The conclusion of the Phil Knight Invitational will kick off on Sunday, with the Villanova Wildcats (2-4) taking on the Oregon Ducks (2-4). Both teams will be duking it out in the seventh-place game and will try to avoid going winless in their trip to portland. Tip-off is scheduled for 3 p.m. ET on Sunday and the game can be seen on ESPN2.
This tournament has been less than ideal for the two squads, with Villanova falling to Iowa State and Portland, while Oregon has been defeated by No. 20 UConn and No. 12 Michigan State.
The seasons for both teams have been nearly identical – being ranked in the preseason, having some struggles in early non-conference games, and now on a three-game losing streak highlighted by some tough (and similar) opponents. The last time Villanova had a four-game losing streak was February 2012.
Ahead of Villanova’s final November game, let’s look at a few areas Coach Neptune might focus on to end the holiday weekend on a high note.
The Cats have been vulnerable to slow stretches throughout the game – particularly to start each half.
We saw it most recently with Iowa State and Portland jumping out to hot streaks in the second half, along with Delaware State shocking Villanova with a 10-point lead in the first 5 minutes of their game. Meanwhile, the last time Villanova held a halftime was Game 1 vs La Salle.
The numbers appear to back up the eye test. If we were to examine Villanova’s +/- in 10-minute increments (quarters) we’d see a rollercoaster trend. There’s noticeable inconsistency in the first 30 minutes, followed by an unbelievable closing effort.
The ups and downs shouldn’t be a huge surprise – missing freshman Cam Whitmore along with a rotation of numerous underclassmen should have some volatile results early in the season. However, as this Sunday matinee kicks off, one thing to watch for is how the ‘Cats attack the opening minutes of each half.
We’ve seen this team has an incredible fight in them – closing double digit deficits to Michigan State and Iowa State should not overlooked. Once they can weather some of the slow stretches, they’ll be able to hang with anyone – let’s hope glimpses of that start to show on Sunday.
Time to stop sleeping in the streets
It’s impossible to look at the early struggles by Villanova and point to one single reason. There are a plethora of areas that Kyle Neptune will improve on throughout the year. If we look to simply the next game – one area that can be improved sooner than later has been their shooting woes, specifically from 3-point land.
According to KenPom – the Cats reliance on three pointers hasn’t changed. This season they are 15th in the country in percentage of three-point shots compared to overall shot attempts. For reference, they were 17th in the country last season.
However, they’re ability convert on these shots so far this season is not in line with last year. They’ve fallen from 57th last year in 3-point execution to 235th through the first few weeks on the season.
This could’ve been expected given the absence of Collin Gillespie and Justin Moore, but something has to give. Essentially every player in the rotation can shoot at a high level so Nova Nation should hope this trend to reverse out to a degree at some point.
For this game – I’ll be looking to see what the coaching staff sets up to give our guys open and clean looks, especially against a team that is extremely vulnerable to the deep ball. (more on that shortly)
Duck Hunting Season
As mentioned earlier, the Oregon Ducks are in a nearly identical position as Villanova. They came into the season ranked No. 21 before suffering an early upset against UC-Irvine. Their struggles continued as they fell to No. 3 Houston and faced a tough lineup in the Phil Knight Invitational with games against No. 20 UConn and No. 12 Michigan State.
Despite the early losses, they have a ton of talent (including a 5-star freshman who won a Gold Medal for the U18 USA team over the summer) and are eager to right the ship heading into conference play. Again, sound familiar?
Ahead of this matchup, there are three things I’ll be looking out for:
1. Injuries — No, this is not a note about Cam Whitmore and when he will debut, but rather, the Ducks have a recent development that can change this game’s outlook. Leading scorer N’Faly Dante exited their game Friday night and has been placed in concussion protocol. Dante, a 6-foot-11 senior, was averaging 15 points, seven rebounds, and two blocks a game and could have a big impact on how Oregon gameplans for the Cats. There hasn’t been an update yet, but is something that should be monitored.
2. Size Advantage – Even if Dante can’t play, the Ducks have two more 7-foot players that are staples in the rotation. Freshman Kel’el Ware (teammate of Whitmore and Armstrong with team USA) and sophomore Nate Bittle combine for 40+ minutes a game and offer size that Villanova can’t counter. The good news? Neither are “traditional” centers and despite the vertical advantage, can be out-muscled by a few on Villanova’s roster. However, if the plan is the fire away from 3-point territory – offensive rebounds might be at a premium so an off-shooting night could result in a long flight back to the east coast.
3. The Battle of the Deep Ball – if there was a team Villanova would want to play to get into a shooting grove, Oregon is on the list. KenPom has the Ducks ranked 233rd in 3-point defense so far this season with both Houston and UConn shooting approximately 50% from deep in their games. On the flip side – the Ducks haven’t been able to counter those attacks as they rank 314th in 3-point offense, which has been an area that’s hurt Villanova recently. If the ‘Cats can capitalize on the open looks, this has potential to be a momentum turning game as the calendar flips to December.