USA TODAY Sports
While there is improvement needed in almost every area, it's hard to come away anything but impressed with Villanova's new inside-out combo.
When Ryan Arcidiacono burst onto the scene in the opening weeks of the season, there was wild excitement, albeit it a bit guarded, surrounding the freshman point guard. But after that quick start, "Arch" went through the adjustment period that almost all college freshman go through (ask Jakarr Sampson about last night's adjustment delivered by #22) and struggled to play to the level 'Nova fans had come to expect.
Likewise, JayVaughn Pinkston has had an up-and-down sophomore campaign after a freshman season that raised hopes that Pinkston would become "the guy" for a basketball team needing just that. He's had some memorable games thus far, but the number that have made you question whether he's hurt or sick have greatly outnumbered the good performances.
Last night was a different story. In a classic Big East showdown that featured multiple flagrant/technical fouls, players all over the floor for loose balls, and the maddening presence of Jim Burr, we may have just seen the new leaders of Villanova basketball rise up and claim those leadership positions.
Not many, myself included, went into last night thinking that Arcidiacono, Pinkston, and to an extent Darrun Hilliard, would carry this team to a hard-fought victory when D'Angelo Harrison really couldn't miss and St. John's shot a startling 10-16 from beyond the arc prior to garbage time.
However, they did, and it was a beautiful thing to watch. Arcidiacono was poised on the ball (0 turnovers until the waning minutes) and wad deadly from deep. JayVaughn Pinkston commanded double teams throughout the second half, beat them anyways, and finished strong at the rim and at the free throw line as 'Nova consistently fought off and ultimately finished off a future Catholic-7 rival in the second half.
Which brings me to storyline #2 from last night - Jay Wright. Not many would have expected Wright and his staff to come out with a solid gameplan in the 2nd half after the way the first half went, but they did just that. We can nitpick about the lack of playing time for Achraf Yacoubou or Wright's belief that Hilliard resembles a young Kobe Bryant, but I'm going to give credit when it's due, and Jay Wright deserves a lot of credit for his coaching decisions last night.
Early in the game, Villanova was typically sloppy with the ball as they struggled to deal with the high pressure defense that Steve Lavin was employing. That defense worked well for the Johnnies, forcing 'Nova into 12 1st half turnovers and the VU Hoops community into a frenzy.
Then there was the case of D'Angelo Harrison. While it does seem that every game somebody goes for a career-high against Villanova, last night was special. Harrison was en fuego in every sense of the expression. Multiple times he tossed up horrible shots that somehow banked in. Even I resigned at one point that this was his night, and not ours.
Earlier this season, and even dating back to last season, you would have seen a "hope and pray" strategy out of Wright as he searched for answers. The man stays the course better than any coach in America. But the whiteboard was in full effect in the home locker room at halftime. While Arcidiacono lit it up in the first half from the outside, Wright completely reversed the offensive gameplan to slow the game down and focus on feeding Pinkston in the post, and it worked like a charm.
Pinkston's vast array of post moves forced an undersized Red Storm group to defend in an area they clearly weren't comfortable, and the end result was a bunch of foul outs as the game moved towards its conclusion, allowing Villanova to coast to victory in the overtime.
In regards to Harrison, Wright's decision to switch to a helter skelter box-and-1 defense with either James Bell or Yacoubou face-guarding Harrison paid off tenfold. Harrison went 7-13 from the field en route to 21 points at halftime before the switch, which saw Harrison finish the game just 3-7 from the field as he struggled to even touch the ball.
Both of those changes come down to player execution, which was fantastic, but it also warrants praise of the coaching staff for pushing the right buttons.
Make no mistake, this team has a long way to go before it's competitive at the top of the Big East again. But to be anything other than encouraged by last night's performance by both the players and the coaching staff would be foolish.
This isn't about getting back to where we belong this year - it's about the journey, and last night would indicate we might have the horses to take us there.