Jalen Brunson

Vets for No. 1 Villanova help put the D in details

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Vets for No. 1 Villanova help put the D in details

BOX SCORE

Even as Villanova ascended to the No. 1 ranking in college basketball — twice — head coach Jay Wright could sense something was amiss.

Sure, the Wildcats were blowing teams out of the building but some of the scores gave him pause. 

Giving up 71 points to Hofstra in late December was far from ideal and allowing 85 points at DePaul five days later was even more worrisome. Then, at Butler a day before New Year’s Eve, Wright said “it all blew up” as Villanova surrendered 101 points in its first loss of the season that knocked the team off its No. 1 perch. And even though the ‘Cats surpassed 100 themselves in Saturday’s bounce-back win vs. Marquette that returned them to the No. 1 throne, they still gave up 90.

In other words, defense was a problem. A potentially serious one if they didn’t fix it.

It looks like they have — at least on Wednesday night at the Wells Fargo Center as they handcuffed No. 10 Xavier in a confidence-boosting 89-65 triumph (see observations).

“A very good performance by us against an outstanding team,” Wright said. “We’ve been struggling a little bit defensively and our guys really stepped it up.”

The ’Nova coach credited two of his top offensive players — Phil Booth and Mikal Bridges  — for setting the tone on the defensive end of the floor as the Wildcats got their hands in the passing lane, took Xavier stars Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura out of their rhythm, and forced the Musketeers to shoot a dismal 3 for 17 from three-point range.

For Booth, who also had an exceptional offensive game with a career-high 21 points on 5 for 8 shooting from behind the arc, that was clearly the high point of the night — and something he said the guys have been really stressing in practice.

“Without a doubt,” Booth said when asked if he took the recent string of defensive performances personally. “We couldn’t care less if we’re missing shots. If we lose a game 60-55, that’s not a problem for us. But defensively, people feeling they can score on us at any time is something we took as a challenge personally — from the coaches, captains, all the way down.” 

“Practice,” Bridges chipped in. “Getting better in our concepts. Practicing our defense and rebounding, that’s what made us go out here today. Coach knew what he had to do by doing a lot of concepts in our practices and we just keep getting better.”

So how exactly do you tell players on the nation’s top-ranked team that they need to forget their scorching offensive numbers and get down to the nitty-gritty defensive details every day in practice?

On another team with as many underclassmen as Villanova has, Wright admitted, it might not be easy. But having upperclassmen with a national title under their belt like Booth, Bridges and Jalen Brunson makes all the difference in the world.

“The older guys get it,” the ’Nova coach said. “A guy like Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree or Omari [Spellman], even Donte [DiVincenzo], they’re looking at you like, ‘We scored 100 points. We’re winning. What’s the big deal?’ It’s just human nature.

“But these guys,” Wright added, looking to Bridges and Brunson. “They’ve been around enough. These guys have picked it up quickly. I think it’s hard for any player when you’re winning to still focus on getting better. And if you have smart, older guys that can pass it down and set an example, that’s what happens and that’s why I was really proud of these guys.”

Villanova’s “older guys” aren’t just impressing their own coach. Xavier head coach Chris Mack was full of both frustration and praise after his national-caliber program was smoked at Villanova for a third straight year. (The Musketeers lost to the Wildcats by 25 last season and 31 a year before that.)

“It’s just a credit to Jay, his coaching staff, his team,” Mack said. “I’ve said before: they have an identity. We, along with probably all the other teams that play them, understand who they’re gonna be. They’re gonna be in passing lanes, they’re gonna try to rattle you on offense, they’re gonna shoot a lot of threes, and stretch the floor. And I think they’re led by the best point guard in college basketball.”

That would be Brunson, who had 17 points, five assists and only one turnover.

“He’s stoic,” Mack said. “If you peel his face off, he’ll probably have wires coming out of it. He’s phenomenal.”

Booth might be a little more human than the seemingly robotic Brunson. And that, for Wright, is what makes his story so special, as he’s slowly progressed from a season-ending injury last year to become one of the better players in the Big East.

“You forget because he doesn’t complain and he works so hard and he’s playing well,” Wright said. “But as a player, you’ve had an injury, you’re coming back, it feels good, you look good, but there’s gotta be some point when you think, ‘All right, I’m back.’ I would like to think tonight he got that feeling. He’s been playing great but I just saw a different confidence in him tonight.”

The ’Nova coach then asked Booth if he felt the same thing, and the redshirt junior mentioned the Dec. 5 Gonzaga game as a turning point.

“I don’t know,” Wright responded. “It looked good tonight, man.”

Another week on top for Villanova

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Another week on top for Villanova

Another successful week has Villanova right back where it began the week — at the top of the AP poll.

Jay Wright's Wildcats received 45 of the 65 first-place votes this week after smacking Big 5 rival Temple, 87-67, on Wednesday to improve to 11-0 on the season and extend their record Big 5 winning streak to an unprecedented 22 games.

Junior guard Jalen Brunson was spectacular vs. the Owls with a career high 31 points. Redshirt freshman big man Omari Spellman added 27 points of his own. Those two headed a sustained attack that just smothered Temple all evening long.

This marks the second straight week the Wildcats have been atop the poll. 

With the holidays approaching, the 'Cats have a quiet week this week with just a Friday night trip to Nassau Coliseum on Long Island to face Hoftsra in a game where Villanova will actually serve as the home team. Wright served as head coach at Hofstra from 1994-2001. Friday's game will be the last before Villanova hops into Big East play vs. DePaul on Dec. 27.

As for the rest of the top five this week, Michigan State held steady at No. 2, upstart Arizona state jumped all the way to No. 3, Duke stayed at No. 4 and defending champ North Carolina moved up to No. 5.

To see this week's entire AP top 25, click here.  

Jalen Brunson, Omari Spellman give Temple nightmare as No. 1 Villanova rolls

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Jalen Brunson, Omari Spellman give Temple nightmare as No. 1 Villanova rolls

BOX SCORE

In every play, there are protagonists and antagonists, heroes and villains. And some of us are drawn to the heroes while others revel in the villains.

And in the latest act of the historic Villanova-Temple rivalry Wednesday night in North Philly, a well-known Villanova hero and loathed Temple villain left his footprint yet again.

But this time, he was joined at the hip by an emerging jersey and shorts-wearing hero from the Main Line and a new North Broad Street villain who drew his first taste of Temple blood.

Star junior point guard Jalen Brunson sparkled with 31 points on 11 of 16 from the field, including 6 for 10 from downtown, and redshirt freshman Omari Spellman scorched the nets for 27 points of his own as that duo led No. 1 Villanova to a thorough 87-67 beatdown of Temple at the Liacouras Center (see observations).

The victory extended the record Big 5 win streak to 22 games for the Wildcats, now 11-0 on the season. Temple fell to 6-3.

After the game, all eyes, lights, cameras and recorders were on the dominant twosome, and rightfully so.

“I was just able to make my shots,” said Brunson, whose 31 points Wednesday were a career high. “I tried to make the right play at the right time. They were taking away certain plays and certain passes, so I was just trying to be aggressive.”

That ruthless aggression was on full display in the first half when Brunson came blazing out of the gate. He scored 10 straight Villanova points in a 1:57 span to ignite a 15-1 Wildcats run that pushed an eight-point lead all the way to a 20-point lead.

On that 10-0 personal run, Brunson showed his shifty elusiveness by dazzling a Temple defender and the crowd with a spinning layup and then showing his range with two treys. As the half went on, Brunson was scoring with every blink of an eye. He finished the half with 22 points.

With redshirt junior Phil Booth, who entered averaging 12.7 points per night, limited with a virus, Villanova head coach Jay Wright had a feeling Brunson would take command of this one.

“He was incredible,” Wright said. “It’s really no surprise to us. He can do that every night, but we like to keep balance. With Phil Booth being out … I knew [Brunson] was going to be more aggressive. They did a really good job taking away our perimeter guys, so it forced somebody to go create shots.

“He made the shots tonight and that was the difference.”

The Liacouras Center is always hostile territory for anyone wearing blue and white, but especially so for Brunson, who spurned the Owls to sign with the Wildcats three years ago out of high school even though his father, Rick, is a Temple legend who starred under John Chaney in the early 1990s.

Temple fans haven’t forgotten and peppered Brunson with every word and name in the book on Wednesday, just as they did two years ago when he made his first trip to North Philly as a Wildcat. That game two years ago was his true freshman arrival as he dropped 25 points in a spectacular performance. He’s a Temple menace as he’s dropped 69 points on 23 of 33 shooting, including 13 of 20 from downtown in three games against the Owls.

“It is what it is,” Brunson said of the not-so-flattering words from fans. “I try to keep the same mindset throughout every game. Being aggressive, trying to set the tone defensively, tell my teammates and the younger guys that we make sure to play through the full 40 minutes.

“It’s being aggressive and just trying to be a killer. Tonight was just one of those nights I got it going.”

On to his partner in crime Spellman, who lit up the scoreboard in a variety of ways in his first exposure to this heated rivalry. The 6-foot-9 redshirt freshman torched the Owls for his 27 points on 11 of 14 from the field — 7 for 7 inside the arc and brilliant touch on 4 for 7 outside the arc. He’s a matchup nightmare, perhaps unlike Wright has ever had on the Main Line.

“It definitely helps to be around players that are as good as my teammates are every day,” Spellman said.  

“We know we need an inside presence, and we know he can do that,” Wright said of Spellman. “As we’re doing that with him, we’re working on footwork and we’re watching him. We chart our shooters and we said, ‘This kid is one of our best shooters. What are we doing?’

“We can’t disregard the fact he’s one of our best shooters. With Phil down tonight and losing (Collin) Gillespie, we said to him, ‘Yo, you gotta do this.’ I’m sure he’s been waiting for it. He’s never asked. But he showed he can do it tonight.”

The performances of both Brunson and Spellman are testaments to the rich depth Villanova has. Booth was limited and leading scorer Mikal Bridges had an off night with just seven points. He averaged 18.1 coming in.

Still, Villanova barely had to look back. Quinton Rose’s career-high 27 points guided Temple’s efforts, but it wasn’t nearly enough. Not even his three straight threes in the first half that cut Villanova’s lead to seven and his subsequent shout for his teammates to "Wake up!" did the trick.

“They’re a team that just goes on some killer runs and they did that, obviously in the first half, which hurt us greatly,” Temple coach Fran Dunphy said. “We got it back to seven in that first half and then they go on a 10-0 run that spaces them again. … You can’t make a mistake, and when you do, they take great advantage of it. Those runs are just devastating.

“They’ve got a lot of weapons and Bridges wasn’t a dominating player here. He can be dominating. Phil Booth can be dominating. Tonight it was Brunson and Spellman. They’re just a really good basketball team.”

Dunphy is a Big 5 lifer who’s seen it all in this game. And he said those quotes with an exasperated tone to his voice. His guys gave Villanova their best shot on this evening and still fell the way they did.

That right there should tell you just how good and scary this Villanova team is.