College basketball: Villanova's seniors continue dominance against Big 5 rivals
Villanova's senior class has not lost a Big 5 game. It has not lost a game on campus. It has won four in-season tournaments, three Big East regular-season championships, a Big East Tournament and a national championship.
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After beating La Salle, 89-79, Tuesday night at the Palestra, the seniors are 15-0 in the City Series, a win at home next Tuesday against Temple from an unthinkable 16-0. They are not just winning the games. They have crushed just about everybody. They have won the games by 315 points, an average of 21 points per game.
La Salle gave the Wildcats a serious challenge into the second half, but once the 'Cats opened up, it was going to take a miracle to beat them. There were no miracles for the Explorers, only the miraculous play that has been Villanova basketball since Hart, Jenkins and Reynolds arrived on campus.
"They have really good players, they run really good offense and defense, but the reason for their excellence on the national level is their intangibles," La Salle coach John Giannini said. "It's their ability to come up with the ball, their ability to get the ball to the right guy, their competitiveness. They don't let up. I don't care if they're playing us or they're playing Kentucky or if they're playing anybody, that is the same team every single second of every game they play."
The coach could be very proud of his team. La Salle, in fact, came closer than any team during Villanova's city run. The closest was 14 points. The Wildcats have won by scores like 98-68, 76-47, 88-57 and 74-46.
When these 'Cats opened up a 65-52 lead, the Explorers easily could have quit. They decidedly did not, playing all out to the end.
It was close but not so close that Villanova was ever going to panic. Or miss free throws. Or turn the ball over. Or stop going for it. When La Salle closed to within four points twice late, the Wildcats did not settle. They threw home-run passes for free throws and layups. That is the way they play.
"We're going to go for it," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "You can lose a game that way and I'm sure we have, but we just believe in it and that's what we're going to do."
When I asked Wright if he could ever have imagined a group of seniors having a chance to go 16-0 in the Big 5, he said: "Never. These guys have played 15 of these games . . . When you look at the history, most guys didn't play as freshmen because you weren't allowed. Very few guys, like a Lionel Simmons, play in every game. These two guys, Kris and Josh, played in every game."
Wright is now a ridiculous 52-14 in Big 5 games. His teams have actually won 17 straight in the City Series going back to when Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu were freshmen.
The Wildcats are efficient, smart, fearless and relentless, a combination that nobody in the city has been able to solve for what must seem like forever to the other schools.
Just like last season, Villanova is top 10 in offensive and defensive efficiency. The 'Cats probably won't go 31-0 in the regular season, but some team will have to "beat" them because they won't beat themselves.
Wright and his staff made the decision they weren't going to leave La Salle's high-scoring pair of B.J. Johnson and Jordan Price. They came in averaging 37 points between them. They finished with 22 on 16 shots, but did combine for 14 rebounds and nine assists.
When Jenkins had a rare off shooting night, sophomore Jalen Brunson took the ball where he wanted when he wanted, scoring 26 points. Hart had 21, but it was his late dive for a loose ball and pass ahead for a dunk that typified everything Villanova is about.
While the Explorers' bench, with Pookie Powell going off for 27 points, outscored the two-player 'Nova bench, 35-10, the Wildcats' starters won their battle, 79-44.
"They deserve credit for being relentless the way they are all the time," Giannini said.
La Salle is going to beat almost any team when it shoots 52.5 percent, just not this team, the team nobody in the city has been able to beat for 4 years and counting now, all the way back to Dec. 5, 2012, when Temple won at Villanova.
"It's unbelievable to think about," Wright said of the streak. "I don't want to think about it because it's monumental. It really is."
Wright wanted to know if any senior class has won all of its Big 5 games. The answer is no. In a week, it could be yes.