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Not the top dog, but these Kentucky ‘Cats march to Final Four

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The Kentucky Wildcats hoops team arguably carries more weight in college basketball than any other program in the country.

Their fans are completely and utterly narcissistic (and that’s a compliment, I swear I’m not trolling!), their media will chase – literally chase – coaches out of town, and their players are treated like royalty in Lexington. So it doesn’t really seem fitting that the Wildcats take on the name of Cardiac Cats, or something like that, en route to their first Final Four appearance since 1998. [Editor’s note: That term’s been used recently at Kentucky.]

But this go-round the heavyweight isn’t necessarily the favorite, having to down two higher seeded teams and boasting a roster that doesn’t have nearly the star power of the squad that fell one year ago in the Elite Eight.

With that, you can’t not love this team, and you can’t help but laud the coaching of John Calipari during this recent run, capped by a 76-69 win over North Carolina.

Sure freshman Brandon Knight was the most important player on the floor for Cal, and fellow freshman Terrence Jones was the second most important, but it was the unheralded bit pieces that were huge and a blast to watch this weekend.

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Down an Enes Kanter from the beginning of the season, a frightened Big Blue Nation turned its eyes to a guy who lost tweeting privileges and embraces jean shorts like he’s a true hillbilly.  I’m referring to Josh “Jorts” Harrellson if you’re uninformed, a senior who still has a little bit of baby weight to shed, but has made a strong case for being the toughest player in the entire country.

Over the span of just eight days, Harrellson went toe-to-toe with West Virginia’s Deniz Kilicli, Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger, and North Carolina’s Tyler Zeller and John Henson, and prevailed in each and every one of those battles.

Of those players, all but maybe Kilicli have an NBA career ahead of them. Harrellson, as much as I’ve grown to love him this season, does not. Consider this “The Best Time of His Life,” and I’m sure he’s totally cool that.

DeAndre Liggins, who could have easily wavered at playing second-fiddle to a handful of highly regarded freshman these past two seasons, was truly a key cog for this team that won the East Region. Liggins came up especially huge for UK this weekend, averaging 13.5 points and weaseling into the deeply rooted Kentucky basketball historical lore. Surely nobody in the Bluegrass State will ever forget that corner three he nailed with just seconds to play; the dagger in the Tar Heels coffin.

I’m not sure that Kentucky will win the national championship, but they certainly have no glaring deficiencies to suggest they can’t cut down the nets in Houston.

At the very least, this is a juggernaut the entire country can root for.

Nick Fasulo is the manager of Searching for Billy Edelin. Follow him on Twitter @billyedelin.

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.

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.