Drexel Arizona Basketball

Nick Johnson becoming a go-to guy is the key for No. 4 Arizona

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From Nov. 20th thru Dec. 1st, I’ll be on the road, hitting 21 games in 11 days. To follow along and read my stories from the road, click here.

NEW YORK — Arizona is an elite defensive team.

You should know this by now. I’ve written about it twice in the last three days. Their size, their versatility and the presence of terrific individual defenders makes them as tough to score on as anyone in the country.

The issue with Arizona is on the offensive end of the floor. As Drexel proved on Wednesday night, if you want to beat Arizona, you have to force them into a half court, possession-by-possession game by being physical with their guards and taking away the sets they want to run. As athletic and as talented as they are, the Wildcats don’t have an abundance of skill offensively.

That’s what makes Nick Johnson so important.

Right now, Johnson is probably Arizona’s most skilled player offensively, their biggest threat in the half court.

“Nick’s become [a go-to guy] for us,” head coach Sean Miller said. “He’s taken big shots and he’s made them.”

Johnson is the Wildcat’s leading scorer, as he entered Friday averaging 17.3 points. He struggled in the first half, but scored 13 of his 15 points after intermission, including eight points and a pair of assists during the game-changing, 20-5 run in their 72-66 win over No. 6 Duke. Miller was not only impressed with Johnson’s ability to hit a big shot, but the fact that he did it after such a poor first half.

“There’s a lot of go-to guys that are doing well when things are going well for them and their team,” Miller said. “True go-to guys are the ones that dig their team out of a gutter or are able to put three or four bad plays behind them and make the next big play. It’s great to see Nick developing into that.”

“Each year he’s added to his role and his game. I don’t know if there are more complete guards in the country with what he means to our team.”

The key for Arizona this season is going to be the play of their perimeter attack. It’s not a secret that the Wildcats are a big, physical front line. In both games in Madison Square Garden this week, the Wildcats made it a priority to get the ball into the paint to Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley. They know where their bread gets buttered.

But in order to keep defenses from collapsing on those big guys, Arizona’s guards are going to have to be able to produce. They have to be able to knock down their threes to help spread the floor. They have to be able to keep defenses honest. When Duke took their biggest lead at 43-37, Arizona was 2-for-11 from the floor. For the remainder of the game, Arizona was 3-for-3 from deep, which not only sparked their run but also forced Duke out of a man-to-man defense.

So yes, it’s more than just Johnson.

But he’s their best perimeter scorer, and when he plays like it, it makes the Wildcats a much more dangerous team.

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.