Norman Powell sees defense, rebounding as keys for UCLA

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LONG BEACH, California — Tuesday night a water main break sent some eight billion gallons of water onto the UCLA campus, with multiple athletic facilities receiving most of the damage. One such facility was Pauley Pavilion, which is home to five of UCLA’s athletic teams and underwent a $136 million renovation that was completed in 2012. With the court and the locker rooms being flooded, head coach Steve Alford’s program will need to make adjustments as the school makes the repairs needed to have Pauley Pavilion ready in time for the start of basketball season.

As a result, the opportunity for five Bruins to participate in the adidas Nations camp this weekend comes at a good time (the flooding of the facilities was not good, obviously).

One of the five UCLA players in attendance is senior guard Norman Powell, who as a junior put together the best season of his career. Always a solid defender and athlete, Powell made major strides offensively for a team that won the Pac-12 tournament title and reached the Sweet 16. Powell scored 11.4 points per game in 2013-14, increasing his scoring output by more than five points per game from 2012-13 (6.1 ppg).

“[This camp] is definitely a positive,”Powell told NBCSports.com. “We’ve got a lot of guys here, five of us in total, so we’re going to get a lot of experience. We’re playing on the same team so we’re able to build that chemistry early, which is what we want to do. We’re just excited to be around a lot of talented guys and also have the chance to be looked at for the next level [by NBA scouts].”

Joining Powell at the camp are junior forward Tony Parker, sophomore guard Bryce Alford and freshmen Jonah Bolden and Kevon Looney (he did not participate in the morning session). And with the Bruins having to account for the loss of four of their top six scorers from last season, most notably Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson, they’ll all be important figures for UCLA in 2014-15.

Offensively the Bruins were a very gifted group last season, and in speaking with Powell he expects that to once again be the case with sophomore Isaac Hamilton in line to provide added scoring punch after having to sit out all of last season and graduate transfer Jon Octeus (from Colorado State) joining the program. However if there are two areas in which UCLA will need to improve if they’re to once again contend for a Pac-12 title, those areas are defending and rebounding.

Last season UCLA ranked sixth in the Pac-12 in field goal percentage defense and seventh in three-point percentage defense, and from a rebounding standpoint opponents managed to grab 28.6% of their missed shot attempts (sixth in the Pac-12). Despite being a middle of the pack team in those areas a season ago UCLA was able to win 28 games in Alford’s first season. If they’re to have a shot at meeting (or even exceeding) those marks in 2014-15, leaders such as Powell will need to spark an improvement when it comes to getting stops and completing them with a rebound.

Do that and the Bruins will have ample opportunities to get out in the open court, which will in turn ensure that they remain among the contenders in the Pac-12.

“We’d get stops but we didn’t finish them with a rebound, [which would allow us] to push the ball offensively,” Powell noted. “That’s what we’re going to need to work on in the offseason, getting everybody to know what Coach [Alford] wants us to do, being [in the proper spots] help-side, being able to crack down and help the bigs when they need to rotate and just rebounding well.

“There were a lot of games where we lost [due to] defensive rebounding, so we just need to pick that up. We can score with anybody in the country. We proved that last year, and we still have guys who can score this year, so we’re just really looking forward to improving those aspects of our game.”

Bluiett back to Xavier for senior season

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Xavier lost one significant piece to the professional ranks this spring, but will return another.

Trevon Bluiett, the team’s leading scorer last year, announced via social media that he will be back to play his senior season with the Musketeers.

Chris Mack will return the bulk of a roster that struggled February only to make a run to the Elite Eight, but getting Bluiett for a final season makes the Musketeers especially dangerous. The 6-foot-6 Bluiett scored a team-high 18.5 points per game last year while also putting up 5.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists per night. He shot 37.1 percent from 3-point range, the second-best mark on the team. His return, even with point guard Edmond Sumner going pro amid his ACL tear recovery, makes Xavier one of the top teams in the Big East heading into the 2017-18 season.

Bluiett himself is enough to keep Xavier relevant in the league, but when he’s coupled with the likes of returners JP Macura, Sean O’Mara and Quentin Goodwin, plus a recruiting class featuring two four-star prospects, it’s not difficult to see a path for Mack’s group to a place where they can compete with the likes of Villanova and Seton Hall atop the league.

Welsh and Holiday returning to UCLA

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UCLA sustained some major, though expected, attrition from its roster this spring. On Tuesday, the Bruins announced a pair of significant contributors that will be back.

Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holiday will both return next season to the UCLA program, according to the school.

Welsh, a 7-foot center, averaged 10.8 points and 8.7 rebounds as a senior last year for the Bruins. He shot 58.5 percent from the floor and blocked 1.2 shots per game, and decided to declare for the NBA Draft without an agent before ultimately deciding to return to Westwood.

“Thomas has worked hard all spring,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said in a statement. “We supported him testing the NBA waters and are excited to have him returning for his senior year. He simply continues to develop each and every season.

“Thomas will be one of the top centers in college basketball next year and, undoubtedly, has a great chance to be a first-round pick in next season’s draft.”

The 6-foot-1 Holiday averaged 12.3 points and 4.4 assists last season while sharing a backcourt with Lonzo Ball, whose departure, along with those of TJ Leaf, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton will leave UCLA with a very different look next season. The positive results, however, may not fluctuate too significantly with Welsh and Holiday coming back to play alongside two five-star recruits, Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands, as well as Lonzo’s younger brother LiAngelo.

West Virginia’s Macon forgoing final year

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West Virginia’s attempt to dethrone Kansas atop the Big 12 took a bit of a hit Tuesday.

Elijah Macon, a 6-foot-9 forward, announced his decision to forego a fifth year in Morgantown in order to pursue a professional career.

“First things first I would like to say thank you Bob Huggins and Erik Martin for believing in a young 15-year-old boy growing up from the Southside of Columbus, OH losing my mother and still having you guys push me to be the man I have become,” Macon said according to the school. “I can do nothing but thank you for all you and Mountaineer Nation (have) done for me. Unfortunately, I will not be returning for my senior season at WVU and instead sign with a(n) agent and play professional basketball. Thank you guys for all the love and support!”

Macon wasn’t a major contributor for the Mountaineers last season, averaging 6.3 points and 4.2 rebounds in 16 minutes per game, but he was an experienced and tough player who was well-versed in Huggins’ style and demands. Given the pace that the newly-fashioned Press Virginia plays at, depth is also paramount for them as a program.

Macon’s departure, though, may have been expected or at least partly anticipated by West Virginia. The Mountaineers signed five players in its most recent recruiting class, putting them one over their allotment of 13, so something had to give. West VIrginia will stay have interior depth, anchored by junior Esa Ahmad, so the loss of Macon is one they likely can weather, even if it may take some time to acclimate the newcomers.

“Elijah is in the process of completing classes during this summer school period that ends June 2 and will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in August,” Huggins said in a statement released by the school. “I respect his decision to become a professional basketball player and to go make money to support his family. He had a great four years with us, and we wish him nothing but the best.”

Key returning to Alabama for sophomore season

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Alabama’s top scorer is returning to school.

Braxton Key has withdrawn his name from the NBA draft and will be back with the Tide for his sophomore season, the school announced Tuesday.

“I spoke to coach Avery (Johnson) just over a week ago and informed him of my decision to withdraw my name from the NBA Draft and return to the University of Alabama for my sophomore season,” Key said in a statement. “I made that official when I sent my paperwork to the NBA league office Monday morning. I want to express my appreciation to my teammates, Coach Johnson and the entire coaching staff for giving me their full support while I went through this process.

“I am excited for the future of the Alabama basketball program and looking forward to getting to work as we prepare for next season. Roll Tide and Buckle Up!”

The 6-foot-8 forward averaged 12 points and 5.7 rebounds per game while shooting 43.3 percent from the field as a freshman. He gives Alabama four returning starts to pair with one of the country’s highest-regarded recruiting classes, headlined by five-star guard Collin Sexton. The Tide will also have an eligible Daniel Giddens, who previously transferred in from Ohio State.

Key didn’t seem likely to stay in the NBA draft, especially after he wasn’t invited to the combine, but his ultimate decision is a huge one for Avery Johnson as he looks to break through in his third season in Tuscaloosa with his first NCAA tournament appearance. 

Report: Justin Jackson to return to Maryland

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Maryland forward Justin Jackson is expected to return to school for his sophomore season, according to a report from FanRag Sports.

Jackson is an intriguing talent, a 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-3 wingspan that shoots 44 percent from three. But he’s also still developing his offensive game and consistency on the defensive end of the floor, which is why he was projected as a second round pick in this year’s draft.

With Jackson back in the fold, Maryland is a borderline top 25 team. They lost Melo Trimble to the professional ranks, but that’s something that Mark Turgeon has prepared for. With a sophomore class that also includes highly-regarded point guard Anthony Cowan and sharp-shooter Kevin Huerter, the Terps have a promising season ahead of them.