PITTSBURGH – It isn’t every game in which Donte DiVincenzo gets to revert to his free-shooting, high-school persona and let shots fly at will for the Villanova Wildcats. The sophomore got that freedom on Saturday, in the second round of the NCAA tournament against Alabama, however, and made the most of the opportunity.
With leading scorer Jalen Brunson on the bench with foul trouble and second-leading scorer Mikal Bridges suffering through a bad first half, the Wildcats turned to DiVincenzo, and he turned the ball loose. He made five three-pointers in the half to keep Villanova afloat offensively, until the team’s balance returned in the second half.
The result was a routine 81-58 win that advances the Wildcats to the Sweet 16 next week. By the end, there was little doubt, but that wasn’t the case when DiVincenzo went to work with the score tied midway through the first half and dropped in three straight treys in a two-minute span to put Villanova ahead to stay.
“I came in, and my job was just to rebound and defend,” DiVincenzo said. “I felt like I was defending at a high rate. We were running things, and I found myself hot.”
He recognized the feeling, of course. DiVincenzo was a noted gunner with only a passing interest in defense at Salesianum School in Wilmington, and the shooting skill is what caught the attention of Jay Wright. Things work a little differently at Villanova, of course.
“That’s what built this program, defense and rebounding. Just because I’m coming in, this program isn’t going to change,” DiVincenzo said. “It helps on offense, because if you’re defending, you’re going to get looks on offense. In high school, you don’t play much defense. It’s mostly offense. In college, it’s vice versa, and that’s what I tried to do.”
With this season’s team, DiVincenzo, who was the sixth man of the year in the Big East conference, is just one of many good perimeter shooters. His 11 three-point attempts on Saturday were a season high, and his five treys matched his season high. What keeps him on the floor for starters’ minutes – 29.4 minutes per game – is that he is far more than just a shooter now.
“What’s amazing is how he has developed,” Wright said. “You know what he was in high school. I used to go watch him, and I’d tell him, ‘Look, you’re going to be good, but you’re going to have to play a lot harder and become a lot tougher.’ He’s really become that kind of player. What happens in high school, and it’s not their fault, is you’re the best player, and the coach tells you, and it’s smart for them, that you have to not foul anybody and stay in the game. But here, everybody’s got to defend and rebound. He’s getting there, and it hasn’t been easy for him.”
Wright felt the Big East tournament marked something of a new plateau for DiVincenzo, who didn’t make many shots or score many points but was a defensive presence in three very physical games, similar to Saturday’s game. DiVincenzo totaled just 19 points in the conference tournament – only one more than he had against Alabama – and made 1 of 7 three-point attempts. But Wright played him 26, 28, and 33 minutes, because he brought the physicality that was required.
“He brings whatever we need,” Wright said. “If we need a scoring punch, he brings it. If we need defense, he brings it. On Thursday [the NCAA opener against Radford], we didn’t start with great energy. He brought it.”
Against Alabama, particularly in that first half, it was the scoring punch. He made 5 of 9 three-point attempts while the rest of the team was 2 of 11 from that range. Even with the hot hand, though, DiVincenzo didn’t go as wild as he once would have.
“It’s just more responsibility to make the right play,” he said. “I know when I got it going, they were loading to me [defensively], trying to deny me the ball. I just tried to make the right play, whether shots or passes.”
Wright has the luxury of a roster full of players who think that way, and he has the wonderful feeling that comes to a coach who finds his team playing its best in the middle of March. Villanova, which went through some injury-related lulls this season, is really good right now. Defensively, the Wildcats are just suffocating.
“This is a different team, man,” Wright said. “There’s a youthful exuberance with this team that is exciting me. That’s why I think we’re getting better every day, because they still have a lot of room to grow.”
Shooters can become defenders, and defenders can become shooters, and, every now and then, a season comes along when they all meet at the same finish line at the same time. It’s too early to say for sure, but this is starting to look like one of those.