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Texas Tech seniors go from three Big 12 wins to Elite 8 finish

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Texas Tech coach Chris Beard gathered his seniors in a tight circle around him when they came out of their final game with 9 seconds left — and one win short of the Red Raiders making it to the NCAA Final Four for the first time.

“He just told us how much he appreciated the journey, how much he loved us and appreciated us for sticking with him,” Zach Smith said.

Smith, All-Big 12 guard Keenan Evans and Justin Gray wrapped four-year careers at Tech that began with a 3-15 record in Big 12 play as freshmen in 2014-15, and ended in the Elite Eight, a 71-59 loss to No. 1 seed Villanova in the East Region final. Niem Stevenson and Tommy Hamilton IV, the other departing seniors, transferred into the program after Beard arrived two years ago.

“I’m just so appreciative of our seniors during the coaching change and sticking with us,” Beard said after Sunday’s season finale. “And to almost get to that final weekend, I think, speaks a lot about those guys, their character. Proud of our five seniors.”

The Red Raiders were Big 12 runner-ups in the regular season to Kansas, which is in the Final Four. Their 27 wins were the second-most in school history, behind only the 30 wins in 1985-86, a Sweet 16 team in the final Southwest Conference season. A No. 6 ranking in the AP poll in mid-February was their highest ever.

“This is the way I wanted to go out,” Evans said. “Ultimately, we fell short. But this is all I ever wanted. … Just knowing the work we put in paid off. I definitely saw this type of season coming.”

When coach Tubby Smith unexpectedly left for Memphis, just weeks after a somewhat surprising NCAA Tournament appearance two years ago, the returning starting point guard quickly bonded with the new coach who had been a Red Raiders assistant under Bobby Knight.

Evans was hampered with a toe injury the last five weeks this season, and only after the loss to Villanova revealed how bad it was. He was playing with a broken big toe on his left foot.

Smith, a preseason All-Big 12 pick by coaches, missed 14 games with a foot injury. He was back the final week of the regular season.

“Just for us digging down and us going through injuries; Zach coming back and playing his heart out, we took a lot of pride with it,” Evans said.

While five seniors finished up, Tech had two freshman starters with hometown guard Jarrett Culver and high-soaring Zhaire Smith, who had a 360-degree alley-oop dunk in the first round of the NCAA tourney.

The top two-scoring freshmen in school history were among six freshmen on this year’s roster, including guard Davide Moretti from Italy. Starting center Norense Odiase and Florida transfer Brandone Francis both have another season of eligibility remaining. Beard has already signed several touted recruits for next season.

“When I look at how big of a talent they are and how much room they have to improve, and then I think about the coaching staff that we have …. it’s definitely going to be on the rise,” Evans said during the NCAA Tournament about the team moving forward after this season.

After recognizing his seniors, Beard had a message for returning players: “I told our young guys, we’ll do everything we can in the next 364 days to be back here.”

Syracuse’s Tyus Battle to test NBA draft waters

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Syracuse announced on Friday afternoon that sophomore guard Tyus Battle will be declaring for the NBA draft without signing with an agent, giving him until the NCAA’s May 30th deadline to withdraw from contention and return to school.

Battle averaged 19.2 points as a sophomore for the Orange, who made a surprising run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

He is a projected late-first round or early-second round pick given his size, shooting ability and skill with the ball in his hands.

Losing Battle would be a massive blow to a Syracuse team that is already going to be without Matthew Moyer, who transferred out of the program, and Dareus Bazley, who is heading to the G League instead of enrolling in college.

Maryland’s Kevin Huerter declares for NBA draft, won’t hire agent

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Maryland wing Kevin Huerter announced on Friday afternoon that he will be declaring for the NBA draft without hiring an agent, giving him the option of returning to school by May 30th.

“This will be a great experience for Kevin to get honest feedback from NBA teams and executives,” said head coach Mark Turgeon. “Taking advantage of this opportunity will allow Kevin and his family to make an informed decision about his future.”

Huerter is a 6-foot-7 wing known for his ability to shoot from the perimeter. He averaged 14.8 points and shot 42 percent from three as a sophomore.

He is also the third player from Maryland to declare for the 2018 NBA Draft. Justin Jackson, a borderline first round pick who missed time last season with a shoulder injury, has signed with an agent while Bruno Fernando is testing the waters. Maryland, who has an excellent recruiting class coming in, will be a preseason top 20 team if Huerter and Fernando both return to school.

Huerter is a borderline first round pick.

Michigan’s Charles Matthews to test NBA draft waters

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Michigan guard Charles Matthews announced on Friday that he will be declaring for the NBA draft, but that he does not intend to sign with an agent, meaning he has until May 30th to withdraw from the draft and return to school.

“After careful consideration with my parents and coaching staff, I am excited to announce that I will be declaring for the 2018 NBA Draft without hiring an agent,” said Matthews. “I give thanks to the Lord for this amazing opportunity, as well as the entire University of Michigan for their support. Go Blue!”

Matthews, a redshirt sophomore that averaged 13.0 points and 5.5 boards for the national runners-up, was a four-star prospect coming out of Chicago and spent his freshman season at Kentucky.

Matthews is a likely second round pick with the potential to climb into the first round should he prove to be a more consistent three-point shooter. He shot just 31.8 percent from beyond the arc this past season.

Virginia’s Hunter to return to school for sophomore season

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De’Andre Hunter announced on Friday afternoon that he will not be entering his name into the NBA draft and will return to Virginia for his redshirt sophomore season, a decision that will have as much of an impact on the 2018-19 college basketball season as any that is made this spring.

Hunter, now a potential top ten pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, was one of the breakout stars of the 2017-18 season. A 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, Hunter averaged 9.2 points and 3.5 boards while shooting 38.2 percent from three in just under 20 minutes a night for a Virginia team whose pace severely limits the kind of numbers a player like him can put up.

Throw in his ability to defend on the perimeter and in the paint, and Hunter is precisely the kind of player that NBA teams are looking to land as basketball becomes more and more built on positional versatility and the ability to space the floor.

And it’s that versatility that will make Hunter so important for the Cavaliers next season.

Let’s go beyond the simple fact that he is going to be the only guy on the Virginia roster that can create his own shot against length and athleticism and that there is a chance that he could end up being an all-american next season if things play out the right way. What makes Hunter so important to Virginia his that his defensive versatility is what allows Virginia to matchup with teams that want to try and play small-ball against them.

That’s precisely what UMBC did in the first round of the NCAA tournament, a game that Hunter missed with a broken wrist. We all know how that played out, and I’m not even dumb enough to pin all the blame of a 20-point loss to a No. 16 seed on a guy that played less than 20 minutes a night.

Virginia choked once they realized that there was a chance this could happen, but I would argue that a major reason they couldn’t ever truly assert their dominance was because they were unable to matchup with UMBC’s four-guard lineup without Hunter.

With Hunter back, Virginia is the No. 6 team in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25. If he had declared for the draft and signed with an agent, I’m not sure I would have had the Wahoos in the top 20.

He takes Tony Bennett’s club from simply being good to once against being a contender for the ACC regular season title.

Vanderbilt the sixth Kentucky player declares for the NBA draft

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Jarred Vanderbilt is now the sixth Kentucky Wildcat to declare for the NBA draft this spring, joining P.J. Washington and Wenyen Gabriel in testing the waters without signing with an agent.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox and Hamidou Diallo have all declared for the draft and signed with an agent.

Vanderbilt announced his decision on Friday afternoon.

“This season wasn’t easy for me,” Vanderbilt said. “At the end of the day, my goal has always been to make it to the NBA.”

“I know I have more to my game to show, but now I’ve got to figure out if the time is right for me to do it at the next level or if I would be better to return to school.”

Vanderbilt missed the first 17 games of his freshman season with a left foot injury, a foot that he had injured twice before during his high school career. He then missed all four of Kentucky’s postseason games with a left ankle injury, and there is a chance that he could end up needing surgery to correct this issue this offseason.

All told, the 6-foot-9 Vanderbilt played in 14 games as a freshman, averaging 5.9 points and 7.9 boards in just 17 minutes a night. But issues with his ability to shoot from the perimeter and a lower left leg that has proven to be extremely problematic, there is a good chance that Vanderbilt would go undrafted should he decide to turn pro.