Over the summer, Coach Jay Wright made it clear that his Villanova team had to reprove itself all over again, even after after a season in which the team won a school-record 29 games and won its first outright Big East title in over 30 years. Bowing out in the third-round of the 2014 NCAA tournament to the eventual-champion UConn Huskies and facing questions about the strength of its eroding conference, the Villanova basketball program had to make a statement to regain national respect.
And make a statement it did at the Progressive Legends Classic in Brooklyn. To start the early-season tournament, Villanova was set to face Shaka Smart’s #14 ranked VCU team, which boasted its touted havoc defensive scheme. Coming into the game, Villanova was struggling shooting the three-ball and experienced some closer-than-anticipated match-ups against Lehigh and Bucknell (who actually led the Wildcats with less than two minutes left in the second half). Villanova’s mature, experienced guards, however, would prove to be the difference. Against VCU, the story was much the same, as the guards did a great job neutralizing VCU’s touted havoc defense by spacing the floor and making smart, patient passes. The team only turned the ball over nine times all game, only three of which the guards were responsible for.They also shot 38.9% from deep against VCU, a far cry away from the 26% they shot in the previous three games.
In the championship game things did not get easier for the Wildcats, as they faced off against John Beilein and the Michigan Wolverines. The game began as a low-scoring affair, as both teams couldn’t get much going offensively. Villanova ended the first half on a 5-0 run, and preceded to go on a 9-0 run to start the second half. After a timeout, Michigan preceded to go on a run of its own, and looked to be in control of the game. From there on the game went back and forth, culminating in a game-saving block by senior Jayvaughn Pinkston, who was playing in front of a hometown crowd in Brooklyn.
The last two nights proved to be a major step in the right direction for Jay Wright’s quest to reestablish Villanova among the nations elite. A good sign for Villanova is that they are winning despite the poor play of senior guard Darrun Hilliard, who is expected to be a possible candidate for Big East Player of the Year. When he hits his stride, the Wildcats will be even more potent. Another bright spot for the Wildcats has been the play of red shirt junior Dylan Ennis, who after enduring a disappointing sophomore campaign, has leadthe team in scoring and was named the Legend’s Classic MVP.
Villanova certainly looks the part of a potential sweet-16 team. They have the requisite depth, experienced guards, and are beginning to strike an inside-outside balance with the emergence of center Daniel Ochefu. An even more noble aspect is that all of their players embody the Villanova player tradition of playing with extreme toughness and unselfishness.Even with all of those positives, patience must be exercised. Last year’s team won the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament only to sour in the tournament. It will be interesting to see how the rest of the season plays out, but one thing is certain: Villanova is here to stay.