Nate Austin, Kelly Olynyk

West Regional Preview: Is this finally Gonzaga’s Final Four year?

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After much consternation and discussion and analysis in the six days since Gonzaga ended their season by winning the WCC tournament, it turns out that the Zags did end up getting the No. 1 seed out West. That means that, if they keep on winning, they’ll be playing their first two games in Salt Lake City and their next two games in Los Angeles.

The problem with that plan?

New Mexico, the dual-champion of the Mountain West Conference and one of the stingiest defensive teams in the country, is the No. 3 seed out West and will be following that same path towards the Final Four. As will No. 6 seed Arizona, should they make it out of their tough opening round matchup with Belmont.

Should I mention that the Zags also are going to have their hands full with whoever ends up winning the rugby match that will break out during No. 8 seed Pitt’s battle with No. 9 seed Wichita State?

Here’s your West Regional breakdown:

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Three story lines to watch

  • The narrative for this region will end up being that it’s the easiest of the four, which isn’t necessarily untrue. It’s certainly not as intimidating as the Midwest, and none of the top four seeds are going to strike fear in the hearts of cinderellas. But when that point is brought up, it’s important to mention that this is not a good draw for Gonzaga in terms of matchups. Both Pitt and Wichita State have the size to matchup with Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris. Kansas State does as well, and New Mexico may matchup with the Zags better than any team in the country.
  • There are some really dangerous double-digit seeds out West. Iowa State can beat anyone in the country on the nights their threes are going down. Belmont’s a veteran team with arguably the best backcourt in the region. Ole Miss is hot, coming off an SEC tournament title, and has one of the nation’s most dangerous scorers in Marshall Henderson. Even the Boise State-La Salle winner and Harvard can win a couple games, and Iona has a number of high-major transfers on their roster.
  • Can Ohio State make another run to the Final Four? There hasn’t been a hotter team in the country over the last month, and they’ve got a favorable bracket.

The Elite 8 matchup is…?: No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 3 New Mexico

Difficult matchups aside, I still believe that Gonzaga is as good as any team in the country, if not the best team in the country. Their front line is just a nightmare to try and defend, and while they will have to get by some teams with size up front, how many of those teams have big men with the size and the versatility of Gonzaga’s? (Hint: none.) I know the reputation of the Mountain West is to underperform in the NCAA tournament, and while I don’t necessarily see that changing this season, I think this season will be the time that New Mexico finally bucks that trend. Ohio State will be tough, but I think the Lobos are stingy enough defensively to take away Deshaun Thomas and balanced enough offensively to limit Aaron Craft’s disruption.

Final Four sleeper: Pitt

The Panthers are the No. 8 seed out West. They also happen to be the No. 7 team in the country according to Kenpom’s efficiency rating. Pitt historically struggles in the tourney, but if they can pull the upset over Gonzaga in the Round of 32, Jamie Dixon’s club will have favorable matchups the rest of the way.

Best opening round matchups

  • No. 13 Boise State vs. No. 13 La Salle: Both the Broncos and the Explorers are overloaded with quality perimeter players, and this should “devolve” into a open-court, up-and-down affair that sees plenty of threes being fired up.
  • No. 8 Pitt vs. No. 9 Wichita State: It may end up being the polar opposite of Boise State and La Salle, but if you like seeing big men battle in the paint, this game will provide that.

Matchups to root for

  • No. 3 New Mexico vs. No. 6 Arizona: Not only would that pit the best team from the Mountain West against one of the best teams in the Pac-12 for west coast bragging rights, it would take place in Salt Lake City, a locale easy for both fan bases to get to.
  • No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 7 Notre Dame and No. 11 Belmont: Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott might be the best defensive back court in the country. They get Momo Jones and Sean Armand of Iona and then, hopefully, Notre Dame’s Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant and Belmont’s Kerron Johnson and Ian Clark.

The studs you know about

  • Aaron Craft, Ohio State: Deshaun Thomas gets the attention, but Craft is a difference-maker defensively and his emergence offensively has spurred Ohio State’s late-season surge.
  • Kelly Olynyk, Gonzaga: He’s a seven-footer with guard skills that has become the most devastatingly-efficient front court scorer this side of Doug McDermott.
  • Marshall Henderson, Ole Miss: He’s brash, he’s cocky, he’s emotional and unafraid to show it, and he just so happens to be a 20 ppg scorer.
  • Rodney McGruder, Kansas State: McGruder had some issues shooting the ball earlier this season, but he’s like a less-athletic version of Ben McLemore.

The studs the nation will find out about

  • Ian Clark, Belmont: Not only was he the OVC’s co-Player of the Year alongside Isaiah Canaan after averaging 18.1 points, but the 6-foot-1 sharpshooter was also the Defensive Player of the Year.
  • Ramon Galloway, La Salle: Galloway is a senior from Philly that transferred to his hometown school from South Carolina and has had a great season. He’s a bigger, more athletic guard with a vicious handle that’s unafraid to pull from deep. He takes — and also makes — some crazy shots.

Upsets that ARE happening

  • No. 11 Belmont over No. 6 Arizona: Belmont’s back court is going to give Mark Lyons and Nick Johnson nightmare, while I just don’t see Arizona’s front court being big enough to take advantage of the Bruin’s lack of size inside.
  • No. 10 Iowa State over No. 7 Notre Dame: The Cyclones are a streaky team because of their reliance on the three-ball, but they have perimeter-oriented big men that will be a nightmare for Jack Cooley to try and cover; it’s how they nearly beat Kansas twice this season. Point guard Korie Lucious has played in a Final Four, and Chris Babb is an excellent on-ball defender.

Upsets that AREN’T happening

  • No. 7 Notre Dame/No. 10 Iowa State over No. 2 Ohio State: Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott will shut down Notre Dame’s talented back court, while the Buckeyes have displayed a small lineup of late — using Deshaun Thomas at the five — that can matchup with ISU.
  • No. 12 Ole Miss over No. 5 Wisconsin: The Rebels got hot late, and they deserve credit for that, but I can’t see a team that lost to Mississippi State and South Carolina beating Bo Ryan’s team.

CBT Predictions: I think New Mexico’s front line ends up being too much for the smaller Ohio State to deal with, but the Lobos end up losing in a thriller — and packed house — for the right to go to Atlanta.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

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)
(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.