Jay Wright had said Villanova “probably played our best defense of the year” in Saturday’s victory at Xavier. But as the Wildcats coach later reviewed the game, he found it confirmed his belief that two of his freshmen played as well as anyone at the defensive end.
Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, though limited to 30 minutes by foul trouble, had 12 rebounds and battled the Musketeers’ tough Tyrique Jones inside. Justin Moore matched a season-high with 36 minutes and contributed 13 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals and a blocked shot to the 64-55 victory.
“Jeremiah and Justin might have been our two best defensive players in our game against Xavier,” Wright said Tuesday as the 12th-ranked Wildcats (21-6, 10-4 Big East) continued preparations for Wednesday’s senior night game against St. John’s (14-13, 3-11) at Finneran Pavilion.
“We played Justin Moore 36 minutes. We didn’t mean to. I didn’t mean to. I didn’t want to. But he was playing so well defensively that I didn’t want to take him out of the game. I didn’t realize until after the game I played him 36 minutes.”
Moore, a 6-foot-4 guard who was named Big East freshman of the week Monday for the fifth time this season, deflected the praise directed toward him.
“It’s definitely a great confidence booster,” he said of his performance and the win, “but I’m just trying to get better each and every game, no matter the opponent, just trying to focus on us and being the best team possible.”
The 6-9 Robinson-Earl, who already has been recognized six times as conference freshmen of the week, said that while growing up from elementary school to high school and AAU ball, all of his coaches stressed defense. And that has continued at Villanova.
“Defense is first, at the bottom of our pyramid, because if we have great defense, then we can get into great offense instead of worrying about our offense,” he said. “If the other team is not scoring, they’re not going to win. We have a better chance. So just playing defense is a mindset that we have and it’s important for us.”
The Wildcats defeated St. John’s, 79-59, in the season’s first meeting Jan. 28 at Madison Square Garden. The Red Storm have lost eight of their last 10 games, but their pressing defense creates problems.
They are third in the nation in both steals (10.1 per game) and turnover margin (plus-5.7) and 13th in turnovers forced (17.4). Villanova took decent care of the basketball last month, committing 13 turnovers, but Wright knows the value of not playing scared.
“They’re just so good at it,” he said. “It’s almost like you can’t get frustrated when you do it because it’s going to add to more, and you can’t lose your aggressiveness when you do turn it over. They’re just so good. We have to stay aggressive after turnovers, not get tentative.”