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Women’s Wednesday: Elissa Cunane’s breakout season for No. 8 Wolfpack

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Elissa Cunane notched just 11 starts in 34 games her freshman year, as N.C. State lost to Louisville in the ACC Semifinals and eventually fell to Iowa in the Sweet Sixteen. She was averaging 13.9 points and 6.4 rebounds per game.

However, just one year later, a lot has changed for one of the best center’s in the league. 

Cunane is now the leading scorer and rebounder for a 23-4 breakout Wolfpack team that is not only ranked eighth in the AP Poll, but will likely be a fierce contender in this year’s NCAA Tournament. 

“I think I had to have a little bit more leadership and impact being a year older and with some great seniors leaving last year,” Cunane explained. “They left us to pick up where they left off… I had bigger shoes to fill so I’ve stepped up my game.”

The 6-foot-5 center has certainly stepped up her game, averaging 16.9 ppg and 10.1 rpg, as well as shooting almost 40 percent on 33 attempts from beyond the arch. Cunane also leads the team with 32 blocks, and has 13 double-doubles on the season. 

The sophomore has started all 27 of the Wolfpack’s games so far, and finds herself a leader on a team that has plenty of veteran players. Of the starting five, three are older than Cunane, and half of the team is comprised of upperclassmen.

“I’ve definitely gotten everything from them, they’ve really laid the foundation for what a leader on this team needs to be and what it looks like,” Cunane said of her older teammates. “We’ve put away our differences of age and grade, because anyone can be a leader to anyone.”

N.C. State lost two top talents—Kiara Leslie and DD Rogers—to graduation, and while they were left with the majority of their team, the loss was felt. Leslie led with 15.9 points per game and put the team on her back in the tournament, while Rogers averaged 7.9 rebounds per game, grabbing a career-high 20 rebounds her senior season.

Despite this loss, the Wolfpack have bounced back with numbers they didn’t have last year.

“I think one thing is just that it’s a new year,” Cunane explained, when asked why this season was different. “After a season ends, you’re never going to be able to play with that same group again. We have three girls back from injury that we didn’t have last year, so we’re not shorthanded. We have subs that can come in, whereas last year we weren’t as deep.”

The team has shown incredible determination, rallying to a 50-48 comeback win over Miami last week after trailing through three quarters and notching their first win in Coral Gables since 2007. 

“We’re still staying humble,” Cunane emphasized. “This whole year has been very special for us. Everyone on the team really enjoys each other’s presence. When we’re hit with high highs or low lows, we’ve been really able to stick with each other.”

The Wolfpack had one of those “low lows” moments following their exciting win over Miami, with a tough loss to ACC foe and in-state rival Duke on Monday. A 22-point fourth quarter rally couldn’t save them this time as they fell to the unranked Blue Devils.

However, N.C. State has a chance to retain their No. 2 ranking in the ACC going into the conference tournament, as its two final regular season games are against struggling Virginia and Syracuse. With two more wins, the Wolfpack could stay ahead of Duke in the rankings by one win. 

And they have a great chance of doing just that.

Moving forward and not dwelling in the past is exactly what head coach Wes Moore has stressed to his his players, as he’s kept them “grounded through everything.”

“Something Moore always talks about is that we stay humble and that we’re always focused on our next game, not two games ahead or the one we just played,” Cunane said. “To enjoy the success but tomorrow it’s, ‘get back to work’, because we have everything to fight for.”

WEDNESDAY’S NEWS AND NOTES

– Sabrina Ionescu recorded her 25th career triple-double in a 93-61 victory over California and her 26th in Oregon’s 74-66 win over Stanford—the Ducks’ 14th consecutive win.

With her 1,000th rebound in the third quarter against the Cardinal, Ionescu became the first player (male or female) in Division I history to ever reach 2,000 career points, 1,000 rebounds and 1,000 assists.

No. 3 Oregon’s massive win over No. 4 Stanford brings them just one game away from clinching a third straight Pac-12 outright title. 

– UConn’s No. 6 ranking in the AP Poll last week marked the first time that the Huskies weren’t in the top 5 since Feb. 5, 2007, ending a 253 week streak. 

– The top seven teams in the AP Poll remain the same, as N.C. State is the big jump from tenth to eighth. This week’s Poll can be found here.

– This weekend saw a flurry of upsets, with DePaul, Arizona, Mississippi State, UCLA and Florida State all falling to unranked opponents. They all dropped in the rankings, while Northwestern, Gonzaga and Texas A&M gained momentum.

– The Gamecocks captured the SEC regular-season title on Sunday with a 67-58 win over Kentucky in head coach Dawn Staley’s 300th win.

– Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey becomes the fastest male or female Division I coach to get to 600 wins in the Lady Bears’ 77-62 victory over Texas Tech. Baylor then crushed Oklahoma 101-69 in its following game, with all 11 scoring on the night. 

– Arizona’s Sam Thomas scored a career-high 31 points in Aari McDonald’s absence as the No. 11 Wildcats dominated Utah 85-69. 

While it may not be during the game, this deserves a shoutout. This week’s Play of the Week goes to the five consecutive half-court shots made by South Dakota State:

A case can be made for Sabrina Ionescu to win player of the week almost every week. However, she deserves this week’s Player of the Week after reaching multiple stunning milestones on Monday. 

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.