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Dixon, Villanova back on right track, atop Big East

01/16/2022, 6:30pm EST
By Rich Flanagan

Rich Flanagan (@richflanagan33)

PHILADELPHIA — It was a day where every Villanova offensive possession seemed to be executed to perfection and every defensive sequence ended with a miss and a rebound. The Wildcats turned their first trip to the Wells Fargo Center in nearly two years into one of its most dominating performances of the season as they cruised to an 82-42 win over Butler on Sunday afternoon.

The Wildcats sprinted out to a 15-2 lead at the 13:34 mark of the first half and the rout was on, but the win was more about Jay Wright’s team learning to expand a lead while maintaining it for the duration of the game. The longtime Villanova head coach noted that this has been the biggest learning experience for this group.

Jay Wright (above) and Villanova have won six in a row after beating Butler on Sunday. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)

“Against UCLA and Purdue, we had lapses when we had leads,” Wright said. “We’re starting to be able to do this for 40 minutes and part of it is our starters really being locked in. Then, we’re getting some depth so we don’t lose that focus and I thought our guys off the bench did a good job.”

Collin Gillespie scored 17 points on an efficient 6-for-7 from the floor, which included five 3-pointers, and Justin Moore had 15 points, seven rebounds and five assists as the Wildcats beat a Big East opponent by at least forty points for the first time since downing St. John’s, 108-67 in the Big East Tournament on March 9, 2017. 

Gillespie drilled a three with 3:22 remaining in the first half to make it 36-20 after Butler had made its best run of the day to cut the lead to 11 a minute earlier. Moore had the opening basket of the game and finished with nine in the first 20 minutes.

Sunday was the sixth consecutive victory for Villanova (13-4, 6-1 Big East) following two straight losses to defending national champion Baylor, the team the Wildcats fell to the Sweet 16, and Creighton on the road. After dropping four games in their first 11, Wright and the Wildcats appear to have righted the ship.

“We had a little period there at the end where we learned we weren’t mentally and physically tough at the end of it,” Wright said. “The end of it was going on the road to Baylor then right back on the road to Creighton, which was the end of that run. We’re going to continue to learn in those areas.”

Moore has been sensational during this stretch, averaging 17.8 points and 5.8 rebounds but the biggest reason for the turnaround may be redshirt sophomore forward Eric Dixon. The 6-foot-8 big man has given the Wildcats a legitimate post presence and he pulverized the Bulldogs (9-7, 2-3) early and often. His first basket came on a beautiful spin move to the baseline with a patented left hook then a lob over the top and easy finish on the ensuing possession.

Dixon, who finished with 14 points and five boards, has avg. 11 points and seven rebounds in the last six and is consistently showing what made him such an attractive prospect coming out of Abington where he scored 2,454 career points and helped the Galloping Ghosts win three straight District 1 titles.

Eric Dixon (above, in Nov.) is playing the best ball of his Villanova career. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

“I’m confident in my habits,” Dixon said. “I practice like this every day. I have great teammates who are tough and physical so I’m getting better and I’m comfortable in my habits.”

The skillset of combining a soft touch around the rim with a solid frame and footwork while being able to step outside and hit a jumper made him a matchup nightmare in high school. His confidence is much more apparent of late and even Butler head coach LaVall Jordan took notice.

“He’s really improved from last year to this year,” Jordan said. “I’ve watched his development and they went into him early. If you let him get in deep or to his left hand, he’s really good. Looking at how he has developed, he’s grown into a really good player.”

Villanova shot 71.4 percent in the first half and took a 16-point advantage into the locker room. Another part of Dixon’s game that is beginning to emerge is his court vision. On the opening possession of the first half, he eluded two defenders and had a layup but chose to kick it out to Moore who nailed a three from the corner.

It’s a move Dixon would make again, and he understands that Villanova’s success stems upon multiple players being involved in the offense.

“I’m taking what I see from the defense and making the right decision,” Dixon said. “I need to be tough and physical every play.”

Wright credits Dixon’s improvement to sticking to his regiment on and off the court but he knew these types of performances would eventually come in abundance.

“It’s simple and basic but not sexy, getting better every day,” Wright said. “I think I said when he was a freshman, and even a redshirt freshman, that he’s going to be good. He was open to coaching, getting in better shape and conditioning, and changing his diet. I still really believe this isn’t close to what he’s going to be in the end.”

A pair of free throws from Brandon Slater pushed the lead to 56-26 with 13:13 left to play then Dixon slammed one home on the next possession. Chuck Harris, the one bright spot for the Bulldogs with 15 points, hit a floater in the lane to cut the deficit to thirty-two at the 10:29 mark but Butler was never able to get the lead lower than that. Gillespie hit his final three-pointer of the game at the 8:14 mark then Caleb Daniels added one of his own to push the lead to thirty-eight.

The win over Butler was as emphatic as Villanova has been this season but for a team that is hitting its stride at the right time, Wright still feels this team hasn’t reached its ceiling.

“Today might have been one of our best defensive performances but I really feel that we can get a lot better,” Wright said. “We have a lot of young guys that can improve those little things and defend different teams. Our league is so difficult because there are so many unique styles of play.”

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