Missouri Valley conference tournament preview

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The Valley is, and always will be, the ultimate mid-major conference.

Every year, it seems, this league produces at least one team deserving of an at-large bid that is also capable of making the second weekend of the tournament. Why? Because the conference is so unbelievably competitive. Road wins are not easy to come by. Blowouts are fairly unheard of. Generally speaking, the MVC is as balanced of a conference as you are going to find, and I’m sure that whoever is in charge of putting together the bracket for Arch Madness — which is an event I’ve yet to attend but currently sits just below seeing a Duke-North Carolina game live on my college hoops bucket list — is well-versed in the tie-breakers that determine seeding.

This season is a bit unique. What was once thought to be a banner year for the Valley turned into two teams pulling away from the pack. Wichita State won the league by two games over Creighton, who finished five games in front of the mess that was a five-way tie for third place in the conference. Seriously. Five teams finished 9-9 and a sixth slid it at 8-10. I was saying something about balance earlier …

Anyway, the Valley is a two-bid league regardless of who win this tournament. Wichita State and Creighton are dancing. But if I was a betting man, I would bet the field to win the automatic bid.

That’s just the way they do it in the Valley.

The Bracket

Where: St. Louis

When: March 1st-March 4th

Final: March 4th, 1:05 p.m., CBS

Favorite: Wichita State

Back in November, this fact would have been fairly shocking to most. Creighton was playing their best basketball of the season with a legitimate Player of the Year candidate on their roster while the Shockers were competing with, but losing to, some borderline top 25 teams. It was clear the Shockers were good, but that they became this good — WSU is currently eighth in Kenpom’s rankings — is an impressive feat. But the Shockers are also the hottest team in the country. They won their last six games by an average of 20.7 ppg. That includes a trip to Davidson and a trip to Creighton. The worst team they beat in that run finished in the middle of the Valley pack. Watch out.

And if they lose?: Creighton

I have my reservations about the Bluejays. They don’t defend at an elite level and they have looked fairly ordinary over the last three weeks. But this is a veteran group with a number of weapons, headlined by all-american Doug McDermott, that has proven capable of winning close games. Throw in the fact that the Bluejays shoot the ball as well as any team in the country, and they are always going to be a threat. If they get hot for three days in St. Louis, there is no reason that Creighton can’t come away MVC Tournament champs.

Sleepers: There are almost too many to name. Indiana State won the league last year and returned most of their lineup, landing a couple of marquee wins throughout non-conference play. Northern Iowa had an impressive start to the season. Missouri State, Drake and Evansville all have legitimate stars on their roster. Like I said, this tournament is going to be a lot of fun.

Studs:

Kyle Weems, Missouri State: The reigning MVC Player of the Year took a while to get going, but he is as capable of taking over a game as anyone in the conference. He had 31 when the Bears beat Creighton in Omaha.

Rayvonte Rice and Ben Simons, Drake: There is a legitimate argument to make that these two are the MVC’s best one-two scoring punch.

Colt Ryan, Evansville: When this kid gets hot, watch out. He went for 43 points in an overtime loss to Creighton.

Garrett Stutz, Wichita State: The seven-footer is the best big man in the conference and one of the reasons that the Shockers won’t have a much of an issue as other mid-majors matching up with high-major front lines.

Doug McDermott, Creighton: How many all-americans make their way through the Valley?

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

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.