Villanova has three losses in December for the first time since the 2002-03 season, where the team opened with a loss against a Dwayne Wade led Marquette and also dropped games to Charleston and Penn by December 10th. That team would also lose a fourth game to Dayton before flipping the calendar to 2003. This team has 3 losses already and plays again on Saturday, taking on the Temple Owls in what promises to be a hotly-contested battle.
Temple is a dangerous and motivated opponent for the Wildcats, even without injured forwards Scootie Randall and Michael Eric, and the Big 5 battle promises to be a tough one.
So far the Owls faced their toughest challenge in an 85-77 loss to Purdue in Puerto Rico. They also faced a tough test in that tournament against a very good Wichita State team, which resulted in a narrow 78-74 overtime victory. The Owls are 5-2 on the season, but are perfect at home.
Ramone Moore is the star of the Liacouras Center show. With 16.4 points per game, 4.1 rebounds, 3.7 assists and a little over a steal per game, Moore has been central to Temple's successes this season. He connects on 39.9% of his shots from deep and is almost constantly on the court. He should be, since he might just be the best player in the Atlantic 10.
Not that Khalif Wyatt is a slouch either. Moore's wing sidekick has averaged 14.8 points, 4 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.8 steals per game while shooting 47.3% from the floor and 38.5% from deep. Juan Fernandez completes the offensive trio that has led the Owls early this season, with averages of 13.4 points, 4.1 assists and 2.7 rebounds per game.
Wyatt was benched to start the Owl's last game after he was late to a team meeting earlier in the week. Freshman Will Cummings started in his place, making his first college start and appearing in his first college game against Toledo. Cummings' first shot was a made 3-pointer that he banked off the glass.
Sophomore Aaron Brown had a big game off of the bench, scoring 19 points for his second double-digit score in the last two games. He also scored 21 points in 22 minutes against Central Michigan at the weekend. Brown has had an offensive outburst after seeing his minutes increase dramatically in the last week.
The Owls play slightly better offense than defense, but are strong in both categories. They rank 30th in offensive efficiency and 58th in defensive efficiency, while Villanova ranks 21st and 132nd respectively in those categories.
Without Eric or Randall, the Owls will lean on Anthony Lee, a 6-9 205lb freshman, and Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson, a 6-6 210lb junior, to provide a presence in the front court. That leaves them with a smaller line-up, forcing them to play at a faster pace to adjust to their lack of size. In a few recent games the Owls have notably increased the number of possessions they have used in a game.
The Owls will be a tough matchup for Villanova. Mouph Yarou is bigger and stronger than any big man that Temple will try to match up with him, so they shouldn't win battles inside with brute force.
The talented Temple backcourt will work to control the Villanova guards. Both Wyatt and Fernandez have a tendency to give up fouls, however, averaging 3.2 and 2.7 personal fouls respectively. Hollis-Jefferson also averages 3 fouls per game this season, while starting center Anthony Lee averages 2.6.
That tendency makes it important for Villanova to look for their shots inside, driving to the hoop or finding the pass into the low post will allow the 'Cats to score on more possessions and get and-1 attempts to boost their scoring. Villanova is 5th in the nation in free-throw shooting so far, and would clearly benefit from more opportunities at the line.
Maalik Wayns and Dominic Cheek have both been awful shooting from deep and very good at scoring closer to the net. Offensively, each player needs to get more comfortable taking their shots inside. Darrun Hilliard and James Bell are the only two Villanovans connecting on more than one-third of their attempts from beyond the arc, yet they are 3rd and 4th on the team in 3-point attempts and 5th and 7th in possessions used. It makes little sense that the team's two most efficient shooters aren't taking more shots.
Villanova's real deficiency, however, comes on defense. The 'Cats are 318th in the nation in defensive turnover percentage, 326th in defensive free-throw percentage and 202nd in defending 3-point shots. They get fewer than average blocks and far fewer than average steals. For a team that starts three or four guards on any given night, it might be excusable that they don't generate many blocks, but athletic guards should be able to create more steals.
Defensively, Villanova has played more zone defense than in the past. It hasn't hurt them tremendously on the boards, but it hasn't helped against the 3-point shots, which are still falling in at an obscene rate. Opponents shoot 34.6% from deep against the Villanova perimeter defense and they have connected on 44.2% of 3-pointers in the 'Cats three losses with a high coming against Saint Louis, who connected on 51.9%.
Moreover, Villanova has been repeatedly burned in transition, where players tend to take just a second too long to find their defensive assignment.
Something has to give on defense.
The Wildcats aren't a bad team offensively, when you look at the statistics, and if they were generating turnovers and converting those for points, they would likely be even better. No team can win consistently without playing good defense, however, and that is ultimately Villanova's problem.
Offensive sins can be forgiven, but giving away easy scores will make it difficult to put away any opponent. If the Wildcats hope to right the ship this season, it will have to start with some serious study and consideration of the way the defense operates.
Temple will almost certainly win on Saturday if Villanova's porous "flying wildcat" defense rears it's ugly head. Nova needs to control a talented Temple backcourt and take advantage of their tendency to put opponents on the free-throw line.
The game will tip off at 5:00 pm from the Liacouras Center at Temple University and will be broadcast nationally on ESPN2. Don't forget to get in your game score predictions in our Closest to the Pin Contest.