Andy Edwards (@DLNAndyEdwards)
Jay Wright and Villanova are looking to snap a two-game losing streak on Saturday at Providence (4 p.m., ESPN3). Before the Wildcats can accomplish that, they’ll have to end another lengthy drought.
Villanova (11-6, 2-2 Big East) will bring a five-minute, 13-second stretch of scoreless basketball with it to the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, where the Friars (9-8, 1-4) are 8-2 on the season. All looked well for the Wildcats almost 15 minutes into the second half of Wednesday’s loss to Pittsburgh, when James Bell’s dunk knotted the game at 43. But Villanova didn’t score again, eventually dropping a 58-43 decision on its home floor. Now, it’s up to Wright’s young squad to pick up the pieces before a particularly daunting stretch that includes games against No. 1 Louisville, No. 6 Syracuse, and No. 20 Notre Dame in consecutive tilts.
“It was a tough game for us, typical Pitt-Villanova,” Wright said during Thursday’s Big East coaches’ teleconference. “It was 23-22 at halftime, and I felt like we were both playing great defense. In the second half I think we both continued to, and right at the end of the game we had a couple turnovers, a couple missed shots, and they hit some big shots. That was the difference in the game. Their defense was outstanding. Our defense was good; they just outlasted us.”
A quick glance at Villanova’s upcoming schedule reveals Saturday’s contest to be a critical one. With three straight games against top-20 opponents lurking in the background, it’s not difficult to imagine a two-game skid turning into a six-game disaster in a hurry. While the Wildcats would certainly like to return to the Main Line with a victory, at this point they’d probably be content to see the ball go through the net with some semblance of regularity.
Villanova is coming off its worst shooting performance of the season, connecting on just 14 off 44 (31 percent) attempts from the field against the Panthers. On the season, the Wildcats are shooting at a 40.4-percent clip, worst in the Big East and 298th in the nation. Junior swingman James Bell is 7 for his last 29 (24.1%), averaging just 4.8 points per game over his last five. And freshman point guard Ryan Arcidiacono is 6 for 23 (26.1%) in his last three contests, failing to crack double-digits in scoring since his 32-point outburst in an overtime win over St. John’s.
While Wright would certainly like to see those trends reversed, there is one he wouldn’t mind continuing. Through 32 Big East games entering Thursday’s slate, road teams are a sparkling 19-13 (.594) in league play. To Wright, the home court disadvantage and poor shooting numbers go hand in hand.
“I was just thinking about that this morning, how well Pitt played in here last night and how well they played at Georgetown,” Wright said Thursday. “I really think it speaks to the parity and the defense in this league. I really can’t pick a team in this league that isn’t a really good, tough defensive team.
“We’re going up to play Providence, and their opponents shoot 27 percent from three and 40 percent from the field. Everybody in the league really can defend. When you go on the road, that carries over. A team that just relies on shooting, on the road that oftentimes doesn’t carry over.”
That’s good news for the Wildcats, who certainly haven’t been able to count on their shooting this season. That’s been especially true of late for Arcidiacono. The Neshaminy product is second on the team in scoring at 11.7 points per game, but is shooting just 33 percent from the field on the year. Since a 25-point, 6-of-11 performance in the second game of his collegiate career, Arcidiacono has cracked 50 percent from the field just once. To Wright, the struggles are reflective of the inordinate amount of responsibility heaped on the shoulders of his prized freshman, who is still adapting to the college game every time he takes the floor.
“He’s very confident and he’s very aggressive, so that allows us to give him a little more of a green light,” Wright said. “Also, on this team it’s a necessity; we need the scoring.
“We’ve had a lot of freshmen point guards start…but they’ve always had talented guards around them, so they got to benefit from some of the focus being taken off of them. Ryan is playing with a lot of young guys, and defenses are really set to lock in on him. I know he’s had some tough games, but he’s had some good games, and I really think he’s so mentally tough and so skilled that as he gets older and the guys around him get older, he’s going to get better and better.”
Hopefully for the Wildcats, that will start Saturday, but it won’t be easy. Staring back at him from the opposite backcourt are two of the more accomplished guards in the conference in Bryce Cotton and Vincent Council. Cotton, the Big East’s leading scorer at 21.6 points per game, shoots 43 percent from three-point range, good for eighth in the league. Council, meanwhile, is averaging 9.1 points and 6.7 assists per game, which would rank fourth in the conference if he had enough games to qualify. The senior, a third-team All-Big East selection a year ago and first-team preseason choice this year, made his return Dec. 28 from a leg injury suffered five minutes into the season and picked up right where he left off.
The perimeter tandem played well in last season’s game, a wild affair in which JayVaughn Pinkston’s 28-point, 14-rebound outburst rescued the Wildcats from a 14-point halftime deficit in a 74-72 victory. Cotton led the Friars with 20 points in that one, while Council finished with 17 points and seven assists. In forwards LaDontae Henton (15.1 ppg, 8.2 rpg) and Kadeem Batts (14.8, 7.2) Providence head coach Ed Cooley also boasts one of the Big East’s premier frontcourt pairings.
“We had a wild game with them last year at our place,” Wright said. “Their guards really dominated the game. In Bryce Cotton and Vincent Council, they’ve got outstanding guards, and the two frontcourt guys, Henton and Batts, are tough and playing better and better. We know that any time you go to the Dunk’ you’re going to get a tough game.”
That doesn’t figure to change on Saturday. The losing streak and poor shooting? Wright can only hope those do.