Darrun Hilliard

Villanova will be a forced to be reckoned with in the NCAA tournament (Getty Images)

Selflessness, toughness among the attributes that make No. 3 Villanova a national title contender

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source: Getty Images
Villanova will be a forced to be reckoned with in the NCAA tournament (Getty Images)

One of the questions entering this weekend was who would earn the one-seeds alongside No. 1 Kentucky, and one team that merited serious discussion was No. 3 Villanova. Jay Wright’s Wildcats have been the class of the Big East all season and that was the case in New York, as they capped a three-game run through the Big East tournament with a 69-52 win over Xavier in the title game.

And as has been the case throughout the year, the list of contributors for Villanova wasn’t limited to a select few.

Each of the eight players who played 16 minutes or more managed to score at least four points, with Dylan Ennis leading the way with 16 points. Sixth man Josh Hart, who became the first reserve to win Most Outstanding Player honors in the history of the Big East tournament added 15 points and seven rebounds and Darrun Hilliard chipped in with 12 points.

The Wildcats shot 50 percent from the field (60 percent inside of the arc) and assisted on nearly 63 percent of their made field goals. Jay Wright’s team is a selfless group, one that doesn’t particularly care about who gets the credit provided that they’re collectively successful.

That was most evident in how happy the team was when Hart received his individual honor, and his play of late is a key for Villanova as they look to make a long run in the NCAA tournament. In three games in New York the sophomore made 21 of his 29 shots from the field (9-for-14 from three), and he averaged 17.7 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game.

It’s been said on multiple occasions that Villanova doesn’t have a bonafide star, with none of their players being in the conversation for the national individual awards. But if this weekend displayed anything, it’s that Villanova is a team of players who are focused solely on being stars in their own roles.

Ryan Arcidiacono, Big East Co-Player of the Year with Providence’s Kris Dunn, scored just three points but still managed to be a steadying influence for the Wildcats. And with Arcidiacono not scoring as he can, freshman Phil Booth contributed eight points off the bench before fouling out. Daniel Ochefu, who’s been rock solid in the middle all year long, may have scored just four points against Xavier but he still matched Hart with a team-high seven rebounds.

Attributes such as selflessness and toughness are what have not only placed Villanova in a position where they can claim the program’s first one-seed since 2006, but they also make the Wildcats a serious threat to win the national title. Up 20 with 1:36 remaining Arcidiacono and Hilliard both left the court in an attempt to save the basketball, and no one would have blamed either player had they simply let the ball out of bounds go given the time and score.

But to take a play off isn’t them, and it isn’t Villanova either. While the question of whether or not that will result in the reward of a one-seed won’t be answered until Sunday evening, this much is clear: Villanova earned the designation and the respect that comes with it.

Weekly Awards: Darrun Hilliard stars for Villanova, San Diego State takes control out west

Darrun Hilliard (AP Photo)
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Darrun Hilliard (AP Photo)

PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Darrun Hilliard, Villanova

Villanova had a terrific week, winning a pair of road games against ranked teams. On Tuesday, the Wildcats went into Providence and knocked off the Friars, following that up by knocking off Butler in Hinkle Fieldhouse on Saturday. Hilliard was the star. In the win over the Friars, Hilliard finished with 16 points and three boards, but it was his performance against Butler that earned him this award. In Hinkle, Hilliard finished with 31 points and eight boards and hit eight threes, which included the game-winning three with just 1.4 seconds left on the clock.

Villanova’s week was huge for them, as it put them in the driver’s seat in the Big East title race. The Wildcats hold a two-game lead over Butler in the league standings and a three game lead over the rest of the field with six games remaining.

THE ALL ‘THEY WERE GOOD, TOO’ TEAM

  • Sir’Dominic Pointer, St. John’s: The Johnnies bounced back from a rough stretch with three straight wins. This week, as St. John’s beat DePaul and Xavier, Pointer averaged 19.5 points, 8.0 boards, 3.5 blocks and 2.5 steals.
  • Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky: Cauley-Stein has been the centerpiece of the Kentucky defense all season long, but this week, in wins over LSU and South Carolina, averaged 14.5 points.
  • Brian Sullivan, Davidson: The Wildcats picked up a pair of big wins this week, remaining a game back of the Atlantic 10 leaders, and Sullivan was the star. He averaged 23.5 points in the two games.
  • Tyus Jones, Duke: Duke won at Florida State and at Syracuse this week, and Jones was the best player for the Blue Devils. He averaged 13.5 points, 9.0 assists and 6.0 boards.
  • Schadrac Casimir, Iona: The Gaels won three games this week and four in an eight-day stretch to take control of the MAAC race. Casimir averaged 22.5 points in those four games, shooting 60.0 percent from the floor and 69.0 percent (20-for-29) from three.
  • Notables: Seth Tuttle (Northern Iowa), Dez Wells (Maryland)
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TEAM OF THE WEEK: San Diego State Aztecs

The Aztecs breezed through the biggest week of their regular season. After knocking off a depleted Wyoming team on Tuesday, Steve Fisher’s club knocked off Colorado State at home in impressive fashion on Saturday night. The Aztecs are now 10-3 in the Mountain, all alone in first place and two games in front of the Rams. The two teams a game behind them are Wyoming, who is still playing without Larry Nance Jr., and Boise State, who still has to play at SDSU. The Aztecs are completely in the driver’s seat in the conference with just five games left in the regular season.

THEY WERE GOOD, TOO

  • Michigan State: The Spartans knocked off Northwestern in Chicago and followed that up by beating Ohio State in East Lansing. Denzel Valentine averaged 17.5 points and hit the game-winner against the Buckeyes.
  • UMass: The Minutemen have won six straight games and are now tied for first place in the Atlantic 10.
  • N.C. State: The Wolfpack picked up a massive win on Saturday, going into Louisville and knocking off the Cardinals in a win they desperately needed on their tournament profile.
  • Arkansas: The Razorbacks have now won seven of their last eight games and moved into sole possession of second place in the SEC with two road wins this week. On Saturday, they got revenge on Ole Miss by beating them in Oxford.
  • UCLA: The Bruins moved into a tie for third-place in the Pac-12 as they swept the Oregon schools at home this week. On Saturday, UCLA knocked off Oregon is a game that had all kinds of bubble implications. The Bruins have come all the way back and are now fully in the bubble conversation.

SET YOUR DVR

  • No. 8 Kansas at No. 21 West Virginia, Mon. 9:00 p.m.
  • Xavier at Cincinnati, Wed. 7:00 p.m.
  • No. 14 Iowa State at No. 21 Oklahoma State, Wed. 9:00 p.m.
  • No. 12 North Carolina at No. 4 Duke, Wed. 9:00 p.m.
  • No. 3 Gonzaga at St. Mary’s, Sat. 10:00 p.m.

Darrun Hilliard’s heroics strengthen No. 6 Villanova’s grip on first place in the Big East

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Picked to finish seventh in the Big East preseason poll, No. 18 Butler entered Saturday’s game against No. 6 Villanova just a game out of first place in the conference standings. And having lost the first meeting between the two teams, this was a game Chris Holtmann’s team had to have if they were to make a run at the Big East regular season title.

Unfortunately for Butler, Villanova senior guard Darrun Hilliard had other ideas. Hilliard hit eight three-pointers and scored a career-high 31 points, with his final three coming with 1.5 seconds left in the game. That shot was the difference as Villanova won 68-65 at Hinkle Fieldhouse, opening up a two-game lead in the Big East.

And with the head-to-head tiebreaker they hold on Butler, Villanova’s chances of winning a second consecutive Big East regular season title are very good at this point.

Hilliard’s game-winner came as a result of some miscommunication on the part of two Butler defenders, who both went with Ryan Arcidiacono after originally trapping Hilliard. Arcidiacono, who did not score in the game, passed the ball back to a wide-open Hilliard on the right wing. And as he’d done on many occasions Saturday, Hilliard calmly knocked down the shot.

One line that’s been said about Jay Wright’s team this season is that they don’t have a bonafide “star,” with their balance being Villanova’s greatest strength as six players entered Saturday’s game averaging between 9.1 and 13.4 points per game. But on an afternoon that saw Arcidiacono go scoreless and Daniel Ochefu score just two points, Hilliard was the star that some have claimed Villanova lacks with JayVaughn Pinkston adding 12 points and seven rebounds.

Does Villanova have that one headliner whose name will be said repeatedly on highlight shows and discussed as a national Player of the Year candidate? Probably not. But what Villanova does have is multiple players capable of stepping up when the moment demands that they do. Saturday night it was Darrun Hilliard’s turn, and thanks to him the Wildcats are well on their way to a second consecutive Big East regular season title.

Weekly Awards: Kevon Looney saves UCLA, Virginia’s ascent continues

Kevon Looney (Getty Images)
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Kevon Looney (Getty Images)

PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Kevon Looney, UCLA

UCLA’s season was over. They had lost five straight games, had kicked off Pac-12 play by losing at Colorado and getting embarrassed at Utah, and had managed to make the term ‘Daddy Ball’ popular among the Bryce Alford haters. But that all changed this past week, as the Bruins beat both Stanford — in double-overtime — and Cal at Pauley Pavilion. And suddenly, things don’t look so bad. That five-game losing streak consisted of two top ten teams and three road games, and with games against USC, Oregon and Oregon State coming up, a 5-2 mark in league play heading into Super Bowl weekend is feasible.

The catalyst for that resurgence? Kevon Looney. The 6-foot-8 former McDonald’s All-American had 27 points and 19 boards against Stanford, following that up with 15 points and seven boards against Cal. He was 14-for-24 from the floor and has now hit four of his last six from three. UCLA may not be a different team than they were a week ago, but the doom and gloom surrounding the program has certainly changed. That’s a big step.

THE ‘ALL THEY WERE GOOD, TOO’ TEAM

  • Kris Dunn, Providence: Dunn led the Friars to wins over Providence and Georgetown, averaging 20.5 points, 7.5 assists and 5.5 boards to go along with three steals and three blocks.
  • Darrun Hilliard, Villanova: The Wildcats reaffirmed their place at the favorite in the Big East by winning at St. John’s and smacking around previously 3-0 DePaul. Hilliard averaged 21.0 points in the two wins.
  • George Fant, Western Kentucky: WKU moved to 3-0 in Conference USA with wins over Charlotte and No. 25 Old Dominion with Fant averaging 21.0 points and 12.0 boards.
  • Marcus Foster, Kansas State: Foster scored 23 points in a win at TCU on Wednesday and followed that up with 14 points, including the game-tying and game-winning shots, as the Wildcats won at Oklahoma. Foster was benched last week.
  • Bobby Portis, Arkansas: Portis went for 21 points as the Razorbacks kicked off SEC play with a win at Georgia, following that up by putting 32 points and 11 boards — nine offensive — on Vanderbilt star Damian Jones.
  • Notables: Ameen Tanksley (Hofstra), Raheem Appleby (Louisiana Tech)

TEAM OF THE WEEK: Virginia Cavaliers

source: AP
Malcolm Brogdon (AP Photo)

Kentucky will remain the No. 1 team in the country after this week despite the fact that they were twice taken to overtime by overmatched SEC opponents. Duke lost to an overmatched N.C. State team on the road. Wisconsin lost at Rutgers. Arizona was pushed to the brink at Oregon State. Louisville lost at North Carolina. Texas lost twice. Elite teams have not handled the start of league play all that well, yet here we are, approaching the midway point of the season, and Virginia is not only undefeated, but they’ve now beaten three top 20 teams on the road.

The Cavs knocked off Maryland during the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and beat VCU in Richmond back in December. But their most impressive win came this week, as they went into South Bend and knocked off No. 13 Notre Dame three days after outlasting a hot-shooting N.C. State team in Charlottesville. I still have my doubts about Virginia, but the Cavs are every bit deserving of that No. 2 ranking they’ll have on Monday.

THEY WERE GOOD, TOO

  • Iowa State Cyclones: The Cyclones bounced back from a loss to South Carolina with a pair of impressive wins to kick off Big 12 play, knocking off Oklahoma State in Ames and West Virginia on the road.
  • Dayton: Playing with just six scholarship players, Dayton has now won six straight games and is now tied for first place in the Atlantic 10.
  • Michigan State: The Spartans won three games in Big Ten play this week after losing to Maryland in double-overtime to kick off the conference season.
  • UNC Wilmington: The Seahawks moved into first place in the CAA by picking up three league wins this week. Kevin Keatts has won eight games this season; UNCW won nine all of last year.
  • Wyoming: The Cowboys continue to look like the best team in the Mountain West, following up a win at Colorado State by smacking around Boise State. Larry Nance Jr. is the favorite for MWC Player of the Year at this point.
  • Notables: Vermont, Utah

SET YOUR DVR

  • No. 16 Oklahoma at No. 14 West Virginia, Tue. 7:00 p.m.
  • No. 2 Duke at No. 5 Louisville, Sat. 12:00 p.m.
  • No. 14 West Virginia at No. 10 Texas, Sat. 6:15 p.m.
  • No. 9 Utah at No. 7 Arizona, Sat. 7:00 p.m.
  • No. 12 Kansas at No. 17 Iowa State, Sat. 9:00 p.m.

Villanova head coach Jay Wright hopeful to have Darrun Hilliard against Butler

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No. 7 Villanova is in the middle of a week-long break in between its non-conference and Big East schedules. By the time the Wildcats start league play on New Year’s Eve against Butler, they hope to have leading scorer Darrun Hilliard back in the lineup.

The starting senior guard has been out since last Saturday when he suffered a concussion late in regulation in Villanova’s 82-77 overtime win over former conference rival Syracuse. Hilliard missed Tuesday night’s game against N.J.I.T., a contest that looked to mirror the Highlanders’ signature win over then-No. 17 Michigan earlier this month, although, a three-point halftime deficit turned into a 25-point victory for the undefeated Wildcats.

Following the win, Villanova head coach Jay Wright updated the status of Hilliard.

“He is much better,” Wright said after Villanova’s 92-67 win over N.J.I.T., according to Marc Narducci of the Philadelphia Inquirer. “He didn’t have a severe concussion. It’s just one of those things where we erred on the side of safety, which you have to in these cases.

“He has to go through that protocol on consecutive days and they will do it which tells you about our trainer doing that. I think he will be fine.”

Hilliard is the team’s leading scorer at 12.6 points per game, shooting 45 percent from three over the last six games. With Hilliard sidelined, sophomore Josh Hart got the start in Villanova’s three-guard set and freshman Phil Booth tied a season-high in minutes played (24).

Villanova opens Big East play at home against Butler at 2:30 p.m.

No. 7 Villanova’s wild rally forces OT, where they beat Syracuse (VIDEO)

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Syracuse was rolling. They were up by as much as 14 points in the second half, having held the lead for the entire game despite the fact that Chris McCullough had basically done nothing for 40 minutes.

The Orange were about to put away the most important performance of their season — a win over No. 7 Villanova in Philadelphia — when disaster struck:

In the extra frame, McCullough, Rakeem Christmas and Michael Gbinije all fouled out as the Wildcats held on for an 82-77 win in the battle between old Big East rivals.

Credit where credit’s due: Villanova really played well in the second half, forcing turnovers, getting to the offensive glass and making big plays when big plays needed to be made. JayVaughn Pinkston led the way with 25 points and 10 boards while Darrun Hilliard added 23 points and four steals, including a stretch of eight straight that he had early in the second half to spark the comeback.

Villanova beat the Orange on a day where they didn’t play anywhere near their best game. Syracuse is not exactly an ACC title contender, but they’re a pretty good team that played exceptionally well on Saturday, and Villanova won despite having an off night and making some uncharacteristic mistakes.

That’s a great sign for the Wildcats.

But that won’t make Jim Boeheim feel any better about the way his team dropped this game.

Because they finally looked like the Syracuse team that everyone (except me, it seems) had slotted in the preseason top 25. Rakeem Christmas was playing great in the paint, finishing with 18 points. Michael Gbinije had easily the best game of his basketball career, finishing with 18 points, eight boards and five assists, all career-highs. Kaleb Joseph had 10 points and 10 assists, making a number of tough, crucial plays — and more importantly, correct decisions — down the stretch.

It looked like everything was starting to come together, like all it took was a chance to beat Villanova for the Orange to figure it out.

But a late turnover and some foul trouble in overtime ruined that.

This was the last chance for the Orange to notch a marquee non-conference win. If they end up on the bubble in March, this game will be the reason why.