No. 18 UConn knocks off Maryland 78-77 at the Barclays Center

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For the second time in two seasons, Maryland saw their bid for an upset at the Barclays Center on the season’s opening night fall just short.

And for the second time in two seasons, it was the surprising play of a relative unknown that made the difference. Last season, Kentucky pulled out a 72-69 win thanks to the play of back up point guard Jarrod Polson down the stretch. On Friday night, UConn hung on to a 78-77 win thanks to big plays from Niels Giffey (13 first half points), Tyler Olander (a huge three with just under two minutes left) and Amida Brimah (the game-winning rebounder).

We just about got what we expected from Maryland. That’s a good basketball team, but they’re going to have some issues until they figure out their point guard situation. Dez Wells is a talent, but he’s stifled when he’s asked to run the point. That’s not his game. Where he thrives is in transition and attacking the basket, and when Maryland made their comeback late in the second half — they almost erased a 67-50 deficit — it was Wells that sparked the run. He finished with 13 points, seven boards and six assists but committed six turnovers.

So what’s the answer for the Terps? Well, they need freshman Roddy Peters to grow into that point guard role quickly. The youngster had a couple of flashy plays in his first game, but he was a bit inconsistent.

UConn looked like they might actually be able to compete with Louisville and Memphis for the AAC title for about the first 30 minutes on Friday. Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright were as good as we expected them to be, but more notably was the play of Giffey. The 6-foot-7 wing spent his summer playing with the German national team, and it looks like he’s picked up some confidence. Giffey had 13 first half points, hitting three threes in the process.

We know that the Huskies have talented guards. That’s not a surprise. What was surprising was that UConn actually got some production in the middle. They weren’t dominant on the glass by any means, but guys like Olander and Philip Nolan came up with some timely offensive rebounds and did a good enough job on the defensive glass to slow down Maryland’s big men.

But it was Amida Brimah that was the revelation. A seven-foot freshman from Ghana, Brimah wasn’t expected to do much this year, but he came in and blocked three shots, threw down a dunk in transition and, most importantly, grabbed a rebound after Dez Wells missed a jumper in the final seconds.

We also saw why having a guard-heavy offense will be an issue for the Huskies. Many of their late-game possessions resulted in draining the shot clock and hoping that Boatright or Napier would be able to create a bucket going one-on-one.

Napier, Boatright, Giffey, Omar Calhoun, and Lasan Kromah are good enough that the Huskies will be able to compete with just about anyone in the country.

The key is in the middle, and what UConn got from their bigs tonight can only be called promising.

Minnesota adds Vanderbilt transfer Payton Willis

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Minnesota has added some depth for the future.

The Golden Gophers received a pledge from Vanderbilt transfer Payton Willis over the weekend, giving him a guard with two seasons of eligibility remaining starting in 2019-20.

Willis will sit out the upcoming season under NCAA transfer rules.

The 6-foot-4 guard played a limited role in two seasons in Nashville, never averaging more than 18. 5 minutes or 5.2 points per game. He scored in double figures in three games as a sophomore.

Willis was a top-150 prospect in the Class of 2016 coming out of Fayetteville, Ark. with offers from the likes of Tulsa, Rice and Dayton. Vandy and Minnesota were his two high-major offers.

After being ranked in the top-15, Minnesota was beset by injury and suspensions last season as they limped to the finish line in a 15-17 season that featured losses in 12 of its last 13 games.

Richard Pitino still has two available scholarships for the 2018-19 campaign.

Report: Quade Green returning to Kentucky

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John Calipari just landed a critical recruit for 2018-19, and he was already on the roster.

Quade Green, who averaged 25 minutes per game last season, is returning to Kentucky for his sophomore season, his mother told the Lexington Herald-Leader on Monday.

Given that six Wildcat players have entered the draft (Kevin Knox, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Hami Diallo are signing with agents), getting the 6-foot point guard back for a second season is a massive deal for Calipari and Co. The Wildcats have always been at their best under Calipari with returning players as the cornerstones of the roster with talented one-and-dones providing the extra boost. Getting one such returner at the point guard position is even more critical.

Green, who came to Kentucky as a five-star recruit last year, averaged 9.3 points and 2.7 assists per game while shooting 45.1 percent from the field and a respectable 37.1 percent from 3-point range, an area where Kentucky continually needs help.

With Green back in the fold, Kentucky will now await the decisions of PJ Washington, Wenyen Gabriel and Jarred Vanderbilt, who are all going through the pre-draft process without hiring agents, which will potentially allow them to return to school and bolster a Kentucky roster has the look of a top-five team.

CBT Podcast: NBA Draft Early Entry Deadline: Winners, losers and who has the most on the line?

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The NBA Draft Early Entry Deadline came and went on Sunday night, meaning there are now roughly 60 college players that have signed with an agent and another 100 or so that have declared for the draft while retaining their college eligibility. Who were the winners? Who were the losers? Who has the most on the line? Sam Vecenie of the Game Theory podcast joined Rob Dauster to talk through all of it. The rundown:

OPEN: What do NBA teams value in players these days?

10:00: Villanova has more on the line during this testing the water process than anyone

19:00: Just how important was De’Andre Hunter’s decision to return to Virginia

25:25: Gonzaga getting Rui and Killian Tillie back makes them a title favorite

32:10: Nevada has a top ten season on the line with the Martin twins and Jordan Caroline

36:15: #RANTALERT – The decision to turn pro is so much more complicated than “is he a first round pick”

48:30: Rapid fire: Maryland, Kansas, Syracuse, Nebraska, Purdue and Michigan. What do they have on the line?

North Carolina’s Luke Maye declaring for NBA draft without hiring agent

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina junior Luke Maye has declared for the NBA draft but isn’t hiring an agent.

The 6-foot-8 forward was a third-team Associated Press All-American after averaging 16.9 points and 10.1 rebounds. He was named the Atlantic Coast Conference’s most improved player after increasing his scoring average by 11.4 points from his sophomore to junior seasons.

Coach Roy Williams says in a statement that it’s ”a great opportunity” for Maye to work out for NBA teams and get feedback on what to improve in his game.

The deadline for college players to declare early for the draft was Sunday night. Players who don’t hire an agent can maintain their college eligibility as long as they withdraw by May 30, which is 10 days after the NBA draft combine.

Gonzaga star undergoes surgery on his shoulder

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The most important players for Gonzaga heading into the 2018-19 season will have an offseason dedicated to rehabilitation.

Josh Perkins, Gonzaga’s starting point guard, underwent surgery on Friday to repair a shoulder that he injured back in December. According to the Spokesman-Review, Perkins expects to be healthy and ready to play by the start of next season.

Perkins averaged 12.3 points and 5.3 assists during the 2017-18 season despite playing through those shoulder issues. After December’s win over Washington, a game in which Perkins left wincing in pain and clutching his shoulders, Perkins said “Just popped out a little bit. It’s not very strong right now, but everything is good.”

For my money, Perkins is the player that is going to be the x-factor for the Zags next season. They have a terrific front court with Rui Hachimura and Killian Tillie returning, and with the likes of Zach Norvell and Corey Kispert back, there is plenty of talent on the wings. Perkins, the senior point guard, is the blue that is going to be needed to hold it all together.

Gonzaga is a top five team heading into next year. They have national title aspirations. Perkins might end up being the guy that determines whether they live up to those goals or get knocked out of the field in the Sweet 16.