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Need a rooting interest this weekend? Try Thomas Robinson

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In a Final Four of powerhouse programs accustomed to making the NCAA tournament’s final weekend it’s not easy for a casual fan to find a rooting interest. Butler or VCU? Easy to cheer for them.

But when Kansas, Kentucky, Louisville and Ohio State have 49 Final Four appearances combined, most college basketball might just cheer against all four or just watch something else. Who wants to cheer for four Goliaths?

Then again, what if one of the Goliaths has a story that’ll tug at anyone’s heartstrings? Would that sway fans?

Thomas Earl Robinson’s broad shoulders have carried Kansas all season. A unanimous choice for the AP All-American team, he’s also headed for a multi-million deal as a future NBA lottery pick. But it hasn’t been an easy road for Robinson, one of the game’s hardest workers and best players. Not even close.

Not after last season.

Robinson’s sophomore season was beset by personal tragedies. His grandmother died in late December of 2010 and his grandfather died a few weeks later. Then his mother, Lisa, a single mom in her early 40s, died of a heart attack in on January 21. The deaths shook Robinson and his teammates, who could hardly believe so much bad news could come at once. Coach Bill Self called it “the saddest thing I’d ever seen in my whole life.”

His eight-year-old sister, Jayla, was the one who called from Washington D.C. and told Robinson the news.

After burying his mother and rejoining Kansas, Robinson declared his intentions to begin caring for Jayla. That would mean skipping the final two years of college to play in the NBA to provide financial support and being around as much as his NBA schedule would allow.

That didn’t happen. A scholarship was provided to Jayla, who’s still living in D.C. where her father, James Paris is. But he’s a good big brother, protective and worried about what her future holds. And the plan is to start securing that future by heading to the NBA after this season.

From a gut-wrenching story earlier this season from ESPN the Magazine::

“I’m still scared for my little sister,” Thomas says. “I cry and I complain about how it’s not fair for me, but she’s going through way more. She’s 8 years old. She ain’t got the memories that I got with my mom. I just feel like I can’t stop. I got to do something to where I make her so happy that she’ll never have to go through any pain in her life ever. No more bad phone calls. None of us can have any more bad phone calls.”

Basketball and Jayla: That’s about all Thomas thinks about. When Self recently suggested planting a tree in memory of Lisa outside Allen Fieldhouse, a place she never lived to see, Thomas thought it was the quintessential idea. He and Self watched the gardeners dig the hole, and Thomas placed his letter in with the roots. It reads:

Mom,
I guarantee you have no worries about Jayla.
I will make sure everything is okay. I won’t blink.
My promise.

Love,
Earl

Lisa called him Earl. She was the only one.

Robinson’s hardly the only guy to place the NBA on hold – Kentucky’s Terrence Jones and Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger both did the same – but I doubt any player has more weighing on his shoulders than Robinson. His Jayhawks aren’t favored to win the tournament.

But I’m guessing he’ll have a few more fans than normal cheering for him this weekend.

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

Whitehead to stay in NBA Draft

Seton Hall guard Isaiah Whitehead (15) shoots past Xavier forward Sean O'Mara (54) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, Feb. 28, 2016, in Newark, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
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Seton Hall sophomore guard Isaiah Whitehead has signed with an agent and will remain in the NBA Draft, according to multiple reports.

Whitehead averaged 18.2 points, 5.1 assists and 3.6 rebounds per game last season for Seton Hall, which went 25-9 and reached the NCAA tournament. He likely projects as a second-round pick with a bit of a shaky shot, but a high usage and assist rates. His strong finish to the season likely lifted him on some draft boards, but his inefficiency will cap his ceiling in June’s draft.

The loss is significant for the Pirates as Whitehead was so much of their offense, but they’ll bring back Khadeen Carrington, Desi Rodriguez, Angel Delgado and Ismael Sanogo. It’s a group that will miss Whitehead’s playmaking, but is still a solid enough foundation that Seton Hall will still likely be competitive in the Big East and vying for another NCAA tournament berth.

Hart returning for Villanova’s title defense

LOUISVILLE, KY - MARCH 26:  Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats reacts in the second half against the Kansas Jayhawks during the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament South Regional at KFC YUM! Center on March 26, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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Villanova’s title defense just got a whole lot stouter.

Josh Hart, the leading scorer of the Wildcats’ national championship team, will return for his senior season, he announced on Twitter.

The decision for Hart to return is a major boost for Villanova in its quest to become the first back-to-back champions since Florida in 2006 and 2007. Hart, a 6-foot-5 guard,  averaged 15.5 points and 6.8 rebounds per game while shooting 51.3 percent from the floor and 35.7 percent from 3-point range.

Most draft pundits had him pegged as a potential end-of-the-first-round pick in next month’s draft though he could have certainly slid into the second should he had decided to forego his senior season. Instead, Hart will be a potential first-team All-American exhausting his eligibility in Philadelphia.

The 2016-17 season is taking shape nicely, and Hart returning to Villanova only increases the strength of the field at the top. Title game hero Kris Jenkins as well as Jalen Brunson, Phil Booth and Mikal Bridges are also back for the defending champs while the super recruiting classes of Duke, Kentucky and Michigan State, Kansas’ returning core along with Josh Jackson and a solid group of teams including North Carolina, Arizona, Louisville and Wisconsin make for an intriguing upper-tier of teams that could very well make for a top-heavy season following last year’s free for all.

College basketball isn’t the NFL. Parity doesn’t equal strength and quality, and when the sport has a handful high-quality teams, it is at its best. It’s looking like that is a possibility for the 2016-17 campaign.

UConn duo returning to school

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Connecticut may have lost its 6-foot-7 wing scorer but it is keeping its defensive stalwart and leading scorer.

Center Amida Brimah and guard Rodney Purvis have withdrawn their names from NBA Draft consideration and will return to the Huskies for another year, the school announced Tuesday.

The decisions from Brimah, a 7-foot center, and Purvis, a 6-foot-4 shooting guard, help soften the blow dealt by Daniel Hamilton’s decision to sign with an agent and leave school despite having some shaky draft stock. The Huskies may not open the season as a top-25 team, but they won’t be far behind and will be one of the AAC’s favorites, along with Cincinnati.

Brimah averaged 6.5 points per game last year, but blocked 2.7 shots per game. He missed 11 games last season with a broken finger. Purvis registered 12.8 points per game while shooting 43.4 percent from the floor.

Neither Brimah or Purvis were among those invited to this month’s NBA Draft combine nor were either expected to be drafted should they have kept their names in the draft.

Gonzaga’s Karnowski returning for fifth year

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The man in the middle is returning to Gonzaga.

Przemek Karnowski will return to the Bulldogs for his final year after a medical redshirt waiver was granted allowing him a fifth season in Spokane, the school announced Tuesday.

“I’m excited to be coming back,” Karnowski said in a statement. “After talking with the coaches, my parents and the team, I decided this was the best decision for me. I still have a ways to go with my rehab, but I’m staying positive about the upcoming season.”

The 7-foot-1 Karnowski, a Poland native, would have, at minimum, had professional opportunities overseas, but instead will return to play for the Bulldogs once more after a back injury limited him to five games last season. He averaged 10.9 points and 5.8 rebounds per game as a junior in 2014-15.

With Karnowski returning along with  Josh Perkins and Silas Melson, Gonzaga coach Mark Few will be having newcomers Nigel Williams-Goss, Zach Norvell, Johnathan Williams II and Zach Collins joining an experienced and talented group.

Gonzaga (shocker) will be the West Coast Conference favorite once more, but the Bulldogs will also be fielding a team that should open the season in most everyone’s top-15.

Michigan St. at Duke highlights ACC/Big Ten Challenge

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A matchup in Durham of likely top-10 teams is the headliner of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, whose schedule was released Tuesday.

Michigan State, expected to open the season in the top-10, and Duke, the presumptive preseason No. 1, will meet Tuesday, Nov. 29, at Cameron Indoor Stadium in the most intriguing contest of the 14-game event.

The Spartans are losing Denzel Valentin, Bryn Forbes and Matt Costello, but the recruiting class of Miles Bridges, Cassius Winston, Joshua Langford and Nick Ward is one of coach Tom Izzo’s best and has Michigan State positioned as one of the Big Ten’s favorites.

Izzo’s recruiting class, though, pales in comparison to what coach Mike Krzyzewski is bringing to the Blue Devils, with Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum, Marques Bolden, Frank Jackson and Javin DeLaurier in their 2016 class, which is why, when paired with the likes of Grayson Allen, Amile Jefferson and Luke Kennard, make Duke nearly everyone’s No. 1 heading into next season.

Krzyzewski is 9-1 all-time against Izzo’s Spartans.

Among the other highlights of the conference competition is Syracuse at Wisconsin (Nov. 29) Pittsburgh at Maryland (Nov. 29), Purdue at Louisville (Nov. 30) and Ohio State at Virginia (Nov. 30).  

Monday, Nov. 28

Minnesota at Florida State

Wake Forest at Northwestern

Tuesday, Nov. 29

Syracuse at Wisconsin

Michigan State at Duke

Pittsburgh at Maryland

Iowa at Notre Dame

Georgia Tech at Penn State

N.C. State at Illinois

 

Wednesday, Nov. 30

Purdue at Louisville

North Carolina at Indiana

Ohio State at Virginia

Virginia Tech at Michigan

Rutgers at Miami (Fla.)

Nebraska at Clemson