UNCASVILLE, Conn. — The NCAA basketball season has just begun, but evidence has added up: A Villanova seven-man rotation can hang with and maybe have clear advantages over big-time, top-five-type teams … for 30 minutes.
You can hear the questions for Jay Wright from three states away … So why don’t you play the freshmen?
Does Villanova need a deeper rotation to go deep in the NCAA Tournament? The evidence says yes, absolutely.
Would a deeper rotation have produced a win at UCLA or Sunday against Purdue? … Not so fast. Like at UCLA, a 10-point lead with about 10 minutes left wasn’t enough against Purdue, which took the final of the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame Tipoff at Mohegan Sun, 80-74.
Purdue came in ranked No. 6 for all sorts of reasons, beat North Carolina in the semis Saturday, and doesn’t just go 10 deep but has all the positions covered with talent, including two big-time post players, with 7-foot-4 Zach Edey starting and Trevion Williams splitting time, combining for 30 points, 21 by Edey.
“Yeah, I think any time you have to deal with monsters like Trevion and Zach, it wears you down,” said Purdue guard Isaiah Thompson, making it clear that effort can filter down, mentioning that he thought Collin Gillespie got a little tired by the end. “I think it wore them down. I think we capitalized on it.”
”The way we were able to move the ball at the end — we were able to get the shots that we wanted,” said Purdue forward Caleb Furst.
Jay Wright, his team now 3-2, isn’t denying his players can get worn out. He didn’t deny it after the UCLA game, said then, “I think we got worn down. I think our lack of depth hurt us.”
Wright also said Sunday that maybe they don’t have that 10-point lead with 10 minutes left against either team if younger guys had played. Villanova went 26 minutes, 35 seconds against Purdue before committing its first turnover, and had only four for the game.
Now, did the Wildcats make only 9 of 17 free throws Sunday because they were tired? Because four Villanova starters averaged over 37 minutes Sunday? Unanswerable question. Purdue coach Matt Painter talked about how you really can’t know the answer to such questions. Miss a late jumper, was it because the shooter was tired? Not dodging the question, but he’d have to take a close look at the technique of the shots to form an answer.
“If they make their free throws, it’s going to come down to the wire,” Painter said, mentioning how Villanova is usually one of the top foul-shooting teams in the country.
Wright said he’ll ask himself during a game like this, “Can we hold on and do this?”
Villanova’s coach knows asking his players isn’t going to get him to the ultimate answer.
“These guys, they don’t give in,” Wright said, “I ask them during the game, they say, ‘I’m fine.’ They want to keep playing. That’s why it’s our job as coaches to keep them fresh. They’re kind of like golden retrievers; they’ll keep going; they’re not going to stop. They’re not going to tell you they’re tired.”
Nope, they’re not going to say it? Justin Moore had 19 points in 37 minutes. Get a little worn down? Nah, he said.
“We didn’t do the little things down the stretch,” Moore said.
Caleb Daniels made 5 of 7 three-pointers in 20 minutes, essentially in a sixth-starter role. Eric Dixon had a big job against the bigger big guys, and he used up four fouls. Purdue got 11 of the first 12 rebounds, but rebounding was not the deciding factor after that, the Boilermakers grabbing only two more than Villanova the rest of the way. Purdue players said when Villanova went to small ball, they knew they could move the ball inside out and find threes. They made 10 of 23 threes. Late threes helped decide this one. You especially note that Purdue has no obvious holes to exploit. This felt like an NCAA regional final kind of matchup.
To win this kind of game, now or in March, you look at everything. Sure, having Bryan Antoine healthy might be all it would have taken in the two losses. He was big in the NCAA Tournament but is “weeks away,” Wright had said during the week, back taking stand-still jumpers but not more than recovering from a patella tendon injury.
“Some of them might have been because of fatigue,” Wright said of late plays not made against Purdue. “Some of them …”
Wright kind of raised his eyebrows.
“Just not smart plays,” he said.