Villanova isn’t defending NCAA title, but still makes use of championship experience

first_imgINDIANAPOLIS — The team that Tuesday evening walked into Hinkle Fieldhouse wore the uniforms of the team that walked of out the Alamodome last April with the 2018 NCAA championship trophy. Which is not to say this Villanova team is the same one that won the 2018 NCAA Tournament.There are glimpses, though, that remind us of what the Wildcats have been. And then, less than a minute later, Gillespie found himself on the visitors’ bench, yanked from the game as quickly as Wright could turn and tell Booth he’d rested long enough. Because almost immediately after he’d made the game’s decisive buckets, Gillespie rushed upcourt with the basketball in what amounted to a one-man fastbreak, encountered a bit of traffic as he approached the lane and dribbled the ball off his foot and out of bounds.“Just do not get sloppy, and every possession counts,” Wright said. “I didn’t yell at him. We just reminded him and then put him back in. He’s a sophomore, and he really didn’t play a whole lot last year. He’s still learning. Collin’s very coachable. If I thought it would blow his mind I wouldn’t do that.“We’re 6-0, but we would slip because we’re not that dominant. But if we keep getting better … that’s all we can really concentrate on.” NANTAIS: Gonzaga’s Rui Hachimura setting new standard for Japanese basketballPower forward Eric Paschall airballed his first 3-point attempt, then hit four of his next five tries from long distance in only the first dozen minutes of the game. The last of those elevated Villanova from a back-and-forth scuffle against the Butler Bulldogs into a lead the Wildcats never surrendered.Paschall, shooting guard Phil Booth and point guard Collin Gillespie, who played a combined 66 minutes in last year’s NCAA title-game victory over Michigan, contributed 22 of the team’s first 26 points in what eventually became an 80-72 Villanova victory. In a road environment where even the best Villanova teams since the reformation of the Big East have either struggled or fallen, their experience appeared to coerce Butler into playing like the visiting team.Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who has a fair amount of experience with moving on after a championship season, always insists there is no such thing as a defending champion, because the title won the previous season is no longer being contested.  But he cannot deny there are reigning champions, and the confidence and understanding Paschall, Booth and Gillespie gained in last season’s biggest games is reflected in the Wildcats’ surprising 6-0 start in conference play.Paschall and Booth, especially.“It’s huge. Even the first few games, they just totally carried us,” coach Jay Wright told Sporting News. “It was old-school, ‘put the team on your shoulder and win it for us.’ Recently it’s gotten to be a little bit more — we’re playing through them, but everybody’s making plays.“Those two, we were playing them 40 minutes and shuffling the young guys in and out, seeing who could give us anything. It’s getting to be different now.”A 6-8 senior, Paschall has scored in double figures in 14 consecutive games, topping the 20-point mark in half of them. He had 14 rebounds in a victory over Providence and 5 assists in a destruction of Connecticut. For the season, he is shooting 38.2 percent from 3-point range.Booth, who played in two NCAA championship games for the Wildcats and was the star against North Carolina in 2016 — he scored 20 points on 6-of-7 shooting after Wright noticed the Tar Heels couldn’t guard him in isolations — is averaging 18.4 points and has topped 20 in four of the six Big East wins.They knew following the title game last April that this season would be different. There was no doubt Jalen Brunson would be leaving after he became the unanimous college player of the year in 2017-18, and Mikal Bridges rose up the mock drafts all throughout the season. But just how dramatic the changes would be was revealed when big man Omari Spellman and 2018 title-game hero Donte DiVincenzo also left for the draft.“It’s just a whole new journey. We’ve got a whole new team, so many different freshman,” Booth told SN. “It’s a great experience because it’s so different. We don’t know where we’re going to get in the season, but we’re just trying to focus on getting better each day, each practice. And these guys buy into it.”MORE: SN’s 2018-19 midseason All-AmericansIt does seem as though this team is more focused on the business of being ready to win each Big East game than even its glorious predecessor. Those Wildcats could better afford to write off a night like they had at St. John’s, or Providence, or Creighton: They still were going to be a No. 1 seed. They were better than everyone else. These Wildcats need every win they can get to build toward a Big East championship, and to paper over the damage from an 8-4 start that included losses to Penn and Furman and a November evisceration administered by last year’s NCAA runner-up, Michigan.“We don’t really like to talk about last year. It’s a new team. It’s a different team. We’re younger,” Gillespie told SN. “We’re looking for our team to just keep growing. Even tonight, we can get better from this.”Among the three most experienced Villanova players, Gillespie has had the most ground to cover, not only because he plays the most important position but also because, with Brunson on the roster last season, he was needed the least. He still, at times, is trapped between what can be produced through a combination of his talent and experience and the mistakes that filter through because this is his first opportunity to run a major-college team.Over the course of 2½ minutes near the start of the second half against Butler, Gillespie assured Villanova would leave Hinkle with another Big East victory.16:29: Gillespie 3-pointer, Villanova up 5.14:54: Gillespie 3-pointer Villanova up 8.14:07: Gillespie 3-pointer, Villanova up 11.last_img