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Villanova Basketball Mid-Season Assessment: Cautious Optimism

It seems like only yesterday that we were previewing the members of this year’s men's basketball team and articulating our expectations through our Wisdom of Crowds Experiment polling. Our expectations were modest, looking simply to improve on the abysmal season that was 2011-2012, some going so far as to hold out hope for a return to post-season play. With the out-of-conference portion of the schedule now complete, this seems as good a time as any to assess the team’s progress.

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Last year, the Cat’s concluded the OOC portion of their schedule with a 7-5 record, but staggered into conference play losing five of their final eight games. They never recovered from their funk, going 6-14 the rest of the way and watching post-season play on television with the rest of us. The current season also has provided its share of anguish, as the Nova Nation faithful have suffered trouncings at the hands of a decent Alabama team and an awful Columbia team, and second half collapses to Big Five rivals LaSalle and Temple. Yet, there were nascent signs of improvement over last season, psychological if not statistical.

The Cats’ record improved to 9-4 and enter Big East play winning their last five games by an average +13 points (albeit against teams with an average RPI of 214). The team has improved since its Temple loss, and has shown greater consistency and scoring balance. There are signs of better teamwork, more passing and tougher defense. Scoring is well distributed, and there have been no notable teaching moments.

The outstanding strength of this squad is its ability to get to the free-throw line, where it is among the nation’s best in free throws made (#4) and free-throw % (#3 nationally). At the other extreme, only 59 teams in the country turn the ball over more than the Cats, and combined with a mediocre 12.2 assists per game, their assist-to-turnover ratio is # 264 in the nation. The Cats are a poor shooting team at 41.2%, 255th in the nation, but a bit better ranked in shooting from beyond the arc at 35.2%, good for #118 in the country.

Defensively, the Cats' achilles heel remains its perimeter defense (#265), where its opponents hit 35.8% of their shots. Their challenges have not gone unnoticed by opponents, who have launched 299 three-point attempts (#11 nationally). This team’s perimeter defense is unlikely to improve against the tougher competition in conference play.

To get better, the Cats need to play tougher defense, particularly on the perimeter, out-rebound its opponents, control the tempo of the game, and do a better job protecting the ball. Getting better every game and going .500 during conference play would represent a successful season for this team. A post-season NCAA bid exceeds reasonable expectations, but then again, that’s why they play the games. With regard to individual contributions, we’ve had had a mix of pleasant surprises and disappointments. Here’s a look, player by player, relative to your scoring expectations expressed in our Wisdom of Crowds polling.

Primer: Review the Wisdom of Crowds series

Exceeding Expectations

Darrun Hilliard: We predicted Hilliard would score 5.6 PPG, but he has scored 9.7 PPG. He is the fourth best on the team in total points and third in three pointers made. However, his offensive output has trended down over the last seven games. He has hit 33.3% from beyond the arc and leads the team with 19 steals.

Ryan Arcidiacono: We predicted Ryan would score 8.1 PPG, but he has exceeded our expectations by scoring 11.5 PPG. However, after a hot start when he averaged 18.0 PPG over the first three games, his scoring has trended sharply down. He is shooting only 33% from the field and 31.8% from 3PT range. He leads the team in assists and and is second in steals, total points scored and 3-pointers scored.

James Bell: We predicted Taj would score 8.7 PPG, but he has exceeded our expectations by scoring 10.7 PPG. More importantly, his scoring has been consistent over the course of the OOC portion of the schedule. His shooting has been solid, and he has emerged as a strong 3-point shooting threat, where he is hitting 42%. He needs to play smarter and stop forcing the ball down low, which often translates into the teams second highest at turnovers behind Arcidiacono.

Modestly Exceeding Expectations

Achraf Yacoubou: We predicted Ach would score 2.9 PPG, but he has done a bit better, scoring 4.5 PPG on the strength of a strong December when he increased his average by over 2.0 PPG. His shooting has been solid at 42% from the field and 36% from beyond the arc.

Maurice Sutton: We predicted Mo would score 4.7 PPG, but he has done a bit better, scoring 6.2 PPG. Sutton has always been a selective shooter and is hitting a career high 56.9% from the field so far this season. Playing only 16.2 mpg, he leads the team in blocks at 1.8 per game and has provided leadership and energy on defense.

Modestly Below Expectations

JayVaughn Pinkston: We predicted JVP would score 12.5 PPG, but he has scored a tad less, at 12.2 PPG. He is hitting 46.4% from the field and 35% from beyond the arc so far this season. He remains Nova’s most effective player scoring in the paint and leads the team in free throws made.

Daniel Ochefu: We predicted Daniel would score 4.3 PPG, but he has scored only 3.2 PPG, hitting 45.7% from the field. However, his offensive output is trending up over the last five games and he has adjusted to the college game and Villanova’s offensive schemes.

Below Expectations

Mislav Brzoja: We had high expectations for the former captain of Croatia’s U-18 team, but they have not been met. He has scored only 0.3 PPG over seven games vs. our prediction of 5.4 PPG. Brzoja has been disadvantaged by not training with the team until September, so there may be hope that we will see improvement later in his career. However, for now we anxiously await the moment when one of his shots finally finds the basket, as he has the dubious distinction of shooting 0% from the field on two attempts so far this season while seeing only 3.6 mpg in the seven games he saw action.

Mouphtaou Yarou: Mouph is scoring only 7.9 PPG vs. our prediction of 12.5, with his scoring likely to drop further in conference play. With Dominic Cheek’s imprudent departure to chase his NBA dreams, Mouph officially has become the biggest recruiting disappointment on this team’s roster. His poor play has resulted in the loss of minutes to Ochefu and Sutton. Across the board, his key stats – MPG, PPG, FG%, RPG and SPG are the poorest since his illness-shortened freshman campaign. His FG%, which has dropped each year by an astonishing 5.5%, now stands at 41.9% vs. 58.3% as a freshman. His 0.5 BPG are half what they were during his freshman and sophomore campaigns. His rebounding has dropped from 8.2 RPG last season to 5.0 this season. The potential that was Mouph has all but vanished.

Tony Chennault: A starter who scored 9.0 PPG for Wake Forest, we expected Chennault to be the starting PG and score 8.0 PPG for the Cats. The emergence of Ryan Arcidiacono as starting PG has limited Chennault’s play to 19 MPG and 4.4 PPG. Chennault is third on the team in APG. He has shown improvement over his past few games, but still has a long way to go to live up to our expectations and erase the bitter taste of Tyrone Johnson’s transfer to South Carolina.

As a team, we expected Villanova to score 72.7 PPG. They are scoring only 70.7 PPG so far, a statistic that is sure to drop as the rugged Big East season gets under way in January.