Villanova’s subtle changes are making a big difference
The Wildcats want to be the hardest working team in America. So far, so good.
Radnor, PA – The far right side of the Villanova Pavilion, dotted with blue and white jerseys, piped from the golden saxophones of the university band in between Darrun Hilliard’s jumpers and Josh Hart’s ferocious rebounds.
It was a familiar tune for the fans. The entire student section chimed in and even the players couldn’t help but don a few smiles as they peered over sheepishly from their mid-game huddle, a brief pause in another Big 5 thrashing of Temple.
“Sweet Caroline! Bum, Bum, Bum,” the students yelled gleefully in unison. “Good times never seemed so good. So good. So good. So good.”
It was the same as it was this time last year, the same funky vibe at home and away. Top-10 ranked Villanova comes off a big tournament win, reminds the country of its depth and balance and wins 10 games straight before an annual clash with Syracuse. On the surface nothing has changed.
But beneath, Villanova is a completely different squad than the one that fell in the round of 32 a year ago. They’ve dispatched three tough opponents (VCU, Michigan and Illinois) this year by Christmas compared to last season when they only boasted solid wins over Kansas and Iowa.
The Wildcats have three players scoring in double digits, but not one scoring more than 12 points a contest, much lower than last season where three scorers finished by averaging 14 points, respectively. Their rotation has slightly changed going eight deep instead of nine depending on the occasional Daryl Reynolds sighting for the ‘Cats.
They retain a large chunk of the 29-5 team from last season’s end, one of the country’s best offenses and pressure defenses. But it’s not the same team. And with the intensity that Villanova plays, that’s exactly the identity the Wildcats want to have.
“We know every time a team steps on the court they’re tying to play harder than us,” Hilliard said following Sunday’s win over Temple. “That’s our challenge. We try to be the hardest playing team in America. That’s what we have to mark ourselves on. Coach Wright always tells us that everyone is always coming to beat us. Not because we are ranked or Villanova, just because it’s the next game. We just live that way and we try to play harder than them. Simple as that.”
The score for 11 of Villanova’s 34 games came by a margin of 10 points or less, four of the 11 were overtime games, eight were decided by five points or less and the Wildcats finished 6-1 in games of that kind. Villanova grinded out multiple games during their season last year. The Big East challenged them even though their 16-2 conference record gives the appearance of an easy trek.
Though this year’s team isn’t the same squad as last year in terms of scoring, minutes, etc, it could turn out to be a better squad, whether or not their overall record at this season’s end looks better than last year’s. If Villanova doesn’t win 29 games, it doesn’t immediately mean they’ve had a bad year.
It’s as simple as Hilliard put it: Jay Wright may have his team working harder than anyone in this early season.
“They’re unselfish,” Temple head coach Fran Dunphy said. “It’s just a good basketball team. They play hard. They play together. And it doesn’t look like anyone cares who scores.”
“It really is true,” Wright admitted about Dunphy’s statements referring to the lack of care of who scores for Villanova. “That was good for us to experience [having two high-numbered scorers] as a team. The only other time we did it was the Illinois game when Dylan [Ennis] got going. We haven’t had many chances to do that and we need to do that before league play.
“It’s not that guys want to score,” Wright said. “It’s that they have confidence that they can just go get buckets on their own rather than have the patience to stick in the offense…it’s not hard with this group, but it is something we have to address.”
As the buzzer clang and Villanova trounced Temple, the players walked toward the student section and the band. Each player raised an arm high and put up two fingers, for Villanova, waving their single hand back and forth to the sound of the university fight song and the alma mater playing subsequently.
It was similar to before. There was the analogous home atmosphere, specifically the Pavilion. The raucous banter from the fans. And, the wins, the consistency in the program’s regular season dominance that’s often forgotten during season play.
But it wasn’t the same. The team isn’t and the Big East is certainly more dominant that the past year.
This Villanova program could be more successful than last year’s club by season’s end. The first challenge is against Syracuse on Saturday, one of their five losses last season and a team they have the most experience against compared to almost any program in America. A team they’ve beaten twice since 2010 and lost to five times in the same span.
If there was ever a time to prove their worth, the differences between this year and last, it starts with beating Syracuse. Luckily, Wright has already done that 10 times in his 14 years at Villanova.
“You know what, a Big 5 game to us is as big as a game against Syracuse,” Wright said. “Every game is important to us, it really is. The maturity of these guys, handles it well. But we can feel the vibe around the game. I could feel the vibe the last couple of days when Temple came in here. It’s the same as Syracuse. People love those games. We just love being able to play anytime.”