Shabazz Napier

American Conference Catchup: Louisville and Memphis reign

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source: Getty Images

College basketball is now almost two months old. League play will be kicking off in the next week. Let’s get you caught up on all you need to know with some of the country’s best conferences. 

To read through the rest of our Conference Catchups, click here.

Midseason Player of the Year: Shabazz Napier, UConn

This decision really isn’t all that hard. Napier has led the Huskies to an 11-1 record this season. Included in those 11 wins are one possession victories over Boston College, Indiana, Florida and Maryland, three of which Napier’s heroics are directly responsible for. His numbers (15.5 points, 6.3 boards and 5.9 assists) would look a lot better if he didn’t play as passive as he does in games that UConn has control over.

All-Atlantic 10 First Team:

  • Shabazz Napier, UConn
  • Joe Jackson, Memphis
  • Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati
  • Russ Smith, Louisville
  • Tashawn Thomas, Houston

Midseason Coach of the Year: Kevin Ollie, UConn

By the end of the year, I think that Josh Pastner will end up being the Coach of the Year in the American, but this far into the season, it’s Ollie’s honor. We’ll get into it more in a bit, but this UConn team is not as good as their record or ranking would indicate. And while much of that credit goes to Napier, Ollie’s been terrific this year in his own right.

Favorite: Louisville Cardinals

You can go ahead and write off Louisville with Chane Behanan’s suspension if you want, but I’m not going to. The biggest issue plaguing this team wasn’t something that Behanan provided. They needed more production from the supporting cast. They needed to have to rely less on Russ Smith and Chris Jones for production. Can this team win the national title? Maybe. I wouldn’t call them a favorite anymore. But I certainly wouldn’t think that they’re anything less than the best team in the AAC.

And three more contenders: 

  • The knock of Memphis during Josh Pastner’s tenure has been their inability to win the big one. They finally got a top 25 win against Oklahoma State this year and impressed in a loss to Florida in the Garden.
  • The bad news for UConn is that they have a front line that leaves much to be desired in terms of strength and rebounding. The good news? Neither Memphis or Louisville has an overpowering front line.
  • Are we overlooking Cincinnati? They have some scoring issues, but this group can defend and they have Sean Kilpatrick. And they are playing in a conference that it wide open after the top two. Things could be much worse for Mick Cronin’s club.

Most Surprising Team: Memphis Tigers

source: Getty ImagesOk, so it shouldn’t actually be a surprise that the Tigers are winning games. They are one of the most talented teams in the conference and were a preseason top 15 team. That said, this is a Memphis team that seemingly perennially disappointed in big games. Well, after getting mollywhopped by Oklahoma State on the road in their second game of the season, the Tigers bounced back to beat Marcus Smart and company in Florida and followed that up by putting together an arguably-more impressive performance in a loss to Florida in New York.

Most Disappointing Team: Temple Owls

We knew Temple was going to have a down year in 2014. They graduated quite a bit of talent, namely Khalif Wyatt, in a year that they made a move to a new, bigger conference. Having said that, this is still Temple and they are still coached by Fran Dunphy. Seeing them lose to the likes of Texas Southern at home will never not be a shock.

Most Important Player (in league play): Luke Hancock, Louisville

The thing that Louisville missed the most this season was a secondary scorer and perimeter shooting. Enter Luke Hancock. That’s what he does. Do you need me to queue up a video of the Final Four? Losing Chane Behanan won’t help matters, but the Cardinals are going to be just fine if they can get Hancock healthy and playing well.

Who will slide?: UConn Huskies

I love Shabazz Napier as much as anyone possibly can, but there is only so long that UConn can survive on his heroics. Look at what happened when Napier had an off-night against Stanford. Look at what happened when Napier had an slow half at Houston. The bottom-line is that this is a team with a young front line that relies on two unreliable players — Ryan Boatright and Deandre Daniels — as secondary scorers.

Who is the sleeper?: Houston Cougars

It’s not really a surprise that Houston is good this season. They have a bunch of talent, headlined by athletic big man Tashawn Thomas. What’s surprising is that the Cougars knocked off then-No. 17 UConn despite playing without L.J. Rose and Danuel House. If this team can get healthy, they have the pieces to make some noise in league play.

New Power Rankings

1. Louisville
2. Memphis
3. UConn
4. Cincinnati
5. SMU
6. Houston
7. UCF
8. Temple
9. South Florida
10. Rutgers

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)
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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.