Just over a week ago, during halftime of Villanova’s 73-63 victory over St. John’s, the Wildcats honored the 2006 Big East regular season champions. The faithful fans who made the trek to the Wells Fargo Center in frostbite conditions gave Randy Foye, Mike Nardi, and their former teammates a standing ovation. When NBA All-Star Kyle Lowry made an appearance on the jumbotron, fans roared in support of their former Wildcat.
After the ceremony, St. John’s made their way back onto the court to warm up for the second half.
The Red Storm have made it to the NCAA Tournament twice in the last ten years, losing in the first round on both occasions. Currently last in the Big East Standings with one, yes, one win in conference play, it’s clear that St. John’s is in the midst of rebuilding their program.
Unlike their counterparts warming up on the other side of the court, Villanova has made the NCAA Tournament nine of the last ten years, including a trip to the Final Four and the Elite Eight. Atop not only the Big East standings but also the voter polls for three-straight weeks, the Wildcats are the team to beat in college basketball today.
We all know how this game ended. After both teams finished warming up, the Wildcats pounced on the Red Storm to start the second half and never looked back.
A team like St. John’s, or really any team in the Big East, can look up to Villanova as a model of sustained success.
It begins with a system, an elite coach, and veteran leadership, as Chris Mullin acknowledged.
"We tried to get them out of rhythm, but they’re a well-coached, veteran team," Mullin said. "When you play the No. 1 team, you have to be perfect."
That Saturday at the Wells Fargo Center, Mullin inadvertently discovered and shared the three keys to Villanova’s success: rhythm, coaching, and veteran leadership.
First, consider Villanova basketball's rhythm. The Wildcats have a clear-cut, well-defined system – an offensive identity. Even with the tremendous play of Daniel Ochefu and Darryl Reynolds this season, Jay Wright’s offense involves dribble-drives from talented guards, consistent ball movement, and a plethora of pick-and-roll sets in the halfcourt.
Occasionally, Villanova changes their system based on their players. Consider Ryan Arcidiacono’s freshman year, where Wright’s new point guard was given the green light on every single play. An even better example is this year’s team; feeding Ochefu in the paint has become a recipe for success for this team during three-point slumps.
The team that has tried best to emulate Villanova’s system in the Big East is the Xavier Musketeers, who the Wildcats face tomorrow. Their pace-and-space system filled with versatile, hot-shooting wings has elevated Chris Mack’s team into a Top 10 outfit.
The system works for maintaining sustained success throughout the season. Any player can get hot at any time and lead the team offensively.
"I think everyone in the locker room has scored in double-digits," Josh Hart said before Villanova’s first trip to Madison Square Garden to play St. John’s in January. "From this point on, anyone could be the leading scorer."
Hart may have predicted Reynolds' outburst against Providence just a week later. Hart was right – since this team goes a strong "eight-deep," any one of these eight players can step up at any time.
In contrast, consider the roller-coaster season Providence has endured. The Friars go about three-deep, even if their "big three" of Kris Dunn, Ben Bentil, and Rodney Bullock is as good as it comes in college basketball. Beyond these three players, Coach Ed Cooley has struggled to find consistency.
The result for Providence? A win at Villanova, but a loss to DePaul. The Friars can be as good as anyone, but aren’t consistent enough to dominate the conference.
The Wildcats’ perfect offensive system is made possible by one of the best coaches in the country. Jay Wright’s philosophical approach to the game has reaped its rewards for Villanova since his first season on the Main Line in 2001.
Wright’s most recent motto has been "Attitude." He calls certain practices "attitude days," days when his team needs a gut-check, days when he wants to test the emotional character of his team.
"It’s about how you approach the next day, how you approach the next game," Wright said.
Wright doesn’t get too emotionally high or low. Instead, his steady, calming influence manifests itself in the Wildcats’ consistent play.
Consider how Villanova takes its time inbounding the ball after an opponent’s made field goal. Think about the 1-2-2 press which Wright utilizes to apply pressure and control the other team’s offensive rhythm. These minor strategies allow teams to adopt the Wildcats’ pace, not the other way around.
Mullin was right – the Wildcats’ rhythm, reflected in Wright’s demeanor are two keys to Villanova’s success. But one final key to ‘Nova’s success is, as Mullin acknowledged, their veteran leadership.
This year, it’s Ochefu and Arcidiacono. Last year, it was Darrun Hilliard and JayVaughn Pinkston. Before that, James Bell and Tony Chennault. The list goes on.
Younger players take pride in maintaining this lineage of excellence. When Villanova was ranked No. 1 for the first time in school history, Reynolds thought about his "oldheads," the mentors who inspired him to stay motivated and stay ready.
"We want to continue to get better by being coached and listening to our ‘oldheads,’" Reynolds said. "It dates back to the teachings of Mouphtaou [Yarou] and Maurice Sutton, who passed it to James Bell and Tony Chenault, who then passed it to Darrun [Hilliard] and [JayVaughn Pinkston]. All we're trying to do now is respect their legacy and carry on tradition."
Is there a better example of Reynolds’ point than Hilliard? The swingman evolved from a scrawny, three-star prospect to the leading scorer on the 2015 Big East Champions to a contributing piece on the Detroit Pistons as a rookie.
Some teams preach the "next man up" philosophy from year-to-year. So does Villanova. But the Wildcats practice what they preach.
The result? No one Villanova team in recent years has been noticeably better than the other. Instead, a model of sustained success, where a new leader emerges every year, has been the final piece to the Wildcats’ puzzle of success.
Other teams in the Big East, like the rebuilding St. John’s program, can learn from the Wildcats’ three keys to success: rhythm, coaching, and veteran leadership.
Although it is easier said than done.
And the Wildcats have done it.