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Pitt has a solid identity as they enter ACC play

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If you watched Cincinnati and Pittsburgh do battle in Madison Square Garden earlier this season like I did, you probably didn’t think very much of either team.

The Bearcats changed my thoughts on how good they are with their Saturday road win over Memphis in an AAC contest and, now, after watching Pittsburgh easily handle Maryland, I’m coming around more on the Panthers as well.

It’s not that defeating North Carolina State and Maryland by double digits to begin their tenure in the ACC was all that impressive, but Pitt has a lot of identity markers to like and they can win using a variety of different lineups. Many of those lineups and players were Pittsburgh’s key in a 79-59 win Monday night at home over Maryland.

When you start discussing the Panthers this season you have to start with fifth-year senior Lamar Patterson. Patterson is one of the most underrated players in the country and the 6-foot-5 wing played a major factor in Pitt’s second-half dominance of Maryland on Monday night.

After getting burned a bit by the shooting of Evan Smotcyrz and his 3-for-3 shooting from the three-point line early in the game, Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon made the adjustment to go to a smaller lineup and feature the versatile Patterson at the four in the second half.

The Panthers took full advantage of their four-guard look and outscored Maryland 43-29 in the second half and Smotcyrz was held to 1-for-8 shooting from beyond the arc the rest of the game.

Patterson on offense, meanwhile, carved up the Maryland defense, scoring on floaters, mid-range pull-ups, drives and a three on his way to 19 points behind an efficient 8-of-12 night from the field.

While Patterson is the catalyst that drives Pittsburgh, the steady point guard play of sophomore point guard James Robinson is another major reason the Panthers are off to a 14-1 start.

Robinson just always seems to understand time and possession and never tries to do too much when running the Pitt offense. Robinson has turned the ball over only 12 times in 412 minutes of play this season while dishing out 62 assists; remarkable numbers for any point guard, let alone a true sophomore. Since committing two turnovers in Pitt’s season-opening win over Savannah State, Robinson doesn’t have a multi-turnover game since.

Then you have senior Talib Zanna manning the middle. The 6-foot-9 center isn’t flashy, but he defends his area, rebounds and can score on quick hitters around the hoop off of dump-offs from Pittsburgh’s guards.

When you add in the improved play of junior guard Cameron Wright, the scoring potential of Durand Johnson off the bench, as well as the interior contributions of freshmen Michael Young and Jamel Artis and this Pitt team is dangerous because their players all know their roles and play within themselves and the Panther offense.

Pittsburgh doesn’t take many bad shots and they limit turnovers. Jamie Dixon’s team isn’t one you would call “fun to watch” and their schedule hasn’t been particularly difficult during their 14-1 start, but this Panthers team plays together as a team and they have a chance to do some real damage in the ACC this season because they understand what works for them.

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.