Mississippi State rides for the SEC

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NEW YORK – Within the first week of the college basketball season, we saw three of the SEC’s top five teams lose.

Mississippi State and Vanderbilt were dropped at home by Akron and Cleveland State, respectively. Florida went on the road and ran into the buzzsaw known as the Ohio State Buckeyes. The initial reaction was, naturally, that the SEC is once again down this season.

Don’t worry. I won’t hold it against you if you did. I jumped to the same conclusion. After the way that the SEC has struggled over recent seasons, it made too much sense.

Dig a little deeper, however, and the answer isn’t so simple.

Vanderbilt is playing without Festus Ezeli, whose knee injury essentially extended the six game suspension he is currently serving through December. During their loss to Cleveland State, John Jenkins injured his ankle, and while he kept playing, it was bad enough that he didn’t suit up against Bucknell. I’ve been as harsh on Vandy as anyone, but even I can admit that judging them too harshly before they play at 100% is a bit unfair.

Florida’s loss to Ohio State is about as far from a bad loss as you can get. Road games are difficult regardless of opponent. Hanging within seven of a top three team on their home court in mid-November is a promising performance.

Which brings us to Mississippi State. The Bulldogs completed their run to the Coaches vs. Cancer Championship with a 67-57 win over Arizona on Friday night, all but erasing the doubts created by the memories of that loss to Akron.

But for the second straight night, this was more than simply a win for Mississippi State. The Bulldogs never trailed Arizona. Hell, the score was only tied once, at 23. The Bulldogs jumped out to leads of 7-0 and 21-11, over-powering the Wildcats on the interior. Arizona did battle back to tie the game and only trailed by one at the half, but the Bulldogs once again got off to a quick start in the second half. Arizona wasn’t blown out by any means — the lead didn’t hit double digits for the half — but it never felt like Mississippi State ever lost control of the game.

“I am proud of our team,” Mississippi State head coach Rick Stansbury said after the game. “And I am proud from this standpoint: I think when the game was on the line in the second half, we survived. … Our team dug in defensively and the stats back it up. We held them to eight field goals in the second half and we had a plus-nine rebound margin. Those are winning plays.”

Arnett Moultrie led the way, finishing with 19 points (on 8-9 shooting), 10 boards and the Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award. Moultrie isn’t always going to be a big scorer like this, but the threat of having two big men capable of putting up 20 points and 10 boards is part of what makes Mississippi State so dangerous.

The other part of what makes the Bulldogs dangerous is there back court, and not simply Dee Bost. Stansbury’s star senior shot just 3-12 from the field, finishing with eight points and six assists to along with three turnovers. And while Stansbury will disagree with my assessment of how Bost played — he called me out during the press conference, saying that the effort and leadership that Bost played with is what they need from him — the bottom line is that the Bulldog’s best scorer wasn’t scoring well.

And Mississippi State still won.

A big part of that was due to the play of DeVille Smith, a diminutive freshman point guard. For the second straight night, Smith came into the game and created a spark. Smith, who was the third-leading scorer for the Bulldogs during their trip to Europe, had seven points and a pair of assists, scoring six points and handing out an assist in a five minute stretch of the second half in which the Bulldogs pushed the lead from one to nine.

“[Being a spark plug] is something that coach wants me to do, but its also something that I want to do. I’ll do whatever it takes to win the game,” Smith said.

Smith isn’t the only role player that stepped up for the Bulldogs. Wendell Lewis had six points and seven boards off the bench. Rodney Hood had nine points and hit a couple of big jumpers. Brian Bryant add six points and helped keep Arizona’s slew of perimeter players in check.

“We have a lot of different guys on different nights,” Stansbury said. “We have people on different nights who can step up and do big things for us.”

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.