Unlike the last three years, Villanova hasn’t looked stylish or smooth against Big East competition in the early going. Still, that hasn’t stopped the Wildcats from getting off to a 5-0 start in what has been a very competitive league.
The Wildcats are happy to grind it out to get those wins, or, as Jay Wright said after Friday night’s 85-75 win over Xavier at the Wells Fargo Center, to be “willing to get down in the mud with them and fight and scrap it out.”
After all, the Cats (14-4 overall) lost four players to the NBA from the team that won the 2018 national championship by defeating all six of its NCAA opponents by double digits. Fifth-year seniors Phil Booth and Eric Paschall are the only regulars back from that team.
Last year’s freshmen are being asked to do a lot more, while this year’s freshmen are still trying to find their way. While Wright says they have a long way to go, he’s pleased to see gradual improvement and believes “we can be a good team by the end.”
“There were a lot of games last year where we had good separation,” Wright said. “That’s not happening this year. Everything’s going to be a grind, and that’s probably the way it should be, but we’re ready for that. I think that’s what we’ve done a good job of. We’ve kind of grinded some games out.
“We need to get a lot better, we can get a lot better. We’re kind of surviving right now, so it’s not a pretty 5-0. I do think we’re gradually getting a little bit better each game. We’re learning. Every experience this group goes through together is valuable.”
Wright continues to look for scorers to assist Booth and Paschall, who again had big games Friday night. Booth scored a team-high 22 points, while Paschall added 17 and eight rebounds against the Musketeers. Support came from Collin Gillespie, who knocked down six threes for 18 points, and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, who went 5-of-5 and contributed 11 points and six rebounds.
For Booth, it was his fourth consecutive game of more than 20 points, but he’s having fun in other areas.
“I think the scoring part doesn’t really matter,” he said. “I think we’ve got a lot of guys that can score. But I’m embracing the journey with this team, how much everybody wants to get better, and how much they all listen. We’re going through this together, so I’m just loving the journey.”
The journey continues Tuesday night against Butler at historic Hinkle Fieldhouse, where the Wildcats have lost in each of the last two seasons as the nation’s No. 1 team. In fact, the Bulldogs handed Villanova its first loss of the 2016-17 season (after a 14-0 start) and in 2017-18 (after a 13-0 start).
This season, all Butler can do is try to hand the Wildcats their first Big East loss. Before that, however, Wright said his team must learn from Friday night’s win.
“I think we realize how much better we’ve got to get on the glass defensively,” he said. “I think we learned how to play a little bit bigger, which we might need to do against Butler. We’re going through experiences. Every experience with this group is important. This group has not played together. We can learn from winning. We’re going to learn a lot.”
The Wildcats will go through the next few weeks without freshman forward Cole Swider, who suffered a broken bone in his right (shooting) hand in Thursday’s practice and is out indefinitely. The 6-foot-9 Swider played in 16 of the team’s first 17 games, averaging 3.9 points in 10.4 minutes.
After not playing against a smaller, quicker Creighton team, Swider was expected to see action against the taller, more physical Musketeers.