Villanova Wildcats

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

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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.”

Villanova cruises in Phil Booth's return

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Villanova cruises in Phil Booth's return

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Phil Booth returned to Villanova's lineup, and it looked as if he never left.

Booth had 14 points in his comeback from a broken right hand that sidelined him for seven games, and Mikal Bridges scored 27 points to lead No. 3 Villanova to a 93-62 victory over DePaul on Wednesday night.

Eric Paschall had 16 points, and Jalen Brunson added 11 points and seven assists to help the Wildcats (25-3, 12-3 Big East) beat DePaul for the 16th straight time.

Booth played 16 minutes, going 4 for 6 from the field and 2 for 4 from. He was injured Jan. 23 against Providence, had his cast removed Friday and practiced Tuesday.

Wildcats coach Jay Wright was pleasantly surprised at Booth's speedy recovery -- and his play.

"It's great to have him back," Wright said about Booth, who entered averaging 11.6 points. "It's a tribute to him. It looked like he never had anything wrong at practice. He looked good tonight, completely fine. It just amazes me."

Booth entered 2:53 into the contest and made his presence felt, scoring eight points in eight minutes to help the Wildcats to their 16-point halftime lead.

"It felt good to be back out there," Booth said. "A little rust but I wasn't worried about offense. My hand felt great."

Max Strus scored 21 points for the Blue Demons (10-17, 3-12).

The Wildcats had a comfortable 46-30 lead at the break. They surged to a 27-point advantage with 17:47 left in the contest by scoring 13 of the first 15 second-half points over 2:13. Bridges capped the run with a 3-pointer that made it 59-32 and practically erased any chances of a DePaul comeback.

"Our hands were down, we were late to a couple of rotations," Blue Demons coach Dave Leitao said of the Villanova spurt.

Leitao said the Wildcats have so many offensive options, and adding Booth makes it even harder to defend them.

"They are back to being whole," he said.

The game was tied at 16 after a Strus 3-pointer with 11:09 left in the half, but the Wildcats slowly and methodically pulled away.

Bridges had 15 points and Paschall added nine in the opening 20 minutes. Villanova was 10 for 14 from the free-throw line while the Blue Demons didn't attempt a foul shot. For the game, the Wildcats finished 15 for 21 from the line while DePaul was 0 for 1.

Big picture
DePaul: The Blue Demons need a victory in one of their three remaining games to reach four conference wins, which would be their most since joining the Big East.

Villanova: The four-time defending Big East champion Wildcats also have three regular-season games remaining. They are tied for first place with Xavier but own the tiebreaker with the Musketeers after beating them twice, including Saturday's 95-79 win at No. 4 Xavier.

Wright stuff
Wright recorded his 411th win at Villanova to close within two victories of tying Alexander Severance for first place in all-time coaching victories. In his 17th season at Villanova, Wright improved to 17-2 against DePaul.

Series dominance
The Wildcats have won 26 of the 34 matchups, with DePaul's last win coming Jan. 3, 2008. Villanova won at DePaul 103-85 on Dec. 27 in the other contest of this season's two-game series.

Strus for 3
Strus made three 3-pointers, finishing 3 for 9, to up his single-season total to 74 and pass Quentin Richardson for second-most in a season. Drake Diener, with 85 in the 2004-05 season, tops the list.

Up next
DePaul: Host Marquette on Saturday.

Villanova: At Creighton on Saturday.

Up-and-down week has Villanova steady in AP poll

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Up-and-down week has Villanova steady in AP poll

For the second week in a row, Jay Wright's Villanova squad endured a stunning upset and then followed it up with a statement victory.

And for the second week in a row, the Wildcats held steady in the AP Poll.

After falling 76-71 at Providence on Valentine's Day and then forcefully handling No. 4 Xavier 95-79 in enemy territory on Saturday, Villanova checks in at No. 3 in the AP Poll for the second straight week. This after the 'Cats spent the five weeks prior sitting pretty as the No. 1 team in the land.

The commanding victory at Xavier wasn't enough to propel Villanova ahead of No. 1 Virginia and No. 2 Michigan State. The Cavaliers received 42 first-place votes and the Spartans received 19 first-place votes. The Wildcats garnered four first-place votes for themselves.

Xavier held firm at No. 4 and Duke checked in at No. 5 to round out this week's top five.

March is looming and that means the Big East grind is winding down. The Wildcats, 11-3 in conference play and sitting in second place in the Big East behind 12-3 Xavier, own the tiebreaker over the Musketeers after Saturday's win. They have four regular-season contests left, starting with a home date vs. DePaul on Wednesday night. This week ends with a trip to Creighton on Saturday afternoon.

Take care of business and once again it looks like the Big East goes through Villanova, which has won the last four Big East regular-season titles.