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Kentucky’s a work-in-progress, but we can see the progress being made

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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.

BROOKLYN — Attend enough of John Calipari’s press conferences, and one thing you’ll realize is that the man is media savvy enough that, should he decide his coaching career isn’t lucrative enough, he can open up his own PR firm.

He’s like a politician, and not in the derogatory way. He has a point that he wants to make, an idea that he is trying to drive home, and he knows how he is going to answer every question that he gets asked before he sets foot in that room.

With this group, one of Cal’s major talking points is that the overwhelming youth that he has on his roster means that this group is going to be a work in progress for a long time. The team that we see on the floor now is different than the team that we’re going to see when SEC play kicks off in January. The team that we see in January is going to be different than the group that takes the floor in March. This is true with every team, to a point, but it’s exacerbated in Lexington. There is no team in the country with a learning curve as steep as Kentucky’s.

“This is a freshmen team,” Cal said after Sunday night’s 79-65 win over Providence. Yes, every team that he’s had in his tenure with the ‘Cats has been a “freshmen team”, but this year’s group doesn’t have the veterans that other teams have had. There is no Patrick Patterson or Darius Miller. Josh Harrellson ain’t walking through that door. “We’re basically doing it with all freshmen. I’ve never done this before.”

The motto for this group? “What got you here won’t get you there.” What they did in high school and AAU ball, relying on their length and athleticism and God-given gifts, isn’t enough when every at this level has comparable size and leaping ability. He’s working with a blank canvas, and while part of the reason that he harps on this topic is to diffuse Big Blue Nation’s angst and to show his players that he has their backs publicly, this isn’t entirely the Calipari-spin.

He team is young, and his players do have a lot to learn.

Which means they have a lot of room to grow, and tonight, we saw some of that growth.

Kentucky knocked off a good Providence team in fairly impressive fashion on Sunday, and they did it despite the fact that Julius Randle had an off night and Andrew Harrison was largely relegated to the bench as he dealt with some foul trouble.

Instead, we saw Willie Cauley-Stein put together arguably his most impressive game as a Wildcat, finishing with 15 points, eight boards and nine blocks. Kentucky’s elite athleticism makes them potentially a deadly defensive team, and knowing that they have an eraser at the rim will only make the perimeter players that much more confident when pressuring on the perimeter defensively. This also doubled as one of Aaron Harrison’s best games to date, as he finished with 15 points and four assists on 7-for-9 shooting. He played the point quite a bit while his brother was on the bench, while also switching onto Providence’s high-scoring lead guard Bryce Cotton in the second half.

“Aaron Harrison is the one that changed the game,” Cal said.

Perhaps most importantly, however, we saw glimpses of the Wildcats starting to ‘get it’, starting to understand the way they have to play if they truly want to be a national title contender come March.

Despite playing a team with a front line that could match them inch-for-inch, Kentucky continually pounded the ball into the paint, either off the drive or off the dribble. Randle was off, finishing 4-for-10 from the floor and missing three free throws, but he added four assists, showing an ever-improving ability to pass out of a double-team. Even Cauley-Stein chipped in with a couple of jump-hooks of his own.

The stat that most signifies Kentucky’s dedication to the interior is that they only shot eight threes on the night, making six of them. Kentucky was averaging more than 17 threes attempted per game, with their two designated shooters taking more than half of their field goal attempts from beyond the arc despite the fact that they were both shooting under 29% from deep.

Kentucky still has plenty of room to grow, and, as of now, they are far from a finished product.

But you can see little things changing, improving, every time they take the court.

And if the Wildcats can continue this trend?

“When those kids mature,” Providence head coach Ed Cooley said, “they can be scary. They can be really, really scary.”

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.