Fans of Villanova had reason to sweat entering Monday's contest against Seton Hall. The Pirates seemed to have the Wildcats' number, pulling off major consecutive upsets in last year's Big East Tournament and again this year at the start of conference play.
Tonight, though, there was no doubt who was the best team on the floor. Paced by Darrun Hilliard II's 18 points and a supremely balanced offensive attack, Villanova (24-2)sped away to an 80-54 victory. Seton Hall (15-11), in an apparent free fall, was led by freshman Isaiah Whitehead's 15 points.
Darrun Hilliard, fresh off a career high 31 points against Butler, continued his blazing pace for the Wildcats. An opening three pointer, followed by baskets from Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu, brought Villanova out to a quick 7-0 advantage.
Much has been made of an apparent falling out within the Seton Hall backcourt. If the opening minutes of tonight’s contest were any indication, the reports seem to be substantive. Highly touted freshman Isaiah Whitehead and Sterling Gibbs, the proven veteran, seemed determine to operate under a "your turn, my turn" mindset. Consecutive turnovers by the two to open the game demonstrated that a change in strategy was necessary.
Seton Hall Coach Kevin Williard was ready to make that adjustment early. Finding his team down 14-4 after a JayVaughn Pinkston score, Williard deviated from his team’s typical, deliberate style of play. He began to press the Wildcats in hopes of speeding up the home team. The decision paid immediate dividends as the Pirates were able to capitalize on two Villanova turnovers and bring the game back to a near even 14-13 affair.
But that certain Wildcat, one that found himself being proclaimed across the country as the reigning NCAA Player of the Week, responded. A crafty lean in from beyond the arc allowed Hilliard to cash in on a four point play. Two possessions later, Josh Hart soared in from the heavens to snag an offensive rebound and dish to a cutting Hilliard for the basket and foul. After a subsequent three pointer from Dylan Ennis, the Wildcats found themselves back up 26-13. Timeout, Seton Hall.
Despite only a day of rest between Saturday’s thriller and tonight’s contest, the Villanova defense mustered up the tenacity and pressure that makes it one of the ten most efficient in the country. Junior captain Ryan Arcidiacono credits the experience of year's past in helping the team get ready for the quick turnaround. "We only have two younger guys on our team. It's like the Bahamas and the Big East Tournament. We've played in consecutive games before."
Dylan Ennis seems to have taken up the challenge of pestering, harassing, and plain making life miserable for the opponent’s best guard. Tonight, that assignment matched him with Sterling Gibbs. And during the first half, Ennis seemed more than up to the task. Gibbs was held to only 6 points (2-9 from the floor) and two turnovers over the first twenty minutes. Williard noted how effective the Wildcats are on the defensive end. "Everyone talks about them offensively. It's their defense that makes them special. The way they can disrupt you, take you out of what you want to do defensively. It’s final four worthy."
The shooting woes carried over to the remainder of the Seton Hall roster, where the Pirates managed to connect on only 8-30 (27%) attempts from the field.
Led by Hilliard’s 13 points, Villanova entered the locker room with a 36-20 advantage.
The Pirates were not ready to back down though. Isaiah Whitehead flashed some of his immense talent and connected on back-to-back three pointers to bring his team within 11 points. But a powerful post move from Ochefu and a succeeding Arcidiacono transition three brought the Wildcats back to a 44-28 lead
Not to be outdone, Sterling Gibbs added six consecutive points of his own. Despite the two lead guard’s success putting the ball in the basket, there was something noticeably different between the Seton Hall offense that upset the Wildcats in early January and the one that took the court in the Pavilion tonight.
One ingredient missing from that upset formula nearly a month and a half ago was guard Khadeen Carrington. The freshman scored 17 points and got into the lane seemingly at will. Yet, with the Seton Hall offense so dependent on Whitehead and Gibbs isolation sets, Carrington found himself as an odd man out.
To stem the wave of energy brought about after Gibbs brought the game to within ten points, Villanova turned to yet another contributor—Kris Jenkins. The sophomore sniper leaned his way into another foul from beyond the arc and cashed in on all three attempts. The next possession brought about three more points for Jenkins, this time on a clean look from the corner.
The scoring burst sparked a massive run for the Wildcats. Seven different players notched baskets for Villanova as they were able to extend their lead to a untouchable 71-43.
Once again, the Wildcats assisted on a fantastic 22 of 26 (84.6%) made field goals.
The game got ugly for a brief moment when Sterling Gibbs was ejected for a flagrant foul against Ryan Arcidiacono. The Wildcat was slow to get back up following the strike to the head. But Arch had reason to cheer up quickly, as he surpassed the 1,000 point barrier on flagrant free throws.
Another victory, another demonstration of the incredible balance throughout the Villanova roster. All five starters scored in double figures. Yet some of the most impressive play continues to come from freshman Phil Booth. Wright marveled at the maturity displayed by the native of Maryland. "I've never had a freshman be so efficient in so little minutes played. He's the best we've ever had at that."
For the Wildcats, the win brings them 24-2. Their success is obvious, and the distractions that come with it are obvious as well. Wright hopes to keep his guys away as from them as best he can. "Nothing can come between us and what we have to do tomorrow. Anything can get in the way of that. It's hard."
Villanova may not be receiving the national attention and press worthy of a legitimate final four contender. But, should Coach be believed, maybe that's for the best.