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Three takeaways from USC’s upset of No. 8 UCLA

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Shaqquan Aaron scored 14 of his 21 points in the first half and USC hit 14 threes as a team as the Trojans knocked off No. 8 UCLA in the Galen Center on Wednesday night, 84-76.

USC jumped out to a 50-38 halftime lead and never let the Bruins get within four points in the second half.

Elijah Stewart and Deanthony Melton were sensational, finishing with a combined 26 points, 13 boards, nine assists and seven steals in the win while Chimezie Metu added 13 points, seven boards and a pair of thunderous dunks for the Trojans.

UCLA’s perimeter defense continued to be an issue, but the more surprising concern for this team: They shot really poorly from beyond the arc for the second straight game while Lonzo Ball, UCLA’s all-american candidate, had seven of the team’s 17 turnovers.

Here are three things we learned in USC’s win:

1. USC needed this win badly: The Trojans started out the season strong, winning their first 14 games of the year, which included a trip to Texas A&M, a win over SMU at home and knocking off BYU on a neutral court. Doing it all while starting power forward Bennie Boatwright was injured only added to the optimism. But once Andy Enfield’s club got into the throes of Pac-12 play, once their schedule started to strengthen, the going was quite so easy. Entering Wednesday night, USC was 4-4 in league play, but those four wins came against Oregon State, Stanford, Arizona State and Colorado, none of whom will be confused with a tournament team this season.

USC was smoked at Oregon. They were smoked at Utah. They needed a wild rally in a loss against Arizona at home to avoid getting smoked. That’s what makes this win so important. It’s not only a résumé-booster, but it’s the kind of performance that can build the confidence of a team that was struggling with it.

2. UCLA still isn’t getting stops: Entering Wednesday, the Bruins ranked 125th nationally in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric after giving up 96 points to Arizona. Things weren’t much better for the Bruins in the first half against USC, as they game up 50 points in 39 possessions, getting lit up by a series of straight-line drives, kick-outs to open shooters and ball-screen actions. We wrote on Tuesday that the Bruins are no longer a Final Four contender if they cannot figure out their defensive woes. As of Wednesday night, the Bruins had not figured out their defensive woes.

3. And they’ve apparently forgotten how to shoot the ball: The Bruins are one of the best three-point shooting teams we’ve seen in recent college basketball history. Entering Wednesday night, UCLA was shooting 43.4 percent from beyond the arc, a number that ranks second nationally, but their ability to reel on 19 threes in a game – like they did earlier this season – is what makes them so lethal. When they get into a rhythm like that, it doesn’t matter how bad their defense is. They have the firepower to win anyway.

In these two most recent losses, the Bruins have not shot the ball well at all from the perimeter. Against Arizona, they were 10-for-31 from three. Against USC, they were 6-for-21. If UCLA cannot get stops and they are not making threes, they’re not going to be winning all that often.

The other concerning aspect about their offense on Wednesday night was that the Bruins really seemed to struggle against the 2-3 zone that USC played. They committed 13 first half turnovers and finished with 17 turnovers for the game. With shooters everywhere on the floor and as many as three point guards on the court at the same time, it’s unacceptable for a team as talented as UCLA to have those kind of issues against zone.

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.