These 'Cats don't let anything bother them
Crushing loss like the one to Creighton could have rattled some teams, but not the Villanova Wildcats.
VILLANOVA begins a crucial road trip tonight . . . or, perhaps it doesn't.
The Wildcats play at DePaul tonight, at Creighton on Sunday and at Providence on Tuesday. Creighton, of course, whipped them at the Wells Fargo Center on Jan. 20, a 28-point stunning of a 'Nova club then ranked No. 4, with only one loss, at No. 1 Syracuse.
After that beating - and, really, it was a 40-minute domination - the Wildcats did two things that forecast the impact of that game.
They went, as usual, to the baseline. They raised their forefinger and middle finger in the Villanova "V" as the fight song played. Ryan Arcidiacono led the group, but all went, and went quickly, and stayed for the duration.
When the song ended, they slowly left the court, arms around one another's shoulders - but heads high, talking with some animation and, amazingly, even smiling. A little.
It was hard to tell they had been crushed.
Then again, for the 21-2 Wildcats, being crushed is relative.
Is it not more crushing to lose your brother to a bullet in the back of the head, then to lose your mother to heart problems, all within 15 months? Is it not worse to lose your senior high school season to a weakened back?
Or worse to lose your freshman college season to a moment of anger and temper? To miss games from your junior high school season through your sophomore college season with a catalogue of leg injuries? To leave your high school in disgrace on the eve of your college career?
Really, to have not experienced tragedy or injury or setback is to be the exception among the Wildcats.
"We all have off-the-court things we bring on the court with us that help us be better people, and better players," senior guard James Bell said. "Going through that adversity in our lives brings us closer together, because we all know what each other have been through."
So they just shrugged off the homecourt humiliation. They have won five in a row, boosting them back to No. 6 in the country, carried lately by Bell.
Shin, leg and ankle problems plagued Bell, even as he starred at Montverde Academy outside of Orlando, Fla. They followed him to Villanova, but now they are gone.
He has started each of the last 57 games the past two seasons. He leads the Wildcats with 16.0 points per game, nearly double his average last season, when the 'Cats made a surprise run to the NCAA Tournament. He is making his own run now.
Since the loss to Creighton, Bell has averaged 22.4 points per game, has shot 55.2 percent (37-for-67) from the field and has made 48.9 percent of his three-pointers (22-for-45). He was named the Big East's Player of the Week for last week.
Arcidiacono's contributions have been less tangible, but no less important. On a team spoiled with guard talent, it is "Arch," a sophomore shooter, who serves as coach Jay Wright's point guard; he, who sets the defensive tone; he, who acknowledges that the 'Cats were cocky when Creighton came to town.
"We thought we were pretty good, and then Creighton comes in and smacks us. It really humbled us," he said. "We started getting after each other in practice. We're starting to see that, especially defensively, out on the court."
In particular, they became obsessed with defending the three-pointer, particularly in transition. Creighton hit 21 of 35 attempts against Villanova, a Big East record for makes.
Villanova has allowed its five opponents since a total of 30 makes in 92 attempted threes, 32.6 percent.
"It changed the way we get back on defense," Arcidiacono said.
It changed nothing else. It could have caused dissent, especially from a player such as backup senior point guard Tony Chennault. No one on the team carries a heavier burden than Chennault, the Daily News Player of the Year as a high school senior in 2010 after taking Neuman-Goretti to No. 2 in the country in one poll. Chennault's college career at Wake Forest was going great until, after his sophomore season, he transferred home to be with his ailing mother.
Then, just before he returned, his stepbrother was killed, in May 2012. His mother died last August.
Now a senior, Chennault averages a little more than 16 minutes a game. He has not scored more than eight points in his last 34 games at Villanova; he averaged 30.2 minutes and 9.0 points at Wake Forest in 2011-12.
Chennault announced last April that he was transferring, then reconsidered in May. He is pleased he did.
"If these guys weren't my brothers, I'd have a harder time with it," he said. "We have a strong brotherhood on this team. The sacrifice I'm making is a valuable lesson for the younger guys. They might be in my situation someday. If you're on a great team, who cares who gets the credit? You're winning.
"All the situations I went through made a stronger and more mature person. I have a better understanding. If I was at Wake, I wouldn't have understood it. Going through the things I went through off the court, those issues, I realize there's more than basketball. There's life."
Life interrupted the career of 'Nova's slick-passing big men, too.
Workhorse forward JayVaughn Pinkston was kicked out of school when he got into a fight at a preseason fraternity party his freshman year and was forced to redshirt. Daniel Ochefu, the 6-11 sophomore center, withdrew from the Westtown School in West Chester late in his senior year after reportedly violating the honor code and had to finish at Downingtown East.
At least Ochefu got to play his senior season. Arcidiacono missed his, at Neshaminy High, because he needed surgery to repair a herniated disk.
Then, as a freshman last season, he ran Wright's upstart team into the NCAA Tournament.
"We're a very strong team, mentally. We look after each other," Arcidiacono said. "We've all been through unexpected things. We were all there for Tony. And Daniel: When he first came to school, we said we're going to help each other out."
They could have folded. They could have collapsed, the way Ohio State and Wisconsin collapsed after their signature losses last month.
Instead, the Wildcats galvanized.
They probably won't lose at DePaul tonight, but they visit Creighton at 5 p.m. Sunday.
Now ranked 18th, the Bluejays won three in a row after beating Villanova, but lost at St. John's on Sunday. They should win at lowly Butler tomorrow and frame a rematch that could determine the Big East regular-season champion and the top seed in the conference tournament.
Then again, the 'Cats finish this trip Tuesday at Providence, where Creighton lost last month; host St. John's on Feb. 22; host Butler on Feb. 26 and Marquette on March 2, two teams the 'Cats beat in overtime; and finish at Xavier and against Georgetown.
The rematch with Creighton guarantees little past Sunday.
"Win or lose, this team, it's about attitude," Bell said.
"Our team has great character. We can play hard. We can control that," Chennault said.
The rest of basketball - the rest of life - is out of their control.
For this team, any loss really is just a loss.
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