Villanova Wildcats

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.” 

Villanova moves up to No. 1 in the nation

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Villanova moves up to No. 1 in the nation

If you're looking for a sliver of good news on a depressing day in Philly sports, Villanova is now the No. 1 team in the nation.

The 10-0 Wildcats moved up to the top spot in Monday's AP poll, receiving 41 of 65 first-place votes.

Michigan State, Wichita State, Duke and Arizona State round out the top five, in that order (see Top 25).

Duke, the unanimous No. 1 team the last two Mondays, lost 89-84 on Saturday at Boston College.

Last week's No. 2 team, Kansas, moved down to No. 13 after losing twice last week to Washington and Arizona State.

Villanova plays twice this week — at Temple on Wednesday for a Big 5 showdown, then vs. Hofstra on Friday night. Those are the Wildcats' last two non-conference games before they begin Big East play on Dec. 27 at DePaul.

Donte DiVincenzo, Phil Booth help No. 4 Villanova survive La Salle scare

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Donte DiVincenzo, Phil Booth help No. 4 Villanova survive La Salle scare

BOX SCORE

Duke's run at No. 1 ended with a court-storming loss at Boston College and No. 2 Kansas wilted in a rare home loss.

Undaunted and undefeated, Villanova is charging toward the top spot.

"We played the next No. 1 team in the country," La Salle coach John Giannini said Sunday.

The Explorers got a taste of how tough it can be to knock off the Wildcats. La Salle scored more baskets, sank more 3-pointers, had more steals and still was just another victim in Villanova's unbeaten season.

Phil Booth scored 18 points and Donte DiVincenzo had 18 points and 10 rebounds to help the fourth-ranked Wildcats avoid an upset in a 77-68 win over La Salle.

"They don't have bad games," Giannini said.

This was as close as one gets for the Wildcats (10-0). They were sloppy -- throwing the ball away several times on outlet passes -- slumped from the 3-point line and could not shake the pesky Explorers until the final minutes of the game to win their 21st straight Big 5 game.

The Wildcats had depth and a massive edge from the free-throw line to sink the Explorers. La Salle (5-6) was a two-man show in B.J Johnson and Amar Stukes, and that was enough to give them a 62-61 lead with 4:47 left.

But the Wildcats had Booth and DiVincenzo, and Jalen Brunson scored 17 and Mikal Bridges, quiet all game, came to life for crucial baskets late to seal the win. Throw in the whopping disparity from the line -- Villanova made 27 of 35, La Salle was 4 of 5 -- and the Wildcats made their case for why they should fight it out with No 3. Michigan State (9-1) to become the new No. 1 team in the AP Top 25.

"It's a great lesson for our guys. The score isn't always what the game is really about," Villanova coach Jay Wright said.

Booth put the Wildcats ahead with three free throws and followed with an assist on DiVincenzo's 3-pointer that made it 67-62 and finally gave them a bit of breathing room. Bridges, coming off a career-high 28 points against Gonzaga, went inside for a pair of tough buckets and a 71-64 lead that brought the Villanova fans to their feet.

"These guys have played in these games. They're not surprised," Wright said.

Johnson led the Explorers with 21 points and Stukes had 16 to help keep slim hopes alive of pulling off a stunner. The duo combined to hit seven 3-pointers and carried La Salle to the brink of victory.

"When we're out there and we started making plays, we felt like we could do that against anybody," Stukes said. "The shots started falling. We just had to play defense."

The Wildcats beat No. 12 Gonzaga by 16 points this week at Madison Square Garden and were expected to roll against the Explorers at the Wells Fargo Center. The foundation for their perfect record had come from the 3-point line; the Wildcats hit a school-record 19 against Saint Joseph's and buried 10 against the Zags. Against the Explorers, the 3s dried up in the first half. Villanova missed its first six attempts and missed eight of 10 overall in the half.

La Salle went the opposite direction in the first half. Shooting a miserable 29 percent from 3-point range this season, the Explorers went 6 of 12 to take a 38-37 lead. Stukes hit two straight 3s and his bucket a tick before the horn gave La Salle the lead at the break.

Villanova, La Salle, Saint Joseph's, Temple and Penn make up the city series field. The Wildcats have emerged as the class of the city and haven't been defeated by a Philadelphia-area team since Temple won on Dec. 5, 2012.

Big picture
La Salle: The Explorers lost for the 15th time in the last 16 games against Villanova. But a lot of teams lose all the time to `Nova. It's what the Explorers do from here that will define their season. They have two more nonconference games to shape up before they open the Atlantic 10 season Dec. 30 against St. Louis. The Explorers haven't made the NCAA Tournament since 2013 and will need more consistent performances like they had in the first half to get there again this season.

Villanova: The Wildcats win again. Even when the score is close, the outcome never seems in doubt against a city school. Los Angeles Lakers rookie Josh Hart, one of the stars of the 2016 national championship team, sat courtside and earned a standing ovation as the alum of the game. He trash-talked Johnson in the second half and laughed when the La Salle forward buried a bucket after their exchange.

Ouch
Villanova played without G Collin Gillespie because of a left wrist injury suffered in practice.

Up next
La Salle: Hosts Mercer on Sunday.

Villanova: The Wildcats finish the Big 5 season Wednesday at Temple.