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Kemba’s the MVP, but UConn wouldn’t be here without Jeremy Lamb

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Kemba Walker is, and forever will be, this UConn team’s star.

That’s what happens when you throw a talented group of rugrats on your back and carry them to a Maui Invitational title, a Big East tournament title, and, after Saturday night’s 65-63 win over Arizona, a trip to the Final Four. That’s what happens when you have a player-of-the-year kind of season and turn a team that wasn’t supposed to contend in conference play into a national title contender. UConn is 12-0 in tournament play — 3-0 in the Maui, 5-0 in the Big East, and now 4-0 in the NCAAs — and Kemba has averaged 27.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 5.0 assists in those games.

That’s how you become a star. That’s how you become a hero. That’s how you turn yourself into a top-10 pick.

And while Kemba hasn’t exactly disappointed these past two games, it has been Jeremy Lamb — the long-armed Robin to Kemba’s Batman — that put UConn into the Final Four.

Against San Diego State, Kemba had 34 points and took over the game down the stretch. He scored all 12 points in a 12-2 run that turned a 54-53 deficit into a 65-56 lead with just over four minutes left. But San Diego State scored the next eight points, cutting UConn’s lead to just one with 1:39 left.

That’s when Lamb stepped up.

The freshman drilled a 3-pointer to stop the Aztecs’ run and, with just 30 seconds left, made a steal that led to a dunk, giving UConn a 70-64 lead and sealing the win. Lamb finished with 26 points on 9-of-11 shooting.

Against Arizona, Lamb played just as big of a role down the stretch. Kemba was struggling in the second half, as Arizona was running two or three guys at him when he would try to penetrate. The space wasn’t there, so coach Jim Calhoun used him almost as a decoy, running off of screens and setting up Lamb along the baseline. And the youngster responded, finishing with 12 of his 19 points in the second half.

It wasn’t just the points he scored, however. It was when he scored them.

UConn had opened up a 50-41 lead midway through the second half Saturday, but Arizona came back, using a 14-2 run capped by back-to-back emphatic dunks from Derrick Williams and Jesse Perry to take a 55-52 lead.

Lamb responded. He made consecutive baseline jumpers to give UConn the lead again. After Alex Oriakhi and Kemba both scored, it was Lamb who stole a Derrick Williams pass and went the distance for a dunk, capping a 10-0 run that put UConn firmly in control.

This isn’t a surprise. Lamb has always had this kind of talent. He’s a slender (that’s putting it kindly) 6-feet-5 with the wingspan of a 747. He’s a smooth slasher with a charmin-soft floater. He’s terrific at avoiding charges. He’s an excellent shooter in the mid-range, fundamentally sound coming off of screens, and has a 3-point stroke that could develop into something deadly. He’s the second-coming of Rip Hamilton.

Lamb’s issue was assertiveness. He’s passive by nature, and too often early in the season he opted to defer to Kemba or, well, anyone else on the roster. That passivity that disappeared in March, however, as Lamb has been a monster the past nine games, averaging 16.0 points in the Big East and NCAA tournaments.

He has the tools and he’s showing the ability to step up and perform when the lights are brightest. He has star written all over him.

The problem?

It’s only so long before the NBA notices.

Lamb has a ways to go before he’s able to contribute at the next level. But with his skill set, his physical tools, and his performance in March, all Lamb needs to do is convince one general manager he’s worth a first-round pick.

Whether or not he decides to leave is beside the point.

UConn is headed to the Final Four. Kemba Walker is the reason why.

But the Huskies wouldn’t still be playing if it wasn’t for Jeremy Lamb.

N.C. State’s Dennis Smith Jr. fully recovered, ready to go

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) Dennis Smith Jr. sure looks ready.

North Carolina State’s prized freshman point guard is pushing through a workout in the practice gym on a hot July afternoon, and there’s no sign of the knee injury that defined his past year.

He’s sprinting along the baseline to bury a catch-and-shoot corner 3-pointer. He’s dribbling between chairs and stutter-stepping his way to a pull-up jumper. He’s launching himself at the rim for a dunk off the dribble.

“I don’t expect to be rusty at all,” Smith said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I was feeling kind of nervous at one point, but I went in and did a workout and then I was thinking, `I’m putting in all this work so all the nervousness should be out of my mind.’ I had no reason to be timid.

“I just have to go out there and perform, no excuses.”

A lot has happened for Smith in 12 months. The Fayetteville native suffered a torn left anterior cruciate ligament in a game during the Adidas Nations event featuring top prospects. He had surgery, picked N.C. State, graduated from high school early and enrolled in college in January to rehab and learn the Wolfpack’s system before his debut later this year.

Tuesday marks one year since the injury for the 6-foot-3 Smith, ranked by ESPN as the nation’s No. 1 point guard when he signed last fall.

“We’ve tried to be real conservative with him as far as not letting him do too much too fast,” coach Mark Gottfried said. “At his age, he can’t wait. He’s dying to play every day.”

Smith started earning his leadership role as soon as he arrived in Raleigh, pointing out instructions to teammates or calling them to the gym for extra work even though he couldn’t play. He figures that time observing from the sideline has prepared him to replace high-scoring floor leader Anthony “Cat” Barber.

“I feel like I’ve gotten smarter, definitely,” Smith said. “I see the game totally different now. I read pick-and-roll easier. I feel like I’ve gotten more sound on defense because I understand angles better.”

The physical work to get back has been tougher.

Roughly a year ago, Smith was lying in a bed after surgery trying to stay positive. He asked trainer Ja-Rell Bailey to bring him some free weights for upper-body exercises even if he couldn’t do much else, an example of why Bailey described Smith as “a man determined.”

Smith’s father said the rehab emphasized building leg strength to protect and stabilize the injured knee, something his son said he will keep doing in both legs for years to come. Smith’s work has helped him go from 180 pounds to a college-ready 192-pound frame.

“He’s got his bounce back, so he can dunk and everything,” Dennis Smith Sr. said. “But what Junior has got, God gave it to him. . A lot of times you run into kids who are built off of hype because they do a fancy move or have a good game. Junior ain’t hype. He’s the real deal.”

Regardless, Gottfried expects Smith to have “a learning curve.”

“For me,” he said, “I think what you see in November is going to be much different than what you see in January.”

The Wolfpack will look much different, too, after missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time in five seasons. N.C. State welcomes Scout.com’s No. 6-ranked recruiting class that includes five-star Turkish big man Omer Yurtseven. Senior guard Terry Henderson returns from an ankle injury that sidelined him 7 minutes into last season. Charlotte transfer and former Conference USA freshman of the year Torin Dorn Jr. will play after sitting out last year.

Still, Smith is the guy stirring the most buzz for Wolfpack fans – something he has no trouble embracing.

“I really don’t feel that pressure though,” Smith said. “I feel like if you come in and you expect to play well, then you should have those expectations of people talking. It’s just playing basketball to me. I’ve been doing it my whole life.”

Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap and the AP’s college basketball site at http://collegebasketball.ap.org

Washington lands commitment from Mamoudou Diarra

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For the second time this summer, Washington has landed a commitment from a forward in the Class of 2017.

On Friday, it was Mamoudou Diarra that pledged his future to Lorenzo Romar. Diarra is a 6-foot-8 combo-forward that is currently unranked by Rivals but was targeted by a number high major program.

Washington landed a commitment from Michael Porter Jr. earlier this summer, and given Porter’s standing as the potential No. 1 player in the class, the Huskies will be in the mix for the best crop of freshmen in the country in 2017-18. Romar has also landed commitments from four-star guard Jaylen Nowell and three-star guard Blake Harris.

RELATED: How the Michael Porter Package Deal came to fruition

Diarra played his high school basketball in St. Louis.

Xavier lands second top 100 commitment in 2017

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Xavier landed a key commitment on Friday morning in Naji Marshall, one of the Musketeers’ top targets in the Class of 2017.

Marshall is a la 6-foot-5 wing from Washington D.C. that is currently ranked 62nd in the 2017 class by Rivals. He’s a scorer that has shown off a versatile offensive game, averaging better than three assists on the Under Armour Association circuit.

This is the third commitment from head coach Chris Mack in the class and the second top 100 player to pledge to the Musketeers. Marshall picked Xavier over Pittsburgh, South Carolina, Rhode Island and Virginia Tech, among other.

Four-star 2018 guard Coby White commits to North Carolina

North Carolina coach Roy Williams, center, reacts with his team behind him after a play during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament against Pittsburgh, Thursday, March 10, 2016, in Washington. North Carolina won 88-71. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
AP Photo/Alex Brandon
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With guards Jalek Felton and Andrew Platek having committed in their 2017 recruiting class, North Carolina received a commitment from one of the better guards in the Class of 2018 Thursday night. Four-star guard Coby White, who’s ranked 61st in his class by Rivals.com, made his pledge to Roy Williams’ program. News of White’s commitment was first reported by Scout.com.

The 6-foot-4 White is a native of Wilson, North Carolina, where he attends Greenfield HS, and he played his grassroots basketball for the CP3 16U basketball program this summer. His commitment to UNC comes just a couple days after the ACC school offered him a scholarship.

White took an unofficial visit to UNC in June, and his play in July ultimately led to the program making the aforementioned scholarship offer. By the time White enrolls in Chapel Hill, current veterans such as Joel Berry II and Nate Britt will be out of eligibility. Among the perimeter would could potentially be on campus in 2018 are freshmen Seventh Woods and Brandon Robinson, and sophomore Kenny Williams.

White is the second commit in the 2018 class for the Tar Heels, with 6-foot-7 guard Rechon Black being the first.

Point guard Small to transfer from Oregon

SPOKANE, WA - MARCH 18:  Kendall Small #21 of the Oregon Ducks shoots over Derek Mountain #40 of the Holy Cross Crusaders in the second half during the first round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena on March 18, 2016 in Spokane, Washington.  (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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After navigating a lack of depth at the point to win the Pac-12 regular season and tournament titles and earn the program’s first-ever one seed in the NCAA tournament, Oregon will have no such issues in 2016-17. Dylan Ennis, who missed most of last season with a foot injury, is back for another season as is returning starter Casey Benson. Add in freshman Payton Pritchard, whose shooting ability can help a team that struggled from three a season ago, and Dana Altman has multiple players to call upon at that spot.

That left Kendall Small, who played just under eight minutes per game as a freshman, in a spot where it would have been tough to earn more playing time as a sophomore. As a result he’s decided to transfer, with the news first being reported by Scout.com.

In addition to the three guards mentioned above, sophomore Tyler Dorsey also has the ability to make plays with the ball in his hands. Small will have three seasons of eligibility remaining at whichever school he chooses to transfer to, and he’ll have to sit out the 2016-17 season per NCAA transfer rules.

A 6-foot guard from Anaheim, Small’s best outing came in Oregon’s 77-59 win over Savannah State on November 23. In that game Small accounted for nine points, four assists and three rebounds in 23 minutes of action. But he played double-digit minutes in just four games after the Ducks began Pac-12 play in early January, the last of which being Oregon’s win over Holy Cross in the first round of the NCAA tournament.