Villanova hasn't made an appearance in the Big East/SEC Challenge since the first year of the series in 2007, when they took on the LSU Tigers. While the 'Cats were one of four Big East schools left out of this years' expanded challenge — which the Big East won 8-4 — they will get a chance to play an SEC team (or a future one, anyway) when they face the Missouri Tigers in Tuesday's Jimmy V Classic in New York City.
Last season Mizzou had a similar finish to Villanova. Struggling down the stretch, the Tigers lost five of their last six games and lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament. They had a change of coaching, however, bringing in Frank Haith after Mike Anderson bolted for Arkansas, and they also have far more experience than the Wildcats with seven seniors returning to the team from last year.
The 13th-ranked Tigers have been hot to start the season, winning each of their first seven games, including impressive wins over Notre Dame and California. Their guard-heavy line-up has played well for their new head coach, winning most games by a solid margin — 28 points on average. They are 6th in the nation in scoring and 5th in field goal percentage (52.5%).
Mizzou plays with a four-guard set that allows them to run on offense and pressure on defense. They shoot well from the floor because they have to, by giving up size and pressing, the Tigers are vulnerable on the offensive boards.
Led by guard Marcus Denmon, who has raised his scoring average by 3.4 points per game so far this season to 20.3 points. He also adds 5.7 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.7 steals while connecting on 47.8% of his shots from deep and 53.3% from the floor.
Their best three-point shooter, however, is Kim English, who has connected on 56.8% of his attempts.He converted 6 of 7 attempts against Binghamton on November 27. He ranks 4th nationally in effective field goal percentage. He has averaged 16.9 points per game, adding 4.4 rebounds and 2.3 assists. English is one of the key offensive forces on a Missouri team that has not struggled to score so far this season.
English struggled at the end of last season, however, when his shooting percentages sagged. Prior to this season, his highest 3-point percentage in any season was 37.3%, and with some tough defensive match-ups it is possible that he will regress back to the mean.
Though Missouri's guards are viewed as interchangeable parts in Haith's offense, the most natural point guard is likely Flip Pressey, a 5-10 sophomore from Dallas. Pressey has averaged almost 30 minutes per game and leads the team with 4.9 assists per game while contributing 8.7 points and 2.4 rebounds. He is a quick and crafty guard who is a good-not-great shooter who can create for his talented teammates.
Matt Pressy is the fourth guard starting for Mizzou. He started 10 games last season but was mostly relegated to role-player status. This season the shooting guard has contributed 6.7 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists on average.
Rounding out the starting line-up is Ricardo Ratliffe, a 6-9 power forward, who predictably leads the team in rebounding with 6.6 per game to go with his 13.9 points per game. Ratliff will be the primary match-up for Yarou, and his wide body will be one of the toughest match-ups for the Benin national this season.
Ratliffe is not the only big man for the Tigers, they also employ Steve Moore off the bench. The 6-9, 270lb senior center is primarily a defensive specialist who leads the team in blocks. If Yarou starts strong on Tuesday, Moore is likely the man who will be called in to try and help with the match-up.
Also coming off the bench is the 6-1 junior, Michael Dixon. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.5 assists last season and 11.6 points and 2.4 assists so far this year.
The Tigers haven't visited Madison Square Garden since 1988, when they played in the preseason NIT, losing to Syracuse in the title game. That is perhaps an advantage for the Wildcats, who will feel much more at-home at the World's Most Famous Arena.
Villanova will have to find a way to control the perimeter, with special emphasis on locking down English and Denmon. The Tigers may have more firepower than the 'Cats can handle offensively, but they also haven't faced another team that could match their four guards with four guards of their own. If Missouri can be stopped, it will require a team that can match their speed, athleticism and intensity.
Offensively Mouph Yarou will have to battle inside with either Ratliffe or Moore, and if it appears that he is winning those battles, Villanova will need to look to get the ball to him inside. Among players who average 10 or more minutes per game, Yarou has the Wildcats' top field goal percentage.
Beyond Yarou, the Wildcats ought to look to get Darrun Hilliard more involved offensively. He is right behind Yarou in field goal percentage and is 10th in the nation in effective field goal percentage (which gives more weight to 3-pointers made). In fact, Hilliard and James Bell have been the only Wildcats who have made an impact from beyond the arc this season, shooting 58.8% and 41.9% respectively.
The other Wildcats have struggled from deep. Perhaps nobody has been more futile than Dominic Cheek, who has made 10 of 38 attempts from deep. Cheek, meanwhile has been very effective inside the perimeter, connecting on 15-of-29 (51.7%). Cheek is still taking 56.7% of his shots from 3-point range, however, a fact that is unlikely to change.
Offense is hardly as bad a problem for the 'Cats as defense has been this season, but despite their ability to score points (many of them at the free-throw line), the 'Cats offense has room for improvement. Cheek and Wayns in particular seem to force shots from outside in the hopes that a few will fall and defenders will be forced to shadow them closely on the perimeter. Those shots aren't falling, however, yet the 'Cats are taking about 36.1% of their shots there.
The Villanova defense, meanwhile is ranked just 124th in the country in efficiency. Much of that has been due to a struggle defending the 3-point shot (where they rank 180th), but also due to a lack of forced turnovers. The 'Cats will have to improve defensively to have hopes of winning games against tough opponents like Mizzou.
This game will be a big test for a Villanova team that has already failed two quizzes in Anaheim this season. Either way, think of it as a midterm rather than the final exam. Either way, there will still be time left to turn things around.
The game will tip-off from Madison Square Garden tomorrow at 7pm with television coverage on ESPN.