Villanova Wildcats

No. 1 Villanova shows just how scary it can be

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No. 1 Villanova shows just how scary it can be

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In some ways, Wednesday’s top-10 showdown at the Wells Fargo Center failed to live up to its billing.

Blame Villanova’s dominance.

Phil Booth poured in 21 points to lead the top-ranked Wildcats to an 89-65 rout of No. 10 Xavier. Jalen Brunson added 17 points and five assists for the Wildcats (15-1 overall, 3-1 Big East), who returned to the No. 1 spot in the rankings Monday.

Kerem Kanter scored a team-high 16 for the Musketeers (15-3, 3-2), who have now dropped two straight despite looking like one of the best teams in the nation over the first couple of months of the season.

• As they’re prone to do, the Wildcats set the tone early with a couple of quick three-pointers and an Omari Spellman block within the first two minutes. That’s a good indicator as to how well-coached and well-prepared the ’Cats always are, no matter the opponent.

• Booth led the charge early with 11 points in the first six and a half minutes. He shot a cool 8 for 11 and 5 for 8 from three-point range for the game.

• Doesn’t it seem like this team just doesn’t miss sometimes? Xavier leads the Big East in field goal percentage defense (.401), but ’Nova was able to solve it with ease by shooting 55.2 percent from the field. The Wildcats’ second-half shooting percentage (62.1) was even better.

• Villanova, which had been averaging 89.3 points per game in its first three Big East games, also dialed up the defensive intensity by holding Xavier to 65 points on 41.4 percent shooting. The Wildcats also scored 18 points off 15 Xavier turnovers (see story).

• The play of the game probably came midway through the first half when a Donte DiVincenzo (11 points) steal set up a Booth-to-Eric-Paschall (14 points) alley-oop that brought down the house and gave Villanova a commanding 22-9 lead.

• Xavier — a very good team that’s coming off an Elite Eight run last March — managed to initially hang around, scoring six quick points after the alley-oop. But the packed Wells Fargo Center crowd, sensing a shift in the momentum, picked up the noise and Brunson responded to end a four-minute scoring drought.

• Surprisingly, the Musketeers never really got too close again — a familiar trend for a team that, despite all its success, has beaten ’Nova only once since the new iteration of the Big East began in 2013 and often gets blown out.

• Trevon Bluiett, who ranks fifth in the Big East in scoring, was held to 11 points and struggled to make an impact. J.P. Macura, a standout senior, scored only five. 

• A highlight for Xavier came midway through the first half with a soaring one-handed dunk for Naji Marshall. But the Wildcats responded shortly after with a Booth dunk to restore the momentum in their favor and take the drama out of the second half.

• If any team can end Villanova’s four-year run as Big East regular-season champs, you still gotta think it’s Xavier — although with two conference losses, the Musketeers may need to be close to perfect the rest of the way. Creighton and Seton Hall, also in the Top 25, will of course be contenders, too.

• Jay Wright, fresh off his milestone victory in Saturday’s 100-90 win over Marquette, now has 401 wins at Villanova. He’s 13 away from matching the all-time mark set by Alexander Severance, who won 413 games from 1936-61.

• Villanova hits the road for its next three games, traveling to St. John’s, Georgetown and UConn before returning to the Wells Fargo Center to face Providence on Jan. 23. 

• There must be a big playoff game coming up or something. A few E-A-G-L-E-S chants broke out in the final minute of the game as Villanova’s walk-ons duked it out on the floor.

Villanova bounces back with milestone-filled night

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Villanova bounces back with milestone-filled night

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No. 3 Villanova had a week to stew over its first loss of the season, a 101-93 loss to Butler last Saturday in Indianapolis, and figure out a way to wash the bitter taste of defeat out of its mouth.

“We had a long week after getting our butts kicked,” Wildcats head coach Jay Wright said.

“No one was in a good mood.”

A trip home to South Philly, career nights from two less-heralded Wildcats and a typically steady night from the always-heralded Jalen Brunson was just what Wright ordered on a milestone night.

Eric Paschall tied a career-high with 19 points, Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree added a career-high 10 of his own and Brunson added a team-high 27 (and eight assists) as Villanova held off a late Marquette surge to down the Golden Eagles, 100-90, at Wells Fargo Center Saturday night.

The win pushed the ‘Cats record to 14-1 on the season and 2-1 in Big East play. The Golden Eagles’ fell to 11-5 overall and 2-2 in the conference.

With victory No. 400, Wright inched closer to becoming Villanova’s all-time wins leader. Alexander Severance, who coached on the Main Line from 1936-61, is currently atop the list with 413 victories. If Villanova goes on another long tear, Wright could tie Severance as early as Feb. 21 vs. DePaul and vault past him as early Feb. 24 at Creighton.

Ever the spotlight-shunning coach, Wright, knee-deep in his 17th season at Villanova, predictably was coy when asked after the game about his achievement.

“I’m just happy we took a step defensively tonight,” Wright said. “I promise you, one day when I’m finished that I will look back on it with great pride. I promise you that. And I will feel really good about it. I’m happy to have been here that long. That’s really nice.”

Marquette head coach Steve Wojciechowski took a much different route when asked about the achievement of his Saturday evening counterpart. He went the effusive-praise route.

“Jay’s as good a coach as there is in the United States,” Wojciechowski said. “In my mind, he’s a future Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer. The league right now goes through Villanova. I think he handles the mantle of being the marquee coach in our conference as much class and dignity as you can handle it. He’s created an incredible program at Villanova.”

On the court, the redshirt junior Paschall got the ‘Cats off to a burning-hot start with three early treys to help put overmatched Marquette into a hole the Golden Eagles never could claw their way out of. Villanova’s first-half lead reached as many as 14 points. For the game, it went as high as 17 early in the second half.

“The only thing I thought about was just to shoot it,” said Paschall, who entered the contest shooting just 25 percent from three-point land on the year. He hit all three attempts Saturday. “I don’t really think about that. I just have to play defense.”

Cosby-Roundtree, the 6-foot-8 true freshman forward out of South Philly’s Neumann-Goretti High, filled his line on the stat sheet on a perfect 5 for 5 from the field. All 10 of his points, including a huge dunk on a fast break, came in the first half when the ‘Cats built up their insurmountable advantage.

Cosby-Roundtree is set to have an expanded role in the coming weeks with fellow big Jermaine Samuels both on the shelf with a hand injury. If Saturday was a taste of what’s to come, Wright surely liked what he saw.

“Dhamir was awesome. I’m so happy for him,” Wright said. “It’s hard to come into this program as a freshman, especially as a freshman big. We need him. And he did a great job.”

It’s almost easy to take Brunson’s smoothness on the court for granted. Coming off a showing at Butler when he scored 31 points to match a career-high, he controlled the floor with his 27 points on 8 for 15 shooting 9 for 11 from the free-throw line and and steadied Villanova when Marquette pushed back in the second half and cut the lead down to as little as five as late as 43 seconds left.

“They’re a great team and they have a great point guard,” Wojciechowski said. “Any team with a double-figure lead with a point guard like Jalen Brunson, who’s as good a guard there is in the country, catch-up is not the ideal place to be.”

You want balance? Try this on for size: six Wildcats finished in double figures. That’ll get the job done.

The Wildcats knew they’d be in for a stiff test against Marquette junior guard Markus Howard, who made national headlines earlier in the week, and rightfully so, for his spectacular 52-point performance in a 95-90 OT victory at Providence Wednesday night. And Howard got his. He poured in a game-high 37 and led the late, ultimately unsuccessful Marquette scare.

“Markus just got it going,” Wright said of Howard, who went 13 of 27 from the field, including 5 for 13 from downtown, and 6 for 6 from the line. “It was almost just like the Providence game. Once he got it going, there’s just not much you can do. When you trap him, the other guys are good enough that they can make plays. You play him one-on-one and he jumps into you and creates contact and gets fouls. … We tried to take away his threes, but we gave up traditional threes.”

But, still, that wasn’t enough to topple the mighty Wildcats, who have now not lost two straight games since March 2013. The last time the ‘Cats lost two straight was when they dropped a 74-55 decision to Louisville in the second round of the Big East tournament and then absorbed a 78-71 defeat at the hands of North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament a week later. That was so long ago that Louisville as a Big East member is like ancient history.

“I never think about that and then every time it happens and someone says it to me, I think that’s really cool,” Wright said of his program’s incredible streak. “I like that. I like it a lot. I think it says a lot about our guys. I think it says a lot about the character of our guys.

“Every time you guys say it, I think, wow, that’s really cool. I like to say I take pride in it. But I don’t think about it. When you say it, I’m proud of it. But I’ll forget about it tomorrow.”

“I think the most important thing I’ve learned here is that win or lose a game, we’re coming back the next day to get better,” Brunson said. “Obviously, if we lose a game it’s going to refocus us a little bit. But we want to get better every time we step on the court.”

And the next time they step on the court, all the baby blue Villanova eyes turn to the game of the season this coming Wednesday at the Wells Fargo Center when No. 5 Xavier comes to town for a titanic nationally televised showdown.

The Musketeers will likely not be as high as No. 5 after an 81-72 loss at Providence earlier Saturday. But still, Big East supremacy and bragging rights are on the line.

To the victor goes the jump-start to the No. 1 seed in the conference tourney. To the loser goes perhaps a season-long game of catch-up, as Wojciechowski said, is not the ideal place to be.

No. 1 Villanova is no longer perfect

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No. 1 Villanova is no longer perfect

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INDIANAPOLIS — No. 1 Villanova learned a tough lesson Saturday.

The defense needs to improve dramatically if the Wildcats want to be the nation's best team.

Kelan Martin scored 24 points, Paul Jorgensen added a career-high 23 and Butler made 15 3-pointers in a 101-93 upset over one of college basketball's last unbeaten teams.

"This is the best offense we've played so far and it showed," coach Jay Wright said. "We've really been outscoring teams to this point and we weren't going to outscore this team tonight."

Certainly not against a foe that seems to have a master plan for taking down the Wildcats (13-1, 1-1 Big East).

Almost exactly a year after ending another perfect start to knock Villanova out of the top spot, Butler did it again.

This time, Villanova came into the game allowing 65.8 points and 6.6 3s per game with 10 wins by 14 or more points.

Butler's shooters blew right past those numbers. Martin and Jorgensen each made four 3s, Kamar Baldwin, who flirted with a triple-double, had three and Henry Baddley and Sean McDermott each made two.

When it ended, Butler shot 60 percent from the field including 15 of 22 from beyond the arc, both season-lows for Villanova. And the Bulldogs posted the highest scoring total against Villanova since Creighton's 101-80 victory on Feb. 16, 2014.

Afterward, students ignored the school's pleas to delay storming the court until players had left the floor and the Bulldogs talked about the need to do even bigger and better things.

"Villanova is a team that I grew up watching, watching in the Garden," said Jorgensen, a native of New City, New York. "So to take them down at Hinkle is really amazing. But like Coach said, we don't want this to be the highlight of our season."

The Wildcats really didn't play that poorly.

Jalen Brunson matched his career high with 31 points and Mikal Bridges had 21 to help Villanova storm back from a 23-point deficit to get within six with 1:33 left. But Brunson missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with a chance to make it a four-point game 12 seconds later and the Wildcats couldn't get any closer.

Butler made seven 3s in the final minutes of the first half to take a 53-45 lead then made all five of their 3s in the second half. When the Wildcats started defending the arc, Butler took advantage with a bevy of layups and dunks, extending the lead to 81-58 with 10:23 left.

"They adjusted to us on the line and started taking away the 3s, so we had to drive to the basket and attack in different ways," Butler coach LaVall Jordan said. "We made the adjustment and stayed on the attack."

Villanova countered with full-court pressure and when Butler started throwing the ball away, the Wildcats ran off 14 straight points to make it 84-76 with 5:04 to go.

They just couldn't quite finish it off.

"We've got a lot of room to improve," Bridges said. "We're definitely going to get better."

Big picture
Villanova: The Wildcats have lost five times over the last two seasons -- three times to Butler. They'll meet again Feb. 10. But explaining those losses -- all with Villanova ranked No. 1 or No. 2 and all by eight points -- sounds incomprehensible.

Butler: Jordan got his first big win since returning to his alma mater. The win certainly helps the Bulldogs' tourney resume and the entertaining performance on national television could help with recruiting, too. But Jordan wants to see his team start playing this way consistently.

Key numbers
Villanova: Donte DiVincenzo had 16 points and Eric Paschall had 15. ... Omari Spellman had nine rebounds while Brunson added five assists. ... The Wildcats only had four turnovers and outscored Butler 52-30 in the paint.

Butler: Baldwin had 19 points, nine rebounds and seven assists. ... The Bulldogs had nine of their 13 turnovers in the last 10 minutes. ... They also had a 37-26 rebounding edge. ... Butler is 9-0 at home this season.

Project 44
Jordan wore a special T-shirt over his dress shirt and tie Saturday to remind people about the need to donate bone marrow through Project 44, which honors the late Andrew Smith.

Smith, who played on Butler's two Final Four teams, died in January 2016 after battling cancer. He was 25. His widow, Samantha, and one of Smith's former teammates, Chase Stigall, whose donation helped save a young boy, spoke to the crowd during the first media timeout.

"That was a lot of fun," Jordan said. "Two wins for the Butler family."

Up next
Villanova: The Wildcats get a short break before hosting Marquette next Saturday, ending a 37-day stretch with only one home game.

Butler: Renews its rivalry at No. 6 Xavier on Tuesday.