Who is the best college basketball team in the West?

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With the Arizona-San Diego State matchup on Christmas night living up to its billing, it reopened an old conversation. Who is the best team in the West? Below NBCSports.com takes a look at some contenders

The Contenders

No. 3 Arizona

The two biggest questions being asked of Sean Miller’s Wildcats are as follows: Can Mark Lyons be a reliable true point guard for the entire season? And how will the young Arizona front line hold up in the thick of Pac-12 play and into March?

Firstly, Lyons may not be a true point guard, but he is the team’s leading scorer and assist man. He ran into foul trouble against San Diego State, but he is a high-major caliber guard who can score the ball. The Wildcats aren’t “settling” by running Lyons at the point, but he is by far their best option and they wouldn’t be where they are today had he not transferred from Xavier in the offseason.

As for the youth, they’ll have their ups and downs and Tuesday night was a down. The freshman frontcourt trio of Kaleb Tarczewski, Brandon Ashley, and Grant Jerrett combined to go 3-of-9 for nine points. There are few front lines larger and more athletic than Arizona’s, but the key will be about maturity and experience.

That leads into the third major point: Kevin Parrom. Remember what Darius Miller did at Kentucky last season, how he was the senior leader in a group of young players? Parrom is taking on the same role at Arizona, as is evidence by his 17-point performance on 7-of-11 from the floor Tuesday night in a win over San Diego State.

No. 13 Gonzaga

Gonzaga was rolling through the early part of the season until it ran into a, Illinois team that was composed and hot from the floor on Dec. 8. Since that loss, the Bulldogs have won two straight, one a 16-point win over Kansas State (which later beat No. 8 Florida) and another double-digit win over Campbell.

Adding Kelly Olynyk into the mix after his suspension has been huge for Gonzaga, as he has averaged 14.6 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. Add him to frontcourt mate Elias Harris and there’s no wonder why the Bulldogs are third in the country in field goal percentage and in the Top 15 nationally in scoring.

No. 17 San Diego State

The most impressive part of San Diego State’s near-victory over Arizona is that they did it with only nine points from Jamaal Franklin. Not only does that speak to Franklin’s ability to affect the game in different ways (eight rebounds, six assists, one turnover), but it also highlights how underrated Chase Tapley has been for the Aztecs. His 19 points carried SDSU on Franklin’s off-night and showed his ability to carry a team when needed.

No. 20 UNLV

UNLV has been questioned about its youth as well, but Anthony Bennett has been the biggest answer so far for the Rebels. Not only has he been Freshman of the Year material, but he has also found his way into the National Player of the Year conversation. Dave Rice’s team took a hit when Mike Moser went down, but Pitt transfer Khem Birch has been an important player to back-fill the position. They will be battling with San Diego State for the Mountain West throughout conference play.

Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_

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.