It is only December, but the No. 4 Villanova Wildcats looked ready for March on Tuesday with a statement 88-72 victory over the No. 12 Gonzaga Bulldogs in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden.
Mikal Bridges resembled a future NBA star while playing on the New York Knicks' home floor. He finished with 28 points, six rebounds and two blocks behind 8-of-14 shooting from the field and a 5-of-9 clip from three-point range.
As a result, the Wildcats moved to 9-0, while Gonzaga dropped to 7-2 after the Bulldogs also suffered a double-overtime defeat against the Florida Gators in November.
Tuesday's victory carried additional implications beyond just the one win for the Wildcats. It was their first game against a ranked opponent this season, and they were clearly the dominant side on both ends of the floor and proved themselves worthy of the national stage.
Dana O'Neil of The Athletic and NCAA.com's Andy Katz didn't hold back when assessing Villanova's stature after the performance:
The victors also received 20 points from Phil Booth and 12 points from Jalen Brunson, but it was Bridges who stood out with his tenacity around the rim, shot-blocking prowess and ability to stretch the defense from behind the three-point line.
Dan Wolken of USA Today pointed to his NBA future:
The Wildcats defenders seized early control on the way to a 43-30 halftime advantage with a clear strategy against a Gonzaga team that turned it over 24 times against Texas. Villanova used a starting lineup consisting of three guards (Bridges, Booth and Brunson) and five players between 6'3" and 6'9" to pressure the Bulldogs' ball-handlers.
Gonzaga struggled to compete with the athleticism and length as the Big East representative pushed up on the perimeter, closed passing lanes, contested outside shots and forced 11 first-half turnovers while allowing just 11 field goals.
Jeff Eisenberg of Yahoo Sports noted the Bulldogs will have to become more disciplined before March:
The defense turned to offense for the Wildcats, who parlayed the empty Gonzaga possessions into transition looks and open threes for trailers.
It wasn't just the fast breaks, though, because Villanova's athleticism and versatility that set the tone on defense also proved difficult to stop on the other end, as Jeff Borzello of ESPN illustrated:
Although it finished with 18 turnovers, Gonzaga remained within striking distance for portions of the second half and received solid efforts from Zach Norvell Jr. (22 points and four rebounds) and Josh Perkins (16 points, five assists and five boards).
Still, the initial hole was too deep to climb out of, and Bridges would have none of the comeback effort.
Not only was he the go-to option throughout the contest, his tomahawk slam with less than nine minutes remaining electrified the crowd, put his team ahead by 15 and preceded a forceful block on Josh Perkins' layup on the ensuing possession.
Gonzaga couldn't match those energy sequences and didn't climb back to within single digits for the remainder of the contest.
The Bulldogs won't have much time to recover with Sunday's in-state road game against the Pac-12's Washington looming. Villanova figures to continue rolling against La Salle on the same day.