'Nova's threes a key vs. UConn

RON CORTES / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Villanova's Darrun Hilliard reacts after correctly spelling name of Ryan Arcidiacono (background).
RON CORTES / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Villanova's Darrun Hilliard reacts after correctly spelling name of Ryan Arcidiacono (background).
Posted: March 24, 2014

BUFFALO, N.Y. - Their game was delayed, so to pass the time and take their mind off it for a few minutes, the Villanova players watched the end of Thursday's Saint Joseph's-Connecticut NCAA game in their locker room.

"It was physical," Villanova big man Daniel Ochefu noted.

There was no rooting. The game was on so it was a brief diversion.

UConn ended up beating the Hawks in overtime. The Wildcats then took out Milwaukee, but it was less than artistic.

In fact, Villanova managed to win comfortably despite missing its first 16 threes. The Wildcats won because they have so many ways to win - defense, three-point shooting, getting to the foul line and wearing teams out with their depth.

Villanova playing UConn in tonight's third-round game tonight at the First Niagara Center leads to no shortage of historical story lines - Big East rivals for 33 years, UConn coach Kevin Ollie's Philly connections through Larry Brown and the Sixers, the games the players on these teams have played against each other in college.

In the end, it will be just about this game. The winner plays in the Sweet 16 at Madison Square Garden next Friday. The loser's season ends.

UConn (27-8) certainly played better than Villanova (29-4) in its first 2014 NCAA game. It was also playing a far superior opponent, so it had to play well to win. Villanova was never losing to Milwaukee, and everybody knew it.

One game often has very little to do with the next, so drawing any conclusions from what went down during Thursday's doubleheader is asking to be confused.

If there is cause for concern with the Wildcats, it would be their long-range shooting. In their last two games, including that Big East Tournament loss to Seton Hall, they are 8-for-42 (19 percent)from the arc. James Bell had made 77 threes and was shooting 40.7 percent from the arc through 27 games. In his last six, he is 4-for-30 (13.3 percent).

"I think it's like baseball," Villanova coach Jay Wright said after the game when reminded of 0-for-16. "If you're a .300 hitter, the numbers are going to play out and you're going to make shots."

This would be a good time to start making them again.

"We've just got to take good ones," Bell said. "Some of the shots we were taking were highly contested. We've just got to find the open ones."

Villanova was able to overcome the poor shooting against the Panthers by jamming the ball inside and outscoring them by 46-20 in the lane. That won't work nearly as well against the Huskies.

"Those missed shots against a team like Milwaukee, they want to control the tempo," Wright said. "Those missed shots against Milwaukee didn't turn into fastbreaks. It turned into us having another 30 seconds of defense. But against Connecticut, that's going to be [Shabazz] Napier and those guys out in transition, and that's going to be trouble."

So, the Wildcats really need to make some long-range shots for their offense and their defense.

Nothing is likely to be conceded in this game. There is simply too much at stake.

"It's going to be 40 minutes, just people killing each other out there," Villanova point guard Ryan Arcidiacono suggested.

St. Joe's did a lot of things right against UConn. The Huskies took only four free throws in regulation and their vaunted defense got shredded by superior ball movement and great shot-making. UConn, a 39 percent three-point shooting team, was able to get to OT because it made 11 threes in regulation.

Villanova needs to tilt the three-point line back in its direction, just like it did most of the season. The Wildcats made 82 more threes than their opponents and 94 more free throws, outscoring teams by 340 points from the two lines. Watch those numbers as the game proceeds. They could be critical.

The constant for this Villanova team is its defense. Milwaukee shot 28.6 percent. In the last seven games, teams are shooting just 37.2 percent against the Wildcats. Only Creighton, with the most efficient offense in the country, has really been able to solve the 'Nova defense.

"I've got so much respect for Jay, what he's done over the years," Ollie said. "It's amazing how their players just play through every possession."

Just like St. Joe's did on Thursday.

"I feel like I'm a part of the Big 5 now," Ollie said. "I played St. Joe's and Villanova. I guess La Salle is coming up next."

This obviously is not like your typical tournament game where you play a team from another conference that you know nothing about.

"It's going to be a grind-out, Big East battle," UConn's Ryan Boatright said. "It's going to be physical. Whoever plays harder is going to win."

When he thinks of the Wildcats, Boatright thinks first of all their points in the lane, not their three-point shooting.

"They're relentless on the glass," Boatright said. "They're not that tall, but they've got a lot of heart."

Napier has made game-winners. He has been a key part of a national champion (2011). He has scored 1,856 points. He will have the best resume on the court tonight.

"I'm never the guy to shy away from the moment," Napier said. "You never know if you are going to succeed unless you try."

Napier will be trying. And so will Villanova. In fact, this team's greatest attribute is its effort.

Shots made or shots missed, the Wildcats' "try" has never wavered from the opener on Nov. 8 against Lafayette until now. It has gotten them to 29 wins. If they get to 30, these Wildcats will be one of 16 teams left with a chance at a national championship.


Email: jerardd@phillynews.com

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