Duke v Syracuse

Weekend Preview: Saturday will be the best college hoops day of the year

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GAME OF THE WEEKEND: No. 1 Syracuse at No. 5 Duke, Sat. 7:00 p.m

This game has lot a bit of luster, hasn’t it? Three weeks ago, the Orange and the Blue Devils played the best game of the season. The rematch was supposed to be between a streaking Duke team and an undefeated Syracuse team. Instead, the Orange lost at home to Boston College while the Blue Devils dropped a game at North Carolina.

The key here? What is Duke going to be able to do against the Syracuse zone. They struggled when Maryland went zone last Saturday. They lost on Thursday because North Carolina switched to a zone, and while the 2-3 that Syracuse runs is very different from the junk defenses that the Terps and the Heels threw at them, it still doesn’t change the fact that Duke’s offense has struggled getting the ball into the middle of the defense.

THE OTHER GAME OF THE WEEKEND: No. 11 Louisville at No. 7 Cincinnati, Sat. 12:00 p.m.

This is the start of Louisville’s brutal last-season slate. In their last five games, they play at Cincinnati, at SMU, at Memphis and at home against UConn. The Cardinals have been much improved from the team that we saw earlier this season, but they’ve done it beating up on lesser competition that, quite frankly, they should be beating up on. Cincinnati, for lack of a better word, big-boyed the Cardinals the first time these two got together. Russ Smith vs. Sean Kilpatrick will be fun.

THE OTHER, OTHER GAME OF THE WEEKEND: No. 13 Michigan State at No. 20 Michigan, Sun. 12:00 p.m.

The two team in first place in the Big Ten square off on Sunday afternoon. Both the Spartans and the Wolverines and struggled a bit of late, however. Michigan State is finally starting to get healthy again, as Keith Appling is now back in the lineup. The Wolverines, who won the first matchup, have got to find a way to get Nik Stauskas more involved in ball-screen action as we head into the season’s final weeks.

FIVE MORE TO WATCH:

  • No. 16 Wisconsin at No. 15 Iowa, Sat. 12:00 p.m.: The Badgers seem to have righted their ship in recent weeks, which makes this win all the more important for an Iowa team that has yet to really prove themselves.
  • St. John’s at No. 9 Villanova, Sat. 1:30 p.m.: The Johnnies are probably on the wrong side of the bubble as of today, but that would certainly change if they can continue their hot streak and pick off the Wildcats.
  • LSU at No. 18 Kentucky, Sat. 4:00 p.m.: The last time these two got together, LSU smacked Kentucky around in Baton Rouge. It will be interesting to see how Kentucky responds in their own building.
  • No. 19 Texas at No. 8 Kansas, Sat. 7:30 p.m.: Texas might be the team best-equipped to beat Kansas given the size that they have along their front line. They can match up with the Kansas big men, and as long as Isaiah Taylor and Javan Felix are making good decisions, they’ll have a shot to win at Phog Allen.
  • No. 6 San Diego State at New Mexico, Sat. 10:00 p.m.: New Mexico is probably on the right side of the bubble right now, but they’re closer than they want to be. The Aztecs are easily the best available win for the Lobos, and they actually matchup with them fairly well. A shot at the MWC regular season title would probably go out the window with a loss.

WHO’S GETTING UPSET?

  • No. 2 Florida at Ole Miss, Sat. 12:00 p.m.: This will be the last chance for Ole Miss to do something that gets them in position to be an at-large team. They have to win this. If Florida plays the way they did against Auburn, it just might happen.
  • No. 23 UCLA at Stanford, Sat. 6:00 p.m.: UCLA is playing the best ball of anyone in the Pac-12 right now, but Stanford is a pesky team that could use the win to solidify their tournament resume. Who guards Kyle Anderson though?
  • George Washington at No. 10 Saint Louis, Sat. 8:00 p.m.: The Colonials picked up a big win at Richmond this week, which means that they won’t be at risk of a three-game losing streak should they drop this game. The Billikens struggled with George Mason on Wednesday, however.
  • No. 4 Arizona at Colorado, Sat. 9:00 p.m.: In November, this looked like it was going to be the best game of the Pac-12 season. That was before ACL injuries to Spencer Dinwiddie and Brandon Ashley.
  • SMU at No. 21 UConn, Sun. 2:00 p.m.: SMU has struggled on the road, but they have the pieces to give UConn a run.

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH FOR:

1) A key Ivy League battle will be played on Sunday afternoon on the NBC Sports Network. Yale will be visiting Columbia. Yale is in first place in the Ivy League. On Saturday night, Cornell taking on Brown will be on the NBC Sports Network as well.

2) Drake will visit No. 3 Wichita State on Saturday at 8:00 p.m., one of three teams that will have a shot to end Wichita State’s undefeated regular season.

3) Texas Tech will make their return trip to Oklahoma State on Saturday, marking Marcus Smart’s first game back from a three-game suspension for shoving a fan in the Cowboys’ loss … at Texas Tech.

4) Two more excellent games that are a bit off the radar: VCU at UMass, Fri. 7:00 p.m.; and Kansas State at Oklahoma, Sat. 4:00 p.m.

5) The weekend’s biggest bubble games:

  • Xavier at Georgetown, Sat. 11:30 a.m.
  • Baylor at West Virginia, Sat. 1:47 p.m.
  • Marquette at DePaul, Sat. 2:00 p.m.
  • N.C. State at Virginia Tech, Sat. 2:00 p.m.
  • Tennessee at Texas A&M, Sat. 3:00 p.m.
  • Fordham at Saint Joseph’s, Sat. 3:00 p.m.
  • La Salle at Richmond, Sat. 4:00 p.m.
  • Saint Mary’s at Santa Clara, Sat. 4:00 p.m.
  • Minnesota at No. 24 Ohio State, Sat. 6:00 p.m.
  • Missouri at Alabama, Sat. 8:00 p.m.
  • Purdue at Nebraska, Sun. 4:15 p.m.
  • Florida State at Pittsburgh, Sun. 6:00 p.m.
  • Providence at Butler, Sun. 6:00 p.m.
  • Arizona State at Utah, Sun. 8:00 p.m.
  • USC at Cal, Sun. 8:00 p.m.
  • Washington State at Oregon, Sun. 9:00 p.m.

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)
(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.

Xavier lands second top 100 commitment in 2017

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Xavier landed a key commitment on Friday morning in Naji Marshall, one of the Musketeers’ top targets in the Class of 2017.

Marshall is a la 6-foot-5 wing from Washington D.C. that is currently ranked 62nd in the 2017 class by Rivals. He’s a scorer that has shown off a versatile offensive game, averaging better than three assists on the Under Armour Association circuit.

This is the third commitment from head coach Chris Mack in the class and the second top 100 player to pledge to the Musketeers. Marshall picked Xavier over Pittsburgh, South Carolina, Rhode Island and Virginia Tech, among other.