Villanova Wildcats

Defending champion Villanova shows its experience in NCAA Tournament first-round win over Saint Mary's

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Defending champion Villanova shows its experience in NCAA Tournament first-round win over Saint Mary's

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HARTFORD, Conn. — Villanova got off to a slow start in defense of its NCAA championship against a determined, defensive-minded Saint Mary's team that came in confident after a season-defining win.

But the Wildcats, a No. 6 seed in this NCAA Tournament after an up-and-down season, have one thing no team in the field of 64 has: a pair of leaders who have won two national titles.

 NPhil Booth scored 20 points, fellow senior Eric Paschell added 14 and Villanova held off 11th-seeded Saint Mary's 61-57 on Thursday night.

"We're growing, our young guys are growing, but we have two seniors who do everything for us, on and off the court," coach Jay Wright said. "We're just so lucky to have them."

Sophomore Jermaine Sameuls added 12 points for the Wildcats (26-9), who led for almost 33 minutes, but never by more than eight points.

"The tempo was excruciating," Wright said. "We felt going in we were going to have to grind with them."

The Gaels used the same slow pace to upset Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference Tournament, and it gave them a chance against Villanova (26-9) in a tense opening-round matchup.

Jordan Ford and Malik Fitts each had 13 points for Saint Mary's (22-12). Ford's basket in the lane after a few nifty moves got the Gaels within six points at 61-55 with 34 seconds left.

After Paschell missed a foul shot on the other end, Fitts cut the deficit to four points with a leaner in the lane. The Gaels had two more chances in the final seconds, but Fitts hit the rim on a 3-point attempt and Villanova freshman Saddiq Bey stole the ball from Ford in the final seconds to seal the win.

"We had a few games this year where we put the press on and were able to get back in the game," said Ford. "And if we get a few of those loose balls, or maybe make a three when we were down four, I think it's a different game."

Saint Mary's led 30-28 at the half, but Booth scored the first five points after intermission during a 12-3 run that put the Wildcats up 40-33. He had 12 points and five of his six assists in the second half.

"We weren't doing that bad, actually," Booth said. "It was more that they were playing very well and we were trying to match how they were bringing it. I think we just had to take it to another level, because they were playing at a high level."

Big picture

Villanova: The defending champions are in the tournament for the 14th time in 15 seasons and improved to 14-1 since 2016.

Saint Mary's: The Gaels are 4-6 in opening-round games in the NCAA Tournament and 5-10 overall. Saint Mary's has advanced to the Sweet 16 once in the modern era when it beat the Wildcats in 2010. There's a reminder of that run in the hallway outside the locker room that the players see as they walk out to practice each day in McKeon Pavilion.

Empty arena

The game tipped to a relatively empty arena, but it wasn't because nobody had bought tickets.

Fans of the Wildcats, many of whom made the 4-hour drive from Philadelphia to Hartford, Connecticut, were lined up along with Gaels fans behind metal detectors as security emptied the arena from the afternoon session.

"You worry about those things, you know?" Wright said. "We have a lot of guys in the NCAA Tournament for the first time thinking, `This is the NCAA Tournament?' There's no one in the stands."

By halftime, the 16,000-seat XL Center was nearing capacity, but some frustrated fans were sill filing in.

From distance

The game was billed as a battle between one of the nation's top 3-point shooting teams in Villanova against some of the nation's best perimeter defenders. In the end, the Wildcats finished 8 of 20 from behind the arc, while Saint Mary's was 8 of 22.

On the boards

The taller Gaels won the rebounding battle 33-29 and 10-5 on the offensive end. The Wildcats didn't have an offensive board until the second half and that led to an 11-4 advantage for Saint Mary's in second-chance points. Wright said this year's team was hurt by the transfer of 6-foot-9 Dylan Painter, but is going to have to find a way against taller opponents.

Up next

Villanova will play No. 3 seed Purdue in the second round Saturday.

Villanova's Jay Wright selling gorgeous Berwyn home for $2.5 million

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Zillow

Villanova's Jay Wright selling gorgeous Berwyn home for $2.5 million

For a cool $2.5 million, you can live like a national champion.

Villanova head coach Jay Wright is putting his five-acre, 6,200-square-foot house in Berwyn for sale, according to a report from the Philadelphia Business Journal.

The house, a short drive from the school's campus, isn't technically on the market just yet. It will officially be listed for sale Feb. 24.

There's no need for Villanova fans to panic, though: Wright and his wife Patricia are simply looking to downsize now that their children have grown up, according to the Journal, rather than leave the area.

Yes, Wright's name pops up in NBA head coaching talks all the time. Yes, one day it might happen. This is not that time.

From the story:

The Wrights are downsizing and looking to move closer to Villanova, [broker Maribeth] McConnell said. The Berwyn house was their family home, and now their children are grown, she said.

Wright and his wife bought the house for $1.6 million in 2009, according to the Journal.

Spread across five acres, the house has six bedrooms, six full baths, six fireplaces, a three-car garage, a tennis court and a basketball court, and an inground pool, along with a 1,100-square-foot living space over the detached garage.

It's a pretty nice house:

Jay Wright weighs in on major Villanova storylines at season's midpoint

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Jay Wright weighs in on major Villanova storylines at season's midpoint

Villanova arrives at the unofficial midpoint of the season with a 12-3 overall record and a 3-1 mark in the Big East. The Wildcats have 16 regular-season games remaining, then it’s on to the Big East Tournament and what they hope will be their 15th trip to the NCAA Tournament in the last 16 years. 

I sat down with Villanova head coach Jay Wright for an exclusive conversation about the major storylines concerning his team as they gear up for the stretch run. 

The Big East grind

Villanova has dominated the Big East since the conference was reconfigured prior to the 2013-14 season. The Wildcats won the regular season championship five of the last six seasons and the conference tournament four of the last five years. 

They’ll have their work cut out for them continuing that run of dominance this year. The Big East is one of the toughest conferences top to bottom in the country.

With a 3-1 record in conference play, Villanova is currently looking up at both Seton Hall (4-0) and Butler (3-0) in the league standings. The road ahead is daunting — there aren’t any guaranteed wins on the Big East schedule. 

Wright’s Take: “You can look at any conference in the country and there are certain schools in that conference where you say 'Well, they're a football school.' In our conference there are no football schools, everybody is a basketball school. This means the world to everybody at every university. So whoever is No. 10 (last place in the conference) it’s still the biggest thing on their calendar. When you go there it is a tough, tough game. 

This year, it’s a whole different level because everyone has proven in the non-conference schedule just how good they are. All the teams are going to need to have short memories. We were terrible against Marquette (on January 4th) but Marquette is really good. We played in front of 18,000 crazy, screaming fans. So you can't get down on yourself from that performance, you’ve got to come back and go to Creighton three days later and play in front of another 18,000 crazy screaming fans.”

Inconsistent shooting

Villanova has been at the forefront of the three-point movement in college basketball. Like a lot of teams, the Wildcats take a ton of three-point shots. What separated them from the pack in recent years was their ability to make those shots. They rode terrific three-point shooting to national championships in 2016 and 2018.

But this season has been different. Villanova is shooting a little over 34 percent as a team from long range, ranking in the lower half of the Big East. The Wildcats are still taking a lot of threes - their 418 attempts are second most in the conference. 

Inconsistent is the best word to describe Villanova’s shooting. The Wildcats shot 51 percent from three-point range in Saturday’s win over Georgetown. But their struggles were glaring in back-to-back games against Marquette and Creighton last week. The Wildcats combined to make just 15 of 71 three-point attempts in those games, a 21.1 shooting percentage.   

Wright’s Take: “We have a saying 'Shoot em up and sleep in the streets'. That means we're going to shoot. We're going to shoot first and be aggressive and some nights we're going to be really bad and no one is going to want us in their house and they're going to make us sleep in the streets. That's kind of what we’ve been doing lately. Then we're going to develop our good decision making after that. But we're not going to try to be good decision makers first and not shoot. So that's where we are right now, it's been ugly. We’ve been sleeping in the streets a lot. You ask if I’m happy with our decision making? No. Am I happy with where we are in terms of our commitment to learning those good decisions? Yes.”

Defensive attitude

‘Attitude’ is a word used quite a bit within the Villanova program. It applies to everything the Wildcats do but holds special meaning concerning their defense. 

While the offense has been spotty, their effort on the defensive end is rounding into form. The Wildcats held their last five opponents to an average of 62 points per game. 

Wright gives his players freedom on the offensive end provided they put forth the requisite effort defensively. This year’s group has been keeping up its end of the bargain.

Wright’s Take: “Our defense is starting to get there, we still have a lot of work to do. We're not consistent, we weren't great against Marquette (a 71-60 loss), we were really good against Creighton (a 64-59 win), we were really good against Kansas (a 56-55 win). But then you could see that slip against Marquette. I really like our attitude, I really like guys like Collin (Gillespie), Saddiq (Bey), Jermaine (Samuels) and Dhamir (Cosby-Roundtree) becoming leaders. They're not there yet, but they're becoming leaders. The younger guys are starting to keep their composure on the floor in road games. Nothing is consistent yet but I like the direction we're going.”

Gillespie's heavy lifting

With the departures of fifth-year seniors Phil Booth and Eric Paschall last year, it was evident that Collin Gillespie would shoulder a heavy burden as a junior. 

He is the unquestioned leader of a roster devoid of any scholarship seniors. Gillespie’s play on the court has been excellent - he is Villanova’s second leading scorer and leads the team in assists and steals. 

The Archbishop Wood product is drawing rave reviews from his head coach.

Wright’s Take: “Collin is in a really tough spot. He has nobody around him with the experience that he has. He’s a third year guy, he's got this team on his shoulders. He's tough as nails, Northeast Philly tough, we love him. He has that Philadelphia Catholic League intelligence. I don’t know if the other guys on the team know what that is, but we do and we take great pride in it and so does he. 

He's got to be patient with these young guys, a combination of patient and demanding. But he's still got to perform. He's doing a great job of it. We don't lighten up on him, we just put more and more on him. We're really proud of how he's handling his leadership role as a junior.”

Antoine's progress

Bryan Antoine was the centerpiece of Wright’s star-studded 2019 recruiting class. He was a McDonald’s All-American and ranked as a Top 15 prospect by all of the top recruiting services. Antoine was expected to make an immediate impact at Villanova. 

That plan took a detour last spring when Antoine underwent major surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder. He wasn’t cleared for basketball activities until late November and missed the first three games of the season. 

Antoine has played in nine games, averaging a little more than seven minutes of playing time in those games. His progress is a storyline worth monitoring in the second half of the season. Can he develop into an x-factor in February and March?

Wright’s Take: “Brian was one of those guys that even if everything worked out perfect for him, he's 175 pounds, he was going to have come here and get stronger. He was going to have to learn the system, even if everything worked out perfect. The hype about him is warranted because in high school his quickness and athleticism were off the charts and he played on a great team. Now he's playing where his (lack of) strength right now is a weakness for him.

And you add to that the fact that he didn't play basketball since his last high school game. He missed the whole summer, the whole preseason. So he's learning what we do, which would have been difficult even if he was here from day one.  

We are thrilled with where he is. We think he has an incredible future here. I know everybody else wants this quick fix and they want to see this excitement right away. But you have to be patient with him. Just to be fair to him, you just have to give him some time.”