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

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The 2010s are coming to an end, which should make you feel incredibly old.

We’ve now gone a full decade with John Calipari in charge of the Kentucky Wildcats. We’re more than a decade removed from the existence of Psycho T on a college basketball campus. In the last ten years, we’ve seen Kentucky and Duke win titles by playing as young as possible, Virginia win by playing as slow as possible, Villanova win by shooting as many threes as possible and UConn win a pair of titles by hoping a star point guard can carry them through a six-game tournament.

We’ve experienced Jimmermania. We survived Zion Williamson’s Shoegate. We watch Louisville win a national title and then had the NCAA erase it from our collective memory because an assistant coach like to turn dorm rooms into the Champagne Room.

It’s been a wild ride.

And over the course of the next two weeks, we will be taking a look back at some of the best parts of the decade.

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 here.

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Robbie Hummel (Chris Gardner/Getty Images)

10. WHAT IF ROBBIE HUMMEL NEVER TEARS HIS ACL?

I think everyone in the state of Indiana, or at least in West Lafayette, remembers the exact moment that this happened.

There were just over seven minutes left in the first half of Purdue’s game at Minnesota. It was something of a look-ahead game, a Wednesday night fixture before a massive Sunday afternoon tip against Michigan State that would put the Boilermakers two wins from clinching their first outright Big Ten title in 14 years. Hummel drove into the middle of the paint, came to a jump-stop and had his right knee buckle.

ACL gone.

At the time, Purdue was the No. 3 team in the country, a stifling defense that relied on their three-headed monster of E’Twaun Moore, JaJuan Johnson and Hummel to put enough points on the board to get them wins. With Hummel, they looked like one of the few teams that would have a shot at winning the title. Without him, they lost that game to Michigan State, got dropped in the second round of the Big Ten tournament and ended up with a No. 4 seed, getting drubbed by Duke in the Sweet 16.

But the story gets worse.

Just eight months after he initially tore the ACL, he tore it again, in his first practice back. So not only did Purdue miss out on a chance to win a title in 2010, they never got to see what Hummel could have done playing alongside Johnson and Moore in their senior seasons.

Purdue has not been to the Final Four since 1980. Last year’s Elite Eight run was their first since 2000 and just their second since 1994. I have a feeling those numbers would be different had Hummel’s right ACL been less disagreeable.

9. WHAT IF JOHN WALL GOES PRO INSTEAD OF GOING TO KENTUCKY, OR IF JODIE MEEKS RETURNS TO KENTUCKY INSTEAD OF GOING PRO?

I’m not quite sure how many people are actually going to remember this, but there was a time where it was unclear if John Wall would actually end up in college. In was in April after his senior season in high school and before he committed to Kentucky to play his college ball. There was a chance that Wall was eligible to go straight to the NBA draft like Anfernee Simons did and Hamidou Diallo tried to do.

You see, Wall had spent five years in high school. He spent two years at Garner Magnet school before transferring to Broughton High as a junior. Midway through that school year, he again transferred, this time to Word Of God Christian Academy, where he enrolled as a sophomore. Combine that with the fact that he was 19 years old at the time, and he could have made a pretty compelling case.

Ultimately, it never came to that because he never declared, instead enrolling at Kentucky.

But what if he didn’t?

What if Wall had been determined to be eligible for the 2009 NBA Draft and went straight to the pros out of high school? Where would the Kentucky program be? Would the Wildcats have still been in a position to send five players to the first round of the NCAA tournament? Would Coach Cal still have been posted at the NBA draft talking about the most important day in the history of their program? Would Kentucky still have been able to change the way that college basketball programs built super teams with recruiting arms races?

But that’s not the only interesting ‘What if?’ surrounding the 2010 Kentucky team.

Hell, it might not be the most significant one.

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Jodie Meeks (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

What if Jodie Meeks returned to school for his senior season?

When Billy Gillispie was fired following the 2008-09 season, there were two key players who had their future up in the air. One was Patrick Patterson, who opted to return to school and play alongside Wall, Cousins and Bledsoe for a season. Meeks, who averaged 23.7 points as a junior, did not. He went pro, was picked 41st and found a way to carve out a 10-year NBA career.

So it worked out for him.

But that Kentucky team had one fatal flaw, and it was their ability to shoot. I don’t need to remind Kentucky fans this, but those Wildcats, as a team, shot 33.1 percent from three. They were 4-for-32 from beyond the arc in the Elite Eight loss to West Virginia. What would have happened if they had an All-American that, the year before, had shot 40.6 percent from three on eight attempts per game on the floor? Do you think there’s any chance that a team with a starting five of Wall, Bledsoe, Meeks, Patterson and Cousins loses?

With Meeks back, does 2010 Kentucky become the first 40-0 team in college basketball history? Does John Calipari actually get an NBA job after he wins a second title in three seasons? Is there an alternate reality where Cal gets hired by the Celtics and it’s actually Brad Stevens that is currently coaching the Wildcats and winning national titles with nothing but three-star prospects from Kentuckiana? I like to think there is.

8. WHAT JALEN BRUNSON WENT TO TEMPLE?

There are so many ‘What ifs?’ surrounding this Villanova dynasty that would be fun to dive into.

What if Kris Jenkins missed that buzzer-beating three? You know the one that I’m talking about. Does Villanova hang on to win that game in overtime? If they don’t, if the Tar Heels take home the 2016 national title, do they bring back everyone and become the first team to win back-to-back titles in 2017, or do the likes of Justin Jackson, Joel Berry and Kennedy Meeks turn pro?

Or how about this one: What if Omari Spellman isn’t ruled ineligible for the 2016-17 season? If he isn’t forced to redshirt, does he ever put in the work he needed to in order to change his body and become a first round draft pick? What if Phil Booth doesn’t miss that season with an injury, either? Might we actually be looking at a situation where the Wildcats win three straight national titles?

And if you want to play the inception game, what if Villanova’s higher-ups decide to fire Jay Wright when he followed up the 2009 trip to the Final Four with a 25-win season, a 21-win season and then a 13-19 season in 2011-12?

But those are not the most interesting ‘What ifs?’ involving this Villanova dynasty. This is: What if Jalen Brunson had actually ended up at Temple?

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Because that’s what the plan was. Brunson’s father, Rick, is a Temple alum. Fran Dunphy was going to use a spot as an assistant coach to hire Rick and bring along his McDonald’s All-American offspring until Rick went and got himself into a bit of legal trouble. Hiring him became untenable, which meant that Brunson had to find elsewhere to play. Just so happens that Philly’s intracity rival needed a point guard, and the rest is history.

Would Villanova have found the same amount of success if Brunson had not ended up on the Main Line? He was a starter for two teams that won national championships, the second of which came in a season where he won National Player of the Year. That’s a pretty big loss to overcome.

At the same time, it is fair to wonder if he would have had the same amount of success had he not ended up playing for Villanova. Brunson has carved out a nice little role for himself in the NBA, operating as a part-time starter for the Dallas Mavericks and averaging 9.0 points and 3.2 assists in two seasons as a pro. He probably gets there either way, but given that he was still a second round pick after three sensational years at Villanova, would he have actually gotten a chance at the NBA if he hadn’t cut down so many nets while a Wildcat?

I think there’s a very real chance that, were it not for the fact that he ended up at Villanova, Brunson ends up being a four-year player at Temple that has to go through Europe to get to the NBA, a la Nigel Williams-Goss.

Brandon Ashley (Kent C. Horner/Getty Images)

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7. WHAT IF BRANDON ASHLEY DOESN’T BREAK HIS FOOT IN 2014?

One of the fun little tools that Ken Pomeroy has added to his website, KenPom.com, is a way to look at archived ratings. If I wanted to go back and see who was considered to be the best team in college basketball on, say, Sat., Feb. 1st, in 2014, I can do that.

On that morning, the Arizona Wildcats were sitting pretty as one of just three undefeated teams left in college basketball. They were the No. 1 team in the country, receiving 63 of a possible 65 first-place votes in the AP poll, and they were No. 1 in KenPom’s rankings. At that moment in time, the gap between Arizona and the team in second (Duke) was only slightly smaller than the gap between 2015 Kentucky and the team that finished second (Wisconsin) on the final day of the season.

Put another way, on February 1st in a season where a No. 7 seed and a No. 8 seed played in the national title game, Arizona was very clearly the best team in college basketball.

And then Brandon Ashley broke his foot.

It happened early in a game at Cal that would go down as Arizona’s first loss of the season. Without Ashley in the lineup, Arizona would go on to lose three of their final 10 regular season games in a watered down Pac-12. They lost in the Pac-12 tournament title game to UCLA. They lost to Wisconsin in the Elite Eight in overtime.

It’s that last loss that I want to discuss.

At the time, Ashley was a sophomore averaging 11.5 points and 5.8 boards while shooting 37.9 percent from three. He was a really good player on a team that had quite a few really good players. But the real value Ashley carried was evident in the game against Wisconsin, when the quicker Frank Kaminsky was able to exploit Kaleb Tarczewski to the tune of 28 points and 11 boards on 11-for-20 shooting. Ashley’s health would have allowed Sean Miller to be able to play a more fleet-a-foot big at the five without going to a small lineup.

That doesn’t sound like much, but in a game that went to overtime when only one guy on the winning team had a good game, slowing him down even a little bit would have been the difference.

Maybe Sean Miller still winds up without a title. Maybe Kentucky’s 2014 team was just a team of destiny that ran into Shabazz Napier and another team of destiny in the title game. Or maybe, with Ashley in the fold, the best team in college basketball goes out and wins themselves a national title in a down year.

We’ll never know, but it may go down in history as Miller’s best chance at a ring.

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Brandon Davies (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

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6. WHAT IF BRANDON DAVIES DOESN’T GET AN HONOR CODE VIOLATION?

On the same day that a then-27-2 BYU team was ranked No. 3 in the AP poll for the first time ever, Brandon Davies was in the process of learning that he would no longer be a part of that team.

On Monday, Feb. 28th, just two days removed from beating San Diego State and Kawhi Leonard by 13 points on the road in a top ten showdown, the school was made aware of an honor code violation that was committed by Davies – he reportedly had sexual relations, something that is not allowed by the school. Davies admitted it, and the next morning the school announced that he was suspended for the rest of the season. On that Wednesday, they got blown out at home by New Mexico and would never be the same team.

San Diego State got their revenge in the Mountain West title game with an 18 point win. The Cougars would bow out of the NCAA tournament with an overtime loss to Florida in the Sweet 16. And that was the end of Jimmermania.

Davies was the most athletic member of BYU’s frontcourt that season. He was their third-leading scorer, their leading rebounder and one of just two players on that roster that would go on to play in the NBA. His loss was a devastating blow, one that cost us a chance to see if Jimmer could play his way into the final weekend of the season.

In a year where the Final Four consisted of a three-seed, a four-seed, an eight-seed and an 11-seed, anything could have happened.

Just imagine a national title game that featured Jimmer vs. Kemba.

It definitely would have been more exciting than this.

Continue with the top five here

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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.