College Basketball’s X-Factors: Eight story lines that will determine the national title

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The season will finally be here on Friday, meaning that the time for previewing the year is just about over. 

But we’re not there yet.

Before things officially kick off, let’s take a closer look at the eight things will could end up deciding how the season plays out.

League titles.

Final Four trips.

Even the national title.

You can call them story lines, you can call them positional battles, you can call them whatever you like.

Here are the x-factors as we enter the 2017-18 college basketball season. 

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WHERE WILL THIS FBI INVESTIGATION LEAD?

As much as I would love to be able to focus on nothing but the teams and the players and the games, this story is never going to go away. It’s something that we, as college basketball fans, are going to have to come to grips with. This is the biggest story in the sport, and that fact is magnified this season because of who is involved.

Four of the top 12 and five of the top 25 teams in the NBC Sports Preseason Power Rankings have direct ties to the FBI complaint. Would it be crazy to think that the Final Four this season could end up being Arizona, USC, Louisville and Miami? (The answer is ‘no’. No, it wouldn’t.)

Arizona is probably the program with the most to lose here simply because this finally appears to be the team that Sean Miller can take to the Final Four. If it wasn’t for this impending investigation – and, frankly, the injury to Rawle Alkins – then I think theres is a real chance that the Wildcats could have ended up being the preseason No. 1 team in college basketball. As it stands, in a best-case scenario Arizona is likely going to end up being without at least one player currently on their roster, and that’s assuming that everything the FBI knows is public and the investigation grinds to a halt. If Alkins is the only Arizona player that sits during the first game of the season, it will probably be safe to assume that he is the one that was caught.

The same can be said for USC. Both programs had unnamed players in the FBI complaint allegedly accepting money either from a coach or from a financial advisor in a deal facilitated by the coach. Sources have told NBC Sports that USC’s De’Anthony Melton – who, as a sophomore with NBA potential, fits as one of the players in the complaint – has not yet played in one of USC’s secret scrimmages. If he ends up missing time, that’s a major blow for the Trojans.

Louisville has already seen their Hall of Fame head coach get run out of town while it seems incredibly unlikely that five-star freshman Brian Bowen will ever suit up for the Cardinals. Louisville has the talent to be a Final Four team, but until we see David Padgett running a team from the sidelines, it’s hard to know what, exactly, he is as a coach. Miami didn’t actually have a player named in the complaint, but head coach Jim Larrañaga has said publicly that he believes he was Coach-3 in the complaint, and that coach was alleged to have known about and requested a $150,000 payday for a player they were recruiting.

They arrived at that number because they believed it is what the player was offered by … Arizona.

The last program in the mix is Alabama. A member of the Alabama staff was bribed to facilitate a meeting between the father of a star freshman and a financial planner in Atlanta, the city where Collin Sexton, a potential lottery pick, is from. Sexton is the best scorer in the freshman class joining a team that returns everyone after finishing 10th in defensive efficiency and 153rd in offensive efficiency last season. He’s why they have hype.

What happens with these five teams will be massive.

We’re talking about five top 25 teams, one of whom could be the best team in the country, in addition to two Pac-12 title contenders, two ACC title contenders and an SEC contender. Those are some big name programs with quite a bit on the line.

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Trevon Duval (Reagan Lunn/Duke Athletics)

SO IS TREVON DUVAL A POINT GUARD OR NAH?

I’m on the record saying that this Duke team is the most talented starting five in the country. I’ll spare you rehashing the ‘why’ – you can read that all here – but suffice to say that the best five that Duke can run out there is better, on paper, than the best five that any other program can.

The problem, if there is one, is Duval. He’s the best point guard in the Class of 2017, a top five prospect and a potential first round pick, but he may not be the point guard that Duke needs. Duval is big, athletic and explosive, but he’s not much of a shooter, he’s not necessarily a facilitator and he doesn’t always make people around him better. Think Derrick Rose, not Tyus Jones. That becomes a problem when Duval, as talented as he is, ends up being the fifth-best player in Duke’s starting lineup.

Each of the last two years, Duke has struggled their way through point guard problems. Whether it was Derryck Thornton or Frank Jackson, Matt Jones or Grayson Allen, this program has struggled for an answer. If Duval succeeds, Duke seems like a good bet to win the national title. If he doesn’t, last year’s flameout – which resulted in a 25-win season, an ACC tournament title, a No. 2 seed and a first weekend exit in the NCAA tournament – may be repeated.

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Duke is not the only Final Four contender with point guard problems

  • Seton Hall is a trendy pick to finish in the top 15 and push Villanova for the Big East regular season title, but as good as the Pirates appear to be, they are playing this season with Khadeen Carrington running the show offensively. Carrington is a terrific player, a guy that averaged 17 points and three assists last season, but he put up those numbers playing off the ball. Playing the point is a different story, and his ability to adapt is what will determine Seton Hall’s ceiling.
  • Seton Hall’s Big East rival Xavier got a head start on their transition last season, as Quentin Goodin was forced into the starting point guard role when Edmond Sumner went down with a torn ACL in January. Goodin was fine – good in moments, a freshman in others – but he got somewhat bailed out by the fact that Trevon Bluiett was a man amongst boys for stretches in March. With Bluiett back, a good Goodin makes the Musketeers a real Final Four contender.
  • Xavier’s crosstown rival Cincinnati has some point guard issues of their own. Troy Caupain wasn’t the best player on the Bearcat roster last year, but he was a terrific leader at the point guard spot. He’s gone, and in his stead will be Cane Broome, a transfer from Sacred Heart that averaged 23 points as a sophomore, and Justin Jenifer, who has never proven to be much more than a role player. Even with the point guard question marks, Cincinnati is a borderline top ten team.
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Landry Shamet (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

WILL WICHITA STATE’S FEET COOPERATE?

No team has gone more underlooked during this preseason than Wichita State. They finished last season ranked eighth in KenPom, gave Kentucky all they wanted in the second round of the NCAA tournament and returned everyone from last year’s team. Throw in the fact that this group is joining a new conference this offseason, and this might be the most exciting winter in the history of the city of Wichita; a can’t imagine there are too many contenders.

But all of that is assuming that Wichita State will remain healthy. It starts with Landry Shamet, who is the team’s starting point guard and their best NBA Draft prospect. He underwent surgery to repair a stress reaction injury in his right foot this summer. He already had surgery to repair a broken bone in his left foot as a freshman. He is expected to be healthy by the time Wichita State tips off this weekend, but as of now there is no guarantee that will happen, or that his foot issues won’t pop back up.

And then there is Markis McDuffie, who is dealing with a similar injury, although his prognosis is much less clear. As of the timing of this posting, there is no guarantee that McDuffie, a 6-foot-8 forward that is arguably Wichita State’s best all-around player and the guy that gives them lineup and matchup versatility, will return by the start of AAC play.

If those two are not at 100 percent, Wichita State’s ceiling – which is a national title – is no where near the same.

John Calipari (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

DOES JOHN CALIPARI FIGURE OUT THE ANSWER FOR THIS KENTUCKY TEAM?

We’re used to the unknown when it comes to John Calipari’s Kentucky teams. That’s part of the deal when you coach with this one-and-done model.

That said, Cal has never had this much uncertainty about his roster heading into a season, at least not since he arrived in Lexington. This is his youngest and most inexperienced team. Wenyen Gabriel is the only returnee that was a rotation player by conference play last season, and even he was barely cracking double-digit minutes by the end of the season. Cal has never had a team who didn’t return at least one player averaging 5.0 points before, and if we’ve learned anything over the years, it’s that the best one-and-done teams have some experienced leaders blended in.

And that’s only half of Cal’s problem. The other issue is that he has a ton of big men that cannot all play together, and it’s unclear where he is going to get offense, and perimeter shooting, from. Quade Green has played well during the exhibitions, as has Wenyen Gabriel and Kevin Knox. P.J. Washington may have more of an impact than we initially expected, and that’s important.

I’ve fleshed this line of thinking out in full here, if you’re interested in a more in-depth look at the issues. If anything, I’m excited to see how Cal figures this out, because I fully expect that he will.

Miles Bridges (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

HOW WELL DOES MICHIGAN STATE’S FRONT COURT BLEND TOGETHER?

Some may think that it’s Michigan State’s guards that will determine the outcome of their season, but I think that we generally know what we’re going to get out of the back court. Cassius Winston and Josh Langford will take a step forward, Tum Tum Nairn will continue to be very, very fast and Matt McQuaid will make some shots and do his job.

They’re going to be fine.

That said, ‘fine’ won’t be enough for the Spartans to live up to their lofty preseason expectations if their front court does not deliver. This is where things get interesting to me. Miles Bridges, the NBC Sports Preseason National Player of the Year, played the four last season. He’s likely going to end up playing the three this year with another freshman, Jaren Jackson, playing the four. Nick Ward will get first crack at the five.

But will Ward be good enough defensively to warrant a bump in the 20 minutes he played last season if he doesn’t improve defensively? How will Bridges adjust to a new position and a new role? Is Jackson a stretchy enough stretch four? Can the likes of Gavin Schilling, Ben Carter and Kenny Goins accept a role? Is Xavier Tillman OK with being the seventh big Michigan State has?

That will determine Michigan State’s ceiling. Their guards determine their floor.

WHAT DOES KANSAS DO AT THE FOUR?

Bill Self had always played two bigs and run a ton of high-low actions before last season. The combination of Udoka Azubuike’s wrist injury and Josh Jackson’s ability to play a small-ball four role, the Jayhawks went full Golden State, playing four-out, one-in for just about the entire season. That worked because Josh Jackson is an NBA two-guard in a 6-foot-8 body with the athleticism and timing to block shots and the toughness to hold his own in the paint.

They don’t have a Josh Jackson this year. They also only really have two front court players that are ready to handle the Big 12 schedule this season. There isn’t the depth to play big and there isn’t the right piece to play small. So what’s the answer?

CAN ISAAC HAAS PROVIDE ENOUGH TO MAKE PURDUE FORGET ABOUT BIGGIE SWANIGAN?

Isaac Haas is one of the biggest players in basketball. He stands 7-foot-3 and 300 pounds of muscle. He is a big, big boy, so it’s understandable that he’s never exactly been the quickest or most explosive player, or that he’s been able to get into the kind of shape that would let him play 32 minutes a night. It takes a lot to get that body from one end of the court to the other.

The problem is that Purdue, who might actually be the second-best team in the Big Ten, doesn’t have all that much interior depth. Matt Haarms is another 7-foot-3 big man, but he’s a redshirt freshman. Jacqul Taylor is back, but he missed the entire 2016-17 season and has been out since October after he aggravated the stress fracture in that ankle. Haas needs to carry the load, and if he can, the reigning Big Ten champs are going to sneak up on some people.

CAN FLORIDA STILL DEFEND?

I don’t know if I can get on board with the idea that Florida is a top ten team this season for one, simple reason: Mike White’s teams thrive because of what they can do on the defensive end of the floor – last year, the Gators finished second nationally in defensive efficiency – and the Gators may have lost their three best defenders this offseason.

Kasey Hill graduated. The severely underrated Justin Leon graduated. Devin Robinson headed off to the NBA. That trio gave Florida so much length and athleticism, and both Robinson and Leon were able to stretch the floor. Florida brought in some talent, but if they can’t defend like they did last season, we may have a problem.

Carr scores 19, No. 2 Texas beats No. 7 Creighton 72-67

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AUSTIN, Texas – Texas had pressured Creighton’s shooters into a miserable night, only to watch a late flurry of 3-pointers start swishing.

An 11-point Longhorns lead was down to three.

That hardly rattled Marcus Carr and the second-ranked Longhorns, who stepped up with big late shots of their own and steady free-throw shooting to secure another impressive early-season victory, 72-67 over the seventh-ranked Bluejays on Thursday night.

Carr scored 19 points and made two free throws with 10 seconds left as Texas held off Creighton’s furious late-game rally.

Creighton struggled through a wretched 3-point shooting night, but pulled within 62-59 thanks in part to five points in a row by Baylor Scheierman. Carr’s baseline jumper and an easy layup by Tyrese Hunter when Creighton lost him on an inbound pass with 46 seconds left stretched the Longhorns’ lead again.

That didn’t quite close the door on Creighton, which got two more 3-pointers from Scheierman, who had missed his first nine attempts. That forced Texas to finish it from the free-throw line behind Carr and Brock Cunningham. Cunningham’s two free throws with 4 seconds left were his only points of the game.

“There’s going to be a bunch of times one of us has to go down there and knock down a bunch of free throws,” Carr said. “We talk about it all the time.”

The matchup was part of the Big 12-Big East Battle and Texas earned its second win over a top-10 opponent in its new arena. The Longhorns (6-0) beat then-No. 2 Gonzaga on Nov. 16 and have their highest ranking since they were No. 1 during the 2009-2010 season.

“I don’t think we’ve proven anything,” Texas coach Chris Beard said. “We’re just a team that’s trying to get better.”

Hunter scored 15 points for Texas.

Ryan Kalkbrenner had 20 points and 13 rebounds for Creighton (6-2), and Ryan Nembhard scored 17 points. The Bluejays were 4 of 27 on 3-pointers.

Scheierman, a 44% shooter from beyond the arc this season, made three 3s in a row late. His off-balance shot from the right corner over a defender pulled the Bluejays within 68-65 with 11.4 seconds left.

Scheierman finished with 13 points and 11 rebounds.

“The reality is you are gonna have nights,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “It just happens. We don’t ever want him to stop shooting.”

BIG PICTURE

Creighton: Kalkbrenner was all but unstoppable on a 9-of-10 shooting night for the Bluejays, who kept launching from long range instead of looking for their 7-foot-1 center.

Texas: The Longhorns couldn’t force their usual numbers of turnovers and fast-break points, but were exceptionally clean with the ball on offense. Texas had just three turnovers that Creighton turned into three points.

FORMER TEAMMATES

Texas senior forward Christian Bishop played three seasons at Creighton before transferring prior to last season. He finished with six points and four rebounds in 16 minutes.

“We understood what this game was, not just for our team but for Christian,” Carr said.

TIRED TEAM

McDermott suggested his team maybe just wore out. The Bluejays went 2-1 in the Maui Invitational last week and then played their first game of the season on an opponent’s home court.

“Three games in three days against ranked teams (in Hawaii) and then to come in here,” McDermott said. “That’s a lot to ask of my team.”

UP NEXT

Creighton hosts in-state rival Nebraska on Sunday.

Texas plays No. 16 Illinois in New York City on Dec. 6 in the Jimmy V Classic.

No. 20 Maryland upsets No. 7 Notre Dame at the buzzer, 74-72

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Diamond Miller scored 31 points, including the game-winner at the buzzer, to lead No. 20 Maryland to a 74-72 victory over seventh-ranked Notre Dame on Thursday night in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

Irish guard Sonia Cintron’s layup had tied the game with 15 seconds left off before Maryland held for the last shot. Miller hit a contested mid-range jumper just before time expired to give the Terrapins a victory over a top-10 opponent. It was the 15th lead change of the game.

Miller also grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds to go along with five assists. Shyanne Sellers added 17 points.

Maryland (7-2) picked up its first win over Notre Dame (6-1) since 2007.

Cintron’s double-double led the Irish with 24 points and 10 rebounds.

Notre Dame’s leading scorer Olivia Miles got off to a slow start on Thursday due to foul trouble. She scored 12 of her 14 points in the final 15 minutes of the game to go along with seven assists and two steals.

BIG PICTURE

Maryland: The Terrapins picked up their second top-20 win of the season ahead of the upcoming Big Ten opener.

Notre Dame: The Irish have had issues with foul trouble this season, a problem that persisted on Thursday. Miles played just 25 minutes, including the majority of the fourth quarter, due to picking up her fourth foul late in the third quarter.

UP NEXT

Maryland: Returns to College Park for the program’s Big Ten opener Sunday against Nebraska.

Notre Dame: Stays home to host No. 3 UConn Sunday.

Virginia’s depth helping its rapid climb in the AP Top 25

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The starting five is the same, but that is where comparisons between the Virginia team that has climbed to No. 3 in the AP Top 25 and last year’s NIT quarterfinalists ends.

Yes, one more year together and a trip to Italy has made the first five significantly better, but part of the credit for that surely goes to another group: the reinforcements. They’ve helped the Cavaliers (6-0) already knock off No. 6 Baylor, No. 16 Illinois and Michigan.

Virginia has scored 70 points or more in its first six game for the first time since the 2003-04 season, and coach Tony Bennett said it was the offense – and not UVA’s signature relentless defense – that saved them in a 70-68 victory this week at Michigan in the ACC/Bg Ten Challenge.

“Our offense kind of kept us in it in the first half,” Bennett said, before the team put it all together, erasing an 11-point halftime deficit to disappoint a raucous Wolverines crowd.

Reece Beekman was the offensive catalyst, scoring 15 of his 18 points before halftime, but four others joined him in double figures, including Jayden Gardner. His foul-line jumper with 39.9 seconds left provided the last of his 11 points, and the winning margin.

Gardner, who led Virginia in scoring last season (15.3 ppg), is averaging 11.5 this year.

“We’ve got a lot of capable scorers and we’re just gonna keep playing together. And we’re playing very unselfish basketball right now,” Gardner said after scoring 24 against Maryland Eastern Shore. He went into the game with 31 points through four games.

“He’s not the most jumping type of guy, but he’s got so much power,” Hawks coach Jason Crafton said of Gardner, an East Carolina transfer with 2,068 career points. “That low center of gravity and the flexibility that he has to be able to get under people and hold his position is elite. When he wants the ball at a certain spot, he can get it there.”

The leader remains guard Kihei Clark, who already has a place in Virginia history, having retrieved a loose ball and fed Mamadi Diakite for a jumper that sent the Cavs’ Elite Eight game against Purdue into overtime on the way to winning the 2019 national championship.

Newcomers Ben Vander Plas, a transfer from Ohio, and freshman Isaac McKneely have given Bennett more options, and more scoring power than a year ago.

As a junior, Vander Plas had 17 points for No. 13 seed Ohio when the Bobcats upset Virginia 62-58 in the first round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament.

He scored seven straight in the second half against the Wolverines, twice scoring inside and then swishing a 3-pointer while trying to slow down bruising big man Hunter Dickinson.

“Ben, yeah. Just his poise and composure in the post, took advantage of some mismatches and he really gave us a great lift,” Bennett said. Vander Plas is the son of a teammate of Bennett’s at Green Bay, and his first name is a tribute to Bennett’s father, Dick.

McKneely scored 15 and made 4 of 6 3-point tries in an 89-42 victory against Monmouth

“He was standing in front of our bench. I’m like, `Listen, we’re not helping off him,”‘ Monmouth coach King Rice said he told his team, pointing at McKneely, a two-time player of the year in West Virginia. “And he kind of looked at me and I said, `Yeah, you, because you make all of them,’ and he started laughing.”

Ryan Dunn also made quite the impression on Rice in his first collegiate appearance, scoring 13 points with six rebounds and three blocks in almost 27 minutes.

“I was in the building when De’Andre Hunter came off the bench and had a breakout game,” Rice said of Hunter, now with the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks. “Dunn reminds me a lot of Hunter, and you can tell he’s young. But when he grows into that body with that skill set, he’ll be giving people problems for a long, long time.”

The Cavaliers open Atlantic Coast Conference play against Florida State, then host top-ranked Houston, which beat them 67-47 last season, a week later.

“A good schedule for sure and it tests you, it kind of shows you, win or lose, you see where you’ve got some holes,” Bennett said.

So far, the Cavaliers have been able to fill them all.

No. 4 Arizona turning heads early in the season

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd knew there was talent on his roster. He wasn’t exactly sure how good the team would be.

The former longtime Gonzaga assistant had a similar view of last year’s team and that one turned out to be pretty good, running all the way to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16.

This year’s team could end up being even better.

Buoyed by transfers and improved returning players, Arizona has rolled through the early part of its schedule, climbing to No. 4 in this week’s AP Top 25 after winning the Maui Invitational.

“I learned that we’re good,” Lloyd said. “We’re tough. We’re gritty. I think there’s going to be some great things for us to really double down on and some things to show our guys where we went the wrong way.”

Lloyd had a superb first season in the desert, earning coach of the year honors last season with a team that lost three players to the NBA.

The Wildcats (6-0) had to replace three NBA players again this season. Again, they made a seamless transition.

Improvement on the part of the returning players has been a big part of it.

Oumar Ballo, considered a project as a freshman at Gonzaga, has transformed into one of the nation’s best big men. The 7-foot, 260-pound center from Mali has vastly improved his footwork and developed patience in the post, setting himself up for good shots instead of trying to bull his way to the basket.

Ballo is averaging 19 points and 10 rebounds while shooting 76.7% from the field, fourth-best nationally. He was named Maui Invitational MVP after finishing with 30 points and 13 rebounds against No. 7 Creighton in the title game.

Not bad for a player who averaged 2.5 points and 6.3 minutes per game two years ago at Gonzaga.

“When he struggled, I still believed in him,” Lloyd said. “I didn’t need for him to be instantly successful for me to reaffirm my belief in him. When he struggled, we continued to love him and work with him and then he continued to hang in there and I think it is a great story.”

Fellow big man Azuolas Tubelis has made a few strides of his own, adding strength and toughness to his athletic, fluid game. The 6-10 forward leads Arizona with 19.3 points per game while grabbing 8.0 rebounds.

Fiery point guard Kerr Kriisa has rounded into a reliable floor leader, averaging 15.3 points and 7.5 assists while shooting 51% from the 3-point arc.

“I don’t pay attention to the antics because they don’t mean anything to me,” Lloyd said. “I know maybe that draws attention to him from other people but when it comes to just pure basketball, I mean he is doing a good job and I think he is really showing something.”

So is Courtney Ramey.

The Texas transfer has given the Wildcats a huge boost in his first season in Tucson, providing hounding defense, leadership and another scoring option. He’s averaging 16 points per game and has hit 10 of 16 from 3-point range so far this season.

Campbell transfer Cedric Henderson Jr. has provided an athletic lift off the bench and 7-foot Estonian Henri Veesaar has given Arizona solid minutes.

The mix of new and old has helped Arizona lead the nation with 97.5 points a game and rank second with 21.8 assists per game. The Wildcats climbed 10 spots in this week’s poll after wins over Cincinnati, No. 24 San Diego State and Creighton.

Arizona opens Pac-12 play Thursday at Utah.

“It was good to get the recognition, but we’re not satisfied,” Ramey said. “Our ultimate goal is to be No. 1 at the end of the season and be the final two teams playing, so I think the regular season matters but it’s not the ultimate goal for us.”

The Wildcats are certainly off to a good start.

Gardner, No. 3 Virginia rally for 70-68 win at Michigan

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Tony Bennett’s team passed all its tests in the opening month of the season.

Jayden Gardner made a go-ahead jumper with 39.9 seconds left and blocked Jett Howard’s 3-point shot just before the buzzer, allowing No. 3 Virginia to stay undefeated with a 70-68 win over Michigan in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Tuesday night.

The Cavaliers (6-0) won their first true road game against a team that was ranked in the first two polls this season, a little more than a week after beating then-No. 5 Baylor and then-No. 19 Illinois in Las Vegas.

“It got pretty intense in here,” Bennett said.

Virginia trailed by 11 points at halftime, rallied to go ahead with 7:25 left and built a five-point lead that didn’t last.

The Wolverines (5-2) went ahead 66-65 at the 1:42 mark when Hunter Dickinson made one of two free throws.

Michigan missed chances to stay or go ahead when Dickinson missed a hook shot with 1:01 to go and Princeton transfer Jaelin Llewellyn turned the ball over with 16 seconds left.

“Hunter has made that running hook before,” coach Juwan Howard said. “The turnover, yes, down the stretch, it hurt, but overall that’s not the reason we lost the ballgame.

“We could’ve easily put our heads down when they came out in the second half and made a run.”

Reece Beekman, who finished with 18 points, stepped in front of Llewellyn’s pass in the final minute and made one of two free throws.

Virginia’s Armaan Franklin missed two free throws with 5.7 seconds left, giving Michigan a chance to extend or win the game. Howard took a contested shot beyond the 3-point arc on the right wing – near his father, Michigan’s coach – and Gardner came up with the block against the freshman guard while Wolverines coaches and players screamed for a foul call.

It appeared that Gardner got all ball on the block.

Kihei Clark scored 16 points, Gardner had 12, Kadin Shedrick fouled out with 12 points and Ben Vander Plas added 10 for the balanced Cavaliers.

“You need different guys, and that’s what it takes, to make plays offensively and defensively,” Bennett said.

Dickinson scored 23 points, Jett Howard had 11 of his 15 in the first half and Kobe Bufkin added 11 points for Michigan.

“Jett is a gamer, he’s going to compete no matter what,” Juwan Howard said. “He’s loved basketball since he was a little baby boy.

“He’s going to help us win a lot of games this year.”

The Wolverines started slowly, trailing 9-2 in the opening minutes, before Howard scored eight points to lead a 13-2 run. Michigan led 45-34 at halftime when Bufkin made a layup after a steal.

“We can’t be sloppy like that on the defensive end, but we did battle hard in the second half,” Bennett said.

Vander Plas scored nine points during an 11-2 run that put Virginia ahead 65-60. The Cavaliers then went 4 1/2 minutes without a basket before Gardner’s big shot.

THE TAKEAWAY

Virginia: The Cavaliers have their highest ranking since the 2018-19 season – which ended with a national title – and are off to their best start since being 7-0 three years ago. The team continues to honor the memory of three football players who were fatally shot on campus earlier this month, wearing warmup jerseys with their names.

Michigan: Juwan Howard’s team matched up well in its first game against a ranked opponent this season.

“When we come out with the effort like we did today for 40 minutes, I love our chances against any college team in the country,” he said.

UP NEXT

Virginia: Hosts Florida State (1-7) on Saturday.

Michigan: Plays No. 19 Kentucky (5-2) on Sunday in London.