NCAA

Previewing the First Four

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While the greatest day in the history of sports — the first Thursday of the NCAA tournament — is still two days away, the Big Dance actually kicks off tonight with the first two games of the First Four.

Here is a quick look at the four games that will be played in Dayton over the course of the next two days:

MORERead through all of our bracket analysis here

Tue. 6:40 p.m.: No. 16 Albany vs. No. 16 Mount St. Mary’s:

Playing for the right to face Florida on Thursday, two of the NCAA tournament’s most unexpected participants will square off the the first of 67 glorious games.

Albany was the No. 4 seed in the America East tournament, upsetting league champ Vermont in the semifinals on their home court before heading to Long Island to beat Stony Brook on the road. The Great Danes are led by Peter Hooley and Sam Rowley. Hooley has been playing great of late, as he scored 71 points in the three America East tournament games.

Mount St. Mary’s is led by a member of Shaka Smart’s coaching tree. Jamion Christian runs a similar system to what Shaka Smart does at VCU, only his is called Mayhem instead of Havoc. They press, they try to force turnovers and they shoot a lot of threes. The name to know on the Mountaineers is Julian Norfleet.

Tue. 9:10 p.m.: No. 12 N.C. State vs. No. 12 Xavier

N.C. State was the surprise of Selection Sunday, as they snuck into the dance over SMU, who had spent much of the final month of the regular season in the top 25. Xavier had a bit more room to spare, as most experts considered them as close to a lock as a bubble team can get, but they still found themselves on the wrong end of a play-in game.

This has the potential to be quite an entertaining game. N.C. State is led by T.J. Warren, who is one of the nation’s most talented scorers. He went for more than 40 points in back-to-back games at the end of the regular season and beat out Jabari Parker for ACC Player of the Year.

Xavier has a talented scorer in their own right in Semaj Christon, a 6-foot-3 sophomore point guard that has had the offense built around him this season. The good news for Xavier is that they also have Matt Stainbrook back from a knee injury that cost him a game at the end of the regular season.

MORE8 teams that can win it all  |  8 clutch players  |  Guide to perfect bracket pool

Wed. 6:40 p.m.: No. 16 Cal Poly vs. No. 16 Texas Southern

Cal Poly is the lowest seeded team in this field after losing nine of their last 11 games and sneaking into the dance with a regular season record of just 12-19. Poly is led by Chris Eversley and Dave Nwaba, their two leading scorers and rebounders, but it was a three from Ridge Shipley, a freshman point guard that comes off the bench, that gave them the win over Cal St. Northridge.

Texas Southern is loaded with guys that you’ve heard of before. Their coach is Mike Davis, who once led Indiana to a Final Four. Their best player is Aaric Murray, a former top 100 recruit that played at La Salle and West Virginia. Former Marshall scorer D.D. Scarver is their second-leading scorer while Oklahoma State transfer Ray Penn comes off the bench.

Wed. 9:10 p.m.: No. 11 Tennessee vs. No. 11 Iowa

This will be one of the most interesting matchups of the first week of the tournament. Tennessee is a team with a great computer profile, a dominating win over Virginia in December and a talented roster playing their best basketball down the stretch of the season. The problem? The Vols lost too many head-scratchers and got a pair of bad breaks on game-winning threes from Texas A&M’s Antwan Space in their two losses to the Aggies this season.

Iowa is similar in that their computer numbers look really good, but their overall profile is suspect. They blew too many close games early in the season and they have completely lost the ability to play defense over the course of the last month.

The matchup that will be interesting will be between Jordan McRae and Roy Devyn Marble, two of the nation’s most underrated stars, but the x-factor is going to be Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery. His son is having surgery to remove a tumor from his thyroid on the day of the game, and McCaffery will fly into Dayton before tip-off after being by his son’s side during the procedure. Will Iowa rally around their head coach and his family.

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)
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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.