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No. 24 South Carolina remains perfect in SEC with win over No. 19 Florida

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In a battle of undefeated SEC programs, Frank Martin’s club came out on top.

Sindarius Thornwell finished with 20 points and six boards and Chris Silva added 11 points as No. 24 South Carolina landed a come-from-behind, 57-53 win over No. 19 Florida in Columbia on Wednesday night. The Gamecocks were down by seven at the half, but they forced Florida to miss 14 of their first 15 second half field goals, erasing the deficit before the first TV timeout.

With the win, the Gamecocks remain undefeated in the SEC and just a half-game behind Kentucky atop the conference standings.

Here are four things we can take away from the game:

1. The gap between Kentucky and these two teams is significant: South Carolina and Florida are the two best teams in the SEC that don’t reside in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, and it’s abundantly clear after Wednesday night that the difference between the Wildcats and these two teams is pretty large. I’ll fully admit that a major reason that I’m saying this is because of how ugly that game was to watch – more on that in a second – but I just don’t see anyway you could have watched that game and come away thinking that either of those two teams have the offensive firepower to hang with Kentucky.

2. This was an awful basketball game to watch, but this is how the Gamecocks are going to win: I’m not exaggerating when I say that was one of the worst basketball games that I’ve ever watched. It took nearly six minutes for either team to score. It wasn’t until the 12:30 mark that both teams had gotten onto the scoreboard. It took 145 minutes to finish this contest, in which there were 110 total points, 55 total fouls and zero flow to the game thanks to the refs, who went to a monitor review what felt like 25 times.

But this is how the Gamecocks are going to win games this year. There is nothing pretty about this iteration of Frank Martin basketball. South Carolina is currently ranked first in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric because they’re second nationally in defensive effective field goal percentage and third in defensive turnover percentage. They’re big, they’re old, they’re physical and they’re athletic, and given that they play for Martin, you know they’re going to play hard.

What they can’t do, however, is score. They’re 173rd in adjusted offensive efficiency. So when you have a team built around playing tough half court defense whose best offensive comes in the form of crashing the offensive glass, the games are never going to be all that aesthetically pleasing.

3. South Carolina is still undefeated with Sindarius Thornwell on the roster: This is something that is worth noting. While the Gamecocks do have losses to Memphis, Clemson and Seton Hall this season, all three of those losses came when Thornwell was serving his suspension for an offseason arrest. They went 7-0 before he was forced to sit out and have won five straight since he returned, including beating Syracuse, Michigan and all five of their SEC opponents, headlined by the Gators.

4. Florida badly needs some quality wins: While the gap between Kentucky and these two teams is enough that the SEC race shouldn’t be all that much of a race, I still think the Gators are pretty good this year. I like the way the press that Mike White has installed is working; it fits their personal perfectly.

And this was only the first conference loss for Florida, but the Gators still find themselves among a handful of teams that have the look and computer numbers of a tournament team without having put together the wins they need to back that up. The Gators have lost to the four best teams they’ve played this season – Gonzaga, Duke, Florida State and South Carolina – while their best win is either Seton Hall, Miami, Georgia or Arkansas. None of those teams are close to a lock for the NCAA tournament, and neither is anyone on their remaining schedule not named Kentucky or South Carolina.

The Gators still get UK twice. They host the Gamecocks in February. Winning both of those home games would do wonders for making UF feel more confident on Selection Sunday.

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.