Defending champ Villanova is undefeated, No. 1 and still flying under the radar

AP Photo/John Peterson
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OMAHA, Neb. — It was almost camouflaged, but still visible. On the back of the reigning national champions’ warmups, in a darker shade of blue than the rest of the shirt, read “VILLANOVA.” You almost had to squint to see it, as if it was hiding in plain sight.

In a year where Grayson Allen’s antics, Kentucky’s freshmen and UCLA’s resurgence have gobbled up headlines, conversation and college basketball oxygen, right in front of everyone stands Jay Wright’s group, somewhat unnoticed, certainly underappreciated and, after beating 10th-ranked Creighton at CenturyLink Center on Saturday, still undefeated.

The Wildcats are the country’s top-ranked team, but they’ve never been the sport’s top storyline this season. They’re respected, but not revered.

In their 80-70 win over Creighton, they showed why history will be in their grasp this spring.

Facing down a 10-point deficit, a crowd of 18,831 and a Bluejays team that had previously vanquished all challengers behind one of the country’s best offenses spearheaded by one of its best backcourts, the No. 1 Wildcats simply prevailed to win their 20th-straight game and run their record this season to 14-0.

“There’s a lot of guys there that just won a national championship,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said, “and they don’t get shook. They don’t get rattled.

“If you’re not going to get rattled the way that crowd was (with the early score at) 24-14, you’re not going to get rattled because they won’t play in a tougher environment all year.”

Beyond the record and the accolades accumulated by Villanova, it’s their demeanor that stands out. It’s an uncanny resolve in the face of adversity.

Villanova head coach Jay Wright gives instructions to his players during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Creighton in Omaha, Neb., Saturday, Dec. 31, 2016. Villanova defeated Creighton 80-70. (AP Photo/John Peterson)
AP Photo/John Peterson

The Wildcats, after taking Creighton’s best in the first half and still taking a leading into the locker room, led for nearly all of the second half until Isaiah Zierden’s 3-pointer with 4 minutes, 47 seconds remaining tied the game and sent the crowd into a frenzy. It was exactly the moment when a road team against a top-10 opponent folds under the weight of momentum and pressure.

“We knew we had to stick with doing what we were doing,” senior Josh Hart said, “and that’s being solid, playing Villanova basketball for 40 minutes. Against the best teams, it’s going to take 40 minutes. (Creighton) is a great team. One of the best teams in our league so we knew when that happened, come closer together and play Villanova basketball.

“Don’t try to go win it yourself. Don’t try to go outside of doing what we do. Stick with Villanova basketball, and we’re going to live and die with that.”

Live, Villanova did.

After Zierden’s 3, Villanova made 4 of 5 shots (rebounding and converting their one miss), made all six of their free throws and held Creighton to just one field goal.

It was a masterclass of poise and execution. When a big shot needed making, Villanova cashed in. When the defense needed a stop, the Wildcats buckled down. It wasn’t just the results, though, that were impressive. Villanova didn’t luck into made shots or Creighton turnovers. Almost every dribble, switch and rebound was executed with cool precision belying the circumstances.

Of course, for this group, a Saturday afternoon in Omaha isn’t as daunting when you’ve played on a Monday night in April.

“I think (the experience) is what it is,” coach Jay Wright said. “We have three seniors that are just amazing. Not just Xs and Os and making shots, but communicating and leading the team in tough times because they’ve been through it.”

Villanova guard Mikal Bridges (25) gets the rebound ahead of Creighton forward Cole Huff (13) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Omaha, Neb., Saturday, Dec. 31, 2016. Villanova defeated Creighton 80-70. (AP Photo/John Peterson)
Villanova guard Mikal Bridges (AP Photo/John Peterson)

Villanova’s foundation is its experience and its maturity, but what gives the Wildcats the best chance at a repeat national championship since Florida a decade ago is their multitude of weapons. Josh Hart is a national player of the year candidate. Kris Jenkins hit one of the biggest shots in the sport’s history and came into the afternoon averaging nearly 13 points per game. It was the third – and youngest – option that kept Villanova afloat amid the volleys Creighton fired their way in the first half. With Hart bottled up and Villanova floundering some, Jalen Brunson hit four consecutive shots, three of them from distance and scored 11-straight points for the Wildcats.

“You go through their run in the NCAA tournament,” McDermott said, “they’re so good at taking what the defense gives you. They’re so intelligent that way.”

It’s impossible to separate last year’s Villanova team for this season’s. Yes, Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu are gone, but that’s it. There’s also the matter of the fact they just keep winning. Six to end last season, 14 to start this one. Wright, however, won’t let this version of Villanova take credit for last year’s success, even if the public wants to draw a line from the team that showered under confetti in Houston last April to this undefeated start.

“It’s completely different,” he said. “It’s a different completely different crew. A completely different team. We’re playing differently.

“But they have to deal with everyone else’s impact from last season. They have to deal with everybody treating them like the No. 1 team, treating them like the former national champions. Still talking about last year. They all have to deal it. It’s part of the responsibility. It’s a good challenge to have, but it’s a totally different team this season.”

It’s not, of course, a totally different team. Not exactly the same, sure, but certainly not far removed. This is a team with national championship pedigree. It has one of the best players in the country, and a supporting cast that can star when called upon. Experience, talent and no apparent complacency make for a dangerous team.

Only two programs – Duke and Florida – have repeated as national champions since UCLA’s run in the 1960s and ‘70s. Villanova is equipped to potentially join that group. It’s the biggest story in the sport, and it’s happening in front of the entire country. You don’t even need to strain to see it, let alone appreciate it.