Villanova looks ready to repeat, maybe now we’ll start paying attention

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NEW YORK — What has been the biggest story in college hoops this season?

That’s a serious question.

I’m asking you.

What has been the biggest story in college basketball this year?

Because I think the answer is obvious: It’s Duke. From the hype they had in the preseason to the injuries they suffered early in the year, from the tripping to the season-long hunt for the latest dirty play from Grayson Allen, from the losses that came from internal dysfunction to a team that put themselves in a position to earn a No. 1 seed on Selection Sunday, “Is Duke Back?” turned into the topic of discussion every time the Blue Devils played.

If it wasn’t Duke it was probably Lonzo Ball and how the second-coming of Jason Kidd turned UCLA into a powerhouse while his father spent Lonzo’s entire college career explaining to anyone who would listen why his eldest son is the best basketball player that has ever graced us with his presence.

And if it wasn’t Lonzo Ball, it was Kansas, right? They have the National Player of the Year in Frank Mason III and a potential No. 1 pick in Josh Jackson, and the Jayhawks are currently sitting at No. 1 in the country despite the fact that they’ve barely gone a week without another arrest getting made public.

Then there’s The Malik Monk Show, and Gonzaga’s pursuit of a perfect season, and the soap opera that is the tenure of Tom Crean at Indiana, and Northwestern finally getting to the NCAA tournament.

What about Villanova?

After their 74-60 win over Creighton in the Big East tournament title game on Saturday night in Madison Square Garden, they are the dual-Big East champs led by a first-team all-american that is currently in the best position to repeat as national champions since Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer were playing for a scholarship, not their fourth contract after a decade in the NBA.

And yet, it feels like this is a storyline that has flown under-the-radar for so much of the season.

“Will Villanova repeat as national champions?” should be the biggest talking point with Selection Sunday 24 hours away, but I honestly cannot remember the last time I was asked that question, be it on radio or TV interviews, on Twitter, by a friend over text, anything.

Why?

The easy answer is Villanova’s league affiliation. The Big East’s television deal is with Fox, meaning that their games are typically played on FS1 instead of ESPN, and I don’t think I’m saying anything controversial when I say that games played on that channel get noticeably less attention. That’s before you consider the size of the Villanova fan base. The university is relatively small when compared to the enrollment of schools in the Power 5 conferences, and in the Big East, that is hardly unique. In the day and age where media is a supply-and-demand economy, there just isn’t the demand for Villanova that there is for Kentucky or Grayson Allen or LaVar Ball.

What’s the point of talking about Villanova if no one wants to listen to that?

Josh Hart (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

It’s also important to note that Villanova doesn’t have the kind of individual star power that other teams across the country have. Josh Hart is a phenomenal college basketball player — and I don’t say that lightly — but his game is best described as that of a scrappy blue-collar junkyard dog. He’s a senior and a borderline first round draft pick that’s summed up perfectly by his game-winning bucket in Friday’s semifinal win over Seton Hall: an and-one, putback layup off of an offensive rebound.

He’s a winner, just like everyone else on the Villanova roster, but winners hardly move the needle. Hart gets every loose ball, locks down the man he’s guarding defensively and thrives within the confines of Villanova’s offense. That makes him great. But in an era where virality is king, Hart, like Villanova, just doesn’t have the pull.

Because here’s the truth about the Wildcats: By now it’s all just so routine.

Villanova is 31-3 and a dual-Big East champion. During the four-year reign of Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins, the Wildcats have now won four Big East regular season titles, two Big East tournament titles, a national title and 128 games. In their worst season, they went 29-5. They’ve never lost more than three games to Big East foes in a single season and never more than five games, total. They’ve done it by developing players over the course of four years, keeping the names you get to know and love on campus long enough for you to remember their name.

In the one-and-done era, Villanova is a throwback. They are what we always say we want college basketball to be. Half their roster belongs on ‘The All He’s Still In School?’ team.

That’s why we expect Villanova to do what they’ve done this season. Hell, they expect it of themselves. Villanova’s celebration on Saturday was as muted as you’ll ever see in a tournament title game, consisting of a few hugs, a couple high-fives and Kris Jenkins holding a sign. Villanova eventually got around to cutting down the nets, smiling and enjoying the moment — they were happy to win after all — but this wasn’t the culmination of anything for the Wildcats.

This was just the next step, a step they believed was coming even though they lost two starters last season, they’ve spent the majority of this season playing with Phil Booth and have been without Omari Spellman, the five-star freshman that was supposed to replace Daniel Ochefu as the only player in the program that is a threat to score with his back to the basket, since October, when he was ruled ineligible to play this year.

And that, by the way, is what makes this story even more impressive and important.

Given the pieces they’ve lost, this group probably shouldn’t look like they’re ready to repeat.

But they do.

The only real surprise we get with Villanova comes when and if they lose, and even that is a change from last year, when the expectation was that the Wildcats would win every game until March. Once there, they would get picked off in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Winning a national title is the best way to change a narrative.

But spending the better part of two years as the best team in college basketball, heading into Selection Sunday as the reigning national champions and the projected favorite to be slotted as the No. 1 overall seed, is apparently not enough to get us to talk about them.

Tennessee center Tamari Key out for season with blood clots

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee senior center Tamari Key will miss the rest of this season because of blood clots in her lungs, coach Kellie Harper said.

Doctors found the issue during testing. Key is expected to make a full recovery after treatment from University of Tennessee doctors, Harper said, adding that her sole concern is Key getting the medical care she needs to heal and return to full strength.

Key missed the first game of her career in a win Tuesday night over Chattanooga after playing her first 99.

“This is much bigger than basketball. We are so grateful that this medical condition was caught,” Harper said in a statement. “Our entire program will be right beside Tamari during this process and welcomes prayers and positive thoughts from Lady Vol Nation and beyond.”

The Lady Vols opened the season ranked fifth but currently are 5-5.

The 6-foot-6 Key from Cary, North Carolina, currently is Tennessee’s third-leading scorer averaging 8.4 points a game and averaged 4.2 rebounds per game. She started all 34 games as the Lady Vols reached their first Sweet 16 since 2016 last season and set the school record with 119 blocked shots.

Key had 18 blocks this season and 295 for her career, five away from becoming the eighth woman to reach that mark in Southeastern Conference history.

No. 7 Tennessee beats Eastern Kentucky, win streak hits 7

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tyreke Key scored 10 of the first 12 points of the second half and finished with 17, and No. 7 Tennessee overcame a sluggish first half and beat Eastern Kentucky 84-49 on Wednesday night.

“Tyreke is handling the ball now,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “That’s all new to him. He keeps getting better.”

The Volunteers (8-1) struggled in the first half but still built an 11-point lead over Eastern Kentucky (4-5) on the way to their seventh straight victory.

Key led Tennessee in scoring before leaving with a cramp in his right leg with 6:15 left in the game. Julian Phillips had 16 points and 10 rebounds, and Zakai Zeigler and Uros Plavsic added 13 points apiece. Olivier Nkamhoua scored 10.

“I’m still settling in,” said Key, a transfer from Indiana State who didn’t play last year while recovering from an injury. “This is a new role. I’m taking steps every day and keep learning.”

Eastern Kentucky, which came into the game averaging 83.5 points, was held well below that total due to 17% (6 for 35) shooting from long range and 22% (15 for 68) overall. Leland Walker led the Colonels with 13 points.

It was the seventh time this season Tennessee has held its opponent to 50 or fewer points.

“(Tennessee) is the best defensive team in the country,” Eastern Kentucky coach A.W. Hamilton said. “I think they’re the best team in the country.”

At one point in the first half, Tennessee was shooting 20% and still leading by 10 points. The teams combined to shoot 4 of 32 from 3-point range in the first 20 minutes. The Vols, who shot 24% (8 of 34), led 32-21 at the break.

“If we can’t make shots, can you find a way to win the game?” Barnes said. “When the shot’s not going in, find a way to play. The first thing we talk about is our defense.”

Tennessee shot 41 free throws. Phillips, a true freshman, was 7 of 10.

“(Phillips) has learned the pace of the game,” Barnes said. “I’m not sure there’s been a more effective freshman in the country (this season).”

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Since its early season slip against Colorado, Tennessee has had a steady ascent in the rankings. The Vols’ next two games – neutral site (Brooklyn) against No, 13 Maryland (Dec. 11) and at No. 10 Arizona (Dec. 17) – will go a long way toward justifying the No. 7 ranking.

BIG PICTURE

Eastern Kentucky: The Colonels’ run-and-gun style of offense had them averaging 83.5 points through their first eight games. They ran into a defensive buzz saw in Tennessee, which was yielding just over 51 points.

Tennessee: Santiago Vescovi sat out his second straight game with a shoulder problem. He is expected to be ready to play Sunday against Maryland. . The Vols have won seven in a row since their loss to Colorado.

UP NEXT

Eastern Kentucky: The Colonels host Boyce College on Saturday.

Tennessee: Take on No. 13 Maryland on Sunday at the Hall of Fame Invitational in New York.

Hoggard scores career-high 23, Michigan State snaps 2-game skid

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Matthew OHaren/USA TODAY Sports
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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A.J. Hoggard scored a career-high 23 points, Joey Hauser had 12 points and 15 rebounds and Michigan State beat Penn State 67-58 on Wednesday night to snap a two-game losing streak.

Michigan State (6-4, 1-1 Big Ten) avoided going .500 or worse after 10 games for the first time in 18 seasons.

Hoggard blocked an open layup with less than a minute to play and Hauser grabbed the rebound before being fouled and making two free throws at the other end for a 66-58 lead.

Hoggard, Hauser and Tyson Walker combined for 31 of Michigan State’s 32 second-half points.

The Michigan State defense allowed only one made field goal in the final five minutes. Penn State was just 1 of 9 from 3-point range in the second half after 7 of 18 before halftime.

Walker scored 10 of his 14 points in the second half for Michigan State. Hoggard, who entered third in the conference in assists at 6.3, had six rebounds, two assists and one key block.

Hoggard gave Michigan State 35-33 lead – its first since 4-2 – after back-to-back three-point plays with 59.3 seconds left in the first half. It was tied at 35-all at the break.

Seth Lundy scored 16 points and Jalen Pickett had 13 points, 17 rebounds and eight assists for Penn State (6-3, 0-1)

Michigan State hosts Brown on Saturday. Penn State, which hadn’t played since a double-overtime loss to Clemson on Nov. 29, plays at No. 17 Illinois on Saturday.

No. 7 Virginia Tech posts 9th straight win, beats Boston College 73-58

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BOSTON — Reigning Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year Elizabeth Kitley had 22 points and 12 rebounds, and Cayla King scored 16 on Wednesday night to lead No. 7 Virginia Tech to a 73-58 victory over Boston College, the Hokies’ ninth straight win.

Taylor Soule, one of two BC transfers on the roster for Virginia Tech (9-0, 1-0 ACC), added nine points and five rebounds. Soule scored more than 1,500 points and grabbed almost 700 rebounds in four seasons at BC, earning All-ACC honors three times.

Andrea Daley scored 15 points and Maria Gakdeng scored 14 for BC (7-4, 0-1). They each grabbed six rebounds.

Virginia Tech scored 17 of the game’s first 21 points and led by as many as 19 in the third quarter before BC cut the deficit to 10 in the fourth. Leading 64-54 with under three minutes left and the shot clock expiring, Kayana Traylor hit a 3-pointer for the Hokies.

Gakdeng missed two free throws for BC, and then Kitley scored from inside to make it a 15-point game.

Clara Ford, who also played four years in Chestnut Hill, pitched in 2 points in 2 minutes against her former team.

BIG PICTURE

At No. 7, the Hokies have the highest ranking in the program’s history. With the victory over BC, a 10th straight win against North Carolina-Asheville on Sunday would leave Virginia Tech in position to move up even higher should a top five team falter.

UP NEXT

Virginia Tech: Hosts North Carolina-Asheville on Sunday.

Boston College: Hosts Albany on Saturday.

Michigan’s Jaelin Llewellyn out for season with knee injury

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan point guard Jaelin Llewellyn is out for the rest of the season with an injured left knee and is expected to have surgery next month.

Wolverines coach Juwan Howard made the announcement three days after Llewellyn was hurt in a loss to Kentucky in London.

Llewellyn transferred to Michigan from Princeton last spring and that seemed to lead to Frankie Collins transferring to Arizona State after a solid freshman season for the Wolverines.

Llewellyn averaged seven points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists in eight games at Michigan. He was an All-Ivy League player last season and averaged nearly 16 points over three seasons at Princeton.