Last Week’s Villanova and Marquette Tournament Runs Spurred by FreshmenPosted by George Hershey on December 4th, 2013
The college basketball world was amazed by Villanova’s surprising run to the Battle 4 Atlantis championship last weekend. After having a relatively easy start to the season, the Wildcats landed in the Bahamas and beat USC prior to a match-up with the #2 ranked team in the nation, Kansas, followed by a battle against #23 Iowa in the title game. Seasoned veterans James Bell, JayVaughn Pinkston and Ryan Arcidiacono helped lead the team on its stunning run, but the play of freshmen Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins, especially in the championship game, was instrumental and a major reason the Wildcats came out on top.
Marquette also made a run to the championship game of the Wooden Legacy tournament in California. Although the Golden Eagles lost to San Diego State in a tight championship game on Sunday night, leading scorer Davante Gardner played with the flu and Derrick Wilson looked to have hurt his groin, rendering him mostly incapable of playing in the second half. Despite those problems, Buzz Williams’ team was able to make it a close game and had a chance to win at the end because of the remarkable play of freshman Deonte Burton. Fellow freshman JaJuan Johnson also was instrumental in beating Cal State Fullerton and played well against Arizona State in the other two games.
After playing two games in two days, Jay Wright leaned on Hart and Jenkins to provide some energy off the bench, but what they contributed was much more than anybody expected. In 22 minutes, Jenkins scored 12 points and found himself on the court during overtime, where he led the team in scoring with five points. He hit a three early in the extra period to tie the game and knocked down two crucial free throws with 71 seconds remaining to give the Wildcats a three-point lead. Hart scored 14 points, with four of those coming in overtime. Although he went 1-of-6 from three, he showed that he is not afraid of taking big shots. At the end of regulation, Arcidiacono was doubled and Hart found himself open on the wing, ready for a three as the buzzer went off. He missed the potential game-winning shot, but Wright showed he has the confidence to play him in crucial moments and Hart had the confidence to take the shot instead of deferring. Hart not only shoots the ball well, but he rebounds at a high level for a guard and does not turn the ball over often.
Buzz Williams has been searching for the right formula to win games for his team this year. After losing three starting guards, Williams has tinkered with how many guards to play. Two of his highest rated recruits during his tenure, Burton and Johnson, have played sparingly, but the trip to Southern California helped show the true potential and capabilities of the two youngsters. Johnson went off for 18 points on Thursday, hitting all three of his three point attempts. The most impressive thing about that game was his confidence in his shot and lack of hesitation when attacking the hoop. The second half that Burton played on Sunday against San Diego State was nothing less than astonishing. He scored 13 of his 15 points in the second half, pouring in nine straight at one point for the Golden Eagles. Burton used his strength to fight his way into the lane but also showed his ability to hit a mid-range jumper on several occasions. He also played stellar defense, with two blocks and two steals. More than anything else, Burton played like a leader and a guy who wants to make the big plays when the team is struggling. He is not as flashy as Johnson, but his body and style of play fit perfectly into the Big East.
Freshmen, especially those in power conferences like the Big East, often have trouble finding the court in meaningful games because their coaches cannot always trust them to make good decisions. With the way these young players handled themselves in their tournaments, this group of freshmen looks like they will have a shot to become important players during conference play and in the run-up to the NCAA Tournament. Both teams expect to be playing in late March, so the added depth and skill sets of these additional contributors will only help. Although they will have games leaving their coaches and fans scratching their heads, they will also have several jaw-dropping performances. Such is the life of college freshmen.