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What a difference a year makes for Texas, Rick Barnes

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While Rick Barnes has won nearly 70 percent of the games in which he’s coached at the University of Texas, there had been the feeling in recent years that the program had underachieved. Given the importance of the month of March in college basketball, not going deep into the NCAA tournament on a consistent basis can be an issue when running a program that has (in the eyes of many) the resources needed to be a power player in the sport.

With Texas having missed the NCAA tournament in 2013 and making just one Sweet 16 appearance since 2006 (2008), it wasn’t too difficult to find those critical of what Barnes was doing in Austin. And with four members of the 2012-13 team transferring and two others turning pro, the 2013-14 campaign didn’t look all that promising from the outside.

As a result practically any preseason “hot seat” list included Barnes’ names, with the veteran coach ranking among the top names most likely to be in search of a new position at season’s end. And within the program, Barnes and his staff focused on what they could do to get the program headed in the right direction.

“When players come in and leave your program, obviously it goes back to the evaluation part of it,” Barnes said in an interview conducted in May 2013. “That’s the one thing I think we did as a staff a year ago [2012] with what will now be our sophomore class, we said we’re going to be really selective in terms of making sure we get the right kind of player to fit what we want at the University of Texas.

“The one thing was, we want guys who truly want to be at the University of Texas for all the right reasons,” Barnes continued. “We’ve never wanted someone not to pursue their dreams of playing in the NBA or whatever that may be. But while they’re here what we want is the University of Texas and our basketball program to be really important. And I feel like the energy in our program right now, this spring, is the best it had been in a couple years.”

Many scoffed at those words, seeing the fact that Texas’ top two returning scorers averaged 6.8 (Javan Felix) and 6.4 (Jonathan Holmes) points per game respectively. However Barnes’ words proved accurate in 2013-14, as the rejuvenated Longhorns won 24 games and returned to the NCAA tournament. Texas’ season may have ended in the Round of 32 at the hands of a talented Michigan squad, but the general feeling at the time was that this group chock full of rising sophomores and juniors was poised to take another step forward in 2014-15.

And then, earlier this week, five-star big man Myles Turner announced that he’ll be attending Texas next season. As a result expectations for Texas grew even more, with some even asking if the Longhorns have enough to not only contend with Kansas atop the Big 12 but possibly end the Jayhawks’ run of ten consecutive regular season conference titles.

To say the least, that’s quite the departure from where the Texas program was just a year ago. And while much of the credit will be bestowed upon Barnes and his staff (and rightfully so), those young players who weren’t expected to accomplish a whole lot in 2013-14 deserve praise as well.

Holmes (12.8 ppg, 7.2 rpg), who will be the team’s lone scholarship senior, doubled his scoring average and led the team in rebounding while also providing the veteran leadership the Longhorns needed throughout the season. And he had help in the front court, as Cameron Ridley took a significant step forward as a sophomore and both Prince Ibeh and Connor Lammert solidified their spots in the rotation as well.

In the backcourt, the arrival of Isaiah Taylor and the improvement of Demarcus Holland alleviated some of the pressure that was on Felix’s shoulders in 2012-13. With Myck Kabongo suspended for most of that season Felix was asked to do a lot at the point, and the results were mixed. That changed this past season, resulting in both Felix and the team as a whole reaping the rewards. Texas hasn’t lost a single player from its rotation, and the addition of Turner gives the Longhorns a high-level talent who is expected to hit the ground running upon his arrival in Austin.

Whether it’s the people within the program or those on the outside, there’s a much better feeling regarding the state of Texas basketball this spring than there was in 2013. And for that Barnes can point to two important areas: he and his staff’s decision to pay closer attention to the commitment of those within the program, and the players’ willingness to push forward in the pursuit of a common goal.

With that being the case, Texas will move from being the “hunter” to the “hunted” in 2014-15. And in his comments following the season-ending loss to Michigan, it’s obvious that Barnes wouldn’t have it any other way.

“You go back, I can assure you this:  We were picked to finish eighth in the Big 12 this year.  We won’t be picked to finish eighth in the Big 12 next year,” Barnes said. “I’m sure we’ll come out — I told them what’s going to be fun for you guys a year from now, you’re going to understand what it’s really like with the, what the Texas program has been built on, and the fact that next year we will be hunted. And that’s the way we’ve always liked it, and that’s why I really appreciate these guys.”

Villanova beats Duke, Kansas, Indiana for Jermaine Samuels

Atlanta, GA - MAY 27: Nike EYBL. Session 4. Jermaine Samuels, Jr. #23 of Expressions Elite dunks. (Photo by Jon Lopez)
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Villanova landed a commitment from top 50 prospect Jermaine Samuels on Saturday.

Samuels is a tough and athletic 6-foot-5 wing that will remind many Wildcat fans of Josh Hart. He’s got the same kind of versatility and nose for the ball that will let him guard perimeter players as well as work in as a small-ball four. Players like this are a specialty of Jay Wright.

Samuels picked up an offer from Duke recently and also had Indiana, Kansas and Georgetown in his top five. Beating out blue-bloods for a prospect like this is quite the statement for Villanova, one that should tell you the reigning national champs are here to stay as a national power.

Syracuse lands critical piece in Andrew White

LINCOLN, NE - FEBRUARY 3: Andrew White #3 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers shoots the ball over Rasheed Sulaimon #0 of the Maryland Terrapins during their game at Pinnacle Bank Arena on February 3, 2016 in Omaha, Nebraska. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)
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Syracuse has found their replacement for Malachi Richardson.

On Sunday, Nebraska transfer Andrew White committed to the Orange, picking Syracuse, in the end, over VCU. White is a graduate transfer who spent last season with Nebraska, where he averaged 16.2 points while shooting 41.2 percent from three. A top 50 prospect out of Virginia back in the Class of 2012, White played a limited role for Kansas his first two seasons in college.

This is a significant pickup for the Orange, one that legitimately puts them into the conversation as a Final Four contender and a threat to finish at or near the top of the ACC. Jim Boeheim has put together a roster full of talented, long and athletic front court players, but after Richardson declared for the NBA Draft as a one-and-done freshman, he was left with just two back court players on his roster.

Earlier this offseason, Cuse landed Colorado State grad transfer John Gillon, a 6-foot-1 combo-guard, to reinforce their back court. The addition of White gives them a lights-out shooter and a big-time scorer on the wing, something that would have been a major void on their roster.

With Paschal Chukwu getting eligible at the center spot and Tyler Lydon likely landing on every breakout player list this preseason, the Orange should be a markedly better team than the one that made their way to the Final Four last season.

Arizona lands first commitment in 2017 class

Alex Barcello (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)
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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.