Darrun Hilliard is averaging 13.9 points per game in a balanced Villanova offense. (Mitchell Layton/Getty)
ROSEMONT, Ill. – Watching Villanova warm-ups an hour before the action began Wednesday, it was as if reality had been spliced into an infinite, five-second loop. Walk-on Henry Lowe set himself at the top of the key, then took two or three hard dribbles to the wing. There, a Villanova regular cut toward him at game speed and received a hand-off. A bounce or two after that, the player was in the lane, firing a short jumper. And so on. Each time, Lowe called out a name during the handoff. Which was helpful, because no one might have known the difference otherwise.
It was effectively the same player following the same pregame choreography with the same result. Basketball clones, for all purposes. Potent and exchangeable, on repeat. It was the ideal Villanova: A shared programming model that has the program humming once more, to the dismay of the Big East for this year and for the foreseeable future.
“Everybody’s a guard out there – that’s how we practice,” forward JayVaughn Pinkston said. “Everybody works on the same thing. We’re interchangeable – one subs in, one comes out, everybody’s basically the same player.”
A 87-62 thrashing of DePaul made it 22 wins in 24 games for the No. 6 Wildcats. It confirmed more than it proved that, after a swoon, coach Jay Wright has his program looking precisely as he prefers it to look. The results Wednesday were 15 three-pointers, 55.1 percent shooting and a robust 1.261 points per possession. But the outcome was less eye-popping than how Villanova arrived at it.
Three-, four- and even five-pass possessions with nary a bounce between them, players bypassing good looks for better looks for looks without a defender in the same county. Five Wildcats scored in double figures. But everyone scored from everywhere, the difference between a 6-foot-2 point guard and a 6-7 forward negligible. It was clinical in the way Dexter’s laboratory is clinical. It was what Wright attempted to instill in a relatively young group at the start of the 2012-13 season. The outcome was just combustible in the wrong way.
“At the beginning of (last) year, we were trying to teach it, and we were bad,” Wright said. “We were bad. But you could see it coming through the season, gradually, gradually, gradually. I didn’t think it would happen this fast, this year. But right from the start, even from the summer when I walked in, these guys really, really shared the ball.”
The records of the lean times might as well be etched on dusty parchment paper. Villanova now ranks No. 6 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency with 118.8 points per 100 possessions, according to kenpom.com, which would be the best mark of Wright’s 13-year tenure.
“I feel very good about this team,” the Wildcats coach said. “Not as much about the record, but about the way we play, the way they respect each other, the way they respect the game. It’s a lot of fun. This is what I want it to be. I want every experience for our guys to be this kind of experience.”
To that end, Wednesday served as a how-to montage.
About six minutes in, Villanova collected an offensive rebound. The kickout found forward James Bell open in the corner. He just wasn’t open enough. So he swung it to point guard Ryan Arcidiacono for an uncontested three-pointer that the sophomore drained.
Late in the first half, guard Darrun Hilliard penetrated into the lane for what could have been a big finish. Hilliard instead flung the ball to forward Kris Jenkins in the corner. Without hesitation, Jenkins moved the ball to Arcidacono on the wing. Another three-pointer and a 13-point lead.
Even with a 22-point second-half lead, Villanova kept making incisions: A high ball screen followed by a pass to the roll man, followed by a rocket pass to the corner, followed by a crisp pass to the wing, followed by another to Hilliard at the top the key, all alone for yet another long-range bomb. It was unrelenting and unmerciful. Even solid hustle from opponents is inadequate thanks to the Wildcats' warp-speed ball movement.
DePaul guard Billy Garrett Jr. could relate. Early in the second half Wednesday, he sprinted out to Hilliard on the wing in a defensive scramble. He got a hand up. Hilliard drained the three-pointer anyway. Garrett’s shoulders sagged. At a timeout moments later, he approached the bench and smacked his seat and cursed himself. Villanova has that effect on people.
“Our offense, everybody can do everything, man,” Hilliard said. “It’s not just, you’re a five-man so you stay on the block, or you’re a guard and you just shoot threes. Everybody can do anything. It’s a great feel and a great way to play for us.”
In the push for supremacy in the new Big East, Villanova for now must contend with Creighton and Doug McDermott, a worthy foil in terms of maddening matchup problems. The teams meet again Sunday in Omaha, with a 28-point loss to the Bluejays on Jan. 20 still ringing in the Wildcats’ ears. The present is full of possibility; Villanova boasts a top-20 efficiency defense to go with its versatile offense.
But the present is almost beside the larger point. Bell, the leading scorer at 16 points per game in an emergent senior season, is the only starter not eligible to return next season. The rotation Wednesday featured two juniors, three sophomores and two freshmen, none of whom appear likely to bolt to the next level.
Even if there is churn, Wright already has two top 100 prospects in the fold in both the 2014 and 2015 recruiting cycles. It is a daunting prospect for the rest of the Big East already, and there is no evidence of interruption to come. The Wildcats just keep moving.
“That’s how this team is special,” Hilliard said. “We love sharing the ball with each other. We get off on that, we get off on having assists and seeing each other making the great plays. That’s just a testament to what we’ve been through. We went through a lot of stuff last year and the year before. We’ve been through the downs and now we’re seeing some of the ups.”
After the game Wednesday night, Villanova was still moving fast. The team wanted to beat the worst of the snow back to Philadelphia and hustled through its showers and packing to head to the plane. But outside the visitors’ locker room, a local youth team wearing green jerseys that read Elmhurst Airborne hovered, seeking just a moment or two of handshakes or autographs with one of the nation’s best teams.
The Wildcats were not in too much of a hurry to oblige. Arcidiacono delivered high-fives and listened as one of the kids bragged about never losing a game. Other Villanova players did likewise as they tracked toward a set of stairs. Finally, at the end, it was Hilliard and Pinkston, loosely swarmed and signing every program or piece of paper thrust in their direction. All of it was Villanova again back in its routine, one player after another, interchangeable and comfortable as ever.