THE DEFENSE RISES! HOW VILLANOVA CAN TOUGH IT OUT TO A TITLE!

By Harry Allison

Villanova’s offensive power has been showcased all season, as they rained 3’s on the competition to become the No. 1 team in the nation in 14 weeks of the AP top 25.

The Wildcats, coach Jay Wright said last Sunday after they advanced to the Final Four, “were not a good defensive team for most of the year”—certainly not good enough to achieve what they wanted to achieve.

The players listened to Wright’s words, but they didn’t hear him. Their constant barrage of 3-pointers, the third-most made in men’s Division I history, “would mask the defense that we played,” said assistant coach Ashley Howard.

Then came a disheartening loss to Creighton at the end of February, a game in which Villanova surrendered 17 points in overtime, and the message finally sunk. At that moment, the Wildcats realized that “we were just getting by on offense,” sophomore guard Donte DiVincenzo said, and they sought out to do something about it.

Villanova’s recommitment to defense paid off Sunday, when it beat Texas Tech in the Elite Eight despite delivering a dismal offensive performance. The Wildcats went 4-of-24 from 3-point range and shot at a 33.3% clip, their lowest since Dec. 7, 2015. And yet, they survived with a 71-59 win, holding the Red Raiders to an equally ugly 33.3% shooting percentage and out-rebounded them, 51-33.

That showing earned Villanova a date in the national semifinal against Kansas, which eked out an 85-81 overtime victory over Duke in Omaha, Neb., on Sunday. The Wildcats did it with what Wright called their “best defensive effort of the year.”

“The difference in the game was their defense,” Texas Tech coach Chris Beard said. “That’s one of the best defenses we’ve played against.”

Wright said he first felt concerned about Villanova’s defense on Dec. 30, when the Wildcats conceded 101 points in a loss to Butler. They recovered to win their next nine games, temporarily assuaging his concerns, but after they fell to Creighton on Feb. 24, things changed.

From then on, the coaching staff upped the intensity in practice. Junior guard Jalen Brunson said Wright “really did challenge us to be a better team defensively.”

That meant drills that focused less on scouting the Wildcats’ next opponent and more on basic fundamentals. If the defense gave up a basket on a given possession, that unit would stay on defense until it forced a stop, no matter how long it took. Howard compared these practices to ones a team would typically hold in the preseason, not ones right before the conference tournament.

Results have followed. Villanova has allowed 66.8 points in their nine games since Creighton, all victories, compared to 71.2 points in their 29 prior contests.

It carried over into Sunday, when the Wildcats sent a dangerous message to the three teams remaining in the tournament: They can win even when they struggle to score. This one marked their 134th total victory in the past four seasons, the most in Division I history over a four-year span, passing Duke from 1997 through 2001.

“It means a lot to us, just to know that we could tough a game out like that,” junior forward Eric Paschall said.

Villanova might need to do it again in San Antonio on Saturday when it squares off against Kansas, another college basketball powerhouse. The Jayhawks needed overtime to squeak past Duke, emerging with a win that sends them to their first Final Four since 2012.

In a tournament defined by upsets, Villanova and Kansas, the bluest of bluebloods, managed to maintain their dominance in the face of so much madness.

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