December 28, 2016

No. 1 Villanova barely escapes major upset with 68-65 win over DePaul

Villanova has hit the conference portion of its schedule, and if the first game is any indication, the Big East isn’t going to be easy. The Wildcats received all they could handle (and then some) from a 7-6 DePaul team that walked into the Pavilion with losses to Illinois Chicago, Missouri State, and Wyoming.

It’s not hyperbole to say that this was very nearly the biggest upset of the college basketball season. The fact that it was even a toss-up game is stunning. Josh Hart’s clutch play down the stretch prevented the nightmare scenario from happening and allowed Villanova to escape with a win by a 68-65 score. Here’s what I saw:

•    Villanova was bad: Actually, let’s add some more a’s to that, because there is no way to sugarcoat this one. They were baaaaaaaaaad. The offensive numbers were not pretty:

12 assists to 14 turnovers. 8-26 shooting from three. 18-26 shooting from the free-throw line. 103.3 offensive rating. Bad.

Those numbers aren’t so hot for any set of circumstances, but this was the best offense in the country (per KenPom, the unofficial bible of college basketball) playing at home against the worst team in a strong conference by quite a bit. ‘Nova is going to have to up its game quite a bit from this performance over the next week if it wants to stay undefeated, with trips to Creighton and Butler (combined record: 23-1) coming up.

•    There was no inevitable second-half run: You figured ‘Nova was always going to make a run in this game, simply because that is what the Wildcats do when they have their opponents outgunned. It never happened.

Villanova tightened up, DePaul gained some confidence, and then we had a see-saw game down the stretch with both teams trading one-on-one possessions. That isn’t what Jay Wright wants because it isn't his team's strength, but luckily…

•    Hart bailed them out: The national player of the year frontrunner picked his spots throughout most of the game, but when he was needed, the Wildcats got him the ball. All with the game at one possession down the stretch, Hart drove for a layup, made a three-point play, earned two free throws, and hit this gigantic, gigantic shot:

Hart finished with 25 points on 8-15 field goals, including ten straight points in the guts of the game. That fella can play some basketball.

•    Villanova is noticeably playing only seven guys: This is a first-class problem, because plenty of coaches around the country would kill to have a rotation of Brunson-Hart-Bridges-Jenkins-Reynolds-DiVincenzo-Paschall with a possible Phil Booth return at some point. Like 95 percent of them, actually.

But the Wildcats are forced to play small when Reynolds leaves the game, leaving mismatches on both ends of the floor. A Paschall-Jenkins frontcourt makes ‘Nova extremely difficult to defend, but it does leave them vulnerable to drivers and big guys on the other end of the floor. And even when Reynolds does play, they don't quite have the same elite rim protection there was with Daniel Ochefu last season.

Hey, it's just something to watch moving forward. But for tonight, crisis averted for the Wildcats. They'll play an unbeaten Creighton team for what should be a raucous atmosphere in Omaha at 1:00 pm on Saturday.


Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann