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Bill Self’s ‘softest’ Kansas team found a way to win tough at the right time

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SAN ANTONIO — Kansas had just been embarrassed at home for the third time in a season that wasn’t even three months old.

In front of 200 former Kansas players, coaches and staffers and in a game that was broadcast at noon on a Saturday on national television, the Jayhawks were totally and utterly manhandled by an Oklahoma State team that couldn’t even get into the NCAA tournament picture despite sweeping KU during the regular season. They trailed by as many as 19 points in the first half of an 84-79 loss, and Bill Self had had enough.

He had already ripped his team publicly. In December, after the Jayhawks lost 95-85 in Phog Allen Fieldhouse, the first of three home losses — the most home losses that they Jayhawks have suffered in a season since 1998-99 — Self told reporters that “this is the softest team that Kansas has had since I’ve been here.”

Self knew that the Jayhawks, playing the way that they were playing, didn’t have a chance in hell of getting to the Final Four or winning a national title.

But he wanted to know if the rest of the guys in the locker room felt the same way that he did.

“Do you think you can win a national championship?” Self asked his team. “Raise your hand if you do,” and the way that Devonte’ Graham tells it, every hand in that room went up.

“He was like, ‘Really? You think you can outbound a team six games in a row? Play tough six games in a row? And you haven’t done it two games in a row in the regular season?'” Graham said. “You just had to look at it like that.”

“Coach Self is always going to be 100 with you,” Graham went on to say. “He doesn’t ever try to cover up something. He’s going to tell you how he feels. At the end of the day, you have to be like, ‘yeah, you’re right.'”

Graham, however, never wavered in his belief that this team could get to San Antonio. He knew this team had the pieces to make the run that they’ve made in this tournament, and he knew that they had the ability to be better on the glass and on the defensive end of the floor. The fact that they weren’t doing it didn’t mean that they weren’t capable of doing it.

And Graham was proven right last Sunday.

That’s when the Jayhawks, who were forced to go full small-ball for the second consecutive season after star freshman big man Billy Preston was never cleared to play, went up against the biggest front line in the sport and came away with a win, on the scoreline and in the box score.

With Svi Mykhailiuk, a 6-foot-8 shooting guard that has never been considered the kind of player that would thrive in that small-ball four role, guarding a soon-to-be top five pick and consensus first-team all-american in Marvin Bagley III, this matchup, on paper, was everything that Duke could have asked for in an Elite Eight game.

And Kansas won. They outrebounded Duke 47-32, but that doesn’t even tell the whole story. The Jayhawks kept Duke, the nation’s best offensive-rebounding team, to just 10 offensive boards and allowed them to grab just 25 percent of the available offensive rebounds — on the season, Duke’s offensive rebounding rate was 39 percent — while getting 17 offensive boards of their own was the difference-maker.

“To do it in a way that we haven’t done it all year long,” Self said after the game. “We haven’t beat anybody on the glass all year long. So I couldn’t be happier or more proud.”

Kansas is going to have their work cut out for them again on Saturday night when they take on top-seeded Villanova, who is currently the heavy-favorite to win their second national title in three seasons. The Wildcats had their own toughness renaissance during the regional. Having spent the entirety of the season to date dealing with questions about what would happen if they have an off-shooting night cruised to a win over Texas Tech in the Elite Eight by beating the Red Raiders at their own game, winning a rock fight with defense and effort on the glass. Villanova grabbed a season-high 18 offensive boards in that game, winning by 12 while shooting 4-for-24 from three.

That win came just two days after Villanova survived the physicality and pressure of a West Virginia team that prides themselves on their ability to play press defensively and make their opponents uncomfortable.

So that whole toughness and rebounding thing?

It can’t be a one night show, and the Jayhawks, to their credit, don’t think that it will be.

“This has been an inconsistent and somewhat frustrating team up until about probably three-quarters of the season,” Self said, adding that “verbally I was harder” on this team that just about any other team that he has had in the past. “I told them, you know, if at least when I say what I want to say at least I’ll go home feeling better.”

“Even though they may not.”

“We always are complaining,” Graham said, a wry smile emerging from his Carolinian drawl. “When you don’t want to get yelled and screamed at a little bit, you’re going to complain a little bit. But we rallied around each other.”

“It definitely worked. We wouldn’t be here without it.”

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.