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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.

Auburn junior guard Kareem Canty to turn pro

Auburn guard Kareem Canty (1) screams in pain after being fouled during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016, in Auburn, Ala. Auburn won 75-70.  (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
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Auburn junior point guard Kareem Canty, the team’s leader in both points and assists, has missed the Tigers’ last two games as a result of a suspension handed down by head coach Bruce Pearl for a violation of team rules. Thursday night Canty announced via Twitter that he will be turning pro, ending his Auburn career with less than one full season of play.

In 21 games this season Canty averaged 18.3 points and 5.3 assists per contest, shooting 40.1 percent from the field and 36.1 percent from three. Given Auburn’s lack of perimeter depth Canty had ample opportunities to score from the point guard position, but he struggled in the four games following standout performances in wins over Kentucky and Alabama.

Auburn’s lost six straight since beating the Crimson Tide, most recently falling 71-45 at Tennessee Tuesday night. Without Canty, Bruce Pearl called upon TJ Lang and Bryce Brown as the perimeter starters in that game with Patrick Keim and New Williams playing a combined 33 minutes off the bench. They’ll continue to see those minutes moving forward.

As for next season, Auburn brings in four-star point guard Jared Harper and currently injured point guard Tahj Shamsid-Deen will be available as well.

Canty began his college career at Marshall, playing the 2013-14 season for the Thundering Herd before deciding to transfer. Canty committed to Auburn in mid-April of 2014, only to change his mind in favor of USF before making the switch back to Auburn.

Canty’s name wasn’t showing up in early draft projections, and making this decision while in the midst of a suspension likely won’t help matters when it comes to getting selected.

BUBBLE BANTER: All of tonight’s bubbly action in one place

Fran Dunphy
(AP Photo/Laurence Kesterson)
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This post will be updated as the games are completed.

You know what’s not going to be fun on Selection Sunday?

Trying to evaluate the profile that Temple (KenPom: 95, RPI: 69) eventually puts together.

The Owls are currently sitting tied for first place in the American at 9-3. They’ve swept UConn after coming from down 12 to beat the Huskies in Philly on Thursday. They’ve swept Cincinnati. They handed SMU their first loss of the season. They beat Tulsa. That’s four top 50 and six top 100 wins, which are good numbers in comparison to other bubble teams.

The problem?

They also lost at Memphis (yuck) and East Carolina (double yuck), have a non-conference strength of schedule that sits right around 200, lost to every good team they played out of conference and have thus far managed just six top 150 wins this season. The other issue? They’ve basically run out of quality opponents in the league. They do play at Tulsa (RPI: 50) and Houston (RPI: 91), which are basically must-wins at this point, and since every other opponent they play in the American has a sub-100 RPI, those are essentially can’t-lose games.

What that leaves us is the Villanova game. That will be played next week, and that’s as close to a must-win as you can get in mid-February.

WINNERS

  • Syracuse (KenPom: 39, RPI: 44): Syracuse landed their sixth top 50 win and eighth top 100 win of the season on Thursday. They also got word that the selection committee will factor in that Jim Boeheim missed time for the Orange. It may be time to take them off of this list, at least for the time being.

LOSERS

  • UConn (KenPom: 19, RPI: 46): On paper, UConn’s loss at Temple on Thursday isn’t all that bad. It’s a road loss to a top 100 opponent. Those happen in league play. Where it hurts is that the Owls have now not only swept UConn, but they did it by erasing a 12-point lead in the final five minutes. The Huskies fall to just 5-7 against the top 100 with just one top 50 win, albeit at Texas. With no bad losses and two shots left against SMU, UConn is still in decent shape.
  • Florida State (KenPom: 37, RPI: 38): The Seminoles missed a shot at landing a nice road win at Syracuse on Thursday. It doesn’t hurt their profile, and with three top 25, another top 50 and a top 100 opponent left on their schedule, there are still chances to play their way onto the bubble. The problem? All those games are losable as well.
  • VCU (KenPom: 32, RPI: 40): The Rams were on the wrong end of a brutal loss to UMass on Thursday night. It’s not the kind of loss that is going to eliminate VCU from the bubble conversation — not by any stretch — but one of the strengths of VCU’s résumé was that they didn’t have any bad losses to speak of. Now they have a loss to a sub-150 team. Their next four games are all potential landmines as well. Will Wade’s club would do well to avoid losing any of those four.

Games left to be played.

Arkansas-Little Rock (KenPom: 41, RPI: 63) at Louisiana Monroe, 8:00 p.m.
Northern Kentucky at Valparaiso (KenPom: 22, RPI: 48), 8:00 p.m.
No. 4 Iowa at Indiana (KenPom: 24, RPI: 51), 9:00 p.m.
No. 11 Oregon at Cal (KenPom: 44, RPI: 32), 9:00 p.m.
Washington State at Colorado (KenPom: 56, RPI: 29), 11:00 p.m.
Gonzaga (KenPom: 33, RPI: 66) at Portland, 11:00 p.m.
Pepperdine at Saint Mary’s (KenPom: 26, RPI: 52), 11:00 p.m.
Oregon State (KenPom: 81, RPI: 31) at Stanford (KenPom: 104, RPI: 71), 11:00 p.m.