Best bets to be this season's version of Butler

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Anyone looking for this season’s Butler – a non-BCS school capable of making a deep run in the NCAA tournament – doesn’t have to look far.

It’s still the Bulldogs.

Sure, Gordon Hayward and Willie Veasley are gone, but there’s plenty to like about Brad Stevens’ team that came this close to stunning Duke in the 2010 NCAA title game. You know, like Shelvin Mack, Matt Howard and Ronald Nored, among others. But you should already know about the Bulldogs. They’re 18th in our preseason Top 25.

Other non-BCS schools in the Top 25? Memphis, Gonzaga, San Diego State, Temple, UNLV, Xavier and Wichita State. So consider them good bets as well.

So who’s that leave? Plenty. Bookmark this page. When March rolls around, you’ll see these six schools in your bracket. Ignore them at your own risk.

East Tennessee State
The Bucs’ finest NCAA tourney moment came in 1992 when they stunned 3-seed Arizona. They’ve been back four times since and have been routed just once, last season against Kentucky. There’s reason to think they could finally break through again. Still, among the teams listed here, ETSU is the biggest underdog.

Four starters return form a 20-15 team that played forced a ton of turnovers, hit the offensive boards and gets a boost thanks to a healthy Mike Smith, who was an all-conference selection until a knee injury derailed his 2009-10 season. He’ll be their best offensive player.

Old Dominion
The Monarchs are a known commodity – they popped Notre Dame last season as an 11 seed – who bring back four starters from a 27-9 team that swept the conference crowns. Despite losing center Gerald Lee, ODU isn’t going anywhere. In fact, it could be better.

Senior Frank Hassell was the difference against Notre Dame (15 points, 9 boards) and junior Kent Bazemore is poised for bigger things after nabbing a spot on the All-CAA Tournament team. Guards Ben Finney (111.2 ORtg) and Darius James (22.1 ARate) are underrated and a huge reason ODU only allows foes to hit 30.1 percent beyond the arc.

Bottom line, ODU is nasty on defense (no easy shots, lots of forced turnovers and teams don’t get second-chance points) and hits the offensive boards relentlessly. In fact, no team did it better in 2010. That continues, good luck to the BCS school that plays the Monarchs in March. 

Santa Barbara
Butler had a weapon most non-BCS school don’t have: An NBA-caliber talent. Same goes for the Gauchos, who have a dynamic player in All-American candidate Orlando Johnson. The 6-5 junior averaged 18 points and 5.4 rebounds game last season, his first with the program.

But … Santa Barbara needs a big jump in performance to match Butler. The Gauchos keep opponents off the glass and are good along the perimeter, but the offense is incredibly inefficient (a little too much Johnson?) and makes too many turnovers. Solve those issues, and they’ll elevate their game in March.

Utah State
The Aggies are a March mainstay, having made seven NCAA tournaments since 2000. Yet they’ve won just once, a 12-5 upset against Ohio State in 2001. That’s the main reason one of the winningest teams of the decade isn’t better known. That changes this season and makes them a great opportunity to be the newest media darling.

Despite losing do-it-all guard Jared Quayle, Utah State returns every other player from a 27-8 squad that just missed pulling off a Big Dance upset against Marquette. That means shooters (Tyler Newbold, Brian Green), reliable post players (Tai Wesley, Nate Bendall), a savvy wing (Pooh Williams) and a deep bench.

Not that coach Stew Morrill uses the bench to outrun opponents. The Aggies play slower than almost every D-I team, yet few teams can hang with their incredibly efficient offense. March is made for teams who can make shots. That’s the Aggies.

Virginia Commonwealth
Two CAA teams? Absolutely. While CAA foe ODU thrives on defense, the Rams do it with offense. Only 25 teams sported a more efficient offense in 2009-10. They hit 36.6 percent of their 3-pointers, 50.9 of their 2s, take care of the ball and get to the offensive glass.

It all starts with senior guards Joey Rodriguez and Brandon Rozell, who can hit from outside and occasionally play some nice defense, too. VCU will miss center Larry Sanders, who cleaned up defensive miscues with his blocks, but this isn’t a team who overly relies on one player. That makes them a tough out in March.

Wofford
The Terriers made the NCAA tournament for the first time last season. A return appearance could result in the school’s first Big Dance win. (They just missed it after four-point loss to Wisconsin.)

Wofford plays deliberately, prizes possessions and forces opponents to work for each shot, which usually results in a Wofford rebound. But it’s not all about defense. Senior forward Noah Dahlman averaged 16.6 points a game last season, but few players score more efficiently because the 6-6 Dahlman hits the boards for second-chance points and gets to the free-throw line frequently.

However, an NCAA tourney win will require a little something more. Guards Jamar Diggs, Brad Loesing and stout forward Tim Johnson must become more reliable scoring options.

Mike Miller’s also on Twitter @BeyndArcMMiller, usually talkin’ hoops. Click here for more.

Arizona lands first commitment in 2017 class

Alex Barcello (Jon Lopez/Nike)
(Jon Lopez/Nike)
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Arizona landed their first commitment in the Class of 2017 on Friday night as point guard Alex Barcello pledged to Sean Miller and the Wildcats.

Barcello is a 6-foot-2 point guard from Tempe who plays his high school ball for Corona del Sol. He committed to the Wildcats on an official visit to the Tucson campus.

Barcello is a borderline top 100 prospect who sits at No. 123 in the Rivals top 150. He’s known for his ability to shoot, and he’s more of a combo-guard — i.e. shoot-first — than a point guard at times, but he’s a nice pickup and projects as a solid four-year player for the Wildcats.

Virginia, Indiana, Stanford and Butler were the other four schools on Barcello’s list.

Duke lands first commitment in 2017 class

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Alex O’Connell knew exactly where he wanted to play his college ball, which is why, just two days after picking up an offer from Coach K and the Blue Devils, he became Duke’s first recruit in the Class of 2017.

O’Connell announced the on twitter on Friday afternoon:

O’Connell is a four-star prospect from Georgia that had a terrific summer, going from being a borderline top 75 prospect to a player that caught the interest of Duke, who, along with Kentucky, sit atop the college recruiting hierarchy. He’s an explosively athletic and lanky 6-foot-6 wing with three-point range on his jumper. He needs to add some weight and some strength — he’s listed as a crisp 175 pounds — but he has the tools, and the swagger, to develop into a very effective player in the ACC.

Is he a one-and-done prospect?

Probably not. In fact, since 2010, Duke has landed just two players that were rated lower than O’Connell: Antonio Vrankovic and Jack White. If you know who both of them are, you’re probably either Jon Scheyer or lying.

But what O’Connell is is a kid who put in the work to get better this past year and who has the skill set, the physical tools and work ethic to continue to improve. He may not be on Grayson Allen’s trajectory, but O’Connell has the makings of being an impact player for the Blue Devils for three or four years.

Alex O'Connell (Jon Lopez/Nike)
Alex O’Connell (Jon Lopez/Nike)

Shaka Smart lands contract extension at Texas

Texas head coach Shaka Smart instructs his team in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Baylor on Monday, Feb. 1, 2016, in Waco, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
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Shaka Smart has already landed himself a contract extension at Texas.

The school, according to the Austin American-Statesman, has given Shaka a one-year extension — through the 2022-23 season — and bumped his salary up to a cool $3 million, a raise of $100,000 annually.

Smart’s Longhorns went 20-13 last season and lost on a half court buzzer beater from Northern Iowa’s Paul Jespersen. It will be tough for Smart to match the success that he had last season, specifically because he lost senior point guard Isaiah Taylor to the professional ranks.

That said, the former VCU head man has been reeling in quite a bit of talent from the state of Texas — namely, Andrew Jones and Jarrett Allen — and is not all that far from turning the Longhorns back into a relevant member of the Big 12 title race.

Arizona and Texas headline Lone Star Shootout

PROVIDENCE, RI - MARCH 17:  Head coach Sean Miller of the Arizona Wildcats reacts in the first half against the Wichita State Shockers during the first round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Dunkin' Donuts Center on March 17, 2016 in Providence, Rhode Island.  (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
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Another marquee, early season event is on the books for the college basketball season as four potential tournament teams will be squaring off at the Toyota Center in Houston on Dec. 17th.

The highlight of the double-header, which has been dubbed the Lone Star Shootout, will probably end up being Arizona vs. Texas A&M. The Wildcats are a Pac-12 contender and a borderline top 10 team as we enter the season, and while the Aggies will have work to do replacing the seniors they lost off of last season’s roster, they’re a borderline top 25 team.

The other matchup will feature a pair of former Southwest Conference rivals facing off in Texas and Arkansas. Texas will be talented but young while Arkansas may actually have the best player on the floor in Moses Kingsley. What will make this matchup interesting is that both Mike Anderson and Shaka Smart are known for being coaches that prefer a full court pressing system.

“We are extremely excited about the opportunity to play in front of our fans at the Toyota Center in Houston,” Texas head coach Shaka Smart said in a statement. “It is one of the most important areas in this state as it relates to our recruiting and fan base.

Five-star 2017 guard Lonnie Walker cuts list to five schools

Men's U18 trials head shots and team photo on 6.15.16
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Five-star shooting guard Lonnie Walker is coming off of a very good summer as he trimmed his list to five schools on Thursday night.

The 6-foot-4 native of Reading, Pennsylvania is still considering Arizona, Kentucky, Miami, Syracuse and Villanova, he announced on Twitter.

Regarded as the No. 26 overall prospect in the Class of 2017, Walker played with Team Final in the Nike EYBL this spring and summer as he averaged 16.6 points, 4.7 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game. Walker shot 45 percent from the field, 39 percent from three-point range and 72 percent from the free-throw line.

An efficient scorer who is learning to drive with both hands, Walker is very talented and the type of guard who might also be able to handle a bit as well.