Senior guard Delon Wright, Utah aim to end NCAA tournament drought

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LAS VEGAS — After reaching the Pac-12 tournament semifinals in 2012-13, Utah felt better about its chances of competing within the conference in 2013-14 for a variety of reasons. While the improved maturity of players such as Dallin Bachynski, Jordan Loveridge and Brandon Taylor was certainly a factor, the addition of junior college transfer Delon Wright was another.

Lauded for his versatility, the 6-foot-6 Wright more than lived up to the expectations in his debut season as he posted averages of 15.5 points, 6.8 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game. Wright’s play was one reason why the Utes improved their win total by six games, and in reaching the Postseason NIT the program made its first postseason appearance since 2009.

Head coach Larry Krystkowiak’s program is in a good spot these days, and with the returnees being joined by a solid recruiting class there’s been an increase in both fan excitement and expectations as the Utes prepare for the 2014-15 season. And the goals for Wright and his teammates are clear-cut: to not only reach the NCAA tournament but to also contend in a conference that has multiple teams looking to threaten early favorite Arizona.

“Everyone’s coming back,” Wright told NBCSports.com at the LeBron James Skills Academy. “We played Arizona three times last year and two of the games were close, so we feel like we can compete with them.”

One of the keys for Utah this season will be Wright’s progression, because even with the vast array of skills he displayed there was a glaring weakness on the offensive end. That weakness: perimeter shooting. Wright finished the 2013-14 season shooting 56.1% from the field, but he made just 22.2% of his shots from beyond the arc. Given teams’ ability to sag off of Wright and dare him to shoot the perimeter shot, the overall field goal percentage displays his ability to not settle for what’s being given to him.

With his ability to remain under control, Wright can get to just about any spot on the floor and that was the case in Las Vegas at the LeBron camp. But for Wright to take the next step individually, thus helping Utah in the process, he knows that the work he puts in to improve his perimeter shot will be key.

“That’s the main thing I need to work on,” Wright noted. “I’ve been shooting a lot of shots in the gym, and I’m trying to work on my form, release and confidence [in taking those shots]. A lot of teams packed the lane against me because they knew I like to drive to the basket.

“They gave me the outside shot and I wasn’t comfortable with it. So I feel that if I can knock those shots down, it will open up my game and open up the game for the entire team.”

As a team Utah finished second in the Pac-12 in field goal percentage, making nearly 49 percent of their shots from the field one season after ranking seventh in that particular category (43.9%). The Utes were also a more efficient offensive team, and given the fact that their top six scorers from last season all return to Salt Lake City there should be optimism surrounding the program. However in order to truly factor into the Pac-12 race, Utah will need to perform better down the stretch in tight games.

Last season in games decided by six points or less the Utes amassed a record of three wins and eight losses, which includes a four-point home loss to Arizona and tight road defeats at the hands of Arizona State (79-75), Colorado (79-75) and Stanford (61-60). So while much was made of the Utes’ non-conference strength of schedule (and rightfully so) when their name wasn’t called on Selection Sunday, those close defeats were just as much of a culprit.

The hope for Wright and his teammates is that with an added year of experience they can change that fortune, and better yet the Utes will be expected to do so. And that represents a step forward for the program, which until that run in the 2013 Pac-12 tournament took more than its fair share of beatings. With this being the case, Utah has the opportunity to move closer to being the program that is currently ranked 15th on the NCAA’s all-time wins list (1,685 wins; .643 win percentage).

“Walking around campus, people aren’t asking us if we’re going to be good,” said Wright. “They’re asking if we’re going to make it to the tournament.”

Making the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009 is a realistic expectation for Utah, but it should also be noted that Wright and his teammates aren’t limiting themselves to simply making the field of 68. And with there being a number of hopeful contenders in the Pac-12 with major questions to answer this offseason, that’s a good approach to take.

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.