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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.”

Indiana lands four-star Class of 2017 wing Justin Smith

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Indiana landed an athletic wing commitment on Monday night as four-star small forward Justin Smith pledged to the Hoosiers on Twitter.

The 6-foot-6 Smith is a native of Lincolnshire, Illinois and comes from Stevenson High School as he’s regarded as the No. 105 overall prospect in the Rivals national Class of 2017 rankings.

A high-flying wing who is great in the open floor, Smith should fit the Hoosiers’ uptempo system perfectly and if he’s able to get a more consistent perimeter jumper then he has a chance to be a really nice piece for Indiana.

Smith joins three-star guard Al Durham in Indiana’s recruiting Class of 2017.

Michigan State addingTom Izzo Hall of History wing in remodeled Breslin Center

CHARLOTTE, NC - MARCH 22:  Head coach Tom Izzo of the Michigan State Spartans reacts against the Virginia Cavaliers during the third round of the 2015 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Time Warner Cable Arena on March 22, 2015 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
(Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
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Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo has already been inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame this fall and the longtime Spartans head coach is receiving another unique honor in the remodeled Breslin Center.

The school announced over the weekend that the Tom Izzo Hall of History will be added to the Breslin Center renovations as the building is supposed to be completed by the fall of 2017.

“The Tom Izzo Hall of History will become a great gathering place on our campus where together we can celebrate the excellence of Spartan Basketball and MSU Athletics,” athletic director Mark Hollis said in a release. “When this facility project is complete it will be the finest college basketball facility in the country, so it’s only fitting that Tom’s name will be a permanent part of it.”

Overall, this is a nice addition to the Breslin Center, especially since Izzo and Michigan State basketball will forever be associated with one another. It should be cool for fans to go through it and re-live great moments in Michigan State history and the wing is another nice recruiting tool that can help point out all of Izzo’s biggest accomplishments.

 

Puerto Rico Tip-Off Tournament moving to Orlando amid Zika concerns

Lon Kruger
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Amid concerns over the Zika virus, the annual Puerto Rico Tip-Off announced a change in venue on Monday. Rather than staying on the island, the tournament will move to Orlando and all games will be played at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Disney.

The dates and teams will remain the same for the event as it will be played Thursday, Nov. 17, Friday, Nov. 18 and Sunday, Nov. 20. The field for the event includes Arizona State, Clemson, Davidson, Missouri, Northern Iowa, Oklahoma, Tulane and Xavier.

“We enjoy the beauty and accommodations that are afforded in Puerto Rico and wanted to make every effort in playing the event in San Juan, but the concern for student-athlete and spectator welfare became the primary driver in the decision,” Pete Derzis, senior vice president of ESPN Events said in the official release.  “We intend to return to Puerto Rico in the future.”

Puerto Rico is currently under a Level 2 alert for Zika according to the CDC. Since there have been cases of Zika on the island with native mosquitoes, it’s probably a smart move to eliminate all concerns over the virus if they can easily move the tournament elsewhere. It probably isn’t ideal for fans who purchased travel packages to Puerto Rico to watch the event, but it’s a small price to pay for the safety of everyone involved.

The Puerto Rico Tourism Company is also upset with the decision as Executive Director Ingrid Rivera Rocafort released a statement on Monday night.

“We are disappointed about this decision that we believe has been based on fear not the facts about Puerto Rico,” the statement read.

“There is no public health reason to cancel the Puerto Rico Tip Off or any sporting event in Puerto Rico. There is no doubt that our strong fan base and local spectators would have turned out to support their teams. Less than one percent of Puerto Rico’s 3.5 million population has contracted Zika, a far cry from projections. The hype and misinformation is fostering irrational decisions.”

PHOTO: Purdue unveils statue of John Wooden outside Mackey Arena

John Wooden (Purdue Athletics)
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John Wooden will forever be associated with the UCLA program for what he did while coaching there.

10 national titles in 12 years, including seven in a row. Not bad, right?

What some people may forget is that before he got into coaching, Wooden was one of the best basketball players in the world. He played his collegiate ball at Purdue, where he was a three-time all-american and the 1932 National Player of the Year.

To honor Wooden’s legacy as one of the greatest Boilermakers ever, Purdue built a statue of Wooden and unveiled it in front of Mackey Arena this weekend:

“Not many people think of Johnny Wooden as a Boilermaker, but when I got here in 1957, some of the old-timers still remembered him as a player,” Jim Hicks, the alumnus that donated the statue, said. “I’m so delighted that people will see this statue and read his Pyramid of Success because I think the pyramid was his most important contribution.”

One of the neat touches of the statue: Wooden’s Pyramid of Success is right there for all to see.

North Carolina lands third commitment in 2017 class

SAN ANTONIO, TX - MARCH 23: Head coach Roy Williams of the North Carolina Tar Heels looks on during the third round of the 2014 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament against the Iowa State Cyclones at the AT&T Center on March 23, 2014 in San Antonio, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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North Carolina picked up their third commitment in the Class of 2017 on Monday in big man Brandon Huffman.

A four-star prospect who will play his final season of high school ball at Word of God Academy in North Carolina, Huffman’s strength at this point in his development is as a defensive presence around the basket. He stands 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-5 wingspan and should be able to help replace Kennedy Meeks, who graduates this spring.

Huffman’s development on the offensive end of the floor isn’t quite there yet. A native of Anchorage, Alaska, Huffman is still learning how to be more influential on that end.

Huffman joins Jalek Felton and Andrew Platek in UNC’s 2017 class.