Improving team defense has been Villanova coach Jay Wright’s main focus. He’s had plenty of time to make adjustments.
Coming off yet another long break, the 18th-ranked Wildcats look for a second straight strong defensive performance as they host “Big 5” rival La Salle on Saturday night in their final tune-up before Big East play.
Villanova (9-1), getting time to focus on exams, had eight days to prepare before holding Columbia to 35.7 percent shooting from the field in a 72-56 win last Saturday. It was the lowest point total allowed by the Wildcats this season.
“I’m not worried about offense with this team because we need to get better defensively,” said Wright, whose team allowed an average of 84.0 points in its previous two games. “I do think we made strides.”
Seven days after their matchup with Lions, the Wildcats have another chance to work on their defense before starting Big East play against DePaul on Jan. 3.
Another strong rebounding game from Dante Cunningham played a big part in Villanova’s success on defense against Columbia. The junior forward had a game-high 12 boards as the Wildcats held a 39-27 edge in that category.
Cunningham has reached double digits in rebounds in three of his last four games after averaging 4.8 in his previous six contests.
“He’s amazing,” Wright said of Cunningham, who leads the team with 6.9 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game. “He’s very, very talented and he’s tough. I can see it’s (rebounding) important to him.”
Scottie Reynolds, meanwhile, continues to top Villanova in scoring, averaging 16.8 points. The sophomore guard had 14 points versus Columbia after topping the 20-point mark in each of his previous two games.
Shane Clark has stepped up in his last three games, averaging 16.0 points over that stretch to give the Wildcats a strong second scoring option.
Reynolds and Clark combined for just 15 points in Villanova’s only loss, a 69-68 defeat against N.C. State in the Old Spice Classic on Nov. 25. The Wildcats have won five straight since, improving their record to 28-3 in November and December over the last three seasons.
Part of Villanova’s recent success is due to significantly improved shooting at the foul line. After struggling at the stripe early, including an 8-for-18 effort versus N.C. State, the Wildcats have shot 80.3 percent (53-for-66) in their last three games. They shot under 70 percent from the stripe in each of their previous seven contests.
La Salle (4-6), meanwhile, lost 93-88 to DePaul last Saturday, its fourth loss in the last five games.
Darnell Harris, who paces La Salle with 16.3 points per contest, had 21 against DePaul. The senior guard is averaging 17.3 points while shooting 57.1 percent (24-for-42) from the floor in his last four games.
Paul Johnson has stepped up his play in the paint for the Explorers, finishing with a career-high 13 rebounds versus the Blue Demons after a 10-board effort in a loss to Mississippi the previous day.
The Explorers have lost eight straight games to ranked opponents since a 91-90 victory over then-No. 18 Saint Joseph’s on March 3, 2001.
Villanova has won five straight against La Salle and leads the all-time series 30-26, including a 64-51 road win on Dec. 23, 2006, in the teams’ last meeting.