With another early tournament exit, Villanova’s legacy is complicated

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The best story in college basketball — not the biggest story, not the weirdest story, not the story that gets non-stop run on every sports talk show, but the best — came to a thrilling end on Saturday afternoon in Buffalo.

Wisconsin forward Nigel Hayes was the hero, capping off a game-winning, 15-5 run over the final five minutes with a layup with 11.4 seconds left, sending the No. 8 seed Badgers to the Sweet 16 with a 65-62 win over Villanova, who entered the tournament as the nation’s No. 1 overall seed.

Villanova is — was? — the reigning national champion.

They were looking to become the first team since Florida in 2007 to repeat as national champions, and it seemed like they had the horses to get it done.

But …

Well, did they?

And that’s where this conversation gets complicated, because this is the third time in four years that the Wildcats lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament as a top two seed. That national title? It covers up some real questions about just what the legacy of this team will be.

Let’s start with Saturday.

On paper, Villanova has a very real and very obvious hole in their roster, and it’s right there in the middle. Daniel Ochefu graduated off of last year’s team and incoming freshman Omari Spellman was ruled ineligible, meaning that the Wildcats spent the season relying on 6-foot-9 Darryl Reynolds and 6-foot-7 Eric Paschall to man the paint. This is not an ideal situation against anyone, let alone against a team like Wisconsin, who lives on the ability of Ethan Happ and Hayes to score in the post and get to the offensive glass.

That’s before you consider the fact that Wisconsin as a No. 8 seed was one of the dumber decisions that the Selection Committee made. The Badgers finished second in the Big Ten and reached the Big Ten title game, but there were four teams from the conference that were seeded above them? That doesn’t make much sense.

Put another way, this was never a good matchup for Villanova. There’s a reason a lot of smart people thought Wisconsin would give the Wildcats a fight. In a vacuum, this loss was more about matchups and miss-seeds than it was an indictment on the Villanova program.

But this loss didn’t come in a vacuum.

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In 2014, No. 2 seed Villanova lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to No. 7 seed UConn. In 2015, the Wildcats lost to No. 8 seed N.C. State in the second round as a No. 1 seed. The current Villanova stars, Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins, played on all three of those teams. More to the point, of the 29 programs that have played at least six games as a No. 1 seed, Villanova ranks tied-for-last in winning percentage in those games, going 5-3 as a No. 1 seed.

It makes me wonder: What is the legacy of this Villanova team going to be?

Because they’ve run roughshod over their conference during the four-year reign of Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins. After a 32-4 season that saw Villanova win a dual-Big East titles, the Wildcats with Hart and Jenkins have now won four Big East regular season titles, two Big East tournament titles, a national title and 129 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.

That’s incredible.

But the Big East that they play is in not the same Big East that they were in before conference realignment. There are good teams in the league, but the closest thing we saw to a contender to them during that time frame ended this season when Mo Watson and Edmond Sumner tore their ACLs two weeks apart from each other.

Then there’s that national title that the Wildcats won, one that saw Villanova run through Kansas, Oklahoma and North Carolina — two No. 1 seeds and a team that was ranked No. 1 in February — in their final three games. That’s incredible. It’s a moment that Villanova fans will never forget, and the shot that won the title will go down in history and one of the greatest moments in the history of sports.

Not just this sport.

All sports.

But that title came in a year where the level of elite talent in college basketball was at a four-year low. The best player that they faced during that title run was Buddy Hield, an incredible story that provided the NBA world with some much-needed comedic relief when he was the centerpiece of the DeMarcus Cousins trade. There were three elite freshmen that entered the sport in 2015-16, and Ben Simmons missed the tournament, Skal Labissiere couldn’t get off the bench and Brandon Ingram was out in the Sweet 16.

Put another way, Villanova’s 2016 national title was like being named the Best Dresser on Press Row, and it came as the filling in an otherwise disastrous string of NCAA tournament appearances.

Those details are really easy to pick through now.

That won’t be the case in five years, in 10 years.

My son is 18 months old. When he gets to eight years old, nine years old, 10 years old, when he finally starts realizing that sports are more than something that keeps him from being able to watch Elmo on TV, he’s not going to wonder about the context of Villanova’s title. He’s not going to think about whether or not Villanova was fortuitous in putting together a title-contending team in a year where the other contenders weren’t all that good.

He’s going to ask about The Shot. He’s going to ask about what I remember from that moment. He’s going to ask to see the video of The Shot I took on my phone. He’s going to ask whether or not I think he’ll ever get a chance to see a shot like that live.

That’s what Villanova’s legacy is, and thanks to Kris Jenkins’ clutch gene, no one is ever going to ask otherwise.

One Shining Moment, when it shines bright enough, will live on forever, and there will never be a moment that shines brighter than Jenkins’ game-winner. People don’t remember what it took to get there or what happened after. They remember the moment.

They remember the title.

It’s amazing what The Shot can do to change a narrative.

Tennessee center Tamari Key out for season with blood clots

Saul Young/News Sentinel/USA TODAY NETWORK
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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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Saul Young/USA TODAY NETWORK
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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.