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Aaron Craft ready to play more of an attacking role

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UNION, N.J. — The knock on Ohio State for much of the 2012-2013 season was that they relied far too much on Deshaun Thomas on the offensive end of the floor. They didn’t have a second option, and on the nights when Thomas wasn’t hitting his shots, the Buckeyes weren’t winning games.

That changed down the stretch of the season, however.

Ohio State won their last five regular season games before taking home the Big Ten tournament title and coming within a game of making the Final Four, a feat that no one thought possible last January. The reason for that surge? The play of point guard Aaron Craft, who became a much more aggressive player on the offensive end of the floor over the last month-and-a-half of the season. He had 21 points and six assists in a regular season win over Michigan State. He went for 15 points, four assists and four steals in a win over Indiana. He had 20 points, nine assists and four steals against Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament semifinals. He went for 18 points and six assists — including the game-saving charge and game-winning three — in a win over Iowa State to reach the Sweet 16.

And if the Buckeyes are going to make a run at a Big Ten regular season title in 2013-2014, they are going to need that kind of play out of Craft the entire season.

“I’ve gotta continue to lead the team, the biggest thing [to improve on] would be being aggressive on offense,” Craft told NBCSports.com at the Nike Skills Academy on the campus of Kean University. “Without having a guy like DT where you can throw him the ball and let him do his thing. We’re going to have to find a way to create shots and get open ones, so if I can attack better, I think it will help us out.”

And therein lies the biggest question mark when it comes to the Buckeyes next season. As good as Craft is, his entire career at Ohio State has been built around his leadership and his defense. He’s not a dynamic playmaker, he’s a facilitator. He picks his spots well and he’s aggressive when he needs to be, but he hasn’t been the kind of point guard that can beat his man one-on-one and create a shot for himself or his team on any possession. He’s not Trey Burke.

But there were times where he was as effective as Burke was last season, especially late in the regular season, and it’s those moments that Craft will be looking to build off of.

“Guys like Kyrie [Irving] are always in attack mode,” Craft said. “It’s not always for him to score, it’s for everybody. It’s for his entire team, whether he’s getting a good shot or he’s helping somebody else get a good shot. Just trying to be aggressive and be in attack mode, not trying to go to fast but to make quick decisions. We can make adjustments from there.”

The good news is that there will be some talent surrounding Craft next season. Shannon Scott showed flashes of serious potential as a sophomore. Lenzelle Smith has some big scoring games. LaQuinton Ross played his way into some 2014 mock drafts with his play in the postseason.

None of those guys have shown any kind of consistency, however.

Craft has.

Which is ironic, really.

While Scott, Ross and Smith will be looking to improve their consistency next year, Craft, who has built a career out of consistently playing at a high level, will be looking to break out of his mold.

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)
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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.