Could No. 14 Villanova be the Big East’s best team? They sure look like it

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Just one week ago Jay Wright’s Villanova Wildcats wrapped up a Battle 4 Atlantis crown that few people expected them to win. After taking care of USC the Wildcats beat Kansas and Iowa, resulting in their first ranking in more than two seasons. For a program that relies on so many young players, how Villanova would deal with the praise is a question more than a few have asked.

After posting a solid 77-54 victory over Penn on Wednesday, Villanova went into Hagan Arena on Saturday night and took control of the action in the second half against Big 5 rival Saint Joseph’s. JayVaughn Pinkston scored a game-high 27 points to go along with eight rebounds and James Bell added 25 to help lead the Wildcats to the 98-68 victory. The Wildcats assisted on 19 of their 32 made field goals, hit 12 three-pointers and dominated the boards in the second half, turning a game they led by four at the intermission into a rout.

Villanova may not have a marquee big man to control the paint, but they make up for that with an aggressive style of play that resulted in 17 offensive rebounds against the Hawks. Also of note was Pinkston racking up six plays in which he scored a basket while being fouled and shooting 10-for-15 from the field. If Villanova is to continue to progress as a team the Brooklyn native will need to be a consistent force in the front court, and Saturday’s effort showed that Pinkston has what it takes to be that kind of player.

Add in perimeter players such as Ryan Arcidiacono (14 points), Darrun Hilliard (11), Dylan Ennis and Josh Hart (six apiece), and Villanova clearly has the depth needed to give teams fits in the backcourt. And if Pinkston and Bell can receive some help from a Kris Jenkins on Daniel Ochefu, Villanova could very well be the best team in the Big East when it’s all said and done.

Should the Wildcats be considered the best team in the Big East right now?

At 9-0 they’re the league’s lone undefeated team, and those wins over Kansas and Iowa are better than what any other team in the conference has produced to date.  So while there’s certainly room for improvement, Villanova has made a statement that it will be a contender once conference play begins on New Year’s Eve.

With a game at No. 4 Syracuse three weeks away, Villanova will need to take care of business against La Salle (December 15) and Rider (December 21) before taking on that challenge. And with their second half performance against Saint Joseph’s, Villanova showed that they have the skill and maturity needed to avoid a letdown in either of those contests.

Skal Labissiere has not been cleared by the NCAA

Kelly Kline/Under Armour
Kelly Kline/Under Armor
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While the timeline surrounding Cheick Diallo’s eligibility has made headlines for months now, another elite recruit at a blue blood program is still awaiting word on whether or not he will be allowed to play college basketball this season.

Kentucky center Skal Labissiere, the No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2015 and a potential No. 1 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, has not yet been cleared to play this season. His guard, Gerald Hamilton, confirmed as much to ESPN earlier today.

“Not yet,” Hamilton said. “We’re just trying to get everything squared away. They are asking a few questions.

“They haven’t cleared him, but we’re sticking with our faith. There’s no real concern about anything from the Kentucky compliance people.”

Labissiere has more red flags than you can count, almost all of them pertaining to Hamilton. It was the worst kept secret in high school basketball that Hamilton more or less had Labissiere for sale. It’s why he played three different AAU programs and two different high schools in four years. Hamilton runs a non-profit called Reach Your Dream and, after a transfer rendered him ineligible for his senior high school season, Labissiere played for a team called ‘Reach Your Dream Prep’, which Hamilton founded simply to ensure Labissiere had a place to play.

Here’s how CBSSports.com summarized things back in November:

Multiple coaches who have recruited Labissiere told CBSSports.com Hamilton either directly indicated or strongly suggested pursuing Labissiere would mostly be a waste of time if they couldn’t offer assistance in helping fund his foundation. One coach from a prominent staff said: “We couldn’t even get in the door.” Another added: “We recognized what it was about early on and decided not to get involved.”

In other words, no one is surprised that the NCAA is looking into Labissiere’s situation, and it’s not hard to look at Kentucky bringing in Isaac Humphries and Tai Wynyard as a sign that they’re not completely certain that Labissiere will make it through this. The surprise is in how quiet that investigation has been over the course of the last few months.

The shame in all of this is that Labissiere is a sweet kid with an incredible back-story. He survived the devastating earthquake in Haiti despite having a house collapse on him. If he can get through this investigation, he’ll easily be one of the biggest and most likeable stars in the sport this season.

Xavier commit to enroll early, redshirt

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Xavier landed a commitment on Wednesday from four-star big man Eddie Ekiyor, a source confirmed to NBCSports.com.

Ekiyor, who picked the Musketeers over Miami and Florida, is a borderline top 100 recruit. He’s an athletic, 6-foot-8 post that shouldn’t have an issue adjusting to the pace and physicality of the game, although he needs to continue to develop offensively to be more than a catch-and-dunk big man down the road.

In other words, on paper, Ekiyor isn’t much different from the majority of high major big men. But what’s different about this situation is that Ekiyor will be enrolling at Xavier for the start of the spring semester, technically making him a member of the Class of 2015. Xavier won’t be rushing him through the process — he’ll redshirt the second half of the 2015-16 season — but getting him on campus early will allow him an extra six months of learning the Xavier system, developing in collegiate practices and working out with the Xavier strength coaches.

That should help him limit the adjustment phase as he transitions from high school. That’s important for the Musketeers, because there’s a chance that they could lose their starting front line — James Farr (graduation) and Jalen Reynolds (early entry) — after this season.