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Sweet 16 Preview: After thrilling first weekend, what’s next?

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The first weekend could not have been more thrilling, beginning with Vee Sanford’s runner that sent No. 11 Dayton past No. 6 Ohio State and ending with the dunk show that Aaron Gordon put on for No. 1 Arizona.

In between, we unbelievably only had one true buzzer-beater — Cameron Ridley dispatching No. 10 Arizona State — but we did manage to put together the best day of Round of 64 games ever and the single best college basketball game since Louisville beat Michigan for the 2013 title.

What’s in store for us in the Sweet 16?:

MORE: Catch up on all our coverage from the first weekend of the tournament

FIVE STORY LINES TO FOLLOW:

1. Is this the real Kentucky, or was Sunday just a tease?: The Wildcats looked awesome in their win over Wichita State, a performance that’s almost impressive enough to make us forget that they lost to South Carolina this month. If No. 8 Kentucky continues to play the way they did on Sunday, they can win a national title. No question. But I also would not be surprised if No. 4 Louisville beat them by 15.

2. Will Florida be challenged?: The Gators can be just stifling defensively. No. 4 UCLA can score in droves, but the tournament’s top overall seed has the kind of versatility that can give them fits. No. 10 Stanford has the size and No. 11 Dayton is a scrappy, well-coached, plucky bunch that won’t go down without a fight. That said, a ten point lead against Florida can be insurmountable, particularly with Scottie Wilbekin in the closer role. Will they be tested?

RELATED: Sweet 16 Power Rankings

source: Getty Images
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3. Does Tom Izzo get back to the Final Four?: Every four-year senior that Tom Izzo has ever coached has made a Final Four. Adreian Payne and Keith Appling are still without a trip to college basketball’s biggest stage.

4. Is this the year Sean Miller becomes ‘elite’?: The Wildcats have shown the ability to absolutely beat the brakes off of opponents in the last month. When they’re getting out in transition, they’re a highlight reel waiting to happen. Make them play in the half court, and they’re very beatable. Head coach Sean Miller is one of the best young coaches in the game, as a tactician and a recruiter, but until he’s got a Final Four on his resume, he doesn’t belong in the conversation among the game’s elite.

5. Will Shabazz Napier have his Kemba Walker moment?: Kemba was a really good player having a great year when he shredded Gary McGhee’s ankles while hitting a buzzer-beater in the Big East quarterfinals. His legend lives on because he went on to win the title, but that’s the moment that everyone remembers. In UConn’s return to tournament play at Madison Square Garden, will their new star point guard create his own legacy? The No. 7 Huskies will get No. 3 Iowa State on Friday.

UK-WSUHype was justified | How good can Kentucky be? | One loss ruins Wichita State’s season?

FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH:

1. Julius Randle, Kentucky: The improvement of the Harrison twins is what gets talked about with the Wildcats, but it was Randle’s 13 points, 10 boards and, most important of all, six assists that has the Wildcats in the Sweet 16.

2. DeAndre Kane, Iowa State: He may not even be the best point guard in his Sweet 16 matchup — Shabazz Napier is — but his size at his position makes him a nightmare to try to guard and the fact that the Cyclones will be playing without Georges Niang makes him just that much more vital to Fred Hoiberg’s club.

3. Adreian Payne, Michigan State: He may not be the most important player on Michigan State, but when he gets it going, he may be the most unstoppable player left in the tournament. That 41-point performance against Delaware in the Round of 64 resonates.

4. Scottie Wilbekin, Florida: The nation’s most underrated player. He’s gone from being nearly booted from the program to becoming the team’s best perimeter defender and arguably the best clutch-scorer left in the tournament.

5. Aaron Gordon, Arizona: He’s the guy that makes everything happen for Arizona and their key cog on the defensive end. He’s also playing his best basketball of the season on the offensive end of the floor.

KANSAS: Joel Embiid’s back injury cost all of us | Bill Self’s fifth tourney loss to No. 9 seed or lower

RANKINGS THE EIGHT SWEET 16 GAMES:

  • 1. No. 4 Louisville vs. No. 8 Kentucky (Fri. 9:45 p.m., Midwest): Do I need to explain this?
  • 2. No. 1 Virginia vs. No. 4 Michigan State (Fri. 9:57 p.m., East): The Spartans have been the favorite to win the East since the bracket was released. I think the dual-ACC champ has something to say about that.
  • 3. No. 1 Arizona vs. No. 4 San Diego State (Thu. 10:17 p.m., West): I’m not sure if SDSU can score against the Arizona team that showed up Sunday, but this game is in Anaheim. The atmosphere will be outrageous.
  • 4. No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 11 Tennessee (Fri. 7:15 p.m., Midwest): I’m really intrigued by this matchup, as the Vols are streaking and have the physicality up front to give Michigan issues.
  • 5. No. 3 Iowa State vs. No. 7 UConn (Fri. 7:27 p.m., East): Tough draw for the Cyclones, as UConn packs MSG. Losing Georges Niang will hurts as well. DeAndre Kane vs. Shabazz Napier will be awesome.
  • 6. No. 1 Florida vs. No. 4 UCLA (Thu. 9:45 p.m., South): Maybe I’m overlooking UCLA, but I think Florida will handle them. Key will be whether or not the Gators are hitting jumpers. If they are, look out.
  • 7. No. 2 Wisconsin vs. No. 6 Baylor (Thu. 7:47 p.m., West): All of a sudden, the Bears look really, really dangerous. Can the Badgers figure out Baylor’s zone?
  • 8. No. 10 Stanford vs. No. 11 Dayton (Thu. 7:15 p.m., South): Stanford’s size vs. Dayton’s versatility.

AND THE FINAL FOUR WILL BE … : Why back off my picks now? I’m still rolling with No. 1 Florida, No. 1 Arizona, No. 4 Louisville and No. 4 Michigan State.

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.