NEW YORK – There was a recurring theme in Jay Wright’s post-game comments following Villanova’s 78-68 loss to Tennessee in the NIT Season Tip-Off final on Friday. It’s something often heard at this early point in the season, but you could sense there was some extra urgency to it in this case.
On several occasions, Wright said the Wildcats have to get better at one thing or another. It might have been winning a game that’s basically a street fight. It might be playing smarter as well as harder. It might be if they have to go with a bigger lineup for one reason or another. But the theme was clear: the Wildcats need to be better.
The game wasn’t pretty by any stretch of the imagination, and Tennessee set the tone with its aggressive defense. They turned the game into a street fight, the type that Villanova will see a few times in the rough-and-tumble Big East with some of the physical teams there. And the Wildcats’ inability to win it isn’t a good sign early, though they can certainly improve to win these kinds of games later.
“You have to be smart in a street fight also,” said Wright. “I thought they were a little tougher and a little smarter.”
Villanova is known as Guard U, but you wouldn’t have known it on Friday. The area of the stat sheet that will jump out at you right away is what the starting trio of Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes and Maalik Wayns did, or didn’t do. They combined to score 25 points on just 7-30 shooting, including 3-16 from long range. They had six assists and 11 turnovers, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, all three fouled out as well.
Stokes wasn’t willing to outright admit it, but Tennessee’s defensive pressure bothered them. Melvin Goins and Skylar McBee set a tone with the work they did, and the Volunteer defense never let Fisher and Wayns, the two primary ball handlers, get going. The tone was set early as the aforementioned trio was 3-14 in the first half, and it continued in the second.
Fisher had a career-high 26 points two nights earlier against UCLA and leads the team in scoring. On Wednesday, he got to the foul line 15 times, in stark contrast to just two attempts on Friday. His struggles are perhaps the best indicator of what the Volunteers were able to do to the Wildcat guards.
The struggles of the guards leaves an open question for the Wildcats. There is undeniable talent, but also questions from an intangible standpoint. Fisher has always been more of an undersized shooting guard, and now he doesn’t have Scotty Reynolds to take defensive attention away from him. Stokes has been a tease since early in his high school days, possessing undeniable talent and physical gifts but never developing any kind of consistency to where you know what you’ll get from him. He has long been a “potential” player, but at some point a player either reaches their potential or they are who they are. Wayns has plenty of talent and a great feel for the game, and also has leadership abilities. But he’s just a sophomore, and teams don’t tend to look to sophomores for leadership, something that may need to change in this case.
Because the guards were in foul trouble early, Villanova had to go with a bigger lineup for part of the first half. Dominic Cheek actually played reasonably well in a season-high 25 minutes as a big guard, a positive sign for them should they need to sit one of the starters. The focus also had to shift inside, where Antonio Pena (14 points, 8 rebounds) and Mouphtaou Yarou (15 points including 7-9 from the foul line) had good games.
While Wright gave Tennessee credit for its defense and showed a lot of respect for how they played, he knows his team has clear areas for improvement.
“We’re going to have to figure out ways to play bigger when we don’t have those guys in the lineup and play effectively,” Wright said, noting how they weren’t in sync when the guards were in foul trouble. “We have to do a better job of having a big lineup that can play efficiently.”
That was a point he repeated later, driving home the idea that players like Maurice Sutton and Isaiah Armwood are likely to see bigger roles as well. JayVaughn Pinkston is out of action pending a student code of conduct review, but if they get him back he figures to see minutes in the frontcourt as well.
The Wildcats are like many teams across the country in needing to get better at this stage of the season. But their areas for improvement were particularly acute on Friday, and that game highlights the questions this team has going forward.