Previewing your College Hoops Weekend: Happy New Year!

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Game of the weekend: 12:00 pm: No. 4 Louisville @ No. 3 Kentucky

Hopefully Chane Behanan is more accurate in his prediction that this game will “go down as one of the best games in history” than he was about Louisville’s undefeated season. The Battle of the Commonwealth is always going to be a passionate affair, but with both teams currently sitting in the top five of the country, on paper its easy to see why folks like Behanan are expecting this game to be an instant classic. The problem is that the games aren’t played on paper, they are played on a basketball court. And on a basketball court, Louisville simply is not in the same league as Kentucky right now.

That’s not meant as a shot at Louisville, either. I think the Cardinals are a quality basketball team. But they are borderline top ten quality, not Final Four favorite quality. The issue with the ‘Ville this year is on the offensive end of the floor — they ain’t scoring. For all the ability that Peyton Siva has when it comes to using his dribble to beat his defender, he’s yet to become the unstoppable playmaker that some hypothesized that he would turn into this year. As a result, Louisville’s half court offense tends to stagnate, something that won’t be helped by Kentucky’s top-five defense and shot-blocking ability around the rim.

Where Louisville is going to have to find success is defensively, specifically in their press. Marquis Teague has been playing better of late, but he is still quite turnover prone. The Cardinals have a couple of very good back court defenders that are known for their ability to wreak havoc on opposing ball-handlers. If they can force some turnovers, it will take some pressure off their offensive by creating easy baskets.

So what does Kentucky have to do to win? Well, frankly, they just need to play well. The Wildcats are just a better team than Louisville, even if Terrence Jones is struggling with his finger injury. And as good as Kentucky’s front court is, I think the biggest advantage the Wildcats are going to have is on the wing. I’m not sure who on Louisville is going to be big enough to defend Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in the paint. I also am not sure who is going to be the person tasked with making sure Doron Lamb doesn’t get hot, but I can see the sophomore getting quite a few open looks against.

My pick: Kentucky by 10 in a game that isn’t necessarily as close as the final score indicates.

Four other games to keep an eye on

Sat. 6:00 pm: No. 2 Ohio State @ No. 15 Indiana: The consensus feeling is that Ohio State is the best team in the Big Ten by a fairly decent margin. And, generally speaking, on topics like this, I tend to side with the consensus. But the key component here is whether or not Jared Sullinger is a) healthy and b) in game shape. He looked pretty good going for 17 points and 14 boards in a blow out of Northwestern, but playing well in a 30 point win is a different story than having to chase Cody Zeller up and down the court in Assembly Hall. That right there is the key. Indiana is capable of pushing the ball up the floor, and if Zeller can tire Sullinger out, that becomes a big factor for the Buckeyes on the offensive end of the floor.

There are a couple of other things to keep an eye on in this game. For starters, the matchup between Christian Watford and DeShaun Thomas pits two of the best face-up fours in the country, both of whom are dangerous offensive weapons that play marginal defense at best. Indiana is also the best three-point shooting team in the country. Will they be going down? And will Will Sheehey be in uniform in this one? He missed the last game with an ankle injury.

A win keep the Hoosiers from starting Big Ten play off 0-2, which could end up being a hole that is very difficult to pull themselves out of.

Sat. 6:00 pm: No. 19 Creighton @ Wichita State: This is what the Missouri Valley is all about. Creighton, the favorite to win the league and the only team from the conference that is ranked, is coming off of a loss to Missouri State in their conference opener and is an underdog in their second game. Wichita State is a team I am still trying to get a handle on. They beat UNLV by 19 at home, but they also lost to both Alabama and Temple on neutral courts, both of whom have seen their seasons get turned upside down in recent weeks. How the Shockers go about slowing down Doug McDermott will be interesting. Missouri State “held” him to 19 points and 12 boards, but much of that was the result of McDermott’s deference down the stretch.

Sat. 8:00 pm: Gonzaga @ Xavier: Two perennial powerhouses from outside the power conferences, both of whom have fallen off of late. Xavier has an excuse, although I’m not sure I want to call it valid. Since the brawl that they got in with Cincinnati, the Musketeers have gone 1-3, with their lone win coming against (wait for it) Southern Illinois. Xavier looked like a top ten team before that, and Gonzaga may be just the team they want to see to get back into a rhythm. As much as I like Kevin Pangos, he is not what you would call a defender. And when he is sharing the back court with David Stockton, Gonzaga’s ability to keep penetrating guards out of the paint is non-existent. Xavier is tough enough defensively that the Zags need their best offensive team on the floor, but that team includes Pangos and Stockton, who are going to get deep-fried by Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons. Xavier needs a big game out of Elias Harris, who will be a matchup problem for the Muskies.

Sat. 4:00 pm: Illinois @ Purdue: Here’s what makes this game so interesting to me: Illinois is a team full of role players that is lacking the kind of star power that will close out games. Purdue has Robbie Hummel, who has been playing some of the best basketball of his career this season, including being the guy that knocks down big shots for the Boilermakers. But he lacks the kind of supporting that he had with JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore in town. Its too bad we can’t combine these teams.

Who’s getting upset?: Fri. 7:00 pm: No. 8 Missouri @ Old Dominion

No team in the country has been playing a prettier brand of basketball over the first two months of the season than Missouri. The Tigers have two dynamic ball-handlers that are capable of getting into the lane at will and finding the Tiger’s shooters on the perimeter. Missouri’s biggest advantage comes in the form of Kim English, a 6’6″ two-guard that has slid over and taken the four spot. He’s big enough that he can battle in the paint defensively but he doesn’t miss when he gets his feet set beyond the arc. But here’s the thing about Old Dominion: they are big, they are physical and they can play at home. It will be interesting to see if the Monarchs are able to get Missouri out of their game-plan.

Four more teams on upset watch

Sat. 2:00 pm: Rice @ Texas: Texas A&M wasn’t on upset watch when they played Rice last week. You know what happened? The Aggies lost to the Owls in a game that the Owls controlled for much of the second half. I don’t think Texas is going to make that same mistake, but that by no means guarantees a Texas win. The Longhorns are 291st in the country in defensive rebounding percentage, and they will be facing the best pound-for-pound rebounder in the country in Arsalan Kazemi.

Sat. 2:05 pm: Utah State @ No. 14 Mississippi State: Has Utah State finally turned things around? After starting the year out just 4-5, the Aggies have rallied around the play of Preston Medlin and Brockeith Pane and won four in a row. The last of those wins was a 19 point whooping against Kent State. Now, the Bulldogs have much more talent, especially up front, than Kent State, but the point remains the same here: Utah State is coming off of their best win of the season since opening night, but both of those came at the Spectrum. Can Utah State win one on the road?

Sun. 5:00 pm: Penn @ No. 5 Duke: This pick might seem silly, but I think that Penn is pretty solid. Their point guard, Zach Rosen, might be the third best point guard in the ACC behind Kendell Marshall and Terrell Stoglin. Their off-guard, Tyler Bernardini, is finally healthy and playing like it. Prior to Thursday’s loss to Davidson, Bernardini had his eight threes in back-to-back games.

Sat. 8:00 pm: No. 20 UNLV @ Hawaii: Hawaii is playing with a little bit of confidence after a decent showing at the Diamondhead Classic. And, like the Diamondhead Classic, this game will take place on the islands, meaning the Runnin’ Rebels have a long trip in front of them. It will be interesting to see who Dave Rice uses against Zane Johnson and how he opts to guard the sharp shooter.

Mid-major matchup of the weekend: Sat. 4:00 pm: St. Joseph’s @ No. 23 Harvard

This game has fun written all over it. St. Joe’s is under-the-radar this season, but thanks to Jameer Nelson and Delonte West, the Hawks are a national brand that people pay attention to. Harvard, on the other hand, had a non-existent profile prior to Tommy Amaker’s tenure, and this season the Crimson have parlayed that notoriety into a top 25 rankings and a spot as the Ivy League favorite. Where St. Joseph’s is an uptempo team with a pair of high-scoring guards and a couple of athletic bigs, Harvard is much slower, a team that relies on the Ivy League version of Jared Sullinger (Keith Wright), execution offensively and a roster full of sharpshooters.

Four more mid-major matchups to watch

Fri. 7:00 pm: George Mason @ Charleston: How often do you see two freshmen that were both in the top 100 in the country square against one another in a matchup of true mid-majors? Not that often, but that’s what we have as Eric Copes and Adjehi Baru go toe-to-toe on Friday evening. Baru has had a much bigger role early in the season than Copes has, but neither has become a star. What will be interesting to watch here is how well Andre Cornelius reacts to the battle of the big.

Sat. 2:00 pm: Milwaukee @ Butler: Milwaukee looks like they may end up being the class of the Horizon League this season. But until Butler loses their grip — completely, as in they are knocked out of the Horizon League tournament — I won’t believe that anyone else is going to win a game in that conference.

Sat. 3:05 pm: Drake @ Missouri State: How many people that these two teams sitting at 1-0 after playing Creighton and Indiana State in their openers? I didn’t. But the Bluejays got the job done for us.

Sat. 6:00 pm: St. Louis @ New Mexico: This falls under the category of sneaky-good game that no one is going to talk about. St. Louis is not a secret anymore, and they just may be the second best team in the Atlantic 10. On the other hand, New Mexico has slowly but surely grown past the struggles that they had earlier in the year.

The rest of the top 25:

Sun. 5:00 pm: No. 1 Syracuse @ DePaul: The Orange have yet to slip up as the No. 1 team in the country. That time will come, but not against DePaul.

Fri. 7:00 pm: Western Michigan @ No. 5 Duke: Western Michigan has been playing much better basketball of late, but it won’t be enough against the Blue Devils.

Sun. 3:00 pm: Monmouth @ No. 6 UNC: I’ll pass. The only intrigue will be how much UNC scores.

Sat. 12:00 pm: St. John’s @ No. 9 UConn: St. John’s looked like they were dead in the water for a while, but the Johnnies had a terrific game in the eithr big East

Sat. 2:00 pm: Yale @ No. 10 Florida: Greg Mangano wants to play in the NBA? Here’s your chance, kid. Prove yourself against Patric Young.

Sat. 1:00 pm: Iowa @ No. 11 Wisconsin: Can Iowa break 40?

Sat. 2:00 pm: Providence @ No. 12 Georgetown: Providence is coming off of a seal-clubbing loss to St. John’s that ticked off their coach, forcing him to challenge his player to play and Practice hon i

Sun. 1:00 pm: Villanova @ No. 13 Marquette: Villanova was the original disappointment in the Big East. Then came Pitt and Cincinnati. Now, finally, Marquette is on the robs, having lost to LSU on the road and Vandy (by 20) at home. Who snaps out of it?

Sun. 4:00 pm: Minnesota @ No. 16 Michigan: Minnesota has actually been one of the most surprising teams in the country, but I just don’t see them matching up well with Minnesota, who can’t shoot a lick from the perimeter;;

Sat. 3:00 pm: No. 17 Michigan State @ Nebraska: Michigan State’s win over Indiana was fluky, but I expect a much more thorough performance against Nebraksa.

Sat. 4:00 pm: North Dakota @ No. 18 Kansas: The Jayhawks are fresh off of drilling Hampton in my picket. Literally.

Fri. 8:00 pm: No. 21 Murray State @ Eastern Illinois: This shouldn’t be a test for the Racers.

Sun. 7:00 pm: Cincinnati @ No. 22 Pitt: This game has all kinds of intriguing plot lines. The Panthers bouncing back from a trio of losses. Cincinnati trying to prove themselves a legitimate contender. Cincy’s four guards vs. Pitt’s bigs. The last game Yancy Smith can play in as well.

Fri. 7:00 pm: Towson @ No. 24 Virginia: With a loss, Towson will have gone winless in the calendar year in 2011.

Sat. 2:00 pm: Howard @ No. 25 Kansas State: Two days after getting absolutely worked by Kansas, Howard extends their trip to take on Kansas State.

Other notable games

Friday:

– 7:00 pm: CCSU @ UMass
– 7:00 pm: Princeton @ Florida State
– 7:00 pm: Ole Miss @ Dayton
– 8:00 pm: Oakland @ South Dakota State
– 8:00 pm: West Virginia @ Seton Hall

Saturday:

– 12:00 pm: Virginia Tech @ Oklahoma State
– 4:00 pm: UCLA @ Cal
– 9:00 pm: Charlotte @ Memphis
– 10:00 pm: Oregon @ Washington

Sunday:

– 4:00 pm: Akron @ Marshall

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.