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.”

Ball State forward Zach Hollywood found dead in off-campus apartment

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Zach Hollywood, a redshirt freshman on the Ball State basketball team, has died, the university confirmed to multiple local news outlets Tuesday.

He was 19 years old.

Hollywood redshirted last season at Ball State after averaging 17.5 points and 7.8 rebounds per game as a senior at Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School in Bradley, Ill.

Muncie police are investigating the death at Hollywood’s off-campus apartment, according to WTHR-TV.

“On behalf of Ball State University, it is with profound sadness that we learned today of the passing of Zachary “Zach” Hollywood, a student from Bradley, Illinois,” the school said in a statement. “Zach has been a part of our family for the past year. During his time on campus, he was a member of men’s basketball team and made many positive impressions throughout campus.

“This is a tragedy. Our heartfelt condolences are with his family, friends and teammates. “For members of our Ball State family who need support during this difficult time, we encourage them to take advantage of the numerous resources available on- and off-campus.”

Hollywood’s death is a tragic turn in an already devastating story for his family, which lost Zach’s mother, Susan, suddenly just over one year ago.

3-on-3 at the Final Four for $100,000? It’s happening

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The Final Four just got more exciting.

On Tuesday, Intersport announced a 3-on-3 tournament that they will be hosting at the Final Four with a $100,000 payout for the winners. The participants must be seniors that have exhausted their collegiate eligibility, the teams will be created based on conference and the rules will be standard, international 3-on-3 rules: one-point for a bucket inside the arc, two points for a bucket outside the arc, 12-second shot clocks and games played to 21 points, or whoever has the highest score after 10 minutes. Each all-star team will feature four players, including one sub.

And, well, this is awesome.

I cannot express enough how much I love this idea.

One potential pothole here is that teams that are playing in the Final Four will, quite clearly, not have players eligible to participate.

It also should be noted that since “three-pointers” are now worth two points and “two-pointers” are now worth one, the value of long-range shooting is increased even more.

With all that in mind, why don’t we make a quick power ranking of the teams that can be created from the nine biggest conferences in college hoops:

  1. ACC: Grayson Allen (Duke), Bonzie Colson (Notre Dame), Joel Berry II (North Carolina), Ben Lammers (Georgia Tech)
  2. Big East: Angel Delgado and Khadeen Carrington (Seton Hall), Trevon Bluiett (Xavier), Marcus Foster (Creighton)
  3. Big 12: Devonte’ Graham (Kansas), Jevon Carter (West Virginia), Jeffery Carroll (Oklahoma State), Zach Smith (Texas Tech)
  4. AAC: Rob Gray (Houston), B.J. Taylor (UCF), Gary Clark (Cincinnati), Obi Enechionya (Temple)
  5. Pac-12: Jordan McLaughlin and Elijah Stewart (USC), George King (Colorado), Thomas Welsh (UCLA)
  6. Big Ten: Nate Mason (Minnesota), Scottie Lindsay (Northwestern), Vince Edwards and Isaac Haas (Purdue)
  7. Atlantic 10: E.C. Matthews and Jared Terrell (Rhode Island), Peyton Aldridge (Davidson), Jaylen Adams (St. Bonaventure)
  8. SEC: Yante Maten (Georgia), Deandre Burnett (Ole Miss), Daryl Macon and Jaylen Barford (Arkansas)
  9. WCC: Jock Landale and Emmett Naar (Saint Mary’s), Jonathan Williams III (Gonzaga), Silas Melson (Gonzaga)

I had way too much fun putting this together.

What did I miss?

Harsh Reality: Indiana did not do Grant Gelon wrong, getting cut is part of sports

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What happened to Grant Gelon sucks, and I’m not sure anyone in their right mind would try to argue otherwise.

A 6-foot-5 shooting guard from Crown Point, Indiana, Gelon accepted a scholarship offer from then-Indiana head coach Tom Crean as a member of the Class of 2016. His commitment was something of a surprise at the time; Gelon was a two-star prospect, according to Rivals, and ranked 402nd in the class, according to 247 Sports. At the time, Gelon reportedly had seven scholarship offers: Central Michigan, UIC, Toledo, Iona, Youngstown State, IUPUI and Western Carolina.

It was a reach for Crean, but it was also a dream come true for an Indiana kid getting a chance to don the cream and crimson.

Which is what made what happened this spring particularly painful.

Crean was fired on March 16th. Indiana hired Archie Miller to replace him on March 27th. Five weeks later, after a handful of workouts with the new coaching staff, Miller called Gelon into his office — the date, according to the Northwest Indiana Times, was May 3rd — and told him that he was being cut. There was not going to be minutes available, the staff said, for a sophomore that played in just 12 games last season, and that finding a place to transfer would be Gelon’s best option.

“I told them I wanted to stay,” Gelon told the Indy Star. “I told them, I’m making my mind up, I’m gonna push hard, show them what I can do, I’m here for a reason. When I said that, it was like, ‘Whoa, slow down.’ They were kind of making that sound like it wasn’t an option.”

That’s because it wasn’t.

Miller was cutting Gelon.

He was not cutting his scholarship, mind you. The Indiana student-athlete bill of rights protects players from losing their tuition due to poor performance on the court or the field. Gelon would still be getting his education paid for if he opted to remain at Indiana, he just wouldn’t be playing for the Hoosiers. Gelon’s departure opened up a scholarship for the Hoosiers that eventually went to Race Thompson, a four-star power forward that reclassified into the Class of 2017 in order to enroll at Indiana this year.

“Coach Miller believes honesty in evaluating talent, while often difficult, is the appropriate measure to take at all times and in the best interest of each player,” a statement released by the Indiana athletic department read. “Grant was made aware that our staff believed his abilities were not of the caliber that would allow him to receive playing time of any kind in the future for the IU program.”

I feel for Gelon here. I really do. Getting cut sucks, and everyone reading this now has probably gone through it at some point in their life. It happens all the time, in every sport, at every age group. Once you get to a level in athletics where you’re playing in more than your hometown rec league, it gets competitive. If you’re not good enough, you don’t make the team. That is how this works. Gelon found that out the hard way.

And frankly, what Miller did is not uncommon. It’s called running a player off, and it happens all the time at every program. Gelon had a bad enough season as a freshman that there is no guarantee that he would have kept his spot on the team had Crean kept his job. Simply put, he is not a Big Ten basketball player. I’d wager that two out of every five transfers at the Division I level are the result of a player transferring out of a school — either because he was forced or because the writing was on the wall — to a lower level, one more in line with his skill-set.

That’s what happened with Gelon. He’s now at State Fair Community College in Missouri, where he’ll spend a year before looking to climb his way back into the Division I ranks, most likely at the low-major level.

And no matter how many interviews that he or his family gives, you won’t find me saying that Indiana handled this the wrong way.

Was Miller callous?

That wouldn’t surprise me. He’s not the type of guy to mince words, and there really is not a good way to sugar-coat, ‘You are not good enough for us.’

But Gelon was not having his scholarship taken away. Indiana was living up to their promise of paying for his education. They did not do him wrong. The staff gave him more than a month to prove himself as a player and, eventually, made the decision he would not be in their plans moving forward.

So he was cut. That opening allowed a four-star power forward to enroll this year.

That’s the harsh reality of life in the Big Ten.

And there’s nothing wrong with the coach of a basketball team doing what Miller and Indiana did.

VIDEO: UConn’s Kwintin Williams would win the NBA dunk contest

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Think that’s too strong?

Look at this dunk:

Light

A post shared by Kwintin Williams (@jumpmanebig) on

He also did this over the summer:

Williams is a 6-foot-7, 215 pound JuCo transfer that should provide UConn with some minutes in the frontcourt this season.

LSU officially announces addition of Kavell Bigby-Williams

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LSU has announced the addition of Oregon transfer Kavell Bigby-Williams, a 6-foot-11 junior that was the National Junior College Player of the Year as a sophomore.

Bigby-Williams, who is a native of London, averaged 3.0 points and 2.8 boards last season as the Ducks reached the Final Four, but he played the majority of the season while under investigation for an alleged sexual assault that occurred while he was at Gillette College in Wyoming.

The local County Attorney declined to charge Bigby-Williams with a crime, and Gillette College police consider the case closed.

“The university conducted a responsible and comprehensive review before approving the transfer,” a release posted on LSU’s Athletics site read, “including close coordination with Title IX officials, multiple discussions with Gillette and Oregon officials and a thorough examination of available public records.”

LSU head coach Will Wade was quoted in that release as well: “This is an issue we all take seriously and we made absolutely sure we did our due diligence before considering moving forward. Kavell understands that and has made clear to me that he’s going to repay our confidence by representing LSU with his very best on and off the court.”