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Thursday’s Things To Know: Zion returns, bubble teams fall and West Virginia lives

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PLAYERS OF THE DAY: Myles Powell, Seton Hall and Zion Williamson, Duke

While Williamson’s return to action was the focus of many, the show that Powell put on in the first half of Seton Hall’s Big East quarterfinal win over Georgetown was a sight to behold. Powell scored 29 of his 31 points in the game’s first 20 minutes, a Big East tournament record for points in a half, outscoring the Hoyas by four with Seton Hall taking a 53-25 lead into the half in a game it would win 73-57.

Powell did get a bit banged up during the second half, so that’s something to keep an eye on as he and the Pirates face Marquette and Big East Player of the Year Markus Howard (who lit up St. John’s for 30) in Friday’s second Big East semifinal matchup.

Now, back to Williamson. The freshman played 38 minutes in his first action since February 20, shooting 13-for-13 from the field and finishing with 29 points, 14 rebounds, five steals, two assists and one blocked shot in Duke’s 84-72 win over Syracuse. The only place where Williamson showed any sign of rust was at the foul line, where he shot just 2-for-7 on the night.

Next up for he and the Blue Devils is a matchup with North Carolina, which swept the regular season series. Williamson played a total of 33 seconds on those games due to the knee injury he suffered in the first meeting. Now he’s healthy, and has a stronger pair of shoes to play in as well.

THURSDAY’S BUBBLE BANTER

TEAM OF THE DAY: West Virginia

There’s no sugarcoating the fact that West Virginia’s 2018-19 season has been a disappointment, as Bob Huggins’ team entered the Big 12 tournament with a 12-19 record. But conference tournaments can give teams a shot at redemption, and the Mountaineers are now in the Big 12 semifinals after knocking off No. 7 Texas Tech Thursday night, 79-74.

Emmitt Matthews Jr. scored a career-high 28 points while also grabbing eight rebounds, with Jordan McCabe adding 13 points, eight assists, four rebounds and four steals. Next up for West Virginia is Kansas, and while the challenge will be a difficult one it would be foolish to rule out the Mountaineers. And their run is one that has the attention of bubble teams across the country, with those programs hoping that West Virginia does not end up being a “bid thief.”

ONIONS OF THE DAY: Terence Mann, Florida State

Of the four quarterfinals in the ACC only one went down to the wire, with 4-seed Florida State and 5-seed Virginia Tech needing five additional minutes to determine the winner. The Seminoles advanced, winning 65-63 with Terence Mann’s floater with 1.8 seconds remaining being the difference. Florida State advanced to face top-seed Virginia Friday night in the first ACC semifinal.

And an honorable mention goes to Long Beach State’s Jordan Roberts, whose jumper with three-tenths of a second remaining gave the 49ers the 68-66 win over Hawaii in a Big West quarterfinal matchup.

THURSDAY’S WINNERS

Ohio State: One of the biggest “bubble games” of the day was the Big Ten second round matchup between 8-seed Ohio State and 9-seed Indiana, with the winner getting a shot at top-seed Michigan State on Friday. Chris Holtmann’s Buckeyes got the job done, winning 79-75 with Keyshawn Woods (18 points, seven rebounds), Kaleb Wesson (17 points, 13 rebounds) and C.J. Jackson (17 points, five rebounds and five assists) leading the way. Of the two teams the Buckeyes appeared to be in a better spot with regards to the NCAA tournament, and Thursday’s result does nothing to hurt Ohio State’s case for inclusion.

Xavier: The Musketeers were also locked in a bubble struggle of sorts, with Big East quarterfinal opponent Creighton also in need of a win. Travis Steele’s team beat the Bluejays by a 63-61 final score, with Zach Hankins’ tip-in with 27.8 seconds remaining being the difference. Xavier’s veteran transfers made big plays late, with Hankins’ basket being followed by a Kyle Castlin block of a Ty-Shon Alexander three-point attempt in the game’s final seconds. How close Xavier is to an NCAA tournament bid is up for debate, but they’ll have another opportunity to impress the selection committee with Big East champion Villanova being the opponent Friday night.

Alabama: The Crimson Tide helped their case for an NCAA tournament bid with a 62-57 win over Ole Miss Thursday afternoon in Nashville. Tevin Mack accounted for 21 points and six rebounds off the bench, and Donta Hall led a dominant effort on the glass with a game-high 15 rebounds. Alabama outscored Ole Miss 38-19 in the second half, and the reward is a matchup with 2-seed Kentucky on Friday. Avery Johnson’s team will see Kentucky’s full rotation, as Reid Travis (knee) has been cleared to play.

North Carolina: In the first quarterfinal of Thursday’s evening session at the ACC tournament, 2-seed North Carolina advanced with an 83-70 win over 7-seed Louisville. Luke Maye and Coby White scored 19 points apiece to lead the way, with the latter also dishing out six assists and committing just one turnover. While much has been made about the case for a 1-seed in the NCAA tournament that Duke can make now that Zion Williamson is back, North Carolina can also strengthen its argument.

UNC won both meetings with Duke, but with Williamson playing 33 seconds total in those games some may look to attach an asterisk to the results as if it is North Carolina’s fault that he couldn’t play. Friday night North Carolina and Duke meet again, and a win for Roy Williams’ team would likely lock up a 1-seed regardless of what happens Saturday night.

Florida: The Gators have been inconsistent for much of this season, hence their being a bubble team in the eyes of many. Florida took care of business Thursday afternoon, eliminating Arkansas (66-50) to advance to the SEC quarterfinals. Mike White’s team, which was led by Keyontae Johnson (20 points, 12 rebounds) will face LSU for the third time this season Friday afternoon.

The Tigers, outright SEC regular season champions, don’t lack for talent but given everything that’s gone on around that program recently maybe they’re vulnerable. Florida don’t lack for talent, but they haven’t been able to put it all together. Friday would be a good time to change that.

The Pac-12 office: The Pac-12 has been an absolute mess this season, so it would have been fitting for either regular season champion Washington or runner-up Arizona State — the league’s best bets for an at-large bid — to get knocked off Thursday in Las Vegas. That didn’t happen, with the Huskies escaping USC’s upset bid in the first game of the day and the Sun Devils handling UCLA in the first game fo the evening session.

Joining those two teams in the semifinals are 5-seed Colorado and 6-seed Oregon, arguably the two hottest teams in the Pac-12. Last month there were serious conversations as to whether the Pac-12 would be a one-bid league. Should Colorado or Oregon win the automatic bid, there’s a chance that the conference winds up with three bids come Selection Sunday.

THURSDAY’S LOSERS

TCU: The good news for the Horned Frogs is that they avoided losing their Big 12 tournament opener Wednesday night. The bad news: Jamie Dixon’s team missed on its opportunity to (most likely) lock up an NCAA tournament bid, as TCU lost to top-seed Kansas State by a 70-61 final score. Not counting Thursday’s results TCU was ranked 48th in the NET, and the team is now 9-13 in games against Quadrant 1/2 opposition. Is TCU’s resume good enough as is? It may be given some of the other profiles up for debate, but the Horned Frogs would have slept much better had they pulled off the upset.

Texas: There were some who believed that a win over Kansas would be just what the Longhorns needed to seal a tournament bid. Shaka Smart’s team failed to do so, losing to the Jayhawks by a 65-57 final score to fall to 16-16 on the season. No .500 team has even received an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, so at this point the Longhorns will have to hope that its strength of schedule can sway the selection committee.

What makes matters even worse for Texas is the fact that freshman big man Jaxson Hayes suffered a left knee injury late in the second half of Thursday’s loss. Hayes’ health is obviously the most important thing here. But it also gives the committee another question to ponder, especially if the diagnosis isn’t a good one.

Indiana: As noted above the matchup between the Hoosiers and Ohio State was a big one, and with its loss Archie Miller’s team has to play the waiting game. Indiana has some good wins on its resume, including a sweep of Michigan State, but that 1-12 stretch earlier this season could be too much to overcome. The Hoosiers, ranked 51st in the NET, are 8-15 in Quadrant 1/2 games. Three of those wins were earned on the road: Michigan State, Penn State and Illinois. NCAA or NIT? We’ll find out Sunday. But until then Indiana can only sit at home and root for “chalk” in the conference tournaments that are still being played.

Creighton: The Bluejays will also have to endure the uncomfortable wait thanks to their Big East quarterfinal loss to Xavier. Ranked 54th in the NET, Greg McDermott’s team is now 9-14 in Quadrant 1/2 games with its best win being a 66-60 win at Marquette back on March 3. Creighton has as many Quadrant 1/2 wins as Ohio State, but the Bluejays won’t have the opportunity to add another to the ledger thanks to Thursday’s loss to Xavier.

St. John’s: Say this much for Indiana, which fought back to erase a 20-point deficit before losing, and Creighton: at least those teams competed. St. John’s, on the other hand, fell behind Marquette early and did not appear all that interested in fighting back as it lost by an 86-54 final score. And after the game Chris Mullin declined on the opportunity to politic on behalf of his team.

The Red Storm can point to home wins over Villanova and Marquette, but this is also a team that lost both regular season meetings to DePaul (they beat DePaul Wednesday night) and did not play the toughest of non-conference slates either. St. John’s will likely get into the field thanks to the wins over the Big East’s two best teams, but Shamorie Ponds and company may be headed to Dayton.

Maryland: Mark Turgeon’s team has struggled with two things for much of this season: slow starts and turnovers. It all went wrong Thursday, as Maryland was bounced from the Big Ten tournament by Nebraska, 69-61. Maryland is obviously headed to the NCAA tournament and will most likely wear its home uniforms for the opener. But the Terrapins may not be there too long based upon how they played in Chicago and the program’s recent history in postseason play. The last time Maryland wasn’t one and done in either the Big Ten or NCAA tournament: March 2016.

FINAL THOUGHT

With Duke’s Zion Williamson making his return to game action Thursday, the debate of whether or not he should be playing once again came up. Of course there are those who believe that Williamson should play, out of loyalty to his teammates and coaches. And there are those who were (and still are) of the opinion that he would be best served to sit in preparation for his likely being selected with the first overall pick in June’s NBA draft (if he decides to forego his final three years of eligibility).

Everyone is entitled to their opinion on the matter, but only one truly holds any weight: Zion’s. Had Williamson decided that, in the aftermath of his injury, the risk was too much and he wanted to protect himself from a future earnings standpoint that would have been fine. Williamson’s decision to play because, as he stated in his postgame interview on ESPN, of his love for his teammates is perfectly fine as well.

The only “concern” should be whether or not Williamson — or any other athlete in a similar position — is able to make that decision on their own terms.

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.