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.”

Swanigan staying for sophomore season

Purdue's Vince Edwards (12), Purdue's Caleb Swanigan (50) and Purdue's A.J. Hammons (20) celebrate during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against the Illinois in the quarterfinals at the Big Ten Conference tournament, Friday, March 11, 2016, in Indianapolis. Purdue won 89-58. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
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Purdue will once again be rolling out a formidable frontcourt in the 2016-17 season.

Boilermaker big man Caleb Swanigan is withdrawing from the NBA Draft to return to West Lafayette for his sophomore season, the school announced Wednesday.

The NBA is right there and always will be,” Swanigan said in the school’s press release, “but you always have to have patience and do what’s best for you.”

Purdue is losing 7-foot senior A.J. Hammons, but will be once again teaming Swanigan with Isaac Haas (7-2) and Vince Edwards (6-8) that will allow them to roll out a supersized lineup that is sure to be a difficult one to face off against.

The 6-foot-9, 250-pound Swanigan, who likely would have landed as a second-round pick, averaged 10.2 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.2 assists and was a finalist for the Wayman Tisdale Award for the country’s top freshman.

“We are excited that (Swanigan) has withdrawn from the NBA Draft and will return to Purdue,” head coach said Matt Painter in a statement released by the school. “He has the potential to make a huge jump from his freshman season and will be a big part of what we do next year. He received great experience going through this process and will use the feedback he received to make him a more diverse player.”

Purdue is probably a rung down from Michigan State and Wisconsin at the top of the league, but the return of Swanigan pulls them closer to competing at the top of the league next season.

USC’s Nikola Jovanovic not expected to return to USC

Southern California forward Nikola Jovanovic pauses on the court during an NCAA college basketball game against Washington State, Friday, Jan. 1, 2016, in Pullman, Wash. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
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Nikola Jovanovic’s college career has come to a close.

The USC center will not withdraw his name from NBA Draft consideration by Wednesday’s 11:59 p.m., a source confirmed to NBCSports.com. Jovanovic, a 6-foot-11 Serbian, averaged 12.3 points and 7.0 boards as a junior with the Trojans.

Jovanovic is not expected to be drafted, which means that Andy Enfield’s club will be losing two players to the professional ranks with eligibility to spare that likely won’t end up on an NBA roster next season. Julian Jacobs, who averaged 11.6 points, 5.5 assists and 4.9 boards, signed with an agent back in April.

The Trojans were a top 25 team last season despite many considering them to still be “a year away”. But with two starters departing, the Trojans will be a borderline preseason top 25 team as opposed to a top 15 team.

Marcus Lee withdrawing from the draft, transferring from Kentucky

Kentucky forward Marcus Lee dunks during the first half of a second-round men's college basketball game against Indiana in the NCAA Tournament, Saturday, March 19, 2016, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
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For the second time this season and just the sixth time in John Calipari’s tenure at Kentucky, the Wildcats are losing a player to transfer.

Marcus Lee announced on Wednesday that he will be withdrawing from the NBA Draft, but the 6-foot-9 forward will not be returning to Kentucky. He will be transferring out of the program to a new school.

“I want to thank the University of Kentucky, the basketball staff and the Big Blue Nation for supporting me over the years,” Lee said. “I’m sorry it took me so long to come to this decision, but I’m trying to do what’s right for me and my family. I’ll always think fondly of my time at Kentucky.”

Lee averaged 6.4 points and 6.0 boards this season, seeing his first major minutes as a member of the Wildcats. But he seemed destined for a bench role if he had opted to return to Kentucky this season as John Calipari has landed a recruiting class that includes five-star freshmen Bam Adebayo, Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones.

The tough part?

It does not appear that Lee will be able to finish his degree and be eligible to play immediately next season. He’ll have to sit a year at whatever school he opts to transfer to.

“Marcus Lee informed us today that he is pulling his name out of the draft but has decided he is going to transfer to a school out west to be closer to his family,” head coach John Calipari said. “We talked it through together and discussed the team next season, which he said had no bearing on his decision. I also told him he was a semester away from graduating. With that said, he was still adamant that, after the combine experience, a year off and regrouping would be the best thing. As always I support my players and their decisions.”

Lee joins Charles Matthews as members of last year’s Wildcats that are transferring out of the program. Darnell Dodson (Southern Miss), Stacey Poole (Georgia Tech) , Ryan Harrow (Georgia State) and Kyle Wiltjer (Gonzaga) are the other four players that have transferred.

Isaiah Briscoe to return to Kentucky

Eric Johnson, Isaiah Briscoe
(AP Photo/James Crisp)
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Isaiah Briscoe announced on Wednesday that he will be returning to Kentucky for his sophomore season.

The 6-foot-3 guard had one of the more difficult decisions to make for players in this year’s draft class. On the one hand, there was a very real chance that he would go through this draft without getting picked. He was a role-playing guard on last year’s team that isn’t a point guard, isn’t big enough to be a two-guard and was a total liability shooting the ball.

But he’s returning to a team that is as loaded as the group that won their first 38 games two years ago, particularly in the back court. He’ll be playing behind De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk who both play essentially the same role that Briscoe does: playmaking guards that thrive with the ball in their hands. And since Briscoe can’t shoot, he may not be the best option at the three, where Derek Willis will likely see minutes.

In other words, Briscoe returning to school is essentially a two-year decision.

Kentucky now awaits an announcement from Marcus Lee on whether or not he will be returning to school.

James Blackmon Jr. to return to Indiana, Troy Williams to remain in draft

James Blackmon Jr.
(AP Photo/Doug McSchooler)
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James Blackmon Jr. will be returning to Indiana for his junior season, the school announced on Wednesday morning.

Blackmon missed the final 22 games of his sophomore season following surgery on his knee in December. As a freshman, Blackmon averaged 15.8 points and shot 46 percent from beyond the arc.

Indiana now awaits word on the decision that will be made by Troy Williams. A junior swingman, Williams has a shot to be an early second round pick if he opts to stay in the draft. There is a report from the Indy Star that he will keep his name in the draft, but the program has yet to confirm that news.

Losing Williams would hurt, but it’s a loss that Indiana can overcome. The emergence of O.G. Anunoby as a versatile defender means that the Hoosiers have a guy that can be a defensive stopper and can allow them to play small and fast. Anunoby also has not proven to be prone to bouts of poor decision-making, which arguably may make him a better fit.