For the third time this season, Villanova entered a game with a chance to earn a true statement victory in non-conference play. And for the third time, they came up painfully short. In the first two, the pain came from how shockingly solid leads evaporated. This time, well... at least we went for something different. We spread the pain over all 40 minutes, and by the end it was more of a numbness as the ‘Cats stumbled away from a 57-36 defeat to the Baylor Bears.
Brendan Reilly presented the silver linings and positives, but here are my three takeaways from the game, after some time to digest and heal, plus a necessary addendum.
The depth is still an issue
I’d really rather not write about it again, but Sunday’s wire-to-wire embarrassment was partly the result of the issues that plagued the ‘Cats against UCLA and Purdue having still as of yet gone unresolved. Villanova got six points off the bench, all from Caleb Daniels who played 22 minutes. Chris Arcidiacono also played, but no one else played double-digit minutes. Late-game tiredness was not an issue the way it was in the ‘Cats previous two losses this season, but when you lose by 21 points other issues do tend to stand out. Even ignoring fatigue, the Bears far outpaced Nova’s six bench points with 24 of their own, and played three bench players over 20 minutes (although big-man Flo Thamba started and played only 16 minutes).
Bryan Antoine was “available” for the first time this season Sunday afternoon, although there was no expectation he would play. Hopefully he will emerge as another wing (I use that simply as a denotation for a non-point guard or center) the coaching staff trusts to play high-leverage minutes, but that has yet to be seen and players under Jay Wright who carry injuries into the season often have trouble getting up to speed and earning playing time. I will also — once again — mention Jordan Longino, who at least looked lively when he finally got off the bench in the last couple minutes of the game. The ‘Cats could have used some more lively on Sunday.
Being smaller doesn’t have to be an issue, but it is right now
Potentially worse than the depth issue, which is possibly fixable, is how Villanova dealt with its size disadvantage versus the Bears. Jay Wright has led teams into games against larger top-tier opponents and left with victories numerous times over the years. But when faced with the aggressiveness and length of Matthew Mayer, Thamba, and Jeremy Sochan, just to name a few, most everyone on the court for the ‘Cats look ed affected at best, and that might just be a testament to Baylor’s unique defensive execution. More than once, players declined looks under the basket in one-on-one coverage in favor of dribbling or passing the ball out to the perimeter.
While not ideal, this hesitancy under the basket was not itself a fatal flaw. Passing out of the post to get better looks is a hallmark of Wright’s Villanova teams. However, that tactic works because of players who are willing and able to keep defenses honest by scoring the ball on occasion. Just as large a problem was that when shooters got the ball somewhat open they also appeared rattled by the Baylor defense. A handful of shots missed the rim by what seemed like a phone code, and many others never inspired hope of going in, even from the view of the television broadcast. For the game, the ‘Cats shot 22.2% both from range and overall. At least no one can blame the loss on the team taking too many threes!
At least we only see James Akinjo once a year now
Guard James Akinjo has had one of those Homeric college careers that more often than not do not look pretty by the time they reach their conclusions. But ever since leaving Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown during his sophomore season just about two years ago in the mass exodus that at the time appeared a catastrophic moment for Ewing’s tenure with the Hoyas, Akinjo has gone from strength to strength. After a personally successful 2020-21 season with the Arizona Wildcats, the 6’1” two-way star joined Scott Drew’s reigning national champs before this season. As an aside, he is a player who definitely benefitted from the relaxed transfer rules that were implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and his success should stand as an endorsement for the continuation of that policy (also because of the pandemic, Akinjo has one more year of eligibility next year should he want to use it).
When Akinjo left Georgetown, I was thankful the way I am any time a great player leaves the Big East, but I was particularly relieved because the type of player he is represents Wildcat kryptonite. He’s an absolute menace on the defensive end who is more likely than not going to provide the ‘Cats star guard of the season an unpleasant time (Phil Booth in his one season of Big East play - Booth scored 14 on 5-15 in a Nova win, although he did come back with 26 on 10-22 the next time, but it was a Hoyas win). But the real problem you face with him is that he’s a very good offensive player as well who will not provide his matchup any rest. He played 35 minutes last night and left the building with 16 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, and two steals. Safe to say, it was not a pleasant 35 minutes for anyone opposite him on either end of the floor.
On the bright side, we likely never have to play him again. And if we do, it’ll be in March.
Bonus: Dicky V
As most everyone likely knows, Dick Vitale is currently going through chemotherapy to treat lymphoma. Last night, he called a Villanova game for the first time this season, and the ESPN broadcast showed Baylor’s halftime well-wishing message to him that caused him to break into tears at the booth. In that moment, it hit me how thankful I was for his presence on Sunday’s broadcast and on every one of his calls I can remember.
Dicky V has been a defining fixture of college basketball my entire life, and as someone born in 1998, I only know him as the eccentric old legend in the booth. He would call into Mike & Mike to advocate for the game when I was a kid in New Jersey, and his presence at a game was in itself an endorsement of that game when I was a slightly older kid in DC. When I went to the Final Four in 2018, I tried to play it cool around most of the big names I saw, but I had to get a picture with Dicky V. He graciously obliged, as I’m sure he has with some thousands of fans over the years.
Cancer is a terrible disease, but it is especially cruel that it has struck someone who has campaigned so fervently to end it ever since his broadcast partner, Jim Valvano, died in 1993 after he was diagnosed with the illness. However, if anyone can beat cancer, I refuse to believe it is not the guy who has been somehow elderly yet ageless my entire life. Old Dicky V has been college basketball’s eccentric grandpa as long as I can remember, and I’m looking forward to a few more years of his broadcasts yet, right up until he decides to retire. Although I can’t quite imagine that either.