Billy Baron is motivated now more than ever to lead Canisius

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Billy Baron (GoGriffs.com)

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Billy Baron wasn’t supposed to play at Canisius.

Near the end of his post-graduate year at Worcester Academy in 2010 and after much deliberation of whether to play for his father, Jim, at the University of Rhode Island, or at a bigger basketball school, Baron elected to play for Tony Bennett at Virginia.

He was supposed to be a staple in the Cavaliers’ backcourt and, notching 19 points in Virginia’s season-opening game against William & Mary, the future looked bright for Baron. Ultimately, as the season unfolded, Baron’s playing time dwindled leading him to transfer back to his home state of Rhode Island to play for his father. The decision was not easy and one he wrestled with before deciding that for the betterment of his basketball career, transferring was the best move.

Baron told NBCSports.com by phone: “Obviously, transferring wasn’t the plan, but it motivated me a tremendous amount, more than I ever thought that I could be motivated. I met a lot of great people [at Virginia] and still stay in touch with the coaching staff. I keep in contact with Joe Harris; he’ll be one of my best friends for life…Transferring was just a wall to get over. It set a bar for me and motivated me.”

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When Baron transferred to Rhode Island, he was able to play right away for his father who had led the Rams to four straight 20+ win seasons and postseason appearances. It was a program where Baron’s older brother, Jimmy, was a four-year letter winner for and one of the school’s top three-point shooters in history.

Billy grew up around the Rhode Island basketball program with his father having coached there beginning in 2001, when Billy was just ten years old. It was a homecoming of sorts when he transferred to URI, which is why when his father was fired at the conclusion of the 2011-12 season finishing out the academic year was such a difficult task.

“I would have never transferred to URI if I thought my Dad only had one year [left as coach]. It came as a complete shock to me after we lost to UMass in the final game of the year when he told me he got fired at 8:00 AM the next morning; I was completely shocked. I had to finish the semester there, walk from class to class, go to lunch – you know it was just extremely tough knowing my father wasn’t there. Rhode Island really became a part of the family with my brother playing there and dad coaching – when I was the only one left, I knew I couldn’t stay.”

It didn’t take long for a school to scoop up Jim Baron. Just weeks after he was fired at Rhode Island, Canisius hired Baron in early April of 2012. That summer, Billy transferred to Canisius where he was granted immediate eligibility. It has been a whirlwind of a college basketball career, but Billy has found a home at Canisius.

“When I tell you that I was motivated more than ever after transferring from Virginia, now I was at a whole new level. I had to back my father up. I’m so thankful that Canisius welcomed me with open arms and believe in me like they did with my father. I can’t tell you how good it feels to be back at Canisius for a second year, and not have to go through that whole process again of building relationships with teammates and learning my way around a new school.”

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Now that he had found a home, it was time to win. Baron was part of a 16-15 team during his lone season at Virginia, and then a 7-24 team at Rhode Island. Entering a program who won just five games in 2011-12, winning was becoming a foreign concept.

That quickly changed. Canisius posted solid early-season wins against Boston University and St. Bonaventure, but their signature win that garnered the attention of the college basketball community came against Temple, a 72-62 victory to move to 8-2 on the season.

“I think I had forgotten the feeling, a little bit, of what it was like to win,” Baron said. “As a team, we weren’t all that surprised that we won 20 games, although I am sure that everyone outside of our locker room was, and why not after winning just five games the year prior.”

Canisius went 12-12 to close out the season, which was a minor disappointment given their hot start. Considering they improved their record by 15 wins though, last season should be viewed as nothing short of a success — the Barons helped to turn around the program in just a season. Billy is hardly satisfied, though: “If you look at the schedule [last year], we beat Temple, but then kind of struggled down the stretch. We weren’t able to win more than three games in a row and lost a lot of close games that we didn’t know how to close out…To go from five wins to 20 wins was great, but now it’s got to carry over from 20 to 25 to even 30. That’s something I feel we can do.”

The ultimate goal, as is the case for many mid-major programs in the country, is to win the league championship and advance to the NCAA Tournament — something Canisius hasn’t accomplished since 1996.

There was no questioning Canisius’ offensive ability last season as they averaged 73.5 ppg (41st nationally), but the defense proved to be the Achilles heel. Baron explained that improvement on the defensive end is an absolute must to reach that next level: “It’s really going to start on the defensive end. When you look back at that Iona game [in the MAAC tournament], we lost 89-85 and, even though it’s Iona, you can’t give up 89 points and expect to win. Getting key stops in the second half to close teams out – getting scores after those stops – is so important. It has to be a full team effort on the defensive end.”

Expectations are, no doubt, much higher this year than last. In the MAAC preseason poll, Canisius was picked to finish third in the 11 team conference behind Manhattan and Iona, but that’s just fine, according to Baron: “Being picked to finish third in the conference, we are kind of behind the scenes which is perfect for us. With Iona and Manhattan picked ahead of us, we are fine staying behind the scenes and then hopefully get hot come March.”

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.