It wasn’t pretty, but UNC outlasts Wisconsin

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Its easier to slow a game down than it is to speed a game up.

Remember that. Controlling pace is as much of an equalizer as the three-point shot, particularly for a team playing on the road. You limit the number of possessions, you keep your opponent from getting into a rhythm and, if you’re playing on the road, you keep the crowd from getting into the game.

And that is why it wasn’t until an 18-5 run midway through the second half that North Carolina, who was the No. 1 team in the country prior to their loss to UNLV in Vegas on Saturday, was able to gain control in Wednesday’s 60-57 win over Wisconsin.

No team in the country is able to control the flow of a game like Wisconsin can. Want proof? Wisconsin went into Chapel Hill as the slowest team in the country. Literally. They were averaging just 58.9 possessions per game. North Carolina? They were the fifth-fastest team in the country at 73.9 possessions per game.

And this game? It had 59 possessions. In other words, the ball changed hands once every 20-or-so seconds.

That’s what Wisconsin does. That’s how they win. That’s why Bo Ryan can always put a team on the floor that is going to win 25 games and finish in the top three or four in the Big Ten without the aid of future first-rounders. That’s why every fall, Wisconsin is picked lower in the preseason than where they finish the year.

When the Badgers are playing their best basketball, they are taking 20-25 seconds off the shot clock before they even look at the rim. They then run one of their sets, and if nothing is open, the ball is put into the hands of their all-american point guard Jordan Taylor, and they allow him to make a play. They protect the basketball and avoid turnovers as well as any team in the country, and, more often than not, they end up getting a good look at the rim after forcing you to defend for most of the shot clock.

And on Wednesday, after weathering an early flurry from UNC — the Tar Heels took a 19-10 lead in the first nine minutes of the game and looked to be on the verge and blowing the Badgers out — that is precisely what Wisconsin did. For the next 19 minutes of game-time, the Badgers executed to perfection, taking the air out of the ball and hitting big shot after big shot. The only difference was that the guys making those shots were Ben Brust, Ryan Evans, and Jared Berggren, not Taylor.

At the 11:44 mark of the second half, Wisconsin had turned that 19-10 deficit into a 36-31 lead, using a 26-12 surge over the course of both halves to take complete control of the game.

UNC was on their heels. They were completely out of rhythm offensively and looked lost defensively. The performance was bad enough that it had people asking just how good this team actually is.

But Wisconsin gave the Heels an opening, and Roy Williams’ team struck.

The Badger’s next five shots all came way too early in the shot clock. At the same time, Harrison Barnes hit back-to-back jumpers to get UNC into a bit of a rhythm offensively, and that sparked their 18-5, game-changing run as they were able to open up the floor a little bit. Barnes had 10 of his game-high 20 points in that run, and when Dexter Strickland hit a seventeen-footer from the wing with 5:36 left to put the Heels up 49-41, this game was over for all intents and purposes.

That’s why this is an impressive win for the Heels.

UNC had an off-night against a top ten team — a team that is going to win 25 or 30 games and give Ohio State its stiffest test in the Big Ten — and had allowed that team to take complete control of the game, but their best player made a couple of big shots and the Heels were able to strike when given an opening. Good teams win games even when they don’t play their best, and UNC did just that on Wednesday night.

What we learned:

Wisconsin:

– The Badgers are going to cause a lot of people a lot of problems if they are able to hang with North Carolina on the road while getting a subpar effort out Jordan Taylor and Mike Bruesewitz. Yes, the all-american finished with 18 points, four assists and four rebounds, but he shot 6-20 from the floor and padded his stats with a couple buckets late in the game. Taylor struggled a bit when Dexter Strickland was switched onto him, but he also missed a bunch of open looks that he will knock down the majority of the time.

– Bruesewitz, on the other hand, was a no-show. He was in foul trouble which may have made it difficult for him to get into a rhythm, but off the top of my head, I cannot think of one good thing that he did for the Badgers tonight. That cannot happen, especially when Bruesewitz could have been a matchup problem for UNC’s big men at the offensive end.

– That was the best that I’ve ever seen Ryan Evans play. He was active on the glass, he made some shots and he picked up a couple of blocks.

– Jared Berggren will be able to fill the role of the pick-and-pop center for Bo Ryan. He finished with 14 points and eight boards, which included a couple of triples and two gorgeous drives to the rim from the three point line.

– Ben Brust needs to rein in his shot-selection at times — its a rule of basketball that you can’t take heat-checks on back-to-back possessions if you miss the first — but he’s a talented kid that can shoot the ball and is fun to watch. Badger fans should be confident that they’ll have another talented playmaker to follow in the footsteps of Taylor and Trevon Hughes.

North Carolina

– Dexter Strickland is probably a better defender than I realized. He’s got length, he’s quick laterally, he’s athletic and he looks like he genuinely enjoys defending. His development will be important, because Kendall Marshall — hell, the rest of the Tar Heel perimeter rotation — has trouble defending a stop sign. Strickland’s foul trouble is where you saw Leslie McDonald’s value; the only time Taylor really got it going was at the end of the first half when Kendall Marshall was guarding him.

– I really hope that Harrison Barnes becomes a killer. And not in the Charles Manson sense of the word, in the Tu Holloway sense of the word. His height makes his pull-up jumper unguardable for perimeter defenders at this level. He came up big on Wednesday, hitting the two jumpers that sparked UNC’s run.

– I don’t think struggling is the correct word for North Carolina’s half court execution. Clueless is a better word, as in they look like they’ve never even diagrammed a half court set on the whiteboard, let alone gone over it in practice. They stand around and swing the ball on the perimeter until someone over penetrates or settles for a jumper.

(because…)

– Roy Williams is famous for his secondary break, which is essentially a system to run once the ball has been pushed in transition but no shots have opened up. The beauty of the secondary break is that it can be run off of makes as well as misses. When UNC gets bogged down offensively its the result of a breakdown in their secondary break.

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

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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.