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What I learned about Villanova Basketball in Myrtle Beach

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From Freshmen to Funny Hats, there was a lot to take in at the Myrtle Beach Invitational.

When Villanova was announced as a participant in the Myrtle Beach Invitational, I knew I was going. For the first time in my life I had the ability to make it out to one of these early season tournaments, and there was finally one that wouldn’t keep me away from my family on Thanksgiving. So in the months leading up to the event I rounded up my friends, booked a flight, and eventually was on my way down to South Carolina.

What followed was a five day stretch of funny hats, new friends, and memories that will last me a lifetime. Oh, and a lot of fun basketball as well! It would take too much time to recap everything that happened over the past week, but there were some very important takeaways regarding Villanova Basketball. Whether it was things I learned about the team, the fans, or just the reinforcement of things I already knew, I think it’s all valuable information to know going forward for the 2019-2020 season.

1) This Villanova team is a lot of fun to watch in person

It’s always great to watch Villanova play, even better to watch in person. But this Villanova team is A LOT of fun, especially on offense. They may not have the sheer dominance of the 2018 Championship team, but Villanova is playing some really beautiful basketball right now. Part of what makes it so fun is the team’s willingness to push the ball on offense and look for transition baskets. That’s something they’ve lacked in recent seasons with the exception of 2018.

And that may be why I was dumbfounded to find out that the loss to Baylor was Villanova’s slowest paced game of the season. I may have actually gasped when I read it, because I SAW Villanova really pushing the ball offensively. But now that I’m not courtside, it makes more sense. Pace is often dictated on the defensive end, and Villanova still wants to slow things down there and force teams into contested or less than ideal shots. They did that effectively against Baylor, the Bears just were able to convert on a lot of tough threes.

The defense will improve over time, and the offense already ranks 3rd in KenPom.com‘s efficiency rankings. So is it possible for Villanova to push the ball while still playing a slower paced game? I think we’re seeing evidence that not only can they, but they can make it fun to watch as well.

2) Villanova’s “Wine and Cheese” crowd is more passionate than they get credit for

Being in my mid-30’s, I’d still consider myself on the younger end of the spectrum when it comes to Villanova’s fan base. And being a member of that group I’ve often been on my feet, cheering wildly and starting chants when attending Villanova Basketball games. Of course, the same can’t be said for everyone in attendance. In fact, over the years a large portion of ticket holders have been dubbed the “wine and cheese” crowd because it’s rare that they get boisterously involved in the game.

It’s a fair criticism. In Myrtle Beach there were certainly pockets of fans outside of my friends and I that were in on every chant, but for the most part you weren’t seeing many fans get on there feet outside of a few late pushes in the second half. The younger fans will always want the entire stadium to act like a student section throughout the game, and unfortunately that’s probably never going to happen at Villanova.

All of that said, this trip gave me an opportunity to meet and talk with a lot of those “Wine and Cheese” fans outside of the arena. Whether it be at a bar, at the hotel, or even out on the street, everyone wanted to talk about Villanova Basketball. And while not everyone was as animated as I may have been in the building, their passion for this team and this university was no less than my own. No one made them fly from around the country to see this team play or buy full season tickets just to be able to catch a few games. They do it because they LOVE Villanova and Villanova Basketball. So next time you want to knock that portion of the fan base, just know that their lack of external eruption doesn’t mean they’re any less passionate.

3) Collin Gillespie is a man on a mission

Everything I’ve read and seen coming into this year told me that Gillespie is a scrapper that’s going to leave everything out on the court. But what we’re seeing this year is a player that’s really willing to do whatever it takes to win. He may not have the skill set of a Kyle Lowry or Josh Hart, but that’s who I’d compare him to when it comes to emotional investment in how he and his teammates perform on the court.

That’s not to say he’s an emotional player, or that it causes his game to swing based on performance. He just really, truly, cares about playing his hardest. And this year, that’s showing itself in a number of ways, especially since the mask came off. Not only is Gillespie the largest benefactor of Villanova’s faster paced offense, he’s the guy that makes it work. It doesn’t matter who’s in the paint, he is not afraid to bang around with forwards and sacrifice his body in order to make the right play. While the execution has led to a few more turnovers (more on that later), the mentality is exactly what this team needs to succeed.

And on top of that, he’s now scoring at every level. Last year, Gillespie took fewer than 19% of his shots at the rim, and only converted at a 56% rate. This season he’s taking over 26% of his shots at the rim, and making over 66% of them. And while he may have started slow on the perimeter with the mask on this year, he shot 42% from deep in Myrtle Beach. His other offensive numbers in the tournament were 73% from inside the arc, 85% at the charity stripe, and a team high average of 20.3 PPG. Collin Gillespie has taken the next step, and he’s playing the best basketball of his career.

4) It’s not hyperbole when Jay Wright says these players come from great families

I’ve always believed Jay Wright when he says how amazing the families of these players are, and that it’s the parents that deserve the credit for what great men they turn out to be. While I did get to sit next to the DiVincenzo’s at the Wells Fargo Center for an exhibition game once, I’d never really sat down and talked with the players families before to confirm it for myself.

Well this weekend my friends and I ran into the Arcidiaconos, the Swiders, and the Moores, and all of them couldn’t have been more wonderful people. Of course they’re passionate about their own children, but they have also really bought into the culture of Villanova Basketball. They couldn’t have been better team ambassadors, and just talking to them about their sons and this team makes you realize that Jay really has stuck to his plan of finding the right players (and families) to fit his system.

It’s not just about being a fit on the court, it’s also about being a fit in the culture. And really, that means finding players with families that have already raised them with the same core values that Wright preaches. Even the Villanova community has taken on this family culture, and speaking to the actually Villanova Basketball families was an extension of that. As much as we appreciate them and their sons, they appreciate the University and the Villanova community even more.

5) Cole Swider is the shooter he was promised to be

When Cole Swider was recruited to Villanova, Jay Wright was quoted saying he’d be the next great Villanova sharp-shooter. Through an injury plagued freshman year with minimal minutes, it was hard to see that in the young forward. However, this year with over 20 minutes per game Swider has proven to be a real offensive threat. The big man is shooting 48.6% from deep and 73.3% from inside the arc. Both would be team highs if not for Bryan Antoine’s 50% (1-2) from outside and 75% (3-4) from inside, all of which came from a single game. The point is, Swider has been a real offensive threat and is clearly the Wildcats #1 option off the bench.

Even beyond the offense, Swider showed us a lot in this tournament. He proved he could be “the guy” with a 26 point outburst against Middle Tennessee in which he went 6 for 11 from deep. He also showed better interior footwork on both ends of the court, along with improved activity on defense. This was a showcase for the improvements Swider’s made early in the season, and if he can continue on that trajectory he’s going to remain a vital part of this rotation throughout the season. It’s a real credit to the work he’s putting in, and his team is reaping the benefits.

6) Turnovers are the #1 issue facing Villanova right now

This team is still a work in progress. While there are a lot of things that are either working well or improving, turnovers remain a big issue for this team. Compared nationally, it doesn’t seem as big a deal since Villanova currently ranks 67th with a 17.1 Offensive TO% (Turnovers per Possession). However, compared internally that’s the highest TO% Villanova has had in the last six years.

And it’s not just that the Wildcats are turning the ball over, it’s also that they’re not turning their opponents over. Villanova’s wing and forward heavy rotation has led to less ball pressure on the perimeter, and severely limited their ability to come up with steals. With just a 16.8 Defensive TO% (288th nationally), this team is the worst at creating turnovers over in the last 22 years.

While this isn’t going to become a team of ball hawks, I do think they’ll improve with turnovers on both sides of the ball as the season continues. Getting Bryan Antoine up to speed will be a big part of that. We already saw him get his first steal and subsequent points in the Myrtle Beach invitational, but more on him later. As far as turning the ball over on offense, there have been three major culprits: Collin Gillespie, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, and Jermaine Samuels.

Gillespie is somewhat forgivable because he is the first, second, and third option when it comes to ball handlers on this team. He’s been responsible for over 26% of the Wildcats possessions this year, and despite leading the team in turnovers he still has an Assist to Turnover Ratio of 2.3. He will only get more comfortable and controlled as the season continues, and we should see those numbers improve. Robinson-Earl’s struggles can generally be chalked up to rookie mistakes. While he’s made some truly jaw dropping plays in just six games, sometimes he tries to do too much on his own. I’ve seen him try to work through double and sometimes triple teams, which of course lead to turnovers. It’s not to say that he can’t score in those situations, because he is THAT good. He just needs to get better at picking his spots, and that will come with time and experience.

The one I’m a little concerned about is Samuels. Let’s start by saying that he’s absolutely playing the role he needs to this season. While he can be a scorer, Villanova has a ton of offense right now between Gillespie, Robinson-Earl, Bey, Moore, Swider, and soon to be Antoine. Samuels biggest contributions are coming everyone but the points column, and that’s what’s helping this team win. Not many teams have a player that’s going to rank 1st in blocks, 2nd in rebounds, and 4th in assists. What he needs to do now is improve his control. Not only does Samuels rank 3rd in turnovers, he’s also 1st in fouls. If he can real both of those in a little by Big East play while still averaging nearly 10 PPG, he’ll be the most well rounded player on Villanova’s roster.

7) Minutes allocation for Bryan Antoine and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree

Bryan Antoine’s debut was better than most would have anticipated. Not so much that he had 9 points, shot 66% from the field and 50% from three, or that his first basket came off a terrific steal. The big surprise of his debut was that he played 19 minutes, spread throughout the game. Even I wasn’t predicting half that much playing time even though we were expecting a blow-out victory. And then just like that, he disappeared back to the bench, seeing less than a minute against Mississippi State and no time against Baylor. My inbox and twitter feed was flooded with questions about why he wasn’t playing or if there was some sort of injury. And the simple answer is, this was the plan.

While Antoine has been at practice for a while, he hasn’t been playing. Learning the theory of something and doing that same thing isn’t the easiest transition. Even against Middle Tennessee, there were instances when he was out of place or was creating offense by pure skill rather than through Jay Wright’s system. That’s not a bad thing, we’ve seen players like Jalen Brunson, Josh Hart, and Randy Foye just create off of their natural talents. But it’s also important to know when to do it, and how to make the right decision offensively. Similarly if you don’t know how to operate within the defense it can lead to missed assignments and easy baskets.

Jay Wright said they’d bring along Antoine slowly, and that’s what is going to happen. This upcoming week of Big 5 play should be somewhat telling. In all of those games, I’d expect Antoine to get 5 to 15 minutes as he gets slowly worked into the rotation. It may take until February for Antoine to consistently get the 25+ minutes per game that many are hoping for this year. Fans will have to be patient with his development because it’s not just about him learning the system, it’s also about conditioning and being able to play an entire game at 100%.

On the opposite end of that coin is Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree. I’ve been a staunch defender of the big man and what he brings defensively and on the boards. His overall production has been disappointing, but he still is a contributor and the second option at the five spot. That’s why it was puzzling to me that against bigger teams like Mississippi State and Baylor, he saw just 8 total minutes. Efficiency wise, he’s still tops on the team in offensive rebounding and second only to Jeremiah Robinson-Earl on the defensive boards. But he’s still seeing his minutes regress as the season moves along.

I have a problem with the lack of minutes for Cosby-Roundtree. And not just because I think he deserves 8-12 minutes a game, but because the reason he’s playing so few minutes is because Jeremiah Robinson-Earl is playing almost the entire game. Against Mississippi State, Robinson-Earl played 34 minutes, and then he registered a team high 38 minutes against Baylor. Don’t get me wrong, Robinson-Earl should be one of if not the most used player on this team. But we aslo saw the trap of overplaying a handful of players last season, and there is just too much talent on this team not to give guys a little rest throughout the season as they prepare for March. Cosby-Roundtree may not be playing up to the potential we saw last season, but he should still get around 10 minutes a game.

8) Villanova won the Myrtle Beach Invitational

I know I know, the Men’s Basketball team didn’t win the trophy presented on Sunday. But trust me when I say that Villanova, as a community, won in Myrtle Beach. First off, Villanova dominated the attendance of this event. It may not have been apparent on TV, but this stadium was easily 85%+ filled for every Nova game, and about 80% of that crowd was Wildcat fans. Even Baylor, the only other ranked team in the tournament, was barely able to fill an entire section. Nova filled more than 3/4’s of the sideline bleachers and good chunks of the baseline.

Second, you couldn’t go anywhere without running into Nova fans in Myrtle Beach. On the golf course, out at a bar, or even when you walked into the Hook & Barrel Restaurant. If you’re planning a trip to Myrtle, you NEED to go to Hook & Barrel and ask for Steve to be your waiter. You won’t regret it! But really experiencing the entire weekend with a large portion of the Villanova community just made it all the better, and no other fan base was able to say that.

And third, if you watched the tournament at all this weekend, you may have seen my friends and I in our funny hats rooting for Nova on the sidelines. We bought into this team and this tournament, and we found a way to get others as into the game as we were by purchasing eye-catching headware at off-season prices. We got high fives at the games, cheers when people saw us on the street, and even had a father and son go out and buy hats to join us. Bottom line is that when you buy into rooting for Villanova Basketball, the Villanova community embraces you with open arms. And so does Myrtle Beach. And so does ESPN. Because trust me, nothing is as fun as being brought to center court to have the fans vote on who has the funniest hat. Well, maybe carrying the winner off the court Rudy style. Just another reason to say “It’s a great day to be a Wildcat!”