Martelli: 'We're witnessing a blue blood' with No. 4 Villanova

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Martelli: 'We're witnessing a blue blood' with No. 4 Villanova

You’ll never hear Jay Wright tell you how good his own team is. That’s not really the Villanova coach’s style. 

Perhaps a better person to discuss the dominance of the fourth-ranked Wildcats is someone who knows them well — someone like Saint Joseph’s head coach Phil Martelli. And what better time to do it than right after Villanova’s ridiculously lopsided 94-53 win over the Hawks on Saturday at Hagan Arena (see observations)?

“There’s nothing they really miss,” Martelli said. “There’s nothing. Jay is an extraordinary spokesperson. I marvel at it. … For a long time, we’ve always thought it was Villanova and Jay Wright. Well, we’re now witnessing a blue blood. That’s the way the blue bloods do things. 

“I’ve actually had conversations with (Kentucky coach) John Calipari, and I’ll say, ‘Cal, with promoting, coaching and recruiting, you used to be first, second and third. Now I think you’re first and Jay Wright’s second.’ There’s nothing that he misses. There’s nothing. And he’s a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful man.”

There’s no question Villanova has been one of the best teams in the country over the past five seasons as the Wildcats have racked up 30-win campaigns and Big East championships. And there was that whole 2016 national title thing, too.

But putting them in the same category as blue bloods like Duke, Kansas and Calipari’s Kentucky is still something many college basketball fans around the country might not consider — but an appropriate way to understand the heights this program has reached.

It’s not just that the Wildcats have raced out to an 8-0 start despite losing program pillars Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins and Darryl Reynolds. It’s how they’re steamrolling teams, sucking the life out of them midway through a game after they keep it close. 

On Saturday at Hagan, St. Joe’s actually was right there, trailing 29-27 late in the first half as the home crowd rocked. At that point, was Wright expecting another classic, down-to-the-wire Big 5 battle?

“Hell yeah,” the Villanova coach said. “I did. We came ready to play, we really did. But they really out-scrapped us early. They got to loose balls. We got a couple fouls diving for loose balls because they got there first. … We said in the huddle, ‘You gotta weather this, man, because they’re coming at us. We gotta keep battling. It’s gonna have to be 40 minutes.’”

But things have changed now. Opposing teams have to be perfect to even stay with the Wildcats, who rarely make mistakes or take their foot off the gas. And the Hawks, who were missing standouts Lamarr Kimble (left foot) and Charlie Brown (left wrist), were not as Villanova blew the doors off their rival to win their 20th straight Big 5 game in memorable fashion.

“They’ve got two starters out and we played great,” Wright said. “That’s the bottom line.”

How great did the Wildcats play? You can start with the 19 three-pointers they made, which is a program record. Then you can look at their 24 assists on 33 made baskets. Or how six different players (Mikal Bridges, Jalen Brunson, Phil Booth, Donte DiVincenzo, Collin Gillespie, Omari Spellman) made multiple threes. Or how their defense completely smothered the Hawks.

Put it all together and it explains how a team goes on a 26-2 run, between two halves, on the road, against a formidable foe. Even still, Booth wasn’t sure how to explain how easily the Wildcats have been dispatching Big 5 opponents during their 20-game win streak.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I just learned from the older guys when I got here how important it is, how hard it is to play in this environment, how you have to depend on each other. I don’t have a reason for it but I’m glad we do play well here.”

Wright credited Booth, who finished with 17 points and eight rebounds, for helping to “set the tone” and is proud how well the guard has returned to form after a redshirt season.

“When you come into a tough arena like this,” the ’Nova coach said, “you gotta have guys who have been through it.”

He also praised Spellman’s inside-out game. Despite not starting due to missing his target weight, the redshirt freshman had 16 points and 11 rebounds while shooting 4 for 5 from behind the arc.

“That really helps,” Wright said. “His ability to shoot threes, he could always do it. We knew it. We probably weren’t doing a good enough to job to put him in a position to get them.”

How do you stop Villanova when their big man is hitting threes, along with Brunson, Bridges, Booth, DiVincenzo and Gillispie? 

La Salle and Temple will both get a crack at it over the next 11 days as Villanova chases its fifth straight perfect Big 5 season. So will another national juggernaut in Gonzaga in three days at Madison Square Garden.

Martelli has coached and seen plenty of great teams in his tenure, and he knows it won’t be easy.

“If they want to know what the top looks like,” the St. Joe’s coach said of his players after Saturday’s loss, “that’s what the top looks like.” 

No. 4 Villanova-St. Joe's observations: Wildcats cruise to 20th straight Big 5 win

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No. 4 Villanova-St. Joe's observations: Wildcats cruise to 20th straight Big 5 win

BOX SCORE

Make it 20.

On Saturday evening at Hagan Arena, No. 4 Villanova rolled to its 20th consecutive Big 5 victory in a style with a 94-53 rout of archrival St. Joe’s.

The Wildcats set a program record with 19 three-pointers in the win, breaking the previous mark of 17 — set vs. Lehigh in 2005 — on an Omari Spellman trey with 3:05 remaining.

Villanova shot a whopping 19 for 35 from three-point range to improve to 8-0 on the season and 2-0 in the Big 5.

St. Joe’s dropped to 4-4 and 0-1 in the Big 5 despite 14 points from senior James Demery.

• The game was decided late in the first half when Villanova drilled five straight three-pointers — two from Phil Booth, two from Spellman and one from Mikal Bridges — to take a 41-27 halftime lead into halftime.

• The Wildcats continued to build their lead in the second half, using a ridiculous 26-2 run to put the game away.

• How do you guard the “Killer B’s” for Villanova? Jalen Brunson (14 points), Booth (17 points) and Bridges (18 points) took turns making huge shots and are rounding into a nucleus that can rival any team in the nation.

• Yes, Villanova only led 29-27 at one point in this game. But just like the Wildcats did three days earlier in another Big 5 win (over Penn), they dialed up the defensive intensity, got really hot from the field and turned the game into a laugher. It’s remarkable, at times, to see how well Villanova mixes discipline with talent to throw off other teams.

• Spellman didn’t start because he was 1.2 pounds over his target weight. But he checked in just a few minutes into the game and made his presence felt with a huge block off the backboard early in the first half. He finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds — even with all that extra weight.

• After hitting the record-breaking three, Spellman then hit another one with a minute to go that bounced on the rim about five times. Yes, it was that kind of night for Villanova.

• Donte DiVincenzo (eight points) also got a nice shooter’s roll on one of his threes that bounced off the front rim and in. He also found Bridges for a pretty alley-oop in the first half.

• Taylor Funk (13 points) showed why he’s one of the most exciting freshmen in the city with a long three-pointer, a drive and dunk, and dive to save the ball in the first half. It’s clear he’s already becoming a fan favorite at St. Joe’s.

• The Brunson vs. Shavar Newkirk point guard battle should have been worth the price of admission alone. But Newkirk, who scored 10 points on 4-for-13 shooting, still doesn’t look completely look like the player that averaged over 20 points per game after tearing his ACL. Brunson, meanwhile, looks like one of the most complete guards in the nation.

• The Hawks were missing two of their best players in Lamarr Kimble (left foot) and Charlie Brown (left wrist). But both were still into the “Holy War” with Kimble, out for the season, waving his arms in unison with the Hawk mascot before the game and Brown hitting a ridiculous one-handed backwards halfcourt shot to the delight of the fans. It’s hard to say the Hawks could have won the game with those two available but they certainly would have made it far more competitive.

• The St. Joe’s student section was unbelievably loud and packed to the rafters, as it always is for big games. But they might want to rethink that “Overrated” chant directed at ’Nova, especially before the game even begins. Not sure about that “Jay Wright Sits to Pee” rollout either.

• Villanova is halfway to its fifth straight perfect Big 5 season and we’ll find out soon if the Wildcats can pull it off. They host La Salle at the Wells Fargo Center on Dec. 10 and visit Temple on Dec. 13.

• St. Joe’s has its next Big 5 matchup a week from now at Temple.

Villanova 'can't hear anything' in wild win inside loud Jake Nevin Field House

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Villanova 'can't hear anything' in wild win inside loud Jake Nevin Field House

BOX SCORE

VILLANOVA, Pa. — Jay Wright has his team’s routine down pat before games at the Pavilion or the Wells Fargo Center.

But ahead of Wednesday’s game at Jake Nevin Field House, the Villanova head coach realized he had forgotten something.

“We didn’t have a pregame meal,” he said. “We’re so used to doing it the way we do it, we missed out on setting it up. We all walked to the cafeteria and ate in the cafeteria with other students."

Wright paused and smiled, an interesting realization setting in.

“That’s probably what everybody always did," he said.

Call it another nostalgic touch in a game filled with them.

Inspired by the ghosts of Villanova past, the Wildcats put on a memorable performance in the program’s first game at Jake Nevin Field House since 1986, rolling to a 90-62 win over Penn (see observations).

But it was only after the final horn sounded and they walked off the court at the old “Cat House” that they could enjoy it. During the game, they couldn’t really do much in the way of talking with each other.

“Wild atmosphere,” Wright said. “It’s a difficult place to play for everybody, including the home team. You can’t hear anything. We legitimately had trouble communicating defensively. … I can’t imagine what that place used to be like when they had more seats in here.”

On Wednesday, there were only about 2,000 fans in the building — Villanova’s home court from 1931 until the Pavilion, now undergoing renovations, was built in 1986 — but almost all of them were students who were standing the whole game, singing in unison during breaks in the action, and erupting after every Villanova bucket.

“It was honestly awesome,” said point guard Jalen Brunson, who led Villanova with 17 points. “It was definitely a great experience. Like Coach said, it was hard to hear sometimes. I tried reading lips. I couldn’t really hear him.”

Redshirt freshman Omari Spellman had similar issues with the noise, saying he had to ask teammate Mikal Bridges “the same question 50 times.” Some of that, of course, was his own doing as his thunderous dunk midway through the first half brought down the house and set the tone as ’Nova began to pull away.

What was he thinking about on that play, as he stole the ball at midcourt and streaked toward the basket?

“Oh, I double-dribbled,” he said. “The ref didn’t call it. I definitely double-dribbled.”

That was one of a few tough breaks for the Quakers, who actually played a decent first half but still went into halftime down 18 points. The game was never close again, although Penn head coach Steve Donahue didn’t point to the atmosphere as a reason for the lopsided defeat.

“It’s not that different, to be quite honest with you,” he said. “It’s very comparable to probably 150 programs in America who play in a similar facility.”

Donahue gave much more credit to the Villanova players, who never took their foot off the gas en route to their 19th straight Big 5 victory.

“Sometimes you watch them on film and you’re slightly underwhelmed because they don’t have crazy talent,” said Donahue, who coached in the ACC with Boston College for four years. “On tape, Villanova doesn’t jump out like other teams. But what’s apparent when you play them is I’ve never coached against a team that’s smarter and tougher and more selfless.”

Wright, who can be critical of his team, admitted his team played really well and that if it didn’t, an improved Penn squad might have been able to keep it close. 

But even though he’s pleased by it, he’s equally baffled by how well the Wildcats have been able to consistently throttle Big 5 opponents over the last five seasons.

“We live here,” he said. “We watch these teams. … We play against each other in the summers. Penn will come to our place in the summer and we’ll go down to Penn. We have great respect for them. We’ll play five games and sometimes Penn will win three out of five.”

He added he doesn’t like to think about the Big 5 streak, which could hit 20 if they can beat archrival St. Joe’s at Hagan Arena on Saturday. The Wildcats then face La Salle at the Wells Fargo Center on Dec. 10 before perhaps their toughest Big 5 game of the season — at Temple on Dec. 13.

Without the benefit of playing any games at the Pavilion, could their city streak end this season?

“I think you’re gonna see three other great games against Villanova,” Donahue said. “I do feel like we want to end that streak. There’s no doubt. 

“I do think Villanova has it going but that being said, I think those three programs could beat them this year because it’s the Big 5 and the kids know each other.”