Sweet 16 primer: Teams, times, outlooks, more

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Now’s the Sweet part.

We’re through the early madness of the men’s NCAA tournament and onto the regional semifinals, just two games away from the Final Four. Only four of last year’s Sweet 16 made it this season, which should make for a refreshing change of pace.

Kinda.

Duke, Butler, Ohio State and Kentucky are the repeaters, but Kansas, North Carolina, UConn and Arizona are hardly regional semifinal rookies. Still, there are some new faces.  San Diego State, VCU and Richmond have never been this far. BYU’s hasn’t made it here since 1981.

It’s not a powerhouse field by seed, either. With four double-digit seed and an average seed of 5, it’s just as “chalky” as last season.

Read on for a little more about each Sweet 16 team.

EAST REGION

No. 1 Ohio State Buckeyes

Record: 34-2
How it got here: Beat No. 16 Texas-San Antonio 75-46; beat No. 8 George Mason 98-66.
Last Sweet 16 appearance: 2010
Next up: No. 4 Kentucky

Essential info: The tournament’s top overall seed played like it the first week and then some. Ohio State hit 16 of 26 attempts from beyond the arc vs. George Mason and 12 of 24 vs. Texas San Antonio. Scoff at the competition if you like, but that’s 56 percent on 50 attempts. That’s absurd, no matter who the Buckeyes are playing. I’d be shocked if opponents allow them to shoot as many 3s the rest of the tournament. Ohio State’s unlikely to continue shooting like that, but even if it only makes 38 percent of those 3s, it’s still a dangerous team. Best take your chances with Jared Sullinger “only” getting 2 points inside.

Tip-off: 9:45 p.m. ET on Friday (TBS)

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No. 2 North Carolina Tar Heels.

Record: 28-7
How it got here: Beat No. 15 Long Island 102-87, No. 7 Washington 86-83.
Last Sweet 16 appearance: 2009
Next up: No. 11 Marquette

Essential info: The Heels’ frontcourt has filled up the box score – Tyler Zeller, John Henson and Harrison Barnes has scored 139 of UNC’s points in two games and grabbed 51 rebounds – but the play of point guard Kendall Marshall has been even more impressive. He was spectacular vs. Washington, scoring 13 points, dishing 14 assists and grabbing five rebounds, defying the conventional wisdom about freshmen in March. He’ll be looking for more of the same vs. Marquette as the Heels will have a size advantage inside. Henson, with his considerable reach, will be particularly vexing for the Eagles. 

Tip-off: 7:15 p.m. ET on Friday (CBS)

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No. 4 Kentucky Wildcats

Record: 27-8
How it got here: Beat No. 13 Princeton 59-57; beat No. 5 West Virginia 71-63.
Last Sweet 16 appearance: 2010
Next up: No. 1 Ohio State

Essential info: Brandon Knight’s doing his best to make Big Blue Nation forget John Wall. (Kidding. That’ll never happen.) He hit the game-winner vs. Princeton then dropped a career-high 30 vs. West Virginia. He wasn’t the only reason the Wildcats advanced (Jorts!) but was the main one. But to beat Ohio State, they’ll need Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb to boost their scoring (combined for 17 and 15 in two games) and for DeAndre Liggins to perform some defensive magic on the Buckeyes shooters. Of note: Kentucky can match Ohio State with talent and perimeter shooting. Will the post players keep up?

Tip-off: 9:45 p.m. ET on Friday (TBS)

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No. 11 Marquette Golden Eagles

Record: 22-14
How it got here: Beat No. 6 Xavier 66-55; beat No. 3 Syracuse 66-62.
Last Sweet 16 appearance: 2003
Next up: No. 2 North Carolina

Essential info: Those 14 losses? Ignore them. Marquette’s always been far better than its record indicates. Thirteen of those losses came to NCAA tournament teams and 11 were by single digits. Think your team got an unlucky bounce or two? The Eagles had more. Jimmy Butler and Darius Johnson-Odum are the main scoring threats, but anyone out on the floor can score and create shots for others. And for a team that doesn’t roll out a nasty defense, it sure looked nasty vs. Syracuse. The Orange committed 18 turnovers, mostly because Marquette was making them so uncomfortable. They’ll be able to run with the Tar Heels, but they won’t fall into any needless up-and-down exchanges. Marquette’s too smart for that. It just needs to hit its shots.

Tip-off: 7:15 p.m. ET on Friday (CBS)

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WEST REGION

No. 1 Duke Blue Devils

Record: 32-4
How it got here: Beat No. 16 Hampton 87-45; beat No. 8 Michigan 73-71.
Last Sweet 16 appearance: 2010
Next up: No. 5 Arizona

Essential info: The defending champs survived a second-round scare by Michigan, but is in an unusual position entering the Sweet 16. Freshman guard Kyrie Irving – who missed 26 games this season due to a toe injury – finally got back on the court for the Big Dance. He’s played 41 minutes in two games, scored 25 points and showed impressive quickness for a guy who sat out three months. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said Irving will get even more time this week, which provides the Devils with yet another offensive weapon and a solid on-ball defender. But they still need senior Kyle Singler to find his shooting form.

Tip-off: 9:45 p.m. ET Thursday (CBS)

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No. 2 San Diego State Aztecs

Record: 34-2
How it got here: Beat No. 15 Northern Colorado 68-50; beat No. 7 Temple 71-64, 2 OTs.
Last Sweet 16 appearance: Never
Next up: No. 3 UConn

Essential info: The Aztecs’ historic season keeps getting better. They breezed to their first-ever NCAA tournament win, then turned in a classic vs. Temple to reach the Sweet 16. The athletic frontcourt frustrates opponents, the guards are steady and smart. It’s a tough, defensive minded team. All good things. But reaching the Final Four presents much more formidable challenges than reaching the Sweet 16. If the Aztecs get past UConn, they’ll face either Arizona or Duke, teams that thrive by hitting 3-pointers and grab defensive rebounds well. That’s a formula that’s burned SDSU twice this season.

Tip-off: 7:15 p.m. ET Thursday (CBS)

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No. 3 Connecticut Huskies

Record: 28-9
How it got here: Beat No. 14 Bucknell 81-52; beat No. 6 Cincinnati 69-58.
Last Sweet 16 appearance: 2009
Next up: No. 2 San Diego State

Essential info: Kemba Walker’s on his game. He nearly put up a triple-double vs. Bucknell and dumped 33 on Cincy. He’s one of the few players left in the tournament who can win a game by himself, but he’s even better when the rest of the Huskies come to play. Guard Jeremy Lamb’s only missed five shots in two games – and has 30 points to show for it. The Aztecs will almost certainly use guard D.J. Gay on Walker at first, but if he struggles  6-7 Kawhi Leonard could switch over.) Leonard was effective in limiting Jimmer Fredette earlier this season.) They can’t stop Walker from getting his points, but they can make him work for it. That happens, Lamb becomes crucial.

Tip-off: 7:15 p.m. ET on Thursday (CBS)

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No. 5 Arizona Wildcats 

Record: 29-7
How it got here: Beat No. 12 Memphis 77-75; beat No. 4 Texas 70-69.
Last Sweet 16 appearance: 2009
Next up: No. 1 Duke.

Essential info: Two games, two last-second victories. That’s the Wildcats’ tournament thus far. The first came off a Derrick Williams’ game-saving block, while the other saw Williams make a 3-point play in the final seconds vs. Texas. Some might call that lucky. They wouldn’t be wrong. But give some credit to Arizona for shrugging off a sub-par performance from their star (Williams) by getting 16 points from both Solomon Hill and Jordin Mayes and making 8 of 14 3-point attempts. They’ll need that kind of production against the Blue Devils, who will be aggressive on defense and try to force Kyle Fogg and Momo Jones into turnovers.

Tip-off: 9:45 p.m. ET Thursday (CBS)

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SOUTHEAST REGION

No. 2 Florida Gators

Record: 28-7
How it got here: Beat No. 15 UC Santa Barbara 79-51; beat No. 7 UCLA 73-65.
Last Sweet 16 appearance: 2007
Next up: No. 3 BYU

Essential info: The Gators drove into the Sweet 16 thanks to their aggressive guards, Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton, who made their shots and were too much for the UCLA defense to handle. That hasn’t been true all season, but it’s worked lately. Expect more of the same when the Gators match up with BYU. The Cougars can’t match the Gators’ athleticism, but they’ll happily run and shoot with Florida. That means Boynton and Walker, two average shooters, will be tasked with maintaining their hot shooting from the first two rounds. If that fails, Florida’s not toast because of its balance – and the chance for some revenge on BYU. That’s some powerful motivation.

Tip-off: 7:27 p.m. ET on Thursday (TBS)

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No. 3 BYU Cougars

Record: 32-4
How it got here: Beat No. 14 Wofford 74-66; beat No. 11 Gonzaga 89-67.
Last Sweet 16 appearance: 1981
Next up: No. 2 Florida

Essential info: Florida better be ready to guard the perimeter. BYU will come out shooting. Question is, will they connect? Ever since center Brandon Davies was dismissed from the team, the Cougars have attempted roughly two more 3-pointers per game (about 25), but are making just 32 percent of those attempts. With Davies, it was nearly 38. It’s not that they’re a one-dimensional team, it’s that defenses can afford to creep toward the arc more often. It worked vs. Gonzaga when BYU hit 14 of 28. Will the Gators have more success? About the only certainty is that BYU senior Jimmer Fredette will get his. He’s gone for at least 30 points in six of the seven games without Davies.

Tip-off: 7:27 p.m. ET on Thursday (TBS)

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No. 4 Wisconsin Badgers

Record: 25-8
How it got here: Beat No. 13 Belmont 72-58; beat No. 5 Kansas State 70-65.
Last Sweet 16 appearance: 2008
Next up: No. 8 Butler

Essential info: Jon Leuer (41 points in two games) and Jordan Taylor (33 points) get the headlines, and rightly so. Most of Wisconsin’s offensive sets rely on those two making shots, but it’s possible to win if they struggle. Ask K-State. Taylor missed 14 of 16 shots and Leuer missed six of his 12 attempts. The rest of the team went 13 of 22. That’s how it goes with Bo Ryan’s team, which prizes high-percentage shots or 3-pointers in order to maximize points on every possession. It’s close to the same offense Butler runs, with some variations and slightly more athletic players. Can the Badgers run it better?

Tip-off: 9:57 p.m. ET on Thursday (TBS)

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No. 8 Butler Bulldogs

Record: 25-9
How it got here: Beat No. 9 Old Dominion 60-58; beat No. 1 Pitt 71-70.
Last Sweet 16 appearance: 2010
Next up: No. 4 Wisconsin

Essential info: Last year’s Cinderella team is back for another Final Four run. The Bulldogs won two games in the final second, one on a layup, the other on a free throw. Chalk it up to business as usual for Brad Stevens’ team, which won four of its five NCAA tournament games last season by an average of three points. This version doesn’t have a Gordon Hayward, who was a matchup nightmare for opponents, does everything else. It doesn’t turn the ball over, grabs every defensive rebound and is a solid 3-pooint shooting team. It’ll face a Wisconsin team that emphasizes many of those same qualities and plays at the same deliberate pace. Butler will be in the game. Only question is if it’ll come down to the last second again.

Tip-off: 9:57 p.m. ET on Thursday (TBS)

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SOUTHWEST REGION

No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks

Record: 34-2
How it got here: Beat No. 16 Boston 72-53; beat No. 9 Illinois 73-59.
Last Sweet 16 appearance: 2009
Next up: No. 12 Richmond.

Essential info: Check out the remaining teams in the Jayhawks’ region. If that looks favorable for a Final Four run, that’s because it is. (In ’08, Kansas played teams seeded 16, 8, 12 and 10 en route to the Final Four.) Look at it two ways: Bill Self’s squad can punch its ticket to Houston by beating inferior teams or it’ll face more pressure than ever because of those teams. Provided the Jayhawks stay motivated, expect more of the same of what’s worked thus far – getting the ball to Marcus and Markieff Morris inside. They’ve combined for 72 points and 41 rebounds in two games.

Tip-off: 7:27 p.m. Friday (TBS)

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No. 10 Florida State Seminoles

Record: 23-10
How it got here: Beat No. 7 Texas A&M 57-50; beat No. 2 Notre Dame 71-57
Last Sweet 16 appearance: 1993
Next up: No. 11 VCU.

Essential info: Florida State makes one of the oldest clichés around come true: defense wins games. The nation’s most efficient defense was on full display in their tourney wins. A&M isn’t an offensive powerhouse, but Notre Dame is one of the nation’s best shooting teams – and it made barely 30 percent of its shots. Considering that 6-9 forward Chris Singleton – the team’s best player and atop defender – only played 10 minutes due to health issues, it’s even more impressive. Question is, will the ‘Noles’ continue their run of solid offense? That’s back-to-back games where they’ve surpassed their usual shooting standards.

Tip-off: 9:57 p.m. Friday (TBS)

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No. 11 Virginia Commonwealth Rams

Record: 26-11
How it got here: Beat No. 11 USC 59-46; beat No. 6 Georgetown 74-56; beat No. 3 Purdue 94-76.
Last Sweet 16 appearance: Never
Next up: No. 10 Florida State.

Essential info: You win three games, you’re usually in the Elite Eight. Not so with the Rams. But hey, they’re in the Sweet 16 for the first time, so they’re not complaining. If anything, they’ve only gotten better as the tournament’s progressed. They dished 26 assists, had just four turnovers and hit eight 3-pointers vs. the Boilermakers. They’ve always boasted an efficient offense – especially when it comes to taking care of the ball – but that was impressive against a proud defense. Hope they’re ready for more. FSU’s even better on defense than Purdue, especially at challenging shots and forcing turnovers. But the Rams’ guards have handled that pressure thus far.

Tip-off: 9:57 p.m. Friday (TBS)

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No. 12 Richmond Spiders

Record: 29-7
How it got here: Beat No. 5 Vanderbilt 69-66; beat No. 13 Morehead State 68-48.
Last Sweet 16 appearance: 1988
Next up: No. 1 Kansas.

Essential info: The Spiders rode their two stars (Justin Harper and Kevin Anderson) and a zone defense to the Sweet 16. Especially that zone. It created enough issues for Morehead’s inside-outside combo of Kenneth Faried and Demonte Harper that Richmond breezed into the Sweet 16. Vanderbilt’s shooters were only slightly more effective against it, but only a little bit. That zone will be the key vs. the Jayhawks, too. Kansas thrives when facing man-to-man defense, but has issues when zoned because it lacks a guy who can penetrate the zone consistently, then find open teammates.

Tip-off: 7:27 p.m. Friday (TBS)

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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.