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.

While Mark Pope and the UK coaching staff will be closely monitoring the final stay-or-go call from Jaxson Robinson — BYU’s leading scorer last season and a candidate to commit to Kentucky if he does return to college — another decision ahead of this week’s NBA draft deadline looms large for the SEC. And college basketball, in general.

Alabama guard Mark Sears has until 11:59 p.m. Wednesday to make a final call on his draft status. He could choose to stay in the draft pool and forgo his fifth and final season of NCAA eligibility. Or he could decide to come back to school for one more run in Tuscaloosa.

If he picks the latter, Sears might very well push Bama to the top of the national rankings.

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.

Sears was one of the best players in the SEC last season, leading Alabama in scoring with 21.5 points per game — 11th-best nationally in that stat — and helping the Crimson Tide reach their first Final Four in school history before falling to eventual NCAA champion UConn in the national semifinals.

College basketball pundits are expecting similar success for Bama next season.

ESPN has the Tide at No. 6 nationally in its current top-25 rankings for the 2024-25 campaign. CBS Sports ranks Alabama at No. 9 in the country on its top-25 list. In both cases, the Crimson Tide are the top-rated team from the SEC.

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 early second to mid second. Just somewhere that can say a guarantee.”

That doesn’t appear to be a given.

Sears wasn’t mentioned at all in the most recent NBA mock draft from ESPN, and that website currently ranks him as the No. 79 overall prospect in this year’s pool. There will be only 58 total picks in the 2024 draft.

The newest mock draft from The Athletic also leaves Sears out of the picture completely. Meanwhile, the latest draft list from The Ringer projects Sears as the No. 33 overall pick to the Bucks, the team that — perhaps not coincidentally — will host him for that final 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 was one of only three players in the conference to average more than 20 points per game. (UK’s Antonio Reeves was the other.)

Sears also made 95 3-pointers at a 43.6% rate and averaged 4.2 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.6 steals per game.

And, of course, there was all the winning.

After playing at Ohio as a freshman and sophomore, Sears transferred to Alabama and ended up as the team’s second-leading scorer in year one, helping the Tide sweep the SEC regular season and tournament titles and earn the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. This past season, he was the clear leader on a team that brought Alabama its first Final Four banner, becoming the first SEC program in five years to make it that far in the postseason.

The question for NBA scouts is whether Sears’ size will play at that level.

At the combine, he measured at 5-foot-10¼ (without shoes) with a 6-2 wingspan and 7-8 standing reach. With 77 NBA draft prospects in attendance, his measurements were the lowest in all three categories.

Sears did mention the recent NBA success of Jalen Brunson as a reason to think he could transition well to the league (and evidence that front-office decision-makers should take a chance on him).

Brunson, a former college standout at Villanova, has developed into a bonafide star with the New York Knicks, leading them to the Eastern Conference semifinals this year and earning All-NBA second-team honors — signifying he was one of the top 10 players in the NBA.

“I’d say his success definitely helps what I do,” Sears said. “Kind of similar player types coming out of college — kind of a similar build — so I’d say, definitely, his success he’s having now is helping me out.”

Brunson reached out to Sears recently to offer words of encouragement, the draft hopeful added.

The size comparisons aren’t exactly the same, however. Brunson measured 6-1 without shoes — nearly 3 inches taller than Sears — when he went through the combine process. His wingspan was also 2 inches longer, and he had better numbers than Sears in the combine’s speed and agility drills. (Sears, it should be noted, did outjump Brunson by 2 inches, showing off a 39-inch vertical that tied for 12th-best at the combine with the high-flying Knecht.)

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

Alabama coach Nate Oats, right, looks on as star player Mark Sears speaks to reporters during a press conference at the Final Four.
Alabama coach Nate Oats, right, looks on as star player Mark Sears speaks to reporters during a press conference at the Final Four.

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 don’t really feel it. But I’d say it’s a privilege to have that type of feeling. And just a testament that the work I put in is being recognized,” he said. “So I really don’t look at it as pressure. I just go out there and do what I do.”

The Tide will obviously still be a formidable bunch without him, if he chooses the NBA path. They’ll have plenty of potentially elite competition within the conference.

Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, Tennessee and Texas A&M are all on the latest top-25 lists from ESPN and CBS Sports, and it’s possible that Kentucky could work its way into those rankings depending on how Pope finishes off his roster rebuild. (UK will play two regular season games against Alabama as part of the 2024-25 league schedule.)

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.”

Oats and Sears went through a near-total rebuild of the program together a year ago, with most of Bama’s key players and several assistant coaches leaving after their wildly successful 2022-23 campaign.

It’s been another hectic offseason in Tuscaloosa, with eight scholarship newcomers signing on. That group includes highly touted transfers Clifford Omoruyi (Rutgers), Chris Youngblood (South Florida) and ex-Auburn guard Aden Holloway, a McDonald’s All-American last year, plus the nation’s No. 2 high school recruiting class.

Alabama is also awaiting an NBA draft decision from freshman forward Jarin Stevenson, but two key players from last season’s Final Four team — Grant Nelson and Latrell Wrightsell Jr. — have already confirmed that they will return.

Nelson spent three previous seasons at North Dakota State and was Bama’s top rebounder, shot-blocker and third-leading scorer — coming up huge in NCAA Tournament games against North Carolina and UConn.

Wrightsell, who spent three seasons at Cal State Fullerton, struggled with injuries but — as the analytically minded Oats noted — graded as one of the most efficient players in the country last season and was one of the Tide’s key defenders when healthy.

“Both those guys know how to play in our system. They’ve been in it,” Oats said. “And you look at the jumps guys make from year one to year two in our system — hopefully they both make big jumps. …

“We’ve got a chance to go win a national championship with the team we’ve got coming back.”

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