Kemba Walker’s heroics shouldn’t overshine his teammate’s 2nd half performance

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NEW YORK – For the sixth time this season, Kemba Walker hit a shot that won a game for UConn.

Jamal Coombs-McDaniel had dug out the last of Connecticut’s 13 second-half offensive rebounds and called time out. Then, with the clock winding down, Kemba got a ball screen and the Huskies’ all-american had 6-10 Pittsburgh behemoth Gary McGhee guarding him.

The result? A killer crossover on McGhee, who went flying by. Walker then rose up and nailed the shot, sending the Huskies to a 76-74 victory over the No. 3 Panthers, their third win in three days at the Big East tournament.

And if a picture is worth a thousand words, then video is priceless:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wtt6FMpAg2Y]

“Everybody knows that I’m going to be the one to take that last shot or make the last play,” Kemba told reporters just minutes after being mobbed by his teammates at center court. “So that’s what I had to do for my team.”

“There’s nothing like doing it in your hometown,” the Bronx native said.

And he’s right. I’m sure the moment was just as special for Kemba as it was for his mom, who was standing and dancing in the front row next to the student section wearing her trademark white No. 15 jersey.

But the end result was almost very different.

For the first two months of the season, Kemba Walker was the runaway favorite for national player of the year. He was scoring 30 points a game in wins over top 10 teams in Maui. He was hitting buzzer beating shots to give the Huskies wins over teams like Villanova and Texas. He was putting UConn on his diminutive shoulders and carrying them, all the way to a top five ranking in the country.

But as the season wore on, defenses started focusing on him. The shots that were open early in the season were contested down the stretch of conference play. The game-winning shots he was hitting earlier in the season became turnovers in crucial moments late. As one prominent writer told me yesterday, the amount of good Kemba did early in the season was beginning to be outdone by the bad he was doing down the stretch of games late in the season.

This was Kemba’s sixth game-winning shot of the season. It was his first, however, since the runner he hit to knock off Villanova on January 17th. Since then, his play in the clutch has been more goat than gloat. UConn lost close games to Louisville, West Virginia, Marquette, and Notre Dame, and in all four Kemba failed to make plays down the stretch.

It didn’t exactly look like that was going to change on Thursday afternoon.

After Shabazz Napier got hung up on a screen, leaving Ashton Gibbs wide open in the corner for his sixth three of the game, this game was tied at 74 with 47 seconds left. As everyone in the gym knew, the ball was going to Kemba Walker. But, as Walker had already done three times in the previous three possessions, he missed a tough jump shot with 20 seconds left in the game.

Luckily, Coombs-McDaniel was there to grab the offensive rebound, giving Kemba and UConn another shot at getting the win in regulation.

“It’s special, especially because I missed a couple of shots before that shot and my teammates had the confidence in me,” Kemba said.

“Anybody in the world knew that ball was coming to me. I wouldn’t take that shot and I called it out in the huddle. I wanted to take that shot.”

But he hit the shot that mattered, and he sent the Huskies to the semifinals of the Big East Tournament to play the winner of Syracuse and St. John’s. So credit Walker, who finished with 24 points on 8-22 shooting with five assists and three turnovers, for being able to rise to the occasion on the biggest of stages.

That said, credit must also be given to the other guys on the team. Alex Oriakhi completely dominated the paint in the second half, grabbing offense rebound after offensive rebound and leading the Huskies to 16 second chance points in the second half. He had 11 of his 13 points in the second half, and grabbed four of his five offensive rebounds (he had seven boards total).

“He didn’t start off the game well, didn’t play particularly well,” Jim Calhoun said. “And in the second half he was the guy and he was great in the middle, scored points first for us, rebounded first, got in there, did a great job on defense.”

Jeremy Lamb finished with 17 points and four boards while Shabazz Napier added 10 points and a couple of huge jumpers in the second half. Coombs-McDaniel had just five points and two boards, but he made the biggest play of the game getting the offensive board with 18 seconds left.

So while Kemba is the hero, remember that he would not have been in a position to provide the heroics if it wasn’t for the play of the other four guys on the floor.

And that is why UConn is heading to the semis.

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.