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Team of the Week: Arkansas Razorbacks

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Two weeks ago it looked like it was over, for both Arkansas and Mike Anderson.

The Razorbacks capped a stretch where they lost three of four games by getting smacked at home by Vanderbilt and losing to Missouri. They looked like a longshot to get into the tournament, not necessarily because they didn’t have the profile to earn an at-large bid at the time, but because any team that can lose at Missouri can lose to anyone, anywhere, any time.

The kicker?

Missing the tournament could very well be the end of Anderson’s tenure with Arkansas. There’s a reason he was on just about every hot seat list entering the season, and it looked like Arkansas was on the verge of fulfilling that prophecy.

Until this week.

On Wednesday, went into Columbia and knocked off No. 21 South Carolina in a win that should give them some breathing room on the right side of the bubble, following that up with a drubbing of Ole miss in Fayetteville.

Nothing is certain yet, not for a team capable of losing to Missouri, but as of today, the Razorbacks have gotten into the dance, likely, saved their coach’s job.

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THEY WERE GOOD, TOO

  • Kansas: The Jayhawks didn’t have themselves a bad week, coming back from 14 points down in the final three minutes to force overtime in a win over No. 9 West Virginia. They followed that up by coming back from six points down in the final three minutes to knock off No. 4 Baylor in Waco. Through it all, they managed to all-but lock up their 13th straight Big 12 regular season title.
  • Minnesota: We might as well lock the Gophers into a tournament bid at this point, and they’ll probably end up getting a higher seed than you may realize, thanks to close wins over both Indiana and Michigan this week. We’ll know a lot more about them in the next two weeks, however, as they have to visit both Maryland and Wisconsin before the season is out.
  • UCLA: The Bruins snapped a four-game losing streak against intra-city rival USC on Saturday, and they did it in statement fashion, winning by 32. UCLA put up 102 points on the Trojans, outscoring them by 22 points and doing a fair bit of showboating down the stretch. There was a point to be made in this game, and Steve Alford’s club accomplished that.
  • UNC: The Tar Heels made a statement on Saturday night during Gameday, mollywhopping No. 14 Virginia to the tune of a 65-41 win that didn’t ever feel that close. Their defense showed up, Virginia did not. And if that wasn’t enough, they beat N.C. State bad enough on Wednesday that the Wolfpack fired their head coach.
  • VCU: The Rams have now won eight straight games after beating Saint Joe’s and winning at Richmond, VCU’s intra-city rival, on Friday night. One of those wins was against St. Bonaventure, when they won thanks to a premature court storm, and one of those wins was against George Washington, when they won thanks to a questionable foul call with 0.4 seconds left, but it doesn’t matter. VCU has played their way into the tournament either way.

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.