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UNLV provides more questions than answers after another home loss

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Picked to finish in a tie for second place in the preseason Mountain West coaches poll, Dave Rice’s UNLV Runnin’ Rebels were clearly expected to contend for a conference title. While there certainly were some adjustments to be made given the number of newcomers inheriting key roles, there’s enough talent to make UNLV a factor in the Mountain West and at the very least earn another trip to the NCAA tournament.

In the aftermath of UNLV’s disappointing performance in a 74-71 home loss to Nevada on Wednesday night, with the final margin being that close thanks in large part to the Wolf Pack’s struggles to put the game away, it seems pretty clear that UNLV is a team in search of answers. And they don’t look all that equipped to provide the answers needed to turn things around, which is highly concerning with road games against New Mexico (January 15) and No. 13 San Diego State (January 18) next on the schedule.

And for a team that up until the last week proved to be solid defensively, those home losses to Air Force and Nevada are especially concerning in that regard.

After allowing the Falcons to score 1.16 points per possession on Saturday the Runnin’ Rebels weren’t much better against their in-state rivals, with Nevada scoring an average of 1.10 points per possession. Nevada was able to do that despite shooting just 6-for-19 from beyond the arc, with the guard tandem of Deonte Burton (29 points, five rebounds and three assists) and Michael Perez (18 points, seven rebounds and three assists) doing just about whatever they wanted offensively.

Nevada made 52.3% of its shots inside of the arc, as they were able to find ways to attack UNLV’s defense off the dribble on many occasions (and a few backdoor cuts from Perez for good measure) with little resistance to be found. Burton sat a portion of the first half due to foul trouble, but once he was able to get rolling in the latter stages of the half UNLV had no chance of slowing him down.

The reasons for the loss are many and will be discussed ad nauseam by the fans who, like the team, have a week to stew on this two-game losing streak before back-to-back trips to New Mexico and San Diego State starting Wednesday. There may be no better place to start than how excited Burton was to see Kendall Smith guarding him to start the game.

“I was surprised about it,” Burton said. “We just have to exploit the mismatches, and that’s what we did.”

Asked if he was pleasantly surprised, Burton grinned.

“Yes.”

But to limit UNLV’s issues to the defensive end of the floor would be a mistake, especially when considering the fact that they shot just 35% from the field. UNLV got the ball inside but they couldn’t convert at a decent rate, with Khem Birch (3-for-10 FG), Bryce Dejean-Jones (4-for-14) and Kendall Smith (3-for-11) all struggling to knock down shots. Add in Jelan Kendrick’s benching due to his being late to a practice and the problems were plentiful for UNLV.

Now comes the most important six days in the season for the Runnin’ Rebels, and they won’t play a single game during this stretch. For a team that lacked focus, and Birch even noted that players are “emotionally and physically tired” according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, it’s imperative that Rice’s squad uses this time off to get on the same page.

UNLV may be playing better basketball away from Thomas & Mack this season (five of their six losses have come at home), but if they don’t find a way to right the ship those games at The Pit and Viejas Arena will get ugly.

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)
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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.