Missouri Valley Conference Catchup: Who challenges Wichita State?

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The 2013-14 season was one of transition for the Missouri Valley Conference, with the league moving forward following the move of Creighton to the Big East. And while much was expected of current standard-bearer Wichita State in the aftermath of their trip to the Final Four, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who expected Gregg Marshall’s Shockers to run through their regular season schedule in the manner that they did.

Wichita State ran the table, winning all 34 of their games before the NCAA tournament. And while there were critics who questioned Wichita State’s credentials for much of the season, their 78-76 loss to eventual national runner-up Kentucky in the Round of 32 resulted in many giving the Shockers the respect they felt they deserved all season long. With Fred Van Vleet, Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton all returning, the Shockers will once again be the clear favorites to win the Valley despite the loss of Cleanthony Early.

RELATEDRead through all of our Conference Catchups here

But who will step forward to challenge Wichita State? That’s an important question for the conference to address, with regards to not just the 2014-15 season but also the campaigns that follow. As a whole the conference’s computer numbers weren’t at the level Valley fans had grown accustomed to, with non-conference play being a big reason why, and that will have to change. And there are some personnel losses that need to be addressed, most notably the aforementioned Early and Jake Odum at Indiana State. But the Valley welcomes some solid newcomers from both the high school and junior college ranks.

The one program that didn’t stock up on the recruiting trail is Northern Iowa, with head coach Ben Jacobson adding just one freshman in point guard Wyatt Lohaus. But that isn’t a major issue for the Panthers due to the fact that their top five scorers, led by forward Seth Tuttle, are back. Does that experience make UNI the biggest threat to Wichita State? That remains to be seen, and Missouri State, Illinois State and even Indiana State will factor into the equation as well.

The discussion of who makes a run at Wichita State is the “obvious” question with regards to the Valley, but it isn’t the most important one. Can the league use Wichita State’s run as the boost needed to take a step forward collectively in 2014-15? That needs to be the case.

THREE UP

Illinois State: Dan Muller’s Redbirds were one of three Valley teams to finish conference play with a 9-9 record, with their regular season ending with a loss to Missouri State in the quarterfinals of Arch Madness. But Illinois State did win two games in the CBI, and the return of leading scorers Daishon Knight (13.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 2.2 apg) and Bobby Hunter (10.5, 3.7, 2.4) will help as the Redbirds look to use that as a boost into 2014-15. In total Illinois State returns four of its top six scorers, and the addition of junior college transfer guard Devaughn Akoon-Purcell will help as well.

Evansville: A lot was placed upon the shoulders of prolific scoring guard D.J. Balentine last season and with good reason, as he averaged 22.8 points per game. But for Marty Simmons’ Purple Aces to make a move up the Valley pecking order they needed to find players capable of consistently helping Balentine with the scoring load, and the addition of junior college transfers Taylor Stafford (Eastern Arizona) and Willie Wiley (Vincennes) may be just what the doctor ordered. The 6-foot-1 Stafford averaged 25.0 points per game, and Wiley was a quality front court presence on a team that finished third in the NJCAA tournament. Add in center Egidijus Mockevicius (10.8 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 2.0 bpg), and Evansville could take a step forward in 2014-15.

Northern Iowa: The Panthers have been a formidable program throughout Ben Jacobson’s tenure as head coach, and their 10-8 conference record was good enough for a third-place finish in 2013-14. But UNI finished 16-15 overall, meaning that the Panthers didn’t perform as well as they would have hoped for in non-conference play. With their top five scorers back, led by forward Seth Tuttle (15.4 ppg, 8.0 rpg) and guard Deon Mitchell (12.1, 2.3, 3.4 apg), UNI has experience on its side and could turn out to be the biggest threat to Wichita State. But the Panthers have to perform better in non-conference play than they did a season ago if they’re to play in a postseason event.

THREE DOWN

Indiana State: In addition to Odum the Sycamores also lost wing Manny Arop (10.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and guard Dawon Cummings (9.9, 2.7, 2.3 apg), meaning that head coach Greg Lansing has to account for the loss of three of his top five scorers. Forward Justin Gant and guard Khristian Smith are both double-digit scorers, but the most important player could turn out to be junior college transfer Charles Bennett III. A point guard who’s also capable of scoring (20.8 ppg), Bennett will have every opportunity to grab the reins. Point guard play is the biggest question for Indiana State at this time. But it should be noted that the program has finished in the bottom half of the Valley just once during Lansing’s tenure, so while the Sycamores may fall from its second-place finish of a season ago they may not fall too far down the standings.

Drake: With leading scorers Richard Carter (guard) and Aaron Hawley (guard/forward) out of eligibility, Ray Giacoletti will need to account for the 26.9 points per game those two combined to average in 2013-14. The good news for Drake is that guard Jordan Daniels (10.2 ppg) will be back, and the same can be said for redshirt senior guard Gary Ricks Jr. Ricks played in just eight games before breaking a bone in his foot, and he was averaging 12.2 ppg at the time of the injury. The concern for Drake is their inexperience/lack of depth in the front court, meaning that of their five incoming freshmen power forwards Casey Schlatter and Kory Kuenstling will be important additions. That may lead to lowered expectations from the outside, but Drake finished in a tie for eighth after being picked to finish last in the Valley in the preseason poll.

Southern Illinois: Barry Hinson’s Salukis may have finished the season with an overall record of 14-19, but they managed to finish 9-9 in conference play with wing Desmar Jackson (18.6 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 2.1 apg) leading the way. Now that Jackson’s gone even more will be asked of guard Anthony Beane Jr., who averaged 14.7 points per game last season. But with Beane being SIU’s lone returning double-digit scorer, who steps forward? The Salukis add a five-member freshman class led by high-scoring guard Deion Lavender, and Illinois transfer Ibby Djimde gives them some size inside. But SIU doesn’t have much depth in the post, and the question regarding scoring options could be a big one if they struggle to address it.

FIVE NEW FACES

Josh Cunningham, Bradley: There were some raised eyebrows when the Morgan Park HS (Chicago, Ill.) product announced his decision to join Geno Ford’s program in late-April, picking Bradley while holding offers from programs such as Creighton, Indiana and St. John’s. A very athletic four-star prospect, Cunningham was also a member of the Mac Irvin Fire grassroots program, playing with the likes of Jahlil Okafor and Cliff Alexander. And with leading rebounder Tyshon Pickett having departed, the opportunity to earn significant playing time will be there for Cunningham.

Tevin Glass, Wichita State: Wichita State’s success with junior college prospects is well-documented, with front court players such as Carl Hall and Cleanthony Early enjoying success during Gregg Marshall’s tenure. And with Early having moved on, the arrival of Tevin Glass is an important one for the Shockers. At Northwest Florida State the 6-foot-7 forward averaged 12.0 points and 5.8 rebounds per game in 2013-14, shooting 55.1% from the field.

Marcus Marshall, Missouri State*: No Marshall isn’t a new face, as he played in 12 games (11 starts) last season. But the 2013 MVC Freshman of the Year was lost in January to a torn meniscus in his right knee, and Marshall’s return is big for Missouri State given the fact that leading scorer Jamar Gulley is out of eligibility. In those 12 games Marshall averaged 14.3 points per game, shooting 42.6% from the field and 39.6% from three. He’ll likely be asked to lead the way for a team that finished the 2013-14 with a 20-13 record (9-9 MVC).

Charles Bennett III, Indiana State: The now-departed Jake Odum was a first-team All-MVC selection in each of his final two seasons at Indiana State, and he left the school ranked in the top five all-time in scoring (fifth), assists (second), steals (fourth), made free throws (first) and free throw attempts (first). So how will the Sycamores go about accounting for the loss of their outstanding point guard? Enter Bennett, who was an NJCAA Honorable Mention All-American at Lamar State College-Port Arthur last season. Bennett averaged 20.8 points and 2.6 assists per game, and with the Sycamores losing three of their top five scores he’ll need to display that scoring ability as well.

Devaughn Akoon-Purcell, Illinois State: Bennett isn’t the only NJCAA Honorable Mention All-American joining the Valley, with Akoon-Purcell making the trek from Eastern Oklahoma State CC to Illinois State. Last season the 6-foot-4 Akoon-Purcell posted averages of 20.9 points and 5.5 rebounds per game, shooting 55.5% from the field and 40.6% from three. The Redbirds return two of their top three scorers in guards Daishon Knight and Bobby Hunter, and the arrival of Akoon-Purcell gives Muller another offensive option to work with on the perimeter.

Way Too Early Power Rankings

1. Wichita State
2. Northern Iowa
3. Illinois State
4. Missouri State
5. Indiana State
6. Evansville
7. Bradley
8. Southern Illinois
9. Loyola
10. Drake

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.