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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.

Jalen Coleman-Lands cleared to practice

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MARCH 10: Jarrod Uthoff #20 of the Iowa Hawkeyes defends against Jalen Coleman-Lands #5 of the Illinois Fighting Illini in the second round of the Big Ten Basketball Tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on March 10, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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When Illinois takes on Southeast Missouri State in the opener of the 2016-17 season, the Fighting Illini should have it’s starting backcourt out on the floor.

According to Jon Rothstein, Jalen Coleman-Lands has been cleared for all basketball activities. The sophomore two-guard has been recovering from a broken bone in his right hand.

The 6-foot-3 guard averaged 10.3 points per game, while shooting 42 percent from three, as a freshman. He, along with Malcolm Hill and Michael Thorne Jr., is one of three returning players who averaged double figures last season.

Coleman-Lands will team up with Tracy Abrams, a point guard who was granted a sixth year of eligibility after missing the past two seasons due to injuries.

This could prove to be a make-or-break year for John Groce, who enters his fifth season at the helm. He guided the Illini to an NCAA Tournament in his first season, but hasn’t been back since.

The key for the Illini is health. Abrams gives them experience and leadership, but it won’t be a surprise if there’s some rust in his game after spending the past two seasons on the sideline. Having a healthy Coleman-Lands will help stabilize the backcourt, while Hill, an all-conference caliber forward, and Thorne anchor the frontcourt.

NBC Sports projected Illinois to finish eighth in the Big Ten this season.

Curtis Jones jumps over Tom Crean

Tom Crean
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Indiana held its annual Hoosier Hysteria on Saturday night.

One of the highlights from the team’s dunk contest was when freshman guard Curtis Jones jumped over Indiana head coach Tom Crean.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a newcomer us his coach as a dunk contest prop. Last week, Rawle Alkins cleared Arizona head coach Sean Miller en route to a reverse jam.

Like Alkins, Jones was a sought-after scorer. The 6-foot-4 two-guard was rated No. 69 overall in the Class of 2016 by Rivals. He picked Indiana over offers from Cal, Cincinnati, Georgetown and more than a dozen other high-major programs.

WATCH: Edmond Sumner take off from the foul line

CINCINNATI, OH - FEBRUARY 03:  Edmond Sumner #4 of the Xavier Musketeers dunks the ball during the game against the St. John's Red Storm at Cintas Center on February 3, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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Edmond Sumner is a big reason why Xavier is likely going to be a preseason top-10 team.

On Saturday night, during Musketeer Madness, Sumner won the team’s dunk contest when he took off from the foul line.

Sumner defeated freshmen Tyrique Jones and Quentin Goodin. J.P. Macura, the reigning Big East Sixth Man of the Year, took home the honors last year.

The 6-foot-6 redshirt sophomore is coming off a debut season in which he averaged 11.0 points, 3.4 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game.

WATCH: Duke goes crazy for Chase Jeter’s bottle flip

PROVIDENCE, RI - MARCH 17:  Chase Jeter #2 of the Duke Blue Devils looks on in the second half against the North Carolina-Wilmington Seahawks during the first round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Dunkin' Donuts Center on March 17, 2016 in Providence, Rhode Island.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

The bottle flip has become an international sensation in recent months.

It’s as simple as it sounds: flipping a water bottle in the air, attempting to have it land upright.

Duke sophomore forward Chase Jeter, in front of 9,300-plus fans, successfully pulled off the bottle flip on Saturday night at Duke’s Craziness.

Jeter, the 6-foot-10, played in a reserve role as a freshman, averaging 1.9 points and 1.9 rebounds per game last season. He will be part of a loaded frontline that includes heralded freshmen Harry Giles and Marques Bolden, as well as redshirt senior Amile Jefferson, who returns to the lineup following a foot injury.

Auburn to honor Charles Barkley with a statue

HOUSTON, TEXAS - APRIL 04:  Former NBA player and commentator Charles Barkley looks on prior to the 2016 NCAA Men's Final Four National Championship game between the Villanova Wildcats and the North Carolina Tar Heels at NRG Stadium on April 4, 2016 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
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The greatest player in Auburn program history will honored with a statue outside of the team’s home arena.

The university announced that Charles Barkley, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer, will be the fourth athlete to be given a statue, joining Heisman Trophy winners Bo Jackson, Pat Sullivan and Cam Newton.

“It just means a great deal to me,” Barkley said in a statement. “Being a kid from Alabama, going to Auburn. I think everybody knows what Auburn means to me. It’s going to be pretty cool.”

Barkley, currently working as an analyst for TNT, was the SEC Player of the Year in 1984, as well as a second team All-American. He averaged 14.1 points and 9.6 rebounds per game in 84 appearances for the Tigers.

His number 34 is retired at Auburn.