The Villanova Wildcats have lost exactly three games this season. One of those games was at Syracuse. The other two losses came to Creighton.
The latter two, as you know, weren’t just losses; they were thrashings. The first, a 96-68 Bluejays win Jan. 20, came in Philadelphia, set all kinds of records and led to countless unconfirmed cases of the rare and mysterious “Bluejay meltface syndrome” -- or “BMS,” as we in the scientific community refer to it.
The second, on Sunday, wasn’t much better: Creighton scored 101 points on 69 possessions. National player of the year lock Doug McDermott submitted virtually the perfect offensive night (39 points, 13-of-17 from the field, 9-of-9 from the line). Jay Wright spent most of his news conference calling McDermott the best all-around player he’d ever seen. It was less a conference clash than a coronation.
On Tuesday night, in their 82-79 win at Providence, the Wildcats stuck to the script.
Just two days after that trip to Omaha, Wright’s team bounced with a road win in double overtime. It was an impressive, physical, hard-fought, high-level bounce-back of a victory -- a lot like the impressive, physical, hard-fought, high-level victory Villanova bounced back with the last time it lost to Creighton.
The similarities between Tuesday’s win and the Jan. 25 overtime win at Marquette are almost eerie: two opponents clawing like crazy to keep their seasons afloat, two keyed-in road crowds, two extra-regulation wins.
The only difference was the stakes -- what Villanova’s win means for the team it beat the second time around.
Let’s be blunt: Providence desperately needed this win. With one month left until Selection Sunday, the Friars are the walking amalgam of a team on the bubble, with every win or loss -- especially big marquee chances like Villanova at home -- could measure out the balance of their season. In the weeks to come, you’ll hear a lot of vague things about a lot of teams being “on the bubble.” Truth is, most of them won’t be. Most will be fine. But there is a select group of teams -- maybe 20 or 25 -- mired in the bubble tar pits. For the next month, they will clamber over one another in increasingly desperate ways. And Providence, whom BracketoloJoe Lunardi placed among his last four byes Monday, is down there scrapping it out with them.
The Friars played like it Tuesday night. Bryce Cotton -- maybe the most underrated player in college basketball -- played all 50 minutes. No player in the country plays a higher percentage of his team’s available minutes than Cotton, and no one with his tidy assist-to-turnover ratio comes close. He finished the game with 22 points, nine assists, six rebounds and a host of huge buckets -- a game-tying 3-pointer at the end of the first overtime, another late in the second, a baseline-hesitation reverse layup that momentarily resembled a much smaller Michael Jordan.
Cotton led a group of players beset by injuries all season for every minute of an all-out effort. The Friars took an early first-half lead, squandered it, then closed a five-point deficit in the final 1:44. They were locked in defensively. Coach Ed Cooley was working the sideline, working refs. The crowd was great. Every overtime possession was hard-fought.
The last two possessions decided the game.
With the game tied 79-79 and six seconds left, Villanova’s Ryan Arcidiacono drove left, earned a foul, and finished the play -- the same shot he missed horribly with zero contact at the end of the first OT. After Arcidiacono made the resulting free throw, Providence was impeccably prepared. In the matter of two seconds, Cotton inbounded the ball to midcourt, got a quick pass back, then whipped it up the sideline to a wide-wide-open LaDontae Henton. Henton had an extra second to mess with; he had a great, rhythm look. The Dunkin Donuts Center crested. And then the shot rimmed short. It was a heartbreaking way to lose.
It was also -- not that you needed to tell anyone in the Dunkin -- a major missed opportunity. The Friars have now dropped five of their past seven, including losses to Marquette, St. John’s, Xavier and Georgetown. Their nonconference schedule is a blemish on a profile which main strength is its Jan. 18 win over Creighton. Adding a win over the Big East’s other marquee opponent would have been massive. Now the Friars have road games at Butler and Seton Hall before finishing versus Marquette and -- and this might be their best last chance -- at Creighton on March 8. It would be a shame to see a player as good and reliable as Cotton miss out on the NCAA tournament in his final season, but that’s the risk Providence faces.
For Villanova? Well, no big deal. The Wildcats had seen the other side of a Creighton demolition before, and on Tuesday night they responded to the second one in a month with another gutty, well-earned road win against a team with everything on the line.
If you’re the Bluejays, it seems, Wright’s team is no sweat. If you’re someone else? Look out.