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Key storylines during Championship Week

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THE HEALTH (AND RETURN?) OF ZION WILLIAMSON

College basketball’s best player, and most popular star, is supposed to make his return in Charlotte this week.

Missing the final five full games of the regular season with a knee injury suffered during the first North Carolina game, Williamson is supposed to get some minutes for this week to help get him back into game shape for the NCAA tournament.

The bizarre nature of the injury (an exploding shoe!) and Duke’s status as national-title contenders add even more fuel to this story as it’s sure to be the biggest thing in college hoops this week. If Williamson comes back and looks healthy, many fans are going to pick the Blue Devils to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.

But if Williamson doesn’t look fully healthy, or at least close to the dominant force that won him numerous Player of the Year honors (including NBC), then it’s only going to raise more questions than answers. The Blue Devils need the old Williamson to return so they can potentially earn a No. 1 seed and make a Final Four push. We won’t know for sure how Williamson looks until he’s officially back.

THE HEALTH OF KEY PLAYERS ON TITLE CONTENDERS

Zion Williamson isn’t the only injured player to check in on this week. Plenty of title contenders and bubble teams have stars who might return this week in preparation for the Big Dance.

The Big Ten conference tournament has some injury subplots to follow as Michigan State big man Nick Ward (hand), the team’s second-leading scorer, is expected back during the week. Michigan’s Charles Matthews (ankle) has also been out the past few weeks as the Wolverines would love to get their two-way wing back into the rotation.

In the Big 12, top seed Kansas State looks like they’ll have to play without star senior forward Dean Wade (foot) as he suffered an injury in the regular-season finale win over Oklahoma. Baylor star guard Makai Mason (foot) is questionable to play this week for the Bears.

If those players return, it’ll be worth noting how they might fit in during the NCAA tournament. Will there be minutes restrictions? A new role perhaps? These four players, in particular, could shift their team’s entire seasons with their comebacks.

WHICH POWER CONFERENCE JOBS OPEN UP

The most unfortunate past of this week is that we’re seeing the final run of some coaches who are likely moving on to different jobs.

Texas A&M has already reportedly moved on from head coach Billy Kennedy as this will be his final week with the team. There has been rampant speculation regarding the future of Arizona head coach Sean Miller after the long-time Wildcat head coach gave an emotional speech to Arizona fans during the team’s regular-season finale.

Nebraska players have already been making public comments about playing hard for Tim Miles as he’s potentially coaching his final games with the Huskers. Danny Manning might have already coached his final game at Wake Forest as the Demon Deacons were eliminated from the ACC tournament on Tuesday.

And that’s not even getting into LSU’s Will Wade (more on the Tigers below) and the uncertainty regarding that whole program.

WHAT HAPPENS WITH LSU GIVEN THE SCANDAL THEY’RE EMBROILED IN?

The most fascinating individual team to watch during conference tournaments might be LSU. After shockingly winning the SEC’s outright title with a young team this season, the Tigers are facing a major scandal as they enter the conference tournament this week.

After allegedly discussing illegal payments for recruits on a wiretap with known runner Christian Dawkins, LSU suspended head coach Will Wade indefinitely — an unprecedented step for a team with real Final Four aspirations right before the postseason. Besides for the controversial decision to sideline Wade, starting freshman guard Javonte Smart was also held out of the team’s regular-season finale against Vanderbilt since his name was allegedly brought up in that wiretapped conversation.

It means LSU is likely going to have to play the postseason without its head coach and one of its top players. The Tigers will still be a dangerous team. Tremont Waters is one of the country’s best floor generals and LSU hits the offensive glass at a very high level. But what is the true ceiling of this team if they’re dealing with all of this controversy?

WHO GETS A NO. 1 SEED?

One of the most important topics during conference tournament week is setting the final No. 1 seeds. While many believe Virginia and Gonzaga have already solidified spots on the No. 1 line — even with Gonzaga’s dreadful performance in a WCC title game loss to Saint Mary’s on Tuesday night — the final two spots still feel like they’re up for grabs.

North Carolina and Kentucky recently grabbed No. 1 seeds in the latest NBC Sports Bracketology. Others like Duke, LSU, Michigan State and Tennessee could all make a move depending on performance this week. If someone like North Carolina or Kentucky falters — particularly head-to-head against North Carolina or LSU/Tennessee — then it could make things very interesting for the committee.

BID THIEVERY

On Tuesday, I went over 13 dangerous teams with the potential of taking a spot from a bubble team.

In an ideal bubble world, all of the bubble teams would win all of the bubble games they need. Teams with mediocre regular seasons would never make a deep run. Traditional one-bid leagues with at-large-quality teams like Buffalo in the MAC would always win their conference tournaments.

None of those things will go according to the plan.

We already saw Saint Mary’s steal a bid from a bubble team by earning the WCC’s autobid on Tuesday night, and there will surely be more stolen bids by the time we reach Selection Sunday.

THE ONLY WEEK THIS SEASON THE PAC-12 WILL BE WATCHABLE

Championship Week is the only time this season the Pac-12 will be worth paying attention to.

After a dreadful regular season in which the league might have played itself into a one-bid league, you could not blame college basketball fans for calling it a night and going to bed before these games started.

That all changes this week with the autobid on the line.

Since the Pac-12 has been so bad and wide open, it wouldn’t be shocking to see anyone take this title. Oregon just ran past league-leading Washington on the road to end the Pac-12 regular season. Arizona State — the league’s only other at-large contender — has been shaky throughout conference play. The caliber of ball won’t be as good as the other “power” conference. But with the exception of maybe the Big East, no other conference tournament from that tier will be so wide open.

IS ANYONE IN THE BIG EAST ACTUALLY GOOD?

Madison Square Garden will be another place to track this week.

Although Villanova won the Big East regular-season title outright over Marquette, those top two teams in the conference are struggling as we enter the postseason. The Wildcats have lost four of their last six games. The Golden Eagles have generously done everything in their power to single-handedly keep the Big East’s bubble teams afloat by dropping four straight games.

Even though DePaul is a No. 10 seed, they’re an over .500 team for the first time in 12 years entering this event with a star in Max Strus who can go for 40 on any night. There are multiple bubble teams (Creighton, St. John’s) who likely need to win multiple games to feel safe on Sunday. Seton Hall and Xavier are both getting hot at the right time.

Any team in the field could conceivably win this thing and it wouldn’t come as a that big of a surprise. The Big East beat each other up all season. It could make for another memorable week at MSG.

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.