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Villanova Basketball Cat Stats: Pace, Space, and Bigs with Grace

A dive deep into what stood out after Villanova’s win over Army.

Army v Villanova Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Each week, we’ll be using this space to highlighting the stats, concepts, and general observations that stood out over the previous week of Villanova Basketball.

It was just one game, but there’s plenty to unpack after Villanova’s 97-54 victory over Army. There was so much newness last Tuesday (new players, new twists on our familiar schemes, and new concepts) that choosing a few things to focus on was no easy task. This week we break down Villanova’s fast pace and its pick and roll offense against Army, with a close look at how the wing-heavy rotation played a part in both.

Pace with Our Space?

In college basketball, Villanova is synonymous with three point shooting. Last season, the Wildcats were one of only seven teams in all of division one to take more than half of their shots from three. For better or worse, Villanova is the face of the three. What has not been associated with Wildcats teams under Jay Wright, however, is a fast pace.

In their home opener against Army, Villanova rolled to 97-54 victory, taking 43.5% of their shots from three while running at an 81.7 pace. While the proportion of threes is not surprising, the pace is. The Wildcats took 50.8% of their shots in transition against the Black Knights per Hoop-Math, which classifies “transition” as within 0-11 seconds of the shot clock starting. This is a large number even before you take into account that last season, Villanova took less than a quarter of their shots in transition.

Over the last five seasons, Villanova has played at a faster pace only three times, all against teams that finished the season ranked in the top-25 in pace. When the team does run, it seems to happen early in the season, with only two of their top five games coming against Big East teams.

Fastest Games of the Past Five Years

Opponent Season Pace Game Number Score Opp Pace Rank
Opponent Season Pace Game Number Score Opp Pace Rank
Nichols St. 2017-18 91.4 2 113-77 5
St. John's 2016-17 83.5 24 92-79 23
Morgan St. 2018-19 83.4 1 100-77 24
Army 2019-20 81.7 1 94-57 ??
Depaul 2017-18 80.9 13 103-85 87

You could dismiss Villanova’s pace against Army as some sign of the changing times. This has happened in the past, and playing slow has been a tenant of the Jay Wright system. That said, there is evidence this Villanova team wants to play faster.

What stands out most from the game was the Wildcats’ willingness to grab and go off of rebounds. When Army missed, Villanova was snagging rebounds and putting up shots in transition 37.7% of the time. Compare that with last season, when the Wildcats took that early shot only 15.7% of the time. Running off a missed shot matters, as it’s typically a concept passed from coach to players, rather than say running off of a turnover, which is intuitive.

While it’s safe to see this as an outlier, it’s worth monitoring. Given the ‘Cats’ obvious advantage in athleticism and lack of stability at the guard position, it could serve this team to get out in transition more, if only to create some easier looks.

Big-Big Pick and Rolls

The transition from “Guard U” to “Wing U” is here, and it is long, fast, and difficult to defend. In their season opener, Villanova was exclusively playing lineups in which their smallest player was either Collin Gillespie (6-3) or Justin Moore (6-4). Of the remaining six Wildcats in the rotation who played more than 15 minutes, no player stood shorter than 6-7. Even more exciting, outside of Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, Villanova’s wing rotation featured five players who could all handle the ball and shoot from the outside.

We could have seen a conservative approach from Jay Wright, giving ball-handing responsibilities to Collin Gillespie while running basic actions through Saddiq Bey and Jermaine Samuels. Instead we got an egalitarian offense, where all five players on the court screened and motioned for one another. One of the byproducts of this scheme was running more forward-forward pick and rolls. I can confirm that these were, in fact, very cool.

It’s the 2019-20 season and our 6-9 center is screening for our 6-9 forward. Poor Matt Wilson, who is a productive senior with 61 career starts, is just doing what he’s been taught. With his man coming to screen, Wilson is playing drop coverage. On top of that, his man is screening for another forward, which is all the more reason to drop and prevent the drive to the rim.

Unfortunately for Matt Wilson, the ball-handler is Cole Swider, and Villanova’s sophomore forward has one of the smoothest stokes on the Wildcats’ roster. The result is an uncontested three that Swider knocks down en route to a career best 18-point performance.

In a sequence later in the second half, Villanova’s Jermaine Samuels runs a pick and roll with Jeremiah Robinson-Earl to a different but similarly devastating conclusion. Thus far in the game, Villanova’s freshman has killed Army from both inside and out, so there’s even more potency to the pick and roll when he’s involved. The Army defenders have to respect JRE’s ability to pop out for shot or roll to the rim. In this instance, JRE rolls off the screen, and with both defenders locked on to Samuels, JRE slips to the rim for a layup and the foul.

We are, of course, looking at a small sample size, and whether or not Jay Wright remains committed to an egalitarian offense or a faster pace will remain unknown for some time. Today, Villanova faces Ohio State, KenPom’s 7th ranked defense and 309th fastest team in the country. You can expect more resistance from Chris Holtmann’s squad than the ‘Cats saw in their previous game. It will be telling one way or another whether Coach Wright continues to enable his young players and lets his team run more in transition. Either way, there was a lot of be encouraged about after just one game, and this is shaping up to be a fun and exciting Wildcats team.