Behind 'tactical' fans, Butler snaps Villanova's 20-game win streak

Behind 'tactical' fans, Butler snaps Villanova's 20-game win streak

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INDIANAPOLIS — The Wildcats have been carrying it around with them since Kris Jenkins’ three-pointer cemented his place in Villanova and college basketball history for all of eternity.

Through the offseason, and in each of the 15 games thus far, the 'Cats have lugged it around with them.

To Villanova, its fans, alumni and students, it’s the No. 1, proudly placed right next to the school’s name in the college basketball rankings, exactly where Jenkins and the 2015-16 ‘Cats left it nine months ago, on that historic night in Houston.

But to everyone else, it’s a giant target, peppered with each of Villanova’s opponents' best shot, its bullseye barely noticeable from all the abuse.

On Wednesday night, Butler fans at Hinkle Fieldhouse might as well have been salivating when the top-ranked ‘Cats took the floor.

Fans of the No. 18 Bulldogs started in early and often, and nobody was spared. For the entire 40 minutes of Wednesday night’s Big East contest, Butler fans poured it on Villanova’s players, the referees, and most of all, Jay Wright. And it didn’t go unnoticed.

As Wright addressed the media after the 66-58 loss (see Instant Replay), a slight grin grew on his face when comparing the Butler crowd to that of Villanova’s most recent opponent prior to Wednesday night, Creighton.

“[Creighton’s and Butler’s arenas] are tough, but there’s a great passion for basketball [at Butler],” Wright said. “Creighton is a little more euphoric. This place, this is a little more tactical in their cheering.”

“Tactical” is putting it lightly. After a disagreement with a call by one of the referees midway through the first half, Wright spun into a manic state of anger, having to be held back by players and coaches, earning a technical foul.

From that moment on, the Butler student section just 12 feet from the end of the Villanova bench chanted “Jay Wright sucks” at every opportunity throughout the rest of the game.

The student section’s effort to get into Wright’s head was hardly the highlight of Butler’s sellout crowd. The 'Cats entered on a 20-game winning streak, the longest in school history, accompanying Villanova’s No. 1 ranking. The energy inside Hinkle Fieldhouse made every Butler basket feel like it had the magnitude of Jenkins’ three-pointer in Houston. Whether Butler was chipping away at a six- or eight-point lead, tying the game or taking the lead, the reaction to every make was indicative of what was truly at stake — taking down No. 1.

“It was an unbelievable environment. It was the loudest I’ve ever heard Hinkle in my short time here,” Butler coach Chris Holtmann said. “Our guys fed off that. We always do. Our crowd and the energy it brought, it was major. I think we only had eight assists — [the crowd] deserves at least one of them.”

The crowd took the noise to an even higher level in the final 1:50 when sure-handed Villanova committed two of its six turnovers on the night. Kris Jenkins attempted a cross-court pass that was intercepted and Josh Hart grabbed a rebound before having it swiped by Kamar Baldwin, who followed with an up-and-under layup for a six-point Butler lead with 57 seconds remaining.

“You have schools with great basketball tradition that expect to win. When they play at home, they really expect to win,” Wright said. “When you look at the results, they played really good team defense. I was very impressed. Wasn’t one of our best night’s defensively. They run some good stuff. They all share the ball, you can look at the balance. That broke down our defense a little bit."

As the clock hit zero, the crowd was so loud that it masked the sound of the buzzer. Students from each of Butler’s cheering sections stormed the court, meeting at halfcourt to jump up and down with the Bulldogs, emphatically celebrating the victory.

Afterward, Hart was asked whether being the defending national champions, the No. 1 team in the country and riding a 20-game winning streak felt like a giant target on the back of every Wildcat thus far throughout the season.

“No. Not really … we don’t really feel … um, no,” Hart said, trying to find a way to explain it best.

“I don’t think there’s any added motivation that we’re No. 1 and defending champions,” Hart added. “We knew before this year that we were going to get every team’s best shot.”

On Wednesday night, the Wildcats got the Bulldogs’ best shot on the court and from all angles of the crowd. But make no mistake of it, while Butler left its mark on the bullseye of that giant target on Villanova’s backs, it isn’t going anywhere. And the Wildcats should want it that way.

Penn State men's hockey ranked No. 1 for first time in program history

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AP Images

Penn State men's hockey ranked No. 1 for first time in program history

At 16-2-1, Penn State's men's hockey team is ranked first in the nation for the first time in program history.

The Nittany Lions have improved each of the last four years under head coach Guy Gadowsky. 

Their record by year:

      2013-14: 8-26-2
      2014-15: 18-15-4
Last season: 21-13-4
This season: 16-2-1

Penn State received 30 of 50 first-place votes in the USCHO Division I poll. Denver is ranked No. 2, followed by Boston University, Minnesota-Duluth and Massachusetts-Lowell (see USCHO poll).

Penn State was ranked fourth last week before sweeping Michigan State.

Villanova focused on learning from win over Seton Hall, not No. 1 ranking

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AP Images

Villanova focused on learning from win over Seton Hall, not No. 1 ranking

A few hours before Villanova hosted Seton Hall on Monday night, head coach Jay Wright came home and talked to his wife, Patty.

“You know you’re No. 1?” she said.

Wright didn’t react much to the news, nor did the players on the team when they found out during the pregame meal a little bit later.

“It’s not really that big of a deal this time,” Wright said. “I think we were all much more concerned with Seton Hall.”

Being No. 1 may almost be old news at this point, but thoroughly dominating good teams at the Pavilion never gets stale for the Wildcats, who cruised to a 76-46 demolition of the Pirates on the same day they regained the top spot of the rankings after a week at No. 3 (see Instant Replay).

Senior Kris Jenkins sparked the win with 16 points, shooting 4 for 6 from the three-point line and 4 for 4 from the foul line — numbers he cared far more about than the No. 1 in front of Villanova.

“That’s just a number,” Jenkins said. “We focus on getting better each and every day. We can lose our next game and we won’t be No. 1.” 

Villanova reached the No. 1 spot in the AP poll for the first time in the program’s illustrious history last season, a couple of months before winning the national title on an iconic buzzer-beater from Jenkins.

The Wildcats then spent five weeks at No. 1 this season before a 66-58 loss to Butler on Jan. 4 moved them out of the top spot — only briefly, as it turned out.

“Every time you do something first is exciting,” Wright said. “And then you learn from it. I think we learned a great lesson last year and I think it helped us this year. And we learned a lesson again when we went to Butler. So you keep learning from it, that’s what we really take from it.”

As the Wildcats said last season, the most important thing is finishing the season No. 1. And they certainly showed once again that they have the chops to repeat as national champs — a prospect that Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard called “pretty exciting” even after his team had its brains beaten in.

“That’s a tough team to play,” Willard said. “They’re the No. 1 team in the country for a reason. If you’re not clicking on all cylinders when you come here, that can happen.”

Willard went on to say that “if Josh Hart’s not the National Player of the Year, then there’s something wrong.” But against the Pirates, Hart had a modest 11 points as Villanova showed off its impressive balance with all seven players in Wright’s rotation finishing with at least eight points.

Afterwards, Wright credited his three seniors — Jenkins, Hart and Darryl Reynolds (eight points, nine rebounds) — for helping the team bounce back from a sub-optimal performance in Saturday’s 70-57 win over St. John’s at Madison Square Garden.

“I’m just really fortunate to have three guys who are experienced and have been successful but are really humble,” Wright said. “We looked at the film, told them St. John’s played harder than us, and we took care of it. I think our seniors set the tone.”

Saturday’s win wasn’t the only game at the Garden on Villanova’s mind. The last time the Wildcats played Seton Hall, they suffered a stinging defeat to the Pirates in the title game of the Big East Tournament. 

Jenkins, though, insisted, that rare loss didn’t offer any extra motivation. Neither did the fact that Villanova set a record with its 47th straight victory at the Pavilion. Or that Monday’s win was the program’s 1,700th of all time.

“Numbers are something that is becoming a challenge for us,” Wright admitted. “It’s a great challenge to have. Right now, it doesn’t really do anything for us. But trust me, at the end of the year, we take great pride in that. All it can do is distract us right now. We know we have to answer the questions and you guys do a great job. I usually learn the numbers from you guys. It’s just not gonna do anything for us right now.”

Wright may not always like talking about his team’s absurdly impressive accomplishments. But he certainly loves games like this one as the Wildcats dominated all phases, from start to finish.

Deadly long-range shooting? Tenacious defense? Creating turnovers and scoring off them? Big-time hustle plays and rebounds? Electrifying dunks? Villanova did it all Monday in front of a raucous section of students back from winter break and one spectator named Ben Simmons, who took in the game from a courtside seat and applauded with everyone else.

What’s it like coaching a game like that? Is it ever hard when your No. 1 team is up by 30?

“It’s not difficult at all,” Wright said with a laugh. “It’s enjoyable. Things are going well, so you’re enjoying yourself.”