INDIANAPOLIS – Well, Villanova wanted a test.
Through a series of circumstances out of their control, the Wildcats missed out on playing several highly-regarded teams that were knocked out early in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas. So ‘Nova rose to No.1 in the nation by virtue of putting away teams in the manner that they were supposed to.
Still, it was clear that Wildcats coach Jay Wright entered the Big East schedule a bit apprehensive about how this team would respond when pushed hard by an opponent it couldn’t just overwhelm with superior talent.
Playing unranked Butler was always going to be a test. Playing the Bulldogs in front of an amped-up sellout crowd of 9,244 in famed Hinkle Fieldhouse only raised the level of difficulty.
The good news for Wright is that he found out that his team will keep fighting when facing adversity. The bad news was that Wildcats fell so far behind, it ultimately did not matter.
The Bulldogs continued their recent dominance over Villanova by jumping out to a big lead and beating the Wildcats, 101-93, on Saturday.
For the second season, Butler (12-3, 2-0 in Big East) dealt Villanova (13-1, 1-1) its first loss while it was top-ranked.
Throughout the run to a 13-0 start, Wright kept emphasizing that this Wildcats team was not where it needed to be on defense. The performance by the Bulldogs (12-3, 2-0) brought those concerns to fruition.
“We’re not a great defensive team yet,” said Wright, who had not had an opponent score 100 points since Creighton on Feb. 16, 2014. Butler “is the best offensive team we’ve played so far, and that showed. We’ve really been outscoring people, and we weren’t outscoring this team tonight.”
If the Wildcats don’t resolve their issues on defense, that could become a problem because Butler was ranked seventh in the Big East in scoring.
Butler went into the game shooting 47.5 percent from the floor and 33.1 percent on three-pointers. The temperature was only 10 degrees outside in Indianapolis, but the Bulldogs burned the nets in Hinkle. They shot 60 percent (36 of 60) from the floor and an outstanding 68.2 percent on three-pointers. Going in with an average of 7.2 made three-pointers per game, Butler drained 15.
Many came from patiently working the ball around the Villanova defense until finding a clean look.
The Wildcats weren’t playing well but had managed to trail by just eight at the half. Butler, which got 24 points from Kelan Martin and 23 from Paul Jorgensen, then outscored Villanova, 20-8, and led by 20 with 12 minutes remaining.
The Wildcats went to a full-court press, and while it certainly disrupted, it wasn’t enough.
Paced by Jalen Brunson who scored 18 of his career-high matching 31 points in the second half, ‘Nova cut the deficit to single digits. The Bulldogs, however, always came up with the big basket at the right moment to hold the Wildcats at bay.
“We’ve got a lot of room to improve,” said Villanova swingman Mikal Bridges, who scored 21 points. “We know what we have to do. We’ll get back and resume practice to get better. That was going to happen even if we had won. We’ll keep working to get better.”