Villanova, PA – The Butler Bulldogs (1-0) are largely an unknown at this point. They opened the 2020-21 season on November 25th with a shaky 66-62 victory over Western Michigan, but had yet to play since, after a member of their staff tested positive for COVID-19. The Bulldogs returned to action and opened Big East play Wednesday night at the Finneran Pavilion against the 7th-ranked Villanova Wildcats.
The Wildcats, playing their first home game of the season, entered the contest winners of three straight, with two Top-25 wins overall. Collin Gillespie and Caleb Daniels combined for 36 points as Villanova began Big East action last Friday night with a 76-63 win over Georgetown. The Bulldogs jumped out to a 17-10 lead in this one, behind a hot start from 6’3” senior guard Jair Bolden, but the Wildcats responded with a flurry of jumpers, kept Butler at arm’s reach and ran away late in a 85-66 win.
Villanova’s 6’9” sophomore forward, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, went to work and helped cut into Butler’s lead, using a smooth, balanced stroke to hit a C&S three and twice from mid-range. He also went inside, established position, and scored off high-low action. His versatile defense was on display as well when Bolden tried to drive middle on him in isolation and he drew the charge. Whenever Butler cut into their lead, it always seemed like Robinson-Earl was there to hit a shot or make a play to prevent a run from starting. While foul trouble limited his second half minutes, he ended the night with an efficient stat line, consisting of 18 points (8-12 FGs 2-3 3s), five rebounds, four assists and no turnovers.
Villanova’s backcourt of Gillespie (6’3” senior – 2019-2020 All-Big East) and Justin Moore (6’4” sophomore – Big East All-Freshman) guided the Wildcats with a steady hand and were key in their run to take a first half lead that they would never relinquish. Moore hit a tough stop and pop three to take the lead at 22-21 and then Gillespie and Daniels combined on back-to-back threes to extend it to 30-24. Gillespie and Moore were patient, took great care of the ball (1 TO) and scored at all three levels.
Gillespie has decent speed and quickness, but isn’t going to blow by anyone. Instead, he uses tight handles, savvy change of speeds/directions and high basketball IQ to get himself in areas of the floor where his team can excel. He was quiet for much of the night, focusing on getting his teammates involved, but put the game on ice down the stretch with a three, a mid-range pull up and a string of FTs. Gillespie finished a stellar night with a game high 18 points (5-9 FGs 2-4 3s 6-6 FTs) and five assists.
Daniels (6’4 junior guard), Jermaine Samuels (6’7” senior forward) and Cole Swider (6’9” junior forward) all gave consistent efforts and contributed to a balanced Villanova attack. Daniels and Swider each hit twice from beyond the arc and Samuels was solid within 15 feet. The veteran Samuels bounced back from a slow start to the season with 12 points (3-7 FGs 6-7 FTs), six rebounds and two assists. He finished around the rim off the catch and dribble, looked for contact at the rim and hit his FTs.
The final score doesn’t reflect it, but Butler kept the game within reach for much off the night. Senior guards Bolden and Aaron Thompson (6’2”) both had nice runs, but Butler couldn’t get enough stops and scoring from their supporting cast to make a game changing run in the second half.
Bolden started the game with 13 quick points (3-3 C&S 3s), but as Villanova’s defense tightened up and focused on him, the floor shrank, he was limited to tough shots and cooled off. Butler’s inability to hit perimeter shots when Villanova went into a zone made it tough for Bolden to find space and he struggled to penetrate. He finished with 18 points (5-13 FGs 4-7 3s 4-5 FTs), five rebounds and two assists.
Thompson couldn’t get anything going in the first half, but was relentless in his attack in the second and was able to slice up Villanova’s defense. He kept using his speed and quickness to get to the rim and make plays for others. He also showed a patient floater when defenders backed off. Thompson finished with 14 points (5-10 FGs 0-1 3s 4-5 FTs), six assists and three rebounds, but unfortunately, he went down with a knee injury late in the game. With assistance, he was able to walk off, but he wouldn’t return.
Butler freshmen Chuck Harris (6’2” guard) and Myles Wilmoth (6’9” forward) each hit a few perimeter shots and senior forward Bryce Nze (6’7”) finished a couple of easy ones inside and was solid on the glass, but it wasn’t anywhere near enough. As a team, they turned it over 15 times and missed nine FTs.
That’s not going to cut it against a well-coached Villanova team that defends at a high level, takes great care of the ball and has a ton of shooting/scoring options. To be fair, it was an admirable performance for a Butler team playing for the first time in 21 days. They jumped out to an early lead and hung around for most of the night. In the end, the Bulldogs couldn’t get key stops and consistently generate open looks.
This coming Saturday, Villanova will look to keep their four-game win streak alive in a showdown with 17th ranked Virginia, while Butler will look to bounce back against Indiana. Until then, Bulldog faithful will cross their fingers that the injury to lead ball-handler Aaron Thompson is nothing more than a knock.