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How Does Villanova Basketball Replace The Production From The Class of 2017?

There are some big statistical holes to fill on both sides of the ball. Which Wildcats will step up this season?

Creighton v Villanova Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

August is here, and we’re officially closer to next season than last season. As far as timing goes, the start of a season is pretty set in stone. While you may not know exactly how long one will last (hopefully into April!), it always starts at the same time with a definitive beginning and end. But many college basketball fans will group seasons together when they think of the teams that played over a short span and call it an “era”.

It’s sometimes hard to pinpoint the start and end of an era with college basketball, but it can usually be defined by a pivotal class or two. Under Jay Wright, there have been three very successful “eras”. First was right out the gate with the classes of ‘06 and ‘07 that featured Foye, Ray, Fraser, Sumpter, Nardi, and Sheridan. That was followed by the era featuring the ‘09, ‘10, and ‘11 classes of Cunningham, Anderson, Reynolds, Redding, Fischer, and Stokes. And now we’re faced with the ending of a Championship era that already features players from ‘16 and ‘17 like Arcidiacono, Ochefu, Jenkins, and Hart.

But like I said, an era is hard to define, especially while you’re in it. That’s what faces the 2018 Wildcats, especially the leaders like Brunson, Booth, and Bridges who were also a part of that Championship team in 2016. Does a down season tag them onto the back of that previous era as key parts of a championship that weren’t as strong without the aforementioned stars? Or does a deep post-season run cement them as the headliners of the next “era” of players under Jay Wright?

In order for the later to be true, the first step is determining how to replace the winningest class in school history, and the production that left with them. Today we’re going to take a look at some of the biggest statistical holes the class of ‘17 has left behind and identify the players that are most likely to fill those gaps. We’ll start with the biggest one: 3-Point Shooting.

3-Point Makes and Attempts

It’s no surprise that Jenkins and Hart were 1 and 2 on the team in both attempted and made 3-pointers last season (Reynolds didn’t take any), but the two combined to take 50.1% of the team’s threes and were responsible for 51.4% of the team’s made threes. That’s an incredibly high percentage for a team who took over 800 shots from deep. In fact, Villanova took the 5th highest percentage of their shots from beyond the arc among all the teams in the six Major Conferences. But it’s not just the volume that Villanova needs to replace, it’s also the accuracy. Josh Hart shot a team best 40.4% on his 3’s, and even in a down year Jenkins still connected on 36% of his attempts.

Replacing those two with just two more players is likely impossible. They combined for 422 attempted 3’s and 160 makes. However, it could be done by a committee of talented outside shooters. And it just so happens, that’s exactly what Villanova has. It starts with Jalen Brunson, who shot 37.8% on 111 attempts last season. Not only is he skilled at distributing the ball and finding open shooters on the wings, he’s also more than capable of pulling up and firing on his own if the defense gives him space. Over 40% of Brunson’s made threes last season were unassisted, the highest rate of any player on the team.

His first and best option on the wing will be Mikal Bridges. Bridges shot 39.3% from three last season, and all of his 44 makes were assisted. Almost half of Bridges shots last year came from behind the arc, and if he’s able to continue improving his accuracy, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him become the team’s sharp shooter.

Another piece that was missing last season will be Phil Booth. We know now that Booth played hurt through his sophomore season, and missed almost all of his junior season with injury. But if you go back to his freshman year, he shot a blistering 48.5% from deep, going 32 for 66 and taking more than half of his shots from deep. If he can find that form again and get his shooting % back over 40%, the three killer B’s will be drilling 3’s all season long.

The rest of the volume will be picked up by the remainder of the team. Donte DiVincenzo found his form late in the season, shooting 60% from deep over his lat 6 games. Eric Paschall needs to improve his long ball, but he did show that he can hit when his teammates find him as 100% of his makes were assisted. New comers Jermaine Samuels and Colin Gillespie were solid shooters in High School, but we’ll have to wait and see how they can contribute at the college level. Even big man Omari Spellman can stroke it from outside, but we’ll have to see how long it takes for Jay to give him the green light.

Offensive and Defensive Rebounds

Villanova wasn’t winning too many games last season because they were stellar on the boards. The team ranked 132nd nationally in total rebounds, grabbing 1,208 for the year. They finished better on the defensive end (79th, 896) than they did on the offensive end (238th, 312), and a lot of that had to do with the 2017 class.

Hart (1st), Jenkins (4th), and Reynolds (2nd) were 3 of the top 4 rebounders on last year’s squad. All three pulled down 100+ defensive boards, a feat only matched by Mikal Bridges and Donte DiVincenzo. Reynolds and Hart were the only two players to pull down 50+ offensive rebounds. In total, the class of 2017 accounted for 45.4% of offensive rebounds, 49.9% of defensive rebounds, and 48.8% of total rebounds.

Next season, the player who picks up the biggest percentage of total boards will obviously be freshman center Omari Spellman. Assuming that the big man will be getting considerable minutes, it’s safe to say that he could easily average 6 or 7 boards per game. That number is about the mid-way point between Ochefu’s 2016 production and Reynold’s 2017 production. He should not only help fill the gap left behind, but also help improve Villanova’s presence on the offensive glass.

The player returning from last season that should take the biggest step forward on the boards is Eric Paschall. Last season, he had the second best offensive rebounding percentage on the team at 8.9%, only behind Darryl Reynold’s 11.9%. Every other Wildcat that received significant minutes last year was below 6%. With presumably more minutes on the court in 2018, I expect Paschall to see the biggest percentage increase in total rebounds of all the returning players.

And of course, we’re still going to need a high level of play from the team’s best returning rebounder, Mikal Bridges. While his position out on the wing may keep him from being a dominant offensive rebounder, his length makes him highly effective on the defensive glass. I would be shocked if he didn’t finish as the best or a close second best rebounder on the team this season, and those expectations are part of the reason he’s expected to be a candidate to leave early for the NBA.

As for the rest of the team, Donte DiVincenzo should continue to have high production on the glass. Anyone who saw the Virginia game knows how clutch he can be there. Phil Booth is another guard who can attack the glass and by all accounts looks to be healthy to start the season. Dylan Painter, along with new comers Jermaine Samuels and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree should round out the rest of the 50% needed to cover the gap, and hopefully more.

Free Throws and Free Throw Rate

For the past four years, Villanova has been putting up ever increasing FT% numbers. For the past two seasons the Wildcats finished at 79% (‘17) and 78.2% (‘16), boasting back to back Top 3 finishes nationally in team FT%. But that number can be a little misleading in terms of what it means for Villanova’s offense.

Over that same four year period, Nova’s FT Rate (# of FT attempts per 100 FG attempts) has dropped from 44.5 to 35.0. Their percentage of points from FTs have also dropped from 22.9% to 19.4%. Because the team was taking fewer FTs but becoming more efficient, the result was a fairly balanced production of around 600 points each season from the line. But last season, that number dropped by over 10% to 538.

2014-2017 Free Throw Analysis

Season FT% FT Rate % of Points from FT Made FT FT Attempts
Season FT% FT Rate % of Points from FT Made FT FT Attempts
2017 79% (3rd) 35.0 (180th) 19.4% (203rd) 538 (73rd) 681 (162nd)
2016 78.2% (2nd) 34.1 (242nd) 19.2% (243rd) 599 (29th) 766 (89th)
2015 73.1% (47th) 41.8 (58th) 21.6% (128th) 596 (13th) 815 (22nd)
2014 71.6% (121st) 44.5 (66th) 22.9% (130th) 607 (48th) 848 (55th)

Initially this is a little surprising. We’re talking about one of the most efficient offenses in school history, which actually improved both its FT% and FTRate from the previous season. But the bottom line is that Villanova’s slowed down pace in 2017 resulted in less, albeit more efficient, scoring across the board. FTs and FTAs both saw significant drops overall, but the team was so good in other areas that it didn’t seem to matter.

Well, three of the players that were largely responsible for that efficiency are now gone. The class of 2017 were responsible for 48.3% of the team’s trips to the line. The class scored 256 points at the charity stripe last season, with Hart and Jenkins each making at least 100 Free Throws. Outside of Jalen Brunson, no other player on the team even made 60.

Brunson is actually the candidate most likely to lead the team in a lot of these categories next season. In 2017, he was 2nd on the team in Made FTs (120), Attempted FTs (137), FT% (87.6%) and FTRate (40.5). As “the guy” for Villanova next season, I’d expect those numbers to stay relative consistent, if not slightly improve.

As for who can help fill the gap left by the departing class, there’s two other players primed for significant improvement at the line. The first is last year’s most accurate FT shooter, Mikal Bridges. While Bridges only attempted 56 FTs, he made 51 of them for a team high 91.1%. However, he also had the team’s lowest FTRate at 24. One of the keys for Bridges this season will be to get more aggressive attacking the basket. This should result in a slightly lower FT%, but a much higher FTRate and more points from the line.

The other candidate for a significant jump is Donte DiVincenzo, who had the 4th most FT attempts from last year’s team. While his FT% was under 70%, the good news is this coaching staff has become very skilled at improving player’s FT shooting form and accuracy. Phil Booth, Jalen Brunson, and Mikal Bridges have all seen their FT% increase by more than 10% from their freshman to sophomore seasons. If DiVincenzo can show similar improvements in his game, he’ll become much more productive at the line.

As for the rest of the team, Phil Booth will be a welcome edition back with his 82.9% career FT%. With a nice shooting touch already and a year of working with the staff under his belt, Omari Spellman should continue the tradition of above average FT shooting big men at Villanova. The rest of the team returning from last season shot under 70%, but incoming freshman Jermaine Samuels and Colin Gillespie should each be solid at the line.

By losing the class of 2017, Villanova’s efficiency will likely regress back toward the mean. However, the team’s added depth and collective experience should allow them to push the tempo more this season, making up for the efficiency with volume. This will still be one of the more potent offenses in the country, and they’ll likely compete for a 5th consecutive Big East Championship. While the departing seniors will be missed by both the team and the fans, the Wildcats shouldn’t miss a beat when it comes to producing on the court in 2018.