Freshmen, improved second-half defense stand out for No. 10 Villanova

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No. 10 Villanova led La Salle 38-34 at the half, and defensively the Wildcats couldn’t have played much worse than they did. The Explorers, even with the guard tandem of Tyreek Duren and Tyrone Garland combining to score just five points on 2-for-11 shooting, shot 46.4% from the field with forward Jerrell Wright burning Villanova for 18 points. Clearly, something needed to change if the Wildcats were to gain separation and build on the program’s best start since the 2005-06 season.

Change did occur for Villanova, as Wright was limited to two points in the second half and as a team La Salle shot just 28.6% from the field. The end result: a 73-52 win, with the Wildcats avenging last season’s overtime loss at Tom Gola Arena. Jay Wright’s team just keeps rolling along, with multiple contributors on the offensive end and a defense that through ten games has been highly active.

Villanova limited La Salle to an offensive efficiency of 78.1 on the afternoon, and entering Sunday the Wildcats ranked second in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency according to kenpom.com. With the number of perimeter options at Wright’s disposal, Villanova has the pieces needed to be a nuisance on that end of the floor and that’s been the case thus far. And when combining that with an efficient offensive effort, as Villanova assisted on 20 of their 25 made field goals and shot 49%, the Wildcats are a tough team to beat.

Also of note on Sunday, and throughout the season, has been the play of the bench. Starter Darrun Hilliard led the way with 21 points, but on an afternoon that saw James Bell (three points) and JayVaughn Pinkston (seven) limited to ten the 24 combined points from freshmen Josh Hart (13) and Kris Jenkins (11) were big. With those two, who are averaging 8.0 and 4.2 points per game respectively, combining with Rice transfer Dylan Ennis (10.6 ppg) the Wildcats have the bench production needed to account for Pinkston’s move into the starting lineup. Pinkston, who started just 13 of the Wildcats’ 34 games a season ago, averaged 13.3 points per game in that sixth man role.

La Salle’s had its troubles, most notably the struggles endured by Duren and Garland on the perimeter, and the loss of Ramon Galloway isn’t one you simply gloss over either. But the Explorers’ difficulties shouldn’t take away from what Villanova was able to do on Sunday. And there’s still room for growth as well, which is a positive sign for the Wildcats with the start of Big East play just over two weeks away.

Marcus Paige, Joel Berry lead No. 9 North Carolina past No. 2 Maryland

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — He’s back.

For the first time this season — and for the first time in more than a year that he hasn’t been hampered with some kind of foot or ankle injury — Marcus Paige donned a North Carolina jersey, and it didn’t take him long to find the form that made him the NBCSports.com Preseason National Player of the Year.

On the first Tar Heel possession, Paige came off of a ball-screen, drove the lane and found Kennedy Meeks at the rim for a layup. Not 30 seconds later, he came off of a down screen and buried a three. Paige would finish with 20 points and five assists as No. 9 North Carolina put together a fairly resounding win over No. 2 Maryland in the Dean Dome on Tuesday night, winning 89-81.

Paige finished 7-for-12 from the floor and 4-for-5 from beyond the arc, hitting a number of threes in the second half that helped hold off a Maryland push sparked by their own all-american point guard, Melo Trimble.

Trimble was erratic early on, committing three turnovers in the first six minutes and eight on the night, but it was his play at the end of the first half and early second half that kept North Carolina from blowing their doors. At one point, Maryland was down 32-19 and in danger of getting run out of Tobacco Road.

In total, Trimble finished with 23 points and 12 assists, hitting four big threes during that stretch. He either scored or assisted on 11 of Maryland’s first 12 second half field goals.

As good as Paige was, the bigger story may actually be Joel Berry II. He took two dumb threes in the first half — which played a role in Maryland being able to make this a game — and he missed a few free throws late, but overall he was terrific. He finished with 14 points and five assists, making 3-of-5 threes and turning the ball over just twice. He’s clearly beat Nate Britt out at the point guard spot, and his ability to take pressure off of Paige as a secondary ball-handler and playmaker is huge.

(More to come from Chapel Hill…)

VIDEO: Melo Trimble drops Nate Britt with a crossover

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North Carolina is hosting No. 2 Maryland in a heated contest in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Terps sophomore guard Melo Trimble is playing very well and part of his performance was dropping North Carolina’s Nate Britt with a crossover in the second half.

(H/T: The Cauldron)