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.

South Carolina’s Staley defends team after Auriemma comments

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COLUMBIA, S.C. – South Carolina coach Dawn Staley strongly defended her top-ranked Gamecocks on Tuesday following critical comments by UConn coach Geno Auriemma two days earlier.

Auriemma said after the top-ranked Gamecocks’ 81-77 victory that Huskies guard/forward Lou Lopez Senechal had bruises on her body from the game.

“It’s just appalling what teams do her now,” he said. “It’s not basketball anymore. I don’t know what it is, but it’s not basketball.”

Staley fired back Tuesday on her radio call-in show, saying when her team has success, “we’re called something other than players that are locked in.”

“They play the right way,” she continued, “and approach it the right way whether they win or lose. We don’t denounce anybody’s play. They are always uplifting the game of women’s basketball and when we were getting our heads beat in by UConn for all those years, I said nothing.”

South Carolina’s victory Sunday was its fourth in the past five meetings between the schools, including the national championship game last April.

Staley’s South Carolina teams had been 0-7 against UConn before their recent run of success.

“We’ve been called so many things and I’m sick of it,” Staley said. “I’m sick of it because I coach some of the best human beings the game has ever had.”

South Carolina (23-0, 10-0) visits Auburn on Thursday night.

Forward Mawot Mag to miss rest of season for No. 24 Rutgers

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 01 Minnesota at Rutgers
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PISCATAWAY, N.J. – Junior forward Mawot Mag will miss the rest of the season for No. 24 Rutgers after tearing the ACL in his right knee.

Rutgers announced the injury Tuesday, hours before the Scarlet Knights were to play at No. 18 Indiana. Mag was hurt Saturday in the first half of a game against Michigan State, a 61-55 win.

Mag, who was born in Melbourne, Australia, started every game for Rutgers this season, averaging 7.8 points, 5.3 rebounds and a steal. His best performance came in an overtime win over Ohio State when he scored a career-high 15 points and added a late 3-pointer to give the Scarlet Knights breathing room in a 68-64 decision.

Aundre Hyatt, a junior who has been averaging 9.4 points and 4.2 rebounds off the bench, is expected to replace Mag in the starting lineup.

“We’re going to miss Mawot greatly,” coach Steve Pikiell said. “He’s a high-energy player, a veteran presence and the ultimate glue-guy. He’s one of our best team defenders and one of our best offensive rebounders. There’s not a better person in our program.”

No. 9 Kansas blows lead, then holds off No. 5 Texas, 88-80

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LAWRENCE, Kan. – Dajuan Harris Jr. was willing to acknowledge that Kansas was facing something rare when fifth-ranked and Big 12-leading Texas arrived at Allen Fieldhouse.

The defending national champs played like it.

Gradey Dick scored 21 points, Harris had 17 points, six rebounds and five assists, and the ninth-ranked Jayhawks held on after blowing a 14-point first-half lead to beat the Longhorns 88-80 and tighten the league race.

Kevin McCullar Jr. added 16 points, Joseph Yesufu scored 14 off the bench and KJ Adams finished with 10, helping the Jayhawks (19-5, 7-4) overcome an off night from Jalen Wilson. The league’s leading scorer at 21.5 points per game battled foul trouble and was held to just two, ending his streak of 25 straight double-figure games.

“We knew we had to come in here and get a win,” said Dick, who had the Jayhawks’ only two 3-pointers. “The big thing, just in preparation for the week, was coming out with energy. When we do that, we’re a scary team.”

The Jayhawks needed everyone’s help holding off the Longhorns’ Marcus Carr.

The Minnesota transfer, who had a game-high 29 points, kept answering Kansas baskets down the stretch. His 3-pointer got the Longhorns within 77-68 with 2:25 left, three free throws made it 78-71 with 1:31 to go, and his three-point play got the Longhorns (19-5, 8-3) within 86-80 with 23.5 seconds remaining.

Texas quickly fouled Dick at the other end, and his free throw with 18 seconds left helped to put the game away.

“It was as close to a must-win as you could have this early in the season to win the league,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “You go down three games with seven left, you’d have to win out and get a lot of help from others. Now, we still have as hard a schedule as everybody, but we can kind of control our own destiny where if we play well, we have a shot.”

Timmy Allen finished with 18 points for the Longhorns. Sir’Jabari Rice had 12 before fouling out.

“It was their night tonight in terms of what they got done,” Texas interim coach Rodney Terry said.

The Longhorns have made a habit of overcoming double-digit deficits: 18 down to beat TCU, 12 down to beat Texas Tech and 14 down to beat No. 12 Kansas State last Saturday in a game played just down the road.

So it wasn’t that surprising when Texas dug another 14-point hole Monday night.

Just like the Longhorns did in Manhattan, though, they began to rally. Texas shook off 10 first-half turnovers to get within 42-35 by the break, then kept coming in the second half. Hunter hit a 3-pointer, Carr added a couple of buckets and it was 43-all when Self called a timeout to slow Texas’ momentum.

Unlike the Horned Frogs, Red Raiders and Wildcats, the Jayhawks rose to the challenge.

McCullar’s three-point play while they were clinging to a 49-48 lead gave them a boost, and Dick added a couple of free throws. But it was back-to-back buckets by Harris, who is known more as a distributor than as a scorer, that pushed the lead to 58-50 with about 12 minutes to go.

Texas closed within 66-60 but, after the Jayhawks pulled down two offensive boards, Dick hit another 3-pointer. And when Yesufu bookended a couple of free throws by Harris, the lead had stretched to 75-62 with 3 minutes to go.

The Jayhawks were able to fend off Carr and the Longhorns from there.

“Give those guys credit. They came in and played at a very high level,” Terry said, “and we knew that would be the case.”

BANGED-UP BIRDS

The Jayhawks were missing several backups. Zack Clemence has a hurt knee, Bobby Pettiford Jr. is dealing with a hamstring injury and Zuby Ejiofor a foot injury. Kyle Cuffe Jr. (knee) and Cam Martin (shoulder) also were out.

“I thought the bench was great. As good as they’ve been all year,” Self said. “We had nine guys we could put in the game.”

BIG PICTURE

Texas has struggled to get off to good starts this season, and it seemed the energy the Longhorns expended climbing back into Monday night’s game was missing by the end. Carr tried to carry them but he needed more help.

Kansas got the production it needed from the bench. Yesufu provided the scoring pop but big man Ernest Udeh Jr. and guard MJ Rice, both seldom-used freshmen, also provided important minutes for the Jayhawks.

UP NEXT

Texas heads home after its Sunflower State swing to play West Virginia.

Kansas has a two-game trip next with Oklahoma on Saturday and Oklahoma State.

No. 19 Miami rolls past Duke 81-59, moves to 13-0 at home

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CORAL GABLES, Fla. – Miami guard Isaiah Wong pointed to the crowd, waving his arms, asking for noise, asking for the celebration to start.

The lead, at that point, was 3-0.

Didn’t matter. From start to finish, the Hurricanes were in total control — and got a rare rout over Duke.

Norchad Omier had 17 points and 10 rebounds, Jordan Miller added 16 points and No. 19 Miami never trailed on the way to a 81-59 win over Duke on Monday night.

Wooga Poplar scored 14 and Wong scored 11 for Miami (19-5, 10-4 Atlantic Coast Conference). The Hurricanes led by as many as 26 and improved to 13-0 at home.

“That was a great performance, from start to finish,” Miami coach Jim Larranaga said. “There was a lot of energy. And all I can tell you is, everybody who came tonight’s game is invited back – because that’s the kind of environment that we’d love to have every night.”

Ryan Young and Dereck Lively II each scored 11 points for Duke (17-7, 8-5), which saw its three-game winning streak snapped. Jeremy Roach added 10 points for the Blue Devils, who were outrebounded 38-31 and committed 21 turnovers.

It was the second game this season where Duke never led, and the 22-point loss was its second-worst this season. The Blue Devils lost to N.C. State by 24 on Jan. 4.

“Congratulations to Miami. There’s a reason they haven’t lost here at home,” Duke coach Jon Scheyer said. “They’re really good. They obviously had it clicking on all cylinders right away.”

It was the second-biggest Miami victory margin in the series between the schools, topped only by the Hurricanes’ 90-63 win over then-No. 1 Duke on Jan. 23, 2013. Miami also enjoyed huge edges in points off turnovers (23-9), second-chance points (24-9) and fast-break points (17-7).

And Miami got payback for a 68-66 loss at Duke earlier this season.

“We had something to prove,” Miller said. “They beat us last time. We were revved up for this game and we got it done.”

Duke fans started leaving with 4:24 left and Miami up by 26, the Hurricanes’ student section serenading them as they departed.

Miami ran out to a 13-1 lead and stretched it to 34-17 later in the first half, putting Duke in unfamiliar territory quickly. The Blue Devils had trailed by more than 15 in just two other games – by 29 to N.C. State, and by 19 to Purdue.

“When you have 21 turnovers, you can’t expect yourself to have a good game,” Lively said.

It was 40-26 at the half. When Miami opened the second half on a 9-0 run to build a 23-point lead, the outcome quickly became academic.

“The crowd fueled us to keep it going,” Larranaga said.

BIG PICTURE

Duke: Maybe it’s too difficult to quickly reset after a rivalry game. This is the third consecutive year the Blue Devils have lost the game immediately following their first matchup of the season with North Carolina. “It’s tough. It’s not easy. But it’s what you have to do. … It’s part of playing in the ACC,” Scheyer said.

Miami: The Hurricanes remained one of six teams from major conferences to be unbeaten at home – the others being Alabama, UCLA, Providence, Iowa State and Duke. Across Division I, 20 teams entered Monday with perfect home marks.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Miami has been in the poll for nine straight weeks, the program’s longest such run since being ranked in each of the first 11 polls of the 2017-18 season – and figures to stay there if it tops Louisville on Saturday. Duke has been out of the AP Top 25 for the last four weeks; the Blue Devils were two slots away in the poll released Monday, behind only Florida Atlantic on the “also receiving votes” list.

BARRY HONORED

Basketball Hall of Famer Rick Barry, Miami’s all-time leading scorer, was presented with a customized basketball during a first-half stoppage of play.

UP NEXT

Duke: Visits No. 8 Virginia on Saturday.

Miami: Hosts Louisville on Saturday.

Minnesota-Illinois postponed for COVID-19 in Gophers program

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MINNEAPOLIS – Minnesota’s game at Illinois that was scheduled for Tuesday has been postponed because of COVID-19 health and safety protocols within the Gophers’ program.

The announcement was made Monday by Minnesota, which didn’t specify how many players would have been unable to play.

The Gophers (7-15, 1-11) had only eight available scholarship players for their last game, an 81-46 loss to Maryland on Saturday. Dawson Garcia (ankle) has missed the last four games, and Braeden Carrington (leg) has missed the last six. Parker Fox and Isaiah Ihnen will not play this season while recovering from knee injuries.

The game will be rescheduled by the Big Ten, with input from both schools.

Minnesota is next scheduled to host Iowa on Sunday. Illinois (16-7, 7-5) will host No. 24 Rutgers on Saturday.