Kansas State reverts to last season’s form, and not a second too soon

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Its said time and time again — winning on the road is not an easy thing to do in college basketball.

If you didn’t believe it yet, you got all the proof you needed on Monday night as newly No. 1 Kansas went into the Octagon of Doom and got bumrushed Kansas State, 84-68. It was the second time in three days the No. 1 team in the country lost on the road.

Kansas didn’t play their best game tonight, as The Morrii struggled against the Kansas State front line (16 points, three rebounds combined, five fouls combined) and the Jayhawks looked lost at times offensively.

But tonight wasn’t about Kansas.

It was about Kansas State.

Simply put, no one was beating the Wildcats tonight.

For the first time this season, we saw the Kansas State team that we all expected to be fighting for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They were active defensively, they were aggressive on the glass, they were diving on the floor for loose balls. It was refreshing, to be honest. Its not secret that it has been a tumultuous season for Frank Martin’s squad — rife with suspensions and players leaving the program — but there is still plenty of talent for this team to make a late run. And if there has been a silver lining to the departures of Freddy Asprilla and Wally Judge, its that kids like Jordan Henriquez-Roberts, who had 10 points, five boards, and a block tonight, have gotten a chance to play and build their confidence.

If tonight proved anything, its that this team has not quit on this season.

Kansas State’s hustle wasn’t the only aspect of the “vintage” Wildcat attack that we caught a glimpse of tonight. For the first time all season, we saw Jacob Pullen play like Jacob Pullen. The senior scored 13 points including 11 straight at one point — in a 22-6 run that opened up a 13 point lead with 10:24 left in the half. Kansas never got closer than six the rest of the way.

And Pullen?

Pullen was a long way from done. He finished the night with a career-high 38 points, with 23 of those coming before intermission. He added five assists and two steals, made 5-6 from beyond the arc, and got to the foul line 19 times, hitting 15 of them. Few of those point came easy, as Pullen was in NBA Live mode, hitting step-back jumpers and contested, pull-up threes all night long.

The importance of this game for Kansas State cannot be overstated. Coming in, the Wildcats were barely hanging in most bracket projections, which says quite a bit more about the lack of quality teams on the bubble than the success Kansas State has had this season. Coming in, the Wildcats were 0-7 against the RPI top 50. And while 1-7 is less than ideal, having than one come against the top team in the RPI makes the shoddy record much more valuable.

The key for the Wildcats from here is to build on this win. Beating Kansas in this fashion at home is not just a great win, its a great experience for those kids.

But it doesn’t erase the fact that they were one of the biggest disappointments in a season full of disappointments up until Valentine’s Day.

The Wildcats have five regular season games left — Oklahoma, at Nebraska, Missouri, at Texas, and Iowa State. They still have work to do to ensure a trip to the NCAA Tournament, although tonight’s win allows them a much bigger margin for error.

So enjoy the win tonight.

But come back ready to work tomorrow.

Because not being “ready to work” is why the Wildcats dug themselves this hole in the first place.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.

Bluiett back to Xavier for senior season

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Xavier lost one significant piece to the professional ranks this spring, but will return another.

Trevon Bluiett, the team’s leading scorer last year, announced via social media that he will be back to play his senior season with the Musketeers.

Chris Mack will return the bulk of a roster that struggled February only to make a run to the Elite Eight, but getting Bluiett for a final season makes the Musketeers especially dangerous. The 6-foot-6 Bluiett scored a team-high 18.5 points per game last year while also putting up 5.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists per night. He shot 37.1 percent from 3-point range, the second-best mark on the team. His return, even with point guard Edmond Sumner going pro amid his ACL tear recovery, makes Xavier one of the top teams in the Big East heading into the 2017-18 season.

Bluiett himself is enough to keep Xavier relevant in the league, but when he’s coupled with the likes of returners JP Macura, Sean O’Mara and Quentin Goodwin, plus a recruiting class featuring two four-star prospects, it’s not difficult to see a path for Mack’s group to a place where they can compete with the likes of Villanova and Seton Hall atop the league.

Welsh and Holiday returning to UCLA

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UCLA sustained some major, though expected, attrition from its roster this spring. On Tuesday, the Bruins announced a pair of significant contributors that will be back.

Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holiday will both return next season to the UCLA program, according to the school.

Welsh, a 7-foot center, averaged 10.8 points and 8.7 rebounds as a senior last year for the Bruins. He shot 58.5 percent from the floor and blocked 1.2 shots per game, and decided to declare for the NBA Draft without an agent before ultimately deciding to return to Westwood.

“Thomas has worked hard all spring,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said in a statement. “We supported him testing the NBA waters and are excited to have him returning for his senior year. He simply continues to develop each and every season.

“Thomas will be one of the top centers in college basketball next year and, undoubtedly, has a great chance to be a first-round pick in next season’s draft.”

The 6-foot-1 Holiday averaged 12.3 points and 4.4 assists last season while sharing a backcourt with Lonzo Ball, whose departure, along with those of TJ Leaf, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton will leave UCLA with a very different look next season. The positive results, however, may not fluctuate too significantly with Welsh and Holiday coming back to play alongside two five-star recruits, Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands, as well as Lonzo’s younger brother LiAngelo.

West Virginia’s Macon forgoing final year

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West Virginia’s attempt to dethrone Kansas atop the Big 12 took a bit of a hit Tuesday.

Elijah Macon, a 6-foot-9 forward, announced his decision to forego a fifth year in Morgantown in order to pursue a professional career.

“First things first I would like to say thank you Bob Huggins and Erik Martin for believing in a young 15-year-old boy growing up from the Southside of Columbus, OH losing my mother and still having you guys push me to be the man I have become,” Macon said according to the school. “I can do nothing but thank you for all you and Mountaineer Nation (have) done for me. Unfortunately, I will not be returning for my senior season at WVU and instead sign with a(n) agent and play professional basketball. Thank you guys for all the love and support!”

Macon wasn’t a major contributor for the Mountaineers last season, averaging 6.3 points and 4.2 rebounds in 16 minutes per game, but he was an experienced and tough player who was well-versed in Huggins’ style and demands. Given the pace that the newly-fashioned Press Virginia plays at, depth is also paramount for them as a program.

Macon’s departure, though, may have been expected or at least partly anticipated by West Virginia. The Mountaineers signed five players in its most recent recruiting class, putting them one over their allotment of 13, so something had to give. West VIrginia will stay have interior depth, anchored by junior Esa Ahmad, so the loss of Macon is one they likely can weather, even if it may take some time to acclimate the newcomers.

“Elijah is in the process of completing classes during this summer school period that ends June 2 and will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in August,” Huggins said in a statement released by the school. “I respect his decision to become a professional basketball player and to go make money to support his family. He had a great four years with us, and we wish him nothing but the best.”

Key returning to Alabama for sophomore season

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Alabama’s top scorer is returning to school.

Braxton Key has withdrawn his name from the NBA draft and will be back with the Tide for his sophomore season, the school announced Tuesday.

“I spoke to coach Avery (Johnson) just over a week ago and informed him of my decision to withdraw my name from the NBA Draft and return to the University of Alabama for my sophomore season,” Key said in a statement. “I made that official when I sent my paperwork to the NBA league office Monday morning. I want to express my appreciation to my teammates, Coach Johnson and the entire coaching staff for giving me their full support while I went through this process.

“I am excited for the future of the Alabama basketball program and looking forward to getting to work as we prepare for next season. Roll Tide and Buckle Up!”

The 6-foot-8 forward averaged 12 points and 5.7 rebounds per game while shooting 43.3 percent from the field as a freshman. He gives Alabama four returning starts to pair with one of the country’s highest-regarded recruiting classes, headlined by five-star guard Collin Sexton. The Tide will also have an eligible Daniel Giddens, who previously transferred in from Ohio State.

Key didn’t seem likely to stay in the NBA draft, especially after he wasn’t invited to the combine, but his ultimate decision is a huge one for Avery Johnson as he looks to break through in his third season in Tuscaloosa with his first NCAA tournament appearance. 

Report: Justin Jackson to return to Maryland

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Maryland forward Justin Jackson is expected to return to school for his sophomore season, according to a report from FanRag Sports.

Jackson is an intriguing talent, a 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-3 wingspan that shoots 44 percent from three. But he’s also still developing his offensive game and consistency on the defensive end of the floor, which is why he was projected as a second round pick in this year’s draft.

With Jackson back in the fold, Maryland is a borderline top 25 team. They lost Melo Trimble to the professional ranks, but that’s something that Mark Turgeon has prepared for. With a sophomore class that also includes highly-regarded point guard Anthony Cowan and sharp-shooter Kevin Huerter, the Terps have a promising season ahead of them.