Blogger Spotlight: Inside Kansas-Missouri with Upon Further Review

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This weekend’s not just about the Duke-North Carolina rivalry. Well, at least not in the Kansas City area.

No. 2 Kansas travels to Columbia, Mo., Saturday for their annual second showdown with longtime rival Missouri. And there’s reason for Jayhawks fans to be concerned despite the Tigers’ recent woes in this rivalry.

Will Kansas lose focus after clinching a share of the Big 12 title on Wednesday? And how will it fare at a place where the Tigers are

For answers to those questions and more – like the greatness of statistics when measuring teams – I turned to Martin Manley for this week’s Blogger Spotlight. He writes about the Jayhawks, Tigers and Wildcats for Upon Further Review, a blog owned by the Kansas City Star.

Q: Kansas owns this rivalry lately. Is Bill Self’s system a bad matchup for Mike Anderson’s style, or are the Tigers on the verge of making this competitive again?   

A: I don’t think Self’s system or style of play is a variable in why KU is somewhat dominant. It mostly boils down to the fact that KU has superior players. Anderson’s style works extremely well against lesser quality teams because they can press them and create a lot of turnovers. That’s why they are usually at the top of the NCAA charts on opponents’ turnovers. But, good teams can manage that press.

Q: Do the fans care more about the rivalry than the players and coaches? That must drive Norm Stewart nuts.

A: I think the majority of fans care more than the coaches simply because part of the mindset of any coach is to try to avoid making one game more important than another. Every coach wants to keep his team mentally prepared at all times. Sure, they will give a little extra locker-room rah, rah when playing a major rival, but it’s really nothing compared to the intensity that fans have – especially in Kansas City – especially between Lawrence and Columbia, civil war and all.

Q: OK, aesthetics and sheer enjoyment : Which team’s more fun to watch?

A: In recent years, I have considered Mizzou to be more enjoyable to watch – just a lot more action. Self’s teams, on the other hand, are more disciplined and based upon setting up in the half court.

However, I have to say this particular season, KU is incredibly fun to watch – easily the most enjoyable of Self’s teams at Kansas. It’s not because they run a lot, but because the half court offense is the best I have ever seen in college – amazingly efficient. It reminds me of the 1980’s Celtics.

Q: You’re right about the offense. Kansas has so many offensive options – and underrated players on a national level such as Tyrel Reed – that this seems like the first year when the offense is overshadowing the always solid defense. (Though, I’d say the defense is far from its usual intimidating self.) Are you a believer that defense, not offense, wins titles? And will this year put that to the test?

A: I recently did a study on defense winning titles and there is no doubt that it does. Kansas always has a very good defense based upon points allowed per possession coupled with defensive FG%. Typically, it is their defense that wins most of the time. In 2011, it’s more their offense.

Q: Does Kansas give you some pause about their national title hopes then? Or is the offense that good?

A: You have to realize KU has been ranked No. 1 or No. 2 at some point in all but four seasons since 1991 and yet they have only won one title in that span. Of course, there are 340+ teams too.

The bottom line concern for Kansas fans is that they have had some very disappointing early exits from the tournament. Only the most optimistic would default to a national championship (2008) over an early exit (multiple). The superior offense gives reason for hope in 2011, but KU has had better defenses and still fallen way short. So, it’s pure guesswork.

Q: What’s with Missouri and its road woes? Should that be a warning sign for March Madness? 

A: Missouri’s style of play feeds off the fans. It’s 40 minutes of hell…ter skelter. The fans get involved and it helps MU and hurts their opponents. They don’t have that advantage on the road. Even so, the jury is out on neutral courts. They are 3-1 this year with their only loss being a last second collapse against Georgetown.

Q: A promising sign for the NCAA tournament then. Is Missouri’s ceiling going to depend on their seed, then? Or is this a team that’ll max out in the Sweet 16 regardless of seed?

A: I’m not a believer in seeds having much to do with any team’s ceilings. We talk a lot about who is seeded where and if they are too high or too low, but that always means one position at most. Suppose MU is a #8. Does it matter if they are a #9 instead… or a #7. I don’t think so. The advantage Mizzou has is that their style is unique and other teams don’t plan for it. That should help them no matter where they are seeded. On the other hand, their big disadvantage is that they don’t bang well and that can be important in the tournament.

Q: Kansas City loves its Chiefs. But when it comes to hoops would it be a Jayhawks backer or Tigers backer?  (And is K-State ever going to be on that level of fan interest?)

A: In Kansas City, there is a larger KU presence than MU, but not by a lot. K-State is third. I suppose the Cats could be on the Hawks or Tigers level of interest, but they would have to be very good at basketball to make it so. MU is the major school in the state, so people on the Missouri side are partial. Lawrence is very close to KC, so the Kansas side is heavily influenced by the Hawks.

Q: Upon Further Review isn’t afraid to whip out the stats. Do find you’ve cultivated an audience that expects this from you? Or do they still want some of the sports clichés?

A: As to Upon Further Review, all I can say is that I write about what interests me – and that means it’s going to be predicated upon statistical evidence the huge majority of the time. UFR is not about subjectivity and unsupported opinion. Just the opposite. Sports clichés, tweets, quotes, typical reporting are all unacceptable.

The only thing that matters to me, and the vast majority of UFR readers, is what can be quantified and what can be proven. Of course, even within those parameters, there is room for debate. If a person wants something else, there are 10,000 other places to go on the net, but there is only one UFR.

Q: Are there any college hoops misnomers or myths you find people cling to? And how long until advanced statistical analysis makes those myths go away?

A: I’ve dealt with a lot of “myths” on UFR over the years. There are still a lot of them that people cling to. One I’ve been dealing with recently is how even the media clings to the notion that whoever had the most points in a game “led the team to victory”. Almost nothing irritates me more than that.

I invented the Efficiency Rating (EFF) in 1985 – not to be confused with John Hollingers Efficiency Rating. The NBA adopted EFF a few years ago. It’s overwhelmingly more accurate in determining which player was the most valuable in a game than simple points scored. The media (mainstream) is too lazy to look beyond points, but someday, somewhere in another land far, far away… perhaps EFF will become commonplace. In baseball, stats like OPS are starting to become more widely known, so there is hope.

Q: How did you get into blogging and how does it fit into your “real” job?

A: I work for the Kansas City Star. I’m primarily responsible for statistical information in the paper. Newspapers are, as everyone knows, struggling. So, more and more emphasis has been put on – which is owned by The Star.

A few years back we began UFR as a place thinking people could congregate – a place removed from the “your team sucks” mentality that is so pervasive so many other places. Upon Further Review concentrates on the Kansas City area – primarily Chiefs, Royals, Kansas, Missouri and Kansas State.

However, there are quite a few stories on Big 12 football and basketball as well as NFL, MLB and NBA. I’m the primary contributor and do all the behind the scenes work, but we also have reader contributions that I post from time to time.

You can read more of Martin’s work by clicking here.

You also can follow me 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.