Billikens’ journey to the Final Four begins with 17-point victory over Charlotte

1 Comment

NEW YORK – March is the month where the elite teams identify themselves.

The top spot in the Atlantic-10 Conference changed hands numerous times this season, with VCU, Butler and even Charlotte atop the conference standings at one point.

But nobody remembers who No. 1 was in December. A team is judged based on what they do late in the season, when the games matter most.

But for the Saint Louis Billikens, all they have done since the games started to matter is win 14 of the past 17, with two losses coming in overtime.. The Billikens continued their winning ways on Friday, defeating Charlotte 72-55 in the Atlantic-10 Quarterfinals at The Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Saint Louis not only looked like the most complete team in the Atlantic-10, but also like a team that can compete for a spot in the Final Four.

That’s right. I said it.

This team has experience, cohesion, confidence and talent.

Saint Louis’ greatest strength is roster depth.. The late Rick Majerus did a masterful job putting together a dynamic team with players who each bring a unique skill set to table. Enter Dwayne Evans, the Billikens’ multi-purpose who led the way with 25 points and 9 rebounds on Thursday afternoon in win over the 49ers.

Evans has been the team’s steadiest hand since the beginning of February, scoring in double figures in each of the last 14 games.

But Saint Louis isn’t a one man show. In fact, the Billikens’s top five scorers are separated by just 3.1ppg, six Billikens average 7.4ppg or more, and four Billikens average at least 10ppg. Saint Louis has sure-handed guards, efficient shooters, versatile big-men, and a strong supporting cast.

“We’ve got a bunch of guys who are really good three‑point shooters,” said Evans following the quarterfinal win.

“You have to cover them and leave the inside open. So we kind of played in and out.”

On Friday against Charlotte, Saint Louis got a total team effort. Senior forward Cody Ellis scored 13 points to go along with Evans’ standout performance. They got steady play from forward Rob Loe, who finished with seven points, four rebounds, four assists and one block. Senior guard Kwamain Mitchell also added seven points, three rebounds, four assists and four steals. Both Loe and Mitchell had spot performances on Friday, but either one of them could easily take the lead next game. Coach Jim Crews echoed these sentiments following the win.

“I think we got the win kind of like we usually do. It comes from all kinds of different‑‑ I mean, we get a little from the defense, a little inside. We don’t shoot the ball that well from three. It seemed like we get threes at the right time, get to the line‑‑ I mean, we have a lot of different ways. I don’t know if we’re really, really good at any of them, but we’re good at a lot of them. The same thing with the players. They just‑‑ this guy, this game or next game or these three guys or those four guys. That’s kind of the beauty of our team.

That’s the beauty of this team. The Billikins don’t have to rely on one player. That stems from the team’s strong chemistry and experience. The Billikens embody the same characteristic that many of Rick Majerus’ famous Utah teams
from the mid-90s carried: integrity and a high level of character. The Billikens don’t get rattled easily.

“Teams are going to make runs on us all the time”, said guard Mike McCall Jr., who finished with nine points and four assists.

“We just need to go on to the next play and try to make a run ourselves.”

They are a top-50 team in both offensive and defensive turnover percentage. All eight of the Billikens’ primary players are upperclassmen. This is not a team filled with players that need the ball. This is not a team with fiery personalities, and Jim Crews likes that.

“I think we’ve got a bunch of guys that are leaders, but we don’t have one or two guys that kind of stand on top of the mountain top and say whatever needs to be said. We don’t have those type of personalities. So everything has kind of peaked with us. They don’t get real excited. They don’t get real down. They just kind of keep plugging away. That’s a great trait that they have.”

Are there more talented teams in the country than Saint Louis? Yes, there certainly are. But many of those “elite” teams don’t have the intangibles necessary to survive the long postseason trek.

Saint Louis does.

They have the proper personnel and all the tools necessary to make the steep climb to the top of the college hoops mountain.

You can contact Troy Machir on Twitter at @TroyMachir

Syracuse’s Tyus Battle to test NBA draft waters

Abbie Parr/Getty Images
Leave a comment

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

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
1 Comment

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

Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Leave a comment

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

Eric Espada/Getty Images
Leave a comment

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

Michael Reaves/Getty Images
1 Comment

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.