Andy Lyons/Getty Images

SEC Conference Reset: The league gets even stronger in 2018-19

Leave a comment

The NBA Draft’s Early Entry Deadline has come and gone, and there are a dozen or so truly impactful decisions that are left to be made.

Just about every elite recruit has decided where they will be playing their college ball next season.

The coaching carousel has come to a close.

The transfer market is slowly winding down.

In other words, by now, we have a pretty good feel for what college basketball is going to look like during the 2018-19 season.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at what has happened — and what will happen — in the SEC over the next six months.

KEY OFFSEASON STORYLINES

THE SEC LOOKS TO BUILD ON A GOOD 2017-18 SEASON: Much-maligned in recent years due to the underwhelming non-conference schedules and performances by some programs, the SEC has made strides. Good hires, with regards to both the conference office and schools picking new head coaches, and better scheduling practices paid dividends for the SEC last season as eight teams earned NCAA tournament bids and two others landed in the NIT. The ten combined postseason berths are the most for the SEC since the league expanded to 14 schools in 2013. And here’s the thing: the SEC should be even better in 2018-19.

In Auburn, Kentucky and Tennessee the SEC boasts three teams that are in the Top 10 of many early rankings, and Mississippi State and LSU stand to be really good with the majority of their key contributors back. And in the case of LSU, the Tigers add a recruiting class that includes Nazreon Reid, Javonte Smart and Emmitt Williams. The jokes about this conference and its basketball product died down substantially last season, and that should continue to be the case in 2018-19.

(Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

AS WE’VE COME TO EXPECT, KENTUCKY RELOADS: Kentucky, which won 26 games and reached the Sweet 16 last season, will have to account for the loss of four of the team’s top six scorers, as Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox, Hamidou Diallo and Wenyen Gabriel all made the decision to turn pro. Kentucky also lost Sacha Killeya-Jones, who after two seasons in Lexington transferred to NC State. Those are some key losses, especially Gilgeous-Alexander and Knox, but the expectation at this point is that Kentucky will be even better next season thanks to the combination of who returns and who joins the program.

After testing the NBA draft waters forward PJ Washington is back, as are fellow sophomores Quade Green and Nick Richards. Joining those returnees is one of the nation’s best recruiting classes, with point guard Immanuel Quickley, off-guards Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro and power forward E.J. Montgomery making up that talented quartet. It’s also worth noting that Kentucky is one of the schools reported to be making a run at Stanford grad transfer Reid Travis, a first team all-Pac 12 performer who will be a major addition to whichever program he joins. Lastly, there’s the expectation that 2019 five-star guard Ashton Hagans will reclassify and join the program this summer.

THE NBA DRAFT PROCESS LARGELY WORKED OUT FOR THE SEC: While Kentucky lost some key contributors, as noted above PJ Washington did make the decision to return for his sophomore season. And he wasn’t the only SEC talent of note to do this. Auburn and Mississippi State had multiple key contributors withdraw from the draft, including guard Bryce Brown and center Austin Wiley (Auburn), and guards Nick and Quinndary Weatherspoon (Mississippi State). It wasn’t all rosy for Bruce Pearl’s Tigers however, as leading scorer Mustapha Heron withdrew from the draft and then transferred to St. John’s in order to be closer to his ailing mother.

The loss of Heron aside, Auburn has enough talent to make a run at another SEC title after sharing the top spot in the regular season standings a season ago. And at Mississippi State, Ben Howland has his best team since arriving in Starkville as the top six scorers from a team that reached the Postseason NIT semifinals have all returned. Other programs that benefitted from players withdrawing from the draft include Tennessee (Admiral Schofield), LSU (Tremont Waters), Missouri (Jontay Porter) and Florida (Jalen Hudson). Having those players back in the mix will only make the SEC better in 2018-19.

(Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)

LSU IS POISED TO MAKE A BIG JUMP NATIONALLY: Will Wade’s first season at LSU was a step in the right direction, as the Tigers finished the year with an 18-15 record (8-10 SEC) and reached the second round of the Postseason NIT. Point guard Tremont Waters was one of the SEC’s best freshmen, fellow guard Skylar Mays took a step forward as a sophomore and forwards Duop Reath and Aaron Epps were both productive options in the front court.

LSU will have to account for the losses of Reath and Epps heading into 2018-19, and all Wade did on that front was land a highly-regarded recruiting class that includes two of the nation’s best front court prospects in Nazreon Reid and Emmitt Williams. Add in LSU keeping five-star point guard and Baton Rouge native Ja’Vonte Smart home, and this is a team that’s has the talent needed to be a factor in the SEC title race and a player nationally as well. That being said the climb won’t be easy considering the programs ahead of LSU in the SEC pecking order, but the Tigers will be heard from.

WHO’S GONE?

  • Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Kevin Knox, Kentucky : Of the four players to leave Kentucky early for the NBA Gilgeous-Alexander and Knox were the most productive, with Knox being a first team All-SEC performer and the league’s co-Freshman of the Year, and Gilgeous-Alexander being a second team All-SEC selection. Kentucky’s play improved when Gilgeous-Alexander took the reins as starting point guard, with his ability to see over defenses, get into the paint off the dribble and defensive work being the reasons why. As for Knox, while there were moments in which he settled he was Kentucky’s most skilled scorer. Those two won’t be easy to replace, but Kentucky has reloaded with a very good recruiting class. What will also be key: PJ Washington, Nick Richards and Quade Green all taking a step forward as sophomores.
  • Collin Sexton and Braxton Key, Alabama: Sexton shared SEC Freshman of the Year honors with the aforementioned Knox, averaging 19.2 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game. While losing Sexton, a projected lottery pick, hurts it isn’t as if his being a one-and-done player wasn’t expected in Tuscaloosa. To that point the Crimson Tide welcome back the likes of guards John Petty, Herb Jones, Avery Johnson Jr. and Dazon Ingram, and four-star freshman Jared Butler should factor into the team’s plans as well. Avery Johnson will also have to account for the loss of Braxton Key, who transferred to Virginia after going through a sophomore season affected adversely by injury. Had the versatile Key been healthy for the entire season, it’s likely that Alabama would have been better than an 9-seed in the NCAA tournament (and avoided Villanova in the second round).
  • Robert Williams, Tyler Davis and D.J. Hogg, Texas A&M: Billy Kennedy has some major holes to fill in the front court, as Williams, Davis and Hogg all decided to turn pro at season’s end. In the case of Williams, the buzz for him was such that he could have left after his freshman season and been a lottery pick as opposed to returning to College Station for the 2017-18 season. While Williams was the best defender and athlete in this trio Davis was the best low-post scoring option, and the 6-foot-9 Hogg was the best perimeter shooter. Texas A&M also lost Tony Trocha-Morelos from its front court rotation, and the personnel losses place even more pressure upon the likes of Isiah Jasey, Josh Nebo and recent addition Christian Mekowulu as the Aggies look to build on last season’s Sweet 16 run.
  • Chris Chiozza and Egor Koulechov, Florida: The good news for Mike White is that four of the top six scorers from last year’s team are back, including leading scorer Jalen Hudson. The bad news: he’ll have to account for the loss of starting point guard Chris Chiozza, who averaged 11.1 points and 6.1 assists per game last season. Also gone is Egor Koulechov, who in his lone season at Florida chipped in with 13.8 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. While those personnel losses hurt, the return of Hudson, KeVaughn Allen and Keith Stone and the additions of talented prospects such as Andrew Nembhard and Keyontae Johnson will help matters. Also, forward Isaiah Stokes is healthy after missing last season due to a torn ACL. Florida should once again be good, but how good will depend upon the consistency of KeVaughn Allen.
(Alex Menendez/Getty Images)

WHO’S BACK?

  • PJ Washington, Kentucky: Washington went through the NBA draft process, but ultimately decided to return to Lexington for his sophomore season. While productive as a freshman, averaging 10.8 points and 5.7 rebounds per game, Washington did not have the consistent first-round grade that some players look for when making their draft decisions. His return is undoubtedly a positive for Kentucky, which will be able to pair solid returning contributors with a very good recruiting class. And that has been the formula for Kentucky’s most successful teams during John Calipari’s tenure as head coach.
  • Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield and Lamonte Turner, Tennessee: Only one of these three, Schofield, went through the NBA draft process, and with all of them returning the Volunteers are expected to be even better in 2018-19. Williams was named SEC Player of the Year last season after averaging 15.2 points and 6.0 rebounds per game as a sophomore, with Schofield and Turner (SEC Co-Sixth Man of the Year) being double-digit scorers as well. In total Tennessee returns its top six scorers from a team that won a share of the SEC regular season title.
  • Bryce Brown, Jared Harper and Austin Wiley, Auburn: Auburn, which shared that SEC title with Tennessee, received needed boosts on two fronts this spring. Brown, Harper and Wiley all decided to return for another season after testing the waters, with Wiley and Danjel Purifoy both being cleared after being sidelined last season due to the FBI investigation that rocked college basketball. Wiley and Purifoy will miss the first nine games of the 2018-19 season, but to have those two back in the rotation is big for Bruce Pearl. Auburn did lose leading scorer Mustapha Heron, who transferred to St. John’s after withdrawing his name from the draft, but they have the talent needed to account for his departure.
  • Chris Silva, South Carolina: After sharing SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors with Texas A&M’s Robert Williams, Silva tested the NBA draft waters before deciding to return for his senior season. And that’s a huge deal for South Carolina, which will have to account for the losses of Frank Booker and Wesley Myers. While his defensive work is what got Silva an individual honor last season, it’s important to remember that he averaged 14.3 points per game as a junior.
(Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

WHO’S COMING?

  • Immanuel Quickley and E.J. Montgomery, Kentucky: Kentucky’s recruiting class was mentioned above and with good reason, as it’s considered to be the second-best crop in the country behind Duke. Quickley and Montgomery are key figures, with the former immediately in the mix on the perimeter as Kentucky looks to account for the departures of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Hamidou Diallo. As for Montgomery, the 6-foot-10 forward will also see immediate minutes with P.J. Washington being the most noteworthy front court returnee and Nick Richards back as well.
  • Darius Garland, Vanderbilt: Vanderbilt lost three of its top four scorers from a season ago, but the Commodores should put forth an improved product due to who arrives on campus. Among the newcomers is 6-foot-2 point guard Darius Garland, one of two five-star recruits brought in by Bryce Drew. Garland and sophomore Saben Lee should combine to form a talented and entertaining perimeter duo for the Commodores this season. As for the other five-star prospect, forward Simi Shittu, it remains to be seen how much he’ll be able to contribute early on after a torn ACL ended his senior season in late January.
  • Nazreon Reid and Emmitt Williams, LSU: Will Wade hit the jackpot last spring by landing Tremont Waters, and his second recruiting class at LSU ranks among the nation’s best. Wade left the state for two five-star prospects in Reid and Williams, who will be expected to contribute immediately as both Duop Reath and Aaron Epps are out of eligibility. The third five-star prospect in the class in point guard Ja’Vonte Smart, a key recruit in that Wade managed to keep the state’s top talent from leaving.
  • Andrew Nembhard, Florida: With the graduation of Chris Chiozza, Florida had a major hole to fill at point guard even with reserve Michael Okauru still in the fold. Enter Nembhard, a 6-foot-4 Canadian who finished his high school career at Montverde Academy in Florida. Nembhard’s size gives Florida a different dimension at the point than it had with Chiozza running the show, and his ability to get guys the ball in spots where they’re most effective should result in the freshman working well alongside Jalen Hudson and KeVaughn Allen.

COACHING CHANGES

  • Tom Crean, Georgia: After a nine-year run that produced two NCAA tournament bids the Mark Fox era came to an end in Athens, with Georgia hiring former Marquette and Indiana head coach Tom Crean to replace him. Crean spent last season working as a color commentator and studio analyst at ESPN, and the hope in Athens is that his accomplishments at prior head coaching stops foreshadow similar success at Georgia. Unfortunately for Crean he won’t have either Yante Maten or Juwan Parker to work with as both graduated, but three starters (William Jackson II, Derek Ogbeide and Rayshaun Hammonds) and reserve Tyree Crump are among the returnees.
  • Kermit Davis, Ole Miss: Ole Miss bid farewell to Andy Kennedy, the program’s all-time wins leader, in mid-February as he announced his resignation. Stepping in to replace Kennedy was Kermit Davis, whose successful 16-year run at Middle Tennessee included 332 wins, six regular season conference titles (three Sun Belt, three Conference USA) and three NCAA tournament appearances. The biggest news for Davis this offseason was Terence Davis, Ole Miss’ leading scorer each of the last two seasons, deciding to withdraw his name from the NBA draft and return for his senior year.
(Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

WAY-TOO-EARLY ALL-SEC TEAM

Grant Williams, Tennessee (POY)
Bryce Brown, Auburn
Tremont Waters, LSU
Chris Silva, South Carolina
PJ Washington, Kentucky

WAY-TOO-EARLY POWER RANKINGS

1. Tennessee: A season that began with the Volunteers being picked to finish 13th in the SEC ended with 26 wins, a share of the SEC regular season title and the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance in four years. With much of that team back Rick Barnes may have a national contender on his hands, and the disappointing end to last season should motivate this experienced group.

2. Kentucky: The combination of returnees and talented newcomers make the Wildcats a player within the SEC and nationally, as we’ve come to expect. P.J. Washington and Quade Green will need to take on leadership roles while also competing for minutes alongside the likes of Immanuel Quickley, Keldon Johnson, Tyler Herro and E.J. Montgomery (and likely Ashton Hagans as well). And can Nick Richards take a step forward after struggling with inconsistency last season? Kentucky will need him to.

3. Auburn: From a depth standpoint the Tigers don’t have much room for error, especially with the departure of Mustapha Heron. That being said this is a very good rotation to work with, as Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley will be back on the court after sitting out the first nine games of the 2018-19 season. Bryce Brown, Jared Harper, Horace Spencer and Anfernee McLemore return, and transfer guards Samir Doughty (VCU) and Jamal Johnson (Memphis) will be eligible after sitting out last season.

4. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return their top six scorers from a season ago, including guards Quinndary and Nick Weatherspoon and forward Aric Holman, making this Ben Howland’s best roster since he arrived in Starkville in 2015. As a result, look for the Bulldogs to be an SEC title contender next season.

5. Florida: While the losses of Chris Chiozza and Egor Koulechov aren’t to be overlooked, the return of Jalen Hudson means that the Gators should once again be a tough out in 2018-19. Adding Andrew Nembhard and Keyontae Johnson to the mix will help with the perimeter depth, and Keith Stone and Kevarrius Hayes are back in the front court. The key for Florida: KeVaughn Allen playing with aggression consistently.

6. LSU: After a good first season in Baton Rouge, Will Wade is set up for a more successful run in 2018-19. Of course there’s the addition of one of the nation’s top recruiting classes, but Tremont Waters’ decision to return for his sophomore season is huge for LSU.

7. Alabama: Collin Sexton has moved on, but the Crimson Tide don’t lack for promising perimeter talents as Dazon Ingram, Avery Johnson Jr., Herb Jones and John Petty are all back for another season. In the front court Donta Hall and Daniel Giddens are back, with the former being Alabama’s leading returning scorer and rebounder.

8. Missouri: The Tigers lose Michael Porter Jr. and an all-SEC performer in Kassius Robertson, but the return of Jontay Porter means that Cuonzo Martin will have one of the SEC’s best front courts with Porter, Kevin Puryear and Jeremiah Tilmon being the key figures. On the perimeter the Tigers will need freshmen Javon Pickett and Torrence Watson to hit the ground running, as Jordan Geist is their most productive returnee.

9. Vanderbilt: The Commodores did lose a lot of production from last season, but that senior-led group finished the year with an 11-20 record. There’s a renewed sense of optimism due to the recruiting class that Bryce Drew has added, and in sophomore guard Saben Lee he has another young “building block” to work with.

10. Arkansas: Losing Jaylen Barford, Darryl Macon and Anton Beard, three of the top four scorers from a team that won 23 games and reached the NCAA tournament, does hurt. That being said Arkansas does boast one of the SEC’s better big men in rising sophomore Daniel Gafford, who made the decision to not even test the NBA draft waters.

11. Texas A&M: The Aggies lost their top three front court contributors, as Robert Williams, Tyler Davis and D.J. Hogg all turned pro. That leaves guards T.J. Starks and Admon Gilder to shoulder much of the load in 2018-19, with transfers Josh Nebo (Saint Francis-PA) and Christian Mekowulu (Tennessee State) joining Isiah Jasey in the front court. Also, Texas A&M will need Jay Jay Chandler and Savion Flagg to take a significant step forward if the team is to exceed this expectation.

12. Ole Miss: Kermit Davis won’t be working with a bare cupboard in his first season at Ole Miss. Terence Davis’ decision to return for his senior season means that the Rebels welcome back four of the team’s top scorers in 2017-18, with guards Devontae Shuler and Breein Tyree and forward Bruce Stevens rounding out that quartet. And the late additions of K.J. Buffen and Blake Hinson improve Ole Miss’ talent and depth in the front court.

13. South Carolina: The return of Chris Silva means that the Gamecocks return one of the SEC’s best defenders and overall players. But there’s still the need to account for the loss of two of the team’s top three scorers in Frank Booker and Wesley Myers. Returnees Justin Minaya and Hassani Gravett, and Georgetown transfer Tre Campbell will be among the other key contributors for Frank Martin in 2018-19.

14. Georgia: As noted above three starters are back from last season’s team as Tom Crean takes over. But with Yante Maten having graduated, who steps forward as Georgia’s top offensive option? They’ll likely have to get it done by committee, and in a league that’s gotten even better than it was last season that could make for some tough nights in Crean’s first season.

John Petty Jr. returns to Alabama for senior season

Getty Images
3 Comments

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

Getty Images
3 Comments

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

jared butler baylor
Getty Images
Leave a comment

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

Getty Images
3 Comments

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

xavier tillman nba draft
Getty Images
Leave a comment

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.

Preseason Top 25 | Mock Draft 3.0 | Early Entry Tracker

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.