Villanova checked another game off the schedule Saturday, beating Providence by 10 points at the Wells Fargo Center. It was a fairly typical mid-January game in the Big East Conference - one part beauty, one part beastly, and the rest a series of collisions and skids across the floor.
When it was over, Villanova had won for the 19th time in 20 games this season and preserved its hold on the No. 1 ranking in the country. The accolade is nice, if you don't inhale, but the Wildcats know there is a tournament coming that will actually decide things, a fact that has worked out pretty well for them recently.
Providence hung around and made three-point shots to trail by just four at halftime before Villanova's defense forced some turnovers and missed shots and then Josh Hart, on his way to 25 points, did his Josh Hart thing and the lead ballooned out to 20 points midway through the second half.
It wasn't that the game was over, but it was close to being over, and it allowed Jay Wright the opportunity to work on some things. Mostly, he wanted to work on zone defense, an aspect of his team's game that isn't his favorite at the moment.
"Right now, it's poor," Wright said. "We got really good at it by the end of the year last year. I don't know where it went. We need it."
The switch to zone left the perimeter vulnerable and Providence would drop in another six three-pointers by the end of the game, cutting the final margin in half.
"Sometimes at the end of games, we'll say, 'Let's go zone. Let's work on this and get better,' " Wright said. "Sometimes it won't work and the game looks closer than it was. We don't care."
Wright was a strict man-to-man coach most of his career and has moved to a more balanced philosophy in recent seasons. Some teams need to have that in their holster and he always wants it to be ready now. His current team is playing just seven deep, so in a given game, if someone is injured or sick or in foul trouble, Wright needs to protect his rotation with a theoretically safer zone. He also needs to anticipate a tournament matchup that could demand zone.
Eric Paschall, the sophomore forward who sat out last season after transferring from Fordham, picked up three first-half fouls Saturday. That shortened the bench, but by the end, Wright wasn't just coaching to beat Providence. He was coaching to beat what the Wildcats might face down the road.
"In the NCAA tournament, there are certain teams you just can't play man-to-man. Kansas. You get into that Kansas game and you can't go mano-a-mano with them. [The players] want to, but you can't," Wright said. "And you can't just go to zone and not be good at it. You'd get killed. You hear coaches say, 'I said, let's try zone.' Well, that's like the movies. You better be good at it and we're not right now."
Having a team with two veteran leaders like Hart and Kris Jenkins, and a beyond-his-years point guard like sophomore Jalen Brunson, gives Wright the flexibility to look down that road even as the Wildcats are ticking off games from the schedule. They're good enough to get away with that, unlike other seasons in which Villanova had to grind every game.
"Exactly right," Wright said. "We're good, but we need to get better."
They need to get better in order to even contemplate a run similar to the one they had last season. Everything has to be in place, including the kind of zone defense that held Kansas, one of the top five three-point-shooting teams in the nation, to 6 for 22 on three-pointers in the regional final last season.
"We still didn't have to play anyone more than 34 minutes today, and at the end, I could have lessened those minutes," Wright said. "If this were later in the season, I would have gotten them out of there. But we're trying to work on some things."
He doesn't say it out loud - no one says it out loud - but they're trying to work on winning another national championship. The Wildcats have 11 remaining regular-season games and then the Big East tournament to prepare for that challenge. It can happen. It has happened, in fact.
If it doesn't, however, nobody will care that you beat Providence by 20 points instead of 10 in January. So, on Saturday, they didn't care about that, either.