Humbling loss to Creighton puts Villanova in its place
The Wildcats needed a wakeup call like 96-68 loss to the unranked Bluejays, so that they can regain their workmanlike attitude.
VILLANOVA needed this.
A No. 4 national ranking implies significant depth of talent; or one player so gifted that the efforts of five others cannot stop him; or consistent, smooth execution that complements a selfless, desperate style of play.
Villanova got to No. 4 by being the last sort of assemblage. It is a team that, when whole, is greater than the sum of its parts; a team composed of eight or nine players who understand their weaknesses, who realize they are relevant only when they play to their strengths.
The Wildcats learned these lessons last season when they made their unlikely run to the NCAA Tournament.
They adhered to these lessons for most of this season. They entered last night's game against visiting Creighton at 16-1, aware of what they needed to do:
Defend the three-point shot; limit All-America forward Doug McDermott; own the paint; play with desperation.
They managed none of those objectives. They were humiliated, 96-68.
Rest assured: They have learned. They won't play like this again: lazy; entitled; arrived.
"We just had to play harder," guard Darrun Hilliard said. "It wasn't anything special. They were able to hit shots, because we didn't play as hard as we could."
They won't be ranked fourth again, either.
This was the school's highest ranking since it was No. 3 in February 2010. Always a shimmering enigma, Villanova will spend the rest of this season known as the one-loss team that got rocked at home by by an unranked squad (Creighton stood just outside the Top 25).
"We don't pay any attention to the rankings," Hilliard said.
Maybe not, but it sure looked as if the 'Cats were dazzled by their own greatness last night.
This declawing is the best midseason medicine they could hope for. The Wildcats are a well-conceived club, dangerous for every sort of opponent when they play the sort of basketball that made them dangerous in the first place.
They were kitty cats against the Bluejays.
Villanova casually defended the long-range shot, and so Creighton nailed its first nine three-pointers and sank 21 in all, a Big East record. The Big East used to include Syracuse, Connecticut, Pitt and Notre Dame. Ethan Wragge, a 6-7 gunner who had made at least two threes in his previous 14 games, made his first seven last night and finished with nine, the most Villanova has surrendered to one player in any game. It's not as if Wragge and Creighton launched a sneak attack.
McDermott finished with 23 points on 8-for-13 shooting, including five threes.
The Wildcats virtually ignored the efforts of power forward JayVaughn Pinkston, their leading scorer. He scored 11, but got most of his touches off his teammates' wild misses.
Most worrisome, the Wildcats didn't suffer their first floor burn until midway through the first half. By the time they hit the Wells Fargo Center deck for a loose ball, the game was very nearly over. Creighton ran out to a 28-point lead.
Yes, Villanova regrouped and briefly made the game respectable - the Wildcats cut it to 13 at the half - but that was, in part, due to quick triggers by the Bluejays. Ahead by four touchdowns, Creighton couldn't help going for broke and running the hurry-up. Chip Kelly would have been delighted.
Creighton finally did the math and realized that the shot clock was its friend, and so matriculated the ball around the perimeter a few extra times as the game progressed. The Jays ran the lead back to 29 less than 8 minutes into the second half and took a game-high 41-point lead with 5:33 to play.
On the home court of the No. 4 team in the country.
Villanova at No. 4 probably was fool's gold, anyway. The Wildcats blew an 18-point lead and lost in Syracuse last month. They struggled to beat St. John's at Madison Square Garden a week ago.
Does that mean that they're 28 points worse than an unranked bunch of gliders from Omaha?
What it means is they lost sight of who they are, of what they are.
They are run through Hilliard on the outside, Pinkston on the inside.
They are processed through Ryan Arcidiacono.
They are energized by backup guards Josh Hart and Dylan Ennis.
They are buoyed when 6-11 center Daniel Ochefu contributes.
They are a fine team . . . when they function as designed. They are designed to pressure the ball all over the court, to be active and fierce.
"We didn't come out aggressive in our press," 'Nova coach Jay Wright said. "We were just kind of standing around . . . You're going to get lit up if you're not aggressive."
Every now and again, every team built like Villanova needs to be reminded of what it is, and what it is not.
Consider the Syracuse loss the "now."
Consider last night "again."
On Twitter: @inkstainedretch