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Recruiting rundown: UNLV should be optimistic about Shabazz Muhammad or Anthony Bennett

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The two uncommitted national top-10 prospects in the 2012 class both play in Las Vegas, and while the nation’s top recruit, wing Shabazz Muhammad has had a well-documented recruitment, 6-7 power forward Anthony Bennett’s college preferences have been a mystery at best to those that following recruiting closely.

The powerful post prospect cut his list from ten to five over the weekend, naming Kentucky, UNLV, Florida, Oregon and Washington as his contenders. That list was put out by Bennett prior to his friend and fellow native of Canada, Khem Birch, declaring for UNLV, and that move likely puts the Running Rebels even more into the status of a serious player for landing his commitment.

Kentucky will be a huge presence in Bennett’s recruitment until the end, but UNLV fans have to like their position with both Bennett and Muhammad. The longer the season progresses and the more success that UNLV has on the hardwood figures to be to their benefit in both recruitments against the blue bloods of college basketball.

Florida was a finalist for Birch, so not getting him isn’t promising, especially for team that looks to need interior help in the near term. Oregon has some track record with Canadians on their current roster, and also has signed one of Bennett’s teammates, point guard Dominic Artis. Still, from the outside looking in, this could be a Kentucky/UNLV race.

Bennett’s recruitment has been deliberate and on his own time table so far, and that is expected to continue. He’ll have five official visits to take before he trims his list and makes a final decision.

Seton Hall lands a crime stopper and show stopper
It’s not too often that a high school junior has reached almost urban legend status in the basketball community, but 5-6 point guard Aquille Carr of Patterson (Md.) has done just that. After getting the upper hand on current professional Josh Selby in a game in the Baltimore area as a freshman, Carr has only increased his rep as a dynamic prospect, extending from the Northeast to internationally.

Amidst reports of an Italian team offering him a six-figure contract, and the legend that crime decreases in his Baltimore neighborhood when Patterson plays, Carr is arguably the most exciting player watch nationally in the 2013 class, and is known by his nickname, the “Crime Stopper.” Though his size is a clear and obvious limitation, that hasn’t stopped high-major colleges from sending scholarship offers his way. Late last week, Carr ended his recruitment early, declaring the Seton Hall.

Carr is oftentimes a blur on the floor, and has earned his distinction as a top-50 player in the class. He’s an above the rim player that attracts crowds wherever and whenever he plays. He is quick and explosive, with the penchant for making a difficult play look easy. On the other hand, with that goes his prowess for turning the ball over unnecessarily, struggles at times in the half-court set, and the occasional defensive mismatch.

At Seton Hall, Carr will have an outstanding tutor in associate coach Shaheen Holloway, who has already taken Carr’s projected path, as he had a solid career as a diminutive point guard in the Big East at Seton Hall. Also, coach Kevin Willard is a rising star in the coaching profession, and also plied his trade as a Big East point guard at Pittsburgh.

Gaining Carr’s commitment, the Pirates first in the 2013 recruiting class, does not come with a downside, though. Seton Hall was believed to be a serious contender for Gill St. Bernard (N.J.) point guard Jaren Sina, who was formerly committed to Alabama, and the son of a former Seton Hall player in Mergin Sina, his coach. Sina is a fundamentally sound lead guard that would have been a nice addition, as well. That seems extremely unlikely now.

At a minimum, when the Pirates’ staff determines that he’s ready to play, Carr’s flair and style of play will attract attention to the Seton Hall program. In terms of credibility and positive press, adding Carr is huge for Seton Hall, as well.

St. John’s gains one, loses one
Earlier in the week, shooting guard commit Darrick Wood of Bridgton Academy (Maine) was the sole remaining member of the St. John’s recruiting class for 2012. National top-50 power forward Ricardo Gathers is entertaining other offers after his decommitment, and former point guard pledge Jevon Thomas signed with Dayton during the early signing period.

Wood re-opened his recruitment though, with the nebulous statement that the Johnnies still lead for his college services. Still, the track record of such players ultimately signing with a school that they decommit from is sketchy at best. With only a half-dozen recruited scholarship players on the current roster, St. John’s needed some good news in the worst way.

That pick me up came in the form of Jamal Branch, who was formerly known as a backup freshman point guard early on this season at Texas A&M. Branch didn’t get much of a shot for the Aggies, but immediately becomes a key member of the St. John’s plans for next year. He’s a pass-first, defensive minded point guard, and both of those skills are currently is nowhere to be found currently at St. John’s.

Branch is a native of the Lone Star State, like current freshman D’Angelo Harrison, and the two Texans could form a dandy duo. While coach Steve Lavin has his health as a priority, the program’s long-term success will rely on adding five or more players for next season, in order to start the season with a fair shot and a near full boat of scholarship players. If Branch becomes eligible at mid-season, as expected, he’s a quality addition and a welcome break from a recent streak of bad news.

Kellon Hassenstab runs Follow him on Twitter @hoopniks.

No. 1 Kentucky survives without Tyler Ulis in lineup

Tyler Ulis
AP Photo/Chuck Burton
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Less than a week after giving No. 2 Maryland all they could handle, Illinois State went into Lexington and gave No. 1 Kentucky fits.

The Redbirds never really threatened UK in the second half, but they went into the break tied and were within single digits down the stretch, eventually losing 75-63.

Kentucky was flustered. They turned the ball over 15 times compared to just eight assists, they shot 2-for-12 from three and just 29-for-46 (63 percent) from the charity stripe. They simply did not handle Illinois State’s pressure all that well.

And there was a reason for that.

Tyler Ulis didn’t play.

Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate just what a player brings to a team until that player is not in the lineup, and that was precisely the case with Ulis on Monday night. It was crystal clear what he provides Kentucky. Beyond leadership and the ability to break a press without throwing the ball to the other team, he’s a calming presence. He doesn’t get rattled when a defender is harassing him and he doesn’t get overwhelmed by a situation like a mid-major threatening the No. 1 team in the country in their own gym.

He’s everything you look for in a pure point guard, and for as good as Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe have looked at times this season, it should be crystal clear who the most important player on this Kentucky team is.

LSU loses to Charleston, eliminates at-large bid margin for error

Ben Simmons
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
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Ben Simmons scored 15 points and grabbed 18 rebounds, the second time in his six-game career that the LSU freshman has collected that many caroms, but that wasn’t enough for the Tigers to avoid dropping a game on the road to the College of Charleston, 70-58. It was the third straight loss for Simmons’ crew, as they fell to Marquette and N.C. State at the Legends Classic last week.

But here’s the thing: LSU didn’t just lose.

The game really wasn’t close.

LSU was down by as many as 23 points. It was 39-17 at the half, and that was after Charleston had a shot at the buzzer called off upon review. They made a bit of a run in the second half but never got closer than seven. When LSU would cut into the lead, the Cougars would respond with a run of their own, killing LSU’s spirit while keeping them at arm’s length.

[RELATED: Ben Simmons’ one college year a waste?]

Now, there are quite a few things here to discuss. For starters, LSU’s effort was, at best, apathetic, and, at worst, regular old pathetic. The team has a serious lack of leadership that was plainly evident on Monday night; would Fred VanVleet let his team fold against a program picked to finish at the bottom of the SoCon? Would Tyler Ulis? For that matter, would Tom Izzo or Mike Krzyzewski or John Calipari?

Perhaps more importantly, does any of that change when Keith Hornsby and Craig Victor get back?

Simmons did show off his potential — 18 boards, four assists, he even made his first three of the year — but he also showed precisely why there are scouts that are trying to curtail the LeBron James comparisons. Simmons was 4-for-15 from the floor with seven turnovers against a mediocre mid-major team. There are so many things that Simmons does well, but scoring efficiently — particularly in half court setting — and shooting the ball consistently are not on that list.

But here’s the biggest issue: LSU may have put themselves in a situation where they aren’t a tournament team. As of today, they’re 3-3 on the season with losses to a pair of teams that, at best, seem destined to be in the bubble conversation on Selection Sunday in addition to this loss to Charleston. The rest of their non-conference schedule is ugly. The only game worth noting is at home against No. 6 Oklahoma at the end of January.

The NCAA factors in non-conference schedule strength when determining at-large teams. You need to at least try, and LSU didn’t try; they have one of the worst non-conference schedules in the country.

The great thing about being in the SEC — as opposed to, say, the Missouri Valley — is that the Tigers will have plenty of chances to earn marquee wins. Six, by my court: Kentucky twice, Texas A&M twice, Vanderbilt on the road and Oklahoma at home. They probably need to win at least two or three of those games to have a real chance, and that’s assuming they can avoid anymore horrid losses in the process.

The season isn’t over six games in, not by any stretch of the imagination.

But LSU has done a hell of a job eliminating their margin for error.