Just when it seemed safe to write off Villanova basketball, the Wildcats jump up with a shocking week. A program that had been in a sharp decline over the last three years and showing no signs of life, suddenly put it together, knocked off Louisville and Syracuse in succession and made themselves relevant in the Big East race. Is this a real turnaround for Jay Wright’s Villanova program or just a one-week run of glory?
Villanova had made the Final Four in 2009 and was primed to do it again when they won 22 of their first 24 games in 2010. But they faded at the end of ’10, losing five of seven to end the regular season. Even as a two-seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Wildcats needed overtime to escape Robert Morris and then were mercifully eliminated by Robert Morris in the second round. In 2011, mediocrity began to set in, though Wright’s team still scraped out an NCAA bid and lost the first game to George Mason. The bottom fell out with a 13-19 finish in 2012.
The beginning of this season wasn’t much better. Villanova lost early games to Alabama and LaSalle and managed to get hammered by 18 points against Columbia. Losses in three of the first five Big East conference games were no surprise, and coming into this week, the most recent game had been a 69-66 loss to Providence. If anyone saw the events of this past week coming, they need to go into sports handicapping full-time.
Wright’s working with a very young team—two freshmen and two sophomores getting significant minutes—so that certainly argues in favor of the notion that the turnaround is legitimate. The backcourt is led by freshman Ryan Arcidianco, and he’s joined by a pair of 6’6” sophomores on the wing, in Darrun Hilliard and James Bell. The trio combines for 32 ppg, although playmaking and three-point shooting has been a liability. Up front, Wright relies on sophomore JayVaughn Pinkston and the one senior in the regular rotation, Mouphtaou Yarou. The duo is okay, but combining for 11 rebounds a game, as they do, isn’t going to cut it over the long haul in the Big East.
Of course looking at season-long numbers isn’t going to tell us what we really want to know about Villanova—they’re not going to be very good. The question is whether what happened in the home wins over Louisville and Syracuse is sustainable.
Villanova played excellent defense in both games, holding the Cards and Orange to under 40 percent shooting from the floor. They fought Louisville to a draw on the boards, and killed Syracuse on the glass to the tune of 47-34. In neither game did the Wildcats suddenly have an outburst of three-point shooting. They locked down Louisville’s high scoring guard Russ Smith, holding an 18 ppg scorer to eight points on 2-of-13 shooting, and their bench significantly outplayed that of the Cards. Then against Syracuse, Hilliard knocked down 25 points, while Yarou finally stepped up with a big 16-rebound game. And while the ‘Cuse guards, Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche combined for 40 points, Villanova prevented Carter-Williams—one of the nation’s best playmakers—from getting the frontcourt involved in the offense.
The above paragraph is the long way of saying that the cornerstone of these two wins was defense, and there’s nothing Villanova did in these games that they can’t be reasonably expected to repeat. Furthermore, the notion of young guards becoming more adept defensively through improved communication is a very reasonable possibility. I think Villanova’s improvement is for real.
Villanova’s next game is Wednesday night at Notre Dame (6 PM ET, ESPN2). While the Irish have been a bit of a disappointment this year, I don’t consider this game a fair barometer for measuring the Wildcats’ progress. What I’m really looking at is the ensuing three-game stretch of beatable opponents. If Villanova’s defensive emergence is the real thing, they can sweep through Providence, a road trip to DePaul and a home date with South Florida. While my inclination is to see Villanova as on the way back, those three games are the on-court test.
LOUISVILLE HITS THE SKIDS
It’s not just the Villanova game that gave Rick Pitino’s once #1-ranked Louisville team fits. Prior to that, the Cardinals had lost at home to Syracuse. And on Saturday they lost at Georgetown. Just as was the case against Villanova, the Louisville guards struggled against the Hoyas. Smith and point guard Peyton Siva were non-factors. When they’re clicking this is a potent offensive combination of both points and ball distribution, even it is a smallish backcourt, with both going 6’0”.
The good news is that if the problems are struggles by your best players, and two of the three losses are by just two points, the odds favor an upswing. This week presents the perfect test games and the nation will be able to watch. Louisville hosts Pitt on Monday night (7 PM ET, ESPN) and Marquette on Super Bowl Sunday (2 PM ET, ESPN). Both are good opponents, but certainly ones that a true national contender would beat on their home floor. We’ll start finding out about the ‘Ville’s bounceback capability on Monday night.