Kentucky v Vanderbilt

Kentucky avoids bad loss but has offensive issues to address

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With 13:48 left in Thursday night’s game at Vanderbilt, Kentucky was up 47-31 on the Commodores.

It was the kind of performance — dominating at times, inconsistent at others — that we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from the Wildcats. But regardless of the issues that Vanderbilt has had this season, the bottom line was that Kentucky was getting ready to win an SEC road game, more-or-less a first for everyone on this roster.

But then Vanderbilt switched to a zone. And Kentucky completely lost the ability to function offensively.

The Wildcats missed their next 12 shots. Vanderbilt scored the next 18 points. By the time that Ryan Harrow finally hit a three to give UK the lead back at the 4:58 mark, it was quite clear that this was no longer going to be a laugher. The team that lost by 17 to Marist would be giving Kentucky everything they could handle.

Kentucky would eventually survive 60-58 — thanks, in large part, to a bucket with 17.3 seconds left from Nerlens Noel that quite clearly came after the shot clock had expired — but some wins mean more than others.

Let’s ignore, for a second, the fact that Kentucky was completely and utterly lost against the zone. They needed to hit their last three field goals just to finish 4-17 from the floor against the Vanderbilt zone. They turned the ball over seven times during that stretch.

At the same time, they got abused on the defensive end of the floor because Vanderbilt targeted the defensively-challenged Kyle Wiltjer. But UK needed Wiltjer on the floor because of his zone-busting ability.

While Wiltjer clearly has value on the offensive end, if he can’t improve defensively John Calipari will have a decision to make: either play the sophomore knowing that he’s a matchup opponents will look (and be able) to exploit, or have one of his better offensive weapons sit because of those defensive issues.

“So now I told him: ‘You don’t think anybody was watching the tape, right? No one watched that game? Don’t think every team now is going to go right at you. Good luck.’ And I think he can do it, but he’s got to make his mind up that, ‘I’m not settling for this.’ There’s a couple plays where he broke down; then just rebound. He didn’t rebound, and they scored on him. I mean, fight man. Come on. Where is it?”

And given the value that Calipari places on the defensive end of the floor, there’s a better chance of Wiltjer sitting than Kentucky simply deciding that they’ll accept his defensive struggles in exchange for points on the other end.

“Figure it out. You either don’t stay in the game or figure it out. Fight or we’ll figure it out,” Calipari said according to the Louisville Courier-Journal.

Add to this the prolonged slump that Alex Poythress has been mired in and that opened the door for Vanderbilt to scrap their way back into a game that should have been a blowout.

Another concern here is that Kentucky doesn’t have much room to spare in terms of the NCAA tournament. This win was just their third RPI top 215 win this season (Maryland and Eastern Michigan), and given how weak the SEC is this season — there just aren’t going to be many chances for the Cats to pick up RPI boosting wins — we could be looking at a situation where UK is sitting somewhere around an eight or a nine seed.

And if they slip up against a Vanderbilt or a South Carolina or a Mississippi State?

I won’t go there.

Yet.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

Malik Newman to return to school, considering transfer

Mississippi State guard Malik Newman (14) dribbles past a Northern Colorado player during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Jackson, Miss., Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2015. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
http://espn.go.com/mens-college-basketball/story/_/id/15712769/mississippi-state-malik-newman-withdraw-draft-transfer
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Malik Newman will withdraw his name from consideration and return to school for his sophomore season.

Newman was a top 10 recruit in the Class of 2015, a high-scoring combo-guard that opted to stay home and play for Mississippi State instead of enroll at one of the blue bloods that was recruiting him. He averaged 11.3 points as a freshman, but it was a largely disappointing season as he spent the year off of the national radar playing inefficient basketball.

Put another way, the fourth-leading scorer on a 14-17 SEC team isn’t exactly a lock for the lottery.

But here’s the catch: he may not be returning to Mississippi State, as Newman is considering a transfer, according to a report from ESPN. That report quotes a source close to the situation saying “unhappy with his role and how he was utilized.”

It will be interesting to see what happens from here. Newman would have to sit out a year if he transferred to another Division I program, and for a kid that thought he was destined to be a one-and-done star, locking himself into a three-year college career would be an odd move.

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.