Kentucky wildcats

One player’s NBA decision will have a big impact on a UK basketball rival, and he knows it

Alabama will be a problem for Kentucky and everyone else in the SEC next season.

How big of a splash will the Crimson Tide be expected to make on the national college basketball scene? We’re about to find out.

Jaxson Robinson, the top scorer for BYU last season and a potential commit to Kentucky if he decides to return to college, will make one more decision before this week’s NBA draft deadline, which Mark Pope and the UK coaching staff will be closely watching. and just college hoops in general.

Mark Sears, an Alabama guard, has until Wednesday at 11:59 p.m. to decide whether or not to declare for the draft. He has the option to forfeit his fifth and final season of NCAA eligibility in order to remain in the draft pool. Alternatively, he might want to return to the school for one final run in Tuscaloosa.

Sears may very well drive Alabama to the top of the national rankings if he chooses the latter.

And he knows it.

The 22-year-old attended the NBA combine in Chicago alongside other draft hopefuls this month, and — as one of the players in attendance who had not made a final call on his basketball future — he was peppered with questions related to what he planned to do next.

A standout player in the SEC last season, Sears led Alabama in scoring with 21.5 points per game, ranking 11th in the US. He also assisted the Crimson Tide in making it to their first-ever Final Four before losing to eventual NCAA champion UConn in the national semifinals.

College basketball analysts anticipate that Alabama will have a similar season next year.

According to ESPN’s current top-25 rankings for the 2024–25 season, the Tide are ranked sixth nationwide. Alabama is ranked ninth in the nation by CBS Sports’ top-25 ranking. The Crimson Tide are the highest ranked SEC club in both scenarios.

Sears was asked at the combine if he knew what Bama had coming back.

“Yeah,” he responded, seemingly knowing the next question was coming.

He was then asked if he knew of all the talk saying that — if Sears were to return — the Crimson Tide might very well start the 2024-25 season as the No. 1 team in the national rankings. He grinned.

“Yeah,” Sears said.

So …

“I’m still enjoying the process, and I’m all in on this process,” Sears said. “I still haven’t made a decision.”

Two weeks later, Sears is still on the fence. Don’t expect to hear anything definitive until Wednesday night.

Oats said at an Alabama NIL event last week that Sears still has some late workouts planned with NBA teams, including one with the Milwaukee Bucks scheduled for Wednesday, so the most likely scenario is that he will take this decision as far as he possibly can in hopes of getting the feedback he wants to hear.

“Obviously, his ultimate goal is to play in the NBA,” Oats said. “We’ve told him, if he gets great feedback, then he’s gonna get a guaranteed contract. And we’re all happy and he stays in the draft. He’s already graduated college and achieves his lifelong goal to play in the NBA. If we feel like it’s more of a two-way (contract), then I think he’s gonna be back here and we try to win a national championship with him.

“So he’s in a great spot either way, and we’re in a great spot, too. “

Mark Sears helped lead Alabama to its first Final Four during the 2023-24 season.
Mark Sears helped lead Alabama to its first Final Four during the 2023-24 season.

Mark Sears’ NBA draft decision

Sears gave a pretty clear indication of what he’s looking for during the predraft process.

“Just seeing if I can get a guarantee,” he said. “Something guaranteed in the first (round) or kind of in between first to middle of the second. Only someplace that can provide a guarantee.

That seems not to be a given.

ESPN’s most recent mock draft of the NBA featured no mentions of Sears, who is now ranked as the 79th overall prospect in this year’s pool. Only 58 picks in all will be available in the 2024 draft.

Sears is also entirely absent from The Athletic’s most recent mock draft. Sears is projected by The Ringer’s most recent draft list to be selected by the Bucks with the 33rd overall pick; ironically, it is the same team that will host him for his last workout on deadline day.

There’s no questioning Sears’ talent on the basketball court. He was the second-leading scorer in the SEC — behind only Tennessee’s Dalton Knecht, a projected lottery pick and the league’s player of the year last season — and only three players in the conference scored more than 20 points a night on average. (The other was Antonio Reeves from the UK.)

In addition, Sears averaged 4.2 rebounds, 4.0 assists, and 1.6 steals per game while making 95 3-pointers at a rate of 43.6%.

And there was all the winning, of course.

Following his freshman and sophomore seasons at Ohio, Sears transferred to Alabama, where he finished as the team’s second-leading scorer in his first season. This helped the Tide win the SEC regular season and tournament crowns, as well as the top seed in the NCAA Tournament. He was the team’s obvious leader during the previous season, which saw Alabama win its first Final Four trophy and become the first SEC program in five years.

NBA scouts want to see if Sears’ size will allow him to play at that level.

He stood 5 feet 10 inches (without shoes) tall at the combine, with a wingspan of 6-2 and a standing reach of 7-8. His stats were the lowest in all three categories, with 77 NBA draft prospects present.

Sears did bring to Jordan Brunson’s recent success in the NBA as proof that front-office decision-makers should take a risk on him and as a reason to believe he may fit in well in the league.

Former Villanova standout Brunson has emerged as a true star for the New York Knicks, helping them reach the Eastern Conference playoffs this season and being named to the All-NBA second team, which ranks him among the league’s top 10 players.

“I’d say his success definitely helps what I do,” Sears said. “Kind of similar player types coming out of college — something of a like build, thus I would say that his current success is undoubtedly benefiting me.

The draft prospect further mentioned that Brunson just contacted Sears to offer words of support.

But the size comparisons aren’t precisely the same. During the combine, Brunson measured 6-1 without shoes, about three inches taller than Sears. In the speed and agility drills of the combine, he outperformed Sears and had a 2-inch longer wingspan. (It is worth mentioning that Sears managed to outjump Brunson by two inches, showcasing a 39-inch vertical that was tied for 12th place in the combine alongside the impressive Knecht.)

Brunson was selected with the No. 33 overall pick in the 2018 draft.

 SEC basketball outlook for 2024-25

Sears expressed pride in helping Alabama reach its first Final Four this past season, but he said he felt no pressure related to his decision and its impact on a possible No. 1 preseason ranking for the program.

“I’m not really feeling it,” However, I believe that to be a luxury to feel that way. And just evidence that the effort I put forth is being appreciated,” he remarked. Therefore, I don’t really see it as pressure. I simply go out there and do out my duties.

In the event that he decides to pursue the NBA, the Tide will undoubtedly still be a dangerous team without him. In the conference, they’ll face a lot of formidable competition.

According to ESPN and CBS Sports, Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, Tennessee, and Texas A&M are all ranked in the top 25, and depending on how Pope completes his roster reconstruction, Kentucky might move up into those rankings. (UK will play two games during the regular season.)

Kansas and Houston are 1-2 nationally, in that order, on both top-25 lists, with two-time defending NCAA champion UConn ranked No. 4 by CBS Sports and No. 7 by ESPN.

Sears would be the logical choice as SEC’s preseason player of the year and a probable All-America candidate if he chooses to return. He was good in his first season with the Tide, but he was even better in year two.

“Just already having a year and knowing what to expect coming into the season. That’s really it,” he said of that jump. “The preparation I had my first year — it really prepared me for my second year. Because I knew what type of punch was going to be thrown at me, and just being able to get better and take my game to another level also really helped me a lot.”

After Alabama’s tremendously successful 2022–23 season, Oats and Sears worked together to virtually rebuild the program a year ago, with several assistant coaches and the majority of the team’s important players departing.

With eight new scholarship players joining on, Tuscaloosa has seen yet another busy offseason. This group comprises the nation’s No. 2 high school recruiting class, as well as highly anticipated transfers Clifford Omoruyi (Rutgers), Chris Youngblood (South Florida), and former Auburn guard Aden Holloway, who was named a McDonald’s All-American last season.

Freshman forward Jarin Stevenson’s NBA draft choice is still pending for Alabama, but two important members of the team that made it to the Final Four the previous year, Grant Nelson and Latrell Wrightsell Jr., have already declared their intention to play again.

Nelson spent three previous seasons at North Dakota State and was Bama’s top rebounder, shot-blocker and third-leading scorer, who has shown great performance versus North Carolina and UConn in the NCAA Tournament.

After three seasons at Cal State Fullerton, Wrightsell battled injuries but, as the analytical Oats pointed out, finished as one of the nation’s most efficient players last season and was a vital member of the Tide defense when healthy.

“Those two individuals are adept at using our system. They were present, according to Oats. “And you see the leaps that these guys make in our system from year one to year two— hopefully, they both make significant leaps.” ..

“We have a chance to go win a national championship with our returning team.”

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