Four teams, four Cinderella stories

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I don’t think it would be fair to call the 2011 NCAA tournament the greatest tournament of all-time. At least not yet.

The first half of the first day was outstanding. There were a couple of classics during the tournament’s round of 32. The Sweet 16 featured plenty of intrigue, and the Elite 8 was as good as any Elite 8 since 2005.

But does that make the best NCAA tournament of all-time?

Who knows. That answer is far too subjective — and far too reliant on where you happened to attend undergrad — to have a definitive answer. It also depends on your definition of great. There are plenty of fans out there that think that the 2008 Final Four, in which all four No. 1 seeds advanced for the first time, was the greatest Final Four of all time. There is an equally large faction that considers this year’s Final Four, in which we don’t have a No. 1 or No. 2 seed for the first time ever and have the highest total seeds in tournament history, to be the greatest ever.

Arguing greatness is, in the end, pointless. Everyone has a different definition and a precious few will be convinced to change their opinion.

But the one thing we can agree on is that this NCAA tournament may be the most unexpected and unconventional. I’d go as far as to say that each of the four teams in this NCAA tournament can be considered a cinderella of sorts.

None of the four teams headed to Houston were supposed to here.

East region champ: No. 4 Kentucky

This wasn’t supposed to be the year that Kentucky made the Final Four.

This was supposed to be their in-between season, with a loaded recruiting class coming to campus next year.

Kentucky sent five players to the first round of the NBA draft in 2010. Everyone knew John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins were going to be gone after one season. Big Blue Nation probably got two extra years out of Patrick Patterson, who could have been a lottery pick as a freshman. But two of those first rounders, Eric Bledsoe and Daniel Orton, were surprise departures. Combine those losses with the decision by the NCAA to render Enes Kanter permanently ineligible, and this Kentucky team was left with just a six-man rotation.

Three of those players were highly touted freshmen. The other three? DeAndre Liggins, Darius Miller and Josh Harrellson. Liggins and Miller were top-50 recruits who had underperformed in their two seasons in Lexington. Harrellson was a JuCo transfer known more for being a fan favorite and the team’s resident jokester than an interior force.

And although Big Blue Nation probably would disagree with me, the Wildcats probably deserved their four seed. This is a group that underperformed throughout the regular season, struggling away from Rupp Arena and finishing at 10-6 in a weak SEC.

But something happened in March.

Something clicked.

Harrellson has become a monster in the paint, using every bit of skill in his 6-foot-11, 250-pound frame to become a blue-collar workhorse. Liggins has developed into a defensive stopper that, at 6-6, is to the Wildcats what Chris Kramer was to Purdue and David Lighty was to Ohio State. Miller has become a knock-down shooter with a knack for making a big play.

It feels weird touting Kentucky as an underdog, but that is what they were just three weeks ago. The NCAA tournament is all about matchups and who gels at the right time.

And this Kentucky team has gelled. The Wildcats are playing their best basketball of the season, they are getting significant contributions from everyone on the floor, and they are in the Final Four after beating both Ohio State and North Carolina despite not having gotten anything close to their best player’s (Terrence Jones) best basketball.

West region champ: No. 3 UConn

Back in May, when UConn received their Notice of Allegations from the NCAA, I questioned whether it would be the death penalty for UConn basketball.

And although it looks quite silly now, based on what has happened in the last 10 months — well, the last month — knowing what I know now, my opinion would not have changed.

That should tell you just how impressive this run has been for the Huskies.

UConn was picked 10th in the Big East in the preseason, and rightfully so. NCAA sanctions hung over the Huskies, with a head coach who appeared to be one step from a convalescent home, and with a young and unproven roster surrounding a 6-foot-nothing point guard who still had a ways to go before his skill set caught up with his tools.

After a terrific non-conference portion of the schedule, which included a Maui Invitational title and a win at Texas, the Huskies came back to earth in Big East play. They went 4-9 against the 11 Big East teams that made the NCAA tournament, lost four of their last five games in the regular season, and finished ninth in the Big East and playing on the Big East tournament’s first day.

That’s when this magical run started.

UConn won five games in five days in New York City, winning the tournament title and earning that three seed. And after winning four games over the past two weekends, the Huskies are headed to Houston for their second Final Four in three seasons.

Southeast region champ: No. 8 Butler

It might be unfair to call a team making its second straight Final Four a Cinderella, but everything about this Butler team screams Cinderella.

The Bulldogs finished in a three-way tie for first place in the Horizon League at 13-5. To do so, they had to bounce back from a stretch of four losses in five games, capped when Butler fell to Youngstown State, a Horizon bottom-feeder.

Butler came into the NCAA tournament on a roll, winning its last nine games (two of which came in the Horizon tournament), earning an eight seed and a date with Old Dominion in the first round. That roll didn’t slow in the dance, as the Bulldogs won four more games to get to the Final Four.

Those wins, mind you, weren’t blowouts.

Like any Cinderella, Butler has had to scrap and claw to get where it is, taking advantage of some lucky bounces along the way. In the Bulldogs’ first-round game, Matt Howard happened to have a loose ball land in his hands before scoring the buzzer-beating layup in the first-round win over Old Dominion. The Bulldogs nearly blew a second-round game against Pitt on a silly foul by Shelvin Mack, but thanks to a missed free throw from Gilbert Brown and an even sillier foul by Nasir Robinson, Butler once again advanced.

The Bulldogs managed to avoid blowing a 20-point lead to Wisconsin before taking on Florida in the Elite 8. More magic was in store against the Gators. Seldom-used freshman Chrishawn Hopkins made two plays in the second half to help erase an 11-point deficit and swing the tide of momentum in the Bulldogs’ favor before some questionable late-game shot selection from Florida put Butler in another Final Four.

In some ways, Butler’s run to the Final Four this season is much more of a Cinderella story than last year’s. The Bulldogs had some expectation last season. They were a preseason pick to make the Final Four. They struggled through non-conference play, which put a damper on their seeding and their status nationally, but that was still a team with a lottery pick that defended as well as anyone in the country.

This year? They have no such lottery pick, and probably don’t have an NBA player on the roster. They don’t play an elite level of defense. Yet, here they are.

Back in the Final Four.

Southwest region champ: No. 11 VCU

The Rams might be the biggest Cinderella of all time.

Very few people thought the Rams had a shot at making the NCAA tournament on Selection Sunday. Not after they lost their last four games in Colonial play. Shaka Smart was so convinced that his team wasn’t going to get a bid that he didn’t even get them together for the selection show. Brad Burgess went to Five Guys. Ed Nixon watched cartoons. Brandon Rozell did his homework. Joey Rodriguez was the only player who watched.

And he was rewarded.

VCU got in, just barely. It had to take part in the first ever at-large play-in game. The Rams locked up USC defensively, advancing to face Georgetown in the round of 64. They ran the Hoyas and then Purdue off the court with a barrage of three-pointers, following that up with a nail-biting, overtime win against Florida State.

Up next was powerhouse Kansas, who was staggered by a series of haymakers thrown by the suddenly confident Rams early in the game. VCU answered a 6-0 start by the Jayhawks with a 19-4 run that was pushed to a 39-15 surge. Kansas was never able to take the lead back, and VCU was headed to the Final Four.

What makes the Rams’ run so incredible is that they are playing, without a doubt, their best basketball of the season.

The Rams are undersized, but they are loaded with shooters and difficult matchups for teams with more traditional lineups. They also like to press and get their opponents out of an offensive rhythm. And that is precisely what they have done in their first five games of this tournament. For a team that barely cracked the top third in defensive efficiency in the regular season, they have been one of the best defensive teams in this tournament. Even their shooting from beyond the arc is at a level that the Rams have not experienced this season. VCU never hit more than 11 threes in a game in the regular season. They have made 12 in a game three times in five NCAA tournament games.

VCU has already set a record of sorts.

After Saturday’s national semifinal against Butler, VCU will become the first team to ever play in six NCAA tournament games without having played in the national championship game.

It doesn’t get more Cinderella than that.

Even this season.

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.