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The Sun’s Arizin: Is Villanova Basketball Too Reliant On The Three?

On the surface the numbers are scary, but it’s more complicated when you take a closer look

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Happy Wednesday Nova Nation! Tuesday is one of my favorite days of the Villanova Basketball week because it’s when a whole bunch of my favorite basketball podcasts drop (or at least I get around to listening to them). My usual rotation includes Titus & Tate, Eye on College Basketball, and of course our more Villanova-centric friends at State of the Nova Nation and The Full 40. If you haven’t listened yet, their cross-over episode previewing the Big East regular season is a must listen.

Now to show a little bit behind the curtain, I tend to play the role of grumpy old man yelling at the podcasting youngin’s like Pat and Emma when they get a stat wrong or throw out a hot take. Normally this happens on our VUHoops slack channel, but today’s topic was interesting enough that I figured I’d bring you all in on the debate. The topic: Is Villanova too reliant on the three point shot?

Pat broached the topic in their recap of the Baylor game, and some of his stats were pretty concerning:

  • 46% of Villanova’s points (not shots, points) are coming from behind the arc.
  • That 46% ranks them 5th highest in the country, and is their highest reliance on the three for a season in the past decade.
  • No other ranked team is close to this mark, with the next closest being Tennessee at 37%.
  • Emma also added that this team does not have as many pure shooters as teams in the past have.
  • Emma’s final point was that we haven’t been wowed by Nova’s shooting performances, especially recently against Baylor, Syracuse, and the Big 5.

Holy crap, what the hell is this team doing!?!? Pack the paint, abandon the three!!! Well, not so fast. Here’s old uncle Brendan to put a different lens on this take.

Let’s start with what hasn’t been said with some of these stats, they’re incomplete. We’re talking about 10 games, which is somewhere between 25-33% of a season. There’s two reasons why that’s important. The first is that when comparing that to previous seasons you’re not comparing apples to oranges. And that’s especially true considering the second point, which is that Jay Wright actively encourages his teams to take more threes earlier on in the season. He’s said multiple times that shooters develop better when you give them the confidence to let it fly early and work with them to improve shot selection then it is to have them second guessing when they should shoot and yelling at them to take more shots. So yes, fewer games and more threes are going to lead to a higher reliance.

That said, Pat’s not wrong about the 46%. It’s not just the last decade either, no Jay Wright team has finished a season at 46% or higher in his 20+ previous seasons at Villanova. But again, there’s some context missing here. First, Villanova didn’t really adopt the “Shoot ‘Em Up, Sleep In The Streets” model until 2014 when they started taking more than 40% of their shots from deep. Since then, the point distribution has tilted more and more toward the three pointer. In fact, in three of the past four seasons Villanova has finished the year with more than 40% of their point distribution coming from three, and ranked in the Top 15.

This fits right in line with Villanova’s identity during the “Gillespie Years”. Man... he really has been here a while. That said, it still is a bit on the high side and I think we can all agree with Pat and Emma that getting that point distribution back down closer to 40 than 45 wouldn’t be a bad thing. Especially when you consider their next point, which is that no ranked team is anywhere close to this point distribution. Not only is the next closest ranked team in Tennessee at 37% (63rd Nationally), the next closest Power Six school is Butler at 39% (41st Nationally). Heck, Villanova’s point distribution is nearly a full percentage point above VMI, and they have the highest percentage of shots from three in the country! Ok, so we’re flipping back to the too reliant on threes side of the argument.

Oh but wait, let’s dive a little deeper down the rabbit hole. The next point was Emma’s, pointing out that this team just doesn’t have the same caliber of shooters Nova teams have had in the past. Well, per kenpom.com (where most of this data is coming from), to rank in the Top 500 shooters nationally each season you usually have to be connecting from deep at around a 37% clip. So, let’s make that the watermark for shooters and see how many we have from our “Gillespie Years” date range:

2018 - 6: Bridges (43%), Spellman (43%), Brunson (40%), DiVincenzo (40%), Gillespie (39%), Booth (37%)

2019 - 2: Gillespie (37%), Bey (37%)

2020 - 2: Bey (45%), Moore (39%)

2021 - 6: Slater (41%), Swider (40%), Daniels (38%), Antoine (38%), Gillespie (37%), Samuels (37%)

2022 - 4: Dixon (55%), Gillespie (43%), Daniels (38%), Moore (38%)

Well, this doesn’t seem to support the podcast theory. Currently there are four players for Nova averaging over 37% from deep, and Slater’s not too far off at 35%. The real problem with this argument is that it’s very rare that you both get all your points from three and also aren’t good at hitting them. It’s simply not the case here for Nova, who’s shooting 37.7% as a team and is ranked 38th nationally in three point shooting.

In fact, I think this whole reliance on the three debate is instigated by a single game: Syracuse. Yes, in a surprise twist, I’m going to blame everything on the Orange.

Heading into the Syracuse game, Villanova was shooting 42% from deep as a team. They had shot over over 35% from deep and hit double digit threes in six of their first eight games. Then came Syracuse, who practically taunted Villanova to beat them from three. Unfortunately, it happened to be a poor shooting night for the Wildcats. Despite having a ton of wide open shots, they only managed 26% shooting from deep. In that game alone, 60% of their shots and 60% of their points came from deep. Coming into that game, Villanova’s point distribution was 44.3%. That’s still high, but it’s clear that the Syracuse and Baylor games have made that number look a bit more excessive.

So at the end of the day, do Pat and Emma have a point that we need better balance in our scoring? Of course they do! Effective interior scoring is what opens things up from the outside. The ability to drive to the basket is what makes those shot fakes on the perimeter so deadly. Villanova HAS TO do a better job of finishing at the rim and in the paint than we’ve seen the last two games. However, are we so far away from what the game plan is that radical changes need to be made? Of course not. Do I think this is more a case of a bad game against a zone and another bad game against an elite defense? I do.

Grumpy Ol’ Rant Over. Stay calm. Cheer on. Go download a podcast.

In other news, Villanova still the favorite to win the Big East (and that was a dumb question to ask), COVID delays DiVincenzo’s return, and three grid-iron Wildcats earn All-American Honors. Enjoy!

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