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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.

Wednesday’s Things to Know: Grant Williams leads No. 1 Tennessee to OT win; No. 25 LSU, Purdue earn solid wins

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Wednesday didn’t have a lot of major college basketball action, but we still saw a historic performance from a Player of the Year candidate while the No. 1 team nearly lost in overtime. The SEC’s other unbeaten team was also in action while the Big Ten saw a road win with some implications for later this week.

Here are three things to know.

Grant Williams’ huge game saves No. 1 Tennessee from upset of Vanderbilt

The story of Wednesday night in college basketball is undoubtedly Tennessee junior forward Grant Williams. The junior forward and reigning SEC Player of the Year had his signature performance of the season with 43 points and a jaw-dropping 23-for-23 from the free-throw line to lead the Volunteers to an overtime win over in-state rival Vanderbilt.

Getting the basketball world buzzing, Williams dominated the game down the stretch as he willed Tennessee back into a game in which Vanderbilt was hitting a lot of timely shots.

The No. 1 team in the country will stay that way for at least another game thanks to one of the best individual performances we’ll see in college hoops this season. Williams might have just firmly put his name on the national map for the rest of the season as his star power continues to grow.

No. 25 LSU stays unbeaten in SEC with win over Georgia

The SEC’s other unbeaten team, LSU, also stayed that way on Wednesday night as the Tigers put together a solid home win over Georgia.

Sophomore guard Tremont Waters put together a season-high 26 points, four assists, four steals and no turnovers to lead a balanced LSU offensive attack that saw four players in double-figures.

Tennessee, Kentucky and Auburn received a lot of the early-season attention from the SEC, but the Tigers have quietly put together an eight-game winning streak while remaining undefeated in the SEC.

A talented young team with a very good point guard and talented weapons around him, LSU has a manageable schedule for the rest of January before things start to get more difficult during February. We’ll see if the Tigers can keep the winning streak going before facing a big pack of the league’s better teams in a row.

 

Purdue puts together quality road win at Ohio State

In the country’s deepest conference, Purdue earned a very good road win in Columbus on Wednesday night. Winners of four consecutive games and seven of their last eight, the Boilermakers are playing some of their best basketball of the season recently in the Big Ten. Carsen Edwards went for 27 points and the Boilermakers fouled out Kaleb Wesson on a night in which they led most of the time.

At 6-2 in league play, Purdue is a half game behind third-place Maryland — a team the Boilermakers already beat earlier this season. With conference losses only to leaders Michigan State and Michigan, Purdue is also taking care of the other teams in the league while creating some potential separation for a lead pack.

A game against Michigan State looms later this week and that should really give us a clear picture of where things stand in the conference pecking order. Home games on national television like Purdue has with this game against  the Spartans are a huge chance to make a move.

Howard scores 23 as No. 12 Marquette holds off DePaul 79-69

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MILWAUKEE — Markus Howard found ways to score when Marquette needed it most.

Howard had 13 of his 23 points — including 11 free throws — in the final six minutes and Sam Hauser added 19 as the 12th-ranked Golden Eagles held off DePaul 79-69 on Wednesday night to remain unbeaten at home.

“He’s kept me up since Saturday’s game every night just trying to figure out how best to keep him off balance,” DePaul coach Dave Leitao said of Howard. “I thought we did to a stretch, but again, his intellect came into play and he drew fouls, which as a 90 percent free throw shooter, he went 15 for 15, which is as admirable a talent as there is to speak of.”

DePaul, which trailed by 14 in the first half, pulled to 56-52 on Max Strus’ layup with 7:31 remaining.

Howard then scored five consecutive points to trigger an 11-point run. Marquette extended the lead to 67-56 on two free throws by Hauser with 3:47 left. The Golden Eagles (17-3, 6-1 Big East) scored 17 of their final 23 points from the free throw line to improve to 14-0 at the new Fiserv Forum.

Howard, who entered first in the Big East and fifth in the nation in scoring at 24.4 points per game, was 4 of 10 from the field — including 1 for 3 in the second half. He went 0 for 2 from 3-point range but made all 15 free throw attempts. The star guard had nine assists and eight turnovers.

“We do need to be more balanced offensively and I thought we were tonight,” Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski said. “I really thought it started with Markus’ passing to start the game. He really, I thought, made a concerted effort in the beginning of the game to share the ball. When he does that, it becomes contagious.”

Theo John scored a career-high 16 points to go with 10 rebounds and six blocks for Marquette. Joey Hauser had 14 points.

“They’re anything but a one-man group,” Leitao said. “They’re veteran, they’ve been around. Joey’s the only freshman that joined the lineup, but he’s very talented, so that’s why he fits in well. They’re seasoned, they know who they are. They’ve gotten tremendously improved on the defensive end, and then they have a will.”

Paul Reed had 18 points and Femi Olujobi added 15 for the Blue Demons (11-7, 3-4).

DePaul scored the first eight points of the second half, pulling to 40-35 on Reed’s driving layup. John converted a three-point play at 16:20 for Marquette’s first points after halftime.

Marquette finished the first half with a 20-6 run for a 40-27 lead at the break. The Blue Demons went more than 5 1/2 minutes without a field goal until Lyrik Schreiner’s 3-pointer with 30 seconds left made it 38-27.

DePaul hit seven of its first 13 shots but went 4 for 17 the rest of the half.

The Golden Eagles were sluggish early, making just six of their first 21 shots. The score was tied at 18 with 6:32 left in the half as Marquette had seven turnovers to just six field goals.

“I thought we got contributions across the board from a number of guys, which we knew we needed, because DePaul is playing very well,” Wojciechowski said. “They’re a much-improved basketball team and program. Our guys and our staff were very concerned about this game because of how well they’re playing.”

BIG PICTURE

DePaul: After a three-game skid, the Blue Demons had won three of four coming in, including a victory at St. John’s and two wins over Seton Hall. DePaul needs to win just four more games for its first winning regular season since 2006-07.

Marquette: Needs to continue showing improvement on the road. After dropping their first two road games, along with an NIT Season Tip-Off loss to Kansas, the Golden Eagles have posted a pair of narrow road victories, 106-104 in overtime at Creighton and 74-71 at Georgetown. Marquette’s next two games are on the road at Xavier and Butler.

A RARE ZERO

In games when Howard has played at least 10 minutes, this was just the sixth time in his career he did not make a 3-pointer. He entered with 72 in 164 attempts, both team highs.

UP NEXT

DePaul is at Providence on Sunday.

Marquette is at Xavier on Saturday.

More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/Collegebasketball and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25

No. 17 Houston hits 16 3-pointers in 94-50 win over ECU

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HOUSTON — Houston had one of its best offensive nights of the season. Coach Kelvin Sampson was more impressed with his team’s intensity and defense.

Armoni Brooks scored 17 points, Corey Davis Jr. added 12 and No. 17 Houston hit 16 3-pointers while beating East Carolina 94-50 on Wednesday.

Brooks and Davis combined to hit nine 3-pointers while the Cougars (19-1, 6-1 American Athletic Conference) finished 16 of 24 from behind the arc.

“We shot the ball well tonight, but look at who was shooting them,” Sampson said. “Armoni Brooks is an outstanding shooter. Corey is an outstanding shooter. I thought Corey and Armoni and (Galen Robinson Jr.’s) defense and attention to detail tonight was outstanding.”

The Cougars entered the game second in the nation in field goal percentage defense, third in 3-point field goal percentage defense and eighth in scoring defense. They held the Pirates to 32 percent shooting and 2 of 22 on 3-pointers.

“We are a good defensive team,” Sampson said.

Nate Hinton had 13 points, Cedrick Alley scored 12 and Fabian White Jr. had 11.

Houston, which won its fourth straight, shot 52 percent from the field while extending its home winning streak to 30 games.

“We are all extremely confident in one another,” Brooks said.

Seth Leday had 12 points and Isaac Fleming added 11 for ECU (8-10, 1-5). Jayden Gardner, who came into the game leading the American in scoring with 19.8 points per game, finished with eight points for the Pirates. ECU has lost four straight.

“They’re hard to beat when they don’t shoot the ball well, and when they shoot it like that, it’s just a double-edged sword,” ECU coach Joe Dooley said.

After Fleming’s layup with 8 1/2 minutes left cut Houston’s lead to 21-15, the Cougars went on a 26-9 run over the next eight minutes to take a 47-24 lead on Robinson’s 3-pointer with 1 1/2 minutes left in the half. Houston made six straight 3-pointers during the run.

The Cougars led 49-26 at the half.

BIG PICTURE

East Carolina: The Pirates struggled to find scoring as Houston did well defending Gardner. The Pirates took care of the ball, committing 10 turnovers and held a 24-18 advantage in points in the paint. “I thought they did a good job (guarding Gardner),” Dooley said. “I thought they pressured us, and they also gapped us. It shortens the court when you don’t make any shots, and we didn’t make any three-point shots.”

Houston: The Cougars never trailed. They opened 2 of 9 from the field before catching fire and finishing the first half 15 of 22. Houston played well on both ends and was able to keep ECU off the glass, holding a 47-25 advantage. The Cougars continued to pass the ball well, finishing with 21 assists on 29 made field goals.

CLIMBING THE CHARTS

Robinson surpassed 500 assists for his career at Houston, becoming the sixth Cougar to accomplish the feat. Robinson finished with eight.

OLAJUWON IN ATTENDANCE

NBA Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon, who played a key role in Houston’s run of three straight NCAA Final Four appearances from 1982-84, sat courtside.

TIMEOUT PLEASE

ECU called three timeouts in the first 13 minutes.. ECU used its final timeout two minutes into the second half.

UP NEXT

East Carolina: Hosts South Florida on Saturday.

Houston: Travels to Tulsa on Sunday.

More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/Collegebasketball and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25

Waters leads No. 25 LSU past Georgia 92-82 for 8th straight

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BATON ROUGE, La. — A little more than a month ago, LSU point guard Tremont Waters went to the bench for two games.

Since returning to the starting lineup in the Tigers’ final non-conference game, Waters has been a different player. He delivered his best game of the season Wednesday night as No. 25 LSU beat Georgia 92-82 to remain unbeaten in Southeastern Conference play.

Waters scored a season-high 26 points, making nine of his 14 field goal attempts and seven of 11 free throws. In addition, he had four assists and four steals with no turnovers in 32 minutes to help the Tigers win their eighth straight overall.

“I was just playing basketball,” Waters said. “My teammates and coaching staff told me to just keep playing and let the game come to me. That is what I did. It was not our best game. Going into the game, things were a little shaky. We were able to pull it out. We have to just keep building and learn from it.”

Waters, averaging 17.5 points and 7.8 assists over the last six games, had a hand in 13 straight points by the Tigers late. He scored 10 points and had an assist that led to a three-point play by Kavell Bigby-Williams as LSU extended a seven-point lead to 12 with 45 seconds to play.

Skylar Mays matched his season best for the Tigers (15-3, 5-0 Southeastern Conference) with 20 points. Naz Reid had 15 and Ja’vonte Smart added 10.

“Tre was great and Sky was great in the first half,” LSU coach Will Wade said. “They bailed us out with their offense. We were able to score at will against their matchup (zone) and their man. We scored 92 points and only turned it over eight times. Our defense looked like it did at the beginning of the year.”

Rayshaun Hammonds paced Georgia (9-9, 1-5) with 18 points. Nicolas Claxton had 15, Derek Ogbeide added 14 and Jordan Harris scored 10.

The Bulldogs made 54 percent of their field goal attempts (30 of 56), including 47 percent on 3-pointers (8 of 17).

“LSU is really good,” Georgia coach Tom Crean said. “They are extremely talented and (Wade) has done a fantastic job of getting a bunch of young guys to understand what it takes to win, and that is to be so good on the glass. Also, when you play LSU, it starts with Tremont and his ability to pass.”

A 14-0 run early in the first half enabled LSU to take control. Trailing 13-8, the Tigers got two baskets, one a 3-pointer, from Waters to tie the score. Smart’s 3-pointer put LSU in front for good at 16-13.

Marlon Taylor made two foul shots and Smart knocked down a short jumper. A dunk by Taylor gave the Tigers a 22-13 lead with 12:07 left before halftime. Georgia got no closer than five the rest of the half. Mays scored 12 points in the last eight minutes as LSU took a 48-36 lead into halftime.

The Bulldogs cut their deficit to 50-44 less than two minutes into the second half. Waters and Reid made baskets to give the Tigers a double-digit lead. Georgia trailed by at least eight the remainder of the game.

ON A ROLL

LSU has won 18 straight home games — tying its second-longest streak in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center. The arena record is 23 in a row. LSU has also won eight consecutive games overall for the first time since the 2014-15 season, and five straight SEC games for the first time since a 10-game conference winning streak in 2008-09.

STRONG BACKCOURT

Georgia had no answer for LSU’s starting backcourt of Waters and Mays, who shot a combined 14 of 23 from the field with six assists and no turnovers. Mays was 8 of 8 at the foul line.

LEAKY DEFENSE

In all three of its SEC losses on the road, Georgia has allowed at least 90 points. Tennessee defeated the Bulldogs 96-50 and Auburn handed them a 93-78 defeat. LSU made 50 percent of its field goal attempts (33 of 66). The Vols shot slightly higher than 50 percent from the field and Auburn made exactly 50 percent. Georgia allowed LSU to score 44 points in the paint and 21 at the foul line.

BIG PICTURE

LSU: The Tigers have won their first five SEC games for just the third time in the past 50 seasons. On the other two occasions, LSU won the conference championship and advanced to the Final Four. The Tigers won their first 17 conference games in 1981 and their first seven in 2006.

Georgia: The Bulldogs dropped their fourth consecutive game. All five of Georgia’s SEC defeats have been by double digits.

UP NEXT

LSU: The Tigers begin a two-game road swing at Missouri on Saturday.

Georgia: The Bulldogs host Texas in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge on Saturday.

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Grant Williams puts up monster game in No. 1 Tennessee’s overtime win over Vanderbilt

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Tennessee needed everything they could get from junior forward Grant Williams on Wednesday night as the No. 1 Volunteers outlasted in-state rival Vanderbilt with an 88-83 overtime SEC road win.

Williams, the reigning SEC Player of the Year, played as if the National Player of the Year was more suitable to his needs this season as his dominant 43-point performance had the basketball world buzzing. Finishing 23-for-23 from the free-throw line, Williams essentially gutted Tennessee through a night in which a natural second scorer didn’t easily step up while Vanderbilt repeatedly made big shots with the shot clock winding down.

Not only did Williams lead Tennessee to victory on Wednesday night, it was the surgical way in which he went about torching Vanderbilt’s defense. Once Commodore junior big man Yanni Wetzell fouled out with a little over five minutes left, Williams went to work with a number of quick and decisive scoring moves. Spins into jumpers and runners balanced with post touches through contact that were all seamlessly converted.

And once Williams got to the line, he finished nearly every attempt completely clean — announcers marveling when he even drew iron. It’s only the second time in the history of college basketball that a player was at least 23-for-23 from the foul line.

Although many have placed Duke freshman Zion Williamson as the leader for Player of the Year at this point in the season, Williams is putting up huge numbers for the current No. 1 team in America. On a night when normal running mate Admiral Schofield struggled to only six points, Tennessee was still able to win because Williams got them there.

This is the type of signature performance that people are going to associate with Williams for a long time as his huge junior season continues.