Editor's note: A couple of days late on this, but I wanted to throw my two cents in on what I think was a pivotal game.
Heading in to halftime of Saturday's game against the Syracuse Orange, the Villanova Wildcats found themselves in a precious position as they held a two point lead against the #7 ranked team in the country. In fairness to 'Cuse, James Southerland was ruled academically ineligible until further notice prior to the game, robbing Jim Boeheim of the team's 6th man and second leading scorer. That shouldn't totally dismiss Villanova's first half performance however.
Once again, Jay Wright came out with a solid gameplan that called for a strong defensive effort focused around stopping Michael Carter-Williams (which Darrun Hilliard and Achraf Yacoubou executed admirably for much of the game), and then pounding the ball inside against a suspect Orange interior. That plan saw Mouphtaou Yarou thrive yet again (leading to a mea culpa from our own Ed Donohue) while the 'Nova guards predictably struggled against the length of the Syracuse zone.
While Wright had his counterpart's number in the first half, Jim Boeheim showed why he's a Hall of Famer and closing in on the NCAA wins record by adjusting his zone defense in the second half to deny Villanova's entry passes into the high post. Wright, as we've seen in the past, was unable to continue the chess match and Villanova eventually faded as C.J. Fair and Trevor Cooney effectively put the game to bed late on.
As for the players, they got a stark reminder that there's work to be done if they want to get back to the upper-echelon of college hoops. Syracuse was missing Southerland, and barely got a contribution from a foul-plagued Brandon Triche, and yet they never seemed panicked as Fair rallied a young group around him to secure a tough-fought victory.
So while our natural inclination is to come away disappointed by coming oh-so-close to snatching a quality win that we so desperately crave, we'd all be better off remembering that this game was more about measuring ourselves against a top-10 team.
Mouph continued his resurgence to the season with another double-double, and though Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu struggled mightily, the experience they gained in the Carrier Dome will serve them well later this season with trips to Notre Dame, Cincinnati, Connecticut and Pittsburgh still on the docket.
Most encouraging for me, however, was that despite a bad shooting night from just about everyone on the floor, the team stayed engaged on the defensive end, lending credence to the thought that this team is built with a defense-first mentality - another aspect that will serve them well throughout a grueling Big East schedule.
The one curious move was that JayVaughn Pinkston's playing time again stayed south of 20 minutes. Only Jay Wright knows the reasoning behind that decision, but if Villanova is going to exceed expectations this season, they're going to need more than 18 minutes from their best offensive threat.
The Cats won't be able to dwell on Syracuse for too long with a wounded Pittsburgh team coming to The Pavilion on Wednesday night - the Panthers are off to a 1-3 start in the conference so far.