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Big Ten Conference Catchup: Can anyone top heavily favored Wisconsin

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It’s the first season of the new-look, 14-team, East Coast-infused Big Ten as Maryland and Rutgers join the league in 2014-15. The Big Ten is even switching its postseason tournament to Washington D.C. in 2017 as the Terps switch from the ACC and Rutgers leaves after one season in the American Athletic Conference.

Those new transplants shouldn’t have much of an impact — in the college basketball world at least — this season as Maryland and head coach Mark Turgeon deal with the fallout of some major transfer losses while Rutgers and second-year head coach Eddie Jordan are still rebuilding from the scandal involving former head coach Mike Rice.

Back at the top, however, is Wisconsin.

RELATEDRead through all of our Conference Catchups here

Bo Ryan’s team is coming off of a Final Four appearance last season even though the Badgers didn’t win the Big Ten regular season or tournament title. Wisconsin is rated as the No. 4 team in CBT’s Way-Too-Early 2014-15 Top 25 and they only lose starter Ben Brust. Center Frank Kaminsky returns as one of the premier inside-outside threats in the country and sophomore wing Sam Dekker and a slew of experienced guards return as well.

Although Big Ten regular season champion Michigan made the Elite Eight and lost to Kentucky, they lost three sophomores to the 2014 NBA Draft as Big Ten Player of the Year Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary all departed for the professional ranks. The Wolverines still return plenty of talent on the perimeter in point guard Derrick Walton Jr., sophomore All-American candidate Caris LeVert and freshman Zak Irvin.

After being considered a national title contender in 2013-14, Michigan State also takes a step down after losing Adreian Payne, Keith Appling and Gary Harris (NBA Draft). Denzel Valentine and Branden Dawson return to the Spartans and both are tough enough and talented enough to lead Tom Izzo’s bunch back to the NCAA Tournament.

Iowa, Ohio State and Nebraska all faltered in the Round of 64 but could emerge as top-three candidates in the Big Ten this season thanks to Michigan and Michigan State’s losses.

Iowa losses Roy Devyn Marble but they were one of the deepest teams in the country last season and should withstand the senior’s loss as long as Aaron White makes a mini-leap as a go-to player. Nebraska returns Big Ten Player of the Year candidate Terran Petteway and the Huskers proved last season that they’ll have one of the most difficult homecourt advantages in the conference. Ohio State losses senior guard Aaron Craft and main scoring threat LaQuinton Ross, but they welcome Temple transfer Anthony Lee in the post while also adding the Big Ten’s best recruiting class.

A young Illinois team could also make a leap this season while Minnesota should be more accustomed to Richard Pitino’s uptempo style in year two after a run in the NIT.

THREE UP

Wisconsin: Bo Ryan’s team is incredibly versatile and with Big Ten Player of the Year candidate Frank Kaminsky returning, the Badgers are once again a Final Four candidate. Wisconsin can grind out games at a slower tempo pace or put up triple digits thanks to its versatility and rising-junior wing Sam Dekker also returns while experienced guards Josh Gasser and Traevon Jackson return. Last year’s freshmen Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig should also improve while reserve forward Duje Dukan also returns to provide interior depth.

Nebraska: After a surprising run to the 2014 NCAA Tournament, the Huskers return one of the Big Ten’s top 1-2 punches in Terran Petteway and Shavon Shields. Forwards Walter Pitchford, David Rivers and Leslee Smith and guard Tai Webster also return after all four players averaged 15-plus minutes a game last season. Nebraska went 15-1 at the brand-new Pinnacle Bank Arena last season and own one of the best homecourt advantages in the country.

Iowa: The Hawkeyes lose leading scorer Roy Devyn Marble, but he was the only player on last year’s team to average over 30 minutes a game and Iowa returns seven players that averaged at least 11 minutes a game last season. Iowa also adds touted junior college point guard Trey Dickerson, who is very quick off-the-dribble and should give Hawkeye shooters even more room to operate.

THREE DOWN

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Michigan: Michigan has had two great seasons in a row, but they’re bound to take a small step back in 2014-15 as the sophomore trio of Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary all depart for the NBA Draft. Jon Horford also transferring to Florida leaves the Wolverines with a glaring lack of interior depth, but John Beilein is one coach who isn’t afraid to go small and stretch the floor from all five positions. Caris LeVert will be asked to be a go-to guy and Zak Irvin will be asked the make a big leap as well after showing signs of strong play during his freshman year.

Michigan State: Much like the in-state rival Wolverines, the Spartans have had some great seasons in recent years, but losing senior leaders Keith Appling and Adreian Payne and sophomore shooting guard Gary Harris hurts Michigan State immensely. Still, if you saw how Tom Izzo’s ballclub responded to a litany of injuries last season, you’ll know that this group won’t back down, the question will be whether Denzel Valentine or Branden Dawson are ready to lead. Junior point guard Travis Trice was serviceable as Appling’s backup last season but can he handle more minutes?

Indiana: The Hoosiers took some big losses in the offseason as freshman post Noah Vonleh turned pro and Jeremy Hollowell (Georgia State) and Austin Etherington (Butler) transferred out of the program. The big question remains whether talented sophomore point guard Yogi Ferrell is disciplined enough to make Indiana a winning team. The Hoosiers led the Big Ten in turnovers last season and often looked sloppy, even late in the season.

FIVE NEW FACES

Anthony Lee, Ohio State: Ohio State didn’t have consistent post play on offense last season and the addition of graduate transfer Anthony Lee should help the Buckeyes quite a bit. Lee averaged 13.6 points and 8.6 rebounds per game last season for Temple and the 6-foot-9 senior should give Thad Matta’s team some production and balance they lacked on the interior.

D’Angelo Russell, Ohio State: Russell is the No. 18 player in Rivals.com’s 2014 national rankings and the smooth-shooting McDonald’s All-American should immediately give Ohio State more punch on the perimeter. The Buckeyes struggled to shoot the ball from distance last season and the 6-foot-5 lefty shooting guard instantly makes them better in that category.

Melo Trimble, Maryland: The No. 39 in Rivals.com’s 2014 national rankings, Trimble is a McDonald’s All-American who will be given the ball and expected to score immediately in College Park. With the Terrapins losing starting point guard Seth Allen, Trimble should handle the ball quite a bit and he’s a strong scorer from all three levels on the floor who can really get going with the pull-up jumper. The big question for Trimble remains his ability to be a true point guard and how he’ll distribute the basketball.

James Blackmon Jr., Indiana: Blackmon is a guard who can get buckets in a hurry and the shooting guard and McDonald’s All-American will be asked to help alleviate the backcourt pressure on point guard Yogi Ferrell. The No. 22 player in Rivals.com’s national rankings, Blackmon committed to in-state Indiana before playing a game in high school before decommitting and recommitting during his high school career. There will be a lot of pressure on Blackmon Jr., to produce from day one.

Victor Law, Northwestern: You could make the case for Michigan incoming freshman wing Kameron Chatman for this spot, but with Derrick Walton Jr., Caris LeVert and Zak Irvin all returning, he’ll likely come off the bench. Enter Law, one of Northwestern’s most important recruits of all time. Chris Collins pulled together a solid 2014 recruiting haul and Law kicked things off with a commitment on the Fourth of July in 2013. The Chicago native was the No. 103 player in the 2014 class and a four-star prospect according to Rivals.com and should start from day one as the Wildcats lacked the kind of talent and athleticism that the freshman should bring to Evanston next season.

Way Too Early Power Rankings

1. Wisconsin
2. Iowa
3. Michigan State
4. Michigan
5. Nebraska
6. Ohio State
7. Illinois
8. Minnesota
9. Maryland
10. Indiana
11. Purdue
12. Northwestern
13. Penn State
14. Rutgers

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.

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.