Even without four players from its 2018 national championship team who left for the NBA, Villanova still didn’t miss a beat as it rolled to a 10-0 start in Big East play behind balanced three-point shooting, careful ballhandling and good team defense.
However, Wildcats coach Jay Wright saw some warning signs as early as that frigid night in Chicago nearly three weeks ago when the team, in his words, “got a little sloppy” in a win over DePaul. The Cats then had trouble putting away Georgetown and needed overtime after two missed free throws by Creighton at the end of regulation to defeat the undermanned Bluejays at home.
Since then, Villanova has lost two of three, coming one possession short of winning at Marquette and, eight days later, losing a 19-point lead and being overwhelmed by St. John’s at sold-out Madison Square Garden, a building where the Wildcats had defeated the Red Storm 12 consecutive times.
The sky isn’t falling for the Cats (20-6, 11-2 Big East) but they did start a stretch of three straight road games on a negative note. They play the talented young Hoyas at Georgetown on Wednesday night and head to Cincinnati for Sunday’s game at Xavier, a team that is finding its stride after six straight losses.
The St. John’s game Sunday marked maybe the first time in conference play that Villanova allowed its offensive struggles to affect its defense. The Wildcats shot 5-of-24 in the second half and turned the ball over nine times while being outscored 37-17 in the final 12 minutes.
The Red Storm took advantage of the turnovers, scoring 21 fast-break points in the final 20 minutes, including three transition three-point baskets. The Wildcats were slow getting back defensively, especially at the three-point arc where St. John’s went 7-for-13.
“They really stepped it up defensively, pressed us a little bit and we turned the ball over a couple of times,” Wright said. “They got out in transition and that really got them going. It really seemed to spark their halfcourt defense. Their halfcourt defense then went to another level. After they pressed us, the crowd got going and the environment got heated.”
In all, the Wildcats committed 16 turnovers, matching their season high in conference play. They went into the game averaging 9.3 in Big East games.
Villanova had one of its worst shooting games of the season, 33.3 percent, and attempted 35 three-point shots, 64.8 percent of its total attempts, as compared to its season average of 53.3 percent. Wright said he felt his team “settled” too much rather than aggressively drive the ball.
The Wildcats’ guards, Phil Booth and Collin Gillespie, have struggled of late. Booth is shooting 22 percent from three-point range with nine threes in his last six games. Gillespie, who scored a career-high 30 points in the Cats’ first meeting against Georgetown, has scored just 16 in his last three games and has gone 2-of-19 from distance.
Booth and Eric Paschall, the team’s No. 1 and No. 2 scorers, combined to make just four of 22 attempts against St. John’s. With no one else stepping up except perhaps Joe Cremo, who came off the bench for a team-high 14 points, the Wildcats struggled to score.
For now, it’s back to practice and watching film for the Wildcats, while figuring out ways to improve.