Happy Friday, ‘Nova Nation! The #5 Villanova Wildcats will head to the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut this weekend to participate in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament. Readers will recall that the Wildcats were big fans of the Mohegan Sun Arena last year - electing to stay in “Bubbleville” for an extra game after winning the 2K Empire Classic.
This year, the ‘Cats will tip off against the #17 Tennessee Volunteers on Saturday (1:00p.m.) and will face either #18 North Carolina or #6 Purdue on Sunday. If the Wildcats can escape Connecticut with two Top-25 wins, the hype train is back on the tracks.
The ‘Cats last faced off against the Volunteers in the semis of the 2017 Bad Boy Mowers Battle 4 Atlantis. Villanova escaped with a 85-76 win led by Jalen Brunson’s 25 piece McNugget. Collin Gillespie, who was a freshman at the time, played 10 minutes and scored 2 points.
As for this year, the Volunteers are 2-0 on the young season with wins over UT-Martin and Eastern Tennessee and sit at #11 in KenPom, just a spot behind Villanova. In advance of Saturday’s tip-off, let’s take a quick look at what we can expect to see:
The Kennedy Chandler Show
Tennessee’s offense was brutal last year - ranking 85th in AdjO and sub-150 in all major offensive categories. Well, Rick Barnes hopes that the presence of 5-star point guard Kennedy Chandler will help change that this year. So far, he’s in luck. The freshman star is averaging 18.0 points and 5 assists a game. Chandler is wildly efficient, shooting at a 68% clip, and is shooting 85% from deep (6 for 7). Obviously, the sample size and the quality of Tennessee’s opponents thus far renders these numbers mostly useless - but, at a minimum, Chandler has been playing well in advance of his first “real” college match-up.
While Chandler is a dynamic and explosive creator, he’s undersized at just 6’0 and has a penchant for occasionally playing out of control. As a freshman, he is behind the curve from a defensive standpoint and has suffered a few mental lapses during the Vols’ first two games. Overall, I do not see Chandler being able to stop Moore or Gillespie from getting to their spots - the question is will they have the same luck?
Defense, Defense, Defense
Tennessee is a team that has traditionally been led by its defense. The Vols finished 5th in AdjD last year and, although they lost former SEC Defensive Player of the Year Yves Pons, Josiah-Jordan James is poised to become the Vols’ next defensive threat. James is already averaging 3.5 steals a game and can effectively guard every player on the ‘Nova roster.
In addition to James, the Vols have John Fulkerson (6’9), Brandon Huntley-Hatfield (6’10), and Jonas Aidoo (6’11) inside and presently rank Top-15 in Block% and Turnover%. However, the Vols rank 93rd in 3P defense - something Villanova will have to exploit. Villanova will want to avoid making this a game at the rim against the Vols’ stout interior defense.
Shoot ‘em up!
Dixon’s Time to Shine
Jay Wright has thrown sophomore Eric Dixon into the deep end this season. Dixon is averaging 28 minutes per game - including 39 against UCLA - after seeing just 8 minutes of action per game last year. So far, Dixon has been a pleasant surprise. While he has not been perfect, he is logging solid minutes and thus far contributing to a fluid offense. However, this game will truly test his progress. Tennessee has some big bois in the paint - John Fulkerson (6’9), Brandon Huntley-Hatfield (6’10), and Jonas Aidoo (6’11) have all seen significant minutes this year - and they project to tag-team Villanova’s anemic front-court. Dixon will need to establish himself early and avoid foul trouble - if not, Villanova’s short rotation could pose a major problem.