Shamorie Ponds finished with 26 points, five boards and five assists while Justin Simon chipped in with 16 points, 10 boards, seven assists and a pair of steals as St. John’s earned their first Big East win of the season.
On the road.
Against No. 1 Villanova, 79-75.
Just four days after they knocked off then-No. 4 Duke.
Yes, all of those things are true.
So credit to the Johnnies. For the first time this season, they are playing up to their talent level. To be quite frank, the fact that they lost their first 11 games of the Big East season with a team that is good enough to beat Duke and win at Villanova in back-to-back games is an indictment on Chris Mullin’s tenure in Queens.
The bigger story here, obviously, is Villanova.
So let’s talk about them.
More specifically, let’s talk about that thing that we haven’t really talked about with them to this point in the season: Their defense. Entering Wednesday night, Villanova was ranked 39th defensively on KenPom, which is fine. When North Carolina won the title in 2009, they entered the NCAA tournament ranked 39th on that end of the floor. When Duke won it in 2015, they entered the tournament ranked 37th. You can win a national title by being good enough on that end of the floor if you have one of the nation’s elite offenses, and Villanova does.
As we noted earlier this week, the Wildcats have been a juggernaut on that end, better than any offensive attack that we have seen in the KenPom era.
There are two concerns here, however.
North Carolina turned it on in the NCAA tournament, finishing the year ranked 18th in defensive efficiency. Duke, as we all know, played defense at a level we’ve never seen someone play for an entire season as they won the title in 2015. If there is an issue with this Villanova team defensively, it’s that they’ve struggled to turn it on when they’ve needed to.
“We just kind of lost it,” Wright told me back in January, the last time Villanova had a crisis defensively. “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?”
It’s probably worth noting here that Villanova was missing two of those older guys. Phil Booth, a redshirt junior and arguably the team’s best back court defender, is battling a broken hand. Eric Paschall, another redshirt senior and Villanova’s most athletic defender, missed Wednesday night’s game with a concussion. For a team that really only goes seven-deep when everyone is healthy, that’s a tough situation for Wright to be in. It might be good for him to get a glimpse at what he has in the likes of Collin Gillispie, Dhamir Cosby-Rountree and Jermaince Samuels, but it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that those learning experiences come with a loss.
The other part of it, however, is that Villanova relies so much on the three ball. More than 40 percent of their offense this season has come off of three-pointers. For comparison’s sake, Duke got 27 percent of their offense on threes in 2015. UNC got just 23 percent off their offense off of threes in 2009.
I’m not exactly breaking news here when I say that you live by the three, you die by the three. On Wednesday, Villanova shot 8-for-33 from beyond the arc. They were 2-for-18 from three in the second half, including 10 straight misses, many of which were wide — and I mean wide — open.
But it makes Villanova more susceptible to getting picked off by a team like this.
That’s anything-but a guarantee that Villanova, for the fourth time in five seasons, will get upset earlier in the NCAA tournament than they should.
It should, however, be the kind of thing that wakes Villanova’s defense back up.