Blogger Spotlight: George Mason’s rolling — is it ’06 all over again?

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From Sports Illustrated to ESPN, it seems everyone’s talking about George Mason basketball.

The Patriots have the nation’s longest winning streak (12), are close to wrapping up the Colonial Athletic Association crown and have a team capable of making another run through the NCAA tournament. Maybe even the Final Four again. They could make it 13 with a win Saturday against Northern Iowa in this year’s BracketBuster weekend.

How are the Patriots doing it? For that, I turned to Ryan Kish of georgemasonbasketball.blogspot for this week’s Blogger Spotlight. We talked about this year’s Mason squad, ’06 and more.

BONUS Blogger Spotlight! BracketBusters weekend seemed like a good time to amp up the non-BCS coverage, so come back in an hour when I post today’s second spotlight featuring Kyle Whelliston of The Mid-Majority.

Q: George Mason has won 12 straight games, he last two coming against a rival and the CAA’s second-place team. To say things are going well would be a massive understatement, right?

A: That would be correct Mike. Not only are things going well for Jim Larranaga and the Patriots but they are making their case nationally as one of the better teams not just among mid-majors but among the country. This 12 game streak is a new school record and they averaged over a 17 point margin of victory during it, something no other team in the country could boast about. They are executing to near perfection on both ends of the court on a nightly basis and it’s beginning to get them national recognition.

Q: Life’s good for the CAA in general right now as well. George Mason’s thriving, VCU and ODU are usually mentioned as NCAA tourney contenders and it seems Charles Jenkins does something ridiculous every other game. How would you rate the conference’s overall play and chances to win a few ncaa tourney games?

A: Hands down this is one of the best years we have seen from the CAA and that includes the 2006 season. As a whole they have done their work in the out of conference games and collectively done better than a few of the major conferences. Here’s an example from UNCW beat writer Brian Mull: “James Madison, the sixth place team in the CAA has 6 wins vs. the RPI top 100. Arizona, the first place team in the Pac 10, has 5“. Can they translate that into NCAA tournament wins? I think so because they have been creating havoc in the brackets almost on a yearly basis now between George Mason’s run in ’06, VCU taking down Duke in ’07, and ODU knocking off Notre Dame last year. Certainly it shouldn’t be a surprise to see the CAA get some NCAA tournament wins and I think if they get two squads in this year there is a very good chance one of them could reach the Sweet 16.

Q: The Patriots are no stranger to March wins, either. For those who haven’t seen this year’s team yet — or haven’t watched he hilarious video produced by the athletic department, describe this season’s mason team.

A: This year’s squad is very balanced, versatile and efficient. Jim Larranaga preaches team defense first and foremost however it took awhile for this younger group to buy into it. What we are seeing now is the resulting affects of the team coming together and making the consistent efforts on defense. It can be suffocating at times and they are excellent in forcing other teams into taking shots they are not comfortable with. Offensively they were always a strong group but not since Larranaga set a per-game goal of 16 assists per contest did things really start to take off. When they record 16 or more assists in a game they are 12-0 this season. Their sharing of the ball and their balance is what makes them so dangerous and difficult to defend. On any given night you could have one out of 5 or 6 guys score 15-20 points on you.

Q: Given that Mason’s 2006 Final Four team essentially played five guys, that depth and overall balance might come as a shock to some. But that’s been Larranaga’s style the last few years, hasn’t it? He can rely on Cam Long, Ryan Pearson or Luke Hancock for a chunk of minutes but he doesn’t have to.

A: Larranaga has some really capable guys on the bench but you are correct that he relies heavily on his starters this season like did in 2006. In the beginning of the season he did state publically that he didn’t have much faith in some of the reserve player’s efforts on defense. They all were effective scorers but they weren’t quite buying into the team defensive comcept that he preaches. Even when they are playing better on defense you will often see Larranaga continue to leave in his starters late in the game. It can be puzzling to fans at times but like you said it’s just his style.

Q: Still. Is there one indispensible player?

A: As good as forward Ryan Pearson has been, I’d still have to say that senior guard Cam Long is the most indispensible play on this team. His ability to be a floor general has really helped this team remain poised no matter what situation they have found themselves in. Aside from his leadership Long makes the guys around him better whenever he is on court and although there is a lot of talent on his team you can’t say that about any of the others.

Q: Saturday’s game against Northern Iowa is a Cinderella showdown of sorts. The Panthers beat No. 1 seed Kansas in last year’s NCAA tournament, then lost in the Sweet 16. Yet that doesn’t compare to Mason’s ’06 run, right? Not only did you guys beat a 1 seed (UConn), you took down the reigning champs and another Final Four team in Michigan State.

A: You sound like a promo commercial for ESPN’s BracketBuster weekend. I think both runs by each team were great for college basketball and for each schools. It did end up getting both of them on the cover of Sports Illustrated and proved that the CAA and MVC can produce strong NCAA tournament teams. Although I think the whole BracketBusters idea is a bit of an insult to mid-major schools I still enjoy the idea of watching a “Battle of the Cinderellas” and another good CAA vs MVC match-up.

Q: I did come off as a bit of shill, didn’t I? Couldn’t be helped. Non-conference matchups like this don’t happen often because there’s often nothing to gain from it for a program like Mason. In that regard, it just reinforces how rigged the game is against the non-BCS schools, right?

A: Scheduling is one of the many hardships for non-BCS schools like George Mason and while ESPN Bracketbusters is a nice touch to get schools another non-conference game opponent but it’s still a broken system.  George Mason is in the area of two other prominent BCS schools in Maryland and Georgetown yet you won’t find them on past schedules due to the Patriot’s recent success.  I get why these schools don’t want to schedule the mid-majors but I just wish it wasn’t always their decision.

Q: Fondest memory of that ’06 Final Four run?

A: As a senior at George Mason that year I would have to say watching them take down UConn at the Verizon Center in DC and then running through the streets telling every homeless person the final score. I’ll never forget the atmosphere that day and the thought that our school was American’s team.

Q: Love your blog. How’d you get into it? Judging by your first post, the ’06 run had something to do with it.

A: I was a freshman at George Mason in 2002 and fell in love with the basketball team and the defensive-minded head coach in Jim Larranaga. Watching them take down Tennessee at the Patriot Center in 2004 NIT was one of my fondest memories of following the team. Even after that it was still rare to find people to talk to about the team or find articles online. But after the Final Four run in 2006 there was an influx of media, students, alumni, and other fans searching for reliable news and updates about the team. I wasn’t really happy with the athletic department website so I started a blog as just a place to discuss the team. I just loved sharing my views on the team and was excited that there was finally a larger and more interested fan base for the team.

Q: How has your blogging style changed through the years? You incorporate a little of everything, from Q&As, to videos, link roundups and graphs of the Four Factors. Has that always been the case?

A: My blogging has drastically evolved. I used to just write my thoughts after a game, now I try to post as much content I can about George Mason basketball whether it be about recruiting, scheduling or player news.  As the site got more popular I slowly started to integrate the things you listed.  New tools seem to pop up all the time for bloggers and always enjoy integrating new features. 

Q: Moment of truth: How do the Patriots finish this season?

A: It’s hard to bet against a team like this who is so hot right now. I think they have done enough to warrant an NCAA tournament bid regardless of what happens in the CAA tournament but the real question is whether their dominance in the CAA will translate into wins in March? Usually teams riding a hot streak do well in the tournament and I think the Patriots are more than capable of winning some games at the big dance this year. I think their balance and versatility will take them far and surprise a high seeded team. Anything can happen but I wouldn’t want to seeded in the same region as George Mason if I’m an opposing head coach.

You can find Ryan’s blog at georgemasonbasketball.blogspot.com and follow him on twitter @gmuhoops.

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

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.