As a Villanova fan, this should be your second favorite time of the year (besides March of course), not because of Christmas or New Year's celebrations, but because Big East Conference play is beginning. Starting with Seton Hall hosting St. John's, the Big East will kick off a marathon of five straight conference games on New Year's Eve.
The second game in this thrilling slate of games is Villanova-Butler in a rematch of last year's contest when Butler pushed the Wildcats into overtime, but lost by three. At this juncture in the season, Butler was a respectable 10-3, and looking as though they could be one of the top teams in the conference. Instead, the Bulldogs went 4-14 in conference play and finished only above DePaul in the standings.
This season has proved to be different. After Head Coach Brandon Miller left the team due to a medical leave of absence, interim coach Chris Holtmann led the Bulldogs to a 2-1 record in the competitive Battle for Atlantis tournament, upsetting UNC and defeating Big East foe Georgetown. Butler was ranked as high as #15 this season, but back-to-back losses to Tennessee and Indiana has the Bulldogs out of the top 25 entering conference play.
Darrun Hilliard Returns
After suffering a concussion against Syracuse, Villanova's captain and leading scorer will be back in action to open conference play.
Jay Wright said the Darrun Hilliard has been cleared to play against Butler. Was cleared on the 27th. "He’s fine."
— Tyler R. Tynes (@TylerRickyTynes) December 29, 2014
This means that, despite the first-half scare that took place against NJIT, the Wildcats offense will be back in full throttle. Against the Highlanders, it was clear that 'Nova lacked a go-to scorer in the first half. Although Dylan Ennis pulled through as a scoring leader in the second half, the NJIT game showed the importance of Hilliard as a steadying, seasoned presence on this Wildcat team.
How to Get Buckets against the Bulldogs
Villanova's first conference play will be against one of the stingiest defenses in the country. Butler leads the Big East in opponents points per game, holding the opposition at a mere 56.2 ppg, and also ranks near the top in field goal percentage defense at 39%. The Bulldogs are an elite defensive team, especially along the perimeter where they average roughly eight steals per contest.
So how can Villanova look to capitalize? Butler does not have competent rim protectors, averaging under three blocks per game. This means, as always, that the Wildcats should look inside before shooting from long-distance. JayVaughn Pinkston is comparable in size to some of the top big men on Butler's roster, and Ochefu will tower over the lanky Butler forward Kameron Woods. Getting some easy points inside will make the rest of the contest that much easier, opening up cuts for the Wildcat guards.
Although the Bulldogs are a lockdown defensive team, the Wildcats also sport an elite defense. Villanova leads the Big East and in steals per game (9.3) and average roughly the same as Butler in the aforementioned defensive categories. Overall, both of these teams are similar in their defensive strategies and their competence at shutting down opponents.
How can the Wildcats look to shut down their Big East counterparts? Butler has recorded two more assists than turnovers this entire season. While Alex Barlow, Kellen Dunham, and Roosevelt Jones are competent guards, Villanova should look to attack the offense and impose their defensive will on the perimeter.
And how does Villanova usually pressure the perimeter? Using the 1-2-2 full-court press, the Wildcats can rattle opponents into poor decision making and give themselves easy fast-break opportunities. Last season, Villanova sometimes went away from this scheme in conference play, but, with their success thus far this season, it would behoove Coach Jay Wright to continue to put the pressure on Butler.