‘Cats’ defense struggling

David Cassilo

 The old adage says that defense wins championships, and if that’s still the case, then No. 3 Villanova’s title aspirations might be in trouble.

The loss hurts badly enough, but the lack of defense is the most difficult aspect for the Wildcats to deal with.

“I’ve been trying to say this to them all season that when we win games, we can get better defensively,” said Head Coach Jay Wright. “We see this tonight, and I hope our guys understand it. I know they listen, and they want to get better at it, but in tonight’s game it will resonate a little bit louder.”

With the Wildcats off to a 22-3 start this season, Wright has usually been his upbeat self at press conferences, but on Monday night, his head remained down and his eyes locked on the stat sheet from the game. What he saw could not have improved his mood.

After shooting just 38.7 percent from the field in the first half, the Huskies opened the second half making their first seven shots. Overall they were 10-for-15 in the second half.

The low shot total was due to another high foul total for the Wildcats. Villanova committed 30 fouls, and the Huskies shot 44 free throws compared to Villanova’s 20. Sophomore guard Kemba Walker, who led all scorers with a career-high 29 points, almost matched the entire Villanova team by attempting 16 free throws.

In the final five minutes of the game, with Villanova looking for key defensive stops, the Huskies attempted just three shots from the field but 16 from the foul line.

“We fouled a lot again, and that hurts us,” Wright said. “It’s aggressiveness, but we have to get smarter, and we have gotten away with it and won some games, but in the Georgetown game and this game, it really hurt us.”

In that loss to Georgetown, the Wildcats allowed 50 free throw attempts as the Hoyas went on to score 103 points.

Allowing the Huskies to earn so many easy attempts from the free throw line helped awaken what had been a dormant offense. In Big East games, Connecticut ranked 11th in scoring offense at 68.8 points per game. 

It was also coming off its worst scoring output since 2002, finishing with just 48 points in a loss to Cincinnati on Saturday.

While the Wildcats did not have an answer for any of the Huskies, it was specifically Walker who tormented the Villanova defense on Monday night. The performance highlighted a problem that has been exposed in all three of Villanova’s losses.

“The three games we lost, [Juan] Fernandez, [Jason] Clark, [Austin] Freeman and Walker have just gone off on us,” Wright said. “We haven’t had an answer.”

Temple’s Fernandez had 33 points against the Wildcats in his team’s win on Dec. 13, while Clark and Freeman had 24 and 25 points, respectively, on Feb. 6.

While the defense is perhaps the team’s greatest flaw, with five regular season games remaining, there is still time to figure out its problems. A season ago, Villanova finished strong defensively, but it was not until a Mar. 2, 77-60 victory over Notre Dame that the Wildcats began to reach their defensive potential.

With Villanova off until a road game against No. 19 Pittsburgh on Sunday, it will have plenty of time to deal with Monday’s defensive disappointment and try to turn its play around.

“This one is going to sting for five days,” Wright said. “We will try to get the guys to understand we have to let it go. I think that hurt will motivate us.”