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2014 Pac-12 Tournament Preview: No. 4 Arizona looks to cap dominant campaign

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After three incredibly lean seasons, the Pac-12 has looked more formidable for much of the 2013-14 season. For some that may not be easy to see, as there’s just one conference team (No. 4 Arizona) ranked in the national polls. But the conference has improved, as evidenced by just how much is on the line in Las Vegas. The top three seeds, Arizona, UCLA and Arizona State, will certainly hear their names called on Selection Sunday and Oregon’s well on its way after knocking off the Wildcats last Saturday.

The question that will be asked quite often at the MGM Grand Garden Arena: how much work do the Pac-12 bubble teams have to do in order to ensure themselves of a spot in the NCAA tournament? Fans of California, Colorado and Stanford will ask this question, and it’s anyone guess what the right answer is. And they won’t be alone in this mission, as Utah can earn another shot at Arizona with a win over Washington in the first round. Larry Krystkowiak’s team reached the semifinals of last year’s event and played the Wildcats tough in both meetings, but thanks to their non-conference strength of schedule the Utes have the steepest climb of the Pac-12’s bubble teams.

Outside of Arizona, which will be a one-seed in the NCAA tournament, there’s a lot to be decided in Las Vegas. And even though these teams aren’t in the at-large discussion, both Washington (C.J. Wilcox) and Oregon State (Roberto Nelson) have guards capable of getting scalding hot from the field. Instead of hoping to get two or three teams into the NCAA tournament field as they have in recent years, the Pac-12 finds itself working to get (at least) half of its teams into the Big Dance. And that will make for an incredible four days at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.

(MORE: Browse through all of our conference tournament previews)

The Bracket

When: March 12 – 15

Where: Las Vegas, Nev. (MGM Grand Garden Arena)

Final: March 15, 6:00 p.m. (Fox Sports 1)

Favorite: No. 4 Arizona

Sean Miller’s team finished three games ahead of the pack, and their defense was a big reason why. The nation’s best defense from an efficiency standpoint, Arizona limited conference foes to 39.5% shooting from the field and 33.0% shooting from beyond the arc. Simply put there are times when the Wildcats simply decide that the opponent isn’t scoring, no matter how hard they try. With their length, athleticism and effort, Arizona’s controlled multiple games in which they haven’t put up eye-popping offensive numbers.

As for that offense, this was the area in which Arizona had the biggest adjustment to make in the aftermath of Brandon Ashley’s season-ending injury but they were still third in the conference in offensive efficiency. T.J. McConnell has been a great fit at the point, combining with Pac-12 Player of the Year Nick Johnson to form one of the nation’s best perimeter tandems. Aaron Gordon and Kaleb Tarczewski lead the way in the front court, and Arizona’s ability to hit the offensive glass (35.1% offensive rebounding percentage) factored into their efficiency rating. If Johnson and Gabe York can hit perimeter shots at a decent clip, look out.

And if they lose?: Oregon

Shocked to see the 7-seed in this spot, huh? Well, that position on the bracket says more about Oregon’s 3-8 start to conference play than their current seven-game win streak. Dana Altman seems to have a perimeter rotation he’s comfortable with, as Johnathan Loyd, Joseph Young and Jason Calliste have emerged as the primary options. In the front court Elgin Cook’s earned more playing time and Mike Moser’s playing his best basketball of the season. They’ll have to win four games in as many days to repeat as tournament champions, but given the way Oregon’s playing right now it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Ducks pulled it off.

Other Contenders:

  • UCLA: With first team All-Pac-12 selections Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson being the headlines, Steve Alford has more than enough perimeter talent to win this event. The question is the front court, with the Wear twins (David and Travis) and Tony Parker needing to be consistent on both ends. This trio doesn’t have to be world-beaters, but UCLA can’t afford to have all three struggling if they’re to win the title.
  • Arizona State: Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Jordan Bachynski and first team All-Pac-12 guard Jahii Carson have led the way all season long for the Sun Devils, who are the three-seed in the tournament. And if Jermaine Marshall and Shaquielle McKissic can continue to give Herb Sendek quality minutes, Arizona State can win three straight games.

Sleeper: California

The Golden Bears lost three straight before beating Colorado in overtime on Saturday, providing Mike Montgomery’s team with a much-needed confidence boost before the conference tournament. Justin Cobbs will lead the way, and if their young guards (Jabari Bird and Jordan Mathews) can be productive in supplementary roles, Cal will be a team to keep an eye on.

Deeper Sleeper: Colorado

Tad Boyle’s Buffaloes had some major adjustments to make when Spencer Dinwiddie was lost for the season with a torn ACL in January. The two players who have stepped up the most in his absence are guard Askia Booker and forward Josh Scott, with the latter earning first-team All-Pac-12 honors. If Xavier Johnson can consistently produce on the offensive end, Colorado can make some noise in Vegas.

Studs you haven’t heard about:

  • Josh Huestis, Stanford: Dwight Powell was the first team All-Pac-12 selection but it’s the versatile Huestis who is one of the league’s best defenders.
  • Delon Wright, Utah: Wright is one of the most versatile players around, as he led the Utes in points and assists and is second on the team in rebounds.
  • DaVonte’ Lacy, Washington State: The Cougars’ lack of team success is one reason why Lacy doesn’t receive more attention. He’s averaging 19.1 points and 4.3 rebounds per game.
  • Roberto Nelson, Oregon State: A first team All-Pac-12 performer, Nelson’s scoring a conference-best 20.6 points per game along with 3.7 assists and 3.6 rebounds per game.

CBT Prediction: No. 4 Arizona wins its first conference tournament title since 2002.

Best Pac-10/12 Tournament Memory: Isaiah Thomas + Gus Johnson = Magic (2011)

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)
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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.