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2018-19 Big East Preview: Can Villanova withstand losing NBA draft picks?

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Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Big East Conference.


What do we make of the Big East this season?

Villanova is the headliner after winning its second national title in three seasons, but Jay Wright’s program is also emblematic of what’s going on across much of the league – turnover.

The Wildcats lost four of their top players.

Xavier turned over its roster and lost its head coach.

Creighton said goodbye to its backcourt.

Seton Hall bid farewell to Angel Delgado, Desi Rodriguez and Khadeen Carrington.

Does all that change clear a path for new challengers like Marquette or St. John’s, or does it simply mean more of the same with reloading over rebuilding?

Let’s dive into the Big East.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Are the ‘Cats back?

Jay Wright might not be in the one-and-done business, but he’s about to be tasked with something his colleagues who are, like John Calipari or Mike Krzyzewski, go through each and every year — rebuilding a winner from near-scratch. Villanova lost its top four scorers (to the first 33 picks of the 2018 NBA Draft) off a team that won a second national title in three years, and while a step back is probably inevitable, the size of the stride might be negligible.

Sure, Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVencenzo and Omari Spellman are collecting NBA paychecks, but Eric Paschall and Phil Booth are still Villanova students, as are five-star freshman point guard Jahvon Quinerly and the rest of rest of Wright’s top-10 2018 recruiting class. Things ain’t exactly dire for Villanova. How far the ‘Cats slide — or how high they fly, depending on your perspective — may very well hinge on how Paschall steps into a starring role. He was an exactingly efficient offensive player a year ago, but he was also playing with four soon-to-be draft picks. If he’s able to join those ranks in a few months, Villanova probably isn’t going to be far off from the top of the Big East standings.

Or national rankings.

(Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

2. Xavier bets on itself

It’s always struck me as a little wild that you can draw a straight line from Socrates to Plato to Aristotle. The first taught the second, who taught the third. That’s some serious historical firepower, all one after the other. Now, I’m not saying Xavier’s coaching lineage is comparable to the development of the philosophy that has served as one of the primary influences of western civilization, but maybe I am?

Skip Prosser to Thad Matta to Sean Miller to Chris Mack. That’s incredibly impressive longevity* with home run hire after home run hire. Xavier really is a model of consistent excellence on the bench. So, um, no pressure, Travis Steele.

*And, not that we’re keeping score or drawing out this dumb comparison, but that’s four (4) super successful college basketball coaches to three (3) revolutionary philosophers. Draw your own conclusions, is what I’m saying.

With Mack moving on to Louisville to replace a Hall of Famer, X turned to Steele, a Musketeer assistant for 10 years. Spending a decade at Xavier and working for both Miller and Mack seems to be resume enough to take over the program, given its history. Steele, though, will have to do more than rely on Xavier’s legacy of winning as Mack’s departure coincides with those of Trevon Bluiett, Kerem Kanter and J.P. Macura, a trio that won a lot of games in Cincinnati. Quentin Goodin, thankfully for Steele, is still with Xavier as are a host of grad-transfers that will help hold the fort until Steele’s top-15 2019 recruiting class gets to campus.

If, as my man Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit,” then Xavier certainly has developed a habit over the last 20 years. Can Steele maintain the routine?

3. Mullin’s make-or-break

Whatever designs St. John’s had on a quick rebuild when it hired legendary alum and Dream Teamer Chris Mullin have not materialized. Mullin has three successive losing seasons to his credit in Queens (though the Red Storm have increased their win total each year) and seven conference wins has been the high-water mark. St. John’s dreamed of the instant-turnaround that Fred Hoiberg, who also had NBA front office experience but no coaching resume, produced at his alma mater, Iowa State, but all they’ve done is exacerbate the slide that started under Steve Lavin.

If that’s going to change, it’s probably going to have to happen this season.

Mullin has without a doubt his most talented roster, and it’s one that has the look of being capable not only of breaking that .500 barrier, but competing, truly competing, in the Big East. Shamorie Ponds flirted with an NBA future, but instead returned for his junior season and will be a conference player of the year candidate. The Red Storm also were given a gift when the NCAA declared Auburn transfer Mustapha Heron immediately eligible, giving them one of the country’s most dynamic backcourts. St. John’s also has Justin Simon and Marvin Clark back plus some other intriguing transfer options.

With talent in tow, consistency and identity will likely be what determines St. John’s level of success this season. They’ve never really had either under Mullin, but they haven’t had this kind of roster, either.

Patrick Ewing (Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)

4. Ewing’s Year 2

Mullin isn’t the only Dream Teamer in the Big East, and he’s not the only one looking to build his alma mater back to former glory. Patrick Ewing’s first season at the helm at the Hilltop was something of a mixed bag in that the Hoyas didn’t win a ton of games, but the expectation wasn’t really that they would. Georgetown was pretty middling at everything (84th in offense and 119 on defense, according to KenPom) and the only two wins of note came back-to-back in February when the Hoyas beat Seton Hall and Butler.

So what’s the expectation for Ewing’s second season? Well, they’re not exactly raised exponentially. They are, however, raised, especially with Jessie Govan’s decision to return for another season. The 6-foot-10 big man averaged 17.9 points and 10 rebounds per game as a junior, flashing elite skill on the boards and production on offense. Freshmen James Akinjo and Mac McClung inject some talent and excitement into the program as well. None of that likely adds up to a ton of wins, but there’s enough there to believe that Ewing has the Hoyas on a positive trajectory.

5. Marquette’s offense leads the way

Steve Wojciechowski may have lost Andrew Rowsey, who made 41.5 percent of his 301 3-point attempts, from last year’s team, but there remains plenty of offensive firepower in Milwaukee, starting with Markus Howard. The 5-foot-11 junior is among the country’s best shooters after going 46.4/40.4/93.8 last season, and will be a frontrunner for conference player of the year honors. Pair him with Sam Hauser, who shot 48.7 percent from 3 last year, and you’ve got yourself some long-range threats. Hauser’s younger brother, Joey, will also join the ranks this season, and the top-55 recruit should only bolster Marquette’s march toward being one of the best offenses in the country.

Shamorie Ponds (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

PRESEASON BIG EAST PLAYER OF THE YEAR: SHAMORIE PONDS, St. John’s

There are plenty of contenders here in what will be a wide-open race, but the nod goes to Ponds, who will need to put up huge numbers if the Red Storm, even with Mustapha Heron in the fold, are going to find some success and get back to the NCAA tournament. He averaged 21.6 points per game last season, but also had one of the better assists rates in the country. Ponds also was productive defensively with 2.3 steals per game.

Ponds’ raw numbers might not duplicate what he did last year, but Heron’s presence should ease some of the burden that Ponds had offensively last year as he carried St. John’s offense with a huge usage rate. That should come down and allow his efficiency numbers to tick up – though his 3-point shooting will have to revert from his sophomore season (25.1) to his junior numbers (37.5) – and keep the Red Storm offense humming.

THE REST OF THE BIG EAST FIRST TEAM

  • MARKUS HOWARD, Marquette: One of the country’s best shooters, Howard will be the engine of Marquette’s offense.
  • ERIC PASCHALL, Villanova: With much of last year’s national championship roster in the NBA, Paschall will move into a major role – with major responsibilities.
  • KAMAR BALDWIN, Butler: Baldwin took an expanded role and ran with it last year, and he’s on pace to be one of the best scorers in Butler history.
  • PHIL BOOTH, Villanova: Booth had a strong 2017-18 dispute injury and he’ll be called upon to keep the Wildcats’ elite status.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • SAM HAUSER, Marquette
  • ALPHA DIALLO, Providence
  • MUSTAPHA HERON, St. John’s
  • MAX STRUS, DePaul
  • MARTIN KRAMPELJ, Creighton
Sam Hauser (Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)

BREAKOUT STAR

Markus Howard is going to generate the headlines and most of the attention for Marquette heading into the season, but Sam Hauser deserves some notice as well. The 6-foot-8 Wisconsin native shot an eye-popping 48.7 percent from 3-point range, and it wasn’t a product of a small sample size as he hoisted 195 shots from distance. He needs to defend better to transform into something special, but his shooting alone makes him likely to have a couple monster nights in the Big East.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE

Dave Leitao took DePaul to the NIT and back-to-back NCAA tournaments in his first stint with DePaul back in the early 2000s. His first three years back with the Blue Demons have gone…not as well. DePaul has gone 29-65 overall and 9-45 in Big East play during his second tenure. Safe to say, a program like Virginia ain’t about to come calling like the last time. It’s a very different world for the Blue Demons since Leitao led them to success, starting with the fact competing in the Big East is vastly different than doing it in C-USA. Given Leitao’s track record with the Cavaliers and now a three-year sample at DePaul, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of reason for hope that things will turn around for the Blue Demons.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

The Big East doesn’t have any national-title favorites, but the strength of the league could put a few teams into the second weekend.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT …

The conference’s guard play, from St. John’s Ponds-Heron duo to Marquette’s 3-point specialists to Villanova’s quest to replace Jalen Brunson to Kamar Baldwin running the show in Indianapolis, there’s a lot to like about the Big East’s backcourts.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • Dec. 15, Villanova vs. Kansas
  • Dec., Georgetown vs. Syracuse
  • Dec. 29, Butler vs. Florida
  • Dec. 1, Creighton vs. Gonzaga
  • Dec. 1, Seton Hall vs. Louisville
Eric Paschall (Corey Perrine/Getty Images)

PREDICTED FINISH

1. VILLANOVA: Yeah, there are plenty of questions about how Villanova will reload given the heavy losses it sustained, but with how Jay Wright has navigated the program in recent years, is there really any doubting him? The Wildcats have put themselves among the premier programs in the country, and they’ve done it by replacing stars with stars. There are candidates on this roster, and here’s guessing they reach their potential.

2. XAVIER: Xavier decided to do what it does when it promoted Travis Steele, and given the history of hires at X, there are two ways to look at it. Either, one, this is a school that simply does not miss on coaches, or, two, they’re due for a dud.

Here’s guessing Xavier knows what it’s doing.

The Musketeers will have their work cut out for them this season with losses like Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura (plus Sean O’Mara, Kerem Kanter and Kaiser Gates), but the infrastructure and culture remain and there is still talent on the roster. They’ll need more from Quentin Goodin and Naji Marshall and the graduate transfers like Zach Hankins, Ryan Welage and Kyle Castlin will have to contribute, but Xavier has been through this before. It’s worked out.

3. PROVIDENCE: The Friars have been to five-straight NCAA tournaments and coach Ed Cooley has some major holes to fill after the departures of Kyron Cartwright and Rodney Bullock, but the presence of Alpha Diallo and a healthy Emmitt Holt could be enough to catapult them to toward the top of the league. The 6-foot-7 Diallo will be asked to shoulder a significant burden on both ends of the floor, but his versatility and ability to score around the bucket make him a strong candidate for that role. An abdominal injury robbed Holt of last season, but if his health holds up this season, he and Diallo make for a formidable one-two punch.

4. ST. JOHN’S: The Red Storm already looked poised to make a move up the standings when Shamorie Ponds decided to return for his junior season, but the NCAA’s decision to grant Mustapha Heron immediate-eligibility after his transfer from Auburn solidifies the expectation that this is the year Chris Mullin breaks through to an NCAA tournament. That’s what happens when you’re projected to have one of the best backcourts in the country.

The Red Storm actually put up strong defensive numbers last season after being pretty mediocre on that end in Mullin’s first two years, but the offense sagged with Ponds simply carrying too much of the load. If they can build on what they did defensively last year and use the Ponds-Heron backcourt to power the offense, the hopes the program placed in Mullin might prove justified.

Markus Howard #(Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)

5. MARQUETTE: The Golden Eagles are going to score. A lot, probably. Markus Howard is going to get buckets. So is Sam Hauser. Joey Hauser, probably too. Fordham grad transfer Joseph Chartouny is a nice addition as well. Marquette is going to put the ball in the basket.

Can they keep their opponent from doing the same with any sort of consistency? That’ll determine their season’s fate. Marquette’s defensive ranking at KenPom has slipped in every season under Steve Wojciechowski, from 69th in his first season to 182nd last year. That’s kept the last two teams, both having awesome offenses, from thriving. If it doesn’t improve this year, it’ll likely make it three in a row.

6. BUTLER: This feels too low for a Bulldogs team that weathered the loss of Chris Holtmann a year ago to go to a fourth-straight NCAA tournament and returns three starters, including Kamar Baldwin, but they’ll have to do some serious retooling after the graduation of 2,000-point scorer Kelan Martin, around whom everything revolved offensively.

Baldwin will be the key here as he steps into a bigger role and will be the focal point of defensive strategies. He was good last year, but also was short of great and that was with an All-American candidate by his side. If he grows along with his role, the Bulldogs will be just fine in their second year under LaVall Jordan.

7. SETON HALL: It’s a new chapter of hoops for Seton Hall and coach Kevin Willard with the losses of program stalwarts Desi Rodriguez, Khadeen Carrington and Angel Delgado, who helped lead the Pirates to three-straight NCAA tournaments and arguably keep Willard in place at Seton Hall after five-straight NCAA tournament-less seasons previously. That’s the type of chapter Seton Hall would just assume not re-read.

Myles Powell’s ability to assume a huge role will likely determine how the Pirates’ season unfolds. He was a supporting character a year ago, but was effective in his limited workload, converting at a 37.9 percent clip from deep and 43.3 percent overall. He’ll need to improve as a distributor and trim the turnover rate, but he’ll be given the opportunity to flourish.

8. GEORGETOWN: Most believe that Patrick Ewing is doing good things with his alma mater. That the program is poised to make progress and that, eventually, he’ll get the Hoyas back in the NCAA tournament. There’s maybe just not all that much to get excited about this season.

Jessie Govan is undoubtedly one of the Big East’s top players, but it’s hard to look at the rest of the roster and forecast a major improvement from last season’s team that won just five conference games. If some of the youngsters pan out immediately, maybe, but the upside just doesn’t appear to be all that significant for Ewing’s Hoyas in Year 2.

9. CREIGHTON: If history is a guide, Greg McDermott will get Creighton back to the NCAA tournament. It just might take a little bit. The Blue Jays will have to rebuild after losing their do-everything backcourt of Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas but there are pieces in place to make that happen. Maybe just not this year.

It’s not unlike McDermott’s job after his son, Doug, wrapped up a historic career. The Blue Jays went to three-straight tournaments before a two-year hiatus gave way to the last two seasons’ success. Creighton may hit pause this year, but the Mitchell Ballock has the look of a potential future star and Creighton has raised its profile enough to believe it’ll be able to find a third era of success under McDermott.

10. DEPAUL: The Blue Demons have steadily upped their talent level as Dave Leitao makes another go at it in Chicago, but it has been significant enough through three seasons to really matter as they’ve finished last in the Big East in back-to-back years after finishing ninth in Leitao’s first season back at DePaul.

Max Strus proved he was a Big East-caliber player after starting his career in Division II, and Illinois transfer Jalen Coleman-Lands is a 3-point threat. The rest of the roter, though, remains largely unproven.

Sunday’s Three Things To Know: Michigan rolls, Gafford shines, Virginia Tech beats Purdue

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Some believe that Sunday is fun day.

Others think of Sunday as a day for football and nothing else. 

But Sundays are also for college hoops, as Michigan, Daniel Gafford and Virginia Tech showed us.

Here are the three things you need to know:

1. NO. 18 MICHIGAN CONTINUED TO DOMINATE

Fresh off of a 27 point blowout win at Villanova, the Wolverines went to the Mohegan Sun casino and rolled over both George Washington and Providence. The win over the Friars came on Sunday, as Iggy Brazdeikis scored 20 points and Jon Teske added 17. Providence shot just 28 percent from the floor in the loss, as a late first half surge from the Wolverines more or less put this one out of reach before the second half started.

I’m not sure what else there is to say about Michigan at this point in time. The Wolverines are already one of college basketball’s elite defensive teams, and given the new look they can run out this year — playing Brazdeikis and Isaiah Livers, both of whom are strong, 6-foot-8 athletic combo-forwards, at the four and the five — makes them all-the-more versatile. There are still kinks to work out on the offensive end, but if there is anyone that I would want to give four months to figure out how to make offense work, it is John Beilein.

2. NO. 16 VIRGINIA TECH LANDED A COME-FROM-BEHIND WIN OVER NO. 23 PURDUE

The best game of the night was Virginia Tech’s win over Purdue in the title game of the Charleston Classic.

Purdue jumped out to a 12-point lead thanks to a hot start from Carsen Edwards and some timely play-making by Evan Boudreaux, but the Hokies came roaring back in the second half. Nickeil Alexander-Walker was terrific while Justin Robinson and Ahmed Hill made big play after big play in the second half.

There is a lot to like about Tech this season, and it looks like Buzz Williams has them lined up for their third straight trip to the NCAA tournament.

3. ARKANSAS CENTER DANIEL GAFFORD WAS DOMINANT

Gafford looked every bit the part of a future lottery pick, as he went for 27 points, 12 boards and three blocks in a win over Indiana in Fayetteville on Sunday evening. This is exactly the kind of performance that Arkansas fans were expecting out of their star center when he announced that he would be returning to school for his sophomore season. It is also the kind of performance that could end up getting Arkansas on the right side of the bubble come Selection Sunday.

There is still so much time left this season, but Indiana has looked good at times this year. This result had quite a bit to do with a young Indiana team missing two starters while playing on the road for the first time this season. That ended up being a great combination for the Hogs, and it earned them a win that is going to look better two or three months from now than it does today.

VIDEO: Purdue’s Carsen Edwards with a Dunk of the Year candidate

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Carsen Edwards entered the season as an all-american and has played like one over the course of the first two weeks of the season.

While No. 23 Purdue did not get a win over No. 16 Virginia Tech on Sunday night, Edwards did find a way to make a highlight that is going to be on every reel this season:

The best part of this dunk?

Purdue was playing 4-on-5 at the time. Evan Boudreaux, their power forward grad transfer from Dartmouth, was at the other end trying to get his shoe put back on.

No. 16 Virginia Tech rallies past No. 23 Purdue

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CHARLESTON, S.C. — Justin Robinson saw his Virginia Tech teammate Ahmed Hill coming off the floor after a disappointing first half.

“We’re going to need you to win,” Robinson told him.

Hill certainly listened and was instrumental in the 16th-ranked Hokies’ first in-season tournament title in coach Buzz Williams’ five seasons with an 89-83 victory over No. 23 Purdue at the Charleston Classic on Sunday night.

Hill scored 18 of his 23 points in the second half and had the three-point play that put the Hokies (4-0) ahead for good at 80-77 with 3:50 remaining.

Hill followed with a 3-pointer to extend the margin. The Boilermakers (4-1) could not respond.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker had 25 points to lead Virginia Tech. He was named tournament MVP.

Robinson also had 23 points as the Hokies came from 50-38 down in the second half to win.

The Hokies jumped around in celebration when the horn sounded, giddy about the championship.

“It’s an experience that money can’t buy,” Alexander-Walker said.

Purdue’s dynamic guard Carsen Edwards finished with 26 points, the fifth time this season he’s had 23 or more points in a game.

The 6-foot-1 junior rose high for a left-armed jam and tied things a final time at 77 with his layup after stealing the ball from Robinson.

But he said there were too many late breakdowns that cost the Boilermakers.

“The good thing is that it’s early and we can work on this before we get into (Big Ten) conference play,”

It didn’t look like Purdue would have much to work on early on.

Edwards jumper late in the first half put his team ahead 41-29 while the Hokies struggled to find shots.

But, as Virginia Tech did in earlier Charleston wins over Ball State and Northeastern, the team roared back.

The Hokies held Purdue to 1-of-8 shooting in a six-minute stretch as they went from 12 points behind to 58-56 ahead on Alexander-Walker’s 3-pointer.

Williams said the Hokies began to put pressure on Purdue’s inside players and make sure when Edwards shot, it was not an easy, open attempt.

Edwards was 9 of 21 overall and made only three of his 11 attempts from beyond the three-point line.

The game’s pace the final 12 minutes after Virginia Tech’s rally was frenetic, a high-level display of basketball typically on display in a later postseason tournament in March.

It’s way too early for that kind of talk, Alexander-Walker said.

“We try not to get ahead of ourselves,” he said. But “we’re happy to see our work come to light.”

Williams was happy for his players and staffers Virginia Tech could taste some early success after the word the team had done in the offseason.

“I’m thankful for our kids, I’m thankful for their parents who believed in us and allowed us to have an opportunity like this,” he said.

No. 10 Kentucky survives persistent VMI 92-82

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — These early weeks haven’t been easy for No. 10 Kentucky, but coach John Calipari sees an upside in how his team is working through growing pains to win.

Perimeter defense will no doubt be a focal point for improvement after Bubba Parham nearly shot VMI past the Wildcats.

Quade Green came off the bench to score a season-high 17 points, including five in the final 90 seconds, to help Kentucky hold off the Keydets 92-82 on Sunday night.

Statistically, the Wildcats (3-1) appeared to do a lot right against VMI (3-2). They controlled the boards (43-22), the paint (42-14) and missed just 6 of 35 free throws, numbers that should’ve added up to a solid victory.

Instead, they ended up being just enough to offset VMI and sophomore guard Bubba Parham. He scored a career-high 35 points and made 10 of the team’s 19 3-pointers, the most ever against the Wildcats. Parham also created late-game anxiety for Kentucky.

Leading by 19 midway through the second half, the Wildcats had to work to put away the stubborn Keydets, who made 12 second-half 3-pointers and got within 85-79 with 1:49 remaining.

“They made five, six, seven shots that you’re like, ‘dude, that’s almost at half court,'” Calipari said of VMI and Parham. “But we had hands down, and we’re talking at every huddle, you have to have your hands up on the guy. But hands were down and the kid was feeling it.”

Green answered with a 3-pointer 19 seconds later and Ashton Hagans made a free throw for a 10-point edge.

Tyler Creammer responded with the Keydets’ final 3 to get within 89-82 before Green made two free throws with 33 seconds left. PJ Washington (19 points, career-high 18 rebounds) made a free throw with 17 seconds left to seal Kentucky’s third consecutive win.

“We’ve always got to find a way to win,” Green said. “They came out on fire tonight because we’re Kentucky. However, we came back with some fire as well.”

Reid Travis matched a season high with 22 points for the Wildcats, who won their second game of the Ohio Valley Hardwood Showcase. That total included 10 in the second half while playing with protective glasses after being poked in the eye in the first.

Parham finished 10 of 16 from long range to double his previous high of five 3s last December against Western Carolina. He also surpassed his previous scoring best of 26 points in January at Chattanooga. Garrett Gilkeson and Creammer each added 13 for the Keydets with three 3s.

“It helps that (Parham) kind of went crazy and made a bunch of shots,” VMI coach Dan Earl said. “I thought we really spread the ball and got some open shots in the second half.”

The matchup was the first between the schools since the Keydets upset the Wildcats 111-103 in the 2008-09 season opener.

THE BUBBA SHOW

Parham seemingly couldn’t miss from where he launched deep shots, to the point that even Kentucky players and fans reacted in amazement. Of the 10 he made, one from near the UK insignia at half court and a high, arcing attempt from the right corner seemed to stand out.

“I’ve been shooting like that for a while now,” Parham said. “Some people call it a rainbow shot, but I practice that each and every day, so it’s my form now.”

Parham scored the most points against Kentucky and in Rupp Arena since Texas A&M’s Elston Turner dropped 40 on Jan. 12, 2013.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Kentucky should maintain its spot in the top 10 despite a win that was closer than expected.

BIG PICTURE

VMI: The Keydets entered the contest having made 25 of 51 3-pointers the past two outings and started hot with 6-of-9 shooting from long range. They couldn’t match Kentucky in the paint or on the boards, and sure couldn’t keep the Wildcats off the foul line. And yet, they were within seven in the final minute before missing the final three from behind the arc.

Kentucky: The Wildcats shot 49 percent and converted frequent chances at the line. They also dominated rebounding and paint and bench points, all of which were needed to offset the Keydets’ perimeter game and Parham.

Gafford’s career high lifts Arkansas over Indiana 73-72

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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — An overtime loss in the season opener might have proved instrumental for Arkansas in a narrow win against Indiana.

The Razorbacks squandered a late lead in a 73-71 overtime loss to Texas, and the same fate loomed large again Sunday as the Hoosiers erased a double-digit Arkansas lead in the second half.

This time, the Razorbacks (2-1) found a way to hang on as Mason Jones’ free throw with 2.5 seconds left provided Arkansas a 73-72 win in the Hardwood Showcase.

Daniel Gafford scored a career-high 27 points for Arkansas, but it was Mason who delivered the big rebound and free throw that secured the win. It was a little redemption for Mason, who missed the front end of a one-and one with 1:01 left and Arkansas clinging to a 72-69 lead.

“I knew I was going to make that free throw,” Mason said. “I like the pressure.”

In a similar situation against Texas, Mason missed a late shot and Texas rallied to tie and force overtime. Mason said Arkansas coach Mike Anderson told him he’d get another chance, and Sunday it presented itself.

“We learned a lot from that Texas game,” Jones said. “I just knew to be ready when the chance came again and I was ready this time.”

Indiana (3-1) had a chance to take the lead with under 15 seconds left, but two shots under the Hoosiers’ basket would not fall and Jones rebounded the second miss and was fouled by De’Ron Davis with 2.5 seconds left. It was a foul Indiana coach Archie Miller did not totally agree with.

“We had a shot to win the game, had a tap to win the game and had an unfortunate call that put them on the line,” Miller said. “It was a 50-50 play. I don’t know if he fouled him or not, but I know it was a tough call.”

Jones hauled in the key rebound, but Gafford did not let Jones take all the credit in the post-game interviews.

“I tipped that rebound out, by the way,” Gafford laughed.

Jones made the first free throw to give Arkansas a 73-72 lead. Indiana called a time out after Jones’ free throw, and Anderson instructed Jones to deliberately miss the second free throw.

“I have been harping on guys to make free throws, so asking him to miss one, I don’t remember asking a player to miss a free throw in a while,” Anderson said. “It was a perfect miss.”

Indiana only had time for a desperation heave as the buzzer sounded.

Arkansas rode the second half play of Gafford, who also grabbed 11 rebounds. At one stretch in the second half, Gafford scored 10 straight Arkansas points to help the Razorbacks hold on against a furious Indiana rally.

“I wasn’t playing weak like I usually do,” Gafford, who passed up entering the NBA Draft to return to Arkansas for his sophomore season, said. “Today I let the game come to me instead of trying to just go and take it. Letting the game come to you, it comes more smooth.”

Anderson said Gafford was a force at both ends, as his blocked shot just seconds after the opening tip set an early tone.

Miller said his team would benefit from playing against Gafford later in the season.

“He’s a very good player,” Miller said. “He was a really tough handle for us today. He pretty much neutralized the game. He was dominant. That is something that is going to help us moving forward and defending the caliber of big like that.”

Arkansas led 38-35 at halftime on Gabe Osabuohien’s 3-pointer from the right perimeter. Then Isaiah Joe, who finished with 13 points, opened the second half with a 3-pointer for a 41-35 lead. The Razorbacks would stretch the lead to 10 points twice — 45-35 with 17:08 left on Gafford’s dunk, and 51-41.

Indiana rallied with an 11-2 run fueled by freshman Romeo Langford, who finished with 22 points and 10 rebounds, and eventually took a 58-57 lead on Juwan Morgan’s layup with 8:58 left.

Arkansas recaptured a five-point lead at 63-58 on Gafford’s inside shot, before Indiana surged again to twice tie the game late.

BIG PICTURE

Indiana: The Hoosiers played just eight players as they have battled some early season injuries. Six of the eight logged more than 20 minutes including Langford, who played 38 minutes.

Arkansas: The Razorbacks had all nine players reach the scoring column Sunday, getting contributions off the bench to help the scoring. Jones also delivered a huge performance with 11 points and seven assists without a turnover.

TURNING POINT

Arkansas appeared to be rolling to a big win when Jones completed a three-point play to give the Razorbacks a 10-point lead at 51-41 with 14:16 left. But the Hoosiers rallied by outscoring Arkansas 17-6 over the next five-plus minutes to take a 58-57 lead.

Juwan Morgan and Langford fueled the run, scoring nine of the Hoosiers’ 17 points with Morgan’s inside bucket giving Indiana the lead.

HIGHLIGHT REEL

Langford is projected to be a high lottery pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, and he lived up to that lofty status Sunday. Langford a 6-foot-6 guard in just his fourth college basketball game, showed off a variety of skills with slashing drives and long range. His back-to-back 3-pointers in the second half helped Indiana erase a 10-point deficit.

TIP-INS

This was just the third meeting between the two teams, and first since 2008 when Arkansas defeated Indiana in an NCAA Tournament game. . Arkansas is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its 1994 national championship under former coach Nolan Richardson. Anderson was a longtime assistant coach and former player for Richardson.