By Drew Dalton (@dutch4885)
If you allow the Villanova Wildcats to put at least 70 points up on the scoreboard, the odds of escaping with a victory are slim.
As part of the inaugural Gavitt Tip-Off Games Tuesday night at the Pavilion on Villanova’s campus, the 11th-ranked Wildcats (2-0) defeated the Nebraska Cornhuskers (1-1), 87-63. Dating back to the 2013-14 season, Villanova’s record when scoring at least 70 points now stands at an astounding 56-1, by far the best record in the country under that circumstance. The victory also marked the 28th straight win at the Pavilion for the Cats.
After Villanova’s thorough 91-54 manhandling of overmatched Fairleigh-Dickinson in their first game of the season this past Friday, the Cats knew that Nebraska would present them with a much stiffer challenge, despite finishing twelfth in the fourteen-team Big Ten Conference a year ago, and losing their top two scorers to the professional ranks.
One of Villanova head coach Jay Wright’s primary concerns heading into the 2015-16 season was whether or not his team would be able to sufficiently defend the perimeter. A season ago, Coach Wright had the luxury of Darrun Hilliard and Dylan Ennis locking down the opposing team’s backcourt on a nightly basis, allowing just 30.5% shooting from beyond the arc, good for 21st in the nation. That Wildcat team ended up winning a school-record 33 games, and the defense was one of the fundamental reasons why. With Hilliard graduating and Ennis using his final year of eligibility by transferring to Oregon, however, the void left by their departures had Wright feeling apprehensive about his team’s defense.
After Villanova scored the game’s first seven points to open up an early lead after two-and-a-half minutes, the Cornhuskers, coming off a 97-51 victory at home this past Saturday against Mississippi Valley State, quickly responded by draining four of their first seven three-point attempts. Those triples sparked a 12-2 run capped by senior forward Shavon Shields’ deep three-pointer and traditional three-point play. Jay Wright’s concerns regarding his team’s perimeter defense appeared to be legitimate early on, as Villanova was disorganized and slow to react at the defensive end of the floor, allowing the Cornhuskers to routinely find open shooters both in transition and in the half-court.
“The way Nebraska came at us early was a good experience for us,” Wright said, as noted by Mike Kern of Philly.com. “It’s something we’ve gotten used to over the years. Even if everyone else thinks you’re supposed to beat a team, anyone can beat you if you don’t play well. I think our guys understand that. They’ve been through that, and have been beaten. We saw some things they did, and we let them do it.”
Trailing 23-16 at the 7:43 mark of the first half, Wright called timeout in an attempt to restore his team’s confidence and regroup. The maneuver was successful, as senior Ryan Arcidiacono and junior Josh Hart buried back-to-back three-pointers out of the timeout, dissolving the Cornhusker’s lead. After a thunderous dunk by junior forward Darryl Reynolds in transition off a nifty bounce-pass from Arcidiacono, Villanova had scored the game’s next 22 points.
Wright credited his team’s defense, specifically the effort by redshirt freshman Mikal Bridges, for helping the Wildcats take control of the game late in the first half, holding Nebraska scoreless for over seven minutes. The Cornhuskers, who shot 54 percent from the field in their win over Mississippi Valley State, were held to just 37.7 percent shooting and committed 22 turnovers leading to 33 points for the ‘Cats.
”When they got the lead, I thought we had a couple of great plays by Mikal Bridges and Arcidiacono getting steals,” Wright said, per the Kansas City Star. ”We just weren’t making shots. But we got some easy buckets and then all of a sudden the threes started going in.”
In the second half, the relentless Villanova offense shredded the Nebraska defense with 56.7% shooting from the floor and five made three-pointers, never leading by fewer than 13 points in the closing 20 minutes. Although they were outrebounded 40-33, the ‘Cats had 14 fewer turnovers than the Cornhuskers.
For the second straight game, the opposition had no answer for 6’11 senior center Daniel Ochefu, who had 11 points on seven shots and six rebounds by halftime. He finished with 17 and 10, his second straight double-double to open the season. Ochefu even showed off a few new moves in the low post, appearing to have developed a smooth 15-foot jumpshot.
As the game progressed, the Wildcats grew more and more comfortable at both ends of the floor, with the backcourt duo of Arcidiacono and heralded freshman guard Jalen Brunson working flawlessly with one another, giving the Villanova faithful in attendance a preview of what’s to come this season. Villanova played their typical unselfish style of basketball on the offensive end, making the extra pass, finding the open man and taking high-percentage shots.
Defensively, once they regrouped after Nebraska’s early onslaught of threes, ‘Nova smothered the Cornhusker ball-handlers with their intensity. They used their full-court press to kill clock and create confusion, allowing the home team to coast to the 87-63 victory.
Player by Player Breakdown
Ryan Arcidiacono: His mid-range shooting form is solid. When he gets his shoulders squared and shoots in rhythm his shot is going down. His three-point shot looks solid as well. He had a couple of jumpshots in this game that were considerably off but they may have been the result of some contact. Finished with 15 points, 4 assists, 2 steals and 1 turnover.
Daniel Ochefu: Another double-double for Ochefu with 17 points and 10 rebounds. He made some timely buckets during the ‘Nova first half run. He has developed a 15-foot jump shot and a single dribble move that he used to create separation and drain a baby hook shot over his defender. Ochefu split his boards evenly between the offensive and defensive glass and added three blocks. If Ochefu is able to consistently make his newly developed jump shot, it will add a powerful weapon to the Villanova offense they were severely lacking a season ago.
Josh Hart: Hart was the brightest star for ‘Nova in this game. The junior scored in a variety of ways, burying threes from the wing and the corner, strong dribble drives to get to the tin and turnaround moves in the low post. Hart also impressed with his defensive effort. Finished with 19 points, 5 rebounds and 4 steals.
Kris Jenkins: Jenkins had an interesting game in that his defense and rebounding seemed above his norm while his normally reliable jumper was AWOL until he ripped off three straight Villanova buckets during an 8-0 scoring burst late in the game. He drained two three-pointers and had a dunk in transition off a steal. Finished with 8 points and 4 rebounds.
Jalen Brunson: The freshman made just one of his five three-point attempts but the rest of his offensive game was solid. He dished out 6 assists with only 2 turnovers, showing the ability to drive and kick to shooters on the perimeter as well as drive and dish to the bigs for easy baskets around the rim. He draws the attention of defenses and knows when and where to deliver the ball to get his teammates high-percentage shots. Finished with 9 points, 2 rebounds, 6 assists and 2 turnovers.
Darryl Reynolds: Played 16 minutes and impressed with his defensive effort and on the glass. Had a thunderous dunk off a bounce pass from Arcidiacono after trailing in transition. He is allowing Jay Wright to give Ochefu a blow without losing much at either end of the floor so far in the young season.
Phil Booth: Booth was once again seen doing those efficient things that Phil Booth does. 11 points and 4 assists with only 1 turnover. Booth got to the rim when opportunities arose, drained a straight-away three-pointer, and hit his free-throws. Running the point, playing good defense, making a lot of “winning plays” during his minutes.
Mikal Bridges: Bridges appears to be slightly ahead of DiVincenzo right now for default 8th man spot in the rotation. He seems to be gaining some comfort with his position at the top of the zone press. Wright inserted him into the game after Nebraska went on their 12-2 first half run, and he effectively used his length to provide defensive pressure, leading to transition baskets. He couldn’t get either of his threes to go down but he did convert 4 of 5 free throws on his way to four points in fifteen minutes of play.
Donte DiVincenzo: The most encouraging thing about DiVincenzo’s play in this game was his motor. He played less than a minute in the first half and his eight second half minutes came mostly in garbage time but he didn’t allow it to affect his effort. He missed all three of his shots but he grabbed two rebounds, got a steal and dropped a nice assist to Reynolds on the baseline as well. The downside of his game was the four personal fouls he racked up in just nine minutes of action, so he will need to learn how to control his aggressiveness at the defensive end.
The Villanova Wildcats will look to make it three straight victories to open the season as they take on the East Tennessee State Buccaneers (2-0) out of the Southern Conference on Friday night at 7PM. ETSU has scored over 100 points in each of their first two games, both wins over Division-III Averett University and University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.