VILLANOVA, Pa. -- After catapulting into the national rankings with huge wins over Kansas and Iowa in the Bahamas over Thanksgiving weekend, Villanova returned home looking like a team that can challenge for a Big East title and perhaps even make a deep run in March.
But after a sloppy 77-54 victory over Penn at the Pavilion on Wednesday (see Instant Replay), Villanova head coach Jay Wright offered a reminder for anyone that wants to put the No. 14 Wildcats on a pedestal just yet.
“We’re not a finished product at all,” Wright said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do. I like our team. We’re going to be good. But we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Wright didn’t have too many positive things to say about his team following Villanova’s Big 5 opener Wednesday -- which might seem silly when you consider ’Nova won by 23 points and never trailed.
But if you were at the Pavilion, it’s easy to understand the head coach’s concern. After jumping out to a huge first-half lead, the Wildcats fell asleep coming out of the halftime break, failing to score any second-half points for seven-and-a-half minutes and not converting a field goal until more than 10 minutes had elapsed.
“We certainly didn’t play a pretty game, but when that happens it’s always the other team that plays well,” Wright said. “We were a little bit off our game, but they were really good. They executed and they played harder than us, so we don’t look good. I give them credit and we’re going to learn from this.”
Despite Villanova’s cold streak to start the second half, the Quakers had trouble making up too much ground, only slicing the lead to single digits a couple of times. The closest they’d come was 56-48 after sophomore swingman Julian Harrell finished a pretty drive with seven minutes left.
“You know, it was crazy,” Penn head coach Jerome Allen said. “We had it to nine and had four consecutive stops. But you can’t give possessions away. Out of those four possessions for us, I think two of them ended with unforced turnovers. That’s unfortunate but we’ll learn from it. Some things you’re willing to live with so we can live for tomorrow. But you can’t play Division I basketball and continue to give teams opportunity after opportunity after opportunity because eventually they’re going to score the ball.”
For the game, the Wildcats shot just 18 for 52 from the field but did a lot of damage from the free throw line, where they made 31 of their 40 foul shots. They also avoided the upset scare, thanks to some hot shooting from Darrun Hilliard (19 points on 4 for 6 shooting from three-point range) and solid games from JayVaughn Pinkston (13 points, seven rebounds) and James Bell (14 points, eight rebounds).
Sophomore point guard Ryan Arcidiacono had another poor shooting night, going just 1 for 10 from the field.
“I think we have certain players that individually can take over,” Wright said. “We have guys that can turn it on. But that’s not a good plan for success.”
While mostly upset with his team’s performance, Wright did admit that he was pleased with the defense Hilliard and Arcidiacono played on Penn leading scorer Tony Hicks, who was held to just one point while battling foul trouble. The Villanova coach also was happy to hold Miles Jackson-Cartwright to three points in the second half after the Quakers' senior erupted for 14 first-half points, including a stretch of three consecutive three-pointers.
What he didn’t like defensively was how Villanova dealt with Penn freshman point guard Tony Bagtas, who played 36 minutes in his first collegiate start and effectively escaped trouble from the Wildcats’ three-quarters court trap.
“I didn’t even see him on film,” Wright said. “And that kid did a hell of a job. We couldn’t do anything with him. He got wherever he wanted to go.”
Coming into Wednesday’s game, it would have been hard to predict that Bagtas would play 36 minutes, considering he averaged 4.8 minutes per game through Penn’s first six contests.
But against the Wildcats’ press, Allen decided to hand the rookie the keys to the car, and Bagtas responded with seven points, nine assists and six rebounds -- although he also committed five turnovers.
“I thought he was great,” Allen said. “I thought he played at the right pace. I thought he tried to make plays for us. And he’s only going to get better.”
“I think Tony led us from the start,” Jackson-Cartwright said. “We were confident with the ball in his hands. We’ve always been confident in what he can do, and I thought he was great at being poised, keeping us all calm and setting the offense.”
While Bagtas could be the missing piece to a still-developing Penn rotation that already features senior standouts Jackson-Cartwright and Fran Dougherty and sophomore rising stars Hicks and Darien Nelson-Henry, Villanova already has all of its pieces in places, as evidenced by its impressive 8-0 start.
And with each win, the Wildcats’ status as a national power will continue to grow, as will their No. 14 ranking. But Wright knows the 'Cats can fall off their perch just as quickly.
“I like being ranked, I really do,” Wright said. “I think it’s great for the school, great for our conference, great for our fans and great for Philadelphia basketball. There’s nothing bad about it. This doesn’t have anything to do with that. It just has to do with our commitment to playing every game and every possession the same way.
“It was just a rough game,” he later added. “A Big 5 game.”