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No. 3 Arizona looks like a national title contender again

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Aaron Gordon led five players in double-figures with 19 points and 15 boards as No. 3 Arizona won their fourth straight game, knocking off Stanford 79-66.

It was the third straight game that the Wildcats have pounded a tournament caliber Pac-12 team, which more or less asserts that whatever had been ailing this team has been figured out.

The difference?

Arizona is pushing the ball more. They are getting out in transition and opening up the floor, which is where freakish athletes like Nick Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Aaron Gordon can thrive. They’ve also gotten better defensively, as losing Brandon Ashley has forced Miller to play Gordon exclusively in the front court and give more minutes to Hollis-Jefferson, who is one of the best perimeter defenders that you’ll find.

As a result, the last three games have seen, for this first time this season, Arizona just straight beating the breaks off of opponents. They won at Colorado by 27. They beat Cal in Tucson by 28. They were up 25 on Stanford with eight minutes left.

Are the Wildcats, dare I say, better without Ashley?

Well, no.

Ashley gave them front court depth and allowed them to be capable of using a lineup that could simply overwhelm anyone in the country with their size. What made Arizona so difficult with Ashley is that they were matchup-proof. They could play bigger than the biggest team in the country and matchup with anyone that tried to play four or five perimeter players.

But what losing Ashley has done is forced Miller’s hand. The inability of his forwards to shoot from the perimeter and the corresponding struggles of Johnson turned Arizona into a horrific half court team. Miller had no choice but to open things up a bit more, which is the style that actually better suits his personnel.

Think back to the fall, when all the chatter was about Gordon’s insistence on playing the three this season? Remember when I told you that Arizona would be at their best when Gordon was at the four? It’s his more natural position at this level and this point in his development. He’s even spent time playing the five, with Hollis-Jefferson at the four and Gabe York or Elliot Pitts seeing time on the perimeter.

We’ll have more on this this week, but since the change, Gordon is averaging 18.3 points and 9.0 boards. Hollis-Jefferson has shown the nation why he was one of the most popular players in the Class of 2013. Johnson had snapped out of his slump until Sunday’s 3-for-13 performance.

The Wildcats are different than they were when they still had Ashley available. It’s difficult to call them better than they were before, but they certainly are back to being one of the nation’s most dangerous teams.

And they certainly belong back in the conversation as a National Title contender.

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)
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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.