PHILADELPHIA (CBS)- The 2020-21 men’s basketball season has been an exercise in adaptability for Jay Wright and the Villanova Wildcats. After getting out to an 8-1 start in their first nine games, they were able to play just two games between December 23rd and this past Saturday due to pauses in basketball activities caused by COVID-19.
Despite those periods away from the court and much more limited practice time than would occur during a normal season, the Wildcats, following Saturday’s 80-72 win over Seton Hall, are 11-1 and have won nine straight games entering Wednesday night’s battle with the St. John’s Red Storm at Carnesecca Arena on CBS Sports Network.READ MORE: 'A Game Changer': CDC Recommends Johnson & Johnson's 1-Dose COVID Vaccine, Paving Way For Distribution To Begin
CBS Sports college basketball insider Jon Rothstein points to the continual development of basketball habits that Wright’s program has instilled over time which has allowed the Wildcats to maintain their consistent play despite inconsistent time together.
“Villanova develops habits as well as any program in college basketball. I’ve just noticed that being around that program the last 10 or 15 years. I think what they do habitually is going to resonate even if the team isn’t together for an extended period of time,” said Rothstein. “And, look, they’re a team that with the exception of the game against Virginia Tech, has been undefeated this season. They only have one loss. I know a lot of the focus of college basketball has been pointed towards Baylor and Gonzaga. That’s obviously for good reason but Villanova deserves to be mentioned in that class too.”
The Wildcats are far from the only top team to deal with pauses, postponements and cancellations this season. Nearly every program in the country has. But, they’ve found a way to continue winning and are setting themselves up to be in that elite tier with Gonzaga, Baylor, Michigan and others come tournament time.
“They’re right in that class. When you think about what the NCAA Tournament bracket would look like if it came out today, Villanova would be one of the four number one seeds,” said Rothstein. “To me, they’re a team that has one loss but they’re somewhat under-the-radar nationally when you look at their potential. It reminds me a little bit of what they were in 2016 when they won their first national title under Jay Wright.”
Before the team can focus on any tournament aspirations, they will have a test against St. John’s on Wednesday. The Red Storm (11-7; 5-6 Big East) have won four straight games and five of their last six to put themselves in the thick of the pack in the conference. One big reason for the recent success is the play of freshman guard Posh Alexander who Rothstein says has given the team an identity.READ MORE: Irv Cross, Former Eagles Star DB And Pioneer Black Analyst, Dies At 81
“Posh Alexander has become St. John’s identity guy. They are a team right now that I think reflects the head of the snake and the head of the snake is Posh Alexander,” said Rothstein.
The 6-foot, 205 pound Alexander has averaged 11 points, 4.4 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 2.7 steals per game this season. That steals mark is seventh in the country and represents the pressuring style of play that St. John’s brings to the floor. Countering that pressure will be the key for Villanova, something the Wildcats are well suited to do with senior guard Collin Gillespie who Rothstein calls one of the pound-for-pound best point guards in America at running a team.
“Collin Gillespie doesn’t get as much attention as players like Jalen Suggs or Cade Cunningham and he doesn’t have the long-term prognosis at the point guard position in terms of his NBA potential. But, in terms of running a team, he looks like, pound for pound, inch for inch, the best point guard in college basketball,” said Rothstein. “He had 11 assists to 1 turnover Saturday against Seton Hall. Villanova is tailor-made to handle St. John’s pressure. Obviously, it’s a lot different simulating it in practice than it will be in the game but, how Villanova handles St. John’s pressure will dictate the outcome of the game.”
Villanova is a hard team to speed up, playing at one of the slowest Adjusted Tempos in the nation according to KenPom. St. John’s is at the opposite end of the spectrum, ranking 12th in that metric, playing among the highest tempos in the country. That clash of styles makes for an interesting game Wednesday night and for St. John’s it’s an opportunity to further bolster the NCAA Tournament resume.
“Make no mistake about it, this is the biggest game that he has had as St. John’s head coach the last two years because if they win this game against Villanova, they’re going to play themselves right into the NCAA Tournament picture,” said Rothstein.MORE NEWS: COVID In Philadelphia: City Easing More Restrictions Monday On Road To Recovery
A win for the Red Storm would be just the fourth in the last 20 matchups, the first since February of 2019. Villanova looks to extend its winning streak to 10 when the game tips off on CBS Sports Network Wednesday, February 3 at 9 p.m. Eastern Time.