Donte DiVincenzo (above) and VIllanova survived a rocky start defensively to get past Butler on Saturday. (Photo: Tommy Smith/CoBL)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
The sense inside the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday afternoon was one that Villanova hadn’t experienced much of in the last five years: worry.
Coming off a loss to a St. John’s squad that hadn’t previously beaten anybody else in Big East play, and with two starters sidelined by injury, the No. 1 Wildcats were vulnerable. And when Butler jumped out to an early double-digit advantage in South Philly, the sellout crowd of 20,000 was silent, uneasy, nervous.
This was, after all, the same Butler squad that had handed Villanova its first loss of the year, back in December, hanging 101 points on a Wildcats program that’s been one of the strongest defensively in the nation over a dominant five-year run. And Villanova was starting two freshmen, plus playing two others, in a rotation that’s really not capable of going any deeper than seven at this point.
So when Kelan Martin and the Bulldogs came into Wells Fargo hot as could be and came out on pace to hit triple figures again, was Jay Wright sweating it out a bit?
“Yeah,” the 17th-year Nova coach admitted. “You realize you’ve got a lot of young guys out there and they’re a really good team.
“We have great respect for Butler,” he added, “[and] not just because they beat us all the time.”
But this is Villanova basketball, after all. And shorthanded or not, the Wildcats weren’t going to lose two games in a row. A change to zone defense slowed down the Bulldogs, while Donte DiVincenzo and Jalen Brunson carried the offense in an 86-75 ‘Nova win.
DiVincenzo finished with a career-high 30 points to lead Villanova (23-2, 10-2 Big East), including 20 in the second half alone. It’s the 16th straight game in double figures for the redshirt sophomore out of Salesianum (Del.), though only the third time during that streak where he’s scored 20 or more.
“I know you guys are going to think I’m nuts, but he probably played his best defensive game of the year,” Wright said afterwards. “That 30 points, to us, we’ve seen him do it -- not get 30, but in high school saw him do it a ton, [and] in practice he plays like that.”
That kind of output from the 6-foot-5 redhead guard is becoming more and more necessary on a ‘Nova squad already missing redshirt junior guard Phil Booth and redshirt junior forward Eric Paschall.
Booth, who was averaging a career-best 11.6 ppg, 3.3 rpg and 3.2 apg, has been out since Jan. 24 with a broken hand, the same injury that freshmen Collin Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels both suffered within two weeks of each other in December. Paschall, who was averaging 10.1 ppg, 4.6 rpg and 2.3 apg, missed his second consecutive game due to a concussion.
Due to the shortened rotation, DiVincenzo played all 40 minutes. Freshman big man Omari Spellman played 39, finishing with 10 points and 11 rebounds; Jalen Brunson (27 points) and Mikal Bridges (10 points, five rebounds) both played 36 minutes.
Villanova’s having to lean heavily on its freshman at the moment. Collin Gillespie earned his first collegiate start, playing 21 minutes and finishing with five points and four rebounds. Coming off the bench were freshman wing Jermaine Samuels, only two games back from a broken hand, plus rookie big Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree; those two combined for four points and eight rebounds in 28 minutes.
“I was so proud of our freshmen,” Wright said. “We got great minutes out of Jermaine Samuels and Collin Gillespie, and Omari playing 39 minutes, getting 11 rebounds and really playing great defense in the middle of our zone, for a freshman to run the middle of the zone like that is really impressive.”
The freshmen’s efforts helped Villanova prevent losing back-to-back games for the first time since March 2013, when the Wildcats lost to Louisville in the Big East tournament and then North Carolina in the opening round of the NCAAs.
“It’s not something we think about, but the loss just kind of makes it obvious that we have to get back to playing Villanova basketball,” DiVincenzo said. “We did a great job preparing for Butler and we came out today missing two amazing players, and those young guys stepped up and played Villanova basketball for us.”
They were able to overcome Butler despite the best efforts of Martin, who finished with 30 points and was 8-of-12 from 3-point range. The senior forward has been a thorn in Villanova’s side, scoring 24 points and hitting all four of his 3-point attempts in a 101-93 Butler win on Dec. 30, which was the third consecutive win for the Bulldogs in the series.
Butler was on a similar pace out of the gates on Saturday, scoring 23 points in the game’s first eight minutes to go up as many as 13. But the Wildcats chipped away at the lead, getting it down to just three at the half; Villanova took the lead right at the beginning of the second half and didn’t give it up.
The good news for Villanova is that, barring further injury -- no certainty, especially given the Wildcats’ bad string of luck this season -- the shortened rotation should return to its typical depth at some point before the games become win-or-done.
If Booth’s healing time is anything like Gillespie and Samuels’, both of whom were back in uniform after six weeks, that puts his return sometime around the end of the regular season (March 3 vs. Georgetown) or the Big East Tournament (March 7-10).
Paschall’s return time is a little more difficult to pinpoint. Concussions are notoriously tricky injuries, with recovery from as little as a week or as much as a couple months if symptoms linger. The Wildcats seem to be optimistic that the 6-7 redshirt junior will be able to be back before long, but there’s no telling for sure.
“With concussion protocol it’s just one day at a time, if you have one day where you have any symptoms, it starts the seven-day cycle all over again,” Wright said. “So you just go one day at a time, [and] we’re still a number of days away at best case scenario for Eric.”
Meanwhile, the season trucks on, with two tough road tests ahead at Xavier (Feb. 14) and Providence (Feb. 17) before the Wildcats return home to face DePaul on Feb. 21.
“We’re a little bit in survival mode right here,” Wright said. “It’s not fair to expect Jermaine and Collin and Dhamir to be able to execute like the older guys, so you’ve just got to keep things simple.
“So we just have to survive for a little bit, and that’s what we had to do today -- and it wasn’t pretty, but we survived.”