First bracket countdown: Observations and notes

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Our first in-season bracket projection at Bracketville is due out Monday evening (Dec. 6).  With it will come a lot of debate (and some complaints).  Time to fire away with some notes and observations from a great first month of college hoops.

 The first note is to remind ourselves that a lot of meaningful basketball remains.  Things don’t necessarily end like they start.  Flashback: Georgetown opened the ’08-’09 season 11-1, including a win at Connecticut – an eventual No. 1 seed.  From there, the Hoyas stumbled through the Big East – finishing 7-11 in conference play and 16-14 overall – missing the NCAAs.   With that, here we go …

  • San Diego State and UNLV lead a quadrant of teams (BYU and New Mexico) from the Mountain West that could impact our final bracket in March.  SDSU opened with three true road games and two neutral-court affairs – including a win at Gonzaga.  It’s the type of schedule that should pay big dividends.  UNLV has already beaten Wisconsin (home) and Virginia Tech (neutral court).   BYU has victories over WAC-favorite Utah State and St. Mary’s.  If there’s a bubble team, it’s likely New Mexico.  The Lobos beat Arizona State, but lost a lopsided tilt at Cal. 
  • If Connecticut continues to get production from Alex Oriakhi, Shabazz Napier, and others, the Huskies are in line for a very good season.  Kemba Walker is a front-runner for Player-of-the-Year, and UConn already has three wins over NCAA-level teams: Wichita State, Michigan State, and Kentucky (Maui Invitational).
  • Who thought Notre Dame would win the Old Spice Classic in Orlando?  While beating Georgia, California, and Wisconsin isn’t quite like UConn’s feat in Maui, the Irish have certainly improved expectations – at least outside South Bend.
  • Georgetown is also off to a great start.  The Hoyas 111-102 OT win over Missouri ranks as the season’s best game to date.  The season-opening road win at Old Dominion is looking better all the time.
  • Pittsburgh is solid again – beating Maryland and Pittsburgh in New York.  A No. 1-seed hopeful, the Panthers’ real questions won’t begin until March.  Can they reach a Final Four?
  • Overall, the Big East is 17-6 vs. fellow BCS teams.
  • The Big Ten – fresh off its second straight ACC-Big Ten title – is 14-10 vs. BCS teams and 9-5 vs. the ACC overall.  In our preseason Power 24, we suggested that Ohio State would challenge Michigan State for league supremacy.  No team has two bigger true road wins (Florida, Florida State) than the Buckeyes.  That said, MSU was 4-2 at this juncture last season and the Spartans ended up in the Final Four.  Don’t quit on Tom Izzo’s bunch just because they lost to UConn and at Duke. 
  • Will Duke lose to anyone?  That will be the question given the Blue Devils’ talent, depth, and incredible start.  Duke powered through Marquette and Kansas State in Kansas City before wiping out Oregon on the West Coast and the above-mentioned Spartans in Durham.  Even so, an undefeated regular-season is unlikely.  Trips to Maryland and North Carolina are always tricky – even if the Tar Heels have spun their wheels a bit.
  • Hard to imagine North Carolina having another down year from start to finish.  The Tar Heels are loaded with talent and you have to figure they’ll figure it out at some point.  A Top 10 preseason ranking simply wasn’t justified – then again, preseason rankings mean nothing anyway.  An exercise in fun (futility) nothing else.
  • Overall the ACC is just 14-18 vs. BCS teams. 
  • Virginia Tech could be one team that wishes it had a first-month do-over.  While the Hokies have played a much better non-conference slate, they are 0-3 in big-win games – falling at Kansas State, to UNLV on a neutral floor, and dropping a home game to Purdue in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge.  Could be another testy Selection Sunday if the Hokies stumble in the ACC.
  • What’s going on the Atlantic 10Richmond has the best win (Purdue) while Temple has struggled more than expected.  The Owls were favored to win the Old Spice Classic but lost to California and Texas A&M.  Hampered by injuries, Xavier has been mostly unimpressive and Dayton was blown out by Cincinnati and lost at home to East Tennessee State.
  • The Pac-10 isn’t much better – thus far.  Washington is the league’s best, yet the Huskies missed chances with both Kentucky and Michigan State in Maui.  Neither is a bad loss, but outside a trip to Texas A&M (Dec. 11), UW now has little chance to make a non-conference impression.  A Top 4 seed will be hard to achieve.  Ironically, California has the league’s best wins (New Mexico and Temple) even though they lost games to Notre Dame and Boston College in Orlando.  The good news is that Arizona and UCLA seem on track to be in the NCAA discussion, along with Washington State.  Better quality wins should be available in conference play.
  • As noted in an earlier Bracket Bits column, the Missouri Valley will be challenged by another poor start.  Wichita State really hurt its opportunities in Maui by giving up a second-half lead to Connecticut.  Missouri State lost at Tennessee and Tulsa in its two best non-league tilts to date. 
  • By comparison, Colonial teams Old Dominion and VCU would both be in the NCAA discussion today – with ODU pushing for a single-digit seed.  The Monarchs gave Georgetown a great battle and have beaten Clemson, Xavier, and Richmond.  A win at Missouri on Dec. 30 would really leave a good impression.
  • Kansas State will battle Kansas for supremacy in the Big 12.  The Jayhawks know that Josh Selby will be eligible this month (Dec. 18) – another piece to an already good puzzle.  If Selby plays anywhere near the level of Kyrie Irving at Duke, KU will be in play for a No. 1 seed.
  • Not sure what to make of Missouri.  An NCAA team for sure, but the Tigers lost a virtual home game in Kansas City to their only quality opponent to date (G’Town).  They also struggled with several mid-range teams in Cancun and nearly coughed up a big lead at Oregon before winning.
  • Texas was impressive in New York, beating Illinois in OT and losing a tight game to Pittsburgh.  The Longhorns appear well on their way to a turn-around type season.
  • Gonzaga has played well, but not great.  The health of Elias Harris will be a determining factor for the Zags.  St. Mary’s is probably a bubble team – the one-point loss to BYU on a neutral court is encouraging.
  • So far, Tennessee isn’t letting all the off-court Bruce Pearl distractions effect its on-court performance.  How long will that continue, and what lies ahead for the Vols?  Pearl says his eight-game SEC suspension won’t matter – we’ll see.  Kentucky is loaded, but dealing with severe youth – as witnessed by a lopsided loss to UConn in Maui.  Still, I’ll take UK to win the SEC in March – especially if Enes Kanter wins his appeal/resubmission regarding NCAA eligibility.
  • Paging Florida.  Who are the real Gators?  Nice win at Florida State.  Bad loss to Central Florida.  Okay first half against Ohio State at home. That’s the type of formula that earns you a 7-10 seed in the NCAAs.
  • The SEC West is working hard for the NIT.  Favorite Mississippi State lost at home to Florida Atlantic and scheduled its first 11 games at home.  Sounds like a recipe for a very poor non-conference SOS – same as last year.
  • Minnesota looked very good in Puerto Rico – beating North Carolina and West Virginia.  Not sure what happened in the second half against Virgina, but the Gophers are well on their way to wearing a home jersey in the NCAA’s first round (Top 8 seed).  Wisconsin is, well, Wisconsin.  The Badgers aren’t likely to win the Big 10, but they are likely to make another trip to the NCAAs.
  • Illinois has avoided the bad losses it had last year.  Thus, an NCAA trip looks promising.  If the Illini improve rebounding and free-throw performance, they could prove dangerous.  They have good wins over Maryland and North Carolina, and an OT loss to Texas.

I’m sure there’s numerous notes and observations we’ve missed.  We can’t go through every team.  Can’t wait to get the first real bracket together. If you have thoughts, please send a rebound.  Comment below or send an e-mail to bracketville.hoops@gmail.com.  I’m also on Twitter: BracketguyDave.

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.