Wildcats All Class, No Sass Before Sweet 16 Meeting
BOSTON – Villanova talked the talk concerning its match-up against West Virginia.
From head coach Jay Wright to a multitude of players, the top-seeded Wildcats were pointedly polite, honest and respectful of the Mountaineers. It showed a maturity and was an insightful look into a program just two years removed from a national championship and very much in the hunt for another.
“I think we believe in one another, but anybody can be beaten,” said Nova guard Phil Booth, who along with Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges make up a trio of high level guards with which WVU will have to contend. “We have to have a respect level for each team we play. As you see in March Madness, any team can go down. So we try to just be locked in. I think the confidence comes from one another, playing with each other and trusting one another. But any given day, you’ve got to respect all these teams we play because anybody can be beaten.
“I think it’s about playing well at the right time. West Virginia is playing as good as anybody else or any other team. It doesn’t affect us. We don’t go out there afraid to lose. We just try to play Villanova basketball for 40 minutes, and we’ll live with that outcome.”
It’s that battle against the self that has made Wright’s teams so successful. Sitting at 32-4 this season, Villanova has won at least that many games in each of the last four years in compiling a 132-16 record (.892 winning percentage). It’s biggest opponent under Wright has always been itself, and that held true whether playing in the formerly rough-and-tumble Big East, or the top-heavy version of today, where VU faced just three games against ranked foes.
The Wildcats are 3-0 in those contests, however, having knocked off then-No. 8 Gonzaga in nonconference along with a sweep of Xavier when it was ranked inside the top 10. None of the games were close, Villanova defeating the Zags 88-72 and the Musketeers 89-65 at home and 95-79 on the road.
The four loses were equally as puzzling as those victories were impressive. After starting 13-0, Nova lost to 101-93 at Butler, then won nine in a row before a 79-75 home loss to St. John’s. That started a 3-3 stretch in which also saw defeats against at Providence (76-71) and at Creighton (89-83 in OT). Perhaps it was fatigue, a red hot start that had to cool or the simple law of averages that teams are going to lose somewhere, someplace. The six-game segment did show a chink in the armor, namely if teams can force the Wildcats into a grinding contest in the 70s, they give themselves a chance.
That’s exactly what fifth-seeded West Virginia wants to do on Friday. While the Mountaineers’ press isn’t quite the force it was in past seasons, WVU has ranks in the top 40 nationally in points per possession, though the bigger marker, which somewhat goes hand-in-hand, will be the ability to get deflections and force turnovers. The top scoring team in the nation at 89 points per game, Villanova runs as well as any team, and can score from all five positions, so the pace of play won’t likely bother them, though the pressure could.
“I think it’s a team that has grown throughout the year and is really playing their best basketball right now, as we are,” Wright said of West Virginia. “A really unique style of play that you don’t see any other time during the year or from any other opponent. I think it’s going to be the kind of game where we’re going to have to get in it, kind of take a punch in the mouth there for a second, and then get ready to adjust because it’s hard to simulate. We just haven’t seen it anywhere else this year.”
Therein lies the edge for West Virginia. That and a toughness quotient that has been proven and thoroughly tested in Big 12 play. Villanova can’t say the same about the Big East, or if that sterling 32-4 mark would have held up against the rigors of a schedule like WVU’s, which saw the Mountaineers play 10 games against ranked teams (5-5 record) and 10 games versus teams that reached the Sweet 16 in Kansas, Texas Tech, Kansas State, Texas A&M and Kentucky (4-6 mark).
“We know they’re a great team with a great leader in Jevon, but it’s not just him,” said Brunson, who leads Nova in scoring at 19.1 points per game. “The whole team has great pieces. This is why they’ve come this far. They’re an overall great team. As a team, we’ve got to play together. There’s no individual matchups. We’ve got to play together with everyone on the floor.”
Added freshman forward Omari Spellman: “We are trying to stay locked in and focus on the challenge before us. We are playing at our highest level right now. If we can play hard together, then we will take the results – win or lose. We have a pretty good team in front of us. We are just trying to prepare for them as best as possible.”