Villanova's defense is the key to this season

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Head Coach Jay Wright of Villanova yells instructions to his team during their game against Marquette at the Wells Fargo Center on Jan 6, 2018. CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

The hug told the story. Villanova freshman Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree already had scored a career-high five baskets in the first half Saturday night by getting close to the hoop and getting his hands on nifty passes from Wildcats virtuoso Jalen Brunson and the other ‘Nova guards. That bearhug Cosby-Roundtree got from Jay Wright coming off the court was for something else.

The same coach who simply said “bang” and went to shake hands as his team dramatically won the 2016 NCAA title was more demonstrative this time. Why? Seems obvious, if Villanova is to get back close to where it was two years ago, plays like the charge Cosby-Roundtree took in the second half against Marquette will be why. It shouldn’t be forgotten how dominant that championship group often was, defensively.

Before arriving at the Wells Fargo Center, these Wildcats already have indicated they are as well-rounded and polished offensively as any team in college hoops. The puzzle must be completed at the other end. By March, Villanova will need to prove its defense stands up to all the other A-plus students left in the classroom.

Saturday’s final score was 100-90 and the 90 was slightly misleading since Marquette had 75 with two minutes left and extended the game by fouling. Except, the reason the Golden Eagles extended the game was that Villanova hadn’t put them away. The visitors were still within 87-80 with a minute-and-a-half left. By the way, 80 still is a lot of points, the third straight game ‘Nova had given up at least that many.

Wright, generally a tough grader, was all right with how his team had defended the three-point line, after failing to do so had led to a loss last week at Butler. This time, Marquette took 31 threes, made 11. So you could argue that the first line of Villanova’s defense was adequate, and even the second wave, defending the initial drive. Except Marquette kept playing beyond that. The ball kept moving. The Golden Eagles had 22 assists on their 33 baskets. Even bigger, they had 16 offensive rebounds, converting them into 22 second-chance points, which is twice what Villanova had at the other end.

It’s about halfway through the regular season now. This season isn’t young anymore. This might sound crazy, but there’s almost this sense of excitement in the Villanova camp that for all the success, which has resulted in 14-1 and a No. 3 ranking, there is room for improvement, a vulnerability that must be addressed.

Camera icon Charles Fox
Markus Howard, right, of Marquette scores two of his 37 points against Mikal Bridges of Villanova during the 2nd half at the Wells Fargo Center on Jan 6, 2018. CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

“A good step for us, a good next game,’’ Wright said after Saturday’s game. “We had a long week after getting our butts kicked. We’re making a step in the right direction, even as bad as that looked defensively. They are hard to guard, man. Trying to prevent their threes is really, really difficult.”

By keeping Marquette from torching them outside, what did Villanova have to give up? Marquette guard Markus Howard didn’t have 52 points like he had in his previous game. Howard merely had 37.

“We gave up some twos and they drove the ball and got to the foul line,’’ Wright said. “What we didn’t have to give up, but we did, was offensive rebounds. We didn’t have to. That was just poor execution.”

Villanova’s coach was asked specifically about Cosby-Roundtree, who had 10 points in 15 minutes, making all of his shots.

“Dhamir was awesome,’’ Wright said. “I’m so happy for him. He works really work. He’s a great kid. It’s hard to come in this program as a freshman, especially a freshman big. It’s really hard. We need him.”

In addition to the charge, the freshman took, “he had a big steal in the first half,’’ Wright said. “Twice when they were making runs, once in the first half, once in the second half, he came up with two great defensive plays.”

Villanova had made 41.5 percent of its threes going into the game and given up just 33.8 percent. But Butler, not considered a Big East contender, had won beaten the Wildcats by scorching them from outside, making 15 of 22 threes.

“No one’s in a good mood, you want to play another game,’’ Wright said of what practice was like after that one. “It was a rough week. We have been talking about how we have to get better defensively. You don’t just take four days of practice and say, ‘OK, we’re going to fix this.’ We’ve got a lot of work to do. But we took a little step today, we really did.”

Brunson, who had 27 points and eight assists against Marquette, was asked where they still have to go defensively.

“I think most important is communicating,’’ Brunson said. “Whatever we do, whether we’re switching, whatever defense, we have to communicate. It’s something we’re going to have to continue to work at.”

Maybe the rest of college hoops wishes they had such problems. It doesn’t change the fact, improvement in this area is mandatory for this Villanova puzzle to be complete. That hug told the story.