Villanova’s coaches and players say they learned a lot from their last meeting against St. John’s, when the Red Storm established their own frenetic pace, brought the physical game to the Wildcats, and took them out of what they wanted to do offensively.
Of course, it’s one thing for the Wildcats to know what they have to do better. The second thing is showing the improvement on the basketball court.
The Cats (14-3, 9-2 Big East), who moved up to No. 8 in Monday’s AP poll, take on the Johnnies (14-9, 8-8) Tuesday night at Finneran Pavilion seeking to square the series. St. John’s posted a 70-59 win on Feb. 3 at Carnesecca Arena, limiting Villanova to 32% shooting and forcing a season-high 17 turnovers.
“We’ve got to be smarter and we have to be really more physical,” Wildcats coach Jay Wright said Monday after practice. “They sped us up by just literally being physical and we were moving to get away from the physicality. That’s kind of a crazy way to put it but it’s the truth. We’ve got to meet it and not be running from it.”
The physicality seemed to affect Cats floor leader Collin Gillespie, a physical player in his own right, and got him away from his game. Matched up for much of the night against St. John’s freshman Posh Alexander, Gillespie had more turnovers (six) than points (four) while shooting 2 of 12 and missing all eight of his three-point attempts.
Gillespie said the key to playing better Tuesday is “just being solid with the basketball, being physical, being strong with the ball, all the little things that we work on in practice, we have to take over to the game.
“Obviously the speed and the pressure might shock you a little bit at first, but then it’s just something you adjust to within the game,” he said.
The Wildcats are coming off one of their better defensive efforts of the season, setting new season lows for field-goal (36.4%) and three-point (25.9%) percentage defense in their 68-60 win Saturday over Connecticut. Wright said he hoped that showing against the Huskies, also a physical team, can carry over.
“I hope so,” he said. “I do think Connecticut plays as physical as St. John’s. The one thing we can’t simulate is the speed. They have incredible speed that no other team has and they make the game so chaotic that you’ve got to find a way to be under control in that chaos. We’re going to try.
“We did it for about the first half of the first half [on Feb. 3], but then they got into us and got us out of character.”
Wright gave credit to the Wildcats’ reserves, called the Green Team, for doing their best to replicate the Red Storm’s speed but he admitted it’s difficult.
“A lot of times you’ve got to get into the game and just get a feel for the speed and hope you can adjust quickly,” he said.
The Red Storm leads the Big East in forcing 17.0 turnovers per game. They’re also first in steals, led by Alexander at 2.61 per game, and have four players in the top seven in the league. Their offense is led by Julian Champagnie, the Big East’s top scorer with a 20.2-point average.
The Wildcats have won 13 consecutive games over St. John’s at the Pavilion dating back to 1993.
Gillespie has been named one of five finalists for the 2021 Bob Cousy Award given to the nation’s outstanding point guard by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Gillespie, one of the Big East’s leaders in assists, three-point shooting and free-throw accuracy, was joined on the list by Jared Butler of Baylor, Jalen Suggs of Gonzaga, Ayo Dosunmu of Illinois, and Cade Cunningham of Oklahoma State.
Gillespie also was named as one of 10 men’s basketball finalists for the 2020-21 Senior Class Award, an award recognizing a player’s character and his achievements in the community, the classroom and in competition.