The Villanova Wildcats faced off with the Butler Bulldogs this past Wednesday night seeking their 4th-straight outright Big East regular season title. Back on January 4th, the Bulldogs handed ‘Nova their first loss of the season by a score of 66-58 at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. The ‘Cats shot 37.3% from the field in that contest and knocked down just 6 of 26 (23.1%) from 3-point range.
History appeared to repeat itself Wednesday night as Villanova (13-3 Big East, 26-3 overall) fell to Butler (11-5, 22-6) at home, 74-66, snapping the Wildcats’ 48 game winning streak at the Pavilion. The loss is also the first in 4 years for seniors Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins and Darryl Reynolds at their on-campus court. Once again, ‘Nova struggled from 3-point range, shooting just 6-for-24 (25%) from deep. In Villanova’s 3 losses this season, twice to Butler and once to Marquette on the road, they have shot a combined 18-for-84 (21.4%) from long range.
The ‘Cats appeared off their game for most of the night with uncharacteristic turnovers, key missed free throws, blown finishes and poor defensive rotations on multiple occasions. While head coach Chris Holtmann and the Bulldogs certainly deserve credit for developing and executing an effective game plan, the home team beat themselves for much of the game.
Villanova got off to a slow start out of the gates as they were held scoreless for the first 4:30. Butler took advantage by jumping out to an early 8-0 lead, as Avery Woodson knocked down a 3 to start the scoring for the Bulldogs.
Jay Wright settled the team down after the first media timeout, and Jalen Brunson finally broke the scoring drought for the ‘Cats by knocking down his patented mid-range jumper. Eric Paschall, who started in place of injured senior Darryl Reynolds for the fourth straight game, crashed the boards hard for an easy put back on the following possession to make it 8-4 with 14 minutes left in the half. Brunson came right back with a 3-point play, but the Bulldogs answered with a Kelan Martin 3-ball and a layup from Andrew Chrabascz to sustain the Butler lead at 13-9.
With Villanova down 28-27 after a Kelan Martin jump shot with 30 seconds remaining, Wright called timout to draw up one final play before halftime. Jalen Brunson answered the call again, finishing on a tough drive just before the buzzer to give the ‘Cats a 29-28 lead at the break.
It was a half to forget for the Wildcats. Despite shooting a respectable 46% from the field, they committed 10 turnovers with many being unforced. Jalen Brunson continued his elite play of late, carrying the team with 14 points on 6-for-8 shooting, while freshman phenom Kamar Baldwin paced the Bulldogs with 11 points.
Kris Jenkins, inconsistent offensively the past few games, scored his first points of the night by draining a deep 3 to give the ‘Cats a 34-33 lead 3 minutes into the second half. Following an Eric Paschall putback, Avery Woodson responded with another corner 3 to tie the game at 36.
Jalen Brunson completed a 3-point play to put ‘Nova back on top, and after a Butler turnover on the ensuing possession, Josh Hart got a run out for a two-handed jam eliciting an eruption from the home crowd for the first time all game. Hart knocked down a 3 on the next play to give the ‘Cats their largest lead of the night at 44-36, and it appeared as though the momentum had finally swung Villanova’s way.
After consecutive offensive rebounds preceded an Andrew Chrabasz layup, however, the Villanova offense completely stalled. A Kelan Martin 3 capped off an 18-0 Butler run, giving the visitors a 60-49 lead with just over 4 minutes remaining in the game.
With a chance to close the gap and provide the Wildcats a chance to pull off the comeback, both Hart and Brunson uncharacteristically missed the front ends of two one-and-ones, and the Bulldogs were able to close the game out from there at the free-throw line.
- While using only a 6-man rotation over the past 4 games due to Phil Booth’s and Darryl Reynolds’ injuries, Butler took advantage by slowing the tempo and grinding the Wildcats down defensively. The thin rotation finally appeared to manifest itself on the ‘Cats as hands on knees and slow walks up the floor were frequently seen by several ‘Nova players. Other teams will undoubtedly use Butler’s strategy against the Wildcats in the future, making Darryl Reynolds’ health an extremely important issue moving forward.
- Butler also did a tremendous job defending Villanova’s leading scorer, Josh Hart, blocking his drives to the basket and double-teaming him on isolations. This has become somewhat of a pattern for Hart over the past few games, and it’s possible he has become a bit too predictable offensively, especially off the dribble.
- Mikal Bridges, ‘Nova’s most efficient offensive player this year with a 130.7 offensive rating (ranked 21st in the nation) according to kenpom.com, inexplicably attempted just 3 shots in the game. It is absolutely critical for Bridges to be more aggressive offensively moving forward.
Villanova’s next game will be on Saturday, February 25th, as the 23rd-ranked Creighton Bluejays (9-6, 22-6) visit the Pavilion. Creighton is coming off a last second, buzzer beating home loss to Providence this past Wednesday. In their previous meeting on New Year’s Eve 2016, the Wildcats traveled to Omaha, Nebraska and defeated the Bluejays, ranked 10th in the country at the time, 80-70. This weekend’s game tips-off at 3:00pm and can be seen on Fox Sports 1.