Grayson Allen, the forgotten member of Duke’s freshman class, saves their season

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INDIANAPOLIS — Grayson Allen had accepted that his role on this Duke team was going to be as the most highly-decorated member of Duke’s bench mob, a McDonald’s All-American relegated to mop-up duty and garbage time, the Cohiba of college basketball’s victory cigars.

When Duke played in the Champions Classic, Allen played exactly one minute. When the Blue Devils played at Wisconsin in December, Allen didn’t set foot on the floor. It wasn’t until Duke’s visit to Virginia, four days after another DNP-CD at Notre Dame and three days after Rasheed Sulaimon was kicked off the team, that Allen played more than eight minutes against an opponent from a power conference.

“I did get down, and I think that hurt me,” Allen said. “I was falling into spectator mode on the bench, not expecting to get in, not acting like I was part of the team on the bench. Just watching.”

He made the assumption that most of us had, that getting stuck at the wrong end of Duke’s back court depth chart meant that he was destined to be next year’s star. That he just needed to bide his time until it was his turn.

Not all freshmen are meant to be one-and-done.

But where Allen’s attitude didn’t change was in practice. Jahlil Okafor called him Duke’s best player away from the bright lights of nationally televised games. Assistant coach Jon Scheyer agreed. Justise Winslow said no one on the team wants to get matched up with Allen because, “he’s been so aggressive, he’s been a dog.”

Head coach Mike Krzyzewski affectionately refers to Allen the practice player as an “a–hole”.

All that “a–hole” needed was his chance.

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The talk leading into Monday night’s national title game centered around the centers, Jahlil Okafor and Frank Kaminsky and the entirely too perfect dichotomy between Bo Ryan’s Wisconsin program and what Duke has turned into in recent seasons. No one embraces the idea of developing players over the course of four or five years the way that Ryan does, turning a three-star recruit in Kaminsky into the one guy that could beat out Okafor, a surefire lottery pick and the nation’s top prospect since the time he was 14, for National Player of the Year.

And while it was Duke’s three-headed one-and-done monster, the focal point of the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class, that got all the attention, it was Allen, the seldom-used and oft-forgotten fourth member of that class, that delivered the Devils their fifth national title under head coach Mike Krzyzewski, a 68-63 win over Wisconsin in Lucas Oil Stadium on Monday night.

Duke was up against it with 13 minutes left. Wisconsin was in the midst of a 17-8 surge to open the second half, a stretch where their offense, the nation’s most efficient, started clicking. In the process, they managed to draw the third foul on both Okafor and Justise Winslow, who had been Duke’s best player in the tournament.

“We were close [to dead in the water],” Coach K said. “Foul trouble, nine point deficit, they’re functioning.”

Enter Allen.

It started with a three that cut Wisconsin’s lead to 48-42. On the ensuing possession, he stole the ball from Traevon Jackson, following that up with a driving, and-one layup. After Hayes buried a three that seemed to stop Duke’s surge, Coach K called Allen’s number, waving off Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook to get Allen in a one-on-one situation in one of the national title game’s most important possessions. Allen delivered again, drawing another foul and hitting both of those free throws.

And then, with 5:29 left and the score tied, Allen once again had his name called by Coach K. Allen took the ball on the left wing, beat Wisconsin’s best defender, Josh Gasser, to the rim and finished a tough, contested layup that gave the Blue Devils their first lead since there was 2:55 left in the first half. In total, Allen finished with 16 points, 10 of which came after halftime.

“I don’t think we win without him,” Scheyer said. Allen credited Scheyer, as much as anyone in the program, with helping him keep the right mindset in practice, with helping him realize that his chance was coming, that he needed to stay ready. “It’s no surprise, but the magnitude at which he did it was cool to see. You don’t know that that’s going to happen.”

After Duke reclaimed the lead, Duke went back to what we know: The Tyus and Jahlil Show. After Allen’s go-ahead layup, Wisconsin scored back-to-back buckets before Jones buried a contested three off the dribble from the top of the key. Okafor followed that up with arguably the biggest sequence of his career to date. He scored at one end — just his eighth point of the game — and then stopped Kaminsky one-on-one at the other end. On the ensuing possession, Okafor grabbed an offensive rebound and scored on a putback, following that up by challenging a Bronson Koenig runner, forcing a miss that turned into a turnover.

On Duke’s next possession, Jones hit another deep, pull-up three that made the score 66-58 and, in all reality, ensured that the Blue Devils would win the national title. Jones finished with 23 points, getting named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player.

“There’s just something about him that he knows when to take over,” Winslow said of Jones.

The Blue Devils needed every point and every play that Jones and Allen had to offer. Okafor, Duke’s best player all season and their first-team all-american, finished with just 10 points, three boards and four fouls. Winslow had nine boards and three blocks, but he was just 3-for-9 from the floor and, like Okafor, missed a number of shots at the rim he usually finishes.

“I expect my teammates to have my back and me to have their back as well,” Okafor said of an off-night he refused to call an off-night. “My expectations coming into the day was to win a national title, and we did that.”

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Allen may not be the best NBA prospect on Duke’s roster, but he has the potential to be the next “Most Hated Dukie in America”, following in the footsteps of Christian Laettner and Steve Wojciechowski and J.J. Redick.

He’s white. He’s really good. He plays the game like an “a–hole”.

“I’m out there getting underneath people’s skin and being aggressive, probably overly aggressive,” Allen said. “That will annoy people and get under people’s skin.”

And if he does end up being the guy the nation loves to hate?

“If that comes with winning national championships,” Allen said, smiling from ear to ear, “I’ll take it.”

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.