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In a wide-open MAAC an unexpected challenger emerged this weekend

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The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference is expected to have a wide-open race for its automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Teams such as defending tournament champion Loyola (MD), Manhattan and Fairfield return key players from last season and there’s also the question of whether or not Iona’s talented newcomers can mesh in time to impact the league race.

But it a conference many felt had as many as six teams capable of winning the conference, a team few discussed in the offseason sits atop the standings with a 2-0 conference record after this weekend.

Canisius, bolstered by the arrival of head coach Jim Baron and son Billy, is now 6-1 on the season after their 94-82 win over Marist on Sunday afternoon. Harold Washington led the way with 25 points (6-of-11 3PT) and Baron added 16 points and 11 assists for the Golden Griffins, who pushed their win streak to three ahead of a game at No. 4 Syracuse next Saturday.

Canisius made 17 of their 36 three-pointers, assisted on 23 of their 30 field goals and out-rebounded Marist 47-29 (19 offensive rebounds).

With the win the Golden Griffins surpassed their win total from last season (five), when they won just five games before Tom Parrotta was relieved of his duties. Some of the names, such as Washington, Alshawn Hymes and Chris Manhertz (18 rebounds today), remain the same but Canisius is yielding far better results in 2012-13.

Offensively Jim Baron’s team was shooting 45.3% from the field entering Sunday’s tilt, an improvement of some five percentage points from last season, and they’re getting to the foul line at a much better clip than in 2011-12.

Adding Billy Baron, who averaged 13.0 points and 2.6 assists per game at Rhode Island last season, to the fold certainly helped Canisius in regards to turning things around. Baron’s currently averaging 18.0 points and 5.6 assists, leading the team in both categories.

And outside of allowing 82 points to the Red Foxes Canisius has improved on the defensive end as well, as they’re forcing more than 16 turnovers per game. As a result of the strides taken on both ends of the floor Canisius picked up road wins this weekend over Fairfield and Marist after going winless on the road in MAAC play last year.

The question now is whether or not the Golden Griffins can pick up where they left off when conference play resumes next month. Canisius has finished seventh or worse in the MAAC in four of the last five seasons, and given the number of teams capable of winning the conference the race will likely go down to the wire.

Nothing of consequence is won in December, but given recent history it’s safe to say that Canisius fans will relish this 2-0 start.

Photo credit: Canisius College

Raphielle also writes for the NBE Basketball Report and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej.

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)
Jon Lopez/Nike
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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.