Andy Edwards (@DLNAndyEdwards)
Villanova has spent the better part of a season and a half mired in mediocrity.
Since the start of the 2011-12 campaign, the Wildcats are 19-23, alternating wins and losses like possessions. For every nascent streak, there has been a crippling defeat; for every step forward, two steps back. Now, 10 games into the season, and coming off a pair of crucial victories, Villanova is ready to get on a roll, starting Sunday against Delaware (4 p.m., ESPNU). After all, long winning streaks on the Main Line used to be as certain as death and taxes, and the Wildcats just want those not-so-distant days back.
“It was definitely a good win for us,” junior swingman James Bell said of the Wildcats’ 65-61 victory over preseason Atlantic 10 favorite Saint Joseph’s their last time out. “That’s a great team. We just need to build on it and get better every day. We see how good we can be, and we just want to keep getting better.”
A year ago, Wright’s squad got off to a 5-0 start, only to drop 19 of its final 27 games in the worst season since the program started playing in 1920. The Wildcats won consecutive games just once during that stretch, falling well short of the school’s eighth consecutive NCAA Tournament berth.
Villanova (6-4) has already won back-to-back games twice this season, and the Wildcats, fresh off Big Five victories over Penn and the highly-touted Hawks, appear primed to keep the good times rolling.
After hosting the scuffling Blue Hens (3-7) at the Pavilion, Wright’s squad figures to be heavily favored in games against Monmouth and the New Jersey Institute of Technology before opposing St. John’s in its Big East opener on Jan. 2. Then again, if the Wildcats learned anything from last year, not to take anything for granted would almost certainly top the list.
“With this team, the St. Joe’s game had to be the next game,” head coach Jay Wright said Saturday. Win or lose, it just had to be the next game. This team has to learn how to do that. Now the challenge is, after the St. Joe’s game, a close game at the end, now you have to come back and play again. You’ve got to have the same kind of focus. All of these things this team is learning for the first team. I think we’re getting better. We’ll know when we play Delaware.”
With a freshman point (leading scorer Ryan Arcidiacono) running the offense and a variety of role changes, Wright’s young squad is still learning how to win. The Wildcats, however, have stumbled upon a winning formula almost by accident in the season’s first month. Bell has stepped up to make the game-clinching shot in three of Villanova’s six victories. The junior nailed a corner three to put the Wildcats up by two with 25 seconds remaining on Tuesday, and also knocked down back-breaking triples in wins over Marshall and Purdue, despite the plays in each case being designed for others.
“In all the times that (Bell) has hit the big shot, he wasn’t the go-to guy, but he made the shot,” Wright said. “He’s gaining a tremendous amount of respect from his teammates. He’s always had it; he’s a hard worker, a leader. He’s hit a lot of big shots, and as a player that’s really where you earn your respect.”
“It’s big for us,” Bell said of his late-game heroics. “Me being a leader on the team and stepping up in situations like that is good for us as a whole. I was put in a great position by my teammates and coach, and I just made a play.”
Before the season started, Wright may have circled Sunday’s date with Delaware as one of the Wildcats’ most difficult non-conference home games. That was before the wheels fell off for head coach Monte Ross and company.
Picked to finish second in the Colonial Athletic Association at the league’s media day, the Blue Hens have been one of the more disappointing teams in the nation in the first third of the season. After a surprise trip to Madison Square Garden and the semifinals of the NIT Season Tipoff, Delaware has dropped six of its last seven games, the only bright spot a nine-point home win over Radnor on Dec. 4.
Some of those losses were expected; the Blue Hens took on No. 2 Duke, Temple, and Pittsburgh in that stretch. Some weren’t, most notably a 63-60 setback at the hands of 4-8 Lafayette, not to mention an overtime loss at home to rival Delaware State last Saturday. Ross’ squad is wounded, struggling to handle the unfamiliar, lofty expectations placed upon them before the season even started. The Blue Hens have also had a week to stew over their last defeat, to figure out where it all went wrong. Wright knows that’s when a team is at its most dangerous.
“I see,” Wright said, “a very talented team.”
Most of the Blue Hens’ talent is concentrated in its dynamic inside-outside duo. Junior guard Devon Saddler is 14th in the nation in scoring, averaging a league-best 20.7 points per game, while senior forward Jamelle Hagins (12.8 ppg, 12.5 rpg) has seven double-doubles and ranks third in the country in rebounding. Together, the tandem accounts for more than half of Delaware’s scoring.
“They have a guard in Saddler that’s as good as anyone in the Big East, and Hagins inside is as good as anybody we’ll see,” Wright said of the pair. “He may be a little undersized, but he’s as talented as anybody. This is a really dangerous Delaware squad.”
The 6-9 Hagins should give the Wildcats’ frontcourt one of its toughest assignments. Seniors Mouphtaou Yarou and Maurice Sutton, as well as freshman center Daniel Ochefu, will be tasked with slowing one of the country’s most relentless rebounders.
“Just do what we do,” Yarou said when asked how to combat Hagins inside. “Attack, and go after the rebounds.
“We’re just focused on Delaware and getting better. We want to be the best team we can be.”
Sophomore guard Jarvis Threatt (8.1 ppg, 4.6 rpg) missed three games with an injury, but the Blue Hens’ third-leading scorer will be back in the starting lineup on Sunday. Fellow guard Kyle Anderson (7.7 ppg) and senior forward Josh Brinkley (6.9 ppg, 3.9 rpg) are capable secondary scoring options for Delaware, which struggles to shoot the three (28.3% from long range) and ranks 340th in the nation in assists (just 8.6 per game). Meanwhile, the Blue Hens have never beaten Villanova, dropping each of the schools’ 10 meetings.
With history on their side, and the chance for an extended winning stretch on the horizon, the Wildcats are sticking to the one-game-at-a-time mantra.
“We just take it one game at a time,” Bell said. “It’s Delaware right now, and that’s what we’re focused on.”