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Now’s when Kentucky-Louisville rivalry reaches another level

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Get ready for the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry to rise to a level usually only reserved for the likes of Duke-North Carolina, Yankees-Red Sox or Celtics-Lakers.

That’s what happens when the nation’s most devoted state for college hoops – sorry, Indiana, Kansas and North Carolina – places its marquee programs into the game’s biggest stage. It’d be enough simply to have the Cardinals and Wildcats both in New Orleans. But playing each other with a spot in the title game on the line? There’s never been a rivalry game at this level before.

That’s basketball mania.

“It’s what everybody wanted, I guess, in terms of the public and the media,” UK athletic director Mitch Barnhart told the Louisville Courier-Journal. “This is what you guys live for, so this gives you plenty to write about all week. They’ve got great players. It’s great for our state in terms of the recognition it brings to our state. Two great basketball programs, two great coaches.

Ah, yes. The coaches. That amplifies things a bit more.

Rick Pitino used to coach at Kentucky. Now he’s at Louisville, which doesn’t sit well with the fans. John Calipari spent the last three years winning games and charming Big Blue Nation, both of which go hand in hand. The two spent the summer taking shots at each other, all of which simply stokes the fires of one of the games’ already heated rivalries.

So what’s up with these two? There’s a history between the two coaches that’s difficult to detail everything, but here’s a helpful anecdote from David Jones of The Patriots-News regarding a 1992 game between Massachusetts and Kentucky. Calipari, coaching the less-talented Minutemen would eventually lose the Sweet 16 games, but it wasn’t without Calipari doing everything he could to cajole the refs.

An excerpt:

Finally, during a lull in play, Calipari still barking, Pitino yelled down the sideline at him to get his attention: “John!” Calipari turned. And Pitino mouthed with a pleading gesture, “Shut uuupp.” It wasn’t derogatory or condescending at all but more advice from a respected older brother, like: You dope, you already let this sawed-off old ref take the game from you. Don’t make it worse by getting tossed. It’s over. Just chill out.

Perhaps that’s why Pitino said recently “we don’t send each other Christmas cards,” because there’s no need. They coach at rival schools. There’s no need to be friendly.

But that also creates an interesting dynamic for the next few days. Kentucky’s the favorite. A big favorite. A loss to Louisville would be one of the biggest kicks to the … well, it’d hurt.

From Gary Parrish:

“There will be people at Kentucky that will have a nervous breakdown if they lose to us,” Pitino said. “You’ve got to watch. They’ve got to put the fences up on the bridges. There will be people consumed by Louisville.”

Most notably Calipari.

The man who has now taken three different schools to a total of four Final Fours — yes, I know two of them have been vacated, but whatever — did a nice job of deflecting the spotlight that’ll shine on him and Pitino this week, and he said over and over again Sunday that he’s looking at this game no differently than any other.

But that’s impossible. And the truth is that, on some level, this matchup that is a sportswriter’s dream has to be Calipari’s worst nightmare.

And every Kentucky fan.

No team wants to lose in the Final Four. Especially not a favorite from Kentucky, featuring the best roster the program’s seen since its famed 1996 squad. And especially not to its rival.

That’s how you stoke a rivalry

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

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)
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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)
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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.