By JOHN HEALEY
One month ago to the day Villanova wrapped up its lone exhibition game, an 88-50 rout of West Chester. Sure, Nova was expected to win big against its overmatched Division II opponent, but no one watching could deny that the Wildcats looked good—very good.
Seven games and one month later? Suspicion confirmed.
After winning its first four games by an average of 21 points, the Wildcats traveled to the Bahamas over Thanksgiving looking to gain valuable experience against ranked competition in the Battle 4 Atlantis. In a three-day span from Thursday to Saturday they breezed past USC, downed Andrew Wiggins and No. 2 Kansas, and pulled out a come-from-behind victory against a veteran No. 23 Iowa squad. The result? The 7-0 Wildcats returned to the Main Line with championship hardware and jumped from unranked to No. 14 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll.
“It is a big jump,” head coach Jay Wright said at Monday’s practice. “It’s great for our fans, it’s great for our school, it’s great for the Big East…Now you have to deal with all the attention that comes with that. But it’s good. I’d much rather deal with that than people not thinking we’re good.”
After such strong performances against top-tier competition, it’s certainly unlikely that people will think anything of the sort. Led by tournament MVP James Bell, who tallied 20 points and nine rebounds in the title game against Iowa, Nova showed that it can shoot the long ball, scrap defensively, out-hustle its opponents, and compete with the best teams in the country.
“Our guys expect to play against the best teams, against nationally ranked teams,” Wright said. “The accomplishment for us is not beating a nationally ranked team—we’ve done that. The accomplishment is beating great teams that happen to be playing very good basketball.”
An accomplishment indeed. Kansas and Iowa were a combined 12-0 before facing the Wildcats. The Jayhawks boasted a win against Duke and the talents of freshman phenom Wiggins. The Hawkeyes had an experienced group that was thrashing its opponents by a ridiculous 33 points a game. But at the end of the day, both schools fell to the upstart Wildcats—the same team picked to finish just fourth in the new Big East.
“It was just the next two games on our schedule, against Kansas and Iowa,” Ryan Arcidiacono told Philahoops, modestly describing these wins. “They’re all big games. We were just ecstatic that we went to the Bahamas and we were able to play well.”
Yes, the Wildcats played “well,” but this downplays the many reasons teams should fear Nova going forward based on its play over the weekend.
Seven Wildcats scored in double-figures during the tournament. Dylan Ennis came alive in his first action since the 2011-12 season, averaging 12 points, six assists, and three rebounds. Arcidiacono proved that ice water does, in fact, course through his veins with the game-winning three against Kansas and two huge three-balls late in regulation versus Iowa. Bell continued his impressive start. First-year players Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins made solid contributions, not looking like true freshmen in the slightest. The Cats showed they could small-ball their way to victory, holding off the Hawkeyes despite missing Daniel Ochefu and JayVaughn Pinkston for a large chunk down the stretch. The list goes on, but it really boils down to the fact that Nova played intense, unselfish, in-your-face basketball.
“We want to play that way as a team with great energy and try to do it for 40 minutes,” Wright said. “It’s hard to do that three nights in a row. That’s what I was proud about.”
“We have a team that is ten guys strong,” Bell told Philahoops. “We just don’t let up.”
Bell also hinted at his team’s skyrocketing chemistry, saying that this already cohesive unit grew even closer as a result of the trip.
“We spent a lot of time together,” Bell said. On a trip like that, there’s nothing to do but get closer. We were doing everything together—down time, [we were] roommates with each other…It just makes the bond stronger.”
Winning the Battle 4 Atlantis and cracking the Top 25 is huge for the streaking Wildcats, but the team now knows it has a target on its back and must maintain focus to sustain its hot start.
“It’s cool being ranked for my first time since being here,” Arcidiacono said. “But nothing changes for us. We’re going to continue to prepare for whatever we have to face next.”
“We’re still a team in the middle of the process of growing and getting better and we have to make sure we keep doing that,” Wright added. “This can’t be the end, getting to 14th in the country. It’s gotta be based on still getting better every day.”
Philahoops staff writer Mike Angelina contributed to this story.
-John Healey covers Villanova for Philahoops. You can reach him at [email protected] or on Twitter @heal3y. Leave your comments below.