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CBT Roundtable: Most Important Player heading into the NCAA tournament

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In today’s Roundtable, we will each make a pick as to who is the most important player in the National Title race.

Rob Dauster: This pick is easy: Keith Appling.

I’ve been saying it all season long. If Michigan State can get healthy, they’re going to enter the NCAA tournament as one of, if not the favorite to win the national title. Gary Harris is over the ankle issues tht plagued him earlier in the season. Adreian Payne’s foot has gotten better. Travis Trice and Matt Costello have gotten past what ails them. Even Branden Dawson is on the verge of returning from his broken hand.

The one guy that Tom Izzo is waiting on is Appling. He injured his wrist in a hard fall back in December against North Carolina, and it hasn’t been right since then. That was two and a half months ago. He even sat out three games at one point. So the question is: will Appling ever get healthy? Will he ever be the guy that looked like an All-American back in November? Because when he plays that way, it makes the Spartans that much better. He was their closer, their facilitator, finally living up to the billing he’s had since he came out of high school.

If he can get back there, the Spartans will have a great shot to cut down the nets in North Texas. If he can’t, well, they’re still going to be a contender, but as we have seen all season long, they won’t be the same team.

Raphielle Johnson: No. 5 Kansas has steadily emerged as one of the favorites to win the national title, with the growth of freshmen Joel Embiid, Wayne Selden and Andrew Wiggins being one reason why. But if the Jayhawks are to win a national title there’s another, more experienced player who holds the keys. That would be point guard Naadir Tharpe, who’s currently averaging 9.0 points and 5.1 assists per game. Back in November more than a few folks (myself included) questioned whether or not the Jayhawks would be better off with freshman Frank Mason at the point, especially when considering how he played down in the Bahamas. But as the season’s progressed it’s clear that Tharpe is the player best suited to run the show.

When Tharpe plays well he’s both distributing the basketball and scoring in an efficient manner, which makes the Jayhawks an even tougher team to defend. And in many of Kansas’ six losses Tharpe hasn’t played at the level he’s displayed for most of the season. In those games he’s averaged 6.0 points and 4.8 assists per game, shooting 37.2% from the field with his performance at Kansas State (13 points, ten assists) being the best of the bunch. Kansas has the talent needed to make a deep run, but they can’t win six straight if Tharpe isn’t at his best.

Scott Phillips: For me, it has to be Duke’s Jabari Parker. Doug McDermott is the Player of the Year, but does anybody actually believe Creighton has a chance to win a title? Duke does have a chance at a title and a lot of that will have to do with the play of Parker.

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The focus for many will obviously be on Jabari’s offensive capabilities — and whether he can consistently score at a high level over a potential six-game stretch — but what about on the defensive end of things? Parker has to be able to score and rebound during the tournament while also having to face some of the best interior players in college basketball as a defender.

Is Parker up to the challenge? That remains to be seen, but as a lifelong Chicagoan, I watched Parker and Simeon win four consecutive Class 4A state championships in Illinois and you just didn’t bet against that dude when it came time for tournament play.

Obviously, the stakes, the level of play and the overall talent is much higher at the collegiate level, but Parker is a proven winner and will be a huge factor if Duke can make a Final Four run.

Terrence Payne: The former No. 1 team in the nation stumbled with back-to-back losses to Boston College and Duke last week. In those defeats, Tyler Ennis shot a combined 8-for-27 from the field. And while he still protected the ball — 12 assists to four turnovers — Duke was able to limit his effectiveness on the offensive end in the Blue Devils’ 66-60 win on Saturday.

What’s interesting about those pair of losses is that Syracuse had opportunities to win, and remain unbeaten. BC took Cuse to overtime, before pulling off the three-point upset win. The odds weren’t in the Orange’s favor with 10 seconds to go against Duke, but it was still only a one-possession game before Jim Boeheim became an Internet meme with his first career ejection.

Syracuse has gotten itself into a lot of close calls this season, and Ennis has been a key reason why the Orange have been able to prevail in many of those outcomes. Obviously the buzzer-beater against Pitt stands out, but it’s more so his decision-making and his poise down the stretch with the game in the balance. Entering that game against Pitt two weeks ago, Ennis had yet to commit a turnover in the last five minutes of a game.

Though, Ennis struggled from the field in the late stages against BC, typically a time where he flourishes. It was likely just a bump in the road in an otherwise impressive freshman campaign. A season which could end in Arlington for the Orange, if Ennis continues to thrive under pressure.

Matt Giles: Scottie Wilbekin is the reason why Florida’s offense is ranked fifteenth nationally. The junior guard, who is also arguably the team’s best on-ball defender, is no scoring slouch – 38 percent from beyond the arc – and his ability to create for the other Gators makes the team a favorite to reach the first weekend of April. Casey Prather can convert off the bounce, but the rest of the squad requires help to boost their scoring average.

The majority of Florida’s offense, when not in transition, is spent either spotting up or using pick and rolls, and Wilbekin is skilled at simultaneously understanding defensive spacing and how to best position his teammates to score. Nearly a quarter of UF’s offensive possessions are jumpers, and of those, 79 percent come from three, so Wilbekin’s passing acumen – per Hoop-Math.com, only 35 other teams are more dependent on an assist for a three point attempt than Billy Donovan’s squad – is crucial if Florida is to remain offensively efficient and avoid lulls, like during the second half against Vanderbilt.

Michael Frazier II, Patric Young, and Dorian Finney-Smith – three Gators whose percentage of shots taken is more than 20 percent – all are talented on offense, but without their point guard to position them in a perfect scoring opportunity, Florida likely wouldn’t be mentioned in any 2014 national title conversation.

Four-star 2017 shooting guard commits to Virginia Tech

Virginia Tech head coach Buzz Williams celebrates a play in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Virginia, Monday, Jan. 4, 2016, in Blacksburg, Va. (Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times via AP) LOCAL STATIONS OUT; LOCAL INTERNET OUT; LOCAL PRINT OUT (SALEM TIMES REGISTER; FINCASTLE HERALD; CHRISTIANSBURG NEWS MESSENGER; RADFORD NEWS JOURNAL; ROANOKE STAR SENTINEL; MANDATORY CREDIT
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Recruiting, and on-court results, have picked up at Virginia Tech since Buzz Williams took over as head coach. In his second year at the helm the Hokies won ten conference games, and in reaching the Postseason NIT made their first postseason appearance since 2011.

Thursday night Virginia Tech landed its first verbal commitment in the Class of 2017, as four-star shooting guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker made his pledge.

The 6-foot-5 Alexander-Walker, who’s ranked 91st in his class by Rivals.com, also took official visits to Maryland and USC before making his pledge to the ACC program. Alexander-Walker attends Hamilton Heights Christian Academy in Chattanooga, Tennessee, but as a native of Canada plays his grassroots basketball for the Canada Elite program on the Under Armour Association circuit.

Good with either hand, Alexander-Walker can play either on or off the basketball. And that versatility should serve him well in a system that places a high value on “switch-ables,” or players who can fill multiple roles.

The Canada connection paid off for Virginia Tech in the recruitment of Alexander-Walker, with assistant coach Jamie McNeilly being a native of the country himself and having a connection to the Walker family. The Hokies will lose two perimeter players at the end of the 2016-17 season in Devin Wilson and Seth Allen, which will give Alexander-Walker the opportunity to earn minutes as a freshman.

Oakland lands former Oklahoma State guard Clark

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When point guard Stevie Clark began his career at Oklahoma State in 2013, the Top 100 prospect was expected by many to be an impact player for the Cowboys. Things didn’t go as planned however, as off-court issues ultimately led to Clark’s dismissal from the program before his sophomore season. Add in a lawsuit filed by Clark in which he alleged that he was forced by the school to take psychotropic drugs, and it’s safe to say that his time in Stillwater was anything but smooth.

Clark ultimately landed at Arkansas Baptist College, and on Thursday it was reported by the Detroit Free Press that he’s committed to Oakland University to play for head coach Greg Kampe. Clark joins a program with an immediate need at the point, with All-American Kahlil Felder having entered the NBA Draft and hired an agent as well.

The obvious question regarding Clark is whether or not he’s managed to take care of business off the court, and in an interview with Mark Snyder of the Free Press the Oklahoma native made note of the benefits of getting away from home for college.

Playing in Rochester, far from his home, will serve him well, he said.

“Anywhere away from home is the best thing,” Clark said. “It’s just hard balancing everything being close to home.”

Clark will be one of the options Kampe has to choose from at the point, with incoming freshmen Brailen Neely and Billy Thomas also among the new arrivals, and sophomore Jaevin Cumberland looking to earn more playing time than the 5.6 minutes per contest he averaged as a freshman.

Creighton point guard Watson Jr. to return for senior season

Creighton's Maurice Watson Jr. (10) reacts after scoring during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Xavier in Omaha, Neb., Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016. Creighton won 70-56. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
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Creighton’s chances of moving up the Big East standings and returning to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2014 improved a great deal Thursday, as starting point guard Maurice Watson Jr. announced that he will be returning for his senior season. Watson, who began his college career at Boston University, entered his name into the NBA Draft pool without hiring an agent but decided that another year in Omaha would be best for him.

Watson was one of the most impactful transfers in the country last season, as his play at the point was a major factor in the Bluejays winning 20 games and going 9-9 in conference play after being picked to finish eighth in the Big East preseason poll. Watson averaged 14.1 points, 3.4 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game last season, earning second team All-Big East honors.

With Watson’s return the Bluejays will welcome back three of their top four scorers from last season, with center Geoffrey Groselle being the lone departure. Head coach Greg McDermott adds a talented shooting guard in Marcus Foster, who sat out last season after transferring in from Kansas State. With Watson and Foster working together, Creighton will have a formidable perimeter tandem leading the way in 2016-17 with the likes of forward Cole Huff and guard Isaiah Zierden also being key contributors.

In addition to what Watson can provide in games he’ll also serve as a good mentor for Kaleb Joseph, who will have to sit out next season after transferring in from Syracuse. Joseph, who will have two seasons of eligibility remaining, fell out of the rotation as a sophomore so the year in residency should benefit him as he works towards grabbing the reins in 2017-18.

h/t ESPN.com

UConn, four-star 2017 big man Brown part ways

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Back in mid-January UConn made waves on the recruiting trail by securing a verbal commitment from 7-foot-1 center Zach Brown, a player seen by many as one of the top prospects in the Class of 2017. That partnership came to an end Thursday, as the two parties decided to part ways. News of the mutual decision was first reported by Scout.com.

The Miami native is currently ranked 28th in the Class of 2017 by Rivals.com, and Thursday’s news opens up a spot in the front court that UConn head coach Kevin Ollie and his staff will now have to fill. Amida Brimah, who’s currently going through the NBA pre-Draft process, will be a senior next season should he return to Storrs as will Kentan Facey.

Among the interior options who will have eligibility remaining beyond next season for the Huskies are sophomore Steven Enoch and incoming freshmen Mamadou Diarra and Juwan Durham.

UConn was in the running for 2016 power forward Taurean Thompson, but multiple outlets have the Brewster Academy product considering Michigan State (which added UNLV grad transfer Ben Carter Wednesday), Seton Hall and Syracuse at this point in his recruitment.

UCF lands commitment from transfer Terrell Allen

New UCF men's NCAA college basketball coach Johnny Dawkins speaks at his introductory press conference Thursday, March 24, 2016 in Orlando, Fla. (Jacob Langston/Orlando Sentinel via AP) MAGS OUT; NO SALES; MANDATORY CREDIT
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Having already landed one transfer in former Michigan guard Aubrey Dawkins (the new head coach’s son), UCF landed a second Thursday afternoon as former Drexel guard Terrell Allen announced that he’ll finish out his college career playing for Johnny Dawkins.

Allen, a CAA All-Rookie Team selection in his lone season at Drexel, announced the news by way of his Twitter account. After sitting out the 2016-17 season per NCAA transfer rules, Allen will have three seasons of eligibility remaining.

On a team that struggled throughout the 2015-16 season, winning just six games, Allen averaged 9.8 points, 3.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists in 32.5 minutes of action per game. The 6-foot-2 point guard finished the season ranked in the top ten in the CAA in both assists and assist-to-turnover ratio, with his assist tally ranking eighth and his A/T ratio of 1.9 placing him seventh.

With B.J. Taylor entering his junior season and Jeremy Carter-Sheppard joining the ranks this summer, the addition of Allen gives UCF another option at the point for the 2017-18 campaign.