NEW YORK – For the next three-plus weeks there will be one question haunting the nation’s top basketball programs:
How do you beat Villanova in March?
Sure, the practical answer is to score more points that the Wildcats, but it’s far more complicated than that. Just ask Butler, Marquette, Georgetown or any of the other Big East schools that Jay Wright’s team has bulldozed during this stretch of nearly unprecedented dominance.
“That’s a heck of a basketball team that we just played,” Butler head coach LaVall Jordan said. “A lot of credit goes to them for coming out with the level of intensity that they did.”
Intensity’s one way to describe it. Insanity would also fit perfectly.
If you braved the concession stands at Madison Square Garden on Friday night, hoping to get a quick bite or beverage, you would have missed the Wildcats bury the Bulldogs, going on a 19-0 run in the game’s first 5:04 seconds.
The game was over before it even began. That may sound like an exaggeration, but in reality, it wasn’t. The only time the outcome was every truly in doubt was for the game’s first five ticks, before Mikal Bridges buried a three-pointer and Butler’s hopes with it. The Bulldogs never led, except for maybe in adult beverages consumed by fans.
For a shade over five minutes, there were three certainties in life: Death, taxes and Villanova buckets. During that span the Wildcats attempted to score 11 times. They made nine.
By the time Butler recovered, it was too late. For 34:56, the Bulldogs actually hung with the Wildcats, but that was just a formality. The score at halftime was 44-25. The score at the final buzzer, 87-68.
The difference? 19 points.
“If you spot a team like that 16, 19 points, it’s going to be really tough to dig out of that,” Jordan said.
The bad news was Jordan’s Bulldogs didn’t spot a team that lead. It spotted a machine 19 points.
If that kind of explosive run isn’t enough to strike fear into the hearts of 68 other NCAA programs, Wright floated the idea that, after a bit of a rough stretch in February that made his team look human, the Wildcats are fresh and finally healthy.
“This year has been a unique year where we just had crazy injuries,” Wright said. “Now that we’ve got everybody back, we’re back playing how we did before the injuries. I think we feel we’re a new team rather than a team that’s kind of stale at the end of the year.”
Friday night was the fourth time in five games the Wildcats have shot at least 41 percent from beyond the arc. In addition, despite playing seven players at least 24 minutes, all five of Villanova’s starters were in double figures. The significance of that feat? Not much considering it’s happened six other times this season for the Wildcats.
“[At times it] seemed like six [players on the floor],” Jordan said with a tone of admiration that comes only after the kind of beating his team just took.
Bridges, Jalen Brunson, Eric Paschall, Phil Booth. Reads like a college basketball Murderer’s Row of sorts.
“And they don’t miss. What makes them a very difficult challenge is they have a shooter at every position, but they can also post at every position, so they can invert. They’re the most fundamentally sound team that we face.”
Villanova’s next challenge will be Providence in the Big East tournament final on Saturday night. Considering the kind of tear this team is on, that game seems like a formality, simply another hurdle to not just another No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, but a deep run as well.
“Sometimes you just have to give the other team credit, shake their hands,” Jordan said. “If they play like that they’ll be playing for a long time in March.”
Jordan has the right idea, coaches should shake the Wildcats’ hands. Maybe enough of the hot streak will rub off to help them beat Villanova.