Jay Wright admitted he was surprised following Villanova's 28-point drubbing of Seton Hall on Sunday at the Wells Fargo Center. Wright wasn't surprised by the outcome of the game necessarily, but he was a little caught off guard by just how much progress his team has made over the last six weeks.
The Wildcats lost to No. 1 Kansas on Dec. 15 to drop to 8-4 on the season. Their four losses matched Villanova's loss total from each of the previous two seasons. In addition to the Kansas loss, they were blown out at home by Michigan, beaten by Furman in overtime, and bested by Penn, a loss that snapped Villanova's 25-game Big 5 winning streak.
The Wildcats' offense was clunky and more alarmingly, their trademark defensive intensity was nowhere to be found. It seemed like this group might be destined for the NIT.
Fast forward to the final days of January and Villanova looks like a completely different team. The Wildcats haven't lost since that mid-December Saturday in Kansas. They have won eight straight games, sit in first place in the Big East with a perfect 7-0 conference record and have climbed up to 14th in this week's AP Top 25 poll.
It isn't a stretch to say this is Jay Wright's best coaching job in his 18 years as Villanova head coach. The Wildcats' improvement is truly staggering. The offense suddenly looks dynamic, the crisp ball movement and all-around unselfishness resembling the great Villanova teams of recent years. They are once again connected on defense, something senior Phil Booth points toward as the biggest reason for Villanova's winning streak.
Wright has won two national championships in the last three years, establishing Villanova as the country's premiere program over the last half decade. His teams won 165 games from 2014-2018, the most wins in a five-year period in college basketball history. Wright's resume will earn him induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame sooner rather than later.
Yet there are a handful of reasons why this season has been his most impressive work to date.
Leaning on the seniors
Booth and fellow fifth-year senior Eric Paschall have been nothing short of sensational. Wright has built the success of his program on the backs of upperclassmen, a rarity for a top-tier program in this era of college basketball. This season has been no different. Booth and Paschall are averaging 21.9 and 20.0 points per game, respectively, in Villanova's seven Big East games. They combined to score 26 of the Wildcats' 30 first half points Sunday against Seton Hall.
Wright calls Booth and Paschall two of the best players in the country. It's easy to see why. They do it all for the Wildcats, both in terms of on-court production and off-court leadership. Booth is performing at an All-American level and Paschall continues to boost his NBA Draft stock. This duo will become even more valuable in February and March. They have seen it all and have tons of winning experience. Wright's biggest challenge will be keeping Booth and Paschall fresh for the season's stretch run — they both average just under 35 minutes per game.
Developing the complementary pieces
While Booth and Paschall were known commodities coming into the season, there weren't any other proven veterans on the Villanova roster. Grooming the Wildcats' complementary pieces is where Wright deserves the most credit. Sophomore Collin Gillespie has blossomed as a reliable floor general, averaging over 11 points per game and shooting just under 40 percent from three-point territory. Freshman Saddiq Bey is developing into an explosive, versatile all-around weapon.
Then there are sophomore forwards Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree and Jermaine Samuels, both of whom have stepped up into starring roles when needed. Factor in the steadiness of senior transfer Joe Cremo and the Wildcats have a solid blend of youth and experience. The rotation has been a juggling act for Wright. He has used seven different starting lineups in 20 games this season, often times adjusting to the tendencies and characteristics of the opponent on a game-by-game basis. Wright has deftly managed roles and egos within the Villanova culture he continues to develop.
Managing the Quinerly situation
This has arguably been Wright's biggest challenge of the season. Freshman Jahvon Quinerly arrived at Villanova with lofty expectations — a McDonald's High School All-American billed as the next great Wildcats lead guard. But Quinerly was slow to adjust to how Villanova plays, particularly on the defensive end. He didn't get off the bench in four non-conference games, his frustration boiling over with a negative Instagram post following Villanova's loss to Penn.
But Wright understood that he was going to need Quinerly at some point and couldn't run the risk of losing him, either to a transfer or Quinerly mentally checking out on the season. Over the last six weeks, Quinerly has gradually become a more integral part of Villanova's rotation. He scored eight points in 15 minutes against Seton Hall on Sunday and figures to be more and more involved moving forward. Credit to both Quinerly and Wright for not letting this situation go off the rails back in December.
Wright has his team in terrific position to win a fifth Big East regular season championship in the last six years. The stumbles and frustration of November and December are a distant memory. February and March are regarded as the proving ground in college basketball and Villanova is poised to make yet another statement thanks in large part to their head coach.