Though Villanova's losses to Rutgers, UConn, Georgetown, Pittsburgh and Syracuse have been by a combined 14 points, the latest close-but-no-cigar finish has many fans throwing their rose-colored glasses in the trash and eating a slice of humbug-pie. Is the season over at 21-7? Could the Wildcats end up in an 8/9 game? Would they lose to a 12-seed in the first round? Can they win just one more game?
A series of tremendously-unlikely events in Piscataway turned the Rutgers game from a double-digit win into a disappointing loss. Against Syracuse, nobody's shots were falling in, except for Corey Stokes, but even the senior sharpshooter couldn't connect on all of his free-throws.
It has been a rare occurrence for this Villanova team to have everything go right in a game this season. Even in a win at the Prudential Center, it took a bit of luck at the end to overcome over 20 turnovers.
So what is going on? How bad is it? What should Villanova fans expect the rest of the way?
According to Jameson Fleming of College Hoops Journal, Villanova's guards (other than Corey Stokes) just don't have much "basketball IQ." Though we have all seen those tremendous flashes of talent, their decision-making perhaps leaves something to be desired. On Maalik Wayns*, he writes:
In fact, Wayns is a black hole offensively. He’s taking up a team-high 27.7 percent of trips down the floor but has an offensive rating of just 104. When one player is hurting an offense that much, it’s tough to overcome so many empty possessions and consistently win tough games.
Fleming does have a point, in one regard, that Villanova's most efficient offensive options have often been Corey Stokes, Antonio Pena and Mouph Yarou, but according to KenPom.com, both Corey Fisher and Maalik Wayns are "major contributors," using 24-28% of the team's possessions.
The best offensive rating on the team (again, according to KenPom.com) is James Bell at 131.5, but his limited minutes are perhaps too small a sample size to be significant. Even so, he uses less than 12% of Villanova's possessions -- a classification that KenPom calls, "Nearly Invisible."
As for Stokes, who is right behind Bell for offensive efficiency, he is a "Role Player," using just 16-20% of the team's possessions. Antonio Pena and Dominic Cheek fall into the same category.
What all that tells us, is exactly what Jay Wright would tell you if you asked him directly: Wright asks his point guards to score -- he demands it in fact. In Wright's motion offense, the point guard has to make plays and score when defenses allow it. The point guard is by-default the focal point of the Jay Wright offense.
Other teams might run an offensive set that is designed to create shots for their wing players or bigs, but Villanova's offense is more free-flowing than that. If every play ended with the point guard scoring, Jay Wright would be tremendously happy (and frankly, so would we).
As an aside, it isn't as if both point guards have been a black hole for the offense. If you look again at the KenPom offensive ratings, however, you will notice that Corey Fisher's rating is 115.9, which is not tremendously far off from Corey Stokes' 119.1. It is really only Wayns using 27% of possessions to Stokes' 18.8% that is an inequitable distribution.
A tempo-free tale
Despite the poor distribution of possessions noted above, the Villanova offense on a whole has been ranked in the top-25 for efficiency on KenPom.com for the bulk of the season. It has been as high as the teens, and currently (after a terrible shooting performance on Monday night) it is sitting at 21st in the country.
Despite taking far too many bad shots, and failing to get the ball into Corey Stokes' hands more often, the 'Cats have been remarkably effective on offense.
KenPom's offensive and defensive efficiency ratings are based on four factors: Effective Field Goal Percentage (which gives a little extra credit for made 3pt shots), Turnover Percentage (turnovers divided by possessions), offensive rebounding percentage and free throw percentage.
I'd be lying if I told you that free throw percentage wasn't the largest factor in Villanova's offensive success this season. Villanova is not only one of the best free-throw shooting teams in the country, but has also traditionally had tremendous success at getting to the line in general. More opportunities, more points scored. Villanova attempted 27 shots from the Charity stripe on monday, and had they made their normal percentage of those, they likely could have won, despite poor shooting from the field.
Beyond free throws though, the 'Cats have been great on the offensive boards. They grabbed 13 offensive rebounds to Syracuse's 7 in their last game. An offensive rebound is a second-chance. It negates the worst consequence of a missed shot -- the change in possession -- and allows the offense another chance to set up and try again.
Deep as a kiddie pool
If you paid attention, last season as well as in 2009's Final Four run, Villanova scored a good amount of points in transition. As Chris at theNovaBlog observed a while back, this year's version of Villanova basketball is playing most games at a pace of about 66 possessions, while in the few years prior that pace had been in the high 70s or 80s for many games (the 2009 team averaged 69.2 possessions).
Prior to this season, the Wildcats were a running team. They'd push the ball, play quick and try to run their opponents off the court. This year, the 'Cats are slowing things down.
You will notice if you inspect the statistics closely, that in the 2008-2009 season, only two players averaged more than 30 minutes per game, while in 2009-2010, only one player averaged over 30 minutes per game. In the current season, however, three players average over 30 minutes per game and a fourth player is just a hair under 30 minutes.
Why is that important?
In years past, the Villanova bench was far deeper and more talented than it is currently. In 2008-2009, that bench included a very solid Corey Fisher and a capable Corey Stokes who could come in and spell Scottie Reynolds, Reggie Redding or Dwayne Anderson in a pinch. Antonio Pena was a key reserve that season as well. In 2010-2011, there are fewer available players and not nearly as many that Coach Wright can trust to provide something off of the bench.
While the 'Cats might be better off running, the slow-down is perhaps the wise move to conserve energy and make it through the season.
Should I wear a hard-hat?
The Villanova defense has been keeping this team in games. With the exception of two losses, none have been by a large deficit, and Villanova has had a chance to win most of it's games this season. In fact, for the bulk of the season, the Villanova defensive efficiency was in the KenPom.com "sweet spot" -- the top-25 -- where every Final Four team has finished the season since the ratings began.
It wasn't until the debacle at Rutgers when the 'Nova defense dropped out of the top-25, and it has slowly been creeping back up since. The Rutgers game was a bad aberration, littered with bad turnovers, dumb fouls and magical three-pointers, that dropped the defensive efficiency ranking from around 25th to the high-30s. The loss to Syracuse saw that rating climb again, from 31st before the game to 29th currently.
Despite horrible shooting all-around, Villanova's defense was what kept them in that game and it is what kept them in most every game this season. As long as that trend continues, the 'Cats will not likely find their remaining games too far out of reach.
More importantly, however, is the fact that although the 'Cats have slowed the offense down for much of the season, the effect of that plan has been to keep their short rotation as fresh as possible. There is no rule written that would require Jay Wright to keep this team's pace down through the remainder of the season. He very-well could -- and probably should -- grant the team permission to run until their heart's content in the NCAA tournament.
As noted above, it is very possible that the 'Cats could open up offensively by playing a higher-pace, more uptempo game that would beat defenses by scoring in transition and catching them off-guard. Even if that is not the case, however, the string of close losses will not necessarily continue.
For one, KenPom.com includes a statistical category for "Luck" -- a category in which the 'Cats currently sport a negative number (and for what it's worth, last year's team had positive luck). Luck is a way of mathematically comparing a team's actual record to the record it should have earned based on the statistical calculations of offensive and defensive efficiencies. The point of Luck is to point out that the best predictor of future performance is not the past record. Though Villanova has underperformed compared to their expected record under the KenPom system, they may still be projected to win games going forward.
Similar to a career .300 hitter in baseball slumping at the beginning of a season (or a Mendoza-line hitter starting a season on a hot-streak), chances are that over-time they will play back to their average (aka, to their ability). So too, should an unlucky basketball team, given enough time, play back to even luck.
The worrisome aspect of all this is that, perhaps, coaching decisions have lead Villanova to lose otherwise winnable games. Against Rutgers, a foul issued immediately after the inbounds on that last play, would have left the Scarlet Knights down at least a point with seconds on the clock and the ball in Villanova's hands. Similarly, the use of one of two time-outs Villanova had left at the end of Monday Night's game might have allowed the 'Cats a chance to get on the same page and find a better shot.
On the flipside, perhaps coaching decisions really don't affect the game as much as we may think. A foul while up three at the end of the Seton Hall game also should have been in order, but instead Villanova played straight-up defense and won the game (and similarly, Pitt did not foul Villanova in the same situation and walked away victorious). Even in the case of Rutgers, had Fisher not been called for the foul on the final play, that game would have only went to overtime.
Parting thoughts: Expectations?
When Jay Wright arrived on campus Villanova's expectations weren't too high. Coach Lappas' greatest achievements on the Main Line were winning the 'Cats only NIT Title and their only Big East Tournament trophy. He never converted that success into NCAA Tournament wins. After 9 seasons of Lappas, Villanova fans' first taste of the Jay Wright era were three straight NIT seasons and two losing records in the Big East.
After that point, it has been six straight seasons in the NCAA tournament, including four trips to the second weekend, one Elite Eight, a Final Four and only one first-round exit.
For the past six years, Villanova fans have been spoiled by 20-win seasons and NCAA tournament runs. We barely remember the days when Villanova would sweat on Selection Sunday over whether or not the team would be given a bid. Even the 1985 Champions were sweating it out prior to their selection as an 8-seed.
This team has, for all intents and purposes, locked up it's place in the 2011 NCAA Tournament. All that remains is the question of their seeding, but even an awful finish in these last 3-4 games is unlikely to drop the 'Cats into the category of lower-seeds (9+).
Don't forget: one thing Villanova can count on in the tournament is a break from Big East opponents. Based on most objective and subjective measures, the Big East has been the strongest and toughest conference all season. In fact, bracketologists are giving the conference anywhere from 9 to 11 teams in their brackets this late in the season. Losing a close game to a Big East rival (who will inevitably be familiar with your team) is not indicative of how this team will fare against an opponent from the Atlantic Sun, NEC or even SEC.
I wonder what it takes to satisfy Villanova fans. What is the minimum level of success that will let you end March happy? Sweet Sixteen? Elite Eight? Final Four? Is less a failure?
- Is scrutinizing close games just "bull----"? - Gary Parrish, CBS
- Villanova Is Struggling, How Do We Fix It? - TheNovaBlog.com
- Villanova showing trends that felled it last year - CBSSports.com (Editor's Note: Villanova's problems this season are entirely and completely different from the issues that lead to the program's downfall last year)
- Villanova Fading in Big East - (AP) Dan Gelston
* Regarding Maalik Wayns: While I greatly respect Jameson Fleming for his writing and analysis of college basketball, it is hardly appropriate to suggest that Maalik Wayns had much to do with the Syracuse loss. Wayns sat out most of the second-half of that game with back spasms and did not have the opportunity to use ANY possessions while he was on the bench. Any offensive inefficiency while Wayns was on the bench was clearly not his doing.