Dwayne Polee, Steve Fisher

Conference Catch-ups: Could the MWC send four dancing?

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Conference play is upon us, so to help you get out of that post-holiday haze, we’ll be catching you up on all the happenings in the country’s top 12 conferences. Here’s our Mountain West Conference Catch-up:

Favorite: San Diego State
We’ve gotten used to this notion but not with the Aztecs up there by themselves. Jamal Franklin has done exactly what’s expected of him (more on him in a bit) and they’ve gotten great shooting from Chase Tapley (15.8 ppg)and improved play from Xavier Thames (10.5 ppg). Though they’ll need to find a reliable post presence — Franklin leads the team in rebounding at the wing spot, with the next-closest being DeShawn Stephens’ 5.2 per — against teams like New Mexico and UNLV, who already have that.

Contenders: UNLV, New Mexico
A lot of those around the game knew UNLV would be here at this point. Mike Moser being injured, at this point, keeps them as a contender, and not the favorite. They’re still getting great production from Anthony Bennett and Anthony Marshall (10.6 ppg, team-leading 5.5 apg). As well as Katin Reinhardt (10.4 ppg). New Mexico made its statement with a comeback win over Davidson, then a win at then-no. 8 Cincinnati. Losing at St. Louis after a horrid first half didn’t help, but this team has been steady otherwise, with the contributions of Kendall Williams (14.9 ppg, 4.7 apg) and Alex Kirk (11.3 ppg, 7.5 rpg) has been improved in the paint.

Biggest Surprise: Wyoming
When a team that was expected to finish in the middle of their conference starts the season 13-0, it’s a surprise. Yes, the schedule has been a variable gigantic cupcake, but the Cowboys did collect a home win over Colorado and went on the road and took down Missouri Valley Conference contender Illinois State, within a four-day span. Now they’ve got to legitimize the hype, with games against San Diego State and UNLV, back-to-back in conference play, twice.

Biggest Disappointment: Fresno State
It’s not so much that they were expected to do great things this season, it’s just that I didn’t see the Bulldogs being this bad. They’re currently 6-7, with three of those wins over non-Division I teams, including the epic failure of a 39-30 victory at UC-Riverside. They also beat San Diego….Community College. They do have victories over UCLA-killer Cal Poly and Long Beach State, but this team is capable of so much more.

Best player: Jamal Franklin, San Diego State (17.2 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 3.2 apg)
He’s the best player on, for now, the best team. Franklin’s picked right up where he left off last season, pacing the Aztecs in scoring and rebounding while improving his ability to distribute. There are a few other candidates, like UNLV’s Anthony Bennett (more on him later though), New Mexico’s Kendall Williams and Boise State’s Derrick Marks. But for now, it’s still Franklin.

Best freshman: Anthony Bennett, UNLV (19.2 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 1.5 bpg)
No brainer, right? If he’s not the best overall player, Bennett is definitely the best freshman in the MWC. He’s stepped right into a spot that the Runnin’ Rebels desperately needed production from, in the post, and has done so as consistently as anyone this season. It’s probably his lone season in college, so Dave Rice better get the most out of him.

Three Predictions
-Four conference teams will be dancing in March
Is this so far-fetched? Nope. Everyone expects San Diego State and UNLV and sees New Mexico as having a better-than-average shot at the NCAA Tournament. But I totally see Wyoming making it. The back-to-back wins over Colorado and Illinois State have me believing, as long as they can stave off the loss of Luke Martinez to a broken hand, at least until he returns, if he does. If not, Colorado State could make it in if they get 2-3 upsets in-conference, which would mean a few wins over SDSU, UNLV and New Mexico.

-Wyoming will finish the season with less than five losses
The Cowboys have already won 12 games, but let’s look at their remaining schedule. They’ve obviously got four games against UNLV, New Mexico and San Diego State. I still maintain they’ll take at least three of those six games, probably at home. Then home-and-homes with Boise State and Colorado State, which I believe they’ll sweep. The Cowboys will also sweep the remaining conference games, with or without Martinez. If he comes back early, I fully believe Wyoming will could lose three or less. I believe that much in Larry Shyatt.

-Boise State will spoil someone’s MWC Tournament
Derrick Marks (17.9 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 3.7 apg, 2.4 spg, 88.6-percent free throw shooting) is making a heavy case as the sleeper pick for MWC Player of the Year and should be a first team all-conference member when all is said and done. Anthony Drmic (15.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg) has complimented Marks well and as a team the Broncos are shooting 39.8-percent from three-point range. They’ve already got home wins over Creighton and LSU and they’ll get plenty of film on UNLV, San Diego State and New Mexico, enough to know how to beat them. I could totally see a run to the conference tournament championship game in their future if the cards fall right.

Power Rankings  (*-NCAA Tournament team)
1.) San Diego State *
2.) UNLV *
3.) New Mexico *
4.) Wyoming *
5.) Colorado State
6.) Boise State
7.) Nevada
8.) Air Force
9.) Fresno State

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)
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.