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No. 3 Gonzaga: Zags better than team that reached title game?

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Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Every day at Noon ET, we will be releasing an in-depth preview of one member of our Preseason Top 25.

Today we dive into No. 3 Gonzaga.


You would think that, being just 18 months removed from playing in the national title game as a No. 1 seed with a 37-1 record entering the final night of the 2016-17 season, Gonzaga would no longer have to justify where they are ranked in the preseason.

Because that was always the knock on Mark Few’s program, right?

They made that one run to the Elite 8 in 1999. Great. But in the first 17 seasons after Few took over for Dan Monson, he only managed to get the Zags passed the Sweet 16 once, and that was in 2015 when they only needed to dispatch No. 11-seed UCLA to get to the Elite 8. Before Nigel Williams-Goss, Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins helped carry the Zags to within six points of a national title, every single year that Gonzaga popped up ranked high in the preseason top 25, the hate would come out.

“The Zags are always overrated.”

“The media loves Gonzaga, but they’re always overrated because they beat up on bad WCC teams.”

“You’re an idiot if you actually think Gonzaga is better than [insert random high-major program ranked below them].”

I thought that line of thinking was done and dusted after everyone saw the Zags, who most experts believed was the best team in the country entering the 2017 NCAA tournament, played for a chance to cut down the nets in Glendale, but alas, that’s not true.

There are still plenty of people that believe Gonzaga being ranked in the top five is a disgrace to rankings, the sports of college basketball and life in general, which is why it gives me great pleasure to make this statement: Gonzaga is not only a consensus preseason top five once again, but they have the best frontcourt in all of college basketball and may just be the best team in the country.

Again.

Is this the year Mark Few can finally shut everyone up for good?

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GONZAGA WILL BE GOOD BECAUSE …

It is impossible to look at the frontline of the Zags and not come away impressed.

The name that you need to know is Rui Hachimura. A Japanese international of Beninese decent, Hachimura has been one of the best young players in FIBA World Cup qualifying after a season where he averaged just 11.2 points but really came on strong down the stretch. At 6-foot-8 and checking in at 230 pounds, Rui is a terrific athlete with the kind of length and body control that makes him an excellent finisher around the basket. His perimeter game is where the development is going to have to occur, but he shot 79.5 percent from the charity stripe on 132 attempts as a sophomore. The range will come.

He’ll be flanked by Killian Tillie, a French international that grew up with a background in volleyball. A terrific athlete that shot 47.9 percent from three, Tillie had one stretch late in the year where he made 22 of 26 threes over seven-game stretch, including 13 straight threes during the WCC tournament.

Rui Hachimura (Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

That duo is the ideal pairing in a frontcourt, and the athleticism — and coaching — is there to help make up for the fact that the Zags are losing their best defender in Johnathan Williams III.

Most college basketball fans will know those names, however.

The name they won’t know is Brandon Clarke, a redshirt junior that spent last season sitting out after transferring into Gonzaga from San Jose State. At 6-foot-8 and 210 pounds, he profiles as the best defensive presence on this team and, given the athletic ability of Rui and Tillie, should allow the Zags to play the three forwards together.

Mark Few does not necessarily have a reputation for being an elite defensive coach, but the staff does a terrific job of teaching their big men how to defend — particularly developing their ability to stay vertical when challenging shots around the rim — and whileI don’t think that this year will be a repeat of 2017, when they were the nation’s No. 1 defense according to KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric, I do expect Gonzaga to be very, very good on that end of the floor.

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BUT GONZAGA IS GOING TO STRUGGLE BECAUSE …

Their backcourt is still somewhat unproven, as is their depth.

Zach Norvell Jr. put together some big games as a redshirt freshman last season, not the least of which was a 28-point outburst against Ohio State in the second round of the NCAA tournament. There was one stretch early in the season where he scored at least 17 points in six out of seven games, including a three-game stretch where he cracked 20 points against Creighton, Villanova and Washington back-to-back-to-back.

He was streaky at times, but he was also a freshman. I expect big things out of him this year.

The rest of their backcourt has more question marks.

Let’s start with Corey Kispert, a sophomore that will be looking to takeover the minutes vacated by Silas Melson. The 6-foot-6 wing started last season as a starter, logging a ton of minutes in games against Florida and Texas in the PK-80, but a sprained ankle seemed to hamper him all season long. Assuming he is healthy — and that the crux of his midseason struggles was the ankle and not, you know, his ability — he should fit in fine as a glue-guy at the three for this group. He defends, he can make threes and he is athletic enough to throw down a tip-dunk in traffic.

Then there is Geno Crandall, a grad transfer from North Dakota that was brought into the program to be a backup point guard to Josh Perkins but that profiles more as a scorer off the bench than anything else. The concern with Crandall is that he did not actually complete his undergraduate degree from North Dakota until mid-October, meaning that he is behind by a few weeks learning Gonzaga’s system, terminology, defensive assignments and how to play with the players on the roster.

That’s an issue because, reading the tea leaves, it’s pretty easy to determine that Crandall was brought in since Joel Ayayi and Greg Foster still need another season or two to be ready to contribute major minutes off the bench.

All that said, the biggest concern, at least for me, is Josh Perkins.

Josh Perkins (Harry How/Getty Images)

THE X-FACTOR

In a vacuum, Perkins is fine.

He’ll lead Gonzaga to a WCC title. They’ll end up as a high seed in the NCAA tournament. They’ll win 25 or 30 games. He’s good enough, and the pieces around him will be great enough, that it won’t have that much of an impact.

But at this point, is that enough for the Zags? They’ve been to a national title game. They’ve been a No. 1 seed. Anything short of a Final Four this year will probably be looked at as a disappointment, and to get to a Final Four, Gonzaga is going to have to beat the best teams in the country.

And my issue is whether or not Perkins, who averaged 12.3 points and 5.1 assists as a redshirt junior, can be as effective as he needs to be against the best teams in the country. Can he create against the best point guards in the sport? Is he improved as a decision-maker? Is he the leader on the floor that, say, Nigel Williams-Goss was?

If he is, then the Zags are a good bet to get back to the national title game.

But based on what I’ve seen out of him over the course of the last four seasons, I am not convinced that he is.

And if there is a reason to wonder whether or not Gonzaga can live up to the lofty goals they enter the season with, that is it.

2018-19 OUTLOOK

The criticism that Gonzaga is going to face come Selection Sunday is always going to center around the WCC schedule they have to play as a member of the league.

By the time that the nation at-large starts paying attention to college basketball, Gonzaga is more or less done playing games that actually matter. It is what it is. There’s a reason that Gonzaga made a push to try and get into the Mountain West this offseason, and there’s a reason that Mark Few is working to get the WCC league schedule reduced from 18 to 16 games.

But understand this: While you are not paying attention, the Zags are going to play a non-conference schedule that will be as tough as anyone’s. They play Texas A&M, a game that looked much tougher when it was scheduled than it does as of today. They play in the Maui Invitational, where they will get either Arizona or Iowa State in the second round and, basketball gods willing, Duke in the tournament’s title game. They play at Creighton. They play Washington, who might be the best team in the Pac-12 this season. They play Tennessee in Phoenix. They play at North Carolina.

We are going to know everything we need to know about the Zags by Dec. 15th, and while a Final Four run is never a given — that’s the beauty of March Madness — I would be shocked if Gonzaga doesn’t enter WCC play leaving no doubt as to whether or not they are one of the top four teams in college basketball.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

No. 4 Duke
No. 5 Villanova
No. 6 Nevada
No. 7 Tennessee
No. 8 Virginia
No. 9 North Carolina
No. 10 Auburn
No. 11 Kansas State
No. 12 Virginia Tech
No. 13 Michigan State
No. 14 Florida State
No. 15 TCU
No. 16 UCLA
No. 17 West Virginia
No. 18 Oregon
No. 19 Syracuse
No. 20 LSU
No. 21 Mississippi State
No. 22 Clemson
No. 23 Michigan
No. 24 N.C. State
No. 25 Marquette

Miami lands Florida grad-transfer Keith Stone

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Keith Stone is leaving the SEC but not the state of Florida.

The former Gator will finish his career at Miami as a graduate transfer, he announced Monday via social media.

The 6-foot-8 Stone is from Deerfield, Fla., less than an hour’s ride from Miami Beach. He averaged 6.1 points and 3.9 rebounds per game last season before tearing his ACL in January. With Dewan Hernandez, Ebuka Izundu, and Anthony Lawrence all gone from the Canes, Stone could be in line for a major role right from the jump if his knee gets back to full strength.

Miami went 14-18 last season to finish under .500 for the first time in Jim Larranaga’s eight seasons, and it was just the second time the Canes failed to win at least 20 games.

Kyle Guy says he’s staying in the draft, will not return to Virginia

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Kyle Guy is off to the professional ranks.

The Virginia junior had already declared for the NBA draft, but announced Monday that he plans to stay in the draft and not return to the Cavaliers next season, as he would be allowed to under NCAA rules.

“I am officially keeping my name in the draft. I know it’s the right step after much prayer and thought with my family,” Guy wrote on social media.

Players retain the option to return to school up until the end of next month, but Guy’s announcement makes it clear he has no intention of utilizing that avenue as he plows ahead toward a professional career after being named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player as Virginia won its first-ever national championship earlier this month in Minneapolis.

The 6-foot-2 guard averaged 15.4 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game in Virginia’s slow-paced offense while shooting 49.5 percent from 3-point range. Right now, Guy’s draft ceiling would appear to be in the second round with going undrafted a possibility as well. If he does make it at the next level, it’s pretty clear it’ll be the 3-point shooting that gets and keeps him there in a league that covets that skill now more than ever.

For Virginia, Guy’s decision simply crystalizes what was likely the reality already – they’re going to have a completely remade roster, which certainly isn’t uncommon for national championship winners. There’s a reason no one since Florida in 2006 and 2007 has repeated as champions. With Guy gone and Ty Jerome, De’Andre Hunter and Mamadi Diakite all having declared, Tony Bennett and Co. could be looking at more modest expectations following the greatest season in program history.

Duke adds to 2019 class with top-30 guard Cassius Stanley

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Duke’s already monster 2019 class got even stronger Monday.

Cassius Stanley, a four-star guard from California, pledged to the Blue Devils to give them their fifth recruit rated in the top-35 nationally in the class.

“I’ll be joining the brotherhood. Go Duke,” Stanley said in his announcement video posted to social media.

“He wants to come in and start or contribute as a starter on a highly competitive team,” Jerome Stanley, Cassius’ father, told 247Sports. “He’s used to winning and he plans to come in there and win. He doesn’t plan to be a project, he wants to step on the floor immediately and help them win.”

Stanley’s commitment only further reinforces how strong Duke is on the recruiting trail as it now has five-stars Vernon Carey, Matthew Hurt and Wendell Moore signed along with top-40 Boogie Ellis of San Diego.

The Blue Devils may have lost their high-profile trio of Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish, but with these major additions along with Tre Jones, Marques Bolden and Alex O’Connell slated to return, they’ll be looking at another top-10 (and maybe higher) preseason ranking after a disappointing Elite Eight departure from the NCAA tournament last month.

Udoka Azubuike returning to Kansas for senior season

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Injuries have robbed Kansas center Udoka Azubuike of nearly two full seasons of college basketball. They also likely played a major part on while he’ll be back for his fourth year on campus.

The 7-footer will return to Lawrence and the Jayhawks for his senior season rather than declare for the NBA draft, the school announced Monday.

“We’re all very excited about Udoka making the decision not to enter the draft,” Kansas coach Bill Self said in a statement released by the school. “Unfortunately for him, injury is the reason as he still cannot participate (at) what would be the NBA combine or workouts for the NBA teams. We really anticipated that this would be the year he would enter the draft but that was also based on him having an injury-free year.”

Azubuike was averaging 13.4 points and 6.8 rebounds per game while shooting 70.5 percent from the field before a wrist injury cut his season short in January after just nine games. He also played just 11 games as a freshman due to injury.

In his lone full healthy season, Azubuike averaged 13 points and 7 rebounds per game as he made 77 percent of his shots from the field, making him nearly an unstoppable force for teams across the Big 12. His return makes Kansas, the 10th-ranked team in our preseason Top 25, an even stronger favorite to regain its Big 12 crown after Texas Tech and Kansas State shared the league title last year to deprive Kansas of its spot atop the league for the first time in 14 years as it battled injuries, suspensions and lackluster play.

The 21 most important ‘stay-or-go’ NBA draft early entry decisions

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This single most important and influential decision when if came to this year’s NBA draft belonged to Cassius Winston.

The Grand Maester of the Michigan State offense, Winston put together an All-American season as he led Michigan State to the 2019 Big Ten regular season title, tournament title and a trip to the Final Four. Over the weekend, the 6-foot point guard announced that he will be returning to school for his senior season, immediately ensuring that the Spartans will be the No. 1 team in the NBC Sports preseason top 25 and locking them in as favorites to win next year’s national title.

But he is far from the only important decision that is left to be made in this year’s NBA draft process. At 11:59 p.m. on April 21st, the deadline to declare for the NBA draft came and went. The players who put there name into the mix — more than 130 that we know of — will have until May 29th to pull their names out of the draft.

Here are 21 decisions that will have the biggest impact on the 2019-2020 college basketball season.

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KERRY BLACKSHEAR

Blackshear might be the single-most influential player in all of college basketball, but to figure out where he is going to have influence, the 6-foot-10, 250 pound forward has a couple of decisions to make. For starters, he has declared for the NBA draft, and given that he is 22 years old and more or less fully developed as a player, now may be the best time for him to make the jump to the professional ranks. If he does decide to return to school, he’s going to have to decide where to play: He’s a redshirt junior and a graduate transfer, which means that the Virginia Tech big man may end up being a former Virginia Tech big man. Every school in college basketball will want to get involved. We’ll see where he ends up.

IGNAS BRAZDEIKIS and JORDAN POOLE, Michigan

Michigan essentially had two players on their roster last season that you could trust to be threats on the offensive end of the floor night in and night out: Poole and Brazdeikis. Now it looks like there is a real chance that both of them to could end following Charles Matthews lead and remain in the NBA draft despite the fact that neither look like they will be a first round pick.

That’s a major concern for John Beilein, because with Zavier Simpson, Jon Teske and Isaiah Livers all back, Michigan will have a case to be the preseason No. 1 team in the country if both Iggy and Swaggy Poole return. If both end up gone, the Wolverines may never break 60 points in a game next year.

DEVON DOTSON, QUENTIN GRIMES and UDOKA AZUBUIKE, Kansas

This one is tricky because we have yet to get official word on whether or not Azubuike has actually declared for the draft*; he did last season and ultimately opted to return to school. Of the three, I think Dotson is probably the most important, as the Jayhawks don’t have anyone nearly as good as he is at the point. If Azubuike opts to enter the draft, Bill Self does still have David McCormack on his roster, who will be an adequate replacement. Grimes is the x-factor here. A former top ten recruit, I think he’s probably the most likely to keep his name in the draft this year even if it’s as a second round pick. I’m not sure if that’s necessarily the best plan of action — I do think there is still a chance that he could come back to Kansas and play his way into the first round with a big sophomore year — but I get it. If he’s gone, the Jayhawks do have some perimeter pieces that will be able to fill the void in Ochai Agbaji and Marcus Garrett.

With all three back, we’re talking about Kansas as the surefire best team in the Big 12 and potentially as a top five team. If they’re all gone, then it is going to be a long, long season in Lawrence.

*(Since this posting, Azubuike has announced that he is returning to school.)

Grant Williams (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

GRANT WILLIAMS and JORDAN BONE, Tennessee

This may sound counterintuitive, but I think that it is true: Bone is the more likely of the two to leave school this year, but Williams would have a much bigger impact on the Tennessee program if he opts to return. Bone was a bit inconsistent as a junior, but when he was at his best, he was the best guard in the SEC. Losing that hurts, but the truth is that with Lamonte Turner, Jordan Bowden and Josiah James in the mix, there is enough backcourt talent in Knoxville to withstand his departure.

I’m not sure that is true with Williams. Tennessee does have some big bodies on their roster, but Williams would be in the conversation with Cassius Winston for preseason National Player of the Year if he opts to come back to Tennessee for another run at a national title. And with Williams back, they would very much be in that conversation. As it stands, Tennessee is No. 22 in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25.

A source close to the situation told NBC Sports that they think there’s a “50-50” chance that Williams is back.

KYLE GUY and MAMADI DIAKITE, Virginia

I fully expect that both Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter will remain in the NBA draft for good. That leaves Guy and Diakite as the players who are up in the air. Everyone should know about Guy by now. The reigning Final Four MOP, Guy led Virginia in scoring last season and is one of the best shooters in all of college basketball. For a program that lacks perimeter depth, Guy’s return would obviously be enormous.

But Diakite’s return is just as impactful. He’s such a monster on the defensive end of the floor, and I’m not sure people realize just how good he is. His offensive game is coming along, but the value is that he would be a perfect pairing next to Jay Huff if Virginia wants to play big and that he is versatile enough to defend on the perimeter if needed when Virginia plays small. It’s not a coincidence that the most productive six-game stretch of Diakite’s career came during the run to the NCAA title, when he averaged 10.5 points, 8.2 boards and 2.7 blocks.

Kyle Guy (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

JORDAN NWORA, Louisville

There are a few Louisville players that have declared for the NBA draft, but for my money, Nwora is the one that matters the most, and it is not close. One of college basketball’s most improved players, Nwora is will be a first-team All-ACC player and a potential All-American if he comes back. He will be the veteran scorer that the Cardinals need as Chris Mack brings in a loaded, six-man recruiting class. With Nwora back, the Cards will be a top ten team.

KILLIAN TILLIE and ZACH NORVELL, Gonzaga

Assuming that Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke are both gone, Tillie becomes the most important player on Gonzaga’s frontcourt if he opts to return to school. And Norvell slides right in as the projected leading scorer. Frankly, with those two and Corey Kispert on the roster, I think the Zags will have more than enough scoring to keep things rolling as their talented six-man recruiting class gets some experience.

The reason they are as low on this list as they are is that I still think there is a ceiling to what Gonzaga can be because of their point guard situation. Right now, they are in a position where they’ll have to decide between freshman Brock Ravet and sophomores Greg Foster Jr. and Joel Ayayi. I would not be surprised if there was a grad transfer that was in the mix here at some point.

ANTHONY COWAN, Maryland

The Terps already got word that they are getting Jalen Smith back for his sophomore season. With the rest of last year’s promising recruiting class in the mix — Aaron Wiggins, Eric Ayala, Ricky Lindo — the only thing they need to ensure that they are a preseason top ten team is their star point guard. Cowan, if he returns, will be in the mix for preseason All-American honors.

MYLES POWELL, Seton Hall

This one isn’t difficult. Seton Hall returns basically everyone from last season if Powell comes back. They should still be relevant in the Big East if he doesn’t, but he was arguably the most dangerous scorer in college basketball this side of Markus Howard last year, and assuming he’s back in the fold, we have the Pirates at No. 12 in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25.

Myles Powell (Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

PAYTON PRITCHARD and KENNY WOOTEN, Oregon

Assuming that Louis King ends up staying in the draft, Pritchard and Wooten are the two guys that will matter for Oregon next season. They are the two pieces that allow Dana Altman’s system to work the way that it is supposed to work — a high-scoring lead guard and an uber-athletic five that can protect the rim and finish lobs. With both of them back, I think Oregon is a top 10-15 team and the best team in the Pac-12.

E.J. MONTGOMERY, Kentucky

Montgomery is interesting here. He’s super-talented, and he plays a position for Kentucky where the Wildcats are going to really lack some depth this season, but we’ve yet to see him prove that he is anything more than ‘loaded with potential’ at the SEC level. I think Kentucky needs him because they need to keep bodies in their frontcourt, but I’m on a wait-and-see mode before I decide just how much of an impact I think that he is going to make.

CHUMA OKEKE and JARED HARPER, Auburn

I would make the argument that these two were the two most important players on Auburn’s team this past season. If I had to guess, I would say that Okeke is probably gone. He proved just how good he is this past season, and his recovery from the torn ACL he suffered in the NCAA tournament likely won’t be complete until December. If he returns to school, it might end up being a two-year decision, but if he comes back and is fully healthy, he is miles better than Danjel Purifoy, Anfernee McLemore and the other options the Tigers have in their frontcourt.

Harper is a bit more up in the air, and while he was terrific this past season, especially in March, I do think that J’Von McCormick’s emergence has given Bruce Pearl some breathing room. He can do a lot of the things that Harper does, just not quite as well.

NEEMIAS QUETA, Utah State

Utah State is currently the No. 16 team in the NBC Sports preseason top 25, and much of that has to do with the fact that we are assuming Queta ends up returning to school. His size, his ability to protect the rim and how well he finishes makes him extremely valuable in the Mountain West and helps the Aggies matchup with teams from bigger conferences.