The Villanova Wildcats will head to Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night to take on the Gonzaga Bulldogs in the first game of the annual Jimmy V Classic. The game will be followed by a match-up of old Big East foes Syracuse and UConn.
Before Kris Jenkins’ shot triggered arguably the coolest reaction in NCAA Tournament history, Lorenzo Charles’ shot was known for triggering the most memorable.
In 1983, the NC State Wolfpack, led by head coach Jim Valvano, were on the brink of a lost season. However, adopting the mantra “survive and advance,” the Wolfpack won the ACC Tournament, upsetting Virginia and three-time National Player of the Year Ralph Sampson to clinch a bid to the NCAA Tournament. (Also, I can’t recommend the above-linked “30 for 30” enough).
Entering as a #6 seed, the Wolfpack took down, among others, a Michael Jordan-led UNC squad and, again, a Ralph Sampson-led Virginia, to secure a match-up with No. 1 Houston, aka Phi Slama Jama, led by Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, in the National Championship game.
Charles’ shot won NC State its second national championship and established them as the lowest seed (#6) to ever win a National Championship before a pesky team from the Main Line snatched the record just two years later.
On March 4, 1993, Coach Valvano, since retired from coaching and suffering from adenocarcinoma, was awarded the inaugural Arthur Ashe Courage and Humanitarian Award at the first-ever ESPY Awards. Coach Valvano passed away later that year.
The Jimmy V Classic
The Jimmy V Classic has been an annual tradition since 1995 and seeks to raise money for cancer research.
Villanova has played in the classic three times, most recently in 2014 where they defeated Illinois 73-59. However, Villanova lost its other two match-ups, a 2011 tilt against Missouri and a 2008 game against Texas.
The current Villanova squad is undefeated heading into the contest coming off an absolute drubbing of St. Joseph’s on Saturday. Gonzaga, 7-1 after a narrow double-OT loss to #7 Florida, is coming off a 17-point victory against the #25 Creighton Bluejays, the conclusion of which featured audible “We Want ‘Nova” chants coming from the student section. Well, you got us.
Game 1: Villanova Wildcats vs. Gonzaga Bulldogs
Humble & Hungry…but mostly Hungry
Wildcats’ fans have had this game circled on their calendars for months, not least of all because of the general curiosity surrounding a program like Gonzaga. Gonzaga, a small Jesuit school located in Spokane, is consistently among the top programs in the country despite playing in a mid-major conference. Their conference schedule is constantly lambasted and questioned by the pundits (rightfully so) but they’ve continued to be an elite program, reaching the national title game last year before losing to UNC.
This year, Gonzaga looks as strong as ever with dominant wins over Ohio State and Creighton and a close win over Texas. The Bulldogs’ only loss came against a #7 Florida squad in double overtime during the PK80 tournament earlier this season. They are similar to Villanova in that they are extremely balanced, with 6 players averaging in double figures, and play strong defense.
Secondly, Wildcat fans are desperate for a marquee match-up. After the Bahamas bracket was busted and an anticipated game against Arizona erased from the schedule, fans have been clamoring for an early season test. While the victories over Tennessee and UNI were impressive, the Wildcats have yet to face a KenPom Top 20 team this season, a reality highlighted by the seemingly endless number of high profile games between other elite teams.
Gonzaga’s mantra on defense is “hard 2’s,” which is reflected in the advanced statistics. Gonzaga’s opponents have posted an effective field goal percentage of 47.0, which ranks the Bulldogs at 68th nationally. However, to unpack that, Gonzaga ranks 6th in two-point defense, holding opponents to just 40.2% of their 2-point attempts. Further reflective of Gonzaga’s emphasis on defending against the 2, they rank 288th in three-point defense. So, what does this mean for Villanova? Likely, an air raid.
Villanova currently ranks 2nd nationally in AdjO as among one of the most efficient scoring teams in the country. However, the team ranks 181st in 2-point attempts and 46.9% of Villanova’s points come on 2-point baskets, which ranks 239th in the country. Villanova, a team that doesn’t overly rely on 2-point shooting, is a challenging match-up for Gonzaga, a team that succeeds by taking that away. Coming off of St. Joe’s, we know that, when given open looks from deep, Villanova will not hesitate to let them fly. However, if the threes aren’t falling, Villanova could be in for a battle as its 2-point offense is very much predicated on quick ball movement and screens to create lanes to the basket and open shots. Against a stout Gonzaga defense, this will be extremely difficult.
Few’s Good Men
As our Q&A with our friends out west indicated, Gonzaga has a number of players that can cause some issues for Villanova. For the purposes of projecting challenges for Villanova, we can start with Johnathan Williams, who, in case you missed it, averaged 23.3 points and seven rebounds at the PK80 tournament in Portland earlier this season. Williams, a 6’9 redshirt junior transfer from Missouri, is having an incredible season, currently averaging 15.9 points and nearly 7 rebounds a game. He’s buttressed by 6’10 sophomore Killian Tille, who is averaging 12.4 points and also nearly 7.0 rebounds a game. Tille, in the Zags victory over #25 Creighton, finished with 22 points, eight rebounds, three assists, and three blocks.
As regards preparation for this game, the Wildcats faced a similar duo, in Isaac Haas (7’2) and Caleb Swanigan (6’8), last season against Purdue. As Wildcat fans will recall, Haas and Swanigan combined for 42 points due, in part, to Villanova getting in severe foul trouble early, punctuated by Eric Paschall fouling out in just 9 minutes. While Williams and Tille are different players (and not actually Isaac Haas), the challenge will be for Villanova to play strong help defense down low without fouling and limit the entry passes down low. The game will be a baptism by fire for Omari Spellman who will be facing arguably the two most talented big men he has faced this season…at the exact same time.
Game 2: Syracuse Orange vs. Connecticut Huskies
Villanova’s game will be followed by a game between the Syracuse Orange and UConn Huskies. The game is scheduled to also take place in Madison Square Garden, despite the fact that Syracuse appears to believe the game is being held off the coast of New Hampshire.
Syracuse (6-1) is coming off a 16-point loss against #2 Kansas in Miami at the HoopHall Invitational. Tyus Battle, a former Villanova target from New Jersey, is leading the Orange, averaging over 20 points a game. UConn (6-2) is coming off of victories over Columbia and Monmouth by a combined margin of 6-points. Syracuse will likely handle the Huskies but weird things tend to happen when these teams meet in the Garden.