Get ready for the Final Four with these storylines

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Pick a storyline. Any storyline. Odds are this Final Four has it.

There are underdogs, fab freshmen, bluebloods, fantastic coaches and superstars. But the odds are a good place to start. The long odds, that is.

Who knew?
Virginia Commonwealth won five straight games and pulled off the tournament’s biggest upset vs. Kansas Sunday. The chances of those five wins? At least 821:1. (Some were much, much higher.) Yet the 11-seed Rams not only defied those odds, they won four of those five games by double figures.

Compare that to their Final Four opponent, Butler. The 8-seed Bulldogs – in their second straight Final Four – had 100:1 odds of making it this far. As the power conference teams, Kentucky and Connecticut had far better odds. The 4-seed Wildcats were roughly 8:1. The 3-seed Huskies were 13:1.

If it seems like no one saw this coming, you’d be wrong. Two people – out of 5.9 million – did. Well, and the teams still playing. They expected this.

Team snapshots
Kentucky (29-8) is making its 14th Final Four appearance and first since 1998. It’ll be chasing its 8th NCAA title, which is what Big Blue Nation expected of coach John Calipari when he was hired in 2009. In the two seasons since, he’s racked up 64 wins and is 7-1 in the NCAA tournament. They lost five players to the NBA from last year’s Elite Eight team, yet knocked off Ohio State and North Carolina in three days.

UConn (30-9) awaits Kentucky in Saturday’s primetime matchup. It’s the Huskies’ fourth Final Four trip, all since 1999. They’ve won two titles and feature the best player left in the field in junior guard Kemba Walker. They’re the last Big East team remaining – of 11 bids – yet finished tied for ninth during conference play.

VCU (28-11) is here for the first time, and also became the first team to reach the Final Four by winning five games. For that, the Rams can thank their inclusion into the “First Four,” the result of the tournament’s expansion to 68 teams. Since then, the Rams have beaten teams from the Pac-10, Big East, Big Ten, ACC and Big 12. They’re the biggest underdog in the field, but aren’t playing like it.

Butler (27-9), which followed up an improbable Final Four run last year with an even more unlikely run this season. The Bulldogs were just 14-9 on Feb. 3 and weren’t even headed for the NIT, let alone the Big Dance. They haven’t lost since (13 straight), though it’s hardly been a cakewalk. Butler won its four NCAA tourney games by 2, 1, 7 and 3 points. That clutch play puts the Bulldogs in elite company, too. It joined Michigan State, Maryland, Kansas, Florida, UCLA and North Carolina as programs that have made back-to-back Final Fours since 2000.

Not the worst ever
The four teams remaining comprise the highest combined seed total (26) since the NCAA began using seeds in 1979. The previous mark was 22 (set in 2000 when two 8 seeds made it). It’s also the first time no team seeded 1 or 2 made the Final Four.

However, the seeds are high, but the teams’ combined records are not the worst. The 2000 Final Four still holds that (ahem) honor.

Forget the re-seeding
You’ll hear chatter about the Final Four games – Kentucky-UConn; VCU-Butler – being the wrong matchups because they feature the two major conference teams and the two mid-majors. Too bad. TV executives might be nervous about the ratings, but that’s how the NCAA tournament goes. Sometimes, you don’t get exactly what you want, but you still enjoy it.

Good vs. Evil (or something like that)
Kentucky-UConn is the marquee matchup because of the programs’ tradition and previous NCAA tournament success. Yet both coaches have had NCAA issues. UConn’s Jim Calhoun was just found guilty for failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance. Calipari’s technically never been to a Final Four, though he technically wasn’t cited in those vacated Final Fours at UMass and Memphis.

Contrast that to their counterparts at Butler and VCU and it’s an easy angle to see. Then again, neither Brad Stevens, 34, or Shaka Smart, 33, have been around long enough to do anything other than coach. This is Stevens’ fourth year at Butler and Smart’s second at VCU.

About that “mid-major” label
That’s the de-facto term for any team not playing in the ACC, Big East, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-10 or SEC. (Another measure includes the Mountain West.) Those conferences bring in massive amounts of money because of their football revenue, which is doled out to the basketball teams. Those resources are why the major conferences get most of the NCAA tournament bids. But with three mid-major teams making the Final Four four times  since 2006, the term might need to be redefined. At least for the teams who consistently defy those expectations like Butler, Xavier and Gonzaga.

The freshmen
Who needs ‘em? All four. But mostly Kentucky and UConn.

The Wildcats rely on three – Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb. They account for nearly 75 percent of the ‘Cats’ shots. Knight’s been especially handy. Two game-winning shots in four games? Not bad.

UConn also plays three – Jeremy Lamb, Shabazz Napier and Roscoe Smith. Lamb’s their main scoring option behind star Kemba Walker, while Napier and Smith have played increasingly larger roles as the season’s progressed.

Butler and VCU each only use one, but both played key roles in their Final Four runs. Bulldogs forward Khyle Marshall grabbed seven rebounds and scored 10 points in a win over Florida, while Rams guard Rob Brandenberg got 20 key minutes vs. FSU.

The star
Let’s close with the big one. Knight’s been great, but Walker’s the guy who capable of carrying the Huskies to a title, much like Carmelo Anthony did for Syracuse or Danny Manning did for Kansas. He’s been spectacular – and then some – all season, and just as good the last four games. He’s averaging nearly 27 a game and hitting 44 percent of his shots. He’s unguardable at best, difficult to stop at worst. Kentucky may be the favorite to win, but Walker’s the reason why it’s foolish to count out the Huskies.

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.