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Mid-Majors that will crash the dance in March

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It’s always fun to root for the little guy.

When March Madness rolls around next spring, there will be a number of conferences with one bid to cheer for against bigger, power conference opponents. What makes this year’s mid-major crop particularly intriguing is the number of returning NCAA tournament teams who have almost full teams coming back.

In an era where smaller schools are getting hit harder with transfers each offseason, seeing NCAA tournament teams like Liberty, Vermont, New Mexico State, Colgate and North Dakota State stay together should be a fun storyline to follow as they are some of a handful of mid-major teams to keep tabs on this season.

A programming note: We did not include schools from the Atlantic 10 or the Mountain West while Saint Mary’s and BYU were left off the list as well. It’s not that those programs aren’t good or worth talking about, but at this point I think we all know schools like VCU and Utah State are going to be pretty good. 



LIBERTY (Atlantic Sun)

Making the Round of 32 and knocking out Mississippi State last season, Liberty has another chance to do damage in the NCAA tournament with four returning starters. Two fifth-year seniors have a chance to earn Atlantic Sun Player of the Year honors as wing Caleb Homesley and forward Scottie James are standout players. Homesley lit up the Bulldogs for 30 in the first-round NCAA upset while James is a three-year starter and double-double threat. Senior guard Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz and junior guard Elijah Cuffee both started every game and logged heavy minutes for a 29-win team last season as the Flames have a ton of returning talent and experience. With six neutral site games and road games at Vanderbilt and LSU, Liberty will also test themselves in non-conference play.

VERMONT (America East)

Putting a scare into Florida State in the first round last season, Vermont could easily win multiple games in the NCAA tournament with many key players returning. Once America East Player of the Year Anthony Lamb pulled his name out of the NBA Draft the senior became the league’s best returning player. The last three years, the Catamounts are a ridiculous 45-3 in the America East with 83 overall wins. This could be the season they finally break through. Lamb will have significant help on the interior with grad transfer big man Daniel Giddens. The former four-star recruit spent time at Ohio State and Alabama and adds instant experience and credibility inside that the Catamounts lacked.

Junior Stef Smith is another returning double-figure scorer to keep tabs on, and, of course, there are two more Duncans still at Vermont after Ernie Duncan moved on from a prolific four-year career. Robin Duncan was an All-Rookie Team selection in the conference while Everett Duncan is a noted floor spacer with some starts in his career. Vermont has early road tests at St. Bonaventure, St. John’s, Virginia, Yale and Cincinnati.

NEW MEXICO STATE (WAC)

Before Auburn made a surprising Final Four run last season they were nearly ousted by the Aggies in the first round in a one-point game. Although New Mexico State loses experienced rebounding ace Eli Chuha from that group, they return 10 of their 13 rotation players — including eight seniors. A deep and balanced team coming off of a 30-win season, New Mexico State has continued to dominate the WAC under head coach Chris Jans. Terrell Brown and AJ Harris are the top scorers to return as they form a great backcourt along with productive forward Ivan Aurrecoechea and WAC Tournament MVP Trevelin Queen. With a top 40 offense on KenPom, this group gets it done a number of different ways on offense while wearing you down with the deepest rotation in the country (per KenPom) last season.

HARVARD (Ivy)

The Ivy League’s most experienced team combines the conference’s top recruiting class to form a very dangerous team. The Crimson have two Ivy Player of the Year candidates in point guard Bryce Aiken and forward Seth Towns — who missed all of last season due to injury. Aiken is capable of scoring outbursts on any night while having Towns back will be huge for Harvard’s frontcourt. Even without Towns playing last season, Harvard managed an NIT appearance and win over Georgetown. Now, all five starters from last season, Towns and a recruiting class led by four-star forward Chris Ledlum have their sights set on an Ivy title and possibly more. Head coach Tommy Amaker has had plenty of talented teams at Harvard but this group will have some of the highest expectations in recent years.

COLGATE (Patriot)

For only the third time in program history, Colgate made the NCAA tournament last season. Expectations are sky high this season after the Raiders gave Tennessee a solid game in the first round with four starters coming back. Patriot League Player of the Year Rapolas Ivanauskas returns as the solid-shooting forward is skilled and capable of big games. Dynamic point guard Jordan Burns is also back as he can get hot from the perimeter while also being a very good distributor. Senior forward Will Rayman also returns along with reigning Patriot Rookie of the Year Tucker Richardson at guard. The Raiders have star power from multiple spots and veteran shot makers at multiple positions. If Colgate plugs its hole from center and finds some bench pop they could roll through the Patriot once again.

WESTERN KENTUCKY (Conference USA)

Rick Stansbury could finally have the talent to take Western Kentucky back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2013. With the return of potential All-American big man Charles Bassey, the Hilltoppers have four starters back as Taveion Hollingsworth, Josh Anderson and Jared Savage are three double-figure scorers around Bassey. Perimeter shooting, a major weakness for Western Kentucky a season ago, should also be improved with the addition of IUPUI transfer Camron Justice. Replacing Lamonte Bearden at point guard will be key to the Hilltoppers’ ceiling. If Lipscomb transfer Kenny Cooper is cleared right away by the NCAA then he’d help a ton while talented four-star freshman Jordan Rawls could also be called on. After falling in the Conference USA Tournament title game in back-to-back seasons, this could be the Western Kentucky team that makes a run.

NORTH DAKOTA STATE (Summit)

Winning a First Four battle against NC Central before losing to Duke in the NCAA tournament, the Bison return all five starters and most of a deep rotation from a 19-win team. A team that is designed to space the floor at multiple spots and limit turnovers, North Dakota State doesn’t have any individual star but they should be one of the deepest mid-major teams in the country. Senior guards Vinnie Shahid and Tyson Ward are the team’s leading scorers while vital role players return throughout the roster. As long as the Bison are knocking down three-pointers and improve on their No. 292 KenPom defense from last season and they’ll be in good position to make it back to the Dance.

EAST TENNESSEE STATE (SoCon)

Coming off of a 24-win campaign, the Bucs have six key players coming back as the return of double-double forward Jeromy Rodriguez was huge. A program that has averaged 25 wins per season in four years under head coach Steve Forbes, East Tennessee State has two very strong shooters in elite bench scorer Tray Boyd III and junior guard Patrick Good. All-conference guard Bo Hodges is also back for the Bucs along with emerging sophomore guard Daivien Williamson. For a program that is consistently competing for the the postseason, this could be the most talented team Forbes has had during his time with the Bucs.

BUFFALO (MAC)

Head coach Nate Oats (Alabama) and five seniors moved on from the Bulls but there is still plenty of talent back for a program looking to make the NCAA tournament for the fifth time in six seasons. Veteran coach Jim Whitesell takes over after four years as an Oats assistant. The former Loyola coach has returning talent at his disposal. Two starting guards return in junior Jayvon Graves and senior Davonta Jordan as they form a strong defensive backcourt who should score more. Sophomores Jeenathan Williams and Ronaldo Segu are also expected to contribute more with Williams being a potential breakout star. Transfers will also help as wing Gabe Grant (Houston) and guard Antwain Johnson (Middle Tennessee) are both eligible after sitting out last season. New pieces have to fit together under a new coach but Oats didn’t leave the roster bare when he left for the SEC. There is still plenty of talent for Buffalo to have another strong season.

BRADLEY (MVC)

Surprisingly winning the Missouri Valley tournament and giving Final Four team Michigan State a tough first-round matchup, the Braves return their three top scorers. Senior guard and first-team All-Valley guard Darrell Brown has nearly 100 starts under his belt as he’s a tough-minded two-way leader. Junior forward Elijah Childs, a third-team all-conference player, also showed flurries of elite play in becoming one of the league’s most improved players last season. And senior sharpshooter Nate Kennel can knock down shots from nearly anywhere on the floor. The Braves lose three vital senior glue guys but figure to replace those minutes with emerging sophomore Ja’Shon Henry and two bigs in Koch Bar and Ari Boya. LSU transfer guard Danya Kingsby is also a potential perimeter option to run alongside Brown.

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.