There is a lot of doom and gloom out there in Nova Nation. February was a difficult month for the Wildcats, with all of the team's conference losses coming in relatively quick succession. It's understandable, considering that expectations have been so high for a team that went to the Final Four last year and who was in the discussion for a Big East title, #1 seeding and even a return trip to the Final Four earlier in the season.
After a tough stretch, Villanova has fallen to #9 in both polls and is a likely 2-seed in the NCAA tournament, rather than the 1-seed they had previously been looking forward to. Any hope of winning the Big East regular season title is gone now that Syracuse has pulled away in that race.
Now we're in March, and the Wildcats just barely survived a scare from the Bearcats. Scary. The wheels aren't off the wagon yet, however, and last night's game may have shown us that.*
Defensively we saw smart play at times, allowing Cincy to miss deep shots for much of the game. From beyond the arc the Bearcats normally hit about about 30% of their shots, but were 23% last night. The Villanova defense sagged and clogged entry lanes to try to keep Cincy players from getting the ball inside. Deonta Vaughn, who had 14 points in the first half scored only 4 in the second.
While the strategy was "smart" (according to Mike DeCourcy, anyway), it wasn't tremendously more effective than our standard performances this year. Before the game, Ken Pomeroy had Villanova rated 55th in defensive efficiency, and afterwards the 'Cats dropped to 58th.** Nevertheless, when I first looked at the Pomeroy ratings at the beginning of February his computer had Villanova's defense rated 69th, which shows at least some improvement over the course of the season.
More importantly, however, this game saw the Villanova offense get back on track. An offense that had been ranked within the top-3 in the country in Pomeroy's offensive efficiency rankings had slipped to #6 before last night's game. More notably, however, a team that had 6 players averaging double-digit points at the beginning of the conference season, had declined to just three players who averaged more than ten points by the end of February.
Last night, however, six players finished the game with double-digit points. Furthermore, Villanova won this game despite the fact that Scottie Reynolds didn't score a single point in the first half. Reynolds did manage to rack up 17 points by the end of the game, but the team showed that they didn't need Scottie to provide their offense.
More importantly, when Cincy played zone defense last night, Villanova didn't seem lost like they did against Syracuse. Sure Cincy's defense isn't as highly rated as the Syracuse zone, but Villanova handled it far better, getting into the lane and attacking the zone from there.
As important as defense is, you won't win a game if you can't score points. Having a balanced attack that can adjust to handle tough defense is a must if the Wildcats hope to make a splash in the postseason.
Also, while Corey Fisher lead the team with 0 turnovers, Scottie Reynolds lead the team with 5 assists. That was his best assist/turnover ratio in conference play (though not his season high for assists). If Scottie can continue to protect and distribute the ball like that, it will go a long way toward making the 'Cats a dangerous foe in the Big East and NCAA tournaments. It may even improve our defense, points off of turnovers are difficult to defend, so limiting turnovers will make it easier to hold off opponents.
Furthermore, last night we saw Mouph Yarou continue his streak of solid play with 10 points and 2 blocked shots in his 25 minutes. Wayns also played 13 minutes, and though he didn't manage to score, he looked pretty good out there on the court, dishing out three assists to one turnover.
Stokes even managed to look more like his old self last night, shooting 55.6% from the floor and 50% on 3-point attempts. He also added 4 rebounds.
There is still some work to be done on defense this year, but there is a lot of good so far. The Wildcats will have to adjust quickly to make a deep tournament run, but such an adjustment is not nearly as unthinkable as it was on Saturday night.
* In fact, the Wildcats may have even exceeded expectations (as Dick Jerardi points out), since Pomeroy had projected a 20-10 (9-9 Big East) record for Villanova just before Christmas.
** I really wish that I could get "historical KenPom data so that I could see the changes in raw scores rather than relying on my pre-game write up to provide me with his pre-game rankings.