Villanova coach Jay Wright (above, in December) has some work to do after his Wildcats dropped three in a row for the second consecutive season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Bradley Smart (@BradleySmart15)
PHILADELPHIA –– Before last season, three-game losing streaks in the Big East for Villanova under Jay Wright were unheard of, at least during the Wildcats’ run of dominance since the 2013-14 season.
Now, for the second February in a row, the Wildcats are facing questions about their spot in the conference table. Even with three straight Big East tournament titles under their belt, Wright’s team—which entered this week ranked No. 10 in the country—has struggled with consistency, dropping rematches with Creighton and No. 19 Butler before Saturday’s six-point setback to No. 12 Seton Hall.
The three-game slide has seen the Wildcats get off to slow starts, shoot at varying percentages, and rely too much on one or two players to carry the scoring burden. The latest loss, a 70-64 loss to the Pirates at a sold-out Wells Fargo Center on Saturday afternoon, saw Villanova erase an early 10-point deficit only to falter in the second half and hand Seton Hall a three-game lead in the Big East standings.
“They’re just a really good team, I think they’re one of the best teams in the country,” Wright said. “We have to play better to beat them and we didn’t, but we’ll be okay, we’ll get better.”
The Wildcats had won 13 of their last 14 games before the calendar turned to February, but have opened up the month with a trio of losses. First, Creighton handed them a surprise 15-point setback on their home floor. Then, No. 19 Butler slipped by on the strength of a Kamar Baldwin buzzer-beating 3-pointer.
On Saturday afternoon, it was Myles Powell and Sandro Mamukelashvili’s turn to shine. The duo combined for 36 points, 22 after the break, and lifted the Pirates to their first road win over Villanova since 1994—a 26-year stretch that featured 17 total losses.
The three straight losses mirror a stretch from last year, when the Wildcats fell to St. John’s, Georgetown, and Xavier in mid-February. They shaped up after that, winning six of their final eight games to take the Big East conference tournament crown and reach the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
That was a far cry from the lofty expectations set by the 2018 title-winning team, though, and sets up for questions about a deep run in March this season. One difference this year, however, has been the quality of opponent—both Butler and Seton Hall are firmly in the top-25—so there is arguably less to worry about with Villanova.
Cracks are showing in the Wildcats, though, and the loss to the Pirates revealed a few of them. One is on the glass, as Villanova was outrebounded, 43-32, and now rank just 137th in the nation in rebound margin. Mamukaelashvili had several putbacks that were crucial in the second half and the Pirates finished with a healthy 12-point edge in points in the paint.
“It’s been one of the things we’ve struggled with,” Wright said. “You’ve got young bodies, young players that get physically beat up a little bit. They’re used to being bigger and stronger, and then they’re not. You have to have better technique and a little more toughness.”
Another is depth. After Saddiq Bey’s game-high 22 points, guard Collin Gillespie had 14—but needed 14 shots to do so and missed all five of his 3-point attempts. Jermaine Samuels chipped in 10, but they were all in the first half when the rest of his team was ice-cold. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl was the only Wildcat to really crash the boards consistently and managed 14 boards, but was outmatched offensively and managed just nine points on 15 shots.
“We just have to focus on getting better and just keep trying to get better every day,” Bey said.
Gillespie echoed that sentiment after, adding that, “it’s going to hurt right now but we’ve got to come back tomorrow and learn from it.”
The point guard downplayed the significance of the game in a follow-up question, saying they treat every game the same, but many saw this matchup as a conference title game preview. It certainly lived up to the billing, as despite being sloppy at times, it was nothing short of entertaining.
Villanova started to find a rhythm after digging into an early 20-10 deficit. Bey sunk a corner 3-pointer then drew a charge on the other end, which was followed a few minutes later by a Robinson-Earl dunk. The arena was growing louder and louder and Seton Hall showed signs of nerves, committing countless turnovers and missing shots left and right. That was enough for Villanova to retake the lead into halftime, going on a run punctuated by a Bey dunk in transition.
Out of halftime, neither team found a good offensive rhythm in the early going.
Powell and Jared Rhoden hit consecutive 3-pointers for the Pirates to give them the lead back, only to see Bey knock down a trey of his own to retake the lead. The teams swapped buckets until Powell rose up for a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer with a little under 10 minutes to play to give Seton Hall a four-point lead. He was called for a foul just a few seconds later, though, and headed to the bench with his fourth of the night.
It was a prime chance for the Wildcats with the opponents top scorer on the bench, but they couldn’t do much about it thanks to Mamukelashvili, who had a pair of putbacks and a 3-pointer in the next few minutes. He had 12 of his 17 in the second half and has been impressive since returning from missing 10 games with an injury earlier this year.
“A couple of his [3-pointers] were just daggers, they were big-time shots,” Wright said of the 6-foot-11 junior. “I think what’s been so impressive with what Seton Hall has done all year is that they’ve done it without Sandro. Not just his three’s, but his offensive rebounds down the stretch really hurt us.”
The inability to outscore Seton Hall without Powell on the court cost Villanova, as a Bey 3-pointer to bring the Wildcats within three with 1:39 left was too little, too late. McKnight went 4-for-4 at the charity stripe to finish with 14 points, while a pair of late 3-pointers from Villanova’s Justin Moore only made the final scoreline more friendly to the home team.
Wright was quick to move on from talk of the three-game losing streak, similar to how he reacted to it last season. The opponents are different, but the questions remained the same this time around.
“[Just] gotta try and win the next game,” he said. “Once you go back to work, you don’t think about it as a three-game slide. Once you come back to practice, you just think you gotta get better the next way.”
The path doesn’t get any easier for the Wildcats in the near term, as they welcome in a Marquette side that handed them an 11-point loss on January 4. Villanova was blitzed in that game, allowing 46 first-half points and starting similarly slow. Shaking those problems that have popped up during this skid will be important to do sooner than later, as slow starts and cold shooting nights in postseason games result in seasons ending earlier than expected.