Even as Villanova ascended to the No. 1 ranking in college basketball — twice — head coach Jay Wright could sense something was amiss.
Sure, the Wildcats were blowing teams out of the building but some of the scores gave him pause.
Giving up 71 points to Hofstra in late December was far from ideal and allowing 85 points at DePaul five days later was even more worrisome. Then, at Butler a day before New Year’s Eve, Wright said “it all blew up” as Villanova surrendered 101 points in its first loss of the season that knocked the team off its No. 1 perch. And even though the ‘Cats surpassed 100 themselves in Saturday’s bounce-back win vs. Marquette that returned them to the No. 1 throne, they still gave up 90.
In other words, defense was a problem. A potentially serious one if they didn’t fix it.
It looks like they have — at least on Wednesday night at the Wells Fargo Center as they handcuffed No. 10 Xavier in a confidence-boosting 89-65 triumph (see observations).
“A very good performance by us against an outstanding team,” Wright said. “We’ve been struggling a little bit defensively and our guys really stepped it up.”
The ’Nova coach credited two of his top offensive players — Phil Booth and Mikal Bridges — for setting the tone on the defensive end of the floor as the Wildcats got their hands in the passing lane, took Xavier stars Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura out of their rhythm, and forced the Musketeers to shoot a dismal 3 for 17 from three-point range.
For Booth, who also had an exceptional offensive game with a career-high 21 points on 5 for 8 shooting from behind the arc, that was clearly the high point of the night — and something he said the guys have been really stressing in practice.
“Without a doubt,” Booth said when asked if he took the recent string of defensive performances personally. “We couldn’t care less if we’re missing shots. If we lose a game 60-55, that’s not a problem for us. But defensively, people feeling they can score on us at any time is something we took as a challenge personally — from the coaches, captains, all the way down.”
“Practice,” Bridges chipped in. “Getting better in our concepts. Practicing our defense and rebounding, that’s what made us go out here today. Coach knew what he had to do by doing a lot of concepts in our practices and we just keep getting better.”
So how exactly do you tell players on the nation’s top-ranked team that they need to forget their scorching offensive numbers and get down to the nitty-gritty defensive details every day in practice?
On another team with as many underclassmen as Villanova has, Wright admitted, it might not be easy. But having upperclassmen with a national title under their belt like Booth, Bridges and Jalen Brunson makes all the difference in the world.
“The older guys get it,” the ’Nova coach said. “A guy like Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree or Omari [Spellman], even Donte [DiVincenzo], they’re looking at you like, ‘We scored 100 points. We’re winning. What’s the big deal?’ It’s just human nature.
“But these guys,” Wright added, looking to Bridges and Brunson. “They’ve been around enough. These guys have picked it up quickly. I think it’s hard for any player when you’re winning to still focus on getting better. And if you have smart, older guys that can pass it down and set an example, that’s what happens and that’s why I was really proud of these guys.”
Villanova’s “older guys” aren’t just impressing their own coach. Xavier head coach Chris Mack was full of both frustration and praise after his national-caliber program was smoked at Villanova for a third straight year. (The Musketeers lost to the Wildcats by 25 last season and 31 a year before that.)
“It’s just a credit to Jay, his coaching staff, his team,” Mack said. “I’ve said before: they have an identity. We, along with probably all the other teams that play them, understand who they’re gonna be. They’re gonna be in passing lanes, they’re gonna try to rattle you on offense, they’re gonna shoot a lot of threes, and stretch the floor. And I think they’re led by the best point guard in college basketball.”
That would be Brunson, who had 17 points, five assists and only one turnover.
“He’s stoic,” Mack said. “If you peel his face off, he’ll probably have wires coming out of it. He’s phenomenal.”
Booth might be a little more human than the seemingly robotic Brunson. And that, for Wright, is what makes his story so special, as he’s slowly progressed from a season-ending injury last year to become one of the better players in the Big East.
“You forget because he doesn’t complain and he works so hard and he’s playing well,” Wright said. “But as a player, you’ve had an injury, you’re coming back, it feels good, you look good, but there’s gotta be some point when you think, ‘All right, I’m back.’ I would like to think tonight he got that feeling. He’s been playing great but I just saw a different confidence in him tonight.”
The ’Nova coach then asked Booth if he felt the same thing, and the redshirt junior mentioned the Dec. 5 Gonzaga game as a turning point.
“I don’t know,” Wright responded. “It looked good tonight, man.”