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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.

Duke knocks off No. 13 Louisville in first game of critical four-game stretch

Duke's Grayson Allen (3) and Marshall Plumlee (40) react during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Louisville in Durham, N.C., Monday, Feb. 8, 2016. Duke won 72-65. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
(AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
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Grayson Allen scored 16 of his 19 points in the first half and Brandon Ingram added 18 points, 10 boards and four assists as Duke picked up a critical win over No. 13 Louisville in Cameron Indoor Stadium on Monday night, 72-65.

A call this a critical win for the Blue Devils because it kicks off what may be the most important two-week stretch of Duke’s schedule This weekend, the Blue Devils square off with No. 9 Virginia. Next Wednesday, they’re at the Dean Dome to take on No. 7 North Carolina. Four days after that, they head to the Bluegrass State to pay a visit to Louisville.

 

With the way that Duke has been struggling on the defensive end of the floor without Amile Jefferson, that’s a stretch that could derail Duke’s season; entering Monday, all four of those games were losable. But a four-game winning streak — or even going 3-1 in that stretch — could completely change the tenor of what has been a fairly disappointing year for the defending champs, and that’s before they get Jefferson back to 100 percent.

And the difference was defensively, at least in the first half.

I’ve written in this space a number of times about how opponents know what they’re going to get from Duke defensively. Coach K, traditionally, plays half court man-to-man defense, switching every exchange — ball-screen, off-ball pick or simply when two players run by one another — that doesn’t involve the center. In recent years, he’s played some zone in situations where he defense has struggled or, like this season, when he doesn’t have the depth to risk foul trouble. We’ve even seen some 2-2-1 pressure from him of late.

But on Monday night, Duke played straight man-to-man for much of the game, and in the first half, it seemed to fluster the Cardinals. They scored just 24 points in the first 20 minutes, and while Louisville did find a way to break Duke down defensively in the second half — they shot better than 55 percent from the floor after the break — but part of the reason Duke was able to win this game was the lead they built. After a three from Allen opened scoring in the second half, the Blue Devils were up by 14, and while Louisville made a run down the stretch, they could never get control of the game.

Duke is becoming appointment viewing for basketball nerds like me that pay too much attention to X’s-and-O’s to see what kind of wrinkle Coach K is going to put in to try and compensate defensively, so I’m not sure that this performance sticks. But it is worth noting that this was the first time in eight games the Blue Devils gave up less than 1.0 PPP, and the first time since Dec. 19th they did so against an NCAA tournament-caliber team.

As far as Louisville is concerned, you have to tip your hat to those kids. They played their hearts out and fought back from a big deficit in one of the toughest places in the country to play. They did all that three days after their school ripped their hearts out with an NCAA tournament ban for this season.

So good for them. You never know how a team is going to react to something like that, but the Cardinal players showed that they have some serious fight in them.

Iowa State’s starting center Jameel McKay remains suspended

Iowa State forward Jameel McKay celebrates on the court at the end of an NCAA college basketball game against Oklahoma, Monday, Jan. 18, 2016, in Ames, Iowa. Iowa State won 82-77. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
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Steve Prohm announced on Monday that starting center Jameel McKay will not be in the lineup on Wednesday when the Cyclones take on Texas Tech.

“He’ll practice today because I want him in practice,” Prohm said, “but game-wise, he’s suspended.”

McKay did not make the trip to Stillwater with the team on Saturday, where Iowa State beat Oklahoma State, 64-59. Prohm has not gotten into specifics regarding the cause of McKay’s suspension, but it’s reportedly an issue with the way he has been practicing. McKay is dealing with a nagging knee injury, which may play a role in the situation as well.

“My hope is he’ll be with us on Saturday,” Prohm said.