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Offensive rebounding, Nick Johnson push No. 1 Arizona past Utah

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Just a couple days removed from a comfortable win over Colorado, No. 1 Arizona was faced with the task of taking care of business against another opponent they were expected to handle. Utah, which has been much-improved thanks to the addition of Delon Wright and the progression of Jordan Loveridge, has the ability to make things difficult on teams (see their home win over UCLA) but this was not supposed to be a game in which the Wildcats faced one of their largest deficits of the season.

That’s the position Arizona found itself a little more than seven minutes into the game, trailing the feisty Utes by a 12-2 score. The biggest culprit: incredibly poor shooting from the field, with Arizona making just five of its first 22 shots from the field and finishing the first half shooting just 31% from the field.

Ultimately the Wildcats would pull ahead for good just past the halfway point of the second half for two reasons: their ability to punish Utah on the offensive boards, and the excellence of junior guard Nick Johnson.

Arizona rebounded half of its missed shots, converting those 20 offensive rebounds (Aaron Gordon was responsible for seven) into 19 second-chance points, and Johnson scored a game-high 22 points to lead the Wildcats to a 65-56 victory. Now 20-0 and 7-0 in Pac-12 play, the Wildcats have a two-game lead in the standings ahead of their road trip to the Bay Area.

Offensive rebounding has been one of Arizona’s calling cards all season long, as they entered Sunday ranked in the top ten nationally in offensive rebounding percentage. And when you’re as athletic as the Wildcats are, this becomes an area that you can take full advantage of on most nights. That’s what did in Utah, which threw multiple defensive looks at Arizona including a triangle-and-2, a matchup zone and even some man-to-man.

Those looks did a good job in regards to limiting Arizona’s rate of success of their first shots, but on far too many occasions the Utes could not finish the defensive possession by grabbing a rebound. Those extra possessions add up, resulting in Utah losing steam in crunch time.

Individually the night was yet another showcase for Johnson, who at this point is one of the favorites (if not the favorite) to win Pac-12 Player of the Year. Johnson may have led the way scoring-wise but he also was the primary defender against Wright, who scored 19 points but did so shooting 5-for-12 from the field. T.J. McConnell’s addition has made Arizona a better team, and so have the arrivals of talented freshmen Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.

But if Johnson weren’t ready to take on the leadership role that was at times left vacant a season ago, Arizona may not be as good as they have been to this point in the season. He’s proven to be that player for Arizona, and that’s the biggest reason why they’re still undefeated.

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.