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Champions Classic Takeaways: What we learned on college basketball’s opening night

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NEW YORK — There is no question in my mind that creating the Champions Classic was one of the best ideas in the history of college basketball.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that.

I may be on no sleep after a late night in Madison Square Garden, but I’m thinking clearly here. My three favorites events to cover are, in order, the Final Four, the second weekend of the NCAA tournament and the Champions Classic. It’s the perfect way to generate hype for the college basketball season at a time when there is an overload of sports available to the casual American sports fan. The NBA started. College football is in arguably their most important month. The NFL is in full-swing, and with more than a month left in the fantasy football regular season, there are plenty of people that are still heavily invested in what happens on Sundays across the country.

And yet, last night, college basketball was the biggest story. Playing in the World’s Most Famous Arena, we had No. 3 Kansas taking on No. 4 Duke as the opening act for a battle between No. 1 Michigan State and No. 2 Kentucky.

But I think that it’s time to call it like it is: The Champions Classic is great for the sport of college basketball, but it is absolutely horrendous for the actual basketball itself.

What I mean by that is simple: Last night featured a pair of close games with memorable plays during the second half, but the game-play itself was just terrible. Kansas committed 28 turnovers against Duke, who committed 16 turnovers and shot 35.9 percent from the floor and still managed to win. I don’t have the exact numbers in front of me for the second game, but I’m estimating that there were roughly 642 fouls called in the first half of the Michigan State-Kentucky game.

Playing the Champions Classic is a way great to get people talking about college basketball.

When the games are this ugly, it’s not always the best way to keep people talking about college basketball.

The good news is that Tyrese Maxey bailed us out. By scoring 26 points in the final 29 minutes in his collegiate unveiling, Maxey changed the narrative somewhat. Seeing him go nuts against the consensus Preseason National Player of the Year was fun, but we shouldn’t ignore the larger point here.

There is unquestionably a talent drain in college basketball. We’ve written about that before. That means that the best teams in the country are going to be younger, and those young players are going to be less talented. We may get lucky and end up with teams that look like Zion and R.J.’s Duke squad on the season’s opening night, but more often than not, the basketball is going to look like what it looked like on Tuesday.

“There are other games on November 5th,” John Calipari said. “Can’t we move this back a week and let us all get two games in before we have to walk into this arena in this venue and ask these kids to perform?”

THERE IS NO CLEAR-CUT BEST TEAM IN COLLEGE HOOPS

We knew this heading into Tuesday night’s doubleheader, but what unfolded only further enforced that idea.

Michigan State was more or less the consensus No. 1 team in the country despite the fact that they had so many young players being asked to perform in new, larger roles. They lost to a Kentucky team that lacks star power, is as small inside as any Coach Cal team that we’ve ever seen and needed a 26-point explosion from Tyrese Maxey to avoid blowing a 13-point second half lead. Kansas was the other team that some believed to be the best team in the country and they got their butts handed to them by a Duke team that doesn’t have anywhere near the talent of Duke team’s in the recent past.

Get ready for a season where we hear all about the parity and competitive balance and how any team can lose to anyone in league play on any given night. It’s going to be that kind of a year.

THERE ARE NOT ALL THAT MANY CLEAR-CUT NBA STARS IN COLLEGE HOOPS, EITHER

Part of the reason that there is no clear-cut team in college basketball is that this year’s class of freshmen aren’t as good as last year’s group, and the best freshmen didn’t cluster at one program the way we’ve seen in the past.

Memphis has the No. 1 recruit in the country in James Wiseman and he anchors the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation, but the only other five-star that Penny Hardaway landed was Precious Achiuwa, who is a top 15 prospect. Duke doesn’t have a Zion, or an R.J. Barrett, or a Marvin Bagley III, or a Jayson Tatum. As associate head coach Jon Scheyer put it, “our freshmen [look like] freshmen” this year.

Kentucky might have a lottery pick Tyrese Maxey, but that’s based off of one explosive performance after six weeks of failing to impress in practice. Calipari said in the presser that this was the first time all season he “saw the guy I recruited.” Kansas might not have a first round pick on their roster. Michigan State might not have an NBA player on their roster. As one NBA executive told NBC Sports, there wasn’t a guy that he would want to take in the top ten in the building on Tuesday.

DUKE BELONGS IN THE CONVERSATION FOR THE BEST IN THE COUNTRY

I might be in the minority here, but my biggest takeaway from Duke’s win over Kansas is that the Blue Devils are for real this season. I came into the year wondering whether or not they were ever going to find a way to be good on the offensive end of the floor and the defensive end of the floor. Turns out, the Blue Devils might just be one of those teams that score just enough to win games with an elite defense.

I think Duke’s starting lineup says all that you need to know about this team and what Coach K wants to do this season. Tre Jones started alongside Jordan Goldwire and Cassius Stanley in the backcourt. Goldwire only ended up playing 13 minutes, but it was a statement, one that I think sets the tone for what the expectation is: If you are not going to guard, you are not going to play. Goldwire is fine. He’s a liability on the offensive end of the floor, but he is just as much of a menace defensively as Jones. Pairing them with Stanley – who was terrific in the second half on Tuesday night – is the best defensive trio that Duke can field. Kansas didn’t play all that well and turning the all over 28 times should be humiliating for a team with national title aspirations, but Duke’s defense played a major part in that.

MICHIGAN STATE LOST, BUT THEY ARE NOT AS FAR OFF AS YOU MIGHT BELIEVE

We probably should have seen this coming with the Spartans. Truth be told, they are not as experienced as we all thought they would be. Part of the reason for that is Josh Langford’s injury, and based on the conversations I had on Tuesday night, I am not optimistic that he will be back this season. Part of it is that Kyle Ahrens was banged up. Throw in the departure of Matt McQuaid, and suddenly there are a lot of minutes on the perimeter that need to be replaced.

And the guys doing the replacing? Sophomores like Aaron Henry and Gabe Brown, who are stepping into bigger roles, or freshmen like Rocket Watts and Malik Hall, who may not be ready for the job just yet. That’s to say nothing of the minutes that Marcus Bingham and Thomas Kithier were asked to play alongside Xavier Tillman. Michigan State has a lot of guys playing new and expanded roles, and we should have been prepared for a few hiccups along the way.

But here’s the thing, Michigan State erased a 13-point second half deficit and was within one possession when Tyrese Maxey hit this dagger to put the game away.

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That was despite the fact that they shot 5-for-26 from three. That’s despite the fact that a number of those misses came from veterans (Cassius Winston, Ahrens) that had very good looks down the stretch. It’s despite the fact that Henry played about three minutes in the first half, and Tillman found himself in foul trouble for much of the night despite the fact that I’m not sure he actually committed a foul while getting whistled for three in the first 26 minutes of the game. Those are, quite literally, the four experienced guys that are going to be asked to carry the water for the Spartans this season, and for one reason or another, they all had bad games Tuesday.

Which is probably why Winston, in the locker room after the game, was relatively upbeat, all things considered. He told me that he knew there were things that this team had to fix and things they had to do better, but that there was enough there for him to be confident about where his team will be in March.

Because despite everything that went wrong, if Winston makes one of his late threes and Maxey misses his 28-foot bomb, we’re having an entirely different conversation.

BILL SELF HAS A DECISION TO MAKE WHEN IT COMES TO PLAYING TWO BIGS

Let me get this out of the way first: I don’t think that things went quite as badly as some may think. Of the 28 turnovers that Kansas committed on Tuesday night, 15 of them came from KU guards and wings. This was not entirely on Udoka Azubuike, David McCormick and Silvio De Sousa.

That said, what Duke did gave Kansas all kinds of problems. They doubled hard on Azubuike, or whoever got the ball in the post, on the catch, simply ignoring the second big as much as possible. Given the lack of shooting on the floor overall for the Jayhawks, this meant that the lane was completely clogged, and it rendered Azubuike useless offensively. When combined with the fact that Duke’s bigs were able to step out on the perimeter and make threes – Matthew Hurt, Vernon Carey and Jack White combined to hit five threes – that ended up being the matchup that cost the Jayhawks the most.

Now I tend to err on the side of skill. I’d rather see a lineup on the floor that is smaller and more talented than to have more size up front. That’s the opposite of the way that Bill Self views the game, and he has quite a couple more basketball games as a coach than I have. That said, I fully believe that for this Kansas team to reach their ceiling, they are going to have to play Marcus Garrett and Ochai Agbaji at the three and the four for extended minutes.

It worked with Josh Jackson and LaGerald Vick in 2017.

It worked with Vick and Svi Mykhailiuk in 2018.

Why wouldn’t it work with Garrett and Agbaji this year?

JOHN CALIPARI LOOKS READY TO EMBRACE THE SMALL-BALL REVOLUTION

I’m not sure how comfortable Cal is with it, but he does appear ready to accept that this roster has to play small to survive. For my money, the best lineups that Kentucky rolled out on Tuesday night featured the three leads guards on the floor together – Maxey, Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley.

How the rest of this rotation shakes out will be interesting to see, but it was quite clear to me that A) the frontcourt is never going to be a strength for this team, and B) that the freshmen wings – Johnny Juzang, Kahlil Whitney, Keion Brooks – have a ways to go before they are ready to contribute at a high level in a game like this.

The good news for Kentucky?

For the four weeks or so, they are going to be loading up on bye game cupcakes.

That should help cure what ails his younger guys. In the end, all they may need are some reps and some confidence.

No. 15 Florida falls to UConn 62-59 on the road

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STORRS, Conn. — Christian Vital scored 15 points and made a key steal at the end of the game as UConn upset No. 15 Florida 62-59 on Sunday.

Tyler Polley also scored 15 points and Josh Carlton added 13 for the Huskies (2-1) who led by five points at halftime and never trailed after intermission.

A layup by Florida’s Keyontae Johnson with just over a minute to go cut the lead to 60-59, but those would be the last points the Gators scored.

Vital hit two free throws with 17 seconds left and Florida had a chance to tie. But Alterique Gilbert tipped the ball out of Johnson’s hands and Vital grabbed it and dribbled away, securing the win.

Kerry Blackshear Jr. had 15 points and eight rebounds for Florida (2-2), falling two boards shy of a fourth straight double-double. But he fouled out with 4:37 left in the game and his team trailing 53-49.

Andrew Nembhard scored Florida’s next four points, including a 3-pointer that brought the Gators within a point at 54-53.

Blackshear scored the game’s first two baskets, but the Gators made just four of their first 13 attempts from the floor.

But UConn had a tougher start, going without a basket for the first six minutes.

Vital got the UConn crowd into the game with a 3-pointer, a dunk and a jumper on consecutive trips down the court that gave the Huskies an 11-6 lead.

The Huskies held Florida to two Blackshear free throws over the final 4:17 of the first half and led 25-20 at halftime.

BIG PICTURE

The loss ends a rough seven days for the Gators. Florida was No. 6 coming into the season but lost to Florida State a week ago and beat Towson by just six points on Thursday. The Gators offense came into the game averaging just 63.7 points per game, while giving up 60.7.

UConn: Highly touted freshman guard James Bouknight has finished serving his three-game suspension following his arrest on charges including evading police in a September car accident. Bouknight, who is due in court on Monday, is expected to suit up for the Huskies in this week’s Charleston Classic, where it’s possible the Huskies could again face either Saint Joseph’s or Florida, depending on how the early rounds pan out.

UP NEXT

Florida: The Gators face Saint Joseph’s in the Charleston Classic on Thursday.

UConn: The Huskies also travel to Charleston and face Buffalo in the first round of the tournament on Thursday.

Seton Hall placed on probation for three years for transfer tampering

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SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. — The NCAA has placed the men’s basketball program at Seton Hall on probation for three years, taken away a scholarship for the 2020-21 academic year and limited recruiting in each of the next two seasons as part of a negotiated resolution of a transfer tampering case started in 2016.

Under terms of the agreement announced Friday, Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard was given a two-game suspension he has already served, and his former assistant and current Saint Peter’s University head coach Shaheen Holloway received a four-game suspension that has two games remaining.

Seton Hall, which is currently ranked No. 12 and dropped a 76-73 decision to No. 3 Michigan State on Thursday night, remains eligible for the NCAA tournament.

The NCAA also announced Friday Seton Hall has been fined $5,000 plus 1% of the men’s basketball budget and had its scholarships reduced to a maximum of 12 in 2020-21. Willard will have to attend an NCAA rules seminar in 2020 and the program will have a two-week ban on recruiting communication this academic year and next.

Holloway, who was Willard’s assistant at Seton Hall in 2016, is prohibited from all recruiting communication for six weeks during the 2019-20 academic year. He also is required to attend a rules seminar in each of the next two years.

The case centers around current Seton Hall forward Taurean Thompson, who transferred from Syracuse to Seton Hall in August 2017.

During the investigation, the NCAA learned Holloway had approximately 243 impermissible contacts with the prospect’s mother from Nov. 16, 2016, through Aug. 28, 2017, while the prospect was enrolled at his initial institution.

The NCAA said Holloway and the prospect’s mother had 154 phone calls without written permission from the prospect’s athletic director. After Thompson informed his original university of his intent to transfer and requested permission to contact Seton Hall, the university denied the request. After the request was denied, Holloway still had 87 impermissible calls with the prospect’s mother.

Willard, who has taken Seton Hall to the past four NCAA tournaments, was penalized for failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance within his program. He admitted to not taking adequate steps to report or stop the calls when he found out about them.

According to the agreement, Holloway did not report the calls with the prospect’s mother because they involved a personal relationship outside of the prospect and basketball, and he believed the communications were permissible.

“Seton Hall University, in conjunction with the NCAA, recently concluded a review of an infraction within our men’s basketball program,” Seton Hall said in a statement Friday afternoon. “Our department was proactive in our review and fully cooperated with the NCAA enforcement staff. While the violation was inadvertent, it was nonetheless against NCAA bylaws, and for that we take full responsibility.”

The case was processed through the new negotiated resolution process. The process was used instead of a formal hearing or summary disposition because the university, the head coach, the former associate head coach and the enforcement staff agreed on the violations and the penalties.

The Division I Committee on Infractions reviewed the case to determine whether the resolution was in the best interests of the NCAA and whether the agreed-upon penalties were reasonable.

Holloway is in his second season at Saint Peter’s. He will miss games against Providence on Saturday and Wagner on Wednesday. His first game will be against St. Francis, New York, on Nov. 30.

Quinones, Achiuwa send No. 13 Memphis past Alcorn St 102-56

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Despite playing their first game without heralded recruit James Wiseman, the No. 13 Memphis Tigers had little trouble with Alcorn State.

That’s what happens when you have the top recruiting class in the nation.

Freshman Lester Quinones had 21 points and 10 rebounds and fellow freshman Precious Achiuwa added 20 points Saturday, sending No. 13 Memphis to a 102-56 romp over Alcorn State.

Wiseman was sidelined because of eligibility issues, but Memphis hardly missed him in bouncing back from its first defeat of the season, an 82-74 loss to Oregon on Tuesday night.

“His presence is huge. Seven-footer in the paint. His dominance obviously wasn’t felt,” Quinones said of not having the 7-foot-1 Wiseman. “I feel like other guys stepped up.”

“We understand James is not playing right now,” Achiuwa added, “which hurts the team in a way because he’s a big part of the team. But this is an opportunity for other guys to play.”

DJ Jeffries finished with 15 points and Tyler Harris and Lance Thomas added 11 each for Memphis (3-1). Isaiah Attles led Alcorn State (1-3) with 13 points while Troymain Crosby had 10.

Wiseman was declared ineligible because Memphis coach Penny Hardaway helped with the family’s moving expenses from Nashville to Memphis two years ago when Hardaway was coach at East High School. Wiseman’s status is in limbo while the NCAA considers disciplinary action.

“We don’t want to change too much because we know he’s going to be back earlier than later,” Hardaway said after moving Achiuwa into the center spot vacated by Wiseman. “The guys can just slide over. They already understand the rotations. They understand the offensive side and the defensive side of what we want. We’re not going to change too much.”

Alcorn State’s zone initially took Memphis out of any flow, the Tigers choosing long passes across the top of the defense and struggling to get the ball inside. That kept the Braves in the game near the midway point of the first half.

The Memphis defense eventually put pressure on the Braves, leading to 16 Alcorn State turnovers in the half. Memphis put together a 24-3 run to close the half and carry a 52-24 lead into the break. The lead would swell to 53 in the second half.

“We didn’t follow the game plan,” Braves coach Montez Robinson said. “I thought if we followed the game plan – which we did in the first four-to-five minutes of the game – and stuck to that, it may have been a different outcome. Not knowing what the outcome would be, but it would have been different.

“It wouldn’t have been a 40-to-50-point game.”

BIG PICTURE

Alcorn State: The Braves did well in staying with Memphis for a while even with the Tigers employing a fullcourt press. But the Memphis defense proved intimidating, and the Braves began overpassing inside. That led to way too many turnovers — 26 for the game.

Memphis: Without Wiseman, Memphis relied on Achiuwa inside. While his 20 points and eight rebounds were impressive, his 8 of 20 from the free throw line was a detraction. Still, overall, that wasn’t a factor as Memphis controlled the final 30 minutes of the game.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Certainly, a rout over the Braves, who haven’t beaten a non-conference Division I team since the 2012-13 season, is not going to enhance the Tigers’ ranking. The potential impact will come from last Tuesday’s loss to Oregon in Portland.

FOUL SHOOTING WOES

Achiuwa’s foul shooting stood out enough that even the freshman forward noticed it on the stat sheet before the postgame press conference. “I’m probably one of the few dudes that can get to the free throw line at will,” he said. “My physicality and the way I play. …I’ve just got to knock them down in the game. That just tells me I have to work on that. There’s room for improvement.”

LAST WORD

“The sky’s the limit for those guys. They’re young so they’re going to continue to get better, continue to grow. – Alcorn State coach Montez Robinson on No. 13 Memphis.

UP NEXT

Memphis: Hosts Arkansas-Little Rock on Wednesday.

Bowden scores 18 as Tennessee upsets No. 20 Washington 75-62

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TORONTO — Tennessee coach Rick Barnes is a big believer in challenging his teams with tough non-conference schedules.

On Saturday, Barnes’ squad passed its first test in style.

Jordan Bowden scored 15 of his 18 points in the first half, Lamonte Turner had 16 points and the Volunteers upset No. 20 Washington 75-62 in Toronto.

“We’ve got to go test ourselves,” Barnes said. “We have to do that. We’ve always believed in that. We believe that this time of year, it’s really about trying to get yourself ready for conference play. To do that, you’ve got to play a high-level opponent like we played today.”

Yves Pons scored 15 points, John Fulkerson had 14 and Turner added seven rebounds and eight assists as the Volunteers improved to 3-0 and handed Washington its first loss in three games this season.

“We just got a little bit out-classed but we can learn from it,” Washington coach Mike Hopkins said.

Pons scored in double figures for the third straight game.

“Yves is getting more and more of a feel,” Barnes said. “I think he’s getting more and more confident.”

The game was the middle feature in the James Naismith Hall of Fame Classic, an NCAA triple header at Scotiabank Arena in downtown Toronto, home of the defending NBA-champion Raptors.

Washington, which began its season with a neutral-site win over ranked Baylor, didn’t fare so well north of the border, falling behind by as many as 14 against the Volunteers.

“I felt like we were in sand a little bit today,” Hopkins said. “They were moving the ball, we weren’t as active and disruptive as we normally were. Our rim protection wasn’t as good as it was against Baylor.”

Nahziah Carter had 18 points and 12 rebounds, Isaiah Stewart had 14 points and 10 rebounds and Jaden McDaniels scored 15 for the Huskies.

Quade Green scored 10 points but Washington struggled with its outside shooting, going 5 for 18 from 3-point range.

The Huskies struggled for the second straight game. Washington overcome an awful offensive first half to pull away for a 56-46 win over Mount St. Mary’s Tuesday.

Stewart’s jump shot with 18:28 left in the first half put the Huskies up 3-2 but Turner answered with a 3-pointer, giving Tennessee a lead it would not relinquish.

“We knew the middle of the zone was going to be open,” Turner said. “We’ve got big guys who can make that shot.”

Pons drew cheers from his bench for a huge block on Carter’s dunk attempt midway through the first. The loose ball ended up with Huskies guard Quade Green, whose jump shot bounced off the rim. Carter, who had fallen to the court along the baseline after the block, got back on his feet in time to jump and put back the rebound, then turned and yelled at the Volunteers bench as he headed back up court.

Washington called timeout after Bowden’s 3-pointer with 8:55 left in the first capped a 7-0 run and gave Tennessee a 25-13 lead. The Volunteers stretched their advantage to 38-24 on a 3 by Pons with 1:47 left in the half. Bowden scored 15 points in the first half and Pons had 11 as the pair combined to make four of five attempts from 3-point range and 10 of 14 overall.

Tennessee recorded an assist on each of its 15 made baskets in the opening half and led 40-28 at the intermission. Tuner had seven assists for the Volunteers, matching Washington’s first half team total.

“We were in rhythm,” Barnes said. We were getting things done and playing at a very high percentage.”

Carter, McDaniels and Stewart were the only three Huskies players to score in the first half, combining to make 13 of 23 attempts. Six other Washington players shot 0 for 7.

Carter made his only attempt from 3-point territory, the only Washington player to connect from long range in the opening 20 minutes.

“They controlled the pace for most of the game,” Hopkins said.

After both teams went scoreless for almost three minutes in the second half, Carter made a fast break reverse layup to cut the deficit to 50-41, then made a block that led to another Washington basket, cutting the gap to seven at 50-43 with 11:22 remaining. Josiah-Jordan James replied with a 3 as the Volunteers pushed their lead back to 10 points.

“Every time we had a little bit of momentum where you could turn a switch, they made a big shot or made a big play,” Hopkins said.

CLOSE TO HOME

Washington’s Carter and Stewart are both from Rochester, New York, about 170 miles southeast of Toronto.

BIG PICTURE

Washington: The Huskies recorded a season-low four blocks after averaging an NCAA-best 11 over their first two games.

Tennessee: The Volunteers opened their season with home wins over UNC Asheville and Murray State before heading north to Toronto. Tennessee has games against Florida State, No. 13 Memphis, and Wisconsin ahead before the SEC schedule gets underway in January.

KEY STAT

Tennessee finished with 19 assists on 25 made baskets.

UP NEXT

Washington hosts Maine on Tuesday.

Tennessee hosts Alabama State on Wednesday.

Bey’s 19 points lead No. 10 Villanova over Ohio 78-54

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PHILADELPHIA — Less than 72 hours after a humbling loss to one team from Ohio, Villanova used two of its young standouts to win against another squad from the Buckeye State.

Saddiq Bey scored 19 points and Justin Moore added 18 to lead No. 10 Villanova past Ohio 78-54 on Saturday.

The win came after a 76-51 road loss to No. 16 Ohio State on Wednesday night. Villanova fell behind the Buckeyes early and never recovered.

“In that game, we kind of backed down,” Moore said. “We learned that you have to come out and you have to keep fighting. That’s what Villanova does and that’s what we were able to do today.”

After a sluggish start Saturday, Villanova (2-1) broke the game open with a 27-4 run in the final 6:36 of the half, turning a one-point deficit into a 43-21 lead.

Bey and Moore combined for 9-for-12 shooting and 4 of 6 from beyond the 3-point line for 26 points in that run. The Wildcats finished 14 of 31 from long range.

“I thought we had just two or three bad three-point attempts today,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “I think the numbers are a reflection of Justin and Saddiq moving the ball and getting good shot opportunities.”

Ohio shot 3 of 20 from behind the arc, with its first conversion from Ben Vander Plas three minutes into the second half after a 0-for-10 start. The Bobcats committed 16 turnovers.

Vander Plas led the Bobcats (3-1) with 19 points and 10 rebounds. Jason Preston added 16 points and eight assists.

Jeremiah Robinson-Earl had 11 points and 11 rebounds and Colin Gillespie scored 10 points for Villanova.

“I told our guys that with the exception of that seven-minute stretch at the end of the first half, we played pretty even with them” Ohio coach Jeff Boals said. “Against a team like (Villanova), the margin for error is pretty small. It was a good teaching moment for our guys.”

BIG PICTURE

Villanova: After losing by 25 at Ohio State on Wednesday night in the Gavitt Games, Villanova is likely to take a slight dip in the next AP rankings.

Ohio: After starting the season 3-0 with road wins against St. Bonaventure and Iona, the Bobcats had trouble dealing with Villanova’s forwards.

UP NEXT

Villanova: Plays Middle Tennessee on Thursday in Myrtle Beach Invitational in Conway, South Carolina.

Ohio: Plays No. 24 Baylor on Thursday in the Myrtle Beach Invitational.