- On the same day it earned the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament committee’s bracket preview, Villanova showed why it’s so dangerous as it won its fifth straight.
CINCINNATI — Informed that he was the coach of the first-ever mid-February No. 1 overall NCAA tournament seed, Villanova coach Jay Wright raised his eyebrows in surprise, if not disbelief.
“I just heard that for the first time,” he said, after his shorthanded Wildcats secured a 73–57 road win at Xavier. “That’s pretty cool. That’s good. But you just know that doesn’t mean anything. It’s really at the end of the tournament season, where you get ranked is what’s going to be important. So this is more for the media and fans right now. Because we all have to finish the season.”
The defending national champs indeed appeared at the very top of the top line during the NCAA’s initial bracket preview show on Saturday. The resolve they showed at Cintas Center suggests it might not be the last time that particular dynamic plays out. Here are three thoughts on the game:
Depth is a concern for Villanova, but depth is not a concern for Villanova
Stay with us here. Darryl Reynolds, the team’s best post defender and second-leading rebounder, missed Saturday’s game with a rib injury that has him day-to-day. That left the Wildcats with an effective rotation of six players. By the end of the first half, the best of those players, national player of the year candidate Josh Hart, had two points.
And Villanova was still up 12 at the break.
On a day when excuses were abundantly available—raucous atmosphere, top-25 team on the other side, a key starter out with injury—the Wildcats hardly skipped a beat and, in fact, put together an effort that bodes well for March. With Jalen Brunson and Donte DiVincenzo sharing the team scoring lead at 17 points apiece, the Wildcats were able to notch a victory without relying on Hart (11 points) or Kris Jenkins (12 points) to bail them out with huge baskets. Brunson likely didn’t need the confidence boost, but it certainly doesn’t hurt with DiVincenzo, the 6’5” freshman who came in averaging 7.8 points per game. “We work for the most difficult situations,” Jenkins said. “Not having Darryl really hurts us, but we keep with it.”
It’s probably not feasible to continue with a six-man rotation and hope for a deep run into April, especially when the Wildcats were minus-16 on the boards without Reynolds. But this was a pretty emphatic display without any depth to speak of, so perhaps it’s not wise to underestimate what five or six really good players can do.
Xavier absorbed more attrition, and it came at a pretty bad time
The Musketeers had won four straight coming into Saturday, so the season-ending ACL tear to point guard Edmond Sumner and the unexpected departure of backup guard Myles Davis hadn’t shook them. Then leading scorer Trevon Bluiett—who had averaged 24.2 ponts per game on 55.1% shooting in his last six outings—turned an ankle in the first half Saturday.
Bluiett went to the locker room, got the joint re-taped and gamely tried to make a go of it. But he hopped and hobbled along and was more of a liability than help. Not two minutes into the second half, the 6’6” junior hit the bench for good, with zero points and four turnovers in 19 minutes of action. Now, Xavier faces a stretch of three straight road games and has to go all over the map to play them: First at Providence, then at Marquette, then at Seton Hall. Suffice it to say it didn’t need more personnel problems before dealing with that gauntlet.
“Obviously those guys are key to our team,” Musketeers guard Malcolm Bernard said. “We miss them and definitely need them. But we can’t sit here and dwell on it. Ed is gone. We can’t get him back. Myles is gone. We can’t get him back. Trevon is still here but in that game we couldn’t get him back. So we have to find a way.”
Villanova may lead the country in un-rattle-ability
As a corollary to how the Wildcats reacted to the loss of a starter: Xavier and its fans tried to make this as difficult an environment as one can conceive. Consider what Wright saw from the students lined up outside the gates, as Villanova pulled into the arena parking lots.
“One of them laid down in the street in front of our bus,” the Villanova coach said with a laugh.
For all that—for the noise, for all the hostility—the Wildcats committed a mere six turnovers, tying their season low, and missed just one free throw on Saturday. Hart had to guard Xavier’s centers at times due to the wacky lineups Wright was forced to deploy and shrugged it off afterwards. “It is what it is,” he said with a smile. Wright said he felt lucky to have seniors who have seen everything and react accordingly. Which is to say they hardly react at all. “We just focus on staying together and controlling what we can control,” Jenkins said. “Nothing can rattle us as long as we do that.”