The Villanova Wildcats’ second game in Puerto Rico will be against #21 Dayton, a team that will possibly end up being their best non-conference opponent this season. The Flyers (2-0) are coming off a 63-59 victory over #19 Georgia Tech, and won their first game of the season by 10 points against a tough Creighton team picked to finish 2nd in the Missouri Valley Conference behind last season’s conference champion Northern Iowa. Dayton was picked to win a tough Atlantic 10 conference that features always solid Xavier, and Villanova’s Big 5 rivals St. Joe’s, Temple, and LaSalle among other teams. The Flyers return all players but one (starter Charles Little) from last season’s squad that upset the Big East’s own West Virginia Mountaineers in the first round of the NCAA tournament before falling to Kansas in the second round.
Preseason A-10 Player of the Year Chris Wright is considered to be the best player on this Dayton squad. Wright is a natural small forward but has the size to play up to the 4 spot if necessary. Last season, Wright averaged 13.3 points and 6.6 boards per game to lead the team, and also lead Dayton in blocks with 44 for the season. He shot a high percentage from the floor last season at 47.8% but appears to excel attacking the rim, as he attempted just over one three per game last year and only made 11 of his 44 attempts for a 25% clip. The 6’8 forward is a high flying athlete that could pose a matchup problem for the Wildcats, as he is bigger than a player like Corey Stokes, but Dayton has a true center in glue guy Kurt Huelsman that Antonio Pena will have to guard with Mouph Yarou out unless Mo Sutton is in the game so it will be tough to put a big on Wright. Beyond that, Wright would probably not struggle to drive past most of ‘Nova’s bigs, and it could make more sense to put a smaller wing on him to force him to shoot over a player instead of drive around them since he is not as much of a threat from the perimeter than he is around the basket.
The Flyers other top returning scorer is 6’3 shooting guard Marcus Johnson. A product of LeBron James’ high school, Johnson averaged 11.8 ppg shooting 45.1% from the field and was second on the team shooting 36% from deep on a team high 125 attempts. Villanova has done well containing guards this season so he may not have a tremendous game, but he is an extremely valuable player for the Flyers, actually sharing last season’s team MVP award with Wright. Wright and Johnson were the only players who averaged double digits in points last season on a very balanced Dayton squad.
Other key contributors on the squad will be returning starting point guard London Warren and the aforementioned Huelsman, last year’s starting center. Neither puts up extraordinary statistics, though Warren led the team in assists last year with 4.4 per game, but both play their roles tremendously well. Warren is a tremendous defender in addition to being a good facilitator on the offensive end, and backup point guard Rob Lowery complements Warren’s defense as a talented scorer off the bench. According to head coach Brian Gregory, "Those two guys form a tremendous two-headed monster. They give us a lot of versatility in our lineup.” Huelsman, a three year starter prior to this year, had his worst offensive season last year averaging merely 3.6 ppg as he lost weight to help transition to a more uptempo scheme. But he has been a part of winning teams, Dayton has won 69 games out of his 100 starts, and that is all that matters to Coach Gregory.
Dayton also expects swingman Chris Johnson to start at some point and make a major step forward this year. Last year as a freshman he was fifth on the team in scoring at 6.3 ppg despite starting only three times, though he did play more minutes off the bench than any other player. A 6’6 swingman, the Flyers like Johnson’s perimeter abilities (he was third on the team in three point percentage at 34.3%) and think if he plays well outside that will open up more space inside for Wright to operate in. However, he has the size and length to guard the 3 spot, making him a versatile player that is very valuable for Coach Gregory. Another player who sticks out is forward Luke Fabrizius, who led the team in three point percentage with 39 makes on his 104 attempts for a 37.5% success rate. If he is able to get on the floor more he could provide some valuable shooting ability for Dayton. Guard Mickey Perry played over 500 minutes for last year’s squad, but Coach Gregory is not sure how much he will be able to contribute this season as he is coming off of an injury. Guards Paul Williams and Stephen Thomas and forward Devin Searcy all contributed over 200 minutes last season and could play significant roles on this team as well.
Looking at the box scores from the Creighton and Georgia Tech games, it looks like the 6’10 Searcy is actually starting over Chris Johnson despite what preseason chatter was, giving Dayton a large lineup that features Wright at SF. In the Creighton game Wright led the team in scoring with 25 points on red hot shooting, 9-12 from the field and 2-2 from beyond the arc. He also contributed 8 rebounds. Johnson came off the bench to log the 3rd most minutes behind Wright and guard Marcus Johnson (13 points) and was second in scoring with 18 points to go along with his team leading 15 boards. Paul Williams and Fabrizius chipped in 9 each off the bench, and PG London Warren had 8 dimes. Against Tech earlier today, Wright only had 7 points as Chris Johnson and Paul Williams were sparkplugs off the bench again with 19 and 13 points respectively, for best and second best on the team. Luke Fabrizius was on fire in his 7 minutes scoring 12 points for third best on the team, sinking 4 of his 7 attempts, all of which came from downtown.
In the two games minutes have been distributed similarly. Wright, Huelsman, Warren, the Johnson’s, and Williams each played over 20 minutes in both games, while Mickey Perry played 20 against Creighton and Searcy played 20 vs. GT. Granted I’m clearly overanalyzing here since there’s no way you can actually get a pattern out of two games, but it seems that you have a general idea of who will be paying. The six players mentioned earlier should get the bulk of the playing time, Perry and Searcy will be playing around 15-20 minutes, Fabrizius will get some time, and everything else will just be spot minutes for some other bench guys. One does have to wonder whether or not Chris Johnson will get a spot in the starting lineup after his stellar first two games, particularly against a ‘Nova squad that is thin in the frontcourt right now and won’t be playing that big.
Regardless, this is going to be a tough game for the Wildcats. If they prove they can play considerably better than yesterday and pull out the win this would be great for a tournament resume, and if not this is a tough loss early in the season. After the way they played last game many will expect Dayton to challenge and possibly win, and looking at the team specifically that does not change much. This is going to be a team that attacks the basket which ‘Nova really struggled to stop GMU earlier today and got them into foul trouble, and Chris Wright could be a matchup nightmare for the Wildcats. This is definitely a winnable game for ‘Nova, particularly if they play to their potential offensively, but Jay Wright’s team is going to be playing far and away their best opponent of the season and still has a ways to go this season on both ends of the floor. Not turning over the ball as much as they did today, shooting better from the stripe and the field, and not getting into foul trouble will be key, as it will probably not be possible to get away with a game as bad as today’s against a very talented and experienced Dayton squad. Should be an interesting game and it will tell us a lot about where Villanova is early in the season, either inconsistent game to game or a team that needs considerable improvement. Here’s to hoping we will come out of it a lot more optimistic than after the scare against George Mason!
Let's go ‘Cats!