Fresh off of finals and a week between games, the ‘Cats are back.
The Villanova Wildcats (5-5) will conclude non-conference play (and Big 5 play) on Saturday at 4 p.m. ET when they travel down the road to take on St. Joseph’s Hawks (4-5) in the latest edition of the Holy War.
Coach Kyle Neptune will look to continue a perfect December, while the Hawks will try to get a season-defining win after an up-and-down non-conference showing.
There is a lot riding on this game for Villanova. It’ll be looking to continue their win streak and build momentum into Big East play, earn a share of the Big 5 title, and ultimately, the annual bragging rights are on the table.
Ahead of Saturday’s matchup, let’s review a few areas to watch out for:
Youth has been served on the Main Line, with the freshman class stealing headlines and providing a spark on the court as the calendar has flipped to December. While this is unique season for Villanova, having this many freshmen contribute at these levels is almost unheard of.
According to ESPN, all three freshmen are averaging 10+ minutes per game – a feat that we haven’t seen in recent memory at Villanova. There have been duos (Justin Moore and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Collin Gillespie and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins, Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu) that all averaged double-digit minutes as true freshmen, but never three in one year.
This is not saying suggesting they’ll have the same impact of the Villanova legends mentioned, but it’s a rare feat and one to monitor as the young team continues to develop.
A quick recap of their impacts:
The debut of Cam Whitmore has electrified Nova Nation. The team is 3-0 and as an individual, Whitmore leads the freshman class in on court production with an average of 16 points, five rebounds, and two steals over the last three games.
Mark Armstrong recent form has been strong with scoring double figures in two of the last three games, while averaging 20-plus minutes and only committing one turnover in that stretch.
Brendan Hausen has proved to be a fearless and devastating sharpshooter, with the ability to score in bunches and is shooting 56% from deep in December.
The ‘Cats will need continued strong play from this group if they hope to extend the Holy War win streak to 11 games.
Battle of the Perimeter
I’m not sure what the record is for most 3-point attempts in a single Holy War game – but there’s a fair chance a new record is set on Saturday. Nova Nation is obviously used to Villanova’s reliance on the long ball, and a new head coach hasn’t changed that approach. The ‘Cats are currently ninth in the country in percent of shots taken from 3-point land.
On the other hand, St. Joe’s is 27th in that same category. The expectation for this game should be a barrage of long-distance shots throughout the afternoon.
How exactly will that impact the ‘Cats?
It appears the ‘Cats may have found some of their shooting touch in December as they’ve averaged 41% from deep in their last three games. If this form carries over into Saturday, it could be a long day for the Hawks. However, on the defensive side – Villanova has a lot of work to do with their perimeter defense.
The Cats are currently ranked 270th in the country in 3-point defense but have marginally improved in the last few weeks by holding opponents to 33%. This is still not a great place to be, but at least the trend is in the right direction.
To make matter worse – St. Joe’s two top scorers, Erik Reynolds and Cameron Brown, are off to a hot start this season as each shoot north of 40% from deep.
Neptune and staff will have their work cut out for them as the duo makes up over 45% of St. Joe’s scoring. A quiet night from either of these players is a recipe of success for Villanova.
The Holy War: Anything Can Happen
The last time St. Joe’s defeated Villanova was in the 2011-12 season when Langston Galloway led a red-hot shooting Hawks team over Maalik Wayns and the Cats in a 74-58 win at Hagan Arena.
Things haven’t been the same for St. Joe’s though, since the following year, when Halil Kanacevic drilled a three-pointer to extend the Hawks’ lead and proceeded to flip off the student section moments after. The gesture went unnoticed and energized the Pavilion crowd, even getting the wine-and-cheese crowd to join in on the boos to reach a volume level that hadn’t been seen in a while. Villanova came back, and in the end, Kanacevic ultimately cost his team the game.
He bricked two free throws in the final minute, then had the turnover that sealed the victory for the ‘Cats in the closing seconds.
Although Villanova has dominated since and this matchup has been a one-sided affair for the last decade, a rivalry like this is something where you throw out the records or win streaks because anything can happen.
A key to the game will be taking the crowd out of it as soon as possible. This includes avoiding a slow start and limiting any runs the Hawks might go on.
Fortunately, the young Cats have had a taste of hostile environments this year with matchups against Temple and Michigan State.
Rivalry games are as unpredictable as they come, but if Coach Neptune and staff can get the team to get contributions from the underclassmen, win the 3-point battle, limit their home court advantage - the Holy War win streak continues.
The Hawk is Dead. Go Cats.