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Philadelphia Big 5, La Salle vs. Villanova preview: 3 things to watch

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The Wildcats take on the Explorers Sunday night at the Pavilion.Tip off is set for 5 p.m.

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Villanova Wildcats (7-1) will look to rebound from Monday's disappointing 78-55 loss to Oklahoma on Sunday evening at the Pavilion against the 4-3 La Salle Explorers. La Salle has been every bit as up-and-down as its record indicates this season, having dropped three of its last four games after starting off the year with three straight home wins.

'Nova has won 12 of its last 13 games between the local rivals, including a 14-point win last year at Tom Gola Arena and a 21-point drubbing at home two Decembers ago. The Explorers only victory during that stretch came during the 2013 season, when La Salle erased an early 11-point deficit to beat the Wildcats in overtime at the Pavilion, 77-74.

Here are three things to keep an eye on for Sunday's Philly 5 tilt:

Will the Wildcats get to the charity stripe?

A lot has been written this week about Villanova's shooting (or lack thereof), however the Wildcats' 28.6 percentage from behind the arc isn't the only troubling offensive trend for 'Nova through the first quarter of the season. The Wildcats, who have been effective at drawing fouls and getting to the line over the past three seasons, have suddenly stopped doing so. Here are Villanova's national ranks in FT/FGA since 2013, per KenPom.com:

YEAR FT RATE NAT'L RANK NAT'L AVERAGE
2013 50.6 1 35.9
2014 44.5 66 40.5
2015 41.8 58 37.0
2016 27.0 325 36.7


After three seasons where the Wildcats were at least above average at getting to the line, those numbers have completely fallen off of a cliff this year. It's obviously easy to point to the number of threes that Villanova has taken as the root cause of this plummeting percentage, but the 'Cats have taken plenty of threes in the past (they were 7th in the nation in 3PA/FGA in 2014) and still managed to draw fouls easily enough. The drastic change could be due to the intent of Villanova's drives, which often seem less to score a bucket near the hoop and more to set up a three point attempt for a teammate, as well as a general lack of aggressiveness offensively. La Salle is right around the national average in defensive free-throw rate and rank 258th in average height, so it'll be interesting to see if the Wildcats attack the rim on Sunday, especially considering all of the blowback from Monday's shooting performance. Foul shots are an easy way to generate essentially free points, and after all, who doesn't want free points?

Jordan Price gets buckets

La Salle junior guard Jordan Price is off to a hot start this season. After averaging 17.2 PPG in 2015, Price has bumped up his scoring to an impressive 25.9 PPG while shooting 53 percent from the field. The scoring increase can be largely attributed to his insane three point shooting, as the Decatur, G.A. native is converting at a 50 percent clip behind the arc, where he is averaging 7.7 attempts per game. Price, who transferred from to La Salle from Auburn following the 2014 season, is hands down the Explorers go-to-guy on offense, as he sucks up over one-third of the team's shots. Granted, his gaudy totals haven't exactly come against the cream of the crop (Hofstra and Lafayette aren't going to be competing for a national title any time soon), but Price getting hot from downtown is La Salle's best hope at an upset. The Wildcats defense has rated highly all season, but showed leaks against the Sooners. Junior guard Josh Hart will likely see a lot of time on Price, and if he's up to the challenge it will be a long day for the Explorers.

Slump busters

The Wilcats haven't lost back to back games since 2013, when they lost three games in a row twice and lost twice in a row three times. The last time Villanova lost a regular season game, it turned around and crushed an overmatched Creighton squad 71-50. The time before that? 'Nova beat St. John's by 18 at Madison Square Garden. Following Monday night's loss, head coach Jay Wright bemoaned his team's tendency to start games slow. It will be worth noting how Villanova starts on Sunday, and whether or not this Wildcats team treats teams the same way they have over the last two seasons when coming off of a loss. There is some concern that the 'Cats could look past the Explorers to the looming December 19th date with Virginia in Charlottesville and come out of the gates sluggish once again, though if recent history is any indication, that will not be the case.

This is a matchup between two programs in two very different places. The Wildcats are shooting for a major conference title and looking play deep into March, while the Explorers are projected by KenPom to go 9-20. Yet, both teams are coming off of a loss, and will be gunning for each other in a rivalry game. Villanova is the better team and should be able to take care of business at home, but stranger things have happened and if the Wildcats' minds are too tied up with thoughts of UVA, a Price-led La Salle could make things difficult, at least in the game's early stages. Villanova needs all the momentum it can get heading into Jon Paul Jones Arena a week from today, and a win in a Philly 5 game is a good place to start.