Perhaps the most impressive thing about a 15-1 team that has beaten eight top-100 teams is a narrow victory over a subpar opponent.
Because Villanova showed again last Saturday that it can simply manufacture victories.
Against St. John’s, the Wildcats’ signature three-pointers weren’t falling, and two of their leaders — Darrun Hilliard and James Bell — went a combined 2-for-19 from the field. But Villanova found a way to win on the road, playing lockdown defense and getting to the free-throw line 40 times in a 74-67 victory.
It’s getting to be old hat for ’Nova, which is starting to look more and more like the 2008-09 version that advanced to the Final Four. Coach Jay Wright’s bunch has faced questions about its staying potential in the years since then, with no team advancing past the second round in the NCAA; two years ago, it posted an unseemly 13-19 record.
“What I’ve learned in our 13th year now is you’re going to go through some peaks and valleys,” Wright told Nicole Auerbach of USA Today. “All those early season struggles we had last year are, I think, paying dividends now. … All those little things kind of fell into place. Now, we’ve got to just keep getting better this year and see where that takes us.”
The Wildcats, who undoubtably have been the highlight of the new Big East so far, look like a product of the experience that has been building on the roster through the past couple of years. Two juniors that have started since they were freshmen — JayVaughn Pinkston and Hilliard — lead the team in scoring. James Bell, in the first real healthy season of his career, has made major leaps, jumping from 8.6 points and 4.2 rebounds per game a year ago to 13.8 points and a team-high 6.1 rebounds per game this season.
Villanova, which is ranked No. 6 in the AP poll after beating the likes of Kansas and Iowa, has one of the best scoring offenses in the country, averaging 80.9 points a game to opponents’ 65.6, while throwing up the ninth most three-pointers in the nation.
In the two games leading up to the St. John’s victory, the Wildcats — whose only loss came at No. 2 Syracuse on Dec. 28 — hit a stunning 26 three-pointers in 49 attempts, good for 53 percent from that range.
But when what the Wildcats do best isn’t working, Villanova has other options.
The Wildcats are outrebounding opponents by 5.2 boards a game and get to the foul line 20.3 times per game, a mark that is 31st best in Division I according to kenpom.com. They seem to get better with the game is on the line, making the big shots, and when Hilliard and Bell struggle, any number of players on a roster that features six players averaging eight points or more can step up to fill in the gaps.
That variety, Wright knows, is the benchmark between a good team and a great one, between past four teams and the only Final Four team he fielded in 2008-09.
Right now, the 2013-14 version is looking like the latter.
NCAA short takes
That Syracuse is challenging for the ACC championship isn’t surprising except for one fact — the Orange hasn’t had much notable competition. While ACC newbie Syracuse was ranked No. 8 in the preseason AP poll, the surrounding giants of the conference haven’t lived up to their billing, with Duke and North Carolina both struggling. But as the Syracuse Post-Standard pointed out, a conference newcomer very rarely wins the league immediately after making the jump.
Since 1990, only one of 23 teams that have switched conferences claimed the championship the first year. That team was 1991-92 Arkansas team that won the Southeastern Conference championship.
• Maybe it’s not always money that buys happiness after all. At least in Arizona, where the nation’s top-ranked team has one of the best coaching “bargains” In Sean Miller, according to forbes.com. No, the 18-0 Wildcats aren’t compensating Miller with pennies — he is taking in $2.3 million a year, putting him in the top echelon of coaching salaries.
But compared with the group that still greatly exceeds his income — the Thad Mattas, Tom Creans and Tom Izzos of the world — Miller might be the best “bang for the buck” in college basketball, Forbes said, with only Ohio State’s Matta outperforming Miller in recent years.
• Although the presence of extremely dominant 7-footers has dwindled in recent years, the San Francisco Chronicle said, there has been a return to form this season, with a plethora of big men that are impacting the game in a major way.
Winona’s Alec Brown (Wisconsin-Green Bay), Sim Bhullar (New Mexico State), Jordan Bachynski and Dallin Bachynski (Utah), Frank Kaminsky (Wisconsin), Isaiah Austin (Baylor), Joel Embiid (Kansas) and Mamadou Ndiaye (California-Irvine) are all 7-plus-foot players the Chronicle’s lists who have been extraordinary early on.
• Three unbeaten teams remain. After Indiana toppled Wisconsin in Bloomington and Iowa State dropped two in a row, to Oklahoma and Kansas, only Arizona, Syracuse and Wichita State remain unblemished.
Big Ten power poll
1. Iowa: Yes, the Badgers beat Iowa Jan. 5. But winning at Ohio State warrants the Hawkeyes at the top spot for now.
2. Wisconsin: Bloomington is still a tough place to play, as the Badgers were reminded this week.
3. Michigan State: The Spartans haven’t made anything look easy — but credit Michigan State for getting it done.
4. Michigan: Who would have thought the Wolverines would get off to a 4-0 start without Mitch McGary?
5. Gophers: With the signature victory they had been seeking, things are beginning to look optimistic in the Twin Cities.
6. Ohio State: The current state of affairs can only be described as a free fall for the Buckeyes, who have now lost three straight.
7. Indiana: To rush the court or not to rush the court? The Hoosiers decided yes after taking down Wisconsin.
8. Purdue: The Boilermakers need to learn how to hit free throws (worst in the Big Ten at 65.9 percent).
9. Illinois: A three-game losing streak, and the road ahead (Michigan State, Ohio State, Indiana) doesn’t look any more friendly.
10. Penn State: The Nittany Lions haven’t had an easy schedule so far, but two of their five losses came by just three points.
11. Northwestern: Chris Collins earned his first victory in an ugly but effective stunner over in-state rival Illinois.
12. Nebraska: With no wins to bolster confidence, the Cornhuskers get the Buckeyes for the second time in four games.