Memphis loss shouldn’t feed narrative about Josh Pastner, big games

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NEW YORK — I’m staying with a couple of college buddies here in New York while I cover the Jimmy V Classic and the Duke-UCLA game. This morning, I was chatting with one of them — I’ll call him Rizzo — about the game last night. He’s a big sports fan and watches his fair share of college hoops, although his reason for watching the games has a lot more to do with betting lines than it does a full-blown love for the game.

Hey, whatever gets the people into college basketball, right?

Anyway, Rizzo’s reaction to the game last night: “I’d never pick Memphis in a big game.” Not in the tournament, not against a ranked team, not when they play on national television, and Rizzo is far from alone in echoing that sentiment.

Fair or not, the public perception of the Tigers is that they can’t win the big one, that Josh Pastner is not the kind of coach that can lead his guys through adversity when the lights are shining the brightest. A revenge win over Oklahoma State in the Old Spice Classic didn’t do much to change his mind.

(MORE: Casey Prather is now a star. How and why.)

Now, I’m not here to quibble with you about the narrative. Not today. And I’m not here to try to explain to you that everything Pastner has done with the program outside of hoops — keeping his players out of trouble, graduating players, etc. — has been somewhere between commendable and remarkable.

What I’m here to tell you is that this Memphis team is different. This team will beat some big names in American play and they’ll win some games in the NCAA tournament. I truly believe that for one reason: the Tigers didn’t quit on Tuesday night.

It sounds simple, but it’s not.

You see, the biggest reason that I was ready to write No. 16 Memphis off after their embarrassing loss to Oklahoma State in Stillwater a month ago was that they rolled over and let themselves get beaten when the Cowboys jumped out on top. They didn’t fight back. They took that whooping. They looked like a team that expected to lose. It was tough to watch.

But less than two weeks later, in the finals of the Old Spice Classic, the Tigers erased a double-digit halftime deficit to comeback and beat Marcus Smart and company, the first time in Josh Pastner’s tenure that he had knocked off a consensus top 25 team.

Now, if you weren’t watching closely, you would probably write off last night’s 77-75 loss to No. 15 Florida as Memphis reverting back to their old ways, somehow pinning the Oklahoma State win on a combination of Marcus Smart choking and Memphis getting lucky. It wouldn’t be difficult to make a reference to broken clocks being right twice a day.

But, again, you’d be wrong. For two reasons:

1) Florida is a really, really good basketball team. Like, top-five-in-the-country, national-title-contender good. I truly believe that, especially now that they are back to full strength and have Casey Prather playing like an animal. There ain’t no shame in losing to the Gators by two points.

2) Florida was ready to pull away from Memphis on a number of different occasions, but Memphis didn’t let it happen. The Gators were up double-figures early in the first half, but Michael Dixon pulled the Tigers back to make a game of it at the half. Memphis took the lead at a couple of different points in the second half, but Florida again made a run. Their lead stretched to nine late in the second half, and this time it was Joe Jackson that led the Tigers on a surge to get back into the game.

Just when you thought that Memphis was going to roll over and quit … they didn’t.

Memphis played well on Tuesday night. If a couple of breaks had gone their way — David Pellom doesn’t get called for a goaltend, Michael Dixon doesn’t pick up a phantom fourth foul midway through the second half, Shaq Goodwin doesn’t get a technical when he got too close to the rim trying to get a rebound, Joe Jackson’s layup at the end drops in instead of bouncing of the rim — this would have been a very different story.

Memphis looked like a team tough and talented enough to make the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.

“All you can ask for is the ball in your hands with a chance to win, and that’s what we had,” Pastner said after the game.

And if they get it next time, against Louisville or UConn or Gonzaga, more often than not the outcome will be positive.

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.