Only eight days ago, Villanova was cruising toward a fifth consecutive outright Big East title and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament for the third time in four years.
Both those goals are now in some jeopardy after the Wildcats suffered two unexpected setbacks in their past three games.
The most pressing issue for Villanova is that its grip on first place in the Big East has loosened after a Feb. 7 upset at the hands of suddenly torrid St. John’s and Wednesday night’s road loss against desperate Providence. The Wildcats (23-3, 10-3) now trail first-place Xavier (24-3, 12-2) by one game in the loss column entering Saturday’s showdown in Cincinnati.
Villanova has won nine of 10 games against Xavier including an 89-65 drubbing last month, but the Musketeers have won nine straight since that loss. Xavier has the more favorable remaining schedule after Saturday, meaning a Musketeers victory would all but clinch the Big East title and further solidify a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Whether Villanova wins on Saturday or not, the bigger longterm concern is that the Wildcats still aren’t defending at a high level with March fast approaching. They aren’t showing signs of being able to string together enough stops to survive an NCAA tournament game when their formidable offense isn’t clicking.
Villanova has suffered all season from not having an elite rim protector to alter shots in the paint or a frontline capable of consistently preventing second-chance opportunities. The Wildcats give up the highest percentage of offensive rebounds in league play of any Big East team, a product of 6-foot-9 Omari Spellman being the only truly effective rebounder they have.
Phil Booth’s absence due to a broken hand has also damaged Villanova’s perimeter defense as he was the Wildcats’ biggest ballhawk and one of their better on-ball defenders. Collin Gillespie has taken much of Booth’s playing time, and while the freshman is an excellent shooter and skilled passer, he is at this point also a defensive liability.
The result is a defense still top 50 nationally but not quite the same caliber as Jay Wright’s past few Villanova teams. St. John’s attacked the basket fearlessly and got to the foul line 24 times in its victory over the Wildcats. Providence wasn’t nearly as efficient from the field as the Johnnies, but the Friars got to the foul line 30 times, grabbed nearly one third of their misses and always managed to score a basket whenever Villanova was mounting a second-half surge.
The good news is Villanova doesn’t need to be elite defensively to contend for a national title. The Wildcats have perhaps the nation’s best offense thanks to the creativity of Jalen Brunson, the slashing of Mikal Bridges and Donte DiVincenzo and a barrage of outside shooters. It’s a rarity when the Wildcats’ 3-point shooting abandons them as it did Wednesday night at Providence.
But there will surely come another game in March when Villanova’s threes aren’t falling and it needs to find another way to win.
The past eight days should serve as a reminder that the Wildcats can’t win on offense alone.
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