One City Six team separated itself from the pack this week. Villanova improved to 7-0 with three victories at the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, including a semifinal victory over second-ranked Kansas.
Victories over Top 5 teams aren’t anything new for the Wildcats, who defeated Syracuse, Georgetown and eventual national champion Louisville last season, but there are signs that, unlike last season, the regular-season upsets might not be the apex of Villanova’s success.
Last season the Wildcats were wildly inconsistent. They were as likely to lose to a mediocre team as they were to beat a terrific team.
This season the Wildcats are on a fairly even keel. Four of their first five wins, including a 94-79 triumph over USC at the Battle 4 Atlantis, were by double digits, with only Delaware putting a scare into Villanova before succumbing, 84-80. The last two games were much closer, but those games were against Kansas and No. 23 Iowa.
Another reason to believe the Wildcats will be more successful this season is their balance. Villanova routinely has four players in double digits, having done that in every game since its opener.
Even in the 63-59 triumph over Kansas, Villanova had four players in double figures. Darrun Hilliard and Dylan Ennis led the Wildcats with 14 points apiece. JayVaughn Pinkston contributed 13 points and James Bell added 10.
Ennis also had 14 points against USC, which was his first game for the Wildcats after sitting out last season after transferring from Rice and missing the first four games of this season after fracturing the thumb on his shooting hand during preseason practice. The sophomore guard provides the Wildcats with even more balance.
Balance is another reason the Wildcats are dangerous. Defense can’t concentrate on shutting down one player. If the defense collapses on Pinkston inside, the Wildcats’ guards will make the opponent pay from the outside. If Hilliard, Bell or sharpshooter Ryan Arcidiacono is having a bad night, Ennis or freshman Josh Hart can come off the bench and contribute double digits in scoring.
Confidence is yet another reason for the Wildcats’ success. Head coach Jay Wright called a play for Arcidiacono, who had not made a shot from the floor, during the final minute of the Kansas game. Arcidiacono, of course, drilled the 3-pointer with 10 seconds remaining to put Villanova ahead.
Villanova’s confidence also is evident in their ability to rally from behind. The Wildcats trailed Iowa by 15 points during Saturday’s championship game. The deficit was 12 midway through the second half when Bell, the tournament MVP, triggered a 21-2 run with three 3-pointers.
The Wildcats, who should move into the Top 25 this week, can erase deficits quickly because they have numerous 3-point shooters. And when one player is having an off night, others can pick up the slack.
All of these elements came together Saturday night during Villanova’s 88-83 overtime triumph over the Hawkeyes. Bell led five players in double figures, including freshman reserves Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins. Bell and Arcidiacono each made 4 of 9 from 3-point range as the Wildcats battled back from behind. Jenkins (12 points) scored five points during overtime.
The Wildcats are vulnerable inside, particularly if Pinkston gets into foul trouble, and they may rely too heavily on 3-point shooting. But the early-season signs overwhelmingly point toward long-term success.
With a relatively young lineup, the Wildcats should be a better team later in the year than they are now. That’s a scary thought for their opponents.
DRAGONS ON FIRE: Villanova almost wasn’t the only team that upset a Top 5 opponent this past week. Drexel built a 19-point first-half lead on No. 4 Arizona, only to have the unbeaten Wildcats rally for a 66-62 victory in the semifinals of the NIT Tip-Off Tournament at Madison Square Garden.
Instead of folding after an emotional defeat, the Dragons bounced back after Thanksgiving with an 85-83 triple overtime victory over Alabama in the third-place game.
The Dragons had plenty of opportunities to cave in against the Crimson Tide, but displayed mental toughness as they survived each setback. Forwards Dartaye Ruffin, Rodney Williams and Kazembe Abif all fouled out – but not before Abif scored a career-high 15 points and grabbed 11 rebounds. The loss of three frontcourt players, however, could not stop the Dragons.
As I wrote in last week’s college notebook, when the NCAA Tournament selection committee considers teams this season, they can’t say the Dragons didn’t play anybody. They went toe-to-toe with Arizona, which beat Duke in the tournament final, and then outlasted Alabama.
Then again, Drexel just might take the decision out of the committee’s hands by winning the Colonial Athletic Association.
HOME, SWEET HOME: Drexel (4-2) will finally play its first home game of the season Wednesday when it hosts Cleveland State.
RIVALRY WEEK: The City Six rivalries take center stage this week. Temple hosts Saint Joseph’s on Wednesday (8 p.m.). Villanova hosts Penn at the same time.
The Hawks will host the Wildcats on Saturday (6 p.m.) in a game commonly referred to as the Holy War.
In fact, the Hawks’ next three games are against City Six rivals. After playing the Owls and Wildcats this week, the Hawks, who won a pair of games at the Old Spice Classic in Orlando after dropping their opener, take a break before returning to action on Dec. 18 against Drexel.
GARDEN PARTY: Drexel won’t be the only local team to play at Madison Square Garden. La Salle faces Stony Brook on Saturday in the Madison Square Garden Holiday Festival. The game starts at 11 a.m., so you’ll need to catch the early train from 30th Street Station.
SUPER SATURDAY: College hoops aficionados could conceivable see five of the six city teams in action on Saturday. La Salle plays at 11 a.m., but the game is at Madison Square Garden, so we’ll have to rule that game out.
But Temple hosts Texas at noon at Wells Fargo Center. That leaves plenty of time to get to Drexel by 4 p.m. to see the Dragons against Tennessee State. Hopefully, the Dragons take control of that game by midway through the second half, so you can make the 15-minute drive to Saint Joseph’s by 6 p.m. for the Holy War with Villanova. When the Holy War ends, you can head to the Palestra for the end of Penn’s game with Wagner, which starts at 7 p.m.