NCAA Basketball Tournament - Ohio State v Syracuse

Sophomore season was right call for maturing Jared Sullinger

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BOSTON – When Jared Sullinger signed on to play college basketball for Ohio State, he gave the Buckeyes a skilled big man; a frontcourt anchor who was a consensus top five player from the class of 2010.

Immediately the most talented player on the team, the humble and personable Sullinger did his best not to step on anybody’s toes.

“He blended in,” said Ohio State assistant coach Jeff Boals. “When he came in as a freshman, he followed, he listened, he didn’t have that superstar ego mentality, and that really set the tone for the whole year.”

As the season moved along it was clear that Sullinger was, in fact, one of the more talented college basketball back-to-the-basket players in recent memory, leading the Big Ten Conference in rebounding and finishing seventh in scoring.

So naturally, when Sullinger decided to return to college instead of declare for the NBA Draft, it raised more red flags than praise in basketball circles.

In his sophomore campaign, Sullinger by no means breezed through the competition.

He faced double teams, he faced a rough February, he even faced a three-headed green monster of Michigan State’s Draymond Green, Adreian Payne, and Derrick Nix that gave him fits — all which contributed to fairly similar numbers from his freshman season.

But he also led his team to the Final Four, and that is why he came back to Columbus for a second season.

You can say what you want about Jared Sullinger. You may think his decision to come back to school may have cost him money, may have hurt his NBA Draft stock, may have even changed the college basketball fan’s perception of how good he really was.

Whatever you think, don’t for a second think it bothers him.

If anything, it motivates him.

“I appreciate everyone that doubted this basketball team,” said Sullinger with a grin following tonight’s Elite Eight victory over Syracuse. “We heard negative comments, and I want to thank y’all because through all the adversity, we constantly pushed through that. I’m so proud of these guys.”

Despite foul trouble that forced the big man to sit out for 14 of the game’s first 20-minutes, Sullinger responded to score 15 of his 19 points in the second half to lead the Buckeyes to their 10th Final Four appearance in program history.

In the process, he was named East Region Most Outstanding Player.

Just like what we saw from him during a demanding schedule, Sullinger showed he’s someone you may be able to hold down for a period of time – someone you may be able to bend –  but rarely can you do it for an entire game. The kid won’t break. He just grinds and goes to work down low until he gets what he wants.

“He’s taken a pounding all year, but he’s responded great,” said Boals. “Even in practice, we would purposely not call fouls to let him get beat on. There was a point in the season where he was getting frustrated and we sat him down and showed him a few things on tape. And ever since that, he’s taken off.”

So now with the regionals in the rear view, the Buckeyes must continue with their progression through the field of 68.

While the Final Four is an excellent accomplishment for this team, it by no means should feel like the end. This was a pre-season No. 3 team in both the AP and Coaches Poll. Many people would expect the Buckeyes to still be standing this late in the season.

“Hopefully, it’s not our last game,” said Sullinger. “We’re not going down to New Orleans for a vacation.”

“This is a business trip.”

Follow Nick Fasulo on Twitter @billyedelinSBN

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)
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
Bart Young/USA Basketball
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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.