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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.”

Creighton’s Mo Watson Jr. has a torn ACL

LAS VEGAS, NV - NOVEMBER 25:  Head coach Greg McDermott of the Creighton Bluejays talks with Maurice Watson Jr. #10 during the team's game against the Massachusetts Minutemen during the championship game of the Men Who Speak Up Main Event basketball tournament at MGM Grand Garden Arena on November 25, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Creighton won 97-76.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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Mo Watson Jr.’s Creighton career is over.

The star point guard for the Blue Jays had an MRI on Tuesday to determine the damage suffered in his left knee, and it revealed a torn ACL. Watson entered Monday’s game at Xavier averaging 13.4 points and a nation’s-best 8.8 assists on the season. He was the engine that made Creighton’s high-octane offense work.

“Devastated for [him],” head coach Greg McDermott said. “His impact on our program has been incredible. His leadership will continue to be vital to our success.”

With Watson, who was having an all-american season and was seventh in our Player of the Year Power Rankings as of Tuesday, Creighton was a team with Final Four upside. Their defense was a concern, but their ability to score in transition and to get easy looks from three – both of which were largely due to the ability of Watson – ensured that teams were going to have to score in the 80s to beat them.

Without Watson, Creighton was able to hang on to beat Xavier in Cincinnati, but it’s unclear what the future will hold. Isaiah Zierdan replaced Watson at the point down the stretch, and Greg McDermott does have a number of talented guards on his roster, but that doesn’t do much to mitigate was is a devastating loss for this team.

Watson released a statement on twitter on Tuesday:

Player of the Year Power Rankings: Mason, Hart, Lonzo. Who ya got?

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1. Frank Mason III, Kansas
2. Josh Hart, Villanova
3. Lonzo Ball, UCLA: At this point in the year, I feel pretty comfortable making the guarantee that the National Player of the year is going to be one of these three players for three reasons:

  1. All three of them are not just an important piece but the critical component to their team’s success.
  2. The team’s that they play on could very well be the three best teams in college basketball, and I’ve always been of the mindset that winning matters when it comes to Player of the Year and all-american honors.
  3. Their numbers alone are good enough to get them into the conversation even if they didn’t happen to be the best player on one of the best teams in the country.

Frankly, the more that I think about it, labeling this a two-horse race was probably wrong. I’ve had Lonzo Ball third in these rankings for more or less the entire season, but there’s always been a gap between him and the two guys slotted above. Ball’s numbers are ridiculous – 14.6 points, 8.0 assists, 5.5 boards, 1.8 steals, 2.3 turnovers – but it’s what he’s done to that UCLA team that I’ve under-valued. Ball is a talent, and so is T.J. Leaf, but on paper, the difference between this team and last year’s team shouldn’t be as stark as going from a 15-17 season to a year where they are a buzzer-beating three at Oregon away from being undefeated on Jan. 17th. Ball’s presence did that.

The other difference?

I have Frank Mason III as the current leader for the award. Part of that is because Josh Hart has had a couple of bad games in a row and Mason, in the three games since we last convened here, led comebacks at Oklahoma and against Oklahoma State before guiding Kansas to a win at Iowa State. But there is also an argument to be made that Josh Hart has been somewhat figured out in league play. Teams can key in on him and he isn’t quite to the point where he has a response. Big 12 opponents haven’t been able to do that against Kansas.

That, however, is the definition of picking nits, but that’s what we have to do to differentiate these three at this point.

Because when the chips are down, those three players, at this point in the season, have all been sensational, and I would have no issue with someone picking either of the three to win the award.

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4. Caleb Swanigan, Purdue: In Purdue’s only game last week, Swanigan had “just” 17 points and eight boards, but he had a late turnover, missed a critical, point-black shot with less than a minute left and then watched a ball bounce out of bounds that was ruled – probably incorrectly – to be off of Purdue. It wasn’t the greatest finish we’ve seen out of a player this year.

5. Luke Kennard, Duke: In the first 14 games of the season, Luke Kennard averaged 13.9 shots per night and consistently churned out enough terrific performances that he deservedly has been the only Duke player considered for a spot on all-american teams all season long. In the last four games, however, Kennard is averaging just 9.8 shots, which can be attributed to a couple of different things. I don’t think the issue is defenses being more focused in on stopping him, mainly because I think the issue is Jayson Tatum.

Tatum has led the Blue Devils in field goal attempts in six of the last seven games. His usage rate (the percentage of possessions that end with him while he’s on the floor) is 27.8 on the season despite posting an offensive rating of 105.1, meaning he scores 1.051 points-per-possession. In the last seven games, he’s only had an offensive rating better than 109 in home games against Georgia Tech and Boston College.

Kennard, on the season, has an offensive rating of 133.5, which is third nationally for players that with a usage rate above 20, but his usage rate is stuck at 21.7. In other words, the numbers back up what our eyes have been telling us – that Duke’s offensive isn’t as good when the offense flows through Tatum instead of Kennard.

LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 07: De'Aaron Fox #0 of the Kentucky Wildcats dribbles the ball during the game against the Valparaiso Crusaders at Rupp Arena on December 7, 2016 in Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
De’Aaron Fox (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

6. De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky: Fox is the most important player on Kentucky, and I don’t understand people that argue otherwise. Malik Monk can win games with his ability to score, but Fox ‘s ability to defend and to turn defense into offense is why the Wildcats are in a position for Monk to win games with his scoring alone.

7. Mo Watson Jr., Creighton: It looks like Creighton dodged a bullet on Monday. There has yet to be an official diagnosis, but what initially to be a non-contact knee injury for Watson, it appears that there is no ligament damage. A torn meniscus will not be an easy thing to recover from, but a bone bruise would be. Here’s to hoping he’s OK, but Watson is the engine that makes Creighton’s high-powered offense run.

(UPDATE: Watson’s career is over. He tore his ACL.)

8. Joel Berry II, North Carolina: Berry has been fantastic this season, and there’s a very strong argument to be made that he’s the ACC’s Player of the Year as of today. He is everything we wanted Marcus Paige to be over the course of the last two seasons.

9. Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga: Williams-Goss has been terrific this season, and I’m not sure how many people have noticed. After posting 19 points and six assists in a 23-point win over No. 21 Saint Mary’s, he’s averaging 15.2 points, 5.8 boards, 4.9 assists and 1.7 steals with shooting splits of 49.5/41.1/89.5. This is the best Gonzaga team Mark Few has ever had, and Williams-Goss is the best player on the roster.

10. Lauri Markkanen, Arizona: Luke Kennard is third nationally in offensive rating for players with a usage rate that’s better than 20. No. 1 on that list? Lauri Markkanen, who is quietly having a terrific season for the Wildcats.

JUST MISSED THE CUT

Malik Monk, Kentucky
Johnathan Motley, Baylor
Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame
Dwayne Bacon, Florida State
Markelle Fultz, Washington
Josh Jackson, Kansas
Ethan Happ, Wisconsin
Justin Jackson, North Carolina
Jock Landale, Saint Mary’s
Alec Peters, Valparaiso
Melo Trimble, Maryland

Lauri Markkanen, Arizona Athletics
Lauri Markkanen, Arizona Athletics

CBT Podcast: Luke Winn joins to talk Kansas and their unorthodox backcourt

LAWRENCE, KS - DECEMBER 03:  Devonte' Graham #4 of the Kansas Jayhawks celebrates with Frank Mason III #0 after making a three-pointer during the game against the Stanford Cardinal at Allen Fieldhouse on December 3, 2016 in Lawrence, Kansas.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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Sports Illustrated’s Luke Winn, Mr. Power Rankings himself, joined the podcast this week to talk about something other than the Power Rankings.

Luke wrote a long feature on Kansas’ back court of Frank Mason III and Devonte’ Graham, a serendipitous pairing of former mid-major recruits that have turned into arguably the nation’s best pair of guards and the next great two-point guard back court. You can read that story here. You can listen to the podcast below.

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VIDEO: Mark Gottfried on Sunday’s N.C. State performance: ‘It’s embarrasing’

CHAMPAIGN, IL - NOVEMBER 29: Head coach Mark Gottfried of the North Carolina State Wolfpack reacts during the game against the Illinois Fighting Illini at State Farm Center on November 29, 2016 in Champaign, Illinois. Illinois defeated North Carolina State 88-74. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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Mark Gottfried is probably the happiest man in the world that his N.C. State team played – and lost – a home game against Georgia Tech on Sunday night, overlapping with the end of the thrilling Green Bay-Dallas NFC Playoff game.

No one was talking about it.

Well, that’s not exactly true. Joe Giglio of the News & Observer was there and, like he did after last weekend’s loss at Boston College, he took Gottfried to task for his team’s performance.

The biggest issue? Gottfried’s nonchalance at the way that a team with the talent to finish in the top six of the ACC and get to a Final Four is playing. The Wolfpack should not be sitting at 1-4 in the ACC having already played BC and Georgia Tech. Gottfried told the media after on the loss to Boston College that his team “got better,” which was as laughable then as it is now.

On Sunday night, he certainly did not try and view his team through rose-colored glasses:

That’s about as mad and emotional as you’ll see Gottfried get.

And he’s got every right to be mad, because the Wolfpack – who count a future top five pick, another future first rounder and at least three more guys that will get a shot on NBA Summer League teams – currently sit at the bottom of the ACC standings and third-to-last in KenPom’s ACC rankings.

The biggest issue is on the defensive end of the floor, which Gottfried made so clear Sunday.

“It’s embarrassing,” he said. “We’ve got to decide if we want to play some defense. I can talk about it for 2 hours every day at practice, at some point, they better make a decision. Right now, we struggle to guard anybody.”

The numbers back it up. N.C. State is dead last in the ACC in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric and the only high-major programs that are worse than them defensively are Michigan, Washington State, DePaul, LSU, Washington and Arizona State. The Wolfpack are by far the most talented team out of that group, and probably the most athletic as well. They should be good defensively, but, if you talk to coaches in the league and NBA scouts that have watched that team play, the most consistent knock on them is, simply, that they don’t play hard.

And that may be more worrying than any of the results the Wolfpack have posted this season.

“I don’t want to paint the picture that I walk in there every night, even after a loss, it’s Pollyanna inside my locker room,” Gottfried said. “I think it’s time they understand, they need to understand. I can coddle them, I can baby them, but they have to take ownership.”

VIDEO: Roy Williams gets customized shoes from Michael Jordan

CHAPEL HILL, NC - JANUARY 16:  Head coach Roy Williams of the North Carolina Tar Heels is presented with a gift as he celebrates after his 800th career victory with a 85-68 win over the Syracuse Orange at the Dean Smith Center on January 16, 2017 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Roy Williams became the second-fastest coach to get to 800 career wins last night, and to honor him, UNC did things like put together a video presentation, give him a jersey with the number 800 and bring him to the center of the Dean Dome floor to get cheered by everyone in attendance.

But it was Michael Jordan whose gift floored everyone.

Literally.

Because MJ got Ol’ Roy a pair of customized shoes, and it just about killed Brandon Robinson:

Here’s a closer look at those kicks: