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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Is it possible Villanova can trace its elevated level of play in the NCAA Tournament to its only loss in the last month?
Josh Hart thinks so.
Villanova’s only loss the last month was in the Big East Tournament championship game at Madison Square Garden by two points to Seton Hall, which at the time was playing as well as any team in the country.
The Wildcats came out sluggish in the first half against the Pirates and fell behind by 13 points early in the second half before finally regrouping and outscoring Seton Hall 34-23 and even briefly taking the lead in the final seconds before losing by two.
If Villanova needed a wake-up call going into the NCAA Tournament, it was that first half against Seton Hall.
“I think the second half of the Seton Hall game defensively is where we kind of picked it up a little bit,” Josh Hart said. “Phil Booth, Mikal Bridges came in, played outstanding minutes on the defensive end. That's the reason we were able to get in the game because we committed ourselves to defense.”
And the Wildcats have maintained that in their two games in the NCAA Tournament.
They go into Thursday’s 7:10 p.m. game against Miami in the South Region semifinals at the KFC Yum! Center coming off two lopsided wins in Brooklyn.
“I think it’s really big,” Ryan Arcidiacono said. “We try to play our best always at the end of the year and I think we’ve been doing that. The last couple games I think we played our best. Against Iowa, we were hitting on all cylinders.”
Villanova opened play in the NCAA Tournament with a 30-point win over UNC Asheville and followed with a 19-point win over Iowa, a game in which they led by as many as 34 points.
'Nova and Syracuse are the only teams in the Sweet 16 that won both their games so far by 19 or more points.
During the tournament, Villanova is No. 1 of all 68 teams in field goal percentage (59 percent) and assists (44), second in three-point shooting (49 percent), third in scoring (86.5 points per game), fourth in steals, sixth in turnovers forced (13 per game) and seventh in points allowed (62).
“The way we’ve played makes me more confident,” coach Jay Wright said. “We’re playing better than we played during the season, and a big part of it is Daniel Ochefu.”
Ochefu was still hobbled with a sprained ankle in the Big East Tournament and played only 16 minutes a game, finishing the three games with just 13 points and eight rebounds.
But finally healthy, he’s averaged 11.5 points, 10.5 rebounds, 3.0 blocks and 4.0 assists in Villanova’s two NCAA wins.
He’s the first player to record consecutive games in the NCAA Tournament with three blocks and three assists since Tyler Honeycutt of UCLA in 2011.
“A big part of this tournament is who’s healthy during this time, and having Daniel Ochefu healthy for the first time in over a month just makes us a much better team,” Wright said.
“He’s far more than just a big guy in the middle. Defensively, he can guard anybody. He passes out of the post. He’s our leader. He gets in guys. Demands of them that they play the right way. So it’s really big for us to have him healthy, and we can get better.”
“January 12 vs. Marquette, at home, when Daniel hurt his coccyx bone, then a couple games was in and out. Then got the flu at Georgetown and couldn’t play at Georgetown. Then he got the concussion and missed three games. Then he had the ankle and couldn’t play (much) in the Big East Tournament.
“I was just so frustrated that we couldn’t get him right, because I knew that was our best team.
“What I learned was that time, Kris (Jenkins) became a go-to guy. Darryl (Reynolds) got a lot better. Mikal got a lot better. So if that didn’t happen, we wouldn’t be in this spot. Now we get him back healthy and we’re playing our best basketball.”
Sometimes you need a well-timed loss to springboard you to greater heights.
Maybe Seton Hall is that loss for the Wildcats.
“The Seton Hall game was a heartbreaker, but we knew we didn’t play our best basketball game,” Hart said. “But it only made us hungrier. So we came into the tournament more committed to let’s defend let’s rebound, let’s execute, do all those things.
“Everything that we’ve been through all year really came together in those two games, and that’s really how you want it as a player and a coach.
“This is the hard part. We can’t get complacent. We have to keep pushing forward. We definitely believe we can make a deep run in this tournament, but we can’t get complacent.
“I don’t care about individual stats, I just care about Kris Jenkins, about Phil Booth, about the guys next to me. If we do that, then we can make a good run.
"If we play Villanova basketball and we run into a team and they steal it at the end? We’ll give them props but we’ll be able to look each other in the eye in the locker room and know we gave it up for each other, and that’s the biggest thing.”