Feverish start tests defending champs
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.”