Villanova opened its 2016-17 campaign doing everything a championship basketball team is expected to do. It dominated an inferior opponent in the opener, leaving no room for critics to challenge them about the upcoming season. Then, in one of the toughest road environments in which this team has played in recent years, the Wildcats stood their ground and held off No. 15 Purdue to start the season 2-0.
There was not much to be learned from the Wildcats’ 88-48 blowout over Lafayette last Friday. They were aggressive on offense (15-for-41 from 3-point range) in a game that they expected to dominate. Jalen Brunson looked as confident as ever on his way to a team-high 17 points. Kris Jenkins and Mikal Bridges (off the bench) each scored 16 followed by Josh Hart with 13 to give ‘Nova a total of four double-digit scorers. By all accounts, this was a standard performance for a defending national champion ranked in the AP Top 5.
Monday night’s game against Purdue was a different story. Villanova truly looked like a championship-caliber team in this win. In just its second game of the season, head coach Jay Wright‘s team answered a few big questions and did some things that less experienced teams are typically unable to do this early in the season.
The Wildcats never seemed to panic. Yes, Wright’s teams have become known for composure and the ability to overcome adversity (especially after last year’s National Championship game), but there have been times when the Wildcats were simply knocked off their game. Last night was not one of these times.
Villanova was unable to sustain a large lead, allowed a half-court buzzer beater before halftime, and could not stop Purdue’s 7-foot-2 center Isaac Haas. The ‘Cats had lengthy stretches without made field goals, saw forward Eric Paschall foul out of the game after just nine minutes off the bench, and were smothered by deafening crowd noise in Mackey Arena.
Despite all of this adversity, one never felt as if Villanova was going to lose this game.
There were two specific moments that could be called “championship basketball” that really stuck out in this game. First was a layup by Hart, who had a somewhat quiet 24 points, around the four-minute mark in the second half. The Wildcats were in the midst of a five-minute stretch in the game in which the team was just 2-of-7 from the field, including an 0-of-3 drought for Hart himself.
With his team in front by a small margin, Hart sliced to the middle of the paint and put up a tough shot that fell to extend ‘Nova’s lead. It was a textbook veteran play: a team’s top player getting the ball in a key situation and sticking to the strong part of his game. In Hart’s case, that is driving and using his length and athleticism to finish a layup. It was a championship play and a prime example of why the senior is widely considered one of college basketball’s best players.
The other moment came in the final minute of regulation when Villanova flawlessly closed out the game. Bridges and Brunson shoot a combined 6-of-6 from the free throw line in the final 60 seconds. But this is a fundamental skill that is expected of a great team and not necessarily indicative of a championship squad.
Further analyzing the last minute of this game, it reveals the decisiveness and confidence with which Villanova executed each of its possessions. Sure, Purdue’s enormous center had three layups in the last minute to keep it close, but the Wildcats did not foul him and surrendered just two points each time. Then, when they got the ball back, they knew where to go with it each time. When they couldn’t get it to the right player, they called a timeout instead of trying to force something, as was the case before Brunson’s second pair of free throws.
In the past, the ‘Cats may have had trouble getting the ball to the desired player late in the game. They may have forced a bad pass that resulted in a turnover instead of calling a timeout. But the improvement in their execution was clear on Monday.
And Villanova showed that it has its guy for late game situations: Brunson. They want the ball in the hands of the sophomore to protect the lead. That’s how it should be; he is the point guard, the floor general.
The Gildan Charleston Classic now awaits the Wildcats. They have won the last three November tournaments in which they have competed dating back to the Battle 4 Atlantis in 2013. In 2014, ‘Nova won a pair of games at the Barclays Center to take home the Progressive Legends Classic title and returned to Brooklyn last season to win the NIT Season Tip-Off.
Their bid for a fourth straight November championship will begin on Thursday morning when they play Western Michigan at the TD Arena in Charleston, S.C. at 11:30am, to begin the tournament.
As ‘Nova navigates through this early stretch of games, watch for more key moments that resemble a championship basketball team. Because with each one, the ‘Cats will become even stronger contenders to win another national title.