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College Hoops Contender Series: Can Michigan State’s sophomore class carry them to a title?

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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?

After looking at Kentucky, Kansas and Arizona, we’re on to my pick to win the national title: The Michigan State Spartans.

MOREThe Enigma of Miles Bridges | NBC Sports Preseason All-American Team

Miles Bridges (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

WHY THEY WILL WIN

We should start with Miles Bridges here, shouldn’t we?

Bridges is the NBC Sports Preseason National Player of the Year. He averaged 16.9 points, 8.3 boards, 2.1 assists and 1.5 steals while shooting 38.9 percent from three on more than five threes per game as a freshman. He was a top ten pick in last year’s loaded NBA Draft and he made the decision to return to school. That doesn’t happen all that often, so it should come as no surprise that Bridges will enter the year as a potential top five pick and the star of a team everyone believes will be in the top five. ‘Who has the best player in college basketball?’ is a great starting point for trying to figure out who are the best teams in college basketball, and Bridges, on paper, is a good bet to be the best player in college basketball.

But there is more to this than the simple fact that Tom Izzo more or less lucked his way into not only having the local five-star prospect pick the Spartans over the likes of Kentucky, but then opt to stay with the Spartans over heading to the NBA Draft.

Bridges is so perfect for what the way that Izzo wants to play.

He’s arguably the best athlete is all of college basketball. He can guards threes and fours. He can protect the rim. He attacks the glass, particularly on the offensive end of the floor, and he can get out and run in transition. Defense, rebounding and the transition game are staples of the teams Izzo wants at his disposal, and Bridges can do all three things well.

Then throw in the rest of the Michigan State front court. Nick Ward is a throwback. He’s a 6-foot-8, 260 pound left-handed behemoth that is impossible to stop one-on-one on the block. He averaged 13.9 points in less than 20 minutes as a freshman. Freshmen aren’t supposed to do that. Sophomores aren’t, either. Ward will be paired up front with Jaren Jackson, who couldn’t be a more perfect compliment to Ward and Bridges. He’s a 6-foot-11 power forward with all the skills you expect out of a modern power forward: He protects the rim, he rebounds and he can space the floor offensively with his three-point shot. He may not have the hype of some of the other big men in the 2017 recruiting class, but he projects as a one-and-done lottery pick all the same.

I still haven’t even mentioned Xavier Tillman, another land-warrior freshman in the front court. He may surprise some people this season. Throw in Ben Carter, Gavin Schilling and Kenny Goins, and there may not be a more talented and deep front line in the country.

The back court is where the issues lie — we’ll get to that in a second — but there are some things to like about this group. For starters, both Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford were top 30 recruits in the Class of 2016. Neither were all that impressive during their first year in East Lansing, but the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores. Langford shot 41.6 percent from three last year and Winston averaged 5.2 assists in just over 20 minutes. They are talented and they should continue to improve.

Lourawls ‘Tum Tum’ Nairn Jr. is back for his senior season, and his ability to push the ball in transition has made him a favorite of Izzo, while Matt McQuaid is somehow only a junior. Assuming that both Winston and Langford take a fairly significant step forward, Nairn and McQuaid will be rotation players off the bench, and if that is the case, this Spartan roster looks as strong as any roster in the country.

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Nick Ward (Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)

WHY THEY WON’T WIN

There are two real concerns that I have with this Michigan State team heading into next season.

The first, believe it or not, is with Bridges. I don’t see anyway that you can question his ability. He’s a monster. But part of what made him just so effective as a freshman was because he is the prototype for what you look for in a college four in modern — read: small-ball — basketball. He’s big enough to guard power forwards defensively. He rebounds the ball, he protects the rim, he can switch onto anyone defensively and he just so happens to be a perimeter player on the other end of the floor. In other words, he can guard college power forwards but they cannot guard him.

That is an incredibly valuable weapon for a team like Michigan State to have.

And as a sophomore, he won’t be taking advantage of that versatility in the same way. He’ll likely end up playing the majority of his minutes at the three. Jaren Jackson is too good to keep on the floor, particularly when it would mean playing Matt McQuaid of Tum Tum Nairn over him, but Jackson is a full-blown power forward.

It begs the question: Just how effective is Bridges going to be if he is playing at the three? Will it be easier for college small forwards to cover him? Will he be able to take them into the paint if Ward is already occupying space down there? And what about his three-point shot? He made 38.9 percent as a freshman, but how many of those were a result of getting clean looks at the rim because the power forwards guarding him didn’t know how to guard a player like that on the perimeter?

I don’t think this will end up being an issue — hell, we have Bridges as the Preseason National Player of the Year — but it will definitely be something to monitor moving forward.

Final Four Sleepers | Louisville | Villanova | West Virginia | USC | Wichita State | Miami
Cassius Winston (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

The bigger question mark, however, will likely end up being Winston, and to a lesser degree Langford.

I love Tum Tum. I wrote a story on him when he was still in high school. His name is awesome. He’s a terrific personality with the kind of back story that makes you want to root for him. But he’s just not good enough to be the starting point guard for a team with national title aspirations. Last season, Nairn started 30 games at the point. Winston started five, and while Izzo had found ways to manufacture minutes for the duo to play to together later in the season, this much was clear: there was something that the Hall of Fame head coach didn’t quite trust about Winston.

Maybe it was his 23 percent turnover rate. Maybe it was Winston’s issues on the defensive end of the floor, or the fact that he didn’t lead the way that Izzo wanted his point guards to. Most likely it was all of the above, and as a sophomore, those are issues that Winston will have to fix.

And I think that he will.

Again, Michigan State is a consensus top three team for a reason. They’re my pick to win the national title this season.

But I can certainly tell myself a story where the Spartans don’t quite come together, and it starts with Winston’s issues at the point.

Langford I am less worried about. He will mostly be fine. Yes, he needs to be more aggressive as a scorer, and we saw some of that late in the season. But mostly he needs to be a guy that can knock down open shots, provide a consistent defensive threat and be a threat in transition, whether he’s spotting up for a three or finishing at the rim. He will be, at best, the third option for these Spartans offensively, and I don’t think it will be that hard for him to fill that role.


Miles Bridges (J Pat Carter/Getty Images)

PREDICTION

Michigan State is my pick to win the national title.

I’m sure I won’t be the only one to say that between now and the start of the season.

And as good as Tom Izzo is, it’s worth noting that when he has had a team projected as a title contender, the season usually ends up being disappointing. Since the Spartans won the title in 1999, there have been four seasons where they were considered to be a favorite to win the title at some point during the season. In 2009-10, they were No. 2 in the preseason top 25 and limped their way to a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament; they would eventually get to the Final Four in Detroit that year. In 2010-11, they were again the preseason No. 2 team in the country and finished the year 19-15 with a loss to UCLA in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

In 2013-14, they were the preseason No. 2 team yet again, living up to the hype for most of the year until a wrist injury suffered by point guard Keith Appling derailed their season; Sparty still found a way to win the Big Ten tournament and get to the Elite 8. Then in 2015-16, the Spartans quickly emerged as one of the nation’s best team before losing to Middle Tennessee State in the first round of the NCAA tournament as a No. 2 seed.

Will this be the year that bucks that trend?

Bacot, Anthony lead No. 5 UNC past Elon 75-61

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Those newcomers at No. 5 North Carolina were playing like freshmen — and, really, the upperclassmen were too — during yet another sluggish start.

The big men took it upon themselves to demand the ball — and dominate down low.

Armando Bacot had season highs of 22 points and 14 rebounds, Garrison Brooks added 14 points and the slow-starting Tar Heels beat Elon 75-61 on Wednesday night.

Bacot said coach Roy Williams “talked to me and Garrison and was like, `We need to dominate in the paint.”

“So we just told all the guards to get the ball and feed us,” Bacot added.

As a result, fellow freshman Cole Anthony flirted with North Carolina’s first triple-double in 19 years. He finished with nine points, 10 rebounds and a season-high eight assists for North Carolina (4-0), which hasn’t had a player with a triple-double since Brendan Haywood and Jason Capel each did it 10 days apart in December 2000.

And yet, in a sign of how high Anthony’s ceiling is, Williams called it a bad night for his star guard, who was 4 of 14 from the field with four turnovers.

“I’ve seen some really good players, and he’s got a chance to be one of the best I’ve ever seen,” Williams said. “But I also know when good players stink and that was him about half the game.”

The Tar Heels were 30 1/2-point favorites who a year ago beat Elon on the road by 49 points. They trailed at halftime for the second time this season before opening the second half with a Bacot-led 21-5 run that pushed the lead into double figures, and wound up outrebounding Elon 56-25.

Marcus Sheffield scored 19 points for the Phoenix (2-3), who lost their third straight — all to power-conference schools — while shooting 28% in the second half. Hunter Woods added 18 and his 3-pointer with 2 1/2 minutes left pulled Elon to 68-61. Bacot — who had 18 points in the second half — followed with two buckets to re-establish the Tar Heels’ double-figure lead.

BIG PICTURE

Elon: The Phoenix looked nothing like a team still chasing its first Division I victory of the season. Elon led 33-32 at halftime despite missing 13 of its final 15 shots of the first half — many of them wide-open looks — and the signature highlight might have been Sheffield’s posterizing, one-handed dunk on Justin Pierce midway through the half. Plenty of encouraging things in this one for first-year coach Mike Schrage — a former member of Mike Krzyzewski’s staff at Duke who was quite comfortable in the Smith Center’s visitors’ locker room.

“The first 20 minutes, we’ll take, but I thought the start of the second half, they really imposed their will,” Schrage said. “I thought we got worn down trying to fight them.”

North Carolina: The Tar Heels’ youth and inexperience was evident early in this one — Williams, a noted time-out hoarder, burned one 2 minutes, 9 seconds in after a particularly sloppy turnover. (“Earliest one in my history, I’m sure,” he quipped. “Doesn’t have a lot of competition.”) But they flipped the switch at halftime and took over early in the second half with their freshman big man leading the way, then made enough plays to ride out the victory.

BACOT BITS

This was by far Bacot’s best night of his young career. He set scoring and rebounding highs for the second straight game after finishing with 12 points and 11 rebounds against Gardner-Webb last Friday night. He also had three blocks, his first game with more than one.

KEY STATS

With Bacot and Brooks underneath, North Carolina scored 46 points in the paint to just 16 for Elon. That helped the Tar Heels overcome 16% shooting from 3-point range — their worst at the Smith Center since Louisville held them to 14% in January.

UP NEXT

Elon: Plays host to Manhattan on Saturday.

North Carolina: Faces Alabama on Nov. 27 in its Battle 4 Atlantis opener in Paradise Island, Bahamas.

No. 2 Louisville rallies past USC Upstate 76-50

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville’s latest rout was anything but routine.

The No. 2 Cardinals trailed in the second half for the first time this season against a determined USC Upstate squad that challenged them longer than expected. That scare got Louisville’s attention, and its response was fast and furious.

Ryan McMahon made consecutive 3-pointers and Dwayne Sutton and Darius Perry had one each during a second-half surge that rallied Louisville past USC Upstate 76-50 Wednesday night.

Trailing the determined Spartans 43-40 with 14:07 remaining, Sutton’s 3 tied it before McMahon added one after a huge block of Josh Aldrich’s layup attempt. McMahon and Perry followed again from long range, and the Cardinals (5-0) turned up the intensity on both ends for a 24-5 burst.

They outscored Upstate 36-7 to close the game, capped by the second of two dunks from freshman guard David Johnson in his collegiate debut following a summer shoulder injury.

“They are going to go up against a team that isn’t in awe and play as well as they can for periods of 10 minutes,” Louisville coach Chris Mack said. “Tonight was not as tough as a moment we will find ourselves in the next month or two, but it is good for a team to figure it out.”

Jordan Nwora had two 3s among his season-high 28 points on 11-of-19 shooting. The Cardinals finished 51% from the field and have shot above 50% in each game this season.

McMahon scored 15 points on five 3-pointers, his last ones helping Louisville avoid a huge upset. The Cardinals were 9 of 21 from behind the arc, including 5 of 9 after halftime. Sutton grabbed a career-high 15 rebounds and scored nine points.

“It shows the power of the 3-point shot in college basketball,” added Mack, whose team tied a season high with 22 assists. “It can keep you in any game.”

The Cardinals owned the smaller Spartans in just about every statistic as expected: They held Upstate to 33% shooting with a 40-22 gap in rebounding with a 36-10 scoring advantage in the paint.

Blowouts have been the norm for the Spartans, who entered losing by an average margin of nearly 21 points. That included Monday’s 31-point loss at Akron, which seemed forgotten as they stayed within reach and even led.

“We played 30 minutes of the best basketball we’ve played all year,” second-year coach Dave Dickerson said. “But their size and athleticism and the fact they have one of the best players in the country as well, it’s hard for us to contend with that. They wore us down.”

Bryson Mozone’s 14 points on four 3s led Upstate (1-5), which was 9 of 24 from long range.

FULL STRENGTH

Johnson and 6-foot-11 junior forward Malik Williams finally got on the court for Louisville after missing time with injuries. They combined for seven points and four rebounds, all big in helping the Cardinals pull away.

“It felt great, been itching to get out there and finally got to do it,” Johnson said. “I just wanted to get the win.”

There was one scary moment as Williams, who returned from September foot surgery, landed hard and awkwardly following a flagrant-1 foul by Mozone. He got up gingerly but shook it off and made 1 of 2 free throws.

“I wasn’t really scared,” Williams said. “I just put my foot back in place and get right back to it. I’m good. I’m here to stay.”

BIG PICTURE

USC Upstate: The Spartans stayed close thanks to perimeter shooting and defense that forced the Cardinals into off-balance attempts. They just didn’t have enough height to battle on the glass and were no match once the Cardinals found their shot and intensity.

Louisville: The Cardinals led for much of the game despite appearing out of sync when Upstate kept making baskets. Their failure to contain Mozone could have cost them, but they also started making 3s to thwart the upset. The returns of Williams and Johnson from injuries helped in a comeback they didn’t expect and should help team depth.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

The near-upset shouldn’t cost Louisville much in the rankings.

UP NEXT

USC Upstate returns home Saturday to host Youngstown State, which Louisville beat 78-55 on Nov. 10.

Louisville hosts Akron on Sunday in the last of its five-game homestand.

No. 16 Memphis beats Little Rock 68-58 as Wiseman watches

AP Photo/Karen Pulfer Focht
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Memphis players said they were unaware before Wednesday night’s game that star freshman James Wiseman had been suspended 12 games by the NCAA.

There was another culprit for the No. 16 Tigers’ poor early play — a lack of respect for Arkansas-Little Rock — before Memphis escaped with a 68-58 win.

Precious Achiuwa had 16 points and 12 rebounds, and DJ Jeffries added 15 points — all in the first half — providing a spark for the lackadaisical Tigers (4-1).

The game was played only hours after the NCAA ruled Wiseman, the Tigers 7-foot-1 freshman and last season’s top recruit, ineligible for the next 11 games — he’d already sat out one — for receiving impermissible benefits from Memphis coach Penny Hardaway. Hardaway provide the family with $11,500 to help with moving expenses from Nashville to Memphis two years ago, before Hardaway became the Tigers’ coach. After moving to Memphis, Wiseman played for East High, where Hardaway coached.

The NCAA considered Hardaway a university booster because he donated $1 million to the university in 2008.

Wiseman watched the game from the bench.

“We were definitely glad to find out a number. We had been waiting on that,” Hardaway said.

Jeffries and Achiuwa both said they were unaware of the NCAA ruling.

“I haven’t actually looked at my phone in like four hours,” Achiuwa said, Jeffries nodding in agreement.

Hardaway said he didn’t talk about the situation with his team.

“It is what it is right now,” he said. “It has taken on a life of its own. I’m sure they will see it later.”

Hardaway attributed the slow start to the team’s disregard for the Trojans.

“I kind of got the feeling of how the locker room was before the game that these kids were taking Little Rock for granted,” Hardaway said. “There wasn’t the same energy.”

Markquis Nowell led the Trojans (3-2) with 16 points, while Ben Coupet Jr. added 12 points. Ruot Monyyong had 12 points and nine rebounds and Kamani Johnson finished with 10 points and 11 rebounds. Nowell also had 10 turnovers, representative of the sloppy play throughout the game.

“We had our chances,” Little Rock coach Darrell Walker said. “You think about it, Kamani at the rim 13 times and he misses 10 layups and doesn’t get fouled. There’s nothing the coach can do about that. Markquis turns the ball over 10 times. I told him they weren’t going to let him score all those points tonight. I told him he had to be a facilitator and a decoy.”

Memphis missed its first eight shots and by the midway point of the first half, the Tigers (4-1) were 3 of 13 from the field and had missed all five of its 3-pointers while committing eight turnovers.

The Tigers were unable to overcome the anemic start until less than five minutes left in the half, with Jeffries providing the spark with 15 points helping Memphis take a 28-23 lead at the break.

Little Rock was within 55-53 with about five minutes left, but Memphis outscored the Trojans 13-5 the rest of the way as the Trojans gave way to the Tigers depth.

“I don’t have all the weapons that Penny has,” Walker said. “He has a bunch of weapons, even coming off the bench. … Right now, I don’t. I got a couple of freshmen and some guys hurt. My deck is not full, but I’m not making excuses.

“Penny’s deck is not full either.”

BIG PICTURE

Little Rock: After jumping to an early 9-0 lead, the Trojans defense played well enough to cause problems for Memphis. Little Rock stayed close, but the visitors struggled from the foul line, going 13 of 24.

Memphis: Memphis was a mess to start the game, missing its first eight shots, some of them way off the mark. Four turnovers added to the early misery. After taking the lead late in the first half, the Tigers never relinquished the advantage in the second half, although Little Rock kept the game close.

UP NEXT

Little Rock: Travels to North Carolina State on Saturday

Memphis: Hosts Ole Miss on Saturday.

Memphis could not have handled the James Wiseman situation more poorly

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As much as I want to wave my fists in the air, pound on my keyboard and scream about how unfair it is that James Wiseman is the person in this scenario that has to serve a 12-game suspension, the unfortunate truth here is that Memphis played this out about as poorly as humanly possible.

Memphis probably never should have played James Wiseman in the first place. And as much as bleeding hearts like myself enjoyed watching the Tigers relentlessly troll the NCAA, they certainly should not have antagonized an organization that has proven that they are vindictive and unafraid of levying heavy-handed punishments. They definitely should not have messed with the bull if they weren’t ready for the horns.

But let’s back this up for a second.

Best that I can tell, there are only two reasons that the NCAA exists:

1. To oversee the tournaments that determine the national champion in every sport at every level. This, they are really good at, even if it took them four decades to realize the RPI was a joke.

2. To enforce amateurism and ensure that no one is breaking their bylaws. This, they are not so good at because, unlike law enforcement, the NCAA does not actually have any subpoena power. They can’t force anyone to talk, and as long as the paper trail is hidden well and no one is caught on an FBI wiretap talking about paying for players with strong-ass offers, it’s hard for NCAA investigators to do their job well.

The way the NCAA gets schools to comply and the people involved in these investigations to cooperate and tell the truth is to threaten them with the fire of 1,000 suns if they get caught doing anything else. If coaches get caught in a lie, the punishment far outweighs the crime. Bruce Pearl was banned from the coaching for three years because he lied about bringing a recruit to a barbecue at his house, a fairly minor violation. The same can be said for schools. If they do something like – oh, I don’t know – opt to play a player that they have been told by the NCAA is “likely ineligible,” then you have to be prepared to put every resource at your disposal behind fighting what you know is coming.

Memphis picked a fight with the NCAA. As soon as they did that, as soon as they willfully put James Wiseman on the floor at FedEx Forum against South Carolina State, they should have known they would never be able to put Pandora back in her box.

They should have known that this was going to put a bullseye on their back. They should have known that, as Sports Illustrated has reported, “a major infractions case targeting Memphis is now likely.” They should have known that those three games legitimately – and, by the rulebook, rightfully – put the future of the program and that of head coach Penny Hardaway in jeopardy.

None of what’s coming was worth it for wins over two teams no one cares about and a loss to Oregon.

It probably would not have been worth it for a full 30-something games of James Wiseman, but at least that would be understandable. I would not have put all of that on the line for a chance at living out the season the program has been anticipating since Penny replaced Tubby Smith, but I would at least see what the plan was. Memories cannot be vacated, and with public sentiment supporting the end of amateurism, maybe they could fight this thing in court long enough that it would no longer be a violation.

Oh, and the sideshow would have been incredible.

You think Zion Williamson’s shoe moved the needle?

Imagine what a full season of a potential No. 1 pick going to the war with the NCAA would have done.

But that’s not the way it played out for Memphis.

They waved the white flag last week.

On Wednesday, the NCAA ruled that Wiseman will have to serve the final 11 games of his 12 game suspension. So the Tigers may have cost themselves their best chance at getting to the NCAA tournament and they still have the NCAA coming after them.

And the complicating factor here is that this was an NCAA violation. No one is arguing that. Penny, who at the time was a Memphis booster and alum, paid $11,500 to Wiseman’s mother for the family to relocate from a ritzy private school in Nashville to a public high school in Memphis. At the same time, Wiseman stopped playing with Brad Beal Elite and started playing for Team Penny. All of this happened nine months before Penny was hired to be the Memphis head coach and around the same time that some of the most powerful voices in Memphis media started calling for Penny to replace Tubby.

This was always going to be thoroughly investigated by the NCAA.

Thinking otherwise was just foolish.

The honest-to-god truth here is that the only victim is Wiseman himself. He has been failed by every adult in this situation.

Penny should have known better than to pay Wiseman’s mother to get him to move to Memphis to play for his teams.

Memphis administrators should have known better than to allow him to step on the court when the NCAA had the goods.

Both Penny and the University should have been better prepared for what was coming knowing that this payment had happened; and if the University didn’t know this payment happened, they should have.

The NCAA should be above vindictive punishments that solely target a kid that had little, if anything, to do with this. He didn’t make the payments. He didn’t accept the payments. It wasn’t his decision whether or not to play, and if it was, Memphis never should have let an 18-year old make that decision.

One of the biggest failings of NCAA bylaws is their absolute inability to punish people that actually break the rules. Penny isn’t suspended. Wiseman’s mom isn’t suspended. No one in the athletic department is suspended.

No, the person being punished is the kid who was 16 when his mom accepted money from a man who was deemed a booster in 2008.

Memphis’ James Wiseman suspended 12 games by NCAA

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The NCAA announced on Wednesday evening that potential No. 1 pick James Wiseman has been suspended for 12 games and will be reinstated on Jan. 12th.

Wiseman sat out Memphis’ win last Friday against Alcorn State. It will count as one of the 12 games Wiseman must sit out. Wiseman will be eligible to return Jan. 12 against South Florida.

The NCAA suspended Wiseman because of the $11,500 that his family received from then-high school coach Penny Hardaway to relocate from Nashville to Memphis in the summer of 2017. He got an additional punishment because he played the first three games of the season while technically ineligible. Hardaway became Memphis’ coach in 2018.

Wiseman must make an $11,500 donation to a charity of his choice, per the NCAA.

The 7-foot-1 Wiseman was the No. 1 player in the 2019 class, and the headliner of Hardaway’s top-ranked recruiting class.