It will take at least another ballgame — maybe as soon as Friday night at second-ranked UCLA — for Villanova to show whether its own No. 4 preseason national ranking is legit or starts the Wildcats out a bit high.
One game in, the ranking still fits. Maybe Tuesday’s 91-51 domination of Mount St. Mary’s won’t mean much in the long run, but it all must have felt pretty good for the home team.
Jay Wright had done his best to play up Villanova’s opening opponent, saying to his freshmen that most of those Mount guys had played in the NCAA Tournament last March. He’d pointed out the newest Wildcats could not say that about themselves.
Of course, Villanova’s coach probably skipped the part about how his veterans had been around a couple of March blocks. From Tuesday’s tip in front of a sellout 6,501 at the Finneran Pavilion, all looked smooth for the home team. Voters aren’t just going with ancient history. They’d seen Villanova give eventual NCAA champion Baylor its toughest game last March and the Wildcats return not just vets, but savvy ones, the kind with some clues about how to control a basketball game.
Villanova got in the flow right away. A missed Villanova shot came right off the tap, but some rebounding hustle, another chance, a Jermaine Samuels jumper, buried. Followed by a Justin Moore catch-and-shoot three, before Collin Gillespie, fully back from his torn MCL surgery, ditched a Mount St. Mary’s defender and buried a shot.
Watching Moore was to see how Villanova likes to play it. Like how Moore dribbled into traffic, picked up extra attention, got the basketball to the corner. Moore instantly reappeared on the wing, got the pass from the same guy he’d passed to, moved the ball along to the other side.
The point? Moore’s 17 first-half points — on 6-of-9 shooting; 4 of 6 from three — didn’t come with any hints of selfishness. His 17 minutes before intermission included 4 assists, no turnovers.
A reminder: If not for extra pandemic-caused eligibility for some teammates, this would be a Justin Moore-headlined team. Maybe it will be anyway.
“We weren’t looking for me specifically,” Moore said of finding his shots in the flow of the offense, finishing with a career-high 27 points, tying another high with 7 assists, tying a career low with, uh, zero turnovers.
» READ MORE: Collin Gillespie is hungrier than ever
“He had a lot of games last year where he had great streaks and then — because he’s such an unselfish player — he would think, ‘I’ve got to get everybody else involved,’” Wright said. “We’ve tried to teach him you’ve got to stay aggressive and be a killer, even though you want to get everyone else involved. If it’s there, you’ve got to take it.”
Seeing Moore, was Gillespie looking for him specifically?
“Obviously, he got it through the flow of the game, which is really impressive,” Gillespie said. “When a guy gets it going like that, you try to find spots to get him the ball … Obviously we found him.”
UCLA, just off a Final Four appearance, up next, Friday night at Pauley Pavilion.
“I think we’re ready to play to play a team like that,” Wright said after watching this one. “They’re a great team — doesn’t mean you’re ready to beat ‘em. I think it’s a good time for us, with this older group. They’ve been beating each other up for awhile now — especially these two.”
Wright was sitting between Moore and Gillespie.
“It kind of reminds me of the old Randy Foye-Allan Ray days where they’d kill each other in practice, so it’s nice they get to play together.”
During the press conference, Wright pointed out something in the box score to Gillespie, who simply nodded.
“These two had 12 assists, zero turnovers — pretty impressive,” Wright said when asked what he’d pointed out.
Wright isn’t against a little selective storytelling in making demands of his players. One preseason practice where outsiders were let in, Wright had kept harping on how Baylor had gotten so many offensive rebounds … insinuating those other guys won the Sweet 16 game on sheer hustle, not mentioning the couple of 2021 NBA first-round picks Baylor had on the floor or even that Baylor went on to win the national title.
“I’m not sure this is a top-five team right now,” Wright had said of his own group the day before the opener. “We have a really tough schedule — if we lose some games early, I don’t think we’re a bad team either. It’s a unique team. We’ve got a chance to get a lot better during the season. We’ve got a lot of young guys who can improve and create some depth for us.”
Not a big team as Villanova teams go, he’d added.
“Compared to our Final Four teams, I don’t think we’re really close right now,” Wright said. “But all those Final Four teams, I didn’t see that coming at the beginning of the year either.”