By AARON BRACY
Villanova and South Florida at the Pavilion on Saturday was like a repeat of last season.
One team, unable to shoot, looked awful.
The other, seemingly getting the most out of its talent, looked on the rise.
Jan. 5, 2012: South Florida 74, Villanova 57.
Feb. 9, 2013: Villanova 68, South Florida 40.
That defeat last season was among the low points during a forgettable and uncharacteristic season for Villanova, which ended 2011-12 13-19 overall and 5-13 in the Big East.
The win this season isn’t necessarily a highlight – those victories over Syracuse and Louisville fight for that title – but is another strong performance from a team that looks nothing like it did a season ago.
So, what’s the difference?
“Our play as a unit has improved,” Cats coach Jay Wright said after Saturday’s win. “We’re really communicating well defensively and playing as a unit. And that takes time. Last years these guys were freshmen. They were new. I think you’re starting to see a team comfortable playing together and playing off each other and that’s what good teams do.”
Front and center among the Cats finding their comfort zones is sophomore guard Darrun Hilliard. Against the Bulls, the 6-foot-4 shooter scored 17 points for the third consecutive game.
Hilliard has been on a roll of late, raising his scoring average more than two points in the last eight games, going from 9.4 points per game on Jan. 12 to 11.7 points per game today.
The reason? Three-point shooting.
Hilliard stood at 26.8 percent from the arc for the season on Jan. 12, but is now at 33.3 percent after hitting 14 of his last 31 attempts.
“Every game my mind-set is just coming in and doing the little things,” Hilliard, who is averaging 16.1 points in the last eight games, said Saturday. “I tried to rebound the ball as much as I could, get steals as much as I could and as many deflections as I could.
“I don’t really come into the game looking to score or do anything spectacular. Coach is teaching me how to play offensively and defensively and I’m just coming into the game looking to play defense and help my team win. If I score, I score. If I don’t, as long as we’re playing Villanova basketball I’m fine with that.”
Listen enough and you hear Wright and the Cats talk often about playing “Villanova basketball.” Essentially, that means hustling, diving for loose balls, playing together and working hard.
You didn’t see those things consistently last season. Win or lose, you’ve seen them this season.
“We’re playing together, playing for each other,” Cats big man Mouphtaou Yarou said Saturday. “It’s easy. I’m thinking about my brother, playing for my brother every time.”
It hasn’t always been pretty, but Wrights likes the effort of this squad and the direction it’s headed.
“I just like where we’re going,” he said. “We’re getting better. I think we’re learning. This is an inexperienced team that is very coachable but also every experience for them is an important one.”
At 15-9 overall and 6-5 in the Big East, Villanova has a legitimate shot at an NCAA berth. It’s not going to be easy though.
Based on recent history, you figure 22 wins probably will be enough to get the Cats in. Twenty-one wins probably puts them on the bubble, while 20 wins or less probably is a long shot.
With seven games left, the best shot for Villanova to get in is to win five of those contests and then a pair of contests in the Big East tournament. Finding those five regular-season wins is tough, but this Villanova team has surprised this season.
Here are the seven left: at Cincinnati, at UConn, vs. Rutgers, vs. Marquette, at Seton Hall, at Pitt, vs. Georgetown.
Like I said, not easy. Wright knows Tuesday’s game against the Bearcats at Fifth Third Arena is an important one, not because of NCAA ramifications but because it’s a road game.
“How you play on the road in this league really shows what you’re all about,” Wright said. “We’ve got to go there into Cincinnati and we have to do it. What we do on the road will prove what kind of team we are. You’ve got to win on the road in this league. It’s tough, it’s really tough. We’re feeling good and we like playing on the road.”
Villanova will face a Cincy team that likely will be out of Monday’s Top 25 after consecutive losses at Providence and at home to Pitt on Saturday. You figure the Bearcats won’t be in much of a mood when the Cats come calling, but I said the same thing about Louisville, which came into the Jan. 22 loss to the Cats off a defeat.
One thing, based on their play this season, is for sure: Don’t count these Cats out.
Here’s a look at the rest of the City 6:
DREXEL (10-14, 6-6 Colonial Athletic Association)
After losing at home to ODU, which entered 2-22 overall and 0-10 in the conference, Bruiser Flint just shook his head and said, “I’ll be honest with you, I don’t get this squad.”
It’s been that kind of season for Flint and the Dragons. Flint hasn’t been able to get a consistently tough effort from his squad, which is something that’s almost a given with any Flint-coached unit.
The Dragons, picked to win the CAA in the preseason, do have the talent to capture the conference tournament title and earn the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Obviously, they need to play better but the regular season is kind of like a sparring session for the Dragons. The real fight begins March 9 in Richmond, site of the league tourney.
Surely, Sunday’s 60-48 victory over JMU is a positive step for Drexel, which got another strong performance from Derrick Thomas. The senior from New York scored 13 points against the Dukes.
He entered Sunday averaging 7.9 points and shooting 39.5 percent for the season, but he’s bettered those numbers by a good margin in his last six games, averaging 13.2 points and shooting 48.4 percent.
Thomas and the Dragons would like to continue the good feeling from Sunday’s victory when they host George Mason on Thursday.
LA SALLE (16-6, 6-3 Atlantic 10)
The Explorers shot Fordham right out of Gola Arena on Saturday, matching a school record with 18 3-pointers in the 89-53 rout. The 18 triples are the most by any Division I team this season.
The victory moved the Explorers into a three-way tie for fourth in the crowded and talented Atlantic 10, just one game behind league leaders Butler, VCU and St. Louis. The top four teams get a bye into the quarterfinals of the A-10 tourney and the Explorers, with head-to-head wins over VCU and Butler, appear to be in the driver’s seat.
Sam Mills came out of his funk in a big way on Saturday, scoring a career-high 21 points while hitting seven 3-pointers on eight attempts. Always an excellent 3-point shooter, Mills has struggled this season – and particularly since the calendar flipped to 2013. He made more 3-pointers on Saturday than he did in the previous 10 games combined in 2013.
Prior to Saturday, Mills was a combined 6-for-31 (19.4 percent) from the arc in 2013, which lowered his 3-point percentage to 28.4 percent entering Saturday. This from a player who shot 41.7 percent from the arc last season as a sophomore and 43.5 percent as a freshman.
Mills and the Explorers will be tested this week, playing at St. Bonaventure on Wednesday before Saturday’s Big 5 matchup with St. Joe’s at the Palestra. The Bonnies already have knocked off Temple and the Hawks this season and Bona has earned a reputation as a good home-court team.
PENN (5-17, 2-3 Ivy League)
Miles Cartwright had his best game of the season in Saturday’s 71-48 home rout of Brown, with a career-high 28 points and season highs in field goals (9), 3-point field goals (5) and rebounds (7). Cartwright had bettered his five assists in just one other game this season.
Jerome Allen’s squad will need more performances like that from Cartwright after losing Fran Dougherty for the season due to an elbow injury. It’s been a tough year for Dougherty, who missed eight games with mono, returned for a game, then was injured after eight minutes in his second game back last Saturday.
Cartwright certainly is capable of picking up the slack. He has showed flashes of greatness, including last season when I sat courtside for his previous career best of 27 points in a win at Rider.
But he’s been very hot and cold this season, with six games of 20 or more points and eight games with less than 10 points. For Penn to be competitive in the Ivy, Allen will need Cartwright to be the consistent scorer he has displayed he is capable of being.
SAINT JOSEPH’S (13-9, 4-5 Atlantic 10)
The Hawks played themselves out of NCAA at-large conversation with a pair of losses last week. Worse, St. Joe’s is truly in danger of finishing out of the league’s conference tournament.
If the A-10 tourney started today, St. Joe’s would sneak in as a No. 14 seed. The Hawks are in a three-way tie for 10th with St. Bonaventure and Richmond, and would lose the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Bonnies and have a worse overall record than the Spiders.
Sitting just one game behind St. Joe’s in the league standings is Dayton, which defeated the Hawks Wednesday and would get a ticket to Brooklyn with that head-to-head win.
It’s hard to believe that this conversation is being had after the Hawks were picked to win the Atlantic 10 in the preseason. But nothing has come easy for St. Joe’s this season, with Saturday’s 80-62 rout at UMass the latest disappointment.
Langston Galloway has been slowed by flulike symptoms lately, and it’s affected his play. Galloway, a deadly 3-point shooter, has shot 3-for-19 (15.8 percent) from the arc in his last four games. For the season, the junior guard is off more than 10 percent from long range from last season, hitting 36.2 percent from the arc this season after connection on 46.6 percent a year ago.
TEMPLE (16-7, 5-4 Atlantic 10)
There probably have been stranger endings to games than Saturday’s 72-71 Owls win at Dayton, but I’d like to see them.
After Khalif Wyatt made a go-ahead 3-pointer with 7.1 seconds left, the strangeness began. Scootie Randall was fouled with 1.8 seconds left and proceeded to miss both free throws. Then, Josh Benson was fouled while Dayton was trying to inbounds the ball and Dayton looked sure to win or at least force overtime, but Benson missed both. Jake O’Brien then was fouled on the Owls’ ensuing inbounds play, but he missed both – the second was intentional but the air ball he shot when he was trying to miss to run out the clock wasn’t.
So, six missed free throws in the final 1.8 seconds. Huh?
Anyway, the head-scratching ending shouldn’t overlook more heroics from Wyatt, who has to be among the nation’s hottest players.
Wyatt has upped his scoring average to an A-10 best 18.9 points per game with a scintillating nine-game stretch. Counting the Owls’ game against St. Louis on Jan. 12, Wyatt has averaged 24.3 points in his last nine games while shooting 51.1 percent (68-for-133) from the field, including 45.9 percent (28-for-61) from the arc.
Wyatt and the Owls will try to get out of the jumbled middle of the A-10 by hosting Duquesne on Thursday and traveling to UMass on Saturday.
-Philly RPI report: La Salle 35, Temple 39, Villanova 64, St. Joe’s 82, Drexel 208*, Penn 307.
*–before Sunday’s game against JMU.
Aaron Bracy’s City 6 Rankings (Through games Feb. 10):
1. La Salle
4. St. Joe’s
-Rankings chatter: La Salle holds onto the top spot with Saturday’s win over Fordham. Temple and Villanova remain in order but both jump over the Hawks, who lost a pair last week.