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Looking at the top big men in the 2014 NCAA Tournament

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PREVIEWSEast Region South Region | Midwest Region West Region

A presence in the paint can go a long way this time of year. Look no further than last year’s national title game. Gorgui Dieng manned the frontline for national champion Louisville. In the title game the Cardinals topped Michigan, which had freshman center Mitch McGary emerge as the tournament’s breakout star. 

Here’s a look at 12 of the most important wing forwards in the 2014 NCAA Tournament:

MORELead Guards | Off-Guards | Wing Forwards

Adreian Payne, Michigan State — One of three key players for Michigan State who dealt with injuries this season, but we’ve seen how dangerous Sparty can be when healthy. Payne averaged 15.8 points and 7.4 rebounds per game while shooting 51 percent from the field and stretching out the opposing frontcourts, hitting 42 percent of his threes. He and Keith Appling will try and keep Tom Izzo’s streak of seniors reaching the Final Four alive.

Cameron Bairstow, New Mexico — The Lobos won the Mountain West Conference Tournament and a big reason to their success this season has been Bairstow’s improvement. He went from 9.7 points and 5.7 rebounds per game as a junior to 20.3 and 7.4 a night as a senior, and can be tough to defend on the block. With Bairstow, fellow big man Alex Kirk and 2013 Mountain West Player of the Year, Kendall Williams, it isn’t crazier to think New Mexico could reach the Elite 8.

Montrezl Harrell, Louisville — There were big expectations from Harrell to go from role player to star and the sophomore forward has not disappointed. He’s recorded five double-doubles in Louisville’s last 11 games and is posting averages of 14.2 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. In the Midwest Region, you won’t find many bigs as physical as Harrell. Teams like Wichita State and Duke could have trouble stopping him inside.

Frank Kaminksy, Wisconsin — This is a different offensive team than Wisconsin has had in the past. A main reason for that is the emergence of Kaminsky. The junior center only logged a little over 10 minutes a game for the Badgers last season, but this year he’s given them a versatile frontcourt option. He can score down low, and he can stretch the defense with deep shooting. Will he help the Wisconsin offensive attack get Bo Ryan to his first Final Four?

Patric Young, Florida — While he won’t necessarily intimidate anyone with his offensive skill set, he’s is a force down low on defense in a big frontline for the Gators. The SEC Defensive Player of the Year is one of the best post defenders in the country with the size and foot speed to gain position on the block and in the paint. Florida has a roster where players know their roles. Young is no exception.

MORE: Eight teams that will win it all Eight teams that won’t win it all

James Michael McAdoo, North Carolina — The Tar Heels have been hot and cold this season, and enter the tournament with two straight losses with a matchup against a Providence riding the momentum of a Big East Tournament championship. When Marcus Paige and McAdoo, who is averaging 14.2 points and 6.7 rebounds per game, are on, North Carolina is a sleeper in the East Region.

Sam Dower, Gonzaga — Marcus Smart has played well since returning from suspension, but Oklahoma State is in for a challenge in the Round of 64. Without Michael Cobbins, the Pokes will have a disadvantage inside against Gonzaga’s Sam Dower. After averaging 15.0 points and 7.1 rebounds per game while shooting 59 percent from the field, the Zags forward could be in for a huge first game of the NCAA tournament.

Cory Jefferson, Baylor — Take away the Big 12 Tournament loss to Iowa State and Jefferson had a string of really good games, posting three straight double-doubles. He and Isaiah Austin are playing well together for a team that dug itself in the conference basement earlier this season. Jefferson and the Bears can bust some brackets with their size on the frontline.

Jarnell Stokes, Tennessee — The Volunteers haven’t even reached the Round of 64 as they take on Iowa in the First Four on Wednesday. The junior forward could be a big reason why Tennessee could advance to play UMass. Stokes is averaging a double-double per game and can control the defensive glass against the Hawkeyes.

Joel Embiid, Kansas* — He entered Lawrence with a high ceiling, which quickly turned into the projected top overall draft pick in 2014. However, Embiid has been sidelined with a back injury, putting Kansas’ title hopes in question. Embiid went for 18 points, six rebound and blocked four shots against New Mexico in the regular season back in December. That’s a potential Round of 32 game and without him in the lineup, the Lobo frontline (mentioned above) could send the Jayhawks home early.

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.