Did we all have it wrong? Maybe Villanova wasn’t meant to be a Top 5 team going into this season, with a deep run in the NCAA Tournament on the horizon if the 2020-21 season can simply cooperate.
Two seasons ago, coming off a national title, early Villanova defensive efforts against Michigan and then Furman suggested the Wildcats were a step slow defensively to be a national power. Our eyes weren’t lying in 2018-19. There was no deep run.
So here we had the first evidence of 2020-21, and Villanova got by Boston College … except Villanova didn’t completely pass Wednesday’s early eye test. In the first half, the Wildcats looked two steps slow defensively against a team picked 14th of 15 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Villanova got it together in the second half and won the game, but all that meant a Thanksgiving matchup against 18th-ranked Arizona State could be designated as must-watch late-night viewing.
The latest evidence: The Wildcats are who we thought they were.
When Jay Wright was asked Wednesday night about the defensive improvement just half-to-half, he immediately pointed out that Jeremiah Robinson-Earl’s foul trouble in the first half had been a huge factor.
“We got Jeremiah back on the floor,’' Wright said. “He’s such a big part of our defense. He plays pick-and-rolls, he can switch, and he’s our best rebounder.”
So we got to Arizona State, which had guards every bit as dangerous as those deployed by Boston College. No foul trouble for Robinson-Earl, who simply dominated in the 83-74 victory. If you stayed up and watched, you saw Villanova’s post player was the unguardable one — 9 for 13 from two-point range, 2 for 4 from three-point range.
At the other end, Wright’s words came into play. With the big man back there, Villanova perimeter defenders could play a little freer. Maybe perimeter foot speed won’t be their calling card, but they’ll be fine. Any sudden thoughts that taking Saddiq Bey out of Villanova’s equation caused the whole thing to collapse were ill-founded.
If Robinson-Earl had kept his name in the NBA draft, he would have been drafted, period, but it sure looks like he was smart to come back to improve that draft status. Villanova’s preseason No. 3 ranking was heavily predicated on his return.
Both games in the Empire Classic at Mohegan Sun ended up with Villanova winning by nine, but the two games had little else in common. The Wildcats controlled things against an ASU group picked second in the Pac-12 preseason poll. Even bigger: Arizona State senior guard Remy Martin, a preseason first-team Associated Press All-American, was rendered a nonfactor by Villanova’s cast of defenders. Martin had just 5 points on 2-for-8 shooting after scoring 26 against Rhode Island the night before.
Jay Bilas, working both games as an ESPN analyst, took less than two minutes Thursday night to say of Wright, “He built the best culture in college basketball.” Those words seem a little more notable because Bilas himself played for Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, so put it down as highest praise from an interesting source.
One of the ingredients of any such culture, the mental toughness, maybe showed itself most Wednesday night against BC. You could argue that the most important shots in the second half of any game are when you are down eight or nine points, since misses converted at the other end can turn into a double-digit deficit and the game can get completely away from you.
In a three-minute span early Wednesday, Villanova’s Jermaine Samuels had a shot fake and a nice feed to Justin Moore for a three up top, which Moore hit. Robinson-Earl contested a shot at one end, then drove with a spin move, finishing with a dunk. Robinson-Earl added a baby hook, and put back his own shot that had just been blocked. Collin Gillespie added a jumper off the dribble. Crisis averted. The rim started to get smaller for the other guys.
Do we know how far Villanova can take this season? We do not. We don’t even know how the schedule will play out. With the Temple game off the schedule, the Owls in pandemic-related quarantine, Villanova added a game against Virginia Tech on Saturday night in Mohegan Sun’s bubble, picking it up on the fly.
Wright had talked recently about trying to get to 13 games played, the minimum currently required by the NCAA to participate in March Madness.
Obviously, after winning it all in 2016 and 2018, Villanova folks have earned a little pride of ownership. Ryan Arcidiacono, a hero of 2016, had a little fun with that on Twitter on Wednesday when a commentator on another game talked of blue-blood programs missing from the very top of the preseason rankings.
“Did anyone watching the Michigan game just hear announcer say that it’s cool to see a team like Nova in the top 5?’' @RyArch15 tweeted. “Or did I hear it wrong?”
The announcer was making some point about the rise of such programs as Gonzaga, Baylor and Villanova. Except one of those three has won two of the past four NCAA Tournaments. So maybe his wording wasn’t perfect. Villanova players past and present have earned a little blue blood, and the right to a little Twitter fun.