VU Coach Jay Wright
At some point this season, Villanova University’s men’s basketball team is going to lose a game. Fans had better prepare themselves for the inevitability, because it has been 41 years since a team has finished with a perfect season. The idea that ‘Nova’s 10-0 start will continue into early April is as likely as a week without some sort of Kardashian nonsense.
In other words, it ain’t happening.
That’s all right. Everybody loses at some point in the college hoops world these days. The goal is to win the final game, not be unblemished on the way, no matter how nice that thought may seem.
When it comes to the Wildcats, the main concern is whether they can mount a legitimate championship defense, and after about a quarter of the season, the answer is a resounding yes. Villanova’s win over Notre Dame Saturday demonstrated the team’s ability to face down a quality opponent and grab a win, even when the team wasn’t at its best. Fortunately for VU, Josh Hart was. The senior erupted for a career-high 37 points, pulled down 11 rebounds, handed out four assists and only committed one turnover in 37 minutes of action. Take away Hart’s performance, and ‘Nova shot 15-of-36 and had just 22 rebounds.
But in overcoming several deficits against the Irish, including a double-digit, first-half hole, Villanova demonstrated that the experience it gained in winning the national title last season has imbued it with an ability to do whatever is necessary to win the game. The ‘Cats outscored Notre Dame 24-11 over the last 10:24 of the game to clinch the 74-66 decision and shot 20-of-22 from the foul line. More importantly, they were perfect from the stripe in the game’s waning moments.
Hart has been outstanding of late, following up last Saturday’s triple-double against St. Joe’s with his binge against the Fighting Irish. He leads the team in scoring, rebounding and assists. Hart and fellow seniors Kris Jenkins and Darryl Reynolds have provided a level of leadership Wildcat fans—and even VU coach Jay Wright—worried would be missing when Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu graduated.
The challenge for Villanova is to continue its excellent play over the next three-plus months. The Wildcats will be favored in their next three games, against Temple, American and DePaul. On Dec. 31 they visit Creighton, which is extremely tough, especially at home. The Big East could well send six teams to the NCAA tournament this season, and Butler, Xavier and the Bluejays are particularly formidable. A Jan. 29 visit from Virginia won’t be easy, either.
The Wildcats have talent, experience and leadership. What they don’t have is a lot of depth or a significant inside presence. Guard Phil Booth’s cranky knees have sidelined him for all but three games of the season, and the NCAA’s decision to sideline heralded freshman Omari Spellman has robbed the ‘Cats of a low-post performer who would have commanded double teams and created space on the perimeter for the VU shooters.
Instead of having a nine-man rotation, Wright has been forced to use only seven players a night, and the five Villanova starters are logging a lot of minutes. Against ND, Hart, Jenkins and Mikal Bridges all played more than 35. If they have to maintain that pace, they could wear down. And against the better teams in the country, the lack of inside depth could create problems on the boards and defensively.
But it’s too early to start worrying about that. Villanova is playing strong ball, and its 10-0 start is evidence of a team that has legitimate championship aspirations and the character to win tough games, even when it isn’t performing all that well collectively.
And that’s almost perfect.
EL HOMBRE SEZ: How about those Flyers! The local ice outfit has won nine in a row and looks like a real playoff club—in early December. It’s been fun to celebrate the prosperity, but don’t forget that red-hot early portions of the season can dissolve into thuds later. The Flyers have shown the ability to score in bunches, but they have also surrendered a lot of goals—Sunday night’s 1-0 decision in Detroit notwithstanding. With just two of their next eight games at home, the Flyers must keep sharp, especially since the top of the East is so competitive. Still, it’s a lot of fun, especially with the other teams in town struggling so mightily.