Montrezl Harrell shines, No. 4 Louisville wins Big East championship

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NEW YORK, N.Y.– For a time it was almost too difficult to comprehend how a team that looked so out of sync in the first half of a conference title game could pull off something so remarkable in the final 20 minutes of a game with such implications and such story lines, at such a venue on such a night.

After trailing by 13 points at halftime, No. 4 Louisville came out of the gate in the second half on a 5-0 run that forced a Jim Boeheim timeout, part of a larger 27-3 run that stunned, shocked, and disoriented No. 19 Syracuse in a 78-61 Cardinal win Saturday night at Madison Square Garden.

“I had to jump our guys pretty hard at halftime because…our defense wasn’t great because our offense was quick-shooting and we’re not a quick-shooting team,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “But to go out in the second half and score 56 points off good offense, then our defense came because of the good offense.”

Freshman Montrezl Harrell had his best game of the season in the biggest game of his young collegiate career with 20 points, seven rebounds, and an immeasurable amount of energy on both ends of the floor that fueled Louisville’s monster comeback.

Harrell provides a different kind of player on the interior for Louisville when compared to Chane Behanan, bringing more explosiveness getting to the basket and more length, according to Pitino.

“You never know in college basketball who is going to step up,” Pitino said. “Now, tonight [Harrell] takes over the backboard, takes over the game…that’s the beauty of college basketball.”

“I came in the game just ready and being prepared for whatever coach needed me to do,” said Harrell. “These guys looked for me and I just tried to finish for them.”

But for as many variables as there were that went into the making of the 2013 Big East tournament final between Syracuse and Louisville, the first half itself was rather simple. It had nothing to do with the complex monetary motives that push realignment or the politics of recruiting blue-chip prospects. Syracuse simply made shots at a 45 percent clip and Louisville at 26 percent.

But Louisville coach Rick Pitino dialed up the defensive pressure to begin the second half in a move that caught Syracuse off guard and allowed the Cardinals to make up ground when shots were not falling: by winning the turnover category. Louisville ended up +9 in turnover margin and outscored Syracuse 56-26 in the second half.

The ability to force turnovers, combined with a much more apparent effort to work for good shots on the offensive end made the difference. Center Gorgui Dieng hovered in the middle of the Syracuse zone at the top of the key and dished to open teammates when the defense collapsed, finishing with eight assists and just one turnover.

Louisville guard Peyton Siva won the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award for the second straight time. He becomes only the second player in Big East history to win the award twice, joining former Georgetown great Patrick Ewing, who won the award in 1984 and 1985. Siva had 11 points, eight assists, and just two turnovers in the win.

“In all honesty, I didn’t think I was going to be the MVP. I wasn’t really focused on it,” Siva said. “Syracuse has been my Kryptonite for these last couple years…Coach had the confidence to leave me in the game this time and I didn’t want to let him down.”

After the game, Pitino told the media that Villanova coach Jay Wright had texted him earlier in the day, telling him that “it was only fitting” that the final Big East game as we know it would feature Pitino vs. Boeheim. Amidst the elation of winning a conference title, Pitino thought about it in a way, too.

“In the final minute of play, the first thing i thought of was what an incredible group of guys I’m coaching,” Pitino said. “Then immediately I thought of [Big East founder] Dave Gavitt and what he formed and all of us in some way or another flourished because of Dave Gavitt.”

Boeheim was less poetic and sentimental about the end for the Big East, saying he had been thinking about the end of the conference as it currently is for two years. But there was something special in Madison Square Garden Saturday night. Something about a historic comeback to win a conference championship helped to push aside the fact that this league would be changed from here forward.

If just for one night it was that way, I doubt Pitino, Boeheim, and the rest would have wanted it any other way.

Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_

Washington’s Thybulle returning for senior season

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Matisse Thybulle will return to Washington for his senior season after contemplating declaring for the NBA draft following a junior campaign in which he was named the Pac-12 defensive player of the year.

“The NBA is really enticing and it was definitely something that I seriously considered when the season was over,” Thybulle told the Seattle Times. “I talked it over with my family and we came to the conclusion that it would be in my best interest to stay and get my degree (in communications) and grow as a basketball player and take this last year to mature and fine tune everything so I can be fully prepared to take that next step when it’s time.”

The 6-foot-5 guard averaged 11.2 points, 2.9 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 3.0 steals per game last season. He shot 44.5 percent from the field and 36.5 percent from 3-point range.

“I talked to coach (Mike Hopkins) and he gave me some good advice that was honestly something that helped in the grand scheme of things,” Thybulle said. “He told me that if I do it (enter the draft), then I should be all in because that’s what I’m going to be up against is a whole bunch of guys fighting for their lives. He thought it would be a better idea for me to stay in school until I’m at that point.”

Washington is awaiting the decision of Noah Dickerson, who declared for the draft but has not hired an agent. The 6-foot-8 averaged 15.5 points and 8.4 rebounds last season.

Koby McEwen transferring to Marquette

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Steve Wojciechowski added a significant piece to his 2019-20 team over the weekend.

Koby McEwen announced his intention to transfer to Marquette from Utah State late Sunday evening.

“I would like to thank God, my family, inner circle and all the schools/coaches that recruited me during this process!” McEwen tweeted. “With that being said, I’m proud to announce that I’ll be furthering my college career at Marquette University.”

McEwen picked the Golden Eagles over fellow finalists Creighton and Grand Canyon after he decided to transfer when the Aggies announced South Dakota coach Craig Smith was taking over the program last month. The 6-foot-4 guard averaged 15.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game while shooting 40 percent from the field and 30 percent from 3-point range as a sophomore.

After sitting out the upcoming season, McEwen will have to years of eligibility remaining. Marquette went 21-14 last season, but missed the NCAA tournament for the third time in Wojciechowski’s four years in Milwaukee.

Minnesota adds Vanderbilt transfer Payton Willis

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Minnesota has added some depth for the future.

The Golden Gophers received a pledge from Vanderbilt transfer Payton Willis over the weekend, giving him a guard with two seasons of eligibility remaining starting in 2019-20.

Willis will sit out the upcoming season under NCAA transfer rules.

The 6-foot-4 guard played a limited role in two seasons in Nashville, never averaging more than 18. 5 minutes or 5.2 points per game. He scored in double figures in three games as a sophomore.

Willis was a top-150 prospect in the Class of 2016 coming out of Fayetteville, Ark. with offers from the likes of Tulsa, Rice and Dayton. Vandy and Minnesota were his two high-major offers.

After being ranked in the top-15, Minnesota was beset by injury and suspensions last season as they limped to the finish line in a 15-17 season that featured losses in 12 of its last 13 games.

Richard Pitino still has two available scholarships for the 2018-19 campaign.

Report: Quade Green returning to Kentucky

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John Calipari just landed a critical recruit for 2018-19, and he was already on the roster.

Quade Green, who averaged 25 minutes per game last season, is returning to Kentucky for his sophomore season, his mother told the Lexington Herald-Leader on Monday.

Given that six Wildcat players have entered the draft (Kevin Knox, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Hami Diallo are signing with agents), getting the 6-foot point guard back for a second season is a massive deal for Calipari and Co. The Wildcats have always been at their best under Calipari with returning players as the cornerstones of the roster with talented one-and-dones providing the extra boost. Getting one such returner at the point guard position is even more critical.

Green, who came to Kentucky as a five-star recruit last year, averaged 9.3 points and 2.7 assists per game while shooting 45.1 percent from the field and a respectable 37.1 percent from 3-point range, an area where Kentucky continually needs help.

With Green back in the fold, Kentucky will now await the decisions of PJ Washington, Wenyen Gabriel and Jarred Vanderbilt, who are all going through the pre-draft process without hiring agents, which will potentially allow them to return to school and bolster a Kentucky roster has the look of a top-five team.

CBT Podcast: NBA Draft Early Entry Deadline: Winners, losers and who has the most on the line?

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The NBA Draft Early Entry Deadline came and went on Sunday night, meaning there are now roughly 60 college players that have signed with an agent and another 100 or so that have declared for the draft while retaining their college eligibility. Who were the winners? Who were the losers? Who has the most on the line? Sam Vecenie of the Game Theory podcast joined Rob Dauster to talk through all of it. The rundown:

OPEN: What do NBA teams value in players these days?

10:00: Villanova has more on the line during this testing the water process than anyone

19:00: Just how important was De’Andre Hunter’s decision to return to Virginia

25:25: Gonzaga getting Rui and Killian Tillie back makes them a title favorite

32:10: Nevada has a top ten season on the line with the Martin twins and Jordan Caroline

36:15: #RANTALERT – The decision to turn pro is so much more complicated than “is he a first round pick”

48:30: Rapid fire: Maryland, Kansas, Syracuse, Nebraska, Purdue and Michigan. What do they have on the line?