Johnny Dee, Jito Kok

Defense, rebounding the keys as San Diego looks to climb the WCC mountain

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Christopher Anderson (AP) and Johnny Dee (Getty)

All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here.

Being in a conference that many tend to associate with a couple powerful programs can be a bit of a double-edged sword for the other members. On one hand, the national attention that comes as a result of those powerful programs can help elevate the entire conference, with the membership looking to use the raised profile as a springboard to bigger and better things.

But on the other hand it makes the climb that much tougher for those other schools, with the details ultimately making all the difference.

One of the programs in the West Coast Conference looking to make a move in 2013-14 is San Diego, which finished the 2012-13 season with an overall record of 16-18 (7-9 WCC). Bill Grier’s Toreros are a year older, and in guards Christopher Anderson and Johnny Dee, they’ve got one of the better perimeter tandems on the west coast. And frankly, given the importance of guard play in basketball that’s not a bad place to start when looking to make a climb up the conference pecking order.

Both players were honorable mention All-WCC selections last season, with the 5-foot-7 Anderson running the point and the 6-foot Dee playing the role of shooting guard. Anderson, who can be a downright nuisance to opponents on the defensive end, averaged 9.4 points and ranked second in the WCC in assists with 5.7 helpers per contest. Dee was San Diego’s leading scorer a season ago, scoring 15.0 points per night on 43% shooting from the field and 37.7% shooting from beyond the arc. And in the case of Dee, Anderson’s presence played a key role in his offseason development as the two squared off against each other more often than not in the team’s summer pickup sessions.

(CLICK HERE to read NBCSports.com’s West Coast Conference Preview)

“I think we have one of the best perimeter on-ball defenders in our conference in Chris Anderson,” Dee said in an interview with NBC Sports. “Going against him in open gym and in practice has really helped me to develop the ball-handling skills I need to handle a good defender guarding me. It’s really helped me improve, and I’m excited about that aspect of my game for when I play other teams and not just Chris.”

While Dee was asked to attack the offseason with the mindset of a point guard, the requirements were a little different for Anderson. Anderson’s very quick with the basketball in his hands, which allows him to get to the basket against many opponents, but there was also the need to develop a middle game of sorts.

“I don’t know if there’s a quicker guy in our league,” Grier said of Anderson in an interview with NBC Sports. “He’s always had this tremendous quickness and an ability to get to the basket, and he’s very good at reading when a defenders helps. He’s very good at finding guys.

“But where I’ve asked him to improve, and he has, is when he gets a guy on his heels and he stops to take a 15-17 foot pull-up and shooting that consistently. He has a tendency to want to get all the way in to try to draw help or get to the rim. He’s worked on it and I think he has more confidence in his ability to knock down that shot; now he has to go do it in a game because his ‘default’ is to just go by guys.”

Those two won’t do all of the heavy lifting by themselves, meaning that other players will need to step up with the Toreros having lost wing Ken Rancifer (10.2 ppg, 3.7 rpg) and forward Chris Manresa (9.0 ppg, 7.1 rpg) to graduation. Grier mentioned both freshman Brett Bailey and sophomore Duda Sanadze as possibilities when it comes to accounting for the loss of Rancifer. Sanadze, a native of the Republic of Georgia, had to sit out last season but has experience playing at the international level. The hope for Sanadze is that he can produce enough offensively to help take some of the load off of the shoulders of Anderson and Dee.

“That’s the thing I’ve felt through the preseason is his ability to score is really going to help Chris and Johnny and take the weight off their shoulders,” said Grier. “And now it’s another guy who’s capable of scoring. Two years ago in the Under-20 European Championships [Sanadze] was the second-leading scorer in the tournament, so he can put the ball in the basket and that will help take some pressure off of those two.”

(CLICK HERE to read through the rest of NBCSports.com’s feature stories)

Manresa was the team’s leading rebounder last season, and given San Diego’s struggles on the glass last season (last in the WCC in defensive rebounding percentage and 8th in offensive rebounding percentage) that’s a tough loss to absorb. But in sophomore center Jito Kok the Toreros have a big man who tied the school freshman record for blocks in a season with 55, and with Kok having put on about 15 pounds the hope is that he’s ready to produce even more in 2013-14. Senior Dennis Kramer, who started 21 games last season but wasn’t 100% for much of the 2012-13 campaign, and Simi Fajemisin will also be asked to help account for the departure of Manresa inside.

Those rebounding issues factored into opponents making nearly 51% of their two-point shots, and those extra possessions allowed on the glass can make all the difference in close games. San Diego finished the 2012-13 season with a record of 4-6 in games decided by five points or less, and their 4-9 record in true road games proved to be problematic as well. The rebounding issues need to be shored up if the Toreros are to entertain any thoughts of improving their standing within the WCC, especially when considering the fact that seven of their first nine league games are on the road.

While the optimistic view of the schedule is to note that San Diego will get seven of their final nine WCC games at home, there’s also the real possibility of a tough start putting the Toreros in a hole they’ll have a hard time climbing out of. Taking care of the “little things” will ultimately have a significant impact on the outcome of San Diego’s 2013-14 campaign.

“We’re a small team, especially with me and Chris on the perimeter, but that’s really no excuse,” said Dee. “For us to move up in the WCC we have to improve our defensive rebounding and not give teams another chance to score on us. We can play pretty good defense for a possession, but if they get the offensive rebound then we’re in scramble mode and it’s harder on us. I think if we can rebound the basketball better we can make a jump [in the standings].”

With Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s and BYU once again expected to reside at the top of the standings and programs like Loyola Marymount and San Francisco also having quality pieces, the climb won’t be an easy one for San Diego. But with Anderson and Dee leading the way, the Toreros hope to make their move.

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.