Justin Jackson, Alex Kirk

Play of Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow a step in the right direction for New Mexico

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Entering the 2012-13 season, interior play was a major concern for the New Mexico Lobos. On the heels of a season that saw them win both a share of the Mountain West regular season title and the league’s automatic bid, few had any idea what Steve Alford would do to make up for the loss of Drew Gordon.

Alex Kirk sat out all of last season due to a back injury, leaving many to doubt if the 7-foot sophomore could have a significant impact for a team that ranks among the best on the perimeter.

Kirk’s performance on Thursday night in the Lobos’ 55-54 win at No. 8 Cincinnati was another step towards answering those preseason questions, and it’s one the Lobos will need to see more of once they begin Mountain West play.

Kirk was very productive in his 29 minutes on the floor last night, tallying 15 points (6-of-8 shooting), seven rebounds and three blocked shots while Cameron Bairstow added seven points and six rebounds for a UNM front court that outplayed Cincinnati’s big men.

Justin Jackson and Cheikh Mbodj did manage to combine to grab 18 rebounds but they scored just four points, all by Mbodj, and as a team Cincinnati shot a horrid 9-of-38 on two-point shots with most of the attempts being of the challenged variety.

Those issues, especially the lack of offense from their big men, should have Bearcat fans concerned while the performance of New Mexico’s big men will be seen as a positive on the heels of their loss to South Dakota State on Saturday.

“It’s about not quitting,” said Alford following the game. “We probably did an average job of blocking them out, probably could have done a better job on block outs, but what I appreciated about our guys is that when they did get the offensive rebounds they didn’t stop.

“When you watch them on tape, they get offensive rebounds and dunk. They didn’t get too many dunks tonight.”

One of the nation’s best teams in regards to offensive rebounding, Cincinnati did manage to grab 16 offensive boards. But they didn’t take advantage of those second-chance opportunities, as New Mexico finished the game with a 14-7 advantage in second-chance points.

On a night that saw both Tony Snell (4-of-15 shooting) and Kendall Williams (five turnovers) struggle to varying degrees, New Mexico was able to pick up a big road victory thanks to their defense and the performance of their big men.

And with far more productive big men awaiting New Mexico (two points, four rebounds) in Mountain West play (UNLV’s surplus of big men, Colorado State’s Colton Iverson and Wyoming’s Leonard Washington immediately come to mind), Thursday’s performance was an important one.

Because even with the talented guards they have, a productive Kirk and Bairstow make New Mexico a player in the Mountain West race.

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

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.