school level and that when he was, he showed up to play. That idea is supported by the reports coming out of Tucson, that Ayton has been terrific to date.

The truth is that we won’t know which Ayton we are going to see until we actually see him. He might end up being the best player in college hoops. He also might end up being Perry Jones.

3. Are there enough shots to go around?: Allonzo Trier is going to be Arizona’s go-to guy. He may end up being the best scorer in college basketball this season. He’s going to get his shots. Then there’s Rawle Alkins, a former five-star prospect that averaged double-figures as a freshman and opted to return to school to try and boost his NBA stock. He’s going to need shots, too. Ayton is going to need shots. Dusan Ristic is going to need post touches.

The bottom line is this: the hardest thing to do at this level of college basketball is to convince players to buy into a role. John Calipari is the best at it, but he doesn’t even have a perfect track record. In a perfect world, the No. 1 pick might end up being Arizona’s third option offensively this season. Is everyone going to be OK with that?

4. Who plays the four?: Like the point guard spot, the four is going to be something of a question mark for Arizona this season.

Ayton will likely end up starting there, because Ristic is a senior and because he is much more skilled on the perimeter than the 7-foot Serbian. But I still think that Ayton’s best position at the college level is as a small-ball five, and if he is playing at the five, who does Miller line up at the four? Keanu Pinder might be the answer, but he’s a JuCo transfer that played all of 12 minutes per game last season. It might be Ira Lee, but an all-freshmen front court isn’t always the easiest answer. Maybe Miller plays Akot there and fully dives into the small-ball era?

I don’t know.

And frankly, I’m less concerned about this than I am intrigued. I think Arizona has enough talent and enough different pieces that it should be fine however Miller decides it will come together.

Assuming the season goes as planned, which brings us to …

5. … Arizona’s involvement with the FBI investigation: Arizona is all over the FBI complaints that came down last month. Book Richardson, an assistant coach that had been with Sean Miller for 11 years, was arrested. Richardson allegedly took bribes to influence where players on the roster would invest their money and accepted a $15,000 payment that was earmarked for a Class of 2018 prospect named Jahvon Quinerly. Two players currently on the Arizona roster were mentioned by Richardson during the commission of the alleged crimes, although the FBI did not release their names, and another assistant coach, who was with the program as of last spring, was also involved in a dinner with the uncle of one of Arizona’s top recruits.

And we don’t know if that’s all that the FBI has. All we know is what they have released.

Are there going to be more Arizona players or coaches involved in this scandal? Will Arizona get wind of any potential arrests or players that may be deemed ineligible? Is this a situation where the Wildcats will try to fall on their own sword?

Only time will tell.

Final Four Sleepers | Louisville | Villanova | West Virginia | USC | Wichita State | Miami

Rawle Alkins (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

PREDICTION

Barring some kind of craziness – and craziness enveloping this Arizona season certainly has a greater-than-zero possibility – Arizona is going to end up winning the Pac-12 regular season title. That became a safe bet after the Pac-12 decided that the Wildcats will only be playing UCLA and USC once, and that both of those games will be played in Tucson.

But Arizona fans probably don’t care all that much about Pac-12 titles at this point.

They’ve been there.

What they want is a Final Four, which is more or less the only thing that Sean Miller doesn’t have on his coaching résumé at this point. The 48-year old currently holds the title of ‘best coach to never make a Final Four,’ something he inherited from Mark Few, who inherited it from Bill Self, who inherited it from Jim Calhoun.

Point being, sooner or later, Miller is going to make that run to the final weekend of the college basketball season.

And with the amount of talent, depth, experience and versatility he has with this group, I fully expect that this will be the year he gets it done.

If, you know, nothing crazy happens.

No. 1 South Carolina tops fifth-ranked UConn 81-77

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HARTFORD, Conn. – In a rematch of last season’s national championship game, South Carolina came out on top again over UConn thanks to a strong fourth quarter by Aliyah Boston.

Geno Auriemma stepping onto the court to spike a water botte, that helped them, too.

Boston scored 23 of her 26 points in the second half, including 14 in the final period, to help the No. 1 Gamecocks beat the fifth-ranked Huskies 81-77 on Sunday in front of a sellout crowd.

“Aliyah is just relentless, she plays relentlessly although she had a subpar (first half) as far as statistics, she impacted the game,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “She doesn’t get flustered. she knew she didn’t play up to her standards. What does she do? Raise her standard. Bad first half or not she’s going to continue to play.”

While there wasn’t as much on the line as the title game last April, there was a high intensity to it, including Auriemma getting the technical late in the fourth quarter after getting frustrated by the officiating enough to throw the bottle.

“I thought there were a lot of things being overlooked. It was difficult for some of our guys to move out on the floor,” said Auriemma, UConn’s coach. “I didn’t think it was one key play, I just couldn’t keep quiet any longer. It was bad. … Dumb mistake by me. Bad decision.”

The Gamecocks (23-0) have won 29 consecutive games since losing to Kentucky in the SEC Tournament title game last year. They’ve won four of the past five meetings with the Huskies, including a victory in the NCAA championship game last season. That ended UConn’s perfect 11-0 record in title games.

“This was a national championship-like game. I wanted us to feel what it takes to do this,” Staley said.

Now South Carolina finally has a win in Connecticut after winning there before.

South Carolina used its size again to top the Huskies. The 6-foot-7 Kamilla Cardoso and Boston, the reigning AP Player of the Year helped the Gamecocks have a 42-30 advantage on the boards, including grabbing 25 offensive rebounds.

Boston finished with 11 rebounds for the 76th double-double of her career. Cardoso added 17 points and 11 rebounds before fouling out.

With her team leading by four in the fourth quarter, Boston took over. She scored the next 12 points for South Carolina, two of those came when Auriemma tossed the water onto the court and was charged with the technical foul.

Boston hit the two free throws. She then hit a jumper, a 3-pointer and another basket to give the Gamecocks a double-digit advantage.

“I’m kind of in attack mode. In the second half I made more shots then I did in the first half,” Boston said.

Despite seeing their starting backcourt foul out, the short-handed Huskies (21-3) wouldn’t go away. They whittled the lead down to 80-77 with 10.8 seconds left on Aubrey Griffin’s three-point play.

Raven Johnson hit the first of two free throws a second later and UConn couldn’t convert to close out the game

“They have a lot to feel good about once they get past what it feels like to lose,” Auriemma said. “I feel better at 3 o’clock today then I did at 12 o’clock. I didn’t know how we’d respond. I knew we’d play hard and compete like hell. I didn’t know who was going to make a big play, who was going to get a big rebound, make a big shot. I know now more than I did at noon and I feel better about my team.”

Aaliyah Edwards led UConn with 25 points.

UConn got off to a solid start, outscoring South Carolina 25-14 in the opening period. Lou Lopez Senechal capped the strong start, hitting a running 3-pointer just before the buzzer.

South Carolina asserted its size in the second quarter with Cardoso scoring 11 points in the period. Her putback with just under 10 seconds left tied the game at 34 heading into the half.

TIP-INS:

UConn is 8-10 against No. 1 teams all time. … The Huskies are still missing guards Azzi Fudd (knee), Caroline Ducharme (concussion) as well as Paige Bueckers (knee) and Ice Brady (knee), who are both out for the season. … Many former UConn players were in the crowd including Sue Bird, Jen Rizzotti, and Napheesa Collier sitting a few rows behind the Huskies bench. … South Carolina has gone 41-6 against ranked teams since the start of the 2019-20 season.

DEPTH:

The Gamecocks reserves outscored UConn’s 37-0. The Huskies only had eight healthy players.

UP NEXT:

South Carolina: visits Auburn on Thursday before a showdown with No. 3 LSU on Feb. 12

UConn: visits Marquette on Wednesday.

No. 16 Duke tops No. 9 Notre Dame 57-52 for 1st place in ACC

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Celeste Taylor scored 14 points and No. 16 Duke came from behind for a 57-52 victory at No. 9 Notre Dame on Sunday to move into first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Trailing for most of the game’s first 28 minutes, the Blue Devils (20-3, 10-2 ACC) took the lead for good in the final minutes of the third quarter to knock off the Fighting Irish (18-4, 9-3) before a sellout crowd of 9,149 at Purcell Pavilion.

A jumper by Jordyn Oliver put Duke ahead 45-44 with 1:20 left in the third quarter and the visitors never trailed after that.

“I’m proud of my players for finishing the game,” Duke coach Kara Lawson said.

Duke led 48-46 going into the fourth quarter after trailing Notre Dame by as many as five points in the third quarter. A steal by Elizabeth Balogun in the final 15 seconds helped seal the win.

A 13-4 run helped Notre Dame take its biggest lead of the first half for either team at 31-23. The Irish led 31-25 at halftime.

“We fell short, but you know it’s a part of our growth,” Irish coach Niele Ivey said. “It’s part of our journey.”

Taylor scored 10 points for Duke in the second half. Balogun and Shayeann Day-Wilson finished with 9 points apiece and Taya Corosdale and Oliver had 8 each.

Maddy Westbeld, playing all 40 minutes, led Notre Dame with 15 points, Sonia Citron scored 14 and Olivia Miles added 11.

“She’s one of the best players in the country,” Lawson said of Miles, who logged just over 31 minutes. “We didn’t have to go against her for a quarter of the game.”

COLD SHOOTING

Neither team shot well in the fourth quarter. Notre Dame made just 2 of 13 shots from the floor and Duke was 3 of 13.

“We just talked about staying disciplined defensively and making it hard,” Lawson said. “I though we challenged shots.”

Ivey also addressed that stretch of the game.

“Some of those opportunities were in transition and we didn’t get a chance to capitalize,” she said. “We did a good job of finding the open person, we just didn’t nail the shots.”

SUPERB SUBS

Led by Corosdale and Oliver, Duke enjoyed a 21-4 edge in reserve scoring.

“I’m really proud of my players off the bench,” Lawson said. “Jordyn Oliver was really good.

“We needed to have that depth in scoring. Not only did they score but they were efficient from the field.”

The Blue Devils’ bench shot 9 of 15.

SHORT-HANDED IRISH

Notre Dame graduate student Dara Mabrey was lost for the season in the Jan. 22 game against Virginia.

Lauren Ebo, a 6-foot-4 graduate student, has missed the last three games with a lower-body injury.

“Ebo does a great job of being a precence on the block with her size and ability to rebound and play post defense,” Ivey said. “She’s been working really hard (at rehabilitation).

“It’s kind of day to day.”

BIG PICTURE

Notre Dame: The Irish fell out of a first-place tie with Duke in the ACC standings.

Duke: The Blue Devils are now alone atop the conference standings.

UP NEXT

Notre Dame: The Irish meet Pitt in two of the next four contests – on Thursday in South Bend and on Sunday, Feb. 19 at Pittsburgh.

Duke: The only regular-season meeting between the Blue Devils and Boston College is Thursday at Boston.

Colorado State sorry for ‘Russia’ chant at Ukrainian player

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
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FORT COLLINS, Colo. – Colorado State has apologized for a group of fans who chanted “Russia” at a player on an opposing team who is from Ukraine during Saturday’s game.

Utah State’s Max Shulga is from Kyiv and was shooting free throws when TV cameras picked up the chant from the student section during the game in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Russia invaded Ukraine nearly a year ago.

“On behalf of Colorado State, we apologize to the student-athlete and Utah State. This is a violation of our steadfast belief in the Mountain West Sportsmanship Policy and University Principles of Community,” Colorado State said in a statement.

“Every participant, student, and fan should feel welcomed in our venues, and for something like this to have occurred is unacceptable at Colorado State.”

Utah State beat CSU 88-79.

Duke edges North Carolina 63-57 behind Roach, Lively

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DURHAM, N.C. — Jeremy Roach scored 20 points, Dereck Lively II had career highs of eight blocks and 14 rebounds and Duke defeated North Carolina 63-57.

Kyle Filipowski added 14 points and Tyrese Proctor 11 for the Blue Devils (17-6, 8-4 ACC), who won their third straight and beat the Tar Heels (15-8, 7-5) for the first time in three meetings, including in last year’s Final Four in the NCAA Tournament.

North Carolina’s Armando Bacot had 14 points and 10 rebounds for his 63rd career double-double, extending his own program record, Leaky Black had 13 points and 10 rebounds, Caleb Love added 12 points and RJ Davis 11.

Roach scored eight of Duke’s final 10 points, including the last four after Lively’s tiebreaking dunk with 1:35 to go. North Carolina missed its last five shots, including a trio of 3-point tries in the final minute.

The Blue Devils’ six-point winning margin matched their largest lead.

Neither team reached 40% shooting but Duke outscored North Carolina 20-2 off fast breaks and was 11 of 15 at the free-throw line to only 2 of 3 for the Tar Heels.

The stat sheet was fairly even at halftime when Duke led 33-32 except for one telling stat, a 16-0 advantage for the Blue Devils on fast-break points as they scored repeatedly off transition.

A 14-5 run erased a seven-point North Carolina lead — the Tar Heels’ largest — and put Duke in front 26-24 with just under four minutes left in the half. A Proctor 3-pointer broke the fourth tie before Bacot cut it to the one-point margin at the break. Bacot had 12 points in the first half. Roach had 10.

The game matched two men who played in this rivalry and are now leading the programs they played for: first-year Duke coach Jon Scheyer and Hubert Davis, in his second year for North Carolina.

The teams will meet again in their regular-season finale at Chapel Hill on March 4. Duke plays at No. 23 Miami on Monday. North Carolina is at Wake Forest on Tuesday.

No. 13 Iowa State rolls past eighth-ranked Kansas 68-53

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AMES, Iowa – Jaren Holmes scored all 15 of his points in the second half as No. 13 Iowa State rolled past No. 8 Kansas 68-53 on Saturday.

Osun Osunniyi added 13 for the Cyclones (16-6, 7-3 Big 12), who stayed within at least a game of front-running Texas in the conference standings. Tamin Lipsey added eight rebounds and 10 assists.

“Today, we came out and played desperate,” Holmes said.

Jalen Wilson led the Jayhawks (18-5, 6-4) with 26 points for his sixth straight game with at least 20. No other Kansas player had more than 8 points.

“It’s not a formula for success for us,” Jayhawks coach Bill Self said. “We need balance from our starting five. If one guy feels like he’s got to go do it all on his own, it crashes the offense.”

The Cyclones led for all but 1:14 of the game, building a 34-16 scoring edge in the paint. Kansas struggled early, making just two of their first 10 shots and committing 11 turnovers in the first 20 minutes.

Iowa State shot 46% for the game.

“From the beginning, we gave them some easy buckets,” Wilson said. “That’s something we’ve struggled with (defensively) … the easiest way to get comfortable is easy buckets, layups, stuff like that.”

Iowa State was up 33-21 at the break.

Holmes missed all four shots in the first half, but after getting sick at halftime, he helped the Cyclones stretched the lead to 42-31 early in the second half with a 3-pointer and layup.

“I felt a little nauseous the whole day,” he said. “I’ve been dealing with some sickness over the past week and a half.”

BIG PICTURE

Kansas: The Jayhawks dropped to 3-4 during a stretch in which six of its seven opponents were ranked. The lone unranked foe was Kentucky. … Kansas committed a season-high 20 turnovers Saturday. … The loss to Iowa State was Self’s first in five meetings with second-year Iowa State coach T.J. Otzelberger.

Iowa State: Improved to 12-0 at home this season and 5-0 in the Big 12. It was also the Cyclones’ fifth win over a top-10 opponent in the past two seasons.

UP NEXT

Kansas: Hosts No. 10 Texas on Monday.

Iowa State: Travels to West Virginia on Wednesday.