Tough finish to 29-win season serves as motivation for Villanova’s Darrun Hilliard

Leave a comment

LAS VEGAS — In the first season of the reconfigured Big East one question was which program would step forward and take the lead. With as many as five teams thought to be contenders in October, it looked as if the race for the Big East title would be a wide-open one. However that wasn’t the way things worked out, with Jay Wright’s Villanova Wildcats getting off to a hot start to begin the season and winning the regular season title with a 16-2 conference record.

Outside of their two losses to Creighton, a team that proved to be a difficult matchup for Villanova, the Wildcats didn’t lose a game to a conference opponent until falling to Seton Hall in the Big East tournament. Entering the NCAA tournament with a 28-4 record Villanova harbored hopes of getting back to Madison Square Garden for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, and possibly going even further than that.

Unfortunately for Villanova they ran into a former conference foe playing its best basketball of the season, as eventual national champion UConn eliminated the Wildcats in the Round of 32. For rising senior guard Darrun Hilliard, it’s that disappointing finish that serves as motivation heading into the 2014-15 season.

And of course there’s also the feeling that there was more for the Wildcats to accomplish before their season ended in abrupt fashion.

“Most definitely,” Hilliard told NBCSsports.com when asked if he felt his team left something on the table last season. “Finishing third in the country (note: Villanova was third heading into the Big East tournament) and winning the Big East, but losing in the [Round of 32] wasn’t the finish we wanted. We’ve learned from it, and we definitely like we left something on the table.”

Villanova finished the season with a 29-5 record, and many of their key contributors from that team will be back. Hilliard proved to be a key figure for the Wildcats last season, and despite playing around the same number of minutes the 6-foot-4 guard put together a junior campaign that was more productive than his sophomore year.

Starting all 34 games last season, Hilliard posted averages of 14.3 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game. Yet while those numbers all represent improvements when compared to his sophomore year numbers, it’s the percentages from the field and three-point range, along with the offensive rating, that tell a more vivid tale for Hilliard.

Hilliard’s field goal percentage jumped some eight points (up to 48.6%), and his three point percentage jumped just under ten percentage points (up to 41.4%) from his sophomore to junior season. And after posting an offensive rating of 100.3 as a sophomore per Ken Pomeroy’s website Hilliard finished with a rating of 114.4 in 2013-14, a figure that ranked sixth in the Big East amongst players who finished the year with a possession percentage of 20 percent or higher.

As a result Hilliard was an honorable mention All-Big East selection, and he shared the league’s Most Improved Player award with teammate Daniel Ochefu. So what changed for Hilliard in 2013-14?

“I’d probably say I was in better shape, as bad as that sounds,” Hilliard said when asked this question. “My body was in better condition than it was sophomore year. Getting in the weight room, having more confidence in my body and conditioning when I got tired.

“Having that mental strength to fight through fatigue. I think that was the area where I made the greatest improvement from sophomore to junior year.”

Of the top nine players in minutes played for Villanova last season seven will be back in 2014-15, which will likely lead to the Wildcats being the clear preseason pick to win the Big East one year after it looked as if there wasn’t a team capable of grabbing the reins from the start. But the loss of first team All-Big East selection James Bell cannot be ignored, as he led the Wildcats in scoring (14.4 ppg) and was one of three Villanova players to average a team-best 6.1 rebounds per contest.

Bell’s departure leaves a void that Villanova needs to address, not only from a production standpoint but from a leadership one as well. And Hilliard sees himself as one of the players capable of stepping forward as a leader this offseason.

“As far as my individual role goes I have to be more of a leader,” Hilliard noted. “James was a great leader for us off the court as well as on the court, and he taught us a lot. Now it’s my turn to step up to the plate as a senior. I think we’ve got guys ready to step up for us next year.

“Josh Hart, Dylan Ennis, Arch [Ryan Arcidiacono], JayVaughn [Pinkston], Daniel and others are all capable of stepping up and making an even bigger impact.”

In addition to the returnees the Wildcats add guard Phil Booth and small forward Mikal Bridges, two talented freshmen who will look to compete for minutes upon their arrival on campus. That’ll be a tough chore, thanks in large part to the efforts of the returning players to improve the program in the aftermath of a disappointing 19-loss campaign in 2011-12.

Among the players on that team was Hilliard, whose progression individually has mirrored that of the program over the last three season. And with Hilliard having one last shot at a deep run into the NCAA tournament, it’s last year’s disappointment that has served as the catalyst this offseason for he and his teammates. With that in mind, it’s the mental aspect of the game that Hilliard’s looking to improve while working hard this summer, with the goal being the become a better leader and teammate.

“Nothing major on the court, but mentally I want to get to another level,” Hilliard noted. “Confidence, mental toughness and being able to help my teammates more so than myself when everyone’s tired.”

Player of the Week: Tayler Persons, Ball State

Robert Franklin/AP Photo
Leave a comment

In a week where Jy Bowman put 30 on Duke, Tra Holder had 29 in Phog Allen Fieldhouse and Mikal Bridges popped off for 28 in Madison Square Garden, the Player of the Week this week was shockingly easy to pick.

Tayler Persons, Ball State.

And I know what you’re saying. “Who?”

That was my reaction, too, when I found out that Persons was the man that hit the game-winning 25-footer to give the Cardinals a victory at No. 9 Notre Dame on Tuesday. When he hit another game-winner against Valpo on Saturday, I knew who he was.

And when I realized that, in those two games, Ball State’s leading scorer had averaged 23.5 points, 5. boards and 4.0 assists in those two wins, it made sense.

If you’re going to hit the game-winning shot in the two biggest wins of the season for your team, chances are that you’re a pretty good player.

I do have some advice for young Tayler, however.

He left 1.5 seconds on the clock at Notre Dame and 3.3 seconds on the clock against Valpo. Next time, make the shot at the buzzer. It’s cooler that way, and you’ll probably get on Sportscenter.

THE ALL-‘THEY WERE GOOD, TOO’ TEAM

  • KY BOWMAN, Boston College: Bowman damn near had a triple-double on Saturday, finishing with 30 points, 10 boards and nine assists to lead Boston College to a 89-84 upset win over No. 1 Duke. His partner in crime, Jerome Robinson, was pretty good as well. He finished with 25 points, including a pair of massive threes in the final five minutes of the game.
  • MIKAL BRIDGES, Villanova: Bridges has been having a terrific season, but he finally had his moment on Tuesday in the Jimmy V Classic. Bridges went for 28 points and six boards, including an emphatic dunk, as the Wildcats knocked off No. 12 Gonzaga is fairly uneventful fashion.
  • TERANCE MANN, Florida State: Mann has been Florida State’s best player this season, and he was certainly their best player on Monday, when the Seminoles went into the O-Dome and knocked off their rival, Florida, by 17 points. Mann went for 25 points in that one.
  • TRA HOLDER, Arizona State: Holder had 29 points and seven assists as the Sun Devils went into Phog Allen Fieldhouse and knocked off No. 2 Kansas, 95-85, and you can make the argument that it wasn’t one of his two-best performances of the season. That’s pretty good.
  • LANDRY SHAMET, Wichita State: After going for 21 points and eight assists to lead the Shockers past South Dakota State on Tuesday night, Shamet had a career-high 30 points to help Gregg Marshall’s club come from behind to beat Oklahoma State in Stillwater.

Team of the Week: Arizona State Sun Devils

David Becker/Getty Images
1 Comment

Arizona State had themselves a week, didn’t they?

It was impressive enough before they went into Phog Allen Fieldhouse on Sunday after. They had already beaten St. John’s in the Staples Center for the opener of the Hall Of Fame Classic. With a blowout win over Xavier and wins over San Diego State and Kansas State already on their résumé, the Sun Devils were playing with house money on Sunday.

No one would blame them if they took a loss in the Phog. All but ten teams that have played their while Bill Self has been the head coach have taken a loss. You don’t just walk into Lawrence, Kansas, and expect to leave with a win.

But … they did win.

And suddenly, there is a totally different vibe around this Arizona State program.

They’re going to be ranked in the top five on Monday. They’re going to be receiving first-place votes in both top 25 polls. They’re going to be looked at as the best team out west, the favorite to win the Pac-12, the best program in Arizona. Hell, you’ll probably start hearing people say that Bobby Hurley is the answer to the ‘who replaces Coach K?’ question.

That’s when you know you’ve got something rolling.

When people like me start talking about your next job.

Personally, I’m far more interested in seeing if Arizona State can keep this thing going. They are 154th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom, and while they are the second-best team in the country at getting to the foul line, their bet performances have all come when they shot the grip off the ball.

But as of now, that doesn’t really matter.

Arizona State is the most fun team in the country and totally deserving of whether they end up being ranked.

THEY WERE GOOD, TOO

  • BOSTON COLLEGE: The Eagles did something on Saturday that no one else has been able to do this season: They outplayed Duke for 35 minutes and then managed to avoid choking the game away down the stretch as Marvin Bagley III took over. Ky Bowman and Jerome Robinson were nothing short of sensational.
  • ARIZONA: The Wildcats are back. They picked up a pair of impressive wins this week, knocking off Alabama at home on Saturday night after landing a marquee win over No. 7 Texas A&M in Phoenix on Tuesday night. Throw in the win at UNLV last weekend, and Sean Miller’s club has officially turned this thing around.
  • MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE: The Blue Raiders won at Vanderbilt and beat Ole Miss at home this week, meaning that Kermit Davis is now 5-0 against the SEC over the course of the last two-plus seasons.
  • TCU: The Horned Frogs moved to 10-0 on the season this week by landing their two best wins to date. They knocked off SMU at home on Tuesday night before going into LA late on Friday evening to beat No. 22 Nevada.
  • LOYOLA-CHICAGO: The MVC should be on the lookout for the Ramblers after they went into the O-Dome and landed a win over No. 5 Florida.

College Basketball Power Rankings: After a wild week, let’s start this thing over

Abbie Parr/Getty Images
1 Comment

This has been an unbelievably weird season to date, which feels about par for the course for college basketball in the era of the FBI investigation.

Arizona fell off a cliff in the Bahamas before returning stateside and reeling off four straight wins, three of which came at UNLV, on a neutral against Texas A&M and at home against Alabama. Duke lost at Boston College after playing like they deserved to lose four or five times already this season. Florida lost to Florida State and Loyola-Chicago. Kansas lost to Washington and Arizona State, who actually has a shot of being ranked as the No. 1 team in college basketball on Monday.

Seriously.

But wait.

There’s more.

Notre Dame lost to Ball State. Minnesota got blown out at Nebraska and Arkansas. Purdue lost to Western Kentucky. I could go on but you get the point. Nothing makes sense anymore. My best guess is that we’re all watching basketball in the upside-down.

I’m starting anew. Instead of trying to figure out who goes up because they beat Team A who beat Team B after Team B upset Team C who lost by 30 to Team D. I’m just going to rank who I think are the 25 best teams in the country in order.

So bear with me as I try to figure out just what to make of college basketball in the year of our lord, 2017.

1. Villanova, 10-0 (Last Week: No. 4)
2. Michigan State, 9-1 (2)
3. Miami, 8-0 (7)
4. Wichita State, 8-1 (8)
5. Duke, 10-1 (1)
6. Arizona, 7-3 (22)
7. Arizona State, 9-0 (18)
8. Texas A&M, 8-1 (6)
9. Xavier, 9-1 (10)
10. West Virginia, 9-1 (17)
11. Seton Hall, 8-1 (15)
12. North Carolina, 9-1 (19)
13. Kansas, 7-2 (3)
14. Gonzaga, 8-2 (9)
15. Notre Dame, 8-2 (11)
16. Purdue, 10-2 (20)
17. Kentucky, 7-1 (14)
18. Virginia, 8-1 (16)
19. Oklahoma, 7-1 (NR)
20. Tennessee, 7-1 (NR)
21. Florida State, 9-0 (NR)
22. Florida, 6-3 (5)
23. Cincinnati, 7-2 (13)
24. Texas Tech, 7-1 (20)
25. TCU, 10-0 (21)

NEW ADDITIONS: No. 19 Oklahoma, No. 20 Tennessee, No. 21 Florida State

DROPPED OUT: 12. Minnesota, 23. Texas, 24. Baylor, 25. Creighton

No. 16 Arizona State hands No. 2 Kansas second-straight loss

Kyle Rivas/Getty Images
Leave a comment

No. 16 Arizona State got a combined 72 points, 14 assists and nine steals from their three-headed monster of Tra Holder, Shannon Evans and Remy Martin as the Sun Devils went into Phog Allen Fieldhouse and handed Kansas their second-straight loss, 95-85. ASU went on an 18-0 second half run to turn a 52-47 deficit into an 65-52 lead they would never relinquish.

It’s the first time since Dec. 2013, when Kansas lost to Colorado and Florida in back-to-back road games, that the No. 2-ranked Jayhawks lost two in a row. The difference, of course, is that neither of these losses came on the road; Kansas was beaten by Washington in Kansas City on Wednesday.

Arizona State now owns wins at Kansas and over St. John’s and No. 14 Xavier on a neutral floor. They were, without a doubt, the favorite to win the Pac-12 title at this point. They are probably the best team on the west coast, and there is a valid argument to rank them as the No. 1 team in the country.

Here are four things to take away from this result:

1. YES, WE CAN RANK ARIZONA STATE NO. 1 IN THE COUNTRY

I probably won’t be the guy to do that, not when Villanova and Michigan State still exist, but there is more than enough reason to do so.

Namely: their wins.

Is there a program in the country that has put together a better trio of wins than at Kansas, Xavier on a neutral and St. John’s on a neutral? The Sun Devils also own wins over San Diego State and Kansas State, and perhaps the most impressive part of it is that each of those wins, with the exception of Kansas State, came by double-digits. They put up 102 points on Xavier despite trailing by 15 in the first half. They put up 95 points on Kansas despite trailing by 13 in the first half.

If you’re the kind of person that does your rankings based totally on the rèsumè that a team has produced – a completely valid way to rank – then putting Arizona State at No. 1 makes total sense.

So don’t be surprised when they get some of them in this week’s AP poll.

2. ARIZONA STATE’S ACHILLES’ HEEL IS NOT THREES, IT’S DEFENSE

One idea that I’ve seen bandied about is that Arizona State’s performance early on this season is something of a mirage. These guards, as talented as they are, are just tough-shot makers that are running hot right now, and there might be something to that. I’m not going to pretend that shooting 14-for-28 from three at Phog Allen Fieldhouse or 13-for-27 from three against Xavier is the kind of thing that is going to happen every single time that Arizona State plays this season, but I also don’t think that’s why their offense has been so successful this season.

The Sun Devils get to the line more than just about any other team in the country; Cal St.-Fullerton is the only program with a higher free throw rate than the Sun Devils. That has everything to do with the ability of Evans, Holder and Martin to put the ball on the floor and get into the paint. It’s why they get to the line so often, and it’s why Romello White gets to the line so often.

That is sustainable, more so than shooting nearly-50 percent from three is.

What may not be sustainable, however, is winning games like this while posting a sub-150 adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom. That’s where Arizona State has problems they need to solve. We saw it on Sunday, as Kansas had a never-ending parade of dunks. Ironically, what may have ended up being the difference is the fact that the Sun Devils had a handful of run-out layups – pick-six turnovers, if you will.

Bobby Hurley’s team allowed 1.39 points-per-possession on possessions where Kansas did not turn the ball over. That, quite simply, has to improve if you assume that Arizona State doesn’t shoot 50 percent from three every night.

3. KANSAS DESPERATELY NEEDS THEIR REINFORCEMENTS

We talk about it over and over again, but it’s the truth. Right now, Kansas goes seven-deep. One of those seven is Mitch Lightfoot, a 6-foot-9 back-up center that is the only big man on the Kansas roster not named Udoka Azubuike. He’s fine as a back-up. He’s not fine as a guy that is going to have to provide 15-18 minutes a night as the only big man on the floor. He doesn’t provide rim protection. He doesn’t provide post scoring. He’s not a great rebounder. He can commit five fouls and but Bill Self some time with Azubuike on the bench. That’s it.

They need Silvio De Souza to get his test score and enroll early. They need to find a way to get Billy Preston cleared to play this season. If they don’t, we probably need to start entertaining the idea that this might be the Kansas team that sees their Big 12 title streak come to an end.

The other issue is that the only other player on the KU bench is Marcus Garrett, who is a freshman that doesn’t quite seem ready for the minutes he’s getting. Malik Newman has not been as good as advertised this season, and on Sunday, Svi Mykhailiuk reverted back to the Svi Mykhailiuk of the last three years. What that means is that …

4. … KANSAS HAS ONE GUY THAT CAN CREATE FOR HIMSELF RIGHT NOW

And I’m not quite sure when that is going to change.

I just don’t think Newman is all that good. Svi is at his best as a spot-up shooter and a guy that attacks close-outs. Garrett, as of now, cannot be relied upon, and I’m not convinced that Sam Cunliffe or Lagerald Vick are guys that can be more than finishers; at the rim, as a spot-up shooter, etc.

Even Azubuike is someone that has to more or less rely on getting the ball in a position where all he has to do is catch it and dunk it.

That’s a massive burden to ask Devonte’ Graham to carry, especially when he has to do so while playing every second.

Ayton leads Arizona to 88-82 win over Alabama

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Leave a comment

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — Deandre Ayton had 29 points and 18 rebounds, Allonzo Trier scored 20 of his 25 points in the second half and Arizona outlasted Alabama 88-82 Saturday night.

Arizona’s first real home test and the fans were ready, making McKale Center louder than it’s been all season.

The Wildcats (7-3) responded with their second quality win of the week, backing up a victory over No. 7 Texas A&M with a strong all-around performance to win their 45th straight nonconference home game.

Alabama (7-3) matched Arizona nearly shot for shot in one of college basketball’s toughest road environments, pulling within 84-80 on Riley Norris’ 3-pointer with 38 seconds left.

Trier, who took just six shots, hit three free throws in the final 34 seconds to seal it for Arizona.

Freshman Collin Sexton scored 21 of his 30 points in the second half to keep the Crimson Tide close.

Arizona’s defense was a sore spot to start the season, leading to three straight losses in the Bahamas that dropped the Wildcats out of the AP Top 25 from No. 2 — a first since Louisville in 1986.

Even when the Wildcats rolled over Long Beach State, coach Sean Miller lamented their defensive effort in a 25-minute postgame rant.

Arizona shored up its defense on Tuesday, when it grinded out a 67-64 victory over No. 7 Texas A&M in Phoenix.

For their first big home test, the Wildcats got back sophomore guard Rawle Alkins, a tough, emotional player who Miller hoped would give them a lift.

Arizona had a spark before Alkins even entered the game, efficiently working its offense during a 10-0 run that put the Wildcats up 24-13. The Crimson Tide fought back behind their defense, using a 13-2 run to tie it at 26-all.

Alabama had no one who could stop Ayton in the first half — 15 points and nine rebounds — but Sexton banked in a 3-pointer at the buzzer to put the Tide up 40-38.

The Crimson Tide went on a quick run to start the second half, but Arizona rallied and the teams traded athletic plays, neither to gain much separation.

Alabama closed in around Ayton to limit his shots, but Trier got free multiple times to keep the Wildcats around the lead.

Sexton was Alabama’s go-to player, confidently stroking in long 3-pointers and driving to the basket.

BIG PICTURE

Alabama came up short, but handling a hostile environment at McKale Center and keeping it close against a good team should only help the Crimson Tide later in the season.

Arizona could find itself back in the AP Top 25 next week after two quality wins.

UP NEXT

Alabama hosts Mercer on Dec. 19.

Arizona plays at New Mexico next Saturday.