Jared Sullinger, Draymond Green

Big Ten conference tournament preview

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It isn’t exactly going out on a limb to say that the Big Ten is the strongest conference in the country this season.

What’s more debatable, however, is trying to figure out who, exactly, is the best team in the conference.

Heading into the season, the answer was simple: Ohio State. Not only were they returning the popular pick for National Player of the Year in Jared Sullinger, but they had a pair of all-conference guards in Aaron Craft and William Buford to offer as sidekicks. But as the season has worn on, its become clear that the Buckeyes are lacking some consistency to their supporting cast.

Midway through the season, Michigan State hopped up on into the favorite’s chair. They have gotten back to playing Tim Izzo basketball — defending, rebounding, out-muscling — and made a run to get into a commanding position at the top of the league. But after losing two straight games to close out the regular season and seeing star freshman Branden Dawson go down with a torn acl, all of a sudden Sparty looks beatable.

I like Michigan, but they don’t have the same amount of talent as the rest of the teams at the top of the league. And as good as Trey Burke has been, he’s a freshman going through his first-ever March Madness. Indiana has looked equal parts awesome and mediocre at different points in the season. Purdue doesn’t defend this season. Illinois has collapsed. Wisconsin has been very beatable.

What’s it all mean?

Well, this weekend in Indianapolis should be a lot of fun.

The Bracket

Where: Indianapolis

When: March 8th-March 11th

Final: March 11th, 3:30 p.m. CBS

Favorite: Ohio State

I’m going to pick the Buckeyes here for a couple of different reasons. First of all, their stars have been through the postseason before. They may have a young roster age-wise, but this group has experienced success in this setting. Second of all, having a defensive presence like Aaron Craft to hound ball-handlers all weekend is a good thing. Thirdly, I think that William Buford and Deshaun Thomas are going to have a big tournament. And, finally, Jared Sullinger. He’s one of the most dominant low-post presences in the country.

And if they lose?: Michigan State

I would have had the Spartans as the favorite, but I think the injury to Dawson is going to be costly. They still have Draymond Green, arguably the most versatile player in the country. There is size up front and capable players in the back court. But what Dawson brought to table no one else can. He’s a big, athletic small forward that crashes the glass and scores hustle points. He’s a matchup nightmare for most teams and he certainly played a large role in why the Spartans turned this season around.

Other contenders?: This is where I’ll talk about Michigan. We all know about Burke already, but Michigan is more than just a one man show, especially when Tim Hardaway Jr. is playing the way he did in the last game of the regular season. Throw in the fact that everyone is a good-to-very good three-point threat, and the Wolverines can hang with anyone.

Sleeper: Indiana

It is kind of hard to label anyone that has done what IU did this season a sleeper. That said, I think that the issues Indiana has defensively could end up biting them.

Deeper sleepers: Illinois has the talent, but talent only gets you so far. I find myself having a tough time putting any kind of faith into Wisconsin. And I think that Purdue is going to end up being overmatched inside. So I’ll take Northwestern, but mainly because I want to see John Shurna make the NCAA Tournament.

Studs:

John Shurna, Northwester: Shurna can flat out score the ball. He’s a perfect fit on the perimeter for what Bill Carmody wants to run.

Jared Sullinger, Ohio State: Trust me, there is a reason he routinely sees double- and triple-teams.

Draymond Green, Michigan State: Tim Duncan is the last high-major player to average 15 ppg, 10 rpg and 3 apg.

Trey Burke, Michigan: I wonder if Thad Matta is regretting looking past the Columbus.

Cody Zeller, Indiana: The freshman has been Indiana’s most important player.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

Four-star 2017 shooting guard commits to Virginia Tech

Virginia Tech head coach Buzz Williams celebrates a play in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Virginia, Monday, Jan. 4, 2016, in Blacksburg, Va. (Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times via AP) LOCAL STATIONS OUT; LOCAL INTERNET OUT; LOCAL PRINT OUT (SALEM TIMES REGISTER; FINCASTLE HERALD; CHRISTIANSBURG NEWS MESSENGER; RADFORD NEWS JOURNAL; ROANOKE STAR SENTINEL; MANDATORY CREDIT
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Recruiting, and on-court results, have picked up at Virginia Tech since Buzz Williams took over as head coach. In his second year at the helm the Hokies won ten conference games, and in reaching the Postseason NIT made their first postseason appearance since 2011.

Thursday night Virginia Tech landed its first verbal commitment in the Class of 2017, as four-star shooting guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker made his pledge.

The 6-foot-5 Alexander-Walker, who’s ranked 91st in his class by Rivals.com, also took official visits to Maryland and USC before making his pledge to the ACC program. Alexander-Walker attends Hamilton Heights Christian Academy in Chattanooga, Tennessee, but as a native of Canada plays his grassroots basketball for the Canada Elite program on the Under Armour Association circuit.

Good with either hand, Alexander-Walker can play either on or off the basketball. And that versatility should serve him well in a system that places a high value on “switch-ables,” or players who can fill multiple roles.

The Canada connection paid off for Virginia Tech in the recruitment of Alexander-Walker, with assistant coach Jamie McNeilly being a native of the country himself and having a connection to the Walker family. The Hokies will lose two perimeter players at the end of the 2016-17 season in Devin Wilson and Seth Allen, which will give Alexander-Walker the opportunity to earn minutes as a freshman.

Oakland lands former Oklahoma State guard Clark

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When point guard Stevie Clark began his career at Oklahoma State in 2013, the Top 100 prospect was expected by many to be an impact player for the Cowboys. Things didn’t go as planned however, as off-court issues ultimately led to Clark’s dismissal from the program before his sophomore season. Add in a lawsuit filed by Clark in which he alleged that he was forced by the school to take psychotropic drugs, and it’s safe to say that his time in Stillwater was anything but smooth.

Clark ultimately landed at Arkansas Baptist College, and on Thursday it was reported by the Detroit Free Press that he’s committed to Oakland University to play for head coach Greg Kampe. Clark joins a program with an immediate need at the point, with All-American Kahlil Felder having entered the NBA Draft and hired an agent as well.

The obvious question regarding Clark is whether or not he’s managed to take care of business off the court, and in an interview with Mark Snyder of the Free Press the Oklahoma native made note of the benefits of getting away from home for college.

Playing in Rochester, far from his home, will serve him well, he said.

“Anywhere away from home is the best thing,” Clark said. “It’s just hard balancing everything being close to home.”

Clark will be one of the options Kampe has to choose from at the point, with incoming freshmen Brailen Neely and Billy Thomas also among the new arrivals, and sophomore Jaevin Cumberland looking to earn more playing time than the 5.6 minutes per contest he averaged as a freshman.

Creighton point guard Watson Jr. to return for senior season

Creighton's Maurice Watson Jr. (10) reacts after scoring during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Xavier in Omaha, Neb., Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016. Creighton won 70-56. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
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Creighton’s chances of moving up the Big East standings and returning to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2014 improved a great deal Thursday, as starting point guard Maurice Watson Jr. announced that he will be returning for his senior season. Watson, who began his college career at Boston University, entered his name into the NBA Draft pool without hiring an agent but decided that another year in Omaha would be best for him.

Watson was one of the most impactful transfers in the country last season, as his play at the point was a major factor in the Bluejays winning 20 games and going 9-9 in conference play after being picked to finish eighth in the Big East preseason poll. Watson averaged 14.1 points, 3.4 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game last season, earning second team All-Big East honors.

With Watson’s return the Bluejays will welcome back three of their top four scorers from last season, with center Geoffrey Groselle being the lone departure. Head coach Greg McDermott adds a talented shooting guard in Marcus Foster, who sat out last season after transferring in from Kansas State. With Watson and Foster working together, Creighton will have a formidable perimeter tandem leading the way in 2016-17 with the likes of forward Cole Huff and guard Isaiah Zierden also being key contributors.

In addition to what Watson can provide in games he’ll also serve as a good mentor for Kaleb Joseph, who will have to sit out next season after transferring in from Syracuse. Joseph, who will have two seasons of eligibility remaining, fell out of the rotation as a sophomore so the year in residency should benefit him as he works towards grabbing the reins in 2017-18.

h/t ESPN.com

UConn, four-star 2017 big man Brown part ways

Brown, Zach
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Back in mid-January UConn made waves on the recruiting trail by securing a verbal commitment from 7-foot-1 center Zach Brown, a player seen by many as one of the top prospects in the Class of 2017. That partnership came to an end Thursday, as the two parties decided to part ways. News of the mutual decision was first reported by Scout.com.

The Miami native is currently ranked 28th in the Class of 2017 by Rivals.com, and Thursday’s news opens up a spot in the front court that UConn head coach Kevin Ollie and his staff will now have to fill. Amida Brimah, who’s currently going through the NBA pre-Draft process, will be a senior next season should he return to Storrs as will Kentan Facey.

Among the interior options who will have eligibility remaining beyond next season for the Huskies are sophomore Steven Enoch and incoming freshmen Mamadou Diarra and Juwan Durham.

UConn was in the running for 2016 power forward Taurean Thompson, but multiple outlets have the Brewster Academy product considering Michigan State (which added UNLV grad transfer Ben Carter Wednesday), Seton Hall and Syracuse at this point in his recruitment.

UCF lands commitment from transfer Terrell Allen

New UCF men's NCAA college basketball coach Johnny Dawkins speaks at his introductory press conference Thursday, March 24, 2016 in Orlando, Fla. (Jacob Langston/Orlando Sentinel via AP) MAGS OUT; NO SALES; MANDATORY CREDIT
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Having already landed one transfer in former Michigan guard Aubrey Dawkins (the new head coach’s son), UCF landed a second Thursday afternoon as former Drexel guard Terrell Allen announced that he’ll finish out his college career playing for Johnny Dawkins.

Allen, a CAA All-Rookie Team selection in his lone season at Drexel, announced the news by way of his Twitter account. After sitting out the 2016-17 season per NCAA transfer rules, Allen will have three seasons of eligibility remaining.

On a team that struggled throughout the 2015-16 season, winning just six games, Allen averaged 9.8 points, 3.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists in 32.5 minutes of action per game. The 6-foot-2 point guard finished the season ranked in the top ten in the CAA in both assists and assist-to-turnover ratio, with his assist tally ranking eighth and his A/T ratio of 1.9 placing him seventh.

With B.J. Taylor entering his junior season and Jeremy Carter-Sheppard joining the ranks this summer, the addition of Allen gives UCF another option at the point for the 2017-18 campaign.