Wheels up to Portland, Oregon, as the 2-2 Villanova Wildcats look to get back on track in their first round game of the PK85 Invitational on Thursday afternoon. This is the third edition of the tournament’s existence, and this year’s field is absolutely loaded — with games against UNC, UConn, Oregon, Alabama, and even a possible rematch with Michigan State all potentially in the cards this week. But first, the ‘Cats are focused on the 3-0 Iowa State Cyclones.
These two programs have only met once in the past, when we knocked off the Cyclones at then-called Villanova Field House in 1961. Even with the extra COVID-year there won’t be any familiar faces from that matchup in this one, so let’s take a look at this year’s version of Iowa State.
T.J. Otzenberger has come into his second year at the helm with a completely different squad than his first. He certainly exceeded expectations in his first go around, as he turned a 2-22 team in 2021 into a 22-13 one the following year. A more-than respectable regular season turned into a fantastic year overall, as the Cyclones advanced to the second weekend of the tournament before being knocked off by Miami.
Much of that group that made the seventh Sweet 16 in the school’s history has since departed, most notably their backcourt duo and two leading scorers — Izaiah Brockington (undrafted NBA free agent) and Tyrese Hunter (transferred to Texas). However, in this day and age, as we all know, the transfer portal has become a useful tool for a quick rebuild or reload.
Otzenberger must have been watching a lot of A-10 basketball last year, as his top two transfers this year were both at St. Bonaventure a year ago. Jaren Holmes is a skilled combo guard who has gotten off to a great start this year - averaging better than 18 points per game in his first three games. Fellow ex-Bonnie Osun Osunniyi is an athletic 6-foot-10 center and a solid rim protector who had nearly three blocks a game over the past four seasons in Olean. Both will be key pieces for this year’s Cyclones, as well as VCU transfer Hasan Ward. Returning impact players include stretch-four Aljaz Kunc and experienced wingman Gabe Kalsheur.
It’s clear what Otzenberger instilled in his team in order to garner the type of success they did a year ago. They spectacularly exceeded expectations by locking down on the defensive end. They finished the season fifth overall in adjusted defense per KenPom and gave up less than 63 points over the course of their turnaround campaign. This year looks no different thus far, as the Cyclones are 26th in defense per KenPom and lead the nation in points allowed, at a staggering 45 (!) points per contest.
To be fair they have played IUPUI, NC A&T and Milwaukee, though, and all three of these opponents are in the 300 range of KenPom’s team rankings, with IUPUI currently holding the coveted dead last spot in all of Division I — one spot behind the mighty Delaware State Hornets (sigh). The story of this team will be their defense, and for proven reasons. They, like Villanova, will likely try to limit possessions and keep this thing at a relatively slow pace — limiting turnovers and smart shot selection will be Villanova's keys to the game.
It’s no secret that the last three games have been concerning for Villanova and its fanbase. The 'Cats looked good against La Salle, the threes were falling, the young guys were getting tick, and they never really looked out of sorts even with a new rotation and coach. After that, the Temple disaster carried into the slog against aforementioned Delaware State had the ‘Nova faithful panicking, and the first 35 minutes versus Sparty was more of the same, but then came the final five minutes, and albeit a small sample size, might we have found something?
Michigan State is a tough team. They have size, experience, and toughness - not to mention a Hall of Fame coach at the helm. Tyson Walker to me looks like one of the most improved players in the country. And they came into that game Friday night tested, with momentum off the win over Kentucky. They were 6.5-point favorites for a reason, but I know I’m not alone in thinking what we saw down the stretch could be a building block going forward.
Eric Dixon played outstanding all game long, Brandon Slater stepped up when the game could have gotten out of reach, and Angelo Brizzi and Brendan Hausen were able to get some key buckets in a big-time atmosphere. Jordan Longino continues to impress and even though his three point shooting hasn’t been stellar so far, it is obvious we need to get him more shots and more opportunities to create offense. Even with Caleb Daniels struggling for most of the night (1-for-8 from three) the 'Cats were able to hang with a really good team on the road in just their fourth game of the young season. While there are certainly some decisions to make ahead concerning the rotation and how to utilize this young roster, there was plenty to like about the guts this team showed.
The opportunity at hand this Feast Week is massive. It's possibly the best preseason tournament out there, with the No. 1 North Carolina Tar Heels on the horizon on Friday. This is one that the ‘Cats should be able to win, and hopefully gain some confidence going into the weekend. Give me good guys by 10, with the sharpshooter from NOLA getting back on track in a 22-point performance.