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Pac-12 Tournament: Are we overlooking Arizona right now?

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It was February 1st when it looked like Arizona’s season was changed.

Early in the first half of a loss at Cal — the Wildcats’ first loss of the season — starting power forward Brandon Ashley broke a bone in his foot and was lost for the season. That came after Arizona won a dogfight at Stanford and before Sean Miller’s club sandwiched a two-point win over Oregon and an overtime win at Utah with a double-overtime loss at Arizona State.

During that three-week stretch, the only time that the Wildcats scored more than 67 points came when they pounded Oregon State in Tucson.

The Wildcats looked lost. Their offense had stalled enough that it didn’t matter how tenacious their defense was. Arizona, once considered to be the best team in the country, didn’t look like a Final Four contender.

Fast forward to the middle of March, and anyone that had doubted the Wildcats looks silly.

Because after a 63-43 evisceration of Colorado, that came a day after the Wildcats pounded Utah into oblivion with a 71-39 win, the Wildcats will head into the Pac-12 tournament title game playing arguably the best basketball of anyone in the country, and that could very well include both Florida and Wichita State.

Doesn’t it feel like they’re flying under the radar?

Maybe it’s because we know what they are. Maybe it’s because so many other teams that were considered contenders — Syracuse, Kansas, Michigan State — have serious question marks as we enter the last weekend before the NCAA tournament begins. Maybe it’s because all anyone wanted to talk about for the last three weeks was whether or not Wichita State actually deserves to be in the same conversation as the Arizonas and the Floridas of the world. Maybe it’s they actually as a No. 1 seed locked up while the likes of Villanova, Michigan and Wisconsin are battling it out for that last spot on the top line.

Whatever the case is, this is your wake-up call.

Arizona is as good as, if not better than, they were when they were the nation’s No. 1 team.

Because, as crazy as it sounds, their defense has actually gotten better.

Aaron Gordon may be the best defender in the country. He’s big enough to guard fours and quick enough to stay in front of point guards. He can block a shot and rebound in traffic with anyone, and he can pick a point guard’s pocket. He’s a nightmare at the top of a press and he’s the prototype when it comes to big men that can defend the pick-and-roll. He’s a perfect fit in Arizona’s pack-line defense …

And there’s a valid argument to make that he’s the third-best defender on this Arizona team.

Seriously.

That’s how good Nick Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson are.

And while being forced to play Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson together has hurt Arizona’s half-court offense, putting three athletes like that on the floor together makes Arizona very good in transition, which is something that Miller has made a point to emphasize in recent weeks.

So be forewarned.

They may not have the same level of hype as they did three months ago, but this Arizona team is more-than-capable of winning a national title.

Don’t be fooled when you fill out your bracket.

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
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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.