Villanova looking dangerous

Posted: March 08, 2013

ONCE, AS a conversation about college basketball between someone from Philadelphia and someone from somewhere else became increasingly frustrating, I overheard this:

"You guys think you invented basketball.''

To which the Philly guy said, "What's your point?''

This sense of ownership makes coaching any of the city's six Division I tournament-aspiring college basketball programs a uniquely daunting task. As Villanova coach Jay Wright has pointed out numerous times, you don't get the weekly grades that a major program in a minor town does. But whoa, the midterms and finals can be really rough. Miss a year in the dance, get bounced a few times too early based on your seeding and . . . watch out.

In that respect, what Villanova accomplished even before Wednesday night's latest do-or-die Big East triumph - this one a 67-57 victory over No. 5 Georgetown at the Wells Fargo Center - makes its season a resounding success, if not re-establishes Wright as more than just a well-spoken pretty face who any mom would love to make dinner for in her home.

Picked 12th in the coaches' preseason Big East poll, early losers to Columbia - "We were bad, really bad,'' Wright mused after Wednesday's win - Villanova has become that nightmare team that has, in the past, ended the runs of more talented Wildcat squads.

Whether it's Rutgers or Georgetown, they play every game as if the roof is leaking, make teams that pride themselves on ballhandling seem as if they developed twitches. The Hoyas entered the game averaging 12.6 turnovers. They committed 23. They also sent Nova to the line 42 times, and got there just eight times despite getting the 'Cats to turn it over 17 times.

"We're getting better taking care of the ball,'' Wright said. "I know that's crazy to say with 17 turnovers. But we're getting better.''

Maybe. But to the local men and women who would have you believe Naismith stole their idea, the Wildcats seem to be playing for long stretches of games as if they just met. This is nothing new for a Jay Wright team, even the past ones with notable stars. His system, if he really even has one, can be summed up in equal parts as follows:

Fast.

Loose.

Fast and loose. No matter what the score is. No matter how much time remains on the clock.

The one constant, within all of their nine conference victories, 18 wins overall against D-I foes, and most of their losses, is effort. They play hard. Every coach likes to believe that, of course, but for the Wildcats, there is no other way to explain how a team that lost to Columbia early this season could knock off not one, not two, but three top 5 teams as the cuts on their elbows and knees became calluses.

After a particularly ugly segment that went turnover, turnover, near-turnover, Georgetown coach John Thompson called a timeout. There was no particular strategic purpose, evidenced when his squad broke the huddle and promptly turned the ball over again. But sometimes the eyes need a blow, too.

Especially when its Big East basketball.

Villanova won by 10 despite making just one field goal in the last 14 minutes. "We just kept driving the ball,'' Wright said.

The Wildcats did something else that he preached over the days between Sunday's Pitt loss and this game. They defended Otto Porter Jr., the obvious choice for Big East Player of the Year, by committee. Four different players guarded him through what was, for him, an exhausting night, and the result was 17 points on 6-of-16 shooting, including one point over the last 8 minutes.

"I just feel real good about how we're playing right now,'' Wright said.

They are, as the Big East Tournament awaits next week and a likely NCAA bid after that, a first-round nightmare for a high-seed team. Jay's been there, of course, on the other side of that, and he smiled when he was asked whether his team was the kind of "nightmare" that teams like South Florida were to him in previous seasons.

"I know what it's like to be on their side of it,'' he said of Georgetown, which needed a win to vie for the conference regular-season title. "It's an incredible challenge to win 11 in a row and go in and play a team that's really hungry . . . But if I had the choice of challenges I like John's challenge better. But it's hard from his standpoint too. That's what coaching is. That's what sports are. That's the mental challenges.''

Four months ago, it seemed Jay had lost that mental edge. In some quarters, he was a bad coach whose run of good fortune had ended.

Now he's got one of those teams that he used to dread playing this time of year. In truth, the kind of team that prematurely ended the season of a few Villanova teams with more talent than this one, but not nearly as much grit.

"I'm just really proud,'' he said. "Not just proud but impressed. How well they played after coming off two tough losses in which they played well. Most young people would feel sorry for themselves. Our guys didn't.''


Email: donnels@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @samdonnellon

Columns: philly.com/

SamDonnellon

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