It’s been a tough season for Villanova, to say the least. Despite a highly touted recruiting class, the Wildcats have struggled. Though, hope remains for a run deep into the Big East Tournament.
Before Jay Wright and his young team disposed of Rutgers last night in Madison Square Garden, I was confident Villanova had a shot at advancing to the Big East Semifinals and perhaps further. Regardless of the potential matchups, I liked Villanova’s chances because of these four things.
1. Free throws: Nova is, and always has been, tremendous from the charity stripe under Jay Wright. Even their frontcourt players have regularly contributed here. Wright recruits aggressive, fearless guards who attack the rim repeatedly, getting opponents in foul trouble and thus giving Villanova plenty of opportunities late in games. Villanova’s half court offense is downright brutal. There’s no other way to describe it. Excessive trips to the free throw line provide the Wildcats much-needed offense when they can’t get out and run in the transition game. More importantly, postseason games, especially Big East Tournament games, are gritty, tight, scratch-and-claw affairs. Converting at the free throw line is often the difference between winning and losing. As the intensity increases the games become tighter and the significance of free throws escalates. Being one of the country’s best free throw shooting teams is a significant advantage for a team with few others.
2. Tough defense: Villanova may suck offensively. They may have a roster of inexperienced, underachieving recruits. Still, Jay Wright’s teams play at only one level; all-out. They’re always the first players on the floor. They’re relentless. They know just as well as you and I that they’re offensively challenged. If they don’t make plays defensively, they don’t win. As a team, Villanova punishes opponents. Maurice Sutton has a reputation for making opposing players pay for easy baskets. In last night’s victory over Rutgers, an early hard foul clearly impacted a layup opportunity late in the game. Don’t get me wrong; Villanova’s defense isn’t superb. It’s tough, though, and sometimes, that’s equally important, especially in the Big East Conference.
3. Healthy: After losing Maalik Wayns for a chunk of time and battling through JayVaughn Pinkston’s ankle injury, Villanova’s best players are all healthy and available. Wayns is especially key. Villanova only goes as far as he takes them. In the season finale against Cincinnati, Wayns looked rested and back to 100%. Wayns’ aggressive style only works if he’s at full speed. Thankfully, he is, and because of that, Villanova, at the very least, can compete.
4. Close games. Despite a bad record and an embarrassing Big East regular season, Villanova was rarely blown out. In fact, the Wildcats were especially competitive against good teams. Nova lost by only four points to both Marquette and Cincinnati (twice each!), fell to Notre Dame and UCONN in overtime, hung with Louisville, Missouri and Syracuse, and only got crushed by Georgetown’s stingy defense and USF (twice).
Wait, USF? Villanova was crushed by USF twice this season? Isn’t that who they play tonight? Alright, alright, so maybe I’m getting carried away with Villanova’s chances, but I wanted to write at least one nice thing about the Wildcats this year. Is that such a horrible thing? Besides, this is the Big East Tournament. Stranger things have happened. Why can’t Villanova add to that list?