Villanova originally planned to take the fall roadshow to Anaheim as a send-off for Southern California-native Taylor King, who could have been the lone senior on this year's team. After the 'Cats had signed off on the trip, King would leave the program. Now, King is playing in a Canadian professional basketball minor league, while the 'Cats are preparing to take on UC Riverside on Thanksgiving.
The field of the tournament isn't as tough as some others -- the Maui Invitational for example is loaded with teams like Duke, Kansas and Georgetown -- but the 76 Classic is not without its challenges, and for a young Villanova team, this field could give them about all they can handle early on.
UCR is ranked in the 200's by Ken Pomeroy and not ranked at all in any human polls. Their defense plays to about the Division I average efficiency, while their offense is among the worst-rated in the nation. They are winless against Division I opponents, with their sole win coming against a tiny Division III school in their season opener.
Like Villanova, the Highlanders lost a lot of 3-point shooting from last season. Javon Borum, who was responsible for making over 50% of their 3-point shooting last season, has graduated or left the program. That said, they do return over 70% of last year's minutes, making this a fairly experienced team.
The Highlanders are leaning on senior swingman Phil Martin to provide offense and leadership this season. Martin is the only UCR player who averages double-digit points so far this season, with 14.7 ppg and 8 rebounds. He also leads the team in minutes, averaging almost 38 minutes per contest. Martin has struggled from deep this season, shooting just 18.2% to lead the team (assuming you discount players who have shot fewer than 3 attempts).
There is reason to believe that Martin will eventually heat up from the floor, however. Last season he shot 47.2% from the floor and .35.6% from beyond the arc. Unless something drastic has changed, he should eventually regress toward the mean. UCR's coach Jim Woolridge has stressed defense as an area of emphasis for Martin, and that extra hustle may be giving him tired legs early in the season.
Kareem Nitoto is the team's second-leading scorer at 9 ppg. The senior guard is in his 5th year after transferring from Hawaii, and has made strides in becoming a more effective scorer. UCR has encouraged Nitoto to drive to the basket for easy buckets and to draw fouls -- a move that has made him a far more effective player on offense. In the past, Nitoto has been the Highlanders' primary point guard, and he may still see some time there this season, but his coach prefers to put him at the 2.
Starting at point is 6-0 sophomore Daymond Cowlah, who is second on the team in averaging 2 assists per game. He negates most of that by also averaging 2 turnovers per contest. Cowlah is the team's best returning 3-point shooter from last season, however, connecting on 41.9 attempts last season. He has missed all 5 attempts from deep this year.
Senior Harrison Gaines, a transfer from Penn, has come off of the bench in the team's three games so far, but leads the team in assists at 2.3 per game and averages just 0.3 turnovers per game. Gaines might ultimately overtake Cowlah for the point guard job this season, especially if Cowlah's shooting from deep doesn't heat up.
Another poor shooting night for the Wildcats could let the Highlanders hang around in this game, but more likely, Villanova will use its superior athleticism to get to the rim and score easy buckets. Riverside will not be able to key in a on single Wildcats player, with multiple starters capable of having a big night on the scoreboard.
Mouph Yarou has proven to be a tough match-up early this season, and is likely poised to have another big game on Thanksgiving. He scored 19 points in his last outing, mostly in the first half, and if UCR chooses to key their defense in on him like Delaware did, it will open up opportunities for Dominic Cheek and Maalik Wayns to score. UCR will have to play an excellent defensive game against the Wildcats to keep the score close.
For Villanova, UCR is an opportunity to play tough defense. Teams that struggle from 3-point range will struggle against the Villanova defense. Nova tends to challenge opponents to take tough shots from beyond their range by leaving shooters open and guarding against higher percentage shots inside the arc. That strategy will fail against good shooting teams, but UCR has connected on just 22.6% of their shots from deep and will not likely be relying on the 3-point shot this weekend.
Villanova's rebounding has been good so far this season, and the 'Cats should be able to grab a good deal of misses -- both their own and UCR's. They are 11th in the nation in rebounds per game, and a large part of that equation is the rebounding contributions of Yarou (9.7 rpg) and Cheek (6.0 rpg). Even Maalik Wayns has averaged over 5 caroms from the point. That advantage on the glass has been a huge asset for Villanova and will need to continue.
Even if the shots are not falling, solid play in the other facets of their game should help the Wildcats move past the opening round to face the winner of Boston College and St. Louis University on Friday afternoon.
A win would be the 350th of Jay Wright's head-coaching career.
The Tip-off time for the game will be 1:30pm locally, but 4:30pm on the east coast and the games will be televised on ESPN2 or over the internet, on ESPN3.com.