Here’s the good news: Providence is a good team, a team that, after beating No. 3 Villanova in the Dunkin Donuts Center on Wednesday night, is likely on their way to the NCAA tournament.
They are better than St. John’s. They were playing at home. They were in the midst of a game they badly needed. This is the kind of loss that happens all the time in league play. Losses like this are part of why college basketball is so much fun.
The problem is that this 76-71
defeat shines yet another light on a pair of issues that have been plaguing Villanova this season, issues that are on the verge of costing them the Big East regular season title for the first time since the Big East split from the Old Big East.
The first problem is the biggest: Villanova is not a good defensive team. They just aren’t. They entered Wednesday night ranked 50th on KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric, but that actually buries the lede. In Big East play, Villanova has ranked eighth out of ten teams in defensive efficiency, and that is in a conference that has become awfully defense-averse. They don’t really rebound the ball all that well, they don’t really protect the rim all that well, they don’t really have guys that are defensive stoppers.
Part of the issue is that Phil Booth isn’t available right now and that Eric Paschall missed a couple of games. Without Booth, that means that Collin Gillispie and Jermaine Samuels see Villanova’s back court minutes off the bench instead of Donte DiVincenzo, who is now in their starting lineup. Booth is not exactly Patrick Beverly but he is much better than Gillispie.
But they were struggling when they had everyone healthy. I’m not sure injuries are entirely to blame here. It may just be as simple as this: Omari Spellman and Jalen Brunson are average-to-below average defenders, and the other three guys on the floor are not good enough to make up for that fact.
Being just OK defensively is not a deal-breaker when it comes to winning the NCAA tournament, mind you, not when you’re an elite offensive team. North Carolina won it in 2009 with the 39th-best defense in the country entering the NCAA tournament. Duke won it in 2015 with the 37th-best best defense. Both of those teams were among the three best offenses in the sport, just like Villanova is this season.
But they also ran everything through the paint. That Duke team got 27 percent off their offense off of threes. That UNC team got just 23 percent of their offense off of three. This Villanova team gets 39 percent of their offense from beyond the arc, and if you look at the two losses they’ve taken in the last three games, there is a running theme: Against St. John’s, Villanova was 8-for-33 from three and shot 2-for-17 in the second half. Against Providence, they were 3-for-19 from three.
I say all that to say this: The way that Villanova can score the ball when they are clicking can paper over a lot of the cracks they have defensively.
But as the saying goes, you live by the three and die by the three, and that is a fact that is exacerbated for a team whose defensive floor is lower than most title contenders.
“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?”
Well, they’re not winning anymore.
And if No. 4 Xavier holds serve against Seton Hall at home on Wednesday, then Villanova will be a game out of first place in the Big East standings with a trip to play Xavier in Cincinnati on Saturday.
If the Musketeers win that — which, admittedly, is a stretch given the recent history of those two programs — they’ll have a two-game lead in the Big East.
If you are a Villanova fan, it might be time to start getting worried.