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Early season takeaways for Villanova Basketball

We’re three games in, so it’s time to overreact!

NCAA Basketball: Lafayette at Villanova Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

With three games in the books now, Villanova is still less than 10% into their season. And yet, just over a week in everyone wants to make assumptions and predictions based solely on the small sample size of the three games we’ve seen. It’s not our fault, we’re only human.

It’s very easy to overreact to what we’re seeing right now. The opponents are easy, the team looks great, and we want to assume that what we see now (at least the good stuff) will always hold true. Unfortunately the world doesn’t always work that way, so I’m here to help you sort through what’s real and what isn’t through Villanova’s first three games.

Harder, Better, Faster, Faster, Faster...

Tempo has been a topic of conversation the last few seasons on the main line, and this season has seen a dramatic upswing in pace of play for the Wildcats who are averaging 71 possessions per game. Sure, the Nicholl’s State game with 90 possessions will be a huge outlier that was played at breakneck speed, but Villanova’s other two games against more methodical teams were also up from previous years.

All three games this season, including the Columbia game with the slowest tempo at 69 possessions, were all paced higher than Villanova’s average tempo in each of the last seven seasons. Even as far as the early season go, Nova’s current average tempo of 71 possessions is faster than the average tempo of the first three games in three of the past four years.

I still think that the team’s goal will be to push their opponents deep into the shot clock on defense and patiently find the best shot on offense. But the athletic ability of this team is going to create more transition opportunities with their defense and make it easier to find high percentage shots on offense. And now with a deeper bench, especially in the front court, Wright won’t have issues with letting his guys run the court and sub frequently.

Villanova still won’t be anywhere close to the Top 100 teams as far a s tempo goes, but it will play faster than the Villanova teams we’ve seen for most of the past decade. The increased tempo is for real.

Shoot ‘Em Up, Sleep In The Streets

The Lafayette game was an insane display of three-point efficiency, especially in the first half. Following that game, Villanova has Phil Booth, Jalen Brunson, and Mikal Bridges all shooting over 50% from deep on the season. In fact, the entire team is shooting just under 40%. It’s no wonder that Nova is currently getting 37% of its points from threes, which if it continued would be the highest percentage in the Jay Wright era.

But lets get real folks, it’s not going to continue. That game has skewed the stats, and while this team does have a number of good to great perimeter scorers, these numbers are unsustainable. Prior to the game in Allentown, Donte DiVincenzo was the only Wildcat shooting over 50% from deep, and that game actually brought him back to earth a little bit. Over the past four seasons, Villanova has averaged 36.9% from behind the arc, and I would suspect that this team will again fall somewhere in that 35-37% range by the end of the season.

Villanova does shoot the three well and it will be an important part of their offense, but this is not an “elite” perimeter shooting team. Even with their current inflated shooting percentage, they’re ranked 82nd nationally in 3P% and 60th in made threes. In the end, this is a good thing as I don’t think Villanova will need to rely as heavily on the three as it has in previous seasons. The Cats are good enough now to use the three to open up the interior for cutters like DiVincenzo and Bridges, or to feed it down low to Spellman and Paschall.

Where Have All The Free Throws Gone?

We’ve become accustomed to Villanova being truly special when it comes to shooting free throws. For the past two seasons, Villanova has ranked 2nd and 3rd respectively in FT%, shooting over 78% in each season as a team. But this year, Villanova is shooting just 70% from the line, and the only players shooting over 75% are Mikal Bridges (90%) and Colin Gillespie (100%).

Based on Villanova’s percentages from inside (65.1%) and outside the arc (39.1%) I’d expect the FT% number to improve. But the larger issue is that Villanova is simply not getting to the line. The Wildcats Free Throw Rate (FT attempts per FG attempts) is 29.9%, which ranks 258th nationally. Villanova’s FTRate has been on a steady decline since they ranked 1st nationally in 2013, but this would be a new low for a Jay Wright team:

Villanova Free Throw Rate 2013-2018

Season FTRate National Rank
Season FTRate National Rank
2018 29.9% 258th
2017 35.0% 180th
2016 34.1% 242nd
2015 41.8% 58th
2014 44.5% 65th
2013 50.6% 1st

With Donte DiVincenzo, Eric Paschall, Omari Spellman, and Mikal Bridges all making double digit trips to the line so far this season, you’d expect these numbers to increase. But for me, there are two reasons why the number is so low. First, the opponents Villanova has faced so far are giving up an average of almost 37% shooting from beyond the arc. Combine that with the stellar ball movement we’ve seen this season and Nova has simply had more open outside shots than you can shake a stick at. The Wildcats have taken 45.7% of their shots from deep, which isn’t a bad thing as the majority have been good looks. But if you’re not driving the lane or passing inside most of the time, you’re probably not going to get as many foul calls.

The other big reason for the drop is Phil Booth. In his first two seasons at Villanova, Booth had a FTRate of 32.4% and was one of the school’s best free throw shooters. But through three games this season, he’s only made one trip to the line (which he missed) and has a free throw rate of 4.3%. He could be driving the lane less due to his tendinitis, but I think it has more to do with him favoring shooting wide open threes on the perimeter at this point. Honestly, who can blame him for that. I do think Nova’s FTRate will improve over time, but that won’t happen until Phil and the rest of the Wildcats drive the lane or get the ball inside to the big guys more frequently.