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Late Night Snacks: Sunday’s Elite 8 matchups set

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GAME OF THE NIGHT: No. 8 Kentucky 74, No. 4 Louisville 69

How does one pick a game of the night amongst a slate of four superiorly played contests? Each of Friday’s Sweet 16 games could have made this cut, but since John Calipari was able to snap Rick Pitino’s streak — prior to Friday, the Louisville coach was 11-0 in Sweet 16 match-ups — the Kentucky win gets top billing. The game did not start strongly for UK — Calipari said he knew his team would ‘pee down their legs‘ once the ball was tipped — and it appeared like Louisville, fueled by Russ Smith’s dunks, Luke Hancock taking each Wildcat off the dribble, and poor UK perimeter shooting, would make a consecutive Elite 8.

The play of Alex Poythress and Dakari Johnson, two of the less hyped UK bigs, helped balance the squad until UK could make its run late in the second half. Johnson scored 15 points and grabbed six boards, and Poythress, in particular, changed the contest’s dynamic — without his defensive intensity, which included forcing a Hancock steal and blocking Smith on an open court attempt, UK likely wouldn’t be playing on Sunday.

IMPORTANT OUTCOMES

1) No. 7 Connecticut 81, No. 3 Iowa State 76: Until just over two minutes remained in the second half, Connecticut, whose fans packed Madison Square Garden like it was the Big East Tournament and Jim Calhoun was still on the sidelines, was in complete control. At that point, Iowa State was somehow awoken from their game-long stupor and began a too late charge. ISU junior Dustin Hogue put in some serious work, scoring a career-high 34 points (he made 15 out of 19 shots), and DeAndre Daniels was the game’s other DeAndre (as opposed to Kane), splashing the net with crucial jump shots (he finished with 27 points).

2) No. 2 Michigan 73, No. 11 Tennessee 71: When discussing this Sweet 16 tilt years from now, the charging foul on UT’s Jarnell Stokes will be the evergreen moment, while Caris LeVert’s swiping Stokes will be lost as memories fade. The Vols simply could not handle Michigan’s offensive fortitude in the first half, yielding 1.45 points per possession from countless jumpers off flare screens. A combination of tighter defense and careless Michigan turnovers kept this game much closer than the first half would have indicated, and the Wolverines, along with their electric and dynamic scoring, will next face Kentucky.

3) No. 4 Michigan State 80, No. 1 Virginia 78: This game had the feel of being played in a cramped, stuffy sweatbox that only seats a few hundred. It certainly didn’t feel like Madison Square Garden — for much of the second half, fans were standing, refusing to sit for fear of missing the back-and-forth shooting display. The Cavaliers’ pack-line defense was true to form — the duo of Gary Harris and Keith Appling were rendered ineffective, converting just three of eight field goals — but UVa had no match for Branden Dawson, a junior who overpowered (24 points, ten rebounds) the entirety of the Cavs’ frontcourt.

STARRED

1) Branden Dawson, Michigan State: The junior big’s game against Virginia was spectacular, but his play throughout the NCAA tournament is noteworthy: through three games, Dawson is making nearly 60 percent of his twos, grabbing 19 defensive boards, and committing just two turnovers.

2) Alex Poythress, Kentucky: The sophomore only scored six points and grabbed four rebounds against Louisville, but without his defense late in the second half, UK would have likely been the twelfth team on Pitino’s Sweet 16 streak.

3) Jordan Morgan, Michigan : A picture of Morgan was published this week in the Detroit Free-Press, showcasing his transformation from a freshman to senior, and the big looks positively Gaston-esque. That buff physique helped Morgan handle the Vols’ burly interior, and combined with a thorough scouting report, put Morgan in the position to draw the defensive play of the game.

STRUGGLED

1) Willie Cauley-Stein’s ankle: Following the win, Calipari said his center’s ankle injury was “…not a good ankle injury.” It would be very surprising if Cauley-Stein played on Sunday against Michigan, but he could undergo a miraculous turnaround within the next 24 hours.

2) Michigan State’s backcourt: Harris, Appling, and Denzel Valentine combined to make just four field goals against a stout Cavalier defense.

3) Iowa State’s seniors: This isn’t how the Cyclones 2014 season should have ended. After helping to carry the team throughout the year, Melvin Ejim and DeAndre Kane suffered their worst offensive outing in ’14 — Kane was two of nine from the free throw line (he normally makes 63 percent of his free throws), and Ejim converted just three out of thirteen field goals.

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
Bart Young/USA Basketball
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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.