WASHINGTON, D.C. -- There was a time, and it wasn’t all that long ago, when the Villanova Wildcats were one of the best defensive teams in the country.
Through Jan. 18, two opponents scored more than a point per trip in any game against the Wildcats. The first was Delaware in a tight win on Nov. 22, just before Villanova handled Kansas and Iowa on back-to-back nights in the Bahamas. The second was Syracuse, which still hasn’t lost a game. Jay Wright’s team ranked among the top three or four defenses in the country; it pressured offenses to the 3-point line and defended the perimeter with nearly equal enthusiasm; it was consummate. When the Jan. 19 Associated Press poll was unveiled, Villanova was deservedly ranked No. 4 in the country.
And then Creighton happened.
The Bluejays’ 96-68 master class -- the best win in Creighton history and possibly the best offensive performance of the past decade -- didn’t merely produce a bunch of eye-popping, retweetable statistics. It exploded Villanova’s defense. Without breaking a sweat, Ethan Wragge and Doug McDermott and everyone else in a royal blue uniform did everything the Wildcats are designed to stop, over and over again, on Villanova’s home floor.
By the middle of the second half, when it became clear Creighton wouldn’t stop, it was worth wondering whether Wright’s team had just suffered the kind comprehensive emotional battering Michael Jordan made famous. The kind old NBA veterans still whisper about, the kind that ruins a season.
Seven days later, Villanova is doing just fine, thanks.
Monday night’s 65-60 win at Georgetown was a welcome return to form for the Wildcats -- a return to weak-side rotations and drawn charges, to interior challenges and forced turnovers, to the kind of adaptable, pressuring defense that earned them that No. 4 ranking in the first place.
“That was old-school Big East basketball,” Wright said. “That was fun.”
The Wildcats won despite shooting just 40 percent from the field, and 31.8 percent from 3-point range, in large part because they forced the action on the offensive end enough to shoot 28 free throws. It was offense-as-erosion, and nearly as slow.
Meanwhile, Georgetown couldn’t crack Villanova’s defense, turning the ball over 18 times and getting just nine free throws for their trouble. And that puzzled John Thompson III.
"We're getting the ball into the paint, we're getting penetration, we're getting drives, we're getting the ball down low, but fouls aren't being called," Thompson said. "I'm not saying we're being fouled and they're not called. I don't know, but you look at that stat right away and you see we shot nine foul shots they shoot 28, so we've got to figure out how to get fouled.
“Every game seems to be called differently. One could say that opposite ends of court are called differently."
The officials may have had a rough night at the office, and Georgetown’s offense has hardly set the world alight -- Bluejays 2.0 it is not. But credit the Wildcats, too. Villanova’s ability to combine maximum turnovers and minimal fouls made every Hoyas mini-run -- and it felt like there were dozens -- ultimately futile. After an 8-0 run to start the game, Thompson’s team led just once.
One decisive late play summed up the general tenor: Down 61-58 with 34 seconds remaining, Georgetown guard Markel Starks -- who had 20 points and six assists and was the Hoyas’ only effective offensive player -- drove baseline. As he elevated to swing a pass to an open teammate in the opposite corner, he crashed into a rotating Wildcats defender who had already anticipated the charge.
It was a sort of inverse scenario from just two days prior. On Saturday, Tony Chennault's would-be game-winner at Marquette was waved off at the last second. But Wright’s team managed to pull out a 94-85 OT win anyway -- a game they won by pouring wave after wave of points on the board. Neither game was an aesthetic wonder, Wright admitted, but even he was impressed to come away from the week 2-0.
“[Our guys] really have great character and mental toughness,” Wright said. “They really do. There’s a lot of challenges, you know? You win a couple games, you get things going good, and then you get smacked in the face, you get knocked down. How you respond is important.
“Since that game we’ve been on the road two games back to back against two very good teams. We haven’t been pretty in either one of them, but we’ve found a way.”
That game. Whether intentional or not, Wright avoided mentioning Creighton by name. Under different circumstances, the omission could be read as denial. After two gutty bounce-back road victories, it reads more like acceptance. The Wildcats have moved on, and they seem to be doing just fine.