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The ten wildest ‘What ifs?’ in college basketball this decade

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Today, we are talking about the wildest ‘What ifs?’ in college basketball this decade. The first five are in this story, and the top five can be found below.


5. WHAT IF FAB MELO IS ELIGIBLE FOR SYRACUSE IN 2012?

Syracuse played 30 games with Fab Melo in the lineup during the 2011-12 season. They lost one, falling by three points to a good Cincinnati team in the semifinals of the Big East Tournament.

That’s it.

That was their only loss when Melo, a 7-foot anchor that led the program in rebounds and blocks as a sophomore, actually took the court.

In the seven games he did not play, the Orange were 5-2, and one of those losses came in the Elite Eight against Ohio State, the No. 2 seed in their region. The other came in a loss at Notre Dame on January 21st, when the Orange were one of only two undefeated teams left in America. They had received 60 of a possible 65 first-place votes.

North Carolina may have been the second-most talented team in the country that season – more on that below – but the Orange were a top two team in the AP Poll for every week except one from Dec. 12th through the end of the season.

If they had the anchor to their zone in the fold in for the NCAA tournament, would John Calipari have a national title on his resume right now?

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4. WHAT IF KENDALL MARSHALL DOESN’T BREAK HIS WRIST IN THE SECOND ROUND IN 2012?

The way that the 2012 NCAA Tournament bracket broke down was absolutely perfect from a neutral’s perspective.

Kentucky was a No. 1 seed on one side of the bracket. North Carolina was a No. 1 seed on the other side of the bracket. They were, arguably, the two best and, inarguably, the two most talented teams in college basketball that season. They had played an absolute thriller in Rupp Arena in December that season, a game that was decided when Anthony Davis blocked John Henson with six seconds left in a one-point game.

We all wanted that rematch because we all knew that the Tar Heels were one of the handful of teams that actually had a chance to beat a Kentucky team that had the first two picks in the 2012 NBA Draft on their roster, including the National Player of the Year.

But that all went up in smoke when Marshall was knocked to the floor by Creighton’s Ethan Wragge late in the second half of a second round win. He landed on his right, non-shooting hand and fractured his scaphoid bone, meaning that Stillman White, a walk-on, was the only point guard left on the roster.

The Tar Heels were able to get past Ohio, a No. 13 seed, in the Sweet 16 in overtime, but they were beaten by Kansas, the eventual national runners-up, in the Elite Eight.

If Marshall never gets hurt, if he plays and he leads UNC to the Final Four, there’s no guarantee that they would have had enough to beat the Wildcats that season. Kentucky was peaking by the end of the year. Davis was playing his best ball, the Wildcats smothered any kind of offense in the paint and the Tar Heels were a team that thrived on getting the ball inside.

But it would have been a matchup everyone wanted to see.

And if there is a world where a healthy UNC team picked off Kentucky in the title game, than I can only imagine how much fans and media alike would be losing their collective minds over whether or not Coach Cal will ever win a national title.

Mamadi Diakite (Getty Images)

3. WHAT IF MAMADI DIAKITE MISSES THE SHOT AGAINST PURDUE?

Just like Villanova, there are plenty of moments that could have derailed Virginia’s run from becoming the first No. 1 seed that ever lost to a No. 16 seed to becoming the National Champion the following season.

In a way, that run felt a little like destiny. Virginia trailed Gardner-Webb by 14 points in the first round of the tournament. What if that comeback never happened? What if Kihei Clark doesn’t hit that three with five minutes left in the second half that ended a 13-2 Oregon run in the Sweet 16 and tied the game again? What if Kyle Guy doesn’t draw a foul while shooting a three against Auburn and the officials call Ty Jerome for a double-dribble instead? What if De’Andre Hunter’s game-tying three doesn’t go down? What if that loose ball that went off Davide Moretti doesn’t get overruled?

Hell, ‘What if De’Andre Hunter never fractures his wrist?’ works as well as anything.

But the moment that stands out more than anything else is Diakite’s shot.

Because that was it.

There was no coming back from a miss.

If you’ve forgotten, here’s what happened:

A miss and it’s over.

A miss and Virginia is still the program that cannot win games that matter. They’re still the program that play at a pace that is untenable for winning in March. They’re still the choke artists that will always find a way to lose. The narratives would have taken over.

And honestly, I don’t even want to know where we would be right now if Virginia hadn’t validated their style of play by winning last year’s national title, because the unfortunate truth is that this year’s Virginia team actually is everything that everyone said Virginia was over the course of Tony Bennett’s tenure in Charlottesville. Last year, the Wahoos had three pros, two of whom were first round picks and one of whom was the best player in college basketball not named Zion. They actually ranked higher in KenPom’s offensive efficiency metric than in his defensive efficiency metric. They were patient and played at the tempo they wanted to play at, but they were absolutely lethal offensively.

This year?

They are still slow, but they don’t have all that much talent and they just cannot score. Maybe that changes if Kyle Guy comes back to school – and if UVA gets dropped in the Elite Eight, that might have been the case – but that’s just speculation. And frankly, simply adding one shooter isn’t going to fix what’s wrong with this year’s team.

Would good players still want to play for a program that wins ugly, but never wins in March?

2. WHAT IF NIGEL HAYES HAD HIS SHOT CLOCK VIOLATION CALLED?

Look away, Kentucky fans.

Please.

For the sake of yourselves, just skip this part.

Trust me.

With under three minutes left in regulation and Kentucky clinging to a 60-58 lead, Wisconsin took the ball out of bounds under their own basket with just three seconds on the shot clock. They got it in to Nigel Hayes in the deep corner, who drove baseline and forced up a shot over Willie Cauley-Stein that drew nothing but air. He grabbed his own missed and laid it back in but, but that was clearly after the buzzer had sounded.

It was a shot clock violation.

Wasn’t it?

According to the replay, it was. Clearly. According to the officials on the floor, it was not.

It was also not reviewable.

Which meant that instead of getting the ball back with 2:39 left and a 60-58 lead, Kentucky was in a tie game. Aaron Harrison missed a jumper on the ensuing possession, and that was followed by Sam Dekker burying a three with 1:44 on the clock, giving the Badgers a lead that they would never relinquish.

The implication here is obvious.

Kentucky, at the time, was sitting at 38-0. They were two wins away from becoming the first team since 1976 to finish a season undefeated and the first team in college basketball history to go 40-0. They were a win away from becoming, unequivocally, the best team in the history of college basketball.

Can we blame all of that crumbling down on one missed shot clock violation?

… maybe?

Look, Wisconsin still had to go out and win the final two minutes of this game. They got the stops. They made the shots. They hit seven of their eight free throws. They won this game, and then they got beaten by a very, very good Duke team.

There were more great teams in college basketball in 2015 than in any season I can remember. Duke included. It would not have been an easy road for the Wildcats to get to 40-0.

But it is impossible to say that things wouldn’t be different without those two points. Does Kentucky need to burn a timeout to get settled after Hayes’ bucket if the violation is called? Do they execute better down the stretch without that frustration in the back of their mind? Hell, even if you want to pretend like things would have gone down the exact same way, that’s not possible. With 17 seconds left, Karl-Anthony Towns missed a free throw with the score at 66-64. Kentucky was forced to foul because there wasn’t enough time left on the clock. That was the best defensive team that I’ve ever seen at the college level. At the very least, we can say there would have been a good chance that this game ended up in overtime, no?

I think the most diplomatic way to say this is that the failure to correctly rule that a shot clock violation cost Kentucky a fair shot at getting to 39-0 and to the national title game.

And that sucks.

Because that team was legitimately great and deserved a chance to prove it.

1. WHAT IF GORDON HAYWARD MAKES THAT SHOT?

I was torn on where to put this on this list, because it’s unlike some of the other ‘What ifs?’.

On the one hand, yes, if this shot goes in, it’s the greatest moment in the history of college basketball. A team from the Horizon League, playing in the national title game in their hometown, beats the Big Bad Duke Blue Devils on a banked in half-court shot at the buzzer? Kris Jenkins’ shot in 2016 might not have even made SportsCenter. Am I supposed to be impressed with a regular old three at the buzzer when Gordon Hayward banked in a halfcourt shot to beat Duke?

On the other hand, what does that shot going in actually change beyond where a banner is hanging and who got rings?

Does missing make the fact that Brad Stevens got Butler to back-to-back national title games any less impressive? Is getting a prayer to go down really going to be what convinces Stevens’ critics, if they exist, that he’s actually a good coach? Would winning a title be enough to keep him in the college ranks, or would the chance to jump to the NBA always be too appealing? If anything, it probably makes an NBA team swoop in sooner.

My point is that the fact that Butler was in that position, that they were a halfcourt shot away from winning the national title, is proof enough of how good that team was. The fact that they made it back the next season despite losing a top ten pick only drives that point home. As weird as this sounds, Hayward’s shot doesn’t prove anything to anyone.

All it does is win Butler the national title.

Anyway, here’s video of that shot, because I never tire of seeing Kyle Singler get de-cleated by a Matt Howard screen:

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.