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Big East Conference Preview: Villanova looks to hold off challengers

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Beginning in September and running up through November 10th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Big East Conference.

Since the Big East’s reconfiguration in 2013, Villanova has served as the standard bearer with four straight regular season titles, two Big East tournament titles and a national title in 2016.

Jay Wright’s team has enough talent and experience to extend the streak to five, but the 2017-18 campaign sets up as one in which there are multiple teams poised to challenge the Wildcats.

Seton Hall, Xavier and maybe even Providence have the goods to push the Wildcats this season.

With the middle of the pack getting stronger and two head coaching changes, one of which being a Big East legend returning to his alma mater, this should be a fun year in the Big East.

CONTENDER SERIES: Kentucky | Kansas | Arizona | Michigan State | Duke

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Villanova looks to replace three starters and remain atop the conference: With the end of the 2016-17 season came the end of three collegiate careers, with Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins and Darryl Reynolds all out of eligibility. All three provided key intangibles for Villanova, with Hart and Jenkins also being two of the team’s top three scorers from a season ago. The question: how will the Wildcats account for those losses, with regards to both production and leadership?

There will be some adjustments to make, but simply put the pieces are there for Villanova to remain atop the Big East. Jalen Brunson, one of the nation’s best point guards, is back for his junior season as are wing Mikal Bridges and forward Eric Paschall. Sophomore guard Donte DiVencenzo, who earned a spot on the Big East’s All-Freshman team and was also the Big 5 Newcomer of the Year, is back for his sophomore season, and Phil Booth is healthy after sitting out most of last season with a knee injury.

Add in freshmen Omari Spellman and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree inside, and Jermaine Samuels Jr. on the wing, and Villanova will not lack for talent. And in Spellman, who sat out last season, they have a big who can get them points on the block on a consistent basis. For that reason this team will be different from last year’s group, which may make the Wildcats even tougher to defend.

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Khadeen Carrington (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

2. Seton Hall, Xavier and Providence are all worthy challengers: Due to its track record and combination of returnees and newcomers, Villanova has earned the right to be preseason favorites. But this season may provide the best group of challengers to the throne since the reconfiguration of the Big East.

Xavier brings back an experienced group led by an All-America candidate in senior forward Trevon Bluiett, and the experience gained by Quentin Goodin as a result of Edmond Sumner’s injury could pay off for the sophomore in 2017-18. Add in a talented freshman class led by wing Paul Scruggs, and grad transfer Kerem Kanter, and it would not be a surprise if Chris Mack’s Musketeers won the Big East.

A similar argument could be made for Seton Hall, as Kevin Willard has a squad led by four tough, talented seniors. Angel Delgado is the nation’s best rebounder, a big man who was near automatic when it came to racking up double-doubles last season. Wing Desi Rodriguez can get hot offensively on a moment’s notice, and forward Ismael Sanogo deserves more respect nationally for his abilities as a defender. The key for the Pirates: how Khadeen Carrington, a talented guard who can make plays off the bounce as well as hit perimeter shots, adjusts to the shift to the point. If he handles it well, Seton Hall can be a major factor.

As for Providence, Ed Cooley has a senior point guard in Kyron Cartwright to trust with the offense. Cartwright averaged nearly seven assists per game last season, and that number could be even higher given the improvements made by the other options on the roster. Rodney Bullock has the potential to be an all-conference player if he becomes more efficient offensively, and forward Alpha Diallo appears poised to take a significant step forward. Makai Ashton-Langford is one of the key pieces in a good recruiting class, but the key may be the health of senior big man Emmitt Holt.

Holt’s been dealing with an abdominal issue during the preseason, and if he’s limited even more will be asked of freshmen Nate Watson and Dajour Dickens.

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Khyri Thomas (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

3. The conference’s “midsection” should be improved: Given the fact that seven teams reached the NCAA tournament last season, this may feel like a weird thing to read. But with the combination of newcomers and returnees at many of the Big East schools that populated the middle portion of the standings last season, those matchups are going to be even tougher this season.

Creighton welcomes back guards Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas, and they’ll add a transfer at the point in former Syracuse guard Kaleb Joseph. The key for Joseph will be to regain the confidence that he seemingly lost during his two seasons at Syracuse, but the combination of sitting out a year and being in a system that gives guys the freedom to make plays should help.

Marquette, which won 19 games and reached the NCAA tournament last season, has a very good perimeter tandem in Andrew Rowsey and Markus Howard, with the latter being one of the best shooters in the country as a freshman. The question mark for the Golden Eagles is how productive their big men will be, with SMU transfer Harry Froling set to join the likes of junior Matt Heldt and freshman Theo John in December.

Butler will be led by senior forward Kelan Martin, sophomore guard Kamar Baldwin and a new head coach in LaVall Jordan (more on the Bulldogs below), and St. John’s may be the ultimate “wild card.” Guards Shamorie Ponds and Marcus LoVett Jr. return, and the additions of transfers Marvin Clark II and Justin Simon will help immensely. If the pieces mesh, Chris Mullin has a roster that could turn heads in the Big East.

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Kamar Baldwin (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

4. LaVall Jordan looks to build upon the “Butler Way”: While the Brad Stevens era was critical with regards to the growth of the Butler basketball program, which reached the national title game two consecutive years and moved from the Horizon League to the Big East, the “Butler Way” began well before that point. Among those who played a role in the success is LaVall Jordan, who played on three NCAA tournament teams between 1998 and 2001 for Barry Collier and Thad Matta.

After brief stay at Milwaukee that was preceded by a six-year stint on John Beilein’s staff at Michigan, Jordan has returned to his alma mater to fill the vacancy left by Chris Holtmann’s move to Ohio State. Jordan won’t be operating with an empty cupboard either, as Kelan Martin (16.0 ppg, 5.8 rpg) and Kamar Baldwin (10.1, 3.7) return from a team that won 25 games a season ago. Butler did lose three starters from that team, most notably forward Andrew Chrabascz, but do not expect this program to simply fall off of a cliff.

5. Patrick Ewing, arguably the most important player in Big East history, makes his return to Georgetown: To say that Ewing was “arguably” the most important player in league history may be an understatement; as the crown jewel of a 1981 class that included the likes of Chris Mullin (St. John’s) and Villanova’s “Expansion Crew,” Ewing helped usher in an era of dominance for the Big East in the 1980’s. The Georgetown teams he led were both feared and respected, and with his return to The Hilltop as head coach the goal is the bring back those glory years.

Ewing, in his first head coaching job after spending well over a decade as an assistant in the NBA, has some talent to work with inside as Marcus Derrickson (8.3 ppg, 4.4 rpg) and Jesse Govan (10.1, 5.0) both return. But there are a lot of holes to fill on this roster, especially on the perimeter with the losses of Rodney Pryor and L.J. Peak. Look for freshman wing JaMarko Pickett to get plenty of opportunities in his debut season, one that could be difficult for the Hoyas once they begin conference play.

Angel Delgado (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

PRESEASON BIG EAST PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Angel Delgado, Seton Hall

Only one player in college basketball (Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan) had more double-doubles than Delgado last season. The senior big man averaged 15.2 points, 13.1 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game last season, shooting 54.3 percent from the field. On a team expected to contend in the Big East, Delgado will once again be a focal point for the Pirates. And if he can improve on the turnover count (3.0 tpg last season) Delgado will be even tougher to slow down.

THE REST OF THE BIG EAST FIRST TEAM

  • Jalen Brunson, Villanova: One of the best point guards in college basketball, Brunson will have more leadership responsibilities on his plate in 2017-18.
  • Marcus Foster, Creighton: Foster’s first season in a Creighton uniform was a productive one, as he averaged 18.2 points, 2.9 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game.
  • Trevon Blueitt, Xavier: Bluiett should be heard from with regards to both Big East Player of the Year and All-America honors. Last season he averaged 18.5 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game.
  • Rodney Bullock, Providence: Butler’s Kelan Martin would be a solid choice here as well, but if he can be a more efficient player offensively Bullock will have a good shot at a first team spot as well.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • Kelan Martin, Butler
  • Khadeen Carrington, Seton Hall
  • Omari Spellman and Mikal Bridges, Villanova
  • Marcus LoVett Jr. and Shamorie Ponds, St. John’s
  • Khyri Thomas, Creighton

BREAKOUT STAR: Donte DiVincenzo, Villanova

DiVincenzo is the biggest reason that I’m not that worried about Villanova trying to replace Josh Hart this season. I don’t know that he turns into the player Hart was this year, but he’s already proven that he had the ability to be an explosive scorer – he reached double-figures 14 times and scored at least 19 points four times coming off the bench – and he has the kind of toughness and defensive intelligence that he fit in with Villanova seamlessly on that end of the floor as well.

The only real concern about having DiVincenzo on this list is how good Villanova will be. They’re quite deep on the perimeter and return Phil Booth from injury. He could end up being a much-improved player with a markedly better season and end up with numbers that don’t look all that dissimilar from this season’s.

Donte DiVincenzo (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Chris Mullin, St. John’s

With John Thompson III being replaced at Georgetown during the spring, there really isn’t a coach in the Big East that’s truly on the proverbial hot seat. The pick here is Mullin, whose teams have improved in the win column in each of the last two seasons. So why Mullin? Because with the talent on this season’s roster, expecting the Red Storm to at the very least challenge for an NCAA tournament berth would be reasonable.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

Four teams have credible hopes of reaching the Final Four.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT

the impact that Justin Simon and Marvin Clark II can have for St. John’s. The Red Storm can be an NCAA tournament team this year.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • November 13, Minnesota at Providence
  • November 22-24, Villanova at Paradise Jam
  • November 28, Baylor at Xavier
  • December 3, Seton Hall at Louisville
  • December 5, Gonzaga vs. Villanova (in New York City)

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @BigEastTourney

POWER RANKINGS

1. Villanova: The Wildcats are once again favored to win the Big East, thanks to the combination of newcomers and returnees. The return of Phil Booth, and the additions of Omari Spellman and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, will certainly help matters for Jay Wright’s team.
2. Seton Hall: With four senior starters, the Pirates are one of the most experienced teams in college basketball. And if new point guard Khadeen Carrington can balance scoring with getting other guys the ball in good spots, look out.
3. Xavier: Trevon Bluiett will once again lead the way, with J.P. Macura being another senior capable of making an impact on a game. If the talented recruiting class, led by Paul Scruggs, is ready and Quentin Goodin takes another step forward the Musketeers can win the league.
4. Providence: In Kyron Cartwright the Friars have a special point guard. He’s surrounded with talented offensive option, including Rodney Bullock, and the arrival of Makai Ashton-Langford should give Cartwright the occasional respite. The Friars will certainly be head from this season as they look to make a 5th straight NCAA tournament appearance.
5. Creighton: In Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas the Bluejays have one of the top perimeter tandems in the country, much less the Big East. If Kaleb Joseph is ready to run the show at the point, Creighton is capable of contending.
6. Marquette: With Andrew Rowsey and Markus Howard among the returnees, it’s known that Steve Wojciechowski’s team can put points on the board. But can they be more effective defensively? If so, the Golden Eagles should make a return trip to the NCAA tournament.
7. St. John’s: The Red Storm are the “wild card” in this race. With the additions of Justin Simon and Marvin Clark II, St. John’s has the talent needed to make waves in the Big East race. But will this be a cohesive unit when the games truly matter?
8. Butler: LaVall Jordan has some talent to work with in his first season leading his alma mater, including guard Kamar Baldwin and forward Kelan Martin. What may make things more difficult for Butler are the loss of three starters and the improvements made by other teams in the league.
9. DePaul: Will the Blue Demons escape the Big East cellar for the second time in the last three seasons? Yes, thanks to the return of Eli Cain and the additions of Austin Grandstaff and Max Strus.
10. Georgetown: Patrick Ewing’s return as head coach will be a difficult one, given the strength of the Big East and his team’s lack of perimeter shooters. That being said, having Jesse Govan and Marcus Derrickson back in the front court should help matters.

No. 2 Arizona drops second-straight

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PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas (AP) — SMU attacked the glass and kept scoring off turnovers to offset a bad shooting performance. It was enough to hand No. 2 Arizona a second stunning loss to an unranked opponent in two nights.

Ben Emelogu scored 20 points and the Mustangs upset the Wildcats 66-60 in Thursday’s consolation round at the Battle 4 Atlantis, a jarring start for an Arizona team that began the season as a Final Four favorite with a preseason Associated Press All-American in Allonzo Trier.

Arizona (3-2) lost to North Carolina State 90-84 in Wednesday’s first round. It’s the first time the Wildcats have dropped back-to-back games against nonconference opponents since losing to Mississippi State and San Diego State in November 2011.

“This is a different feeling,” coach Sean Miller said. “It might be healthy for our team because instead of everybody telling you how good you are and you’re going to get to a Final Four and you’re awesome, it’s going to go opposite now.

“And I think that it could be something that drives our team to have even better practice to fix a few things and hopefully get back in the winner’s circle.”

The Mustangs (5-1) blew an 11-point lead in the second half but responded with a 10-2 run to go ahead for good. SMU won despite shooting 31 percent and going eight minutes without a basket in the second half.

“I always say — and everybody thinks I’m lying but I’m not when I say this — the best wins of the year are always when you can’t get your shots to go in the basket and you find a way to win anyway,” SMU coach Tim Jankovich said. “That’s how great seasons are made. Everybody wins when they shoot great and feel great and all that.”

The Mustangs hung on in two ways. First, they capitalized on 20 Arizona turnovers by scoring 19 points off those miscues. Then there was their effort on the boards; they were outrebounded 43-39 overall but nearly doubled up Arizona on the offensive glass (20-11) to finish with 23 more shot attempts and 14 second-chance points.

“We talk about this all the time,” Jankovich said. “Really break it down: Does it take a lot of talent to go run after a ball? Does it take a lot of talent to dive on a ball? … And the answer is no. So really what it takes is the character and it takes an unselfishness and a commitment to the things that win rather than the things that necessarily make me look good.

“And in the end, if you have a team full of those guys, then you’re going to have a successful team.”

Trier scored 22 points to lead the Wildcats, who shot 47 percent. Arizona freshman Deandre Ayton added 17 points and 15 rebounds, but no other Wildcats player scored in double figures. Arizona also shot just 5 of 20 on 3-pointers.

“No, our confidence isn’t affected at all,” freshman forward Ira Lee said. “We’ve just got to see these two games as a learning experience and move on.”

BIG PICTURE

Arizona: Miller immediately said offense wasn’t the problem after the loss to N.C. State, noting the Wildcats haven’t dropped many games when scoring 84 points. Rather, he was concerned about a bad defensive effort. This time, his team had some good defensive moments, but Miller said there was something missing in glaring fashion.

“Maybe we did play some good defense,” Miller said, “but defense always ends with the rebounding. And we were unable to rebound.”

SMU: The Mustangs trailed much of the way against Northern Iowa in their first-round tournament game, but played from ahead in this one. They also came up with a counterpunch, regaining the lead after Arizona erased that 11-point deficit.

“The effort, gosh darn, I don’t care if we were big or tiny or medium-sized out there or who was guarding who, I saw some fighting cats out there,” Jankovich said. “And I loved it.”

EMELOGU’S NIGHT

Emelogu went 7 of 11 from the field and 5 of 7 on 3-pointers to lead SMU’s offense. The rest of SMU’s starters made 12 of 53 shots (23 percent).

“A lot of times, you just play hard and play defense, you win games even though offense didn’t go our way,” Emelogu said.

UP NEXT

Arizona: The Wildcats will play No. 18 Purdue in Friday’s seventh-place game.

SMU: The Mustangs will play Western Kentucky in Friday’s fifth-place game.

Western Kentucky upsets No. 18 Purdue 77-73 in Bahamas

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PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas (AP) — Darius Thompson scored 12 points and hit two clinching free throws with 5.1 seconds left to help Western Kentucky upset No. 18 Purdue 77-73 in Thursday’s consolation round at the Battle 4 Atlantis.

The Hilltoppers (3-2) led nearly the entire night, but needed to make several clutch plays late to hang on.

P.J. Thompson hit a corner 3-pointer with 5.8 seconds remaining to bring the Boilermakers (4-2) to 75-73, but Thompson answered with two free throws that made it a two-possession game and all but sealed the win.

Justin Johnson led the Hilltoppers with 17 points, including a tough driving score for a five-point lead with 21 seconds left.

Isaac Haas scored 22 points to lead Purdue, which shot just 32 percent in the first half. The Boilermakers trailed 42-31 at the break and never fully recovered.

BIG PICTURE

Purdue: That’s an 0-2 showing in two days for the Boilermakers in the Bahamas. The high-scoring, 3-point shooting offense hasn’t found its rhythm here, though Purdue shot 50 percent after halftime in this one to give itself a chance late.

Western Kentucky: The Hilltoppers were coming off a loss to No. 5 Villanova, making this the first time they had played consecutive games against ranked opponents since the 1993 NCAA Tournament. But they earned a win against a ranked team for just the second time in the last 15 tries.

UP NEXT

Purdue: The Boilermakers will play the Arizona-SMU loser in Friday’s seventh-place game.

Western Kentucky: The Hilltoppers will play the Arizona-SMU winner in Friday’s fifth-place game.

Duke overcomes tenacious Portland State 99-81

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Marvin Bagley III said the Blue Devils knew they had to wake up for the second half against Portland State.

And eventually, they did. Trevon Duval had 22 points and No. 1 Duke pulled away for a 99-81 victory over the surprisingly tenacious Vikings on Thursday to open the Phil Knight Invitational.

 Bagley added 18 points, and Grayson Allen had 14 points and nine assists. The Blue Devils (6-0) will face the winner of the Thursday game between Butler and Texas.

Duke trailed by as many as eight points but took control midway through the second half when Wendell Carter Jr.’s dunk put the Blue Devils in front 67-62. They would go on to lead by as many as 21 points.

“The first half we obviously weren’t playing like we were normally do. We weren’t doing the things that we do well. We weren’t going to our strengths. We kind of came out sluggish,” Bagley said. “But going into the second half it was just ‘You have to wake up.’ They (the coaches) mentioned to us that these are the type of games that are going to be like that if you don’t come out ready to play.

It was coach Mike Krzyzewski’s 200th victory as coach of a No. 1-ranked team. He’s 200-29 when the Blue Devils sit atop the poll.

Deontae North led the Vikings (4-1) with 24 points, including 20 in the first half, but fouled out with 8:39 left in the game.

It was the first time in program history that the Vikings had faced a top-ranked team. Portland State’s last win over a ranked opponent was an 86-82 victory over then-No. 25 Portland in December 2009.

“I thought they just knocked us back the whole first half,” Krzyzewski said. “We were in a reactionary mode the first 20 minutes.”

The tournament involves 16 teams playing in two brackets on Thursday, Friday and Sunday, with a break on Saturday. The field also includes No. 4 Michigan State, No. 7 Florida and defending national champion North Carolina.

Dubbed the PK80, the tournament celebrates Nike co-founder Phil Knight’s 80th birthday.

Duke and Portland State were in the Motion Bracket, playing Thursday at the Memorial Coliseum. Teams in the Victory Bracket played at the adjacent Moda Center.

Knight was sitting courtside for the game.

The five-time NCAA champion Blue Devils were coming off a 92-63 victory over Furman on Monday night, led by Bagley with 24 points.

Portland State was coming off an 83-79 victory over Utah State at the Memorial Coliseum on Monday. The Vikings are playing the first season under coach Barret Peery.

“I’m proud of our team,” Peery said. “But I was proud of our team before the ball went up.”

Portland State was no pushover from the start, taking a 12-11 lead on North’s 3-pointer with 16:54 to go in the opening half. North hit another 3 that put the Vikings up 19-15 and Michael Mayhew’s jumper extended the lead.

North made another 3 to make it 33-26 with 8:33 left in the half. The Vikings stayed out in front until Gary Trent Jr. made a pair of free throws for Duke to tie it at 42 with 2:09 left in the half.

Mayhew hit a long 3-pointer and Portland State led 49-45 at the half. Mayhew was among five Vikings who fouled out in the second half.

Carter’s layup put Duke out in front 54-53, but North answered with a jumper and Bryce Canda added a 3-pointer.

Carter had another layup to give the Blue Devils a 61-60 lead and Bagley’s tip-in pushed the lead to 63-60, energizing the mostly blue-clad crowd at the Coliseum. Duke never trailed again.

“This was a big stage for us,” said Canda, who finished with 14 points. “But we can’t hang our heads.”

BIG PICTURE

Duke: Allen scored just five points against Furman, and Krzyzewski said he was banged up and held out of a couple of practices going into the game. But he was back in form against Portland State. He taunted a Portland State player late in the game and got a technical, eliciting a strong reaction from Krzyzewski.

Portland State: It was the first time Portland State had faced a No. 1-ranked team. The Vikings have twice faced a No. 2 team, including Duke in 1997. … The Vikings play in the Big Sky conference. They’ve made the NCAA tournament twice, in 2008 and 2009, with first-round losses both times.

MORE COACH K: Krzyzewski has coached 229 games with a No. 1-ranked team, surpassing John Wooden for the lead. … It is the 500th week that Duck has been ranked in the top 10 of the AP poll under him, most by a coach in the AP Top 25’s history.

NORTH’S SECOND TECH: North was on the floor in front of the scorer’s desk, getting ready to check into the game when he earned his second tech of the game. Coach Peery said apparently the ref thought North had commented on the previous play.

UP NEXT

Duke: The Blue Devils go on to face the winner of the late Thursday afternoon game between Butler and Texas when the tournament continues on Friday.

Portland State: The Vikings will face the Butler-Texas loser.

Terrell lifts Rhode Island past No. 20 Seton Hall, 75-74

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NEW YORK (AP) — Jared Terrell made a running layup with 5.2 seconds left to give Rhode Island a 75-74 victory over No. 20 Seton Hall on Thursday night in the second game of the Preseason NIT.

Terrell finished with 32 points to help the Rams improve to 3-1. Stanford Robinson added 15 points.

Myles Powell led the Pirates (4-1) with 21 points. Angel Delgado had 18 points and 14 rebounds, and Khadeen Carrington and Desi Rodriguez had 12 points each.

Following Terrell’s layup, Seton Hall inbounded the ball to Carrington, who raced up court but lost his dribble and the Pirates were unable to recover the loose ball before the buzzer sounded.

Trailing by nine at halftime, Seton Hall outscored Rhode Island 27-17 in a 14:06 span to take the lead at 72-71. Carrington made two free throws with 5:54 left to give the Pirates their first lead since his jumper 5:09 into the game.

Defense was both the cause and effect for Seton Hall’s turnaround. Specifically, the Pirates played defense in the second half after surrendering 60.7 percent (17 of 28) shooting from the field — including 77.8 percent (7 of 9) from 3-point range — —in the first 20 minutes.

The Rams regained the the lead, 73-72, on Andre Berry’s layup with 4:05 left. The lead lasted for 2:02 until Ismael Sanogo’s layup gave Seton Hall a one-point advantage.

BIG PICTURE

Seton Hall: The Pirates entered the game having yielded just 254 points_or an average of 63.5 points per game_in winning their first four games. Against Rhode Island, Seton Hall allowed 54 points in the first half and the Rams broke the 64-point barrier with 11:03 left in the second half on Jared Terrell’s 3 in front of the Rhode Island bench.

Rhode Island: The Rams authored an otherworldly offensive performance — in the first half. Rhode Island scored 54 points on 60.7 percent shooting. But college basketball is a two-half game and, in the second, Rhode Island only made 8 of 31 shots from the field.

NOTABLE

Seton Hall Fell to 7-2 against Rhode Island

Rhode Island: The second of two games at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center also marked the second time Rhode Island coach Dan Hurley coached against his alma mater. Hurley scored 1,070 points in five years at Seton Hall.

UP NEXT

Seton Hall: Plays Vanderbilt in the consolation game Friday.

Rhode Island: Plays Virginia in the championship Friday.

No. 5 Villanova beats Tennessee 85-76 in Battle 4 Atlantis

BUFFALO, NY - MARCH 16: Jalen Brunson #1 of the Villanova Wildcats drives against Elijah Long #55 of the Mount St. Mary's Mountaineers in the first half during the first round of the 2017 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at KeyBank Center on March 16, 2017 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas — Jalen Brunson scored 25 points to help fifth-ranked Villanova rally from 15 down and beat Tennessee 85-76 in Thursday’s semifinals at the Battle 4 Atlantis.

The Wildcats (5-0) trailed 44-29 with 1:39 left before roaring out of a break with a dominating run. Villanova scored the first 11 points as part of that 23-2 burst, with the Wildcats playing far more aggressively and getting out in transition.

Mikal Bridges added 21 points for Villanova, which shot 52 percent after halftime and built a 15-point lead with 4:40 left before having to hold off a late rally by the Volunteers.

Grant Williams scored 20 points for Tennessee (3-1), which clawed to within 79-76 on Admiral Schofield’s 3-pointer with 51.6 seconds left. But that was as close as the Volunteers got, with Villanova hitting four free throws and getting a breakaway dunk from Donte DiVincenzo with 13.2 seconds left to seal it.

BIG PICTURE

Tennessee: The Volunteers were coming off an overtime win against No. 18 Purdue in the first round and they were poised to add an even bigger upset. But that flat second-half start wiped out a strong half’s worth of work and squandered the momentum that came through their board work and converting turnovers.

Villanova: That’s two straight days the Wildcats put together a second-half spurt to take control in the Bahamas. They did it in Round 1 against Western Kentucky to finally break the game open, but this one — full of active hands, deflected passes and guys diving on the floor — brought them back in a game that was once getting away from them.

UP NEXT

Tennessee: The Volunteers will play the North Carolina State-Northern Iowa loser in Friday’s third-place game.

Villanova: The Wildcats will play the N.C. State-Northern Iowa winner in Friday’s championship game.