By Dan Gardella
NEW YORK – Over the past decade or so, Villanova has instilled a persona that is very hard to match. It’s even more difficult to make Villanova play out of their zone, which is usually the only way teams can steal a victory from them.
The Wildcats stayed true to their identity Tuesday evening, which led to a steady 40-minute performance in a 79-59 victory over St. John’s inside the World’s Most Famous Arena.
St. John’s high intensity, “40 Minutes of Hell” defense has taken its victims over the course of the season in year one of the Mike Anderson era. Villanova’s bread and butter has been founded on half-court, early execution basketball. Something was going to give.
“There’s a fine line,” head coach Jay Wright said. “If you just try to play half-court, they will see that you are just running half-court offense and then get into the passing lanes. You have to have a balance sometimes.”
Wright eluded to the fact that it was difficult to simulate the speed of the St. John’s full-court pressure. Furthermore, the team begins to learn about the speed when they are thrown into it.
Early in the contest, the Red Storm seemed to speed the Wildcats up and play in transition, which allowed them to build a 13-6 lead through the first five minutes.
But, like clockwork, the Wildcats would realize their mistake, adjust on the fly, and become the team that America is used to seeing. Villanova would not take its first lead until the 8:17 mark of the first half following a three-pointer by Saddiq Bey, who has taken incredible strides to improve his offense on the perimeter.
St. John’s hung around, but they would have to do everything in their power to keep the game close and play an almost perfect half of basketball. Mike Anderson talked about how there is a small margin of error with his team, especially when facing off against a top-ten team in the country like Villanova.
In the first half alone, there were instances where the Red Storm had open close to the basket, but could not seem to finish. However, the Villanova lead would stand at 13, which seemed closer than the half indicated.
In large part to the Red Storm pressure, St. John’s would chip away at the lead. Trailing by 11 five minutes into the second half, Rasheem Dunn would connect on a three-pointer to make the score 46-38. On the ensuing inbound, Nick Rutherford would steal the ball away and have an open look at a layup to potentially make it a two-possession game, but missed at the rim. Villanova would grab the miss and Collin Gillespie would make the Red Storm pay with a triple to open the lead back to 11.
This seemed to be a backbreaker for St. John’s. The closest the Red Storm would get over the final 15 minutes would be nine.
On top of sticking to their cores offensively, Villanova makes a living off of having a “Next man up” mentality when it comes to their depth. On Tuesday, Jermaine Samuels, who has been a staple for the Wildcats on both ends of the court, was sidelined with a foot strain. In his place, freshman Justin Moorewould be inserted into the starting lineup, and contributed 11 points and four assists in the win.
“We were really concerned about not having him [Samuels] in there, especially defensively. But you look forward for those opportunities as a coach. You have guys that you know can play, but you have guys ahead of them. We felt bad about Jermaine, but felt good about the guys stepping up,” Said Jay Wright.
The lead would quickly balloon as the Wildcats starting raining shots from all over the court, led by Bey and Gillespie, who combined for 40 points and eight three-pointers. Gillespie, only a second-year starter, and Bey, a second-year player, are emerging as leaders for a Villanova team that does not have a senior on the roster. Wright credits the former Wildcat players for instilling the program’s culture into the next batch of Villanova players.
“It’s the quality of the guys we get,” said Wright. “They come in wanting to get better, wanting to be coached. The guys that were there before them, teach them.”
Villanova faces off with Creighton on Saturday, a team the Wildcats handled in Omaha on Jan. 7. Wright is hopeful that Samuels is ready to go for their battle with the Blue Jays.