Villanova is not a perfect basketball team.
They have their flaws. Their depth in an issue. Their defense is a bigger issue. Their health seems to be working itself out, but with a rotation that has been as shallow as six guys at time, they are never more than one sprained ankle away from being put in a spot where their starters play too many minutes.
And despite all of that, one thing remains true about this group: They are always capable of putting together a shooting performance that leaves you wondering how in the world they ever lost a game to begin with.
That’s precisely what happened on Saturday in Cincinnati, as the No. 3 Wildcats — having lost two of their last three games to fall a game out of first place in the Big East — went into the Cintas Center and truck-sticked No. 4 Xavier, 95-79. It’s a result we all probably should have seen coming. Villanova has, after all, won four straight Big East regular season titles, and they weren’t about to lay down and let the Musketeers take control of their league. Especially since it’s Xavier. In the 11 games since Xavier and Villanova became conference foes, the Wildcats are now 10-1 with an average winning margin of 17.6 points.
Mikal Bridges led the way, scoring 16 of his 25 points in a first half where he buried four of Villanova’s 11 threes. Their lead ballooned as high as 21 points, and they took a 51-37 lead into halftime. Xavier made their run in the second half, getting as close as 62-59 before Donte DiVincenzo, who finished with 21 points, nine assists and nine boards, helped to spark a surge that put the game away.
The difference-maker here was Villanova’s shooting. They were 11-for-19 from three in the first half. They shot 16-for-34 for the game. In losses to St. John’s and Providence in the last two weeks, the Wildcats struggled from beyond the arc. They were 8-for-33 against St. John’s, just 2-for-17 in the second half, and they shot 3-for-19 from distance at Providence during the week.
And it is also worth noting that they got some terrific play from two of their young, unproven freshman who combined to score 11 straight points during a five-minute second half stretch. Dhamir Cosby-Rountree had two critical buckets as Villanova pulled away late midway through the second half, when he was on the floor for Eric Paschall, who had picked up four fouls. And Collin Gillispie followed that up by banging home a three and scoring on a tough finger-roll over Sean O’Mara that helped hold Xavier at bay. All told, Cosby-Rountree finished with four points, three boards and a block while Gillispie chipped in with 10 points of his own.
Perhaps most impressive in all of this was that Villanova put together this kind of a performance on an afternoon where Jalen Brunson struggled to get into his normal rhythm. He finished with 11 points and eight assists, but shot just 5-for-12 from the floor and 1-for-6 from three. For a player that is having a historically-great season from an efficiency perspective, those are surprising numbers.
What it all adds up to is this: The Wildcats are not yet ready to relinquish control over the Big East regular season title. Xavier is still technically in first place by a half-game — they’re 12-3 while Villanova is 11-3 — but for all intents and purposes, they’re tied. Xavier’s schedule down the stretch is much easier than what Villanova has remaining. Xavier has road trips to Georgetown and DePaul left while Villanova still has to go to Creighton and Seton Hall.
That story is still left to be told.
But the simple fact of the matter is that Xavier had a chance to take a two-game lead on Villanova with two weeks left in the regular season and they couldn’t get the job done.
And if they slip up again in their final three games, they may be left wondering ‘what if?’ all over again.