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Monday Overreactions: Markus Howard goes nuts, Kentucky’s back, Alford’s out?

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PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Markus Howard, Marquette

Markus Howard put together one of the most impressive individual performances that I have ever seen.

In a win over No. 14 Buffalo, Howard went for 45 points, an incredible number on its own but all the more out-of-this-world when you consider that he scored 40 of those 45 points in the second half.

Seriously.

That’s not a typo.

Markus Howard scored 40 points in the second half against a top 15 team.

You can watch it all right here:

That game was actually the second time this season that Howard has scored 45 points in a game. He put 45 on Kansas State, who has one of the best perimeter defenses in college basketball. He put 45 on Buffalo, another team with a number of really talented backcourt defenders. In the month of December, he is averaging 32.8 points. On the season, he’s averaging 25.0 points, 4.5 assists and 4.3 boards. He’s doing all of this for a Marquette team that has set themselves apart from the rest of the Big East — in the last month, they’ve beaten Louisville, Kansas State, Wisconsin and Buffalo.

Should I mention that Howard, a junior, is almost six months younger than Trae Young?

If you’d like to join me, there are plenty of seats available on the bandwagon.

TEAM OF THE WEEK: N.C. State Wolfpack

The Wolfpack are here and they aren’t leaving any time soon.

N.C. made a State-ment this week as they worked over then-No. 7 Auburn, 78-71, to improve to 11-1 on the season and justify their record and where they are ranked in the NBC Sports Top 25.

There isn’t a star on this Wolfpack team, unless you count their head coach. They go 10-deep, often rolling out lineups with four guards that are 6-foot-5 or shorter. They press, they run the floor, they force turnovers and they fire up threes, knocking them down at a 41.2 percent clip, good for eighth nationally.

Not only are they good, but they play a style of basketball that is entertaining to watch — it’s like Shaka Smart’s VCU teams and Bob Huggins’ Press Virginia program had a child and taught it how to shoot. We’ll see if it ends up being a facade, but at the very least, Keatts’ early success has managed to reinvigorate a rabid fanbase.

Zylan Cheatham (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

MONDAY OVERREACTIONS

1. ARIZONA STATE SAVED THE PAC-12 FROM BEING A ONE-BIG LEAGUE

The Pac-12 is an absolute train-wreck this year.

I don’t want to be the guy to tell everyone this, but here we are.

Heading into Saturday’s slate, the conference was 3-30 in Quadrant 1 games. That was before Colorado lost to Indiana State and Hawaii on back-to-back days, UCLA got smacked by Ohio State, Stanford lost at San Francisco and Washington State lost at home to San Diego. On Friday, Oregon lost at Baylor — a team that might finish last in the Big 12 and also won at Arizona — and Oregon State lost at home to Kent State. On Wednesday, Cal was blown out at Fresno State and UCLA lost by 29 points to a rebuilding Cincinnati team. On Tuesday, USC lost at Santa Clara. Even Arizona State suffered an ugly loss of their own, falling by 16 points at Vanderbilt on Monday.

The only day this week that wasn’t a net-negative for the league’s overall profile was on Thursday, when no on in the conference played.

This matters for one, simple reason: non-conference performance determines what the computer numbers are going to be in the league. I walked through it in detail here, but all you really need to know is that eight of the 10 teams in the Big 12 are in the top 50 on KenPom and none are rated lower than Oklahoma State at 80. The Pac-12 doesn’t have a single team rated in KenPom’s top 40, and five of the 12 teams in the conference are ranked behind Oklahoma State — should I mention that Colorado and Oregon State, who are sixth and seventh in the league, respectively, are slotted directly in front of Oklahoma State?

Arizona State’s win over Kansas guarantees that there will be at least one team in the conference that will be looked at as a quality win come February.

2. IF TRE JONES AND ASHTON HAGANS PLAYED 1-ON-1 NO ONE WOULD EVER SCORE

I didn’t think that I would see a more impressive defensive performance this season than I saw out of Tre Jones at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night, but I did: Ashton Hagans leading the charge as No. 19 Kentucky forced No. 9 North Carolina into their worst offensive performance of the season.

And that’s what I feel comfortable saying that …

3. … KENTUCKY IS BACK, BABY!

The truth is that the Wildcats are never going to be a great team offensively.

On the one hand, they just don’t have much in the way of great offensive players. Keldon Johnson is fine, P.J. Washington can do a job, Reid Travis is limited but effective, Tyler Herro is allegedly a shooter. But no one on that roster can do what Markus Howard did. No one on that roster can do what Myles Powell did. That’s not how their built.

And it’s also not the way that John Calipari wants to coach. He builds his teams around defense and rebounding and playing two big men together. The concept of pace and space seems to have eluded him.

It can work at the college level, because the beauty of college basketball is that you don’t have to play the same way as the best team in the sport in order to win a title. That’s why Virginia and Gonzaga are both able to be very, very successful.

But that only works when Cal’s teams are really, really good defensively, and for the first time this season, this Kentucky team looked really, really good defensively.

So Kentucky is back!

4. TEXAS TECH FAILED TO COVER 10 POINTS AGAINST DUKE AND I’M MORE SOLD ON THEM NOW THAN I WAS BEFORE THEY PLAYED

Example No. 58647603 of why gambling on sports is dumb: Texas Tech was the better team on Thursday night for roughly 32 of the 40 minutes that they shared a court with Duke. Cam Reddish was a zero until the last four minutes. R.J. Barrett missed 14 of his first 17 shots. Zion Williamson fouled out in 23 minutes.

And Texas Tech still couldn’t cover a 10 point spread.

If you’re a box score watcher, you probably saw that scoreline and just assumed that Duke was the better team throughout. They weren’t. Tech’s defense took Duke out of what they wanted to do, Jarrett Culver went for 25 points and the Red Raiders proved themselves as the second-best team in the Big 12, at least according to my eyes.

They lost by 11 points, and I walked out of the Garden more impressed with Chris Beard’s club than I did Duke.

And I don’t think that I’m alone in that.

5. UCLA IS NOW HIRING

Saturday’s loss may have put the nail in Steve Alford’s coffin at UCLA.

The Bruins have now lost three games in a row. They are 7-5 on the season with a 1-4 mark against high-major opponents. After falling 80-66 to No. 15 Ohio State in the CBS Sports Classic on Saturday afternoon, the Bruins have lost to the Buckeyes, Cincinnati, Michigan State and North Carolina by a combined 79 points. That doesn’t include last Saturday’s home loss to Belmont.

That’s not a good spot for UCLA to be in, but what makes matters worse is that there will be no rallying in league play. The Pac-12 has been dreadful this year. There aren’t going to be big wins to pick up during conference play, not when Arizona is struggling, Oregon is down and USC can’t crack .500. Even Alford will admit as much.

“Our league has not performed well,” he told reporters after Saturday’s loss. “That’s obvious. As a whole, our league has not done well out of conference, so we’ve got a lot of work to do from that standpoint because that year we had a little bit more, I think opportunities, in league play to get big wins, and this year out of conference, our league hasn’t performed well.”

In other words, barring a miracle or a run to win the Pac-12’s automatic bid, UCLA is going to miss the NCAA tournament for the second time in Alford’s six year tenure in Westwood. On paper, that’s not all that bad, especially when you consider that three of his four trips to the NCAA tournament have resulted in Sweet 16s. The problem is that strictly looking at tournament results buries the lede: One of those Sweet 16 runs came as a No. 11 seed, one came with Lonzo Ball on the roster and another took wins over Tulsa and Stephen F. Austin to get to the second weekend.

The simple fact of the matter is this: In his sixth season at UCLA, Alford should not be hoping and praying to land the league’s automatic bid to get into the NCAA tournament. This isn’t UC Davis or Cal St.-Northridge. He has a roster composed of back-to-back top six recruiting classes. He has three McDonald’s All-Americans on his roster. He has seven top 100 players.

But UCLA does not defend. They are selfish. They have a roster full of guys that fall somewhere between believing they deserve to be in the NBA right now or thinking that this is their team and their chance to prove themselves worthy of being a first round pick. Yes, injuries have hurt, but losing Tyger Campbell and Shareef O’Neal is not enough of an excuse. I could understand an argument for why those injuries kept UCLA from winning the league title. They aren’t an excuse for being a punching bag.

“I’m a man of God,” Alford said, “so I’ve got an audience of one.”

At this point, Alford better hope that God roots for USC or Arizona.

Because that may be the only thing that can save him.

Miami lands Florida grad-transfer Keith Stone

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Keith Stone is leaving the SEC but not the state of Florida.

The former Gator will finish his career at Miami as a graduate transfer, he announced Monday via social media.

The 6-foot-8 Stone is from Deerfield, Fla., less than an hour’s ride from Miami Beach. He averaged 6.1 points and 3.9 rebounds per game last season before tearing his ACL in January. With Dewan Hernandez, Ebuka Izundu, and Anthony Lawrence all gone from the Canes, Stone could be in line for a major role right from the jump if his knee gets back to full strength.

Miami went 14-18 last season to finish under .500 for the first time in Jim Larranaga’s eight seasons, and it was just the second time the Canes failed to win at least 20 games.

Kyle Guy says he’s staying in the draft, will not return to Virginia

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Kyle Guy is off to the professional ranks.

The Virginia junior had already declared for the NBA draft, but announced Monday that he plans to stay in the draft and not return to the Cavaliers next season, as he would be allowed to under NCAA rules.

“I am officially keeping my name in the draft. I know it’s the right step after much prayer and thought with my family,” Guy wrote on social media.

Players retain the option to return to school up until the end of next month, but Guy’s announcement makes it clear he has no intention of utilizing that avenue as he plows ahead toward a professional career after being named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player as Virginia won its first-ever national championship earlier this month in Minneapolis.

The 6-foot-2 guard averaged 15.4 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game in Virginia’s slow-paced offense while shooting 49.5 percent from 3-point range. Right now, Guy’s draft ceiling would appear to be in the second round with going undrafted a possibility as well. If he does make it at the next level, it’s pretty clear it’ll be the 3-point shooting that gets and keeps him there in a league that covets that skill now more than ever.

For Virginia, Guy’s decision simply crystalizes what was likely the reality already – they’re going to have a completely remade roster, which certainly isn’t uncommon for national championship winners. There’s a reason no one since Florida in 2006 and 2007 has repeated as champions. With Guy gone and Ty Jerome, De’Andre Hunter and Mamadi Diakite all having declared, Tony Bennett and Co. could be looking at more modest expectations following the greatest season in program history.

Duke adds to 2019 class with top-30 guard Cassius Stanley

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Duke’s already monster 2019 class got even stronger Monday.

Cassius Stanley, a four-star guard from California, pledged to the Blue Devils to give them their fifth recruit rated in the top-35 nationally in the class.

“I’ll be joining the brotherhood. Go Duke,” Stanley said in his announcement video posted to social media.

“He wants to come in and start or contribute as a starter on a highly competitive team,” Jerome Stanley, Cassius’ father, told 247Sports. “He’s used to winning and he plans to come in there and win. He doesn’t plan to be a project, he wants to step on the floor immediately and help them win.”

Stanley’s commitment only further reinforces how strong Duke is on the recruiting trail as it now has five-stars Vernon Carey, Matthew Hurt and Wendell Moore signed along with top-40 Boogie Ellis of San Diego.

The Blue Devils may have lost their high-profile trio of Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish, but with these major additions along with Tre Jones, Marques Bolden and Alex O’Connell slated to return, they’ll be looking at another top-10 (and maybe higher) preseason ranking after a disappointing Elite Eight departure from the NCAA tournament last month.

Udoka Azubuike returning to Kansas for senior season

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Injuries have robbed Kansas center Udoka Azubuike of nearly two full seasons of college basketball. They also likely played a major part on while he’ll be back for his fourth year on campus.

The 7-footer will return to Lawrence and the Jayhawks for his senior season rather than declare for the NBA draft, the school announced Monday.

“We’re all very excited about Udoka making the decision not to enter the draft,” Kansas coach Bill Self said in a statement released by the school. “Unfortunately for him, injury is the reason as he still cannot participate (at) what would be the NBA combine or workouts for the NBA teams. We really anticipated that this would be the year he would enter the draft but that was also based on him having an injury-free year.”

Azubuike was averaging 13.4 points and 6.8 rebounds per game while shooting 70.5 percent from the field before a wrist injury cut his season short in January after just nine games. He also played just 11 games as a freshman due to injury.

In his lone full healthy season, Azubuike averaged 13 points and 7 rebounds per game as he made 77 percent of his shots from the field, making him nearly an unstoppable force for teams across the Big 12. His return makes Kansas, the 10th-ranked team in our preseason Top 25, an even stronger favorite to regain its Big 12 crown after Texas Tech and Kansas State shared the league title last year to deprive Kansas of its spot atop the league for the first time in 14 years as it battled injuries, suspensions and lackluster play.

The 21 most important ‘stay-or-go’ NBA draft early entry decisions

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This single most important and influential decision when if came to this year’s NBA draft belonged to Cassius Winston.

The Grand Maester of the Michigan State offense, Winston put together an All-American season as he led Michigan State to the 2019 Big Ten regular season title, tournament title and a trip to the Final Four. Over the weekend, the 6-foot point guard announced that he will be returning to school for his senior season, immediately ensuring that the Spartans will be the No. 1 team in the NBC Sports preseason top 25 and locking them in as favorites to win next year’s national title.

But he is far from the only important decision that is left to be made in this year’s NBA draft process. At 11:59 p.m. on April 21st, the deadline to declare for the NBA draft came and went. The players who put there name into the mix — more than 130 that we know of — will have until May 29th to pull their names out of the draft.

Here are 21 decisions that will have the biggest impact on the 2019-2020 college basketball season.

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KERRY BLACKSHEAR

Blackshear might be the single-most influential player in all of college basketball, but to figure out where he is going to have influence, the 6-foot-10, 250 pound forward has a couple of decisions to make. For starters, he has declared for the NBA draft, and given that he is 22 years old and more or less fully developed as a player, now may be the best time for him to make the jump to the professional ranks. If he does decide to return to school, he’s going to have to decide where to play: He’s a redshirt junior and a graduate transfer, which means that the Virginia Tech big man may end up being a former Virginia Tech big man. Every school in college basketball will want to get involved. We’ll see where he ends up.

IGNAS BRAZDEIKIS and JORDAN POOLE, Michigan

Michigan essentially had two players on their roster last season that you could trust to be threats on the offensive end of the floor night in and night out: Poole and Brazdeikis. Now it looks like there is a real chance that both of them to could end following Charles Matthews lead and remain in the NBA draft despite the fact that neither look like they will be a first round pick.

That’s a major concern for John Beilein, because with Zavier Simpson, Jon Teske and Isaiah Livers all back, Michigan will have a case to be the preseason No. 1 team in the country if both Iggy and Swaggy Poole return. If both end up gone, the Wolverines may never break 60 points in a game next year.

DEVON DOTSON, QUENTIN GRIMES and UDOKA AZUBUIKE, Kansas

This one is tricky because we have yet to get official word on whether or not Azubuike has actually declared for the draft*; he did last season and ultimately opted to return to school. Of the three, I think Dotson is probably the most important, as the Jayhawks don’t have anyone nearly as good as he is at the point. If Azubuike opts to enter the draft, Bill Self does still have David McCormack on his roster, who will be an adequate replacement. Grimes is the x-factor here. A former top ten recruit, I think he’s probably the most likely to keep his name in the draft this year even if it’s as a second round pick. I’m not sure if that’s necessarily the best plan of action — I do think there is still a chance that he could come back to Kansas and play his way into the first round with a big sophomore year — but I get it. If he’s gone, the Jayhawks do have some perimeter pieces that will be able to fill the void in Ochai Agbaji and Marcus Garrett.

With all three back, we’re talking about Kansas as the surefire best team in the Big 12 and potentially as a top five team. If they’re all gone, then it is going to be a long, long season in Lawrence.

*(Since this posting, Azubuike has announced that he is returning to school.)

Grant Williams (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

GRANT WILLIAMS and JORDAN BONE, Tennessee

This may sound counterintuitive, but I think that it is true: Bone is the more likely of the two to leave school this year, but Williams would have a much bigger impact on the Tennessee program if he opts to return. Bone was a bit inconsistent as a junior, but when he was at his best, he was the best guard in the SEC. Losing that hurts, but the truth is that with Lamonte Turner, Jordan Bowden and Josiah James in the mix, there is enough backcourt talent in Knoxville to withstand his departure.

I’m not sure that is true with Williams. Tennessee does have some big bodies on their roster, but Williams would be in the conversation with Cassius Winston for preseason National Player of the Year if he opts to come back to Tennessee for another run at a national title. And with Williams back, they would very much be in that conversation. As it stands, Tennessee is No. 22 in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25.

A source close to the situation told NBC Sports that they think there’s a “50-50” chance that Williams is back.

KYLE GUY and MAMADI DIAKITE, Virginia

I fully expect that both Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter will remain in the NBA draft for good. That leaves Guy and Diakite as the players who are up in the air. Everyone should know about Guy by now. The reigning Final Four MOP, Guy led Virginia in scoring last season and is one of the best shooters in all of college basketball. For a program that lacks perimeter depth, Guy’s return would obviously be enormous.

But Diakite’s return is just as impactful. He’s such a monster on the defensive end of the floor, and I’m not sure people realize just how good he is. His offensive game is coming along, but the value is that he would be a perfect pairing next to Jay Huff if Virginia wants to play big and that he is versatile enough to defend on the perimeter if needed when Virginia plays small. It’s not a coincidence that the most productive six-game stretch of Diakite’s career came during the run to the NCAA title, when he averaged 10.5 points, 8.2 boards and 2.7 blocks.

Kyle Guy (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

JORDAN NWORA, Louisville

There are a few Louisville players that have declared for the NBA draft, but for my money, Nwora is the one that matters the most, and it is not close. One of college basketball’s most improved players, Nwora is will be a first-team All-ACC player and a potential All-American if he comes back. He will be the veteran scorer that the Cardinals need as Chris Mack brings in a loaded, six-man recruiting class. With Nwora back, the Cards will be a top ten team.

KILLIAN TILLIE and ZACH NORVELL, Gonzaga

Assuming that Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke are both gone, Tillie becomes the most important player on Gonzaga’s frontcourt if he opts to return to school. And Norvell slides right in as the projected leading scorer. Frankly, with those two and Corey Kispert on the roster, I think the Zags will have more than enough scoring to keep things rolling as their talented six-man recruiting class gets some experience.

The reason they are as low on this list as they are is that I still think there is a ceiling to what Gonzaga can be because of their point guard situation. Right now, they are in a position where they’ll have to decide between freshman Brock Ravet and sophomores Greg Foster Jr. and Joel Ayayi. I would not be surprised if there was a grad transfer that was in the mix here at some point.

ANTHONY COWAN, Maryland

The Terps already got word that they are getting Jalen Smith back for his sophomore season. With the rest of last year’s promising recruiting class in the mix — Aaron Wiggins, Eric Ayala, Ricky Lindo — the only thing they need to ensure that they are a preseason top ten team is their star point guard. Cowan, if he returns, will be in the mix for preseason All-American honors.

MYLES POWELL, Seton Hall

This one isn’t difficult. Seton Hall returns basically everyone from last season if Powell comes back. They should still be relevant in the Big East if he doesn’t, but he was arguably the most dangerous scorer in college basketball this side of Markus Howard last year, and assuming he’s back in the fold, we have the Pirates at No. 12 in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25.

Myles Powell (Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

PAYTON PRITCHARD and KENNY WOOTEN, Oregon

Assuming that Louis King ends up staying in the draft, Pritchard and Wooten are the two guys that will matter for Oregon next season. They are the two pieces that allow Dana Altman’s system to work the way that it is supposed to work — a high-scoring lead guard and an uber-athletic five that can protect the rim and finish lobs. With both of them back, I think Oregon is a top 10-15 team and the best team in the Pac-12.

E.J. MONTGOMERY, Kentucky

Montgomery is interesting here. He’s super-talented, and he plays a position for Kentucky where the Wildcats are going to really lack some depth this season, but we’ve yet to see him prove that he is anything more than ‘loaded with potential’ at the SEC level. I think Kentucky needs him because they need to keep bodies in their frontcourt, but I’m on a wait-and-see mode before I decide just how much of an impact I think that he is going to make.

CHUMA OKEKE and JARED HARPER, Auburn

I would make the argument that these two were the two most important players on Auburn’s team this past season. If I had to guess, I would say that Okeke is probably gone. He proved just how good he is this past season, and his recovery from the torn ACL he suffered in the NCAA tournament likely won’t be complete until December. If he returns to school, it might end up being a two-year decision, but if he comes back and is fully healthy, he is miles better than Danjel Purifoy, Anfernee McLemore and the other options the Tigers have in their frontcourt.

Harper is a bit more up in the air, and while he was terrific this past season, especially in March, I do think that J’Von McCormick’s emergence has given Bruce Pearl some breathing room. He can do a lot of the things that Harper does, just not quite as well.

NEEMIAS QUETA, Utah State

Utah State is currently the No. 16 team in the NBC Sports preseason top 25, and much of that has to do with the fact that we are assuming Queta ends up returning to school. His size, his ability to protect the rim and how well he finishes makes him extremely valuable in the Mountain West and helps the Aggies matchup with teams from bigger conferences.