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December 31, 2015

In blowing out Xavier, Villanova reminds the country that it’s still really good

It’s not often that Jay Wright’s Villanova Wildcats (11-2, 1-0) get to play one of the nation’s best teams at The Pavilion. Their last victory over a top-ten foe on the Main Line came against Oklahoma back in 2005, when nobody in the country could guard Randy Foye, Kyle Lowry, and Allan Ray (well, except Florida).

As it turns out, there is a pretty good reason for that: Villanova 95, No. 6 Xavier (12-1, 0-1) 64.

“We played our best game of the year,” Jay Wright said, confirming what everyone already knew.

Heading into the New Year’s Eve matinee, I had a few questions about Villanova. Not doubts, because they returned a lot from last season’s 33-3 team and their ten wins had all come by at least 14 points. It was already apparent apparent that Villanova is a good team, but how do they stack up against the nation’s elite?

Both of the Wildcats’ games against top-tier opponents, Oklahoma on a neutral floor out in Hawaii and Virginia in Charlottesville, ended in double-digit losses. In handing a previously undefeated league opponent a through beat down, the Wildcats reminded everyone of how good that their good is. 

“Leading in, I heard a lot about Villanova, who they lost to, a different team” Xavier head coach Chris Mack said. “They didn’t seem much different to me.”

So, how did Villanova do run the sixth-ranked team in the country off the floor? Let’s break the win down into three:

1. They shot the eyes out of the ball from three: 13-25, to be specific. In conversations with friends and other college basketball fans around the city, the word on Villanova has been, “Boy, they do shoot a lot of threes.” It’s true, as the Wildcats’ 29 three-point attempts per game are tied for fifth in the entire country. Out in Hawaii, they were doomed by a bricky 4-32 performance from deep.

Wright has heard the criticism, and for him, it’s about focusing on quality rather than quantity. Against Xavier’s 1-3-1 zone, Villanova’s crisp ball movement produced a bunch of really good looks.

“We really took good ones tonight,” Wright said. “We’ve been saying all along that we’re a good three-point shooting team but have taken some bad shots.”

2. Arch was feeling it: Well, not everybody fired up good shots for the Wildcats. Wright said that his senior point guard “took a couple of crazy ones,” which were heat checks from NBA range. That was the point, though: Ryan Arcidiacono, who shot 10-19 from the field and 7-14 from deep en route to 27 points, was on fire. 

“He was feeling it,” Wright said. “There’s a difference. When you hit a couple and take those, there’s a difference when you miss a couple and take one of those. When a guy is feeling it, you want a guy to have the freedom to do that.”

There was one play in the first half where Arcidiacono took an outlet pass and pulled up 1-on-3. Bang. After shooting 3-13 in his previous three game, Arcidiacono was clearly saving his makes to ruin Mack’s New Year.

“You see him against Penn and some other teams, and the ball hits the front of the rim or rims out,” Mack said. “Not here, not us. It sucks.”

Arcidiacono was the Big East Co-Player of the Year lasts season because he helps Villanova win in so many ways. When he’s making shots as well, the opposing team is in for a long night. On a day when star freshman guard Jalen Brunson was so sick that he got taken to the hospital for an IV — “He was throwing up all over,” Wright said — Arcidiacono was able to take the scoring burden.

“Jalen and I are roommates, so I saw it happen,” Arcidiacono said. “I was just like ‘I’m going to come out aggressive and make plays for everyone, not just myself.’”

3. Xavier was without their motor: This was a scary situation. Less than three minutes into the game, impressive Xavier frosh Edmond Sumner took a really nasty fall. Just like that, a loud Pavilion went completely silent.

Sumner was down for quite some time, and he eventually had to be taken off on a stretcher. The good news is that he will reportedly be fine. 

“The initial reports are long-term he’s going to be fine,” Mack said. “He’s walking and talking with a horrendous headache.”

“From that point on, we weren’t ourselves. Villanova has a lot to do with that.” 

Wright was in full agreement. Villanova earned the victory with an excellent performance, but there is no doubt that Xavier was affected both mentally and by the more obvious way of losing such a talented player from their rotation. Just imagine if the script were flipped.

“You take Arch of our team and we’re playing a in a tough environment like that, especially when we’ve prepared thinking we have him, it would make a big difference in the game,” Wright said.

Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann