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Mike Lopresti | | January 23, 2019

It's time to consider we counted out Villanova way too early

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INDIANAPOLIS — There seems to be have been someone missing lately in the general discussion about the pecking order of college basketball.

Oh, yeah, the school with all the new national championship trophies. The top 15 in this week’s rankings – be it Associated Press, coaches’, or the NCAA’s NET? No Villanova. The top 16 seeds in ESPN’s latest bracketology? No Villanova. The early chatter about potential noise-makers in March? No Villanova.

But who’s leading the Big East at the moment with a 6-0 record? Yep, Villanova. Jay Wright’s general reaction to that Tuesday night after the latest victory, over Butler:

“I’m shocked, No. 1.”

This is a coach who correctly predicted an early bumpy road for a national championship-defending team that had lost four NBA draft picks. Fasten your seatbelts.

Bump . . . the 73-46 shellacking by Michigan. Bump . . . the 76-68 overtime loss to Furman three days later, first time in more than five years Villanova had taken consecutive defeats.  Bump . . . the 78-75 loss to Penn, which ended the Wildcats’ winning streak against Philadelphia Big 5 opponents, going back to 2012. Bump . . . the 74-71 setback at Kansas, giving them their fourth defeat, matching last season’s total on Dec. 15.

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Wright stood outside his locker room Tuesday night, and took a look back at those shaky days, so different than the five years of nearly uninterrupted winning that came before.

“I don’t think I really could remember what it was like, getting blown out at home, losing two games in a row, twice. I knew it was going to be tough, but you don’t remember what it’s like. When you hit it, you remember real clearly those feelings.

“I saw early (his players) were in shock. I could see in their eyes panic, thinking ’This is not what I came here for. You step on the court and just win'

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“People kept repeating what records we broke. We had never lost two in a row. We had won 25 straight in the Big Five. Worst loss in the history of the Pavilion, Michigan. They kept saying those things, and I could see those guys thinking, `this is my fault.’  I told them, `this isn’t on you guys, we’re just starting over. Don’t panic and think it’s you. It’s not you.’

“I think they’ve grown a lot since then.”

Or as veteran guard Phil Booth said after the Furman loss, “We’re still a young team trying to find our way.”

So they seem to be.

The 15-4 Wildcats have already won at Providence, Creighton and Butler. Last year’s national champions lost at Providence, Creighton and Butler.

Victories the next two games against Seton Hall and DePaul would make Villanova 8-0 in the Big East. Neither the 2016 national champions nor last year’s team could say that.

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The two Wildcats expected to lead are doing it. Booth and Eric Paschall are combining for 41 points a game in league play, with Paschall averaging 38 minutes and Booth 37. Their Butler efforts were typical. By halftime, Paschall had 14 points and hit four 3-pointers. Booth had 13 points and four assists. Each can say he once was the leading scorer in a Final Four game – Paschall last April and Booth in the 2016 title win.

The new supporting cast is making strides. That has been a concern for Wright, who said of Booth and Paschall,  “It was old school. Put the team on your shoulders and win it for us . . .  We were playing them 40 minutes and just shuffling the young guys in and out to see who could give us anything. It’s getting different now.

“Tonight was a nice step.”

Five Wildcats scored in double figures, including Collin Gillespie, who had 11 points while playing through a hip-pointer.

“He’s a tough kid and that’s something his teammates saw,” Wright said. “That stuff builds trust. Every experience we get with this team together is really valuable."

Indeed, Paschall surveyed all the help at Butler and mentioned how the game had been “very good for everybody’s confidence. We have a very talented team, and it showed tonight.”

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To be sure, this is not the same Villanova team as in recent years. Not as explosive – the Wildcats led the nation in scoring last season, but came into this week 126th in the country. Not as deadly – they were fifth nationally in field goal percentage last season, 136th starting this week. Not as sure – from seventh to 93rd in assist-turnover ratio, and 44th to 181st in turnover margin.

And Wright is having to push a lot of buttons.

“There are some coaching muscles I’d forgotten. There’s things I took for granted the last five years, like terminology and keeping it simple.”

Example, one of his pet phrases early blitz, which is a defensive scheme of attacking screens.

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“I asked a couple of a freshman what early blitz is. We had it in our scouting report, this is what we’re going to do, and they didn’t know what the words meant,” Wright said. “Now I’ll ask questions in the meeting and they’re starting to answer the questions. For five years you had veterans, and if the freshmen didn’t know, it didn’t matter, because the older guys were going to talk them through it. Now those guys are on the floor.

“But we’re starting to get there.”

It takes Wright’s constant attention. Gillespie — who could pass for 2016 Villanova hero Ryan Arcidiacono’s brother — led a second half surge at Butler with three 3-pointers. Then he gave up the ball on a turnover. Boom. He was out.

“Just to not get sloppy and every possession counts,” Wright said later of his message. “I didn’t yell at him. Just reminded him and put him right back in. He’s still learning. A lot of our guys are learning. Collin’s very coachable. If I thought it would blow his mind, I wouldn’t do that.”

While the top of the Big East is nice, it's January. “We’re 6-0, but it could slip because we’re not that dominant,” Wright warned. “But if we keep getting better . . . that’s all we can really concentrate on.

Bottom line: Villanova is starting to look an awful lot like Villanova.

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