At this point of the college basketball season, every team is a work in progress. With Villanova, never mind the progress. Watch the work. Watch Phil Booth reach into his bag of tricks, try to draw a late-game foul. No call? Booth reaches in for another move, getting closer to the rim.
Pacing in front of his bench, Jay Wright sees something he can’t quite live with, calls a timeout to make a point to one of his new guys. A larger point: Nothing comes easily for this version of Villanova. The vets know how to play, and the new guys have their moments, Villanova’s rotations vary a bit by situation and opponent. You know all that by now.
Here’s what you shouldn’t do: Assume, based on past performance, that the Big East regular-season title will end up back in its rightful place on the Main Line. That’s disrespecting the work put in by this group and past champions.
I’ll be more shocked if Villanova wins the 2018-19 Big East than I was by the 2016 or 2018 national titles. (That’s saying something, since I can remember walking out of that football stadium in Houston almost three years ago saying, “Did that really just happen?”) But Villanova was simply the best team in both of those tournaments. You saw it.
Right now, if they revote the Big East as league play gets going, Villanova could be first (I guess), but an equally strong case could be made to put the Wildcats fourth, with Seton Hall, Marquette, and St. John’s all having legit cases.
After his team came from behind to beat DePaul, 73-68, on Wednesday night, Wright was asked whether the Wildcats were good enough to win the Big East.
“I have no idea,’’ Wright said. “We could finish anywhere in this league.”
Villanova fans realize what they’re watching. They know the four guys who have gone to the NBA from last year’s team. They watch this squad fall behind against all sorts of opponents. They just can’t assume there is some magic button Wright can keep pushing and this team will look radically different in a month or two, rolling every night. This group has to work for everything it gets. You see it. News alert: That is not going to change.
“They just jumped us,’’ Wright said after the DePaul game. “We struggled early with our transition defense, and they really took advantage of it. I’m just proud of our leadership here.”
Wright was sitting between Booth and Eric Paschall, who had 24 points, most from behind the three-point arc or the foul line.
“They kept us together; we just kept grinding,’’ Wright continued. “That’s what the Big East is going to be like this year, man. There’s not going to be an easy game anywhere, anytime. I think there’s a lot of teams that could be anywhere from one to five, and that same team could be five to 10. We’re one of them. We could finish anywhere in this league.”
The last time Wright felt the league was this wide open?
“Never,’’ Villanova’s coach said. “Not like this.”
Where was DePaul picked in the Big East? Dead last, 10 spots behind Villanova. The team picked last was on the road and had the team picked first on the ropes.
Game to game, watch the work. For instance, what’s Wright’s feel for when to go with a bit smaller lineup? And how to go smaller ball?
“I’m trying to figure that out,’’ he said. “We were going back and forth in this game, because we started the game going small because they were big. We thought we could spread ‘em out. That didn’t work. So then we went bigger. Worked for a little bit. I thought in the second half and even late in the first half, we went small and we made a run at ‘em. ... I just think it’s something we’re going to have to play with all year. Don’t stick with it too long, either one. I hope that can be an advantage for us, that we have the ability to go both ways.”
Wright called a timeout after Joe Cremo was called for a foul inside while guarding a much bigger man.
“It’s a simple thing: When refs see your two hands in the air, they won’t call fouls if they see your hands,’’ Wright said. “He had his one hand down and one hand up, so when they want to make calls, if they don’t see the other hand, they can make a call. … It’s something we work on. If you’re in this program four years, you know that. He doesn’t have that habit yet.”
Admittedly, it is difficult to look at Villanova as any kind of underdog. Where the history swings hard to the defending national champs is maybe in the heads of opponents. At some point in some of these games, maybe the other guys realize, “We can beat Villanova here.”
Putting the Wildcats away is the trick, as they committed just six turnovers against DePaul, one in the second half.
“They got down. They were down for most of the game,’’ DePaul coach Dave Leitao said. “There was no level of panic in anything they were doing on offense or defense, If something wasn’t going well, they just waited for the next play.”
Leitao talked about how Booth and Paschall in particular have been through nearly every situation.
“They know what it looks like. They know what it smells like. They know what it feels like,’’ Leitao said. “We’ve got to figure out how to get to that place … because we don’t have a background of success over a period of time to understand what those moments need and call for.”