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Conference Catchups: Mason best of shrinking CAA

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Conference play is right around the corner, so to help you get out of that post-holiday haze, we’ll be catching you up on all the happenings in the country’s top 12 conferences. Here’s our CAA Conference Catchup:

Favorite: George Mason

The more things change, the more they stay the same in the CAA. As the league’s power base of Virginia schools has been gradually eroded by realignment — most notably the absence of VCU in this year’s schedule — the time seemed ripe for a geographical shift. Drexel and Delaware were atop our preseason preview list, with Mason coming in third.

Well, here we are again, with the Patriots standing tall. They started the season with an upset win over Virginia, came within a point of knocking off New Mexico at the Pit, and drained a three to beat Richmond in the Spiders’ hometown. The Patriots have lost a few games they should have won, but that’s been an epidemic in the CAA this season, so they’re still the best of the bunch right now. Mason has one particular stat to hang their stocking caps on: their 91.6 Kenpom defensive efficiency number reflects a staunch inside presence led by Erik Copes that gives them a great chance night in and night out. If the Patriots can just get some offensive help for sharpshooting Sherrod Wright, they’ll be so much tougher to beat.

Contenders: Drexel is still the league’s most dangerous offensive team, even without senior Chris Fouch, who broke his ankle and will miss the rest of the season. Most bafflingly, the Dragons can’t stop anybody, so they’ve lost to good teams (St. Mary’s, Xavier, St. Joe’s) and mediocre teams (Rider, Tennessee State) alike.

William & Mary has played a pretty weak schedule, but they’ve won the games they should win, and that’s more than the rest of the league can say after non-conference season. Signs of life for the star-crossed Tribe include 1) excellent shooting (53.9%) inside the arc, 2) excellent defense on the perimeter and 3) unlike half of the league, they are eligible to win the auto-bid this season. Heartache is a familiar feeling for Tribe fans, who have never had an NCAA tourney team, but this could be their year.

Biggest Surprise: Jerelle Benimon, Towson

Benimon was a bench-riding afterthought at Georgetown. Granted, the Big East is a tough gig, but Benimon has been flat crushing it in his first post-transfer season as a Tiger. His 20 point, 21 rebound effort in last week’s upset of Oregon State put him on the national radar, but he put up 30 points in 40 minutes in an earlier loss to Temple, and 29 in a road win over Vermont. The Tigers as a team aren’t much of a threat just yet, but the 6’8″, 245-lb. Benimon is as scary as they come.

Biggest Disappointment: Drexel

Nobody in the CAA — possibly the nation — has been screwed over by the NCAA at-large process more than Bruiser Flint. His strongest teams have been thrown over in favor of dubious power-conference teams far too often. Flint knows as well as anyone that the only sure way to make the Dance is to get the league’s auto-bid, but a slew of uninspired non-conference losses has made certain that the committee’s folder on the Dragons is thin indeed.

Player of the Year: Sherrod Wright, George Mason

Other players score more points than Wright, but they’re making use of the volume-shooting method. Wright has a mighty fine 17.5 points per game average, but his shot selection and accuracy blow everyone else in the league away, easy. Wright is shooting 54% overall, and a stunning 45% from deep. Devon Saddler (Delaware) and Damion Lee (Drexel) might make up ground before it’s all said and done, but right now, I’ll take Sherrod.

Best Freshman: R.J. Hunter, Georgia State

The coach’s kid is no joke. The 6’5″ swingman is averaging 15.5 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. He can stroke it from deep and leads the team in free-throw percentage. He’s one of the team’s better defensive players, as well, and you’d better believe that Ron Hunter wouldn’t play anybody, including his own son, who didn’t put in the effort on defense. It’s a shame this team is on its way out of the league, with such bright days ahead.

Three Predictions

  • The CAA is a one-bid league. With VCU gone, the lowering tide was taking all ships down with it anyway, but the league’s decision to hold Old Dominion and Georgia State out of the postseason to punish them for leaving, and APR problems dinging UNCW and Towson, the league’s auto-bid won’t even be worth the paper it’s printed on. To top that off, the league’s non-conference record this season is atrocious – there will be zero thought given to an at-large bid this year.
  • An ineligible team will embarrass a contender. Some of the league’s best individual players (Keith Rendleman, R.J. Hunter, Jerelle Benimon) are on teams that can’t play in March. One or more of them will make the rest of the league feel his pain.
  • Drexel will rally. This team’s slump is really difficult to explain. And I’d rather drink muddy water and sleep out in a hollow log than go to practice every day and disappoint Bruiser Flint. I suspect his players feel the same. The Dragons will find their rhythm, as they did with last season’s 19-game win streak. But timing is everything. A simple three-win streak in March is all anyone is looking for.

Power Rankings (* = ineligible for CAA tournament):

1. George Mason
2. Drexel
3. William & Mary
4. James Madison
5. Delaware
6. Towson*
7. Northeastern
8. Georgia State*
9. UNCW*
10. Old Dominion*
11. Hofstra

Eric Angevine is an Old Dominion grad, which no doubt led to his controversial decision to rank his alma mater 10th instead of dead last in the league.

Judge to review surveillance video in Appling gun case

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 30:  Keith Appling #11 of the Michigan State Spartans reacts against the Connecticut Huskies during the East Regional Final of the 2014 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Madison Square Garden on March 30, 2014 in New York City.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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DEARBORN, Mich. (AP) A Michigan judge will review surveillance footage from the night former Michigan State basketball player Keith Appling was arrested outside a strip club on weapons and drug charges.

Appling’s defense attorney presented the footage at Friday’s preliminary examination. It includes security videos from the Pantheon Club parking lot and video from police dashboard cameras.

The hearing was adjourned until Aug. 5 to allow Judge William Hultgren time to review the footage.

The 24-year-old Appling played for the Spartans from 2010-2014 and had two 10-day contracts with the Orlando Magic this season.

He was arrested in May after two guns and suspected marijuana were found in a vehicle he was in.

Appling also faces a trial in Detroit where he was charged in June with carrying a concealed weapon.

Arkansas hoping for more backcourt depth and stronger press in 2016-17

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 27: Dusty Hannahs #3 of the Arkansas Razorbacks drives to the basket against Michael Humphrey #10 of the Stanford Cardinal  at Barclays Center on November 27, 2015 in Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
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Arkansas is coming off of a disappointing 16-16 season in which they missed the postseason.

The Razorbacks lost two key guards in Anthlon Bell and Jabril Durham — who both exhausted their eligibility — but they’re hoping a couple of additions will bolster the depth of their backcourt and make their trademark press stronger.

In a story from Tom Murphy of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the Razorbacks are excited about the possibilities of their new backcourt.

Although Arkansas lost two talented seniors and a transfer in Jimmy Whitt, they return Dusty Hannahs, Manny Watkins and Anton Beard while also getting two of the best junior college guards in the country. Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon come in highly touted for next season and both junior college guards garnered a lot of praise from their play last season.

With Arkansas also bringing in some freshman guards like C.J. Jones and RJ Glasper, head coach Mike Anderson is hoping to have enough bodies to play fast and use his press. The team appears to be optimistic as well.

“I think we’ll have a lot more toughness at the guard position, and depth,” Watkins said to Murphy. “We’ve got a lot of guys. When we’re pressing and stuff, we’ve got bodies we can bring in.”

Arkansas also returns an SEC Player of the Year candidate in big man Moses Kingsley and they could be an intriguing team to track this season if Barford and Macon are as good as advertised. They’ll certainly have more bodies to throw at opposing guards and that should help Arkansas play faster than they did last season.

College career over for Nevada’s Hallice Cooke due to heart issue

DENVER, CO - MARCH 19:  Hallice Cooke #3 of the Iowa State Cyclones celebrates after hitting a three pointer in the second half against the Arkansas Little Rock Trojans during the second round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at the Pepsi Center on March 19, 2016 in Denver, Colorado.  (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)
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The college basketball career of Nevada guard Hallice Cooke is over, a source confirmed to NBCSports.com.

The 6-foot-3 native of New Jersey will stay with the program as a volunteer assistant as a heart issue will force Cooke to end his career prematurely.

Cooke started his career at Oregon State before transferring to Iowa State and eventually ending up at Nevada. During the 2015-16 season, Cooke was a role player for the Cyclones as he averaged 10 minutes per game off the bench.

Obviously it’s unfortunate to see someone’s career end early, but it’s also good that Cooke is still going to be involved with the game as an assistant. This could be the type of thing where Cooke eventually ends up coaching in college basketball and it’ll be interesting to see if he tries to stay in the game and get serious about coaching.

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.