College Basketball’s Dream Team: The Mid-Season Version

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Over the summer, Raphielle Johnson and I put together a college basketball dream team. But that was before the season started and before we got a chance to see just how good some of the freshmen are and just how much certain players improved — or didn’t improve — during the offseason.

With that in mind, seeing as we’re right around the midway point of the season, here is our new and improved college basketball dream team.

A couple of notes before you dive in: 

– We built this team on the premise that Rick Pitino will still be the head coach. That means we wanted athletes, players that could defend, shooters, and some lineup versatility. 

– This isn’t necessarily meant to be an all-american team. Some of our picks were made with the idea of building a “team”. For example, we both wanted Marshall Henderson here. But with Jamaal Franklin and Russ Smith already on the roster, Henderson got cut.

– We want feedback. Tell us in the comments what you think we got wrong, but don’t simply say “Player X should be on there”. Let us know who should have gotten cut instead.

PG Trey Burke, Michigan: Burke is the perfect fit for us offensively. He’s a distributor at the point that can create for the scorers that will join him on the perimeter. But he’s also capable of taking over a game. If Ohio State has done anything this season, they have proven that Burke is the most valuable player in the country.

SG Victor Oladipo, Indiana: Frankly he’s one of the best on-ball defenders in the country, and this team is going to need a perimeter stopper. Add to that the fact that he’s improved offensively in each of his season at Indiana and this is a pretty easy choice to make.

SF Ben McLemore, Kansas: He’s a big, athletic guard that can defend, rebound and bury an open three. His demeanor and willingness to allow the game to come to him makes him a perfect fit on this team.

PF Doug McDermott, Creighton: Having a versatile scorer at the four is something you need to be successful in international play (if that’s where we’re taking this group). Enter McDermott, who’s shooting 56.8% from the field and 50.7% from beyond the arc, and he’s a good rebounder as well.

C Jeff Withey, Kansas: We wanted to go with defense and rebounding in the middle, and no one is as good of a defender at the rim as Withey.

Bench:

PG Phil Pressey, Missouri: Pressey is the best distributor in the country and a terrific on-ball defender. Simply the perfect fit for this system.

SG Russ Smith, Louisville: “Russdiculous” has calmed down some this season and in turn has become a better player. Still averaging 18.9 points per game, Smith is shooting 42% from the field and is also averaging 2.3 steals per game. Guards off the bench should be able to supply energy and be a nuisance for 94 feet defensively. Russ can do that.

SG Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State: Smart can do a little bit of everything: he’s a point guard in a shooting guard’s body that can defend multiple positions. He’s also a leader and a winner, and more importantly, a great teammate. He’s a perfect fit for this kind of team.

SF Jamaal Franklin, San Diego State: He’s not the best perimeter shooter (26.9% 3PT) but that’s fine given what else Franklin can do offensively. He’s a bit of a volume shooter so he’ll help more off the bench in that role, and he’s also averaging 10.1 rebounds per game to go along with the 18.4 ppg.

PF Anthony Bennett, UNLV: With his build and athletic ability Bennett can be a game changer for this team off the bench. He’s got range out to the three-point line but perimeter shooting won’t be needed in this role; hit the boards, attack the rim and be an athletic mismatch for whoever opponents place in front of him on both ends of the floor.

C Mason Plumlee, Duke: At the end of November Plumlee was the frontrunner for national Player of the Year honors in many circles. Still on track to be a first team All-American, the senior has the strength and athleticism needed to be productive on both ends of the floor.

C Nerlens Noel, Kentucky: Withey may be the best defensive presence around the rim, but Noel isn’t all that far behind him, and he’s much more versatile of a defender.

Those who didn’t make it this time around: Well, four of the five starters from the original team back in December didn’t make it this time around. Moser’s issue was injury-related, as the dislocated elbow shelved him for a couple weeks and he’s still working his way back to being the versatile offensive threat who took the Mountain West by storm last season. Zeller’s seen a lot more attention from opponents this season, but with the perimeter scorers on this team (not to mention McDermott) we’re leaning a little more towards a defender in the middle. Craft’s a great defender at the point but in Burke and Pressey this new group has a point who can score in addition to getting teammates involved (Burke) and arguably the best distributor in the game (Pressey). As for Canaan, he’s been very good for the Racers (they’ve been ignored some nationally) but we can go a bit bigger at the two with one of the best defenders around in Oladipo.

As for the reserves from that December group, McCollum suffered a broken foot and Tony Mitchell hasn’t performed as well as expected for the Mean Green. As for that Pac-12 trio, Hill’s been good but we can get more scoring from players such as Franklin and Bennett without losing much in the way of versatility and there’s enough shooting to make up for Crabbe’s omission. Muhammad? With Franklin and Smith on this team there are only so many volume shooters a team can afford, so he misses out this time around.

Bluiett back to Xavier for senior season

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Xavier lost one significant piece to the professional ranks this spring, but will return another.

Trevon Bluiett, the team’s leading scorer last year, announced via social media that he will be back to play his senior season with the Musketeers.

Chris Mack will return the bulk of a roster that struggled February only to make a run to the Elite Eight, but getting Bluiett for a final season makes the Musketeers especially dangerous. The 6-foot-6 Bluiett scored a team-high 18.5 points per game last year while also putting up 5.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists per night. He shot 37.1 percent from 3-point range, the second-best mark on the team. His return, even with point guard Edmond Sumner going pro amid his ACL tear recovery, makes Xavier one of the top teams in the Big East heading into the 2017-18 season.

Bluiett himself is enough to keep Xavier relevant in the league, but when he’s coupled with the likes of returners JP Macura, Sean O’Mara and Quentin Goodwin, plus a recruiting class featuring two four-star prospects, it’s not difficult to see a path for Mack’s group to a place where they can compete with the likes of Villanova and Seton Hall atop the league.

Welsh and Holiday returning to UCLA

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UCLA sustained some major, though expected, attrition from its roster this spring. On Tuesday, the Bruins announced a pair of significant contributors that will be back.

Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holiday will both return next season to the UCLA program, according to the school.

Welsh, a 7-foot center, averaged 10.8 points and 8.7 rebounds as a senior last year for the Bruins. He shot 58.5 percent from the floor and blocked 1.2 shots per game, and decided to declare for the NBA Draft without an agent before ultimately deciding to return to Westwood.

“Thomas has worked hard all spring,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said in a statement. “We supported him testing the NBA waters and are excited to have him returning for his senior year. He simply continues to develop each and every season.

“Thomas will be one of the top centers in college basketball next year and, undoubtedly, has a great chance to be a first-round pick in next season’s draft.”

The 6-foot-1 Holiday averaged 12.3 points and 4.4 assists last season while sharing a backcourt with Lonzo Ball, whose departure, along with those of TJ Leaf, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton will leave UCLA with a very different look next season. The positive results, however, may not fluctuate too significantly with Welsh and Holiday coming back to play alongside two five-star recruits, Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands, as well as Lonzo’s younger brother LiAngelo.

West Virginia’s Macon forgoing final year

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West Virginia’s attempt to dethrone Kansas atop the Big 12 took a bit of a hit Tuesday.

Elijah Macon, a 6-foot-9 forward, announced his decision to forego a fifth year in Morgantown in order to pursue a professional career.

“First things first I would like to say thank you Bob Huggins and Erik Martin for believing in a young 15-year-old boy growing up from the Southside of Columbus, OH losing my mother and still having you guys push me to be the man I have become,” Macon said according to the school. “I can do nothing but thank you for all you and Mountaineer Nation (have) done for me. Unfortunately, I will not be returning for my senior season at WVU and instead sign with a(n) agent and play professional basketball. Thank you guys for all the love and support!”

Macon wasn’t a major contributor for the Mountaineers last season, averaging 6.3 points and 4.2 rebounds in 16 minutes per game, but he was an experienced and tough player who was well-versed in Huggins’ style and demands. Given the pace that the newly-fashioned Press Virginia plays at, depth is also paramount for them as a program.

Macon’s departure, though, may have been expected or at least partly anticipated by West Virginia. The Mountaineers signed five players in its most recent recruiting class, putting them one over their allotment of 13, so something had to give. West VIrginia will stay have interior depth, anchored by junior Esa Ahmad, so the loss of Macon is one they likely can weather, even if it may take some time to acclimate the newcomers.

“Elijah is in the process of completing classes during this summer school period that ends June 2 and will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in August,” Huggins said in a statement released by the school. “I respect his decision to become a professional basketball player and to go make money to support his family. He had a great four years with us, and we wish him nothing but the best.”

Key returning to Alabama for sophomore season

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Alabama’s top scorer is returning to school.

Braxton Key has withdrawn his name from the NBA draft and will be back with the Tide for his sophomore season, the school announced Tuesday.

“I spoke to coach Avery (Johnson) just over a week ago and informed him of my decision to withdraw my name from the NBA Draft and return to the University of Alabama for my sophomore season,” Key said in a statement. “I made that official when I sent my paperwork to the NBA league office Monday morning. I want to express my appreciation to my teammates, Coach Johnson and the entire coaching staff for giving me their full support while I went through this process.

“I am excited for the future of the Alabama basketball program and looking forward to getting to work as we prepare for next season. Roll Tide and Buckle Up!”

The 6-foot-8 forward averaged 12 points and 5.7 rebounds per game while shooting 43.3 percent from the field as a freshman. He gives Alabama four returning starts to pair with one of the country’s highest-regarded recruiting classes, headlined by five-star guard Collin Sexton. The Tide will also have an eligible Daniel Giddens, who previously transferred in from Ohio State.

Key didn’t seem likely to stay in the NBA draft, especially after he wasn’t invited to the combine, but his ultimate decision is a huge one for Avery Johnson as he looks to break through in his third season in Tuscaloosa with his first NCAA tournament appearance. 

Report: Justin Jackson to return to Maryland

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Maryland forward Justin Jackson is expected to return to school for his sophomore season, according to a report from FanRag Sports.

Jackson is an intriguing talent, a 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-3 wingspan that shoots 44 percent from three. But he’s also still developing his offensive game and consistency on the defensive end of the floor, which is why he was projected as a second round pick in this year’s draft.

With Jackson back in the fold, Maryland is a borderline top 25 team. They lost Melo Trimble to the professional ranks, but that’s something that Mark Turgeon has prepared for. With a sophomore class that also includes highly-regarded point guard Anthony Cowan and sharp-shooter Kevin Huerter, the Terps have a promising season ahead of them.