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2014 Big Ten Tournament Preview: Can Michigan State turn things around?

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I’m not sure there is a conference in the country where there is more at stake in the conference tournament.

Even with Sunday’s loss at Nebraska, Wisconsin has a chance to play their was into a No. 1 seed if they can win the conference tournament. Michigan probably can’t be a No. 1 seed, but winning the league tournament should lock them into a No. 2 seed. And neither of those teams have the highest ceiling of anyone in the conference. That would be Michigan State, who is a national title contender if they can get their act together. Iowa is also trying to figure their issues out, as the Hawkeyes look like a top 15 team and play like a No. 8 seed.

Then you get to the bubble, where both Nebraska and Minnesota have their NCAA tournament hopes pinned on their performance this week.

The Huskers are probably in a better spot than the Gophers. If Nebraska, who gets a first round bye, lucks out and gets Ohio State in the quarterfinals, they are probably going to get in whether or not they win that game. Minnesota, on the other hand, probably needs to win at least two games if they want to dance. They are on the outside looking in as of today, and beating Penn State isn’t going to change that.

MORE: Browse through all of our conference tournament previews

The Bracket

When: March 13-16

Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis

Final: March 16, 3:30 p.m. (CBS)

Favorite: Michigan Wolverines

Despite losing Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. to the draft, and with Mitch McGary biding his time on the bench with a back injury, John Beilein somehow managed to do something that he wasn’t able to do last season: win the outright Big Ten regular season title. That’s what happens when Nik Stauskas turns into an all-american and Caris LeVert puts together an all-Big Ten caliber campaign. I’m not sure there is a pair of wing players that were better in conference play than those two.

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Perhaps the biggest difference between Michigan now and Michigan four months ago has been the play of Derrick Walton at the point. He’s not Trey Burke, at least not yet, but as his confidence has grown, his ability to handle the rigors of running an offense at this level of basketball has increased exponentially. He’s become more than just the guy that dribbles the ball up the court. He’s a player, and with defenses keying on Stauskas and LeVert, that makes a major difference.

And if they lose?: Michigan State Spartans

I’m going to ride the Spartan bandwagon until the season is over. All the proof I needed was in that second half against Iowa, when Keith Appling finally played like Keith Appling and Michigan State beat the brakes off the Hawkeyes for 20 minutes. That’s the key to any and all success Michigan State will have this month. Appling just isn’t right right now. I don’t know if it’s the wrist injury itself, the fact that sitting out has killed his conditioning or if it is as simple as Appling’s confidence being in the gutter. Whatever the case may be, if he can find the form that he had in that second half against Iowa, Sparty will be awesome once again. And if he can’t? It won’t be a great month in East Lansing.

Other Contenders:

  • Wisconsin Badgers: Outside of the three-week stretch when the Badgers lost five out of six games, they’ve been nearly unbeatable, with their only loss coming at Nebraska on the final day of the regular season. Wisconsin has quite a bit on the line in this tournament. Win it all, and they could be the last No. 1 seed.
  • Ohio State Buckeyes: Ohio State is as tough as anyone defensively. Their issue is the ability to score the ball. On the nights that guys like Lenzelle Smith and Shannon Scott are scoring, the Buckeyes can beat anyone in the league. On the nights they aren’t, the Buckeyes can lose to anyone. Such is life.

Sleeper: Iowa Hawkeyes

On paper, Iowa looks like one of the best teams in the league. They’re talented, they’re deep and they have two of the best players in the conference in Roy Devyn Marble and Aaron White. But they haven’t been able to win close games against elite competition all season long, and they haven’t played a lick of defense for the better part of a month. So which team shows up in Indy?

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Deeper Sleeper: Nebraska Cornhuskers

Tim Miles has done a tremendous job with this Nebraska program, but the question I have about them is whether or not they can beat teams away from home. They did win at Michigan State, but so did Illinois. The Huskers are good — they are the fourth seed after all — so it will be interesting to see what they can do this week.

Studs you haven’t heard about:

  • Terran Petteway, Nebraska: Petteway is the best player on the Huskers. He’s fun to watch because he has a penchant for hitting ridiculously tough shots in critical moments. And his hair is awesome.
  • Yogi Ferrell, Indiana: Indiana has struggled this season, but it’s not Ferrell’s fault. He’s had a terrific sophomore campaign.
  • Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin: Kaminsky is the latest in a long line of talented Wisconsin big men. His ability to score in the post and be a threat in pick-and-pop actions makes him perfect for Wisconsin’s swing offense.
  • Caris LeVert, Michigan: Nik Stauskas gets all the attention for the Wolverines, but LeVert is actually the most improved player on the roster. He may be the team’s most indispensable player as well.

CBT Prediction: Michigan State over Michigan

Best [name of league] Tournament Memory:

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.

Four-star 2018 guard Coby White commits to North Carolina

North Carolina coach Roy Williams, center, reacts with his team behind him after a play during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament against Pittsburgh, Thursday, March 10, 2016, in Washington. North Carolina won 88-71. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
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With guards Jalek Felton and Andrew Platek having committed in their 2017 recruiting class, North Carolina received a commitment from one of the better guards in the Class of 2018 Thursday night. Four-star guard Coby White, who’s ranked 61st in his class by Rivals.com, made his pledge to Roy Williams’ program. News of White’s commitment was first reported by Scout.com.

The 6-foot-4 White is a native of Wilson, North Carolina, where he attends Greenfield HS, and he played his grassroots basketball for the CP3 16U basketball program this summer. His commitment to UNC comes just a couple days after the ACC school offered him a scholarship.

White took an unofficial visit to UNC in June, and his play in July ultimately led to the program making the aforementioned scholarship offer. By the time White enrolls in Chapel Hill, current veterans such as Joel Berry II and Nate Britt will be out of eligibility. Among the perimeter would could potentially be on campus in 2018 are freshmen Seventh Woods and Brandon Robinson, and sophomore Kenny Williams.

White is the second commit in the 2018 class for the Tar Heels, with 6-foot-7 guard Rechon Black being the first.

Point guard Small to transfer from Oregon

SPOKANE, WA - MARCH 18:  Kendall Small #21 of the Oregon Ducks shoots over Derek Mountain #40 of the Holy Cross Crusaders in the second half during the first round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena on March 18, 2016 in Spokane, Washington.  (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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After navigating a lack of depth at the point to win the Pac-12 regular season and tournament titles and earn the program’s first-ever one seed in the NCAA tournament, Oregon will have no such issues in 2016-17. Dylan Ennis, who missed most of last season with a foot injury, is back for another season as is returning starter Casey Benson. Add in freshman Payton Pritchard, whose shooting ability can help a team that struggled from three a season ago, and Dana Altman has multiple players to call upon at that spot.

That left Kendall Small, who played just under eight minutes per game as a freshman, in a spot where it would have been tough to earn more playing time as a sophomore. As a result he’s decided to transfer, with the news first being reported by Scout.com.

In addition to the three guards mentioned above, sophomore Tyler Dorsey also has the ability to make plays with the ball in his hands. Small will have three seasons of eligibility remaining at whichever school he chooses to transfer to, and he’ll have to sit out the 2016-17 season per NCAA transfer rules.

A 6-foot guard from Anaheim, Small’s best outing came in Oregon’s 77-59 win over Savannah State on November 23. In that game Small accounted for nine points, four assists and three rebounds in 23 minutes of action. But he played double-digit minutes in just four games after the Ducks began Pac-12 play in early January, the last of which being Oregon’s win over Holy Cross in the first round of the NCAA tournament.