Weekend preview: Oregon, Belmont, Michigan St. primed to pull upsets

Leave a comment

UPSET SPECIAL: Fri. 10:00 pm: Oregon @ No. 7 Vanderbilt

This sounds silly, right? I mean, Oregon is a team that is only a year removed from a mass exodus from the program stemming from the firing of Ernie Kent and the subsequent, embarrassing 37 day coaching search. But that search was more-than-successful, as Oregon stole Dana Altman away from Creighton. Altman led a team expected of next-to-nothing to seven league wins and the CBI title. And while Oregon lost three of their top four scorers from last season, this year’s team will be better.

Why?

Because Dana Altman cleaned up on the recruiting trail. Not only did he land talented front court transfers in Olu Ashaolu, who averaged 14.2 ppg and 9.4 rpg from Louisiana Tech last season, but he also brought in the troubled big-man Tony Woods, who sat out last season after leaving Wake Forest. Throw in returners EJ Singler (the second leading scorer on the Ducks last season), Jeremy Jacobs and Tyrone Nared, and the Ducks have a really talented front line. Why is this significant? Because Vanderbilt will be without their star center Festus Ezeli, who was suspended for the first six games before spraining knee ligaments, which will keep him out until December.

Oregon is more than just a big front line, however. Jonathon Loyd was a dynamic playmaker in the limited minutes he saw at the point last season. Garrett Sim will once again start in the back court as well, but the x-factor will end up being freshman Jabari Brown. He comes in with quite a bit of hype, but hype doesn’t always yield immediate results. Will he be the kind of big-time scoring threat in his first game that most expect him to be before his career is over in Eugene?

The Ducks are a major sleeper in the Pac-12, but there is legitimate reason for Vanderbilt being in the top ten. Even without Ezeli, this is a group with quite a bit of experience, some capable-to-good big men and a veteran perimeter attack that includes future first round picks John Jenkins and Jeff Taylor. But the Commodores better come out ready to play.

UPSET ALERT:

Fri. 7:00 pm: No. 1 North Carolina vs. Michigan State: We all know about how talented North Carolina is. You don’t need me to tell you that in this space. But for the first time in recent memory, Michigan State heads into the season with almost no expectations. But I like this Spartan team. They have the makeup of the perennially over-achieving teams that Tom Izzo is known so well for. I’m expecting a big year out of Keith Appling, Izzo has had success with modified point guards (see Drew Neitzel), but I also think that Brandon Wood and Branden Dawson are the perfect, tough-minded kind of perimeter players that thrive under Izzo. Draymond Green is going to have to have a big game, and big men Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne are going to need to play up to their potential and not down to their history, but given the unusual conditions of this game, don’t be surprised if a scrappy Michigan State team pulls off the shocker.

Fri. 9:00 pm: Belmont @ No. 6 Duke: Belmont is a very good basketball team. They won 30 games last year and return nine of the 11 players from that team’s rotation. They have a couple of quality back court pieces, headlined by junior Ian Clark, and have two quality big men in Mick Hedgepeth and Scott Saunders. In fact, I don’t think its crazy to say that Belmont’s posts are better than the three Plumlees. The Bruins run a pressing system that forces turnovers, and with Duke having two combo-guards in their back court — neither Seth Curry nor Austin Rivers is a true point guard — I can see Belmont giving Duke some issues defensively. Most importantly, the Bruins won’t be scared. This is the same program that lost to Duke by one in the first round of the 2008 NCAA Tournament.

Fri. 10:30 pm: Loyola Marymount @ No. 20 UCLA: Last year was a bit of a disaster for LMU as they finished 2-12 in the WCC, but that record doesn’t reflect the amount of talent that is in this program. The Lions struggled keeping their players healthy last season and couldn’t win a close game, going 2-7 in games that were decided by one possession or went to overtime. Even with star Drew Viney out following foot surgery, the Lions have enough size on their front line to matchup with a UCLA team that is headlined by a potentially-injured Reeves Nelson and an overweight Josh Smith. Point guard Anthony Ireland, who really came on strong late in his freshman season, may be the best point guard on the floor on Friday as well. If Nelson doesn’t play, or plays at less than 100%, and Edgar Garibay and Godwin Okojoni can hold their own against the Bruin front line, the Lions, who are a sleeper in a very good WCC, should give the Bruins all they can handle.

Sun. 9:30 pm: George Washington @ No. 24 Cal: Let me say this before I go any further — I am high on Cal. There is a reason that I picked them to finish second in the Pac-12 this season. That said, I’m also a big fan of George Washington. I know they have undergone a coaching change and I know that their 10-6 record and fourth place finish in the A-10 last season was partially the result of an easy league schedule, but this is still a team that returns their entire roster — including all-conference point guard Tony Taylor — and finally gets a healthy Lasan Kromah back.

BEST MATCHUPS:

Fri. 8:00 pm: Bucknell @ Minnesota: This should be one of the better matchups between a high-major and a low-major program this weekend. Bucknell is the consensus favorite to win the Patriot League after returning the majority of their roster from last season. Minnesota has some talent and will definitely have a major athleticism advantage over the Bison, but the Gophers don’t have a true point guard on their roster; freshman Andre Hollins will be sliding over and playing the point this season. If anything, this game will be worth the watch if, for nothing else, to see Mike Muscala, the reigning Patriot League Player of the Year, go up against Trevor Mbakwe and Ralph Sampson.

Fri. 9:00 pm: Oral Roberts @ West Virginia: This will be a big game for Oral Roberts. The Golden Eagles bring back essentially their entire roster, headlined by star forward Dominique Morrison, and have a team that is good enough that they can feasibly make a push for an at-large bid if they make enough statements during a tough non-conference schedule. West Virginia is a potential tournament team, but they may be a long way from reaching that potential. Their roster is basically made up of Truck Bryant, Kevin Jones, Deniz Kilicli and a bunch of freshmen. The Mountaineers are coming off of a loss in an exhibition and reportedly got worked by Xavier in a closed-door scrimmage.

Fri. 9:05 pm: BYU @ Utah State: The rivalries between the Division I programs in Utah is intense, and this game is no different. Utah State fans have been camping out for days to get tickets to the game. Both programs appear to be down this season, but its worth noting that both Dave Rose and Stew Morrill are terrific at developing talent. While, on paper, it appears as if both schools lose a tremendous amount of talent from last season, I feel confident saying that the drop-off both teams experience won’t be as dramatic as most expect. When it comes to rivalry games, record don’t matter. This game is no different.

BEST STORYLINES:

Friday:

7:00 pm: Marist @ No. 2 Kentucky: This will be the first time we get to see Kentucky’s talented freshmen — and a new-and-improved Terrence Jones in a real game, although it won’t necessarily come against “real” competition.

9:00 pm: Wright State @ No. 3 Ohio State: Just how good is the slimmed-down Jared Sullinger going to be? Tonight is our first glimpse.

7:00 pm: Columbia @ No. 4 UConn: With the amount of athleticism on the UConn roster, I feel confident saying that there are going to be some impressive highlights coming out of this game. Also, Andre Drummond anyone?

7:00 pm: Tennessee-Martin @ No. 8 Louisville: Just how good Louisville will end up being this season will likely be a direct result of two things: a) how healthy they are and b) just how good Peyton Siva ends up being.

7:00 pm: Jackson State @ No. 10 Florida: I can’t be the only one curious as to how Billy Donovan is going to split minutes — and shots — between the four talented back court players he has on his roster.

7:00 pm: Albany @ No. 11 Pitt: Any time Ashton Gibbs is playing, I’m watching. Basketball purists should agree.

10:00 pm: Texas Southern @ No. 12 Baylor: Baylor’s first game without Perry Jones and our first glimpse at who will operate the point guard spot for the Bears.

8:00 pm: Towson @ No. 13 Kansas: Towson may lose by fifty, and while most will be focused on just how good Thomas Robinson is, I’m more concerned with a first look at a team that claims Tyshawn Taylor as its leader.

7:00 pm: Morgan State @ No. 15 Xavier: Xavier will be playing this game without Tu Holloway. Could that mean the Musketeers are primed for an upset?

8:00 pm: North Florida @ No. 17 Alabama: The Crimson Tide heads into this season with quite a bit of hype. Will it be justified?

9:00 pm: Mt. St. Mary’s @ No. 21 Marquette: The x-factor for Marquette this season may end up being Davante Gardner. Is the big fella in shape?

11:05 pm: Eastern Washington @ No. 23 Gonzaga: Which Elias Harris shows up this season? The potential lottery pick or the banged-up, out-of-shape player from last season.

10:30 pm: UC Irvine @ No. 24 Cal: Are the Bears really a team that can compete for the Pac-12 title? Or Mike Wilder’s hair?

8:00 pm: SE Missouri State @ No. 25 Missouri: The biggest question in the Big 12: how good will Missouri be without Laurence Bowers?

7:00 pm: Jacksonville @ Florida State: We all know that Florida State is going to be a stalwart defensive team once again this season, but the question is, without Ian Miller, how is this team going to create points?

7:00 pm: Tennessee Tech @ Miami FL: The Hurricanes are playing very shorthanded thanks to injuries and suspensions. Tennessee Tech is good team, led by star Kevin Murphy and the most clutch player in college hoops in Zac Swansey.

7:30 pm: Rhode Island @ George Mason: If only this game could have been played in January, when Billy Baron and Andre Malone are eligible for URI and Andre Cornelius is back from his suspension for GMU.

8:00 pm: Texas A&M-CC @ Oklahoma State: LeBryan Nash. That is all.

9:00 pm: Loyola (IL) @ Illinois: I’m not necessarily in the minority when I say I think that Illinois could be better this year without the headaches that came along with Jereme Richmond and Demetri McCamey.

10:00 pm: Missouri State @ Nevada: A terrific mid-major matchup. Kyle Weems tries to lead a MSU team back to an MVC title with a new roster and coaching staff, while Nevada looks to live up to the talent on their roster.

Saturday:

4:00 pm: Fordham @ No. 5 Syracuse: This should be a blowout, but it will be interesting to see Fordham star Chris Gaston go up against the huge front line of Syracuse. Also: Fab Melo? You showin’ up this year, bro?

4:30 pm: Presbyterian @ No. 6 Duke: Will Presbyterian have a shot with Duke playing two games in two d … yeah, no.

1:00 pm: Kennesaw State @ No. 14 Wisconsin: Kennesaw State knocked off Georgia Tech last year. Can they pull off another upset?

3:00 pm: Butler @ Evansville: Evansville knocked off Butler in Hinkle last year. Can a new-look Butler team return the favor this year? Also: just how good are Butler’s youngsters?

7:00 pm: Northern Iowa @ Old Dominion: Two very good mid-major programs square off in a battle of rebuilding years.

Sunday:

1:00 pm: No. 1 North Carolina @ UNC-Asheville: JP Primm and Matt Dickey gives Asheville a solid starting backcourt.

2:00 pm: Cleveland State @ No. 7 Vanderbilt: No more Norris Cole for Cleveland State.

4:00 pm: Lamar @ No. 8 Louisville: The Pat Knight era at Lamar gets their first true test.

6:00 pm: Rider @ No. 11 Pitt: Remember what I said about Ashton Gibbs?

7:00 pm: Jackson State @ No. 12 Baylor: Quincy Miller enters the collegiate ranks with quite a bit of hype, but he’s also coming off of a torn ACL. Will he be healthy?

6:00 pm: Ball State @ No. 16 Arizona: This will be the third time we get to see Arizona play. They have yet to answer the question marks about the youth in their back court.

4:00 pm: Southern @ No. 19 Texas A&M: Will Billy Kennedy be on the bench?

7:00 pm: Alabama State @ No. 22 Cincinnati: Is Yancy Gates actually in shape? Will Sean Kilpatrick be a star? If both answers are year, the Bearcats have a shot at being very, very good.

7:00 pm: Boston U. @ Texas: Texas kicks off the Myck Kabongo era. Can this freshman point guard carry the Longhorn team?

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.

John Petty Jr. returns to Alabama for senior season

Getty Images
3 Comments

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

Getty Images
3 Comments

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

jared butler baylor
Getty Images
Leave a comment

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.

Preseason Top 25 | Mock Draft 3.0 | Early Entry Tracker

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

Getty Images
3 Comments

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

xavier tillman nba draft
Getty Images
Leave a comment

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.

Preseason Top 25 | Mock Draft 3.0 | Early Entry Tracker

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.