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‘I had no idea I’d end up being here’: Freddie Gillespie’s path from Division III to Baylor starter

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Freddie Gillespie sat gazing at the TV in the winter of 2017, seeing not just the team that would go on to win the national championship, but his future. 

Despite only having played a handful of years of organized basketball, suffering two broken ankles, a busted foot and a torn ACL and currently operating as a role player at a small Division III program in rural Minnesota, Gillespie looked at those All-Americans, highly-touted recruits and future first-round NBA draft picks and was undaunted by a sudden dream.

“I had an epiphany,” he told NBCSports.com. “I was watching a UNC game, and I saw the size and length that they had and athleticism, and I thought, ‘I’m comparable to that. With a little bit of coaching, I can do pretty well.’”

It would be a laughable thought for almost every player grinding away at the non-scholarship Division III level. Gillespie had hardly registered as a blip on recruiters’ radars while in high school. He was his college team’s fourth-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder. 

The basketball world, though, is sometimes surprisingly small, and Gillespie’s connections – and the fact that he was 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-6 wingspan – helped get the word out he was looking to move up.

Eventually, that landed upon ears in Waco, Texas, where Baylor was willing to take on a player with Division III pedigree and an injury history as a walk-on and project.

“Usually the way it works is if they’re a 6-9 or 6-10 walk-on and they can walk and chew gum, you’re like, ‘Yeah,’” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “We’ve had players like Taurean Prince who was going to Long Island University, ranked 25th in the state, and ended up being drafted 12th in the world. You had Royce O’Neal who was a zero-star recruit and has a chance to be starting for the Jazz this year. We had a walk-on, Mark Shepherd, who started for us and helped lead us to the NCAA tournament. 

“We’ve had guys be successful, but no one came in as raw as he did.”

Two years later, Gillespie enters his senior year with the Bears not only as a scholarship player, but as a starter and key piece to Baylor’s 2020 Big 12 title hopes.

“He put in the hard work to get to where he’s gotten,” Drew said. “It’s a great story for anyone out there that maybe was overlooked early on.”

(Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images)

Gillespie didn’t start playing basketball until he was an eighth grader. He didn’t even play during his freshman year at East Ridge High School in the Minneapolis/St. Paul suburbs. 

“At that point, the 10th grade coaches said, ‘Hey, it would be cool if you could play for us,’” Gillespie recalled. “I was pretty tall at that point. So I said OK. At that point, I’m just doing this to have something to do.”

Gillespie’s height may have drawn those coaches to him and him to the game, but that height also contributed to keeping him off the court.

“I was growing really fast,” he said, “so your bones aren’t really strong enough because I was growing two, three inches a year.”

Gillespie said he broke both his ankles, suffered a Jones fracture in his foot and tore his ACL during his prep career.

“He played high school ball completely immobile, and that’s if he played at all,” Ryan James, a Minnesota-based recruiting analyst for the Prep Hoops Network, said. “He was also a strong, well-skilled post with good footwork, but all the injuries took away all his mobility.”

Gillespie saw the floor enough, though, for some college recruiters to pay attention – just not at the Division I level. Ultimately, he landed 40 miles south of the Twin Cities in Northfield, Minn., at Carleton College, known more for its rigorous academic standards than its basketball tradition.

“A lot of D3 schools recruited me. I was big into academics so they tried to sell me on the academics of the school,” Gillespie said. “That’s what sold me.”

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Gillespie apparently wasn’t able to sell himself initially to the coaching staff at Carleton. As a freshman, he played just 16 minutes.

“I was the most athletic, biggest guy in that whole conference,” Gillespie said. “So that was tough.”

His sophomore year brought considerably more success.

Gillespie started 23 games for the Knights, averaging 10 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game while shooting 53.2 percent from the floor. He was a second-team all-conference selection.

“My second year, it was tough too because I didn’t explore and grow,” Gillespie said. “I knew I had a lot of potential, but didn’t grow it like I wanted to. So it was tough. I tried to make the best of what I had there.”

That was the feeling that led Gillespie, after watching the likes of Justin Jackson, Joel Berry and Tony Bradley on TV for North Carolina, to aim higher.

“I was with my friend, we were just sitting there,” Gillespie said, “and I was like, ‘I’ve got what they have. I can do what they do. With a little bit of training and help, I can do what they do.’”

Once the connection to Baylor was made, Gillespie sat down with Drew, who was in Minnesota recruiting future-Duke star Tre Jones.

“He just asked my story, basically,” Gillespie said. “How was it at high school, at D3. He asked questions about my character, my academics. 

“He just asked about everything.”

Baylor wanted to due some due diligence on Gillespie before taking him in, even as a walk-on

“One of our coaches on our staff is from Minnesota, and we knew that (Gillespie) was looking at walking on,” Drew said, “because we knew his goal was to earn a scholarship, we wanted to make sure he had potential.”

Eventually, both sides decided to take the leap. Gillespie would head to Waco without a scholarship, but with a chance to prove he was right about that hunch he had while he sat parked in front of a television.

(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

“When he first got in the gym,” Drew said of Gillespie’s arrival on campus, “he struggled to score by himself in the gym.”

Despite having the physical profile of a Big 12 player, Gillespie was miles behind from a skill standpoint, and it was apparent.

“Freddie, he didn’t seem like he was going to be any option for us,” Baylor senior Obim Okeke said. “Luckily for Freddie, Freddie was 6-9.”

Not only was it clear to his coaches and teammates that Gillespie wasn’t ready to contribute, he knew it himself.

“I didn’t feel like I belonged for a long time,” he said. “The athleticism was different. The physicality, the size of the players, the competitive level. The mentality, the way they play. 

“Everyone there was convinced that they’re the best, they’re unbeatable. It’s that competitive mindset. They’ve played against dudes in the NBA. One and dones. Played with them in high school. 

“I felt out of place.”

The only remedy was to stay in one place – the gym.

“It took him awhile,” Drew said. “He didn’t come in as a finished product. He came in as somebody that needed to get better and had potential. People are going to go to practice. People are going to do what’s required of them. It’s those people that do two or three times more that get better and reach their potential.

“That’s what he did.”

Gillespie sat out the 2017-18 season as a redshirt, but continued to work on his game. By the start of last season, Baylor began to believe that Gillespie, now on scholarship, might be able to contribute.

“In the second year, just seeing how far he progressed and seeing what he was able to do on the defensive end and rebounding, and to see how far his touch had come, you’re like, he’s got a chance,” Drew said. “And he plays so hard. You definitely have to see something in practice before you put people in a game, so as a coach, though, you’re never 100 percent convinced until you see him do it in a game.”

Initially, it didn’t translate into the game.

Gillespie played 18 minutes in Baylor’s opener against Texas Southern and then 22 the next game against Southern, but then saw his minutes diminish for the next three games before he didn’t even play in eight of the Bears’ next nine games. The only reprieve was 4 minutes in a 40-point blowout against New Orleans in late December.

“He didn’t have the confidence in himself,” Okeke said. “He felt like he was a D3 player.”

Gillespie, though, got a second chance in Big 12 play. He saw 13 minutes against Kansas in the conference opener. A week later, he played 20 minutes against Texas Tech. He had eight points and seven rebounds against Oklahoma to end January. He followed that with 11 points, seven rebounds and three blocks against TCU.

“He finally got his opportunity to show what he’d been working on every day,” Okeke said. “He probably has the best work ethic on our team. It ended up being shown to light when he started getting his time, the minutes he deserved.”

By Feb. 9, Gillespie was in the Bears’ starting lineup.

“He’s somebody that showed he’d made strides, was successful in practice,” Drew said, “and in the game, to his credit, he didn’t flinch. He got better and better with the minutes he got. That’s why  he got more minutes.”

Gillespie finished Big 12 play with the conference’s best in offensive rebounding percentage and third in 2-point shooting percentage at 64.7. In the Bears’ opener this season, he had 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting with seven rebounds, two assists and a block in 26 minutes.

He’s not only a contributor for the team picked by the league’s coaches to be Kansas’ top threat in the Big 12 this year, but a key component. 

“He lived in the gym, and ended up coming from a Division III player to someone starting in the Big 12,” Drew said. “Sometimes things turn out better than you expected, and I’ll be honest, I don’t think anybody would have seen – maybe besides him – him progressing as quickly as he did.”

Through major injuries and serious detours, Gillespie proved himself. A game he didn’t start seriously playing until high school, followed to Division III and then became convinced he could play at the highest levels. 

It became his dream. One he’s now living.

“I fell in love with it,” he said, “and I thought I started too late so I wouldn’t have a chance. 

“I had no idea I would end up being here.”

(Photo by Boyd Ivey/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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.