Villanova used a dominant second half to get a badly needed 71-58 win over Xavier on Tuesday night. Here are some key takeaways from the game as the Cats head into an 8 day Christmas break.
Villanova is still the Big East favorite
Coming off back-to-back 20 point losses for the first time in the Jay Wright era, this was as close to a must-win as any December game could be. After being dominated by unranked Creighton on Friday night, it was fair to wonder whether Villanova was headed for depths not seen in nearly a decade.
In terms of a get-well game, Xavier in the Pavilion looked like exactly what the doctor ordered. Despite Xavier being a consistently good team, Villanova had won all 7 of the previous matchups at the Pavilion, by an average of nearly 19 points. So when Xavier opened up a 10 point lead late in the first half, the Nova Nation panic meter was in overdrive.
However, a collective effort on both ends of the floor in the second half provided Villanova with their first Big East win of the season. Although the win wasn’t exactly pretty, it provides some perspective on where this team is and where this team is going to end up being. Despite a less than ideal start to the season, Villanova now has two double digit wins over ranked teams, and is a top 15 team by any objective metric.
Fox Sports 1 showed a really interesting stat during the Creighton loss, which was Villanova’s home-road splits in conference games since 2019. I decided to extend that back even further, all the way to the Big East realignment prior to the 2013-2014 season:
What you’ll notice is that although the league has slowly been catching up to Villanova since the league began, a dominant road record is not always necessary to still win the league. We all miss the 2014-18 era of this program, and I think we learned last week that this team is likely not going to mirror their performance. But I think we all need to be realistic about what that means. What it doesn’t mean, is that this team is destined for a losing record in the league, which is something I saw many people predicting after Friday. Winning on the road in this league is extremely difficult. It wasn’t even easy from 2014-2018. There were countless nights where a top 5 Villanova team battled unranked teams at Providence, at Creighton, at Marquette, and escaped with wins in the final minute. All this is to say that Villanova’s opponents are going to have a really hard time winning at Villanova, especially at the Pavilion. Villanova will be comfortably favored in every home game they play in this league and there’s nothing to indicate they won’t find a way to win most of them, just like they did yesterday. A winning record on the road may not even be necessary to edge out the glut of good but not great teams in the second tier of the Big East.
No, Villanova is not going 16-2. But if the last three Villanova teams found a way to win the league, then so can this group.
Small, but welcome shifts in the rotation
Both local and national media have spoken ad nauseum about this team’s lack of depth. Villanova’s starting five was incredibly efficient over the first several games but had fallen off considerably since. It was not a surprise to see the efficiency drop, but what made matters worse was the complete lack of help from the bench. Sixth man Caleb Daniels’ minutes had been consistent, but his performance had not been. Chris Arcidiacono and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree had been providing the remaining minutes, but given their limitations, had not provided any meaningful boost beyond just buying time for the starters to rest.
A quick glance at the box score last night wouldn’t indicate a major shift, but two minor changes are worth discussing. First, Caleb Daniels played a season high 29 minutes, scoring 16 points on just nine shots and grabbing four rebounds. With both Jermaine Samuels and Brandon Slater mired in horrific offensive slumps, Daniels best all around game of the season was a huge lift. With so much focus on Gillespie and Moore, Daniels must work his way into equal footing with Samuels and Slater as reliable secondary players who can defend, take care of the ball, and knock down some open jumpers. Although he did make 2 huge 3s last night, it was his ability to defend and take care of the ball consistently that was so encouraging. And by playing 29 minutes, he lessened the loads on both Samuels and Slater, who really have no business playing 35+ minutes. The more consistent Daniels can be, the less of an issue the rest of the bench is.
That being said, there was a notable shift in how Jay Wright distributed the 8 remaining minutes. Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree did not play, and Chris Arcidiacono only played 4 minutes, none in the second half until garbage time. Freshman Jordan Longino was tapped for the final defensive possession of the first half and immediately made a steal. And then, with Villanova’s six-man rotation tiring in the middle of the second half, he got a 4 minute run, over Arcidiacono. We have seen very little of Longino, but his initial insertion on the defensive end indicates that Jay Wright trusts him to some extent on that end. And although he has struggled shooting the ball in his spot minutes, his offensive pedigree from high school indicates that he at least has the capability of providing a spark offensively. With so many role players currently struggling on the offensive end, the bar for Longino to clear to enter the rotation should not be considerably high. If talents like Longino and Bryan Antoine can eventually become the 7th and 8th men, Villanova will be much better positioned for the Big East grind.
Shooting woes continue
After a three-game stretch where Villanova shot just 23-100 from beyond the 3 point line, I was hopeful that the friendly confines of the Pavilion could improve the Cats’ long range shooting. That was not the case. To their credit, Villanova attacked the paint early and often, which led to a higher quality of 3 point look than they had gotten the previous two games. But it did not lead to a much higher percentage of makes. Colin Gillespie continued his slump with a 1-5 performance, including a few rare wide open looks. Ultimately, Gillespie has a long enough track record that I think we can safely assume that he will shoot his way through this.
On the other hand, Brandon Slater and Jermaine Samuels both continue to be in complete funks. Slater went 0-2 last night, extending his miss streak to 14 over the last 4 games. Samuels is 4 for his last 32 over the last 8 games. Both players have been streaky shooters throughout their careers, but in their 4th and 5th years in the program, have to be relied upon to at least be serviceable on kickout 3s. Samuels has always been a significantly better shooter at home, and so his 0-4 last night is particularly concerning. It’s also part of an overall offensive slump where he looks uncomfortable with the ball no matter where he catches it.
Gillespie and Moore are going to go through their ups and downs, but ultimately this team’s ceiling is going to rely on what kind of punch they get from their role players. Samuels and Slater were always going to regress from their red hot starts, but they have to be better than they’ve been over the last several weeks.