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Jamie Skeen making his impact felt at VCU

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NEW YORK – VCU’s bread and butter is the three.

Well, that’s not exactly true. They like to spread the floor and take advantage of the talented perimeter players on the roster. Joey Rodriguez, Brandon Rozzell, Brad Burgess, Ed Nixon. Even young guys Darius Theus and Rob Brandenburg stepped up and made some big plays this afternoon.

When you have that many good players on your perimeter, and that many players that are unselfish, what you end up with is great ball movement and a lot of open looks. And this group is going to knock down those open looks. They did just that tonight, banging home 10-22 shots from beyond the arc in their 89-85 win over UCLA.

The problem with having so many talented back court players is that, at times, the ball fails to make its way into the post.

Jamie Skeen made sure to address that problem.

“We were at dinner. I just made a joke about it at first,” Skeen said with a laugh after the game. “My coach took it seriously. He said ‘Okay, we’re going to get you the ball for real.’ I said that would nice.”

It worked out well tonight.

Skeen scored 10 points in the first five minutes of the game. He was the focal point offensively down the stretch, scoring and drawing fouls in the post and creating shots for his teammates. And not just the three baskets he created via an assist, but by forcing UCLA’s defense to adjust by moving the ball.

“Down the stretch, they ran a play for me I would say probably 10, 12 times in a row,” Skeen said. “The same play over and over and over again. I wasn’t complaining.”

“My whole life I’ve been playing inside-out basketball. You play inside-out and then the threes start coming because they start clamping down and double-teaming. So it opened it up for everyone else.”

All told, Skeen finished with 23 points, 9 rebounds, and 3 assists while shooting 8-13 from the floor and playing a major role in getting UCLA’s big men in foul trouble.

“Before the Tennessee game, Skeen said that he wanted the ball more,” VCU head coach Shaka Smart said after the game. “So we said OK. We’ll give you the ball more. But to whom much is given, much is expected.”

“He produced tonight.”

The most important stat produced for VCU tonight was one win. The biggest difference between tonight’s win and Wednesday’s loss was the perimeter shooting. And while Skeen did help to create open looks for the multitude of Ram shooters tonight, he also got them open looks on Wednesday.

The threes were dropping tonight.

And, as I said on Wednesday, when the threes are dropping, VCU is going to be able to play with anyone in the country. Tonight proves it.

UCLA has a way to go before they get back to the heights that this program expects. They are a younger team, one that has a number of talented pieces that head coach Ben Howland is still trying to fit together.

That said, this is a Bruins team that many expected to be a sleeper in the Pac-10. (Isn’t it a bad sign for UCLA that they are now disappointing when they are not a sleeper in a bad Pac-10 conference?) A team that some believe was in the running for a potential second tournament bid coming out of that league.

VCU blitzed them. The Rams jumped out to an early lead riding Skeen’s coattails, and they held that lead throughout.

Sure, UCLA got close. They cut it to three at the half. They got the lead down to one with early in the second half, missing a chance to take the lead with Malcolm Lee missed two free throws. After VCU built the lead back up to 11, the Bruins made another run, once again getting to within one possession.

And, once again, the Rams held them off. With the score 80-79, VCU forced Lazeric Jones into two turnovers, both of which led to dunks. The lead was pushed to five, and while a couple misses at the line made things interesting, the Rams were able to hang on for the win.

“I thought UCLA did a great job of making shots and rebounding and usually if we give up that many points its going to be a losing night for us,” Smart said.

“I’m proud of our guys. They stepped up. Showed a lot of fight.”

The experience of playing on national TV in an arena like Madison Square Garden is great and the confidence boost of competing with, and beating, two of the top programs in the country is invaluable.

But how much value with this win have come March?

UCLA is a bubble team at best. While it is no doubt a good win for the Ram program, will it be as good of a win in the eyes of the tournament committee?

It may only be the day after Thanksgiving, but for a team with tournament aspirations — like VCU has — that is a questions that has to be asked. VCU still gets South Florida and Richmond in non-conference play, but neither of those teams would be marquee wins. If VCU doesn’t win their conference tournament, they better be rooting for UCLA to have a resurgence.

But, for now, VCU just wants to enjoy this win.

“We had a seven, eight hour drive up here,” Skeen said.

“We didn’t want to go back down the road on two losses.”

Can’t blame him for that.

Villanova beats Duke, Kansas, Indiana for Jermaine Samuels

Atlanta, GA - MAY 27: Nike EYBL. Session 4. Jermaine Samuels, Jr. #23 of Expressions Elite dunks. (Photo by Jon Lopez)
Jon Lopez/Nike
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Villanova landed a commitment from top 50 prospect Jermaine Samuels on Saturday.

Samuels is a tough and athletic 6-foot-5 wing that will remind many Wildcat fans of Josh Hart. He’s got the same kind of versatility and nose for the ball that will let him guard perimeter players as well as work in as a small-ball four. Players like this are a specialty of Jay Wright.

Samuels picked up an offer from Duke recently and also had Indiana, Kansas and Georgetown in his top five. Beating out blue-bloods for a prospect like this is quite the statement for Villanova, one that should tell you the reigning national champs are here to stay as a national power.

Syracuse lands critical piece in Andrew White

LINCOLN, NE - FEBRUARY 3: Andrew White #3 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers shoots the ball over Rasheed Sulaimon #0 of the Maryland Terrapins during their game at Pinnacle Bank Arena on February 3, 2016 in Omaha, Nebraska. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)
Eric Francis/Getty Images
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Syracuse has found their replacement for Malachi Richardson.

On Sunday, Nebraska transfer Andrew White committed to the Orange, picking Syracuse, in the end, over VCU. White is a graduate transfer who spent last season with Nebraska, where he averaged 16.2 points while shooting 41.2 percent from three. A top 50 prospect out of Virginia back in the Class of 2012, White played a limited role for Kansas his first two seasons in college.

This is a significant pickup for the Orange, one that legitimately puts them into the conversation as a Final Four contender and a threat to finish at or near the top of the ACC. Jim Boeheim has put together a roster full of talented, long and athletic front court players, but after Richardson declared for the NBA Draft as a one-and-done freshman, he was left with just two back court players on his roster.

Earlier this offseason, Cuse landed Colorado State grad transfer John Gillon, a 6-foot-1 combo-guard, to reinforce their back court. The addition of White gives them a lights-out shooter and a big-time scorer on the wing, something that would have been a major void on their roster.

With Paschal Chukwu getting eligible at the center spot and Tyler Lydon likely landing on every breakout player list this preseason, the Orange should be a markedly better team than the one that made their way to the Final Four last season.

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)
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.