VCU can be really good when Brad Burgess plays like a leader

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WASHINGTON – VCU is no longer a secret.

Like it or not, this team is going to have a target on their back all season long. Every stop they make on the road, the Rams are going to attract a larger media horde. And after every game, they are going to be asked questions about last season’s run to the Final Four and how it affected some random aspect of that evening’s game.

“Everyone wants to talk about last year,” VCU coach Shaka Smart said after the Rams beat George Washington 75-60 in the opener of the BB&T Classic. “We get lots of questions from the media, even now on Dec. 4th, about last year. We’re going to be polite, we’re going to answer questions, but at the same time in our mind, last year’s over. And its not going to win us any games this year.”

VCU learned that the hard way early in the season, as they last to both Seton Hall and Georgia Tech by double figures while struggling to beat Western Kentucky and St. Francis (PA).

But the last four games have been a different story. VCU smacked WKU — in one of the stranger scheduling quirks of the year, VCU played WKU in the 7th place game at the Charleston Classic three days before they played them in Bowling Green — and gave Alabama everything they could handle before winning the last two games by an average of 19 points.

The difference is easy to spot.

In the Rams’ first four games, senior forward Brad Burgess averaged 10.0 ppg while shooting 25.6 percent (10-39) from the field and 29.4 percent (5-17) from beyond the arc. In the last four, he’s looked like the guy that many, including myself, thought had the ability to be the CAA’s Player of the Year. Burgess has averaged 18.3 ppg over that stretch, hitting 45.1 percent (23-51) from the floor and 43.3 percent (13-30) from deep.

And against GW, Burgess had easily his best game of the season. He finished with 24 points and five boards, knocking down 8-15 from the floor and 4-8 from three while also tallying two steals, a block and not a single turnover. Burgess was hot early, helping VCU build a lead that grew to 13 in the first half, and hit a number of big jumpers down the stretch when GW made their run.

“The difference was Brad. He played like a senior, he played like a leader. He allowed us to keep the lead at the end,” Smart said. “It was great to see Brad start to hit shots. We want him shooting the ball a lot. I think our guys are learning more and more to look for him.”

What makes Burgess so dangerous in the VCU offense is that he has the skills of a guard, but the size, strength and toughness to hold his own in the paint. That allows Smart to use Burgess at the power forward spot, where his perimeter skills and shooting ability creates mismatches on the offensive end of the floor. The Rams are an uptempo team that love to press defensively and spread the court offensively, looking to create space to penetrate and open looks from beyond the arc, a system that fits Burgess’ skill-set perfectly.

“Honestly, I consider him a guard, but he is 6-6 and he’s big and strong so it allows us to play him at the four spot and it allows us to create mismatches for the other team,” Smart said. “Hopefully, its not too big of a mismatch for us at the other end. It allows us to have another ball-handler out there, a really good shooter. On some of our ball-screen stuff, it allows us to throw it back to him and he gets wide open shots.”

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VCU’s struggles in their first four games caused some people to write this group off. That’s what happens when you lose four starters — including stars Joey Rodriguez and Jamie Skeen — from a team that finished fourth in the Colonial during the regular season. Instead of playing a role this season, Burgess is being asked to be the star, to be the face of the program. The Rams need him to be the guy that is not only going to be counted on to hit the big shot but to be the guy that picks up one of his young teammates when they are having an off-night.

Smart is counting on Burgess to not only be the leading scorer and the star, but to be this team’s inspirational leader.

“Brad has always been someone that leads by example,” Smart said, “but he’s learned this year that he’s someone we need to step up and talk more. And he’s done that. Games like today, he’s really been our vocal leader. We wouldn’t have won the game without him.”

VCU is a very young team. Burgess is the only senior on the roster. Only two juniors — Troy Daniels and Darius Theus — are in the rotation. Everyone else is either a freshmen or a sophomore. There’s certainly quite a bit of talent on the rest of the roster — sophomores Rob Brandenburg, Juvonte Reddic and DJ Haley all look like they have a chance to become all-CAA players down the road, while freshmen Reco McCarter and Teddy Okereafor were good enough to earn a handful of high-major offers — but its raw talent.

That group of youngsters has been forced to learn on the fly, and they’ve done a pretty good job. The Rams handled South Florida and GW easily and nearly beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa. That counts for something, but these kids still have plenty of room to grow, and its not just developing their basketball skills.

“Just confidence, every body playing with confidence,” Burgess said when asked about where his team needs to grow. “We’re a young team, sometimes if things don’t go well, we drop our games and get down on ourselves. We’re a good team, so when things don’t go well, you have to battle through and move on to the next play. You have to make sure that at the next opportunity, you make the play.”

Smart, on the other hand, is looking for more consistent effort, saying “When we are the aggressor, we’re pretty good. We have to be the tougher, scrappier team.”

The CAA is wide open this season, as league favorites — Drexel and George Mason — struggle and CAA stalwarts — Old Dominion, Hofstra and even VCU — are all in rebuilding years. There’s no reason that the Rams can’t grow into a team capable of winning the Colonial come February and March.

But they will only go as far as Burgess leads them.

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.