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.” 

The Kris Jenkins shot vs. North Carolina was The Best Game I Ever Saw Live

The Kris Jenkins shot vs. North Carolina was The Best Game I Ever Saw Live

Reuben Frank and Sean Kane both chose the 2016 national championship game between Villanova and North Carolina as the greatest game they ever saw in person. Reuben was there as a reporter, Sean was there as a fan. Here are each of their perspectives. 

Reuben Frank: We're taught from Day 1 as journalists to never let your emotions show, to remain unbiased, and for the first 33 years, six months and 12 days of my career I had a perfect record. Then Kris Jenkins hit a jumper. So much for objectivity. I was court-side at NRG Stadium in Houston - second row, center court - when Jenkins his that 26-footer at the buzzer to give Villanova the 2016 NCAA Championship over North Carolina, and I'm pretty sure that Mike Kern of the Daily News, sitting to my left, and I both stood up and looked at each other and screamed "OHHHHHHHHHHH" at the top of our lungs when the ball splashed through the basket as the buzzer sounded.

Then, as the confetti rained down from the roof and bedlam ensued, Jenkins for some reason ran right in front of me to celebrate and I began taking as many pictures as I could. The Super Bowl was dramatic and unforgettable. But for that Villanova-UNC game I was on top of the action, just a few feet from the court, just a few feet where I lost my cool after 33 years, just a few feet from the greatest shot in college basketball history. 

Sean Kane: This game narrowly edges out Super Bowl 52 and the classic Duke/Kentucky regional final at the Spectrum in 1992. I'm fortunate enough to have been in attendance for arguably the two greatest shots in college basketball history - Christian Laettner's turnaround jumper to beat Kentucky and Kris Jenkins' three-pointer to beat North Carolina. The 2016 national title game is my choice for a number of reasons. Growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs, I've been a Villanova fan for as long as I can remember. My grandfather went to Villanova. My uncle and cousin went there too. I've been going to Villanova basketball and football games since I was a little boy. So to be there to see my favorite team win a national championship at the buzzer? Nothing tops that. 

The 2016 Final Four was the first time I attended a Villanova NCAA Tournament game as a fan. I covered Villanova in the tournament every year from 2006-2009, trying my best to stay objective. But going as a fan was a new experience. My Dad and I decided to go as soon as Villanova beat Kansas in the Elite Eight. My wife immediately got us plane tickets and a hotel room in Houston and we left the morning of the national semifinals. We were there for Villanova's historic 44-point win over Oklahoma on Saturday night, the biggest blowout in Final Four history. The PGA Tour was in Houston that weekend, so we spent Sunday watching golf. It all worked out perfectly. Then the main event - Villanova and North Carolina in the championship game on Monday night. North Carolina had ended Villanova's season in the NCAA Tournament three times during the Jay Wright Era - 2005, 2009 and 2013. But this time was different thanks to Phil Booth's 20 points off the bench and Ryan Arcidiacono finding Jenkins for the win as the buzzer sounded. It was one of the greatest games in college basketball history. It ended with the best shot in NCAA Tournament history. And I was there to see it with my Dad, who raised me as a Villanova fan. That's as good as it gets for me.     

Villanova the favorite to win the Big East tournament again

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Villanova the favorite to win the Big East tournament again

The Villanova men’s basketball team has won the Big East conference tournament for the past three years. And according to oddsmakers, they will likely make it a four-peat.

BetRivers.com lists Jay Wright’s squad as +300 (a $100 bet will win you $300) to win the tournament, shorter odds than the two other teams with which they shared the regular season conference title, Seton Hall (+320) and Creighton (+350). If you’re interested in making a wager, be sure to shop around. For example, BetRivers.com offers a better payout on Villanova than, say, FanDuel (+280).

For those of you looking for value, Providence could be a sneaky-good play. The 4-seed in the tournament is listed at +600 by BetRivers.com to take home the hardware. They have beaten each of the top three seeds in the tournament in the regular season, and come in riding a six-game winning streak.

Full odds to win the 2020 Big East Tournament (BetRivers.com):

Villanova: +300
Seton Hall: +320
Creighton: +350
Butler: +500
Providence: +600
Marquette: +700
Xavier: +1800
Georgetown: +2500
St. John’s: +4000
DePaul: +6000