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SEC Preview: Kentucky, Florida and Texas A&M look primed to battle for a title

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Beginning in September and running up through November 10th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the SEC.

The SEC has generated quite a bit of hype this offseason.

Some of it is justified.

Increased recruiting efforts by the likes of Alabama, Missouri, Auburn and Mississippi State mean that there are a number of teams that aren’t accustomed to NCAA tournament buzz getting some in October.

That’s before you consider that Kentucky, Florida and Texas A&M all look top 25-good while Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Arkansas have ‘tough out’ written all over them.

But we’ve heard this story before.

Will this season be any different than the last?

CONTENDER SERIES: Kentucky | Kansas | Arizona | Michigan State | Duke

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Kentucky is ridiculously talented, but the pieces may not fit together

The Wildcats are loaded with talent once again. When Jarred Vanderbilt returns from his foot injury, John Calipari will have eight five-star prospects at his disposal this year. Three of them – Wenyen Gabriel, Sacha Killeya-Jones and Hamidou Diallo – spent last season as a part of the program in one way or another, and that doesn’t even include Shae Gilgeous-Alexander, who has quietly been climbing up NBA Draft boards.

Kentucky should be terrific on the defensive end of the floor thanks to all that length and athleticism. The problem is on the offensive side of the ball. For starters, there just isn’t enough shooting on the roster to be able to space the floor. There also is a lack of elite-level playmaking and shot creation. Put another way, if Kentucky finds themselves in a grind-it-out half-court game, how are they going to be able to create offense? Who on this team scares you if you are an opposing coach?

Part of the problem is the roster construction. Much like the 2014-15 team, Kentucky may have too many big guys. Don’t be surprised to see Kevin Knox, who should be a four at the college level, play the majority of his minutes on the perimeter. But unlike that Kentucky team, this one doesn’t have the same caliber of potential NBA talent. There is no Karl Towns or Devin Booker. There is n Tyler Ulis or Harrison twin. I would even argue that Knox is less effective on the perimeter than Trey Lyles was.

I trust in John Calipari to figure this thing out, to find a role for each of his guy’s to play and a way to get them to buy into that role. He’s one of the best at that.

I just can’t see how that is going to play out from where I’m sitting.

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Tyler Davis (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

2. Texas A&M can actually contend for the SEC crown

I firmly believe that this season, and it starts with their front court, which is as big and as talented as anyone. The name to know is probably Robert Williams, a 6-foot-10 sophomore from tiny Oil City, Louisiana, who opted to forgo the NBA and return to college for his sophomore season. He is a potential top five pick, should his jumper and perimeter ability catch up to his ridiculous athleticism and physical tools, but he probably won’t be the best big on the Texas A&M roster this season.

That title belongs to Tyler Davis, a 6-foot-9 behemoth. He’s the rock on the low block for the Aggies, who can score and draw fouls in the paint and own the glass. Throw in shooters like Tony Trocha-Morelos and D.J. Hogg to space the floor, and that’s going to be tough to deal with.

The concern is in the back court. Texas A&M was without a point guard last year and brought in three potential cures to that issues: freshman Jay Jay Chandler, redshirt freshman J.J. Caldwell and grad transfer Duane Wilson, who left Marquette to enroll with the Aggies. One of those three is going to have to step up and take over the position this year.

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3. Kentucky isn’t the only team with awesome freshmen

While the Wildcats have the most – as in number – talented recruits on their roster, they don’t have the most – as in best – talented newbies in the SEC.

That title probably belongs to Missouri’s Michael Porter Jr., a 6-foot-10 freak-of-nature athlete who already has advanced perimeter skills and an impressive ability to knock down the three. I’m not comparing him to Kevin Durant as a player – Nno one should ever be compared to Kevin Durant as a player unless it’s to say “he’s not ever going to be as good as Kevin Durant” – but I could see his freshman season following in the footsteps of Durant’s: Massive numbers on a team that he carries, early round NCAA tournament exit after landing a middling seed. Simply put: Missouri’s supporting cast is either A) a freshman, like his younger brother Jontay, or B) not all that talented.

While Porter could end up being the first pick of the 2018 NBA Draft, the first point guard taken off the board looks like it could end up being Alabama’s Collin Sexton. Sexton is interesting for a couple reasons:

  1. He’s a high-volume scorer that did so much of his work by drawing fouls. Is he going to get the same calls at the college level that he got in high school and AAU?
  2. He’s a guy that could average 20 points on a team that desperately needs a scoring boost. The Crimson Tide finished 158th nationally in offensive efficiency last season. They were 10th in defensive efficiency. They need Sexton.

The addition of both Porters immediately makes Missouri one of the most interesting teams in the country, let alone the league. Will that be enough for Cuonzo Martin to get to his third NCAA tournament in ten seasons as a head coach? On the other hand, Alabama has a legitimate argument to be considered a top three team in the league. We’ll see if either of those things lasts.

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Michael Porter Jr., Missouri Athletics

4. The losses suffered by Florida are going to hurt more than you think

The good news for the Gators is that they returned KeVaughn Allen, who is one of the most dangerous scorers in all of college basketball. He’s capable of popping off for 30 points on any given night, and if he, as an upperclassmen this season, can find a way to iron out some of those inconsistencies, we’re talking about a potential SEC Player of the Year candidate.

That’s big.

But it’s also burying the lede, because the Gators lost three critical pieces from last season’s team: Kasey Hill, Devin Robinson and Justin Leon. Hill never did live up to the hype that he had coming out of high school, but by the time that he graduated from Florida he was a veteran leader, an above average playmaker and a defensive menace at the point. Throw in Robinson and Leon, two versatile, athletic forwards that were switchable defensively, and this group is going to take a big step down from the team that finished last season ranked as college basketball’s No. 2 defense, according to KenPom.

I think Chiozza will be fine at the point, and Egor Koulechov and Jalen Hudson should be able to impact this team immediately, but unless the likes of Keith Stone and DeAundre Ballard are ready to fill the void left by Robinson and Leon, the Gators are going to have some growing pains.

CONTENDER SERIES: Kentucky | Kansas | Arizona | Michigan State | Duke

5. Critical seasons are on tap for Bruce Pearl and Ben Howland

For the last three years, we’ve been hearing about how the influx of talent and investment into coaching ability was going to change the trajectory of SEC basketball for the teams not named Kentucky and Florida in the league. To date, that hasn’t exactly gone as planned. Frank Martin reached the Final Four last season with a once-in-a-generation South Carolina team. Rick Barnes has been fine at Tennessee; the Vols play hard and win above their talent level, and they have a solid young core that could make them relevant in a year or two.

Pearl and Howland are a different story. Pearl is in year four now, and after arriving at Auburn with a massive amount of hype, he’s yet to even sniff the NCAA tournament. This year’s team has the talent to do so, but the cloud of the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball is hanging over the program. A former assistant coach, Chuck Person, was arrested after taking more than $90,000 in bribe money from a financial advisor, some of which was supposed to be earmarked for players on the Auburn roster.

Auburn has a roster that is good enough to make the NCAA tournament this season. Will all of those players remain eligible all season long? Will Bruce Pearl still be employed in March?

Howland is in a bit of a different situation. Mississippi State has had a number of strong recruiting classes in a row, and with Quinndary Weatherspoon retuning to school and being joined in Starkville by his brother, Nick, the Bulldogs look like a team that should be able to make a run, particularly when you factor in Lamar Peters. But chemistry issues have dogged this program, and Howland has never really been one for team-building activities, so there are some real concerns.

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Bruce Pearl (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
MORE: 2017-18 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

PRESEASON SEC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Tyler Davis, Texas A&M

I’m not sure that there is a tougher big man to guard in college basketball than Tyler Davis. At 6-foot-10 and 261 pounds of solid muscle, Davis has slimmed down from the 300-pound behemoth that committed to A&M. He immovable when he gets position on the block, and while he’s something of a land warrior when it comes to protecting the rim, he does have some solid moves on the block, a soft touch around the rim and the ability to use his body to create angles.

THE REST OF THE ALL-SEC FIRST TEAM

  • Michael Porter Jr., Missouri: Porter is an obscenely talented freshman, a player that has the potential to end up being the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. His 6-foot-10 size, athleticism and ability to play on the perimeter like a guard makes him a candidate to score 20 points per game this season.
  • KeVaughn Allen, Florida: Allen is one of the most dangerous scorers in college basketball. We all saw him go for 35 points on Wisconsin. Consistency is the issue with him.
  • Yante Maten, Georgia: Perennially underrated playing for a middlling SEC program like Georgia, Maten’s flown under the radar over the course of the last two seasons. He’s the best big man in this league, and that’s saying a lot.
  • Robert Williams, Texas A&M: Big Bob Williams made the decision to return to school for his sophomore season, something that was relatively unexpected but that really helped boost the stock of the Aggies.
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FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • Hamidou Diallo, Kentucky
  • Mustapha Heron, Auburn
  • Collin Sexton, Alabama
  • Quinndary Weatherspoon, Mississippi State
  • Terrence Davis, Ole Miss
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Grant Williams (Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)

BREAKOUT STAR: Grant Williams, Tennessee

Grant Williams doesn’t look like a guy that would be a great basketball player. Generously listed at 6-foot-5 and 235 pounds, Williams has the build of a tight end, not a power forward, but that didn’t stop him from putting together a terrific freshman season. He averaged 12.6 points, 5.9 boards and 1.9 blocks and, with the Volunteers losing a couple of scorers off last year’s roster, he’ll be asked to play a bigger role this year. He’ll be a name SEC teams have to pay attention to.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Mark Fox, Georgia

Mark Fox is one of the more well-respected coaches in the SEC. His teams run good offense, they’re well-disciplined defensively, generally-speaking they tend to play above their talent level. He’s good at what he does. He’s also a basketball coach at a football school in a football state, and while he’s done well to make the program respectable – he’s been there for eight seasons, reached two NCAA tournament and three NITS and hasn’t finished below .500 in the league since 2012 – but at some point winning matters. With J.J. Frazier gone, Fox is heading into Yante Maten’s senior year without much coming down the pipeline.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

How did the SEC end up getting seven teams into the NCAA tournament?

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT …

… the one season that we’ll get Michael Porter Jr. on a college campus. He has a chance to be special.

EIGHT NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • 11/10, Texas A&M vs. West Virginia (Germany)
  • 11/14, Kentucky vs. Kansas (Chicago, Champions Classic)
  • 11/26, Texas A&M at USC
  • 12/5, Texas A&M vs. Arizona (Phoenix)
  • 12/9, Florida vs. Cincinnati (Newark, N.J.)
  • 12/23, UCLA vs. Kentucky (New Orleans, CBS Sports Classic)
  • 12/29, Louisville at Kentucky
  • 1/27, Kentucky at West Virginia
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Hamidou Diallo, Kentucky Athletics
CONTENDER SERIES: Kentucky | Kansas | Arizona | Michigan State | Duke

POWER RANKINGS

1. Texas A&M: The Aggies have a front court that is absolutely loaded. One of the best in the country. Picking them to win the conference means betting that Billy Kennedy will be able to figure it out with the young point guards on his roster.
2. Kentucky: This is a young, athletic and talented Kentucky roster that doesn’t seem to fit together all that well. I have expanded thoughts here, but in a nutshell: I think they’ll take their lumps early but that John Calipari will figure it out.
3. Florida: Florida will be good, but as I wrote earlier, I’m not buying the hype that this is a top ten team entering the season.
4. Alabama: I’m not sure what else there is to add about Alabama from what I wrote earlier. This is a team that was elite defensively and lacked scoring before going out and landing Collin Sexton.
5. Missouri: This is where the SEC gets really interesting. The top four in the league is pretty clear-cut, but the teams ranked 5-10 can pretty much be put into any order. I bet on talent, which is why I have Michael Porter Jr.’s team at the top of this group, but my concerns about this roster makeup can be read in full here.
6. Tennessee: The Vols are my sleeper in the SEC this season. This is a young group that plays hard, defends well and has an up-and-coming star in this league in Grant Williams. Rick Barnes is a better coach than you realize.
7. Ole Miss: I have no idea what Andy Kennedy is going to do with this front court to replace Sebastian Saiz, but I do know that a back court that includes Deandre Burnett, Terence Davis, Markel Crawford, Breein Tyree and Devontae Shuler – and that doesn’t include Cullen Neal – is one of the nation’s most underrated.
8. Arkansas: I don’t get the hype Arkansas has gotten this offseason. They lost one of the SEC’s best rim protectors and rebounders in Moses Kingsley and once of the best floor-spacers in Dusty Hannahs, and they’re supposed to get better?
9. Vanderbilt: The loss of Luke Kornet is really going to hurt this group. Matthew Fisher-Davis is one of the better guards in the SEC you probably haven’t heard of, and the ‘Dores are going to be old and well-coached, but I’m not seeing tournament upside here.
10. Auburn: The Tigers have top four upside, particularly in Austin Wiley can get healthy (and in shape) and Mustapha Heron continues to develop as a scorer. But I’m still not sold on this team being able to overcome everything that is currently swirling around the program.
11. Georgia: I think Mark Fox is a terrific coach and Yante Maten is a terrific player, but there just isn’t enough talent on this roster to beat out what is a good middle-of-the-pack in the SEC.
12. Mississippi State: As much talent as there is on the Bulldogs roster, I’m worried about their front court. Mario Kegler was the one guy that could space the floor. He transferred.
13. South Carolina: The loss of Sindarius Thornwell is a blow, but losing P.J. Dozier might have hurt more. He was a guy the Gamecocks could have built around this season. Not anymore.
14. LSU: I do think that the future is bright for LSU under Will Wade. They are already recruiting well, landing a top point guard prospect in the Class of 2017 in Tremont Waters. But when the best thing you can say about a program is ‘they’re recruiting well,’ it’s not a good sign for the present.

No. 19 Wichita State upends No. 5 Cincinnati 76-72

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HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. (AP) — Dave Stallworth was running the show the last time Wichita State beat a Top 5 team on the road. Landry Shamet took the lead as the Shockers did it again 54 years later.

This one, too, will be a reference point, given all that was at stake.

Shamet scored 19 points, and No. 19 Wichita State ended the nation’s longest home-court winning streak, beating No. 5 Cincinnati 76-72 on Sunday to leave the American Athletic Conference race wide open.

The Shockers (21-5, 11-3) beat a Top 5 team on the road for the first time since 1964. They led most of the way, building an 11-point lead midway through the second half and holding on. Shaquille Morris’ dunk with 5 seconds left finished it off.

The Shockers ran onto the floor for congratulatory chest bumps. Coach Gregg Marshall got a celebratory dunking in the locker room, leaving his light-colored shirt clinging to him.

“It’s tremendous,” Marshall said. “Look at my shirt. College basketball has such tremendous parity. The games are decided by great players making great plays. Landry is a tremendous player.”

The Bearcats (23-4, 12-2) had won their last 39 home games. In their first real home challenge of the season, they wound up playing catch-up and coming up short. Cincinnati hasn’t beaten a ranked team all season, falling to 0-3 with losses to Xavier and Florida.

Cincinnati and Wichita State were expected to contend for the title in the Shockers’ first season in the AAC. Wichita State gave itself a chance with a solid all-around game led by its point guard. Shamet had 16 points in the first half, when the Shockers shredded the nation’s second-ranked defense to take control.

Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin was bothered by his team’s “gross, mind-boggling defensive breakdowns,” including allowing the Shockers to get open for those two late layups. Wichita State shot 53 percent from the field, getting open 3-pointers in the first half and layups in the second half.

“We’re just not in a good place right now,” Cronin said. “I hadn’t slept much. We’re not in a good place for a lot of reasons.”

Wichita State closes the regular season by hosting Cincinnati on March 4. Houston (21-5, 11-3) also is in the running for the league title after beating Temple on Sunday.

The Shockers hit seven of eight shots during a 17-3 run that gave them a 34-23 lead. Cincinnati responded by turning up its full-court defense, forcing three quick turnovers, and going on a run that cut the deficit to 42-40 at halftime.

The Shockers showed a little defense of their own, forcing five turnovers while rebuilding their lead to 59-48 with 11 minutes left, matching its biggest of the game. Cincinnati closed to 72-70 on Trevon Scott’s dunk with 13 seconds left, but the Shockers scored on a pair of inbound passes by Landry, the last a full-court heave to Morris for a dunk that provided the final margin.

“This is what we do,” said Austin Reaves, who made the first of the two decisive layups. “We stick together on the road.”

BIG PICTURE

Wichita State: The Shockers needed a win to maintain their chances of a regular season title, and they got it with another good showing on the road. The Shockers are the most successful road team in the nation over the past five years at 47-8, including 7-2 this season.

“This is like our 50th red-out or white-out or black-out,” Marshall said. “We feel comfortable when that happens.”

Cincinnati: The Bearcats moved into the Top 5 even though they hadn’t beaten a ranked team all season. Losses at Houston and at home to Wichita State left them prepared for a plummet.

“As it gets later in the season, every team is better,” said Jacob Evans III, who had 16 points. “It’s not the beginning of conference or the season. Every team knows us well. We’ve got to be able to go to second options when they take away the first ones.”

NO LONGER A SWEET HOME

The Bearcats hadn’t lost at home since a 77-70 defeat against Temple on Dec. 29, 2015. They went 18-0 at Fifth Third Arena last season and were 13-0 at Northern Kentucky’s BB&T Arena, where they’re playing this season while their on-campus arena is renovated.

LONG TIME NO SEE

The Shockers and Bearcats played regularly as members of the Missouri Valley Conference from 1958-70, but it was their first game since 1981.

TOP 5 HISTORY

It was only the fourth time the Shockers have beaten a Top 5 team on the road. They beat No. 5 Oklahoma A&M in 1954 and topped No. 3 Loyola in 1963 and again in 1964 behind Stallworth.

TOUGH WEEKEND IN CINCY

Cincinnati had two teams in the Top 5, and both of them lost at home over the weekend. No. 4 Xavier lost to No. 3 Villanova 95-79 on Saturday at Cintas Center.cincinnati

Andy Kennedy resigns from Ole Miss effective immediately

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Andy Kennedy announced that, effective immediately, he will be stepping down as the head coach at Ole Miss. Tony Madlock will serve as the interim head coach for the remainder of the season.

The reason is simple: Kennedy wanted to “relieve any external pressure being felt by our current players” and he did not believe that last week’s announcement that this would be his final season in Oxford accomplished that.

“It has become readily apparent to me that my continued presence as the head coach is proving detrimental to these players finishing the season in a fashion that is representative of The Standard for this program that has been clearly established and maintained for over a decade,” Kennedy said in a statement. “Yherefore, I believe that it is in everyone’s best interest that I exit my role as head coach effective immediately. We all know that “clean breaks” are always best, and I should have realized this last Monday. My apologies.”

On Saturday, Ole Miss lost by 17 points at Mississippi State. That came two days after Kennedy went viral for a brutally honest criticism of what his team was going through.

“I can’t get to them,” he said. “I can’t reach them.”

It’s sad that this is the way that it had to end for the best basketball coach that Ole Miss has ever had. But it had to be done.

No. 12 Duke beats No. 11 Clemson as defensive resurgence continues

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Grayson Allen finished with 19 points, four assists and four steals, scoring 17 of his points in the first half, and Wendell Carter added 15 points, 10 boards and three blocks as No. 12 Duke won their fourth straight game without Marvin Bagley III, 66-57.

No. 11 Clemson was short-handed as well, and that’s something that needs to be noted. Not only are they playing without Donte Grantham, who tore his ACL earlier this year, but Shelton Mitchell was not in the lineup after suffering a nasty concussion at Florida State on Wednesday.

The Tigers were a No. 3 seed when the bracket reveal occurred last Sunday, but like Ohio State and Oklahoma, they have now lost back-to-back games; 11 of the top 16 teams have lost a game in the last week.

But the story here more than anything is Duke.

Yes, Allen finished with 19 points and continues to play well without Bagley on the floor. Getting him into a rhythm is critically important for this team. He was averaging 14.7 points in 24 games with Bagley. He is averaging 22.3 points in the last three games that Bagley has missed, and that does not include the 37-point outburst he had when Bagley went down with an injury against Michigan State.

Coach K also has had a chance to develop some confidence in his bench. Javin DeLaurier had 10 boards on Sunday. Marques Bolden didn’t play a done of minutes, but he still finished with five points, three boards and a pair of blocks. He was, generally speaking, a positive influence on the game.

But here is the most important and perplexing nugget: Duke, for the third straight game, was excellent defensively. They’ve now allowed fewer than 1.0 points-per-possession in each of the last three games. They are clearly not the same time offensively without Bagley’s presence on the floor, but it is impossible to ignore what they have been defensively in the last 10 days without him.

To put it into context: For all the talk about how much of a problem Duke’s defense has been, the Blue Devils are now ranked 43rd in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom. They were 79th after they lost to North Carolina, the last game that Bagley played. Villanova, who many believe is the best team in the country when healthy, is 42nd.

The question we need to ask is whether or not that will continue once Bagley makes his return.

Because the only thing standing between Duke and a Final Four is their inability to defend.

No. 8 Ohio State falls at No. 22 Michigan, Michigan State moves into first in Big Ten

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After all of the drama and the speculation about whether or not Ohio State or Purdue was the best team in the Big Ten, water has seemingly found its level.

On Sunday afternoon in Ann Arbor, No. 8 Ohio State lost their second straight game, falling 74-62 at No. 22 Michigan and allowing No. 2 Michigan State — who had one of college basketball’s greatest comebacks on Saturday at Northwestern — to slide into sole possession of first place in the Big Ten with just one week left of the regular season.

Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman led the way with 17 points while Jordan Poole added 15 off the bench in the win.

The Wolverines did a good job of slowing down Ohio State’s all-american forward, Keita Bates-Diop. KBD finished with 17 points and seven boards, but he shot just 5-for-17 from the floor. Jae-Sean Tate led the way with 20 points and 15 boards for the Buckeyes.

There was a special moment before this game even started as Austin Hatch, a two-time survivor of plane crashes that killed his entire immediate family, took part in the team’s Senior Day.

VIDEO: Michigan celebrates plane crash survivor Austin Hatch’s Senior Day

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If you don’t know the story of Michigan senior Austin Hatch, you should.

He’s survived two plane crashes in his life. The first, in 2003, robbed him of his mother, 11-year old sister and five-year old brother. In 2011, to celebrate his commitment to the Wolverines, Hatch’s father flew them up to the family’s vacation home, but the plane crashed into a garage killing Hatch’s dad and his stepmom and leaving Austin critically injured.

He had a severe brain trauma, a punctured lung, broken ribs and a broken collarbone, and in order to manage the swelling in his brain, he was put into a medically-induced coma for eight months.

He managed to return and even played for the Wolverines during the 2014-15 season, but he eventually made the decision to retire from basketball at the end of the year. He did, however, remain a part of the program and on Sunday, during Michigan’s Senior Day, he warmed up with the team and was introduced to the crowd as a starter and no, I’m not crying, YOU’RE crying: