GETTING INSIDE Villanova is down to its final five regular-season games, and the Wildcats will be packing a lot of important basketball into that stretch.
Coming off Monday's home loss to UConn, the Wildcats, who had ascended to No. 3 in the national rankings, were tied for first in the Big East with Syracuse with an 11-2 record. Pittsburgh and West Virginia were two games back in the loss column through Monday's games.
As luck would have it -- or perhaps as luck wouldn't have it -- Villanova has games left against all three teams.
The next one is Sunday at Pitt, which is 14-1 at home this season, including a 5-1 mark in Big East games. It will be the teams' only meeting of the regular season, but there are plenty of still fresh memories from last season, when the league rivals met in the East Regional final of the NCAA Tournament.
Villanova's Scottie Reynolds won the game 78-76 with a basket with 0.5 seconds left.
Saturday's meeting will feature all sorts of excellent perimeter play, with Reynolds leading the Wildcats' four-guard attack and Pitt countering with guards Ashton Gibbs and Brad Wanamaker, who combine to average nearly 30 points per game.
After playing Pitt, the Wildcats have a home game against dangerous South Florida, a likely first-place battle at Syracuse, a game at Cincinnati and a home rematch vs. West Virginia.
That's a lot of important basketball.
UCONN 84, VILLANOVA 75: UConn flexed some of its old muscle, out-rebounding Villanova 40-29 and getting a career-high 29 points from Kemba Walker. For one of the few times, Villanova guard Scottie Reynolds did not come to the rescue. He had been averaging 14.5 points in the second half of Big East games, but he was blanketed by the Huskies' Jerome Dyson and managed only four points after halftime.
Reynolds had a team-high 18 points for Villanova, which dropped to 22-3 and into a first-place tie with Syracuse in the Big East at 11-2.
UConn, which was desperate for a victory after losing five of six games, including a home loss to Cincinnati over the weekend, played like it. The Huskies got to the line 44 times, making 35.
In all three of Villanova's losses, the Wildcats' defense has gone missing in the second half. They allowed Temple to shoot 64 percent after halftime, Georgetown to hit 57.1 percent and Syracuse to make 66.7 percent.
--Villanova coach Jay Wright has one of the best security blankets in the country in senior guard Scottie Reynolds. When the situation gets dicey, as it did Feb. 13 against Providence, Reynolds responds by doing things like scoring 17 second-half points to earn a 92-81 victory.
What Wright is hoping is that this power is something that the team doesn't need to utilize every game but treats instead as a "do not break glass except in emergency'' device.
Because as Wright well knows, there is a danger to having a player like Reynolds if everyone around him believes he will always be there to bail them out of trouble. Forget about the fact that he graduates in two months ... the Wildcats don't want to be in a situation where the team is standing around watching Reynolds on offense because the other players assume he will always save them.
Despite the team's lofty record and ranking, that kind of passiveness is a real concern. The Wildcats tend to take a long time to get going, as the 12 first-half turnovers against the Friars attests. And the Friars had a 49-46 lead in the second half before Reynolds scored seven points in a row and the Wildcats went out in front for good.
--The victory over Providence was Jay Wright's 200th win at the helm of the Wildcats program.
--Villanova entered the week on an offensive roll, having scored 80 or more points in nine consecutive games. But then they were limited to 75 in the upset loss to UConn.
--The Wildcats struggled against the Providence press early, with 12 first-half turnovers.
ON THE SPOT: F Antonio Pena is the lone big guy in the starting lineup and the only player on the roster who is a dependable scorer down low. He wasn't able to do much against UConn, though, as he was limited to 18 minutes because of foul trouble, finishing with 10 points and three rebounds before fouling out. Villanova is a good gang-rebounding team but was badly beaten on the boards by the Huskies, and the Wildcats need Pena on the floor for more than 18 minutes.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "You try to be aggressive. When things aren't going your way, still keep a good attitude, still try to be aggressive. Defensively, you've just got to do the little things. You just have to have energy out there. Whether you get a turnover or not, you've just got to cause havoc, and the guys do a great job of responding." -- Villanova guard Scottie Reynolds to the Philadelphia Inquirer, on how he hopes and expects his teammates to play.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
SEASON RECAP: Villanova moved to 11-1 in the Big East win victories over West Virginia and Providence. At 22-2, the Wildcats remain ranked in the top five of both polls.
PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters -- F Antonio Pena, G Reggie Redding, G Corey Stokes, G Corey Fisher, G Scottie Reynolds. Key Subs -- F Taylor King, F/C Maurice Sutton, G Maalik Wayns, G Dominic Cheek, F Isaiah Armwood, F/C Mouphtaou Yarou.
Georgetown 103, Villanova 90
Villanova 82, West Virginia 75
Villanova 92, Providence 81
Connecticut 84, Villanova 75
at Pitt, Sunday at noon
vs. South Florida, Wednesday, Feb. 24
at Syracuse, Saturday, Feb. 27
at Cincinnati, Tuesday, March 2
IN FOCUS: The Wildcats get a challenging Pittsburgh squad at the Wachovia Center on Feb. 21. The Panthers rely on guards Ashton Gibbs and Brad Wanamaker, along with forward Gilbert Brown off the bench, and it is a team against which no lead is ever safe down the stretch. Twice this season Pitt has come back from five or more points with less than a minute to play.
--Senior G Scottie Reynolds was selected the Big East Player of the Week for the week ending Feb. 14. Reynolds led Villanova to an 82-75 win at No. 5 West Virginia and a 92-81 win against Providence. He averaged 21.5 points in the two games.
--Backup F Taylor King was 0 of 6 from the field -- all from 3-point range -- against UConn, continuing his shooting woes in conference games. He has converted only 9 of 39 3-point attempts (23.1 percent) in Big East Play. The Duke transfer did have a team-high six rebounds vs. the Huskies.
"When I was at Duke, most of my minutes depended on how I was shooting the ball," he recently told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "Here it's a totally different story. If I defend, get rebounds, dive on loose balls, scrap, fight and I don't make a shot, I'll still get the minutes. I want to stay on the floor and be a big part of this team.''
--G Corey Stokes ranks 10th on Villanova's career list for 3-point shooting percentage. The junior has made 36.2 percent (155 of 428).
Villanova Basketball Notebook
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