The biggest relief Villanova fans will have going into the opening of Big East conference play against Butler is that senior Darrun Hilliard will be ready to go.
Jay Wright said Monday in a Big East Men's basketball teleconference that Hilliard is "fine" and that he was cleared two days ago by the training staff. Wright said he expects Hilliard to play a big part in their New Year's Eve game against Butler and that the Bulldogs are one of the best defensive teams in the country. Even better than the Wildcats as he put it frankly.
"He's fine. His concussion, and I'm no doctor, wasn't severe," Wright said. "It was us probably being very, very cautious with that. I'm not speaking as our trainer but I'm not even sure it was a concussion. It was close enough that we needed to be safe."
Wright said that Hilliard had been cleared since Saturday by the training staff. The guard-forward is currently leading the squad in scoring (12.6 points per game) and defensively (2.2 steals per game). But Wright and Villanova haven't been spending as much time preparing for Butler as some might have thought.
The Wildcats have just begun preparing for the Bulldogs Monday for Wednesday's game due to Wright issuing a two-day "mini-camp" for the team and to watch Butler one last time on Saturday and prepare to develop a game-plan now. It wasn't as much as working towards Butler, Wright said, as it was for the team to get back to what they do best.
"We had a good preseason obviously, the last couple games we haven't played good first halves but good second halves, so that's a concern, but we found a way to win," Wright said. "We've been sloppy. We need to relax with our concepts. It wasn't like it was boot camp or anything. We just concentrated on what we do for two days. We have today and tomorrow to concentrate on Butler."
But for Wright, he's anticipating a good match up between Butler and Villanova. He's praised their team defensive concepts and pointed out their experience due to players that were on the roster last season that took the Wildcats into overtime at Hinkle Fieldhouse.
Wright said if the Wildcats are to come out on top, it's because they were the better team defensively on Wednesday afternoon. Which won't be a hard feat for Villanova; they are the 21th best team in the NCAA when it comes to defensive efficiency, 42nd in scoring defense and 14th in the country in steals per game.
"Be connected defensively," Wright said when asked what the one thing Villanova needed to do to beat Butler. "This is kind of the perfect team to test us at this point. They run their cuts so well. They read how you defend their cuts so well. They make the extra pass. They are patient. They pick up your extra mistakes. We've done a good job defending the first cut but then we've broken down a little bit. They are one of the best."
Butler's Holtmann on Villanova: "they don't get out-toughed"
Since taking over for Bradnon Miller during his leave of absence, Chris Holtmann has turned Butler basketball from an afterthought in the Big East to one of the better defensive rosters in the country during the non conference schedule.
The Bulldogs are a top-15 team in the NCAA in defensive efficiency and rank top-50 in the nation in steal percentage (39th), opponents three point percentage (28.1%), opponents effective field goal percentage (44.2%) and opponent turnover percentage (23.7%), not to mention the way they can limit a foe's extra opportunities on the offensive glass.
They aren't the same squad that finished 14-17 last season, though they were 10-3, like this season, when they faced Villanova. But with all the success Holtmann has experienced to this point, he's been very impressed with the job Wright has done with the No. 6 Wildcats.
"Overall, they are a really complete team," Holtmann said during the media teleconference. "16th in the country in defensive efficiency, seventh in the country in offensive efficiency, they play exceptionally hard and exceptionally tough. I don't know how many times they get out-toughed in a game."
And though Wright saw it differently in terms of Butler being the superior defensive team, Holtmann continued to pour on the compliments on the Big East's highest ranked squad. Holtmann mentioned the Wildcats "level of toughness" when it came to fighting for 50/50 balls, a testament to the great team rebounding spurted by sophomore Josh Hart, junior Daniel Ochefu and senior JayVaughn Pinkston, all over five boards per game.
Holtmann saw his more-experienced team being pushed by Roosevelt Jones off the court, a key difference between the two squads that have seen Villanova on New Year's Eve. Kellen Dunham is fourth in the Big East in three point percentage and third in overall scoring and Kameron Woods is leading the conference in rebounding.
The Bulldogs have the pieces to make New Year's Eve at the Pavilion an interesting contest to open the conference schedule, but if Butler can't get it going offensively -- where they've struggled mightily this season -- Villanova will run away with the game. And Holtmann, who's analyzed one of the country's best teams knows that opening Big East play against Villanova is "a different animal we are about to head into in a couple days."
"Villanova is a terrific program and Jay has done a terrific job with them. They are a premier team in the country. Their numbers are almost gaudy in how impressive they are when you look at their KenPom numbers. Obviously we are going to have a tough time."
- Wright said being at Hinkle Fieldhouse last year for overtime was "a thrill to be a part of as a coach."
- Seton Hall's Kevin Willard said that St. John's and Villanova are arguably the best teams in the Big East at this point in the season
- Creighton's Greg McDermott on the depth in the conference thus far: "not often do you have the depth of wins that our league has had this season"
- Butler's Holtmann on the changes being made since Brandon Miller's leave of absence that made his team better: "We had to focus on getting our team better and getting our minds of Coach Miller"
- Stat grab: Sophomore Josh Hart is 12th in the Big East in steals, Darrun Hilliard fourth in steal per game, Butler's Alex Barlow third. Daniel Ochefu is fifth in the conference in rebounding, Kameron Woods is first. Roosevelt Jones is fourth in the Big East in assists per game. Ochefu is fifth in the conference in overall field goal %.