Villanova and the Big East are in transition - literally | Bob Ford

NOVA11
The Wildcats can fire it up, as Jalen Brunson does here against Columbia, but can they tone it down, too?

Villanova entered Saturday’s Big East showdown at Xavier having lost two of its previous last three games, but the losses themselves were not the most troubling thing for Jay Wright’s team as the conference and NCAA tournaments approach.

Losses happen, even for very good teams in a conference as competitive as the Big East, and there is the old February-is-a-good-time-to-lose mentality. It certainly beats the heck out of losing in March.

But it was the way the Wildcats played those games, including a win over Butler that was sandwiched between losses to St. John’s and Providence. Villanova combined to make just 17 of 71 three-point attempts in the three games, culminating with a 3-for-20 night in Providence. The team’s most prolific three-point shooters – Jalen Brunson, Donte DiVincenzo, and Mikal Bridges – were 9 for 48 in that span.

Wright has often coached teams that live and die on the perimeter in his time at Villanova. There’s not much new there. “Shoot ‘em up and sleep in the streets” is their oft-repeated mantra for living with the fickle nature of shooting from distance.

The worry, if you want to break it down, was not that the Wildcats weren’t going to make three-point shots again, but that they are entering the time of year in which one cold game can end a season and that the Big East has evolved into a league that doesn’t encourage you to develop a fallback position.

Both the living and the dying were on display Saturday afternoon, when Villanova knocked down 11 three-pointers in a 51-point first half against Xavier but saw a 19-point lead dwindle to just three points when the three-point shots didn’t fall in the second half.

The Wildcats recovered, did make its late baskets, and won, 95-79, which looks like a handy margin unless you watched the game. Any win on the road against the No. 4 team in the country – a team that was undefeated at home and on a nine-game winning streak, by the way – is by definition a good one, and Wright’s team needed it. But this was far from being as routine as the first half would have predicted.

It could have been easier if Villanova slowed things down a little in the second half, got to the basket area and to the free-throw line more frequently. As it was, the Wildcats took just five free throws in the game, and even though their two-point shooting was a gaudy 76 percent, they kept pushing the pace and kept the game on the perimeter, which is also where Xavier kept its defense.

This is how Villanova plays, of course, and it has served the school well. It is also an indication of the demands of a Big East game. Just five seasons ago, according to analytics research by John Gasaway of ESPN, the Big East scoring average was 63.4 points per 40 minutes. That was a 15-team league with some bottom-feeders, but nevertheless.

This season’s Big East teams are scoring nearly 79 points per 40 minutes, which is the highest average for any major conference in more than a decade of research. Consider that the lowest-scoring school in the current Big East – DePaul with a 72.3-point average – would be nearly 10 points above the league average from 2012-13. That’s kind of crazy, and it makes you wonder what happened to the gritty league that used defense as its bedrock.

In the case of Villanova, the NCAA championship team of two years ago had center Daniel Ochefu as its stopper, but it isn’t as if current frontcourt protectors Omari Spellman,  Eric Paschall, and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree are bad defenders. They are young, however, without the incredible court awareness Ochefu had as a senior.

Comparing that team and Wright’s 2017-18 team illustrates where the league is going. The Wildcats averaged 77.6 points and gave up 65.9 in Big East play two years ago. This season, heading into Saturday’s game, the numbers are 88.2 and 77.2. Even taking into account the recent cold spell, Villanova is a better three-point-shooting team than it was two years ago, but opponents are making a markedly higher percentage as well, and that’s got nothing to do with Spellman or Cosby-Roundtree.

The culprit, if you look at it that way, is the sheer pace of the game. Big East teams get up and down the court at a furious rate, and woe to the team that can’t keep up. So, the teams are coached to keep up and to answer speed with speed. If defense suffers, which it has, so be it.

This makes for incredible action and the Wildcats are breathtaking when it works well, which is almost all of the time. The down side arrives only when an opponent shows up determined to deny early offense, particularly at the three-point line. Villanova is a little more susceptible to that since losing Phil Booth Jr. to a hand injury and during the time Paschall missed because of a concussion. Those players make it much more difficult for the other team to cover all the bases.

The scouting report on beating Villanova is that you probably won’t, but the best chance will be in forcing the Wildcats to play an ugly game in which the two-point area of the court and defense become more important than usual. In other words, just like in the old Big East. Pretty soon we will learn if Villanova can still play that game at the same level it plays the new one.

Wright knows all about tournament time, though, and he has a savvy team that will adjust. Villanova can be expected to ball-fake more frequently to get to the basket area and the foul line, even if just to back off those perimeter-squeezing defenses.

They will still shoot ‘em up, because that is what the Wildcats do. But maybe not as quickly and maybe not as often, because the streets are very cold in March.