PHILADELPHIA – Phil Booth led the way with 21 points and four assists while Jalen Brunson chipped in with 17 points and five assists and Mikal Bridges added 15 points as No. 1 Villanova pasted No. 10 Xavier, 89-65.
Xavier joined the Big East prior to the 2013-14 season, and in the five trips that the Musketeers have made to Philadelphia, the closest they have managed to keep a game has been 13. They lost by 23 points the first time they played as league foes. They lost by 13 the following year, by 31 points the season in which the Wildcats won the national title and by 25 last season.
Wednesday night was more of the same.
Villanova was up 18-6 just six minutes into the game and never looked back. The Wildcats took a 12-point lead into the break and lead by 20 less than five minutes into the second half.
The only thing the Musketeers had going all night long was Kerem Kanter, who finished with a team-high 16 points.
Here are three things that we can takeaway from this game:
1. IF THERE WAS ANY CONCERN ABOUT VILLANOVA’S DEFENSE, THEY ERASED IT
The last two games that the Wildcats played prior to Wednesday night were somewhat worrying.
The issue was on the defensive end of the floor. The Wildcats gave up 101 points in their only loss of the season at Butler, a game that could somewhat be explained away by the Bulldogs making a ridiculous 15-for-22 from beyond the arc. But just a week later, Villanova gave up 90 points at Marquette, and that doesn’t even include the 85 points that Villanova gave up to DePaul in their Big East opener.
Prior to their blowout win over the Musketeers, Villanova was dead last in defensive efficiency in Big East play, according to KenPom.
Those doubts … well, they are no longer doubts, at least not in the moment. Xavier shot just 42 percent from the floor. They were 3-for-16 from three and turned the ball over 14 times. If you’re into the analytic angle, Xavier scored less than 1.0 points-per-possession, the first time Villanova held an opponent below that mark since Dec. 22nd.
And it’s probably worth noting here that, entering Wednesday, Xavier was ranked 13th in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric.
“We’ve been struggling defensively,” head coach Jay Wright said, “and our guys really stepped up.”
The issue, according to Wright, has been complacency. It started on that Dec. 22nd game against Hofstra, and it continued into the start of Big East play. The problem? Villanova didn’t get in the practices they needed to in order to solve the problem. After the Hofstra game it was Christmas. Then they had to travel to Chicago to play DePaul. Next, they made a trip to Indianapolis on Dec. 30th.
“We saw it coming, we just didn’t have the time to practice,” Wright said.
It wasn’t until after the Butler game that they were able to take a week to really iron out some of the kinks, and the Wildcats still struggled with an admittedly awesome Marquette offense.
“We just kind of lost it,” Wright said. “We can’t just say, ‘OK, we’re going to play defense now’ when we haven’t been doing it or three weeks. You have to get back to your habits.”
“The older guys get it, a guy like [Dhamir] Cosby-Rountree or Omari [Spellman], even Donte [DiVincenzo], they’re looking at you like, ‘we scored 100, we’re winning, what’s the big deal?”
And that’s where Villanova’s veterans come in.
They’re the ones that set the tone in practice. Hell, they’re the ones that set the example for the entire program. The term that gets tossed around is “culture”, and the culture at Villanova is one for improvement and hard work even when the Wildcats are winning games.
That’s where Wright started.
“When we weren’t doing well defensively or rebounding, we didn’t focus on Omari or Dada,” he said. “We focused on Jalen, Phil and Mikal. They had to show those young guys how to do it first.”
And the result was the performance you saw Wednesday.
2. THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN XAVIER AND VILLANOVA CAN BE SEEN IN THE SUPPORTING CAST
Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges are the stars for Villanova, and while they got their numbers on Wednesday, they weren’t Wednesday’s stars.
Phil Booth was.
He scored 11 of Villanova’s first 18 points. He finished with 21 points and five assists. He was the spark for this team at the start of the game, the guy that led the run that buried Xavier before they were able to work their way into the game. We’ve seen nights where Donte DiVincenzo was that guy for Villanova. Omari Spellman has been that guy. Eric Paschall finished with 14 points on Wednesday and buried a pair of threes.
The blessing for Villanova is that Bridges and Brunson – especially Brunson – are annoyingly consistent. They don’t really have off nights.
Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura do, Xavier doesn’t necessarily have guys that can pick them up on those off-nights. Kerem Kanter was good on Wednesday, but he did most of his damage in the second half, once the lead was too big for Xavier to really have a shot at making a comeback; if Kanter was better defensively Chris Mack might have more confidence in using him when the game is on the line. Naji Marshall had 13 points, but that’s his second-highest scoring output of the season.
3. XAVIER NEEDS TREVON BLUIETT TO GET RIGHT
Bluiett is one of the best players in college basketball, but he has not played like it in the last month. In Xavier’s last eight games, he is shooting 34.2 percent from the floor and 33.3 percent from three. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that Xavier has lost twice during that span, needed to come back from 22 points down at home against East Tennessee and 16 points down at home against DePaul. They struggled at Northern Iowa, the MVC’s cellar-dweller, and barely held off Marshall at home.
Hell, when Xavier was blown out by Arizona State, Bluiett was 4-for-10 from the floor and finished with 11 points.
When he’s right, Xavier’s right.
And he has not been right for a while.