There was nothing that even hinted that a nationally ranked team was on the practice court Monday morning at Villanova, just a blue team and a white team and some guys who practice regularly with the Wildcats women’s team.
“Down one, take it on the side,’’ Villanova coach Harry Perretta told the blue team, adding that if a shot was missed, “you’ve got to foul.”
Nothing unusual going on inside the Davis Center, except that facility just off Ithan Avenue is the only one in the country that houses an undefeated men’s Division I team and an undefeated women’s team. Villanova is the last school left with one of each.
The college hoops world has gotten used to the men’s team being in such rare air. This week, the Wildcats retained their No. 1 national ranking. The bigger news might be in the upstairs gym, where for the first time since 2004, Villanova has been ranked in the Associated Press poll. (Perretta’s team was ranked in 2012-13 in a coaches’ poll.) This week, 9-0 ‘Nova stayed at 20th.
It’s not as if this group has been flailing around in recent seasons. The women have won at least 20 games the last five seasons. But to get voters to notice you, it’s almost required to beat a ranked team, which is what ‘Nova did last month. The Duke Blue Devils were ranked 11th when they showed up at Jake Nevin. At halftime, that ranking was holding up, Duke ahead by 28-22. Then Villanova went on a 26-8 third-quarter tear and won, 64-55. The Wildcats have been ranked ever since.
They’ve also been a different team.
“Once we beat Duke — that was kind of this big thing,’’ said junior guard Adrianna Hahn, Villanova’s leading scorer with 14 points a game. “OK, we can beat anybody. We were kind of expecting a loss from them, even though last year when we played them the game was still close. It’s just Duke.”
So she did think it flipped a switch, that one quarter of one game.
“Oh, for sure,’’ Hahn said. “Once we beat them …”
There had been ups and downs in the preseason, she said.
“Kind of just figuring out leadership roles, especially,’’ Hahn said. “Just in the beginning. I would say, attitude, if people mess up …” If there was a turnover, going hard defensively. Playing together. All the things you expect to see from good teams.
“That was a big thing we’ve been doing better this year,’’ Hahn said. “We obviously play better together, but when we make mistakes, we’re able to turn it around more quickly than last year.”
Even the ranking, it’s an external thing, but for this year’s team, “that’s a big thing, too,’’ Hahn said. “At first we were kind of nervous — would we come in games thinking we could easily beat teams?”
They’ve crossed that hurdle, of a ranking being a burden.
“I would say it’s definitely because of the momentum since Duke,’’ Hahn said. “Now, losing to us — last year we were 4-8 and were just like, ‘Oh, another game. We might win; we might lose. If it’s a loss, it’s just another loss.’ Now, we’re not losing. We’re coming out on the court. We’re expecting the win. We’re going to fight for the win.”
Last season, the Wildcats were young and barely snuck into the WNIT, then won four straight road games before losing at Michigan. Such things don’t always translate to the next year, and Perretta wasn’t sure any of it did when this season started.
“Beginning of the year, we were not very good,’’ Perretta said. “We were lucky to win a lot of those games in the beginning of the year.”
He watched his team blow a 15-point fourth-quarter lead in a preseason scrimmage against Army. Nobody would have been talking about a ranking after seeing that.
“We didn’t score in the whole fourth quarter against American and we were able to hold on and win,’’ Perretta said. (They actually scored 10, but American scored 26.) “I don’t think we had a field goal in the last five minutes against [James Madison] and were able to hold on and win.”
So Perretta isn’t denying the importance of that Duke game.
“We started beating some teams like we should have beaten them,’’ Perretta said. “Also, kids started to make shots. We were shooting 22 percent going into the Duke game. The kids made some shots, and it became contagious.”
Everybody knows if a Perretta team is shooting well, it can play with the best of them. That’s been true for more than three decades.
“We’re older,’’ Perretta said. “Games we lost by two or three last year, we won by two or three this year.”
It’s all about confidence, but he doesn’t want them too confident, he said, “because we’re really not that overwhelmingly talented, if you watch us play. We’re not super-athletic. We can’t press you to death. We can’t pound the ball down your throat. You know what I mean? We really have to play a complete style of basketball where we’re working the ball around trying to get layups and trying to get jump shots and trying to get threes.”
All that is Perretta 101. Having a stronger bench this season has made a huge difference, he said. For a team that values possessions — “you’re adding like eight to 10 points to our total. Instead of losing by three or four, now we’re winning by three or four. A swing and it’s really, really big.”
Five of their nine wins are by single digits, four by five points or fewer. No surprise the blue team and the white team were out there Monday preparing for Wednesday’s game at La Salle by working on end-game situations.
Somebody was open in the corner. There was hesitation on a pass …
“If they don’t guard her, just get it to her,’’ Perretta yelled out, knowing that as long as they keep winning, they’ll keep hearing him.