Friday’s Pregame Beat: Previewing your college hoops weekend

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UPSET ALERT

Sat. 6:00 pm: No. 6 SDSU @ New Mexico: With Duke’s loss to Florida State on Wednesday night, there are now just four undefeated teams left in the country — Ohio State, Kansas, Syracuse, and SDSU. And while, on paper, SDSU seems to be the outlier in this group, don’t be fooled by their non-BCS conference affiliation. This team is legit.

They have arguably the best, and most versatile, front line in the country with Kawhi Leonard, Malcolm Thomas, Billy White, and Brian Carlwell. DJ Gay is an underrated point guard, and the addition of a shooter in James Rahon on the perimeter has given the Aztecs another dimension. But do not sleep on this Lobo team, especially at the Pit. They have a high-major front line with Drew Gordon and Emmanuel Negedu complementing Alex Kirk and AJ Hardemann. Dairese Gary, Kendall Williams, and Philip McDonald one of the best back courts out west.

Steve Alford’s crew has struggled early in the season, but this is a group that is still coming together with the addition of Gordon that will be playing in front of a raucous home crowd. This is a better game than the records indicate, and New Mexico has a real chance to beat the Aztecs and get a win they really need on their resume.

UPSET SPECIAL

Sat. 11:00 am: Marquette @ No. 17 Louisville: These two teams matchup really well with each other. Both are heavy on talented guards, both shoot a lot of threes, and neither is afraid to play an uptempo game. As Notre Dame found out on Monday, this Marquette club — as they seemingly are every season — is much better than their record indicates. The key for Marquette? Defend the three — which the haven’t done all that well this season — and get the ball to Jae Crowder and Jimmy Butler.

Sat. 1:00 pm: Northwestern @ No. 24 Michigan State: Northwestern has to get a win against a few of the big boys in the Big Ten if they are serious about making a run at their first NCAA Tournament bid. I think this is a pretty good matchup for the Wildcats. They spread the floor, they execute a difficult offensive to defend, and they are going against a team that has not defended the three point line all that well through two months. Shurna had 24 points in a win over Iowa on Tuesday. Is he finally healthy?

Sat. 5:00 pm: No. 22 UCF @ Southern Miss: UCF has played as well as anyone in Conference USA this season, but with Memphis slowly fading out of the picture, USM may actually be the most talented team in the league. The Golden Eagles have a couple of good perimeters to throw at Marcus Jordan, but the most intriguing matchup in this one is between Gary Flowers and Keith Clanton.

Sat. 6:00 pm: Baylor @ Iowa State: This would seem silly at first glance, but hear me out. Baylor is not as good as we all expected them to be this season. In the same way Kansas State has struggled, Baylor has as well. They have an all-american guard and a loaded front court. But do the Bears have anyone that can get LaceDarius Dunn or one of Baylor’s big men an open look? ISU hasn’t been terrible this season. They gave Kansas a bit of a scare on Wednesday night. Diante Garrett and Scott Christopherson deserve some national pub, as well.

Sat. 8:00 pm: Loyola Marymount @ Gonzaga: In terms of raw talent, there might not be a team in the WCC better than the Lions not named the Zags. With guys like Vernon Teel and Drew Viney, this LMU group was picked second in the preseason. They’ve lost a few games here early, but that talent is still on the roster. Teel-Viney going against Stephen Gray and Elias Harris? That’s worth it back ground noise as you pregame for your Saturday night.

Sun. 12:00 pm: No. 11 Notre Dame @ St. John’s: Notre Dame is 14-3 on the season. Their three losses? To Kentucky at Freedom Hall in Louisville, to Syracuse at the Carrier Dome, and to Marquette at the Bradley Center. They are 14-0 in home and neutral site games. Just like the Irish need to get a win on the road, the Johnnies need to get a win, period. They are in the midst of a tough eight game stretch, and coming off of a 15 point shellacking at the hands of the Irish in South Bend last Saturday. Now’s the time to turn around this losing streak.

Sun. 1:30 pm: No. 8 Purdue @ West Virginia: I made the decision to slot this game into the Upset Special category before I saw the Boilermakers nearly knock off Minnesota on the road despite getting poor performances out of, well, everyone except JaJuan Johnson. Johnson, on the other hand, torched a big Gopher front line for 29 points and 11 boards. That said, Bob Huggins has started to quiz his team on their scouting reports, and the difference is noticeable, as the ‘Eers are finally playing like they are capable of. They just beat Georgetown in Georgetown on Monday and on Thursday they mollywhopped Providence by 30 points. Morgantown is usually a great environment when West Virginia is good. Let’s hope that trend continues.

BEST MATCHUPS

Sat. 12:00 pm: Cincinnati @ No. 4 Syracuse: Actually, if I’m being truthful, I think that the Bearcats are going to get smoked against the Orange. Just like St. John’s got smoked on Wednesday night. This year’s version of the Syracuse zone just keeps getting scarier and scarier. Cincy is a bigger team that lacks a bit in the playmaking and shooting departments. Based on Syracuse’s size this season, and with Kris Joseph turning into the elite slasher we expected him to be and James Southerland providing just that much more versatility, Bearcat fans should be nervous.

Sat. 12:00 pm: Vanderbilt @ Tennessee
: Two games in, and the Tony Jones experiment has gotten off to a pretty poor start. Vanderbilt looks like they could end up being the second best team in the SEC East with Tennessee’s recent struggles, but remember, this is a Tennessee team that has beaten both Villanova and Pitt this year. The matchup of Jeff Taylor and Scotty Hopson could be the best individual matchup of the weekend.

Sat. No. 12 Missouri @ No. 13 Texas A&M: You cannot get two more differing styles than the Tigers and the Aggies. Mizzou likes to pressure for 40 minutes, push the tempo, force turnovers, and shoot threes. Texas A&M wins with ball control, half court defense, and rebounding. Kansas seems to be the best team in the conference with these two, and Texas, fighting for that second spot. Mizzou lost their first conference road game to Colorado, but the Aggies are relatively unproved. This should be a good gauge for both teams.

Sat. 1:00 pm: Maryland @ No. 7 Villanova: This Terrapins team has a bit of Marquette in them. What I mean is that they are now 11-5 on the season, but they aren’t your typical 11-5 team. All five losses have come to likely tournament teams, none by more than nine points. This is a tough, scrappy team that is still learning how to win. That said, Nova is a tough team to learn against. The Terp’s back court will have their work cut out for them against the likes of Maalik Wayns and My Two Corey’s. The key to this one? Jordan Williams staying out of foul trouble.

Sat. 3:00 pm: No. 16 Illinios @ No. 21 Wisconsin: I can’t imagine two teams with as similar a roster composition playing such different styles. Two talented points guard in Demetri McCamey. Nary a physical big man in sight, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better front court matchup than Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil going against Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis. Quality role players all over the place. The Kohl Center is a tough place to win, but this should be a dandy.

Sat. 7:00 pm: Seton Hall @ No. 5 Pitt: I don’t necessarily believe that the Pirates can win this game. The Peterson Events Center is not a place where road warriors win battles. But the storyline in this game deserves elaboration. Just a few days before Thanksgiving, Jeremy Hazel broke his wrist. He had surgery on Dec. 2nd to repair the wrist. On Christmas day, he was shot in an attempted robbery. On Wednesday night, he played against DePaul and had 23 points on 10-17 shooting. Tough kid.

BEST STORYLINES

Friday

  • 7:00 pm: Valpo @ Wright State; 9:00 pm: Butler @ Detroit: All four of these teams are tied atop the Horizon League standings at 4-1.

Saturday

  • 12:00 pm: No. 23 Temple @ Duquesne: Duquesne is a good team, but Temple looks to be the hands down favorite to win the A-10 this season.
  • 12:00 pm: No. 19 Georgetown @ Rutgers: No one in the country needs a win as badly as Georgetown does. But remember, they lost at the RAC last season.
  • 12:00 pm: Marshall @ Memphis: Can the Tigers snap out of their funk without Wesley Witherspoon?
  • 1:30 pm: Oklahoma State @ Colorado: The battle of the “we just upset Kansas State” teams.
  • 1:30 pm: Texas Tech @ No. 20 Kansas State: Well, maybe Kansas State needs a win as badly as Georgetown.
  • 1:30 pm: South Carolina @ Florida: If it seems like the SEC East is giving us a good game daily, its because they are.
  • 2:00 pm: Virginia @ No. 1 Duke: Virginia will be playing their first game without Mike Scott, while Duke will be taking the floor for the first time since their loss to FSU.
  • 2:00 pm: Nebraska @ No. 3 Kansas: With Wednesday’s performance by the twins, I must ask — are they the Morri, the Morrii, or the Morii? I’ve always gone Morrii.
  • 2:00 pm: No. 9 DePaul @ UConn: Cleveland Melvin originally committed to UConn. He parted ways, ended up at DePaul, and is averaging 13.5 ppg as a freshman.
  • 2:30 pm: Arizona State @ Arizona: Derrick Williams against a front line of … Kyle Cain? Pick him up for your fantasy team.
  • 4:00 pm: Oklahoma @ No. 14 Texas: The Red River rivalry doesn’t have much sizzle on the hardwood this year.
  • 4:00 pm: LSU @ No. 15 Kentucky: LSU has a better record in the SEC than Kentucky does. Enjoy it while it lasts.
  • 4:00 pm: NC State @ Florida State: The Seminoles can beat anyone when they are shooting well. They can lose to anyone when they aren’t. The Wolfpack really need this win.
  • 4:00 pm: Old Dominion @ Hofstra: This might be the best mid-major matchup of the day.
  • 4:00 pm: Austin Peay @ Tennessee State: The Governors have a chance to extend their lead on one of the teams chasing them in the OVC.
  • 5:00 pm: Georgia @ Ole Miss: Renardo Sidney has his best game of the season against Ole Miss on Thursday. Trey Thompkins is what Sidney would be if he actually cared.
  • 5:30 pm: Penn State @ No. 2 Ohio State: Note to the Buckeyes — all Penn State does is upset ranked teams. You’ve been warned.
  • 6:00 pm: UNLV @ Air Force: UNLV cannot afford to lose a game like this if they want to compete in the MWC, but Air Force has been a bit of a surprise this year.
  • 6:00 pm: Boston College @ Miami FL: You probably won’t find a better back court matchup than Reggie Jackson going against Durand Scott and Malcolm Grant.
  • 6:00 pm: UCLA @ Oregon: Have fun watching a game on Matt Court.
  • 7:00 pm: Oakland @ IUPUI: A matchup of the Summit favorites.
  • 8:00 pm: Washington State @ Stanford: After knocking off Washington, Stanford all of a sudden is in second place in the conference.
  • 8:00 pm: Wake Forest @ Virginia Tech: If Virginia Tech loses to Wake, the Hokies might as well pack in their season.
  • 8:00 pm: Dayton @ Xavier: This game looked much better before the season started.
  • 11:00 pm: Utah State @ Fresno State: The Aggies are already head and shoulders above the rest of the WAC, but this is a chance to further distance themselves from the pack.

Sunday

  • 1:00 pm: Valpo @ Detroit; 7:00 pm: Butler @ Wright State: Those Horizon League games from Friday? Butler goes from Detroit to Wright State while Valpo heads the other way.
  • 6:00 pm: Iowa @ No. 25 Minnesota: The Gophers must take care of business coming off of a big win against Purdue.
  • 7:45 pm: North Carolina @ Georgia Tech: The Tar Heels and the Yellow Jackets are probably doing the least with the talent on their respective rosters.
  • 10:00 pm: Washington @ Cal: Cal seems to be handling the loss of Gary Franklin better than U-Dub is the loss of Abdul Gaddy. The Huskies struggle on the road, and they cannot afford to get swept in their northern California trip.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.

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.