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Yale is in an unfamiliar spot in the Ivy League: At the top, looking down

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When you think of the Ivy League, Yale isn’t the first program that comes to mind.

These days, it’s Harvard, as the Crimson went out and hired Tommy Amaker, who formerly coached at Michigan Seton Hall, while turning top 25 recruiting classes into league titles and, in 2013, an upset win over No. 3 seed New Mexico. Before that, it was Cornell, whose run to the 2011 Sweet 16 landed Steve Donahue the head coaching job at Boston College. All that comes before we mention the league’s two-most storied programs in Penn and Princeton, who dominated the conference for decades.

The Ivy League is unique in that it’s the only conference that does not have a conference tournament, meaning that if you don’t win the league’s regular season title, you don’t go dancing. Yale has won exactly one league title in the last 50 years, and that came in 2002, the first time there was ever a three-way tie atop the conference. The Bulldogs eventually lost to Penn in the playoff, meaning that they were bound for the NIT.

When you think of Yale, you think of their law school or their medical school. You think of their proximity to Sally’s and Pepe’s. Hell, you even think of their hockey teams.

You don’t, however, think of their basketball program.

“I tell people back home I play in the Ivy League, and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, you guys play Harvard’, or ‘Did Princeton win this year? Did Penn win this year?'” Justin Sears told NBCSports.com in a phone interview this week. A New Jersey native, the 6-foot-8 sophomore forward leads Yale averaging 15.3 points, 7.1 boards and 1.8 blocks. “It’s a little bit frustrating, especially because people think we’re a hockey school. I think the guys, we just wanted to change the culture here.”

“We just needed to start winning games.”

And that’s started to happen.

Yale has won four straight games heading into this weekend’s showdowns with Penn and Princeton in New Haven, the biggest being last Saturday. The Bulldogs went into Lavietes Pavilion and knocked off Harvard, putting themselves into a first-place tie with the Crimson. For Yale, beating Harvard is always going to be a big win, regardless of the sport. That’s just how the rivalry between those two schools works. But with the increased attention that has been given to the Crimson in recent years, it was especially sweet.

Harvard gets more national attention than every other program in the Ivy League combined. They’ve become the marked man in the conference. Being the reason that every college hoops scribe has to tweet about Harvard losing certainly makes the win feel just that much better.

“Over the summer one of the Harvard assistant coaches tweeted how their 10 players could start at anyone of the other seven schools in the league, how they should sweep the all-conference selections,” Sears, who finished with 21 points, 11 boards and two blocks, said. Sears chose Yale over, among others, Stanford, but he was offered by every school in the Ivy League. Except Harvard. He didn’t forget.

“It’s just more bulletin board material,” he said. “Harvard this, Harvard that. Each team is going to give Harvard their best shot.”

The Elis are lining themselves up on the inside track to a league title. Six of Harvard’s last eight games are on the road, including March 7th’s trip to New Haven for the season’s final weekend. In other words, Yale controls their own destiny when it comes to winning the conference and making the NCAA tournament, but that’s precisely the kind of forward thinking that head coach James Jones wants him team to avoid.

When a single loss can put a quick end to those tourney dreams, looking any further down the schedule than the next opponents is dangerous. Jones is proud of how hard his team has worked, and he wants the kids to get the credit they deserve, but “you want your guys to stay focused,” he said. “Flying under the radar’s not a bad thing.”

The good news for Jones is that he’s built a team whose success depends almost entirely on the one thing that they can control: their effort. This group is going to be bigger and more athletic than anyone they’ll face in the Ivy League. Their perimeter stands 6-foot-4, 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-7. Sears may only be 6-foot-8, but he’s as tough and aggressive as any big in the mid-major ranks. Where many Ivy League teams will field a lineup with a perimeter-oriented four-man, the Bulldogs use two bigs. They’re relentless going to the glass.

“We’ve got a lot of size and a lot of length,” Jones said. “That’s a strength of our team and if we’re going to be good we have to utilize it.”

So long as they stay atop the league standings, Yale is now going to be one of the biggest games of the year for every team they face.

It’s quite a change of pace for a team that’s been to no NCAA tournaments and exactly one NIT since 1962.

“High school rankings, it’s not the biggest thing. It’s the coaching, the effort you put forth,” Sears said. “When we just go out and give our best effort, it doesn’t matter how many shots we hit. All that matters is if we play defense, make our free throws and rebound the ball. We do that every night.”

Judge to review surveillance video in Appling gun case

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 30:  Keith Appling #11 of the Michigan State Spartans reacts against the Connecticut Huskies during the East Regional Final of the 2014 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Madison Square Garden on March 30, 2014 in New York City.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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DEARBORN, Mich. (AP) A Michigan judge will review surveillance footage from the night former Michigan State basketball player Keith Appling was arrested outside a strip club on weapons and drug charges.

Appling’s defense attorney presented the footage at Friday’s preliminary examination. It includes security videos from the Pantheon Club parking lot and video from police dashboard cameras.

The hearing was adjourned until Aug. 5 to allow Judge William Hultgren time to review the footage.

The 24-year-old Appling played for the Spartans from 2010-2014 and had two 10-day contracts with the Orlando Magic this season.

He was arrested in May after two guns and suspected marijuana were found in a vehicle he was in.

Appling also faces a trial in Detroit where he was charged in June with carrying a concealed weapon.

Arkansas hoping for more backcourt depth and stronger press in 2016-17

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 27: Dusty Hannahs #3 of the Arkansas Razorbacks drives to the basket against Michael Humphrey #10 of the Stanford Cardinal  at Barclays Center on November 27, 2015 in Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
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Arkansas is coming off of a disappointing 16-16 season in which they missed the postseason.

The Razorbacks lost two key guards in Anthlon Bell and Jabril Durham — who both exhausted their eligibility — but they’re hoping a couple of additions will bolster the depth of their backcourt and make their trademark press stronger.

In a story from Tom Murphy of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the Razorbacks are excited about the possibilities of their new backcourt.

Although Arkansas lost two talented seniors and a transfer in Jimmy Whitt, they return Dusty Hannahs, Manny Watkins and Anton Beard while also getting two of the best junior college guards in the country. Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon come in highly touted for next season and both junior college guards garnered a lot of praise from their play last season.

With Arkansas also bringing in some freshman guards like C.J. Jones and RJ Glasper, head coach Mike Anderson is hoping to have enough bodies to play fast and use his press. The team appears to be optimistic as well.

“I think we’ll have a lot more toughness at the guard position, and depth,” Watkins said to Murphy. “We’ve got a lot of guys. When we’re pressing and stuff, we’ve got bodies we can bring in.”

Arkansas also returns an SEC Player of the Year candidate in big man Moses Kingsley and they could be an intriguing team to track this season if Barford and Macon are as good as advertised. They’ll certainly have more bodies to throw at opposing guards and that should help Arkansas play faster than they did last season.

College career over for Nevada’s Hallice Cooke due to heart issue

DENVER, CO - MARCH 19:  Hallice Cooke #3 of the Iowa State Cyclones celebrates after hitting a three pointer in the second half against the Arkansas Little Rock Trojans during the second round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at the Pepsi Center on March 19, 2016 in Denver, Colorado.  (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)
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The college basketball career of Nevada guard Hallice Cooke is over, a source confirmed to NBCSports.com.

The 6-foot-3 native of New Jersey will stay with the program as a volunteer assistant as a heart issue will force Cooke to end his career prematurely.

Cooke started his career at Oregon State before transferring to Iowa State and eventually ending up at Nevada. During the 2015-16 season, Cooke was a role player for the Cyclones as he averaged 10 minutes per game off the bench.

Obviously it’s unfortunate to see someone’s career end early, but it’s also good that Cooke is still going to be involved with the game as an assistant. This could be the type of thing where Cooke eventually ends up coaching in college basketball and it’ll be interesting to see if he tries to stay in the game and get serious about coaching.

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

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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.