Blogger spotlight: Bearcatsblog previews Cincinnati-Xavier

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Today kicks off a weekly feature where we spotlight a college hoops blogger and hit ‘em with a serious of questions heading into one of the week’s big games.

This week, it’s Scott King, who runs Bearcatsblog.

His Cincinnati Bearcats play Xavier in the Crosstown Shootout tonight. We chatted about that, the best Cincinnati team he’s seen the team’s fast start this season. When you’re done, be sure to check out Bearcatsblog, where Scott’s done a bunch of great posts on the Shootout, including the worst games and the biggest villains. (Well, from his point of view. Sorry Xavier fans.)

Q: Critics point to Cincinnati’s unimposing non-conference schedule as the main reason for a 14-0 start and why it just joined the AP and coaches’ polls. Fair or unfair?

A: It’s absolutely fair. Cincinnati played one of the absolute worst non-conference schedules in the country. It was easiest the worst slate of games that I’ve seen them schedule. The only tests they took were against Dayton, who seems to be a little down, and Oklahoma, who was a replacement for Duke.  I said it a day or so ago, I don’t think this team should be ranked. Rankings should be on merit, and I don’t think this team has done enough. And I write a Cincinnati blog.

Q: Last season’s Cincinnati squad featured two high-profile players in Deonta Vaughn and Lance Stephenson, yet was largely unimpressive throughout the season. Yet Cincy’s off to its best start since 2004. What do you expect from here, both overall and in the Big East?

A: That’s the $64,000 question right now. Things really step up with the schedule now, with Xavier, and 3 of the next 4 games after that at Villanova, at Syracuse and at Notre Dame. If Cincinnati could get 3 wins out of that, I think it would be a huge boost to the team for the Big East slate. I think this team has the potential to be a top 6, top 7 team in the conference. I expect them to be around 9, 10 and in the bubble discussion.

Q: Biggest difference between this season and last?

A: I think there are a couple of huge differences. Yancy Gates has progressed nicely, and the combination of him and Ibrahima Thomas on the interior play very good defense, and they are great rebounders. Thomas especially on the offensive end. The guards, especially Dion Dixon, have really worked hard to improve their games. This team seems to have players that know what their roles are on the team, and they like playing with each other. Larry Davis, Sean Kilpatrick, and Darnell Wilks have all contributed quality minutes off the bench. Davis and Kilpatrick have both gone for 20 in games this year, Kilpatrick a couple of times.

I think last season there was a whole lot of deferring to Deonta Vaughn and to Lance Stephenson. They were good players, but everyone else took a back seat. This year, the guys seem to be all for one.

Q: Who’s your go-to guy? Do you need one?

A: I would say the go to guy is Dion Dixon. He wants the ball in his hands. He has really worked on his shot, despite his recent mini-slump, and when that’s not falling, he gets to the line. And to top it off, he’s second on the team in assists.

I think every team needs a go to guy. That guy doesn’t need to take all of the shots at the end, but he has to have a hand in them. You need someone to make a play when you team is in trouble and needs a score.

Q: Yancy Gates, Cashmere Wright, Dion Dixon, Sean Kilpatrick. When’s the last time Cincinnati’s had a core group of players this solid?

A: You have to go back a ways. I think it was the 2005 squad that had Jason Maxiell, Eric Hicks, James White, Nick Williams, Armien Kirkland. Coincidentally, that team was the last UC team to make the tournament. The team the next year was pretty solid, and nearly the same group minus Max and Kirkland, who got hurt in the Big East opener I believe.

Q: The defense reminds me of how it used to be played under a certain coach who always wore black. Is it there yet? Will it ever be?

A: It’s been there so far. All the defensive metrics have Cincinnati as a team who’s been very, very good. Most of that is due to playing bad teams, but Cincinnati has held both Big East foes to substandard shooting percentages, and controlled the tempo. I think that things could get back to the way they were definitely. Mick Cronin has a nice recruiting class coming in next year, and Wright, Gates, Kilpatrick and Dixon should all return. 

Q: It’s gotta be strange to see Huggins standing in front of the other bench when West Virginia comes to town, right? People still miss the guy?

A: The first time a few years ago was pretty surreal. It’s really weird watching the man who was the face of your program for years end up at a place where he’s also beloved, and that team is a conference foe. The first game was pretty good closure for me. Now, he’s West Virginia’s coach. I know that people still miss him, because people still say him getting fired is a reason they aren’t UC fans anymore. I mainly feel bad for them.

Q: Xavier’s on Thursday. I consider your rivalry to be the nastiest in the country, and in a good way. Is there a way to describe the Crosstown Shootout to someone who’s never seen one?

A:It’s very intense. There was always the big school/small school dynamic. There is the Jesuit school v. school that dudes punch police horses. There is the Pete Gillen’s coaching staff grabbing their crotches thing. All the players play each other in summer leagues and the like, and there is a rivalry there. Now mix in the fact that not only is Xavier beating big, bad Cincinnati, but they are beating them in the worst scenarios possible. Charles Williams dribbles the ball off his foot and Lenny Brown makes the winner? Check. Lloyd Price lay up? Check. Stupid jerk Kevin Frey hitting 3s and running down the court like a moron as Xavier beats top ranked UC again? Check. Kenny Satterfield missing a runner off the front of the rim? Check. Derek Brown getting a big dunk late? Check. Double overtime heart breaker? Check. Now mix in the fact that, while not all, many Xavier fans are gigantic a-holes and the hate level rises. It’s 1 town, 2 teams. While not quite up there with Louisville/Kentucky and Duke/Carolina, I think X/UC is definitely in the top 5 rivalries.

 Q: The Bearcats own a 47-30 advantage in this series, yet the Musketeers have won three straight vs. Cincinnati and 10 of the last 14. When will that swing back to Cincinnati’s favor?

A: Hopefully starting this year. The only time Cincinnati has beaten Xavier lately was Mick Cronin’s first season, which was his worst team. The talent level has risen back to near even between the schools, and I think we are in for years of highly competitive games with Cincinnati beating Xavier every year. I can hope.  

Q: Time to reminisce. Ever find yourself wondering what would’ve happened if Kenyon Martin hadn’t broken his leg in 2000? That was one of the best teams of the last dozen years, yet people seem to forget just how good they were.

A: That use to happen all the time when I watched the Nuggets or Nets. That team was absolutely loaded. They had DerMarr Johnson, who said he went pro because of the injury, Pete Mickeal, who was a second team All-American I think, Kenny Satterfield, Steve Logan, Jermaine Tate, who could rebound. That team had skill at every position. They hammered nearly everyone they played. The only losses were to Xavier, ugh, and to a good Temple team, who UC seemingly never beat. UC won their conference games by an average of like 17 a game. They destroyed St Louis by like 40 a few games before, and everyone expected a walkover in the first round of the tourney. Unfortunately, bad things happened. I still think UC walks to that title. No way anyone was stopping Kenyon.

Q: Best Cincinnati team you’ve seen.

A: It was the 1999-2000 team. But, I’m going to shout out to the 2001-02 Bearcats. That was the Steve Logan team. That was not a team that was supposed to be that good. Marquette was supposed to win the conference if I recall. UC lost the first game of the season, and then didn’t lose until February. Coincidentally, that was to Marquette. UC lost later that month, but crushed teams in March, including a dominating performance against Marquette in the C-USA final. They ended up being matched with an underachieving UCLA team in the second round, and blew a double digit second half lead. Logan was amazing that season. Lenny Stokes had a very good season as well. That team featured a freshman Maxiell off the bench.

Q: Favorite player?

A: Kenyon Martin

Q: Why?

A: Because Kenyon was the most bad ass basketball player in the world. He blocked shots, he scored, he rebounded, he intimidated, he dominated. He did everything. Youtube the highlights from the DePaul game, or as it’s called around Cincinnati, the Kenyon game. Martin lead a UC comeback down 10 with 3:45 to go by hitting back to back turn around jumpers, went to his left for another bucket, blocked a shot that led to UC free throws, blocked another shot, hit the tying bucket, went baseline on two defenders to re-tie the score, and took the ball up the floor to get the assist on the game winning basket. Like I said, bad ass.

Q: Bottom line: Is Cincinnati a football school or basketball school?

A: Basketball school. I think Cincinnati is a football town, mainly because the NFL has become religion in America. When I think Cincinnati Bearcats, I think basketball. Some of that could just be the time I was growing up. I grew up with the Huggins era. The Final Four run was right in my formative years as a basketball fan. I still remember Nick Van Exel hitting a half court shot against Xavier. Plus, Cincinnati has one of the 5 greatest basketball players of all time, and 2 national championships. They have none of that in football. That makes you a basketball school. 

Want more? I’m also on Twitter @BeyndArcMMiller.

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.