This wasn’t a warm-up. It was a workout. Paying customers weren’t inside the Wells Fargo Center yet Tuesday night as Eric Paschall took pass after pass from a Villanova assistant coach, catching and shooting in rhythm, usually taking 16-footers or 17-footers, almost all finding the net.
The most noteworthy part of the workout was that rhythm, Paschall’s body in sync. It was a bit different rhythm from what you would have seen in past seasons. It used to be, a Paschall jump shot put emphasis on the jump. He’d rise higher than anybody in the place. If that sounds ideal, you need to understand that the higher you jump, there’s more of a chance your body parts won’t stay in alignment. There’s a reason foul shooters don’t jump. There also might be a reason Paschall made only 27.9 percent of his three-pointers last season.
Paschall is still jumping on his jumpers, just not nearly as high.
“He worked tirelessly on his shot,’’ Villanova assistant coach Kyle Neptune said after the Wildcats had beaten Providence, 89-69, after Paschall had led them with 17 points. “Obviously, he didn’t start [the season] shooting great, partially because he was just working out the little nuances of his shot. What you see now, he’s been unbelievable the last month.”
“Still release at the pinnacle, just don’t jump as high,” confirmed ‘Nova assistant Ashley Howard, who had been throwing those pregame passes.
The turnaround has been crazy. In November and December, Paschall took 27 three-pointers and made two. You could be excused for thinking, New form? The old form produced better results.
Then came January. This month, Paschall has taken 17 three-pointers and made 10. If Villanova has been college basketball’s most efficient offensive team this season, Paschall has made it only more so. He has said he never lost confidence through his early struggles. Did you expect him to tell people to be patient?
Tuesday’s game was hardly a wipeout from start to finish. It was the Friars who began finding the net first, taking an early 24-15 lead. Then Villanova went on one of its big runs, 22-2. Except Providence didn’t slink back to the locker room. With a little more than 15 minutes left, the top-ranked team in the nation was up only 44-41.
At that point, Paschall took over for a stretch: Paschall block. Paschall three-pointer. Paschall jumps into a passing lane for a steal. Paschall misses jumper. Paschall forces turnover.
With Paschall’s shot in rhythm, all the other parts of his game come into sharp focus. The front row along the baseline had an incoming basketball in the first half after a Paschall volleyball spike of a Providence shot. He finished with three blocks and four steals. He’s always a glue guy. Right now, the glue is sticking.
“You know, Mikal Bridges was always the best defensive player on our team,’’ Villanova coach Jay Wright said afterward. “He might …”
Wright paused for a second.
“He’s challenging him; he really is. That’s a good thing,’’ Wright said. “I didn’t think about saying that publicly, because Mikal takes pride in that.”
Paschall was sitting next to his coach at the press conference. Bridges was back in the locker room.
The 6-foot-7 junior had transferred to Villanova after scoring 16.9 points a game as a freshman at Fordham.
“I did not play any defense,’’ Paschall offered about that Fordham year.
“In his defense, he was the leading scorer and he had to do all the work on offense so they couldn’t have him not in the game,’’ Wright said.
When there was a coaching change and Paschall transferred, he fit in quickly while he was sitting out. Former Villanova center Darryl Reynolds noted last season how Paschall showed up and was diving on the floor during pickup games, no coaches in the gym. “He’s one of us,’’ Reynolds told himself.
The year Paschall sat out was the national championship season. Paschall and injured Donte DiVincenzo had their own battles going on.
“It was kind of a unique spot,’’ Neptune said. “Eric had never really guarded on the perimeter like that. Donte is just an unbelievable ball-handler. One-on-one stuff. You just get better going against that type of speed and athleticism. I look at Donte as the highest level in terms of speed and athleticism and handling the ball so you’re guarding a guy like that, you get better at it.”
Especially now, Neptune said, “he looks at himself as a defender, as a dude who does not want to get beat on defense. I think he’s taken that on, and it’s kind of become who he is.”
Wright also talked about how Providence is best in the Big East at not just stopping three-pointers but also stopping opponents from taking them. So you saw Paschall in the high post, inside that line, receiving passes and not just driving but finding teammates in the low post. Paschall also led Villanova with five assists.
“You’ve got to have someone that can be efficient taking advantage of that,’’ Wright said of Providence’s denying three-pointers. “You’ve got to have guys that can score and then make free throws and make the right decisions. That’s a lot for a big guy. We have three guys that can do it. It’s very, very valuable.”
As for that shot, that more compact form, Neptune said, “Finally, you’re seeing the fruits of his labor.”