Looking ahead to next month, should this be the year Villanova finally makes it to the Sweet Sixteen, Saturday’s 77-67 win over stubborn Butler may well have been the turning point.
Having squandered as much as a 12-point first half lead, Jay Wright’s team seemed ripe for the upset when the Bulldogs used Kelan Martin’s 3-point desperation prayer at the halftime buzzer as impetus to surge into a second half lead. This just doesn’t happen at the Pavilion where the Wildcats had been invincible, winning 36 straight stretching back to 2013.
Then again Butler has quite a hoops legacy of its own, including back-to-back runs to the NCAA Tournament championship game in 2010 and 2011 under Brad Stevens, who’s now performing similar miracles with the Boston Celtics.
Clearly Nova’s lofty No. 1 perch was teetering as their shots clanked off the rim while Butler was hitting nothing but net, Andrew Chrabascz’ layup putting Butler up 45-43 with 11:02 left. The packed house on Senior Day — taking place Saturday since the students’ will actually be on spring break next week when DePaul plays here — was nervous, sensing this one might be slipping away.
Until the 24-3 Wildcats emphatically put the kind of stamp on the game that might carry them deep into March.
"When we're on the road and we're down there’s no panic,” said Jay Wright, whose club proceeded to make its next seven shots and score on nine straight possessions while going on a 22-9 run over a 5-minute span to take command, 65-54. “but when we're at home you just sense a little tightness, like everybody is disappointed. We've got to learn to not let that effect us. We’re learning all kinds of things about being in this position, being the hunted.”
With juniors Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins leading the way with 22 and 20 points respectively, while senior Ryan Arcidiacono settled for nine but had nine assists and no turnovers, the Wildcats were able to finish off a big week in style. Having silenced rowdy Temple fans, 83-67 Wednesday in North Philadelphia to clinch their third straight City title, they overcame poor early shooting and some foul trouble in this one to win going away. That makes it seven straight for Nova, all by double figures.
More telling, they got a taste of what it figures to be like when March Madness finally gets underway, beating an opponent unimpressed with their press clippings and national ranking.
“Certain styles of play and certain teams matchup well, and they do with us,” said Wright, who’ll now get ready for 24-3 Xavier Wednesday in Cincinnati, saying he won’t pay much attention to Nova’s 95-64 New Year’s Eve day blowout of the Musketeers where Xavier played in a fog after freshman guard Edmond Sumner was taken off on a stretcher after hitting his head on the floor in the opening minutes. “When I think about teams that we've played against that are going to the NCAA Tournament, I think about them. We just have grinders with them, but if you're looking for pretty you're not going to beat Butler. We'll take it and move on."
On the other hand, Butler coach Chris Holtmann says despite what some may think, Villanova’s ranking is legit.
“At times they get dismissed,” said Holtmann, whose 18-9 Bulldogs started off 11-1 and No. 9 in the rankings prior to the start of the Big East season. “but they’re a very talented group. They’re an elite team and anyone who would challenge that hasn’t watched them play the entire year. I don’t care what anybody says about what’s happened in the past in the tournament, they’re an elite team.
“I get the whole deal with March. But let’s not discount what they’ve been able to accomplish.”
For now, though, the Wildcats’ mantra is just “play Villanova basketball” and only worry about what comes next, meaning Xavier, followed by Marquette. March will get here soon enough.
Until it does just take care of business.
“Xavier’s going to be a battle, said leading scorer Hart (15.0), who’d managed just 11 combined points the previous two games. “The last couple of years it's been tough going down there. Whatever the result is we're going to look each other in the eye and know that we played Villanova basketball."
Right now that’s better basketball than anyone else in the country. And based on what they showed this weekend it might remain that way not only into March, but maybe April, too.