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.”

Former Western Michigan basketball player cleared of murder

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KALAMAZOO, Mich. (AP) — A jury has acquitted a former Western Michigan basketball player of murder in the shooting death of a fellow student but convicted him of armed robbery and a weapons charge.

The Kalamazoo County jury deliberated two days before returning the verdict for Joeviair Kennedy. He faces a possible life sentence when he’s sentenced July 16.

Nineteen-year-old Jacob Jones was killed near the campus on Dec. 8, 2016.

Co-defendant Jordan Waire of Muskegon was convicted last month of felony murder, armed robbery and weapons charges.

Prosecutors said it was Waire who shot Jones. Kennedy has said they took marijuana and about $25.

Kennedy’s attorney, Eusebio Solis, said his client agreed to the robbery but not the killing.

Kennedy was arrested in 2016 at the start of his second basketball season.

Kansas, Missouri to play alumni game for charity

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Kansas and Missouri are putting their differences aside for charity.

Kareem Rush, a former Missouri Tiger and the brother of Brandon Rush, a former Kansas Jayhawk, is organizing a game called “Rivarly Renewed“, which will pit alumni from Missouri against alumni from KU.

On July 28th, the two teams will face-off in a game where the proceeds will go towards benefitting the Boys and Girls Club as well as Kareem Rush’s “Rush Forward Foundation”.

It’s also a chance for the Tigers and the Jayhawks to reignite a rivalry that has been dormant since Missouri left the Big 12 for the SEC, although they did play a scrimmage prior to the start of last season. There is no lack of hatred between those two fan bases and any chance they get to square off is a good thing.

There should also be some big names involved. According to the Kansas City Star, Mario Chalmers, Cole Aldrich, Drew Gooden, Kim English, Ricky Paulding and Marcus Denmon are among the players that will be participating.

I love it.

Can we make sure that Bill Self is invited so that he can get convinced to play the Tigers in a non-conference game?

Doppelgangers Grayson Allen, Ted Cruz finally meet

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Ever since Grayson Allen burst onto the national scene during the 2015 Final Four, the former Duke star has been called a Ted Cruz lookalike.

That, frankly, is not exactly a compliment, and it is a comparison that Allen initially bristled at, but now that his college career, Allen seems to be embracing the long-running joke.

We know that because Allen met Cruz this weekend as he helped the senator from Texas beat Jimmy Kimmel in a game of one-on-one:

The actually game won’t be broadcast until Monday night so we won’t know exactly how Cruz won or what Allen did to help, but Cruz did beat Kimmel 11-9.

We will get getting our answers this evening.

2018 NBA Draft: What top ten picks are the most likely to be busts?

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The 2018 NBA Draft is loaded with top-end talent and potential future all-stars.

The fascinating thing about this group in the top ten is that you can make a solid case that most of these guys could become stars.

On the flipside, all of them also have some kind of glaring weakness.

Deandre Ayton is likely going No. 1 overall and there is a healthy contingent of draft analysts and skeptics who point to his lack of defensive presence as a 7-footer.

Some of these same detractors also believe the NBA is continually going smaller — meaning giants like Ayton will get played off the floor by certain small-ball lineups like the Golden State Warriors just did to some teams during another title run.

That’s just one example.

Going down the list of top-ten prospects and you can point to a lot of potential flaws that could lead to downfalls. But here are two top-ten prospects who could wind up being busts.

MICHAEL PORTER JR.

Before his freshman season at Missouri, I thought Michael Porter Jr. was going to put up monster numbers and be a Player of the Year candidate. His top-five status in the 2018 NBA Draft appeared to be safe. After a decorated high school career in which he destroyed most challengers and played well on the international stage with USA Basketball, Porter looked like he could be a jumbo scoring wing at the game’s highest level.

Then the back and hip issues began.

Porter only played in three games during his lone season with the Tigers — including two uninspiring postseason efforts in which he couldn’t get his shot to fall while trying to prove that he was healthy. And now it feels like there are a million questions about MPJ and his health.

During the NBA Draft process, Porter has cancelled and rescheduled pro days, kept medical records private for long lengths of time and given plenty of teams pause as to whether or not he is truly healthy. If Porter’s back and hip stay as a lingering issue then it changes who he is as a basketball player. Already a bit rigid, with hips that aren’t particularly fluid, Porter could have trouble moving laterally in an increasingly quick and nimble league that is only getting smaller.

Porter’s jumper also uses his whole body to elevate. It didn’t look nearly the same during those March games where he tried to gut it out. And Porter has been such a gifted scorer during his high school career that he’s never had to worry about passing or making others around him better.

Some have also questioned Porter’s ego and his ability to be a willing teammate — which are legitimate questions in a league that often sees its stars feud with others and move on to new teams.

Again, if Porter is fully healthy and ready to go, he could be a double-double threat on the wing and a 20-point per game scorer. But if Porter isn’t healthy? Some team is taking a big risk on not only taking an injured player but passing on a talented healthy player who could morph into an all-star.

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TRAE YOUNG

Perhaps the most fascinating prospect in the draft because of his insane range and overall offensive ability, Young is going to be one of the names to watch on draft night.

Some mock drafts feel he’s a top-three talent, or even the best prospect overall because of his new-age ability to pull-up and hit threes from 30 feet away. Others feel like he’s a potential defensive liability who doesn’t necessarily play winning basketball all the time because of his shot selection and high number of turnovers.

While Young could be a monster steal for some team hoping to get the next Steph Curry, those comparisons are also going to be dangerous, while likely following Young the rest of this career.

For Young, it could be all about fit and who winds up taking him.

When Young was in high school, he was at his best when he had elite talent around him. Michael Porter Jr. was the go-to scorer on a MoKan team that won the Nike Peach Jam. Young also looked solid during stretches with USA Basketball when he had tons of weapons around him.

Once teams in the Big 12 figured out his individual offensive tendencies after a hot start last season, they forced him into being a playmaker and the Sooners struggled to win games. Of course, the lack of talent around him doesn’t fall on Young, who didn’t recruit his teammates at Oklahoma. But what happens if Young falls to a dysfunctional franchise like the Orlando Magic? He’ll be expected to be a savior right away with minimal help — while also having to overcome glaring deficiencies like perimeter defense and a high number of turnovers.

And how do you think NBA players are going to react to the task of guarding Young? There’s an old Dream Team story about Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen practically fighting so they could defend future Chicago Bulls teammate Toni Kukoc one-on-one during the ’92 Olympics. They had heard about the hype surrounding Kukoc, even though he had never played in an NBA game.

After being a national media darling much of last season, Young is going to get a lot of strong one-on-one defenders who are hungry to slow him down. Game plans will revolve around limiting Young’s touches and ability to launch shots. Teams and veteran players are going to do everything they can to frustrate Young and make life tough.

Young is talented and skilled enough to make all of these questions go away. He’s a unique talent who could very well end up being worthy of all of the hype. But he’s going to need some help reaching his full potential, and some of those things are out of his control.

Middle Tennessee loses four returnees during the week

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Middle Tennessee has been one of the best mid-major programs in the country over the last few years but now the Blue Raiders will be facing a major rebuild.

With former head coach Kermit Davis taking the Ole Miss job and new head coach Nick McDevitt coming over from UNC Asheville, the program experienced some major roster turnover this week as four returnees left the program.

Earlier in the week, junior guard David Simmons opted to transfer out of Middle Tennessee after he averaged 17.9 minutes per game for the Conference USA regular-season champions last season.

On Friday, the losses continued, as three more players left the team. Rising junior point guard Tyrik Dixon announced his intention to transfer while the program dismissed guard Antwain Johnson and forward Davion Thomas. Dixon was a valuable floor leader for Middle Tennessee the past two seasons while Johnson, a rising senior guard, would have been the team’s returning leading scorer after putting up 10.3 points per game last week.

Since so much of the successful core of the past three seasons is now gone from Middle Tennessee, it will be on McDevitt to bring in new talent to sustain the recent great stretch of play. The Blue Raiders made two Round of 32 appearances in a row before missing the NCAA tournament last season after winning C-USA’s regular season crown.

Now, with Western Kentucky making a power play by bringing in five-star big man Charles Bassey, and the power has shifted very quickly in one of the most competitive mid-major conferences in the country.