Radnor, Pa -- The Pavilion sat quiet after they finished, the stands empty, the team hushed.
Sitting next to Darrun Hilliard and Ryan Arcidiacono, Dylan Ennis took a band-aid off his left eye that was hiding 9 stitches; the result of an elbow from JayVaughn Pinkston last week.
Some Wildcats rushed from the court following practice to finish a last minute paper for the end of the semester, according to coach Jay Wright. Others stayed to chat. Friday was their last run before Syracuse, a game that has always been one of the biggest in any season.
Ennis said that in a match-up like this "you can only control how hard you play," and that despite them only having two real practices leading up to the game on Saturday, that hasn't hindered their preparation.
"Syracuse is a great team and they've done great things in the past," Ennis noted. "We don't look past Syracuse, we don't focus more on them just because it's Syracuse. It's our next game and we are going to approach it like that. We stay focused in everything we do. If we have two days or 20 days, we are going to prepare as hard as we can. We're not going to use any excuses to say we aren't prepared...we are a family here. We go into every battle like it's our last."
But even though Ennis doesn't see it as an issue, Wright does. He said the team hasn't been the best when it's come to preparing for Syracuse this week and it's been difficult to simulate their zone and length with two days of preparation.
It's not the same Syracuse team as last year's club that walloped the Wildcats by 16. They're unranked and have suffered losses at this time this season compared to last's. But it's also not the same Villanova squad. The Wildcats have as much experience as last season and come in with a higher ranking.
The importance that Wright stressed is that, like any game or any year, Syracuse won't go down without a fight.
"We've practiced against their zone, we've put six guys on the floor [at practice] and we've done this forever," Wright said. "But it still doesn't compare to when you get on the court. When you see that length and athleticism, it takes us three of four possessions to get a feel for that. You can't simulate it. We use film to show last year's game. But the good thing about playing Syracuse is you get to play them year after year. For teams who haven't played them, it's tough...we have to be more patient this year."
The Orange retain junior guard Trevor Cooney and senior forward Rakeem Christmas in the starting lineup from last year, but have acquired two freshman faces to bolster their roster. Former five-star athlete, Chris McCullough, is averaging 13.3 points, 2.4 blocks and 8.4 rebounds per game this season. An improved Christmas is netting 16.4 points, 2.4 blocks and 8.9 boards per game and Cooney is still dropping 11.6 a game, but with a lowly 31.5 percent from deep.
Syracuse is different, but they aren't a horrible squad, still ranking top-50 in the nation in rebounding per game (19th in the NCAA with 41.3 a contest), but they are without any key wins this season. Wright said that rebounding will be a huge concern going into Saturday's contest, but he did praise an improved Christmas.
The front court of the Orange could prove to be the Wildcats' biggest problem.
"Syracuse is the kind of team you are going to see all year that's just going to keep getting better and better," Wright said. "Tyler Roberson is starting to get it. BJ Johnson is getting it together. I'd rather play them now, then in March.
"[Christmas] has got it." Wright continued. "In the past if he got pushed off the block he didn't really have the game to face you up. He used to just go over you and score. Now, he's got a great face up game where he has a little, short jumper, a quick move where he faces you and put it on the floor and go right to the rim. He's really developed off of his midrange, face up, off the block game where he's still attacking the rim."
For Jenkins, Villanova leaves it up to weight
Coach Wright made it clear on Friday that Jenkins, a sophomore rotation player from Maryland, isn't allowed to play for Villanova's program if he is ever over 240-pounds.
He's trimmed down since his freshman campaign to a slimmer 235 to 240 pounds now and is made to weight in before every practice. Jenkins has made huge leaps since last year in his minutes off the bench, production and usefulness in the Villanova rotation.
This season, his minutes, points per game and more have spiked and he's carved out a niche as a go-to-guy when the Wildcats need a perimeter bucket off the bench. He's the second best shooter from deep on the team and Wright has taken notice of his dedication to the club, from last year to this season.
"At the end of the year, last year, he really changed his body," Wright said. "He was starting to get used to playing at a high level at the end of the year and he just carried through the summer and into the season. We haven't had to use him this year yet, but we will Saturday...we want to continue to use him and expand his role. Use him a little more inside. We've been using him as a three point shooter."
Jenkins joked after practice that the Villanova measurements of him at "255 pounds" is inaccurate because he's trimmed his weight down. Wright couldn't believe it.
"Does it say 255 on there?" Wright laughed. "It should say 240. He can't play if he's over 240. He's not allowed by our standards. He makes it all the time...It's hard enough to adjust to college life and college basketball, but to have to lose forty pounds while you do that? That's incredible...he was way up there when he came in."
Wright continued to suggest that the Wildcats would be using Jenkins more on the inside starting with Syracuse because of his lower body strength and improved post moves. He's averaging 7.7 points and 1.4 steals per game and is shooting 36.6 percent from deep.
Frenzying the Orange Freshmen
Syracuse brought in a top-25 ranked freshmen class this season, combining the talents of 6-foot-9 McCullough (19th in Class of 2014) and Kaleb Joseph (46th in Class of 2014). Though McCullough has shined, Joseph has had a rough start to the season, dishing 5.1 assists per game but also losing 3.8 turnovers each game.
But Wright said he may not be so quick to pressure Syracuse or go to the trap during this game because of how good the Orange's bigs are. He's wary of their improved front court.
"One of the things we always worry about when pressuring Syracuse that's unique about them," Wright said. "They have guys at the back of the press, that they'll throw it up and they'll [dunk it]. There are very few teams you play that can do this. Most teams you want to trap them in the backcourt and go after their guards because you don't fear the back end. These guys are the opposite. You are worried about pressuring their guards because at the back end you have guys they just throw it up to and they bang it. We are a little bit less apt to pressure them than we are most teams."
Wright stressed keeping a tough rebounding Orange club from getting on the offensive glass. The extra opportunities for Syracuse can easily lead to Cooney getting it going from deep, he's coming off a 25-point outing against Louisiana Tech.
When not worrying about Joseph lobbing it over Villanova's smaller bigs, McCullough could hurt the Wildcats from the middle of the floor or in the post with a nice midrange jumper and elite athleticism and the ability to protect the rim. The Orange's 2-3 zone will test them. There are multiple elements to playing Syracuse the right way if they are to succeed.
And for Wright, now coming to another test in the long, dreary college basketball season, against a team he's beaten only twice since 2010. Like always, Syracuse is as big a test for Wright as anyone in the country. But luckily, he's beaten the Orange 10 times in 14 years at Villanova. Saturday could be number 11 and if anyone knows how to do it, Wright does. But it comes down to two factors if the 'Cats will have a chance against the Orange: rebounding and ball control.
"The two things that hurt us last year was giving up offensive rebounds and turning the ball over against the zone," Wright said. "We went on a great run early. Took care of rebounds. Made shots. And then we started turning the ball over and giving up offensive rebounds and then they went on a run. The rest of the game was us hanging in. We were down five, then seven, then five. It was that run where we didn't rebound and turned the ball over."
- As mentioned, Ennis is recovering well from an elbow to the face from JayVaughn Pinkston last week. Wright said he is "good" for Saturday because he's had time to adjust playing with the bandage over his left eye and the nine stitches in.
- Wright said that this is the "first week" that Arcidiacono has been healthy this season and it may explain the dip in his statistics this year. He said the team is "coming out of it."
- Wright mentioned that Ennis' progression this year has been important to the team's overall success. He noted he's the team's best perimeter defender and he really pushed him in the offseason to get to this point.