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Villanova gets back to defensive ways in win over Xavier

01/11/2018, 12:15am EST
By Austin Petolillo

Phil Booth (above) had a career-high 21 points as Villanova beat Xavier on Wednesday night. (Photo: Tommy Smith/CoBL)

Austin Petolillo (@AustinPSports)

After letting up an average of 90.6 ppg in its last three games, there was a sense of worry about the defensive play of No. 1 Villanova heading into its game against No. 10 Xavier, a team averaging 81.6 points in Big East play.

The Wildcats let up 101 points in their loss to Butler on Dec. 30, and they let up 90 points in their win over Marquette last Saturday. The previous time Villanova had let up 90 points to an opponent was against Xavier, back on Feb. 24, 2014, a span of 64 games.

It was a worrying trend for a team with serious national championship hopes, especially considering Villanova had built its reputation on shutdown defense over its recent five-year run of dominance.

The Wildcats put all the worries to rest, at least for a day, as they pummeled the Musketeers 89-65 on Wednesday night.

Xavier (15-3, 3-2 in Big East) shot 41 percent from the field (24-of-58) and 18 percent from beyond the arc (3-of-17). The Musketeers’ 65-point effort was the lowest for any Villanova opponent since Saint Joseph’s back on Dec. 2, when the Hawks were held to 53 points.

“A very good performance by us against an outstanding team,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. “We’ve been struggling a little bit defensively, and our guys really stepped up tonight.

“It was really the leadership of Phil Booth and Mikal Bridges,” Wright added. “I know they had good offensive games but they also are our two best defensive players and two of the guys committed to rebounding the most which we needed.”

The Wildcats (15-1, 3-1 in Big East) were fueled by a 21-point night from Booth, a career-high for the redshirt junior guard. Four other Wildcats reached double digits in the scoring column. This is their second win in a row after the loss to Butler on Dec. 30.

Nova’s offensive output doesn’t come as a shock to anyone as the Wildcats were averaging 98.6 ppg in their previous three outings, but the defensive performance was certainly a breath of fresh air.

After letting Butler shoot 60 percent (36-of-60) from the field and 68 percent from three (15-of-22), and after Marquette shot 45 percent from the field and 36 percent from deep, the Wildcats’ defensive effort against Xavier was a step in the right direction for a Villanova team which has never been known to give up a ton of points.

“Defensively, people feel like they can score on us anytime,” Booth said. “It’s a challenge we took personally from the coaches to the captains, to the team.”

After going minus-18 in the rebounding department vs DePaul, minus-11 vs Butler and minus-9 vs Marquette, the Wildcats were only out-rebounded by three on Wednesday night, a slight improvement.

Wright credits letting up offensive rebounds as to why their rebounding numbers have been down over the past three games.

“You look at the Butler game, that was a game where they made a lot of shots but the high percentage of shots that they missed, they got offensive rebounds also,” Wright said. “And then in the Marquette game, they got a good number of offensive rebounds, so we still have work to do.”

The Wildcats only gave up 11 offensive rebounds against Xavier after letting up 16 against Marquette and 22 against DePaul.

As Villanova was going through its’ struggles on the defensive and rebounding end, Wright made it a point of emphasis that in order to teach the younger guys, he’ll have to make his message clear to the older players.

“There’s no way a younger guy can get that just from the coaches, it has to be from the older guys demanding it of them,” Wright said. “And it also has to be, the younger guys have to see it too, they have to see older guys working at it in practice.”

After Booth missed almost all of last season with a knee injury, it was going to be interesting to see how he would respond after taking almost a year off from basketball. Booth is averaging 12.4 ppg on 52 percent shooting from the field, 44 percent from deep and is also averaging 3.2 rpg.

“I’ve been feeling the same, I felt well probably around the Gonzaga game,” Booth said. “I felt back and better, had a better rhythm to the game.”

Against Gonzaga on Dec. 5, Booth scored 20 points, shot 9-of-14 from the floor, grabbed two rebounds and dished out two assists. He then followed up that performance with an 18-point effort against La Salle on Dec. 10.

“He’s been playing great but I just saw a different confidence in him tonight,” Wright said. “You got to just get it and feel it.”

Up next for Villanova are three straight games on the road: against St. John’s on Jan. 13, Georgetown on Jan. 17 and then an out-of-conference matchup against old Big East rival UConn on Jan. 20.

Wright knows that while his team got back to its normal defensive ways for a night, a slip back to its previous efforts could result in some other unwanted results.

“We still have a lot of work to do,” he said.

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