SEC Conference Catchup: Will someone step up behind Kentucky?

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College basketball’s non-conference season is coming to a close, and to help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason primers to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

MORE: All of CBT’s Conference Catchups

Today, we’ll be taking a look at the SEC.

MIDSEASON SEC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky

Kentucky has made headlines this season for having one of the best defenses that we’ve seen at the college level in the KenPom era, and the sparkplug for that defense is Cauley-Stein. A shot-blocking presence around the rim, Cauley-Stein is so much more than just a rim-protector. He can switch ball-screens, he can guard an opponent’s best wing and he can play the point on their press.

THE ALL-SEC FIRST TEAM

  • Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky
  • Bobby Portis, Arkansas: Portis has looked like the best non-Kentucky big man in the conference this season, the centerpiece for an Arkansas team that may be the second-best in the league.
  • Jordan Mickey, LSU: Mickey’s led LSU’s bounce back from a rough start to the season, averaging a double-double and a league-high 3.6 blocks.
  • Levi Randolph, Alabama: There may not be a more improved player in the SEC this season than Randolph, who is averaging 16.2 points and has been Alabama’s spark.
  • Damion Jones, Vanderbilt: The Commodores have not been great this season, but Jones has been a bright spot, averaging 16.6 points and 7.1 boards.

THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED

1. Kentucky has a real chance to enter the NCAA tournament undefeated: Kentucky’s doing it with their defense, which is about what we expected about of the Wildcats this season. Even without Alex Poythress in the mix — and even if their idea of a platoon has not exactly come to fruition — Kentucky has been absolutely overwhelming with their size, strength and athleticism on that end of the floor. Offensively, they have some things to work through, but their ability to get to the offensive glass and the improved shooting that freshmen Tyler Ulis, Devin Booker and Trey Lyles can provide should be enough to get them through SEC play unscathed.

2. But much of that has to do with the SEC’s relative weakness: Part of the reason that Kentucky looks like they’ll be able to run the table in the conference is that there really isn’t another team in the league that’s all that good. Arkansas is probably the second-best team, but they struggle on the road and don’t get Kentucky in Bud Walton Arena this year. LSU is talented, but they’re not trustworthy and their strength — the front line — will be overwhelmed by Kentucky’s bigs. South Carolina looked good against Iowa State, but their physical, tough style of play matches up with what Kentucky does best. And don’t forget about Florida, because …

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3. Kasey Hill and Chris Walker were not ready to replace Florida’s seniors: The key to the Gators being relevant this season was getting their two top ten recruits from the Class of 2013 to play like it. They haven’t. Kasey Hill’s certainly a talented playmaker, but he’s still not hitting perimeter jumpers consistently enough and is a long way away from being able to replace Scottie Wilbekin. Walker’s an athletic freak, but he doesn’t quite know how to take advantage of that athleticism. At 7-6 on the season, Florida is in danger of missing the NCAA tournament altogether.

THREE STORY LINES TO FOLLOW

1. Will Kentucky continue to embrace their limited minutes?: Right now, everyone on the Wildcats is fully bought-in on their team concept, the idea that playing nine guys for 20 minutes a night is how they’ll win games. That’s the key to everything that Kentucky does. That’s the reason that they have been so overwhelming on the defensive end. And it’s why this has been John Calipari’s best coaching job since he’s been with the Wildcats. But will it last? Will Andrew Harrison get affected by the notion that Tyler Ulis is a better point guard than him? Will Marcus Lee and Dakari Johnson continue to be OK with seeing their minutes cut in close games?

2. How many teams will the SEC get into the Big Dance?: At this point, there really is only one team in the SEC that can provide the league with a quality win, and that’s if someone knocks off Kentucky. Maybe Arkansas joins that list if they can make a run early on in league play, but the bottom line is that there just aren’t that many quality wins available in SEC play. That’s a problem, because the SEC doesn’t have that many teams with strong resumes coming off of non-conference play. South Carolina put themselves in a good spot with their win over Iowa State, and LSU joins the Razorbacks as a team that can pass the eye-test on a good day, but that’s about it.

3. Who plays their way into early entry?: Bobby Portis seems to have done enough this season to ensure that he’ll have a high enough draft stock that the NBA will come calling in June, which means that this may be the best team Mike Anderson will have for a while. But the same cannot be said for LSU at this point. With a recruiting class that includes Ben Simmons and Antonio Blakeney coming in next season, the Tigers will have a chance to be very, very good — at least on paper — in 2015-2016 if Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin somehow wind up back in school.

THREE PREDICTIONS

1. Kentucky doesn’t take a loss in league play: The only thing standing between the Wildcats and an undefeated conference season is the failure to show up ready to play against a team they should beat. That’s how much more talented they are than the rest of the conference. The way they lose is by sleep-walking through, say, their trip to South Carolina or Florida. I’ll put my money on that not happening.

2. South Carolina ends the year No. 2 in the SEC standings: There’s just something about a team coached by Frank Martin. They exude toughness, and I know that sounds corny and cliche, but they do. And this year’s group actually has some real talent, particularly in their back court. Duane Notice, Sindarius Thornwell and Tyrone Johnson can matchup with anyone else in the conference, including the guys in Lexington.

3. The SEC is more likely to get three bids than five: The biggest reason that I have a hard time seeing the SEC put five teams in the NCAA tournament is that LSU and Arkansas have done an excellent job of developing a reputation for being untrustworthy in conference play. Arkansas never wins away from home, and LSU is always good for two or three head-scratching losses a season. One of those two teams will find a way to miss the Big Dance.

HOW THEY FINISH

NCAA: Kentucky, South Carolina, LSU, Arkansas

NIT/CBI: Alabama, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, Florida, Georgia

NO POSTSEASON: Auburn, Mississippi State, Missouri, Ole Miss, Tennessee

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.