AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

The College Hoops Contender Series: Who are the teams that can actually win a title?

1 Comment

Who are the favorites to win a national title? Who can legitimately be called a contender? Who has the pieces to make a run to the Final Four?

We will break all that down for you here. 

FAVORITES

Michigan State (6/1)

Michigan State is the best team in college basketball. They have the best player in college basketball in Cassius Winston. They bring back basically the same roster from the team that won 30 games last season and took down the Big Ten regular season title, the Big Ten tournament title and advanced to the Final Four. There is a very legitimate reason why they are the biggest favorite to win the title.

And I think all of this even after the news that Joshua Langford will miss at least the first three months of the season after aggravating the injury to his ankle that caused him to miss all but 13 games last year. Because Michigan State did it last season without Langford. Losing him certainly isn’t going to make things easier for the Spartans, but if he’s able to come back for the stretch run healthy, rested and with something to prove, Michigan State will be just fine.

Kansas (8/1)

The more I think about things, the more than I believe Kansas is the second-best team in college basketball this season. They have an All-American caliber point guard in Devon Dotson, who should be in line for a sophomore jump after a really good freshman campaign. They have an All-American caliber center in Udoka Azubuike, a guy that they can and have run their offense through. There is enough talent on the wings – Ochai Agbaji, Isaiah Moss, Marcus Garrett – that Bill Self can get away with being limited at the four.

And yes, this is narrative-driven and based on absolutely zero data, but the Jayhawks are coming off of arguably the most embarrassing 12 months in the history of their program. Last year they became the first Kansas team in 15 seasons that did not win the Big 12 regular season title. They have been front and center during this FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball. They’ve dealt with the fallout from Billy Preston, Silvio De Sousa, T.J. Gassnola, Snoop Dogg and Bill Self’s Adidas attire. It feels like this is a team that has something to prove and a statement to make.

CONTENDERS

Florida (14/1)

The addition of Kerry Blackshear Jr. was a difference-maker for the Gators. Suddenly, a Florida team that was built entirely around a talented crop of perimeter weapons now has an anchor in their frontcourt. Blackshear should thrive playing with this group because he thrived playing for a Virginia Tech team that was similar last season.

But there is more to it than just Blackshear. For starters, Andrew Nembhard returned for his sophomore season, and I fully expect that he will develop into one of the best point guards in the nation this year. They add talented freshmen Tre Mann and Scottie Lewis while the likes of Noah Locke and Keyontae Johnson are back as well.

The Gators are young, but they are talented and – this is the important part – their roster fits together better this season. Inefficient chuckers Jalen Hudson and Kevaughn Allen are gone, and when combined with the talent infusion and improvement of the returnees, the Gators could end up being the best team in the SEC this season.

Kentucky (8/1)

On paper, this Kentucky team looks to be absolutely loaded. They bring back two guards – Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley – that were five-star prospects for a sophomore season. They also bring back E.J. Montgomery, another five-star sophomore that some have projected could be in line for a P.J. Washington-esque jump as a sophomore. Their freshman class is loaded: Tyrese Maxey, Johnny Juzang, Kahlil Whitney, Keion Brooks. They add Bucknell grad transfer Nate Sestina to a frontcourt that includes junior Nick Richards.

I think they are definitively a top three team in the country.

I also think that the Wildcats are just slightly below Kansas in the pecking order. The reason for that? I have no feel as to how they are going to play. I have no feel as to who their best player will be. Who is going to be their go-to guy? Their leading scorer? John Calipari is going to figure this thing out, but I think the learning curve is going to be steeper than it is for some of the other teams at the top of the rankings.

Louisville (16/1)

Before we talk about what Louisville actually is this season, think about this for a second: Two years ago, the Cardinals had just fired their Hall of Fame head coach, they lost their best recruit because Adidas paid him, their Athletic Director was run out of town and that all happened right after they had to pull a national title banner out of the rafters. And not only were they still able to sign one of the best young coaches in America despite the fact that a postseason ban may or may not be hanging over their head, but a year after he took the job he has Louisville sitting as the favorite to win the ACC.

Man, what?

Louisville is awesome, by the way. Jordan Nwora is the NBC Sports ACC Preseason Player of the Year and a Preseason First Team All-American. They have size, they have depth, they had a loaded six-man recruiting class that Mack will be able to bring along slowly. Injuries are a bit of a concern, as David Johnson and Malik Williams are working through some things, and there are some question marks about point guard play, but overall this is just a good basketball team.

FINAL FOUR THREATS

Duke (12/1)

The talent is obvious. Vernon Carey is going to be one of the most productive big men in the country. Matthew Hurt is a prototype small-ball four. Wendell Moore is going to end up being a first round pick because of the way he can guard. And Tre Jones could very well end up being the best player on this Duke roster next season. There is a lot to like about the Blue Devils.

But the major concern that I have is how all of these pieces fit together. I wrote about this at length earlier this month, but Duke is one of those teams where I just don’t see how they are going to be able to field a team that will be both good offensively and good defensively. Coach K is going to have some things to figure out this year.

Gonzaga (20/1)

The Zags are the team that I am having the most trouble projecting this season. On the one hand, they just whipped up on Michigan State in a secret scrimmage without Killian Tillie. On the other hand, Tillie might be their most talented player and he is still dealing with knee issues, and I’m not fully ready to buy into Admon Gilder and Ryan Woolridge being the answer at the point.

Then again, that trio plus Corey Kispert and Filip Petrusev with the likes of Drew Timme and Oumar Ballo on the bench is quite intriguing. I don’t think they are going to be as good as they were in 2017 or last season, but the Zags will certainly have a roster talented enough to win six games in March.

Memphis (18/1)

I’ve written too much about the Tigers over the course of the last month, so I’ll refer you to this video. In short: Memphis has the talent to win the whole thing. They also will start five freshmen and will have seven freshmen in their rotation. That’s not ideal.

North Carolina (10/1)

Just how good do you think Cole Anthony is going to be in his one and only season in Chapel Hill? Because this is going to be his team. The Tar Heels lost their top five scorers from last season, three of whom were first round picks and a fourth who was an All-American.

He’s not going to be all alone, mind you. Armando Bacot and Garrison Brooks make up a pretty good front line while the addition of grad transfers Justin Pierce and Christian Keeling provide some shot-making and experience on their perimeter. But none of that really matters if Anthony doesn’t end up being a National Player of the Year candidate.

Oregon (30/1)

I actually think that the Ducks are one of the best future values currently on the board. This is a team with a point guard that will deservedly be in the conversation for Pac-12 Player of the Year this season. They add a pair of talented grad transfers in Anthony Mathis and Shakur Juiston. Their freshmen class is loaded, as always, and their are a couple of perimeter scorers in Chris Duarte and Will Richardson that should be really good playing in Dana Altman’s swing offense.

Oh, and I have to make mention of Altman, who is as good as anyone this side of Chris Beard at finding a way to get a bunch of pieces that have never played together to fit together. The Ducks are legit.

SLEEPERS

Houston (100/1)

The Cougars are going to be right back in the mix now that Quentin Grimes has been ruled eligible to play this season. He and DeJon Jarreau will be the best backcourt in the American and one of the best backcourts in America, and with plenty of big bodies up front – and a head coach in Kelvin Sampson that has a reputation for being one of the best coaches in the country – they certainly have the horses to make a run in March. They’ve done it for two years running now.

Maryland (40/1)

Betting on Maryland to live up to lofty expectations has rarely been a profitable venture, but the expectations are there for a reason this season. Anthony Cowan has All-American potential, Jalen Smith is the kind of player that can turn into a lottery pick with some more seasoning and the sophomore class has a whole is very good and very deep.

Ohio State (50/1)

How good do you think D.J. Carton is? If you believe that he, as a freshman, is ready to be the full-time starting point guard for a team that is going to make a run in March, then the Buckeyes should be considered among the nation’s best. Kaleb Wesson is a monster, they have options up front an on the wing and they have Chris Holtmann. What they don’t have is a proven, elite level point guard, and I’m not convinced C.J. Walker is more than just a game manager.

So if you think Carton is going to arrive in Columbus ready to take on anyone and everyone in front of him, then you should invest heavily in the Buckeyes at 50-1.

NOTABLE OMISSIONS

Texas Tech (30/1)

Of the 11 players that Texas Tech has eligible for this season, eight of them are freshmen or sophomores. Of the upperclassmen, two are grad transfers, neither of whom played last season. One of the two grad transfers played for Stephen F. Austin in the Southland last year. The most important player on the roster is Jahmius Ramsey, a top 35 recruit that is the most highly-touted player to enter Chris Beard’s program since he’s been in Lubbock. He has to fill the Jarrett Culver-Keenan Evans role offensively, but there have been rumblings that Ramsey’s ego hasn’t exactly meshed with the Red Raider ethos early on.

If Tech is going to live up to the expectations that the last two seasons have set, so much is going to come down to whether or not someone like Chris Clarke or Davide Moretti can set a tone and keep the program’s culture at the level it was the last two years.

Villanova (20/1)

The most talented players on this Villanova roster are freshmen. Freshmen take a notoriously long time to acclimate to the way Jay Wright wants to play, and that is before you factor in the shoulder injury Bryan Antoine is still recovering from. The upperclassmen on this Villanova roster have yet to prove that they are capable of carrying the flag the way that the likes of Josh Hart, or Jalen Brunson, or Phil Booth and Eric Paschall have. Can Jermaine Samuels live up to the hype? Just how good is Collin Gillispie, or Dhamir Cosby-Rountree? That’s a lot of question marks for one roster.

Virginia (25/1)

Virginia has 2019 Villanova written all over them. This is a program that is built on player development, getting old and staying old. They thrive by bringing in three- and four-star prospects and turning them into NBA players by the time they leave. It’s a carefully orchestrated plan, one that gets thrown for a loop when they lose guys like Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy a year earlier than expected.

Overall, they’re going to be fine. They’re going to have a young, unproven and inexperienced backcourt. A lot is going to be put on Kihei Clark’s plate. His ability to handle the job of replacing Ty Jerome will determine what UVA’s ceiling is this season.

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
4 Comments

INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
1 Comment

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports
7 Comments

LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

Getty Images
4 Comments

The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.

UConn’s Tyrese Martin granted waiver to play this season

David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports
4 Comments

STORRS, Conn. — UConn swingman Tyrese Martin, who transferred from Rhode Island in April, has been granted a waiver that will allow him to play for the Huskies this season.

The 6-foot-6 junior averaged 12.8 points and 7.1 rebounds and started every game last season for URI, where he was recruited by current UConn coach Dan Hurley.

NCAA rules require undergraduate transfers to sit out a season, but the organization has been more lenient in granting waivers during the pandemic.

Martin, 21, is expected to compete for playing time at UConn on the wing as both a guard and small forward.