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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.

Penn State loses freshman on day practice starts

Patrick Chambers
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On the day that college basketball practice is to start, Penn State head coach Pat Chambers announced that his roster would be changing.

Joe Hampton, a 6-foot-8, 290 pound power forward from Maryland, will be leaving the program.

“Joe has made the decision to leave the program based on personal reasons,” Chambers said. “We wish him the best of luck with his future endeavors.”

Hampton was a three-star prospect that missed his senior season at Oak Hill Academy with torn ACL, but he reportedly enrolled at Penn State in May, before the rest of the Nittany Lion recruit class.

Michigan State lands second Class of 2017 commitment

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)
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Tom Izzo landed his second commitment in the Class of 2017 as big man Xavier Tillman announced that he will be attending Michigan State.

A 6-foot-7, 235 pound power forward, Tillman is a physical-if-undersized player that is rated as a three-star prospect. He’s not a one-and-done player, but he’s should be a good program guy for the Spartans.

“Tillman is another big and strong interior presence for Michigan State,” said NBCSports.com recruiting analyst Scott Phillips. “What separates Tillman from a lot of big men his size is his passing ability. Tillman is an intelligent player on the offensive end and he rebounds his area well.”

Tillman joins Jaren Jackson, his AAU teammate for Speice Indy Heat, in Michigan State’s recruiting class.

He picked Michigan State over Purdue and Marquette.

PHOTO: Arizona’s Kobi Simmons puts his chin above the rim

TREVISO, ITALY - JUNE 06:  Kobi Simmons in action during adidas Euriocamp Day 1 at La Ghirada sports center on June 6, 2015 in Treviso, Italy.  (Photo by Roberto Serra/Iguana Press/Getty Images)
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Kobi Simmons has some ridiculous hops.

How ridiculous?

Well, take a look at this tweet:

His vertical is … 45 inches? That’s pretty impressive, but not quite as impressive as the pictures that he tweeted out, the full effect of which you cannot receive until you see the picture in it’s entirety:

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1. Look how high he is off the court.

2. Look at where his hand is in relation to the top of the back board.

3. … LOOK AT HIS CHIN!

I know that the angle of this picture is probably playing some visual tricks on us, but think about how high you have to be able to jump just to have a camera visually trick someone’s eyes into thinking your chin is above the backboard.

The Perry Ellis All-Stars

Michigan guard Spike Albrecht (2) makes a layup between Northern Michigan forward Brett Branstrom, top left, and center Vejas Grazulis (52) in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., Friday, Nov. 13, 2015. Michigan won 70-44. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)
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Beginning in September and running up until November 11th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2016-2017 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

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

You know the feeling. You’re flipping between games and stumble upon him. Maybe it’s a team you only rarely catch, or maybe it’s a conference foe you’ve watched play dozens of times over the last few years, but as you watch for a few moments, that’s when you see him. You could have sworn he graduated last year. Or even maybe the year before. But alas, there he is. That four-year starter. The dude who got a medical redshirt. A graduate transfer. It’s one of college basketball’s enduring and unique phenomena.

We present, to you, the Perry Ellis All-Stars.

PERRY ELLIS ALL-STARS, FIRST TEAM

MVP G Spike Albrecht, Purdue: After averaging just 2.2 points and 0.7 assists per game for Michigan as a freshman, Albrecht broke through with one of the most memorable NCAA tournament title game performances of all-time against Louisville, hitting four of five 3-pointers, scoring 17 points and letting loose one of the most epic heat checks of all-time.

Albrecht’s career was set to come to a close with the Wolverines last year, but recovery from hip surgery didn’t go as quickly as hoped and he sat out with a medical redshirt. That paved the way for an intra-conference graduate transfer to West Lafayette, where the 24-year-old will bolster the backcourt and make legions of fans wonder how the hell he’s still playing college basketball.

G Phil Forte, Oklahoma State: Once best known for simply being Marcus Smart’s best friend, Forte has grown into his own and become one of the top – and most enduring – players in the Big 12. He’s averaged double-figures in scoring in every season and was set to be the face of the Cowboys last year in his senior season, but a torn elbow ligament delayed that final season to this year, when he’ll try to help the Brad Underwood era get off the ground as a likely all-conference player. Not bad for an unranked Class of 2012 recruit who many thought had his high-major opportunity only because of his friendship with a future top ten pick.

G Bryce Alford, UCLA: Alford gets his spot on the first time because it feels like he’s been a major topic of conversation in hoops circles for a half-decade, even if it’s only been a little over two years. That’s what happens when you’re the shoot-happy son of the UCLA coach. He’s been a flashpoint for Bruins fans who have been less than thrilled with coach Steve Alford, given how much the offense – and shots – have gone through Bryce. With a monster freshman class coming to Westwood this season, Bryce’s role will be one of the more interesting subplots in college basketball this season.

F Kennedy Meeks, North Carolina: The Charlotte native arrived in Chapel Hill as a McDonald’s All-American with expectations as large as his 6-foot-9, 315-pound frame. He averaged just 16 minutes per game as a freshman, but a productive NCAA tournament and as offseason dominated by talk of all the weight he lost propelled those expectations. He averaged 11 points and 7 boards in 23 minutes per game as a sophomore, but saw his minutes and production drop as a junior. A career that some thought would be a quick one at North Carolina will now reach its four-year conclusion this season, with Meeks a topic of discussion for the Tar Heels each and every offseason he’s been in Chapel Hill.

F Amile Jefferson, Duke: Jefferson, another Class of 2012 recruit and McDonald’s All-American, returns for a fifth season with the Blue Devils due to a medical redshirt that was a product of a foot injury that cut Jefferson’s season last year short amid him putting up the best numbers of his career. It may turn out to be a blessing in disguise as he’s now part of a roster many have pegged as the best in the country, giving him a chance to pair another ring with the NCAA championship he won in 2015.

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

DURHAM, NC - NOVEMBER 13: Amile Jefferson #21 of the Duke Blue Devils during their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on November 13, 2015 in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Amile Jefferson (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

PERRY ELLIS ALL-STARS, SECOND TEAM

G Stevie Clark, Oakland: Best known for his arrest after police said he was urinating out of a moving car, Clark attended two junior colleges and has now resurfaced at Oakland with two years of eligibility remaining.

G Katin Reinhardt, Marquette: After stops at USC and UNLV, the one-time top-40 2012 recruit — the supposed second-coming of Jimmer Fredette — is finishing his career in Milwaukee.

G Rodney Purvis: He started his career at N.C. State, transferred to UConn and submitted his name for NBA draft consideration, but the former top 15 prospect is back for his fifth year of college ball.

F Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin: The Badger senior was both a reserve and a starter in Wisconsin’s back-to-back Final Four runs and became something of an internet sensation with his fascination with stenographers. He’s now become one of the faces of the Wisconsin program and an outspoken socially conscious voice.

F Alex Murphy, Northeastern: A potential McDonald’s All-American in the Class of 2012, he enrolled at Duke a year early only to redshirt the 2011-12 season. After a year and a half seeing limited bench minutes, he transferred to Florida where, in the second half of the 2014-15 season, he saw limited bench minutes. An injury kept him out last season and, after receiving a sixth-year of eligibility from the NCAA, will play at Northeastern this year.

C Przmek Karnowski, Gonzaga: The 7-foot-1 Poland native is the veteran of 113 career games, but only five came last year after a back injury forced him to take a medical redshirt.

YUP, THEY’RE STILL IN SCHOOL, TOO

Dajuan Coleman, Syracuse
Bronson Koenig, Wisconsin
London Perrantes, Virginia
Tracy Abrams, Illinois
Dylan Ennis, Oregon
Je’lon Hornbeak, Monmouth
Myles Davis, Xavier
Tyler Lewis, Butler

PHOTO: Thad Matta models Ohio State’s new jerseys

DAYTON, OH - MARCH 24: Head coach Thad Matta of the Ohio State Buckeyes claps on the sideline in the first half against the Iowa State Cyclones during the third round of the 2013 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at UD Arena on March 24, 2013 in Dayton, Ohio.  (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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One of the things that basketball programs like to do near the start of the season is to blast out the new version of their uniforms on social media.

It gets fans excited about the upcoming season, it gets players excited to throw those jerseys on, it might result in some extra sales of team apparel. All that good stuff.

Typically, these pictures are with the uniforms modeled on a player or a mannequin. Not if you’re Ohio State, and not if you’re Thad Matta:

Here’s how the picture came to be, courtesy of ESPN:

According to Buckeyes video coordinator Kyle Davis, who took the Twitter photo, the staff was looking for a way to to show off the team’s new uniforms on social media before media day kicked off in earnest. He and OSU director of basketball operations David Egelhoff were laying the uniform out on various surfaces — tables, floors and so on — when Matta, en route to his daily workout, walked by.

“He asks us, ‘What are you guys doing?’ and we tell him we’re trying to show the new uniforms but we don’t really know what to do with this — we don’t have a mannequin,” Davis said. “And he says, ‘Why do you need a mannequin? I’m right here.'”

“We thought there was no way he was actually going to do this,” Davis said. “But Coach said ‘give me two minutes,’ and sure enough he came out wearing the uniform. He wanted everyone to know he still had it.”