Villanova’s inconsistency, poor shooting result in three-game slide and exit from Top 25
The Wildcats are playing inconsistent basketball, struggling with their shooting and not playing well enough on defense. But Jay Wright says it's a good learning process.
College basketball teams change every season, but for a five-year period it seemed as if Jay Wright and Villanova were the exception, competing with a high level of consistency that produced 165 victories, four straight 30-win seasons, four Big East regular-season crowns, three conference tournament titles and a pair of national championships.
However, with the departure of the Wildcats’ top four scorers from last season to the NBA and mostly young players taking over, the consistency has been difficult to sustain. A 10-0 start to the Big East season has been followed by four losses – all on the road – in the last five games, the latest being a 66-54 defeat Sunday at Xavier that included a 9-minute stretch without a point.
The recent slump, including Villanova’s first three-game losing streak since January 2013, saw the Wildcats fall out of the Top 25 Monday in the latest AP poll for the first time since Jan. 7.
With three games remaining before the league tournament, including Wednesday night’s rematch with first-place Marquette at Finneran Pavilion, the Wildcats have much work to do. For Wright, the plan is to keep teaching and developing his young players.
“Every season’s different,” he said outside the visitors’ locker room Sunday after the Xavier defeat. “You have to deal with everything. We’ve had a lot of good things to deal with. I’ve been here before, these guys haven’t. And a lot of these guys are new. So it’s a good learning process for us.
“I’d rather it not be this way, but we have to learn that we have to earn everything. This is a new group. We have to earn the right to go on the road in a tough environment and win a game, and we haven’t done that yet. We’re going to keep working really hard. We have a great group of guys. I know they’ll keep working, and we’ve got to see if we can get to the point where we can earn that.
“The past five years when we’ve gone on the road and won games, we’ve worked hard for that – a lot of preparation, a lot of sacrifice – and these guys just haven’t been here long enough and haven’t really learned how to do it yet.”
One of the nation’s most prolific three-point shooting teams, the Cats have struggled in the last three games, hitting just 27.5 percent of their shots from distance and 35.4 percent overall. More than 61 percent of their total attempts have been from behind the arc, compared to the season mark of 53 percent before the Feb. 17 St. John’s game.
“We’re just not executing hard enough offensively where we make the extra pass, or we get the ball into the lane and kick it out," Wright said. "We’re kind of hoping each shot is going to be the one that gets us going. So I don’t think it’s confidence. I think everybody is trying too hard, like ‘I want to take the shot that gets us going.’”
Villanova had been looking for a consistent third and fourth scorer all season to supplement the output of seniors Phil Booth and Eric Paschall, but no one has come forward recently to pick up the team while the two stalwarts labor with their shooting. Booth and Paschall are shooting 24.4 percent from deep during the losing streak, and both looked tired Sunday in the second half.
Wright said his two seniors are doing everything they can, and more.
“This is a great challenge for them,” he said. “We haven’t had anybody in the program that has had this much on their shoulders. What they’re going through, there’s really not anybody to look at who’s gone through what they are, where they have to stay aggressive, stay confident, stay patient with the young guys, play a lot of minutes, practice hard, teach them to practice hard.
“There’s a lot of pressure on them and I think they’re handling it well, I really do. They have no fear of failure. They’ve got to take a lot of shots for us, so this is new territory. Our younger guys are going to watch them, how they handle this, and that’s important, too. I’m proud of what they’re doing so far.”
Defensively, the Wildcats aren’t forcing turnovers that lead to easy baskets, something that would ease the pressure on their offense. They have scored 23 points off 30 opponent turnovers in the last three games.
The 9:09 scoring drought against Xavier revealed an issue with the defense, Wright said.
“We just didn’t have the speed and the athleticism to go after them and speed it up,” he said. "You don’t score, but maybe you get a stop defensively that’ll get you an easy basket or get you to the foul line,” he said. “There’s a lot of little things we’re not doing that breaks that 9-minute stretch that could be the difference in winning and losing. We’ve just got to keep working on those little things.”
And they will. The question is whether they will improve enough before March to make a significant postseason run.