With the NBA Draft Combine wrapping up Friday evening, players with college eligibility remaining who declared without hiring an agent had until May 25 to make a final decision. One of those players was North Carolina wing Justin Jackson, whose decision was expected to have a significant impact on the Tar Heels’ national title chances in 2016-17.
Monday evening the school announced that Jackson has decided to withdraw from the draft, and he’ll return for his junior season at North Carolina.
“I’m glad I had the chance to enter the Draft and attend the Combine where I was able to meet with a number of NBA executives and test my game against some of the top players in the country, but after discussing it with my parents and coaches and praying over this decision, the best choice for my basketball future is to return to school and play for the Tar Heels next season,” Jackson said in the release.
Jackson joins power forward Kennedy Meeks as North Carolina players who decided to return to school, giving Roy Williams two experienced players to call upon next season. North Carolina did lose three seniors, guard Marcus Paige and forwards Brice Johnson and Joel James, but they have enough coming back to make a run at another ACC title (with Duke being viewed by many as the early favorite) and deep NCAA tournament run.
Jackson, Meeks and Joel Berry II are all returning starters, and reserves such and Nate Britt, Theo Pinson and Isaiah Hicks return as well. North Carolina also adds a three-member recruiting class in guards Seventh Woods and Brandon Robinson, and power forward Tony Bradley.
VIDEO: Marcus Paige touch pass leads to North Carolina dunk
After settling for perimeter shots too often during the early portion of the first half, No. 1 North Carolina began to find its groove offensively against No. 10 Syracuse. The Tar Heels made 68 percent of their two-point attempts in the first half, and they improved on their 11-point halftime lead by continuing to work the ball inside against the Syracuse zone.
One example of this: a nice touch pass from Marcus Paige to Kennedy Meeks for an uncontested dunk. The play began with Justin Jackson being trapped on the baseline by two Syracuse defenders, with Paige flashing to bail out his teammate. Jackson found Paige, who in one motion found Meeks.
GAME OF THE NIGHT: No. 20 Duke at No. 5 North Carolina, 9:00 p.m.
This choice is a simple one, with one of the best rivalries in all of sports taking place. Mike Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils have won four straight games, with their defensive improvements being a key reason why (our Rob Dauster has more on that here). Grayson Allen and Brandon Ingram have led the way offensively for Duke, but getting stops will be key for them not just tonight but in March as well. How well Duke fares on the defensive glass against the bigger Tar Heels will be a key, but UNC has its own questions to address.
The biggest: how engaged will Justin Jackson and Brice Johnson be? Johnson made his way into the ACC POY conversation and Jackson saved the Heels at Boston College, but both have to bring consistent effort for Roy Williams’ team to reach its full potential. North Carolina played well in its win over Pittsburgh Sunday, but can they build on that momentum?
THIS ONE’S GOOD TOO: No. 15 Dayton at Saint Joseph’s, 6:00 p.m.
There are two big games in Philadelphia tonight (more on the other one below), and this one will have a major impact not only on the Atlantic 10 race but on NCAA tournament profiles as well. Archie Miller’s Flyers are well positioned to land a good seed next month, and a win here would keep Dayton (who’s won nine straight) alone atop the A-10 standings. Dyshawn Pierre’s return has been key, but the contributions of Charles Cooke III and Scoochie Smith should not be overlooked either. Saint Joseph’s will counter with the incredibly versatile DeAndre Bembry and the A-10’s most improved player in forward Isaiah Miles, who’s been a key option in the front court for Phil Martelli’s Hawks.
FIVE THINGS TO WATCH FOR
1. No. 1 Villanova will step outside of Big East play as they visit Big 5 rival Temple (7:00 p.m.) in a critical game for the home team. Fran Dunphy’s Owls sit atop the American, and a win here would (barring a collapse) in all likelihood sew up an NCAA tournament bid. Villanova, on the other hand, is once again in the mix for a one-seed and can wrap up the outright Big 5 title with a win.
2. Unless Villanova falters down the stretch, No. 8 Xavier is the only team capable of chasing down the Wildcats in the Big East standings. The Musketeers, two games back, will need to avoid any losses if they’re to accomplish that beginning with their game against No. 23 Providence tonight (7:00 p.m.). The Friars lean upon the tandem of Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil, but they’ll need more against the deeper Musketeers.
3. One team that may not be receiving as much “bubble” chatter as they deserve is Alabama, which has won four straight including wins over Texas A&M and Florida. The Crimson Tide visit LSU tonight (9:00 p.m.), with both teams in a position where another quality win would help their cause. LSU won the first meeting by two points in Tuscaloosa, with Ben Simmons going for 23 points, eight rebounds and five assists.
4. After getting swept last weekend USC looks to get back on the right track with a win over Colorado (11:00 p.m.) in Los Angeles. Andy Enfield’s Trojans have yet to lose at home this season, and their offensive balance (six players averaging double figures) is one reason why. Colorado, which is also well positioned to reach the NCAA tournament, did not have Josh Scott (ankle) last week and his status for tonight has yet to be determined. That’s a key for the Buffs, given how good USC’s front court with the likes of Nikola Jovanovic, Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu has been this year.
5. Texas Tech, which beat two ranked teams in Iowa State and Baylor last week, has another opportunity to get a marquee win as they host No. 3 Oklahoma. Keenan Evans is averaging more than 17 points per game over the last three for Tubby Smith’s Red Raiders, who can also call upon Devauntagh Williams and Toddrick Gotcher on the perimeter. Buddy Hield and company are looking to rebound from their loss to No. 2 Kansas, but that won’t be easy to do in Lubbock.
THE REST OF THE TOP 25
No. 4 Iowa at Penn State, 6:30 p.m.
Virginia Tech at No. 11 Miami, 9:00 p.m.
Arizona State at No. 12 Arizona, 9:00 p.m.
Syracuse at No. 18 Louisville, 7:00 p.m.
Nebraska at No. 22 Indiana, 8:30 p.m.
OTHER NOTABLE GAMES
Stony Brook at Albany, 7:00 p.m.
George Washington at Duquesne, 7:00 p.m.
Seton Hall at Georgetown, 9:00 p.m.
Boise State at New Mexico, 10:00 p.m.
Justin Jackson, No. 9 North Carolina survive at Boston College
No. 9 North Carolina’s trip to Chestnut Hill to play ACC cellar dweller Boston College was expected to be a routine one, with Roy Williams’ team taking care of business and heading back home. The game was anything but routine, beginning with Williams’ decision to start a completely different front court from the one that struggled in a loss at Notre Dame Saturday night.
Add in Williams having to leave the sidelines after collapsing in the second half and the Tar Heels’ struggles throughout the night against Jim Christian’s Eagles, and North Carolina was in position to suffer a stunning setback. Yet in the end North Carolina won 68-65, thanks to a timely four-point play from Marcus Paige and 20 points from sophomore forward Justin Jackson.
Due to his recent shooting slump Paige has been the most often discussed Tar Heel of late, but given his overall track record there were few who thought he wouldn’t find a way to turn things around. He is North Carolina’s best player, and ultimately how far the Tar Heels go this spring will depend upon how well Paige plays. But he can’t do it all alone, and in the case of Jackson the Tar Heels have a gifted wing capable of making plays offensively…when he chooses to do so.
Against Boston College an aggression that hasn’t been seen from Jackson on a consistent basis this season, since a stretch in late November of three straight games of 20 points or more, was present. He attacked the Boston College defense on a night in which North Carolina’s perimeter shots once again missed the mark (5-for-16 3PT), scoring 20 points on 9-for-11 shooting from the field. The benching seemingly lit a fire under Jackson, giving North Carolina a much-needed boost in a game that turned out to be far more difficult than many expected.
The question now is what Jackson does to build on this performance. The skill is there, but this is a matter of having the mindset needed to make plays without being prodded. Brice Johnson has struggled with similar issues throughout his career, but he put forth the best basketball of his career earlier this season with Kennedy Meeks out of the lineup.
North Carolina struggled for much of the night, even before Williams had to leave the sidelines, and that cannot be glossed over. The Tar Heels have the talent needed to produce better performances than this, one that nearly led to them losing a game they were expected to win convincingly. But there is the positive of Jackson’s performance to take from it, as he looked to attack the Boston College defense consistently and experienced success in doing so.
The Tar Heels will face tougher competition in their remaining ACC games, and with that comes the need to have Jackson continue to play at this level. Tuesday night represents a step forward for Jackson, but how big of a step that is will be determined by what he does over the next month.
After ranking the top lead guards and off guards, we move to the wing position.
With more teams moving away from the rigid positions that defined the game of basketball for years, the wing has become a more important role. Nowadays versatility is a trait of many of the nation’s best wings, as they can be used to initiate the offense as either a scorer or distributor.
Without further ado, below are our ranking of the top wings in college basketball. Who’s too high on the last? Who isn’t high enough on the list? Who’d we leave out?
Simmons arrived in Baton Rouge amidst much fanfare and with good reason, as his skill set makes him a player many project to be a high lottery pick in next June’s NBA Draft. The 6-foot-10 Australian will play a “point forward” role for the Tigers, as his ability to initiate offense makes an incredibly difficult matchup for opponents.
2. Denzel Valentine (Michigan State)
Speaking of versatility, Valentine’s a senior who can play any of the three perimeter roles within Tom Izzo’s offense. As a junior Valentine averaged 14.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game, shooting 44.3 percent from the field and 41.6 percent from three. His ability to fill the stat sheet and lead will be key for a Michigan State team looking to earn a second straight Final Four appearance.
3. Jaylen Brown (California)
Brown’s a power wing who rates as one of the top freshmen in the country. At 6-foot-7 he has the size and athleticism needed to fill multiple roles for the Golden Bears, who boast one of the country’s top perimeter rotations. And with those options there will be occasions in which Brown plays as an undersized four in order to force mismatches on the offensive end.
4. Brandon Ingram (Duke)
While Ingram has plenty of skill, he’s a slender 6-foot-9 wing who trends more towards the perimeter than the aforementioned Brown does. Ingram can score at multiple levels, and while he does need to get stronger his offensive skill set will apply pressure to opponents within Duke’s offense.
5. Taurean Waller-Prince (Baylor)
Last season Waller-Prince emerged as one of the nation’s most improved players, averaging 13.9 points and 5.6 rebounds per contest. He took full advantage of increased minutes a season ago, and with fellow senior Rico Gathers Sr., redshirt sophomore Johnathan Motley and junior college transfer Jo Acuil is part of one of the country’s best front court rotations.
The Preseason Atlantic 10 Player of the Year deserves more pub, as he shouldered a lot of the offensive load for the Hawks last season. Bembry, after starting all 34 games on an NCAA tournament team as a freshman, accounted for 17.7 points, 7.7 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.9 steals per game in 2014-15. Bembry led the Hawks in all four of those categories last season, and could very well duplicate that feat in 2015-16.
7. Justin Jackson (North Carolina)
Jackson’s in line for a breakout season, and his presence is why there isn’t a great deal of concern when it comes to accounting for the departure of J.P. Tokoto. Jackson started 37 games as a freshman, averaging 10.7 points and 3.7 rebounds per game and shooting nearly 48 percent from the field. Also ranking third on the team in assists a season ago, Jackson has the ability to find teammates as well as score.
8. Gary Payton II (Oregon State)
The son of “The Glove,” Payton won Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year honors in his first season in Corvallis. How big of an impact did he have in Wayne Tinkle’s first season as head coach? Payton led the Beavers in scoring, rebounding, steals and blocks and was second in assists. That kind of versatility isn’t all too common, and with Oregon State’s improved depth he could be even better this year.
9. Troy Williams (Indiana)
Averaging 13.0 points per game as a sophomore, Williams led the Hoosiers in rebounding and steals while shooting 54 percent from the field and 74.2 percent from the foul line. While he isn’t much of a perimeter shooter, Williams can knock down mid-range shots and he finishes above the rim with authority. As a slasher he’s a key player who can open things up for Indiana, which has a host of perimeter shooters to call upon.
10. Kyle Collinsworth (BYU)
Collinsworth is one of the most versatile players in the country, and he’s entrusted with the responsibility of running the show for BYU. Collinsworth is tied for the NCAA record for career triple-doubles (six), all of which came last season, and he averaged 13.8 points, 8.7 and 6.0 assists per game in 2014-15. While the loss of Tyler Haws is important, the return of Collinsworth is one reason why BYU is seen as Gonzaga’s biggest threat in the WCC.
11. Daniel Hamilton (Connecticut): The American Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year, Hamilton averaged 10.9 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game. And he’ll have even more chances to initiate things offensively this season.
12. Josh Hart (Villanova): Last season Hart emerged as a valuable option for Villanova, averaging 10.1 points and 4.6 rebounds per game. His shooting percentages from the field and from three were nothing to scoff at either, as the Big East tournament Most Outstanding Player shot 51 percent from the field and 46 percent from three.
13. Jake Layman (Maryland): Layman’s skill isn’t to be questioned, as the 6-foot-8 senior averaged 12.5 points and 5.8 rebounds per game while shooting 47 percent from the field and 37.8 percent from three. But with Dez Wells gone, can he step forward as an even more assertive force for a team projected as one of the nation’s best?
14. Dillon Brooks (Oregon): For all of the talk about how Wayne Selden Jr. (Kansas) and Jamal Murray (Kentucky) played this summer, Brooks also played well on the international circuit. And after earning Pac-12 All-Freshman Team honors, he could be poised for a breakout sophomore campaign.
15. Michael Gbinije (Syracuse): “Silent G” is likely to fill a variety of roles for Jim Boeheim as he has the skills needed to play anywhere from the point to the wing. Last season Gbinije averaged 12.7 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game.
16. Tim Quarterman (LSU): Quarterman joins teammate Simmons on this list, and he’s looking to build on a solid sophomore season in Baton Rouge. The 6-foot-5 Quarterman accounted for 11.5 points, 5.2 rebounds and a team-high 4.0 assists per game, doing so despite starting just 14 of the 33 games in which he played.
17. Damion Lee (Louisville): The lone grad transfer on our list, Lee averaged 21.4 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game at Drexel last season. Given Louisville’s personnel losses, Lee’s abilities as a scorer and defender will be of high importance as the Cardinals look to hold their own in the ACC.
18. Malcolm Hill (Illinois): Hill’s a player who emerged as Illinois’ most efficient offensive option last season, averaging 14.4 points and 4.8 rebounds per contest as a sophomore. He’s an all-conference caliber player, and Hill could very well earn those honors this season.
19. Dwayne Bacon (Florida State): The 6-foot-6 Bacon is the crown jewel of one of the nation’s top recruiting classes, and with his athleticism and scoring ability the Oak Hill Academy product should have an immediate impact in Tallahassee.
20. Roosevelt Jones (Butler): Jones’ (12.7 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 3.7 apg) return from a broken wrist that sidelined him for the entire 2013-14 season was a big reason why the Bulldogs not only reached the NCAA tournament but nearly eliminated Notre Dame in the round of 32.
Others Considered: Malik Pope (San Diego State), Trevon Bluiett (Xavier), Isaac Copeland (Georgetown)
We’re labeling this as the nation’s top back courts, but truthfully, it’s the nation’s top perimeters. That’s why you’ll see guys like Brandon Ingram and Jaylen Brown, small forwards that will play the four a lot this season, listed here.
One thing we realized making this list: There are an inordinate number of talented guards in college basketball this season, especially those that will get labeled as lead guards. So many, in fact, that the likes of Miami, Iowa State and Texas A&M didn’t even crack the top 15.
They don’t rebuild in Lexington they reload, and John Calipari has quite the perimeter rotation at his disposal despite losing three of his top four guards from a season ago. The returnee is 5-foot-9 sophomore Tyler Ulis, who has emerged as this team’s leader. But he isn’t the only guard in the group who operates will with the ball in his hands, as both Briscoe and Murray will also have ample opportunities to create offensively. The 6-foot-4 Murray was one of the standouts at the Pan-American Games in Canada this summer, as he went off to lead the hosts past the United States in the semifinals. Matthews and Mulder aren’t slouches either, giving Kentucky additional talent and depth with their presence.
2. Wichita State (Ron Baker, Fred VanVleet, Conner Frankamp, Landry Shamet, Evan Wessel)
Baker and VanVleet are two of the nation’s best at their respective positions and they’re going to appear on multiple preseason (and end of season, for that matter) All-America teams as a result. Wessel gives this group added toughness, and Kanas transfer Conner Frankamp will give Wichita State another capable shooter when he becomes eligible in December. The 6-foot-4 Shamet is a Top 100 recruit who will fight for minutes now and be a key figure for the Shockers in the years to come.
3. Indiana (James Blackmon Jr., Yogi Ferrell, Robert Johnson, Nick Zeisloft)
This group is one of the reasons why the Hoosiers will enter the 2015-16 season ranked, with senior point guard Yogi Ferrell leading the way. Ferrell led the Hoosiers in scoring and assists a season ago, and he also led the team in made three-pointers. Blackmon should be better as a sophomore after tailing off somewhat down the stretch last year and the same goes for classmate Johnson, with Zeisloft coming off of a year in which he shot 45 percent from beyond the arc.
4. North Carolina (Marcus Paige, Justin Jackson, Joel Berry II, Nate Britt, Theo Pinson, Kenny Williams)
Paige enters his senior season as one of the the best guards in the country, as he’s comfortable as either a scorer or a distributor for the Tar Heels. Jackson, who was a key contributor for North Carolina as a freshman, looks poised for a breakout year as he moves into the starting spot left vacant by J.P. Tokoto, and classmate Pinson is healthy after dealing with injuries last season. Both Berry and Britt are capable contributors but they have to get better as playmakers, thus relieving some of the pressure on Paige. The one thing this group was missing a season ago was another shooter to go with Paige, and if called upon Williams has the ability to be that guy.
Irvin is working his way back to 100 percent after undergoing back surgery in early September, and his return will make Michigan’s perimeter attack one of the deepest and most talented groups in the country. LeVert was projected by some to be an All-America caliber player prior to last season, and Walton and Irvin are also players capable of earning postseason honors. Albrecht will also be a factor, with Abdur-Rahkman, Chatman and Dawkins gaining valuable experience as freshmen due to the injuries that sidelined LeVert and Walton. The “wild card” is Robinson, who sat out last season after averaging 17.1 points per game as a freshman at Division III Williams College in 2013-14.
Lon Kruger’s perimeter rotation won’t lack for experience as reigning Big 12 Player of the Year Hield and Cousins are both seniors and Woodard will be a junior. Walker played 10.6 minutes per game as a junior last season and figures to be in a similar reserve role. As for the freshmen, both James and Odomes are players who will look to earn minutes but ultimately benefit down the line from competing with (and against, in practice) the veteran guards.
Big East Co-Player of the Year Arcidiacono is back for his senior season, with Big East tournament MOP Josh Hart appearing poised to take a significant step forward as a junior. And then there are the freshmen, most notably a lead guard in Brunson who enters college as one of the best at his position. DiVincenzo and Bridges, with the latter having redshirted last season, give Villanova additional skill and athleticism on the wing and Booth gives Wright another point guard to call upon.
8. Duke (Brandon Ingram, Grayson Allen, Matt Jones, Luke Kennard, Derryck Thornton Jr.)
Allen, who stepped forward in a big way in the national title game, returns for his sophomore season and Jones gives Duke an experienced wing option who’s a solid defender and capable perimeter shooter. Given the personnel losses the three freshmen will be especially important this year, with Thornton being asked to take over at the point and Ingram being a slender wing who can score from anywhere on the court. As for Kennard, he’s good enough to see time at both guard spots, and given Duke’s numbers he’ll likely have to do just that.
9. Maryland (Melo Trimble, Jake Layman, Jared Nickens, Rasheed Sulaimon, Dion Wiley, Jaylen Brantley)
The Terrapins did lose leader Dez Wells from last season’s NCAA tournament team, but most of the perimeter rotation returns led by preseason Big Ten Player of the Year Melo Trimble. Trimble’s a handful with the ball in his hands, making sound decisions in ball screen situations and getting to the foul line at a very high rate. Layman, who took a step forward as a junior, has the potential to be even better as a senior with Nickens and Wiley looking to earn more minutes as sophomores. And the newcomers, Brantley and Sulaimon, will also contribute with the latter giving Maryland another quality perimeter shooter (and he’s a good defender too).
10. California (Tyrone Wallace, Jaylen Brown, Jabari Bird, Stephen Domingo, Jordan Mathews, Sam Singer)
Depth, which was an issue all over the court for the Golden Bears a season ago, won’t be a problem in 2015-16. Wallace, one of the nation’s top point guards, leads the way with a trio of juniors (Bird, Mathews and Singer) also having a wealth of experience. Add in two talented newcomers in Brown, who could see time at the four in smaller lineups, and Georgetown transfer Domingo and head coach Cuonzo Martin has a host of options at his disposal.
11. Virginia (Malcolm Brogdon, London Perrantes, Marial Shayok, Devon Hall, Evan Nolte, Darius Thompson)
The Cavaliers have to account for the departure of Justin Anderson on the perimeter, but it certainly helps to have veterans Brogdon and Perrantes back on campus. Brodgon was a first team All-ACC selection a season ago, and his skill on both ends of the floor merits All-America mention this season. Perrantes is a solid floor general who can do even more from a scoring standpoint. Nolte and Shayok were rotation players last season, and Hall and Thompson (who redshirted after transferring in from Tennessee) will also compete for minutes.
12. Michigan State (Denzel Valentine, Eron Harris, Tum Tum Nairn, Bryn Forbes, Matt McQuaid, Kyle Ahrens, Alvin Ellis)
This group is led by one of the nation’s most versatile players in Valentine, who can play anywhere from the one to the three depending on match-ups. Forbes should be more consistent in his second season with the program, and Nairn looks poised to step forward as the next in a long line of high-level point guards to play for Izzo. Harris is a transfer from West Virginia who many expect to hit the ground running, and Ellis will also look to solidify his spot in the rotation. As for the freshmen, they’ll look to carve out roles in what is a deep rotation.
Ryan Boatright’s moved on, but UConn’s perimeter rotation is more balanced (and deeper) than it was a season ago. Part of that is due to their additions, with the explosive Adams and experienced Gibbs joining the ranks. As for holdovers, head coach Kevin Ollie has those as well with Calhoun being a senior, Cassell and Purvis (who put together some solid outings down the stretch last season) being juniors and the versatile Hamilton (AAC Rookie of the Year) being a sophomore.
14. Kansas (Wayne Selden Jr., Frank Mason III, Svi Mykhailiuk, Devonté Graham, Brannen Greene, LaGerald Vick)
This ranking could prove to be low at season’s end, depending upon (in part) the progress made by Selden. The junior played very well at the World University Games in South Korea this summer, and if he can build on that play the Jayhawks will undoubtedly have one of the top guards in the country. Mason gives them an absolute pitbull at the point, with Graham being another player capable of running the point. And in Green, Mykhailiuk and Vick, Kansas won’t lack for depth on the wings either.
15. Florida State (Xavier Rathan-Mayes, Dwayne Bacon, Devon Bookert, Montay Brandon, Terance Mann, Malik Beasley, Benji Bell, Robbie Berwick)
While he’ll once again be one of the top guards in the ACC, Rathan-Mayes will have some much-needed help on the perimeter. Bookert and Brandon give Florida State two experienced seniors, Berwick saw solid minutes as a freshman, and their newcomers arrive on campus amidst much fanfare. Bacon may be the marquee freshman, but Beasley and Mann will also compete for minutes with junior college transfer Bell looking to do the same.