College hoops storylines to watch this season

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OK, enough chatter. The 2010-11 college hoops season is finally here.

Well, maybe a little more chatter. How about the storylines to follow this season? Call it your last-second primer.

Is everyone really chasing Duke?
That’s the general consensus. The AP, coaches, most every writer and even the fine folks at Basketball Prospectus expect the Blue Devils to be the lead horse in this season’s race.

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But it’s not because they’re “Duke.” It’s because they’re talented (Kyle Singler, Nolan Smith and Kyrie Irving all will be in the running for All-America honors, while Mason Plumlee’s beloved by NBA scouts), they’re deep (Coach K can bring Seth Curry, Andre Dawkins, Josh Hairston and Ryan Kelly off the bench) and have fewer questions than the rest of the field.

Still, Duke isn’t perfect. And there will be contender to the would-be throne. Among national media writers, Mike DeCourcy of the Sporting News tabs Michigan State to win it all, while Ohio State, Pitt and Kansas all have enough depth and talent to match the Blue Devils.
Put it this way: Duke’s not a “sure-thing” like Kansas was last season. And look how that ended up.

The Big Ten is the best
Like it or lump it – yes, the conference’s style occasionally can be painful to watch – no conference can match the Big Ten. The league has more Final Four contenders (Michigan State, Ohio State, Illinois), rock-solid teams (Purdue, Wisconsin, Minnesota) and big Dance hopefuls (Northwestern, Penn State, Indiana) than anyone else.

The Big East may put more teams in the Big Dance, but that’s a factor of size, not overall strength. The Big 12 could come close, but the bottom dwellers (Oklahoma, Iowa State) are more pitiable than the Big Ten’s. The ACC is full of good, not great teams. The SEC needs more than five schools to focus on basketball.  And the Pac-10? Hah! Good one!

If Robbie Hummel were healthy, this wouldn’t even be a topic. It’d be fact.

The best out West
Yeah, so about the Pac-10. Other BCS conference kicked it around and spat on it last season. Thing won’t be that different this time around. Washington will win the league again, but the Huskies were supposed to dominate from the start last year, too. We’ll see how it goes.

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That leaves regional bragging rights wide open. San Diego State, BYU, UNLV and Gonzaga (who the Huskies have no desire to play), all could stake claims as the top team west of the Rockies. In fact, I think all four should be in the Top 25 most of the season, but how it plays into March remains to be seen.

After all, New Mexico tore through the Mountain West last season, snagged a 3 seed in the Big Dance, then got routed by Washington. So stay tuned.

Eligibility’s an issue
Kansas, Kentucky and Missouri – three schools with designs on the Final Four – are all waiting on NCAA clearance for players crucial to those would-be runs. The longer the wait, the tougher it’ll be to thrive later on.

Kansas has its fingers crossed on Josh Selby, who’ll replace Sherron Collins at point guard. The Jayhawks need a physical guard who can get to the basket and finish, and the 6-3 Selby’s just that. The NCAA is still investigating his relationship with Carmelo Anthony’s business manager.

Tony Mitchell, a 6-8 power forward, is out until at least the second semester due to academic issues. If he does suit up for Missouri, he’ll give the Tigers a much-needed boost to their frontcourt, which is usually their Achilles’ heel. Only Laurence Bowers and junior college transfer Ricardo Ratliffe have any interest playing down low.

That leaves Enes Kanter. Big Blue Nation has long wished for the NCAA to “Free Enes” only to be ignored thus far. At issue is Kanter’s compensation with his former Turkish club, Fenerbache Ulker. Until he’s able to suit for the Wildcats, John Calipari’s going to emphasize small-ball, a la Villanova in 2006.

Freshmen will be the difference for three programs
North Carolina’s coming off a rare non-NCAA tournament year. Kentucky’s returning minutes are lacking because it placed five guys in the NBA. And Memphis relinquished its control of Conference USA during Josh Pastner’s rebuilding season.

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Enter the newcomers.

The Tar Heels will merely ask Harrison Barnes, 2010’s top recruit, to led them back to the NCAAs. Judging from his preseason acclaim – even the AP tossed him an All-America nod – it should be a snap. The 6-7 wing merely has to boost UNC’s perimeter game, rebound and defend, or basically be this year’s John Wall/Kevin Durant. He’ll have help, though. Fellow fine frosh Reggie Bullock can score and Kendall Marshall will push Larry Drew II for the starting point guard job.

Pastner’s Tigers have the best recruiting class of anyone not located in Lexington, Ky. Between Will Barton, Joe Jackson, Jelan Kendrick and Tarik Black, Pastner has enough talented young players not only to send Memphis back to the Big Dance, but to make a Final Four run. Laugh at that notion all you want. You don’t have to guard these guys.

Which brings us to Kentucky. Remember what John Calipari did with a handful of talented freshmen (and a few upperclassmen) last season? Get ready for an encore. The Wildcats may fall short of 35 wins and a spot in the Elite Eight, but there’s no shortage of NBA-caliber players in Lexington. And when it comes to making noise in March, don’t ever ignore talent.

A bigger dance, a bigger bubble
Did you hear? The NCAA tournament expanded. By three teams. That means three fewer coaches get to piss and moan about the NCAA tourney seeding committee – and fans get to watch four games on Tuesday instead of just one.

That’s the good part. The downside is it’ll make for a more confusing bracket (who advances to which region to play which seed again?) and critics bemoaning the further degradation of quality teams playing for the national title.

To which I say pish. More games + more teams = more fun in March. Like you’re really gonna get mad about having to watch more basketball.

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This year’s Butler
When the NCAA tournament rolls around, which non-BCS school is going to surprise the big boys by making a run to the Final Four? Well, the Bulldogs are one of ’em. Gordon Hayward’s gone, but Butler remains a doggedly tough team thanks to guys like Shelvin Mack, Matt Howard and Ronald Nored. Another Final Four is a longshot, but a possibility.

Also keep your eye on teams like SDSU, BYU, Gonzaga, Temple and Wichita State.

As for the schools most likely to stage early upsets in the tourney, try this link. Trust me. The guy knows what he’s talking about.

Fading powers
Don’t expect much out of Louisville, Connecticut or UCLA this season. All three are dealing with talent gaps or off-court issues and all three could miss the NCAA tournament.

The Cardinals are waiting for next season when Rick Pitino welcomes a much-need influx of talent. Until then, they’re a middle-of-the-road Big East team. They might finish ahead of UConn, but that’s only because Kemba Walker doesn’t have anyone to pass to. And that’s not a forgiving conference when it comes to rebuilding.

If Ben Howland’s Bruins make the Big Dance, it’ll be because the Pac-10’s weak competition boosted their overall record to a respectable level. Tyler Honeycutt and Malcolm Lee, along with freshmen Tyler Lamb and Josh Smith would beg to differ about the talent gap. The rest of us are skeptical.

Mike Miller’s also on Twitter @BeyndArcMMiller, usually talkin’ hoops. Click here for more.

John Petty Jr. returns to Alabama for senior season

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama guard John Petty Jr. is staying in school instead of entering the NBA draft.

The Crimson Tide junior announced his decision to return for his senior season Monday on Twitter, proclaiming: “I’m back.”

Petty, the Tide’s top 3-point shooter, averaged 14.5 points and a team-high 6.6 rebounds rebounds last season. He was second on the team in assists.

Petty made 85 3-pointers in 29 games, shooting at a 44% clip.

Alabama coach Nate Oats called him “one of the best, if not the best, shooters in the country.”

“He’s made it clear that it’s his goal to become a first round pick in the 2021 NBA Draft and we’re going to work with him to make sure he’s in the best position to reach that goal,” Oats said.

Fellow Tide guard Kira Lewis Jr. is regarded as a likely first-round draft pick.

McKinley Wright IV returns to Colorado

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McKinley Wright IV will be back for season No. 4 with the Colorado Buffaloes.

The point guard tested the NBA draft process before announcing a return for his senior year. It’s a big boost for a Buffaloes team that’s coming off a 21-11 mark in 2019-20 and was potentially looking at an NCAA Tournament bid before the season was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wright was an All-Pac-12 first team selection a season ago, along with an all-defensive team pick. He and athletic forward Tyler Bey declared for the draft in late March. Bey remains in the draft.

“We’ve got unfinished business,” said Wright, who averaged 14.4 points and 5.0 assists per game last season.

Midway through the season, the Buffaloes were looking like a lock for their first NCAA Tournament appearance since ’15-16. Then, the team hit a five-game skid, including a loss to Washington State in the Pac-12 tournament. Simply put, they hit a defensive rut they just couldn’t shake out of, Wright said. It drove him to work that much harder in the offseason.

“This is my last go-around and I’ve got big dreams,” the 6-footer from Minnesota said. “I want to take CU to a place they haven’t been in a while. We want to go back to the tournament and win high-level games.”

The feedback from NBA scouts was reaffirming for Wright. He said they appreciated his transition game, movement away from the ball and his defensive intangibles. They also gave Wright areas he needed to shore up such as assist-to-turnover ratio and shooting the 3-pointer with more consistency.

He took it to heart while training in Arizona during the pandemic. He recently returned to Boulder, Colorado, where he’s going through quarantine before joining his teammates for workouts.

“The work I put in and the time I spent in the gym compared to all my other offseasons, it’s a big gap,” Wright said. “Last offseason, I thought I worked hard. But it was nothing compared to the time and different type of mindset I put myself in this year.”

Another motivating factor for his return was this: a chance to be the first in his family to earn his college degree. He’s majoring in ethnic studies with a minor in communications.

“My grandparents are excited about that. My parents are excited about that,” Wright said. “I’m excited about that as well.”

Wright also has an opportunity to take over the top spot on the school’s all-time assists list. His 501 career assists trail only Jay Humphries, who had 562 from 1980-84. Wright also ranks 13th all-time with 1,370 career points.

NOTES: Colorado announced the death of 95-year-old fan Betty Hoover, who along with her twin sister, Peggy Coppom, became fixtures at Buffs sporting events and were season ticket holders since 1958. Wright used to run into them not only on the court, but at the local bank. “I’ve never met anyone as loving and supporting and caring as those two,” Wright said. “They hold a special place in my heart. It sucks that Betty won’t be at any games this year. Maybe we can do something, put her name on our jersey. They’re two of the biggest fans in CU history.”

Jared Butler returns to Baylor

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Baylor got some huge news on Monday as potential All-American Jared Butler announced that he will be returning to school for his junior season, joining MaCio Teague is pulling his name out of the 2020 NBA Draft to get the band back together.

Butler was Baylor’s leading scorer a season ago, averaging 16.0 points and 3.1 assists for a team that went 26-4, spent a portion of the season as the No. 1 team in the country and was in line to receive a 1-seed had the 2020 NCAA Tournament taken place.

With Butler and Teague coming back to school, the Bears will return four starters from last season’s squad. Starting center Freddie Gillespie is gone, as is backup guard Devonte Bandoo, but those are holes that can be filled. Tristan Clark, who was Baylor’s best player during the 2018-19 season before suffering a knee injury that lingered through last year, will be back, and there is more than enough talent in the program to replace the scoring pop of Bandoo. Matthew Mayer will be in line for more minutes, while transfer Adam Flagler will be eligible this season.

Baylor will enter this season as a consensus top three team in the country. They will receive plenty of votes as the No. 1 team in the sport, making them not only a very real contender for the Big 12 regular season crown but one of the favorites to win the national title.

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As MaCio Teague returns, Baylor now awaits Jared Butler’s NBA draft decision

Butler is the key.

Baylor was one of college basketball’s best defensive teams last year. They finished fourth nationally in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric, a ranking that dropped after they Bears lost two of their last three games to TCU and West Virginia. Where they struggled was on the offensive end of the floor. The Bears would go through droughts were points were at a premium and their best offense was a missed shot. Butler’s intrigue for NBA teams was his ability to shoot and to create space in isolation. He’s the one guy on the roster that can create something out of nothing for himself.

And now he is back to try and lead Baylor to a Final Four.

Arizona State’s Martin to return for senior season

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TEMPE, Ariz. (–Arizona State guard Remy Martin is withdrawing from the NBA draft and will return for his senior season in the desert.

“I’m blessed to have the opportunity to coach Remy Martin for one more season,” Sun Devils coach Bobby Hurley said in a statement Sunday. “Remy will be one of the best players in college basketball this year and will be on a mission to lead Arizona State basketball in its pursuit of championships.”

A 6-foot guard, Martin is the Pac-12’s leading returning scorer after averaging 19.1 points in 2019-20. He also averaged 4.1 assists per game and helped put the Sun Devils in position to reach the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year before the season was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Martin’s return should put Arizona State among the favorites to win the Pac-12 next season.

Martin joins fellow guard Alonzo Verge Jr. in returning to the Sun Devils after testing the NBA waters. Big man Romello White declared for the draft and later entered the transfer portal.

Hurley has signed one of the program’s best recruiting classes for next season, headed by five-star guard Josh Christopher.

Michigan State forward Xavier Tillman will remain in the 2020 NBA Draft

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In the end, Xavier Tillman Sr.’s decision whether or not to return to remain in the 2020 NBA Draft for his senior season came down to security.

A 6-foot-8 forward that averaged 13.7 points, 10.3 boards, 3.0 assists and 2.1 blocks this past season, Tillman was an NBC Sports third-team All-American a season ago. He’s projected as the No. 23 pick in the latest NBC Sports mock draft. He was the best NBA prospect that had yet to make a decision on his future until Sunday.

That’s when Tillman announced that he will be foregoing his final season of college eligibility to head to the NBA.

In the end, it’s probably the right decision, but it’s not one that the big fella made easily.

Tillman is unlike most college basketball players forced to make a decision on their basketball future. He is married. He has two kids, a three-year old daughter and a six-month old son. This is not a situation where he can bet on himself, head to the pro ranks and figure it out later on.

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He needs something stable, particularly given the fact that we are living in the midst of a pandemic that has put the future of sports in doubt, at least for the short term.

He needs security.

He needed to know that there would be a job for him in the NBA. Not a two-way contract. Not a spot on a camp roster or a chance to develop in the G League. Hell, there might not even be a G League next season. That was an option at Michigan State. He was living in an apartment with his family that was covered by his scholarship and stipend. He had meals paid for. He was able to take food from the training room home and have dinner with his family. He was able to get to class, to the gym, to practice and back home in time to do the dishes at night. He told NBC Sports in March that the school was able to provide him with $1,200-a-month to help pay for things like diapers high chairs. That was all going to be there if he returned to school. It was a great situation, one that lacked the uncertainty that comes with the professional level.

Because as much as I love Tillman as a role player at the next level, NBA teams do not all feel the same. The tricky thing about the draft is that it makes sense to swing for the fences on the guys that can be locked into salaries for the first four years of a contract. The Toronto Raptors took Pascal Siakam with the 27th pick and have paid less than $7 million in total salary in his first four years for a player that made an all-star team. Kyle Kuzma is averaging 16.0 points through three seasons and is on the books for $3.5 million in year four.

Tillman’s ability to defend, his basketball IQ, his play-making and his professional demeanor means that he can step into the modern NBA and do a job as a rotation player for just about any team in the league. But he doesn’t have the upside that other bigs in the same projected range have — Jalen Smith, Daniel Oturu, Jaden McDaniels, Zeke Nnaji — so there are teams that are scared off.

I don’t get it.

But Tillman’s decision to head to the professional ranks indicates that he does, indeed, feel confident in the fact that he will have gainful and steady employment next season. Since he would have walked at Michigan State’s graduation in May had it been held, that doesn’t leave much to return to school for.

The Spartans will now be left in a tough spot. There are quite a few pieces to like on this roster. Rocket Watts had promising moments as a freshman, as did Malik Hall. Gabe Brown and Marcus Bingham are both talented players. Joey Hauser had a good season at Marquette, and the early returns on freshman Mady Sissoko are promising. But this is going to be a young and unproven group.

Izzo has had less at his disposal before, but this is certainly not an ideal situation for Michigan State.