Two-loss weekend in 76 Classic puts Villanova in an early hole

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Villanova has found a creative way to curb its usual habit of nosediving late in promising seasons: This year, the Wildcats have started poorly too.

With starters Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes and Antonio Pena all gone from last year's NCAA tournament team and the returners adjusting to increased roles, Villanova (4-2) dropped a pair of games at the 76 Classic this past weekend. They fell by 12 to Saint Louis on Friday and squandered a late nine-point lead to improving Santa Clara on Sunday, not awful losses but also not the anticipated results for a program hoping to make its eighth straight NCAA tournament appearance.

"We've struggled at the end of the last couple seasons and we've struggled at the beginning of this one," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "But I think we'll work through this and be a good team. Sometimes you have to go through stuff like this."

A myriad of factors contributed to the Wildcats having only a win over lightly regarded UC Riverside to show for its weekend in Anaheim. They struggled to defend the perimeter. They failed to get top big man Mouphtaou Yarou sufficient touches on the low block. And they received minimal production from wing Dominic Cheek, who averaged 19.5 points in Villanova's first two games but scored a combined 17 in three games in Anaheim on 4-for-21 shooting.

All that might have been forgiven, however, had the Wildcats merely held onto 64-55 lead with three-plus minutes left in Sunday's loss to Santa Clara. Instead Villanova surrendered the final 10 points of the game and lost in regulation thanks to a flurry of turnovers and silly fouls — and one critical miscommunication with referees.

With seven seconds left and the Wildcats clinging to a three-point lead, Darrun Hilliard fouled Santa Clara's Evan Roquemore at Wright's request because the scoreboard read five fouls and both a referee and the scorekeeper assured Villanova it had a foul to give. Much to the Wildcats' surprise, it was actually their seventh foul, enabling Roquemore to sink a pair of free throws to trim the deficit to one. {YSP:MORE}

The sequence took on greater significance because Villanova failed to execute properly on its ensuing possession. JayVaughn Pinkston missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with six seconds left, then compounded the mistake by fouling Roquemore in an effort to corral the rebound, sending the Santa Clara guard to the line to sink the game-tying and winning free throws.

Villanova players and coaches wouldn't use the referees as an excuse for why they lost, but Wright did acknowledge the referees' indecision on how many team fouls the Wildcats had was "bizarre."

"The ref came over and said, 'You have five fouls. If you want to foul here, I don't want to miss it,'" Wright said. "We had six in our books, so we sent a guy to the scorer's table to ask how many fouls and they said we had five. We were just fouling to make it a longer possession. We didn't want to put them on the line for a 1-and-1.

"That was crazy, but we did everything we could possibly do wrong after that. So it was much more on us."

The Wildcats will have to improve their late-game execution because the schedule only gets tougher. Surging Missouri and Big 5 foes Temple and Saint Joseph's will provide a good litmus test for Villanova prior to the start of Big East play.

The hope among Wildcats fans is that this team will jell by midseason and improve as the year goes along. Villanova will need it because it probably won't have an impressive start to fall back on.