American University is best known to Villanova fans as the school that looked like they were ready to upset the Wildcats in the first round of the 2009 NCAA tournament. American took a 10-point lead into half time before a second-half effort helped Villanova to a 13 point win, the first in a run to the Final Four. This year's American University Eagles are a different team, they have an 8-4 record and are coming off of two losses after an 8-game winning streak.
The most recent loss was an 81-55 blow-out against Georgetown over the weekend.
American has two players who are averaging double-digit points this season in senior guards Charles Hinkle and Troy Brewer. Hinkle leads with 21.7 points and 5.2 rebounds per game, while Brewer contributes 14.1 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.3 assists. Both players are capable three-point shooters, connecting on 40.2% and 38.5% of their deep attempts, respectively.
Blake Jolivette, who started for an injured Brewer over the weekend, has also done well from beyond the arc, connecting on 46.7% of his attempts, though that number may be inflated by a small sample size, he has only taken 15 shots from deep. That is just a little bit more than a game's work for Dominic Cheek. The Eagles' other shooters tend to connect on one-third or less of their attempts.
Daniel Munoz, a junior guard, also starts for the Eagles, contributing only 6.8 points on average, but leading the team with 4.2 assists per game.
Despite their winning record, American scores just under a point per possession, while allowing opponents to score just a little bit over a point per possession. They struggle shooting the ball, and though their 3-point percentage is higher than average, they have been below average at close range.
For Villanova, this game presents an opportunity to try and tighten up a very loose perimeter defense with the benefit of a home court advantage.
Villanova will need a more complete effort from the team. The defense should be keying in on American's guards, who produce the bulk of their offense. They have to guard shooters closely and wear their opponents down.
American prefers to play a slower-paced game than the Wildcats are used to. Nova should look to dictate the pace and perhaps play even faster than usual if possible in order to get AU out of their comfort zone and maybe give their guards some tired legs in the second half.
This is yet another game where a healthy Yarou should be unstoppable inside. Assuming he can stay out of foul trouble, guards should look to feed the post rather than taking ill-advised jumpers early in the shot clock.
While Jay Wright had been hoping to establish an outside shooting threat by giving Dominic Cheek a green light to shoot from the perimeter, it may be time to reconsider that directive. There are no great shooters on the team, but JayVaughn Pinkstson and Darrun Hilliard have connected on 37.5% of their 3-point attempts. James Bell has seen his percentage drop a bit over the last few games to 34.7%. The next best shooter after those three is Ash Yacoubou at a paltry 28.6%.
In other words, shot selection is key on an offense that has now begun to decline as quickly as the defense.
Don't let the offensive struggles distract you, however. The real problem is on defense, where Villanova has looked sloppy for most of the season. Improving the defense would help the 'Cats in all facets of the game, since a greater number of turnovers can result in more fast break opportunities and fewer offensive possessions in the half-court set.
A dedication to playing solid defense will allow the 'Cats to play more to their strengths offensively. With the 107th-ranked defense according to Ken Pomeroy, the Wildcats are already playing the worst defense of the Jay Wright era. Wright has not coached a team at Villanova that played so poorly on the defensive end.
This is season is about learning and getting better for a young Villanova team. Forget the NCAA tournament and the NIT, Jay Wright needs to teach his team to play with the attitude and commitment to defense that his previous teams have shown.
American is a good test of that. If the Eagles are allowed to blow Villanova away from beyond the arc, there is little hope that the Wildcats will be able to stop Big East teams from exploiting their weaknesses as well.
The game will tip off at 7:00pm on Thursday from the Pavilion at Villanova. Coverage will be available from Nova Nation All-Access, available through Villanova.com.