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

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

We 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.

NCAA steering farther and farther away from harsh penalties

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The days of postseason bans and crippling scholarship reductions to punish schools for breaking NCAA rules appear to be winding down.

Memphis was placed on three years of probation earlier this week with a public reprimand and fined for NCAA violations related to the recruitment and short college career of James Wiseman, who is about to start his third season with the Golden State Warriors. The NCAA also wrapped up an investigation of Air Force football for breaking the COVID-19 recruiting quiet period.

No postseason bans or scholarship reductions in either case. The Independent Accountability Review Panel, the NCAA’s outside arm of enforcement, said in its decision in the Memphis case that it did not want to punish current athletes.

That sentiment is widespread in college athletics these days, even with millions of dollars suddenly flowing to athletes from various sources for their celebrity endorsements amid concerns over improper inducements. In fact, it is on the way to being codified: Last month, the Division I Board of Directors adopted three proposals to change the infractions process.

The board also committed to “identifying appropriate types of penalties and modifying current penalty ranges, including identifying potential alternative penalties to postseason bans.”

Trying to predict what those alternatives will be is difficult, but if the goal is to avoid harming athletes and others who were not involved in the violations the options are limited.

“I emphatically believe it’s the wrong direction to go,” said Nebraska law professor Jo Potuto, who spent nine years on the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“If you’re going to deter, the punishment has to fit the offense, right?” Potuto added. “You’re not going to deter serious violations with penalties that are not perceived to be really serious.”

Since January 2020, there have been at least 45 major infractions cases decided by the NCAA. Of those, at least 15 involved Level I allegations, the most serious and those carrying the most severe penalties; six cases resulted in some kind of postseason ban, with four of them self-imposed.

The Memphis case went through the IARP, which was created in response to the FBI’s investigation of college basketball corruption but is now being discontinued. Sunsetting the IARP was among several recommendations put forth by the NCAA’s Division I Transformation Committee earlier this year and recently adopted by the board.

As college sports moves toward less centralized governance by the NCAA and deregulation in general, the hope is to create a more streamlined enforcement process.

If justice is swift, the thinking goes, it is more likely to be applied fairly.

“The reality is the current system is broken,” said Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner Jim Phillips, a member of the transformation committee. “I think everyone in the association, in the enterprise, understands it. When (an investigation) takes the amount of time that it does now and you start to penalize young men and women that were high school, if not middle school-age (when the violation occurred), it’s not an effective process.”

The IARP is still handling cases stemming from the FBI probe involving Louisville, Arizona, Kansas and LSU. Those have been in the NCAA enforcement pipeline for years. A related case against Oklahoma State did not go through IARP and the Cowboys did end up with a postseason ban.

David Ridpath, a professor at Ohio University and former compliance director for several schools, said even though the IARP failed, NCAA enforcement would be best handled by an independent organization.

“No system is perfect, but if you’re going to have an enforcement system at the end of the day you need to provide basic due-process protections and then you have to be able to consistently punish people,” he said.

In the Memphis case, Wiseman received $11,500 from Hardaway in 2017 while Hardaway was coach at a local high school. Hardaway was hired as Memphis’ coach in March 2018, and Wiseman committed to the Tigers in November 2018.

The NCAA accused Memphis of four Level I and two Level II violations, including lack of institutional control, head coach responsibility and failure to monitor. In the past, those types of allegations could strike fear into athletic directors but probation and fines seem much more likely to be the outcome now instead of the sweeping scholarship sanctions, vacated victories and postseason ban that Southern California received in 2010 for the Reggie Bush improper benefits case. Those penalties set USC football back years.

In the end, the IARP essentially reduced the charges against Memphis and cleared Hardaway of wrongdoing.

While the NCAA is losing sway in the wake of last year’s Supreme Court ruling, with more power being shifted to its member conferences, it also remains clear the schools still want the association to handle enforcement.

But what exactly is being enforced?

Athletes can now be paid for endorsement and sponsorship deals and college sports is still waiting on and hoping for help from federal lawmakers to regulate name, image and likeness compensation.

Plus, as revenue skyrockets for schools at the top of major college sports, the NCAA is trending toward fewer restrictions on what financial benefits can be provided to athletes.

“Until we have clarity and certainty on what schools and boosters and athletes can and can’t do, I think many recognize that it’s dangerous to hand down significant punishments when it’s not clear what you can and can’t do,” said Gabe Feldman, director of the sports law program at Tulane. “And I think unless you have clear rules, it’s hard to harsh punishment.”

Still, punishments directed at schools (fines) and coaches (suspensions) could become steeper and longer, Feldman said.

Potuto said with so much money flowing into the top of college athletics, it is doubtful fines could be large enough to be a true deterrent. While she understands the desire to not have current athletes pay for the sins of previous regimes, loosened transfer rules could mitigate the potential harm.

“I will make one prediction: If there is a move to impose penalties much less frequently in five years there is going to be a move to put them back in,” Potuto said.

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky will play its annual Blue-White men’s basketball scrimmage in Eastern Kentucky to benefit victims of the devastating summer floods.

The school announced that the Oct. 22 event at Appalachian Wireless Arena in Pikeville will feature a pregame Fan Fest. Ticket proceeds will go through Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief.

Wildcat players will also participate in a community service activity with local organizations in the relief effort.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said the team was excited to play for Eastern Kentucky fans and added, “We hope we can provide a temporary escape with basketball and community engagement.”

The scrimmage traditionally is held at Rupp Arena. It will occur eight days after its Big Blue Madness public workout at Rupp.

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.