Darrun Hilliard, Kadeem Batts

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

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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.”

Four-star 2017 shooting guard commits to Virginia Tech

Virginia Tech head coach Buzz Williams celebrates a play in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Virginia, Monday, Jan. 4, 2016, in Blacksburg, Va. (Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times via AP) LOCAL STATIONS OUT; LOCAL INTERNET OUT; LOCAL PRINT OUT (SALEM TIMES REGISTER; FINCASTLE HERALD; CHRISTIANSBURG NEWS MESSENGER; RADFORD NEWS JOURNAL; ROANOKE STAR SENTINEL; MANDATORY CREDIT
Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times via AP
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Recruiting, and on-court results, have picked up at Virginia Tech since Buzz Williams took over as head coach. In his second year at the helm the Hokies won ten conference games, and in reaching the Postseason NIT made their first postseason appearance since 2011.

Thursday night Virginia Tech landed its first verbal commitment in the Class of 2017, as four-star shooting guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker made his pledge.

The 6-foot-5 Alexander-Walker, who’s ranked 91st in his class by Rivals.com, also took official visits to Maryland and USC before making his pledge to the ACC program. Alexander-Walker attends Hamilton Heights Christian Academy in Chattanooga, Tennessee, but as a native of Canada plays his grassroots basketball for the Canada Elite program on the Under Armour Association circuit.

Good with either hand, Alexander-Walker can play either on or off the basketball. And that versatility should serve him well in a system that places a high value on “switch-ables,” or players who can fill multiple roles.

The Canada connection paid off for Virginia Tech in the recruitment of Alexander-Walker, with assistant coach Jamie McNeilly being a native of the country himself and having a connection to the Walker family. The Hokies will lose two perimeter players at the end of the 2016-17 season in Devin Wilson and Seth Allen, which will give Alexander-Walker the opportunity to earn minutes as a freshman.

Oakland lands former Oklahoma State guard Clark

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When point guard Stevie Clark began his career at Oklahoma State in 2013, the Top 100 prospect was expected by many to be an impact player for the Cowboys. Things didn’t go as planned however, as off-court issues ultimately led to Clark’s dismissal from the program before his sophomore season. Add in a lawsuit filed by Clark in which he alleged that he was forced by the school to take psychotropic drugs, and it’s safe to say that his time in Stillwater was anything but smooth.

Clark ultimately landed at Arkansas Baptist College, and on Thursday it was reported by the Detroit Free Press that he’s committed to Oakland University to play for head coach Greg Kampe. Clark joins a program with an immediate need at the point, with All-American Kahlil Felder having entered the NBA Draft and hired an agent as well.

The obvious question regarding Clark is whether or not he’s managed to take care of business off the court, and in an interview with Mark Snyder of the Free Press the Oklahoma native made note of the benefits of getting away from home for college.

Playing in Rochester, far from his home, will serve him well, he said.

“Anywhere away from home is the best thing,” Clark said. “It’s just hard balancing everything being close to home.”

Clark will be one of the options Kampe has to choose from at the point, with incoming freshmen Brailen Neely and Billy Thomas also among the new arrivals, and sophomore Jaevin Cumberland looking to earn more playing time than the 5.6 minutes per contest he averaged as a freshman.

Creighton point guard Watson Jr. to return for senior season

Creighton's Maurice Watson Jr. (10) reacts after scoring during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Xavier in Omaha, Neb., Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016. Creighton won 70-56. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
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Creighton’s chances of moving up the Big East standings and returning to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2014 improved a great deal Thursday, as starting point guard Maurice Watson Jr. announced that he will be returning for his senior season. Watson, who began his college career at Boston University, entered his name into the NBA Draft pool without hiring an agent but decided that another year in Omaha would be best for him.

Watson was one of the most impactful transfers in the country last season, as his play at the point was a major factor in the Bluejays winning 20 games and going 9-9 in conference play after being picked to finish eighth in the Big East preseason poll. Watson averaged 14.1 points, 3.4 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game last season, earning second team All-Big East honors.

With Watson’s return the Bluejays will welcome back three of their top four scorers from last season, with center Geoffrey Groselle being the lone departure. Head coach Greg McDermott adds a talented shooting guard in Marcus Foster, who sat out last season after transferring in from Kansas State. With Watson and Foster working together, Creighton will have a formidable perimeter tandem leading the way in 2016-17 with the likes of forward Cole Huff and guard Isaiah Zierden also being key contributors.

In addition to what Watson can provide in games he’ll also serve as a good mentor for Kaleb Joseph, who will have to sit out next season after transferring in from Syracuse. Joseph, who will have two seasons of eligibility remaining, fell out of the rotation as a sophomore so the year in residency should benefit him as he works towards grabbing the reins in 2017-18.

h/t ESPN.com

UConn, four-star 2017 big man Brown part ways

Brown, Zach
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Back in mid-January UConn made waves on the recruiting trail by securing a verbal commitment from 7-foot-1 center Zach Brown, a player seen by many as one of the top prospects in the Class of 2017. That partnership came to an end Thursday, as the two parties decided to part ways. News of the mutual decision was first reported by Scout.com.

The Miami native is currently ranked 28th in the Class of 2017 by Rivals.com, and Thursday’s news opens up a spot in the front court that UConn head coach Kevin Ollie and his staff will now have to fill. Amida Brimah, who’s currently going through the NBA pre-Draft process, will be a senior next season should he return to Storrs as will Kentan Facey.

Among the interior options who will have eligibility remaining beyond next season for the Huskies are sophomore Steven Enoch and incoming freshmen Mamadou Diarra and Juwan Durham.

UConn was in the running for 2016 power forward Taurean Thompson, but multiple outlets have the Brewster Academy product considering Michigan State (which added UNLV grad transfer Ben Carter Wednesday), Seton Hall and Syracuse at this point in his recruitment.

UCF lands commitment from transfer Terrell Allen

New UCF men's NCAA college basketball coach Johnny Dawkins speaks at his introductory press conference Thursday, March 24, 2016 in Orlando, Fla. (Jacob Langston/Orlando Sentinel via AP) MAGS OUT; NO SALES; MANDATORY CREDIT
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Having already landed one transfer in former Michigan guard Aubrey Dawkins (the new head coach’s son), UCF landed a second Thursday afternoon as former Drexel guard Terrell Allen announced that he’ll finish out his college career playing for Johnny Dawkins.

Allen, a CAA All-Rookie Team selection in his lone season at Drexel, announced the news by way of his Twitter account. After sitting out the 2016-17 season per NCAA transfer rules, Allen will have three seasons of eligibility remaining.

On a team that struggled throughout the 2015-16 season, winning just six games, Allen averaged 9.8 points, 3.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists in 32.5 minutes of action per game. The 6-foot-2 point guard finished the season ranked in the top ten in the CAA in both assists and assist-to-turnover ratio, with his assist tally ranking eighth and his A/T ratio of 1.9 placing him seventh.

With B.J. Taylor entering his junior season and Jeremy Carter-Sheppard joining the ranks this summer, the addition of Allen gives UCF another option at the point for the 2017-18 campaign.