Trevor Releford helps teammates learn by coming off the bench

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NEW YORK – Last season, Alabama had plenty of preseason expectation.

There weren’t exactly picked to run through the SEC — that won’t happen for anyone as long as Coach Cal is stockpiling first round picks up in Lexington — but the Crimson Tide were a trendy pick to finish second in the conference in 2011-2012. That didn’t happen, however, as Alabama watched their star upperclassmen manage to get themselves suspended in the middle of conference play. Tony Mitchell went so far as to get himself kicked ou of the program.

As a result, the Tide floundered, limping into and out of the NCAA tournament with an opening round loss to Creighton. With a very young team returning for this season — the core of Anthony Grant’s team are freshmen and sophomores, with the exception of junior point guard Trevor Releford — the tidal wave of hype hitting the gridiron this season did not find its way into Coleman Coliseum.

But after starting the season 3-0, including last-second wins over South Dakota State and Oregon State, all of a sudden the Crimson Tide look like a group that might be able to make a run at an at-large bid. And their doing it while bringing arguably their most important player off of the bench.

“I just felt like it’s the right thing for our team right now,” Grant said of bring Releford off the bench. “He understands what we’re trying to do and I think he’s been really, really good for us, if you look at the numbers he’s putting up, the leadership he provides, the spark that he gives us. I think it’s good for our team.”

Releford certainly is putting up numbers. In the two games against Division I competition, Releford is averaging 16.0 points while shooting 12-23 (52.2%) from the floor and handing out seven assists to just a single turnover. More importantly, however, when Releford is on the floor, Alabama’s offense simply runs more smoothly. He’s a point guard. He’s a facilitator. He gets the Tide into their offensive sets and he breaks down the defense if that doesn’t work.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Alabama’s sixth-man has been their MVP through the first week of the season.

“He’s a good kid and I think he understands what we’re doing and why we’re doing it,” Grant said. “He understands the bottom line is that he’s going to be out there and have an opportunity to make plays. If you look the games we’ve played, he’s out there. I think too much is made sometimes of whether or not a kid’s starting or not.”

Grant’s thinking is that early in the season, he needs to start developing his younger and more inexperienced players. He needs to build a rotation and develop a bench. He needs to get the guys that are going to be counted on in March into games early and allow them to get a sense of what it means to play basketball at this level.

“For us to be where we want to be, we have to build confidence in our young guys. We have an extremely young team,” Grant said, and Thursday’s 65-62 win over Oregon State was the perfect example in his eyes. After extending the lead to as much as 15 points on the Beavers, Alabama allowed them to claw their way back into the game. This is how close the Beavers were to coming all the way back — Ahmad Starks hit a three that would have tied the game with just a couple ticks left on the clock if his head coach hadn’t called a timeout a second before he released the shot.

“The mark of a young team, we thought “clock run out” as opposed to going and finishing the game,” Grant said. “The thing I told our guys is we gotta learn from this game how to stay aggressive and compete and do the things that allows us to build the lead from an offensive and a defensive standpoint, and we kind of got away from that.”

Alabama has some pieces this year. In addition to Releford, sophomores Trevor Lacey, Levi Randolph and Rodney Cooper join freshman Devonta Pollard to give Grant a talented perimeter rotation loaded with potential. Throw in a trio of big bodies in the paint and senior swingman Andrew Steele, and this is a group that can ruffle some feathers in a top-heavy SEC if they can manage continuing to learn how.

“I think it’s an opportunity to learn, and I think the best way to do that is to win,” Grant said. “I’d rather learn through winning than learn through losing and have to take some heartbreaking losses to clear things out.”

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.