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Did “Hero Ball” Hurt Villanova This Season?

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A postseason review reveals that Villanova probably relied too much on its players to make plays alone.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Wisconsin vs Villanova Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Another college basketball season has come to a close. The Villanova Wildcats might not have gotten the outcome they wanted, but the season as a whole was truly one for the record books. It saw the culmination of the winningest class in school history, a fourth consecutive Big East Championship, and the school’s first ever #1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament.

But still, what was a great season ended with a whimper rather than the roar fans were hoping for. Many people have said that the team just didn’t look the same in the tournament as they had all season. While this is some-what true, I’d like to suggest another theory. I think it was the culmination of the biggest shortcoming the Cats had this year: They stopped passing the ball.

I used the term “Hero Ball” in the title because, well, it’s catchy. But let’s make sure we’re all on the same page here. Unlike Urban Dictionary’s definition that it’s mediocre players thinking they’re superstars, I’m referring to what’s generally known as ISO ball. It’s one player taking the ball by himself and trying to create a shot with either a long jumper or taking the ball to the hoop. The key phrase there is “by himself”.

Where Did All The Assists Go?

This season Villanova assisted on 52.3% of their made field goals, ranking them 168th in the country. Ok, above average nationally, not great but not bad right? The problem is that it’s by far the worst Assist Rate Villanova has had since the 2012 season in which they only won 13 games.

This was just the 5th time in Jay Wright’s 16 years at Villanova that his team assisted on less than 52.5% of their FGs. From a pure numbers standpoint Villanova averaged 14.02 assists per game this season, down from 15.92 a year ago. So why was there such a sharp decline during arguably one of the best offensive seasons Villanova has ever had?

Jay Wright has said that he has a tendency to rely on his veteran players to “take over” when he needs them to. He freely admitted it too after the Virginia game:

“One of my weaknesses is when you get older in this program, it’s like a blanket to a baby. I’m so comfortable with those guys out there.”

This doesn’t just happen to Wright, it happens across all of college basketball to coaches and fans alike. When the game is on the line or your team is in trouble, everyone wants the ball in the hands of the team’s best player. But if that’s the blue print, and everyone knows it, eventually people will find a way to shut you down.

That becomes especially true when you stop passing the ball. When the play calls become more heavily screens and clear outs for the team’s best scorers instead of pick and rolls and ball movement, you give the defense a better chance to figure out what you’re doing. And if the defense knows what’s coming, it’s a lot harder to execute.

Remember when I said that this was the 5th time that the assist rate was under 52.5%? Well there’s a common thread between those occurrences, and it isn’t that they were bad teams.

Go To Players On Low Assist Rate Teams

Year Player (Class) Player Possession % Team Assist Rate Team Wins NCAA Seed NCAA Result
Year Player (Class) Player Possession % Team Assist Rate Team Wins NCAA Seed NCAA Result
2017 Josh Hart (Sr) 27.1% 52.3% 32 1 2nd Round
2012 Maalik Wayns (Jr) 27.8% 51.7% 13 N/A N/A
2010 Scottie Reynolds (Sr) 26.5% 49.9% 25 2 2nd Round
2006 Randy Foye (Sr) 29.5% 49.8% 28 1 Elite 8
2005 Randy Foye (Jr) 26.1% 48.1% 24 5 Sweet 16

Outside of 2012, these are actually considered some of Jay Wright’s better teams. Many would argue that the 2006 team was his best team not to reach the Final Four. But outside of the low assist rate, there’s another common thread. These are the only five teams of the Jay Wright era where the star player from the oldest class (no scholarship seniors in 2005 or 2012) used more than 25% of the team’s possessions.

And that’s where the problem lies. Villanova’s most successful teams have used ball movement among a plethora of skilled players to create shots, not just isolating elite level talent that the coach trusts unconditionally. It’s not that the trust in the player is unjustified or unearned, it just becomes too predictable for opposing defenses.

Talent can only get you so far. A lot of talent can get you farther (I see you 2006). But Jay’s only Final Four teams (2009 and 2016) had multiple players that weren’t going to be in the NBA draft, but were still major contributors within Villanova’s offensive system. You didn’t need to put up double digit points, but you did have to move the ball.

Why Wasn’t This A Bigger Deal During The Season?

Let’s be clear. This wasn’t just a great offensive team, this was Jay Wright’s BEST offensive team ever. That’s saying a lot considering previous teams had multiple NBA lottery picks or won the National Championship. But even when compared to those greats, this year’s team was statistically the most efficient Jay Wright has put on the floor.

Wright’s most efficient offense had been the 2010 team coming off a Final Four at 112.8 Adjusted Offensive Efficiency. Then Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins, and Darryl Reynolds arrived on campus and this happened:

That’s right, four straight seasons of consistently improving on the best offense Jay Wright’s ever had. Even with the drops in assists and assist rate, this year’s offense was more efficient. And when you’re winning games and scoring with historically high efficiency, no one is going to reassess a working formula.

Then how did a team that brought back all but two players lose so many assists and stay so potent on offense? There’s really three reasons for that: Interior passing, depth at PG, and team assists were inconsistent.

In 2016, Villanova had a number of gifted passers. Even center Daniel Ochefu ranked in the team’s Top 5 for Assist Rate. In fact, Ochefu had an Assist Rate of at least 12% for his last three seasons. But this year, Darryl Reynolds (4.1%) and Eric Paschall (5.2%) were not able to consistently contribute to the passing game inside the paint. Kris Jenkins and Mikal Bridges both had a 12% assist rate, but they spent most of their time out on the wings and attacked with dribble penetration. While it wasn’t the biggest reason for the decline in assists, not having a big man who could create opportunities with ball movement was a contributing factor.

But as you would expect, most of the assists last season came from the point guard position. That year Villanova had three guards that could run the point and averaged more than 2 assists per game: Ryan Arcidiacono (4.2 APG), Jalen Brunson (2.5 APG), and Phil Booth (2.1 APG). Kris Jenkins, while he never ran the point, also had 2.2 APG.

However, in 2017, Arch was gone, Booth was hurt, and Brunson was the only true point guard left. While he averaged 4.1 APG, he was the only point guard to average more than 2 assists per game. As you’d expect, Josh Hart was second on the team in assists with 2.9 APG, but they were the only two players over 2.

But when the two players that are taking over 50% of the team’s shots are also responsible for over 50% of the team’s assists, it’s not surprising that assist rates would be inconsistent. This season, the Wildcats were all over the map. The team had an assist rate of over 60% in 25% their games. At the other end of the spectrum, they registered an assist rate less than 40% in another 25% of their games. Even worse, those assist numbers were trending down over the course of the season.

All four of the team’s losses this season had an assist rate under 50%, with the low water mark coming against Wisconsin at 23.8%. In that game, the team had just 5 assists, compared to their season average of 14 APG. So I think we’ve proven that more assists > less assists, but does that mean Villanova shouldn’t have relied so much on Josh Hart to create for himself? Not necessarily.

Josh Hart had an AMAZING season. He was an All-American, Big East POY, and easily Villanova’s best player. What made him such a great player was his ability to know how to make the best play for the team. You already know that he was second on the team in assists, but what may surprise you is that about half of his own field goals were assisted by his teammates. For the guy that I thought used isolations and screens to attack the basket more than anyone else on the team, that surprised me. But not as much as this:

Hart vs Team: Assisted Field Goals

Player(s) % of Assisted FGs % of Assisted 2Pt FGs % of Assisted 3Pt FGs
Player(s) % of Assisted FGs % of Assisted 2Pt FGs % of Assisted 3Pt FGs
Josh Hart 52.1% 37.0% 85.1%
Rest Of The Team 52.5% 39.4% 82.7%

There are a lot of talented players for Villanova, but none of them (except maybe Brunson) were as capable of getting to the basket on their own as Hart. However, the percentage of Hart’s assisted FGs were almost identical to the rest of the team. To me, that was shocking. That means that over 60% of the the rest of the team’s baskets inside the arc were shots they created for themselves. That’s a far cry from just two year’s earlier when more than 60% of ALL Villanova’s baskets were assisted.

So it wasn’t the team’s star playing “Hero Ball” this season, it was the rest of the team trying a little too hard to be like the team’s star. It wasn’t immediately obvious. They still did an amazing job of kicking out to open shooters for 3’s, and that was resulting in high efficiency numbers. Opposing teams had to extend the defense to run those players off the line, and that would open up driving lanes for everyone to attack.

But when those 3’s weren’t falling and team’s didn’t have to extend, Villanova was still trying to create their own shots instead of using ball movement to open up the defense. Villanova has VERY talented players, but when they rely more on their talent than on teamwork, they got exposed. The good news is that the Wildcats are already poised to see a bump in their assist rate next year.

What Happens Next Season?

First off, I need to acknowledge that there’s some nit-picking going on here. This was one of the greatest seasons in Villanova history, and this team is going to be remembered for their achievements, not for a dip in assist numbers. Next year’s team will have some big shoes to fill. But while they may not be able to match the fire-power of this year’s squad, they should see a return to form as far as assists go.

We already acknowledged that depth at the point was a problem this year. However, next season should see the return of Phil Booth, improved passing by Donte DiVincenzo, and the addition of another possible PG option with freshman Collin Gillespie. Jalen Brunson will still be running the show, but with the potential for him to take over the mantle of “Go-To Scorer” he may see more action off-ball than his first two seasons.

Another aspect we touched on was the lack of a passing big man playing the interior. In the three previous seasons, Daniel Ochefu had provided that role. Next year, freshman Omari Spellman will look to provide a more consistent play making presence in the post. While we haven’t seen much of him on the court during his red shirt season, he certainly has the potential to improve the team’s interior passing.

So was “Hero Ball” at fault for the disappointing end to this season? Probably not, but the decline in assists certainly was a factor. The good news is that with the exception of 2006, Jay Wright’s teams have consistently bounced back with much better assist numbers after a decline like this year. In 2007, 2011, and 2013, Villanova’s assist rate improved by an average of 5.4%. The Wildcats are going to be great again in 2017-18, and while they may take a step back in some areas, assists shouldn’t be one of them.

(Editor’s Note: Statistics for this article were researched at Sports-Reference.com, KenPom.com, ESPN.com, NCAA.com, and FoxSports.com.)