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.

Syracuse’s Tyus Battle to test NBA draft waters

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Syracuse announced on Friday afternoon that sophomore guard Tyus Battle will be declaring for the NBA draft without signing with an agent, giving him until the NCAA’s May 30th deadline to withdraw from contention and return to school.

Battle averaged 19.2 points as a sophomore for the Orange, who made a surprising run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

He is a projected late-first round or early-second round pick given his size, shooting ability and skill with the ball in his hands.

Losing Battle would be a massive blow to a Syracuse team that is already going to be without Matthew Moyer, who transferred out of the program, and Dareus Bazley, who is heading to the G League instead of enrolling in college.

Maryland’s Kevin Huerter declares for NBA draft, won’t hire agent

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Maryland wing Kevin Huerter announced on Friday afternoon that he will be declaring for the NBA draft without hiring an agent, giving him the option of returning to school by May 30th.

“This will be a great experience for Kevin to get honest feedback from NBA teams and executives,” said head coach Mark Turgeon. “Taking advantage of this opportunity will allow Kevin and his family to make an informed decision about his future.”

Huerter is a 6-foot-7 wing known for his ability to shoot from the perimeter. He averaged 14.8 points and shot 42 percent from three as a sophomore.

He is also the third player from Maryland to declare for the 2018 NBA Draft. Justin Jackson, a borderline first round pick who missed time last season with a shoulder injury, has signed with an agent while Bruno Fernando is testing the waters. Maryland, who has an excellent recruiting class coming in, will be a preseason top 20 team if Huerter and Fernando both return to school.

Huerter is a borderline first round pick.

Michigan’s Charles Matthews to test NBA draft waters

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Michigan guard Charles Matthews announced on Friday that he will be declaring for the NBA draft, but that he does not intend to sign with an agent, meaning he has until May 30th to withdraw from the draft and return to school.

“After careful consideration with my parents and coaching staff, I am excited to announce that I will be declaring for the 2018 NBA Draft without hiring an agent,” said Matthews. “I give thanks to the Lord for this amazing opportunity, as well as the entire University of Michigan for their support. Go Blue!”

Matthews, a redshirt sophomore that averaged 13.0 points and 5.5 boards for the national runners-up, was a four-star prospect coming out of Chicago and spent his freshman season at Kentucky.

Matthews is a likely second round pick with the potential to climb into the first round should he prove to be a more consistent three-point shooter. He shot just 31.8 percent from beyond the arc this past season.

Virginia’s Hunter to return to school for sophomore season

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De’Andre Hunter announced on Friday afternoon that he will not be entering his name into the NBA draft and will return to Virginia for his redshirt sophomore season, a decision that will have as much of an impact on the 2018-19 college basketball season as any that is made this spring.

Hunter, now a potential top ten pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, was one of the breakout stars of the 2017-18 season. A 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, Hunter averaged 9.2 points and 3.5 boards while shooting 38.2 percent from three in just under 20 minutes a night for a Virginia team whose pace severely limits the kind of numbers a player like him can put up.

Throw in his ability to defend on the perimeter and in the paint, and Hunter is precisely the kind of player that NBA teams are looking to land as basketball becomes more and more built on positional versatility and the ability to space the floor.

And it’s that versatility that will make Hunter so important for the Cavaliers next season.

Let’s go beyond the simple fact that he is going to be the only guy on the Virginia roster that can create his own shot against length and athleticism and that there is a chance that he could end up being an all-american next season if things play out the right way. What makes Hunter so important to Virginia his that his defensive versatility is what allows Virginia to matchup with teams that want to try and play small-ball against them.

That’s precisely what UMBC did in the first round of the NCAA tournament, a game that Hunter missed with a broken wrist. We all know how that played out, and I’m not even dumb enough to pin all the blame of a 20-point loss to a No. 16 seed on a guy that played less than 20 minutes a night.

Virginia choked once they realized that there was a chance this could happen, but I would argue that a major reason they couldn’t ever truly assert their dominance was because they were unable to matchup with UMBC’s four-guard lineup without Hunter.

With Hunter back, Virginia is the No. 6 team in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25. If he had declared for the draft and signed with an agent, I’m not sure I would have had the Wahoos in the top 20.

He takes Tony Bennett’s club from simply being good to once against being a contender for the ACC regular season title.

Vanderbilt the sixth Kentucky player declares for the NBA draft

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Jarred Vanderbilt is now the sixth Kentucky Wildcat to declare for the NBA draft this spring, joining P.J. Washington and Wenyen Gabriel in testing the waters without signing with an agent.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox and Hamidou Diallo have all declared for the draft and signed with an agent.

Vanderbilt announced his decision on Friday afternoon.

“This season wasn’t easy for me,” Vanderbilt said. “At the end of the day, my goal has always been to make it to the NBA.”

“I know I have more to my game to show, but now I’ve got to figure out if the time is right for me to do it at the next level or if I would be better to return to school.”

Vanderbilt missed the first 17 games of his freshman season with a left foot injury, a foot that he had injured twice before during his high school career. He then missed all four of Kentucky’s postseason games with a left ankle injury, and there is a chance that he could end up needing surgery to correct this issue this offseason.

All told, the 6-foot-9 Vanderbilt played in 14 games as a freshman, averaging 5.9 points and 7.9 boards in just 17 minutes a night. But issues with his ability to shoot from the perimeter and a lower left leg that has proven to be extremely problematic, there is a good chance that Vanderbilt would go undrafted should he decide to turn pro.