- Duke's superstar is not the only player whose impending return—from injury or suspension—could play a pivotal role once the tournament tips off. Plus, Kerry Blackshear Jr. opens up on his cooking prowess, conference tournament action heats up and the rest of the season's final Midweek Rebound.
The (regular) season of Zion wrapped up fittingly, with the biggest question of this March so far being when Zion Williamson would suit up again for Duke. With Williamson idle since his shoe-induced knee sprain against North Carolina on Feb. 20, the Blue Devils have gone 3–3 over their last six games, slipping from No. 1 to No. 5 in the AP poll and finishing in third place in the ACC. While none of those three defeats—two against a Tar Heels team with legit Final Four hopes, and one at No. 16 Virginia Tech—is particularly bad, it’s clear that Duke is not the same dominant force without the country’s best player, whose box plus/minus is 13% higher than the previous best season (Anthony Davis, in 2011–12) since the advanced stat was first kept in 2010.
Williamson is expected back during this week’s ACC tournament, a significant boon to Duke’s prospects to cut down the nets at both that event and April’s national championship in Minneapolis. With him in the fold, the Blue Devils have a matchup-shattering force whose presence will ... well, what else is there to say? Zion is Zion, so Duke should be Duke again, presumed favorites on every floor it takes.
But Williamson is not the only player whose return will or might be pivotal this postseason. For this season’s final installment of the Midweek Rebound, here are 10 more players whose return to action could shape this March.
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga
The 6'10" junior was expected to be one of the Bulldogs’ top returnees this season but missed their first 15 games with an ankle injury before returning in January. He was working back into the rotation as a reserve when he tore a ligament in his foot on Feb. 7, which kept him out until Monday’s WCC semifinal against Pepperdine, when he returned to score nine points and grabbed six rebounds in 15 minutes. Although he couldn’t help prevent Tuesday’s shocking loss to Saint Mary’s, Tillie makes Gonzaga’s front line that much more difficult to combat.
Reid Travis, Kentucky
The Wildcats’ lone upperclassman last played in a Feb. 19 win over Missouri, when he sprained his right knee, but coach John Calipari said Travis could return in a limited role for the SEC tournament. A 6'8", 268-pounder, Travis has been Kentucky’s most productive offensive rebounder (2.6 per game) and a solid secondary scoring option (11.3 points per game), which the team has been missing with freshman E.J. Montgomery playing extended minutes in his stead.
Nick Ward, Michigan State
The Spartans’ go-to scorer inside has not played since undergoing surgery on his left hand last month, but coach Tom Izzo said he expects Ward to suit up for the Big Ten tournament. How much is uncertain: Izzo said that Ward, who already averaged a modest 23.2 minutes per game, may not be in his best shape right away after the layoff. For a team that has struggled with attrition for much of this season, just having him at all will be a boost.
Charles Matthews, Michigan
The Wolverines’ starting wing dressed and warmed up before their loss at Michigan State on Saturday, which would have been his first action since the teams’ first meeting on Feb. 24. For a team that will go as far as its defense carries it this March, getting Matthews—the kind of stopper coach John Beilein has sicced on top options like Indiana’s Romeo Langford—back up to speed will be an essential component of any Final Four return.
Naz Reid and Javonte Smart, LSU
Suddenly the most tumultuous team among top contenders, the Tigers were without two of their best players for Saturday’s SEC-clinching win, with Reid kept out due to an undisclosed injury and Smart held out due to eligibility concerns stemming from the same wiretapped phone call that resulted in head coach Will Wade’s indefinite suspension. Reid, a top-20 recruit who leads the team in rebounding (6.9 per game) and is third in scoring (13.3 ppg) as a freshman, has already been cleared to return for the SEC tournament. The status of his classmate Smart remains uncertain, though he has been practicing with the team.
Austin Wiley, Auburn
Over the last two months, Wiley has played just 46 minutes spread out over six games due to a “lower leg injury” that has sidelined him completely for the Tigers’ last four outings. Auburn won all four of those games to close the season in fourth place in the SEC, but only by an average of 4.5 points. The 6'10" Wiley, a reserve whose rebounding rates would put him in the top-50 range nationally on both ends had he played enough minutes to qualify, is also the best shot-blocker on a team that excels in that area.
Justin Robinson, Virginia Tech
Hokies coach Buzz Williams orchestrated a nice moment for Robinson’s last game in Blacksburg, putting him on the floor to start the game for a tip-off that was sent deliberately out of bounds. But Robinson, who had the highest assist rate (34.6%) in the ACC this season, has not seen any real action since Jan. 30 and has already been ruled out for the conference tournament. While Hokies have gone a respectable 6–4 in his absence, getting their point guard back would raise their tournament upside significantly. But right now, the odds look long.
Kaleb Wesson, Ohio State
The Buckeyes will be looking to burnish their iffy at-large résumé this week while welcoming back Wesson, their leading scorer (14.6 ppg) and rebounder (6.7 rpg), from a three-game suspension for what was said to be a violation of athletic department policy. Having lost all three games in Wesson’s absence—including a blowout loss at last-place Northwestern—Ohio State could certainly use the return to full strength.
Kerwin Roach, Texas
Similarly, the Longhorns are in must-win mode after finishing the regular season 16–15, including a 6–11 mark in their last 17 games. Roach, their leading scorer (14.4 ppg), has missed the last five of those—four of them losses—after being suspended, but will return for the Big 12 quarterfinal against Kansas, with which Texas split its season series. A loss would drop the Longhorns to .500 and reduce them to spectators of the Madness.
If you are wondering what exactly you are reading, this is the Midweek Rebound, SI.com’s weekly Wednesday column on college hoops. If there’s anything you like or dislike or would want to see more of here, or if you would just like to send me food and coffee recommendations for Columbus, Ohio, you can find me on Twitter @thedangreene. Thanks for reading.
One of the past week’s most significant moments—at least in terms of what it may signify—took place in the moments after Arizona’s home loss to Arizona State on Saturday, when Wildcats coach Sean Miller addressed the fans. “There’s no place that’s more magical than McKale Center,” Miller said, appearing to become emotional. “There's no fans that are more loyal. It has been an amazing honor to coach in McKale Center for the last 10 years. Thank you for everything.”
The reflective tone of Miller’s comments set off alarm bells around college hoops. After all, Miller has been in increasingly hot water since the FBI’s investigation into college basketball recruiting was made public in 2017. Arizona assistant Emmanuel “Book” Richardson was among those initially indicted (he has since pleaded guilty to bribery), and Yahoo! Sports recently reported that Miller will be subpoenaed for an April trial stemming from the investigation; two of Miller’s other assistants have also been tied to scandals in recent months. Thus many interpreted Miller’s words on Saturday as being a sort of veiled farewell in preparation for an expected departure.
Miller denied as much on Monday, telling reporters that “it certainly wasn’t a goodbye speech,” attributing his sentiments to the support the fans had shown through the Wildcats’ struggles this year. “It’s still not the time to talk about our future,” Miller added. It will surely be a hot topic of conversation soon.
On the loosely related subject of amateurism in college athletics, read this thorough and informative story from SI’s Andy Staples on the bill being introduced to Congress by North Carolina Rep. Mark Walker that could open the door to athletes being allowed to receive outside earnings based on their image and likeness.
1. Wofford: The Terriers followed an 18–0 regular season in the SoCon with a three-win run to the conference’s tournament title. How might Wofford be seeded? The general consensus is a 7, but given its No. 13 overall ranking in the newfangled NET rankings being used this year and its No. 18 spot on KenPom, could that be an underestimation?
2. Murray State: Ja Morant is going dancing. The Racers made their second straight NCAA tournament by beating Belmont, another potential tourney squad. Next up: reaching the second round for the first time since 2012, a real possibility given that they should have the best player on the floor regardless of opponent.
3. Liberty: The Flames took the rubber match with Lipscomb to claim the Atlantic Sun’s automatic bid. Junior center Scottie James is averaging 18.8 points since the calendar turned to March and ranks ninth nationally in offensive rebounding rate, at 15.6%.
4. Iona: Tim Cluess is taking his fast-paced, three-loving Gaels to the tournament for the fourth straight time after claiming yet another MAAC title. The names to know: guard Rickey McGill and forward E.J. Crawford, both all-MAAC first-teamers.
5. Bradley: After felling 2018 March darlings Loyola Chicago in the Missouri Valley semifinals, the Braves claimed the league’s tournament bid by edging Northern Iowa in a wild second-half comeback befitting a team that began league play 0–5.
Top of the Classes
Senior: Larry Austin, Central Michigan guard
In a pair of wins over Western Michigan, the former Xavier and Vanderbilt transfer first went for 20 points, nine assists, five rebounds and five steals, then followed that with 24/9/13/4 to move the Chippewas into the MAC quarterfinals.
Junior: Tres Tinkle, Oregon State forward
A pair of double-doubles across which Tinkle averaged 28.5 points, 11.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 2.5 steals helped the Beavers split their two-game swing into Washington to enter the Pac-12 tournament as the No. 4 seed.
Sophomore: Ja Morant, Murray State guard
The star guard averaged 32.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 5.5 assists in two Ohio Valley tournament wins to secure the Racers an NCAA tournament bid and the national showcase his talents deserve.
Freshman: Lamine Diane, Cal State Northridge forward
The highest-usage player in the country closed his freshman regular season by averaging 33.5 points, 15.5 rebounds, 1.5 steals, and 1.5 blocks across a pair of losses to UC-Santa Barbara and UC-Irvine.
Bests of the Best
Each week, we’ll get to know one of the country’s best players a little better by asking them what they consider to be the best in various subjects. This week we welcome Virginia Tech forward Kerry Blackshear Jr., who is averaging 14.5 points and 7.2 rebounds for the No. 16 Hokies. So, Kerry, tell us about the best...
...superpower to have. “As a kid I liked Batman, so I didn’t really care for powers. If I had to pick one, to turn into the Hulk would be nice. I’m pretty laid-back, so it would be nice to have that as my alter ego. I’d probably score a lot more, get a lot more boards.”
...meal you can make. “I can do everything. I like making tacos, normally beef. Shrimp tacos are good. I like having them with avocado—I love avocado. And gotta add hot sauce to everything. And I like making shrimp alfredo. [I learned that from] my mom. I was the oldest, so I would just be there helping her out all the time.”
...placed you lived growing up, while your father was playing basketball professionally overseas. “I really loved Spain—the culture, the basketball, the food. I miss the parks. Maybe it’s a generational thing, but I feel like kids went to the park a lot more over there. But maybe that’s just me getting old. I used to love going to the park with my dad. We’d play soccer or go running with my brother.”
Social Media Post of the Week
One to Watch
The SEC tournament, beginning Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET on the SEC Network
Tennessee and Kentucky traded blowout wins on their own court, only for LSU to surge ahead of both of them and win the league’s regular season title... with its head coach suspended and a starter being held out of action due to eligibility concerns stemming from an FBI wiretap. If that’s not enough potential intrigue, the SEC also offers three more top-30 KenPom teams (Auburn, Mississippi State and Florida) who could add some chaos to the proceedings. Things should be plenty interesting in Nashville.