AP photo

How Taylor Braun developed into a winner at North Dakota State

Leave a comment
AP photo

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.

AP photo

“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.”

Karl Malone Award Watch List announced

California's Ivan Rabb encourages the crowd to cheer in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Saint Mary's Saturday, Dec. 12, 2015, in Berkeley, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
AP Photo/Ben Margot
Leave a comment

The preseason watch list for the Karl Malone award was released on Thursday.

The award is given to the nation’s best power forward. In 2016, the Karl Malone award was given to Iowa State’s Georges Niang.

Here are the 20 players on the watch list for this season:

Lauri Markkanen, Arizona
Johnathan Motley, Baylor
Ivan Rabb, California
Amile Jefferson, Duke
Jonathan Isaac, Florida State
Yante Maten, Georgia
Carlton Bragg Jr., Kansas
Dedric Lawson, Memphis
Miles Bridges, Michigan State
Isaiah Hicks, North Carolina
Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame
Michael Young, Pittsburgh
Caleb Swanigan, Purdue
Tyler Lydon, Syracuse
Bennie Boatwright, USC
Alec Peters, Valparaiso
Kris Jenkins, Villanova
Austin Nichols, Virginia
Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin

Five Talking Points from Louisville’s Notice of Allegations

Rick Pitino
AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley
Leave a comment

On Thursday morning, Louisville released the Notice of Allegations that they received from the NCAA following an investigation into the escort scandal that enveloped the basketball program.

They got hit with four Level I violations.

You can read the details of the NCAA’s findings here.

Here are four things to know about what these allegations mean for the Louisville program and for Pitino.

1. The NCAA did not allege that Rick Pitino knew: That’s the biggest thing to note here. Pitino himself did get nailed with a Level I violation, a failure to monitor charge. The way the new NCAA rules are structured, there is no more plausible deniability. If it happened within a program, the head coach has to take his share of the blame, and Pitino will certainly have to deal with the fall out of that.

But the NCAA did not find evidence that Pitino himself knew about the escorts or that he sanctioned the parties that they were attending with recruits and players. So while Pitino spent Thursday’s press conference talking himself in circles – he said he “over-monitors” his staff while also saying he’s only “guilty of trusting someone.” – the bottom line is that the only connection he officially has to this scandal is that it happened under his watch.

2. It would be shocking if Pitino doesn’t get suspended: Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim and then-SMU head coach Larry Brown, hall of famers that were suspended for nine games apiece at the start of last season, both found that out the hard way that the NCAA will suspend a coach when violations occur in their program. This scandal has been one of the biggest stories in college basketball for more than a year. Pitino is not going to get away without an added punishment, but based on the timeline – Louisville has 90 days to respond to the allegations, and the NCAA has 60 days to handle that response – any additional sanctions, including a coach suspension, won’t be until at least the 2017-18 season.

3. Andre McGee is the hero Louisville didn’t know they needed: Louisville found their fall guy.

McGee, a former staffer that eventually rose to Director of Basketball Operations, killed any chance of continuing his coaching career when he refused to talk to be interviewed by the NCAA in this case. He refused to talk to the media, with ESPN’s Outside the Lines only able to get a ‘no comment’ on tape while McGee zipped away in the Uber he was driving.

He didn’t speak to the media. He didn’t tweet about the case. He never revealed, publicly of off the record, where the money ($5,400 confirmed by the NCAA) came from, how he snuck the girls into the players’ dorm, or if anyone above him in the program gave him the go-ahead.

“I’m not guilty of failing to monitor my staff. I’m guilty of trusting someone,” Pitino said Thursday. “This young man made a very big mistake, and we apologize for his mistakes.”

McGee fell on the sword. The only way that this gets spun as anything other than an over-ambitious, rogue staffer trying to launch his career is if McGee breaks his silence. Until then, Louisville basketball is protected.

4. The 2013 title is may not be safe: In ‘Breaking Cardinal Rules’, Katina Powell named players that played on the 2013 title team as having been involved in the scandal. And given that this was happening between 2010 and 2014, it’s pretty safe to assume that at least one player that won a ring was involved. The NCAA has ruled the parties as an impermissible benefit, which would allow them to be able to rule the players involved as retroactively inactive.

The document released by Louisville has names and dates redacted, but it is safe to assume the NCAA within their rights to vacate the 2013 national title season. Chuck Smrt, a former NCAA enforcement director, said, “We don’t believe a vacation of records penalty is appropriate,” but that certainly doesn’t mean the Cardinals are in the clear. The NCAA is notoriously inconsistent with decisions like this, so predicting the outcome is difficult, but my guess would be that the banner is not taken down. The NCAA has never stripped a men’s basketball team of a title, and Louisville self-imposed a postseason ban in February, just four months after this story broke, on a team that had real Final Four potential.

Blaming this all on a rogue staff member and self-sacrificing s postseason was the best way for Louisville to try and save the banner.

5. Will this be the end for Pitino?: He’s been through two sex scandals at Louisville. He’s 64 years old. He is, in all likelihood, looking at a significant suspension in 2017-18. And he has a team that is good enough to make a run at a Final Four.

Use 2016-17 as a farewell tour and then get out of dodge before the repercussions start rolling in. Wouldn’t that be the best way for him to ride off into the sunset?



Duke ranked 1st in Preseason Coaches Poll

DURHAM, NC - FEBRUARY 06:  Head coach Mike Krzyzewski of the Duke Blue Devils directs his team during their game against the North Carolina State Wolfpack at Cameron Indoor Stadium on February 6, 2016 in Durham, North Carolina. Duke won 88-80.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Grant Halverson/Getty Images
Leave a comment

The first Coaches Poll of the season was released on Thursday morning, and it should come as no surprise that Duke was picked to finish first.

The top five makes sense as well, as they are the five teams that we have highlighted in our Contender Series.

The only two real head-scratchers for me are Dayton and Virginia Tech. I think coaches are underestimating how good Buzz Williams’ boys will be, and Dayton outside the top 30 doesn’t exactly make sense, either.

1. Duke (27 first-place votes)
2. Kansas (1)
3. Villanova (1)
4. Kentucky (2)
5. Oregon (1)
6. North Carolina
7. Virginia
8. Xavier
9. Michigan State
10. Wisconsin
11. Arizona
12. Indiana
13. Gonzaga
14. Louisville
15. Purdue
16. UConn
17. Syracuse
18. West Virginia
19. Saint Mary’s
20. UCLA
21. Maryland
22. Texas
23. Creighton
24. Rhode Island
25. Cincinnati

Louisville receives Notice of Allegations for escort scandal

Rick Pitino
AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley

After an NCAA investigation, Louisville has been charged with four Level I violations stemming from the escort scandal that has enveloped the basketball program for the last year, according to the Notice of Allegations that the school released on Thursday morning.

Level I violations are the most serious violations the NCAA can hand out.

The NCAA found that McGee “arranged for and/or provided impermissible inducements, offers and/or extra benefits in the form of adult entertainment, sex acts and/or cash”. The NCAA determined that McGee spent at least $5,400 on for as many as 17 recruits and basketball players as well as two AAU coaches and the friend of a prospect. They confirmed 11 sex acts, two declined sex acts and 14 parties with strippers.

The accusations were first levied when Katina Powell, a former escort that was involved with McGee, published a book that contained the allegations. She said that she and the other escorts were paid more than $10,000 and received tickets to Louisville home games.

Head coach Rick Pitino was charged with a Level I violation for failing to monitor McGee. There were no allegations that he knew about the actions of McGee. According to the notice, Pitino “failed to frequently spot-check the program to uncover potential or existing compliance problems, including actively looking for and evaluating red flags, asking pointed questions and regularly soliciting honest feedback to determine if monitoring systems were functioning properly regarding McGee’s activities and interactions with then men’s basketball prospective and current student-athletes visiting and attending the institution.”

Louisville will contest the charge against Pitino.

McGee was charged with two Level I violations, and former assistant Brandon Williams was also on the receiving end of a Level I violation. Both refused to cooperate with the investigation. The school itself was not charged with a lack of institutional control or a failure to monitor, which are the two most serious charges that the NCAA can hand out.

Pitino’s plausible deniability may not save him from being on the receiving end of a hefty punishment from the NCAA. Under new NCAA rules, head coaches are responsible for what happens in their program under their watch regardless of whether or not they are aware. Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim and then-SMU head coach Larry Brown both received nine-game suspensions for violations that were committed within their program.

The case will not go in front of the Committee on Infractions until the spring of 2017 – the school has 90 days to respond to the allegations – which means that Louisville will not know if they are going to receive any additional punishment until just prior to the start of the 2017-18 season.

Last February, Louisville self-imposed a postseason ban on a team that was on track to earn a top-four seed in the NCAA tournament. The program also self-imposed a handful of recruiting restrictions.

College Hoops Contender Series: Might Kansas actually be the nation’s best team?

Kansas guard Frank Mason III (0) celebrates a 3-point basket during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Harvard in Lawrence, Kan., Saturday, Dec. 5, 2015. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
AP Photo/Orlin Wagner
Leave a comment

Who are the favorites to win a national title? Who can legitimately be called a contender? Who has the pieces to make a run to the Final Four? We’ll break that all down for you over the next three weeks in our Contender Series.

Last week, we gave you our Final Four sleepers talked about six different Final Four contenders that are just flawed enough that we can’t call them contenders.

There is a pretty clear-cut delineation between the five best teams, the five clear national title challengers, and the rest of the country this season.

This week, we will be taking a deeper dive into all five of those teams, breaking down why they can win a national title and why they won’t win a national title.

MORE: 2016-17 Season Preview Coverage |Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

LAWRENCE, KS - FEBRUARY 27: Bill Self head coach of the Kansas Jayhawks claps for his team as they celebrate winning the Big 12 Conference Championship after they defeated Texas Tech Red Raiders 67-58 at Allen Fieldhouse on February 27, 2016 in Lawrence, Kansas. With the win, Kansas clinched its 12th straight conference championship. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
Bill Self (Ed Zurga/Getty Images)


WHY THEY CAN WIN: Because Josh Jackson will be everything that Andrew Wiggins was without the unrealistic expectations or the pressure of having to carry a team as a freshman.

A quick refresher before we move forward: In a vacuum, Andrew Wiggins was awesome in college. He averaged 17.7 points as the leading scorer and the best perimeter defender on a top five team that probably would have gotten to the Final Four if Joel Embiid’s two-and-a-half year run of injuries hadn’t started that February. The problem for Wiggins was the expectations. He wasn’t the second-coming of Kevin Durant. He didn’t have the same impact as LeBron James would have. In hindsight, it was totally unfair to expect him to be either of those guys, and just because he wasn’t a legend as a freshman there was almost a sense of failure regarding his one year in Lawrence.

The other part of it was that Wiggins wasn’t ready to takeover games or handle the pressure that comes with being the go-to star on one of the most high-profile teams in the country. That’s just not who he was at that point in his basketball development.

Jackson, on the other hand, has that mentality. Think about all the clichés we, the media, love to label the best hoopers in the world with: he’s a killer, he’s a closer, he wants the big shot, he lives to the big moments, he’s clutch. Jackson’s reputation in the high school ranks would fill all of those narratives. He’s got that competitive streak, that alpha-dog mentality that Wiggins needed to develop.

And perhaps the most promising part is that Jackson isn’t going to have to be the leader on this team. Senior point guard Frank Mason is. Junior guard Devonte’ Graham could be as well. Landen Lucas, this team’s front court anchor, is a senior as well. The veterans on Wiggins’ Kansas team? Naadir Tharpe, who was more or less forced out of the program after the season, and … a sophomore year version of Perry Ellis?

In other words, Jackson can be a leader at this level and at this age, but he won’t have to be. Wiggins wasn’t ready for the role but was forced into it.

Jackson also doesn’t have the pressure that comes with the being labeled as the as a prospect on the same level as Durant or LeBron, like Wiggins was. Every time Wiggins stepped on the floor was a referendum on whether or not he was actually a star. That can weigh on a kid, particularly a kid that isn’t exactly predisposed to loving the limelight. And while being the No. 1 player in a class as good as the 2016 recruiting class comes with a significant element of pressure, there is nowhere near the hype for this crop of kids as there was in 2013.

That’s all a long way of saying that I love the makeup of this team on paper.

Josh Jackson, from Napa, Calif.,, dunks over Nancy Mulkey, from Cypress, Texas, as he competes in the slam dunk contest during the McDonald's All-American Jam Fest, Monday, March 28, 2016, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Matt Marton)
Josh Jackson (AP Photo/Matt Marton)

I also love the way that they’re going to come together on the floor.

Let’s start on the defensive end of the floor. Mason and Graham will be one of the best defensive back courts in the country, and Jackson will be an elite wing defender. Throw in Landen Lucas, who was a dominant rebounder and a capable shot-blocker in the minutes he played last year, and the Jayhawks have the pieces to be the nation’s best defensive team. Think about it like this: Kansas was the third-best defensive team in the country last season, according to KenPom, and they get a significant upgrade in Jackson over Wayne Selden at the three.

The offensive end is going to be a bit more of a concern – more on that in a second – but Carlton Bragg should be able to step into that role. He is a decent bet to lead the Jayhawks in scoring, and there are other reasons to be hopeful of the Jayhawks offensively:

  • Mason proved as a sophomore that he can be effective as a focal point offensively.
  • I don’t think we’ve seen the best of Graham just yet.
  • Jackson is a guy I think has the talent to average 16 points.
  • Lineup versatility. Kansas has the size to play big, but it’s their small-ball lineup – with two point guards on the floor with Jackson and, say, Svi Mykhailiuk – that is the most intriguing.

The Jayhawks are not going to be the Golden State Warriors offensively, but given how tough they will be on the defensive end of the floor, they won’t need to be.

MORE: All-Americans | Impact Transfers | Expert Picks | Trending Programs

WHY THEY WON’T WIN: The concerns about what Kansas will do offensively are probably legitimate.

By the time he graduated from the Jayhawks, Perry Ellis had turned into a running joke. His hairline combined with the fact that he was a relevant player on Kansas for all four years that he was in college made him one of the most recognizable – and notorious – college basketball players in the country.

But he was also may be the most under-appreciated player in the history of Kansas basketball. The guy was terrific. He averaged 16.9 points as the focal point offensively for Kansas, and his ability to space the floor as a shooter combined with his efficiency on the perimeter and in the post made him so valuable.

Replacing that is not going to be easy.

Carlton Bragg should be able to do a decent job. A former five-star recruit, Bragg was targeted by the Jayhawks because of his ability to operate as a face-up four, because he had a skill-set that would, in theory, allow him to play that role one day. He had flashes as a freshman, but he never did enough to force his way into the Kansas rotation.

So just how much did he develop this offseason?

Kansas forward Carlton Bragg Jr. (15) celebrates a teammate's three-point basket during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Kansas State in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 conference tournament in Kansas City, Mo., Thursday, March 10, 2016. Kansas defeated Kansas State 85-63. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
Kansas forward Carlton Bragg Jr. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

Early reviews out of Lawrence were positive, but early reviews from every college campus are generally positive. The only coaches that tell the press their team is going to be bad are coaches that are looking to limit expectations because their job is on the line or they’re in a new town and are looking to get credit for a big year. So only time will tell.

I don’t think that Bragg, as a sophomore, is going to be what Ellis was as a senior. That’s a big ask, and a nod to just how good Ellis was. He doesn’t have to be either. He just has to be good enough to give the Jayhawk offense some balance and provide the perimeter with a pressure release, because if he’s not, I don’t know if the Kansas guards are good enough to survive playing a four-out offense with Landen Lucas as the big man.

There is one other minor issue I wanted to touch on: Depth. The Jayhawks don’t have a ton of it in their back court. Mason and Graham are the only two point guards on the roster, and both of them are going to be starting. Jackson isn’t quite ready to be a pure two-guard just yet, while Svi and LaGerald Vick are yet unproven.

Mason and Graham averaged 34 minutes apiece in league play last season, and Kansas should be able to survive the 10-12 minutes that Bill Self tries to steal with one or both of them on the bench. My concern is what happens if, say, Mason sprains and ankle or if Graham takes a knee to the thigh. The margin for error there is limited.

PREDICTION: I’m all in on the Jayhawks this season, probably more than any other member of the media.

I think they’re closer to being the best team in the country than they are to being the No. 3 team in the country.

I think the trio of Frank Mason, Devonte’ Graham and Josh Jackson will give Kansas the best perimeter defense in college basketball.

As long as Landen Lucas and whoever is slotted in at the four – be it Carlton Bragg, Svi Mykhailiuk, whoever – can provide enough of a scoring bump to mitigate their defensive question marks, the Jayhawks are primed to storm through the Big 12 and earn Bill Self his second national title.

Kansas guard Devonte' Graham (4) celebrates a 3-point basket during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Iowa State in Lawrence, Kan., Saturday, March 5, 2016. Kansas defeated Iowa State 85-78. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
Kansas guard Devonte’ Graham (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)