It’s February, and there are a few things that happen this time of year no matter what. It’s the transition period from heart shaped Reese’s candy to egg shaped Reese’s candy. Basketball talking heads start playing the “blind resume” game and talk about how the bubble is weak... even though it’s not. Oh, and Jay Wright shrinks his rotation as if he washed it in a warm cycle and then threw it in the dryer on high by accident.
Just kidding, I’m sure he dry cleans everything.
But joking aside, this strategy isn’t a Jay Wright exclusive. As teams get closer to March and the Tournament, they start to hone in on the rotation that they’re going to use as they play for a league, tournament, or national championship. We’ve seen it this year as Bryan Antoine fell out of the regular rotation and minutes started to increase for the players Jay trusts the most. It’s been the same old song for years now.
Except this year has been different. Not different in that Wright is taking a different approach, but different in that he’s taking the shrinking rotation philosophy to an extreme. Not only has he been reducing the number of players in the rotation, but he’s been relying on just five guys more than he ever has before in his career.
The Losing Streak
Part of the reason this usual adjustment has been taken to the extreme is the recent three game skid the Wildcats went through. When Nova’s in a tightly contested game or trying to make a comeback, Wright leans hard on the players he trusts the most. This year, that’s been the core five of Collin Gillespie, Saddiq Bey, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Jermaine Samuels, and Justin Moore. That’s right, three underclassmen. Everyone can put the “Wright doesn’t play young guys” critique to bed.
But he’s playing these guys a lot. Like, A LOT. In the last five games, Wright has had that five man lineup on the court more than 40% of the time. That may not seem like much, but Villanova is one of only two teams in KenPom’s Top 40 that has played a single lineup over 40% of the time. The other is San Diego State, and that number is a bit flukey for them. San Diego State only has two players averaging over 28 minutes per game. Villanova has five, and spoiler alert, it’s the same five listed above. Here’s the full breakdown from KenPom.com.
As we saw in the Temple game, Wright gets a little more relaxed with the rotation when the game is in hand. On top of that, Robinson-Earl had limited minutes due to first half foul trouble. The result was 19 minutes for Brandon Slater, and 16 minutes each for Cole Swider and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree. So when things ease up, the rotation does expand out a bit.
The problem is that hasn’t been the case this season. Slow starts have led to a lot of come from behind games, and Jay has leaned on his five starters more than most seasons. In fact, he’s relied on them more than ANY season.
The Fantastic Five
Over-relying on a player or two is nothing new. Heck, the first thing that jumps out in the above graphic is that Collin Gillespie has practically lived on the court for the past five games. But this season we’ve seen the biggest gap between the starting five and the bench there’s ever been for a Jay Wright coached team at Nova.
Villanova’s starting five are all playing more than 70% of available minutes, which takes into account things like Overtime. That comes out to a little more than 28 minutes per game. Never before has Wright kept five players on the court that much in a single season. The closest was 2018 when four players surpassed the 70% mark. That year, Omari Spellman came in at just 69.7%, and Phil Booth was the 6th man at 55.9%. This year’s 6th man, Cole Swider, has been on the court just 49.8% of the time.
Whenever Jay starts running these guys over the 30 min per game mark, we see the “tired legs” comments. Yes, this level of usage of five players can increase the opportunity for exhaustion or injury, but that’s not necessarily a given. In addition, there are actually some major positives with this kind of focus.
The youth of this five player core means that they’re getting all the experience fans complained wasn’t being compiled last season when playing time was dominated by seniors like Eric Paschall, Phil Booth, and occasionally Joe Cremo. Not only is that experience key for getting a young group with two freshmen up to speed before March, it has the bonus effect of carrying over to the 2021 season. On top of the individual experience this concentrated effort is a great way to improve the chemistry this group has, especially on the defensive end.
Each team is different, and it’s on the coaching staff to adapt to the needs of each team in order to put the best possible team on the court for March. This year it’s clear that the staff has identified five main guys, with Swider, Slater, and Cosby-Roundtree playing supporting roles to different extents. From what we’ve seen on the court, that’s probably the right call. Swider and Slater are both still developing areas of their game and aren’t ready to make that jump to starter minutes. Cosby-Roundtree has seen more run recently as a player that understands the system and can contribute on defense, but his limitations (mental or otherwise) are still holding him back from taking the next step. That doesn’t mean we couldn’t see continued improvement over the final two months of the season, or even next year. But it hasn’t come to fruition yet, and is part of the reason Wright has relied so heavily on his five starters.
So conclusion time, is it a good or bad thing that the rotation has shrunk so much since November? The answer is... both. It’s not ideal to limit the numbers on the bench and their minutes because it means the season didn’t pan out for those individuals the way many fans would have hoped. Antoine fighting against injury and time, Swider trying to take big steps on defense, and Slater and Cosby-Roundtree become more mainstays on the offense... none of it came to fruition. To their credit, they all made positive improvement, it just wasn’t to the extent for them to play greater roles down the stretch in Big East play.
But taking those realities into consideration, it’s a good thing that Wright has limited to the rotation. It means he’s recognized what did and didn’t work throughout the season after trying multiple players in multiple roles. Now the focus becomes really honing in on achieving the best product they can in March, and at some point that means shutting down the learning process for those still trying to make strides. School is over, and now it’s time to perform. Wright is putting his top performers on the court, and we’re about to find out just how far that group can take the Wildcats.