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Mid-major stars to watch during championship week

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The beauty of the mid-major tournaments that we will be obsessed with this week is that this is where stars will be born.

They’ll burst onto the national scene if they find a way to get to the NCAA tournament, but this is where they’ll earn themselves the right to have that chance. 

So who might end up being the next Harold Arceneaux or the next Jairus Lyles? Can anyone go from being a cinderella to an NBA player like C.J. McCollum or Kyle O’Quinn? Who might end up giving us a memory that lasts longer than Bryce Drew’s game-winner or a double-order of onions like Ronald Moore did?

These are your best bets:

CONFERENCE TOURNEYS: 21 Mid-Major Stars | Best Bets | Bid Thieves | Schedule

1. JA MORANT, Murray State

If you don’t know who Ja Morant is at this point, I don’t think you can call yourself a college basketball fan. He’s going to be a top five pick in the 2019 NBA Draft — he might go No. 2 — because he is an uber-athletic dunking machine that just so happens to lead the country in assists (10.3 per game) while averaging 24.1 points. The world needs Morant in the NCAA tournament, trying to put a 50-burger on whatever poor No. 4 seed happens to draw Murray State in the first round.

WHEN HE PLAYS: 3/8, 9:00 p.m. in the OVC semis

2. CHRIS CLEMONS, Campbell

Clemons is 5-foot-9. He’s currently averaging 30.1 points, and no Division I player has finished a season averaging 30 points since Charles Jones (LIU) and Bubba Wells (Austin Peay) did it in 1997. He is currently sixth on the Division I all-time scoring list at 3,136 career points. He’s 14 behind Doug McDermott for fifth on the all-time scoring list with a very real shot of getting to No. 2 if he can find a way to play four more games.

And if you’re not careful, he will dunk on you:

WHEN HE PLAYS: 3/7, 6:00 p.m. vs. No. 8 seed Hampton

3. MIKE DAUM, South Dakota State

Clemons is not the only 3,000 point scorer in college basketball right now, because the 6-foot-9 Daum has climbed past Hersey Hawkins and Oscar Robertson into ninth on the career scoring list. He makes threes. He dominates the glass. He can’t really guard anyone, but it doesn’t matter all that much when he’s putting up 25 and 10 every night. The Jackrabbits have reached the NCAA tournament each of the past two seasons, so Daum is hardly a secret at this point in his career.

WHEN HE PLAYS: 3/9, 6:00 p.m. vs. No. 8 Western Illinois

4. C.J. MASSINBURG, Buffalo

You really should know who Massinburg is at this point. He averaged 18.5 points in the NCAA tournament last season, when he led Buffalo to an upset win over No. 4 seed Arizona in the first round of the tournament and gave Kentucky all they could handle in the second round. Then he went for 43 points as the Bulls won at West Virginia in the first week of the season.

WHEN HE PLAYS: The MAC tournament starts 3/11

5. FLETCHER MAGEE, Wofford

Magee is 14 made three-pointers away from becoming the all-time Division I leader in career three-pointers made. He’s averaging better than 20 points for the second straight season. He shoots more than 10 threes per game, and he’s never had a season where he shot worse than 42.3 percent from beyond the arc.

But here’s the craziest part — the threes that he shoots look like this:

WHEN HE PLAYS: 3/9, 12:00 p.m. in the SoCon quarters

6. JORDAN FORD, St. Mary’s

Ford might be the best guard that St. Mary’s has had since the days of Patty Mills and Matthew Dellavadova. He’s averaging 21.5 points this season, nearly doubling his scoring output from a season ago, and he has a chance to one day play in the NBA. The Gaels have the best chance to win the WCC automatic bid of teams not named Gonzaga and that’s going to be the only way that St. Mary’s can actually get to the NCAA tournament.

WHEN HE PLAYS: 3/11, 8:30 p.m. in the WCC semis

7. JORDAN DAVIS, Northern Colorado

Northern Colorado is second in the Big Sky. That’s good. Davis averages 23.7 points and 4.7 assists for UNC. That’s better. But the real reason that you need to know who this dude is? He might do this again:

WHEN HE PLAYS: The Big Sky tournament kicks off March 13th

8. DYLAN WINDLER, Belmont

Windler needs his breakout moment. While Morant is out here setting records, Windler has a case to be the OVC Player of the Year. He’s the only Division I player averaging 20 points, 10 boards and 2.5 assists, and in OVC play, he’s putting up 23.0 points and 10.9 boards while shooting 48.1 percent from beyond the arc. He’s an NBA prospect, but he has yet to have a blow-up game in front of the world.

WHEN HE PLAYS: 3/9, 7:00 p.m. in the OVC semis

9. MIYE ONI, Yale

Bryce Aiken of Harvard is the guy that gets all the hype in the Ivy League, but Oni is probably the best player in the league. A 6-foot-6 native from California, Oni is a junior that is averaging 18.3 points and 6.5 boards. He’s a borderline first round pick as of today, and the best part? He was originally committed to the same Division III school that former Michigan guard Duncan Robinson played for.

WHEN HE PLAYS: The Ivy League tournament starts 3/16

10. JALEN PICKETT, Siena

Pickett is probably the best freshman in the country that you have never heard of. He averaged 15.7 points, 6.7 assists and 4.6 boards for the Saints, who finished tied for second in a wide-open MAAC. He had 46 points and 13 assists in a game earlier this year. Keep an eye on this dude, he could end up being an NBA player.

WHEN HE PLAYS: 3/9, 9:30 p.m. vs. No. 4 Rider

11. JUSTIN WRIGHT-FOREMAN, Hofstra

Hofstra steam-rolled the CAA this year thanks in very large part to the nation’s second-leading scorer, Wright-Foreman. He put up 26.8 points this season, and he also hit what might be the shot of the year:

WHEN HE PLAYS: 3/10, 12:00 p.m. in the CAA semis

12. JOHN KONCHAR, Fort Wayne

The season did not end well for the Mastadons, as they lost their last four regular season games to fall out of the Summit League title race. That will make it that much more difficult for Konchar, who averages 19.7 pints, 8.5 boards and 5.3 assists, to make a national name for himself, but it is doable.

WHEN HE PLAYS: 3/10, 8:30 p.m. vs. No. 6 South Dakota

13. ANTOINE DAVIS, Detroit

Antoine is the son of Detroit head coach Mike Davis. He’s the nation’s third-leading scorer at 26.0 points. He’s a freshman. He has made 128 threes this year, which breaks the record that was set by one Stephen Curry. The problem? Detroit is the No. 7 seed in the Horizon League tournament.

WHEN HE PLAYS: 3/6, 7:00 p.m. vs. No. 2 Northern Kentucky

14. ANTHONY LAMB, Vermont

We all know how good the UVM program is at this point, and Lamb is currently the star in Burlington. He had 24 points at Kansas this year. He put 34 on Yale and 37 on Harvard. He had 42 points against St. Bonaventure. People that loved Georges Niang will be thrilled to see his dopplegänger get some run if UVM can get to the Big Dance.

WHEN HE PLAYS: 3/9, 7:00 p.m. vs. No. 8 seed Maine

15. GRANT RILLER, Charleston

There may not be a more dangerous scorer in college basketball than Riller right now. The junior guard is averaging 22.3 points and 4.0 assists, but he popped off for 43 points against Hofstra, 33 points against Northeastern, 32 against Memphis and 30 at VCU.

WHEN HE PLAYS: 3/10, 8:30 p.m. vs. No. 6 Drexel

16. CHARLES BASSEY, Western Kentucky

Bassey is a former five-star recruit and a future NBA draft pick. He hasn’t quite lived up to expectations playing for WKU this year, but he’s still averaging 15.1 points and 10.6 boards. He’ll be the big body that will allow the Hilltoppers to matchup with the frontline of whatever power conference team they face off with in the NCAA tournament.

WHEN HE PLAYS: The CUSA tournament starts on 3/13

17. JAKEENAN GANT, Louisiana

The former Missouri forward is currently averaging 20.8 points, 8.7 boards and 2.7 blocks, the only player in Division I to post a line like that. The Sun Belt regular season hasn’t come to an end yet, but the Ragin’ Cajuns are currently sitting at .500 with two games left. They likely aren’t destined for the NCAA tournament, but you never know.

WHEN HE PLAYS: The Sun Belt tournament starts 3/12

18. JAYLIN WALKER, Kent State

Walker has finally moved his way into the starting lineup, but the 6-foot-3 senior spent much of the year averaging 21.6 points off the bench for the Golden Flashes. Kent State is going to have to beat out Buffalo for the MAC automatic bid if they are going to be dancing.

WHEN HE PLAYS: The MAC tournament starts 3/11

19. D’MARCUS SIMONDS, Georgia State

Simonds had a bunch of NBA hype heading into his sophomore season, but the jump shot never came around. He’s still not shooting it great this year, but he is averaging 18.9 points, 4.9 boards and 3.7 assists for a team that is tied for first in the Sun Belt right now.

WHEN HE PLAYS: The Sun Belt tournament starts 3/12

20. LAMINE DIANE, Cal St.-Northridge

If Pickett isn’t the best freshman you’ve never heard of, Diane is. He’s the Big West Zion Williamson, averaging 24.2 points, 10.8 boards, 2.2 blocks, 1.9 assists and 1.4 steals. I know this is going to shock you, but Diane is putting up these numbers for a team coached by Mark Gottfried that is currently sitting at 7-7 in the Big West.

WHEN HE PLAYS: The Big West tournament starts 3/14

21. MATT RAFFERTY, Furman

Furman’s star has as well-rounded of a stat line as you’ll find: 17.4 points, 9.2 boards, 4.2 assists, 2.6 steals, 1.1 blocks, 62.8% FG, 36.4% 3PT. That’s how you upset Villanova on the road, I guess.

WHEN HE PLAYS: 3/9, 8:30 p.m. vs. No. 6 Mercer

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.