Kentucky outlasts UNC; ‘Game of the Year’ lives up to hype

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I want more.

Seriously, let’s run that back. I’m sure I’m not the only one that feels that way. We can do it right now. I don’t think any of the fans in attendance would mind. Its still early in the afternoon, Jim Nantz and Clark Kellogg have nothing else to do today. As we speak, CBS is airing a preview of “A Game of Honor”. I’m pretty sure they can push that back.

More than anyone, I think No. 5 North Carolina wants a second shot against No. 1 Kentucky after losing to the Wildcats 73-72 at Rupp Arena on Saturday afternoon. After Marquis Teague missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 21 seconds left, UNC took possession of the ball with a chance to steal a win in Rupp. The Heels dumped the ball into Tyler Zeller, who promptly had it knocked out of his hands. The ball happened to bounce right to a seemingly wide-open John Henson, but Henson — who has probably never had a jump shot blocked in his career — had a 12-footer blocked by Anthony Davis, who came out of nowhere to make a game-saving defensive play.

But where the real bitterness for UNC isn’t a result of the block, its the result of what happened after the block.

The shot left Henson’s hand with about six seconds left on the clock, but instead of fouling Davis, who came down with the loose ball, Henson backed away. As Henson’s teammates ran at the UK freshman, he threw the ball to Marquis Teague, who dribbled the final few ticks away.

If Henson has the awareness to foul Davis, he sends a freshman big man that is a 53% free throw shooter to the line with enough time to go to the length of the court for the tie or the win.

This had been the most highly-anticipated matchup of the college basketball season, and there isn’t even a close second. The two most talented teams in the country. The two favorites to win the national title. A half-dozen lottery picks and a dozen potential pros on the court. John Calipari and Roy Williams.

It had everything you could ask for, and that’s why every college hoops fan — not just Big Blue Nation or the folks on Tobacco Road — had been salivating over this game ever since Coach Cal had reeled in yet another loaded recruiting class and Ol’ Roy got confirmation that his trio of talented front court players would be back for another year in Chapel Hill.

And up until that final possession, this game had completely lived up to the hype.

UNC used some hot-shooting from beyond the arc — they were 6-9 from long range in the half — to build up a lead and could have taken complete control in the first half had they been able to keep Kentucky off of the offensive glass. The Wildcats grabbed 12 offensive rebounds in the first half and had 16 second-chance points.

While the first half brought us end-to-end action, like two feather-weight fighters catching each other with jab after jab, the second half was a heavyweight brawl, as the UNC and Kentucky traded haymakers.

Every time the Wildcats would put together a spurt to get back into the game, UNC had the answer. Kentucky scored seven of the first nine points in the second half, tying the game at 45, but back-to-back threes from Kendall Marshall pushed the lead back to six. Michael Gilchrist — who had game-highs of 17 points and 11 boards — scored seven straight points to give Kentucky a 52-51 lead, their first lead since the score was 11-9. But the Heels again answered, with a deep PJ Hairston three and a short jumper from Marshall.

It wasn’t until the eight minute mark that Kentucky finally took control. Down 60-56, Darius Miller used a three-point play to spark a 13-4 run that was capped by back-to-back threes from Doron Lamb, putting UK up 69-64 with 3:49 left. Harrison Barnes and Reggie Bullock both hit tough, clutch threes down the stretch to set up the underwhelming finish.

If the anti-climatic ending did anything, it created a national desire to see a rematch.

And if the NCAA Tournament wasn’t exciting enough already, we will now all be able to root for the same thing come March: running back the Game of the Century in New Orleans.

What We Learned

Kentucky:

– Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is the truth, and this game was his coming out party. He’s a terrific athlete and relentless attacking the rim, whether its off the bounce or on the offensive glass. He defends and he can create off the dribble. He is going to be such a weapon for UK this year.

– Just as important was the play of Darius Miller, who finished with 12 points in 23 minutes off the bench. He made a number of big plays in the second half.

– Terrence Jones still doesn’t understand quite how to use his physical tools. With his combination of perimeter ability and physical strength, he’s an impossible matchup at the college level. He took advantage of that early in the game, as he was aggressive getting to the rim. But he spent the second half floating around the perimeter. That has to change for him to live up to his potential.

– Anthony Davis needs to get stronger. But he’s as young and as raw as any prospect we’ve seen this decade. Three plays stood out to me: the lob he caught midway through the second half against Zeller, the rebound he grabbed — stretch-armstrong style — with four minutes left and, of course, the block to seal the win.

– I get on Marquis Teague as much as anyone does, but he deserves some credit here. While he struggled shooting the ball (3-11 from the floor for just seven points), he only turned the ball over once while adding four assists and controlling the pace down the stretch. The reason UK won this game was that they turned the final eight minutes into a half-court game. That credit goes to Teague.

North Carolina:

– The Heels are still getting beat up inside. The biggest issue I have is that John Henson and Tyler Zeller go to the defensive glass like they do the offensive glass. They aren’t able to use their body to box out on the defensive glass.

– UNC was better in the half court tonight, especially on the offensive end of the floor, but they still run into trouble when teams are able to execute their sets offensively. They simply have too many defensive question marks. Looking at you, Kendall Marshall and Harrison Barnes.

– The one question mark that has been answered is UNC’s perimeter shooting. PJ Hairston and Reggie Bullock knocked down some big threes in this game.

– The question that a lot of people were asking during the game was whether Harrison Barnes or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is a better NBA prospect. I think, without question, the answer is Kidd-Gilchrist, simply because his all-around game is so much better. But anyone that says that Barnes isn’t a terrific prospect in his own right is out of their mind. The kid is a terrific shooter that thrives in the clutch. He may not be the second-coming of Kevin Durant — hell, he may not ever be an all-star in the NBA — but he is going to score a lot of points for a very long time at the next level.

– UNC now has two losses in their last three games. Losing to UNLV was an issue, but don’t read too much into this loss. Kentucky is absurdly talented and was playing in an unreal environment at Rupp. This team will be right there at the end of the season.

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.