Here's a quick breakdown of some under-the-radar things to look for as Villanova prepares for its biggest game of the young season.
Let C.J. Fair 'Beat' You
The Syracuse forward, the leading scorer, rebounder, and all-around glue guy from the 2012-2013 team, bypassed the 2013 NBA draft to give the Orange one more year. He began the season with relatively high expectations, landing on preseason All-ACC and Player of the Year lists, and was expected to be one of the leaders of a team that lost several players to graduation and the draft.
On the surface, he hasn’t undercut the hype, bumping up his scoring average by nearly 3 points and improving his playmaking, dishing out almost an extra assist per game, while continuing to contribute across the board.
Looking beyond these glamour stats, though, Fair has clearly gone through some early season struggles while adjusting to a heavier offensive load.
His usage percentage – an estimate of the percentage of team plays (shots, free throw attempts, turnovers) used by a player while on the floor – has jumped significantly from last season to this one: 20.5% in 2012-2013, to 27.1% so far this season. A drop in efficiency as usage rate increases is a common phenomenon, but this increase in usage has made Fair a middling (thus far – not a dig at his talent), yet heavily used offensive option.
While taking the highest percentage of shots/free throws on the team, C.J. Fair’s offensive rating – in this case, points expected to be scored per 100 C.J. Fair possessions – is hovering around 100 (101.5). This is a huge drop from the 110 or so he sat at through his first 3 seasons in school, and ranks in the bottom quarter of players in the country with comparable usage rates. He has not been an efficient scorer so far this year, at all – for several reasons.
Despite some people spending plenty of time burying the 2-point jumper, it remains very much alive – especially for C.J. Fair.
The senior swingman takes well over half of his shots – 57.7% - from this offensive dead zone. This isn’t a new trend for C.J., either, as he’s taken a similar percentage of his shots from this range each of the last 3 years. And, while his career averages suggest he’s a slightly above-average shooter from this range (37.3% in 2011-12, 38.9% in 2012-2013, vs. an average of 35.50% or so for the rest of the NCAA), he’s been drilling his mid-range looks so far this year, hitting exactly half for the season thus far.
While this rate is most likely unsustainable, given the generally low efficiency of the shot and C.J.’s career averages, the team should make an effort to give him as few clean looks as possible from the mid-range areas on Saturday, and force him towards our rim protectors or (MUCH preferred) outside, where he’s converting at rates well below league average.
His free throw rate (FTA/FGA), comfortably above 35% for most of his career at Syracuse, has also dipped with the increased usage, to 27.6%. This drop is almost certainly attributable to his decreased tendency to take it to the rack (22.5% of his attempts, the lowest of the last 3 years by almost 10%, come at the rim), as it’s much more difficult to generate free throws on jumpers.
Finally, his turnover rate has skyrocketed. As he’s worked on developing his playmaking skills, he’s been turning it over at alarming (for the Orange – NOVA SMELLS OPPORTUNITY) rates – almost 20.5% of his used possessions have ended in a turnover, he’s doubled his turnovers per game from last year, and his A/TO ratio currently sits at a terrifying 1.4/3.2.
C.J., for all his talent and box-score stuffing ability, has not adjusted to the increased offensive burden this year (though he may yet – we just don’t care about Syracuse’s season beyond this game). He scores inefficiently, settles for 2 point jumpers far too often, and hemorrhages turnovers when asked to assume ballhandling duties.
Villanova would be well-served by trying to keep the ball in his hands – unless he reads this and blows up. Oh, well.More: Game Center: #8 Villanova vs. #2 Syracuse
Never forget Cooney in transition
While sticking with Cooney beyond the arc should be a top priority for Villanova’s wing defenders throughout Saturday’s game, he’s especially deadly in transition. When Syracuse pushes the ball, its wing players – Cooney, CJ Fair, and Tyler Ennis – take the majority of the available shots. The most dangerous, by far, has been Cooney trailing or pulling up for a transition 3 – and his defender(s) should be on the lookout on Saturday.
Over 75% of the shots Cooney’s taken in transition have come from beyond the 3 point line – and he’s hitting nearly 60% (57.9%) of them. These transition 3s have accounted for a full quarter of the deep shots Cooney has taken so far this year, and is by far the deadliest weapon ‘Cuse has on the break. While Cooney’s season averages on non-transition 3s – 46.5% from deep on shots taken with between 11 and 35 seconds remaining on the shot clock – are still stellar, taking away his transition 3 is an easy coaching emphasis that could help deprive Syracuse of one of its deadliest weapons.
Win the Transition Battle
Sticking with the emphasis on the transition game, Villanova’s success on both ends of the fast break could be one of the deciding factors on Saturday.
Long neglected in terms of emphasis and easily trackable stats, the transition game is an integral part of any team’s offensive game – points in transition, after a long rebound, steal, shot block, or just pushing the ball up the floor after a made basket, are among the easiest to come by (and, conversely, give up) in basketball, on all levels. While transition opportunities become more rare when the game slows down/gets close at the end, easy points generated/given up throughout the course of a game will often have a huge effect on the final outcome.
A more lengthy FanPost on this subject is likely coming – Villanova’s transition game has been deadly so far this year, on both ends.
While Villanova often struggles to generate clean looks in the half-court at the rim, taking it to the basket is clearly an emphasis for the transition offense. Over half of Villanova’s shot attempts in transition (for this entire post, transition is defined as the first 10 seconds in a shot clock, following a change in possession) have come at the rim, and the team is converting 65.8% of the looks it finds. Darrun Hilliard, Josh Hart, and JVP have been particularly effective at converting, missing a grand total of 9 of the 41 in-close attempts they’ve generated in transition (over 80%).
Though I personally don’t have a huge problem with the amount of 3s the team is taking, I STRONGLY advocate ramping up any offensive effort that lets the team shoot over half of its attempts at the rim, at a rate well above the average conversion for that area. Villanova’s eFG% in transition is within the top 100 in the nation, and, overall, the team shoots about 8 percentage points better when it pushes. While an increase in shooting efficiency is more than normal when you look at transition vs. non-transition (pretty obviously easier to convert open looks and layups when there are generally less defenders down there), Villanova’s differential again ranks in the upper half of the NCAA. And, while they’re doing well searching for opportunities to push (27.40% of their shot attempts have come in transition, 138th in the nation), there’s room for more.
It’s not only the offense transition has made look great, though. Villanova’s transition defense is legitimately elite. Despite ranking middle-of-the-road in terms of transition opportunities allowed (23.40% of Villanova’s opponents’ FGAs come in transition), the boys have been locking down opponents on the opposite end, allowing opponents to shoot at a 48.30% clip (eFG%) on these chances, which is top-60 in the country. While this is far higher than the incredibly low 41.94% (top 25) Villanova’s currently allowing on non-transition attempts, the team defensive effort to deny opponents easy points in transition has been remarkable.
How does this apply to the matchup with Syracuse? Well, as has been mentioned, Cooney is a transition weapon that must be contained – Villanova’s effort level and attentiveness on the defensive end must remain high when Syracuse takes its opportunities to run (they don’t do it much – they’re 224th in % of shots taken in transition).
But, the offensive end is a potential game changer. Easy points in a matchup of two superlative defensive teams are likely to be at a premium – and Villanova should take advantage. Syracuse’s transition D, while not awful, ranks in the bottom 130 in the nation in terms of eFG% allowed – a minor weakness Villanova should try to press. Getting penetration and looks at the basket is far easier before the 2-3 is set up – and transition is already how Villanova’s been scoring most efficiently. Keep the looks coming.
Syracuse has allowed an offensive rebounding percentage (OR% - measure of the available offensive rebounds a team grabs) of 31.6%, good for 164th lowest in the country – nothing all that special. One of the components of Villanova’s success early this season is the mildly surprising excellent OR% the team has sustained despite having one player (who’s seen limited minutes in a number of games) over 6’-8" on the roster. They’re currently sitting at an OR% of 37.2, good for 42nd in the country, on the strength of outstanding team effort and make-up size and depth at nearly all the perimeter positions.
While Syracuse’s overall length may help them to match up better with the oversize wing rotation Villanova utilizes than most teams they’ve seen so far, defensive rebounding remains a mild weakness for a generally very strong Syracuse team. Taking advantage of the extra 1-3 opportunities excellent offensive rebounding in this game would bring could be the difference between a close win and a close loss. It’s a favorable matchup Villanova must look to cash in on.
Quick note from the 2-man lineup analysis – lineups including Ochefu and Hart rebound 48.2% of the team’s misses. That's an incredible number, over 85 minutes or so.
Villanova’s rim protectors better be ready to bang with Jerami Grant – he’s taking over half of his shots at the rim, and hitting them at a 70% clip… Cooney’s flashing some ability to take it to the rim as he’s become a more respected 3 point shooter, hitting over 70% of the shots he takes close in… James Bell’s 2 point jumper may be a weapon in this game – he’s hit 9 of the 17 shots he’s taken from mid-range so far this season – JVP’s hit 7 of 18… Speaking of Tahj (and 9 of 17), he’s hit the exact same clip on transition 3s in 2013-2014… Josh Hart has an offensive rating of 133.8, good for 31st in the country, with a 16.5% usage rate… he’s shooting 76%+ at the rim, and 40% from 3…