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Sweet 16 Preview: Biggest questions facing teams in East Region

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The Sweet 16 will kick off on Thursday, and the beautiful thing about the final four rounds of this year’s NCAA tournament is that we are guaranteed to have 15 games that will feature dynamite matchups.

There’s an argument to be made that the top 15 teams in the country are still alive, with the 16th being the hottest team in all of college basketball.

With that in mind, we are going to dive into every team left, region by region, and give you the biggest question that needs to be answered if they are going to have a chance to win the national title. 

We covered the South here and the West here. Next up? The East.

DUKE: Was UCF a matchup blip or a sign of things to come?

Duke was supposed to lose to UCF.

Everything that needed to happen for the Blue Devils to lose happened. Aubrey Dawkins turned into Kobe Bryant for 40 minutes at the same time that the Knights were able to scheme and execute a defense that specifically and uniquely worked against this Duke team. They stuck 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall — who was technically matched up man-to-man with Tre Jones — directly in front of the rim and dared Duke to beat them from the perimeter.

If Dawkins’ potential game-winning tip rolls a different direction off the rim, or if he happened to catch an alley-oop that was thrown to him with two minutes left, UCF is in the Sweet 16.

They aren’t, and we are left to ponder whether or not that result was strictly a result of the things UCF is uniquely capable of doing or if this Duke team’s inability to shoot from the perimeter means that they are destined to lose before reaching Minneapolis.

And for my money, it’s probably the former.

The way that game played out on Sunday had everything to do with UCF, how well they played and how well they were coached. Virginia Tech, LSU and Michigan State are not going to be able to do the same things that UCF did mostly because they don’t have one of the 40 tallest human beings on the planet available to them.

That doesn’t mean that Duke cannot be beaten.

Virginia Tech already has a win over Duke this season and that came without their best player, Justin Robinson, in the lineup. There aren’t five teams left in the tournament that have more talent than LSU does. Michigan State is Michigan State, and there’s a reason that the month in between February and April is known as Izzo.

Duke is the most talented team in the country that happens to have some exploitable flaws. Just because UCF was able to take advantage of them doesn’t guarantee that anyone else will be able to as well.

MICHIGAN STATE: Will Cassius Winston ever actually get run into the ground?

There is not a player in the country that handles a bigger workload than Cassius Winston does for Michigan State.

He plays a ton of minutes. Michigan State runs him through ball-screens on seemingly every halfcourt possession. Without him, Tom Izzo doesn’t really have anyone that can create for themselves. The truth is that Michigan State is going to go as far as Cassius Winston is going to be able to take them.

And for me, the question that needs to be answered is whether or not Winston has the legs to be able to make that run as far as Michigan State wants to go.

The college basketball season is long. Michigan State started in late September. It’s now late March. Winston has been logging nearly 40 minutes in every big game the Spartans have played. He and his team looked gassed playing 39 minutes against Bradley last Wednesday, likely the hangover from winning three games in three days to take home the Big Ten tournament title.

He’ll need to be ready to go if Michigan State is going to make it to the final weekend of the season.

(AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

LSU: Can LSU solve their second half struggles?

Tony Benford has been the acting head coach for LSU for four games now. One of them came against Vanderbilt in the final game of the regular season against a Commodore team that has already quit on the season. In the other three games — against Florida in the SEC tournament quarterfinals, in the first round of the NCAA tournament against Yale and in the second round of the NCAA tournament against Maryland — LSU churned out really, really impressive first half performances before going in the tank in the second half.

Against the Gators, LSU blew a ten point halftime lead and ended up losing in regulation. Against Yale, the Tigers were up by as many as 18 points in the second half before Yale was able to cut the lead to a single possession in the final minute. And against Maryland, LSU led by 15 points with 16 minutes left but still needed a Tremont Waters layup with 1.6 seconds left to earn them the win.

At some point, their inability to close out games — their inconsistency when it comes to making second half adjustments — is going to come back to haunt them, and with, potentially, two Hall of Fame head coaches standing between them and the Final Four, it may happen sooner rather than later.

VIRGINIA TECH: Is Justin Robinson 100%?

This one isn’t difficult to figure out.

With a healthy Justin Robinson, Virginia Tech was a top ten team in January. Without a healthy Justin Robinson, Virginia Tech went 7-5 in February.

What makes him so important to the Hokies is two-fold. For starters, he is their best point guard, they best playmaker and their leader. He thrives in the ball-screen actions that Buzz Williams loves putting him in and he’s also a 40 percent three-point shooter.

But more importantly, Robinson’s return means that Nickeil Alexander-Walker — who is actually the most talented player on this Hokie roster — can play off the ball as a secondary ball-handler, where he is actually the most effective.

Robinson looked great in the second half in Virginia Tech’s win over Liberty.

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.