Villanova Wildcats

Vets for No. 1 Villanova help put the D in details

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Vets for No. 1 Villanova help put the D in details

BOX SCORE

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.”

Edwards leads Purdue to rout of reigning champ Villanova

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Edwards leads Purdue to rout of reigning champ Villanova

HARTFORD, Conn. -- Carsen Edwards had a career night, scoring 42 points as Purdue knocked reigning national champion Villanova out of the NCAA Tournament Saturday night in an 87-61 rout.

Matt Haarms added 18 points and nine rebounds for the third-seeded Boilermakers (25-9), who advanced to their third straight Sweet 16.

Eric Paschall had 19 for Villanova (26-10), which saw its quest for a third national title in the last four seasons end during the tournament's first weekend. Fellow senior Phil Booth scored 15 points, putting him over 1,500 for his career.

Edwards has battled a sore back and had been in a recent shooting slump, making just 7 of 23 shots from the field in Purdue's first-round win over Old Dominion. He found the bottom of the net early and often against `Nova, making 12 of his 21 shots, including nine of 16 from behind the arc.

Purdue shot 54 percent while holding Villanova to just 20 baskets on 58 shots (34 percent).

Purdue jumped out early, building a 13-point lead thanks to Edwards' outside shooting and Haarms' work down low.

The 7-foot-3 Dutchman towered over the shorter Wildcats, who didn't start anyone over 6-8. He had Purdue's first four points on a dunk and a put-back. Edwards hit five of his nine first-half shots, all of which came from three-point range.

Purdue had nine three-point baskets in the first half and a dunk by Haarms put the Boilermakers up 43-24 at intermission.

Another dunk from the Dutchman extended the lead to 35 in the second half. Villanova chipped away but the sixth seeded Big East champions did not have weapons to make it a game.

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

BOX SCORE

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.