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How Taylor Braun developed into a winner at North Dakota State

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All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here.

Taylor Braun nearly didn’t play Division I basketball.

The 6-foot-7 North Dakota State redshirt senior forward — and NBCSports.com’s pick for Summit League preseason Player of the Year — was days away from giving up his dream before NDSU head coach Saul Phillips came calling.

“He was three days away from committing to a Division II school in Oregon when we offered him,” Phillips recalled to NBCSports.com. “He was going on a visit and he was going to commit. And we came along and he just didn’t have a whole lot of other options in terms of Division I.”

Phillips acknowledges that the Dakotas aren’t exactly known as a hotbed of hoops talent but the Bison made a NCAA Tournament appearance in 2009 thanks to the play of redshirt senior guard Ben Woodside and a group of other seniors and players the program had taken a chance on and developed.

Now, with Braun leading a group of six seniors with all five starters returning, the Bison are the preseason favorite in the Summit League after losing in last season’s conference tournament championship game to South Dakota State. The long-term growth and development of Braun and those seniors — much like the previous tournament team at North Dakota State — is the main reason why.

“Fargo, North Dakota, isn’t the first place on your mind when you think, ‘Where am I going to go to play Division I basketball?’, Phillips said. “We’ve got to find kids that have something to prove, we have to find kids that have room to grow and we’ve been able to do that with Taylor probably being the poster boy for that progression.”

(CLICK HERE to read NBCSports.com’s Summit League Conference Preview)

The growth of Braun, from Division II player to a viable Summit League Player of the Year candidate, began with hard work and long summers in Fargo. A model of consistency, Braun has averaged 15.4 points per game in each of the last two seasons to go along with 5.2 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.5 steals per game last season.

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“At 6-foot-7, he’s very good off-the-dribble, he shoots it well, he’s an explosive finisher around the rim; he can hurt you in so many different ways. And the biggest thing is that as a kid he plays with a chip on his shoulder. He’s a tough-nosed kid and really sets the tone for the rest of our team in terms of his attitude,” Phillips said of Braun.

A first-team all-Summit selection as a sophomore and second team choice as a junior, Braun can shoot it from anywhere on floor, hitting 45 percent from the field and 43 percent from the three-point line as a junior; both numbers were slightly down from his tremendous sophomore campaign. Braun also broke his foot in January and missed 10 games and didn’t play as efficiently during his junior season.

Despite winning 24 games, and making the CBI, the Bison are still working towards a NCAA Tournament berth with this core group and the team stayed in Fargo for much of the summer working towards that goal. The time spent on campus helped an already tight-knit Bison team — which Braun described as “family-like” multiple times — grow even closer.

“One thing that’s good about here — and I guess a bad thing too, in some cases — is there’s not a lot to do here,” Braun said of the summer in Fargo. “Being up here, our main focus is to get in the gym, get better, get stronger and work to our goals. We’ve gone through this whole experience together. We stayed here all summer. We’re from all over the country and while the other kids on campus went home, we just had each other to hang out with and entertain ourselves. We definitely built some really strong bonds.”

(CLICK HERE to read through the rest of NBCSports.com’s feature stories)

Phillips and Braun both know he’ll be the focal point of an offense that includes senior big man Marshall Bjorkland — who shot a remarkable 67 percent from the field last year, second best in the country — and junior point guard Lawrence Alexander, who has started every game since he’s been on campus and acts as Phillips’ coach on the floor.

“It’s hard to believe he’s only a junior because (Lawrence) and I can finish each other’s sentences now,” Phillips said of his floor general.

Braun also worked on having the ball in his hands this summer with Ben Woodside, who — much like Braun — had minimal D-I interest, using a redshirt year and four seasons at North Dakota State to turn himself into a well-rounded college basketball player and dynamic scorer. Woodside ended his career with a 37-point performance in a NCAA Tournament loss to Kansas and is the school’s all-time leading scorer with 2,315 points.

The 5-foot-11 Woodside also won Summit League Player of the Year honors his senior season and has had a successful European pro career.

“It’s hard to push yourself sometimes. But working with him, he can go out there and kick your butt, so you have to make sure you go in prepared and focused and he doesn’t allow you to be complacent or get lazy or anything like that,” Braun said of working with Woodside. “He’s done a really good job of pushing me beyond my comfort zone, which really benefits me.”

The NCAA Tournament is the focus for an experienced Bison team after two consecutive seasons tasting the postseason in the CBI. In Braun’s last go, he’d like to go out on top as conference champions with a NCAA Tournament berth to add to his already impressive college basketball career resume.

“I think we have very high expectations coming into the year,” Braun said. “I think with last year and making it to the championship game and coming up short and returning everybody I think the goal is to get there again and win it this year.”

Motley plays big in No. 11 Baylor’s win over No. 10 West Virginia

Baylor forward Johnathan Motley (5) reacts to a play against Texas in first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017, in Waco, Texas. Baylor won 74-64. (Rod Aydelotte/Waco Tribune Herald via AP)
Rod Aydelotte/Waco Tribune Herald via AP
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Even as Baylor has floundered some down the stretch, the Bears have been able to count on Johnathan Motley being a monster. The 6-foot-10 forward has been putting up numbers and shooting up draft boards.

Against No. 10 West Virginia, he showed off all his skills – and it resulted in a win, as the 11th-ranked Bears topped the Mountaineers, 71-62, in Waco on Monday in a much-needed victory.

Motley was superb once again, going for 23 points, eight rebounds, three blocks and two assists in 35 minutes. He shot it well from the field, going 6 of 12, but was a perfect 11 of 11 from the free-throw line. It was a big-time performance, especially with point guard Manu Lecomte out with an ankle injury.

Monday was nothing particularly special in terms of performance from Motley as he’s been consistently great during Big 12 play. He had 27 and 11 against Iowa State and 21 and 16 against Oklahoma just last week alone. He’s been overshadowed some by Baylor’s early season success – the story was the Bears and coach Scott Drew, not Motley – and that Frank Mason is not only the no-doubt Big 12 player of the year, but maybe the frontrunner for the national award as well.

He’s been really, really good.

Motley is averaging just short of a double-double with 17.3 points and 9.8 rebounds along with 1.0 blocks per game. He’s not the double-double machine of Caleb Swanigan, but he’s got nine during Big 12 play. He also put up 32 points and 20 rebounds against Texas. There aren’t many better performances than that around the country.

Against the Mountaineers, Motley struggled some early, going 1 of 5 from the field with just four points in the first half. He made five of his next seven shots, though, and made nine second-half free throws to score 19 after the break to get Baylor in the win column after a three-losses-in-four-games stretch.

Jo Lual-Acuil rightfully gets a ton of credit for being the anchor of Baylor’s defense, but pairing the 7-footer with Motley is what makes the Bears’ defense so stout. Teams have an effective field goal percentage of just 44.8 against the Bears and are making just 43.8 percent of their shots inside the arc. The length of Lual-Acuil and Motley is a huge reason why.

The game was somewhat rare for West Virginia as the Mountaineers forced 18 turnovers, which was at a rate of 26.5 percent (better than their Big 12 average), and still lost. Some of it certainly can be attributed to the absence of forward Esa Ahmad, who was out with a back injury, but 3 of 15 shooting from 3-point range was a killer overall.

West Virginia and Baylor are jockeying with Iowa State for second place in the Big 12, but if everyone holds serve, it’ll be a three-way tie in the country’s toughest conference. If the Cyclones can win in Morgantown on Friday, though, Steve Prohm’s group will claim the spot outright. If West Virginia wins, the most likely scenario (assuming Baylor beats Texas) puts the Mountaineers second, Baylor third and Iowa State fourth for the tournament in Kansas City next week.

No. 23 Virginia holds No. 5 North Carolina to 43 points in statement win

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - FEBRUARY 27: Kyle Guy #5 of the Virginia Cavaliers shoots the ball during Virginia's game against the North Carolina Tar Heels at John Paul Jones Arena on February 27, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by Chet Strange/Getty Images)
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What a difference a week makes.

Just eight days ago, down in Chapel Hill, North Carolina handed Virginia the kind of whooping that changes the narrative of a season. The final score was 65-41, but that really doesn’t do it justice. At one point late in the second half, the Wahoos were trailing 63-36.

The story was totally different on Monday night.

Despite digging themselves a 7-0 hole in the first two minutes of the game, No. 23 Virginia knocked off No. 5 North Carolina, 53-43, in a revenge game. The Tar Heels haven’t been held to 43 points or less in a game since Feb. 24th, 1979, and that game came before the shot clock was introduced to college basketball. Dean Smith’s Tar Heels stalled for the entire first half, taking just two shots and heading into half time down 7-0.

They would eventually lose 47-40:

The previous low for points scored by a Roy Williams-coached UNC team was 45 points when they lost 57-45 at Syracuse on Jan. 11th, 2014.

That should give you an idea of just how impressive Virginia’s defense was on Monday night before you factor in that the Tar Heels are one of the nation’s top five offensive teams, according to KenPom. But they just never could get into any kind of a rhythm. Tony Bennett had them scouted to perfection, eliminating Kennedy Meeks from the game with his patented post-doubles and using London Perrantes to harass Justin Jackson for 40 minutes. Jackson never once looked comfortable, not for one possession.

With the loss, the Tar Heels now need to beat Duke in the season finale at the Dean Dome to win the outright ACC regular season title.

And while the attention for this win is going to be on UNC and their struggles, the real story here is Virginia.

UVA’s loss to UNC last Saturday was their third loss in a four-game losing streak. They snapped that streak against N.C. State over the weekend, and seemed to find their groove again on Monday. Their issue has never been on the defensive side of the ball; it’s their ability to score, and they may have found their cure: Kyle Guy. The kid with the top-knot that is incorrectly referred to as a man-bun by everyone. (Trust me on that.)

Guy had played just two minutes in the overtime loss to Miami earlier in the week and was just 1-for-10 from the floor in the previous three games, a stretch where UVA scored just 144 points in 125 minutes of basketball. He had 19 points in the win over N.C. State and 17 points on Monday night, hitting five threes and providing UVA with a go-to option offensively. He’s uniquely suited to playing the role that Malcolm Brogdon and Joe Harris have played because he’s a lights-out shooter with quick feet, a quick release and an ability to read defenses as a runs off of screens. His presence opens up their offense.

As long as he’s good enough defensively, he’ll be able to see the floor.

And if he’s good enough defensively, UVA can be good enough offensively to win games like this.

Prosecutors detail allegations against Creighton’s Watson

OMAHA, NE - JANUARY 21: Maurice Watson Jr. #10 of the Creighton Bluejays receives and ovation before their game against the Marquette Golden Eagles at CenturyLink Center on January 21, 2017 in Omaha, Nebraska. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)
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Former Creighton star Maurice Watson appeared in front of a Douglas County judge Monday after turning himself into authorities Sunday following the issuance of a warrant for his arrest Thursday on the charge of first-degree sexual assault.

Watson’s bail was set at $750,000, which he would have to produce 10 percent of to be released from jail.

Prosecutors also detailed some of the allegations against Watson from the night of Feb. 3, when a 19-year-old woman alleges he raped her. Graphic details of the prosecution’s allegations can found here.

Watson’s attorneys said he denies the allegations.

Creighton said Sunday that Watson is barred from campus and not enrolled as a student, according to the Omaha World-Herald.  The Bluejays announced last week that Watson, who has been sidelined since tearing his ACL last month, had been suspended.

Coaches Poll: Gonzaga drops to fourth

Gonzaga head coach Mark Few (Getty Images)
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Gonzaga feel from first to fourth in the latest Coaches Poll after suffering its first loss of the season over the weekend.

Kansas moves into the top spot with UCLA and Villanova tied at No. 2.

The Bulldogs lost 79-71 to BYU at home after winning the first 29 games of the season.

The Jayhawks have won six-straight heading into Monday’s tilt with Oklahoma.

Here’s the full poll:

1. Kansas (23)

2. UCLA (3)

2. Villanova (5)

4. Gonzaga (1)

5. North Carolina

6. Oregon

7. Louisville

8. Arizona

9. Kentucky

10. West Virginia

11. Baylor

12. Florida

13. Notre Dame

14. Duke

15. Butler

16. Purdue

17. Florida State

18. Saint Mary’s

19. SMU

20. Cincinnati

21. Wisconsin

22. Wichita State

23. Virginia

24. Iowa State

25. Miami

AP Poll: Kansas moves to No. 1, Villanova 2nd, UCLA 3rd

LAWRENCE, KS - JANUARY 14:  Josh Jackson #11 of the Kansas Jayhawks reacts after a foul during the game against the Oklahoma State Cowboys at Allen Fieldhouse on January 14, 2017 in Lawrence, Kansas.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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Kansas is the new No. 1 in The Associated Press college basketball poll.

The Jayhawks (26-3) moved up two places to the top spot, receiving 58 first-place votes Monday from the 65-member national media panel.

Kansas is the sixth school to be No. 1 this season. The Jayhawks were on top last season for five weeks, including the final three polls of the season.

Villanova (27-3) remained second despite losing to Butler last week. The Wildcats were No. 1 on two ballots. UCLA (26-3), which was No. 1 on three ballots, moved up from fifth to third after its win over Arizona on Saturday.

Gonzaga (29-1) fell to fourth after losing its first game of the season, an upset by BYU on Saturday. The Zags, who had been No. 1 for the last four polls, received two first-place votes.

North Carolina moved from eighth to fifth and was followed by Oregon, Arizona, Louisville, Kentucky and West Virginia.

Here’s the full top 25″

  1. Kansas (58)
  2. Villanova (2)
  3. UCLA (3)
  4. Gonzaga (2)
  5. North Carolina
  6. Oregon
  7. Arizona
  8. Louisville
  9. Kentucky
  10. West Virginia
  11. Baylor
  12. Florida
  13. Butler
  14. SMU
  15. Florida State
  16. Purdue
  17. Duke
  18. Cincinnati
  19. Notre Dame
  20. St. Mary’s
  21. Wichita State
  22. Wisconsin
  23. Virginia
  24. Iowa State
  25. Miami