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Penny Hardaway, Jerry Stackhouse bring NBA edge to Tennessee

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Former NBA stars Penny Hardaway and Jerry Stackhouse have taken on new challenges with both trying to revive a pair of struggling college basketball programs about 200 miles apart along Interstate 40 in Tennessee.

Hardaway played 14 seasons in the NBA and is embarking on his second season at his alma in Memphis. Stackhouse, now at Vanderbilt, lasted 18 years league before the former North Carolina star’s tenure coaching in the G League and a season as an assistant with the Memphis Grizzlies.

New athletic director Malcolm Turner, the former G League president, lured Stackhouse to Vanderbilt in April despite being a candidate for an NBA head coaching job.

“That’s a huge win for not only for the state but for the SEC,” Hardaway said of Stackhouse being at Vanderbilt. “He’s going to bring a lot to the table. He definitely understands the game and is very knowledgeable, so yes, it definitely helps the state.”

Vanderbilt is hoping Stackhouse has the same impact in Nashville that Hardaway has had at Memphis.

Hardaway has a head start with the rebuilding job at Memphis . He was hired in March 2018, and his arrival came amid much fanfare. He helped Memphis attendance jump by an average of 7,840 per game, and Hardaway has followed that up by landing the nation’s top-rated recruiting class headlined by a pair of five-star players heading into this season.

Stackhouse, who coached Toronto’s G League team to the finals twice and won one championship, spent only one season with the NBA’s Grizzlies, though he brought with him both Adam Mazarei as an assistant coach and Nicki Gross as special assistant. Stackhouse also filled out his coaching staff hiring a Memphis high school basketball coach in Faragi Phillips, which could help the Commodores compete with Hardaway in Tennessee’s top pool of talent.

Phillips spent the past four seasons at Whitehaven High School where he coached Matt Murrell, ranked 53rd nationally for 2020 by 247Sports.com’s composite rankings.

“My staff didn’t really have any contacts in Tennessee,” Stackhouse said. “It wasn’t Memphis. I don’t think really we’re recruiting the same players. We have to go a different way.”

Stackhouse has to recruit to the SEC’s only private university, a school with such tough academic standards Nashville native Ron Mercer couldn’t get in and instead helped Kentucky win the 1996 national championship. Hardaway’s Tigers just notched their highest grade point average in school history, but Memphis is a public university.

“No discredit to Penny, he can go into a gym and see a kid and more than likely he can get that kid in,” Stackhouse said. “I have to go in and try to figure out which kids academically make sense for us.”

While Hardaway beat out Kentucky and Duke for the top recruiting class, Stackhouse scrambled to fill out a roster for a program that lost every SEC game and finished on a 20-game skid last season. Matt Ryan transferred to Chattanooga, while Yanni Wetzel left for San Diego State. Stackhouse brought in D.J. Harvey as a transfer from Notre Dame and retained recruit Scotty Pippen Jr. among his incoming freshmen.

It didn’t hurt that Pippen’s father, former NBA player Scottie Pippen, had been advocating that an NBA team hire Stackhouse as a head coach before he went to Vanderbilt.

“Now all of a sudden, I get the job where his son had previously committed so it was just some good synergy there to retain those commits,” Stackhouse said.

While Hardaway leaned on NBA experience in making Mike Miller an assistant coach last year, Stackhouse added people with both recruiting links and college experience he lacked. Associate head coach David Grace has spent his career out West, most recently as an assistant at California and UCLA, and senior advisor Ricardo Patton, a Nashville native, was head coach at Colorado and Northern Illinois. Even his chief of staff, Adell Harris, is a former head coach at North Carolina-Wilmington.

Hardaway said his first season was a “huge eye opener” as the Tigers went 22-14 and lost their second game in the NIT.

“We understood that it was going to be hard,” Hardaway said. “And once we got into the fire, it was actually harder than what we thought. But we all about we’re all about learning as a staff. We’ve learned a lot from our losses.”

Hardaway and his staff also studied what Virginia, Texas Tech and Auburn did to reach the Final Four last spring to help with his second season and Memphis’ vaunted recruiting class. That’s why Hardaway is taking his Tigers to the Bahamas on Monday for some games hoping to shorten the learning curve so his seven freshmen will be prepared for the faster, more physical games to come along with sky-high expectations.

“I love being in that position,” Hardaway said. “I love being the hunted instead of the hunter. Even though we were the hunters last year, now everybody’s hunting after us even though we haven’t proven ourselves yet. But we’re in a good position when everybody’s talking about you.”

Right now, Stackhouse is busy adapting to the NCAA limitations like the one that turned his plan of four one-hour sessions this summer into a pair of two-hour practices. But he doesn’t expect any issues when it comes to actually coaching, not after running his own AAU program in Atlanta or coaching in the NBA, especially in the G League when he didn’t know what players he had.

His job is helping Vanderbilt see just how good the Commodores can be in men’s basketball.

“We’re going to find a way to have a great, great amount of success, and I really believe that,” Stackhouse said.

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.