With less than 30 seconds left in their semifinal matchup against Kentucky, UConn was clinging to a 54-52 lead.
Shabazz Napier had the ball in his hands, dribbling down the shot clock before the Huskies were going to try and put Kemba Walker in a position to score. But Brandon Knight knocked the ball out of Napier’s hands and Kentucky dove on it, calling a time out.
In the huddle, the UConn coaching staff was worried about how the freshman point guard was going to react. He had been an integral part of UConn’s defense, playing a major role in holding Knight to just 6-23 shooting from the floor, and Kentucky still had one possession left with a chance to tie or win the game.
But during the timeout, Napier looked at UConn head coach Jim Calhoun and said “Coach, I’ll make it up next play”. And while he didn’t exactly make it up the next play — when DeAndre Liggins missed a 24 foot three that would have won the game — Napier buried two free throws with 1.7 seconds left that clinched a trip to the national title game for the Huskies, 56-52.
UConn was not very good offensively. Kemba Walker played what was easily his worst game in the month of March, finishing with 18 points, seven assists, and six boards on 6-15 shooting. (It should tell you just how good Kemba has been in March that 18, seven, and six is considered an off night.) The Huskies shot just 1-12 from three. They turned the ball over 15 times. They only managed to get six offensive rebounds.
“I think that offensively we struggled with a lot of open shots. Obviously, they were loading up to find Jeremy and Kemba,” Calhoun said after the game.
“I thought Kemba could have had 12, 13 assists. We missed shots we usually should make and will make.”
UConn won this game with their defense.
There was Alex Oriakhi and Charles Okwandu in the paint, holding Josh Harrellson to just six points and four rebounds. There was the combined 2-14 that DeAndre Liggins and Darius Miller shot from the floor. In fact, outside of a four minute stretch to start the second half, when the Wildcats managed to score 14 points, Kentucky was downright atrocious on the offensive end.
They finished the game shooting 33.9 percent from the field. They were just 4-12 from the free-throw line. They averaged just 0.89 PPP, a number that drops all the way to 0.84 PPP if you factor out the three that Knight hit at the buzzer.
“I just think we missed a bunch of open shots,” Harrellson said. “We had good looks. Me, personally, I couldn’t knock anything down in the first half. Missed a bunch of one-footers. We had a bunch of good looks in the first half. We just couldn’t make anything.”
The best performance of the night, however, was the job that Napier did on Brandon Knight. Knight finished the game with just 17 points on 6-23 shooting from the floor. As poorly as Napier played offensively — 1-7 shooting, three turnovers — he was that good defensively.
“He played great, great defense,” Calhoun said. “Knight is a very young, good player that’s been going crazy. Tonight we call those costly points. I think that Knight is an absolutely magnificent player. But six for 23 is expensive. That’s how we look at it. We try to use that term defensively. In other words, if you take a lot of tough shots, that’s expensive because your field-goal percentage goes down and we in turn have a much better chance to win.”
Perhaps the most telling statistic for the Wildcats is that despite getting 15 offensive rebounds on the night, they were only able to score five second chance points. Combine that with the 4-12 free throw shooting, and Kentucky’s inability to capitalize on the opportunities that they had probably cost them.
I am an avid supporter of the use of advance statistics in college hoops. If you aren’t looking at Kenpom’s web site, then you aren’t truly informed about college basketball. There is so much to be learned by looking at a team or a game or a matchup through that lens. But one thing that cannot be gleaned from tempo-free stats is the ability to make a big play at a big moment.
Kenpom has yet to invent a stat for “rising to the occasion”, if you will.
And that is precisely what made the difference in tonight’s outcome.
Take, for example, a play midway through the second half. Doron Lamb looked like he had a wide open fast break layup, but Kemba chased him down and blocked the shot. Kentucky didn’t end up scoring on the possession, and the Huskies eventually won the game by one point.
That’s a relatively insignificant play. It won’t make Sportscenter. It won’t make the One Shining Moment cut. But the effect that it had on the game was enormous, and its the kind of play that is difficult to quantify on a stat sheet.
The final eight minutes of this game were filled with moments like that.
There was the steal and layup that Kemba had with just four minutes left in the game when he was clearly exhausted. There was the nifty, up-and-under lay-in that Napier had with just over two minutes left in the game. There was DeAndre Liggins stepping on the three point line when he drew a foul on Jeremy Lamb in the final minute. There was the three that Liggins missed at the end of the game that would have given Kentucky the lead in the final seconds.
And there was Napier, knocking down the two free throws at the end to seal the win.
UConn didn’t necessarily win on Saturday night because they played better or because they were the better team.
They won because they played better when it counted. The Huskies made the plays in the clutch. Kentucky didn’t.
And that is why UConn will play for the national.
Arizona State’e Martin to return for senior season
TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) 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.
Today, we are unveiling the NBC Sports college basketball preseason top 25.
As always, there are plenty of caveats here.
For starters, we are still in the process of figuring out who will and will not be returning to school and where the myriad transfers are going to end up this year.
Given the impact that the COVID-19 outbreak has had on the way recruiting and the predraft process will work, it is hard to know how and where these guys will end up, which is why every college basketball preseason top 25 published right now is going to have plenty of assumptions, projections and moving parts.
So with that in mind, here is the current iteration of NBC Sports college basketball preseason top 25:
With the exception of Saddiq Bey, Villanova returns everyone from a team that won a share of the Big East regular season title last season while adding Tulane transfer Caleb Daniels (16.9 ppg) and a healthy Bryan Antoine. There is enough talent on this roster that I think they are the clear No. 1 team in the country right now. And while Bey was their best player, I don’t think that they will have much trouble replacing him. Villanova has a roster full of talented wings and perimeter weapons. Bey was the best of the bunch, but Antoine’s healthy, Daniels is really good and the likes of Justin Moore, Jermaine Samuels and Cole Swider return as well. Throw in Jeremiah Robinsin-Earl and this roster is loaded.
RELATED: College basketball preseason top 25 (link)
GONE: Freddie Gillespie, Devonte Bandoo
COMING BACK: MaCio Teague, Davion Mitchell, Mark Vital, Tristan Clark, Matthew Mayer, Jordan Turner, Flo Thamba
WAIT AND SEE: Jared Butler
NEW FACES: Adam Flagler, L.J. Cryer, Dain Dainja, Zach Loveday, Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua
PROJECTED STARTERS: Jared Butler, MaCio Teague, Davion Mitchell, Mark Vital, Tristan Clark
The Bears should get all three of their guards back, assuming Jared Butler opts to return to school, and with Mark Vital slated to return, they’ll once again have two of the best defenders in college basketball on the roster (Davion Mitchell). They’re coming off of a 26-4 season, and there are plenty of bench options at Scott Drew’s disposal — Matthew Mayer, Jordan Turner, Adam Flagler — but the big question is going to be at the five. Which Tristan Clark are we going to get next season?
GONE: Filip Petrusev, Admon Gilder, Ryan Wooldridge, Killian Tillie
COMING BACK: Joel Ayayi, Drew Timme, Anton Watson, Martynas Arlauskas, Pavel Zakharov
WAIT AND SEE: Jalen Suggs, Corey Kispert
NEW FACES: Oumar Ballo, Aaron Cook, Julian Strawther, Dominick Harris
The Zags should once again be a powerhouse next season, but they are still waiting on a couple of draft decisions. Their star freshman guard is Jalen Suggs, who would be a perfect fit next to Joel Ayayi and Corey Kispert on Gonzaga’s perimeter if both return to school. As much as I like Ayayi as a player, I’m not sure he’s going to be drafted this year. Kispert doesn’t have much else that he can prove at the college level and has a real chance to be a early-to-mid second round pick. Gonzaga’s frontcourt is going to be absolutely loaded even without Filip Petrusev because Drew Timme and Oumar Ballo both have WCC Player of the Year upside. Throw in a healthy Anton Watson, and the Zags should be loaded again.
COMING BACK: Kihei Clark, Jay Huff, Casey Morsell, Tomas Woldetensae, Kody Stattman, Justin McCoy
WAIT AND SEE: None
NEW FACES: Sam Hauser, Jabri Abdur-Rahim, Carson McCorkle, Reece Beekman
PROJECTED STARTERS: Kihei Clark, Casey Morsell, Tomas Woldetensae, Sam Hauser, Jay Huff
The Cavaliers should be much better offensively with Sam Hauser replacing Mamadi Diakite in the starting lineup, and while Diakite is a significantly better defender than Hauser, it’s hard to imagine Virginia ever being a bad defensive team, especially when Hauser has had a year to learn the system. Kihei Clark and Jay Huff are both back, and I would expect Casey Morsell to take a step forward this season. Throw in a strong freshman class, and UVA should be competing for an ACC title once again.
COMING BACK: Marcus Garrett, Ochai Agbaji, David McCormack, Christian Braun, Tristan Enaruna, Jalen Wilson, Mitch Lightfoot, DaJuan Harris, Silvio De Sousa
WAIT AND SEE: None
NEW FACES: Bryce Thompson, Tyon Grant-Foster, Gethro Muscadin, Latrell Jossell
PROJECTED STARTERS: Marcus Garrett, Bryce Thompson, Ochai Agbaji, Tristan Enaruna, David McCormack
When it comes to the amount of talent on the Kansas roster, there are certainly enough weapons here. They are incredibly loaded on the wing — Marcus Garrett, Bryce Thompson, Ochai Agbaji, Christian Braun, Tyon Grant-Foster, Tristan Enaruna, Jalen Wilson, sheesh — and David McCormack showed enough flashes last season that I expect him to be able to do an adequate job replacing Udoka Azubuike. Assuming Self (correctly) plays small-ball again, they should be really, really good. The problem? Other than Garrett, there is not a point guard on the roster that has played a second of college basketball. The best Jayhawk teams have had a killer at that position, and I’m not sure Garrett qualifies as such.
GONE: Tre Jones, Vernon Carey Jr., Cassius Stanley, Jack White, Alex O’Connell, Javin DeLaurier
COMING BACK: Wendell Moore, Matthew Hurt, Jordan Goldwire, Joey Baker
WAIT AND SEE: None
NEW FACES: Jalen Johnson, Jeremy Roach, D.J. Steward, Mark Williams, Jaemyn Brakefield, Henry Coleman, Patrick Tape
PROJECTED STARTERS: Jeremy Roach, D.J. Steward, Wendell Moore, Jalen Johnson, Mark Williams
The Blue Devils lose quite a bit of talent off of last season’s roster if as Tre Jones, Vernon Carey and Cassius Stanley all headed to the pros. But with six top 50 prospects coming into the program — headlined by a potential lottery pick in Jalen Johnson as well as point guard Jeremy Roach and scoring guard D.J. Steward — there will be quite a bit of talent on display. A starting lineup that includes those three freshmen and Wendell Moore will be fun. Duke is going to be very young, however, and a frontline that includes a bunch of freshmen and a grad transfer from Columbia is less than ideal.
GONE: Bakari Evelyn, Ryan Kreiner, Cordell Pemsl
COMING BACK: Luka Garza, C.J. Frederick, Joe Weiskamp, Joe Toussaint, Jordan Bohannon, Connor McCaffery, Jack Nunge
WAIT AND SEE: None
NEW FACES: Tony Perkins, Ahron Ulis, Patrick McCaffery
PROJECTED STARTERS: Joe Toussaint, C.J. Frederick, Joe Weiskamp, Jack Nunge, Luka Garza
Luka Garza will be back for his senior season, which is a helluva way for Fran McCaffery to anchor a roster that looks as good as anyone in the Big Ten. I think Joe Toussaint has a chance to be one of the breakout stars in college basketball next year, which is a pretty good sign for a team that also returns the preseason Player of the Year — yes, I’m taking the liberty of locking Luka into that award — along with talents like Joe Weiskamp and C.J. Frederick.
GONE: Lamonte Turner, Jordan Bowden
COMING BACK: John Fulkerson, Santiago Vescovi, Josiah Jordan-James, Olivier Nkamhoua, Drew Pemper
WAIT AND SEE: Yves Pons
NEW FACES: Keon Johnson, Jaden Springer, Corey Walker, Victor Bailey, E.J. Anosike, Malachi Wideman
PROJECTED STARTERS: Santiago Vescovi, Josiah Jordan-James, Keon Johnson, Yves Pons, John Fulkerson
Last season, one of the biggest issues with Tennessee was a lack of firepower on their perimeter. This year, they will be adding five-star guards Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer to Josiah Jordan-James and Santiago Vescovi. They’ll have weapons, and that’s before you add in John Fulkerson, who was one of the best bigs in the SEC down the stretch of the season. Yves Pons will be the best defender in college basketball if he pulls out of the draft. If Vescovi can handle full-time point guard duties better with an offseason under his belt, the Vols are going to be the favorite to win the SEC.
Illinois has a chance to be very, very good this coming season. The big news came with just days left before the deadline for underclassmen to withdraw from the draft, when Ayo Dosunmu announced that he would be returning to school for his junior season. Dosunmu is one of the best big-shot makers in the sport and will likely see his name on a preseason All-American team. With Trent Frazier and Giorgi Bezhanishvili coming back and a couple of talented freshmen guards — Andrew Curbelo, Adam Miller — enrolling, Brad Underwood has a terrific core. With Kofi Cockburn also deciding to return, the Illini will have a real shot at winning the Big Ten title and getting to a Final Four.
10. TEXAS TECH
GONE: Jahmi’us Ramsey, Chris Clarke, Davide Moretti, T.J. Holyfield, Russel Tchewa
NEW FACES: Nimari Burnett, Micah Peavy, Marcus Santos-Silva, Joel Ntambwe, Chibuzo Agbo, Esahia Nzyiwe
PROJECTED STARTERS: Kyler Edwards, Nimari Burnett, Terrance Shannon, Joel Ntambwe, Marcus Santos-Silva
The Red Raiders should have a roster that is a much better fit for the way that Chris Beard wants to play. Kyler Edwards and Nimari Burnett are both built in the mold of a classic Texas Tech lead guard, while Terrance Shannon will be on quite a few of the breakout sophomore lists you’ll find. The two major questions with this group is whether or not Edwards can takeover full-time point guard duties, and if VCU transfer Marcus Santos-Silva or Joel Ntambwe can handle the five spot better than T.J. Holyfield did this past season. There are enough talented perimeter weapons for me to buy-in, but without an anchor at the five a la Tariq Owens, their ceiling is somewhat limited.
We all know that Kelvin Sampson can coach, and he will be bringing back a roster where his top six scorers were all underclassmen from a team that finished top 15 on KenPom. They are going to be loaded in the backcourt — Kansas transfer Quentin Grimes might end up being their third or fourth best guard — and there will be some veterans in their frontcourt. The Cougars look to be the favorite in the American despite the fact that Nate Hinton left school a year earlier than expected.
After winning a share of last year’s Big Ten regular season title, the Badgers are on track to essentially return everyone of note. Their frontline of Aleem Ford, Nate Reuvers and Micah Potter will be as good as anyone in the Big Ten, D’Mitrik Trice has developed into a solid shot-maker and Tyler Wahl is waiting in the wings as a super-sub. Throw in Brad Davison, and the Badgers will compete for the league title once again.
13. NORTH CAROLINA
GONE: Cole Anthony, Brandon Robinson, Jeremiah Francis
COMING BACK: Garrison Brooks, Armando Bacot, Leaky Black, Andrew Platek, Anthony Harris
WAIT AND SEE: None
NEW FACES: Caleb Love, Walker Kessler, R.J. Davis, Day’Ron Sharpe, Puff Johnson
The Tar Heels lost Cole Anthony, but with Caleb Love entering the program, they will once again be led by a five-star lead guard perfectly suited to running Roy Williams’ system. The Tar Heels will also have arguably the best frontline in college basketball, as Garrison Brooks and Armando Bacot will be joined by five-stars Day’Ron Sharpe and Walker Kessler. The key to this team is going to be on the wings, where Leaky Black, Anthony Harris, Puff Johnson, R.J. Davis and Andrew Platek will be asked to carry the load. If I had more confidence in that group the Tar Heels would be ranked much higher.
Florida State is a tough one to project because it’s hard to know exactly what is going to happen with Patrick Williams and Devin Vassell gone to the draft. Both are projected to go somewhere in the first round. With Scottie Barnes coming in and M.J. Walker returning, Florida State still has some dangerous weapons. The Seminoles are a machine at this point, and I’m betting thatwsc the system will continue to work. And even if both Vassell and Williams had decided to come back, it doesn’t answer the most pressing question of Leonard Hamilton’s team: How do they replace Trent Forrest at the point?
15. MICHIGAN STATE
GONE: Cassius Winston
COMING BACK: Rocket Watts, Aaren Henry, Gabe Brown, Malik Hall, Marcus Bingham, Julius Marble, Thomas Kithier, Foster Loyer
WAIT AND SEE: Josh Langford
NEW FACES: Joey Hauser, Madi Sissoko, A.J. Hoggard
Rocket Watts showed down the stretch of last season that he was ready to take over the reins offensively, and with Joey Hauser getting eligible, he should have a second scoring threat on the floor with him. That will allow Aaron Henry to play his jack-of-all-trades role, and with Gabe Brown, Malik Hall and Marcus Bingham all, in theory, taking a step forward, there’s plenty of weaponry, even if a number of those pieces are young and unproven. Losing Xavier Tillman, an anchor and a leader, is a massive blow.
GONE: Immanuel Quickley, Nate Sestina, Tyrese Maxey, Nick Richards, Ashton Hagans, Johnny Juzang, E.J. Montgomery
Tyrese Maxey, Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley and Nick Richards are all heading to the NBA. E.J. Montgomery declared as well. Nate Sestina graduated. Johnny Juzang transferredwest. What that leaves is another loaded recruiting class and Keion Brooks. I love the combination of Terrence Clarke and Brandon Boston on the wings, and Devin Askew should be able to step in and handle point guard duties along with Davion Mintz. This will be another season for the Wildcats where they have talent but not necessarily a great fit on their roster. The key to their season is going to be whether or not they can get Olivier Sarr a waiver to be eligible immediately.
17. WEST VIRGINIA
GONE: Jermaine Haley, Chase Harler
COMING BACK: Oscar Tshiebwe, Derek Culver, Miles McBride, Emmitt Matthews, Gabe Osabuohien, Jalen Bridges, Sean McNeil
WAIT AND SEE: None
NEW FACES: Isaiah Cottrell, Taj Thweatt, Kedrian Johnson , Jalen Bridges
PROJECTED STARTERS: Miles McBride, Kedrian Johnson, Emmitt Matthews, Derek Culver, Oscar Tshiebwe
The Mountaineers are going to be exactly what they were last season: Big, physical, overpowering defensively and on the glass and able to win games when Miles McBride and Emmitt Matthews are able to made enough shots to keep defenses from collapsing.
COMING BACK: Mitchell Ballock, Damien Jefferson, Christian Bishop, Denzel Mahoney, Jacob Epperson, Shereef Mitchell
WAIT AND SEE: None
NEW FACES: Antwaan Jones, Ryan Kalkbrenner
PROJECTED STARTERS: Marcus Zegarowski, Mitchell Ballock, Damien Jefferson, Denzel Mahoney, Christian Bishop
Creighton’s ranking depended on what their talented backcourt of Ty-Shon Alexander and Marcus Zegarowski decided to do. With both of them back, I had the Bluejays as a top four team. Without Alexander, they’re more of a back-end top 25 team. The other question is going to be what happens at the five spot. Christian Bishop was adequate in his minutes last season, and with four-star recruit Ryan Kalkbrenner and a (hopefully) healthy Jacob Epperson in the mix, there will be options to answer that question.
GONE: Akwasi Yeboah, Shaq Carter
COMING BACK: Geo Baker, Ron Harper, Myles Johnson, Montez Mathis, Caleb McConnell, Jacob Young, Mamadou Doucoure, Paul Mulcahy
WAIT AND SEE: None
NEW FACES: Cliff Omoruyi, Dean Reiber, Oskar Palmquist, Mawot Mag
PROJECTED STARTERS: Geo Baker, Montez Mathis, Caleb McConnell, Ron Harper Jr., Myles Johnson
The Scarlet Knights return basically everyone from a team that would have made the program’s first NCAA tournament since 1991. In total, eight of their top nine players are returning, and only Akwasi Yeboah (9.8 ppg) is gone.
GONE: Zavier Simpson, Jon Teske
COMING BACK: Isaiah Livers, Eli Brooks, Brandon Johns, Adrian Nunez
WAIT AND SEE: Chaundee Brown
NEW FACES: Hunter Dickinson, Mike Smith Terrance Williams, Zeb Jackson, Jace Howard
PROJECTED STARTERS: Mike Smith, Eli Brooks, Isaiah Livers, Franz Wagner, Hunter Dickinson
The Wolverines are going to have one of the better frontlines in college basketball in 2020-21, as they seem likely to return Isaiah Livers in addition to Franz Wagner. Throw in a recruiting class that includes Hunter Dickinson, and the Wolverines will be loaded. Their guards are old, but there are some questions about the upside of Columbia grad transfer Mike Smith and Eli Brooks. Can Wake Forest transfer Chaundee Brown get eligible?
COMING BACK: Matt Coleman, Courtney Ramey, Andrew Jones, Kai Jones, Jericho Sims, Jase Febres, Kamaka Hepa, Royce Hamm, Donovan Williams, Gerald Lidell, Will Baker
WAIT AND SEE: None
NEW FACES: Greg Brown
PROJECTED STARTERS: Matt Coleman, Courtney Ramey, Andrew Jones, Greg Brown, Jericho Sims
The Longhorns bring back all 12 players from last year’s team, including 11 of whom started at least one game last season. Plus, they add top ten recruit Greg Brown to a team that won five of their last six regular season games. That’s a good thing! Keeping everyone happy on a roster this deep when there are 13 guys available for just five spots on the floor and 200 combined minutes a night? That’s not going to be easy to deal with.
GONE: Jordan Nwora, Dwayne Sutton, Steve Enoch, Fresh Kimble, Ryan McMahon, Darius Perry
COMING BACK: David Johnson, Samuell Williamson, Malik Williams, Josh Nickelberry, Aidan Ighiehon, Jaelyn Withers
WAIT AND SEE: None
NEW FACES: Carlik Jones, Charles Minlend, D’Andre Davis, J.J. Traynor
PROJECTED STARTERS: Carlik Jones, David Johnson, Charles Minlend, Samuell Williamson, Malik Williams
The Cardinals are going to build around sophomores David Johnson and Samuell Williamson as well as senior Malik Williams this season. The addition of Radford grad transfer Carlik Jones should help out quite a bit as well. Johnson and Williamson have both shown flashes of having star potential. The addition of San Francisco grad transfer Charles Minlend should help add some depth on the perimeter.
This ranking is dependent on Remy Martin making the decision to return to school for the 2020-21 season, but if they do, the Sun Devils have a chance to be really, really good. Losing Romello White is going to hurt, but Alonzo Verge had a breakout season, and they added Josh Christopher, a five-star prospect from California.
COMING BACK: Jacob Gilyard, Grant Golden, Blake Francis, Nick Sherod, Nathan Cayo, Andre Gustavson, Jake Wojcik, Tyler Burton
WAIT AND SEE: None
NEW FACES: Isaiah Wilson
PROJECTED STARTERS: Jacob Gilyard, Blake Francis, Nick Sherod, Nathan Cayo, Grant Golden
Chris Mooney did not have a senior on the roster of a team that finished 24-7 overall and 14-4 in the Atlantic 10. With Obi Toppin gone, the Spiders will likely be the class of the conference heading into next season. Jacob Gilyard has a chance to be Atlantic 10 Player of the Year.
GONE: James Wiseman, Precious Achiuwa, Tyler Harris
COMING BACK: D.J. Jeffries, Lester Quinones, Boogie Ellis, Damian Baugh, Alex Lomax, Isaiah Maurice
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.
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.
Luka Garza returns to Iowa to make a run at Player of the Year, Final Four
Luka Garza made it official on Sunday: He will be pulling his name out of the NBA draft and returning to Iowa for his senior season.
This, as you might expect, is absolutely massive news for the Hawkeyes. Garza is coming off of a season where he averaged 23.8 points and 9.8 boards for a top 25 team, was named a first-team All-American and put himself alongside Dayton’s Obi Toppin in the race for National Player of the Year.
It is not that often that we see players return to school after seasons where they received accolades like Player of the Year and first-team All-American. The reason this happened is that Garza, despite his voluminous production, doesn’t really project as a great pro because of his lack of athleticism and mobility. He’s a terrific low-post scorer that is an aggressive rebounder, plays with the motor of a honey badger and can step out and knock down a three. But he’s not a rim protector and he’s not a guy that can switch in pick-and-rolls. Players of his ilk have gone out of style in a league where centers are expected to play a certain way.
That said, Garza did project as a really good pro in Europe, and combine that with the fact that he is of Bosnian descent, he could have made quite a bit of money had he opted to play in Europe. He had a very real decision to make: Return to school to be the most famous player in a sport and try to do something that has never happened for Iowa basketball, or go make six figures — with a crooked number in front — playing high-level European hoops.
He chose the former.
How often does a player that is that unquestionably great return for another year in the collegiate ranks? Cassius Winston did it. Doug McDermott did it. They were both preseason National Player of the Year favorites, which is precisely what Garza will be. It’s a big deal having him on the floor, to say nothing of the impact that he has on everyone else on that Iowa roster.
What makes this so interesting is that the Hawkeyes have talent alongside him. Joe Wieskamp is one of the best shooters in the country. Joe Toussaint has a chance to be a breakout player at the point as a sophomore. C.J. Frederick had a really promising freshman season. Jack Nunge should be healthy, and Jordan Bohannon is expected to be back as well. This is a borderline top 25 Iowa team without Luke Garza.
But with him back?
I think this Iowa capable of getting to a Final Four and winning a national title. And if I had to guess, Luka Garza will thrive in Iowa colors assuming that basketball is, in fact, played this winter.
The 2020 NBA Draft is currently scheduled to take place on June 25th, 2020, but that date is up in the air due to the spread of COVID-19. At the very least, the league is preparing as if the pre-draft process is going to be drastically different than it has been in past seasons.
WHEN IS THE DEADLINE FOR AN EARLY ENTRY TO DECLARE FOR THE 2020 NBA DRAFT?
Underclassmen have under April 26th to declare for the draft. Those that don’t sign with an agent have until June 15th to pull their name out of the draft and return to school.