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No. 8 North Carolina steamrolls No. 1 Duke after injury to Zion Williamson

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Luke Make finished with 30 points and 15 boards and Cam Johnson chipped in with 26 points of his own as No. 8 North Carolina strolled into Cameron Indoor Stadium and dropped a hammer on the No. 1 Duke Blue Devils, winning 88-72 and moving into a three-way tie for first place in the ACC with No. 3 Virginia at 11-2.

The Tar Heels were dominant from the jump, and credit to them for pouncing on Duke when they had the chance, but that is hardly the story of the game.

Zion Williamson, the surefire No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft and the overwhelming favorite to sweep the 2019 National Player of the Year awards, went down with an injury to his right knee just 30 seconds into the game.

And now we wait.

Because as of this very moment, the single biggest story line of this college basketball season has become the status of Zion’s right knee. Coach K said after the game that the injury is a mild knee sprain, but that his status will not be known until tomorrow.

Until then, here are the three things that we can take away from this game:

1. THIS RESULT SHOULD UNDERLINE HOW MUCH ZION IMPACTS A GAME

What we saw on Wednesday night in Durham was the terrifying reality of what Duke is without their star attraction: Not all that good.

We can start on the defensive end of the floor, where Duke’s ability to defend the interior — which is quietly the best part of Zion’s game — was exposed. North Carolina scored 62 of their 88 points in the paint, as they were able to take advantage of the total lack of fear of anyone in Duke’s frontcourt. Maye has not had a great senior season, but he did whatever he wanted against the Blue Devils once we reached a point where he did not have to worry about being guarded by an absolute freak of nature.

Zion averages roughly two steals and two blocks per game, so it’s not exactly shocking to anyone that’s been paying attention that he is an impact defender, but it’s hard to truly quantify the impact his presence has on a game until he’s not there.

One thing that does need to be noted here is that North Carolina did score seven layups in transition, which were killers and went in the book as points in the paint, but part of that a result of Zion’s absence as well. The Big Fella averaging 22.4 points per game. He’s 68.3 percent from the floor. He can handle the rock, he’ll catch just about anything that his thrown his way and — this is the most important part — he is so good that defenses have to change the way that they play to account for him.

He creates space and driving lanes for his teammates simply by being on the floor, which is to say nothing of his ability to score in the mid-post and off of offensive boards.

And without him, Duke will only have two players on the floor that are any kind of a threat offensively.

2. DUKE’S SUPPORTING CAST IS A COMPLETE DISASTER RIGHT NOW

On Wednesday night, Duke shot 25-for-72 (34.7%) from the floor and 8-for-39 (20.5%) from three, which are dreadful numbers. But it is worth pointing out that Cam Reddish and R.J. Barrett both played about as well as you can ask them to play. Combined, they scored 60 points on 21-for-45 shooting (46.7%) and 7-for-23 (30.4%) shooting from three.

That second number is the concerning one, but it’s also a situation where they had no choice but to fire away.

Because at no point on Wednesday night did North Carolina have to guard any of the other three players on the floor for Duke.

The rest of the team finished with 12 points. They shot 4-for-27 from the floor, which includes a 3-for-3 night from Javin DeLaurier. Duke’s four other perimeter players — Tre Jones, Jack White, Alex O’Connell and Jordan Goldwire — were 1-for-23 from the floor. They shot 1-for-16 from three. White has now missed 25 consecutive threes, dating all the way back to January 12th. Defenses have stopped guarding Jones on the perimeter, and the result has been the paint being as muddled as a mojito.

Zion is not going to be the guy that creates space on the wings, but the value he brings to this offense is obvious. For starters, he’ll typically end up as an initiator while Reddish is the guy buried in the corner as a spot-up shooter. He also creates space when he’s in the lane because defenses have to protect against a lob that would be thrown when he is in the dunk spot, and his ability to hold position in the lane can help clear out shot-blockers when the wings drive into the lane.

And if all else fails, Zion might just be the best offensive rebounder in college basketball.

But we know all that.

The problem isn’t simply that Zion isn’t on the floor.

It’s that the defenses trying to stop Duke would be more worried about defending Barack Obama if Duke suited him up than they are defending whoever it is that Coach K is currently running out on the perimeter.

The first three clips below should give you a sense of what Barrett and Reddish are going to be looking at when they try to drive with Zion out of the lineup. Thanks to Coby White making a mistake defensively, in the last clip you get a glimpse of what happens when the “shooter” that Duke puts in the corner actually has gravity:

3. NORTH CAROLINA SURVIVED DESPITE COBY WHITE PLAYING TERRIBLY

Tre Jones was a liability on the offensive end of the floor, but one of the biggest reasons that Duke was in this game until the end was because he ate up Coby White defensively. White finished 3-for-14 from the field with six turnovers, which is not great but at the same time it’s the risk you take playing a point guard that can be as streaky as White has been.

It’s part of the job description, if you will.

What North Carolina needs is for this to be the game that gets Luke Maye going. He entered the season as an all-american and has seen his numbers — from his scoring to his shooting percentages to his assists and rebounds — go down across the board. Part of that is because Coby White and Cam Johnson are shouldering a bigger load of the offense, but a bigger reason is because the Tar Heels don’t have a natural playmaker the way that they did last season with Theo Pinson on the floor with Joel Berry II.

Maye has had to do more on his own, and that’s not necessarily his strength.

Will this be the game that gets him headed in the right direction?

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.