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Traevon Jackson’s growth a factor in Wisconsin’s Final Four run

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In order to enjoy success in March a team needs solid guard play, especially at the point guard position where so many of the decisions on both ends of the floor are made. And this weekend’s Final Four is certainly an example of that, with Florida’s Scottie Wilbekin and UConn’s Shabazz Napier being two of the best at the position and Andrew Harrison’s improved play one of the keys for Kentucky over the last month or so.

The same can also be said for Wisconsin junior Traevon Jackson, who spent his freshman season learning from Jordan Taylor and began his sophomore campaign as part of a two-man “platoon” of sorts with George Marshall. For some players the prospect of not getting handed the keys to their team in short order results in sulking as opposed to learning and working harder to be prepared when their number is called. That wasn’t the case for Jackson, and the rewards have been reaped by Wisconsin this season.

“I remember coming in freshman year just seeing Josh [Gasser], and Jordan especially when he was here, and Josh being a guy that, no matter what it was, that he always was just rock solid,” Jackson said during the team’s media availability earlier this week. “A lot of that had to do with his maturity and just learning from him, and I think that’s just a blessing just being able to go through a couple years here and just embracing the moment, embracing the opportunity that has been given.

“Just trying to learn from the mistakes I made in the past or the past failures and stuff and just capitalize on [the opportunity]. I’ve been given a special role on this team as a point guard, and it’s important to embrace that.”

Before the start of Big Ten play in Jackson’s sophomore season, he played 25-plus minutes in just four games. However as conference play progressed he strengthened his grip on the point guard role, playing no fewer than 25 minutes in any of the Badgers’ last 20 games of the 2012-13 campaign as a result. Jackson finished the season with averages of 6.9 points and 2.8 assists per game, and his assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.4 was solid if not spectacular.

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Traevon made strides as the season progressed, which was noted by his father Jim, who was a great player at Ohio State and is currently an analyst for the Big Ten Network.

“One, his mental growth in how to run a team at this level,” Jackson told NBC Sports. “In high school he played the point but he also played the two, so it wasn’t a full-time ‘job.’ He had to get comfortable in that role, and you have to add to that the fact that Bo Ryan is extremely hard on his point guards. [Traevon] understands that the point guard is the captain of the ship and the one to make things go.”

Fully entrenched as the starting point guard when the 2013-14 season began, Jackson continued to make progress throughout his junior campaign. There’s been a greater understanding of what’s expected of him at the point, and the growth has been noticeable in both the numbers and the areas that aren’t seen in the box score. Traevon’s scoring (10.7 ppg) and assists (4.0 apg) averages have improved, as has the assist-to-turnover ratio (1.9).

A confident and fearless player Jackson’s the one who has the ball in his hands in the game’s most important moments, and as seen in the Badgers’ win over Michigan State earlier this season he’s certainly capable of making the winning play. And according to Ryan, it’s the confidence where Traevon has exhibited the greatest amount of growth.

“A very strong‑willed young man. He feels he’s got it, okay,” Ryan said earlier this week. “That means a player in baseball, wants that last ball hit to him so he can throw the guy out, that guy that wants the last shot. There are some people who talk about it, and there’s some people that can do it and get it done.

“His confidence level and his ability to believe that he’s got everything under control, even though none of us ever do totally have that. But he at least believes that, and therefore his confidence level has been able to get some things done for us in tight situations.”

The confidence in part comes from preparation, as hard work has placed Jackson in position to not only take over the starting point guard role for Wisconsin but flourish. According to the elder Jackson, Traevon also played with the likes of Russell Westbrook and Andre Miller in pickup games before he even had a chance to earn the starting role with Jordan Taylor still in Madison. The combination of those experiences, be it the pickup games or going up against Taylor every day in practice, have led to Traevon being the point guard Wisconsin needs.

Clearly this Wisconsin team doesn’t lack for leaders, with Gasser and Ben Brust both being fourth-year players (Gasser’s a redshirt junior) and four of the five starters are upperclassmen with sophomore Sam Dekker being the exception. But it can be argued that the Badgers don’t reach this point without the growth exhibited by Traevon Jackson, and he’s one reason why they arrive in the Metroplex capable of winning the program’s second national title.

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.