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Villanova Basketball Monday Musings: The Wildcats Are Back!

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Early Surprises, Something’s Different, and Should Saturday Have Happened?

NCAA Basketball: 2k Empire Classic Championship David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Villanova Basketball is back! Nope, not the way we thought it would be, but it’s back. And boy is it great. Even after a tough loss on Saturday night, it’s just so great to have Villanova basketball back on the TV/phone/laptop. And with its return, I have shaken off the rust and gotten back behind the keyboard to share my thoughts on all things Villanova. To start, let’s dive right in with the biggest early surprises of the season.

Early Season Surprises

This season is going to be full of surprises, both good and not so good. Am I confident it culminates in an NCAA Tournament? Yes. Can I tell you how many teams will be in, how that’s decided, or when it will be played? No clue. But we don’t have to wait for future surprises, there are plenty of early season shockers already that we can jump all over, even just when it comes to Villanova.

Scheduling Madness

We expected that some games may be lost to COVID rescheduling, but what I don’t think was anticipated was just grabbing games like we did with Virginia Tech or Hartford. I love this, and to anyone who says we shouldn’t have played three games in four days, more on that later. For now let’s just say it’s going to be fun in a season when games can happen any time, any where, and we still only know what half our schedule is!

Caleb Daniels Proves my Blue/White Theory

Caleb Daniels may not have been a huge surprise to crack the starting lineup this season, but he’s certainly delivered at a higher level than anyone expected. He’s the team’s third leading scorer, leads all starters in 2P% (64.7%) and the entire team in 3P% (40%). And not to say I called this kind of production, but I knew since last year’s Blue/White scrimmage that this guy was going to be special.

NCAA Basketball: 2k Empire Classic Championship David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

In fact, over the last couple of seasons whenever a new player has stood out as one of the best in the Blue/White scrimmage, they’ve gone on to do some pretty amazing things. In 2015, the first time I saw Eric Paschall step on the court, I marveled that we had let one of the linebackers from the football team come and play in the game before realizing he was on the team. In 2016, a freshman by the name of Omari Spellman looked great before immediately being ruled ineligible that year. In 2018 it was Saddiq Bey that looked like the breakout star despite being the lowest ranked member of his class. And last season Caleb Daniels looked like “he’ll easily be the best new player on next year’s team.” Can’t wait for next year’s Blue/White!

Robinson-Earl is All-American Good

NCAA Basketball: 2k Empire Classic Championship David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

We all thought Jeremiah Robinson-Earl was going to be the most talented player on this year’s team, and possibly its best. What I don’t think was expected would be for him to vault into National Player of the Year talk just three games into the season. Then again, that’s what averaging 20 points and 9 rebounds a game will do for you! I don’t think it’s likely that JRE finishes the season as NPOY, although it’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility. But I do think he’s well on his way to earning a spot on the first team All-American list. A big part of that will be his ability to score inside, and that leads me to my next big topic.

Same Philosophy, Different Results

Set aside the loss, heck the entire record, and let’s just look at what Villanova’s done on offense this season. They currently rank 5th in offensive efficiency per KenPom. They’re shooting over 55% on the interior, and despite working everything inside they only turn the ball over on 13% of possessions (17th in the country). What I’m trying to say is that Villanova is taking the ball inside, and it’s working. Yes, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl has been great on the interior, but it’s everyone that’s going inside these days and the result has been a highly efficient team that was a few FT’s away from being 3-0.

Now you may be thinking to yourself that Villanova has been driving inside for years! Penetrate and kick out has been the bread and butter for Villanova’s Championship runs, why would it change? Well the funny thing is... it hasn’t. This is exactly what Nova has done before, by either driving to the lane or backing down their opponent to the block and then making a play from there. The difference this season seems to be that no one wants to get into a 3-point contest with Nova. And so, we’re not seeing the help on the interior we normally would, giving players the green light to go 1 on 1 inside the arc. I need to preface all of this with the fact that it’s a small sample size of just three games, and things will change as Wright and Villanova’s opponents make adjustments. But the results of this further reliance on taking advantage of 1 on 1 situations has caused two major changes in the normal statistics we’ve seen from a Jay Wright team.

The first is that assist percentage, or the number of made baskets that were assisted, is at a career low for a Wright coached team. Jay’s never finished a season, even at Hofstra, with an assist percentage under 48.1% (2005’s Sweet 16 run). Currently, the Wildcat’s sit at 39.3%, ranking 189th in the country. Surely that number will go up, but this makes sense given how teams have been defending Nova this season. Villanova has a number of talented guys that can take their man off the dribble, and right now teams are willing to play straight 1 on 1 rather than give up threes. That said, this is only going to work if they continue to make the right decisions and pick the spots where this is most effective. For the most part they have so far, but this is a slippery slope that leads to an over-reliance on iso ball that Nova fans have seen fail in the past.

The second big change, and probably the more obvious one, is that this team isn’t jacking up threes. Yes, they’re still taking them, and no, they’re not making as many as we’d like to see. But to my point above the three point line has been heavily guarded through the first three games. The result has been that only 40% of Villanova’s shots are coming from behind the arc. That may still sound like a lot (still in the top third of the country), but by Nova’s standards it’s way down. If that number held for the rest of the season, it would be the lowest since 2013. AKA, the lowest since the start Nova’s greatest run of success.

Unlike the assist number though, this one I’m actually ok with. Yes, I’d like to see them make more than 34.7% of their threes, but right now they’re just missing open shots. That will correct itself over the course of a season and as the players round into shape, but the big take away here is how smart they’re being with shot selection. When teams are forcing Villanova off the line, the Wildcats aren’t forcing up shots just because it’s what they’ve always done. This team starts two elite sophomores and a trio of players all in their 4th season in college basketball. They’re savvy, they’re smart, and they know how to find the right shots.

Should Villanova have played Virginia Tech?

Let’s start this little debate by removing any magic powers we think we may have. In other words, take the loss out of it. If I could know whether a game would be a win or a loss before it was scheduled I’d be making a lot more money than I do right now. Besides, had Nova won no one would be asking this question.

Instead, let’s just look at the positives and negatives of playing this game. Not just because I want to torture us all by rehashing it, but because scheduling a late notice game is something this team will likely be faced with again at some point this season.

Three Games in Four Days

The biggest complaint I’ve heard so far is that we shouldn’t have played three games in four days. How can a team be expected to play that frequently, that’s not even something that can happen in the NCAA Tournament!

NCAA Basketball: Final Four-Villanova vs Kansas Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

First off, three games in four days at an event in November is not something new for Villanova. In fact, it’s pretty standard. Just last season, Villanova played a Thursday, Friday, Sunday schedule in their early season tournament. The previous year as well, beating Florida State to win for the third time in four days. Heck, the year before that Villanova played three games in three days to win the Battle for Atlantis. This is the fifth consecutive season that Villanova has played in this format in November, so I just don’t buy the spacing of the games as a reason not to play.

Rest and Rotation

That’s not to say there aren’t valid reasons why Villanova may have wanted to pass on the Virginia Tech game. The Hokies had two days rest to Villanova’s one, and were coming off a game with an opponent that didn’t present nearly the same level of challenge that Villanova had been facing in its first two games.

Also, Villanova had been running a relatively short rotation in the first two games. Against Boston College, the Top 6 players in the rotation accounted for 90% of the Wildcats minutes. In game two against Arizona State, that number was up to 91.5%. And in case you were curious, in the OT game against Virginia Tech, that number ballooned further to 97.3%.

Yes, the Villanova players did look a little tired down the stretch against Virginia Tech. While you can’t predict an Overtime, you can predict how you’ll plan to use your rotation. If Wright knew he was going to run with what’s looking like a primary rotation of Gillespie, Moore, Daniels, Samuels, Robinson-Earl, and Swider off the bench, then maybe trying to space out the games could have changed things up a bit.

COVID Impact

Let’s face it, this is the reason there’s even a question at all here. Without COVID there are fans in the seats and the thought of messing with the schedule mid-season is unfathomable. And for Villanova, it’s a double edged sword. COVID kept the team from weeks of practice during the offseason that could have had them better conditioned this early in the season. But it’s also the reason there was even an opening in the schedule to begin with as Temple had to back out of their games with both Villanova and Virginia Tech.

At the end of the day, you can’t predict how this disease affects your future, so you have to take what’s available to you now. Jay Wright did just that by electing to take on Virginia Tech now when he could have a say in the situation and control how his team reacted to it. Worst case scenario it was an early loss they can easily bounce back from given the number of highly ranked opponents on their schedule and the fact that it was played on a neutral court. Best case scenario the team gets more work and a win.

Would I have done it?

In my opinion, it was a smart play by Wright. You have to get games in when you can because you can’t control what other teams are going to do. Every Villanova player and staff member could be so bought into this season that they completely isolate themselves from anyone else to prevent catching the virus, only to see half the teams on their schedule cancel games because they got it.

As a fan base, we’ve clamored for Wright to challenge the team early so that they’re more prepared for March, and that’s exactly what this was. A quality opponent on a neutral court is as close as you can get to a win/win scenario in the eyes of the NCAA Tournament selection committee.

If there’s anything I may have done differently, it would have been to get a little more run for Slater (4 min.) and Dixon (2 min.). Then again, I don’t know what’s happening in the huddle, in practice, or in the heads of these kids or coaches. I’m also not a 2 time National Champion. So if you have to take Jay Wright’s decisions against my own, I’d highly advise you go with the professional.

At the end of the day, I think we can all agree on one thing. This was Temple’s fault.