Those who returned made right choice
Last June, Providence coach Tim Welsh was shadowing junior forward Ryan Gomes outside the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.
The two were beaming.
Gomes was heading back to Providence. He was leaving the pre-draft camp, ready to withdraw from the NBA Draft process and return to school for his senior season.
He said there was more for him to learn, to grow as a player and certainly plenty more to do with the Friars.
Gomes was penciled in as a second-round pick then. He's on a similar bubble now.
So, did he make the right call? It's hard to say.
This season hasn't gone the way he projected. Gomes came back to a team in transition. Gone unexpectedly from the squad was Rob Sanders, who was supposed to be his running mate. That created a hole, leaving the Friars inexperienced in key spots.
Sure, Donnie McGrath was the returning point guard and the Friars had a potential star wing in Dwight Brewington and a solid role player in Tuukka Kotti, but the rest of the crew was inexperienced.
Still, no one thought the Friars would be winless in the Big East come February.
"I thought I would get better as a player, and hopefully lead this team back to the NCAA Tournament," Gomes said. "That was my goal. I knew it was going to be hard, but I knew we had a lot of freshmen. I knew it could be a tough year but I didn't know it was going to go this bad so far -- seven losses in the Big East."
The Friars stopped the bleeding with a win over ACC cellar dweller Virginia, but that doesn't mean the Big East woes are done.
"We lost to BC twice, we've lost games we should have won, but those teams have veterans that we don't," Gomes said. "We're losing in single digits, except to Pittsburgh. We're right there, but it's tough losing."
So, did he make the right call? Is Gomes a better player for coming back?
"I think I am," said Gomes, whose scoring is up from 18.9 to 20 points a game, but his rebounds are down one a game from a year ago. "It might not show it as much since we're not getting the wins."
The Providence staff has insisted that Gomes be more aggressive. They want him to be selfish. But when he took 20 shots at Pittsburgh, he only made seven of them. He took only 12 shots against Virginia and made eight, scoring nearly as many points (24 in the loss to Pittsburgh and 20 in the Virginia win).
Nonetheless, Welsh seems to think Gomes made a solid choice.
"He set his own standards of where he wanted to be in the draft and when he wasn't at that point, we knew he was coming back," Welsh said. "He's leading the league in scoring and we've got to give him some more help. We just have to win some of these close games. We could have won six of them, but haven't won any of them."
Gomes isn't too worried about the losses hurting his draft stock.
"Maybe it's hindering me now, but regardless of what's happening, I'll go work out for teams in the spring," Gomes said. "I might do something they really like and they would forget the past season."
But don't think for a second Gomes is giving up on this year. The youth and porous defense is a concern, but the win over Virginia has given the Friars hope.
In Gomes' mind, if the Friars could lose their first seven Big East games, then why can't they win their final nine?
"It's a new month," Gomes said. "We're 1-0 in the month of February. Our goal is to go undefeated. We've still got nine left and we could win them all."
It won't be easy. The Friars are at Villanova on Saturday and then go to West Virginia next week. They still have home games against Rutgers, Connecticut, Notre Dame and road games at Seton Hall and Syracuse this month. They close the regular season with St. John's and a road game at Georgetown the first week of March.
"Normally that's an outrageous statement [to say Providence could win the last nine]," Welsh said. "But the only team that outplayed us was Pittsburgh. But we have to finish games and solve that part of it. It's not like it was luck. We had some bad breaks. Two of the six close games Donnie didn't play [illness and injuries].
"Normally you would say of a team that is 0-7 that it's a bad team, but that's not us. We won at Memphis, San Diego State and beat Michigan in New York. Our schedule strength is strong, but the league is the league and you've got to take care of business in the league. If Ryan is believing that, that's a good sign."
Gomes is not the only underclassmanwas to have attended the Chicago pre-draft camp, and then withdraw from the NBA Draft. Six others followed that path and not one of them made a poor decision.
Here is a snapshot at what the others are doing:
Lawrence Roberts, Mississippi State
Roberts is the reigning SEC player of the year. He said he doesn't regret his decision to return for his senior season. He was a second-round pick last June and he still might be one again.
But Roberts hasn't had an easy go this season.
His year started off with the NCAA looking into how and when he paid for a workout in Portland. He ended up being suspended for the first game of the season. He then broke his nose and missed the second one. His first game was in New York for the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic.
Roberts' numbers are better (rising from 16 to 18 points and 10 to 11 rebounds a game) but the Bulldogs have hit an inconsistent stretch since losing Winsome Frazier for the season. Mississippi State is 3-3 without Frazier, including a brutal 98-49 loss at Alabama.
"We're still learning how to battle and how hard it is to get wins," Roberts said. "We weren't ready to play [at Alabama]. I don't doubt my decision. Once I make one, I stand behind it."
Brandon Bass, LSU
Bass had a shot to get into the late first round if he had stayed in the draft. He's probably in the same boat a year later.
Bass had offseason knee injury that slowed him at the beginning of the season. But the Tigers are now hot and so is Bass in the SEC. He scored 26 and 21 points in the Tigers' last two games, wins at Georgia and over Mississippi State.
For the season, he's averaging 17.4 points (up from 12.8 a year ago) and 8.7 rebounds (up from 7.4). His field goal, free throw and 3-point percentages have all increased. His stock is higher and he's helping the Tigers win more games and possibly get an NCAA bid.
Nate Robinson, Washington
Robinson has the Huskies in position to contend for another Pac-10 title and a possible deep run in the NCAA Tournament. So, what's wrong with this decision? Nothing. Robinson was fringe first-round in June and he's got a chance to be a lock in the first if he enters after this season.
His scoring is up three points to 16 a game, his assists have almost doubled (to 5.2 a game) and his rebounds are up a tad, too. His 3-point shooting (up to 40 percent) and his overall field goal (47 percent this year) have also improved. His leadership is stronger and he's playing with even more purpose, control and passion.
Dijon Thompson, UCLA
Thompson hit the game-winning shot to beat Washington State Thursday night in overtime. He also made a 3-pointer at the buzzer to send the game into overtime in Pullman. Do you think it was a good move for the Bruins for him to return for his senior season? Uh, yeah.
Thompson has been the leader the Bruins needed on a freshmen-laden team. Ben Howland desperately needed someone like Thompson to serve as a mentor for this group. His points are up from 14 to 17 a game and his rebounds have doubled to 8 a game. His shooting is up a few percentage points, too.
His stock might be similar (second round), but he's having more of a say in the outcome of the Bruins. He's got a chance to get to the NCAA Tournament, something that didn't occur his previous two seasons. Isn't that worth returning to?
Martin Iti, Charlotte
Iti had no shot to get into the first round but he also was rumored to be heading to a JC instead of Charlotte. He made the right call in returning to Charlotte. He hasn't dominated, but he has been a presence for the surging 49ers.
Iti is playing more minutes and is more of a defensive factor than he was a year ago. His numbers are almost similar (from 6.0 to 6.8 points and 4.7 to 4.9 rebounds a game), but Bobby Lutz needed him to be a buffer next to Curtis Withers. Iti has served his role well. Another year of experience might not have mattered for the draft, but he is helping Charlotte and at least that's something positive for him.
Deng Gai, Fairfield
Fairfield isn't going to the NCAA Tournament unless it wins the MAAC tournament. Gai might not get drafted, but he's still making progress, havng increased his scoring (13 to 14), maintaining his board work (around 8.5 a game) and shooting at a much higher percentage (from 41.2 to 46.4 percent).
He's still too inconsistent, like when he followed up a 19-point effort at Iona with three points at Manhattan, but it would have been foolish to stay in the draft last June.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His Weekly Word on college basketball is updated Fridays throughout the year.
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