Early on, you saw it, how Villanova could do its thing a bit, nothing fancy, just running some offense through a sophomore who plays like a senior. Getting the ball to Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, good things were happening for the Wildcats, sort of like always, even somehow against second-ranked Baylor in the NCAA Sweet 16.
“Jeremiah was the good matchup for us,” Jay Wright said later Saturday, his team on the short end of 61-52.
Villanova’s coach said that in answer to a question about the second half, how Baylor, crucially, had been able to keep that ball from going through Robinson-Earl.
“They just got really physical,” Wright said . “They denied him on his top shoulder. We couldn’t get him the ball. That forced us to initiate offense in other places, and we really weren’t good in those other spots against those other matchups.”
You saw the rest of it, how a first-half Villanova lead wasn’t enough, how the season ended on the floor at Hinkle Fieldhouse, the ball bouncing out of reach, again and then again, Baylor’s pressure defense finally winning the day against Villanova when the usually sharp-shooting Bears couldn’t get their jumpers falling in this NCAA Sweet 16 matchup that was all about grit.
After falling behind, Baylor figured out that a quick first step to the basket was better than any jumper, given the pressure of the moment.
Up on the concourse, Villanova point guard Collin Gillespie was out of his seat and up on his crutches, you could have thought for more than a second … they’re going to get away with not having Gillespie. Not so fast. Maybe having him couldn’t have saved this day, but not having him, you saw the messiest half-dozen possessions of Villanova’s season, how that stretch caused the game to get away from the Wildcats.
Focus on those plays, but don’t get away from the fact that Robinson-Earl was held to single digits scoring after putting up 40 in Villanova’s first two NCAA games. In Villanova’s lowest-scoring game of the season, the power forward ended up with his lowest percentage of Villanova’s points over the team’s last nine games. In the second half, Robinson-Earl had 2 of his 8 points, getting only two shots, his bucket coming on a rebound.
If you focused in, you realized how much credit has to go to Baylor, since Robinson-Earl never took a play off, even when the ball wasn’t finding him.
“Definitely a team capable of winning a national championship,” said Villanova’s coach, who could claim some expertise in the subject.
Robinson-Earl showed up with a reputation kind of like Jalen Brunson, as a talent, for sure, but also older than his years. He was made a cocaptain this season, speaking to that maturity. Did Wright almost look at him as a senior?
“Yes, I did, and we used him as one,” Wright said after the game. “We don’t take him out of the game. He does everything for us. Every in-game adjustment that we make defensively, he’s the guy that does it. Offensively, we were trying to run through the offense through him, second half we couldn’t do it.”
Wright added, “He’s got the maturity and the intelligence and definitely the talent — even when we couldn’t get him the ball, he went to the offensive glass. He does everything defensively for us.”
Robinson-Earl had 12 rebounds, including five at the offensive end. Usually he’ll get some three-point tries. He didn’t take one for the first time since the season opener. The lack of a Final Four on his resume — which includes the lack of an NCAA Tournament for anyone when he was a freshman — isn’t a blemish on this resume. This guy was special. He’s going to have a long professional career because, like Brunson, he’s a pro.
Nobody will be pushing Robinson-Earl out the door. He makes the call on his future. But he declared for the NBA draft last season, then pulled his name out. The rules have changed so Robinson-Earl could declare again and decide to come back, but Villanova fans, you shouldn’t expect that, or have a right to even ask for it. The guy is a pro.
“I don’t think he’ll be a senior in college,” Wright said with a little smile. “I definitely think he played like one.”