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.”
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.”
‘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.”
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.”