Ohio St Illinois Basketball

Weekend Preview: Big games in Big 12 and Big Ten, battle atop the MVC

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Game of the Weekend: Sat. 2:15 p.m.: No. 8 Ohio State at No. 11 Illinois (Big Ten)

You know how we all keep saying that the Big Ten is so tough this season? Well, Illinois is a perfect example of why. The Illini lost their conference opener on Wednesday night, as they went into Mackey Arena and lost to Purdue, who had been the most disappointing team in the conference heading into league play. The Illini follow that up by hosting Ohio State on Saturday. On Wednesday of next week, John Groce’s club will host Minnesota and follow that up with a trip to Madison to take on the Badgers.

And that’s not even the most difficult stretch of the conference season for the Illini. They have a five game stretch spanning the end of January and the beginning of February where they play Michigan, at MSU, Wisconsin, Indiana and at Minnesota. If Illinois is going to avoid digging themselves a massive hole to start league play, they are going to have to defend their home court.

That will be easier said than done, however. I don’t think Ohio State is on the same level as Indiana or Michigan (or even Minnesota), but the Buckeyes do have the league’s best scorer in Deshaun Thomas and it’s best perimeter defender in Aaron Craft. Purdue won because they slowed down Brandon Paul with a great game-plan to battle the Illini’s ball-screening. How will Ohio State defend it?

Four more games that you need to watch:

  • Sat. 1:30 p.m.: No. 22 Oklahoma State at No. 25 Kansas State (ESPN3): Here’s the key to this game for the Wildcats: health. Both Angel Rodriguez, Bruce Weber’s starting point guard, and Martavious Irving, Rodriguez’s backup, have missed the last two games with injuries. K-State has struggled offensively without them, and Oklahoma State has just a bit more talent than UMKC. It will be interesting to see how the Wildcats matchup with LeBryan Nash and Marcus Smart. If Rodriguez and Will Spradling are both on the floor at the same time, who can matchup with one of the nation’s best freshman?
  • Sat. 3:05 p.m.: Indiana State at No. 16 Creighton (ESPN3): The Missouri Valley is going to be loaded with quality contests this season, and this may be the best of the year to date. Indiana State is on some kind of run right now. They beat both Ole Miss and Miami in overtime out in Hawaii during the Diamond Head Classic and have kicked off league play with a home win over Illinois State and a road win against Northern Iowa. Not many teams have gone into Omaha and left with a win, but then again, not many teams have a 1-2 punch like Jake Odum and Manny Arop.
  • Sat. 5:00 p.m.: Lehigh at VCU (NBC Sports Net): Some more mid-major goodness. You all should know about Lehigh by now; they are the team that beat Duke in the opening round of last year’s NCAA tournament and count potential first round pick CJ McCollum amongst their ranks. But VCU might be the nation’s most underrated team. They have a suffocating press and are as good as anyone in the country at forcing turnovers without fouling. Oh, and Troy Daniels is on fire.
  • Sun. 4:30 p.m.: Temple at No. 6 Kansas (CBS): Kansas is beginning to look like one of the nation’s best teams. Ben McLemore is ahead of schedule in terms of being the Jayhawk go-to guy, and Jeff Withey anchors one of the best defenses in the country. That said, we all thought that Syracuse was one of the nation’s best teams when Temple went into Syracuse’s second home court (Madison Square Garden) and knocked off the Orange. Travis Releford going up against Khalif Wyatt will be fun to watch.

And the Mid-Majors?

  • 4:30 p.m.: Loyola Marymount at St. Mary’s
  • 8:00 p.m.: Northern Iowa at Illinois State

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

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

Kelly Kline/adidas
Kelly Kline/adidas
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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.