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Previewing your College Hoops Weekend: Happy New Year!

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Game of the weekend: 12:00 pm: No. 4 Louisville @ No. 3 Kentucky

Hopefully Chane Behanan is more accurate in his prediction that this game will “go down as one of the best games in history” than he was about Louisville’s undefeated season. The Battle of the Commonwealth is always going to be a passionate affair, but with both teams currently sitting in the top five of the country, on paper its easy to see why folks like Behanan are expecting this game to be an instant classic. The problem is that the games aren’t played on paper, they are played on a basketball court. And on a basketball court, Louisville simply is not in the same league as Kentucky right now.

That’s not meant as a shot at Louisville, either. I think the Cardinals are a quality basketball team. But they are borderline top ten quality, not Final Four favorite quality. The issue with the ‘Ville this year is on the offensive end of the floor — they ain’t scoring. For all the ability that Peyton Siva has when it comes to using his dribble to beat his defender, he’s yet to become the unstoppable playmaker that some hypothesized that he would turn into this year. As a result, Louisville’s half court offense tends to stagnate, something that won’t be helped by Kentucky’s top-five defense and shot-blocking ability around the rim.

Where Louisville is going to have to find success is defensively, specifically in their press. Marquis Teague has been playing better of late, but he is still quite turnover prone. The Cardinals have a couple of very good back court defenders that are known for their ability to wreak havoc on opposing ball-handlers. If they can force some turnovers, it will take some pressure off their offensive by creating easy baskets.

So what does Kentucky have to do to win? Well, frankly, they just need to play well. The Wildcats are just a better team than Louisville, even if Terrence Jones is struggling with his finger injury. And as good as Kentucky’s front court is, I think the biggest advantage the Wildcats are going to have is on the wing. I’m not sure who on Louisville is going to be big enough to defend Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in the paint. I also am not sure who is going to be the person tasked with making sure Doron Lamb doesn’t get hot, but I can see the sophomore getting quite a few open looks against.

My pick: Kentucky by 10 in a game that isn’t necessarily as close as the final score indicates.

Four other games to keep an eye on

Sat. 6:00 pm: No. 2 Ohio State @ No. 15 Indiana: The consensus feeling is that Ohio State is the best team in the Big Ten by a fairly decent margin. And, generally speaking, on topics like this, I tend to side with the consensus. But the key component here is whether or not Jared Sullinger is a) healthy and b) in game shape. He looked pretty good going for 17 points and 14 boards in a blow out of Northwestern, but playing well in a 30 point win is a different story than having to chase Cody Zeller up and down the court in Assembly Hall. That right there is the key. Indiana is capable of pushing the ball up the floor, and if Zeller can tire Sullinger out, that becomes a big factor for the Buckeyes on the offensive end of the floor.

There are a couple of other things to keep an eye on in this game. For starters, the matchup between Christian Watford and DeShaun Thomas pits two of the best face-up fours in the country, both of whom are dangerous offensive weapons that play marginal defense at best. Indiana is also the best three-point shooting team in the country. Will they be going down? And will Will Sheehey be in uniform in this one? He missed the last game with an ankle injury.

A win keep the Hoosiers from starting Big Ten play off 0-2, which could end up being a hole that is very difficult to pull themselves out of.

Sat. 6:00 pm: No. 19 Creighton @ Wichita State: This is what the Missouri Valley is all about. Creighton, the favorite to win the league and the only team from the conference that is ranked, is coming off of a loss to Missouri State in their conference opener and is an underdog in their second game. Wichita State is a team I am still trying to get a handle on. They beat UNLV by 19 at home, but they also lost to both Alabama and Temple on neutral courts, both of whom have seen their seasons get turned upside down in recent weeks. How the Shockers go about slowing down Doug McDermott will be interesting. Missouri State “held” him to 19 points and 12 boards, but much of that was the result of McDermott’s deference down the stretch.

Sat. 8:00 pm: Gonzaga @ Xavier: Two perennial powerhouses from outside the power conferences, both of whom have fallen off of late. Xavier has an excuse, although I’m not sure I want to call it valid. Since the brawl that they got in with Cincinnati, the Musketeers have gone 1-3, with their lone win coming against (wait for it) Southern Illinois. Xavier looked like a top ten team before that, and Gonzaga may be just the team they want to see to get back into a rhythm. As much as I like Kevin Pangos, he is not what you would call a defender. And when he is sharing the back court with David Stockton, Gonzaga’s ability to keep penetrating guards out of the paint is non-existent. Xavier is tough enough defensively that the Zags need their best offensive team on the floor, but that team includes Pangos and Stockton, who are going to get deep-fried by Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons. Xavier needs a big game out of Elias Harris, who will be a matchup problem for the Muskies.

Sat. 4:00 pm: Illinois @ Purdue: Here’s what makes this game so interesting to me: Illinois is a team full of role players that is lacking the kind of star power that will close out games. Purdue has Robbie Hummel, who has been playing some of the best basketball of his career this season, including being the guy that knocks down big shots for the Boilermakers. But he lacks the kind of supporting that he had with JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore in town. Its too bad we can’t combine these teams.

Who’s getting upset?: Fri. 7:00 pm: No. 8 Missouri @ Old Dominion

No team in the country has been playing a prettier brand of basketball over the first two months of the season than Missouri. The Tigers have two dynamic ball-handlers that are capable of getting into the lane at will and finding the Tiger’s shooters on the perimeter. Missouri’s biggest advantage comes in the form of Kim English, a 6’6″ two-guard that has slid over and taken the four spot. He’s big enough that he can battle in the paint defensively but he doesn’t miss when he gets his feet set beyond the arc. But here’s the thing about Old Dominion: they are big, they are physical and they can play at home. It will be interesting to see if the Monarchs are able to get Missouri out of their game-plan.

Four more teams on upset watch

Sat. 2:00 pm: Rice @ Texas: Texas A&M wasn’t on upset watch when they played Rice last week. You know what happened? The Aggies lost to the Owls in a game that the Owls controlled for much of the second half. I don’t think Texas is going to make that same mistake, but that by no means guarantees a Texas win. The Longhorns are 291st in the country in defensive rebounding percentage, and they will be facing the best pound-for-pound rebounder in the country in Arsalan Kazemi.

Sat. 2:05 pm: Utah State @ No. 14 Mississippi State: Has Utah State finally turned things around? After starting the year out just 4-5, the Aggies have rallied around the play of Preston Medlin and Brockeith Pane and won four in a row. The last of those wins was a 19 point whooping against Kent State. Now, the Bulldogs have much more talent, especially up front, than Kent State, but the point remains the same here: Utah State is coming off of their best win of the season since opening night, but both of those came at the Spectrum. Can Utah State win one on the road?

Sun. 5:00 pm: Penn @ No. 5 Duke: This pick might seem silly, but I think that Penn is pretty solid. Their point guard, Zach Rosen, might be the third best point guard in the ACC behind Kendell Marshall and Terrell Stoglin. Their off-guard, Tyler Bernardini, is finally healthy and playing like it. Prior to Thursday’s loss to Davidson, Bernardini had his eight threes in back-to-back games.

Sat. 8:00 pm: No. 20 UNLV @ Hawaii: Hawaii is playing with a little bit of confidence after a decent showing at the Diamondhead Classic. And, like the Diamondhead Classic, this game will take place on the islands, meaning the Runnin’ Rebels have a long trip in front of them. It will be interesting to see who Dave Rice uses against Zane Johnson and how he opts to guard the sharp shooter.

Mid-major matchup of the weekend: Sat. 4:00 pm: St. Joseph’s @ No. 23 Harvard

This game has fun written all over it. St. Joe’s is under-the-radar this season, but thanks to Jameer Nelson and Delonte West, the Hawks are a national brand that people pay attention to. Harvard, on the other hand, had a non-existent profile prior to Tommy Amaker’s tenure, and this season the Crimson have parlayed that notoriety into a top 25 rankings and a spot as the Ivy League favorite. Where St. Joseph’s is an uptempo team with a pair of high-scoring guards and a couple of athletic bigs, Harvard is much slower, a team that relies on the Ivy League version of Jared Sullinger (Keith Wright), execution offensively and a roster full of sharpshooters.

Four more mid-major matchups to watch

Fri. 7:00 pm: George Mason @ Charleston: How often do you see two freshmen that were both in the top 100 in the country square against one another in a matchup of true mid-majors? Not that often, but that’s what we have as Eric Copes and Adjehi Baru go toe-to-toe on Friday evening. Baru has had a much bigger role early in the season than Copes has, but neither has become a star. What will be interesting to watch here is how well Andre Cornelius reacts to the battle of the big.

Sat. 2:00 pm: Milwaukee @ Butler: Milwaukee looks like they may end up being the class of the Horizon League this season. But until Butler loses their grip — completely, as in they are knocked out of the Horizon League tournament — I won’t believe that anyone else is going to win a game in that conference.

Sat. 3:05 pm: Drake @ Missouri State: How many people that these two teams sitting at 1-0 after playing Creighton and Indiana State in their openers? I didn’t. But the Bluejays got the job done for us.

Sat. 6:00 pm: St. Louis @ New Mexico: This falls under the category of sneaky-good game that no one is going to talk about. St. Louis is not a secret anymore, and they just may be the second best team in the Atlantic 10. On the other hand, New Mexico has slowly but surely grown past the struggles that they had earlier in the year.

The rest of the top 25:

Sun. 5:00 pm: No. 1 Syracuse @ DePaul: The Orange have yet to slip up as the No. 1 team in the country. That time will come, but not against DePaul.

Fri. 7:00 pm: Western Michigan @ No. 5 Duke: Western Michigan has been playing much better basketball of late, but it won’t be enough against the Blue Devils.

Sun. 3:00 pm: Monmouth @ No. 6 UNC: I’ll pass. The only intrigue will be how much UNC scores.

Sat. 12:00 pm: St. John’s @ No. 9 UConn: St. John’s looked like they were dead in the water for a while, but the Johnnies had a terrific game in the eithr big East

Sat. 2:00 pm: Yale @ No. 10 Florida: Greg Mangano wants to play in the NBA? Here’s your chance, kid. Prove yourself against Patric Young.

Sat. 1:00 pm: Iowa @ No. 11 Wisconsin: Can Iowa break 40?

Sat. 2:00 pm: Providence @ No. 12 Georgetown: Providence is coming off of a seal-clubbing loss to St. John’s that ticked off their coach, forcing him to challenge his player to play and Practice hon i

Sun. 1:00 pm: Villanova @ No. 13 Marquette: Villanova was the original disappointment in the Big East. Then came Pitt and Cincinnati. Now, finally, Marquette is on the robs, having lost to LSU on the road and Vandy (by 20) at home. Who snaps out of it?

Sun. 4:00 pm: Minnesota @ No. 16 Michigan: Minnesota has actually been one of the most surprising teams in the country, but I just don’t see them matching up well with Minnesota, who can’t shoot a lick from the perimeter;;

Sat. 3:00 pm: No. 17 Michigan State @ Nebraska: Michigan State’s win over Indiana was fluky, but I expect a much more thorough performance against Nebraksa.

Sat. 4:00 pm: North Dakota @ No. 18 Kansas: The Jayhawks are fresh off of drilling Hampton in my picket. Literally.

Fri. 8:00 pm: No. 21 Murray State @ Eastern Illinois: This shouldn’t be a test for the Racers.

Sun. 7:00 pm: Cincinnati @ No. 22 Pitt: This game has all kinds of intriguing plot lines. The Panthers bouncing back from a trio of losses. Cincinnati trying to prove themselves a legitimate contender. Cincy’s four guards vs. Pitt’s bigs. The last game Yancy Smith can play in as well.

Fri. 7:00 pm: Towson @ No. 24 Virginia: With a loss, Towson will have gone winless in the calendar year in 2011.

Sat. 2:00 pm: Howard @ No. 25 Kansas State: Two days after getting absolutely worked by Kansas, Howard extends their trip to take on Kansas State.

Other notable games

Friday:

– 7:00 pm: CCSU @ UMass
– 7:00 pm: Princeton @ Florida State
– 7:00 pm: Ole Miss @ Dayton
– 8:00 pm: Oakland @ South Dakota State
– 8:00 pm: West Virginia @ Seton Hall

Saturday:

– 12:00 pm: Virginia Tech @ Oklahoma State
– 4:00 pm: UCLA @ Cal
– 9:00 pm: Charlotte @ Memphis
– 10:00 pm: Oregon @ Washington

Sunday:

– 4:00 pm: Akron @ Marshall

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.

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)
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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)
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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.