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Looking Forward: Just how good will Duke be, and when will the 40-0 chatter start?

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As we take a look at ahead at the 2016-17 season, we’re also going to take a deeper dive into what we think will end up being some of the biggest storylines next season.

Today, we’re talking Duke and the potential for a 40-0 season.

There’s a strong argument to make that, in the years since Duke and head coach Mike Krzyzewski fully embraced the one-and-done era, his 2016-17 roster will be the strongest that he has coached.

Stronger, I’d argue, than the 2015 team that produced the three first round picks, including Jahlil Okafor, the No. 3 pick, and Justise Winslow, who went 10th. The kicker? Neither of those two were the stars of the 2015 Final Four. That title belongs to Tyus Jones, who was selected 25th in 2015, and Grayson Allen, a probable first-round pick who returns to school this season as a reigning second-team all-american.

Think about this for a second.

Allen was one of the ten-best players in college basketball last season. He’s a guy who could have snuck into the first round had he opted to enter his name into the NBA Draft, but is coming back to school for his junior year after averaging 21.5 points and 3.5 assists as a sophomore.

And there’s a very real chance that he could end up being the fourth option offensively for the Blue Devils next season. That’s what happens when a program brings in the likes of Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles and Frank Jackson, to say nothing of the potential that they also land Marques Bolden*. Those are two of the top three, three of the top ten and, if they land Bolden, four of the top 16 players in a class many believe to be as strong and as deep as any we’ve seen in the recruiting rankings era.

*(Bolden has yet to announce where he will be playing his college ball. His list is down to Duke and Kentucky, but there is no timetable yet for when a decision is going to get made.)

Throw in the return of Luke Kennard, Amile Jefferson and Matt Jones, and what you have is a roster that is talented, deep and balanced, enough so that Duke will likely end up being the consensus No. 1 team in the country come November despite the fact that the likes of Kansas, Kentucky, Villanova and Oregon are going to be very, very good as well.

If it were Kentucky fielding a roster like this, the 40-0 chatter would’ve started before the Wildcats were bounced in the second round of the NCAA tournament. When will that discussion pop up, and is there really a chance that this group can pull it off?

Well, the answer to both of those questions is slightly more complicated than simply comparing old Kentucky rosters to what this Duke roster is projected to be.

Duke’s Grayson Allen, center, handles the ball as Long Beach State’s Nick Faust, left, and Long Beach State’s Noah Blackwell (3) defend during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Durham, N.C. Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015. Duke won 103-81. (AP Photo/Ben McKeown)
Grayson Allen (AP Photo/Ben McKeown)

For starters, the ACC is a much tougher conference than the SEC. Even with the unbalanced schedules, it’s almost impossible for Kentucky to play as tough of a conference slate as Duke will play on an annual basis. The ACC is coming off of a year where six teams reached the Sweet 16 and next season, the league may be even better; the NBCSports.com Preseason Top 25 features four ACC teams in the top ten, five in the top 15 and seven in the top 25. That doesn’t include Miami, Pitt or N.C. State, who adds one of the best point guards in the country in Dennis Smith Jr.

     RELATED: What does the ACC have in store for the 2016-17 season?

It also ignores just how difficult it is for anyone to make it through league play unscathed. The last time any team posted an undefeated ACC regular season was back in 1999, when a Duke team led by Trajan Langdon and Elton Brand — a team many consider to be among the best college basketball teams of all-time — finished league play 18-0 and entered the NCAA tournament with just a single loss on their record. In fact, the last time that an ACC team finished league play with just one loss was Maryland’s title-winning team in 2002.

That’s not all.

All of that happened at a time when Louisville, Syracuse, Notre Dame, Miami and Pitt were playing in the Big East or Conference USA and when Virginia was an ACC cellar-dweller, not a perennial top ten program.

And Kentucky?

Well, they’ve run through their SEC schedule with an undefeated record twice in the last five years, not to mention that Florida went 18-0 in SEC play back in 2014. It’s not all that surprising when you think about it like this: the team that finished 9th in the ACC this season reached the Final Four, while two of the three teams that tied for third in the SEC were left out of the NCAA tournament.

     RELATED: The 2016-17 Preseason Top 25

The other thing that you have to consider here is that this Duke team doesn’t exactly have a flawless roster construction.

The biggest concern to me is the point guard spot. Jackson is a terrific player. He’s going to have a major impact at the college level, he could end up being a one-and-done guy and he’ll likely have more than a few highlight plays throughout the season. But he’s also a prototype of the new breed of point guard: An athletic scorer that gets put into a lead guard role because he can handle the ball and no one at the lower levels of basketball can stop him. Tyus Jones, he is not, and that’s where the loss of Derryck Thornton has the potential to hurt this Duke team. Jackson also happens to be the only point guard currently on the roster, so instead of allowing Thornton to play 15-20 minutes on the ball, Jackson is going to have to embrace being a full-time point guard on a team with four or five guys that can take over a game.

How he embraces that role will be particularly relevant, because the other issue with Duke’s roster is that their top four perimeter players — Jackson, Tatum, Allen and Kennard — are all scorers at heart. They’re at their best with the ball in their hands, making a play for themselves. They’re not known for being the kind of players that make their teammates better. That doesn’t mean they can’t — Allen did, after all, average 3.5 assists — it just means that their best skill is scoring the ball.

East forward Jayson Tatum, from Chaminade in St. Louis dunks against the West team during the McDonald's All-American boys basketball game, Wednesday, March 30, 2016, in Chicago. The West won 114-107. (AP Photo/Matt Marton)
Jayson Tatum (AP Photo/Matt Marton)

The biggest concern here may be with Tatum. He’s got the tools to be a tremendous player — he’s a smooth, 6-foot-8 small forward with an advanced handle, a soft touch and sneaky athleticism — but he’s also a guy whose biggest strength is his mid-range pull-up game. Does he have the strength and explosiveness to get to and finish at the rim? Will he get more comfortable shooting college threes? How will be operate in a system where the number of times that he’ll be allowed to go one-on-one is limited?

Last season, Coach K’s offense was built around putting Allen, Brandon Ingram and Kennard into isolations because no one could stop those guys. Funneling the ball to two or three players worked when the other two spots on the floor were taken Marshall Plumlee and Matt Jones. It was like watching the Oklahoma City Thunder play. They don’t need a “pure” point guard when they have two players that are unstoppable.

But this season?

When Duke’s loaded with first round-caliber talent?

It will be interesting to see how Coach K molds all of those pieces together, but fit is not the only concern for this group.

     RELATED: Eight programs on the rise | And seven on the decline

Giles shredded his knee prior to his sophomore year in high school — torn ACL, torn MCL, torn meniscus — and while he was seemingly back to full health by his junior season, he tore the ACL in his other knee at the start of his senior year. He had two surgically repaired knees before he even enrolled in a summer school class at Duke. How healthy will he be, and how long will it take for him to return to the player that was at one point considered the consensus top prospect in the class?

And if Giles isn’t healthy or Duke opts to put a cap on the minutes that he plays, and if they don’t land Bolden, will there be a post presence to take the pressure off of their perimeter attack?

So no, this Duke team isn’t going to be perfect.

But then again, who is?

Every high schooler in the country has to make an adjustment in college, when they’re playing with and against a higher level of competition. And every coach in the country will tell you they’d rather find a way to get talented players to embrace their role than try to coach up kids that aren’t good enough.

Duke is going to be the best team on the floor every time they step on the court this season. They’re not always going to be the favorite — road games in league play can do funky things to betting lines — but they are always going to have the most talent.

Will that lead to an undefeated season?

I seriously doubt it. But hey, if Leicester City can with the Premier League, anything can happen.

Just, please, don’t bet your mortgage on it happening.

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.

Preseason Top 25 | Mock Draft 3.0 | Early Entry Tracker

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.