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Road To Redemption: How Virginia went from losing to 16 seed to winning title

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Over the course of the next month, we will be taking a look at some of the most memorable and important things that happened during the 2018-19 season and what kind of impact those moments are going to have on the 2019-20 season.

We’ll start with the obvious: Those Virginia Cavaliers.

Without question, the single best and most memorable moment from the 2018-19 college basketball season was The Redemption.

Less than 13 months removed from suffering what will go down as the most humiliating and demoralizing defeat in the history of college basketball – if not sports, period – Virginia went out and won the Whole. Damn. Thing.

And oh buddy, was it a roller coaster ride.

In the opening round, in their first game against a No. 16 seed since they became the first team to lose to a No. 16 seed, Virginia dug themselves a 14 point first half hole against Gardner-Webb before pulling their collective heads out of their, ahem, keisters and rolling to a win. The ‘Hoos handled Oklahoma with relative ease in the second round to advance to the second weekend, where that postseason roller coaster ride got an injection of Dominic Toretto’s NoS.

In the Sweet 16 against Oregon, Kihei Clark ended an 18-5 Duck run by burying a three and, two possessions later, finding Ty Jerome for another triple, giving UVA a lead that they would never surrender after they blew a lead they shouldn’t have lost. Virginia’s Elite Eight win will go down as one of the best NCAA tournament games of the decade. UVA survived Carsen Edwards going Super Saiyan while lighting up college basketball’s best defender in De’Andre Hunter for 42 points, and they did so thanks in very large part to one of the best and most instinctual plays you’ll ever see a college kid make:

Again, it was Clark coming to the rescue, as Virginia found a way to not only beat Purdue, but cover a 4.5 point spread in the overtime period.

Not that I’m still bitter or anything.

That brings us to the Final Four, the first of Tony Bennett’s illustrious career, where those Wahoos did their very best to make everyone believe they had not left their inner choke artist behind. Thanks to a couple of bone-headed fouls by Ty Jerome followed Auburn’s Bryce Brown making a pair of critical three-balls, Virginia blew a 57-47 lead in all of 3:16. In the blink of an eye, they found themselves down 61-57 with 17 seconds left after a pair of Anfernee McLemore free throws.

This time, it was Kyle Guy coming to the rescue. He buried a three with nine seconds left to cut the lead to one, and after Jared Harper missed one of two free throws, Guy was – controversially, but correctly – fouled while shooting a three with just 0.6 seconds on the clock. He would step to the line and swish not one, not two, but all three free throws, sending Virginia to the national title game, where they would face off with Texas Tech, a matchup that was billed as the worst national title game of all-time.

And that prediction turned out very, very wrong.

It took a while to get going, but by the time the final ten minutes rolled around, the battle between the two best defenses in all of college basketball was as intense and as physical as any game this year. We knew that was coming. What we didn’t know was that it would be the offenses for both those programs that would take over, as the shot-making and execution in the second half reached a level we rarely see in the college game. That said, Virginia again blew a double-digit second half lead, getting to overtime when Jerome found Hunter in the corner for a game-tying three with 12 seconds left:

Virginia would take the lead in the extra frame on another Hunter three with 2:10 remaining, pulling away to win 85-77 and cut down the nets for the first time in program history.

It was a wild ride, one that ended the opportunity for the dummies out there to criticize Tony Bennett’s coaching acumen because of a couple of fluky, unlucky tournament results.

But for my money, what made the turnaround so memorable – and what truly cemented Bennett’s standing as arguably the best in the game today – has everything to do with how Virginia changed the way they play after UMBC.


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Before we get into the changes that Virginia actually made, I think it is important to put into context what actually happened in that loss to UMBC.

As Hunter has been quick to remind his teammates – over and over again – he did not play in Virginia’s loss to UMBC. He fractured his wrist before the start of the tournament, and the hole that he left in the lineup was drastically bigger than his 6-foot-7 frame. You see, Hunter was the guy that made Virginia matchup proof. He was the best, most versatile defender in all of college basketball as a sophomore. When Virginia won at North Carolina earlier this year, Hunter was, at different points throughout the game, matched up on lottery pick point guard Coby White, lottery pick wing Cameron Johnson and All-American power forward Luke Maye.

That’s who Hunter was as a freshman, too.

He was and is a monster defensively. 

Back to UMBC, the America East champs had a team that, in 2018, played a lineup with four guards and often had five players on the perimeter. It would not have been an issue to throw Hunter on any of them, especially since he was good enough offensively to be able to take complete advantage of that matchup on the other end of the floor. He was, after all, the No. 4 pick in June’s draft. He would have been a mid-first round pick had he left a year earlier.

But without Hunter on the floor, Bennett ran into a problem: He needed to play two bigs because of the offense that he ran, but none of Jack Salt, Isaiah Wilkins or Mamadi Diakite were going to be able to duplicate what Hunter could do. They couldn’t stay with those little UMBC guards, and they weren’t good enough offensively to take advantage of the mismatch on the offensive end. When UVA went small, it just meant that Nigel Johnson had to play more and, well, that was not ideal.

Now, look. Hunter’s absence is not a valid excuse for this loss. Virginia was still a much, much better team even without their best player. They played their worst game on a night where UMBC absolutely caught lightning in a bottle. It got into their heads. Jairus Lyles played the game of his life. UMBC ran away with the win. Weird things happen when college kids play sports. What can I say.

But Hunter’s absence and the slight matchup advantage that gave UMBC over UVA certainly played a major role in how this game played out, and I think it is fair to say that this game would have been much closer, and, in all likelihood, had a different result, with Hunter on the floor.

Here’s the proof.

These two clips are the same play. In the first example, Jerome finds Hunter for a game-tying three in the national title game. In the second example, Jerome finds Wilkins, who is not a shooter and the play results in yet another missed three in Virginia’s loss to UMBC:

“That situation made me take a look at a lot of things,” Bennett told me during last year’s Final Four. “From a basketball standpoint, that was such a pivotal moment.”

As I reported then, what Bennett did was reach out to former Wisconsin Badger Kirk Penney, a man he calls “a little brother to me.” Penney had played in the NBA and all over Europe before finishing out his career in New Zealand, so Bennett asked him, “In all your experiences, did you run any stuff that opens up the court more?”

Turns out, Penney had.

He knew exactly what Bennett needed.

You see, Bennett had spent the majority of his time in Charlottesville running the Blocker-Mover offense that his father created. That offense is fairly simple – there are three perimeter players on the floor, the “movers”, that continuously run off of screens that are set by the two bigs, the “blockers”:

But as effective as Virginia has been running Blocker-Mover in the past, running that offense with his 2018-19 roster makeup didn’t make sense. And again, this was because of De’Andre Hunter.

Hunter was the prototype college four. At 6-foot-7 and a strong 225 pounds, he’s big enough to guards fours while simultaneously taking advantage of them with his ability to shoot and beat slower defenders with straight-line drives. But he was also far and away the most talented player on the Virginia roster, and running Blocker-Mover would put Bennett in a position where he was forced to either play Hunter in a role where he was predominantly a screener or put him in a position where he was going to be defended by college threes doing something – specifically, running off of pindowns and flare screens – that is not his forte.

Enter Penney, who helped Virginia install a Ball-Screen Continuity offense, what Virginia called their “Flow Continuity.”

Again, the concept of this offense is fairly simple. The goal is to get open-side ball-screens, which just means having a big screening for a guard on one side of the floor with three players – preferably shooters – spacing on the opposite side. If nothing comes of the first ball-screen, the offense is designed for the ball to end up in a second ball-screen with the sides of the floor reversed. It’s run until a they get a shot, hence “continuity.”

It’s easier to show it than to explain it:

This is not something that Virginia has ever really run before this season.

Which brings me back to that game-tying three in the national title game.

While it’s not exactly the continuity ball-screen, it is a high-ball screen for Jerome. He did what he does so well: He got into the paint, he drew defenders and he found the guy everyone forgot about.

Now, one of the reasons that this worked so well for Virginia is that they had the players to execute it. Hunter was the best basketball player not named Zion Williamson in college basketball last season. Jerome was as good as anyone as the handler in a ball-screen, and he also happens to be an elite shooter that can run off of screens just as effectively. Guy was one of the very best shooters in the country. Clark is a defensive menace that allowed Jerome to move off the ball when necessary.

That changes next year.

Hunter, Jerome and Guy are all on NBA rosters. They will be replaced by Braxton Key, Tomas Woldetensae, Kody Stattman and Clark. Clark proved himself to be much better than I ever gave him credit for last season, but being effective in last year’s role and taking over full-time point guard duties for an All-American like Jerome are two very different things. Woldetensae and Stattman can both shoot, but they are not the shooters that Guy was. And most important, Key is a good player and can play the same position that Hunter played, but he’s not the player that Hunter was. If Hunter is Kraft Mac and Cheese, Key is whatever brand they carry at Aldi.

That puts Bennett in a tough position this season.

Because he doesn’t really have the guards to run his flow continuity offense as effectively as he did last year, but the guys that project as his starting bigs – Jay Huff and Diakite – fit a ball-screen heavy offense better than they do the Blocker-Mover. Huff is 7-foot-1 with ridiculous length, and he shot 14-for-31 from three this past season. He’s more or less the perfect five for ball-screen actions because he can catch a lob as a roll-man as effectively as he can bury a three when he picks-and-pops. Diakite can make threes as well, and he’s even more effective as a roll-man.

So I really don’t know what Virginia is going to look like next season.

Like Villanova last year, they are not exactly built to withstand that many critical pieces leaving with eligibility remaining.

My best guess? We see a lot of lineups with Key, Diakite and Huff on the floor at the same time as Bennett figures out exactly how he is going to be able to work in a guy like Woldetensae, who has never been asked to defend near the level he will have to defend with Virginia, and how he can effectively use Clark.

But I certainly expect Bennett to figure something out.

That’s just what he does.

The ‘Hoos will have some growing pains, and asking them to compete with Duke, Louisville and even North Carolina in what appears to be a three-horse race for the ACC title is tough, but I’d be shocked if they enter the NCAA tournament as anything other than a top four seed.

The fatal flaw for every team in the top ten

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So much of college basketball’s preseason content centers around talking about what teams do well.

Well, what if we do the opposite?

Let’s talk about what the best teams in college basketball are bad at.

Today, we will be looking at every team in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25 and working through their fatal flaw, a ‘Why Your Team Sucks’ preview, if you will.

This is why your favorite team will be bad this season. You can find teams 11-25 here

1. MICHIGAN STATE

TOM IZZO’S WILLINGNESS TO PLAY SMALL

Two seasons ago, when the Spartans had a pair of lottery picks on their roster in Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr., Michigan State was in a position where they had the absolute best frontcourt possible to go full small ball. Jackson was everything that you could ask for out of a small-ball five, a 6-foot-11 shot-blocker with a 7-foot-5 wingspan and three-point range. Bridges was the uber-athletic forward that was big and strong enough to play the four while also being a nightmare for opposing bigs to deal with.

We spent, quite literally, wishing that Izzo would find a way to get those two on the floor together at the four and the five and it never really happened.

I bring that up because this Michigan State team has all the makings of a group that should be very good playing small. Other than Xavier Tillman, there isn’t really a big man on the roster that has proven himself. Getting another spacer on the floor at the four will create just that much more room for Winston to operate, and the more room you can create for Winston, the easier your life is going to be. Throw in the fact that Aaron Henry, Gabe Brown, Malik Hall and Kyle Aherns all make sense as guys that can play bigger than what they are listed at, and we have another Michigan State team that looks like a perfect fit to play small. Will Izzo agree?

(Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

2. KENTUCKY

SCORING IN THE HALFCOURT

The Wildcats are going to be an interesting team to track over the course of the season. They’re young again, obviously, and they don’t really have a clear-cut star on their roster. Can you, unequivocally, tell me who is going to be the best player on their roster? (No. You cannot.)

And that puts the Cats in a weird position, similar to the one they were in last year. I’m just not sure how they are going to play this season. Cal has tended towards playing a slower brand of basketball, one that relied on overwhelming opponents in the paint, unless he has an absolute jet – John Wall or De’Aaron Fox, specifically – at the point. He has three guys that can play the point guard role this year, and none of Ashton Hagans, Tyrese Maxey or Immanuel Quickley are as good as Wall or Fox. But he also doesn’t have an overpowering presence in the paint. There have been some rumblings from people that the best big on Kentucky’s roster early on has been Nate Sestina, the Bucknell transfer. He’s not exactly Karl Anthony-Towns.

So I’d think that in an ideal world, Kentucky would play as more of a pressing team, allowing them to get out into transition and let their athletes do athletic things.

But when they are forced to play slower, where is their offense coming from?

Put another way, if you are an SEC coach game-planning to stop them in the halfcourt, who are you worried about? Hagans can’t shoot. Johnny Juzang has gotten some buzz, but can he really be better than Tyler Herro was last year? Is E.J. Montgomery going to actually take a step forward? Maxey is fine, but he’s also not the caliber of Kentucky’s past star guards.

It will be very interesting to see how Kentucky evolves this season.

3. KANSAS

THE FOUR

The power forward spot has traditionally been the most important spot on the floor for the Jayhawks, and last year was no different. Before Udoka Azubuike’s injury, Kansas was playing like one of the best teams in the country because it was borderline impossible to stop Dedric Lawson and Azubuike in high-low action. And while Azubuike is back this season, Lawson is off to the professional ranks, and there is no clear answer for who will step into that four-man role for the Jayhawks.

One option is Silvio De Sousa, but he would make Kansas a liability defensively and is not a floor-spacer. The same can be said about David McCormick. Mitch Lightfoot doesn’t appear to be the answer, and we saw last season just how much of an issue Marcus Garrett’s lack of shooting can cause when he’s slotted into that role. Will one of the freshmen, Jalen Wilson or Tristan Enaruna, step up?

I honestly don’t know.

And, as I mentioned in the video below, I’m not actually all that worried, either.

4. LOUISVILLE

THE POINT

Louisville has just about everything that you need in a college basketball program. They have the All-American in Jordan Nwora. They have all-league talent on their roster in Dwayne Sutton and Samuell Williamson. They have a talented freshmen class to pair with depth up and down their roster, which is why the Cardinals are a top five team in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25.

The concern, however, is at the point guard spot, just as it was last season. With all due respect to Christen Cunningham, he was more of a guy that kept Louisville from losing games as opposed to being the kind of talent that wins games, if that makes sense. Louisville replaced him with two guys. The first is Fresh Kimble, a grad transfer from St. Joseph’s that put up good scoring numbers last season. The problem, however, is that Kimble was always more of a scorer than a pure point guard that made people around him better. I think the latter is what this Louisville team needs more than the former, and while incoming freshman David Johnson was impressive in early practices, he’s also going to be out until around the start of ACC play with a shoulder injury.

There is enough talent on this roster to be able to win big even if their point guard play isn’t great, but I do think that great point guard play is the most important thing for college basketball teams.

5. VILLANOVA

SO WHO’S MAKING SHOTS THIS YEAR?

The modus operandi for this Villanova program during this six-year dynasty has been simple: Target the most talented players that fit the program’s cultural values and style of play, develop them within the program over the course of two-or-three years, hang banners with a roster that’s older than the competition, ship those players off to a job in the NBA. Even without Omari Spellman and Donte DiVincenzo last season, the Wildcats still were able to play through Eric Paschall and Phil Booth en route to their fifth Big East regular season title and fourth Big East tournament title in the last six seasons.

This year, however, is the year when that gets tested. Because there is a lot of unproven talent on this Villanova roster. Is this the year Jermaine Samuels makes the jump to stardom? Are Collin Gillispie and Dhamir Cosby-Rountree truly good enough to be cornerstones for a team that is competing for league titles and Final Fours? Just how good will Cole Swider and Saddiq Bey be with a year of seasoning on the Main Line? Can Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Justin Moore and – when he gets healthy – Bryan Antoine be able to step in and play right away as freshmen?

The talent is there on paper. Will it show up in wins?

6. DUKE

CAN THEY BE GOOD DEFENSIVELY AND OFFENSIVELY

I’ve talked about written about this extensively already, so I’ll keep it short and sweet here: The roster makeup for this team is weird. There are a lot of players that are good and that can do a job in a role, but I’m not sure just how many players they have that are going to be good on both ends of the floor. Put another way, can Duke put a team on the floor that will be able to score and be able to defend?

7. FLORIDA

THE BURDEN OF EXPECTATION

Let me get this out of the way before I start: I’m in on Florida. I have them at the No. 7 team in the country. I invested my own hard-earned money on a ticket for Florida winning the national title. So I totally get the upside here.

But I’m also well aware of the fact that we are taking a leap of faith, one centered around the idea that a number of players on this roster are taking a significant step forward. Can Andrew Nembhard play his way into being on an all-SEC team? Will Noah Locke emerge as a secondary scorer with Jalen Hudson and KeVaughn Allen gone? How will Kerry Blackshear Jr. mesh within this roster? Perhaps most importantly, will the freshmen that Mike White has coming to campus – Scottie Lewis and Tre Mann, in particular – be a net positive over the inefficiency gunners that are graduating?

Remember, this team was a No. 10 seed last season that couldn’t shoot and lost 16 games. Asking them to go from that to a team that will be among the best in the country is a big ask.

8. GONZAGA

DO THEY HAVE A POINT GUARD?

It shouldn’t really be up for debate at this point, but if you still weren’t buying into the idea that Gonzaga is one of the 8-10 best college basketball programs in America, all you have to do is look at the fact that they’ve continually lost talent to the professional ranks earlier than expected and have not skipped a beat. That was true when they lost Nigel Williams-Goss and Zach Collins to the pros and remained among the top ten teams in the country the last two seasons. And that’s even more true this year, when Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke and Zach Norvell all bounced with eligibility remaining, and the Zags will still enter the year as a preseason top ten team.

The concern, however, is that they have been forced to try and figure things out on the fly at the point guard spot. Josh Perkins graduated, and since Joel Ayayi has not earned the starting job and Brock Ravet is apparently not ready to take things over, Mark Few had to go to the grad transfer route again. He brought in Admon Gilder from Texas Tech and Ryan Woolridge from North Texas to paper mache over the gaps.

With a roster that’s pretty loaded up front, will that be enough for the Zags to compete at the level we’ve come to expect?

9. MARYLAND

THEY’RE MARYLAND

That’s harsh, I know, but the truth is that during Mark Turgeon’s tenure, the Terps have had a tendency to flop when they enter a season with a certain level of expectation. Take, for example, the 2015-16 season. The Terps were loaded – Melo Trimble, Rasheed Sulaimon, Jake Layman, Diamond Stone and Robert Carter – and entered the year as the preseason No. 1 team in the country, yet they stumbled to a 27-9 record, a third-place finish in the Big Ten and got bounced out of the tournament in the Sweet 16.

Some people will tell you that Turgeon isn’t a great coach, that that’s the problem. Others will point to the fact that players tend to stagnate in College Park. Melo Trimble was awesome as a freshman but never really took the leap to the next level. Anthony Cowan seems to be trending in that same direction.

Do you trust this program to be able to find a way to be among the nation’s elite?

10. VIRGINIA

CAN TONY BENNETT TRUST THEIR GUARD PLAY?

I love Virginia’s frontcourt. Mamadi Diakite is going to be arguably the best defensive big man in the country. Jay Huff is the protoype pick-and-roll big and should be in line for a monster junior season. Braxton Key should do well playing an expanded offensive role.

The question is going to be their backcourt. Kihei Clark was really good in a role last season, but with Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome off to the NBA, he’s going to be asked to be the guy this year. Is he up to the task? Can Casey Morsell be a contributor as a freshman? What about Tomas Woldetensae?

I went more in depth on Virginia below.

Kentucky lands commitment from five-star guard Askew

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Kentucky landed a commitment from five-star guard Devin Askew on Thursday night.

Askew is a top ten prospect in the Class of 2021, but the expectation is that he will reclassify and enroll at Kentucky next summer. Assuming he does, Askew will join a recruiting class that already includes Terrence Clarke, B.J. Boston, Lance Ware and Cam’Ron Fletcher.

Askew picked the Wildcats over Louisville, Arizona, Memphis and Kansas.

Where things get interesting here will be with Cade Cunningham, the top point guard in the Class of 2020 and arguably the top prospect in the class. Many believed that Cade would end up going to Oklahoma State, where Mike Boynton hired his brother, Cannen, as an assistant coach. But Cade has made it clear that he wants to be recruited, and after taking an official visit to Kentucky over the weekend, it looks as if the Wildcats have a real shot at landing him.

But will he be willing to share lead guard duties with Askew?

We shall see.

The fatal flaw for every team in the back half of the top 25

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So much of college basketball’s preseason content centers around talking about what teams do well.

Well, what if we do the opposite?

Let’s talk about what the best teams in college basketball are bad at.

Today, we will be looking at every team in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25 and working through their fatal flaw, a ‘Why Your Team Sucks’ preview, if you will.

This is why your favorite team will be bad this season. You can find the top ten teams here

11. TEXAS TECH

PLAYMAKING

We know how good the Texas Tech defense is going to be because the Texas Tech defense is always good. It’s something Chris Beard and Mark Adams preach more than anything else, and while losing guys like Matt Mooney and Tariq Owens are big losses, the truth is that this defense is as much about the system as it is the players and guys like Chris Clarke and Jahmius Ramsey should be pretty good defensive pieces in their own right.

The bigger issue is on the other end of the floor. The last two seasons, when Texas Tech has been the best team in the conference, has come when there has been a big, talented lead guard to run offense through when things get bogged down – Keenan Evans and Jarrett Culver. I believe it’s going to be Ramsey this season that takes over that role, but he is also a freshman. Is he going to be ready the moment he steps onto campus to carry the load offensively for a team that we expect to be competing for a Big 12 title?

12. OREGON

JUST HOW GOOD ARE THESE BIGS?

As good as Arizona and Washington are this season, I think that there is a valid argument to make that Oregon is not just the best team in the Pac-12 this season, but the most talented team. They have the best point guard in the conference in Payton Pritchard, a guy that is a proven winner and should make his way into the All-American conversation by the end of the year. Anthony Mathis and Shakur Juiston arrive as grad transfers and should play major roles immediately. Will Richardson should be ready for a bigger role, and the likes of Chris Duarte, C.J. Walker and Chandler Lawson should be able to contribute immediately. There may be a lot of turnover here, but Dana Altman has dealt with it before.

The question, however, is going to be in the frontcourt. Oregon’s best teams in recent seasons have had a hyper-athletic, elite defensive presence in the middle. Read: Bell, Jordan; or Wooten, Kenny. It’s not a coincidence that Oregon played their best basketball after Bol Bol got hurt. Who can play that role this season? I’m not sold that N’Faly Dante will be that guy when he finally does get eligible. Francis Okoro has been good in flashes but has never been asked to play a major role. Chandler Lawson and Juiston profile more as fours than elite defensive fives.

13. SETON HALL

DOES OLDER ALWAYS MEAN BETTER?

I love Seton Hall this season. I love Myles Powell forever and always. But the truth is that this Seton Hall team last season was already pretty old, turnover prone and inconsistent from beyond the arc. They won a bunch of games because Powell is good enough to win a bunch of games by himself, but if Seton Hall is going to live up to these lofty expectations, they’re going to need the likes of Myles Cale (consistency), Quincy McKnight (turnovers, three-point shooting) and Sandro Mamukelashvili (ability to control the paint) to take steps forward.

But just how much better will they actually be this year? These guys are already upperclassmen, and just because a good-not-great team returns everyone they have on their roster doesn’t mean that they are going to be great the next season. Put another way, just because they had room to grow doesn’t mean they grew.

14. NORTH CAROLINA

EVERYTHING AND EVERYONE IS NEW

The Tar Heels lost basically everything from last season. Coby White, Cam Johnson, Luke Maye, Nassir Little, Kenny Williams. Their leading returning scorer is a big guy who averaged 7.9 points. That’s a lot to replace, and it means there are going to be a lot of new faces asked to play in a system they haven’t played in before and old faces asked to play much bigger roles.

The talent is there. I think we can all agree. Cole Anthony is going to be awesome. I love Armando Bacot. The grad transfers are going to be super-valuable. But this much turnover in any program is not easy to navigate, and it’s not something that Roy Williams has a had a ton of experience dealing with.

15. UTAH STATE

ARE WE SURE THEY’RE ACTUALLY GOOD?

Before Aggie fans jump all over me for this, remember: I have you ranked 15th nationally.

But also remember: We’re ranking this team 15th a year after they put together a season where their best wins came against Saint Mary’s, UC Irvine and Nevada. They lost by 17 points in the NCAA tournament to a Washington team that lost by 22 points to a North Carolina team that lost by 17 points to an Auburn team that lost Chuma Okeke during the game. They finished the season 38th in KenPom.

I’m buying in on them, but that’s because I believe in the coaching staff and the talent. Not because we’ve seen them perform at this level before.

16. ARIZONA

DO YOU TRUST THEIR BIGS?

We know how good Arizona’s guards are going to be. Nico Mannion and Josh Green are five-star prospects with the chance to get picked in the lottery come June. Even with the injury to Brandon Williams, the addition of Max Hazzard gives the Wildcats one of the better backcourts in the country, particularly if Jemarl Baker gets a waiver.

The questions that I have are with their big guys. Their best frontcourt player is … Chase Jeter? Ira Lee? Stone Gettings, who was the second-best player player on a sub-.500 Ivy League team? Zeke Nnaji and Christian Koloko have had some buzz in the summer and fall, but can Arizona get to a Final Four if one of those two freshmen are forced to start and play 25 minutes a night?

17. SAINT MARY’S

IS JORDAN FORD GOOD ENOUGH TO SHOULDER THE LOAD?

So here’s a weird stat that I came across: Saint Mary’s had the lowest assist rate in all of college basketball last season. They literally finished 353rd nationally in the percentage of their made field goals that were assisted, a number that becomes all the more stark when you considered there were just five teams in college basketball that played at a slower pace. The Gaels averaged just 10.1 assists per game last season. In 2017-18, Emmett Naar averaged 7.9 assists himself.

The reason for this is that Randy Bennett runs a ball-screen heavy offense, but last season, the guy that was put in those ball-screens was Jordan Ford. Unlike past SMC point guards – Naar, Matthew Dellavedova, Mickey McConnell – Ford is a score-first player. He’s not coming off of those ball-screens looking to do anything other than find a way to get a bucket, and he’s really good at that.

But is he good enough at it to get the Gaels into the mix for the WCC title? Can Saint Mary’s make a run in March if their offense is, essentially, let’s see if Jordan Ford gets hot today?

18. XAVIER

ARE THEY THE TEAM THAT WON SIX OF THEIR LAST SEVEN, OR THE ONE THAT STARTED 3-8 IN THE BIG EAST?

The thing that is difficult about projecting teams that finished the regular season hot is that they may have made their leap during the season.

Put another way, is Xavier a team that still has room to grow after they figured some things out late in the year, or is this a group that made their jump down the stretch of the season?

I ask, because a team whose ceiling is an 11 game stretch where they go 8-3 against a mediocre Big East and NIT competition is one thing. But if Naji Marshall and Quentin Goodin actually get better from beyond the arc, if this group learns how not to turn the ball over, if they show some improvement in being able to run opponents off of the three-point line, then they have a chance to truly compete for a Big East title and make a run at getting a top four seed.

19. LSU

AT SOME POINT, THE NCAA PAYS A VISIT, RIGHT?

As much as any other team in college basketball this season, I think that there is a chance that the bottom falls out for LSU. The talent they have is undeniable. They are the reigning SEC regular season champs, and they bring back everyone except Tremont Waters and Naz Reid. Skylar Mays and Javonte Smart are as good as any guard duo in the league. Marlon Taylor and Emmitt Williams are two of the most exciting athletes in the sport. Trendon Watford is a five-star freshman. This team is loaded.

But their head coach had to sit out last year’s postseason run because of wiretaps that were played in federal court that appeared to show him trying to cut a deal for a player that is still on the roster. The NCAA is investigating. They are going to get hit with something. The when and the who are the big questions, as is the possibility that the program will fall on their sword and self-impose a punishment.

20. BAYLOR

WILL THEY STOP FOULING?

This Baylor team is weird. They look like they might be good enough to finish second in the Big 12 this season, but I’m not sure there is an NBA player on the roster. I’m sure most Big 12 fans know who Tristan Clark is, but he missed the second half of last season with a knee injury. There aren’t many college basketball players that are national names, and Baylor certainly does not have one. Hell, I’m not sure how many casual Big 12 fans that can name someone on the roster.

But there’s more to it than that. Baylor plays a zone, but not only did they lead the Big 12 in defensive rebounding percentage during league play, they also found a way to foul more than West Virginia did last season.

I’m in on this Baylor team. They are balanced, they are well-coached and they have some guys that can really play. But when you don’t have the high-end NBA-caliber talent, you’re winning on the margins, so to speak. You’re winning because you can dominate the glass on both ends, because you extend possessions with second-chance points better than anyone while ending possessions after missed shots at an elite level. Fouling at a rate that

21. MEMPHIS

FRESHMEN DO FRESHMEN THINGS

As the saying goes, the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores. Memphis is on track to start five freshmen and play seven freshmen in their rotation. I expand on all that below.

22. AUBURN

WHERE ARE THE SHOT CREATORS?

Losing Jared Harper was a major blow for the Tigers, because he did so much for them when their offense got bogged down in the halfcourt. Chuma Okeke was another option, because he was such a matchup problem for opposing defenses. Even Bryce Brown was able to just shoot over any and all defenses when he got hot. Can J’Von McCormick, Isaac Okoro and Samir Doughty replace that?

23. TENNESSEE

DO THEY HAVE ANYONE TO PLAY THE FIVE?

The Vols lost a lot in their frontcourt. Kyle Alexander is gone. Admiral Schofield is gone. Grant Williams is gone. That is a lot of production to replace, and I’m not sure who they have that can do it. Their guards are going to be fine. Lamonte’ Turner is ready for a bigger role, Jordan Bowden is talented-if-inconsistent and five-star Josiah James should be able to provide scoring and shot creation. Hell, even using Yves Pons at the four is doable. But can Tennessee win if they need to rely on John Fulkerson and Zach Kent?

24. VCU

THEY CANNOT SCORE

We spent the entirety of last season burying Duke because they were such a bad shooting team. The Blue Devils actually shot better from three than VCU did last year, and the Rams don’t have guys like Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett. That’s why they finished last year ranked 177th in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric.

25. OHIO STATE

HOW GOOD ARE THEIR GUARDS?

The Buckeyes lost their starting backcourt from last season, and while we all know how good Kaleb Wesson is, there is a legitimate concern as to whether or not they have guys that can get him the ball this year. C.J. Walker is a transfer from Florida State who was fine in the ACC, so that helps with the experience, and D.J. Carton is a guy with an incredibly high ceiling, but he’s a ways away from that ceiling at this point.

Michigan lands commitment from five-star forward Todd

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Juwan Howard has landed his first five-star prospect as the head coach of the Michigan Wolverines.

On Thursday night, Isaiah Todd, a top ten prospect from Word Of God Christian Academy in North Carolina, announced that he will be playing his college ball in Ann Arbor. Todd picked Michigan over Kansas, having cut both Kentucky and North Carolina from his list earlier this month.

Part of the intrigue for Todd in committing to Michigan and Howard is that the two are similar as players. Todd is a skilled and mobile four that runs well, can finish above the rim and play out on the perimeter. Motor and consistent effort is the key for him. When he’s dialed in, he’s dangerous.

Todd joins top 100 shooting guard Zeb Jackson in Howard’s first recruiting class, and this is where the intrigue really begins. Michigan is also involved with a number of highly-touted prospects – five-stars Josh Christopher, Jaden Springer and Nimari Burnett as well as four-stars Moses Moody, Mark Williams and Hunter Dickinson.

CBT Podcast: Penny Hardaway and the Big Ten Preview

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Rob Dauster was joined by Memphis head coach Penny Hardaway for the latest episode of the College Basketball Talk podcast. Afterwards, Scott Phillips jumped onto the pod to walk through a full breakdown of every team in the Big Ten. Does Michigan State have the NBA-level talent to win a title? Can Maryland live up to their lofty expectations? There are new eras at Michigan, Purdue and Wisconsin to discuss. Who is best set up for success? Ohio State and Illinois are trending up, Iowa and Minnesota are trending down, and the Mayor is back!

Here is the full rundown:

OPEN: Penny Hardaway

15:45: Big Ten overview

20:05: Illinois

26:55: Indiana

31:30: Iowa

35:45: Maryland

40:25: Michigan

45:30: Michigan State

51:35: Minnesota

54:40: Nebraska

57:15: Northwestern

59:20: Ohio State

1:03:30: Penn State

1:07:45: Purdue

1:13:45: Rutgers

1:17:00: Wisconsin