Chris Udofia

What to make of the Denver Pioneers? (VIDEO)

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Expectations were high heading into the 2013-14 season for the University of Denver. The Pioneers returned their top player in Chris Udofia, and were coming off a season where they finished 22-10, but 16-2 in the WAC — they have since transitioned to the Summit League after the dust settled from conference realignment.

In their final year in the WAC, they seemed destined to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history, but were upset by Texas State in the conference tournament, a Bobcat team who they defeated twice during the regular season by double-digits.

In the preseason, I was high on Denver. So high, in fact, that the Pioneers were ranked as the fifth best team in the 2013-14 Mid-Major Power Rankings. Did I swing and a miss with that lofty projection? After the first seven games, it looked like that was the case as Denver sat at 2-5 with their lone wins against Alaska Anchorage and Southern University. They dropped from a ranking of 63rd in Ken Pomeroy’s preseason rankings all the way to 187th following the Southern game. They weren’t just losing games, but they weren’t playing well even in the losses.

Granted, Denver’s first three losses came against California, Stanford, and Harvard — the latter two games of which they were competitive — but it appeared they weren’t living up to the hype.

Not so fast. The Pios — after sleepwalking, to an extent — through their first half of the non-conference portion of their schedule, are back on track. Wins over Colorado State and Wyoming were good signs, but throttling Belmont by 28 points earlier this week garnered the attention of the nation — at least those who had circled Denver vs. Belmont on their college basketball viewing calendars.

An even-keeled Joe Scott never panicked. He said after the big win over Belmont:

We’ve been playing really well over the last six games. We’re 5-1 in our last six and a whisker of a rebound away from 6-0. If you just look at the improvement of our team over the last month, it’s really unbelievable. It’s just a credit to all our guys, a credit to the team. It’s a credit to the leadership of Chris [Udofia] and Brett [Olson] and Cam [Griffin], and guys have just stayed with it. We knew we have a chance to become a pretty good team. It was just a matter of putting the pieces in and finding the right rotation.

Olson and Udofia have both jump-started Denver and been the keys to the improvement. After the first four games of the season — all losses — Udofia had scored in double-figures just once and Olson twice. Since the loss to Pepperdine at the Great Alaskan Shootout, each has notched double-figure scoring totals in every game.

A trademark of Scott’s strategy is to slow the game down to a snail’s crawl. Denver plays at the ninth slowest pace in the country. They are extremely methodical on offense and make defenses work, but when the Pioneers don’t score it doesn’t much matter the pace they play. Fortunately, Udofia and Olson have been much better on the offensive end during the streak.

Scott said about the early season games, “At some level, you’ve got to credit our schedule for making us grow up real quick.”

Will the strong play continue and will Denver win the Summit in their first season in the league? That remains to be seen. One hot streak doesn’t make a season. With three of their next five games coming against UC Irvine, UTEP, and St. Joseph’s, Denver has an opportunity to continue to prove that the 0-4 start was an anomaly.

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.