steve alford

Pac-12 Tournament: UCLA’s offense too much for No. 4 Arizona

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Arizona found itself in an unlikely, and unknown, scenario in the Pac-12 tournament final: its defense was completely ineffective. UCLA came out and, possibly invigorated by a combination of butterflies and the oxygen pumped into the MGM Grand, proceeded to thump the Wildcats, 75-71 and claim the title.

The first twenty minutes were among the most entertaining during this conference tournament week, and even though the Wildcats were able to keep up with UCLA’s torrid scoring, Sean Miller’s squad hadn’t faced a team yet this year that didn’t fold under Zona’s grinding pack-line defense.

When Jordan Adams hit a three-pointer off a simple flare screen with 43 seconds remaining in the game, a shot that broke a 68-all deadlock, it wasn’t luck: Arizona just couldn’t stop UCLA today. Other than Adams’ three, the final minute was anticlimatic and sloppy, the opposite of what had been 39 minutes of pure basketball.

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Before delving into the game’s particulars, it’s necessary to mention how ruthless — in a good way — this rivalry between UCLA and Arizona has become. The two teams battled for every single possession, rebound, and loose ball — Travis Wear diving and nearly sliding from half court to end line should make ‘One Shining Moment’ even though the tournament hasn’t begun — and the intensity displayed by the fifteen participants was truly special. The first half offensive efficiency rating reflects the higher plane both teams operated on: 1.34 PPP (Arizona, on just 32 possessions!) and 1.25 (UCLA).

Since Brandon Ashley was waylaid with a foot injury, the play of Aaron Gordon has drastically improved, and the forward showcased the uniqueness of his game versus the Bruins. Gordon has now shifted to a true frontcourt role, operating from the interior while in the halfcourt, and his ability to be a triple threat has helped evolve his game as well as Arizona’s offense. Whether dishing to Kaleb Tarczewski for dunks, or using his height to find the other Wildcats on the perimeter, or simply operating off the bounce and getting to the bucket, Gordon has transformed into a bigger mismatch.

Yes, Gordon, and the rest of Arizona, missed a bunch of free throws — two of eight (and the team missed six of sixteen), to be precise — but Gordon has been making them in past games, and this figures to be a one-game blip rather than a significant issue that could preclude Arizona going deep into NCAA play.

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With the win, UCLA pulled ahead of Arizona as the Pac-12 best team. This offense, when it is humming, is so difficult to stop: even when the Bruins came down to Earth in the second half, they were still scoring 1.12 PPP. When compared to the offensive efficiency rate of Arizona’s three Pac-12 losses — each of which were around .90 PPP — it is clearer that the consistency and efficiency of UCLA’s buckets was unparalleled.

UCLA presents difficult covers at each position. The Wear twins were heroes of the short corner against UA, hitting jumpers whenever their defender tried to help a Kyle Anderson drive, and Tony Parker, the much maligned big who has become a new player under Steve Alford, grabbed several key rebounds and is a bear in the paint.

Regardless of the seed UCLA receives on Sunday evening, the Bruins will be a problem. The speed at which they operate (the team has hovered around 69 possessions this season), the improved play of Jordan Adams and especially Norman Powell, the aforementioned mismatch capabilities of the other Bruins, and the ability of Kyle Anderson to be a match-up dilemma for any player not named Aaron Gordon means UCLA will be one of those teams a top seed wants no business facing either of first two weekends.

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
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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.