PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Look at Villanova on paper, especially their numbers, and you might not see them as a powerhouse. Watch them play and you get a better idea of why this is the team to beat in the Big East, something they have re-asserted lately. Their 74-68 win at Providence on Wednesday night is the latest example of that.
Villanova doesn’t feature an All-America candidate or even an exceptional aggregate of talent. They aren’t a team full of seniors, though they are an experienced group. What they are is a well-coached group that knows how to play and has an edge. This team plays tough defense and has a well-balanced offense, one that takes what the defense gives them and shows great patience to break down a defense.
The Wildcat defense is even like the offense. They don’t have one guy who shuts down another player; they do it as a unit, forcing turnovers and holding teams’ shooting down often when they don’t. They don’t press, but they will selectively put pressure on a ball handler.
“When we’re good defensively, we’re good as a unit playing off of each other,” said head coach Jay Wright.
You saw how balanced this team is and how anyone can hurt you in the first half of Wednesday night. Early on, it was Darrun Hilliard who was supplying the offense, keeping Villanova right there while Providence led at times. Then Daniel Ochefu came into the game and got rebounds and dunks, including offensive boards, and was a tough matchup. Later, Ryan Arcidiacono, who was calmly running the show and getting others going, knocked down a couple of three-pointers, including one after just about every Providence defender had overloaded the left side of the floor while he was alone on the right wing waiting for a cross-court pass.
All of that set the stage for the second half, when the Wildcats broke the game open. At one point they went up 48-34, holding Providence without a field goal for several minutes.
“All of us captains kind of looked at each other and just said we have to turn this up defensively,” said Arcidiacono. “It wasn’t about the offense; the offense was coming, because we were getting stops defensively, and that’s where it all started.”
A big key to this team is Arcidiacono, one of the captains. Don’t look at his scoring or shooting numbers, though they tell you he is capable of scoring some points and that his jumper must be respected. Even looking at his sterling assist-to-turnover ratio doesn’t give you a full appreciation for him that you gain from watching them play. The junior knows when to slow it down or when to try to speed play up, and on Wednesday he seemed to be around the ball quite a bit, especially late in the game when he got a couple of key rebounds – his only ones of the night.
If Arcidiacono is the steady hand that guides this team, Ochefu is the one player on this team that could be seen as an X-factor. On Wednesday, he was really a game-changer in the first half. He scored ten points on 5-5 shooting and grabbed five rebounds, and he blocked a shot coming out of nowhere. A well-built and athletic big man, Ochefu had started every game until the last two, when Wright moved him to the bench due to an unspecified matter. Asked about it after Wednesday night, Wright seemed to indicate Ochefu has done what he needed.
“He’s good now,” said Wright. “It’s a simple thing, we talk about it all the time – it’s little things and we’re teaching. If it was bad, I wouldn’t play him. Starting is a privilege in our program, and it comes with more responsibility than anybody else has, so you’ve got to be held accountable.”
As important as those two are, however, they are far from alone. Hilliard doesn’t have “future NBA star” written all over him, but is a nice example of player development. Jayvaughn Pinkston is a tough matchup because of his size, athleticism and skill level. Dylan Ennis doesn’t stand out by himself, but is an indispensable part of what they do. Josh Hart, who had a flu bug but still contributed on Wednesday night, competes as hard as anyone.
Wednesday night was the beginning of a tough stretch for the Wildcats leading into the end of the regular season. Including this one, they have five of seven on the road, with this one and Saturday’s showdown at Butler key among those games, and in one of the two home games in this stretch they get a return visit from Providence. While they have recently re-asserted themselves as the team to beat in the conference, they have by no means sealed anything up. A win at Butler on Saturday would go a long way towards that, as it would mean they would have knocked off the top two challengers on the road.
Entering this stretch, Villanova has been on a roll. They bounced back from their worst outing of the season, a blowout loss at Georgetown, to play well, especially defensively. Wednesday night was the first time since then that an opponent topped 60 points against them, and it wasn’t enough to stop them from continuing to win.