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Best Bets: Previewing the Champions Classic

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No. 3 KANSAS vs. No. 4 DUKE, 7:00 p.m.

  • SPREAD: Kansas (-1)
  • TOTAL: 152.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Kansas 76.75, Duke 75.75
  • KENPOM: Duke 78, Kansas 74

When this line opened, Duke was favored by 2.5 points. Since then, it has continued to move towards Kansas, and as of this posting the Jayhawks are favored by a point. I think that it will continue to move that direction; I make the line at Kansas (-3) and I would probably need six or seven points before I really considered betting on Duke.

The reasoning is pretty simple at its core: Duke is young and their veterans will be asked to play much bigger roles than they have ever played while Kansas could end up with their top seven scorers being returnees. Early in the season, I tend to bet on the teams with vets when they play against a team with a lot of newcomers. This qualifies.

But it’s more than just the fact that Duke is young and Kansas is not quite as young.

I’m on record saying that Udoka Azubuike is going to be one of the best and most unstoppable forces in college basketball this season. I called him the fourth-best player in the sport just last week. The reason I said that is because there is no better low post force in the country than the big fellas, and there is no coach in the country better at scheming ways to get his post players in a spot where they can turn and dunk than Bill Self.

And on Tuesday night, Azubuike will be going up against a Duke frontline that consists of freshman Vernon Carey, freshman Matthew Hurt and senior Javin DeLaurier. Neither Carey nor Hurt are known for their ability to defend. DeLaurier weighs a good 35 pounds less than Azubuike. He should be able to do anything he wants in the paint. The way to exploit a player like Azubuike is to force him to defend on the perimeter, either with a perimeter-oriented center – think Villanova’s Omari Spellman in the 2018 Final Four – or by putting him into ball-screen actions.

But Duke doesn’t really have the personnel for that. Carey is a low-post banger, DeLaurier is 1-for-10 from three in his college career and playing Hurt at the five might end up being a net-negative given the struggles he has guarding in the post.

And as much as I love Tre Jones, I need to see him prove that he can be a shooter before I believe that he is a shooter. Until then, I’m just going to assume that he will never need to be guarded beyond the three-point line.

PICK: Kansas (-1)

No. 1 MICHIGAN STATE  vs. No. 2 KENTUCKY, 9:30 p.m.

  • SPREAD: Michigan State (-3)
  • TOTAL: 139.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Michigan State 71.25, Kentucky 68.25
  • KENPOM: Michigan State 72, Kentucky 70

This is a weird matchup.

On paper, it is precisely the kind of game where you want to bet on the team with the veterans, one of whom is a senior point guard, a returning first-team All-American and the best player in college basketball. For the uneducated, that would be Michigan State and Cassius Winston.

But when you look deeper at Michigan State, the team they have right now is not as deep or as experienced as you might imagine. As it stands, with Josh Langford out, just three of their healthy rotation pieces are upperclassmen, and one of those three – Kyle Ahrens – is banged up. They’re going to be counting on a promising and talented sophomore class to play major minutes and produce.

Whether it is Thomas Kithier or Marcus Bingham Jr. at the four, or Gabe Brown playing extended minutes on the wing, or one of Foster Loyer and Rocket Watts getting minutes in the backcourt, there are going to be quite a few guys asked to play new and expanded roles. That may take some time.

Now, the mitigating factor here is that Winston is awesome, that he makes everyone around him better, but if he does have a weakness, it is athletic guards that can force him into turning the ball over. It was not as much of an issue last season (Winston lit up Michigan and Zavier Simpson three times and put 20 points and 10 assists on Tre Jones and Duke in the Elite Eight) but he had nine turnovers in a loss at Illinois and struggled in the Final Four against Texas Tech. Kentucky’s backcourt of Ashton Hagans and Tyrese Maxey has the kind of size, athleticism and defensive prowess that can give Winston some trouble.

Up front, you’d think that a Michigan State team that features Tillman and a bunch of young guys would be at a disadvantage against Kentucky, but with Nick Richards hurt, the Wildcats frontline is E.J. Montgomery, Nate Sestina and no one else. I actually think Tillman will be the best big man on the floor, and Kentucky being forced to play small may actually be sub-optimal – I think the Spartans will be at their best when they embrace Aaron Henry at the four.

So I don’t have conviction either way here.

I think I tend to lean towards the Spartans simply because I trust the team with the senior All-American at the point. But I don’t feel great about it, and if the money-line for Kentucky gets up towards (+150) or (+160), I would have a tough time staying away.

I also don’t feel great about the total. On the one hand, this has the makings of an ugly game. On the other hand, Tom Izzo likes to run as much as any coach, and I think that Kentucky’s optimal way to play is to pressure, try to force turnovers and get out in transition.

PICK: If I was forced to bet I would take Michigan State (-3), but I will personally be staying away.


No. 5 LOUISVILLE (-7) at MIAMI, 6:30 p.m.

Taking road favorites is not the way that I want to kick off the college basketball season. I love Louisville this year, but I think that Miami and Chris Lykes have the horses to keep this thing close. Throw in the fact that the Cardinals are dealing with injuries to two potentials starters, and I’ll personally be staying away. If forced to bet, I’d take Miami (+7).

No. 20 SAINT MARY’S (-3) vs. WISCONSIN, 9:00 p.m. (Sioux Falls)

It’s going to be a new era in Wisconsin, as the Badgers will be replacing All-American Ethan Happ. I think the Badges have some sneaky tournament potential this year, but I’m all in on the Gaels. They are a top 15 team in America and they have arguably the best point guard in the mid-major ranks in Jordan Ford. I like Saint Mary’s (-3), but I think the under is much more interesting. But the bet I like the most here is under 129.5. Greg Gard has never ranked higher than 331st in tempo. Randy Bennett has not ranked higher than 341st in tempo since 2014. This is going to be a slow, slow basketball game.

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.