Fever­ish start tests de­fend­ing champs

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - FRONT PAGE - Terry Toohey Colum­nist

RADNOR >> Af­ter six games in 13 days, which in­cluded a fourgame in seven-day stretch, the Thanks­giv­ing hol­i­day came just at the right time for sec­ond-ranked Vil­lanova.

“We need it,” se­nior for­ward Kris Jenkins said af­ter the Wild­cats dis­posed of the Col­lege of Charleston, 63-47, Wed­nes­day night at the Pav­il­ion to ex­tend their Novem­ber record over the last four years to 25-0. “We need it.”

Head coach Jay Wright also re­al­ized that fact and gave the Wild­cats (6-0) off un­til Satur­day, when they’ll be back at work to pre­pare for next Tues­day’s Big 5 opener against Penn at the Palestra.

The start of the sea­son has been a grind for the reign­ing national cham­pi­ons and it’s not

go­ing to get any eas­ier. Only two of those games were at the Pav­il­ion and those home games were sand­wiched around a trip to Pur­due and three games in four days in the Charleston (S.C.) Clas­sic, which the Wild­cats won Sun­day night.

No Vil­lanova team dur­ing Wright’s 16-year ten­ure has played that many games in such a short span to start the sea­son. The national cham­pi­onship team played its first six games over a 15-day span, as did the 2010-11 team. How­ever, last sea­son’s squad played four of its first six games at the Pav­il­ion and the ’11 squad played three games at home.

Only the 2006-07 team played fewer games at home (one) in the first six out­ings than this squad.

And with ju­nior guard Phil Booth on the bench for the third straight game with in­flam­ma­tion in his left knee, the ro­ta­tion was down to seven play­ers, which meant more min­utes for ev­ery­one, espe­cially Josh Hart.

The 6-5 se­nior guard has played at least 35 min­utes in four of the last five games and is av­er­ag­ing nearly 33 min­utes a game, which is fine with him and it has not had a neg­a­tive ef­fect on his num­bers. Hart is shooting 57 per­cent over­all, 44 per­cent from 3-point range and av­er­ag­ing 18.2 points per game. If Hart keeps up that pace, it would be the high­est per-game av­er­age since Randy Foye av­er­aged 20.5 points per game as a se­nior in 2005-06.

“How­ever many min­utes I play I’m go­ing to play as best I can and as hard as I can,” Hart said. “I’m not re­ally wor­ried about min­utes. I’d love to play the whole game if Coach let me. That’s just my com­pet­i­tive na­ture. I’m never wor­ried about (play­ing too many min­utes).” Nei­ther is Wright. “If we weren’t get­ting Phil Booth back I would be a lit­tle more con­cerned,” Wright said.

Wright hopes to have Booth back for the Penn game. If not, the 6-3 ju­nior should be good to go against Saint Joseph’s Dec. 3. And while the break was a wel­come one, the NBA­like start to the sea­son had its good and bad points.

“We got a lot of our of­fense and de­fense in know­ing that we were go­ing to have a stretch here where we weren’t go­ing to have a lot of prac­tices,” Wright said. “I think it paid off well for us. I think we were pre­pared, but on the other hand I don’t know if we were men­tally pre­pared for this many games back-to­back.”

That men­tal fa­tigue showed against the Cougars. Vil­lanova had a 5634 lead with 6:30 to play in the game. Charleston cut that deficit to 61-47 with 2:35 re­main­ing. If the Cougars had a lit­tle more of­fen­sive fire­power, the fi­nal two min­utes could have been in­ter­est­ing.

“We had a cou­ple of (games), West­ern Michi­gan and maybe this one, where we didn’t come with great en­ergy,” Wright said. “We have to learn that.”

That’s part of the chal­lenge of be­ing the reign­ing national cham­pi­ons. There are no off nights. Ev­ery team on the sched­ule is gun­ning for you. So while the front-loaded sched­ule may have been tax­ing men­tally, it was a good test for down the road. The sched­ule only gets tougher.

The Penn game starts a stretch of five games in 11 days, in­clud­ing all four Big 5 games, which al­ways present a battle. The Wild­cats have won the last three city se­ries crowns, the first school in the history of the Big 5 to win three in a row in the full round-robin for­mat. The Wild­cats are also rid­ing a record-ty­ing 14-game win­ning streak in the Big 5.

La Salle, Penn, Saint Joseph’s and Tem­ple would like to see that streak come to an end.

The only non-Big 5 game in that span is against for­mer Big East foe Notre Dame in the Never For­get Trib­ute Clas­sic in Ne­wark, N.J., Dec. 10. The Ir­ish are 5-0 and just won the Le­gends Clas­sic in Brook­lyn. The Ir­ish would like to add Vil­lanova to its list of con­quests.

Vil­lanova plays six games in 17 days to start the Big East sea­son, in­clud­ing games against No. 12 Creighton and No. 9 Xavier. The Wild­cats also play five games from Jan. 29 to Feb. 11 that in­cludes a home showdown with No. 7 Vir­ginia and a visit to Xavier.

All have Vil­lanova in their sights, too, be­cause the Wild­cats have won the last three Big East reg­u­lar-sea­son ti­tles. That’s a fact of life Vil­lanova has to get used to, so don’t be sur­prised if Wright spends as much time work­ing on his team’s men­tal ap­proach as he does on phys­i­cal prepa­ra­tion, once they come back from their wel­learned break, of course.

“If you don’t bring it ev­ery night,” Wright said. “If you don’t make it your habit, some­body’s go­ing to get you.”

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