Unfair to rush to any judgement on UCLA after Shabazz’s first game

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BROOKLYN – All things considered, Shabazz Muhammad didn’t play too badly in his first game as a collegian.

He finished with 15 points on 5-10 shooting in 25 minutes of action, although a couple of those buckets came in the final minute with the outcome, a 78-70 loss to Georgetown in the semifinals of the Legends Classic, all-but decided. He only grabbed one rebound, which is concerning given his strength and athleticism, and he was no where near the player that he needs to be on the defensive end of the floor. He was a long way from good, and he certainly didn’t come close to the reputation he had built for himself coming into the game.

This wass supposed to be a top three pick, mind you, and top three picks aren’t supposed to look as consistently over-matched as Muhammad did on both ends of the floor tonight.

And Muhammad will tell you the same thing.

“I can get a lot better. I didn’t play well tonight. I didn’t play well on defense,” Muhammad told reporters after the game.

That’s understandable. This was Muhammad’s first college basketball game after spending the past six months dealing with NCAA investigations into his time as a high schooler. He suffered a high-ankle sprain that kept him out for nine weeks over the summer. He didn’t practice with the team before they went to China. He didn’t go with the team to China. The first chance he had to practice was about a month ago, and in that time he’s dealt with a shoulder injury that kept him from being able to play, lift, or work on his conditioning for half that time.

He’s out of shape, out of sync with his teammates and, quite frankly, probably rusty.

And you thought he was going to come in here and look like James Harden did in his first game with the Rockets?

“It was really exciting getting out on the court for the first time,” Muhammad said when asked how he felt about his debut. “Just finally getting the jitters out and getting comfortable playing college basketball for the first time was a good experience.”

“I’m trying to get out here and gel with my teammates for the first time. My first college game, trying to get used to playing with all these players.”

It’s not like Muhammad is a piece getting plugged into an experienced team, either. Kyle Anderson is a freshman. Larry Drew II is a transfer that is playing for the first time in 20 months. Norman Powell is starting for the first time in his college career. Jordan Adams, who has scored at least 20 points in all four games as a collegian, is also a freshman.

It’s also worth mentioning that the Bruins have been dealt a bad hand when it comes to injuries. Muhammad has already dealt with ankle and shoulder issues. Kyle Anderson missed a couple months over the summer after thumb surgery. Tony Parker didn’t play on Monday due to a back issue. Tyler Lamb hasn’t returned to the court yet after getting surgery on his knee.

In other words, Muhammad isn’t the only one that needs to gel on this team.

It’s a group that doesn’t necessarily fit together perfectly with a coach who isn’t necessarily built to handle a team with their strengths. They were shredded defensively by Georgetown’s Princeton-style offense, which is not something you typically see from a Ben Howland-coached team. They looked lost offensively against Georgetown’s zone. They didn’t run the floor well at all. The 16 offensive rebounds they collected were nice, but the 60% Georgetown shot from the floor in the second half wasn’t.

“We are a team that is very young and we got hurt defensively,” Howland said. “They shot 55% from the game, 60% for the second half. Those two stats jump out.”

I spent the preseason doing nothing but send up warning flares that UCLA had dumpster fire potential written all over them.

And while I would love to take this time to revel in the fact that I was, once again, right, I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you that there were some positives to take out of this game.

First and foremost, Drew looks like a different player than they one that flamed out at North Carolina. He now has 33 assists and just six turnovers in 135 minutes this season. He got in the lane and created, he found shooters on the secondary break, he got the ball to his teammates where they needed it and when they needed it, and, most importantly, he did nothing dumb to hurt them. In the end, that’s all he really needs to do.

The other thing I liked was the way Howland used Anderson in the second half. There’s no question that Anderson is one of the more unique talents in the country, but asking him to be a primary ball-handler at this level is unfair. He’s not going to be blowing by players like Otto Porter and Greg Whittington off the dribble. Where he is effective, however, is as a playmaker out of the high post. When UCLA cut Georgetown’s lead to four in the second half, it’s because Anderson got them easy shot after easy shot against a 2-3 zone.

The Wears are capable up front, Josh Smith and Tony Parker can provide muscle when need be, and Muhammad, Adams and Powell provide as much scoring punch on the wing as you’ll find anywhere in the country.

There are still plenty of pieces that need to fall into place for this group.

But if you’re a UCLA fan, now is not the time to be selling off your season tickets, and judging them too harshly off of their first game with Muhammad in the fold is unfair.

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

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.